Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Nome alone

March 2016 was a particularly magical time in my life. I rode a bike across Alaska with a little tenacity and a huge helping of grace, to arrive in this wonderland at the edge of the world. For a week I basked in the afterglow and "recovered" — riding my bicycle under sunny skies along ice-coated roads and slickrock-like snow drifts. I watched mushers arrive under the burled arch, danced at bars, enjoyed dinners with locals and fellow Iditarod tourists, attended the Iditarod banquet, chased the Northern Lights, greeted other finishing cyclists and Tim Hewitt on his record-setting run, and later, after much of this had quieted down, watched Beat finish his third run to Nome. Pure magic. I knew this experience couldn't be relived for any cost. You know, "You Can't Go Nome Again." Still ... I think about this place often. I dreamed of a return.

Nome is a town of 3,700 residents along the Bering Sea coast. It's home to the turn-of-the-century gold rush that at one time made this the largest city in Alaska, but today Nome is best known as the finish line for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. It serves as a hub for a vast region of Inupiat villages, with a large hospital, a library, and other amenities, but it still has the look and feel of a rural Alaska town. Life is quite different here than it is on "the road system" and the Lower 48. People drive the streets on snowmachines with rifles strapped to their backs, dragging cargo sleds full of chopped-up caribou. Children still forget their mittens when they walk to school at 20 below. Many of the houses appear weathered and worn, not necessarily due to age, but because life here is hard for humans and structures alike. Storm surges batter the beach. Snow piles against the leeward side of anything standing. The wind blows. Constantly.

It was about six months ago that I first came up with the admittedly strange idea to spend a month in Nome. I'd find an AirBnB, enjoy a "writing retreat" of sorts, and embark on small local adventures to finish training for the White Mountains 100. I suppose I didn't really believe an affordable opportunity would open up in what is by far the busiest month for tourism in Nome. Then one did. I took it, and though I wouldn't admit it to myself, felt instant regret. Was I really just going to go spend a month by myself in this inhospitable place? As March approached, I learned that Nome was experiencing one of its warmest and snowiest winters yet, with storm after storm churning up the sea ice and dumping feet of snow (much of it blows away, or else this place would probably look like an Alps mountain village under 500 inches of powder.)

I'm a pessimist by nature, but even my worst outlook underestimated the possibilities. My first run on Wednesday was a cold punch of reality, right to the gut. For my first two weeks here I hoped to engage in "peak" training for the White Mountains 100, with at least 20 hours of moving time, mostly on my feet. I figured that would be easy to do — even with regular work deadlines and writing goals, I'm still a lot less scheduled here than I am at home. It was snowing and blowing, so I put on my goggles and windproof fleece and set out, plodding east on the road. The wind was blowing at least 40 mph — I'm not trying to exaggerate this number; I saw 43 mph average on a nearby weather station later. I can barely breathe facing a headwind this strong, let alone run, and the road was hidden under shin-deep drifts. It was a full whiteout, with so little visibility that I felt dizzy, not knowing which way was up or down. I wandered off the road repeatedly, occasionally slamming into a snowplow berm that was taller than me. I genuinely couldn't see anything inside this visual ping-pong ball.

I took this selfie only a half mile into my "run." You can see I'm already coated in ice. The temperature was just a notch below freezing — warm enough that snow was wet and heavy, but cold enough that it froze to anything it landed on. Within four miles the ice layer was so thick that my arms had become stiff and motionless, my everything else I was wearing was soaked through. I'd taken two falls on powder-covered ice despite wearing microspikes, and felt dazed and shattered. I didn't even have the wherewithal to take another selfie, although I imagine I must have looked a lot like Jack Nicholson at the end of "The Shining." When I took off that jacket, it felt 20 pounds heavier.

Four miles. That was all I could muster. I was exhausted.

I went to bed that night genuinely believing I was going to drop out of the White Mountains 100 and purchase the first plane ticket back to Denver the following day. I'm not too proud to admit I've made a huge mistake. But then Thursday dawned with patchy sunshine through the lenticular clouds, and I walked into the kitchen and realized that I could see the Bering Sea — the wide, white, expansive ocean — from my window. The view is amazing. And although there was a ton of new snow on the ground and most trails were buried, there were still a few places I could venture out at a relative running pace.

I managed 20 miles on Thursday. I was pretty proud of this effort. The available surfaces were still tricky — icy wheel tracks, drifted side roads, ice-chunk-coated shoulders of main roads. On this day there was a north wind — which I'd embraced as the predominant wind direction of this region, but have since realized that the East Wind rules Nome. Anyway, I was genuinely glad to greet the North Wind, my old friend, who continuously threatened to push me out to sea even when I was miles inland, knocked me off my feet once as a surprise crosswind gust, and generally kicked the crap out of my legs and lungs. Just like old times.

On Friday I logged 11 more miles between "running" (battling the east wind and a misty freezing rain at a frustratingly strenuous jogging pace) and then walking in the freezing rain to the grocery store to buy $4 apples, oranges, green bell peppers, and other assorted mediocre produce that left me feeling grumpy. (I know, I was aware of the high cost of living before I arrived.) I made the mistake of buying too many heavy items, and it was quite the grunt to haul it 1.5 miles back to the apartment atop the rain-slicked ice roads. It's funny how reliant I've become on vehicle transportation. Living a month without a car will be good for me too, I can already tell.

By Saturday enough days had passed since the last big snow dump to attempt a ride. Yes, I have a bike with me, and no, I'm not optimistic it will be the most useful machine here if these weather patterns hold. This day was forecast to be partly sunny, but instead it was foggy and warm and gray. I churned through inches of slush on the paved roads and battled soft mush on the the snowmachine routes. I rode to the ends of several routes out of town — the "end" being the spot where it was clear I'd be pushing the rest of the way if I continued any farther. Three mean dogs chased me along Dexter Bypass Road, and one chomped down hard on my leg — which was luckily protected by my boot and gaiter, so no harm done, but I was rattled about being bitten by a dog. Also, Dexter Bypass Road is the route to Anvil Mountain, where I'd looked forward to snowshoeing, but I'm not sure I'll muster the courage to go back. I despise mean dogs.

Tough miles, those 40 miles, and I was back to being a bit grumpy. It struck me how similar this weather is to a typical Juneau winter, and how disconcertingly familiar that feels even after all of these years away. Meanwhile, Beat was raving about the Northern Lights on the Iditarod Trail, Anchorage was enjoying day after day of clear weather, and even Juneau is in the midst of a long sunny stretch with temperatures in the teens. I was trying to readjust my attitude, but I couldn't hold back the jealousy. "If I knew this was going to be Juneau without trees, I would have gone to Juneau."

By Sunday I had 17 hours for the week, and dreaded going out for three more. I think my breathing has been better, although it's honestly difficult to tell amid all the wind. My legs felt fairly fresh, but my feet were beginning to feel the strain of all this running on tricky surfaces. At night the muscles on the bottom of my right foot would cramp so badly that I'd wake up howling. But when everything settled down all limbs felt fine, so I had no reason not to run. I headed east, because I'd rather face the wind first, but things weren't nearly so bad as I anticipated. There was even a bit of sunlight through the clouds, and I could see more of the sweeping open space that led me to fall in love with Nome in the first place.

Temperatures were still warm, and eventually the trail became too soft to hold my weight. Without snowshoes, I was punching to my knees. Weirdly, the crust to the side of the trail was much firmer — still punchy at times, but good enough for walking. I wandered along the dunes, happy as could be. I was about seven miles outside of town at this point — not terribly far from a runner perspective, but to a couple driving their snowmachine along the coast, this solitary human figure in the middle of nowhere must have seemed alarming. They turned their machine and raced up the slope toward me, a deviation that took several minutes because I was more than a mile off the coast. On the snowmachine was a Native couple in their mid-40s. The woman was wearing a kuspuk and the man of course had a huge rifle slung over his shoulder. "Are you okay?" the man shouted.

"Great," I said with a big smile. "I'm just, you know, out hiking."

They both regarded me with a confused and incredulous smirk, and without another word whipped back around. "Thanks for checking on me!" I shouted as they drove off.

Yeah, just out wandering through the frozen tundra seven miles outside of town for no real reason. White people, am I right?

Nome is a unique place, and one I'm lucky to be able to experience. I reminded myself of this as I returned to the trail, enjoying the vast white expanses. My legs felt so peppy that I threw in a five-mile diversion to boost the day's total to 18.5 miles. I'd left the house with minimal gear and no food, so the final three miles were a struggle through a bonky haze. Still, this run was a turning point for both my White Mountains 100 confidence, and my desire to stay put for the duration in Nome. It was a good way to end the week.

On Monday, another winter storm arrived. This one is expected to bring 12-18 inches and another likely school closure — my friend told me they closed schools three times in February alone. A rarity for Nome, which even for a small town is well equipped to deal with snow — but not this much snow. Anyway, roads again seemed dangerous for running, so I strapped on a pair of snowshoes and went for a meandering hike along the shoreline. I finally visited the Nome National Forest, which is a spot on the sea ice where locals leave the Christmas trees they had shipped in from elsewhere — this is the only "forest" near town to speak of. And there's not much left of this one, as it too has been all but buried by snow. The tips of the trees barely rose to my knees, but I enjoyed a brief diversion through the "woods" all the same. 

I hiked a little too far from town, and became sufficiently disoriented by the whiteout that I had to lock onto smatters of landmarks — like this broken-down beach house — until I found my way to the airport. Yikes. There will be no more storm hiking without a GPS in hand.

I'm glad to be in Nome. I'm excited for the Iditarod festivities to begin. There are several interesting cultural events on the schedule. I discovered a local fat bike club, and hoping I can join them on Saturday (if trails are rideable on Saturday ... I'm not super optimistic.) Beat is doing well on the Iditarod Trail. He calls often, making his usual complaints of fatigue and some boredom, but he also speaks of the beauty and joy, and he's making great time. It will never be 2016 again, but the magic is still here. I'm looking forward to more explorations. 

5 comments:

  1. Wow, what an experience. I can't imagine spending a full month in the wintertime there, although I'm sure it's absolutely beautiful with all the snow. I was there last summer and I loved it though, but not the prices in the grocery store.

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  2. Feeling nostalgic, miss those storms.

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  3. Oh, I'd love to do that. What an incredible experience to be able to have, despite the obstacles. I'm super jealous.

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  4. Great that you find adventure no matter where your are! Enjoyed your play on Nome analogies :). The pictures are cool and surreal...and absurd in a way, buildings and life on the edge of the world, especially your bike along side the pavement sign! Lol
    Been watching Beat since you gave the Tminus sign, what a pace!!Looks like he is just outside Iditarod 418mi, almost half way! Must be kinda surreal in a way to be able to communicate while on the trail. I would think that him knowing your in Nome waiting for him is great motivation since he is walking 1000mi across Alaska to get to you :)....this is the same guy who waited almost a hour in the rain for you at the Golden Gate 50K ?!...I mean how cool is this guy :) :).

    Jeff C

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  5. Wait, wait, are you criticizing Juneau?
    Your epic rides/writing/photos there are what first made me a fan.
    No worries, haha. ๐Ÿ˜‰๐Ÿ˜ƒ

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