Thursday, October 05, 2006


In an effort to whittle down my expenses, I'm dissolving some old bills that are automatically charged to my credit card every month. In doing so, I just learned that at the end of this month, my old Web site will no longer exsist.

It's a sad day for me - not because I maintain this Web site anymore. In fact, there's a whole lot about it that annoys me. But it's a record of my past. It's my journal, my scrapbook, my photo album, my pre-blog blog, all in one. But because it's electronic, and because I was young and naive enough to register it with a fee-charging site, it's being ripped from exsistence without a tear or a prayer.

Maybe this will teach me to start using an old-fashioned pen and paper. But, for now, if you don't mind, I'm going to post a few of my entires - for nostalgia's sake, for posterity, etc. ... otherwise, I'll lose them forever. This one is titled "definition of bike touring," dated Sept. 14, 2002.

That annoying little voice inside my head tells me to crank it. My wheels are spinning, barely. Sweat drips through my helmet and streaks of red dust stick to my arms.You never realize it when you're driving, but the only way out of Moab, Utah is up, a nearly-continuous climb. As Geoff and I lumber up theshoulder of Highway 91, I fix my gaze on distant buildings scattered near towering vermillion cliffs. They take forever to reach me.

Before this trip, it's hard to remember what exactly I thought bike touring was. Lingering views, sprawling vistas, maybe a little work. Isure didn't imagine burnout on the first day. When daylight will allow us to go no further, we pull over and park a mere 50 yards from the road.

And thus ends the first day of my very first bike tour, Moab to Moab via the San Juan mountain range and 600 miles of the most remote highway the lower 48 has to offer. It was supposed to be a simple day - 30 miles from the Colorado River valley to the base of the La Salle mountains. In front of me now is an expanse of sagebrush-dotted range cut off only by the horizon, deep orange and shimmering in the September sunset.We kick cowpies from a small clearing and set up our tent just as the landscape descends deeper into shades of purple. As a lay in the spiny grass watching erratic bats chase bugs visible only to them, I regret not getting in shape before the trip. Every muscle, every bone in my body is melting into the warm soil and I doubt my ability to get up, even to go to bed.

The camp site, hidden behind a barb wire fence in a cluster of pinion pines, feels stark and uninviting private property, a grazing range. We should have made it at least 10 miles furthertonight, but night snuck up on us. The next 500 miles feel like an eternity away.Geoff, most likely just as worn out and tired, musters up the energy to lean toward me. "Isn't it amazing?" he says. "We just biked here."

While working as a reporter during the 2002 Winter Olympics, I only heard mirror responses from everyone I talked to - "the experience of a lifetime," "a once-in-a-lifetime experience," "a lifetime of experiences in one." The Olympics were a splash of snow and whirl of color.The world blinked, and they were gone.

Bicycle touring is anything and everything but a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is tamarisk swaying on the layered shores of the San Juan river. It is a flapping tent standing against a lightning storm on an open plateau. It is a tiny roadside grocery store in a town that by car would be nothing more than a blur. It is wildlife in the form of flattened fur on a roadside and literature in the form of faded billboards. It is slow and lumbering, discarded bolts rusting on the highway. It is adrenaline-inducing at 35 mph and agony-inducing at 5. It is hills that will stop your heart and views that will quiet your soul. It is pinnacles and peaks and houses and streams and desert and forest and road, open road, endless road, but it is not, I am convinced, not a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It, simply, is life.

One that I should keep on living.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Soak up the partial sun

Date: Oct. 2 and 3
Total mileage: 66.2
October mileage: 66.2

City election night means I had to work late. Not late like "better order in dinner" late. Late like "wow when did it become 2 a.m.?" late. Elections always pump a little suspense and excitement into the newspaper business, but they always leave me with nagging guilt. I consider myself a fairly civic-minded person, but I carry the deep and secret shame of not having voted in a public election since 2002. The last presidential candidate I voted for was Ralph Nader (in 2000, not '04). I have a lot of excuses. I moved around a lot. I was out of the state at all the right times. But the truth is really much more superficial.

My name is Jill, and I am incapable of dealing with bureaucracy.

I know, it sounds completely silly. But it's true. I dread and put off simple things like registering a vehicle or filling out a change of address form at the post office. I've neglected to get an Alaska driver's license because that requires waiting in line for a new social security card. I wait until midnight on April 15 to do my taxes even when the IRS owes me money. I had the option to apply for public housing while I was homeless my first weeks in Juneau, but couldn't face filling out the stack of required forms. I carried Idaho plates on my car until a couple weeks ago, and only changed them because a cop said I had to. I'm afraid of cops. But nobody with a gun is telling me to register to vote in the state of Alaska.

I know it's unforgivably simple. But it's like that with everything government-related in my life. I can't deal with it. It's a sickness.

That said, I had a beautiful couple of days to ride some 30-milers before work. I go with Geoff, who likes to ride comfortable and site-see. I haven't been working my legs very hard, but I did get a chance to explore all sorts of new corners of town: narrow roads wrapped around cliffs, rainforest paths, footbridges. Say what you will about life in Juneau (and dreary is one I hear often), but I never imagined that the simple appearance of sunlight would have the ability to snap me into a instant, almost involuntary good mood, with a shot of free energy to top it off. What can I say? Deprivation breeds gratitude.

Deprivation breeds gratitude ... hmmm. Maybe that's why Afghan citizens waited all day in the hot sun just for a chance to cast a ballot in their first democratic election. Maybe therein is a lesson for me to learn. Their example tells me to get out and vote. And yet, all I wanted to do this morning was get out and bike. I blame the sun.
Sunday, October 01, 2006

First snow

October is my favorite month.

I live in a climate that doesn't see much fluctuation between summer and fall, which is all the more reason to embrace the subtle signs of seasons changing: clumps of yellow clinging to birch trees - the litter of dry leaves strewn along the streets. My favorite part of fall, though, is something Alaskans call "termination dust" — their phrase for the first snow. I like this phrase. There's a world of imagery in the word "dust," and "termination" implies an idea that is amplified by a lot of Alaksans who, like me, aren't from here: that snow equals winter equals darkness equals death.

Around here, winter is a season many people endure. It's time to recuperate from a mania of activity brought on by the endless light of summer. It's a time to drink Jack Daniels straight out of the bottle, one shot for every week until the next salmon run. I think it's funny how few "winter" people I meet in Alaska. Many even say they hate winter. They spend all those long nights wrapped in blankets in front of a TV, not even trying to fend off Seasonal Affective Disorder. Why the haters choose to live in Alaska is beyond me. That's what California is for.

Old-timer Alaskans don't suffer from this as much. Their heritage was built on snow and ice - all the way back to the gold-mining days when travel was quickest and easiest on the frozen rivers crawling across snow-locked tundra. I like to think that I have a little bit of sourdough Alaskan in me, even if it's not genetic. Sure, I come from a generation that hucks off snow-bound cliffs and trawls frozen wastelands for fun - but I also believe I have a deeper appreciation for it all, for the challenges and opportunities winter can bring.

Last winter, I learned to ride a bicycle on top of - and live beneath - a continuous cover of deep snow. This winter, I'll live in a part of Alaska that's wetter and warmer - but still cold and dark - and I'll have to meet a bunch of new challenges. This sore throat I'm fending off right now shows me that I still have a lot to learn.

But I was thrilled when I woke up this morning to a thin coat of "termination dust" across mountains 3,000 feet above my home. I love the cinematic effect the first mountain snow has, whitewashing dramatic strokes of silver over the Technicolor blaze of autumn-painted trees below. It almost feels like moving back in time, from the era of color to the era of black and white, back when stories were still told in silence and contrast.

That's what winter does for me - I often make the best discoveries in those stark shadows.

And despite its ominous implications, "termination dust" always gives me something to look forward to.