They say that if you sit with your feelings that’s how you process them. After the panic attack I would sit, and sit, and meditate, and go to yoga, and try to feel all my feelings, enlisting therapists, friends, and whoever else I thought would have good perspective so I could hurry up feel my feelings and get back to life. I didn’t realize for a while that while I was feeling my feelings, I wasn’t feeling all of them until I read this from Allison Jansinski: “Anxiety made me feel small and incapable. I had been so confident for so long and suddenly I couldn’t trust myself with the smallest tasks. I had climbed literal mountains no more than 5 months prior, and then there I was, asking my husband to accompany me to the grocery store because I was too afraid to go alone. What if I have a panic attack in the middle of the cereal aisle? The collapse of my mental health was all at once. Or at least that’s how it felt. It was the most lonely and isolating experience of my lifetime. Triggered by a horrific car ride, feeing my burning neighborhood with my dog and a laptop. I was wearing slippers. My wedding ring sat on my nightstand. I’d never see it again. As I navigated my new reality of panic attacks, depersonalization, and nights spent wide awake begging for a deep breath that would never come, I can say with absolute certainty it was the hardest I’ve ever worked. The bravest I’ve ever been. And while I deeply wish I was dealt a different hand of cards last December, it was an absolute honor to meet that version of myself. She stayed at the table. She never folded. I can’t believe she never folded.”
In the early days after the panic attack people would say that they thought the panic attack was going to be good thing once I got through it and on the other side. I hated hearing that so much at the time– they don’t understand what my brain is like, they don’t understand what is happening, what if I never heal, what if it never changes. I would wake up each morning and immediately check to see if I was healed and if those thoughts were gone and when they weren’t I would resign myself to still being angry and confused at the work I had to do. But here’s what I’ve realized, that girl who was angry and confused each day at not feeling healed, at tip toeing as if she was about to burst through a glass floor, still showed up, she went to work, she made food, she sustained herself with meditation, and yoga, and journaling, and therapy, and more therapy, and as the days ached on and she would wearily get into bed each night she would be grateful for having made it through with her marbles intact and fall asleep worried about what the next day would bring for her inner turmoil.
Here’s what they don’t tell you about trauma, much like fear it’s a liar. It tricks your brain so you don’t know what is true and what isn’t real. And you wonder if this darkness that exists if that’s my true essence and the light that is gone, if that was the facade. When it happens it’s just all dark, stormy, and twisty, and there is no light, and you wonder if this is how it’s going to be forever. You have no choice but to keep moving. And so, you do and slowly, very slowly, the light starts to trickle in, the fresh snow under you skis, the house dinners, the moments of silent and rest with my head on your shoulder.
You think this is the light, here it is. But the trauma makes you think that those moments of joy are the outliers, a small blimp in the spectrum of time. And in those moments, I felt like I was floating on the love and lightness of all those around me who didn’t know the depth of my despair. I didn’t want to go back and yet the darkness would rip me apart faster than a black hole. You want to get back to the light and so you keep moving, keep surrendering, keep breathing. Then one day you laugh and in that laughter, you realize you aren’t holding your breath wondering when this will disappear, and you realize you are healing because you are breathing. Woofta, was that heavy for you? I’m sorry, hang on it gets better. I promise.
In those moments I couldn’t even process what was happening. I was just surviving, barely keeping my head above water before the next wave would come crashing down. Treading to stay alive and breathing. I had to leave Alaska to go to DC to teach at the end of January and leaving felt like I was once again ripped through the time/space portal. I fumbled around for new activities to occupy me, bouldering and running with Carly, walks with co-workers, getting back to yoga in person. I went and saw my parents and even then, felt like I couldn’t exhale, couldn’t talk, fearful of what might come out. My parents sat or more kept vigil as I would lay on the couch and slowly words would trickle out lamenting about it all. I went and stayed with Allison and Dave for a few days as I was supposed to be in CO for a ski race but that ski race didn’t happen, but I had my skis just in case that girl showed up. Allison (and Kati who spent also spent multiple days with us) helped to give me words to the trauma and feelings that I had been experiencing. We shared an unspoken bond of seeing the weariness in the other that comes with vigilantly rowing ores to keep moving in the unknown water. For the friends that have known me longer than COVID and the panic attack this is such a blip in the timeline and I think I was seeking that out and getting back to those who knew me before all the darkness overtook me, reminding me of who I used to be and who I could be again.
I returned to Alaska and I wrote in my journal that upon arriving it felt like finally arriving home and was starting to see more and more of my old self, albeit slowly. I was still acutely aware of how much trauma felt stored up in my body, but the light returning to Alaska felt like it was returning to me too. I moved up to Alaska so soon to COVID and COVID and the panic attack dominated how I managed my relationships (for better or worse). I felt so much uncertainty and instability that I leaned heavy into those few relationships I did have but also felt the strain of doing so which only accelerated wanting to be healed so I could get back to baseline and then reassess my life. That put additional stress on me trying to rush and desperately trying to feel normal. Which only put me on higher alert each morning I would wake up realizing that I was not fully healed. Love negative feedback loops.
Starting at the end of March my therapist told me to acknowledge joy when I felt it and it started timidly and in the most mundane ways, at a moment of stillness I would whisper, “I feel joy.” Then it got louder and one day I was out skiing with friends and I was just exploding with it, yelling it as I raced down the mountain. One friend asked me if I was being sarcastic, clearly showing how little emotion towards joy I had been showing lately. But it’s been helpful in acknowledging its existence and finding a new way to express it.
How did it happen that you just finished maybe the darkest section of writing that I’ve ever put on this blog? Well, it all came about because I crashed last weekend during a race and it was such a minor crash (like I’m fine, mom) but cut my knee and scrapped my shoulder and hip. And then I thought of all the other times I’ve crashed this year and it’s been a lot (sorry mom, but like I’m fine). I pride myself on being a sound, technical rider. I know my limits and know what I’m capable of that I usually don’t worry– lots of years following the lines of Wayne, Sully, Dave, Alex, Sam, Chris, Christa, Bryan, Katie, Neven, Parker, Jen, so many more that are way above my riding level. I did a ride with a friend and was leading the descent and she came around the corner to find me on the ground, saying she was surprised to find me there, I was too.
I had two crashes during one descent which was mostly out of the view of anyone else and recovered quickly but have been bumbling a lot more in areas that I feel like I’m technically sound in. I starting thinking about how pervasive doubt is. With riding there is a moment where if you doubt, you hesitate, and in that moment the magic is gone, you’ve messed up the line, you’re brain has convinced you that you are in capable and you question you’re ability and then poof you’re on the ground assessing the damage. I was telling my therapist this because I often use outdoor activities to understand my life so I said, “well it seems like I can be quick to recover and I’m actual quite flexible in falling, but I’m doubtful in the approach, in the take-off, in the transition.” And because she always makes me bring it back to center, I followed up with and I think this is probably a larger theme in my life, I’m hesitating and doubting because I still don’t trust my body or myself and it’s getting better but there are moments of doubt that end up pulling me down. And it’s true after the panic attack the doubt overtook everything. And my rational became that if I was doubting, well then surely some of that doubt must be true and if it’s true where does that leave me– but trauma is a liar. And nothing is every guaranteed or fully certain but all I wanted was certainty when I was only filled with doubt. I didn’t trust myself that if the bottom fell out, if the glass shattered that I would be able to recover, that I could overcome what had been thrown my way because I felt like I hadn’t. I had a panic attack and then felt like I blew up my personal life as I scrambled to find dry land. For those who weren’t in my brain it’s so hard to explain that the explosion is how I did what I thought I had to do to survive, to fight, to breathe again.
When I real Allison’s post I thought of the girl I am now, she shows up to start lines with much more bruises and scars than she did before, but she’s scrappy, and resilient, and she is whole. And while I wish I had never met her under these circumstances, it has been an honor.
I read it before I did a gravel race with Grande– Ana had already left for the Colorado Trail Race after our relay last week. I was at max heart rate the whole time and trying to catch Grande’s wheel but I just kept repeating in my head, “Thank God I never folded.”
Like any race where you really shit the bed and everything goes wrong it takes a while to process everything, to pick out the lessons, the good and the bad, and sometimes the only good is like welp, I’m never signing up for that race again (cue the Black Hills 100). Just like with any bike race you know there will be highs and lows and it’s figuring out how to get out of the lows so you can get back to the highs. I know how to get out of the lows when I’m 80 miles into a race and bonking and have to pull myself out to get to the finish line but this felt like completely unknown territory that I was charing. I was in such a low I couldn’t even conceive that there would be a high. Much like when I did Super Walker for the first time and ended up sobbing on the side of the trail for 20 minutes having the worst bonk of my life– and just like then I got up and starting moving wondering if I would ever see the high again. This high just took a long time to get back to.
With the panic attack my therapist pointed this out that 4 months ago I couldn’t even process what it would mean to be here because my brain was still floating in the sea of despair, and I was convinced that no good would possibly ever come out of this. But I feel like I’m finally hitting the apex and the road is bending and there is light shining. Someone posted about a trip to the Grand Canyon and I didn’t even hesitate by saying I wanted in.
I will say that doing the 600-mile ride with Grande and Ana helped me in a tremendous way, I reset my system, was alone with my thoughts but wasn’t overwhelmed. There was so much comfort and familiarity in just pedaling. And for the first time since the panic attack, I actually trusted my body to do what I needed to do. I fully surrendered knowing that I would be able to make it to Haines, even when the doubt crept in. I guess you could say that that was the beginning of the healing journey, all the work before then set the foundation but since then the steps have been greater, I’m surer of the footing, more comfortable with the uncertainty. And running, no sprinting towards the joy that has seemed so fleeting for so long. I think that’s part of the broader theme with COVID– so much pain and destruction happened as a result of it and acknowledging that any good existed seemed so antithetical to the collective suffering that was being felt. Again, you can hold space for both, or I can hold space for both, or I can try to hold space for both.
This one is less bike focused for sure but hope that by talking about it– and if the data is accurate as more people are searching for mental health therapists than ever before– maybe others will feel less alone and realize how much is going on behind the facade that we put on. Allison has been such a lifesaver for me but so many others and not necessarily in any big way but in the small ways that kept me going and kept me sustained. But certainly a handful that were there in a very big way– and they got an inner look into my brain and they didn’t bat an eye, they didn’t turn away, they held space for my pain and grief and they reminded me that it would get better, maybe not today, or tomorrow but it would. A friend mentioned that after reading last week’s post she hadn’t realized I felt all of that because I usually just said I was fine and would carry on. I was gobsmacked only because I was convinced there was no way that I was hiding how much I was walking in a glass house. So, lessons I learned from that and affirmed by my therapist is that (1) people are far less concerned with us than we perceive them to be and (2) I probably need to do a better job of reaching out and asking for help.
And as I looked for picture for this post and the things that I had done I found so few from January and February (less than 100) with more starting to show up in March and then April and then more in May and June (more than 500). It was almost like I didn’t think there was anything worth capturing, there was no way I would want to remember this pain. Just another way to quantify an arbitrary data point.
You stay alive for the stories that need to be told, the chapters that remain unwritten and the endings that need to be completed.
After I left Alaska (like a year ago), I traveled around a bit, went to the Grand Canyon (will write about that some day). And then 2 months after thinking I would be gone for good, returned. Leaving Alaska in that moment didn’t feel right and I was determined (albeit stubborn) to figure out what the pull back was. As I got on the plane in Seattle I wrote Molly a postcard musing if by my returning I would make a mess or find meaning of my life. I found both and neither.
At the end of December, on the third anniversary of getting a notice of a novel pathogen causing pneumonia like symptoms in Wuhan, China. I experienced a panic attack– traditionally the third anniversary is suppose to be leather.
The panic attack fractured my sense of self, cutting off any narrative in my head. I didn’t even know that I could have so many pieces of me laying in a disarray. It dismantled a lot of the scaffolding I had spent my life building. After what felt like drowning in the abyss I was able to fashion a life jacket and start swimming to shore but remained unsure of what that shore would look like upon arrival. Six + months later I feel like I’m finally standing on solid ground but still some days feel myself getting pulled out by the tide. I spent most of the months that followed trying to piece back a sense of my life, this goes here, that goes there but sometimes the pieces didn’t seem to fit and I stubbornly kept trying to shove things back into place. I spent part of the winter in DC where I carried skis and a bike around both rarely getting used but thinking if that girl inside of me was to re-emerge she would want them. I had already signed up for the Maah Daah Hey 150 this September and was continuously texting my coach to say I wasn’t ready and would keep doing what I could, she responded always very kind and gingerly supporting my “pivoting”.
I stopped making plans unsure of what waking up each day would bring. Friends talked about doing a trip to the Grand Canyon in July when I saw them in February but July felt too far away and I felt too unstable, what if my brain never recovered, what if I felt like this forever. I couldn’t commit to anything because I didn’t trust myself enough to be able to handle what came my way.
I arrived back in Alaska in mid-March just in time for a skimo race, not even deciding to do it until the night before and even then after signing up resigned to calling it off at the last moment if I wasn’t feeling it. I mostly went for the costume contest but feeling getting a trickle of racing back into my veins helped, even it it was at max VO2. I didn’t win and didn’t win the costume contest either, getting beat out by a Chewbacca and Avocado (those things are so political anyways).
I started volunteering with the GRIT program, which stands for Girls Riding Into Tomorrow, it’s a program for middle school girls where we ride around town going to different workshops and places for them to learn more bike skills (they are pro at First Aid needs) and different community spots like the Botanical Gardens. The program ends with a 40 mile bikepacking weekend. All the girls were troopers during the weekend and they definitely showed a level of tenacity that I’m not sure I had at that age. It also helped to provide some stability and grounding with a fixed schedule of activities.
During a GRIT session, Ana was like hey I have a weird question for you and given the past two years figured it was going to be some strange probability of COVID exposure and what she should do. Instead it was, “want to bike 600 miles”? I was most relieved and didn’t find it that strange. I immediately said yes and then asked what dates and then asked why and then followed up with let me double check with work but I’m in for the most part. I was mainly surprised at how fast I committed but took it as a sign. Since the panic attack I was trying to slowly gain pack parts of me through familiar things and biking had not really happened. I thought maybe just a long ride would help reset and remind my body of who I used to be and who I could be. We also talked to Grande about going but she had a work conflict but decided she would bike the first two days with us and then turn around and bike back.
Because of the GRIT campout we decided to drive to Glennallen on Tuesday and take off to Haines from there. Mainly because we were on a deadline, Ana had to get to the start of the Tour Divide Race in Banff by June 10 and we’d have to catch the ferry in Haines. She joked that it was her way to get into shape for the race. I had a little trepidation, it wasn’t the physical part that scared me, more the mental, how would my brain handle being alone for that long with my thoughts– where would it go. When I had the panic attack I thought I was dying and/or would be stuck like that forever in this state of what felt like dementia and couldn’t remember who I was– making me question if I was living an authentic life (and like what even is that). That didn’t go away when the panic attack ended and instead released all the anxiety from 2.5 years of COVID research into my body. When the panic attack started all the adrenaline was getting ready to fight an external threat and instead released it all back into my body to fight itself. But I knew there was only one way to find out and it wasn’t going to be sitting at home wondering how I would handle something. I’d have to slowly start rebuilding the trust I had. Plus with Ana and Grande I knew that if shit did hit the fan, I would be in good hands– just did not tell them all this before we departed.
We left early Tuesday morning, double and triple checking that we had passports and things to cross the border. While we had a few weeks to prep for the trip the only decision we figured out before we left was if we were going to sleep in tents or bivy. We decided on tents for luxury living. A few people asked where we would sleep and stop but we figured it didn’t matter to do much planning, we knew when we had to catch the ferry and the rest we would just figure out as we went.
We departed Glennallen after getting some groceries, changing, and figuring out where to park the van. Only 600 miles, woof. We turned left, heading north as only a few roads out of the state meant we had to go north in order to eventually go south. We loosely planned on getting to Slana about 80ish miles away and camping there because it seemed like there would be some resources. We were met with very little traffic and chatted about everything and nothing of consequence. We relived moments of the Kenai 250 and the GRIT campout, and about bigger adventures to come. I let them into more of my personal struggles and in doing so learned as I often do that I’m not alone.
We rode on and stopped at Christochina, arriving a few minutes before their small store shut down. We warmed up, got hot coffee, a few resupplies, and chatted for a bit with the individuals in there. In our state, we seem to lend ourselves to conversations, where did you come from, where are you going, you’re biking all that way, which soon dissolves into more information about the area, the weather they’ve been having, how busy they are, how often people stop. We only had about 30 miles left to Slana when we left but bundled up as the temperature started to drop. We arrived in Slana only to find what seemed to be a dead town, I had never been there before but it’s the launching point for a lot of adventures that happen in Wrangell National Park so thought there would be something. The temperature read about 30F and we made our way off the highway onto a gravel street following our maps to what looked like something. We saw a post office and I stopped, “hey these are usually open at night” I got off my bike and opened the door feeling a rush of warmth overtake my body, “It’s open and it’s so warm!” Ana and Grande thought maybe we should try the inn next door before violating any federal laws. We went up after seeing the open sign and knocked on the door, a woman rambled down the hallway and confusingly opened the door, “hi, we’re biking through and wondering if you have any rooms we can get for the night.” The lady, seemingly not realizing that she was standing in the door to a place that say “Inn” and “Open” very clearly said they weren’t open, the rooms weren’t ready, winter had stayed longer and they had flooding they had to deal with. As if we should have known all this. She almost lambasted us for being out in the cold, as if we didn’t know. I hesitated but then asked, “Do you think we could sleep in the post office.” “Oh absolutely not!” As if it was the most absurd thing she had heard.
We left, debating sleeping in the post office but opted not to as her house was so close and figured she was the postmaster. We rode back to the highway knowing there was a store just a mile or two down the road that we thought maybe we could try. There was a sign that said while they were closed we could ring the bell and they would come down so we did, and then again, and then again. Nothing, we weighed our options, the ground was pretty saturated from all the run off and we’d need a dry spot. We saw a gravel pull out across the road and made our way there opting for the spot that we thought would shield us best from the highway. We made camp and because of the cold opted to fit all three of us in a 2 person tent. We ate, changed into dry clothes, I shoved my riding clothes into the bottom of my sleeping bag and went to bed barely fitting all of our sleeping pads into the tent without overlapping. Fortunately, when I sleep I don’t seem to move and found myself in the same position when I woke up. We all stayed mostly warm throughout the night and packed back up, joking about how much easier it is when you’re not packing up middle school girls’ gear as well. Our plan for the day was to go past Tok.
Our aim was about 100 miles for the next few days to get us into Haines on time for the Ferry, with less focus on reaching a certain destination as more just acquiring mileage. Doing less mileage in one day only meant we’d be doing more mileage the next day. We had about 60 miles to Tok and it’d be our last big stopping point before we reached Haines so we planned on stopping at the grocery store and loading up. We only really figured we would need to make sure we had breakfast for the following day but I realized the further interior we got the less dietary options I would have for my restrictions. We rode on trying to identify a curve in the road that was a result of an earthquake not too long ago and that someone had told us about the day before but missed it if it even existed. The sun came out for a bit and we delayered, still commenting on the water that was almost breaching the highway from all the snowmelt. We started a descent and saw a moose on the side of the road, we all stopped as it looked at us. It seemed curious and instead of running off like moose in Anchorage do, it turned around and started up towards us, we turned around too. Ohhhh no, it started trotting up and we started riding up pulling our bikes back up the descent we just got down. Not a moment too soon an RV crested the hill and came down alternating the course of the moose and it ran off the side and up into the woods. We turned around commenting how moose out here probably don’t see many bikers but still for little traffic on the road the timing was perfect from the RV.
The only thing we really knew about Tok was that it had a Three Bears Grocery and an electric school bus. Ana had shared that she had read about the electric school bus that can operate in -40 degrees which it does because it gets that cold. Ugh, I don’t even operate in -40 degrees. As we arrived into town we saw a school bus and wondering if it was ‘The’ school bus but upon further inspection it seemed that it was gasoline fed. We rode through town seeing a Three Bears small shop that was closed, surely that was not it and plugged in our google maps to realize there was a larger one around the corner. We parked on the side and I stayed out with the bikes while the other two went in. Have a brief spot of service I sent off updated texts to my family and Kevin letting them know where we were and our plan.
I also had my inreach tracking us the whole time so people could see our progress and keep tabs on us. They came out and I went in, what to get, what to get, I got some frozen bagels, frozen donuts, bananas, apples, a tube of peanut butter, and some gatorade. After going outside to eat a bit and repack, upon going back in again I found not frozen bread and some neoprene gloves incase we ran into bad weather. Thinking my load would get lighter as we went and I worked my way through the three pounds of sour patch kids I realized this would not be the case as I put denser food back in my pack. At this point I had almost over done the sour patch kids and was developing sores in my mouth from all the sour, which if you think that stopped me from continuing to eat them you don’t know me at all.
We left Tok and after about 30 miles decided that when we saw a good spot to camp we would pull over. On the slope of a hill we saw a spot we could climb up to that would overlook the highway but shield us from being seen. Perfect, we pitched our tents deciding it was warm enough to sleep separately, ate dinner, and went to bed. We got up in the morning and was greeted by sun instead of clouds. This is where Grande would turn around and Ana and I would keep going. We ate breakfast and then packed up and parted ways after figuring out how to connect our InReach so we could update each other with our destination for the day.
Ana and I had loosely planned on again riding as far as we could and seeing where we ended up. We rode without any mishap until we saw a bear in the road. Then we stopped debating what to do, we could go by it, low risk that something would happen but high consequence if something actually did happen. We rode off a gravel road to see if there was a loop around, we talked about bush whacking around it but without eyes on it was worried it would run our direction and finally opted to wait for a car. So we waited, and waited, and then waited some more and talked about our options. I sent people updates from the inreach mostly because I was bored and not because I was worried.
Then finally a car approached, followed by another car, we waived them down and they stopped.”Hi, there is a bear up there, could we follow behind your car while you drive by?” “Oh yeah sure, do you want a macaroon?” “Um, yes absolutely, would like some sour patch kids?” They passed on the kids but we got into formation with the jeep behind them realizing what we were doing, they were between us and the bear and what seemed like a little too close when the car finally reached a certain point the bear scuttled off into the woods. We got over to the shoulder and waived goodbye. We continued on discussing what we had done and decided that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
We reached the Canadian Border and got through with no real issues having our passports and vaccine cards. The border had only opened up about a month earlier otherwise we probably wouldn’t have been able to ride through. We had to fill out information about where we would quarantine and put down a random hotel in Haines Junction.
We arrived in Beaver Creek around 7pm and stopped at the gas station, again it being the only spot to get water and food for another 100 miles. We both opted for frozen food that we could heat up and resupplied. I didn’t realize then just how much the warm fried rice would carry me through the night. But it was nice to eat some what real food. The owner of the gas station made a lot of conversation with us and we heard all about the drama between that store and the next store the town over in Destruction Bay. And like most people gave us a fair warning about all the bears around Destruction Bay. We left after taking a break, charging up our electronics, touching base with people and buying more fruit roll ups and coffee. We talked about how good we felt riding and how we would just keep going until we decided not too.
I think some of the push to keep riding was not only our timeline but the fact that we were in proper bear country, it’s one thing to think about sleeping with bears abstractly and a whole another thing to realize that it’s still early in the season, they’re hungry and close to the roads right now for the dandelions. We kept pedaling and never really discussed stopping until it was midnight and we were descending down a hill. I have a terrible eye for animals and from behind Ana yelled out “Bear!” I slammed on the brakes and at the bottom of the hill was a grizzly on the side of the road. We got over to the side and waited, maybe it would leave. We knew our chances with a car at this point were slim. We watched it walk across the road and sit down on the side we were on. Okay that’s annoying, we decided to wait a bit and the could backtrack and camp if we did. Within a few minutes we heard the low hum of what seemed to be a semi-truck approaching on the other side of the hill. We put on our bright jackets and got into position to wave it down. It crested the hill and was just a large lifted truck, not a semi.
They stopped and we explained the bear pointing down the road and then asked if we could jump in their bed. It was three guys and they moved stuff around to put us in their cab and said it would be warmer in there. They did have a point, but this is also how a lot of bad Lifetime movies start. Ana and I put our bikes in the back exchanged quick words, I grabbed my inreach and we got into the cab. I offered up fruit roll-ups or sour patch kids. They were drillers headed back to Whitehorse after being in Fairbanks for work. We drove past the bear and the roar of the truck sent it down off the side of the road but we still decided it was best that we didn’t try to go around it given it’s size. We made small talk with the guys, in situations like that were it’s evident that I could be easily kidnapped I try to give enough information that they know people love me and would miss me without too much information. It’s a fine line but I’ve perfected it over the years. Plus we knew that our GPS was tracking and they would have to stop at some point so even if they didn’t immediately let us out we could navigate that.
We originally thought we would just be going around the bear but they also told us that they had seen a bear right before they saw us, reminding us of how many bears were there. We thought if we saw a good camp spot and/or a spot with another vehicle that might work but the night wore on we stayed in the truck. We reached a point where we decided to just catch a ride to Destruction Bay about 40 miles away so we wouldn’t have to deal with bears at the moment. We continued making small talk about their work, the wildlife, living in Deadhorse, and their music choice (a lot of Nickelback) for being like 20 years old. Gus messaged Ana to see why we were going 50mph so we at least knew people were watching us when it maybe mattered the most.
We arrived in Destruction Bay and got out of the truck around 2am, thanking them for the lift and telling them we would be fine. We thought about getting a hotel but the hotel was closed and not answering their phones. We debated sleeping in the door way that was open and slightly warm. We stayed in there while making a plan, there was a campsite just back and it seemed like it was open so we rode over there. There was a lot of trash piled up on the edge of the campground which didn’t exactly bode well for pitching our tent with bears. We saw a covered deck and thought about pitching our tent in there and then we saw a man inside the house (that seemed to run the campground) on his computer so we thought we would knock and ask him about camping. We did and when he answered we were greeted with, “Do you know what time it is?” Looking at us in bewilderment. Yeah, obviously that’s why we’re here. We told him we were just looking for a place to camp and for someone who owns a campground seemed angry about it but said we could camp. After that interaction we decided not to and rode across the highway and found a park with a pavilion where we pitched our tent at least getting some shelter from everyone. It was 3am by the time we went to bed and I was shivering myself to sleep as the mountains and water cast a cool blanket over the land.
We woke up around 7 and were still cold so we packed up and went over to the dinner in the hotel to get coffee and hot food. We stayed there for a while, almost 3 hours. So long that my mom texted Kevin to ask why we weren’t moving and having already checked in with him he said that I had service and could call. I Facetimed my mom to let her know we were still alive. After warming up as much as we could we made a plan of getting to Haines Junction, refueling and then riding on. It was Friday so the more we rode today the less we’d have tomorrow.
We left town with the sun finally cresting from behind the mountains and not even 10 miles out we wee greeted with cars coming the other way stopping to let us know there were two grizzlies on the side of the road about a mile up. Times like these make me realize how terrible people are at gauging distances. After we had gone 2 miles we thought we had changed our luck and the bears were off the road, not so as we turned a corner and were greeted by what seemed like yearlings hanging out on the side of the road. Completely unfazed that cars were driving by- this meant two things they would completely ignore us as we rode by or they wouldn’t (as is often the case). They were closer than we would have liked and again opted to wait for a car. A truck soon pulled up that was a member of the Canadian Parks Department and he let us load our bikes in the back but for safety reasons we had to get inside.
We drove past the bears and he drove us a few miles down to a good stopping point. We got out, reloaded up and took off. The sun was shining and the fatigue was starting to set in at least for me. I was pedaling but the slight inclines felt a little harder than the day before. I put in an audio book to distract me. I had been listening to When Breath Becomes Air, about a young surgeon who on the cusp of finishing residency gets diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. It’s beautifully written and while I don’t have cancer a lot of the themes seemed to resonate with me, the turmoil in his personal relationships, the losing the sense of self, the questioning of what you should be doing with your life and given the time what’s really important. All things I had struggled with since the panic attack. And after I had some distance from Ana and as the ending came to a close my tears flowed, like they haven’t flowed since before the panic attack, big heaping sobs of the trauma, grief, and pain of the past 2 years and what had been brought on from the panic attacked. I cried for it all, for all the loses, collectively and individually, the pain I had caused and the pain others had caused me, the injustices that exist– it all came flowing out. The tears burned my face as they rolled down having been caked in the sun, wind, and rain the past few days. It took a long time to get here and only 500 miles of pedaling but I was finally releasing what felt like would never get out. I took a few deep breaths wondering if this was the ending or just the beginning.
Ana and I got together again and rode in tandem for a bit stopping before a long descent into Haines Junction. I told her about the book but stopped short of reliving my sob fest. At this point both her and Grande knew about the panic attack, I mean there is a lot of silence to fill, but this felt like mine to keep to myself, the grief that can’t be shared, and if she noticed she didn’t say anything. We sat on the side of the road, me laying down more, and talked about how tired we were. I told her I was tired but not as tired as the 250 but more tired than a normal ride of only 40 miles. The cold night before and lack of sleep really took a lot out of us and we were feeling the miles catching up with us today. We ate some food and didn’t really talk about anything other than making it to Haines Junction before the bakery closed.
We got back on our bikes and pedaled on. We descended down and arrived in Haines Junction opting to go to a grocery store before it closed. We found bagged salad kits and were gleeful at the prospect of fresh veggies after 4 days of commodity food (cue scurry).
We grabbed a few more things and then made our way over to the bakery where we ordered more food and sat outside planning to carry on for a bit longer before making camp. As time ticked on we slowly changed our plan, we had only gone 70ish miles so the need to do more was certainly there. But the bakery was so nice and we were so tired.
Okay, what if we stay in Haines Junction, actually get some sleep and then can do the last 150 miles tomorrow. We looked up a Hostel. I told Ana at the start of the trip that while I support her dirtbag lifestyle (I was young once) if needed to I would opt for a hotel and she could stay with me because what’s the point of having a good job if you can’t credit card bikepack sometimes. We rode over to the hostel and got a room with bunk beds. We pulled our bikes inside and put some food in the fridge. I baked some sweet potato fries that I had found frozen (the upgraded version of just letting them dethaw in your bag before eating). We were also able to shower which was a game changer as the grime of the past 4 days required some deep scrubbing and the occasional realization I’m scrubbing a bruise. I got into somewhat clean pajamas, put my legs up on the wall, and soon fell asleep. We woke up in the morning and packed up enough to ride to the bakery for when it opened. We ate breakfast and stayed there long enough for me to realize I forgot the sweet potato fries back at the hostel. After I returned I got another sandwich for later in the day and we took off to Haines.
The ride was mostly uneventful but we were warned there would be traffic and bears, which spoiler alert there actually wasn’t a lot of either. We rode for about 5 hours and then pulled off into a campground to see the Million Dollar Falls and maybe get some water. We thought even about putting our legs in the water but that was soon thwarted as it was linked off with the falls raging below us.
We wondered if you could run a kayak through it but neither us actually know that much about water so just figured someone had done it. We went back up and found a picnic table in the sun and ate some food. After eating, Ana laid down on her bench first and then I followed and we both fell asleep in the afternoon sun. And we slept so long we missed the ferry. Just kidding but that would definitely happen, we woke back up about an hour later saying we didn’t really have anything else to do and probably needed the rest and then rode around looking for a water faucet. No luck so we went back out on the road and figured we would filter when we found a good spot.
After getting some water we climbed up to what would take us to Haines Summit but it’s not a continuous climb instead you climb and then you are elevated for a while before reaching the actual summit. It’s surreal to be that high and surrounded by peaks. We saw what seemed like a weird public use cabin but there were two girls outside so we decided to stop and chat. The cabin is somewhat public use, a researcher built it and now it’s a first come, first serve type of thing but with it being so late in May they figured they wouldn’t have an issue. They talked about what they had skied and asked about our trip. They gave us some more water and they were the first ones who finally took some sour patch kids. As we rounded one of the last corners an avalanched released, I have never seen one in real life but it was a lot more subtle than I imagined it would be like.
We continued on our way after they told us we were close to the summit and then we would drop down to the Canadian Border. We reached the final actual summit and stopped to layer up. After that we dropped about 2,000 feet in 10 miles and it was a nice change from just pedaling.
We stopped at the border where it told us to stop but as we weren’t a car it didn’t seem to alert anyone and we debated what to do. I always get a little nervous about not doing exactly what they want but we decided we would slowly move towards the window and see if we could get anyone to notice us. The agent came out and was friendly enough taking our passports and asking if we had any guns or cash– welcome to America. It was almost comical with how little we were carrying to think we had some how stashed $10,000 in cash on us. I also wanted to ask how many people actually say yes to those questions but I realize sometimes it’s best to remain silent. The agent told us we only had about 40 more miles and we would descend for 20 of those and then it’s pretty flat for the last 20.
Grande had a friend in Haines that she had put us in touch so I sent her a message. We never try to presume anything so we asked her for campground recommendations, she responded with campgrounds but also said they had an off shoot in their house that we could sleep in and gave directions. Alright well she offered. We let her know we’d be coming late to double check and she said it wouldn’t be a problem at all.
We descended the 20 miles and then we were greeted by the flat pedaling coming into town. It was similar to the Valdez ride where you descend the pass and then all of a sudden you still have 20 miles to town. We pulled over at one point to delayer and two cars pulled over to ask if we needed rides, oh no we’re almost there and we should probably finish this section. Plus Grande told us her trick of counting mileage, once you hit 10 miles it’s basically like nothing and you’re there. So we figured we had two 10 mile segments and really that’s like nothing. But the flatness wore on and we realized just how far 20 miles is even if it seems like nothing after having gone 580 miles. We talked about how cool the landscape was with the big trees and even seemingly bigger mountains.
Neither of us had been to Haines but it was on my places to check out. The darkness came quicker with the canopy of the trees blocking out light and we put on our lights just to be safe. We put the address into our GPS to figure out where to turn as it’s just before the main part of Haines. The miles ticked by and we kept joking how we really had nothing left (clearly delirious at this point). We made it into Haines and turned to be greeted by a large hill to get up to the house, after some tricky navigation we found the house and followed the directions. We ended up sleeping in an office and bathroom that was separate from the rest of the house so we felt less bad about coming in late.
Two nights in a row of showers, what a treat and no having to set up the tent was even better. We showered and went to bed with no real plan for the next day other than to catch the 4pm ferry. When we woke up we saw one host outside, the other had to take off for a guiding trip, and chatted with him for a bit about Haines and the area, they had been crust skiing the day before at Haines Summit for 7 hours.
We made our way into town to the one shop that seemed to be open for breakfast and got coffee and breakfast burritos and sat outside to kill time for the next few hours. We had arranged for bike boxes to be ready for us in Juneau but the bike shop called and said that would no longer work so we were trying to figure out another option as we need to have them boxed for the flights the next day. Grande once again had the hookup who put us in touch with the guiding company in town who had boxes we could come get around 1. From there our hosts would let us use their van to transport the bikes and boxes to the ferry and then Ana would drive the van back and ride back to the ferry where we would box our bikes up. This was a great plan it only threw a wrench in the fact that we needed to ride our bikes from the ferry to the house in Juneau we were staying at. We hoped we’d be able to hitch.
We caught the ferry no problem and sat out on the deck before moving into a more sheltered enclave as the wind picked up. We got some food, snoozed, and read to pass the time. We made a plan of trying to get off the ferry first so we could grab our bikes and hold up a sign for ‘Douglas Island’ to try and catch a ride. We made our sign and upon docking went to get our bikes and make our way towards the cars. In what could have been out of a movie scene we grabbed our bikes, turned around and all the cars seemed to be gone. What? How did that happen. We made our way to the exit and held up a sign. A box truck stopped, “You girls need a ride?”
“Yeah, but we’re going to Douglas Island, are you?”
“I can take you, no problem.” We put our boxes in the back and Ana went there too as there was only one seat up front. I got up front and immediately texted Kevin, got in a box truck with some guy who is going to take us to Laura’s just in case something happens. He responded asking for a license plate number– too late I’m already inside. I again made small talk to let him know that people would miss me. But we were delivered unharmed and he was just a nice guy who had daughters and understood our problem. The final spot we stayed, another hook up by Grande was a house on the water in Juneau. It was so nice that it almost seemed like the past 5 days weren’t real as we both go our own king beds with sheets to sleep in. Our bikes had been packed so there wasn’t much else to do and we headed to bed after FaceTiming our boyfriends to show them our lux accommodations.
We woke up the next morning and Ana caught a taxi to the airport before I did as her flight was earlier so I just hung out and drank coffee and watched the massive cruise ships dock across the marina. I made my way to the airport, leaving our bear spray and extra fuel for Laura as they don’t allow them on the plane.
I arrived back in Anchorage and Kevin got me from the airport, in true summer fashion I already had a trip planned for the next weekend and it took me another 7 weeks to even reassemble my bike. I spent a lot of time on the trip in my own thoughts and I didn’t make any headway to knowing or figuring anything out. I try to making meaning out of meaningless things. Maybe the meaning of it all is that it validated my most exaggerated fears and in doing so I can be released of them or face them or deal with them now. Maybe it’s just in accepting the arbitrariness of what happened, in a moment a spasm of random damage in time and space, that just as randomly, a small number of humans got the opportunity to help me repair. I spent most of the months before this not trusting anything in my brain or my body as if in one fleeting moment it could all be gone the ground crumbling underneath me. I kept waiting until I felt better to make plans unsure of even what tomorrow would bring as if making plans for the future was something that I would get to do when I was better, when I was back to baseline and could rebuild from there. But at some point my body got tired of waiting and decided to act. I’m not back to baseline or maybe I am or maybe it doesn’t matter but I have a lifejacket on in case I ever need to start swimming again.
Anyways, it’s been a long while since I wrote, my narrative got cut much like Meg’s soul in Hercules and it took me a while to find it, like a long while. It caused so much pain for myself and for those around me that it’s still taking a while to sort through. But in this pain I’ve also found joy and learning that these can coexist–that shutting off joy doesn’t prevent the pain and feeling the pain only heightens the joy. Anyways I feel like I’ve spent the past few years running from the fear and not running towards the joy. Maybe it’s all the same. And maybe it’s just in the running that will lead you to where you need to be. 600 miles to no particular destination seemed to be a good place to start.
Grande, Ana, and I are back at it tomorrow but riding less than 100 miles and with no middle school girls– a first for us! Ha
I knew after about 2 miles into the Rattlesnake Rally that I was overdressed. My leg warmers (Sully’s) had fallen down. Which I was a little sad about because they were sized small, and I’ve been lifting so clearly not gaining. I soon went from fashionista to hot mess when I took my jacket off only to realize my handlebar bag was too full of snacks for it to fit and it also didn’t fit in my jersey pocket. I thought about dropping it on the side of the road but then realized it wasn’t mine (problems when you come to WY unprepared for a bike race). I entertained how I would wrap it around my waist but envisioned it falling out and wrecking my bike (it was easy too since it has happened before). I opted for the next best solution, wrapping it around my neck like a scarf.
Fortunately the first aid station was 8 miles in. I counted down the miles and during this time found myself all alone. The lead group (about 6 guys) had split from me and the guy behind me wasn’t too set on catching me. I reached the first aid station and stripped down my first layer as quickly as possible, while simultaneously shoving bananas into my back pocket. I got back on and pedaled away, again by myself, hoping to maybe catch someone by the next station. The course was rolling and smooth and I felt fast, or maybe it was that I had ditched 10lbs of clothing. Either way I was able to get to the next aid station pretty quick. After seeing strips of bacon blowing in the wind (was I hallucinating already?!?), I rode up to see them clothes-pinned to a rope in the tent. My stomach wasn’t really feeling it (as is often the case on gravel races) so opted for more bananas and took off again. There was a short, steep climb out of the aid station which after the crest the land fell away and exposed the harsh, wind-swept, Wyoming prairie. It was quite serene, with endless miles to see, and the lush landscape juxtaposed against the dreary fog clouds rolling over the hills. I kept thinking, Wyoming would be alright to live in. Finding a nice tailwind I tried to push it on this section knowing that when I turned around it would be a losing battle. About 3 miles out from the turn-around I saw the lead group go by, I jokingly called out, “wait for me” but secretly was hoping I could find someone to tuck behind to pull me back to the middle aid station. I got to the turn-around point and was greeted by the fresh smell of boiled potatoes; nothing like bland, tasteless food to make the Irish in me very happy. I shoved one into my mouth and then took as many from the bowel as I could and shoved them into my jersey pocket, I guess this isn’t a typical scene in Wyoming as the volunteers seemed slightly mystified that I would take so many for later. But I knew it would be the difference between riding and limping into the finish. I topped off my bottle and jumped back onto my bike to head back.
I had been mentally preparing for this section, as the director told me that morning it’s a steady incline and would have a nasty headwind. I put my head down and stared at my computer for the next hour. I figured if I could maintain 11mph I would only have to suffer for one hour to get back to the second aid station and then it would let up a bit. That’s what I did and caught a break when two guys came up behind me and I hung on their wheels for about 2 miles–not a lot but enough to help (I later found out they were doing the 120 distance and got first and second place). I successfully managed to get back to the aid station in an hour, eating all the potatoes I had taken and with the help of two songs (this wasn’t on purpose, thinking it would rain all day I didn’t really think I would listen to music so I only had two and they were on constant repeat). I was able to grab about 4 pieces of bacon this time and put them in my jersey for later. The headwind was still persistent but a little better and with more rollers to help break it up.
I had another 120 rider ride with me for a little bit and made small talk with him, he told me he thought the 60 was a better option for the day and I agreed. He also told me that there was no one back there for at least 10 minutes which gave me a little bit of confidence because I’ve had 50 mile races come down to a matter of 30 seconds and wasn’t sure if I could handle a sprint for the end. I also knew it meant I couldn’t take it easy, because there were still enough miles that the time could be chipped away if people worked together in a group to catch me. I let him ride away and soon was at the last aid station. This one was the most busy as the other distance (32) was also on the course now. I shed one more layer, and grabbed another banana. 8 miles to go, less than an hour, just ride smart.
I kept reciting, “smooth is fast” to keep my pedaling consistent and my mind on the race. When I had about 4 miles left to go, figuring I had a big enough lead close enough to the finish, I stopped and picked some wildflowers before getting back on. The last two miles were on pavement and during the roll-out I was busy jockeying for position so didn’t actually pay attention to how long it was–much longer than I thought (it probably helped that it was downhill going out). I got done and felt pretty good.
I ended up winning the Women’s 60 mile overall and was 8th overall (30 minutes down from the lead). I didn’t really know what to expect with this race, but took a risk early on by going off the front and it ended up paying off (this isn’t always the case). I still don’t feel like I’m in great shape and am still about 10 pounds over my racing weight (thanks, law school) but this race at least helped with some early season fitness and confidence going into the summer. I’ll also hand it to the race director, the volunteers, and the participants, everyone was so nice and helpful. It reminded me how much fun racing in less than ideal conditions can be.
I gave my dad the racer’s t-shirt as well as my trophy. They both had rattlesnakes on them and even fake snakes seems to scare the wits out of me.
I’m finally getting back on my mountain bike tomorrow, and pretty excited. I haven’t raced in a long time and have certainly missed it. Next summer I’ll be out of commission to study for the bar. It’s more of a bucketlist summer race season where if I’m inclined I feel like I should do it because who knows what life will serve up after law school.