Tuesday, November 24, 2020

I do love shoulder season

It took me a few years to realize this, but November really is a nice time of year in Colorado. All of the challenging aspects of summer — heat, smoke, pollen, thunderstorms — have finally faded, but there are still plenty of warm days to go along with the gorgeous late-autumn light and intermittent snowstorms. I have been feeling especially calm and content lately, and I'm not even sure why — world events are as harrowing as ever. Based on my still-prodigious daily news consumption, it seems like a time for my inner pessimist to shine. And yet, my outlook has become — dare I say — slightly rosier recently. I give at least partial credit to CBD capsules, which I started using on a regular basis again about six weeks ago. Even if it's just a placebo effect, I've felt noticeable relief from the relentless buzzing of low-level anxiety. I also credit the sheer amount of cycling I've indulged in during recent weeks. 

On Monday I embarked on my long ride for the week. I didn't have a route plan when I set out, so I chose my mountain bike to deal with the shoulder-season mixture of mud, ice, pavement, gravel, and snow I was likely to encounter. Early in the ride — around mile three — I decided to check out an overlook I'd never ventured up before. It involved a steep pedal up a rocky outcropping that I managed to clear, followed by a boulder scramble. For these efforts, I earned a lovely view of Gross Dam, the reservoir, and the snow-capped Continental Divide. I crawled down the boulders, hopped back on the bike, and immediately launched downhill, not noticing right away that I had looped onto a different rocky outcropping than the one I climbed. I realized too late that this drop was steeper and longer. Large, chunky boulders lined the edges of the rock garden. I didn't have the speed to clear the rocks at the bottom, slammed into them while grabbing my brakes even though I know better, and flipped forward. 

It was a strange over-the-bars type of crash. I must have lost a lot of speed before I hit the rocks because the entire thing seemed to happen in slow motion. I realized what was coming, decided how I wanted to land, and rolled sideways to touch down on my left shoulder blade, which was protected by a puffy-coat-filled backpack. That part didn't hurt too much, but while I was twisting my body to land on my back rather than my head, the bike became tangled in my right leg. It's difficult to describe. It didn't break the skin, but my entire leg is riddled with bruises, some deeper and more painful than others. The handlebars also got a good punch in on my left arm. Of course, the bike wasn't hurt. It never is. (And, for the record, I despise the question, "Was your bike okay?" in response to a crash. Bikes don't feel pain, and they're a hell of a lot cheaper to replace than bones. Rant over.) 

Okay, so I crashed. It was my dumb mistake and it wasn't a big deal. Nothing was broken, including the bike. I laughed off the pain as I sat up, shaking my head, and admonishing myself out loud. "You should not try mountain biking." The bruises on my leg hadn't yet bloomed and the limb was only mildly sore, so I continued on my eight-hour ride. The loop I devised while pedaling ended up climbing to 10,000 feet through several inches of sugar snow. Thanks to truck traffic, I could ride most of the climb, but the tracks stopped abruptly near the crest of the road. The descent into Gamble Gulch was a sphincter-clencher. Surfing the skinny tires through six inches of loose snow feels reminiscent of my early days of "snow biking," and is both exhilarating and terrifying. It's a matter of finesse — shimmying as the bike finds its own traction, shifting my weight ever so gently when the rear wheel begins to fishtail, and basically hanging on for dear life. Objectively these half-controlled plunges are considerably riskier than descending rocky outcroppings, but it's all a matter of perspective. At least I didn't crash.

Over the next few days, bruises erupted all over my limbs. I was sore. It's true, what they say — the older you become, the less your body can absorb a direct hit, no matter how well you walk it off. Every step jolted the tender flesh, so running was out of the question. But I could still ride a bike without too much pain. Colorado's typical third summer arrived just in time, with temperatures in the 70s during the middle of the week. I took advantage by riding the gravel bike up Sunshine Canyon, enjoying great conditions even as I battled a fearsome headwind. Any area exposed to direct flow from the Continental Divide was so wind-blasted that I had to pedal hard to maintain forward momentum downhill. But I was enjoying myself and feeling strong, so I continued to wrestle the air monster all the way to Brainard Lake. 

It's always fun to bash out one of these big rides — 50 miles, 6,700 feet of climbing — in late November, and still enjoy ideal conditions. Honestly, it feels like cheating summer, because snowmelt helps pack these typically dusty and chunder-strewn roads into hero gravel (although that west wind will always be there to keep me honest.) 

The speed and ease of that ride to Brainard revealed a fun truth: I am in prime cycling shape right now. I can't do much with this, however. My 200K fat bike race in January was officially canceled this week — although Beat and I were already leaning heavily toward not racing due to COVID concerns. Soon enough, any hope of a fourth summer will fade and it will truly be winter, wherein I'll need to build up a completely different kind of strength and conditioning for fat biking and snow slogging. But for this week, these few beautiful days of the shoulder season, I could at least leg out some PRs. 

After convincing Beat to ride with me on Friday, the spotlight turned onto my neglect of the gravel bike, which was once Beat's bike, and which I've "borrowed" for close to 1,400 miles without doing any maintenance. The brake pads had worn down to the metal. The rear tire was almost completely bald. Beat rightfully admonished me but went to work immediately in order to fix the abuse. My gratitude for Beat's mechanical skill runs so deep that I put it in my wedding vows. I know, I shouldn't be rewarded for negligence ... but I'm so grateful I can keep riding despite poor attentiveness (hey, I didn't realize I'd ridden the bike 1,400 miles. I would have guessed a few hundred at most. But Strava keeps track of such things for a reason.) 

Anyway, on Saturday I had the boost of brand new tires and working brakes, so I decided to go hard at some of my favorite gravel segments. I managed to take back my home road QOM from the professional athlete who stole it last year (to be fair, she's a runner who probably only cycles on occasion for fun. Also, my home road is private, so not many people bother with this segment. Still, the QOM is mine, and I cherish it.) Then I carved six minutes off of my SuperChap PR. It's a hearty segment; 4.3 miles with 1,800 feet of climbing and an average grade of 7.8%. I managed to hold 6.1 mph for 42:45. It's not even close to the best time in Boulder, but I am up against a number of professional road cyclists here. To best my own self by six minutes was enough fun. I was chuffed. 

On Sunday, Beat and I wanted to try a more equitable couples outing, since I will not suffer his bushwhacking routes, and he doesn't want to be "crushed by wife" on a bicycle. I proposed a hike to Mount Audubon. This 13er has thwarted us a handful of times in winter conditions, due to the incessant gale that always feels like pushing into an impenetrable wall. For various geographical reasons, this mountain is one of those places particularly susceptible to the prevailing west wind. A July hike often means teetering on rocks amid 35 mph gusts while thunderheads streamroll in from the west. Winter months bring the temperature gradients that drive truly fearsome downslope winds — you're lucky if you're not facing a hurricane-force whiteout. Not that this mountain ever holds onto its snow for long.

Thus, we braced for an Alaska-like blowhole and packed for as much. Third summer was officially over, and temperatures dipped into the single digits as we drove to the trailhead. The Brainard Lake gate is closed for the season, which means walking three miles of road to reach the summer trailhead. Strangely, it was warm and calm here — probably because of an inversion, which is what happens on a rare occasion that there's no wind. We peeled off layers as we jogged, but we were still overdressed. It felt like July. 

Beat set a brutal pace. While I've been cycling all these miles, he has been doing a lot of off-trail hiking, exploring the quieter corridors of the Flatirons and foothills. So both of our fitness is heavily skewed right now. I'm not in the best hiking shape, which falls away quickly amid the ceaseless technical demands of these rocky trails. I started to feel grumpy about this activity that was my idea. I was postholing through shin-deep snow and chasing Beat up a sweltering mountain with far too many layers on my feet. Then we hit the barren rocks — most of the terrain above treeline was cleared of snow by the incessant wind — and I realized I was grumpy because my leg hurt. One of the bruises above my right knee went deeper than I had realized, and it felt like every step was pulling painfully at a quad muscle. I don't feel this strain when I'm cycling or even walking around the house, but lifting my leg over the relentless rocks aggravated what was likely mild muscle damage from Monday's crash.

I was never going to catch Beat, yet I continued straining beyond my comfort level. The weather was unreal. Every time I've reached this saddle in the past — all during the months of June, July, or August — I've needed to pull on several layers while bracing against the gale to avoid being blown off my feet. On this day there was still a decent breeze — probably around 15 mph — but expectations made the air feel eerily calm. I continued shedding layers, marching past another group of heavily bundled hikers as I went hatless and gloveless with sleeves pushed up to my elbows. Every so often I would catch my toe on a rock, which would pull sharply against the seemingly injured muscle. Such missteps are almost impossible to avoid, but each time it happened my eyes filled with tears. This really hurt. Could this possibly be just a bruise? A few days have passed, and I really do think it's just a bruise. 

For the rest of the afternoon, however, I wondered whether I was facing a more persistent injury. Not much I can do about it up here, so I continued climbing. It was satisfying to reach the summit, my first "winter" ascent of a Colorado 13er ... even if it's not technically winter ... and even if the weather was the best I'd experienced — during any month — on these peaks that outline the crest of the continent. Sunny, storm-free skies, smoke-free air, gentle breeze, and no crowds. And to think there was a time that I believed November was just a throw-away month. 

Beat helped me get my leg back in order by forcing my knee into somewhat painful stretches and then massaging the area below the bruise. That actually did the trick. It stopped the sharp pain that was radiating up my leg and returned to that low-level soreness that isn't nearly as alarming. Beat fixes bikes and legs. Could I ask for a better partner in life? Just as long as he doesn't demand too many bushwhacks or otherwise ridiculously challenging mountain miles. Hiking is hard. 
Sunday, November 15, 2020

Into the lonesome season

Evidence points to a long and lonely winter in front of us. Given the scope of pandemic fatigue and willful acts of defiance, there's just no way COVID numbers are going to improve in the next few weeks. Collectively we seem unwilling to act, so anyone who still wants to reduce exposure for themselves, their families, and their communities will need to make a hard retreat from society ... if they can. That's the hardest thing about it; most people can't. Our "let it burn" policy is going to reap a lot of collateral damage. It's all so heartbreaking. As individuals, it seems the best we can do is join the bucket brigade of those who can afford to minimize indoor mingling and human contact. Right now I am thinking I will need to give up any hope of spending time with my family over the holidays. Or participating in my bike race in January. Or traveling to Alaska in March 2021. I acknowledge such sacrifices are minimal in the scope of the terrifying outcomes should the curve continue to skyrocket. Still, it does look like a long and lonely winter ahead, either way. 

As I mull this long and lonely season, I feel a paradoxical desire to distance myself even further from everything. Last week marked the third week of region-wide public land closures put in place to mitigate wildfire risk. That combined with unseasonably warm weather funneled thousands of people into a handful of outdoor spaces still open to the public. Trailheads were mobbed; my home road was as clogged with traffic as it was in the spring. It began to feel suffocating, even as I spent most of that week riding my bike along quiet back roads with surprisingly low traffic. This week, we earned a breather as cold and snow returned. 

On Monday it was 33 degrees with a misting rain that coated the roads in ice. We have yet to install winter tires on the Subaru, so I crawled along the road to a popular trailhead where only two other cars were parked, put on a hat and vest, and set out toward South Boulder Peak. As is my tendency in the early season, I was underdressed for the "feels like" reality of the cold. I hiked hard to mitigate the creeping chill as my clothing soaked through. As I climbed, the rain turned to snow. A stiff breeze prompted me to put on a jacket and mittens, but it wasn't quite enough. I could only briefly tag the peak before starting down the mountain. The rocks were slick with ice and snow, so I could no longer maintain a hard pace. I shivered most of the way down. My legs had become too numb to run by the time I hit the smoother trail. In short, I was uncomfortable ... yet pacified. Alone in this black-and-white landscape with no one else around, I felt a soothing sense of calm. 

I wanted more. The next day I was able to get out of the house was Thursday. Another storm moved through the region, and the forecast called for intensely high winds. Meteorologists say this will be the pattern all winter long, thanks to a strong La Nina impact: mountain snows, ceaseless blows. But at least wildfire danger lessened and a few corners of Rocky Mountain National Park reopened to the public, including Old Fall River Road. I figured it would be snow-covered, but fun to squeeze in one last high-altitude ride for the season. I started out from Lawn Lake trailhead, where it was 16 degrees with a steady 22 mph wind, gusting to 50 mph. My weather app indicated the "feels like" temperature was -1F at this temperate altitude of 8,000 feet. What would it be at 12,000 feet? As I pedaled up a few miles of paved road, blowing snow completely obscured the higher peaks. It looked ominous. 

It was my first trip on the fat bike in several months. Beat installed studded tires the night before. The combined effects — riding a heavy bike into a highway-speed wind tunnel through several inches of snow — made me feel like I was pedaling a tractor. So much work. I almost forgot that Old Fall River Road ascends at a 7-9 percent grade because I had my chin buried in my handlebars, bracing against the headwind. Climbing was just an afterthought. I passed the last hiker only about two miles into the gated part of the road. A fearsome gust hit and we both dug in — me with both feet planted on either side of the bike, and him leaning forward with both arms thrown over his face. 

"Going to the top?" he asked as the blast quieted slightly. 

"Doubtful," I replied. "It's pretty windy."

"It's very windy," he shouted as another gust gained strength. "I'm turning around." 

There were still six unbroken miles to the "top." I knew if I continued, I wouldn't encounter anyone. 

Shortly after I passed into untraveled territory, I started encountering what turned out to be a few dozen downed trees. Most of them were large, formerly healthy trees with thick branches that snagged my jacket as I wrestled with the bike. Hundreds more were piled like toothpicks in the gorge below. It was strange to see this destruction, as I'd been here several times this season and hadn't noticed the blowdowns before. But when I put the timeline together, it made sense. I was last here Sept. 4 when we shuttled our Mummy Range traverse. Sept. 6 was the day the Cameron Peak Fire blew up and they closed this side of the park, including the road. Sept. 8 brought the straight-line winds that flattened entire drainages in this region. Then there were two more months of wildfire closures. The few who braved the wind and snow this week are probably some of the first people to travel Old Fall River Road since early September. 

As I climbed the snow became deeper. The lower miles were wind-blown, but the switchbacks above the gorge were more protected by thick forest. I let most of the air out of my tires and could intermittently ride, but pedaling uphill through the mire often demanded more strength than I had to spend. I held some hope that I'd find more wind-scoured patches up high. But with four miles to go, it was becoming clear that I'd be walking most of the rest of the way, probably up and down. Still, the scenery was enjoyable and I had ... I did the math in my head ... maybe two more hours before I needed to turn around to avoid being caught out in the dark with only my tiny emergency headlamp. 

"If I was racing the Fat Pursuit, I would certainly need training like this," I reasoned as justification for the ridiculousness in which I was about to engage.

The snow deepened. Wind had carried away most of the surface powder and left only hardened crust over a thick, Styrofoam-like base. It was occasionally solid enough to hold my weight and I could pedal three or four strokes, but usually, I broke through. I felt like I was pushing a bike through knee-deep quicksand. It was strenuous. Amazingly strenuous. 

After having my ass handed to me on the Iditarod Trail back in March, I'd managed to delude myself into believing that I'd regained some semblance of strength. After all, I spent the summer ascending difficult mountains and took to riding long miles on my bike in the fall. But none of that seemed to mean anything. In an instant, it was March in Alaska all over again. I was hunched over an energy-sapping abyss of snow, trudging as though Earth's gravity had suddenly become ten times as strong. I'd count ten steps to put myself in a rhythm, but sometimes I couldn't even take that many before feeling so winded that I needed to stop and catch my breath. Then came the chest-high drifts, more deadfall, and dangerous flirtations with gravity while tight-rope-walking a razor-thin strip of dirt between a snowdrift and a precipitous slope. 

Meanwhile, even in this relatively protected bowl, the wind continued to rage. The chill cut so deep that my nose was an ice cube, even protected by a fleece buff. But the rest of my body was a furnace of effort and purpose. The purpose? Relentless motion, I guess. That paradoxical state in which physical distress brings a direct proportion of mental peace. 

Finally, I cleared treeline and found a few more wind-scoured patches to ride, but mostly the roadbed was filled with snowdrifts. I found even where I could pedal, I was too exhausted to manage more than a few strokes. My back and hamstrings ached. I hadn't felt this weakened in a while; probably since March. As I neared the final switchback, my watch buzzed to indicate I'd finished a lap. In cycling mode, a lap is five miles. My virtual training partner used to think these should take 20 minutes, but since I trended toward ridiculousness and steep Colorado terrain, it's long since given up on this goal. This five-mile lap took 2 hours and 57 minutes. I laughed because I'm sure that's my slowest lap ever. Even in hiking mode, three hours would be a painfully slow five miles. I'd managed only ten miles in four hours. It was time to turn around. 

I turned my back to the wind and started hiking down, wobbling like a baby giraffe on exhausted legs. Wind gusts ripped the bike out of my hands but still failed to knock it over in the deep snow. I breathed heavily and counted steps. I didn't expect to need to count steps for the descent, nor did I realize how fatigued I'd become. Four hours is not that long of a workout compared to some of my summer mountain epics and recent ten-hour rides. Even still — winter has a way of demanding everything upfront and leaving me with little to spare when the afternoon shadows grow long. The cold seemed to deepen, and I had little left in my backpack to buffer the chill. I always feel nervous when I'm wearing all of my spare layers, even when I'm comfortable. 

It's a place I've been many times: Cold, exhausted, hounded by wind and the coming night, and the only recourse I have is to keep walking. I gazed up at the jagged skyline with spindrift peeling off the peaks like smoke. I briefly thought about the East Troublesome Fire and how these terrible winds could fire up hot spots and reignite flames ... but no ... it was 10 degrees. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground to muffle the still-not-fully-contained wildfire. That's just wind-driven snow. Peaceful, benign snow. 

I felt blissful contentedness, and also bemusement as to why these awful snow slogs have this effect on me. I thought about the basic principles of Buddhism, that the root of all suffering is desire and the end of suffering is self-transcendence. In most of my waking hours, I am filled with desire: I want to see the world, to experience all the sensations, to understand the unknowable truths about the universe. But desire also fuels sadness and anxiety: the world is a merciless place, full of greed and sickness and death, and I don't understand anything at all. It's a constant push and pull of joy and despair. It's emotionally exhausting, but in my zeal to experience life, I wouldn't trade it for Nirvana ... at least not yet. I'm not nearly so enlightened. 

But every so often, I seek out a mountain scoured by freezing wind and buried in snow. Up here, there's nothing about me that matters. All of my desires and hopes and dreams are housed in a fragile body that any number of natural phenomena could end in a heartbeat. I feel this in my core and know that the mountain doesn't care. It's exhilarating to briefly see my place in it all — an infinitesimal human in an infinite universe — and experience liberation in this nothingness. I feel as though I could throw off the shackles of my humanness, all of the selfishness and despair, and dance into the wind, become the wind. It's beautiful but fleeting. Once I'm again safe and warm, my ego comes roaring back to stoke desire. 

Since this little adventure, I've been thinking about how these flashes of enlightenment will help me find my way through a dark winter. I don't really need a big race or exciting adventure on my horizon, although of course I still want these things. But if I can tip-toe toward the edge, gaze into the void and then pull back with the renewed realization that I'm alive — that's enough ... for now. 
Sunday, November 08, 2020

The wind presents a change of course

Moonrise on Halloween

It's been a rollercoaster of a week, hasn't it? Since last Sunday, I dove headlong into my most effective coping mechanism, logging 275 miles (10 of those miles were on foot, the rest cycling) with 37,000 feet of climbing. The mechanics of motion were astonishingly effortless. Despite dry and warm weather that continued to elevate fire danger, the air remained clearer than it has been all summer. Finally, I could breathe. Really breathe, with deep and replenishing breaths that fill my body with a vitality that almost feels criminal — like normal oxygen in the natural air is a kind of performance-enhancing drug. In this state nothing feels hard; I almost forget that energy isn't limitless, because oxygen is. All I want to do is ride my bike. I would ride day and night if I didn't have deadlines to meet, or a desire to be a normal adult in a healthy relationship and not a crazy bike lady. Still, becoming a crazy bike lady remains my fallback plan. Should I ever end up in the fallout of a ruined world — personal or literal — my plan is to get on my bike and ride until I run out of energy or oxygen; whichever ends first. 

The view west at sunset, also on Halloween

But, like many people in the United States and around the world, I also spent the week holding my breath. I was so angry that in the midst of eight-hour rides, I'd burst up a hill with such intensity that I'd arrive at the top on the verge of vomiting. I was so sad that I'd burst into tears occasionally, although the tears were rarely unprovoked. I chose to spend my long hours in the saddle listening to archived episodes of "This American Life," starting where I left off when I embarked on my Iditarod journey in February. A journey that was already a lifetime ago. I'll concede it was a poor choice to re-live American life during the months of March, April, and May 2020. I'd forgotten how sad the early days of the pandemic were. Or how upsetting the events leading up to the protests had been. How are things better now? They're not better now. The numbers are markedly worse. The only thing that's different is that we have all settled into the complacency that comes from long periods of uncertainty and trauma. Life can't be harrowing always. Eventually, just to survive, our brains rewire themselves to process new normals. 

Feeling especially jittery and slightly lost on Monday, after widespread public land closures turned me away from my original route.

I was not ready to give in just yet. I was not ready to accept leadership and a populace that embraced a deadly virus with open arms. Or gleefully dismantled democracy and instated authoritarian rule to benefit the few while oppressing the majority. Or denied a global environmental crisis and a future in which choking on the outside air will become another terrible new normal. I was ready to fight and remain ready to fight, with whatever resources I can offer. One idea I had is to contribute to a narrative that can appeal to collective empathy and help reverse our entrenched fear of change. I opened multiple blank documents, fumbling for ideas, but ultimately ended up with stream-of-consciousness laments about hopeless human gridlock. There was one that I nearly posted on this blog, since it emerged from my Wednesday ride. I'm glad I did not. But sometimes you just have to let it out, and sometimes angry pedal strokes and dirt-streaked tears are not enough. 

A rare quiet spot not impacted by the stage-3 wildfire closures, where I could sit on a rock, look toward old burn scars, eat a peanut butter sandwich, and cry over interviews with medical workers in the COVID ward of a Detroit hospital in March.

Wednesday was a hard day. Even as our local and state elections brought glimmers of hope, it seemed like dark clouds were hovering overhead. It looked as though COVID and climate denial, alternative facts, dismantling of institutions, fighting for economic scraps, selling out beloved ecosystems, lying, cruelty, racism, bullying ... were things that we as a nation chose. I know we humans all have different passions and carry different values. But it seemed like we no longer share any of them. Like there's no common ground. Like our values are so wildly varying that it will be difficult to ever merge back into a civil society. Like when you and I both look at the sky and proclaim it to be "blue," I have no conception of what "blue" means to you. Our perceptions of blue are probably not the same, and we'll never be able to show each other what we're actually seeing. So how do we learn to live together? I thought back to my empathy essays, and to the soothing words of Dan Rather in "What Unites Us," but mostly I angry-pedaled and grumbled about the flawless blue sky that was only intensifying the local drought. 

Green Mountain summit. It was 81 degrees.

On Thursday and Friday, I went a little bit comatose. I hadn't been sleeping well, on account of jolting awake every hour or so and checking the New York Times and Twitter even though I promised myself I wouldn't succumb to doomscrolling (reasoning that I was more likely to get back to sleep if I had the information I craved.) At least I could rely on the mechanics of motion to reduce cortisol and increase serotonin. During Thursday errand day, I logged my second fastest time up Green Mountain. I wasn't even trying. My heart rate was fairly low. Sweat poured down my temple because it was unconscionably hot for November. But the air was clean and rich with oxygen, and I was grateful. 

No wind, not even a breeze on Gap Road. It was so strange. Almost like a time warp.

By Saturday morning, things were looking up. It had become more difficult to justify spending an entire day riding my bike, which would be my fifth long ride in eight days. Still, it was another warm and calm day, possibly the last unseasonably warm day for a while. I'd rather have cold and precipitation right now, but I can't ignore good cycling weather while it's here. I felt strong as I blasted down my dirt road and started up the first hill — surprisingly strong. I'd logged long hours this week, and expected to feel more tired. But it was the opposite. I felt fit. Hardened. Ready to rocket up any and all of the 11,000 feet of hills I intended to crush that day. This reminds me of the self-perpetuating fitness I found during long-ago bike tours, and why my apocalypse fallout plan is to get on my bike and keep going. Done right, one never has to stop pedaling. 

The famous-with-cyclists yellow mailbox that marks the beginning of the Switzerland Trail

Out on a rolling loop of the few mountain gravel roads not affected by the forest closure, I had only spotty cell reception. So my first buzz of news came from a rare text from my Dad. Now, normally, my dad only texts me when he's in the emergency room after taking a bad fall while hiking. But Saturday, my formerly Republican father had this to say:

"Jill, today is a good day for democracy. I really believe things will improve for our country (although the bar was as low as it could have been.) Keep smiling."

And wouldn't you know ... I broke out into the biggest, dopiest grin as I read this message. A wave of relief washed over me, a kind of calm that I hadn't even expected. I laughed out loud at my dad's reference to the bar, which brought to mind an Oatmeal comic depicting an inept American pole-vaulter struggling to clear a hurdle so low it almost touched the ground. But we'd cleared it. And that meant something. 

Sarah Kendzior, one of the most cynical and also prescient writers that I follow, had this to say: 

"The U.S. faces a long dark road as it deals with the systemic problems that allowed Trump to take power and the brutal measures he will take to stay there. But Biden's win matters enormously. The door to U.S. democracy is open. Everyone who helped achieve this should feel proud."

Escape Route, an extra hill on the way home that I didn't have to climb, but did for fun.

Like many in the U.S. — a surprisingly tight majority, but still a majority — I spent the rest of the day riding this unexpected high. The sensation was similar to breathing easy after a smoke-clogged summer. You've almost forgotten how it feels to take long draws of air, how your legs can feel light rather than leaden, how amazing it is to race up a hill, surging with joy rather than rage. I really didn't expect to feel this way. The bar was so low that I didn't imagine it would be at all exciting to clear it. But it was. It really was. 

We have a long, long way to go. I have no doubt there are still a few readers here who made it through this post, are rolling their eyes, and still have no concept of what I see when I say the sky is blue. But we're all here, rolling around on this planet. I can only hope that we'll find our way to shared values again, somehow. And if not, maybe at least we'll agree to wear masks and contribute a bare minimum of effort to try to not kill each other, this year at least.
Saturday, October 31, 2020

Fifteen years

Like many of you this week, I'm wound into a tight little knot of frayed nerves and I haven't been able to remedy this anxiety. I mean, I spent nine hours riding my bike on Friday, pedaling to exhaustion along an icy 75-mile route with nearly 11,000 feet of climbing, and it didn't help. Like at all. I mean, it was a beautiful day and a great ride, but the effects wore off as soon as I stopped pedaling. I'm worse today than I was on Thursday. Alas. I think it might be time to break into the stress eating and wine. 

Amid the fretting about November 3, I realized this date marks an interesting personal anniversary. November 3, 2005, was the day I launched this blog. Yes, this one. Fifteen years. Fifteen years, 2,212 posts, 25,600 comments, and some 60,000 page views per month. I'm both proud and embarrassed that it's gone on this long. I recently read a post from a blogger who has been at it for a mere ten years. The writer mused, "One little blog post is nothing on its own. But publish a thousand blog posts over a decade, and it becomes your life's work."

I can't even fathom how different my life would be if, on November 3, 2005, I sat down at a clunky Dell desktop computer in the loft of a drafty cabin in Homer, and instead of launching a blog to update friends and family about my great new life in Alaska, I decided to trawl eBay auctions for gear I couldn't afford. Or rant about reporters who add two spaces after every period on the Testy Copy Editors forum. Or whatever it was I even did on the Internet in 2005. What did any of us do before Facebook and the rapid erosion of civilized society? I can barely remember. 

Still, I'm forever grateful that this Napster-surfing, 26-year-old version of me started this blog. It quickly connected me with a group of cycling enthusiasts, who donated actual dollars to my novice training endeavors, thus helping me venture into the wild world of endurance racing and winter adventures (yes, I'm embarrassed that I used to beg for money on my blog. But I wouldn't have been able to pay for the Susitna 100 on my $12/hour with no benefits newspaper salary otherwise.) The rest is a whole lot of history. 

This morning, when I again wasn't focusing well on the writing project that I'm currently trying to squeeze out of dry air, I turned to the Wayback Machine to look up my blog in 2005. It was satisfyingly soothing to scroll through the posts as they once appeared. For all of the importance I place on archives, I almost never go back and read old blog posts. It was fun to reimagine this era when life seemed so simple: Scraping feet of snow off my 1996 Geo Prism, bike commuting to work, narrowly avoiding frostbite while wearing four pairs of cotton socks stuffed into New Balance running shoes, well before I owned most of the gear necessary for riding bikes through an Alaska winter:

This was such a nice respite from the Internet hellscapes where I typically spend my time these days. If you have an old or neglected blog languishing in cyberspace, I strongly recommend a visit to the Wayback Machine. 

This nostalgia post doesn't really have a point, other than to celebrate a 15-year anniversary that probably won't feel appropriate to celebrate on Tuesday. It's Oct. 31, and Beat and I have nice plans to hike up Bear Peak and watch the sunset and moonrise of the rare Halloween blue moon. Quietly, I continue to plan an escape to the high Utah desert where I can park a car far away from cell phone reception and spend my nights looking at the sky. 

Escapes of the mind are almost as good as physical escapes. I feel better now. If there's anything I've learned from 15 years of blogging, it's that hope springs eternal. And long bike rides in all weather are the best course of action, always. 
Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Red flag October

Two weeks ago, the East Troublesome Fire didn't exist.  

Last week brought what was likely the worst week of wildfire in Colorado history as East Troublesome roared through 150,000 acres in a single 24-hour period, leaping across a mile of open tundra and rocks above 12,000 feet to torch beloved trails on the eastern slope of Rocky Mountain National Park. Estes Park scrambled to rapidly evacuate from a fire that started near Kremmling, nearly 50 miles away on the other side of the Continental Divide. 

This week brought as much as two feet of snow and record-breaking cold — down to -24F near Grand Lake, where the ashes of an estimated 100 homes are still smoldering. Fire officials reminded people that this isn't the end, just a breather, like throwing a wet blanket over hot coals. We can take a few moments to catch our breath, but soon the blanket with disintegrate and the coals will flare up again. I looked at a weather forecast for ten days of pleasant temperatures and sunshine as though it was the most upsetting scenario possible. 

I spent the week battling an existential crisis, sparked by wildfires. The places I love are burning. The sky is filled with smoke. I can't breathe. I feel like I haven't been able to breathe for months. Years. There's no refuge in nature, thanks to the smoke. There's no refuge anywhere, thanks to an equally out-of-control pandemic. Newspapers are closing. Journalism is failing. Nothing I do or have ever done has any meaning. Democracy is dying. The whole world is burning.

I write "battling" an existential crisis because I am working on shifting my perspective, believe me. I've long battled fatalism with demanding yet purposeful distractions — training for races, planning fun escapades, reading and writing about the grand adventure of life. Like many people, I've met my match with 2020. These October wildfires have been especially troubling because they show the effects of explosive environmental change in real time. I am a person who loves places. Perhaps this love is different than the love I feel for people in my life, but the emotion burns just as bright and loss cuts deeply. The Tonahutu Creek Trail where Beat and I backpacked in August. The Saddle between Hagues Peak and Mount Fairchild. Spruce Canyon. Hollowell Park. None of these places will be the same in my lifetime. Because of climate change, they may not ever fully recover. Maybe Colorado will become the next Arizona. 

I get it. That's reality. Things change. Things end. Acknowledging the hard truths doesn't make them less hard. 

I think about ways I can contribute to positive change. I voted. I donated to a fund set up to help those impacted by our closest-to-home blaze, the Calwood Fire, which thankfully is now mostly under control. I daydream about training to become a volunteer firefighter ... if it wasn't for the barrier of, you know, being a 41-year-old asthmatic with high sensitivity to smoke. I acknowledge that there's a lot more I can do on an actionable level. But really, when it comes to existential despair, perspective is the only thing over which we have any control. So I'm working on sharpening my outlook and refocusing on the aspects of life that deserve gratitude and joy. 

I thought about this on Friday as temperatures dropped to the teens and an icy fog enveloped the landscape. I had been closely tracking the horrific progression of the East Troublesome Fire, including a Twitter thread from a woman who was live-tweeting a phone conversation and subsequent radio silence as her grandparents hid in a bunker while the wildfire surrounded them (they were later confirmed dead.) It had become a lot. It had become too much. Beat rightly criticizes my fixation on Twitter during natural disasters and political upheavals, but I only want to know what's happening, right now. I do recognize that I need to take a step back. Friday offered a welcome breather, even though news sources informed me that just above this inversion, red-flag winds were still blowing and humidity remained low in the wildfire zones. Within the cloud, though, it was easy to feel safe and calm. 

One of my favorite places to visit in icy weather is Bear Peak. Well, Bear Peak is one of my favorite places, period, but frost and snow paints this mountain with a delicate beauty that feels wholly unique. The west ridge still bears the scars of a 2012 wildfire. The fire came within a mile of the house where I now live. Neighbors talk about the terror and awe of watching flames move down the hillside while they packed up to evacuate during the night. Firefighters were able to put out the Flagstaff Fire before it damaged private property, but we all live with awareness of the ongoing risk. Bear Peak's burn scar is a daily reminder ... and yet it's beautiful. Spring wildflowers are abundant, summer views are expansive, fall brings rare crimson hues to the chokecherries, and winter coats the skeleton trees in ghostly frost. There can be beauty in destruction. 

I'm grateful for friends. My favorite people are scattered all over the world, and the drawn-out pandemic makes it feel like I might never see some of them again. But they've all been wonderful during this time. Australian friends frequently send us memes to commiserate about the ridiculous state of American politics. Canadian friends send drool-worthy photos of the places they'll take us when and if we can ever return. For a wedding present, our Alaskan friend Corrine sent us an amazing quilt, an Aurora Borealis pattern that she designed and sewed herself. Now, even when confined at home far away from the Great Land, I have something to carry my imagination back to Alaska. 

All of these gestures warm my heart and keep it from going completely rigid. I've also valued visits in person with local friends. I'm lucky that most of my friends are runners and bikers, so socializing outdoors is not an issue. On Saturday, we had another day of wind and heat sandwiched between record cold. I took advantage of it for a longer training ride, pedaling down to Arvada to meet up with my friend Betsy. We rode east toward the plains, and I daydreamed about a long-standing goal to ride gravel to Kansas. Maybe next year. The air quality was not good — above 100 AQI for most of the afternoon — and I started to wheeze even before I commenced the climb back into the foothills. But it was a good day. Friends help take the edge off disheartening views of haze. 

I am grateful for Beat. Like many couples, we've been spending a lot of time in close proximity since he started working from home. I tend to become snippy when I haven't carved out enough alone time, but overall the togetherness has been enjoyable. We have flexibility for more weekday adventures, such as this Monday morning run around Walker Ranch after 10 inches of snow fell on Sunday. I was giddy when we woke up to our first subzero temperature of the season (well, it was -0.2F. But that counts.) Beat sternly reminded me to pack for contingencies in the danger cold, but I wasn't concerned. Putting on these winter layers feels like slipping into a pair of comfortable old shoes. 

I am grateful that winter is coming. I suppose in COVID times I'm blessed that I experience the opposite of seasonal depression. I can be surly about summer — especially awful smoke-filled summers — but my personal reward is the intensity, beauty, and solitude — finally! —of the darker months. Winter will bring some reprieve to this terrible year of wildfires, although any extended dry period still carries risk. The next couple of weeks will be trying. It's been so dry that meteorologists expect this October snow will vaporize into the air rather than melt into the ground, so fuels will remain dry and the current fires will keep their foothold. The Cameron Peak Fire flared into a monster after it was doused with September snow, so I'm braced for the worst ... but hoping for the best. 

I'm grateful for racing. I may feel dubious about the responsibility of participating in a winter race during a pandemic, but I feel no guilt about training. I value the process. The goal brings a sense of purpose, even as the practical side of me recognizes that it's rather fruitless. Then the existentialist in me fires back that everything about life is absurd. Might as well do what you love; that is purposeful enough. 

I love how racing and training immerses me into both new and familiar places. I love using my body in a tangible way. I love the simplicity of these endeavors. I'm beginning to understand that my reason for endurance pursuits is not that they're hard — it's that they offer a primal and satisfying simplicity that feels more natural, and in many ways easier than modern life. My recent 150-mile ride to Mount Evans reminded me of this relaxing respite from day-to-day ennui. I don't know if I'll end up heading out to Idaho in January to push my bike 200 kilometers through deep snow. But if it does happen, I imagine I'll effortlessly turn my brain off and probably crush it. I can't wait. 

So ... life is good. Yes, East Troublesome is still smoldering in Rocky Mountain National Park. And yes, COVID cases are skyrocketing. And yes, in less than a week our Democracy seems doomed to end up in a serious grinder. And yes, I read too many books about climate change and I can't stop thinking about them. Wait ... where was I again? Oh yes, perspective. My perspective. I'm still working on it. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Winter Wind meets Fire Summer

The sound is both familiar and chilling: a high-pitched whistle accompanied by a whoosh of tree branches, reaching a crescendo that resembles a frantic scream before fading to a low moan. There's a thrilling harmony to the wind that I can appreciate. Sometimes I sit next to the window and listen, watching the trees bend sideways while random debris tumbles through the grass. This is the downslope wind, heralding the onset of winter in Colorado's Front Range. Summers have their share of storms, but summer doesn't contain the temperature gradients necessary to generate these blasts of air rushing down from the Divide. The Winter Wind is different. By October I've almost forgotten what it feels like. Its return reignites a thrilling familiarity: the way a 50 mph gust will stop me mid-stride, frantically jumping off my bike to avoid being toppled, the exhilarating spice that ground blizzards add even to the most basic runs around home. Wind, like winter, is a dynamic circumstance that I've learned to embrace. 

Now, in this forsaken year of 2020, the sound of the Winter Wind has become chilling on a whole new level. By Saturday, that whistling sound sparked anxiety reactions that I couldn't fully control, so I took a CBD capsule and hid under a blanket, rolling from my stomach to my back and taking deep breaths. It was cold outside and a little chilly inside the house, which is how I justified the blanket. Truthfully, I was strung out and using the most basic comfort sources to pull myself together. If I had a higher tolerance for harder substances than CBD, I would have turned to them. On a better day, I would have set out on my bike. On this day, the smoke situation was too unpredictable. I didn't know whether situations might rapidly change and force us to pack up our vehicles and evacuate. Instead, I shifted between doom-scrolling and eyes-closed breathing exercises whenever a wind gust roared past. I'd ridden my bike for nine hours the previous day and planned for Saturday to be a "rest day." Of course, this was by far the most restless day of the week. 

It all started on Wednesday. The Cameron Peak Fire had a bad day on Wednesday. This blaze has been active for more than two months but had been holding steady around 130,000 acres for nearly a week. That period of relative calm ended when the west wind arrived, driving an explosive surge that pushed it to 155,000 acres in a single day, becoming the largest fire in Colorado history. Since then it's grown to 203,000 acres, making Wednesday's run seem almost small. But at the time, I took it hard. We'd enjoyed several days of deliciously clear air, freezing temperatures were in the forecast, and it was starting to seem like fire season was almost behind us. But as I drove to town for my usual weekly errands and appointments, all I could see was this smoke plume pouring into clear blue skies. The Cameron Peak Fire broke my heart all over again. 

It's difficult not to focus on all of the losses these fires represent — the forests and wildlife, the vistas and trails, people's livelihoods, their homes. It's difficult not to widen this perspective toward a difficult future, when all of this loss, literal scorched earth, is simply a new normal fueled by climate change. October fires are the scariest yet. When the worsening drought and heat of summer mix with increasingly convective seasonal winds, the outcomes can only be catastrophic. I couldn't help but ruminate on a dark future as I ran along the South Mesa Trail, grateful for this potentially last window of clean air as an enormous plume of smoke billowed to the north. I made strong time up Shadow Canyon and scrambled to the summit of Bear Peak from the ledge where Beat and I were married last month. From this vantage, I looked toward the smoke plume and broke out in tears. This isn't the first time I've cried about the Cameron Peak Fire. There was the trickle of tears that surprised me as I watched a single plume from a spot fire rise from a nearby valley while traversing Mummy Mountain. That was September 4, when the fire was still at 23,000 acres. I cried a little more openly on Mount Evans a week ago, as I sat more than 75 miles away watching a pyrocumulus cloud mushroom into the sky. This run on October 8 drove the blaze to official megafire status (over 100,000 acres.) That it keeps ballooning skyward is both predictable and surreal, not unlike watching COVID cases climb. Like any out-of-control phenomenon, the encroaching smoke is a reminder that for us, too, it's only a matter of time. 

On Friday, I just wanted to go for a long ride. I filed away a training excuse by signing up for the Fat Pursuit 200K, a winter fat bike race scheduled for early January in Idaho. In truth, I'm skeptical that I'll actually end up at the start line for this race. There are so many unknowns with the pandemic. Traveling to a different state to participate in a winter race, even if it's mostly self-supported, seems like an iffy proposition at this point. Still, for now, the Fat Pursuit is something to look forward to, to take my mind of the present. Any excuse to spend most of a day riding a bike is a good excuse. 

I headed south away from the Cameron Peak smoke plume and climbed toward Gilpin. The National Forest land to the west is threaded with a seemingly endless maze of jeep roads that, in theory, are fun to explore. I write "in theory," because by now I've learned that most of these roads are only marginally rideable and actually not that much fun — a morass of babyheads strewn along 25-percent grades with fleetingly rare flat stretches buried in ankle-deep sand. But it's still a place within a day's biking distance from home that feels new and exciting. At least a few times a year, I resolve to go exploring. 

After the summer-long, pandemic-fueled rush on recreation, it feels like the crowds are finally calming down. It helps when it's still 32 degrees at noon and the winter wind is howling out of the west. I like this weather. It feels safe to me, quiet, and with a couple extra layers, I can ride as hard as I want without becoming thirsty or overheated. It's bliss. Well, it's bliss until it isn't. As I rolled along a series of drainages below Yankee Hill, I had to contend with a continuous ribbon of ice threading through the babyheads. Since I didn't have studded bike tires, the ice made all of the easy lines impossibly treacherous. If I wanted to ride at all, I had to hug the eroded berms, bouncing over all manner of rocks and ruts.  

Somehow in the midst of battling ice and rocks, I climbed to nearly 11,000 feet, where the lovely pine forest opened to the scrub spruce and brush of the subalpine zone. Up there, the wind was so strong that I could no longer ride west. It was impossible. Gusts pushed me sideways and backward as I swerved and bucked over babyheads. Even hiking proved difficult. The wind seemed determined to grab the bike from my hands, wrenching my arms as I marched, head lowered, into an invisible wall. I scanned my GPS and saw the road would soon turn north, so that was something. I could see a ribbon of dirt rising up a hill to my right, but I wondered if I even had the strength to push my bike to the top. 

"This is the winter I remember," I thought. "Hello, West Wind, my old friend."

Shoring up the sum of my strength, I shambled to the top of the rise and caught my first unobstructed view of the full and ominous power of the West Wind — a smoke plume, stretched into lenticular waves thousands of feet over the Continental Divide. Smoke almost entirely blotted out South Arapaho Peak, which was only a dozen or so miles away. The base of the plume was almost black, dark enough to see a distinct red glow reflected from a not-so-distant fire. "East Troublesome," I thought. East Troublesome was the latest fire to erupt in Grand County. On this day it doubled in size from 3,800 acres to nearly 8,000. And of course, it's nearly doubled again since. 

Still buffeted by a strong crosswind that carried a chill so deep it seemed to flash-freeze my gloved fingers, I wrestled the bike to a clearing. An awkward gust nearly toppled me, but I jumped just in time to avoid a shoulder hit. This was as good a spot as any. I plopped down in long-dried grass that has been ready for winter since August and slowly removed my backpack. The wind genuinely seemed strong enough to blow the entire pack away if I wasn't careful, so I kept a tight grip as I removed a sandwich from its container and leaned into my pack to take gulping bites. It was a terribly uncomfortable spot for a lunch break, so cold and windy. The East Troublesome smoke plume was alarming from this vantage, to the point where I involuntarily shuddered and looked away. Still, it seemed appropriate to acknowledge the moment in this way. 

Sometime during my weird apocalypse picnic, Everclear's 1993 hit "Fire Maple Song" floated up from a deep abyss of memory. For much of the bumpy descent into Mammoth Gulch and Tolland Road, I probed this memory for lyrics to a song that I'm not even sure I've thought about since the '90s. Impressed with my recapture, I rewrote lyrics that better fit my mood: 

Lying down in the grass with the wind around us as we watch the smoke erupt. 
Listen to doomsday reports on the radio. 
They tell us how the mountains turn to fire, every year now. 
We’ll lay in the grass all summer just to watch the world burn to the ground. 
I can’t smile. 
Now I can’t smile.

As I neared home, the smoke plume grew closer and darker. I was lucky it stayed south of me throughout the day, but my luck was running out. I could see flakes of ash wafting through the air, and then I tasted something acrid in my throat.  

My breathing soon began to sound like a high-pitched whistle. I was glad I was only about twenty minutes from home. I carried an N95 mask for such situations but opted to race the encroaching plume rather than fiddle with putting it on. I had no idea how bad the smoke had become near Boulder. Our home meter registered an AQI over 400; some places in town recorded 600. Both are so far beyond hazardous that the EPA doesn't even have a health rating for that level. The sky over town turned an apocalyptic shade of orange. Beat was caught out in it during a run, and had no choice but to stumble home in air so bad he was barely able to breathe. I'm not even sure what I'd do if I met an AQI of 600. I doubt my mask would offer protection enough to allow even a slow walking pace before my asthma became unmanageable. I feel like I'd be wholly trapped if the AQI rose to 600, like I'd just have to lay down and die. I know this is overdramatic and it would certainly not be that bad. But it feels that way. 

In hindsight, it's a risk to venture outside at all during such a volatile fire season. I can't know which way the wind will shift, and what will happen to air that was perfectly breathable only an hour before. But on this evening, I simply slowed my pace to reduce the wheezing. I reached smooth gravel and finally pavement, where I could pedal easily and watch the evening sky with a renewed sense of awe. 

I felt guilty for feeling such awe. This was still smoke, carried by the West Wind at such a high speed that it looked like molten lava flowing through a volcanic stream. I hated it, but I had to admit it was beautiful. 

Then came Saturday. My Friday ride took most of nine hours — 68 miles with nearly 10,500 feet of climbing — so it seemed prudent to take a rest day and try to get a few things done. I did not get anything done. Instead, I managed to catch a super early report about a new fire in Boulder County. It was only an acre at the time and seemed trivial. But within the seconds it takes to write a Twitter comment, the report grew to eight acres, and then twenty. Suddenly it was hundreds of acres, then thousands, racing down Lefthand Canyon toward North Boulder. People way out in Denver posted photos of an all-encompassing black plume that reminded me of The Nothing from "Neverending Story." I caught news of friends evacuating, friends who were certain they would lose their homes, and then the fire jumped the divided highway and continued burning near suburban neighborhoods in the plains. People who live miles east of the foothills started evacuating. It was chaos, true chaos. It took two months for the Cameron Peak Fire to become the largest fire in Colorado history. It only took six hours for the Calwood Fire to become the largest fire in Boulder County history. 

I didn't take it well. It was just so sad, and so close to home, with so many unknowns. We live a few valleys to the south and weren't under immediate threat. But this whole region is such a tinderbox right now. It's hard to feel secure, and everyone is on edge. Beat and I discussed our evacuation plan. I imagined escape routes I might take if a smoke plume erupts nearby while I'm out running on trails — it could happen. I might get out with only the clothes and pack on my back. If we're lucky, we'll have time to fill a vehicle with bikes. Of course, if we're truly lucky, a neighborhood wildfire won't happen at all. What are the odds, really? I didn't want to think about it. I knew another day of doomscrolling would do me no good, so by late Sunday morning, I decided another long ride would be prudent — nay, necessary. 

It was another day of strange weather. There was a thick fog and temperatures near freezing when I set out a few minutes before noon. The inversion brought much-needed humidity and drizzle to Boulder, but it also prevented the air assault that firefighters had planned for the now-nearly-9,000-acre fire that had already burned 26 structures in fewer than 24 hours. I had mixed feelings about the fog. Any wet weather was a good thing, but I knew it couldn't last. Indeed, as I climbed above 8,000 feet, the inversion cleared. It was much warmer than it had been on Friday, and nearly as windy. 

I effectively rage-pedaled into the headwind, burning off a fair amount of negative energy as I repeatedly glanced to the north for evidence of a Calwood smoke plume. So far, the smoke didn't seem too bad. I climbed to the top of Caribou Hill, another huge rock-strewn grunt, and sat in another dry field of grass to eat a sandwich while facing the wind. This time, I faced James Peak. It was a nice view. I love James Peak.

When I turned to descend, I saw a dramatic smoke plume that I hadn't noticed before. It was confusing. It looked fresh, and far too close to be part of the Calwood Fire. The Calwood Fire started north of Jamestown, which from this vantage would be a fair distance to the northeast. This plume looked like it began mere miles away. A new fire? Was that even possible — a new fire just one day later, in the same general area, in October? It seemed so unlikely. But this looked real. And it looked like it might be burning near Ward or Gold Hill, which was the direction I had planned to ride to close my loop. As I coasted along Peak to Peak Highway, I didn't see fire trucks or other indicators of a close fire. But just to be safe, I cut downhill early on Sugarloaf Road, rather than take the Switzerland Trail to Fourmile as I'd planned. 

Later I'd find out this was a new fire. The Lefthand Fire, which forced the evacuation of several mountain communities in and around Ward, and grew to several hundred acres over just a few hours on that windy, warm afternoon. It seems so surreal. The hot and dry weather only reigned above 8,000 feet. Below that altitude, the inversion held, which was a blessing for the Calwood Fire. Indeed, the shift between microclimates was dramatic. I crested the final rise of Sugarloaf in full sun with the hard wind at my back, then plunged into a thick fog that dropped the temperature at least 20 degrees in seconds. My fingers again flash-froze, and I started to shiver. It felt calm, quiet, and safe. I wished the freezing fog would never go away.