Thursday, June 08, 2017

Ask me anything

In my last post I requested that readers "Ask me anything." I lifted the idea from an acquaintance, Mike Place, whose shared his own honest and introspective answers. It seemed like a great way to spur self-reflection — an indulgent but useful exercise. Thank you to everyone who posed a question. A few were quite difficult. I'm posting them in the order I received them. Along with the answers are photos from a "run commute" with Eszter, Scott, and Beat on Wednesday evening. We took the most direct route that would travel over three peaks to our home. It was just a little over eight miles and took four hours — tracing old trails, all-too-briefly running new trails, scrambling on boulders, crawling down loose rocks and chunky scree, and bushwhacking through a burn area. A fun outing! 

 1. Is there something you hope to accomplish during the course of your life? Some theme that you hope people will mention in your obituary or otherwise after you die? Or maybe a better question is "How do you hope to be remembered after you die?" 

It’s interesting that we view accomplishment as a path to immortality. I suppose that’s why writing a book that millions read is a great accomplishment, while writing a book that means a lot to you, but is only read by friends and family, is often viewed as a failure. I’ve given this thought and I’m largely okay with being forgotten soon after I die. Perhaps my great-nieces and nephews will be told about my ride across Alaska, but if they meet me, they’ll probably remember me as a quiet old lady in a weird-smelling house (the way I remember most of my elderly relatives.) At that point, I might not value adventure the way I do now. I might feel like I've become someone else entirely. The self is such a fluid notion; it’s hard to choose just one defining theme.

If I hope to accomplish anything, it’s to live a full life. That sounds like a cop-out, but I truly am grateful for every birthday. I want to continue to skirt the edge of possibility and explore everything I can, including the ever-shifting landscape of my mind. I want to continue to learn and better understand the structure of the world, far-away cultures and the people around me. I want to love and grieve and experience the depths of human emotion. And if one day I write a book that millions read, I certainly wouldn’t complain.

Beat guided us up Green on a saddle behind the First Flatiorn. The route gains 2,300 feet in 1.5 miles.

2. I think the question I want to ask is this — with everything in your life, how do you know when to ask for help? 

The simplest answer is that I do not know when to ask for help. There are so many wonderful people in my life, and too often I fail to reach out to anyone. I struggle with face-to-face conversation. I insulate and internalize difficulties. I can be uncomfortably personal in my writing, because the degree of separation in written words makes it easier for me to express my feelings. Running or biking alone is often the way I process thoughts and emotions, and writing is my cathartic release. Without these outlets, I fear I’d lose myself to bottled-up anxiety, sadness, and fear. I’m working on improving openness in my relationships, in no small part to find the strength to ask for help when I need it.

3. Obviously, dealing with illness will be the topic of your next book. What's the target date of publication? 

Chronic illness will NOT be the topic of my next book. I keep a hobby blog almost solely about personal outdoor activities, which my health directly affects. Of course I’m going to write about illness here, and I don’t really care if that’s not interesting to you. My books actually do aim for a somewhat wider market appeal, which is why I promised myself “no more books about the Iditarod” (although I’ll probably break that promise.) The projects I’m currently dabbling with involve biographies, adventure racing how-to’s, narrative history of places (more of an experimental writing exercise — pondering what places would write if they had consciousness), and one more memoir that explores the exhilaration of being a novice in love and running, set in 2010. No target dates for publication.

We dallied around on the summit of Green while the twilight clock continued to tick. Taskmaster Beat kept us in line.
4. With all of your solo adventures, how do you keep yourself from being scared of the dangers of the world, like animals, people, etc? Does this ever keep you from getting started? 

Back in the summer of 2002, I became almost immobilized by anxiety. It crept up on me, but by June I felt anxious every day. I was terrified of thunderstorms, terrified of my driving commute along the Great Salt Lake, sometimes trembling as I pedaled my new touring bike — which I purchased with daunting adventures in mind — on a routine hour-long ride up City Creek Canyon. I couldn’t define why I was so afraid. But it kept getting worse. One night my bedroom was stifling hot, and I couldn’t bring myself to open the window because I was afraid of Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper. (Him specifically. He hadn’t been caught and was actually holed up near a trail about a mile from where I lived, but of course I didn’t know this at the time.)

Before the kidnapper-through-the-window delusion, I didn't realize how ridiculous my fearfulness had become. Shortly after that, I had a panic attack during a thunderstorm, while I was indoors. What I experienced that summer could have been the beginnings of an anxiety disorder that never fully developed. But I let it be the moment when I decided that I would not let fear rule my life.

 I am still frightened of the dangers of the world. In a way, understanding my irrational tendencies toward “fear of everything” has helped me overcome fears I probably should embrace, like freezing to death in the Alaska wilderness. But sometimes fears do keep me from getting started. Even though I’ve expanded my comfort levels enormously, I still avoid the things that make me uncomfortable. Joe’s suggestion for climbing in the Flatirons is a good example of this. I’m a clumsy person with relatively poor proprioception (the innate understanding of my body’s position in relation to the environment), and I don’t want to enter a setting where mistakes are costly. I could learn techniques that would improve my security, and in theory I’d like this. But I need to break through this fear to get started.

Stealing a few more moments on Green.

5. How do you keep clean during multi-day endurance efforts in regards to hygiene, and along with that, deal with waste? 

 Wet wipes! If I’m on a multi-day trip I always carry a package of 20 antibacterial wipes and use them generously, then put the used ones in a Ziplock bag until I have a chance to throw them away. Because I'm so sensitive to pollen and dust, I try to scrub most of my body at night before I crawl into the sleeping bag. 

And yes, while not quite as frequently, I still use Wet Wipes in subzero temperatures in Alaska. I keep individual wipes in an inside pocket to prevent them from freezing. Otherwise I am prone to rash, infections, sores, and other issues that can really derail a trip. Every time I hear that someone got “food poisoning” during a trip, I secretly wonder if they washed up after they pooped in the woods. It seems obvious, but when you’re hurting and tired, hygiene is usually the first task to go. 

Feminine products are another issue. Washing up with Wet Wipes and storing everything in a Ziplock trash bag is still the method, although I realize it’s not pleasant. Venturing into TMI, my own cycles are light enough that I don’t usually bother with products on bikepacking trips. Black synthetic underwear and Wet Wipes work well enough. And no, I no longer wear chamois during a multi-day bike tour. I’ve had enough horrors from those bacteria traps. 

6. How do you manage to take such consistently fantastic photos while in the midst of strenuous activity? 

If you ride long distances you tend to see lots of beautiful things, and then it’s easy to take beautiful photos. It’s just a matter of keeping a small digital camera accessible (in my case, the chest pocket of a hydration vest), keeping it in an automatic setting that doesn’t require any fussing, and pulling it out often. 

Top o'Bear, second peak of the evening.
7. Have you ever wished to funnel your energy through something else than running or cycling? What's your work / play ratio? 

 I’ll start with the work/play ratio. On any given week, I typically spend about 15 hours contracting for a media company in Alaska. I use about 5 to 10 hours a week, on average, to pursue and work on paying projects such as newspaper articles and freelance copy editing. The rest of my "work" time is spent on personal writing projects. I rarely write for more than 25 hours over the course of a week (I include my blog in this mix, as well as all the efforts that never see the light of day.) My mental energy is usually spent if I’ve honestly put in those 20-25 hours (honestly meaning I don’t count the time I spend playing Words With Friends while ignoring text documents on the screen.)

 According to Strava, my “play” time generally amounts to 10-20 hours a week. This play time is how I generate the creative energy I need to write. If I’m more physically active, I tend to be more productive in my book projects. I take more photos. Sometimes I sketch (these days mostly dabbling with computer software.) Recently, I even picked up a couple of freelance graphic design projects. When I'm less active, the creative side my mind quiets, and annoying anxieties become louder. If forced to become inactive, I’m sure I’d find a way to adjust. But for now, I view play as my way of generating energy, not spending it.

 Do I wish I could funnel the time into something else? I do wonder if I should make an effort to become more engaged in my community — join a trails committee, volunteer for a wilderness organization, go to city council meetings. When I did these things as a student activist and later as a newspaper reporter, I gained a rewarding connection to my communities. This was the whole reason I first ventured into journalism — in my view, engaging people on an individual and community level is the only realistic way for most individuals to “change the world.” Between my actual money-generating work, domestic chores, personally fulfilling creative projects, spending time with Beat, other (somewhat limited) social activities, and of course the running and cycling, I really don’t have tons of leftover time. Community activism would be one area I might like to redirect some of this time.

Scott and Ezter enjoying a swig of whiskey on South Boulder Peak
8. Is the (previous blog post) a sign of an existential vacuum? Do you think of yourself as self-actualized, fulfilled, happy through outdoor activities that only you experience?

In philosophy, I most directly identify with existentialism — the approach of finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Existential philosophers have posited that material desire is futile, and a person becomes their best self when they are pressed against extreme difficulty. By embracing their own existence, a person transcends the absurdity and oblivion of an irrational universe.

Throughout my college years, I was deeply engaged in a spiritual search. During this time, I drifted away from the religion of my youth, as well as other traditional paths (I was accepted to but never started law school, as one example.) At the time, I also devoured the novels by Thomas Wolfe. One passage from “Look Homeward Angel” stands out. The fictionalized version of the author asks the imaginary ghost of his dead brother:

“Where, Ben? Where is the world?” 

“Nowhere,” Ben said. “You are your world.” 

Inevitable catharsis by the threads of chaos. Unswerving punctuality of chance. Apexical summation, from the billion deaths of possibility, of things done.

... On the brink of the dark he stood, with only the dream of the cities, the million books, the spectral images of the people he loved, who loved him, whom he had known and lost. They will not come again. They never will come back again.” 

The author looks into this abyss and decides he must journey on. Why? Because this is life. It is beautiful, because we believe it is.

Coming up for air after this philosophical plunge, one of my core beliefs is that the meaning of life is to live. And I find self-actualization through creative expression and its power to break through barriers. I may engage in outdoor activities that only I experience, but I write about them. Other people, often complete strangers to me, have written back to share how they connected with the words, how their own perspectives shifted, how they were inspired to take a different direction, try something new. I believe humanity will benefit if people decide, collectively, that we are ultimately in charge of our own destinies, and take action — instead of treating life as something that just happens, or must be determined by someone or something else. No! You are your world.

Beat on South Boulder Peak, probably again stressing the imminence of darkness.
9. Have you considered alternate physical activities that are believed to have positive impact on human health (both physical and psychological), e.g. yoga? 

If you read my blog regularly or have made it this far in this post, it’s probably obvious that physical health is not my primary goal for outdoor activities. As for yoga, I avoid it because of predetermined fears. My inflexible body, balance struggles, introversion and performance anxiety would make me deeply uncomfortable even in the most basic beginner yoga class. That’s even more reason to believe it would be good for me, but my interest is low. If a doctor prescribed yoga as a treatment, I’d probably ask for a second opinion. However, I do lift weights. When I keep up a steady routine, I enjoy and look forward to my sessions, even though weight lifting doesn't include forward motion, the outdoors, endorphin stimulation, or anything that I actually like about physical activity. When I believed my thyroid levels might prevent me from doing any form of cardio, I decided I could be content focusing solely on weight lifting for a while. Perhaps I should give yoga a chance.

10. What are the top three bike rides you must do before you die? 

 I’m not really a bucket-lister type of person, so I won’t say I *must* do these rides (I like to keep my options open.) But the top three on the wish list are:

1. A winter fat bike excursion along the coast of Baffin Island.
2. A tour in New Zealand, possibly the Tour Aotearoa route.
3. Cycle across Mongolia (I picked up “Where the Pavement Ends” by Erika Warmbrunn at a library back in 2002, and that was among three books that inspired me to start cycling. If I ever end up going to Mongolia, I imagine it happening when I'm an older woman, revisiting the dreams of my 22-year-old self.)

11. What's the one adventure you keep dreaming about, but haven't yet done? 

 Referring back to the previous question, a bike tour through Mongolia. But if I could add another, I would love to embark on a long trek in Nepal. The Great Himalaya Trail is probably over my pay grade, but I dream about traveling the high route over 6,000-meter passes.

Descending the "Hairy Backside" of South Boulder mountain. Hopping loose boulders — always a swift mode of travel.
12. How do you stay so focused on outdoor adventures? Or do you have other hobbies that you just don't write about on this blog? 

I wouldn't say I am overwhelmingly focused on outdoor adventures, but they do take up a lot of space. My main hobbies are writing and reading. Occasionally I will watch movies with Beat, although it's been a long time since I saw one I really loved ("Arrival" was the most enjoyable in recent memory.) I also enjoy drawing, which I rarely do, sadly. I spend a lot of time reading — mainly newspapers, magazine articles, essays, and blogs. I do read 15-20 books a year, but like many people, I've killed my attention span with Internet garbage, and this has turned me into a slow book reader. I read almost exclusively nonfiction, favoring the genres in which I write (adventure narratives and memoir.) I spend too much time with social media, and fretting about the things I've read in newspapers. Beat has threatened to teach me about his engineering hobbies (he designs and builds his own gadgets), so I can be more productive in my downtime.

13. Are you perfectly content to have a small dedicated readership? I'm asking because it seems like your blog is a hidden gem, which I selfishly love because I managed to find it, but then I think how your talent for writing and photography has the potential to inspire so many more people. 

Aw, thanks. I think that my blog is wedged in a fairly niche genre, and it's only ever going to appeal to a small number of people. Occasionally a post on this blog will receive a huge number of hits — no doubt shared on social media by an influential person — but those first-time visitors almost never return. If I wanted my blog to reach a large number of folks regularly, I'd be better served turning it into a general-interest healthy living site. (Photos of beautiful people in front of pleasant scenery? Check. Instragrammable portraits of food? Check. Paleo recipes? Check.) The same goes for my books — in my genre, even books by "famous" people like Kilian Jornet sell just a few thousand copies. I am working to venture outside the adventure/outdoors genre, but I have no desire to labor through uninteresting projects or put up a front to become more marketable. I'd rather work in fast food.

I do appreciate the readers I've been able to reach, and enjoy the connections I've made through this endeavor. It's been more than worth it.

Beat found an elk antler in the grass.

14. Finally, what was the most memorable trail meal you've ever had?

Good question! I'm going to presume you mean an actual trail meal, and not a restaurant meal eaten during a trip. When I was 22 or 23, my then-boyfriend and I planned an overnight backpacking trip in Zion National Park with eight other friends. Geoff fancied himself a backcountry gourmet and promised he would make dinner for everyone. He recruited me to carry some of the supplies, but for everyone else, the specifics of our dinner would be a surprise.

The first day took us 15 miles through dry canyons and a high desert plateau on a brutally hot summer day. The group was exhausted and crashed out in the shade while Geoff and I commenced cooking dinner for ten people — spaghetti with a sauce made from fresh tomatoes, zucchini, onions, peppers and mushrooms (I cut up the vegetables using a Leatherman tool on the lid of the camp pot), pre-cooked garlic bread wrapped in foil, fancy olives for hors d'oeuvres, and two bottles of red wine (yes, in glass bottles. I carried those in and out.) In civilization it would have been a fairly basic meal, but the red canyon walls and unobstructed blue sky gave it a special flavor. Then I pulled out the pièce de résistance — chocolate and vanilla ice cream bars, packed on dry ice and stored in a small soft-shelled cooler. Our friends were floored. The reactions were priceless. Even though my shoulders ached from what must have been a 50+ -pound overnight pack, it was more than worth it. That's still one of my favorite food memories.

Those are all of the questions I received. Thanks to readers who went out a limb to ask challenging questions, and to the others who wrote e-mails to share their thoughts.


  1. LOVE the food story menu, Jill! Sincerely hope Phelps doesn't read that far down in your absolutely great article....

  2. This turned out really well! I enjoyed it quite a lot.

  3. A "challenging," gutsy post...sort of like one of your bike or running adventures.
    Hat off for sharing a chunk of your soul.

  4. LOL "I'd rather work in fast food." (Excellent write-up. I was trying to think of a question, but couldn't. Perhaps a summary of your respiratory and thyroid issues would be a helpful resource.)

    1. I thought about putting together something like that, but it would be long and boring and would have to somehow thread together the many and frequently contradicting things I've learned about asthma/thyroiditis/overtraining. But it may be helpful to someone ... thanks for the interest.

  5. Awesome, Jill! I loved the questions and your answers. While I like your blog, I found this to be a nice change of pace. It went in directions I certainly wasn't expecting. Cool!

  6. Thanks for answers! Did you see the Bike magazine story about Baffin Island fat bike crossing a few issues back?

    1. I didn't see that article. I've read about 2 or 3 expeditions (sometimes it's difficult to tell if accounts are about the same thing.) There was Zahab's last year. And another with a video:

      Like the Antarctic bike expeditions, these accounts haven't left me confident that bikes are at all useful in this environment. However, I did wonder if a trip along the coast would offer more rideable conditions on gravel bars, sea ice, and hunters' snowmobile trails. The weather and hazards would quite possibly be even more horrendous on the coast than an inland trip (lots of volatile ice on the sea.) For obvious reasons, Baffin is a far-away pipe dream for me. But oh, the beauty.

  7. Love your writing, Jill! I discovered your blog in 2007 when you were living and snow biking in Juneau and then lost touch for a few years. This past winter I read Be Brave Be Strong and Ghost Trails. Thank you for sharing your inspiring approach to life in your books and blogs! On another note, I have 3 friends (John Fiddler, Kathleen Egan, Seth Wolpin) who did the high route of the GHT in summer of 2014. They had an amazing experience, it took 90 days. I'd be happy to connect you... Happy trails! -Kimberly Shavender, Seattle, WA

    1. Thanks Kimberly. I would love to connect with your friends for thoughts on the GHT. I see your Web site and will likely be in touch.

  8. Been working crazy shifts the last month (days, nights, days again, nights again, days again...pretty much missed everything, including my chance to "ask me anything"). One of the questions I've always had is along the lines of "aren't you afraid being OUT THERE alone?" I like backpacking and such, but I've never really done anything 'big' alone. I know the Tour Divide is on again (btw, I started following that race the year you did it, and have been a fan ever since)...and it blows my mind the thought of just tossing down a sleeping bag pretty much 'wherever'...and being SO far from help, and then just the thought that likely mt lions have seen me MANY times in my mt biking life. Maybe it just takes a lot of trips to get comfortable with that level of aloneness? I do almost all my mt bking 'alone' (I do a lot of 6 to 8 hour rides) and I'm ok with that, but bikepacking alone would (will) be another story. You're one gutsy lady is all I can say!

    1. Among the many phobias I've dealt with, being alone in the wild has never been one of them. Just one of those things. I suspect part of it is feeling most comfortable in my own company — I really do enjoy spending time with others, but it always takes some amount of energy. I like being able to make all of the decisions. So you could say I'm "in my element" when I'm alone.

      It's rare for me to feel stranger danger, even in what would admittedly be a sketchy situation (like being a woman walking alone into a rural bar late at night to ask for water.) Logically I know this can be a problem, so I'm always careful to move as far along as possible after I've interacted with someone, camp away from populated areas, and conceal myself well. I've been lucky so far; I recognize this.

      Wild animals ... don't really scare me. The odds are just so small. Now, if a grizzly bear mock-charged me, I would undoubtedly soil myself and carry bear-a-noia for the rest of my days. But because I've had no negative experiences with bears, I don't give them much thought beyond taking the necessary precautions (carrying bear spray in grizzly country. Making noise. Hanging food or placing it far away from my body when I'm sleeping.)

      Interestingly the animals I'm most frightened of are wolves, and they're perhaps the least threatening statistically. If I were as proportionally afraid of the threat of cars, I'd never leave the house. Just reinforces the inherent but ultimately irrational nature of this fear.

  9. Maybe it takes an 'experience' to become afraid of animals. I've become quite afraid of cows recently. A year ago March I was mtb'ing (14mi from my car) on a ridge road in Nat Forest land, and suddenly there were cows where there aren't supposed to be. The 'bull' was last in line, all running same direction I was riding...when I saw them I was rounding a downhill corner, and I only had a moment to decide what to do, so I thought "pass them".

    Didn't work out so good...the bull heard me at the last moment, turned his head and looked at me as I was 'about' to pass (I was picking up speed) and in the next blink of an eye he changed direction and came across the road and hit me...PERFECTLY in the hip, head coming up as he stuck...I flew up and off the bike like a cork coming out of a champagne bottle...literally out of my right shoe (it was still on the cleat).

    The 3 miracles that day: 1, it was downhill in that particular moment to my left (being a ridge-road it's typically downhill on 1 side and uphill on the other, and it changes back and forth). He came from the right, so I flew over the bushes and down the bank and out of his sight). 2, I landed on/in bushes that nicely cushioned my could have been rocks, cactus, barbwire fence, you name it). And 3, that he had such fantastic aim. Had he hit me any other way (missed my hip and got a knee, back or front wheel, or up higher on my body) I'd likely have just crashed right there and then been destroyed, same if it was an uphill...he'd have knocked me 'there' instead out of sight down the bank. I'm guessing my wheels were likely still spinning where it lay after I so abruptly abandoned it, so he stomped them (my beautiful tubeless XTRs...just shattered, rims split). Thankfully the rest of the bike was fine except for a smooth dent in the downtube...he just grazed it. I did have a lovely 14mi hike w/ my broken bike to curse said bull and ponder how LUCKY I was actually, and my SPOT was running so I sent my wife the preset email ("something happened, I'm ok, but I'll be late, don't need help") and she watched me make slow progress to my car.

    I've had encounters w/ cows since then and I'm totally freaked out by them...even a 'cow' weighs a LOT more than I do...and bulls? They can be pretty big...mine was freaking HUGE! Those rodeo guys who get on them on purpose and ride them?? wow...they're INSANE!!

    So here I am completely afraid of COWS, and you're out there on your own w/ pretty much anything the wild has to offer..(same for the TD riders...that race above all others blows my mind...wolves, bears, mt lions, name it, it's out there!)

    And you hit the unasked part of my question too, about the 2 legged predators out there...honestly they're likely the most dangerous in this world.

    1. Oh, I agree cows are scary. I've had multiple incidents with cows, although nothing quite that close. My friend Liehann and I were charged by three bulls after I hopped a fence in South Africa (it was part of the Freedom Challenge race route), but they stopped well short of making contact with us. I was subconsciously but quickly backing up to the fence as they approached.

      A cow with a calf "head-butted" Beat while we were hiking in Switzerland. On my bike I've gotten caught up in the midst of "stampedes" after I riled up a group. During the 2015 Tour Divide a young bull chased me for at least a minute outside Lima, Montana, as I yelled at the top of my lungs. After he turned around, I had a real good cry (I really was scared that time.) Cows are intimidating, but they're present in so many places I want to ride my bike. So I try to overlook the fear.

      It's said that humans are notoriously bad at risk assessment. As cyclists we *should* be scared of vehicles most of all, but most of us ride within inches of traffic without a second thought.

  10. Love reading the Q&A format, and to ponder my own answers to hose questions. Good stuff, Jill.

  11. Gosh, missed the deadline. For next time - ever think about trying your hand at fiction?

    1. In addition to a journalism degree, I actually double-majored in creative writing in college (I never received an English degree because of a dumb oversight on my part, neglecting the foreign language requirement for a BA certificate.) But my short story and poetry writing ended there. Mostly because my interests lie in nonfiction. However, I do dabble in fiction here and there — mapping out storylines for a book, writing chapters. These efforts never ring true to me, and for that reason I deem my fiction "bad" and don't take it any farther.

      It would probably be good for me to take more risks in this regard. However, I sincerely doubt I'd ever find commercial success. Like my nonfiction, my fiction interests are esoteric at best, and wouldn't find a wide audience.

    2. Ya never know. Could stimulate neuronal growth. I could see something along the lines of Nevada Barr perhaps.


Feedback is always appreciated!