Thursday, December 21, 2017

Halcyon days

Beat and I are returning to Alaska for the holidays, a yearly tradition that we skipped last year because we moved to Colorado, "which already has winter" ... until we realized it doesn't. Actually, although I miss seeing my family, I love going "home" for Christmas. Alaska at solstice is uniquely magical. I'm really looking forward to this trip. 

Because we planned some ambitious overnights near Fairbanks, I had planned to take it easy this week — a bit of a "rest week" to shore up strength that will be sorely needed for the difficulties ahead. On Monday I wiled away the afternoon with work. When I finally looked up from the computer, it was too late to drive to town and go to the gym. 

With an hour until sunset, I opted for a short run on my regular route. I walked out the door feeling sleepy and sluggish, but as soon as my feet hit the dirt, my legs felt refreshingly light. A mile buzzed on my watch, and when I looked down, I was surprised to be moving so fast* (a relative term) when this pace was so easy* (also relative.)

I tend to have a lot of fun with exercise when I'm experiencing an "upswing" in my health. I don't push myself hard — because during downswings I have to push hard just to move forward, so I'm not inclined to continue the practice when it's not necessary. Instead I relax, and relish the exhilaration of a temporary but joyful ability "to run and not be weary." I passed the trailhead and made a last-minute decision to head up to Green Mountain. Glances at my watch revealed more pleasant surprises ... so easy! So fast! (all relative.) 

Ice packed the trail and I took careful steps, but still stayed well ahead of my usual paces. The final pitch to the peak was a patchwork of ice and rocks. I scrambled upward, using my knuckles when needed. Just as I hit the peak, the sky lit up with an incredible crimson sunset. So beautiful! So late! I donned the headlamp that I stuffed in my pocket before I left the house. I had nothing else on me — no water, no camera, no phone. I was angry about my inability to take a photo, and then reminded myself that it's more important to experience the fullness of a moment, rather than get caught up in the futility of documenting beauty.

I picked my way downhill, crab-walking a few spots, as the sky became brighter and redder, and dammit, that spot right there would be perfect framing for a photograph. Why do I care so much? About taking photos of another (yawn) sunset? I smirked at this annoying aspect of my personality, and continued to lope down the trail, alternating brief glances between the sketchy ice and the stunning sky, yet never missing a step or slowing my pace. One of my best runs in months. 

After another great run on Tuesday, I noticed 60-degree temperatures in the forecast for Wednesday. Oh well, so much for taking a rest week. The last day of autumn brought my last long ride of 2017 — sunny, warm, and although not quite calm, the cooling wind was not unwelcome. 

I aimed for one of my many Colorado nemeses, Caribou Road. It's steep and coated in ball-bearing gravel, but then again everything around here is steep and coated in loose gravel, even pavement, so I'm not sure what makes Caribou Road so hard. But it gets me every time. By the time I grind past the stone facade of a long-abandoned mining town, I want to die. Having "upswing" fitness doesn't change this, sadly. 

With searing lungs and lactic-acid-filled legs, I finally topped out at 10,200 feet. Temperatures were still in the high-40s, warm enough that I didn't need to put on a hat or gloves as I sat on the dry tundra and made a picnic out of two almond bars. "This is almost nicer than any day in summer up here," I thought ... one day before the winter solstice.

I had a little more time to spare, so I continued along FR 505. Old snow maintained surprising depth in the forest, but the trail was nicely packed down and 90 percent rideable with skinny tires. Problems arose because the tires aren't studded, and the trail was occasionally coated in white ice that was impossible to discern from packed powder. A few tire slips alerted me to the dangerous game of roulette I was playing, but I chose to ignore the risk in favor of snow biking! In summer! (Oh right, it's December.) There was no surprise when the tires finally washed out and I slammed into hard ice, bruising my hip, shoulder, and a goose-egg-susceptible spot on my upper shin. Arrrrgh!

"You deserved that, you idiot," I grumbled as I limped back to the gate.

All was forgiven as I descended Caribou and swooped around the singletrack surrounding Mud Lake. The afternoon light was gorgeous and I still didn't need a jacket. "This really is the most wonderful time of the year," I thought.

With Solstice, winter came roaring into Colorado, and the temperature plummeted 50 degrees. When I woke up to take out the trash on Thursday morning, it was 10 degrees and snowing.

Again, I'd planned to go to the gym during the day, because missing two weeks of strength training would be unconscionable. But then Beat texted me and said the roads into town were bad ... well, the roads are bad! I suppose I'll go for a hike instead.

My bruised right leg was quite sore from my bike crash, and conditions were not conducive to easy walking — 2 to 4 inches of dry, powdery snow masked rocks and old ice. So I needed to wear studded shoes, while hiking over and around slippery boulders that I could not see. Stumbling and swearing became frequent occurrences, but it was such a beautiful afternoon.

 A single sunbeam pierced the fog, casting a bright spotlight on the shortest day of the year.

At Bear Peak I sat for a few minutes, hoping the setting sun would cast more intriguing light patterns through the fog. But it only took a few minutes to remember that 10 degrees and breezy is actually pretty cold, and not conducive to summit picnics.

The descent was fairly awful. I don't want to talk about it, except for I do, because this blog understands me and my clumsy lamentations. Despite moving about as slowly and deliberately as possible, I could not keep my feet stuck to the ground. In a third of a mile I slipped on snow-covered rocks and fell at least three times, knocking my butt or my bruised right leg. After I cleared the steep part of the ridge, I spent 20 minutes convinced that I had dislocated my thumb. But it feels better now. Everything is fine. All's well that ends well.

Hopefully I'll figure out how to walk on snow in Alaska. Until then — welcome, winter. I have missed you. 
Monday, December 18, 2017

Finally launched some training

Here I am on another Monday morning, face scrunched like child called upon to answer a math problem as I try to conjure article ideas for a proposal. When nothing comes, I migrate over to this blog, which is better than Twitter, right? 

"Your problem," I tell myself, "is that you don't think like a normal person. You have only a vague concept of what other people find interesting. I mean, you're still blissed out about dragging a sled over bare gravel. Who does that?" 

 On Sunday, Beat and I finally got out for our first sled-drag of the season after giving up on snow. Sure, it's been snowing in and around Boulder since September, but subsequent days of 60 degrees means it never sticks around long enough to plan an excursion. I'm still riding my regular mountain bike without studded tires because snow and ice is absent nearly all the way to the Continental Divide.

Below is a photo I took last Wednesday in Golden Gate State Park at 9,500 feet, when I was coasting along on my bike. I felt so strong that I became mildly suspicious about Beat installing an electric motor when I wasn't looking, to help me feel better about myself. (Several months ago, he made a similar move with a power meter. It's a fun data-collecting tool, I admit, but usually it makes me feel worse about myself.)

For this ride, though, I recorded my highest long-ride power reading yet, without applying even close to the usual perceived effort. Yes! Back on the upswing! Just like that, the daunting world takes on a notably brighter hue for no reason besides a better balance of hormones. This is another reason I believe my writing efforts have suffered in 2017, because I no longer trust what I feel or perceive. Whereas I used to ruminate on observations in nature and reach for connections to the wider human experience, now I just think, "Bah. Thyroid anxiety again."

Last Friday, out of curiosity more than anything, I paid for a blood test from one of those private online lab services. I'm nearing a point in treatment where my doctor will only request labs every two to three months, and I'll see her once a year. But, like a person who uses a power meter, I'm interested in the week-to-week fluctuations. I doubt I'll have these tests done often, as they're still $60 (as opposed to the $400(!) that my insurance company is billed and the $2.75 that I pay out of pocket.) But I may treat myself to an occasional blood test when I'm feeling particularly good or bad, or just different, to eventually piece together possible correlations.

Right now my numbers are quite good ... staying steady in the near-normal range despite having my medication dose cut in half. And I feel better, although I'm starting to have more of the symptoms that I tend to have when my T3 is on the low side — daytime sleepiness and feeling cold when I'm not moving, even when the wood stove is cranking and it's nearly 80 degrees in the house. But the other scary symptoms that I associated with times of fluctuation, such as hair loss and brain fog, are subsiding.

The lows definitely feel less intense and more infrequent, and I tell myself that my body is still undulating toward balance. Still, I can't help but draw patterns. Since I started treatment last February, there seems to be general two-month curves in my health:

February and March 2017: Bad.
April and May: Good!
June and July: Bad.
August and September: Good! Even better!
October and November: Bad. But perhaps not so bad.
December and ... January? Good! Perhaps this will be the best yet!
February and March 2018 ... Doh!

 An ongoing dream has reflected the nervousness I feel about February and March. In my dream, I'm about to set out on the Iditarod Trail. For strange reasons of the subconscious, I'm using a backpack (my old 50-liter Golite Jam to be specific) to carry my gear. But when I look inside my bag, it's nearly empty. Or a water bladder has burst and everything is wet. Or I've forgotten food. Actually, each time I have this dream, the gear faux pas is a little different. But every time, the conclusion I make — even while filled with real dread that follows me into the waking morning — is "Oh well. I'll make it work." Then I take off at a full sprint from the starting line, which is located at the Aurora Dog Mushers trail system in Big Lake, where I started the 2006 Susitna 100 (I just love this about dreams. So random.)

It's strange to have this same dream so many times, but it reflects the way I feel right now — I may or may not be physically prepared for upcoming winter races. I genuinely fear this potential two-month curve and the notion that even if there is no pattern, how I'll feel on race week is largely not in my control. But I'll show up anyway, and I'll hope for the best. 

 So Beat and I headed up Niwot Ridge for our first real training run of the season. The base dusting of snow that fell on Thursday had been mostly swept away, so we ground over sharp rocks, loose dirt, and roots. The scraping of plastic sounds terrible, but Beat designs sleds for this. Winter conditions in Alaska are so volatile these days that you go in assuming that the majority of your time might be spent on open tundra, scree, or glare ice, unless there's a big storm, in which case hip-deep snow isn't unthinkable. There's still enough snow that backpacks aren't practicable (despite my dream), but a sled needs to be robust enough to handle rough terrain.

So nearly snowless Colorado mountains provided realistic training conditions, although not exactly the traditional kind of "fun." My sled was considerably lighter than Beat's (he threw in 25 pounds of dumbbells for good measure.) But it was still 35-40 pounds, dragging like an anvil on high-friction dirt. This type of effort pulls hard on hamstrings and hips, which is why it's best to actually train with a sled — and start sooner than 10 weeks before the race. Still, I felt fantastic. I was working so hard that my mind was the tranquil surface of a sea, a blue slate masking the turbulent depths of an ocean. My breathing was steady and desperation was absent. Nothing could break my reverie, even as Beat occasionally turned around to remind me that we weren't actually having fun.

"When are we going to stop this charade?" he asked, standing on bone-dry, rocky doubletrack.

"Just a little farther," I panted.

Despite the terrible conditions, and agreeing from the start we wouldn't go all that far, we ended up at the research station on the ridge, 2,500 feet higher. The final mile was utterly brutal — tracing the punchy tongues of snow drifts into a frigid, blasting wind. A later check of the numbers revealed 55 mph wind gusts and an air temperature of 15 degrees, for a windchill of -10F. I didn't apply any more layers, but still felt mostly comfortable (except for my face, which a buff did little to protect from being pummeled by ice shards.) Waves of sastrugi were so wind-hardened that we barely left footprints, unless we were punching into knee-deep powder as sharp and fine as shattered glass.

At the research station, we ducked into a shack where a plywood bunk and a metal folding chair provided luxurious accommodations for lunch. Wind continued to rattle the thin walls as Beat told stories of all of the worst places he's walked in Alaska, where he huddled in the collapsed shell of a tent on Yukon ice just to get out of the wind. Even the most basic shelter has unmeasurable value when it matters.

Returning to the gale felt like imminent death, for a minute or two, until we donned our sleds and commenced rushing downhill. Our bodies adjusted, and contentedness returned. Humans are amazingly adaptable, even as we resist change at every turn. This gives me hope that, regardless of "patterns," I'll fare just fine with whatever comes my way. 
Monday, December 11, 2017

Here's to my yesterday

Last weekend, Beat scheduled work meetings in Mountain View, which also coincided with our friend Liehann's birthday. Liehann has a 5-month-old baby, so for a present he requested the "gift of time" — a day-long ride on his favorite route over the Santa Cruz mountains. His wife, Trang, contacted us and proposed we make a trip to the Bay Area to join him, as a surprise. I haven't been back to the Silicon Valley since we moved away 20 months ago, so I was excited about the prospect. I miss this place. It's not that I want to move back. Really, I miss all of the places I've lived, and many I've only briefly visited. Nostalgia runs through my blood like oxygen. Each renewed memory is a breath of fresh air. 

Trang picked us up at the airport on Thursday night, after telling Liehann she needed to "pick up your present." I'm guessing he thought it was going to be something really cool like a new bike, but he still acted happy to see us when we walked in the door. We immediately launched into the 90-minute task to convert Liehann's somewhat neglected bikes into workable machines. I claimed his Moots, which is just like my bike, only larger, with subtly different features. A poor choice of a cheap saddle notwithstanding, Stranger Moots and I quickly bonded. Within a mile of leaving Liehann's house Friday morning, I felt like I was riding my own beloved mountain bike alongside heavy traffic on De Anza Boulevard, just like old times.

My destination was Mount Umunhum, one of the taller summits in the Santa Cruz Mountains at 3,500 feet. It's home to a defunct air force radar surveillance tower known to locals as "The Cube." This peak was closed to the general public for decades because of hazardous material concerns and access disputes. But its distinctive landmark made this mountain particularly enticing. Whenever I rode through Sierra Azul, I would stare up at the looming monolith and ponder the possibility of secret trails. In 2013 I attended a Mid-Peninsula Open Space District meeting to advocate for bike access, and learned that MidPen was developing the area for a planned opening in 2017. "Ugh, we have to wait four years?" I remember thinking. And, "I hope I'm not still here in 2017." (I moved to California with low expectations, and my appreciation and love continued to grow throughout the years.) When Umunhum finally opened in September 2017, I scrolled through California friends' social media posts and felt tinges of jealousy.

Friday was a beautiful day for a visit. Temperatures were in the low 70s, and it felt truly strange to ride a bike through a space absolutely devoid of wind. Despite warnings about popularity and crowds, there was almost no one on the road or at the summit. The weirdness of The Cube did not disappoint. I hiked a spiraling trail to the true summit and sat on a rock, eating one of three Nature Valley bars I'd packed for a 55-mile, 6-hour ride. (I'd left the house with the wrong perception of Unumhum's proximity to Sunnyvale.) Then I hopped on MidPen's new trail for the long descent. It's a buffed-out wheelchair ramp ... and I loved it, so much. I do miss the flowing ease of California trails.

On Saturday morning we were up at the crack of dawn to squeeze in Liehann's long birthday ride before his friends arrived for dinner. As a new father who also recently took on a tough new project at work, his riding for the past several months has amounted to occasional commutes to the office. So you could say he was fairly undertrained, but enthusiastic. We set out for the route we often used while training for our long bike adventures, the "Big Basin Big Loop" — which Strava tells me I only rode 10 times during my five years in the region, but in my memory it's dozens. Morning temperatures hovered near freezing, and a thick coat of frost clung to grass in the shade. (Geez, there's more snow here than there is in Boulder, I mumbled at one point.) It was interesting to observe the altered shape of Stevens Creek Canyon after last year's flooding — not-subtle reminders that change is constant.

We stopped for lunch at the exact corner in Big Basin that at some point had been designated the lunch spot. Trang made delicious rice squares for snacks, and after grabbing a share, I somehow managed to forget all of the other food I intended to bring. The lunchtime assessment of my supply revealed I was working with about 1,000 calories, which probably would have been fine had I not already felt a bit depleted from not carrying enough food the previous day. I felt pretty silly about the oversight, and thought I could get by rationing my food. But after several more hours I felt dizzy, and swallowed my pride to beg for fruit snacks from Beat.

The hours ground on and the landscape became more dreamlike — probably because I was mildly bonked, and also fully saturated in nostalgia. The towering Big Basin redwoods ... the almost oppressive darkness and mid-day cold in the Gazos Creek forest ... the subtle aromas of coastal air along Cloverdale Road ... the strange pumpkin patch near Loma Mar ... the harsh contrast of light and shadow beneath the Pescadero canopy ... the disconcertingly blurry leaves carpeting Haul Road (okay, I was quite bonked by that point.)

Besides the bonk, I had a good day. For that I can probably credit the low altitude, although I like to think I'm gaining a better grasp on my breathing again. When my breathing remains steady, my muscles feel stronger, my head is clearer, and I'm an all-around happier person. Strava would again reveal that, no, I'm not quite as strong here as I was two years ago. Right now, though, there's more inherent value in simply feeling something resembling strength. After Beat gave me snacks, I felt like I could breathe fire and sprint up a mountain.

Beat pushed a tough pace for most of the 85-mile ride and Liehann held on like a champion, only slowing near the top of the grueling climb up West Alpine. He still agreed to a longer trail diversion to the top of Black Mountain, another favorite spot for Beat and me.

We were lucky to arrive right before sunset, and watch the sky light up over the Pacific. More snacks were consumed, and everyone was giddy.

As we rolled home in the fading light, Liehann demonstrated his impeccable luck by sustaining the day's first mechanical — a flat tire — on the only bike of his that sees regular maintenance. But it was quickly remedied, and we returned just in time for birthday dinner — an interesting fusion of French raclette, Vietnamese barbecue, and chocolate fondue for dessert. A great day.

Beat and I had one more day in town, so on Sunday we set out to visit the 1,200-year-old Coast Redwood called Old Tree. Although not necessary, we like to start this pilgrimage from Long Ridge, and descend deep into the frosty canopy of Portola Redwoods State Park. This afforded my third view of the Pacific for the weekend, and my third gasp at the sweeping expanse of blue. We often describe ourselves as "mountain people" or "ocean people" and I'm definitely the former, but miss the ocean all the same.

This quiet grove is one of our favorite spots in the region. There's a reverence surrounding Old Tree, that unspoken wisdom of the ages extending beyond our meager lifetimes. I love touching the gnarled bark of Old Tree and imagining the centuries it has witnessed, the storms and fires and floods it has endured, and the unlikely way it survived the aggression with which humans reshaped this land. Sometimes I trick myself into the superstition that I can stand beneath this 300-foot-tall giant and absorb some of its power of rejuvenation — a kind of healing wish. Always I see in Old Tree some hope for the future, that even as everything changes, beauty endures.

The run (cough, hike) out is a rewarding slog — a redwood forest obstacle course punctuated by a steep and sun-exposed fireroad climb that always feels like the surface of an oven, even in December. After 15 miles of this, my quads were nicely battered — and as has been the case recently, I was ecstatic to feel the effects of hard efforts that have nothing to do with my lungs. Almost unintentionally, it turned into a hard-effort weekend and a "best of" tour of my old stomping grounds. I hope to carry all of this good energy into the near future. 
Thursday, December 07, 2017

Pretending it's not December

'Tis the season — that time of year when everyone (meaning a small sampling of friends and acquaintances) is planning 2018 outdoor adventures and races. I see their posts on social media and admit to feeling a small sting of resentment ... "Oh, look at you with your high confidence in a predictable fitness arc built on training and preparation ..." 

Beat has been sending me links to enticing events, but I've resisted the temptation to sign up for anything past next March. The sting of 2017's disappointments and failures is still fresh, and my body hasn't given any consistent indication that it's going to cooperate for me next year, either. I feel like I should continue working on acceptance and nurturing other interests rather than beating my head against the same wall. 

Of course, I'm as bad as the sugar addict who swears off sweets in the morning only to eat a giant cookie for lunch (which, incidentally, is something I would do.) This resolve to not sign up for any more races completely ignores the two huge events I'm supposedly training for right now, which are happening in just over two short months. ("80 days!" someone posted. I prefer this characterization because 80 sounds like a comfortable buffer of days, while two months sounds soon.) What gives me any confidence that I'll have what it takes to survive the Iditarod or White Mountains 100? Nothing, to be honest. Besides, I suppose, the reality that I've done it before. 

My most recent thyroid numbers have fallen into normal range. In theory I should be feeling better. I am, I suppose, but my breathing is still on the rough side, and there hasn't been much pep in my recent efforts. On the positive side, my weight-lifting has rapidly improved in the past few weeks. I almost feel like a real athlete again every time I hit the gym. This leads me to believe my body isn't consuming muscle right now (which is something hyperthyroidism does.) It also sparks a temptation to just go full gym rat and forget all of the running and biking. Of course, I'd probably last three days before missing the outdoors so terribly that I'd come crawling back, in the literal sense. I am a addict. 

The rough breathing is probably tied to multiple issues and won't be easily solved. I've had multiple discussions and tests with my endocrinologist and asthma doctor, and they both agree that I have allergic asthma. Asthma has nothing to do with my thyroid, although these numbers affect my heart rate and therefore breathing, and the autoimmune responses may be connected. This autumn has been particularly bad for allergies, with little moisture and lots of wind. I let myself believe that if winter would just come, everything would be all right. I'd be relieved of this dust-filled air. I'd actually be able to drag my sled, and put my recently boosted strength to better use. And if my sluggishness doesn't improve, it won't matter because winter is guilt-free slog season. So I continue to hope for snow, even as the high-pressure ridge lingers. 

The snowless late autumn even extended to Utah, where I managed a couple of fun outings between the Canyonlands backpacking trip and returning home to dusty Colorado. My dad and I hiked to the ridge above Desolation Lake, with views toward Park City. It was 63 degrees when we left the trailhead, and 37 and snaining when we returned three hours later. Sadly the cold front didn't stick around long enough to bring much precipitation.

On my way home I opted to drive I-80, mostly to take a quick jaunt up the west ridge of Grandeur Peak on my way out of town. This is perhaps my favorite hike from the Salt Lake Valley, because it's short enough to wrap up in a couple of hours, and although it gains 3,500 feet in just over two miles, it somehow feels more gentle than other routes of similar steepness. From the peak I could see the beginnings of a smoggy inversion, and felt grateful that I was leaving town. Salt Lake is my hometown and I still think it's an ideal place to reside; however, I suspect that I no longer possess the lungs to tolerate the awful air quality of a Salt Lake winter. If life brings me back here, I may have no choice but to become a seasonal gym rat.

Looking east at the Wasatch Mountains. No snow, no snow, as far as the eye can see.

The week in Boulder was very warm, with temperatures rising into the low 60s. It was almost enough to make me forget that the calendar had rolled into December, which is also good for my denial that there are only 80 days until the Iditarod. Then a snowless front moved through, and suddenly it was cold. I understood this on an intellectual level, but it was still a shock to the system. Wednesday presented an opportunity for a six-hour solo ride — still one of my favorite ways to spend a half day regardless of how healthy or fit I'm feeling on any given morning. Wednesday morning also brought temperatures in the low teens, and a 15-20mph west wind for exhilarating subzero windchills.

"Better put the pogies on," I thought. Then I proceeded to severely under-dress, because I don't even understand what subzero windchill feels like anymore, given my last ride in 60-degree temps. From the outset I felt awful, with that wind needling into my core until my knees and shoulders ached with cold. My hands and feet were dead slabs of meat. It was stupid, but I was convinced I just need to ride harder to warm up, even as the cold wind drove dust particles into my lungs until I was coughing up gunk and sucking water to spit it out (that is, until my hose froze, and then I didn't have water for four hours.)

It was all so stupid is because I was carrying multiple layers in my backpack. After two hours of purposeless suffering, I stopped to put them on — every last piece, even though I knew this may mean more suffering when it came time to descend 4,000 feet into town. Encased in a virtual space suit, I almost instantly felt better. Windchill was the sole cause of two hours of misery. I'd say oh well, live and learn ... but apparently I never do.

It was a great ride in the space suit, though. The lower mountains had received a dusting of snow overnight. I churned up Caribou Road until the powder was too deep for my semi-skinny tires, did a little snow dance while unsuccessfully trying to thaw my water hose with my hands, and started the long descent into Boulder. Wearing wind-proof layers, with the piercing gusts at my back, I felt like I was floating through a bubble of silence and warmth. As it turned out, descending was somehow warmer than climbing. Next time I will just start out my rides in the space suit.

Beat and I are now headed to the Bay Area for a weekend, so my pseudo-summer will extend further yet. Although our time there is short, I'm really looking forward to visiting old haunts ... both for nostalgia, and to compare my current fitness on routes I did regularly two years ago. I suspect I will love the first and mourn the second, but knowledge is always better (unless I'm counting days until the Iditarod, in which case I'd really rather not know.)
Friday, December 01, 2017

Walks through time

I couldn't tell you how many times "back in the day" came up this weekend. Probably enough that Danni and Meghan quietly rolled their eyes while I recounted the Upper Black Box trip where Curt threw his pack down the 100-foot cliff that my college friends and I were carefully down-climbing, and all of his Nalgene bottles exploded. I can't help it. A piquant aroma of sagebrush fills the air, heat radiates from sandstone in November, and in my senses I'm 22 years old again, adrift in memory. It almost doesn't matter that this was a different era, when I was a different conglomeration of cells, "back in the day." Although time is linear, our experience of time is not. 

Six or seven years ago, Danni and Meghan started what they hoped would be an annual gathering of friends for wanderings in the wilderness. With the tendency of modern women to be self-deprecating about our passions, they called it "Fat Camp," and started inviting other female friends to join. I tagged along for their Wind Rivers trip in 2015, but time has been seemingly in short supply for everyone since. Finally an opening came up for just the three of us over Thanksgiving weekend so we grabbed it, even though it meant inviting Danni to my family dinner and rushing south immediately after pie was served. We had a short three days but we intended to make the most of it, hiking in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

For planning and acquiring permits at the last minute — she texted me Wednesday afternoon, as I was driving from Colorado to Utah, with the question "do you have a high-clearance vehicle?" — Meghan put together a stunning route: a one-way trip down Salt Creek Canyon. With fields of rare grass and a couple of year-round springs, the canyon is a relative oasis in the Utah desert. Our daily required mileage was short and side-canyon possibilities were many, with an abundance of archaeological sites to explore.

After a lazy car-camp morning, acquiring permits at the visitor center, chatting with the amicable couple who own the Needles Outpost, and driving the shuttle, our hike didn't begin until a few short hours before sunset on Friday. Luckily we only had four miles to walk to our first camp. When I was 22, four miles seemed like a sufficient day of hiking, and you know what — it still does. At mile three, we passed a cabin built by Rensselaer Lee Kirk, a rancher who ran cattle up Salt Creek in the 1890s. Outside were the remnants of a wagon that may be the one he used to haul supplies from Moab, and that had to be broken down and ferried up an eroded pour-over called Big Jump. We circled through the interior of the cabin, admiring its solid construction with hand-planed logs. It was easy to imagine what Kirk's home life might have been like, on a warm summer night with the desert wind rustling cottonwood leaves outside. I pictured an iron pot of beans cooking in the sandstone fireplace. The howling of coyotes might be the only sound to break a silence that stretched for hundreds of miles.

Despite the late start, 90 minutes of hiking put us into camp with daylight to spare, so we ventured up a side canyon in search of ruins. We bashed through the sage and followed erratic deer trails, skipping around fragile patches of cryptobiotic soil as though they were molten lava. We also dodged petrified cow pies, perfectly preserved even though cattle haven't trampled this canyon in more than 40 years.

Besides a myriad of deer tracks, we began to see distinct kitty tracks. We guessed a larger mountain lion followed closely by a juvenile, climbing out of the wash and circling back. They were well-defined compared to most of the deer tracks we saw, which meant they were fresh. Collectively we acknowledged that instinctual chill running down our spines. A setting sun but also nervousness prompted us to turn around. Not ten minutes later, Meghan called out, "Mountain lion! Over there!" We stopped and looked toward the hillside, where a large animal was sprinting parallel to our path. The animal had a long tail and broad head, with golden fur that glistened in the afternoon light. Its body turned light gray as it entered the shadows, where it stopped and turned to face us. It was less than a hundred meters away, and large enough that its head peeked over waist-tall sagebrush that dotted the canyon.

"Maybe it's a fox," Meghan suggested, in that uncertain tone people use when they're trying to explain away certain fear.

"That is not a fox," I replied, and squinted at the lion until I was certain I could see its gaze piercing mine, communicating our undisputed places in the food chain. It turned again and ran along a row of juniper trees, stopping twice more to look toward us before disappearing over the hillside. We had to cross its prior path to return to our campsite, so we had no choice but to continue forward.

"Let's stick close together," Danni suggested.

Despite primal nervousness, we couldn't help our human curiosity to explore a cliff dwelling on the way. The structure was built by the Ancestral Puebloans more than 700 years ago. As early farmers, they lived year-round in the canyon while cultivating maize, beans, and squash. Their stone houses and granaries are still largely in tact, scattered with pottery shards and centuries-old corn cobs. It wasn't so easy to imagine their home lives, huddled in these oven-like alcoves under a searing summer sun, carrying spring water in clay pots as they scaled sheer standstone walls with baffling agility.

Seven hundred years later, the alcove that held these ruins was by far the warmest place in the canyon. Even with a mountain lion lurking close by, we wished we could relocate as we descended into a sink of freezing air that surrounded our tents. The sun disappeared as we sought out the nearby spring to collect water. We passed a sandstone window that was listed only as "natural arch" on our map. "We'll call it Cougar Mouth Arch," I suggested.

The sun was gone at 5 p.m. By 7, the temperature was freezing and frost was already forming on my neglected cup of tea. Danni announced she was ready to crawl into her sleeping bag, and I knew we had a least 12 idle hours ahead. I don't often sleep through a night, and feared it was going to be a long one, but I was grateful as well. Beyond unpolluted desert air, the sky was filled with stars upon stars. Silence was absolute. I remembered many quiet nights in the desert before cell phone reception. I could happily go weeks without, now.

In the short minutes between dinner and lights out — perhaps in an attempt to keep conversation flowing beyond an unconscionably early bedtime — Meghan asked the question, "What's the worst thing about aging?" All that came to my mind was, "I wish I still felt the way I did in 2014." I wasn't even that much younger then. Those are just my most recent memories of a time when I consistently felt healthy and strong, and still clung to a belief that limits were negotiable tricks of the mind. Now my imagination is often my best escape from physical limits, which are definitely real, and possibly permanent. My body's chemical balance has shifted and I'm certainly not the same conglomeration of cells. Yet life remains amazing. If I'm lucky enough to continue experiencing wonder at age 50, 60, 70, I will rejoice. I'm not 22 years old anymore, and it doesn't really matter.

The following morning, we 'shwacked through a horror maze of rabbit brush to view rock art that Meghan's eagle eye spotted from a fair distance. I've prided myself on retaining 20/20 vision into my late 30s, but Meghan's undoubtedly exceeds mine. Like many, I find ancient rock art utterly fascinating — for the unlikely environment in which it was created, the even more unlikely way it lasted, and the unanswerable questions about its meaning. This panel might portray a simple illustration of one's family and directions to the spring, or it might convey the existential ruminations of an ancient restless soul. Across centuries these communications have been obscured, and yet they leave a powerful impression.

A bit off trail and out of the way, this site was filled with interesting pottery shards. Survival in this canyon was undoubtedly hard — cultivating crops in the arid soil, constantly exposed to extreme heat, wind, and cold, scaling treacherous walls just to access shelter — yet the Ancestral Puebloans clearly spent a lot of time making art. The value of art feels somewhat lost in modern society, where most of the billions of us prefer effortless entertainment and arbitrary achievement to "frivolous" acts of creation. If I needed to scratch seeds from the sand just to live another day, would I still feel compelled to scrawl hand-ground pigments onto rock and express my inner longings? I suspect I would.

It's interesting how one can look at something as simple as the outline of a hand print and think, "I see you," and perhaps imagine an entire narrative of moments surrounding their creation.

Meanwhile we continued walking, heavy packs pressing down on our shoulders, with the warm November sun radiating off rock and jaw-dropping formations appearing around every corner. In these moments, I could imagine that ancient life would not be so bad.

We were constantly in awe of the Puebloans' apparent climbing abilities. This granary was some 35 feet above the canyon floor. It may have had a ladder, but it also might just have been accessible via this sandstone chimney, which Meghan demonstrated was likely an easy shimmy if one was fit and not necessary frightened about slipping and falling on the way down. She and Danni spent about a half hour playing with possibilities while I sat by idly, perfectly content to not do any scrambling. At 22 I was braver, more willing to rappel down a wall on a rope harness or friction climb near-vertical slickrock. Eventually anxiety, not to mention a few close calls, caught up with me. I've since accepted that some of us have a more volatile relationship with gravity, and we live on by not trying to be heroes to ourselves.

We walked around the corner from the chimney granary, and collectively gasped. The next feature was the famous "All-American Man," a stunningly bright shield motif painted in blue, red, and white stripes. There has been controversy surrounding this painting. Some insisted it was a hoax created by 19th-century cowboys. But after comparing hundreds of paint pigments and patterns, most of the region's archaeologists are convinced of All-American Man's authenticity from a pre-U.S.A. era.

Just beyond All-American Man, we spent more time wandering through the willows to find this panel, which was surprisingly whimsical. I imagined this artist laughing as he caricatured his friends.

We spent so much of Saturday's short daylight exploring ruins that by the time the sun began to sink below canyon walls, we were only halfway to camp. For a couple of hours we put our heads down and marched through the sand. The canyon narrowed and cottonwoods and willows choked an almost a claustrophobic corridor. I thought back to stories my dad told me about riding his motorcycle up this canyon in the 1980s, when motorized vehicles were legal and erosion was more severe. Back then the creek bed was open enough to ride directly up the middle, spraying his brothers and friends with a rooster-tail of silty water. Slowly the evidence is fading, even as happy memories live on.

We arrived at camp just as the last hints of dusk faded to night sky, and set up tents under charred cottonwood trunks that seemed solid, but I suppose you never know. About a mile down the trail we spotted one chunk of petrified bear scat, so at least the required bear canisters we were hoisting seemed justified. Meghan was still nervous about lions. I considered an evening jaunt up to Angel Arch after 7:30 bedtime, but decided against this, as it would worry my friends, and I'd admittedly feel spooked. Moonlight was also too faint for arch viewing on this night. Instead I walked a short distance up the creek bed and stared in awe at the full-color Milky Way, framed by black canyon walls.

The next morning we found more evidence of nearby kitties, helpfully outlined by Meghan. I suppose it's best I didn't do any solo night hiking, and I did manage to read one and a quarter books over three nights ("Cycling to the South Pole" by Maria Leijerstram ... interesting, but not as introspective as I'd hoped. And a re-reading of "Refuge" by Terry Tempest Williams.)

Side canyon possibilities continued to entice, but we had too much real life to get back to — the long shuttle and then driving back to Salt Lake so Danni could catch an evening flight. Sunday was mostly a heads-down-and-march day. Lively conversations continued. I love spending time with these friends because the interesting and hilarious stories never dry up. We talked about planning a much longer trip, or a bikepacking route. Anything to extend the tradition.

We looped around the Peekaboo pictograph panel and discovered that an anticipated spring was dry. Even though there were only five miles left to hike, I'm exceedingly paranoid about possessing no water, so I jogged back a half mile to collect a liter. Although my friends insisted there was time for this diversion, none of us did the math. As it worked out we were already behind schedule. The final segment of trail ascended a sandstone crack via a ladder and continued along slickrock benches, in and out of drainages. We had no choice but to push hard along the constant up and downs. I felt good, executing bursts of power with no difficulty breathing. Perhaps I'm back on an upswing! One can always hope.

We passed a trail sign indicating an alternative long way around. I hinted at my desire to follow this route, but of course there was no time. Is there ever enough time?

The day after returning from Canyonlands, my parents and I traveled to Ogden to visit my grandmother, who was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. She seems okay with this, as a religious woman who longs to reunite with her husband. For now she must endure an extremely difficult transition that few talk about. "Why is it so hard to get out of here?" she exclaimed early in our visit. She'd felt particularly down that morning, and found comfort by reading letters my late grandfather had written. We listened to her recount some of her memories. I clasped her cold hands and expressed my gratitude that I'd inherited her passion for record-keeping. For my 8th birthday she gave me my first journal, and a photo album that prompted me to start taking disposable-camera snapshots when I was 17. She has kept meticulous scrapbooks for all of her grandkids called her "Grandma Angel Books," which she continued to add to, well into our adulthoods, when we wrote her an e-mail or achieved something noteworthy. Hearing loss prevented her from processing my statement, but she did lament the records she'd been combing through — an award she received from the governor, newspaper articles recounting her volunteer work, a half-century of advocating for the hearing-impaired. "What's it worth?" she said with a sour look on her face. "Nothing."

I was stung by this declaration from my grandmother, as though she was dismissing our collective histories. Perhaps she was simply expressing a practical view that pieces of paper don't mean anything compared to the experiences, but I still disagree. The records are what we leave behind. Shadows are all that remain, whispers echoing into the future. I would like an opportunity look through her records, and nearly said so, but that seemed like a selfish statement. She's my last living grandparent, and I can't imagine a world without her. I could feel my own hands trembling as we leaned in for a hug, perhaps our last. As we embraced, she proclaimed that "Grandma is speaking her mind," and tearfully told me that what she wanted most for me, was that I get married. I unintentionally laughed, because I was expecting something worse. I love my grandmother. We are so alike, even though we are so vastly different. As I closed her garage door tight, I thought, "This is the worst part of aging. Facing the loss of the people we love."

Time marches with its head down, but we don't. I suppose this is why we create traditions, to connect the experiences of our past with anticipation for the future. Salt Creek Canyon holds the memory of the Archaic Peoples thousands of years ago, the Ancestral Puebloans, the Navajo, cowboys, archaeologists, motorcyclists, backpackers, trail runners, and now us, the dedicated denizens of Fat Camp. Thank you, Meghan and Danni, for inviting me into your tradition. I hope it continues for years to come.