Thursday, March 11, 2010

Leave the city, part 2

Half my life spent on a highway
Half my life I didn’t choose
And I have seen the North Star

Shining in the freight yard
And I knew it was a hard time that he'd come through
It’s made him thankful for the blues.
— Magnolia Electric Co., "Leave the City"

The abstract notion of going home begin to take shape as I drove north. It was a strange feeling to leave Salt Lake City, the place that had always been my home, and return to a city where I had no house, no family, no real belongings besides a few boxes, stuffed in the corner of a storage unit, whose contents I had long since forgotten. I was leaving behind all the good things that happened during the summer and going home to my disappointing history and personal failures and 9.85 total miles of singletrack bike trails.

Even though I had many reasons to love Juneau, these realities weighed heavily on me as I approached White Pass and the British Columbia/Alaska border. I was 20 miles from the ferry that would take me away from the present world I had grown comfortable with and strand me on the island of my past and immediate future. I wasn’t quite ready to face it. I parked near a high alpine lake and pulled my bike down from the roof rack. The saddle was missing chunks of foam and the frame was still coated in New Mexico mud - remnants of an adventure that left me feeling disappointed and hollow, if only because it had to end, and it was finally done. I rode along the talus-strewn shoreline until I found the faint summer footprint of a snowmobile trail weaving through the dwarf spruce trees. My nerves, long numbed by the robotic routine of driving 2,500 miles, suddenly buzzed with the thrill of new discovery. I traced the path through sock-grabbing bushes, over boulder fields and around switchbacks. As the terrain grew steeper, the trail became fainter, until I could do longer distinguish it from the rocky, bush-choked terrain. Like most places I had come to know in this region, it was a dead end.

As I did when I first moved to Juneau, I had an incredibly difficult time settling in. I couldn’t hold my focus; my mind wandered. Six weeks passed before I found my own place to live. At work, I made silly mistakes and missed deadlines. I told my friends and co-workers that I had been “Great Divided,” and I was just trying to regain my composure after the culture shock of the summer. But it wasn’t the truth. The Great Divide was a tiny gap next to the one I was trying to bridge - the divide between the former me, who had a partner and plans and future goals, and the new me, who suddenly didn’t have any of that.

Faced with the prospect of reinventing myself, I turned to the places where I felt the most at home. I was burnt out on cycling and still suffered lingering, nagging pains spurred by pedaling, so I took to the mountains on foot. When the terrain was easy, I ran; more often, I climbed or scrambled or staggered. The clear air was freeing, the views spectacular. I could look out across ridges stretching beyond the horizon - places the didn’t dead end; places that, if I could muster the strength and stamina and skill, could carry me as far away as I longed to wander. They were places where I could be free without guilt or regret. They were places where I could be alone without feeling lonely.

And it’s strange, because these are the places where I started meeting new people. I was three days off the ferry when I met someone while climbing up Mount Juneau. We went on a handful of subsequent hiking dates. I met another new friend on Ben Stuart, and yet another on the Sheep Creek Trail. Another friend set me up with a skier/kayaker. I was a biker/runner. We both acknowledged we had little interest in the other’s passions, but we found common ground in the mountains. We had our first “date” on Blackerby Ridge. We climbed up to Cairn Peak in a drenching September rain and watched the clouds clear just as we settled in to a hut perched on a high ridge between two glaciers. I looked out over the stark white ice field and felt a thrill of wonder, because Juneau really was larger than I had ever imagined.

I’m not sure how or why that all started to fade. The snows of late autumn came, driving me to the limits of my novice mountain skills, driving new nostalgia for my past life, and driving a wedge between the skier and me. Conditions at work, which had already been so consuming and stressful, deteriorated even further, until the time-suck often took me away from my last remaining passions - cycling and writing. And just as quickly as Juneau had opened itself up to me, it closed again. I’d wheel my bicycle out to a dead end, and then another, and then another, until the sameness stripped away any motivation I had to keep pedaling. I continued to climb mountains, but under the armor of winter they became more prohibitive, more frightening, more exhausting, in a way that made me feel like my skills were actually getting worse rather than better. But the most frustrating part about it all was there was nowhere I could go to escape the long shadow of my past self, still lingering on the other side of the divide. Everywhere I went, her joy and discovery echoed like a sad song, reminding me of everything I’d lost, of everything I wasn’t. Without even realizing it, I’d become invisible, a ghost haunting a world that had moved on without me.

To be continued ...
Monday, March 08, 2010

Leave the city

Broke my heart to leave the city
I mean it broke what wasn’t broken in there already
Thought of all my great reasons for leaving
Now I can’t think of any
It’s true it was a hard time that I’ve come through
It’s made me thankful for the blues

— Magnolia Electric Co., "Leave the City"

I'll never forget my first few moments in Juneau, as I stepped off the ferry into a cold, black, startlingly empty summer night. It was July 2003. I wasn't an Alaska resident yet; I was a tourist, one of four friends spending an entire summer coaxing a sputtering Ford Econoline van around the 49th state. We left the van and our bikes in Haines. The ferry landed just before midnight. No one told us the terminal was 14 miles out of town. We stood in the dark with our overstuffed backpacks, somewhat stupefied by a sense of being stranded. After several minutes of indecision, we split into three groups. Geoff and Jen set up a tent in a gravel pit across the street. Chris hopped in a taxi. I started walking. By dawn, I had reached the downtown library.

We'd had big plans for Juneau. We were going to hike the trails our guidebook gushed about — Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts. We were going to see the glacier. We set up our tents at a small campground recommended by the same guidebook. Our site was literally notched into a steep hillside overflowing with mud and devil's club. The other campsites were strewn with elaborate tarp shelters, plastic bags and loose garbage. We later found out this "campground" was actually a city-sanctioned homeless camp. The rain started the afternoon after I hiked to the library. It didn't stop. All of our tents started to leak. We pulled them together, wall-to-wall, and threw our single tarp over the damp cluster. My sleeping bag got soaked. So did my pillow. For three days, we played cards and wandered around the T-shirt and trinket shops downtown, waiting for the rain to let up. It never did. We never even caught a glimpse of Mount Juneau or Mount Roberts, towering invisibly somewhere over the fog. We discovered only tour busses took people to the glacier, at 15 bucks a head, and we lost interest. When we finally boarded a ferry back to Haines, all four of us had relieved smirks on our faces, because we knew, unlike those unfortunate residents, that we had the power to leave this place. We had traveled all the way from the Top of the World Highway to Prudhoe Bay to the tip of the Homer Spit, with the Denali, Seward, Whittier and Richardson highways in between. We had it on good authority that Juneau was the worst place in all of Alaska.

I moved to Juneau in August 2006. It wasn't fully intentional. I was burnt out with my job in Homer, Alaska, and just happened to receive a cold call from the managing editor at the Juneau Empire. She offered me a job on the spot. It seemed like a sign. I'll never understand how I talked my ex-boyfriend, Geoff, into moving to Juneau with me — to this day, no matter how many pretty pictures I post on my blog, I still can't talk my friends Chris and Jen into coming back here to visit. But three years after bidding good riddance Juneau for good, I stepped off the Alaska Marine Highway ferry and set up my tent again, this time at the Mendenhall Lake Campground.

The new job was stressful. It took me three full weeks to find a place to live that would accept two cats and two people that we could afford — and even then, the single-bedroom basement apartment cost more than we had been paying for a large cabin on the ridge above Homer. I stayed 10 days at the Mendenhall Lake Campground. The August rains were thick and unrelenting that year; from Aug. 7 to Aug. 20, I never once saw the sun. During my last nights at the campground, the tarp shelter I had built over my tent — the same tent that accompanied us to Alaska in 2003 — had long since failed. My sleeping bag was soaked. My pillow was soaked. I used work clothes to mop up puddles of water on the floor. I couldn't believe I had dragged myself back to this dreary, soul-crushing place. I didn't think I'd last through September.

I've often wondered what makes a home a home. Is it the place where you were born? Where you grew up? The place where you form the most memories? Your favorite memories? The place where most of your family chooses to reside? How about friends? Is it the place where you find work? Or passion? Is home simply the place that you find yourself wandering day after day, moving through buildings and city streets and trails until they become an inherent part of your story, of you?

By the time Geoff broke up with me in April 2009 — and, yes, the split was a long time coming — I had come full circle with my feelings about Juneau. I was as hollow and homeless as I had ever been when we boarded the ferry to drive south. Geoff asked me what I planned to do when I returned. "I'm never coming back here," I said. "There's nothing for me here."

Even though I had already committed to return to the newspaper in July, for most of the summer, I believed I was done with Juneau. I reconnected with my family and trained for the Tour Divide and thought vaguely about my future — a frustrating and mostly futile exercise because all I could see were dead ends in every direction. I put it out of my mind.

During the 24-day Tour Divide, I relished in my homelessness. It was wonderful to wake up in the morning and realize that not only did I not know where I was going to sleep that night, but it didn't even matter. I had everything I needed in life strapped to a bicycle; the whole world was my home. Thoughts of a more substantial future started to creep back into my mind toward the end. I can barely recall the night I spent in the forest outside Cuba, N.M. I had been throwing up all day with what was likely food poisoning. I was dehydrated and sick and so tired I was delerious. I laid out my bivy sack in an open grassy meadow. Before I lost conciousness, I stared up at the Big Dipper. The moon, hidden behind mountains, cast a dim glow that turned the sky royal blue. I blinked with vague recognition. It looked just like Alaska's flag.

A storm moved in before the next morning, bring with it temperatures in the 40s, an overcast pall and steady, drizzling rain. I climbed up to 9,000 feet and looped around a stunning overlook of the valley below. The gray light of the rain drenched the ponderosa pines in rich greens, and wisps of fog draped over the treetops like silk scarves. It looked so much like the hillsides of Southeast Alaska in an August storm that I choked up with emotion. For the first time all summer, I felt truly homesick — not for the place where I grew up, but for Juneau.

It seemed like a sign.

... To be Continued.
Saturday, March 06, 2010

I guess this is the peak

I only had one goal for this weekend, and that was to do a lot of biking. This was my weekend to "peak" my rather scattershot training for the White Mountains 100, but I figured it was time to finally buckle down and put some long hours in the saddle. I tried to get all of my chores done during the week just so I would have all day to ride and all night to relax and visit friends on Thursday and Friday. I was aiming for 12-14 hours of pedaling over two days. And since the weather was forecast to be less than stellar (read: truly miserable — heavy wind, sleet, 32-35 degrees), I had to nix any kind of snow riding in favor of tagging some dead ends, which is what we here in Juneau are referring to when we go "road biking."

On Thursday I set out in hard-driving snow. I rode about 10 miles south into the wind with my eyes practically clamped shut, then decided to loop north instead. I stopped and grabbed my goggles just in time for the snow to deteriorate into steady rain, and continued out Glacier Highway toward the ultimate dead-end prize, "The End of the Road." Somewhere during this time I became fixated on the idea of tagging all of the major dead ends in town, which I once figured would net about 150 miles of riding. I've never ridden every road in Juneau in one day, or even in two days. It started to seem like a good goal — a way to give some sense of purpose to what was, in all honesty, long hours of pretty miserable riding.

I made it to mile 28, but the construction crew flagger on Glacier Highway told me they had just blasted and said I couldn't go any farther. When I protested and pointed out the truck she just let through, she said, "No bikers." I said, "But I'm wearing a helmet." She held her ground. "We'll be clearing the road for two more hours," she said. I turned around, frustrated that I wasn't going to be able to tag even my first dead end. But as I rode past the Herbert Glacier trailhead, I realized I could burn up some time attempting to reach the glacier by pedaling my mountain bike along the snowy trail.

The trail wasn't very snowy at all; it was literally a five-mile-long sheet of glare ice, with a few hundred yards of hard-packed snow and a tiny bit of dirt. The ice was thick and wet. I have a pair of studded tires on my mountain bike — Nokians, which are the best, supposedly — but I normally don't trust them as far as I can throw them. Still, I was feeling extra bold Thursday, and I figured the worst that would happen would be skidding out and landing in a clump of devil's club stalks. The studs actually got really good traction on the bumpy ice, and because the trail was so hard, I could ride as fast as I dared. As I neared the glacier, the trail shot up a steep embankment just above the Herbert River. I was nervous about the climb and didn't have much speed going into it. Sure enough, the rear tire skidded out about halfway up the hill. I put my right foot down but quickly realized my overboot had absolutely no traction on the wet ice, and both my body and bike were starting to slide backward. I lunged at the cliff to my left, grabbing a handhold and planting my left foot on a tiny rock sticking out of the ice just as the bike slid out behind me and skidded sideways all the way down the hill. I clung to the cliff, almost entirely supported by my hands, until I finally decided there was no way I could walk or climb down the trail. So I slowly lowered myself, sat on my butt, and slid down with my feet in front of me like a child on a slide. You'd think I'd be intimidated enough to turn around at that point, but I stood at the bottom assessing the short climb and finally decided I just needed more speed. I slipped and fell on the ice just walking my bike back to the point where I wanted to start. But I got back on the bike, gunned it with as much strength as I could muster, and powered up the ice with the studs crackling like bacon on the greasy surface. And I made it. I was seriously proud of myself. It was the best part of the whole miserable training weekend.

I went to the glacier, rode the ice-coated moraine for a bit, and returned to the highway. The flagger lady was still there, blocking the way. I wasn't quite ready to give up yet, so I formed a new brilliant idea about bypassing that section of highway on the beach. I have ridden long stretches of Eagle Beach before — however, never at high tide. I splashed through several sloughs before I landed in one that was a lot deeper than I had anticipated. Suddenly, the water was over my top tube, the bike stopped dead, and I put my foot down into hip-deep water. Not only did I get all of my food and extra clothing wet, but I soaked my feet and legs as well. At these temperatures, I have learned that soaked feet can go about an hour before things become seriously uncomfortable. I had at least 90 minutes of hard pedaling just to get home if I turned around right there, which, obviously, I did. I wasn't able to tag my dead end, but it was one of the more adventurous "road rides" I have ever done. And I still rode for seven hours, about 70 miles total.

Today, I aimed south again, but conditions were beyond brutal. The wind was driving the horizontal sleet so hard that it iced up my goggles within seconds, but without goggles I was entirely blind. Sideways gusts knocked me into traffic, and I couldn't look up for more than a couple seconds at a time. Luckily, I'm good at dressing for this kind of weather, so I was never cold. I was just miserable. There was nothing to see, nothing to do; I couldn't even listen to music because I had to rely on my sense of hearing to tell me where cars were since my eyes weren't working. The wind was blowing 25 mph, gusting to 45, with a mixture of snow and sleet and serious gray-out wetness. After two hours, I was 20 miles from home, thinking, "This is really quite stupid. I don't have to be doing this." I turned around right at that random point — 7-mile Douglas Highway — and rode the crazy tailwind all the way home. As the weather deteriorated even more, I put on a T-shirt and shorts and drove to the gym to finish out my last two hours of training on the elliptical trainer.

It wasn't what I thought it would be, but I got my 12 hours for the weekend. And because of the intermittent adventures and the fact that I managed to stay warm in complete crap weather, I feel good about how it went overall. I do think I'm physically ready for the White Mountains 100 — maybe not the best biker I could be, but I'm strong enough for most of what a race like that could throw my way. Hopefully.