Friday, June 21, 2019

The peace and violence of summer

I decided to head out to Utah a couple of days before my grandmother's memorial services. Beat was going to be out of town anyway, traveling to Wyoming to run the Bighorn 100 over the weekend. He offered to skip Bighorn and accompany me, but I feel strongly that funerals are for the people who want to attend, and shouldn't be obligatory. It was more important to me that he run his race — which turned out to be a wet and muddy epic that would have been rather taxing for a crew person. So it all worked out for the best.  

As I am wont to do, I schemed a few bike adventures to squeeze between family time. I've long wanted to check out the mountain bike trails near Eagle, Colorado, so I planned my route and arrival time based on a two-hour stop there. 

I hate I-70 through Colorado. I genuinely do. It's taken me a while to accept this, but I think I am done with optional driving along that interstate. I'll do it if I have to, but only if any alternate route is potentially hours slower. Only then. Recently there was a discussion on a local mountain biking forum about naming new trails with an I-70 theme, and of course all of the suggestions were "Sittin' in My Car," "Road Rage," "Snow Closure," etc. Anyway, I usually consider summer travel a safer bet, and neglected to check the CDOT Web site before I set out. Of course, there was a tunnel closure. Of course there was. For routine maintenance. In the middle of the day. On a Wednesday. So I sat in my car at an utter standstill for 90 full minutes, then crept along behind trucks at 5 mph over Loveland Pass for another 90 minutes. Loveland Pass was lovely with snow-capped peaks beneath a bright blue sky, but by then I had to pee so badly that my vision was blurring, and above timber line there was nowhere to pull over that wasn't exposed to all. By the time I pulled into the REI in Silverthorne and stumbled through the aisles in search of the bathroom, I was filled with such rage that I vowed to quit I-70 forever, even if it means canceling summer bikepacking plans in order to stick closer to home. I've since revised that view, but I still have an "avoid at most costs" policy.

I was already running three to four hours late, so I was going to skip the ride. But more crawling traffic spiked my blood pressure again, and I decided this cool-off was necessary. It was 85 degrees in Eagle, which felt oppressively warm. I slathered my arms and legs with sunscreen from a little, likely expired tube of SPF30 and set out. The trails were lovely — mostly buffed-out singletrack, winding through scrub oak-covered hillsides, sagebrush and fields of wildflowers. Eagle is fantastic. Too bad it's on I-70, so I may never return. I was feeling much better by the time I returned to the car for six more hours of driving to Salt Lake City. Then I looked at my arms, and realized they were badly sunburned. I usually wear sleeves, because my skin is becoming so bad that sunscreen alone doesn't work well for me anymore. Dammit. Both dresses I brought for the funeral were sleeveless and short-sleeved. Rather than be the nearly-40-year-old woman with a bad farmer burn, I would have to scramble for last-minute wardrobe additions. 

For Thursday, I had another planned ride that I decided to steeply curtail. A former blogger I follow, Elden the "Fat Cyclist," has this incredible-looking route that makes a big loop through the Wasatch Mountains, a 75-mile monster with more than 10,000 feet of climbing. Unless I woke up at 3 a.m. after my long and late drive, I didn't really have the time before Thursday evening plans, and Monday's ride to Mount Evans made it apparent that I didn't have the fitness, either. So I changed the plan to an out-and-back on the more remote segment of the loop up American Fork Canyon.

I left later in the morning, when it was already hot. Just getting up and over Corner Canyon was a slog. Where, oh where did my fitness go? I nearly turned around when I saw the temperature was 89 degrees while it was actively raining in Alpine. Then the thunderstorm cleared, and I remembered the beauty of American Fork Canyon, and this relatively rare opportunity to ride here. So I pressed on, standing in more traffic jams amid summer construction closures (that could be another traffic-themed trail name ... "Melting Shoes on Hot Pavement.")

Finally I cleared Tibble Fork Reservoir and was released to the peaceful setting I sought — a narrow jeep road that continues to climb toward the crest of the Wasatch. It's a pretty but nasty road — nastier than I remembered, steep and strewn with ball-bearing pebbles and babyhead rocks. Caution about my leg caused me to descend nearly as slowly as I moved while climbing, and climbing was a slow struggle. My breathing felt off. I hadn't even climbed above 8,000 feet yet, and I live at 7,000. Where, oh where did my fitness go? My time cut-off came, and I turned around, feeling relieved. It was a frustratingly tough ride, but beautiful.

On Friday, the family gatherings commenced. The weekend was such a whirlwind of emotions. My grandmother was well-loved, and nearly everyone who could turned out for her memorial. All 19 of my siblings and cousins. Dozens of great-grandkids. Great-aunts and uncles. Second-cousins who I hadn't seen since I was a child. Friends of my dad. Family from my mother's side. Damaged relationships made a step toward mending. A few new wounds were opened, as well. Family stuff. It was meaningful and gratifying but utterly exhausting. I made a short escape Friday morning to ride Corner Canyon, but the trail system was too crowded. It wasn't really what I was looking for in my respite. By Saturday night, I was spent.

Sunday was Father's Day, and everyone in my immediate family was together, so I stayed one more day to celebrate with them. On Sunday morning I headed west for a three-hour ride up Butterfield Canyon, climbing up to a 9,000-foot peak in the Oquirrh Mountains.

The climb was enjoyable. My legs and lungs probably weren't much better off than they'd been earlier in the week, but it was so relaxing to be alone with nothing to do but pedal a bike. The road was fairly quiet, the weather cooler than it had been, and the views impressive.

Still some snowfields to contend with near 9,000 feet.

Overlook into Kennecott's Bingham Canyon Copper Mine, the largest open-pit mine in the world. Cutting nearly a kilometer into the Earth, the unsightly gouge is as deep as this peak (West Mountain) is high. Too bad they don't allow mountain bikes on those terraces; one could probably develop a pretty fun downhill trail.

Lovely day, but storm clouds were beginning to form.

At the peak I had resolved to get down quickly, but then I became distracted by trails near the saddle between Middle and Butterfield canyons. I was climbing a steep bit of singletrack when I heard the first thunderboom, looked back, and saw a relatively benign looking sheet of rain falling directly to the east. I decided to turn around right there, but I was unperturbed because it was only eight miles and mostly downhill back to my car. Should be down in a flash.

Less than 20 minutes later, the sky opened up and rained down a fury unlike any I have experienced yet. Yes, I have battled blizzards in Alaska, windchills to 60 below, utter whiteouts and 70-mph winds. This was another level. Sudden deluge, blinding flashes of light from all directions, instantaneous cracks of thunder that rattled my teeth. At first I was just running scared from the lightning. Rainwater fountained off the road with such force that I was breathing liquid, and felt like I was drowning. I didn't even realize it was hailing until the thunder quieted enough to hear reverberations on my bike helmet. My limbs had already gone numb, but I could feel stinging pelts against my back and butt, and knew I was being pummeled. The lightning flashes moved away, and I was able to gulp down enough panic to pull off the side of the road and huddle beneath trees to wait out the hail.

Wow, was I cold. I had a rain shell in my backpack, but when I reached up to unclasp the straps, I genuinely could not muster the strength. There was a thinner wind shell in the bike's frame bag, but after much straining to pull the zipper back, I realized it was entirely soaked. I was as wet as I would be after jumping in a lake, and shivering profusely. I have hiked through the night in temperatures down to 40 below, jumped into glacier-fed lakes, ridden my bike for hours in the relentless snain of Juneau, and I've rarely experienced this depth of cold. My legs were close to not functioning, my shoulders and arms quaking so violently I could hardly steer the bike. Nothing I could do but throw my frozen carcass over the saddle, pre-press my numb fingers down on the brake levers, and descend the final two miles as hail continued to pelt my skin.

Hours later, as I finally began to thaw after the ice bath, I assessed the damage. My left leg — which wasn't protected by sleeves, a backpack, a helmet, or a knee brace — took the worst of it, but there were dozens of stinging welts all over my body. The photo on the left is from Sunday night, when I found it difficult to fall asleep because my leg felt like it had been stung by dozens of bees. The photo on the right is the bruising that still remains today, Friday, five days later. Nature administered a solid beating. One I won't soon forget.

Now it's the summer solstice, and I'm working toward acceptance about the long season ahead. On Thursday I hoped to embark on a long ride — training for a weekend bikepacking race in Steamboat Springs in early August. But allergies kept me feeling lousy, it was difficult to muster motivation in the morning, and by afternoon there was thunder and rain and I am definitely experiencing some post-Father's-Day-deluge PTSD. The sky cleared and I managed two and a half hours closer to evening. But yes, it was a sad effort. Do better, Jill. People who expressly hate winter manage to train through the cold and snow, so I can brave the grass pollen and sunburn and early morning hours that become necessary to beat afternoon storms.

Hail, though. That is another level of nope. 


  1. A memorable trip and rides...not necessarily fond memories, but ones you won't soon, if ever, forget. Maybe we appreciate the exceptional outings more after having suffered through numerous abysmal ones. If nothing else, winter returns to the Colorado high country this weekend. Go play in the snow :)

  2. You should have driven it before there was an I-70. You had to take what was known as US-6, a two lane road that went thru the center of each town.


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