Friday, April 30, 2010

Getting to know you

It's only my third day in Anchorage, and already I feel a mixture of triumph and guilt. Although I did get my most important resume package sent out and met with one editor, I really haven't settled in to start much of the work I promised myself I would start. So far I have a good excuse. It's not that I'm a bad self manager (cough, cough) ... it's just that I need to spend a little time getting to know this city.

And there's really no better way to get a feel for a city than by bicycle. On Wednesday, I honestly couldn't have told you where my house was in relation to downtown (and was yelled at by a taxi driver because of this.) By Thursday, I understood the triangle shape of the city, where many important landmarks were located on this triangle, and how to use bike paths to navigate the northern and central portions of town. By this afternoon, I could locate a multitude of different parks and major arteries, and already feel like an old pro of Anchorage (OK, not really, but at least I can tell a taxi driver where I live.)

All it took was 40-60 miles a day of relaxed if confused pedaling - sometimes in circles, sometimes on roads not all that suitable for biking, but always new to me, and always an adventure. I actually love biking around strange cities. I love the feeling of being completely, bewilderingly lost, and then passing unique and intriguing places as I search for somewhere familiar. Riding aimlessly around Portland and San Fransisco was one of my most effective methods for coping with my relationship breakup last May. Getting purposefully lost in the city also is great therapy for coping with the unsettling feeling of being temporarily displaced from my career.

On Thursday I wandered around the north end of town, finally putting together the Chester Creek greenway (seriously, what is up with all the spurs?) and checked out Government Hill, Mountain View and Muldoon. Then it was on up the Glenn Highway bike path, lost again in Eagle River while searching for a bike route north (how do cyclists get to the Mat-Su Valley? Do they just ride on the highway?) Then I took a nice respite from spastic city riding with a jaunt up the Eagle River Road, a quiet, narrow country road with light traffic.

On Friday I decided to ride around the perimeter of the city. My favorite ride in Anchorage so far has been the Coastal Trail. It's scenic, quiet and only seems to be lightly used, at least on weekday afternoons in April. I have yet to see a single person beyond Point Woronzof, so past there I really crank it up, laying into the pedals in my highest gear and leaning hard into the multitude of swooping turns. It makes road biking feel like riding singletrack (don't worry, I always slow way down if the turn is blind or if I see another person or animal. I understand the etiquette of multi-use paths.) From there, I made every effort to stay as close to the Turnagain Arm as possible. This allowed for lots of fun discoveries - winding through scenic neighborhood streets and riding rocky singletrack trails through parks with my skinny-tire touring bike. Using back roads, I managed to work my way to the Old Seward Highway, and from there jumped on Rabbit Creek Road and climbed up to the foothills, where I proceeded to make my way around the outskirts of Hillside (hilly). Then I raced a bus all the way home on the Lake Otis Parkway.

Now that I'm an expert (ha!) at riding a bicycle through Anchorage, I just need to find some riding partners. I have loads of free time as long as I can keep coming up with excuses not to do the work I promised myself I was going to do. So if you live in Anchorage and have a favorite place to ride, and don't mind showing it off to a newbie who doesn't own a real road bike and may never own a real road bike, because deep in her heart she understands she is merely a simple bike tourist who sometimes likes to play in the dirt and snow ... please get in touch! You can comment here or e-mail me privately at jillhomer66@hotmail.com.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A place to get lost

A hot and heavyset fog hangs over the coastline. I ride along glistening sand but the ocean is nowhere to be seen. The cloud blanket can't be more than a few dozen feet high and I can still feel the blistering sun on my skin. I only have a couple of hours to ride before I have to be at the airport, so I ride as fast as I can muster on the missionary bike with the bouncy tires and blistering seat. Since I can't see the ocean, I turn off the Pacific Coast Highway and veer up the bike path along the Santa Ana River. I have this vague idea that if you ride far enough inland in Orange County, you hit mountains, or at least hills. The fog dissipates into a gray haze and the path turns to dusty gravel. The river corridor is lined with sun-faded houses and exotic-looking crops. Multiple signs warn me not to drink the irrigation water. I ride beneath freeways and skirt the edge of massive industrial complexes. The river itself fades from flowing water lined with grass, to stagnant water and marshes, to mud flats, and finally to stark concrete. A thin strip of brown water trickles down the manufactured channel. I stop and look for the haze-obscured hills.

Where am I?

The next day, I'm in Sandy, Utah. Delta Airlines couldn't find a space for me on their nightly flight to Anchorage, so I'm spending a bonus day with my family. I have a little bit of time before I have to return to the airport, so I go for a run. 40 and 50 mph wind gusts tear down the streets and the air is choked with dust. I can't see the mountains to the east or west, only a thick brown mass swirling into gray sky. I sprint with the wind at my back, past my former middle school, past my old high school. I laugh at the student drivers in their matching, lurching cars. I reminisce about the time I almost joined the cross country team until they sent me out to run two miles around the neighborhood streets. I remember that I quit because I had never experienced anything so simultaneously boring and painful. I reminisce about the time that freckled blond kid in my English class rode by on his motorcycle as I was walking home from school, then turned around, stopped, and gave me a ride. I smile and fly north, carried by an unholy wind that I don't even recognize until it is time to turn and face it. For two miles I plow into an invisible wall, holding my hand to my forehead to shield it from blasting sand. I squint until the world is a blur of uneven shapes. I feel suddenly bewildered by this place I know so well.

Where am I?

The next day, I'm in Anchorage. I spend the morning working on my resume and cover letters, so I decide to reward the afternoon with a "research" trip around this city where I supposedly live. The fact that I'm not going back to Juneau still bewilders me. There's a reason I ripped myself out of my comfort zone, but the truth is I'm still looking for it. In the meantime, I'm only wandering. I ride south on the Coastal Trail and marvel how most of the snow is already gone. I loop around Kincaid Park and grumble about how much snow and mud is still covering the singletrack trails. I zig-zag through the south part of town, end up on some rough trail near Campbell Creek and find myself ducking beneath the Seward Highway in a rocky underpass scarcely taller than me. I climb into the foothills, where the streets are lined in rippled layers of snow and the mountains capture streaks of silver sunlight filtered by an overcast sky. The city is far below me now, sprawled across the valley on a scale that was familiar to me a long time ago, but feels more foreign now. I try to pick out the neighborhood where I reside, but the orientation isn't there. I grasp for a sense of place, but it slips away in the wind.

I feel a rush of new perspective, because I don't know where I am.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Weekend in California

So how do an urban girl and a hopeless outdoor junkie spend a weekend together in Los Angeles and Orange County? Our skeptical family members were all curious ("So, um, what exactly are you guys going to do?") I was open to suggestions ("Disneyland? Shopping in Newport Beach? How can I refrain from looking like one of those bored kids in a department store?") My sister was willing to compromise. ("I found a few suggestions on good hikes, but I'm not doing anything that takes all day.") There's just something about having a childhood in common, though. No matter what you do, you're going to spend the whole weekend laughing.

Afternoon at the Los Angeles Zoo. Sara and I both agreed the dancing harbor seals were our favorite. (Me: "I used to see these outside my office window in Juneau. But ours weren't nearly as talented.)

Walking around Hollywood. (There were forays into clothing stores that contained no trace of bicycle jerseys or running shoes. I tried not to stand around looking like a bored child.) We also wavered a little dinner. I had already dragged her to one sushi restaurant the day before, and she didn't see anything that appeared edible on the menu at the Greek place, so we ended up at Quiznos.

But we did agree on this: Ice cream sandwiches at Diddy Riese near UCLA. $1.50 for the most amazing rocket fuel you have ever sunk a spoon into.

Sunday cruise along the beach with a cool breeze, live music and the smell of kettle corn and charcoal wafting through the air. We rode close to 25 miles, which was perhaps Sara's longest bike ride since, well, possibly ever ... and she had a big smile on her face the entire time.

Lunch on Sunset Beach. The bikes laid out to get a nice California tan while we slathered on sunscreen and ate turkey sandwiches and extra cookies from Diddy Riese. Fantastic weekend! Back to more northerly climes tomorrow. I hope breakup is about over in Anchorage. I'm pretty sure I'm ready for summer now.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Farther south

One of the advantages of life in Alaska is that it makes everything in the Lower 48 seem so inexpensive. $1.79 for a Pepsi? You gotta be kidding me! (You know, because I'm used to paying $2.69.) Fifty cents a pound for oranges? I'm gonna buy eight pounds! (Never mind that I'm leaving this place in three days.) You know what else is cheap? Air travel! No one believes me. I once paid nearly $300 for a one-way commercial airline coach ticket from Fairbanks to Juneau (two central cities technically located in the same state.) Down here, you can jet cross-country for $149 if you catch travelocity.com on a good day. When I looked into the logistics, I realized there was no good reason why I shouldn't drop a few more hundred miles south to visit my little sister at her new home in Huntington Beach, Calif.

This is my baby sister, Sara. She'll be 23 years old next week. She's four inches taller than me, with the long legs that both my little sisters got and I always wanted (mine are more like tree stumps.) She and I share some of the same facial features and all of the same family members, but that's about where our similarities end. Basically, if you took my personality and inverted it, the result would probably be like Sara. She likes to shop. She has a great fashion sense. She's sociable and good with people. She doesn't care much for the outdoors. She hates winter. Her preferred form of exercise is bikram yoga, where people sit in a dark room in 100-degree heat and do painful stretches (oh please, just kill me first.) But despite our differences, we always got along well (perhaps because of the age spread; I was too busy tormenting our middle sister to pick on her.)

Still, we were never close. That began to change last summer as we were both dealing with life upheavals. We reconnected and began contacting each other frequently. Then in December, she announced she needed a drastic change. And suddenly my baby sister -who was still living at home, who had just barely graduated from college, who had worked the same stressful retail job for years - threw everything to the wind and moved to Southern California.

True to our differences, Southern California is probably one of the last places in the U.S. I would choose to live. While I do recognize its beauty, I would likely begin to feel suffocated by the sprawl, lost in the crowds and driven to distraction by the ceaselessly perfect weather. But Sara loves it here, and after a mere four months, she's really thriving. Watching her take this risk has been a huge inspiration to me. It's been great to come here and see major life change from her point of view. It was also fun to check out the sweet new beach cruiser she just acquired. ("It's my first bike!" she exclaimed proudly, because before this she always had to use our hand-me-downs.)

Coaster brakes and chain guards freak me out, so she let me borrow her roommate's father's mountain bike. It's a Liahona, an honest-to-goodness mission bike, custom-manufactured specifically for use by LDS missionaries. It appeared solidly built, with decent base-level parts, but it hasn't had a tuneup in a long, long time; the seat was humbling in its ability to dig into all the wrong pressure points, and I couldn't find a pump to inflate the soft tires. I had to stop at Target to buy a $10 helmet (I will give it to my sister. I doubt she'll wear it.) Sometimes I really think I should covert to running, because the gear aspect of cycling can be so annoying sometimes. But, oh, it was wonderful to get out on a perfect day, plowing into the sea breeze to Newport Beach to have lunch with my sister, dodging four-seated pedal taxis out to Balboa and grinding along the PCH to Laguna Beach before sprinting on the soft tires and limited gearing so I could beat my sister home from work. The things we will do for a bike ride.

You may at this point be wondering when and if I'm ever going back to Alaska. The answer is Monday or Tuesday, hopefully. But since I'm flying standby to avoid the breathtakingly expensive plane ticket home, my return date is up in the air.

Friday, April 23, 2010

When it rains in Utah

Compared to Southeast Alaska, the weather in Utah is so boring, except when it's not. As much as I've lamented the frequent lack of UV light in Alaska, the truth is I'm inclined to feel sun-fried much faster than I feel the effects of seasonal affective disorder. And as soon as my lips are blistered to the point where I can't even eat medium salsa without crying (and believe me, I try everything - from slathering my lips with SPF 60 to continuous applications of SPF 30 chapstick - and they still burn) ... I start to wish for a few clouds.

But the clouds weren't particularly welcome on Wednesday, when I was going to meet up with a couple of my Utah friends that I had yet to see, to go mountain biking in Draper. "I don't know about today," my mom said when I told her about my plans. "It's going to be wet."

"What you guys think of as wet is not wet!" I exclaimed. "Maybe you get rained on for a minute, but you're dry before you even look up."

Still, because I (I mean my parents) live in Draper, my friend Anna called me before coming out to get the weather report. I walked to the front window and looked outside. "It's not even bad," I said. "It's dark overhead, but I can see sunlight to both the south and north. There's hardly even a breeze."

"What do you think?" Anna asked. "Is it going to clear out?"

"Well," I said, drawing a long breath as a loud howling sound approached like a train from the north. Flowers and bushes started to whip wildly and trees bent over backward. "It does look like the wind is starting to pick up."

Before I even emitted a closing breath to indicate to end of that sentence, the sky opened up. A blast of hail pellets rained down like bullets, pounding the roof with such violence that I had to raise my voice over the racket. "Now it's starting to hail! They're the size of marbles!" Before the barrage of ice balls even stopped, a solid sheet of rain slammed into the ground. In seconds, the storm released enough water to fill many hours of those seemingly endless misty drizzles in Alaska. The waterfall stirred up the solid white blanket of fallen hail like so much popcorn in an air popper.

"Yeah, now it's raining."

And, perhaps it's needless to say, but my friends decided it was not a good day for a bike ride. I ventured out about three hours later, hoping to check out the state of the sandy trails around Corner Canyon and perhaps still coax a meet-up. It continued to sprinkle and although the hard-packed trails yielded only the faintest track, I still felt self-conscious about trammeling trail etiquette. So I ventured onto dirt roads and even then hardly got splattered by mud. As I had predicted to my mother, everything was already mostly dry, despite the moisture still falling from the sky, and the rolling thunderstorms seemed to have abated.

I tried to call my friends out again, but it was too late. According to them, riding in the rain, even on pavement (my idea), demanded a "hardcore" disposition, which of course both of them have but neither felt like yielding to a silly thing like a Wednesday afternoon bike ride. I just kept riding for another couple hours in intermittent sprinkles, with both my hair and clothing magically becoming dry mere minutes after the rain stopped, in air that was warm and downright pleasant, grumbling to myself about how "hardcore" just doesn't mean what it used to.

And all the while, I kept a wary eye fixated on the dark clouds in the distance, wondering when the sky was going to open up and unleash all its fury again.

I was disappointed when it didn't.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sojourn in the desert

It seems there is much I could write about my long weekend in Southern Utah, from frustration with my inability to get over an irrational fear of water to the one-year "anniversary" of my relationship breakup and some of the thoughts I had about that. But sometimes the time to write just isn't there, and it's necessary just to sort through the vacation photos and sigh happily about recent good times.

I headed south late Friday night with my friends Chris and Becky. The plan was to float the rapids in Westwater Canyon with about a half dozen other people. The more I tried to psych myself up to do it, the more I felt low-level panic gurgling up from my gut. And it wasn't the good panic like the kind you get before a big race. It was debilitating panic like the kind that makes you feel dizzy and incapable of simple movements. Basically, I'm afraid of moving water. I have been for most of my adult life. It hasn't improved one bit over the years. I need help, like therapy. But I don't feel that river trips are important enough to warrant therapy, so instead I deal with my fear by forcing myself into one every so often. Last May, I had the Tour Divide coming up and felt like I had to prove something to myself by sitting in a raft as it floated down Westwater Canyon. It was horrible. This year, I didn't have anything to prove. So as we set up camp at the put-in, I expressed my desire to opt out.

While everyone else went on a splashy-fun float trip down the Colorado River, I drove the shuttle and made a short detour to Fruita, Colo., where I rented a mountain bike and spent five hours riding the 18 Road trails. I felt gleeful, probably because I had narrowly escaped a river trip, but my good mood put me in prime singletrack form. Trails like these are pure guilty pleasure - at least compared to the kind of riding I thrive on. The banked curves feel sinful, the smooth trails are too fast-flowing to be real, and it's downright pointless to spend five hours wending around a few acres of land on progressively smaller loops, often returning to my favorite stretch of trail to see just how far I can lean into the turns. But I don't care about all that because I become completely immersed in the "flow," which is pure and primal and knows no fear.

In Fruita, though, there are still plenty of opportunities to venture onto long dirt roads that actually go somewhere, or off the beaten path up a wash, where the riding is chunky and sandy with lots of on/off-bicycle moments - in other words, frustrating but refreshingly real, which is more my style.

Don't get me wrong. I do love well-built bike trails, and would likely be a much better rider if I rode this kind of terrain more often. But I couldn't do it every day. My need to explore would take over, and I'd end up chattering over long miles of cow-trammeled four-wheel-drive roads and spinning along pavement. If I lived in Fruita, I'd probably end up being the crazy girl riding her mountain bike down I-70.

Chris and Becky were understanding about my chickening out of the Westwater trip. Becky is posing with the Fat Tire amber ale I picked up for her in Fruita. Supposedly you can't buy that stuff anywhere in Utah, so I managed to prove my worth on this trip after all.

We spent a couple hours on Saturday night trying to find a campsite near Moab, only to end up on the Kokopelli Trail near Onion Creek. Up at 6,000 feet, the temperature dropped to the 30s and my Thermarest went flat, so at about 4 a.m. I woke up on the cold ground, shivering. I warmed back up by going for a short walk along the route, gazing at an explosion of stars in the sky and remembering last year's journey down the Kokopelli. I wish I had time to do it again.

Sunday was refreshingly lazy. We woke up late and ate big egg and cheese burritos for breakfast, then sauntered up Negro Bill Canyon. We saw some climbers repelling on the arch near the end of the canyon. Then I headed over to the Slickrock Cafe to meet up with my dad.

This is my dad. He loves to hike. Every spring, he makes a trip down to the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park to stretch out his hiking muscles and enjoy the warm air and sun. This year, I was lucky enough to join him on his annual ritual.

My dad also likes to get after it, so we didn't just go out for touristy strolls. We hiked 20 miles on Monday and nearly 11 on Tuesday, over rough and sandy and slickrocky terrain.

On Monday we walked all the way down to the Colorado River, near Brown Betty Rapids in Cataract Canyon. Cataract Canyon is what I consider the catalyst of my fear of water - although I have a few childhood experiences that sparked the phobia, it was Cataract where I was first truly convinced I was going to drown as I was briefly dragged under an overturned raft with a rope caught around my neck. It was interesting to look out over the fast-flowing brown water to the Dollhouse, a place I visited just a few hours before I took my fateful swim in 2001. I was struck with a strange but strong desire to jump into the river and swim across to the other side. I wonder what my future therapist would make of that?

But Canyonlands itself is for the most part dry as a bone. And it's invigorating in its remoteness. We saw only two other people on Monday, both near the end of the hike, and in the canyons above the river, I felt the exciting sensation of truly being "out there," off the grid, the way I sometimes feel in Alaska.

Lots of varied terrain, too.

The view from our campsite in the morning. My dad likes to camp in style, with a springbar tent, a fire and camp chairs. Because there's no bathroom, table, water or $250,000 RV, most people would probably consider this "primitive" camping. But if you have become accustomed to rolling out your bivy sack wherever the urge to pass out strikes you, this kind of camping is pure luxury.

"But do they sleep any better than us?" my dad wondered aloud as we passed an expansive motor home parked down the road from our site. I'd be inclined to say "no." As I get older, I watch my friends acquire more creature comforts and tangible stuff. Sometimes I feel guilty that I have yet to build a real desire for any of that. I'm actually perfectly comfortable plopping down my bivy sack beneath a pinion tree in some nondescript valley deep in the desert. My goal is to keep it simple as long as I can, or until I have no choice, whichever comes first.

This is my home and I can visit it whenever I want, even if it means jumping on a bicycle and riding 2,500 miles south. Come to think of it, there's not much right now to prevent me from doing that. Of course there is something to be said about burdens and the joys they bring you. But for now I am enjoying being a "light-packer" in life.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Day at the Bird

I headed up to Snowbird today with my friend Jen. Jen and I go way back. I met her the same day I met my college boyfriend, Mike. It was the fall of 1998. I decided to join the University of Utah's environmental club, Terra Firma. Jen floated into the meeting wearing a little sun dress. I kinda wrote her off as one of those "out there" hippy chicks. Then Mike walked in, and that was the end of me noticing anything about Jen. Over the course of several tree plantings and loosely-environmentally-related trips to the desert, I began to realize that Jen wasn't a hippy chick at all, but more of a ski bum. I eventually moved into the house on D Street where she lived - a crazy post-college flop house that housed as many as 10 people at the time and was often referred to as the "commune" or the "Terra Firma House." Jen was always coaxing her childhood friends from Syracuse, N.Y., to come out to Utah and visit her, and two of them decided to stay. One of those friends, who she introduced me to, was my long-time-now-ex-boyfriend Geoff. Yeah, there's a lot of history there. Jen and I go way back.

Jen's still a ski bum and currently works at Snowbird. She was nice enough to accompany me around the mountain today, even though my skill level wouldn't even fill her little toe. It was a beautiful spring day. The temperature rose to 64 degrees, according to thermometers around the resort, and the snow, which started out great, began to turn into a thick sludge that seemed to trickle down the mountain as you rode, like molten lava. I felt pretty downtrodden most of the day, which I attributed to a combination of altitude (up to 11,000 feet), caffeine withdrawal and heavy UV ray exposure (that seemed to penetrate my thick applications of SPF 60). It was still a blast, and when we were fried to a crisp with snow-reflected-high-elevation sunlight, we just headed over to Alta and lounged in the pool for 90 minutes.


We also hooked up with a friend of mine, Eric. I refer to Eric as "a high school friend." He was actually my first serious boyfriend, through half of my senior year in high school and first semester in college. We met when I was a grocery bagger and Albertsons and he was the manager of Video Shark, next door. I was 17 and he was 21, which I thought was so, so cool. Nearly every day he would come pick me up from school in his Saab. He was the person who really taught me how to snowboard. Then, one day (a date for some reason we both remembered - March 26, 1997), we went spring snowboarding on a hot day in a lot of slush. He launched a jump in the trees and landed badly on a patch of ice, and broke his wrist. He wouldn't even let me drive him to the emergency room (I was 17, with a fairly poor driving record already, and his car was a Saab.) He drove himself there with a broken wrist, and wore a purple cast for the rest of the spring. It's really fun to go back 13 years later and laugh about things like that. It's even more fun to introduce him to a good friend who goes way back, but not that far back.

It;s been so fun to come back here and reconnect all the pieces, just to see how much things haven't really changed.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Right place, right time

During the three days I spent in Southcentral Alaska last week, the weather was absolutely gorgeous. Temps in the 40s, sunny, no wind. I felt a bit reluctant to leave it all behind for April in Utah - the one (and only) time of year this state is even the slightest bit wet. But when I talked to my roommate in Anchorage today, she informed me that the city had been inundated with a 10-hour blizzard that left 6 inches of snow, with 4 more expected tonight. It was all I could do to bite my lip to keep from saying, "Ha, ha, guess where I am? 70 degrees and sunny! One day after a spring snowstorm that's keeping the mountains quite pretty. I'm going to go ride some singletrack!"

This is Ashlon. He's my Facebook friend who's letting me borrow his bike (his old bike. The new one is completely pimped out.) We had never met face to face before Sunday, but because we share a common passion for cycling, we got along like old friends. He recently moved to Sandy from West Virginia, so even though I'm the visitor, I felt more like the guide, pointing out the places of interest and we traveled through my childhood stomping grounds. That all changed when we reached the trailhead in Alpine. People who know me mainly through my blog tend to have this preconception that I'm an expert cyclist. I may be a passionate cyclist, a dedicated cyclist, even an obsessive cyclist, but I am anything but an expert. I'm flailing and timid, sometimes at the same time, and I can't roll away from even the simplest singletrack ride without a few cuts and bruises. But it doesn't mean I love it any less. It's a lesson I'm going to tell my children (or at least my nephew) someday: You don't have to be great at something to pursue it with all your heart, and even get your name on an ultra-endurance records list somewhere.


We had a great, relaxing late afternoon ride. I complained about the elevation and the alarming shortage of caffeinated beverages, and we both complained about how dry the air is. (Ashlon: "That crap that builds up in your nose, what is that?") Ashlon made fun of my tights and wool socks. (Me: "I rode up to Snowbird yesterday and it was really cold! How was I supposed to know it was so warm today?") I casually listed my weekend plans: Snowboarding in fresh (if now a bit slushy) powder on Thursday, river trip on Saturday, hiking in the desert on Sunday. Gotta love Utah.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Spring storm

When I was a kid, I loved April snow. It always came after a bunch of 70-degree days coaxed new colors out of the shadows. Spring painted the grass with vibrant greens, buds opened up on the trees and daffodils sprouted from sweet-smelling mulch. Then, suddenly, almost without warning, I'd wake up one morning to a fresh coat of winter.

Adults liked to stand at the window and complain loudly, but it was like Christmas morning to me. I'd rush outside into the moist air, infused with the same sharp coolness as a glass of water full to the brim with ice cubes. The cold made me feel alive, and I'd often break out in a run along the wet sidewalk, trying not to disturb the pillows of snow that covered the bright green grass. I'd bend down and grab a handful of wet powder, letting it drip through my fingers. I'd return the seashell-shaped snowball to the grass and giggle about the novelty of it all. April snow wasn't just unique and fun; it was a completely different way of looking at the world - an affront to time itself. Sometimes I would stop and pretend that I had actually traveled back in time, to some happy day in the winter, in a place where I was free of the march of seasons, of obligations, of the inevitability of growing up.

Every time I return to Salt Lake City, I feel the strange and halting sensation of traveling back in time. But it's different than my childhood daydream. It isn't a feeling of freedom, exactly, but more like a disorienting awakening - as though the last five or so years never even happened. Alaska, Homer, Juneau, snow biking, endurance racing, Iditarod, Anchorage - it's as though all of it was a crazy dream I concocted during an extended nap, and I've recently woken up to my real life. I have dinner with my family, I visit my college and high school friends, I go to shows downtown and dance around like a 23-year-old who doesn't have bad knees. I feel like I'm me again. I feel like I'm home.

So when I woke up this morning to an inch of fresh snow in my parents' front yard, many of those childhood feelings returned. I was giddy and I couldn't wait to get outside. Only these days, I put on all kinds of specific clothing. I hop on a bicycle and pedal away from the neighborhood, up to the foothills that in my childhood seemed impossibly far away, and into the canyons that were once mystical and unknown places - only now, they're close enough for a quick afternoon ride. And coated with fresh snow, the mountains are stunning and inviting, but mostly they fill me with longing for the place I now call home - Alaska.

Since I returned to SLC, just about everyone has asked me why I moved to Anchorage when I could have just moved back to Salt Lake City. It's a good question, because Salt Lake City does have most everything I love about Alaska and more - my family, good friends, easy access to the desert. My answer so far has been, "I don't know. I guess I'm just not done with Alaska yet."

It's difficult for me to explain how the place itself has become a part of me. How Utah is beautiful but Alaska can be downright otherworldly sometimes. How I know many of the state politicians by name and all of their quirks. How I appreciate those quirks and all the other funny customs that make life interesting. How it's relaxing to live in a place where judges wear Xtratufs and snow pants beneath their robes (right, Craig?) How I feel connected to other Alaskans in a way that never resonated for me as a Utahn. How those Alaskans have almost convinced me to use the word "snowmachine" (although I polled my Utah friends, and they agree with me that a snowmachine is a device that manufactures snow for the purpose of covering ski slopes.) And, most of all, how there are so many places in Alaska I have yet to explore, that I long to explore, that I have to explore.

They ask me if I'll come back to Salt Lake City someday. I probably will, just as I'll probably go back to Juneau, and even Idaho Falls. I never leave these places completely. They become a part of me, a part of my story, and like April snow, they sometimes return at surprising times that really make the passing of time seem more like a circle than a straight line.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Leaving spring behind

My first two days in Anchorage were an exercise in overcoming disorientation. On my bike, in my car, standing in line at Starbucks - if I drifted off into daydreamland for even a few seconds, I'd be rattled awake by sensory overload. Smog! Traffic! Moose! Strip mall! Traffic! Where am I? Smog! I thought I'd have a lot to do, but since I knew I was traveling to Salt Lake City soon, there wasn't much I could do. I admit I wandered aimlessly. After two hours of bike wandering on Friday afternoon, my knee started to bug me again. At the same time, the weather was amazing, low-40s and sunny, and I was feeling stir crazy to get out, even though I was already out. "I'll go for a walk instead," I decided.

I don't really know where to go walking in Anchorage. I Googled the name of the one mountain I could remember, just because it happens to be the most-hiked mountain in all of Alaska - Flattop. "At least there will be a good trail to the top," I thought. Google gave me directions to the trailhead, and didn't pack much gear because, you know, popular hike, good trail ...

Most of the hike on foot-packed snow was a piece of cake, but near the top there was a near-vertical step that had been packed slick by other (often spike-wearing, pole-wielding) walkers. I wasn't too keen on downclimbing it, and wasn't even going to go up for that reason when another hiker told me it was possible to descend the other side of the mountain.


I traversed across Flattop, dropped down into the back gully and decided to climb the next peak on the ridge (which I later learned is called Peak 2). Below that peak, the ridge narrowed with fun scrambling along the edge of the knife. I dropped a bit until things started to get gnarly, but the place afforded me a great view of other accessible areas in the front range - Powerline Pass and so many other places I have yet to learn about. It was an exciting moment of discovery for me, even on what has to be one of the most-traveled mountain ridges in Alaska.

After that I started dropping, down, down, down, and beginning to notice that the trail showed no signs of looping back around the mountain that I was on the wrong side of. I finally stopped a snowboarder and asked him where the tracks I was following led to.

"Um, the parking lot," he said.

"Is it the main parking lot?" I asked.

He looked confused. "Which parking lot?"

"I don't know, the state park parking lot. I think it had Alps in its name?"

"Glen Alps?" he asked.

"Yeah, that's the one."

A strained look swept across his face, like he didn't want to be the one to deliver the bad news. "That parking lot is nowhere near this one," he said.

A frown crept into my own face. "Oh, crap."

I turned and started running back up the mountain, because I had a barbecue I wanted to go to at 7:30, and it was already 6:45. I didn't follow the tracks; I went straight up the mountain, ascending a 50-degree slope in shin-deep snow as fast as physically could. A waterfall of sweat poured down my cheeks and neck, my lungs burned and my vision blurred. It felt amazing to be working so hard, and I completely forgot about that step I had to downclimb.

Until I reached it. It was about 100 vertical feet of sheer terror, because I'm really not a climber and I felt like every tentative step was going to sweep me down the face, into the rocks or off the edge of the shadow side of the mountain. And I admit I watched two guys wearing sneakers purposefully sit and careen down the slope on their butts, spinning out of control in a cloud of powder. I watched them not only live through it, but get up at the bottom and walk out. I still couldn't coax my body to move any faster. I kicked steps and dug my bare fingers deep into the hard snow. It got me down, but it was so slow that by the time I returned to my comfort zone, I really had to run. I felt pretty wasted, because my mellow afternoon walk had turned into something close to 3,500 feet of vertical on snow with 20 minutes of all-out effort and a terror downclimb thrown in.

By the time I reached the barbecue, the party had moved inside due to cold (it may be spring, but temperatures still drop into the teens during the night.) By midnight, I was at the airport, and by 1:55 a.m., I was in the air, jetting south.

Utah has been great so far. I met my 7-week-old nephew, visited all of my grandparents, and went to church with my parents, which allowed me to see a lot of familiar faces from my childhood, from my former piano teacher to a woman whose journalist daughter followed a similar path to mine and pulled it off successfully.

I borrowed my dad's Trek 820 to ride to the top of South Mountain and check out the trail conditions. Yeah, lots of snow and mud (don't worry, Draperites, I did not ride my bike on the muddy trails.) It was crazy windy, with Juneau-esque gusts (probably 40 mph), and brought with it a thick and ominous-looking storm that is forecast to drop snow at fairly low elevations. So much for spring. Today, however, it was on the overly warm side today for my Alaska blood - high 60s.

I learned a bit too late that the Trek's cantilever brakes on wet rims don't work, well, at all - not a super fun thing to find out when you are trying to descend 2,000 feet of elevation on pavement. The bike works fine for what my dad uses it for - exercising and to commute to trails where he can hike - but it's a bit rough for me. I put out a Facebook appeal for a loaner bicycle, and within an hour had an offer from a guy who recently moved to Sandy who had a mountain bike for me to borrow. I drove the two miles to his house and we talked for an hour about Utah, Alaska and snow biking. He lent me a DVD of "The Flying Scotsman" and gave me maps to some nearby trails in Lehi that he thought I would enjoy. If the weather somehow doesn't turn to snow, we may meet up to ride them on Wednesday. People can say what they will about blogs and Facebook and the deterioration of society, but my experience has been just the opposite. Social media has put me in touch with more great people than I can even count anymore, many of whom I have since become friends with in "real life." I'm really grateful for that. And all y'all, those of you who have made it this far in what have recently been pretty rambling blog posts, I am grateful for you, too. :-)

Friday, April 09, 2010

Go Anchorage

I arrived in Anchorage on Wednesday evening. For all the times I have visited here, I still have no concept of the layout of this "big city." I drove in increasingly larger circles for nearly 20 minutes, looking for my new place. The street I live on is called Juneau Drive. It's fitting.

I arrived at home just as the setting sun cast its pink light on the Chugach Mountains. It only took me an hour to unload my car. By midnight, I had my room mostly arranged the way I will probably keep it. In four hours, my whole life, transferred. This is who I am, and for the most part I love living a somewhat transient, simple lifestyle. But I also must cope with the uncertainty and perpetual disorientation of it all, which is where I am right now.

I set out on my bike for most of the afternoon Thursday, trying to get a sense of the place. The greenbelt trail system is mushy with slush and soft snow, but for the most part still rideable with my "skinny" studded tires on my Karate Monkey. Although I tried to force myself onto the busy streets so I could get an understanding of the different parts of town, it was difficult not to drift back onto the trails when I saw them. And just like that, I was back in the quiet part of Alaska, birch trees and snow-swept muskeg.

I followed the Coastal Trail from end to end, but got stopped just short of Kincaid Park because there was a cow moose on one side of the trail and her calf on the other, and neither of them were moving. Earlier, I had waited for 10 minutes for the moose in this photo. I couldn't bring myself to pass her until I watched three joggers do so. Moose don't live near Juneau, so that's another thing that's going to take some getting used to.

So what will I do now that I'm in Anchorage? It's an excellent question, and one I'm pretty freaked out about right now because I'm not even sure. I intentionally set out into the unknown without much of a plan, and now I will have to forge a path. There are a lot of directions I can go. I plan to meet with several editors I have already been in contact with, in Utah and in Anchorage, and get a few projects set up. I hope to pursue an outlet for this book project I already have going, because I think it's a worthy project and it's not getting any better just sitting here on my computer. I'll probably peruse job listings daily and keep my ears open in case something awesome opens up. But I do hope to find the time to tour around and do several of the trips I have always wanted to do, especially as summer opens up new terrain. I hope to do some bike tours, visit Homer and Valdez and Fairbanks. I am the type of person who needs a job - or at least some kind of structure, even if it's just training for a big bike race - to stay happy, so I have to keep reminding myself that I am taking this chance because, for better or worse, I have to freedom to do so right now, and even if I fail it won't be the end of the world.

Right now I am still having problems with my right knee. It gets unhappy after just an hour or so on the bike, and after four hours yesterday it was downright livid. My knee became stiff and inflamed enough that the swelling came back for a few hours. I'm a little frustrated about that, but I'm trying to keep some perspective on it. Long bike tours might be out right now, but at least I can ride a little, and hiking and even mild running doesn't seem to hit it too hard.

But for now, right now, I am going to take advantage of this transitory period to travel down to Utah to visit my family and my new nephew. I'm actually leaving Saturday morning. Pretty soon, but that's just the nature of the available standby tickets. When I get back here, I'll do something. Still not sure exactly what. I guess that's a big source of the anxiety, and the excitement.

At least Cady seems happy at home. All is forgiven.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Tok to Palmer

Skagway to Anchorage really isn't that long of a drive — it's about 700 miles, and can be done in a day by a motivated person behind the wheel. I'm managing to stretch it into closer to four days, much to the chagrin of my cat, just by stopping to visit old friends and new places.

I managed a short bike ride in the morning before I had to check out of Tok, and then it was time to rumble southwest. After my trip from Skagway to Vancouver last year, I've decided that April is a wonderful time of year to travel the Al-Can Highway. The pavement is clear, the sun is out, wildlife is abundant and the road is almost devoid of traffic.

I was driving down the Glenn Highway on Tuesday, thinking I was making better time than I really needed to be, when I saw this mountain that looked like it would be a fun thing to climb. I'm assuming this is Sheep Mountain? I'm not entirely sure, but it was the most prominent geographical feature in an area called Sheep Mountain.

The mountain was ringed with snowmobile tracks — too soft to ride, but nicely packed for snowshoeing.

I was only going to go out an hour and back. But the top of mountain kept looking closer than it actually was, so I kept ascending. I ended up out for nearly four hours, wearing jeans and running shoes with my snowshoes as the windchill easily touched 0 degrees on the early evening descent. (I spilled a bunch of water down my fleece jacket and it froze immediately.)

Just when I got this idea in my head that I might be able to climb to the top, I started to think, "Well, I don't really know what the snowpack is like up there." The snowmobile tracks petered out and the pitch got steeper. I had already decided it wasn't a good idea when I was walking across the flat saddle and a huge snow slab collapsed loudly underneath my feet. The sound was heart-stopping, even on nearly flat ground. I turned and scuttled quickly down the well-used snowmobile trail, not willing to breathe easy until I was back in the valley.

Looking back at the Glenn Highway.

A snowstorm rolls in from the west. It snowed a little as I drove the narrow, winding stretch of highway near the Matanuska Glacier, but for the most part, I enjoyed idea weather the whole time. And Geo made it to Palmer! Only one more hour of driving to go!

This is the look of one truly miserable cat. Don't worry, Cady, it will all be over soon.