Zen On Dirt

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Desert Vibrance

We were out and about yesterday when someone asked me when I’d be back in Tucson.  I had to stop and think for a minute because aside from a whirlwind trip I’ll be taking down here in a few weeks, I won’t be back until next fall.  The only reason this struck me as so absurd is because over the past nine days, this place has taken on the very distinct feel of ‘home’ and the thought of going away from ‘home’ for the next six months seemed foreign.

In a life trajectory that I would have never predicted four months ago, the desert has stolen my heart.

I’m going to miss Starr Pass.

I’m going to miss Scott posing like a saguaro next to an actual saguaro (especially now that I can spell saguaro on my first try).


I’m going to miss the rocks.


And the flowers.  Oh, the flowers!

IMG_0195 IMG_0193 IMG_0198 IMG_0200 IMG_0214I’m very much going to miss the desert in the springtime.


I’m going to miss this place that feels so alien, so different, and so full of surprises.


I guess it’s good that I get one more trip back here, one where I get to fully embrace all that the desert has to offer, the good, the bad, and most likely, the hot.  And then I’ll be ready to embrace the cool of the Colorado mountains.



Full moon bikepackarita

There’s something magic about the full moon.  There’s something even more magic about a full moon in the desert.  Seeing that I’m in the business of seeking out magic in all corners of life, it was only fitting that I spend the full moon in the desert, outside, fully immersed in all things magic.  We’d known that my Spring Break 2013 trip would coincide with the full moon, so we’d had this bikepack planned for nearly four months per our newly formed tradition of doing something amazing on each full moon together.

I used to think that going out bikepacking always had to be somewhat of a production, route planning, bike loading, fiddle-farting around with stupid details.  This time around, we didn’t even have to go to the grocery store before hand.  The only minor detail, figuring out a route that could be done in six hours of total riding.  Six hours may be a lot elsewhere, but in the AZ chunk, easy miles are hard to come by.  Plus, there was a little trail that I was falling madly in love with every time I rode it, so I wanted to go back and experience more of her magic.


But one route was too long.  Another route was too short. Six hour loops in the AZ desert were proving to be challenging to find. And then Scott offered to ride the shorter loop and shuttle the car so I could ride the trail section of the longer loop.  Offers like that don’t come around too often.

We left the house at 2:30 in the afternoon, pedaling by 4:30.  We made a pit stop in Sonoita to check out the store and while oogling the fried chicken, the woman at the counter told us that she’d pegged us as ‘vegans from the tree of life’ and then gave us each a jalapeno popper along with our burritos.


It was too easy.  Too simple.  Too perfect.  The sun set beautifully.


The moon rose as we rode the high ridge of the early miles of the Canelo Hills.


Darkness fell.  Magic rose.


We eventually found ourselves a secluded little bivy spot a little ways off the trail and we sat in shorts and short sleeves, marveling at the warmth of the desert.  There was no need to crawl straight into sleeping bags.  No need to put on giant down coats.  No need to try to do everything quickly to stave off the cold.  Our dinners stayed warm until the last bite.  We worried about our dessert melting instead of freezing.


We played with cameras, lights, stared at the moon.  After only three hours of riding, we felt like little kids camping out in the backyard.  I half expected my mom to come out and check on the ‘kids’ to make sure we were doing alright and not afraid of the dark.

The moon stayed bright all night, illuminating the mountains miles and miles away.  When the sun rose, I already knew what the landscape looked like.


We pedaled, hiked, and pedaled some more through the beautiful landscape of the Hills until the turn off point for Scott’s short loop back to the car.  He escorted me to the top of the next hill and sent me on my way for another 14 miles of blissful trail to the town of Patagonia.  I rolled and rolled and rolled, marveling at the fact that four years ago, I was to afraid to mountain bike on my own, and now I was perfectly comfortable going out on a 14 mile stretch of rugged trail just a few miles north of the Mexican border by myself with only a little red line to guide me.


Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.

—Susan B Anthony


I got off route twice.  I took lots of pictures.  I found the Tree of Life.


I arrived in Patagonia within minutes of when Scott had predicted I would to find him waiting for me, having pre-scouted all the meal options in town.  I arrived giddy.  In love with everything.  Especially the peanut butter chocolate pie that we found in the coffee shop.  Like everything else, it was simply divine.

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Camp Tucson a la Jj and Ez

Early last November, I got an email from Scott.  Getting a random email from Scott was never a surprise but this one made me pause and say, ‘Universe, this is interesting timing.’  In a nutshell, the email said, ‘I’m thinking of putting on a Camp Tucson a la Camp Lynda this spring.  What do you think?  Also, how are things?’

The next day, it snowed in Boulder and we struck up a conversation that started with, ‘It’s snowing.  I’m coming to Tucson.’  Coming to Tucson was something that I’d been threatening to do for years, every time the summer of Colorado faded into fall, and then into winter.  I was only half serious about actually making the trip in the same way that Scott was only half serious about hosting a Camp Tucson, a long weekend of playing on desert trails.  But in the end, he held me to my threat of visiting Tucson (which turned out spectacularly), and I held him to his threat of hosting camp (which also turned out spectacularly).


Unfortunately, I was still in R&R mode when it came to riding this past weekend as it seems like I dug myself into a pretty big hole during the ITI.  Fortunately, Jj was still in rehab mode after a double knee surgery and restricted to smooth, wide, non-dangerous bike paths.  We made the perfect pair for piddle-pedal rides and the weekend was nothing short of magic from the moment we met up at the airport in Denver, to getting on the tiny little airplane to deplane in the warmth of the desert, to riding, eating, riding, eating, riding, eating, and then finally dropping her back off at the Tucson airport to return to the lingering winter in Colorado.  We completely took over Scott’s house, adding to the stable of bikes, cooking giant breakfasts, and lounging in his front yard, watching the world go by under the rays of the hot Tucson sun.


We asked Scott for a GPX track for a two hour smooth ride on the first day to entertain us while he went off to beat up on the boys of the actual Camp Tucson.  When he loaded a 28 mile track onto the GPS, I shrugged, thinking it hilarious that he thought that we could cover 28 miles in 2 to 2.5 hours.  But there was a shortcut we could take if we were running low on time…unfortunately Scott forgot to load the shortcut onto the GPS in a scramble to get out the door. This fact was not realized until much later in the day.


We rode.  We talked.  We admired the cactus and the rocks and the flowers and the birds and the ocotillos.  We reveled in feeling thirsty on a ride and soaked up the sunshine in a mad dash to produce Vitamin D.  We followed our little red line.


Time passed.  The shortcut option never came into view on the GPS.  We scratched our heads, but had no option other than following our current path, knowing that it would take us to where we needed to be.  And it was nothing short of delightful.  Beautifully wonderful.


But in the end, we both knew that we were potentially pushing our luck, so Scott sent us to Fantasy Island on Day 2.  Fantasy Island is a one by three mile strip of land with 20 miles of trail on it, including the famed Bunny Loop.


Part manicured trail, part amusement park ride, we laughed at the trail side art, giggled through the whoops and wash crossings, and had a merry old time for exactly an hour and a half.  This is good for us, we reminded ourselves, but this isn’t mountain biking.  Recovery and rehab, bah!


Luckily, Scott cooked up a better plan for us for Day 3.  The boys had a giant 85 mile loop planned on the AZT just south of Tucson, and amazingly, from their start point, there was an ice cream shop just 10 miles down a beautifully smooth section of trail.  With a  goal like that, even I got excited about an out-and-back ride.


JenJ joined us after having done the previous two days of the real Camp Tucson.  We rode with the boys for the first four miles and watched them disappear over a power line.  From there on, we gabbed and gossiped, repeatedly got out of our brains excited about the trail, and all in all, had a merry old time.  Colossal Cave came much too soon and we dropped down into the ranch just as they were opening up.  We got our ice cream and lounged in the sun, petting Hagan the cat and enjoying the small desert oasis.


The return trip was equally awe inducing.  Trail.  Friends.  Sun.  Back at the cars, we loaded the bikes and headed straight to Mi Ranchito for tacos, for the third time since lunch the previous day, knowing full on well that as soon as the boys emerged from their adventure, we’d be meeting them there for the fourth time in 24 hours.


With one more day in the desert for Jj, we were determined to make the most of it and headed out to Sweetwater.  I went and did my first set of intervals since pre-ITI and Scott and Jj went and rode for an hour.  We reconvened for my ‘warm down’ and giggled our way through Saguaro City.  We had to do our mini-loop twice…just because we could, and I wasn’t quite feeling ‘warmed-down’ enough.


We went back to Mi Ranchito for tacos, one final time, to cap off a weekend of desert goodness and love.  A weekend of remembering what ‘real’ life is really about, of what ‘real’ trails look like, and what really good food tastes like.


Magic, rainbows, and unicorns.  Smiles and giggles.  Ponies and dirt.



A few weeks back, my mom asked me what my master plan for work was when I got to Durango.  This was a big step forward because it was the first time that she’d actually acknowledged that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life in their basement in Boulder.  I shrugged, I told her I’d figure it out after the Iditabike because currently all my mental resources were being consumed with trying to figure out how not to die in the middle of Alaska.  I told her that when I got back, I’d have a big swath of time in April to ‘figure out life.’  Scott would be back in AZ, I’d be recovering from ITI, I could spare time and energy to figure out the big question of ‘what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’


So I got back, Scott left, and somehow I’ve managed to fill up every minute of every day with nary a spare minute to allocate to the Big Question.  The past three days have been downright hectic with life, and tomorrow starts Spring Break 2013.  I’ll figure out the rest of my life when I get back, at least that’s what I tell the outside world.

But inside, I have a secret.  This is life.  Right here.  Right now.  Chasing bliss.  Finding zen.  And yes, it will all work out, exactly as its supposed to.


The AK sideshows

Sometimes I have a story to tell.  Sometimes I just have a life observation to share.  Sometimes I’m just in the process of recovery from the cold which knocked me squarely on my ass when it’s nearly 70 degrees out and have a few more pictures I want to put on the internets.  Today is one of those days.


I think some people are under the false impression that I know what I’m doing when it comes to bikepacking.  In the end, I’m as much of a junk-show as anyone else out there.


Anchorage may be lacking in the sunshine department, but their snowbiking trails are pretty stellar. Huge thanks to Sharon for taking me out.


Alaska: Colorado on steroids, without the 300 days of sunshine.



Pony likes it here.  Pony will also like it in the sands of the desert.


The finish of the prolog of the actual Iditarod.  The doggies are soooo stinkin’ cute.




More Anchorage snow biking.  This place looks way different in the winter than the summer.


There is blue sky in Anchorage!  And with enough Vitamin I, I could even pull off a post ITI birthday ride!


There is magic here.  I can’t wait to come back.


The Great Race.  Eric made skiing look fun and firmly smoked us in the speed category.  Luckily, he fed us brownies afterwards.

Recovery has been a bit rough this past week.  The body finally gave up the resistance to the Crud that I had been OCD in avoiding leading up to AK.  I guess it was inevitable, race ITI, take a red-eye home from Anchorage, teach sick kids for two days…yeah.  Today has been the first day that my head hasn’t been in a fog since…well, since I woke up ITI start morning.  I can always tell when mental recovery takes a big step forward because I start getting excited about the next set of adventures instead of bemoaning the list of Life Chores that I have to catch up on.  In celebration, I packed up 90% of my winter gear for the year, tucked away in a box, not to be touched again until 2014.  I’m so ready for spring and warmth.  This next month is going to be good, Tucson, Prescott, Fruita, oh my…as soon as I can kick this stupid Crud.  Goooooo immune system!


Iditabike: To the finish…with a little bivy thrown in

I knew from the moment that I laid down in Nikolai that I wasn’t going to sleep.  ‘This is ridiculous,’ I thought to myself, ‘My body is so jacked up, I can’t even sleep.’ But, I was no where near mentally ready to face the last 50 miles, so I laid there, wallowing in my own pity party, trying to keep my chamois away from my body, my tongue away from my mouth.  ‘This is officially suck-balls,’ I remember thinking.

And then I heard the door open and Dan and Kevin walk in.  I’d been wondering what happened to them.  Repeating my Tour Divide mantra of ‘if you’re not eating, sleeping, or pedaling, you’re wasting time’, I rolled myself up and wandered back out into the kitchen where a second plate of pasta that I had started eating before my nap was still waiting for me.  The boys had bivied along the trail, the push from Rohn to Nikolai proving to be too much, and seemed ready to pedal again. ‘I guess I’m going,’ I responded when quizzed of my plans.  ‘McGrath isn’t getting any closer just sitting here.’  I had 18 hours to get there to break the record.  It had taken Lou 18 hours to get there from Nikolai.

My extraction from the Petruska’s house was anything but quick, but another plate of pasta, two cups of coffee, and two cookies later, I found myself back outside, dressed the same as I’d been when I arrived.  Fueled with calories rather than bonking, I immediately started sweltering.  I pedaled away from the house regardless, headed back the way I came.  I was ready to drop onto the river when man yelled after me, ‘Are you going to McGrath?’


‘You’re going the wrong way!  Just follow the power lines, it’s a lot shorter!’


Instead of the river, I pedaled down the road, engaging in the pattern that had become ritual after every extended stop before the Vitamin I could kick in.  30 pedal strokes standing, 5 sitting, 30 standing, 6 sitting, 30 standing 7 sitting, etc.  C’mon underside, let that Advil do it’s work.  I quickly dumped out onto the river and in a fit of motivation, decided that I was going to drill it the next 50 miles to McGrath.  I started to sweat two minutes later and luckily had the mental capacity to realize that working up a sweat during an Alaskan sunset was quite possibly a bad idea.  I reigned in my enthusiasm, but knew that I had to get the section done as quickly as possible because eating was no longer an option given the current state of affairs in my mouth.  ‘I’m never going to be able to kiss anyone or have sex ever again,’ I thought to myself, heading west into the sunset.  ‘Forget frost bitten toes and fingers, I have bigger problems! A single chamois and Sour Patch Kids…what was I thinking? Maybe I’ll become a nun after this.’

uniPhoto (and message) from Scott

I pedaled along, occasionally stealing glances backwards to see if Kevin and Dan were coming.  What I would have given to have had someone to talk to… With no sign of the boys, I focused on forward.  Westward.  Into one of the longest and most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.  Again, no pictures from Broken Ez, but the Team Photo had a field day.  Scott also left me a message in the snow, which made me smile for the first time since leaving Nikolai. The sunset continued. Orange.  Red.  Blue.  Purple.  Dusk.

With the disappearance of light came a dimming of my spirit.  I got angry and jettisoned two giant handfuls of nuts from my pogies into the woods.  ‘Screw you food!  I can’t eat you anyhow!’  I went to take a sip of water and found my hose frozen for the first time the entire race.  ‘Screw you water, I didn’t want to drink you anyhow!’  It wasn’t until later that I realized that the frozen hose would also result in not being able to swallow Vitamin I or caffeine pills.  I thought about jettisoning my water, but knew that in a worst-case scenario, I could still get to liquid water if I needed it.  I put a piece of dried coconut into my mouth and immediately spit it out and shook my head in amazement.  For a girl who can pretty much out-eat anyone out there, I’d been reduced to this.  Lame-O.

sunsetPhoto from Scott.

I would love to have a transcript of what occurred in my brain for the following several hours as it descending to a place untouched by even my second CTR run, my 40 hour sleepless push during the Dixie 200, my hissy fit at the base of the final climb of the Stagecoach 400, or any place along the Tour Divide.  The trail followed the KooKooSwim river, straight, never ending, with the light of the McGrath airport, 40-some-odd miles away blinking in the distance.  Dark.  Cold.

I started doing the math, looking at the GPS: 38 miles to go.  ‘If I continue at 5 mph, that’s seven and a half hours.  Seven and a half hours!  I bet I can pedal faster.’ I put a little effort into the pedals and saw my speed rise to 6 mph.  Now that’s more like it.  A little more effort yielded 7 mph.

This is like a tempo ride.  I can do a three hour tempo ride, I’ve done tons of those in training. That’ll knock some miles off.  So I rode tempo for a while.  The minutes passed painfully slowly.

Maybe I should do some 20 minute threshold intervals.  I can knock out nearly 5 miles of climbing on Lefthand Canyon on the roadbike doing those, I bet I could knock out three miles here.  I bet I could keep my speed above 7 mph for 20 minutes. So I did.

My goodness this is sooooo boring.

IMG_4733A place of happy ponies.

I saw a sign that said, ‘McGrath – 30 Miles’.  I stopped and stared at it, not wanting to believe it, though knowing that the GPS confirmed the distance.  I muttered some expletives into the night.  I put my head down and laid into the pedals.  The faster you go, the faster you’ll get there. Gogogogogogogo!  I could still step on the gas and get a response even if the brain wasn’t firing on all circuits anymore.  Maybe pedaling really is hardwired.  Eventually, I couldn’t tell if I was on the river, on land, going east, going west, or even how fast I was moving anymore.  Just get to McGrath, make your next sleep in a warm bed!

I thought back to Jill’s description of McGrath as a shining bright light at the end of a very dark tunnel and related to her sentiment.  Just. Keep. Moving. 

I tried to sing to myself, but no songs came to mind.  I started in with 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall for the second time that day, but only made it down to 64 bottles before I lost interest.  I tried my multiplication tables, but tired halfway into the 7’s.  I watched the 10th’s of miles tick by.  I lost hope.

IMG_4728A place for happy pony wranglers.

And then I saw reflectors in the trees to the right.  A bike!  I saw a body next to the bike.  I saw another bike just beyond.  And then a third to the left!  The boys!  ‘Well, hi there!’ I announced my presence and dropped my bike in the middle of the trail.  Scott and Brian sat up in their sleeping bags on opposite sides of the trail.

‘This is the most idiotically boring trail I’ve ever ridden!’ I announced. ‘I’m so bored I can’t even think about anything interesting to think about!’  And so began what amounted to a 20 minute rant about the trail, Alaska, and life in general.  Scott just sat there listening, laughing, nodding in agreement when I declared, ‘All this trail does is go left, and then right, and then left, and then right again.  And you guys must have been drunk riding back there because you clearly couldn’t stay on the actual trail!’ (Note: They weren’t drunk, they just had their tires pumped up to absurdly high pressure on the river superhighway.)

‘You only have 23 more miles to go,’ Scott told me.

‘No!  I have 200 miles.  And it’s going to take seven eternities to do it!’

‘You rode from Silver City to Antelope Wells in a night, you can do 23 miles.’

I paused.  ‘I’m cold.  I’m going.  Thanks for listening.’

I hopped back on my bike and pedaled off, fully awake for the first time in hours.  Ok, McGrath, here I come!


I stepped on the gas, expecting to accelerate and found nothing.  The Gas Tank Empty light flashed bright red.  Well, shit. I choked down a couple of raisins, anything to kickstart the engine.  20 miles.  Four sets of five miles.  The next seven miles passed in seven eternities.  The blinking light of the airport tower mocked in the distance.

I. Can’t. Do. It.

I pulled my sleeping bag off my bike.  Put on my big down jacket.  Just 45 minutes.  Then we’ll make a run for it.  I was asleep within seconds of curling up in the giant bag.

The alarm shook me wide awake.  GO!  I packed up my camp on the frigid river and proceeded to cover the next three miles standing up before reverting back to my 30 pedal strokes standing, 5 sitting pattern.  The trail eventually left the river and I came to an intersection marked with the orange tipped stakes of the Iron dog in both directions and tire tracks heading both directions.  I went in the direction of what seemed like more tracks before the tracks began to peter out.  Dejected, I pushed back to the intersection and examined the stakes going the opposite direction: They said something along the lines of AK Ultra, or AK Ul Sport, or maybe even AK Ultra Sport.  Whatever the combination of letters was, I convinced myself that it was some sort of geological marker, so I went back in the original direction until all the tire tracks petered out.  I got off and pushed back and gave the stakes another look. ‘Oh,’ I thought as the letters on the stake started to make sense. ‘Dummy.’

IMG_4735More ponies.  Ready to go home.

The trail continued on, finally dumping out on the final three miles of road.  I should air up my tires.  My pump is probably frozen.  Screw it, I don’t need air in my tires. I stood on my pedals, watching my tires squish underneath me until I saw the sign under the street lights of McGrath: Alaska Ultrasport.  I pulled up to the house, propped my pony up to the other ponies sleeping in the night, and walked in the door.

Done.  Bent.  Very nearly broken.  Not quite, but very nearly.  But done. 3 days. 16 hours.  20 minutes.

IMG_4738Unboxed ponies flying.  Pony wranglers followed shortly.

What ensued was the most magical 32 hours of my life at Peter and Tracy’s in McGrath.  I had to take some pictures because I was afraid I’d start to believe that I’d only dreamed of being there.  I ate, and slept, and showered, and babied my sore mouth.  I ate mancakes and omelets, drank cups of hot chocolate and coffee with whipped cream, inhaled cookies and cake, brie and apple butter.  Dan and Kevin came in a few hours later.  Then came Curiak and Brian, followed closely by Scott, complete with frozen beard.  It was so good to see them all…three desert rats, sitting in McGrath.  We told stories of the trail, the boys made fun of me of sleeping through the fire alarm that they’d set off just a few hours after my arrival, called me a shining example of how to sleep after I passed out sitting up on the dog bed, plate of food in my lap, talked of sleep deprivation, sleep monsters, and mouth sores that seemed to plague everyone in the dry, cold air.  I started to put faces with names that I’d studied on all the sign-in sheets.  Peter kept food production on high throughout the day and the table was never empty of food or of people eating food. If there is a heaven, it was found at Peter and Tracy’s.

IMG_4741Scrawny kids in the back of the plane.  Within an hour of leaving Peter and Tracy’s, we were back to trail food.  Mmmm…peanut butter M&M’s.  

Broken souls started to return to life.  By the time we all got on the airplane on the snowy airstrip the next afternoon, smiles could be seen all around.  I couldn’t walk without pain, I definitely couldn’t sit without pain, but I ridden to McGrath.  Not gracefully, but I’d survived.  And as Scott and I stood in the cold Alaskan air, watching bikes being loaded on the small prop plane, I found myself looking out into the vast expanse of wilderness, wondering what it would be to ride all the way to Nome.


Iditabike: Into the Burn and beyond

‘Fully confident’ is not a way I’d describe myself as I rolled out of Rohn a little before 6 pm.  I could count the number of hours of sleep I’d gotten on one hand (and I’m not convinced the ‘sleep’ that I’d gotten at Finger Lake really counted as sleep), and the thought of entering the Farewell Burn, which was described as 40 miles of hallucinogenic burned spruce forest, sleep deprived and in the middle of the night was…worrisome.  It’s also historically the coldest part of the course and has been known to break many souls.

My consternation was only increased after I ungracefully sent myself sprawling just inches from a giant tree within minutes of leaving Rohn.  ‘Wakeupwakeupwakeup!’ I chanted to myself, ‘You’ve got to get yourself together!’  Soon I found myself out on the ice of the KooKooSwim (Kuskokwim) river and I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t slept in Rohn and I got to ride the ice in the daylight, both from a safety standpoint and a Awe-and-Wonder standpoint.  My mental train alternated between terror, amazement, and wanting to stop and take pictures (I didn’t, but Scott did, and they turned out amazing) with amazing rapidity.  ‘Stay straight.  Stay calm.  Stay balanced.’

kuskoBilly on the KooKooSwim River.  Photo by Scott a few hours before I got there.

As much of a novelty riding on ice was, I was pretty glad to be back on snow at the far side of the river.  Brian passed me not minutes later, making good on his promise to sleep more and ride faster in the interim.  ‘You’ve got to do everything you can to get this record!’ he told me as pushed up a steep hill.

‘I know.  I’m doing everything I can.’

‘You have ice cleats, right?’ he asked me.

‘I have screws on the bottom of my boots.’

‘I guess we’ll see how bad the ice is up here.’

I thought back to Jill’s book and her description of the ice bulge.  I’d failed to make note of which section of trail it was on and I quickly realized that while I’d convinced myself that the major ‘difficulties’ of the route were done (i.e. ice bridges, overflow), I still had some obstacles to navigate.

‘How far up the trail?’ I asked.

‘About 10 miles from here,’ Brian told me, getting on his bike at the top of the hill and pedaling off at a speed not indicative of being 200 miles into the Iditarod Trail.

I fretted for approximately 3 minutes as I pedaled along until I realized that Scott had the exact same ice-gripping set-up as I had on his shoes, so as long as I didn’t find him coming backwards on the trail, there would be a way up or around the famed ice bulge.

IMG_4725Moonrise in the Farewell Burn.

Darkness fell but the night remained warm and dark with the moon still firmly planted behind the mountains.  I passed the sign for the Post River and rode along more ice, marveling at the appearance of the frozen water under my headlamp.   Ice turned to snow, snow turned to dirt, and then dirt turned into a giant mess of ice.  The famed ice bulge.  I shined my headlamp around, thick ice and rock cliff to the right, steep sheet ice to the center, but to the left, snow and a firmly packed track to the top of the bulge.  Bingo.  I hauled myself and the bike up, grateful that this ‘crux’ seemed to be going smoothly.  The ice continued on upwards but was interspersed with spots of snow that I was able to connect on foot.  I stepped out onto the ice, just to test my ice screws only to find that they held no grip on the frozen waterfall.  Good to know, I told myself and made my way up to the dirt at the top.  I looked back, down the cascading ice and smiled, knowing I’d just gotten super-lucky.  Thank you, Universe.

I honestly don’t remember much of the next section.  Apparently there was a fast and long descent off of Egypt Mountain.  I remember a downhill section of dirt that I was terrified of and walked down because I convinced myself that I didn’t know how to ride dirt, only snow.  I remember the moon rising over the peaks and realizing that the night had been dark not because my light was dying but because the moon wasn’t up yet.  I remember eventually ditching my clear lenses because I couldn’t keep them from fogging and being worried about my eyeballs freezing.  I remember the moon lighting up the burnt spruce forest.  I remember looking down at my thermometer and seeing it dip below zero for the first time. I remember looking down at my GPS and seeing the long straightaway approaching and scrolling the arrow from where I was to the turn to Nikolai and seeing ’40 mi’ pop up.  I remember seeing the reflective sign in the tree declaring the Safety Cabin still 20 miles away.  I pedaled on the order of three minutes past the sign, found a snowmobile track that had packed the snow down on the side of the trail, laid my bike down, and set up camp.

‘Ok Mike, you win this one.’  Bivying in the Farewell Burn.  I’ve done dumber things in my life.  I set up camp fairly quickly, pulled my water bladder into my sleeping bag with me, ate some peanut butter cups, set the alarm for three and a half hours later, and fell into the deepest sleep I’d had Anchorage.

I awoke to the alarm.  Snooze button.  The pesky thing went off again.  Snooze button.  Beep beep beep.  I laid there awake, acknowledging that I desperately had to go to the bathroom, but at the same time, afraid of the cold that I knew awaited me outside the -20 degree bag. I moved my tongue around my mouth to find that the sores which were small and manageable when I’d lay down had grown and one had turned amazingly painful.  Did I just frostbite my tongue?  This is not going to end well. Eventually, as it always does, my bowels won and I desperately escaped the bag, pulled my boots on and scampered a few feet away from my camp.  Squatting there, I heard voices, and then saw lights.  Of course, Dan and Kevin had chosen exactly that time to find me in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.

‘Don’t mind me, guys.’ I told them as they pulled up.  ‘Just going to the bathroom in this godforsaken cold.’  I may have added on a few more comments on the general temperature and ambience of the Burn and the apologized for being such a fine specimen of human right there and then.  They continued on, telling me that they’d slept for a few hours in Rohn and told me they’d see me down the trail. ‘Unlikely,’ I thought as I watched their lights disappear into the night.  I put my sleeping bag away, strapped the lopsided bag to my handlebars, reasoning that I’d fix it when it got warmer, added some water to my dehydrated meal and put it as close to my body as I could tolerate, took some Vitamin I to try to remedy the situation of my rapidly deteriorating underside, and started down the trail.

It wasn’t long before I ran into Billy, who was touring the Iron Dog route (Knik-McGrath-Nome-Fairbanks).  He said that he’d ridden with the Curiak crew the night before and really wanted to make it to the cabin that night, but had gotten too tired.  I asked him about the trail ahead as we pushed up a steep hill and he told me that there were about 200 of these steep pushes until bison camp and then it was flat and boring swamps for a long time.  I told him that I’d take flat and boring and easy over these hills any day.

Even with his giant bike that he was pushing up any semblance of uphill, he was quickly out of sight as I struggled to wake up.  Mornings on the trail are never pretty for me and this one, with the combination of the cold, dark, and scary infused with an inability to sit on the bike comfortably (complements of thinking I could do the entire race with one pair of shorts) and an inability to eat (complements of a mouth filled with sores), took the Ez-suffer-o-meter to a new level.  To add to the slow forward movement, the sun was finally making an honest-to-goodness appearance, lighting up the Alaskan Range behind me (of which I took no pictures), and I used the top of every hill as an excuse to look back and admire the beauty that I was lucky enough to see, even if my overall mental state was sub-stellar.

Eventually, I crested the final hill to see a forest stretching to eternity and the straight and narrow trail cutting right down the middle.  I bid farewell to the sunrise on the Alaskan Range and dropped down into the swamps of Bison Camp.  ‘Go get Scott.’

As promised, the trail was straight, rideable, and gloriously mundane.  Signs in the trees counted down the miles to the Bear Creek Cabin, 10, 5, 3, 2, and then, far down the trail I saw an unmistakable combination of colors.  Bright yellow jacket, bright red pants.  After three days of chasing, I’d finally caught up to Scott.

EZContinuing to allow the myth that I don’t actually know how to strap bags to my bike to be perpetuated.  Photo by Scott. 

He looked as happy as I’d ever seen him, out riding and camping off his bike and I took the opportunity to pull out my partially rehydrated, and now partially frozen freeze dried meal and have a legitimate intake of calories.  I fessed up to being tired.  To being human.  To being ready to be done.  I told him I was dreaming of moving to Tucson.  Of riding dirt.  To most, it would have probably seemed that I was miserable and unhappy, but I love knowing that Scott gets it.  That even in the lowest points, and I wasn’t feeling exceptionally high on life right there and then, it is still possible to love what I was doing.

Dehydrated meal finished, we parted with a giant hug.  ‘I’ll see you in McGrath!’

The trail continued straight for another 20 miles to Fish camp, where I leapfrogged with Dan and Kevin a handful of times, before making a turn towards Nikolai for a final 15 mile push in across frozen swamps and rivers.  It was truly spectacular out there with big views of the Alaskan Range, beautiful landscape, and a headwind that rivaled some of the breezes of the Front Range winter.  Such is life, the good with the bad.  I made slow progress towards Nikolai, each mile seeming like an eternity, but also appreciating that at least I was making progress with relatively little effort.  And, I was in the middle of Alaska, on the Iditarod Trail!

The Petruska’s home, the Nikolai checkpoint, couldn’t come soon enough once I saw the town around the bend in the river.  Stephanie came by on a snowmobile, told me there was pasta on the table, soda in the fridge, and to make myself at home, she had to go pick her grandparents up at the airstrip.  I followed the small cardboard signs to the house that said Petruska on it, walked in, took my boots off, and immediately beelined it to the table where, indeed, and giant plate of pasta with meat sauce awaited.  To a mouth that could take nothing sharp or abrasive and a stomach that couldn’t handle any more sweets, the meal was a godsend.  I ate, ravenous, as Stephanie came back with her grandparents and a load of groceries from Anchorage, and I watched in awe as figures danced across a TV screen and Facebook was brought up on the computer screen.  Life existed off the Trail.

Stephanie asked what my plan was.  ‘I don’t know,’ I admitted.  ‘I’m really tired.’  My gut check was failing to ignite the motivator and knowing that it had taken the guys over seven hours to finish from here made the final miles seem daunting.  ‘I think I’m going to lay down for just a little bit,’ I told her.  ‘Then I’ll go.’

I ate a cookie, laid down on bunk bed in the back room, pulled my jacket over my head, and pondered the final 50 miles. Get it together.  One more push.  You can hold it together.