Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Last day at the office

I have the best view from my office. True, my back is turned to it most of the time, where I sit facing a wall, planted like a slug with eyes fixated on a screen while my fingers frantically adjust imaginary words and pictures. But on rare (increasingly more rare) occasions, I stand up and walk to the window, where my second-story workplace looks over Gastineau Channel. In the summer, the salmon return to the hatchery across the street. Their smooth bodies churn up the shallow water, a roiling silver mass of gulping mouths and leaping tails. People line the shoreline with fishing poles — snaggers — plucking the fish out of the chaos in fantastic leaps and fights. Sea lions come too, and every once in a great while, orca whales, plying the narrow channel between two civilized towns. In the fall, I watch ribbons of fog caress the mountains, flowing like silk down a thick carpet of spruce trees. Snow creeps lower until it touches sea water, and then I know it is winter. During long stretches of cold, the channel sometimes freezes over. Tiny ice-breaking tug boats guide massive barges through the cracked white surface. The sun arcs low behind Douglas Island, casting the building in near-continuous shadow. Slowly, the sun climbs higher, reaching farther to the north, and then I know it is spring. Snow creeps back up the mountain, children run barefoot through the wet grass, and the return of the salmon is just a few short weeks away.

Wednesday, March 31. Thick clouds envelop the hillside, but there's a break in the west, a shimmer of sunlight, casting a golden glow on the water. I stand on the balcony to soak in the moist air, clogged with the earthy smells and sweet taste of new life. This view, this job, has been the one constant in my life since I first strolled into the office on Aug. 7, 2006. Since then, I've moved three times (at least three times, and that's just counting my permanent residences.) I've lost a relationship. I've watched friends come and go. I've watched co-workers come and go. I've left town myself and wondered whether I'd ever really come back. But the office was always here. It was always waiting for my return.

I breathe deep and realize this may be the last time I'll stand here. I feel a rush of emotion, manufactured maybe, a mixture of nostalgia and mourning for a past that will never return. I realize that once I step away from this office, I will release the last anchor in my life, the last one, and will truly become a vessel adrift at sea. There will be no ice-breaking tugs, no narrow channel to guide me home. There will only be a vast and unbroken ocean, and unlimited directions from which to travel.

Dark descends as I finish up the day's work. I clean out my desk, extracting little trinkets I haven't thought about in three and a half years. There's the hand-drawn sign my co-workers made me when I returned from the Great Divide last summer. There's the glass award I received from the Society of Professional Journalists for best news page design. There's the emergency Power Bar that is at least three years old. I stuff them all in a plastic bag. The office is strangely still, quiet. As usual, I am the last one to leave. The goodbyes have been said. The newspaper has been put to bed. I do what I've done most every Wednesday night for the past three and a half years — I turn out the lights, descend a flight of stairs, and step into the cool night.

Monday, March 29, 2010

As I gaze into your skies

As the reality sets in that this is my last week in Juneau, I find myself obsessing about the surrounding mountains. If the clouds lift just enough to reveal steep, spruce-clogged hillsides and snowy ridgelines, I can't take my eyes off them. In fact, if you live in Juneau and at any time during the next week happen to see a red Geo Prism with four tires strapped to the roof driving down the highway, you should probably just swerve well clear, because there is a good chance I am not looking at the road, but rather gazing up at the towering skyline.

These oh-so-accessible and yet mysterious mountains have long been my favorite thing about living in Juneau. A friend and I went out Saturday night, and I was trying to explain to her my "Juneau Burnout," which I insisted not only existed in my job and living situation, but even singed the edges of my favorite recreational activities.

"That makes a lot of sense," she said. "I mean, how many times can you climb Mount Jumbo, really?"

The statement suddenly struck me, because although I feel almost irreconcilably worn out by the same old roads and the same old trails, part of me feels like I could run up Mount Jumbo 100 times — and, if I count all my partial ascents on training runs, my own four-year total is probably at least half that — and still love it every time. I'm going to miss Mount Jumbo, along with every cornice and sloping contour that I have come to know so well.

My hope before I left town was to climb as many "my" mountains as possible. Since I came back from Fairbanks, reality has set in that I have neither the time nor the physical health to bid these mountains a proper goodbye. My knee is coming around, but it's still stiff. Today I went for a mellow run up the Salmon Creek trail to loosen it up. It probably seems strange that while I cope with an overuse injury commonly called "Runner's Knee," I can run but not ride a bicycle. The problem with my knee isn't an impact thing, it's an angle thing — namely acute angles. The knee starts to hurt when I bend it beyond about 75 degrees. Cycling demands sharper angles with every rotation, while the only time runners bend that much is when they're sprinting or trying to clear hurdles. (Note: I took this photo at the midway point of the trail where I stopped to do some stretches. The leg I'm successfully bending is my left i.e. "good" knee.)

Today, as I shuffled up Salmon Creek, a beautiful blue sucker hole revealed the looming mass of Observation Peak. That 5,000-foot, broad pyramid of rock is a place I have wanted to visit for four years now, but weather or time limitations have thwarted every attempt. And now, with one bad knee and no hope of going there in the next week, I could only stare wistfully at Observation, now a monument to missed opportunity, mocking my narrow definition of Burnout.

"You think you've been everywhere in Juneau," the mountain whispered. "You haven't been anywhere. You haven't seen anything."

And I could only breathe loudly in resigned agreement. Much of my self-identity, and much of my happiness, is based in discovery. And much of my excitement about moving has little to do with the location and more to do with the fact that everything will be entirely new — new roads, new trails. New mountains. And yet the more I discover, the more I understand that there is infinitely more to be discovered — as Ani Difranco sings, "Try to keep your eye on the big picture; the picture just keeps getting bigger."

I am not done with Juneau, not by a long shot. But I do feel strongly that I need to step away for a while, if only to appreciate all of the spaces I'll never truly know.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

These last days

This post-race week has been more than a bit of a blur. After I rolled into the finish I waited nearly four hours to catch a ride back to town. At first I just sat in the "heating" tent and shivered; then I finally wrestled my boots back on and schlepped the 500 frigid yards to John's wind-blasted truck to grab my winter sleeping bag. I sat in a camp chair and cocooned myself in a -40-degree down shell and completely passed out as finishing racers, Arctic winds and commotion swirled around me.

Chris and I caught a ride back to Fairbanks with Robin Beebee and her husband, and we each succeeded in catching about a two-hour nap before John arrived at home and it was time to eat a half dozen meals and swap race stories. Skiers shuffled in and out of the house all day, telling tales of the trail, showing off battle scars and trying to remember faces and names as the line between consciousness and dreams became more and more blurred. I was up chatting with Ed and company until nearly 2 a.m., and at 4:30 I was suddenly awakened by a call from a taxi driver, asking why no one answered when he knocked on the door. I was so completely fargone that I stood at the window for several seconds, wondering why this yellow car was waiting for me and where exactly I was. And then I remembered — I was supposed to be up at 4! I have a 6 a.m. flight to catch! Thank you, Mr. Taxi Driver, for not abandoning me when I slept in!

By 10 a.m. I was back in Juneau, where six inches of wet snow coated the Mendenhall Valley. My Juneau taxi driver became stuck in my driveway and I had to help push him out. I spent an hour shoveling out my car and much of the lower half of Hughes Way because my knee was locked up and there was no way I could bike commute to work, and anyway, Pugsley was already on his way to Anchorage. I finally succeeded in freeing my car and then I went to work. I've been a gimpy zombie ever since.

Actually, I've just been preoccupied with packing, sorting, showing up on time for various appointments and visiting friends. With the exception of my knee, the after-effects of the White Mountains 100 wore off quickly. The feeling came back to my fingers by Wednesday morning. I finally got a full night of sleep on Wednesday night. My shoulders felt pinched, but beyond that I had no muscle soreness — a habit from my Tour Divide days, where I tend to ride at a pace I'd feel physically comfortable sustaining for 24 days, even though it would make sense, in a one-day race, to push for a pace I might only be able to sustain for 24 hours. I'm OK with that, though. I had a super fun race and it's nice, despite the crazy travel schedule, not to emerge from it feeling fully wrecked.

My right knee, though, has a few problems. I have been very gentle with it since returning to Juneau, icing every night, applying blue goop, taking Advil, massaging and stretching. Today I finally went to the gym and tried a gentle spin on the elliptical trainer. It loosened up nicely, but I haven't yet gained back the range of motion I'd need to ride a bicycle. Gah! I genuinely thought I was out of the water with this knee, being that it survived the 24-day Tour Divide without issue. But obviously there were things I failed to do, from my limited bike training right down to the adjustments for my Pugsley (I rode the race with my seatpost low because of all the 'techy' maneuvers.)

Not much I can do about it now but recover. I've made enough improvement in the past few days that I do think I'm not in for an extended recovery. And now is really an good time to take it easy anyway. I have to move out of my apartment by March 31, which means I have three more days to figure out how to transfer all of the belongings I wish to keep into the compartment of a Geo Prism (I love this part of moving: Prioritize, simplify, and purge.) Then I'm going to float around for a few days before catching a ferry out of town on April 4. There were lots of things I wanted to accomplish before leaving Juneau, but the combination of my Angry Knee and a rather dismal weather forecast may mean a more subdued goodbye to the beautiful Southeast.

Either way, I am really going to try to soak it all in before this, too, fades to memory.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

White Mountains 100, part 2

I pulled into the Windy Gap cabin, mile 62, at 7:25 p.m. A sliver of evening sun still hung above the mountains — one of the glorious benefits of spring. But it didn't feel like spring, with a sharp wind tearing down the canyon as air temperatures plummeted. I ducked inside the small cabin, which was packed with racers. Ted, Brian, Chris and Scott were all there, as were two Fairbanks cyclists — Rocky Reifenstuhl and his wife, Gail Koepf. It seemed I had joined a tight-knit group of bikers and skiers, although on the outside we mostly traveled alone. I greedily accepted my allotted serving of three meatballs and rice. I didn't even wait for it to cool before I wolfed down the deliciously throat-searing meal. I could have eaten three times as much, and was beginning to understand why the race organizers limited the servings — otherwise, it would probably already be gone. Every scrap of wood, food, water and supplies had to be hauled in over dozens of miles of trail by volunteers on snowmobiles. It was all so precious — so hard to ride away from. Still, I was burning daylight. I hoped to get some pictures of sunset before I faced the final 40 miles of the race in the dark. So as quickly as I entered the cabin, I left.

Outside, I tried to take some pictures, but my camera was no longer working. Cold battery. Oh well. I started pedaling into the growing twilight, with a thick wedge of the moon casting a soft glow on snow-covered hillsides. The wind started to let up, which was disappointing, because it was finally at my back. It was replaced by a deepening cold, which seemed to pierce through the still air. I climbed up a long hill, generating a furnace of heat in my core, but my fingers and legs started to sting. I launched into a long descent, and by the time I dropped into the next valley, my fingers and legs were tingling and my butt had become almost completely numb.

I stopped to put my gloves back on and contemplated changing out my layers. I had an extra insulation layer in my bag, but it would require stripping down to my base layer to pull it on, which would mean removing my hard boots and the many insulating layers around my feet. It seemed easier to wait until the next checkpoint, which I estimated was about 10 miles away. I forget that on my snow bike, 10 miles often amounts to two hours. All I was wearing on my legs was a pair of thin spandex tights and soft shell pants. It had been perfect for the sunlit daytime weather, but was no match for temperatures that had already dropped 30 degrees and were still rapidly plummeting. I'm from the Southeast Coast. I'm not used to wild swings in temperatures. I thought I just wasn't pedaling hard enough. So I tried to ride harder.

It's a frustrating exercise — trying to use cold muscles that just won't warm up. The brain can make them spin the rotations, but it's helpless to add power. And meanwhile, the muscles' heat output lessens, the cold cuts deeper, and basically what is happening is the body is slipping into hypothermia, one cell layer at a time. Shivering kicked in. I thought, "OK, I have to work harder." And I thought I was working harder. But if I had looked at my watch, if I had looked at my GPS, it probably would have revealed that I was moving ever slower. But I didn't look at those things. I only looked at my thermometer, which appeared to have dipped beneath 10 below. And, of course, the intelligent thing to do would have been to stop riding my bike and start applying my insulation layers and chemical warmers. But cold bodies do not want to stop. They want to find warmth. And I was convinced the checkpoint had to be close.

I dropped into Beaver Creek, where even on numb skin I could feel another sharp dip in the temperature. The thermometer was frosted over and difficult to read. The red line looked bottomed out at 20 below. I remembered Jeff Oatley telling me the night before that Beaver Creek was the lowest — and therefore coldest — point on the course. "If you get cold on Beaver Creek, just keep riding. It will get warmer," he said. And the checkpoint had to be close. But the cold air filtered through my ice-coated face mask and filled my lungs with fire. I yanked the face mask down, gasping and coughing until I could breathe again, but then my nose began to sting. I pulled the mask up, and again, I could not breathe. I coughed and sputtered and shifted my mask, alternating between breathing free and trying to thaw my cheeks and nose. I was finally ready to just stop and deal with it all — building a fire if I had to — when I saw a sign indicating the checkpoint was only a mile away. I coughed the whole way there — the longest mile in the history of distance. Even though the trail was flat, sloping slightly downhill on the creek bed, my speed was barely above a crawl. I didn't really notice, though. Time had essentially stopped for me. I was moving as though in a dream, in slow motion, no longer fully conscious and therefore no longer accountable for the poor decisions I had made.

It was nearly midnight when I reached the Borealis-LeFevre Cabin, mile 82. I was incredulous, because I could not figure out how four hours had passed since I left the last checkpoint. But first things first — I had to thaw out. I stumbled into the cabin with a head ringed in ice.

"It's cold for me out there," I announced. "Yeah, I'm from Juneau."

"It's cold for everyone out there," the checker said. "Last I looked outside, it was 15 below."

"My thermometer said 20 below," I said.

"Sounds about right, down on the river," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if it's negative 25."

I pulled off my coat and the inside was coated in frost, as was my polar fleece pullover. "Wow," the checker said. "You're pretty wet."

"Yeah," I said. I opened my mouth to formulate an excuse, but I had none. I had made the most basic error, sweating myself out during the day and going into the cold night partly soaked. I hadn't even realized I had sweat that much during the day. A race volunteer asked me if I wanted hot chocolate. I nodded, but the drink wasn't really hot; it was barely warm. He placed the cup in my hands and I clenched my numb fingers around it. After he had turned away, my hand started convulsing uncontrollably and I spilled a bunch on the seat. I quickly mopped it up with my sleeve, hoping he didn't notice. These volunteers were going to think I was completely incompetent and call in an evacuation.

So I did my best to hide the tears in my eyes as my numb body parts came back to life. The bulk of the pain was in my butt and fingers, which looked swollen and red. My toes, the body part I had been so worried about, were basically fine. I had insulated them in so many layers that they were essentially a self-contained unit, but I hadn't really thought through the rest of my kit, at least not the needed layer changes for temps ranging from 25 above to 25 below. I carefully pulled off my softshell pants and put on long johns, then dry liner socks, then a dry base layer and insulation layer on my torso. I cracked open a bunch of chemical warmers and placed them in my boots, mittens and — when no one was looking — stuffed some down my tights. Others in the cabin were in various states of distress. Gail was severely dehydrated and in the first stages of shock. Chris told me his ski boots were too cold and his feet were giving him trouble. I was so wrapped up in my own issues that I didn't even think to offer him some of my warmers — he later told me he didn't have any of his own — an oversight I'm still kicking myself over.

For a while I sat and ate and waited for my body to warm up. I considered rolling out my sleeping bag and resting a while, but the cabin itself wasn't very warm. It was enough to bring my frozen body parts back to life but not the kind of place I wanted to stick around, especially since I finally had enough layers to deal with the temperatures outside. Moving seemed better than sitting. So an hour after I checked in, I checked out, returning to the tomb-like air outside.

The warmers, long johns and new balaclava seemed to make all the difference. The brutal cold stayed away from my skin and my core burned with new warmth. I even took the time to adjust my seat post and move my sagging seat post bag to the front rack. But as I pedaled into the blue-tinted shadows, I felt a new wash of fatigue. It was as though my hours-long battle with the cold had sucked the energy right out of my body, and it didn't matter how many frozen Sour Patch Kids I gnawed on — the energy just wouldn't come back.

I could say it was a struggle, but the landscape was too dreamlike, too compelling, to be a place of struggle. The moon wedge burned bright in a sky splattered with stars, and the twisted trees carved gothic silhouettes over the snow. I did a lot of thinking about the upcoming changes in my life and felt a beautiful sense of peace. Just as I had no real control over the cold, over my fatigue, I had no control over the future. And yet I could move through it, taking on the challenges with the best of my abilities, learning from my mistakes, and growing. Even when the race got hard, like life, it never stopped being worth it.

About 14 miles from the end, my knee started to go. I have issues with my right joint that my doctor once called "Angry Knee." Basically, overuse causes a flareup of chondromalacia that stiffens the joint until I can't bend it at all without pain. The onset of that all-too-familiar sharp pain causes no end of anxiety, because I have no idea how bad it will get or how long it will last. In 2007, I couldn't ride my bicycle for three months as I recovered from chondromalacia I acquired, interestingly enough, during the final miles of a frigid 100-mile winter race called the Susitna 100. And at mile 87 of the White Mountains 100, my Angry Knee was none too happy. My usual strategy is to stop riding, but that wasn't really an option on a remote trail in subzero temperatures. I just had to hope I could limp it to the end without too much long-term damage.

I did do everything I could to be as gentle as possible. I essentially stopped riding up hills; even the mellow ones I walked. Even still, the pain increased. I'm not sure why my knee chose this precise time to give up the fight. I think a large part of it was undertraining. I can climb all the difficult mountains I want, but unless I turn pedals, I'm not going to build up the essential muscles to support my joint through an excessive number of rotations in a short period of time. I also suspect that this knee doesn't like extreme cold very much. I stopped and ate a recklessly large handful of Advil pills, which helped.

About seven miles from the finish, I reached the Wickersham Wall. Lovingly named after a face of Denali that is essentially unclimbable, the White Mountains' Wickersham Wall gains 1,000 feet in a little less than two miles. Judging by the footprints punched into the trail, it must have been a walk for nearly everyone, but I really felt like I was tackling some high-altitude route on Denali. Every 30 steps or so I had to stop, gasping for breath and massaging my knee. My body was beaten, but — amazingly — my attitude remained upbeat. I could look back and see the headlamps of other racers, pinpricks of light in a vast and dark wilderness. Behind them, a sliver of dawn's blue light climbed over the horizon. And in front of me, the setting moon burned with a surreal tint of dark orange. I felt happy. My lungs burned; my swollen fingers ached and my knee sometimes screamed in pain, but I still felt happy. I think much of it was the realization that even though my body is my vehicle through life, life itself is my source of joy.

Dawn had broken when I rolled into the finish line at 6:23 a.m., for a finishing time of 22 hours, 23 minutes, in 14th place out of 49 finishers. I was satisfied to be done, but more than that, I was just grateful to have been a part of it. There are a lot of people that deserve a huge thanks — Ed Plumb and Ann Farris for organizing the race; John Shook for putting me, Chris and his wife, Maura, up for two nights, feeding us meals and letting us throw our stinky gear all over his spare bedrooms; Robin BeeBee for finding and returning my SPOT unit after it bounced off my bike near the end the route — my mother especially is grateful for this; all of the the volunteers who manned the checkpoints, working harder getting even less sleep than the racers; the medics who covered the entire course on snowmobiles, and everyone else who helped make the White Mountains 100 happen. Thank you. It was really great.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

White Mountains 100

When I say it was spectacular, I mean it was really hard. And easy, too, because it never once became a burden or a chore. There were times I was so cold I couldn’t breathe, coughing and gasping for air as I pulled off my face mask even though my nose started to freeze within seconds. There were times that my right knee became so stiff that I couldn’t bend it as I limped up hills, wondering if I’d be able to “de-rust” the hinge enough to pedal the last 10 miles to the end. But these issues seemed unimportant, the inevitable fee for coming to the White Mountains 100 somewhat under-prepared. And they were a small price to pay for a chance to spend a day in my happy place — a place cut into a small, wind-swept mountain range in the heart of Alaska, a place where wildfire-scorched spruce trees stoop over frozen swamps and people grin through ice-ringed face masks. They too understand the beauty and discovery of these journeys through the soul.

This was the inaugural year for the White Mountains 100, a 100-mile bike, ski and foot race on a large loop of remote snowmobile trails 40 miles north of Fairbanks. The thing that impressed me most about this race was just how brilliantly organized it was. Basically, a small group of Fairbanks skiers decided it would be fun to hold an endurance race on their home trails. Within a matter of months, their race was full with 50 racers from Fairbanks and Anchorage (and one straggler from Juneau), a full army of friendly volunteers and a luxurious menu of trailside meals, homemade cookies and medical support.

Although I was intrigued by this new winter endurance race, I admit it was only on the edge of my radar. I had met one of the co-organizers, a skier named Ed Plumb, during the 2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational. I was holed up in Yentna Station with five swollen, purple toes and a black cloud hanging over my head. Ed offered a few kind words that helped put the whole sad situation in perspective, and even followed up to ask about my recovery after he successfully completed the race. He was kind enough to e-mail me early in the White Mountains 100 planning, and again when the race was nearly full. I decided to sign up even though I felt ambivalent about it. The cost of travel would be significant, preparations would be tough and I was coping with shifts in my own attitude about racing in general. As my life fell into deeper unrest, this ambivalence strengthened, until the race was days away and I realized that my preparations only amounted to about three weeks of actual focused training. My snow bike laid in pieces in my room. I hadn't yet chosen my "kit." I was mired in stressful logistics of moving away from Juneau, and I was ready to pull the plug on the race without regret.

But then I didn't. I'm so glad I didn't. Saturday was a whirlwind — meeting the friendly Fairbanks skiers, rushing around town with Bjorn as he bought up supplies for a three-week climbing expedition into the Hayes Range, attending the pre-race meeting, having dinner with the fast bikers and stumbling upstairs to my own explosion of gear. I finally crawled into bed at midnight and slept like a log out of sheer exhaustion. I woke up at 5:30 a.m. Sunday morning to carpool out to the start with Ed. His eyes had the glazed-over look of a struck deer, and he admitted that organizing the race proved far more all-consuming than he ever imagined. "I haven't even thought about skiing," he said, even as he faced the 100-mile effort that loomed in front of us. I watched the thermometer on his dashboard drift from 10 above all the way to 18 below in the low-lying valleys. I felt my own eyes glaze over, struck by a vague sense of doom.

The hour leading up to a race is always the worst, and the White Mountains 100 was no different. I stepped out of Ed's truck and the cold wind hit me like a sucker punch. I froze my fingers while trying to put my bike together, waited in line at the outhouse to purge the meager contents of my breakfast and forgot to sign in. But when someone finally yelled, "Go!," all of the fatigue and anxiety melted away as my mind instantly shifted to the focus of the task at hand. I pedaled up the first hill in a wash of relief, because I was on the trail and so I no longer had to think about it. All I had to do was pedal. And compared to the rest of life, pedaling is amazingly easy.

For many hours, the White Mountains 100 was pure fun. I was struck by the sheer amount of climbing. In my pre-race ambivalence, I actually never even looked at the elevation profile, which in the end would net nearly 8,000 feet of gain. I guess I should have expected as much from a race with the word "Mountains" in the name. Still, I relished in the work, powering up the nicely packed trail at a paltry — but satisfying — 4.5 mph. The downhill runs were like the best kind of mountain biking, smooth and flowing with a few blissful "big airs" over the snowmobile moguls. An air inversion caused intriguing temperature fluctuations — I'd climb high with the warm sun caressing my face, and then drop into a subzero sinkhole as my quickly-applied face mask filled with ice. For several miles I shadowed a couple of skate skiers, which was a cool experience in itself — two very different modes of travel, perfectly synchronized.

My main point of stress was overflow, which the White Mountains region has an abundance of. Overflow is water that gurgles up from ice-covered stream beds, refreezing on top of the snow until the ground is covered in mounds of wet ice. It's treacherously slick, but that's the least of the concern, because a badly placed foot can punch into deeper pools of unfrozen water, wetting vital gear and body parts — a bad, bad thing in subzero temperatures. Because of my previous frostbite experience, every loud crack or change of color on the ice was heart-stopping scary, but it only added to my overall excitement about the course. The White Mountains were harsh, they were real, and they were amazingly within my grasp.

And this harsh, real landscape was also breathtakingly beautiful. We coastal Alaskans have a tendency to write off the Interior as a flat, frigid swamp, but it is actually ringed with snow-swept mountains and craggy cliffs. The weather was gorgeous if a bit cold for this coastal girl, and a brisk headwind stung my exposed skin. Still, I felt strong and I was pounding down the calories. I stopped briefly at the Cache Mountain cabin at mile 36. A fire raged in the wood stove and the tiny single-room structure was clogged with racers and stiflingly hot. I ate handfuls of cheese cubes and a brownie as I chatted with Anchorage cyclists Ted Cahalane and Brian Garcia. Everyone was in a good mood but ready to admit we were starting to feel it. On a snow bike, tackling a mountain course in subzero windchill, a race pace of 7 mph feels fast and 36 miles feels like a long way.

And the big climb was yet to come. After several more miles of rollers, the course began the steady, 1,800-foot ascent to the "Divide," a 3,500-foot alpine pass. The snow had softened in the sun and was churned up by previous racers, which made the going incredibly slow. The trail was rideable, but it eventually became a decision of whether I wanted to struggle at 90-percent effort a move 3.5 mph or push my ~50-pound bike at 70-percent effort and move 2.5 mph. I was too tired to do the math, but walking sure felt better, so I walked. A few skiers caught up and passed me, justifiably gloating at the anchor I was dragging up the mountain.

But I am always willing to do the work for a breath of open mountain air, even if it is driven by stunningly cold wind. I stopped at the top for several minutes, completely exposed to the wind and cold, just to soak in the wonder of the moment. I sucked on some deep-frozen Sour Patch Kids and analyzed the wind's artwork, carved in flowing strokes across the open tundra. It was 4 p.m. I was 50 miles and eight hours into the race, still on my best-case-scenario pace, feeling strong. I hopped back on the bike and churned over the drifted trail, swerving and bouncing across the rough surface. I passed Ted, who was walking his bike downhill. "You're having better luck than I am," he called out. "It's not easy, but it's doable," I yelled back. A few minutes later, I bounced sideways off a mogul and landed face-first into a pillow of snow. I was still extracting myself when skiers Chris Wrobel and Scott Hauser came up from behind. I quickly rolled back into the snow as they whisked by, calling out to make sure I was OK.

Ten minutes and 1,000 feet of descent later, we were all standing at the edge of the Ice Lakes. The Ice Lakes are actually a mile-long stretch of overflow that is very unpredictable. Ice conditions change by the hour and we had all been warned to pass through this area with extreme care. Chris and Scott gave up on skiing early and donned overboots and ice creepers. I had bolts screwed into the soles of my boots, but they weren't quite enough to actually grip the wet ice. I skittered across the downhill-sloping surface as the frigid wind blew at my side, with my bike acting like an uncontrollable sail. I walked through ankle deep pools of slush, areas where any kind of fall would be disastrous. My heart raced and anxiety coursed through my veins like hot lead even as my body became colder and colder. I started to shiver but I couldn't move any faster for fear of losing my balance. My fingers went numb, but I didn't want to stop and find my mittens for the same reason. It was a painfully slow march to the other side, and I had no choice but to endure it.

Brian Garcia passed me near the last ice lake, riding his bicycle, which I thought was enviably bold. A mile later, I passed him standing by the side of the trail, eating M 'n' Ms with a packet of cream cheese, which I was jealous of too, having become tired of my own peanut butter cups and Odwalla bars, and having found frozen Sour Patch Kids to be too slow-melting and frustrating to be edible. I wanted to stop and chat and maybe ride with him for a bit, but I was still shivering and knew I had to keep moving before my body heat took too much of a downward spiral. The trail itself spiraled downward, winding through the spruce forest on tight and challenging winter "singletrack." It, like most of the rest of the course, was truly fun biking, the kind that makes you wonder why everyone doesn't just go out and buy a fat bike and move to Fairbanks. But then I'd hit another open area of overflow, and the cold wind would needle into my skin, and I'd remember that, oh yeah, this is Alaska — a hard place that doesn't easily forgive complacency. Still, I was soaked in the pink light of sunset and filled with my typical mid-race overconfidence. I had climbed the Divide. I had survived the Ice Lakes. The worst was behind me. It would all be coasting from here on out ...

To be continued ... (Sorry, but if I don't go to bed soon I'm going to pass out at my desk and drool all over my keyboard.)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Into the Interior

Well, I made it to Fairbanks. It's a beautiful first day of spring, sunny and warm - 33 degrees. Downright tropical in this part of the world. I haven't been to this region of Alaska in nearly seven years; I'm actually surprised how much of it feels familiar to me. We had a great trip up, traveling overland - the only way to travel. We took the ferry to Skagway and chugged up White Pass in my friend Bjorn's old Subaru (crossing our fingers the entire way). We visited friends in Whitehorse and continued north on the Alaska Highway to Kluane Lake, where we geared up for an overnight "ski" trip (I was on snowshoes) in the frigid mountains of the Yukon.

We started up Sheep Mountain on the grade of an old mining road. The surface was knee-to-thigh deep sugar snow with occasional - and often completely invisible until you punched through and twisted a knee - thin-frozen crust. It felt like wading through a bottomless bucket of sand. Strenuous and slow going. Bjorn broke trail most of the way. I tried to forge ahead to do my share, but I could scarcely keep up with him. I'm not used to hoisting 25 pounds of winter gear on my back, and he had that ski advantage (although, really, it hardly looked like an advantage in these conditions.)

We trudged upward for nearly five hours, barely making five miles during that time, and we were nowhere near where we had hoped to be - somewhere closer to the ridge of Sheep Mountain or at least in the alpine bowl. We did see some Dall sheep, however, not to mention a veritable highway of wolf and coyote tracks. But, sunset was well on its way and we decided we wanted to be closer to the car for the Friday drive to Fairbanks, so we started down. The worst part about the snow is it didn't even pack down, so we basically had to break trail through sugar going downhill as well. Bjorn didn't get to do much skiing at all. I actually felt like snowshoes were an advantage, since I could at least pick up my feet while he had to shuffle through the sand. He did manage to slide a little, though, even with skins on.

The part about the ski trip that I was really excited about was the camping. We set up the tent on the shoreline of the Slim River, donned down coats and fired up the stove to melt snow. Winds were light and dusk temperatures were about 15 degrees - really mild for the Yukon in March. We were able to sit outside around our "campfire" of a stove, drinking hot water (we both forgot to bring tea) and eating frozen turkey sandwiches and Snickers bars. There was no wind, and if we stopped talking, the valley was so quiet that we could hear animal sounds in the far distance - small creatures running, coyotes yipping, wolves howling. It was really quite special. We settled into our Arctic bags and fell asleep to the ranging silence. The overnight temperature dropped below zero and I got one of the best nights of sleep I have had in a long time.

The ski out on the Slim River was pretty mellow, which helped make up for our afternoon of wallowing the day before. It's certainly questionable whether I should have participated in a ~11-hour overnight hike just a couple of days before my bike race, but in this case, as in many cases, it was exactly what I needed. Things here in Fairbanks have been kind of stressful - as they should be, I guess, since I am gearing up for this 100-mile bike race. Trail conditions and weather both look to be good. I'm enamored with this harsh Interior landscape and I can't wait to get out on the trail. The race begins at 8 a.m. Sunday. I'll be carrying my SPOT unit along the way, so you can track my progress (or possible lack thereof) at this link: My Shared Page.

Race updates here.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Auspicious beginning

I admit I crawled back into bed after my alarm went off at 8 a.m. I do this a lot of mornings. It's a bad habit — a manifestation of my general mood during the past several weeks. Ugh. Morning. Why bother?

I forgot that I had specifically set the alarm today so I could finish packing. My friend showed up at my house at 9:45 to load my stuff in his car. "Um, did I wake you up?" he asked.

"I fell back asleep," I mumbled. I rubbed my face until the world finally came into focus. I blinked rapidly as my eyes and mouth jolted wide open.

"It's, it's so blue out," I stammered as I stared up at the sky. "Where did the three-week storm go?"

"It's a sunny day," Bjorn grinned. "An auspicious beginning to our trip."

I darted around my room, gathering up a huge assortment of gear. First we crammed Pugsley in the hatchback, along with all of the bike's winter gear. Then went in my big backpack, stuffed with my 40-below sleeping bag, bivy, food, water bladder, winter clothes, sleeping pad and supplies. Then I threw in my bag with the race gear — more winter clothes, smaller sleeping bag, food, supplies and repair stuff. On top of that went the snowshoes, ice ax, trekking poles, crampons and winter boots. Bjorn set his sled on top of the pile.

"I'll grab my personal stuff tomorrow morning," I said. "I hope you weren't planning on bringing any of your own stuff."

Finally packed for the 5 a.m. Wednesday ferry out of Juneau, I set out for a bike ride. It was the first time I'd seen direct sunlight since February. Before today, I looked and felt much like one of those light-powered green glow sticks that's been lodged in the dark for far too long — a faint, sad glimmer of myself. And as much as I like to believe that my body operates independently of external forces, I am, in the end, maniacally solar-powered. I felt stronger, faster and fitter than I have in weeks (indeed, I have been doing quite a bit of tapering. See earlier sentence about sleeping in every day.)

The high March sun felt hot and I stripped down to my short sleeves before tearing through nearly every mile of trail in the Mendenhall Valley — some clear, others clogged with ice. I rode the muskeg meadows above Lake Creek until the snow became too deep and soft, then wove through the mossy moraine surrounding Mendenhall Lake, finishing up with the Brotherhood Bridge singletrack spurs. It was fast, hard, highly focused riding, and for three hours I thought of nothing but the next bend, the next log, the next half-frozen beaver pond. I was happily locked in the extreme present, functioning like a machine whose sole purpose was to power and steer a bicycle, without reasoning, without anxiety, without regret ... until the front tire skidded out on a downhill stream of wet ice and my body pitched forward. It's an interesting experience — snapping back to reality in those terror-streaked fractions of seconds as your face approaches the ground, perfectly conscious of the humor in the first thought that enters your head: "Crap, I'm going to hurt myself right before my race!"

Luckily, I took the landing well, bashing my left knee somewhat painfully but not enough to even slow my pedaling for the rest of the ride. Right now I'm just finishing up my work and then it's on to more packing. Bjorn and I have a couple of days to kill before I need to be in Fairbanks on Saturday (he's headed north for a long climbing trip, so I'm going to fly back to Juneau after the race.) We're thinking if the weather looks good, we will probably do an overnight backpacking trip in the Yukon on Thursday-Friday. It should be a good lead-up to the White Mountains 100 as long as we don't go too hard. And if we do, well ... I'm really going to try to avoid it. But I've never been all that good at tapering. Especially if the sun gets involved.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Pugsley's Sunday best

So, happiness, home, taking big leaps into the unknown ... Now, let's move on to more important things, like bicycles!

This coming Sunday is the White Mountains 100. I've been so focused on life in general that this reality just slammed into me, hard. When I first started talking to friends and family about the Anchorage move, I assured them (and myself) that I was going to drop out of the White Mountains 100. It was too much to deal with, at exactly the wrong time. But as I really started to work out the logistics, I realized that I could pull off this race for fairly low expense, and because of that, I'd probably always regret it if I didn't at least try.

The White Mountains 100 is a 100-mile snow trail race in the Interior, near Fairbanks. The fact that it begins the day after the spring equinox doesn't really mean a whole lot in that part of the world. It's still stark winter and temperatures can drop to 40 below. So far, weather reports call for temperatures in the region to be fairly mild, with highs in the 20s and lows in the single digits. With my winter of "Juneau lite" training, I'm really hoping that report sticks.

Still, I plan to come prepared. Prepared with a lightweight tint, that is. Because this is a 100-mile race with sheltered checkpoints that are roughly 20 miles apart, I don't anticipate sleeping out unless there's an emergency. Because of this, I'm going to only carry emergency sleeping gear: A foam sleeping pad, a water-resistant bivy sack, and a down sleeping bag rated to 15 degrees (above zero.) This system combined with my spare clothing should allow at least a couple hours of down time if I break an ankle or do something else that prevents me from walking to the next checkpoint. The bivy system, spare clothing, and a pair of down booties are in the handlebar bag.

In the frame bag I plan to carry my nylon waders, two liters of water in an insulated water bladder, spare batteries, bike repair gear, medical gear, a few chemical warmers, goggles and food. Another liter water bottle will be in an insulated pouch on the handlebars. Those giant pogies also have a way of accumulating things as well.

The seat post bag will simply hold my big down coat, as well as any clothing that I may shed over the course of the race. As for clothing, I'll probably start out the cold morning with a base layer, softshell pants, a vapor barrier vest, a thin polyester pullover, a thick pile polyester pullover, and a softshell coat. I'll have liner gloves and shell mittens, as well as a thin balaclava, a hat, and a thick balaclava.

As for my feet — I am nervous about my feet. I had fairly serious frostbite on my right foot last March, and now, a year later, the foot is still much more sensitive to cold and pressure than my left foot. My right foot gave me a ton of trouble before the Tour Divide, but during the winter it has gradually normalized, although I have yet to really test it in extreme cold (Yeah, thanks a lot, mild Juneau winter.) I'd say the best gauge I have is the five-hour Christmas Eve ride I did in Whitehorse, when temperatures were near zero and the windchill pushed 30 below. I was fine then, so I'm hoping by using the system I'm comfortable with — my studded, waterproof expedition boots, liner socks, vapor barrier socks, thick wool socks, chemical warmers and gators — that I can ward off further damage, and maybe even avoid discomfort.

As far as feet go, the trail reports are a little ominous: "The 40-mile stretch between Cache Mtn cabin (Checkpont #2) and Borealis LeFevre cabin (Checkpoint #4) has quite a bit of overflow, glare ice, and bumps. Racers should be prepared to deal with very icy surfaces and/or patches of open water." Overflow (and bad ice) is what froze my toes last March, so I am going to place the biggest emphasis on keeping my feet dry. My mobile system is waterproof to my shins, very water resistant to my knees, and if I put on the nylon waders, it's waterproof to my hips. The studded boots also work great on wet ice — this has been tested extensively in Juneau conditions. Studded tires would be a nice bonus, but I'd really rather walk the glare ice than give up the float of the Endomorphs.

Walking will also slow me down enough to really gauge the condition of the ice. Believe me, frostbite sucks. If by some horrible mistake I do end up getting my feet wet, I'll take off everything that got wet and try the system I ignored in the 2009 ITI and have subsequently been thinking about for a year — dry wool socks, chemical warmers, plastic baggies and down booties wrapped in duct tape. That should get me through to a place where I can dry my boots.

As far as the race goes, I'm not in perfect physical condition right now, so my main objective is to have fun and enjoy the starkly beautiful environment of Interior Alaska. On the roster there seems to be more skiers than cyclists, but there will be a few women on bikes, including Julie Malingowski from Fairbanks and Janice Tower, a longtime (and extremely fast) winter cyclist.

Right now, I'm really glad I decided to do this. It's sort of like having a bachelorette party the night before a wedding. I'm ready to take this next big step and I think my life will be better for it, but it's nice to have one last day of freedom — my "last" race.

I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Leave the city, part 3

It broke my heart to know you waited
I had so many things to do
It's true as far as a lot of stuff
You could have had a little better luck
But with you, I'm not givin' up
Tonight I'm not givin' up

— Magnolia Electric Co. "Leave the City"

It's one of the great cliches in life coaching — if you had a million dollars, what would you do? It's the kind of question people usually laugh off, but if you are stalled out and genuinely unhappy about your situation, I think it's an important one. The answer has always been very easy for me — I would live in a place where I had access to a lot of different adventures — good singletrack, long open roads, mountains and extensive winter trails. This place would have a community of like-minded souls — snow bikers, endurance athletes and mountaineers — that I could look to and learn things from. It would preferably be a small town, but I could stomach a mid-sized city. If you think this sounds like Salt Lake City, you're right, but I have another, most important requirement — it has to be in Alaska.

And what would I do for a non-recreational occupation in this place? That answer is even easier. I'd write. I'd interview interesting people and attend intriguing events, and I'd write about them. I wouldn't spend a whole lot of time writing soul-sucking query letters seeking publication, but I'd probably do a little of that, because it's always more fun to write for an audience (Hence my four-plus years of keeping a public blog.) And I would buy a nice camera, and take photos. And I would buy an art store out of their pastels and markers and paper, and I would start drawing again. I'd probably also buy a piano and renew that hobby — just to really round things out.

But here's the next question — what if I didn't need a million dollars? Nix the piano, camera and pastels, because that stuff is pretty expensive. And just cut it down to the basics — a place where I can sleep, store my bicycles and house my cat. A few spare dollars for lube, tubes and gasoline. Enough left over to buy rice and beans and Sour Patch Kids. Not forever, but just for a while. Maybe those soul-sucking query letters would even help pad the rice-and-beans fund. But even that wouldn't be fully necessary — at least for a while. One of the great secrets of life is that it's actually quite simple to follow dreams — as long as you follow them simply.

So here is my plan: My last day at the Juneau Empire is March 31. From there I'm going to make my way north and west. I'm moving in with a friend in the big city — Anchorage. During the month of April, I plan to fly to Salt Lake City. I want to visit my sister and meet my first nephew, who was just born last month. I want to visit my baby sister in Huntington Beach, and a few friends in between, hopefully in the form of a bike tour. This will probably take up most of the month. After that, it will be springtime in Alaska. I'm not sure exactly what will happen. I'm going to just ride the wave and see where it takes me.

So why Anchorage? Because, for better or worse, Anchorage is the center of Alaska. The city offers easier and cheaper access to so many places, from the Kenai Peninsula to Denali to the Brooks Range. There are many things I want to see and do that, if I stay in Juneau and continue working 50 hours a week, I will probably never have a realistic chance to experience. Moving to Anchorage will also be easier than moving to a random city because I have several friends in the Anchorage area already, from Kim, who has agreed to take on my cat and me as roommates, to Craig and Amity, a couple of my oldest friends from Utah. Having several familiar faces in town definitely helps ease big transitions. And Anchorage does have a great community of cyclists.

Plus, Anchorage is the state's center of commerce, so there will be more opportunities for income should the funemployment fund run dry.

So why didn't I just do this a year ago, when I first said I was going to? Well, there are a lot of reasons I stayed after I first "quit" my job in November 2008. One is my passion for newspaper journalism and my loyalty to the Juneau Empire. I realize the newspaper business is a slowly sinking ship, and that by opting out of my current newspaper job, I may not find another opportunity to re-enter this market. The Empire has done a lot for me over the years and I feel guilt about leaving. Another big reason is that I genuinely love Juneau. It is definitely a little bit of a "love-hate" relationship, especially during long stretches of snain (similar to the one we're currently in.) But Juneau is a place that grows into you like moss, filling the bare surfaces of life with brilliant green beauty. I can definitely see myself returning someday. In fact, at this point, I'm all but counting on it.

So, then, why am I leaving? Because I have been unhappy for a while now. This series of blog posts have been the exploration of the root of my unhappiness. It may seem I'm blaming a lot of it on my environment, which of course isn't fair, but my environment does make it extraordinarily difficult for me to make any real changes in my life. When more casual acquaintances ask me why I'm leaving, I tell them it's because I "need a change of scenery." It sounds frivolous, but there a lot to that statement. The change of scenery I need is within the landscape of my own mind. If I continue to plow through my routine, and the only change I make is acquiring a Prozac prescription or taking up skiing, then I will always be haunted by the knowledge that I ignored an opportunity to make more meaningful change. The truth is, I don't really have a lot to lose.

As I discussed this move with my closer friends and family, no one was surprised. My closest friends in Juneau all said, essentially, "We'll miss you, but, yeah, you should do this." My family has expressed their unconditional support, even for my funemployment (which will be entirely self-supported and health-insured, by the way.) It means a lot to me that people who know me best have shown so much support, and has sharpened my belief that this is the right thing to do.

I am anxious and excited, nervous and scared. I am still planning to travel to Fairbanks next week for the White Mountains 100. I'm trying to buffer the expense by hitching a ride with a Juneau friend who's driving north for a crazy winter climbing trip. Then I will fly back to Juneau, solely so I can spend a week training my replacement (yes, this is purely for loyalty to the Empire, because it would be a whole lot easier just to drive north once.) I am hoping to get a few last mountain trips in Juneau before I go. I will truly, deeply miss this place.

But I have to go.

Leave the city, part 2

Half my life spent on a highway
Half my life I didn’t choose
And I have seen the North Star

Shining in the freight yard
And I knew it was a hard time that he'd come through
It’s made him thankful for the blues.
— Magnolia Electric Co., "Leave the City"

The abstract notion of going home begin to take shape as I drove north. It was a strange feeling to leave Salt Lake City, the place that had always been my home, and return to a city where I had no house, no family, no real belongings besides a few boxes, stuffed in the corner of a storage unit, whose contents I had long since forgotten. I was leaving behind all the good things that happened during the summer and going home to my disappointing history and personal failures and 9.85 total miles of singletrack bike trails.

Even though I had many reasons to love Juneau, these realities weighed heavily on me as I approached White Pass and the British Columbia/Alaska border. I was 20 miles from the ferry that would take me away from the present world I had grown comfortable with and strand me on the island of my past and immediate future. I wasn’t quite ready to face it. I parked near a high alpine lake and pulled my bike down from the roof rack. The saddle was missing chunks of foam and the frame was still coated in New Mexico mud - remnants of an adventure that left me feeling disappointed and hollow, if only because it had to end, and it was finally done. I rode along the talus-strewn shoreline until I found the faint summer footprint of a snowmobile trail weaving through the dwarf spruce trees. My nerves, long numbed by the robotic routine of driving 2,500 miles, suddenly buzzed with the thrill of new discovery. I traced the path through sock-grabbing bushes, over boulder fields and around switchbacks. As the terrain grew steeper, the trail became fainter, until I could do longer distinguish it from the rocky, bush-choked terrain. Like most places I had come to know in this region, it was a dead end.

As I did when I first moved to Juneau, I had an incredibly difficult time settling in. I couldn’t hold my focus; my mind wandered. Six weeks passed before I found my own place to live. At work, I made silly mistakes and missed deadlines. I told my friends and co-workers that I had been “Great Divided,” and I was just trying to regain my composure after the culture shock of the summer. But it wasn’t the truth. The Great Divide was a tiny gap next to the one I was trying to bridge - the divide between the former me, who had a partner and plans and future goals, and the new me, who suddenly didn’t have any of that.

Faced with the prospect of reinventing myself, I turned to the places where I felt the most at home. I was burnt out on cycling and still suffered lingering, nagging pains spurred by pedaling, so I took to the mountains on foot. When the terrain was easy, I ran; more often, I climbed or scrambled or staggered. The clear air was freeing, the views spectacular. I could look out across ridges stretching beyond the horizon - places the didn’t dead end; places that, if I could muster the strength and stamina and skill, could carry me as far away as I longed to wander. They were places where I could be free without guilt or regret. They were places where I could be alone without feeling lonely.

And it’s strange, because these are the places where I started meeting new people. I was three days off the ferry when I met someone while climbing up Mount Juneau. We went on a handful of subsequent hiking dates. I met another new friend on Ben Stuart, and yet another on the Sheep Creek Trail. Another friend set me up with a skier/kayaker. I was a biker/runner. We both acknowledged we had little interest in the other’s passions, but we found common ground in the mountains. We had our first “date” on Blackerby Ridge. We climbed up to Cairn Peak in a drenching September rain and watched the clouds clear just as we settled in to a hut perched on a high ridge between two glaciers. I looked out over the stark white ice field and felt a thrill of wonder, because Juneau really was larger than I had ever imagined.

I’m not sure how or why that all started to fade. The snows of late autumn came, driving me to the limits of my novice mountain skills, driving new nostalgia for my past life, and driving a wedge between the skier and me. Conditions at work, which had already been so consuming and stressful, deteriorated even further, until the time-suck often took me away from my last remaining passions - cycling and writing. And just as quickly as Juneau had opened itself up to me, it closed again. I’d wheel my bicycle out to a dead end, and then another, and then another, until the sameness stripped away any motivation I had to keep pedaling. I continued to climb mountains, but under the armor of winter they became more prohibitive, more frightening, more exhausting, in a way that made me feel like my skills were actually getting worse rather than better. But the most frustrating part about it all was there was nowhere I could go to escape the long shadow of my past self, still lingering on the other side of the divide. Everywhere I went, her joy and discovery echoed like a sad song, reminding me of everything I’d lost, of everything I wasn’t. Without even realizing it, I’d become invisible, a ghost haunting a world that had moved on without me.

To be continued ...

Monday, March 08, 2010

Leave the city

Broke my heart to leave the city
I mean it broke what wasn’t broken in there already
Thought of all my great reasons for leaving
Now I can’t think of any
It’s true it was a hard time that I’ve come through
It’s made me thankful for the blues

— Magnolia Electric Co., "Leave the City"

I'll never forget my first few moments in Juneau, as I stepped off the ferry into a cold, black, startlingly empty summer night. It was July 2003. I wasn't an Alaska resident yet; I was a tourist, one of four friends spending an entire summer coaxing a sputtering Ford Econoline van around the 49th state. We left the van and our bikes in Haines. The ferry landed just before midnight. No one told us the terminal was 14 miles out of town. We stood in the dark with our overstuffed backpacks, somewhat stupefied by a sense of being stranded. After several minutes of indecision, we split into three groups. Geoff and Jen set up a tent in a gravel pit across the street. Chris hopped in a taxi. I started walking. By dawn, I had reached the downtown library.

We'd had big plans for Juneau. We were going to hike the trails our guidebook gushed about — Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts. We were going to see the glacier. We set up our tents at a small campground recommended by the same guidebook. Our site was literally notched into a steep hillside overflowing with mud and devil's club. The other campsites were strewn with elaborate tarp shelters, plastic bags and loose garbage. We later found out this "campground" was actually a city-sanctioned homeless camp. The rain started the afternoon after I hiked to the library. It didn't stop. All of our tents started to leak. We pulled them together, wall-to-wall, and threw our single tarp over the damp cluster. My sleeping bag got soaked. So did my pillow. For three days, we played cards and wandered around the T-shirt and trinket shops downtown, waiting for the rain to let up. It never did. We never even caught a glimpse of Mount Juneau or Mount Roberts, towering invisibly somewhere over the fog. We discovered only tour busses took people to the glacier, at 15 bucks a head, and we lost interest. When we finally boarded a ferry back to Haines, all four of us had relieved smirks on our faces, because we knew, unlike those unfortunate residents, that we had the power to leave this place. We had traveled all the way from the Top of the World Highway to Prudhoe Bay to the tip of the Homer Spit, with the Denali, Seward, Whittier and Richardson highways in between. We had it on good authority that Juneau was the worst place in all of Alaska.

I moved to Juneau in August 2006. It wasn't fully intentional. I was burnt out with my job in Homer, Alaska, and just happened to receive a cold call from the managing editor at the Juneau Empire. She offered me a job on the spot. It seemed like a sign. I'll never understand how I talked my ex-boyfriend, Geoff, into moving to Juneau with me — to this day, no matter how many pretty pictures I post on my blog, I still can't talk my friends Chris and Jen into coming back here to visit. But three years after bidding good riddance Juneau for good, I stepped off the Alaska Marine Highway ferry and set up my tent again, this time at the Mendenhall Lake Campground.

The new job was stressful. It took me three full weeks to find a place to live that would accept two cats and two people that we could afford — and even then, the single-bedroom basement apartment cost more than we had been paying for a large cabin on the ridge above Homer. I stayed 10 days at the Mendenhall Lake Campground. The August rains were thick and unrelenting that year; from Aug. 7 to Aug. 20, I never once saw the sun. During my last nights at the campground, the tarp shelter I had built over my tent — the same tent that accompanied us to Alaska in 2003 — had long since failed. My sleeping bag was soaked. My pillow was soaked. I used work clothes to mop up puddles of water on the floor. I couldn't believe I had dragged myself back to this dreary, soul-crushing place. I didn't think I'd last through September.

I've often wondered what makes a home a home. Is it the place where you were born? Where you grew up? The place where you form the most memories? Your favorite memories? The place where most of your family chooses to reside? How about friends? Is it the place where you find work? Or passion? Is home simply the place that you find yourself wandering day after day, moving through buildings and city streets and trails until they become an inherent part of your story, of you?

By the time Geoff broke up with me in April 2009 — and, yes, the split was a long time coming — I had come full circle with my feelings about Juneau. I was as hollow and homeless as I had ever been when we boarded the ferry to drive south. Geoff asked me what I planned to do when I returned. "I'm never coming back here," I said. "There's nothing for me here."

Even though I had already committed to return to the newspaper in July, for most of the summer, I believed I was done with Juneau. I reconnected with my family and trained for the Tour Divide and thought vaguely about my future — a frustrating and mostly futile exercise because all I could see were dead ends in every direction. I put it out of my mind.

During the 24-day Tour Divide, I relished in my homelessness. It was wonderful to wake up in the morning and realize that not only did I not know where I was going to sleep that night, but it didn't even matter. I had everything I needed in life strapped to a bicycle; the whole world was my home. Thoughts of a more substantial future started to creep back into my mind toward the end. I can barely recall the night I spent in the forest outside Cuba, N.M. I had been throwing up all day with what was likely food poisoning. I was dehydrated and sick and so tired I was delerious. I laid out my bivy sack in an open grassy meadow. Before I lost conciousness, I stared up at the Big Dipper. The moon, hidden behind mountains, cast a dim glow that turned the sky royal blue. I blinked with vague recognition. It looked just like Alaska's flag.

A storm moved in before the next morning, bring with it temperatures in the 40s, an overcast pall and steady, drizzling rain. I climbed up to 9,000 feet and looped around a stunning overlook of the valley below. The gray light of the rain drenched the ponderosa pines in rich greens, and wisps of fog draped over the treetops like silk scarves. It looked so much like the hillsides of Southeast Alaska in an August storm that I choked up with emotion. For the first time all summer, I felt truly homesick — not for the place where I grew up, but for Juneau.

It seemed like a sign.

... To be Continued.

Friday, March 05, 2010

I guess this is the peak

I only had one goal for this weekend, and that was to do a lot of biking. This was my weekend to "peak" my rather scattershot training for the White Mountains 100, but I figured it was time to finally buckle down and put some long hours in the saddle. I tried to get all of my chores done during the week just so I would have all day to ride and all night to relax and visit friends on Thursday and Friday. I was aiming for 12-14 hours of pedaling over two days. And since the weather was forecast to be less than stellar (read: truly miserable — heavy wind, sleet, 32-35 degrees), I had to nix any kind of snow riding in favor of tagging some dead ends, which is what we here in Juneau are referring to when we go "road biking."

On Thursday I set out in hard-driving snow. I rode about 10 miles south into the wind with my eyes practically clamped shut, then decided to loop north instead. I stopped and grabbed my goggles just in time for the snow to deteriorate into steady rain, and continued out Glacier Highway toward the ultimate dead-end prize, "The End of the Road." Somewhere during this time I became fixated on the idea of tagging all of the major dead ends in town, which I once figured would net about 150 miles of riding. I've never ridden every road in Juneau in one day, or even in two days. It started to seem like a good goal — a way to give some sense of purpose to what was, in all honesty, long hours of pretty miserable riding.

I made it to mile 28, but the construction crew flagger on Glacier Highway told me they had just blasted and said I couldn't go any farther. When I protested and pointed out the truck she just let through, she said, "No bikers." I said, "But I'm wearing a helmet." She held her ground. "We'll be clearing the road for two more hours," she said. I turned around, frustrated that I wasn't going to be able to tag even my first dead end. But as I rode past the Herbert Glacier trailhead, I realized I could burn up some time attempting to reach the glacier by pedaling my mountain bike along the snowy trail.

The trail wasn't very snowy at all; it was literally a five-mile-long sheet of glare ice, with a few hundred yards of hard-packed snow and a tiny bit of dirt. The ice was thick and wet. I have a pair of studded tires on my mountain bike — Nokians, which are the best, supposedly — but I normally don't trust them as far as I can throw them. Still, I was feeling extra bold Thursday, and I figured the worst that would happen would be skidding out and landing in a clump of devil's club stalks. The studs actually got really good traction on the bumpy ice, and because the trail was so hard, I could ride as fast as I dared. As I neared the glacier, the trail shot up a steep embankment just above the Herbert River. I was nervous about the climb and didn't have much speed going into it. Sure enough, the rear tire skidded out about halfway up the hill. I put my right foot down but quickly realized my overboot had absolutely no traction on the wet ice, and both my body and bike were starting to slide backward. I lunged at the cliff to my left, grabbing a handhold and planting my left foot on a tiny rock sticking out of the ice just as the bike slid out behind me and skidded sideways all the way down the hill. I clung to the cliff, almost entirely supported by my hands, until I finally decided there was no way I could walk or climb down the trail. So I slowly lowered myself, sat on my butt, and slid down with my feet in front of me like a child on a slide. You'd think I'd be intimidated enough to turn around at that point, but I stood at the bottom assessing the short climb and finally decided I just needed more speed. I slipped and fell on the ice just walking my bike back to the point where I wanted to start. But I got back on the bike, gunned it with as much strength as I could muster, and powered up the ice with the studs crackling like bacon on the greasy surface. And I made it. I was seriously proud of myself. It was the best part of the whole miserable training weekend.

I went to the glacier, rode the ice-coated moraine for a bit, and returned to the highway. The flagger lady was still there, blocking the way. I wasn't quite ready to give up yet, so I formed a new brilliant idea about bypassing that section of highway on the beach. I have ridden long stretches of Eagle Beach before — however, never at high tide. I splashed through several sloughs before I landed in one that was a lot deeper than I had anticipated. Suddenly, the water was over my top tube, the bike stopped dead, and I put my foot down into hip-deep water. Not only did I get all of my food and extra clothing wet, but I soaked my feet and legs as well. At these temperatures, I have learned that soaked feet can go about an hour before things become seriously uncomfortable. I had at least 90 minutes of hard pedaling just to get home if I turned around right there, which, obviously, I did. I wasn't able to tag my dead end, but it was one of the more adventurous "road rides" I have ever done. And I still rode for seven hours, about 70 miles total.

Today, I aimed south again, but conditions were beyond brutal. The wind was driving the horizontal sleet so hard that it iced up my goggles within seconds, but without goggles I was entirely blind. Sideways gusts knocked me into traffic, and I couldn't look up for more than a couple seconds at a time. Luckily, I'm good at dressing for this kind of weather, so I was never cold. I was just miserable. There was nothing to see, nothing to do; I couldn't even listen to music because I had to rely on my sense of hearing to tell me where cars were since my eyes weren't working. The wind was blowing 25 mph, gusting to 45, with a mixture of snow and sleet and serious gray-out wetness. After two hours, I was 20 miles from home, thinking, "This is really quite stupid. I don't have to be doing this." I turned around right at that random point — 7-mile Douglas Highway — and rode the crazy tailwind all the way home. As the weather deteriorated even more, I put on a T-shirt and shorts and drove to the gym to finish out my last two hours of training on the elliptical trainer.

It wasn't what I thought it would be, but I got my 12 hours for the weekend. And because of the intermittent adventures and the fact that I managed to stay warm in complete crap weather, I feel good about how it went overall. I do think I'm physically ready for the White Mountains 100 — maybe not the best biker I could be, but I'm strong enough for most of what a race like that could throw my way. Hopefully.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

ITI, day four

Photo by Sean Grady, Kuskokwim River area, March 2009

The two venerable veterans of the ITI, Pete Basinger and Jeff Oatley, on Wednesday night were battling it out on the home stretch of the 350-mile race, the Kuskokwim River. Temperatures were still warm, in the mid-20s. This year will probably be remembered as the "Pineapple Express Iditarod." I'll be interested to hear if the temperature even dropped below zero degrees, anywhere on the trail, in these first four days.

There hasn't been much chatter about the trail conditions out of Nikolai, but it seems this 50-mile stretch was expected to take the leaders 8-10 hours to ride. Pete left for McGrath at 4:50 p.m. and Jeff left at 6:19 p.m. Wednesday, and in eight to 10 hours, anything can happen. Still, Jeff has a big task ahead of him if he wants to catch Pete. A 90-minute head start is hard to make up if you have a determined competitor out front. Since I leave here in about 20 minutes, and hope to wake up early in the morning for a bike ride, I probably won't find out who won the race until more than a half day after it's finished.

It's interesting that the winner is going to wrap it up in three and a half days, after all of the reports of horrific trail conditions this year. In 2008, when conditions were supposedly relatively good, winner Jay Petervary took 3 days and 14 hours to finish. The race record is 3 days, 5 hours. It makes those of us watching the race from afar wonder what kind of magic Zen-Jedi power people like Pete and Jeff have over the trail, apparently riding when even snowmobile driver Craig Medred is complaining "at what point is a trail so bad it no longer qualifies as a trail?" and most of the other competitors are walking at a 2-3 mph pace. The third-place finisher may come in nearly a full day behind Pete and Jeff. Lou Kobin, who is still on great pace to take the women's record, will probably finish after the five-day mark. What is this magic that makes Pete and Jeff so fast? Is it their bikes? Are they running when nobody is looking? Did they learn levitation? Or is the secret just to grind, grind away without ever stopping?

So many factors of the ITI make it such a fascinating event. As a spectator, it is fun to speculate on weather and trail conditions and athleticism. But as racer — which, yes, I do hope to be again someday — to me, the ITI is about determination, facing fears, and ripping at the very fabric of your soul just to see where it shreds. It is such a different existence than to be here now. Just watching the ITI — very similar to the way I did in 2007 when I became irrevocably hooked on this race — feels surprisingly hollow.

But, then again, I have been amazingly useless all week. Insomnia has been dogging me for about 10 days now, which usually causes me to sleep in really late, which then necessitates going to the gym so I can squeeze in 70-90 minutes of harder effort rather than the 2-4 hours of biking I generally like to do before work. When I can't sleep at night, I read from a big stack of library books about mountaineering and the craft of writing, which have both served to be somewhat depressing. (Seriously, at least three people die in every single mountaineering book.) I've also been going back and trying to revise my Tour Divide project, which for all practical purposes is completed in the first draft, but right now I am in a "dislike" stage with this project, and I don't feel like dealing with it. This often happens with me. Something turns my stomach for a while, but I usually go back to it, eventually.

It's not entirely pretty, but it's part of life — seems to be typical for me, a February/March slump. It does mean I have to make a hard decision about the White Mountains 100, which starts March 22. I'm going to make an effort to force myself into a long bike ride this weekend to see how I feel physically, and then I still have to decide — is it worth a $500 plane ticket? Is it worth all the logistics? Am I really ready?

I hate to turn my back on the only race I planned to do this season, but timing right now is not on my side. Hopefully, I will be more clear about it on Friday.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

ITI, day three

photo by Cory Smith, Pass Creek, March 2009

This is the kind of weather I empathize with the most. I see it frequently in Southeast Alaska. It's 34 degrees. A gray mass blots out both ground and sky, and everything is swirling in a dynamic cauldron of slush. Gusting winds drive the sleet into skin like a thousand tiny bee stings; they needle into the tiniest imperfections in clothing until nothing short of an ocean-going survival suit is going to keep you dry. 40 mph winds drive the chill down to 0 degrees, and the frigid blasts of air find their way into your clothing as well, pummeling your wet skin until the entire surface of your body goes numb even as your core burns hot with the exhausting effort of pedaling. Ease up on the hard effort even a little, and hypothermia will find its way to you faster than all but the most sinister "freezing" conditions. Cyclists in this kind of weather pine for anything else, even 30 below. I know, because I have. You see, when it's 30 below, it's dry.

Now imagine you're walking out of a remote wilderness lodge, above timberline where the wind and sleet blows free, and it's 45 miles to the next outpost of civilization, 20 miles to the next scrap of wind shelter, and there's hardly a trail. Even if you're strong, even if you're the strongest, it's going to take you 12 hours to get there. You bundle up your coat even though you know it isn't going to do you a bit of good, and you head out into the cold, gray, liquid infinity.

"This is Alaska," Kathi Merchant says. "Crazy weather is normal here."

Pete Basinger arrived in Rohn, mile 210 of the Iditarod Trail, around 8 p.m. Tuesday, 54 hours into the 2010 ITI. He left Puntilla Lake, mile 165, at 6 a.m. Tuesday morning, in weather described as "warm and wet" with 25 mph winds gusting to 40. There were reports of driving rain. Seriously horrible. Pete powered through the deluge, up and over Rainy Pass, and is now at least five hours ahead of his closest competitor, Jeff Oatley, and 10 hours ahead of third-place Jay Petervary. In more than two days of racing, Pete's had a little less than six hours of down-time at checkpoints, probably only a fraction of which is actually sleeping. But Pete didn't stop to rest long in Rohn. As of 9 p.m., Pete was listed as "OUT."

As of 9, many others were still resting at Puntilla Lake, including Louise Kobin, the leading woman cyclist, who is in fifth place overall. Temperatures in the late evening at Puntilla Lake were listed to be in the low-30s with light snow. Fresh snow makes trails slower, but anything is better than slush.

Meanwhile, the weather in Rohn, on the other side of the Alaska Range, was comparitively pleasant — 29 degrees and overcast with light winds. Not bad if you're fresh and dry. But when you're soaked, strung-out and exhausted, even 70 degrees and sunny can feel extreme.

And what awaits Pete as he pushes on into the night? According to reports, there's little snow on the other side of the range. And what little snow there was has mostly blown away. The Iron Dog snowmobile race trailbreakers, those brave sled-runners who are essentially responsible for creating the Iditarod Trail every year, took this picture a couple of weeks ago:

Farewell Burn. No snow. Frozen tussocks. Glare ice in every crack. No white snowcover to reflect a little visibility in the inky darkness of the night. Even the most skilled technical mountain biker wouldn't touch this stuff with a 4-inch tire, but that's where Pete's going tonight, and where every other person who pushes over the pass will go tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

Is this fun yet? Why yes, actually, it is.

Monday, March 01, 2010

ITI, day two

It's 32 hours into the 2010 Iditarod Invitational, and the race leaders have been established — to no one's surprise, Jeff Oatley, Pete Basinger and Jay Petervary hold the top spots. Most reports point to somewhat difficult trail conditions this year, including fresh snow, warm temperatures (which make the trail surface slushy and soft), and somewhat hard-to-picture "holes," which I imagine are either sinkholes or trenches down the center of the trail.

It's interesting to me because the three leaders are turning in checkpoint times very similar to my first three check-ins in 2008 (which, again, point to the significantly increased level of difficulty on the trail this year compared to two years ago.) But the leaders were into Yentna Station at mile 60 around 10 p.m. Sunday, into Swentna at mile 90 around 3 a.m. Monday, and into Fingerlake, mile 130, at 4 p.m. Monday — my 2008 pace up to that point almost verbatim.

This fact is fun for me because I can mine my memory to conjure up images of approximately where they are right now, and it helps me feel like I am there again. I imagine climbing into the foothills of the Alaska Range just as dusk begins to cast its long, cold shadow over the open swamps. The trail is narrow and steep, wending tightly through the woods and sometimes dropping off veritable cliffs into the Happy River Gorge. Headlamps cast a warm, yellow light on the trail, revealing a stream of snowmobile tread, Endomorph tire tracks and the occasional, unique imprints of fellow racers' boots. As the miles plod onward, these tracks begin to tell elaborate stories of movement and struggle, triumph and pain. They become as interesting as movies, maybe because there's nothing else to watch, and the headlamp beam flickers like a film projector, a soft reflection of humanity against a bewildering expanse of darkness.

But this is just what I think about, when I think about 10 p.m. Monday night in the Happy River Gorge. The reality of the race leaders is they are probably thinking about sleep, and about warm food, and constantly looking over their shoulders, watching for the soft, warm headlamp glow that signals the approach of their closest competitor. Anxious competitiveness, rather than peaceful loneliness, is probably what drives those leading the race right now.

The good thing — perhaps the only good thing — about my current position in a cubical 700 miles away in Juneau, where driving rain and wind pounds the window, and where I am perched next to a space heater with a lukewarm water bottle and a fresh orange, is that I can imagine myself wherever I'd like to be.