Return to the Whites
It was late March and the weather was a manic rollercoaster — 20 below in the mornings, sun, wind, heat. By the time Beat's plane landed at 4:45 p.m., the temperature was 19 above. Beat was fresh from balmy Colorado, bundled up, and giddy about the upcoming White Mountains 100. I had stripped down to the one T-shirt I owned in Alaska, torn somewhere in my travels. Worn ragged and weary.
Forty-eight hours had passed since the avalanche debacle, and although my head was finally switching to its normal settings as hormones settled, I had no energy for much of anything. I'd slept in the car during a break from my commute between Denali and Fairbanks (30 minutes, alarm set) and dozed off again while sitting at the airport. Beat was a bundle of excitement and I tried to absorb some of that energy as we went through the usual pre-race motions. The WM100 is my favorite race of all. Even though I couldn't be a participant this year, I'd be in the midst of the excitement while volunteering at checkpoint 1. I wanted to support Beat as he tried to recapture his mojo after leaving the Iditarod Trail.
All of this I reminded myself, but in truth I was just weary. I wanted to go home.
The plan was to leave Fairbanks after the pre-race meeting Saturday, drive to the trailhead, and ride 17 miles into Moose Creek cabin, where I'd meet four other volunteers to set up our checkpoint early the following morning. I planned to spend two nights at Moose Creek, then ride out a cutoff trail early Monday to greet Beat near the end of the course. It was a low-stress trip of minimal miles that would allow me to spend two-plus days in my beloved White Mountains. It was great to have one last adventure in Alaska, I told myself. But I was weary.
Churning and churning, I thought, "I'm tired of pedaling a bike in the highest resistance setting," and "I wonder who else is going to be riding out this trail at four miles an hour tomorrow morning?" Just as I pondered the speed of White Mountains cyclists, a friendly Anchorage racer who was out for a shakedown ride approached. I'd chatted with him at the trailhead; he seemed relaxed there, but here he sped past me as though I was standing still.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Yes, just a heavy bike," I replied as I watched him race up the next hill.
"He'll do well tomorrow," I thought. Ultimately he would arrive with the lead pack at checkpoint one, then return two hours later to inform us that he'd blown up so he was heading back to the start.
The trail undulated over steep hills populated by toothpick trees. Hints of green aurora swept over the northern horizon. To the south I could see the yellow aura of Fairbanks, and three headlights approaching me. The other volunteers were hauling gear out by snowmobile, and also told me they were getting a late start.
"Yay, I can catch a ride," I thought as I trudged up a mushy incline. The headlights disappeared into a dark valley and emerged again, seemingly on a different ridge. Minutes went by, miles went by, and they inexplicably never caught up to me.
"Maybe they're all riding bikes," I thought, imagining someone hauling out tables and snacks and 25 gallons of water via bicycle. Ultimately the lights were the three volunteers on snowmobiles, moving slowly across a deceptively expansive ripple of hills.
We all crammed into the new but diminutive cabin — me, four dudes, and three dogs, one of which barked through the night. We stayed up until 2 a.m. chatting about races, laughing, and drinking beer (I had a virgin hot chocolate.) One guy had stopped by Sams Club to pick up an army's worth of breakfast foods — two pounds of bacon, 18 eggs, 40 tortillas, a gallon of orange juice, a pound of shredded cheese, at least five pounds of ground beef, and two big jars of salsa. There were five of us. I looked at my little bag of oatmeal and laughed.
I gave Beat some warm water and a kiss and waved goodbye. After ninety minutes, everyone else had come through the checkpoint. We had one cyclist drop out with frost-nip concerns, and the Anchorage rider who bonked, but everyone else made it through. My back ached as we packed up, and I bid everyone else goodbye. For my second night at Moose Creek, I'd be alone.
We were both ready to return home to routine, comfortable beds, and springtime. I'm always grateful for the time I'm able to spend in Alaska. Even without the Iditarod, this March visit had been full of adventures, exhilarating highs and humbling lows. My body and mind were ragged, but my spirit was full, ready to pick up the pieces and sprint forward.