Tuesday, June 29, 2010

These perfect evenings

There have been 10 of them since I rolled across the U.S./Canada border into the state of Montana. I haven't missed one yet.

Monday night "intervals" up Mount Sentinal. I wait for the temperature to drop below 90, and rush full-throttle into spectacular golden light.

Reach the peak just as the last sliver of sun slips below the horizon. Cool breeze and warm sky.

Tuesday after-work ride with the Dirt Girls. We squeeze a couple hours between thunderstorms on a little mountain amusingly called Mount Jumbo.

The fast Arizona visitor wants me to take her picture with the "Big Sky," so I have her take mine.

Life is pretty OK right now.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Stuart Peak

I am trying to adjust to my new reality - working 9 to 5, off on weekends, riding a bike commute route, dealing with heat ... I'm realizing that most of my wardrobe is irrelevant here in the summer. Amid piles of rain gear, wool, poly pro and polar fleece, I found only one pair of bike shorts and four short-sleeve jerseys. Montana is dry, with lots of air particles that seem to trigger my allergies, and it's hot. Did I mention it's hot? It's not hot compared to, say, New Orleans, but it's an adjustment after a few years of living in a place where residents celebrate if the temperature rises above 70. I have yet to go on a bike ride where I don't run out of water. But I'll figure it out in time.

But one advantage of moving to a new place is an exhilarating sense of discovery everywhere I turn. Even bike commuting through town is still an adventure to me. Everything is so fresh and new that even small tastes are fulfilling; all the same, my appetite for adventure is more insatiable than ever. I see this green valley surrounded by mountain ranges, and beyond that, bigger mountain ranges, criss-crossed with an endless network of fire roads and trails, and I feel like I could go anywhere, and everywhere, and I want to. Of course time is a constraint, and so is knowledge of the region, and I had limited amounts of both on Sunday afternoon. I was waiting for my friend, Jen, to arrive from Utah en route to Sand Point, Idaho, so I could see her before she continued west. When I received a text from her telling me she was running late, and wouldn't show up until after 10, I realized I had a whole late afternoon and evening to discover something new.

I pulled out the Rattlesnake trail map that I just acquired on Saturday and decided to try an adjacent long trail, Stuart Peak. I didn't know how high Stuart Peak was. I didn't know how long the trail was. I rode seven miles of scorching pavement to reach a smooth strip of singletrack wending through a shady canyon, and knew I was in the right spot. The first three miles were grin-inducing fun, even on the climb, but then the real grunt started. Steep, horse-tromped, loose dirt cut a bee-line toward the sky. I tried with all my energy to ride uphill until I was seeing stars, then took short breaks, which became walking breaks. My lungs burned and my legs throbbed. I thought maybe I burned all my matches, flared out too soon, but the lure of the unknown beckoned, and I couldn't stop following it.

About five more miles of intermittent red-line riding and gasping walk breaks brought me to a wilderness boundary, where I gladly deposited my slave-driver of a bicycle behind some trees. I'm the rare mountain biker who agrees that bikes should be banned from wilderness areas. For me, the view is mostly personal. I just like the idea that there are still places in the country that can only be accessed on foot. It gives them a more mystic quality, like stepping into a place that time forgot. And it forces the relentlessly hurried among us to savor the world at a slower pace.

Bikes allowed or not, it wouldn't have mattered on the Stuart Peak trail, where I quickly hit deep, punchy snow. By this time, I was pretty close to running out of water, so I just filled my Camelback bladder with slush, which was incredibly refreshing.

The final ascent to the peak was a full-on snow climbing, where the north-facing crust was fairly icy and hard despite the scorching weather in Missoula, now far below. I checked my GPS and saw the elevation was approaching 8,000 feet, which meant I had climbed nearly 5,000 feet since leaving town. The number gave me a sense of satisfaction. If nothing else, it validated how much I had suffered up the climb.

And then, just before 8 p.m., I reached Stuart Peak. Gotta do the self-portrait on top of the peak, even though shorts aren't the most flattering look for me. I'd like to say that living Outside might allow me to get something of a tan, but that would be a lie. I'll probably go through several bottles of SPF 70 before I finally just surrender to wearing pants in 90-degree heat.

The topography of this region is significantly different than coastal Alaska, but striking nonetheless.

I bounded down the snowfield and collected my bicycle, giddy about the 4,000 feet I still had to lose. The descent was amazing. There aren't words that actually describe that level of exhilaration and freedom, the smooth, snaking free-fall through a blur of trees. I unravelled more than three hours of sweat-drenched climbing in 20 perfect minutes.

I think I'm going to like Missoula.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Western States

It was my first day off in Missoula. The sun was hot and high, the sky was mostly clear, I had a brand new shiny race bike finally put together and waiting to embark on its first big adventure ... and I could not tear myself away from the computer. I was watching tweets, blogs, checkpoint updates ... pretty much every snippet of information I could get about the Western States 100, specifically about Juneau runner Geoff Roes.

For those who weren't reading my blog a year ago, I'll expand on the connection. Geoff's my ex, but we've stayed friends in the aftermath of the relationship. I still follow his running career with great excitement, because I take full credit for the fact that he became a ultrarunner in the first place. We were both relatively inactive, considerably more bland individuals when we first moved to Alaska in late 2005. I wanted to take up a winter hobby, and inexplicably latched onto an endurance snow bike race called the Susitna 100. As I started training, Geoff got a little of what my friends call FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and decided he would enter the Little Su 50K on foot. He ran with the Syracuse university cross-country team for one year sometime in the mid-90s, but hadn't run competitively since. (And I had never competed in a race of any kind, not since grade school at least, but for some reason thought 100 miles on snow sounded fun.) We both managed to limp through the February 2006 races; Geoff won the 50K in a little less than four hours, but not without considerable suffering. He also discovered that he loved running long distances, and was pretty good at it, too. The rest is history. He won all seven of the 100-mile races he's competed in (including the Susitna 100 in '07), and in 2009 was named Ultrarunner of the Year.

Western States 100 was by far his most competitive race ever. It's unofficially regarded as the ultrarunning world championship, so fast guys come out of the woodwork to race it. Geoff had worked hard to prepare, but admitted to me when I talked to him on Thursday that he was feeling a little lousy. ("I think I'm coming down with something.") So I was thrilled Saturday morning as I watched him hold onto the lead with two other runners. Around mile 48, he drifted a few minutes back, and at mile 53, a few minutes more. Still, he was solidly in third place. I couldn't tear myself away, but it was already 3:30, and I really wanted to take the Element out for a long ride.

This is the Rocky Mountain Element 90 that I am going to be riding in TransRockies. It's a full-suspension, 26-inch-wheel, super-light race rig. It is an insanely nice bike. It's also not mine. I'm just borrowing it. But my TransRockies partner was so kind as to let me haul it home from Banff, so I could get a feel for it in the weeks leading up to the race. And, as is my custom, I wanted to get more than just a feel for it. I wanted to take it out on an hours-long backcountry Montana adventure. So I tore myself away from the Western States race results just has Geoff was starting to drift back into a more distant third place, and pedaled in the 87-degree heat toward Rattlesnake Canyon.

I spent a brief period of time riding the trails off the main Rattlesnake trailhead, but it was a beautiful day and the area was fairly crowded. I rolled back down the road and tried the Woods Gulch trailhead, which a friend had recommended, and started up the Sheep Mountain singletrack. As is Montana's custom, it just went up and up and up, and pretty soon I was pedaling along a narrow, tree-lined ridge far above the valley below.

About 45 minutes up the trail, I sucked the last drop of water out of my bladder. I couldn't believe it, because I had started the day with three liters of liquid, and not even two hours had passed when I ran out. I pulled out the bladder and discovered that the hose had slipped off the stem, and much of my water had dribbled out. I hadn't even noticed because I was sweating so profusely, I didn't feel the water soaking my back. I was bummed, because I had already climbed out of the canyon, and I didn't think I stood a very good chance of finding a water source. It was a hot day and I knew I wouldn't make it far without hydration, but I decided to pedal uphill for another 10 minutes, just in case. I came across a tiny trickle of clear water gurgling down the trail, and about 100 yards higher, discovered the spring that generated it. The spring was no larger than a cereal bowl, gurgling up from a mossy, muddy hole. I began the laborious process of dipping my bladder in the tiny basin and scooping up a few teaspoons of water at a time. A lot of gunk flowed in with the water, but I didn't really care. I managed to collect nearly 70 ounces, dropped in several iodine tablets, and spent the rest of the afternoon drinking large clumps of dirt and the occasional stick.

I worked my way up to a nondescript "peak" at 7,100 feet and faced a choice: I could descend 3,000 feet of singletrack I had just climbed, or I could see what lay ahead on the other side of the mountain. A faint jeep trail rippled down the ridge, and I convinced myself it connected to the switchbacking roads I could see far down in the valley. I had my GPS with me just in case I got lost, so I settled on rocky jeep trail adventure over a fun, smooth descent into terrain I had already seen.

At about 5,900 feet elevation, the jeep trail petered out, but by then I could see a power line several hundred feet below. I stepped off my bike and skittered down the steep, loose dirt. The race bike performed beautifully - it was so much easier to hoist over endless deadfall logs than my heavy Karate Monkey. The Element and I arrived at a grass-carpeted road that descended into an entirely new drainage. Where did it go? I wanted to find out!

The road skirted around a mountain my GPS told me is named Woody Mountain. Just as I was coming around a corner, I saw a big brown butt that I initially assumed belonged to a cow. But then the animal whirled around, and I realized I was no more than 100 feet from an enormous cinnamon-colored black bear, standing right on the road. The black bear blinked at me and I yelped a little, and then squeaked, "Hey bear." This is the part where I admit I wasn't carrying bear spray, because I'm in Montana, not Alaska, and there aren't any bears in Montana. Oh, wait ... yes there are. But regardless, I had left my bear spray at home, and was feeling especially vulnerable. Luckily, the bear wanted just as little to do with me, and took off down the steep slope. As its big brown butt disappeared in the woods, I started yelling louder. "That's right bear, run away, you big fat bear!" And, having established myself as the dominant species on the road, I cranked up my favorite descending music, Jimmy Eat World - so I could sing extra loud for all the bears - and launched into the screaming descent singing at the top of my lungs.

I emerged in an open valley and started pedaling toward I-90. My proximity to Missoula wasn't immediately clear, but GPS told me I needed to turn north to go home. I followed a gravel road and came to the wrong side of a locked fence. I was trapped! It took some strenuous maneuvering to get both the Element and myself through the narrow opening, but I managed to gain my freedom. I found the frontage road and a sign that said "Missoula 7 miles," and bounced the gorgeous full-suspension bike home, supremely satisfied with my successful excursion into the unknown. And the bike ... the bike is pretty awesome, too.

When I returned to my apartment, I had ridden 38 miles with 5,179 feet of climbing. It was 9:20 p.m. I pushed the Element inside, walked to my computer and hit the refresh button on the Western States site. Geoff was right at the top. He had won the race a mere 13 minutes earlier, with a course-record time of 15 hours, 7 minutes and 4 seconds. Wait, what? Just six hours earlier, he was fading fairly quickly. I scrolled through five hours worth of tweets and discovered that he had indeed ramped it up and pulled into the lead, in an exciting last half that I had completely missed during my afternoon bike adventure. I actually felt guilty.

It's tough being a sports fan, sometimes. But I'm really happy for him. This is a big deal.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The leaving of the light

Geraldine pedaled beside me as we motored up the final pitch of a 3,000-foot ascent, a dusty dirt track snaking like a tentacle up the mountain - your typical Montana monster.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

I took a few quick gulps, stockpiling the oxygen. "High," I said. "Feels high."

"What, the altitude?" she asked.

"Maybe," I said. "Maybe elevation. Maybe it's the ride. Maybe I'm just tired. This has been the world's longest week. I can't believe it was a week ago I was living at sea level, a long, long way north of here."

"How do you like Missoula so far?" she asked.

"It's awesome," I said. "My co-workers are friendly, job's just getting going, and the mountain biking has been fantastic. I mean, this only my second ride, but they've both been pretty incredible."

Geraldine grinned and moved ahead up the fire road. I blinked toward the low sunlight, already golden at 8 p.m. The altitude-stunted trees thinned out, leaving wide-ranging views of the rolling mountains. And the smell! I breathed in a fermented stew of pine and mulch, marinated in spring melt and dried in the daylight ... the pungent aroma, the strongly familiar fire road, the trees and dust ... Divide flashbacks. I shook my head, trying to turn my focus away from a creeping sadness.

My new co-worker, John, invited me on his annual 50-mile summer solstice celebration ride. I politely turned him down. It was my third day on the job, and I wasn't about to ask my boss if I could cut out an hour and a half early. John persisted. I said, "Maybe. No promises." John wrote my boss an e-mail, cc'd to me, extolling the virtues both my boss and the publications department would enjoy if he would just let his new hire out for the solstice ride. My boss laughed out loud, looked from his computer, and said, "You should just do it." So I had to.

We left downtown at about 4:25, a group of 14 motoring toward the mountains. John told me the names of things, of buildings and streets and geographical features. I remembered the names briefly, but they soon faded to the gasp and flow, the climb. The group laughed and joked. "Have you done this ride before?" many asked me as we shifted positions in the pack.

"No," I said. "I'm new to town."

"How new?"

"I got here on Sunday night."

"Wow, really?" The real questions followed - where did you come from, what do you do, have you been here before. Inevitably, the conversations turned to the Tour Divide. What was it like, what did you eat, where did you sleep. Then, from some, "Did you hear about that guy in the race that was hit by a truck today?"

All of my valuable oxygen would seep out in a sad sigh. "Yeah, I did."

What are the odds, really? On narrow backwoods fire roads in Colorado, miles can pass without seeing another vehicle; hours can pass without another sign of human life. There are just a few dozen Divide racers spread out over several hundred miles. What are the odds? After the long double-track climb, the group veered onto faint hint of singletrack in the woods. I watched sunlight flicker through pole-thin limber pines and wove through my own unsettling thoughts. Flashbacks. It was just a year ago, on June 30, in Southern Colorado. It was the day that changed everything for me. Terrorizing lightning storms chased me off the exposed summit of Indiana Pass, followed by drenching rain that cut a chill so deep it nearly severed my spirit. I already felt half-broken when I caught the ambulances. Then I learned the person being transported was my friend, Pete - another Divide racer, who had been hit head-on by a truck while descending the steep pass. I stepped inside the ambulance and briefly spoke to him. I saw him strapped to equipment, immobilized and almost completely covered, except for his eyes - his drug-dulled eyes. I thought his injuries were severe. I convinced myself of terrible scenarios. I pedaled through the woods in a sea of grief and depression. I felt like there was nowhere to come up for air. I lost hope that day, for a little while. I obsessed about "The Things That Are Important." I wrote in my journal:

"Pete and I had both been out there on the Great Divide, riding the same muddy roads, climbing the same sweeping passes, watching the same spectacular sunsets. Both of us had been bound by this one thing, this totally unique thing, this effort to ride across the spine of the continent as fast as we possibly could. And to what end? To what end?"

Dave Blumenthal collided with a truck coming down a remote Colorado pass on Wednesday. I could picture the rocky, rutted road well because I had experienced a crash there during a rainstorm last year. Initial reports said Dave had sustained head injuries, that they were critical, and he had been rushed to a hospital in Denver. It was difficult not to imagine the worst, but impossible not to hope for the best. After all, Pete miraculously escaped from his head-on collision relatively unscathed. The day after his crash, I found out that he only had a broken collarbone and many cuts and bruises. Pete was riding a 100-mile singletrack race within six weeks.

Maybe Dave would make a similar miraculous recovery. I hoped for that with all my heart. I have never met Dave Blumenthal, but the Divide has a way of connecting people. I read his blog and forum posts leading up to the race. I listened to his call-ins. I identified with him, and his desires, and his reasons for wanting to do "this totally unique thing." But what are the odds that two horrific head-on truck collisions could have a happy ending? I tried not to think about the odds. I did think about Dave. The solstice group lined up single-file and swept down a narrow trail that John essentially built. We plummeted through moss-lined forest and apocalyptic clear-cuts as the golden sun cast long shadows behind us. Down, down, down, with cool wind whipping past our ears. "The summer solstice is such a strange thing to celebrate," I thought. "We're simply acknowledging the inevitable descent into winter darkness."

After an hour of ripping, nearly solid downhill, we returned from our six-hour epic in incredible moods. We went out for drinks and food and laughed away the deepening night until midnight came, and we were tired, and we pedaled home. Optimism ran high and I convinced myself of the best - Missoula is going to be awesome, the hot summer with its "long" nights is going to be tolerable, and Dave's going to be OK.

On Thursday afternoon, I found out Dave Bluementhal died of his injuries. He is survived by his wife, Lexi, and his 4-year-old daughter, Linnaea. He was 37 years old.

Light flickers and fades, and in its absence we remember The Things That Are Important.

Dave, I never met you, but I won't forget you. I feel a deep, empathetic sadness and my heart goes out to those who love you.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

New chapter

Yes, I realize my blog needs a new name.

What I'd really like is a whole new blog. I'm a little tired of this circa-2002 Blogspot template with a sidebar I haven't updated in two years that still says I live in Juneau. Plus, this blog is now at 96 percent storage capacity, so realistically it only has a few more weeks in which it will even allow new content. But building a new blog from scratch, hopefully one that also holds the archives of my old blog, takes time and knowledge that I don't exactly have right now. In the meantime, I don't want to stop journaling just because I can't make a smooth transition. I will probably continue to publish posts under this header for a while longer.

It's been a good run for "Up in Alaska." I started this blog on Nov. 3, 2005, for the same reason most people start blogs - to keep my faraway friends and family updated on my new life in Alaska. Since then, it's hosted 1,182 posts, who knows how many photos, 992 "followers" and more than 2 million visitors. And it completely changed my life. While the blog didn't spark my interest in cycling and desire to enter the 2006 Susitna 100, it certainly helped me focus my efforts and sustain my motivation, which led to new passion, which led to many future cycling adventures. It reignited my love of writing and generated new interest in photography. And I'm pretty sure this blog has more clout in the eyes of my new employers than my bachelor's degree in journalism. Plus, I have this great record of the past five years of my life.

As to the new blog and new chapter, there is much yet to be determined. I feel like I'm entering a quieter period of my life, and I'm perfectly at peace with that. I've had a lot of time to reflect on what I left behind in Alaska, and I've realized that there was strikingly little that I couldn't take with me. Montana alone holds more beauty and possibility than I could possibly consume with my meager lifetime, and I'm certain that many new and intriguing adventures await for as long as I decide to stay. As for Missoula, it appears the geography was custom-built for mountain biking, and the craggy peaks of the kind of mountains I lust for are not far away. My new job is exciting; I still can't believe that actually landed in a career centered on bicycle travel.

I am sad about the end of "Up in Alaska" and all it implies. But if you had told me on Nov. 3, 2005, what my blog would hold in the next five years, I would have scarcely believed most of it. I can only hope the next five years hold just as much surprise.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Yeah Banff

It's been a mere year since a wonderful Banff ultrarunner named Leslie e-mailed me out of the blue and said, "You're coming to town for the Tour Divide ... do you want a place to stay?" Since then, she and her husband, Keith, have become good friends of mine, Banff has become one of my favorite places on this wide continent, and I've been back to visit four times. "Do you realize I've visited you guys more times than I've visted my home in Utah in the past year?" I said to Keith as we geared up for another binge that he calls "training" and I call "I'm really tired from driving 2,100 miles but yeah, why not?" Keith just laughed. "Honey, we're your home now," he replied.

I wish Banff could be my home. I'm still looking for that Canadian citizen husband, but Keith tells me it's not as easy as getting married to a Canadian. Until then, I learned that Missoula is only 7-8 hours away by car (and maybe four days by bike), so there will hopefully be many opportunities to come and visit. We crammed a lot into this weekend - power hiking, road biking, mountain biking, barbecue and race spectating. I have to say that my favorite part of the weekend was the road biking. I'm actually one of those people who can count on one hand the number of times I've been on a "real" road bike. This particular bicycle (which belongs to Leslie, who was in Wyoming running a 100-mile ultramarathon, crazy girl) was ridiculously light. It zipped effortlessly up hills and rocketed downhills. At one point I tore down a hill and sprinted by the small group yelling "This is soooooo fun!" as I flew by. I think I can finally understand now why people bother with road bikes, rather than just riding their heavy steel mountain bikes on pavement. :-)

I'm also officially kitted out for TransRockies. It occurred to me recently that the seven-day stage race is a mere six weeks away. Gulp. I said to Keith, "Does it really matter that I haven't been training and that I still kind of suck on singletrack?" He just laughed. "It's our bike holiday," he replied. "We're not calling ourselves 'Team Self Preservation' for nothing." (I think our actual team name is "Rocky Mountain Trail Trash," because we're sponsored by Rocky Mountain bikes. Gulp. By the way, don't tell Rocky Mountain that I'm not Canadian. It's OK to not be a pro or even a very skilled mountain biker, but an American is just scandalous.)


After hour three-hour mountain bike ride, we headed downtown to sit in front of the Ski Stop and watch the crit races come by. Another new experience for me ... the pro group was by far the most exciting. Two riders broke away in the 50-km race (50 laps) and eventually lapped the entire pack. One of the riders then pushed all the way to the front of the pack and was in fifth position after lapping the group. Plus, a tight group of 60-odd racers fly by at 30 mph and sometimes crash hard on hairpin turns. Exciting stuff!

Being in Banff near the summer solstice has also left me steeped in Tour Divide nostalgia. While visiting the Ski Stop, I chanced across a DVD of the documentary "Ride the Divide," which documents the 2008 race. Keith and I watched it and I relived my own race experience, instantly recognizing the locations of most of the landscape shots and relating to the wildly swinging joy and malaise. Then, during Saturday's crit races, I just happened to bump into Robin Borstmayer, a Banff resident who started the 2010 Tour Divide a week ago but dropped out of the race in Helena. He said knee was bothering him, he was surviving on painkillers, and the mental game wasn't worth it. I can completely relate. I got really lucky in my own race to have fairly easy passage through Canada and Montana. All of my big struggles came later, by the time I was fully entrenched in the Divide.

I then talked to Robin's wife for a while. She asked me to sum up my race experience and I said "It was really like living an entire lifetime in the span of three weeks. I entered that race as one person and left as another." It was the first time I had ever voiced that thought, but after a year to reflect on my experience in the Tour Divide, I still believe that's true. I was a child in Montana, when I was traveling with John Nobile and learning from his examples. I was an adolescent in Wyoming, discovering my own path and facing the desert alone. I was an adult in Colorado, at ease with my situation and wise in my own ways. From Summitville, Colo., through New Mexico was my old age: broken down, exhausted, plowing through struggles that would have seemed insurmountable in my childhood. At the Mexican border, I felt reborn. The idea sounded corny then and it still sounds corny now, but there's a lot of truth in that simple word. Rebirth. New starts. It's one year later, and I begin my next new journey tomorrow. Wish me luck.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Going, going, gone

This week has been one of those rare instances (for me at least) where life is happening faster than I can write about it. I'm the kind of person that puts journaling before things like eating and sleeping; after all, memory is fickle and life has a way of getting away from you. Well, life is getting away from me right now. I don't even have time to post this particular blog post, but I figured it was important to let my family know that Geo and I have made to Banff, Alberta, so only a half day of driving on a high-traffic highway with lots of services lies between me and my new home in Montana. (My family will be ever so happy to hear this bit of news, as the old Geo was never intended to make one trip between the Lower 48 and Alaska, let alone four.)

Yes, I've left Alaska. Right now I'm in a state of mourning that has been partly tempered by excitement for my new opportunities in Montana, and further numbed by 42 long, long hours behind the wheel in a 60-hour span of time. Despite the endurance driving, the trip has gone quite well so far. It's about 2,100 miles from Anchorage to Banff, and with a loaded-down Geo on the narrow Alaska Highway under heavy summer construction, I'd be surprised if my average was over 50 mph. (Also, I have a cat with me that hates to travel. Luckily, she is also a world-wise animal and knows when to resign herself to the inevitable.) Together, the old car, the irritated cat and I just ground away at it, and when I wasn't driving, I was trying to squeeze in a few last-minute adventures.

My last official Alaska adventure was a simple camping and clamming trip in Ninilchik. I went on the trip because I wanted to spend one last weekend with my good friends and their daughter. I'd never before been interested in clamming - to me it looked like wallowing in mud, soaking up a stiff seawater chill and wrestling sharp, slimy objects that really aren't all that tasty even when fried up in butter. But clamming actually is fairly fun. Those slimy little creatures really do fight, and you really do have to get in their with your hands and dig fast.

I had all these hopeful Chugach plans on the burner, but they were swiftly pushed out of reach by the realities of packing and moving. I left Anchorage on Tuesday morning, picked up my passport that had just arrived (just in the nick of time) in Palmer, and hit the road. By Tuesday night, I was 750 miles away in Whitehorse. I delayed my Wednesday start so I could enjoy one last Yukon mountain bike ride with my friend Anthony. We stayed out for nearly three hours and I didn't get back on the road until after 1 p.m. From there, I've pretty much drove straight through to Banff, more than 1,350 miles down the bumpy, winding road. I took a car nap for a few hours outside of Grand Prairie (it was by that time 7 a.m., full sunlight, and hot.) I also stopped on the Icefields Parkway for a hike up Parker Ridge, a place that I had hiked in January. It doesn't look all that different in June - still snow covered, rocky, and mountainous. But the big push was worth it. I now have a full two days to spend in Banff before I have to return to the United States and, ahem, start working for a living.

There's really not much I can say right now about leaving Alaska. My fatigue is cutting through my sadness and anticipation. It's almost as though I rammed in the long miles and cranked up the iPod just to temper the runaway freight train of thoughts and emotions about it all. Now all I have left on the surface is a vague sense of forward motion, and a sparse handful of pictures ...

From the mountains,

To the prairies,

To the icefields, white with snow.

God bless Canada; I'm almost home.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Cordova

There's a little town in Alaska I had always wanted to visit. I couldn't even tell you why I picked this specific town, for there are lots of little towns in Alaska that would be fun to visit. But Cordova, a fishing village perched on the edge of the Prince William Sound, always stuck out. I think it started when I first learned of an old railroad grade that left this isolated village and followed the Copper River all the way to the main road system, in Chitna. I used to wonder if it was partially passable with a bicycle, until I learned that the railroad fell into disuse in the early 1930s, and I'd be lucky to find a few scattered nails among the thick alder tangles and rushing, unbridged streams. What remains is a 50-mile-long gravel road to nowhere that passes several glaciers. How could that not be a fun overnight ride?

I started the trip by taking the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Whittier. I always thought that blue-and-yellow double-decker rail car that rumbled next to the Seward Highway was a strictly tourist-only deal. It only recently occurred to me that I could use the train as transportation, and felt a little conspicuous doing so in my bike clothes with a book as camera-toting sightseers migrated like birds from one side of the train to the other, depending on what animals somebody reportedly saw. I sat across from a very nice older couple from Albuquerque who had just arrived in Anchorage late the night before, and had never before visited Alaska. The woman must have taken at least 200 digital photos through the window. I did my best to point out the attractions and smile with satisfaction as they gasped around every scenic turn. There is something so rewarding about seeing a place you love through the eyes of newcomers.

From Whittier, I got on the ferry, and it was my turn to play the role of a gawking tourist, leaning against the outside railing to watch far-away orcas and rolling sea otters as the boat crossed the Prince William Sound. The ferry arrived in Cordova just before 9 p.m. I rode to the city-owned campground, which was a real pit - full of tightly-wedged RVs and trailers all clustered in a circle around a battered old bathroom like a pioneer wagon train. I rode back to town and asked four different people at the grocery store about "tent camping." They all looked at me like I was speaking Dutch, except for a jovial Hispanic woman who just laughed and said, "Don't ask me; Mexicans don't go camping." I headed out the road until I was a ways out of town, and ended up finding a really sweet spot on a gravel bar of a tributary below the Scott Glacier.

The next morning, it rained. I had to wait around in cell phone range to take a scheduled call at 12:30, so I laid on my thin strip of foam and read "The Living" by Annie Dillard. The call came and went, and it kept on raining. I took short glances outside to the completely-soaked-in grayness. My elbows started to ache, so I turned on my back, until my shoulders ached, and still droplets pounded the rain fly. I started to remember why I never used to go camping when I lived in Juneau. It is one thing to ride in the continuous rain, and quite another to try to live in it, with only a single change of clothing, a single change of socks, a down sleeping bag and a small nylon tent, in a climate where once things get wet, they are never going to dry outside. Even if you stay put, the dampness seeps in anyway, smelling of cold earth and accumulating like mildew. I knew if I packed up and headed down the road in the rain, my body and all of my worldly belongings were going to be a dripping mess by the time the cold night rolled around again. But by 3:30 p.m., I was going stir crazy (I'll never understand how mountaineers huddle in tents for days on end and manage to keep their sanity.) I finally relented to going for a short afternoon ride to break the monotony, thereby soaking one set of clothing but keeping my sleeping bag and the inside of my tent mostly dry.

Hitting the road, my demeanor was somewhere between "moderately irritated" and "grumpypants." The rain pelted my back and I stared down at the wet gravel, which cut an eerily straight line across the shrouded expanse of the Copper River Delta. I knew I only had two days in town, and by leaving my camping gear behind, I was ruining my chance to do the overnight tour I had planned. But I didn't care. I just wanted to get in a 20 or 30-mile ride so I could strip off my wet clothes, crawl into my damp sleeping bag, shiver away the chill and hope against hope that the sun came out tomorrow.

But as I pedaled, my core temperature began to heat back up and my outlook improved substantially. It's a little startling to realize how closely connected emotions are to simple physical states such as body temperature, hunger and fatigue. In a matter of an hour, I swung wildly from woe-is-me sourpuss to enthusiastic reveler of all things Cordova. The previously flat and dreary Copper River Delta suddenly became infused with a Great Plains mystique, and as I looked east toward the mountains, the green cliffs shimmered behind wisps of silver mist. At the time, I was still soaked to the bone and pedaling through drizzle; really, the only thing about my situation that had changed was that I was finally moving warm blood through my system. It's a strange revelation, to realize a person actually can't separate their body from their emotions, even though bodies are easily manipulated and emotions are supposedly more substantial connections to one's soul. It makes one inclined to take themselves a little less seriously.

And then, the sun did start to poke through the thick clouds. Actually, it was still raining on the Delta, but I had ridden far enough down the road to curve inland, toward the glacier-studded mountains. I didn't even really notice the miles going by, and then suddenly, 25 had passed, and then 35. And then I thought, well, might as well go all the way.

As I moved inland, the temperature fell and the snowpack grew substantially, from a few patches here and there to a couple feet of solid snow. It was interesting, because I hadn't gained much if any elevation, and it was strange to see so much snow so close to sea level in June. This is a region dominated by glaciers, where cold wind blows off the ice field year-round, driving back summer's surge even as green pops up regardless.

And then, after 44 miles of near-total isolation (I only saw three cars go by), I reached the Million-Dollar Bridge. It really is quite the spectacle, a massive steel structure, flanked by two glaciers, that rises several stories out of a wilderness no one uses anymore. It was constructed at the turn of the century, at a cost of $1.5 million back then, to support rail shipments from a Kennicott Copper Mine that operated until the '30s.

I can only imagine what it must have been like to build this thing, in the 1900s when Alaska was a frontier of a frontier, using 1900s technology, fighting extreme winter weather and the terror of calving glaciers, which I'm guessing used to be even closer to the bridge a century ago than they are now. I love stuff like this: things that stand alone as living museums to a very intriguing era - the era of Alaska's gold rush, the bicycle boom, burgeoning mountain exploration, and Shackleton.

The Childs Glacier remains thrillingly close to the bridge, close enough that every few minutes I heard a thunderous explosion of cracking ice and erupting water (I only heard the glacier calving; I never turned my head fast enough to witness it happening.)

The only sunlight in all of the wide region seemed to be centered over the river, slowly drawing away the dampness that had dogged me all morning.

I negated the sun's drying effects by venturing on the snow-covered route beyond the bridge. As far as I could tell it was still a road, just not maintained in any way, and I was curious to see how far it continued. I only made it another mile or so of postholing before I decided the snow was only becoming thicker, not fading out. Wherever this route goes, it must only be clear a couple months out of the year. The Million-Dollar Bridge partially collapsed in the '64 earthquake and the state actually fixed it up a few years ago. I can't imagine why they went to the trouble, nor do I understand why they bother maintaining the Copper River Highway (as the gravel road is called) and its many bridges across the Delta. I guess it's just one of those things.

As I crossed back over the Million-Dollar Bridge, I passed a U.S. Forest Service employee who was hauling sonar equipment out of the river. I must have really startled him, because he jolted up from his perch and asked, rather loudly, "Are you OK?"

"I'm great," I said. "It's such a beautiful evening."

He looked a little confused. "So you're just biking around here?"

"Pretty much," I said.

"OK," he said. "It's just that we don't see many people out here on bicycles this time of night."

"Oh, yeah; I got a late start today," I smiled. Then sun still lingered above the mountains and I had no idea what time it was. It was actually nearly 9 p.m.

"You're not going all the way to Cordova tonight, are you?" he asked.

"Not all the way ..." I said, trailing off. "My camp spot is a few miles down the road." (I left out the detail that it was more than 40 miles down the road.)

"Ok, well if you need anything, our camp is just over there," he said pointing to a bank across the bridge. "Anything at all - food, water, flashlight. Just stop by."

"Thanks," I said. "I'll be fine."

I did head down past the USFS camp to get a better look at the Childs Glacier. I sat on the bank of the rushing, silty Copper River and made a tuna sandwich for dinner, which I nibbled on slowly as I waited for more exciting glacier eruptions. It was 9 p.m. and I was in no hurry to get back to camp (although I was sincerely wishing I had just hauled my wet camping gear out here into the beautiful sunlight, so I could spend the whole night.) I had a headlight, red blinky, food and a water filter. I could pedal to stay warm. I had everything I needed.

The road back was quiet and reflective, with nothing but the whir of gravel and a light breeze to distract from the slow separation of my body and my emotions. I fall victim to being cranky in the rain, just like everyone else, but I also recognize that down the line it doesn't really matter. Through the peace of the darkless night and the slow buildup of fatigue, 90 miles all too easily slip away, the world rolls sunward, and life goes on.

I woke up late Thursday morning to more continuous rain, to start the grumpypants cycle anew. I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do with the day. I had already pedaled out to the end of the Copper River Highway and back, and while I wished I'd had more time to spend out there, I wasn't about to do the 86-mile round trip again. I decided to spend the day in Cordova. While I travel to visit towns, I always end up spending the majority of my time in places outside of town, and end up having no clue about restaurants and music venues and things to do in town. So I pedaled back to the small strip of buildings and walked down Main Street in my rain gear, visiting the museum, sampling local Chinese cuisine and wandering the harbor. The cold chill began to creep back in, and with it my resentment about my lack of real shelter. It was time to get back "out."

I pedaled to the end of town, parked my bike and started hiking up Mount Eyak. I reflected on my trip to Cordova, which I embarked on a whim in my mania to do as much as exploring as possible before I move away. It was too sporadic and last-minute to find a traveling companion, so I went alone. Traveling alone used to bother me, a lot, but it doesn't any more. In fact, I often prefer it for many of the same reasons I used to fear it - it forces me to be self-reliant, makes me accountable for all of my decisions and urges a quiet reflection that I'd never otherwise experience. Of all of my travels in the past few years, my solo travels still stand out the most in my memory. It began first time I did an overnight backpacking trip by myself outside Idaho Falls and realized that I could set up my own tent, and make tuna sandwiches for dinner without anyone complaining about the lack of a hot meal, swim naked in the lake and hike 24 miles from camp if I wanted to. That was only five years ago; these days, I see that the horizon is limitless.

The solo trip also gave me a lot of time to reflect on how I really feel about leaving Alaska. Years from now, when people ask me if I lived in Anchorage, I'm not sure I'd really be able to say I did. I spent an incredible two months traveling around Southcentral Alaska, but the drifter feeling never really wore off. After a while, drifting starts to wear a person down. In many ways, I've felt aimless and drifting for more than a year, ever since I boarded the ferry boat out of Juneau in April 2009. I traveled and rode my bike all summer. I never really settled back into Juneau when I returned. I never even unpacked my boxes in Anchorage. I am ready to anchor myself to a more solid purpose and a place. For this reason, among many others, I really am excited to make the move to Montana. After all, I was born in the Rocky Mountains. In many ways, I am going "home."

I clawed through crusty snow to the Mount Eyak saddle and halfway up the face, but stopped about 200 feet shy of the peak when I decided that the face was too exposed and the hard, icy condition of the snow too unforgiving to go any farther without an ax and crampons. Behind me, scattered rain showers drenched the inlet and its surrounding islands, cast in soft pink light by the setting sun beyond. I caught my first glimpse of the Gulf of Alaska and breathed out a sad sigh for all of the beautiful and wild places I would never see. There are too many to comprehend, and their inaccessibility reminds me that I am only a subatomic speck perched on the face of a yawning universe. I thought about Cordova, with its green cliffs and glaciers, sweeping mudflats and mountains towering over the sea. It was perhaps the most beautiful place of all; but they all are, in their exhilerating moments of discovery. "I could live here someday," I thought. "When I am done riding my bicycle and climbing mountains, and I am ready to settle in a small cabin on the edge of the sea and wait for the universe to come to me."

I came down from the mountain with only about five hours to kill before I had to pack up and catch the ferry out of town. I've become such a night owl that I was just going to stay up and perhaps explore a few more side roads, but then I stumbled across the most awesome camp spot on the muskeg above town. I set up my tent on the soft tundra, where I read, dozed on and off, and occasionally got up to gaze over the panoramic view. The mountains cut dark shadows behind me and the calm inlet shimmered below, so still in the morning that departing fishing boats left white trails that were miles long. At 1 a.m. the sky had almost completely cleared, ever so briefly, and it occurred to me that if it were dark, I'd be able to see stars.

The dark will come again, soon enough - first to me, as I venture south, and eventually to the rest of Alaska. In five short years this state has trickled into my heart; for as much as I've seen and as little as I've experienced, I love every part of it deeply. I dream of a future that's impossible to establish - one that includes a house on the hill in Fairbanks, a winter camp outside Nikolai, a yurt above Homer, apartments in Juneau and Anchorage, a fishing shack in Cordova and regular trekking trips to the Arctic. I want to live everywhere but I know what I carry in my heart are memories, not physical places. I can bring these memories with me wherever I go. I tell myself they will carry me through my time away from the North. I tell myself it won't be forever.

As the ferry churned west, I bid a silent goodbye to Mount Eyak and the rest of Cordova. I knew there was a good chance I would never return to the beautiful little fishing village perched on the edge of the Prince William Sound, and that was OK. Life ebbs and flows like the tide; what it leaves behind is what I keep.