Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Hard love

What love is this that beckons us into these burned hills, where matchstick spruce crouch away from a subarctic wind? How do we love these capricious trails, even after miles of clumped sugar snow swallows our momentum like an endless runaway truck ramp? How can we adore every steep climb? Every thirteen-hour slog just to reach a place to sleep? Or the ice particles stuck to our faces at twenty below? What is this love?

It was inevitable that Beat and I would end up in the White Mountains. With Beat fresh off his Iditarod effort and me wanting "easy as possible" to best manage my thyroid symptoms, we looked into available cabins. March is a popular month in this recreation area. Even during the mid-week, we only found openings at the cabin furthest from the road system (Windy Gap) and another off route up a mile-long wall (Eleazar's). It would amount to 80 miles of hilly trails, with Beat pulling a sled and me riding a bike. We'd already heard recent reports of slow trail conditions, so I figured the bike would allow me to travel 1.5 times Beat's speed, at best. But that was enough time for longer rests. Beat justified the 80-mile hike by reasoning that he was already back in training. He recently secured a spot in the White Mountains 100, which is happening in two weeks.

The weather was forecasted to warm up on Wednesday, but temperatures plummeted again on Tuesday night. We hedged our bets with a later start on the 40-mile day. Our car's thermometer registered 36 below as we drove past the low-lying Chatanika River. The hilltop trailhead was -8, but the warmth was relatively short-lived. After six miles of rolling along a broad ridge, the route plummets into another low-lying area, Wickersham Creek, where temps were still in the -20s. Descending the "Wickersham Wall" at these temperatures feels like plunging into a glacier lake, ice-cream headache and all. My body was all over the map with thermoregulation. I would sweat while wearing minimal layers, then suddenly feel a chill and continue to shiver after I bundled up. Then the heat would suddenly return. After a few costume changes I decided that as long as my feet and hands felt warm, I'd just ignore the chills and go with the lighter option. 

Running hot and cold should have been an early indicator that this wasn't going to be a great day for me. I've had plenty of "bad" days this winter that I attributed to allergy shots, altitude, or mild illness. But as I learn more about Graves Disease, I think I do have days when my hormones are more out of whack than others. This wasn't a good day to be off balance. I had dozens of miles to travel, and the sugary trail wasn't giving up a millimeter of momentum. Riding felt like churning through wet cement. My heart pumped as though my blood was full of sludge. My breathing worsened, so I took more breaks. A few times I leaned the bike against a tree and sat directly in the snow until my butt went numb. I thought about taking a beta blocker pill to shut down the adrenaline and calm my heart, but worried that I wouldn't be able to continue riding afterward. I wanted to ease up the effort, but it seemed impossible to move any more slowly.

All of these solutions were overcompensating, of course. It's not like I was having a heart attack. But I was overdoing it. I know that. I do well with two-to-four-hour efforts. Even my endocrinologist said exercising shouldn't be an issue as long as I take care not to push myself, and as long as I avoid stressors. A few seconds of road rage would be worse for me than days of pleasant biking. But these long efforts — especially the kind that are challenging no matter what I do — need to be deferred until I'm healthy. 

It's difficult not to be greedy, though — to long for the limestone spires that rise above Fossil Creek, which you can only see if you're willing to venture thirty-plus miles away from the nearest road, which itself stands alone in an expansive and often inhospitable wilderness.

It's difficult not to be greedy for that sensation when, after 12-plus hours of slogging until a crushing darkness arrives, you arrive at a cabin. It's small and simple, but it's a place where you can spread your sleeping bag across a wooden bench, lie down, and breathe the rhythm of satisfaction and relief.

It's difficult not to be greedy about ice cream cones, carried for twelve hours and deep-frozen by the air outside. I barely had time to start a fire and hang up my gear before Beat arrived at Windy Gap, about 40 minutes after me. He put in a hard effort, and looked ragged. We barely got the ice cream down before we both passed out.

Ice cream, Mountain House, Fireball hot chocolate, and a full night of sleep did wonders. The following day, I felt a lot better. Just like that. The weather had turned gloomy, and flurries of snow fell through a thick haze. Since we established that my riding pace was about the same as Beat's walking pace, we agreed to meet up after 15 miles to drink hot chocolate in the brisk wind.

Although I felt markedly better, I didn't want to push my luck. So I walked the hills and otherwise puttered along at an enjoyable pace. Sucker holes revealed hints of blue, and a "sundog" rainbow arced through the sky.

A calmer heart and better breathing made a world of difference. I felt relaxed and full of joy. There was no place in the world I'd rather be. Friends have suggested that it would be better for healing if I'd spent this month lying on a beach. They're probably not wrong. But if it was a crowded beach, I'd become stressed. If it was warm, I'd be sweaty and miserable. We all have the places we go to feel alive. Places where the air tastes like cinnamon and mountains stretch beyond the horizon. I love the White Mountains. I know they do not love me back, that I'm surrounded by a thousand things that could kill me, and that my body isn't well enough for this place. But a life without White Mountains is not a life I want. So what do I do?

The final mile to Eleazar's was a grunt, ascending 600 feet on soft trail. My meditative joy had faded, and I was ready to be done. Just like that. My shoulders burned as I pushed the bike, and I invented games to avoid staring at my GPS the entire time. My iPod was playing, so I vowed that after one song, I could look at the distance. One-tenth of a mile. Damn it. Another song finished, and only another tenth had passed. After three-tenths of a mile, I tried to focus on being more present. Spruce trees looked like little dogs begging for treats. Hare tracks mottled the snow. The last hints of daylight turned the sky violet and gold. "I even love this climb," I told myself.

Eleazar's was a nice cabin — stocked with firewood, matches, and propane for a brand-new lantern. The cabin sits on a bluff high above Wickersham Creek, but sadly it was still too cloudy for aurora viewing. I started a fire, moved armfuls of firewood inside, gathered fresh snow for melting, arranged my meager belongings, and waited for Beat to arrive. After a day mostly traveling alone, it was a spirited reunion — Beat ranted about the crappy trail. I quietly insisted that if a hiker thinks it's bad, imagine how a biker feels. Beat lamented his poor training. I lamented my crappy body. Beat asked me if I saw the sundog. I asked him if he saw the 7-year-old girl driving a snowmachine. We shared kisses and ice cream cones, then fell asleep on hard benches. I'm definitely not of the school that believes all good adventures need to be shared, but I was grateful Beat came back from the Iditarod Trail early this year. 

By morning the sky had cleared, and it was warm — 8 above. I wanted to stay at Eleazar's all week, doing all those mundane tasks again and again. But it was time to return to Fairbanks.

We only had 12 miles to travel, and though it took four hours, time went by quickly. Physically I felt good and the weather was beautiful, yet I was still a little melancholy. I didn't know why. Disappointment about my limitations? Guilt about taking this trip? Wistfulness about leaving? Lately my emotions haven't made as much sense as they used to, so I cling to what I know. I love the White Mountains. And I'm grateful for every chance to come back. 
Sunday, March 12, 2017

Subzero respite

After he left the Iditarod Trail, Beat decided to spend another week-plus rambling north with me. Because I dropped out of the race only two weeks prior, there weren't many plans to work with. We were both feeling disappointed and moody, and uncertain how much more time we should burn in Alaska. Beat ultimately decided one more week would be good for him. I'm mostly incapable of giving up this place if I don't have to, but I was uncharacteristically unexcited about embarking on adventures. 

Our friend Kate lives on a homestead that borders the eastern boundary of Denali National Park. It's an enviable spot on a lake surrounded by sharp peaks, with the closest tiny towns still twenty-plus miles away. The neighbors have been there for generations. Despite the stereotype, they're friendly to outsiders who show up in rental cars with no engine block heaters (we were invited inside when we knocked on the wrong door, given a brief history of the homestead, and warned that our vehicle might not start in the morning.) These are the type of Alaskans who think riding a bike on the Iditarod Trail is normal, and who clear the ice to play hockey on Sundays, even at -40.

Kate graciously let us spend a couple nights in a cabin, and I was able to do a little work and get out for a 20-mile ride on a mushing trail out the Yanert River. Physically I have not been feeling strong, but if I keep my breathing in check — which I've learned actually means keeping my heart rate in check — I can muddle along just fine with no ill effects. Getting outside for an hour or three does wonders for my mental state — my focus seems to only get worse the longer I sit in disjointed contemplation. Until my health improves, I think this will be my mode of operation — going out for easy outings earlier in the day so I can work better in the afternoons. 

It was a gorgeous day in Denali, but cold. At 10 a.m. the temperature was still 35 below. I went outside to adjust some things on my bike, and broke a plastic zip-tie like it was glass. The pogies had gone rigid and the frame bag felt brittle. I stood outside for several minutes in my T-shirt, breathing in sharp air with subtle hints of cinnamon, relishing the tingle on my skin, and waiting for the cold to slam down like a lead blanket. I *love* that sensation, I mean, when I'm warm to start and know there's no danger. That level of cold quickly plunges to the core, at once filling me with exhilarating panic while beckoning me to its sleepy depths. After a few short minutes, I darted back inside the cabin and shivered contentedly.

I still waited until well after noon to embark on the ride, because that level of cold for hours is not so fun. I'd bundled up too heavily and ended up stripping down to a single jacket layer, and for a while no hat or gloves. Temperatures were still in the negative single digits at best, but I have been running quite hot lately. It's probably my thyroid. Strangely I still sleep cold and become chilled easily, but when I'm exercising, even fairly low temperatures start to feel intolerable (until they're not. I'm definitely not thermoregulating on an even basis.) But this subzero ride felt wonderful. Grinding along on a fairly slow trail, I managed to motor a ways out the Yanert before it occurred to me that the length of my ride would make me feel bad if I didn't turn back soon. But I could see the bend of the wide river, leading into the craggy peaks of the Alaska Range, and that faded desire for adventure finally returned. It took all of my strength to turn the bike around. Mostly because I really don't have a lot of strength.

By Tuesday we were in Fairbanks, and the temperatures were still 35 below in the early mornings, rising to just below zero by afternoon. I enjoyed another easy-going 20-mile ride from Goldstream Valley to the top of O'Conner Creek Trail. I'll admit to missing training, even the pretense of it. Although I haven't felt that fire for a while, even the hope of finding it gave some level of satisfaction. Dawdling around for my mental health isn't the same, but of course it's better than the alternatives. It's still Alaska, and still beautiful. 
Monday, March 06, 2017

And it didn't even rain

When I purchased a ticket to Juneau last week, I envisioned having a cab drop me off at the end of North Douglas Road, where I would sit on the cold gravel beach, watch wisps of clouds tumble down forested slopes, and relish the 38-degree wetness that was sure to rain down for the duration of my short stay. I don't mean to overdramatize my rather mild health condition; I'm just attempting to explain how how my feelings have been driving my decisions. For a few weeks I've been slipping further into emotional malaise. I'm inclined to blame hormones, because there's no rational justification for feeling so down. Still, I can't get excited about, well, anything. After I dropped out of the Iditarod, I knew I could still spend a month viewing beautiful scenery in Alaska. I mustered anticipation and made plans, but felt surprisingly blasé about them. Part of me wanted to stay in Colorado and spend a month watching Netflix. What is wrong with me?

Instead, I went to Juneau. Yes, Juneau is a good place to go and be sad. I remember it well. The short version of my history with Juneau is that I lived here from 2006 to 2010, and worked for the local newspaper in an increasingly demanding and demeaning position. After my former relationship ended, I kept a tenuous grip for another year until the rain and isolation drove me away. On my life's timeline, Juneau was brief but impactful. I’ve visited three times since I left seven years ago, and each time I settle into Juneau like a worn coat. The town fits so well that I become alarmed when I realize I’ve forgotten the name of the corner store, or wander up a street to see different bars and restaurants taking the place of favorite haunts. Seven years later, there’s still a part of me that never left.

I arrived Tuesday evening to the beginnings of a storm that dumped more than 18” of snow. Wednesday morning was a chaotic swirl of white and gray, so I strapped on snowshoes to hike up the Dan Moller Trail to Mount Troy. I must have hiked or ridden a bike up this trail a hundred times. Maybe it was never a hundred, but it feels that way when I wend around familiar corners.

Right now I’m happiest when I’m walking. Especially the kind of walking involved in a snowshoe slog, which strains my muscles but not my heart. The rhythmic motion allows me to slip into relaxed thoughts that are difficult to achieve elsewhere (my recent mental state fluctuates between brain fog and a strange hyper-attentiveness that still fails to focus on any one thing.)

As I climbed higher into the fog, my snowshoes sank into knee-deep powder on top of a bulletproof crust. "If I was up here yesterday, I could have ridden Pugsley," I thought. That was genuinely a thought that I had, when I was in Anchorage yesterday and haven't owned a Pugsley since 2012. When I snapped back to the present, I thought, "Damn, I really do have dementia."

Happily, for the rest of my stay in Juneau, I didn't have to spend too much time alone with my weird brain. Although I only had three full days, I still managed to visit a number of old friends. On Thursday, winds had hit gale force, and blizzard conditions discouraged the ascent of any mountains. My friend John suggested snowshoeing to Eagle Glacier, a trail I had never traveled. Soon after the hike started, I realized why. For most of my time in Juneau, I was almost exclusively a cyclist. Eagle Glacier trail is often a technical jumble of rocks and roots skirting the crags that line the Eagle River. It wouldn't have been fun with a bike. Under thick tree canopy, the often thin layer of snow only served to mask the obstacles, not cover them. After enough stumbling and snagging on branches, I just took the snowshoes off.

Somewhere in that blurred background is Eagle Glacier. And somehow it had taken us three and a half hours to hike six miles. We managed to get back in two and a half, so I suppose broken trail really does make a difference. I felt better at the end of that six-hour slog than I had in a week. More clear-headed, more upbeat. Nothing like self-medicating the malaise with exercise.

Thursday was the day Beat dropped out of the Iditarod. He scratched at Puntilla Lake and flew into Anchorage before I'd even returned from the hike. The story is his to tell, but he's also been feeling less strong since we moved to Colorado. A lingering cold left him struggling and not enjoying a single step. By mile 160, all he felt was dread for the upcoming miles. On the wind-blasted trail to Ptarmigan Pass, a lost snowshoe prompted him to turn around. After he found it, he just keep going back to the checkpoint. Although I knew on a logical level why Beat left the race, on a personal level it was difficult to understand. There is nothing more I want than to be on the Iditarod Trail right now — pedaling, walking, having to focus only on forward motion. I know that my physical state is poor for such an endeavor, and my mental state is probably worse. Still, the desire lingers. Thoughts of the terrible wind and subzero cold just made this desire burn stronger. What is wrong with me?

On Friday I went for a short hike with my ex-boyfriend, Geoff. We don't keep much contact anymore, so it was nice to catch up. He's been dealing with strange health issues for five years now, and the sum of them really look like an autoimmune disease. Geoff has become one of the headline cases for overtraining syndrome among ultrarunners. Given his symptoms, I don't buy into that community-driven diagnosis. Training may have set off whatever he has (just like sickness and overexertion during the Tour Divide may be what triggered my thyroid disease.) Still, Geoff spent years searching for a cause, and never found answers. Since it just happened to start while he was winning races, overtraining it is. Right now, he's happy to live and let live — getting out when he feels good, and staying still when he does not. I admire that attitude. I was working toward acceptance before I was diagnosed with Grave's Disease. The treatable nature of this condition should have given me hope, but instead I was pulled away from acceptance and back into uncertainty. There's hope, of course; I just need to find it.

The weather had cleared, which often brings terrible Taku winds. Geoff suggested trying for West Peak, starting just one canyon over from the avalanche gully that the city was bombarding with howitzer blasts. Meanwhile, 50mph wind gusts raced down the ridge as we climbed above treeline. We trudged and crouched as clouds of spindrift swirled around us. All that time, Geoff told a story about helping rescue friends on that same mountain, when the wind was so bad that they couldn't return on their own. After about twenty minutes we both said, "screw this," pretty much at the same time, and turned around. I thought about the ITI racers on Ptarmigan Pass, and how slogging through 50mph wind gusts was exactly what I'd been wistfully pining for. But it's not the same. It's difficult to describe why the journey is not the sum of its parts, the parts alone are not necessarily meaningful, and it's just not the same thing. Plus, wind sucks. 

Sadly, I had to leave early on Saturday. So I took the rest of Friday afternoon to wander around town before catching a musical ("West Side Story") with my friend Brian. The frigid wind blasted down Basin Road, prompting me to bundle up. It was 15 above, but that's cold when you're in Juneau.

Alaska's First Road. Of course it would go up this narrow, winding canyon with steep dropoffs and avalanche gullies at every switchback.

Walking up the Perseverance Trail, I looked toward Mount Juneau and had another moment where I couldn't quite remember what year it was. As it slowly came back, I thought, "It didn't even rain."

It may be another few years before I return to Juneau. The Mendenhall Glacier may have receded above lake level by then, the heavy rains may shift to spring and autumn will become warm and dry. Everything will have changed, but it will still feel like an instant.