Thursday, April 02, 2015

Hey heart, on the run again

Anchorage had transitioned into full-blown spring breakup by the time Beat and I reunited on Sunday. Snow was disappearing from the mountains, sun blazed in the sky, and temperatures climbed into the low 50s. I wheeled my loaded bike with its clicking studded tires through the Anchorage airport (Ravn airlines let me put it on the plane in tact!) and found Beat in a hulking rental truck. It was an anticlimactic setting after two years of greeting Beat in Nome, but we shared a long hug that was every bit as satisfying.

Times of loss have a way of expanding perspective, and Beat and Steve shared open and honest conversations as they made their way back to Anchorage. In turn, Beat and I openly addressed our relationship, joys we experience, values we share, and hopes for a future for which there are no guarantees. I recalled that adage that life is what happens while you are making other plans. All of our journeys were cut short, but we arrived at a more cathartic and meaningful destination.

 In Anchorage, our friends Dan and Amy where there for us, supplying cookies and tender sympathy as we processed the events of the past few days and recovered our battered muscles and diminished strength. Beat's and my annual sojourns in Alaska would be a lot more logistically difficult and a lot less enjoyable without a network of friends across the state, and their generous hospitality and kindness. Dan and Amy's house in Anchorage has been our Alaska "base camp" every year since we raced the Susitna 100 together in 2011. We're most indebted to them for everything they've done for us, and it was rewarding to spend a few unplanned days with them during this time.

Here's Dan the professional adventure photographer, doing what he does best. The four of us went for a "hike" on Flattop Mountain that was really more of a sunset photo safari and goof-off outing. I'd embarked on two short and yet disconcertingly difficult runs since I returned from Unalakleet, and this was Beat's first venture outside since Koyukuk. Molten lava-like mud oozed down the mountain as we traipsed through slush and crossed bulletproof crust. When I lived in Anchorage for a short time in the spring of 2010, this is how I remember hiking conditions in late May. 

 Here, Amy shows me one technique for building strength for future fat bike endeavors — elevated pushups while hiking. Amy can do these one-handed; I look to her as my muscle-building mentor. By incorporating some of these exercises amid my running and biking outings, I may be able to trick myself into more strength sessions. I also genuinely believe it's time for me to start looking for a gym that might have a reasonable membership to attend 2-3 times a week for weight training. The yoga mat and barbells at home just aren't working for me. I tend to come up with any excuse to avoid them. Although I'm not proud of this, I could use some accountability.

After my Shaktoolik adventure, my own upper body was wrecked. My biceps gave out before I could even achieve one pushup (I can usually do more than zero!), my forearms were slightly tingly, the muscles in my hands were stiff and slow to respond, and my shoulders and lower back were quite sore. On top of that, I'd tried two runs that were 90 minutes or less, at a slow (untimed) pace, that still felt like they were overtaxing my leg muscles and exhausted cardiovascular system. Amid these unsettling physical assessments, I received an official invitation to the White Mountains 100. After four months of languishing on the wait list, my name had finally risen to the top and I had to decide whether or not I actually wanted to take on the challenge of a hundred-mile run on snow in the remote and hilly White Mountains. I gleefully accepted.

 After wavering on whether to return to California early, Beat decided to keep our original April 1 flight home and join me in Fairbanks. The White Mountains 100 RD, who is a friend of ours, gave Beat the okay to quietly tour the course self-supported, as long as he provided for all of his own food and water, did not bother any of the checkpoint volunteers, and gave no assistance to me at any time. Running a hundred miles self-supported is much harder than running a race, and Beat was still recovering from a journey that was longer and exponentially more arduous than my own. Still, he seemed enthusiastic about this idea.

 Traveling to Fairbanks together also gave me an opportunity to show Beat one of my (many) favorite places in Alaska, Denali National Park. Although winter conditions and a few short hours to spare only afford ventures on the closest trails of the front country, Denali is still an incredibly beautiful and wild place. After visiting Dave Johnston in Willow and exchanging trail stories, we made our way north for a hike to the Mount Healy overlook.

 This hike is 5.5 miles round-trip with about 2,000 feet of elevation gain, and trail conditions were alternately slushy and muddy. It was again the most difficult thing either of us had tried since we returned from the Iditarod Trail, and we were both dragging. All of my hiking gear, including my trail-running shoes, were still in a box that I'd mailed to Nome. By hiking in my over-large bike boots with only a single pair of socks (because it was so warm), I managed to develop a quarter-sized blister on my right heel, just two days before the White Mountains 100. Argh!

 After Mount Healy, we drove into the park to the end of the winter-maintained road and went for a short walk along the Savage River.

We spent Thursday evening with two Iditarod volunteers who I met on my flight from Unalakleet to Anchorage. I'd actually first met Kate last year at the White Mountains 100; she also finished the race on a bike. We'd exchanged a few messages since, but it was a surprise to see her at the Unalakleet airport after she and her partner spent a week volunteering for the Elim checkpoint. Kate has led a fascinating life — originally from New Zealand, spent several seasons working in Antarctica, including one winter at the South Pole (115 below!), moved to Alaska, finally achieved legal residency through the marriage equality act, and lives and works in a small community amid the expansive Alaska Range. She and her partner were house-sitting at a lodge on Tonglen Lake for the winter, and this was the view from their back porch. Not bad!

Having mailed all of my potential White Mountains 100 gear to Nome, I was left with the problem of having no gear to use in the race. After it became clear that I wasn't going to get my box back in time, I set to the task of borrowing or buying last minute supplies. I borrowed snowshoes from Dave Johnston, Ultra Distance carbon trekking poles from our friend Corrine (she purchased them under my recommendation, which worked out great for me), and gaiters from our friend Eric (blue Gore-Tex that were probably at least 20 years old, very vintage.)

One thing I couldn't borrow was shoes. My pair of Montrail Mountain Masochist Outdry shoes were getting on in years, and the waterproof version of this model isn't made any more. Icy spring conditions and reports of frequent overflow prompted a desire for carbide studs. As we drove into Fairbanks, Beat and I stopped at Goldstream Sports. After jogging around the parking lot in a couple of different models and getting helpful recommendations from a Fairbanks runner, I settled a pair of Salomon Spikecross 3, men's size 9 (women's 10.) They had large lugs that seemed great for soft snow conditions, nine carbide studs in each shoe, and a water-resistant "Clima-Shield" outer. Embarking on a 100-mile run in brand new shoes, in a model and brand I've never even tried? (This is my first pair of Salomon shoes.) Why not?

Goldstream Sports was also having a 50-percent-off sale on backpacks, among them the Salomon Agile 12. I'd already decided that I wanted to avoid dragging a sled in the White Mountains 100. This pack was a fair amount smaller than the one I'd planned to use in the race (a 25-liter pack), but with the warmish forecast and perhaps a little streamlining of my food and supplies, I thought I could make this 12-liter pack work. I still planned to pack 5,000 calories of trail food, two liters of water in a separate vest, a pair of Wiggy's Waders (one BLM ranger perpetuated a lot of gloom and doom regarding "knee-deep overflow"), a large puffy jacket, primaloft shorts and knee warmers, extra socks, vapor barrier socks (in case I got my shoes wet), extra balaclava, neck warmer, extra gloves, mitten shells, small medical kit, fire starters, space blanket, two headlamps, camera, Delmore tracker, and Garmin eTrex. I decided to leave the borrowed snowshoes behind. It was going to be a tight fit, but felt reasonably comfortable and, after dragging Snoots around on the Bering Sea coast, unbelievably light. I was so excited for the race!
Friday, March 27, 2015

Where the North Wind blows, part three

Overnight, ground blizzards swirled and mushers continued to stack up at the Shaktoolik checkpoint. As morning approached, there were 21 teams holed up in around the small armory. Some had been there for more than 24 hours — the kind of layover even mid-pack mushers aren't known to take — and still no one was moving north into the wind. One of the school teachers took her kids to visit the checkpoint, and described a scene of hundreds of dogs on the ice, and mushers crammed into every corner of the building. The stench, she said, was unbearable. 

As for me, I'd developed a bad case of the kennel cough. It started with persistent hacking and developed into a full-blown riot, doubled over in pain as gobs of mucus ripped through my lungs. I was concerned I was developing bronchitis, but I didn't feel too bad otherwise. Maybe this was the price of heavy breathing in the wind. Rumor also had it that lots of mushers were sick as well. It was unlikely I caught anything from one of them, but I took comfort in the idea that I wasn't alone in my misery. 

I was also starting to run light on food, having started out with what I thought was a generous three days' worth, and having surpassed day three. There were still calories left for just under two more days at the rate I'd been eating, but I'd cherry-picked all the good stuff and was down to one hot meal. A visit to the local Native Store was disappointing. In all likelihood the 21 mushers holed up in town had helped clean them out, but snack and convenience foods were surprisingly absent. I purchased two single-serving containers of instant mac-and-cheese, one can of tuna, one package of Twinkies (there was only one), one root beer, and one orange. The total came out to $23. The orange itself cost nearly $4. It was surprisingly fresh and delicious — worth every penny. There really wasn't much to restock my trail food, unless I wanted to eat raw ramen noodles. I figured that could be an option to extend my food another day, if I somehow ended up back in Shaktoolik again.

Daylight start on day four of my journey, still only 45(!) trail miles from my start in Unalakleet. My legs were so sore that I felt like I had already walked the full 350 to McGrath, and my shoulders and neck muscles burned fiercely. Principal Steve informed me the wind had died down, but the weather station at the airstrip still registered winds out of the north at 33 mph, gusting to 47. Of the 21 mushers holed up in Shaktoolik, eight set out in a paceline during the middle of the night. Among them were Lance Mackey and his brother, and another musher, Scott Janssen, who spent more than 12 hours stranded on the sea ice after his team lost the trail in "the worst blizzard I've ever seen."

Most of the remaining mushers set out after me in the late morning. I was amazed at the ease in which little dog paws could float over the snow dunes. Still, as each team approached and I stepped off the trail to let them go by, they'd run a few paces past me and stop. It was as though I'd been the one breaking trail for the dogs, and now they didn't see a reason to keep running. The musher would step off his sled, greet and pat each one of the dogs as he passed his team, and coax his leader until they were moving again. It was enlightening to see this interaction between the mushers and their dogs. I suppose I expected more of a boss/employee relationship, but the affection these mushers display makes it clear their love and appreciation for each dog runs deep.

For me, the day proceeded not much better than the day before, except for feeling even more physically beaten. However, just one more day of mental readjustment eased some of my angst, and I was more content to plod along at unconscionably slow paces. I recalled Beat's warning — "Everything that comes before the coast, prepares you for the coast." How true this is. I may have had fresh legs and a full belly starting in Unalakleet, but I had none of the experience or fortitude earned by battling the 750 miles that come before. I've spent the past few years believing the full Iditarod Trail was too much and section touring may be the best way to experience the trail, but I question that now. Yes, the full thousand miles is still too long and too far to comprehend. That hasn't changed. But in so many ways it's a race of the mind, more so than the body ... and I was vastly undertrained.

My body was not prepared for this effort either. Near mile five — which came nearly four hours after I started — I completely lost the trail. I'd followed a single teams' tracks that were rapidly disappearing in the wind, and came to a slough with drifts up to my thighs rippling across glare ice. There wasn't a single Iditarod stake in sight. After some bashing around, I found no signs of dog tracks, and scanning a 360-degree angle brought no stake sightings. Damn it. The wind was still blowing straight out of the north and I needed to go north, but even walking on the remnants of the trail base required an effort that was near my physical limit. Off trail, I stepped into drifts that swallowed my legs above my knees, and the sandy snow was so heavy that I could scarcely lift them out again. At one point both of the bike's wheels became so mired that I even as I lifted and tugged, it wouldn't budge. I felt truly, genuinely stuck — as though I really were trapped in quicksand. As though this was the way I'd die out here, and they'd find my frozen body upright and buried to the waist in a snow dune.

I often talk about my desire to become physically stronger, and promise to do the work necessary to get there, but I fall off the wagon quickly. I envy people who enjoy lifting weights and strength training, because all I want to do is be outside, moving through the world, and can't abide the indoor torture or even stopping long enough to do a few pushups. But I do understand the benefits. And out here, on the shoreline of the Norton Sound, I experienced a scenario where lack of strength could become life-threatening. If I ever attempt to take a bicycle along this trail again, I vow to come more prepared — both physically and mentally.

Luckily there were still more dog teams on the way. After what felt like an hour of maximum-effort lunging across that slough, I saw one team off in the distance and made a bee-line for their path. It still took another decent amount of time to reach that spot, and the work didn't get a whole lot easier after I regained the trail. The dogs' tracks didn't help me much; they could float on top of the dunes that swallowed my clunky legs. If anything, the dogs churned up a crust that was starting to form, but I didn't find much purchase outside their tracks, either.

In the legend of Sisyphus, the gods condemned Sisyphus to the eternal task of rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only to watch it roll back to the bottom and have to start all over again. The lesson being that there is no more terrible punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

"At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational," Albert Camus wrote. "He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world."

The Little Mountain cabin stands on a narrow peninsula in the Norton Sound, and is the last shelter before one must cross 35 miles of sea ice. I could see its bright orange walls for more than six miles, from the moment I dropped off the final hill on land, waded down to the shore, and began my slow plod across the first section of sea ice. That was four hours of watching this cabin never grow closer, struggling under an effort that left me dizzy and disoriented, wondering if this was some kind of strange dream — or an afterlife. I was pretty sure all of the dog teams but one had passed by now. It was a stark and lonely setting, and I became aware of this as I looked down at my boots, still mired in the snow dunes, and realized that I was still very much a human out here in this desolate place, braced against the all-powerful North Wind.

I hadn't yet reached the cabin by 7 p.m. — the time Beat and I had agreed to talk via sat phone. I turned on my phone and there was a text message from him. I read through it but didn't quite understand at first — only that Beat was returning to Anchorage, immediately.

A few minutes later, we'd connected by phone, and the message became more real. Steve had received news of an unexpected tragedy while the two of them approached the tiny Yukon River village of Koyukuk. Steve need to return to California as quickly as possible, and Beat would accompany him and remain with him until he left Anchorage. They've been friends for ten years, and they'd been through much together in their journey on the Iditarod Trail. At first Steve encouraged Beat to continue onto Nome, but Beat couldn't imagine this.

"It would just feel so hollow at this point."

I put the phone down in a state of shock. The hollowness Beat described rang through me in a cacophony of grief. It was more than my exhausted mind could handle; I dropped into the snow, pulled my knees to my chin, and wailed. Although I didn't share a direct connection to this loss, the reality of it hit at a time when I was very vulnerable, and all of my defenses and coping mechanisms were buried beneath four days of fatigue and fear. So I absorbed the news in an affecting and personal way, feeling it ripple through every fiber of my body.

After I got up again, I pushed my bike the rest of the way to the cabin, leaned it against the porch, and continued hiking toward the tip of the peninsula — a small peak that gives "Little Mountain" its name. The last few feet were a headwall, and I struggled comically in the sugar snow, sliding a dozen steps back for every step forward. Another nod to the absurd, and yet I felt a strong need to walk all the way to the "end" — surrounded by the frozen sea, at the edge of the world. At the top of the headwall, I turned and fought cold gusts to the northern end of the broad peak, then stood facing the wind.

"Hello, North Wind," I said, aloud. My voice came out as a gruff squeak, and I sputtered through another bout of kennel cough before I got any more words out. "We meet again."

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a trek up a small mountain in Nome, recalling the way the strong gusting wind atop that barren plateau evoked an unsettling acknowledgement of the impermanence of all things — the unreasonable silence of the world.

"I block a tiny stream of The North Wind for a few moments, watch my warm breath turn to a cloud and dissipate, and I call this my life. There's joy in this realization. If life is a goggle-clad figure steeling herself against a sea of cold space, then it's more beautiful and valuable than I ever imagined."

Here, at the top of Little Mountain, the North Wind still reigned. I'd fought it so long and so hard to reach this point, and this was going to be as far as I'd get. I knew as soon as I spoke with Beat that we needed to reunite, as soon as possible. I admitted I was too battered to leave that night, but that I'd eat, rest, and I'd make my way back to Unalakleet and a flight to Anchorage as soon as physically possible.

So I stood facing the wind, letting it suck the warmth out of my body, scanning the bewildering expanse of ice, and the Bering Sea coast beyond. "Why?" I coughed aloud to the North Wind, without any specific extension to that question. "Why?" The North Wind only howled and blew effortlessly around my body, draining the last of my energy, and with it the shuttering grief.

I plodded down the mountain and still didn't feel like going inside the cabin. It was the only shelter for 50 miles, and I'd left Shaktoolik in the morning with this cabin as my far-reaching goal. It had been so important to me then. Now, strangely, I wanted to avoid it. I think much of this was a reaction to the intense loneliness I was feeling. Outside, I at least had the companionship of the North Wind. So I carried a log out to a section of cleaner snow and made my dinner even as the wind stole much more fuel than necessary. I sat on the log until I shivered, and then got up and walked around as the sun set, watching dusk take over, and then faint hints of the Aurora Borealis appeared to the north.

Overnight, the North Wind all but dissipated, and the temperature dropped to -5. A group of caribou hunters passed before dawn. I'd already told Beat that it had taken me 10 hours to push the 15 miles to Little Mountain, and would likely take at least that long to get back. But a combination of new traffic, subzero temperatures, and less drifting snow set up a thin crust on top of all the snow dunes I'd battled in the previous two days. Even though my feet still punched through, I discovered early that I could ride on top of the crust — not fast, but 5 mph feels like warp speed next to <1 mph.="" p="">

I reached Shaktoolik in less than three hours, undoing two full days' worth of hard effort. About three miles outside of town I met another fat biker, Andy Pohl, who was independently riding the dog sled route from Fairbanks. His nose was scabbed with frostnip and he seemed unmoved by my explanation of why I was returning to Unalakleet. He encouraged me to reconsider and instead join him for the remainder of the journey. After all Andy had been through on the trail so far — battling the cold snap and temperatures down to 53 below — I could understand why the thought of turning back would difficult to accept.

I shrugged. "Sometimes these adventures don't work out. Maybe next year."

More caribou hunters passed on snowmachines, ripping up the thin crust and reducing me to walking again. I felt a renewed surge of angst. In my raw emotional state it was all I could do to hold myself back from throwing a tantrum, which I refused to indulge in because my dramas were so shallow and small. Still, I have to admit that it took me more than two hours to summit the one-mile-long climb of the first Blueberry Hill. Some pitches were so steep that I needed to kick deep steps to give myself enough traction to support the bike. There were many times when my body just stopped, and wouldn't start again until I sneered, aloud, "Come on. Have some courage." I needed courage, because I was out of strength.

I also have to admit I was completely elated when I finally reached the top. Bursting with joy. The weather had also become oppressively hot. My thermometer said it was 19 degrees, with just a light wind.

The trail was still fairly soft, but it was mostly rideable — except for the steep climbs, for which I was steadily losing courage.

It was strange to pedal these sixty miles backward, undoing four days of an arduous and emotional journey in a single push.

It was only sixty miles, and yet I could still feel the intensity in which each mile passed, sense a connection to certain places, and wonder at how much and yet how little time had passed.

The wind was eerily absent, and the setting richly familiar. I felt more like I'd lived in this place at some point a long time ago, rather than just passed through once a few days earlier.

The Blueberry Hills. A home at the edge of the world.

I arrived in Unalakleet just before midnight, again fully shattered by the day's effort. I'd given everything I had to make sure I returned in time to catch a flight, and continued pushing hard even after I learned the only Saturday flight was in the afternoon. Still, as I approached the blinking lights of the airport, a sadness set in. Even though this trip tore me from the inside out, it was a difficult thing to give up. And even though I believe strongly that there are many more important things in life than these adventures, it was a difficult thing to give up. I wondered if Beat felt exponentially more crushed after what he'd given up, but of course our disappointments were minuscule next to our friend's loss.

I don't know if I'll return. This journey was my test for a dream that has haunted and intimidated me for years, which is the full Iditarod Trail to Nome. Being torn apart by sixty miles of travel was not how I envisioned this "short" journey starting, regardless of the reasons why it ended. Still, I learned quite a lot, experienced some beautiful country, and gained a profound respect and appreciation for the people of this region. Although there will always be more important things than these adventures, they add such richness to the absurdity that is life. Rolling a rock up a hill is a source of joy; the lesson of the North Wind is that it doesn't matter where it ends up, because everything changes always. I'll probably be back. 

"Live to the point of tears" — Albert Camus.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Where the North Wind Blows, part two

I awoke to the unpleasant whistling of the wind against plexiglass windows, and shifted my sleeping bag just enough to peer into the bright light streaming into the cabin. I had stayed up late reading, and since I only had 18 miles to travel to the village of Shaktoolik, I let myself sleep in. The wind was back but the sun was out; it looked like a beautiful day. I cheerfully squeezed into my stiff, frozen tights and socks, and hummed as I melted snow for instant coffee while shoveling in handfuls of trail mix. 

The previous night's storm dumped three or four inches of new snow, which the wind had already blown into rippling dunes. As I walked down the porch stairs, a chorus of sharp pains rippled through my muscles. It is way too early in the trip to be this sore, I thought. The morning commenced with a long climb and the trail was punchy. Another day of slow, heavy labor awaited.

Still, I didn't mind. I breathed in sharp gulps and reminded myself what a privilege it was to be here, squinting against spring sunlight as ice particles swirled in the air like glitter.

The leaving of the storm. This boded well for a sea ice crossing, I thought.

The final Blueberry Hill descends from a thousand feet to sea level in one mile. It afforded a sweeping view of the peninsula — which is all flat marshland threaded with frozen streams and sloughs, and that one strip of brush marking the shoreline. The village of Shaktoolik was at the end of the line, some 13 miles distant. The bike's front brake had become nonfunctional, and it was difficult to keep the bike from fishtailing wildly down the steep, loose trail. At one point I was bucked off and hit the snow like a lawn dart, burying my face and arms. I had a brief flashback that I was back in California, lifting myself out of the dirt after a mountain bike crash. Although I didn't think I hit my head all that hard, the association was so powerful that I became disoriented after I extracted myself and blinked against a blinding white expanse. "Where am I? What is this place?"

This strange confusion only became more pronounced as I left the visual familiarities of the mountains and crossed into the marshland. 

The miles across the marshland were unconscionably slow, pummeled by wind as I waded through dunes. Being habitually active in the outdoors starts to give a person a sense of entitlement when it comes to effort versus distance. I "should" be able to ride a mountain bike at something averaging ten miles an hour, and run close to an average of six miles an hour, and hike at three miles an hour, with a relatively comfortable and sustainable level of effort. Pushing a bike at 1.5 miles per hour while battling the dizziness of maximum effort caused me to lose all track of time. The equinox sun rolled into the western horizon, and still Shaktoolik was nowhere to be seen. I was flailing at the bottom of a gravitational vortex, going nowhere.

Shaktoolik appeared as a mirage in the sand, shimmering in the early evening sunlight. The Inupiaq village is home to about 250 people, who all live on a single street that stretches along a narrow spit of land between a river and the sea. Wikipedia tells me that Shaktoolik is derived from the Unaliq word "suktuliq," meaning "scattered things." People here live a subsistence lifestyle, with fishing, berry gathering, and caribou hunting. The land is rich but exposed; storms rage year-round. The wind blows relentlessly.

I pulled into the Shaktoolik K-12 school and was surprised to find the doors locked. After just 18 miles from the cabin I expected it was early afternoon; in reality it was after 7 p.m. "That took more than eight hours," I thought, bewildered at the realization. I was exhausted — much more exhausted than I would be after eight hours of normal bike riding, which would be a hundred or more miles in my privileged world. No such entitlement exists out here.

I walked around every door of the building until I caught the attention of a group of children practicing skills for the Indigenous Games. One demanded to see my face, and when I pulled my mask down he was disappointed because he thought I was Aliy Zirkle. They showed me to the Principal's office, who was still at his desk. Steve welcomed me warmly, offered an emergency mat, and helped me set up a nest in the school library. Because there are no inns in town, the schools provide overnight shelter to travelers for a reasonable donation. My nest in the library was better than any luxury hotel, especially considering the alternative of curling up in a bivy sack and being buried alive by wind drifts on a frozen swamp.

I set my alarm for three hours before sunrise, determined to tackle the sea ice in one hard push. My mind held stubbornly to effort entitlement, and I still hadn't conceptualized the reality of 50 miles of intensely exposed terrain at 1.5 mph. The predawn darkness was a stage for my deepest nightmares — wind raged with a high-pitched howl, driving a hurricane of spindrift that rendered my headlamp useless. The battered buildings of the village looked precariously braced against house-sized snowdrifts, and drifts across the road — which had been clear the previous evening — were three feet high. I groped around blindly for the trail out of town, finally shining my light into the sparkling eyes of dozens of dogs. I'd reached the Iditarod checkpoint. A man came outside. 

"I'm sorry to bother you," I said. "But can you tell me where the trail goes from here?" 

The man pointed into the blackness. "Goes that way," he said. He drew a breath as though he wanted to say more, but only nodded. 

I turned directly into the wind and battled in the direction he pointed, one labored step at a time. Out on the river, I saw occasional evidence of use — an ice encrusted dog bootie, a splatter of feces — but no indication of a continuous trail. Snow was blowing too hard for my headlamp to pick up the reflective tape on the trail-marking lath ... or else I wasn't pointing it in the right direction. Either way, it was hopeless. With only obscured street lights as a guide, I waded back to town. The man at the Iditarod checkpoint emerged again.

"I can't find the trail," I said. "I'm going to wait for daylight."

"Just so you know," the man said, "the trail's going to be drifted like that, probably all the way to Koyuk."

"I realize that," I said. "I'll try again in a few hours, after I can see and more traffic goes out."

The man again looked like he wanted to say more, but simply nodded.

Back at the school, I checked the weather station readings online. At the Shaktoolik airport, which is located in the most sheltered spot possible, wind from the north was blowing at 39 mph, gusting to 47. It was 8 degrees, which "feels like" -22 in those winds. What it felt like, really, was thousands of simultaneous lashes from whips woven with shards of ice. The friendly librarian came arrived at 9 a.m. She told me the local caribou hunters wouldn't be going out today. Not in this wind.

Standing in the heated entryway of the school, I re-checked every nook of my scuba suit, making sure my goggles were secure, duck-bill fog protector in place, balaclava tucked into my collar, gloves pulled over my cuffs, boot laces tightened and overboots under windpants. I was ready and determined.

At the checkpoint, I again turned to face the tyrannous North Wind and wrestled my bike down a steep embankment, onto the river. After crossing the heavily drifted ice, I located the trail tripod, where I took this photo:

It's an appropriate illustration for my feelings at the time. The bewilderment, the feebleness of my presence, the unending desolation.

In the daylight it was easier for me to pick out the bright orange stakes, but several had already blown over. Underfoot the trail was clear for short sections, then covered in knee-deep snow dunes for short sections, like waves in a frozen ocean. Plodding against the 50 mph gusts, I could only just take continuous steps across the clear sections of trail. Once mired in the snow dunes, I might as well have been sinking in quicksand, kicking wildly and wrestling my bike for no forward motion at all. When I turned my body to attempt to wade sideways out of drifts, the wind would sometimes grab the bike and throw it off its wheels. My sense of entitlement had only just come to accept 1.5 mph as a reality, when in fact now I could only dream of such speeds. The North Wind whistled and cackled, relentlessly.

When I feel scared and helpless, my main coping mechanism is to dream up wild yet somewhat plausible scenarios where I can still get myself out of the predicament. In this case, my idea was to anchor the bike's handlebar and a pedal in the snow, remove each of the racks, use straps to fashion them into a pair of snowshoes, strap my bivy bundle on my back, put some food in my pockets, and leave the rest of the anchor to a proper burial by snowdrift. Of course, I didn't really want to abandon my bike. But I found great comfort in imagining this.

I worked as hard as I could, as I absolutely could, for three hours. My GPS told me I had traveled 3.5 miles, and not in a straight line, as I frequently snaked back and forth in search of the trail base or some semblance of a firm crust. I came to what looked like a trail intersection with two crossed stakes next to a single stake, and couldn't locate the next one. I scanned the far horizon and found nothing amid a ground blizzard that had increased in velocity since morning. In three hours I had seen no one — no snowmachines, and no mushers, even though it was mid-day and there were still at least 40 mushers behind. I also had neither eaten nor drank anything in those three hours, because I was terrified of lifting my face mask and possibly fogging my goggles, which I could not function without. A gelatinous bonk had set in, and I was very thirsty. I anchored the bike on its side and pulled my down coat out of its stuff sack, then plopped down on one of the panniers to eat a snack. With thick mittens, I fumbled around with fruit snacks before stuffing the entire package in my mouth, extracting the candy with my teeth. I bit my lip trying to free the frozen morsels, and could taste blood with the sugar trickling down my throat.

"Taking care of yourself in the wind is really hard," I thought. All the while, the North Wind raged at my back, whipping the life force out of me. There was no shelter, and there was no rest. Attempting 47 more miles of this with my experience level in this kind of wind would be like attempting to finish a hundred-mile run after only successfully completing a 10K. Only here, the price of failure was almost certainly grave injury, if not death.

Still I waited, about twenty more minutes, telling myself if a snowmachine or musher went by, there would perhaps be enough of a trail to salvage a hard effort and reach the only shelter on this stretch, the Little Mountain cabin, some 12 miles distant. No one went by, and no one was going to, so I began the slow and strenuous process of retracing my steps, already long blown away by the wind.

Principal Steve generously welcomed me back to the school and said I didn't need to pay for a second night, but I did anyway, because I know how hard life is out here. I checked the weather constantly, said little prayers to the North Wind, and promised myself that I'd try again tomorrow.