Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The World at Large

Thunder rumbled from the north as I neared the crest of Cleary Summit. A dust-swirl of wind drove a mass of indigo clouds toward me, so I pedaled faster. I ignored the buzzing from my cell phone, indicating it had found reception from the outskirts of Fairbanks. I glanced over my shoulder to the north and the looming thunderstorm, the low rolling hills of the White Mountains, and beyond that, the great wild unknown that is northern Alaska. "This is as far north as you've ever been," I said to my bike, "Kim" the Karate Monkey, who I spend a lot of time with and admittedly sometimes talk to. "Last summer it was all south to the Mexican border. This summer, who knows?" Hard rain started to fall as I rolled into the highway pullout. I ducked into my car to check my voice mail. Violent raindrops pounded the windshield as I listened to the message. The voice was muffled. I held my breath, as though my own stillness would create clarity amid the clatter. I hit repeat and listened again. Rain and thunder continued to fall. I felt my own hot tears begin to roll down my cheeks. I couldn't help it. It was the best and worst news I had received in a long time. And it meant I faced one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make.

In early April, right around the time that I was moving from Juneau to Anchorage, I received an e-mail from Kent Peterson with a link to a job ad. "Look at this; this is your job!" he wrote. I browsed the job description and he was right. It had everything ... journalism with both editorial and design elements, plus writing and photography, for a magazine that highlights bicycle travel: Adventure Cycling. The only drawback - a drawback that most cyclists would consider a perk - was that the job was based in Missoula, Montana, which is a wonderful place, but it's not Alaska.

I agonized over the decision to even send Adventure Cycling my resume. I consulted my family and friends in Utah, where I was visiting when I actually went through the process of applying. I finally relented to their consensus that it was worth a try. The job seemed like a long shot anyway. I was a small-town newspaper journalist - an unemployed small-town newspaper journalist - and this was a national magazine. Still, I was perfect for the position, and I knew it. If the company recognized that fact, they would offer it to me. And if they didn't, well, I didn't have anything to lose. It was nearly the end of April before I sent off my resume. I spent the next month - this wonderful, perfect-weather month of May - building a new life in Anchorage. I made new friends. I explored new places. I wrote a few articles and made quite a bit of encouraging progress on my book - not only in polishing up my initial draft, but also in garnering the interest of a couple of agents. But I recognized that my fantastic summer-in-Alaska lifestyle wasn't sustainable. I also realized that I did not have a desire to be self-employed. Eventually, I would have to return to the real world of income, taxes and health insurance. When I did, would I seek out my dream job regardless of where it was located? Or would I cling to my location regardless of what I did for a living? Somehow, I knew I would have to make a choice. So I spent a month bracing for it.

"Ice-age heat wave, can't complain.
If the world's at large, why should I remain?
Walked away to another plan.
Gonna find another place, maybe one I can stand."

It seemed fitting that I was riding my bicycle in the boonies north of Fairbanks when I received the job offer. I had spoken to several people at Adventure Cycling during a series of interviews, and I had become more and more excited about the job opportunity and the company. They made it clear that it wasn't my newspaper experience that helped me stand out as a candidate, it was my hobbies - my avid cycling, my Tour Divide ride, and my blog. It was becoming a perfect example of "Do what you love and the rest will follow." I could be a bicycle adventurer AND a journalist AND live in the mountains AND make a living. But how could I leave Alaska? A huge portion of my identity is wrapped up in Alaska. My blog is called "Up in Alaska." Even my extended family members now refer to me as "Jill from Alaska." I've lived here five years and hardly scraped the surface of the landscape and lifestyle. At the same time, I'm anchored to nothing and I could drift away with ease. But much would be left undone. Much would be left behind.

I move on to another day,
to a whole new town with a whole new way.
Went to the porch to have a thought.
Got to the door and again, I couldn't stop.

I left Fairbanks late Friday evening, whirling with the overwhelming prospect of it all. It was 10 p.m. and the sun burned hot and high behind a film of wildfire smoke. I wasn't yet ready to return to Anchorage. I needed time; I needed space to process the swirl of thoughts storming through my head. I remembered reading online about an Alaska Endurance Association ride scheduled for the next day, a 140-mile gravel grinder on the Denali Highway called the Denali Classic. It seemed perfect - a day to spend pedaling through my thoughts, and night in camp with other crazy cycling Alaskans, who might help me understand why leaving the state was so difficult. It seemed a little reckless to pull a 140-mile self-supported mountain bike ride out of very little planning, with whatever food I had in the trunk of my car and a bicycle in severe need of a tuneup (after a seemingly exhaustive series of adjustments, my brakes were still rubbing, and on top of that my bottom bracket was loose.) Luckily, my friend Eric had expressed interest in coming up to the Denali Highway for a weekend fishing trip. We agreed to meet up Saturday night in camp, so at worst he could serve as my safety net. The plan was in place.

You don't know where and you don't know when.
But you still got your words and you got your friends.
Walk along to another day.
Work a little harder, work another way

The drive seemed to drag on forever and it was after 1 a.m. by the time I rolled into the Brushkana Creek campground. Twilight cast the valley in blue shadows, and the campground was eerily quiet. I crawled into my tent and tossed and turned for a while; hours, maybe. The sun came back up. I opened and closed my rainfly, blinking against the golden light. I had a vague, sleepless sense of time passing, and then the sun was hot and high. The AEA organizer, Carlos, walked up to my tent and announced there was a riders' meeting in a half hour. It was 8:04 a.m. Carlos's wake-up call made me chuckle because I arrived late and had never indicated that I planned to ride the Denali Classic. The was no reason he should have known I was there. I decided he must have recognized my car, which I hadn't taken to an AEA event since the 2006 Soggy Bottom. It filled me with a warm sense of community, a feeling of belonging. It reminded me of something I recently read in a book called "Born to Run" - "We don't race to beat each other as much as we race to be with each other."

Well uh-uh baby I ain't got no plan.
We'll float on maybe would you understand?
Gonna float on maybe would you understand?
Well float on maybe would you understand?

Still, alone time was important. I dawdled away the first half hour and walked over to the pre-race meeting in my jeans with a bagel in my mouth. The pack of 12 or so riders took off and I finished packing up my stuff. I feared thunderstorms so I packed warm clothing and rain gear. I feared heat so I packed a full Camelback of water, iodine tablets, and food. I feared bike breakdown so I packed the bulk of my tool kit, spare spokes and chain links, zip-ties, duct tape, electrical tape and a pocket knife. Several of the riders had sag wagons and carried almost no gear, but I didn't mind the disadvantage. I needed to be self-supported. I needed to be alone with my thoughts. I took off 20 or 30 minutes later.

The days get shorter and the nights get cold.
I like the autumn but this place is getting old.
I pack up my belongings and I head for the coast.
It might not be a lot but I feel like I'm making the most.
The days get longer and the nights smell green.
I guess it's not surprising but it's spring and I should leave.

You could say it was a beautiful day. I would say it was a hot day. The sweet stink of wildfire smoke swirled in the air, and Memorial Day traffic kicked up long clouds of dust. The Denali Highway is rugged and fairly empty, even on holiday weekends. The road stretches 135 miles across the wide river basins beneath the Alaska Range, and connects the tiny towns of Cantwell and Paxson. It's as close of a road to nowhere as roads get, but the state maintains it because it's a good route for hunting and wildlife viewing. The Denali Classic ran from the campground at mile 105 to McClaren Pass at mile 35, and back. So even though we weren't riding the entire highway, we still had to ride 140 miles of jittery gravel on a dusty road that included more than 8,000 feet of climbing. It was an intimidating ride. I spent the first 25 miles feeling lousy but gradually brought myself around by stuffing my face with Sour Patch Kids. By the time I began the long climb out of the Susitna River valley, I felt a sweep of new optimism. It was a beautiful day! The green blaze of spring was emerging everywhere - alder buds, sprigs of grass and tiny white flowers fluttered in the breeze along the high, dry road. "This is so much like the alpine regions of Wyoming," I thought even as I wondered why I am always connecting thoughts and sights to pieces of my past, no matter where I am in the present. "I'm not in Wyoming, I'm in Alaska," I reminded myself, but still my mind flickered through vivid memories of Wyoming.

I like songs about drifters - books about the same.
They both seem to make me feel a little less insane.
Walked on off to another spot.
I still haven't gotten anywhere that I want.
Did I want love? Did I need to know?
Why does it always feel like I'm caught in an undertow

The pursuit of introspection with a bicycle is a paradox. The time to think is there. The space to think is there. There is no better way to connect with both body and environment, but mental clarity remains elusive amid the physical strain. On the Denali Highway, beautiful images and memories of Alaska flickered between gray blips of fatigue and pain, like an old-fashioned silent filmstrip. My Camelback pressed hard into my lower back and no matter how I adjusted or loosened it, the pain cut deeper. Pretty soon all I could think about was my back, even as I strained to enjoy the scenery and remind myself that I otherwise felt good. But the loathing shouted louder. I wanted to throw my Camelback into the woods, but I couldn't because the temperature was pushing 85 degrees and I needed water. I wondered if my pain was even the Camelback's fault, or if my back simply hurt because I hadn't exactly trained to ride 140 miles of chunky gravel. My back didn't care whose fault it was. It blamed me for not stopping and screamed every time I launched my bike over a pothole. I stood up for every climb; climbing was my back's only relief, but I was tired and couldn't fully appreciate the brief release of the pressure valve. I knew it was fruitless to focus all of my attention on my back. I had already climbed the pass and turned around. The other riders and their sag wagons were in front of me. I was going to have to ride until I finished. And that was fine. With struggle comes satisfaction; as soon as it's over, there will only be another, and another. Life is still beautiful and good, not in spite of struggle, but because of it.

The moths beat themselves to death against the lights.
Adding their breeze to the summer nights.
Outside, water like air was great.
I didn't know what I had that day.
Walk a little farther to another plan.
You said that you did, but you didn't understand.

I had a vague, sleepless sense of miles passing. Every so often I'd experience moments of clarity, moments to look out slack-jawed across the sun-dusted tundra and snow-capped Alaska Range and ask myself, "Is that why I love this place? Is that why it's so hard to leave?" My back ached and the answers didn't come. I reached the campground after 10 p.m., more than 13 hours after I left. It suddenly felt like an instant. I met up with Eric and we joined the others around the fire. I greedily slurped up soup and cobbler as the group discussed bike geek topics - gear, calories and wattage. I smiled knowingly, because I both related to the obsession and understood the triviality of it. The fire crackled and everyone was laughing, talking, drinking. It seemed like we were in a place far away from the 140-mile gravel grinder, and the Denali Highway, and Alaska.

But Alaska was still there. It will always be here.

I know that starting over is not what life's about.
But my thoughts were so loud I couldn't hear my mouth.
My thoughts were so loud I couldn't hear my mouth.
My thoughts were so loud.

(Lyrics from "The World at Large" by Modest Mouse.)