Friday, June 11, 2021

Summit to inferno

Ten days until Solstice, and already I'm bummed out about the arrival of summer. As soon as the May rains tapered off, my allergies kicked into full gear. Now I can't spend more than a few minutes outside without deteriorating into a watery-eyed, sneezy mess — which means I can't venture inside, because no one wants to be that person in a pandemic. There was a heatwave that I escaped by descending into an even hotter inferno. Now wildfires are already exploding in the drought-stricken West — torching beautiful places, choking the air with smoke, and blotting out the sunset in a crimson haze. A friend almost lost her home in the Pack Creek Fire near Moab. I watched a time-lapse video of that fire blowing up and then spent way too much time plotting my own wildfire escape routes on foot (South Boulder Peak, and if that's on fire, I'll run to Gross Reservoir.) My therapist told me I really need to buy that weighted blanket I keep talking about, because she senses my anxiety nearing August levels when it's only June. 

Of course, things aren't so bad even if my attitude might be at times. Beat's surgery went well. He is now sporting a bionic clavicle and recovering quickly. He goes for daily walks and has regained his self-sufficiency. I'm embarrassed to say he has a better attitude than me even though I am not injured and went for many nice bike rides and a whole vacation while he convalesced. I need to remind myself to be grateful for all that is good in these early days of summer. 
On June 2, I managed to reach the summit of Mount Evans after being shut down by high winds a week earlier. It was just two days before the road's official opening for the season, but the pavement was still coated in snow and ice from a storm just a couple days prior. Snow-removal crews were out in force, but it was nice to squeeze in a ride before passenger vehicle traffic returns. 
It was a pleasant day, although breezy. The temperature was right around freezing at the summit. While USFS employees pried plywood off pit toilets that have been closed for 20 months, I donned all of my layers and trudged through knee-deep snowdrifts to the summit. This half-mile trail ended up becoming one of the more treacherous hikes I've attempted in 2021, as the final pitch had just a dusting of powder over hard ice. Once I realized this, I'd already climbed halfway up a 45-degree slope above a jumble of boulders. Any step down would risk slipping. I was effectively clinging to the ice with my fingernails as I kicked tiny steps with my worn-out bike sneakers to scramble to safety. 

"At least those forest service workers will see my body bouncing over rocks and probably call 911," was a thought that I had when I realized I'd made a huge mistake by climbing onto that ice sheet. 
The views from the summit were sure lovely, though. And it was cold and windy. I miss it already. 

Beat had his surgery the following day. I think I wrote in my last post that just after Beat sustained his injury, I experienced a spike in anxiety, something I'd largely tamped down since my last spike in February. It's not nearly as bad as it was then, but I've been battling the inexplicable jitters and trying to remain wary of my patterns so it doesn't spiral out of control. Feeling generally anxious about nothing at all meant I was extra nervous about Beat's surgery, certainly more so than he was, but it all went as well as it could have. After a day it was clear he could manage his own affairs just fine, so I opted to join my family in St. George, Utah. After we missed both Thanksgiving and Christmas, my sisters planned this trip back in January, gambling on the hope that we'd all be vaccinated by June. St. George just happened to be the location most central to all of us. That June isn't the nicest time of year to visit a community with a climate that rivals Phoenix didn't occur to my mostly not-outdoorsy sisters.
Temperatures were forecast to hit the high-100s for most of the week. I wasn't terribly excited about the heat, but I was looking forward to seeing my family and also getting to know my young nieces and nephews a little better. As a child-free couple, Beat jokes that we "need to snag at least one of them" to visit us in our old age. I headed out early Saturday morning — one day later than originally planned to ensure Beat was okay — and made my way west on I-70. As is my custom, I did stop along the way for a bike ride in an intriguing middle-of-nowhere location. The exit was called Gooseberry Road and I thought it would be gravel, but it was actually a nice paved road with a decent shoulder and limited traffic on a Saturday afternoon. It was also 94 degrees at 6,000 feet when I started riding. 
The road kept climbing all the way to 10,500 feet — right at timberline in central Utah — which was a nice surprise. I made relatively quick work of the 4,600-foot climb, and by then I was so drenched in sweat that goosebumps formed on my legs and I started shivering from the windchill. Or maybe I was simply experiencing the early stages of heat exhaustion. It was difficult to tell. 
The views up there were sure nice though. As usual, photos don't do scenic vistas much justice. I realized that the climb felt effortless because there had been a stiff tailwind that I would have to face on the return. Hairpin curves became a terrifying wrestling match with unpredictable crosswinds. After I dropped below 8,000 feet, the wind made me feel like I was pedaling with a blowdryer aimed directly at my face. 
Everything lined up perfectly, though, and I arrived at the rental house exactly in time for 6 p.m. dinner. The temperature in St. George at that time was 108 degrees. Just stepping out of my car felt like breathing into an open oven. But it was fun to reunite with the family. The following morning, I set an alarm for 4:45 a.m. 
Sunrise in this part of the world happens at 6:15 a.m., so at 5:15 a.m. it was still pitch dark and already 81 degrees. It's strange and almost a little thrilling to feel that hot at "night." I embarked on a ride I found online called "Utah Hill." The Greater Zion website called it "a challenging climb that will push your endurance levels to the limit as you wind through the foothills that trace the western border of Utah." It sounded amazing, and it was amazing. I am so far from a morning person that I start to become a hollow shell of myself if I do too many early mornings in a row. But it's also difficult to top the beauty of redrock country at sunrise. 
Another benefit of predawn starts is that the rest of the family was barely waking up when I returned from my 2.5-hour ride. We managed to get the kids to a small slot canyon in nearby Snow Canyon. But the temperature already topped 100 degrees at 10 a.m. and the kids were done after a half-mile. 
After staying up late into the evening chatting with my sisters, I was a bit lazier about my Monday ride and didn't get going until 5:45 a.m. For this day I chose another designated bike route, Veyo Loop. I didn't realize this before, but Washington County has a wealth of bike-friendly infrastructure. It was surprising for a rural Utah county that stereotypically caters to elderly people.  
I started the day with the two climbs in Snow Canyon State Park. The morning was surprisingly pleasant ... temperatures were probably in the 70s. Trails were empty. The dawn light was incredible. It was as perfect as a place could possibly be. I wish I could be a morning person; I really do. But at some point, I have to concede that morning and I will always be frenemies. It makes itself seem friendly while quietly eroding my mental health until I crack. 
This is the bike path in Snow Canyon. Again, it's tough to top this.

The rest of the loop was great as well. I crossed through Veyo and descended Gunlock Canyon, which was quiet, bursting with green cottonwood leaves, smelling of sweet tamarisk, and feeling almost chilly beneath morning shadows. The ride was almost 50 miles and I was still back just after 9 a.m., arriving as the family was sitting down for pancake breakfast. I felt like I was getting away with something.  
Another late night, another dawn start for Tuesday. My friend Cimarron saw on Strava that I was in town and commented, "Welcome to the hottest place on Earth." (I know it's not the hottest. But I don't blame locals for feeling that way.) Cimarron runs a series of fantastic mountain bike races, which is how I know her — Beat and I raced her "25 Hours in Frog Hollow" a few times in the early 2010s before I crashed out of the 2013 event and quit racing bikes (I know, I relapse often.) She offered to take me on an early-morning tour of one of her favorite gravel routes, which turned out to be fairly challenging with the glare of sunrise in our eyes. I didn't get any photos of the rocky and rutted sections, but they were rowdy on a gravel bike. 
The route took us by the Little Black Mountain Petroglyph site, so we stopped for a breather and some sightseeing. I did a quick Internet search to learn more about the petroglyphs, which are carved on numerous sandstone boulders and dated across thousands of years of indigenous cultures. The author of Hike St. George describes this as "an easy and short hike, making it great for those who want to get out of the city without getting dirty or being gone for too long." 

As promised, Cimarron's route clocked in at exactly three hours and I returned home at the precise time I said I would. But the kids had been through an early morning meltdown and the family seemed frazzled and ready to escape. It was a lot of family time for everyone involved, but again it was so much fun. I loved that I could have these morning adventures every day and still have a full day to spend with my parents and siblings, laughing with my brothers-in-law, and trying to convince the nieces and nephews that I'm not just weird Aunt Jill; I can be fun. (I don't know that I had a lot of success this time around. Next time when there are more outdoor opportunities, I'll prove it.) 
I couldn't head home right away, as I had deadlines to fulfill by 5 p.m. that couldn't line up with a 10-hour drive. I made my way an hour north to Cedar City and did my first coffee shop work day in 16 months. I sat outdoors in the 85-degree shade with a strong breeze tossing my belongings around, but it feels like I'm nearing 2019 levels of normalcy. And since I finished up several hours before sunset and hate to waste an opportunity for exploring, I set out for another ride. This one wasn't planned; I just briefly looked at a Strava map before I set out. But it turned out wonderfully. Right Hand Canyon, climbing from 5,700 feet to 9,300 feet on grades topping 14 percent. Hurts so good. 
At the top, the road turned to gravel and traversed a high plateau through lovely aspen stands. I wanted to keep going, but I only had my helmet light and the clock said it was time to turn around. 
The views for the screaming steep descent were spectacular. I may never turn myself into a morning person, but at least I can be at my best and brightest at sunset. This is my time to shine. If I let myself do so, I could easily keep riding until dawn. At which time I would fall apart ... because my brain really does dislike mornings that much. (Seriously. I'm probably one of the few who dread the second-day sunrise during an ultra. I can usually manage the darkness just fine, but as soon as the sun comes up, my brain wises up and the sleep monster descends.) 

Evening light over Cedar Canyon. 

By Wednesday morning, I was quite exhausted. There were too many dawn starts, late nights with my sisters, loud family time for this introvert, work catch-ups, and now I had a nine-hour drive in front of me. But I don't get out to this part of the world all that much anymore, and I just couldn't resist one more excursion. Biking was starting to feel unappealing, and I was worried the rear tire — now riddled with many micro-cuts — was leaking through the sealant, so I looked for a hike. 
Another two-minute Strava search landed me on the trail to Valentine Peak, a 2,500-foot climb from the tiny town of Parowan. Supposedly the peak is so named because when viewed from the center of town on Valentine's Day, the sun rises directly over this 8,050-foot peak. I was impressed with the trail development. I expected something faint and unmarked, basically a deer trail. But the trail was well-defined and there were many signs, marked artifacts, and benches all along the way. The trail was typical of many I've hiked in Utah — relentlessly steep and coated in moondust. While side-stepping my way downhill, I slipped and fell directly on my right shoulder. While wincing away the pain, I thought about Beat and how much a fall like that would set him back — but unlike me, Beat probably wouldn't fall hiking this trail. 

My car was the only one at the trailhead at both the start and finish. When I walked up to the parking lot — half of my body coated in red moondust — an older man in a red car pulled up beside me. He introduced himself as Vito and asked, "did you make it to the top?" When I confirmed, he said he was the one responsible for the trail maintenance. He hiked it three times a week all year long, even though at age 75, he was slowing down. He knew I was from Boulder — he must have run my plate — and was interested in my perspective as an out-of-towner. He was clearly proud of his trail, which was justified. It was a great trail. Small towns are fun. How often are you stalked by the town trail caretaker because it's unique that you're there at all? 

Yes, I know. Summer isn't all bad. In fact, it's pretty good. I just need an attitude adjustment. And one of those weighted blankets. And maybe refraining from spending time on drought and wildfire Twitter feeds.

Finally — speaking of infernos — I have been on the fence about this far too long. But I signed up for another charity ride to compliment the virtual century I rode for the Alzheimer's Association in April. Since our team raised so much during the virtual event, they encouraged us to ride a real, in-person century in Fort Collins on June 13. Friends and family have donated $1,470 to the cause. I'm hoping to boost it to $2,000. So for this reason and others, I'm going to set out for another pre-dawn drive, 7 a.m. start, and brutal 95-degree heat, to ride a bike a hundred miles in hopes of completing what will be my first official road century since 2004. It's a great cause, so if you are able and interested in donating, please visit my ride page here: JILL HOMER IS FUNDRAISING FOR ALZHEIMER'S RESEARCH.  


  1. Weighted blankets are a game changer!!! I bought the throw size because my husband is not a fan. I love mine more than I probably should an inanimate object. In summer though it's a little warm. And Cimmaron is the coolest name ever.

    1. I agree! I don't think I'll actually sleep with a weighted blanket ... way too hot for that here ... but last summer when I was really upset I sprawled out on the floor under my down comforter and that helped me calm down. I think extra weight would be even more effective in this regard.

  2. Do you use Strava heat maps to figure out where to ride in new spots? You found some amazing places to bike. It sounds so hot, so good for you for getting up so early and getting out when you are on vacation. Have fun on your Alzheimer's ride. I just donated. I hope the anxiety calms down soon.

    1. I do use Strava heat maps. Usually I just find a place in the general area that sees a fair amount of use, and then I'll research the roads or trails. That's how I found out that Washington County actually has bike routes in place. I've been doing this with Strava heat maps for at least seven years. I've found some great rides and hikes this way.

      And thank you for donating again! I really appreciate your support.


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