Friday, July 09, 2010

Maybe I had to leave

Every morning, the still-unfamiliar sound of my alarm clock blares through the sweaty stillness of deep sleep in a hot room. I slouch out of bed, turn my bleary eyes to the bright sunlight streaming in the window, and brace for it ... the sadness, the homesickness, the cold realization that I have left the place that I loved. I brace for it every morning, because I expect it will hit any day now. But this morning, like yesterday, and the day before that, there is only anticipation, the electric buzz of possibility igniting a day where anything can happen.

I make my breakfast and scrape away the last of the peanut butter in the jar I hauled all the way down from Alaska. I pause for a minute before throwing it away, but the sadness doesn't come, and I toss it without regret. I take a slightly cool shower and squeeze remaining drops from big shampoo bottle that took the ferry ride from Juneau before making its way to Anchorage, then road trips, then south. There's a tiny bit left, so I save it, just to be sure.

I walk into the sun-drenched morning and hop on my bike. I'm wearing all my work clothes already because around here, heavy fleece and rain gear isn't an automatic prerequisite in July. I see a new, interesting street and I take it, and then I get lost. I forget I don't know my way around yet.

The work day flies by quickly. I take midday walks to the coffee shop and the sandwich place. There is still much to take in, but little to stress about. It still feels strange, not having a deadline bearing down on me every day. Suddenly, it's late afternoon, and time to go for a ride.

I like to ride alone. I'm used to it, and I enjoy having all that time to think. But around here, there is something new and exciting going on nearly every night, and it's difficult not to ride with others. I especially like Thursday nights, and the Thursday Night Riders, a group ride that appears to attract a fun combination of unpretentious fast people, longtime Missoulians and intermediate mountain bikers like myself, looking for a challenge. Today is the "Hayduke Ride," an ambitious one, 3,400 feet of climbing all on singletrack. I start from town, which makes it more than 4,000 for me.

Heat wafts off the pavement as I ride down Orange Street. I pass a digital thermometer that reads 95 degrees. My pasty still-Alaskan skin cells look for a retreat but find none. My jersey is already so wet and sticky that it feels like it would take my skin with it if I tried to peel it off. I suck down huge gulps of warm water from my Camelback and think fondly back to the days when I needed fleece and rain gear to ride in July. Honestly, right now I'd rather gouge my eyes out with icicles than ride my bike, but I tell myself I'll warm up to the task at hand, somehow.

I arrive at the trailhead just as the group is riding up the road and seconds away from leaving me behind, just like last week. I kinda wish my timing wasn't so good, because I've only ridden seven miles and already I feel like my head is swimming in a pool of lava. "I'll acclimatize to this eventually," I tell myself, but then I remember that I grew up in Salt Lake City and somehow never adapted to summer. Some of us were just born for ice and snow. That doesn't mean we don't love the sun, but we love it in weaker doses. I dig for energy beneath my overbaked skin. The group starts up and I lag behind. I figure I'll catch up when evening does.

We climb and climb and climb. I catch up to a few riders and mostly talk about how I miss Alaska and fleece gloves in July. But all around me, the world is opening up. There are wildflowers on the hillsides and sweeping mountains on all sides; the sun casts bright streaks of color across the sky and there are a lot of mountain bikers laughing and smiling. Elevation and evening creep up on us, and I start to perk up. Maybe it's because the temperature eased up a little, but more likely it's my view of much of what is right and good about the world.

We reach the 7,100-foot summit and gather, a dozen strong, to look out over this right and good world and anticipate our well-earned reward. Two hours of climbing disappear beneath a swift and blissful descent. We're tired but there's more adventure to be had, so we veer up another climb and turn on a winding piece of singletrack down a brush-choked hillside.

After a mile or so, the group halts. I skid to a stop behind a cluster of riders. Not more than 20 yards in front of us is a black bear, with hair bristling like needles off her shoulders and back, standing and pacing and fretfully retreating. Her tiny cub, no larger than a six-month-old baby, is wrapped around a tree that we have to ride right by. They're the fourth and fifth bears I've seen on trails since I arrived in Montana less than three weeks ago, and are now officially more black bears than I saw in all of 2009 and 2010 in Alaska. Someone turns and says, "It's your fault, Alaska." I'm gaining a reputation for being something of a bear magnet among the Missoula mountain bikers. I'm not too worried about this one because our group is massive and momma bear obviously knows we're here and hasn't charged yet. But just to be sure we cluster tighter and roll slowly away from the young family. We breath relief and drop into the deepening sunset, then ride home in the dark.

I tend to look for signs that I made the right decision about moving - the weather, the sunlight, the recurrences of amazing sunset rides for days and even weeks unbroken. Then I see the bears that remind me of Alaska most of all, and I really think the universe is reaching out to me, telling me that home is wherever I make it, and that's OK. I don't have to be homesick, if I'm home.


  1. Great post Jill, I'm so happy that you are enjoying your new geography! I'm totally digging your new blog layout too.

  2. Truly great post as always Jill! I wonder if you will feel homesick once the cold and ice return to Montana this fall? Take care, and be careful around those bears!

    Ithaca, NY

  3. I think Montana has so much more yet to show you, through the seasons, and terrain, that homesickness will just continue to dwindle in strength.

  4. I know when I drove from Alaska to Charlotte and stayed a night in Missoula, it was one of my favorite places from the trip. So much to explore. There was also a lot to the east I liked too, and beautiful Wyoming is not too far.

    I am struggling with the temperatures in NC too!! Ick.

  5. Wonderfully written Jill. It appears that you are making the transition just fine. Enjoy!

  6. Well written, evocative post. This one belongs in the sidebar.

  7. Montana (Great Falls to be exact) used to be my home a long, long time ago it seems but I still miss the place. I have several friends in Missoula but none of them bike so it is nice to see all of the trails available when I finally do take that trip out there with the bike. How much do you charge for guided tours, I figure by the time I make it out there you will be an expert on all the trails.

  8. Hi Jill! I have just started reading your blog. I just wanted to say "thanks". Your blog is just wonderful :)

  9. Such great writing! Thanks for the post, and that's for continuing to write for us!

  10. As John Prine sings:

    "Bewildered, Bewildered...

    You have no complaint
    You are what your are and you ain't what you ain't
    So listen up Buster, and listen up good
    Stop wishing for bad luck and knocking on wood"

    Maybe don’t look for the sadness or homesickness. Enjoy the day. And, it will cool off eventually. ;-)

  11. Breaking away from Alaska is not easy - but it's usually the right thing to do. Alaska is a place for end-of-roaders and people who are either running or hiding! It's too bad because Alaska is great in a lot of ways - it just pretty obviously wasn't good for you. All of your Alaska posts were dreary, depressive, and maudlin, and now it sound as if you are actually more upbeat. Good on you for joining the real world again.

  12. you inspire me to get back into a more regular riding routine here in the SLC!

  13. Speaking of bears, bikes, and Alaska, did you see this?

    Three mountain bikers on the Resurrection Trail south of Anchorage met a momma grizzly, but got off easy.

  14. Thats me, laying it down towards Blue Point...o/o

  15. Excellent post. Sounds like home.

  16. Hi Jill

    My wife, Emily, and I will be passing through Missoula on the 29th on the way to the CTR. She commented that she'd like to meet you (and have you rub some of your mojo on her Siren), so, do you think you may have a few minutes some time during the day?



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  18. "I don't have to be homesick, if I'm home."


  19. My dad gave me one piece of advise that I have used my whole life. When it is time to make a decision, gather as much information as you can in the time alloted, make your decision and don't look back. I have always felt spending time looking back is not very productive versus looking forward and making it better.

    You can only change the future!

  20. It sounds like a wonderful place to live. I'm so happy for you!

  21. Jill, I have to agree with Anon 902. There is a whole different tone to your blog posts since you arrived in MT.

  22. Hey, take it easy on Alaska, folks! Just because it was a dead-end for Jill doesn't mean everyone here is in a dead-end job and depressed. I've lived in the great state of Alaska for almost 40 years, have an amazing job, a loving family and a wide group of good friends, and have so many outdoor adventures on my to do list I know I'll never finish them all. I'm happy for Jill, but give me Alaska any day.

  23. Yeah, take it easy on Alaska! Ha ha. I by no means want to get involved in an "Alaska versus Outside" argument (these kinds of discussions happen all the time in Alaska, and I think they're more than a little bit silly.) In all honesty, I have a hard time not picturing myself returning to Alaska someday, although I try to keep my mind open to all possibilities. Which is why I'm in Montana in the first place. It would have been easy for me to say "Alaska is the only place for me." And it would have felt true; however, it would have precluded my opportunity to discover Missoula, Montana, which has been great so far.

    However, I think you're confusing my "Wow I'm excited for my new space" for, "Wow, she's finally happy." Happiness isn't a permanent state of being, it's a fluctuating state, like sleepiness or hunger, that can never be satiated by one thing, and really can never be satiated. It's something we all keep feeding, and this act of feeding it is what we call life.

    The more general sense of happiness actually means "to be content with one's life." And I've felt this way for all of my life. Sure, I have moments of sadness and malaise, which I tend to write about because writing is cathartic. It's why I keep this blog. I like to write about all facets of my life.

    That said, if you thought my blog was downbeat before, you probably should really stop reading it before this summer heat really gets under my skin. While I was living in Utah, every mid-August or so I used to come down with a two-week span of lethargy and general hopelessness. It wasn't until I moved to Alaska that I recognized this condition as seasonal affective disorder. ;-)

  24. Oh Jill...those 'dog days of August' will be spent in Banff and on the trails of the Trans just about when you're going to come down with the 'two week span of lethargy and hopelessness''ll be packing up the car for your 'escape'...

    4 weeks! see ya soon.

    off for a training ride...


  25. Don't worry Jill. Winter will soon come to Montana.

  26. Jill

    You must be true to yourself. You never know if a decision is correct until you make it. There is no failure in changing your mind. Whatever you feel in your heart, trust it.

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  28. We have the bear magnet in common. I've never seen a real black bear, being from northern Indiana, until I moved down here to Tennessee. We all my friends here went hiking with me they decided I was the reason for all the sitings. And I'm still not as found of heat as I am of cold.

  29. Wow Jill,

    I go to work for awhile and boom, things have changed. For the better I may like to add. I like what I see so far.



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