Thursday, March 18, 2021

Dreamless dreaming

"What about you? Are you allowing yourself to dream about a challenge yet?"

A friend asked me this question last week. We were discussing the slow drift toward post-pandemic life, which most will agree has appeared on the horizon. Or, at least, we can see birds in the sky and know that land must be out there somewhere. I pondered my friend's question. What is my dream? Bike touring through Central Asia? Hmmm, maybe? Visit New Zealand? Well, yes, that's something I want to do, but does it count? Winter expedition on Baffin Island? Honestly, that's probably off the table if it was ever on the table. Finish writing another book? I mean, yeah, but do I even believe that matters? So ... what is there?

It occurred to me that, if I'm being honest, I am not harboring a dream — any aspirational or tangible goal that I'm working toward — and this could well be the root of my current state of disquiet. That, along with the deepening existential crisis that comes from living in a culture where toxic individualism crashes into global problems, along with out-of-control greed, xenophobic hate, and of course, climate change. Every day there's something new to be really, really sad about. What does it even matter, whether or not this one individual has a frivolous "dream?" 

Yes, I am again battling nihilism. Still, I'm also paradoxically "happier" than I was a month ago. At least my more acute anxiety has abated. I'm now on week three of a new asthma medication, and I no longer wake up feeling like something ran me over in my sleep. It's difficult to describe the jittery darkness I've been waking up to, as it invariably comes across as a description of simple fatigue that well-meaning friends think can be resolved with advice to "rest more." But that isn't it. The best analogy I can come up with is that I feel like I spent the night scrubbing floors with bleach. That instead of sleeping, I was engaged in a mind-numbing task while marinating in a fog of mildly toxic fumes. When I wake up, it seems as though an unremembered yet terrible thing happened, and it was bad enough to drain the joy from the world. I can see beauty, but I can't feel it. Through this filter, all is beige. 

It's something like that. But I haven't felt that depth of morning malaise in a couple of weeks now. Although I can't be sure, I believe it's because I'm simply breathing better at night. My blood is getting more oxygen because my airways aren't so inflamed. Oxygen improves every part of my body, but especially my mind. Who knows? But it could be just that simple. If there's one thing I've learned from endurance racing, it's that correcting physical imbalances can go a long way toward improving perspective. It's like when the world comes crashing down on you, to the point where you are certain you can't go on, but then you manage to stave off an epic meltdown by eating a granola bar. 

Now that I'm not spending most of my energy just trying to stay afloat, it seems more pressing to figure out where I should steer this ship. I've been drifting, and it's an uncomfortable place to be. I'm lacking control, and because of this, I'm more likely to find myself fruitlessly swirling in turbulent water rather than navigating past it. But where to go? I don't know. 

March 16 marked five years since I finished the thousand-mile ride across Alaska. Even before I remembered this anniversary, I had started having vivid dreams about Nome. In one dream I was riding my bike through empty streets well after dark. When I saw the Facebook memory reminder the following morning, I thought, "maybe my subconscious is trying to tell me I want to ride a bike to Nome again" ... even though I promised myself I would step off the Iditarod treadmill after 2020. I had a similar dream the following night, except for in this dream I arrived at the house of a friend in Nome, anticipating a big dinner party with a bunch of mushers. I was thrilled about my invite to this party, although I woke up before I stepped in the door. I mentioned this dream to my therapist, and she speculated, "You probably miss being around other people." This, admittedly, makes sense — even introverts need to get out of their own heads once in a while.

Still, is the company of other humans enough? Is my daily gratitude journal highlighting the more mundane if nice aspects of life enough? Is watching the sunset from the same vantages every night enough? Are my little runs and rides with no daunting goal attached enough? Is trying and mostly failing to write about non-adventure subjects enough? Can I find meaning in post-pandemic life? Can I find purpose in tending my garden even as the world burns around me? 

I really believed that focusing on a huge goal of walking to Nome in 2020, whether I achieved it or not, would help me stave off a mid-life crisis. But it looks like I'm going to have one anyway. 

Amid a week of unconscious dreaming about Alaska and the person I used to be, I did enjoy waking life amid the wild inconsistencies of early spring. Early in the week, it was 60-plus degrees and muddy. Springtime in Colorado is either mud season or slush season. There's nothing else, and not much an outdoorsy person can do with most trail conditions besides wallow. I admittedly sort of love it ... it's hard and ridiculous and never uninteresting. And when I don't feel like dealing with hard and ridiculous, there's always Zwift.

I hoped to take my fat bike to Brainard Lake on Wednesday, but woke up to three inches of snow and biting wind. The morning view was startling because the weather forecast called for springtime warmth and rain. The forecast was also already calling for big, big snow that weekend. I tend to believe forecasts — I've followed weather forecasting with enough interest for long enough that I understand the nuances and ranges that the various models cover, and am rarely all that surprised by outcomes. (People with a shallow understanding of weather forecasts who read them in impossible specifics and then complain about weather forecasters annoy me.) But I admit, the Wednesday morning snow surprised me. I didn't want to deal with driving on icy roads, so I scrapped my fat bike plans. Boo. 

Instead, I did my usual mundane Wednesday errands, as this seemed like the last best chance to stock up on essentials before the Snowmaggedon crowds cleared the shelves. I tacked on the usual run to Green Mountain, which was snowy and blasted with biting wind. I wasn't well dressed for this wind ... I can't say what I was expecting. I had no gloves or jacket, which was dumb .. but it did make for a more adventurous experience during a routine run. 

On Thursday I made a last-minute, late-morning decision to attempt that Brainard ride before Snowmaggedon erased most reasonably fat-bikeable trails for a while (and with harsh afternoon warmups limiting excursions to early mornings, maybe for the season.) But I was already too late. That Tuesday storm that dumped three inches at home laid down closer to eight inches up here. Only a few skiers had broken through the heavy spring snow. I tried a few trails with no luck before committing to a thin track up the unplowed road. When I took my tire pressure down to about 1.5 psi, I could ride, but it was admittedly the most tedious grind. I don't mind snowshoeing at <2 mph, but I can't quite stomach riding a bicycle that slowly. Still, if I tried walking the post-holing was knee-deep, so I stuck to the saddle as though my life depended on it. 

Still, it was a beautiful day, and I'd drug the bike all the way out here. I was at least going to reach the lake. Yeah, that's 2.5 miles from the trailhead. It took me an hour for the climb and nearly as much for the descent. I tacked on another five miles of coasting and then climbing the plowed part of the road just because five miles for a destination ride seemed unconscionable.

Saturday was supposed to be the start of Snowmaggedon, but the storm didn't arrive right away. For at least 24 hours, weather forecasters had been saying the storm had slowed down and wouldn't arrive until late Saturday or Sunday, but people who apparently hadn't checked the weather since Tuesday were angry. I admit my faith wavered and I harbored a few doubts, but I was glad the storm held off one more day. It was nice to get out for a gloomy, foggy run on trails that were still runnable. 

When the snow started coming down more heavily that evening, I committed to staying on top of the shoveling for the walkways surrounding the house. My lats and shoulders that haven't seen a barbell since my gym closed a year ago were not happy. Also, pandemic hair. It annoys me when my hair is so long and I can't wait to have it cut, but I'm holding out for vaccination because my only hair appointment in 2020 resulted in COVID exposure and a week-long quarantine while I awaited test results. Not worth it.

Early Sunday morning shoveling selfie. I was trying to depict that the snow was already knee-deep, but ended up with the classic Insta angle.

Another Sunday morning shot while working to clear the path to the garage where we keep our firewood. By evening, after another three rounds, that berm on the left would be neck-high. My whole upper body was so sore — although for whatever reason my forearms hurt the worst. My glutes, which I use all the time for running and cycling, were also inexplicably sore. I have recommitted to daily pushups starting ... next week. 

Sunday afternoon ... already closing in on two feet and still coming down at a rate of up to two inches per hour. Beat spent much of the day making passes with the snowplow on his truck, working with a few neighbors to keep three miles of road open. He couldn't quite back up the truck into the mess in the driveway, so we ended up having to shovel a lot of that snow. 

Sunday evening, 7 p.m. daylight time (I love DST! I live for late evening light.) And yes, we were still shoveling. We decided to sacrifice the car on the right in order to try to keep at least one accessible. I was absolutely exhausted. I hadn't even engaged in any "real" exercise that day, at least nothing I could log on Strava. Beat at least got out for a snowshoe hike. 

Despite exhaustion, I couldn't help but indulge in a few rounds of running and diving face-first into pillows of powder. Something about a snow day makes us all feel 8 years old again. My neighbor stopped by to ask if we could help her husband pull his truck out of the driveway. Her yellow Labrador, Henry, decided to make a similar move and literally got himself stuck in the snow. We watched him swim toward us with his snout barely sticking out of the powder, and then suddenly he just stopped. It was kind of the cutest thing — a little black dog nose poking out of the snow like a snorkel, not moving — but also concerning for obvious reasons. My neighbor raced to rescue him from the mire. I would have guessed we received close to 3 feet of snow. A nearby meter measured 28 inches; there were a few others closer to Nederland that recorded 36. It was somewhere in that range. The snowfall brought the equivalent of at least two inches of solid water. The drought-stricken region rejoiced. 

The next morning, I was still working to free the car from its two-plus-foot cornice. Most of my muscles were deeply sore in a way I hadn't felt in a while, and that was before Beat and I headed out for a real trudge of a snowshoe hike. 

It was a gorgeous morning, though. This sort of snowy beauty is so delicate and rare because the March sun and wind will obliterate much of it in a matter of hours, so we were going to soak it in while we could. 

Here comes that wind. 

Beat wanted to show me the direct route up to Bear Peak, which climbs 1,500 feet in 1.5 miles. It's steep enough to be hard work even without three feet of snow. He did the lion's share of the trailbreaking ... he let me lead for about a half-hour, and I gave it my all to prevent him from becoming too frustrated with the pace. Really, my heart rate was spiking to 170 bpm while he stood behind me. When snow is this deep, I think it's more fun to go solo because waiting behind a trail-breaker is so boring. 

We reached the summit ridge, covered in a challenging morass of breakable wind crust. 

Views toward Boulder ... so lovely. 

The final pitch of the summit ridge was terrifically challenging ... I'd call it full mountaineering. Wind drifts curled into cornices over our heads. Simply trying to climb them resulted in plunging into four or five feet of powder and sliding downhill. The only way to get over the crumbling vertical walls was to kick careful steps and punch fists into the snow to create handholds. Beat was insistent on reaching the summit, which I found motivating but also ... ugh. This was tedious work for both of us, and it was all for mundane old Bear Peak. We did reach our goal, though. The entire outing took nearly four hours. The round-trip mileage was 3. 

We ran into a duo of snowboarders making their way down through the wind-crusted burn. I was glad it was them and not me. Yikes. 

Since the weekend storm, we're continuing to get by. I've enjoyed some great slogs as the snow continues to condense under the springtime sun. Today I got in over my head with a 14-mile trudge with nearly 5,000 feet of climbing, battling minimally broken trails that were rotting underneath my feet. At times I was punching in up to my hips. When we set out on morning crust I knew exactly what was going to happen, but I still wanted to leg it out — and bashed up my shins on hidden deadfall in the process. 

It's Thursday now and I am *really* sore. My poor left shin may be badly bruised enough to mimic a shin splint. It's difficult to walk. I actually sort of love it. Physical hardship and minor pain help mask more uncomfortable existential uncertainties. I think I have no choice but to continue drifting for a few more months at least — "post-pandemic" decisions won't be plausible before then, either way. Until then, I say please, universe: Let it snow. 


  1. Only had time for half your essay this morning. Ive been reading "Why we Sleep" by Matthew Walker PhD. Great research and insight. Ive also found some correlation between respiratory rate and O2 blood level using my Whoop strap, belly breathing before sleep seems to help set my sleep mode for better night outcome. Interesting framing thought of "Toxic Individualism" a species, i feel at worst parasitic and at best, strive to be commensalistic. Deep layers of moral thought, individualism vs collectivism and the "Tragedy of the Commons". Look forward to finishing your blog post tonight!!

    Jeff C

  2. Bipolar Colorado. Saturday was 70 and I burnt my face while sitting outside for an hour. This morning I woke up to another snow cover.
    The photos of Beat pushing through thigh-high snow are bringing memories. As always, after-thoughts are cute. While doing it, not so much. Maybe that's why we keep doing silly things, we forget the negative of it. We bask in lights of accomplishment.
    I cut my own hair. The long hair is easy, split it in 2 parts, flip over each, cut. Or ask Beat to cut on the back. It's not always pretty as in professional, but who's looking? I hate it when hair is too long, mostly when I sleep. Can't turn my head at night.
    From what I gather, you're probably qualified for vaccine as of this week.

  3. I had to revisit this post :). Almost 2 weeks ago my TSH test came back low (not sure how, or when my levo dosage became too high) adjusted my meds and within 3 days my mood shifted and went from no dreams to a dream of kayaking the inside passage to AK! Still pondering how I let current news and life troubles cloud my mental awareness of my "normal" slipping away. I plan to retest TSH every 90 days for some time and do daily morning checkins with my mental state and workout recovery. The world seems brighter now but I still contemplate my emotional scale as I edge too close to indifference sometimes. Truth and balance in life seem more difficult these days as my awareness grows in spite of trying to keep my world small. Lol

    Jeff C

    "The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience."

    Eleanor Roosevelt


Feedback is always appreciated!