Monday, March 06, 2017

And it didn't even rain

When I purchased a ticket to Juneau last week, I envisioned having a cab drop me off at the end of North Douglas Road, where I would sit on the cold gravel beach, watch wisps of clouds tumble down forested slopes, and relish the 38-degree wetness that was sure to rain down for the duration of my short stay. I don't mean to overdramatize my rather mild health condition; I'm just attempting to explain how how my feelings have been driving my decisions. For a few weeks I've been slipping further into emotional malaise. I'm inclined to blame hormones, because there's no rational justification for feeling so down. Still, I can't get excited about, well, anything. After I dropped out of the Iditarod, I knew I could still spend a month viewing beautiful scenery in Alaska. I mustered anticipation and made plans, but felt surprisingly blasé about them. Part of me wanted to stay in Colorado and spend a month watching Netflix. What is wrong with me?

Instead, I went to Juneau. Yes, Juneau is a good place to go and be sad. I remember it well. The short version of my history with Juneau is that I lived here from 2006 to 2010, and worked for the local newspaper in an increasingly demanding and demeaning position. After my former relationship ended, I kept a tenuous grip for another year until the rain and isolation drove me away. On my life's timeline, Juneau was brief but impactful. I’ve visited three times since I left seven years ago, and each time I settle into Juneau like a worn coat. The town fits so well that I become alarmed when I realize I’ve forgotten the name of the corner store, or wander up a street to see different bars and restaurants taking the place of favorite haunts. Seven years later, there’s still a part of me that never left.

I arrived Tuesday evening to the beginnings of a storm that dumped more than 18” of snow. Wednesday morning was a chaotic swirl of white and gray, so I strapped on snowshoes to hike up the Dan Moller Trail to Mount Troy. I must have hiked or ridden a bike up this trail a hundred times. Maybe it was never a hundred, but it feels that way when I wend around familiar corners.

Right now I’m happiest when I’m walking. Especially the kind of walking involved in a snowshoe slog, which strains my muscles but not my heart. The rhythmic motion allows me to slip into relaxed thoughts that are difficult to achieve elsewhere (my recent mental state fluctuates between brain fog and a strange hyper-attentiveness that still fails to focus on any one thing.)

As I climbed higher into the fog, my snowshoes sank into knee-deep powder on top of a bulletproof crust. "If I was up here yesterday, I could have ridden Pugsley," I thought. That was genuinely a thought that I had, when I was in Anchorage yesterday and haven't owned a Pugsley since 2012. When I snapped back to the present, I thought, "Damn, I really do have dementia."

Happily, for the rest of my stay in Juneau, I didn't have to spend too much time alone with my weird brain. Although I only had three full days, I still managed to visit a number of old friends. On Thursday, winds had hit gale force, and blizzard conditions discouraged the ascent of any mountains. My friend John suggested snowshoeing to Eagle Glacier, a trail I had never traveled. Soon after the hike started, I realized why. For most of my time in Juneau, I was almost exclusively a cyclist. Eagle Glacier trail is often a technical jumble of rocks and roots skirting the crags that line the Eagle River. It wouldn't have been fun with a bike. Under thick tree canopy, the often thin layer of snow only served to mask the obstacles, not cover them. After enough stumbling and snagging on branches, I just took the snowshoes off.

Somewhere in that blurred background is Eagle Glacier. And somehow it had taken us three and a half hours to hike six miles. We managed to get back in two and a half, so I suppose broken trail really does make a difference. I felt better at the end of that six-hour slog than I had in a week. More clear-headed, more upbeat. Nothing like self-medicating the malaise with exercise.

Thursday was the day Beat dropped out of the Iditarod. He scratched at Puntilla Lake and flew into Anchorage before I'd even returned from the hike. The story is his to tell, but he's also been feeling less strong since we moved to Colorado. A lingering cold left him struggling and not enjoying a single step. By mile 160, all he felt was dread for the upcoming miles. On the wind-blasted trail to Ptarmigan Pass, a lost snowshoe prompted him to turn around. After he found it, he just keep going back to the checkpoint. Although I knew on a logical level why Beat left the race, on a personal level it was difficult to understand. There is nothing more I want than to be on the Iditarod Trail right now — pedaling, walking, having to focus only on forward motion. I know that my physical state is poor for such an endeavor, and my mental state is probably worse. Still, the desire lingers. Thoughts of the terrible wind and subzero cold just made this desire burn stronger. What is wrong with me?

On Friday I went for a short hike with my ex-boyfriend, Geoff. We don't keep much contact anymore, so it was nice to catch up. He's been dealing with strange health issues for five years now, and the sum of them really look like an autoimmune disease. Geoff has become one of the headline cases for overtraining syndrome among ultrarunners. Given his symptoms, I don't buy into that community-driven diagnosis. Training may have set off whatever he has (just like sickness and overexertion during the Tour Divide may be what triggered my thyroid disease.) Still, Geoff spent years searching for a cause, and never found answers. Since it just happened to start while he was winning races, overtraining it is. Right now, he's happy to live and let live — getting out when he feels good, and staying still when he does not. I admire that attitude. I was working toward acceptance before I was diagnosed with Grave's Disease. The treatable nature of this condition should have given me hope, but instead I was pulled away from acceptance and back into uncertainty. There's hope, of course; I just need to find it.

The weather had cleared, which often brings terrible Taku winds. Geoff suggested trying for West Peak, starting just one canyon over from the avalanche gully that the city was bombarding with howitzer blasts. Meanwhile, 50mph wind gusts raced down the ridge as we climbed above treeline. We trudged and crouched as clouds of spindrift swirled around us. All that time, Geoff told a story about helping rescue friends on that same mountain, when the wind was so bad that they couldn't return on their own. After about twenty minutes we both said, "screw this," pretty much at the same time, and turned around. I thought about the ITI racers on Ptarmigan Pass, and how slogging through 50mph wind gusts was exactly what I'd been wistfully pining for. But it's not the same. It's difficult to describe why the journey is not the sum of its parts, the parts alone are not necessarily meaningful, and it's just not the same thing. Plus, wind sucks. 

Sadly, I had to leave early on Saturday. So I took the rest of Friday afternoon to wander around town before catching a musical ("West Side Story") with my friend Brian. The frigid wind blasted down Basin Road, prompting me to bundle up. It was 15 above, but that's cold when you're in Juneau.

Alaska's First Road. Of course it would go up this narrow, winding canyon with steep dropoffs and avalanche gullies at every switchback.

Walking up the Perseverance Trail, I looked toward Mount Juneau and had another moment where I couldn't quite remember what year it was. As it slowly came back, I thought, "It didn't even rain."

It may be another few years before I return to Juneau. The Mendenhall Glacier may have receded above lake level by then, the heavy rains may shift to spring and autumn will become warm and dry. Everything will have changed, but it will still feel like an instant.


  1. Thank you for catching us up on Geoff. Having caught something of a weird "fatigue" on my own while at the height of my training and racing, I called it "Geoff syndrome" and looked to the news from him for the answers. Now, 4 years later, I still have none, and working on that very same attitude - sometimes it comes naturally, sometimes it's hard to accept. Love to snow pictures, looking forward moving to a place with winter in 2 years.

  2. I have an athletic friend with similar symptoms, whose only vague diagnosis is chronic fatigue. It's heartbreaking. And I feel the same way about Sitka as you do about Juneau. I'm actually a little afraid to go back next month.

  3. Have you been checked for depression? And yes, wind sucks.

    1. Depression??? I think if you were to look at her right side bar and note all the posts she has written over the years and the number of adventures she has taken, the books she has written of her journeys, that even in her "relaxed" pace of now she is one high functioning person, knows herself, is still moving forward and writing of her reflections of life as it is. Depression...phttt!

    2. Wow, lot of misconceptions in that reply. People with depression can be high functioning and all that other wonderful stuff while still suffering from depression. It's a health issue, like having diabetes or cancer, not an emotional or gosh that person just doesn't have what it takes to cope issue. Unfortunately, comments like yours show that the stigma of depression remains.

    3. Thank you for the input. I agree with the third commenter about depression being a health issue that needs to be dealt with through treatment. I'm wary of the possibility, but don't believe I'm currently dealing with clinical depression. My hormone levels are affecting my emotions and my intellectual function. Hopefully re-adjusting those to correct levels will bring me back to normal.

  4. Your posts and pictures as of late have really resonated for me which sparked a
    pondering, off and on the past few weeks. There was also a post from David at “Raptitude” (link in your right side bar) on “Mindfulness” that also played into my thoughts but the biggest trigger I think was a “framing” that you wrote of “crossing a threshold” that really hit home. I see my late onset of Hypothyroidism as a threshold crossed, there was a “before” when life seemed more rational, linear, controlled and yet felt free at some level, my conscience mind would make a plan and my body would follow, fear and doubt were there but lower and controlled, I was mindful but in an unconscious way. Well that was my perception…. until it wasn't. As health and mind spiraled down I felt an inner trauma of sorts (loss of control, mind body split) and my subconscious (feelings?) started to become more vocal. The after was/is like riding a wave, highs become really focused and connected, almost like my prior self, which sounds similar to your hike up Eagle Creek. My lows, my mind loses focus, wanders and ruminates as I look inward, too much mindfulness! There is some new neural science on our brain function of self talk. Using your own name instead of I/Me helps to “self distance” and promotes positive thinking/action and breaks the low point, I think it does help... sometimes. Ya, I know that sounds kinda skitziod so I don't really talk about it to others, just myself….and not outloud :). Speaking of memories and dementia, I find my memories of deep unconscious meaning don't age (maybe fade a little :) ) and I can pick up where I left off as if it was just yesterday adding another image to that memory stream of the past and feeling warmed like pulling on “a worn coat”. I don't think slipping into the past state of mind is dementia, just a sort flexibility...Yeah I'll stick with that framing. I've also tried but still can't accept using the word “Acceptance” for myself, instead I use “Tolerate” which has a meaning of “Conditional Acceptance” :)
    Hope for me lies in “Dasein” ….I will always be a work in progress….
    BTW your “It's difficult to describe why the journey is not the sum of its parts, the parts alone are not necessarily meaningful” quote is on my list to ponder :) :) when I am not gazing at my navel.


  5. In the twisted order of things that appear on my Kindle, I have just read "Becoming Frozen" as my last Jill book. So it's weird to read of you "going back to Juneau" when in my world, you only arrived there yesterday!

    In my mastication about a ride I have recently entered, a friend posted, "Oh be careful, look after your body". Unfortunately I find I have to batter my body to better look after my mind. So the ride goes ahead with all of the gusto I can muster so that I fall, battered and fatigued into work on Monday with an overwhelming sense of a job hard done (not necessarily well done).x

    Bring yourself back online with vigour and in good time chick.


Feedback is always appreciated!