Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thankful

Well, I'm back in Utah for the third time in eight weeks. I think my parents are starting to suspect that I've moved back in, but the goal of this trip was to see a portion of my extended family and spend a legitimate holiday with everyone in my immediate family. Since Beat and I haven fallen into a tradition of spending Christmas in Alaska, Thanksgiving has taken on a more significant meaning as a traditional family gathering. Also for this trip, I packed out a large suitcase of Alaska-specific gear with hopes that an Arctic cold front would blow in and offer ample testing opportunities. No such luck, as the weather has been clear, ten to fifteen degrees above normal, and absolutely gorgeous. Sigh. So disappointing.

Having just escaped mob madness at the SLC airport on Wednesday afternoon, with a little over two hours of daylight to spare, my dad and I took a leisurely walk up Bells Canyon. When I was a child in the Salt Lake Valley, I believed November was the ugliest month of the year. Nothing but gray skies, blah temperatures, and brown trees stripped of all of their leaves. Right? November. Blech.

Obviously, I feel a little differently these days.

Dad and Lower Bells Canyon Falls.

On Black Friday, Dad and I continued another tradition of ignoring all things Black Friday and enjoying a post-Thanksgiving slog up the appropriately named Gobbler's Knob. Temperatures on this day were in the mid-40s, which felt toasty despite my Californiafied blood. However, because of sea level acclimation, hiking at elevation always makes me feel as though I've suddenly lost a lot of fitness. Add a 3,500-foot climb, breaking trail in knee-deep slush with a sun crust, and a summit push up a relentlessly steep pitch over chunky boulders masked with thin snow, and you have all the ingredients for a fantastic workout. I love a good slog.

The snow was never quite deep enough for us to put on snowshoes, but ranged from a few inches to thigh-deep and everything in between. The snowpack on these south-facing slopes had a thick crust that was breakable enough to collapse under our weight, but condensed enough to trap our feet beneath the snow. This often made it feel like I was hiking with 50-pound weights strapped to each leg, tearing my quads apart just to lift a knee. Tough walking. It took us 2.5 hours to hike four miles.

It was worth it.

I packed my new windproof fleece jacket along for the slog with gear-testing ambitions in mind, only to reach the summit and discover there wasn't a breath of wind, and temperatures were still above freezing, at 10,300 feet. I have memories of summer afternoons on Wasatch summits that felt colder than this. We took a long lunch break, lounging in the sun and eating leftover Thanksgiving rolls for lunch, when a skier tromped up from the north side of the mountain. He was an older guy, wearing faded cargo pants and scuffed skis, with long beard and a shock of tangled strawberry blond hair stuffed beneath a trucker hat. He was aghast that we'd climbed all the way up the mountain but didn't bring skis. Then he told us a fascinating story about a massive avalanche he barely survived on the face of Gobbler's Knob — took a 1,500-foot ride and caught his arm on a tree, dislocating his shoulder but managing to stay afloat. "It was a peaceful experience, floating along on my back next to those big blocks of snow. I mean, I knew I was going 70 miles per hour, but it was like time stood still, riding with those blocks of snow."

I forgot to ask his name, but he told us the exact date of the avalanche — February 7, 2010 — so looked up the slide he described; he wasn't exaggerating. Thanks to the wonders of Google I was able to learn more about him — turns out he's a Utah backcountry ski fixture nicknamed "The Wizard of the Wasatch" and has been employed by the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center. We didn't believe him when he said he had 3,500 lifetime ski days so far, but maybe he wasn't exaggerating about that, either. You meet the most fascinating people in the mountains.

On the way back down the canyon, we saw a bull moose foraging in the brush. You meet fascinating animals in the mountains, too.

Of course there was plenty of quality family time and pie eating between the outdoor adventures. When in Salt Lake over the holidays, there's of course the obligatory visit to the Christmas light display at the Salt Lake Temple grounds.

My Surly Karate Monkey is going to live with my sister Lisa, and today I finally put the bike together and set out to deliver "Kim" to Lisa's home in West Jordan. Of course I couldn't ride out there without taking a spin around the Bonneville Shoreline Trail in Corner Canyon. This was the trail system where I trained in the weeks prior to the 2009 Tour Divide, so taking Kim on one last ride here seemed apt. Some trail sections were muddy like this, but most were bone dry and it was another warm day. I wore a T-shirt and knee-length tights, no need for hat and gloves — although the Utahns I encountered were all bundled up.

I don't necessarily agree with the platitudes of giving thanks. It's ridiculous to dedicate just one day out of the year to gratitude, just as it would be ridiculous to designate a "happiness day." But I do appreciate the ceremonies that Thanksgiving encourages, the tradition of families coming together for the sake of coming together, and the tradition of going home for the sake of going home. Every year at Thanksgiving, my grandmother upheld the before-dinner tradition of having everyone name one thing we're thankful for. With upwards of forty people crammed in the house, this ritual would often go on until the turkey was cold and a white film had formed on top of the candied yams. Nobody loved the ritual, but we were all surprised when this year, at the age of 83, she simply forgot to request this. But I actually had a plan this year, for what I was going to say — I'm thankful for my past. For my past, the places where it resides, and everyone and everything in it. It's been a wonderful journey so far.