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. 


  1. I just canceled two trips. Camping in the Utah desert with friends and a December section hike of the AZT. I know I am privileged in all the ways, but feeling lonely and isolated already. Going to be a long winter. We just have to keep getting outside.

  2. So beautifully written. And so much to identity with. Thank you for sharing the physical and mental and emotional journey.


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