Friday, February 12, 2021

I'm here live. I'm not a cat.

As we near one full year of pandemic life, I feel a deepening sense of living in a sort of ancillary reality. Like the before times, I still spend some of the day wading into the murky past, collecting seashells of memories for writing projects. But now so many of the remaining hours are immersed in a present that feels similarly distant — filtered through the many platforms of the internet, gathering outrage and grief as it floats past. I express condolences to a neighbor by e-mail because I know how inappropriate it would be to show up at their door. But I cringe when friends propose social hours on Zoom — why even bother? That meeting could easily be an e-mail. I even took some of my cycling online, thanks to Zwift. While I truly enjoy the Zwift and won't apologize for that, I ponder how this activity might contribute to increasingly blurred lines. 

Now that my days are filled with waking dreams, my sleeping subconscious has become increasingly visceral. Recent anxiety nightmares have taken the shape of tight lungs and a blackened sky. I'm walking on a dirt road, watching dark ash fall around my face, and struggling to breathe. Beat tells me I've started to snore during the night, which makes sense. I'm genuinely dreading summer — the fire season with its smoke and destruction and evacuation alerts. Air quality so poor it leaves me wheezing after a few minutes of strenuous exercise. My world already feels somewhat disconnected and insular, and now summer is coming. The season in which I can't even go outside. 

I know this view is overblown, but it's hard not to think in extremes these days. We're programmed with reactive attention spans. A choose-your-own-reality culture of viral memes and scrolling has us retrained in ways we don't really understand. We can't keep up. Our thoughts become garbled. We reach for strands of truth, only to watch them evaporate in an instant. So we reach for the next thing that comes up on the screen, the next shiny object in the rapid-fire news cycle.

When I set out to find a career in the late 90s, I chose journalism because I believed in its permanence. Observe the experiences of my community and record them for prosperity — truly a noble purpose. Now I understand that truth won't prevail simply because there's no market for it. Many humans will believe in Lizard People and space lasers while decrying decades of scientific research. And anything we create can evaporate as quickly as a Tweet. Just yesterday, I learned that shortly after new owners took control of the Juneau Empire in 2017, the Web site transfer was mismanaged and the entire digital archive was erased. More than a decade's worth of investigative reporting, cultural events, creative essays — poof. Out of curiosity, I plugged one of my old outdoor columns into the Wayback Machine and found I could still access it, but only because I had the URL saved. There's no way to search those old articles, no way to research those pieces of Juneau's history, no archive to show for the thousands of hours poured into all of those stories. It's just gone, as will happen to all of us, and then all memories of us, eventually. Smoke in the wind. 

Somewhat ironically, the column I randomly searched was about squeezing in one last mountain hike before the weather turned cold and snowy. My barely memorable 2009 self concluded, "Whatever you do, don't wait. Winter is coming."

Then there's lawyer cat, whose Zoom mishap went viral and brought joy and laughter to millions. The comedy of appearing in court as a kitten is classic and universal, but there's also something quintessentially modern about doleful eyes gazing through a screen to declare in a Texas accent, "I'm here behind this filter. I really am. I promise I am not the adorable but confused creature that I appear to be." 

Like — don't we all feel that way? Where is the line between the "real" and virtual worlds? Does such a thing even exist? When was the last time I spent more than a second looking at a mirror or considering my appearance in public? Can I be certain I am not a cat?

The oil light in our Subaru had been on for weeks, but I procrastinated taking the car in to get checked out — car repairs mean long waits, which often translates to time spent indoors, and isn't it better to just avoid driving altogether? Finally last week I caved and made an appointment, with a plan to just meander around Longmont on my gravel bike rather than risk the waiting area. The afternoon was extremely windy and also rainy, with tiny droplets flying directly into my face like icy needles. Blech. I wrestled with the handlebars while gusts pushed me backward. A white wall of snow hovered over the foothills. When I squinted through the misty curtain, I could see the blackened skeletons of trees — ominous scars of last October's Calwood Fire. Dread flushed through my veins like cold water. I looked away.

The diagnosis for the car was a severed oil sensor, likely chewed apart by the rabbits that like to hang out underneath our vehicles. (I used to find this cute. Now I admit I am rooting for the mountain lions that have also visited our doorstep.) If the rabbits had chewed a couple of millimeters to the left, the auto technician told me, it would have meant a $1,700 engine repair instead of a mere $200 for the sensor. I took this news without relief or irritation, having become desensitized to petty car troubles by the dreary plains, wildfire scars, and winds so strong they almost knocked me off my bike. 

Still, beneath the gloomy indifference was a spark of anticipation, a new little dream to pursue. While riding around Longmont, I came across several directional signs for the Old Man Winter Bike Rally, a 100-kilometer gravel event that's become a staple of bike culture in Boulder. I've been curious about participating in the race since we moved here, but it takes place during what's usually an inconvenient time of year — just a couple of weeks before the Iditarod, which for more than a decade now has been laser-focused on tapering and preparing to survive another adventure. I don't miss that February sense of doom, but then again I probably do, more than I realize. On the bright side, I have no obligations for training and nothing I do matters, so why not race Old Man Winter? The event went virtual this year, offering an opportunity to test the course on my own time while still enjoying the parameters and distant camaraderie of a race. 

My friend Betsy wanted to meet up for a ride on Friday, and I half-jokingly proposed riding the 100K course. She didn't have enough time for the distance, but was interested in riding through North Boulder and Longmont on a modified route. I rode thirty brisk miles with her, and then split off to explore the hilly second half of Old Man Winter. Amid this 60-mile ride, I basically explored the entire course and had no reason to pursue it further. Still, the idea of racing the course nagged at me. How fast could I go? The best women's times are around four hours ... could I do it in five? Five hours would have landed me in the top seven in 2019, the last time this race was held. 

No matter how I parse it out, I'm not a talented bike racer — I'm a timid descender, I have limited power on flat terrain, I insist on carrying my creature comforts, and I use platform pedals for crying out loud. I more or less quit bike racing back in 2013 when I realized I don't even like racing bikes all that much ... bikes are for fun, touring, and the occasional weeks-long endurance expedition. Using bikes as a vehicle to rank my mediocrity among other athletes is not that appealing ... and yet. And yet. 

Just as I began to scheme a time trial, a thick and unmoving inversion settled over the plains. The bad air that I fear from summer became a February reality. This smog was a mixture of vehicle and industrial emissions rather than wildfire smoke, but it's all a bit difficult for me to breathe. I noticed the brown layer on Monday while making my way into town for errands, and opted to stay higher for my morning run. This photo is from the summit of Green Mountain. 

The inversion persisted into Wednesday, when I had hoped to start my time trial. Smog flowed in and out of the neighborhood like waves lapping a shoreline — one minute it would be 25 degrees with the Air Quality Index above 90, and the next minute the west wind would push in 45-degree air with an AQI near 0 — good warm air and bad cold air, in a strange sort of dance. I avoided it all and stayed indoors, working out some of my jitters on the bike trainer while becoming increasingly agitated all the same. I needed to break out of this bubble. 

"Even if the AQI is bad tomorrow, I'm still going to try," I told Beat. "If I start wheezing I'll just quit."

By the time I started to get ready on Thursday morning, the temperature had already climbed to 42 degrees. The sun was out and the sky was a brilliant blue, a reflection of perfectly clear and pollution-free air. This was at my home at 7,200 feet — as in, the place where I actually live and could just walk out the door to enjoy perfect February weather. The wind was blowing to near gale-force, it's true, but when is it not? I checked the sensors in Lyons, where Old Man Winter begins, and saw that it was 12 degrees with an AQI of 94. Gross. An Air Quality Action Alert made it clear that the smog was not likely to clear up anytime soon. It would be pretty dumb to take my sensitive lungs down into the inversion and ride a bike at a tempo pace for five hours or more. And yet I wavered for only a minute, then packed up the car and headed down anyway.

The air had warmed to a balmy 14 degrees by the time I arrived. The sky was slate gray with the cloud ceiling just a hundred feet overhead. There was a skiff of powder on the ground and flurries wafting through the still air — "pollution snow," I thought. I decided not to check the AQI again; at this point, it's just better not to know. I didn't know when I was a young adult in Salt Lake City and used to ride my skinny road bike through smoggy inversions so thick I couldn't see five feet in front of me ... which is probably the genesis of why my lungs are so %&*! today. Anyway, I was surprised to find four other cyclists getting ready to embark on the same ride. My start time was a random 10 a.m. on a Thursday, so I expected to be alone, but I suppose Old Man Winter is pretty popular. 

"It's so cold!" the woman parked next to me exclaimed. "It wasn't supposed to be so cold today."

"I think it's going to be in the teens for most of the day," I said. "It's supposed to be colder over the weekend, though." 

"You look like you've done this before," she said, pointing to my feet. I was wearing oversized Gore-Tex hiking shoes along with knee-high gaiters. Meanwhile, the man opposite me was pulling the thinnest-looking pair of cycling shoe covers over his cleats. My toes cringed with a vicarious sensation of frostbite.

"Yeah, I wore gaiters," I said. "I don't like it when my feet are cold." 

"Well, you look prepared," she said. 

I had been rifling through a jacket pocket for my phone, and in pulling it out also pulled out the old KN95 mask I decided to carry just in case I started having asthma symptoms.

"I'm extra prepared," I said, holding up the mask. She regarded me silently with a confused look on her face. I forget that most people don't feel as strongly about air quality as I do, and that to her I was probably just advertising COVID paranoia ... which I also have, but not when I'm well distanced from others and also outdoors. 

I took off down the road and noted my start time after rolling past the Highway 36 intersection — 10:02 a.m. Pretty close! (I admit I had Beat change my official tracker to 10 a.m. from a planned 9:30 a.m., which I'd already changed from 11 a.m. Wednesday.) The gravel along the road was loose but less dusty than the previous week, so perhaps the pollution snow had done some good. I set into a solid tempo pace — heart rate 155-160 — and pretty much just hoped my speed wouldn't drop below a 15 mph average in the rolling hills. I'd decided not to watch my pace. I was riding my drop-bar gravel bike with studded tires, which are slow-rolling on non-icy surfaces but promised to help spare my old lady bones when patches of ice surprised me. I don't regret my gear choices in the least, but I sure had to work hard for 15 real miles per hour versus 15 virtual miles per hour on Zwift. I was glad it was 14 degrees, so I could pedal this hard and not even break a sweat. 

For the first hour, I was filled with irrational exuberance. I was racing my bike! How fun! I looked over my shoulders a few times to see if my random start time companions might catch me. I have no idea how much longer they took to get going, but they all looked fit and fast. My lungs started to feel raw and hints of wheezing escaped each exhalation, so I pulled up my fleece buff. I tried to take sips of water but my water bottle valves were already frozen. When I could afford to ride single-handed, I gnawed at them for several minutes until droplets of liquid escaped.

Fatigue began to set in with the mild dehydration as I made my way up Lefthand Canyon. My lungs felt raw and I resolved to back off this high-zone-three effort, but not before the end of the climb. No, have to at least try a little bit hard in the one discipline I'm reasonably good at — long, grinding ascents. The studded tires clicked on the pavement as I churned past the frosty trees and rose above the last wisps of haze. Above the inversion, the air was still brilliantly clear and warm. My bottles thawed and I took deep, refreshing gulps of water followed by equally refreshing gulps of air. The tightness in my lungs relaxed. I was feeling so much better, up here where the air is clear.

Rowena Trail seems to be the crux of this ride. I imagine it's as snowless as it's ever been during the race, but the trail was still a tricky mixture of bumpy death ice and large boulders. As that sign notes, there are also cliffs and ledges that can be unnerving. Heading into this, I'd decided I'd probably just throw the saddle over my shoulder and jog the full two miles at 4 mph, because it would probably be faster that way. By the time I arrived, buzzing on sunlight and oxygen and water, I was eager to rally this climb and attempted to ride most of it (except the cliffs. I hiked my bike beside the cliffs.) My time for the segment was 21 minutes, which is not blazingly fast for two miles of riding, but marginally more efficient than 30 minutes of running.

The rally riding was strenuous enough to work up a sweat in this warm air, just in time for the long descent into the frigid fog. It was painful. Or, perhaps another way to view the sensation, is that I felt fully alive and immersed in the harsh reality of my surroundings. My water bottles again froze by the second steep climb up Lindon. I even stopped to try to forcibly remove the lids. No dice. I hadn't yet eaten any of my snacks. My stomach grumbled uncomfortably because it was past lunchtime and I was hungry, but my throat was so raw that it was hard to force anything down, especially without water. Still, I wanted to have some oomph for the final segment of flats, so I gnawed on frozen fruit snacks until they dissolved. 

Climbing the 10-percent grades of Linden on sugar fumes with rigidly cold muscles half-broke me, and wrapped up the final twenty miles of the ride in a dream-like state of unreality. Occasionally I glanced over my shoulder and wondered how my 10 a.m. Thursday companions were faring. Did they regret using water bottles instead of hydration packs? Did they also find Linden to be an unmerciful bully? Were their toes cold? (Mine were not, thank goodness.) It's strange, when you think about it, how connected one can feel to strangers while racing. Maybe it's the comfort of shared misery. But there's also so much joy in these experiences. It somehow feels more meaningful when connected to the perspective of another person, even if this perspective is just as imaginary as anything else in a virtual world. (I don't know these people, and I don't know how they fared. I don't even know if they left Lyons. But in my mind, their stories parallel mine. Perhaps that's all that matters.) 

I pedaled through the dreamy fog in my own private haze, gasping occasionally when my brain fired off a signal to "pedal harder." I passed under the green light of Highway 36 and remembered just in time to pull out my phone. 3 p.m. on the dot! So that would make my ride ... 4:58ish. That was my goal! Five hours! But what did it matter, really? It was arbitrary. Old Man Winter had been an obsession of mine for all of a week, and now it was over. I'd earned nothing. I was probably going to pay for this hard ride in bad air with, at the very least, a day or two of lung congestion. Still, I went out into the world and I did something. That, in itself, felt refreshingly ... human. 

I'm here. I'm alive. I'm not a cat. 


  1. I went for a 23 mile run in the mountains yesterday, and my water bottles froze shut - the water itself as well. Sadly, last Friday I did Pikes Peak and had the same problem. Plus my food (bras and burritos) get frozen as well. Damn, the suggestion of keeping the pack under the jacket is nice, but my jacket is not that huge! I am hoping, this cold snap on coming weekend is the last one for the winter. I am ready for some fewer clothes explorations. Although I am truly enjoying all the skiing, downhill and cross-country, so there's that:)

    1. If you have a small hydration vest, you can wear that with only water and snacks under a jacket and a larger one with your spare clothing over it. That's essentially what I've been doing for long winter outings. Even when I go for an 8-mile snowshoe hike, I usually pack about the same as I do for the 30 hours of the White Mountains 100, so there's that.

      I don't know why I keep trying to make water bottles work on the bike. It's nice to carry nothing on my back, but ultimately not worth it.

    2. I stopped using hydration packs after first try in ultras, about um, 20 years ago:) Really don't like sucking on a tube. Thanks for suggestion though! This winter is just worse than last one, at least where water freezing comes.

  2. I'm not a cat! I love that, Jill. Great post. Great ride. Makes me long a bit for gravel riding although it will be another 3 months before we do that. And you guys finally got some good winter weather!

  3. I know what it's like to do a virtual race yet feel connected with others--I did a 100-mile Dirty Kanza last year and the 144-mile SBT GRVL race and it was fun knowing so many others were out there in their bubbles too. It somehow helped. You should do Rebecca Rusch's Giddyup Climbing Challenge in May and join everyone in a virtual Everest. You definitely have the hills and legs for it. I myself will do the quarter Everest again--no long big hills in Indiana but it's fun anyway.

  4. I am feeling really disconnected. I saw some friends this weekend I had not seen in a year. A year! Where has it gone? I used to do zoom social hours but I spend so much time online for work my enthusiasm is just gone. Good for you for having the ambition to keep doing hard things.

  5. I can count on one hand the times I went outside to ride in 2021 ... maybe I am becoming a cat. Oh! A MOUSE ... gotta run.

  6. No doubt the motivation ebbs and flows, but I am inspired by your stamina and fortitude as usual! So thanks for sharing what you view as little effort and the rest of us view as amazing.

    And here's hoping the rest of Feb & March brings big snow to CO. The fire season is looking somber pretty much everywhere, I fear.

  7. Yes the quality of our lives has been changed by Covid.
    Your finding a way of navigating through the Drama I see.
    You and We Live In Interesting times!
    Nice bumping into you again !

  8. "Now I understand that truth won't prevail simply because there's no market for it."

    Sadly true.

    The lie-filled Tweets, mobile phones filled photos that are never printed, shared, or preserved, Tik Toks, Snap Chats, etc. People's want to be immediately entertained with little to no intellectual investment is frightening and overwhelming to me. And as you may know, I AM A MORON; I can't fathom how properly educated people view it.

    COVID times are strange. Never have I been given more time to ride, hike, run, and be outside, yet sometimes I go days at a time without leaving the house. It always makes me think of the old Twilight Zone episode, Time Enough at Last.

    Keep writing, keep creating, keep breathing, keep speaking the truth. And for the love of Lizard People, don't be a cat.


  9. "There are three forces--of the body, mind and feeling. Unless these are together, equally developed and harmonized, a steady connection cannot be made with a higher force. Everything in the Work is a preparation for that connection. That is the aim of the work. The higher energy wishes to but cannot come down to the level of the body unless one works. Only by working can you fulfill your purpose and participate in the life of the cosmos. This is what can give meaning and significance to your life."
    Jeanne de Salzmann

    Lost history either by mistake or incompetence or intent is a stark reminder of the “Two is one, one is none” mantra for redundancy. Better yet is being “Anti-fragile” in work and play, a sort of “Wolff's Law” so to speak.

    “Low-Tech zine” and “No -Tech zine” have great info to share, more so considering current events around the country. Kris De Decker also moved his info to a stand alone server you might be interested to read about as a way to mirror or backup your archive.

    Which reminds me that John Michele Greer
    took his blog archive and offered the essays in print or E-Book….I plan on printing and binding books next winter as a project as I will finally have a “space” to put my growing library that has been in storage for 6 years. I think it would be cool (and totally buy it) if you put your blog in booklet form like JMG or the “Foxfire Book Series” to buy or download. When time has forgotten our existence, history is best written based off first hand accounts, as letters and diary's of the past show, I think your accounts will be of interest….. The book “Limits to Growth” seems to be aging well and hopefully “Herman Daly” will rise in discussions at some point.

    The wind of change, whatever it is, blows most freely through an open mind.
    Katharine Whitehorn

    Jeff C

    Great Photos again BTW :).

  10. Beautifully written and perfectly describes this weird reality so well. Thank you for continuing the adventures and sharing as it's such a treat and comfort to read.

  11. Hi Jill, Enjoying your blog as ever. Wanted to chime in and let you know that the Juneau Public Library keeps a microfilm archive of the Juneau Empire through 1999. I believe that the Alaska State Library has a project maintaining all the Alaska newspapers through today but I would have to check. They are working on digitizing this archive too but starting with the oldest papers don't know when they'd get to more recent stuff. All that to say that if you ever need a copy of anything that was published in the Juneau Empire and you can't find it online do give the Alaska State Library a call and it's likely they'll have it. Hope that's helpful! Thanks for writing. Your endeavors are especially inspiring this year when it's easy for everything to feel pointless.


Feedback is always appreciated!