Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Hard love

What love is this that beckons us into these burned hills, where matchstick spruce crouch away from a subarctic wind? How do we love these capricious trails, even after miles of clumped sugar snow swallows our momentum like an endless runaway truck ramp? How can we adore every steep climb? Every thirteen-hour slog just to reach a place to sleep? Or the ice particles stuck to our faces at twenty below? What is this love?

It was inevitable that Beat and I would end up in the White Mountains. With Beat fresh off his Iditarod effort and me wanting "easy as possible" to best manage my thyroid symptoms, we looked into available cabins. March is a popular month in this recreation area. Even during the mid-week, we only found openings at the cabin furthest from the road system (Windy Gap) and another off route up a mile-long wall (Eleazar's). It would amount to 80 miles of hilly trails, with Beat pulling a sled and me riding a bike. We'd already heard recent reports of slow trail conditions, so I figured the bike would allow me to travel 1.5 times Beat's speed, at best. But that was enough time for longer rests. Beat justified the 80-mile hike by reasoning that he was already back in training. He recently secured a spot in the White Mountains 100, which is happening in two weeks.

The weather was forecasted to warm up on Wednesday, but temperatures plummeted again on Tuesday night. We hedged our bets with a later start on the 40-mile day. Our car's thermometer registered 36 below as we drove past the low-lying Chatanika River. The hilltop trailhead was -8, but the warmth was relatively short-lived. After six miles of rolling along a broad ridge, the route plummets into another low-lying area, Wickersham Creek, where temps were still in the -20s. Descending the "Wickersham Wall" at these temperatures feels like plunging into a glacier lake, ice-cream headache and all. My body was all over the map with thermoregulation. I would sweat while wearing minimal layers, then suddenly feel a chill and continue to shiver after I bundled up. Then the heat would suddenly return. After a few costume changes I decided that as long as my feet and hands felt warm, I'd just ignore the chills and go with the lighter option. 

Running hot and cold should have been an early indicator that this wasn't going to be a great day for me. I've had plenty of "bad" days this winter that I attributed to allergy shots, altitude, or mild illness. But as I learn more about Graves Disease, I think I do have days when my hormones are more out of whack than others. This wasn't a good day to be off balance. I had dozens of miles to travel, and the sugary trail wasn't giving up a millimeter of momentum. Riding felt like churning through wet cement. My heart pumped as though my blood was full of sludge. My breathing worsened, so I took more breaks. A few times I leaned the bike against a tree and sat directly in the snow until my butt went numb. I thought about taking a beta blocker pill to shut down the adrenaline and calm my heart, but worried that I wouldn't be able to continue riding afterward. I wanted to ease up the effort, but it seemed impossible to move any more slowly.

All of these solutions were overcompensating, of course. It's not like I was having a heart attack. But I was overdoing it. I know that. I do well with two-to-four-hour efforts. Even my endocrinologist said exercising shouldn't be an issue as long as I take care not to push myself, and as long as I avoid stressors. A few seconds of road rage would be worse for me than days of pleasant biking. But these long efforts — especially the kind that are challenging no matter what I do — need to be deferred until I'm healthy. 

It's difficult not to be greedy, though — to long for the limestone spires that rise above Fossil Creek, which you can only see if you're willing to venture thirty-plus miles away from the nearest road, which itself stands alone in an expansive and often inhospitable wilderness.

It's difficult not to be greedy for that sensation when, after 12-plus hours of slogging until a crushing darkness arrives, you arrive at a cabin. It's small and simple, but it's a place where you can spread your sleeping bag across a wooden bench, lie down, and breathe the rhythm of satisfaction and relief.

It's difficult not to be greedy about ice cream cones, carried for twelve hours and deep-frozen by the air outside. I barely had time to start a fire and hang up my gear before Beat arrived at Windy Gap, about 40 minutes after me. He put in a hard effort, and looked ragged. We barely got the ice cream down before we both passed out.

Ice cream, Mountain House, Fireball hot chocolate, and a full night of sleep did wonders. The following day, I felt a lot better. Just like that. The weather had turned gloomy, and flurries of snow fell through a thick haze. Since we established that my riding pace was about the same as Beat's walking pace, we agreed to meet up after 15 miles to drink hot chocolate in the brisk wind.

Although I felt markedly better, I didn't want to push my luck. So I walked the hills and otherwise puttered along at an enjoyable pace. Sucker holes revealed hints of blue, and a "sundog" rainbow arced through the sky.

A calmer heart and better breathing made a world of difference. I felt relaxed and full of joy. There was no place in the world I'd rather be. Friends have suggested that it would be better for healing if I'd spent this month lying on a beach. They're probably not wrong. But if it was a crowded beach, I'd become stressed. If it was warm, I'd be sweaty and miserable. We all have the places we go to feel alive. Places where the air tastes like cinnamon and mountains stretch beyond the horizon. I love the White Mountains. I know they do not love me back, that I'm surrounded by a thousand things that could kill me, and that my body isn't well enough for this place. But a life without White Mountains is not a life I want. So what do I do?

The final mile to Eleazar's was a grunt, ascending 600 feet on soft trail. My meditative joy had faded, and I was ready to be done. Just like that. My shoulders burned as I pushed the bike, and I invented games to avoid staring at my GPS the entire time. My iPod was playing, so I vowed that after one song, I could look at the distance. One-tenth of a mile. Damn it. Another song finished, and only another tenth had passed. After three-tenths of a mile, I tried to focus on being more present. Spruce trees looked like little dogs begging for treats. Hare tracks mottled the snow. The last hints of daylight turned the sky violet and gold. "I even love this climb," I told myself.

Eleazar's was a nice cabin — stocked with firewood, matches, and propane for a brand-new lantern. The cabin sits on a bluff high above Wickersham Creek, but sadly it was still too cloudy for aurora viewing. I started a fire, moved armfuls of firewood inside, gathered fresh snow for melting, arranged my meager belongings, and waited for Beat to arrive. After a day mostly traveling alone, it was a spirited reunion — Beat ranted about the crappy trail. I quietly insisted that if a hiker thinks it's bad, imagine how a biker feels. Beat lamented his poor training. I lamented my crappy body. Beat asked me if I saw the sundog. I asked him if he saw the 7-year-old girl driving a snowmachine. We shared kisses and ice cream cones, then fell asleep on hard benches. I'm definitely not of the school that believes all good adventures need to be shared, but I was grateful Beat came back from the Iditarod Trail early this year. 

By morning the sky had cleared, and it was warm — 8 above. I wanted to stay at Eleazar's all week, doing all those mundane tasks again and again. But it was time to return to Fairbanks.

We only had 12 miles to travel, and though it took four hours, time went by quickly. Physically I felt good and the weather was beautiful, yet I was still a little melancholy. I didn't know why. Disappointment about my limitations? Guilt about taking this trip? Wistfulness about leaving? Lately my emotions haven't made as much sense as they used to, so I cling to what I know. I love the White Mountains. And I'm grateful for every chance to come back. 


  1. This is an especially beautifully written post!

  2. Evocative, compelling... oh how writing from places of pain and confusion renders ink to blood.

  3. Great post. It's really nice to see you writing from a more positive place. I hope this represents a milepost on the road to wellness. I think we all want to find you trudging down the trail of recovery. Best Wishes,

  4. Very beautiful. One can't tame love.

  5. Your words are full of the love you have for the White Mountains. Wonderful photos and read.

  6. I think an answer to the questions you started your post with may be hidden in your guys genomes. However, in this globally warming world, those genes (we don't call you mutants in this age of modern science) may be an evolutionary disadvantage ;)

  7. What a great post and wonderful photos! Thank you for sharing. What an amazing trail this is! Its great that you are staying active, and I hope you are feeling better!


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