Thursday, December 10, 2015

On gears around an uncaring sun

Even though it was only six months ago, I don't spend much time thinking about the Tour Divide. This is uncharacteristic for me, as memories of adventures are the background of my mental landscape — the colorful screen savers that pop into view during idle moments. Sometimes, while wheeling a cart around a grocery store, I still hear the crunch of footsteps on ice-crusted snow atop some Susitna 100 course that melted away a lifetime ago. But the Tour Divide ... that faded too soon.

When I try to think about the Tour Divide, what often pops into my mind is a flickering series of moments along the highway to Togwotee Pass, in Wyoming, one of those evenings that now sprawl like wispy clouds across an evanescing sky. I was pedaling my bike; it's funny because that's not what I remember. I remember stopping at intervals to put a foot down, slumping forward as my hands dangled over my red handlebar bag, and gasping until I caught my breath. As I looked around at pink-tinted pine trees and silhouetted road signs, these became moments of lucidity amid what is now little more than a wash of gray.

I was battling toward the top of the pass, where I knew I'd find a picnic area with an outhouse to stash my aromatic bike now that I was back in grizzly country. The decision to camp in this picnic area was one I'd made earlier in the day, and beyond that, the destination didn't hold meaning for me. I didn't care that there was already frost on the ground and my seven-year-old sleeping bag was proving less than toasty. I didn't care that I didn't really have a meal to eat beyond this bag of nuts I'd been carrying since Canada. I didn't care if rednecks came and stole my bike because I was sleeping right next to the highway, or if a bear came and gnawed on my leg. All I could feel at this end of this particularly difficult day was profound detachment. I'd been gasping all afternoon, taking longer breaks to force more oxygen into my blood while getting mauled by more mosquitoes, and I'd finally slipped into autopilot. It's endlessly interesting to me that profoundly detached autopilot, with what seems like almost no emotional investment or motivation, still generates forward motion. I'd be in Colorado before I defaulted to collapse.

The sun began to set, which only registered on an instinctive level. "The light is fading. It will be cold soon." I stopped again to cough up a glob of something thick and metallic-tasting. Coughing usually opened airways and helped me feel better briefly, but on this evening I experienced surges of fear. "The light is fading. It will be cold soon." It was almost refreshing, this fear, but it didn't stay. I fished through my seat bag to find my mittens, and while doing so, gazed back at the crimson light spreading across the sky. A tiny lake absorbed a perfect reflection, surrounded by glowing peaks of the Tetons. "This is perfect," a quiet voice whispered. "This is what you came for."

But the voice was just static on a television screen turned low and dim in the corner of a dark room, and I was an old woman staring blankly at the void. The depth of my detachment became startlingly apparent as I put on extra layers and looked away from the horizon. I did not care. My ability to care seemed to be slipping farther away. But what could I do? At some point after dusk, lyrics from an Modest Mouse song entered my flickering consciousness — "Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset" —which, incidentally, is a song about battling indifference.

A few days later, I sought medical attention in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for shortness of breath and congestion. At the time it was measured at the clinic, my blood oxygen level was 90 percent. It's not a particularly alarming level of hypoxemia, but this was after six hours of resting while awaiting my appointment, and after my outlook had become a good deal more lucid and optimistic. In all likelihood, I'd been starving for oxygen for days. While the muscle weakness and physical distress I'd experienced was minimal given I could still ride my bike a hundred-plus miles a day (until I couldn't), it's interesting and disquieting to contemplate what this did to my mind. "Milder forms of hypoxia can impair thinking, alter levels of consciousness, cause depression and stir up anxiety." — NYT, 2006

Is it possible I experienced temporary bouts of low-level depression? I don't think this theory is entirely unfounded.

Now, facing the 1,000-mile journey to Nome and all of the physical and mental difficulties I am sure to encounter every day, I'm spending more time reflecting on what I learned from the Tour Divide. I never again want to care that little about myself or the world around me, especially in an environment as immediate and severe as Alaska. But what will I do if I again struggle with breathing? Will an inhaler be enough to restore oxygen supply? Will I know where to draw lines? I didn't always make the best decisions during the Tour Divide, where I was simply lucky to have a wider margin for error.
 I may be somewhat of a paradox in that I relish physical challenges because of the intellectual and emotional stimulation they provide, but crumble to pieces when my mental faculties are truly compromised. Another negative life experience — trying to complete the 2013 Petite Trotte à Léon in the Alps while extremely sleep-deprived — brought this to light. I was hallucinating, I was paranoid, my eyesight was failing. I lost control; I had anxiety attacks. I'll never go back to that metal space if I can avoid it.

So what makes me believe I can handle the rigors of the entire Iditarod Trail? I'll be honest — I've never felt more uncertain about anything. Even now that I've gained considerably more confidence in my physical health, I understand that physical health is only a small part of the equation. If nothing else, the 2015 Tour Divide reinforced this belief.

This isn't to say I would back out of the ITI because I'm concerned, only that mental health is something I've been pondering. The mind-body connection is both nebulous and unwavering, easy to tamper with but difficult to control. This is the most pressing challenge I'm considering, moving forward. 


  1. What is a high without an equivalent low? Just don't forget to enjoy the middle once in while.

  2. The issue I'm attempting to explore here isn't a bad day or your typical ultra-dumb, but potentially dangerous mental ailments brought on by poor physical health (in this case, blocked airways limiting oxygen intake, and the affects on the brain.)

    I'm inclined to believe my allergist who theorizes that my summer bout of bronchitis/pneumonia was the combined result of severe grass allergies and a viral infection, and this may not be a problem for me at all in Alaska. *But* I still can't be certain this was the case, and it may be something else entirely, and it may crop up again.

    When I write blog posts about issues such as this, I always hope others might chime in with their own experiences. I understand the crickets because this subject is fairly out there, but that's always my hope.

  3. I've experienced hypoxia while flying a glider in what's called long wave. It was not similar at all to what you describe but there was no physical exhaustion in my case.

    1. Once while climbing a 14er in Colorado, I experienced a kind of elated rush followed by very brief blacking out of vision. Hypoxia could also elicit that response and it is very different than this experience, but this experience is not unlike other accounts I've read of anxiety and depression persistent in people with low blood oxygen due to a number of respiratory issues. Whether there's a connection is in question.

  4. Have you ever thought about doing some hypoxia training in a controlled environment?

  5. Won't you be traveling together with Beat? He can be your sounding board to be sure you are making smart decisions. Especially when it comes to hypothermia or hypoxia when one isn't able to make smart decisions.

  6. Your writing is superb. Many times over the years, you have written sentences that remarkably convey feelings and concepts in an original and profound way. This one - " memories of adventures are the background of my mental landscape — the colorful screen savers that pop into view during idle moments.", resonated with me and articulated a major side benefit of my own adventures in a way that my mind would not have done on its own.

    It is interesting to read details of your Togwotee Pass experience because I was monitoring you closely in that section, my old stomping grounds. The realty of your physical and mental state certainly differs from my surmises at that time. I am sorry. My money is on allergies as the primary cause and geography as an effective management tool.

    "This is perfect," a quiet voice whispered. "This is what you came for." But the voice was just static on a television screen turned low and dim in the corner of a dark room, and I was an old woman staring blankly at the void. Wow.

  7. I've had bouts of asthma that lasted several days and made me feel like I was on oxygen debt (although I don't know if it was as bad as what you experienced!). I remember feeling very anxious and depressed. Whether that was a physical response I don't know, but not being able to breathe well triggered a deep emotional response in me. It's alarming to say the least when a vital system in your body is not working well. If that anxiety goes on too long, it makes sense that it would lead to depression.


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