Sunday, November 18, 2018

Time capsule

This weekend a bike shop in Littleton hosted an event called "Winter Bike Expo." When my friend sent a link to the calendar, the whole thing seemed so odd to me. A whole expo dedicated to winter cycling? When did this become a thing? I seem to reside in a bubble where it's perpetually 2007, I own the only fat bike in a 50-mile radius, and hikers still scream and jump out of the way when they see a bike inching toward them on a trail. The reality of 2018, where there are dozens of fat bike models in production, a dizzying array of tires and wheels and pogies from which to choose, and hundreds of cyclists who ride such bikes in the far-away land of the Denver metro area... that reality is still so odd to me. So, of course I had to attend this version of bizarro world.

The Winter Bike Expo was a lot of fun. The day itself was terrible — gray and gloomy with freezing rain at 22 degrees and hard ice clinging to every surface. It was much better to sit inside a warm shop, drool over gear, eat pancakes, and talk about winter cycling. Jay Petervary gave a presentation about his 10 years on the Iditarod Trail, and I laughed knowingly at his Purple Puglsey antics in the long-ago era of 2007. This is my era! I'm not even exactly sure what I've been doing for the past 11 years.

I had a chance to chat with lots of local cyclists. One man and I talked for several minutes before he recognized me ... "Hey, aren't you Jill Up in Alaska?" My blog hasn't been called Up in Alaska since 2010, so I was intrigued. He recounted the post where I introduced my Pugsley. He shared details about rides that I could barely remember, but looking back through my archives, his descriptions were accurate. He lost track of my blog after that, which is understandable, because who reads the same stranger's blog for 12 (cough, 13) years? But the adventures of Pugsley were part of his inspiration to take up fat biking when it became more accessible to him, nearly a decade later. 

I forget that I have this persona online, capturing snippets of my life in these virtual capsules that stay frozen in time. I'm still a real person with this dynamic life who has changed a lot since 2007. But for someone who last read my blog in the late-aughts, I can still be Jill in Juneau, enthusiastic owner of the one fat bike in a 50-mile radius, wide-eyed newbie to all things Alaska, dedicated cyclist riding daily through the cold and snain. This version of me has faded into the past, and yet she lives on through archives and memories. It's a romantic notion — enough so that I didn't tell the man I was still blogging, because I didn't want him to catch up on my somehow less romantic stories of the present day.  

And if he does find my blog, well, look — I'm still riding fat bikes! Not as avidly or frequently, but I'm definitely rediscovering the love for winter cycling. A finisher of last year's Iditarod 130, Dennis, invited me to join him for a jaunt along the South Sourdough Trail on Friday evening. The ride sounded arduous. I admit I avoid riding bikes with others because I'm actually pretty bad at riding bikes, I know I should be a lot better by now, and I don't want them to discover my secret shame. I expected I'd fare poorly on the Sourdough Trail under current conditions — a steeply undulating singletrack that's been furthered narrowed to the width of two skis, surrounded by wheel-swallowing fluff, but the snowpack is still thin enough that if you fall into it, you will smack rocks.

A ride like this is not something I would seek out on my own, but it's good to venture outside my comfort zone. So I huffed and puffed to keep up with Dennis, pushing my heart rate into the 160s even though my bike was moving at walking speed. Soon both of us were wading through knee-deep, mashed-potato snow. We'd traveled a mere 4.7 miles when my two-hour turnaround time arrived. We didn't even make it to Brainard Lake Road. Despite this truth, Dennis was cheerful the whole time. His attitude surprised me ... even among the endurance crowd, I rarely meet somehow who loves a good, pointless slog as much as I do. It was fun to meet another kindred fat-bike spirit in a land far away from Alaska.

The evening was beautiful, with orange lenticular clouds stretching across the sky and a pink glow on the snow. Dark settled in and we switched on our lights, swerving and bucking downhill through the rutted snow. I crashed into a number of times, always hitting something hard and unseen on the ground. That evening I limped home with fist-sized bruises on my knee, hip, and butt cheek. My elbow was still stiff from Monday's crash. Everything else on my body was sore, too.

"I am getting way too old for this," I told Beat. Ten miles in four hours. Geez, I could walk that distance and speed with considerably less effort and pain. But in my head, I was grinning. That ride was great fun. 

 On Sunday, I returned to South Sourdough with Beat and Jorge and without my bike. The morning was gorgeous, with fresh snow and a temperature of 22 degrees.

We strapped on the snowshoes and set a fresh trail to Niwot Ridge. Niwot was our go-to spot for winter training last year. It's close to home, generally free of avalanche danger, and consistently — and I mean always — unbelievably windy. On a calm day in Nederland, the wind rips across Niwot at 45 mph. The ridge-top weather station recorded a 90 mph gust on Nov. 10. It's virtually impossible to venture up here and not have at least a small epic.

What better training for Alaska can there be than a subzero windchill while slogging along punchy drifts, exposed tussocks and sastrugi?

 The windswept plain at 12,000 feet was colder than it looks. I bundled up but neglected to bring goggles, so I had a continuous ice-cream headache from the wind hitting a thin strip of skin along my eyebrows.

 Jorge and Beat together again, where we took shelter beside the weather station. The arms on the windmill were shredded to pieces — clearly another victim of the Niwot wind.

Someday, maybe 10 or 11 years from now, I will look back on these trips to Niwot Ridge. The memories are going to all blur together in a cloud of blowing snow, but I know I'll sigh longingly with an affection only the past can contain. Or maybe I'll still be up on Niwot 11 years from now, and all of these memories will feel like a movie reel that spins years away in moments. I might be grateful I have this archive to scroll through, projecting my wistfulness with images frozen in time. 


  1. Jill Up In Alaska is still going strong - she is just on Colorado now.
    Don’t be so hard on yourself Jill. Not many of us are “athletes”, we are just normal people who love to get out there and do the best we can. I grin on the inside all the time. ;)
    Thanks for the last 13-ish years.

  2. I have been reading the blog all those years. And greatly enjoying it, and worrying along with you about health issues, and loving it when you write about yet another beautiful trip on bike, or foot. Keep on keeping on!

  3. I've been reading for a long time too! Gosh I still sometimes miss my Alaska persona too..the gal who flew in float planes, kayaked for work, slept near bears. She seems so much tougher and badass than who I am today.

  4. I have been here the whole time too. Whatever adventure you choose it is fun to follow along.

  5. Count me as one of those who also have been reading forever and still love the adventures, even if they seem less exciting to you. I love to live vicariously in the mountains through your pictures when I'm not out there, and my adventures would probably be like yours if I lived there full time. Nothing too epic, just another "normal" person getting out there and enjoying being outside in nature, as I do here in Indiana. Thanks for still sharing with us!

  6. I've been reading you since I heard about your bike crash on black mountain from a Midpen ranger.
    You are a gifted and great writer. I marvel about how things flow out of your mind.

  7. You love affair with wind confounds me...
    Box Canyon Mark

  8. I wish I had been reading your blog when you were still in Juneau and I was living there, too. I became a dedicated reader after you left. As others have said, you are a gifted writer and I so enjoy living vicariously through your adventures.

  9. I've been reading (and getting inspired) by this blog since around 2010... Keep sharing your adventures!


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