Sunday, November 15, 2020

Into the lonesome season

Evidence points to a long and lonely winter in front of us. Given the scope of pandemic fatigue and willful acts of defiance, there's just no way COVID numbers are going to improve in the next few weeks. Collectively we seem unwilling to act, so anyone who still wants to reduce exposure for themselves, their families, and their communities will need to make a hard retreat from society ... if they can. That's the hardest thing about it; most people can't. Our "let it burn" policy is going to reap a lot of collateral damage. It's all so heartbreaking. As individuals, it seems the best we can do is join the bucket brigade of those who can afford to minimize indoor mingling and human contact. Right now I am thinking I will need to give up any hope of spending time with my family over the holidays. Or participating in my bike race in January. Or traveling to Alaska in March 2021. I acknowledge such sacrifices are minimal in the scope of the terrifying outcomes should the curve continue to skyrocket. Still, it does look like a long and lonely winter ahead, either way. 

As I mull this long and lonely season, I feel a paradoxical desire to distance myself even further from everything. Last week marked the third week of region-wide public land closures put in place to mitigate wildfire risk. That combined with unseasonably warm weather funneled thousands of people into a handful of outdoor spaces still open to the public. Trailheads were mobbed; my home road was as clogged with traffic as it was in the spring. It began to feel suffocating, even as I spent most of that week riding my bike along quiet back roads with surprisingly low traffic. This week, we earned a breather as cold and snow returned. 

On Monday it was 33 degrees with a misting rain that coated the roads in ice. We have yet to install winter tires on the Subaru, so I crawled along the road to a popular trailhead where only two other cars were parked, put on a hat and vest, and set out toward South Boulder Peak. As is my tendency in the early season, I was underdressed for the "feels like" reality of the cold. I hiked hard to mitigate the creeping chill as my clothing soaked through. As I climbed, the rain turned to snow. A stiff breeze prompted me to put on a jacket and mittens, but it wasn't quite enough. I could only briefly tag the peak before starting down the mountain. The rocks were slick with ice and snow, so I could no longer maintain a hard pace. I shivered most of the way down. My legs had become too numb to run by the time I hit the smoother trail. In short, I was uncomfortable ... yet pacified. Alone in this black-and-white landscape with no one else around, I felt a soothing sense of calm. 


I wanted more. The next day I was able to get out of the house was Thursday. Another storm moved through the region, and the forecast called for intensely high winds. Meteorologists say this will be the pattern all winter long, thanks to a strong La Nina impact: mountain snows, ceaseless blows. But at least wildfire danger lessened and a few corners of Rocky Mountain National Park reopened to the public, including Old Fall River Road. I figured it would be snow-covered, but fun to squeeze in one last high-altitude ride for the season. I started out from Lawn Lake trailhead, where it was 16 degrees with a steady 22 mph wind, gusting to 50 mph. My weather app indicated the "feels like" temperature was -1F at this temperate altitude of 8,000 feet. What would it be at 12,000 feet? As I pedaled up a few miles of paved road, blowing snow completely obscured the higher peaks. It looked ominous. 


It was my first trip on the fat bike in several months. Beat installed studded tires the night before. The combined effects — riding a heavy bike into a highway-speed wind tunnel through several inches of snow — made me feel like I was pedaling a tractor. So much work. I almost forgot that Old Fall River Road ascends at a 7-9 percent grade because I had my chin buried in my handlebars, bracing against the headwind. Climbing was just an afterthought. I passed the last hiker only about two miles into the gated part of the road. A fearsome gust hit and we both dug in — me with both feet planted on either side of the bike, and him leaning forward with both arms thrown over his face. 

"Going to the top?" he asked as the blast quieted slightly. 

"Doubtful," I replied. "It's pretty windy."

"It's very windy," he shouted as another gust gained strength. "I'm turning around." 

There were still six unbroken miles to the "top." I knew if I continued, I wouldn't encounter anyone. 

Shortly after I passed into untraveled territory, I started encountering what turned out to be a few dozen downed trees. Most of them were large, formerly healthy trees with thick branches that snagged my jacket as I wrestled with the bike. Hundreds more were piled like toothpicks in the gorge below. It was strange to see this destruction, as I'd been here several times this season and hadn't noticed the blowdowns before. But when I put the timeline together, it made sense. I was last here Sept. 4 when we shuttled our Mummy Range traverse. Sept. 6 was the day the Cameron Peak Fire blew up and they closed this side of the park, including the road. Sept. 8 brought the straight-line winds that flattened entire drainages in this region. Then there were two more months of wildfire closures. The few who braved the wind and snow this week are probably some of the first people to travel Old Fall River Road since early September. 


As I climbed the snow became deeper. The lower miles were wind-blown, but the switchbacks above the gorge were more protected by thick forest. I let most of the air out of my tires and could intermittently ride, but pedaling uphill through the mire often demanded more strength than I had to spend. I held some hope that I'd find more wind-scoured patches up high. But with four miles to go, it was becoming clear that I'd be walking most of the rest of the way, probably up and down. Still, the scenery was enjoyable and I had ... I did the math in my head ... maybe two more hours before I needed to turn around to avoid being caught out in the dark with only my tiny emergency headlamp. 

"If I was racing the Fat Pursuit, I would certainly need training like this," I reasoned as justification for the ridiculousness in which I was about to engage.

The snow deepened. Wind had carried away most of the surface powder and left only hardened crust over a thick, Styrofoam-like base. It was occasionally solid enough to hold my weight and I could pedal three or four strokes, but usually, I broke through. I felt like I was pushing a bike through knee-deep quicksand. It was strenuous. Amazingly strenuous. 

After having my ass handed to me on the Iditarod Trail back in March, I'd managed to delude myself into believing that I'd regained some semblance of strength. After all, I spent the summer ascending difficult mountains and took to riding long miles on my bike in the fall. But none of that seemed to mean anything. In an instant, it was March in Alaska all over again. I was hunched over an energy-sapping abyss of snow, trudging as though Earth's gravity had suddenly become ten times as strong. I'd count ten steps to put myself in a rhythm, but sometimes I couldn't even take that many before feeling so winded that I needed to stop and catch my breath. Then came the chest-high drifts, more deadfall, and dangerous flirtations with gravity while tight-rope-walking a razor-thin strip of dirt between a snowdrift and a precipitous slope. 

Meanwhile, even in this relatively protected bowl, the wind continued to rage. The chill cut so deep that my nose was an ice cube, even protected by a fleece buff. But the rest of my body was a furnace of effort and purpose. The purpose? Relentless motion, I guess. That paradoxical state in which physical distress brings a direct proportion of mental peace. 

Finally, I cleared treeline and found a few more wind-scoured patches to ride, but mostly the roadbed was filled with snowdrifts. I found even where I could pedal, I was too exhausted to manage more than a few strokes. My back and hamstrings ached. I hadn't felt this weakened in a while; probably since March. As I neared the final switchback, my watch buzzed to indicate I'd finished a lap. In cycling mode, a lap is five miles. My virtual training partner used to think these should take 20 minutes, but since I trended toward ridiculousness and steep Colorado terrain, it's long since given up on this goal. This five-mile lap took 2 hours and 57 minutes. I laughed because I'm sure that's my slowest lap ever. Even in hiking mode, three hours would be a painfully slow five miles. I'd managed only ten miles in four hours. It was time to turn around. 

I turned my back to the wind and started hiking down, wobbling like a baby giraffe on exhausted legs. Wind gusts ripped the bike out of my hands but still failed to knock it over in the deep snow. I breathed heavily and counted steps. I didn't expect to need to count steps for the descent, nor did I realize how fatigued I'd become. Four hours is not that long of a workout compared to some of my summer mountain epics and recent ten-hour rides. Even still — winter has a way of demanding everything upfront and leaving me with little to spare when the afternoon shadows grow long. The cold seemed to deepen, and I had little left in my backpack to buffer the chill. I always feel nervous when I'm wearing all of my spare layers, even when I'm comfortable. 


It's a place I've been many times: Cold, exhausted, hounded by wind and the coming night, and the only recourse I have is to keep walking. I gazed up at the jagged skyline with spindrift peeling off the peaks like smoke. I briefly thought about the East Troublesome Fire and how these terrible winds could fire up hot spots and reignite flames ... but no ... it was 10 degrees. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground to muffle the still-not-fully-contained wildfire. That's just wind-driven snow. Peaceful, benign snow. 

I felt blissful contentedness, and also bemusement as to why these awful snow slogs have this effect on me. I thought about the basic principles of Buddhism, that the root of all suffering is desire and the end of suffering is self-transcendence. In most of my waking hours, I am filled with desire: I want to see the world, to experience all the sensations, to understand the unknowable truths about the universe. But desire also fuels sadness and anxiety: the world is a merciless place, full of greed and sickness and death, and I don't understand anything at all. It's a constant push and pull of joy and despair. It's emotionally exhausting, but in my zeal to experience life, I wouldn't trade it for Nirvana ... at least not yet. I'm not nearly so enlightened. 

But every so often, I seek out a mountain scoured by freezing wind and buried in snow. Up here, there's nothing about me that matters. All of my desires and hopes and dreams are housed in a fragile body that any number of natural phenomena could end in a heartbeat. I feel this in my core and know that the mountain doesn't care. It's exhilarating to briefly see my place in it all — an infinitesimal human in an infinite universe — and experience liberation in this nothingness. I feel as though I could throw off the shackles of my humanness, all of the selfishness and despair, and dance into the wind, become the wind. It's beautiful but fleeting. Once I'm again safe and warm, my ego comes roaring back to stoke desire. 


Since this little adventure, I've been thinking about how these flashes of enlightenment will help me find my way through a dark winter. I don't really need a big race or exciting adventure on my horizon, although of course I still want these things. But if I can tip-toe toward the edge, gaze into the void and then pull back with the renewed realization that I'm alive — that's enough ... for now. 
Sunday, November 08, 2020

The wind presents a change of course

Moonrise on Halloween


It's been a rollercoaster of a week, hasn't it? Since last Sunday, I dove headlong into my most effective coping mechanism, logging 275 miles (10 of those miles were on foot, the rest cycling) with 37,000 feet of climbing. The mechanics of motion were astonishingly effortless. Despite dry and warm weather that continued to elevate fire danger, the air remained clearer than it has been all summer. Finally, I could breathe. Really breathe, with deep and replenishing breaths that fill my body with a vitality that almost feels criminal — like normal oxygen in the natural air is a kind of performance-enhancing drug. In this state nothing feels hard; I almost forget that energy isn't limitless, because oxygen is. All I want to do is ride my bike. I would ride day and night if I didn't have deadlines to meet, or a desire to be a normal adult in a healthy relationship and not a crazy bike lady. Still, becoming a crazy bike lady remains my fallback plan. Should I ever end up in the fallout of a ruined world — personal or literal — my plan is to get on my bike and ride until I run out of energy or oxygen; whichever ends first. 

The view west at sunset, also on Halloween


But, like many people in the United States and around the world, I also spent the week holding my breath. I was so angry that in the midst of eight-hour rides, I'd burst up a hill with such intensity that I'd arrive at the top on the verge of vomiting. I was so sad that I'd burst into tears occasionally, although the tears were rarely unprovoked. I chose to spend my long hours in the saddle listening to archived episodes of "This American Life," starting where I left off when I embarked on my Iditarod journey in February. A journey that was already a lifetime ago. I'll concede it was a poor choice to re-live American life during the months of March, April, and May 2020. I'd forgotten how sad the early days of the pandemic were. Or how upsetting the events leading up to the protests had been. How are things better now? They're not better now. The numbers are markedly worse. The only thing that's different is that we have all settled into the complacency that comes from long periods of uncertainty and trauma. Life can't be harrowing always. Eventually, just to survive, our brains rewire themselves to process new normals. 

Feeling especially jittery and slightly lost on Monday, after widespread public land closures turned me away from my original route.


I was not ready to give in just yet. I was not ready to accept leadership and a populace that embraced a deadly virus with open arms. Or gleefully dismantled democracy and instated authoritarian rule to benefit the few while oppressing the majority. Or denied a global environmental crisis and a future in which choking on the outside air will become another terrible new normal. I was ready to fight and remain ready to fight, with whatever resources I can offer. One idea I had is to contribute to a narrative that can appeal to collective empathy and help reverse our entrenched fear of change. I opened multiple blank documents, fumbling for ideas, but ultimately ended up with stream-of-consciousness laments about hopeless human gridlock. There was one that I nearly posted on this blog, since it emerged from my Wednesday ride. I'm glad I did not. But sometimes you just have to let it out, and sometimes angry pedal strokes and dirt-streaked tears are not enough. 

A rare quiet spot not impacted by the stage-3 wildfire closures, where I could sit on a rock, look toward old burn scars, eat a peanut butter sandwich, and cry over interviews with medical workers in the COVID ward of a Detroit hospital in March.

Wednesday was a hard day. Even as our local and state elections brought glimmers of hope, it seemed like dark clouds were hovering overhead. It looked as though COVID and climate denial, alternative facts, dismantling of institutions, fighting for economic scraps, selling out beloved ecosystems, lying, cruelty, racism, bullying ... were things that we as a nation chose. I know we humans all have different passions and carry different values. But it seemed like we no longer share any of them. Like there's no common ground. Like our values are so wildly varying that it will be difficult to ever merge back into a civil society. Like when you and I both look at the sky and proclaim it to be "blue," I have no conception of what "blue" means to you. Our perceptions of blue are probably not the same, and we'll never be able to show each other what we're actually seeing. So how do we learn to live together? I thought back to my empathy essays, and to the soothing words of Dan Rather in "What Unites Us," but mostly I angry-pedaled and grumbled about the flawless blue sky that was only intensifying the local drought. 

Green Mountain summit. It was 81 degrees.


On Thursday and Friday, I went a little bit comatose. I hadn't been sleeping well, on account of jolting awake every hour or so and checking the New York Times and Twitter even though I promised myself I wouldn't succumb to doomscrolling (reasoning that I was more likely to get back to sleep if I had the information I craved.) At least I could rely on the mechanics of motion to reduce cortisol and increase serotonin. During Thursday errand day, I logged my second fastest time up Green Mountain. I wasn't even trying. My heart rate was fairly low. Sweat poured down my temple because it was unconscionably hot for November. But the air was clean and rich with oxygen, and I was grateful. 

No wind, not even a breeze on Gap Road. It was so strange. Almost like a time warp.

By Saturday morning, things were looking up. It had become more difficult to justify spending an entire day riding my bike, which would be my fifth long ride in eight days. Still, it was another warm and calm day, possibly the last unseasonably warm day for a while. I'd rather have cold and precipitation right now, but I can't ignore good cycling weather while it's here. I felt strong as I blasted down my dirt road and started up the first hill — surprisingly strong. I'd logged long hours this week, and expected to feel more tired. But it was the opposite. I felt fit. Hardened. Ready to rocket up any and all of the 11,000 feet of hills I intended to crush that day. This reminds me of the self-perpetuating fitness I found during long-ago bike tours, and why my apocalypse fallout plan is to get on my bike and keep going. Done right, one never has to stop pedaling. 

The famous-with-cyclists yellow mailbox that marks the beginning of the Switzerland Trail

Out on a rolling loop of the few mountain gravel roads not affected by the forest closure, I had only spotty cell reception. So my first buzz of news came from a rare text from my Dad. Now, normally, my dad only texts me when he's in the emergency room after taking a bad fall while hiking. But Saturday, my formerly Republican father had this to say:

"Jill, today is a good day for democracy. I really believe things will improve for our country (although the bar was as low as it could have been.) Keep smiling."

And wouldn't you know ... I broke out into the biggest, dopiest grin as I read this message. A wave of relief washed over me, a kind of calm that I hadn't even expected. I laughed out loud at my dad's reference to the bar, which brought to mind an Oatmeal comic depicting an inept American pole-vaulter struggling to clear a hurdle so low it almost touched the ground. But we'd cleared it. And that meant something. 

Sarah Kendzior, one of the most cynical and also prescient writers that I follow, had this to say: 

"The U.S. faces a long dark road as it deals with the systemic problems that allowed Trump to take power and the brutal measures he will take to stay there. But Biden's win matters enormously. The door to U.S. democracy is open. Everyone who helped achieve this should feel proud."

Escape Route, an extra hill on the way home that I didn't have to climb, but did for fun.


Like many in the U.S. — a surprisingly tight majority, but still a majority — I spent the rest of the day riding this unexpected high. The sensation was similar to breathing easy after a smoke-clogged summer. You've almost forgotten how it feels to take long draws of air, how your legs can feel light rather than leaden, how amazing it is to race up a hill, surging with joy rather than rage. I really didn't expect to feel this way. The bar was so low that I didn't imagine it would be at all exciting to clear it. But it was. It really was. 

We have a long, long way to go. I have no doubt there are still a few readers here who made it through this post, are rolling their eyes, and still have no concept of what I see when I say the sky is blue. But we're all here, rolling around on this planet. I can only hope that we'll find our way to shared values again, somehow. And if not, maybe at least we'll agree to wear masks and contribute a bare minimum of effort to try to not kill each other, this year at least.