Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Should've known I gotta get this off my chest

Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. On my way to Bear Peak

On Nov. 3, 2022, this blog turned a staggering and somewhat embarrassing 17 years old. I distinctly remember the day I launched it, from a desktop PC wedged into the corner of our cabin loft in the bluffs above Homer, Alaska. It was a blustery November evening, a Thursday, and I was still thawing out from an evening flail through the darkness on cross-country skis — a sport I was never going to mesh with. My then-boyfriend had taken a gorgeous photo with our shared 2.1-megapixel digital camera, that showed fresh snow coating the forested hills behind our house with the sunlit Kenai Mountains glistening in the background. I wanted to share the photo, but my strategy of mass e-mailing everyone in my address book had recently been blasted by an acquaintance who admonished me to stop “bragging all of the time about your great new life in Alaska.” 

But that was exactly what I wanted to do. And 2005 offered the most perfect social media platform ever created, before or since. After 10 minutes of online searching, I landed on, and within 30 minutes had a brand new Web site, “Arctic Glass” — my own misinterpretation of a Modest Mouse lyric that I’d grown to love for its simple evocation of beauty. 

 “So this is my new online journal about moving to Homer, Alaska — a place where it snows in October, where moose traipse through my backyard, and where everyone can spell my last name but if you can’t spell “Xtratuf,” well, so help you God.” 

 I’d been an Alaska resident for all of two months and was already certain I’d live there forever. My life was going to be amazing, full of summer’s endless sunlight, autumn snow, coaxing my underpowered sedan along snow-packed roads, weekend adventures, and moonlit skis … although I still hoped to find a winter sport that was better balanced between the tedium and terror of skiing. Fat bikes weren’t yet a gleam in my eye, nor was endurance racing, the Iditarod Trail, the Tour Divide, ultrarunning, Montana, California, Colorado. Launching this blog, in many ways, launched all of that. 

Friday, Nov. 18, 2022. Ethereal November snow returns. 

Exactly 17 years later, I was sprawled under a weighted blanket on the floor of my current loft in the foothills above Boulder, Colorado. It was a cloudy November dawn, a Thursday, and I’d been awake for sleepless hours searching online for therapists in the region. The prospect is bleak right now — so many people are in crisis and no one is available to help. The weighted blanket was a paradoxically comforting embodiment of the way I was feeling — pinned down, flat, vaguely anxious about nothing and everything all at once, and tired of myself. So tired. Bone tired. I wondered how anyone can aspire to live forever when I couldn’t even make it 43 years without daydreaming about a future when my molecules will become rocks or trees or rabbits or anything else. 

A poet I admire, Elisa Gabbert, recently wrote on Twitter — the worst social media platform ever created — “I think writing gets harder as you get older for the simple reason that you’re sick of yourself.” 

 This. So much this. There’s no rule that anyone has to write *about* themselves, but I think writers are in denial if they believe they’re not projecting self into any genre they pursue. Still, what am I if not a writer? It’s the one identity I’ve always held. Even before I could read, I’d grasp Richard Scarry books and see myself in their pages. I could quit anything else in my life — cycling, ultrarunning, adventuring — and still be myself. But without writing, without a narrative thread to weave through the chaos of life, I may as well just be a rock or a tree or a rabbit. Therein lies the intrigue. 

Elisa tweeted, “I may fantasize about quitting writing (a kind of self-indulgent death wish), but what I really want to do is quit striving. I want to try not giving a shit.” 

 I hovered over a button on the neglected and decaying UI of It read, simply, “Delete blog.” That’s all it would take. One click. Seventeen years. Poof. The thought was so enticing that I felt a dopamine rush, one of my first in a while. Sure, I’ve written much more than just blog posts in the past 17 years, but here in one place is my core, my history, my sanctuary. Thousands of hours of work. Removing it all would be a step into the unknown, an acknowledgment of a fresh start, not unlike dropping everything in my life to move to Alaska. But I couldn’t do it. I chickened out. I scrolled to a different button and changed the blog’s settings to “private” as a way to temporarily step back.  

Unsurprisingly, few people noticed that I knocked my blog offline. Since Nov. 3, I’ve received about three dozen messages, some personal and touching, mostly from people I’ve never met. After 17 years on a blog that once received upwards of 10,000 hits a day, the hiatus showed just how few readers remain. Even friends and family don’t check in anymore. But as I said, this was not surprising. No one reads blogs these days. All of that time, all of the tears, all of the joy and sadness — everything could be distilled into an unreadable string of hashtags over a pixelated image destined to disappear from Instagram Stories and no one would notice or care. 

 This is also a frequent source of angst for me, because seriously, why do writers bother? Any of us? There are a few who scrape income from their writing but the vast majority don’t. Even Elisa, a published essayist and poet who writes reviews for the New York Times, doesn’t think writing is really worth it. Writing is a compulsion. A sad one. But what choice do we have? 

Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. Not my best moment.

On Nov. 9, 2022, I laced up my favorite pair of trail runners and bounded out the door. It was a bright November morning, a Wednesday, moving into my favorite time of year. Daylight is short but gorgeous, saturated with rich color even in the middle of the day. The cool air is refreshing, the cold air invigorating. There’s no more pollen, no wildfire smoke. I can draw deep breaths into my lungs and luxuriate in this wealth of energy. 

Despite the inexplicably poor mental health that clouded most of the past month, I’d been running increasingly well. Waking up each morning to awful anxiety combined with a suffocating schedule — thrice-weekly allergy shots, medical and car appointments, chores, and an afternoon work shift — meant I had almost zero motivation to run. But I knew I needed it, so I created a routine. On Mondays, I ran Green Mountain. Fridays, SoBo or Bear. On weekends I usually rode my bike trainer, which yes — judge me because it doesn’t fit the narrative I’ve created for myself, but I needed the physical release without the mental stress of planning and executing a real adventure. 

Wednesday was swiftly becoming my favorite day of the week. On Wednesday, I ran Walker Ranch. My Wednesday Walker follows a 10-mile lollipop loop along a trail that I consider “mid-tech.” It’s entirely runnable but it’s not a stroller ramp; there are steep grades, tight switchbacks, and like any trail in Colorado, a whole lot of rocks. This makes it the perfect mental health run — I can’t fixate on daydreams or ruminations; I need to be present for all of the obstacles. As I push my pace, I slip into flow, each step finding its place until there’s nothing else. 

 “It takes concentration and a quiet mind to run well without any splats,” I wrote in a Nov. 2 description on Strava. “I had a few close calls so I was slower and more tentative this week, but still, a worthwhile two hours of meditation.” 

The following week, I decided I could earn a new PR. I’ve been running this loop for seven years, but it was within my grasp. I just needed to not think at all. I fired up my Shuffle. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Tom Rosenthal during my runs, which is funny because his own daughter once told him that his music made it sound like “everyone in the world had died.” Honestly, sad or contemplative music when you’re a little bit depressed can become hopeful and inspiring. Still, PR runs require something more upbeat, so I started the new album from the Silversun Pickups — a band I discovered while living in Homer. By mile four, I was in perfect flow — unencumbered molecules in motion — and vibing to “Empty Nest.” 

Did you notice, did you notice, I’m feeling uninspired? 
I think I’m crossing wires. 
How’d we get here? How’d we get here? Did we get here on our own? 
The seeds are overgrown. 

There’s a strange rhythm in this song, a skipped beat. I’m not sure I can blame the music, but I noticed these blips. One moment, my feet were dancing over the rocks as I rocketed through the universe. The next thing I noticed was the rough surface of a boulder, mere inches from my eyes. 

I must have tripped. I don’t remember catching my foot or losing my balance. I don’t remember the Superman launch through the air that must have happened to put me in this position. My arms were still at my side. Mere moments had lapsed, but these were important moments. Blissful flow instantly collapsed into “oh shit” terror, and then I smacked down, chin first. My chest slammed into the rounded side of the rock. A weird combination of my right elbow and left knee took the rest of the impact. 

Flooded with shock and humiliation, I scrambled to my feet and crawled up the hillside. I couldn’t risk anyone finding me in this crumpled, embarrassing state. Nausea swirled in my gut and I staggered wildly, punchdrunk from the hard uppercut. My jaw throbbed and I couldn’t draw a breath. It felt as though my chest had been crushed, though I understood this to mean that the wind was knocked out of me. I supposed it could have been something more serious than that, but my initial instinct was to fear a broken jaw, not a collapsed lung. 

I lay in the dry grass for some time, drawing thin, high-pitched breaths through clenched teeth. Finally, my chest relaxed and I could draw enough air to sit up. Blood had splattered all over my favorite shoes. There was a mile of climbing to the nearest trailhead, but this part of the hike wasn’t that hard. With the exception of a shallow scrape on one knee, my legs were fine. My arm was drenched in blood. I tried to hide this from the two hikers who passed along the trail. A quick phone selfie assured me that my chin didn’t look that bad. It is humorous that my first concerns were appearances and dignity. I felt like a deer after a car collision, shambling into the woods to die. 

Another way I felt like road kill was complete bewilderment about what hit me. Yes, I know it’s easy to trip and fall while running. Yes, I know I do this a lot. But this time was particularly strange, a total lapse in consciousness before I left the ground. I complain about balance and proprioception, joke about how I don’t know how to use my body, and haha I’m such a klutz. But I admit that underneath all of this, I fear something more sinister. Something that can’t necessarily be fixed by yoga or dance classes or anything I could control. I remember my father describing strange episodes, skipped beats while we hiked together. I remember when he was rushed to the emergency room after inexplicably falling off the trail on Mount Olympus. I remember how he died. 

 I called Beat from the trailhead, but he didn’t hear his phone ring. I left a message, knowing I wouldn’t have cell reception for the next 2.5 miles. I started the limp home. Endorphin-suppressed pain cracked open as I walked, encompassing my body like a dark cloud. I decided I hadn’t broken my jaw, but damn, things weren’t right. I staggered and gasped, drawing into myself, focusing on each shallow breath until I found peace beyond the pain. Just like running — a return to a quiet mind. 

Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. Trying my best to smile while walking to a physical therapy appointment.

Wednesday afternoon was a work day. I didn’t want to deal with the embarrassment of calling in sick because of a splat, so I dissuaded Beat from taking me to urgent care. A couple of days later, my mother begged me to visit a doctor. My clinic couldn’t squeeze me in until 15 minutes before closing time on Friday afternoon. The doctor seemed rushed but assured me that my jaw wasn’t broken, brushed off my chest bruising, and made me feel like the hypochondriac I was. Beat, wonderful husband that he is, bought 15 different kinds of soup and reminded me regularly to ice my injuries. I visited a friend who had been injured much more seriously in a head-on car collision. Sitting next to her in her wheelchair, I felt silly, sad, grateful, angry, lucky, all of the emotions that arise after yet another realization that life can change swiftly and permanently with the skip of a beat. 

For the next month, I did no running or writing, even the regular writing practices I’d committed to — my gratitude journal and sorting through the contents of my childhood trunk (that trunk is a whole other can of worms that I probably should not have opened.) I continued to languish in pain, struggling to sleep and do daily tasks, and lacking an exercise outlet beyond slow hobble-walking and upright spinning on the bike trainer. My jaw is still bruised. I probably broke a rib or two. And seriously, what is going on with my sternum, am I having a slow-rolling heart attack? 

Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, at South Boulder Creek with Danni. Chin is looking better, no?

Inexplicably, my mental health continued to improve. I no longer woke up feeling like the world was collapsing in on itself, even after terrible nights of sleep. I no longer felt sick of everything about myself, maybe just sick of my usual bullshit (why can’t I stop thinking about signing up for races?) I spend less time ruminating about the unknowable future, the skipped beats. 

 I resolved to start the New Year with yoga classes and regular strength training at a gym that I have yet to join (I’m going to be one of those people, because there’s almost no chance I’ll be up for lifting weights before Jan. 1.) Beat and I drove home to Utah for Thanksgiving; it was lovely. The following week my friend Danni flew out from Montana for a mellow visit of hobble-walking and laughing. (She reached out in November when she knew I was struggling and offered to plan an adventure. True to form, the very next day I fell on my face.) 

December arrived. It’s my favorite month. The light is beautiful. The promise of Alaska awaits. I have no races on the calendar. I’ve let go of my fitness. I am free. 

 So I decided to open up my slowly decaying blog once again. I wanted to explain where it went for a month, and true to form, vomited out a 2,500-word post in two hours after struggling for weeks to tap out even simple social media posts. No one wants to read all of this, no one cares, but that — at least until the next time I have an anxiety “flare-up” — doesn’t matter to me. I am free. 

Should've known I gotta get this off my chest 
I'm allowed to keep around this empty nest 
It's so much to clean up a clever mess 
Should've known, should've known
Saturday, October 29, 2022

Losing my religion

The summit of Blue Sky (Mount Evans) on Oct. 15 — honestly my only October activity that I could label an "adventure," and it was a pretty mild one.

"Whereas positive self-help encourages you to create ambitious goals, to reach for the stars, to "follow your dreams"— *vomits*— negative self-help reminds you that your fucking dreams are probably narcissistic delusions (or just burrito cravings) and you should probably just shut the fuck up and get to work on something meaningful."
— Mark Manson 

I have been in such a funk this month. A few days ago, I decided to embrace the superstition that it’s an October thing, a cursed month, and the light will start to return when November arrives. I realize this is objectively far from true — the end of DST and 4:30 p.m sunsets and all. Also, election season is an awful time of the year. I turned in my ballot yesterday but beyond that, I can’t even think about it without becoming upset. Still, I needed something to anticipate. “Soon it will be Nov. 1, and the clouds will begin to lift, and then … what?” 

Fall was particularly gorgeous this year, hanging on for weeks. So why was I so ... meh?

I don’t have a race on my calendar. That’s a first for me since I stumbled into this hobby 17 years ago. Even when everything fell apart in 2020, I clung to homemade challenges and virtual racing. I organized a 160-mile Winter Solstice challenge with a women’s group on Facebook and a 200K “Fat Pursuit” fat bike ride in Leadville with friends. 2020-2021 hardly counted as a break from racing. Still, even when I was aggressively powering through the setbacks posed by the pandemic, I could feel my spiritual tides shifting. The turning point really happened earlier, during the 2020 Iditarod, when I had a “big dream” crushed and gained a more clear-eyed view of the complex issues that would prevent me from ever surmounting that challenge. 

After my dad died in 2021, I tried to power through two different endurance events. Both raised the even more devastating question of “what purpose did this ever serve?” I was in such deep emotional pain during the 2021 Utah Mixed Epic and there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m worse off for having tried it than not. I went back to the 2022 Iditarod with my fat bike and a plan to simply “joy ride” the short route but … I was miserable. The experience had its moments, but none of the soaring joys I’d come to depend on during these adventures. I suppose the best way I can succinctly describe my current feelings about endurance racing is that the suffering used to mean something, but now it doesn’t. This is its own loss, its own source of grief. 

 Earlier this week, the ITI organization released the list of participants for the 2023 race. Beat is on this list, of course. Most of the names are familiar. Many of the same people return year after year. In the past, when asked about why this is, I’d reply along the lines of, “Every race offers a unique and intense experience that’s worth the sacrifices.” But this week, going over the list, I thought, “Those poor souls. They’re still trapped.” I immediately laughed at myself for having this thought because it made the Iditarod sound like some kind of cult that I'd escaped. But then a more sober realization struck … maybe that is the way I’m thinking about this now. 

I knocked out several fast runs around the Walker Ranch loop this month. Normally I'd be more excited about that.

Racing provided meaningful structure in my life. It was a destination, an exciting future, something to push me out the door in the wind and rain. Training for races created colorful threads that I could weave into the mundanity of everyday routine. I never believed I needed the anticipation of a goal to boost these micro-adventures. But then October — typically the start of my winter season — rolled around, and my interest in adventure fell off a cliff. I had a lot going on this month, with a long build of biweekly immunotherapy shots to treat my worsening asthma, car issues, physical therapy appointments, and a remote copy editing job that pins me to tight deadlines four days a week. Still, I had time to get out, the weather has been good, and the air quality has been superb. Even my fitness has been above average. Usually when I’m in a “slump,” it’s because I’m struggling physically. But I’ve been running well, setting PRs on routes I’ve frequented for nearly seven years, and improving my downhill technique. And yet … I’m just not feeling it. It feels like I’m running on autopilot, going through the motions. I feel little emotion about the beauty around me and little interest in my successes. I feel “meh,” which is alarming and unlike me, in every aspect of myself I’ve come to understand. So who am I? What am I even doing? 

 Another issue with October is that I’ve been deeply frustrated about my health. A physical on Sept. 23 revealed alarmingly high cholesterol (honestly, it’s alarming) and mildly high TSH, both indicators of hypothyroidism. The mildly high TSH is key; I don’t meet the clinical standard for treatment. (For those who are familiar with thyroid stuff and who are curious, my TSH is 5.25 uIU/mL; the clinical range is considered 0.4-4.5. There’s a lot of good evidence that most people, especially those of us with autoimmune thyroid disease, feel best below 2.5, but doctors typically don’t recommend treatment until TSH is over 10.) My primary care doctor recommended a wait-and-see approach, which is perfectly reasonable. But in the meantime, I’ve got this cholesterol issue that I must try to address with diet, meaning I had to give up ice cream and chocolate and other comfort foods that admittedly help boost me out of the depths. I’ve been on a diet for a month and this does not bring me joy. My mental health, meanwhile, is precariously perched on a terrible tightrope. I’ve experienced some debilitating lows, often at strange times — like while I’m running outdoors. Other times bring awful anxiety spikes, where I’m extremely on edge and even trembling, again at strange times — like while sitting in the waiting room at my allergy clinic. 

Running on Green Mountain earlier this week. I had been crying just seconds earlier but wasn't trying to depict a strangely volatile emotional state. I wanted my usual Strava selfie with the marginal dusting of the season's first snow. There's a lot to unpack about all of that ...

 I’m just not loving life right now, and there doesn't seem to be an obvious solution. Friends have recommended seeking medication for anxiety/depression, but I have a lot of concerns about this route. I can’t shake the thought that treating my thyroid health — before it again becomes a dangerous problem like it did in 2017 — might be a better place to start. After all, I had significant cognitive symptoms when I was hyperthyroid. On Friday, I paid out of pocket for further testing and learned that while my TPOAb (the antibodies typically present in Hashimoto’s Disease) are very high, my thyroid hormones fall in the normal range. My thyroid is stressed but it’s doing its job, which is probably why I’m not experiencing more obvious symptoms — such as a decline in fitness. So I have to concede — the wait-and-see approach makes the most sense. But I’d rather wait and see about my thyroid before I head down the SSRI road, which may mean straddling this mental health tightrope for the foreseeable future. 

Phew, I did not mean to take this tangent, but it feels good to write it all out. Another mental-health strategy I’ve been pondering is going back to therapy, which is obviously the first step on the SSRI road. I’ve not given therapy a lot of effort but had an extremely mixed experience with a therapist that I started seeing via Zoom at the beginning of the pandemic. She showed me useful coping mechanisms and helped me sort through my fears in 2020. But things were starting to fall apart even before my father died, and her stunning lack of empathy in the aftermath was traumatizing. I recognize that finding the right therapist is its own battle, but it’s just so daunting. I don’t want to endure more trauma while trying to “fix” my mental health. Face-to-face interaction, in general, is already so difficult and stressful for me (yes, even on Zoom.) If I’m going to invest the high amount of energy required for talk therapy, I want real solutions. I do not need someone to tell me to kind to myself or remind me to practice self-care. I need someone who can guide me in the pursuit of truth and living a purposeful life in a broken civilization on a dying planet. I suppose what I really need is philosophy … or religion. 

We finally got some real snow on Thursday. It was short-lived and I knew it would be, but I was still surprised to not be more stoked that snow season has arrived. 

The recent shake-up on Twitter has bummed me out. My first thought about everyone leaving now that Elon is at the helm is, “Oh no, my ex-Mo friends.” I have, weirdly, recently latched onto a community of former members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a religion I left in my late teens. Most of my family members are still active in this religion. I have a desire to better understand them, and a few rather innocuous search terms are likely how these algorithms landed on my feed. Still, it’s been helpful to read about the experiences of people who are processing the loss of deeply-held faith. I’ve wondered if this is because I feel a similar loss in endurance racing … a soaring form of worship in its own right. My community and many of my relationships are tied up in outdoor adventure. The Twitter ex-Mos — who are helping me process the religious issues I never did when I was 19 years old — are also offering outside perspective into what might come next, if the spiritual fire does indeed go out. 

 When I think about a purposeful life, I envision some idyllic version of Mary Oliver — taking my messy and discontented self for daily walks in the woods to commune with nature and emerge with beautiful poetry that I send out into the world so others can feel less alone as we all walk into a messy and frightening future. However, I am not nearly the artist that Mary Oliver was, and I’m not so enlightened that I can be content with walks in the woods. I still need novelty and excitement, ego-driven “achievements” and lazy comforts. I couldn’t even give up ice cream without being grumpy about it; it’s unlikely I’ll ever shed my extensive vices. 

 Still, putting my energy toward something — anything — that feels meaningful in a positive way is a necessary pursuit. I don’t know exactly what this thing is, or if it even needs to be tangible … maybe striving to be a good person is enough. Maybe love is enough. Maybe going into the woods, mostly alone but sometimes with someone who I love very much, in the backyard of this place I am extremely lucky to live … is enough. The universe is infinite and indifferent and I’ll never understand even an infinitesimal fraction of the truth in a lifetime of searching — but I understand that beauty and light go on. Maybe that’s enough. 

 Longevity might not be on my side — objectively, the odds aren't in my favor. Every day is a gift. If there’s one positive self-help platitude I can embrace, it’s making every day count.
Saturday, October 22, 2022

Carrying the Tradition

"Your first time only happens once," I repeated to each sister. I wanted to assure them that the training, preparation, and possible emotional turmoil would be worth it. The Grand Canyon is a wholly unique place on Earth, heart-rending in its scope and grandeur, and we finally going to cross it together. 

Their first Rim-to-Rim had been in the works for years. Our dad would light-heartedly bring it up in the early years of what was becoming our annual tradition, when I was still flying down from Alaska just for this. My sisters weren't all that into hiking and didn't take the invitation seriously. Then Sara took up running half marathons, boosting her interest and confidence in endurance sports. Lisa first expressed genuine interest five years ago, but then became pregnant with her youngest son. Life continued to happen: infants, jobs, Covid. Finally, in 2021, we were going to make it happen. Both sisters were training for the Grand Canyon when our father died in June, and everything shattered. 

Still in shock, I pleaded with my sisters to keep the tradition going, but quickly let go of this delusion. There would be no Grand Canyon in 2021. I wondered if I'd ever return.

The Tradition started in 2004 when Dad made plans to join a group of friends for his second rim-to-rim and invited me. Hiking had been a passion we shared since I first joined him on a Wasatch Peak called Mount Aire a decade earlier, but our adventures together had tapered off in recent years. Like many young adults, I was absorbed in my own life, and I'd also developed a zeal for cycling that took up much of my free time. Hiking miles had become increasingly scarce. I was mired in relationship drama, interviewing for jobs out of state as my solution for said relationship drama, and otherwise not taking the time to do the proper training for a 24-mile hike with all of the difficulty in the back half. But I wasn't worried about my fitness — I was 25 years old and still invincible in that way. I also was intrigued because my grade school nemesis, who used to bully me for being terrible at sports, was part of the group. I'd show him!

Standing with Dad at the Colorado River in October 2005

Rim-to-Rim 2004 was magical and grueling and memorable. "Your first time only happens once." We embarked from the North Rim well before dawn. Half of our group ditched us before we even started down the trail, racing to be the first to the South Rim. "Where's the fire?" my grade-school nemesis cried indignantly. But then he too raced ahead, and I had an incredible realization that I didn't care. I didn't need to prove myself to a childhood bully. I was just happy to be there, hiking with Dad, descending into a beautiful furnace. 

Temperatures topped 110 degrees. The other folks in our back-of-the-pack group struggled with heat exhaustion and bleeding nipples. Meanwhile, Dad showed me how to stay strong: refilling my water at regular intervals, eating a snack once an hour, resting in the shade, and taping the blisters on my heels. Slogging up the endless switchbacks of the Bright Angel Trail, I felt fantastic — one of my first realizations about my propensity for long-haul endurance. My first Rim-to-Rim was, and still is, one of my greatest accomplishments. 

The following year, after I surprised even myself by up and moving to Alaska in September, I still purchased a last-minute plane ticket so I could join Dad in the Grand Canyon. Rim-to-Rim became a yearly tradition from that point on. By 2019, I'd completed 13 crossings of the Grand Canyon with Dad. 2019 was a most magical year, with beautiful light, perfect temperatures, and our steps dialed in like clockwork. Dad was 67 years old and as strong as ever. I still held onto the assumption that we'd continue this tradition for many years. I never could have imagined it would be our last. 

In October 2021, over the weekend that we were all supposed to be in the Grand Canyon, my sisters and I met up in California for a relaxing vacation that (perhaps because of nudges from me) turned to daily hiking in the hills above Laguna Beach. There, Lisa and Sara recommitted to the Grand Canyon in 2022. I wasn't entirely convinced they'd be up for all of the necessary preparations without our Dad encouraging them along, but I excitedly went through the process of booking rooms on the South Rim. Our mom, as she had done nearly every year since 2004, agreed to drive the long shuttle around the canyon and meet us on the other side. 

Lisa and Sara stepped up in a big way, taking time away from their busy lives and families — Sara has three young children and Lisa has four — to embark on training hikes and hit the gym. Sara — my baby sister who I still think of as a fastidious 12-year-old who abhors outdoor slogs and discomfort and dirt — downright shocked me when she embarked on three repeats of a steep six-mile loop during a 90-degree day in Orange County. Repeats! One needs a hefty dose of mental game to return to the inferno. 

For Lisa's long hike, we summited Mount Timpanogos in the Wasatch Mountains — this 14-mile route has 4,500 feet of climbing and was our Dad's specific measure for whether or not a person has what it takes to cross the Grand Canyon. Lisa and I did this on a 90-degree day over Labor Day weekend. It was rough. Lisa performed admirably, keeping a steady pace both up and down the mountain. I was admittedly a little surprised — and incredibly moved. The Grand Canyon meant enough to my sisters that they did the work, and it showed. 

Amid final preparations, I sent them a 1,600-word e-mail with every detail I could think of, from our accommodations to the elevation profile to specific items I thought they should pack. I did want to let them make their own decisions and have their own experiences, but I also really wanted everything to go well. Against the wishes of my physical therapist, who is still helping me work through back pain, I loaded a 45-liter backpack with anything that could remotely aid our comfort and success — an extensive first-aid kit, cooling towels, extra layers, extra snacks, a water filter, a wag bag (just in case!), and 20 pounds of ice in an insulated bag. To be clear, my sisters had both already planned their gear and carried everything they actually needed, but I was doing my best to be a worrywart big sister. 

I set a start time of an hour before sunrise, 5:30 a.m. To everyone's credit, we managed to hit the South Kaibab Trail by 5:45. It was a gorgeous morning — nice light, just a slight breeze, but already quite warm at dawn. The forecast high for Phantom Ranch was 95 degrees, so I was a little anxious about the coming heat. Still, everyone was in good spirits. 

One of the early viewpoints on the South Kaibab Trail. The street where we grew up and where our mom still lives is called Cedar Ridge Road, so we had to get a photo. 

The switchbacking descent toward the Colorado River. I had forgotten about the hundreds of big step-downs on this trail. This compounded the already-difficult 5,000-foot descent for Lisa, who struggles with knee pain (likely osteoarthritis) from a high school knee injury. Her knee brace wasn't quite cutting it and her joint was starting to ache. I fished two Aleve and two Tylenol from my industrial-sized first aid kit, along with lidocaine patches that I insisted she try. We took several rest breaks as the sun climbed higher in the sky. I could tell Lisa was in pain, but she hid any distress she might have been feeling. I tried to hide the distress that I was admittedly feeling. Was I leading her into a death march? In the Grand Canyon, descending is optional but climbing is mandatory. The hard part had yet to begin.

We made it to the Colorado River about two hours later than my best-case scenario, but it was still just 11 a.m., well within the range for a reasonable 14-hour pace. 

"The good news," I chirped as we crossed the footbridge, "is there's essentially no more downhill."

We spent about an hour at Phantom Ranch, eating our sandwiches and enjoying the lemonade. The concession stand had changed a lot since my pre-pandemic hikes. Inflation hit the Grand Canyon and a small cup of lemonade is now $5.50 — used to be $1! They also sell ice now — at the same price for a 10-pound bag, it's by far the best deal in the canyon. This was admittedly not welcome news after I'd schlepped 20 extra pounds for four hours. And everything is sold from a walk-up window, including T-shirts and postcards. One particularly oblivious woman spent 15 minutes ordering many souvenirs and mulling over postcards while the lemonade line stacked up behind her. I eventually had to hand Lisa our cash and walk away because I was seconds away from losing the last strand of my social filter. 

We started up "The Box" just after noon. Both of my sisters had built up this section in their minds as a place to fear and loathe. Online forums cite it — accurately, I think — as the hottest place in the canyon. I'd warned them that if we didn't get through the narrow canyon before the morning shadow faded, the sun would turn it into a sandstone oven. Because of these warnings, both sisters expected to witness soul-crushing desolation while slogging through a sandy wash. "The Box" is actually a lovely canyon with a spring-fed creek and a lush riparian zone wending beneath the sandstone cliffs. Pessimism pays off; it was a pleasant surprise. 

Once out of The Box, the going got tough again. We were well into the afternoon hours and now lacking any measure of shade. The high temperature at Phantom Ranch that day ended up being 99 degrees. Doubtlessly it was similar here. Sara is a regular at a hot yoga class in California and weathered the heat well. But Lisa again became quiet, and I was feeling the heat as well. We stopped at any reasonable access point to dip cooling towels and hats in Bright Angel Creek. The last of my 20 pounds of ice finally melted. We were nearing the end of my heat remedies as the hardest part of the climb neared. I continued to remind my sisters to eat their chewable electrolyte tabs — which they did, diligently, even though those things are disgusting. Everything was still going surprisingly well. 

Then we came to the intersection for Ribbon Falls. There was once a bridge leading to this alcove, but it washed out in a flood in 2019 and has not been replaced. This means hikers must cross Bright Angel Creek. Depending on where one makes the crossing, it isn't trivial — the current is often knee-deep and fast-flowing. From there, one must follow a more primitive trail that adds about a mile to an already long hike. I told my sisters it would be fine to opt out of Ribbon Falls. But I also assured them it would be worth it.

"This was Dad's favorite spot in the canyon." 

The creek crossing was tricky. We walked up and down the shoreline looking for the best spot, and settled on a place where I thought we could rock-hop. It wasn't the best choice — the rocks were large and slippery; falling off one could have resulted in a real injury. Lisa still plunged into the creek near the far shore and was not happy about having wet shoes. The 2019 flood left a steep sandy ridge that we had to find our way around, bashing through tamarisk and hopping back and forth over a smaller creek. But we made it to Ribbon Falls, and it was gorgeous. Lisa and Sara were awestruck. 

"It's like Hawaii in the desert." 

No one else was around. In all of the many years I've visited Ribbon Falls, I've never experienced anything but crowds. The waterfall is a beautiful, cool spot to take a break. In the past, nearly everyone who passed by would make a long stop, and the numbers often grew into the dozens. The missing bridge and bushwhacking approach must have been just enough to deter most hikers this year, or perhaps we were just incredibly lucky with our timing. Whatever the reason, for 45 minutes we had this paradise completely to ourselves. 

Lisa and Sara both had a small amount of Dad's ashes left over from some jewelry they had made, and we agreed to spread them here. It was a serene, lovely moment, but it leveled me in a way I hadn't expected. Up until Ribbon Falls, everything about this year's Grand Canyon had been positive — just happy nostalgia and the excitement of sharing an incredible place with my sisters. Here, I realized how much I missed Dad, how I could never again share this with him, how alone we are in this world, tiny flickers of joy in the darkness. We sat and hugged and shared a big cry. Then we sat a while longer, listening to the peaceful melody of cascading water. 

Emotionally, I've been in a dark place since the Grand Canyon. I can't deny it. I went in expecting the joyful experience of new memories and traditions. But what I found is a finality, harsh and unyielding. It wasn't my first realization of the finality of death and it certainly won't be my last, but it has been the starkest of such moments. 

Still, life goes on. After our beautiful but emotionally devastating memorial, Sara injected levity into the moment with yoga poses beneath the falls. Then we hiked on, moving with the relentless march of time toward the long night — or, for now, the long climb.

I had warned my sisters that the final five miles are by far the hardest. We'd already covered 18 miles, both of their farthest hiking distances, and still had more than 3,600 feet to climb out of the canyon. These relentless switchbacks are usually what break first-timers. But the sisters had done well with self-care: eating and drinking at regular intervals, taking their salt tabs, and managing their feet. Sara was downright perky. 

We were lucky that, amid our long stop and Ribbon Falls and another at Cottonwood campground, it had become late enough in the day that the canyon had slipped into an afternoon shadow. While still warm, the unbearable sun finally relented. The sisters kept a steady pace but were starting to show signs of weariness. I'd warned them about scary drop-offs along this section but I don't think they noticed. 

We briefly connected with a large group from Minnesota, commiserating and encouraging one another. I looked at my watch and did some calculations, then sent Mom an ETA from my satellite messenger. We hoped to keep an 8 p.m. dinner reservation on the North Rim. I'd promised my sisters that we could take all the time they needed to hike out of the canyon and I wasn't going to push them — I brought my camp stove and mac n' cheese just in case we missed dinner — but tried to gently nudge them along when I realized the timing was going to be close. 

We reached Supai Tunnel just as the last hints of twilight slipped into darkness. I encouraged one more snack break. "I'm over eating," Lisa moaned as she forced down some candy — which I understood as "overeating" and vehemently disagreed. "You need all the calories you can get down!" 

We donned headlamps for the final 1.5 miles of relentless switchbacks with their big step-ups. It was my first time hiking out of the canyon in the dark, and I was thrilled by this new experience. I frequently stopped to turn off my headlamp and look down the canyon for a string of yellow lights — the hikers still below us. Amid the expansive darkness, they looked like angels ascending toward heaven.

Lisa, for the first time all day, indulged in the mildest of whining. She accused me of gaslighting, of convincing her this was a climb with an end when in fact it had no end. 

"That is my mantra," I exclaimed. "It's how I get through the hard parts of my endurance races. I just tell myself this will never end. I've gone to Hell and this is my new eternity. Then I distract myself with the mental game of figuring out how I'm going to live like this forever. It works surprisingly well."

As soon as I mentioned my "this will never end" mantra, I was again nudged toward my own inner darkness. This is where I am now. This is how life goes on. It's hard. But there's beauty in the marching. I can always look for flickers of light, for angels ascending. 

I had been tracing the climb on my GPS, so when we finally rounded the final switchback, I announced it as such. Ahead was only more darkness and quiet; Lisa did not believe this was the last one. Her head was still down when I first saw headlights from a car in the parking lot. Then we all heard our mother's laughter. 

"Mama?" Lisa called weakly into the darkness, sincere in her childlike plea. Her relief was palpable. It was over. Mama was here. We were going to be okay.

The four of us tangled into a hug as Lisa and Sara wept and Mom and I laughed. I was brimming with big sister pride. We'd done it. We'd crossed the Grand Canyon, rim-to-rim. Two of the people I love most in this world — my sisters — had experienced the wonder and accomplishment that has been such a formative part of my life, that I'd come to take for granted, that I nearly lost. 

"This time next year?" I exclaimed as we hobbled toward the car. "You don't have to answer that yet. Don't answer that yet."

We did make our dinner reservation, just barely, still smeared in red dust and sweat. The meal was delicious, though, and Sara experienced the pure joy of "the best rootbeer in the world" — taste sensations only possible after a long, hard day in the heat. Mom again provided impeccable support. Even though I'd been sending her ETA texts and warning her that we'd be out after dark, she still showed up early and waited for us at the trailhead for hours. The North Rim accommodations left a lot to be desired — really, it's like camping indoors, which is a hard sell to my sisters who are not campers. There were mice in the cabin, which yeah, I may not live that down. Still, what a wonderful weekend. Everything about it was nearly perfect. It's just ... Dad wasn't there. That's the part I haven't been able to get over. 

Still, what are traditions but the rituals we create to hold onto memories, and the memories of our ancestors, long after they're gone? I can hold onto the hope that a new tradition has begun.