Road Trippin’ Colorado a la France

One of my favorite aspects about living in Colorado is the ability to share it with others. Sometimes, the fun of the Life Bus is waiting at the stop for someone else. When I first moved to Colorado, my friends lovingly (I think) referred to trips here as “Lynda’s Boot Camp”, as my enthusiasm often overrode our abilities and we’d wind up the week, exhausted but blissful in our fatigue.

In August, a friend from France came out for a few days to experience the Rocky Mountain high. There is a certain kinship between France and Colorado, with the passion for the mountains, trail running, skiing, cycling, and pretty much any outdoor adventure. I have many friends who had made the trek to France for all of these adventures, so I was excited to share Colorado with someone who would appreciate it as I do.

He had sent me his dream itinerary and I did my best to adhere to it, but I had to throw in a couple of little known Colorado treasures as well. I didn’t know much about Colorado when I first moved here, but what I knew was also what he had heard as well. The 14ers, the big ski resorts, the famous I-70 and its Eisenhower tunnel. It was a chance for me to play tourist without my friends mocking me for doing so.

We started our adventure on Pikes Peak. Two of his heroes–Killian Journet and Sebastien Chaigneau, both ultra runners–had completed the Pikes Peak marathon. Since this was one of his first days in Colorado, I opted for the Cog Rail to the summit and an easy hike down, knowing well the ill effects altitude can have on the uninitiated. And also it is a great way to get some of the history of Colorado. Zebulon Pike actually never summited the mountain named after him–in fact, he was famous for writing that he believed no one would ever summit the massive peak. See what doubt and disbelief will get you? The man who did originally summit it, Edwin James, now has a lower peak named for him.

Rainbow at Pikes Peak

Rainbow at Pikes Peak

My favorite part of the ride is seeing one of the oldest bristlecone pines–some over 2000 years old. There’s a song a friend of mine sings that always ends up on my lips whenever I think about these ancient, gnarled and majestic icons.

Now the way that I’ve lived, there ain’t no way to tell
When I die, if I’m going to heaven or hell
So I’d just as soon serve out eternities’ time
Asleep at the feet of the bristlecone pine.

At the summit, we enjoyed the famous Pike Peak doughnuts–a delectable blend of fat and sugar (is there any better blend?) before beginning the journey back down. I was a little nervous because of the lateness of the time and the clouds already starting to form. I knew, though, that treeline wasn’t far below and the cover afforded a little more safety. We did get a bit of thunder and lightning but escaped unscathed. It was a beautiful 13 mile hike, and I was reminded that downhill is not necessarily easier than uphill. It was with no little relief to sit in the car after the seven hour round trip.

While strong in my mountaineering skills, I found I was sadly lacking in the basics of survival, and my poor French friend was constantly having to remind me to feed him. Before leaving Manitou Springs for the next day’s adventure, dinner was at the Marilyn diner, famous for photos of the iconic star and excellent pizza.

The next day was a selfish one, but it fit in perfect with the itinerary and route, so I went with it. My favorite hiking area in Colorado is the very little known Lost Creek Wilderness. Every hike is more than a few miles and no summit has a trail to it. Add to that the fact that no peak is over 13,000ft, and it’s not terribly popular with the peak bagging crowd. Unlike many wilderness names, there actually is a lost creek. It is a perennial creek that disappears and reappears before finally uniting with Goose Creek. The rock formations is what makes it truly magical though, granite arches and domes filling the landscape like nowhere else in Colorado. I spent my entire birthday weekend here and was happy to return.

Rock formations at Lost Creek Wilderness

Rock formations at Lost Creek Wilderness

I made it a short day so that we could resume his itinerary. The next stop was Ouray, home to the infamous Hardrock 100, arguably the most challenging one hundred mile foot race in the world. Heck, just getting in is more than most people can do. With three Colorado 100s under my silver belt buckle (the finisher award for 100s), I don’t even qualify to sign up for the lottery. Not just one hundred miles of running (in the loosest sense of the word), it boasts over 30,000 ft of elevation gain and a high point of 14,048. Yes, you get to climb a 14er in addition to everything else.

Before we could get there though, we ran into a snag–welcome to the world of road tripping. For the past couple years, Colorado has hosted a pro-cycling tour, and on this particular day, its route coincided with the current destination. Not ones to let a little detour ruin the day, we watched in impressed fascination as the cyclists rode by. The year before, they had ridden Flagstaff Hill in Boulder–their speed up far surpassed mine going down the same hill.

The detour added a couple of beautiful hours of travel to the day. I had never been down this particular road, and I found myself blissfully distracted by the canyons and rolling hills, accentuated by the storm clouds and sunshine casting an amazing lighting across the landscape. With a very wet summer, Colorful Colorado was living up to its name, with the greens and reds of brush and rock dotted with the purples and yellows of wildflowers.

It seemed like no time before we were in Ouray, and the hot springs felt even more delicious than usual to my cramped body. I had even planned a dinner for that night at the Beaumont Grill, a distinctly Colorado restaurant with such delights as Colorado lamb and Rocky Mountain beef tips, hold the Rocky Mountain oysters. A good glass of wine, and the dust of the road was washed away.

The last time I’d been on the trail we ran, witnessing a small avalanche roll across the trail was enough to convince me to turn around. This time, the narrow, rocky trail was clear, but still a little unnerving. It was built right into the side of the mountain during the mining days, and there was not much between you and the thousand foot drop. Given my inability to walk a straight line after about 40 miles, I could see Hardrock ending very badly for me. That section fortunately did not last long, and we were in the wildflower strewn meadow, enjoying a now very relaxed run.

The Hardrock 100

The Hardrock 100

That afternoon was the biggest risk of the trip in terms of disappointment: a French winery in Colorado, Maison la Belle Vie, house of the beautiful life. Actually Australian and French, I’d discovered it on an earlier adventure to Palisade when I had had some time on my hands to explore the little town. There are many wineries there and all of them are welcoming, ready to tell you about the fun and challenges of wine making in Colorado and about how their life journey had brought them from all over the world to here. I was a club member at this particular winery, having purchased way too many bottles already, and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to select from the exclusive wines each time I came.

Maison la Belle Vie

Maison la Belle Vie (photo from their website)

Fortunately, the wine was well received and we left with a couple of bottles to share over the next few days.

A short night in Fruita (dinner at the Hot Tomato–I wouldn’t let starvation win just yet), and we were off to the next stop: Aspen. Not a place I much frequent, given my limited salary, but it is home to another French hero: Lance Armstrong, seven time winner of the Tour de France, depending on which side of the drug argument you fall. I had rented two bikes for a ride up the infamous Independence Pass.

The weather had been slowly deteriorating all week and today was overcast and drizzling. It would not be a long bike ride but at least the weather was allowing us a chance. I wasn’t keen on coming down the steep, occasionally rutted road in slick conditions on an unfamiliar bike.

Most of the ride is in the aspen forest, beautiful and lush and different from the vast views of the previous days. The slow pace up, like that of trail running, allowed time to appreciate the surroundings. I pointed out the previous residence of Harrison Ford, a fellow search and rescuer: I have often dreamed of requiring a rescue in the wilds of Wyoming, Mr. Ford’s current home.

During the descent, I worriedly studied the clouds. The next day was the grand finale, a hike up Mt Evans, the highest peak in Colorado. I wanted perfect weather for it, but that was quickly becoming not likely. I didn’t have a backup plan. Leadville, the nearest town, did not have many indoor activities for tourists, even counting the Mining Hall of Fame. There were the Cottonwood hot springs, but my French companion had not seem particularly enthralled by the ones at Ouray.

I called on the words a climbing partner once said to me: You gotta at least try. So I drove to my favorite camping spot and prepared for the worst. My French penpal had often sent me photos over the months of castles where he had spent resplendent evenings. I felt not a little twinge of inadequacy in setting up the rented tent that would be our abode for the night.  In the rain. We had at least stocked up on some finer snacks in Aspen, so dinner was a festive affair, with wine, cheese, crackers, olives, and other such goodies.

Another difference between France and Colorado is the timing of hikes. The French do indeed schedule their lives around meals, mainly leaving the afternoons open for their hikes. With four thousand feet of elevation gain in under six miles, Mt Evans was no small hike, and with the unstable weather, I wanted off the mountain before any heating could give rise to thunderstorms. So it was with a bit of grumbling that we set off at 4am for the summit. Under the light of the headlamps, I warned him again that the summit was optional.

Sunrise at Mt Elbert

Sunrise at Mt Elbert

Progress was slow and steady. We entered the clouds around 13,500 and enjoyed the novelty of snow in August even if the view was diminished. But the weather held steady, with not even a hint of thunder, so we continued our progress up, stopping when the sun made a particularly grand entrance into the Twin Lakes valley. The summit was completely clouded in, so we didn’t stick around long to enjoy our success.  Summit photos were quickly taken and we headed back down.

Alpenglow at Mt Elbert`x`

Alpenglow at Mt Elbert

Once back in the sunshine, we took a break to eat leftovers. My search and rescue brain took over as I pointed out some of the dangerous habits of people heading up the mountain: cotton t-shirts, no packs, light jackets, small water bottles. One gentleman was even hiking in cowboy boots–I had to give him grudging respect as they just did not look comfortable for hiking.

Back at the airport all too soon, I received a bisou (kiss) from my French adventurer, with a promise of equally and greater adventures when the Life Bus makes its way to France.

The High Lonesome Trail – Day Three (June 22 2014)

HEY!!

I froze on my precarious perch. I was afraid to turn around, as much from a fear of falling as from what I might see. What I didn’t see–a gun–gave me great hope.

Wes and I had gotten into a groove. Meet at the start point, drive separately to the end point, using the map to determine where we needed to park, find a nice quiet spot and park, drive back and begin the adventure.

Morning in the mountains

Morning in the mountains–and a promise of rain

Day three found us back at Floyd Hill. The hike up seemed almost easy as we once again skirted the mining operation. We were heartened to feel like we were gaining new ground almost immediately. It was looking like a fun day.

We’d have to cut it short because Wes had to be back for family commitments. The forecast was also looking a little wet, and on the high peaks is not where you want to be if that happened.

To gain the ridge that was our goal for the day, we had to cross through the mining operation–or rather, that was the shortest route. To our surprise, there was someone there on a Sunday, but he just gave us a wave and we continued on our way. I guess in the grand scheme of things, a sixty-something and forty-something hiker were not high on the scale of threatening objects. This was a definite advantage as the next miles crossed a lot of private property.

The mining operation at Floyd Hill

The mining operation at Floyd Hill

The miles also followed the Clear Creek/Gilpin County boundary. This was our fun find of the day: old stones that marked the boundary, carved with numbers. The numbers corresponded to the numbers on the map, giving us a good reference to our location.

The early days of mile markers. Can you imagine carving all of these?

The early days of mile markers. Can you imagine carving all of these?

With the sale of his company now behind him, Wes was working on another big project: a book on the history of Colorado relating to geography and the gold rush. I wish I had a recording device as we hiked. Geographically speaking, Denver is not the most ideal of locations, and it was relatively late when people finally built roots here. The native Americans weren’t terribly in love with it, and the early settlers had all kinds of weather and geographic challenges, with snow, flooding, and other natural disasters.

But humankind is a stubborn lot, and, of course, there was gold involved. We were pretty sure our current route, probably not much touched since those stones were erected, was a main thoroughfare for the gold rush lot.

It wasn’t long before cartographers were trying to map the incredible mountain range. Not many of the early maps matched each other. In a tale of history repeating itself, the map company with the best political connections won. It would be many years before it was all sorted out. Much like today, maps were used by everyone, inexpensive and rather useful, but I would guess survival more than pleasure drove the sales.

Our route took us across Central City Parkway. Our next day on the High Lonesome Trail put took us across Virginia Canyon Road. It was quite the contrast between the two routes. Although I know intuitively that we are not far from civilization on this particular trek, it is still odd to see the reminders. Especially in this area, where civilization at various stages had been almost everywhere, as evidenced by rusting tools and dilapidated buildings from old mining.

Along the route

Along the route

An unnamed 9000ft high point is where we encountered the rather perturbed land owner. We were on his land and he wasn’t happy. I couldn’t blame him. I wouldn’t much like people traipsing through my back yard either. And given the beer bottles–and yes, even a bra–I’d rather not imagine what they did on his property.  His several minute rant confirmed the worst of what humanity does in the woods.  Like the mining operator, though, he realized our presence was innocent and we really were just hiking. He wished us well, we apologized profusely, and parted ways. It was a reminder of how not in the wild we were.

The hike from there to the next high peak was longer than we had time for. We picked a sort of high point and decided we’d have to make our apologies to the rules committee. The descent was a precarious hike through some serious mining territory. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing it again.

A few of the mines had cement blocks covering the entry, the wires used to place them cut to ensure they were not moved. Most, however, were just holes that had eventually collapsed into themselves. I couldn’t imagine how ravaged the view must have been at the time. History repeating itself. On a more practical note, it seemed precarious terrain in which to be hiking. I wasn’t sure my Spot would work if I fell into one of the old entrances.

One of dozens of remains of the old mining operations

One of dozens of remains of the old mining operations

The rain started as we were still a couple of miles out from the car. There were several gullies to cross and we were hopeful to find the correct one, to avoid any uphill after a long day. To add to the challenge, we were on the edge of the Clear Creek and Idaho Springs map quads, which made it hard to match the terrain to the map.

We eventually found ourselves on a small trail we decided to follow since we were running out of time and the rain wasn’t letting up–we’d take it up with the Rules Committee later–that ended in a road that was the road on which we were parked. We congratulated ourselves on another success endeavor.

The Long Lonesome Trail – Day 2

LLT Day 2 Map

Map of route. A data glitch cut off the last two miles

It took us over a month to let the memory dull of the steep descent that would become our first ascent.  But a cool morning in June found us back on Highway 6 at the random trail sign that marked the end of Day One, heading back up.  As seems to be usual, the anticipation was worse than the reality.

We looked up at Centennial Cone from our smaller peak, congratulating ourselves on our foresight.  We pulled out the maps to check our options.  As usual, we had two: straight down and back up, or across and circuitous. We could see from our vantage point that down and up would be hiking across an open grassy field, where across would be rocky brushy terrain.  Down and up also featured a trail, which of course was against the rules.  I made a snide remark about the intelligence of our rules committee.

We made our way across.

“Side hilling” as it’s known is not necessarily easier than regaining lost altitude. I would argue it absolutely is not.  Imagine trying to walk across a wide stairway, never touching the horizontal part of the stair. Now imagine half the stairway is loose and wobbles threateningly when you step on it.  Now add in some brambles, and you get the point.

End of the side hilling

End of the side hilling

Wes was in heaven with the scrambling that bordered precariously on Class 3 (hands and feet required).   I carefully tested each hand, foot and trekking pole hold as Wes practically danced from boulder to boulder.

Trekking poles was another difference in our hiking: Wes has absolutely no need for them, whereas I am pretty sure I would die a horrible death without mine.  In May, I ran a race that expressly forbid them.   Not just a note in the list of many a rules that I could pretend to have not read, but a one liner that had to be electronically initialed.

Part of that line was another, much much worse, exclusion: music.  I hike with music. I run with music.  I work to music.  I fall asleep to music.  I”m listening to music as I write this.  I love music.  I have a theory that I refer to as The Hollywood Theory.  This theory states that nothing bad ever happens when happy music is playing.

So far, it has proven to be absolutely true.

My hand trembled on the keyboard as I agreed to no trekking poles and no music.  No good could come from this.

I survived the race, but have refused to be without my poles since.  Music too. Except with Wes.   By far the most interesting person with which I’ve had the pleasure to hike, I’m willing to take the risk of no happy soundtrack playing.  It’s hard to find a good hiking partner.  First you actually have to find someone who wants to hike.  Then you have to agree on all aspects of said hike: start time, finish time, distance, elevation gained, on trail or off, pace, and, my number one Rule of Hiking: running like a bat out of hell whenever there’s even a hint of lightning in the area.

Wes owns his own business. He’s been in the business of buying and selling banks for over thirty years.  It sounds boring and if I tried to relate it, it would most definitely be, but Wes makes it more fascinating than trekking the Himalaya. He’s in the process of selling his business, and even that has a bit of the drama of a good Hollywood thriller.

I saw Wes sitting on a rock outcropping in front of me.  “Well, we lost that gamble”, he said. Straight ahead was impassable, pretty much a straight drop down, which meant we got the worst of both worlds. Side hilling and we’d still have to lose and regain the elevation.  So down and back up we went to our first official peak of the day, and the true starting point of the day.  Two hours into it and we were just getting started.

Wes hanging out

Wes hanging out

The crux of this day was crossing Clear Creek. The snowmelt had the creek running high and we had one place to cross–a small bridge that we carefully inspected before beginning the hike, for fear it wouldn’t actually be passable.  We would have to cross Highway 119 as well, which of course made our current little down-and-up laughable.  We would end up at our beginning elevation only to go back up to higher than our previous peaks.

The road from the west parking lot of Centennial Cone park would take us right down where we wanted to go, but of course that was against the rules.  The down was almost worst than the first day. The growing spring plants made it challenging to see where to step.  Somehow, Wes managed to find a small animal trail.  Then we hit a steep gully that took some gymnastics to get out of.  All this was made even more challenging by the private property.  Another trait I’ve learned to admire in Wes is his sense of respect. Many peaks in Colorado are private property, or require passing through private property. I have alway naturally assumed that either you asked permission or just did not climb them.

This is not the case.  Many peakbaggers have a surprising sense of self entitlement when it comes to peaks.  I suspect they would not have the same attitude if the tables were turned, but maybe that’s my cynicism speaking.  Wes, when planning his peaks, sends letters asking permission before climbing.  Most times, he gets the okay–I imagine the landowners are too surprised to say no.  We had agreed that if any of the peaks we passed were on private property, we’d get as close to the summit as we could and call it good.

We unfortunately were not able to completely avoid private property but did our best to reach the road as quickly as we could. When it came to conflicting rules, we opted for the most respectful approach.

The Bridge

The Bridge

With the traffic to and from the casinos, crossing 119 was quite possibly the most dangerous part of the day, although the decaying bridge across Clear Creek didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Much like snow in the winter and scorching temperatures in the summer, we knew the steep uphill was coming and we complained anyway.  We bent the trail rule and followed what we decided was an animal trail up to our next peak at 7600ft: people are animals too.

The things you find

The things you find

We stopped for a break.  The temperature was much warmer than either of us had anticipated and the water we brought was turning out not to be enough.  Even though it was June, this was my first hike of the season with short sleeves. I had forgotten how much the heat can take out of you.  It’s not just the heat, but the heaviness of the backpack.  All the clothes you’re usually wearing are now weighing down on your hips.  Okay, technically, the weight is same, but somehow the distribution seems to double it when it’s in the backpack.  At least the diminishing water supply was helping the weight issue, a small consolation.

I refuse to complain about the heat just yet.  It was a long winter.  The first snows were in September and the storms were still going strong in May.  I’ve gotten used to the cold and I’ve grown quite adept at dressing for it, the perfect combination of layers, all the periphery items–windproof hat, gloves that are warm but don’t have to be removed to eat or drink, my favorite balaclava, even the ideal pair of socks–but there is still nothing like the freedom of donning nothing more than a t-shirt and shorts when heading out the door.

Scenery

Scenery

We couldn’t quite see the rest of our day from this point–we had another ambitious day planned.  We had parked my car at Kermits, this classic American roadside bar and restaurant at the corner of I-70 and Hwy 6.  It has recently re-opened (under a different name, but Kermits just fits) and was hopefully popular enough to stay that way.  Bikers seemed to make up the majority of clientele.   It definitely had character.  Wes and I had already agreed that a beer and hamburger would be the perfect ending to Day Two.

What we hadn’t anticipated was the pull of that idea as the temperatures climbed and the miles mounted.

As we made our way to Floyd Hill, the peak after which that area of I-70 was named, we decided to forego the last mile or two of our planned route.  We reasoned that Floyd was an easy enough peak to reascend. It was also a logical exit point, as continuing would commit us to at least another mile before another exit point would introduce itself.  With Clear Creek still on the same side of I-70 as we were, we also could not guarantee an easy egress further up.

But really, it was the beer.

Floyd Hill is a bit of an endangered peak.  There is a significant mining operation encroaching on it.  It made our last downhill a bit of a challenge.  Wes was sure if we were found on the property, we’d be given honorary hard hats and a personal tour, due to our amazing and impressive journey.  I more envisioned special bracelets and a tour of another facility, one that was in all likelihood equally as dreary.

We balanced our descent between the steep cliffs on the east side and the now nonexistent west side.  It was the most depressing vista I’ve experienced on a hike. It was the only depressing vista I’ve experienced on a hike. It was sad to think of a peak no more.

Cutting it short

Cutting it short

The beer, hamburger, and, oh yeah, french fries too, ranked as the best I’d ever had.  Wes and I toasted the day and spun tales about the magnificence of the next day on the Long Lonesome Trail.

Oh yeah

Oh yeah

Grand Mesa 100 – The Redemption

As I sat shivering in the front of the truck, the heat barely cutting through my drenched clothing, snow began to mix with the rain.  I was having a hard time feeling too bad about dropping from the race, but I knew the feelings would come. Stick it out and the misery lasts at most 34 hours.  Quit, and the suffering continues for at least 365 days.

Those 365 days were finally coming to an end.

They began when I woke up in my car the next morning.  It was still raining, but I could hear the cheers as someone crossed the finish line.  Someone stuck it out.  Someone who wasn’t me.

I was reminded of the pain each time I had to explain.  There wasn’t any flagging. Or maybe there was and I missed it. There’s no telling. Bottom line is that I ended up six miles off course.  I got back on course and kept going.  The rain started on the nine mile stretch between Carson Lake and Kannah Creek.  I was following pink flagging.  At some point, all I could find was yellow flagging. Soon, there was no flagging.  If there was a trail, I couldn’t tell.  It got dark. Lightning flashed all around. The only thing I wasn’t worried about was bears–I was pretty sure they at least were smart enough to go someplace warm and dry.

In short, I was miserable. I’m pretty sure I shed a tear or two, although who could tell in that weather?

I finally saw the lights of the aid station. They weren’t close, but they were still a beacon.  It meant someone was there, waiting for me.  Just knowing someone was there gave me a boost. I wasn’t alone. Lonely still in my struggle, but not alone.

Ultras are weird from a mental standpoint. You cannot think about quitting. You just can’t.  Otherwise, you won’t finish. Period. There’s no logic, no reason for continuing. But you do.  You just do.  But when I saw the lights of the aid station, something in my brain clicked.

It was 12:30 at night. It was storming.  I was mentally drained. I was barely halfway done.  I wasn’t finishing.  Whether I thought about it or not, it was not going to happen. Again.

I drove home depressed and frustrated.  I spent the next couple weeks, trying to explain without sounding like I was giving excuses.  It’s just what happened, and yes, I would try again.  Of course I would try again. This was failure number two in a row.  Running is how I define myself.  Ultra running is my passion. Yes, I would try again.

I put everything else on hold.  The year was devoted to running and hiking.  Over two thousand miles of running and hiking.  Over 200,000 feet of elevation gain.  I got up at 4 during the week and 3 on the weekends. Snow, rain, heat, floods. I was out. My food bill was matched only by the money I spent on running shoes.  I wore black when my favorite shoes were discontinued.  I bought cook books for athletes. I learned to love rice and potatoes.  I signed up for every ultra race I could fit in.  One each in January, February and March.  Two each in April, May, and June.  Marathons, 50 milers, back-to-back races.  A race was no excuse for a rest day–just another reason to push harder.

One final one in early July–a twelve hour night run. At one in the morning, I pictured myself back on the Mesa, alone, cold, tired, wet.  I removed all negativity from the image and tried to see it for what it was. Just a run.  Nothing more. Nothing less. Not a reason to quit.  Just another challenge.

On Day 366,I jumped at the sound of an actual gun going off, gave my friend Loree a quick hug, repeated my mantra, and took off.  I had no idea how this would end.  There are so many things that can go wrong, and pretty much only one way for everything to go right.

Lake Sunrise

The glory of an early morning start

The first aid station and I was already behind schedule.  I had to put it behind me.  It was only eleven miles.  I had 89 to go.  I had to run my race, run to the finish, not from the start.

I knew as soon as I entered the aid station that Loree was the perfect crew.  “28 is GREAT!” she yelled, dancing around.  We had joked the night before that pretty much any rhyme would work except “28 is late”.  I put my imaginary deadlines out of my mind, gave her a big smile, ate and drank and kept on my way.

The High Point

The High Point

The next aid station came blissfully quick.  I refilled my water and ate some more.  Some say that ultras are actually an eating contest, and there’s some truth in that.  Even if you eat for three quarters of the distance, you’re still running a marathon on empty.  It’s critical to eat. I had a LOT of food. Loree made sure I had plenty with and in me.

25 runners started off that morning.  By now, as the heat made its entrance, they were scattered across the course. A couple runners had passed me as I took advantage of a real bathroom.  This was the first challenge of the ultra: the excitement of the start was over and the reality of the task was at hand.  The course was flat for the next twenty-eight miles. A marathon.  I knew the opportunities to run were limited–I would be lucky to run 40 miles–so I took advantage of it. I turned up the music and tuned out reality, as I had done a hundred times before. Run just run.

Afternoon storms

Afternoon storms

The next aid station afforded the opportunity to drop from the 100 to the 50 miler or 60k.  Loree told me a couple women had taken advantage of that, and a few men had dropped completely. It gave me confidence to know I was still feeling strong, especially since the crux of the race was coming up: Kannah Creek.  After dropping 4000 feet off the Mesa, runners got the joy of climbing back up.  Kannah is where most runners quit. Kannah is where I quit.

I had gotten into a pattern with a couple runners. I don’t spend a lot of time at aid stations, so I would pass runners at the stations, and they would catch up a couple miles later.  We’d chat a little, say something encouraging, then be gone again.  Loree knew them by their crew.  At each aid station, they would meet and catch up on the runners’ status. Hearing her relate it reminded me of the positive energy I had gotten from the Badger Mountain ultra.

Wildflowers along the trail

Wildflowers along the trail

I spent a little more time in Kannah, knowing it would be dark before I saw another aid station. And also just to celebrate that I was beating myself from last year.  It was 7:30pm–a full five hours before I had reached there the year prior.  I got my jacket and headlamp ready.  It was much warmer at the lower altitude, so I packed extra water. I got out my trekking poles. I found an inspiring song on my MP3 player and began the trek back up.

What had seemed like plenty of flagging during the day now seemed woefully inadequate.  There was one main trail but every so often, there seemed to be a small trail that wandered off it, and doubts would set in.  I had carefully studied the maps and I had the route loaded in my GPS. I knew the general direction.  I had to have confidence in my navigation skills.  At one point, four other runners displayed confidence in my skills as they let me pass and followed me up the trail in the moonless night.  The route description had said 4.5 miles, but I knew from the map it was longer.  I could see a bright light about where I thought I would reach the mesa again.

It became my beacon, much like the lights from Kannah Creek the year before.  No longer could I focus on the distance.  I had run over 50 miles, and had the same to go.  I couldn’t think about it. But I could think about the light shining above, and the people who would be there.  The warmth I imagined was more spiritual than physical.

A voice shouted out.  I jumped at the sound. I was completely lost in my own thoughts and I didn’t realize I was so close. But a few more minutes I was back on top.  A kindly voice said, “Hey you’re dong great! You didn’t puke on my chair.” I’m pretty sure that was a new low in highs. This was an “unofficial” aid station–three people and a camper–to give people basic assistance before the “real” aid station.  A Pepsi and a handful of M&Ms and I was off.

The Mesa

The Mesa

After essentially 15 miles of hiking, it felt good to be on a flat road.  I ran most of the three miles to the aid station. Now I was getting suspicious of how good I was feeling. I didn’t want to question it, but I had to do a mental inventory to make sure it wasn’t delirium.  It didn’t seem to be, so I thanked my training and my still cheering friend, and I kept going.

Now the miles began to drag.  Another couple miles and I couldn’t force my legs to run. It was one in the morning and I could see nothing outside my headlight.  I was on a road for the six or seven, maybe eight miles to the next aid station.  It was a critical aid station.  My friend, Tim, was waiting there. He had been bullied into pacing me by another friend, who was miles ahead on the same trail.  Naturally good-natured, he had taken it as Loree had: a fun new opportunity.  I had sent them both as much information as I could, so they would be forewarned just how not-fun it would be.  But here they were.

Tim and me at the finish (photo by Loree)

Tim and me at the finish (photo by Loree)

And just how fortuitous it was.  There had been bear sightings the weeks and days leading up to race.  Being a seasoned hiker, I knew I had a better chance of dying from hitting a deer with my car than from a bear attack, so I took the information in stride.  I knew I wouldn’t be anywhere near first place, so plenty of people to scare off the wildlife. And Tim was very talkative, which made him the perfect pacer and a good bear deterrent.

But then it happened.

Rustling next to the trail.  A branch snapped. In unison, Tim and I swung our headlamps in the direction of the noise.  We could see brown fur among the branches.  Oh, fuuuuuuudggggggeeeee….

Bear warning

Bear warning

It jumped out onto trail. Our instinct towards flight was suddenly arrested by the realization that it wasn’t a bear. That it was a–what WAS it??  It seemed huge, longer than the length of the trail, a couple feet wide, and maybe a foot high. Furry. But. What. Was. It.

It looked at us and suddenly we didn’t care what it was. We turned and scrambled up the trail, my legs screaming in protest. Our headlamps swung widely from behind to in front, not wanting to take our eyes off the creature, but needing to see where we were going.  Finally, it waddled off into the water.

A beaver.  We’d just had the bejeebers scared out of us by a beaver.

Not a little relieved, and feeling not a little stupid, we continued on our way.  Happily, that was the big excitement, and the miles resumed to tick predictably by.  There was the occasional terrain surprise, like the steep hill right after another aid station–Kill Phil Hill they called it, referring to the runners’ feelings towards the race director.  Tim and I later told him we had come up with a list of suggestions for making the whole course even more miserable–he simply laughed and said he didn’t need any help in that regard.

Phil the RD

Phil the RD (photo by Loree)

My good humor and feelings began to fade in the dark hours before dawn. Tim and Loree’s mood reflected mine, the lack of sleep and excitement getting the best of us.  Loree said little at the next aid station, but Tim took up the slack.  I am hugely independent and it’s hard for me to depend on others, but in those hours, I needed my friends.  I needed the smiles and the encouragement and the distractions.  I had been moving for almost 24 hours and I still had twenty miles to go.  Each mile was progressively slower, more frustrating. I just wanted to be done, but the finish line seemed to get farther and farther away with each step. Their motivation kept me going.

Tim began to quiet down just as Loree found her groove again.  At the third from last aid station, I heard the familiar “28 is GREAT!” I grinned.  I was going to finish this race. I was really going to do it.

Loree and me

Loree and me (photo by Phil the Race Director)

I just had to do it.  Step after step. Constant forward motion. 20 became 15 became 14 became 13 became…  My head was down and my music was back on.  A minor setback as we lost the trail, but we could see the aid station.  At least it wasn’t the 15 miles two runners had added after getting lost.  Or even the six I had tacked on the year before.

Ten became six became five became four and it was the last aid station.  Three miles to go. I would finish.  That knowledge still meant nothing to my body or mind.  It was still three miles, on top of 97 miles.  Each step on tired, sore legs and feet.  I couldn’t focus on the music. I couldn’t even focus on the miles I’d already done.  Each step consumed my entire attention. Step after slow painful tortured step.

Two became one became one half became one quarter.  There was the finish line.  There was the victory.  There was my peace after 367 days of pain.

The bling

The bling

The Long Lonesome Trail – Day One

LLT - Day 1

LLT – Day 1

I love trails. I love everything about them.  To where they take me: tops of mountains, deep forests, sometimes nowhere in particular.  From where they take me: people, troubles, worries, life. I love them for the challenge: the rocks, mud, roots, stream crossing and sketchy bridges. I love their meanderings, their switchbacks, their straight up or down sections.

My friend, Wes, hates trails. Avoids them like the plague. Thinks they’re a waste of a perfectly good day.

It’s not that he is not into the great outdoors–quite the opposite. He is more passionate about the mountains than almost anyone I know.  I can only hope to climb even half what he has–climbing all the 14ers twice is but the start. But Wes’s preference is off the beaten trail: bashing through the willows, jumping over fallen trees, climbing boulders, navigating by ridge line and gully. Hiking with Wes, I have learned that trails are not all that challenging.  I have lost two hats and torn pretty much all my favorite hiking clothes hiking with Wes.  I have new scars and bruises that raise eyebrows, which I wear with pride.  I cannot always say I love it, but there is something there, something that keeps drawing me off trail, despite the blood and clothing loss.

Last year, Wes presented me with a project he’d been thinking about for awhile.  He wanted to hike from Golden, CO, to the Eisenhower Tunnel, map and compass only, staying on the ridge lines, summiting the high points.  All off trail.  Each day would be a point-to-point.  The subsequent hike, we would park one car where we finished the last day, and drive the other to our new exit point.  We would hike back up to the last high point, then start into uncharted terrain.

Me and Wes

Me and Wes – The Before Picture

I’m never one to turn down a good challenge.

We met a couple of times over the winter to plot a general route.  We found the neighborhood in Golden that looked to be a promising starting point.  We studied the ridge lines to see how (and if) they connected.  Wes pulled together all of his ancient USGS quadrangle maps (“quads” for short–a different meaning than this runner is used to).  They were well loved, edges worn, holes and lines from the constant folding, dirt and sweat, yellow highlights celebrating the many peaks that Wes had already visited.

On March 29, we met in a dirt parking lot at the intersection of Hwy 6 and 93.  It was 7am–Wes is also not a fan of early starts. A few logistical challenges were in store for us for the day.  The start was in a neighborhood and we did not want to trespass but also wanted to honor our pledge to avoid trails.  And while we knew which peak was to be the last of the day, we had to find a place to park along Highway 6.   We lucked out–roadside sign indicated a parking lot.  Wes estimated the day would be about 8 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain.  Considering this would be all off trail, it was a daunting day.

From my view, we were also lucky on the start–a trail head exactly where we wanted to begin.  I used the getting-arrested-for-trespassing argument to sway him.  He grudgingly agreed, not happy to start our adventure by breaking the rules.  I, in turn, agreed to leave the trail at the first chance possible.

The start of the Long Lonesome Trail

The start of the Long Lonesome Trail

The first chance ended up being a large gully filled with willow and evil brush with very sharp thorns. Wes gave a grin and plunged right in.  One step and I felt I was in the enchanted forest, vines wrapped around my legs, knocking me over and tearing my fortunately already-well-used jacket.  I bravely extricated myself, only to see Wes well ahead, on the ridge, grinning happily.  I couldn’t help being infected by his enthusiasm.

The first peak was Galbraith, a popular peak in the area. The trail on which we began ended there.  We carefully walked next to it. Our routine became to take a quick break on each peak, pulling out the maps (we crossed three quads that day), making sure we were where we thought and checking the route to the next summit.  Most of the peaks were not named, known only by their elevation. There were no bragging rights here.

The next couple peaks were uneventful, but happily devoid of willows and thorns.  On a couple of the peaks were registers, small notepads in glass jars where “peak baggers”, people out to summit as many peaks as possible, could sign their name and date.  On the fourth peak of the day, there was one with Wes’s name on the first page.  His summit was ten years earlier (in comparison, a peak I climbed in Tucson replaced the register monthly, due to the numerous visitors).  I could not help to think how amazing that was.  Wes’s 60th birthday had been a couple weeks prior.  The register wouldn’t last forever, but here was a small memento of a previous hike, a day in his life, a small memory.

It was truly an unremarkable little peak, but there it was.   I wondered if I would recognize any other names adorning the pages.  I’d always thought I would remember every peak I ever climbed, but even with my limited number, some of them ran together, and I’m left with the happy emotion of the memory.

Wes register

Wes on the register–2003

The random highlight of the day was a pump seemingly in the middle of nowhere. There were no roads, no fences nearby.  I don’t even remember seeing cattle.  And it worked!  Wes and I decided they were a must-have for all trails.  Europe had their cafes–we would have our water pumps.

Wes at the pump

Wes at the pump

We were down to the last two peaks and a choice we had not been looking forward to.  The ridge swung wide of our goals, which meant adding miles to a day that had already surpassed our estimates.  The other option was a very steep drop of over a thousand feet, and then regaining it on the other side of the valley, never a happy option and even less so then.  We had worked hard that morning to gain the ridge line. We sadly bid farewell as we began to slip slide down–well, I began to slip side.  Wes was a sure footed as ever.

As we descended, we came across remnants of an old mining road from the 1800s.  Wes told me about the challenges of building the roads and then traveling them–how this was probably once a toll road.  Another of Wes’s passions is maps and the history surrounding them.  For example, in China (many years but I could not tell you how many), maps were considered power–to know the terrain meant being able to leave your village, possibly to invade another.  Very few maps exist from that era. Wes is on a quest to acquire one.

My mind wandered back in time, trying to picture anyone or anything traveling on these narrow, rocky routes.  One aspect I truly love about off trail is the surprise of long ago relics, the ghosts of eras long gone.  Who had ridden once where I now walked, what their life had been about.  Whether they appreciated the view or only saw the difficulty.  In village in Nepal, I had met a man who had told me where I saw beautiful vistas, he only saw hardship. I don’t think he was being negative–it was the reality of his life, that those vistas brought danger and struggle to the villages within them.

Too quickly, we were at the valley floor, staring at the steep line back up.  Throughout the day, Wes and I took turns leading. It was a nice break from navigating and route finding, especially as the day wore on, to be able to put your head down and just follow the legs in front of you.  Wes is the faster hiker, so led most of day, but I had endurance in my favor, and now it was my turn.  I made small switchbacks up the steep terrain to the next peak, pausing every now and then for a breath and quick scan of the terrain, making sure there were no rock outcroppings or thick willows in the way.  We were quieter and slower, but still moving.

A lot of up and down

A lot of up and down

1500 torturous feet later, we were back on top, ready to plot the route to the final peak and also the highest peak of the day: Centennial Cone. Down once again and ever slower back up.  Centennial Cone is in the middle of Centennial Cone park, a popular running and mountain biking area, so we crossed a couple of trails to our goal.  It was the first time that day that we saw people.  There was one young hiker on the peak.  We were exhausted, but proud of our accomplishment.  We tried to show him where we had started.  He didn’t seem impressed–I suspect we were not making much sense.

Per our habit, we pulled out the map.  The bad news was this was also our starting point for the next segment. We’d be climbing over two thousand feet. We scoured the route and found a small peak between us and the car, almost 500 feet lower.  Feeling almost smug, we made our way to that peak.

It was not necessarily good news that it was all downhill to the car–one fact you learn hiking in Colorado is that down is not necessarily the easy part. Your already sore toes bang mercilessly on the front of the boots.  That spot you weren’t sure about is now officially a blister and quickly growing bigger.  The quads and calves are already shaking like a snow globe.  Slippery slope becomes more than a logical argument.

With a mix of pride and a just touch of letdown, we descended the last steep bit straight to our car.  Without GPS, we had ended exactly where we intended.  The maiden voyage was done. We had completed the first leg of the Long Lonesome Trail.

Worth the pain

Worth the pain

Running Away

They say if it doesn’t scare you to death, then your dream isn’t big enough.  As I stared across the abyss laid out at my feet, I knew this dream was big enough.

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The Rim2Rim2Rim, across the Grand Canyon and back, has every element that makes a run a nightmare.  It starts with a loss of 5000ft of altitude, which means it ends with the same gain.  Temps can edge into the triple digits.  It isn’t a race–you just go out and do it, so food is limited to what you bring, and water may or may not be available at the campgrounds.  45 miles is a lot of food and water, a lot of what ifs.  I’m not good at what ifs: I’m on a search and rescue team–I see what happens when the what ifs don’t work out.

The biggest pucker factor: No way out.  All races have bailout points.  If you decide not to go on, there is a way to quit.  Not in the Grand Canyon.  Either you walk out or the helicopter comes and gets you.  It’s not that it’s that remote or desolate, but adding that one last limiting factor to all the others truly adds a sense of realism that races lack.

My chance to run this journey came during the Badger Mountain race.  The Crew of the Year had casually mentioned they were planning to do this. I’m pretty sure I begged.  They had had a cancelation and let me fill the gap.

I did a lot of research prior to going out.  3000 calories seemed like the standard amount consumed, so I brought 4000.  I brought a 1.5 liter nalgene, then bought an extra one in case the gap between water stations was too great.  The rest of the ten essentials made it into my Soloman running pack: headlamp, extra batteries, first aid kit, duct tape, map, compass, sunscreen, pocket knife, light jacket. I was seriously impressed it all fit.

One of the advantages of running in the mountains of Colorado is that you can’t see that far. I had no real idea what 21 miles looks like. I found out as I stood at the starting point the day before, staring into this natural wonder.

It looks like a long way.

The self doubt began.

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I’m asked on a regular basis what I’m running from.  Certainly someone who chooses to run dozens of miles “for fun” must have issues.  Why else would anyone chose to put their bodies through that when there’s always a couch or a beach as an option?

I’ve heard about walkabouts and other ancient customs of growth and spiritualism where young men go out away from their homes to find something: their god, their purpose, themselves. This is what running is for me. Eight hours into this particular adventure and it is now nothing remotely related to fun. We have finished the first half; there is no bailing.  The temps are over one hundred.  There’s not enough water, and food is consumed purely as a necessity. Everything hurts. There is nothing more I want than to be done with this.  But there is no way I will quit.

There was no way I can quit.

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This is where I face my demons.  Twelve hours into it, and every pretense is stripped away. No pithy saying has any meaning.  It’s just me and every bad thought I’ve ever had.  Every self doubt.  Every insecurity. Everything I hate about myself. Everything I’m not sure of in my life.  It is all laid out on the block to be viewed by the judgemental eyes of my soul.

I’m not a nice person in those moments, and I wonder if this is the real me.  Running from something?  No.  I’m running right into everything most of us can hide from in our sterile, protected, first world lives.  I can’t distract myself with a movie or book, or hide in a drink or shopping spree. Complaining about the wait at Starbucks would be laughable if I could laugh.  I still have two hours left with this raw version of me, no escape, no mercy. Yes, I’m running, but not away.

16 hours after the start, standing where I began, I’ve made a kind of peace, my demons quiet for now. This is me, not the worst or the best me, not even the complete me.  But it is me.  When I first ran the LT100, they said that those who finished would never be the same.  I cannot describe what happens, but there is a shift.  You aren’t exactly different, but something has changed.  Something is better.  Something is quiet.

This is why I run. This is why I chose adventure over safety.  This is why I dare dream big enough to scare me to death.

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Cut Off: Tales from the Back of the Pack.

Of course I’m going to keep going.  I mean, I made the cutoff by three whole minutes, I signed up for the whole race and, darn it, I’m doing it!

Awesome! Fifteen minutes ahead of the cutoff.  Now I can relax a little.  Yes, thank you, volunteer, I am fully aware I’m in last place.  But I am still running.

Why are they cheering? I missed the cutoff and they’re cheering.  Maybe they’re trying to make me feel better.  It’s okay, though.  I have another race next weekend.

You’re letting me continue?  Um, okay.  Thanks.  I mean it’s kind of pointless: I’m going to have to run eight minute miles to make the next cutoff, and that doesn’t happen on a good day. But I’ll take the miles–what the heck. It’s what I came out here to do.

Hi, aid station guy.  You wouldn’t believe how hard I pushed  on that last segment. Behind the cutoff, but I’m good. I ran my best, and honestly, I am tired.

What do you mean, what can you get me? A ride back to the start?  What do you mean, I can keep going? I missed the cutoff by fifteen whole minutes! You can’t just let me go.  There are rules!  You’re supposed to make me stop.  You’re the meanest aid station person ever.

What’s the next cutoff?  I could make that if I weren’t already past the point of human endurance.  I’m dead, done, beat, and I want my daddy. And my bed. A glass of wine would be nice. Or two.

Is that the next aid station or just a mirage?  You want to know how I’m doing? Great, just freaking great.  No, wait, I was being sarcastic.  Don’t make me keep going.  Please make me stop.

Another aid station, but I’m not even hoping for mercy.  Wait, what? I made the cutoff for this station? Really?  You mean I just might finish?  Ohmigosh! Thank you! Thank you for being out here. Thank you for cheering me on. Thank you for being the greatest aid station volunteer ever.

The finish line.  I did it.  I finished.  I’m done. That is the most beautiful finisher’s medal I’ve ever held.  I’m speechless. I’m humbled.  I did it.

No, actually.  We did it. Thank you, aid station volunteers. All of you.

Setting the Pace

I’m nothing if not selfish. Isn’t life just too short to spend time doing anything that isn’t bringing you closer to the Life Bus, or finishing off that bucket list?  Work is compromise enough. Why would I waste any more of my life on anything that I just don’t want to do?

Which is why I was so surprised to find myself saying yes when a good friend asked me to pace her and her husband in March in Tri Cities, Washington, as she attempted the Badger Mountain Challenge, a 100 mile trail run/race. Spend vacation time, money, and hard earned frequent flyer miles to get her to the finish, with not even a t-shirt in it for me? Absolutely–no wait, what?

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Even worse, it was an out and back, so I had to find a ride to my starting point. It is hard asking for help, especially with nothing to give in return. Luck was with me, though: I’m darn good at navigation and there was an incredibly sweet Canadian who wasn’t.  Dawn had never crewed before, and her son was an intense guy hellbent on a 24 hour finish. She had no time to get lost.

We made a great team. I kept her on track, and she kept me entertained with tales of growing old. I now am dreading incontinence, womanly dryness, and, worse, their respective “cures”.  We made time for a side trip to a winery, giggling like school kids getting away with skipping class.

Most runners there were from Canada, and Canadians are drawn to each other, as well as being some of the friendliest people I’ve met, so Dawn and I quickly made many new friends.  Another racer was an equally intense runner, hellbent on her own goals. The group of her friends had road tripped down just for this race.  They kept us laughing and well fed–chairs, beer, and burgers enough for everyone. I mentally dubbed them Crew Team of the Year.

We quickly learned the runners’ names (there were only about 50) and cheered like crazy for any runner coming through the aid station.  If we didn’t know a name, we made it up.  I’m sure Green Shirt and Hot Chick secretly appreciated our zeal, their bemused looks just making us cheer harder.

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Did I mention “CREW” stands for “cranky runner endless waiting”?  These are the true heroes of a race.  Watching their attention to detail, their concern, their eventual fatigue, I could only hope the runners had a true appreciation.  I have some amazing friends who had crewed for me, and I know I now do.

The aspect of crewing that truly impressed me is the lack of discrimination and competition.  The runners might have had their agendas, but if a crewer lacked anything for their runner, another would certainly come up with.  One even lent me shorts when my runners ended up about three hours ahead of schedule, meaning part of my run would be much warmer than my leggings would allow.

Then it was time to begin why I had come.

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Along with selfishness, I claim the description of overachiever.  I had spent the weeks prior to the race compiling stories and motivational quotes to keep my friends distracted through the long, dark hours of their run.  Prior to sunset, it was easy. They were well ahead of schedule and feeling really good. I was mildly panicked when I found myself barely able to keep up.

The miles continued under our feet as the dark and cold closed in around us.  It became harder to turn myself out of my own misery to keep them moving. I talked about work and my trip to Denali.  I talked about my cat and my plans for future adventures.  I told them what had kept me going at LT100.  I told them all about my new crew buddies.  I told them about the perils of childbirth and incontinence.  They were tired. They were cranky.  But they didn’t stop.

Soon the dark gave way to the glimmer of dawn. The miles remaining were down to the single digits and our spirits started to drag themselves back upright.  We began the final descent with our drunken sailor stagger. We crossed the finish line.  They got their buckles.  I got their post run clothing from the car.

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I was hoping that I could say that I’m cured of selfishness, but what I got out of this experience is so much more than what I put in.  I might be more game for something I normally wouldn’t do, but I will still at least secretly be looking for what’s in it for me.  My friends made me feel like the greatest person on the planet–after waking up hours later. I have new friends.  New memories.

And best of all, I have a new adventure. Two of the Crew Team of the Year will be in Arizona in May, another road trip to another adventure. I’ll be joining them for part of it.

Stay tuned for my next Life Bus adventure.

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When in Rome?

When in Rome. That was going to be my travelling motto. No spoiled American stereotype for me.

My second great adventure took me scuba diving to Fiji. While there, my boyfriend at the time wanted to participate in a kava ceremony–an event that is suspiciously similar to boys night out in the U.S., in that it involves mind altering drinks and no girls allowed.

No girls allowed.

And so it was that I failed my first “When in Rome” test.

I failed the second test as well. In Fiji, women are not allowed to sit in the front of vehicles. I was already seated when I found this out. I sat stubbornly in my seat, glaring at no one in particular, and at everyone in general.

These incidents, small but significant, have stayed with me on all my travels. I love learning about and experiencing other cultures, but they’re not always as romantic as the travel guides make out. And I’m often torn on how to react.

Even within the U.S., there are some odd cultures. In Seattle, everyone drinks coffee. I now have a Starbucks addiction that I’m pretty sure I’d be better off without. In Helena, MT, Wednesday evenings are spent in the local brewery. I now know more about Montana politics than I will ever admit. And the beer isn’t even that good.

And Albany, NY. I have spent the last six months traveling every week to Albany. I’m a Georgia girl, raised on please, thank you, and Mother-may-I. They were not raised that way in Albany. In Colorado, my now home state, Mondays are for reliving the weekends. Not so in Albany. People stare at me when I ask how they are–well, when they acknowledged me at all.

I’m not really an extrovert but I do like talking with people; plus, I just believe in certain civilities. And I do care how you’re doing. Once again, I found myself torn. With six months of this travel, what should I do? I couldn’t see myself embracing it, but it was their culture. When in Rome, after all.

The holidays came during these travels and once again Facebook was awash in the “I’ll say Merry Christmas if I darn well please” assertations. And that’s when it hit me. It wasn’t so much about adaptation as it was about acceptance. I’m quite okay with receiving a Happy Hanukkah, but i do love my Merry Christmas. I can participate without letting go of what I love about my own culture.

And so it went for six months. I’d ask about the weekend. They’d ask me about the software. I’d smile and nod at fellow runners. They’d give me wide berth. I got to where I almost didn’t even notice when my good mornings were greeted with frustrated rants about something entirely unrelated.

Then one morning, the frustrated rant stopped. My client-slash-coworker broke off mid sentence and turned his chair so he fully faced me.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Good morning, Lynda. How are you?” I just grinned.

When in Rome, sometimes it’s okay to make the tourist feel at home.

Living My Life

 

My cousin is living my life. The life I dream of. That dream I have during long, painful meetings where I’ve slipped the surly, golden bonds of corporate America and am living one crazy grand adventure after another.

Last I saw him was Key West, FL. I had just completed a triathlon, a sport I love but in which I infrequently participate, because the sport seems to attract the most obsessive of gear heads. Not many seem to do tris for the pure, unadulterated joy of movement. He had arrived there one month prior via a sailboat ride from Anaheim. The boat’s captain is a bush pilot my cousin met in McCarthy, Alaska, home to both. I am pretty sure he is living my life as well. To him, it is all routine, shuttling the adventurous off to their dream kayaking/mountaineering/skiing expedition. I have learned, though, that one man’s routine is another man’s lifetime experience. I hope one day to have the chance to buy him a beer or two, and hear the stories.

If you’ve never been to (or even heard of) McCarthy, it is truly the last of the last frontiers. It is nestled in the Wrangell-St Elias National Park–at 13.2 million acres, the largest national park in the U.S., and larger than Switzerland. I visited him there after my bitter disappointment on Denali. His home is a beautiful, modest log home that he built himself, on a piece of land with a small lake, plentiful trees, and no sign of neighbors. Completely off the grid, energy comes from a generator, the sun, or a cozy wood stove. The outhouse is the only downside of this arrangement.

Well, not the only. The town is at the end of a sixty mile dirt road (when I first looked up McCarthy, I thought the road name was “Closed In Winter”). The nearest grocery store is six hours away. That’s a long haul to get Ben and Jerry’s after a sucky day, but then, how many sucky days could there be in McCarthy, Alaska? And keeping it warm at night requires a couple of wake up calls.

When I ran into my cousin. in Key West, he had just become best buddies with some Alaska transplants and was beach and bar hopping around the Keys. I’m the epitome of introvert and rarely meet anyone new, much less connect with this group as deeply as I did. I spent three days with them, alternating drinking and having the most honest discussion of fears and dreams and growing up and old since the long ago college late night runs to Taco Cabana.

Mark left in the middle of this break from reality to hop a plane to Arizona. His next adventure was on the Grand Canyon. For most, this is a once in a lifetime adventure–for Mark, well, let’s just say it wasn’t his first time, and probably not the last. He promised to send the next invitation my way. Now all I have to do is convince work that one month vacations are totally normal. They’re still reeling from the last one. I guess I should be relieved they don’t like me being gone that long.

When he’s not out living my life, Mark is at home, spending the long summer Alaskan days working for the National Park Service, restoring an abandoned copper mine. He took me for a tour last summer, and it is quite the glorious wreck. Breathtaking in its disarray, I’m not sure how OSHA would view it. He had spent the prior winter on a balmy island somewhere south, where he had spent a couple months recuperating and rehabilitating from shoulder surgery. Working to restore copper mines is tough work, and his rotator cuff was the unfortunate casualty.

When I dream of chucking it all, I seldom think about it with a realistic bent. Truth is, lifestyles of any type require some kind of sacrifice and compromise. My job allows me only three weeks of adventure a year, but also gives me a decent budget for those three weeks. It demands a lot from me, yet allows the flexibility to explore while “working from home”: five days in Key West cost me almost no adventure time. And I like coming home to a hot shower. I’m spoiled having a grocery store and take out Vietnamese within walking distance.

If I can just figure out how to get internet connectivity in a raft and a waterproof laptop, I think I’d have it made.