Sunday, February 28, 2010

the long trail

The house is quiet now. Just me, Jon and Kitty, all of us having eaten our share of salmon. Last night the house was filled with new friends and their pre-race energy as a handful of endurance bikers prepared to start the long ride - or push - from Knik to McGrath on the Iditarod trail. Quite a way to return from our vacation.

We arrived home from our trip early Saturday morning to a house full of people and a day of activity. The Iditarod Trail Invitational began today and our friend Pete (who's staying with us for a couple months) is doing the race. He invited a few out-or-towners to spend a couple nights here - after checking with us first. It's funny when a house of two, then three, adults doubles. For the last two nights, every room was filled. A futon in my office. A mattress in the bike room where I normally have my trainer set up. Fat-tired bikes and bike cases filled the garage. High-calorie trail food entered the kitchen.

All Saturday people were hanging out in the garage, moving throughout the house. Running errands and assembling bicycles. Talking food and races past. Later, a few more racers joined us for the dinner Jon volunteered to make for our guests; new friends and sometime rivals getting ready to hit the trail. They joked about newspaper articles, checkpoints and embarassing trail moments. That we were participants and witnesses to some of the top contenders enjoying dinner together was just part of the fun that the media doesn't see when they write the articles we've been reading in the newspaper about challengers, defenders and newcomers.

After all, it isn't just about rivalry. It's also about the spirit of adventure they all share. Of pushing themselves through all kinds of conditions to make the journey to McGrath, and in good time. I don't know that I could do it, but as I was sitting at the table last night, I did wonder what it would be like to be out there on the trail pushing or pedaling alone from one checkpoint to the next, accomplishing a feat of physical and mental perseverance. Against the elements, against the part of the brain that says it makes no sense to do this. Yet, there's an appealing part that says: if you don't go out there, you will never understand the thoughts that go through the mind of someone who is pushing their bike for miles at a time yet continues because they refuse to abandon their goal.

Admirable? Yes. Realistic for me? I don't know. Today, I joined two friends on a backcountry ski in the front range above Anchorage. I felt strong. I skied well. I wondered how far I could ski or bike in a day; if I could ever have the tenacity to do what our friends are doing. I thought (as I've occasionally done before) about entering a 24-hour race on a team, wondered if I could summon the discipline to train enough to be prepared for such an event. Then again, I think about the things I can accomplish; limits that are only set due to my lack of determination and refusal to push myself. Where do people find that push? Is it something they experience once, then are ever after determined to seek? The endorphin reward?

While we were in Hawai'i, I had an epiphany of sorts. I decided that it was kind of silly that of all the trips we've made to Kaua'i, I've never taken a surf lesson. Never thought it was for me; something I could handle. But this time I was thinking, 'why not?' So, we signed up for lessons and paddled out to the waves that were breaking not far off shore. It took some tries, but having the board pushed by a wave, paddling with all I had, then standing crouched over the large learner board as the wave pushed me to shore was quite a rush. I kept paddling back out for more. Two more visits to the 'bunny hill' of surfing - the second time when the waves were a good two feet higher - and I managed to catch a few more. I know it would take lots of practice to get good; not something that will happen until our next visit, but I'm happy that I tried.

Because there are so many things in this life to try and I don't want to reach my 80s and say, 'I always wanted to...' I'd rather hit 80 and look at Jon and say, 'remember when we...?' Life is about living on the active side of the sidelines. I may never do the bike race to McGrath, but that doesn't mean I won't one day hit that trail just to do a ride in the snowy wilderness, out of sight of Anchorage. Who knows if the trail will call me the way it calls others back year after year. The way touring has been calling me ever since that month in New Zealand.

Experience itself is a powerful draw. Accomplish something and you might wonder what you can do next. It keeps me looking forward, wondering what's going to happen next. Wondering what I'm going to make happen next. Calling, calling.

Monday, February 22, 2010

our summit

It was on the list: find & hike through the second tunnel to find the 'Shangri-La' that was listed in the guide book. We tried the Tunnel Hike three years ago. Twice. The first time, we did lots of route-figuring through the boot-sucking mud, then missed a turn that the authors failed to mention. By the time we'd found the entrance to the first tunnel, we had to turn around.

Three years ago.

A week later, we were back, starting a little earlier on a clear day when the rest of the island was on the beach - except the other two hikers we met who were, surprise, also from Alaska. The mud again spilled over our boot tops, but the route, including where not to take wrong turns, was fresh in our minds. Upon reaching the first tunnel, we pulled out a headlamp and flashlight, then stepped inside. We waded through mid-calf-deep water for a mile to reach the other side, then climbed over a dike to reach the Wailua River where large boulders filled the riverbed. We heard voices and that's when we met the other Alaskans who were having lunch among the boulders. We chose places to sit and eat, strategizing our next move.

Jon wanted to find the entrance to the second tunnel so he headed upstream, then around a bend. A while later he returned. He was soaked to his chest after having sunk into a big pool. We were, again, running short on time. Another time; another time, was what we told ourselves. We will find and get through the second tunnel. The authors said it was worth it. The waterfall; the view. But their route description included the phrase: "If you find it." It didn't exactly inspire confidence in their not-so-detailed directions. (As a guidebook author, I was glad to see that the 2009 edition of the book improves the directions, but they could use a more detailed map.)

Just before we left Anchorage on this trip, we did more research and planned what to wear to make the hiking easier. My solution was to bring gaitors to keep the mud from filling my boots. A long-sleeve shirt for the thorny ferns that surround parts of the route and dig into our skin. Headlamps with fresh batteries. We also did a web search and found some more-detailed descriptions that included photos of the route. Once in Kaua'i, we spent a few days hiking to get our legs ready for the challenge (among all the other activities), then we set the alarm to wake us before 6 a.m. on Sunday.

Gaitors, long sleeves... just what everyone
wears on a tropical hike, right?

We started hiking just before 8:30 (this fact alone should tell people who know us how determined we were) and were immediately surprised that there was no mud. None of the glopping, slippery eight-inch-deep mud holes that mark the route. Instead, the soil was crumbly-dry. Entirely unexpected, especially since the mountain looming above us is said to be the rainiest spot on the planet, reportedly receiving on average 460 inches of rain a year! We were feeling pretty lucky.

The drier trails made for faster hiking, and we made it through the first tunnel well before noon. After lunch in the boulder-filled Wailua river, we checked our directions again and headed upstream. A few false trails took us a bit too far from the route, but another check and trying to remember what I'd read on the web and we reached a dam. From there, we found a clear trail that led to a ditch and the second tunnel. Finally, we were closer to our goal.

A ladder helps getting into & out of
the ditch to Tunnel 2

The water was deeper here, sometimes half-way up my thighs, but there was no stopping us. After wading the 7/10 of a mile through this tunnel, bent over sometimes as low as a speedskater, we had to scramble up an incline where water was flowing down into the tunnel from near the entrance. Stepping into the light, we were at the head of a valley. A waterfall flowed from a gorge high above, sending spray raining around us. More water drizzled from the rim of the cliffs which formed a semicircle above our heads.

Jon at the bonus tunnel.

We'd made it, and with plenty of time to hang out or explore the canyon. After we climbed up to a pool below the waterfall, Jon spotted what looked like a cave on the opposite side of the river. He grabbed his light to check it out. After he disappeared into the opening, I hiked to my pack and got my headlamp and camera so I could join him. It was a third tunnel, mentioned on the web site. Rockier footing and smaller, it had openings where we could look out over the Ka’apoko Stream that feeds into the Hanalei River. We couldn't go far before rockslides turned us back, but this bonus tunnel was quite a reward after all the hiking and planning, even the hiking we did in 2007.

Window inside Bonus tunnel.

After hiking this trail three years ago, I sometimes wondered if I would ever get back to finish the hike. If I would have the fortitude to complete it, especially because it's one of those hikes that is almost as challenging mentally as it is physically. I guess I wanted the reward enough. And I think for the first time I understand why people keep trying for a particular summit. They get so close and they know that there are other summits, but none will be as satisfying as the one that has turned them away. When we reached the end of Tunnel 2 with its waterfalls and bonus tunnel, we had our summit. There are other waterfalls, but none as rewarding as this one.

Tunnel entrance.

Looking out from entrance of Bonus tunnel.
Our Shangri-La

Just a note: According to The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook, the tunnels were built in the 1920s by a sugar company to divert water from the Hanalei River to the Wailua River. They aren't maintained, and neither is the trail.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

my valentine

I'll always remember the Valentine's Day Jon and I both forgot. It was back in 2004 during our bike tour in New Zealand. Just before the summit of Lewis Pass, on the South Island, we stopped for the evening to stay at a hot springs resort. The guidebook said there was a hostel, but we learned they had closed that accommodation and had no vacancies. They would, after our pleading, allow us camp on the grounds and provided towels and access to the natural pools.

We soaked in the pools that later afternoon, then had dinner in the cafe before turning in for the night, hanging our towels on some nearby trees. Our only accommodation was an outhouse (which in NZ is called a "longdrop").

It rained that night and in the morning we decided to go inside for breakfast. I should add that the staff was pretty cool to us the night before, which was such a contrast to the warm welcomes we'd received every other place we'd stayed, so we were hesitant to return to the cafe. But we were cold and didn't feel like starting our day on the wet lawn next to our tent.

We took our seats and noticed a man at the next table covering the tabletop with flowers and red confetti. We looked at each other. February 14. It was Valentine's Day. No wonder the place was full! Was that why the staff were stressed? We laughed at ourselves at how we'd lost track of the days except for knowing the dates of our ferry and train tickets back to Auckland.

Today, we know it's the 14th. We're going to take surfing lessons. What else? I don't know. As long as we're hanging out together, it's a good day.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


It's been a long week. A head cold knocked me out of my groove and onto the sofa where I rested in the light haze of decongestants and nasal sprays. The most I could manage to read were a few brief articles in Time Magazine and online posts on facebook and some blogs. My writing was limited to trying to conjure clever responses to the posts and a few lines of woeful, why-me poetry.

Last Saturday, the first day of the two-session writing workshop, I was only in the beginning of the cold and made it through the morning before the real storm hit. One assignment to complete before the second session this Saturday was to email to one of the workshop leaders a one- to three-sentence example of strong, authentic voice in someone else's writing. So, I've been thinking about voice and what makes a voice strong.

I picked up a few books I've recently read and enjoyed. In one, the voice disappeared into the story. Is that part of what makes it an enjoyable read? I tried to look for examples of what made the voice distinct and authentic besides the use of regional expressions or words of the author's native language. Is Khaled Husseini constructing a sentence in a way that's unique to him? I don't know. But he captured details of the many ways humans relate to one-another, from warm, loving behavior to spiteful cruelty and violence. Very heavy stuff, but beautifully written.

I paged through books from David Sedaris and Sherman Alexie, two authors who use humor to lighten some of the pain in their stories. Both authors have distinct voices and infuse humor into stories which could otherwise become heartbreaking as they divulge the challenges they have faced, especially in the case of Alexie, a Native American author. Their backgrounds are very different as are their styles for using humor. Sedaris puts his humor front and center: you know you're supposed to laugh; Alexie teases about a culture that is not my own so I am uncertain, must back up to re-read some passages before hearing his irony coming through. My laughter is somewhat uneasy. Maybe that's part of his point.

I look at my own writing; my fiction and some of my essays. What is my voice? I’m searching for it by listening to my words, sometimes reading my poetry aloud. Sometimes I hear the voice begin to tell the story, like the opening voice-over in the film To Kill a Mockingbird, based on one of my all-time favorite books - Harper Lee’s only novel. I like thinking in this story-teller voice because, after all, that’s what I’m trying to do: to tell a good story.

Earlier this winter I had an editor friend read and critique an essay I wrote. I took his suggestions and rewrote the piece. I read it over. Then it sat. I was pretty uncomfortable with it and though I knew he had given me some thoughtful suggestions, I couldn’t figure out why I no longer had any interest in the piece. Didn’t even like the story. Now I have an answer: because infusing it with his words and phrasing took away my voice. It no longer read like my story, but someone else’s idea of my story. Finally realizing this gives me great relief because I’d started to worry that I just couldn’t write that story even though I know I’ve been writing some good stuff.

I’ll admit that I’m all over the board with my writing, listening for whatever story comes into my head on any given day, then just running with it. I now envision a series of stories that make up a whole. I feel more comfortable with this format than I previously had. It’s a revelation that comes from reading authors - including Alexie - who use different formats to craft their novels, and maybe from spending a few days behind the blurry gauze of those cold meds where snippets of dreams might all be telling part of a great big worry. I know that if I just keep going, following the various threads, I will weave together a story that is filled with truth, beauty and a little pain. With any luck, I will also find a little humor.