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. 


  1. It's fortunate to have those Northern Lights to add a little color to an otherwise black and white winter. There is a certain peace to be found in the arctic's repetitive desolation. It drives one to look inward to their core instead of outward to the distraction of "scenery."
    One could "find themselves" out there, but you wouldn't find me. I'm a view snob. I need color. I need "prettiness" to distract me from the world's realities. Reading this is about as close as I will get to an arctic winter. For that I thank you. Your prose and photos drove me "inside," for just a little bit, a stretch for this view snob.
    Amazing...Thanks for taking us along,
    Box Canyon

    1. I suppose it's all a matter of subjective experience. When it comes to scenery, I too fall for easy stunners like the Alps in summertime. But I find the frozen landscapes of the Far North to be the most visually engaging, especially near the solstice when the light is particularly surreal. When I visit Chamonix, I'm in lust. When I visit Alaska in December, I'm in love.

  2. Your Northern Lights shots are fantastic! Brings back memories of when I was working on "the ships", far above the Arctic Circle above Norway...when it was stone-dark 23.5 hours a day. The sky would come alive with the Aurora, and I could stand (out of the wind) for hours watching it play out, completely mesmerized, the world around me ceasing to exist...just breathing and watching. Those are my best memories of my 7 years sailing the Ships. Also the meter of snow we got in Tromso Norway the first night after I had arrived at my new ship. That was a LOT of snow...and this coming from a guy who grew up in Wyoming and Montana.

    1. Watching the Aurora from a ship at those latitudes does sound amazing. What a cool experience that job must have been.

      If you want to experience a meter of snow on the regular, you can hardly beat the small towns along the Price William Sound in Alaska.

  3. Beautiful writing (and photos). I always enjoy your blog and insights and Soul Wandering.

  4. Concerning Aurora, I'm glad you haven't been afflicted with this:


    The problem with Prince William Sound snow is it's often followed by rain.


  5. I love that Beat surprised you with an ice cream bar. Your writing and photography always leaves me wanting more, and I am finding myself not wanting this particular Alaska cabin series to end. Thank you for continuing to share your adventures here.


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