Wednesday, April 20, 2022

It’s level at the peak

The 2022 Iditarod Trail Invitational. Part one of four.

Rainy Pass, 2022.

Fourteen years. It’s a third of my life, and it’s jarring to realize that I’m as far away from the wide-eyed 28-year-old who first crossed mile zero of the Iditarod Trail, as she was from my ninth-grade self. In many ways, I feel closer to that 14-year-old. She was anxious and insecure, jarred by the sudden distance from the child she once was, and straining to hold onto the assurance of religious beliefs. She’d reach for hope but also quietly ruminate on a future of seemingly inevitable catastrophes for which she’d developed more faith than the glossy, Christian version of the apocalypse she believed as a child. 

Shirley Lake, 2022.

That ninth-grader grew jaded and a bit resigned, but then she wandered North. Here was a vision of renewed hope, a place seemingly far from human destruction — the frozen Alaska backcountry, beautiful and wild, a surreal expanse that held the unbroken silence of a subzero morning and the deafening blast of Arctic winds. Now I see this place in my dreams, when I meditate to calm my brain to sleep, when I wake up blinking and confused, what year is this again? In these moments I see mountains, white and glittering beneath the winter sunlight. Even when the cacophony of life overwhelms my senses, this image grounds me. 

Finn Bear Lake, 2022.

The North seemed inevitable, my “calling.” The Iditarod Trail Invitational, the human-powered race that travels Alaska's most storied trail, was the perfect expression of this passion, a benediction if you will. For nearly a third of my life, I was all in — even through relationship upheavals, health setbacks, career diversions, and relocations. I roped in my partner, who fell harder than I did. He’s returned to mile zero of the Iditarod Trail nearly every year since 2012. So even when I didn’t race, our lives still revolved around preparations for the North. It began to feel like this intense ritual, like going to church on Sunday but for six months out of the year — testing gear, buying supplies, training, and preparing. Burnout began to sear the edges of my passion even before 2020. I feared this lapse of faith, so I doubled down on my commitment to the North with the ultimate challenge — attempting to walk the entire thousand miles to Nome. 

Dragging my sled toward Finger Lake in 2020. Photo by Mark Smith.

 The 2020 Iditarod Trail was a difficult test by any standard. Windchills and then ambient temperatures dipped below minus 40, several feet of snow buried the route, every ITI veteran agreed this year was one of the toughest. I fought because this had become part of my identity, to face the worst Alaska could dish out even when everything else about life frightened me. But this time I went too far; I pushed too hard, let my executive functions falter, fell asleep on my feet, and tumbled into a tree well at 45 below. The snow was so deep that I struggled to pull myself out of the hollow, thrashing through a primal panic as powder packed into my clothing. Once I was free, the subzero cold felt blisteringly painful against my wet skin. My choices at that point were to build a campfire or set up a bivy to shield my exhausted body from the cold and try to sleep away my ongoing hallucinations. I chose the latter because it seemed simpler and faster, and luckily I’d hauled the best gear — my body was overburdened but at least my mind was prepared. But I’d rarely felt so close to the edge. It still frightens me to recall this moment and recognize how near I was to falling through my own cracks into a terrifying void. 

 “This isn’t what I want. Not at all.” I was finally beginning to believe it. 

Rainy Pass, 2022.

I admitted that I wasn’t strong enough to conquer my ultimate challenge and quit the following morning in McGrath. I thought it might be time to walk away for good, but as soon as I left the Iditarod Trail on March 10, 2020, we crashed directly into the upheaval of the global pandemic. For many of us, COVID was an earthquake, rattling us to the core before settling into a quiet desolation. We were all desperate for renewal. My perspective contracted and then broadened. 

 “One more time to Nome. With a bike this time. I did it once; I can do it again.” 

When I signed up it was April 2021 — perhaps the best month of the past two years. The pandemic was waning. Races were restarting. Normalcy was returning. Optimism overflowed. I signed up for summer events and launched joyfully into training in May. But then came June, when my father fell from a mountain ridge and died. Entire decades seemed to collapse at once. Again everything changed. I reverted back to the confusion of my 14-year-old self, reaching toward the divine only to grasp doubt and confusion. I looked longingly toward 28-year-old me, with her perfect faith in adventure, standing on the shoreline of Knik Lake. I envied her, about to plunge into a beautiful and intense wave that would ripple through the next 14 years. But in my grief I lost the flow; all that remained was cold, darkness and turbulence. 

Egypt Mountain, 2022.

So I was going to walk away. Summer was clouded in grief. I didn’t care about much of anything, let alone racing. August and a few weeks in the incredible Swiss Alps began to soften my edges; I wavered back toward the light. At the end of September, I attempted an endurance mountain bike race called the Utah Mixed Epic, but I was so wracked with emotional pain that after 500 miles I all but collapsed in the desert, locked in a terrifying headspace that felt as close to the void as I felt in that tree well in Alaska. Just a couple weeks later, I was hit by a truck. My back hurt for months, enough so that I could barely ride a bicycle, let alone train for a weeks-long endurance race. 

So I was going to walk away. I had every excuse to walk away. But it’s so hard to let go. 

Knik Bar parking lot on February 27, 2022.

This is how I ended up at mile zero of the Iditarod Trail once again, 42 years old, jaded and a bit resigned. I did pull my name off the Nome roster and re-entered the “short” race — Nome was too much, too far, but 315-ish miles to McGrath had the potential to be a fun, cathartic experience if I didn’t take it too seriously. 

There was no way to take it too seriously. My training had been a mess, but I stuck with the bike because I hadn’t done a shred of sled-dragging or strength training to give a walking excursion even a fighting chance. I’d barely even walked in eight weeks — in January I fell down the stairs and broke my toe; it was barely healed. I was concerned about back pain, but even more concerned about mental monsters. Weirdly, I only held passing concern for the real dangers of the trail: Weather, remoteness, cold, unpredictable trail conditions. After 14 years, I’d developed a measure of comfort with these uncertainties, a familiarity with the ever-changing ghost trail. My perspective broadened and then contracted. 

Beat calls this my "deer in the headlights" expression

Beat and I exchanged our “see you in a month or so" kiss and individually took off across the lake — me on my bike, him with his sled, same as it ever was. The day was uncomfortably warm but the first 10 miles of trail were in perfect condition. I fell in line with a pack of twelve or so, following the traditional Iditarod Trail to Burma Road. This was the first time in many years that the bike field chose this undulating route through the hills. 

Amber leads the group on snowmachine trails north of Big Lake.

The rules of this race dictate that racers must hit every checkpoint, but how they get there is up to them. For the past two years, the race director threw a wrench in the ITI's well-established gears with a new checkpoint at a private cabin on Butterfly Lake. The checkpoint stood well north of the Iditarod Trail and had dozens of possible approaches along a complex network of both used and unused trails. There was no way of knowing which combination on the map even existed let alone which was the best choice. Each racer had to pick a line and go from there — a Wordle puzzle of winter navigation. 

Checking out the "trail" on Big Lake on February 25, 2022. 

This year added a third dimension to the challenge with overflow. For weeks the weather had been intensely warm and a decent percentage of the route was underwater, quite literally. Just about the entirety of pre-race chatter focused on how to navigate the first thirty miles. Beat and I drove out to Big Lake two days before the race and confirmed that the most popular 2021 route was a no-go unless we wanted to wade through shin-deep slush for miles. We settled on wrapping around the lake via the Iditarod Trail and Burma Road, which added at least five miles of distance and eight miles of trafficked roads. Beat would have to drag his sled over bare gravel, but even he agreed this was the way to go. 

Pushing up "9 Mile Hill" on the Iditarod Trail. It's a doozy.

Most of the Anchorage locals drew the same conclusion. Those who hadn’t predetermined their route followed us. We rode in a big pack that slowly broke apart as paces and decisions diverged. The day was so warm that it felt more like a social ride in Colorado than the first day of a brutal winter endurance race in Alaska. Despite the friendly atmosphere, I retained a stiff, uncomfortable demeanor. I was terrified of falling into overflow — my background here is that I punched through a pressure crack in the ice on Flathorn Lake in 2009. My right leg sank into bottomless water, soaking a boot and resulting in frostbite on my right foot. Recovery was difficult (I still have nerve issues in this foot and adopted the mantra that “frostbite is forever.”) But I feel lucky — I strongly believe that grace alone prevented me from plunging into the lake and drowning. 

Crossing the Little Su River.

I’ve retained a deep phobia of ice ever since, but I’ve also had some success in overcoming my fear. After all, at least a quarter of the Iditarod Trail crosses directly over ice, and I’ve traveled a lot of Iditarod Trail since 2009. Still, I could barely contain a gurgling panic as Bobbette, Becca, Amber, Beth and I balanced our bikes across a thin strip of hardpacked snow surrounded by slush on the Little Su River. It felt like balancing on a slackline in big boots while dragging a bike through hub-deep water. The other ladies were laughing. The stakes seemed low — the temperature was still a balmy 25 degrees and the checkpoint was less than 10 miles away. And yet, when are the stakes of wet feet in subfreezing temperatures ever low? 

Beth is happy that she made it across the Little Su with dry feet.

Our trail choice became continuously less traveled and softer until we had to hike the final three miles to the checkpoint. I was becoming tired, more so than I thought was justified. My fatigue was justified, though — I’d only managed a few hundred miles of bicycle training since October, and almost none on a loaded fat bike, so I don’t know why I expected better fitness. Some people can put in impressively long efforts on limited training (Beat), but that has never been my mode of operation. I’m often accused of overtraining, but geez, why is it I only feel like shit when I’m “well-rested?” 

We reached Butterfly Lake around sunset, probably about five hours past the start, at mile 35. After walking the trail in 2018 and 2020, I’d grown accustomed to a consistent 2 mph pace, so I found this to be blazing fast. Amber, who had also only walked and skied the trail before this year, agreed we were flying. 

Riding with the ladies (and Graham) on day one. This was a fun afternoon.

Six of the seven women in the bike field were now clustered together at the checkpoint. Five of us stripped to our skivvies so we could hang and dry sweaty base layers in a sauna-like warming hut. We guzzled soup and coffee, laughing in our bras while a handful of more modest men leaned against the walls of the hut, seeming inclined to give us space. If it could only be like this in real life — six ladies on a fun bike trip, ready to tear up a raucous night. 

Dawn on the Yentna River.

Instead, we packed up and headed out into the darkness alone, facing softer trails and the prospect of truly scary, truly dangerous overflow on the Susitna and Yentna rivers. I’d used up the limits of my fitness in the first five hours and soon fell far behind the group. Bobbette and Becca were with me for a while, since their chosen route (Trail 11) was unbroken and I had a GPS track for the mysterious and unmapped Iron Dog route to the north. But as soon as we descended onto the Susitna River, they too left me in the dust. There was a lot of refrozen overflow along the river, mounds of bumpy crust and ice shards. There were a few liquid puddles as well. The temperature had plummeted to zero degrees and a stiff headwind rushed down the river. 

Looking toward the Shell Hills on the Yentna River.

I was frightened. I didn’t want to be here — not in this volatile era of February break-up, and not on a surface that could easily collapse and swallow me whole. The trail cut across a slough and turned onto the Yentna River, where the ice conditions seemed more stable. Hours had now passed since leaving Butterfly Lake. I had long burned through all of my anxiety matches and was now almost too tired to care what happened to me. The trail was well-packed but felt like Velcro under my tires. The stiff breeze amplified a deepening cold. We’d later determine it was “only” about 5 or 10 below zero on the river, but I hadn’t fully dried out my sweaty clothing at Butterfly Lake, and I probably wasn’t generating a lot of heat with my exhausted pedaling. I did not feel good. A few guys who’d dealt with early mechanicals — Matt Tanaka who had tire pressure issues, and Jay Cable who had to pedal standing (!!) because of a fully snapped seatpost — flew past me like I was standing still. 

 I eventually made it to Yentna Station around 1 a.m. I assumed everyone else would be in and out at this point, but the place was packed. I’d originally hoped to reach a more accommodating lodge about 20 miles upriver, but that was far too much to ask of my legs tonight. Yentna only had a single bunk bed remaining — as in a narrow, precipitously high top bunk — for Beth and me to share. We would have to spoon. I didn’t care. I just wanted to put my legs up for a while. Still, it was extremely uncomfortable inside the overheated and overcrowded bunkhouse, so by 5 a.m. I was up and pedaling again. 

Morning on the Yentna River at 10 below.

 I didn’t feel strong. That was all there was to it. My legs had no power. I tried to remember if I’d felt so rundown so early in a race before. Probably not, but what could I expect? It was unprecedented for me to enter the Iditarod Trail as lackadaisically undertrained and unmotivated as I’d been in February 2022. My laziness felt sacrilegious. I know this trail and its dangers too well, and I should know better. 

 “Well, we’re here, not much we can do about it now,” I said out loud, mostly to my legs. 

 Frost collected on my eyelashes and cheeks as pale morning light appeared in the overcast sky. I arrived at the detour for Bentalit Lodge and decided to take the long way and have some breakfast. Even a couple of hours of stalling over multiple cups of coffee didn’t perk me up much. I zombie-pedaled most of the way to Skwentna. 

This is a few days earlier during a "boot test" on Big Lake. The Skwentna River was deeper than this.

Four miles before the checkpoint, the trail forks into two choices: a trail that follows the Skwentna River and one that cuts overland. The overland trail is hillier and usually softer, so I turned toward the river. I watched the distant silhouettes of two cyclists step off their bikes and take diverging paths. One crashed hard when he tried to get back on his bike and ride — a sure sign of tricky overflow. Sure enough, there was a quarter-mile-long span of open water and slush. The cyclists, Ethan and Robert, were now past the overflow. They waved their arms and pointed toward the direction they went, but I know how this can go — venturing off the trail is always a crapshoot. One person’s lucky step can become your plunge into a knee-deep hole. 

 Still, the morning had warmed and I was close to a checkpoint. The stakes seemed low. I dismounted my bike and wandered toward their footprints. Almost immediately, I stepped through a hidden puddle and sank into blue slush. Water was just a centimeter from pouring over the top of my right boot. I yanked my leg but nothing happened — slush had fully entrapped my foot. I had no choice but to pull my sock foot — luckily shielded by a plastic vapor barrier — out of the boot. Balancing on one leg while holding up my bike with my left hand, I carefully knelt down and used my bare right hand to reach into the slush and claw at the ice that was rapidly solidifying underneath the trapped boot. It was all quite precarious, a little funny, and a little terrifying. What if I couldn’t free my boot? 

 Incredibly, not only did I free the boot, but it remained completely dry inside. Before the race, I’d purchased a new pair of Kamik snow boots. I have sensitive feet and shins and a lot of requirements for footwear — soft uppers, good traction, as warm as possible, but insulation actually isn’t at the top of my list since a good sock system can go a long way. My old Vasque hiking boots met all of these needs but were far from waterproof — and this year, waterproofness seemed crucial. Several tests proved that these boots leaked as well, so Beat came to the rescue with a gallon of seam-sealer. His modifications made the boots look like shiny black trash bags, but it worked. My feet remained dry. I immediately turned around and detoured to the overland trail. 

Ethan and Robert with The Roadblocking Moose.

At Skwentna I sat down and ordered a bowl of chili even though I didn’t really feel like stopping and wasn’t hungry after a big breakfast. All of this mucking around led to me leaving the checkpoint much later in the afternoon than I’d hoped. I had been aiming to reach Finger Lake, some 40 miles farther, before stopping that night. But did I even care about making good progress in the race? I will admit, it was difficult to care. 

I pedaled up a short section of plowed road, ending in a cluster of utility buildings about a mile from the lodge. There I met a cow moose, who turned and eyed me warily. As far as I’m concerned, moose are the number two scariest thing on this trail, second only to overflow. In 2020 there were a number of incidents involving ornery moose. Several racers were attacked and injured. Volatile weather patterns and deep snow pointed to a good chance of even ornerier moose in 2022, so I was taking no chances. I stepped off my bike when I was still a fair distance away and stared at the moose. She stared back, making no moves. 

About 15 minutes went by before I started to shiver, so I pulled on an extra jacket and mittens. As I was doing this, Ethan and Robert rode up behind me. They were in no mood for a standoff for a moose, so they began pedaling toward her, yelling and clapping. She’d take a few casual steps down the trail then turn back again as though to ask, “okay, what are you going to do now?” 

A growing pile-up and an obstinate moose.

This went on for another half hour, with Ethan and Robert driving her bit by bit to a junction where the trail leaves the woods and turns into an open swamp. For the next five miles, there are no trees and nowhere else for a moose to go besides the trail. I thought for sure she’d do what moose normally do and leave the trail to return to the woods, but instead, she trotted into the swamp as the three of us shadowed her timidly. Nearly an hour had passed when the Italians arrived — actually three Italians and a Spanish man who were traveling together. They were in no mood to wait either, so they tried to cut a path off the trail. The swamp was buried in many feet of unconsolidated snow. The trail itself was blocked by a three-foot-high berm. Breaking trail from here was all but impossible.

No way the moose was leaving the trail now. I knew it. I wished I could go back in time, turn around when I first saw her and return to Skwentna. I could sit in a warm lodge for the next five hours and drink coffee rather than drive an ornery moose to the end of a godforsaken swamp. I didn’t see how it could go any other way. Our group continued to grow. Graham the New Zealander pulled up with a broken pedal, riding on the spindle and so impatient to continue that he was willing to use his bike this way until a new pedal could be flown into Puntilla. Beth arrived. Then Becca and Bobbette. At least a dozen cyclists had clustered together when the race director and photographer just happened to pull up on snowmachines. 

The group cuts away from the trail.

Kyle and Mark gunned their snowmachines and charged toward the moose. Seconds later, gunshots rang out. I hunched on the ground, braced for anticipated violence. As it turned out Kyle was trying to spook the moose, not shoot her — but the noise prompted her to wheel around and charge toward the group. We scrambled and plunged into snowbanks. Perhaps too smart to crash into a large group of humans, the moose turned again and ran back to her original spot, then laid down. Kyle continued to drive circles around her on his snowmachine. She didn’t even care. 

 “What a clown show,” I said to Beth. Sitting in the snow with 15 people and a single stubborn moose as a roadblock did not seem like the kind of thing that should be happening in a respectable Iditarod race. This moose was making asses of all of us.

The arduous detour.

Eventually, Kyle returned and said he had cut a detour so we could walk around her. The newly broken path still necessitated pushing our bikes through soft snow, but it was better than sitting in place. Like a diabolical mastermind, the moose stood and continued trotting up the swamp, ensuring no one could return to the trail. The single-file marchers kept a fierce pace; I was sweating profusely and bonking pretty hard, but I couldn’t slow or stall the others behind me. We pushed our bikes along Kyle’s trail for three miles; this alone took more than 90 minutes. By the time we reached the far end of the swamp, as the first person to meet her, I’d lost nearly six hours to the moose-jam. 

The quiet forest in the Shell Hills.

Back on the trail, we began the climb into the Shell Hills. The group faded ahead and I was alone, feeling like crap but trying to embrace the surrounding beauty. Birch trees towered overhead, framing a patchwork of delicate pink clouds. I pushed my bike up most of the climb, then fought intermittent wind drifts over a smooth but soft trail. 

I arrived at Shell Lake Lodge at dusk, feeling more exhausted than I was sure I’d ever felt. Although not an official checkpoint, the race director said he had rented a couple of cabins that we could use. Through the warm-looking windows, I saw much of the moose-jam group gathered around the tables, talking and laughing. I didn’t care about dinner, and even if I had, there was no energy left for socializing. I pushed my bike to one of the open cabins, crawled into a top bunk, and passed out without setting an alarm. Although not intending to do this, I would sleep like the dead for the next 11 hours.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

I’m gonna make it to the place I need to go

Connecting the disparate cities of McGrath, Alaska, and Boulder, Colorado, in this tumultuous post-COVID era proved to be something of an ordeal. A lodge/coffee shop marked the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350. The place was nice but disorienting — just so crowded, overflowing with bikes and constant activity. I arrived just after sunset on a Friday evening and set up a nest behind the coffee bar, only to be kicked out as the barista fired up the coffee grinder early the next morning (that I did not see this coming speaks to how befuddled I was after the race.) 

That's the Dalzell Gorge down there!

I couldn’t secure a spot on a charter plane until Sunday evening, which gave me time to hang around the lodge, drink coffee, put my head back together, and watch Beat efficiently check in and out on his way to Nome. I shared a six-seater plane with Forest, Jason, Jenny, and two pilots. The one-hour trip was the most gorgeous flight I’ve experienced, right at sunset and directly over the trail we’d just spent five-plus days traversing. 

There's Shell Lake! And Denali and Foraker!

Unfortunately, our bikes couldn’t find flights out until the Wednesday cargo run. Fur Rondy was in full swing and the last available hotel rooms in Anchorage were running $300 a night. Luckily, I’d spent quite a bit of trail time with a local woman named Bobbette, who offered to let me stay at her house even though she and her husband were actively packing to move to Ketchikan two weeks later. My four days in Anchorage were surreal. I seemed to be experiencing March 2020 all over again — but in reverse. I went for painful yet relaxing jogs along the snow-packed yet oddly congested Coastal Trail. I shared indoor space with people I’d only just met. We laughed over dinners and met friends at crowded restaurants that were all of the last restaurants I visited before the pandemic closed everything down. It felt so similar, but instead of shutting down, life was opening up again. It was as though the past two years never happened. It was all too normal. It was strange. 

Betsy on Niwot Ridge. It was a fun day bookended by difficult nights, and it a bit alarming how little of this hike I remember.

I finally made it home after 2 a.m. Friday, just under a week since I pedaled into McGrath. It had recently snowed and the roads were lined with deep snow berms. This is exactly what my return from Alaska looked like in 2020, except the airport and streets were no longer abandoned, but rather overcrowded, pulsing with anti-masker frustration and road rage. What was the same, though, is that I felt overtaxed and a little culture-shocked. Cognitive dissonance rang in my ears as I collapsed in bed and cried for more than an hour. I’m more of a crier than I used to be; when I really need an emotional release, tears just come out. 

But the emotional outburst seemed to sap the rest of my energy. I couldn’t find my bearings for days. Without looking at the records I keep — Strava, mostly, and other snippets of social media — I couldn’t really recall one thing I did that entire week. According to the records, I had good moments. I hiked Niwot Ridge with my friend Betsy. I tried to relaunch my running, but the toe I likely rebroke during the ITI caused too much agony. I also know I spent a lot of time reading about the war in Ukraine and refreshing Trackleaders to see where Beat was on the Iditarod Trail. I felt isolated in my house. 

Sunrise on March 16

My anxiety clamped down to an unmanageable degree. My one, unqualified memory from that week — one that I didn’t reboot by looking back through records — is lying in bed with every muscle clenched as my heart raced,  hyperventilating and looking at my hands as they shook. Panic attack. It happened more than once. 

Why is my anxiety so bad some days? It’s difficult to pin down, although I think it may partly be a reaction to the typical ebbs of middle age. There’s also likely a role from Graves Disease and the hormonal disruptions that caused even though I was able to bring my thyroid levels back to normal range. My breathing is still strained sometimes, and this is an instant anxiety trigger. 

Sunset on March 19 in a different world.

There’s also the reality of the modern age, this all-too-knowable Hellscape of war, cultural degradation, and climate change, that weighs heavily on my mind. I acknowledge that my personal position is deeply privileged and I am grateful and happy with most aspects of my life. But I mourn, every day, for the ongoing changes in this beautiful world and the fact that we humans — mean, selfish creatures that we are — are the ones in charge. I also mourn for human suffering. I can’t really help it. Most of my loved ones tell me to look away, stop reading the news, stop Doomscrolling, but I don’t see how my ignorance of important truths will change their truthiness. I also had a falling out with my last therapist that has left me leery of therapy. In short, the therapist was not all that helpful after my Dad died. Also, if I have to hear “be kind to yourself” one more time … (I’m all about self-care, no doubt, but how is this going to do anything for existential despair? It’s like handing someone a bandaid when the bleeding is internal.) 

Photo by Corrine Leistikow

I believe my March panic attacks were spurred by an irrational fear that I was going to lose Beat, which is less irrational when you take into account he was engaged in a reasonably dangerous activity far away in Alaska.  If I had access to medication during these episodes, I absolutely would have taken it, but I’ll be completely honest — I’m so leery about meds and their side effects that I’m unlikely to seek them out during more stable times, which means they’re not available when I destabilize. I will say that right now — mid-April — my mindset has been great, and I can’t recall why I was so upset last month. There’s always the hope that my brain will stay “cured,” but I should know better by now. I do have one coping mechanism that nearly always works, though — walking. 

Another portrait by Corrine

While I love other modes of traveling through the world, there’s nothing quite as meditative as moving my body in the most natural, sustainable way of all. During my difficult week at home, I thought about an offer from my Fairbanks friends Corrine and Eric, who had rented several cabins in the White Mountains over the weekend to celebrate their combined March birthdays. The White Mountains are one of my favorite places in the world. They’re also quite far from my home, and an expensive trip no less. But as I looked at a calendar and mulled the logistics, I thought … I could do that. Corrine and Eric were biking the classic 100-mile loop over four days. They thought I would want to ride my bike too. At first, I made excuses — I’d been through a small amount of hell trying to bring my bike back from McGrath and wasn't keen to box up that beast again. Then Corrine found a friend willing to lend me her bike, so I had to be truthful — really, I’d rather just walk. 

Corrine reminded me that there would be long days. One day was close to 35 miles. 

 “Even better,” I thought. 

 Corrine expressed concern for the semi-broken toe I had been complaining about. 

 “Why would I care about my toe?” I thought. 

Here's one where I fell off the trail while darting out of the way of my own friends like a frightened squirrel. 
It didn’t take me long to throw my sled gear together. Much of it was still in a pile from our Christmas trip. I’d dragged a sled all of … 40? … miles during that trip, which was my total sled training for the season. I was still fewer than two weeks removed from cycling the Iditarod Trail and reasonably fatigued from that effort. My legs were still sore and covered in bruises from a multitude of crashes during the race. There were almost endless reasons to consider this trip a bad idea, but as my flight descended into Fairbanks, I caught a song on my iPod that filled my heart with warm fuzzy assurance. Appropriately enough, the lyrics spoke to displacement and desolation — “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” by War on Drugs. 

 I’m gonna say everything I need to say 
Although you’ve taken everything I need away 
I’m gonna make it to the place I need to go. 
We’re all just walking through this darkness on our own. 

 In town I purchased at least six days’ of supplies (for a four-day trip, mind you) and spent the afternoon fumbling with sled assembly, repacking my gear, and practicing the sled-drag in my T-shirt in 25-degree weather. Corrine and Eric loaned me their car so I could get an early start the following day. The drive along the Elliot Highway was still bumpy and icy from the Christmas ice storm that wrecked our December trips. But it was bright now, glaringly bright, and springtime warm as I pulled into the Wickersham Dome at 9 a.m. 

Feeling small in big places among the matchstick forest — this to me is the whole, simple yet infinitely complex experience of walking through the Whites.
What is it about the White Mountains that I love so much? In a dozen years, I’ve logged close to 20 different trips, including seven finishes of the classic 100-mile loop during the White Mountains 100. I’d guess my total mileage on bike and foot in these mountains is well over 1,500. I’ve never even lived in Fairbanks. I’d barely given the region even a passing thought when an acquaintance emailed me about a new race he was organizing, about two weeks before the event, in March 2010. 

 “Everyone on the roster is from Anchorage and Fairbanks,” Ed wrote. “We need at least one from Juneau.” 

The shadowy limestone jags above Fossil Creek
I was technically a Juneau resident at the time, but I already had one foot in the door. I’d put in a two-week notice at my newspaper job and secured a temporary spot to live in Anchorage while I figured out my next step. I was still reeling from the dissolution of a long-term relationship nine months earlier and resolved to make big changes in my life. I was going to leave this rainy, isolated place, and I was definitely going to quit endurance racing, the source — I was convinced — of all of my woes. All of the time, all of the energy, so much useless striving. 

 Still, Ed’s offer was intriguing. With almost no training behind me, I signed up for 100 miles on a bike and recruited a Juneau friend to make the road trip to Fairbanks. We put his old Subaru on the ferry to Haines and spent two days driving across the Yukon and eastern Alaska. He had all of one cassette tape to play on repeat for 12 hours, but at least the weather was blessedly clear. We spent a night in a tent on the frozen Slims River near Kluane Lake, huddled in sleeping bags and listening to wolves howling through the 15-below night. He basically dumped me at Ed’s house — a melodramatic relationship story in itself — and Ed shuttled me to the start of his race, giggling as the outdoor temperature dipped to minus 20 along the Chatanika River. 

Near Moose Creek during my first White Mountains 100 in 2010 — so young, so innocent.

The 2010 White Mountains 100 handed me my own ass on a frozen platter. I dragged my Surly Puglsey through wind drifts and glare ice, across bumpy aufeis that seemed to go on for miles, into fierce headwinds, over the Cache Mountain Divide and into the breathtaking chill of Beaver Creek, where it was 25 below. In my desperation to reach the cabin, I ignored the deepening chill. My fingers tingled and my entire butt had gone numb. Borealis cabin, the 80-mile checkpoint, was packed to the brim and had become something of a triage center for other frozen racers. I lingered but still got myself out of there, up the brutal pitch of the Wickersham Wall, and to the finish line some 22 hours later. I was completely crushed. And I was … in love? 

Twelve years later, as I started up the now-familiar climb rising to the top of Wickersham Dome, my heart filled with this strange yet nourishing emotion. I felt peace, complete and uncomplicated, even as my body balked at the strain — wait, we’re doing this again? Yes, my mind replied. Shut up and sing me to sleep. 

I was lying in my bed 
A creature void of form 
Been so afraid of everything 
I need a chance to be reborn 

The first day of the trip was fairly uneventful, and in that way perfect. Temperatures hovered in the 20s and the brilliant near-equinox sun let me walk in my base layer for much of it. I slipped into a meditative flow and thought of little beyond each moment as it passed. If another trail user passed, the sudden disruption was so jarring that I usually plunged off the trail into waist-deep snow, including when Corrine and Eric passed on their bikes near mile 11. 

Crowberry cabin

But I quickly slipped back into flow state. There were lots of hills and my sled was unconscionably heavy, but it was all a small price to pay for this uncomplicated state of mind. I did strive to make good progress to Crowberry cabin, and despite the difficulties managed to maintain a 3 mph pace for 25 miles. Corrine and Eric had already been there several hours and completed all of the camp chores — gathering and sawing wood, melting snow, even knocking down the poopsicle in the outhouse. They would tease me about choosing to walk just so I could get out of helping with camp chores. This was a justified complaint. I wanted to do my share, really I did, but I will admit it was nice to simply walk all day and arrive at a warm cabin where all I had to do was inflate my sleeping pad and fire up my stove. We’d share stories, read the cabin log, recite the dad jokes from our dinner packets, heat water for hot chocolate and crawl into our bunks at a blissfully early hour. It was, for me, the perfect trip: I had all of the solitude I craved during the day, and good company to share each evening. 

 The next day was going to be a long one: 34 miles and 3,000 feet of climbing up and over the Cache Mountain Divide. I guessed the distance would take 14 hours and started at sunrise. The morning was gray and breezy. I did not feel strong. The previous day’s effort weighed heavily on my legs. My hips and hamstrings were sore from lack of conditioning. It was enough to tip my mind-body balance farther to the body side, and I spent more time ruminating on fatigue and pain. My sled shoved me down the steep descent into Beaver Creek and I managed to wrench my knee as well. 

 When Corrine and Eric passed I tried to put on a brave face, but there was an element of “oh shit, what have I gotten myself into?” The slog up the Divide was admittedly, just that. The sled seemed to have gained a hundred pounds overnight. The trail, while still well packed, was coated in a layer of spindrift that was weirdly slippery. Patches of sunlight occasionally broke through the cloud layer, casting silver light on the mountain tops. It was still incredibly beautiful. I reminded myself of this continually while my legs balked, and I’d stop for a break that I justified by taking photos. 

 I was almost in tears near the summit, though. The stiff breeze had strengthened to near gale force. Similar to my ride into Borealis all of those years ago, I’d neglected to put on more layers, reasoning I was almost there, almost there — and then suddenly I was wracked with shivering. I stopped, turned away from the wind, and added my thick fleece knee warmers, overboots, and a windproof fleece jacket, but the mild hypothermia persisted even when I started moving again. I’d let my core temperature drop too much — I know better by now. But I will admit, the White Mountains have become something of a distant home for me, a place of peace and to a certain degree, security. They’re familiar, and familiarity breeds complacency. But the White Mountains are still very much a real place, very much a wilderness of the Far North, and very much indifferent to my existence, no matter how much I love them back. 

 There was little I could do at this point but keep moving and hope I found my way to wind protection soon. I knew I wouldn’t find it until the far end of the Ice Lakes, a series of swamps that often hold glare ice. I remembered it being about a mile from the top of the pass to the forested slopes below the Ice Lakes. In reality, it was closer to five miles. It felt like 50. The gale blasted cold powder in my face as I skittered across icy patches, appealing to the universe to please not let me fall on my throbbing knee or my sore hips. My toe, my stupid toe, probably hurt most of all. 

 Finally, the trail crossed back into the relative protection of trees. After nearly three hours of feeling uncomfortably cold — never in danger, but certainly not happy — my shoulders finally began to settle. I hadn’t shivered the entire time, but my upper body still felt stiff from the aggressive motion. In the distance, the icy atmosphere refracted sunlight, creating vertical rainbows. 

The surrounding mountains were still shrouded in clouds, but through the mist, the setting sun cast unique shades of lavender and pink. It was so beautiful, and since I wasn’t cold anymore, I was perfectly content. All of the walking I’d done that day no longer registered in my brain. My legs were still invested in carrying me out of the cold, so they didn’t complain. Even my toe calmed down.

 Time surrounds me like an ocean 
My memory like waves 
Is life just dying in slow motion? 
Or getting stronger every day? 

Photo by Corrine Leistikow

I nearly beat the darkness to Windy Gap cabin, but I did need my headlamp for the last mile. Corrine met me outside and said something about how long it took me to get there. “I still took less than 14 hours,” I retorted — it had been 13 hours and 39 minutes since I left Crowberry. My pace-guessing skills were actually spot on. She clarified that yes, I made good time, but I will admit that I did feel some inadequacy as a walker. Corrine talked about the difficult day that took them seven hours — they also struggled with the headwind. I felt fairly toasted and probably could have passed out right there, but I was glad to enjoy another social evening of bagged dinners and fun conversation. 

Windy Gap cabin

The wind raged through the night — Windy Gap earns its name — and we woke up to an ongoing gale and a temperature of 10 below. I was trying to get another slightly early start and sat on the porch to heat water for coffee since my stove (MSR XGK) sounds like a jumbo jet about to take off. (Corrine and Eric were content to use the propane canisters left behind by previous occupants, but honestly I just wanted to use up my heavy fuel.) It was actually sort of fun to sit outside in this fearsome weather and watch sunlight spread across the limestone cliffs that surround this canyon. 

The wind had shifted enough to become a strong down-canyon tailwind. For the first mile, the trail followed Fossil Creek over a long ribbon of glare ice. I didn’t have great traction from my shoes and had to skitter while my sled bucked and wove. I couldn't generate much heat at this pace, so my shoulders began to quake again. I realized how sore they were from so much shivering the previous day because this motion hurt quite a lot. Ugh. I had started out wearing most of my layers because 10 below with windchill is not warm. But I couldn’t move any faster on the ice. 

 A big climb out of the drainage — a recent trail reroute to avoid the glare ice and overflow of Fossil Creek — was a welcome respite. Rich morning light enhanced a panoramic view of the mountains. The surrounding hillside was sculpted with sastrugi, itself a compelling work of art. Corrine and Eric passed and again I was alone, drifting back into flow state, the miles slipping away as effortlessly as water. 

 It was a 20-mile day to Borealis cabin, the classic triage center and final checkpoint of the White Mountains 100. On this day we were all there fairly early and had lots of daylight to burn. The afternoon had become warm enough for outside T-shirts, at least if you could stay out of the wind. I smiled at the memory of a single piece of advice longtime Fairbanks resident Jeff Oatley gave me before the 2010 race — “It’s always cold on Beaver Creek. If you’re cold at Borealis, keep going.” And to be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever had a White Mountains experience where this has not been true. 

 Sure enough, the temperature plummeted after sunset. By 2 a.m., it was 20 below. I wandered outside and caught a glimpse of the Northern Lights. They were faint, though, not easily photographed. I wanted to hold out for a better display, but even in my expedition park and puffy pants, I started shivering. I was pretty much done with shivering, so I went back inside. By morning the temperature had dropped to 30 below. Eric managed to keep the cabin warm by restocking the woodstove all night long. I have a sleeping bag that’s comfortable at 40 below, so left to my own devices I wouldn’t have made this effort, but I won’t deny it was a nice service. 

I took off only about an hour before Corrine and Eric on this day — I wasn’t in the biggest of hurries. The temperature held below zero but the wind had calmed. Frost collected on my face but I was finally warm. Peace returned. My legs had locked into forever mode, and I was eager to keep walking. I was a little bummed the trip was ending but hopeful I’d see Beat soon. Beat had been making his way along the Bering Sea coast while I was in the White Mountains. The day I left was the day he had to cross the sea ice — nearly 50 miles of absolute exposure in 35-45 mph winds and temperatures well below zero. An experienced skier who crossed paths with Beat in the opposite direction called this day the most exposed he's ever felt, and this man has climbed remote 5,000-meter peaks in Canada. 

Strangely, I did not fret all that much about Beat once I was out on the trail myself, even though his tracker apparently stopped working at the worst possible time and I was barraged with messages from worried friends and family (I would not see any of these messages until later.) It’s not like I had less reason to worry. It is strange, the way our brains operate in perplexing and often useless ways. Indeed, as soon as I climbed up the Wickersham Wall — which was not nearly as brutal as I remembered, even though my sled had lost hardly a pound since day one — I caught a glimmer of cell phone reception and switched it on. And just like that, all of my flow came crashing down. The security company called because my home alarm had been triggered two days earlier. My mother-in-law was frightened because Beat's tracker had stopped working for a while. Now Beat’s tracker showed he was on the move from White Mountain, less than 80 miles from the finish. But my flight to Nome the following day had been canceled. And the war in Ukraine. And Twitter. 

Chatting with Eric, with the Wickersham Wall in the distance. Photo by Corrine

And what was I doing? I was still walking, still traversing the gorgeous ridgeline of the Wickersham Dome, still surrounded by an expanse of valleys and domes rippling across every horizon, and my nose was buried in my stupid phone. 

 Oh, White Mountains, I’m sorry. I am human and flawed. Can you forgive me? 

 I never took our love for granted 
You never left me wanting more 
But you’d never recognize me, babe. 
I don’t live here anymore. 

Doubtlessly I’ll be back — when winter solstice comes around again and these sun-drenched hills are again cast in muted lavender light. I don’t live here; I’ve never lived here. But in these brief connections, I never fail to find lasting grace.