Saturday, May 22, 2021

I could write a long book about time and space

I've been reading "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan, and I have to say — I've found a surprising amount of comfort in his simple yet satisfying ruminations on astronomy and the human condition. I was too young to have seen the original television series and still a teenager when Sagan died, so I admit I'd never heard of the famous astronomer until 2015 or so. I was listening to a radio program about Voyager. In a voice recording, Sagan described the reasoning behind the images and sounds stored on the golden record that scientists launched into space. I was driving across Nevada at the time, traversing a windswept basin and crying full tears at the thought of this tiny time capsule of human endeavor swirling through the infinite void. 

"Billions of years from now our sun, then a distended red giant star, will have reduced Earth to a charred cinder. But the Voyager record will still be largely intact, in some other remote region of the Milky Way galaxy, preserving a murmur of an ancient civilization that once flourished — perhaps before moving on to greater deeds and other worlds — on the distant planet Earth." — Carl Sagan 

 Amid all of the hope-crushing events of the past year — the pandemic and all of the mean pushback, Fire Summer 2020, election season, the Jan. 6 insurrection, ongoing world conflict and sickness, intensifying climate change, etc., etc. — I find I take the most heart in this simple idea: That I am an infinitesimal being in an infinite universe. My machinations and striving, my mistakes and ambitions, all are mere flashes of light and cosmic dust. And yet I'm part of a world where everything is unique, everything is beautiful, and everything is worthy of awe. Life gifted me with the perspective to experience this beauty in my unique way, but life gifted all living things with this perspective on some level. Life will go on long after I'm gone. This truth brings me comfort. 

Cosmic existentialism and the wisdom of Carl Sagan have been on my mind as Beat has been battling his own recent existential crisis. He taught me a new word: "Weltschmerz," which is German for "world-weariness" or the sadness one feels while perceiving the pain of the world. The Germans have a word for every complex emotion, don't they? Beat's been feeling particularly sad about the state of the pandemic in India. He donated to a charity that's working to help Indian people directly, but it doesn't feel like enough. He laments that he hasn't done more to have a greater impact on humanity. He wonders if life can have purpose without at least trying to change the world for the better. Is it enough to impact just one life? What about one's own life? 

We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers." — Carl Sagan

Asking myself what makes a meaningful life is what got me through my anxiety episodes in February. I'd go for long walks through frosty subzero air and ponder how I could emerge from my own turbulent psychology. When the inexplicable jitters became too overwhelming, I'd soothe myself by imagining a camera panning out until the world was a speck in the glittering expanse of interstellar space. From this vantage my existence was abundantly simple: I'm a life form who needs to experience life. I'm an intelligent life form grasping for a better understanding of The Truth. I'm a creative life form with an innate compulsion to make sense of this search through stories. And I'm one of 7.6 billion in a flawed species flailing through our collective adolescence. I do not need to be a great person, but I do need to be a good person — or at least I need to continue to try to be a good person, through all of the ego and personality glitches and humanness built into my flawed mind.  

"Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere." — Carl Sagan

And I need to keep moving. My mind craves motion almost as much as it craves air — the space to run from excess noise, to reach beyond entrenched beliefs, to perceive both the immediate moment and the infinite space within. For years I believed I needed goals to find fulfillment in otherwise aimless wanderings. Then the aimlessness of 2020 taught me that I don't need goals or even good stories to tell; motion for the sake of motion is enough. I thought this insight might be enough to end my year-long ambivalence about returning to racing, but it did the opposite. I'm excited to return to racing. I'm eager to embrace old ambitions and again pursue old goals. Racing still offers useful perimeters to stretch my preconceived limits. Racing is still a reliable avenue for adventure. Also, a tangible goal does help my brain convince the stubborn old body that we need to continue this rigamarole. 

Which is a very long way of saying that I am "in training" once again. And again, rather than working to become conventionally stronger or faster, I'm sharpening the old mental endurance tools. This week presented good opportunities to put in long hours on my bike, so I headed to Buena Vista for a brief but robust exploration of the Ark Valley. 

“We live on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way Galaxy which is one of billions of other galaxies which make up a universe which may be one of a very large number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. That is a perspective on human life and our culture that is well worth pondering.” — Carl Sagan

My first ride was a solo 118-mile meander along the old railroad route beside the Arkansas River, wrapping around Twin Lakes, and proceeding toward the wind-blasted climb to Independence Pass. Cold gusts buffeted my bike as I tucked in as much as I could. I live in the Front Range so I'm used to headwinds, but the eastern edge of the Continental Divide is home to a particularly challenging wall of westerlies. I'd brought a puffy jacket and mittens but they did little to cut the breathtaking chill. Physically I was pretty miserable, but the old brain is getting better and better at discounting mundane discomforts. There was nobody around for seeming miles and I relished the solitude. I was gasping, straining, feeling hot blood coursing through legs wrapped in icy skin as I lifted my chin a few inches off the stem to squint into the sublime. 

“We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.” — Carl Sagan

With a few thousand rotations of two wheels, metabolizing carbohydrates and caffeine, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, recirculating water, firing countless neurons to generate muscle contractions — I made it to Independence Pass! At this point, I was chilled to the core and not looking forward to the long descent. Instead, I extended discomfort by sitting cross-legged on the icy pavement and eating the enormous sandwich that I assembled at home earlier that morning. It felt like a long time ago in a place far away. 

The descent with a stiff tailwind wasn't as painful as I'd anticipated. I enjoyed the opportunity to focus less on generating meager pedal power and more on the powerful freedom of chasing the world as it unrolled in front of me. At times I accelerated in perfect harmony with the 30-plus mph wind and all was calm, silent, as tranquil as outer space. 

Riding south toward Buena Vista meant being buffeted by crosswinds for miles afterward. I admit this was becoming tedious. By the time I finally turned east, the evening had settled. The wind finally lost steam, just in time to provide no benefit for the final uphill grind. My original plan had been to take Highway 285 and scoot back to camp as quickly as possible. I'd already ridden 105 miles and the Independence Pass headwind alone sucked away at least two days' worth of energy. But the highway at 5 p.m. on a Friday night was soul-crushing ... not to mention legitimately dangerous ... so I veered off on an unplanned detour — part of the route I planned to ride with friends the following day. It snaked up a ribbon of singletrack before climbing high into the hills on a steeply graded forest road. 

Is it fair to say I loved this part of the ride most of all? It was more than a bit ridiculous, this sandy mire of a climb that brought tears to my eyes and full rebellion from my overworked heart. Sometimes I just stopped pedaling without making a conscious decision to do so. Then I'd walk for a while. Then with a furrowed brow of determination, I'd hop back on the bike and declare out loud that I hoped this climb went all the way back to 12,000 feet for no reason. I was going to climb it all and love every sand-choked mile. This exhilarating embrace of pain finally collapsed after I'd descended through quiet meadows occupied by dozens of mule deer, lulled back into complacency before I crossed the highway. The final three miles of the day followed a road so badly corrugated that I nearly lost a filling amid the painful chattering of my teeth. At one point I stopped and forced back tears as I yelled like a toddler, cursing the unfairness of this washboarded mess that only brought purposeless pain and bone-rattling desperation. I just wanted to be back at my quiet camp along a gurgling arm of Trout Creek, where I was so looking forward to a box of Annie's Mac and Cheese that I didn't even mind that I forgot to bring a spoon and had to scoop my dinner with a folded tuna packet.

On Saturday morning, I returned to town to meet Betsy and Erika for an 80-mile ride. Our loop headed back into the hills and south to Salida. We started with the same 15-mile stretch that I rode to reach my camp the previous night. The climb was a lot easier with renewed glycogen stores and rested muscles, but the washboard still sucked. 

Betsy pedals the sandy road with the Collegiate Peaks in the background. 

We climbed onto the high basin of South Park, an otherworldly region of rolling sandhills and grassland all above 9,000 feet. This road is part of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a section I hadn't seen since 2009 since I dropped out of the 2015 race in Silverthorne. I was struck by how familiar this place felt, complete with foreboding skies and gusty sprinkles that I was certain I'd experienced in this exact location, in this exact way. The little déjà vus in life are interesting, aren't they? To me, they're unsettling, because they reveal just how flawed memory can be. My brain must constantly rewrite its stories to match present perceptions. Or maybe, just maybe, consciousness expands beyond my body and into the multiverse. Childish interpretations of quantum physics have boosted me through many difficult moments in life. When racing a thunderstorm across an exposed prairie, it's better to imagine having already escaped it. 

Eventually, the storm moved on but we continued to fight mighty headwinds to the crest of Cameron Mountain Pass. There I enjoyed another enormous sandwich that I purchased at a gas station in town. What's funny about that gas station is that I visited it once before in January, when the pandemic was raging through Colorado. The place was packed with customers and not a single one wore a mask. There were people wearing helmets and full-body snowmobile suits and no masks. On this lovely spring morning, it was just me and the clerk, both wearing masks. What can I say? I like the anonymity of masks. Also, I don't trust anyone anymore. 

From there we enjoyed 10 free miles, a 3,000-foot descent into Salida. Everyone was feeling cooked by the wind, so I proposed heading to my friend Dave's house. Dave, a friend from Fairbanks who spent the pandemic year in Salida to be closer to family, was throwing a barbecue before heading back to Alaska to work for the summer. The timing worked out well to join the party for a couple of hours before riding back to Buena Visita. Since Dave moved to Colorado, we'd thrown around the idea of riding together, but it never happened because the logistics of travel and meeting always felt like this impossible barrier. I remember last May when it wasn't even legal to ride my bicycle beyond Boulder County limits. It seems so long ago now. 

This was, however, my first "party" in more than a year. I tried to remember the last ... it must have been in Alaska, in February 2020. That definitely seems like a long, long time ago. Dave welcomed us into a small group in the backyard. We were a bit buzzed on endorphins and fatigue, and I felt downright intoxicated as I drank La Croix and carried on conversations in this casual yet surreal social setting. 

Before parting ways, my friends requested a hug. That was a first since March 2020 as well — physical contact with a human who wasn't Beat, my parents, or my sisters ... or my medical providers, to make a fair comparison. I balked for a moment — I admit to being a reluctant hugger even in the Before Times. So it surprised me how good this felt — a hit of oxytocin that I've largely deprived myself for much of a year. 

“In all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.” — Carl Sagan

With bellies full of food and beer (in my case, ginger beer), we moved slowly toward the rest of the loop. Erika opted to catch a ride with her partner, who drove down from Buena Vista. Betsy and I pedaled north on secondary highways for what turned out to be 30 more miles and another 2,500 feet of climbing. Betsy doesn't like riding high-traffic roads and also expressed reluctance to riding in the dark, so I felt like we were racing the clock. But it was a beautiful evening, cool air tinged with warm light. It was a favorite day. After the depletion of the past year, Spring 2021 has filled with a relative glut of such days. 

The past week's third opportunity for a long ride came Thursday. I set out to ride Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, a classic Colorado spring ride. Like Independence Pass, there's usually a short window after the pavement has been cleared of snow but before the route is open to cars when cyclists can ride free from traffic. I love this easy accessibility to the high country in the late spring — a time of year when all high-altitude hiking is mired in rotten snow and wet slide danger — so I try to take advantage of these brief windows. 

The 4,500-foot climb from the park entrance to the 12,183-foot high point was uneventful, besides the usual spring challenges of fierce wind and stunning cold. Instead of putting on a jacket, I thought I'd use the chill as motivation to urge my legs into a harder effort. Still, without even consciously deciding to back off, I relaxed after just a few miles. Since March my activity levels have increased, topping 20 hours of moving time most weeks. This steady-state endurance is my favorite sort of fitness, but it definitely eats into any semblance of a high end. Of course, I wish I could both set PRs and pedal for hours without feeling fatigued. But if I have to choose one, it's going to be the latter. 

There is considerably more snow than I've seen up here in past spring rides, even though I usually make it up to Trail Ridge by early May. Snowpack in this region is sitting at 121% of normal, mostly on the strength of spring snow, while the state is still a paltry 69% and locked in drought. I still have low faith that we'll make it through the upcoming fire season unscathed (meaning a normal fire season as opposed to another historic fire season, which is becoming the new normal) ... but the recent surplus rain and snow in this corner of the state has kept me blissfully content. That and finding more time and freedom to move through the world as I please. And seeing my parents and friends on a more timely basis. And adopting more hopeful personal goals for the future. And also CBD ... I doubled my intake shortly after my anxiety episodes in February, and everything since has really fallen into place. Coincidence? Yeah, probably. But I am grateful for CBD, placebo or not. 

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness ..." 

Sagan wrote this prescient paragraph shortly before his death in 1996. In Cosmos, he laments several times about the progress we as a civilization lost when we rejected or destroyed great repositories of knowledge such as the culture of Classical Greece and the Library of Alexandria. A thinker during the height of the Cold War, Sagan baffled over our zeal for war and our mutually assured destruction. Like Sagan, I believe humanity has great potential, but fear that we won't make it through our volatile adolescence — clinging to tribalism and violence, to regressive superstitions, to the cancerous inevitabilities of progress for the sake of progress. When I consider my ennui during the Trump years and my subsequent desire to zoom my perspective as far from civilization as possible — I realize that this fear is at the heart of it all. 

“Once we lose our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe which dwarfs — in time, in space, and in potential — the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors.” — Carl Sagan

Then I swing back to Voyager, pressing deeper into an unfathomable void and carrying a story of humanity that has the potential to outlast even Earth itself. Voyager launched on August 20, 1977 — two years to the day before I was born. For my upcoming birthday, maybe instead of an ego-driven effort to celebrate myself, I'll celebrate that tiny hopeful relic traveling through space for 44 years and counting. This is the way I hold onto hope — knowing that beauty goes on. The stories we share go on. And despite our best efforts to destroy what we don't understand, the truth goes on.

“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true.” — Carl Sagan 
Thursday, May 13, 2021

May snow

Life in Colorado feels like it's simultaneously always winter and never winter. Sometimes I'll scramble to the top of South Boulder Peak wearing a T-shirt in December. January is often one of my "fastest" months because it's dry and cool and the weather forecasts are reliable enough that I can get away with carrying almost nothing. February often brings the first subzero spells, but sometimes those come in October. March, April, and May have all of the snow — that is, until May shifts into Hail of Destruction — one of 12 official seasons in Colorado. By July, nearly every long bike ride requires a waterproof bag full of winter gear in case I need to wait out a thunderstorm while huddling beneath a rock. The 2020-2021 snowfall season spanned from September 8 to (at least) May 11, but within this eight-month "winter" was one of the state's worst fire summers on record. Colorado weather may be bipolar, but it's never uninteresting. 

First Summer burned through the region in early April. May 1 brought Second Summer ... summer, in my book, is any day that the temperature spikes above 80 degrees. My mom and dad drove out from Salt Lake City for a brief weekend visit — now that everyone is fully vaccinated, we're starting to make up for the missed holidays of 2020. Saturday was May Day and called for a high of 84 degrees. Beat was eager to show my Dad his favorite local routes, starting with a loop to Twin Sister's Peak and along Gross Reservoir. Twin Sisters was an enjoyable jaunt with a slippery slush scramble to reach the summit.

Then we had to pick our way along the reservoir, which is very low right now. (We can't figure out why. South Boulder Creek just below the dam is raging, so they are releasing a lot of water.) The traverse is this off-camber slope of loose boulders and looser sand, slipping and scrambling around rock outcroppings to reach the tick-infested upper shoreline. Dad was a good sport about this mess of a "hike." I tend to be less enthusiastic about Beat's off-trail routes, but I will concede it was a fun day out. It was also funny to see how surly Beat became when we returned to an established trail at Walker Ranch and had to — gasp — hike near other people. 

Sunday's weather forecast was much more volatile, calling for afternoon thunderstorms shifting to snow overnight. My mom really wanted to hike to Bear Peak, the spot where Beat and I were married in September. Mom has been dealing with a shoulder injury that has prevented her from being as active as usual and often has issues with altitude, so I blocked out two hours for the three-mile trek. I proposed leaving at 9 a.m. to ensure we'd be back by 11 a.m. ... storms were forecast to arrive between 2 and 3 p.m. Beat and Dad took off for another of Beat's off-trail adventures. Mom and I drove to the trailhead and hit the trail at 9:15 a.m. She started out a bit fast, and we made it just over a mile when she said she was feeling faint. We took a couple of breaks. We were within a quarter-mile and about 400 vertical feet of the summit when she requested a longer rest. The sky still looked like this — mostly clear with distant dark clouds along the horizon. It was just after 10 a.m. 

This last pitch of the west ridge is very steep, and even the long break didn't help Mom feel much better. She was determined to make it, though. I kept looking back at the sky that was rapidly darkening to the west. We took a few more steps and more rests. I set a turn-around time of 10:30. But by 10:15, I looked back to see two flashes of lightning peel through an inky purple horizon. This is not an exaggeration — the sky went from the blue in the previous photo to this — effectively the same vantage point — in just 15 minutes. In the summertime, I've seen afternoon thunderstorms move in fast, but it caught me completely off guard on Sunday — so early in the season, and in the morning. I reluctantly told Mom we needed to turn around — we just wouldn't have time to make the summit.

She wanted me to connect with Dad and Beat in case they were waiting for us on Bear Peak. So I sprinted the final 400-foot climb in such a hurry that my lungs were burning and I felt dizzy myself by the time I reached the summit. Dad and Beat weren't there. When I turned around, the storm was right on top of us. It was already too late. For nearly a mile, the trail traversed this exposed ridge, an old burn area with no shelter. Bear Peak is objectively one of the worst places to be when a thunderstorm hits Boulder. Purple Mammatus clouds billowed overhead, building into a powerful hailstorm. I hadn't even caught my breath from the climb when I broke into a downhill sprint. My brain was sending "run for your life" signals that enable me to override my fear of tripping and falling. I skipped down the stair-like rocks at a breathtaking pace — it would have been exhilarating if it wasn't so terrifying.  

When I met back up with Mom, she had already donned her coat. I was grateful to see she had a heavy raincoat — some sort of wax-coated material, it was long and solid and would stand up a lot better to what was coming than the three-ounce wind jacket that I was carrying. We hiked about 500 yards before hail began to pelt us in force. Flashes of lightning streaked through the sky. I'd count the seconds until thunder — five. Four. We reached one of the final clusters of standing dead trees, where I stopped to put on my jacket. Mom had a long-sleeve cotton hoodie in her amazing grab bag — seriously, how lucky am I that Mom was so prepared? When we had our wedding up here, I carried a backpack with ten headlamps and ten puffies just in case anyone got cold. But when it mattered, it was my mom saving my skin. In this case, quite literally. The extra material from the hoodie helped buffer the stinging hail, even though I was already soaked. I paused under the trees a little longer, contemplating if we should try to wait out the storm. But the skeleton forest offered no protection from lightning. Nothing up here could. Our best bet was to keep moving. 

Mom held it together well. Hail accumulated on the ground and turned an already tricky trail into an icy slip-and-slide. I'm more prone to panic and probably would have sprinted until I ended up splat on my face, but Mom was adamant about maintaining a slower pace and not falling. I showed her how to side-step to improve traction. As I was doing this, Dad and Beat caught up from behind. Both of them were very cold, and Dad's hands weren't working well anymore. But it seemed like the worst was behind us. The seconds between lightning flashes and thunder were widening. The hail was tapering into heavy rain. 

Beat and I started to explain the lightning stance — the position to take when a strike seems imminent. Crouch down, place your hands over your ears, raise your heels so only the balls of your feet have contact with the ground, and press your heels together so if lightning hits the ground, it will likely pass through one foot and exit out the other. Also, toss any conductors like trekking poles away. Before we went through these steps, we told Dad that signs of an imminent lightning strike were hairs standing on end, tingling skin, "or buzzing and popping from metallic things like your jacket zipper."

Seconds after we mentioned the step about tossing away trekking poles, Dad threw his poles to the ground and sputtered in a strange, fear-stricken tone, "Like this?" Beat and I looked back, confused for a few seconds, and then Dad broke out into uproarious laughter. It took him a few more seconds to stop laughing while confusion reigned. Dad caught his breath and told us that just as we finished our speech, his GPS watch buzzed to indicate a completed mile. But when he felt buzzing, he thought it was electricity in the air.

The mood continued to lighten, but it was clear we were all shaken by the storm. One of my neighbors, a 30-plus-year resident of the area, said she'd never witnessed a storm come on so fast in our neighborhood. People down in Boulder were also caught out by the rapid-fire hail. It was a crazy fluke of a spring storm, but I still felt contrite for putting my mother through this. "I should know Colorado better by now." 

She didn't mind. "It was an adventure."

The following morning, we woke up to three inches of snow. As my parents packed up their Toyota Camry to head home to Salt Lake, I confirmed that there was a passenger vehicle traction law on I-70 and they'd have to head north to Wyoming ... by far not their preferred route. I could almost see a "WTF" caption beneath the scene as Dad scraped ice off his windshield. To recap, my parents arrived on Friday evening to seasonal (60s) spring sunshine. On Saturday the heat soared into the mid-80s, Sunday brought violent thunderstorms, and by Monday there was snow. 

Four days. Four seasons. "It's the full Colorado experience," I offered. 

The snow hung on through Tuesday morning, offering lovely views over coffee.

I go for the same run almost every Tuesday, since I'm always on deadline and usually only have an hour to spare. This Tuesday run was especially enjoyable, although the road was so slick with mud that I sometimes stomped through the snow chunks off to the side. 

By Thursday it was warm again. The snow was gone and creeks were raging. 

On Friday it was really warm, once again calling for temperatures in the 80s. A couple of months ago, in an action I effectively don't remember, I signed up for an overnight camp spot in Rocky Mountain National Park on May 7. When I received the reminder e-mail, I pieced together that the national park opened up backcountry campsite registration, and by the time I looked, an alarming number of days had filled up. But when I checked early-season dates, I found the Boulderfield open on this particular Friday night. Boulderfield is a high-altitude (12,000 feet) alpine site, typically used by folks climbing Longs Peak. I thought, "How awesome would it be to snow camp up there? That will probably still be doable on May 7." And there is still a lot of snow cover in RMNP, but temperatures were not predicted to drop below freezing — even at 12,000 feet — for several nights in a row. Imagining the slush slog, punching all the way through thigh-deep rotten snow, was enough to deter me from this trip. Planning backpacking trips so far in advance is pretty dumb. It annoys me that the permit system forces your hand — and makes you pay $30 for the privilege of likely canceling a trip due to weather or conditions. (But at least I can get an overnight permit from Rocky Mountain National Park. I have had no luck trying to work with the esoteric system in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, which still conducts requests over the phone.) 

I consoled myself with a 10-hour bike ride through the mud and flowing streams on the back roads of Boulder County. I brought no extra layers and a lot of water because I thought it would be hot, but it was surprisingly cloudy and cool. Damn it. Shoulda gone to Rocky. (Actually, the west wind was fierce and the sky looked like it was brewing thunder all day, so I was glad to not be parked at 12,000 feet.)

The weather remained unsettled through the weekend when I joined Beat for the last 10 miles of his 50K training run. He's running a hundred-miler in Southern Colorado on June 4 — his first race since the start of the pandemic. I have a few tentative summer ambitions. First on this list is Summer Bear, a 260-mile self-supported bike adventure in Steamboat Springs in early July. (I raced a 200-mile version in 2019. It's harder than advertised.) But it's still hard to wrap my head around "racing." So much of the past 14 months has been about survival and waiting and coping. The optimistic, future-forward thinking involved with planning and training for a race just doesn't compute. 

When it's springtime in Colorado, the only certainty is rapid change. And sure enough, on May 10 we woke up to renewed snow! Sad daffodils are one of my favorite images for such an occasion: the bright, cheery yellows of springtime bowing against a wash of wintry grays.

My boring ol' Tuesday run was again more lively than usual. The route was pure mud and slush and I was boot-skiing all over the place. 

It sure was pretty, though. 

Most of the snow was gone by Tuesday evening. I was shuttling dishes into the kitchen after dinner when I was startled by the presence of a massive brown bulk of an animal standing no more than six feet away from the house. He swung around and I realized it was a big bull moose. I called Beat over and we stood in the kitchen for nearly a half-hour, watching the moose browse the newly budded greens from our bushes before plopping down to nap and digest. It was a lot of fun to watch a large wild animal do his thing at such close range from the safety of the kitchen. He was still around on Wednesday morning, but I haven't seen him since.

Rocky Mountain National Park received a reported 14-18 inches of new snow in the May 10-11 storm. I thought that sounded like a recipe for awesome snowshoeing conditions — honestly, I can't really say why the same brain that talks me out of warm slushy conditions thinks a foot of heavy spring powder sounds fun. I talked Beat into taking a day off to hike in Wild Basin, but after scrolling through what little information we could find about current avalanche conditions, and finding a few iffy spots on the CalTopo map, we decided that valley was too risky. We were going to compromise with a trip up low-angle Niwot Ridge, but as soon as we pulled into the trailhead we both balked at the thought of slogging through the same ol'. Suddenly we found ourselves continuing up to Brainard Lake. Plan C, which wasn't a plan until we were there, was Mount Audubon — also low-angle terrain, but so high, and so far away, and so blasted by fearsome wind all of the time. 

From the winter trailhead at Brainard Lake, we started up the unplowed road. Skiers had broken a trail for the first two miles, but the snow was so soft that even the packed surface didn't provide much support. After that, we were on our own for the next 4.5 miles and 2,500 feet of climbing. I know; that doesn't sound like much. But imagine that distance through a foot of fresh snow, heavy with springtime moisture, rapidly melting in the 40-degree sunshine. Then you climb above treeline, where the temperature dips below freezing and a 25-40 mph wind nearly whips you off your feet. Every step is a battle. Beat took this photo of me that I think depicts the struggle well:

"At least there's no lightning," was one of the thoughts that I had. After that, I was too bonked for coherent thought. 

It took four hours of steady, strenuous snowshoeing to reach the saddle about 600 feet below the 13,200-foot summit. By then the wind was so strong that it likely would have taken another hour to reach the peak — mostly crawling on all fours, picking out solid footing in a minefield of hollow spindrift and boulders. We decided to call it at the saddle. 

There are still gorgeous views up there, looking west across the Continental Divide at 12,600 feet. 

And north toward Longs Peak and RMNP.

Any day where I get to put on all of these layers and battle a fearsome chill is a good day. All the better if it's May 12. I think I'm just about braced and ready for summer. Almost. 
Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Magic lands

This is my dad's favorite place. He revisits it every spring to soak some sunshine into his winter-weary legs. I've joined him three or four times over the past two decades, and it's started to seem almost eerie, the way nothing changes: the convoluted maze of spires and crevices carved into Cedar Mesa sandstone. The aroma of sage so strong I can almost taste its bittersweet leaves in the air. The spring-bar canvas tent, strong and stoic against blasts of red sand. And my dad, scrambling over rock shelves and jumping across chasms as though he'll never grow old. I think about how he was just a little bit older than I am now when I first followed him on these trails, twenty-something years ago. 

Canyonlands National Park, like most public lands, was closed in spring 2020, so Dad hasn't been back for two years. In my mind, his decades-long tradition hasn't been broken. I don't know about you, but I find myself already writing off 2020 as a year that didn't happen. I talk about things that happened in 2019 and refer to them as "last year." A friend asked me when I last hiked in the desert with my dad, and I said, "two years ago." It was April 2018. Indeed, since we canceled Grand Canyon and didn't go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, it's been almost 18 months since Dad and I embarked on a long hike together. It feels like a blink in time. It's almost as though I wished for unbroken normalcy, and my brain responded by sweeping the problematic threads from memory. Perhaps I'm not the only one casting dark curtains over a difficult year ... even though, in truth, "2020" is far from over. 

Indeed, things aren't like they used to be, are they? Beat and I were just two days removed from Pfizer number two when we set out for a five-day trip to Utah. Knowing we weren't quite "fully" vaccinated, and that caution will be necessary for a while, we planned to remain socially distanced during the camping trip. The one exception was meeting Dad in Moab, where we planned to grab a sandwich at the local Subway. I've walked into plenty of grocery stores and gas stations during the pandemic, but I drew an admittedly arbitrary line at restaurants — even fast food. We walked inside and my anxiety immediately spiked at the visual of people crowded in line and eating at tables without masks. My brain was signaling loudly to get out of here, but just then Dad walked in and gave us a hug. Eeep! I'll admit that I hugged everyone in my family when they came out for our wedding in September, so this wasn't an entirely new post-pandemic experience, nor unexpected. My current aversions to hugs and strangers aren't based on rational risk assessment. But I'm beginning to understand the amount of social anxiety I've acquired in the past 14 months, and it isn't good. Beat has started planning for a trip to Europe in late summer if the vaccination passport thing goes through, and my airport nightmares have already returned. I will need to continue pushing against these reactions lest I travel down the path of full agoraphobia. 

I was grateful to escape Moab for the comforting realm of the high desert. We found a secluded yet convenient campsite at the edge of Lockhart Basin, then determined we still had enough time left in the day for a hike. 

Dad planned to visit all of his favorites, which is effectively the entire front country of the Needles District of Canyonlands. In this map, I superimposed my Strava tracks over a trail map from the park. We basically only missed a few connector trails. In three days, the three of us clambered over rocks and trudged through sand for 45 miles. Dad headed home and Beat and I did a 20-miler on Saturday for 65 miles. Every mile was pure gold. 

For our Wednesday afternoon hike, we headed out the high mesa toward a rim overlooking the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. This was Beat's first-ever visit to Canyonlands. In 2011 he ran the Slickrock 100, which followed a course along the mesa surrounding Island in the Sky. But the race route never ventured into the park, and as far as I know, that has been his only visit to the region. 

It was fun to watch his reaction to the views as we made our way over and down the serpentine ripples of rock encompassing Needles. This place is effectively an enormous jungle gym playground surrounded by stunning views. 

Looking toward the snow-capped La Sals. 

And back toward the sandstone spires that earned Needles its name.

Dad at the confluence overlook. There's a stark delineation where the silty Green merges with the copper-toned Colorado. 

Pfizer number two wasn't treating me well on this day. After sweating out my fever on Monday night, I thought I was mostly over it by mid-day Tuesday. A few muscle aches remained, but surely I'd be back to normal by Wednesday. Still, this 10-mile hike was much harder than it should have been. I felt achy, fatigued, and overheated. At times I became especially woozy and took extra care to not lose my balance. When I tried to drink water I felt a bit nauseated. Jerky and a salt tab helped. 

For the Thursday trek, Dad had a little of everything planned. Here we are starting toward Big Spring Canyon.

More wide-eyed wonder from Beat as we approached the heart of the Needles. 

Skirting through a wind-blasted notch above Elephant Canyon. 

The crowd-pleasing joint trail. (Of course, there were no crowds. There were sprinklings of hikers here and there, probably many times more people than what Dad saw in the late-90s. But this is still a quiet corner of the world, many miles away from the conveniences of towns and restaurants and even hotels, open to all but only visited by those who desire it the most.) 

Chesler Park, a truly spectacular spot. Photos don't depict the otherworldly expansiveness of the place. It carries the ambiance of a sci-fi film about an ancient city petrified in stone. 

Climbing Elephant Canyon, with fun technical features that Beat loved. 

Druid Arch. The arch stands perpendicular to the canyon, so you don't see that it's an arch until you climb around an adjacent fin. Dad played his favorite "first-timer" game with Beat, challenging him to guess where the arch was before we got there. I haven't been back to this arch since one of my earliest visits, and I couldn't remember which sandstone tower hid the window. Beat, with an eye sharpened by route-finding in the Alps, picked it out relatively early. 

I'm grateful for the national park and its established routes. This Byzantine ripple of sandstone and valleys would not be navigable without them. At least, not without extensive planning, a map and compass, focused route-finding, and not a small number of technical climbing maneuvers.

I did a Google search for "the convoluted surface of the Earth" to remind me where I'd heard this phrase before, and came up with results for the convoluted surface of the brain. Come to think of it, Canyonlands does remind me of the cerebral cortex. 

We spent four nights in the same campsite, with Dad in his spring-bar and Beat and I sharing a smaller three-person tent from REI. This being spring in the desert, most days and evenings were filled with gusty winds: Nice when hiking under the harsh sun, but less nice when cooking or sitting outdoors. By the final night, a large windstorm coated everything inside the tent in several inches of fine sand. We took 20 minutes to shake out sleeping bags, pillows, and mats, but the film of grit remained. Sand found its way everywhere: In my ears, in my nostrils, in my eyes. Sometimes I dream about road-tripping across the continent and think I'd rather stick to the simplicity of my Subaru and a tent rather than deal with the logistics and expense of a trailer or camper van. But after four days of wind and sand, I can understand the appeal of hard-sided shelters. 

On Friday, we headed out Peekaboo Canyon, a 14-mile jaunt along the ledgy sandstone. 

Dad has all of these bright hiking shirts. I like to think he wears them to make his photographer daughter happy. 

Dad looks toward "The Sentinel," a precarious rock outcropping that presides over Horse Canyon. Each time I visit, it seems as though it's about to topple. And each time, it's still here. 

Beat descends the ladder through a notch. The final few steps are doozies. 

Crossing the cactus beds toward Salt Creek. There were new blooms but surprisingly little water for the height of spring. 

Claret cup cactus. 

This is a spot where Dad wants his ashes spread someday. He's recruited me and Beat, but we joked that he may need to start training his grandkids. His fitness may outlast ours. Hell, he might just outlast The Sentinel. 

Making our way back through Lost Canyon. My vaccine fatigue was mostly gone, but my feet were becoming a mess. After a winter of less running than usual, the softened skin was especially vulnerable to heat and sand. The skin on my heels, ankles, and a few toes was rubbed almost raw. Beat taped my feet. This helped, but ugh ... I haven't experienced foot pain like this since I was a relatively new runner dabbling in 100-milers that I couldn't finish because my feet hurt too much. I have so much work to do to get ready for the summer hiking season: Heel lifts for my Achilles, one-legged squats, hamstring curls, and apparently scuffing my feet with sandpaper every night to toughen them up again. 

Dad needed to head home on Friday, but Beat and I decided to stay through Sunday and squeeze in one more long hike. I mapped out the route through Red Lake Canyon because I thought it would be new to both of us, but Dad reminded me that I hiked to the river with him in 2010. This prompted Beat to ask questions about the route, but I remembered so little. "The climb out of the canyon was long and hot," I offered. "And the river triggered bad memories from Cataract Canyon."

We headed out the Elephant Hill jeep road in the morning, each packing five liters of water.

Fun road. It's better to be on foot than anything else, I think. Even hurty feet. 

Crossing Devil's Lane. From the distance, this looked like a vertical cliff, but there was a relatively benign path snaking up the side. 

Another perpendicular valley at Cyclone Canyon. On the return trip, we would be blasted by hard wind and rolling tumbleweeds through this sand trap. The canyon was aptly named. 

Past Butler Wash, we climbed up and up, which I found perplexing. Where exactly are we going to drop into this canyon?

High above Red Lake Canyon, with the Dollhouse — part of the Maze District, across the Colorado River — on the horizon. 

As we wend our way around sheer dropoffs into the wash below, I fretted about where this trail might lead. We had close to a thousand feet of elevation to lose and less than a mile (as the raven flies) to the river, and I knew it wouldn't be a steady drop. If this was a trail in the Italian Alps, it would just dump us straight down the steepest, chossiest gully imaginable. I was not looking forward to the bruised shins and bloody knees that were sure to follow. But I needn't have worried. Even though we hadn't seen a single hiker since we left the trailhead in the morning, and this place was beginning to feel unnervingly remote, the trail still made friendly (if steep) switchbacks all the way to the valley floor. 

Beat at the Colorado River, just upstream from Brown Betty Rapid, which marks the start of the famous wild ride that is Cataract Canyon. We sat down for a breezy sandwich break. As much as I was dying to, Beat warned me not to put my shredded feet in the river. ("It feels good now, but it just adds to the problems later.") We assessed the current and talked about swimming over to the Dollhouse, not that I could ever coax myself to do such a thing. I'd probably struggle to cross the river in a boat, although I like to believe I could sit in a packraft and do a small amount of paddling without unraveling into a panic attack. When I look at the Colorado River in Canyonlands, all I can see is the darkness encompassing me as I struggled against a strap that had tightened around my neck, pinned beneath a raft underwater after the boat flipped in rapid number five on April 14, 2001. Twenty years ago. I shook my head. I really should be over this my now, but when I think of rafting, all I still see is the wave that was about to engulf us, and Bryan ducking into the bow as he said "This one's gonna get us wet," the roiling whitewater, the roar that was so loud, and then suddenly ... silence. And darkness.

Now I'm terrified of boating, apparently for as long as I live. Curse my stupid brain and its phobias. 

Hiking, even up steep and rocky terrain, is comparatively comfortable and relaxing. The climb back out of the canyon was as long as arduous as I barely remembered, and this was our warmest day of the week with temperatures spiking to 80 degrees. But that blustery spring wind provided enough cooling to keep it tolerable. I was in bliss — a hard grind uphill, surrounded by a stunning and seemingly deserted expanse of space, letting the fatigue of four strenuous days calm my thoughts, moving farther away from the scary river. 

On our way out, we looped around Devil's Kitchen, with many stops to gape at rock formations. Even Beat was stopping, and he never stops. 

I know this is one of my more rambling trip reports. I didn't know what to write about this place. It's pure magic, everywhere you look, around all of the many twisting turns. There's not much more I can say about it. It was wonderful to see it through Beat's first-time eyes, and also share the experience with my father who knows every patch of cryptobiotic soil by now, and who loves the land deeply, and who I've barely seen since the start of the pandemic. By definition, magic is something that can't be deconstructed, so I'll leave it at that.