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."


  1. That torturous adventure should keep the "demons" at bay for a day or two. But, if your's are anything like mine, they'll be back (sigh). On the glass-half-full side, it keeps us on the trail, pushing, scrambling, dodging crowds, in search of the next endorphin high. If only it would last...

  2. Will have to check out the three books you mention. They all sound like inspiring reads. Love the Stephen Hawking quote about looking up at the stars and never giving up.

  3. Dang Jill....the stuff you do on seemingly a whim (didn't you do the TD on a whim?) Mind blowing...seriously mind blowing. My legs and lungs hurt just from READING about your ludicrous ride (the word "Epic" is not even close to what you did). It's smoky down here (CA Central Coast) too...or still/...or feels even more like always...and we are in our FIFTH heat-wave of the year! This is really not natural...we usually have just 1 wave which lasts just a few days. We were near 100 again yesterday, forecast for 96 today. I searched but can't find anybody who has put together a list of how many record highs we have broken this year, but it's a LOT. Seriously crazy stuff...some might even say apocalyptic...

  4. "Gasping for goals" has shifted to maintain habits as goals, for myself. My internal compass keeps me going forward, even if uncertain terrain blocks my vision and path, keeping the world small ahead of me. Looking up at a star filled sky at night, stirs thoughts of this tiny finite planet spinning in a ever expanding universe providing me my existence, humbles me to great appreciation and tempers my nihilism....time here is short, life is a blessing. I Smile, seeing past the crazy.
    Jeff C


Feedback is always appreciated!