Saturday, October 31, 2020

Fifteen years

Like many of you this week, I'm wound into a tight little knot of frayed nerves and I haven't been able to remedy this anxiety. I mean, I spent nine hours riding my bike on Friday, pedaling to exhaustion along an icy 75-mile route with nearly 11,000 feet of climbing, and it didn't help. Like at all. I mean, it was a beautiful day and a great ride, but the effects wore off as soon as I stopped pedaling. I'm worse today than I was on Thursday. Alas. I think it might be time to break into the stress eating and wine. 

Amid the fretting about November 3, I realized this date marks an interesting personal anniversary. November 3, 2005, was the day I launched this blog. Yes, this one. Fifteen years. Fifteen years, 2,212 posts, 25,600 comments, and some 60,000 page views per month. I'm both proud and embarrassed that it's gone on this long. I recently read a post from a blogger who has been at it for a mere ten years. The writer mused, "One little blog post is nothing on its own. But publish a thousand blog posts over a decade, and it becomes your life's work."

I can't even fathom how different my life would be if, on November 3, 2005, I sat down at a clunky Dell desktop computer in the loft of a drafty cabin in Homer, and instead of launching a blog to update friends and family about my great new life in Alaska, I decided to trawl eBay auctions for gear I couldn't afford. Or rant about reporters who add two spaces after every period on the Testy Copy Editors forum. Or whatever it was I even did on the Internet in 2005. What did any of us do before Facebook and the rapid erosion of civilized society? I can barely remember. 

Still, I'm forever grateful that this Napster-surfing, 26-year-old version of me started this blog. It quickly connected me with a group of cycling enthusiasts, who donated actual dollars to my novice training endeavors, thus helping me venture into the wild world of endurance racing and winter adventures (yes, I'm embarrassed that I used to beg for money on my blog. But I wouldn't have been able to pay for the Susitna 100 on my $12/hour with no benefits newspaper salary otherwise.) The rest is a whole lot of history. 

This morning, when I again wasn't focusing well on the writing project that I'm currently trying to squeeze out of dry air, I turned to the Wayback Machine to look up my blog in 2005. It was satisfyingly soothing to scroll through the posts as they once appeared. For all of the importance I place on archives, I almost never go back and read old blog posts. It was fun to reimagine this era when life seemed so simple: Scraping feet of snow off my 1996 Geo Prism, bike commuting to work, narrowly avoiding frostbite while wearing four pairs of cotton socks stuffed into New Balance running shoes, well before I owned most of the gear necessary for riding bikes through an Alaska winter:

This was such a nice respite from the Internet hellscapes where I typically spend my time these days. If you have an old or neglected blog languishing in cyberspace, I strongly recommend a visit to the Wayback Machine. 

This nostalgia post doesn't really have a point, other than to celebrate a 15-year anniversary that probably won't feel appropriate to celebrate on Tuesday. It's Oct. 31, and Beat and I have nice plans to hike up Bear Peak and watch the sunset and moonrise of the rare Halloween blue moon. Quietly, I continue to plan an escape to the high Utah desert where I can park a car far away from cell phone reception and spend my nights looking at the sky. 

Escapes of the mind are almost as good as physical escapes. I feel better now. If there's anything I've learned from 15 years of blogging, it's that hope springs eternal. And long bike rides in all weather are the best course of action, always. 
Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Red flag October

Two weeks ago, the East Troublesome Fire didn't exist.  

Last week brought what was likely the worst week of wildfire in Colorado history as East Troublesome roared through 150,000 acres in a single 24-hour period, leaping across a mile of open tundra and rocks above 12,000 feet to torch beloved trails on the eastern slope of Rocky Mountain National Park. Estes Park scrambled to rapidly evacuate from a fire that started near Kremmling, nearly 50 miles away on the other side of the Continental Divide. 

This week brought as much as two feet of snow and record-breaking cold — down to -24F near Grand Lake, where the ashes of an estimated 100 homes are still smoldering. Fire officials reminded people that this isn't the end, just a breather, like throwing a wet blanket over hot coals. We can take a few moments to catch our breath, but soon the blanket with disintegrate and the coals will flare up again. I looked at a weather forecast for ten days of pleasant temperatures and sunshine as though it was the most upsetting scenario possible. 

I spent the week battling an existential crisis, sparked by wildfires. The places I love are burning. The sky is filled with smoke. I can't breathe. I feel like I haven't been able to breathe for months. Years. There's no refuge in nature, thanks to the smoke. There's no refuge anywhere, thanks to an equally out-of-control pandemic. Newspapers are closing. Journalism is failing. Nothing I do or have ever done has any meaning. Democracy is dying. The whole world is burning.

I write "battling" an existential crisis because I am working on shifting my perspective, believe me. I've long battled fatalism with demanding yet purposeful distractions — training for races, planning fun escapades, reading and writing about the grand adventure of life. Like many people, I've met my match with 2020. These October wildfires have been especially troubling because they show the effects of explosive environmental change in real time. I am a person who loves places. Perhaps this love is different than the love I feel for people in my life, but the emotion burns just as bright and loss cuts deeply. The Tonahutu Creek Trail where Beat and I backpacked in August. The Saddle between Hagues Peak and Mount Fairchild. Spruce Canyon. Hollowell Park. None of these places will be the same in my lifetime. Because of climate change, they may not ever fully recover. Maybe Colorado will become the next Arizona. 

I get it. That's reality. Things change. Things end. Acknowledging the hard truths doesn't make them less hard. 

I think about ways I can contribute to positive change. I voted. I donated to a fund set up to help those impacted by our closest-to-home blaze, the Calwood Fire, which thankfully is now mostly under control. I daydream about training to become a volunteer firefighter ... if it wasn't for the barrier of, you know, being a 41-year-old asthmatic with high sensitivity to smoke. I acknowledge that there's a lot more I can do on an actionable level. But really, when it comes to existential despair, perspective is the only thing over which we have any control. So I'm working on sharpening my outlook and refocusing on the aspects of life that deserve gratitude and joy. 

I thought about this on Friday as temperatures dropped to the teens and an icy fog enveloped the landscape. I had been closely tracking the horrific progression of the East Troublesome Fire, including a Twitter thread from a woman who was live-tweeting a phone conversation and subsequent radio silence as her grandparents hid in a bunker while the wildfire surrounded them (they were later confirmed dead.) It had become a lot. It had become too much. Beat rightly criticizes my fixation on Twitter during natural disasters and political upheavals, but I only want to know what's happening, right now. I do recognize that I need to take a step back. Friday offered a welcome breather, even though news sources informed me that just above this inversion, red-flag winds were still blowing and humidity remained low in the wildfire zones. Within the cloud, though, it was easy to feel safe and calm. 

One of my favorite places to visit in icy weather is Bear Peak. Well, Bear Peak is one of my favorite places, period, but frost and snow paints this mountain with a delicate beauty that feels wholly unique. The west ridge still bears the scars of a 2012 wildfire. The fire came within a mile of the house where I now live. Neighbors talk about the terror and awe of watching flames move down the hillside while they packed up to evacuate during the night. Firefighters were able to put out the Flagstaff Fire before it damaged private property, but we all live with awareness of the ongoing risk. Bear Peak's burn scar is a daily reminder ... and yet it's beautiful. Spring wildflowers are abundant, summer views are expansive, fall brings rare crimson hues to the chokecherries, and winter coats the skeleton trees in ghostly frost. There can be beauty in destruction. 

I'm grateful for friends. My favorite people are scattered all over the world, and the drawn-out pandemic makes it feel like I might never see some of them again. But they've all been wonderful during this time. Australian friends frequently send us memes to commiserate about the ridiculous state of American politics. Canadian friends send drool-worthy photos of the places they'll take us when and if we can ever return. For a wedding present, our Alaskan friend Corrine sent us an amazing quilt, an Aurora Borealis pattern that she designed and sewed herself. Now, even when confined at home far away from the Great Land, I have something to carry my imagination back to Alaska. 

All of these gestures warm my heart and keep it from going completely rigid. I've also valued visits in person with local friends. I'm lucky that most of my friends are runners and bikers, so socializing outdoors is not an issue. On Saturday, we had another day of wind and heat sandwiched between record cold. I took advantage of it for a longer training ride, pedaling down to Arvada to meet up with my friend Betsy. We rode east toward the plains, and I daydreamed about a long-standing goal to ride gravel to Kansas. Maybe next year. The air quality was not good — above 100 AQI for most of the afternoon — and I started to wheeze even before I commenced the climb back into the foothills. But it was a good day. Friends help take the edge off disheartening views of haze. 

I am grateful for Beat. Like many couples, we've been spending a lot of time in close proximity since he started working from home. I tend to become snippy when I haven't carved out enough alone time, but overall the togetherness has been enjoyable. We have flexibility for more weekday adventures, such as this Monday morning run around Walker Ranch after 10 inches of snow fell on Sunday. I was giddy when we woke up to our first subzero temperature of the season (well, it was -0.2F. But that counts.) Beat sternly reminded me to pack for contingencies in the danger cold, but I wasn't concerned. Putting on these winter layers feels like slipping into a pair of comfortable old shoes. 

I am grateful that winter is coming. I suppose in COVID times I'm blessed that I experience the opposite of seasonal depression. I can be surly about summer — especially awful smoke-filled summers — but my personal reward is the intensity, beauty, and solitude — finally! —of the darker months. Winter will bring some reprieve to this terrible year of wildfires, although any extended dry period still carries risk. The next couple of weeks will be trying. It's been so dry that meteorologists expect this October snow will vaporize into the air rather than melt into the ground, so fuels will remain dry and the current fires will keep their foothold. The Cameron Peak Fire flared into a monster after it was doused with September snow, so I'm braced for the worst ... but hoping for the best. 

I'm grateful for racing. I may feel dubious about the responsibility of participating in a winter race during a pandemic, but I feel no guilt about training. I value the process. The goal brings a sense of purpose, even as the practical side of me recognizes that it's rather fruitless. Then the existentialist in me fires back that everything about life is absurd. Might as well do what you love; that is purposeful enough. 

I love how racing and training immerses me into both new and familiar places. I love using my body in a tangible way. I love the simplicity of these endeavors. I'm beginning to understand that my reason for endurance pursuits is not that they're hard — it's that they offer a primal and satisfying simplicity that feels more natural, and in many ways easier than modern life. My recent 150-mile ride to Mount Evans reminded me of this relaxing respite from day-to-day ennui. I don't know if I'll end up heading out to Idaho in January to push my bike 200 kilometers through deep snow. But if it does happen, I imagine I'll effortlessly turn my brain off and probably crush it. I can't wait. 

So ... life is good. Yes, East Troublesome is still smoldering in Rocky Mountain National Park. And yes, COVID cases are skyrocketing. And yes, in less than a week our Democracy seems doomed to end up in a serious grinder. And yes, I read too many books about climate change and I can't stop thinking about them. Wait ... where was I again? Oh yes, perspective. My perspective. I'm still working on it. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Winter Wind meets Fire Summer

The sound is both familiar and chilling: a high-pitched whistle accompanied by a whoosh of tree branches, reaching a crescendo that resembles a frantic scream before fading to a low moan. There's a thrilling harmony to the wind that I can appreciate. Sometimes I sit next to the window and listen, watching the trees bend sideways while random debris tumbles through the grass. This is the downslope wind, heralding the onset of winter in Colorado's Front Range. Summers have their share of storms, but summer doesn't contain the temperature gradients necessary to generate these blasts of air rushing down from the Divide. The Winter Wind is different. By October I've almost forgotten what it feels like. Its return reignites a thrilling familiarity: the way a 50 mph gust will stop me mid-stride, frantically jumping off my bike to avoid being toppled, the exhilarating spice that ground blizzards add even to the most basic runs around home. Wind, like winter, is a dynamic circumstance that I've learned to embrace. 

Now, in this forsaken year of 2020, the sound of the Winter Wind has become chilling on a whole new level. By Saturday, that whistling sound sparked anxiety reactions that I couldn't fully control, so I took a CBD capsule and hid under a blanket, rolling from my stomach to my back and taking deep breaths. It was cold outside and a little chilly inside the house, which is how I justified the blanket. Truthfully, I was strung out and using the most basic comfort sources to pull myself together. If I had a higher tolerance for harder substances than CBD, I would have turned to them. On a better day, I would have set out on my bike. On this day, the smoke situation was too unpredictable. I didn't know whether situations might rapidly change and force us to pack up our vehicles and evacuate. Instead, I shifted between doom-scrolling and eyes-closed breathing exercises whenever a wind gust roared past. I'd ridden my bike for nine hours the previous day and planned for Saturday to be a "rest day." Of course, this was by far the most restless day of the week. 

It all started on Wednesday. The Cameron Peak Fire had a bad day on Wednesday. This blaze has been active for more than two months but had been holding steady around 130,000 acres for nearly a week. That period of relative calm ended when the west wind arrived, driving an explosive surge that pushed it to 155,000 acres in a single day, becoming the largest fire in Colorado history. Since then it's grown to 203,000 acres, making Wednesday's run seem almost small. But at the time, I took it hard. We'd enjoyed several days of deliciously clear air, freezing temperatures were in the forecast, and it was starting to seem like fire season was almost behind us. But as I drove to town for my usual weekly errands and appointments, all I could see was this smoke plume pouring into clear blue skies. The Cameron Peak Fire broke my heart all over again. 

It's difficult not to focus on all of the losses these fires represent — the forests and wildlife, the vistas and trails, people's livelihoods, their homes. It's difficult not to widen this perspective toward a difficult future, when all of this loss, literal scorched earth, is simply a new normal fueled by climate change. October fires are the scariest yet. When the worsening drought and heat of summer mix with increasingly convective seasonal winds, the outcomes can only be catastrophic. I couldn't help but ruminate on a dark future as I ran along the South Mesa Trail, grateful for this potentially last window of clean air as an enormous plume of smoke billowed to the north. I made strong time up Shadow Canyon and scrambled to the summit of Bear Peak from the ledge where Beat and I were married last month. From this vantage, I looked toward the smoke plume and broke out in tears. This isn't the first time I've cried about the Cameron Peak Fire. There was the trickle of tears that surprised me as I watched a single plume from a spot fire rise from a nearby valley while traversing Mummy Mountain. That was September 4, when the fire was still at 23,000 acres. I cried a little more openly on Mount Evans a week ago, as I sat more than 75 miles away watching a pyrocumulus cloud mushroom into the sky. This run on October 8 drove the blaze to official megafire status (over 100,000 acres.) That it keeps ballooning skyward is both predictable and surreal, not unlike watching COVID cases climb. Like any out-of-control phenomenon, the encroaching smoke is a reminder that for us, too, it's only a matter of time. 

On Friday, I just wanted to go for a long ride. I filed away a training excuse by signing up for the Fat Pursuit 200K, a winter fat bike race scheduled for early January in Idaho. In truth, I'm skeptical that I'll actually end up at the start line for this race. There are so many unknowns with the pandemic. Traveling to a different state to participate in a winter race, even if it's mostly self-supported, seems like an iffy proposition at this point. Still, for now, the Fat Pursuit is something to look forward to, to take my mind of the present. Any excuse to spend most of a day riding a bike is a good excuse. 

I headed south away from the Cameron Peak smoke plume and climbed toward Gilpin. The National Forest land to the west is threaded with a seemingly endless maze of jeep roads that, in theory, are fun to explore. I write "in theory," because by now I've learned that most of these roads are only marginally rideable and actually not that much fun — a morass of babyheads strewn along 25-percent grades with fleetingly rare flat stretches buried in ankle-deep sand. But it's still a place within a day's biking distance from home that feels new and exciting. At least a few times a year, I resolve to go exploring. 

After the summer-long, pandemic-fueled rush on recreation, it feels like the crowds are finally calming down. It helps when it's still 32 degrees at noon and the winter wind is howling out of the west. I like this weather. It feels safe to me, quiet, and with a couple extra layers, I can ride as hard as I want without becoming thirsty or overheated. It's bliss. Well, it's bliss until it isn't. As I rolled along a series of drainages below Yankee Hill, I had to contend with a continuous ribbon of ice threading through the babyheads. Since I didn't have studded bike tires, the ice made all of the easy lines impossibly treacherous. If I wanted to ride at all, I had to hug the eroded berms, bouncing over all manner of rocks and ruts.  

Somehow in the midst of battling ice and rocks, I climbed to nearly 11,000 feet, where the lovely pine forest opened to the scrub spruce and brush of the subalpine zone. Up there, the wind was so strong that I could no longer ride west. It was impossible. Gusts pushed me sideways and backward as I swerved and bucked over babyheads. Even hiking proved difficult. The wind seemed determined to grab the bike from my hands, wrenching my arms as I marched, head lowered, into an invisible wall. I scanned my GPS and saw the road would soon turn north, so that was something. I could see a ribbon of dirt rising up a hill to my right, but I wondered if I even had the strength to push my bike to the top. 

"This is the winter I remember," I thought. "Hello, West Wind, my old friend."

Shoring up the sum of my strength, I shambled to the top of the rise and caught my first unobstructed view of the full and ominous power of the West Wind — a smoke plume, stretched into lenticular waves thousands of feet over the Continental Divide. Smoke almost entirely blotted out South Arapaho Peak, which was only a dozen or so miles away. The base of the plume was almost black, dark enough to see a distinct red glow reflected from a not-so-distant fire. "East Troublesome," I thought. East Troublesome was the latest fire to erupt in Grand County. On this day it doubled in size from 3,800 acres to nearly 8,000. And of course, it's nearly doubled again since. 

Still buffeted by a strong crosswind that carried a chill so deep it seemed to flash-freeze my gloved fingers, I wrestled the bike to a clearing. An awkward gust nearly toppled me, but I jumped just in time to avoid a shoulder hit. This was as good a spot as any. I plopped down in long-dried grass that has been ready for winter since August and slowly removed my backpack. The wind genuinely seemed strong enough to blow the entire pack away if I wasn't careful, so I kept a tight grip as I removed a sandwich from its container and leaned into my pack to take gulping bites. It was a terribly uncomfortable spot for a lunch break, so cold and windy. The East Troublesome smoke plume was alarming from this vantage, to the point where I involuntarily shuddered and looked away. Still, it seemed appropriate to acknowledge the moment in this way. 

Sometime during my weird apocalypse picnic, Everclear's 1993 hit "Fire Maple Song" floated up from a deep abyss of memory. For much of the bumpy descent into Mammoth Gulch and Tolland Road, I probed this memory for lyrics to a song that I'm not even sure I've thought about since the '90s. Impressed with my recapture, I rewrote lyrics that better fit my mood: 

Lying down in the grass with the wind around us as we watch the smoke erupt. 
Listen to doomsday reports on the radio. 
They tell us how the mountains turn to fire, every year now. 
We’ll lay in the grass all summer just to watch the world burn to the ground. 
I can’t smile. 
Now I can’t smile.

As I neared home, the smoke plume grew closer and darker. I was lucky it stayed south of me throughout the day, but my luck was running out. I could see flakes of ash wafting through the air, and then I tasted something acrid in my throat.  

My breathing soon began to sound like a high-pitched whistle. I was glad I was only about twenty minutes from home. I carried an N95 mask for such situations but opted to race the encroaching plume rather than fiddle with putting it on. I had no idea how bad the smoke had become near Boulder. Our home meter registered an AQI over 400; some places in town recorded 600. Both are so far beyond hazardous that the EPA doesn't even have a health rating for that level. The sky over town turned an apocalyptic shade of orange. Beat was caught out in it during a run, and had no choice but to stumble home in air so bad he was barely able to breathe. I'm not even sure what I'd do if I met an AQI of 600. I doubt my mask would offer protection enough to allow even a slow walking pace before my asthma became unmanageable. I feel like I'd be wholly trapped if the AQI rose to 600, like I'd just have to lay down and die. I know this is overdramatic and it would certainly not be that bad. But it feels that way. 

In hindsight, it's a risk to venture outside at all during such a volatile fire season. I can't know which way the wind will shift, and what will happen to air that was perfectly breathable only an hour before. But on this evening, I simply slowed my pace to reduce the wheezing. I reached smooth gravel and finally pavement, where I could pedal easily and watch the evening sky with a renewed sense of awe. 

I felt guilty for feeling such awe. This was still smoke, carried by the West Wind at such a high speed that it looked like molten lava flowing through a volcanic stream. I hated it, but I had to admit it was beautiful. 

Then came Saturday. My Friday ride took most of nine hours — 68 miles with nearly 10,500 feet of climbing — so it seemed prudent to take a rest day and try to get a few things done. I did not get anything done. Instead, I managed to catch a super early report about a new fire in Boulder County. It was only an acre at the time and seemed trivial. But within the seconds it takes to write a Twitter comment, the report grew to eight acres, and then twenty. Suddenly it was hundreds of acres, then thousands, racing down Lefthand Canyon toward North Boulder. People way out in Denver posted photos of an all-encompassing black plume that reminded me of The Nothing from "Neverending Story." I caught news of friends evacuating, friends who were certain they would lose their homes, and then the fire jumped the divided highway and continued burning near suburban neighborhoods in the plains. People who live miles east of the foothills started evacuating. It was chaos, true chaos. It took two months for the Cameron Peak Fire to become the largest fire in Colorado history. It only took six hours for the Calwood Fire to become the largest fire in Boulder County history. 

I didn't take it well. It was just so sad, and so close to home, with so many unknowns. We live a few valleys to the south and weren't under immediate threat. But this whole region is such a tinderbox right now. It's hard to feel secure, and everyone is on edge. Beat and I discussed our evacuation plan. I imagined escape routes I might take if a smoke plume erupts nearby while I'm out running on trails — it could happen. I might get out with only the clothes and pack on my back. If we're lucky, we'll have time to fill a vehicle with bikes. Of course, if we're truly lucky, a neighborhood wildfire won't happen at all. What are the odds, really? I didn't want to think about it. I knew another day of doomscrolling would do me no good, so by late Sunday morning, I decided another long ride would be prudent — nay, necessary. 

It was another day of strange weather. There was a thick fog and temperatures near freezing when I set out a few minutes before noon. The inversion brought much-needed humidity and drizzle to Boulder, but it also prevented the air assault that firefighters had planned for the now-nearly-9,000-acre fire that had already burned 26 structures in fewer than 24 hours. I had mixed feelings about the fog. Any wet weather was a good thing, but I knew it couldn't last. Indeed, as I climbed above 8,000 feet, the inversion cleared. It was much warmer than it had been on Friday, and nearly as windy. 

I effectively rage-pedaled into the headwind, burning off a fair amount of negative energy as I repeatedly glanced to the north for evidence of a Calwood smoke plume. So far, the smoke didn't seem too bad. I climbed to the top of Caribou Hill, another huge rock-strewn grunt, and sat in another dry field of grass to eat a sandwich while facing the wind. This time, I faced James Peak. It was a nice view. I love James Peak.

When I turned to descend, I saw a dramatic smoke plume that I hadn't noticed before. It was confusing. It looked fresh, and far too close to be part of the Calwood Fire. The Calwood Fire started north of Jamestown, which from this vantage would be a fair distance to the northeast. This plume looked like it began mere miles away. A new fire? Was that even possible — a new fire just one day later, in the same general area, in October? It seemed so unlikely. But this looked real. And it looked like it might be burning near Ward or Gold Hill, which was the direction I had planned to ride to close my loop. As I coasted along Peak to Peak Highway, I didn't see fire trucks or other indicators of a close fire. But just to be safe, I cut downhill early on Sugarloaf Road, rather than take the Switzerland Trail to Fourmile as I'd planned. 

Later I'd find out this was a new fire. The Lefthand Fire, which forced the evacuation of several mountain communities in and around Ward, and grew to several hundred acres over just a few hours on that windy, warm afternoon. It seems so surreal. The hot and dry weather only reigned above 8,000 feet. Below that altitude, the inversion held, which was a blessing for the Calwood Fire. Indeed, the shift between microclimates was dramatic. I crested the final rise of Sugarloaf in full sun with the hard wind at my back, then plunged into a thick fog that dropped the temperature at least 20 degrees in seconds. My fingers again flash-froze, and I started to shiver. It felt calm, quiet, and safe. I wished the freezing fog would never go away. 
Monday, October 12, 2020

Gasping for goals

Like many people, I'm adrift right now. A thick fog has obscured the horizon, and it feels strange to try to set a course. What will life look like in 2021? Is it even worth training for a race, or trying to finish any one of my now-silly-seeming book projects? Every day seems to bring new waves of absurdity, and it's tempting to at least daydream about abandoning ship and taking my chances with the abyss. Marrying Beat has been a comforting anchor to toss into this maelstrom of a year, but there's still a lot of uncertainty out there. I've become better at taking deep breaths, observing what's directly in front of me, and acknowledging the beauty I see and the gratitude I feel. But I've gotten so used to anticipation, to planning, to goals. What does one even do with a day, if not make progress toward a foreseeable future? 

It helped to remember that there were a few more things I wanted to do with summer before snow swept over the mountains. Despite that September snow that now feels like it happened years ago, summer has dragged into a particularly long, hot, and smoky October. Beat recently purchased one of those Purple Air sensors, and these days I check the Air Quality Index before I even bother checking the weather. If pollution has climbed into the orange zone (above 100), I avoid going outside ... although lately, I've become increasingly stubborn about this. I see shadows of the person I was when I was living in Juneau, where it was often 37 degrees and raining. Even though I knew there was pretty much no way to avoid becoming hypothermic (I tried everything), I'd go out for long bike rides anyway. I'd accept and then suffer the consequences because I want to do what I want to do. Smoky days are like that, but with lung-searing particulate matter that may have long-term health consequences. Those days of wet underwear and uncontrolled shivering seem so quaint. 

Air quality was nudging dangerously close to the orange zone when Beat and I set out last Sunday morning to do the second thing on my top-three list: The Pawnee-Buchanan loop. This Front Range classic ascends two passes over the Continental Divide and packs 7,200 feet of climbing into 27 miles. I'd had some trouble recovering from the beating my legs took during our "Big Lonesome" bushwhack, and air quality had been poor all week. But I took faith in a forecast for strong west winds, which I hoped would drive out the smoke from fires that were mainly burning to the south and north of these mountains. 

Of course, fires have been burning great swaths of forest since July. Most of the West is shrouded in smoke by now. The wind was merely a conveyer, driving smog that had settled into the valleys directly into our path. While driving to the trailhead in the hot and smoky predawn darkness, I became deeply nauseated. I blamed car sickness, but really, it was closer to pollution reactions I experienced earlier in the summer. We arrived at Brainard Lake just after 7 a.m. and the parking lot was already full. We took the last spot among dozens of cars with tailgates swung open and babies screaming from all directions. Beat seemed agitated and I knew he was going to take off like a flash to gain distance from the crowds. I choked down bile and pushed to keep up with him. 

I think there might have been a time, in the distant past now, when feeling so terrible at the start of a marathon hike would have caused me to concede that it wasn't my day. But I'd infused these arbitrary goals with a racing mindset. In a race, nausea is not enough of a setback to justify quitting. You've just got to power through. And maybe if you're lucky, your body will give you a little reset in the form of vomiting. But this was not that kind of nausea — not anchored in my digestive system, at least. This was a vague yet full-body queasiness, clinging to a bit of a headache, that I imagine the beginning of a migraine might feel like. What else could cause this sort of reaction besides smoke? I took a few big sips of water and continued shuffling over the loose rocks littering the trail.

I began to feel better as we ascended a mire of moondust and ball-bearing gravel to gain Buchanan Pass. Winds were still relatively light and inversions still held most of the smoke to the valleys. We descended into the golden forest along Buchanan Creek, which we were pleased to find hadn't been knocked down by the straight-line winds that ravaged nearby valleys a month earlier. That must have been such a strange storm. I imagined fingers of microbursts flattening one drainage while sparing another. 

We commenced the 4,000-foot ascent to Pawnee Pass, and I turned on an audiobook of Stephen Hawking's "Brief Answers to Big Questions." I recall reading the theoretical physicist's "A Brief History of Time" a seeming hundred years ago when I was a college student roiled in a faith crisis. Now, like then, I found great comfort in Hawking's frank discussions of nebulous ideas rooted in complex science. It's a lot to chew on when your brain is addled with fatigue and clouded with smog, but it's also more nourishing to digest in this state. An affirmation of: "The universe is infinite, time is a construct, you're nothing more than a story you tell yourself, and that's okay." 

On this day, my story was a bit of a hero's tale where I overcome the smog of body and soul and conquer a mountain. I like this story, which is why I pursue it often. I know it's silly and fleeting, but then again, so is much of this story we call life. 

As we ascended into a fortress of rock shrouded in haze, Beat seemed to flag as well. Pawnee Pass is an impressive col, carved into formidable cliffs where passage appears unlikely until you're standing on top of the Divide. The trail is narrow and it's difficult to focus on anything but the obstacles directly in my path: the rocks and rubble, the dropoffs, the steep grade. But when I turn my gaze skyward, I'm struck by an all-encompassing awe that consumes any emotional wavering or physical complaint. In the scope of the unknowable, I can almost see where all of these disparate pieces link together. Hawking has a quote for this, too: 

“So, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult may life seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.” 

We made our way over the pass as the autumn daylight grew long, darkening the smog layer over the plains. When I caught up to a Beat he was sitting on a rock, looking nonchalant. But then he told me he took a tumble, jamming his thumb and slamming his chest into sharp rocks. The chest hit knocked the wind out of his sails. His hand was bleeding. He'd spend the rest of the week unable to lie comfortably in bed while nursing a deep bruise. Usually, I'm the one to take these sorts of hits, so I empathize. It sucks to have to limp out afterward. It sucks to face however many days or weeks of injury because of a moment's lapse of balance. But there's nothing else you can do. Just keep moving forward. 

Beat and I spent the next few days recovering — he trying his hardest not to roll over in bed, and me waiting for that burning sensation in my lungs to subside. The parched and hot weather continued, with Denver enduring its first October 90s in more than a century. But there was a storm on the horizon, slated to drop snow on the mountains on Sunday. I hoped for many feet of snow but also acknowledged that this might close my window for summer mountain goals. One goal that stayed on my shortlist despite its redundancy and silliness was to leave home on my bike, ride all the way to the top of Mount Evans, and return home that day. I mapped out a loop that added up to 148 miles with 18,000 feet of climbing. Phew! 

The impending storm made it clear that I only had Thursday or Friday to attempt this silliness. Air quality is tough to predict; it's a localized condition affected by wind direction more than anything else. But with heat and low humidity intensifying all of the nearby fires, it seemed likely to me that the air was only going to become worse until it snowed. The forecast predicted stronger southwest winds on Thursday, which would add quite a bit of resistance to the Evans climb, but stood a chance of driving away smoke from the fires to the north. Either way, it was a gamble. I was split evenly on stay or go when I went to bed. Five minutes before my 5 a.m. alarm, I woke up in a start and checked the AQI on my phone before I'd even fully opened my eyes. 164. That's bad. I laid back down, blinking into the hot blackness of the morning. 

"You know what, who cares?" I grumbled quietly and sat back up. "There's no bad weather, only bad mask-wearing." 

I got out of bed and went through the motions. I ate some banana-maple oatmeal that I'd strongly regret for the first eight hours of the day. Then I wheeled my bike into the driveway at 6 a.m. The predawn sky was a blackboard dusted in chalky haze, high smog mixed with distant light pollution. The half-moon glowed overhead in an alarming shade of pumpkin orange. The air smelled like smoke. I have a terrible sense of smell, to the point where I have my doubts that I'd even notice this particular symptom should I ever come down with COVID, but I could smell smoke. 

"Sorry lungs, we're doing this," I thought. 

I started out with a KN95 mask on. My plan was to wear this mask at intervals throughout the ride to mitigate exposure. Of course, I gave up on it about two miles from my house and didn't bother to put it on again until I finished the climb up Gap Road, three hours into the day. It is just too hard to push my exhaled breath out of that mask, and mild asthma was already making exhaling difficult. I climbed along the rural roads of Gilpin County, passing more Trump signs than I have ever seen in Colorado before drifting onto intimidating backcountry jeep roads. I hoped they weren't private. I hoped they didn't dead-end on the property of an unfriendly gun owner. The bike bucked and shimmied as I surfed through deep sand, finally spilling out onto Virginia Canyon Road, a gravel track that was a lot rougher than I remembered. I reached Idaho Springs feeling fairly exhausted, coughing from airway inflammation. This is usually where a hard ride to Mount Evans starts. The summit was only 27 miles and a solid 7,000 feet of climbing away. 

For this long day out, I downloaded two audiobooks: "What Unites Us" by Dan Rather, and "Where There's a Will" by Emily Chappell. Dan Rather's book was a comforting stream of commentary, like a warm cup of ginger tea for my unsettled mind. Dan Rather was a childhood hero of mine. Really, I admired all of the news anchors on television as well as the faceless bylines of the columnists I read in the Salt Lake Tribune. I've been an avid consumer of journalism for as long as I can remember. Now I long for those days that seem like a hundred years ago, when we trusted our news sources, when an investigative reporter's exhaustive pursuit of truth still held clout over the people who spout baseless opinions about what they want to be true. Now Dan Rather is nearly 90 years old and still commenting on current events via social media. He has some of the more realistic and yet hopeful observations of most of the journalists I follow, so I'll seek out his Facebook account whenever something particularly disheartening has happened. He is my breath of fresh air. I enjoyed the seven hours I spent with him via this audiobook he wrote and recorded back in 2017. It reads like a blueprint for the next three years. The notion that he so clearly saw what was coming, and still maintains hope, gives me something to cling to as well.  

Just after 3 p.m., I rolled past Summit Lake at 12,800 feet and waved to the last two cyclists I'd see that day. I was the last person on the mountain, grinding what felt like the last strands of leg muscle into every pedal stroke and breathing through increasingly ragged lungs. By now "What Unites Us" had ended and rolled over to Emily Chappell's account of the Transcontinental Race across Europe, which she narrates herself with lyrical storytelling. I became a bit weepy early in the book, well before the truly crushing events commenced, when she was still dealing merely with the insecurities and physical pains of the race. For much of the climb, I had to step off my bike so I could stretch my back and take careful bites of a peanut butter sandwich between nauseated gulps. During one of these stops, when I was still about two interminable miles from the summit, she described post-race depression in a way that unexpectedly launched the waterworks. 

"The world is right there — just past your fingertips — but you can't reach it, no matter how close it seems, and how easy it should be just to step forward, or kick harder, or stretch a tiny bit farther, and grasp it in your hand." 

I reached the summit just after 4 p.m., which was the exact time I'd projected when I mapped out this ride, but in the moment felt irresponsibly late and shamefully slow. I had the entire mountain to myself now. A southwest wind neared gale force at 14,000 feet, but it still wasn't cold. I could no longer smell smoke, but I could see it all around me. There were no views of Denver or even the Indian Peaks. All I could see was this gray haze, and above it, the pyrocumulus cloud of the Cameron Peak Fire blowing up more than 75 miles away. I paused my audiobook player and sat on the platform where the summit sign used to be, choking down the rest of my sandwich. After Colorado decided to keep the road closed through 2020, the governor issued an order to remove the sign and review a possible name change. Mount Evans was named for a territorial governor who was implicated in, and later defended, the Sand Creek Massacre, in which as many as 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans were murdered. It all so ... just ... argh! Why does it have to be this way? Why does everything we love in America have to simultaneously be rotten at the roots and burning out of control? 

I'd already gotten my cry out of the way, so I turned my back to the Cameron Peak Fire and finished my sandwich while looking for mountain goats. It seemed they'd moved on for the season. What do mountain goats do all winter long? I've long wondered but never taken the time to research it. I made a mental note to Google it later and put on a jacket for the upcoming 10,000-foot descent. It was the first time in more than ten hours I wasn't either climbing or hanging on for dear life on a rocky or dusty downhill, and I relished the sense of relief as I coasted the lonely road at speeds that for too long seemed unfathomable. Normally I find the Mount Evans pavement jarring, but it's all relative. I was floating on air, and I was happy. I really was. It takes some real energy for me to work out my demons these days. But when they've finally settled somewhere far away in a distant haze, the tranquility is sublime. 

I wish I could say the remaining eight hours of the ride were equally peaceful. Shortly after a brief climb above Echo Lake, a wasp hit my face and stung the side of my nose. For the remainder of the descent into Bergan Park, things were bad. I couldn't even open my left eye and had tears streaming out of my right eye. My skin pulsed with pain. I thought my entire face would swell into an unrecognizable blob. But as these things do, the fierce pain eventually subsided and nothing much happened to my face. By the time I had to turn on my headlights, I was able to open both eyes again. I dodged an alarming stream of Thursday-night traffic on Lookout Mountain, including a clearly drunk guy who darted right in front of me while screaming "biker, hey biker!" (I abruptly swerved and did not stop. No way.) I became lost while winding through the maze of Golden, finally happened on a gas station that elicited a yelp of glee (I had been out of water for a while.) Inside the gas station, I wandered around in a daze unable to decide on anything, and instead of purchasing anything appetizing, walked out with two blue Gatorades and a peanut butter cookie. ("Why? I'm sick of peanut butter.") I was still lost and looking for bike paths when I wandered onto the singletrack of North Table Mountain and thought ... eh, why not? So I bounced and bucked on my gravel bike with my tired legs and still-teary eyes, finally greeting the busy shoulder of Highway 93 with a sigh of relief. It was all downhill from here, except for all of those rolling climbs, and, oh yeah, the 2,500-foot ascent to the top of Flagstaff Road with its 14-percent grades that still wouldn't quite bring me home. My lungs whistled with every breath. I took the Walk of Shame on the Wall of Pain and was stopped twice by cars full of college students who I presume were heading to lookouts. I was tired of everyone and bleary-eyed, but when I turned around to look at city lights shrouded in haze, I felt like I could see clearly again. 

"That's the world. It's everywhere around you. Maybe it's dark and shrouded in uncertainty, but as long as you can move forward, there are no limits."