Monday, March 06, 2023

Snow in the desert

"You think you're avoiding triggers, but what you start to do is avoid life." — My sister

When I was a teenager, I decided that if heaven was everything it claimed to be, then we should be able to choose its form. An eternity of drifting lazily on a cloud? No thank you. My heaven would look like Moab in the winter, a sandstone maze brushed with snow under a cloudless blue sky. At the time I had only experienced southern Utah during the spring and summer and didn't think it was possible for the place to be anything but parched and hot. But in the heaven I could choose, cold air and tranquil silence would linger forever. 

I tried to remind myself of youthful daydreams as I drove through Monument Valley, a place I'm ashamed to say I'd never seen before. It was a little out of the way, and I was already running behind, but I needed a distraction. Anything to calm my pinched breaths and slow my heart rate. 

"Snow in the desert. Snow in the desert," I chanted out loud. "It's so beautiful." 

For an entire day, I'd been embroiled in a slow-rolling anxiety attack. I wondered if I had the fortitude to endure this trip. There was nothing about the trip's reality to fear, but I had long since lost hold of my tenuous grip on reality. There was no way not to feel fear, so I reminded myself that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hike The Wave with my mom and sisters. 

"The Wave" is a unique sandstone feature on the Utah-Arizona border, a geologic anomaly so aesthetically pleasing that it's become an immensely popular destination despite its remote location. Think about art enthusiasts seeking out the Mona Lisa — that's how many desert enthusiasts feel about The Wave. As such, the BLM issues limited permits that people have about a 1-in-100 chance of scoring. So when my youngest sister — the one who I would have voted "least likely to ever love the outdoors" when we were younger — scored a permit for Feb. 17, we knew we had to take the leap. 

In hindsight, the week she scored that permit was right around the time I slipped into what I think of as "the big anxiety spiral" in mid-October. I've suffered from anxiety for years, but usually the low points last a week or two, and then I start to emerge. After this particular plunge, months passed. I made some improvements while physically injured in November and December, but looking back, I wonder if the physical pain was just a mask — a distraction — from emotional turmoil. After our annual Alaska trip fell apart in December, I plunged right back into the depths. Since January it was difficult to enjoy or look forward to anything. I just wanted to hide in my house, even though I didn't feel safe in the house. 

I forced myself into activities because therapists like to say that "actions become emotions." And I dabbled with recommended lifestyle changes such as yoga and limiting caffeine. But my emotional state wasn't improving and the pain was starting to manifest in my body — tremors, pounding head, severe insomnia, and muscle cramps. Every morning was filled with so much unfocused doom that I'd hide under the covers for long minutes until the rational side of my brain could spur me to action. I felt as though I was drowning. The anxiety that I'd long imagined as a fiery red sea monster was finally pulling me under. 

Friends have been urging me to try antidepressants for years. I resisted because the side effects sounded worse than anxiety, which I'd always been able to manage well enough. Also, I bristled at the notion of "better living by chemistry." But who am I kidding? I've been medicated since my 30s — thyroid medication, asthma inhalers, antihistamines, CBD, just about every supplement the thyroid forum led me to believe could possibly help. Drawing a line at SSRIs seemed arbitrary. 

And now I wasn't sleeping at night, I was drowning, and I would have grabbed anything offered as a liferaft. Heroin? Yes, please! So I made an appointment with my primary care doctor. By the time I was able to get in, it was February 13, just days before this trip. My doctor started me on a small dose of Lexapro, warning that the initial adjustment period could include dizziness, nausea, and increased anxiety. Increased anxiety? Really? I asked if I could wait to start medication until after my trip, be she encouraged me to start right away. Spoiler from many weeks later: I'm glad I started this med, but I wish I'd waited that extra week. 

Everyone's experience with anxiety is different and they're all difficult to describe. For me, generalized anxiety is like being a passive spectator in a horror movie version of my life — I know the killer is in the house, and I can feel the suspense when they're about to strike, but I can't do anything about it. Even though I know the killer isn't real, I can't ignore the terror. 

This is how it felt when I woke up to my 4:30 a.m. alarm for what would turn out to be a 14-hour drive on icy highways to Kanab, Utah, via Page, Arizona. During our planning, we realized that my Subaru Outback wasn't going to cut it for the primitive road into the Wave in muddy conditions, so I reserved a Jeep rental in Page. Kanab had been slammed by a blizzard with six inches of snow on Tuesday. The same raging storm dumped a foot of snow on my house and much of the Front Range on Wednesday. In the predawn darkness on Thursday morning, I crept along a snow-packed I-70 at 35 mph as temperatures dipped to 15 below zero. I could almost hear the ominous soundtrack playing in the background. 

The stress was so pronounced that I had to concentrate on steady breathing. There was no more bandwidth for eating or drinking. As I passed through Grand Junction, I felt the urge to drive up to a hotel and hide under the covers while I called my family to apologize for my absence from this once-in-a-lifetime and not-especially-arduous adventure because my brain had stopped functioning, I'm so sorry. 

But then, what would that make me? A fully dysfunctional person? A person who once endured the Alaska wilderness alone and now could no longer even endure a fun family trip? A person who needed hospitalization? I wondered.

My jitters and breathing improved as I crossed into Utah, familiar territory and so lovely under a blanket of snow. But as I neared Arizona and the prospect of driving an unfamiliar jeep on a slippery, muddy, rutted road, I wilted again. I arrived in Page about an hour before my arranged pickup time, so I decided to walk out to Horseshoe Bend, another iconic landmark I hadn't yet visited. The parking lot was packed as sunset approached, and I was put off by the crowds of tourists. Of course, I should have expected this tourist attraction would be crowded. But I wished for a place I could be alone. I hiked out to the viewpoint, took this one terrible phone photo with the sun glare screaming at me, and checked my phone for current road conditions. 

I wish I hadn't. I mean, it was necessary to understand what to expect, but I did not anticipate what was coming. Regarding the dirt road to The Wave, a guide had posted that it was in some of the worst shape she'd seen, with flowing mud and wheel-swallowing ruts, and only "The T-Rex of 4x4s" could handle it. I'm a timid driver in the best of circumstances. I'd just spent six hours navigating a terrifying slip-and-slide across Colorado. I imagined steering the jeep into a mud hole, plunging into icy water, and my entire family freezing in the cold desert. With that image imprinted in my brain, I lost it. 

So there I was, frozen in terror in a large crowd at Horseshoe Bend, gulping down an intense panic attack. I started shuffling up the pathway, stiffly jogging as though I was a zombie, gasping desperately. I pulled on my sunglasses and jacket hood so the other tourists wouldn't see tears flowing down my face. I hoped they'd just assume I was a severely out-of-shape jogger. I felt so ashamed. 

I sat in my car for ten minutes, focusing on breathing and calm thoughts. Once my breathing had slowed sufficiently, I called my sister to tell her about my concerns. I thought I could rationally explain the situation, but as soon as I heard her voice, I lost it all over again. For the next 45 to 60 minutes — which felt like three minutes to me — Lisa spoke calmly and urged me to stay on the phone as she and my mom scrambled for a solution. 

"Let's hire a guide," I heard my mom say, which I recognized as the most loving thing to suggest. It's not in my family's thrifty and can-do nature to spare no expense on a wilderness guide. The odds seemed grim at 6 p.m. the night before our trip, but they found someone at Dreamland Safari — as it turns out, the guiding company co-owned by Iditarod Trail Invitational athletes who completed the event on bikes this year, Sunny Stroeer and her husband Paul Gagner. In what felt like three minutes, the sky shifted from blue to violet to black, and suddenly we had a solution that didn't require my dysfunctional self to drive or navigate the hike. I felt relief, love, and an enormous amount of shame.

What have I become? I drove to the jeep rental place, shaking profusely. I tried to calm down and collect myself enough to approach the person with the clipboard and tell her I no longer needed the rental. I didn't know whether they'd only deduct the deposit or the entire cost and I didn't care. I would have paid $10,000 not to feel this way. Heroin? Yes, please! 

Then I finally drove myself to a gas station and shakily wandered the aisles, feeling more out of sorts and exhausted than I would if I'd ridden a bike from Colorado. I bought a small sandwich and a mealy apple, then sat in my car and forced down the only meal I'd eaten all day. I hoped I'd find the wherewithal to drive the final hour to Kanab. It was an extremely difficult hour that I don't remember much about, besides losing control of my breathing and again succumbing to tears and hyperventilation. 

My sisters and Mom were immensely loving and understanding when I arrived in Kanab, and I was relieved that they could see me at my worst, my most vulnerable, because that meant I no longer had to hide this from them. As the oldest daughter in a family now missing our father, I've felt the need to remain stoic and strong, and I absolutely put that pressure on myself. As the most experienced outdoors person in the group, I felt obligated to take up the logistics and navigation of the hike — which truly is not harder than hundreds of outings I've done for fun. But this is what happens when you're drowning. You can't even save yourself, let alone manage anything above the surface. It was a relief to admit this to myself and the people who love me. 

The night after my panic attack was awful. I don't think I slept at all. My heart continued to pound, adrenaline surged through my blood, and I couldn't calm my breathing no matter what I tried. But I was safe, and in a way, it felt like I had eluded my imaginary killer. My body was amped up, but my mind could rest for now. 

Looking back on those snowy, sunny days in mid-February, my perspective looks utterly ridiculous — as though I was actually languishing under murky water and failing to make sense of muddled reflections above the surface. I was in a beautiful place with the people I love, and I was still lost in the fog. On Friday, February 17, at 8 a.m. sharp, we were greeted by our guide for the day. Mel, I learned, was a young ultrarunner who recently relocated to the desert from the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. She is strong and fast and aspires to audacious expeditions, and perhaps a few successful runs in traditional races. We had a lot in common. She was friendly and knowledgeable without being overbearing in her guide role. 

Driving out on what was indeed a horrifically muddy, rutted, and partially flooded road, she put everyone in my family at ease even as wheels skidded and mud chunks flew. I would have hyperventilated and shivered the entire way out if I'd been behind the wheel. This is not an exaggeration. While I remained ashamed of this truth, I was deeply grateful for Mel. Removing myself from that role would have been a bargain at twice the price.

The hike out was lovely and relatively uneventful. The sky was mostly cloudy and temperatures remained cool — in the 30s — with a harsh headwind sweeping down from the plateau. My body's thermostat was weirdly not working well and I had to put on all of my layers, including several I brought as backups for my mom and sisters. But just the act of walking — walking and breathing and only focusing on the next step — was wonderfully calming. When I'm walking, I'm at peace, which is why I sometimes daydream about a life in which I do nothing else. 

And then, there we were — the premier photographic destination in the Southwest, a place people often wait years to land a permit to visit. The rippling streaks of sandstone are unique even in a region full of unique rock formations. Millennia of slow wind and rain erosion calcified layers of sand until it hardened to rock — a petrified sand dune. 

When Sara first landed her permit, I was excited about the opportunity — I too tried and failed to land a permit way back in 2002. But I was also admittedly skeptical — was this going to be another one of those overhyped tourist traps? Reader, I was wrong. It is truly awe-inspiring to stand in the midst of The Wave, sculpted by nature with an artistic precision that humans have yet to match. 

These rock formations are also impossible to photograph — not that I gave it much of a go with the flat mid-afternoon light and guide urging us to pose for photos once we were in photo-taking mode. But for 20 minutes before all that, we stood with reverent stillness in this cathedral and marveled. 

The posed photos were fun, too.

My favorite — nothing but pure joy. 

The remainder of our trip was enjoyable as well, coinciding with a hot-air balloon festival. Sara and I headed out early Saturday morning to view the spectacle. The balloons did struggle to launch in this decidedly cold air, but it was bright and colorful fun. 

Later Saturday morning, I coaxed my sisters out for a hike on the "Kanab City Trails," which, given their name, seemed like they should be relatively straightforward and family-friendly. Lisa was an especially hard sell, as she languished through the worst day of a bad cold virus that her entire family passed around, but that somehow eluded Mom, Sara, and me. But it was a beautiful day, and I was feeling recovered enough to grasp some shaky confidence about leading my sisters along this unknown route. 

Unsurprisingly, the trail from the start was nothing but mud, mud, and more of that awful sticky bentonite clay mud that accumulates until each shoe weighs 10 pounds. The sisters were unenthused but determined to at least reach the top of the ridge — even as I behaved like an anti-Mel type of guide and spouted continually discouraging information. "It's going to be more slippery going down than up." "It's not going to get better." "My watch just buzzed a 47-minute-mile, good job team!" (I was also moving as fast as I physically could. The mud was relentless.) 

The views from the ridge — stretching for dozens of miles all the way to the top of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument — were quite spectacular. Sara felt more secure in her footing after I gave her my trekking poles, and Lisa seemed resigned to the pain she'd be experiencing whether she was in bed or here. The snow was deeper and mud seemed less prevalent along the ridge, so we collectively decided to try for the original 7-mile loop we'd planned. 

Sara, my California-based sister who wasn't outdoorsy when she lived in Utah, had never before hiked in the snow. It was, for the most part, four to six inches of sticky slush that turned to ice underfoot, so not great for hiking. We trudged along for another mile before she admitted that the struggle was a lot for her, and that's when I remembered the three pairs of microspikes I was carrying in my pack. Once we put those on, everything improved ... for another mile or so. 

The three sisters on what is apparently a "city" trail, overlooking the "city" of Kanab. 

We followed four-wheeler trails until I realized that we'd gotten off track. The four-wheeler trails continued another 20-something miles to the east. If we wanted to hike off this ridge, we had to find something called the "Cliffs Trail." I should have realized that this trail would be aptly named. The initial drop-off had been erased by a rockslide last autumn (I read about it later on AllTrails) and it took us ages to find the route. First, we climbed down from an overlook trampled in a flurry of mountain lion tracks, only to be cliffed out. I had to give my sisters the classic "butt boost," which I assured them was a legitimate climbing maneuver. Finally, I zoomed in to 80-foot scale on my GPS and traced the track exactly, which was still quite cliffy and almost impossible to feel out the best footing under the snow. What had I gotten my sisters into? 

This. This is what the Cliff Trails becomes — a narrow scramble along rocks and mud with a cliff overhead and a precipitous dropoff below. 

Luckily, I possess the worst vertigo of anyone in my family, so my sisters weren't too bothered by the heights. And I was too focused on not sliding off a cliff to ruminate in my usual anxiety, which probably sounds strange to anyone who doesn't suffer from an anxiety disorder. I will take real terror over imaginary terror any day. 

Mud, rocks, mud, rocks.

We eventually got entirely too tired of the mud and cut over from the "city" trail into a subdivision and called our mother to pick us up. We'd spent five arduous hours walking seven miles and the sisters weren't interested in walking the road back to town, which I understand. But for me, it was a fun little adventure. I'm impressed with how well my sisters did with some of the most heinous trail conditions possible. 

"How did Dad deal with mud?" they asked me.

"To be honest, I don't think Dad and I ever had to hike through a lot of mud together. It was something he generally avoided."

(This is now the third absolutely heinous mud hike I've dragged my sisters on, after two in Oregon last June. I will be surprised if they agree to hike an unknown trail with me again.)

Ultimately it was such a nice weekend, even if it wasn't the vacation from my head I'd been hoping for. It took me weeks to write about it because I was so ashamed of my Thursday night panic and how I nearly spoiled the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for my family. Only now, in a better headspace, can I look back and acknowledge that this is part of my life experience right now. I live in the grip of a sea monster I don't understand. I don't know where it came from. I don't know why it drags me to such depths. I don't know how to vanquish it. But with help from friends, family, medication, therapy, and the simple and pure magic of walking in nature — in my personalized versions of heaven — I am learning how to live with my monster. I'm grateful. 

Saturday, February 11, 2023

In this trembling moment

“In this trembling moment ... is it still possible to face the gathering darkness and say to the physical earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?”
— Barry Lopez

I'm still not sure what I want to do with this old blog, but I still feel compelled to check in from time to time if only to record my slow descent into madness. Friends have asked me if I'm doing better, and the truth is, I'm not. Insomnia and anxiety have been a major battle, and don't know which one leads to the other or whether it even matters. Each morning arrives after a fair to poor night of sleep, and I immediately feel overwhelmed with irrational but powerful negative emotions that I must wrestle with to get through each day. I believe I'm still succeeding on a functional level. But I am so very tired, and it's becoming harder not to, say, burst into tears during Saturday morning yoga class. 

A physical comparison I could make is that it feels like I am at mile 10 of a difficult 100-mile ultramarathon and my legs are already screaming at me. I am still able to effectively say "shut up legs," but it's almost impossible to conceive how I'm going to push through this pain all the way to the end. Similarly, it's difficult to conceive how I'm going to remain fully functional through the end of this year unless I can turn things around. I don't want to be overdramatic, but this is genuinely how I feel, and I want to convey as well as I can that no, I'm not okay. 

I have been working on myself. The beginning of 2023 spurred changes to my wellness routine including twice-weekly weight training and once-weekly restorative yoga (I love yoga. I'm about 6% competent but I love it and wish I could make room for more in-person classes.) I've been meeting online with a therapist who prompted me to cut my caffeine intake to one cup of coffee per day (about a third to a quarter of what I was taking in before) and do a nightly muscle relaxation exercise, which generally works better for me than sedentary meditation. 

She also encouraged me to start wearing my Garmin watch all of the time to better track my body metrics. I've only been doing this for a week, and while many metrics are not surprising (yes, I believe I'm starting each day with my body battery at 30% and yes, I would rate that sleep as "poor"), it did show a sharp drop in my oxygen saturation while I'm sleeping — sometimes as low as 83%. While I don't know how accurate this is, now I have sleep apnea or another form of sleep hypoxemia as another concern. It's another question I intend to bring to my doctor when I finally see her for all of the 15 minutes I'll probably get after waiting for an appointment for three weeks. Also on that list of questions are perimenopause, subclinical hypothyroidism, and antidepressants. 

I'm dreading this conversation more than I can convey and almost wish I could just ask for a medically induced coma to get me through my 40s. This daydream leads to admonishing myself for wishing away my one wild and precious life. But when you can't sleep, when you really can't sleep ... there's nothing in the world you wish for more. 

I have been leaning a little hard on exercise; physical activity is still the one state in which I feel mostly "normal." I'm not spending more time exercising than I was back when I was training for things, but I am already so very tired and admit that I am not fully listening to my body when it tells me I should dial back the intensity of my efforts. 

A couple of weeks ago, there were rumors of stellar trail conditions in the local mountains, so I excitedly packed up my fat bike and set an early alarm. My total amount of sleep was about two hours when the alarm went off, so I turned it off and instead snoozed several hours of morning daylight away. Waking up, I was filled with loathing and dread and couldn't bear the thought of driving into the mountains. But I also needed something to cope, so I used the excuse of a hard-to-get Zwift "badge" to spend the entire day riding my bike trainer. 

I logged 110 "miles" of mindless spinning. It was great. I felt a lot better. But does this sort of thing come with a price? Undoubtedly it does. But don't worry about me just yet; there aren't many days that I can find the time and energy for such exhaustive efforts. My watch still records my training status as "productive." But when another sleepless night passes into a depleted-battery morning, I'm right back where I started. 

One week later, I successfully boosted myself out the door for an excursion in Rocky Mountain National Park. Morning sunlight saturated the mountain skyline as I drove through Estes Park. Just past the park boundary, I caught a glimpse of a bald white slope speckled with blackened stumps — remnants of the 2020 East Troublesome Fire. Seeing this burn scar sent a shudder of sadness down my spine. I was deeply affected by that fire even though it didn't touch me at all. But I was paying attention on the October night when a wind-driven flare scorched 100,000 acres in fewer than 12 hours and jumped two miles of treeless tundra across the Continental Divide. Countless people assure me that wildfire is natural, but these late-fall megafires are anything but natural. There is growing evidence that Colorado's warming climate will not allow burned forests to return to their previous state — at least at mid-range altitudes. I live in the midst of hillsides that burned in 2000 — 23 years ago — where the trees haven't even begun to grow back. I'm just not a person who can cling to hope without evidence. The evidence points to a landscape that is rapidly and permanently changing. 

Stung with unexpected sadness, I continued toward Bear Lake. The gravelly voice of my anxiety whispered that this was too much and I should just turn around and go home. My stormy mind was deep in rumination when a dog darted out of the snow bank and galloped beside my car. As I slowed, the animal veered in front of me and I realized it was a coyote. What was it doing? I slowed some more to allow it to veer back into the woods, but it also slowed its pace and looked back. As I sped up again to capture this photo with my phone, it also picked up the pace but held steady on the double yellow line. We continued in this push and pull for more than a mile before the coyote veered off to the left and I was able to safely pass. Was it playing chase with my car? I'll never know, but the interaction did bring my head back to center. 

"Existential loneliness and a sense that one's life is inconsequential, both of which are hallmarks of modern civilizations, seem to me to derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship with place."

— Barry Lopez

Sometimes I feel ashamed over the depth of sadness I feel when I see a wildfire scar or images of Juneau's Mendenhall Glacier, shockingly diminished from photos I captured myself in the recent-seeming year of 2007. After all, this is the nature of things. All is impermanent, and grief only arises from our unwillingness to accept change. Still, I feel these losses as though I've lost a piece of myself. I feel it in the way I feel my own time slipping away. 

Acceptance, I know, is the only path to peace, and yet it's so hard to find. But in searching for acceptance, I have come to better understand how my difficulties with my mental health are anchored in grief — for the people in my life who I have loved and lost, for myself, and for the land. 

I stepped out of my car into the hard wind that nearly always rakes these canyons on the sharp edge of the Continental Divide. The wind is such a constant that even lake ice freezes in a rippled pattern. It's such a constant that if you spent all of your time here, you'd eventually stop noticing the wind. It would become its own comfort, and calm would feel eerie and strange. I sometimes wonder — if I had to choose a single, small place to spend the rest of my life, where that might be. I fall in love with nearly every place I visit, so it seems impossible to choose, but Rocky Mountain National Park might be near the top of the list. It — like any place really — could offer a lifetime of exploring and still yield countless discoveries. The weather is fearsome year-round, the terrain steep and frightening, and it's difficult to imagine ever feeling fully comfortable here. And yet if all I had was time, I can imagine becoming burned into this land. 

I strapped on snowshoes and started an audiobook. I had just finished "Arctic Dreams" by Barry Lopez, which I first read as a college freshman and remembered loving. The landscape, culture, and history of the Arctic were so alien to me at the time. Lopez's observations were enthralling. I wondered how I'd feel about the book as a jaded adult who had forged my own impressions of the Far North. I still loved the lyrical prose, but the book did leave me feeling more sad than enthralled. Perhaps it's just my current mental state, but there's also an element of "Arctic Dreams" — published in 1986 — that reads as a eulogy to a time and place already gone. 

Still, I enjoyed listening to "Arctic Dreams," so I purchased another book of essays by Lopez, published posthumously last year — "Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World." The title alone told me exactly what I wanted to hear, so I looked forward to diving in. 

"Evidence of the failure to love is everywhere around us. To contemplate what it is to love today brings us up against reefs of darkness and walls of despair. If we are to manage the havoc — ocean acidification, corporate malfeasance and government corruption, endless war — we have to reimagine what it means to live lives that matter, or we will only continue to push on with the unwarranted hope that things will work out."
— Barry Lopez

Life is easy when I am walking. Even when a cold wind sweeps down the mountainside, even when my snowshoe-laden feet bog down in stiff powder, even when hours pass and I run low on water and need to sprawl atop a precarious snowbank to dip my bottle beneath the ice of a swirling creek. All I had to do on this Friday was walk, listen to Lopez's soothing words, and believe they were written for me — a person who is trembling beneath the weight of life's uncertainties, who already feels crushed by grief while knowing so much more lies ahead, who can't take comfort in unwarranted hope. Lopez knew he was dying from prostate cancer when he wrote several of the essays in this book. The Covid-19 pandemic was already underway and the landscapes he explored in "Arctic Dreams" already drastically altered by climate change. His words read as those of a wisened elder exiting a breaking world — but also an optimist who is straining with all of his remaining energy to find the light shining through the cracks. 

While punching a trail toward a hanging lake called Sky Pond, I ventured too far up a steep slope and realized later than ideal that this was not a good idea. I had resolved not to hike into potential avalanche terrain or any slope that would require crampons and an ice ax. This was just such a slope. Normally my fear response would alert me sooner, but I am not receiving my usual signals right now. Feeling afraid of everything also means, in a way, I am afraid of nothing. Dangers and non-dangers alike fire the same synapses. Suddenly aware and humbled, I carefully picked my way back down the slope.  

"To survive what's headed our way — global climate disruption, a new pandemic, additional authoritarian governments — and to endure, we will have to stretch our imaginations. We will need to trust each other, because today, it's as if every safe place has melted into the sameness of water. We are searching for the boats we forgot to build."
— Barry Lopez

As real fatigue set in, my ability to concentrate flagged so I switched off the audiobook player. The roar of the wind returned — at first jarring, but soon it too faded to white noise.

"We can become accustomed to anything," I thought. "I need to keep that in mind." 

I descended the gorge below Loch Vale and veered up Glacier Gorge proper to tag Mills Lake and Black Lake. His Majesty, Longs Peak, loomed overhead. I find great comfort in mountains — visible reminders of what will remain long after our human machinations have flared and faded. But mountains are not eternal; even they are constantly changing. In a paradoxical way, I take comfort in this too. Everything is impermanent, forever in flux. This is the way of things, and that's okay.

“The central project of my adult life as a writer is to know and love what we have been given, and to urge others to do the same.
— Barry Lopez

I put Lopez's book away for another week of busyness and anxiety, but Friday rolled around and I again craved his gentle urging to pay attention and respect the places I love, which are all of the places. The forecast also called for a clear day with mild temperatures and light winds, which inspired me to finally take my fat bike for that ride I couldn't get out of bed for two weeks earlier. 

While gorgeous and fun, riding a fat bike around the trails at Brainard Lake and Peaceful Valley is an endeavor I can muster the mental energy for only once or twice a year. Nothing comes for free here, absolutely nothing. The trails are ungroomed, ski-packed, narrow, and technical. Roots and rocks will catch you unaware in wind-scoured open areas. In the woods, a shimmy of the handlebars might leave you neck-deep in a tree well. I accepted long ago that I'm not a "mountain biker." I far prefer grinding the pedals on a mindless gravel climb over wrestling with my bike along a technical descent. Still, I do enjoy this activity in small doses. 

Brainard was a somewhat odd choice to make when I am battling so much brain fog and desperate to avoid stress. Still, I took advantage of the relative fearlessness of flatlined anxiety to rally for the twisting descent of South St. Vrain. A jolt of electricity buzzed in my veins. Is this adrenaline? Joy? It feels like it has been so long. I was beginning to worry I'd lost the capacity for such highs. 

The exhilerating descent and unfathomably blue day inspired another long climb to the edge of the wilderness boundary at Coney Flats. Really, it's only 1,500 feet of climbing in five miles, which my Zwift-addled brain tells me should take about 30 minutes. The reality of riding atop barely consolidated, narrow snow with < 3 psi in each tire was more than two hours, and I was expending far more calories than I realized. Despite temperatures near freezing with an afternoon breeze spiking to 20 mph, I had stripped to my base layer and was still dripping sweat onto my pogies. I loved losing myself in this demanding climb, but all things have their price. 

“Perhaps the first rule of everything we endeavor to do is to pay attention.”
— Barry Lopez

The fat bike made fast work of the descent, and then it was time to climb back to Brainard on the Sourdough Trail. A mere 1,000 feet of climbing in seven miles. Easy peasy. So imagine my confusion when, after a brief descent about two miles into the climb, I began to feel disoriented, dizzy, and nauseated. I stopped pedaling and took a few sips of water, but the woods continued spinning. What ... is happening? Is this a bonk? An actual bonk? It's been so long since this happened. Admittedly my base of endurance runs so deep that I didn't even think it was possible for me to truly bonk anymore — my central governor is very reliable and my body knows where to find the energy. But here I was, five miles from my car, utterly out of gas. 

I was too nauseated to eat much, but I did have energy chews in my frame bag and I was able to get most of them down. Still, the damage was done. I stumbled along dizzily, pressed against my bike as though this reasonably graded trail was a sheer wall. I took long breaks to gasp for air. I drank the rest of my water. Nothing was working. After several hours that my GPS told me was in reality just one mile, I threw both body and bike into the snow like the overtired toddler I had become and indulged in an absolute meltdown.

Yelling, swearing, crying. The works. But I got it all out and afterward, I felt an odd, peaceful sort of clarity. The day's light had grown rich, the shadows long. Was it already late afternoon? Was this 24-mile ride really going to take seven hours? Yes, yes it was. And I still had a long way to go. Four miles. An eternity. But that's okay. As in all things, we keep pushing forward because there's no other choice. 

I had long since turned off my audiobook when it became apparent that I needed all of my bandwidth to focus on the trail. But now that I was walking at a very slow pace, I took Lopez's advice to pay attention. I looked for tracks in the snow — rabbit and what appeared to be a fox or perhaps a bobcat. I listened to gusts of wind, rippling through the forest like sharp exhalations. I studied needles still holding onto flecks of snow despite days of wind and sun. This place is so very beautiful, and I was so lucky to be there, right there, experiencing this burst of life between dust and fire.

Just months before his death, Lopez watched as 170,000 acres of the land where he lived for half a century burned in The McKenzie Fire in Oregon.

"The land around us as far as we can see looks flayed," he wrote in a Facebook post on Nov. 5, 2020. "For 10 miles in both directions along the river from us, all that stands where a whole community once lived are bare chimneys. The devastation for some is catastrophic and irreparable."

It was the last post to appear on his public page.

 "It is more important to live for the possibilities that lie ahead than to die in despair over what has been lost."
— Barry Lopez, 1945-2020
Monday, January 16, 2023

When we cease to have nice things

Winter Solstice dealt a hard moment of self-awareness: I have a stunning lack of resilience. 

For two decades I’ve cultivated toughness, but toughness and resilience are not the same. In the past, I would have defined their differences as subtle, but now I see that they are stark. What helped me realize this was losing the tough thing I’d planned to do over the holidays and falling apart because I lacked the resilience to let go. 

Winter Solstice was the day we were set to leave for Alaska. Amid my mental health struggles in October and November, I clung to comforting daydreams about dragging my sled through the frozen stillness, with a silence so clear and deep that one can hear the faint wing beats of nearby chickadees. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of these tiny birds foraging through the snow — the only animal moving when it’s 40 below. When I see a chickadee, I’m always struck with reverence … and envy. What a life, to remain in constant motion just to survive. They forage all day and shiver all night. In the face of slim odds, they thrive. 

As the trip drew closer and the forecast called for colder and windier conditions, I only grew more excited. There was a good chance it was going to be 30 below with 25 mph winds. In such weather, the most any animal can achieve is to survive. Out there, all of my midlife crisis bullshit wouldn’t matter. I wouldn't have to endure my regular life of slogging through day after tedious day with a growing base of self-loathing and fading convictions about passions and purpose. Out in the roaring white silence, I would simply be a warm animal, one whose only job was to stay warm. I would wrap my body in a shield of its own heat and work hard to keep the furnace burning. I wouldn’t do this because I am tough; I would do it because I am soft and frightened. I am too tired for the life of a human being; I would like to be a black-capped chickadee. 

 Just a couple of hours before we were set to leave, Beat called out that Alaska Air had canceled our flight. You may remember the Arctic Blast that hit most of the Lower 48 just before Christmas. Seattle was buried in several inches of snow. The cold air was barreling toward Denver. There wasn’t another flight available for three days. We’d have to cancel our first cabin trip, and did we really want to battle backed-up air travel on Christmas Eve? What if our return trip was equally affected? Conceding to the nightmare that travel has become in recent years, we canceled the entire trip. 

“Doesn’t it seem like, since 2020, we can no longer have nice things?” I lamented to a friend. 

And yes, I realize that I have many, many nice things in my life. This is what I mean about lacking resilience. A resilient person would say, okay, we’ll postpone the trip and make the most of this vacation time we already scheduled. It’s Christmas! Let’s spend time with family. I said all of these things out loud, but the unmanageable part of my brain that controls my emotions was despondent. The mental house of cards that I’d so carefully reconstructed in recent weeks collapsed. 

My reaction was so strange. It’s not as though what I’d lost was all that important or irreplaceable. Intellectually I knew this, but my still mind plunged into a pit of unfocused grief. The brain fog was pronounced. Time contracted and expanded. Little made sense. Where am I? What day is this? Why am I pushing a cart through Safeway? Oh yes, we now need provisions for our empty fridge. The grocery store was overcrowded with shoppers in a pre-Christmas, pre-Arctic Blast frenzy. As I reached for an apple, a lady who had been blocking the narrow produce aisle for seeming hours turned and screamed at me, full-on screamed, to wait my turn. Did I time-travel back to March 2020? What year is this? I rushed to the checkout line with only half of the items I’d planned to buy and then rushed to my car while gulping down sobs. What is wrong with me? Am I actually losing my mind? 

The next few days did little to temper my fear that, actually, I might be losing my mind. The Arctic Blast arrived early on Dec. 22. The temperature at our house plunged to 23 below zero — by far the coldest we’ve seen in seven years in Colorado. I pulled the Alaska layers out of my suitcase and trudged two miles to South Boulder Creek, to what I’ve come to think of as my “mental health bench." I go there when I need to just cope; it's a lovely place to sit and listen to water flow effortlessly by. Only the water doesn’t flow so effortlessly at 10 below. The trickle under a thick layer of ice wasn’t audible. It was too cold to sit on the bench for long. It wasn’t Alaska, and it wasn't the same, it just wasn’t the same. 

Early the following morning, I left to drive to Utah. It was still 10 below and roads were snow-packed and icy. In spite of this, I-70 flowed surprisingly well. Brain fog softened my usual driving anxiety. But in more ways, the stupor was upsetting. For example, I managed to leave home without my laptop, which I needed for work. But I did bring my mountain bike, which — for a trip to snowbound Salt Lake City in late December — wasn’t all that practical. Several times I wavered on the edge of awareness while admonishing myself to pay attention to the road. 

“Maybe I should not be driving.”

I needed a break. Since I had the mountain bike, I decided to pull off the highway into an empty expanse of desert just west of the state line. My plan was to ride whatever random road headed north toward the Book Cliffs. There wasn’t an obvious place to pull my car off the narrow dirt road, so I kept driving — back and forth, back and forth. Without even realizing it, a full 45 minutes passed. I looked down at the clock and thought, “Wait? It’s already 11:54? Wasn’t it 11:10 just five minutes ago?”

This realization was, honestly, terrifying. Where was my mind? I immediately veered into a random strip of sand parallel to the road and pulled the bike out of the car. Having not exactly planned the ride, I didn’t have the best provisions in my backpack — just a light jacket, some water, and a few other items. Temperatures were no longer in the Arctic Blast danger cold range, but they were in the 20s. A stiff breeze blew from the west. I began pedaling toward the “Harley Dome Road” I’d pinpointed on the car’s navigation map and was now looking for on my Garmin. I was surprised to discover the junction was a full three miles from the point where I’d parked my car. How did I end up so far away? Where was my mind? Am I safe? Should I really just be riding alone into this remote and icy desert? At least I’d turned on my tracker so Beat would know where to locate my frozen body if it came to that. 

The west wind needled through thin tights into the soft flesh of my thighs. I wished for shell pants and a warmer pair of mittens. Why didn’t I bring those? It is winter. Should I turn around? I felt weirdly terrified and yet incapable of making decisions. Similar to when I was driving aimlessly while searching for a “parking space,” my awareness of the present pulsed and flickered. Time contracted and expanded. I just kept pedaling north as emotions gurgled to the surface. Tears began to flow. I was so scared. Why was I so scared? The only thing I could think to do was send a plea to the universe — to my dad — for help. 

"Please, please, help me,” I whimpered to the wind. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”


As I cried, I heard a high-pitched whine, punctuated by wind gusts. The sound wasn’t unlike the “dee dee dee” song of a chickadee. I jerked my head around. There was nothing for miles but sand and sage. Confused, I looked up. Directly over me, not more than 100 feet off the ground, was a small red airplane that I hadn’t noticed before. It had approached from the east where headwinds masked the sound. As the plane passed overhead, the pilot tipped one wing toward me — that unmistakable friendly maneuver. I waved back in awe. Where did this airplane even come from? We weren’t all that far from airstrips in Fruita or Moab, but in my fragile mental state, I felt like a marooned astronaut on Mars interacting with a spacecraft from Earth. 

 “Dad loved flying over the desert in small planes,” I thought. This image filled me with intense relief and joy. It doesn’t really matter what I believe about spirits or an afterlife; just telling myself this story helped me feel immediately better. Buoyed away from my slow-rolling panic attack, I continued pedaling north with purpose. 

 The bike ride didn’t cure me, though. Not by a long shot. I continued to make inexplicable choices. In a fluster of frustration after learning I’d forgotten my laptop, I didn’t end up buying anything for breakfast in Colorado and neglected to eat during my 32-mile ride in eastern Utah. Suddenly it was 5 p.m. and I felt alarmingly dizzy while driving down Spanish Fork Canyon. Just a half hour from my mom’s house, I pulled into an overwhelmingly crowded shopping center to buy a Subway sandwich. After ordering, I tried to ask for a napkin but forgot the word for napkin. It didn’t come to me in time. I finally just mumbled “never mind” and walked out the door in a fluster of shame. 

What I wouldn't give for this sort of focus.

Christmas with my family was good but hard. Holidays are hard. My mom wasn’t in a great place to celebrate, and I don’t blame her. My sister whipped up a fantastic fondue dinner. It was fun to be around the excitement of four children on Christmas Eve. We stayed up past midnight completing a puzzle; I mostly just stared off into space while my mom and sister furiously worked. My sister put me up in my 4-year-old nephew’s room, a warm and dark space with a miniature bed and a Jesus night light. There I collapsed into my best sleep in weeks, before or since. I slept through Christmas morning, which I regret, but also … I needed that sleep. 

My sister and I did hike to the top of Grandeur Peak on Dec. 26, which was really nice.

The sleep didn’t cure me, though. Not by a long shot. I realize weeks have passed since Christmas and I am still struggling. I have been taking steps to address my tenuous mental state. I reached out to a telehealth counselor and scheduled my first sessions (I had been holding out for a local therapist that I could visit in person, but it has become clear that no one is available now or anytime soon.) I joined a gym so I can work on my mind-body connection through strength training and yoga. I make time for at least some meditation and stretching during the day. I’m open to trying new things. I need to try new things.

Specifically, I need to work on building my resilience. I need better ways to weather life’s disappointments and losses. I need to let go of my reliance on novelty and excitement. I need to move away from using physical exhaustion as my best coping mechanism, and embrace more sustainable practices — gratitude, presence, and acceptance. I can’t bear to exist in a universe that has no purpose or meaning; the only way to muffle the siren call of nihilism is to create purpose and meaning for myself. 

 I don’t know what that is. If it were easy it would be … endurance racing. But this is life. There’s no straightforward beginning or end, no immutable achievements or consequence-free failures. It’s challenging and bewildering and painful and there’s no reward in the end … just an end. It’s accepting that the little joys are enough. It’s realizing that life is incredible and life is enough. I still have a long way to go to get there. 

I see why I imagine myself as a tiny bird, my dad as a tiny plane, bound to everything and nothing, soaring through the sky. It’s something beyond life to take comfort in. Sometimes it feels like the comforting things I once took for granted have gone away. I can imagine the perfect silence in Alaska but I can no longer rely on an airline to take me there. I can visit my family in Utah but can’t avoid an anxiety meltdown when I-70 closures trap me in standstill traffic. I can cultivate gratitude for the present but can't muster faith in a better future. I can resolve to fix my life but no longer trust my brain. I can’t even trust my brain to remember the word for napkin. I can ask my dad for help, but …

My dad’s birthday was Friday the 13th. He would have turned 70 years old. I was having a really hard day. I barely slept. My anxiety had spiked to the point that morning dread made it almost impossible to get out of bed. But I needed to get my monthly allergy shot. I hate allergy shot day. The shots make me feel lousy on my best days. I usually try to self-soothe with something. On this day, a hike seemed appropriate. 

 I pulled up to the tiny Cragmoor trailhead and stepped into a blaze of sunshine. It had been overcast for much of the morning, but the sun emerged nearly in line with the strike of noon. It was 54 degrees. Despite days of melting heat, the trail was still a friendly mixture of dry dirt along the mesa and packed snow in Fern Canyon. The type of conditions where one can strap microspikes to their shoes and fly. But I felt too heavy and sad to fly. I tried to focus on my favorite memories but found myself mostly just missing my dad. 

For a while my brain shut down as I trudged upward through the woods — slogging is my best coping mechanism. Suddenly I emerged in the sunlight on top of Bear Peak. There wasn’t a breath of wind. It was so warm. Dad would have loved this January day. The sound of his laugh came to me: A visceral memory from the evening Beat and I were married on Bear Peak in September 2020. Dad was dealing with a painful back injury for which he had surgery just two weeks later. I didn’t know the extent of his pain because I hadn’t seen him in nearly a year. He could barely walk. But he pulled himself all the way up this mountain just for me, so I could have the mountaintop wedding I’d dreamed of. He never showed a hint of pain … just an abundance of happiness. The memory of his smile evoked a sense of peace I hadn’t felt since that little plane over Harley Dome.

Two hours later, a nurse injected my arms with poisons I have been intentionally taking for more than six years. I sat in the waiting room for the mandatory half-hour it takes to ensure I wasn’t going to lapse into anaphylactic shock. While dizzying serum coursed through my blood, I wrote up a stilted Facebook caption on my phone so I could share my photo of Bear Peak with loved ones. I still can’t do a better job to describe the experience, so I’ll record it here: 

You would have turned 70 today. 
I carried your memory up Bear Peak. 
That heaviness on my chest, a weight so familiar now. 
50 degrees and sunny. 
You would have loved this day. 
Just like that day in September 2020. 
We were together again after so many months of resolve to stay apart. It was my wedding day. 
You were hurt; you were in so much pain. 
You didn't tell me. 
You wouldn't let us change our plans. 
You dragged yourself up this mountain. 
Sunset that night was stunning. The clearest evening in weeks. 
You looked so happy, so proud, your smile shining through the fading light, through all of your pain. 
I fear with each passing day I forget something else, but I will never forget that moment. 
We were together and full of hope. 
Now on your birthday I'm here alone. 
With all of life in front of me.  

Niwot Ridge — like Alaska, a place so harsh that it becomes comforting in its simplicity.

Maybe I’m past my charmed years, when nice things seemed to come more easily, and my greatest source of comfort was alive and climbing mountains for me. But it’s not over. There's still life in front of me.