Thursday, July 08, 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.