Friday, August 31, 2007
August mileage: 987.9
Temperature upon departure: 58
A couple of nights ago, there was an eclipse of the full moon. Then there was a meteor shower. A couple of planets probably aligned in strange ways, too, because somehow, against the odds, I talked Geoff into going for a bike ride on the road today. And not just any ride on the road - an 80-mile ride on the road, complete with a forecast calling for a 90 percent chance of showers and a south wind that could knock a person off their bike - which at some point was going to have to be fought head on.
"It will be so fun to ride to Echo Cove," I said. And, of course, he didn't believe me for a second. Geoff would ride a mountain bike to the ends of the earth, but put him on skinny tires without any camping gear attached, and he becomes bored within fractions of a mile. As we left town with the south wind pushing us along at 20 mph, no pedaling required, he said "maybe we shouldn't ride all the way to the end of the road."
But the miles rolled along as miles often do. We talked about everything out there ... 24-hour Worlds, the atrocious eating habits of people who aren't us, movies that Geoff likes and I hate, and vice versa (which pretty much covers all movies.) It was great to have someone to talk to out there. I do so much cycling by myself. Ok, every time I go out on a bike, I'm by myself. I consider it my own sanctuary of solitude. But every once in a while, it's nice to have someone to share in a laugh about the strange foods that pass as "vegetables" in America, and geek out on far-away endurance races until, suddenly, you've pedaled 42 miles with no idea how you got there.
I tried two new foods today that I decided were more disgusting than their hype merited ... Clif Shot Bloks (Margarita variety ... They taste like citrus-flavored stale vegetable oil, and that is just wrong); and Gatorade flavored Jelly Bellys (Fruit punch Sport Beans. Ew.) I maintain my very subjective belief that electrolytes should not be mixed with any kind of sugar, which is why I was so excited to discover Nuun on this ride. Nuun is just an electrolyte tablet that you throw in your water, and it dissolves like Alka Seltzer. It's sweet, but just barely (like 3 calories), so it takes the edge off all that salt without turning it into a sickly sweet, inedible energy food. Now I can continue to eat food I actually like (fruit leather) and still get that replenishing shot of electrolytes. Score another one for lucky day Aug. 30.
Even the weather forecast - which, most amazingly, was for the most part accurate - worked out in our favor. That 90 percent chance of showers was actually something that is a very rare phenomenon for Southeast Alaska ... thunderstorms. All around us, dark clouds would gather and churn. We'd cross over pavement that was drenched in deep puddles from a passing downpour, but, somehow we spent the afternoon riding in sunlight. How every single one of those scattered downpours missed us is beyond me, but they did. And somehow, we came home warm, dry, and bathed in rainbows.
The headwind did become harsh, but Geoff and I had each other to help share the full brunt of it. Geoff cooked himself a little toward the end and had to unipedal the last three miles after his IT band seized up. But I think I may have finally solved my heel problems. I guess that part's just lucky for me.
Only 12.1 more miles to go.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
August mileage: 904.5
Temperature upon departure: 57
It's exciting, setting out to ride a bunch of 50-mile days in a row. But I am becoming a bit tired of the ride out the road, so today I put together a tripod route to mix it up a bit - North Douglas and back, Thane and back, Lemon Creek and back.
The Thane spur is my favorite road route in Juneau. However, I'm pretty sure I can count the number of times I have ridden it this summer on one hand. There's only one reason for this: The Gauntlet. Now, I have ridden Moab's Slickrock Trail. I have descended a muddy Resurrection Pass with no brakes. And I can say that no ride I've tried is as scary - or dangerous - as downtown Juneau on a five-cruise-ship summer day.
It's downright exhilarating in a what-just-happened-back-there kind of way. Hundreds of starry-eyed pedestrians who have spent days being herded around a boat and stuffed with food spill out onto the sidewalks. Most of them think they have landed in Downtown Disney, a magical place where there are no cars, no traffic laws, and everybody understands their right-of-way is absolute as they weave from jewelry store to jewelry store. The problem is, Juneau is not Downtown Disney. There are actually quite a few cars, cars that eventually get tired of slamming on the brakes for clueless walkers and idling in the street as crossing guards let herds of responsible tourists stream past. The drivers eventually decide they're going to do whatever it takes to get through.
As a cyclist, I'm in the middle of it all, dodging tourists even as I'm being dodged by fed-up drivers. If I keep my speed above 20 mph, the cars will stick behind me, but no one can know what is going to spill out from the walls of people surrounding us. It's like the Red Sea has parted and any second it's going to close in on us. Not knowing where or when this may happen only makes us move faster, which in turn increases the likelihood of certain death should the tourist sea topple into the street at the wrong time. I'm especially lucky to be on a little bike; no one sees me.
But it's such a thrill, when I finally break free of a long line of cars and sprint into the narrow corridor between tourists and road, fingers hovering above the brake levers, palms pressed lightly on the handlebars, ready to swerve sharply at a millisecond's notice as I pedal against the ebb and flow of erratic traffic. At the end of The Gauntlet, my reward is five miles of badly cracked, rolling pavement that practically dangles over the narrow precipice between the steep mountainside and the shore. I love it.
As I pedalled back toward my second run through The Gauntlet today, I stopped for a short break on the Sheep Creek bridge. Below me, a gathering crowd of salmon splashed and struggled against the current, bodies flailing and colliding as they fought to gain a few inches upstream. The effort seemed so futile, and yet so intriguing. It made perfect sense to me.
August mileage: 853.4
Temperature upon departure: 57
August has been full of beautiful days that make me wonder ... is this the last day of summer? The last day of sun before the rainy season really sets in? Last year, August and September brought blocks of wet weather that had to be measured in weeks. Those long stretches of gray brought a sameness to the days ... as though not even time could pass through the thick fog. Then one day I woke up to the sun blazing high in a blue expanse I couldn't even recognize, and there was snow on the ground. Winter came, and no one even warned me.
But today, today was the last day of summer. Unobstructed sunlight failed to even warm the temperature above 60, giving the air a crisp, autumn-like taste. I spun through the school zone clocking at least 5 over the speed limit, nodding at sullen-faced teenagers as they shuffled past with their eyes locked on text messages and lips wrapped around energy drinks. It's the first week of school, and already we can't remember what we did with our summer vacation. All around us, the groundcover was beginning to die ... yellow edges curled the end of giant Devil's Club leaves, blueberries shriveled and fireweed clamped shut.
Today's ride was flawless, and for that I was silently grateful. I was so blissed out that I nearly forgot my place in time and space ... rushing to make it to work in time, knowing I could rush some more, then surprising myself with a lot of time to spare. It made me wonder if I have one more summer goal in me yet. Maybe I could ride my first 1,000-mile month. I have 150 miles to go and three days to do it. It's easy to visualize on the last day of summer, with its warm moments surrendering to nearly effortless miles. Harder to do when looking at the three-day forecast, with its 90 percent chance of rain and 15 mph east winds. But it would be fun to try; and what a way to ring in
Monday, August 27, 2007
From an athletic perspective, it's hard for me to think of 2007 as anything more than a small disaster: a disappointing showing at my "A" race in mid-February, followed by months and months of chronic injury and immobility that dogged me throughout my mellow, competition-free summer. It's disappointing because I felt like I had a good thing going after 2006. I even entered a 24-hour solo race before I realized they were supposed to be one of the most difficult events out there, then came within just a few minutes of making it to the overall podium (I know what you're thinking. "Really? Her?" It's true, but Anchorage never gets a huge showing for these races.) Still, for the first time in my life, I felt like I had a shot at being competitive at an athletic pursuit. It was a great feeling after years of feigning illness during the presidential fitness tests and hiding my shame as I waited to be picked last for the softball team.
Then the 2007 season came and went, and suddenly I feel like I have not much to show for it. This remorse has stoked my competitive fire for 2008 even more ... to devote my free time from mid-October on to training and studying (yes, studying) for the Iditarod Invitational 350. I want to put in the smartest, strongest effort I have to give. Then, if I survive that, I'd like coordinate my summer vacation with a good endurance race - maybe the Kokopelli Trail Time Trial if such a thing is organized this year, or Trans Iowa V.4 (I do love the Midwest). Maybe I'll even find a 24-hour solo race where I can actually compete with other women (I'm trying to think beyond hamster races, but I really do like 24s. It seems everything about them plays to my strengths, and the sheer repetition snuffs out a lot of my weaknesses.)
What to do next year? Where to go? It's exciting to formulate plans. However, if I am to survive the ride to McGrath, I'm going to have to treat this February race like it's my one and only. If it ends up like the 2007 Susitna 100 did, it will be.
Sunday, August 26, 2007
August mileage: 811.6
Temperature upon departure: 52
The first sign of fall has settled on Juneau. I remember living in places where the first evidence of fall was a cloud of visible breath in the chilled morning air, a dusting of white powder on the mountain ridges or a single yellow aspen leaf in a sea of green. But in Juneau, I think the most prevalent sign of early fall is widespread salmon stink. Having reproduced and then died en masse, their rotting carcasses choke the rivers and line the shores, where they're haphazardly dragged over trails by bears and tossed into the road by seagulls. When I hear the crunch of brittle bones beneath my wheels and breathe in the suddenly omnipresent aroma of city dump, I know the first snow flurries are not far away.
I am now approaching day 10 since I returned from my bike trip, and I have yet to gain back the feeling in the tip of my left pinkie finger. I'm beginning to become a little worried. I've heard it takes a while for some people's digits to "wake up" after spending a long time propped on a bicycle, but this has never happened to me before ... even after a 24-hour race. It may be a result of the Ergon Grips, which may just not be suitable for my hand placement on long rides. It is hard to quantify the effect of equipment when riding 33-36 hours in a 48-hour period. Maybe losing one's sense of touch is inevitable in extreme conditions. Still, if it doesn't come back soon, I'm going to have to relearn how to type.
I am still feeling the effects of the ride, namely in my pinkie, and also in my right heel, which went into full-blown rebellion and locked up on day 2. I can't help but be concerned about even the most minor, nagging pains in my heel because I have no idea if it's one of those things that might become chronic. I went out hard today and felt great, until the heel pain hit, and then I overcompensated and soft-pedalled home. I miss the days when I could trust my body, but it does seem I have nothing to gain right now by pushing through even small amounts of pain.
The misadventures continue. At least I don't have to worry about getting lost in the woods. All those sun-dried salmon snacks could sustain me for days.
Saturday, August 25, 2007
It's always difficult to figure out how to dress for hours of activity in the rain. Do I go for minimum layers soaking wet, or multiple layers soaked in sweat? I've become pretty good at estimating the insulation I'll need for my exertion level in biking. Guessing how much of my own heat I'll generate is much harder to do when I'm hiking.
Today I dressed minimally for the West Glacier Trail because I decided my knee is strong enough now for uphill/level-ground jogging when the trail isn't too technical. And since my whole aim is to go as hard as I can, I figured I wouldn't need all those layers weighing me down.
All went well until the trail veered away from the glacier and began to climb the face of Mount McGinnis. Where the West Glacier Trail becomes the Mount McGinnis trail was a little unclear to me, so I continued along, hoping to find a better overlook. The marginally walkable surface gave way to nearly-vertical granite outcroppings, slickrock smooth and weeping with rain runoff. There were enough good handholds to make the climbing fairly fast. But after several occurrences of nearly losing my footing on the slippery surface, I began to realize that downclimbing wasn't going to be such a breeze.
One wrong step away from a raging waterslide ride into an icy abyss is probably a better description for the downclimb. I had to take it painfully slow, making sure every carefully placed step was secure before moving another limb, all the while lamenting as my fingers and toes slowly went numb and the wet chill worked its way toward my core. By the time I made it back to the main trail, I was shivering, no longer able to calm my chattering teeth, and more than a mile away from the joggable part of the trail. A long hike indeed.
I'm familiar enough with this wet chill to know that it never becomes truly dangerous unless I stop moving. Still, it's uncomfortable enough to impair balance and motor skills, and make any activity I'm not quite accustomed to - say, jogging - even more difficult. I actually fell flat on my face once after slipping in a mud puddle and failing to even put my arms out to break the fall. I finished out the trail speed walking, wary of every rock, and covered in mud. The rain washed me clean before I returned to thetrailhead, which was a good thing since I had taken so long at that point I had to drive straight to work ... if only I could coax my numb fingers to turn the key in the ignition.
Ah, a wet-weather onset of mild hypothermia. Late summer just wouldn't be the same without it.
Friday, August 24, 2007
August mileage: 777.1
Temperature upon departure: 57
Our friend Amity from Palmer, Alaska, is visiting us right now. She is the first friend from Outside (Juneau) that we actually talked into coming to visit. She had never been to Southeast Alaska before.
Yesterday we backpacked to the Windfall Lakes public use cabin, a backcountry luxury spot complete with a canoe and a propane heater. We made pasta with pesto sauce for dinner and it was about the worst thing I have ever ingested (a combination of salt overload, MSG, starch water and more than a hint of melted plastic from the cheap bowl I was eating it out of.) I opted to eat it rather than pack it out, even though I had already packed in two magazines, a huge edition of the Seattle newspaper and two cans of Diet Pepsi (hey, you have to have priorities.) We floated on the lake for a while while Amity "fished" and Geoff and I were rained on. It continued to rain the entire night. We played Texas hold'em, betting mini chocolate bars just like children do. Amity cleaned both Geoff and I out in about a dozen hands. I read the most recent edition of "Backpacking" - the "Global Warming Issue" - from cover to cover after Geoff and Amity went to sleep at 10 p.m. I don't recommend reading it unless you want to feel really depressed about the state of things you can not control. Especially if you are trying to sleep on a hard bench in a public use cabin, and every uncomfortable minute of alertness means you are either thinking about your sore back, or you are imagining the beautiful sea of grass that is the sandhills of western Nebraska turning into a Sarhara Desert in less than 20 years.
All in all, though, a fun trip. It's always interesting to see your hometown and your habits through another person's eyes:
On tidepooling: "There's nothing tasty in this one."
On fishing from a canoe: "I'll cast it out front so I don't hook you in the eye."
On the spawned-out salmon that were laboring along the shoreline: "They're really not so bad. They taste a little bit like whitefish."
On Juneau in general: "I just didn't realize it would be so wet here."
Thursday, August 23, 2007
August mileage: 729.5
Temperature upon departure: 53
So Geoff bought me a copy of "24 Solo" for my birthday. I found the film entertaining enough, but I think Geoff took its motivating message to a farther extreme. Ever since we watched it, he has been scheming about adding even more events to his already overfull schedule. And since the place we happen to live is the isolated hamlet of Juneau, Alaska, I think it may be safe to assume that he's going to be gone, well ... all of next year, at least. Happy birthday to me.
I keep trying to tell Geoff that I am really not interested in following him into the madness. I don't actually want to live homeless in the scorching heat of a Mountain West summer. I don't want to subsist on sponsor snacks, or train eight hours a day, or set out to ride a sub-24-day GDR. That is really not my bag. That is way beyond my bag. That is a bag that belongs to a climber on Everest compared to my K-Mart bookbag. I like my domestic, balanced life. I like employment. I like income, and shelter, and the ability to purchase food. Geoff seems to think these things are optional.
It's funny, because I think most of our Alaska friends believe Geoff and I originally connected because we have similar "nutjob" qualities and a mutual respect for the other's rabid individualism. But that's really not the case at all. We met because I was inexperienced and naive, and Geoff had this compulsion to do beyond-the-call-of-duty good deeds for complete strangers. It's a good story, actually. And I'm going to tell it, because this is my blog and I'll do what I want. (Sorry, Geoff)
We had a mutual friend who invited me to visit her in upstate New York for the New Year's 2001. I didn't really take the offer too seriously. The next day at work, I was playing around with priceline.com, one of those Web sites where you name your price for just about anything, but you're held to it if your offer is accepted. I entered an offer for a plane ticket to New York City ("All those Eastern states are small. How far away from Syracuse could it be?") on Christmas Day ("That must be a busy day for flying anyway") for the crazy low price of about $150. Imagine my shock when the offer went through.
At the time, I was 21 years old. I had never flown by myself or even traveled by myself. Only briefly had I ever even travelled east if the Mississippi, at age 15. I had no idea New York City and Syracuse were more than a five-hour drive apart. I had no idea how to find transportation. And I wasn't surprised when my friend said, "No, I can't make a 10-hour trip to pick you up at an airport on Christmas Day."
For a while, I thought I was just out $150. But then my friend told me that a friend of hers who was in Syracuse visiting his family might be able to come pick me up. I had met him briefly on several occasions because he had recently moved to Utah, but I hardly could say I knew the guy. The plane touched down at La Guardia airport at 12:05 a.m. on what was by then Dec. 26. It proceeded to sit on the tarmac for another 60 minutes, waiting for the all-but-shut-down airline to open a gate. By the time I stumbled off the plane, it was after 1 a.m. The airport was so empty you could hear clocks ticking, and I knew there was no way this random guy was actually going to be there waiting for me. But I turned a corner, and there was Geoff, calmly waiting for me in the abandoned corridors of a distant airport on the wee hours after Christmas as though he did things like that every week.
The cold in New York City that night cut deep, close to 0 degrees, the kind of temperatures that drive even the most sleepless cities into darkness and silence. We pulled up into Times Square and parked right on the main drag, the only car to be seen for blocks. Everything was closed for the holiday. All the lights were dimmed, turned off, subdued. There wasn't a single other person on the sidewalks ... no transients, no teenagers, no homeless people, no one. It was a though the nuclear bomb had finally hit and we were the only people left alive in this vast and unknowable city. It felt completely natural.
Geoff and I crawled Manhattan for the rest of the night, talking about the everything and nothing of our lives. I think I could count the cars I saw - all taxis - on one hand. We circumnavigated Central Park as I shivered in my jeans and light cotton jacket, hatless and gloveless, slowly becoming a true solid. The deep freeze settled in so completely that I could scarcely keep enough blood flowing to my legs to continue walking. But I continued walking, because I was so enthralled by the very idea of New York City, and winter, and Geoff.
Can't exactly say it was love at first sight. But it was on those deserted city streets that a younger and much more naive version of myself first planted that seed. At the time, it was my grandest adventure. And it was only a foundation.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Who knows? Maybe I could have kept going at that rate. But it's funny ... when you set these specific goals for yourself, your mind says "time to stop," and your body says "OK. Stop I shall." And that's it. It's like irreversible shutdown.
So the past few days have been a lazy sort of slog through the fog. I don't have any residual soreness from my long ride, but I think my mind is just tired. I went out for a short ride yesterday and just couldn't amp it up. It never hurt ... it just never had any fire. Also, similar to the week after the 24 Hours of Light, my job also has chosen an inopportune time to became particularly high-stress. There isn't much left to me but fumes; I feel like I burn those well, but a high-performance vehicle I'm not.
I've ambled along a couple of mellow hikes that have been really nice, though ... social walks in the woods with friends; actually getting out just to "get out." It's a nice way to start out the next month. My aim is to become a more proficient hiker. I'm planning to hike the Grand Canyon from the south rim to the north with my dad in late September. Before I moved to Alaska, this dayhike was becoming an annual fall excursion for us. I've completed the trail in worse shape than I'm in right now, but I definitely have some concerns for this year. For one, my heat acclimatization is awful right now (Since I nearly passed out in 90 degrees last week, I figure I'll need at least six gallons of water to survive 100 degrees.) For two, walking downhill seems to be the main holdout of my old knee injury. I'm far more worried about the prospect of pounding down 6,000 feet in elevation than I was about a 370-mile bike ride. So this month is going to be about more quad strengthening, and more hiking to get used to that motion (although hiking in Juneau, where single miles often gain/lose 1,500-2,000 feet in elevation, takes downhill strides to a whole new level.) The inevitable gallons of rain mean there will still be plenty of biking, but I have a new focus this month. I'm actually pretty excited about it. Health will be mine.
Monday, August 20, 2007
Sunday, August 19, 2007
As I was cinching up my saddle bags at the Haines ferry terminal, a woman broke away from a guided rafting group to talk to me.
"Are you all alone?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
"Really? Just you?"
"Wow. You must be brave. Or crazy."
And with that she laughed and walked away. She never asked where I was from, where I was going, or even what kind of gear I had stashed in my bags. The only detail she seemed to care about at all was that I was alone and on a bicycle in Southeast Alaska. Apparently, that was enough information for her.
As I pedaled along the cracked pavement toward town, it hit me. I really was alone. All alone. And for the first time in my life, I was striking out on an adventure with no one to rely on but myself.
I let my doubts wash over me as I worked my way along the flat road lining the banks of the Chilkat River. Even where Alaska is paved, it can feel stunningly remote. I remember describing it to Geoff in 2003 as "being hit head-on by the Wilderness Express." A sign that says "Next Services: 147 miles" can be daunting. Summer storms. Early snow. Hungry bears. Massive breakdowns. Crashes without 911. And yet, the thing that bothered me most was the garbage truck that kept passing me, again and again and again. By the time my mind conjured up all kinds of crazed stalker scenarios, I began to realize how silly dwelling on all of these fears really was.
I have to admit, though, that I was relieved to cross into Canada and out of the garbage man's territory. Right after customs, the road begins to climb to the pass. I had read horror stories about this climb, but the effort of riding up passes is never as bad as cyclists make it out to be. I felt the satisfying pull of elevation, and became completely engulfed in the rhythm of steady pedaling. I was almost surprised when I made it to the summit, feeling as though the day had just started, right there, at mile 60.
Despite the crush of mileage and time I was facing, I had already slipped deep into bicycle tourist mode. It has been nearly three years since my last tour, and I had almost forgotten how much I enjoy being out in the world, just me and my bike, together sharing everything we need. It helps me keep perspective on my outside life ... that for all of the complicated layers I wrap around it, life at its core can be starkly simple and small.
Bicycle tourist mode also lulls me into a dreamlike state where time and space begin to blur. Much of the Haines Highway looks so much like Wyoming. I couldn't help but drift back to thoughts of my ride across the state in 2003. And even as I told myself that it wasn't 2003, and I wasn't in Wyoming, and I was in fact going to have to ride a few hundred miles in the next two days and then go back to my full-time job in my soggy hometown ... part of me just didn't believe it.
I passed my first 100-mile mark at Million Dollar Falls, the place where I promised the Canadian customs guy I would stop for the night. But the sun still lingered against the mountains; my legs still felt strong; and there was a light tailwind out of the south that I did not want to waste. I decided to go as far as the wind carried me.
The sun set before the wind stopped. Darkness wrapped around the valleys and eventually engulfed the mountains. I rode with my headlights and taillight blinking for no one. I didn't see a soul out there for more than an hour. Aloneness began to settle in again. I had already ridden farther than I could have hoped for on the first day ... nearly 140 miles in a little less than 10 hours. The destination I had in mind, a campground, turned out to be a couple of kilometers down a side road. Deciding that it didn't actually matter where I curled up to sleep, I wheeled my bike off the road right there and laid out my bivy on a small patch of ground beneath the trees. I ate a package of tuna and three chocolate chip cookies for dinner. I was as happy as could be.
So I didn't take any pictures on Thursday. Not a single one. I think it's a good illustration of just how much my mood had swung, just how much I hated wind and hated heat and hated bicycles and hated any situation that would combine the three.
I rolled into Haines Junction at 8 a.m. Yukon time (having lost an hour) and ate a lingering breakfast at a motel. I had already pegged Whitehorse as my destination for the day and thought that, at 120 miles, it wouldn't be that hard of a ride. I didn't have any mountain ranges to climb. I was on a main road. What could be difficult?
By the time I left town at 9:30, the west wind had already kicked up. By 10 a.m., it was steady at at least 15 mph and gusting to 30, right into my face. The heat of the sun blasted off the pavement and I stopped to lather myself in SPF 45, again, and readjust my knee brace - which was chafing so bad that open sores were starting to form. "It's just a little wind. Just a little wind," I kept telling myself. But then my odometer dropped to 12 mph. And then 11. And then 10. When I began to struggle to push it out of the single digits is about the time I ran out of water.
The running out of water is my fault. I learned on Wednesday that squeezing water out of my filter bottle was quite a task. It was probably no more work than pumping a normal filter, but on Wednesday I was passing glass-clear, cider-sweet mountain streams every two miles and that had made me complacent and lazy. But in the dry spruce forest that lines the Alaska Highway, there are few streams and even fewer rest stops. With the wind and sun sucking every ounce of moisture out of my rainforest-acclimatized body, filling up just the one bottle was not going to cut it ... a fact I learned too late.
Running out of water made me really, really grumpy. When I finally did find a stream, it was the greenish kind of cow creek that no one wants to drink out of. Still, I chugged a full 24-ounce bottle full right there and filled it up again. But I didn't fill my other bottles because, I reasoned, there had to be a better creek coming up soon. Of course there wasn't.
Running out of water a second time made me really, really, really grumpy. So much so that I didn't know whether to laugh at myself or flag down an RV and beg for mercy. The wind never let up and I chugged into Whitehorse knowing that I wasn't just making a social call. I didn't have the energy or strength to go a mile further. I stopped at a gas station and bought two bottles of Gatorade and a Pepsi. I called Anthony and Sierra, who invited me to their house for a big barbecue with their friends, plied me with veggie or turkey burgers (I ate both), and set me up with a nice cold shower and a bed to sleep in. It wasn't exactly great training for roughing it out in the wild, but I didn't care. I was as happy as could be again.
I woke up at 3 a.m. Alaska time and was on the road by 3:30. The air was so cold that I could see my breath, and the morning fermented in darkness and silence. My friends encouraged me not to wake up that early, but I was no longer even trying to meet my 48-hour cutoff. I just wanted to make my ferry, and if Thursday's performance was any indicator, I needed all the time I could muster. Those dark miles were awful. I watched my odometer creep along like a working stiff watching a clock; when I finally turned the odometer screen off, I still counted every kilometer marker, then did the mileage conversion in my head. I knew it was going to be a long, long day.
Watching the sun rise in the midst of a long bike ride is always an amazing experience. It burns through negative emotions and washes over with a renewed sense of well-being. As much as I hated the sun on Thursday, I was genuinely excited to see it again.
By the time the sun crawled over the mountainous horizon, I had already pounded out 45 miles. The wind had completely subsided and I was moving along again at a respectable pace. I knew wind would be back with a vengeance at the pass, but for that moment I wanted to cease the gruelling march against the clock and just enjoy where I was again. Back in bicycle tourist mode, I lingered for a while at the Carcross Desert, running my fingers through the cold sand.
Climbing back into the high country was a visual bombardment that I could scarcely cope with. In my sleep-deprived, carbo-loaded, bike-addled state, I wasn't just watching the mountains, trees, lakes and sky ... I was rocketing into another world with colors so intense, they seeped into all my other senses. I would think things such as "It smells like vermilion" and believe it. Yes, I was crazy, but I was having fun again.
Later, all of these pictures I took would disappoint me. They nearly broke my heart. They didn't show what I saw out there at all, with their washed-out colors and flat contours. My memories of White Pass already only flicker in the transparent space between perception and reality. I do remember that the 40 miles before the pass netted the most difficult riding of the trip. The road surface switched between gravel and rough, rock-strewn semi-pavement that was worse than gravel. The route bypassed the series of lakes that define the headwaters of the Yukon River by rising and dipping over steep drainages ... every mile was a big climb followed by an only slightly shorter, screaming drop. The famous prevailing wind showed up right on time, bringing gales so strong that I had to hold onto my gloves when I stopped for water, to keep them from blowing out of my life forever.
I was moving at a snail's pace the last 15 miles to the pass. I distinctly remember looking at my odometer several times and never seeing anything above 7 mph. But I was not bitter about it, or disheartened, or demoralized, or everything I was on Thursday. I no longer cared about the numbers, or the ticking clock, or the mad race toward arbitrary goals. It was just me and my bike, and we had everything we needed. The rest would come together in its own time.
I knew I was close to the end of the trip when I looked toward the condensation forming over the mountains. Nothing says "Welcome to Southeast Alaska" like a wall of clouds. And even as I chugged toward the pass with fatigue and dreams of warm pizza creeping back into my consciousness, I was still a little sad that my trip was nearly over.
At the pass was a block-lettered sign that said "Entering the United States." That was the final blow ... so formal and uncaring. From the pass, it is only 11 miles into Skagway. Even with the fierce headwind, one could coast the whole way and hardly even turn the pedals. I was terrified *terrified* of the descent, so I mostly inched down it at 20-25 mph, pumping my brakes and grinding my teeth. My fingers went completely numb so I stopped once at a runaway truck ramp to warm them up. A group of shuttled cyclists was there taking pictures of a waterfall while their sag wagon idled alongside. One of them called out to me, "Looks like you earned this!"
"Yeah, I guess" I said with a small laugh, but what I really wanted to do was ask for a ride down in their sag wagon.
Back in town and sucking down cold sodas at the pizza parlor, my brain began to shut down pretty quickly. I pulled out a pen and piece of newspaper in hopes of scribbling down some quick numbers or final thoughts. Most of the time, when I am embarking on an adventure that I think of as challenging or even "epic," I think I will come back a changed person, or at least different somehow. I always return understanding that I will not change, and I won't be different, but I will have a better realization of who I am.
Friday, August 17, 2007
August mileage: 686.6
Temperature upon departure: Scorching
Inches of rain: 0"!!
My pinky fingers are numb, so it is hard to type right now.
I am killing some time in Skagway while I wait for my ferry. I rolled in at 12;51 p.m. this afternoon. I left the Haines ferry terminal at 12;38 p.m. Wednesday, which means I ~almost~ made it in 48 hours.
It's true, though, that 48 hours and two days are not the same thing. I divided this ride into three pretty equal days ... 140 on Wednesday, 120 on Thursday, 110 today.
I might have made my self-imposed time cutoff, but I stayed up late hanging out at a Whitehorse barbeque and slept in ... a little. (It was still as dark as the massive dark night when I left at 4;30 a.m. Yukon time)
Everything went about as well as I could have hoped for. Wednesday and today were two of the most beautiful bike rides I have ever experienced. Thursday doled out the heaping helping of suffering I was hoping for at least a dose of - 120 miles of mostly Alaska Highway, into an unrelenting 15-25 mph headwind all day long, ran out of water twice, with temperatures that climbed to 30 degrees Celcius (what is that? Like 90? Ouch.)
I have some good pictures to post when I am back in juneau. I definitely recommend this bicycle touring route to anyone. I used to think that riding Moab to Hanksville, Utah, via the San Juan Mountains and Highway 95 was the most beautiful road bicycle route in North America. I think I may have changed my mind about that.
I brought way too much food.
And too little water.
But I think my knee held up well, which is definitely encouraging. If it weren't for my pinky fingers and the red welts across my skin (an allergic reaction to the sun, I think ... not sunburn, actual welts) ... I'd be the picture of health.
Well, my Internet minutes are nearly up. Thanks everyone for the well wishes. Luck definitely smiled on me this weekend.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
August mileage: 315.1
Temperature upon departure: 68
Inches of rain: 0"
"But if something hurts so much, how can it be enjoyable? At the point where physical stress begins to take you beyond what you imagine to be endurable, you enter new territory of understanding, an expanded psychological landscape. ... The pleasure comes when you grasp just what has happened inside your head and spirit. It doesn’t stop when the bike stops, when you reach the top of the col or peel off at the end of the ride, so tired you can hardly think or stand straight. That’s where the pleasure begins. The self-knowledge."
I took Roadie out for a short test spin this morning (Yes, I really did wear that T-shirt and those socks. I really am turning into my father.) I was planning to weigh the bike before the trip. But as I huffed and puffed and hoisted it up the stairs, I thought better of it. I don't want that number spinning through my head as I'm chugging up a 3,500-foot pass tomorrow. In cases like that, ignorance is about as close to bliss as I'm going to get.
The first few seconds on a loaded bicycle are always a scary experience for me. I feel like I'm going to tip and tumble and I wonder how I'm ever going to pilot the thing one mile, let alone 100 miles or 1,000 miles. But once the tires get rolling, I find my balance and almost forget about all that extra weight ... until the first hill, that is.
Eight hours from now, I'm going to leave on my trip around the Golden Circle. I don't know what I'm going to tell the people at Canadian customs. That I'm going to be back in Alaska in 48 hours? They'll never buy it. They'll tell me it can't be done. Maybe it can't be done (by me.) Or maybe it will be frighteningly easy. Most likely, the effort will fall somewhere in between ... full of that phantom fatigue that burns behind your eyes when all there is to see is endless miles of raw, uncaring beauty.
I don't have any expectations for myself but to finish; I don't have anything to do out there but ride. If only life could be as simple as the road. And yet, I fully expect to suffer in kind. A road with no forks means there is no escape; and, not unlike life, its unrelenting pull only goes one direction.
I wonder if the Canadian customs agents will ask me the omnipresent question ... Why? As in, "Why would you try to bike to Skagway in two days, when you could just do it in nine - with vehicle support, and smoked salmon for lunch, and a place to lay down for the night where you will not have to shiver yourself to sleep?" It's a good question that ripples across most aspects of modern life. This ride does not need to be hard. I make it artificially hard. I seek out the suffering. I do not know whether I do so because there is something missing in my life, or because there is something to gain. It may be a little of both.
I can not visualize the words, but there must be a reason to choose battle over comfort, even when the fight is an entirely selfish one, and there is nothing to gain but a vague notion of self-confidence. Will I earn it? I don't know. Every battle won only leads me deeper into the war.
"Herein lies the heroism of this beautiful sport — the inner revelation that makes the cyclist impervious to ordinary weakness because every ride he has ever made exposes him to that defeatist voice; he has known it, faced it and conquered the fear of it, again and again and again."
Monday, August 13, 2007
On of the new innovations that I am especially excited about is fork-mounted water-bottle holders. This will allow me to carry ~72 ounces of water on the frame. That amount should be plenty, even with the forecasted warm temperatures. I found a detailed milepost guide to the Haines Junction and Klondike highways, and it seems that never more than 20 miles pass without at least one stream or river crossing. One of my water bottles has a built-in filter that I can pour all of my water through, and I am carrying back-up iodine pills just in case. (One thing that surprised me in packing for this trip is just how many different pills and drugs I require.)
The frame bag holds all of my food - six Clif Bars, 6 oz. turkey jerky, 10 packs fruit snacks and 22 oz. almonds and cranberries, for more than 5,000 gut-busting calories. Actually, gut-busting is the wrong word. This food has proven to be basically the only stuff I can digest in long-burn situations. Food that's too "real" (i.e. sandwiches and pasta) doesn't sit well in my stomach, and I haven't been able to trust myself to actually ingest food that's too "fake" (i.e. Perpetuem and Gu).
Of course eating Clif Bars for all of my meals and sleeping in a bivy sack do not exactly make for luxury touring, so I'm allowing myself one comfort: platform pedals. The thought of riding 12-16 hour days in my cycling shoes made my toes curl up and scream for mercy. Plus, only having one set of shoes means I'll need something to wear in stores, around camp, etc. Also, should anything happen, I may have to hitchhike for a long while.
The plan is to leave Juneau on Wednesday on the 7 a.m. ferry. I arrive in Haines at 11:30, where I'll probably grab a quick lunch in town and hopefully be on the road north by 12:30. The plan is to bike to somewhere south of Haines Junction (mile 148) that night, to Whitehorse (mile 245) the next day, probably stay in Whitehorse, and wake up long before the crack of dawn on Friday to ride to Skagway (mile 355) in order to hopefully complete the distance by 12:30 p.m. I have a grace period of about four hours before my ferry leaves town at 4:30. If I don't make it to Skagway by then, I'll have to eat the cost of the ticket and wait overnight for the next boat. I'm hoping the threat of that will be motivation enough to meet my goal ... riding about 360 miles in 48 hours. The fact that the ferry schedule forces me to do it over three days is, I think, an added comfort bonus.
While researching the route today, I found this site, which advertises was is essentially my trip ... minus the nine days to complete it, the bed and breakfast lodging, the sag wagon, the three square meals a day, and the $1,995 fee.
This site also includes some nice details about the tour. Reading through this today made me realize that I'm not just going on a training ride ... I'm going on a vacation. Yeah!
Sunday, August 12, 2007
August mileage: 294.0
Temperature upon departure: 71
Inches of rain: 0"
The National Weather Service issued an unofficial "Severe Sun Advisory" for Juneau this weekend. I guess the NWS feels it's necessary to warn Juneau residents that when that big yellow orb is burning in the sky and outside temperatures are approaching 80 (80!), they can't go outside without sunscreen and leave their dogs in cars and other things that they are able to do 95 percent of the year. Yes, Juneau-ites, the sun is in the sky. Head for the hills.
Today I hiked with Geoff to the top of Mount Jumbo, the highest point on Douglas Island. I think it may just turn out to be our only hike together this summer; now that he has seen how slow I am on the downhills, he will not take me hiking again. I don't know exactly what is wrong with me right now - whether I am out of practice, out of shape, or just a little too self-aware of my tender knee. Either way, it took us a comfortable 90 minutes to climb to the top, and a lumbering, leg-pounding two hours to get down with me in the lead. I felt like a wooden marionette flailing down the mountain, grasping and clawing at roots as gravity sucked me into an abyss. And it just kept going down, and down and down and down.
But it's worth it, because you can't beat the views at 3,500 feet. It really gives me perspective on where I live. It's so easy to get lost in the day-to-day out-and-back that defines my routine. The reality of Juneau is that it is a small speck on a very large, very craggy topo map. Whenever I feel stifled in my small town, I like to think of all those ridgelines stretching into the great beyond, and how I could wander for the rest of my life and never see them all.
The sun, however, actually has me a little worried. The weather forecast extends this high-pressure system late into the week, which means my ride Wednesday-Friday could be accompanied by something unexpected entirely: hot weather. With forecasted temps in the mid-70s in Juneau, it could reach the 90s in interior Yukon. Before you smirk at the irony of my concerns, picture this: I'm one of those light-skinned, light-eyed types who is naturally sensitive to sunlight anyway. Throw in the fact that I am in no way acclimatized to sun, and have no recent experience with hydration, eating or perceived effort in warm temperatures ... I may just wither out there. Or I may still freeze. But now I have no idea what to expect. I liked it better when freezing was a given.
Look at me. I'm complaining about a "Severe Sun Advisory." I really am from Juneau now.
Saturday, August 11, 2007
August mileage: 272.9
Temperature upon departure: 67
Inches of rain today: 0"
Holy cow. It seems like I may actually attempt this 360-mile ride next weekend. I had come so close to talking myself out of it, too. But the bad knee started cooperating just long enough to respark those temptations. And once that fire starts building, it's only a matter of time before it consumes everything, even common sense. I have to put it out, somehow. Might as well do the ride.
This weekend was my final test to see how my body might cope in the long slow burn. My repetitive motion pangs seem to come on as a result of long periods of buildup rather than just one big ride, so to be able to move pain-free through a 50-mile ride, a six-hour hike, and an 85-mile ride in a three-day period bodes well. I felt great today. It seems like I'm probably as ready for a ride like this as I was ever going to get. Time to cool it off a little, stock up on Power Bars, and spend some time rebuilding Roadie into the lean, mean touring machine he was meant to be (well ... maybe not the lean and mean part.)
The clouds cleared out while I was riding this morning, opening up the sky to what may turn out to be the warmest, sunniest weekend of the summer. Everyone has huge plans and I actually feel a little bit lucky to have my upcoming workweek there to hold me back - otherwise, I'd probably be out scaling entire ridgelines or mountain biking all the trails out the road or otherwise completely burning myself out before Wednesday.
We opened up the official weekend with a big bonfire on the beach. We roasted rubbery "Tofu Pups" over the flames and intentionally dropped a lot of them in the coals. Then we wolfed down our day's allotment of calories and then some in the form of freshly made rhubarb pie. About two dozen people rolled in for this particular beach barbecue, officially making it the largest of the summer. The food was terrible but I think everyone suspected there would be a great sunset tonight. So far, the Friday night horizon has not disappointed us.
Thursday, August 09, 2007
August mileage: 187.4
Temperature upon departure: 61
Inches of rain today: 0.02"
The weather forecast called for clear(er) weather, so I went to bed last night believing that today was going to be the day, the day I hiked the Juneau Ridge. So of course I woke up to settled fog and a steady drizzle. I knew that my chances of finding the route up there weren't great, but that didn't change the fact that I was raring to go. I gave it a shot.
I started backwards from Granite Creek Basin because I have been up the Mount Juneau trail before, and it seemed better to make my destination some place I might actually recognize. As I was locking my bike at the Mount Juneau spur, a man passed me and chuckled quietly. When I caught back up with him up the trail, he asked, "Why did you leave your bike back there?" When I explained the loop I hoped to complete - up Granite Creek, across the ridge, down Mount Juneau, bike home. He just laughed again and said, "Well, good luck with all that."
Luckily, Granite Creek Basin alone was worth the effort. Patches of brilliant green lit up the graveled surface of what counts as high country in Alaska - 3,000 feet. But as I followed the snow-choked drainages further into the fog, visibility dropped to three feet ... sometimes less. I spent the next couple of hours picking my way along the ridge. Having no trail to follow, no ridgeline in my sight, and no intuition for direction were three solid strikes against me. My inclination led me to drop off the ridge many times, eventually finding myself rimmed on a cliff or trapped by an impossibly steep field of snow. I was backtracking more than I was moving forward. Soon it became apparent that I would spend all day and all night and then some on that ridge if my progress continued at that rate. And since I had no idea how far I really had to go, I turned around.
Of course, about a half hour after I decided to make my hike and out-and-back, the clouds began to clear. Oh well. At least I could finally see more substantial pieces of the big picture. I don't feel too disappointed about not making it to Mount Juneau today. Now I've checked out both the approach and the descent, I feel like all I have left to discover is the highline ... and I can't wait to go back.
A lake still frozen in August ...
with edges of water so blue it was like an open window into infinity.
July mileage: 179.6
Temperature upon departure: 55
Inches of rain today: 0"
I used to be a 9-to-5'er, a standard-issue worker, staring bleary-eyed into my morning bowl of Wheaties and scraping ice off windshields in the predawn darkness. When I fell into the copy-editing side of newspapering, those shifts got thrown out the window - along with my prime-time TV habit, my alarm clock, and any chance of a functional social life with the other standard-issue workers. So what did I gain in return? Sometimes I wonder.
I rolled out of bed today at 8:21 to a face full of daylight that had been up for three and a half hours. In the height of summer, more than five passed by the time I woke up. But I'll never miss any of it. In fact, with as well as I've been sleeping lately, I bid the long daylight good riddance.
I lingered over breakfast for a while - who knows how long, really, as time creeps slowly in the a.m. hours. I sipped the elixir of life that some call coffee and watched thick tufts of fog crawl up the mainland mountains. The sun may come out today yet.
I debated the appeal of hiking or biking. As fog clung to view-blocking elevations, I decided I deserved at least one dry day on the bike.
Roadie is extra rickety in dry weather. A steady diet of rainwater has found its way into his headset, his bracket shell, his hubs. Rainwater now serves as his lube and without it, he creeks and groans like an 80-year-old man being dragged along on a reluctant outing. I felt bad about his life of neglect, but I also know that geography combined with my lifestyle means any bike of mine is going to be higher maintenance than a pop princess at a cocaine party. I have convinced myself that life rolls along smoother after you learn to accept the rust and the grit.
Sunlight crept through the fog in sharp beams - fingers of God light that always inject the landscape with quiet reflection. When I lose myself in those moments, I never remember, later, what kind of things I thought about or what inspiration I found. I do remember smiling and waving at a shoulder-grazing tour bus as children pressed their faces against the rear windows. In commute-mode, I let near-misses like that make me angry. But this morning, seeing those comically contorted faces reminded me that we all had the same destination ... the pursuit of wonder.
I turned around at mile 26 and meandered back to a beachside picnic area, where I set my rickety old man of a bike on the ground and shuffled in my bike shoes along the gravel shoreline. Several steps later, I discovered a blueberry patch glistening with dew and not-quite-ripe berries. I rustled through the leaves like a greedy grizzly and began popping the purple orbs in my mouth. A few were so sour they made me wince; regardless, there's something intensely sweet about devouring berries in the wild. Maybe it's the serendipity of finding them, the satisfaction of earning them; maybe there's a hunger that fruit snacks and Power Bars can't fill.
Somewhere, many miles away from that beach, my real life waited. The one with flickering screens, the meetings, the deadlines, the bad news that hasn't even happened yet. And there I was, all those miles away, mildly hypnotized by the calm rhythm of waves as I walked along with blueberry juice oozing between my fingers. It's a place I can escape to every day. It isn't even hard.
My friends always groan when I tell them my schedule. "You work from 2 to 11? That must be awful."
And all I can do is smile.