It was hot on the Salmon last week - over 100 degrees for days on end. It felt like living in a dryer. To maintain some sense of aliveness I developed the habit of rising before the sun to run in the cool air that had descended upon the river from the higher elevations overnight, and staying up well past sunset to revive myself in the cool water of the Salmon river.
One night, after another scorching day, I descended down the steep sandy slope into the deep eddy of the Indian Creek camp. Floating, gazing up at the starry night sky, I drifted upstream in the eddy current. I let myself get farther away from the boats, thinking the view of the stars from the middle of the river would be pretty neat. Suddenly feeling vulnerable, irresponsible, and a lost sense of scale and distance back to the boats, I aborted mission, instead turning and swimming against the current downstream back to camp.
The next morning, after a trot up Indian Creek, I returned to camp ready to cool off in the river before the day's heat set in. Seeing the giant eddy, I once again let myself float upstream, this time patiently letting the current circle me out into the middle of the river. Bobbing along the eddy line I waited to be carried downstream until it was time to steer myself into shore. Rising from the silence of the still sleeping camp, a bald eagle lifted out of a snag, and slowly swooped over the middle of the river. In that moment of vulnerability, I could see the folds of its skin over its talons, the curvature of its beak, the individual feathers of its wings, and most notably, the gaze of its eye as it looked down at me.
Only a handful of other times have I experienced such stunning avian magnitude. A golden eagle once flew alongside me for a moment in the badlands of New Mexico on the Great Divide route, close enough to make me and my bike feel small. An Andean Condor circled down over Kurt and me as we sat in an exhausted heap among only cinder on the shoulder of Volcan Villaricca. Then, too, I caught the eye of the gigantic bird as it assessed our existence. And now, bobbing in the bubble line of a gigantic eddy, lost in the river and it’s swirls, a bald eagle swept over me. I was in awe.
I don’t know what it thought, or what it wanted to know. But I do know that had I not relinquished myself to the current of the eddy, I would not have been that close to a bald eagle. It most certainly was not to be intrigued by humans standing on shore. This idea of going with the flow, not turning and swimming against the current to get back (which took more time and effort than the full eddy lap), and trusting that yes, the current will not only bring you back to where you’re expected to be, but presence, vulnerability, and trust can reveal the most pure, blissful of moments.
I’m a firm believer in reflection and goal-setting. If any of my close friends read this, they will not be at all surprised that my choice way to transition from 28 to 29 years old is to reflect and set forward intention.
I’m grateful for the following things, people, events of year 28.
*An academic year of field teaching. It was exhausting and wore me out, but I learned a ton. I had a blast. I had some amazing and inspiring students. I went to amazing and inspiring places and slept outside most nights of the year.
*Going to Patagonia. Only with Kurt could I travel in such a rugged and trying landscape and leave feeling refreshed and rested.
*My struggles racing – I learned a ton from trying to do things and struggling, or at least reassessing as I go; in the end, I know now a whole lot more about what I need to do to be ready to race, why I race, and how to fulfill my intentions.
*My successes racing – this year I learned I’m strong.
*Our home. The last month I spent at home. It was amazing. There are so many places I want to go but the time at home to reset and refresh was invaluable.
*Learning to breathe. Actually, learning to stop and focus on my breath. This practice has increased my happiness, energy, enthusiasm, confidence, vision, and positivity.
*The support of those who believe in me, namely Kurt, my friends & family, Salsa, my community, and Prescott College. Each person shows it in their own way, but this year I felt great space to try, and a net to fall back on. I continue to be inspired by all of you people and feel so grateful to have community.
They (my hippy friends) say when you’re 28, Saturn returns. It’s supposed to be when Saturn returns to the location in space where it was when you were born, and for many, it brings a period of significant change, often hard. I have no idea if Saturn has returned for me. I haven’t consulted a planet chart. But, as anyone can expect, there has been change and challenge this year. And looking forward to my last year of twenties, I am grateful for those challenges and changes, for without them I would not be as well-prepared to tackle whatever I set out to do in 29 and the challenges I face in those endeavors.
I’m bringing great enthusiasm into my next year. I have a lot of ideas and dreams for what’s next and then next after that. But most importantly, I’m really excited to live the balance of breathing and moving, do good work, explore freely and wildly, and be in love with this life I live.
I burst into tears even before I hit the ground.
In the millisecond that I was airborne, between my bike and the rubble of the Canelo Hills, I knew that this flood of tears had nothing to do with the ground that was quickly approaching. I had already hit rock bottom, and actually hitting the rocky ground was only adding insult to injury.
I was trying to do something that I knew I was completely physically ready to do: ride fast on the Arizona Trail. I had a promising start on the route a month ago until I was stopped by breathing problems. With the breathing thing resolved, I was confident I'd be ready for another shot at the route. The problem was that I quickly realized that I was no longer ready for the mental demands of such an undertaking. To ride fast in an ultra is only partly physical speed and mostly mental focus to be efficient and sleep little. I was mentally exhausted. And I knew it. It just took starting the ride to realize it.
What is now many years ago, I was in one of those formative relationships that teaches you what love isn’t. That person lied incessantly. I was misled and delusional that I was helping him. And the little voice in my head that quietly tried to tell me to leave went unheard. It took fighting and finally me throwing his i-phone out the window, into a field of grass on the Navajo rez to realize something was terribly wrong. Months later, I resolved to forever heed the little voice in my head. I call it the voice of my heart. And not listening is living untrue to oneself. I think this is a formula for unhappiness and chaos.
But that little voice can be hard to hear. It’s especially hard when it conflicts with the agenda our head has created to reach the goals, dreams, and visions we have set forth..
And so, last week, when I saw the forecast for “cooler” weather in southern Arizona, my first reaction to the idea of restarting the Arizona Trail Race, was “but I’m not ready!!!” This reaction caught me off guard. Of course I was ready. I was ready a month ago, and now I should be even more ready. I had raced, won, and recovered from the Whiskey 50. I had adjusted my food to be even better, etcetera. So I reasoned away the little voice.
A few days before starting, I went out to ride my bike on a short trail with steep climbs. My legs felt horrible. They shouldn’t have. They were well rested, and felt fantastic just a few days before. But work had been stressful and I was living from morning to evening crossing things off long checklists.
Then, on the way down we got caught in heavy traffic. The little voice, out of nowhere, said “see, the universe is trying to halt your progress to starting”. I reasoned that away as well. That isn’t the universe. It’s all the people from Phoenix trying to get home on Sunday night after a weekend in the cool pines. This is just poor foresight.
Going to bed finally at 10:30 I set my alarm for 4:30 am. Six hours of sleep. Under normal conditions, this should be fine, especially considering I had ample sleep the past week. But it stressed me out. I tossed all night, anxious about how I needed more sleep. The little voice was getting its message out. But, in general, I hate waking up early. So, of course I wasn’t psyched, I reasoned.
Writing this, it’s all obvious. But it took riding 17 miles to realize that no matter how much I want to race the AZT, that I’m not ready right now. That it doesn’t mean anything that I was ready a month ago. That I shouldn’t have bothered to leave for the border. That I am exhausted. I need down-time.
This came in an epiphany as I descended the first hill past Parker Canyon Lake. I thought to myself, seeing the lake, I wish I was on a beach right now. This thought was quickly followed by my other voice, what?! Where did that come from? I hate sand. I burn easily. I never want to go to beaches!! …But lying on a beach sounds so…relaxing. And that was it. Rather than turning around and climbing back up to the trailhead, I decided to count on seeing Kurt at the pass 12 miles ahead.
In that moment of flying through the air I was crying because I was disappointed. I was disappointed that I wasn’t ready. I was disappointed that it took driving to Mexico and riding a few hours to realize what my heart was saying. I was disappointed that my work/lifestyle is so hard to balance with my personal life and goals. And I was disappointed that I was so distracted by this process that I was crashing in the Canelos.
Kurt had ridden out to take pictures and after a quick survey of the blood and tears sat me down for a pep talk. While I sniffed, he affirmed my reality. Even though my work is really engaging, meaningful, fun, and rewarding, it is exhausting. It comes with a lot of vision, responsibility, logistics, time, energy, and little rest – and I have been in the field or on the road since August. I’m very focused on my own goals and dreams. I rarely take downtime between trips. Yet, I need to be mentally rested, ready to focus and overcome challenge to enjoy an ultra. I don’t take enough time to recharge and recover. It’s like over-training, except it’s my head that is spent. And, it is okay.
After a lovely lunch with Matt Nelson at Seis, in Tucson (everyone’s favorite burrito, if you haven’t heard), we went home. I slept 12 hours last night, with ease. Today I’m grappling with how to take down time. The first step is not making lists or setting goals for the near future. It’s hard, but I think I’m up for it. And I know when I do go back to the border, I’ll be going not just with strong legs and a well-packed bike, but also with a fresh mind and happy heart because when it comes down to it, my goal is to have fun racing my bike across amazing routes.
I set a lot of goals. I make a lot of lists. I plan my days and weeks. I daydream a lot. It’s my way of looking ahead and manifesting my future. Inherent in that, there are things that don’t happen. And most things don’t happen the way I plan or dream. But things happen. And I learn. I grow. And I continue to dream, list, envision, and pursue.
I'm not saying that process is easy. It's easy to get hung up, eddied out, and lost in the transition between letting go of a goal/dream/vision and the learning/growing/refocusing phase.
On Sunday, I called my best friend, in tears, asking what I was supposed to learn from the situation I was in.
Last weekend I started the Arizona Trail Race (AZTR). It started off beautifully. I paced myself. I was fairly efficient. I moved my bike gracefully along the AZT chunk. I stayed on top of my calories and hydration. I didn’t get sunburned. My legs felt amazing. And I was loving it
Then, somewhere around sunset the second night, I started to struggle to take a full breath. I’ve never had breathing problems outside of a cold, so I was uncertain of what caused it. The tightness in the top of my chest continued all night, persisted through my sleep and into the morning.
Leaving Freeman Rd, chasing Joe Grant into the vastness that is the Sonoran Desert, my chest tightened more. Stopping to force some air into my lungs, I watched Joe swooping through the cholla forest with the southern Superstitions far in the distance. I realized that I had no idea why I couldn’t breathe right, I had a long ways to go with little opportunity for help, should I need it, and I would be setting a horrible example to push a medical condition just for a race. Drawing on his career of mountain running, he had wisely advised me to be careful with breathing problems, and monitor the condition. I reminded myself that I’ve made a career of teaching people to be leaders in the backcountry, including developing sound judgment, intentional decision-making, and self-awareness.
The probability of my chest further tightening was uncertain -it was probably low…but I wasn’t sure, nor did I have any educated way of knowing. The consequence of my airway tightening further was high, and one I had no desire to explore.
That reasoning left me wallowing under the shade of a mesquite tree and ocotillo shade structure at the Freeman cache. In those 12 hours I heard a number of riders pass, I continued to not breathe well, and it wasn’t until the graciousness of Jennifer Hanson and her gift of a kombucha and bag of potato chips that I extracted myself from my sulk and started to think forward.
A few days have passed since pulling the plug on the AZTR. Emotionally it was hard to scratch. I invested a lot of time, energy, and heart into racing the AZT this year. I’m still bummed to think of what I'm missing right now, but I remind myself that I set out to ride fast pending the uncontrollable aligns in my favor. It didn’t this time. That’s life. And like the rest of life when things don’t go as planned, I can reflect and learn, and use that experience as a stepping-stone.
In this case, I’m starting to see this as an opportunity. I could refocus, ride the wave of all I’ve invested thus far, and restart the AZT in May. The semester ends in two weeks, and beyond that I don’t have any plans set in stone until July. Rather than a race cut short, last weekend is starting to be remembered as a training ride. Amazingly, it didn’t tax me too much. Just a few days later my legs feel great and after sleeping and resting hard the past few days, my energy is up. Hell, my bike could just stay packed and the border isn't that far away...
And in thinking forward like that, I have new opportunities rather than lost dreams. I have another month to prepare. I can tweak the set-up in the slightest of ways like pack quesadillas instead of pizza, bring a jacket that zips up instead of pulls over, etc.
In May the heat will be a challenge at the low elevations. But living in Arizona, with a flexible schedule, and Kurt who is amazing and has offered to shuttle me around the state, I think I can swing it. Thinking about it the past few days, I can't think of a reason not to try again as long as my chest/lungs are resolved.
Until then, I have a field-semester to wrap up in style and the Whiskey Off-Road is about to be in town. Today I pulled my gears off my hardtail should I feel inspired to race around Prescott next weekend. We'll see how my breathing improves.
In every struggle there is a silver lining. I hoped to be carrying my bike across the Grand Canyon around this time. Instead I'm home alone for a few days in the solitude of my house while Kurt guides his students through the geologic time of the Grand Staircase. I don't remember the last time I carved out a few days of quiet alone time. I'm notoriously challenged at slowing down, sitting still, and making space to just be here.
I've been "on", and going - traveling around the West while teaching and flying to far-away countries to bikepack - since August. Nine months later it's time to practice patience and breathe in place.
Fortunately, I love our home. I'm now soaking up these days to live at my own pace - drink coffee slowly, stretch in the sun, listen to the birds, read, write, work from home, clean the house beyond just moving stuff from one trip's bags to the next, learn to drive my little moto, and relax.
I know I was ready for the AZTR last week. But now maybe I'll be even more ready come May.. Until then, I'm going to slow down. And should the AZT stars align for me, I'll welcome the solo traverse of Arizona, and commit to slowing down again after the ride. By then it will be time to start looking for swimming holes in which to float the heat of the day by....
All my good ideas are born in the field.
Take, for example, this photo:
This moment was hatched in my mind as I was rocked to sleep on a raft, under the stars that bridged the narrow gap between the north and south rims of the Colorado River just a week or so ago.
It is to capture the essence of my Wilderness Leadership semester group. As this is the second of a back-to-back field semester, I feel particularly blessed to have been dealt a group of spectacular students. They’re all the things we as educators want: motivated, committed, supportive, bright.
But beyond that, they’re all really unique, quirky, hilarious humans that are pretty dang fun to be around.
And so as my other brilliant idea of the year, also born on a field trip, is approaching…it is this group that I can largely thank for an 8-month goal becoming a reality.
And that brilliant idea is to race the Arizona Trail (AZT).
Back in September, on field course number one of a seven course year, I found myself inspired by the places we went on Geology through Bikepacking, and even more so, inspired by 9 student’s collective stoke on bikepacking.
And so, pedaling along the Kaibab Loop with our students ahead and Kurt alongside, I announced that pending my energy, head-space, and stress levels from field course 5,6, & 7 (Wilderness Leadership), I was going to tackle the whole AZT.
Since then, life has been pretty normal.
We went to Japan to ride in Single Speed Worlds. We were there for 4 days. Fortunately, we spent the better part of the trip getting to the race.
I landed on my feet in the canyons of Utah, nearly running, in the field with the Adventure Education Semester.
The fall semester wrapped up, and Kurt and I high-tailed it out of winter for a month of pedaling around northern Patagonia.
I spent most of that trip in a dream state that I was a cowgirl. And while we pedaled a lot, we also rested a lot.
Pedaling hard and resting harder paid off, as shortly after returning home I kicked off the spring semester with a solo effort at 24-hours of the Old Pueblo.
It went well.
And then I stuffed 11 students with varying levels of head-colds into a van and drove north to the Tetons.
We winter camped and towed unruly sleds around, all in search of the perfect turn.
While the snow was pretty awesome, most other things were pretty adverse, uncertain, or downright hard. And in that, our Wilderness Leadership family formed.
I got home to spring break to discover that backcountry skiing/winter camping didn’t promote recovery from Old Pueblo, and I was pretty darn worked. So rather than start in on my only block of harder riding of the spring semester, I prioritized playing on the Horsethief and enjoying the company of Kurt, my mom, and the Tour Divide Training Camp participants.
Since spring break, the Wilderness Leadership semester has been on the gas - full steam ahead. We jumped right into the Grand Canyon in pursuit of one of my other “great” ideas: to link together Brahma and Deva temples in a 3-day loop. While neither group succeeded in the link-up, each got their fair share of walking and time elevated among the towering choss Gods of Grand Canyon.
Our Grand Canyon trip rolled right into our Joshua Tree trip, which then rolled right into our rafting segment, a 3.5 day trip down Diamond Down, and a 3.5 day trip down Cataract Canyon, with a launch on the Green. (It's also thanks to my co-instructor of that segment that I have all these fantastic photos from the river and post river AZT prep - check out West Howland Photography for more.)
And now the Arizona Trail Race starts on Friday and my students will role into their practicum section of the semester on tomorrow (with other instructors to supervise). They're ready. And I'm ready.
Eight months has passed since my initial inspiration to race the Arizona Trail in full-length style. My only initial hesitation then was knowing it would be hard to spend much time on my bike after Old Pueblo and on top of that, the innate fast paced trips, quick transitions, intense group dynamics in field semesters, and stress of solo-proctoring the semester would likely take a toll on my energy and confidence going into a race.
But now, with only a day to go – which is hardly time to prepare any further, but plenty of time to stress out and wig out. I’m unwaveringly excited and committed.
While I haven’t spent a lot of time riding lately, I know I haven’t spent too much time riding. My legs are twitching with energy. And sleeping outside most nights in 2016 has me well rested and tuned into the rhythms of the Southwest.
Backcountry skiing, backpacking, climbing (a pitch!), scrambling, and rafting have surely done something for me, too. If not increased fitness, I’m at least not burnt out.
And after three days of futzing, my bike and kit are mostly ready.
The new Spearfish is packed with just what I need, everything stuffed into the micro-sized bags that Eric (Revelate Designs) and Kurt have crafted for my little steed.
Food is in an unruly heap, ready to be stuffed into my frame bag.
I have a system for sherpaing my bike across the Grand Canyon.
A plan for my extraction from the Utah boarder is in place. And there's country-music playlist to help get me there.
And most importantly, I’m happy. My group and our journeys this semester have left me laughing a lot, inspired a lot, feeling fulfilled by my work/life, in love with the Southwest, and all of those things together put my life and goals into perspective.
I’m ready to ride through the Sonoran desert and Basin & Range down south, through the Central Highlands and hike up onto the Mogollon Rim, cross the San Francisco Volcanic Field and make my way through the grasslands of the Coconino Plateau, to the Grand Canyon - negotiate the 1.4 billion years of geologic time to the Colorado River and back- and finally traverse the northern reaches of the Kaibab Plateau. I know I can go fast pending the uncontrollable agrees with me, but even more so, I’m just really, really, really excited to trace the route that spans my favorite state that I have spent the better part of my twenties exploring, living, and loving.
And as I sit here suddenly worrying I've spent too long on this blog, and should resume packing, Kurt is just beginning packing for his 8th start on the AZT300. This time he'll ride south, planning on taking pictures of the oncoming race, and excited to spin his plus-size tires of the Pony Rustler (named "giggles") along the chunk and chunder of the Arizona Trail.
Follow our rides at trackleaders and look for the pink KB dot and yellow KR dot.
Wilderness Leadership Semester: Grand Canyon Scramblin'
Stepstepstep-pole plant-step-poleplant-repeat. I have a rhythm but it’s almost too quick to hold. I’m nearly at a trot, walking at this pace. My short legs turning over 3.5mph walking pace. Bright colors to my right catch my eye, turning to look I loose my stride and stop, pulling out the camera. Desert flowers! Globemallow, hedgehog, primrose, and brittlebush. I beam at them. I can’t walk this fast and enjoy this magnificent place. And it was for traveling through a new part of the Canyon that I was in favor of this route today. That, and I thought it would be a good challenge and experience for my students to facilitate a big day. Not just facilitate getting to the South Rim from the Deva-Brahma saddle, but making it happen smoothly, keeping our small group moving steadily, stoked, hydrated, and committed. It was happening now. The four boys were off charging ahead as I chased and photographed along behind them. I looked up, past my flowers to check on the gap they were building. They were striding along the Clear Creek Trail, four little specs in the landscape. Zoroaster Temple was the main culprit here for shrinking them to ant size. It towered above them. At this point we had nearly hiked a full circle around the prominent Coconino tower.
The first day we dropped down to the river, our own big congo line along Bright Angel trail, negotiating hundreds of spring breakers and rim-to-rim-to-rimmers. My group then split off, heading up to Cottonwood camp, leaving Lovejoy and crew to approach Brahma from the south, via Sumner wash.
Our west-facing canyon rewarded our early start the second morning with shade until 10:30. By that time we were well through the Redwall, up a no-name drainage to Deva-Brahma saddle. At the saddle by noon, we bypassed Deva, with hopes of reaching Brahma with time to summit and bivy on the Zoroaster-Brahma saddle. Two and a half hours of side-hilling later, we were stopped in our route by 60 degree slope of Hermit Shale slipping into neatly stacked bands of Supai, which quickly gave way to the Redwall abyss. Retreating was written on the wall.
The boys gracefully posed for a sub-summit photo, and headed back, eager to camp at the “epically elevated” bivy that is the Brahma-Deva saddle. I was tempted to make progress into our next day’s itinerary, now a 20+mile day, but the boys were in charge. And the bivy did reward. High cirrus clouds and sunset at 5,000’ perched in the middle of Grand Canyon provided a fantastic sunset. The changing Canyon colors were potentially a high higher than the summits sitting to our either side.
Coffee in the dark. First light.
We went into Grand Canyon looking for summits. We exited with hands empty of summit photos, but overflowing of things we didn’t expect to find.
Three sun-rise starts, 57 Grand Canyon miles (12 off-trail), lots of loose scramblin’, a shut-down traverse, epic saddle bivying, real-life decision making, 10 tired feet, and one Mexican Spotted Owl later, my group left me inspired as we crested the south rim at 9pm. One of the best work trips ever.
All is quiet. It feels as if all is still, too, but snow is falling rapidly. Rushing down from the sky after a tumultuous journey through the atmosphere. Falling as small balls of graupel, it is as if the sky is bombing the serene winter wonderland that just was. Wind and snow bite at my face. Squinting through the white I see a hooded head bobbing over the walls of a snow kitchen. Laughter comes from another. I smile inwardly – this group is pretty fantastic. So far, they have tackled unruly sleds, cold feet, snow living, battering weather, and dynamic decision making with enthusiasm and laughter.
Photo Credit: Hannah McGowan
Photo Credit: Arthur Herlitzka
I feel lucky. After a bit of a rough start from illness and incident, we were here in the snow, happily camping in quinzhees and exploring the winter wonderland around Sherman Canyon and Wow/Wowee in the Tetons. My students were awesome. Hannah and I managed to find a way to make hours of “pillow talk” pass by in our dark and cozy quinzhee as the sky dumped fresh snow outside. We found glorious skiing on the slopes of Wow and Wowee.
Photo Credit: Arthur Herlitzka
And despite a heinous exit with sleds, we re-grouped ourselves for a few engaging and quite opposite ski objectives: 25 short in GTNP and skiing the Inner Basin in the San Francisco Peaks.The first began in a snowstorm, clouds ultimately lifting for elevated views, and the later beginning and ending with carrying skis over rock and road for some high Arizona skiing.
Photo Credit: Arthur Herlitzka
Photo Credit: Arthur Herlitzka
Photo Credit: Arthur Herlitzka