Saturday, July 30, 2022

Around the Matterhorn

The Matterhorn (Monte Cervino) as seen from a glacier near the Swiss-Italian border

I’ve been meaning to post a few entries from our visit to the Alps this year. I didn’t do so last year, and I regret this now. My brain was so scrambled after my dad died that I remember little about the summer of 2021, even though we visited incredible places and I found many moments of peace. A sort of brain fog has settled into this summer as well, perhaps for different reasons, but I don’t want to let another mountain season slip away from memory. 

Walking off the jetlag above Valtournenche, Italy

We arrived in Geneva sometime in the late evening on July 13. We’d heard all of the horror stories about air travel this year and braced for the worst, but even so, the journey was challenging. A flight was canceled, another was delayed, a long layover in the stifling crowds of London-Heathrow and a plane delayed on the tarmac did not prevent the airline from losing our luggage, and then we had to leave the airport sans supplies for a three-hour drive to a remote mountain village in Italy in what was by then the middle of the night. Having barely slept in two days, I botched the navigation and misdirected Beat onto the Autostrade, which forced us to pay a 9 Euro toll to drive 12 miles in the wrong direction. At this point I essentially had a panic attack, gulping down bile to reign in my breathing.

The southern aspects of the Matterhorn, as viewed from the Italian side

Lately, I’ve wondered if I still possess the mental health for enjoyable international travel. I do love being here, but the disruption of routines, the general stress, insomnia, and limited personal space have fueled an extended anxiety episode that I'm still working to shake. Most mornings, I wake up to the question of how I’ll best cope with the day’s agenda, even if I’m excited about it. If I don’t form a mental road map, I tend to unravel quickly. I’m certainly not complaining, just explaining why I’m having a difficult time right now, even in a gorgeous and privileged setting. I think most people who cope with some level of anxiety disorder can relate. 

Beat and friends start the Cervino Matterhorn Ultra Race

First on the agenda was another of Beat’s Alpine mountain races. The Cervino Matterhorn Ultra Race circumnavigated the Matterhorn over 182 kilometers (113 miles) of technical trail with 13,000 meters (42,000 feet!!) of climbing. Just the usual for Beat at this point — actually a bit short compared to the 300-kilometer courses he’s raced in past years. It had to be short as our Belgian friend, Pieter, was getting married in a few short days — the reason we’re in Europe in July this year, rather than September. Daniel, our friend from Denver, also joined. Since our luggage disappeared, Beat was missing some of the required gear for the pre-race meeting, so we had to stop at an outdoor store in the village of Valtournenche. The proprietor was exceedingly helpful and friendly, even gifting me a water bottle and three pairs of underwear that he said his wife made him stock for just such occasions. We left the store remembering why we missed the Aosta Valley so much — the mountains are spectacular, the food consistently more delicious than anything I eat at home, and the locals just make you feel good about yourself and humanity in general. 

Euillaz — this is all part of a ski area in the winter. Peaceful and lonely in the summer.

Since thousands of bags were missing from the Geneva and Paris airports, and since we were three hours away from Geneva, I assumed we’d never see our luggage again. Amazingly it arrived the following evening via a courier — an unexpected stroke of luck. This allowed me to squeeze in a late evening hike above the apartment where we were staying — just a quiet side road between Valtournenche and Breuil-Cervinia. It never ceases to amaze me that there are so many places in the Alps where you can walk out the front door and within an hour be in a spot like this. 

The glacier trail to Testa Grigia

The race started Friday, July 15, at the very Italian time of 10 a.m. I cheered the guys through the gate and then took off up the other side of the valley, climbing the final pass in their race, Teodulo. It’s a vertical mile of trudging up steep dirt and scree, and was exactly what I needed. Somewhere around 10,000 feet my brain finally switched from anxious to awestruck.

The glacier cat track carries you all the way down to the Swiss side

The Italian-Swiss border is flanked by an expansive network of glaciers that are rapidly shrinking. Until recently, temperatures above 3,000 meters usually stayed near or below freezing year-round, but that is no longer the case. The temperature was probably around 50 degrees at this altitude, but under direct sunlight with the reflective oven effect of the snow, it felt like a scorching day in the desert. 

The view across Ventina Ghiacciao

The Ventina and Furgg glaciers are used as a year-round ski area and are regularly groomed even on a hot day in July. Skiers and snowboarders use tow ropes to reach the upper slopes, but I saw other hikers and climbers walking the cat track, so I figured this wasn’t forbidden. I strapped on my microspikes and set off toward Switzerland, splashing and slipping through several inches of slush and flowing water over glare ice. Every so often a snowboarder would tear past in a roar of scraping ice, creating a wake through the runoff that made it appear as though they were surfing waves rather than snow. 

Another incredible view from the Furgggletscher

Walking across the glacier created a similar ripple of cognitive dissonance. It looked like a frozen mountain paradise but felt like a baked landscape of white rock and sand. My feet were soaked but not cold, and the high-altitude UV rays broke through my best defenses — industrial-strength sunscreen from New Zealand and a long-sleeve sun shirt with a hood. It’s jarring to watch a glacier actively melt, very quickly, in real time. The sound of cascading water over the ice was unnerving and cast a shade of melancholy over my awe. Rather than try to fight this emotion with disassociation — like I do with anxiety — I dug in deeper and sat with the sadness. It won’t be many more years before this glacier is gone. There’s a chance I will still be alive and well enough to climb this same pass and walk into a world of only rock and scree. That likelihood is already baked into our future, so as my friend Pieter advises, it’s better to appreciate the glaciers while they’re here rather than mourn their inevitable loss. 

Stone farmhouses above Breuil-Cervinia

Beat’s Alpine ultras always leave me feeling nervous, as there is an abundance of dangerous mountain terrain that he’s expected to traverse at all hours of the night and in all weather. Still, over the years Beat has proven himself capable of handling it, and CMUR was at least not as long or sadistically routed as PTL. Still, I endured another somewhat sleepless night wondering about him. First thing in the morning, I learned that Pieter would have to drop out of the race with a serious case of dehydration. He had blood in his urine and his physician sister advised him against continuing. What she told him is, “if you don’t want to spend your wedding day in the hospital, stop now.” Pieter continued to question this decision but I’m also of the opinion that heat injuries are not the place to test your limits. Cold is much less scary to me — unless you’re completely unprepared, subzero temperatures can be managed for a long time. Even frostbite usually doesn’t kill you. Heat is like — you start having cramps and 60 minutes later, you’re dead. 

Approaching Finestra di Cignana

Beat and Daniel planned to stay together as the European heat wave of mid-July 2022 continued to bake the region. Luckily Beat at least had heat training behind him, having run the Bighorn 100 in northern Wyoming in June as temperatures spiked into the high 90s. A lot of the European racers also had to drop with heat-related issues. I often wonder what my future might hold in regard to endurance racing, but I’m almost certain that my “summer racing” days are behind me. I just have too many physiological challenges stacked against me: Sun sensitivity (I break out in heat rashes over nothing), asthma, pollen allergies, and fairly extreme reactions to smoke and pollution. Despite asthma treatments and perhaps miraculously avoiding Covid so far (although I expect the virus to come for me eventually and probably soon), my airways feel a little more pinched each summer. I’m already imagining a future where I might have to hole up indoors for long blocks of the wildfire season, making use of my bike trainer and a HEPA filter to avoid going mad. Either way, strenuous racing during the summer months seems out of reach. 

The view from Col de Valcorniere

So yes, during summer my breathing and thus fitness often deteriorates regardless of training. On the bright side, this gives my ego a reason to let go of expectations and just wander to my heart’s content. I confirmed that Pieter could catch a shuttle back to our apartment — a pickup was something I really didn’t want to have to endure as the round-trip drive to Zinal would take at least six and a half hours — 50 or so miles on foot, and 120 by endlessly winding mountain roads. Having slithered out of any potential crew duties with this fact, I had another full day to wander in the mountains. I chose to aim for the first pass on the CMUR course, Col de Valcorniere. 

An ibex family on Col de Valcorniere

Col de Valcorniere was an enjoyable climb, another vertical mile along a rocky trail, talus fields, and a short section of protected scrambling at the end. I sat on the pass for a half hour, enjoying the antics of a momma ibex and her two rowdy kids. 

Nothing but choss as far as the eye can see

Somehow I generated a desire to venture down the other side of the pass, which was a chossy nightmare. Tight, meager switchbacks still cut a 40-50% grade, loose and slippery but too chunky to simply boot ski — not that I have the coordination to ski scree. Still, I continue to pick my way down 800 vertical feet before I turned to look back at the crumbling wall behind me. “This is all very dumb. It’s not like I’m in a race and have to force myself to do any of this.” I reversed course and quickly lost the “trail.” I had to resort to climbing directly up large blocks of talus, which is not unlike “hiking” in the high country of Colorado and was actually preferable to the nightmare “trail.” 

Fireweed over Lago di Cignana

I descended into Valtournenche on the Alta Via 1 — part of the Tor des Geants course I hadn’t yet seen — and started the long climb up to Euillaz as 5 p.m. sunlight baked the pavement. A store marquee said it was 32C, which is nearly 90 degrees, almost unheard of for an Alps village above 5,000 feet. For a mile my route followed a steeply graded road with heavy traffic — where are all of these people even going? Beat called during this time and I spent much of it trying to hear him over the roar of sports cars piloted by aggressive Italian drivers while sweat streamed down my phone onto my hand. 

Waterfall below Lago di Balanselmo

Then the route finally veered onto a trail and it was typical Aosta Valley ridiculous — severely eroded, cow-stomped dirt cutting straight up the hill at a 30% grade. When it rains these trails are pure mudslides so I’m glad it wasn’t that. I was nearing 8,000 feet of ascent for this hike and my legs were tired, but I particularly loved this part. It was so hot and such a slog that I only had the energy to focus on the present. Late afternoon light saturated the grassy slopes, which were simultaneously soft and angled. Silence resumed. All of the travel anxiety finally faded. I felt content. 

Looking toward the Matterhorn, flanked by clouds

By the time I descended to our apartment after 20 miles, it was nearly 9 p.m. Pieter had finally made it back himself so we cooked up pasta and chatted about our adventures. I checked Beat’s progress in the race and determined there was no chance of an early-morning finish, and finally — finally — settled in for a decent night of sleep.

Just another ho-hum view of the Matterhorn ridge from Mont de l'Eura

The following morning, Pieter was feeling better so we headed into town to await Beat and Daniel's arrival. Pieter planned to take the cable car to Testa Grigia and then run the final 10K downhill with the guys. I can't keep up with Beat in the mountains on my best days (and he's pretty much never at his worst) so I opted to hike toward the Matterhorn on the standard approach one might take to climb the mountain from the Italian side. You start on a class-one jeep road, begin the class-two talus-hopping at Mont de l'Eura, and it just gets harder from there. I stopped just shy of the section with class three and four scrambling around 10,000 feet, mostly because I ran out of time. It was a fun morning, still hot, and my legs were too dead to do much running on the way down. 

Beat and Daniel finish the Cervino

The guys finished their race in 53:01:42, and were 61st and 62nd place out of about 180 starters. I don't know how many people dropped out, but I believe there were fewer than 100 finishers. That's a large attrition rate for a ~hundred-mile race in the Alps. Most people who attempt these courses are highly experienced with Alpine racing — it's the Americans who tend to become overwhelmed. But the Europeans aren't used to two full days of 30C heat at altitude, and that's probably what did most of them in. 

Matterhorn views at sunset

At the finish line, we dragged Beat and Daniel to a nearby bar to sit in a sliver of shade. The guys didn't seem enthused about anything but a cold shower and a nap, but they perked up with cold beers and ice cream. The bar gave me a rare entire glass full of ice cubes with my 0.2 liters of lemon soda, so I was in American heaven (the lack of ice and abundance of lukewarm drinks in Europe never fail to baffle me, even as the Europeans give me similar side-eyes when I stuff my hydration bladder into tiny freezers with the intention of creating three liters of solid ice.)

The guys went home and crashed while Pieter and I waited until 9 p.m. to rouse them for pizza. In the meantime, I grabbed a final evening stroll along Torrente Marmore. Life is often simplest when I'm walking, and for this I'm grateful.
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.