In January of 2020, I took a class at the museum that focused on editing vs. censorship, it looked at it through the lens of reductionism poetry and it has stuck with me. The thought is that you take a piece of writing and heavily edit it to give it entirely new meaning. During COVID I would edit, mince, and reduce my words because something wasn’t worth it in terms of engaging. It was like having an editor that took my words and slowly over time changed them, contorted them, that by the end it wasn’t even worth speaking because it wasn’t my words.
My parents have often edited my papers but for the better, making sure that sentences were complete (remember those early days, mom?) and even now I’ll send sections of my blog to my mom to make sure it’s okay or the paper I sent to my dad recently that he said was hilarious and then sent back with 127 edits. But never existing in the form of reducing my voice or my meaning. I’ve noticed that while I had many stories during COVID, I didn’t have the language to tell them —but in getting that language back I’m more forthcoming with the stories.
Last week I did Arctic Entries, which is modeled after The Moth by This American Life, each storyteller has 7 minutes to tell a story with no notes on stage. Language is a powerful tool, and influences how humans behave, how I behave. I thought about this especially going into Arctic Entries, how to tell the story. I think about this with writing but with writing I have so many chances to revise, revisit, and rethink. With speaking it’s a one-and-done kind of show.
I had submitted a story back in September, debating between two stories, one about Alvin, and the other about Chris (#IYKYK). And settled on the one about Alvin, I wrote a brief synopsis: How I lost my dog and found a community. They were intrigued so I met with them in October to tell them the story in detail, and they loved it. The timing didn’t work out for the October or the January show which meant at least more time in theory to practice. I went through another round of practice in mid-February and then finally had the date locked in for the March show. After that I started tweaking the dialogue. How to fit everything I wanted to say in 7 minutes. I started editing, the small details I remembered but didn’t move the plot along.
I was picky in who I would share with in the early stages which only really meant sharing with Tom, who would get on a zoom with me most nights to work through it. I would tell the story, he would sit there showing no emotion, and then provide feedback. It was almost comical because he would say things like, “make sure you pause after you deliver that line, it’ll be killer and they will laugh” without him ever laughing. Based on his feedback I reworked a few key things. Thankfully, Tom’s job is focused on interpretation (for a National Park) so if anyone was going to help me it was him, plus it’s debatable which one of us knows Alvin better at this point and since it was about Alvin figured he’d want to make sure I did Alvin justice too.
I felt like I had finally perfected it but back to the editor in my mind, there was one or two lines that I was worried about, how would they be received, would I get pushback. I spent most of my therapy and private yoga instruction on how to navigate this, both of them telling me not to change my story, do not diminish my experience or what I want to say, just say it. But still in all my preparation for speaking in front of 1,000 people I was more anxious about getting a message or statement of criticism from an individual. Because this was the space I had been in for 2 years, worried about how my words might come out and be twisted. The misunderstandings, only hearing what was wanted to be heard. It’s a lot when your voice gets weaponized against you in learning how to reclaim it. But I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing all these months, figuring out how to reclaim my story and my narrative, in that validating my experiences.
As the show got closer, I told the tale to a few others, even incorporating the suggestion that Brianna said I should let people know I named Alvin that because I didn’t want to waste a good dog name since I was only going to be fostering him. The day before I had yoga where we talked through a few things and did a chakra visualization, at the end we sat there and felt where the energy went and what color was associated with it all. I saw a deep hue of blue, with the energy resting in my throat and the feeling of being choked catching me off guard. As I sat up and digested this with her I told her of how often over the past few years I felt like I was being suffocated, my narrative having gotten cut off. She thought Arctic Entries would be a great platform to share my story and experience. After that I went to Vailferee’s (my old babysitter) and practiced with her and caught up on life in general. As always, she proved to be like a big sister showing up with words that helped to express my experience. Then one of the better surprises happened when two college friends were in town visiting one’s sister and I was able to spend time at the brewery with them, the last time Cady was in Alaska was January 2020 so we joked about that and hopefully they move up to Alaska soon…
The day of the show was pretty low-key. Jane, as always sent me money to go get a manicure (it seems to alternate between book money and nail money) and I went for a run before practicing once more with Tom. He left me with the ever-inspiring words of “don’t mess up” and then the only laugh he’s given me during any rehearsals. I went to the show and talked with the other performers beforehand, we’ve all had a glimpse into each other’s lives with the rehearsals. I found out I’d be going third, which was enough time to hopefully not forget my story. I sat through the first two, a four-day blind date that ended up in a marriage, and an incredible story about aging out of the foster system. I saw Vailferee in the front row before the lights went down and stepped into the spotlight, only being able to hear the audience. I started, “I have a background in pandemic preparedness and response, so I was a little stressed in March 2020…” instead of writing the entire story out, I’m going to wait until the recording is available to post it because writing probably won’t do it justice.
I finished and had an outrageous amount of fun being up on the stage sharing my story. It’s only the second time since my brain injury that I’ve presented without notes. After my brain injury, I had my speech impacted which has made me a bit more self-conscious of how I talk—and while I often present without referring too much to my notes, they serve as a nice safety blanket.
They say there is power in sharing your story, it is healing in some form. But it was validating to not mince my words, to not feel muted, to have no criticism or judgment from the editor. I wrote this shortly after, “Can I breathe now, is this how it feels when the breath finally expands through your chest, casting the dust off the previously constricted places, you are free to move, the claws have finally come out, the hand is off your throat, the day has come where you can fly, fly back to yourself, back home.”
In telling my story I realized I can be as honest as possible to my experience but people will only see the truth if it’s close enough to their reality — so reminding myself that my lived experience is mine alone and my humor is not for everyone (among other things). My experience doesn’t invalidate others and theirs does not invalidate mine but holding space for complex narratives that weave into a tangled web.
There is the cliché where you don’t rescue your dog, they rescue you. I never really thought that until now. In the process of prepping for this in October, I looked at my writing from when I first got Alvin (mostly unpublished). Shortly before I had gotten Alvin I starting dating my ex. In that writing were the words that my ex would not have dated me if I had Alvin when I met him, oof. That was about three weeks into the relationship, so sometimes I thought things would be different if I hadn’t gotten Alvin but then I realized all the times that I had used reductionist language on myself, if I hadn’t taken that job, if I had been able to race bikes, if I wasn’t working on COVID, if I loved Alaska more, if I was faster, if I didn’t eat chips so late, if I never wanted to leave the state, if I didn’t have to travel, if I had healed faster, if I didn’t maintain certain friendships, if I was happier, if I didn’t say certain things, if I didn’t burn my eggs, if I hadn’t had the panic attack. And then it hit me, we would have worked out perfectly if I had reduced who I was. Again, language is a pretty powerful tool. By focusing on my narrative now, not having to edit or censor, I can show up more authentically for the relationships in my life (like all of them). This isn’t to put this on him, it’s me working to not dim my light, my therapist reminds me that I was willing to be molded and contorted, to be adaptable. It was certainly a lot easier to see all of it staring back in writing at me like that. I realize that relationships certainly come with their fair share of compromise but at the end of the day they should contribute to your flame, not diminish it. And as I’ve said before it was kind of the perfect storm with COVID and work and everything else that put my light out. But in telling my story with Alvin, I realize how much Alvin has saved me over the past few years and now has helped to give me my voice back.
Anyways, I finished my story by saying that “when the border opened up and I thought I would be moving to DC but I couldn’t do it, just like Alvin and I both being forest feral creatures it turns out that just like when Alvin got lost and this community showed up to help find him, when I got lost and lost my way and sense of self, this community showed up to help bring me back home.” In a way I feel like my Arctic Entries was a love letter to this community, to the friends who showed up when Alvin was gone and who have continued to show up when I was missing parts of myself.
After the show I quickly grabbed a drink with a few friends and then caught a red eye back to DC to teach once more and moderate an event. I’m back in Alaska already and the whirlwind world tour is done for a bit. I have a few big ski objectives that I’m hoping to get in this spring and headed to Fairbanks in 2 weeks for my first 100 mile fatbike race (was suppose to do it in 2020). Team Couch is set to do it but unlike Ana and Grande my form will be truly off the couch with this one.
In somewhat slightly related news, I just finished a book on cults and realized I would be a prime candidate to end up in one so take that as you will– don’t worry Jane, didn’t use your book money on that book. Grateful to the family and friends who remain vigilant around me and help me get by with little street smarts.
Who knew that one week would bring so many new experiences. Grateful to be back in Alaska and all that comes with it.
After Colorado I headed back to Alaska. I landed late Friday night and the next day made plans to get out with Charlotte and Lang. Lang asked what we were feeling and I said something that wouldn’t require skate skiing as during the race the side of my foot had ended up with a nasty blister. We opted for a tour in the front range because of conditions and we wanted to check out a line for later. We met early and caught up on the adventures they had had over the past month. Charlotte showed off her sweet new ski poles that she got in France and I showed her my bibs I got when all my stuff got lost in Canada. We headed onto the trail and talked about what we were feeling, anywhere from 11-15 miles. With the wind expectations we opted for the 11 miles to have a bit more coverage. We skinned for a while, talking about future lines. The slope was gradual until just the last bit, which had a steeper angle (but not really anything over 25 degrees if that). It was icy enough though that we joked we should have brought ski crampons and made our way to what looked like softer snow to grip our skins. We got to the top and the wind was raging. We took our skis off so we could get behind some rocks to check out a line- we questioned if our skis would actually stay with the wind.
I put mine up next to some rocks so if they moved they maybe wouldn’t get blown off the cliff. We tucked in the rocks which gave us only a little more protection and looked at the line. We talked about the best approach and what it would look like. While this was happening I was putting on all my layers, while not actively snowing the wind was whipping the snow up and accumulation was starting to build on my pack.
We decided to get down and then we’d stop to drink and eat something. Transitioning was challenging as the wind kept whipping my skins around as I tried to wrangle them to protect and fold them away. We headed down, I headed skiers left as it seemed the easiest line for me to traverse down. Lang and Charlotte went right and I immediately regretted the split. It’s not a habit I want to get into but I had eyes on them the whole time and I watched my slope to cut it at a low angle. We met up down below on more of the flat surface and talked about how terrible the snow conditions were — it was like we had forgotten how to ski. Because of the low angle slope we mostly shuffled/double poled for a while. We did get to a spot that allowed us to get some turns before crossing the river and putting our skins back on to get out.
On Sunday I met a friend to cross country ski (never too early to start training for the Gothic- ha). We ended up catching up for a while and I had therapy at 12 so squeezed in about a 30 minute ski but it was nice to at least get some movement. I then disregarded unpacking and went and caught up with more friends, promising that I would do more later that evening. Instead I got a text from an old co-worker letting me know the northern lights were going to be out (he knew it was on my list to see them this year). I met up with him around 7pm and we headed out of town with blankets and extra layers.
As we were driving we started to see some dancing, we found an empty pull off away from the highway and started to watch. The lights ebb and flow in their intensity. Sometimes dancing across the sky and at other times, retreating until there is only a glimpse to the naked eye. I sat in complete wonder and awe and stared. This is incredible, I took it all in.
Eric had brought a tripod so was able to take some good photos, I didn’t even try. I thought back to the Maah Daah Hey and had a similar feeling, is this mine to keep forever. We sat out for a few hours and then realizing the 5am wake up call I’d have headed back to town but pulled over once again when they came back out.
The lights were good enough that people saw them from Anchorage without much trouble. I woke up early again and thought of heading outside but still felt satisfied from the night before so instead turned on my sun lamp and started my work day.
I met Charlotte later that day for a little after work ski on the local trails. I used my race boots and still felt some aggravation from my race blister.
I headed up to Fairbanks early Wednesday morning for an all day meeting. I thought about taking my ski stuff but returning Thursday afternoon felt like it would have been a lot to pack in. I did shove in my yoga clothes just in case.
I arrived in Fairbanks and it reminded me of the Black Hills, with small rolling hills and heavy trees, oh this is nice. I had meeting all day and then the friend I was staying with was teaching yoga so caught a ride and met her at the studio, then we stayed for another yoga class and cooked dinner and did a lot of debriefing of our lives.
The next morning I spent mostly prepping for my presentation. I went to the meetings, the focus being on the international perspective of things. One of the early speakers, Deenaalii, talked about grounding, they posed two questions to the audience, what are you bringing to this meeting and how do you embrace change. How do I embrace change I thought and we had to discuss to a person we didn’t know. I thought about this and probably overshared with this stranger giving a lot more detail but the just was but that I was embracing change in a way I did prior to COVID-19. After the talk I went up to Deenaalii, knowing them, and chatted for a bit talking about my answer they gave me the wisdom to say don’t get addicted to the feeling of things changing constantly and to seek grounding. Woof.
I gave my presentation which I won’t bore you with the details but I’m incredibly grateful that I get to work on the things that I feel such drive and passion for– I know a lot of people who don’t feel that in their jobs and I wake up everyday saying a statement of gratitude that I get to have a job I love and live in a place I love. After that I had just enough time to squeeze in a trip to the Museum of the North before my flight.
Back in Anchorage I started unpacking and joked with my roommate that I felt like I was finally ready to emerge from my cocoon that I had created in my room (more like forest ferrel creature) after all the sideways things that have happened over the past few months (again book material, not blog material). I went skiing with Hailey, who gave me pointers on skate skiing form and we got back to the car to find my window was smashed in. This is a very common occurrence in Anchorage. Unfortunately, they only took Hailey’s things and left all of mine. The biggest inconvenience was having to vacuum up all the glass but now The Truc is ghetto fabulous for the next few weeks. I thought about passing on skiing the next day but woke up early enough to take care of all the insurance things and Lang offered to drive so we could be a bit warmer.
We headed out to Hatcher’s with a plan to try and ski a couloir. When telling someone that I was going couloir hunting, he joked that I didn’t really annunciate well and thought I was going ‘cooler hunting’ for the Yeti’s that had washed up on shore previously this year. I assured him that I have a terrible time with the spoken word as everyone thinks Alvin’s name is actually Elvin when they hear it from me.
We headed out and decided to go towards Lost Couiloir since it seemed the safest bet in the conditions– figuring it would be tracked out but thinking that was a better bet in case we had to bail and ski something else.
We headed up and skinned our way to the bottom and looked up, no one had been here. How is this possible? We skinned up until we were at a good spot and dug a pit to see what the snow pack looked like.
We both felt good with what we had seen and headed up to the point where we had to stop skinning and start boot packing. My boot packing skills are quite comical as I would basically just sink further deeper into the snow. Lang gave me some tips, like heels down, knee in, drop your butt, all the things to disperse weight over the surface, and we made it to the top, maybe an hour after we had started. Mind you it was only about 400-500 yards.
We still couldn’t believe that no one had been up here. Lang offered to go first, even though we felt good about the potential avy risk (it was very low, mom) he would get some of the sluff out that was on the top layer.
He went down first and I waited at the top, watching his line to see how the snow was cutting. I waited until he got to our discussed meet up point and then flipped my boots into ski mode. At some point I realized I would have to go down, which I know what you’re thinking, isn’t that the point, yes obviously, mostly. But I also really enjoy ascending so sometimes I get to the top and then I’m like oh yeah how do I get down.
I pushed off, trying to make sure I did not tumble and lose a ski right away like I had done the weekend before. I cut into the slope and the snow felt amazing. I cut back and started following a similar line of Lang’s down. I kept cutting down, anticipating hitting terrible snow at some point but it never came and I started to relax into the turns, plant poll, and turn, I kept repeating as I kept turning. I made it down to the bottom and my quads were on fire, it was probably the steepest and longest run that I’ve done this season and coming off close to a month of no skiing I certainly felt it. I met up with Lang and we debriefed quickly about our respective runs. We started heading out and then decided to head up towards a small pitch to get a faster track back to the car.
We skinned up and then quickly transitioned talking about which aspect to go down both settling on a cardinal direction that was not prone to avalanches (I’m terrible at naming cardinal directions and am mostly like it’s this direction and the other one was that direction). I went first and pushed off, trying to make longer and steeper turns. I was feeling overly confident when my ski looped a bit too far around and I tumbled, I got up laughing, of course. Both skis were still attached so I pushed back off again and made my way down to the skin track. Meeting up with Lang he asked if I had hit a rock, and I said no, just my large ego. He said he definitely thought I had hit a rock and I was like we’ll just go with that.
It was my first time skiing a couloir and was really grateful that Lang was game to take me. I feel like I’m becoming more confident in my skiing abilities and was telling Lang that I’m grateful for partners this year who take me out and keep giving me pointers. We’re rapidly approaching spring skiing season in Alaska and I’m very excited for what’s on the horizon.
In another first, this week I’ll be telling a story at Arctic Entires. It’ll be the second time since my brain injury that I will present without notes (I don’t typically use notes when I present but they serve as a nice safety blanket). After that I got to DC for two days and then I’ll back in Anchorage for a good chunk.
I joke that sometimes when I have a new experience I call them Fisher Price Moments, like bebe’s first experience. Grateful, again for all the new experiences that keep coming my way. Okay, now back to finishing unpacking so I can repack.
I’ve gained weight, I don’t know how much or really where but it’s palpable. At first I thought maybe it was because of the chips I was eating, or the absorption issues getting better (more on that later). But then I realized that my body finally feels like it’s safe. Let me explain, from an evolutionary standpoint when we’re hunted by a predator, we try to get small, like really small as if that will keep us safe. Our bodies and minds haven’t exactly caught up to the modern world so the fight or flight persists to manifest in maladaptive forms. Anyways, when I did a skimo race last year, my friend asked how she could get so skinny, I half joked, have a panic attack. But it was true, I remember some days getting to the end of the day and realizing I hadn’t eaten anything and then would eat chips to try and compensate. This later became an issue when someone mentioned how odd it was that I ate chips so late at night, I realized that they didn’t realize that sometimes it was the only thing I had eaten. Anyways, it was a foreign place to be, I had always seen food as fuel, something that could sustain me on the long endurance races. A necessity, when I was in grad school I weighed myself every day to make sure I wasn’t loosing weight. I thought about this recently as I lined up for the Gothic Mountain Traverse. A race I had signed up for last year but didn’t make it to the starting line, last year I felt too weak, too fragile, too small. Instead I spent that weekend not racing hanging out with Allison and Kati while pouring out the contents of my brain. But it was a much needed weekend with them.
Fast forward to this year and I signed up for the race knowing that it would coincide with teaching in DC. Because I had left Alaska five weeks earlier I opted to not bring my race boots so I could just use the same boots for the Canada trip and this race (they required different skis, remember no skimo skis on the Canada trip). But by not bringing two pairs of boots I had more room in my suitcase to bring back Trader Joe’s to Alaska.
I took the bus to Boulder to get a car and pick up my skis (thanks again Dave and Neil for bringing them back after Canada). I finished up some work and stopped at Costco for the Crested Butte crew before picking Alexei up at the airport and heading to CB. We got in a bit late but Sam and Claudia (the cat) greeted us.
On Saturday morning, Zach made us crepes and we talked about a plan for the day. I told Sam I was down for whatever tour, as while I was there for a race wasn’t exactly prioritizing the race like I used to do. We headed out, only stopping to buy batteries as I had left my avy beacon on since leaving Canada and it was very dead. We headed up Snodgrass which I had only been on in the summer. Part of the skin track was on the race course so I just kept saying it was like a course preview.
We got up to the top and poked over the ledge in a few places to see the best line down, we backtracked a bit and then transitioned. I took my skins off and then decided to go pee, which was quite hilarious when I went to squat, started peeing, and started sliding on my skis. Fortunately I was able to somehow not end up with any pee on me and stop the slide before I got too far but lesson learned.
We decided I would go first because I didn’t have a radio, I told Sam my line and then pushed off. Except then I quickly tumbled and lost a ski, I heard Sam say, “what the fuck Kate” and reminded him I hadn’t skied in like a month. Alexei grabbed my ski as I had slid down and I put it back on— woof! Round 2! I pushed off again and immediately realized how much I had missed this in the past month. I cut down into the trees and weaved to a good stopping point. Alexei followed soon and then we cut over to meet Sam. Wow, this is nice, I might move to CB! The bottom half was even better with open glades for the taking. We got down to the end of the road and debating doing another lap, we realized where we had gone down didn’t exactly set us up for another lap and with a bib pick up cut off time decided to skin out.
I got my bib with no problem, running into friends from Alaska and friends from Boulder. We went to the store to grab things for dinner and last minute race provisions. No such luck on the sour patch kids though. We stopped at the gas station where we were informed “they have the best candy section in town, maybe the valley” and they did. I had actually only been able to get some flavors in different countries and thought they were specific to those countries. So we bought 4 bags to be safe of different varieties.
We got back to the house, made dinner, Sam adjusted my bindings for my boots and I prepped my stuff for the next day. There was a lot of discussion about going to karaoke but I was unsure with karaoke not starting until 9pm.
It didn’t take much to convince me to join karaoke and figured I would go for an hour and then come back and go to bed. I changed and then changed again when it became clear everyone was wearing costumes and dawned a banana outfit— any house that has a costume closet is my jam. I drove so I wouldn’t be tempted to stay out too late. It was well worth it, with the CB crew really showing off their voices and dance moves. One of the friends had a skinsuit as her costume, she asked if I wanted to borrow it for the next day, “it’s a kid’s x-large, I found it at a thrift store.” Ohhh maybe, that could be fun”, but was concerned about the weather and if it would actually keep me warm. By the end of the evening I was convinced I would wear it if I could fit my layers underneath it. I stayed out a bit later than I had planned but got a skinsuit and a top 10 at karaoke.
The morning of the race came early, the race started at 6 so I got up around 4:30, made coffee, ate breakfast, and toiled around a bit. I put on wool baselayers and then pulled the skinsuit over, oh wow, this is amazing.
I shoved the rest of my layers into my bag anticipating having to put them on at the start line as previous years it had been -20. I had almost left the house when I realized I needed my skis. I grabbed them and got in the car, leaving the house a little later than I had planned but fortunately everything is close. I looked at the temperature in the car, 20 degrees. That can’t be right. I got to the school, put some last minute things in my bag, my helmet and headlight on and headed to the start. In talking to people the night before it seemed like the start tactic would be to go without skins and skate. I’m not a fan of skate skiing but figured they knew best. I slotted into the start and made conversation with the girl next to me, it was also her first time. She said she thought I was very serious because of my skinsuit, I told her I borrowed it from a lady at the bar last night so not that serious.
We started and I started, pushing off to skate, okay this isn’t too bad, definitely faster than on skins, I can do this, I was kicking and gliding when something got tangled and I starfished face first onto the track, oh my gosh please don’t hit me. I scampered up, well at least I got that out of the way and was relatively unscathed, and because it was dark no one could see my bruised ego. I followed the headlights in front of me feeling the divide between the skaters and the skinners opening up. I got to the spot to transition and put on my skins and stepped back onto the course. The next section zigged and zagged over the Nordic trails, but we remained mostly in a congo line going up the single track. I wondered if those in front had to break trail and thanked myself for not being that fast.
I got to the first descent, transitioned and set off, convinced that I’d be able to make up time on the descents. I think of it similarly to mountain biking where I feel confident taking the B line to make up time (I’m sure my friends who have seen me ski are like, “plz Kate don’t ever take the B line, your mountain bike skills are non-transferrable). I was going down the groomer and feeling pretty fresh, I saw a little jump and took it which fed into the next transition area. I unlocked my heels to put my skins back on but one of my heels was already released, oh maybe I didn’t actually step in properly. Then I looked, oh that’s not right and the heel attachment was gone but the tower was still there. I looked behind me as if it would be there. I thought about bailing, I mean I was only 3 miles into the race but realized I didn’t really need a heel piece.
I decided I would keep going, there would be one more descent before Snodgrass and if it was sketchy I could bail and walk back to Zach and Mary’s. I sent a text to the boys with a photo and kept going. I thought of how it could have happened but it didn’t really matter and just hoped I could warranty it.
We climbed on the resort trails until reaching the first cut off point where it was another transition point. The guy behind me told me that was a tough time cut-off but we were in good shape. I had no idea and asked if he had done it before, a few times he said. I ripped my skins and locked my one boot in and took off. The descent felt pretty normal so I decided I would be fine without a heel piece (granted this was on groomers). I transitioned again and then headed up the Snodgrass track that we had taken the day before. The Alaska friends passed by me on this section, one having raced it the year before said they were just here to mostly tour and have fun. I felt similar even though I was in a pretty fancy skinsuit. I followed them for a bit until I fell off and settled into my pace. I made sure to occasionally grab a handful of sour patch kids. I got to the top of the next transition, the guy behind me was like “Oh wow, you’re missing your heel piece” And I was like “oh yeah, but now my ski is lighter!” The guy doing the checks asked if I wanted a ski strap and I said I had one but also like absolutely not was I going to strap my boot to my ski. I figured this would be the real test, as it was a little more powder and no groomers. I reminded myself that my right ski was stronger so to rely on that if I needed to. I started the descent and went skiers right looking for the flagging to tell me I was going the right way. I stopped as I couldn’t see the flagging anymore, I figured either way would end up on the road but waited till I could see another skier through the trees to my left and headed in that direction.
I got down to the road and debated putting my skins back on, some were skating so I decided to skate for a bit until it wasn’t worth it. The skate didn’t last long and soon I was putting on my skins, chatting with others on the way. I was familiar with the Gothic Road from the summers I spent riding in CB up to the 401 trail but the ski route went up the 403 trail. After skinning the road for a bit we turned off to start the climb– a guy near me told me that it was just 2,000 feet up and then you’re mostly done with climbing. With that encouragement I settled in and adjusted my pace. And up I went, a bit slow at times, some movements felt more laborious than others. I thought of my roommate Hailey’s instagram post from early that week, she talked about giving 100% of what you had in that moment and not just a blanket 100% (she definitely articulated it much better than I just did). I kept going up, and eating, and drinking. My mind kept wandering over the past year, the ridges and grooves that brought me back to myself– the absurdity of having gotten so lost in the first place. I got near the top and stopped to put on my shell and my warmer mittens. The wind had picked up and was blowing snow. I got to the top, called Top of the World, and took in the view, or what would have been the view if it wasn’t socked in, oh well next year. I ripped my skins and headed down. Someone told me that it was a straight line down to the next point and the last descent was the most technical. This was mostly true and while I didn’t exactly straight line, I did get down pretty quick. I stopped to transition again, I had my puffy gloves on and in the midst of it all it got caught in my jacket zipper and ripped, exposing all the feathers. They floated around and kept coming out, I don’t know how they fit so many feathers into such a small patch because a few miles later I still had feathers circulating around me.
I got to the final transition for the last descent. Another volunteer was directing where the line was. I looked down and while tracked out it didn’t seem like any powder at this point. I stood there for a moment and a guy came up behind me. “You’re the girl without the heel piece right?” I looked at him and said that was me, he told me to be careful on this descent. Sometimes I get annoyed when that happens but he had genuine concern in his voice as if he realized how easy it might be for me fumble this one. I let him take the first line so I could follow. I started going down and it was definitely a bit of survival skiing. I followed the tracks but the snow had gotten a bit more harder packed, I leaned onto my right leg to cut the turns. My legs were a little tired at this point and the hill down was pretty long, I stopped to release my legs and straighten them out. I noticed the guy in front of me would occasionally glance back, as if to make sure I was still okay in my descent. With a few more stops (it was a long descent) I made it to the bottom and the final check-in. They said there was an angry moose so a bit of a course reroute. But still about 6 miles from the finish but overall a net loss. In talking to people it also seemed like the best approach was to skate ski until you couldn’t and then put skins on. In all my winter skiing this year, I had done about 30 minutes of skate skiing total.
I started skating and I have terrible form but still managed to move faster than those around me with skins. Kick, glide, kick, glide, trying to channel all my physical therapy tools to keep my hips forward, upper body up, and channel my two roommates who actually grew up skate skiing. I got to the bottom of a big uphill, net loss my ass. The guy next to me took his skis off to boot pack. I opted for the same approach, realizing that transitioning twice would take longer and because I mostly penguin walk up hills figure it would be the same amount of time but just different muscles. I got to the top, put my skis back on and started back with the skating. I had no idea how much further I had to go, I opted to not race with my watch but did have the mileage on my phone but it wasn’t exactly easily accessible. I made sure to keep eating and drinking.
I was skating along when a snowmachine pulled up with Zach and Sam on it. I stopped and we chatted for a bit, offering them my sour patch kids, they told me I was close to the finish. I told them about the day and they told me where they were headed to ski. Sam said his machine had broken down about 100 yards from the finish so when I saw it I would know I was close. I thanked them and headed back on my way. It was around here that I thought about switching skis, my right leg had been attached to the heel piece for all of skating but my left leg was stronger so thought by switching maybe I would get a little further each time. I stopped and switched skis with my right heel being free now. I went to push off and it was like my brain stopped working, I could not go forward with any grace. I started laughing, how is this happening. I switched my skis back and wondered if anyone just saw the calamity. I started skating again and saw the course deviate a bit, I took my glove off to grab some sour patch kids and when I went to put it back on I couldn’t find it. I looked behind me and some lady said she would grab it, I stopped and waited offering her candy in exchange for my glove which she took some candy. I got up a short pitch and a woman on a fatbike rode by saying the finish was just around the corner and all downhill from there. I was skeptical but then I saw Sam’s snowmachine.
I got through the finish and that was that. I saw the friends from Alaska and chatted with them about the course waiting for the shuttle. I got on the shuttle and recognized the guy who had warned me about descending, I asked if that was him and he was like yeah I was worried you were going to blow a knee, I thanked him for his vigilance. Especially because blowing a knee had never actually crossed my mind.
I got back to the car and was feeling so fresh I thought I might go meet Alexei at the resort for a lap or two but decided to go home and shower first so I didn’t get cold. After the shower the exhaustion hit me and instead I laid on the couch catching up with Mary and waiting for everyone else to arrive and talk about their near-misses of the day. We all opted for an early bed that night.
On Monday, Alexei and I headed out to tour before heading back to the front range. We opted for a more mellow tour both being unfamiliar with the terrain but we found great little laps and the sun even making a few appearances exposing the valley, which would have been cool to see during the race, oh well, next year!
I spent the rest of the week in Boulder with Dave, Allison, and Ruby, catching up with other friends over dinner, going to Banff Film Festival, and getting an early morning lap in (where I forgot my skins but kind of made do).
I’m back in Alaska but for a work conference in Fairbanks and next week back in DC for a bit more work but then will be back in Alaska for a good chunk. Arriving back in Alaska no longer brings a sense of uncertainty with it and instead this immense gratitude for all that has grown around me. The past few weeks with traveling and reconnecting with friends has made me examine my value system, the standards I have for myself and how I show up in relationships and the expectations that I have for others. It made me think of the race because during it one guy made a comment to me “skimo skis aren’t great for skiing, huh?” and I was like why are you telling that to me, of course I know they aren’t great for skiing but like I’m not here to ski well, obvi. But realizing he was probably going through some shit and was projecting whatever onto me. Instead I try to think of all those around me during the race who were cordial, gracious, and vigilant towards me. This is somewhat related to my personal life as I had a very abrupt rupture happen recently and trying not to dwelling too much on that point of inflection, instead remind myself of all the others that continue to surround and inspire me with their actions and words. Don’t worry the story is bonkers and it’ll be in the book but I no longer feel like I have to become small because of others (cue eating all the Trader Joe snacks I brought back).
I half joke that the only reason I run is to stay in shape in case someone asks me to go to the Grand Canyon, it’s not really a joke and there isn’t much convincing needed on my part to go there but always nice to have a partner mostly to ease my mom’s concerns.
The last time I went to the Grand Canyon it was with Dave and Allison, and while I started that blog post many times I never finished it. We went down in a post-wedding celebration (of sorts) where I made them recreate multiple wedding photos at multiple locations and we all dawned bridesmaid dresses for one of the days.
We realized that dusty rose might actually be Dave’s color. We ran down to the river, got the world’s best lemonade and then made the trek back up. In the months that followed the panic attack, I lost my narrative, my sense of self, and sense of belonging. Most days I could not even believe that I was the same girl who had ventured to the depths of the canyon mere months before.
In November friends started putting in for cancelled rafting permits and one was drawn. The dates didn’t align for work but half joked that I could always run down to Phantom Ranch, say hi, and run back out. Joke is on me. As the plans transpired it was realized they would be at Phantom on Sunday which meant I could feasibly do that without running into a work deadline. It should be noted that I don’t mind dancing around work deadlines, I love my job, what I do, and feel incredibly lucky for the life it enables me to live. Anyways, more logistics flew and realized that a friend would be hiking out, cool I could join him and figure out who was taking his spot to go in with. More planning, Carly would also be hiking out, amazing, and Jordan a friend from Alaska and Avery (friend of a friend) would hike in. Done and done, I’d have people to hike in with and people to hike out with. The logistics seemed more complicated on my end with my return ticket being purchased before my departure one as I hemmed and hawed when I’d want to arrive so I could be stable for a late Friday work call. I opted to leave on Friday and enjoy the Sedona sun Friday evening before picking the boys up at the airport on Saturday.
I arrived and drove up to Sedona getting to a trailhead parking lot just as the sun was moving behind the rocks. I put my windbreaker on forgetting how cold the desert could get as the sun went down. I started jogging up the Cathedral Rock trail, the most powerful vortex in all the land. I ventured off the trail a bit to get in some different views before linking back up onto the trail. I climbed up to the top and perched out on the rocks watching the last of the light cease from the day.
A very common issue is that I think it only gets dark in Alaska, because people outside of Alaska always ask if it really gets dark there so it has convinced me that nowhere else gets dark. As a result,I left my headlight in the car, but with a clear sky and moonlight was able to dance my way down the trail, amazed at how my body navigated though the rocks. I was approaching the parking lot when I saw a change in tone on the rock and stepped on it with my right leg before I could change my footing, my foot had struck ice and slipped out, my left in an already downward step motion, bent at the knee and kept going as I slid down. I stopped and got up feeling a foreign pain in my left knee all the way down my leg, oh wow I haven’t had an injury in a while. I slowly walked back to the car taking in the stats of my pain, location, and any altered movements I was making. I could move and haven’t heard anything popped making me think it was just a strain but was a little nervous that I had effectively nulled my Grand Canyon trek. I stopped at store and picked up some epsom salt to soak it and KT tape for the next day. I soaked it and propped it up on a pillow for the night.
The next morning I taped it up and headed to a fairly easy trail for a loop to see how my knee felt. The trail started with a half mile descent to link up with the loop, I gingerly pushed off my left leg, altering my gate for my right leg to carry more of the load. How odd, my right leg has been the weakest and now it was picking up the slack of my left. I notice what caused a sharp pain, down step with leg fully extended and a heel strike. I wove around people and the rocks. The pain was intermittent giving me hope that I hadn’t done any real damage. Once the trail leveled I settled into a slower pace than normal and ran the loop around. Sully and I used to come down to Sedona to visit his parents, I remembered riding the trail with him but running it now I couldn’t believe this was one of the easier ones in the area. I made it through the loop and felt better towards the end with no actual residual pain. Definitely got lucky on that one.
I picked up Avery and Jordan in Flagstaff and after a few stops at REI, three grocery stores to get some of the requests from those on the river, the dollar store, and gas station, we headed north. We stopped halfway to do a short hike where a volcano had essentially melted in on itself. After about a mile or so of post holing, we decided we were good with going back. I asked Avery (he’s a doctor) about my knee, he basically said the fact I could walk on it means there isn’t anything serious wrong. Worked for me!
We spent the night packing, them mostly repacking to fit some of the groceries in. I messaged Evan about the possibility of actually needing to pack my camping things in. He thought they’d be to Phantom around 1 at the latest so we’d be able to hike out the same day. Perfect, more room in my bag for groceries. In what is the most bizarre pack I’ve taken down to Phantom, it included a large block of cheese, two bags of arugula, bell peppers, and cuties, in addition to my layers and snacks.
We left the hotel around 8 and got to the trailhead around 9:15, I figured out my layers and we headed to the trail around 9:30. I have never been to the Grand Canyon in the winter so was excited to see what it was like. I carried my micro spikes as we crossed the parking lot and upon reaching the trail junction, put them on. We started the descent, it was about 15 degrees on the top and a pretty good layer of ice on the trail.
We started down the trail, the familiar switchbacks revealing themselves as the spikes pierced through the layer of ice. I was just taking it all in as we walked down the trail. We fell into a similar pace and chatted about what those on the river were experiencing and when we thought they would arrive. Before I knew it we were at the first outhouse, about 1.5 miles down. We stopped to grab some water and snacks, I passed out some sour patch kids and then we kept going. About 800 yards later I took off my spikes, the trail had mostly tried with just some lingering spots of ice. I thought back to the times before on the trail, the versions of me that had existed here — sometimes I think I’m almost reclaiming spaces that I went to during COVID, as if a part of me has been left there for safe keeping and I was returning to pick her up. I didn’t share this with Jordan but we did talk about crystals and vortexes and also everything else, dog mushing, growing up in Alaska, skiing, relationships, families, on the trail anything is fair game— but I’ve noticed that death is coming up less frequently.
We continued down and about half way I stopped to take off more layers, cursing that I had left my shorts in the car. A few guys were stopped too and commented on the beer Avery was hauling on his pack, there weren’t a lot of people on the trail but those that were certainly were curious about the boys’ large packs and my tiny one, in addition to the beer. We explained and they were like oh next time you should send it down on a mule, it’s $80 but that’s what we do to get out stuff down there to camp for a few days… ohhhh that’s good to know.
We ebbed in and out of being able to hear the river. It’s intoxicating to think about something so wild, so fierce, that spent years carving out the canyon and is still a force to be reckon with #Goals. As we got closer we could see the beach and we saw a few kayaks, oh I wonder if that’s them. A raft approached confirming it was there from where we perched about a mile above. I joked with Jordan I could run down and tell them we were on the way, he said okay and I said really? Okay! And took off down the trail. As I was running I was filled with what I imagine is the feeling of immense gratitude, which I find myself having more and more of these days, this overwhelming warmth that radiates in my body. I kept running down the trail, elated that I’d be reconnected with friends I hadn’t seen in a few weeks and others a year. I ran through the tunnel and into the light on the bridge to cross the river. I heard them yelling and hollered back. I dashed off the bridge and looped around with the river crew getting covered with shrubbery. I kept going and stepped off the trail and made my way to the beach— ohhhh heyyyy
We exchanged greetings and then a few of us wandered up to Phantom Ranch to get some lemonade and drop post in the mail. I heard more of their adventures from the river and told them about all my travels. I’m never sure what it is but the lemonade is amazing here.
We went back to the beach, this time Jordan and Avery were there and Carly and Evan were packing there things up. I took a few of their things in my bag and after saying goodbye we split up and they headed down the river to get a few more miles in for the day.
I’ve never hiked up South Kaibob, it’s 2 miles short than Bright Angel but doesn’t have any water on it. But since all the water is turned off in the winter figured it didn’t matter — and decided with Tom it was the best route for more sun exposure on the trail.
We started back up all the switchbacks I had just come down. I heard about their week, how it snowed on them early on, the rapids they encountered, and the food they packed in. I told them about Canada, Geneva, and DC. They both used to live there and I would usually spend my DC time with them. We talked about everything again, work, relationships, life, the geological time scale.
Going up wasn’t too bad but we made it a point to stop every mile to drink water and take a break. I half joked that we just needed to be near the top by 7 for my family FaceTime call. Even with the more frequent breaks we were taking we were mostly on track to reach that. We put on our micro spikes a little later after I had taken them off with the sun making the trail less icy over the day and more slushy.
Better to be safe than sorry. We kept going up and were able to see the last light of the day cast over the canyon before disappearing for the night. Fortunately, it was a clear night and enough light from the moon made it so we didn’t feel a need to bring out our headlights (but I did have mine this time). About 15 minutes from the top, I called in to my family, realizing that my text saying I was headed in never actually sent.
I told them of the day and Carly and Evan said hi too. We got to the top or as Carly said, rimmed out, packed up the car and headed towards the nearest McDonalds. After some food and coffee we drove back down to Flagstaff for the night.
The next morning, after barely making it to the hotel breakfast, we wandered around Flagstaff, Carly and Evan both served as my personal shoppers in the book store pulling a book on boundaries (these days I’m half in/half out the self help section with my reading). Given all they know I figured these options wouldn’t hurt and got a few postcards as well. We said our goodbyes with them driving out to California and I was headed down to Phoenix for a flight. I had enough time that I stopped for a yoga class on the way, and buying a tshirt from the place to do yoga in (this will be important later). I then stopped again in Sedona to head up to Cathedral Rock and see it in the daylight.
I squeezed out all I could to make it back to the airport in time for my flight. I dropped my car off at the rental place and hopped on the tram to transfer to the terminal. It should be noted that I don’t usually get to the airport very early (unless I’m traveling with someone who prefers that), the one time I did get there a few hours before my flight I fell asleep at the gate and missed my flight. On the tram I went to check in, except I couldn’t find any email with the check in information, huh, that’s weird. I looked at my account, nothing had ever been charged for a flight, although I do remember getting up to get my card information to purchase the flight but now wondering if I just didn’t wait for the transaction to get completed. Anyways about 30 minutes before departure I realized I didn’t have a flight. I also realized I didn’t have enough time to get to the ticket counter and through security. No matter, this was so exciting, I’ve seen this in the movies where someone goes up to the counter and is like, I need one ticket to DC and I have to be there by 9am tomorrow and slams the credit card down on the counter. In reality I did need to be back at work by 9am for an in person meeting. I walked up to the counter (while whispering big money big money, no whammies) and they asked if I was there to check-in. “No, I’d like to buy a ticket!” trying to hide my excitement, “you can’t do that here, only online or calling.” What? I imagined the plot of Home Alone getting rerouted. Well there goes any future spontaneity air travel. I quickly logged onto Kayak and found a red eye that would get me into DC at 7:30am. When I told my mom she couldn’t believe I got a ticket for $200, I responded that God works in mysterious ways- ha. But then I was at the airport a bit early so caught up on some reading and wandered around. When it came time to board, my mom Facetimed me again to make sure I was in fact awake and at my gate.
I arrived in DC without any time to go home and change. In my layover in San Francisco I managed to find some black leggings and a scarf to make it work. I got in an Uber and changed into my clothes, using the yoga shirt I had purchased the day before as it was the cleanest option in my bag, as well as putting a face mask on to depuff. I’m still not sure what rating the Uber driver gave me but no matter. I arrived to work to find out my 9am had gotten pushed back. I made it through the day and what did I learn, well not much actually because luck was on my side and behavioral economics was too. So I might just make sure I get an email confirmation on my travel before I get to the airport. I was joking with a work colleague that after feeling constricted for so long I feel like the pendulum is swinging the other way, with seeing how much chaos I can handle, turns out a lot when I’m not in fight or flight mode. Guess I’m back, chaos queen reigns supreme. I knew she was in there.
Don’t worry, my next post is all about rest, as I’m sure you (like most of the guys I seem to meet these days) are wondering when I actually have downtime.
No adventure is ever complete without commemoratory stickers
I was looking for an email this morning and had searched Chamonix when something called Last Place Champ popped up, I didn’t recognize it so clicked to search and it took me to an email from February 10, 2020. It was for a profile someone was doing on me after getting last place at Nationals in the singlespeed category. That took me back to a life that seems so far away now. I was looking at my responses to the questions.
How did you feel once you crossed the finish line?
I had mix feelings crossing the finish line, on one hand I was proud of the effort I put in to get me across the finish line and on the other hand I was pretty disappointed that a mechanical had taken me out of contention and I spent the majority of the race running with my bike instead of riding. There are a lot of factors you can control with racing; training, nutrition, equipment choices, ect…., but you can’t control for everything and that’s part of the appeal is the chaos that you attempt to contain while racing.
What would you say was the hardest challenge in this race?
…I think it’s hard because a last place finish, doesn’t tell the whole story of the race, it only captures a brief moment of time, there is no asterisk there to explain anyone’s story. I kept joking that sometimes ‘I’m fast, sometimes I’m last’. During the race I also had to shake the expectations others had for me and that is not to say that I felt pressure from anyone else but during the race felt like spectators just assumed I was not here to really compete, I mean who runs with their bike during a bike race. I had to remind myself that these people don’t matter but that’s easier said than done.
What was the most rewarding thing about completing this race?
Gaining that mental toughness. Before the race I was joking with my mechanic that is something really went haywire I would just pull the plug, I was there mostly for fun and then to see how my body actually responded during that moment of deciding, it didn’t want to give up and wanted to keep racing, that was oddly exciting to see. This season was one of transition for me and at times I wondered if my body and mind were maybe just done with racing (I took the summer off from racing to study for the bar exam so had to race my way into shape throughout the seasons). It also taught me that it’s okay to have fun and still take things seriously. I didn’t want to put too many expectations on myself to perform so missed some key equipment checks because I didn’t want to come off as too serious because I didn’t think I would be a contended.
Any final words of encouragement and thoughts you’d like to share?
Racing opens you up to vulnerability and potentially criticism, but it also opens the door to an amazing supportive community that will share in your victories and buy you drinks to drown your sorrows. I’ve learned so much about myself by showing up to starting lines that I was minutes away from talking myself out of. I’ve never regretted doing a race, even the ones that I didn’t live up to my potential at, in fact those are the ones that keep me up at night and leave my hungry for more. I thought getting last would be devastating and it was for a bit, but the bright side is that when people ask you how you did in the race, no one expects you to say, “I got dead fucking last” and then laugh, which really sounds better than some random number, unless you’re first.
I don’t know if this ever actually got posted anywhere because as 2020 unfolded most things took a backseat to anything other than COVID. In a way it was weird to get transported back to that time and place, the girl who wrote that, past Kate must have known that future Kate was going to be going through some shit soon and maybe would find these words all these years later a little encouraging (I love when past Kate looks out for future Kate). I read through them and thought of how much the answers related to the trauma I’ve been carrying, about holding space for the duality, shaking others’ expectations and assumptions, being confident in my ability, leaning into the community, and how the finish results only serves a snap shot of the race. I think we should all come with asterisks, Kate*
*Kate had a panic attack at the end of December 2021 which she feels like was her own fault and the amount of pain and destruction it caused is complicated by the amount of joy and growth it brought, please proceed gently she is still sometimes anxious and occasionally gets an intrusive thought but loves playing outside and is really good at an extremely niche area of international law.
But we don’t come with asterisks. And in a lot of ways with writing and the past year I’ve been more vulnerable than I ever was when I was racing and while that vulnerability brought pain it also brought me into this amazing circle of others who are navigating choppy waters as well (I mean aren’t we all). I remember during the MDH 150 (yes, still working on that) my phone died and Barb gave me her phone with music on it and tee’d up Florence and the Machine– I told her that was perfect because the most recent song I had had on repeat was one of hers that starts, “Sometimes I wonder if I should be medicated…I’m on fire and I’m trying not to show it.” And isn’t that the theme for most of early 2022. But I suppose I have shown it and it’s taken a while to peel back all the layers and talk about them because well who knew what I would be peeling back. I’ve found that the space that used to be filled with so much grief, sadness, and anger didn’t go away, that space still exists but now has room for other things to fill it like joy, content, relief.
I kept thinking that once COVID was over my life would unpause and I could make plans, grow/strengthen my friendships, dance, laugh, cry, show any emotion. But that thinking did me in and instead I felt so numb for at least a few months leading up to the panic attack, joy was fleeting and even the highs were punctuated with bated breath to see if anyone would get COVID. As I said before life doesn’t pause and having to reschedule and cancel things or adapt comes with frustrations, even when not dealing with a pandemic. I feel like in the past year I saw my mind fail me in a way I had never experienced and am doing everything to make sure it never happens again. Fortunately (or unforunately) I’ve also seen friends in the same boat and some navigating having their bodies fail as they share the frustrations of having to reschedule or put things to a date to be determined. So we’re all adapting, navigating, and walking each other home.
One of the bigger loses I felt this past year was my relationship, I’d like to think the panic attack and the residual aftershocks killed it but it was probably more like death of 1,000 cuts and thinking that once I got footing and my narrative back from COVID, the panic attack, life, I could pick up where we left off before everything, back in March of 2020. Before the cascade of uncertainly crushed me in the chaos. I think of that post-race analysis and it’s like man, I don’t even know if he met that girl who was talking about how strong she was and how much fun I could be, if he did she was fleeting. And while certainly sad it’s also acknowledging that within every relationship is a time stamp of the events around it, with no asterisk. While I certainly grieved for the relationship I feel like I grieved more for the girl who didn’t show up, who had been knocked down and couldn’t figure out how to ask for help, who felt incredibly isolated, alone and awash with my own thoughts, who lost her laugh. I think I grieve mostly for what I lost in myself, who I used to be, and the amount of effort it’s taken to get back to her — the girl who breaks her bike and takes off running to keep up. My therapist (and I) think she’s still in there- and is making quite the moves to come back–but it’s almost like she had to retreat for how much she was trying to protect herself. As I move forward with healing and trying to untangle COVID, panic attack, relationships, I realize that they are all intertwined and figuring out the contact points of the specific fission isn’t exactly a productive use of time. It’s like when a race really goes sideways and it’s just a multitude of factors. And yes, sometimes I still get real annoyed at this trauma suitcase even though it is much smaller than it was a few months ago. Anyways, #SingleK8 is back (IYKYK) and I’m sure this is the start of a Hallmark movie….just kidding more like #SkimoK8 is back (just signed up for a race).
I thought about this all after I arrived back in Alaska after 30 hours of traveling from Italy and awoke early from jet-lag. I was waiting for the sun to come up and then headed out to ski with my roommate. We ran into some overflow early on and Hailey’s foot broke through exposing her to cold water. Realizing the potential damage that could come with a wet, cold exposure she turned around and I remained to do some laps and then ski home. I went up to the top and then dropped down a bit to do some hill repeats, up, down, up down, up down, my heartrate monitor still in a bag over the Atlantic. I kept going beyond what I was told to do, entering the flow state, breaking down the technique, wondering if I could just be a little bit better than the last time. I stopped just as the sun was about to crest the hill line and decided to rip my skins and go down. I took off thinking I should wax my skis at some point, the loop itself is short but there are a few tight corners and as I’ve worked on my technique I’m more comfortable leaning in and pushing through the apex. In those moments, right before the turn falls away, I feel a pushing back from the earth and yesterday as I rounded the corner I couldn’t help but to think it was mother earth kindly reminding me that she had me and would always have me. Alright, nerds don’t ruin that with the forces of gravity pushing back on you, I know logically how it works, just let me have this.
I did a writing that isn’t public yet about how my relationship changed with the outdoors during COVID, before once a place of refuge, became a place where anything and everything could kill me. After the panic attack it was the only place I could go that would quiet my thoughts and pull me back into the present being, however brief and I kept chasing that no matter how elusive it was on some days. I thought of that yesterday too as the quiet spots are no longer elusive or just contained to the outdoors, my resting heartrate is back to a normal 45-55bpm range, and while some days feel long and the trauma suitcase a bit heavy I know that over time this will become a footnote in my story.
On a side note, Italy was great, I was able to meet up with a former co-worker, Renu. Julia and I did some touristy things when we overlapped in Milan. Trento was lovely and I feel like once again I get the push and pull of do you return to a place you already know or to go explore somewhere new. I don’t have to answer the question just yet as I’m headed to Canada and Switzerland in January but sending the question into the universe to see what comes back.
I’m back for a few weeks before what will feel like another whirlwind tour and packing in all the days on snow I can. Charlotte and I once again got out today, with Lang, finding some nice fluffy snow on a less than existent base layer.
You’ll know how to build your own fire in a cold forest. You’ll find yourself in the middle of life’s wet howl and you’ll recognize how bright you are. You’ll reach for only what will burn you back.
Even before getting to the start of the Maah Daah Hey 150 people would ask me what was next. Next? I hadn’t even thought about that so I would joke that I was going to retire. Part of me maybe wasn’t joking. It’s been the first bike race in my life where I didn’t have something immediately lined up afterwards– I think I wasn’t even fully convinced I would get to race this year and the other part knew that if I did, I wasn’t sure what the after would look like. Instead of rushing off to the next event, I’m absorbing all that has transpired and releasing what’s also been contained in my body for so long. It’s like a long savasana and my body is finally in a state of resurrection.
Three years ago I wrote about death and the novelty of the dark reaching Alaska. During that period, in the span of one week I had lost three clients and one co-worker and it seemed like death was closer than it had been in previous locations. That feeling didn’t go away once COVID hit, in fact it seemed to get closer as I would go into the backcountry without service for 24-48 hours and wonder what I would come back to– if I would miss the passing of a parent, relative, or friend. This was taking me away from being in the present and into the liminality between life and death.* Instead of coming back to life I was stuck in this transition space in-between it seemed like. I was just waiting to be released and go back to living. After the panic attack death felt so close and it felt so foreign, as someone who has been relatively comfortable with death for most of my life, maybe more than others. It felt like it was chasing me as I tip-toed around my brain, worried that somehow while suspended in this chaotic state I would die and spend the rest of eternity being anxious. Told you it was a wild ride. But in learning to release all this trauma it’s shown me a lot that got built up during COVID and finally feeling like I have some distance from death gave me new perspective on what that really meant or didn’t mean, I mean who really knows right. Now in a lot of ways I feel grounding that I haven’t felt since COVID, these days my grief is living closer to the surface but so is my joy. I no longer feel like I must plan activities days/weeks out to give my mind time to prepared and can envision a future that exists more than 2-3 days out. Why do I keep writing about this, well for part it’s cathartic but also ties into a lot of my experiences with the outdoors. But it also is starting to fit into the larger narrative of how to do I want to move forward in my life.
After I returned to Alaska I did four cross races, two I previously wrote about. The last two included a night race and the other one in snow covered/icy field that my only real goal was to not crash and break my leg this close to ski season. I didn’t, instead I opted to hand out candy on the course to the spectators #plottwist — and we all made sure to celebrate Grande’s 40th birthday as she crossed the finish line. At some point this summer I had entertained the idea of going to cross nationals this year. Another friend up here, Mel was also thinking about doing it but we both realized our work schedules were a little too hectic to make it work this year. We both talked a lot about how racing is so different up here (for context, Mel and I raced against each other at national’s- she got 3rd and I got 5th) nobody is stressed about points or races, everyone is kind and pretty excited to be riding bikes. In a lot of ways, it’s what you want out of a cycling community. And even if cross seems to be dying in other parts of the country it continues to grow here– which makes me happy.
After the cross season wrapped up, I went to Ottawa, CA for work. Two of my friends and I decided to track our elevation for 2 months to help get in shape for ski season with a goal of at least 1200 ft/day. I spent time running there and finding stairs to get as much elevation as I could. It’s weird to travel and to present about COVID-19, it’s like a postmortem but the body is still moving.
When I returned to Alaska, I was able to get on skis, getting a few laps in Hatcher Pass with Charlotte the end of October. The first run of the season we took pretty mellow to see just how our ski legs would do after months off, not terrible. The snow glided under my skis, and it felt like no time had passed. We turned around for another lap where we climbed higher and we were rewarded with some nice pockets of powder and opted for another lap. I wasn’t sure I could find someone to ski on Sunday with so discussed with her a route that would work for low avalanche danger but could still get some elevation in (for the elevation spreadsheet).
I was able to get another friend, Nate to come with, he seemed pretty open to my ridiculous idea of skinning up to the ridge and then I would run down and he could ski down, the snow was a little sparse and he’s a better skilled skier than me, as he still teleskis (that’s how that works right?). I know the absurdity of this idea but I wasn’t sure my skill level was strong enough to get down the line I wanted. Instead, I left my running shoes in the car and after skinning up the road we saw a bowl that looked pretty good and made our way up, navigating above where Charlotte and I had been a few days before. I was on my lighter, skinnier skis than I would have liked but didn’t hesitate about climbing up. Nate and I ended up talking about death on the way up, he was raised Jewish which means they don’t have the same after life thoughts as Catholics, he joked that it was poor for recruitment but nice in terms of not having to concern yourself with where you ended up after you died. That seemed nice and I told him how close I had felt to death for so long, not in a suicidal sense, more that I would just die and I would be stuck like this forever– on top of feeling so incredibly isolated during COVID I wasn’t sure that I had made an impact in any community and had feelings of being incredibly disposable. I was so worried to do anything that would push me any closer into the death zone. Told ya not to trust your brain when it’s on fire.
I ripped my skins, and we discussed our lines down, the light was flat and so we opted instead for tracked out areas of snow instead of untouched powder. We got down, hooting and hollering despite the survival skiing methods being deployed and looped back around to the top of the road to take that down instead. Nate commented about a section to not trigger a slide, oh that’s right, avalanches, things that can actually kill me instead of my thoughts. We got done and Nate commented how I seemed like a strong skier already than when we had gone out last spring. I told him that having some distance from death and gaining confidence back in myself and self-trust seemed to make the biggest difference in terms of my ability.
I’ve had a few more Fridays of skiing that I call ‘Ferda Girls Friday’ —Charlotte and I have somewhat similar work schedules and we’ve been trying to get out when we can. The skiing has been good up in Hatcher’s Pass or at least they have snow. One Friday had another friend, Julie join us as well, she dubbed it ‘Femme Fatal Friday’. Again, we warmed up with a road lap to scout out conditions, seeing more avalanche activity we picked a route up that wouldn’t leave us too exposed and would put us back where we had a been a few weeks earlier. We skinned up and on the first run down were surprised with the pockets of powder that existed, despite a few rocks poking up. We opted for another half run and took a different line down. The Anchorage scene is filled with incredibly strong women and in talking to them about everything from life, work, and relationships it seems like my challenges aren’t unique to just me, which is reassuring, and almost comical for how long I held things in thinking I was the only experiencing these things. Not only do I get to bounce life and work ideas off of them, I also get to follow their lines down. On the last run I took a nice little chunk out of my ski, despite not realizing until I went to put my skins back on. I joked that it was okay, because I needed a pair of rock skis anyways.
After that I headed to Singapore for work where I traded in my down jacket for tank tops and sandals. I opted for running outside when I could, having some familiarity with the city from being there this summer. The jet-lag often meant that I had a lot of places to myself at 4am. Into the dark I would head and not think anything of it- a stark difference from where I had been a few months ago. The darkness seemed to be a place I didn’t want to go, I was already spending too much time there in my mind and was fearful that surely there was more that could kill me in the dark than in the light. In a weird way being able to poke further into the dark spots in my mind and hold space for them has allowed me to hold and reclaim space in the darkness. What was once feared is back to feeling like an old friend. I would dash around the botanical gardens and despite being next to a large metropolitan was easy to get into the dark spaces and revel in them.
Maybe it’s also because in the dark I don’t get sunburnt because after we had some time after work and spending an hour or so outside, I got too much sun, threw up (totally normal), and I joked with my coworker that’s why I live as far away from the equator as possible.
I got back to Alaska with one weekend in between arriving from Singapore and leaving for Italy. Opting to try to make the most of it, I found a cabin down on the Kenai to ski into. Charlotte joined and what started as thinking of going to the cabin grew into backcountry skiing on the way down and carrying skates in to skate on the lake by the cabin before heading back out and if there was enough time to ski again on the way home. We couldn’t find anyone else to join us (Fridays are hard) and left late morning. We got to Turnagain pass and were pleasantly surprised to find the weather was nicer than anticipated. We skinned up and again looked for routes to go down as the recent weather had created a weird crust on top. Charlotte is an incredibly strong overall athlete and has really good skiing technique so I often let her go first and then will try to follow her tracks, turning where she did and making similar descents. Which sometimes works but more often than not I’ll veer out of her line and try to gain some control to get it back.
We found nicer snow lower down but only opted for one lap so we wouldn’t arrive to the cabin too late. We rearranged things in the parking lot, putting away our backcountry gear and getting our Nordic gear and re-packing our packs for the ski in. About an hour later we got to the trailhead and we were on the trail quickly but moving on the trail proved to be less than quick.
The snow was patchy, and we would alternate between gliding and having to pick up our skis and walk on what seemed to be ice on top of dirt and rocks. After one up-hill switchback tiltering on the icy/rock mess I toppled over the side of the hill but luckily only had 1-2 tumbles down before stopping with my pack and skis still attached. I somehow avoided any underlying brush that could have been problematic. I unsnapped my pack and skis and hopped back up to the trail taking note of anything that might have been impacted. Surprisingly good to go. We kept making our way down the trail and after another mile or so we opted to instead take our skis off and hike in. The snow had covered the alders and weighed them, so the branches were often covering the trail requiring more navigation than we at points were wanting to do. After about 4-5 hours we made it to the cabin around midnight and with getting a fire going and making food finally got to bed around 1:30am deciding we would figure out what things looked like in the morning for our activities.
Throughout the night I could hear snow sluffing off the roof with the warmer temperature, at one point convinced someone else was in the cabin but was too sleepy to actually investigate. The morning brought a bit of a drizzle and after a fire and breakfast we packed up most of our things and went to the lake to check out ice skating. Charlotte used her ice screw to determine we had at least 4 inches thick to skate on and in that time period I realized that I had the wrong mount for my boots and skates- ha! Well, something had to go array on this 24 hour frenzy. Charlotte skated around near the shore, avoiding a large crack across the ice and I walked out on to the frozen lake. One of the distinct memories from last January is skating on a frozen lake and being absolutely terrified, like so much so that I became almost paralyzed and had to be gingerly coaxed back to shore—this was despite all the cars that were parked on the ice for ice fishing. I remember thinking that at any moment I would just plunge through and at that time I wasn’t convinced I would be able to fight to stay alive, I was too weak physically and mentally, and that I would just simply perish. And despite the current ice being in the same molecular state I felt grounded with a renewed sense in myself.
We didn’t spend too much time on the lake but enough to make it worth carrying an extra set of boots and skate into our packs. We made our way back to the cabin, repacked our boots and skates in our bags and headed out. Thinking we would at least start skiing and hoping to at least get a mile in before we’d have to hike. We hit the trail and we were pleasantly surprised, the warmer temperature meant that most of the snow had fallen off the branches with the trail being mostly clear of the wood that had posed so much hassle the night before. We were able to ski out for about 5 miles before having to switch to hiking, almost the exact opposite of what we did the night before. We got back to the car as night was approaching and didn’t even discuss getting a backcountry lap in on the way home. We watched the temperature not even dip below freezing on the drive back and wondered what the rain would do to the snowpack that was already being formed for the season.
In between, I’ve tried to start a ‘Wednesday Worlds’ group- there is a small contingency of those who have been showing up (mostly Charlotte and Mary) to hike and now hoping to consistently be on skis to get some hot laps in– but if anything it helps to get me out of the house and do something on Wednesday, often later than I would. I keep thinking it’ll be one of those if you build it they will come and going for the long game here but if you have some skis and want in, let me know!
I still have a lot of guilt and some shame about how I showed up during COVID and the panic attack, and while it’s been a long recovery for me, I also feel like it’s been a long recovery for my support system. Now having more space from that gives me a new perspective on everything. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to bike racing, there are highs and lows and you try to learn what you can and keep moving forward hoping that the highs will be enough to carry you through. One thing that I deviated from with racing is that my general approach with my support crew is it’s not their problem, I’ll let them know what I need but they shouldn’t panic. Well with COVID I feel like I let that line blur and did not necessarily contain my problems. The lows certainly damaged relationships and I’m grateful for those friends and family who keep showing me grace with how I can show up some days. And while I certainly wish there were some things I could do over much like a bike race you take what you can from it and keep moving forward accepting that sometimes there just aren’t any do overs to be had. In some ways I feel like COVID and the panic attack resulted in the biggest bonk of my life and much like experiencing that during a race, you take the lessons you can from it so that you never get to that space again.
How do you continue to live and love with so much uncertainty. How do you stay in love with the world amid so much loss? Nevertheless, you love, you’re injured and you inflict injuries, you throw people away then try to get them back, we yearn for one another in sickness and in health.
Love in the time of Contagion
Where does this leave me, well the future is much easier to plan, and getting outside in the dark is no longer anxiety inducing so I asked my coach to keep coaching me for skimo racing with a few races on tap in the L48 when I have to be down to teach later in the winter. I also signed up for a stage race in Iceland next summer (you didn’t really think I would be done biking did you). But it’s also leaving space for what comes my way, a hut-to-hut running trip in Switzerland, that sounds fun, going backcountry skiing in Canada, ohhh I can definitely make that work.
I’m also trying to work on the balance of not wearing myself down to get anywhere close to a breaking point again. In a lot of ways that means that it feels like there is never enough time while simultaneously having to be okay with the time that I have. One of the biggest things I’ve been tackling in therapy is this duality—that I can love my job and love where I live (before it felt like I would always have to pick one), I can love my work on pandemics and really hate that the pandemic happened, I can have doubt while also knowing that I’ll land on my feet, I can be afraid and still take the leap, I can hold space for all these things, or at least try to hold space for all these things. One thing that has helped me a lot recently is when someone told me, “it’s okay to not be okay, but it’s also okay to be okay while others are not.” That literally feels life changing for me.
I’m in Italy this week for work but will be back in Alaska next weekend in hopes that the snow has finally stuck around in Anchorage. I also convinced a friend to come with, it didn’t take much convincing but appreciate being at the point in my life that friends have disposable income and PTO. We’ll be in Milan for about a day where we’ll meet up with a former co-worker and then I’ll head off to Trento for work and she’ll go Venice before we meet back up in Milan and head to London, where I’ll continue onto Anchorage and she’s tacked on a few other sidequests.
I guess I continue to write more about my personal life (I mean is it any more than normal, I’m sure my mom would suggest not-ha!) because we write about the things we’re trying to make sense of or are hopeless at. So much of my writing became trying to make sense of COVID that I lost the sense of everything else. Thinking I could put things on hold and return where I had left them when things were more stable, more grounded, but time keeps marching on whether you try to hit pause or not. And realizing that while control is illusory (I mean is there even free will), there is a difference between trying to control your life and passively living your life—and while sometimes it seems like the work is long and the narrative will remain incomplete, there is some solstice to be had in knowing that we (I) may not know the whole story in our (my) lifetime.
And if anyone in Anchorage has next Friday off and wants to ski lettttttttme know.
Oh and still working on the MDH150, but gossiping more with my therapist than crying so it’ll probably be done soon.
* I mean aren’t we all just little souls carrying around corpses (Marcus Aurelius)
A friend recently mentioned that getting to the starting line of a race is often longer than the race itself. He had no idea. Back in August 2019 when I moved up to Alaska I was already scheming how to get back to the Maah Daah Hey, this time in the form of the 150. I signed up in December 2019 for the September 2020 race thinking I would be able to do it on my way to Yale or Washington DC. We all know how that went so in December 2020 when vaccines rolled out I signed up for the September 2021 race. The recovery from the 250 took longer (shout out to my doctor of 12 years for fixing me up) and I had the honor of officiating Allison and Dave’s wedding instead.
In November 2021, I signed up for the MDH 150 for September 2022. I basically took it off the table until end of May 2022. I didn’t think I would be anywhere near shape mentally or physically to even get to the starting line.
I started working with a trauma informed therapist at the end of March and that’s been extremely helpful in gaining perspective and realizing how much I had been absorbing when it came to COVID over the years. And it’s easier to talk about being in the dark space now because I’m not in that space anymore but still feel like I’m in the building phase of putting all the pieces back together, and/or getting new pieces. And meeting that darkness resulted in some of the scariest moments of my life. As a result I’ve been unpacking my trauma suitcase that I’ve been lugging around for a while and it’s uncomfortable and ugly and painful and for a long time I was so resistant to growth and surrendering because I was so scared of the girl I would be meeting on the other side, would she be filled with darkness, or would she emerge with kindness, joy, and light? It didn’t seem it was worth the risk of finding out so for months I felt stuck in the freeze response. I’ve slowly been able to move out of the freeze response.
It was a lot of baby steps, I didn’t have any confidence that I would be able to ride the MDH 150 until I did the ride with Ana and Grande realizing physically I could if mentally I was also there. As a result this training season looked different than others but then again so has life. Sometime in April I adopted the mantra, “Whatever Kate wants to do is okay” and mostly it came to outdoor activities and centered around training. I would do other things besides biking and other times I would find myself late on the trail under the summer sun trying to squeeze in one more lap before a 5am wake up call.
I would do my intervals but then would also include side quests, revitalizing my curiosity–where did this trail go or could I hit a feature just right to try to get the grace point of a flow state. I became more liberal with my time, taking half days when I got asked to ride, and working to prioritize anything I thought would re-establish my brain/body connection with the earth to get some grounding. And this included a lot of non-activity work too, two therapists, one trauma informed, a specific trauma informed yoga practice, journaling, meditation, daily photos of Alvin, and an amazing community that helped to nourish my mind, soul, and body. I keep calling my response the totality of the circumstances (which lawyers love), as it’s not just one thing but a whole host of things. I think of what I’ve been through and the resources I’ve been able to access because I have the privilege and means to do so whereas a lot of these things are still so inaccessible for most– even though our country was in a mental health crisis before COVID-19.
“There is no restitution for people like us, no return to days when our bodies were unscathed, our innocence intact. Recovery isn’t a gentle self-care spree that restores you to a pre-illness state. Though the word may suggest otherwise, recovery is not about salvaging the old at all. It’s about accepting that you must forsake a familiar self forever, in favor of one that is being newly born. It is an act of brute, terrifying discovery.” ― Suleika Jaouad, Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted
I didn’t do my first bike race until July when Grande and I signed up for the sport section and opted for 2 laps instead of 3. This being the first ride Grande and I have done that was less than 200 miles or without middle school girls. I didn’t know what to anticipate because while I had done the Kenai 250 the year before I hadn’t done any real short races in a while and didn’t know how my body would respond given everything it had been dealing with. But with racing comes an element of surrendering. You get to the start line and the hard work is done, you know what to do but you also have to react and respond to those around you and you have to pay acute attention and make micro-adjustments during the race and let go of expectations and get new expectations as things unfold. After that first race, it gave me some more confidence back, that girl who left during COVID is still in there, having been in hiding, as if to keep her safe.
I did two more races, one as a team with Ana and Grande. Because of the way the timing worked, all three of us never actually ended up in the same place. Ana did the first leg and then went to Colorado for the Colorado Trail Race (and got 2nd!!). I did the second segment and without a lot of racers was worried about staying motivated but was able to keep on the gas for the most part and only crashed once (see previous post). After that Grande did the final leg and was hecka fast with enough time for us to eat dinner before driving back to Anchorage. The other race was a gravel hill climb that I started with Grande and then spent the rest of the race trying to chase her wheel. It didn’t start raining till the top and Dusty and Lil’ Snugs met us up there and gave a ride down. During COVID I always thought that I missed racing because of the community it gave me and while this is true I also found a community outside of bike racing.
I did my first Kenai ride by myself (bears included!) and if you had told me that I would do that three years ago when I was scared to even leave the house because of bears I would have been like lolz, nope. I was setting up a car shuttle to ride back the next day with some friends. I packed my camping gear but when it started raining a friend offered me a spot in her RV, I pointed to a spot on the floor I could put my sleeping pad and she just laughed and pointed to the extra spot for an air mattress. Instead of being in the damp cold rain all night I got a full air mattress and access to a microwave, definitely starting to see the positives of glamping- ha! A group of 5 of us rode 40 miles the next day back to the van where we somehow managed to fit 5 people and 5 bikes in (#HowDoYouSienna).
I did another ride where I drove 2 hours with a friend only to find that I had forgotten to charge my battery so rode a singlespeed for 30 miles– I chalked it up to being a good training ride and my friend was gracious enough when I had to jump off and run up some of the shorter hills. But since I have been better about keeping things charged.
I went paddling with some friends, with all the rain we had been getting and me not wanting to wash my bike again, felt like it would be a good activity for the rainy day. We hiked in about 10 miles and had incredible views down into the valleys and definitely made me want to come back and trail run and/or ski there in the winter. I’ve been slightly apprehensive about paddling since COVID began. The whole risk perception was skewed and it seemed like it would be so easy to have something happened. With biking I know my abilities but water certainly adds another element. We put in after scampering through some woods and finding a good spot to lay out all our gear on a gravel bar.
The water was higher than normal so we figured it would be a pretty fast float and we anticipated two spots we’d have to portage around some wood. We put in and started the float, not thinking too much of it. After a bit of getting used to the water and easing back in we came up on a flooded area that was scattered with wood. We started pulling out on the sides and I opted for the shore but realizing that the water was elevated resulted in there not being a great eddy or place to actually pull out. I hit the shore but the current quickly grabbed me and spun me around back into the river and before I could react I saw the downed tree right in front of me. Here we go, stay on top, don’t get under. I hitched my hips to lift the raft up as I hit the tree and quickly got out of the boat, which immediately made it fill with water. The current pushed me against the wood and I was briefly held there while I realized what was happening. Okay I’m trapped against this piece of wood with this boat that is now taking on water. I threw my paddle to shore and started to fight against the current to get some leverage to then wrestle against my boat, trying to get some water out so it would release from the grips of the water. As the water raged against me I thought of how often I had thought of this exact scenario the past two years– and now it was happening. But unlike the panic attack where I thought I might die, I was calm and was fighting back. After what seemed like an ungodly amount of time, I wrangled the boat free and got to shore, settling my heart rate down. As soon as I released another friend had the exact same scenario happen, I was able to get back into the river and help her wrangle her boat free.
We debriefed after which helped to talk through what we did wrong and what could have been different. Talking to others afterwards it seems like everyone has a wood story on that river. We finished the float and got done with just enough time to stop by a restaurant on our way to the car shuttle to get yam fries. Which we had spent most of the float talking about.
A few days later I took a day off to do a hike-a-bike adventure. Earlier in the summer Grande mentioned to me that Dusty had tried to hike up and bike Seattle Ridge but they had to turn back. I asked Caleb if he wanted in and then we all decided to do an attempt. We had initially thought about doing a loop and going up the route Dusty tried but with the late season growth and how much rain had been happening we opted for the up track from the winter snowmachines, which still had a lot of growth on it.
It was about 1.5 hours of hike-a-biking to get to the ridge line but it was so worth it. Once we got to the top the clouds parted for what felt like the first time in days and the views were incredible. We biked around and found some gems from the snowmachines, like a grill, a brand new gopro, and lots of trash.
Standing on the ridge I couldn’t believe my luck, how lucky am I to get to be here right now and do this. In some ways I couldn’t believe I had survived the past 9 months and I was eternally grateful that despite all the hardships I was right here. The descent down proved to be pretty uneventful because of how much we had pushed the trail down on the way up.
It took me a while to process what had happened on the water and I spent most of the next week having one good cry a day (even on Seattle Ridge), often on the phone with Molly, my mom, or other friends depending on the time zone. Molly thought that I was finally moving into the next stage of healing that I had been holding in so much for so long and hadn’t really cried much that I was finally releasing it. My mom and others would just silently sit as I sobbed– misery loves company. When I had the panic attack I thought I was dying which was terrifying because I was so discombobulated and my thoughts were running rampant. And that experience was so counter to what I had experienced with prior close calls, like this calm, serene feeling comes over and I’m just like well this is what’s happening. The panic attack made me so worried that I would actually die and be in a total state of chaos and that’s how I would leave this life and somehow carry that state with me to whatever happened next. And that I wouldn’t fight back I would just be stuck. Welcome to my brain on fire where the total illogical somehow became rationalized in my mind and calling into question any past experience. But in a weird way getting caught on the log made me realize how illogical the panic attack was like I was calm and it was a scary experience that could have gone sideways pretty fast.
I often think of every experience outside as a meditation in mortality and while normally I’m at peace with that COVID and the panic attack totally changed my risk perception. And then the tears would just flow thinking of all the pain that was brought about by my brain and all the joy that I’ve missed out because I was so terrified of taking a step of doing anything that would potentially put me in a similar situation. A friend graciously reminded me that there is still a lot of joy left in my life. I know how bonkers this all sounds trust me. It helped to shed light on the dark parts, the parts that I kept hidden fearing they would be too scary if I brought them to the surface. When floating they say that the scariest hazards aren’t necessarily the ones you can see but the wood or entrapment hazards that are under the surface. Same with the dark parts, bringing them to the surface has made me stare them in the face, to see the hazards and negotiate my way around them. And it’s not even about stuffing the dark parts back down but holding them in the light.
The next weekend I was able to get back on the water, as I was leaving Alaska for a month and didn’t want to be off the water that long with that experience hanging over my head. My two roommates and their friends took me out. I borrowed a kayak and given that I can’t roll and did two swims I had an insane amount of fun– it was pure joy the entire time.
Each time I swam I was able to do what I needed to get out of the boat and get up to shore, realizing that my body does in fact know what to do to keep me safe. And each time the crew would grab my gear and meet me on the shore. The second swim was a bit longer with my roommate telling me which direction to towards shore and one friend giving me her hand to prevent me from going into more wood down the river. I felt bad for swimming because it can be a lot of work but the crew I was with was gracious towards me being a newbie and very kind and generous with their support, knowledge, and expertise. In some ways it mimic’d this chapter that I feel like I’ve been in that the support that I got in the water has transferred to the shore.
That while the waves lap over me this group of people has helped to keep my head above water. In some ways it seems like I’ve picked up where things paused during COVID. This Alaska experience and community that made me fall in love with the place is still there and it’s been magical and intoxicating to reengage.
Then almost to the day that I left Alaska last year I left Alaska this year. But this year I already booked my return ticket and I feel better about the uncertainty that life is brining these days. I left Alaska to race the MDH 150– 4 years after being here for the 100 and 3 registrations for the 150 later. The last time I came to the MDH I was filled with a lot of doubt, it was the first big race I had done by myself without Sully and had my parents to crew me. Despite having 4 mechanicals I surprised myself and kept going being resourceful and scrappy and asking for help. I didn’t realize how strong I could be until that was the only option. I finished the race and laid down in the grass and was surrounded by my parents, Barb, Pat, Tom, Aleen –those that had been with me from the start and will likely be with me at the end.
I had so much happiness in that moment that during my dark times I would think back to laying down in that spot surrounded by love and support. It was the last race I did with Tom and really the last big race I did before COVID started. The trail remains pure magic in my mind, it gave me just what I needed even if it wasn’t what I wanted. This time I’m returning to spend more time on the trail– if I could get that from 100 what will 150 bring? In a lot of ways I feel like I’m in a similar place showing up to the starting line with more bruises and scars with doubt from the past two years if that scrappy, resourceful, strong Kate is still in there. Once I’m off the starting line it’s the ultimate lesson in surrendering, in releasing, in dying 1000 deaths so I can have room to breathe, be present, in the moment.
In one of my last therapy sessions my therapist asked me what the opposite of anxiety is for me. I said adventure she thought that was interesting, I guess most people say calm or peacefulness. But for me not having to battle anxiety means that I have the confidence to run full speed ahead towards what is headed my way and know that I’ll be able to handle it. To have the fear and still do it.
I’m starting out on the MDH 150 on Saturday (I might be out there right now). Only two women have done it so far in 22 and 19 hours. I have no idea what to expect, three years ago I had certain time expectations and now I have no expectations but I will be out on some kind of adventure. I’m a little worried about what the darkness will bring but it will be under a full moon and I have plenty of lights and music to get me through– trying to remind myself that anxiety and excitement have the same physiological response. If you feel like you should send me good vibes, maybe send some to Barb and Jane. They are crewing me and I’m not sure any of us know what exactly we’re about to get into.
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
On the first day I was working at the hospital one of the first things my coworker said to me was, “You have to get off the road system.” Me, being fairly new to Alaska didn’t actually know what he meant, like hiking off a road? I asked for clarification (as I had already done with every legal issue up to that point), “you know, the bush, fly out to a village.” Oh okay, sure, yeah I added it to my list of things to accomplish in Alaska before my fellowship ended. Most of the first fall I was still focused on racing and prepping for nationals. After I was back in January, COVID-19 began to thwart any plans of going to a village. Most villages locked down, and for good reason, the pandemic of 1918 has left scars throughout the state. They required an essential reason to travel and I did not have one. But with vaccines came some loosing of restrictions.
Early in the summer a friend mentioned trying to go to Nome to ride the three roads, not even knowing what those were I immediately said, yes, let’s do it. But this was early June and our schedule for the next two months didn’t exactly overlap for a weekend to do it and settled on next summer. I mentioned to Kevin how cool it would be to do that but put it on my ever expanding list of all the things I want to do.
For my birthday, Kevin bought me a ticket (and himself) to Nome to go ride the roads. I had a three day weekend in August and took an extra day so we would arrive on Wednesday afternoon and leave Sunday giving us time to explore the different roads. We booked tickets but then planning took a back seat as we did the Jurassic Classic followed by a long weekend in Denali, followed by a long weekend at a cabin in Seward, and my own personal turmoil figuring out if I was going to leave Alaska and lose Kevin or stay in Alaska and maybe at some point loose my job (more on that later, lolz). That decision was brought on by our landlord selling our house and us needing to be out by the end of August.
We realized that we didn’t have any spare time to not start planning though and were able to get a contact there, a friend of a friend who would let us camp in the yard. We also found a bed and breakfast off of one of the roads and another place to stay at the end of one of the other roads. We decided it would be worth staying at these places just so we would reduce the overall gear we’d have to haul. We’d do about 35 miles the first day, 100 miles the second day, and 55 miles the third day. Giving us a travel day on each end.
We packed up and a friend gave us a ride to the airport not realizing just how loaded down we were. I sat in the back with the bikes and kept thinking if we crashed all the ways my legs and hips would be messed up for life and just prayed a little extra harder especially because Anchorage drivers are bonkers. We settled into the airport, it was again strange to travel in the midst of a pandemic. For work I actually never interact with the general public and I’ve taken to ordering groceries so really have a very small bubble, which I realize how privilege and fortunate it makes me. Being at the airport I realized why we were were still in the midst of it all with noses hanging out and others having masks covering their chins, even one removing their mask to sneeze. I bought some postcards at the gift shop to send out and we situated ourselves away from anyone else. In 2017, I came down with some anxiety around flying that hit me out of the blue and has never entirely went away, I think it’s the whole trusting someone you’ve never met to get you to your destination safely. I’ve found ways to manage and usually in either doing work or writing to occupy my mind and telling myself, “I can’t die, I have to finish this.” Internally I felt so much turmoil that I was grateful that this flight did not also contribute to that. The last sentence I wrote before landing was, “about to arrive in Nome and I have no idea what the next 4 days will bring–hopefully a sense of peace, wanderlust, and healing but who knows.”
We landed and got picked up by Burr from the airport, she drove us to her house talking about the area and town, when they had moved, and giving us the lay of the land. Kevin had been there once before for the Iditarod but was there for only about 24 hours and in March. We got to her house and she offered up a spot to pitch our tent but then also offered up the dog kennel, where they put the dogs to sleep when it’s too cold.
That sounded amazing and I said yes absolutely, even better if we had the dogs with us. She said they only go in when it’s really cold and it wasn’t there yet. We unpacked, put our bikes together and then joined Burr and Tim inside for dinner. We chatted about the Alaskan experiences that we had had with some overlapping without realizing it. We asked a lot of questions about dog mushing and operating a kennel and they graciously answered all of them. We decided the next day that we’d hitch a ride into town with Tim when he headed to work so we could see them run the dogs too.
We went to bed and there was still tension between Kevin and I being in this weird space of am I leaving or going and where does that leave our relationship. I didn’t know what to say so managed a “I’m glad you brought me here, thank you” and left it at that. The next morning we saw the running of the dogs, you can feel the energy from the dogs and how much they want to run, heck it made me want to run.
They attached them all to the four wheeler (upgrade from the wooden carts that are maybe still in use some places) and took off, it was very cool to see. After some frantic packing on my part not realizing the car left in 10 minutes we made it in the car and on our way to town. I asked about the COVID situation in Nome how the response had been and what it had been like. It’s off the road system, which helped, so they reduced the number of flights in and then prior to vaccines did airport screenings upon arrival. We unloaded our gear and I loaded mine mostly on the bike but knowing we’d only be going about 35 miles and then would be stopping back by the house the following day was somewhat reassuring in case.
We spent some time in town knowing we didn’t have far to go, seeing the arch that they take to the Iditarod finish and stopping at a recommended coffee shop, from there we made our way to the beach and sat on some rocks for a bit and talked about the state of our relationship dispersed with information about the gold panning that still happens.
We finally were on our way out of Nome when Burr’s dad drove by and honked and waved at us, felt like we were already locals- ha. We headed out towards Solomon B&B, the road was pretty nice and could definitely ride a gravel bike on it, and not a lot of steep climbs so we were able to cruise for a bit. Outside of town I saw some wooden crosses on a hill and pulled off, kind of a when am I ever going to be back here to see these, and told Kevin I was going to venture up to see what they were.
The crosses offered little information about who was actually there and it seemed like they were remains that had been repatriated from various museums. I thought of myself and the connect to various lands that I’ve felt, especially in Alaska, and I wondered if the turmoil of being ripped from your land existed in the afterlife, if it did I hoped that maybe there were finally able to rest being back here.
I walked back down to the road, grabbing some blueberries on the way to snack on. We got back on our bikes and continued on. Kevin saw an opening for the beach and suggested we ride out there, I thought of my drivetrain but he was already in the sand and if I stayed on the road the shrubbery blocked him from view. I got on the beach and rode down near the water where it was mostly packed and my 2.2 tires had some traction.
There were a few houses and I couldn’t tell if they were lived in year round or just a summer cabin. I rode by one that had a large brown apparatus in front of it, it almost looked like a rusty fuel tank but was situated on the ground. I couldn’t figure out what it was and it was a little too close to the house to be snooping around. When I caught up to Kevin he asked if I had seen the dead walrus, “the head was cut off.”
“Ohhhh” I replied, “I couldn’t tell what it as and just kind of assumed it was a rock or something.” We talked about the reasons the head was cut off, maybe for the tusks after it had washed ashore and died, it didn’t seem like an animal would do something like that, and it wasn’t the only headless Walrus we would see on the trip.
We came up to the Safety Roadhouse, which we had planned to stop at for a drink. It’s the “last checkpoint” on the Iditarod Trail before Nome, about 22 miles. We went in and the walls were covered with signed dollar bills and Iditarod memorabilia. I couldn’t tell if it was a shrine or a dive bar.
We ordered some food making small talk with the caretakers. They were from Florida and had met the owners in Hawaii who offered them this job, they said they enjoyed it but wouldn’t be back because of how cold it was. At that moment it was 50 degree and they had some burly winter gear on. I, in shorts and a t-shirt decided that we both probably thought the other person didn’t have a good internal regulation of temperature. We grabbed our food and headed outside, they had a tee stand so we hit some golf balls, which immediately made me grateful I don’t do ball sports anymore as when I did finally make contact with the ball it made a pithy bounce off the tee and rolled close enough that Kevin walked a few feet to grab it so we could hit it.
When we left we only had about 15 miles or so our stop for the night and the road seemed to stretch on in this distance for miles, which it turned out it actually did. It reminded me of being in South Dakota in a strange way, there are a few areas that on one side you have the hills and the other side the prairie, except for here it was the hills and the ocean. When the road finally did curve, we got off to see the last train to nowhere, with its finally resting place being the marshy area that it had once traversed.
The locomotives were brought as part of a dream to build the most extensive rail system in the area. As with the boom and bust of a gold mine area, as the gold rush faded and only 35 miles of line put in over 5 years, the project was abandoned and the trails were left to deteriorate.
We saw the Solomon B&B we’d be staying at and pedaled the last half a mile. There was a vehicle parked out front but we had been warned that no one would be there and it was a self check-in/check-out. We walked around to the back and the maintenance guy greeted us, telling us that he knew we were coming and we’d be in room 5. He showed us in, saying he’d be leaving in a bit and then went back out to finish his work. The place had multiple individual suits and a few common areas, including a pretty stocked kitchen, with fresh fruit (which we decided was a real treat given our location). There were enough twists in the hallways and creaks in the floorboards that I decided I would not be out of our room at night by myself.
We learned that the place had been a former BIA boarding school and was currently ran by the Solomon Village tribe. With all the children remains being discovered this summer at various former boarding schools, I wondered if there were unmarked graves here. I decided that since it was now in the hands of the tribe they would be able to pursue that if they wanted to and I should leave it at that.
There was a large world map in the living room that reminded me of my looming decision. I saw just how far Alaska was from DC, I found it almost comical that we were considered the same country. I stared wondering if I could some how minimize the distance to make it feel physically closer, it didn’t move and I pushed the feelings of wanting to stay and feeling like I needed to leave down, that was a problem for future Kate I decided.
We got up a bit early since we had 90 miles of pedaling in front of us, made breakfast, got packed up, and back on the road. It was a bit chiller than when we had started the day before, reminding me that winter, especially here, would be settling in soon.
We rode back to the Safety Roadhouse and stopped to change layers and stopped to eat our own food as it wasn’t open this early.
Getting back on the road we saw bear prints in the soft dirt on the shoulder, they were headed the same direction we were going and they definitely had not been there the day before. With so much vastness we found it odd that if there was a bear we were unable to see it, but we kept riding, seeing where the bear prints disappeared and reappear, thinking they must have gotten off for a car or something. We made it back to Nome, having decided to skip the cut across road so we could get some coffee and maybe some food. No luck on the food but we had plenty and I was really after the coffee, and a coffee mug from the shop.
We headed past town and on the road that would take us to the Pilgrim Hot Springs, it also happened to be the road that Tim and Burr live on so we planned on stopping to switch out gear. Right before the turn off for their road, I heard the familiar hissing of air being released from my tire, ohhh no, I got off and immediately identified the spot, it was the same spot that had released a week before but I thought I had gotten it to seal. I put some air in but it still wasn’t sealing so Kevin gave me a bacon (not actual bacon just look like it) strip to plug the hole with, it worked and with a bit more air we were back at their place and swapping stuff out.
Tim was able to join us for part of the next leg; he told us about community, the land, the history, the hospital, how they came to Nome, it was almost intoxicating as I tried to weave it all together in my mind.
It came across how incredibly grateful he was to be here and how much him and Burr were taking advantage of everything the area offered. He point out Leonhard Seppala’s house, the musher who ran his dogs most of the way with the diphtheria serum and I thought of the barriers that still exist in accessing care and services in such a remote place like this.
Tim turned back after about 15 miles with us, we told him we’d see him the next day and settled into a more relaxed pace, not sure who was pushing it when we were all together.
It had been drizzling but had mostly stopped when Kevin said there was a bear, me being quite terrible at any wildlife sightings did not see it and was convinced it was just going to pop out of the brushes, I dinged my bell, Kevin quickly hushed me, “don’t bring attraction to us, it doesn’t know we’re here”. Oh, I just figured it was better to let it know, sometimes I feel like I’ve made great strides in my backcountry competence and then other times feel like I’m fresh off the farm. I asked him where the bear was as my scanning still provided no glimpse of it, he said it was on the other side of the brush, which again I was like is that 5 feet or 50 feet. He told me to keep pedaling, which I did, with one hand over the bear spray. We got beyond the brush and looked over in the clearing, I squinted, what the heck is that, my mind tried to make sense or what I was seeing, is that a moose, what else would it be, I squinted more and then started laughing, it was a hiker with a large external frame backpack that stuck out against the landscape, he was also quite a ways a way, you thought that was a bear?!? Kevin explained that he only got a glance and just assumed since what else would it be, I agreed saying I thought it was a moose and my brain couldn’t figure out what else it would be since it seemed so out of context. I wondered where he had come from and where he was going and if I would ever feel that comfortable being in the backcountry by myself. We pedaled by giving a small wave.
As has been the case over the past 18 months in the silent pedal strokes my mind wanders to COVID. This time it was focused on Nome though, thinking of their respond, did the fact that they have a spot in their cemetery dedicated to those victims of the 1918 flu impact the response, how about being internationally known for the serum run. With it being off the road system they had more control over those coming into the village, flights were reduced from 2 to 1 per day and they would test everyone at the airport as they arrived. I voiced some of these to Kevin, about how cool it would be to do a specific case study of Nome, tying in all these factors. He added that Nome was settled by gold miners and not an Alaska native village like some of the others, and that most villages had diphtheria outbreaks but Nome (being predominately white) was able to get the serum. At one point, Kevin used to be a tour guide, which is insanely useful for someone who is new to the state and looking for nuances in research questions. Ohhh interesting, yeah it would be interesting to do a comparative analysis between here and another off-the road village.
We began to see a lake emerge in the distance that told us that we were at least in the latter half of our distance for the day. The cabins that speckled the landscape were vibrant, seeming almost to belong in a Scandinavian country. Kevin said it reminded him of Newfoundland, where he lived for a year. I rode across a bridge and stopped, peering down at the water, “Kevin, look at this, it’s so clear, like I can see the bottom..” he reminded me that this is what water looks like when it’s not glacial fed and you don’t have the glacial silt. “I just want to jump in.” It might not be glacial fed but it’ll still be cold.
We checked the elevation profile, okay two more good hills with the last one being off the highway and up and down to the hot springs. As our elevation changed so did our layers with us putting our shells on before one of the summits so we wouldn’t have to do it at the top. I got a little warm but always much less concerned with temperature regulation when we aren’t sleeping outside at night.
We bombed down the descent and if Kevin hadn’t told me to keep and eye out for the turn off I definitely would have missed it as there was little marking, I turned left and saw Kevin waiting for me. Alright 7 miles left as we began the climb up, it really was just up and then down. I stayed on the bike to ride up, Kevin got off to walk, but he’s a much faster hiker than me.
I made it to the top a little before him and took in the views, in a lot of ways it felt like Denali with these looming mountains in the foreground and they seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Kevin reached the top and was just dumping gorp into his mouth, saying that he was reaching his limit, I reminded him that we have been riding for 93 miles, which I feel like my gauge is skewed for long distance mileage, but for mostly off the couch for him, he was a champ for only bonking at this point.
We descended down, avoiding the puddles as best as we could and turned onto the trail that went by the caretakers cabin, we stopped to check in and asked about the water situation just to make sure we would have enough for the next day, they said they would bring some more by in the morning.
We got to the cabin and were surprised by the accommodations, a stove burner, pots/pans and real silverware. We unpacked a bit and then decided to make our way to the hot springs. I’m not exactly sure what was going through my mind when I was packing but I did not include a swimsuit, and for some reason had a pair of underwear (again for being in bike shorts all weekend those were not warranted). I kept the sports bra that I had been wearing that day on, having a clean one for the next day and wore my sleep shorts to the cabin by the hot springs to change. I slipped into the hot springs and there was already a family in the other side, I told Kevin, given my white underwear situation we would be outlasting them to leave. I made sure to keep my head above water because brain eating amoebas and can’t be too careful with those.
We made small talk with the family, with them having moved to Nome recently and they talked about the decision to do so and where else they looked. After a while they left and feeling like our muscles had been sufficiently soaked we also got out to go eat some dinner. I laid out some of my gear to try and dry out before going to bed.
In the morning I woke to the thunderous sound of raining hitting the cabin, it was so boisterous that it covered up the white noise that I had put on. I figured we only had 50 or so miles to go in it if we needed to and rolled back over hoping Kevin wouldn’t be in a rush to get going. The next time I woke up the rain had dissipated and turned again to a similar mist we had had most of the day before.
We packed our bikes back up, I shoved my still wet clothes into a separate compartment to try and preserve some of my other layers and we rode to the caretakers cabin to check out. We asked about some of the buildings on the property, specifically the church. They said we could ride over to it, it used to be an orphanage for kids’ whose parents died during the 1918 flu, opening in 1919 and was run by the Catholic Church before being returned to the tribe in recent years. He also explained the network of travel that the surrounding communities used to get to the area and the history of the landownership.
We rode over to the church which was pretty dilapidated, I questioned out loud if history was repeating itself with COVID, a recent number was that 120,000 children had lost their primary caregiver in the US. I also thought about potential unmarked graves, the orphanage would have been removed from any village and wasn’t easily accessible in those days. The area had a former larger church, dormitory and school, and living quarters for the staff, which all remained somewhat identifiable. The site closed in 1941. We walked around a bit but didn’t go too close to any one building as they seemed near potential collapse, which surely would bury any secrets that remained in their walls.
We left climbing the hill that had delivered us the day before. I kept glancing back to take it all in, would this really be it.
We turned back onto the main road and on the first climb a truck coming down slowed to tell us there was a musk ox ahead. They continued but we weren’t sure how far ahead so proceeded with caution, and going uphill we weren’t exactly moving fast. We were talking when the musk ox poked its head around some shrubbery, it was almost like it was peeking out to say hello and then quickly disappeared behind the bush. Kevin yelled and waved his arms. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m letting it know we’re here” He replied. “What? They’re not bears, they’re more like buffalo.” I finally felt like I had knowledge to contribute. We took a wide berth around and part of me was worried that we would run into the entire herd reminding me of the times I’ve had to duck into cars when riding through parts of South Dakota to avoid the buffalo herds. Here, there would be no cars. We got to what we felt like was a safe distance and popped back on the road. I glanced back to see if the Musk Ox had made any moves but it seemed to have retreated further into the shrubs.
The weather cooperated for the most part with no torrential downpour or really hard rain, I kept my shell on for the duration of the ride and we stopped more frequently to eat food with the two previous day of activities finally catching up with us. At one point Kevin saw a bear on the side of a hill about 100 yards away, through the misty clouds I said I was pretty sure it was a brush or rock or something, ignorance is bliss.
We made it back to Tim and Burr’s without much instance and got showered and dried off. Friends of their brought over salmon for dinner, the friends live one month in Nome, one month in Missoula working for both healthcare systems. Oh, unusual work/life situations can work, especially given the remoteness of Nome.
Because of the rain we got to sleep with two dogs in the dog shed, as when it’s raining they don’t go into their kennel outside.
We went to bed and the next morning packed up our bikes and headed to the airport. We got back to Anchorage, unpacked our gear and I hit the harsh reality of what I needed to face, or rather still tried to avoid it.
I felt like it was an impossible decision and kept going back and forth with the pros and cons of staying versus going. At one point this summer, when I was packrafting, I flipped over in the water and was stuck in the boat underwater as the skirt that normally releases did not. In the time I was submerged I realized that no one was around to save me and was able to release the skirt and get above water and back into the boat. This decision felt like I was still submerged underwater and the skirt wasn’t releasing no matter how hard I tried. As any former partner of mine will tell you I get a little stressed about decisions and really they could all probably form a support group. I felt like either decision would have huge ramifications, if I stayed it could impact my job, and I love my job and the trajectory I’m on; but if I left I was giving up so much of my life. I couldn’t tell if by staying or leaving I was running from or towards my life.
It didn’t feel like Kevin and I were on the same page for any of it which was also really painful because I felt like in the backcountry and on these trips we were really the best version of ourselves as a couple but we couldn’t get that to translate to day-to-day life and logistics. Finally, Kevin released the skirt on my metaphorical packraft by telling me he wanted to break up [Or maybe we were both submerged underwater and he got out to swim to the shore]. Back in May he had made other housing arrangements when our landlord sold the house and it didn’t seem likely that I’d be able to stay. I didn’t know how to respond, I thought about staying but felt like without a job or a relationship it didn’t make such sense. At least in some sense with his decision, I was out of purgatory.
I also had to be in DC most of the month of September so decided to leave and then figure it all out. I decided to move all my stuff and ship my van, that way if I decided I didn’t want to go back I wouldn’t have to go back to deal with it. At each moment that required me to do something I tried to resist. It reminded me of when my grandmother died and the whole time leading up to the funeral I didn’t want to do any of it, I didn’t want her to be dead, and I didn’t want to have to acknowledge she was. This felt similar, I didn’t want to leave, and I didn’t want to acknowledge that I was. I spent the final two weeks mostly in a state of tears, one friend reminded me that everyone dies so we all technically end up alone anyways, another friend reminded me that everything I was going through was really challenging and these decisions weren’t easy. Other friends took me on final rides and threw Hail Mary’s my way, they would use my van, or I could store gear in their space but felt like it didn’t make sense to do that. And part of me wanted to leave in part to lick my wounds. But in a lot of ways I felt like I was losing so much more than a relationship. I dropped my van off for shipping, still not believing it was actually happened. I spent the last morning riding a trail I hadn’t done before with Rachel.
I kept reminding myself that even if I wasn’t moving I would be gone for September anyways so I just pretended that was the case. Later that evening, Kevin dropped me off at the airport, which felt surreal the whole way there, I even played Kesha thinking that something would prevent me from leaving. I got to the airport and that was it, time had run out and I hadn’t figured out any other options.
Leaving gave me some of the clarity I felt like I was missing in August, I wasn’t able to see the forest through the trees when I was in the thick of it. I also spent a lot of time this past month saying ‘be a river not a rock’. I felt like I was grasping so hard for an expected outcome that it was suffocating– one of the little girls that a friend used to babysit was so excited when she got a hamster that she squeezed it so hard that it’s guts came out. I feel like in a similar way I was squeezing so hard to how I thought things should be that all the guts came out.