Sunday, December 18, 2011

2011 in photos

Each December, I pick a crop of photos, one for each month, that I feel best illustrate the events of the year. These aren't what I consider my "best" photos; they're simply my favorite. For various reasons I'm posting my Year in Photos blog earlier than usual. The above photo, which I took in the early hours of the 2011 Susitna 100, is possibly my favorite of the year — and not because I believe it's a great photo. I'm not posting to nitpick technical details, so I'll just tell you why I love this photo. It was a gorgeous frosty morning — still a few degrees below zero after warming up from -12F — when we turned off a postholed mess of a trail and onto this road. Freed from the mire of mush, the three of us — Beat, Danni, and I — suddenly took off running at a brisk pace. As it turned out, these few miles of road would be the only easily runnable section of that entire race, but we didn't know that at the time. What I remember from this moment was how amazing I felt, completely blissed out by the simple act of running in Alaska in the frosty sunlight, and also by the realization that I was actually attempting this utterly mad thing, this plan to drag a sled 100 miles across the Susitna Valley with Beat by my side. I love the way Beat's mitten shells are flopping around playfully, and the random dude's determined posture, and of course the expression of exhilaration on Danni's face. It was an awesome moment, captured by point-and-shoot pixels.

January, "Out of the Fog"

During January, Beat and I were still working through the long-distance phase of our relationship. I was in Missoula, he was in California, and the travel between to two pretty much defined our lives at that point. We'd wring another long weekend after our already overwrought schedules, and as soon as we unpacked, it was time for one of us to pack again. Looking back, I remember feeling a lot of anxiety in January because of the strain on both my and Beat's jobs, and also because I knew change was inevitable. Accepting this change was initially difficult for me. In 2010, I took a lot of risks in an effort to declare my independence, so to speak — to work toward becoming a full and free version of myself. My "independent self" was exactly who I left Alaska for (because "independent Jill" didn't need Alaska to be happy.) In just six months, I had formed a rich and dynamic life in Montana. I had a good job, fantastic recreational opportunities, and truly great friends. But my life didn't feel full yet, and I knew what I was really missing was the connection I felt with Beat, and also an occupation that held more personal meaning (even if it was less lucrative) than what I was doing. It was going to be heartbreaking to move away, yet again, from a place I loved. But I knew I had to do it.

I took this photo during the Crystal Springs 50K in Woodside, California. I chose it for January because it illustrates a lot of what I was doing at the time — traveling to California to visit Beat, training for the Susitna 100, using focused training as a coping mechanism for some of the anxieties I was feeling, and also simply learning how to run (looking back, I struggled so much more with the physical demands of running than I do now, just a year later.) The image holds some symbolic meaning, too, with streams of warm California sunlight just beginning to break through the fog.

February, "Night Ride on Mount Sentinel"

If I had to pick an image to illustrate how I remember Missoula, this would have to be it. Although I spent an entire beautiful summer living in Missoula, my mind is now filled mainly with memories of frosty darkness, pedaling or plodding through a black-and-white world. Sometimes I was alone, fully absorbed in the stillness and silence, but more often I was with friends. Missoula is home to many adventurous souls, and I unsurprisingly connected with one of the craziest of them all, Bill Martin. Bill and I both had day jobs, so our adventures always went down after dark, when temperatures hovered near zero. Bill was constantly half-frozen in his homemade mittens and mountain bike kit, but we pressed on for miles anyway, sometimes late into the night. We enjoyed some great adventures, and he's been a good friend. Whenever people ask me what I miss most about Montana, I always answer without pausing — the friends I had there.

I took this picture during a ride I planned with Bill. I left about a half hour before him on my Pugsley, and expected him to catch up with me on the steep climb, being that he's a sponsored mountain bike racer and all. But he was on his studded-tire mountain bike, and after a few miles the trail looked like that (narrow and soft. I could ride downhill on the fat bike but had to push the climbs.) Bill never caught up to me, and I somehow bypassed him on a different trail while descending, so we never actually rode together. We laugh now about our "Sentinel co-solo ride," but in a way this illustrates how I feel about Missoula. Our paths never fully intersected, but it was a fantastic ride all the same.

March, "Wickersham Dome"

Although I shot dozens of photos while riding my bike for 18 hours in the White Mountains 100, this one is my favorite. After I finished the race, I napped in my sleeping bag on the snow for several hours, drove an hour back to Fairbanks, took a shower, napped for several more hours in a bed, did some laundry, ate a Subway sandwich, drove back to the Wickersham Dome trailhead, chatted with volunteers, and hiked three miles down the trail. I remember watching Beat and his friend Kevin cresting the Wickersham Wall nearly 18 hours after I did the same, and thinking that this whole long day had passed while he was still out there, dragging his sled across the frozen north. The White Mountains north of Fairbanks are one of the most incredible regions I've had the privilege to visit, and I was excited to share one of my favorite spaces — and races — with Beat. But 36 hours is a long time to be out there in the cold, and I felt nervous about how I'd be received.

I needn't have worried. Even though his Achilles was hurting and he was exhausted, he had a smile on his face to match the expansive white rolling hills beyond the dome. It had been just a few weeks since I made the move from Missoula to California, and I also had worried how I'd be received in this new phase of our relationship. Again, I shouldn't have worried so much about it. Beat welcomed me into his everyday life without the slightest hint of reservation. Well, there's one. He seems to blame me for coaxing him into the "craziness" that is Alaska winter racing. However, I have this feeling he might just love it as much if not more more than I do.

April, "Coyote Strolls Up the Street in the Sunlight"

April was all about shaping my new life and exploring my new space. I started on several writing projects that I was excited about, took on freelance jobs that at least kept some income flowing in, and took advantage of my flexible hours to ride and run on the roads and trails near my new home in Los Altos. Before I arrived here in early March, I held the attitude that I might ... someday ... at best ... learn to tolerate life in the Silicon Valley. I did not think I would like it. I couldn't even imagine how I could ever love it. Life here was worth trying for the sake of Beat's and my relationship, but in my view, compared to Alaska and Montana it was a big sacrifice.

And then I actually came to California. I moved into a apartment that was mere minutes away from an expansive open-space system that flows across the Santa Cruz Mountains. I could leave from my front door on foot or bike and soon be immersed in oak-lined trails, or lush redwood forest, or rolling grassy hills, or even a manzanita maze. These weren't wilderness trails but they were extensive, surprisingly not too crowded, and teeming with wildlife — including regular appearances by coyotes and bobcats. I adopted Beat's road bike and spent hours tracing the steep contours of Skyline Drive or time-trialing a close-by scenic climb that never gets old, Montebello Road. I discovered the old-growth redwood forests and cool little communities hidden deeper in these mountains. And I could do all of this without getting in a car and facing the urban traffic and strip-mall sprawl that I had so feared — although even this, in truth, isn't so bad. I was truly enjoying myself, and it was cool to suddenly be immersed in a tech community at the cutting edge of the cutting edge. Plus, the San Francisco Bay area has a large and active trail running and racing community. You could run an organized 50K nearly every weekend of the year if you were so inclined, and yet the Bay-area trail-running community still feels small enough that you get to know the regulars quickly.

May, "Across the Badlands"

I realize that it seems ironic to write about how much I was loving my new life in Northern California and then proceed to post pictures from elsewhere for the entire rest of the year. But beyond my new life with Beat, the year 2011 was defined by a vast expansion in my travel horizons. I did a lot of traveling this year, often to places I never even dreamed I'd visit, and it definitely worked to shift my perspective. This photo is from a May mountain bike tour of the Maah Daah Hey Trail. I joined a group of friends from the Great White North — as I explained to others, it was "me and nine crazy Canadians in middle-of-nowhere North Dakota." I thought it humorous that so many outdoor friends from the Canadian Rockies would come to a famously bland U.S. state like North Dakota — which is not a warm place in early May — to vacation. Dave and Brenda from Banff, both who admit to being staunch singletrack snobs, organized the trip because it's one of the few places on the continent where you can ride a hundred miles of uninterrupted singletrack. We got more than we bargained for with record-breaking moisture, mud, river-crossings and landslides. But it was a fantastic, good-humored group, and the badlands of western North Dakota were more stunning than I even anticipated (and I am a big fan of wide-open desert spaces.) I am a lucky person to know so many great people, even if my friends are spread out across all corners of the world these days.

June, "Struggling Toward Sunrise"

I snapped this shot of Beat on a ridge of the Pacific Crest Trail, just after sunrise during the second morning of the San Diego 100. It was a time of struggle for both of us. Beat was struggling because he was 86 miles into a 100-mile race that he never trained for, as he had spent two months recovering from a bad case of Achilles tendinitis that flared up during the White Mountains 100. (But Beat, being Beat, didn't let that stop him from starting and finishing anyways.) I was struggling because I was just 35 miles into the same effort, and in a lot of foot pain myself. I agreed to pace Beat through the night, starting at mile 51, solely for my own benefit. I was training for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, which was just a month away, and wanted to complete a long-distance night run at hundred-mile pace.

I knew that experiencing that much pain on the bottom of my feet after 35 miles did not bode well for a hundred-miler the following month. The pain also slowed me down enough that I had to drop myself as a pacer at the next aid station, because I just couldn't keep up with Beat's stride any longer. I was frustrated, but at the same time, pacified by the serene beauty of these desert mountains. This year has been full of growing pains as I've worked to develop my distance capabilities on foot. But I believe the struggle has been worth it, and that "worth it" is what this photo illustrates.

July, "On the Road"

I snapped this shot after a moment of serendipity, as I was driving toward Salt Lake City on I-80. For most of the trip across Nevada, the air had been shrouded by thick brown haze (it was a dirt storm stirred up by the 35 mph wind.) After I passed Wendover and dropped onto the Bonneville Salt Flats, the air began to clear. In my rear-view mirror, I noticed the sun setting behind the distant mountains. It was a beautiful scene, and it stirred up an overwhelming desire to run. I veered into a rest stop, stepped out of my car into the gale-force wind, and started sprinting across the salt in my flip-flops and jeans. I ran a couple hundred yards until I was fully winded, then turned around and stumbled against the cross-wind back toward the car. On the way back I did stop to shoot a few of these jumping self portraits, in an effort to capture the perfect feeling of freedom I was experiencing. (Which I immediately sent to both Beat, who was preparing for a race in France, and my mother, who expected me in Salt Lake hours earlier.)

It did feel good to be on the road. I had just spent a stunning night sleeping high on the Pacific Crest Trail during a 24-mile fastpack trip, and was heading out to Utah to visit my family and hike in the Wasatch mountains and southern desert. I was still processing my experience in the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, which was affecting me more than I thought it would. I went into that race expecting a challenging and fun experience, but not too grueling, being that it was "only" 100 miles in the warmth of summer, with tons of aid. Unsurprisingly, I started to feel my now-familiar foot pain at mile 40, and by mile 58 I was locked in a full-on death march. I remained determined to see it through, but I slowed down to such an extent that by mile 72 it became clear I was not going to make the next aid station before the cut-off. My blind determination, which had really been the only thing that kept me going, completely shattered. I all but crawled to mile 80, arriving nearly two hours after they shut down the aid station. It was tough for me to accept that I could try so hard, and endure so much pain, and still fail. This affected me deeply enough that even now, five months later, I still feel ambivalent about ever participating in a 100-mile trail-running race again (a steep, mountainous foot race that encourages power-hiking and has a fairly generous cut-off, however, is another story. Snow trails, for my own weird reasons, are also exempted from this ambivalence) But it was nice to have a care-free week of hiking in Utah to let go of my disappointment.

August, "Zion Narrows"

Although it was still July when I drove to Utah, I was in Utah in early August, thus the use of two photos from the same trip. Back in the late 1990s, when I was still a teenager, I ordained Zion National Park my favorite place in the world and made it my goal to hike every trail in the park. (Note, I was only aiming for established trails sanctioned by the park, not technical canyoneering routes.) I traversed the whole park during a 2001 backpacking trip, and in 2002 hiked the Subway, thus completing every trail on my list but one — the Zion Narrows. That was just about the time I discovered cycling and all but abandoned every single one of my hiking ambitions, which at one time included all of Colorado's 14'ers and the high peaks of the western United States. (Yes, I was once a goal-driven hiker. I find myself turning in that direction again.) Anyway, until this year the Zion Narrows were still on my bucket list.

My dad secured a hard-to-acquire summer permit and invited me along. The hike was both more beautiful than I imagined, and more challenging. Even with 104-degree heat hovering just a few dozen feet over our heads, the Virgin River at the time was deep and cold. I struggled to navigate the rocks in the swift-flowing current, and also became quite chilled at times. But it was a fantastic walk/swim, and fun to finally see through one of my teenage ambitions (because I've pretty much failed in nearly every other one. Meet Eddie Vedder? Yeah, that hasn't happened yet.)

September, "Tour of Giants"

Before September, I had never even stepped outside the North American continent (unless Hawaii counts.) This was my first foray into the outside world — a two-week trip to Switzerland, Italy and Germany. The European tour was centered around Beat's participation in the Tor des Geants, a 200-mile, 80,000-feet-of-climbing foot race in the Italian Alps. I only served in a support and spectating role, but I had a fantastic time driving a tiny European car all over the Aosta Valley and ascending several of these beautiful mountains myself. I was blown away by the sheer scale and ruggedness of the Alps, and also the culture therein.

I took this photo of Beat when he was just four miles from finishing the almost unfathomably tough race, five days after he started. He's traveling one of the very few "flat" sections of trail with a towering ridge of Mont Blanc in the background. That he was still smiling at this point says a lot about his drive — that despite all appearances and social norms, he really is enjoying himself. One of the many reasons I love him.

October, "Fall in the Grand Canyon"

October in many ways felt like a catch-up month pressed between two big trips, but I did squeeze in one whirlwind desert tour that included pacing my friend Danni for 43 miles in the Slickrock 100, and 24 hours before that, hiking across the Grand Canyon with my dad. Crossing the Grand Canyon with my dad has become a near-annual tradition, and I cherish it.

This year was particularly enjoyable, because for the first time it was just my dad and me. My mom came along for the ride and thankless shuttle duty, which I shared with her on the way back to the North Rim while my dad completed his first-double crossing (I couldn't join him because of scheduling conflicts with the Slickrock 100.) The weather was also dynamic, with three inches of fresh snow on the rim, temperatures near 20 degrees and ice at the trailhead, and vibrant fall colors across the canyon. I actually took this photo the evening before our hike, in a brisk 25-degrees and 15-mph wind at Imperial Point. I slipped on that thin film of ice and felt myself briefly skidding toward that closer-and-steeper-than-it-appears ledge, but I recovered my balance before I fell and snapped this image. My family probably wishes I was more dedicated to a more traditional tradition (like, say, coming home for Christmas.) But I'm grateful my dad and I have the Grand Canyon to share.

November, "Nepal" 

Anyone who has made it this far in this blog post probably also read my Nepal novel, so I won't rehash too much of the experience. I took this photo during the 45-mile "Long March" of stage five, of Beat descending into a village above the Pokhara Valley. I picked it as a good representation of the experience because it contains a piece of nearly everything: A stone trail, a tiered farming field, a remote mountain village, the Annapurna Range in the distance to the left and a sweeping view of the foothills. As I've said before, visiting Nepal was an amazing experience, one that will probably take me more than these few weeks since to truly process.

I'm purposely leaving December out of the mix because not only is it still mid-month, but the adventures (and potential photo opportunities) are far from over for 2011. More on that soon.