Saturday, October 14, 2017

Forest Road 509 made me cry

Those first groggy minutes of morning have never been my best, but lately they've become more difficult to face. I know I'm not the only one — waking up to a vague sense of dread, brewing a pot of artificially flavored vanilla coffee without shame because it's comfort food, and scrolling through the news. This has more or less been my morning ritual since I had to pay slightly less than my weekly food budget to have the New York Times delivered to my duplex doorstep in Utah during college. But now I can hardly stomach it, this ritual of sitting in a room and sipping comfort coffee as long-held convictions crumble. Is it because I'm nearing 40? The much-hyped middle-age crisis? Or is the world really so much worse than it used to seem?

The general advice is to step away from the Internet. Although I definitely need to limit my time on social media, I don't really benefit emotionally from sticking my head in the sand. Everything is still happening, and I'm just depriving myself of the means to try to understand. Sending in a few bucks to relief efforts or the ACLU feels like doing something, but not really. It's like seeing that boulder from "Indiana Jones" rolling toward you, stepping in front of it, and holding out your hands.

I'm a generally happy person with mostly sound mental and physical health, living in a beautiful and safe place that I love, and I enjoy lot of privilege. I understand this. But we all have our demons to battle. My most persistent is a nihilist who sits on my shoulder, shouting that nothing matters.

My hormones feel out of whack again. So I fear another thyroid "flare." Feel inexplicably anxious. Stare at blank documents on the screen for far too long. California is burning. It's the disaster du jour, but the ones that hit close to our experiences, hit close to our hearts. Life is alarmingly delicate, and fleeting. Why risk ... anything? Why bother ... with anything? Shut up, little nihilist. Just shut up.

Recently I read a blog post about mindful perception and downloaded the book it cited, "A Life of One's Own," published in 1926, about a seven-year period in which British psychoanalyst Marion Milner sought to discover a path to genuine happiness. Declaring that the things we pursue the most frantically are those least likely to bring lasting joy, Milner trained herself to focus on the quieter, more ethereal aspects of existence. I've only started to read her book, but the blog writer cited some compelling observations:

"So I had finally come to the conclusion that my task was to become more and more aware, more and more understanding with an understanding that was not at all the same thing as intellectual comprehension…. Without understanding, I was at the mercy of blind habit; with understanding, I could develop my own rules for living and find out which of the conflicting exhortations of a changing civilization was appropriate to my needs."

On Friday morning I set out on my bike, feeling hormonal and unmotivated and vaguely anguished about world affairs. But I was armed with a few of these observations from Marion Milner to eschew my comforting habits and likely futile efforts to feign productivity, and instead do one thing that never fails to bring joy ... moving through the world.

Within my home range — meaning the places I can ride to in a few hours — there are still so many spots I haven't begun to explore. Before I headed into tranquil 60-degree weather — the early-week snow already a faint memory — I mapped out a route to trails surrounding Gold Lake. I chatted with my neighbor for a few minutes, then mashed pedals up the muddy road. With every hard crank, motivation surged and anxiety faded. It's just that easy. It was true when I was a nervous 23-year-old novice, and it's true now. We can yearn for many complicated things in life, with a sense of purpose or meaning at the top. But happiness, in itself, is fairly simple.

I blasted down one long hill and climbed another, sharing heart-felt pleasantries with other cyclists and walkers as we crossed paths. The music on my iPod was really good, my breathing and legs felt strong, and it was a perfect autumn day. "October is your favorite month of the year," I reminded myself. That actually hasn't been true for a number of years. But it was true when I was young, before the scars accumulated, and the world had endless possibility.

After turning right off of Sunshine Drive, the rest of the ride would be new territory for me. I discovered a surprisingly fun trail, wrapping around a hillside with cliffs on one side and steep-drop offs on the other. Then I crossed Lefthand Canyon and took a hard turn onto a dirt track, Forest Service Road 509.1. I'd done a modicum of Internet research about my route, and understood that this road had once been rated "moderate to difficult" by an off-road driving Web site, and was closed to motorized traffic after the 2013 floods. I expected it to be steep and eroded, but I really had no idea. It's barely a route now; more often it's just a chute of chunder and loose boulders, like climbing an avalanche gully. The kind of terrain where you have to hike on your toes, so pushing a bike is just heinous.

I averaged 1.4 miles per hour. My shoulders ached even though I've been working on my shoulders, back and arms at the gym, and really I've made a lot of improvements, but you wouldn't know it from my real-world abilities. I bent in to move some of the weight to my lower body, only to continually knocked my shin and calf on a pedal. It was brutal work. I tried to find the good. "Great training" is an appropriate fiction.

Then my foot slipped backward on the loose surface. With already poor balance that I blame on the awkward stance of wrestling a bike uphill, I toppled over. I stood up, fuming, and took a few more steps, only to slam my left knee into the pedal. For a second I only saw red. We all have our limits. Mine was apparently quite low on this day, and I lost it. I cried. Not just little whimpers that I indulge in occasionally, but the blubbery, snotty kind that I usually reserve for my most overwhelming difficulties and low points. I just sat on the rocks next to the bike that I angrily shoved aside, and let it flow.

I'm ashamed, of course, but privately I love a good cry. They're always followed by astonishing clarity. Most often these moments of clarity are variations of "you have no reason to be so upset." This was one such moment. I took a few satisfying gulps and looked toward Lefthand Canyon and the surprising elevation/perspective I'd gained while shambling up the road. A patchwork of yellow aspen dotted the evergreen slopes, and the sky was that piercing, October shade of blue. Sure, I had snot streaks on my face. But in spite of this, or maybe because of it, I felt happy. Pure and simple. Yes, we humans can be unhelpfully complex and stunningly short-sighted in our thinking. But at our core, I do believe we have capacity for understanding — the understanding that Milner described, the understanding beyond intellectual comprehension, that can only be found through unhindered awareness.

Milner wrote, "By finding that in order to be more and more aware I had to be more and more still, I had not only come to see through my own eyes instead of at second hand, but I had also finally come to discover what was the way of escape from the imprisoning island of my own self-consciousness."

Forest Service Road 509.1 climbed to the top of a ridge and faded in a grassy meadow. This was  the beginning of a network of trails that were so much better than I expected. Even at 9,000 feet they were mostly dry, surprisingly smooth for Front Range singletrack, and had great flow. I enjoyed myself immensely, and for a little while focused only on the most immediate sensory inout — a narrow focus often demanded by trail riding. I didn't think about disturbing news reports or friends' Facebook photographs of incinerated neighborhoods or even my still-painful knee. It's useful to remind myself, once in a while, that sharp awareness of a moment is more fulfilling than all of my flinging efforts to understand the world. Which is why, after all these years, I still ride bikes. 
Monday, October 09, 2017

Nice summer-winter days

It was the perfect Colorado weekend, which is to say it was 70 degrees and sunny over the Front Range on Sunday, then dropped to 30 and snowing by Monday morning. Beat is still trying to ease back into training after hip and shin issues pestered him for most of the summer, so he didn't want try anything too ambitious. It seemed like a good opportunity for the High Lonesome Loop, which is a 16-mile, relatively mellow climb over the Continental Divide. I hoped we'd have a chance to do some running, but packed gaiters and spikes. Although it had been warm for most of the week since last Monday's storm, I didn't hold out hope that all of the snow had melted.

Beat at King Lake. Note the bare calves and rolled-up sleeves. We were both overheated. It felt downright summery in the forest below the lake, although I later learned the high in Nederland was 51 degrees. It was probably just 35 to 40 degrees at 12,000 feet.

Post-holing our way to the Divide.

Looking toward James Peak, feeling satisfied about deciding against this more ambitious mountain as the day's destination. It's a steep climb with the switchbacking trail, which was obviously buried.

An icy wind swept down the Divide. I'm used to the prevailing west wind, but this gale came from the north — the direction of the approaching storm. Upon cresting the ridge, the ambience quite suddenly shifted from summer to winter. I put on a shell and pulled a buff over my face. It seemed Beat only had his two-ounce wind jacket and no gloves.

Travel was slow and treacherous up here, with a breakable crust disguising sugary drifts of unknown depth (ranging from ankle- to knee-deep.) While slogging into the icy wind, my breathing became labored and I panicked a little about it. I really think I'm mostly healthy right now, but it's still difficult to gauge my breathing or trust a higher heart rate. I'm not sure how or if I'm going to rebuild that trust. Yes, when working hard, it's normal to feel winded. I know this. And yet even whispers of hard breathing or oxygen deficit set off internal alarms. I don't want to push too hard, yet winter conditions often leave no choice. It will be an ongoing battle, I think, this transition from "sucking wind and crawling" to "tranquil respiration while moving and happy about that" to "breathing fire and scorching ground." If I ever again reach the third step. I remain stoked about the second.

The view near Devil's Thumb Lake. On the slope you can see my and Beat's tracks where we scorched a deep-snow descent. Beat didn't have pants and his poor shins where torn and bleeding from the icy crust. But that was really the worst of the experience. It was a beautiful outing, not easy by any means, and took exactly the six hours that I estimated even though there was a fair amount more snow than I even expected. This may be our last Divide trip for the season, although this would be a decent place to snowshoe when regional avalanche conditions are well in the green.

On Monday morning, as forecast, we were hit with eight inches of heavy, wet snow. In the afternoon the temperature climbed a few degrees above freezing and there were blasts of sunlight through patchy breaks in the clouds. I headed out for a "run" that many times actually did involve a strained shuffling motion through slush. It still feels weird to call 20-minute-miles "running," although I tend to qualify most of my on-foot efforts as runs. Whether I'm pounding out the rare downhill 7-minute-mile or scrambling a rocky uphill 60-minute-mile, my effort level remains fairly consistent. It's the level where my breathing doesn't yet scare me.

Heading into Walker Ranch. Sure, it was Monday afternoon, but I was still surprised no one had been out yet. 

The leaves only recently began to change in this area. I enjoyed catching brief glimpses of color.

Snow makes everything so much prettier. I can't grasp why some people, maybe even a majority of people, don't like winter weather. No, the reality that there are people who don't want to put on gaiters and strain to move slower than two miles per hour up a hill is something I'll never understand.

South Boulder Creek.

Looking through Eldorado Canyon, toward Denver and the Plains. Looks like they got some snow, too!

Weirdly my legs were quite a bit more sore after these six miles than 16 miles in the mountains on Sunday. A good reminder that I don't have the slogging fitness dialed in just yet. But if we continue to have this perfect mix of heat and snow, I'll get there.
Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Fog, leaves and thundersnow

I was laboring up a knoll near 10,500 feet when I heard an all-too-familiar crack of thunder directly overhead. Familiar, and yet so out of context that I stopped pedaling and did a double take toward the dark clouds billowing over a nearby mountain ridge. The temperature was just a notch north of freezing, and the rocky road was coated in ice-tinged puddles and patches of snow. 

"Aren't thunderstorms a summer thing? Maybe it was a fighter jet." 

Then I heard another boom, unmistakable. A flash above the clouds that happened seconds earlier was probably lightning. Although still below treeline, the 4WD road traversed a bald ridge, so I was completely exposed. "Babyhead" rocks littered the surface, and my riding had been so pathetically slow that I instinctively stepped off the bike so I could run faster. Near the top of the knoll, the clouds unleashed a barrage of icy precipitation, first in sheets of sleet, then sharp flakes of snow. 

"Thundersnow!" I'd heard of such a thing. I'd never experienced it. Really, I never wanted to experience it. I hate thunder and lightning even when the ensuing precipitation doesn't sting my face and blind me in a whiteout. The road surface angled downhill so I jumped back on my bike. This movement was instantly followed by another deafening boom. My hands were too numb to finesse the brakes and I could barely squint into the blizzard, so I just let the bike go and hoped for the best. There had to be tree cover somewhere close by. The bike bucked and lurched over unseen rocks. I held on for life, all but certain I was going to crash, but I was too frightened to weigh the odds of cracking my skull on a babyhead versus actually being struck by lightning. 

The swirling snow put a nice touch on those few chaotic seconds. I rolled beneath a thick canopy of pine and opened my eyes. At some point I must have bounced through a big puddle, because my entire lower body was coated in mud. Globs of ice clung to my tights. The snowfall was losing intensity and rumbling thunder already sounded far away. 

It was short-lived excitement, but intense. I'd say my brush with thundersnow was cool, but no, it was just frightening. And I was already bonked from battling babyheads to the top of a mountain. And now I was soaked and freezing precipitation was still falling from the sky. And I had a 5,000-foot descent in front of me. 

 Before that thundery Sunday ride, I had a couple of days that were completely different. I'd planned to do my long ride on Friday, but the day's thick fog and rain were wholly uninspiring. That was, until I coaxed myself out for a tough run over the home mountains, where the deep canyons and burns were nicely accentuated by spooky haze. Even though biking is killing me and regular running still hurts, I'm in fantastic shape for steep climbing right now. I went ahead and had fun with this run by smashing my PR on two tough segments, even though I was in the midst of a four-hour effort.

 My parents were driving home from a vacation in the Black Hills, and dropped into Boulder for just over a day. We did the obligatory leaf-viewing tour on Saturday. The aspens were a bit past peak on the Peak to Peak Highway — although they probably never had much of a chance given how wet the latter half of September had been.

 This is the best I could get for my Colorado leaf views this year. Oh well. No one can say I didn't try.

 Dad and I were going to hike on Sunday, but they decided to leave early after hearing Monday's weather forecast — calling for up to 18 inches of snow in the mountains and guaranteed road closures and chaos on I-70 (all of which came to pass.) So I set out in the late morning for the long ride I'd been avoiding all week. The day started out beautiful — sunny, warm, no wind, and classic Colorado singletrack through the autumn forests.

I had a chance to explore some new-to-me trails, but did grow weary of maneuvering with crowds of cyclists. Mountain bikers seem to concentrate in the area's small pockets of singletrack, which I suppose makes sense. It's not really for me, though. The trails can be fun, but they feel limiting. Give me the wide-open spaces and forgotten back roads rippling toward who knows where. That's where I long to be.

 Of course, the backroads are where I started to fall apart. Every time I explore new forest roads around here, I get so frustrated with the effort. What looks like a reasonable amount of climbing on a map is in reality an intermittent mix of horribly steep and mostly flat, all littered with loose babyhead rocks that require continuous bursts of power and make pedaling uphill all but impossible for me. I have hiked most of five miles to climb such roads in the past, but on Sunday I was feeling bold and determined to put my recent climbing strength to good use. The power bursts lasted a few good miles. I even impressed a jeep driver when I blasted through the woods to avoid his vehicle, causing him to comment through his open window, "That's some ride!"

Then I bonked, rather epically. Complete with lactic-acid-flooded legs, sore forearms, and dizziness. Then there was stumbling, and soft-pedaling, and more hiking, all while wondering if I'd ever reach the top of this apparently endless hill. And then the thunder came.

 Picture now a cyclist who's bonked, soaked to the skin, shivering from a lightning scare, at 10,000 feet, and it's snowing. There was nothing left to do but descend into town, nearly 5,000 feet lower. As I lost elevation, the road surface smoothed out and turned to gravel. The snow turned to rain, and then heavy rain. The wind picked up. I put on all of the layers I brought with me, having planned for the possibility of 35 degrees and rain. But nothing actually shields against 35 degrees and rain — short of a Helly Hansen waterproof fishermen suit, that is. I know this, but I still imagine that I can dress to stay warm when it's 35 degrees and raining, even if I'm coasting downhill for most of an hour. No, I cannot. I can only suffer. It was an exquisite misery, really. So encompassing that the only thing I could do was embrace it.

Finally I was in Boulder and the rain had stopped. I still had a 2,000-foot climb toward home. I've never been so without energy and yet so grateful for a 2,000-foot climb. I stopped at Chapman trailhead to replace my sopping mittens with a dry pair. It took me most of 10 minutes to unclasp my backpack and switch out the mittens, such was the numbness of my extremities. I was still shivering and heavily bundled up as I climbed, when I was passed by a guy wearing shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. I must have looked quite silly to him.

 By Monday morning, the snow storm had reached our house. Our last winter storm was May 18, so it had been four months and 14 days between snows. I joked that I thought the drought was never going to end. Actually, I enjoy living somewhere where I might only have to wait four months between snowstorms (Knowing, of course, that this is Colorado, and not only will be 60 degrees again in a few days, but also might be in February as well.)

 I wanted to take advantage of the big snowfall to launch true winter training with the best slog-fest I could muster. Wednesday offered such a chance, with 18 inches of new snow in the mountains and temperatures predicted to hit the high 50s. Do you know what it's like to trudge for six hours through slush that has reached roughly the density of liquid lead? Most don't, because most wouldn't bother. I didn't see a soul on the trail.

 It was an absolutely gorgeous day, though. Sure, I could have waited a few days for the snow to just melt. But what would be the fun in that?

Since I was breaking trail, I loosely followed the Arapahoe Glacier Trail to the saddle below South Arapahoe Peak. Conditions were iffy enough and the climb had taken long enough — six miles in four hours — that I opted to skip the tricky route-finding on the class 2 scramble to the summit. Instead I sat on a rock and enjoyed my "lunch" (an expired organic nut bar that Beat brought home from Google at some point, and a small Rice Krispy Treat.) I rested for at least ten minutes, still just wearing a light long-sleeved shirt, no gloves and no hat. My lower body was predictably soaked from the deep slush, but the afternoon was so warm that my legs were hot. At 13,000 feet. In October. After a major snowstorm. That's Colorado.

After I started down, a single cloud sank into the ridge, and then I was in an incredibly disorienting whiteout for a half hour. Light definition was bad enough that I couldn't make out my own snowshoe tracks on the ground, so I relied on staring at my GPS to find the way (I'm always fearful of stepping off a cliff if I wander "off trail," even though this is a gentle ridge.) Eventually I started having bouts of vertigo and knelt down briefly to re-orient my body — meaning reorienting which way was up toward the sky and which way was down toward the ground. Such a weird thing to experience on such a warm, sunny day. But these are the mountains.

 Where the ridges were wind-drifted and manageable, the trail below treeline had become incredibly slushy in the afternoon. It was basically a thin layer of snow atop six inches of Slurpee. Finding correct footing through the rocks while sliding all over the place was the true challenge for the day. But, I continued to tell myself, great training for the stabilizer muscles. First slog of the season is always one of the best.