Thursday, May 21, 2020

In the heat of the summer

 Does anybody else look back on their final week before lockdown with the same incredulous fascination usually reserved for odd dreams? I find myself ruminating on those days in Anchorage, Alaska, back when the air was still sharp and the streets were lined with five-foot walls of snow. My body was so depleted from 10 days on the Iditarod Trail that it felt like something that didn't quite belong to me, a leaden suit that I hauled around while listlessly pacing the sidewalk outside my hotel room and imagining I was still walking to Nome. Gratefully, friends swept me away from a descent into self-pity. We went shopping for herbal adrenal boosters and fancy chocolate. We rode bikes amid the surreal ice sculptures of Knik Glacier. We crammed into a crowded brewpub. Our shoulders and backs were literally pressed against the shoulders and backs of strangers. I ordered an ahi tuna salad drenched in wasabi dressing, marveling at these incredible textures and flavors after days of frozen nuts and dried fruit. I remember a sign advertising a big St. Patricks Day celebration, and already doubting that it could happen. Employees were disinfecting the door handles when we walked together into a crowded restroom to vigorously wash our hands. I wondered aloud if restaurants might close, and one friend assured us that it couldn't happen. That was Friday the 13th, in the month of March 2020.  It was the last day, for me, before this dream world came to a halt.

Now we're facing down the long summer and a lurch toward a new normal that no one can predict. What it will even look like is anyone's guess. Like most people, I fluctuate between dread and flickers of optimism. I've settled into acceptance about living with the threat of a virus that no one understands. Now it's economic news that seems to spark my anxiety more. I can only see it through the lens of my personal experiences. I watched the 2008 recession drive deep cracks into the already-fragile newspaper industry, and that's ultimately what drove me toward the "side-hustle" side of journalism. Then the "side-hustle" side seemed to take over the industry. Content became a free-for-all, information became opportunistic and fractured, and the "fake news" era brought us to the point where we are now — an entire population unable to parse truth from fiction, drifting aimlessly through a "choose-your-own-reality" culture. What will this mean for life amid the threat of a virus that no one understands? How will it affect our ability to come together for the vast amount of rebuilding and restructuring that must happen? Nothing seems good.

One thing that seems certain to me, is that life isn't going back to the way it was before March 13. So much is still unknown, of course. Maybe the feared second wave will never come. We're still close enough to the before-times that perhaps we'll recapture a lot of it. Many people seem to feel this way, judging by all of the races that have been rescheduled for autumn, and the trips people are rebooking for 2021. But a lot of restaurants and retailers are closing up for good. I can't imagine a world where most people are going to cram shoulder-to-shoulder into brewpubs anytime soon, regardless of government policy. I am starting to think I may never return to a gym, so I'm about to cancel my membership. I feel bad about this — my gym is independently and locally owned by a nice couple. But my side-hustles have been trimmed, and I can't afford to support unviable business models indefinitely.

A few days ago, Beat joked with me about starting a YouTube channel and gave suggestions for potentially viral and thus income-generating content. I felt a flare of anger that surprised me, and snapped that I'd rather stock shelves in a grocery store. Later I pondered why his comment riled me up so much. I was one of those lucky recession kids to graduate into the dot-com bust of 2000. For my entire career, I have watched the ongoing devaluation of my chosen passion happen in real time. Now storytellers need the eyes of millions just to make a few dollars. It's not just journalism. Almost every aspect of writing and publishing has been devalued. Many are wondering if anyone will still buy books or magazines, or if this era will deal a similar blow to all paid-for content as 2008 did to newspapers. I fear this devaluation will come to many industries, and it creates a scary vision of the future. What will still have worth, at the end of this?

 I write this out to make sense of my generalized anxiety, which still ebbs and flows, but which I hope to combat more directly. I know the best thing I can do is spend my time on things that have meaning — and meaning is such a personalized thing; I'm not even sure what exactly has meaning to me. With fewer ideas in the face of so much uncertainty, I've been spending my writing time working on old projects, trying to give some shape to nebulous ideas, and also relive past adventures. But who even wants to read about any of this? And is there any point in writing if there are no readers? Or is the act of recording ideas and moments in time enough to be meaningful? I ponder this when I'm out on a run, still going through the motions of training ... but for what? And why? Right now, I'm not sure.

 Really, it's still about the same things it has always been about — freedom and solitude, moments of awe, and being alive in the world. Our 28-mile run a couple of Sundays ago left me a bit downtrodden, but I went out anyway, plodding slowly and well behind Beat. My Garmin watch rated these training sessions as "unproductive" and outright scolded me for needing more recovery. Staying home is more justified than ever, and it would have been wise to just take a few rest days. But I felt angry that even Garmin wanted to keep me cloistered.

That Friday, I had chores to do in town and a forecast for cool and rainy weather that would be unpleasant for many activities — except for finding relative solitude on a popular trail. Climbing Bear Peak from the Cragmoor trailhead was my first-ever Boulder adventure back in 2015, and it's still a favorite for pushing limits. There's a nice 1.5-mile warm-up to the one-mile, 2,000-foot climb up Fern Canyon, where I gunned it about as hard as I'm capable right now. Head sweat and rain both pelted my arms as I marched, still unable to hit my "max," but maintaining a solid tempo heart rate all the same. In this I managed my fastest-yet Cragmoor segment, and third-fastest Fern. Take that, Garmin! I celebrated by tagging South Boulder Peak and looping back through Shadow Canyon, seeing surprisingly few others on all of these normally crowded trails. Even my watch conceded that this training session was "productive."

 Our big adventure for the weekend was a 63-mile ride with close to 9,000 feet of climbing. Another one of the decidedly privileged issues I've been struggling with recently is the "sameness" of our outdoor activities. I recognize that by almost any standard, there is plenty of novelty in my lifestyle. I've been working on cultivating better appreciation and new discoveries in my surroundings. When I was training for the Iditarod, I had no problems dragging a 90-pound cart up and down my home road, week after week. I enjoyed this monotonous grind, relished in it even, because it had purpose. I've been looking for a similar sense of purpose in my current day-to-day, but enlightenment hasn't quite come, yet. I still need to appease a gnawing desire for longer and higher, the new and undiscovered, or at least revisit a place I haven't seen in a while.

 Saturday was a rest day. Like most rest days, I was almost incurably grumpy by evening. These mood swings have become more difficult to avoid. Even my therapist thinks that I should make an effort to go outside at least once every day, even if it's just to go for a walk or sit by our goldfish pond. It's all part of working toward the enlightenment that I'm still far from achieving. I've been pursuing races and goals for so long that I'd almost forgotten they were always the means, not the end. Racing is a great excuse to train, but the point has always been to spend as much time moving through the outdoors, exploring mind and body and the vast world beyond my front door. Predictably, by the time we got rolling on Sunday, I was about as content as I could be, just spinning and breathing and watching the world go by.

This route has a lot of bang for its buck — useful for generating inspiration and energy for another long week ahead. The temperature was nice and there was barely a breeze out of the west. I fell behind on food and water, then faltered on the steep climb up Logan Mill and Escape Route. But refueling generated a second wind, and I felt refreshingly strong pedaling up the final 2,000-foot ascent even as Beat began to flag. I may still be searching to find a purpose for these day-to-day adventures, but I can immediately enjoy the rewards.

This week, things got hard again. Summer hit the Front Range like the early arrival of a freight train. The wind and heat have been relentless. Boulder had its first 90-degree days, which okay, I can live with that. But that wind. When I hear it raging, all I can think about are these green hillsides that will soon be brown, and those clear blue skies that will soon be filled with smoke. I dread the upcoming fire season, now that the mountains are nearly snow-free and the heat is cranking early. I fear another summer like 2018, when the air was often so smoky that it became difficult to exert myself outside. And right now, living with this virus that nobody understands, I want to be extra conservative with my lungs and immune system. Summer, with all of its airborne particulates, may be the hazard that forces me into the grumpy purgatory of cloistering indoors.

On Wednesday, I had several unsavory chores to complete including allergy shots, so I thought I'd treat myself to a "new-new" adventure. I brought my road bike, originally thinking I'd check out Lookout Mountain in Golden. The backstory is that several of my friends are attempting to "Everest" this weekend, meaning they will attempt to climb 29,029 vertical feet in a series of nonstop cycling intervals. They're doing it as part of an organized charity event, and I admit to harboring supreme FOMO curiosity. However, my current limited bike fitness, lingering physical and mental fatigue following the Iditarod, and unwillingness to weaken my immune system with such a taxing effort means I won't be attempting such a thing this weekend. Someday, though, it seems like an intriguing challenge. I crunched the numbers of several nearby climbs, and decided that Lookout Mountain is probably the best candidate for an Everest. It climbs 1,200 feet in 4.5 miles on a 5-6 percent grade, so it's efficient but not stressfully steep, and the distance allows ideal intervals between exertion and breaks. It's lower altitude (for Colorado), and I've heard traffic can be not-too-annoying on weekdays, although in the current times, I have my doubts. That's the problem with Everesting on a bicycle. Gravel routes require more energy, but paved routes require dealing with traffic day and night. The more I thought about it, the more I decided I wouldn't try this ever. So I abandoned my Lookout Mountain scouting trip and headed for something longer and higher — Golden Gate Canyon.

That's the short-story-long about how I ended up in Golden on a scorching afternoon, sitting in my car and reminding myself I didn't *have* to do this. Beat had just texted me about 50mph gusts in the foothills near our house. Down in Golden, the south wind was so strong that it rocked my car as I changed into bike shorts and a jersey, with arm sleeves to protect my sensitive skin from UV rays. Outside, the temperature was 88 degrees. I had one bottle of spiced apple cider-flavored Skratch sports drink that I had forgotten to throw in the freezer. When I sipped it, it had the exact temperature and taste as hot apple cider. Nice when it's 40 below in March. Not so nice when it's 130 degrees warmer in May. I strongly didn't want to do this ride, but I'd driven myself all the way out here, and anyway this is the one day of the week I really get "out." So I straddled the bike and churned into that impossible headwind, before turning into the canyon where it became an even more perilous swirling crosswind. Gusts frequently threw me off my line. To make matters worse, the canyon road had no shoulder and was much busier than I anticipated. Handling the bike amid these gusts and road hazards was tricky enough that I had to stop and throw a foot down each time I wanted to take a sip from my bottle of unpalatable hot apple cider. With each stop I was tempted to turn around. But this was a "goal" and it was "new," so I stuck with it.

Finally, about nine miles into the route, while nearing a short gravel segment I needed to ride to complete my loop, I started to feel better. Traffic was much lighter, and it was a scenic canyon with gently rolling hills and pine groves. Temperatures were a little friendlier at this higher altitude, but the wind was cranking higher than ever. As I neared the crest of a hill, a gust finally pushed me all the way off the road, and I toppled into a fence. "Okay, that's enough biking for today," I thought, and turned around right there.

Then, as I battled those gusts along the precarious descent, I thought, "that's probably enough road biking for this year."

Summer is coming. With summer come the crowds. As with all things,  it's anyone's guess what this summer will look like. But I know that each spring, I rediscover a love for road biking — the freedom and zeal of moving quickly along a smooth, flowing surface. And each spring, after a few rides, I remember how much I dislike riding in traffic.

I'll probably give road biking more chances. But I don't think I'll plan a Lookout Mountain Everest attempt. I miss having goals, but that isn't the right goal, right now.

In the meantime, I'll continue to miss Alaska, and winter, and restaurants. And I'll continue working toward necessary enlightenment, that the here and now is all there is, and it's enough. 

7 comments:

  1. We just had phase 1 and the restaurant is packed. In the grocery store there was only one other person in a mask. It is the strangest feeling, as if I've woken from a dream. I honestly don't know what people are thinking. I did go to the gym though. I was the only person in there, so there is that. I feel too bad for the owner to quit and I don't have the room or money for a home gym anyway.

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  2. We need blogs like this right now...if that's any consolation. I know it doesn't "Pay," but we really do appreciate your writing. Maybe you could add a "Tip Jar." Just a thought...you have a devoted following.
    Box Canyon Mark...Hiking the Hell out of Lovely Ouray.

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  3. Just finished BE BRAVE BE STRONG. I like your style.

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  4. This is one of your best blog posts in my opinion. So perfectly said, about life and about the news biz.

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  5. You put into words so well what I think so many of us are feeling at these uncertain times. Thank you.

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  6. We are all figuring this out the best we can. I too am one of the over cautious ....I wear my masks....I social distance...I stay home almost all the time unless I take the desert trails right outside our front door. But sometimes I wonder why. The key for me is to constantly remind myself of all the things I feel grateful for and when I count them there is a lot!
    But sometimes I wonder why and then remember that I still have things I want to do in life and a little while more

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  7. As an editor for 26 years I know what you mean about the publishing business. We have been slowly moving to digital for several years now, and dealing with videos instead of actual books is not very interesting to me. I will always buy books! If you need some fun goals and want to stay off pavement, check out Ted King's DIY Gravel virtual race series. He's still doing his gravel races and you can sign up and do the same distances of the races. I should be doing Dirty Kanza 200 this coming weekend but am opting for the 100 mile version here in Indiana instead. Not nearly as fun as being in the Flint Hills of Kansas with gravel friends but it's getting me outside with a goal. Hang in there!

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Feedback is always appreciated!