Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Chapter 1: Dalzell Gorge, February 27, 2008

I could feel the collapse coming. I could feel it in my heart.

My body shuttered and shook as I knelt into the snow, clutching the frost-coated fabric over my chest in a futile effort to squeeze out the ominous pounding of my pulse. A narrow strip of sky swirled with green light; the rest of the night was so dark I could see flickering reflections across the canyon — a pale, sickly glow. I forced deep breaths and listened against the sinking quiet to the hard beating of my heart. It seemed to think I was sprinting but my mind knew I was barely crawling. If I moved any slower, I’d be dead.

The gnarled silhouettes of spruce trees bent over me like holes cut into the smooth, snow-covered surface of the mountainside. My muscles ached dully as though they had been breaking down slowly for years, and this was the place they were meant to die, like an old Datsun left to rust on some backwoods road. But the nearest road I knew of was 200 miles away. I had pedaled away from that road two days before when I mounted my bicycle and set out toward the deep Alaska wilderness, all in an effort to race to a town some 350 miles distant.

From where I kneeled, the nearest outpost of civilization — a tiny wood-heated cabin and a few tattered tents — was at least 20 miles away. A long way to ride a bicycle — a much longer distance to walk a bicycle, which is what I’d been reduced to, for the past 12 hours, as I waded over a mountain pass blanketed in deep, soft powder. I stood up, coughed violently, and plopped down beside my overturned bicycle, which was weighed down with a lung-busting load of survival gear. My head was spinning. My heart was racing. This was the kind of fatigue that was going to need more than a few minutes of downtime while I caught my breath. This was a full-body revolt.

I sat in the snow and tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that my body was just running low on energy, a condition so common cyclists have bestowed the ugly but appropriate word “bonk” to describe it. But this was unlike any bonk I had ever experienced. It was too comfortable and calm, frighteningly so. Like the last few sputters out of a car engine before it quits, this bonk quietly indicated that there really was nothing left; not for a racer, not for a cyclist, not even for a survivor. I had already spent the last several hours hoping I was at least the last of the three.

“But I am a survivor,” I thought angrily. It wasn’t like I was actually entirely out of gas. I was still moving and breathing. And I still had a huge tank of fuel strapped to my bicycle. I unzipped my frame bag and fished out a frozen bag of dried cranberries. Using my mittens to chip away at the icy mass, I stuffed handfuls into my mouth and waited for the ice blocks to soften before swallowing.

The carbohydrate clumps felt heavy in my stomach, already lurching with empty nervousness, and I could only force a couple handfuls down before I started to gag. Before I risked losing what I had successfully consumed, I stopped eating.
My dull senses stifled the familiar terror rising from deep corners of my memory. My urge to scream came out as a sigh. A few cranberry calories did not bode well for the ten-hour snow march in front of me. I may or may not survive this, but two things were certain in my mind — I had never been a racer, and I was no longer even a cyclist.

Alone in a remote quadrant of the Alaska Range in late February, my choices were few. I reached for my emergency camping gear on my bicycle, and in the slow-motion struggle of a fly in a refrigerator, I prepared to bed down for a few hours. If I could get a little sleep, could get a little food down, everything would be fine. I could wake up and start pushing again, could march into the human outpost called Rohn, could survive and be alive. My mind was indifferent. My body was less than convinced.

Beside my sleeping bag, the Iditarod Trail was stamped with the footprints of the racers who came before me. Some were large and pocked with stud marks; some were narrow and adorned with the symbols of expensive boot manufacturers. All of them pressed deep into the soft trail. All of them were bordered with the shallow tread of bicycles that had to be pushed, not ridden. All of them had been through this exact same struggle, and all of them had survived — at least to this point.

But rather than feel heartened by the footprints, I felt diminished. Their’s was a success story that taunted me in my weakness. They were merely ghosts to me, fading into a future I wanted so badly, disappearing into a distance I needed more than anything.

But I was a just a straggler in this race, trapped in the past — literally trapped — by my own body’s inability to move forward. I pressed both mittens into the trail as I shoved my stiffening body toward my bag. My mittens left their own distinctive mark against the footprints, the indelible imprint of bundled fingers and outstretched thumbs, of a human who had been reduced to crawling while others walked. Pretty soon those hand prints would be stamped out by those who followed, the last remaining bicyclists, as well as the runners and the skiers in this race. I smirked in spite of myself at the thought. The race — some race. It was probably one of the few races in the world in which some of its competitors crawled. But was I the only one who was crawling?

The trail was soft and deep now, but eventually the cold would sink in. The trail would set up and harden, only to be blanketed by fresh layers of snow. The racing dog teams would come through and stamp it out again, followed by recreational snowmobiles tracking it out until the warm air of spring left the surface rotten and unusable. Then summer would come and take the rest of the snowpack with it, leaving behind only open tundra and narrow passages through the alder where the trail wound through a canyon below Rainy Pass. In a few short months, there would be no sign of the winter trail or anybody who followed it. The Iditarod Trail was a ghost itself.

But that night, beneath the moonless twilight of the Northern Lights, the Iditarod Trail was more of a ghost than any trail I had followed before. Not in the way it frightened me or battered me, but in the way it haunted me, even as I lay beside it, like it was some distant part of my past and inevitable part of my future.

My journey to that point had been a long one. I had ridden and pushed and pulled my bicycle 200 miles over snow and ice in two days, but even the race was just another leg in my journey. Since the previous November, I had been almost single-mindedly focused on this single race, the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational from Knik to McGrath, Alaska. I had ridden thousands of miles in cold rain and breathtaking wind and snow and ice and sleet, just to prepare for the race. I had spent my downtime pouring over maps and reports and ordering gear on the Internet, and working long hours just to pay for it all. But it even went beyond that ... beyond the previous year’s human-powered Iditarod race that I followed online like a hopeless fan ... beyond the two 100-mile Alaska snow bike races I had ridden in the two years previous to fulfill my winter lust for adventure ... beyond my decision to move up from the Lower 48 and become a real Alaskan who laughed at winter and scooped up slushy water with my bare hands from holes in the ice. My journey went even beyond that.

But the Iditarod Trail did not care about my history or preparations. It was just a line in the snow. The physical manifestation of the trail had no past or future. The Iditarod Trail was only an idea, written in footprints and tracks, and harbored in the minds of drifters, like myself, who were seeking something along its ever-changing surface.

To those who have never pressed their feet into the Iditarod Trail, the shape of our journey is largely unknown. In a few short days, I had realized our journey at its core is the unknown. What we seek is the truth. Not the truth shaped by human knowledge, but the Truth: harsh, unwritten and startlingly real. There is no ideology that can shield us from the searing wind, the frozen emptiness, the desperate loneliness of a night in the Alaska Range at 20 below. And there are no words that can prepare us for the raw amazement, the sweeping beauty and the quiet joy spread across white, unbroken land. We find so much wonder it makes civilized life seem shallow, and so much pain it makes death seem kind. We find love we can’t express in a place so uncaring it breaks our hearts. We find that we’re stronger than we ever hoped to be and weaker than we ever imagined. We find that there is reason to hope, and there is always reason to hope, as long as weary hearts keep beating. And what we realize is that everything we were looking for was inside of us, all along.

I took one last glance at the twisting spruce shadows before I zipped up my bag and closed out the green-tinted night. My shallow, frightened breaths finally began to slow as the body-heated humidity of my sleeping bag surrounded me. I switched off my headlamp and pulled my icy bladder of drinking water next to my torso, wincing as the chill of my ice baby cut through to my heart. Despite my pounding pulse and churning stomach, I could feel my muscles relax and eyelids droop. A curtain of warmth settled over my thoughts and I closed my eyes. I could feel my fear melting into the serene indifference of sleep. I wondered if I would ever wake up. I had no way of knowing for sure.

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3 comments:

P. Habib said...

Jill is a HUGE inspiration to me an almost 50 year old fair weather road cyclist. I love her can do attitude, writing and photography. We humans can be proud that there is one such as her amongst our midst. She lifts us all with experiences and her presence.
Sincerely,
P.Habib
drum_sing@yahoo.com

panjandrum said...

Love this, Jill

(If you want an editor's correction, "pouring over maps" should be "poring")

Jim

Dan Robinson said...

Nice job.

Don't you mean "shuddered" rather than "shuttered" in the first sentence.