I texted Scott that I was scratching from the outside of the store in Summerhaven. I’d already been up there a while, weighing my situation through a stream of tears steady enough to inspire a concerned check-in from a passing Mt. Taylor Hot Shot crew guy on his way both in and out of the store.
Are you okay? He asked. I nodded, likely looking pathetic. I was crying, holding my phone, I wore gold shorts, my legs were filthy, and my tears had streaked through the 30 hours of dirt and salt on my face. Blood dripped from my nose; a product of the dry air and allergy induced sneezing. Are you sure you’re okay? He asked again, 5 minutes later, on his way back to the engine. I guess he was expecting whatever my problem was to resolve itself in the time he bought coke and chips. I nodded again and muttered thanks.
When I rolled into Summerhaven I caught Pete Basinger, bringing him and me into a tie for 2nd in the overall 300. I was racing the 750, and at the time was leading the overall race by a comfortable margin of hours. While I stopped there, Pete went on to win the 300. I never actually got to talk to him, as I had other things on my mind, but we waved and I hope to see him again next year. This year rather than turning to start down Oracle Ridge, I was wondering why I was on Mt. Lemmon in the first place, not at home.
Three days prior I stood in my kitchen throwing a mini temper tantrum. I didn’t know if I should start the AZT. On one hand I had been planning for this event for months. On the other hand, my knee had been hurting for over a week prior, and despite my best efforts at resting and healing, I wasn’t convinced it would withstand the demands of 750 miles. In fact, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t. I also felt guilt and doubt about leaving my students, and I worried that I didn’t have time to focus on racing. I tossed around the idea of changing plans to race the 300. But I didn’t. Instead, in true fashion of someone who really has to learn things the experiential way, I signed up for the 750 and drove to the border.
Day 1 went smooth. I didn’t ride too hard, I relished the descents with a dropper post, and I thanked whoever invented dispensable ice so I could keep an ice-water drom in my pack to help with the heat of the afternoon near Sonoita. I enjoyed the intermittent company as I worked my way through the field, and moved forward toward Tucson. I slept for two hours just past Saguaro N.P., and wrote off the early morning knee pain as post-sleep soreness.
But it lingered. As my knee pain persisted through the day, the other aches and ailments of ultras rose. Why am I out here? I wondered. I didn’t know. I had not taken the time before heading to the start to focus on why I’m racing this race. As I worked my way up Mt. Lemmon highway I tried to focus on what was going well. It always gets better. I reminded myself. But my knee might not…and I have to go backpacking for work a week after I finish this race, I reminded myself. I can’t be broken and unable to work. I also need to be able to ride another day, and race another day. I love powering my own exploration too much to sacrifice my strong, capable, and healthy body for one ride. I became frustrated. I didn’t have the mental focus or commitment I needed. I didn’t believe my knee was okay. I didn’t believe it was worth it. Suddenly, I didn’t believe I wanted to be racing ultras. Then, a wave of fast, warm air rushed past my face as the corner of a car came into my side view. I swerved right, deeper into the paved shoulder. The side mirror whizzed by my left side and the car swerved left, toward oncoming traffic that then blasted their horns in defiance. I shook, adrenaline pumping through me and I thought of the loss of Mike Hall last week.
Why? I asked myself again. I’m trying to do something great, I reminded myself. But now is not the time. Great things take the alignment of all the pieces. Some of these we are responsible for putting into place, and some things we need the alignment of the stars…or the things we can’t control. Riding up Mt. Lemmon Hwy, while from the perspective of the trackleaders.com onlookers I was flying my way to a great ride, but in my world I realized this time wasn’t my time.
I spent the last couple of days at home moping. I have a hard time not being focused forward, and stopping mid-journey toward a hard sought goal is so hard for me. I’ve been at a loss of what to do, and despite knowing better, playing the woulda-coulda-shoulda game. But today I stopped that. I realized I am someone who has to try. I can’t listen to others, and not all my decisions are rational. Had I not started, I’d be moping about not starting. Had I not stopped, I may be causing further knee damage. Or I may not be. I won’t know, but I tried and feel like I made a pretty good decision, for the knee and for my sanity. I learned that I cannot race while immersed in teaching field courses. I put all of my focus and energy into those courses and my students, and while I would like to think I could simultaneously pursue personal goals, I can’t do both and do an exceptional job at both. I owe it to myself to separate the time for teaching and the time for racing. I also learned that uncertainty over the decision to race, just two days before a race is not a recipe for success - whether from my body, mind, or heart. This is a reiteration of my lesson from 24HOP this year. Hopefully that lesson has sunk in as it is one I am tired of re-learning. Ultimately, how and why I race is important to me and this time around while I tried, neither the how nor the why were right.
I think now I can say I’m happy I started. I got to spend 30 hours riding in the desert. I rocked gold shorts. I got to hold a puppy at Parker Canyon Lake. I got to see familiar faces and make new connections. I found a lost i-phone and located the grateful owner of it. I got to ride among other inspiring people that are out there for their own personal challenge and adventure. I smiled a lot. I felt affirmed in my capabilities as a mountain biker and athlete. I saw a snake, two red-tails, 6 poorwills (which remind me of riding with Joe Grant last year), and blooming cacti. I felt alive, joyful, and inspired. While it was a fleeting experience, and not the one for which I set out, I feel more aware now of what I can do and what I need to do to do it. And, I tried.
Tiny, weightless, perfectly singular snowflakes dive to the earth around me. Ahead the white curtain of a snowstorm has met the blanket of snow. From my eyes, the snow-sky transition is undetectable beyond the stands of frozen trees. These snow-covered green giants offer the only contrast to the fifty shades of white that obscure the world. Boughs droop down and in the next gust of wind snow whoomphs off the windward side of the tree, sending a cold, white cloud into my face. I turn my skis to snake around the next fir, passing it to the left. Pausing before starting out into the barren white sea of snow and wind, I look back. Thirteen college students are sliding, scooting forward into the blowing snow, learning what these firs know so well – the cold and harsh, but oh so quiet and peaceful kiss of a winter storm in the mountains. This last island of trees offers a moment of refuge. Protected by steady conical conifers I continue to pause for my students to too notice the moment of calm. Calm only created by the legacy of these trees – the Subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce, and the occasional Whitebark pine. These pines, they I worry for. It’s interesting contemplating a warming, changing climate in the midst of a deep winter storm. But it is happening as evidenced by the last, highest mountain pines trying, and struggling to inhabit the subalpine. Longer warm seasons promote bark beetle hatches and the multi-decadal mild winters fail to keep the beetles at bay. And so these alpine masters, trees that have out survived all the others for conditions like today – wind, blowing snow, sharp cold, are dying.
Today we want to see the sun. We haven’t seen the sun in a week, since leaving Arizona. I don’t think the sun will be shining through to our piece of winter world today. Maybe we’re better off for it. We’ll have to find the peace within this storm.
Everyone has entered the island of trees. Peering through the trunks I see the end of our 15-person line; they look relieved for a moment out of the wind. Those who have been standing, watching me stare at the trees, inspecting and stroking the soft needles of the fir in gratitude of the wind-block it has temporarily provided me, and many more to come, are starting to shift in and out of poses of cold. Arms are swinging, poles tucked and fingers retracted into fists deep within their gloves while chins burrow into layers. It’s time to continue on.
My ski tips push up through the snow, resuming their task, effortlessly floating over and into the fresh snow. I wonder about the internal dialogue of the 14 hearts and minds behind me. Is there questioning of the why? After all, there is a warm yurt behind us, further back with each step we take into the storm. But isn’t that the why? We’re stripped of effortless aliveness. Staying living, alive, right here, right now takes effort, and is a choice. Not unlike what those pines have done over time. Maybe this is why the story of the whitebark pine crushes my soul. Thousands of years they have perfected their willingness to survive. And right now, so few of us will choose to bear the wind, feel the stinging of rimed snow on our cheeks, the burn of legs sliding skis uphill, the tingling of cold fingers and discomfort of numb feet. For a moment my chest swells, angry, frustrated, disappointed by my species. When and where did we take the wrong turn and choose to return to the yurt, only to develop a preference for security, predictability, perceived safety and comfort?
Still gliding forward. Skis lift over the compressed snow my weight has created and slide over the untrammeled snow surface, a foot ahead of me. This is slow business. Reweight. I can feel my legs working – lifting, pushing, stabilizing over the snow. My ribcage expands into my pack and jackets as my lungs fill with cold, sharp air and I feel the heat of my muscles pooling in the cavity of my low back as I exhale warm breath into my frosty buff. A rogue strand of hair has escaped the gates of my seven hoods. It’s glittering in rime, resembling more white than red. I won’t tuck it back, for that would require exposing a bare hand to the air. Instead I admire the whiteness out of the corner of my eye and look forward to when I can listen to the intuition and wisdom of the grey haired me.
I check my trailing line of skiers. We’ve spaced out. Breathing and moving outside is not for cramped lines. Space to see the snow in front of our skis, move our legs with our breath and notice the intricacies of our conditions – both inside and out – this is how we should move among mountains.
We’re approaching our high point. From there we’ll transition modes to go down. All this effort to turn and go down… I know why I’ll ski down. My mind can’t, shouldn’t wander. I’ll free my body from the chatter of my mind, and the tune of my heart and my body will release to gravity, plunging, turning, my skis to bound through the snow. The movement feels natural but not effortless. My legs will quiver, heart will pump, and my mind will finally quiet to focus on the subtle snow surface, the fall line, and how my body and skis will dance down the slope. My heart will sing in this moment of flow through finding grace and bliss in powder skiing. Maybe not yet from graceful turning, I know my students will also experience flow. In moments of appropriate challenge and movement our minds are pushed to focus. In focusing on the movement, the dance with the mountain, we let go of thought and in turn step into the present. In this way, traveling through mountains is a moving meditation. What greater of a gift than to step into the world the rest of the environment is living in – that of the present, however fleeting time it takes to ski a short slope? And for those moments we are feeling and breathing how the firs and the pines do – without regard for anything but living right now.
Timing is everything, right?
Our trip to Australia was only made a reality by me winning airfare to Singlespeed Worlds. This came by way of winning the Whiskey Off-Road, a event in Prescott that I registered for 4 days before the race, on a whim after assessing my legs to have recovered decently from the 48 hour effort I made at tackling the entire Arizona Trail before dropping out from respiratory problems, just two weeks before. The timing was arguably perfect for finding a silver-lining of a goal unreached.
We landed in Melbourne, the closest airport to SSWC, assembled our bikes and rode to Woodend for the event.. Singlespeed worlds was arguably the most well-organized and entertaining circus I've ever attended. The small town venue provided easy access to everything by bike while maintaining the sensation that hundreds of singlespeeders took over an entire town - which they did.. And then an entire park. And then a forest. It was pretty incredible. Our plan once SSWC passed was to ride east into the mountains along the Bicentennial National Trail for as long as we had time.
For bikepackers wishing to ride through the Australian Alps by way of the Bicentennial National Trail in October, it turned out the timing was off. Three kilometers from the start of the route in downtown Healesville, we were standing in front of a closed gate to the Yarra Ranges National Park. A small tornado had torn through the area ten days before and flattened swaths of giant Eucalyptus trees. Dragging our bikes over and under stretches of downed trees sounded horrible, but given that it was 6pm and we had just participated in the antics of single speed worlds that morning, we were in no place to tackle creating an alternative. Plus, to get to the gate we had carried our bikes across a knee-deep creek, thus soaking our socks and shoes AND, if you haven’t heard, Australia is the coldest place in the world. So we camped at the gate and marveled over the jungle we had seemingly chosen to explore. I was convinced I heard monkeys, but it turns out Kookaburras just made an amazing monkey impersonation and their calls have been used as the background noise in movies such as The Jungle Book to give the creepy jungle feeling.
Fast-forward a few days and we were dragging our bikes over and under a seemingly endless stretch of deadfall in ascent of Lake Mountain, on the National Trail. We had wisely detoured around the closed park, rejoined the route, and were now on it, and moving slowly. Slow is fine, and is usually the reality of bikepacking in the mountains. But there were other problems.
We hadn’t put much time into planning our trip in Oz, just got a track that made sense for where we would be and needed to go (east from Melbourne), and called it good. When I saw the elevation profile that suggested a route with more climbing than the Colorado Trail, I just shrugged and decided we’d see how it went. Beyond the route, we had plans to rendezvous with a close family friend, Kevin, who is in Sydney for work, and had offered to pick us up a few days before our flight from Sydney to NZ and go exploring with his van. And that was the extent of our planning. Once we arrived in Woodend for SSWC the few folks who knew the route gave us the impression that the western side of what we would tackle was less interesting, but over to the east past Omeo, the route improves. Oh, and they warned Mt Terrible fulfills its namesake.
So as every bend presented a new stretch of deadfall (now we were in a widespread burn of standing and downed burned gum forest from the devastating bush fires of 2003), I weighed the situation. We were time bound. The going was slow enough that for us to make it to Canberra to meet Kevin we had to start waking up earlier, riding later, and sacrificing the leisurely stopped time we had been enjoying. And even with that, we might not actually have time to cover the 600 miles. The less impressive western side of the route was proving to be true, made frustrating by downed trees, which if the views suggested anything, weren’t going to end anytime soon. My October of super-endurance adventures had caught up with me, and I was more interested in sleeping a lot, stopping to look at the foreign sights, pedaling slowly, and eating a lot.
At the top of Lake Mountain we stopped for a three-hour lunch, midday coffee, and our first opportunity to soak in Australian sun. And we discussed the situation. I think I announced I had earned my tough bikepacker badge and had no desire to use it. Fortunately, Kurt’s curiosity over just how terrible Mt Terribble was seemed to have waned, and we changed plans entirely, opting instead to do something we’ve never done.
The next day we were in the suburbs of the Yarra Valley, racing along railtrail to catch a train. We arrived in time to secure tickets and then went to buy food. In returning, we learned our train was broken. They were transferring all the passengers down the line by bus, but the bus wouldn’t take bikes. We had to wait. The train was fixed in shorter time than expected and we boarded with an anticipated arrival of 1:15, just 5 minutes before the next train to Bairnsdale, the end of the line to the east.
At 1:20 we were holding our bikes on the escalator in descent to our platform, and with just seconds to go to the end of the escalator to our train, I watched the train doors close and the train roll away. Now we were stuck in downtown Melbourne, with loaded mountain bikes, and 6 hours to spare. Oh and it was cold, rainy, and windy. Did I mention that Australia is frigid?
Both Kurt and I suck at urban survival. We get overwhelmed by the people, the noise, the chaos, and generally don’t know what to do with ourselves. Kurt seemed so on edge I was worried he would get on his bike and ride away, back to the mountains without looking back. We eventually ended up in a coffee shop after a lot of tense navigating and decision-making. A few hours into our stint of interneting and coffee drinking, in walked Adrian, one of the SSWC organizers. He sat down, looked at our map with us, showed us pictures of where we thought we were headed, and gave us some good advice. Ultimately his warning of swollen rivers, snow, and slick-as-snot mud in the Snowy Mountains suggested we abandon the National Trail. When he asked how tough we were feeling, I thought of my tough bikepacking badge that was stuffed away in the sock drawer, back in AZ, figuratively speaking… We spent the 5-hour train ride studying our map, and using the smartphone to look up the MTB destinations Adrian had rattled off, and connect with the few Aussies we hardly knew.
Dropped off in Bairnsdale at 11pm, we found a tree in a park to bivy behind, and fell asleep with a new plan that resembled nothing of the plan of that morning. We would ride north along jeep tracks, into the mountains, bound for Bright and Mount Beauty. We took four days to ride to Bright by way of the scenic and dirt way, including riding through the beautiful high plains of Alpine National Park. After climbing for three days we got big views, saw some Aussie alpine country, and spent a sleepless night in a tin A-frame hut at 1,700 meters in a windstorm with gusts strong enough to tear down a few road signs, as evidenced in the morning. Chased down by the wind and approaching snow storm, we arrived in Bright ready for our first shower and laundry, 14 days since leaving the US, warmer temperatures, and some fun trail. Bright provided, and heeding the advice of the Canadian shop owner, we enjoyed ripping trail through pines at the Mystic MTB Park. I think its coincidence, but the trails were very BC-esque.
After a day in Bright we pedaled over the pass to Mt Beauty to meet up with Turi, a gal we met at SSWC and again bumped into in Bright, working at the bike shop. She and her friend, Alice, took us on an amazingly fun ride around the Mt Beauty MTB park, this time through native forest with countless old-school style trails. It was amazing, and with Mt Beauty resembling the heart of the Green Mountains in Vermont but with year-round mountain biking, skiing in the winter, and the small town vibe, I found my place in Oz to potentially hide out the next 4-8 years. It was also really fun to ride with two gals who were fun and strong!
Our plans to meet up with Kevin in Canberra changed to him picking us up early so he could catch a flight to NZ for an unanticipated work trip. We soon found ourselves in Sydney, with me behind the wheel, learning to drive on the wrong side through downtown Sydney in rush-hour traffic to drop Kevin at the airport, all before I even got a cup of coffee in me. An hour later, no one had died, the windshield was really clean, Kevin was on a plane, we had his camping-equipped Delica, and were drinking the best gas station coffee you can imagine, once again looking at a map and making a new plan.
We embraced van life with ease. Driving on the wrong side got way easier once I was awake, out of downtown and past rush-hour. Our 10 days bikepacking set us back in work, so we took the opportunity to carve out some work time. Kevin has a campsite just outside Sydney that we’ve been appreciating for the shower, laundry, wifi, and mellow living. We reconnected with Adrian, who is now our Aussia angel, hooking us up with endless ride recommendations, organizing a fun group ride in the Blue mtns, offering solid camping advice, and lending us maps and his home for bike cleaning and a dog fix. The riding around Sydney and the Blue mtns has been really spectacular, making resting hard, but for better or worse we had our flight to New Zealand off by a day so we got one bonus day in Oz until we go meet Scott and Eszter for some bikepacking and bike riding on the south island.
Back in October, the night before we left for Oz, Eszter and I did Rim2Rim2Rim in Grand Canyon under the full moon. Somewhere in our journey she commented on the elevation profile Kurt had posted of the National Trail, and said something like “you two never learn, do you?” It was a good-natured joke, with some truth in it. At this point Kurt and I have tackled a few long arduous bikepacking routes. We’ve learned a lot along the way, but sure enough had we stuck with the National Trail, given the timing of it all, we probably would have had a miserable time. Instead, we nailed a few decisions and are headed to NZ stoked on our riding in Oz, the people we met, the places we saw by bike and van, and feel ready to jump into a month of riding bikes in New Zealand. Maybe we have learned a few things.
August was wet in Arizona. I transplanted myself back to the grand canyon state just in time to be greeted by tropical moisture from Baja that, after lingering for a few days, left water standing in places that never hold water. Fast forward a few days, and I was crawling down Haigler creek. We were literally crawling. Upon joining Haigler creek by way of Marsh Creek, I had read an Edward Abbey quote to my group about the merits of walking. He suggested that other than crawling, it is the slowest form of locomotion. It’s true, crawling is slower than walking. At crawling pace, we were traveling ¼ mile an hour through this slice of earth. A creek bend, just an 1/8th of a mile away, looked so close. In normal leisurely strolling, it would take less than 10 minutes to round the bend. At our pace, it was a half an hour. I passed the time scanning the ground for heart rocks, pebbles with perfect rings, taking photos, and contemplating existential questions. It was actually really great.
This particular day we had to cover 3.5 miles. 3.5 miles should be no hard feat for a group of experienced backcountry travelers. But, at ¼ mile an hour, we had our work cut out for us. The situation was that Haigler is a narrow, rugged canyon. Its slopes are steep, sometimes vertical walls of metamorphic rock. Through it, the water runs brown. Rocks that lurk an inch beneath the surface are undetectable by the eye and are among the slipperiest I’ve ever encountered. The canyon floor is choked with young riparian vegetation and debris that is all leaning aggressively downstream, serving as a constant reminder of the forces of flash floods.
The persistent monsoons had left the earth saturated, and each day’s rain thus far had arrived once we reached the safety of camp. Today, though, I knew would be a different story. Around 2pm I saw clouds start to build. We had made half of our mileage. By four pm it was raining steadily. Probing our way along the creek bed beneath the canopy of the alders, box elders, sycamore, and willows, the sky was obscured by green leaves. Every small waterfall we negotiated I questioned if I was hearing cascading water from the pour-over or the roar of a flood approaching. Every plane that flew overhead, slowing its speed as it approached Phoenix, left me hearing a flood.
Eric, is more debris floating by? I asked, wondering if I was imaging signs of flashflood. Nah dude, I just stirred that up. He replied. Dave, is the water getting murkier? Hah, no, I don’t think so. He knew what I was thinking. He was the first one to see the flood coming toward us in Dark Canyon last October. Then, the look in his eyes were what made my stomach jump to my throat as I registered the approaching flood. Kaitlyn, just because it’s raining doesn’t mean a wall of water is going to come around the bend I reminded myself. I pushed my way through the young, dense willows. Ducking, to crawl beneath the thick branches, my sunglasses fell off my head, plopping into the current. I reached down, feeling beneath the surface of the rushing water for my sunnies. They were gone over the pour over. The water was roaring. It was brown. I heard rockfall. Before I saw Dave’s expression looking upstream that day in Dark Canyon, I first thought the sound I heard was rockfall. Then I saw Dave’s face. Floods are scarier than falling rock, especially when you’re in a creek, about to enter a mile of narrows, and you’re ultimately responsible for the five other humans all crawling at ¼ mile an hour in a tight, walled-in canyon.
Aysha, do you think the water is rising? I asked. Aysha is conservative. I knew she was nervous too. Maybe. She replied, eyeing the banks. Shit, we have to get out of here, I responded to myself. At that point I couldn’t tell what was rationally real, and what was emotionally fabricated. Regardless, I knew something had to change. I wasn’t comfortable proceeding downstream because I was afraid of being afraid, and I wasn’t okay making my group bivy among boulders because my emotional post-traumatic-flood-disorder had gotten the best of me.
Seeing a steep, talus filled gully leading to a flat-ish looking bench, I impulsively detoured the group up the steep, loose, talus slope. I wasn’t supposed to be the navigational voice that day, but something had to change. Glancing down below me, I could see the confusion in Matt’s face, the annoyance in Julie’s, and the skepticism in Dave’s. Aysha looked more comfortable, and Eric, as always, was rolling with it. Reaching the ledge it became evident that we would not be camping there. We checked in, mostly as a tool for me to buy time to reassess. How is everyone doing? How would you be making decisions right now, were you here in this situation with your group of students, as you very well may be in a week or two? I asked. They answered thoughtfully, one by one. They’re all really fantastic. I listened with one ear, and surveyed the scene with the rest of my awareness.
The rain was coming from the southwest. We were experiencing the storm before upstream was. The air was quiet, aside from an occasional rumble of thunder. The creek looked the same shade of brown as it had in the morning, and the day before. From our vantage, it almost looked peaceful. A plane flew overhead. No flood came. And how is everyone’s energy and temperatures? I inquired. Some were getting tired. Everyone was warm while moving but cooling down from standing still. Okay, well I’m not too concerned about flashing right now, but it is getting late and were we to move efficiently without stopping we would likely be looking for “ tight” camp as sun set. With a mile of continuous pools to swim and a challenging camp to find, we agreed to proceed with an eye for a place to camp short of our destination. That night we camped at a new spot that we named happy camp. While not everyone was stoked by the outcome of the day, I was relieved to be at “happy” camp and not at “oh shit” camp.
The next morning, I read, “Water is the softest thing, yet it penetrates the mountains and earth. This shows clearly the principle of softness overcoming hardness.” We quietly looked at the creek, contemplating the insight of Lao Tzu. The creek had risen the night before. We proceeded into the narrows of Haigler under warm blue skies, happily submerging our bodies in the cool brown water, pool after pool. We had a relaxing, playful, carefree passage of the final two miles of Hailger Creek, finally reaching Hell’s Gate at the confluence of Haigler and Tonto creek.
As we continued our slow probe, step, probe step, sit, swim, crawl downstream progress at ¼ mile an hour, I reflected on the profound message of the night before. Sometimes to get the best read of an intense, chaotic situation, it is best to climb away from the chaos and look at it through a new lens. Space can offer the greatest perspective.
A night later, we climbed away from Hell’s Gate by the light of the full moon. Walking in the dark between cactus and loose rock was easier and faster than traveling down Haigler in pure daylight. I thought about Tom Robbins’ Graduation Speech. I decided that if heaven is where you’re free and passionate, and hell is where you’re a cog in the machine, Hell’s Gate is where I get to choose to remain in Heaven, regardless of where I physically am.
It’s been ten years since I began my career as a field instructor in outdoor education. Now, more than ever, I believe I am where I am supposed to be. My job keeps on giving,; I continue to learn and feel incredibly humbled, grateful, inspired, and alive.
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.