Friday, March 27, 2015

Where the North Wind blows, part three

Overnight, ground blizzards swirled and mushers continued to stack up at the Shaktoolik checkpoint. As morning approached, there were 21 teams holed up in around the small armory. Some had been there for more than 24 hours — the kind of layover even mid-pack mushers aren't known to take — and still no one was moving north into the wind. One of the school teachers took her kids to visit the checkpoint, and described a scene of hundreds of dogs on the ice, and mushers crammed into every corner of the building. The stench, she said, was unbearable. 

As for me, I'd developed a bad case of the kennel cough. It started with persistent hacking and developed into a full-blown riot, doubled over in pain as gobs of mucus ripped through my lungs. I was concerned I was developing bronchitis, but I didn't feel too bad otherwise. Maybe this was the price of heavy breathing in the wind. Rumor also had it that lots of mushers were sick as well. It was unlikely I caught anything from one of them, but I took comfort in the idea that I wasn't alone in my misery. 

I was also starting to run light on food, having started out with what I thought was a generous three days' worth, and having surpassed day three. There were still calories left for just under two more days at the rate I'd been eating, but I'd cherry-picked all the good stuff and was down to one hot meal. A visit to the local Native Store was disappointing. In all likelihood the 21 mushers holed up in town had helped clean them out, but snack and convenience foods were surprisingly absent. I purchased two single-serving containers of instant mac-and-cheese, one can of tuna, one package of Twinkies (there was only one), one root beer, and one orange. The total came out to $23. The orange itself cost nearly $4. It was surprisingly fresh and delicious — worth every penny. There really wasn't much to restock my trail food, unless I wanted to eat raw ramen noodles. I figured that could be an option to extend my food another day, if I somehow ended up back in Shaktoolik again.

Daylight start on day four of my journey, still only 45(!) trail miles from my start in Unalakleet. My legs were so sore that I felt like I had already walked the full 350 to McGrath, and my shoulders and neck muscles burned fiercely. Principal Steve informed me the wind had died down, but the weather station at the airstrip still registered winds out of the north at 33 mph, gusting to 47. Of the 21 mushers holed up in Shaktoolik, eight set out in a paceline during the middle of the night. Among them were Lance Mackey and his brother, and another musher, Scott Janssen, who spent more than 12 hours stranded on the sea ice after his team lost the trail in "the worst blizzard I've ever seen."

Most of the remaining mushers set out after me in the late morning. I was amazed at the ease in which little dog paws could float over the snow dunes. Still, as each team approached and I stepped off the trail to let them go by, they'd run a few paces past me and stop. It was as though I'd been the one breaking trail for the dogs, and now they didn't see a reason to keep running. The musher would step off his sled, greet and pat each one of the dogs as he passed his team, and coax his leader until they were moving again. It was enlightening to see this interaction between the mushers and their dogs. I suppose I expected more of a boss/employee relationship, but the affection these mushers display makes it clear their love and appreciation for each dog runs deep.

For me, the day proceeded not much better than the day before, except for feeling even more physically beaten. However, just one more day of mental readjustment eased some of my angst, and I was more content to plod along at unconscionably slow paces. I recalled Beat's warning — "Everything that comes before the coast, prepares you for the coast." How true this is. I may have had fresh legs and a full belly starting in Unalakleet, but I had none of the experience or fortitude earned by battling the 750 miles that come before. I've spent the past few years believing the full Iditarod Trail was too much and section touring may be the best way to experience the trail, but I question that now. Yes, the full thousand miles is still too long and too far to comprehend. That hasn't changed. But in so many ways it's a race of the mind, more so than the body ... and I was vastly undertrained.

My body was not prepared for this effort either. Near mile five — which came nearly four hours after I started — I completely lost the trail. I'd followed a single teams' tracks that were rapidly disappearing in the wind, and came to a slough with drifts up to my thighs rippling across glare ice. There wasn't a single Iditarod stake in sight. After some bashing around, I found no signs of dog tracks, and scanning a 360-degree angle brought no stake sightings. Damn it. The wind was still blowing straight out of the north and I needed to go north, but even walking on the remnants of the trail base required an effort that was near my physical limit. Off trail, I stepped into drifts that swallowed my legs above my knees, and the sandy snow was so heavy that I could scarcely lift them out again. At one point both of the bike's wheels became so mired that I even as I lifted and tugged, it wouldn't budge. I felt truly, genuinely stuck — as though I really were trapped in quicksand. As though this was the way I'd die out here, and they'd find my frozen body upright and buried to the waist in a snow dune.

I often talk about my desire to become physically stronger, and promise to do the work necessary to get there, but I fall off the wagon quickly. I envy people who enjoy lifting weights and strength training, because all I want to do is be outside, moving through the world, and can't abide the indoor torture or even stopping long enough to do a few pushups. But I do understand the benefits. And out here, on the shoreline of the Norton Sound, I experienced a scenario where lack of strength could become life-threatening. If I ever attempt to take a bicycle along this trail again, I vow to come more prepared — both physically and mentally.

Luckily there were still more dog teams on the way. After what felt like an hour of maximum-effort lunging across that slough, I saw one team off in the distance and made a bee-line for their path. It still took another decent amount of time to reach that spot, and the work didn't get a whole lot easier after I regained the trail. The dogs' tracks didn't help me much; they could float on top of the dunes that swallowed my clunky legs. If anything, the dogs churned up a crust that was starting to form, but I didn't find much purchase outside their tracks, either.

In the legend of Sisyphus, the gods condemned Sisyphus to the eternal task of rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only to watch it roll back to the bottom and have to start all over again. The lesson being that there is no more terrible punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

"At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational," Albert Camus wrote. "He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world."

The Little Mountain cabin stands on a narrow peninsula in the Norton Sound, and is the last shelter before one must cross 35 miles of sea ice. I could see its bright orange walls for more than six miles, from the moment I dropped off the final hill on land, waded down to the shore, and began my slow plod across the first section of sea ice. That was four hours of watching this cabin never grow closer, struggling under an effort that left me dizzy and disoriented, wondering if this was some kind of strange dream — or an afterlife. I was pretty sure all of the dog teams but one had passed by now. It was a stark and lonely setting, and I became aware of this as I looked down at my boots, still mired in the snow dunes, and realized that I was still very much a human out here in this desolate place, braced against the all-powerful North Wind.

I hadn't yet reached the cabin by 7 p.m. — the time Beat and I had agreed to talk via sat phone. I turned on my phone and there was a text message from him. I read through it but didn't quite understand at first — only that Beat was returning to Anchorage, immediately.

A few minutes later, we'd connected by phone, and the message became more real. Steve had received news of an unexpected tragedy while the two of them approached the tiny Yukon River village of Koyukuk. Steve need to return to California as quickly as possible, and Beat would accompany him and remain with him until he left Anchorage. They've been friends for ten years, and they'd been through much together in their journey on the Iditarod Trail. At first Steve encouraged Beat to continue onto Nome, but Beat couldn't imagine this.

"It would just feel so hollow at this point."

I put the phone down in a state of shock. The hollowness Beat described rang through me in a cacophony of grief. It was more than my exhausted mind could handle; I dropped into the snow, pulled my knees to my chin, and wailed. Although I didn't share a direct connection to this loss, the reality of it hit at a time when I was very vulnerable, and all of my defenses and coping mechanisms were buried beneath four days of fatigue and fear. So I absorbed the news in an affecting and personal way, feeling it ripple through every fiber of my body.

After I got up again, I pushed my bike the rest of the way to the cabin, leaned it against the porch, and continued hiking toward the tip of the peninsula — a small peak that gives "Little Mountain" its name. The last few feet were a headwall, and I struggled comically in the sugar snow, sliding a dozen steps back for every step forward. Another nod to the absurd, and yet I felt a strong need to walk all the way to the "end" — surrounded by the frozen sea, at the edge of the world. At the top of the headwall, I turned and fought cold gusts to the northern end of the broad peak, then stood facing the wind.

"Hello, North Wind," I said, aloud. My voice came out as a gruff squeak, and I sputtered through another bout of kennel cough before I got any more words out. "We meet again."

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a trek up a small mountain in Nome, recalling the way the strong gusting wind atop that barren plateau evoked an unsettling acknowledgement of the impermanence of all things — the unreasonable silence of the world.

"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."

Here, at the top of Little Mountain, the North Wind still reigned. I'd fought it so long and so hard to reach this point, and this was going to be as far as I'd get. I knew as soon as I spoke with Beat that we needed to reunite, as soon as possible. I admitted I was too battered to leave that night, but that I'd eat, rest, and I'd make my way back to Unalakleet and a flight to Anchorage as soon as physically possible.

So I stood facing the wind, letting it suck the warmth out of my body, scanning the bewildering expanse of ice, and the Bering Sea coast beyond. "Why?" I coughed aloud to the North Wind, without any specific extension to that question. "Why?" The North Wind only howled and blew effortlessly around my body, draining the last of my energy, and with it the shuttering grief.

I plodded down the mountain and still didn't feel like going inside the cabin. It was the only shelter for 50 miles, and I'd left Shaktoolik in the morning with this cabin as my far-reaching goal. It had been so important to me then. Now, strangely, I wanted to avoid it. I think much of this was a reaction to the intense loneliness I was feeling. Outside, I at least had the companionship of the North Wind. So I carried a log out to a section of cleaner snow and made my dinner even as the wind stole much more fuel than necessary. I sat on the log until I shivered, and then got up and walked around as the sun set, watching dusk take over, and then faint hints of the Aurora Borealis appeared to the north.

Overnight, the North Wind all but dissipated, and the temperature dropped to -5. A group of caribou hunters passed before dawn. I'd already told Beat that it had taken me 10 hours to push the 15 miles to Little Mountain, and would likely take at least that long to get back. But a combination of new traffic, subzero temperatures, and less drifting snow set up a thin crust on top of all the snow dunes I'd battled in the previous two days. Even though my feet still punched through, I discovered early that I could ride on top of the crust — not fast, but 5 mph feels like warp speed next to <1 mph.="" p="">

I reached Shaktoolik in less than three hours, undoing two full days' worth of hard effort. About three miles outside of town I met another fat biker, Andy Pohl, who was independently riding the dog sled route from Fairbanks. His nose was scabbed with frostnip and he seemed unmoved by my explanation of why I was returning to Unalakleet. He encouraged me to reconsider and instead join him for the remainder of the journey. After all Andy had been through on the trail so far — battling the cold snap and temperatures down to 53 below — I could understand why the thought of turning back would difficult to accept.

I shrugged. "Sometimes these adventures don't work out. Maybe next year."

More caribou hunters passed on snowmachines, ripping up the thin crust and reducing me to walking again. I felt a renewed surge of angst. In my raw emotional state it was all I could do to hold myself back from throwing a tantrum, which I refused to indulge in because my dramas were so shallow and small. Still, I have to admit that it took me more than two hours to summit the one-mile-long climb of the first Blueberry Hill. Some pitches were so steep that I needed to kick deep steps to give myself enough traction to support the bike. There were many times when my body just stopped, and wouldn't start again until I sneered, aloud, "Come on. Have some courage." I needed courage, because I was out of strength.

I also have to admit I was completely elated when I finally reached the top. Bursting with joy. The weather had also become oppressively hot. My thermometer said it was 19 degrees, with just a light wind.

The trail was still fairly soft, but it was mostly rideable — except for the steep climbs, for which I was steadily losing courage.

It was strange to pedal these sixty miles backward, undoing four days of an arduous and emotional journey in a single push.

It was only sixty miles, and yet I could still feel the intensity in which each mile passed, sense a connection to certain places, and wonder at how much and yet how little time had passed.

The wind was eerily absent, and the setting richly familiar. I felt more like I'd lived in this place at some point a long time ago, rather than just passed through once a few days earlier.

The Blueberry Hills. A home at the edge of the world.

I arrived in Unalakleet just before midnight, again fully shattered by the day's effort. I'd given everything I had to make sure I returned in time to catch a flight, and continued pushing hard even after I learned the only Saturday flight was in the afternoon. Still, as I approached the blinking lights of the airport, a sadness set in. Even though this trip tore me from the inside out, it was a difficult thing to give up. And even though I believe strongly that there are many more important things in life than these adventures, it was a difficult thing to give up. I wondered if Beat felt exponentially more crushed after what he'd given up, but of course our disappointments were minuscule next to our friend's loss.

I don't know if I'll return. This journey was my test for a dream that has haunted and intimidated me for years, which is the full Iditarod Trail to Nome. Being torn apart by sixty miles of travel was not how I envisioned this "short" journey starting, regardless of the reasons why it ended. Still, I learned quite a lot, experienced some beautiful country, and gained a profound respect and appreciation for the people of this region. Although there will always be more important things than these adventures, they add such richness to the absurdity that is life. Rolling a rock up a hill is a source of joy; the lesson of the North Wind is that it doesn't matter where it ends up, because everything changes always. I'll probably be back. 

"Live to the point of tears" — Albert Camus.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Where the North Wind Blows, part two

I awoke to the unpleasant whistling of the wind against plexiglass windows, and shifted my sleeping bag just enough to peer into the bright light streaming into the cabin. I had stayed up late reading, and since I only had 18 miles to travel to the village of Shaktoolik, I let myself sleep in. The wind was back but the sun was out; it looked like a beautiful day. I cheerfully squeezed into my stiff, frozen tights and socks, and hummed as I melted snow for instant coffee while shoveling in handfuls of trail mix. 

The previous night's storm dumped three or four inches of new snow, which the wind had already blown into rippling dunes. As I walked down the porch stairs, a chorus of sharp pains rippled through my muscles. It is way too early in the trip to be this sore, I thought. The morning commenced with a long climb and the trail was punchy. Another day of slow, heavy labor awaited.

Still, I didn't mind. I breathed in sharp gulps and reminded myself what a privilege it was to be here, squinting against spring sunlight as ice particles swirled in the air like glitter.

The leaving of the storm. This boded well for a sea ice crossing, I thought.

The final Blueberry Hill descends from a thousand feet to sea level in one mile. It afforded a sweeping view of the peninsula — which is all flat marshland threaded with frozen streams and sloughs, and that one strip of brush marking the shoreline. The village of Shaktoolik was at the end of the line, some 13 miles distant. The bike's front brake had become nonfunctional, and it was difficult to keep the bike from fishtailing wildly down the steep, loose trail. At one point I was bucked off and hit the snow like a lawn dart, burying my face and arms. I had a brief flashback that I was back in California, lifting myself out of the dirt after a mountain bike crash. Although I didn't think I hit my head all that hard, the association was so powerful that I became disoriented after I extracted myself and blinked against a blinding white expanse. "Where am I? What is this place?"

This strange confusion only became more pronounced as I left the visual familiarities of the mountains and crossed into the marshland. 

The miles across the marshland were unconscionably slow, pummeled by wind as I waded through dunes. Being habitually active in the outdoors starts to give a person a sense of entitlement when it comes to effort versus distance. I "should" be able to ride a mountain bike at something averaging ten miles an hour, and run close to an average of six miles an hour, and hike at three miles an hour, with a relatively comfortable and sustainable level of effort. Pushing a bike at 1.5 miles per hour while battling the dizziness of maximum effort caused me to lose all track of time. The equinox sun rolled into the western horizon, and still Shaktoolik was nowhere to be seen. I was flailing at the bottom of a gravitational vortex, going nowhere.

Shaktoolik appeared as a mirage in the sand, shimmering in the early evening sunlight. The Inupiaq village is home to about 250 people, who all live on a single street that stretches along a narrow spit of land between a river and the sea. Wikipedia tells me that Shaktoolik is derived from the Unaliq word "suktuliq," meaning "scattered things." People here live a subsistence lifestyle, with fishing, berry gathering, and caribou hunting. The land is rich but exposed; storms rage year-round. The wind blows relentlessly.

I pulled into the Shaktoolik K-12 school and was surprised to find the doors locked. After just 18 miles from the cabin I expected it was early afternoon; in reality it was after 7 p.m. "That took more than eight hours," I thought, bewildered at the realization. I was exhausted — much more exhausted than I would be after eight hours of normal bike riding, which would be a hundred or more miles in my privileged world. No such entitlement exists out here.

I walked around every door of the building until I caught the attention of a group of children practicing skills for the Indigenous Games. One demanded to see my face, and when I pulled my mask down he was disappointed because he thought I was Aliy Zirkle. They showed me to the Principal's office, who was still at his desk. Steve welcomed me warmly, offered an emergency mat, and helped me set up a nest in the school library. Because there are no inns in town, the schools provide overnight shelter to travelers for a reasonable donation. My nest in the library was better than any luxury hotel, especially considering the alternative of curling up in a bivy sack and being buried alive by wind drifts on a frozen swamp.

I set my alarm for three hours before sunrise, determined to tackle the sea ice in one hard push. My mind held stubbornly to effort entitlement, and I still hadn't conceptualized the reality of 50 miles of intensely exposed terrain at 1.5 mph. The predawn darkness was a stage for my deepest nightmares — wind raged with a high-pitched howl, driving a hurricane of spindrift that rendered my headlamp useless. The battered buildings of the village looked precariously braced against house-sized snowdrifts, and drifts across the road — which had been clear the previous evening — were three feet high. I groped around blindly for the trail out of town, finally shining my light into the sparkling eyes of dozens of dogs. I'd reached the Iditarod checkpoint. A man came outside. 

"I'm sorry to bother you," I said. "But can you tell me where the trail goes from here?" 

The man pointed into the blackness. "Goes that way," he said. He drew a breath as though he wanted to say more, but only nodded. 

I turned directly into the wind and battled in the direction he pointed, one labored step at a time. Out on the river, I saw occasional evidence of use — an ice encrusted dog bootie, a splatter of feces — but no indication of a continuous trail. Snow was blowing too hard for my headlamp to pick up the reflective tape on the trail-marking lath ... or else I wasn't pointing it in the right direction. Either way, it was hopeless. With only obscured street lights as a guide, I waded back to town. The man at the Iditarod checkpoint emerged again.

"I can't find the trail," I said. "I'm going to wait for daylight."

"Just so you know," the man said, "the trail's going to be drifted like that, probably all the way to Koyuk."

"I realize that," I said. "I'll try again in a few hours, after I can see and more traffic goes out."

The man again looked like he wanted to say more, but simply nodded.

Back at the school, I checked the weather station readings online. At the Shaktoolik airport, which is located in the most sheltered spot possible, wind from the north was blowing at 39 mph, gusting to 47. It was 8 degrees, which "feels like" -22 in those winds. What it felt like, really, was thousands of simultaneous lashes from whips woven with shards of ice. The friendly librarian came arrived at 9 a.m. She told me the local caribou hunters wouldn't be going out today. Not in this wind.

Standing in the heated entryway of the school, I re-checked every nook of my scuba suit, making sure my goggles were secure, duck-bill fog protector in place, balaclava tucked into my collar, gloves pulled over my cuffs, boot laces tightened and overboots under windpants. I was ready and determined.

At the checkpoint, I again turned to face the tyrannous North Wind and wrestled my bike down a steep embankment, onto the river. After crossing the heavily drifted ice, I located the trail tripod, where I took this photo:

It's an appropriate illustration for my feelings at the time. The bewilderment, the feebleness of my presence, the unending desolation.

In the daylight it was easier for me to pick out the bright orange stakes, but several had already blown over. Underfoot the trail was clear for short sections, then covered in knee-deep snow dunes for short sections, like waves in a frozen ocean. Plodding against the 50 mph gusts, I could only just take continuous steps across the clear sections of trail. Once mired in the snow dunes, I might as well have been sinking in quicksand, kicking wildly and wrestling my bike for no forward motion at all. When I turned my body to attempt to wade sideways out of drifts, the wind would sometimes grab the bike and throw it off its wheels. My sense of entitlement had only just come to accept 1.5 mph as a reality, when in fact now I could only dream of such speeds. The North Wind whistled and cackled, relentlessly.

When I feel scared and helpless, my main coping mechanism is to dream up wild yet somewhat plausible scenarios where I can still get myself out of the predicament. In this case, my idea was to anchor the bike's handlebar and a pedal in the snow, remove each of the racks, use straps to fashion them into a pair of snowshoes, strap my bivy bundle on my back, put some food in my pockets, and leave the rest of the anchor to a proper burial by snowdrift. Of course, I didn't really want to abandon my bike. But I found great comfort in imagining this.

I worked as hard as I could, as I absolutely could, for three hours. My GPS told me I had traveled 3.5 miles, and not in a straight line, as I frequently snaked back and forth in search of the trail base or some semblance of a firm crust. I came to what looked like a trail intersection with two crossed stakes next to a single stake, and couldn't locate the next one. I scanned the far horizon and found nothing amid a ground blizzard that had increased in velocity since morning. In three hours I had seen no one — no snowmachines, and no mushers, even though it was mid-day and there were still at least 40 mushers behind. I also had neither eaten nor drank anything in those three hours, because I was terrified of lifting my face mask and possibly fogging my goggles, which I could not function without. A gelatinous bonk had set in, and I was very thirsty. I anchored the bike on its side and pulled my down coat out of its stuff sack, then plopped down on one of the panniers to eat a snack. With thick mittens, I fumbled around with fruit snacks before stuffing the entire package in my mouth, extracting the candy with my teeth. I bit my lip trying to free the frozen morsels, and could taste blood with the sugar trickling down my throat.

"Taking care of yourself in the wind is really hard," I thought. All the while, the North Wind raged at my back, whipping the life force out of me. There was no shelter, and there was no rest. Attempting 47 more miles of this with my experience level in this kind of wind would be like attempting to finish a hundred-mile run after only successfully completing a 10K. Only here, the price of failure was almost certainly grave injury, if not death.

Still I waited, about twenty more minutes, telling myself if a snowmachine or musher went by, there would perhaps be enough of a trail to salvage a hard effort and reach the only shelter on this stretch, the Little Mountain cabin, some 12 miles distant. No one went by, and no one was going to, so I began the slow and strenuous process of retracing my steps, already long blown away by the wind.

Principal Steve generously welcomed me back to the school and said I didn't need to pay for a second night, but I did anyway, because I know how hard life is out here. I checked the weather constantly, said little prayers to the North Wind, and promised myself that I'd try again tomorrow.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Where the North Wind blows, part one

If the world had edges, they'd be sharp and rimmed with ice, overhanging the abyss of outer space. For all practical purposes, the northwestern coast of Alaska is an edge of the world — only made livable by centuries of human ingenuity and our fierce if inexplicable will to survive wherever it's remotely possible to survive. This has long been a region of nomadic residency, where people followed the whims of nature to better opportunity. In the past several decades, folks built a few permanent towns, and a trail linking them together. The towns have all the modern amenities, but the trail is still mainly just an idea — a fragile thread woven by travelers who came before, endlessly fraying under the whims of the weather. It's hardly the lifeline one wants to cling to at the edge of the world, but it's all there is, out here.

Beat warned me not to start a solo trip at the coast. Better to attempt the whole Iditarod Trail than just the coast, he said. "Everything that comes before the coast, is preparation for the coast," he said. I'd seen the friendliest face of the often sinister Alaska Range and watched Beat go through Hell in the Interior, and figured the coast didn't have to be the worst — it could be anything. I knew it would be beautiful. I wanted to see it. But going it alone was intimidating beyond my own expectations.

I'm not as independent as I like to believe I am, and that realization struck me as I stepped off the plane in Unalakleet. Wind screamed down the frozen shoreline and a wall-mounted thermometer read -5F. A baggage handler herded the passengers inside even though we were supposed to gather our gate-checked luggage at the back of the plane, yelling over the howling gusts that frostbite could happen in minutes. The windchill cut like a razor blade. I dragged my bike box into a storage area and slowly put it together with hands that were visibly shaking. What the hell was I doing? Putting this bike together, by myself, to go ride it into the barren wilderness, all alone. I didn't actually want to be here, at all.

Pedaling away from the airstrip, it took all of my strength to keep the bike moving in a straight line, leaning against gale-force crosswinds as I fumbled with my face mask. I'd arranged to rent a room from the guys who run Peace on Earth pizza, specializing in homemade dough and fresh toppings at the edge of the world. I figured Unalakleet was a small enough town that I'd just run into it, but somehow made enough turns to put myself nearly back at the airport. People were emerging from their homes because there was buzz that the leaders of the Iditarod Dog Sled Race were minutes from town — Aaron Burmeister, Aliy Zirkle, and Dallas Seavey. I wanted to join in the spectating excitement, but mostly I just wanted to find a quiet place to throw up. Eventually I ran into a pilot making his way to the pizza place, and followed him to the thin comfort of a heated building.

I'd formed a loose plan of touring the trail from village to village over one week, but gave myself a comforting stipulation that I could take a few extra days to wait out bad weather. I told the pizza guys I'd probably lay over an extra day in Unalakleet, but would wait to see whether the 35mph winds let up in the morning. At 8 a.m. the windows of my room were still rattling, but everyone who knows this region knows that the wind always blows, so I packed up my bike anyway. Bret the pizza guy cooked me an unexpected and free egg and pancake breakfast — practice for all the Iditarod volunteers coming over in an hour, he said — and cheerfully bragged about his son who competed on the television show America Ninja Warrior, to air this May.

"He trains right over there on the beach," he said, pointing out the window to a fifteen-foot wooden ramp and other hand-built obstacles, encased in ice and snow dunes.

"That's amazing," I said. If a kid from rural Alaska can train to be an American Ninja Warrior on this icebound shoreline, perhaps a bike ride wasn't as impossible as it seemed.

Even amid what I expected to be heavy traffic during the dog sled race, the trail was already buried in spindrift — fine-grained snow that looks and feels exactly like sand. It's been tumbled around by the wind so long that the crystals have been polished to a sphere, and the water content is so low that it won't compact under foot, wheel, or snowmachine track. It can't be ridden, and wading through the loose grains requires consistently strenuous effort. Every hundred yards I needed to stop to catch my breath and let my heart rate slow to a manageable hum. Each time, I turned around and watched my own tracks disappear in seconds. 

Ok, so this was going to be a hard day. That's okay, because it was the first day, my legs were fresh, I'd eaten most of a pizza piled with a salad's worth of vegetables the night before, plus breakfast in the morning, plus I had a full three days of food on my bike. It was just under a hundred miles to Koyuk, where I'd sent my first food drop. Seventy-two hours, even if I had to push my bike through most of the first hundred miles, seemed reasonable. At least it's not too "cold," I assured my trembling resolve. "It might even be above zero degrees." The windchill effortlessly cut through these weak lies.

All day long I was passed by friendly mushers. Some asked if I was "one of those Idita-bikers."

"No, no, I'm just on a short trip," I'd reply. "Touring the trail." They'd give me a slightly disconcerted look that reflected my own inner questioning of where exactly I went wrong in life to consider this a vacation. There were short sections where the trail was still mostly blown clear of spindrift, and I could ride nearly as fast as the dogs were running. But then there were the direct climbs up several hundred feet of seemingly endless Blueberry Hills, where bracing my bike while digging for foot anchors in the bottomless drifts took every ounce of strength even when I wasn't moving at all. One musher who'd probably watched my struggle from the lowlands for the past ten minutes playfully heckled me as he passed.

"I thought you were Hugh Neff because you were moving so slow."

It was hard work, but all in all it wasn't that bad. The frozen coastline was beautiful, and the difficult climbs afforded spectacular views of these wide-open, empty expanses that I both deeply love and fear. It's these contrasts of emotion that I seek — the desolation speaks to the wonder of life, and the loneliness reverberates as intense appreciation for the people I love. I thought frequently about Beat, who after his ordeal in the deep snow and cold of the Interior, was making his way down the Yukon River, toward me. "I'm going so slow, he might just catch up," I thought.

Later in the afternoon, the wind calmed somewhat but the sky darkened, and flurries of snow started to fall. That's exactly what this barely existing trail did not need — more soft snow — but this is the Iditarod Trail, and it is what it is. The relative quiet after a day of eardrum-jarring wind was such a relief that I didn't even really care when the snowfall picked up momentum.

The Foothills Cabin is only 24 miles north of Unalakleet, and had hopefully been penciled in as my lunch stop for the day. But by the time I reached the cabin, it was already evening. I knew the peril of holing up in the early stages of a snowstorm rather than pressing forward before the trail was further buried. But I was already very tired, and this was my vacation, dammit. Beat and I connected by sat phone and I told him about the excuse I'd cooked up — this snow and wind event was not something I wanted to meet during a sea ice crossing, which at my pace was still a very long night and half day away. Better to break up the first leg into two days and aim for better-forecasted weather on Wednesday, which Beat agreed was sound reasoning.

I traipsed around the woods gathering a bundle of deadfall, and spent fifteen frustrating minutes haplessly grinding a saw to extract a small log from the large logs on the porch. If this is what it took for fire warmth, I was better off burning less energy to keep a cold sleeping bag body-heated. I made a small fire from my wood bundle, which I thought might be enough to dry off my wet clothing. It didn't even do that, and I awoke to frozen-stiff clothing the following morning. Ah, well. I cooked dinner and curled up in my sleeping bag, reading the philosopher Albert Camus's essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," which I downloaded a while ago and hadn't yet read. Here, the setting seemed apt ...

"Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Listening to snow softly pummel the plexiglass window, I thought with a smile, "This really is the life." 
Saturday, March 14, 2015

Frozen in place

 After months of abnormally warm winter, a deep cold snap descended on the entire state of Alaska, just in time to catch Beat and company out in the most remote segment of the Iditarod Trail — the vast and uninhabited Interior. Beat left McGrath six days ago, and in that time has only managed to cover about 150 miles of distance, breaking trail through a foot of new snow and deeper wind drifts. This difficult travel coincided with this cold snap — if he's lucky the daytime temperature climbs into the -10s, only to drop below -40 overnight. Along this route there are only two shelter cabins, and at each one he wasn't able to gather enough wood to heat up the inside above freezing. The other nights, he slept in his bivy sack as the liquid cold seeped through clumps of frozen insulation in his sleeping bag. Every task is a small trauma, from cooking dinner to packing up his gear in the morning, racing to finish before his fingers go rigid, then exerting himself as hard as he possibly can until the feeling in his feet comes back.

It sounds *so brutal.* Each sat phone call from him crushes my spirit just a little bit more, and I find myself battling a growing mound of anxiety, chilling empathy, and unspoken wishes that he'd just call it quits, pay a trapper in Ruby to drive toward him on a snowmachine, and get the hell out of there. Yet Beat is, in his own endearing way, having the time of his life. He's out there having a full-on Hudson Stuck adventure, hearkening back to days when Arctic travelers traipsed in snowshoes in front of their dog teams, breaking trail for weeks, struggling to make ten miles a day. Yesterday Beat crossed paths with Tim Hewitt, who was moving backward on the trail with his bike. After 150 miles of breaking trail north, Tim encountered a seemingly impassable section of drifted snow, just when he was almost entirely out of food. With less than a day's supply remaining, he backtracked toward Cripple, where there were air-dropped bags of food that he hoped to scavenge. Beat was carrying enough food to feed two people comfortably for three days. His supply could be stretched on hungry rations to four or five, so they agreed to team up to turn back north and re-attack Tim's wall, near the uninhabited mining camp of Poorman. That's where they are, right now on Saturday afternoon, as I make my final preparations to fly to Unalakleet.

 I have been hedging on my own planned bike trip for a week. I didn't want to head to the west coast if Beat was going to scratch and return to Anchorage. Also, the difficulties he's been having have rattled my already shaky resolve. Still, I continued with preparations as though it was going to happen. And as of today, I checked into my flight, sent bounce boxes to Nome, have purchased three days of food, and am on my way to pack up a bike box. I guess I'm at least going to fly to Unalakleet. From there, who knows? At this point, I only want to make decisions that might help Beat, however small they might be.

 The cold-snap was well-timed with my stay in Fairbanks, where overnight lows dropped into the -30s. On Wednesday I headed out for a shakedown ride in the White Mountains, hauling all the gear I plan to take to Unalakleet, fuel, and two days of food. Predictably, the bike was a tank, but it's manageable and I'm so rattled and frightened of the cold at this point that I'm taking it all and don't care how sluggish I am. A few more increments of speed won't get me out of a blowhole, so I aim to be prepared. BLM had groomed the trail from the Wickersham Dome to Moose Creek Cabin, about 16 miles one way, so I headed in that direction.

 The trail looked pretty atop more than a foot of fresh snow, but the base was soft and the pedaling was tough. The trail is laid like a ribbon atop a series of small but steep domes, so the pedaling is either steep climbing or descending. When descending, I could go 6-8 mph while pedaling; when climbing with my low tire pressure, I was lucky to break 3 mph. Whenever I "ride" this slow, I find myself daydreaming about my sled, forgetting that there are many ways in which walking with a sled is still harder on my body than riding a bike. Still, it was effort to power this tank down the soft trail. My heart rate was high, and even though temperatures didn't climb above -5 all day, I was down to my base layer at times to vent a steady stream of sweat.

 I do love the White Mountains. The soft light, the crunch of distant animal footsteps, the tingle of ice crystals in the air, the squeak of cold snow — elements that lull me into a bliss-filled serenity even as I confront my anxieties and fears. For me, this is the strong appeal of venturing into the cold. I am frightened of the cold, and always will be. But cold has an immediacy that demands alertness and forces me to strip away the excess and focus only on the present. There is so much to learn and see when egos are quieted and eyes are open.

 Temperatures plummeted after the sun set, closing in on 20 below. As I neared the spot where I planned to set up a bivy, I encountered a trail still unbroken after the new snowfall. Earlier in the week Beat challenged me to try pushing my bike through a foot of fresh snow, to see how I'd fare. This was a great challenge, and I wanted to prove my mettle, so I marched toward the unbroken horizon with a goal to push a half mile out and then back — just a mile of something Beat chose to face for 200 unknown miles. The tank of a bike balked and wallowed, burrowing deeper into the powder. I got my hand under the seat and boosted up the rear end, wrestled and gasped, and finally felt that all-too-familiar feeling of my arm muscles about to fail — like lifting a heavy barbell to the point of complete muscle fatigue. I had only traveled about 50 yards. Taking the time I'd need to rest my arms and shoulders and keep pushing for a half mile was undoubtedly going to take up most of the rest of the night. I didn't have the strength, and I didn't have the resolve. The cold bit through my thin gloves and wrists, and I felt a sudden, urgent fear that I might not even make it back to the trail. Of course I did, and it wasn't that hard, but for a few seconds I was near panic. That's the cold — everything on an edge that might just tip at any moment. Two hundred miles of this? Either I'd adapt, or I'd drive myself into hysterics. Probably I'd just adapt — because that's what people do, and it's what we're wired for, and it's how we survive.

 Still, resolve isn't worth much if physical requirements aren't met, and I continue to worry about Beat and Tim running out of food. About a mile later, I stopped at an alcove next to the trail, where I stomped down a bivy spot, unrolled my bag, and took out my stove. Although I had plenty of water, my plan was to heat up a Cup-O-Noodle for dinner and practice melting snow at 20 below. With thin gloves on, I fiddled with the stove for five minutes but couldn't get any pressure in the pump. I removed the pump, ran a finger around the thread, twisted it tighter, and nothing. My fingers went numb so I put on my mittens, and continued to pump with no results. Broken pump? User error? I didn't know. I was so frustrated. I jumped up and sprinted up and down the trail at full effort, heart thumping, tears freezing to the edges of my eyes, raging against the cold and this growing feeling of helplessness, both for Beat and for myself.

(The next day, I received great advice from friends about MSR pumps and O-rings that contract at 20 below, preventing pressurization. The trick is to warm up the pump first. Now I know, and what an important thing to learn.)

I had a good but short rest in my sleeping bag, already deciding that I didn't really want to spend an entire night out here when the temperature was supposed to drop to 40 below. I packed up in the sinister darkness, without any issues, then pedaled back toward the trailhead while wiggling my toes to ignite circulation lost during the short transition. All in all, it was a good shakedown trip for Unalakleet. Weather permitting (meaning I don't plan to head out into any whiteouts that I can avoid), I'm very excited for my trip and wish Beat was going to be somewhere close by. But more than anything else, I just want him to make it safely to Ruby.