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.)


  1. Jill, congratulations on the dream job offer! I wish you wisdom and peace in making your decision.

    What an amazing ride in which to experience Alaska. Maybe one of the last times before you move, if you go. But Alaska will always be there. You can always visit for more rides and friends.

    Montana will have new and wonderful things to see and places to discover. I can see it in my head already. Your adventure continues!

  2. Congrats on the job offer. I heard Aaron left and never even contemplated that you would be the perfect fit - which you are!

    Best of luck on the decision at hand. May peace fill your decision whichever one it is :)

  3. I was in your position a couple of months ago after being permanently layed off. Got a job offer at an awesome shop in Billings, but decided to stay in Tennessee (due to my dad and his health) for the time being. At some point, I want to make the move to Montana.

  4. Hooray for Montana! Mon-tan-a1 Mon-tan-a!

  5. Greetings from Missoula. Though it is certainly not Alaska, I think you will find much to appreciate here in Western Montana.

  6. What a wonderful post and a fantastic job opportunity. Congrats to you Jill!

    I wish you nothing but the best "Jill in Montana".

  7. Jill,
    I feel your pain. Yes, I really do. I read your blog because it reminds me of why I love and miss Alaska so much. I don't regret my move to Bozeman, Montana, but it would not have happened in my ideal world. It's hard to put into words when my friends ask me why I love it up there so much, but you seem to have a knack for words.

    From across the Divide,

  8. Jill, I am north of Missoula in Kalispell and here are some things to consider.

    1) Western Montana is awesome
    2) You will be closer to Leslie and Keith -- you can ride with me to visit them :-)
    3) I know some cute single men in the area
    4) Well, sounds like a sweet gig.

    You can always move back to Alaska if you don't love it.

  9. Missoula 'ain't' exactly like moving to Chicago...I think you'd find many, if not most, of the same things to love there that you love about Alaska. And your life of adventure would continue. And your writing platform and personal opportunities would expand exponentially. I hope you make the right decision and we will stay along for the ride whatever you decide. We wouldn't dream of trying to influence your decision (but go, go, go...)

  10. Give Montana a year.

    What have you got to lose?


  11. "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."

    I've never heard it put better. Well done.

    In the end, you have to do what your feelings/mind tell you to do. Just remember that sometimes, things just fall in place for you, and that's usually an indication of what the right move is.

  12. Jill,

    Assuming you do take this perfect job, I think your first assignment should be to go to Banff for the start of the Tour Divide. You could interview the racers and maybe ride along with the racers for a bit (2745 miles pehaps?)

    I know you'll have the best adventures, whatever you do.

    Hope to see you in Banff,

    Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
    rolling out tomorrow from Issaquah WA USA

  13. I love that notion of "do what you love and the rest will follow". Congrats on the new job at Adventure Cyclist Magazine. How cool is that?!

  14. Awesome post! Thanks, Matt F

  15. I am facing a similar dilemma but without the dream job attached. Moving to LA in the near future I wish it was Missoula instead. But as my cliche mother says "It will be a grand adventure!!"

  16. That's a really tough one. Not sure I could do it. Would always be comparing experiences to AK.

  17. Hey Jill,
    Just thought I'd say no matter what ya choose I'm going to love reading about it. And i agree with everyone the job does sound PERFECT for you. Just let us know so I can get my subscription to Adventure Cycling goin before your first story! "Dream" job sounds like an oxymoron to me so if you found one give it a good look. But what do i know, from Texas its all cold and mountain filled up there. HA. Good Luck!

  18. Congratulations Jill! It sounds like too good a fit not to give it a trial. AK will likely call you and swallow you up again in a year or three from now but she is north enough and remote enough that her soul will stay true for you.

    Meanwhile, between the field assignments and your new neighborhood I am sure you won’t be stifled in MT. It seems like not only a perfect fit for your current skill set but an excellent stepping stone toward the career and life that you have been striving for.

    Perhaps you will decide to freeze articglass with a link to a fresh page in your life.

  19. Good for you, Jill!
    Montana always has felt like the next-best thing to Alaska... well, except for Canada, which is probably the perfect locale as it is the best combination of Alaska and Down South.
    I've always felt like I could move back to Montana if I left AK...the only hard part would be the distance to the ocean.
    When do you go?? Maybe you should ferry through Juneau on your way south!
    Thinking of you in Juneau, Deb

  20. Fantastic opportunity, Jill. Subscriptions for Adventure Cyclist will surge when all your blog fans sign up.

  21. "Jill from Montana" has a nice ring, too. And like you say - Alaska will always be there. Go to Montana and enjoy the job - it's (another) once in a lifetime chance.

    Steve Z

  22. "Up in......Montana"?

  23. Should you take the job I will be looking forward to reading your contributions to Adventure Cycling!

  24. jill!!! if you take it let me know - i'll be about 4/5 hours over yonder in idaho for the summer. follow your heart!

  25. You will be a credit to Adventure Cycling, an organization that I've belonged to for several years. I envy you for this opportunity and your great sense of adventure.

  26. Oh man..sure know how this feels. Leaving Alaska was not the most difficult thing I have ever done-but it was hard. A lot of it was the "identity" thing which I have come to think is sort of false. You are who you are, it does not have to be defined by where you live. Good luck.

  27. Take the job!!!!!!!!!!!

    Alaska will always be there. You can always go back.

    Great career opportunties are rare and fleeting.

    If you do not take it, you will always wonder if....

  28. Congrats! I read that Teasdale had left a few days ago, and I actually gasped and shouted "Of course" out loud when I read the news!

    I've always been an admirer of you and your blog, and am a subscriber to Adventure Cycling. I'm excited to see what comes around if you take the job.

  29. Jill, Sounds like a tough decision but sounds like a job that you really can't turn down. You can always go back and visit Alaska or someday maybe move back there.

    Best of luck in whatever you decide to do. Will be following your blog, as usual, to see what you decide to do.

  30. "Up in Montana"

    Can't wait to see what happens next sister. You are a rockstar.

    Love you!

  31. jill
    Working for Adventure Cycling is more than a job, It is a calling. The group's mission is to make cycling more accessible to more people. They have even established tours along some abandoned railroads that are expressly designed for families.
    I am a life member and read each "Adventure Cycling" cover to cover. I met Jim Sayer in 1990 when he started the "Go Greenbelt" ride that circles the San Francisco Bay Area. Great guy.
    The organization really started way back in the '70s as "Hemistour" when Greg Siple and his wife, June rode from way up in Alaska to Patagonia.This morphed into Bikecentennial which became ACA. You might lighten up with this group of co-workers Greg is as good a cartoonist as the country has.
    I'm 78 years old and have breast cancer in all of the bones in my torso. "Adventure Cycling" makes me feel good, and diverts my attention from all the bad news. As Ghandi said "what you do is insignificant but it is essential that you do it."

    Don Burnett ,donbiker@mac,com

  32. I used to subscribe to Adventure Cycling magazine.....if you decide to work there- I'm resubscribing just so I don't miss any of your stuff:-)

  33. I think you need to go; Alaska will always be there when/if you come back. Sometimes I think we make a big deal of nothing. Financially you don't have much to lose from what I can tell. This position will probably never come again. Alaska will always be there if this job does not work out. JUST GO FOR IT YOU CAN ALWAYS RETURN TO ALASKA. Give this move a fair chance say 12 months and then if you don't like it move back. What will you miss? From what I can tell your only connections in Alaska are friends and the scenery if the Montana thing does not work out they will both be there in 12 months. Make sure you negotiate a 4 week vacation and commit to spending 2 of it in Alaska every year or ask for a one month leave of absent every year so you can go play. I hope I do not come across the wrong way with my advise but it just seems to me like this position is a once in a life time chance.

    Take Care

  34. Jill, this is a stunning piece of writing - you have wrapped up a package of good news/bad news, tough life decisions, and the joy and frustration of a long solo ride. I envy your gift and am so happy to be able to enjoy it. It will be with you wherever you go!

  35. I'm a longtime 'lurker' on your blog.
    If you decide to make the move and need a place to stay in Missoula while in transition, my wife and I have an extra bedroom.

  36. Oh man, that's a no-brainer. The overanalysis leads me to believe you either don't know who you are or you aren't comfortable with yourself yet. Obviously I don't know you, so take it for what it's worth.

    You are you wherever you are and whatever you do for work. Your identity need not be tied to a geographical place any more than to a workplace.

    The opportunity to do for work what you'd do for free does not happen for most people. Break free, be at peace, whatever. Easiest decision ever.

  37. Jaska - Your comment makes it obvious you've never lived in Alaska. It's not a no brainer.

    I left Alaska 6 years ago to pursue what I loved doing for work. I don't regret it but not a day goes by that I don't think of the four wonderful years I spent exploring that state. It is so much more than a geological place. It has a spirit that you won't find anywhere else.

    Life moves on and new adventures await but you will never forget the feeling of Alaska if you leave and you'll never be able to explain it to someone who hasn't lived there.

  38. Congratulations Jill on landing a job offer. If you leave Alaska, do it the right way - by bike. :-)

  39. Montana is Alaska, only smaller.

  40. Good lord - your writing and adventure never fail to blow my mind. Be it Alaska or Montana or wherever you may roam - you will surely make an adventure of it. An inspiring adventure I am sure.

    On a separate note - I am pretty sure if I were trying to eat that many sour patch kids my jaw would lock up and I would druel on myself. Ride on!

  41. uuumm... sounds like the world is your oyster, jill. sometimes so many decisions can be paralyzing... but i think you've got it made either way. love the modest mouse lyrics..

  42. Wow! Great opportunity...who knows where the road leads. Grew up in Western Montana...Great place...Fantastic people. Beautiful country...Yaak Wilderness, Kootenai River, Cabinet Mountains, Glacier Park. Missoula is a nice town...vibrant...college town. Give it a go...In this case, you can always go back "home". Best Wishes...

  43. stay where you are - your struggles fuel your creativity.

  44. How weird - I've been listing to that album, and that song in particular, a lot lately, and am also contemplating a move; albeit just a couple hours away to a different part of Colorado, not as big of a move as you're considering. Still, it's moving away from well-establishe friends, a location we love, etc. But me thinks I need the change...

    In regards to your specific situation, though, I agree with the others and say go for it. The beauty of your living simply is that you can always pick up and move again if it doesn't work out in MT. It wouldn't be hard at all for you to move back up to AK. In the meantime, enjoy MT. It's beautiful up there, too (I know it's not ALASKA...), and I don't think you'd find yourself lacking adventure. It'd probably be a lot easier to see your family more often, too.

    Take the plunge...

  45. take the job and then in 6 months or so move the office to Alaska.

  46. Ya gotta do it Jill. Its the next step up the ladder, and you will have both writing and biking to fill up your psyche. Just think about it....they will need someone to cover the Susitna, Iditarod, etc etc. Not like you won't get back to Alaska often :)

  47. If you take the job, you'll find the largest wilderness area in the US outside Alaska just to the southwest--the Frank Church River of No Return and Selway-Bitterroot wildernesses--4 1/2 million acres total (with a seasonal dirt road separating them along the Magruder Corridor).

    I grew up on the Idaho side and worked trail crew on the Montana side and as much as I love Alaska, I would be willing to live in that neighborhood again. It's still an area that if you get more than a day away from the busy trailheads you often won't see anyone else. It also has the advantage that you can drive all around it to get to different access points--a lot cheaper than getting to much of the Alaskan wilderness.


  48. Wow, Jill. I hardly read the details of this post as I desperately want to know what you choose. But congratulations - either way. And I hope that if you *do* accept this new job that I will see you this summer anyway. Great writing - you must feel good about that :)

  49. Oh - and 140 MILES on a mountainbike?!? You are crazy. Good crazy, but TR is going to be a cakewalk for you.

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  51. I normally don't do this (have blog comment conversations with anonymous strangers), but here goes.

    Airshoes-- thanks, great advice.

    Sarah L-- I respectfully disagree and here's the test: If someone drugged you and dropped you somewhere in the world in the backcountry, would you know instantly when you woke up where you were? No. Alternatively, if someone told you you were in Alaska vs some other place and the word "Alaska" instantly imbued your location with additional meaning that it didn't have when you didn't know where you were, then I aver that your "special spirit" has nothing to do with geology-- the universe does not infuse "meaning" into globs of molecules. It has to do with customs, traditions, attitudes, memories, culture. And if that's the case, you can create your own "little Alaska" wherever you are. Just because you first identified with that culture in Alaska doesn't mean you can't find it, or create it, elsewhere.

    To all the rest-- sorry for boring you again.

  52. Jill,

    I spent my 20's in Alaska madly obsessed with endurance events, climbing, skiing, the Iditasport and the AMWC. Alaska is perfect and beautiful and magical and you have helped me relive those wonderful years. Thanks!

    But it's a short life and a big world.

    As an Alaskan I never left - why would I? Now, as an Outsider, I have been around the world, built an awesome career and found wonderful places to raise our children.

    My heart ached for years after leaving but I have grown as a person in ways larger and more meaningful than I could have in AK.

    Keep exploring, that's my advice.

  53. Anon 2:43: Wonderfully put. Thank you.

    And thanks to everyone else. I really value the input.

  54. Great story telling Jill. Will be exciting to follow along with you whatever choices you make. I was especially excited to read Kent's comment, hoping it might just spark you to do the Great Divide again. What fun that would be for us armchair adventurers! Wishing you all the best.

  55. Great post. Congratulation on the new job. Should be fun.

  56. Jill,

    I am so excited for you. A new adventure beckons, and you have "found yourself" with your admission about your passion fo journalism.

    I spent 22+ yrs in the military and every two years we moved. Each new place was fresh and exciting.

    I'll never forget the feeling of going to a new place and embarking on a new adventure.

    Best wishes,



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