Friday, January 18, 2019

It's just life on Earth, part five

My favorite moment from 2018 also happened on the Iditarod Trail. It's effectively impossible to describe, because the lead-up involves a litany of complaints. There's almost no way to convey what I was feeling without making it sound mostly terrible. It's the great paradox of feeling most alive along the frayed edges of existence. 

My breathing had been rough for three days, and I felt this extended oxygen deprivation deep in my blood. I'd been walking through sugary drifts into a hard wind for most of three days as well, and my fatigue was extreme. To top things off I'd become nauseated after eating a meal at the 130-mile checkpoint, and hadn't consumed any calories for more than six hours. Physically, I was a shell, and my mental state was even more hollow. As I climbed into the mountains, the wind finally died with the setting sun. The temperature plummeted as well, south of 20 below, but I had bundled against the now-absent wind and wasn't aware of the cold at first. All I noticed was the stillness, and the intensity of the moonlight — so bright that I could see sharp details without a headlamp and follow my own shadow into the night. 

I walked this way for hours, barely hanging on to consciousness, until it was time to descend the Happy River Steps — a series of steep drop-offs into a narrow gorge. The final step involved sending my sled down on its own and down-climbing, like a mountaineer, while using my fists as ice axes to punch into the snow for leverage. After my sled slid out of view I had a panicked vision of losing everything I needed to survive, and this rush emptied out what was left in my adrenals. I was now acutely alert and afraid — for my solitude, for the cold, for the fearsome river ice. Just as I made eye contact with my sled, I emerged from the willow-lined shoreline onto the frozen Happy River and gasped. The sheer cliffs of the gorge loomed hundreds of feet overhead, flanked by the white slopes of more distant mountains, rendered in the moonlight with such astonishing depth of light and shadow that it gave off the illusion of a multi-dimensional window into microscopic detail — molecules pulsating with electrons to match an infinity of stars shimmering in the sky. 

"This is the most incredible place I've ever been," I said aloud, my voice hoarse to the point of being inaudible. Not that there was anyone to hear what I said, but the fact that I was alone in this moment was meaningful in itself. The river ice could break apart and swallow me right there — an event I half expect to happen every time I venture out into frozen Alaska. But in that moment, I felt content with this expectation. If my journey ended here, I could leave this world with the confidence that I had squeezed the best drops from the gift of life.

For the fifth day of our journey, we planned to travel 21 miles to our final overnight stay in the Whites —a cabin just six miles from the trailhead. Even a 27-mile day wouldn't be terribly difficult at this point, but we weren't quite ready to return to civilization. It was the penultimate day of the year, a date that inevitably prompts reflection. What had I done with my wild and precious 2018? It wasn't a terrible year, definitely much better than 2017, but I was still drifting. I haven't yet formed real goals for 2019. My writing is fragmented right now. I want to finish a book project this year, finally, but I keep going back to writing about Alaska. I feel stymied in everything else, and partly believe that I won't produce anything worthwhile until I expel whatever it is I need to expel about these experiences, even while acknowledging that no one really cares. 

I supposedly regained much of my health in 2018 — my autoimmune thyroid disease was treated and normalized. My allergic asthma is almost completely under control, and I almost never use my inhaler anymore. Do I feel better? I think I do, but my body has noticeably aged since these issues started, and the little struggles have gone on long enough that I don't really remember what "normal" feels like. 

Meanwhile, my otherwise unsolved and ongoing breathing troubles have put me in long-term survival mode with my endurance racing. I approach most efforts expecting failure and merely hoping for a little better. I gave everything I had to the 2018 ITI. I mean everything. I was still the third to last finisher, with a pace that would never get me to Nome in time, even if I could make that mental leap. And why am I even thinking about such ridiculousness? I should be seeking new experiences, new horizons. And if not that, at least become a slightly more productive member of society than an aimless writer and remote newspaper editor for communities I've admittedly never even visited. Thus, I fell back to thinking about mid-life crises and working in a bagel shop. 

In my view, scrolling through meaningful memories from the past is a good use of time, but fretting about the as-yet-nonexistent future is utterly useless. I made an effort to shut down these thoughts as we traversed the burned forest. Temperatures had warmed to 25 degrees above zero, and the snow was slightly mushy from the heat. The morning was otherwise gray with small hints of sunlight beneath the clouds, always a cause for celebration. But my legs were still sore. Most of the muscles in my back felt strained. Sleep deprivation was adding up. Beat and I both agreed that this was going to be a tedious march, one of those "mental training" days that are good for racing, and even better in the practical applications of real life.

Why? Because most of life is tedious, whether we like to admit it or not. Every day we need to go through the motions — wake up, fuel, chores, routines, work, social obligations, sleep. It's like those life statistics you often hear. For example, the average American spends 8 percent of their lives commuting in a car. You might think "what a waste." But endurance adventures have taught me to took beyond myself and try to find joy where it's not easy. These days, I get in my car and think of this as its own little adventure — another chance to move through the world and observe, even if the scenery isn't necessarily new or exciting. I wait in long lines and invent silent stories about the other people around me. I wheel a cart through a grocery store and marvel at the abundance.

In turn, all of the tedious necessities of life become more meaningful. It's funny that we use our leisure time to seek out a primitive existence where the necessities that we take for granted in our modern lives don't come easily. Heat, for example. The cabin we were headed to that night is notorious for never having any firewood on hand. It's also one huge hill away from the nearest burn area, so gathering wood isn't as practical. As we crested the second to last hill before the cabin, Beat decided to pull down some trees and load them on the sleds.

I admittedly balked at carting the extra weight up that final steep hill. "It's so warm; can't we just go without a fire?" Beat handed me just one log to carry. Afterward I felt sheepishly ashamed for being such a weakling. Find the joy. It's actually pretty incredible, I thought, that just a few dead trees can provide so much comfort. Dead trees, or the sleeping bags stuffed in our sleds. We do need some necessities in life, but not much.

Find the joy. Even on this warm, gray day, the far northern sunlight crept through cracks in the clouds and cast beautiful colors across the landscape. My legs were sore, but beyond that my body had managed this effort much better than I expected. Arguably I was in better condition than I was near the start of the 2018 ITI, even factoring in my lack of recent training. My breathing was steady, and I wasn't so strung out and mentally exhausted as I had been on the Iditarod Trail. The year was better than I was giving it credit for as well. 2018 had so many beautiful moments, so many memories.

As we neared Lee's cabin, I realized that the soul wanderings of this trip through the White Mountains hadn't given me the solutions I'd hoped for. I hadn't solved my supposed mid-life crisis. I didn't even come up with a theme song for the year. Of course, just as I was mulling this over, one of the more obscure files on my iPod came up. It's not a song I discovered this year, but I never made that a rule. Still, I haven't thought of it much since 2011 or so. But as I hefted my heavy load over the soft snow, I listened to the quiet buildup, simple melody and brief lyrics, and thought, "This is it. This is my life philosophy."

We're here on Earth. We spend our energy. We try to do the best we can. We try to connect with other humans. In turn we generate a whisper of life to send out into eternity. Maybe this ... is all there is.

"Generator (First Floor)," by the Freelance Whales:

We get up early just to start cranking the generator 
Our limbs have been asleep, we need to get the blood back in 'em 
We're finding every day, several ways that we can be friends.

We keep on churning and the lights inside the house turn on 
And in our native language we are chanting ancient songs 
And when we quiet down, the house chants on without us.


  1. Great writing, Jill, thank you for sharing all of your pondering. Maybe you should be a philosopher. You explore the meaning of life and are able to find something that sustains you. That is all most of us can hope for.

  2. Only in wilderness isolation— no urban distractions, no people to watch, no insulated car-capsal commutes, and no worrisome bottom-you-out political bad news—can one do this kind of introspection...take stock of what matters to them, adjust sails and plod on. Life is a plod most days, after all, and you, Jill, of all people, know how to embrace and enjoy it. :)

    1. and...perhaps most importantly...find meaning in it.

  3. Socrates ("An unexamined life is not worth living.") would be proud of you, Jill!

  4. I was looking at your pictures trying to figure out how long ago that area burned. I was on a lot of fires in the early 2000s around there.

    1. Interesting. Can you tell by looking at the photos? That area burned well before my first visit in March 2010.


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