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."


  1. Snowshoes hurt your feet? Explain.

    1. Not in the short term, usually. But over time the added pressure points create hot spots that eventually form blisters, not unlike an ill-fitting pair of shoes. The pressure of the bindings also makes my feet feel noticeably colder, and I often have to add layers to remedy this, which tends to make my feet sweat more (that balance is just so hard to achieve), resulting in maceration.

      Beat has solved a lot of this with his snowshoes by developing his own bindings and adding pieces of a Ridge Rest as padding. He is smart.

  2. I struggled with cold feet and uncomfortable bindings, too. This year I tried loosening my boot laces considerably and loosening my bindings. Feet stay warm now, and no more pressure points from too tight bindings.
    Love your lead photo! Love your love affair with cold. Love the Camus quotes...
    Box Canyon

    1. I've tried loosening the bindings before, but haven't found a good adjustment that doesn't either place strain on my Achilles, or cause my feet to slip out of the bindings. One of our problems is that we're wearing light trail runners rather than boots, so the soft sides are susceptible to pressure, and the bindings on these lightweight race snowshoes are more minimal. It's not the ideal "snowshoeing" setup, but it's highly preferable when trying to cover 50 miles a day in the ITI.

    2. ohh the trail runners. It starts to make sense now. I have some lightweight Merrells I wear and have no problems, but they are not runners and I am certainly not covering 50 mpd.

    3. Yeah ... I mostly meant "trying" when I cited 50mpd. But I actually managed one day of 50 miles last year between Nikolai and McGrath, wearing snowshoes and wading through heavy, wet powder for nearly the entire stretch. It took me 20 hours and my feet were so wet and horribly macerated that I'm baffled as to how the skin didn't just peel off, but it was still my strongest day of the 2018 ITI. :)

  3. I truly enjoy your poetry of images and story! I really resonate with that last Camus quote. I find myself knowing now that I don't really know and all the absurd Sisyphean effort over the years to know has only brought me back to the base of the mountain and the stone before me and a realization that I may never truly know. But some days I smile and perceive the stone to be smaller but my path forward is up the mountain of life and that is enough....

  4. Absolutely incredible pics Jill! I know that I'll likely never see this landscape for myself (being a tropical kind of guy) and can't even begin to imagine how vivid it is to your eyes...but never say never I guess...who knows what's around the corner of our lives? I've been to Alaska and it is beautiful. Wishing you luck in your 2019 endeavors. I plan to FINALLY do some bikepacking this year...still gathering my gear but looking forward to it (not so much the mt lion threat tho I have to admit...going solo adds a level or 2 of worry to my pursuits).


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