Earlier this week, an acquaintance mentioned he was putting together a Spotify playlist with music that I cited in my book, "Into the North Wind," and wondered if I had a few more to add. It seemed like a good idea for a blog post, a kind of follow-up to my "Iditarod playlist" of 2014. As I mentioned then, I enjoy listening to music during long solo efforts, and generally the reasons are the opposite of overcoming boredom or shutting out the world. I see music as a means of connecting my often drifting mind with the present. Music also disrupts negative thought loops, and keeps me cognizant of beauty when tedium and fatigue sink in. I keep the volume low and believe I hear most of what I need to hear (such as an approaching snowmobile or dog team. Dogs are pretty quiet, but I can hear them.) However, I usually only listen to music when I'm feeling good — it tends to spark anger or annoyance when I'm not.
As usual, I downloaded a bunch of music before the race, and much of what I listened to was new to me at the time. My use was actually somewhat limited over those 17 days. The majority of the time, I either didn't bother or preferred silence. But there still seemed to be at least one song that resonated every day, and this is that list.
"I am not the only traveler,
who has not repaid his debt.
I've been searching for a trail to follow, again.
Take me back to the night we met."
Artangels" by Grimes. There were hills along the rolling climb to Puntilla that literally dropped me to my knees (when I fell as I tried to nudge my bike up a near-vertical slope.) For unknown reasons, I was giddy for most of the punishing nine-hour slog between Finger Lake and Puntilla. As usual when I'm in a good mood, singing pop music outloud is extremely satisfying.
"I don't need no medicine.
Gonna dance all night.
I'm high on adrenaline.
That's right, that's right, that's right."
"Long Night" by Guster. Although I didn't even stay up late (in the sleeping bag by 10:30), this is the night that darkness seemed to close in completely. An ongoing thought pattern during the trip was amazement that, after all of my failures and struggles, I could still move freely through these forbidding places.
"How many times I've wished for change
Gave up, gave in, and called it fate
Repeating all of the same mistakes
Wasn't ready for what I'd find.
Whatever it is has turned the knife,
It was a long, long night."
"Red Shifting" by Helio Sequence. Music with a surreal quality and the lyrics "Let it bleed, let it bleed, let it all come out" seemed perfect for the "hump day" of a long effort — the day that most of the aches and pains come to a crescendo before slipping into more muted equilibrium.
"Shine a Light" by Banners. This "day" actually happened between 1 a.m. and 10 a.m. I left Nikolai without really conceptualizing that I still had eight hours of darkness ahead. However, in many ways, Alaska is at its most beautiful at night. Frost swirled through the air at -10F, northern lights flared overhead, and my dim headlamp traced miles of wolf tracks through the Kuskokwim River Valley.
Perfect Holiday," by Big Data. I was both thrilled and terrified at the thought that I was leaving the last strands of familiarity to venture into a 200-mile stretch of unknown, unpopulated wilderness. I was also becoming increasingly worried about my right hand, which had lost so much strength that it was becoming difficult to zip up my coat. This song signaled the joy I felt and the comfort I craved.
"On my perfect holiday,
I won't need my hands to say,
I'm breaking out. I don't care.
That's my holiday."
"Into Chicago" by Ace Reporter. In this song there's a line that probably says, "I thought we would die, somewhere in an echo," but I heard it as "I thought we would die, somewhere in Innoko." I never stopped believing that Innoko would kill me. A year earlier, when Beat passed through this region, there was three feet of untracked snow, and temperatures neared 50 below. My passage was much friendlier, a cause of much bemusement. Eventually I made minor changes to the lyrics of this song and sang it out loud frequently:
"I'm oblivious, trust me.
I am surrounded by squalor.
There's no bridge across overflow,
and it freaks me out.
I have a list of confessions.
I confess I don't read them.
I have the qualities of a lazy mind,
Someone who plays at life.
And I'm alive, but I'm quite surprised!
I thought we would die,
Somewhere in Innoko."
"Perfect Vision" by Icky Blossom. Occasionally I would imagine myself in an alternate universe — sitting on a couch, staring blankly at a television, and daydreaming about this strange reality that I was actually in. A dreamy song about "nothing to do but get high in the afternoon" allowed me to travel between these universes freely.
"A winter reprieve
Pushing on me
Keeping right there
Keep me aware
Snow on the ground
All over town,
All over town,
My bicycle is spinning around."
"Ansel" by Modest Mouse. This was my shortest day, time-wise, of the entire trip. It was also the one in which I was the most exhausted. This fatigue brought back strong associations with the Tour Divide, and thus an album I listened to on repeat during that ride — "Strangers to Ourselves" by Modest Mouse. This song, which is a true story about Isaac Brock's brother dying in an avalanche, always resonated because it evokes the uncertainty in all things.
"On gears around an uncaring sun
It doesn't know what it gave
As the bone moon winds 'round again
Again this allows one sphere's heart to pump
Pumping waves of hearts that come and go
And then come and then ..."
Good for You" by Darlingside. This is a beautiful song that describes a sense of place. I was more or less alone across the Yukon River, and evenings brought an exquisite loneliness. I would think about "home." Colorado, California, Utah, and even this very spot in Alaska that I was seeing for the first time — a white plain stretching toward a pastel horizon.
"I stood above the Rocky Mountains,
Where Colorado touches New Mexico.
And I could see a hundred miles,
But I was many thousand miles from home."
Slow Down," Icon For Hire. I moved a lot slower on this day than my first on the Yukon, and it's always difficult to tell whether a hard day is due to snow conditions, or whether it's "me." I spent far too much time fretting that I didn't have the physical ability to propel myself to Nome, and pretending otherwise was a dangerous path. Concentrating on my breathing always helped, as did a reminder that "tomorrow holds no promises, except the ones we've made."
"Slow down. Just breathe.
All we have is all we need."
Fantasy" by MSMR. The ride over the Kaltag Portage was my favorite day of the trip, and quite possibly my favorite day on a bike, ever. It's still difficult to describe why that is, but it was an incredible collision of beauty, awe, and joy.
"If I could force my heart, my eyes, my mind,
and eyes to get in line.
Maybe I'd find something real.
Not a fantasy so divine."
Friday, March 11: Unalakleet to Shaktoolik. "Stay Alive" by Jose Gonzalez This is a song from the "Walter Mitty" soundtrack — it's probably not surprising that I identify with a meek character who lives a vivid fantasy life. This was a day that reminded me how powerless I was in this place. As I walked my bike along the blue ice of the Shaktoolik peninsula, incredible wind pummeled me from the side with such force that I could scarcely stay on my feet. I skittered along while wrestling with the bike to keep it from lunging toward the sea, and could relate to the need to "do whatever just to stay alive."
"There's a rhythm in rush these days.
Where the lights don't move and the colors don't fade.
There is a truth, and it's on our side.
Dawn is coming, open your eyes."
"High" by Young Rising Sons.
Just let it go enjoy the ri-i-i-ide
Without the low there ain't a high-igh-igh-igh."
"Tomorrow" by A Silent Film. After the sea ice section, I spent the rest of the trip mildly sick (or congested at least) and very tired. I sought the boost of positive affirmation.
"Before you fall asleep tonight
Before you close your hundred eyes
Pray for a chance to prove yourself tomorrow."
"Hopeless Opus" by Imagine Dragons. For about an hour before sunrise, the wind was almost calm, and I pedaled away from Elim over a bumpy jumble of sea ice, singing this song at the top of my lungs. It was a good theme song for the day — upbeat pop with more subdued lyrics about a broken person trying to overcome themselves.
"I've got this place that I've filled with empty space,
And I'm trying not to face what I've done. ...
I'm in this race and I'm hoping just to place
So I'm trying not to face what's become of me."
"I was hopeless and broken,
you opened the door for me
Yeah I was hiding and you let the light in
and now I see
That you do for the wounded,
what they couldn't seem to,
you set them free."