Thursday, April 06, 2023

Waking up every day just a little bit changed

Something about March 15 seems to flip a switch in Alaska, and suddenly it's spring. Daylight Savings Time stretched the evening twilight to nearly 9 p.m. Overnight, temperatures swung from consistently below zero to considerably above zero. When I bought a last-minute plane ticket out of Colorado, I scheduled my return flight for a week after my sled trip ... because if you're going to fly all the way to Alaska, you might as well make it count. I also hoped to invite myself on Corrine and Eric's weekend trip to Tolovana Hot Springs, a magical land I haven't had an opportunity to visit in six years. 

I worked all week, which meant my day-to-day in Fairbanks wasn't all that different from my boring routine at home. Only when I went outside, the air was sharp and clear, and it would hit me that I'm in Alaska — a thought that still evokes warm feelings after all these years. I had been enjoying the subzero weather and was openly disappointed when weather forecasts showed spikes into the 20s, much to the bewilderment of Alaska friends who have been languishing in the cold darkness since September. In a way, I had been languishing in the darkness since then, too. And I was only beginning to emerge amid this fierce Alaska version of spring, with its dense subzero air that brought peace and comfort. In the cold's echoing silence, I could hear all of the little sounds that remind me of the complexities in this world, the countless stories that are so easy to tune out. And in the cold's grasp, I could feel my life force surging through my body, battling to retain hard-won warmth — a reminder of the power it takes just to participate in this life.  

And I did snag that invite to Tolovana Hot Springs. Beat and I used to visit Tolovana every Christmas. After 2017, the area exploded in popularity and price, so it became too difficult to reserve one of the three cabins. My experiences through the first half of the last decade convinced me that the trail over Tolovana Hot Springs Dome is in fact the worst place on Earth. The 10.1-mile track is buffeted by continuous 40 mph winds that feel like death fire in the continuous 25-below cold. There is an old water tank with a small hole cut on the leeward side, placed as a meager wind shelter on a particularly exposed part of the ridge. In the past, Beat and I have hidden in there out of genuine concern for our survival. I didn't know what to expect from Tolovana now that spring had turned on the overhead lights, but I figured anything even marginally better than the Worst Weather on Earth would feel like summer.

Indeed, March weather allowed an easy trek over the Dome. My friends with bikes would probably disagree, as the trail was predictably drifted and very rough in spots. Some drifts were waist-high and uneven, requiring dance-like maneuvers to keep my sled from flipping over. But temperatures were warm-ish and the current wind was blowing at barely a whisper, although it was still breezy enough to necessitate a face covering on the Dome. 

The sled-dragging was much easier than it had been through the cold powder of the White Mountains one week earlier. I listened to "The Sweet Spot," a book about the psychology behind why humans purposefully seek out emotional turmoil and physical pain. I had mixed feelings about this book, mainly because parts of it held out a mirror I wasn't quite ready to gaze into. But it was well-researched and interesting. 

After four hours I arrived at the cute little Frame Cabin, apparently not far behind my friends who had to do a lot of bike pushing over the rough trails. 

We enjoyed a leisurely dinner and went to soak in the spring when it was still light out. Such abundance! Such luxury! I do love this place, but I will admit, much of its mystique lies in the foreboding approach and also the dim but magical light cast by the low-angle sun around Winter Solstice. I hope we can make it back next Christmas. 

Eric captured this photo of me leaving the following morning. I had a fairly rough night in the cute little cabin, which was quite small, necessitating me squeezing onto a narrow top bunk (since I did invite myself, I'm grateful to Corrine and Eric for squeezing themselves into the lower bunk so I could join.) Even though we only left the stove burning for a few hours, it felt like it was 100 degrees inside for much of the night. I was lying in a puddle of sweat on top of my sleeping bag. (As an aside, for the folks who are curious about my experience with Lexapro, this is one of the side effects. Night sweats. It happens even in my cool bedroom, so I am dreading this coming summer. This isn't a deal-breaker, nor is the nausea I still experience after taking the medication, but it's good to be aware of these lesser annoying details.)

Anyway, I eventually wandered outside in just a bra, underwear, and down booties. At that point, the wind was howling (a reason why I opted out of moving my sleeping bag outside) and it was 25 degrees. The windchill itself probably registered in that near-zero range, and it was exhilerating to skip through the snow, feeling free of the clutches of oppressive heat and yet impervious to the cold. This lasted maybe 10 minutes, and then finally my core temperature dipped low enough to sprint back inside and grab a few hours of sleep. 

The hike out was warm and lovely and felt even more comfortable despite the two big hills that rack up something near 3,000 feet of climbing. It didn't take much longer than the hike in, about 4:20, and I'd left an hour before Corrine and Eric to try to coordinate the finish. But there was still a lot of hike-a-bike on the way out, and Eric was dealing with a missing bolt in his rear axle that meant every hard pedal stroke risked dropping his back wheel. I'm sure he still bombed down these hills because he's crazy like that. (I'm too much of a coward to even try riding my sled. But I did do some jogging. I felt great.) 

Waiting for Corrine and Eric to arrive afforded an extra hour to hike along the nearly abandoned road and take in big views. I could have spent the whole day out here! 

I had planned to fly home to Colorado late that night. But even before Tolovana, I felt reluctant to leave this place where life felt so light and joy overflowed after such a long drought. Corrine invited me to stay one more week and join them on their three-night cabin trip in the Whites. I pointed out that their itinerary was even more ridiculous for a person on foot than the one I'd already attempted and failed. Corrine said it would be no problem, they already had a solution from local speedster and nice guy Tyson, whose wife had a fat bike I could borrow. Such luxury! Such abundance! I've already forgotten the model, but it was a light and comfortable rig with the perfect setup for my gear — as long as I left the luxuries at home. (For the most part, I did, but I still brought my puffy suit.) 

I had a lot of fun test the bike on local trails before my workdays. I had to pull a few strings to extend the stay, but ended up saving money by changing my plane ticket. Corrine and Eric were so generous to let me crash at their place for the better part of three weeks. I recognize how intrusive house guests can be and tried to stay out of their hair. I was so grateful for the opportunity. 

Another perk of staying so long was the many opportunities to view the Northern Lights. The sun has entered a particularly active period, so light displays have been more frequent and far-reaching. Fairbanks is one of the best places in the world to see the lights, due to its location under the "Aurora Oval," as well as its frequently clear skies and long, dark nights. In spite of this, sightings are still rare and take a degree of dedication, as the lights are rarely out for more than a few minutes at a time and can only be loosely predicted based on solar activity. 

On this particular night, March 21 — the first full day of spring — the geomagnetic field was expected to be quiet (level 2), and yet, just as I was settling in for another try at sleeping around 12:30 a.m., I caught this streak of light outside my window. 

I wish I brought better photo equipment, or at least tried to utilize my point-and-shoot, which requires finicky manual settings and a steady surface to set up for low-light images. But when the sky is dancing like this, photography feels particularly intrusive. A few blurry phone photos to remember the occasion are good enough. 

For nearly an hour, I walked up and down the street, marveling. The aurora borealis is, by far, the most intensely beautiful phenomenon I've experienced. No photograph or video can recreate the experience of standing as an infinitesimal being in an insignificant world and witnessing the universe come alive. The lights shimmer and dance and flow across the horizon, although all words are inadequate to describe how the Aurora Borealis moves. I feel like I've been given a glimpse into the beginning of time, the young universe expanding with unimaginable force. 

The following day was Corrine's birthday. Our friend Betsy arrived from Colorado for the cabin trip that they had been planning for months. We were all busy during the day but found time for a lovely sunset ride out Corrine's backyard trail. 

Happiness is ... friends and bikes and sunsets. 

If that wasn't enough, the night of March 23 brought an unanticipated and brilliant geomagnetic storm. Shortly after dinner, I caught social media posts from friends in Minnesota and Michigan, even Wyoming and Colorado, who were able to see the lights. It was still at least two hours from being fully dark in Alaska, but I tried to keep an eye on the sky. I had just about given up when Corrine texted me because she and Betsy had caught hints of the waning light show and were walking outside. 

By the time I geared up to join them, the lights were winding down, but it was still a nice display. They had just about faded entirely when Betsy and Corrine decided to go back inside. I decided to continue walking up the road, just in case. 

What happened next was astonishing — an explosion of light and color filled the sky. Scientists will tell you that the Aurora Borealis makes no sound, that it's impossible, but most viewers hear some sort of melody. To me, the Northern Lights sound like chanting Gregorian monks, a low-pitched rumble that increases in volume until I'm fully overwhelmed, ready to drop to my knees and repent for my insignificant human weakness in the presence of such grandeur. 

This is the low-quality phone video I shot for a few seconds before my fingers froze. It shows the way the lights dance. (You can hear a bit of sound as well, but I'm pretty sure that's the wind.) 

The expansive awe allowed me to fully step outside of myself, moving without a headlamp through the night until I ran out of road on which to walk. The dead end jolted me back to human awareness and I fell back into my body, which was already beginning to shiver in the cold. Searching for the links in the mind-body connection is such an interesting experiment. The intrigue is what drew me to endurance racing all those years ago. It's also what pushed me away when those mind-body connections seemed to sever and my brain turned on itself. I couldn't breach the barrier no matter what I tried. My brain tortured me with irrational fears and nonexistent terrors. It shoved me underwater. I couldn't fight back. I couldn't escape. 

But then I found something to lift my head above the water. With renewed clarity of thought, I was able to regain some control, to re-link a few of those broken connections. That something was medication, yes, but also — Alaska. Those expansive landscapes of the Far North, windswept and snowbound, wich always come to me in my best dreams. It's the darkness that reveals the most astonishing light. 

Sunday, April 02, 2023

The body remembers what the mind forgets

On February 25, I was sure I would never feel happy or healthy again. A heavy despondency sat on my chest, keeping me anchored in bed long after the alarm I'd set because I knew I had to boost myself outside today. Finally, I rose to an empty house. Filtered sunlight cast strange shadows on the hardwood floor. Beat was in Alaska, set to start the Iditarod Trail Invitational the following day. It was a stressful few days after his flight was canceled, followed by high winds and a storm that meant he only escaped Colorado by the skin of his teeth. 

I'd been in survival mode since I drove home from Kanab on February 20. It was my second week on Lexapro. My doctor urged me to double the dose, which only seemed to double the terrible side effects — constant nausea, feeling so dizzy I had difficulty jogging, and some of the worst anxiety I'd experienced. My sleep was continuously interrupted by nightmares about mass shooters, and where did that even come from? That's not part of my trauma. Oh, brain. I want to be done with you. But there's no way to break up with your own brain. You can only kill it, which honestly (and I promise, I am fine now), starts to become a comforting daydream. These thoughts are as terrifying as they are darkly comforting — especially when I'm just starting an antidepressant, for which suicidal thoughts are a big red flag. I was eager for an appointment with my therapist on Monday. But since it was only Saturday, I rallied all of my energy to visit my grumpy emotional support mountain, Niwot Ridge. 

I love Niwot Ridge because as a mountain it's hard to love. Bland yet steep approach on a jeep road, a broad, almost featureless spine, littered with scientific equipment, and raked by constant, brutal winds. A light breeze on Niwot is 40 mph. Hurricane-force gales are common. Whiteouts, sastrugi, sketchy wind crust, exposed tussocks — there isn't a friendly step to be had. I used to feel terrorized by Niwot Ridge, but now that I know what to expect, I've come to find comfort in its raw, indifferent power. I imagine a Simon & Garfunkel lyric, set to the white noise of this video I shot in January: 

Hello, Niwot, my old friend
I've come to walk with you again
Into a wind that always blows
Toward a love that no one knows
Only to press deeper into your cold heart
Still apart
In a roar of silence.

I trudged to the end of the ridge, or at least to the point where the featureless plain narrows to a serrated knife with exposure that would be actual suicide for the likes of me. It's nearly seven miles one way and took me more than three hours. I hadn't noticed the time pass at all. I walked and breathed and felt the gift of being alive ... at least I told myself this is what alive felt like. 

"Life is easy when I am walking," I thought. "All I need to do is keep walking." 

I took this selfie in that happy moment of discovery. It's interesting to look at it now and see all of the pain reflected in my expression. I've come to think of this photo as "Healing process — selfie number one."

The week progressed. Beat's race started on February 26. His first night in Alaska was absolutely brutal, with temperatures swinging from 20 above to 35 below and more than a dozen cases of illness or frostbite — one severe — among racers. Beat had his own rough start with wet base layers amid the danger cold, but he's experienced enough at this point to cope with almost any challenge. He knows how much I fret about him when he's out there, and was great about keeping in touch via his satellite phone. 

As Beat continued along the Iditarod Trail, I settled into my days at home — up in the morning, breakfast, my one allowed cup of coffee that I cherish immensely, chores, some sort of exercise, work, dinner, reading, sleep. The nightmares were beginning to lessen. It was a boring routine and I was grateful for it. Predictability is one of the best coping mechanisms for anxiety. Yet I resented my brain for withholding so much joy. 

The following Friday, my friend Danni from Montana flew to Denver for a Rotary conference, so we made arrangements to meet up for breakfast and a run. I invited our friend Betsy to join us since she lives nearby. Betsy was in the midst of preparing for her first trip to Fairbanks. She and our mutual friends Corrine and Eric planned a three-night cabin trip in the White Mountains at the end of the month. Corrine had been trying to coax me to join, but I was reluctant. Travel has been so hard for me. Most of my recent mental health meltdowns were accompanied by travel. I couldn't commit.

And yet, Alaska's White Mountains are my favorite place in the world. That's probably not an exaggeration. I've put in well over a thousand miles — likely closer to 2,000 — winter hiking and biking in those shrubby, low-lying hills. It's a lot for a place I've never lived — a level of dedication I've shown to no other place save for the Iditarod Trail. On February 10, when I was nearly at the lowest point in my mental health, Corrine mentioned applying for cabins. I thought, "March 10 ... that would be a realistic weekend to fly out to Alaska." 

The online reservation system requires people to reserve cabins up to 30 days ahead of time — no more. They're usually snapped up the minute they become available. Of course, I'd forgotten that February only has 28 days, so by the time I looked on February 10, March 12 was already open. I impulsively reserved what was left on March 10 and 11. The itinerary was not really doable in the mode I wanted to travel, which was walking — 28 miles on day one, 45 miles on day two, zero miles on day three, and 26 miles on day four. (I had to reserve the same cabin twice. It was the only one still available, and they were both too far away for a comfortable overnight.) At my usual 2-2.5 mph sled-dragging pace with no prior training, it was a ridiculous ask.

"It's okay because I'm not going to fly to Alaska anyway," I thought and closed the browser on my phone.  

But then Danni and I had such a nice visit, talking about the trials of midlife and how I thought my medication was finally starting to work, and Betsy contributed her own Alaska stoke. On Friday, March 3, I started having second thoughts. 

That's the long version of how I came to message Corrine on Monday, bought a plane ticket on Tuesday, and by Wednesday was jetting over the Inside Passage with my sled in cargo. Thursday brought daylong snowfall as I put my gear together and purchased way too much food. By Thursday night, there were four to five inches of fresh powder on the driveway. I walked into the frigid 10-below air to brush off my rental car twice. This was cold powder — the harsh, abrasive snow that acts like sandpaper under cumbersome sleds. My itinerary was hardly achievable in the best of trail conditions and now ... where did I even think I was going to go? Corrine thought for sure I was going to cancel my trip, but I could only shrug. I fear my inner monsters so much that I hardly have emotion left for the possibility of a bivy out at 20 or 30 below. Anxiety is strange like that. Being afraid of everything also means, in a way, I'm afraid of nothing. 

Indeed, almost no one had been out since the Thursday snowfall. There was the faint track of a person pushing a bike and even fainter tracks of recent snowmachines — mostly erased by a brisk wind that was still blowing. Temperatures at the trailhead were 3 below zero. I knew that was the warmest I was going to see all day. I strapped on my snowshoes and started trudging. My sled felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. Honestly, it was probably at least 60 pounds. I packed all of my fears. Tons of fuel — enough that I accidentally spilled almost half of it in my fuel bag (whoops) and still had enough for four days. I had enough trail mix that I continued to snack on it almost exclusively for the next three weeks. Every stitch of clothing I brought to Alaska. And of course camping gear. I was going to need it. I'd be lucky if I covered five miles today.

It was the trudgiest of trudges. My hamstrings burned. I continued to follow the solo bike track until I encountered two skiers who told me they were returning to the trailhead after a ten-day trip. Ten days! Out here! I eyed their now-empty-looking sleds with envy. I wish I could spend ten days out here. Snow shimmered and the sky reflected an almost otherworldly shade of sapphire blue. "This is what alive feels like," I thought. 

The trail almost entirely disappeared across wind-driven swamps. I was grateful for the solo biker; without their faint tracks, I may not have found the trail at all. Whenever one snowshoe left the trail base, I punched into loose powder up to my hips. Losing the trail was not an option. Time passed in the strange way it does now when I'm walking, where minutes become hours and vice versa. I looked at my watch and suddenly it was 4 p.m. I was nowhere near Caribou Bluff, my destination for the night. I did some math. "15 miles in 8 hours ... 13 more to go ... midnight?" 

Midnight honestly wouldn't be so bad if I didn't already feel so shattered. My legs were downright numb ... I know this feeling well now that I've been spending more time at the gym. This is what it feels like when I push my reps to the point of muscle failure. I was losing power and had to take more breaks just to catch my breath. Midnight was probably an overly optimistic guestimate. And where did I think I would go from there? My next day was supposed to take me 45 miles over the Cache Mountain Divide, which was almost certainly drifted in and likely unnavigable. My best bet for making it to my next cabin was to go back the way I came. Which meant camping tonight. The low in Fairbanks was forecast to be -5F to -10F. Anyone familiar with the White Mountains knows this means -30F easily in these valleys. 

I still felt okay with the prospect and marched down to Beaver Creek to find a good spot (even though camping higher is advised on cold nights, the wind was still blowing and I felt more secure in the wind-protected forests than up on these sparsely vegetated hills. Also, I was feeling strangely bold. 30 below? Ain't no thing.)

There was a good spot close to Borealis Cabin. Since I'd seen no other sign of life besides the skiers all day, I decided to check out the cabin. At the very least, I could melt water on the porch, where it's easier to manage my stove than in the snow. And if no one showed up by sunset, perhaps I could poach the cabin. If anyone showed up after dark and caught me, I could feign tears. 

I had just pulled out my stove when a biker rode up to the porch. He said he'd come from Wolf Run, some 20 miles up the trail. I told him about my camping plan and why I was sitting outside his cabin. He shrugged, said "okay," and without another word walked off to find firewood. 

Bummer. I admit I was hoping for an invite. Clearly, this man wanted his privacy. 

Still, I remained on the porch to finish melting three liters of water and cook a hot dinner and tea. He was gone the entire time, probably close to a half hour, and returned with only a few meager sticks of black spruce deadfall. I was packing up when he said, "You can stay here tonight if you want." 

I may or may not have put on my saddest puppy dog face before he said that. But I was extremely grateful for the prospect of shelter for the night. 

Mark turned out to be friendly and generous. An ER doctor from Fairbanks, he was a former White Mountains 100 volunteer and also a friend of Corrine's. We had a great night. He shared the charcuterie spread he'd brought for his final night on the trail — local sausage, crackers, Babybel cheese, and a delicious cinnamon tea. I lamented that I had nothing tasty to share, only my terrible trail mix. I had at least 10 pounds of it. Did he want some? Mark shook his head with a fervent no. 

It was, indeed, a very cold night. I got up a few times to use the outhouse (thanks, cinnamon tea), and each time my butt and thighs quickly went numb as my hands turned to claws. I remembered that yes, in fact, 30 below is very much a thing. Mark's firewood didn't go very far. I should have gone out to gather more, but I don't love to fuss about wood when I have a perfectly good 40-below bag to keep me comfy. Still, it was the least I could have done for Mark's generosity, as he only had a 32-above summer bag and as it turned out, forgot his sleeping mat. Mark's sticks burned out before we went to sleep. At one point in the night, I realized the interior of the cabin had dipped well below 32 degrees and pulled my drinking water into my sleeping bag to keep it from freezing solid. When I woke up in the morning, Mark was sitting up on the bunk, huddled in all of his coats and sleeping bag, nursing a thermos. But he seemed cheerful and said his sleep wasn't too bad. Fairbanksians are so tough. 

Hiking out in the morning when temperatures were still near 30 below. I think of this as "Healing process ... selfie number two." 

March 11 — a beautiful bluebird Saturday — was more of the same ol' drag with no traffic to help me break through the cold powder snow. Reaching Crowberry Cabin would require 27 miles of hiking and that's if I took the shortcut — called the Moose Creek connector, it doesn't see a whole lot of use. But at least the first part had been recently broken, so I gave it a go. 

The snowmachine turned around after three miles. With six more miles to go, I was fully breaking trail over the faintest hints of a trail base. Often I couldn't see anything at all. I tried to feel out the base with my poles, which were sharp enough that they poked through everything easily, so I had to just take steps of faith with my snowshoes. Plenty of these steps failed and I flailed. One mile took close to an hour. I was just about to give up and turn around when I encountered the strangest sight — people! And not just people, but a skier, a walker, and two bikers all breaking trail along this wide-open expanse of a hillside. They told me they were out training for the White Mountains 100. 

"We did not expect to see anyone out here," they exclaimed. 

"Nor did I," I replied.

This is their trail. It isn't great, but it is a trail. I was especially grateful for it in the more open areas, where I could still see no other indication of the trail base. How did they find it? No matter ... it is gratifying to see how the universe provides for our needs, even simple needs like shelter and trails. How had I so recently experienced the world as such a sinister place? 

It's difficult to describe the love I feel in these places that I love, even when I know they have no capacity to love me back. But what I've come to realize is that love is not necessarily limited to human experience. The sun began to set as I trudged to the end of the connector trail, still some 11 miles and likely six hours from my destination. My leg muscles were again going numb, my glutes screaming in protest, my back stiff and painful with every jerking tug of the thousand-pound sled. The human experience, I decided, is not the end-all. With all of these aging parts and misfiring emotions, it can even feel like an injustice. This is why I seek out big, empty expanses, and why I love to look at the sky. The more insignificant I become, the more I feel at peace with the inevitabilities of living — death, pain, the unknowable universe. I take comfort in the infinite beauty that will go on long after my broken self shucks off this mortal injustice. In its paradoxical way, this makes me feel immensely grateful for life.

Darkness fell. My legs weakened more. The route climbed onto a minor ridge where the trail was heavily drifted. Some drifts were knee-deep even with snowshoes. I was so sleepy; so hungry. I could not stomach any more of this trail mix. Just when I thought I might keel over, the universe opened up. Hints of green light reflected on the snow so I turned off my headlamp. I would no longer need it for the final five miles to Crowberry Cabin. Suddenly walking felt effortless, and there was nothing to do but walk, head craned skyward, marveling at the unknowable universe that was dancing, actually dancing, just for me. 

I did not try to capture many photos. It was still very cold and my fingers froze whenever I took out my phone for more than a minute, so these are just a few phone photos I grabbed while walking. That's how spectacular the Aurora Borealis was on this night. It did not demand stillness. It almost seemed to respond to motion. As I pushed myself to walk faster to warm my frozen extremities, streaks of emerald and white light spread out like waves across every horizon. 

I felt very, very lucky. And not even a hint of fear. I finally pulled into my cabin after 1 a.m. I started a small fire to dry my ice-encrusted gear and heated water on my stove. By the time I crawled into my sleeping bag my watch read 3:30 a.m. I felt disconcerted about how so much time passed without noticing, forgetting that 2 a.m. brought Daylight Savings Time and I was literally experiencing a lost hour. 

The following morning I awoke to much warmer temperatures — 10 above — and light flurries that seemed to accumulate another inch or two of powder overnight. I'd let myself sleep in as I'd managed to grab another cabin at the last minute — Moose Creek, which was 10 miles away. It was still going to take me five arduous hours to hike there, but all in all, an easy day. 

I was fatigued and a little puffy from the muscle strain of the 47,679 deadlifts I'd done since Friday. But personally, I can see a little more light in these eyes. "Healing process — selfie number three."

Moose Creek cabin might be my favorite cabin. It's in a rather unassuming spot compared to the big-mountain views of other cabins, but it sits perched on a hillside wit h a lovely overlook and big sky views. It has a comfortable interior and a lot of nearby "standing dead" spruce trees to make firewood collection easy. I finally did some wood collecting and sawing here, as I finally had the time and just a hint of energy. It seemed appropriate to "appease the cabin gods" as my friend Eric would say. What's funny is that after all of that work, I ended up just burning one of four bundles of grocery store firewood left behind by past users. 

The past cabin dwellers also left behind a single bottle of Smartwater, unopened, sitting on a shelf. Based on the lack of fresh snowmachine tracks, I guessed that no one had been there last night, so the bottle had likely been sitting there for at least 24 hours. And it had not been warm — already plunging to 2 degrees before sunset. Yet the Smartwater was clear and unfrozen. I stood a minute scrutinizing it, wondering if someone had filled it with alcohol. But when I grabbed the bottle, it instantly erupted in a swirl of ice crystals forming before my eyes. I've witnessed this phenomenon before — supercooled electrolyte-infused liquid not actually turning to ice until it's disturbed. I forget the chemical explanation for this, but it's mesmerizing. I placed the bottle, now nearly solid with ice, near the stove until it had thawed enough to be the most delicious, clear, cold water I have ever had the privilege of enjoying. 

The following day, I had a fairly easy 16 miles to hike out on a lightly dusted but broken trail with only a few deep drifts remaining along high points. I spent the day listening to "The Molecule of More" about how dopamine controls nearly every aspect of our lives. Brain chemistry is fascinating and endlessly complex. It's also both humbling and empowering to realize that so much of what I think of as "me" arises from these chemicals. I took medication to increase the availability of serotonin in my brain, and now mornings are bright and beautiful again. Dopamine drove me to seek more, more, more in the form of racing, but now I'm not so sure that drives me anymore. I'm not sure if anything drives me anymore. Living, I suppose. I think living should be enough. When you go any amount of time feeling like you're dying, living is more than enough. 

Damn, it was a beautiful Monday morning. I think it was cold and it's likely my legs hurt, but all I could think is, damn, it feels good to be alive. "Healing process — selfie number four."

Anxiety has been such a humbling, horrifying, and yet strangely humanizing experience. I know my battle with anxiety is far from over ... like the other injuries and scars I've accumulated, the body remembers. It remembers the traumas. Even the little ones. It remembers the abuse — all of the demands I made in search of more. But it also remembers grace and beauty, the expansive love that reaches far beyond my flawed human capacity to understand love. 

For now, this is what I remember first when I wake up in the morning. Beauty and love. I'm grateful.

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.