Friday, July 08, 2022

Now that you’re kind of everything and everywhere

On my birthday last year, one of my favorite songwriters released a new album. "Denis Was a Bird" was in its entirety a journey through the grief that Tom Rosenthal experienced after his father died of Parkinson's Disease in 2019. Throughout the summer, Tom posted teaser videos on social media. I discovered the upcoming album by accident sometime in the predawn hours of June 18, 2021. Tom had premiered a new video just hours earlier, so it showed up near the top of my feed as I scrolled mindlessly through Facebook, straining to feel anything else. 

It was our first night in Utah following the most bewildering nine-hour drive of my life, which Beat and I made to be with my family after my father died suddenly in a hiking accident. The trip started the morning of June 17, when we had to crawl behind a cyclist in a bright pink jersey for the entire five-mile descent of Flagstaff Road. This is the only part of the drive of which I have any clear memory, because I (as a passenger) boiled over with road rage so blindingly overwhelming that this experience of losing my shit — more than anything else — has made me fearful of being a vulnerable cyclist on the road. But even vague images of the rest of the drive still haunt me: the slow crawl in summer traffic along I-70, blinking numbly at rest stops in the 103-degree desert, and again boiling over with rage as wildfire smoke choked the air over eastern Utah. 

It was after 3 a.m. I hadn't slept. Beat was upstairs and I was sprawled in my mother's unfinished basement, hiding from the heat, hiding from the threat of sunrise, shaking from the monster of pain churning in my gut and wishing I could just violently rip it from my body. No physical pain could be worse than this. 

The song, which I suspected would be hurtful to hear but clicked the link anyway, is called "I went to bed and I loved you." The video depicts clips of various people from around the world standing or dancing with portraits of lost loved ones. The lyrics are brilliant and shattering, but a particular line left me sobbing. I shook so hard I thought the monster of pain might be crushed for good. Of course, it was not, but a hint of perspective managed to slice through the devastation. 

The line is: 

I don't see you as a force above.
You're down here.
Sparks in all of us. 
Somewhere in the lost light of every room.

A belated birthday outing at Glacier de Corbassière on Aug. 21, 2021

When the album came out on Aug. 20, I purchased the digital version from the Frankfurt airport and listened to it repeatedly while hiking up and down every steep trail I could find out of Verbier, Switzerland. I tend to do this with Tom's music when I'm feeling fragile — Tom Rosenthal's songs essentially got me through the Iditarod in 2018, and again in 2022. The music is just so simple and honest, quirky yet vulnerable, blunt yet hopeful. 

Walking up the hill again 
To see you
I don't know when I will again
Time feels new.

I never had an opportunity to bring my Dad to the Swiss Alps. We had been planning a summer trip in 2020. I was so excited; I amassed a folder full of trails we could hike, AirBnBs where we could stay, and mountain huts where we could sample local cakes while overlooking glaciers and snow-capped peaks. It would have taken a month to do everything I wanted to do. Then Covid happened, and then time ran out. As August 2021 approached, I wanted to cancel my plans to travel with Beat to Switzerland. I couldn't bear the thought of being in these mountains, walking alone, knowing I'd never be able to share this with Dad. Apathy and inertia, more than anything else, caused me to continue with the trip as planned. Of course I'm glad I did. Hiking in the Swiss Alps was the first time since he left that I felt, really felt, Dad walking beside me. 

All the while, I had Tom Rosenthal telling me in every way possible that everything was going to be all right. 

It's not a catastrophe 
It will happen to you and it will happen to me 
And the sky won't fall down to the sea 
And the joys won't end with you.

Grief has been an interesting journey. The lows can be so low, and yet there are brilliant moments of the purest joy, these streaks of white light through the darkness. I can feel my values shifting along this axis of the light, in ways I don't yet comprehend. It's the same old existential dilemma: If life is a cosmic accident with no inherent purpose, then where do we find meaning? And the answer, obtuse and simplistic as it is, remains: We create our own meaning. But how? The darkness helps sharpen my perspective. Pay attention. What makes the light? This is what matters.

Send me into the long night with all your
Little joys, little joys, little joys, little joys
Little joys, little joys, little joys
Of the finite

My dad brought so much light to my life, but one important realization of my journey through grief has been this: He still brings light to my life, and always will. All that remains is all that matters: The countless little joys that I can reach out to grasp any time I choose, or at least any time I can muster the strength to turn my gaze from the darkness. One of these little joys is Canyonlands National Park, Dad's Heaven on Earth. If he could choose, he would spend eternity in the midst of these sculpted sandstone spires, and told Beat and me as much when we visited in April 2021. Dad had three specific spots where he wanted his ashes spread after he died, and two of them were in the Needles District of Canyonlands. As we trekked along his favorite trails, Dad deliberately pointed them out with enough emphasis that both Beat and I both remembered the exact spots. I took photos to document the locations. We joked that he'd have to train his grandkids because Beat and I would be too old and decrepit to make the journey by the time he finally went. After the trip, I posted this photo and caption on my Instagram: 

April 23, 2021.

"Over the weekend, Beat and I joined my 68-year-old father on his annual journey into Canyonlands Needles District, where he revisits some of his favorite places in the world every year. Here, my dad is overlooking a spot where he would like his ashes spread someday — overlooking "The Sentinel." I told my dad that he'll probably outlast that rock formation."

Dad and my sister Sara standing at the exact same overlook, exactly one year apart. The dates and picture poses were unintentional — this is just how it worked out.  

I broached the Canyonlands issue within hours of arriving at home on June 17. I wasn't sure whether Dad and Mom had discussed his final wishes. In their religion, cremation was once verboten or at least heavily discouraged. It's still outside the norm — most members of the LDS faith are buried in cemeteries next to their parents and other relatives, usually with space reserved for a spouse. Often the name and birth date of the still-living spouse are carved into a shared headstone, which I always thought was a bit creepy. I already understood that my mom wished for a traditional burial. And I didn't know whether Dad had ever discussed alternatives with her. He hadn't shared much with me about his desire to be cremated before he rather presciently brought it up in April 2021. 

I was nervous about approaching Mom. He'd discussed it with her, but only in passing, and there was nothing about burial in his will. (Humorously, what he did include in his will were the three classic rock songs he wished to have played after his funeral, as well as the longtime friend who he wanted to sing during the service — "if he's still alive.") I was ready to fight for what I strongly believed to be Dad's final wishes, but was also willing to concede if Mom was going to be deeply upset — after all, she's the one still living; what matters to her is what matters. Mom surprised me by agreeing to cremation without hesitation. My sisters also were strongly on board. We made the arrangements and planned for a closed-casket service with a decoy casket and a strategy to discretely handle prying questions from relatives. Then we started making plans for our private family service in Canyonlands. 

"It has to be April," I said. "That was his time." 

With my sisters and mom in April 2022.

We booked dates in late April, and I spent far too much time and energy fretting about how it would work out — hopefully the weather wouldn't be too harrowing, and hopefully Mom could handle the long hikes, and hopefully I wouldn't panic at that weird exposed spot on the Peekaboo Trail like I did in 2021. As it turned out, I ended up with the biggest issue to overcome. Back in January, I fell down my stairs at home and broke the pinkie toe on my right foot. I'm not sure this was the exact nature of my injury, but it was incredibly painful and surprisingly debilitating and yet "just a toe." I continued with my Iditarod training and raced the difficult 350 miles with long miles of pushing my bike in late February. I think as a consequence, the appendage never fully healed. Then, two days before we were set to leave for Utah, I fell down my stairs again, and again jammed the exact same toe that again turned purple and swelled like a rotten grape. I panic-texted photos to my physician friend and physical therapist and again got the "it's just a toe" advice. So I packed a supportive, 20-year-old pair of Vibram-soled leather hiking boots and hoped for the best. 

It is strange to be in a fair amount of physical pain during an emotionally cathartic experience. At times I could put it out of my mind, but for long stretches, I could not. My toe throbbed and sent continuous signals to my brain to stop walking already. For that reason, I couldn't quite slip into the flow that I rely on to find peace in my hikes. It took focus to remember what I was doing and appreciate where I was. I wondered if my mom was feeling something similar. She engaged in daily 3- and 5-mile walks to prepare for these hikes, but it had been a while since she hiked technical trails with so many ups and downs. The forecast called for one day with a high likelihood of thunderstorms, and a second slated to be cold and breezy but dry. So I flipped our original plan around to start with Chesler Park — the less technical trail, and end on Peekaboo. Because of this, we ended up on each trail exactly one year to the date of my Dad's final hikes here. It was unintentional, but fitting. 

April 22, 2021 in Chesler Park.

In 2021, Dad, Beat and I descended from a bench onto this sandy ribbon of singletrack when Dad first described his wishes to have one of his final resting places be among these sandstone spires. He stopped briefly to turn to me, spread his arms and made a sweeping motion with his hands. 

"Anywhere in here," he said. 

"Anywhere?" I asked, looking around for a tangible landmark. It was all vast open space, brush and cryptobiotic soil. 

"Anywhere," he confirmed as Beat pointed toward a distant boulder.

"Maybe over there?" 

"Anywhere," Dad repeated. I took the above photo, because this was the spot. It had to be here.

April 22, 2022 in Chesler Park.

In the 2021 photo, you can see hints of a sandy wash lined with juniper trees. We chose this wash for his eternity in Chesler Park — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It was 4.5 miles from the nearest trailhead, a little farther than I'd guessed, but a beautiful and quiet stroll amid the hoodoos. Strong weather was already moving in when we stood in a half-circle facing these formations. I didn't know what to do or say. I'd never done anything like this before and had only experienced a similar service once before when my friend Raj spread some of his father's ashes at White Pine Lake in July 2021. I'll admit that the act was awkward but gratifying. I whispered goodbye as the gusting spring winds swept Dad away.

Then the rain arrived — hard, cold, and persistent. Red water gushed down previously dry channels. I carried several extra jackets but wasn't quite as prepared as I should have been for a typical April deluge in the desert. Strong gusts buffeted us as we contoured sandstone benches. I was a little nervous that we wouldn't be able to ward off hypothermia. Luckily we dropped into a canyon, where we had to wade through baby flash floods, but at least we were protected from the wind. 

It was quite the adventure. Mom mentioned several times that Dad wouldn't choose such a wet day for a hike, but this wasn't exactly true. While he was talented at optimizing for ideal conditions, he wouldn't let a sudden shift in the weather stop him. In 2018, we hiked the Peekaboo Trail in a full April snowstorm as powder accumulated on the rock. This day, because it was so much wetter, felt even colder. Lisa didn't complain until she fully lost feeling in both hands (I offered my own pair of soaked gloves, which didn't help.) Beat, dressed in typical running garb, opted to run ahead. Sara and Mom didn't complain at all. I like to think Dad would have been proud.

There's a lot of you in this light 
Nimble in your footstep, dashing out of sight 
Every corner is written by you.  

I was nervous about taking my family on the Peekaboo Trail, only because it's hard for me — all of that off-camber sandstone, scrambles in and out of drainages, and brief exposure. As is my way, I overthought the entire thing and proposed an alternative approach along Salt Creek Wash — a boring sand slog that truly only Jill could love, or at least tolerate. They rejected my proposal soundly, and I tried hard not to let anxiety get the better of me. 

Beat plays peekaboo on the Peekaboo Trail.

As forecast, the day brought cold wind but blue skies. The Peekaboo Trail is a real crowd-pleaser with fun playground-like terrain and dynamic vistas of redrock skyscrapers and canyons bursting with spring green. My sisters were in awe, which was fun to observe. Mom struggled more on this day, but she never made a peep about it, even after we admonished her to sit down and finally eat something. The snacks, in honor of Dad, were pita bread smeared with Nutella, Maui sweet onion chips, and a trail mix that was exactly half peanuts, half regular M&Ms ... why Dad didn't just eat Peanut M&Ms, I never understood, and now I'll never have a chance to ask. 

Despite everything going well, anxiety had scrambled my brain somewhat. Somehow, I convinced myself that the rock formation we were contouring around wasn't "The Sentinel." 

"It's larger than that," I insisted. "And it's farther away." As we rose to the upper bench, I spotted a nearby butte with rock debris littered around the base. I let myself believe, maybe for longer than I should admit, that the Sentinel had collapsed. 

"Wouldn't it be wild if Dad did outlast the Sentinel?" I babbled as Beat shook his head. This runaway fantasy was fun while it lasted, but eventually, I had seen the Sentinel from enough aspects to leave no room for doubt. The formation still stood. 

The place Dad had pointed out last year wasn't exactly in the shadow of the Sentinel, but rather the highest point on the route with a panoramic view that swept across much of Canyonlands. We each took a turn standing at the edge to share a few sentences of gratitude and release a handful of ash to the gusting wind. The ashes, shimmering in the sunlight, swirled through the breeze for long seconds, traveling out of sight before they could settle. The intent was Leave No Trace, but the effect was mesmerizing in its beauty. Sparkle and fade. Dust to dust. The awe of impermanence. Now, Dad can rest all across this valley, and all under the watchful gaze of the Sentinel. Of course, even the Sentinel can't last forever.  

I thought that life would be a lot without you here 
It's alright 
Now that you're kind of еverything and everywhеre 
In low light.

No other hikers passed this spot the entire time we were there, nearly an hour, unheard of for a sunny Saturday afternoon in April. But so it was. We enjoyed the peace and silence of Heaven on Earth. I quietly thanked Dad for giving me an excuse to return to this place at every opportunity possible. It's just so meaningful compared to a manicured cemetery crowded with hundreds of strangers. 

I'm not sure where I want my body to go when I die. To be entirely honest, I don't really care. Perhaps it could be mulched somehow and used to fertilize a tree, although that may be overly complicated or outlawed. With any luck, I'll be very old and there won't be many left to mourn my passing, which is just fine with me — although also to be entirely honest, my greatest fear is that I'll outlive all of the people I love. In my wildest fantasies, I'm under an avalanche of snow or the bottom of a ravine and left there to be devoured by the elements, although I realize this isn't fair to the living. Cremation is probably the most practical solution, and perhaps there will be someone out there willing to spread my ashes on Rainy Pass in Alaska. Or — even more appropriate — Lone Peak.

Lone Peak is the next and final step in this particular journey. It was the third spot my Dad expressed a desire in having his ashes spread, and it's the most difficult to reach. I've been to this summit in the Wasatch Mountains at least six times, but only once without my dad. It was 2010 when I decided to climb up there and release torn-up pieces of paper on which I had written memories of my dad's Dad. Grandpa Homer died on Sept. 4 of that year. The climb ended up being a harrowing experience — I hadn't before realized how safe I felt with my father until I was clinging to a rock slab with my butt hanging over hundreds of feet of empty space on the summit ridge. But later this summer, perhaps on Sept. 4, I intend to climb Lone Peak with my Dad one more time. I believe he'll provide the peace I need to surmount my anxiety and finish the journey. 

Nothing to save, no more weather delays 
Nothing to lose, no more troubles for you 
I can still see you running around 
And if it stays in my mind, then it's not gone.
Thursday, June 23, 2022

365 days

 I'm still not sure what to do with this blog, besides letting it drift deeper into ever-expanding cyberspace like the Voyager time capsule, which is what all blogs eventually become. It is nice to have an outlet for long-form adventure reports, but there's also that element of "why continue to send things out into the void?" 

I recently started a new writing project that's entirely self-motivated, meaning I'm creating it for myself and I'm not too fussed about gaining readership, although I made it public because I do enjoy the act of telling a story for a potential reader. I'm using Substack as a venue, because I like the idea of a mailing list that will regularly reach only the people actually interested in my essays — unlike social media, which casts a wide but shallow net. I find my use of a mailing list ironic, though, because the entire reason I started this blog back in the Before Times of 2005 was to curtail the mass e-mails I was CC'ing to friends and family. I wish I had saved the snarky response I received from a high school friend with whom I lost contact years ago, but it amounted to, "No one wants 1,000 e-mails about your great new life in Alaska." So I launched a blog. It's amassed more than 2,250 posts and is now old enough to graduate from high school itself. Life truly does come full circle. 

The premise of my Substack is to sort through an old trunk that is full of the detritus of my youth — photo albums, journals, art work, CDs I can no longer play, and floppy discs I can no longer read — and write essays inspired by the contents. I've been wanting to "archive" this stuff for years, but have little interest in dutifully digitalizing everything. While it's worth revisiting, most of it isn't worth saving. Just spending a month with it has already convinced me that when the wildfire comes, this trunk will not be among the things I try to save. Reading through my old journals has resurrected so many long-buried emotions; I will welcome the incineration of each painful page. But the fun memories and life lessons remain, and I have been sorely in need of a prompt to continue my writing practice, and sorely in need of a regular writing practice for my mental health. The project was going well until June 8, when I lost momentum. Summer is likely to continue being both busy and difficult, and I admit that new posts will continue to be spotty. But if you're interested in subscribing, the link is here:

June 16 marked The Day, the terrible anniversary, one full trip around the sun without my Dad. It's been a surreal year. It often feels as though my brain has been rewired, that I no longer can return to the person I was before June 16, 2021, because my interests and values have been entirely reworked. Of course, the reality is much more complex than that. Spending time with my terrible teenage journals has revealed the discomforting truth that I'm still the same person I was then, that I can't change, not inherently, and it's time that is moving on without me. It's rare to find moments when the dissonance quiets, but my surest paths are also the most simple: Hiking in the mountains, long bike rides, and spending unqualified time with my family. 

It was my youngest sister who proposed spending June 16 together, just the four of us. Oregon was my idea. Last June, while helping my Mom unspool the finances that held her life together for 44 years, one of our first tasks was canceling all of the AirBnB and hotel reservations my Dad had made for their planned July trip along the Oregon coast. She had maintained such a brave demeanor during the awful week of funeral planning and services, but after her trip was officially canceled, she broke down in front of me for the first time. 

"Who will I go on road trips with now?" she asked through a stream of tears.

I vowed to take my Mom on a road trip. My sisters don't love sitting in cars and I doubt my Mom has many potential companions who can match her strenuous travel style. I enjoy driving, at least on the open road in the wide-open spaces of the West, but I'm only a shadow of my dad in this regard. He could get in a car and drive straight-through for 12 or 15 hours, stopping for only 10 minutes at a time for snacks and pee breaks, no sit-down meals. He'd drive until 2 a.m. if it meant he didn't have to stop and pay for a hotel. Even when we were children, he'd groan at every bathroom break we requested. He likely continued to do so with my Mom, who told me she wasn't allowed to buy the big drink. 

As for me — 12 hours of driving per day is my maximum, and that's mainly if I can squeeze a three-hour adventure break somewhere in the middle. I buy the big drink, sometimes two or three of them if you count coffee, and stop at two-hour intervals for long stretch breaks — especially now that I have become a person with a bad back. And while I enjoy driving, I think it's exhausting. It's at least as exhausting as hiking, which is why I need to draw a hard line about driving past bedtime. It's okay to fall asleep on my feet, but not okay to fall asleep behind the wheel. So I do not have my Dad's driving endurance by any stretch, which is why I should have done a modicum of research before proposing the trip and schedule I proposed. Even five seconds on Google Maps would have told me the most direct distance from Boulder to Rockaway Beach was 1,400 miles. But I digress.

I drove out to Salt Lake City on a Sunday, stubbornly setting my alarm for 5 a.m. so I could take my long stretch break on a 14er, Mount Bierstadt. It was still early enough in the season to not be terribly crowded — I mean, the parking lot was full at 7 a.m., but if you knew the crush of a Colorado summer, you'd find these crowds reasonable. I like 14ers because they're easy to plan and easy to access, but it's already become that time of year when they are best avoided. 

Bierstadt was a straightforward three-hour hike and then I was back on the road, cruising west along the Colorado River corridor. Temperatures climbed into the triple digits by Grand Junction, and an encroaching cold front brought 40 mph winds and a raging dust storm. For me, haze and heat create the worst kind of ugly. I couldn't see the La Sals, couldn't see the San Rafael Swell, could barely see the semi-truck in front of me on Highway 6. The scenes were eerily familiar to my drive out to Salt Lake the day after my father died, along these same roads. That June day also brought triple-digit heat and haze in the form of wildfire smoke. My heart was filled with a depth of anger and fear I'd never before experienced, and the world was unspeakably ugly. I was certain I'd never see beauty again. 

Now, one year later, I was listing to a fun and generally light-hearted storytelling podcast to take my mind off the heaviness I was beginning to feel. In fact, Strangerville is what inspired me to start my Substack, since the co-host Eli always tells such fun stories from his Utah childhood. He and the other co-host, Meg, have become my virtual friends who entertain my virtual trainer rides. I've worked my way backward to episodes deep into 2020 — a fun time for us all! But it was an episode from early in the year, the Before Times — February 8, 2020 — that broke me. A woman witnessed a hit-and-run collision and rushed to help the victim when no one else would stop. She described holding a 70-year-old man in her arms as he took his final breaths. As she spoke, the proverbial dam exploded and I collapsed into gasping sobs. I had to pull over on a narrow shoulder of Spanish Fork Canyon. It wasn't the safest place to stop, but I was physically incapable of driving any farther. I could barely lift my head up from the steering wheel to catch my breath. 

Running along the Willamette River

It's strange, the way grief comes in waves. Sometimes the turbulence is so strong that I can't even breathe, and sometimes it's a gentle tide that lulls me to sleep. But what I've learned in the past year is that it doesn't go away, that it won't ever go away, and the best I can do is work to keep my head above the water. That episode in Spanish Fork Canyon reminded me that this week was going to be hard. I managed to pull myself together and drive the remaining hour to Salt Lake, where Mom and I promptly started preparations for the continued push West.

Salt Lake to Portland is 12 hours of nonstop driving, and Mom pushed a relentless pace. I don't think she intended to; it's just what she's used to. You go into the rest stop, you use the toilet, and you're back at the car in three minutes or less. We managed one serendipitous 20-minute stop at a Panera in Boise. But the sit-down break had been so comparatively luxurious and thus wasteful that in my fluster to leave Boise, I forgot to stop for gas, which generated a not-small amount of stress in Eastern Oregon. Mom and I filled the drive with engaging discussions and emotional honesty, everything I intended to achieve from this trip, but 12 hours of nonstop conversation is also difficult for me. By the time we reached Portland, I was a shell. I've been less tired after ultramarathons. 

Due to my work schedule, we had an extra day and a half in Portland before my sisters arrived. I filled the hours with work and running. With each mile, I slowly unraveled the knot in my back and brought my brain back to the present. Portland is such a beautiful city. I remember why I wanted to move here when I was young.  

Lisa and Sara arrived by early Wednesday afternoon. Lisa's flight was delayed by several hours because flying is a nightmare right now (both of their return flights were canceled and they had to reschedule at the last minute.) With gas closing in on $6 a gallon and crowds bursting at the seams of every remote destination, there is a small part of me that yearns for a return to stay-at-home quarantine times ... but I digress. We were together in Oregon and we were happy. We headed toward the coast without much of a plan. We drove right by the Tillamook cheese factory so I suggested stopping there, instantly regretted this suggestion when I saw the Disneyland-like crowds, but ended up becoming enthralled with all the delicious dairy. We spent two hours at the cheese factory. Over ice cream I searched nearby destinations on my phone and proposed a diversion to Cape Meares — my sisters and I collectively remembered that "Mom loves lighthouses" and she confirmed that she does indeed love lighthouses.  

While at Cape Mearas, the sisters and I embarked on a short but steep hike to the coast. The trail was an utter mess — the Pacific Northwest has received record rains this spring, so every inch was either a morass of mud, a tangle of deadfall, a puddle, or a fern jungle. The sisters were good sports. 

We ended up in a narrow cove surrounded by cliffs, a secret beach where we could sit on driftwood and watch the waves. All of us had a good cry here. It's a cliche but true — the ocean is a place for healing. It's so vast that we can disappear into it for a moment, let it absorb all of the pain and grief, and simply be. The mountains are good for me as long as I can keep moving, but if and when I reach a point in my life where I require a long pause, I hope I can be by the ocean. 

So I guess this is the "trail." 

Thursday, June 16. Mom had a busy itinerary in mind ... I think she just needed some distraction, to feel as though life could still be as it was when she and my Dad flitted all over the place to squeeze a full two weeks of vacation into one week. The only thing I required on this day was a least a little solo time to breathe and reflect, so I set an early alarm. We were staying at a condo in Rockaway Beach, a delightful out-of-the-way beach town with little to offer beyond a whistle-stop for a steam engine train and "the largest cedar tree in Oregon." My room had its own secret sliding door to the street, so I slipped outside at 6:30 a.m. to misty rain and temperatures in the 50s. Sublime. Thanks to the rain, grass pollen was tamped down and all of this sea-level oxygen made me feel as though I could fly. Sometimes I let myself believe I'm a complex creature who needs an entire ocean to absorb my grief, but then I get a hit of easy oxygen and realize my whole mindset can shift simply by giving my body food, water, or air. 

Rockaway doesn't have much in the way of trails, so I mapped out a route on logging roads through the coastal headlands. It was a lovely run along a ridge with views of the verdant hills and big blue sea, with decimated patches of clear-cut forest to keep things real. As I descended toward town, the road I was following became fainter and more overgrown until it dead-ended altogether. I was at that point less than a half-mile from the beach. It was more than five miles back up and around, and I had a tight schedule to keep. I decided to brave bushwhacking, which proved a poor choice in this land of blackberry brambles and other types of bitey vegetation. My legs were shredded by the time I emerged from the forest. I looked like I had lost a fight with an angry street cat. But I was happy. It was a wonderful run. I was in love with Rockaway Beach. 

Rain continued to pour down as we drove north to Cannon Beach, but luckily petered out in time to do all of the things. Cannon Beach is iconic and gorgeous, and also windy and cold. Cold weather is always a treat for me, but Sara, who lives in Orange County, California, was less impressed with this aspect of the "beach." 

We headed over to Ecola State Park, which generated much in the way of fun sister jokes because I kept calling it "Ebola," Sara thought it was "E. coli," and we were all singing a parody yodel from the cough drop commercial, "Eeee-co-laaaa." It too was a messy place of endless peanut butter mud and badly eroded trail. I had hoped to squeeze in more hiking with my sisters, but even I was ready to admit that these tiresome conditions were too much for me. 

It was lovely, though, to trek through this enchanted forest somewhere deep in Middle Earth. 

I think we had all managed to distract ourselves from the difficult anniversary we came here to observe. But truthfully, I wanted to observe it. I had my opportunity here, at Indian Beach. As we sat down on driftwood, I again completely lost myself in the sound of the waves. It was so peaceful, so encompassing. I felt strongly that I just wanted to sit there for the rest of the afternoon, watch the sun set, and let the last light of June 16 disappear into the ocean. Mom seemed to be pushing for our next destination, which was Seaside. I can't blame her, as she'd already been waiting for two hours while we slipped and slid through Ecola. Still, I'll admit to feeling sadness as we drove away. I felt as though we were pushing too hard to speed through this experience, and that we'd miss it altogether. 

We had a lovely evening in Seaside. But the following morning, I couldn't muster the energy for a run. I encouraged a visit to "Big Tree" with lunch at the local bakery. I quietly hoped we'd spend the rest of the day in Rockaway, but restlessness prevailed and by afternoon we were on the road south. We stopped at one of Mom's favorite spots, Cape Lookout, but again the trail became too mucky to hike. Mom was enthusiastic about continuing once we hit the mud, but I tried to quietly discourage this — a number of emergency vehicles were parked at the trailhead, and rescue crews passed as we hiked, indicating that someone had a serious injury, which becomes likely on trails like this. After about a mile we gave in, but at least we had a few nice views (the trail was buffed out and dry for the first half-mile, as shown here, which is why we had generated a modicum of optimism.) 

It was Lisa who suggested Cape Kiwanda, another 20 minutes down the road and unknown to all of us. "Sand dunes," she announced as she scrolled through her AllTrails app. I had low expectations, and it was late in the day, but we were already here so why not check it out? We had another humorous family moment after we arrived in an obvious tourist town to discover the only public parking cost $10. Channeling the spirit of our father, Lisa drove through streets lined with "no parking" signs to search for a free space as Sara rolled her eyes. 

"It's ten dollars," she said with an exasperated tone and then offered to just pay the fee herself. We promised we pay back our $2.50 share and everyone had a good laugh. Family jokes, you know. 

Cape Kiwanda was beautiful — honestly my favorite stop of the trip. We trudged along the dunes, stopped to look at sea caves, and spend long minutes marveling at the hydraulics churning below the cliffs. 

Our loop brought us to the edge of a steep dune descending back toward the beach. It reminded me of winter hiking with my dad, when we'd hit a steep snowfield and he'd suddenly leap forward, snowshoes whipping and powder flying in a barely controlled sprint down the slope. Lisa and Sara started to pick their way down the sand when I announced, "I'm going to go for it. I'm going to run." And with that, I launched forward, legs kicking and arms flailing in an exhilerating descent. My sisters quickly followed, laughing and whooping as we crushed 200 feet of vertical drop in seconds. 

Still surging with adrenaline, shoes filled with sand, we ran to find our mom. 

"That was just like one of Dad's favorite things in the world," I told my sisters. "Running down the snow slope." 

We had one more morning in Rockaway before my sisters needed to be back in Portland to catch their rescheduled flights home, and then Mom and I would drive another 6.5 hours to Boise to visit her brother. A whirlwind trip, and I was admittedly dreading this day, as my energy levels and back pain had not yet recovered from the drive out. To help prepare my back for another day of painful compression, I mustered motivation for one last early-morning run. This time, I planned my logging road route a bit better and managed to avoid the blackberry brambles. I even squeezed in a mile along the beach.

This run was lovely, with morning fog giving way to a sunny day. It was also deeply cathartic, as rich oxygen coursed through my blood and I experienced a rare sensation that was both peaceful and powerful. I imagined a future where the ocean would always be there to swallow my sadness, but also I could still live in the mountains and a place with real winters. Of course, there's no perfect place, no permanent peace, no true stops in the journey of life — at least until the final stop. I will never stop feeling my grief, never fill this hole where I keep my love for my father. But he's been gone a year now, all of the seasons, and I believe I've reached a measure of peace with this truth. His memory lives on in the people I love, and also in the places he loved, and there is still beauty in this expansive world that nothing can take away. 

Saturday, May 07, 2022

Just being here now is enough for me

The 2022 Iditarod Trail Invitational. Part four of four.

The Kuskokwim River, March 4, 2022

 The story of my final day on the Iditarod Trail in 2022 has been a difficult one to start. In addition to being my potential last day ever on the Iditarod Trail — at least in the context of this race — this turned out to be one of my favorite days. But if I wrote from a direct perspective, purely about what happened, it would come across as an exhausting, tedious, punishing sort of day — which it was. If I approached the story from the more fluid perspective of my inner world, it would read like a weird fever dream — which it also was. The truth, as usual, is both and also neither, too complex for a tidy narrative. But we keep trying, don’t we, to tell our story? Like anyone attempting to weave tangled threads of experience, I hope to grasp something tangible from the abstraction of memory. 

Morning outside Nikolai

The day started inside the Nikolai checkpoint at the unforgivably early hour of 7 a.m. The checkpoint, located in the village community center, is a large open room with a pool table, a few folding chairs, a bathroom, and a kitchen. When I arrived at 1 a.m., again last in a large conglomeration of cyclists, the only people awake were Troy and a Danish man who I learned was Asbjorn's father. Asbjorn was a skier in the Nome race. The man — who presumably traveled all the way from Denmark to volunteer at this remote checkpoint in rural Alaska — was standing outside and waving his arms when I pulled up to the community center. He had seen from my tracker that I'd spent the last half hour pedaling aimlessly around the village. I found it amusing but endearing that he thought standing in the dark and making this gesture would help me find my way. He directed me inside and offered to cook a hamburger. 

 “This is only the second hamburger I have ever made,” he said proudly. “I am learning American cuisine. How is it?” 

 “It’s great,” I chirped, although he could have served a desiccated piece of Spam and I would have eaten it. I was too muddled to be discerning, and my mouth was too raw from several days of frozen nuts to taste much of anything. I felt shattered. Just so tired. 

Moody skies over the still well-packed trail outside Nikolai

I finished my late-night burger and rolled out my sleeping bag on the linoleum floor. The room was lined with wall-to-wall sleeping bags and there wasn't much space left to lie down. I had to squeeze into a spot in the center of the room. Doubtlessly some people had to step over me during the night, but I still slept like a corpse until the final stragglers started moving five hours later. This was my group — the five who shared tent space in Rohn and banded together for the South Fork crossing. Even though I could barely sit up, I felt compelled to follow them. 

 When I say I could barely sit up, I’m not exaggerating. I must have crashed my bike at least a dozen times the previous day. My pre-dawn body slam on hard ice had limited the mobility in my left hip, but this limp was just the beginning. My entire body was a knot of pain. I was lucky to have cleared the moguls without breaking any bones, but every joint creaked and groaned. My muscles felt tenderized. My bruised skin was throbbing. Every limb was stiff. My older injuries — the back pain and broken toe — were still there, but so muffled by the screaming from everything else that they hardly registered. When I was still weirdly contorted in my sleeping bag on the floor, Becca walked by and asked if I was planning to leave soon. 

“I need to summon the will to live,” I croaked. I wasn’t exaggerating about this, either. If I had two buttons and one said “ride to McGrath feeling the way you do” and the other said “die painlessly,” it would have been a genuine toss-up. 

 The official checkpoint volunteer, George, was sitting at the kitchen counter and barking at his phone. Apparently, Lindsay, the 70-something Canadian cyclist, was injured near the Farewell Lakes and had requested a rescue. A volunteer from Rohn had already tried to get through without success — the bumps were too much for his machine. 

 “It’s too windy for anyone to fly,” George said into the phone. “What does he expect us to do?” 

The Kuskokwim River as seen from the air

Indeed, despite the minimal windows in the room, I could hear an ominous knocking against the walls. The wind had returned and it was unlikely to be the tailwind we’d enjoyed the previous day. The trail beyond Nikolai went generally west but also occasionally turned south along the meandering Kuskokwim River. As I creaked to a standing position, I visualized the route map superimposed over what I still believed to be the wind direction — the previous day’s 25 mph southwest winds. A destabilizing crosswind and drifted trails seemed all but certain. This would turn out to be an optimistic assessment because the wind had shifted to the south. 

Beat and I joke about how people always overestimate wind speed. Winds are always “At least 50 mph, probably gusting to 80!” I do this too, even though I know that if the wind was actually blowing 80 mph, my body would be splayed on the ground and I would be forced to crawl if I wanted to move at all. So, for this report, I checked the weather record for March 4 at the Nikolai airport — keeping in mind that winds are often higher on the river. When I left town at 8:10 a.m., the wind was blowing SSW at 16 mph, gusting to 28. This would increase throughout the day with a continuous wind speed of 26 mph and gusts as high as 53 mph. Trust me when I say this is a lot of wind. 

While packing up to head out, a gust caught my red bivy bundle and blew it a few hundred yards down the snow-packed street. I had to sprint after my survival gear, stumbling and groaning in pain. For two miles the trail follows a village road through the woods before dipping onto the frozen Kuskokwim River. I stopped a number of times for any excuse I could imagine just to avoid the inevitable. Even with the relative protection of the woods, crosswinds knocked me to and fro. My legs throbbed. I was miserable. 

Morning light on the Kuskokwim River

Then I thought of a mantra that my friend Jorge mentioned after his 2018 walk to Nome. It sounds bleak but it works for me — an unapologetic pessimist whose mental scaffolding is prone to collapse before the game is over. The mantra is, “This is never going to end.” I repeat it to myself when I’m frustrated. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no end to the discomfort. And if there’s no end, then how do I learn to live here? 

 Somehow this worked. My focus shifted from misery to renewed determination to embrace the difficulty and ignore the pain. I dropped onto the river, buffeted by a fearsome crosswind. Several inches of spindrift coated the trail. Finding the rideable line wasn’t trivial. Beneath the windblown powder was an intermittent mix of packed snow and whipped-up, mashed potato snow. The mashed potato snow was too soft to support my weight. But the packed snow surface remained hidden from view. Keeping the wheels turning became a kind of Zen meditation, an indescribable sense of knowing the unknowable, of finding the way by intuition alone. 

Drifted snow over the trail

It sounds hokey now, but I was mesmerized by the effort. For timeless miles I remained wholly absorbed in the next pedal stroke, the next shimmy of the handlebars, always holding my invisible line and never wavering even as the south wind continued to rattle me violently. Bobbette and Becca were about a quarter-mile behind. Snow continued to blow across the trail, erasing my tracks. Although riders had been through just a few hours before, there was no evidence of their passing, either. This is something I respect about winter trails — they are always changing. In this way, "ghost trails" are living works of art: an embodiment of the impermanence in all things. 

Each moment that my mind, body, and soul were wholly absorbed in drawing a perfect line in the snow, that’s all it was — a moment. Wheels turned, spindrift filled in my tracks, and it was as though I was never there. Can you understand the freedom therein? It was exhilarating. If I exist in a world without end but also without beginning, then each moment is everything. There can be no past filled with pain, no future weighted with worry. And each moment — the snow, the moody sky, the distant mountains stretched along the horizon — was indescribably beautiful. 

Pushing when the drifted snow was too difficult to ride

My mind did occasionally wander. My moving meditation was interrupted by the most random memories: people I hadn’t thought about in years, insignificant snippets of the past. Memory can be so fickle. I suppose this is another beautiful embodiment of impermanence: the vignettes of life that we carry in our subconscious, for reasons we don’t even understand. Though bewildering at times, it was interesting to wend through the lesser-traveled corridors of my mind. Some memories bordered on hallucinations, closer to a sleeping dream than a daydream. For long minutes, I’d be wholly immersed in the neon lights of State Street in Salt Lake City, a teenager in a car surrounded by nearly forgotten yet vivid sounds and smells — the lime yogurt that fermented and then exploded in the trunk of my friend's Chevy Cavalier, Queens of the Stone Age playing on a garbled FM radio station. 

It was so real. Then, as though being pulled out from underwater, I’d snap back to howling wind and an invisible line in the snow. These fluctuations between past and present became unnerving, enough so that I forced myself back to a more normal state of mind — one that, unfortunately, was more attuned to pain and boredom. 

Breaking my bike down to carry it up this short but steep embankment

The trail also became more dynamic, with bumpy shortcuts through the forest, stretches across swamps where the loose snow was too deep to ride with or without Zen techniques, and punchy climbs and descents on and off the river. One embankment was only about as high as my head, but the climb was nearly vertical, slicked with ice, and impossible. I tried several methods of hoisting my bike to the top before I finally relented to removing the bags. I hooked the frame to my backpack and climbed the embankment, kicking tiny steps into the ice and using exposed roots as handholds. I returned two more times for the bags. Though successful, the experience rattled me a little bit. I suddenly felt vulnerable. What if I came to an embankment that I simply couldn’t climb up? It wouldn’t take much to break me, and this wind-blasted wilderness isn’t kind to broken people. 

 The trail cut through the woods and dropped back onto the river, this time heading due south. The wind, doubtlessly gusting to 50 mph, became an invisible but impenetrable wall. I could no longer ride forward. Genuinely, I could not. I felt so exposed. It wasn’t that cold — certainly, it wasn’t 45 below like 2020 — and yet I felt the same sort of unease, a realization that my human body was exceptionally fragile. This realization is one of the reasons I don’t think I will return to the Iditarod Trail, at least not in this context — as an endurance racer, pressed against my soft human limits. 

The isolation I can feel out there is difficult to depict

Earlier this year, when I admitted to friends that I did not want to return for the 2022 race, I heard similar assurances: “It’s okay. You’ve had a tough year. You have nothing to prove.” But I never had anything to prove. It was always hubris to believe I could “conquer” anything, that I could take my weak human body on a difficult journey and somehow this would solidify my inner strength. This trail has crushed my inner strength again and again — in good ways, memorable ways, ways that have made me a more empathetic, adaptable, and mindful person (cracks are where the light gets in, after all.) But as the years have rattled my physical and mental health, I better understand how I can be weakened by these endeavors. Some cracks don’t heal. I can’t risk shattering completely. 

 For now, I was fearful of shattering but also stuck. McGrath was still 20 miles away and I was going to have to power myself through this wind wall no matter what. (As the Lindsay drama demonstrated, help is not guaranteed even if I was in real distress, which of course I was not. Lindsay was eventually able to mobilize a ground rescue from two Nikolai residents on more powerful snowmachines, but even that was a complicated undertaking.) 

Fighting for the perfect line

Writing about it now, all of the fear I was feeling seems overwrought. But it was genuine, because most of it was rooted in the well of the exhaustion and pain that I had managed to cover up for much of the day. When I looked up to face the wind, the difficulty seemed overwhelming. But as soon as I stopped struggling in the pedals and relented to walking my bike, I settled back into steady motion. 

There was one more difficult obstacle to face: a steep climb over a bluff that shortcuts an oxbow bend in the river. For miles, I couldn’t shake my stress about this upcoming climb. I know it sounds silly, but I was fearful that I wouldn’t be strong enough, that I simply wouldn’t make it. I knew a few snowmachiners in the Iron Dog Trail Class cut a trail that followed the river around the oxbow, but this prospect was also ridiculous. It added at least five miles, and half of that was due south into a headwind that was arguably even more unmanageable than the steepest grade possible. As it turned out, the wind had entirely erased the river trail, so the only option was the shortcut. I was physically shaking. As nervous as I was at the time, I was also rolling my proverbial eyes at myself. “How far I’ve fallen. Once I found the courage to venture into the Alaska wilderness when I knew effectively knew nothing. Now I know so much and I can’t even face a hill I’ve climbed before.” 

 The hill, of course, wasn’t that bad, except for a large birch tree had fallen over the hillside and was blocking the entire trail. It wasn’t all that trivial to break a footpath through the deep snow around the tangle of branches, but it wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t about to fall backward like I nearly had on the Post River Glacier, and I didn’t have to break down my bike and carry it up in pieces, so it wasn’t that bad. 

Ripples in the snow

And then I dropped back onto the river, where the trail had filled with drifting snow. The spindrift had a beautiful, rippled pattern, like fine grains of sand in a white desert. A fierce crosswind continued driving sand — I mean snow — over the surface. The afternoon sun illuminated streams of spindrift, which resembled fingers of light. The way these fingers reached out from the woods evoked a haunting feeling, as though the wind was alive. And although this wind spirit didn’t feel evil, the sensation of being haunted was visceral enough that I decided it was again time to get out of my head. Earlier I’d turned off an audiobook to concentrate on the sinister hill, so I switched my device to a music playlist. As though the spirit of the wind was speaking directly to me, what should be the first song to come up? “Addict with a Pen.” 

 These are just pop songs, I know, and it’s silly that I keep bringing them up, but the way they give voice to my moods is a crucial part of the experience. This song by Twenty One Pilots was the one that happened to come on during my last endurance race in September, the Utah Mixed Epic, in a pivotal moment when I lost myself to grief and collapsed in a nondescript high-desert valley in Central Utah. I curled around my knees on the rocky ground and cried excruciating yet liberating tears. As the song ended, I struck up a conversation with my father. It felt so real, and it lent me a few moments of immeasurable peace. For the same song to play now, pulsing with the rhythm of the wind and blowing sand — I mean snow — was surreal. It swept me back to that rust-colored hillside in Utah, the wisps of clouds in a cerulean sky. I’d returned to the desert, and I was again swept into all of the emotions all at once. 

 But I try my best and all that I can 
To hold tightly onto what's left in my hand 
But no matter how, how tightly I will strain 
The sand will slow me down and the water will drain 

Trying to capture the dynamic dance of wind and sky

My eyes blurred with tears, and then the sky began to dance. Amid the blowing snow and jet stream of clouds, the sun’s rays shimmered and swayed. The scene was indescribably beautiful. I took several photos that do it no justice, but my grief- and joy-stricken mind perceived this place as otherworldly, magical, as dynamic as a galaxy compressed in a pinpoint. In the physical world, I was stumbling through ankle-deep spindrift, leaning into the lee side of my bike as the crosswind froze the tears on my cheeks … but in my mind, it was one of the most phenomenal moments of my life. 

No, I couldn't really capture it.

My reverie broke when the trail ascended another near-vertical embankment and cut through the woods. The roar of the wind gave way to a muffled whistle through tree branches, which sounded comparatively silent. A sign said McGrath was 10 miles away. Pain and fatigue returned. I crossed swamps and battled headwinds. The trail again dropped onto the Kuskokwim River, wending briefly north and then due south. 

It was late evening now, with soft pink light stretched across the horizon. The wind was as strong as it had ever been. When I hit the invisible wall on the southward bend, I threw a foot down and looked up. I was just two miles from the end. I could see the McGrath airport. But I couldn’t move. 

Standing at the start of the Iditarod Trail Invitational with my first fat bike, "Pugsley," in February 2008. I like to look at this photo and ponder the ways in which I've come full circle.

Fourteen years ago, I met a similar wind on the Kuskokwim River. Spindrift masked the trail entirely. At times I couldn’t even tell whether I was still going the right way, but back then I was naive enough to not be frightened because I had a plan. My plan if I lost the trail was to hike in a direct line guided by my GPS — this was back when I believed such a ridiculous thing to be possible. I somehow held the correct path and climbed off the river — my perceived final challenge — only to be blown into a snowbank by an errant gust. My bike landed on top of me, effectively pinning me in a hole. I didn’t have the energy to lift myself then, either. I remember how that surprise setback evoked all of the emotions, everything all at once, and I laughed and cried before summoning an empowering burst of strength. Now it seems so long ago, and also just a blip in time. 

 What have I learned after all these years? How does that lyric go? “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.” My dad loved The Byrds. 

 Often I think middle-age is similar to adolescence. Your hormones are changing, your worldview is shifting, and the full scope of adulthood no longer makes sense. You don’t have your path figured out the way you once did, because life isn’t a linear journey. Life is long, and the more you live, the more you’ll change. Life is loss, and the more you live, the more you’ll lose. Life is exploration, only to realize that the more you learn, the less you know. Life is hard, but not because you decide to pursue hard things. It’s hard for reasons you’ll never control, and you have to learn to live with that, too. 

 And I suppose that this — standing frozen river with a 50 mph wind blowing in my face — is one of life’s absurd situations that ultimately means something. Because I chose it, and because I love it, in spite of its absurdity. Because it’s beautiful and rewarding, in spite of also being tedious and pointless. Because I watched the sky dance in a moment of clarity that I will cherish always, even as my path takes me far away from here. The Iditarod Trail is a microcosm of life, which is why we keep coming back. I told myself that this was the last time I would come back — I continue to tell myself this — but I can’t know what the future holds. 

Final selfie, one mile from McGrath

For a few seconds, the wind quieted. I took advantage of the lull to launch my bike forward. Even as gusts picked up, I continued summoning all the energy needed to keep the pedals turning. Time seemed to warp — it took nearly an hour to pedal that final two miles. A local drove by on a snowmachine and congratulated me. As I neared the riverbank, the final home-free, I upheld a long-standing tradition to let the music playlist decide the theme song for this adventure. So I hit next and heard the intro to “Go Solo” by Tom Rosenthal. 

I promise: I am not making up any of these random music selections. Of course, I only write about the ones that were implausibly relevant, but this adventure couldn’t have finished on a better note: 

Our love is a river long,
The best right in a million wrongs.
I know I'm coming back to you.
And I'm happy, 
nothing's going to stop me 
I'm making my way home, 
I'm making my way.

Arriving at the McGrath finish with my current fat bike, "Erik," on March 4, 2022.

It took longer than the song’s three-or-so minutes to pedal a mile, so I continued hitting repeat until I rolled up to the lodge. My friend from Boulder who was volunteering at the checkpoint, Cheryl, was standing outside waiting for me, as were two ladies who finished earlier — Beth and Janice. 

Janice asked what finish this was for me. “Number six,” I replied, and then clarified. “Three on a bike, three on foot, but once on the bike I was on my way to Nome, so that didn’t count, and once on foot I intended to go to Nome, so that was a DNF.” 

 Janice mercifully cut me off. “Six,” she said. “Nice work.” 

Faye Norby is exhausted after finishing as the first woman on foot in 6 days, 13 hours

As for the 2022 stats, Amber won the women’s bike race in 4 days 11 hours, Beth was second in 4 days 18 hours, Janice finished in 4 days 21 hours, I was fourth in 5 days 4 hours, and Bobbette and Becca rolled in an hour later in 5 days 5 hours. Jennifer Hanson was the seventh finisher in 6 days, 1 hour. 

None of us went onto Nome — in a field of 30 Nome hopefuls, sadly none were women this year. But I am heartened to see how women’s participation in this sport has grown over the years. In addition to the seven cyclists, there were three women on foot and two on skis. In 2008 it was just me and the co-race director, Kathi Merchant, and two women on foot, Loreen Hewitt and Anne Ver Hoef. 

Beat arrived in McGrath early in the morning on March 6 and left 12 hours later. He won the race to Nome and received a free entry as a prize, so of course he plans to return in 2023. 

Despite all of the difficulties, I had an incredible experience on the Iditarod Trail this year and am glad I made the decision to ride to McGrath. I nearly left it at DNF’ing the walk to Nome in 2020, and am grateful that wasn’t the final chapter. While I’m not certain this is the final chapter, I am content with being “retired” from Iditarod racing for the time being. It’s an opportunity to reflect, refocus, and imagine where I might be 14 years from now — should I be so lucky to still be writing my own story.