Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Reminiscing the Kenai

Coming off the Iditarod Trail, I was quickly swept into an emotional tempest, and not a good one. Why such a negative response? I couldn't fathom it myself, but it's always a little difficult to predict how we will respond to experiences. Conquer a big challenge, vanquish some demons, and be happy, right? If only minds were so simple. 

McGrath was wonderful, as it always is. Carole and I rolled into the warm house of Peter and Tracy — longtime residents who have been hosting the finish of this race for two decades — just before 2 a.m. Carole's feet were a mess of blisters and soft-boiled skin. I had been riding an endorphin high for hours, but the minute I stopped moving, a multitude of leg and feet muscles buckled and cramped, and then I was wracked with limb pain. The race directer Kathi greeted us outside and took photos. Inside, Peter made a big plate of chicken and pasta. I managed a couple hours of sleep, but for most of the night I writhed with a rapidly beating heart and leg pain. 

The following morning we hobbled downstairs for fresh coffee and mancakes — massive, dense pancakes that have become the sought-after "prize" for McGrath finishers. I enjoyed sitting around the table with Carole and a couple other walkers — Lars and Alex, along with biking sisters Melissa and Jennifer — and swapping trail stories. It's the kind of decompression we need and crave. But it was short-lived, as we quickly had to catch our flight to Anchorage. Continued heavy snow delayed the flight for several hours, and during this time I made mostly futile efforts to stitch my brain back together to attempt some Tuesday on-deadline work that I agreed to attempt. Amazing how much effort this took, forming cohesive thoughts. I decided would have been easier to keep walking. I imagined Beat, somewhere west of the Takotna hills, still walking. I didn't see him at the finish. I didn't expect to, being a day late as I'd been. But I admit there was that glimmer of hope.

The plane took off into a tunnel of wind and snow. There'd be no views of the terrain we'd traveled this year. The noisy flight ate up all of that mileage in less than an hour. Eight days of unraveling myself, finding the end of the rope, and reaching into shadowy corners of my soul for more ... done, just like that. I stepped off the plane into a warm and sunlit Anchorage evening and realized that what I felt was more like despair than joy. Of course I didn't understand. 

I spent a few more nights decompressing in Anchorage, which mostly involved sitting quietly by myself and feeling baffled by sadness. On Wednesday, I loaded up my toxic laundry into a backpack and walked a mile and a half to a laundromat, where I sat in an empty corner and indulged in a quiet little cry. Walking back, I felt better. My legs were still a pulsing mess of muscle soreness, but I think it was better to walk than to not walk. 

That night I had drinks with several ITI racers — Donald, Carole, Jennifer, and volunteer O.E. That was a welcome respite. I finally had chances to talk with Beat on his sat phone — he was doing well, enjoying himself on the early miles of the Southern Route. My brain slowly came back online, and I was finally able to respond to e-mails ... at the very least ... again. The following day I met up with friends from college, Chris and Becky. But it was becoming more apparent that I needed to get out of Anchorage. 

Being in that weird introvert state where I improved emotionally when I was with friends, and yet intensely craved more alone time, I booked an AirBnB in Hope, a tiny town on the Turnagain Arm where I don't know anyone. Having not yet regained enough brain power to glance at the news, I had no knowledge of a snowstorm that had buried the Seward Highway in two feet of snow. The rental Chevy Tahoe and I set out as Anchorage rain turned to Girdwood sleet, with a major accident blocking oncoming traffic. Turnagain Pass was a frightening whiteout. I hadn't been behind a wheel for a couple of weeks, and Colorado's winter has been so mild that driving in these conditions felt strange in an out-of-body way. I didn't know what to do. There were no cleared spots to pull off the road, so I kept driving. 

Finally I reached the Hope Highway junction, which hadn't been plowed all day. Instead, there was bumper-high heavy powder with a double-track trench down the center, just wide enough for one vehicle. There were still 16 or so more miles to Hope. Normally I wouldn't attempt to drive a road like this, but I didn't want to go back over Turnagain Pass. There was nowhere else to go. So I veered into the trench, hoping those lousy rental summer tires held onto the straight and narrow path, and hoping even more that I didn't meet an oncoming vehicle.

Somehow I made it to Hope. As I walked into the BnB, the owner, Cheryl, gave me a hug. "You made it!" she exclaimed. "I did not think you were still coming today." I beamed. I may have felt more proud, in that moment, than I did about arriving in McGrath.

Hope was everything I needed. Cheryl was very sweet and cooked amazing waffles with fresh strawberries and wild blueberry syrup for breakfast. Her husband, Bruce, gave me all the beta on local trail conditions. Avalanche danger was very high during my visit there. Left to my own devices, I wouldn't have set out at all. But local knowledge holds that the unmaintained Palmer Creek Road is safe — away from avalanche runouts — for the first four miles. "I'm not going to hike eight miles," I assured Bruce. I was looking for an hour on my hurty legs, tops.

A few snowmachines had been up the route, and although the soft base still required snowshoes, it was generally easy walking. It felt so good to just walk again. My foggy head cleared some more. I actually thought about phrases I might like to write down (I'd hoped this post-race solo time would work out well for a writing retreat, but it didn't, at all. Oh well.)

I felt happy again. I may have walked the full four miles, until the road turned to switchback up a mountainside and my inexperienced avalanche radar started to buzz. Admittedly, I didn't even want to turn around there.

On Sunday, my BnB reservation was up. I thought about staying another day, but then fixated on the idea of visiting Seward. Although roads were much better, the weather was still bad, with sideways blowing snow that discouraged my plan to camp. So I rented a room at a cheap hotel. Another guest there kept bumping into me and striking up long conversations, until I felt creeped out by him and hid in my room without dinner to avoid running into him again. Instead I refreshed the ITI tracker and stewed over concern about Beat, at whom I'd directed an undue level of anxiety. Seward was gray and sad and I didn't want to be there, but that's the way things work out, sometimes.

Seward is still beautiful, though. Earlier in the afternoon I did get out for a nice walk through town and out the road to Lowell Point. It wasn't very cold but the wind was harsh, and I was walking so slowly that I had to bundle up more than I ever did on the Iditarod Trail. Still, I enjoyed this immensely after I veered off the road to walk along the beach, with the salty sweet smell of the ocean and the screech of bald eagles to help me feel calm and nostalgic. Wading through the sand made my legs hurt all over again. Just when I felt increasingly grumpy about the prospect of walking four miles back to town, a nice German couple drove by and offered me a ride. Sometimes, things do work out.

By Monday I was on my way to Homer to visit friends. Avalanche danger had lessened some, and popular trails along Moose Pass had seen a ton of use over the weekend. I was reaching acceptance that if I didn't stop hiking, my legs weren't going to stop hurting. But what's another four (steep) miles to Carter Lake and back?

Although still cloudy, it was a lovely morning. I was happy again.

Monday afternoon brought me to the incredible guest cabin of friends Bennett and Dawn, a couple from Louisiana and Mississippi who now live in Fritz Creek, a community east of Homer. Their house sits on the edge of a state park, high above Kachemak Bay. The views were jaw-dropping.

In the morning I donned my puffy coat to sit on the porch with coffee and enjoy the sunrise after a light snowfall. I wanted to move in forever. In fact, my next project will be to convince Beat we need to plan a summertime visit to Homer. Unfathomably, Beat has never experienced summer in Alaska.

Working on Tuesday afternoon, trying not to be constantly distracted by the views.

Dawn and Bennett's house was close to the Caribou Hills, a vast area of snowmobile trails. I used to come here for long winter training rides on my 26er mountain bike, back when I was living in Homer in 2006. So many lifetimes ago. These trails also are part of the Homer Epic 100K course, so I had a good GPS track from 2013. By Wednesday I was starting to think about the White Mountains 100, another race that I in great folly still plan to start on March 25. Optimism was improving at this point, and I decided to do a bit of a "training run" in snowshoes, because temperatures were searingly hot (low 40s) and the trails were soft. This outing turned into 13 miles with not nearly enough food, and I was tired. I think I look tired in this selfie. While battling my legs for 2.5mph, my optimism about the White Mountains 100 again withered to nothing. But I was still happy.

Happy, yes, but of course there still were plenty of moments on the return, slogging yet again across endless soft swamps, when I became aware of my muddled emotions quietly wailing, "Why?" Why, oh why, oh why.

I enjoyed a few too-short days with Bennett and Dawn, helping them feed their chickens, eating locally caught halibut for dinner, talking about their burgeoning homestead lifestyle, drinking coffee on the porch of the tiny cabin, and people-watching at the Fritz Creek Store (no, I did not spot a Kilcher.) In the end I spent very little time in Homer proper. I didn't even stop into the Cosmic Kitchen, which I regret. Still it's always cathartic to return to places from my past, especially places such as Homer that had such a huge impact on the person I've become.

I couldn't leave town without visiting the beach, so on Thursday I made a quick jaunt down Diamond Creek on my way out of town.

It was a warm day at the beach. Dinner plans with friends in Palmer meant I couldn't spend much time here, but it was wonderful to take off my shoes and bury my sore feet in the sand, dip the leathery skin of my soles in frigid water, and take big breaths of salty, oxygen-rich air. There is a spot in California's Marin Headlands called Pirates Cove, a hidden cove surrounded by sheer bluffs, that always brought back happy memories of Diamond Beach in Alaska. Standing on Diamond Beach in 2018, I reminisced about running in the Marin Headlands, feeling the exhilaration of still-free legs pounding down the steep trail as waves crashed against the shore at Pirates Cove. Life is just a cycle, spinning through time.

Yet it remains forever difficult to discern which life experiences will ultimately anchor in my heart. I walked 300 miles to McGrath to find joy, and it was here, all along. 


  1. How I love McGrath. I've only seen it in the mania of summer, when I've been stationed there on fire assignment. I'd love to see it in winter.

  2. A couple of months ago, I posted a poem in the comment section of another blog post and today what you wrote, especially the end, reminded me of another. We seem to have a lot of the same thoughts about endeavors like this, though they render a bit differently I guess :-)

    Be Still
    l will not be discouraged by your perfect indifference
    Warming to you as I go
    Across the quiet expanse of snow and ice
    Where are we headed today?
    Down a well worn path to the past
    To uncover and examine again some old wound
    Or blazing new trail
    Toward a blinding and glittery horizon
    With all the unbroken promises and dreams
    No, child
    Stop with your fretting and questioning and dark and hopeful imaginings
    Be still
    Look how the sun dances through the trees
    The many species of clouds in the sky
    Listen to the wind and the songs of the hemlocks
    Observe the tracks of four footed travelers
    Who, in their wanderings, worry not where they have been or where they are going
    Can you understand now?
    Do you see?
    Lay down the maps and the compass and the plans
    There is no secret still held or puzzle to reckon
    This, right here, right now, is all you really have
    And one day, when the struggle and thrashing about cease
    You will come to know
    It has always been more than enough

    1. Thank you Karen. I love this poem. Is it yours? It's beautiful.

  3. Yes. Mine. Thank you, Jill.


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