Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Making plans in the sand as the tides roll in

I am having a February. I think many people in the Northern Latitudes will agree that February is a most gloomy month, depicted well in the movie “Groundhog Day” and summed up by Bill Murray as Phil Connors: “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.” 

Even though I personally love winter weather, and even though I live in Colorado which is glaringly sunny about 96 percent of the time, and even though it’s finally snowing again after too many tinder-dry months brought a fiery, apocalyptic end to 2021 … there’s just something about February, isn’t there?  

“Why are you so upset?” 

This is a question I ask myself often these days, wiping tears from my eyes when I have no direct reason to be sad, cursing the rerouted wiring in my brain. My mind feels like a jumbled mess, cables frayed by the cuts of little traumas, permanently knotted behind accumulating losses, no longer leading to the self I once understood. Meanwhile, my body finally started coming together. Three months of sharp back pain abruptly changed when I slipped down my stairs at home late the night of January 17. I injured two toes in the fall — likely broke the little one — and bashed my lower back. This forced me to stop hiking, rest some, and then actually get back on my bike. I’d more or less avoided riding outdoors since my back started hurting (and I developed a bit of road anxiety) after the truck collision in October. The stair fall resulted in new core issues that manifested in my left hip, but once I dealt with those, the biking felt — dare I say — good.

By February 7, it was time to start walking again. I’d been limping around in a medical sandal and had successfully kept weight off the right side of my right foot for three weeks. I carefully slid on stiff-soled hiking boots then hobbled out the door while admonishing myself to stop hobbling. It was a nice afternoon, sunny and 40 degrees. It felt cold. My steps were weird and tentative. There was ice on the road, prompting painful shimmies from my still-stiff hip. I neglected to bring a jacket and had to beg one off Beat as he returned from a run, as I was only able to move at a frustratingly slow pace of 2.5 mph. I hated feeling so weak and vulnerable. 

I’d started listening to the audiobook of “Nerve” by Eva Holland, which was supposed to be about confronting our misbehaving neurons. First, the author dealt with the death of her mother from a stroke at age 60. In visceral detail, Eva described what happened after the family removed life support. 

 “No,” I whimpered, and then more loudly, “NO NO!” as Eva watched her mother’s unconscious and dying body gasp for air. My toes ached. My weakened right leg shook like a baby lamb as I staggered and sobbed. After a minute I pulled myself together, shut off the triggering audio, and limped home. 

Beat met me at the door. “Tim had to be rescued,” he announced. 


The backstory: The previous afternoon, our friend and Alaska adventure mentor Tim Hewitt started a solo journey in Nome, planning to walk upwards of 2,000 miles to Knik and then back on the Iditarod Trail. With such a great distance, he had a tight schedule to keep. The weather in Nome had been dangerously windy all week; I’d been following the Strava reports of Nome biking friends, and wondered if Tim would have to postpone. When the North Wind blows, the narrow drainage along Solomon Creek will funnel the gusts until they reach hurricane force, sometimes over 100 mph. But Tim has dealt with The Blowhole before. He did not expect the North Wind to lift his sled off the ground and whisk his entire duffel into seabound oblivion. Suddenly he had nothing but the clothes he was wearing — no water, no extra layers, not even a headlamp. He had to pick his way through the darkness for miles, goggles removed so he could simply see through the blowing snow, and still falling over continuously on glare ice. He made it to a shelter cabin, but a Nome SAR volunteer reported that he was “super frostbitten with a swollen shut eye.” 

That was all we knew on Monday night. (A report and follow-up about Tim's condition are linked here.) I limped to the shower, where I no longer had to fight back tears. 

 “Tim is okay. He’ll be okay. Why are you so upset?” But I couldn’t stop crying. 

On February 9, I knew it was imperative to teach myself to walk again. I planned a five-mile loop from my physical therapist’s office in Louisville. I already had an appointment for PT on my back, and Louisville offers well-developed pedestrian paths with less ice and fewer hills than home. I wore normal shoes. My steps felt better. My gait was more controlled. My speed was a breezy 3.5 mph. The temperature had spiked to 58 degrees; even in a T-shirt, it felt hot, uncomfortably so in February. The Coal Creek path wound through a cottonwood grove and emerged in a neighborhood. The streets were abandoned: no people, no cars parked in the driveways, only the occasional sound of a pounding hammer to break the eerie silence. 

Then I turned another corner and met the devastation — full city blocks leveled by the Marshall Fire that roared through here on Dec. 30, destroying nearly a thousand homes. Driven by 100 mph winds, the fire burned a patchwork of grassy hills and suburbs. The lines of delineation between what burned and what was spared were nonsensical. Hotels and shopping centers disappeared but little parking lot shacks were left standing. Entire neighborhoods were torched but there would be a single home somehow unscathed in the midst. And all of this happened in the middle of winter, miles from the nearest forest, to homeowners who lacked adequate fire insurance because no one in a hundred years would have expected Louisville to burn in a wildfire. Amazingly the loss of life was minimal, but the damage is sobering. It feels like a window into the apocalypse, a glimpse of the climate change future that awaits us all. And I know, I know, none of us can know the future. It does no good to imagine catastrophe. But how can I not imagine it, when catastrophe is already here, hiding in plain sight around seemingly benign corners? 

February 10. I needed to decide once and for all whether I’m going to ride the Iditarod Trail Invitational. I mean, I can’t decide and probably won’t decide. It will just be another one of those years where I show up at the start undecided, or maybe I’ll surprise my past self and let my rewired brain make a completely different choice. But if I’m going to slump my way to the starting line, I need to be prepared for any and every catastrophe. So I took my fat bike to Brainard Lake, where the West Wind was cranking. The biking was pretty crappy. I’m out of practice, and riding atop drifted snow is like balancing on a thousand tiny and slippery ball bearings. I did fine on the foot-packed road, where a wider path didn’t hold me to a tight line, but I crashed several times on singletrack. I’d rip through the woods only to cross into an open meadow where the trail had disappeared entirely beneath windswept snow, and down I went. 

A little frustrated, I decided I’d just push my bike up to Lefthand Reservoir, a path mainly packed by alpine skiers because it gains a thousand feet in just over a mile. Just three days earlier I hadn't felt competent to simply stroll down my road, and now I was wearing my big boots while hoisting a heavy bike up a steep trail that had been scraped smooth by metal ski edges. A 50 mph headwind roared from the Divide. Blowing snow cut through my buff; the taste was sharp, almost metallic. The right lens fell out of my sunglasses and I didn’t even notice. Eventually, I thought, “my eye hurts; what’s wrong?” Then I put my hand to my face and realized the lens was missing. I found and replaced it, but even after just a few minutes of wind exposure, my eye continued to hurt for days. I thought about Tim Hewitt and how painful his injuries must be. 

As I approached the dam, I could tell I was walking into the heart of the tempest. I couldn’t even see the Continental Divide beneath of wall of wind-whipped snow. The photo makes the gale look like fluffy low-lying clouds. I assure you it is not. Still, gaining experience is good, so I pushed to the top of the dam. I hoped to continue just a few hundred yards, pushing my bike while exposed to the full fury of the West Wind. It was blowing at least 70 mph according to a weather station one ridge over. Gusts shoved me sideways when I tried to push into the wind, then grabbed my bike and lifted both wheels into the air. The entire 30-something-pound fat bike was blowing like a flag in the wind as I desperately clung to the handlebars, feet skidding on bare gravel as gusts threatened to shove me off the dam if I didn’t let go of my bike. 

I wrestled the bike to the ground and crawled off the dam, filled with exhilaration and wonder. I thought of those famous words that doomed British explorer Robert Falcon Scott wrote in his journal upon reaching the South Pole on January 17, 1912: “Great God! This is an awful place!” 

I thought about Tim Hewitt, who lost his gear to such a wind and had to battle for miles afterward. What would I do if I couldn’t just blaze down Lefthand Reservoir Road and leave this awful place? It would be a catastrophe. 

February 13. Two weeks to go until the ITI, and thus my last shot at a training ride. I loaded my gear in the car and left at 5 a.m. to crawl through Sunday ski traffic before crossing back over the Divide to Leadville. The forecast called for a warm day, 33 degrees. Under direct sunlight at 10,000 feet, that feels like something closer to 80. I’ll sweat in my base layer until I hit the shade or a wind-exposed slope and then freeze. Repeat. 

My bike was heavy. It was likely even heavier than my bike when I first rode the Iditarod in 2008; since then I’ve developed more experience and thus fears that I need to pack. I’m going to side-eye anyone who insists I don’t need my stuff. They don’t have to put their own safety and comfort in the trust of this less-than-trustworthy engine (by which I mean my brain, but also my under-trained legs.) 

Anyway, I was slow starting out but at least trail conditions were great — that is until I climbed to the more obscure old mining roads where snowmobilers on deep-track mountain sleds had gouged the soft trail into a morass of mashed potatoes. The West Wind was cranking — less harrowing than it had been at Brainard Lake, but still a stiff and shockingly cold breeze that added dissonance to the melting trail. I mashed pedals and swerved, drove my heart rate up to 170 bpm, then oozed off the bike to hike. Repeat. Nine hours later I was exhausted. Way more exhausted than seemed justifiable after a mere 35 miles, even if it did take nine hours.

The sun set over the Sawatch Range as I pedaled across the highway toward Turquoise Lake. The plan was to ride around the lake and then camp near the dam. The loop is 16 miles and I thought it would take four more hours. But as soon as I hit the lake track, my tires bogged down in some of the deepest snow chunder I’ve encountered. It had been warm all day and snowmobiles had churned up chunks of snow, impossible berms, and deep ruts. 

 I couldn’t find a rideable line. That was it. It was not a big deal. I had everything I needed and could camp anytime I wanted; it’s not like I had to push through exhaustion for 16 miles before stopping for the night. Still, I tried to keep my meager goal, flailing for three miles before the trail pitched steeply uphill. With my heart rate again near maximum capacity, I swerved and tipped off the bike, landing sore foot and then face down in the snow. 

That was it. It was not a big deal. But a dark shadow swept over my mind and suddenly I was crumpled in the fetal position, sobbing, wracked with chest pain. This sharp pain I recognized as an acute ache that I first experienced following my father’s death. Now, eight months later, it's broadened, sweeping over a larger range of thoughts. A soft trail is not a reason to give in to despair, but there is something about the combo of frustration and fatigue that crushes the scaffolding I've built around my grief, subsequently collapsing all of my emotions. The more fragile my body feels, the more vulnerable my mind becomes.

I promised myself I’d walk for one more hour after the meltdown, to relearn my old strategies for pulling myself together. But I couldn’t stop crying. Finally, I found a nice spot to camp, high above the frozen lake, beneath ice-tinged spruce trees glittering in the moonlight. The temperature plummeted quickly under clear skies, dropping to near zero. I was perfectly cozy in my big coat and enjoyed a leisurely dinner and hot chocolate, gazing at stars in the sky. This, I thought, would surely make me feel better. But as soon as I crawled into my warm and cozy sleeping bag, the tears erupted all over again. 

 Why was I so upset? Genuinely, I couldn’t parse it out. When I closed my eyes and let my mind relax, my thoughts trickled back to upsetting memories — the burned Louisville neighborhoods, the black sky during the 2020 East Troublesome Fire, the early pandemic, the eerie ghost town that was Sea-Tac Airport in March 2020, the Iditarod Trail ten days before that, huddled in my sleeping bag and strung out by exhaustion when it was 45 below. 

Finally I dozed off, only to wake up startled by vague nightmares. One finally stuck: Beat and I were in the Iditarod together, inside a large unfinished building that had been a checkpoint in 2014. It was crowded, lots of familiar faces, and everyone was getting ready to go. My camp stove was in pieces and I couldn’t put it back together. Beat was frustrated with me; the fix should have been simple. He wouldn’t wait anymore. He stormed off. I stood just in time to witness him trip and fall down a set of stairs that were exactly like our stairs at home, only four times longer. He was somersaulting. He was going to die. I awoke gasping in my bivy sack. I couldn’t breathe. I had to push out of the sleeping bag and lay in the snow in my base layer, unprotected from the zero-degree air, still gasping. 

 Finally, I pulled myself back together and sat up. It was a beautiful night rendered in dramatic detail beneath a nearly full moon. Still, my mind couldn’t break free from its shadow. What is the point of seeking beautiful places if we can’t even step outside of ourselves? 

 “Great God! This is an awful place, and terrible enough for us to have labored to it without the reward of priority.” 

After the terrible anxiety dream and subsequent panic attack, I managed to sleep until sunrise. It was a beautiful day. I was feeling better. I made coffee and headed out. My plan had been to just head home, but I decided to embrace a 4 mph average pace and explore the more obscure trails around Turquoise Lake: A ski track leading high up to a mountain hut on the wilderness boundary; a summer boat launch where a faint snowmobile track wended along the shoreline for some distance; and finally, Hagerman Pass Road. The road was reasonably well-packed but discovered a little too late to explore for long. 

The only snowmobilers I met all day passed me around mile four of Hagerman. Two men that looked and sounded like Alaska Natives, but I didn’t ask, stopped to chat and have a smoke. They told me the trail had been groomed to a “cabin” near the pass, about three miles farther and a lot of feet higher. Because of wind-drifting, conditions could be treacherous for their machines. They didn’t want to get stuck, but they were going to check it out anyway. They continued smoking, seemingly in no hurry.

 I wished them luck and stopped to make a late lunch. The West Wind had kicked back up and there was nowhere all that protected from it, but it seemed a good spot to practice using my stove in the wind. I heated up Cup Noodles with coffee and sat in the sunlight, taking in a sweeping mountain vista and grinning. This felt more like the old me. The one that found joy in hard things. The one that got knocked down but could always get back up.  

Still, my night had been … disturbing. I acknowledge that I need to be more proactive with my mental health. There is a combination of mild but ongoing anxiety and depression that I am not managing well. Wishing it away is not going to work. Crying, panicking, and being generally terrorized by my own mind while out in the middle of nowhere is also, frankly, an alarming prospect. And yet, I have self-care and coping mechanisms in my arsenal. I now have a better awareness of triggers and ideas about heading off the monster before it tackles me. 

I certainly don’t want to give in to the monster, to let it control my life, to let it deprive me of the soaring joys of Cup Noodles beneath the Continental Divide, or all of the joys I could potentially find on the Iditarod Trail. It’s not like I have to be fast in Alaska, just persistent. I have no ego invested in this game, not in my current state, so I’ll quit if it’s too hard. I finally broke free of the worst of my back pain. My foot is sore but better. I can walk. I can push my bike. I’m healed! And yet, I’m still broken. 

How does one decide? What is an irrational fear and what is an acceptable risk? What is a punishment and what is a reward? Aren’t we all a little bit broken? Don't we all face an unknowable future? Aren’t we all susceptible to loss? Do we have any other choice but to hold onto hope? 

“Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough to have labored to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here, and the wind may be our friend tomorrow. Now for the run home and desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.”


  1. I've developed a big fear of falling. I don't know where it came from but it haunts my steps. So I sort of get this post even though I don't do as extreme stuff as you do. Lately I have been anxious about just about everything--falling, why does my knee hurt, wind, etc. etc. It's exhausting. Maybe it's just February.

  2. Beautiful and thoughtful as always. Thank you.

  3. Struggle. Life is a struggle...even in the best of times, especially in the worst of times.
    So happy to see a post from you again. Been missing your honesty and creative writing.
    Box Canyon

  4. As someone who’s been struggling along maybe on the edge of depression for a bit (though with far fewer triggers than you’ve experienced in the recent past), a lot of this speaks to me. And maybe despite the coping mechanisms you’ve developed for the more self-inflicted traumas we choose, maybe what you’re dealing with now warrants seeing someone.

  5. I have enjoyed following your blog and reading your books for many years. Thank you very much for taking us on your adventures. And thank you for being so honest about your mental health too. It takes a lot of courage and being very brave to admit one needs some help from time to time. Please consider taking the time now to health both your spirit and your body. There are many great resources in your area. Alaska will always be there for you.

  6. Thank you so much for being so open with your emotions and how they impact our ability to do really hard things. I can relate to your experience after a recent Arrowhead start and subsequent DNF. Although it was for a different reason (emotionally) I can appreciate the conflicting feelings you must have about ITI. I know you are not looking for advice but what I will say is that whatever you choose to do will be the right decision for you and you will learn from it. Race start or not, finish or's all part of the journey...

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  8. I am so glad to read your writing and see your photos again. Life is so hard. A huge loss makes all the cracks in our hearts open, again and again. I, too, am struggling since losing my dad. I admire your tenacity in trying to reclaim the things that you love doing. I am so glad that the physical injuries are behind you.

  9. "I acknowledge that I need to be more proactive with my mental health."

    Very enlightened, self-aware comment. We often work hard on keeping our bodies in shape, but don't pay nearly as much attention to our minds, which are incredibly complex. I have been blessed with good genes and early childhood experiences -- luck, as it were -- so I have a good mental health base, but I still need to make an effort to be proactive about my mental health. I find meditation helps a lot.

  10. Ah! Happy to see another blog post from you. I'm with you on the relentless anxiety plaguing me lately ... I guess I'll blame February. Seems fair!

  11. If this kind of night pain strikes on the Iditarod, you need to take your Ambien straight away. Its calming benzo type effect will diminish this emotion to nothing. I know you take it during the Idi from your books.Just stock up and don't wait for the misery/terror to grow before you take it.


Feedback is always appreciated!