Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Faith in geography

A blister finally formed over my lower lip. This has been a painful rite of passage every spring —one that I do my best to ward off, to no avail. People whose skin can tolerate the sun just don't understand; prevention efforts are futile. I can apply lip sunscreen every time I take a sip of water; the high-altitude UV will still win. I've become that middle-aged lady who wears dorky arm *and* leg sleeves on bike rides, slathers on SPF50 to go for a run even if it is actively raining, wore a buff around my neck well before the pandemic for the sole purpose of protecting my neck, and is one REI visit away from owning one of those full-brim hiking hats that I hate for the way they obstruct vision and flap in the wind, but I'm running out of options. Still, none of these things can save my lips. Even surfer sunblock won't withstand a relentless urge to wipe away lip snot, and then I just end up with white or blue goop smeared on everything. No, the sun has won. Now I look forward to a couple more months of breaking into tears every time I raise a balsamic vinegar-soaked lettuce leaf to my mouth. 

I struggle with summer. Can you tell? It is my S.A.D. season for the heat and bug bites and pollen-choked air, for the hard sun and surging crowds, for the unpredictable threats of lightning and hail. This summer feels particularly sinister as it moves toward more extreme weather and a potentially bad wildfire season, and, oh yeah, one almost forgets that still lurking everywhere is a deadly virus about which little is understood, except for that it appears to be coming for us all and we've collectively decided to just get on with it. But getting on with it doesn't mean that life will go back to normal or that we can start traveling or running races again. It just means that we decide what line of magical thinking to adopt while a rampant and little-understood virus does the actual work of getting on with it. The future is nothing if not uncertain. May the odds be ever in your favor.

Okay, now I feel better having written away some of my bad mood. Honestly, I don't know why I'm so grumpy on a Tuesday evening. I'm heartened by recent societal developments, even if they are droplets of rain over the dumpster fire that's consuming 2020. But I've also improved on my resolution to spend less time scrolling through Twitter and stewing over news articles. And personally, I had a great week. I enjoyed my first social outing since March, my first overnight camping trip of summer, more ventures into the high country, and a hike above that soaringly magical 4,000-meter mark. Also, it snowed. It happened a week ago and was only the lightest of dustings. But it gifted me with a 37-degree morning in June, and for that my lips were grateful.

Amid work deadlines, I was able to get out for a quick morning jaunt to South Boulder Peak, where I could see snow frosting the ridge. It was disappearing fast despite temperatures in the 30s, with the warm ground and a misty rain to speed the melt.

 Recently my fitness has been on a bit of a downswing. I suspect high pollen season still affects my airways, and I can't boost my heart rate nearly as high as usual before heavy breathing and lightheadedness slows me down. The inhaler helps some, but what helps even more is a 37-degree morning with a dusting of snow to clear the air. I felt amazing, charging up the west ridge of Bear with lungs full of oxygen. I figured my fast pace would give me enough time to scoot over to South Boulder Peak before I needed to get back to work.

 Snowline was still clearly visible from the top of SoBo. It crept down to about 8,000 feet, the closest I've seen yet to a June winter storm hitting home. If anything this wisp of cold weather was probably just a harbinger for a particularly hot summer to come, but it was a welcome respite all the same.

For the rest of the week, I sought respite in altitude. On Wednesday I took my road bike to Brainard Lake, again. Tuesday's cold front lingered as a harsh breeze swept down Lefthand Canyon. I was simultaneously annoyed that I had to pedal so hard against a headwind and relieved that the late-morning air felt downright cold. I even wore a jacket. On Thursday evening, Beat and I set out to run the loop around Walker Ranch, and were shocked to find quiet trails. The weather was perfect, but perhaps just cool and breezy enough to deter the now almost constant crowds. Solitude in the Colorado frontcountry is a rare treat these days.

 On Friday, for the first time since March, I met up with friends for a social bike ride. Betsy invited me and Cheryl to join her on an overnight camping trip on Boreas Pass. The whole thing felt so novel — seeing people I know in real life, sharing real conversation, all while embarking on a journey to a far-away place. Even a hundred miles from home feels far away these days.

We met at a parking lot off I-70 in Frisco, and made quick work of the bike path into Breckenridge before continuing toward Boreas Pass. This route is all part of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, and I carry mixed feelings about this section in particular. The Frisco parking lot where we started pedaling is just a few blocks from the house where I officially quit the Tour Divide in 2015. I was so sick and so disappointed; I can still feel these emotions viscerally when I ride through the streets of Frisco. Occasionally, I'll reflect on how I stomped all over my good memories of the Tour Divide when I became too ambitious about the endeavor, and wonder if I've done the same with the Iditarod. After all, despite all of the real-world problems happening everywhere, I admit I'm still preoccupied with ruminations about my 2020 race. Approaching Boreas Pass brought a host of conflicting emotions. This isn't to say I wasn't excited to be out for a little adventure, riding in the mountain sunshine with friends. I only mean that life is a spectrum of experience, and the memories that remain will inevitably cast shadows over the present.

 Boreas Pass — the first GDMBR pass I failed to reach in 2015, and a big goal should I ever return to ride the full route from Canada. It's fitting that I still have the same bike and all of the same bikepacking bags. Cheryl teased me about the grimy state of my stuff, but the bike is in better shape than it has been in years. Beat has been on a kick to upgrade all of our bikes, and I'm enjoying a new fork, new headset, new grips, and a snazzy titanium seatpost. Beat even replaced the warped brake rotors that I rode all of last summer, until I just learned to live with constant squealing. He replaced the kinked cable housing that was causing the chain to drop off the cassette every time I tried to crank up a steep hill. He also freed a loose bolt that had mysteriously found its way into the handlebars, and had been rattling around for months. My bike maintenance is atrocious, but Mootsy has been well-loved.

 Fittingly, while we were snacking and chatting near the old railroad depot, we ran into Bonnie, who is perhaps the Tour Divide's most prominent advocate. Friday also happened to be the day that the 2020 Tour Divide was set to start in Banff, before the event was effectively canceled by Canada border closures and individual state limitations. Bonnie wanted to celebrate the date, so she planned her own ride to Boreas Pass. She recently moved to Boulder, fulfilling a longtime dream to live in Colorado. Although we've been virtually connected for years and now live in the same zip code, we had yet to meet in person. I was a bit muddled and socially awkward after months of relative isolation, but it was fun to chat with her in person, finally. She took this photo of me, Betsy, and Cheryl, but I failed to get one with her in it.

 Betsy planned the route to fulfill the requirements for a virtual 70-mile gravel race she was aiming to complete. It was 90 miles in total, and she had to ride 70 on the first day. After cresting and descending Boreas Pass, we headed out for a 25-mile bonus loop through South Park. I was unenthused about this part of the ride, as I've only experienced terrible weather — smoke, hail, wind, or all of the above — in this open basin with nowhere to hide. Indeed, as soon as we crossed Highway 285, we were blasted by a strong west wind and sideways rain.

 But, as summer weather does, the storm cleared out in less than an hour. The loop turned out to be a pleasant tour through rolling grasslands with big views all around us. I do love a good swath of wide-open space.

 We returned through Como, where an older man and his wife pulled up in a truck and told me we couldn't ride our bikes to Boreas Pass because the road was closed and "it's against the law." He claimed to work for the sheriff's department and kept repeating this, suggesting that we instead make a death-defying shalom run through weekend traffic on Highway 285 and Highway 9. I'd rather take my chances with Park County jail than ride those highways at dusk, and was about to say as much when Betsy pulled up and authoritatively stated that she was certain the road was open to nonmotorized use. The man finally got tired of arguing and pulled away, probably to call the county sheriff. I pondered what it is about human nature that makes some people so determined to ruin a stranger's day.

We raced to leave Como and return to welcome solitude behind the closed gate. The final ten miles were a grind on loose gravel up an interminable railroad grade — perfect for quiet meditation. Near the pass, I stopped to filter water trickling away from a snowfield, as fresh and cold as water comes. Betsy rolled up to complete her 70-mile virtual race, smiling wide on her loaded fat bike.

 We descended about a mile find camp, which we set up in the forest near a precipitous dropoff toward Indiana Creek. We pitched our three tents well away from each other and sat in a socially distanced circle to cook and eat dinner. I filled my entire cooking pot with hot tea and sipped as we chatted well into the dark hours, mostly about dreams of future adventures. The night was bizarrely warm at 11,200 feet, but the altitude robbed us of a good night's sleep. I was about a half-hour away from giving up and going for a 4 a.m. hike up Boreas Mountain when I finally dozed off. Betsy needed to be back by noon the following day, so in the morning we pack up and coasted the 20 miles back to Frisco, wrapping up the entire trip in fewer than 24 hours. It was a brief but much-appreciated excursion.

 On Sunday, Beat and I set out for a half-day hike in the Indian Peaks. Our intended destination was South Arapaho Peak, but we were thwarted by a closed gate on Rainbow Lakes Road. Not wanting to run five miles of boring road each way, we made the somewhat strange decision to head over to Brainard Lake, where another gate closure still required a three-mile road approach to the nearest trailhead (looking back, I think we probably would have been happier aiming for what would have almost certainly been complete solitude on the Arapaho Glacier Trail, but that would have made for a 25-mile day.)

 Anyway, we set out from Brainard's winter lot and fought through the already-thick-at-9 a.m. crowds toward Mount Audubon. At 13,200 feet, Audubon is one of the most accessible 4,000-meter peaks in the region, so it's immensely popular. Beat had never been up here, thwarted several times by either thunderstorms or harsh winter weather. Indeed, Audubon seems to sit directly in the funnel of the jet stream, and the wind is always brutal. If there's a light breeze wafting across Brainard Lake, I know it's going to be blowing at least 30mph on Audubon. On this day there was more than a light breeze, and the winds up high were gale force — strong enough that I was reluctant to hold my camera in one hand for fear the wind would rip it away. The windchill was sublime.

 Views to the northwest. Beat and I spent a little time, amid shivering in the cold wind and stuffing down sandwiches, analyzing the ridge that wraps around Brainard Lake basin. It appears to be a mostly class-2 boulder crawl, with an impossible-looking but apparently doable crux over Mount Toll. We may try it soon. I waver between a strong desire to explore these mountains and the knowledge that I'm quite fearful of exposure and objectively bad at negotiating tricky terrain. These ridge traverses would be equal parts exhilarating and mentally exhausting — the trick would be getting through before stress shuts my mind down and causes my body to make an awful mistake. We'll see. As you can see, I think about this a lot. Another reason I look forward to the end of summer is that I don't need to torture myself with alpine fever dreams for another nine months.

  Views toward Rocky Mountain National Park. So many mountains!

As we began the long descent back to 85-degree heat in Boulder, I was already missing that fierce windchill. My breathing had been rough all day, and I lagged well behind Beat for much of the hike. I thought about blaming too much time at altitude, as this week was by far the most time I've spent above 10,000 feet since last summer. It could also be that I'm preoccupied with wanderlust and not paying any attention to training, and thus have put in some unintentionally big weeks — this one, for example, held 23 hours of moving time, and 23,000 feet of climbing. But I feel like I'm finally venturing back out into the world, and it helps keep the negativity at bay. 


  1. You should just move here. This is the kind of summer you might like. A ton more snow this week and very few people. And I'd have someone to chase.

    1. Or, you could move to Lovely Ouray...with its unlimited access to less-peopled trails and people-less cross-country jaunts :) And yes, Bobbie and I would be left in her wake of alpine dust...

  2. I love having micro-adventures. They make the weekends seem longer especially when shared with friends. Glad you are having some in spite of hot weather, crowds, etc. I remember you meeting me on the single track after Boreas Pass 2 years ago during my TD. It was so uplifting to see you. That day, I think I had the most ups and downs possible in just one day!

  3. "For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. Everything begins with lucid indifference." --Camus

    Always enjoy your narrative of living! :)

    Jeff C

  4. I'm so with you on not loving summer, which is particularly ironic because as a teacher I'm off all summer long. Even a little time outside with friends has greatly improved my happiness, stupid heat or not. Glad you've had a chance to get in some fun in reasonable weather!


Feedback is always appreciated!