Monday, February 24, 2020

Meanwhile the world goes on

Part of my preparations for the 2020 ITI was to pick up the jumble of words I wrote about my experiences on the Iditarod Trail in 2018, and weave it together into something coherent. My reasons for this writing project were mostly cathartic ... I had a rough go of things the last time I was out there, and I'm still trying to make sense of why I decided to go back, on foot of all things, which is an damn near impossible mode of travel for someone like me ... and finishing up my race report did little to boost my confidence. Beat joked that it was making me more anxious and might be healthier to stop.

But, similar to its subject matter, I plodded through to the end and came up with 45,000 words that depict what it's like out there for a hiker on the trail — from the intimate connection to the landscape, to the weird ruminations and meanders down memory lane, to the horrific things that happen to feet. It seemed like a good reference to put out there for those who might be interested, before I take off for another crack at a very long and hard walk in the cold. And although I promised myself "no more books about the Iditarod," this is really the best medium for a narrative of this length. So I'm putting it out there as an eBook, available on Amazon.

It's a small fee, but free for people with Kindle Unlimited, and an app makes it available for reading on any device or laptop. As always, I'm grateful for readers who support my (admittedly excessive) adventure content.

As a preview, here is chapter two, "Knik Bar," with a few photos from my 2018 trek:

Knik Bar

The feel of this place is familiar yet vaguely unsettling. A rundown bar sits on a lake shore near the end of one of Alaska’s many dead-end roads. A blinking neon sign beckons the few remaining motorists on the highway with promises of cheap beer. It’s a fading piece of Alaskana, a roadhouse that once stood at the edge of the wilderness but now borders ever-expanding suburban sprawl. The parking lot is a mixture of minivans and snowmobiles; the building is a green rambler with plywood flooring. The clientele is mostly local and male, proudly sporting the image of grizzled sourdoughs even though there’s a Subway restaurant just a few miles down the highway. This is mile zero of a historic winter trail that traverses a thousand miles across Alaska, all the way to the Bering Sea. The Iditarod Trail.

Once travelers head west from Knik Bar and Grill, there’s little civilization to be had in hundreds of miles. What exists hardly qualifies as civilization — shuttered summer cabins, a few fly-in lodges, and a handful of public safety shelters. One must cross an entire mountain range and nearly three hundred miles of ice and snow to reach the first village. By then travelers have entered the alternate universe that is The Bush, a place where residents tan pine marten pelts in their living rooms and drive snowmobiles through sixty-below blizzards to attend high school basketball games.

What lies beyond is makes Knik Bar so unsettling. Patrons can order a cheeseburger on a paper plate, guzzle Budweiser on tap, throw darts and play a round of pool. It’s all so commonplace, but as soon as they step outside in a swirl of wind-blown snow, this last tenuous connection to civilization ends. All that remains is a journey that is both perilous and frivolous, a journey with no external rewards, a journey that becomes a battle for survival … and that’s when things are going well. For those of us about to embark on this journey, the Knik Bar is a place to pick at a greasy mistake of a meal and sit in contemplative silence, wondering where exactly one’s life went wrong.

I keep coming back here. It’s as baffling to me now as it was the first time, ten years ago, when I gazed across this snow-covered lake toward a cluster of birch trees. I knew then, just as I know now, that beyond these trees are hundreds of barren and inhospitable miles. Then, just as now, terrible scenarios filled my imagination. I questioned whether I could accept the worst possibilities and surprised myself with a clear answer: Yes. I might die. That was okay by me.

Perhaps it was easier when I was twenty-eight years old, mortality was still a vague concept, and I was naive about nature’s brutality and dangerous depths of physical exhaustion. I had absolutely no idea what actually awaited beyond the far shoreline of Knik Lake. I was nervous, of course, but I was also young, headstrong and unwilling to quit something in which I’d invested so much. With providence on my side, I propelled body and bicycle more than 300 miles to the village of McGrath and finished my race — alive, astonishingly. I promised myself I wouldn’t return.

Of course I returned, just one year later. The year was 2009. I only made it as far as the first checkpoint. Twenty-five miles into the race, I punched through thin ice on a lake, soaked a leg and froze my right foot. I spent the next several months recovering from frostbite, and still cope with nerve damage I sustained in that incident. But I survived, relatively unscathed, so I considered it a valuable life lesson. I intended to never return.

Less than two years later, I met a man and dragged him into the strange world of winter endurance racing. He in turn dragged me back to the Iditarod Trail — not without reluctance on my part. Still, I was excited to experience the trail by his preferred mode of travel — walking, moving slowly and methodically, gazing skyward. We completed the race to McGrath together in 2014, sharing a beautiful and intimate experience that can never be repeated.

Still I kept coming back. In 2016, I returned with my bicycle and a tentative ambition to pedal all the way to Nome. In this race I was more successful than I imagined possible, setting a women’s record for the thousand-mile distance in seventeen days. By then I was in my late thirties, and life started to catch up with me. Fatigue clamped down, followed by a wave of chronic health issues including asthma and autoimmune thyroid disease. I stood in the shadows of my former vitality, scarred by years of striving, certain that endurance racing was to blame for this premature sense of old age. I was finally ready to admit my hubris, accept my fragile humanness, and walk away. But then I came back. Why?

My interest in athletics is as myopic as it is preposterous. I want to discover how far I can go. That’s about it. Speed and competition just don’t hold my interest the way distance does — and not just distance in physical miles, but distance into the abstract expanses of my mind. I want not only to explore landscapes, but to explore the outer limits of existence. I want to tip-toe beyond the fringes of the known world and peer into the abyss. I want to feel the ache of being, at that hard edge where mortal flesh meets the crushing indifference of the universe. I want to see the beauty of places so hostile that I must fight just to survive, and in turn learn to cherish the fragile gift of life. I want to release my soul to the wind and watch as everything I thought I knew about myself is torn to pieces. In this I hope to pick up the pieces and put them together, like a puzzle with endless possibilities. I was born into this world with a human body, and in my opinion it’s not a particularly great one, but it works well enough to propel me through a strange and mysterious universe. For this I’m grateful.

I started on the same track as many future endurance athletes — as a child humiliated on her elementary school playground. Even for a girl I was bad at sports. I still cringe at the memory of my second-grade class cackling after my pitched softball plopped into the grass two feet in front of me. In kickball classmates relegated me to far left field, where I never caught the ball. In sixth-grade gym I squirmed at the bottom of the climbing rope, never budging an inch. In seventh-grade tumbling I writhed around on the floor, unable to complete somersault. In eighth grade I failed the presidential fitness test because I could not run a mile in eleven minutes. It wasn’t for lack of trying. But thirteen years old and humiliated again, that became my final mile — the end of trying. After that, my interest in fitness only extended as far as the bare minimum it took to pass gym class. For my high school newspaper, I wrote an impassioned column listing reasons why structured exercise was a waste of time. Snowboarding, ska dancing, and thrashing around in mosh pits were the only workouts I’d ever need.

When I was fifteen, my dad invited me to join him on a hike up my first real peak, Mount Aire in Utah’s Wasatch Range. At first, the rewards of such strenuous effort eluded me. The climb was hot and painful, and the peak was rather underwhelming. I remember looking around at scrub brush dotting the summit and thinking, “It’s okay I guess. Maybe we’ll get ice cream when we’re done?” Dad was grinning as he handed me a bottle of warm Gatorade. I smiled back. My Dad was proud. Despite sunburned calves and blisters boiling up beneath my brand new leather hiking boots, a warm satisfaction settled over me. I was already looking forward to our next hike together. I blame Dad’s influence for a lot of what I’ve become, but nature runs deeper than nurture. I was doomed — or saved, depending on perspective — either way.

I am … well, who am I? My mother insists I haven’t changed much since I was a baby, but my identity always felt fluid. Like many girls, I tried on different versions of myself to see which one fit in. None quite did. Now, in 2018, I’m thirty-eight years old. My fair skin has been marked by years of desert and mountain sun, so I look my age. I have blue eyes and dirty blonde hair. With a little effort, I probably could have slipped into a conventional version of beauty, but never bothered. Awkward as a child, rebellious as a teenager, I never stopped feeling defiant toward the status quo. Money and power held little interest. Time is life’s only currency, and freedom is its most valuable reward. 

I come from a large Latter-day Saint family in Utah, with roots curling back to nineteenth-century pioneers. Since I’m white and American, the Mormons are the closest thing I have to an identifying culture. I’m proud of my pioneer ancestors. They packed up meager belongings in wooden carts and walked thousands of miles across the Great Plains. They did so on nothing more than faith — a conviction that God called upon them to uproot their lives, labor across the hostile wilderness, watch their sons drown during river crossings, watch babies and mothers die in childbirth, battle early winter storms, and often succumb to typhoid or diphtheria. They endured all of this so they could be free to openly practice their faith. My great-great-and-so-on-grandfather survived the arduous journey and helped found a town in northern Utah. It was hardscrabble place where winters were long and throttled with subzero cold, and summers were hot and dry. Generations of family members continued to work the land there. My great-grandmother resided in the same home until she died at 98, proudly remaining self-sufficient for nearly a century. My grandmother was born here as well, an eldest daughter who essentially raised her siblings while her parents worked long hours on the family farm. Hard labor was their way of life, and they championed work ethic and grit. This is my family’s legacy. I was doomed — or saved, depending on perspective — long before I was born.

A number of generations and 150 years removed from my Mormon pioneer ancestors, I’m still wandering across the wilderness. I don’t believe God called me to do this. I know there’s no new life waiting for me on the other side, nor do I believe there will be rewards in heaven. I only know that powering myself across Alaska is the most self-actualizing endeavor I’ve found, the most “me” thing I can do. Comfort, safety and the necessities of survival will always drive me back to civilization. But the edge of existence is the only place I break free of petty distractions and insecurities, and just live — pure, unhindered, and forever unresolved.

Once again I stood beside Knik Lake, squinting amid the glare of afternoon sunlight reflecting off snow-covered ice. Against the white backdrop was a flurry of colorful motion — eighty-something racers adjusting bags on their bicycles, strapping on skis, and maneuvering sleds around piles of snow. The race organizer had strung a black banner over the shoreline — fancier than the homemade version of 2008. Not much else about the Iditarod Trail Invitational had changed in ten years. Support is limited to infrequent meals and shelter at a handful of camps and villages. Participants are self-supported between these checkpoints, which necessitates carrying survival gear, food, water and supplies.

How much weight one carries is self-imposed, based on tolerance for risk. If you want to travel light, that’s your choice. If you want to wager that you won’t be caught out in an impenetrable storm without an extra coat, won’t panic about shivering in a thin emergency blanket because you miscalculated your energy and succumbed to fatigue, and feel confident that you won’t lose a mitten and frostbite your fingers because you don’t have spares, then you’re free to travel as light and swift as you’re capable. The race requires self-sufficiency and check-ins at six checkpoints. The rules end there. There will be no hand-holding through this race. If you make a choice, you better be prepared to live (or die) with it. In subzero temperatures and windstorms, or on thin ice over cold water, the gap between a small mistake and a fatal outcome can be measured in minutes. It is best to operate under the assumption that no one will come to save you, at least before it’s too late.

Due to my anxiety-prone personality, I fall well into the “heavyweight” end of the spectrum. I’d rather carry my fears in my sled than in my heart. If I didn’t have a security blanket to cling to for anticipated worst-case scenarios, I wouldn’t find the courage to cross Knik Lake, let alone persist for a thousand miles of frozen autonomy. This year I only pursued the 350-mile distance on foot, as opposed to the thousand-mile distance on a bike, which was my original ambition. Practicality pushed me back to the “short” race when my thyroid and lung health continued to falter, instilling little confidence in my fitness or stamina.

The most succinct way to explain my condition is that my body is strong but unreliable, like a sport utility vehicle with a clogged fuel line. There’s a chance my heart will start racing uncontrollably or I’ll sputter with breathing difficulty, and I can’t predict when this might happen, or how much it will limit my ability to keep moving.

Most people with health concerns would have the sense to stay home, find safer hobbies, and accept that aging hits us all — at least the lucky among us who don’t die young. The thought of confining myself to comfortable routine fills me with more anxiety than the dangers of frozen wilderness. I fear the mundane more than I fear the unknown. But I feel I can still mitigate risk with a sleeping bag rated to fifty below and an expedition down coat that will allow me to rest in almost any weather.

All of the gear and food piled in my sled probably weighed around fifty pounds. I’d refused to calculate the exact weight. I had no intention of minimizing my safety supplies, so I’d have to schlep it regardless of what it weighed. Best not to know the number, I figured. I even brought an emotional support animal: A plush toy Siberian husky named Bernadette. The sled balked as I dragged it toward the fancy black banner.

Beat, my partner of eight years, stood beside me with his even larger sled. He was again bound for Nome, his sixth attempt. Beat was already a prolific ultra runner when we met, but had no experience with cold or Alaska. After we started dating — prompting each other into increasingly grueling adventures disguised as “dates” — he raced his first winter ultra and I raced my first foot hundred-miler at the 2011 Susitna 100. We finished together, both shattered in our own ways. For Beat, the continuing story is a freight train of progress. He walked to McGrath through deep snow and intense cold in 2012, and has been bound for Nome every year since, with finishes in 2013, 2014 and 2016. I may have stood at this starting line first, but I was now the novice next to his knowledge and experience.

Unlike our magical week on the trail to McGrath in 2014, we did not intend to travel together this year. We both knew my fitness was far below his, and a plan to team up would force him to essentially take care of me in order to maintain the pace necessary to reach Nome before the thirty-day race cutoff. This sort of lopsided partnership was against the rules and, more importantly, against the spirit of the endeavor. The experience would have no value to me if I couldn’t be self-sufficient. As Beat adjusted his harness, I leaned in for a kiss. I expected it would be our last for a month.


The rest of "Meanwhile the world goes on" is available as an eBook on Amazon. A free Kindle app can be downloaded for reading on tablets, phones, and other devices.


  1. Your books cover photo is mesmerizing! Just downloaded a copy and look forward to reading it, and the real story of the experience you came away with, moving thru the trail as a backdrop. Finding meaning is always a anxious contemplation with no absolute answers. Imho.
    Best of luck on the trail!!

    Jeff C

  2. I'm looking forward to reading it! Best of luck out there--I will diligently be following dots over the next few weeks.


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