Saturday, August 21, 2010


John L. Austin
June 21, 1921 - August 17, 2010

a farm boy when they farmed with horses
started the stove at the one-room school house
before doing his chores on the farm

chose the army and crossed the atlantic
world war 2; across north africa to tripoli,
to sicily, mainland italy; signal corps

stayed on after war's end
project after project; some hush-hush
traveled the states and the world

didn't talk much about those years
pulling teeth to get him to say the names
of places and what he did and what he thought

My brother said: doing his job
not bragging about what he did
sacrifices made; just what a soldier did

a long life; a good life
on his terms to the last day
then, mom on the phone

when i say sleep tight, tells me
"there will be arms around me
i won't see them; but i know they're there."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

when life hands you rain

and one day, he sprouted in our yard!

For 28 days it has rained. It's official. Longest stretch of rainy days since the record keeping began here in Anchorage. On Thursday I strolled around Downtown. Not many tourists; I parked on the street next to Town Square Park in the early afternoon. The flowers, washed with rain, were bright in contrast to the sidewalks and the gray sky.

I walked toward Elderberry Park. Two bicycle rental companies are positioned just a block away from the park which provides easy access to the Coastal Trail. Bikes lined up, covered in rain, waiting for brave customers to take them out. A rough summer for bike rentals. More fenders would help. And a little sunshine.

Later, in a coffee shop, a group of 20-something women wore the trend in summer fashion 2010: skirts and tights with Xtratufs. Their guy friend in soaked running shoes. But, for all our sun deprivation, in the forest and along streets and trails; in yards and parks around Anchorage, another source of vitamin D is emerging from the soil to feed us. It's mushroom season.
King boletes

Boletes (we call these "yellow caps") ready for
sauteing, then into the freezer for later. (My job.)

The time of year when Jon fills his backpack on his commute home from work; devises another way to cook the fast-growing wonders for dinner. Then after dinner, spends the rest of the evening brushing and slicing, examining and laying out on trays, loading boletes into the dehydrator. In the morning, the garage smells like mushrooms. Laundry hanging to dry smells like mushrooms. It won't stop until. Well, we've heard the blueberries are ripening in the mountains.

The next season moves in like another chapter. He'll leave the fungi-collecting commute, trade it for the car and a larger backpack, an optimistic number of empty containers and head for the mountains after work, squeezing every possible minute of picking into the fading daylight. Another season; another obsession. Another meal; another nod in appreciation. Full freezer; full pantry. Enjoying the harvest through the long winter.

after effects

Happy at the finish line, about 1:30 a.m.-ish.
photo by Sean Grady

I'm still waiting for the results of the race (beyond this list of survivors), not that my time matters. I'm just curious to know what time Jon and I arrived in Hope. After hanging around the campfire with a beer, we said goodnight, then climbed into the car and headed to our friends' cabin. I shed my muddiest layers on the deck, while Jon went inside the guest cabin sauna where an ember was still glowing from earlier in the evening. He put a piece of kindling in the barrel stove then waited for the room to warm up.

"Dry sauna," I told him. I didn't want any steam; I was done with humidity. I lay on the bench coughing, my lungs scratchy. I remember thinking to myself along the trail that if I got pneumonia, it would be my own fault. By the time I'd washed the sweat and mud off and climbed into my sleeping bag, it was 3 a.m. I didn't sleep long; just four hours later I walked the triangle to the outhouse, then the main cabin for coffee. The sun was out. It looked like a beautiful day for a ride.

After coffee and breakfast with our host, Art, I strolled down the road. There were no signs of our tracks from the night before. A plane was doing touch-and-go landings at the airstrip. I walked to a sunny spot on the wet road and stood soaking up the warmth. Jon and I were pulling together our gear when Tony, one of the volunteers, showed up. The last rider, Allen, still hadn't made it to Hope. A trooper was downtown; Tony thought I should talk with him. So I got into his van and we went downtown. A search plan was being devised. A helicopter would fly over the trail with a spotter from a rescue group. People were worried. I reported what I remembered. Mentioned bad spots along the trail; hoped Al had stopped at one of the cabins.

We couldn't stick around, though. Jon had to work, so we headed back to Anchorage. Eventually, a posting online told us that Al had been "found" though he was surprised so many people were that concerned. Here's what happened, in his own words. Later, I got a chance to speak with Wendy about her trail experience.

After she arrived at Devil's Creek trailhead where people could look at her mud-caked injury, they convinced her to drive to the emergency room, the closest of which was in Seward. She told me that the next day, on Sunday, when she and her husband were heading back to Anchorage she felt terrible about what she had told me: "I told her to do it!" she said to Kevin. Instead of worrying just about herself and her leg that evening, she was also worrying about me! Over the phone, I assured her that I'd enjoyed it; that I'd had a great ride and was happy I'd done it. And it's true. I don't know why I liked it so much. It seems beyond reason. But we humans are odd animals. Who can explain precisely what motivates us? Though for me, on this occasion, it was a commitment to Wendy, our team instigator, and Petra, our first rider. They gave their all, so I wanted to do my share; to not let them down or let their efforts be for naught.

Before I started the race, I said here that I didn't expect I'd learn much about myself compared to the true endurance riders who did over 100 miles solo. Those were the people digging really deep. On the way to Hope the evening before the race, Jon and I had been talking about how difficult it sometimes is to stick to the plans and commitments we make to ourselves. For me, that's especially true of physical challenges. But something changed waiting there in the parking lot and turned into determination on the trail.

My mind and body prepared all day to ride 36 miles. They prepared to do it in the rain; in the mud; in the dark. As I was riding, I felt an energy within. I had good power and rode well considering the conditions. And, despite the conditions, I never got frustrated or bummed out. I have to admit, it was some of the best riding I've done and I loved it. Even the little nervous moments when I thought I might slide off the trail.

The ride reminded me that I just need to set my sights high, prepare myself and attempt bold things. Whether it's a challenging ride or writing a story, you don't learn anything until you push yourself to the next level. Then, with hard work, things will fall into place.

Monday, August 9, 2010

horribly awesome!

part 1)

Team PoWeR just before the 9 a.m. start in Hope: me, Wendy & Petra.

What compelled me onto the trail at 7:40 in the evening on Saturday? Rain had been falling all afternoon as I waited for the first two riders on my three-woman relay team to complete their legs. Wendy was still out on the trail when 6 p.m. rolled around, the earliest time I'd anticipated she may have arrived at the Devil's Creek trailhead. I did pre-race preparations: checking and double-checking my Camelbak for water level and supplies; pulling on my knickers, shoes and shoe covers. Deciding which gloves to wear. Which jacket?

Jon readied my bike, adjusting my tire pressure, clipping on the fenders and covering the saddle with a bag so it wouldn't be wet when I started. I stood near the turnaround point watching rider after rider emerge from the forest, mud-splattered and sometimes feeling the early stages of hypothermia. I unbuckled the helmet for a solo rider whose fingers had stopped working. Talked with another who was contemplating returning to the trail though he was in no condition to do so. He did tell me, though, that he'd seen Wendy and she appeared to be struggling. That it would be a while before we saw her.

When Mark Davis, the dad of my teammate Petra, came in he still looked energetic and was helped for mere minutes before heading back out. As he re-entered the trail, he stopped, looked at me and said "it's the worst mud I've ever seen. You're gonna have fun!" My spirits rose, though I realize now that it was a mad look of a person who was in his own world. His own deranged, muddy world...

Petra describes her leg upon arrival in Cooper Landing: "bottomless puddles."

Petra encouraged me to put tights on and keep myself warm until Wendy came in. She had biked the first leg of the race, a 44-mile long slog of "bottomless puddles." She'd warned us about the slipperiness of the trail; not to take chances on the descents. As I waited and the clock read 7:00, Petra told me that nobody would think less of me if I didn't ride my leg. I appreciated her support and thought about it as I sat fidgeting in the truck unable to read a newspaper or the book I had brought. If she's not here by 8, I thought...

Near 7:30, a report came in that Wendy had cut her leg and was afraid to look at it. She'd been riding injured since mile 7 or 8 of the 27-mile leg. That was it. I was tired of waiting and feeling cooped up. I just wanted to ride! I decided to scratch the race and ride out to meet her and make sure she made it safely to the trailhead. Then I'd call it a day. I didn't know how far away she was, but I didn't want to leave her out there riding by herself. Jon handed me my bike and I took off down the hill. I felt great.

Wendy: ready to start. I have no after photo, but
she told me she does have photos of the six-inch wound.

Not quite a third of a mile down the trail, I saw a mud-soaked rider climbing toward me. "Is that Wendy?" She was making her way up the final punishing grade of trail. We stopped and I asked how she was. Her leg hurt but she was okay. "Wendy, should I do it?" I needed to know. "Oh, yeah!" she answered. The look on her face told me: there’s something you will experience up there that is so satisfying, you won’t want to miss it. Again, it was that touch of madness in her face that pulled me into the experience. I couldn't not do it. I had to know what it was...

We rode together for a few seconds, then she told me to go up the trail ahead of her and get ready. I was ready.

I'm almost ready to start. Glad I added tights to
my outfit. And those fenders were priceless!

Part 2)
When I got back to the trailhead, I called out that Wendy was right behind me. I told the timers that I wasn't going to scratch; I would do it. Janice asked if I wanted company and I said something about Jon riding up to meet me from the Hope side. I looked at Jon as he held my bike. Something like surprise, wonder and pride crossed his face. No turning back after this. I had to do this for the team. I took off again, down the rain-soaked trail. All my pent-up energy from the day propelled me forward, riding faster than I normally would in the conditions. It felt so right to be riding in the rain, in the mud down the trail.

As I began to climb, my heart rate went up; I was aware of my breathing, aware that this was what it felt like to push myself. A few racers went by on their way to the trailhead. A solo rider going my direction was ahead. He stopped. I greeted him, not sure if he knew who I was. I imagined that Allen and I would be leap-frogging all the way to Hope. I'd have company. I picked up my pace and made my first creek crossing at the base of a waterfall. As I left the drainage, I looked back and didn't see him.

At times, the conditions were brutal, though riding through standing water that came almost to the hubs was easier than pedaling through the soupy, slimey mud holes. A pair of hikers cheered me on, then I met Pat, one of two sweeps who was riding from Cooper Landing to Devil's. Maybe that was at mile 7. I didn't want to focus on my mileage, but I was almost at the last rock field. I told him that if he saw Jon, to tell him I was having a great time. Soon I saw Pierre, the other sweep. He was the last person I would see until I met Jon on the other side of Resurrection Pass.

Alone on the trail, but not feeling alone, I noticed little things: a heart-shaped stone on the side of the trail; a teaser of blue sky when I looked back toward the trailhead. I was riding well, smiling, trying to go fast while also being careful. There was one racer behind me, plus a sweep, just in case.* While that gave me a certain amount of comfort, I was looking forward to meeting Jon at Caribou Creek. I knew that after I met him, the rest would be easy.

Once in the high country out of the rock gardens and nearing the first pass, the toughest climbing was over. This is my favorite section of trail. Past the trail marker (where the water neared my hubs), then riding above Devil's Pass Lake, I wondered which I'd rather do: push my bike through the snowfields as we did in early July or pedal through the water-covered trail as rain continued to fall... I pushed past the cabin to avoid using too much energy trying to get traction on a steep, slimy section, then kept climbing to the second pass. Just over 24 miles to go. I was two hours into my ride and had covered a dozen miles.

I heard the calls of ground squirrels as I rode by on my way to the high point of the ride, where the stone surface of the trail was hard and fast so I could ride down and coast half way up to the next prominence. I was ready for the long descent. Then I started singing: "I hear that train a-comin' it's rollin' round the bend. And I ain't seen the sunshine since, I don't know when!" How can I feel joy in such miserable conditions? Is this a part of what endurance racers feel when they break through that barrier that lies between the voice that says stop and the once that tells them to keep pushing on? If so, it didn't take me long to get there...

Riding along the ridges, the trail near the edge, drainage dips made me fear that I would slide off the edge, through the trees and into the abyss. I imagined falling all the way to the creek and floating my way to Hope. Too much rear brake sent the bike sliding; the front brake got weaker. Roots across the trail dammed the water's flow creating inches-deep ponds. I was trying to eat every hour but didn't feel like eating. I felt fast and strong. "One o' these days these boots are gonna walk all over you!" The soundtrack of my ride was unpredictable.

It was getting dark. Stumps alongside the trail inspired conversation: "Hey blackened stump, why do you look so much like a bear?" I had bear spray but tried to ignore thoughts of bears; steering my thoughts away from ursus americanus and its larger cousin, horribilis. Darkness had been falling for some time and I decided to put my light on my helmet when I entered the first creek drainage, East Creek. The drainages are darker than the ridges and the trails are carved into the sides of the steep slopes. Even with the light, I took my time.

I didn't know when I would see Jon. The earliest I expected to see him was at Caribou Creek. I'd already decided that if things got too rough, I'd leave my bike in the middle of the trail and go to one of the public use cabins to warm up. I passed the East Creek Cabin, still feeling good, then climbed back out of the drainage. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, as is Jon. Neither of us can remember if he met me before I made it to Fox Creek or after...

I saw a headlamp blurred by the rain and fog. Then it disappeared. A hopeful illusion? It came back again. "Jon?" I called out. "Is that you?" I stopped. Fumbled with the zipper on the chest pocket of my rain jacket. He helped pull out my energy gel and a partially-eaten nut bar. I took one bite and couldn't eat more. I squatted alongside the trail, thinking: I'm not drinking enough. I didn't want to drink or eat. I just wanted to get to Hope. And I was happy to have Jon's company. It was 11:45. From Fox Creek, we would have roughly 15 more miles. My computer had stopped ticking off the miles, probably due to mud.

Part 3)
Jon rode behind me, his headlamp adding to mine, though in the fog, it was much like driving a car with high beams in similar conditions, with light reflecting off the moisture back at us, not projecting very far forward. "His name was Rico!" I could see Jon's light shining into the forest on either side of the trail. Sometimes his light wouldn't be there. I figured he was giving me a little room since I don't like to have someone right on my wheel.**

I walked up a few hills, stretching my legs. I pounded my fists on my calf and thigh muscles when they tightened in painful cramps. Tricking the muscles, my Pilates teacher, Kristin, would say. If I can just keep them from hurting, I can keep going. Some rocky sections I normally would have biked were so slimy with mud that I pushed. Tunnels of pushki also sent me walking. For a split second, the scent of coffee penetrated my brain. I smiled at the thought of a hot mug.

At Caribou Creek, I asked Jon if that was really where we were. He stopped and looked at the sign as I rode across the bridge. Yep. I brightened. The big bridge was next, then in my mind I was counting the climbs that remained: a little one ahead; the big, killer hill; one on the road. When I got to one I'd forgotten I asked: Where did you come from, climb. How long are you? Aren't you done yet? If Jon heard me, he was ignoring my conversations.

Then I was riding and screaming "Aaiii! aiaiaiaiai Aaiiii!" And the Talking Heads were in my head and then it was "Raining men, halelujah!" Where does this stuff come from? I was laughing at myself, slowing just in time to not go off the trail before another tiny bridge, making up my own song: "I've got the wheel-suckin' keeps-rainin' ridin' the Resurrection blu-ues! Uh-huh!" Finally, we were at the killer climb. I walked and at the top took a nibble of the nut bar and was nearly sick. Almost out of water but we were descending. All I wanted was to lay on my back in the grass. I could even see it and feel it, wet grass and a campfire.

Crossing the bridge at the trailhead, I let out a cheer. Five miles to go. One more hill on the gravel road, then Jon called out: "Big ring, Rose!" Oh yeah! I shifted my gears and started cranking. As we pedaled past two trucks parked on either side of the road, a group of people cheered as we flew by. We passed the cabin where we were staying, and the airstrip. "Two more miles," Jon said. "That's the distance from Airstrip Trailhead to our house!" I shouted. (An easy distance, it's an encouraging gauge for long rides. I can always go just two more miles.) Onto the paved highway then a turn near Tito's, past the cabin where we'd seen a bear the night before, then a campfire in a yard with more cheers and onto the main street. The dark street. My tunnel vision took me and as I neared the Seaview: "Where do I stop? Where's the finish?"

"Right here." There was Carlos (the race organizer), others I couldn't make out as I climbed off, someone took my bike to be rinsed. Cameras flashed. "What do you need?" Just a tiny bit of water and a beer. With someone's help, removed helmet & Camelbak and walked to the fire. A guitar and a voice singing. I sat down. Laid on my back. The sky was clearing; I could see stars above. Questions. Are they talking to me? Did you see Al? Where was he; how was he. How was it? I don't remember all the questions; my two- and three-word answers. Three miles. He seemed okay. Don't know. Nobody behind me. Awesome. It was awesome!

I finally saw the musician: "Is that Paul?" Paul is a friend of some friends; he was riding the same leg as I. "Did you ride it?" He had. And now he was entertaining volunteers and the handful of other racers gathered in the early morning, waiting for the final racer to arrive.

*The next day I learned that I had been very much on my own: Allen had holed up in the cabin at mile 10 and there was no sweep.
**Later I learned Jon was stopping to pick boletus mushrooms which were prolific along the wet trail.

Folsom Prison Blues - by Johnny Cash
These Boots were Made for Walkin' - Nancy Sinatra
Copacabana - Barry Manilow
Pyscho Killer - The Talking Heads
It's Raining Men - The Weather Girls

Sunday, August 8, 2010

oh, just get a pair!

of fenders!

Rider on the Soggy Bottom, after arriving at
the Devil's Creek trailhead on Saturday.
(Yes, he knew I was taking this.)

To paraphrase Jon: If you're not going to use fenders today, when the hell are you going to use them!?

Mmmm. They* may not be as sexy as that new
titanium-carbon whatchamagottahave, but
they served me well on the Soggy.

*These fenders are made by SKS who did not pay me to say that I like them, but I do.

Friday, August 6, 2010

remember this

When I was a junior in high school, I became friends with an exchange student from Japan. Mika and I did the usual teenage-girl things: went to basketball games, talked about boys, listened to music. She would sleep over at our house. As we got to know each other better, I would explain slang and she would work to better pronounce her Ls and Rs. She taught me a few Japanese phrases and let me try on her traditional kimono. And she shared a book.

Her mission as an exchange student during the early 1980s was to let Americans see the dangers of nuclear weapons and the arms race that was being waged by the world's superpowers. I remember sitting in the hallway outside the band room turning the pages of a hard-bound book filled with image after image of the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. When you're 17, something that happened almost 40 years ago seems ancient. Now I see that it had not been that long ago.

The '80s were the Reagan years and I may have worried more than the average kid about nuclear holocaust. But, this was the president who joked about bombing the Soviet Union when he didn't realize a mic was live. (Beware the smiling grandfatherly man...) My political views were just forming and I'm sure that viewing the photos and talking with Mika helped me form my positions. Though she didn't need to say much. The next year, after Mika had returned to Japan, I remember reading a story I'd found in a textbook. It was a portion of reporter John Hersey's account of the Hiroshima bombing. The story wasn't assigned, nor was it discussed in class. I had no one to talk to about my fears, my sadness...and my American guilt. I didn't think people remembered or cared.

I don't think of this often, but I'm reminded every year on the anniversary the bombing which was 65 years ago today. I promise myself I will go to Japan to visit the Peace Park and visit my friend. After years of not being in touch, I recently reconnected with Mika. She's a journalist, traveling the world reporting on issues that affect people in war-torn regions around the globe. It seems she's keeping with the mission she began all those years ago.

As I remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which was bombed on August 9), it's with sadness that many nations and people have not gotten much better at resolving their conflicts despite the efforts of the peacemakers. I was naive to think we would live in a peaceful world.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

making sense, is it?

where it begins and ends...

It seems funny to talk about what I'm going to do. Setting myself up, I sometimes think. What if it doesn't come off as planned? What if I really mess it up. What if it sucks? Ah! Guess I'd better fill you in. I'm doing a race this weekend. What? Yes, me. I know, but here we go:

You’ve heard me before: I’m not a racer. Not at heart. When I go out on rides, I like to stop. Smell the air; take some photos; chat with people at intersections, examine the plants and look for wildlife. I can ride pretty far when I feel like it and when an adventure necessitates it. But if you’re looking for one of the fastest mountain biking women in town, don’t look my way... Yet the big weekend I told you about earlier this summer is upon us. A Saturday I’ve looked to with excited nervousness.

The Soggy Bottom 100 mountain bike race begins at 9 a.m. at the Seaview Cafe & Bar in Hope. How many more hours until I ride my leg, the final 36-miles of the race? At minimum, maybe 9 hours. It all depends on how fast the first two riders can tackle the early legs. Petra is young and a strong rider, used to challenging, long rides. She gets the first and longest leg: about 44 miles from downtown Hope to Cooper Landing. After that, Wendy (who is closer to my age) will take on the next 27-plus miles, which includes the sometimes-steep climb up from Cooper Landing, then cutting down to Devil’s Creek trailhead where I’ll be waiting, ready to go.

Last night we went to what could loosely be called a pre-race meeting, set up by the organizers. The three of us discussed our legs; the mileage and what kinds of goals we had set for ourselves. I reminded them that their goals should be for me to not have to ride in the dark! (I kid... kind of.) It’s certainly possible given the right trail conditions, no mechanicals and some powerful efforts. After that, it will be up to me.

I have been training. Not putting in super long rides, but in the last week I've done three rides that were in the 20-ish mile range with lots of climbing and minimal stopping. After starting the season with a good base, I think my body is ready...

Meanwhile, I’ve been charging, running and recharging my headlamp battery, cycling it enough times to assure that I’ll have more than enough battery life so I’m ready in case we do run low on daylight. I know I can do my leg, Devil’s back to downtown Hope, in under 5 hours. When Jon and I rode it in July, we were on the trail for under 6, including walking through snowfields and stops to eat, take photos and chat with people along the trail. Four hours would be fast for me, but you never know... there might just be a little competition in me.
new cassette... okay, I also like that it has the gold
body to go with the pedals and derailleur.

The bike is ready: Jon has tuned my ride, replacing a worn cassette (how did I bend my cogs?!) and re-greasing my rear hub and my pedals. I’ve gathered my gear; thought about what to wear; what food to bring; decided where to carry my bear spray. Just a few final preparations, then we depart Friday evening so that we can wake at our friends' cabin in beautiful Hope and visit with people before the race starts. I’m as ready as I can get with just two days to go. Is that why I’m a bit nervous?

Some people go into races trying to learn something about themselves. I don’t think I’m going to discover any deeper meaning of life out there - that's for the people who do the race solo. I don’t expect this is going to make me a better person. It’s a challenge. Just to see how I can do if I push myself just a bit more than I typically do. And a challenge to see if I can get into Hope before darkness falls in the small town on the south side of Turnagain Arm.