Sunday, March 31, 2013

In search of deep seas

The morning after Beat finished his journey across Alaska, he took a well-deserved nap and I used the opportunity to steal away for one last outing in Nome. The cold snap was easing but far from broken — it was still 15 below, and the north wind was picking up strength. Phil pointed out a small peak called Anvil Mountain where I could hike, but warned me that the wind could be fierce up there. And as Beat observed after 28 days out in the weather, "Wind is everything."

"Give me 50 below over 10 below with wind," he told me after determining that all of his layers need to be windproof if (and when) he attempts such a journey in the future. When it's calm, cold air hangs like a curtain that can be brushed away. But wind is knife that tears open every tiny crack in the armor and pierces the skin, driving its chill to the core. With this in mind, I geared up substantially ... wind-proof tights, wind-proof shell pants, Beat's primaloft shorts, gaiters, polypro base layer, fleece, Gortex shell, hats, face mask, and goggles. As I pulled on each layer in the comfort of Phil's driftwood-heated front room, I imagined I was suiting up to go deep-sea diving.

I pedaled the purple Pugsley to the base of Anvil; five miles was just long enough for my toes to go numb as I rode up the pavement. It was uphill, but not steep enough to justify how sluggish I felt. I stashed the bike behind a sign propped against four feet of snowpack, warning that the road may be impassable beyond that point. From there, I marched in a direct line up the mountain, postholing in knee-deep drifts. It was a short climb — one mile and about a thousand feet of elevation gain — but the continuous effort was Herculean, about as hard as I'm able to go in a sustained push. On the surface I was gasping and exhausted, but inside I was deeply pleased about how wonderful it felt to be both outside and warm.


And then I crested the ridge, where I met The North Wind. It raced along the broad spine of the mountain and hit my face in a blast of ice shards and breathtaking cold. My instinctual reaction, as it often is, was instant panic. "It's cold, it's cold, run away, run away." It turned my back to the wind to muffle the voices. "Shut up, this wind is not even bad." I reached in my pack to pull out my goggles and face mask, finally completing my full-body wind barrier. When I turned to face The North Wind again, I could hear it gusting in my hood, but felt only hot breath swirling around my face. As I moved into The North Wind, it felt as though I were swimming against a strong current, or taking deliberate steps to slice through deep water pressure. The rolling hills were as barren as the bottom of the ocean. I listened to my own labored breaths echo through my headgear, and imagined I was deep-sea diving.


And sure enough, as soon as it became apparent that the insidious North Wind was not going to kill me, I decided we should be friends. "It is a beautiful thing, what you've done to these hills," I said to The North Wind as I stepped over sparkling sastrugi formations and skittered across granite-like snow crusts. I had heard plenty of stories of how bad the wind can be on the Bering Sea coast, and was grateful the North Wind had granted a relatively workable passage to Beat and Marco, and had been even kinder to me during my three days in Nome. In fact, Alaska had been nothing but kind to me for a whole month. From all the wonderful friends who offered me a warm bed and hot food, to the weather that remained consistently dry and even sunny, to the collision of factors that made it possible to ride the Denali Highway with three busy friends from wildly varying geographic locations, to the two foot races that were timed perfectly to fit my schedule, to the seemingly endless supply of fun bikeable trails and adventure opportunities.


"It's going to be tough to leave all of this behind," I said to The North Wind. I removed a mitten to pull out my camera and shoot photos of the expanse. In the sixty-second interim, The North Wind whisked the blood from my fingers, leaving them pale and rigid. I pulled my mitten back on and shook my arm around to ignite a painful thaw, acknowledging with bemusement how close I was to the hard edge, even now — and wondered how exactly I was going to miss this when we returned to, as Beat put it jokingly, "fake life."

And what is "real life?" During my month of wanderings around Alaska, I felt consistent contentedness, frequently interjected with profound happiness. As Beat and I return to California and our routines, I'm left to ponder the origin of these emotions. It's true I was surrounded by beauty and kindness in Alaska, combined with a satisfying freedom to do as I wanted, when I wanted. But my time there was also filled with physical discomforts — many restless nights with insomnia, fatigue, cold, soreness, acute pains, hunger, and nausea. There were also frequent emotional stresses — anxiety for Beat's situation, loneliness, fear, and a wayward lack of security and routine. But as I've discovered in my endurance pursuits, unrest is not a barrier against happiness ... it may just be an important bridge.

I circled a set of radar towers — eerie relics from the Cold War — and kept walking north. The chill was beginning to find its way into my layers and I found myself running occasionally to send more blood to my extremities. My body protested the pointless discomforts of this walk, and my rational side reminded me that Beat and I had a plane to catch that would take us back to Anchorage in a short four hours. But for now, I was in no hurry to turn away from The North Wind ... not yet.

To paraphrase something Beat told me about his experience of walking to Nome — we find these places that are so beautiful, and so hostile, that they encompass us fully. The farther I walked away from Nome, the deeper I immersed myself in a vast ocean that did not care about my presence. Cold clamped down like a vice on barren tundra that appeared frozen in time; but The North Wind flowed through effortlessly, reminding anyone who dared to listen that nothing is permanent, nothing. We go to these places where our existence does not matter so we can step outside our egos and attachments for brief moments, and look back to see ourselves the way The North Wind sees us — small figures in an unbroken expanse. I block a tiny stream of The North Wind for a few moments, watch my warm breath turn to a cloud and dissipate, and I call this my life.

There's joy in this realization. If life is a goggle-clad figure steeling herself against a sea of cold space, then it's more beautiful and valuable than I ever imagined.