Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Every day is like Sunday

In one of the better exchanges on my recent social media feeds, someone made a common observation that life in the spring of 2020 is a lot like the film "Groundhog Day." She was trying to remember how exactly it was that Bill Murray extracted himself from the purgatory of reliving the same day for eternity.

"He got out when he decided to stop being a selfish asshole and help others," was one response.

I was tempted to post the photo of that lockdown protester's painted windshield sign — "Your health is not more important than my liberties" — with my own response: "Then we're doomed."

I did not post this. I try to keep a lid on my cynicism about American culture, that our toxic combination of individualism, exceptionalism and division means we're going to weather a long and painful storm, and there's not a lot any of us can do about it. We donate to local causes while lamenting our loss of income amid a simultaneously fractured and flooded freelance economy. We try to "stay productive" while questioning if anything we do has any meaning. We try to connect with people but feel a strangeness about watching life happen behind a screen. We're grateful for safe spaces, but we also feel smothered by limitations. We're anxious about the disruptions, but also hungry for more lasting change.

It's a mess. I am braced for many more months of this storm. Something that drove it home this week was an expectation that most Google employees will keep working from home for the remainder of the year ... at least seven more months of the current routine. This brought a visceral flashback of being 16 years old, grounded to my bedroom for "sluffing" (skipping school), lying on the floor and listening to Morrissey sing about a coastal town so forlorn that only a nuclear bomb could jolt it from its stupor. My teenage mind embraced this as an anthem for the paradox of life: Expansive imagination, limited freedom.

"Every day is like Sunday. Every day is silent and gray."

Memories of this scene sparked a smile about all of the layers of relevance. If we (I) continue to act like a grounded teenager, we're just going to keep spinning our wheels, never getting anywhere. I recognized this attitude in myself this week when I felt overly exuberant every time I let myself out. The outdoors have become my personal shelter from the storm. Now more than ever, I need this break from my wild imagination and runaway ruminations. Seeking respite in anything, whether it's Morrissey or long bike rides, is briefly satisfying. But in the quieter hours, when despondency creeps closer to the surface, I realize I need to work toward a better balance.

All of this is a long way of saying that I enjoyed my physical activities but struggled with most everything else this week, which I suspect is the case with a lot of folks right now. My inner teenager is telling me the answer is "MOAR RUNNING" and I admit to giving in to these urges. It sure beats writing bad poetry, which I'll also admit that 40-year-old me is dangerously close to trying.

My stats for this past week ended up similar to the week before: 20 hours, 40 miles on foot, 90 miles on a bike, boatloads (20,000 feet) of climbing, but with two rest days to break it up nicely enough that I didn't feel physical effects until Monday, with similar complaints (Achilles tendon tightness, stiff calf muscles and some residual allergy symptoms.) Every May, as summer closes in, I go through a sort of seasonal mood slump that resembles what a lot of people experience in early winter. The allergy flare-ups, fierce solar glare and lip sunburns serve as a reminder that outside is becoming a less hospitable place. I know this sounds insane to sun-lovers. We all have our challenges.

May in Colorado usually provides some respite to smooth the transition. After a particularly wintry April, this May has been mostly a bust on the snow front. Disappointing. We did receive a dusting and temperatures in the high-20s on Friday morning, which just happened to the morning I planned an ambitious road bike ride. Unwilling to be deterred by winter weather on the one morning I wouldn't have wished for it, I just stuffed a few more layers in spare pockets and kept an eye out for black ice. It was a lovely misty morning and I felt fantastic, zipping up Lefthand Canyon and enjoying being the only cyclist on the road. Amid the brisk pace I simultaneously sweated and shivered for most of the climb. The sun came out just in time to melt the road ice for a long descent along Peak to Peak Highway and St. Vrain Canyon. The amazing effect of this route is that the 20-mile climb is not all that hard, and yet it affords a nearly uninterrupted 30-mile descent. It's an incredible ride beside sheer rock cliffs and a roiling whitewater creek, as thrilling as any amusement park rollercoaster, in my opinion. The only payment for such fun day out is the 12-mile grind from Lyons to Boulder on Highway 36, which on this day was a particularly hard slog into a rare southeasterly gale.

 My other notable outing this week was a long run with Beat on Sunday. He put together a route to leave from home and link the far-flung peaks of Twin Sisters and South Boulder in a perfect loop, with only two short out-and-back spurs to tag the peaks themselves. It was a rugged route with a lot of rocky trails and some overland 'shwhacking, demanding 8,000 feet of climbing in 28 miles (and 8,000 feet of descent, which on foot demands a whole lot of effort, unlike descending St. Vrain Canyon on a road bike.) I guessed it would take us nine hours to complete, and temperatures weren't supposed to climb much out of the 40s with a potential for afternoon rain. Still, my brain has shifted to summer mode. I packed a small hydration vest with two 16-ounce bottles of frozen-solid electrolyte drink, two liters of ice water, a water filter, a tiny 3-ounce wind jacket, thin gloves, thin beanie, and various electronics. The night before, I pre-packed each side pocket with an assortment of snacks, but then emptied one of the pockets to make room for my phone in the morning. I never re-packed these snacks or my phone. Subsequently, I had to appeal to Beat to let me carry his phone (I'm not sure I could mentally endure a nine-hour run without a camera.) I also realized that I was going to have to ration my food.

 We made our way around the backside of Twin Peaks and summited around mile 10. This photo shows our destination for many hours later, the two peaks in the middle — South Boulder on the right and Bear on the left. To get there, we would descend Eldorado Canyon (notch to the right) nearly all the way to the valley floor, then ascend 3,000 feet to the peak with close to a marathon on our legs already. Good fun!

 While scoping out satellite images, Beat discovered a faint old jeep track through Walker Ranch that might allow us to bypass paved road running altogether. I dislike 'shwhacking, especially during green-up season, but I was open to trying something new. The faint track quickly petered out, but the initial overland hiking through the old burn was easy enough. Then we started to descend into a gully. We crossed a small creek and ended up in a tangle of thorny brush and stacks of deadfall, and I was quick to lose my patience. Beat wanted to hike right of that rocky outcropping in the center of this photo, but having observed the hillside while taking the photo, I thought left looked far easier. He relented, we went left, and it wasn't all that bad. We spent close to 45 minutes hacking out this "shortcut" to avoid 1.5 miles of paved road running. Was it worth it? Yeah, it was probably worth it.

Beat has also recently discovered alternative trails around parts of the Walker Ranch loop, so we were able to get through much of this section while avoiding crowds.

 Descending toward a raging South Boulder Creek. Now about 19 miles into this route, I was beginning to feel bonked and particularly wobble-legged here. My inventory of remaining snacks, which I had rationed well so far, was one package of peanut M&Ms, one small package of fruit snacks, and half of a ham sandwich. I had hoped to save the fruit snacks for last, but faltered enough on the climb out of the canyon that I popped them like energy pills, in two big gulps.

This is the start of the long, rolling and bouldery descent into Eldorado Canyon. I was listening to the audiobook for "Labryinth of Ice," a gripping account of the Greeley Polar Expedition of 1881-1883. I had reached the chapters where the men, with food stores dwindling and a third winter closing in, staged an escape with small boats and sledges. The crumbling shelf ice swallows most of their gear, and they ultimately end up riding an ice floe to the northern coast of Greenland. There they build huts out of stone and moss, and attempt to hunt seal and walrus in anticipation of hunkering down for the entire Arctic winter.

As Beat and I loped easily if wobble-leggedly down the canyon, I contemplated this scenario — wiling away months of darkness and unfathomable cold in a seal-skin sleeping bag, moving as little as possible to conserve energy. I reflected on the last night of my last adventure, with its hours of 40 below and deep snow in the hills outside McGrath. It's difficult to understand the oppression of 40 below until you've experienced it. You're surrounded by a world capable of freezing flesh in a matter of minutes, and your only protection is a bubble of artificial insulation and the energy you burn to generate heat. As energy levels diminish, it feels like this sinister world is closing in on you. You understand fully just how fragile you are, and just how indifferent the world is to your needs. When I awoke to those crushing temperatures outside my sleeping bag in March, I swore I'd never take my warm bed for granted again. Only two months have passed, and that perspective is already fading.

Here in the present, on a cool but cloudless Sunday in Eldorado State Park, we encountered a crush of weekend crowds. We'd expected this. We've done well to avoid these popular spots. But after two months, and with no end in sight, we decided we were tired of staying away from our favorite trails just because they're crowded. I descended carefully with my buff pulled over my face. I thought I was ready to face the crowds, but it was disheartening to see just how little a seeming majority of people appear to care about anything. Maybe 1 in 20 were wearing face coverings, and people who were clearly not related to one another were crowding switchbacks in large groups, blocking passage in a way that required either sketchy off-trail scrambling, or simply busting straight through the crowd.

It's frustrating. Covering our faces in public and limiting social contact with people outside our households seem like simple acts that nearly everyone can accomplish. Common sense plainly shows how such distancing and blocking can reduce the exchange of respiratory droplets. That so few seem willing to do so, and then accuse those who do of blindly following politics, is baffling. I feel like grumbling, "This is the way biology works, people. It doesn't care about our affiliations." But this is the way things are, so we won't be returning to Eldo anytime soon. Shame. It's such a lovely place.

 We climbed out of Eldo through the greenest field I've yet seen. We live at 7,200 feet, and staying at home means I haven't spent much time at lower altitudes. It was lovely to see a place where spring is in full swing. Pasqueflowers were in full bloom, and cute little yellow blooms were popping up across the hillside. Unfortunately, there is something here that ignites my allergies, and my airways tightened as I climbed. Also unfortunately, my multiple switches from cycling to running packs this week resulted in accidentally leaving my inhaler at home. I had to deal with low-level asthma symptoms and breathing difficulties for much of the long climb up Shadow Canyon. Limited oxygen on top of low glycogen made for a hard battle up those final 3,000 feet of ascent.

 I was stoked to finally make it to the top of South Boulder Peak, a place that had looked so far in the distance just a few hours earlier. A day of exploring new trails with Beat, standing at the top of mountains, listening to a fantastic audiobook while reflecting on Alaska experiences, and drawing inspiration for our current challenges, all within the vicinity of home, made for a gratifying day.

Looking back at South Boulder Peak from the summit of Bear, which we hit for good measure before wrapping up the 28-mile loop. This was a great Sunday, and I wish every day could be like this Sunday. But when a tight Achilles tendon and creeping fatigue demanded a rest day on Monday, I all too quickly fell back into dark ruminations and moodiness. Striking a balance seems increasingly difficult right now, but I think I can take a lesson from "Groundhog Day" and the importance of finding ways to be both productive and helpful. It's difficult, because in other ways, our current plight feels similar to that of the forlorn Arctic explorers in the Greeley expedition, piecing together moss and stone huts as meager shelter from a brutal winter. And yet they must have survived, because somebody went on to share their story. I'll have to plan another long run so I can listen to the rest of the book and find out what happened. 

8 comments:

  1. During these times I think of Peter Gabriel song "I Have The Touch" as a metaphor for contiguity. I remember that being driven home to me by Rocky, my German Shepherd. ....he always was anxious and always on the wrong side of the door :).

    Jeff C

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    1. I looked up the lyrics. We humans are an odd species, aren't we? As someone who has spent a lot of time seeking solitude in vast, empty, inhospitable-to-human-life spaces, and who also greatly misses crowded coffee shops, I both don't understand and relate entirely.

      I can relate to your German Shepherd as well. I don't necessarily like this aspect of my personality, but at all times, I'm only interested in what lies on the other side of the door.

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    2. The "door of the unknown" is a sweet siren call :). Over time I've accepted my asymmetry, give thanks for my place in life each day but let the draw of new horizons fill my mind. Wither it's doing some project on my property or traveling across the country there is mystery and wonder no matter where I look and always a trail I will never find the end of.

      Jeff C

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  2. I am always puzzled by the Groundhog day reference because my experience is so different. Then again I have been living in an isolated area for years and working from home. So things haven't changed that much. Except for work travel.. I'm supposed to be in Puerto Rico right now. Sometimes I wish I had a partner who pushed me a bit more in my activities...you guys really get after it and it can be hard to motivate to do really long stuff on my own at times.

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    1. My situation is similar to yours, but I have felt a lot more sameness in the days. A common observation that drives this home is the way most people feel March was about 98 days long, while April was gone in 4 days. I also can't believe it's already the middle of May. Routines are becoming entrenched and there's not a lot to break them up, so time is just slipping away.

      I also miss travel. For most of my adult life, I've always held some upcoming adventure or new experience to look forward to. Right now I don't have that, and it's strange. All of our summer plans have been cancelled. I'm not even sure when I'll feel comfortable driving to Utah to visit my parents. I am working on better appreciating my immediate surroundings, and know I have a lot to appreciate. But I'm still one of those people always looking toward the horizon.

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  3. I'm still amazed when I see people who either "just don't get it" or simply "just don't care". Standing in line to get into Costco last Saturday the lady behind us moved right up behind us, mask in hand. My wife turned around and loudly said "you are WAY too close, please back up some!". I was anticipating she would tell her to...well, you know...but she didn't say anything and backed up. One of the things that keeps me awake at night is what we are doing to our economy (and the future generations that will also be dealing with what we've done. For one thing...this Covid relief money Congress gave to everybody based on income, don't really understand that. If you are still working your job, then you shouldn't get any of that...it should only be for the Covid Unemployed (IMO). Congress has spend what, 4 TRILLION $ and counting now? Here's the part that boggles my mind...what exactly a Trillion is...I saw one guy really put it in perspective. Think of the Trillion in terms of seconds. Set your time machine and go back in time first to 1 million seconds...that takes you back 11 days. Next set it for 1 Billion seconds...you are now in 1988. And finally, set it for 1 Trillion seconds...you are now in 30,000BC! And we just spend FOUR TRILLION $ that we don't even have! And we are NOWHERE NEAR out of this! How can we EVER pay off our national debt (deficit)?? I don't think it can be done...and the entire world is following. I'm very afraid of what comes after this is all over...crazy new tax rates, huge budget cuts, what else? I'm very afraid we are going to be paying dearly for this for the rest of our lives, and our kids lives, and probably beyond that. How does the world recover from this?

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    1. I'm with you on all accounts. The economic costs are staggering. It brings to mind a graphic I saw of a diver swimming away from a shark called "COVID-19," which in turn is being chased by a larger shark called "Economic Disaster," which in turn is being chased by an enormous shark called "Climate Disaster."

      I fear there are no good answers for any of this. Certainly no easy solutions. But I do believe strongly that are only hope is to come together as communities and a country to prop each other up. The division is something I fear most of all. It brings to mind two divers swimming away from the shark, but instead of helping each other swim faster, they're battling one another for the other's oxygen tank. But all we can do as individuals is keep swimming, and in turn try to help those around us swim too.

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  4. I'm easily amused, but I love your shots that include the red Fountain Formation (the Flatirons, etc.), my favorite rock, the detritus from the Ancestral Rockies. I love its varying shades and textures, the wild colored lichen, the streaks of desert varnish, the embedded pebbles and cobbles, spent many an hour hanging from it by my fingernails.

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Feedback is always appreciated!