Sunday, April 02, 2023

The body remembers what the mind forgets

On February 25, I was sure I would never feel happy or healthy again. A heavy despondency sat on my chest, keeping me anchored in bed long after the alarm I'd set because I knew I had to boost myself outside today. Finally, I rose to an empty house. Filtered sunlight cast strange shadows on the hardwood floor. Beat was in Alaska, set to start the Iditarod Trail Invitational the following day. It was a stressful few days after his flight was canceled, followed by high winds and a storm that meant he only escaped Colorado by the skin of his teeth. 

I'd been in survival mode since I drove home from Kanab on February 20. It was my second week on Lexapro. My doctor urged me to double the dose, which only seemed to double the terrible side effects — constant nausea, feeling so dizzy I had difficulty jogging, and some of the worst anxiety I'd experienced. My sleep was continuously interrupted by nightmares about mass shooters, and where did that even come from? That's not part of my trauma. Oh, brain. I want to be done with you. But there's no way to break up with your own brain. You can only kill it, which honestly (and I promise, I am fine now), starts to become a comforting daydream. These thoughts are as terrifying as they are darkly comforting — especially when I'm just starting an antidepressant, for which suicidal thoughts are a big red flag. I was eager for an appointment with my therapist on Monday. But since it was only Saturday, I rallied all of my energy to visit my grumpy emotional support mountain, Niwot Ridge. 

I love Niwot Ridge because as a mountain it's hard to love. Bland yet steep approach on a jeep road, a broad, almost featureless spine, littered with scientific equipment, and raked by constant, brutal winds. A light breeze on Niwot is 40 mph. Hurricane-force gales are common. Whiteouts, sastrugi, sketchy wind crust, exposed tussocks — there isn't a friendly step to be had. I used to feel terrorized by Niwot Ridge, but now that I know what to expect, I've come to find comfort in its raw, indifferent power. I imagine a Simon & Garfunkel lyric, set to the white noise of this video I shot in January: 

Hello, Niwot, my old friend
I've come to walk with you again
Into a wind that always blows
Toward a love that no one knows
Only to press deeper into your cold heart
Still apart
In a roar of silence.

I trudged to the end of the ridge, or at least to the point where the featureless plain narrows to a serrated knife with exposure that would be actual suicide for the likes of me. It's nearly seven miles one way and took me more than three hours. I hadn't noticed the time pass at all. I walked and breathed and felt the gift of being alive ... at least I told myself this is what alive felt like. 

"Life is easy when I am walking," I thought. "All I need to do is keep walking." 

I took this selfie in that happy moment of discovery. It's interesting to look at it now and see all of the pain reflected in my expression. I've come to think of this photo as "Healing process — selfie number one."

The week progressed. Beat's race started on February 26. His first night in Alaska was absolutely brutal, with temperatures swinging from 20 above to 35 below and more than a dozen cases of illness or frostbite — one severe — among racers. Beat had his own rough start with wet base layers amid the danger cold, but he's experienced enough at this point to cope with almost any challenge. He knows how much I fret about him when he's out there, and was great about keeping in touch via his satellite phone. 

As Beat continued along the Iditarod Trail, I settled into my days at home — up in the morning, breakfast, my one allowed cup of coffee that I cherish immensely, chores, some sort of exercise, work, dinner, reading, sleep. The nightmares were beginning to lessen. It was a boring routine and I was grateful for it. Predictability is one of the best coping mechanisms for anxiety. Yet I resented my brain for withholding so much joy. 

The following Friday, my friend Danni from Montana flew to Denver for a Rotary conference, so we made arrangements to meet up for breakfast and a run. I invited our friend Betsy to join us since she lives nearby. Betsy was in the midst of preparing for her first trip to Fairbanks. She and our mutual friends Corrine and Eric planned a three-night cabin trip in the White Mountains at the end of the month. Corrine had been trying to coax me to join, but I was reluctant. Travel has been so hard for me. Most of my recent mental health meltdowns were accompanied by travel. I couldn't commit.

And yet, Alaska's White Mountains are my favorite place in the world. That's probably not an exaggeration. I've put in well over a thousand miles — likely closer to 2,000 — winter hiking and biking in those shrubby, low-lying hills. It's a lot for a place I've never lived — a level of dedication I've shown to no other place save for the Iditarod Trail. On February 10, when I was nearly at the lowest point in my mental health, Corrine mentioned applying for cabins. I thought, "March 10 ... that would be a realistic weekend to fly out to Alaska." 

The online reservation system requires people to reserve cabins up to 30 days ahead of time — no more. They're usually snapped up the minute they become available. Of course, I'd forgotten that February only has 28 days, so by the time I looked on February 10, March 12 was already open. I impulsively reserved what was left on March 10 and 11. The itinerary was not really doable in the mode I wanted to travel, which was walking — 28 miles on day one, 45 miles on day two, zero miles on day three, and 26 miles on day four. (I had to reserve the same cabin twice. It was the only one still available, and they were both too far away for a comfortable overnight.) At my usual 2-2.5 mph sled-dragging pace with no prior training, it was a ridiculous ask.

"It's okay because I'm not going to fly to Alaska anyway," I thought and closed the browser on my phone.  

But then Danni and I had such a nice visit, talking about the trials of midlife and how I thought my medication was finally starting to work, and Betsy contributed her own Alaska stoke. On Friday, March 3, I started having second thoughts. 

That's the long version of how I came to message Corrine on Monday, bought a plane ticket on Tuesday, and by Wednesday was jetting over the Inside Passage with my sled in cargo. Thursday brought daylong snowfall as I put my gear together and purchased way too much food. By Thursday night, there were four to five inches of fresh powder on the driveway. I walked into the frigid 10-below air to brush off my rental car twice. This was cold powder — the harsh, abrasive snow that acts like sandpaper under cumbersome sleds. My itinerary was hardly achievable in the best of trail conditions and now ... where did I even think I was going to go? Corrine thought for sure I was going to cancel my trip, but I could only shrug. I fear my inner monsters so much that I hardly have emotion left for the possibility of a bivy out at 20 or 30 below. Anxiety is strange like that. Being afraid of everything also means, in a way, I'm afraid of nothing. 

Indeed, almost no one had been out since the Thursday snowfall. There was the faint track of a person pushing a bike and even fainter tracks of recent snowmachines — mostly erased by a brisk wind that was still blowing. Temperatures at the trailhead were 3 below zero. I knew that was the warmest I was going to see all day. I strapped on my snowshoes and started trudging. My sled felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. Honestly, it was probably at least 60 pounds. I packed all of my fears. Tons of fuel — enough that I accidentally spilled almost half of it in my fuel bag (whoops) and still had enough for four days. I had enough trail mix that I continued to snack on it almost exclusively for the next three weeks. Every stitch of clothing I brought to Alaska. And of course camping gear. I was going to need it. I'd be lucky if I covered five miles today.

It was the trudgiest of trudges. My hamstrings burned. I continued to follow the solo bike track until I encountered two skiers who told me they were returning to the trailhead after a ten-day trip. Ten days! Out here! I eyed their now-empty-looking sleds with envy. I wish I could spend ten days out here. Snow shimmered and the sky reflected an almost otherworldly shade of sapphire blue. "This is what alive feels like," I thought. 

The trail almost entirely disappeared across wind-driven swamps. I was grateful for the solo biker; without their faint tracks, I may not have found the trail at all. Whenever one snowshoe left the trail base, I punched into loose powder up to my hips. Losing the trail was not an option. Time passed in the strange way it does now when I'm walking, where minutes become hours and vice versa. I looked at my watch and suddenly it was 4 p.m. I was nowhere near Caribou Bluff, my destination for the night. I did some math. "15 miles in 8 hours ... 13 more to go ... midnight?" 

Midnight honestly wouldn't be so bad if I didn't already feel so shattered. My legs were downright numb ... I know this feeling well now that I've been spending more time at the gym. This is what it feels like when I push my reps to the point of muscle failure. I was losing power and had to take more breaks just to catch my breath. Midnight was probably an overly optimistic guestimate. And where did I think I would go from there? My next day was supposed to take me 45 miles over the Cache Mountain Divide, which was almost certainly drifted in and likely unnavigable. My best bet for making it to my next cabin was to go back the way I came. Which meant camping tonight. The low in Fairbanks was forecast to be -5F to -10F. Anyone familiar with the White Mountains knows this means -30F easily in these valleys. 

I still felt okay with the prospect and marched down to Beaver Creek to find a good spot (even though camping higher is advised on cold nights, the wind was still blowing and I felt more secure in the wind-protected forests than up on these sparsely vegetated hills. Also, I was feeling strangely bold. 30 below? Ain't no thing.)

There was a good spot close to Borealis Cabin. Since I'd seen no other sign of life besides the skiers all day, I decided to check out the cabin. At the very least, I could melt water on the porch, where it's easier to manage my stove than in the snow. And if no one showed up by sunset, perhaps I could poach the cabin. If anyone showed up after dark and caught me, I could feign tears. 

I had just pulled out my stove when a biker rode up to the porch. He said he'd come from Wolf Run, some 20 miles up the trail. I told him about my camping plan and why I was sitting outside his cabin. He shrugged, said "okay," and without another word walked off to find firewood. 

Bummer. I admit I was hoping for an invite. Clearly, this man wanted his privacy. 

Still, I remained on the porch to finish melting three liters of water and cook a hot dinner and tea. He was gone the entire time, probably close to a half hour, and returned with only a few meager sticks of black spruce deadfall. I was packing up when he said, "You can stay here tonight if you want." 

I may or may not have put on my saddest puppy dog face before he said that. But I was extremely grateful for the prospect of shelter for the night. 

Mark turned out to be friendly and generous. An ER doctor from Fairbanks, he was a former White Mountains 100 volunteer and also a friend of Corrine's. We had a great night. He shared the charcuterie spread he'd brought for his final night on the trail — local sausage, crackers, Babybel cheese, and a delicious cinnamon tea. I lamented that I had nothing tasty to share, only my terrible trail mix. I had at least 10 pounds of it. Did he want some? Mark shook his head with a fervent no. 

It was, indeed, a very cold night. I got up a few times to use the outhouse (thanks, cinnamon tea), and each time my butt and thighs quickly went numb as my hands turned to claws. I remembered that yes, in fact, 30 below is very much a thing. Mark's firewood didn't go very far. I should have gone out to gather more, but I don't love to fuss about wood when I have a perfectly good 40-below bag to keep me comfy. Still, it was the least I could have done for Mark's generosity, as he only had a 32-above summer bag and as it turned out, forgot his sleeping mat. Mark's sticks burned out before we went to sleep. At one point in the night, I realized the interior of the cabin had dipped well below 32 degrees and pulled my drinking water into my sleeping bag to keep it from freezing solid. When I woke up in the morning, Mark was sitting up on the bunk, huddled in all of his coats and sleeping bag, nursing a thermos. But he seemed cheerful and said his sleep wasn't too bad. Fairbanksians are so tough. 

Hiking out in the morning when temperatures were still near 30 below. I think of this as "Healing process ... selfie number two." 

March 11 — a beautiful bluebird Saturday — was more of the same ol' drag with no traffic to help me break through the cold powder snow. Reaching Crowberry Cabin would require 27 miles of hiking and that's if I took the shortcut — called the Moose Creek connector, it doesn't see a whole lot of use. But at least the first part had been recently broken, so I gave it a go. 

The snowmachine turned around after three miles. With six more miles to go, I was fully breaking trail over the faintest hints of a trail base. Often I couldn't see anything at all. I tried to feel out the base with my poles, which were sharp enough that they poked through everything easily, so I had to just take steps of faith with my snowshoes. Plenty of these steps failed and I flailed. One mile took close to an hour. I was just about to give up and turn around when I encountered the strangest sight — people! And not just people, but a skier, a walker, and two bikers all breaking trail along this wide-open expanse of a hillside. They told me they were out training for the White Mountains 100. 

"We did not expect to see anyone out here," they exclaimed. 

"Nor did I," I replied.

This is their trail. It isn't great, but it is a trail. I was especially grateful for it in the more open areas, where I could still see no other indication of the trail base. How did they find it? No matter ... it is gratifying to see how the universe provides for our needs, even simple needs like shelter and trails. How had I so recently experienced the world as such a sinister place? 

It's difficult to describe the love I feel in these places that I love, even when I know they have no capacity to love me back. But what I've come to realize is that love is not necessarily limited to human experience. The sun began to set as I trudged to the end of the connector trail, still some 11 miles and likely six hours from my destination. My leg muscles were again going numb, my glutes screaming in protest, my back stiff and painful with every jerking tug of the thousand-pound sled. The human experience, I decided, is not the end-all. With all of these aging parts and misfiring emotions, it can even feel like an injustice. This is why I seek out big, empty expanses, and why I love to look at the sky. The more insignificant I become, the more I feel at peace with the inevitabilities of living — death, pain, the unknowable universe. I take comfort in the infinite beauty that will go on long after my broken self shucks off this mortal injustice. In its paradoxical way, this makes me feel immensely grateful for life.

Darkness fell. My legs weakened more. The route climbed onto a minor ridge where the trail was heavily drifted. Some drifts were knee-deep even with snowshoes. I was so sleepy; so hungry. I could not stomach any more of this trail mix. Just when I thought I might keel over, the universe opened up. Hints of green light reflected on the snow so I turned off my headlamp. I would no longer need it for the final five miles to Crowberry Cabin. Suddenly walking felt effortless, and there was nothing to do but walk, head craned skyward, marveling at the unknowable universe that was dancing, actually dancing, just for me. 

I did not try to capture many photos. It was still very cold and my fingers froze whenever I took out my phone for more than a minute, so these are just a few phone photos I grabbed while walking. That's how spectacular the Aurora Borealis was on this night. It did not demand stillness. It almost seemed to respond to motion. As I pushed myself to walk faster to warm my frozen extremities, streaks of emerald and white light spread out like waves across every horizon. 

I felt very, very lucky. And not even a hint of fear. I finally pulled into my cabin after 1 a.m. I started a small fire to dry my ice-encrusted gear and heated water on my stove. By the time I crawled into my sleeping bag my watch read 3:30 a.m. I felt disconcerted about how so much time passed without noticing, forgetting that 2 a.m. brought Daylight Savings Time and I was literally experiencing a lost hour. 

The following morning I awoke to much warmer temperatures — 10 above — and light flurries that seemed to accumulate another inch or two of powder overnight. I'd let myself sleep in as I'd managed to grab another cabin at the last minute — Moose Creek, which was 10 miles away. It was still going to take me five arduous hours to hike there, but all in all, an easy day. 

I was fatigued and a little puffy from the muscle strain of the 47,679 deadlifts I'd done since Friday. But personally, I can see a little more light in these eyes. "Healing process — selfie number three."

Moose Creek cabin might be my favorite cabin. It's in a rather unassuming spot compared to the big-mountain views of other cabins, but it sits perched on a hillside wit h a lovely overlook and big sky views. It has a comfortable interior and a lot of nearby "standing dead" spruce trees to make firewood collection easy. I finally did some wood collecting and sawing here, as I finally had the time and just a hint of energy. It seemed appropriate to "appease the cabin gods" as my friend Eric would say. What's funny is that after all of that work, I ended up just burning one of four bundles of grocery store firewood left behind by past users. 

The past cabin dwellers also left behind a single bottle of Smartwater, unopened, sitting on a shelf. Based on the lack of fresh snowmachine tracks, I guessed that no one had been there last night, so the bottle had likely been sitting there for at least 24 hours. And it had not been warm — already plunging to 2 degrees before sunset. Yet the Smartwater was clear and unfrozen. I stood a minute scrutinizing it, wondering if someone had filled it with alcohol. But when I grabbed the bottle, it instantly erupted in a swirl of ice crystals forming before my eyes. I've witnessed this phenomenon before — supercooled electrolyte-infused liquid not actually turning to ice until it's disturbed. I forget the chemical explanation for this, but it's mesmerizing. I placed the bottle, now nearly solid with ice, near the stove until it had thawed enough to be the most delicious, clear, cold water I have ever had the privilege of enjoying. 

The following day, I had a fairly easy 16 miles to hike out on a lightly dusted but broken trail with only a few deep drifts remaining along high points. I spent the day listening to "The Molecule of More" about how dopamine controls nearly every aspect of our lives. Brain chemistry is fascinating and endlessly complex. It's also both humbling and empowering to realize that so much of what I think of as "me" arises from these chemicals. I took medication to increase the availability of serotonin in my brain, and now mornings are bright and beautiful again. Dopamine drove me to seek more, more, more in the form of racing, but now I'm not so sure that drives me anymore. I'm not sure if anything drives me anymore. Living, I suppose. I think living should be enough. When you go any amount of time feeling like you're dying, living is more than enough. 

Damn, it was a beautiful Monday morning. I think it was cold and it's likely my legs hurt, but all I could think is, damn, it feels good to be alive. "Healing process — selfie number four."

Anxiety has been such a humbling, horrifying, and yet strangely humanizing experience. I know my battle with anxiety is far from over ... like the other injuries and scars I've accumulated, the body remembers. It remembers the traumas. Even the little ones. It remembers the abuse — all of the demands I made in search of more. But it also remembers grace and beauty, the expansive love that reaches far beyond my flawed human capacity to understand love. 

For now, this is what I remember first when I wake up in the morning. Beauty and love. I'm grateful.


  1. nemophilist


    noun: One who loves forests.

  2. Jill, this is so beautiful. I'm so happy that you had a wonderful trip up north and that you're feeling the love and beauty once again. Kudos to you for continuing to take steps forward for your mental health and finding peace. Signed Linda Drish

  3. It's such an honor to witness your journeys. Sending so much love!
    Katie Watson

  4. You are truly a gifted writer. I hope that sharing your journey is helping in some small way to bring you some peace.

  5. Beautifully written as usual. So glad that your trip here was healing for you. Come back any time. Corrine

  6. Beautiful, hopeful post, thanks for sharing your experience, and the series of selfies. All the best to you.

  7. "When you go any amount of time feeling like you're dying, living is more than enough." So true!

    It's amazing how much your writing resonates even though our paths could not be more different - I haven't been able to go on a major hiking adventure since 2017 for various reasons. (Your blog keeps that flame alive in the interim before I can get back out there.)

    But life feels just as epic. Sometimes my internal world feels just as wondrous as the Aurora Borealis. I feel awake, ever changing, paradigm shifting, feel like I'm leveling up my understanding of life and relationships constantly. It's hard not to credit this all to the aftermath of a near-death experience. Life really is enough!

    Keep up the good work.

  8. As a fellow Lexapro user of 3 years now, it took me awhile to come to terms with needing a little help with modern medicine to right my anxiety. I hope you are finding the balance, although nature fixes are really the best medicine and I'm so glad you found some healing from this trip! That electrolyte thing is so cool--I never heard that before!


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