Tuesday, January 15, 2019

It's just life on Earth, part four

Interesting, isn't it, how we spend so much of our lives striving? Life is a game every one of us knows we're going to lose, and yet we all play to win. Let's face it, even if one of the many theological theories about an afterlife plays out, only a tiny fraction of us live accordingly. No, most of us are striving to win at the here and now — more money, more power, more legacy, more fame. We all have something. Me? I'm greedy about memories. My stockpile is made up of experiences. I'm more interested in quality than quantity, though. I find beautiful, intense moments and then return to them, if I can, to fortify the memories. I could visit a hundred places and remember very little about each of them. Or I could trek through the White Mountains a hundred times, and carry the tiniest details into ... I guess my hope would be ... eternity. 

The miles and firewood gathering drained enough energy to make up for my usual night-owlishness, and I was out cold by 7:45. Unfortunately, my subconscious interpreted this as nap time and roused me awake at 10:30 p.m., ready to meet the new day. I couldn't fall back asleep. I finished the "Myth of Sisyphus" essay, but afterward felt too exhausted for more brain activity. A little after midnight I slipped outside to look for aurora. It was the first fully clear night of the trip, but I wasn't so optimistic as to put on any clothing. Instead, I stepped onto the porch in my underwear and booties, jaw slackening as the sky lit up all around me.

It was warm — 14 degrees above zero — but there was a hard wind at this altitude, and my buns rapidly turned blue. I ducked back into the cabin and threw on down pants and a parka, then went back outside to watch the sky. Green waves tinged in white and pink fluttered in an erratic and mesmerizing dance. Even medium-intensity Northern Lights carry otherworldly beauty. Still, it's interesting just how intently I can watch the aurora without a whisper of distraction from my otherwise hyperactive brain. Like that time I froze my hands during the White Mountains 100 — my brain didn't even send a signal that my body was rapidly cooling.

Then there was that visit to the Museum of the North with my friend Wendy, a day or two before the White Mountains 100. I walked into a closet-sized room filled with low-pitched humming audio accompanied by a light show that resembled the Northern Lights. I spent most of our time at the museum neglecting all of the other exhibits to sit in that room. I just sat, looked, listened, and had no other thoughts until others entered and roused me back to reality. It was everything I needed before my upcoming race — peaceful, meditative minutes to distance myself from my sore body and overanxious mind, and just float. And those Northern Lights weren't even real.

A knocking sound broke my concentration, and a few minutes later Beat came outside. I looked at my phone and saw it was nearly 1 a.m. Had I really been out there for almost an hour? Come to think of it, my fingers were terribly stiff, and my toes felt like stone bricks. As Beat spoke I could hear the wind instead of him, which caused me to think, "Huh, it's still windy." He pulled out his camera, which prompted me to try a few of my own shots. Conscious again of my body, I felt jittery and cold and knew I wouldn't remain outside much longer. The moment had been broken. Still, I was perplexed as to where the time went. Did I doze off? While standing up? Or was this really, as I imagine it, a small glimpse into the timelessness of eternity — seamlessly integrated with beauty and light?

Day four involved another 20-mile trek, but we knew it would be tougher than the previous 20-mile day. We planned to cut across the Moose Creek Valley on a seldom-used trail en route to Crowberry cabin, high on another ridge over Beaver Creek. It would be possible to get there on the main trails, but this would add eight miles and more climbing to the schedule — not trivial, but also not necessarily longer than the shortcut. If we ended up breaking trail, we'd probably travel slower than a mile an hour on the shortcut versus the ~2.8 mph that I could average on the packed trails. (I admittedly get a little bit of a masochistic kick out of tracking my pace and realizing just how hard I need to work for a measly 22-minute-mile. While doing this I liked to imagine my occasional 7-minute-mile paces at home and dream about what it would feel like to be free again.)

While hiking past the Moose Creek trail junction on the first day of the trip, we noted a faint base that had been almost entirely buried by days or weeks of wind and snow. We continued to debate the merits of taking the shortcut until the third day, when we hiked past the junction again and noted a single bike track cutting through the fluff. The bike track appeared to go in just one direction. The track continued up to Eleazars, and based on an entry in the cabin log book, we began calling this phantom cyclist "lazy biker chick." (I should note that this moniker arose mostly because she did not leave any firewood, and also because she was on a bike ... now, you will never catch me pretending that fat biking is a "lazy" way to go, but after a number of days with a sled anchor, my ego had been dutifully pulverized and was grasping for any hint of superiority.)

Anyway, for most of the night, we reasoned that if "lazy biker chick" could handle Moose Creek, so could we. We hit the trail in the 8 a.m. darkness and coasted effortlessly down from Eleazars (those who claim there is no coasting in running or hiking have never run in front of a heavy sled down a steep hill.) A mile later we reached the junction, strapped on snowshoes, and waded into the fluff. Conditions could be characterized as shin-deep sugar, coated with a paper-thin but solid crust of ice. We followed lazy biker chick's track all of 30 meters, where she'd stopped, wheeled around, and rode perfectly within her own track, never deviating once, back to the main trail.

Well, she is a pretty skilled cyclist. Undoubtedly a smart one, too.

For eight miles we waded through the gritty snow over an invisible obstacle course of tussocks, tangles of branches and ATV ruts. The snow was deep enough to add considerable resistance, but not deep enough to smooth out the hidden bumps in the trail. Every few steps, one of my snowshoes slid off a rut and I strained an ankle tendon, or I snagged a snowshoe on a branch and stumbled awkwardly, straining all sorts of soft tissues. The sled balked over the ruts and pulled at my already painful hamstrings. Zeus had it wrong when he condemned Sisyphus to roll a rock up a hill for all of eternity. This ... this is hell.

By the time we reached the junction with the main trail, my body felt half-shattered. I had done no deep thinking on this day, because I was sleep-deprived and exhausted. My mind had nothing to give me besides the most basic functions. Even my appetite waned. In the haste of meal-planning, most of my day food was trail mix, and I'd become unsurprisingly sick of it. I threw handfuls of nuts into the snow whenever I saw birds. I know I shouldn't feed wildlife, but I can't help but let my heart melt whenever I see those little birds fluttering among the frosty branches and realize how hard their lives must be.

There was a long climb followed by 10 more miles of rolling trail. Even the steep climb felt almost like coasting compared to the Moose Creek mire, but I was still fading. Beat told me he had a surprise for us at the top of the hill. His surprise — Magnum ice cream bars.

There's something blissfully childlike about scarfing ice cream and getting melty chocolate all over your face and teeth when it's -1F. I thoroughly enjoyed this treat.

We continued into the colorless afternoon, tracing the spine of a gentle ridge. Much of this forest had burned in recent years, and what was left hunched beside the trail with weary postures, wearing the frost like delicate strands of gray hair. I became entranced by this forest of ghosts, beckoning me into a dream world where my legs no longer hurt and the weight lifted from my shoulders and I could lay down amid the stillness and sleep.

This dream-like state carried me into my recent past and stirred up vivd details from a day that I believed carried few memories, because I was so mentally out of it — the day I walked alone across the Farewell Burn during the 2018 ITI. On that day my mind was so strung out and my body was so desperate for relief that I sought the soothing rhythm of repetition. There was yet another Manchester Orchestra song, "The Maze," that I listened to on repeat, again and again, for more than ten miles. Later I would look back in awe at the reality that this was probably at least four hours of the same three-minute song.

Wish me a wonder and wish me to sleep. 
You don't have to wander to hear when I speak. 
There is nothing I've got when I die that I keep.
It's amazing.

This resurgence of memories was the first I realized that I wasn't completely out of it as I'd believed. Ten miles passed in what I fooled myself into believing was three minutes, but I remember the thousands of steps: turning right at the tattered ruins of Salmon Camp and following a straight cut though the ghostly spruce forest as the gray faded to deeper gray. During that time I was acutely aware of tiny details — moose tracks in the snow, flaking bark on the birch trees, the occasional piece of wooden lath coated in frost. The stuff of life. Repetition lulled my brain's need to process and overanalyze everything, and the deathly monotone of the landscape sharpened my focus on the moment. In the short term that day on the Iditarod Trail was blah and the memories seemed inconsequential. But as they re-emerged, I realized these had become my most cherished memories from that experience — a glimpse into existence without a past or a future. Life in the present.

Darkness settled over the White Mountains ghost forest in a similar inconsequential manner. I was walking and breathing and walking as the ash grayness imperceptibly shifted to charcoal. There was a moment when I could no longer make out the outline of the trail, so I switched on the headlamp that I never bothered to remove.  My inner night owl woke up with the fading light, and I felt more alert than I had all day. This meant more energy for my battered legs, but it also brought back the fretting, so much useless fretting. Suddenly I was thinking about endurance racing and jobs again. As much as I wanted to return to the ghost forest's quiet meditation, I couldn't bring it back.

Our friends Corrine and Eric and ridden their bikes out to Crowberry. We hadn't interacted with other humans for several days, and their presence was jarring, for a few moments. But we settled in quickly to libations and chatting and feeling like normal people in the modern world.

With one key difference — well, besides being dozens of miles from anywhere. My physical and mental energy had been spent, leaving my soul to wander unburdened into the night. 
Friday, January 11, 2019

It's just life on Earth, part three

One of my most vivid memories of the office where I worked in Juneau is actually a memory of a memory. I was walking across the parking lot amid the eerie emptiness of 2 a.m. The wind was howling as streaks of rain tore through a yellow beam of light. I looked toward the light's source — a street lamp — and lapsed into an evocative flashback of the golden moon rising over the Susitna Valley. A sense of peace surged through my blood. "If everyone could experience the Susitna 100, we'd all be so much happier," I thought, smiling knowingly at my unlikely discovery some months earlier — the powerful joy that lies just beyond the threshold of fear and exhaustion. Of course, I hadn't actually discovered a sweeping cure for the ills of the modern first world. I'd only discovered an esoteric quirk within myself, one that meant I'd never again fit in outside the community of weirdoes who feel compelled to ride bikes a hundred miles across frozen wilderness. 

On the morning of day three, the temperature was 16 below. In 48 hours we had yet to see our thermometers register anything in the positive digits. As one does with increased exposure, we'd adapted nicely to the negative teens. I was making trips to the outhouse wearing only underwear and down booties, then taking an unhurried couple of minutes to examine my bare legs for bruises (damage from earlier falls on overflow) while I sat on the styrofoam seat. While packing up to leave in the morning, I spent more than 10 minutes fiddling with the attachments to my harness, securing my sled bag, and strapping on snowshoes without bothering to put on gloves. My fingers weren't even that cold. It's amazing how well my hands adapt to the cold. Starting out cold is a completely different beast, though, as is 30 or 40 below. I know this all too well, and was grateful for the simple ease of shelter and more friendly subzero temperatures.

My main complaint, unsurprisingly, was my legs. They hurt. In some ways it felt as though they never recovered from my March races. Instead, my frayed hamstrings had remained in stasis, unused for nine whole months until the snow and sled forced them back to work. "This does not bode well for Nome 2020," I thought. The trek to Nome is actually something I'd started to think about again, only because I was feeling so good otherwise. I was breathing well, and even the hardest pulls up steep hills didn't leave me gasping. My blood remained rich with oxygen, which meant I didn't become a brain-dead zombie. I could do a lot of thinking out here. I don't know if that was a good thing.

On this day we had 20 miles to travel between Caribou Bluff and Eleazar's cabin. The first 10 miles followed the punchy track we'd traveled on the first day. Then there were nine miles on a well-traveled trail that we knew would zip by, and the final mile was on a steep pitch that gains 600 feet. This climb has taken me as much as an hour to ascend in the past (soft snow, tired legs ... actually, that was the effort I usually blame for ruining my legs whenever my legs hurt — the infamous cabin trip of March 18, 2018.) So this wouldn't be an easy day, but at least everything was known.

The late morning hours were cool and gray, and wading the punchy track with sore legs became tedious. We'd removed our snowshoes prematurely — the hope for hardened trail springs eternal — and I was still breaking through to my knees in places. Past experience should have taught me by now that it is *always* better to wear snowshoes in soft conditions — the same as the universal fat bike mantra, "when it doubt, let air out." But that doesn't change the fact that snowshoes hurt my feet, and I will probably forever be stubborn about it.

Instead I let the physical frustration build and distracted my mind with memories and songs. "Life on Earth" by Snow Patrol:

All this ancient wildness, 
That we don't understand. 
The first sound of a heartbeat.
To riots roaring on.

As we commenced the long climb out of the Beaver Creek valley, Beat pointed out strips of pink light stretched across the hills.

And then, at the top of the climb, an elusive orb burst over the southern horizon and cast beams of light — real, direct sunlight — right into our path. It was the first we'd seen of the sun all week.

It had been a mere seven days since we left Colorado, our home that famously receives an overabundance of sunlight, so we're hardly deprived. And I consider myself the opposite of a sun-worshiper. I fear the sun, in the way only fellow fair-skinned white people can understand, and hide from it all summer long with SPF 50 and arm sleeves and long pants. But on this day, even that tiny dose of low, heatless sunlight felt like an enormous burst of energy. I was completely revitalized. Even my legs seemed to hurt less.

Flurries of snow filled the air, sparkling like stars against the dark clouds overhead. It was absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful. These photos are of course a great disappointment to me, as they always are, as they can never capture the heat and energy surging through my body, the sweet metallic taste of the subzero air, the pink light so rich and incandescent it seemed as though the entire frozen landscape was ablaze. It's a strange paradox, visiting the land of darkness and ice to experience the heights of lightness and warmth, but this has long been my truth.

This is life on Earth ... an Earth undergoing such rapid change that even my meager human lifespan can't keep up. One of my greatest fears is that I'll live long enough to witness the end of such beauty. But I know, I know. Despair is the province of cowards. I can choose to not be afraid. Because I shouldn't fear the future. Everything changes drastically, given a long enough timeline. Beauty goes on. Light goes on. What was it that Camus wrote … “I know simply that the sky will last longer than I.”

Here is where I note that most of this day's string of consciousness was inspired by Albert Camus, the existentialist author who wrote about the metaphysical tension that arises when people attempt to impose order and meaning on an indifferent universe. The previous evening, I had a hard time sleeping and felt bored with the adventure books that clutter my Kindle. So I scrolled a dozen pages back and re-opened "The Myth of Sisyphus." I first read these essays in college, then returned to them in 2015 while attempting a solo ride along Alaska's western coast. I did the majority of my reading while burrowed in my sleeping bag in an unheated shelter cabin during a fierce windstorm, and clung to every word as a personal philosophy on which to blame my terrible journey. I was reminded of Camus again when Beat showed me a New Yorker cartoon about the “Instagram of Sisyphus,” which is so funny and such fitting commentary for the community I call my own that it almost made me feel sad. Then again, wasn’t finding joy in futility exactly what Camus saw in the Myth of Sisyphus?

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

I still find myself returning to this place, which for me will probably always be the Susitna River Valley in February 2006. The convergence of power and frailty, of exhilaration and anguish. The beginning. A person can experience such an awakening only once. That we might spend the rest of our lives chasing the intensity of a revelatory first, only to find it slipping farther into the past ... is that just sad? Like Cartoon Sisyphus? 

"Rise and grind! Remember the universe rewards those who don't give up!" 

Maybe this is why I feel stalled out with my endurance endeavors right now — everything feels like an exercise in futility, and yet the struggle towards the heights does fill my heart. I haven’t found a similar depth of intensity or emotion in any other medium. I still want to pursue these experiences, but I feel like my body isn’t going to cooperate. I can’t predict performance anymore, and I can’t simply train away my inadequacies. Is there a way to hold onto motivation amid the uncertainty? Is there any chance of success? As long as I believe my successes are just a random occurrence of good luck on a curve I can’t control, then what am I even pursuing? 

One Camus quote lingered: “From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all. But whether or not one can live with one's passions, whether or not one can accept their law, which is to burn the heart they simultaneously exalt — that is the whole question.” 

Then there’s Cartoon Sisyphus and his Instagram page … struggling without hope of success, and yet eternally excited about rolling a rock up a mountain. He accepts that there is nothing more to life than an absurd struggle, and finds joy in this. 

The sun continued to creep beneath a break in the clouds along the southern horizon — the thinnest sliver of clearing was all it took to cast its glorious light across the land all of the live-long day.

It had the coolest effect — bold, almost primary colors painted within perfectly defined lines. The land looked like a piece of pop art, purposefully designed for the order-seeking human eye.

As we turned to climb the hill toward Eleazars, I realized I hadn't felt a hint of leg pain since the sun came out. All is perception, truly. I managed to roll my rock ... er, drag my sled ... up the climb without too much exertion. This cabin did not have much firewood left behind, so we used the remaining minutes of daylight to hike a short distance down to a burned area. Interior Alaska's spindly spruce with their shallow roots are the perfect kind of tree to just wrap one's arms around and pull out of the ground, no chainsaws needed. It's great fun, tearing down dead trees with your bare hands. Dragging them up the hill, however, is quite a bit more work. I noted with some pride that my shoulder lifts at the gym have been helpful, although my muscles did eventually fail and I dropped a big pile shortly before reaching the cabin. Beat went to work sawing the trunks into logs and chopping the logs into firewood while I gathered snow for drinking water.

That kind of backbreaking labor is deeply satisfying, probably for the same primal reasons that leave us more content in motion than we are at rest. The cycle of expending life to sustain life. Maybe this is ... all there is.

Camus wrote, "You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know ... So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art. What need had I of so many efforts? The soft lines of these hills and the hand of evening on this troubled heart teach me much more. I have returned to my beginning."
Wednesday, January 09, 2019

It's just life on Earth, part two

On the most disheartening days of the news cycle, I soothe myself with fantasies about bowing out of humanity. A little log cabin off the grid, deep in Interior Alaska. Living off a yearly mail drop of letters from loved ones, hardtack and butter. No Internet. All of my energy will be spent just trying to survive. It's not that I want to leave this world. I love this world. It's possible that I love this world more than life, which evokes guilt about my selfish existence. But the thing is, I also love life — fiercely, zealously, all the way to its hard edges. I'm not particularly blessed with hard-woman skills, just desire. I'd be the type who would fall and break a bone while gathering firewood, and freeze to death on tundra. So maybe I'll rethink this fantasy. Still, it's not the worst way to go. At least I'd be minerals to give back to the land I love most. 

By morning, the air inside Caribou Bluff cabin was three-liters-of-water-is-now-half-frozen degrees. Outside it was -18F. Beat got the wood stove going and the 10-by-12-foot interior soon warmed. We poured boiled snow over instant oatmeal with a dollop of peanut butter — the kind of food that seems sort of gross when you're packing for a trip, but by the time you return home, the warm memories linger and you wish you could eat only this.

We already knew the trail dead-ended beyond the cabin, but wanted to head out for a day trip. Beat suggested exploring the Fossil Gap Trail, which on this day was just an idea on a map. We set out a little before 11 a.m., when there still wasn't enough daylight to capture non-blurry photos while walking. This didn't stop me from trying. Deathly still air drained the warmth from my fingers, as though I'd plunged my bare hand into ice water. The sensation was exhilarating.

Fossil Gap is one of few trails left in the White Mountains that I have yet to explore. As one of the most remote trails, Fossil Gap is almost never broken out, and it's a long way to go to find out there's no trail to follow. Tracing the route on my GPS, it was clear that the first mile or two of the trail didn't just parallel Fossil Creek; it actually overlapped it. The creek was the trail. And having not been broken out before, we'd be forced to feel out untested ice.

I'm strongly afraid of river travel (yes, Fossil Creek is a creek in Alaska, but if this waterway was located in Colorado, it would be designated as a river.) Such travel becomes exponentially scarier at temperatures lower than -20F. But there were a few reasons we decided to test these waters. We both dream of potentially more remote expeditions in Alaska, where winter river navigation would be a necessary skill. Fossil Creek is never that deep, so the chance of a catastrophic collapse was small, and even if we broke in above our knees, there were two of us to help each other. We brought along all the necessary safety gear for a quick warm-up if needed. We both wore water-repellent overboots. Beat took the lead, gently tapping the ice with his poles, listening for hollow sounds. If we saw caribou tracks we used them, reasoning that caribou weigh a bit more than us, and the surface area of each hoof is much smaller than our snowshoe-clad feet.

It was going well until we encountered a log jam. Looking for a way around, Beat veered too close to the shore and broke through a brittle layer of ice into shin-deep water. From my stance it looked worse than it was, and I froze in panic as he continually crashed into the slush while trying to step onto a more solid shelf. I was in full deer-in-headlights mode, waiting for the entire creek to swallow both of us. All of the blood drained from my extremities, and my knees felt weak. My overreaction would have been comical if it didn't bode so poorly for handling such situations in the future. Finally I stammered, "What can I do to help?" Beat found solid purchase and pulled his sled through the water and onto the ice. "Go around," he replied.

I found a way through the log jam as Beat brushed instantly-formed icicles from his legs. The overboots kept his feet dry, and he wanted to continue. I was boiling with fear-induced adrenaline and just wanted to keep moving in any direction. I remembered the importance of building good decision-making skills and tried to bite back my fear. We continued another half mile until we encountered a river-wide lead, where we could hear water gurgling underneath paper-thin ice. The alders along each shoreline were exceptionally thick, and the ice lining the shore sounded hollow enough that trying to bridge a way around the lead would not be trivial.

"Let's turn around!" I suggested all too eagerly. Beat was not convinced. This was a problem he might need to solve for real someday. He stood pondering for several minutes before agreeing with me that portaging a sled while wearing hip waders was just a little too complex for a day hike.

As we slowly retraced our steps, adrenaline and minus-20 air was draining all of the life from my blood, so I distracted myself with my 2018 theme song thought experiment. One of the songs that got me through my march to McGrath earlier in the year was "Lead, S.D." by Manchester Orchestra. Beyond the appropriate images the lyrics evoked during a three-day span where it rarely stopped snowing, there was a strange sort of hopeful longing amid the hopelessness.

The snow is piling up, our temporary grid. 
It was just like this, this time last year. 
There's nothing in the wind, just white up to the trees, 
And it's been that way for eternity.

I gazed north across the cusp of a wilderness that remained more or less unbroken all of the way to the Arctic Ocean, and thought that perhaps a better Manchester Orchestra song to encapsulate the year would be "Simple Math."

What if we’ve been trying to get to where we’ve always been? 
What if we’ve been trying to get to where we’ve always been? 
Simple math, believe me, all is brilliant. 
What if we've been trying to kill the noise and silence?

We reached the Caribou Bluff trail junction, and Beat asked me if I wanted to hike back a ways on our trail from the previous day. Of course I did, as the sun was still "high" in the sky, it was a beautiful clear afternoon, and we'd only walked about three miles so far. But I'd spent all of my energy in one big burst of fear. My adrenals were empty, and I felt more exhausted than I had after all of the 30 miles we hiked the previous day.

Still, beauty and intrigue will always win over fatigue in my world. We marched back across the valley and climbed the bluff dividing the Fossil Creek and Beaver Creek drainages. This climb always feels like a crux during the White Mountains 100 — arriving after sunrise for my foot races, and around sunset for most of my bike years. My ego prodded me with dreams of a brilliant foot race in 2019, if only I can hold off the usual slump and train my way to a modicum of speed. "I want to be here well before dawn, in the dark," I thought. The speedy delusion filled my tired legs with energy.

Beat, who is planning to walk to Nome again, was perfectly in his element. In many ways, the Iditarod Trail is his remote cabin in the woods — the place where he goes to escape the trappings of modern life and focus on simple survival for a month out of the year. It's enough for him, at least for now.

Meanwhile, I was back to ruminating on how I might carve a place for myself in the modern world. I spent the first decade of my working life climbing a ladder into a building that was burning down, and the second sitting in a corner trying to turn an ethereal passion into something tangible. Now I'm entering the third decade, and what now?

I’m a little bit stuck right now. I feel like all I can be is either a low-wage laborer or a writer. But I’ve grown weary of the hustle, generating content in exchange for money. For similar income I’m content to seek out something more secure and mundane, like my copyediting work. If I come into need for more income, I’d happily return to full-time work with whomever will hire me. Work is work. The random things that others might pay me to do have never defined me. Although I admit, copyediting small-town newspapers has become uniquely meaningful. I can still play a tiny role in the dissemination of important information to communities — a service that I greatly value, and that is so swiftly decaying I can’t bear to look anymore. Maybe this is why I'm stuck. Watching journalism die is all I’ve done for my entire career.

All I ever wanted out of life was Truth. As the years pass, all of the truths I grew up with, and those I strived and struggled to discover, even those I believed to be immutable, have only continued to erode. No longer do people not know what is real and what isn’t real — they don’t even care. Everything about life is a story, and it’s becoming clear that we’re all just grasping at light and air, inventing our own truths.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” But I can’t save the White Mountains from climate change any more than I can save the Utah desert from the desperate enterprises of late-stage capitalism. The current political climate has made it obvious that humans are willing to destroy anything and everything for almost nothing at all. I suppose I’ve given in to despair, but it’s hard to come back from that … like standing on the rising stern of the Titanic with a bucket and thinking, “Well, I guess I could try bailing.”

Phew. This thought thread was not taking me to good places. I decided to blame crankiness caused by empty adrenals and shut it down with a few peanut butter cups and more longing gazes to the north. We were heading back the cabin as the sun was setting, which meant we'd been walking all day, even if the day was only about four hours long. I returned to singing "Simple Math" in my head.

What if I was wrong and you had never questioned it? 
What if it was true, that all we thought was right, was wrong? 
Simple math, the truth cannot be fractioned. 
I imply, I've got to get it back then.

After lunch — instant mashed potatoes in a bag, which is another disgusting food that I'd find myself remembering lovingly while surrounded by fresh fruits and vegetables in brightly lit Colorado grocery stores — we set out for a twilight stroll along the rocky spine that divides Fossil Creek Valley and Limestone Gulch. Beat was wearing his down booties and I didn't bother to pull on a face mask or mittens. It was still -21F.

Our stroll was thusly short, although we both regretted not dressing better for more extensive explorations. One last time, we returned to the little 10-by-12-foot public-use cabin nestled in the most compelling setting imaginable, equal parts fairytale and dystopia. Salmon-colored clouds reflected the light of a sun we again didn't see, and the frosted valley was a surreal shade of ocean blue. I may not have found my place within humanity or away from it, but a spot like this is nearly the perfect bridge.