Sunday, January 06, 2019

It's just life on Earth, part one

For the past 10 years, the last image I see at night, in those seconds of viscous limbo between consciousness and sleep, is nearly always the same. It's midnight in the boreal forest, with frosted trees rendered in silver beneath the moonlight. A black figure creeps along the edges and passes into an illuminated spot of light in the foreground: A lynx, with muscled shoulders and shimmering blue-tinted fur, looks up to reveal the depths of its sea-green eyes. This is where the flickering dream ends. Sometimes I startle awake and remember the incandescent clarity of those eyes, and this fills me with longing. 

After several years of mostly playing around during our holiday training trips to Fairbanks, we've finally established a schedule that will better prepare us for the rigors of the Iditarod Trail (which Beat races every year, and I race some years while feeling too unprepared or unfit or burnt out to sign up for the others, but end up wishing I was racing anyway.) Thanks to Beat's tireless efforts and a 2 a.m. alarm for most of the nights spanning the last week of November, we'd booked five nights straight in the White Mountains. From Dec. 26 to 31, we'd be off the grid with no supplied source of water, heat or electricity, seeking shelter in tiny log cabins accessible only by winter trail, at times more than 30 miles from the nearest road. We hedged our bets with some conservative bookings, but our hopeful plan would take us more than a 100 miles through the subzero wilderness, dragging sleds weighing upwards of 60 pounds.

I had done no specific training for this journey. I realize, as I near 40, that I really can't get away this anymore. My base level of strength is not that strong. Dragging a weighted sled while battling the resistance of soft snow requires more power than my muscles can easily give. I now understand that a spring and summer full of leg presses, squats, deadlifts, etc. at the gym, towing my 70-pound cart on dirt roads, and other tedious weight-bearing exercises are 100 percent necessary if I ever want to pursue my "ultimate challenge" of walking to Nome.

For now, even a hundred miles over five days was daunting. My quads ached following our little trip to Colorado Creek, and my hamstrings cramped up while I climbed a set of stairs during our one day off, Christmas Day. I felt anxious as we drove toward Wickersham Dome in the ominous darkness of 9 a.m. — not about the cold, remoteness or self-sufficiency of the days ahead, but about my the state of my sad little legs that hurt so badly back in March.

The temperature was a few degrees below zero when we set out at 9:30, clicking our headlamps off just a few minutes later to soak in the deep violet light of a lazy dawn. The forecast called for overcast skies and light winds, so I expected a long gray march where day wasn't all that distinguishable from night. We planned to walk 30 miles to Caribou Bluff cabin. Beat set a brisk pace from the start, and I alternated my fastest walking pace and slow jogging to keep up. That walking pace is murder for my IT bands, and the jogging feels like trying to run across the shallow end of a swimming pool. This was going to be a long 30 miles.

We dropped into the Wickersham Creek Valley, where the snowpack was so thin that it didn't even bury low-lying crowberry patches in the swamps. Frost-coated needles with berries still attached poked out of pillows of snow, an eerie apparition of summers' past. I thought back to the many times I've crossed this valley. How many? I'm not sure I could even count. The number of miles I've traveled in Alaska's White Mountains must be more than a thousand by now ... perhaps even closer to 1,500. This valley is so familiar to me, and yet still so alien. I've never seen it in the summertime.

Happy memories briefly removed my mind's focus from sore legs, the tug of an unreasonably heavy sled against my shoulders, and the thumping of my heart as I tried to catch Beat on a long straightaway. The temperature was -11F with a light breeze, which I only felt in more open areas. The frosted forest reflected strange hues of pink and turquoise, but when I looked toward the sky for hints of sunlight, all I saw was gray.

Morning imperceptibly trickled into afternoon, and then dusk. I'd landed on the perfect ratio of strenuous effort and tough-but-not-technical terrain to achieve steady flow state, and had peacefully zoned out for some time. Long minutes passed, perhaps hours, before my reverie was broken by an errant epiphany ...

"That's what my problem is! Mid-life crisis!"

Wait, what? Where did that come from? Conscious again of my aching quads and gnawing hunger, I popped a handful of trail mix in my mouth and scoured my short-term memory. The faded daydream didn't reveal itself. Was I thinking about how I don't really want to be a writer, because trying to pursue one's passion in exchange for money isn't actually that great of an idea? Was I having that fantasy about going back to work in the bagel shop again? A daydream about returning to the jobs I had when I was 16 or 17 years old is often the first weird idea that pops into my head when I ruminate on a certain upcoming birthday. I really don't want to be the type who frets about meaningless milestones, but I was rather neurotic about turning 30. Why should 40 be any different?

Every minute of rumination about the lost source of my epiphany brought more heaviness to my legs. I needed to shut this down. "Be Brave" by Modest Mouse came up on my iPod, and I cycled back to flickering memories evoked by music. "This is the theme song for 2015," I thought. Having somewhat randomly chosen "Be Brave" to represent all of 2015, I resolved to revisit every year of my life that I could remotely remember, and pick a theme song. At least this would pass the time.

2016? "Dressed in Black" by Sia. 2014? "Ends of the Earth" by Lord Huron. 

The sky dulled to a charcoal gray, only to become lighter when darkness revealed the distant lights of Fairbanks — the "Southern Lights" as we've referred to them before. Light pollution reflected from the overcast sky, illuminating the white landscape until frosted spruce branches glittered, just like my reoccurring dream. I felt safe. Calm. We passed Borealis cabin. Eighteen miles in. This distance felt like a lot, and nothing at all. "Want to keep going?" Beat asked. "I'm feeling pretty good," I nodded.

2007? "Chicago" by Sufjan Stevens. 2005? Definitely "Gray Ice Water" by Modest Mouse. 

Beyond Borealis, the trail narrowed to a single, punchy snowmobile track. We were lucky to have that, as a couple driving a snowmachine out of the Wickersham Valley stopped and told us they were the ones who had Caribou Bluff over Christmas, and had broken fresh trail the whole way out there. We were glad for their trail, but conditions were still significantly softer and more strenuous than before. My hamstrings started to cramp with every other calf-straining step. The bluff over Fossil Creek climbed interminably. There was no inversion here, and the temperature didn't rise at all. 

2002? "What Never Dies" by Sense Field. 2000? "Tomorrow Tomorrow" by Elliot Smith. 

Finally we strapped on snowshoes. Specks of white flickered in my headlamp, and I wondered if it would snow much. 

1995? Has to be "Ghost" by Clover. 1991? Ha! "Silent Lucidity" by Queensryche. 1990? (big toothy grin) "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips. 1986? That song from the Fievel movie. What was it ... An American Tail? "Somewhere Out There!" 

And there I was, dragging my snowshoe-laden feet through sugary snow in the Alaska wilderness, dredging up any memory real or fake that I could summon from second grade, feeling giddy with little-girl silliness and singing to myself: 

"And when the night wind starts to sing a lonesome lullaby 
It helps to think we're sleeping underneath the same big sky ..."

Take that, mid-life crisis.

During all of these long meanders down the darkest corridors of memory lane, I couldn't come up with a song for 2018. Everything was just too fresh, a barrage of images, too many to abridge. I decided this would be my goal for the trek — to come up with a 2018 theme song, and also to figure out the solution to this so-called mid-life crisis. If only my sad little legs could walk that long.

We climbed the last steep pitch to Caribou Bluff just after 8:30 p.m., for 11 more or less nonstop hours of laboring like a pack animal. A few stars twinkled to the north, evidence that the sky was clearing. We'd checked the junctions of Fossil Creek and Fossil Gap trails, and no trails had been broken beyond the couple's single track to the cabin. We knew we were alone out there, and that clear skies promised deepening cold. We weren't sure what tomorrow would bring. For now, all we needed to do was attend to our basic needs — fire, drinking water, dinner, and sleep. If only life was always this simple. 


  1. 40s are actually awesome. I was afraid too but best decade ever. I'll have to think about theme songs. And I need a Beat to push me. I'm not sure I could do 30 miles in those conditions.

    1. I'm sure they are. I thought the same of my 30s, but I am remembering now my angsty reactions to almost everything in 2009. At least then I had some major life upheavals on which to shift the blame.

      "The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better after 50" has some interesting insights into why many first-world adults believe life sucks in their 40s. A lot of it is because "success" can never be a destination, as such striving will always leave us wanting more. So we face our decline filled with disappointment, until eventually we shift our priorities and decide to simply live our lives.

  2. Now I'm going to have to think of songs for the past few years! Of course, there is the fear that Eric may start to sing them ad nauseum and then drive Beat crazy!

    1. This is exactly what iPods were made for. Beat can bring his noise-canceling headphones.

    2. Are you listening, Beat? "I love Rock 'n' Roll, so put another dime in the jukebox, baby!"


    3. I don't really understand earworms — when people describe listening to the same song in their head for hours straight. That doesn't happen to me. Why not just think of another song? Also, why are they always obnoxious? Clearly more people need to buy some $200 iPod Shuffles. ;-)

    4. Just think of another song? Just think of another song?! Well, Jill, consider yourself "gifted!"

  3. :-) seems fitting that the lynx in your dreams is most likely your animal spirit. IMHO.

    Turning 40 for me was the time I started to understand and really "know" that time was passing and that on the arc of life I was closer to the end than the beginning, considering the average lifetime of a male. There was some sorrow in accepting that but a new burning desire to explore my finitness, and find meaning, grows with each passing year. What I find funny now is that I have a pretty good idea of how many more ,say....pair of jeans I'll go thru, most likely! LOl

    I imagine a graph of my life, time on the X axis and growth on the Y measured in quantity. Always arcing up till it didn't :) but what I thought was a plateau was really a shift in how I measured growth. There are many factors I include now as a sort of pivot table in that growth axis, things my younger self could neverKnow or reach. So in my head the graph still goes up. ....till it don't :)


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