Friday, December 24, 2021

Utah Mixed Epic

Note: Yes, my blog has been on hiatus since my dad died unexpectedly in a hiking accident in June. I still don't know whether I want to continue blogging, but I did want to share my experience at the Utah Mixed Epic, which is a bikepacking race that I did not finish in September. I started this race with the hope that an intense experience, alone with my thoughts and surrounded by the beauty of my home state, would help me process my grief. What happened was viscerally the opposite of coping. And yet UME did ultimately jolt me out of an emotional rut. I have felt more optimistic and have made more steps to move forward since then. 

Content warning: This report addresses suicidal ideation. I've long wanted to be more open about this subject but feared it would upset friends and family. Mental health issues are frightening. I've only recently, since February 2021 or so, been more publicly upfront about struggles with anxiety. But I do believe honesty is the only way forward. If you believe this subject will be upsetting, I recommend skipping "Day 6," which is the day I quit the Utah Mixed Epic. But I hoped by writing about it, I can contribute to the growing body of dialogue about depression and anxiety in endurance sports. I have found reading about others' experiences of be very helpful. 

Finally, this is not a race report. It's very long and won't include much useful info for future racers. The first days are reposted from Instragram, where I began recapping the experience in my Daily Gratitude Journal. I have been posting regularly there as a salve for my 16-year blogging addiction. 


It was the 11th hour — Wednesday afternoon — by the time I called my Mom to say, “I’m driving out to Salt Lake tomorrow, and here’s why.” Monday landed me in Colorado late; I don’t know how late it was. It was 4 a.m. Tuesday in Switzerland. It took nearly four hours to extract myself from Denver International's sprawling bureaucracy. I drove directly to Trader Joe’s right before they closed. In a stupor, I walked down each aisle. 

 “What do I want to eat during UME? What do I even eat in endurance races? Almonds? Those seem good. Pumpkin spice brownies? Oh yeah, it’s that time of year! Lettuce? No, don’t buy that, that’s only going to go bad.” 

The Utah Mixed Epic was a hot potato that I tossed around for months. This bikepacking route passes through some of the most mysterious and compelling corners of my home state, starting in Salt Lake City and ending 950 miles later in Moab. A self-supported race was slated for September 24. My friend Danni signed us up as a team in the early spring. By April I was backpedaling: “This course actually looks stupid hard and I don’t think it’s going to be fun.” After my dad died in June, I told her, “I can’t do hard things anymore” and pulled out of every other race or mountain ambition I’d planned for the summer. 

But we kept our names on the roster. During an 11-hour flight between Geneva and Denver, I went over the course map and made notes. I e-mailed Danni to ask whether she'd be mad if I went ahead and started the UME anyway. 

“Maybe this is just what I need. I mean, the Tour Divide got me through that awful breakup with Geoff” … forgetting that my heart didn’t magically heal during the 2009 race. That, like everything else, took time. 

Jet lag and sleeplessness cast a surreal curtain over the next two days. I spent Tuesday working and Wednesday getting my bike ready — the bike I hadn’t ridden in two months. The commitment wasn’t real until I called Mom. She wasn’t surprised. I feared she’d be upset given how close to the emotional tipping point we both were. But she was calm, supportive. 

“Do you think you could drive me to Liberty Park at 6 a.m. Friday?” 

 “Of course,” she replied.

Fewer than 12 hours after I arrived, Mom and I rolled away from her driveway in the eerily familiar predawn darkness. I felt as though I was on my way to school. 

"You call me any time," she urged. "I'll come get you." 

"I will," I promised. Silently, I was thinking I'd rather do just about anything — including dragging my bike over 950 miles of difficult terrain — than put my mother through yet another stressful situation. I'd spent dozens of hours marching up and down mountains in Switzerland, and knew that I was physically fit — even if not specifically trained for cycling. Emotionally, well ... just getting through the week after my father died was the most difficult time I'd ever endured. It's comical to remember how I once believed I could be brave and tough because of endurance racing. I was never special. Life will blindside everyone. That's the real test of grit. This ... this is just biking.

Day One

Friday, September 24. Thirty-seven cyclists — most on hardtail mountain bikes, a handful with rigid gravel bikes — gathered under street lamps at the northern edge of Liberty Park. Mom and I showed up just a couple of minutes before 6, long enough to share a hug before someone in the crowd yelled, "Let's do this!" and we went.

Darkness persisted as we plied the streets of Salt Lake City, broken into smaller packs by red lights. The wide corridors of downtown were at once strangely distant and familiar. For seconds at a time, my attention would lapse and I’d believe I was riding to my job at the 15th and 15th Einstein’s Bagels in the year 1999. When I came back around, I could hardly believe what was happening. What would 1999 Jill think of all this? 

 Indeed, my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders as my power supply sputtered. Jet lag had hit hard. I hadn’t slept more than a couple hours at a time for days. I had to concentrate to stick with my city block group. For a few pedal strokes, I even caught the race director. I asked him the question I’d been dying to ask. 

 “Have you actually ridden all of this route, I mean in sections?” 

 He grinned. “You mean, does it go?” 

 “Yeah. Because I was looking at Google Maps. I can see pieces of tracks in satellite view, but there’s absolutely nothing on the map.” 

 He explained that he and a few others were able to vet most of the 950 miles, except for a few sections. His somewhat diabolical grin did not make me feel any more confident. 

 The group bunched together again along the Jordan River bike path. We more or less held a neutral rollout along the Great Salt Lake. 

 “It smells like home,” I told Lenny, a Salt Lake City resident, after making small talk about our backgrounds. I was filled with nostalgia — the pungent aroma of salt and hydrogen sulfide gas, flocks of pelicans soaring overhead, morning light across white salt flats to the west. Memories warmed my heart, pumping much-needed energy into my legs. 

So often we urge ourselves to stay future-focused, move forward, don’t cling to the past. But the past is the only place I wanted to be on this morning. I was happy to be here — imagining that I was still young, that I still had a wide world in front of me. In a way, I did.

The Utah Mixed Epic pretty much started at mile 25 with one of my favorite things — an absolute grunt of a climb. Farmington Canyon gains nearly 5,000 feet in ten miles on a gravel road that is at times rutted and sandy, although I’m told surface conditions were quite good for September. The morning light was intense, the views were sweeping, and fall colors popped around every corner. 

Jet lag finally began to fade for the few hours that are usually my best — evening to my circadian rhythm — and I felt great. Similar to the time I spent hiking in Switzerland, my closest sensation to happiness came from physical strain, which cut through the numbness that often clouded my mind. As long as my legs burned, I could see clearly, think sharply, and pay real attention to my immediate surroundings. 

Around each switchback, I took a few seconds to glance west and marvel at the otherworldly vista. I realized the glistening salt flats along the horizon used to be the Great Salt Lake. The barren flat stretched all the way to the shoreline of Antelope Island. I had read about the lake’s decline, with water levels reaching historic lows after years of extreme drought. Understanding this reality had been unnerving, but seeing it was another sensation altogether. It was intriguing, even exciting. 

 It’s difficult to explain. One of my struggles since entering middle age, after navigating the political and social landscape of the past five years, and now coping with grief is this: “Life is not short. It’s actually sort of long and it’s not fun to watch the world burn.” 

 Then there’s Albert Camus, who confronted despair and concluded, “In the end, one needs more courage to live.” 

And so, as my heart raced and happy hormones flooded my bloodstream, I felt gratitude that I could observe my changing world and still feel joy. Not joy in the decline of the Great Salt Lake, no … but joy in the truth that there will always be change, and still life goes on.

With a hard climb to the crest of the Wasatch Mountains still weighing on my legs, I rounded Bountiful Peak and acknowledged the easy part of Utah Mixed Epic was over. The route joined a rough forest road that traced the steep spine. It only took a couple of descents before the rear tire washed out and I toppled into a rock garden, tearing shreds of flesh from my right knee. I limped my bike to the bottom of the hill and used wet wipes to mop up the blood, picking little rocks out of the wound as I scrubbed. 

“Biking is so stupid,” I said out loud. Over the next pointless up-and-down, a duo of young men in matching kits careered out of control as I lunged out of their way. One of the men took a similar fall near the bottom of the rock slide. He spent more than a minute laying prone on the ground, but I presumed he was okay because his partner just stood next to him and guzzled a water bottle. I’d pass them a second time an hour later, but after that, I never saw them again. 

 The route plummeted into the Hollbrook Creek drainage, where I stopped to scout for water. I’d started the day with 5 liters, but the hot afternoon and slow terrain had already drained my supply to 1.5. All I found were thick mud puddles, so I decided to stretch out what I had. 

 “There’s only 10 miles of Great Western Trail. Worst case scenario is I walk the entire way and it takes three hours.” (Actual scenario: Walk the entire way, closer to 12 miles, six hours.) The Great Western Trail is better known as a segment of the Wasatch 100 course. The Wasatch 100 is famously one of the hardest 100-mile foot races in the U.S., so I already knew that the biking would be, well, stupid. Even though I had little water to spare for digestion, I took a long break in the shade to enjoy one of the pumpkin brownie bars that I did end up buying at Trader Joe's. 

 “At least it’s pumpkin spice season,” I said out loud. I do indeed love pumpkin spice season. It’s one of the few classically basic characteristics I can claim. It felt all the better to embrace my basicness while sitting next to a mud puddle, coated in dust and blood, preparing to spend a ridiculous afternoon with my stupid bike.

The Great Western Trail had it all — impossible grades, loose dirt, grabby brush gauntlets, hidden rocks. After a mile of hiking, my lower legs were pockmarked with oozing holes from pedal pins. I attempted to ride a descent, but razor-sharp branches slashed my shins. The knee I’d bashed had stiffened considerably. I was in pain. This was not fun. 

In addition to nursing my bleeding legs, I was rationing water. I’d take a sip and swish for several seconds, creating the illusion of a big drink. The hot sun bore down. The overgrown trail traced an undulating ridge. I arrived at a junction and stalled. 

 “City Creek Canyon. I could be home in a few hours.” 

 There was no reason not to quit. I still hadn’t been able to justify why I came. I’ve been seeking out endurance races for so long that I’ve come to wonder if this isn’t just another sort of hedonic treadmill — a backward one, mindlessly pursuing pain instead of pleasure. Then again, in three months my only moments of joy arose from intense physical exertion. I turned away from City Creek. 

Minutes later, Justin approached. Justin was a fellow Boulderite and unlike me a decent technical rider. I thought he was long gone, but he took a wrong turn. He was flustered and wild-eyed, a funny expression that injected levity into my sour mood. 

 “Where even is the trail? There's nothing here!” 

 I pointed to the scar in the slope ahead. From this vantage, it looked like a vertical wall. Then I sat down. “Need a snack for that one.” 

My mouth was dry but I ate a pumpkin bar anyway. After a few bites, I no longer felt sorry for myself. I stood, hoisted the anvil of a bike onto my backpack, and let out a faint little growl that I intended as a roar. “And go!” 

 Humans are funny animals. A silly face, some sugar, and suddenly I’m just another toddler, wailing one minute and laughing the next. I’m grateful for this lesson — not necessarily that it “never always gets worse,” but that the mind will reset “worse” to “workable” when we need it the most.

My throat felt like it was stuffed with cotton balls by the time I finally exited the Great Western Trail, some 57 miles and 13 hours into day one. I’d been nursing 1.5 liters of water for six scorching hours. It had gotten to the point where I was counting minutes until sunset. 

The GWT stayed too high on the mountain ridge to hope for shade. Hours slipped into the evening as I hiked and bled and smacked my lips after every tiny sip of water, as though this could somehow extract moisture from the air. Finally, the ribbon of kitty litter masquerading as a trail spit me onto a highway, where I descended seven miles in a matter of minutes to East Canyon Creek. Ignoring "no trespassing" signs, I dropped my bike and bashed through the brush at the first glimpse of flowing water. 

There are few words to describe my joy at this moment. I’ve eaten what I consider delicious foods, I’ve tried expensive wines, but nothing — nothing — beats the culinary experience of drinking your fill of clean, cold water after a prolonged thirst. 

I continued to make quick work of a rolling climb out of the canyon. At Jeremy Ranch, I sat down to eat a Subway sandwich with Jim, another UME racer. The sandwich, too, was pretty incredible. Jim asked about my plan for the night. 

 “I don’t know. I thought I’d be a lot farther along at this point.” 

I’d hoped to ride 115 miles on this day. But now a mere 90 was going to require a late night. 

Still, I love the hours after the oppressive sun finally leaves and quiet descends on a tired world. An abandoned bike path skirted the busy traffic out of Park City, and before long I was climbing singletrack into a ghostly forest. My legs, still coated in barely coagulated blood, seemed to forgive the day’s abuse and did the necessary work without complaint. My packs were refilled with five liters of ice-cube-packed water — probably way too much, but what did I care? I was the happiest clam in the star-lit sea. 

Frost already coated the grass where I set up camp at 9,000 feet. I climbed into my bivy sack and breathed out a sigh of perfect contentedness. Endurance bikepacking is pretty strange, but it does leave me grateful for the simplest things in life.

Day Two

Although I thought I’d camped close to the top, it still took an hour to hike the 1.5 miles up ‘Dead Tree’ ridge to Guardsman Pass. An effortless if frigid descent landed me at a small store in Midway. The best I could conjure up for breakfast was a terrible muffin and banana, but they had what mattered: coffee. I enjoyed two large cups while chatting with several UME riders. From there I relished 15 paved miles around Deer Creek Reservoir. Not even busy Saturday morning traffic could dampen my desire to turn my brain on ‘low’ for a while. 

Wallsburg promptly brought an end to daydreaming as the route ascended a craggy jeep road. The next 30 miles were purported to be endless chunk, so I girded my willpower and water reserves for another day of hiking. I regularly traded positions with Kristen. As she snacked, I hiked past. The sun blazed over another hot afternoon, so I regularly stopped to filter water from a creek. I didn’t really need it but welcomed any opportunity to pack my fears. Kristen trudged by in silence; only squeaks from her bike gave her away. 

I thought about the humor of solidarity in shared misery. Here we were, strangers to each other, dragging our bikes across the southern Wasatch Mountains. We were too tired to make conversation, but a stiff nod conveyed our gratitude that the other was out here. Really, the first day of UME left me sufficiently humbled and I became grateful for everything — everything but my bike, which was becoming a most useless anchor. 

I arrived at a short section of smooth road. Crossing a meadow, I felt a wave of déjà vu. I’d been here before. I was certain. Was this … was this the route for Mormon Pioneer Trek? The geography checked out. Was this where 17-year-old me joined strangers in a church youth group to pull a wooden handcart into the mountains? How could this 42-year-old version just randomly stumble across this place and be so … unchanged? Teenage Jill loved nights under the stars. She loved leaning into a bar and pulling with all of her strength. It was then that she first recognized this love. 

I suppose I’m grateful … I've retained my youthful love of that which is simultaneously grueling and beautiful.

Strawberry Ridge: Just another beautiful place where dreams go to die. Although I had succeeded in cultivating optimism earlier, the route’s unceasing rocks ground into my soul. For six unstopping hours, I had averaged 2.6 mph, a pace that included intermittent stretches of actual pedaling. Other stretches involved rock-filled descents that reminded me of ball pits at a carnival. They were evil balls, though, wrenching ankles in hidden ruts and extracting screams when a pedal bashed my shin yet again. 

I know, I should have removed the pedals. What I should have done was leave the bike at home. What I should have done was stay in Switzerland. I just don’t belong anymore, here, in my childhood mountains. They’re so cruel. They have taken so much from me. The errant thought hit my heart like a dagger. Rage tore through my body, startling me. Tears filled my eyes. 

 “I hate the Wasatch.” 

 An endurance race was perhaps not the best remedy for three months of grief and depression. When things were good — as they had been last night — I felt bursts of joy, an intoxicating sensation I’d almost forgotten. But when things were not so good, my mind plummeted into despair and anger — debilitating new lows I was not prepared to manage. I tossed the bike onto the rocks, hoping it would shatter. When it didn’t, I collapsed on the side of the road and cried until two side-by-sides bumped past. I quickly stood, waved at the drivers, and kept walking. 

Crying drained my energy reserves. My brain switched to autopilot. I don’t relish this dull, robotic state because it takes me out of the experience, but it also provides necessary relief. Hours disappeared. The sky turned an electric shade of blue. I snapped to consciousness and observed long shadows and saturated light. Red and rust-tinted leaves blazed with color. It was evening again. The road surface had improved. I didn’t notice before; I was still walking. I got back on the bike and pedaled. Kristen passed. Darkness fell. I checked my watch. 66 miles in 14.5 hours. Sad. But exhausting. 

I found a clear spot in a field, practically carpeted in cow patties. I didn’t care. Sometimes you just need to be grateful that you made it to the end of another day.

Day Three

I startled awake, shivering, as yawning darkness swallowed the world. I had dozed off before zipping up my sleeping bag. That’s probably why I was so cold, but I thrashed out of the bag and frantically packed up as though I was about to freeze to death. I didn’t look at the time. For all I knew it was midnight. In fact, I’d passed out for an entire night. It was 5:54 a.m. 

The sleep boosted my mood but not my energy, so I lazily let gravity carry me down Hobble Creek Canyon. The sun rose on a cloudless Sunday as soft-pedaled along Mapleton’s empty streets, reliving those mornings in June and July when I couldn’t sleep and wiled away the dawn hours while cycling aimlessly through identical suburban neighborhoods. Just when I thought I might doze off in the saddle, I coasted past a lone gas station surrounded by farm fields. 

“Coffee,” I thought blearily and I tossed the bike down. Upon stumbling inside, my eyes widened at the realization that this wasn’t just any gas station. This was a Maverick! Fresh cinnamon rolls! Soft pretzels filled with processed cheese! Peanut butter bars! Breakfast tacos! Enormous 32-ounce hot cups and a dozen coffee flavors that included pumpkin spice and vanilla! 

 I had only recently returned from six weeks in Europe, where it costs the equivalent of $20 for a small portion of bread and cheese, 300ml of sparkling water, and an espresso. And if you try to order extra, you are probably going to get the stink eye from a haughty server. Maverick, on the other hand, is a bastion of American excess. I’ve heard the store described as a dealer for the vices of teetotaling Utahns: All of the sugar, carbs, ice cream, tankers of soda on the rocks, Chorcheezo burritos, jalapeño Bahama mamas, lumberjack skillets, and macachocachicoconut cookies (yes, those are all real things) you could ever desire. 

After two days of a full-body bicycle beatdown in which I’d had only a limited selection of foods I’d actually eat, this was a mind-blowing sensory overload. I realize I just spent 400 words extolling the virtue of a gas station chain, but I was in awe. Confidence surged because I knew Maverick would get me through the day.

After raiding the Mapleton Maverick, I waddled back to my bike with renewed resolve to never eat again (such a gut bomb of a breakfast burrito, so many miles to ride.) The next 40 miles brought a mundane grind along the southern edge of the Wasatch Front, where suburbs meet the desert. 

The heat started cranking just in time to climb into the Tintic Mountains. Kristen and I hopscotched, trading positions when our bikes involuntarily stalled in thin patches of juniper shade. Four of us stopped in Eureka, where I hadn’t expected to see a store. But since I’d sweated out at least a gallon of fluid in the last 10 miles alone, it was prudent to stock up. I bought a Choco Taco for good measure — I still wasn’t hungry, but this was the absolute last anything for the next 100 miles. 

I left with five liters. Jim announced he had seven. He wondered about the rest of the Tintics. 

“18 miles of garbage,” I guessed confidently. This was one of the sections where the roads didn’t show on Google Maps. The lesson harkens back to my days of comparing an Alaska atlas to MapQuest: If digital maps don’t know, it’s already a ghost trail. 

 We launched into contouring traverses that were pleasantly fun. Rough gravel, nothing worse. Then we had to wrestle through a rusty fence. The road deteriorated to rubble, a scar in a thousand-foot wall. Hike down, repeat. Jim and I were hopscotching now. In spite of a pinched appetite, I rewarded myself with a Maverick treat at the top of each climb. I’d plop into the red dirt, not even bothering to crawl to shade. When Jim hiked past, dripping like he’d already been through three of his seven liters, I’d say, “At least the views are nice up here.” 

I hiked nine miles in three hours. I was flying! I felt strong and upbeat, a complete turnaround from my mood 24 hours earlier. The sun was setting by the time I reached Highway 6. Coarse-grained asphalt sparkled like sand, a shoreline surrounded by an endless sea of sagebrush. The next 80 miles would be only this and nothing else. 

 “The West Desert,” I grinned. Sublime desolation. Merciless solitude. Uninterrupted beauty. The long night. These were all reasons to be grateful that I had nowhere else to be.

Sunset drenched the desert in pink light as I turned onto “Weis Highway.” This ambitiously named Depression-era dirt road is a classic road to nowhere, meandering west through hardscrabble plains before dead-ending in what must be the most remote mountain range in the Lower 48, the Ibapahs. 

 I’ve long been enchanted by the West Desert. In high school, three friends and I drove the Pony Express Highway, blasting “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins and screaming out the windows as though we’d plummeted off the edge of the world. The West Desert is the abyss that gazes back at you, the emptiness you fill with your own meaning. 

 Night fell. The expanse narrowed to a faint beam of white light. The road surface was intermittently hard-packed and sandy. I’d race up a shallow rise only to plummet into a sandpit, swerving as I strained to stay upright. In spite of these hazards, I spent long seconds staring skyward, marveling as the Milky Way took form. This was the entire universe embracing me — the opposite of the abyss. 

 With 100 miles on the day, these rollers flattened and the route veered southward. To the east, I watched a metropolis of electric lights for hours, until I convinced myself this was Delta — 50 miles away. To the west, there was nothing: blackness, forgotten basins, and ranges rippling toward California. The stars are what carried me, wild-eyed and breathing. 

A five-mile lap buzzed on my watch. An instant later, there was another, and then another. 120 miles. 130. Weightless in outer space, singing to the past: 

“Faster than the speed of sound. 
Faster than we thought we’d go. 
Beneath the sound of hope.” 

Mile 145 buzzed. I felt dizzy. It had been hours since my last Maverick treat. I noticed a parking lot with a concrete slab, perfect for camping. Only after unpacking did I realize this was the site of Topaz Internment Camp. I stared into the darkness, breathing the memory of thousands of Japanese-American citizens imprisoned here during WWII. Sadness and elation tore through me simultaneously, until I couldn’t breathe. 

Here is the abyss — becoming one with the universe only to be gut-punched by my own humanity. But I am grateful for flow state, my living escape.

Day Four

On my third morning in the wild, I finally crawled out of my sleeping bag feeling somewhat limber. It seems strange after spending 18 hours the previous day riding and walking a loaded bike over 144 miles of pavement, rocks, and sand. But that was also the first day I didn’t crash or incur new trauma. The bruises had started to bed in. 

 Mentally, I was taking another turn for the worse. I’d had a great long day followed by solid sleep, so feeling as though the world was collapsing in on itself didn’t make sense. It wasn’t usual morning grumpiness. As I folded my frosted bivy sack, I looked toward Topaz Internment Camp — now just a chain-link fence and sagebrush — and withered as ghosts filled my imagination. They filled me with self-loathing, a realization that maybe I could lose myself to this level of fear, hysteria, and cruelty. War is a collective loss and none of us know how we’ll react to grief. We all think of ourselves as good, kind, reasonable people who will always follow our values … but until we’re caught in the current, we don’t really know. 

I made my way into Delta, which had a Maverick. I drank two bottled smoothies rather than risk another gut-bomb burrito and languished at a sun-drenched picnic table drinking coffee for far too long. My mood lightened somewhat, but not enough to inspire excitement about the next 100 miles of West Desert to Milford. I left town with six liters of water. The route followed mellow farm roads until mile 16, where it abruptly veered onto a faint doubletrack through deep sand. Judging by others’ looping bike tracks, I wasn’t the only one incredulous (but not surprised) that this was now the route. 

Now walking, doing the math, I felt fear. But I didn’t turn around. The moment of reckoning came 27 miles past Delta, where I arrived at an anticipated cattle tank. The basin was bone dry, its windmill rusted in place. Mid-day heat baked the shadeless desert. I was drenched in sweat. I knew I didn’t have enough water. Deep down, I knew. But I kept this truth from myself. 27 miles was too far to backtrack. 

 In hindsight, I rejected a valuable lesson: When pride and ego go to battle with the little voice in my head, listen to the voice. I wish I had.

Sevier Lake is as nowhere a place as any I’ve seen. A basin surrounded by low ranges, it’s home to no one. The slopes are so dry that even saltgrass struggles to gain footing. The expansive “lake” dried up more than 100 years ago, leaving a mineral basin that sparkles like water. The mirage can be maddening when you’re already thirsty, pedaling a ribbon of loose dirt at a much higher effort than your 7 mph speed would suggest. 

I finally decided the anxiety of not knowing about my water outweighed the anxiety of knowing, and stopped to assess. There was a half-liter and a three-liter reserve. That really wasn’t good. I’d only pedaled 40 miles since Delta with 60 to go. The loose and rocky terrain was likely to hold me to this plodding pace. 10 hours? In 85-degree heat with no shade? 

I started hyperventilating and had to rein in the panic with the first thought that came to my head: “Claire survived days in the desert with no water.” Claire is the author of “Things I Learned From Falling.” I recently read her gripping book about falling off a cliff in Joshua Tree, shattering her pelvis, and then awaiting rescue for 4 days. She describes thirst in excruciating detail. I loved the book but was particularly mesmerized by these sections. The pain in her broken bones must have been excruciating, but she was motivated to at least try to crawl (unsuccessfully) simply by imagining water. 

I thought I could relate. I’m terrified of dehydration. That I got caught out twice during UME with too little water just speaks to my willful ignorance. I’m not cut out for the desert. I continued pedaling along desolate slopes for another 10 miles before arriving at a lone juniper. I crawled into its thin shade, thinking maybe I’d wait out the mid-day heat. I was immediately mobbed by biting flies, and still, I tried to ignore them. I even tried putting on my raincoat and pants before I had to acknowledge this was not going to work. 

 “Okay, you win,” I groaned at the flies. What would Claire have done? She would have been grateful she could move. She would keep going. 

Intense waves of nausea hit in the late afternoon. I vomited after the first. The third prompted a race to a nearby boulder to release the rest of the contents in my digestive tract. I hated that I was losing so much water to tummy troubles. Vomiting and diarrhea could also be symptoms of heat exhaustion; this frightened me more. 

There was nowhere to hide out here. Give me windswept tundra and 50 below. At least there I can build a cocoon around my body. The desert will only strip me bare and keep digging. The route climbed into a narrow valley between craggy hills. Trees grew at this elevation, twisted junipers that cast slivers of shade. During each rest stop, I allowed myself three sips of water, swishing the liquid in my mouth for several seconds. This created a comforting illusion of moisture on my lips and tongue. By the time I swallowed, the water had cooled from hot to lukewarm and generated enough emotional strength to keep pedaling. 

Physically I struggled. Amid dehydration and heat, I had no appetite and couldn’t risk more vomiting. After a few hours, my reserve calories had depleted. Dizziness and confusion set in, which are also symptoms of heat exhaustion. I needed better self-care, but I was unraveling. If anyone had driven past, I probably would have waved my arms and begged for water. But I’d seen no one since Delta. The West Desert is truly a forgotten wasteland at the end of the world. I thought I’d found this before in Alaska, but I had no idea. 

 I continued to think of Claire. She didn’t die. I wasn’t going to die. But I was frightened. The route descended back to Sevier Lake’s barren shoreline. There was a cattle trough 300 meters off the route. It looked like it hadn’t been in use since the 1970s. I still spent 10 minutes scoping out dusty pipes and tubs. 

My desperation was fascinating even in the midst of it. The more motivated I became, the less anything hurt. My stomach stopped cramping. My energy level improved. I was probably crawling, but I felt stronger. The desert was beautiful in its desolation. Respect and revulsion generated a thrilling dynamic that propelled me forward. 

Just when my brain became convinced we were damned to spend eternity in sun-bleached purgatory, long shadows stretched across the desert. The sun was leaving! 

I’d eaten nothing since vomiting six hours earlier, so I crouched into a sad patch of sagebrush shade and consumed a quarter of a Maverick turkey sandwich. Bad choice. My stomach lurched and my brain temporarily blipped back online with enough awareness to feel sorry for itself. 

As I began the long climb out of the basin, the first human I’d seen all day — another rider, Steve — approached. My addled brain couldn’t quite process this. Steve was bewilderingly perky and kept offering snacks whose mere suggestion made me feel nauseated. He held up a water bottle that was about half full and asked if I needed any. No. I was not going to commandeer a precious resource from a cyclist. Anyway, thanks to rationing I still had 750ml. That would be plenty to get to Milford (the town was still 24 miles away.) 

Darkness fell as I battled the mountain headwall, a 22% grade that left me feeling hopelessly weak. I wanted to lay down in the road, but risking sunrise with so little water was not an option. The starlit sky suddenly turned opaque black. Dry lightning flashed overhead. Accompanying this storm was a hurricane-like wind, terrifying in its suddenness and strength. Dust and what felt like small pebbles pummeled my body. I crested the pass and started running downhill to escape the blinding maelstrom. I ran nearly a mile, which was most of the descent, reaching the edge of the storm just as the road flattened into maddening rollers. 

A fierce headwind persisted as I crawled the sandy road, swerving left and right in a futile search for solid dirt. The road continued to contour a bench above a pitch-black valley, never dropping into what I presumed was the highway corridor. Red lights from a windmill plant flashed signals of civilzation, taunting me. With 8.5 miles to go, I finally drank the last of my water. The slurping sound incited a brief panic. 

 “You’re okay. You’re okay,” I wheezed. 

 Luckily I’d spent the last of my adrenaline racing the storm. Anxiety fizzled to a dull whimper. I continued without emotion to Milford. Steve had said this nowhere town had a 24-hour diner. I refused to get my hopes up, but he was right! God bless America.

The Milford Penny’s Diner was empty at 11:30 p.m. I ordered a dinner that turned out to be inedible: baked chicken so dry and steamed vegetables so salty that I could not choke them down. The server/fry-cook acquiesced to repeated requests for more Pepsi. With each refill, life trickled back into my blood. The diner was attached to a hotel, so I decided to get a room and try to recover from a crushing day of heat and dehydration. 

My first shower in five days felt like acid searing my skin. I was sunburned, scratched, scabbed, and chafed to a sensitive pulp. Grime coated my legs in layers: White dust over a brown paste of sunscreen and mountain dirt. Beneath that layer, four-day-old blood still smeared my calves and shins. I scrubbed gently for 15 minutes, cursing at patches of stubborn grime until it registered that these were bruises. 

I was exhausted but barely slept. A dehydration headache pounded my skull. My Pepsi dinner and greedy consumption of ice water resulted in a need to urinate every half hour. Consuming a lot of sugar and water but failing to replace electrolytes resulted in the worst calf cramps I have ever endured. My legs refused to lift me out of bed, but my bladder ultimately won this battle. At one point I flipped on a light and looked at myself in the mirror — swollen face, sunken eyes, somehow pale and flushed all at once. 

“What the fuck are you doing?” I said out loud. 

The sound of my own voice, so derisive and withering, startled me. The question hurt. Why did I start UME? I came here to cope with grief and face my fear of uncertainty, to find peace in solitude, and stay in motion because movement calmed the violence in my mind. But why an endurance race? In the Utah desert of all places? A place that is beautiful yet brutal and full of unsettling memories. Why drag my body through hell until my emotions could barely hang on? 

I thought of that oft-repeated quote about misplaced drive: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I naively assumed I could fix myself with hammering. It was not working. 

Still, the same instinct that conditioned me to hammer also was loathe to quit, even when it was abundantly clear that was I was aiming for was not a nail. I vowed to give the race one more day.

Day Five

I awoke to an oppressively bright morning and a crushing hangover. My legs felt as though they’d been pounded with a mallet. Cramps left my calves clenched in tight knots. I could barely summon the energy to roll out of bed. Over 15-plus years of endurance races, I’ve experienced some bad mornings, but this one ranks near the top. 

 I hobbled over to the diner to order breakfast. I hoped some semblance of nutrients might soothe my pounding head, but I was so nauseated I could barely get anything past my throat. Eggs and potatoes went cold as I nibbled on dry toast, drank two tall glasses of terrible orange juice, and guzzled cup after cup of weak coffee. Nothing helped, really, but as long as I asked for more coffee refills, I didn’t have to move. 

On my way out of town, I stopped at a gas station to buy a bunch of candy. As usual, my resolve to consume most of my calories in nutrient-rich trail mix fell apart in favor of anything, anything at all that might inject energy into my blood. A store clerk expressed concern for my bruised hamburger legs, which looked worse now that they were clean than they had caked in dirt. 

Outside, Irene was eating at a picnic table. I sat down briefly to drink a bottled smoothie. I asked Irene what she thought about the West Desert crossing. She surprised me by shrugging like it was no big deal. When the headwind became too taxing, she stopped 15 miles outside of Milford. 

 “You camped?” I asked in disbelief. By that point, I was out of water and coughing through the sensation of dust in my throat. I probably would have dragged a broken leg down the road just to escape the thirst.

“It was so windy. Sand got in all of my stuff. Finally, I just packed up and came here.” Irene shook her head. 

 “Hardcore,” I replied, gulping the rest of my smoothie. Everyone I’d met in the UME seemed so much tougher than me. Endurance bikepacking is a different scene now than it was 15 years ago. Back then, few of us knew what we were in for. 

 The headwind was still raging as I pedaled out of town in the same southeasterly direction as the previous evening. A sandy washboard of a road rose ever-so-gradually out of the valley. Guarding the horizon were the Mineral Mountains, ominously shrouded in a brown haze. I’d checked my Purple Air app before leaving Penny’s Diner and saw the Air Quality Index had already spiked into the 80s. The pit in my stomach opened wider when I saw that number.

This headwind was a cold front arriving from the south and carrying wildfire smoke from Arizona. For the past two summers, wildfires have ravaged the West, spiking particle pollution for weeks at a time. These worsening fire summers have forced me to test my personal limit with air quality. I've found I don’t function well in AQIs over 100, and not at all when pollutants spike above 150. My breathing becomes pinched and I develop pounding headaches. I’d brought a few things to mitigate asthma symptoms — an inhaler, of course, as well as disposable respirator masks. But I started UME knowing that a single bad smoke day was likely to end my race whether I was determined to finish or not.

On this morning, determination was lacking. At least I left Milford — that was something. But as I slumped toward the Minerals, I continued to ask myself out loud: “What the fuck are you doing?” 

It’s a question I’ve wrestled with for years, but it reached its pinnacle during the 2020 Iditarod Trail Invitational. After 15 years of endurance racing, it’s come to a point where I consider traversing the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail on foot to be my personal ultimate challenge. The problem? I’m not strong enough to walk a thousand miles across Alaska in the winter. I’m really not. The short duration when the Iditarod Trail even exists combined with the increasingly early onset of spring means 40-mile days are required. The physical depletion such an endeavor demands is difficult to describe. 

 In 2020, inundated with several feet of snow and temperatures down to 45 below, I gave it my best effort; I really did. My effort, in return, unraveled both body and mind to the edge of survival. One night, while trudging through a narrow corridor cut between walls of powder, I fell asleep on my feet and plunged into a tree well. I might as well have jumped into a lake; such was the shock and panic of suddenly finding myself over my head in the snow. I thrashed and kicked and wheezed my way back onto the trail. Everything I was wearing was packed with snow. Water trickled down my abdomen, presumably from snowmelt beneath my bra. It was 45 below, so becoming wet was extremely dangerous. I was frightened. I need all of my faculties to stay sharp just to survive, and they were all fading. Legs, hands, mind — all of them. I decided then and there that walking to Nome was not my greatest challenge; it was unforgivably dumb. I quit at the 300-mile mark the following day. 

And, of course, that was March 10, 2020. I jumped from the trauma of the trail directly into the explosion that was the coronavirus pandemic. My experience was much like others in the U.S. My husband started working from home. I hoarded packaged food and assumed we wouldn’t leave our own backyard for months. For the most part, we didn’t, at least through June. Then the new normal normalized, and we moved forward. When COVID hit it seemed possible that races would just fade away altogether, but old habits die hard. 

Both everything and nothing changed. Sometimes it seems like I blinked in March 2020 and suddenly it’s whatever day it is today — in this case, September 28, 2021. My memory sees only a flash, but behind the scenes, I had 18 months to ponder my values and decide whether I even want to continue pursuing these experiences when the rewards likely do not outweigh the risks. Even with all this time, the answer remains elusive. I’m not sure. Old habits die hard.

This day, the … what was it? Fifth? Day of the Utah Mixed Epic, and my best answer for today was that I just didn’t know what else to do. I was no longer in any sort of physical distress. The alternative to riding my bike would be calling my mom and waiting for a rescue, which seemed too defeatist for no good reason. 

Certainly, beautiful days were still ahead. I was riding east toward the redrock desert. The Mineral Mountains looked like they were adorned with lovely sandstone formations themselves, although on this morning, they were little more than abstract pinnacles shrouded in haze. The road became progressively sandier and steeper until it was no longer rideable. The main road ended and the route veered onto faint doubletrack that as far as I could tell, no one used. It was too far away from anything interesting to be a popular four-wheeling destination. A derelict backhoe from the 1950s told a story of a long-ago mining access route that no longer held any purpose, and was quickly eroding beneath the dust and chunder of disinterest. 

When I checked before the race, this was one of those roads that, according to Google Maps, did not exist. I figured I was in for a long hike and didn’t really care. Indeed, hiking was a nice break from the ride of desperation across the West Desert. I pushed my bike and looked around. Aspen trees were speckled gold and green. Sandstone spires gave way to rounded sagebrush hills. I zoned out, grateful for the respite. 

But what goes up must come down. The climb gave way to a rolling descent in and out of drainages. These descents dropped straight down a fall line. They were so steep and loose that it became difficult to hike without slipping, so of course, I decided it was time to ride. It didn’t take long to tumble, helmet scraping the front tire as I went down, right shoe dislodging as my body scraped over rocks. Then I just laid on my back, head angled downhill and moaning, for quite a long time. I rolled over and groped around, half hoping I’d never find my shoe — because what a story that would be! But I did finally locate the shoe, conveniently wedged in the frame. I was tired of crashing. So tired. Fuming, I vowed to walk the rest of the way to Moab, which was still more than 500 miles away.

I limped to the crest of the ridge. The morning wind had hit a lull. Arizona wildfire smoke had settled in curtains of haze over the hills. I endured one coughing fit and then pulled on a filter mask. Engaging in hard effort while wearing an N95 is about as comfortable as most can now imagine in the COVID era: stifling, sweaty, and vaguely claustrophobic. I didn’t have the stamina to endure long days of this, but it was better than an asthma attack. 

I reached a bench above the I-15 corridor, and the road surface gradually improved. My oxygen supply became more limited, and the mask discouraged eating and drinking, so gradually I slipped into the gray stupor of survival mode. When I reached the town of Beaver, I didn’t remember anything about the past 15 miles of what I presume was a rolling dirt road. 

 The wind had reignited and was now blowing from the north. Gusts shoved me violently down the main street of town. When I looked up, I realized the air had cleared substantially. The Mineral Mountains were rendered in sharp detail that made them look somehow more ominous than they had amid the soft, brown haze of morning. At least those mountains were behind me. Apparently so was the smoke. I peeled off my mask. The air had a sharp bite, signaling a coming storm. 

 In the ten hours since leaving Milford, I’d only traveled 41 miles. I was tired but not exhausted, not like the previous day at least. I still had nearly all of the six liters of water I’d started with that morning. I was, however, largely beyond caring about races or adventure or much of anything. I couldn’t even summon the willpower to find food, although the thought of washing my clothing sounded sublime, so I booked a room at an expensive hotel on the edge of town. Jim and Irene were both at the front counter also giving in to comfort, confirming my suspicion that everyone around me was more or less in the same state of mind. Jim confessed that if the next section was anything like the Minerals, he was done. 

Eventually, I waddled over to Beaver Taco for dinner but continued to lack enthusiasm, even for burritos. Still, the weather forecast was encouraging — overnight rain and a high of 55 degrees. The air would be clear and cool. It seemed this ride was finally poised to turn in my favor, and I couldn’t turn that down.

Day Six

Wednesday, September 29. The morning began auspiciously. I wheeled my bike out of the hotel lobby into the predawn darkness. The wind had calmed, the smoke had cleared. The weather was 39 degrees and raining. Droplets pattered against my rain jacket, a joyful sound. A filter mask slipped out of the backpack pocket where I’d stuffed it the previous day. I picked it up from the wet pavement and laughed — it looked like an alien accessory when held up to the clear autumn morning. I took a deep breath and relished the sharp, almost metallic taste. Pure air. 

A long, dreamless sleep refilled my depleted energy stores, and my mood was jovial. There was still so much ahead to anticipate. The probably ridiculous but undeniably gorgeous traverse along Bryce Canyon to Escalante. The high and mysterious forest beyond Hell’s Backbone. Cathedral Valley! The San Rafael Swell! I’d endured a lot of bullshit on this route, but a decent percentage of the latter half was already known or at least a better-understood landscape. This, the race director had told us, was our reward for enduring the Wasatch and West Desert. I was excited. 

 First I had to schlep from Beaver to Panguitch, which was another segment that turned up blank on Google Maps. So I expected more hiking, but it looked like a reasonable enough distance to cover in a day, even with hike-a-bike. Maybe 50 miles? First I had to stop at a gas station for my resupply. My entire purchase was a half-pound of squeaky cheese from Beaver Creamery, various gummy candies, and a partially flattened hoagie sandwich wrapped tightly in plastic. “

You’re not biking in this weather, are you?” asked the clerk, a 50-something woman who regarded me with motherly concern. 

“Forecast says the rain should stop in an hour or so,” I replied with a shrug.

Outside, the sky brightened through shades of gray. After five miles of achy pedaling up a gradual incline — although my head felt peppy, my bruised legs seemed to disagree — the rain subsided. The route turned off a rough secondary road onto a cobbled mess of a jeep road, coated in loose golf-ball-sized rocks for countless miles. I bounced and shimmied, lost traction from the rear wheel, hiked and stumbled, swung my leg back over the saddle, and repeated all of these steps ceaselessly. A man and two teenagers approached in an old Chevy truck. 

 “What are y’all doing out here?” the driver said with an air of disbelief. I figured Jim and Irene left town before me; there may have been a few others scattered along this stretch. I told him the random cyclists he was seeing were part big group ride that started in Salt Lake City a few days ago. He asked where we were heading.

"Moab," I replied. "Uh, Panguitch first."

 “The roads are real rocky beyond here,” he warned. 

 “Yeah, we’re pretty used to that by now,” I said with a defeated sigh. I knew we were in for another tough section — I mean, they were all tough. But there seemed to be particular injustice in the rough roads on this day. As though the universe owed me a full reprieve. 

 Rather than deal with the frustration of being constantly on and off the bike, I chose the tedium of continuous walking. To cope, I cued up an audiobook — “Reasons to Stay Alive” by Matt Haig. In hindsight, this was probably not the best choice. But it was a title that interested me, and it just happened to be next in the queue. Weeks later, I’d replay the entire book and realize I hadn’t absorbed a single word during my first listen. It was merely background noise; I wasn’t paying attention. But perhaps, like subliminal messaging, there were passages and phrases that needled at my subconscious, provoking an emotional reaction.

As I walked, the sky brightened but the temperature stayed cool. My mind was an ocean of gray tranquility, but waves of sadness were starting to surge from the depths. At first, they were ripples, a pleasant sort of melancholy. As the slow miles lengthened, the waves began to swell. A lump formed in my throat, as though warning me that I should hold my breath. Then suddenly a wave crashed down, inundating my thoughts in a shock of grief that I hadn’t experienced since my father’s death was hours old, since my entire world collapsed around me. I thought I’d spent months fortifying emotional walls so I wouldn’t have to experience that pain again, but I’d built nothing. A seawall of sticks against a hurricane. 

I stumbled away from the bike and collapsed on the rocks in debilitating pain. For me, this ache is equal parts physical and emotional. The physical pain alone ranks with the worst I’ve experienced. It feels as though there is something sharp in my chest that is trying to tear its way out of my body. I will curl into a fetal position and constrict my back against this heaving force. I will scream and wish the demon could succeed. I’d call this a broken heart, but its source isn't my heart. The pain roars from my chest in gulping sobs. Grief is an emotion of the lungs. 

I was not okay. If I had broken an ankle, I’m not sure I would have been much less okay. But I was alone and miles from anywhere. I had covered about 15 miles since leaving Beaver, with about 37 to go to Panguitch. For reasons unknown to me now, it still seemed prudent to move forward rather than return. I walked and cried. The more I cried, the more pressure my body released. I started to feel a little better. And yet, my chest still throbbed. If it hurts this much now, a full three months after my father died, what will this pain be in three more months? Three years? 

 The rocky road veered downhill, so I climbed back into the saddle and launched full speed into a chute of sharp rocks and sand. I half-hoped … probably more than half-hoped … for a real physical injury so I could feel a different sort of pain. “Reasons to Stay Alive” was still droning in my earbuds. I acknowledged this without having any memory of the words. The title alone prompted dark ideas. 

“What reasons are there, even?” There were cliffs overhead — rippled sandstone formations towering over the crimson oak and golden aspen. The cliffs looked climbable. They looked jumpable. Just a few seconds, the darkness whispered, and all of this nonsense with being-human-and-feeling-really-fucking-deeply could end.

Here is where I need to address suicidal ideation and what it means to me. I do not discuss these mostly involuntary thoughts with anyone. I rarely admit them to myself, because of the shame and self-loathing they carry. I want to strongly emphasize that I do not believe myself to be legitimately suicidal. But it is an important part of my story. I’ve also come to believe that it’s important to discuss these issues openly, without the shame our culture often imparts on mental health issues, especially those that deal with death. 

 As I’ve navigated the ebbs and flows of anxiety over the past few years, I’ve learned to recognize a relapse when suicidal ideation returns. The fantasies are subtle, something my subconscious seems to offer as a last-ditch solution: “Hey, here’s something to make the pain go away, just something to consider, you know, after you’ve tried riding your bike and all the other stuff.” 

And just to drive home that this is something I’m never going to try, my subconscious picks scenarios that tap into my deepest phobias: Drowning, usually, but more recently — and I want to admit accompanied with much shame, given how my father died — leaping off a cliff. My conscious mind has no intention of following through. But it is interesting how these visualizations bring comfort to my darkest moments, similar to imagining a tranquil beach to soothe anxiety. I can recognize when my mental health is on an upswing because these ideations just disappear. 

To friends and family who find this admission upsetting, I’m sorry. Believe me, if I ever legitimately feared for my safety, I would seek help immediately. I love life, very much, and I love my family. I believe suicidal ideation is just one of the coping mechanisms of an overactive imagination that can create only one story where this pain unquestionably ends. When my brain tells this story, I feel a measure of peace. But I know, viscerally and sincerely, that it will never be a true story. When you love and you lose that love, it hurts. It HURTS. But this is also one of the most beautiful aspects of living a life. This hurt is the reflection of love, love as deep and vast as an ocean. I want to dive into the coldest depths, to swim to the farthest horizons, to experience it all — the pain and the exhilaration, the mesmerizing color and the darkness. I wouldn’t be out here, physically suffering through a long bike ride through an inhospitable if beautiful nowhere land, if I didn’t believe that awe and pain are the crests and troughs of the same ocean. But I have not yet risen out of the depths, and I am not strong enough to ride these waves.

After some miles of daydreaming and darkness, I experienced another wave of gasping pain and crumpled to the ground. When I gained enough strength to sit up, I pulled out my phone and took the above photo. It’s not a particularly special or beautiful place, but it has become my favorite place along the Utah Mixed Epic Route. This was the place where I talked with my dad. 

A couple miles back, I’d switched from the audiobook to music after acknowledging that listening to a memoir about depression was probably not in my best interest, even if I hadn’t been listening to its words. But I needed distraction. I do not remember which song accompanied me into this second sadness spiral, but I do know what brought me out of it: “Addict with a Pen” by Twenty One Pilots. 

Hello, we haven’t talked in quite some time 
I know I haven’t been the best of sons 
And lo I’ve been traveling through the desert of my mind 
And I haven’t found a drop of life. 

I laid back down. Rocks pressed into my shoulder blades as I watched wispy clouds stream overhead. The story my brain formed was that Dad was up there, in heaven I guess, so I talked with him for a while. I apologized for not finding peace out here, for only finding despair and desolation. I lamented my weakness — by which I mean the earlier thoughts about jumping — and confessed that I once believed I was strong enough to walk through life alone, but now I was certain I wasn’t that strong.

"I need you. Why did you have to go?"

The clouds appeared as white currents in an eternal ocean. Mesmerized by the flow, my thoughts slipped into tranquil meditation. What I felt was love. I was so grateful to be granted this grace. But as I moved to sit up, my shoulder muscles spasmed and my head became dizzy. I didn’t even have the energy to stand. I rolled over and crawled to my bike. I felt as though I might faint. 

It had always been folly to believe I could be strong enough for this endeavor. Digging into physical limits has a way of dredging up our deepest, oldest, most-buried emotions. In the best moments, these emotions can stretch into the stratosphere of awe, long-forgotten heights that I imagine arise from infancy — when everything about the world was mystery and wonder. 

 Then there’s the other side, the depths of despair, which can erupt out of the most simple setbacks. Something as trivial as a broken pole or misplaced mitten can send me into a doom spiral. I call this “toddler mind.” Even as an adult without children, I can readily empathize with 2-year-olds in full meltdown mode over spilled juice. 

 But I’m not a 2-year-old child who spilled my juice. I’m a 42-year-old woman who lost my father. He was one of only two who have been part of my world since the beginning, a full half of my innermost love. I recognize that I am not unique for loving my father, nor in losing him, but this loss is deeper than any other I’ve experienced. To take my deepest grief, so fresh and raw, and carelessly drag it through the rocks and sand, was folly. It was childish hubris. I don’t know what I was thinking. I suppose I naively believed enough pedaling could siphon this pain from my body. But grief isn’t a finite well one can simply drain. Pain doesn't smother pain, it compounds it. This is how it’s always been.

Grief may not be finite, but energy is. These breakdowns drained any reserves I had to spare. I looked at my watch. It was 3 p.m. At least 25 more miles of rolling, rocky road separated me from Panguitch. Still kneeling on the ground, I reached for a pack of gummy worms and stuffed the rest in my mouth. The food slid down my throat, but even after a few minutes, I felt no better. Calories were futile. This wasn’t a simple bonk. This was complete soul exhaustion. 

I suspect many humans, maybe most humans, feel this way on some level right now. My soul exhaustion has been smoldering for years. It began, I’d guess, with the 2016 election, when my bubble of privileged ignorance finally burst and I realized I did not live in the world I thought I lived in. It continued in 2017, when I was diagnosed with Graves Disease and realized I did not live in the indomitable body I thought I lived in. Mid-2018 brought my first unprovoked panic attack and the realization that I did not even live in the tractable mind I thought I lived in. Climate disaster, fading winters, increasingly volatile wildfire seasons, drought, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jan. 6 insurrection, my Dad … just loss after loss after loss, for everyone else and much as myself. This is what I mean by "Life is long and it's not fun to watch the world burn." I'm only 42 years old. What will I lose if I live another 40 years? How will I mourn everything I've lost?

So here we all are, on some level, lying in the dirt with a bewildering expanse to traverse just to get through another day, trying to summon the will to do so. 

Grief is exhausting, but at an animal level, I could still summon the mechanics of motion. I stood and took a few steps. Then I swung a leg over the saddle and began to pedal. This was forward motion but it was a detached sort of motion, skimming the edge of consciousness. It felt the way a restless night of sleep does: In and out of awareness, thrashing amid exhaustion, swallowing the bile gurgling from my stomach. Did one mile pass yet? Did twenty?

At some point, I descended into a broad sagebrush valley. It appeared as though there was no improved road in or out, and yet the fields were dotted with cattle. A small blue house stood alone, surrounded by this empty space. There were no vehicles in the driveway and no sign that anyone had been home for weeks or months. Cows rose stiffly from prone positions and lumbered out of the way. This interaction with reality shook me out of the robotic stupor that kept me in motion. A gurgling sigh heaved from my gut. I did not have the will or energy to go on. I stood in place for a long time. Hours maybe? Most likely just a few minutes. 

Another cyclist approached from the hill I'd descended. As I watched her silhouette flow across the valley, I summoned the will to appear okay and lurched forward. The climb out of the valley was ridiculously steep. Kristen was cheerful when she passed while pushing her bike. She said something about sore feet and I agreed, although my feet were probably my strongest attribute going into this race. Hiking, I reminded myself, was something I was good at. But I couldn’t hold Kristen’s pace. Her silhouette faded over the crest of the hill. I faded back to gray. 

I must have continued walking because eventually, I climbed out of the hill’s shadow and into a patch of late afternoon sunlight. The top. I checked my phone to see if it had any reception. It hadn’t all day, but I had sent my mother a text from a satellite messenger after my second breakdown. I’d already told her that I was having my most difficult day yet, that my grief was as fresh and raw as it had ever been, that it was tearing me apart, and that I no longer had the strength to continue. 

 “Whatever you need,” she texted back. “I’ll come to you.” 

A few bars appeared on the phone near the crest of the ridge. I sat in the patchy shade of a juniper tree and called Mom. A cold breeze caused me to shiver, but I needed shade to see the phone's screen. Tears flowed as I repeated what I texted. 

“I’ve been hiking,” I said. “And it’s 15 more miles. I won’t make it to Panguitch tonight. But I want to stop there. I'm done."  

She told me she’d come out first thing in the morning. It was a four-hour drive, eight hours round trip, and she rarely drove alone before my dad died. In order to fit my bike, she’d have to drive my car, which was unfamiliar to her as well. I knew this would cause stress. This was the scenario I'd wanted to avoid, but at that moment all I felt was relief. I was so grateful she was there for me. 

Mom's unconditional support made me briefly strong again, and I launched my bike down another steep and rocky chute. The rough road contoured over a few more drainages with steep ups and downs, but soon I was only descending in the rich evening light. Ruts began to fade to smooth dirt. Loose rocks strewn across the road gradually became pebbles.  The road was improving. My wheels rolled effortlessly, nearing 10 mph. I thought I’d have to hike the final 15 miles into town, but there is some grace in the world.

The canyon opened to a broad plateau above the Sevier River. A cold wind rushed from the east. The evening temperature was already approaching freezing, and this headwind added a biting chill. My face and fingers tingled, injecting shots of physical awareness into my reverie. I didn't feel crushing sadness, but I also couldn't summon the same relief I felt earlier. I supposed I'd end up in Panguitch tonight after all. I didn't have any noticeable emotion about this, positive or negative. Panguitch had hot food and warm beds; I wouldn't have to sleep in the cold. But did it matter? Did those things matter? There was no comfort there, no real relief for my pain. Maybe there can never be relief, but at least I understood now that I wouldn't find peace out on the world's lonely back roads, grinding my soul into dust. 

Long shadows stretched toward a horizon of sandstone spires, glowing fiery red beneath the setting sun. The horizon whispered of adventure. It was a world I’d already lost. Someday, perhaps, I will pull Dad's old Utah maps out of the drawer and rediscover this world on my own terms. Or perhaps the spark is just gone now, extinguished from a mind that grief rewired. 

I was too soul-exhausted to form emotions about quitting. All I had left was my toddler mind, so grateful she could see her mommy tomorrow. She imagined crawling into bed in her childhood bedroom, closing her eyes, and waking to discover that all of this was just a dream.