Monday, March 29, 2021

There's still magic

I've been terribly sad since the mass shootings at a grocery store in South Boulder. I'm sad after every atrocity carried out because we as a society have decided that change is too hard. But this one, for obvious reasons, hit close to home. It was a foggy, gloomy Monday afternoon. I decided to burn off some stress with a threshold ride on the bike trainer, one of my higher-intensity efforts since my breathing deteriorated in mid-February. It went reasonably well and I was pleased, believing my latest slump is finally on an upswing. While downloading the stats to Strava, I mindlessly clicked over to Twitter. The first line on my feed was alarming. "Active shooter Table Mesa. Avoid South Boulder at all costs." 

I don't remember exactly who wrote that initial Tweet, but it was early in the incident. I went into a frenzied search for more information and found little. Where was the shooting? Who did I know in the area? Was anyone killed? Twitter is an amazing source for breaking news in the moment, but it's raw and unfiltered, and there's no way of knowing what's true. In my scrolling, I saw reports of multiple shooters spread across the area. I saw an alarming and seemingly authentic photo of a person lying prone in the parking lot of a grocery store I know well. I saw "At least a dozen down." As more reliable information trickled out, I watched aerial footage of a shirtless man with a bloody leg being led out of the store in handcuffs. The video panned as officers put the man gently on a stretcher. When I saw this video, I felt a surge of rage that I've rarely experienced. This man gunned down my friends and neighbors. The anger was so strong that I finally closed my laptop, resolving to leave it alone until an official report came through. I couldn't bear any more images of victims or killers. 

I walked out of the room in a daze, feeling as though I'd been injected with a powerful sedative — an exhausted mind's coping mechanism, I suppose. Beat mentioned that he'd marked us both as "safe" on Facebook, and I blinked in disbelief. Of course, messages from friends and family were already rolling in. As statistically unlikely as it is to become a victim in a mass shooting, even in this gun-loving country, the calculated and cold randomness makes the act particularly upsetting. Grocery stores are just about the only public indoor space I've visited in more than a year. King Soopers wasn't my main store, but I still dropped in from time to time, especially after a challenging run on one of my favorite segments up Shadow Canyon from South Mesa. Many of my local friends live in the vicinity. I wondered if anyone I knew was involved, and wouldn't be certain until the following morning. There were friends of friends, no one I knew personally, but still ... should that matter? Ten people were cut down simply for going about their daily lives, doing their jobs, just trying to get through another day. 

It could happen to anyone at any time. One of the worst things about it is that a seeming majority of public officials have decided it's not a problem worth bothering to fix. Let some madmen with guns kill a few dozen people. Let a virus kill a few hundred thousand. Who cares? Let's not summon even a modicum of goodwill and collective sacrifice to improve the wellbeing of millions. Now there are a hundred million Americans who are left to feel perpetually unsafe and apprehensive about going about their day-to-day lives, but that's okay because mask mandates and assault rifle bans would trample the teeth-bearing freedom of a few. 

"Should we just move somewhere?" Beat suggested whenever his question about what I planned to do with the day elicited an, "I don't know. I'm depressed." 

"Where is there to go? Everywhere has people," I responded. I was doing that thing where I daydreamed about building a remote cabin in Interior Alaska and saving up just enough money to pay a pilot to drop a year's worth of supplies every summer. I'd live out my days chopping wood, eating rice and lentils, reading books, and definitely not looking at Twitter. Ideally, I'd succumb to cold exposure before any real suffering endemic to old age got to me. There are a lot more details to this daydream. I spend too much time thinking about it, as I become more uncomfortable with the realities of being human in the modern world.


Beat suggested snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park. He had a spontaneous day off on Friday, which also included a forecast for overcast skies, rain and 40 degrees in Estes Park. I was not inspired. But it's hard to say no to a day in the park, even when there were likely to be no views. We chose the Longs Peak trailhead mainly because it was likely to be uncrowded this time of year. Indeed, there were only three vehicles in the parking lot when we arrived. We met a ranger who politely asked whether we could straighten out our parked car to make room for the dozens of vehicles that would not be showing up that day, and a family from Oklahoma who asked for a photo, moved to pose in front of a pile of plowed snow, and then asked how to get to "the mountain with the restaurants and gift shop at the top." 

"Um, you mean Pikes Peak?" I asked.

"That's the one!" the man shouted.

"That's down near Colorado Springs ... more than two hours south of here."

"Oh. Well, then I guess we're lost."

You gotta love the national park. 

The sky was slate gray and graupel pelted the snowpack — the right weather to match my mood. We strapped on snowshoes and made our way up an increasingly faint ribbon of singletrack. Patches of sunshine glimmered on snow-covered tree branches. We continued climbing through the scrub pine and brush. The unobstructed views revealed a dramatic sky of dark cumulonimbus clouds billowing around intensely blue sucker holes — thundersnow weather. But we were lucky. The sucker hole seemed to hover directly overhead, bathing us in unexpected sunshine as snow squalls draped the surrounding mountains in mist.


Beat had woken up that morning feeling rough, and I was already thinking about devoting Saturday to a long fat bike ride that would demand as much energy as I could spare. But the call of those dramatic skies was too enticing. Beat, still the stronger hiker even at 50 percent power, continued breaking trail. I did my best to keep up as we picked our way across breakable wind crust and ankle-threatening minefields of hidden boulders. 


The snow squalls caught us near Granite Pass, 3,000 feet higher than the trailhead at 12,100 feet. In an instant, the balmy skies bore their teeth with bone-chilling wind and a brief whiteout. Beat bouldered his way up a rocky outcropping in snowshoes to "tag" a high point, then we turned around.


Within minutes, the squalls again retreated and brilliant sunshine returned. Beat's Ambient Weather app warned of thunderstorms in the near vicinity, and all of the surrounding skies looked ominous. It felt as though this sucker hole was reserved only for us. 

We stopped to coo at a snowy ptarmigan who had been scratching around this same spot an hour earlier. It seemed to have not a care in the world. Beat joked about adopting it since it would probably just let us reach out and grab it (not that we would, of course!) I wondered about the little bird's existence. Ptarmigans seem to have such a hard life, here near the bottom of the food chain in one of the harshest environments in the world, relying on camouflage because it can't afford to expend energy. And yet ... what a world in which to live. And what a triumph it is, to keep on living. 


Under the intense glare of the sucker hole, we stopped for one more gaze toward Longs Peak and Mount Meeker, now clear of the haze and towering over us in a majestic and seemingly eternal silence. The photos don't capture it at all, the feeling of standing in the midst of these mountains. Pure awe. No amount of effort or planning can conjure such a moment, either — luck, or providence, is still the driver of many of life's best moments. 


Earlier in the week, one of my ideas for beating the blues was to boost myself out of familiar environs and seek out some quality solo time. Solitude, in its own paradox, has a way of helping me escape my own head and move more instinctively through the present, like ptarmigan. An overnight camping trip to the Ark Valley seemed justifiable. I had an idea for a big bike loop that seemed unlikely to work out on the unknown conditions of snowmobile trails. But if it did, it was going to need as early a start as possible. I set an alarm for 3:45 a.m., to make room for a 3.5-hour drive. I was glad to have an excuse to do this. I am by no means a morning person — not even in the barest sense — but I love driving when I'm the only person on the road. The coffee was hot and abundant. The music was loud and elicited tears with every other song. The nearly full moon cast silver highlights across the snow-covered landscape. Sunrise over the Sawatch Mountains drew audible gasps. 


The trail reports for Tincup Pass were sparse. It had been groomed at some point in the past two weeks, but also received "16 inches of fresh." As soon as I hit the trail, I knew the snowfall was the most recent event. There had been some traffic but not the quality kind. The trail was still a mire of paddletrack churn and lumpy mashed potatoes only partially refrozen on this 9-degree morning. Also, it seemed about 2 inches of fresh snow had fallen overnight. Oh, and the route gains 2,200 feet in six miles. Okay, this would be a slog. Maybe, probably, I was unlikely to make it over the pass to drop into Taylor Park and loop around to Cottonwood Pass. But I'd driven all the way out here. At least I could try to reach the pass. 


I enjoyed about two miles where the trail was mostly rideable with about 1.5 psi in both tires and an incredible grunt of effort. (This photo is a flat section with a view. The trail was usually much steeper.) Since I'm more or less incapable of willing myself to sprint, only fat biking can access this depth of strain from my psyche ... because to simply move forward at all demands a zone 5, all-out effort. I'd pedal for about two minutes and rest, pedal two minutes, rest. Repeat ad nauseam. Since I don't often engage my limited capacity for high-end fitness, I rapidly lost steam. That's when the snowmobiles started passing me. There were many of them. They gunned their engines to power through the mash, hopelessly stirring up snow in the process. Moguls grew before my eyes. Climbing grades topped 10 percent. Now I had no choice but to push. Even this seemed a Herculean effort. My heart pounded. My vision blurred. I slumped over my handlebars, desperate to flush the lactic acid from my shoulders and lats. Four steps, rest. Four steps, rest. 


As the landscape opened up, snowmobiles spread out in all directions. Yeah, good riddance. I continued trying to trace the semblance of groomed trail beneath the night's fresh snow. When I failed, my body disappeared into powder stashes as deep as my waist. I had to leverage the bike to climb out of these holes. At least it was useful in that sense. A 30-pound ice ax. 

The final pitch to the pass skipped the summer road by a half-mile and shot straight up the slope. Grades topped 40 percent; I measured. I didn't want to hurt myself — a 30-pound ice ax isn't that useful — and I already knew I wouldn't travel beyond the pass. This was the most miserable thing I'd done to myself since I read all of the New York Times articles about the shooting and promptly quit opening the NYT home page ever since. But I did drag myself all the way up here, so I should at least see the pass. I ditched the bike at one of the last trees on the route (you can see it in this photo if you squint) and literally crawled up the pass, kicking steps and punching my thinly gloved hands into the snow for leverage. 


This is the view from Tincup Pass, along with the wind-drifted trail that promised continuous suffering for as long as a person could endure. It was intensely windy, as it always is on the Continental Divide. I wallowed through knee-deep drifts just long enough to take this photo when a snowmobile came racing up from behind. The man had spotted me crawling up the pass. 

"Are you okay?" he shouted.

"Fine," I said. "I left my bike down there. I'm turning around. I just wanted to see the view." 

I could see a look of bewilderment in his eyes through his lifted helmet visor. "Okay," he replied and spun around, disappearing as quickly as he arrived. Even the snowmobilers didn't want to be here. 

The descent was even worse than the climb. The day had warmed to a balmy 39 degrees, and the intense March sunlight decimated whatever was left of any kind of crust or walkable surface. While wallowing down a reasonably steep slope, I passed a snowboarder who was doing the same — even he couldn't get any glide through the morass of lumpy mashed potatoes. Snowmobiles passed me at close to walking speeds, wresting their machines up and down slushy moguls that had now grown a foot high. Grim. So grim. By the time I returned to my car, more than six hours had passed. I had "biked" a total of 12 miles. Of that, I only sat in the saddle for 2.5, almost all of that on the initial climb. I couldn't remember the last time I felt so beaten, so tired. 


I thought about turning the car around and going home. I hadn't come up with any better ideas for the trip, and I certainly didn't have the energy for anything else. I'd chatted with a friend about meeting up in Leadville on Sunday, but it already seemed unlikely she could come. Still ... I brought my bike out to this mean valley. I was going to ride my bike. Temperatures topped 50 degrees in Buena Vista ... Breakup is here ... but Leadville trails are usually reliable. 


I arrived in town around 3 p.m., parked my car in the Dutch Henry parking lot, and promptly fell asleep in the driver's seat. I woke up around 4 p.m. feeling awful — really awful, as though I'd come down with the flu. I stuffed down some crackers and slices of provolone cheese, eating three before I realized the cheese was actually quite moldy. O. M. G. Just get me out of this place. I stepped out of the car into a mire of mud, wrestled the bike out of the back, and maneuvered my surprisingly stiff body over the saddle. I bruised my left shin quite badly while postholing up to Bear Peak two weeks ago, and the Tincup bike wrestling had reignited the worst of the pain. My quads felt like they had been pounded with a meat tenderizer. My shoulders — ouch. Well. I came here to ride. Time was short, the days of winter numbered. Winter is already over. But the Mineral Belt Trail was surprisingly firm despite the heat. After three miles, I finally stopped to pump up my tires from their nearly flat status. The bike started to roll amazingly well. 


I even surprised myself by climbing all the way to 11,500 feet, near the cusp of treeline. It was such a nice evening. Skies were clear, the air was warm, the views were expansive, and the riding was demanding but doable. That's one thing endurance racing teaches you. There's always something in the tank, at least something. Whether or not it's worth it is the question. This was worth it. I rolled past the Ibex Mine site as a skier headed higher for a moonlight tour. I wanted to follow him, but the trail looked very steep, and I still needed to find a place to camp for the night. I vowed to return the following day. 


The moon rose as I descended the ever-fun Mineral Belt Trail. I wasn't in a position to get a great photo, but the contrast of subdued sunset light against the moon was stunning. 

I headed out to Turquoise Lake and found a great campsite near the shoreline. Although breezy near the dam, it was perfectly calm here. Moonlight reflected off the open expanse of snow in a way that resembled a surreal sort of midday — bright yet colorless. Temperatures again dipped into the single digits, but I'd brought a -40 bag to snuggle up in. I was as comfortable as I've been in the nicest beds. Mainly I was happy to rest my tired bones, even if I offset a day in the high-altitude sun with a half-gallon of water, and thus had to get up four times to step out into a surprisingly frigid night. 

The first hints of dawn arrived when the indigo sky turned violet.  I ignored it for about an hour until my bladder left me no choice. As I rolled away from camp, I noticed that somebody had groomed the trail overnight. It was pristine, perfect corduroy. Although I'd planned to return to East Leadville, the Turquoise Lake trail conditions were too good to pass up. 


I've walked and ridden around this loop in winter conditions four times now, and I know it to be a popular route with novice snowmobilers who like to gun their machines at random and tear holes into the trail, especially on a beautiful Sunday morning such as this. I knew the pristine corduroy wouldn't last, so I skipped morning coffee, stuffed down a piece of banana bread as breakfast, and set out within a half-hour of waking up. 

But the strangest thing happened, on a beautiful Sunday morning in Colorado. Nobody passed me. Not one person or machine, in more than two and a half hours. Silence reigned. Wheels rolled free, or at least as free as they could on the flattened remnants of snowmobile mash, warmed-over and refrozen. Resistance was still high, the work still hard, but the morning was incredible. The wide trail was forgiving; no thinking needed to happen. I slipped into flow and pedaled mindlessly, feeling only peace and yes, maybe some pain. At the top of an 800-foot climb, the wheels let loose and seemingly floated over the snow, making no noise as we coasted effortlessly toward the lake. I had called my fat bike many mean names the previous day. But here, on Turquoise Lake, all was forgiven. 


I wrapped up the ride around 10, and I was quite tired. But there's always something in the tank. I still wanted to return to the high country, and I hadn't yet had my morning coffee or a real breakfast, so perhaps I could combine the two. I packed up my stove, Cup Noodles, tuna, and two packets of instant coffee. With what felt like Herculean effort, I pedaled my bike up nearly 2,000 feet of steady elevation gain in four miles to reach the base of Ball Mountain at 12,000 feet.

It was windy up there; not really cooking weather. I had to stamp a three-foot-deep hovel into a tree well just to coax my stove to light. But I did boil enough water for Cup Noodles and a full camp pot of coffee, which I took for a hike to the top of Ball Mountain. 


The views up there were ... wow. This mountain may be diminutive compared to the 13ers of the Mosquito Range and the 14ers of the Sawatch Range that surround it, but the 360-degree vista cannot be topped. I stomped through intermittent bulletproof wind crust and knee-deep sugar to circle the perimeter of the broad summit. Variable surface conditions kept me on my toes, and it took quite a bit of coordination not to drop my coffee. I was amazed I managed this, but I do love my coffee.


I stood in the wind and traced hiking routes through the Mosquitos that I want to try this summer. Ridge walking for days! 


Maybe I could try it today! If only I had crampons and an ice ax. A better feel for the avalanche risk. A backpack in which to carry supplies. All right, I can't have it all. But I didn't want this magical weekend to end. 


 I decided to take my bike for a few more explorations south of the mining district. The problem is, I don't actually know the area and had no firm route in mind. Many of the roads on the map don't necessarily become snowmobile trails in the winter; in fact, they often don't line up. A trail I was certain existed simply wasn't there. I thought I'd find it under fresh wind-drifted snow, but instead, I wallowed up to my hips in virgin powder. I again had to use the bike as an ice ax to pull myself out of deep holes. I spent nearly an hour in this mire of pointless wallowing before I gave up and backtracked to Breece Hill. Still, I wanted more. 

I followed a well-tracked trail down a steep hill. It was marked with arrows, so I decided that meant it was one of the routes for the virtual races that Leadville's bike club sponsored, and it would definitely lead me back to Mineral Belt. I told myself the stories I wanted to believe were true. I followed the arrows up another steep hill, again climbing above 11,000 feet and into another drainage, and well ... duh. But I still thought it reasonable to lose another 700 feet on this trail, descending into a mire of ankle-deep Slurpee slush and finally mud because apparently, Leadville exists in this magical bubble of winter inside the Ark Valley banana belt. Finally, I arrived at a gate, where a woman was about to get into her truck. I asked her whether the road descended "to town." She looked confused, and I had to clarify, "Leadville." 

"You can't get to Leadville from here," she said with a kind apologetic tone. "I mean, you can. It would be okay to ride through the village. But it's ten miles to the highway, and then another 15 on the busy highway."

I did not believe her. But later I looked at a map, and what she said was true. This new drainage took me completely off course in the precise wrong direction. She suggested going back the way I came, and as much as I dreaded the slush slog and wet feet that were sure to ensue, I knew she was right. She suggested I try the "footpath" instead of the motor path I came in on. After 300 feet of climbing through soul-crushing mud — all too late in my opinion — I realized her recommended route was unbroken singletrack. It felt like it was 100 degrees under the afternoon sun. I was drenched in sweat as I slogged into what promised to be a hard hike through a half-mile of steep, knee-deep slush. 

While pushing, the coat dangling around my waist became lodged in the bike's cassette. Rage coursed through my blood and I stopped to compose myself. "Be patient, be patient," I chanted. I wanted to rip the entire thing apart, bike included, and may have found the adrenaline-charged strength to do so if I didn't will myself to be rational. It took at least 15 minutes to work the coat away from the cassette — the zipper being the linchpin. Meanwhile, slush soaked into everything I was wearing. Within minutes I was cold, but I didn't put the coat back on, because I had already worked so hard to stuff it into an overstuffed seat post bag. It was too much effort to remove. 

When I finally reached the "motor trail" that I rode in on, I had nothing left in the tank. I was sure of it. It was that moment in the adventure where you wonder if just sitting down in the snow and waiting to die might just be the way to go. I'd already had a little cry about the coat and seized-up wheel, before reminding myself that I was crying over a bike when hundreds of lives were irrevocably changed by the Boulder shooting, and don't these kinds of terrible things happen every damn day? No, get your sad self up and keep walking. Life is hard in its own ways for each and every one of us, but what a triumph it is, to keep on living.

Needless to say, I got my sad self up and completed the multiple climbs back to my car without further incident. I texted Beat to tell him my adventure went, you know, a little long, as Jill adventures usually do. But I was on my way home. The day was ending. Evening drenched the mountains in magic light as I listened to music and cried for every other song, mostly from happiness and nostalgia, this time. 

Sunset kept getting better as I drove east toward the high winds across the Divide and the alarmingly large moon rising over the mountains. Life as a human in the modern world can be sad and full of drudgery. But then sometimes, in the midst of these low moments, the universe returns with a barrage of magic so astounding you can scarcely breathe.

5 comments:

  1. Gosh, Jill, you are such a winter adventurer, I just love it. Escaping from bad news into the wild harsh conditions is the only way to forget, not think, heal...I love your daydream of cabin in remote Alaska (or remote anything) and the style of living it brings with it. The solitude. The hard work. It'd work if I were alone. Completely and utterly alone. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, "we are responsible for the rose that you have tamed". Lovely photos, as always, and what a time away. "Life is hard in its own ways for each and every one of us, but what a triumph it is, to keep on living." Love it.

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  2. From despair to elation and back and forth, isn't that how life often goes, but we just have to keep on moving forward. Great write up as usual, Jill and amazing photos. Sounds like a get away to Leadville was just what you needed.
    Corrine

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  3. Jill! This is one of the, if not the, finest essays you have written in this blog. Everything the other commenters wrote rings true. The "Life is hard" quote is one I'll repeat to myself every morning!

    The range of emotions, the amazing storytelling, the unexpected humor, just threw me as I continued to read. The discovery of the moldy cheese when you were at your lowest was laugh out loud funny!

    Thanks for keeping this blog running when so many other bloggers have retired. I've read every post you have written over the years, and, although I'll never take casual winter overnight adventures in the mountains like you and Beat routinely do, your adventure reports teach me that I can always do at least a little more than I thought I could; that there is always more in the tank!

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  4. This post is beautiful, Jill. Thank you!

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