Thursday, April 06, 2023

Waking up every day just a little bit changed

Something about March 15 seems to flip a switch in Alaska, and suddenly it's spring. Daylight Savings Time stretched the evening twilight to nearly 9 p.m. Overnight, temperatures swung from consistently below zero to considerably above zero. When I bought a last-minute plane ticket out of Colorado, I scheduled my return flight for a week after my sled trip ... because if you're going to fly all the way to Alaska, you might as well make it count. I also hoped to invite myself on Corrine and Eric's weekend trip to Tolovana Hot Springs, a magical land I haven't had an opportunity to visit in six years. 

I worked all week, which meant my day-to-day in Fairbanks wasn't all that different from my boring routine at home. Only when I went outside, the air was sharp and clear, and it would hit me that I'm in Alaska — a thought that still evokes warm feelings after all these years. I had been enjoying the subzero weather and was openly disappointed when weather forecasts showed spikes into the 20s, much to the bewilderment of Alaska friends who have been languishing in the cold darkness since September. In a way, I had been languishing in the darkness since then, too. And I was only beginning to emerge amid this fierce Alaska version of spring, with its dense subzero air that brought peace and comfort. In the cold's echoing silence, I could hear all of the little sounds that remind me of the complexities in this world, the countless stories that are so easy to tune out. And in the cold's grasp, I could feel my life force surging through my body, battling to retain hard-won warmth — a reminder of the power it takes just to participate in this life.  

And I did snag that invite to Tolovana Hot Springs. Beat and I used to visit Tolovana every Christmas. After 2017, the area exploded in popularity and price, so it became too difficult to reserve one of the three cabins. My experiences through the first half of the last decade convinced me that the trail over Tolovana Hot Springs Dome is in fact the worst place on Earth. The 10.1-mile track is buffeted by continuous 40 mph winds that feel like death fire in the continuous 25-below cold. There is an old water tank with a small hole cut on the leeward side, placed as a meager wind shelter on a particularly exposed part of the ridge. In the past, Beat and I have hidden in there out of genuine concern for our survival. I didn't know what to expect from Tolovana now that spring had turned on the overhead lights, but I figured anything even marginally better than the Worst Weather on Earth would feel like summer.

Indeed, March weather allowed an easy trek over the Dome. My friends with bikes would probably disagree, as the trail was predictably drifted and very rough in spots. Some drifts were waist-high and uneven, requiring dance-like maneuvers to keep my sled from flipping over. But temperatures were warm-ish and the current wind was blowing at barely a whisper, although it was still breezy enough to necessitate a face covering on the Dome. 

The sled-dragging was much easier than it had been through the cold powder of the White Mountains one week earlier. I listened to "The Sweet Spot," a book about the psychology behind why humans purposefully seek out emotional turmoil and physical pain. I had mixed feelings about this book, mainly because parts of it held out a mirror I wasn't quite ready to gaze into. But it was well-researched and interesting. 

After four hours I arrived at the cute little Frame Cabin, apparently not far behind my friends who had to do a lot of bike pushing over the rough trails. 

We enjoyed a leisurely dinner and went to soak in the spring when it was still light out. Such abundance! Such luxury! I do love this place, but I will admit, much of its mystique lies in the foreboding approach and also the dim but magical light cast by the low-angle sun around Winter Solstice. I hope we can make it back next Christmas. 

Eric captured this photo of me leaving the following morning. I had a fairly rough night in the cute little cabin, which was quite small, necessitating me squeezing onto a narrow top bunk (since I did invite myself, I'm grateful to Corrine and Eric for squeezing themselves into the lower bunk so I could join.) Even though we only left the stove burning for a few hours, it felt like it was 100 degrees inside for much of the night. I was lying in a puddle of sweat on top of my sleeping bag. (As an aside, for the folks who are curious about my experience with Lexapro, this is one of the side effects. Night sweats. It happens even in my cool bedroom, so I am dreading this coming summer. This isn't a deal-breaker, nor is the nausea I still experience after taking the medication, but it's good to be aware of these lesser annoying details.)

Anyway, I eventually wandered outside in just a bra, underwear, and down booties. At that point, the wind was howling (a reason why I opted out of moving my sleeping bag outside) and it was 25 degrees. The windchill itself probably registered in that near-zero range, and it was exhilerating to skip through the snow, feeling free of the clutches of oppressive heat and yet impervious to the cold. This lasted maybe 10 minutes, and then finally my core temperature dipped low enough to sprint back inside and grab a few hours of sleep. 

The hike out was warm and lovely and felt even more comfortable despite the two big hills that rack up something near 3,000 feet of climbing. It didn't take much longer than the hike in, about 4:20, and I'd left an hour before Corrine and Eric to try to coordinate the finish. But there was still a lot of hike-a-bike on the way out, and Eric was dealing with a missing bolt in his rear axle that meant every hard pedal stroke risked dropping his back wheel. I'm sure he still bombed down these hills because he's crazy like that. (I'm too much of a coward to even try riding my sled. But I did do some jogging. I felt great.) 

Waiting for Corrine and Eric to arrive afforded an extra hour to hike along the nearly abandoned road and take in big views. I could have spent the whole day out here! 

I had planned to fly home to Colorado late that night. But even before Tolovana, I felt reluctant to leave this place where life felt so light and joy overflowed after such a long drought. Corrine invited me to stay one more week and join them on their three-night cabin trip in the Whites. I pointed out that their itinerary was even more ridiculous for a person on foot than the one I'd already attempted and failed. Corrine said it would be no problem, they already had a solution from local speedster and nice guy Tyson, whose wife had a fat bike I could borrow. Such luxury! Such abundance! I've already forgotten the model, but it was a light and comfortable rig with the perfect setup for my gear — as long as I left the luxuries at home. (For the most part, I did, but I still brought my puffy suit.) 

I had a lot of fun test the bike on local trails before my workdays. I had to pull a few strings to extend the stay, but ended up saving money by changing my plane ticket. Corrine and Eric were so generous to let me crash at their place for the better part of three weeks. I recognize how intrusive house guests can be and tried to stay out of their hair. I was so grateful for the opportunity. 

Another perk of staying so long was the many opportunities to view the Northern Lights. The sun has entered a particularly active period, so light displays have been more frequent and far-reaching. Fairbanks is one of the best places in the world to see the lights, due to its location under the "Aurora Oval," as well as its frequently clear skies and long, dark nights. In spite of this, sightings are still rare and take a degree of dedication, as the lights are rarely out for more than a few minutes at a time and can only be loosely predicted based on solar activity. 

On this particular night, March 21 — the first full day of spring — the geomagnetic field was expected to be quiet (level 2), and yet, just as I was settling in for another try at sleeping around 12:30 a.m., I caught this streak of light outside my window. 

I wish I brought better photo equipment, or at least tried to utilize my point-and-shoot, which requires finicky manual settings and a steady surface to set up for low-light images. But when the sky is dancing like this, photography feels particularly intrusive. A few blurry phone photos to remember the occasion are good enough. 

For nearly an hour, I walked up and down the street, marveling. The aurora borealis is, by far, the most intensely beautiful phenomenon I've experienced. No photograph or video can recreate the experience of standing as an infinitesimal being in an insignificant world and witnessing the universe come alive. The lights shimmer and dance and flow across the horizon, although all words are inadequate to describe how the Aurora Borealis moves. I feel like I've been given a glimpse into the beginning of time, the young universe expanding with unimaginable force. 

The following day was Corrine's birthday. Our friend Betsy arrived from Colorado for the cabin trip that they had been planning for months. We were all busy during the day but found time for a lovely sunset ride out Corrine's backyard trail. 

Happiness is ... friends and bikes and sunsets. 

If that wasn't enough, the night of March 23 brought an unanticipated and brilliant geomagnetic storm. Shortly after dinner, I caught social media posts from friends in Minnesota and Michigan, even Wyoming and Colorado, who were able to see the lights. It was still at least two hours from being fully dark in Alaska, but I tried to keep an eye on the sky. I had just about given up when Corrine texted me because she and Betsy had caught hints of the waning light show and were walking outside. 

By the time I geared up to join them, the lights were winding down, but it was still a nice display. They had just about faded entirely when Betsy and Corrine decided to go back inside. I decided to continue walking up the road, just in case. 

What happened next was astonishing — an explosion of light and color filled the sky. Scientists will tell you that the Aurora Borealis makes no sound, that it's impossible, but most viewers hear some sort of melody. To me, the Northern Lights sound like chanting Gregorian monks, a low-pitched rumble that increases in volume until I'm fully overwhelmed, ready to drop to my knees and repent for my insignificant human weakness in the presence of such grandeur. 

This is the low-quality phone video I shot for a few seconds before my fingers froze. It shows the way the lights dance. (You can hear a bit of sound as well, but I'm pretty sure that's the wind.) 

The expansive awe allowed me to fully step outside of myself, moving without a headlamp through the night until I ran out of road on which to walk. The dead end jolted me back to human awareness and I fell back into my body, which was already beginning to shiver in the cold. Searching for the links in the mind-body connection is such an interesting experiment. The intrigue is what drew me to endurance racing all those years ago. It's also what pushed me away when those mind-body connections seemed to sever and my brain turned on itself. I couldn't breach the barrier no matter what I tried. My brain tortured me with irrational fears and nonexistent terrors. It shoved me underwater. I couldn't fight back. I couldn't escape. 

But then I found something to lift my head above the water. With renewed clarity of thought, I was able to regain some control, to re-link a few of those broken connections. That something was medication, yes, but also — Alaska. Those expansive landscapes of the Far North, windswept and snowbound, wich always come to me in my best dreams. It's the darkness that reveals the most astonishing light. 


  1. So beautiful. Thank you for this, Jill.

  2. I really find joy in your stories of self discovery in nature and the constant drive to look into the "mirror" of others words and insights. Thank you! Like all of your epic journeys the trail of life can both tear you down but strengthens one's core being, it's just the recovery time has it's own time line....or maybe additional peices need to be discovered first. The metaphor of shock at reaching the end of the road and turning back is such a cool description of both discovery and integration, the joy in your eyes has returned! :). And the road of discovery never ends....I always wonder what I will find around the next bend.....

    Jeff C


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