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.


  1. It was truly and anxious 4 days. I got the news in Arizona Strip country, over a scratchy AM radio station...Thank God, Thank God!

  2. You grin, I grin, and I see others grin. Heal, rest ... and grin.

  3. I was the same, a ball of nerves, running more than normal, stress eating (conveniently, this all comes after Halloween) and hardly sleeping, refreshing my NYT app. at all hours of the night. Saturday did bring a huge unexpected wave of relief, peace and calm, punctuated by more joy and emotion than I expected. Sitting with my family watching Kamala and Joe promise to work toward peace and unity was inspiring and amazing for my 10 year old daughters to watch. To no longer have to try to explain such divisive and despicable actions, coming from the President of the United States as I have the last 4 years will be a huge burden lifted. There are still many hurdles, but we are on the right path.

  4. My plan when I am old is to be a crazy hiking lady. A solid plan, I think.

  5. And something I would never say in my great state of Az looks like it will turn blue! Not a bright bright blue but acceptable. Hopefully, that will be the end of our puppet of a governor.

  6. I got the news while riding my bike way out in the desert. No one was within miles of me but I was jumping up and down while yelling. I am very happy about it... but now my eyes are on the behavior of Trump and whether he'll leave peacefully. So glad that your dad is happy about the election outcome!


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