Monday, June 01, 2020

I always believed in futures

I’m unusually heartbroken about the world.

Heartbroken must be a default state for anyone who lives in the world — at least for anyone who pays attention. But I think many U.S. citizens will agree that the last week of May was one of the more heartbreaking weeks in our shared memories. It began with the Sunday New York Times headline “U.S. deaths near 100,000, an incalculable loss,” and ended with another full-banner headline, “Spreading unrest leaves a nation on edge.”

The uncertainties are amassing like storm clouds, pulsing with lightning. You count the seconds before thunder, listening to each boom grow louder as skies darken. You look across the landscape, this world you love. The grass is pale green, tinged with brown. The aspen trees are parched; their brittle leaves crackle in the gale. The mountains are a patchwork of beetle-kill spruce, with needles as orange as the flames you fear will soon consume them. This is the world you love, ravaged by drought and buckling under erosion — centuries of racial inequality, environmental destruction, cultural ennui, widening divisions, fraying leadership, a global pandemic, social isolation, and economic devastation. Now the storm has arrived.

You know that many of the circumstances that caused this drought are wrong. You acknowledge your role in its spread, especially those of us who were sheltered and privileged enough to not quite understand its reach until it arrived at our doorstep. You’re ready to stand with your garden hose and fight what you can. But you also understand that the storm doesn’t care. There’s little you can do now but watch the sky, and wait.

I felt distinctly heartbroken this week. I promised Beat I would limit the time I spent reading newspapers and hot takes on Twitter, but I couldn’t look away. Knowledge, understanding and truth are still more important to me than pleasant distraction, even as my emotional outlook spirals. I tried to concentrate on writing projects that still bring comfort and reflection, but the heartbreak was too overwhelming to make much progress. The heat of summer doubled down, bringing thunderstorms every afternoon. They came so early this year. And it’s already been such a long year. Like many, I soothe myself by counting the days until December, when everything that happened this year will be over. But I know time doesn’t work that way.

Sunday was Beat’s birthday. I’ve been more resistant to some of his recent adventure ideas — many which involve carrying a bicycle up and down brush-choked hills to reach dubious social trails — but I told him I’d join him for whatever he wanted to do this weekend. He did not surprise me with a less-than-easy answer: He wanted to run the Boulder Skyline, a popular route that tags the five prominent peaks over the city, plus an oft-overlooked hill called Anemone. But since it’s so popular — thus crowded — and since it’s now the hot, hot summer, he wanted to run it at night. As in, start at sunset and run the 26-mile loop, with all of its technical rocky trails and lurking predators, in the dark, until dawn.

“That sounds horrible,” I replied. But I had agreed to do anything he wanted.

Saturday was a bad day for thunderstorms. They began early, with thunder booming overhead before 11 a.m. Bands of strong wind and rain moved past our house throughout the afternoon. We originally planned to start running at 6 p.m. Dark clouds prompted us to move it back to 7 p.m. That time came and went as we lingered at our front door, listening to thunder rumbles.

 “As long as we’re not too close to Green when it moves overhead, we’ll probably have reasonable protection,” I reasoned. Of course, you never know. Last year, a man and woman were struck by lightning in a wooded area just over a mile from our house. The man died. This spot was directly on our route. We’d pass by in less than a half-hour. You never know what might happen. But at some point, you’re going to either decide to hide indoors all summer or take your chances with the world.

So we headed out under sprinkling rain. Beat asked if I was going to put on a rain jacket. “No, it’s still way too hot,” I grumbled. I love the outdoors but I’d probably hide from summer if I could, if I believed my mental state wouldn’t crack entirely.

We ran down our road, and I fired up my music. This red iPod Shuffle sat unused for months, ever since I spent most of a day meticulously curating a playlist. It was an unusually warm day in January, and I was laid up in bed with the respiratory virus I fought for most of the month. I thought I would need a particularly motivating playlist for my Nome attempt, so I combed through thousands of mP3s as well as old CDs and chose 250 songs that I thought would generate the best memories, the richest nostalgia. I titled the list “Iditarod 2020 — Songs for the hard times.” But then the whole Iditarod was hard. I never removed this iPod from my bag of trail electronics, where it still sat in May.

 When I turned on the red Shuffle, the first random song sparked a few tears — as many things have this week. Jimmy Eat World released “Futures” around the time I moved to Alaska. I must have listened to that album dozens of times while training through the winter for my first Susitna 100. It still evokes visceral memories of pedaling along the Homer Spit while icy waves crashed on the shoreline. The album’s title track from 2004 really feels like something for … now.

“I … I always believed in futures. 
I hoped for better in November. 
I try the same, losing lucky numbers. 
It could be a cold night for a lifetime. 

Hey now, you can’t keep saying endlessly, 
My darling, how long until this affects me? 


I … I always could count on futures. 
That things would look up, and they look up. 
Why is it so hard to find a balance 
Between decent living, and the cold and real? 

The gray sky deepened; I couldn’t tell if the storm was closing in, or if this was just twilight. We climbed through a mist-shrouded forest on empty trails and arrived at the top of Green Mountain. The western mountains were fully obscured. It looked as though night had already arrived along a shadowy strip of the eastern plains. To the south was an undeniably nasty storm, a solid gray curtain lit up by frequent lightning flashes.

We started moving quickly down the mountain, but within minutes the storm was on top of us. Fierce rain pelted my shirt and face, but it was still too hot to bother with a jacket. We both counted the seconds before thunder. Six seconds. Five seconds.

“This cell isn’t that close,” I reasoned. But it felt close. We kept running. By the time we reached Flagstaff Mountain, darkness brought an illusion of calm. Curtains of lightning moved farther east, and the sky grew quiet. The half-moon illuminated the clouds, already breaking apart.

We descended toward the city lights. I found myself looking toward Denver, still shrouded by storm clouds, and wondered if we might see something alarming from this distance — a large building on fire, or plumes of black smoke. We kept running.

Our second big climb was Sanitas, a favorite of mine and everyone else in Boulder … which means it needs to be avoided if one wants to avoid crowds. I hadn’t visited since February. We moved more slowly than usual, with fatigue already settling in. I noticed uniform stone steps over what was once a chaos of boulders and roots.

 “Look at all the trail work they’ve done,” I said to Beat.

 “Huh?” he replied, and I continued. “Maybe this was all here last time. I suppose I wouldn’t necessarily notice; I’m usually redlined.”

We sat on the abandoned summit and enjoyed our sandwiches as we gazed across the mesmerizing grid of lights. The soft twinkles beneath a patchwork of moonlit clouds were so peaceful. Such a beautiful illusion. We continued down the long and runnable trail into Sunshine Canyon, then commenced the always unexpectedly harsh ascent to Anemone.

While traversing that rolling ridge, I heard the loud echo of sirens and saw a stream of spinning red and blue lights along what looked like 28th Street. That could be anything, I thought. I looked at my watch and saw it was nearly midnight. I picked up my pace to catch Beat and wish him a happy birthday. He was still moving well, while I was beginning to experience that fatigue slump where it feels like I don’t have complete control of my legs. So I was surprised, as he came back into view, to see him topple forward, feet overhead as his body pitched sideways. I sprinted toward him, fearing the worst because it looked like he hit his head. But he was okay, just scraped up and bleeding from both knees. I wondered if both of us were going to return home bloody. It’s been quite some time since I made it through a long run on these Boulder Skyline trails without some sort of mishap involving gravity. And running all of them in darkness was something I’d never tried.

 We descended to the city and cut through a park, where we stopped to fill up our drinking water from a fountain we were surprised was still functioning. I wiped the fountain down with Wet Wipes while Beat sat and did the same on his mangled palms and knees. A person with a budget bicycle slept soundly in a nearby picnic area. We continued along Sixth Street toward Chautauqua, brazenly running through one of the wealthier neighborhoods in town after 1 a.m. I thought about all of the privilege that allowed me to do so without feeling fear — that these residents were unlikely to call the cops on us, and even if they did, I wasn’t too worried about it because we weren’t doing anything wrong. I marveled that there was ever a time when I believed that not being wrong was enough. Such incredible privilege. A strong mix of emotions surged through my tired body.

The harsh beauty of our Skyline route is that it saves all of the toughest parts for last. We had just started the boulder staircase climb up Fern Canyon when we started seeing droplets and then pools of blood along the trail. The blood looked far too fresh to belong to an injured dog or hiker. It was 2 a.m. Who else was out here? Just when I started to think about predators, we came upon the carcass of a coyote pup, seemingly very recently dropped by whatever carried it up here. I looked around as primal fear took over. Did we spook a mountain lion away from its snack? Even a pup seemed like a big thing for a bobcat to carry, although this may have been the work of another coyote. Or a black bear. None of these were animals I necessarily wanted to meet in the night.

We continued crawling up Fern, and I kept hearing rustling in the brush and shining my headlamp toward pairs of eyes lurking in the shadows. Most of these incidents were probably imaginary. Strange how we’re programmed to default to fear, even when fear can’t possibly protect us.

When we reached the top of Bear Peak I felt relieved, although there was no reason to believe this spot was safer than anywhere else. The thunderstorms were long gone, and we were too many thousands of feet above the city to hear sirens. City lights spread out like a tranquil sea in front of us, as islands of residential lights twinkled amid an expanse of darkness to the west. It was a peaceful place to share with Beat when there were no other humans around for miles. In fact, we hadn’t seen another person on the trails since we started. Beat noted that this alone was worth running through the night. I agreed.

We tagged the top of South Boulder Peak, and I was beginning to believe I’d make it through this whole thing without tripping and falling or rolling my ankle. I had been so convinced it would happen that I was carrying an elastic bandage and extra Wet Wipes to mop up the inevitable blood. I am prone to catastrophic thinking. I tend to imagine worst-case scenarios so I’m either mentally prepared or pleasantly surprised. I reminded myself that I really have no way of knowing the future. It’s far past time to get on board with some optimism and direct my actions toward the future I want to believe in.

 “… Hey now, the past is told by those who win. 
My darling, what matters is what hasn’t been. 
Hey now, we’re wide awake and we’re thinking, 
My darling, believe your voice can mean something.” 

Crimson light appeared on the eastern horizon as we descended toward home. I started stumbling more and slowed my pace to be especially cautious. I’d only just embraced a glimmer of optimism. I didn’t need bloody knees now. Even though he was injured and just as sleep-deprived as me, Beat seemed elated. He thrives on these absurd adventures, which is why he chose this for his birthday.

“See, this was fun,” he teased me. He insisted on tacking on a short out-and-back to ensure we logged a marathon distance, even though we were doing a rocky grunt of a route with 8,000 feet of climbing and weren’t even really running. I was determined to avoid unnecessary striving. We both received our wish when I arrived at home with exactly 26.2 miles on my watch.

 “Happy birthday, Love,” I said as we walked back into the house, now saturated in color by the dawn sun. “Let’s get some sleep.”


  1. actually sounds fun! (Maybe) I'm glad to be in an isolated rural area but I know I am really privileged as well.

  2. Hang in there. The world needs writers, journalists, and adventurers more than ever now. And HB to Beat!

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  4. Oh my gosh...what an epic adventure! You two are most assuredly supposed to be together! Well done Beat coming up with that! (and you Jill for going along!) That picture of the dead coyote pup is distressing...I know the world out there is an extremely violent place for animals of all types...pretty much everything is food for something else...but coyotes are so close to dogs that I'm always crushed when I see them suffering (we love dogs). And yes...what was carrying it that you interrupted? THAT is the big scary question. SO glad you never found out!

    I'm currently reeling from pretty much everything. I recall the scene in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" TV special where Charlie Brown pays his nickel to Lucy "The Doctor is IN") and she starts asking him what he is afraid of, naming disorder after disorder, until she finally says the name of "the Fear of Everything" and Charlie Brown shouts out "THAT'S IT!" Lets see...we have The Pandemic, my job (we are going on work-travel out into the pandemic in just under 2 weeks), watching the news as the world burns (when peaceful authentic protestors with valid grievances are infiltrated by hoodlum-thugs looking for any opportunity to slip into a crowd and initiate violence with no repercussions), and hey...let's add the impossible debt-burden our country owes due to a very broken government not doing their jobs. Sheesh...what else can we heap on to this enormous steaming pile? The Fear of everything indeed.

  5. I thought the poor little coyote pup was a lamb killed by a wolf at first. Hopefully you guys could outrun any marauding bears.


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