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. 


  1. I rather dislike the cold Jill, but somehow you always make me wish I was there. Thank you for that.
    On another note, who says history is accurate and or real? It is just somebody’s take on what may have happened or the most perserverantly pushy person’s official” version. Today’s bombardment of information is just a ramping up of the volume - the accuracy is probably not significantly different to what it ever was. Just MHO.

    1. I agree with you. American history is jaw-droppingly awful. I think many would agree that even the revisionist versions don't cover that up (although I did spend most of my childhood believing Columbus was a great man.)

      Still, we're now dealing with human ego and frailty on a global scale, with 7.7-billion contributors and growing, and there's a lot of good science supporting the theory that we are nearing an ecological precipice. All of these factors are enormously unprecedented. It's difficult to find hope, but believe me, I am searching.

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  3. I'll try this again, this time with glasses on :)

    In a perfectly understandably but so unfortunate way, Life seems to have boiled down to this post's .thought provoking thoughts...that our wonder-filled "timeouts" from reality are now spent worrying about said realities. I find myself dragging the same "sled" around wilderness, too...tho I like your Titanic metaphor better.
    Maybe Flyboy is right, that it's always been this way. But I think the stakes are getting bigger and bigger and bigger by the year, if not the day. It's no wonder we fantasize about running away.
    Box Canyon

    1. All true. I'm enormously grateful I have outdoor pursuits to help balance my emotional sleds ... I shudder to think about the neurotic, anxious, likely substance-addicted mess I may have become otherwise. (Not that I am all that well balanced as it is, but after all, I am an artist. ;-)

  4. Oh boy, I have really been thinking about that remote cabin a lot lately. If I am furloughed much longer it may become a reality. And on another note, if there have to be furloughs, why can't they be in thru-hiking season? But enough about that. It's interesting because I sell my soul for environmental writing, and I have dreamed about freelancing. But maybe that's too much of a hustle from how you describe it. I feel too tired for that kind of hustle. At any rate, I love how you and Beat define vacation.

    1. Although I still dabble with the occasional query, I mostly gave up on freelance writing about a year ago when a magazine editor rejected my painstakingly-developed proposals with a "How about a Top 10 (gear post)?"

      This just isn't me. I'm much happier doing light editing work for academics and self-publishers, and newspaper work (I'd love to find more, and approaching the local Boulder paper is something I've considered.) Even though I know I won't be paid well, there's a lot more meaning in such efforts than writing magazine drivel for writing's sake.

      I do still dabble with all my little unfinished book projects, and probably spend more time writing this blog than I should. This is all something I enjoy immensely, and lately I've been thinking about how I'd enjoy the book projects even more if I just believed I would give them away for free when they're finished. I don't even want people to pay me for them. Although I do, because I also want money. ;-)

      But this realization about the better enjoyment of a hobby when it's not tied to income is what sparked some of these thoughts that I'm posting about now.



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