Sunday, March 11, 2012

Return to Juneau

Amid the whirlwind of activity during my three weeks in Alaska, I never had a chance to post about my short trip to Juneau. Thanks to an Alaska Air mileage ticket and a few extra days between the Susitna 100 and Beat's arrival in Anchorage, I had an opportunity to return to Southeast Alaska for the first time since I moved away in April 2010. I was excited to see old friends, eat a Silverbow bagel and drink some Heritage coffee, and walk across the Douglas Bridge while gazing lovingly at the Gastineau Channel. But more than anything, I wanted to visit some mountains.

Of all of the places I've lived, Juneau still holds the deepest level of affection in my heart. In many ways, Juneau feels more like home than Salt Lake City. In spite of myself I often bring up Juneau in casual conversation, enough so that most of my new friends have at some point asked me why I ever left. I tell them I had to leave because my life there just wasn't working. I felt I had given my best effort to make it work, but it came to a point where I needed drastic change, the kind that just can't happen in an isolated community of 30,000 wedged on a narrow strip of land between ice-capped mountains and the sea. Leaving Juneau was one of the most difficult decisions I've made, and also one of the best. I don't regret that I left, but I miss it, sometimes achingly, all the same.

At the height of my unhappiness there, I was still struggling to cope with the breakup of a long-term relationship, working 50- and 60-hour weeks just to barely hold together my section of the local newspaper, living in a small room of a house owned by a fussy landlady, cycling through the awkward realities of dating again, hanging out with my ex too often to be healthy, avoiding some of our mutual friends because of awkwardness caused by the breakup, feeling under the weather all the time, losing interest in cycling and generally showing early signs of a potential onset of depression. It was a rough time in my life, and there were a few months in there where my only source of happiness was the mountains. I've mostly let memories of those bad months fade behind everything I loved about Juneau, but I still hold on to images of those snow-bound peaks. I couldn't wait to visit them again. There was only one little kink in my plan: The Susitna 100.

For your viewing pleasure, I'm re-posting the picture of what my feet looked like for several days after I finished the race. I had a rather impressive case of edema that was concentrated in my feet and lower legs. My hands and face didn't swell at all, but my feet looked and felt like they were about to burst. I also had painful skin issues, having essentially boiled my feet in their own sweat for the better part of 35 hours (thus the blisters, but those aren't what hurt. My soles felt like a combination of sunburn, electric shock and severe athlete's foot.) It was Tuesday afternoon before I could even fit my feet in my oversized winter running shoes again. That evening, I got on a plane to Juneau.

I was still limping when I arrived at the house of my good friends Libby Bakalar and Geoff Kirsch. Libby and Geoff were a great support system when I was going through my rough patch, and it was fantastic to see them again and meet their year-old son. On Wednesday morning, I woke up to 35 degrees and full-on snain ("snain" is the term Juneauites use for precipitation that includes both slushy flakes of snow and stinging daggers of rain. It's rain and snow at the same time, and although it happens all the time in Juneau, I've never witnessed this exact phenomenon anywhere else.) I was already grumpy about how much my feet ached, and I used snain as an excuse to sit around all morning, snarf three Silverbow bagels, and pout.

At about 2 p.m. I finally had to acknowledge that I was either going to completely squander my trip to Juneau, or I wasn't. I stuffed my swollen feet into some shoes, put on my snain-resistant Gortex coat, and hobbled out Libby and Geoff's front door. The closest trail to their house is the Dan Moller Trail, and since I had no transportation besides my hurty feet, I moved slowly in that direction. Eventually the excruciating hot-coal feeling numbed and I once I strapped the snowshoes on for softer snow, my feet felt almost normal. The climb was hard. I wasn't recovered from the Susitna 100 by any stretch of the imagination, and my heart felt like it was racing even as my legs struggled to lift out of the soft powder. But I pushed through it, all the way to the ridge, because I wasn't going to lose this chance to visit "my" mountains.

At the ridge, the stiff wind and sweeping views hit me simultaneously, and I experienced the sensation of freezing and melting in the same breath. The scene was heart-achingly beautiful, in a way this photo doesn't begin to show. Or perhaps it was so beautiful to me because of the memories that are now deeply infused in this place: Looking out over Admiralty Island for the first time, gimpy snowshoe hikes while recovering from a knee injury, all the incredible snow bike rides while training for the Iditarod, my last afternoon of blissful ignorance just a few hours before Geoff broke up with me, all those damp late-summer hikes with Geoff while we tried to work through it. The Douglas Island Ridge has seen me exhausted and frozen, excited and strong, blissful and content, angst-ridden and weak. I do look to these places now like I look to old friends, for understanding and remembrance. This visit did not disappoint.

On Thursday morning, I headed downtown to have lunch with my friend Abby at Rainbow Foods. Because of procrastination I had to run the entire way in order to not be late — a little less than three miles in 24 minutes. I was running hard with a big hiking pack and snowshoes in my hands, and I won't lie, it hurt. My feet were on fire and my legs were screaming too, but in a weird way it felt good to run for the first (and still only) time since the Susitna 100. Abby and her daughter Marin were ten minutes late anyway, but it worked out for the best because we also bumped into my friend Dan. Dan and Abby are the two who are directly responsible for my first steps into the running community. Abby was the one who rallied me to join her on training runs when I first expressed interest in running following my cycling burn-out after the 2009 Tour Divide, and Dan was the one who finally convinced me that trail running is just like hiking, only faster.

During this time, Abby invited me to join her at what would become my first trail race, the Mount Roberts Tram Run. We started out jogging together near the back of the pack when she said, "Is it all right if I run ahead?" At the time I only understood that she was somewhat faster than me, so I replied, "Of course, go win the race!" I was joking about the winning part, but then she went on to scorch the 4-mile, 1,800-feet-of-climbing course and win the overall race, beating all of the guys. Turns out she's a lot faster than me, but she made an effort to include me in some of her training runs all the same. Abby is awesome, and I'm lucky to have had such a great running ambassador during my novice year.

Fittingly, my afternoon plan involved hiking up Mount Roberts. Dan took a half day off work just to join me, and in true Juneau fashion, did so by calling his boss and saying, "I'm not coming back from lunch. I'm going hiking." And his boss, because the clouds were breaking up and actual sunlight was hitting the downtown streets, said, "Of course. Have fun."

It was another gorgeous afternoon in Juneau. The sucker holes didn't stick and thick clouds settled back in, but temperatures were mild, the wind was surprisingly light (for Mount Roberts) and it was fun to catch up with Dan. He's looking to enter his first 100-mile trail race this summer, and we spent time discussing the possibilities. It's humorous that I've completed a 100-mile foot race before Dan, given how reluctant I claimed to be about the whole running thing back in 2009. He opened up questions about my latest Susitna 100 experience with, "Last time I saw you, you didn't even like running and now you've gone crazy with it." Yes. Yes I have.

I also worked in a dinner with my friend Brian at El Sombrero. By early Friday morning, it was already time to leave. It's an interesting experience to revisit a place I left because my life wasn't working, and discover how many pieces fell into place, exactly where they needed to be. I will be back again, Juneau, hopefully sooner than later.


  1. Thank you for the memory trip. It's wonderful to come back and re-live those, while living life forward. Abby and Dan sound like totally awesome folks. You live in a beautiful place, indeed. Sometime for the great things to come out we need for the not so wonderful things to happen. There is always something to compare, and looking back, it could feel different than it did at the time.

  2. I hope you don't mind me saying this, but after reading your books, this was a very interesting post.

    Thnaks for the post!!

  3. Juneau sounds great except for the weather and isolation.

  4. Beautiful scenery photos! Yes, in the mountains of Oregon we get "snain" too.

  5. I can so relate because I felt the same way about leaving sitka and my friends ask me that same question.

  6. Jill thank you for sharing all your exceptional experiences, photos and memories with us. I read your blog daily and have read all your books. I am addicted to your experiences.
    I have never replied before. I was glad to hear someone else use the word snain. When I use it here in the So. Cal. mtns I get funny looks.

    Best of luck in your next adventure.

  7. It's amazing how a place can bring so many memories and feelings flooding back. It was probably great for you to go back there on more positive terms than you left; very therapeutic. Nice post.

    (and great pics, by the way!)

  8. Jill - A beautifully written post about Juneau. Seeing your photos and reading your words brought tears to my eyes. I moved to northern Wisconsin this past summer after living 18 years in Juneau. I miss the mountains and the people. (I don't miss the rain or snain!) But it's been a good move because the cycling here, both road and mountain is terrific, and that's what I love most.

  9. Glad you had somewhat decent weather while you were in Juneau! I hope you come back soon and for a longer time. I haven't really moved away but I think there is something funny for people coming back to Juneau. It seems to be a kind of tough place to visit. I wish I had gotten a chance to meet you when you lived here!

  10. We have "snain" once in a while here in Portland OR. I'm pretty accustomed to 35 degrees and raining. I wonder if you've ever used the secret weapons of rain gear that we use here:


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