Sunday, May 30, 2021

Expect the unexpected

It was 10:30 p.m. and I'd refreshed Beat's tracking page for about the tenth time that hour. He and his friend Daniel were out running a 31-mile segment of the Colorado Trail. It was Beat's last long run to prepare for his first post-pandemic race on June 5. They'd started at Kenosha Pass on the Continental Divide and were making their way eastward to lower altitudes. They'd moved at a fast clip since their mid-afternoon start, but in the last hour, they'd slowed down a lot. Why? I found this uncertainty worrisome. If there was still any snow on the trail, it seemed like it would have been more of a problem earlier in their route. Was somebody injured? Had the weather taken a significant turn? 

Several hours before, I caught an early report from The Guardian headlined "Twenty-one dead as extreme weather hits ultramarathon in China." It seemed unfathomable, and information throughout the evening was sparse. Later reports would reveal complacency on the part of the race organizers, slow response, and the terrible bad luck of a large group of people in the wrong place at the wrong time when a particularly strong storm moved over the mountains. But on Saturday night, a lot of commentary from the ultrarunning community moved straight to victim-blaming — i.e., "why weren't they carrying better jackets?" 

I bristled at this reaction. Yes, runners travel light in these types of races, especially at the front of the pack. These runners know they're taking a risk, but they also maintain trust in the race organization that help isn't far away. I've witnessed this at well-organized mountain races in Europe. In my opinion, the army of volunteers, extensive communication, last-minute reroutes, and funding for helicopters and the like are what have prevented UTMB from experiencing a similar tragedy — not the meager mandatory gear. 

For my part, I'm slow and have trust issues, so I try to be self-sufficient at all times. I've carried large backpacks in well-supported California 50Ks because I thought it might rain and wanted enough gear that if I sprained an ankle, I could sit for two hours without developing hypothermia. Obviously, I have a long list of survival gear for my Alaska races, which seems to grow rather than shrink as I gain more experience. But I also accept that there are no guarantees. There are nonsurvivable weather scenarios. 

A personal experience that still gives me pause happened during a simple eight-mile training run in Nome, Alaska, in 2019. The weather in Nome is always harrowing — seriously, just try to convince me otherwise — so even for what I thought would be a 90-minute run, I carried my 30-liter backpack with extra layers, expedition down parka, vapor barrier mittens, goggles, a bivy sack, satellite messenger, and a GPS navigation device. My run was on a road — flat and straight for four miles toward the Nome River bridge and then back. The wind was so strong that the pavement was covered in several inches of spindrift. I was already pushing through a ground-blizzard whiteout when sleet started coming down hard. Suddenly I felt blind. I thought, "no problem, I'll turn around now." I had been running into the wind on my way out. But when I moved with the wind, the chaotic gusts seemed to knock me around even more. Sleet soaked into my windproof fleece coat and somehow needled through my rain pants. Visibility was so bad that I genuinely could not tell the ground from the sky. My disorientation became severe. I'd stumble through what had become knee-deep drifts until I smacked full-face into a six-foot-high snow berm at the far edge of the road. I had to squint at my GPS to follow my own bread-crumb track in order to stay on the road. If it hadn't been for GPS, I'm convinced I would have wandered off toward the Kigluaiks. Sleet froze to my goggles until I couldn't wear them anymore. My clothing soaked through and refroze in minutes. When I finally stumbled through the door of my apartment, my entire body was coated in thick ice. I'd already relented to put on the parka and mittens, and yet I was still shivering. I thought, "What would I do if that storm hit me on the Iditarod Trail? In a completely exposed and shelterless place like the Topkok Hills?" I still don't have that answer. 

Which is to say, all of this was weighing on my mind as I refreshed Beat's tracking page and wondered what was taking him so long. Finally, I sent him a message about how I was going to bed because I planned to get up early for a long ride. Despite the worry, I drifted off to sleep.

I woke up at 5 a.m. to find Beat safely asleep in bed and this response: 

"Got back late. Absolutely insane storm on the way home. Took forever. Roads might be in very poor shape. Lots of rockfall and debris. Not sure if it was as bad further north, but it was nuts until Golden for sure. Some of the worst weather I've ever driven in."

Sure enough, I checked a weather station in the area of my ride to confirm that it had been pummeled with nearly two inches of rain. The last segment of Beat's run was slow because of lingering snow on the trail, but they also caught the front end of this soaker of a storm. At least Sunday's forecast looked nice — a bit windy, and maybe I'd see some afternoon showers. It is spring in the mountains after all. I decided to go for it. 

It was, truly, the most serene morning. The air was still saturated but not exactly humid — more crisp and cool. There wasn't a breath of wind. Roads were indeed streaked with sand, small rocks, and flowing runoff. Earthworms slithered and writhed on the pavement. I remember seeing storm-washed earthworms on sidewalks as a kid, but I can't say it's something I've noticed as an adult. And everything was so green. As I climbed away from Golden and rolled onto the quiet roads surrounding the I-70 corridor, I was struck by how "California" this place felt.

I spun through happy nostalgia, breathing satisfying lungfuls of rich air and marveling at the seemingly tireless pep in my legs. In past years, spring has been a difficult season for me. Spring is when pollen fills the air. Late May and June bring the grass pollen explosion, when it feels as though the whole world is pinched somehow. After 4.5 years of allergy immunotherapy and finally starting on a maintenance inhaler in February, I almost feel like spring and I can be friends again. I powered up the rolling ascent from 6,000 feet in Golden to 11,200 feet at Warrior Mountain, where I caught my first view of Mount Evans. The popular road to the 14er is opening to vehicle traffic in June after remaining closed for all of 2020. I hoped to pedal up there before opening day. I had no clue how far I could ride before reaching impassable snow, but I figured it didn't hurt to see. This view of the skyline told me I was in for an adventure. Spindrift was ripping off the ridges with startling velocity. Here at 11,000 feet, the wind was merely a stiff and cold headwind. Up there? Probably a continous hurricane-force gale. 

I stopped at Echo Lake to pull on my hat, wind shell, fleece buff, mittens, and rain pants. All of these layers weren't quite needed yet, but I didn't want to have to deal with stopping above treeline. Shortly after the gate, a man on a mountain bike passed me. He was wearing shorts and a long-sleeved jersey. 

"It already feels like way more than a mile," he commented as we passed mile marker one. 

"It does," I replied, not adding that I started in Golden. 

Two miles later, just above treeline, the road wrapped around a bend and turned directly into the brunt of the wind. The front end of my gravel bike started to buck like a nervous horse. The air was breathtakingly cold, even though I could tell from the water running on the road that it wasn't that cold. The man had stopped to sit on the pavement and pull on some feeble-looking knee warmers. I nodded as I passed. The wind was much too loud for words. I did not see him again. Later I did a fly-by on Strava and found the above photo that he took of me. It looks like I'm wrestling my bucking-bronco bike, which is probably what I was doing.  

The accumulated snow continued to deepen. Since crews had recently plowed a path through deep snowdrifts, I knew this was all new snow, probably from the previous night's storm. But the traction underneath seemed decent. In this case, the gravel bike was more or less the right bike for the job, since it sliced through the alternately slushy and crusty snow. I tried to keep an eye out for patches of ice. I pushed my bike when I didn't feel secure. Some wind gusts made it impossible to move forward at all. 

It was all a bit silly, but I was really enjoying myself. First I had this great climb through a perfect spring morning, and now I was embroiled in a true winter adventure! Ground blizzards swirled around me and I imagined I was back in Nome, battling with all of my might for the faintest of forward progress, chanting the mantra that my Nome fat-biking friends taught me: "Moving is winning." With decent wind protection from my layers, the ambient temperature didn't feel so cold. I did start to notice more ice on the road, so it had dropped below freezing. But I figured if I could continue to coax traction from my tires, I could probably battle my way to Summit Lake. Since I could still see a jet stream of snow pouring off the summit, I had no delusions about reaching the top. 

After I pedaled past Goliath Peak, there was a mile-long stretch where the road was well protected by an east-facing hillside. The crosswind remained, but it wasn't so bad anymore. I pedaled hard through accumulated snow. I became complacent. Then, just as I was about to round the next bend, the most incredible gust of wind hit me broadside. Honestly, it felt like being side-swiped by an invisible vehicle. I toppled over and slid across the pavement. Then, most disconcertingly of all, the wind pushed my body along the road like a candy wrapper. All I could deduce was there was black ice I hadn't noticed, and now I was being pushed on my back toward a sheer dropoff. It was going to hurt if my body went over the edge and started sliding down the rock-studded snow. I scrambled and spun and somehow got up onto my knees. The wind was still too strong to stand. I had blown at least six feet away from my bike, which was anchored by a pedal to the road. I crawled to my bike, grabbed the frame with both hands, and scooted on my knees backward to the relative wind shelter around the bend. Phew! That's enough adventure for today. 

Returning with an unpredictable tailwind, now feeling skittish about hidden black ice, was an arduous and admittedly scary task. I walked much of the three miles back to treeline. But after that, the world quickly turned to spring again. I pulled on my puffy coat to descend to Idaho Springs — after more than an hour of slow descending on an exposed mountainside, I was quite cold, but the puffy did the trick. After that, I spent more time on gravel roads. By afternoon the gale found its way down to these elevations, and the headwind could be intense. A few showers moved in, but they were nonthreatening non-thunderstorms, and carried the rich aromas of spring that I'd enjoyed in the morning. The hills were green and gorgeous. Except for a bruise on my thigh from toppling over on my bike and a slightly sore hip, I felt energetic and alert for the rest of my century ride, which ended at 98 miles with 12,600 feet of climbing. It's always hard to quantify experiences since memory is imperfect, but I'd have to say this was one of my favorite solo day rides of all time. Like a spicy piece of chili chocolate, all the tastier for that zing of heat — or in this case, brutal windy cold — at the center. 

On Monday, still buzzing from this ride and the deep green spring beauty, I asked Beat whether he wanted to join me on an afternoon ride. Even though he's been in training for summer foot races and not riding all that much, he was game for one of our local favorites, Homestead Trail. We launched from the driveway and started down a steep descent of our road. The road had just been graded over the weekend, and I noticed the abundance of loose stones now littered across the dirt. This was the only thought I had time for, because literally 0.15 miles from home, Beat's bike suddenly catapulted forward. I watched as it flipped end over end several times. In the cloud of dust, I couldn't see what happened to Beat, but I did see legs in the air and knew he'd gone over the handlebars. When I pulled up, he was gapsing alarmingly. I thought maybe he'd just had the wind knocked out of him, but I feared he'd punctured a lung. When he finally caught his breath, he said he wanted to go to the hospital. 

The drive was pretty horrible. We live 35 minutes from town, all on winding mountain roads. I tried to drive carefully, but every switchback caused Beat to moan with pain. My mind was wracked with stress and becoming muddled. This is the kind of stress I don't manage well. Stress that only affects me, like 60-mph winds on Mount Evans = Fine. No problem. But Beat was hurt and I felt at least partly responsible; my anxiety was starting to shut down rational decision-making. I hate this. I need to work on this. In what felt to me like two minutes but was actually four hours, we were in and out of the ER, had confirmed that Beat had a broken clavicle and possibly broken or bruised ribs, gone to two pharmacies to find one that was open, and purchased snacks for Beat to ease some of the pain ... the drugs were for the physical pain. The snacks were for the coming disappointment of losing this part of the summer, just as post-pandemic plans were finally setting him free. 

Since then, it's been a week. Beat was able to quickly get in to see an orthopedic surgeon, but because of the holiday weekend and other factors, couldn't secure his surgery until June 4. He has a lot of pain on his right side, more so from the ribs than the broken clavicle. He has to sleep sitting up in a recliner. He needs help dressing and taking a shower. It shouldn't be surprising but always is, how quickly one can go from fit enough to run a 100-miler in the mountains to calling out in the night because they've slumped over too far and can't get up. Of course, Beat had to drop out of his June 5 race. I am feeling terrible about this.

I haven't wanted to leave Beat alone for long, so I dropped weekday plans to ride Trail Ridge Road and kept my rides and runs to two hours. On Saturday morning, I set out to run nine miles around Walker Ranch. Storms were forecast to move in around 1 p.m. and remain for most of the weekend, but the morning was clear and almost hot. I was feeling so good that I contemplated how I could extend this run just a bit. Near the end of the loop, I guiltily messaged Beat that I planned to drop down Eldorado Canyon and climb back via Shadow Canyon, which was going to turn my two-hour run into a five-hour run. I felt some shame, but at this point, I was willing to acknowledge that my guilt arose from being able to run when Beat could not, rather than the delusion that he needed me around at all times. 

I had an amazing run. 18 miles with 5,000 feet of climbing, and while I never pushed it hard, I genuinely felt no fatigue. And this is in spite of the fact I only had two packages of fruit snacks for an energy boost — about 180 calories total — and 1.5 liters of water. The water I did have to start rationing, but luckily for me clouds began to move overhead. I felt thirsty but acknowledged I would have suffered more if it stayed 70 degrees and sunny. As I made my way toward Bear Peak, the forecasted storm arrived right on target, 1 p.m. Fast-moving fog encircled the mountain, accompanied by thunderclaps and at least one bright flash of lightning. Why is it that I always find the thunderstorms on Bear Peak? This is my fault for staying out much later than planned. I also regretted that I was only carrying my light wind shell and a pair of thin fleece gloves after proclaiming in the post-China-ultramarathon-disaster chatter that I try to be prepared always. But this was my two-hour, close-to-home, Walker Ranch pack. I'll hadn't expected to end up on Bear Peak this lightly packed, and will try to avoid it in the future. My gear would get me through but it was going to hurt if it started hailing or raining heavily. Luckily the worst of the storm moved south. I shadowed this dude in a red hoodie, matching his steps as we danced over tricky terrain to safety.

Expect the unexpected ... always. 
Saturday, May 22, 2021

I could write a long book about time and space

I've been reading "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan, and I have to say — I've found a surprising amount of comfort in his simple yet satisfying ruminations on astronomy and the human condition. I was too young to have seen the original television series and still a teenager when Sagan died, so I admit I'd never heard of the famous astronomer until 2015 or so. I was listening to a radio program about Voyager. In a voice recording, Sagan described the reasoning behind the images and sounds stored on the golden record that scientists launched into space. I was driving across Nevada at the time, traversing a windswept basin and crying full tears at the thought of this tiny time capsule of human endeavor swirling through the infinite void. 

"Billions of years from now our sun, then a distended red giant star, will have reduced Earth to a charred cinder. But the Voyager record will still be largely intact, in some other remote region of the Milky Way galaxy, preserving a murmur of an ancient civilization that once flourished — perhaps before moving on to greater deeds and other worlds — on the distant planet Earth." — Carl Sagan 

 Amid all of the hope-crushing events of the past year — the pandemic and all of the mean pushback, Fire Summer 2020, election season, the Jan. 6 insurrection, ongoing world conflict and sickness, intensifying climate change, etc., etc. — I find I take the most heart in this simple idea: That I am an infinitesimal being in an infinite universe. My machinations and striving, my mistakes and ambitions, all are mere flashes of light and cosmic dust. And yet I'm part of a world where everything is unique, everything is beautiful, and everything is worthy of awe. Life gifted me with the perspective to experience this beauty in my unique way, but life gifted all living things with this perspective on some level. Life will go on long after I'm gone. This truth brings me comfort. 

Cosmic existentialism and the wisdom of Carl Sagan have been on my mind as Beat has been battling his own recent existential crisis. He taught me a new word: "Weltschmerz," which is German for "world-weariness" or the sadness one feels while perceiving the pain of the world. The Germans have a word for every complex emotion, don't they? Beat's been feeling particularly sad about the state of the pandemic in India. He donated to a charity that's working to help Indian people directly, but it doesn't feel like enough. He laments that he hasn't done more to have a greater impact on humanity. He wonders if life can have purpose without at least trying to change the world for the better. Is it enough to impact just one life? What about one's own life? 

We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers." — Carl Sagan

Asking myself what makes a meaningful life is what got me through my anxiety episodes in February. I'd go for long walks through frosty subzero air and ponder how I could emerge from my own turbulent psychology. When the inexplicable jitters became too overwhelming, I'd soothe myself by imagining a camera panning out until the world was a speck in the glittering expanse of interstellar space. From this vantage my existence was abundantly simple: I'm a life form who needs to experience life. I'm an intelligent life form grasping for a better understanding of The Truth. I'm a creative life form with an innate compulsion to make sense of this search through stories. And I'm one of 7.6 billion in a flawed species flailing through our collective adolescence. I do not need to be a great person, but I do need to be a good person — or at least I need to continue to try to be a good person, through all of the ego and personality glitches and humanness built into my flawed mind.  

"Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere." — Carl Sagan

And I need to keep moving. My mind craves motion almost as much as it craves air — the space to run from excess noise, to reach beyond entrenched beliefs, to perceive both the immediate moment and the infinite space within. For years I believed I needed goals to find fulfillment in otherwise aimless wanderings. Then the aimlessness of 2020 taught me that I don't need goals or even good stories to tell; motion for the sake of motion is enough. I thought this insight might be enough to end my year-long ambivalence about returning to racing, but it did the opposite. I'm excited to return to racing. I'm eager to embrace old ambitions and again pursue old goals. Racing still offers useful perimeters to stretch my preconceived limits. Racing is still a reliable avenue for adventure. Also, a tangible goal does help my brain convince the stubborn old body that we need to continue this rigamarole. 

Which is a very long way of saying that I am "in training" once again. And again, rather than working to become conventionally stronger or faster, I'm sharpening the old mental endurance tools. This week presented good opportunities to put in long hours on my bike, so I headed to Buena Vista for a brief but robust exploration of the Ark Valley. 

“We live on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way Galaxy which is one of billions of other galaxies which make up a universe which may be one of a very large number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. That is a perspective on human life and our culture that is well worth pondering.” — Carl Sagan

My first ride was a solo 118-mile meander along the old railroad route beside the Arkansas River, wrapping around Twin Lakes, and proceeding toward the wind-blasted climb to Independence Pass. Cold gusts buffeted my bike as I tucked in as much as I could. I live in the Front Range so I'm used to headwinds, but the eastern edge of the Continental Divide is home to a particularly challenging wall of westerlies. I'd brought a puffy jacket and mittens but they did little to cut the breathtaking chill. Physically I was pretty miserable, but the old brain is getting better and better at discounting mundane discomforts. There was nobody around for seeming miles and I relished the solitude. I was gasping, straining, feeling hot blood coursing through legs wrapped in icy skin as I lifted my chin a few inches off the stem to squint into the sublime. 

“We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.” — Carl Sagan

With a few thousand rotations of two wheels, metabolizing carbohydrates and caffeine, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, recirculating water, firing countless neurons to generate muscle contractions — I made it to Independence Pass! At this point, I was chilled to the core and not looking forward to the long descent. Instead, I extended discomfort by sitting cross-legged on the icy pavement and eating the enormous sandwich that I assembled at home earlier that morning. It felt like a long time ago in a place far away. 

The descent with a stiff tailwind wasn't as painful as I'd anticipated. I enjoyed the opportunity to focus less on generating meager pedal power and more on the powerful freedom of chasing the world as it unrolled in front of me. At times I accelerated in perfect harmony with the 30-plus mph wind and all was calm, silent, as tranquil as outer space. 

Riding south toward Buena Vista meant being buffeted by crosswinds for miles afterward. I admit this was becoming tedious. By the time I finally turned east, the evening had settled. The wind finally lost steam, just in time to provide no benefit for the final uphill grind. My original plan had been to take Highway 285 and scoot back to camp as quickly as possible. I'd already ridden 105 miles and the Independence Pass headwind alone sucked away at least two days' worth of energy. But the highway at 5 p.m. on a Friday night was soul-crushing ... not to mention legitimately dangerous ... so I veered off on an unplanned detour — part of the route I planned to ride with friends the following day. It snaked up a ribbon of singletrack before climbing high into the hills on a steeply graded forest road. 

Is it fair to say I loved this part of the ride most of all? It was more than a bit ridiculous, this sandy mire of a climb that brought tears to my eyes and full rebellion from my overworked heart. Sometimes I just stopped pedaling without making a conscious decision to do so. Then I'd walk for a while. Then with a furrowed brow of determination, I'd hop back on the bike and declare out loud that I hoped this climb went all the way back to 12,000 feet for no reason. I was going to climb it all and love every sand-choked mile. This exhilarating embrace of pain finally collapsed after I'd descended through quiet meadows occupied by dozens of mule deer, lulled back into complacency before I crossed the highway. The final three miles of the day followed a road so badly corrugated that I nearly lost a filling amid the painful chattering of my teeth. At one point I stopped and forced back tears as I yelled like a toddler, cursing the unfairness of this washboarded mess that only brought purposeless pain and bone-rattling desperation. I just wanted to be back at my quiet camp along a gurgling arm of Trout Creek, where I was so looking forward to a box of Annie's Mac and Cheese that I didn't even mind that I forgot to bring a spoon and had to scoop my dinner with a folded tuna packet.

On Saturday morning, I returned to town to meet Betsy and Erika for an 80-mile ride. Our loop headed back into the hills and south to Salida. We started with the same 15-mile stretch that I rode to reach my camp the previous night. The climb was a lot easier with renewed glycogen stores and rested muscles, but the washboard still sucked. 

Betsy pedals the sandy road with the Collegiate Peaks in the background. 

We climbed onto the high basin of South Park, an otherworldly region of rolling sandhills and grassland all above 9,000 feet. This road is part of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a section I hadn't seen since 2009 since I dropped out of the 2015 race in Silverthorne. I was struck by how familiar this place felt, complete with foreboding skies and gusty sprinkles that I was certain I'd experienced in this exact location, in this exact way. The little déjà vus in life are interesting, aren't they? To me, they're unsettling, because they reveal just how flawed memory can be. My brain must constantly rewrite its stories to match present perceptions. Or maybe, just maybe, consciousness expands beyond my body and into the multiverse. Childish interpretations of quantum physics have boosted me through many difficult moments in life. When racing a thunderstorm across an exposed prairie, it's better to imagine having already escaped it. 

Eventually, the storm moved on but we continued to fight mighty headwinds to the crest of Cameron Mountain Pass. There I enjoyed another enormous sandwich that I purchased at a gas station in town. What's funny about that gas station is that I visited it once before in January, when the pandemic was raging through Colorado. The place was packed with customers and not a single one wore a mask. There were people wearing helmets and full-body snowmobile suits and no masks. On this lovely spring morning, it was just me and the clerk, both wearing masks. What can I say? I like the anonymity of masks. Also, I don't trust anyone anymore. 

From there we enjoyed 10 free miles, a 3,000-foot descent into Salida. Everyone was feeling cooked by the wind, so I proposed heading to my friend Dave's house. Dave, a friend from Fairbanks who spent the pandemic year in Salida to be closer to family, was throwing a barbecue before heading back to Alaska to work for the summer. The timing worked out well to join the party for a couple of hours before riding back to Buena Visita. Since Dave moved to Colorado, we'd thrown around the idea of riding together, but it never happened because the logistics of travel and meeting always felt like this impossible barrier. I remember last May when it wasn't even legal to ride my bicycle beyond Boulder County limits. It seems so long ago now. 

This was, however, my first "party" in more than a year. I tried to remember the last ... it must have been in Alaska, in February 2020. That definitely seems like a long, long time ago. Dave welcomed us into a small group in the backyard. We were a bit buzzed on endorphins and fatigue, and I felt downright intoxicated as I drank La Croix and carried on conversations in this casual yet surreal social setting. 

Before parting ways, my friends requested a hug. That was a first since March 2020 as well — physical contact with a human who wasn't Beat, my parents, or my sisters ... or my medical providers, to make a fair comparison. I balked for a moment — I admit to being a reluctant hugger even in the Before Times. So it surprised me how good this felt — a hit of oxytocin that I've largely deprived myself for much of a year. 

“In all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.” — Carl Sagan

With bellies full of food and beer (in my case, ginger beer), we moved slowly toward the rest of the loop. Erika opted to catch a ride with her partner, who drove down from Buena Vista. Betsy and I pedaled north on secondary highways for what turned out to be 30 more miles and another 2,500 feet of climbing. Betsy doesn't like riding high-traffic roads and also expressed reluctance to riding in the dark, so I felt like we were racing the clock. But it was a beautiful evening, cool air tinged with warm light. It was a favorite day. After the depletion of the past year, Spring 2021 has filled with a relative glut of such days. 

The past week's third opportunity for a long ride came Thursday. I set out to ride Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, a classic Colorado spring ride. Like Independence Pass, there's usually a short window after the pavement has been cleared of snow but before the route is open to cars when cyclists can ride free from traffic. I love this easy accessibility to the high country in the late spring — a time of year when all high-altitude hiking is mired in rotten snow and wet slide danger — so I try to take advantage of these brief windows. 

The 4,500-foot climb from the park entrance to the 12,183-foot high point was uneventful, besides the usual spring challenges of fierce wind and stunning cold. Instead of putting on a jacket, I thought I'd use the chill as motivation to urge my legs into a harder effort. Still, without even consciously deciding to back off, I relaxed after just a few miles. Since March my activity levels have increased, topping 20 hours of moving time most weeks. This steady-state endurance is my favorite sort of fitness, but it definitely eats into any semblance of a high end. Of course, I wish I could both set PRs and pedal for hours without feeling fatigued. But if I have to choose one, it's going to be the latter. 

There is considerably more snow than I've seen up here in past spring rides, even though I usually make it up to Trail Ridge by early May. Snowpack in this region is sitting at 121% of normal, mostly on the strength of spring snow, while the state is still a paltry 69% and locked in drought. I still have low faith that we'll make it through the upcoming fire season unscathed (meaning a normal fire season as opposed to another historic fire season, which is becoming the new normal) ... but the recent surplus rain and snow in this corner of the state has kept me blissfully content. That and finding more time and freedom to move through the world as I please. And seeing my parents and friends on a more timely basis. And adopting more hopeful personal goals for the future. And also CBD ... I doubled my intake shortly after my anxiety episodes in February, and everything since has really fallen into place. Coincidence? Yeah, probably. But I am grateful for CBD, placebo or not. 

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness ..." 

Sagan wrote this prescient paragraph shortly before his death in 1996. In Cosmos, he laments several times about the progress we as a civilization lost when we rejected or destroyed great repositories of knowledge such as the culture of Classical Greece and the Library of Alexandria. A thinker during the height of the Cold War, Sagan baffled over our zeal for war and our mutually assured destruction. Like Sagan, I believe humanity has great potential, but fear that we won't make it through our volatile adolescence — clinging to tribalism and violence, to regressive superstitions, to the cancerous inevitabilities of progress for the sake of progress. When I consider my ennui during the Trump years and my subsequent desire to zoom my perspective as far from civilization as possible — I realize that this fear is at the heart of it all. 

“Once we lose our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe which dwarfs — in time, in space, and in potential — the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors.” — Carl Sagan

Then I swing back to Voyager, pressing deeper into an unfathomable void and carrying a story of humanity that has the potential to outlast even Earth itself. Voyager launched on August 20, 1977 — two years to the day before I was born. For my upcoming birthday, maybe instead of an ego-driven effort to celebrate myself, I'll celebrate that tiny hopeful relic traveling through space for 44 years and counting. This is the way I hold onto hope — knowing that beauty goes on. The stories we share go on. And despite our best efforts to destroy what we don't understand, the truth goes on.

“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true.” — Carl Sagan 
Thursday, May 13, 2021

May snow

Life in Colorado feels like it's simultaneously always winter and never winter. Sometimes I'll scramble to the top of South Boulder Peak wearing a T-shirt in December. January is often one of my "fastest" months because it's dry and cool and the weather forecasts are reliable enough that I can get away with carrying almost nothing. February often brings the first subzero spells, but sometimes those come in October. March, April, and May have all of the snow — that is, until May shifts into Hail of Destruction — one of 12 official seasons in Colorado. By July, nearly every long bike ride requires a waterproof bag full of winter gear in case I need to wait out a thunderstorm while huddling beneath a rock. The 2020-2021 snowfall season spanned from September 8 to (at least) May 11, but within this eight-month "winter" was one of the state's worst fire summers on record. Colorado weather may be bipolar, but it's never uninteresting. 

First Summer burned through the region in early April. May 1 brought Second Summer ... summer, in my book, is any day that the temperature spikes above 80 degrees. My mom and dad drove out from Salt Lake City for a brief weekend visit — now that everyone is fully vaccinated, we're starting to make up for the missed holidays of 2020. Saturday was May Day and called for a high of 84 degrees. Beat was eager to show my Dad his favorite local routes, starting with a loop to Twin Sister's Peak and along Gross Reservoir. Twin Sisters was an enjoyable jaunt with a slippery slush scramble to reach the summit.

Then we had to pick our way along the reservoir, which is very low right now. (We can't figure out why. South Boulder Creek just below the dam is raging, so they are releasing a lot of water.) The traverse is this off-camber slope of loose boulders and looser sand, slipping and scrambling around rock outcroppings to reach the tick-infested upper shoreline. Dad was a good sport about this mess of a "hike." I tend to be less enthusiastic about Beat's off-trail routes, but I will concede it was a fun day out. It was also funny to see how surly Beat became when we returned to an established trail at Walker Ranch and had to — gasp — hike near other people. 

Sunday's weather forecast was much more volatile, calling for afternoon thunderstorms shifting to snow overnight. My mom really wanted to hike to Bear Peak, the spot where Beat and I were married in September. Mom has been dealing with a shoulder injury that has prevented her from being as active as usual and often has issues with altitude, so I blocked out two hours for the three-mile trek. I proposed leaving at 9 a.m. to ensure we'd be back by 11 a.m. ... storms were forecast to arrive between 2 and 3 p.m. Beat and Dad took off for another of Beat's off-trail adventures. Mom and I drove to the trailhead and hit the trail at 9:15 a.m. She started out a bit fast, and we made it just over a mile when she said she was feeling faint. We took a couple of breaks. We were within a quarter-mile and about 400 vertical feet of the summit when she requested a longer rest. The sky still looked like this — mostly clear with distant dark clouds along the horizon. It was just after 10 a.m. 

This last pitch of the west ridge is very steep, and even the long break didn't help Mom feel much better. She was determined to make it, though. I kept looking back at the sky that was rapidly darkening to the west. We took a few more steps and more rests. I set a turn-around time of 10:30. But by 10:15, I looked back to see two flashes of lightning peel through an inky purple horizon. This is not an exaggeration — the sky went from the blue in the previous photo to this — effectively the same vantage point — in just 15 minutes. In the summertime, I've seen afternoon thunderstorms move in fast, but it caught me completely off guard on Sunday — so early in the season, and in the morning. I reluctantly told Mom we needed to turn around — we just wouldn't have time to make the summit.

She wanted me to connect with Dad and Beat in case they were waiting for us on Bear Peak. So I sprinted the final 400-foot climb in such a hurry that my lungs were burning and I felt dizzy myself by the time I reached the summit. Dad and Beat weren't there. When I turned around, the storm was right on top of us. It was already too late. For nearly a mile, the trail traversed this exposed ridge, an old burn area with no shelter. Bear Peak is objectively one of the worst places to be when a thunderstorm hits Boulder. Purple Mammatus clouds billowed overhead, building into a powerful hailstorm. I hadn't even caught my breath from the climb when I broke into a downhill sprint. My brain was sending "run for your life" signals that enable me to override my fear of tripping and falling. I skipped down the stair-like rocks at a breathtaking pace — it would have been exhilarating if it wasn't so terrifying.  

When I met back up with Mom, she had already donned her coat. I was grateful to see she had a heavy raincoat — some sort of wax-coated material, it was long and solid and would stand up a lot better to what was coming than the three-ounce wind jacket that I was carrying. We hiked about 500 yards before hail began to pelt us in force. Flashes of lightning streaked through the sky. I'd count the seconds until thunder — five. Four. We reached one of the final clusters of standing dead trees, where I stopped to put on my jacket. Mom had a long-sleeve cotton hoodie in her amazing grab bag — seriously, how lucky am I that Mom was so prepared? When we had our wedding up here, I carried a backpack with ten headlamps and ten puffies just in case anyone got cold. But when it mattered, it was my mom saving my skin. In this case, quite literally. The extra material from the hoodie helped buffer the stinging hail, even though I was already soaked. I paused under the trees a little longer, contemplating if we should try to wait out the storm. But the skeleton forest offered no protection from lightning. Nothing up here could. Our best bet was to keep moving. 

Mom held it together well. Hail accumulated on the ground and turned an already tricky trail into an icy slip-and-slide. I'm more prone to panic and probably would have sprinted until I ended up splat on my face, but Mom was adamant about maintaining a slower pace and not falling. I showed her how to side-step to improve traction. As I was doing this, Dad and Beat caught up from behind. Both of them were very cold, and Dad's hands weren't working well anymore. But it seemed like the worst was behind us. The seconds between lightning flashes and thunder were widening. The hail was tapering into heavy rain. 

Beat and I started to explain the lightning stance — the position to take when a strike seems imminent. Crouch down, place your hands over your ears, raise your heels so only the balls of your feet have contact with the ground, and press your heels together so if lightning hits the ground, it will likely pass through one foot and exit out the other. Also, toss any conductors like trekking poles away. Before we went through these steps, we told Dad that signs of an imminent lightning strike were hairs standing on end, tingling skin, "or buzzing and popping from metallic things like your jacket zipper."

Seconds after we mentioned the step about tossing away trekking poles, Dad threw his poles to the ground and sputtered in a strange, fear-stricken tone, "Like this?" Beat and I looked back, confused for a few seconds, and then Dad broke out into uproarious laughter. It took him a few more seconds to stop laughing while confusion reigned. Dad caught his breath and told us that just as we finished our speech, his GPS watch buzzed to indicate a completed mile. But when he felt buzzing, he thought it was electricity in the air.

The mood continued to lighten, but it was clear we were all shaken by the storm. One of my neighbors, a 30-plus-year resident of the area, said she'd never witnessed a storm come on so fast in our neighborhood. People down in Boulder were also caught out by the rapid-fire hail. It was a crazy fluke of a spring storm, but I still felt contrite for putting my mother through this. "I should know Colorado better by now." 

She didn't mind. "It was an adventure."

The following morning, we woke up to three inches of snow. As my parents packed up their Toyota Camry to head home to Salt Lake, I confirmed that there was a passenger vehicle traction law on I-70 and they'd have to head north to Wyoming ... by far not their preferred route. I could almost see a "WTF" caption beneath the scene as Dad scraped ice off his windshield. To recap, my parents arrived on Friday evening to seasonal (60s) spring sunshine. On Saturday the heat soared into the mid-80s, Sunday brought violent thunderstorms, and by Monday there was snow. 

Four days. Four seasons. "It's the full Colorado experience," I offered. 

The snow hung on through Tuesday morning, offering lovely views over coffee.

I go for the same run almost every Tuesday, since I'm always on deadline and usually only have an hour to spare. This Tuesday run was especially enjoyable, although the road was so slick with mud that I sometimes stomped through the snow chunks off to the side. 

By Thursday it was warm again. The snow was gone and creeks were raging. 

On Friday it was really warm, once again calling for temperatures in the 80s. A couple of months ago, in an action I effectively don't remember, I signed up for an overnight camp spot in Rocky Mountain National Park on May 7. When I received the reminder e-mail, I pieced together that the national park opened up backcountry campsite registration, and by the time I looked, an alarming number of days had filled up. But when I checked early-season dates, I found the Boulderfield open on this particular Friday night. Boulderfield is a high-altitude (12,000 feet) alpine site, typically used by folks climbing Longs Peak. I thought, "How awesome would it be to snow camp up there? That will probably still be doable on May 7." And there is still a lot of snow cover in RMNP, but temperatures were not predicted to drop below freezing — even at 12,000 feet — for several nights in a row. Imagining the slush slog, punching all the way through thigh-deep rotten snow, was enough to deter me from this trip. Planning backpacking trips so far in advance is pretty dumb. It annoys me that the permit system forces your hand — and makes you pay $30 for the privilege of likely canceling a trip due to weather or conditions. (But at least I can get an overnight permit from Rocky Mountain National Park. I have had no luck trying to work with the esoteric system in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, which still conducts requests over the phone.) 

I consoled myself with a 10-hour bike ride through the mud and flowing streams on the back roads of Boulder County. I brought no extra layers and a lot of water because I thought it would be hot, but it was surprisingly cloudy and cool. Damn it. Shoulda gone to Rocky. (Actually, the west wind was fierce and the sky looked like it was brewing thunder all day, so I was glad to not be parked at 12,000 feet.)

The weather remained unsettled through the weekend when I joined Beat for the last 10 miles of his 50K training run. He's running a hundred-miler in Southern Colorado on June 4 — his first race since the start of the pandemic. I have a few tentative summer ambitions. First on this list is Summer Bear, a 260-mile self-supported bike adventure in Steamboat Springs in early July. (I raced a 200-mile version in 2019. It's harder than advertised.) But it's still hard to wrap my head around "racing." So much of the past 14 months has been about survival and waiting and coping. The optimistic, future-forward thinking involved with planning and training for a race just doesn't compute. 

When it's springtime in Colorado, the only certainty is rapid change. And sure enough, on May 10 we woke up to renewed snow! Sad daffodils are one of my favorite images for such an occasion: the bright, cheery yellows of springtime bowing against a wash of wintry grays.

My boring ol' Tuesday run was again more lively than usual. The route was pure mud and slush and I was boot-skiing all over the place. 

It sure was pretty, though. 

Most of the snow was gone by Tuesday evening. I was shuttling dishes into the kitchen after dinner when I was startled by the presence of a massive brown bulk of an animal standing no more than six feet away from the house. He swung around and I realized it was a big bull moose. I called Beat over and we stood in the kitchen for nearly a half-hour, watching the moose browse the newly budded greens from our bushes before plopping down to nap and digest. It was a lot of fun to watch a large wild animal do his thing at such close range from the safety of the kitchen. He was still around on Wednesday morning, but I haven't seen him since.

Rocky Mountain National Park received a reported 14-18 inches of new snow in the May 10-11 storm. I thought that sounded like a recipe for awesome snowshoeing conditions — honestly, I can't really say why the same brain that talks me out of warm slushy conditions thinks a foot of heavy spring powder sounds fun. I talked Beat into taking a day off to hike in Wild Basin, but after scrolling through what little information we could find about current avalanche conditions, and finding a few iffy spots on the CalTopo map, we decided that valley was too risky. We were going to compromise with a trip up low-angle Niwot Ridge, but as soon as we pulled into the trailhead we both balked at the thought of slogging through the same ol'. Suddenly we found ourselves continuing up to Brainard Lake. Plan C, which wasn't a plan until we were there, was Mount Audubon — also low-angle terrain, but so high, and so far away, and so blasted by fearsome wind all of the time. 

From the winter trailhead at Brainard Lake, we started up the unplowed road. Skiers had broken a trail for the first two miles, but the snow was so soft that even the packed surface didn't provide much support. After that, we were on our own for the next 4.5 miles and 2,500 feet of climbing. I know; that doesn't sound like much. But imagine that distance through a foot of fresh snow, heavy with springtime moisture, rapidly melting in the 40-degree sunshine. Then you climb above treeline, where the temperature dips below freezing and a 25-40 mph wind nearly whips you off your feet. Every step is a battle. Beat took this photo of me that I think depicts the struggle well:

"At least there's no lightning," was one of the thoughts that I had. After that, I was too bonked for coherent thought. 

It took four hours of steady, strenuous snowshoeing to reach the saddle about 600 feet below the 13,200-foot summit. By then the wind was so strong that it likely would have taken another hour to reach the peak — mostly crawling on all fours, picking out solid footing in a minefield of hollow spindrift and boulders. We decided to call it at the saddle. 

There are still gorgeous views up there, looking west across the Continental Divide at 12,600 feet. 

And north toward Longs Peak and RMNP.

Any day where I get to put on all of these layers and battle a fearsome chill is a good day. All the better if it's May 12. I think I'm just about braced and ready for summer. Almost.