Saturday, April 05, 2014

Goodbye, Alaska, and thanks

The list of things to do on Monday and Tuesday was long, as it often is when dismantling a six-week trip that involves piles of winter gear. I hardly slept on Sunday night after the White Mountains 100, too amped up and dehydrated, gasping to push more oxygen into my thickened blood. Monday's agenda included driving seven hours from Fairbanks to Anchorage — a road trip, I discovered, that becomes decidedly less fun when sleep-deprived and operating under the reality that the adventure is behind me rather than ahead. The droopy eyes set in around Healy, and I decided a break was in order.

The tiny winter visitor's center at Denali National Park was crammed with a busload of tourists. An Asian woman demanded a larger plastic bag to cover the calendar she just purchased, and the ranger seemed frazzled as she rifled around for something to appease her. The scene did have a weird kind of frenzy to it, enough to spark discomfort. I considered turning around and leaving the national park, but the ranger kindly waved me over to ask if I needed anything. "I'm curious if the trail along the park road is packed enough for a bicycle?" I asked. "Oh, and I need to pay the entry fee."

"The road is plowed," she said, "all the way out to Savage River." She pushed a map toward me. "And there's no entry fee in the winter; we're just hoping to get more people out there."

Fifteen miles out the road, the north wind was the only source of sound, moaning softly as it rushed across the wide valley. The plowed part of the park road had been precariously icy for a car, and I could see the surface beyond the gate was pretty much a broken sheet of glare ice on muddy gravel. This didn't seem promising for a ride, but I still pulled the bike out of the back seat, only to discover the front tire was completely flat. I used my little hand pump to push test air back into it; after three minutes, it had enough volume to at least notice, but after three more, it was losing air again. "Argh, bikes," I grumbled, too lazy to fix the flat. I crammed the mechanical nuisance back into the car and pulled on microspikes instead.

Running was humorous; I haven't done much of that in the past few weeks as it is, and less than 24 hours after finishing a hundred-mile fat bike race, any "running" I attempted was more like a pained shuffle on stiff legs. I walked frequently. I wasn't even looking for a workout, far from it, I knew rest was in order. But I also knew I was in Denali National Park, out the road in late March with no one else around, and this was a rare visiting opportunity. Even if the distance I could cover on my tired legs with no bike was minuscule, what I'd see would be exponentially richer than anything seen while driving sleepy in a rental car.

So I ran, limply, letting the north wind push my body into a side-to-side stagger, hardly taking my gaze off the mountains. An ice sheen over the snow glistened in the low light of afternoon, and I scanned the nearest mountains for friendly routes up to the ridge. When I spotted one, I grumbled to myself about sending my snowshoes home in the mail. But then again, a climb like that would take hours. I did not have hours. I barely even had minutes, but I felt greedy and wanted it all — for Beat to come back and for the adventure to continue ... for spring and break-up to somehow hold off a little longer ... for Alaska to not leave me, even if it had to be the other way around.

Denali National Park granted me that wish, a final beautiful memory to hold onto as I jetted back to real life and the projects that I looked forward to working on, the dry trails and mountain biking that I admit I missed, the summer adventures that I'm excited to prepare for, and of course Beat, who I missed terribly in a way that was different than when he was simply out walking the Iditarod Trail. It was time to go home. Return was a good thing, but Denali gave me the gift of holding on for a few moments longer.

I'm incredibly grateful for the privilege I had to journey through Alaska for nearly six weeks. It wouldn't have been possible without the generosity and awesomeness of friends who I owe many thanks and maybe guided bike vacations in California next time you want to escape Alaska in the winter:

Dan and Amy in Anchorage. Dan and Amy are amazing. They graciously put up with Beat and me floating in and out of their home for the better part of six weeks, using their gear room as our personal base camp, while they stored piles of stuff, baked cookies and delicious dinners, and made more airport trips than I can count. Thanks Dan and Amy; hopefully Beat and I can at least partially return the favor someday soon.

Jill in Anchorage. Jill encouraged me to join her for bike adventures and put up with my slowness shortly after I returned from McGrath. Thanks for getting me back out there!

Dave and Andrea in Willow. Spending a few days with Dave Johnston, eating "recovery" steak and sandwich dinners with him, and listening to his ITI stories was a highlight of the trip; biking to intriguing places in the region was a nice bonus.

Libby and Geoff in Juneau. I appreciate that Libby and Geoff are willing to open their "flophouse" for wayward friends like myself. It's fun chatting about the latest Juneau political gossip and watching bad reality TV. Seeing their kids significantly older is always kind of weird, but fun. They grow up so fast.

Cecile in Juneau. It was Cecile's birthday and she hosted a big breakfast for friends that I just happened to be invited to because I showed up at a group run that day. I really enjoyed meeting a number of Juneau's quirky runners; I was always on the periphery of the running community when I lived in Juneau but never involved, so it was fun to finally get to know everyone better.

Brian in Juneau. Brian has long been a good friend and always reliable for a fun night on the town. We went to see a play and enjoyed a couple of tasty dinners.

Shana in Nome. Beat and I were complete strangers to her when Shana offered to host us at her home. She and I enjoyed late nights, staying up until the small hours and chatting like old friends. The three of us hiked up Anvil Mountain together the day after Beat finished the ITI. I really enjoyed getting to know Shana and hope to visit again soon. Nome is a fantastic place; you'd never really know it unless you went there yourself.

Phil and Sarah in Nome. Phil no doubt had major Iditarod fatigue after riding the route himself in twelve days, and then hosting or greeting a number of ITI bikers and walkers that followed. Phil let me borrow his bike for a day, and Sarah prepared a delicious dinner for everyone after Tim and Loreen finished.

Craig and Amity in Butte. Craig and Amity are two friends from college that have been there for me since the very beginning. They hosted my very first Susitna 100 effort in 2006, and they're still there for a friendly stopover in a beautiful setting near the Matanuska River.

Corrine and Eric in Fairbanks. I met Corrine and Eric through the White Mountains network, and like everyone I have met through that network, are fun and generous. Corrine and Eric skied the White Mountains 100 together this year. It was their first 100-mile ski, and they finished in 31 hours. I didn't have a chance to see them after they finished, and I regret that we couldn't swap stories. But I enjoyed getting to know them better.

Joel and Erica in Fairbanks. Joel and Erica treated me to a shakedown ride before the race and a big lunch after the race.

Beat and me on top of Anvil Mountain. Special big thanks to him. :)
And of course all the others who contributed to the journey — those involved with the Iditarod Trail Invitational: Bill and Kathi, Rich at Yentna Station, Cindi on the Yentna River, Cindy in Skwentna, Rob in Rohn, the Petruskas in Nikolai, Peter and Tracy in McGrath, Wilco the Dutch filmmaker. Thanks to Ed in Fairbanks along with all the volunteers of the White Mountains 100. And many others — lots of awesome people in Alaska. I'm fairly introverted and sometimes have difficulty connecting with people, but there's something about those northern latitudes that have helped me meet many kindred spirits. Thank you, everyone.