I was in the Sedona library bathroom washing my face and a woman walks out of a stall and to the sink next to me, and she says, “Wow, you look so happy.”
I feel like I need to mention that if you read my last post about the Grand Canyon, this is about the month before that and I just wrote them in the wrong order. Because when I was in the desert 20 miles east of Sedona, it wasn’t the right time to write about being in the desert 20 miles east of Sedona, if you know what I’m saying.
The Bell Trail in the Wet Beaver Wilderness
So when I conceived of going to Arizona for the month of April, I didn’t realize that places like Flagstaff are still experiencing winter-like temperatures. [Please remember, this is all before I went to Flagstaff and was burgled and left in a hurry, and back when I thought Flagstaff had a strong running and outdoor community and would be a good place to train] Looking at the weather, nighttime lows in Flag were going to be around 20, daytime highs in the high 40s, maybe up to 50. That wasn’t very appealing for the type of glorified pseudo camping I’d be doing.
My previous trips to Arizona had been to the Grand Canyon or the Black Canyon, and honestly the Black Canyon sounded ideal but I wasn’t too keen on going that far out of the way. I was looking at Google Maps and Campendium and whatever else I could get my computer screen on and noticed a variety of dispersed camping areas along 17, with many favorable reviews of a road (I think it was called Beaver Creek) that was at the exit for the other highway that goes to Sedona. It was 40 minutes or so south of Flagstaff and 3,000 feet lower, so it was experiencing summer temps while Flagstaff was still snowy. I was totally in.
I drove directly there, and in the next couple of days realized that I was in the desert version of Paradise. Long, winding dirt roads that didn’t go anywhere at all [they could’ve been more rolling, but I shouldn’t complain]. A nearby creek and slightly further away but still nearby river. I finally accidentally stumbled upon the trail system after being there for a couple of days, as the end of this road was actually the access for the Wet Beaver Creek Wilderness.
Doesn’t need a caption
Of course the first time I saw this sign I thought, they honestly felt like they needed to specify that Beaver Creek is Wet? I feel like I need to tell you that the river I’ve referenced is the “Wet” Beaver Creek. On a bike ride to Oak Creek, I finally noticed that the scenic byway actually crosses DRY Beaver Creek and guess what? It IS dry. Fair enough, USFS.
Not a ton of miles of trails, but still. There’s apparently even also a national monument there called Montezuma Wells, but when I tried to go there, the entrance is plastered with US Government Private Property, No Trespassing signs (I wish I still had that picture to post but I don’t). Like 100 of those signs, and most of you know that I’m given to exaggeration but I’m not exaggerating. So I never saw Montezuma Wells, whatever that is.
Anyway, to the point. Each day, I would sleep until I naturally woke up, make coffee, and read until I felt like I was done reading. Then I’d go outside and do yoga for a while, however long I felt like. Eventually I’d go for a run, and because a lot of the miles were on dirt roads with limited elevation change, runs didn’t take long even as I was ramping up mileage. I’d read and eat in the afternoons, run again or go for a bike ride in the evening. I hauled water usually by bike from the streams to then filter at the campsite and cooked outside on the Biolite.
Sometimes I drove to Sedona to run Sterling Pass. To be honest, the trailheads were so hard to find and comically unmarked that I found Sterling Pass when I was looking for Mt. Wilson and liked it so much I went back there twice. The mountains of Oak Creek Canyon are mysteriously also the desert, so there’s 2,000 foot tall sandstone rock features looming, but there’s also forests and snowmelt streams. There’s javelinas and bears and rattlesnakes all in the same environment (I saw all of those things. Javelinas! Somebody told me they’re supposedly violent, but they seemed cool. Their little furry butts look like the rear ends of bear cubs, until they turn around and they’re clearly of the pig families). Sometimes you run on sand or sedimentary rock, sometimes you’re running on cushy pine needle covered dirt and tree roots. It’s the most conflicting, bizarre environment I had never imagined.
I didn’t take this picture, I borrowed it from Pinterest so you can see what javelinas looks like
Sedona’s interesting. At first I couldn’t stand it, thinking it was all the pretension and weird rich art hippie culture of Boulder on steroids. Have you ever heard of the McDonald’s there? It’s the only one in the world that doesn’t have golden arches. They’re blue. BLUE. Why? Because the city of Sedona has strict rules about the signage of businesses to prevent color clashes with their famous red rocks. I wish I was clever enough to make something like that up, but we all know I’m not Jules Verne (that’s foreshadowing!)
This isn’t mine either, I took a picture but I can’t find it. Luckily, the internet has thousands of pictures of the blue arches, this one’s from Daily Mail.
But it quickly grew on me, because the people there were so fantastically nice and sincere. And multiple conversations I had with the people of Sedona (Sedonians? Sedonites? Sedoners?) started with them pointing out that I looked like having such a good day or I looked so happy. I just was, you guys. I was totally free. I was building up mileage, running fast and hard. On my weekly day off I’d take Once a Runner down to the big river, there’s rock formations in it that form these little pools and Pip and I would go swimming, or just lay around in the water. I read tons. I slept a lot but I wasn’t exhausted. I watched the sun set pretty much every night.
The Wet Beaver Creek. Official motto: “It’s wet.”
The desert 20 miles east of Sedona was everything I love about this lifestyle. I was left alone, I had space, I was in the wilderness, I could do whatever I wanted. The only thing that place was missing was mountains (Snake Mountain, in case anyone was following along on Strava, was the biggest climb in this area, it was maybe a 1,000 climb in a little over a mile on the world’s worst abandoned mining road, really just a trough full of baseball sized loose rocks and snakes up to the top of a plateau). If I could’ve had all that, I might have never left.*
“Summit” of “Snake Mountain” on a fewer-snakes-than-usual day
* (But I did, because it suddenly became hot like Hades and it was time to go back to elevation).
I was soaked to my skin, rivers running down my face and jacket, shoes squishing, and now with each step I climbed higher above Skeleton Point, I brought myself further into a winter storm. 40mph winds whipped around hail and snow, the clouds shifting quickly hid then revealed bits of the canyon below. It was the last day of my almost month in the Grand Canyon, and of course I had wanted, needed, felt compelled to do S. Kaibab to the river and back just one more time. While I knew I wasn’t in mortal peril if I kept moving, my teeth chattered so loudly as a constant reminder of my misery (honestly, I’ve been cold af before and overwhelmed with bouts of shivers but as my teeth chattered somewhat painfully, I was so surprised when it happened that it must not have before).
From higher up on Kaibab the day of the storm
The day before, I had attempted to mountain bike through the national forest to the Grandview Trailhead, but had given up the run without ever finding the trailhead (what a blessing GPS is, for I then got to look upon the map of my ride and see how very close I came to such a trailhead indeed before giving it up for lost and turning home). That night I put in some token miles on 302, just so I didn’t get too far behind, but secretly I was hoping that this day that I didn’t run to the river and back would leave me unusually well recovered for Sunday’s S. Kaibab run, and that maybe I might just PR on the 4,800ft climb.
Between Cedar Ridge and Skeleton Point
When I got on the orange line bus at the visitor’s center to be taken to the trailhead that day, the bus driver warned the occupants, “You’re not going to see anything. If you want my advice, walk over to the blueline bus and get a drink in the village.” And everyone shrugged, got off the bus, and walked over to the blue line. Sure it was raining, but I knew better, because the Grand Canyon in a storm is a sight to behold. The steep, technical trail my heart was set on, however, that I now refer to fondly as the River Kaibab (WordPress won’t let me post a video of the river Kaibab) was not for the faint of heart. I slip slided my way down in delight, because having the trail to myself was plenty to make up for the fact that nobody is going to PR when the trail’s a slip and slide, and though I knew I should’ve brought a real goretex shell instead of a water resistant ski jacket, I couldn’t be that bothered to be concerned, because the temperature rises enormously from rim to river. They (the national park staff) say it’s an average of 20 degrees, but I’ve seen days where it’s a 40 degree difference.
The first picture I took on my first trip down Kaibab this year. The Colorado River from S. Kaibab
The GC is a real mindfuck for folks used to mountains, or any folks at all, hikers or otherwise, because even though it’s obvious that you *go down first* then have to *go back up* it’s somehow not obvious to the majority of people. All hikers of a certain age, personality, or disposition will always say to someone who is running down something when they are laboriously walking up it, “Sure is easier to go down!” And I’ve always taken issue with it because while it’s slightly less tiring than ascending, the wear and tear is much higher and more painful so I’ve always thought of them as different but equal challenges. Until I spent a month in the Grand Canyon running down 4,800ft FIRST. I’ll never change my stance on the much higher wear and tear from descending, but I do now concede, fine, yes, it’s easier. Which means in the Grand Canyon, the every run or hike will become harder and harder from the second half to the bitter end with no relief until you’ve crossed the last step and are safely back on the bus.
The CO river from Kaibab, on the edge of the moon curve
So here’s how I ended up spending almost a month in the Grand Canyon. I had mysteriously thought Flagstaff would be a cool place to do some between seasons training. I say mysteriously because now looking back, I can’t figure out why I thought Flagstaff was such a mecca for runners. Was it some combination of the internet and running magazines? The fact that so many famous runners choose to live in that heinous cesspool? I had this idea that it was basically Boulder but in Arizona. I told someone that, after everything happened, and he said, “No, Flagstaff’s really methy.” And I thought truer words were never spoken but this is the wrong time to be hearing them.
The only picture I have from Flagstaff, backside of Mt. Elden
After spending 16 days in desert running paradise, it was getting too hot and I was itching to order shoes for the season, and have access to citylike things, like grocery stores. I was also stoked to get in on what the internet advertised as a bunch of different running groups that hosted regular group runs, so I headed up to Flagstaff. Oh, how I wish I hadn’t. I found a lot of the national forest was closed for “logging operations” and the only forest road that was open, I pulled the trailer down and discovered a permanent homeless camp. I thought the situation was remedied when I moved to the east side of town onto State Trust Land, which was conveniently closer to the Mt. Elden trailhead and situated right on the Arizona Trail. For the sake of wrapping this up, while I was out running laps on Mt. Elden one afternoon with Pippa, someone broke into the camper. They appear to have only stolen a stun gun, leaving three pairs of skis and all of my climbing equipment that were in plain view for the sake of ransacking the whole place, presumably looking for cash. I’ve never been burglarized, and I can’t even tell you how much it upset me. It removed my sense of safety, it destroyed my optimism in humanity, it broke my fucking heart. I packed up immediately and ran away to the Grand Canyon, where I hid in its splendor for almost a month.
**EDIT: important new information came to light last night when I was packing for Whitney and realized those useless [probably] meth head scumbag robbers took my mountaineering axe. I bought it at Smokey’s shop in Leadville for $15 like five years ago. Congratulations, assholes, you’ve stolen the least valuable piece of equipment I had, but now I have to buy a new one!
The CO river, looking south from the S. Kaibab bridge
Anyway, so I was telling you about my last run in the Canyon, in that totally insane storm, but that wasn’t really wanted I wanted to tell you about. In the previous years, I’ve run a lot, even getting up to 100 mile weeks not last year but the year before. But I’ve always only run because I wanted to, because I felt like it, because I loved it, and because it’s fun. I’ve never gone through break down training, always preferring to comfortably recover as long as I thought I needed and I’ve always run by feel. Which is to say, I don’t know that I’ve ever truly trained. Until now. I ramped up my base in the desert and in Flagstaff, kind of painlessly really. When I arrived at the GC, it was time to finish what I started in Flagstaff which was adding tons and tons of elevation gain to that high mileage and doing it all as hard as I could on that day, without proper recovery.
From the Hermit’s Rest trail
This is a controversial method of training and I don’t highly recommend it, but when I made the decision not to go work for RMI this season and instead commit myself to running as hard as I possibly could, and really seeing what I’m capable of, I knew there was no other way to do it. “Denton called it ‘breaking down,’ although Cassidy preferred the nomenclature of certain Caribbean quasi-religious groups; walking death was much closer to it. Quite a bit more, really, than the simple exhaustion of a single difficult workout, breaking down was a cumulative physical morbidity that usually built up over several weeks and left the runner struggling to recover from one session to the next.” OAR always puts it better than I do, and my deepest comfort in these last weeks has been reading and rereading the Breaking Down chapter because, since I have no friends going through it simultaneously, Cassidy understood what was in my totally crazy, swinging, weary mind the best.
From S. Kaibab, just below the Tip Off
Frequently, I found myself struggling greatly to drag myself the last 500, 1,000, 1,500 feet out of that damned Canyon and thinking, this is the worst it’s ever been. I’ve never been this tired. It’s like the end of a race. My joints are all tin man-ing, my muscles so thoroughly exhausted they’re useless, my mind just desperate to stop, stop, stop, make it stop. It’s actually been the perfect training for mental toughness, because it’s hard to imagine what feat I might put my body up to that will hurt more than running to the river and back day after day after day. “Didn’t I see you here yesterday?” The mule train leader asks innocently. “No, that was on Kaibab. I mean yes, I saw you yesterday. But not here. Yesterday I did Kaibab down and back, today I came down Kaibab but I’m coming up this way.”
The S. Kaibab bridge, the tunnel, and the CO river
Here’s the river after a week of storms, it turns brown from all the run off. Looking back at the tunnel and the S. Kaibab trail, the opposite perspective from the last photo
For an example, I tried reading Moby Dick and got stuck reading and rereading the first page for 40 minutes. It may have well been in Arabic, I couldn’t understand a word. I eventually started listening to podcasts during recovery time because my eyes were too tired to read for very long for a while. I did find myself depressed, which isn’t a state that’s normal for me and made dragging myself out for yet another, Jesus God, 17 miler, the worst thing I could possibly do. I would fixate on something I said or something someone else said in a recent or not recent at all conversation and think about it all day long. I also thought about everything I’ve ever done that I wasn’t proud of, that wasn’t very fun or inspiring. I was frequently too tired to cook or eat.
The only picture of me I took this year
The real saving grace of this misery was the Canyon itself, because who could ask for a more inspiring place to run? Or a simpler place to carry out the miles and elevation gain that needed to be done? Through combinations of biking and running and riding the shuttle buses, I was easily conveyed wherever I wanted to run and to the store and home again without ever having to drive or the inconvenience of starting or ending in the same place as my car. Despite that heinous winter storm on the last day, the weather was consistently cool up high, hot on the bottom, and when storms did happen they weren’t dangerous like they are in the mountains. I was sleeping at 7000 and staying reasonably acclimated, and anywhere I went had free potable water available. Plus, if ever too hot, I could jump in the Colorado River. Every step I took brought me new, extraordinary views. The S. Kaibab trail is the absolutely most spectacular trail I’ve ever been on in my life. It’s so spectacular, that I wish I had never used the word spectacular before, so that I could use it now and it would feel like that word most solemnly belongs in the Canyon and nowhere else. Plus it has this vibrancy, which I’ve never really understood until Skylar came out and visited for a couple days, went to the Yavapai Geology Museum and told me that the rocks at the bottom are 1,700 million years old. Of course! The bottom of the canyon is one of the oldest places on this planet! And sometimes despite Everything, I would feel strong and tireless even just for a moment and I’d know it was the Canyon itself filling me back up.
Sun setting from Cedar Ridge
Or there’s those bridges, the two bridges over the river, running across those bridges is delightful and restorative somehow. Maybe the water from the springs is also restorative? I learned while I was there that all the water that supplies the park, its millions of visitors, and the small town of Tusayan comes from a spring somewhere in the canyon, which they don’t know the source of and they don’t know how much is left. So that sounds sustainable. Something else I never learned the source of is the plumbing at the bottom of the Canyon. At Bright Angel campground and Phantom Ranch, there are actual bathrooms with tiled floors, mirrors, tan stalls with locks that barely work, electric lights, and toilets that flush. Toilets that flush! Why?! Every other bathroom in the canyon (and there are many, for obvious reasons) are solar-assisted composting pit toilets. But at the bottom of the canyon they have some sort of sewage system!? I’ve never been willing to inquire about this because I either don’t want to ruin the mystery or I don’t actually want to know the answers.
The bottom of the canyon (s kaibab bridge in the distance) from the Bright Angel Creek bridge
Writing this, you guys might already know I’m at the Whitney Portal and looking back. I don’t yet know if the break down training worked, I’ve just finished high mileage and after Monday, I’ll start an almost three week gradual taper (during which, in theory, I will finally recover!). But what I do understand about it is this, every day, I’d go out and run further and higher than I wanted to, than I knew was wise, and I did it as hard as I could. Every day. For no other reason than I said I had to. “But then his life was most certainly focused on The Task. And hadn’t he decided at one time or another that he would do whatever was necessary to become … Whatever it was he could become?” I had decided that this week, I’d run 85 miles and 20k and next week I’d run 90 miles and 21k and somehow or another, those miles must get done. A random guy I saw resting on the side of the trail said to me one day, “That’s a good pace, but are you having fun?” And I smiled and said something like, “Who could not be having fun here?”
just below Cedar Ridge
But when I really thought about it after, yeah, somehow, I’m having fun. Despite all of it, “weary beyond comprehension,” sometimes I go out and run and it feels amazing. I don’t know, I mean maybe fun’s not exactly the right word, or your definition of it. But every day, I work as hard as I can to get better, faster, stronger than I was before, and that makes me feel free. It is profoundly satisfying. And it feels primal, like this base necessity to see what I’m really made of. Do you ever watch an inspirational sports movie and the football coach is making an outrageously dramatic speech about luck being what’s left after you’ve given your all? It makes good movies, seems a little silly in real life, but I honestly think things like that in my exhausted mind all the time. I don’t know that I’ve made it sound all that great, I don’t know that it could be made to sound that great, because even someone gifted with words like old JLP made it sound pretty miserable, “All joy and woe.” The thing is, though, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.*
I think this is the only picture I have from the Bright Angel trail
*Except when I ran over a rattlesnake and it launched itself up in the air and tried to bite me, that was fucking terrible. The worst. I still love you GC, but that was a shitty thing to do.
It’s sunny and the skies are clear, except for the haze coming from the fires in Montana. I’m kickstepping, kickstepping, climbing class 3 rock that is wet from snow melt, an axe in one hand and the other absently brushing again the wall of snow next to me for balance. I’m in a couloir maybe 100 feet below the summit, I’m so alone up here that I haven’t seen anyone since leaving the canyon, and I think, “I would do anything, for you, to be here right now.”
summit of the South
Going to the Tetons this year was something I had meant to plan and be ready for all summer, and as time slipped away and the season disappeared under the weight and tragedy of my unhealable psoas injury, this trip ended up being a last ditch effort to do something meaningful with my summer. I was worried I wasn’t in shape, I was going without a partner, and I had something like 4 days of climbing if the weather cooperated. Weather in the Tetons is notoriously uncooperative.
I arrived in the Garnet Canyon parking lot at night after driving most of the day, and climbed in the back of the truck to sleep. In the morning I headed up Teewinot. You gain 5,550ft in 2.5 miles, so it felt a little brutal. The routefinding is somewhat hard, the steep, super exposed kickstepping is a new and exciting scary thing, and the climbing is terrifying. There was a lot of chameleon-ing, where you make a move, then reverse the move, over and over again until the future where you have to downclimb that move isn’t nauseating. My mom was watching this hysteria on the internet via my SPOT tracker and she said something later like, “you were really moving until a certain point, then it’s like you weren’t moving at all, what happened?” Well, shit got hard. And scary af, to be honest.
I read later that people like to take a rope up Teewinot to rap the downclimbs of nightmares, and that, though it’s technically classified as 4, it’s the hardest and most sustained “4” in the Tetons. Anyway, I learned things about being brave that day. That I can downclimb anything I can climb up, and that I am the master of my own nervous system. I also learned, BRING A FUCKING AXE NO MATTER WHAT. Because you don’t realize how much you want an axe until you need it, when you’re turned around downclimbing your vertical kicksteps like a ladder and trying not to cry.
On the second day, I headed up to Garnet Canyon to check out the South Teton. Because This involves a long trail approach and a lot of elevation gain, some climbers camp in the canyon to shorten their approaches on climbing days. I ran this approach three days in a row (that’s exactly how pent-up I was after spending most of my summer injured). It was a perfect sunny day, and the high snow cover made some of the weird part of the route slightly less mankey (between Garnet Canyon and the Boulderfield, alongside and above that southern glacier if you really want to know). What I hadn’t counted on was, the boulderfield was still snow filled, and there were two shitty snow climbs. I had an axe (lesson learned) and started kickstepping on the lower climb, and it felt okay, but I remembered the Teewinot snowfield down climb and something felt weird. I felt uneasy, I was thinking about the upper snowclimb and the fact that it could be worse, that I was in Dynafit trailrunners with no additional traction to speak of, and I just knew I didn’t want to do the downclimb. I turned around.
Back to Garnet Canyon, then on up to the saddle of the Grand. Running down from the saddle, I came across a nice guy who turned out to be an off duty Exum guide waiting for his friends to catch up, and we chatted a bit. I told him I turned around at the lower snowclimb en route to the saddle between South and Middle, choosing to come back the following day with crampons because I knew I’d feel 100% comfortable and I would just go for Middle and South in the same day. I knew it sounded silly, but I was honest, it felt too spicy. He told me a girl had slipped in that snowfield yesterday and died on the rocks below, they just finished recovering her body.
On the way down, I chatted with some folks about a secret lake and they told me how to get to the social trail. I can’t remember what it was called, but I found it. It was incredible.
On the third day, I headed up to the South again, with crampons and boots. It was overkill, but I felt totally secure. The weather was perfect again, and there was just no one else around on either route. And it was here, on the South, that I remembered how I felt last year. That I would do anything to be here. That it was my responsibility to honor these routes, these mountains, with my intention, bravery, body, heart. That I would sacrifice anything, everything to feel like I might evaporate between earth and sky; where everything is possible, where risk and pain are currency, where freedom and joy are boundless. Grating bits of my heart and body off on rocks and snow so the prana of the Tetons could fill me back up again and I could be a part of their bigness for just a moment.
I read this great article about Cory Richards and his PTSD from an avalanche he survived [https://www.outsideonline.com/2234616/life-after-near-death-cory-richards]. The author has a lot of opinions about the way the alpinist community handles this. I’ve been thinking about darkness; how and why it compels us, a lot lately, and I think it boils down to 2 things: alpinists are people that are so intense they would sacrifice everything to stand on top of the mountains, to live in the sky. We can choose [I’m pretty sure it’s a choice, but it doesn’t always feel that way] to risk and suffer because our demons compel us to do hard shit and risk and ride the edge of our abilities, or because we want to use their demons to make ourselves stronger, meet fear and rise above it, and find freedom. Both are scary as fuck; nobody likes to talk about either.
Like anyone, I’m inclined towards both, after years of trying I like to think I’m more of the later, but it’s a constant struggle to understand my motivation and intention, to be intimate with fear, and to understand why I risk everything. It’s sort of like walking on two tight ropes that are just beside each other, and you could hop from one to the other as it suits you. Why is it so important to stand on top of a mountain?
After a beautifully successful third day, I headed up high again on day 4, this time to Disappointment Peak. The first couple moves to get into this low angle crack started on an overhanging roof (I would love someone to explain to me how climbing a roof could possibly be class 4). The rest of the climb was pretty easy, except the end where you’re climbing this obscenely exposed catwalk with sporadic class 4 moves. After the previous four days though, the exposure and climbing both felt good (even if the wind made it feel like you could easily be blown off and away into infinity). The summit block, being accessed by this narrow catwalk, is like a 340 degree Teton panorama. Breathtaking. I actually stood up on it at one point and got vertigo. Every time I get a close up of the Grand, my heart grows three sizes, and seeing the whole range at once like this, the big, scary beautiful mountains that had asked so much, the sacrifices already made, and whose bigness had filled me up when I stood on their summits; the whole Traverse just laid out in one perfect, aesthetic line…I see why I devote my life to this, and why I’ll never stop.
Someone asked me the other day about this; well, they said “so I see you write a blog” and I was like “yeah I guess” and afterwards I wished I would have said “well it’s my journal, but yeah I make it public” because writing about this shit is cathartic and it is RAD to have it all recorded to look at whenever I want. Anyway, I realized recently that I have many things I want to write about but I’ve been stuck on this last trip with Luna. I wrote about the Grand Canyon, which was still sad but I guess doable because it didn’t so much involve her directly? This one is not going to happen though. So in order to put this trip to bed, here is the public record of my photos, barely even captioned, and now I may move on.
The Red Canyon/Bryce bike path system is so rad, and I think the first time I ever saw those steep grade signs made specifically for bikes. I was charmed, to say the least, and I’m shocked that I didn’t end up with even one (or 12) photos of them.
Cannonville. It’s like a totally different place.
Grand Staircase Escalante
That pizza box was on the rack for like 2 days until I found a trash can
There’s a fountain Coke in one of the bottle cages
Lu’s favorite campsite ever
Coyotes came into this camp. Lu stared them down, and they left.
The rolling green hills of the…desert
Stop taking a picture and pack up your fucking camp Sarah.
It’s something like 5am and the sun is coming up and an older Japanese man is standing timidly like 10ft away from me, his enormous tourist camera in one hand, the other outstretched as if to offer me support without being nearly close enough to actually touch me.
“Are you…okay?” He asks tentatively.
Fair enough, I was probably screaming or coughing or weeping, I don’t remember. Actually, it’s been…four months? And I’m still crying as I type this.
“I’m okay, I just had a really long night.” What to say? To a random stranger. What could I say that would make this kindly man understand? The sun is coming up and it’s 20 degrees and I just ran across the Grand Canyon twice, and I have to get to the kennel the moment they open because Luna had never been boarded. “I’m okay, really, thank you.”
It’s been four months and I haven’t written this yet, this write up of one of my favorite projects and greatest runs of all time, because when we got back from this trip I found out that Luna had a very aggressive form of squamous cell carcinoma, and this trip was my last big one with her and it is so hard to relive what an extraordinary trip it was without tinging it in the resulting tragedy. But I’ll try.
We arrived at Grand Canyon National Park just before sunset on Sunday, and spent most of Monday lounging in the back of the truck reading and eating and keeping my legs up. Sometime in the afternoon, I ventured to the ranger station to discuss trail conditions and water. There had been a rock slide that damaged the pipes that bring water to the North Rim, and apparently a significant portion of the trail. The North Rim was scheduled to open that day, and it still did. If you didn’t already know this, the very remote North Rim of the park relied on those pipes for their water supply. While they worked to rebuild the damaged pipes, the NPS had contracted a company to deliver water to the North Rim by truck, by the 10’s of thousands of gallons per day. Incredible, right?
Anyway, a very helpful ranger discussed trail work and water availability and mule train schedules with me, and all the while I carefully did not disclose I was planning to run it that very night. From the ranger station, I drove to the kennel to leave Luna for the night, then off to the S Kaibab Trailhead.
The S Kaibab trail is spectacular, maxing out around 60% grade, and highly technical both by nature and by the erosion from millions of feets tracking it in the mud. It follows a steep ridgeline almost all the way to the Colorado River. An extraordinary amount of tourists attempt to hike down it despite these difficulties, resulting in an average of 250 rescues per year and a lot of very dramatic signage.
I took a picture of another one that I can’t find; it’s a similar illustrated man on his knees with vomit spewing on the ground.
Update: I found it.
So anyway, there was a lot of tourist dodging and while I was still very friendly and courteous, it scares the bejesus out of tourists to pass them at 12mph. Views were great though:
Just before leaving CO for this trip, I remember voicing my significant concerns that I had only been running for one month before this and while I was in banging shape from all the alpine touring and skate skiing, the impact resistance might be a big problem. You can do infinity elevation gain, but joints need to assimilate to impact of running technical downhill. So spoiler alert, 5k later, I see the river and my knees are trashed, the little stabilizer muscles feeling so taut it made me wonder if popping them was something I actually had to worry about.
But anyway, arriving at the river in under an hour looked like this:
and felt like pure joy. The trail here becomes softer and is banked for the last almost mile or so, allowing me to hit almost 15mph however briefly.
Crossing the bridge over the river, the sun was setting and there was a large crew on Boaters Beach cheering me on; I would find out later that they were from Leadville, and I knew many of them! All kismet.
After the river, the trail begins a steady low grade incline that lasts for 7 or 8 miles. It’s like a jungle down there, with creeks and all kinds of foliage everywhere. No exaggeration, it is the most vibrant environment I’ve ever had the pleasure of running with. If my knees weren’t hurting so much that I was questioning ever being able to walk again, I would have felt I could run forever. It started to rain, but here at the bottom of the canyon it was the warmest and despite and the dark and storm it was still around 60 degrees and the rain felt like it could restore new life to a body that gets broken by ultrarunning time after time.
Mile after mile ticked on, but so did the time, as the clock was getting on towards 3:30 I realized I hadn’t even started the proper ascent of the North Rim, thus thoroughly jeopardizing the 4hr crossing I had hoped for. The North Rim trail was actually super exciting, with tons of exposure, making a full dark ascent interesting indeed. I passed a large group of tourists, maybe 7 or so, that had headlamps mysteriously but were otherwise struggling so majorly that I asked them if they wanted me to call the ranger station when I reached the top. But, they didn’t speak English. And they were still moving, so.
I hit the North Rim at just over 5h. It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life, to see the TH sign reflected in my headlamp. 21 miles down, and hard earned. I sat in the sand and ate a Larabar and contemplated how far behind I was timewise. It just didn’t seem to matter anymore, like the number of hours could possibly describe the experience. As I started the descent and my knees reeled, I made the call to take it easy before I caused serious damage and didn’t come down balls to the wall.
Crossing the 7 miles on the bottom of the canyon to the river was absolutely surreal. It had stopped raining, but was cloudy, so the dark was complete. Just me and my headlamp and the plants and creatures and water rushing; the backpackers all tucked into bed and it felt as though they ceased to exist, and I was all alone. Do you remember that Third Eye Blind song, Motorcycle Drive By? 1999. “I’ve never been so alone. And I’ve…I’ve never been so alive.” The balls of my feet just sweeping the sand, and I, cruising the darkness.
Crossing the river for the second time it felt like I was on another planet, my headlamp barely illuminating the bridge around me but the feeling of being swallowed up in the rushing movement of the river overwhelming. And so, with knees that were barely holding my weight, quads that had properly been banged, and 35 miles already come and gone, I ascend the brutally steep and long south side of the Grand Canyon.
Kripa in Sanskrit is the word for Grace. We have this idea of grace in the west, like it’s all about ballerinas or beautiful things. I suppose the idea of saying Grace is closer to the real concept, that holds up in basically every other language. Kripa, anyway, is to honor something with your presence. With your attention, your devotion, your will, your intentions, your body. Last year, in the Tetons, I got really into the idea of honoring a landscape, a line, a mountain with my presence, intention, and body. To put so much time and effort into finely tuning this instrument to cross any terrain seamlessly and in style, [I used something similar when describing this run to another person and she assumed by “in style” I meant “looking good”] so that when the time comes, I can properly honor the landscape and its’ lifeforce. I believed [believe] there is nothing more perfect.
[Aside, this post is a couple years old, but I still get inquiries about how to train. I’m a coach now, and have since lived in the GC, and I’ve written a number of training plans for the Grand Canyon double crossing, if you click this picture it will take you to my coaching website]
This double crossing was imperfect; I trashed my knees so early on that I couldn’t do the whole 42 miles full out as I had intended. However. About halfway up the south side, there was a light behind me so bright I was sure that a large group of people with headlamps must have somehow just caught me without my noticing until they were right behind me. I whipped around, startled, and saw, instead:
the clouds had finally parted, revealing an almost full moon, a sky full of stars, that so thoroughly bathed the canyons below me in light that all depth, rock, water, shadow was now made of liquid silver; iridescent and fluidly moving with the energy of life within. I can think of few times in my life that I actually found something breath-taking literally. So overwhelming, I couldn’t even be moved to weep [or perhaps too exhausted and dehydrated?]. And once again, as I had emptied myself, given everything of myself, sacrificed and destroyed, to and for this environment in the name of divine Grace, the environment filled me back up. Have you ever thought about what it really means to be FUL-FILLED?
And then, if you really want to know what happened next, I knew I was getting near the top, a group of runners was on their way down. Or, I guess I think of them that way because they were wearing running vests and running shoes and backward hats, but they weren’t running at all. They were attempting a R2R2R as well, and told me they hoped to finish in less than 30 hours. I smiled. Then, at like 430, the sun came up:
And I staggered to the Trailhead. And I screamed or wept or coughed, I don’t really remember, causing that poor tourist to reach out to help. I walked to the car. It was so cold, and I didn’t really have the energy left to homeostasis my body temperature, so I shook wildly. I drove to the kennel. I got a coke from one of those NPS vending machines that features old photo inlays of whatever park you’re in and isn’t labelled brand-wise. It was 75 cents. I was there to get Lu the moment they opened. And we carried on.
I don’t think it’s some revelation that the secret to living your life is “do it anyway”; it’s not crazy or unexpected to realize that when you struggle through hard shit everything else gets easier. But although I’ve gone through that thousands of times with all the increasingly hard shit and crazy situations I end up in, this was so different. Long linkup days in the mountains have made me feel like I can get myself into or out of any situation, albeit sometimes with cold quiet acceptance. That’s the famous “freedom of the mountaineer”, that your body and your skills can take you anywhere safely. This bike trip, though, expanded that freedom to EVERYWHERE, because it eliminated the tethers. It makes me feel like even in the worst case scenario situations, I will figure it out, and I will be ok.
Tell me what is impossible but still true: I lived on my bicycle and rode hundreds miles around southern Utah.
Although nothing that interesting happened in Capitol Reef, the landscape was COOL, and this and the next several photos are from the park
I don’t remember when it was, but I spent hours one afternoon riding and thinking of this thing a first grader said to me in a school that I worked at in Lansing, Michigan years (probably 10) ago. I rode my bike to that school (and everywhere else I went), it was about 40 minutes from my house I think. I would come into the classroom with my helmet and gloves tucked under one arm, but I rode in my regular clothes so I didn’t have to change. It was a poor neighborhood, and my job was paid for by federal grants. Here’s the exchange:
“Did you ride a bike here?”
“yeah, I always do”
“Do you not have a car?”
“I do actually, but I would rather ride my bike.”
At this point he didn’t say anything, but looked at me with disgust
“Your body can take you anywhere, don’t you think that’s really cool? We’re really lucky to have strong, healthy bodies.”
The kid’s eyes were a mix of pity and confusion, and he just went back to his desk. I will never forget any part of that exchange, including the way he looked at me, because I had previously been someone that he had some measure of respect for, but in one minute I became someone that he felt bad for.
We woke up in the desert, and didn’t get bitten by snakes! I trapped the spiders that were blocking our exits, and we packed up to go. In the grey desert, we were just a couple of miles outside the official boundary of Capitol Reef National Park. The previous night, I had looked over my maps and lists of mileage and elevation gain and thought it was obvious that I would pass through Capitol Reef and onto route 12 that day, then be in Bryce Canyon on Sunday. I knew something was wrong, so I pulled the maps back out and looked over them again. I had written the elevation profile in legs, so to speak, and because the towns on route 12 were suddenly much closer, the legs were much shorter.
It did look like: Blanding to Hite 80 mi +4285 -6664
and now it looked like:
Fruita to Grover 17.3mi +2165 -479
Grover to Boulder 28.8 +3077 -3356
and what I hadn’t thought of last night, when I thought it would be reasonable to add several of these short legs together was that I’d be looking at 2 8000ft of climbing days. Which, pre bike trip, I thought was totally reasonable, as I do more than that on skis and much more on foot in the summer. What I know now: climbing on a loaded bike with a trailer with a dog in it is at least 30x harder than running uphill.
200 million years ago, this was underwater. The dinosaurs swam here.
I’m pretty sure the Little Mermaid was based on this area.
Coming out of Capitol Reef, we spent hours just climbing. I can’t even think of another way to put it, it felt as though I were just desperately trying to drag a train uphill with only the strength of my legs. I knew it would be hard, but I thought after the first couple days, I would adapt physically to the work and be stronger. I think I was, but the hills kept getting longer and steeper. We were making about four miles an hour. Each time we crested a hill, I could see better the storm that was ahead, and better feel the wind coming. The temperature had dropped at some point to 7 degrees Celsius [I had bought a tiny thermometer to put on my bike and didn’t notice until I left that it was only in Celsius. I haven’t had to translate temperatures from Celsius since like third grade]. The wind came in these crazy gusts, it would hit me like a wall and either stop me or nearly knock me over. I was trying to keep riding, and when the gust was over, the force that I had been fighting the wind with also nearly knocked me over. I yelled into the wind “WHY WON’T YOU LEAVE ME ALONE?!” I yelled at Utah. I yelled at Luna, because she was cold in her trailer but she also didn’t want to get out and run beside me for the double benefit that she’d warm up and be less weight that I had to haul. This nonsense went on for hours that felt like days that felt like my whole life. We crested another hill, and suddenly there was snow.
I pulled over, leaned the bike on a sign post, sat down on the ground, and wept. I knew the weather wasn’t attacking me personally, and I wasn’t actually mad at Utah, it was me. I had underestimated the terrain. I had misjudged the weather. I had overestimated my own strength (and ability to adapt). I had definitely underestimated how hard it would be to tow Luna. I had underestimated how much Luna would even want to be out of her trailer and running under her own power. I was infinitely disappointed in myself. Here I was, on one of the most beautiful tours in the country, and I couldn’t keep the train moving. I wouldn’t be able to do the 23,000 feet of climbing over the next three days to make it to Bryce canyon and back in time to ride back to Moab. And now it was winter. Because even though I knew how much climbing there would be, I had written it all down, it hadn’t occurred to me that Bryce Canyon is at 9k, which is why there’s all that fucking climbing. While it’s unusual that S Utah in general is so cold in late March, obviously it’s still winter at 9,000 feet. I could keep climbing all day, and it would keep getting colder, but ultimately I would have to turn around tomorrow, without having gotten anywhere, in order to make it home on time. The tour was essentially over. It took me so long to write part three, because I knew reliving this moment would hurt the most. My heart broke. I didn’t have time to finish what I started, I couldn’t, because I wasn’t strong enough, because I hadn’t planned this whole thing out intelligently enough. The tour was over, and I still had several days of riding left to close the loop and get back.
But there was nothing else to do but ride. And for a few more hours, the wind pounded me, and I struggled and suffered, and finally I stopped to take a break. I had accidentally stumbled upon a BLM historical site that featured a couple sweet campsites, and I thought, “I have fucking HAD IT. I do not want to ride anymore. I am DONE for today.”
This is a historical site because the Native Americans used the holes in the rocks to store grain
Really, I think that about sums it all up. Yeah I rode for several more days and put in a really hefty amount of mileage. There were good times and bad times. There were times I thought drivers were going to kill me, there were times I was super stressed out, there were times when the mileage and hours just rolled by. There was sun, there was more rain. I came to terms with my disappointment in myself. It was hot sometimes and it was cold others. I had some delicious french toast, and I ate a lot of fuel that I didn’t care much about. We had a couple more good campsites. We talked to some interesting people. A photographer stopped me and asked to take some photos. It made me really uncomfortable, but I obliged. She said, “what you’re doing is extraordinary.” I said thanks, but what I thought was “it just feels normal now”. An elderly woman gestured to the rig and asked if it was my home. I said “for now”, but I wished I had said “yes.” There were more spiders, there were more miles, and I got bitten by a fire ant (it hurt more than expected). There was another very violent storm, during which I got a flat tire. My rear brakes came loose. The derailleurs were struggling to shift at all on the last 2300ft climb. I got another flat tire. I was just about to type that I fell apart in the last 10 miles to Canyonlands, but I didn’t. I didn’t fall apart. In the middle of this super violent storm, I considered my options and started running, because it seemed more reasonable to get back to the truck instead of trying to fix the bike in the storm at 7:15pm. Ultimately, a nice family gave Lu and I a ride for the last couple miles. There was no triumphant return, it was just over.
There’s a Mario Kart course based on this area I’m pretty sure.
I believed during the various periods of suffering that after the tour was over, I would only remember the good parts. Well, shows how much I know. I miss all of it; the bad, hard, scary, miserable parts just as much as the joyous descents, sunny miles, and sweet campsites. I can feel the fear and worry, the cold, and my aching body as if I’m still out there. And I want it back, I want it all back. I had been afraid of losing safety and security, and comfort; of being too far away. I didn’t realize I had been afraid of living directly in the environment for a length of time, of being exposed, of deprivation. This tour has changed everything. I used to want to be fearless, and believed that by continually facing my fears I could evolve to a point that I had none. That’s impossible, because fear is what makes you human, and I don’t ever want to be without it. Choosing to do it anyway, THAT is freedom.
“Paralyzed by the voice inside your head, it’s the standing still that should be scaring you instead. Go on and do it anyway. Risk it anyway.
Tell me what I said I would never do, tell me what I said I would never say. Read me off a list of things that I used to not like but now I think are ok.” -Ben Folds
(who knew Ben Folds was this brilliant philosopher?)
Another storm was coming in, it was getting increasingly dark, and I had put in 30 miles since Blanding with no sign of this super hard climb that I’d heard about. As my morale was falling apart after an otherwise great day, I dragged poor Blow and the rig through the red clay to a secluded spot and set up camp. The storm didn’t wait for us to be safely in the tent, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, and the rain came in huge heavy drops. I read Franny and Zooey out loud to Luna, and tried my best to seal the tent from spiders, snakes, and scorpions.
When we woke up in the morning, it was still cloudy, still wet, but now it was also very cold. I guess because the sun wasn’t going to shed its’ light on anything today. And I still had this climb to deal with. I stayed in the sleeping bag for a bit, wondering what to do, when I realized there isn’t anything to do. There’s no choice, no decision making, nothing, NOTHING at all to be done. It was time to pack up and ride.
When I put the computer on the bike that morning and I saw it was only 7a when we were departing camp, it was my first taste of what I’m going to call “tour time”. There is no 7a or 7p or noon on a bike tour, there’s: wake up time, pack up time, eating time, bathroom time, eating time, too beat to ride anymore time, set up camp time, eating time, and dark. There was a couple more hundred feet to climb (and thank GOODness because I needed something to warm me up) then the hills evened out to a roll. We would dip down into a small canyon, then climb out of it, and so on. We came upon one of the spots Steve had told me to look for water, and there was a little stream so I topped off our supply as we were still 50 something miles away from Hite, the next resupply. [and NOW I’m thinking STEVE why didn’t you mark on the map where this mystical climb was supposed to be!?] And so the miles kept ticking away, and it kept raining off and on, and it kept being cold, and I kept not coming across this mythically terrible climb, and suddenly we were at the former settlement of Fry Canyon [I would like to bring attention to the fact that spell check doesn’t believe at least 7% of the words that I use are words at all, and I’m just not sorry for it. Mythically seems like it should be a word, and I still think it is. Fuck you spell check, you don’t know anything and nobody wants you.]
the abandoned fry canyon settlement
So the MYTHICALLY terrible climb was already over apparently, and wasn’t so bad at all since I remember some climbing but not some terrible dread-pirate-8-mile-climb. Fry Canyon on to Hite was said to be “all downhill” which is obviously never true, but it was mostly downhill and I besides my numb hands and feet, I felt glorious, like I understood what bike touring was all about.
As we rolled into Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the motherfucking sun came out!
And I understood what it means to live in your environment. Without climate control and just some bags of tools and gear, and a simple machine like a bike, I was “exposed”. And yeah, it was uncomfortable sometimes, but as soon as you accept that, you get used to it. There’s a word in sanskrit, santosha, that’s generally translated as “contentment” but I’ve always thought of it is being okay with the situation, all the good and all the bad. When I used to work with kids and we’d hand out crayons or something, we’d say “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” and that’s exactly it. Sometimes you get rain, sometimes you get sun, sometimes it’s freezing and sometimes it’s hot and there is NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING you can do to change it. You can go in your heated house and pretend that’s real. But it doesn’t stop the world from being hot or cold or sunny or rainy or windy. It only seems like suffering because we’ve become so sensitive. The real world is tumultuous, but you can actually live there. For a day, or ten days, or you can even move there indefinitely.
Anyway, Glen Canyon NRA was gorgeous with really a dramatic landscape. It turns out, Hite is basically a ranger station that seemed quite deserted. There’s a “store” there with a lot of empty shelves but I somehow managed to get my hands on a can of coke. There’s a sign suggesting that you pay the fee to visit the park (but I never saw a single person to enforce it)(and I had a federal inter-agency pass anyway so don’t go assuming I didn’t pay to get in). But there was water, and that was what was important. After Hite, 95 takes a windy and quite drunk path through the park, going abruptly in every direction about equally so at the end you feel you’ve done a lot of miles but not gotten anywhere at all. But one of the other Most Memorable Moments of my trip was about to happen. Utah apparently has a penchant for roads with steep grades that take hairpin turns through blasted out canyon walls then suddenly sweep into totally and outrageously epic views, which is how I found myself again at 40mph, plunging down to a bridge crossing the Colorado River. And I knew it was the CO before the sign on the bridge, and I did not see it coming as I only vaguely looked at the maps for this area and I assumed I was about to cross some small tributary to Lake Powell, but then it was THE COLORADO RIVER in all its’ magnificent splendor, the sun reflecting off it overzealously, the way a kid would paint it in elementary school. I exclaimed at the top of my lungs something like “WHOA HOLY ***** *** *****”, not anticipating that there was a person on the bridge, but I’m 87% sure he did hear it based on the way he greeted me when I passed him. I didn’t take that picture either, and couldn’t have as there was no way I was going to stop in the middle of such a grand downhill, but I did take a picture on the other side:
So it’s all beautiful and sunny here, then suddenly, I went through another hairpin turn through a blown out canyon wall and a very aggressive storm was there. It was dark and so windy it not only stopped me (and the freight train I was piloting) completely, but knocked me over. Interestingly, I crashed twice and both times there was a car behind me and neither time did they stop to make sure I was okay. Thank goodness for the handful of nice people I came across on this trip, because most people are kind of assholes, and if it weren’t for those few good folks I would think humanity is in the toilet. Anyway, it was only 3:30, but I wasn’t going anywhere in that wind (because it was physically impossible to ride against it apparently), and I didn’t really want to, so I put Blow in the vestibule of a pit toilet (see how I added a touch of class there?)(not the same toilet that humanity may or may not be in) and put Luna, all our gear, and I inside the tent.
the second most violent storm of the trip
And then it raged. I’m still amazed that wind didn’t tear my tent to pieces or pick it up and throw it across the canyon with us in it. Perhaps needless to say, the tent flooded, and really we should have all been in the vestibule of the pit toilet. It went on for about an hour, Luna piled on top of me looking despairing and trying to escape the new Lake Powell that had formed in the tent (what I’m trying to say is, there was more water in my TENT than in Lake Powell). But then, because all weather is is a bunch of interesting physical reactions, and I know that it has no personal vendetta against me but is, in fact, just being itself, the storm cleared up and the sun came out:
While I was retrieving Blow from the vestibule, as if the apocalypse hadn’t happened at all a truck drove up and a lady got out to use the bathroom, and she stopped dead in her tracks and said “ARE YOU ON A BIKE?!” and I said yes, and she asked about the dog, and I said she has a trailer, and the woman looked taken aback for a moment then resumed her business, shaking her head. New Lake Powell dried up, and I considered riding on, but this campsite was fucking rad, so we stayed.
It was so windy at night it woke me up and in my sleepy stupor I was sure I woke up to footsteps just outside of my tent. Despite how much I dislike desert predators, I’m still much more afraid of people than anything nature could throw at me. But it turned out to just be the wind thwap thwappping the tent fabric somewhat violently. Then there was a beautiful sunrise:
And just like every day, it was time to pack up and ride. There was a long climb, then this:
Then a long sunny day of rolling hills and miles (during which I obviously fantasized about my future in stage racing) all the way to Hanksville, where I had a lovely fountain Coke and ice cream and resupped on the important supplies, like chips and candy, to the chagrin of the 15 year old cashier (“will that be ALL ma’am?”). Because the miles were coming so easily, I put on 25 more before finding a cozy campsite amongst dozens of snakeholes right on the edge of Capitol Reef National Park in interesting terrain that I could only describe as a weird, grey desert. To be continued.
I really wanted to get my thoughts down right away about all the things that happened in Utah in the past 10 days before anything slips away, because I’ve already noticed after being home less than 12 hours that it’s surprisingly hard and surprisingly easy to adjust back to regular life. I think human adaptivity is one of our greatest qualities, as a day ago I had been adjusted to waking up in a flooded, ice cold tent and my morning spider trapping duties.
On my last night on tour, a family gave me an 8 mile ride and the daughter, who is around 12 I think, told me she’s too lazy for biking or for running. There was a book in her lap. When I was 12 I would’ve said the same thing probably when my dad came home from a tour. I’ve wanted to go for a long time and it’s been one thing I was too scared to go through with. Why? Because I’m tethered to the relative safety and comfort of the truck and my house. We use words like “hostile” to describe the environment and weather when it makes us uncomfortable, and words like “exposure” to denote the danger of living in that environment, the real environment; the one that we haven’t manipulated. The reality of humanity is that we don’t at all live in reality, we live in a web of environments that we’ve manipulated into being safe and comfortable. Cars and houses and buildings with climate control, packaged food, machines and tools that we don’t really understand but are designed to make our lives easier. Running water, indoor plumbing, and cell phones. The number one thing people responded when I told them about this tour, before during or after, was “that sounds miserable”. I guess it was, if that’s the way you’re going to look at it.
I was so excited, anxious, and afraid on the drive to Utah that I swear my heartbeat shook the truck. Unloading the bike and my baggage and setting up the rig, my hands shook madly. It was sunny and beautiful, and as I dragged the whole thing down the sandy BLM road I was parked on back to highway 313 I began to think the whole thing was impossible. It was so heavy, and so far, and I would have to leave my tether to safety for a long time, and get impossibly far away from it (which is one thing that makes bike touring much scarier than backpacking, the sheer mileage). But there was nothing else to do but get on the bike and ride it, so that’s what I did.
The excellent Moab bike path is dotted with mtn bike trails, and uncrowded enough that it was the only time Lu got to run untethered next to me while I rode.
The first day was magically easy; the weather was good and it was pretty much all downhill to Moab. There’s a magnificent bike path between 313 and Moab so you don’t have to ride on the highway until you’re just about in town. Which is nice, because riding 191 on any of the days I had to do it was one of the worst and scariest things I’ve ever done. I slept on BLM land maybe ten miles south of Moab, and day two was the first of several days I woke up to a large and poisonous spider hanging from the door of the tent. I was sufficiently terrified of the predators of southern Utah, because they’re hard to predict and understand. The internet suggested making sure the tent is zipped up all the way, never walking around without shoes on, and some golden advice, “spiders, scorpions, and snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them.” Well internet/National Park Service/Utah state government, I would like to assure you that spiders are not afraid of people at all, in fact they routinely broke into my tent to be closer to me despite my best efforts to seal them out. So what do you do when a large, colorful, and poisonous spider is blocking your only exit? I thought hard about cutting a new exit into the back of the tent, but instead I trapped it. I felt sick all day, and I don’t remember if I woke up that way but I could hardly eat anything all day.
Luna: all play, no work
Day two was hard. I knew it would be, in fact I had imagined the first couple days would be very hard, adapting to full days in the saddle and towing that heavy ass trailer, and then I would be stronger and start mashing miles. I also imagined that Utah was basically flat (even AFTER writing out the elevation profiles for each leg of this trip), and that they never had winter. People make mistakes. Moab to Monticello is just all uphill, divided into steep climbs and long low grade climbs. The shoulder on 191 is taken up with the most enormous rumble strips I’ve ever seen, thousands of potholes in a row. Also, I think anyone would imagine that towing a trailer with a dog in it would be harder than riding a bike without it, and climbing with a dog and trailer is harder than climbing without it, but what I hadn’t at all prepared for was that downhills feel like flats and flats feel like climbs. And that climbs are now basically impossible and require maximum effort to keep the whole freight train moving at all. And that’s the story of how you can ride for ten hours and only get 50 miles in. There was so much traffic between Moab and Monticello, I imagined Monticello must be the size of Denver. It’s not. I’ll always wonder where all those people were going, so aggressively and in such a hurry.
We slept at a campground in Monticello, as it was already 7:30p when we got there and I was too brutalized by climbing and traffic to ride anymore anyway. The proprietor was like an old western grandpa. It was 30 degrees that night. Day three I woke up still feeling ill, but at least I knew I’d be off of 191 before long. The hills between Monticello and Blanding evened out, were more rolling, and by the time we got to Blanding I was starving, finally. I had breakfast at a diner where both of the employees looked me up and down long and hard but didn’t have anything to ask or say about it, and I put down the whole plate before the waitress came back with a napkin. Topping off my enormous reserves of water (8 liters) at the visitor center before we left, a nice older man named Steve marked on a map for me where he thought I could find wild water in the canyons along highway 95. He also told me that in the summer as many as 30 cyclists per day departed from Blanding to ride 95, but they’re generally supported and in groups. “An intrepid adventurer like yourself is very rare indeed.” Thanks, Steve. [In fact, I didn’t see one single cyclist until 24 between Hanksville and Capitol Reef NP].
I will now always have a deep, visceral reaction to downhill steep grade warning signs.
Once on 95, there is almost immediately an 8% downhill. Normally, I would have been braking the shit out of that hill on a massively loaded bike (with 16lbs worth of water, at least 5 days of food for me and Lu, in addition to all the gear) and towing precious cargo. But the version of me that was somewhat brutalized the previous day threw caution to the wind and I found myself descending the serpentine road into the canyon at 40mph. In time, I think I’ll remember few details about this trip, but that moment of delight with all of Fry and the surrounding canyons suddenly opening before me, I will never forget. It makes me feel so overwhelmed every time I think about it, it was the first time I understood the freedom of touring and it felt like all of Southern Utah was at my disposal.
The road came through that little notch in the ridge. This isn’t looking back on the joyous downhill I wrote about above, I didn’t take that picture. In fact, I don’t think I have pictures from any of my favorite moments, those will live in my memory forever and nowhere else.
I know a lot of people start tours from Blanding, but that downhill could not possibly be as satisfying without the 7k of climbing leading up to it. So, Steve had warned me that there was a big, 8 mile climb starting 20 miles west of Blanding, and after that I’d be home free. I had hoped to get that climb out of the way that afternoon, but I just seemed to never get there. Since this is turning out so long, I take it it’s going to be in the format of installments. So, end of part one, to be continued.
I’ve been putting off writing this one you guys, because I think it’s gonna be rough, and I’m gonna cry. But here it is, finally.
I came up with all sorts of wild ideas for my bday this year, but since even the greatest ideas fail sometimes, instead I opted for tried and true. In the grand bday tradition, I dropped a pile of money at Whole Foods, packed up Lu and Hooptie, and off we went.
Lake City was founded in 1873 as a supply center for miners and prospectors in the San Juans (not super successful mining, especially when compared to the other mining towns). Now, it has a population of 400. LC is so awesome because it’s like a teeny town got smashed between mountains, and a river runs through it. As if the natural boundaries weren’t restricting enough (I think they’ve got maybe a four-block width max), the town ends abruptly when it runs into the lake to the south. Incidentally, I always assumed “Lake San Cristobal” was another example of Colorado recreational reservoirs- but it is A NATURAL LAKE, and Lake City’s obvious namesake.
I stole this photo from lakecityswitchbacks.com because I’ve never been willing to stop on this narrow road to take one myself.
There are so many things I love about Lake City: the coffee shop that advertises their friendliness towards bikers and doesn’t have an actual espresso machine (or actual iced coffee, but they do have 32oz styrofoam cups!)(and I don’t have anything against bikers in coffee shops, I just never knew before that bikers needed a special sign to know they’re welcome), the tiny, sassy grocery store (the sign on the door tells you exactly how far away the nearest Safeway [Gunnison] and Whole Foods [Frisco] are), the old gas pumps with cranks and little plastic numbers that actually flip (that I forget how to use every single time). But mainly, it’s the fact that Lake City is on the slopes of 5 major mountains. I love Leadville, and living in the shadow of the Sawatch, but it would be as if they picked up Leadville and moved it 10 miles onto the slopes of Mt. Massive. Oh! Or into the middle of Missouri Gulch!
Monday morning I rolled into the city, and onto the Alpine Loop. Naturally, it had just snowed (this was on Oct 3rd), because that’s when the first snow always happens in the mountains that I spend my birthday in. The fresh snow made the Wetterhorn road a little more “fun” [terrifying] than usual. As Lu and I got out of the car, I thought ‘we’re turning around when it’s not fun anymore.’
you can’t see my legs. also, those sunglasses were a bday present to myself. because, duh, they are amazing.
The higher up we got, the harder it snowed. I was just about to turn around when we crested the ridge and found epically high winds that’s slap you in the face and try to knock you over (try?) and amazing views:
Still my bday, we headed next to American Basin to spend the night. Because the storms cleared up (briefly) Lu and I did a quick one up Handies (because it’s short, not because it’s dirty), then settled in to Hooptie for an evening of reading Steve House’s alpinism training book. I sang Happy Birthday out loud to myself, and cut a lemon Miracle Tart in half. (I didn’t think it was sad when I did it, but I later heard that the Mars Rover sings itself Happy Birthday every year, which makes me tear up a little, even though it’s a robot https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxVVgBAosqg&feature=youtu.be I think the song starts around 1:17).
I knew it’d be cold. But that night in American Basin, it was 11 mf degrees. Lu and I got up to pee around daybreak, and the 30 seconds we were outside of Hooptie (and the covers) had us both shivering and shaking until we were fully submerged under the sleeping bag pile once again. I smuggled the bottle of iced coffee I brought, my headlamp, and my book under there with us since none of my skin could be exposed without frost nipping it [that’s not actually true, you might remember from an old post about winter camping that it’d have to be colder than that to frost nip skin that quickly. On that note, CHILLBLAINS!]. I later discovered that all of the water in Hooptie froze (including the gallons) overnight. Which means that the only liquid in the truck that didn’t freeze was the iced coffee. Was it because there’s sugar in the almond milk? Was it the acidity of the coffee? What changed the freezing point? We’ll never know.
all the way up here just to get some water
Needless to say, we didn’t leave our nest until after 10, when the sun finally filled the valley between [aptly named] Sunshine and Handies Peaks. There wasn’t a lot of snow in the valley, it was just cold. This trip, I should point out, was soon after we got back from the Tetons, and I was still buzzing with the implications of everything that happened there. Just before (quite literally, 1 or 2 days before) we left for the Tetons, I sent out resumes and cover letters to a couple jobs I had been thinking of for a couple months. Grown up jobs. Real jobs. In California, NM, all over. Why would I do such a thing? I’ll call it the Year-I-Turn-30-Rolling-Life-Crisis. All this year, I’ve questioned all of my life decisions every couple weeks or so, and made [occasionally ridiculous] massive overhaul plans to fix everything I thought went wrong. And I thought it was time to move on. I had literally given up everything to move to Leadville and pursue Nolan’s, and after dedicating something like 3000 hours just in training and route finding, and two full years of my life, I had failed again. All I could think was, how could I possibly have gotten here? 30 years? And what have I done with it? I haven’t done anything with my life. It’s over. And I sent out my resumes and prepared to leave Nolan’s behind.
Bear with me with all the jumping around here. So then I’m in the Tetons, and I have that moment where I realize something I’ve known all along: when you fall in love with a line, it is your responsibility to run it or climb it or ski it as fast and flawless as you can, and that is the most perfect thing in the world. That suffering and struggling in the mountains breaks off pieces of your soul that you leave behind there, but they fill you up, and not only is that how the mountains become your home, but further, these mountains are my daemon-a part of my soul that lives outside me. And (as you read in the last post), that was when I knew that I will never be able to go back. That moment was the threshold.
Now, back to Tuesday October 4th, my first full day as a 30 year old. I’m here:
And it is a gorgeous [fucking cold] day in the San Juans. Since I got back from the Tetons, I felt pretty tumultuous. I had those really important realizations consuming me, but I didn’t yet know what to do with them and they were still conflicting with that idea that I needed to DO SOMETHING WITH MY LIFE. That I needed to act like a GROWN UP. 30 is a huge cultural milestone you guys. I think people can get away with screwing up and messing around in their 20’s, but 30 is like for real grown up time. And up here on Redcloud, in the cold sunshine with the wind blowing the day after my 30th birthday, I finally felt at ease. I don’t think I’ve felt completely at ease all year, because it has been in the back of my mind all of the time, and the front of my mind quite a bit.
I felt at ease because I knew the answer to all of the questions. How did I get here? I chose this life every damn day. I worked so hard for this. Mountain running, ultra running, people ask me all the time how you get into them. The answer to that is, you work so fucking hard every day. You run until you feel like you’re going to die, then you hope that the next day you can run faster and higher before you feel like you’re going to die. You revolve your entire life around it, because if you didn’t do 3 hours of yoga every night or massage every inch of your legs, or cut sugar and flour out of your diet because they’re inflammatory, your legs wouldn’t work to run as hard as you can the next day. You get a job that you hardly have to work and live in a town that’s cheap to live in but close to the mountains so you can run more than most people work. I didn’t just magically appear here. I’ve chosen this life every day, every step, and I’ve given up nearly everything else for it. Can you imagine what I could have done with my life if I had devoted it this intensely to something else? I can certainly imagine, I’ve been imagining all year. BUT I FINALLY DON’T WANT TO ANYMORE.
And on to the bigger one. “I haven’t done anything with my life.” WTF! Do my values really align with the standard American culture? White picket fence. 9-5. Arguing with the contractor about the renovations. Pick up the kids from school. Happy hour with friends or coworkers. Going shopping, out to dinner. No, you guys. Those aren’t my values. So why would I define success in terms of things I don’t care about? Living in this society for 30 years, it makes you think you should have those things, or some semblance of them. It gives you all these ideas about what success is, what it should be, as if one definition could be the same for everyone. It is really hard to define success personally because there are so many other factors trying to influence you all the time! And I finally did it. When you are scared out of your mind, and you look at your fear, and you wrap yourself around it, and you move on. That’s it, that’s what success actually, truly means to me. And honestly, I think that is also what freedom means. There’s a famous quote about the mountaineer knowing what it means to be free, and that’s what it’s about. The price of freedom is that you have to be the most intimate with your fear, and then transcend it. Finally, 7 miles west of Lake City, on a Tuesday, I just understood everything. “I haven’t done anything with my life”? I HAVE DONE EVERYTHING WITH MY LIFE. I have always done exactly what I wanted, never what I thought I should. Always what I wanted. And for that, I am deliriously happy and totally fulfilled. There is no substitute for the highest of highs and lowest of lows. All I can ask for is to be scared out of my mind and so happy I’m about to explode.
Finally, I’m done using terms like “grown up” and “real”. This is real life, here in the mountains and the sky. What could possibly be more real? Climate controlled houses? Grocery stores? Museums? Schools? Office jobs? My life is real. My job is real, I get to engage with our little community and be nice to people, and it pays for me to live and eat so I can do what I love the most. And I am a grown up. I don’t need to look like other 30 year olds to prove it.
On Tuesday, October 4th, I felt at ease about all of these things. And I knew that I’m not going anywhere (and that I’m also going everywhere). I’m definitely not going to get one of these “grown up” jobs and moving to a city where I have to go to an office and work more than I run. I’m not giving up on Nolan’s, she is the line of my life (and hopefully one of many). I actually made a 1, 5, and 10 year plan for myself while I was eating the other half of that Miracle Tart. And it is terrifying! And exactly what I want! I’ve never been happier. I think it’s safe to say now, I’m never going back.
When I told a gal at work that I was going to the Tetons for a week, she said “Well I wish *I* had money for vacations like that” which I thought was pretty comical, because a climbing trip isn’t a vacation anyway, and if you’re planning to sleep in a van and eat PB&J all week it’s not as if you’re breaking the bank, per se.
I also told a regular at work that I’d be in the Tetons for a week, and it went like this: “WHERE?”
“Grand Teton National Park”
“The Teton range. Of mountains? In Wyoming?”
“Okay but where?”
“It’s 14 miles long, man.”
I’d been to the Tetons earlier this year, with the intention of scoping them out. It was a bit of a wash because there was still so much snow I couldn’t even get into Garnett Canyon, and the mountains were mired in storms the whole time like Mt. Doom.
The first thing to know about the Tetons is that they’re only 9 million years old, max. Sure 9 million years seems like a long time, but when you compare that to the Rocky Mountains’ 300 million, it’s clear that the Tetons are an adorable baby range and we can expect a variety of interesting and tumultuous things to happen up in there since that fault is still active. You may already know that I’m in love with the Grand Teton, 13,775, with around 7k prominence. It’s been a dream of mine for a bit to stand on top of that beautiful pile of (mostly) metamorphic rock, along with the fairly major goals of completing the Picnic and the Grand Traverse.
Anyhow, so we went to the Tetons. And the very first morning we woke up to this (above) and it was amazing. We had no idea what we were in for. Even to get to the jumping off point (“the meadows”) you have to hike your equipment miles and 1000’s of feet. There’s some crazy reason that you think once you make it up there, that’s when the climbing starts, but you would be quite wrong. In fact, there are still several miles and many more 1000’s of feet of iffy talus, scrambling, and just generally exhausting steepness before you can even begin any route at all. I thought it was funny that apparently on Tony and Kilian’s first trips to the Grand Tetons, both managed to get lost by going left at the first big glacier and ending up at the saddle between South and Middle wondering where they went wrong. I can tell you, it’s really that easy. If you take the wrong path through any of the various talus fields, you could end up miles away from where you need to be.
Day 2, after having experienced all of the madness and misadventure that awaits in Garnett Canyon, we thought we’d wise up and get permits to haul all our gear up there and sleep in the Meadows. I had a wonderfully useful discussion with a climbing ranger about where to drink wild water (once you’ve already had giardia like he has, you’re immune for life!), and we were off. While dropping our gear, it quickly became apparent that I had forgotten the tent poles (later: “I really appreciate that you didn’t get mad about my forgetting the tent poles, because that really wouldn’t have helped anything.”) Assuming we’d figure something out later, we headed up to climb up things. In retrospect, we should have listened to the book that said “don’t climb anything at all until you see Ice Flow Lake”. Since we didn’t listen, we had a lot of fun that turned terrifying, and a bail off that really was the stuff of dreams (especially when you compare it to future bail offs).
I think it’s safe to say that the take away of this and the next several days is, the Tetons are: epic, terrifying, super fun, an elaborate and very long maze, stupidly beautiful, longer on the descent, and demanding of our utmost respect. A few days later, we were bailing off an arette belonging to Disappointment Peak, and decided to head up in the general direction of the Grand’s lower saddle as the sun was going down. [I would like to point out that this was my first trip using my new camera, and I had not yet figured out how to keep random body parts out of the picture yet]
Climbing the Grand, quite unfortunately, was not in the cards on this trip as there was a lot of very fragile, thin ice (verglass) posing quite the obstacle. On our hike up, I was thinking of Kilian’s FKT on the Grand [I didn’t know this at the time, but a Teton NPS ranger beat Kilian’s time 11 days later by 59 seconds] that’s just under 3hrs (2:55). From the parking lot, to the summit, and all the way back in under 3hrs. It sounds amazing when you hear about it, but when you’re hiking all those miles of talus it just seems so outrageous and extraordinary. But if he can do it, I could do it. Not right in that moment, of course, but if that’s what I wanted to pursue with my life, I could do that. His physical feat proves that it’s possible. So naturally, I started thinking about Nolan’s in 30 hours (or any ridiculous, truly fast time that blows the current FKT’s in the 50hr range out of the water). I actually met Tony for the first time in the coffee shop right before this trip, and we talked about the Nolan’s in 30 hours thing. I’ve talked to a lot of people about the possibility of Nolan’s in 30 hours and the general consensus is that it’s not possible for a variety of reasons. I maintain that if anyone can do it, Tony can. So back to current time, sunset near the saddle of the Grand, this is what I’m thinking: how wonderful that these amazing people can do these things that blow your mind, and that sets the standard for what I believe is possible. Chris and I argued about this for a while, then we argued about FKT’s.
It’s getting dark, and I suddenly realized that I want to see Tony do Nolan’s in 30 hours so badly because I want to believe that it’s possible. But I don’t need him to show me, just like I don’t need Kilian [or Andy Anderson, the actual record holder at the time] to show me that it’s possible to ascend the Grand Teton (or the Matterhorn, for that matter) in less than 3 hours. Anything is possible. For a long time I’ve thought of myself as someone that doesn’t believe in limits; limits are self-imposed by your imagination. But all this time, I’ve actually been using other people to adjust my perception of limits. The reality is, if I want Nolan’s done in 30 hours I better fucking do it myself. I had told Chris on the drive to Wyoming that I’ve been sort of teetering on the edge lately, that sometimes I think I should have a normal life, and sometimes I think I should really jump off the deep end. I had also been teetering with climbing in general: getting so frustrated that I never climb again, or falling madly in love with climbing. It was so suddenly obvious what my purpose in life is. Just as the sky transitioned to true dark, I pressed my face against the rock and cried.
Another thing I hadn’t thought about much was how I really feel about FKT’s. I’ve battled this in my head for a while, and there’s certainly a lot of controversy and mixed feelings about this in the mountain community. Until I defended them, I didn’t know this was how I felt. Sure, some people put down FKT’s because they’re competitive and they want the speed record. That’s not everyone, though. I’ve been working on Nolan’s for a very long time now, and I finally understand that as I destroy myself on that course, and I suffer, and I fall apart, and I keep going despite all of this, those mountains fill me up again, and that process is how you get to find your home. Nolan’s is my home, and it belongs to me as I belong to it. When it’s time, I’ll run that course as fast as I can. Not for a record or for recognition from the very small community of people that care about Nolan’s, but because I am in love with that line, and it is my responsibility to run it as fast and light as I can. That’s what grace is, to honor something with your presence.
As we suffered and struggled in the Tetons, and sometimes fell apart a little bit, I realized that the Nolan’s course aren’t the only mountains that will be home to me. Every time I go back to the Tetons, I’ll break off bits of my soul for them and they’ll fill me up just like the Rockies have been doing for years. And eventually, I will belong to them too, and this process will continue to happen every time I fall in love with new mountains and new fantastic, aesthetic lines through them. Then, it will be my duty to run and climb those lines as fast as I can. That is the most perfect thing in the world.
Because Mama Teton watched us struggle with hard climbs, long exhausting days up before dawn and to bed at 11, and kind of scary weather, she rewarded us with a perfect day on the Middle Teton right before we had to leave Wyoming. The route along the sw ridge crossed over briefly and dropped below the North side of the ridge, and suddenly the Grand Teton appeared. Awe is a very powerful emotion, current research tells us that it strengthens our immune system and improves our general health to feel it regularly. In this case, I could hardly breathe, and it filled up my chest so much it hurt. I told the Grand Teton that I would come back as soon as I could. Because, like many mountains before her, the Grand Teton will become a part of my soul that lives outside me.
Lastly, Oliver the Fox definitely deserves mention here. He’s my best friend. [unsure why I capitalized fox, guys, but I’ve decided it stays]
Right?? I can see now why people are tempted to feed wild animals.