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Monday, January 18, 2016

On my way to where again

Looking for solitude? I'm getting ready to take another 3 month bike trip somewhere (mid March - mid June) and I'm looking for someone interested in checking out of their lives and staying in my little off grid house in an Arizona Canyon outside of Bisbee while I'm gone. If you do not like isolation, do not read further. No flush toilet, no hot shower, and a very rough 3 mile road from the highway. But for someone needing a break and trying to make sense of their lives, it would be a perfect respite. The primary requirement would be to first, do no harm. After that I would expect whoever is staying here to do a little work on the place while they're here as their conscience guides them. References would be required if I don't know you. Email enquiries: alysonpeel@gmail.com

Sunday, February 22, 2015

I can't go home


I can't go home. I stood astride friday staring up at the colossal granite spires that comprise the towers, the Torres del Paine, and the words suddenly filled my head. I can't go home. Where did that comes from, what inner recess of my weird psyche generated that brief but profound statement? The words arose and then repeated, like a scratched 45 from years ago. I can't go home. I can't go home. I can't go home.

Of course I can and of course I will go home. For now. But the words echoed for hours, and days. They still they do. The rhythm of the long road, the wild ride, resonate.

I check the news occasionally, the headlines at least, and that world seems so foreign and far away. On any given day, my most pressing issues are whether I will find a campsite before dark that provides protection from the wind and from curious eyes? Will I have enough water to carry me to the next source? Am I eating enough to fuel tomorrow's ride? Those are my banner headlines. Everything else belongs in a world where I don't live.

I am not unmoved by the pressing issues that face us as a species. If anything, I find myself overwhelmed and impotent to effect meaningful change on the scale required to make a difference. In the late 60s, Martin Seligman developed his theory of "learned helplessness" which stemmed from his interest in depression. He and his colleagues found that after administering electrical shocks to dogs at random intervals, the dogs eventually reached a state of such helplessness that they no longer attempted to avoid the shocks, even in situations where they could. I wonder if our headline news stories, which are designed to shock, appall, and horrify, don't have the same effect?

I sit here at the hostel in Punta Arenas resting a knee that took too much abuse riding steep hills against fierce winds so that I could have that moment in front of the towers, bowed by their enormity, humbled by their rugged perfection. I had been off the bike for about a week after finishing the carretera austral. I was itching to get back on the road, bonded with my bike, moving through space-time.

We took the back way to the park, an unpaved and consequently less traveled road. For the first few hours, we rode past small lakes and rolling hills and never saw a car.
As we hit the steeper hills, the winds started to kick up as they often do here in the afternoons, quickly turning fierce. I could see the mountains in the distance, my destination, closer but still quite far. The steepness of the hills and the relentless winds forced me off my bike on more than a few occasions. The wind became so strong that I simply could not pedal and at times so strong I could not walk.

A small tour bus was parked at a lookout point as i crested one hill and the driver called me over. I could see Torres in the distance behind a beautiful turquoise lake that laid below us. I was hoping, having seen the impossibility of my plight, they might offer me a ride to the park. But I could see the bus was full and there was no room, not even for a lone and weary not - so - little girl and her not - so - big bike. They were merely curious about me, wanting to know where I was from and where I was going. When I told them, they burst into cheers and applause. I went on my way buoyed by their enthusiasm, but daunted by the task that laid ahead of me.

I would have gladly stopped on the way and set up my tent. Friday and I have nothing to prove, no daily goal we need to achieve. We ride for the sheer joy of it. But the wind was so strong that trying to set up a tent at the few potential campsites I saw would have been impossible. I was starting to feel some pain in my left knee on the down stroke, so I walked the hills rather than pushing my knee past its limit.

Around 7 pm, having left Puerto Natales at 7am, I was climbing yet another steep hill when I looked down on a lovely green valley on my right, quite a bit down, and spied what must have been the park. I kept pushing against the wind wondering how I get down there. Eventually a car was coming in my direction and I flagged it down. The window rolled down and I blurted out "entrada?" Where is the entrance? A kind faced Japanese man looked out at me and told me I'd gone too far. "Get back on the bike and go all the way down. It's down there'.

I arrived at the administrative building and asked where I could camp. The only near campground (I had come through the back entrance to the park) was only a kilometer away, and i could go ask, but it was full and there was no other place for me to camp that night.

I rode to the campground and was informed that it was, indeed, full. I put on my most helpless look which, at that point, was not affected, and explained in a mix of Spanish and English that "estoy sola, I am a woman alone, on my pequeña bicicleta,  my little bicycle. Es trades, it's late, and I have nowhere to go".  The nice young man turned, went into his office, got on the phone, and got permission for me to camp for one night.  It was a great victory.
After setting up my tent, I walked down the road in time to catch a spectacular view of the towers as the setting sun bathed them in a bronze glow.

The next day I biked and hiked for a few hours to a campsite further in the park, not as far as I wanted to go but as far off the road on a hiking path that I could go with friday. I set friday down to take a 6-hour hike (3 each way) to a glacier-fed lake with a view of the Torres in the background.
On the way back to the campsite, my knee finally gave out. I was in intense pain for the rest of the night, sleeping on the bench of a sheltered picnic table rather than setting up my tent. I woke cold and hobbled the two hours to the main entrance, where I waited for a bus to take me back to Puerto Natales. Bad fortune sometimes clusters and, as I waited for the bus, I was struck with some kind of stomach/intestinal pathogen that had me heaving into a plastic bag half the way back.

And, yet, i want to keep going. Forever. For several days I played out scenarios of extending my trip, moving them around in my head like a bored tongue explores teeth. In the end, I must come home. My sweet little house in the canyon deserves my care and attention and the hummingbirds will be arriving in just a few weeks. And yet there remains an aversion to retuning home that I did not anticipate, a desire to remain wild.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Just when you think it's safe to get back on the bike

I left O'Higgins early, around 5:30 am, to get to the ferry. Although everyone said that it was a relatively flat ripio road, I never know how it will be for me.  To a bike, everything's a hill.

I arrived at the dock in plenty time. Lots of familiar faces- cyclists, hikers, and backpackers with whom I crossed paths on other occasions over the past week. Together, but not really, we comprise a loosely knit tribe.

We arrived at the other shore in a couple hours and I was surprised and delighted to see Etsuko there. I first met Etsuko during my down day at the Coyhaique, where I stayed to replace my shifter cable.  She is walking, hiking, and taking buses around Chile. You get the sense right away with Etsuko that she is on a Bilbo Baggins-esque journey and that, should you encounter her, you have been placed on her path so that something important can be exchanged, even if you never learn what.
 Etsuko is extraordinarily unique. She walked Japan just to find out things about her own people that you can only know by talking  to them.  For example, the practice of Christianity is somewhat hidden in Japan, masked under the auspice of buddhism.  She wanted to find out about that.  So she walked Japan and talked to people.  She walked the country. And, after going to Mexico on a business trip (I think she was in IT or something high paying job like that) and unable to find authentic Japanese food, she decided to quit her job, move to Mexico, and teach Japanese cooking.  She is compact and purposeful but not in a rigid or forceful way. Rather, she exudes a sense of ease as though she knows that wherever she is at any given moment is exactly where she needs to be on her journey. if you meet her, you know that you have met her because you are part of that journey.  She developed a keen interest in my bike friday and there may be a trip to Eugene, Oregon to get one for herself.  Perhaps my contribution to her path? 

At Villa O'Higgins, a week and a long way from where I first met her, Etsuko just happened to be walking by my hostel as I was going outside for something.  A minute later, I would have missed her. We spent time togther walking the town. She was on her way south by bus the next morning.
On the ferry I was chatting with the young and beautiful backpacking physicians from Austria who were also going south.  I told them about Etsuko and suggested that, if they encounter her, they should take a half hour or so and ask about her journey. And there she was on the dock as the ferry arrived.

After over half of the passengers disembarked on the other side, those of us who were continuing on to the glacier remained. Moving out farther in the lake, the water looked like liquid mercury, in shades of green and blue, in the boat's wake.
 I don't know how water takes on that texture. I have been on plenty boat rides in my life, but I have never known water to look like this. As we approached the glacier, the clouds parted, allowing the sun to paint the glacier in various shades of blue- sapphire blue, popsicle blue, impossible blue.
I understand that glacier ice is blue because the weight of the ice on the crystalline structure changes its molecular properties such that the blue wavelength is excluded, so we see blue. But like many other scientific explanations, understanding the "how" of it does not subtract from the wonder of it, and knowing how tells us nothing about the "why" of it. One of my favorite quotes is from the briliant physicist and devout aethist, Stephen Weinburg, who said, "I must admit that things are more beautiful than is strictly necessary."

We were deposited back on the boat dock around 4:30 pm and, after getting our passports stamped on the Chilean side by a handsome and friendly Sgt. Diaz who was desperate for company in this lonely outpost, we began the 16 km ride to the border, where we would camp for the night before embarking on what is famously the most difficult 7.5 km of the journey. The first 3 kms were sandy and hilly and after the two dramamine tablets I took for the boat ride I simply did not have the strength. Bernardo, the cyclist I met at Rio Nadis, heroically bungeed my bike to his and we pushed together. The rest of the ride to the border was pure mountain biking terrain, technically challenging and a little fun.
We crested a hill near our destination and Fitz Roy came into view. Fitz Roy, named for the captain of the Beagle, the ship that took Darwin on his journey of discovery, is one of the most spectacular mountains in the world. My handsome Spanish companion for the day, Bernardo, was literally moved to tears, having dreamt of seeing this mountain his entire life. We arrived at the border just in time to set up our tents before we lost sunlight, which meant it must have been around 9 or 10 pm.

Rain tapped an incessant drum beat on my tent most of the night and I woke for good around 5 because I knew the toughest part was ahead of me. I noticed a few snowflakes drifting down. Cold. Without rehashing every awful step of it, suffice to say I wanted to set my bike down and not move again. I dragged Friday through trenches, over huge tree roots, across streams, and over very large rocks.  This part is barely hikeable much less rideable. A number of times I had to remove the back panniers, carry them up a hill, and go back for Friday.  At one point I got stuck in deep mud and one shoe was sucked off. I dug elbow-deep in mud for 30 minutes before I found it. Just a little further, the other one came off; however, I recovered it a bit quicker, I arrived at the ferry terminal much earlier than I expected, but covered with mud and scratches on every inch of exposed skin. 

No other way exists to cross from Villa O'Higgins into Argentina to continue to El Chalten and ElCalafate. If you are in a vehicle or on motorcycle you can't get there from here. So every year hikers and cyclists make the impossible trek and write about the hardship in their blogs, journals, and letters. I understand plans are in the making to create a more traversable passage, but something will be lost. The Carretera Austral is not a bike ride to see scenic Chile. For most of us, it becomes a hero's journey, transformative, difficult to the very end. 

On the short ferry ride down to the south end of Laguna del Desierto we passed several glacier-clad mountains. After docking, I got on my bike utterly spent from the morning's difficult trek. Additionally, rather than the paved road I expected, more of the same rough ripio I traversed the preceding 3 weeks was laid before me.  I wasn't sure I would make it the 37 km to El Chalten. Everyone cycling who wasn't already ahead of me passed me eventually.  Most of them, however, had skipped the glacier ride and made that hike the day before, so they were feeling a bit fresher.  Half way to Chalten I stopped at a small restaurant with a campground and seriously considered staying there for the night. After they charged me about $10.00 for a plate of french fries and a cup of coffee, I decided to ride on. 

The road was surprisingly flat and soon I began to feel the strong tailwind people promised and which should serve me well for about 2/3 of the way to Puerto Natales. The other third, when the wind is not my friend, is supposed to be somewhere between difficult and impossible. But this day I was getting a big assist, not even needing to pedal over several stretches. I must have looked a wreck because about halfway there a red car coming toward me slowed way down and stopped as I approached.  The car window rolled down and a pair of man's hands reached out, cupping a mound of beautiful red cherries to give me. Have to admit, I got a little choked up.

I sailed the rest of the way to El Chaltan and was steered toward a great campground by a woman who, with her husband, is cycling for a year with their 4 and 6 year olds.
A week earlier they, too, did that horrific trek, but with the additional challenge of 2 tandem bikes and 2 tiny kids. I was humbled.  The next time I start to complain about how hard it's been, the sight of them cycling out of the campground yesterday will come to mind.

In 5 year's time, the road will be paved and lined with Eco Lodges. Cyclists will flood the carretera austral.  And I will be honored to be in that select group who knows exactly what is meant when asked, "did you make the crossing?"

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Last day on the Carretera Austral

I woke early and moved my stuff out of the small shelter quickly so as to not disturb the two German hikers who had shown up later in the day yesterday.
I reheated the thick, goopy pan of lentils and rice I made the night before.   I was down to that for breakfast and a handful of crackers to get me through the next, and last, 55 km of the Carretera Austral. I knew wolfing down the rest of the banana chips and nuts mix the night before was a mistake but, not stopping to eat during my rides, I wake ravenous during the night and cannot get the food in my mouth fast enough. Perhaps I should skip over the night when, reaching in my nut mix, I discovered something, many somethings, had hatched there.

After the grueling 4 passes Friday and I had to conquer the day before, I was hoping for some flat terrain and, for a while, it was just that.  The road, however, had not improved much.  Loose sand and rocks, reminiscent of most of what I had ridden, continued to plague me.  As I have repeated probably more than necessary, this is the type of road best ridden wet, when the sand is tamped down. Dry, we were not riding on the road, more  like riding in it.  I thought it similar to a boat that moves through choppy water, but with quite a bit more drag. At the beginning of the road, I was not able to cycle through much of it, but now I am able to make some pretty good headway.  My technical skills have, indeed, improved.

Soon, the flat road gave way to hills and would remain so for the rest of the day. Traction. For me this has been the most difficult issue. Perhaps 2" tires would have made a differece.  The sand and rocks are so loose that my tires just end up spinning out.  More often now, I am able to keep spinning until the tire finds something to hold onto. A metaphor, perhaps, for the maturity one gains with age to simply persevere, keep on keepin' on until you can regain a foothold.  However, if I have to hop off, 50% of the time I am unable to hop back on until the hill evens out a bit.  Those times, I just remind myself that I have no deadline, no place to be, that I am just here to ride my bike.  Immediately my shoulders untense and I begin to enjoy myself again. I'm just a girl on a bike,

It's a trade off anyway.  Although rainy days solve the traction issue, sunny warm days set the backdrop for some of the most beautiful photographs I have seen of this road, and the photos are ones I have taken. I am one of those rare people who have had the good fortune to experience this road with a minimum of rain.

I would be hard pressed to say whether this was, in fact, the most beautiful ride of the entire road or whether everything was made that much more brilliant knowing it was my last ride on this very challenging terrain.  I rode along a valley lined by snow capped mountains on one side
and run off lakes on the other, lakes so still that they gave rise to perfect mirror reflections of the mountains behind them in the distance.



Every hundred feet or so small cascades of waterfalls lined the road, like supporters lining up along the last mile of a marathon to cheer you on.

As I crested one of the last hills and stopped to appreciate the view, he 3 UK riders cycled by and greeted me. Nadine was nice enough to stop and capture the moment with Friday and me in a photo.

And they were off again. But god they are awe inspiring cyclists. I was surprised to see them again, figuring they'd be on an entirely different continent by now, but they took a down day in Cochrane (and were still ahead of me). As they rode off, I wished I had asked them for cookies.

The technical difficulty of the last 20 km of the road prevented me from giving much thought to what Friday and I had accomplished.  Even to the very end I needed to maintain absolute focus on the road, looking for that big rock when, more likely, it is that small pebble on a bed of sand that sits ready to take me down.  How much of life can be like that, prepared for the big catastrophes and brought to our knees by a broken fingernail. In a strange way, I thought it appropriate that it be difficult until the end, which it was. It was never easy and was never meant to be. That said, neither was it meant to be an end to something, a getting from one point to another thing.  I simply wanted to ride my bike on a difficult road in a beautiful place.

Riding thus, 8 or more hours a day, until I am ready to drop from the seat exhausted, has prevented me from giving much thought to the impetus that sent me on this journey.  I have no idea about the condition of my heart. The rabbit seems like a million years ago in a life that does not belong to me. In that life, someone does not want me.  In that life, I fall short.  In this life I have taken a tiny but indomitable little bike and together we have accomplished, if not the impossible, at least the extremely difficult. Together, we are a force to be reckoned with.

I look at the picture taken of me my last night on the road. I have become myself, finally,  Unwashed, unkempt. Half feral, joyfully fierce. Had I seen that picture as a child, something inside me surely would have been stirred, my heart quickened with recognition.
 I would have thought, "that, that is what I want to be". I am not someone to be wanted or not wanted. I am not above that, simply aside from that. It does not apply. A devolution occurred here, a reversion to wild-type that arises with an urgency that can no longer be denied. I am esctatically alive. A fire burns in me, rekindled.

[To know more about the UK cyclists, the German hikers, and the myriad of adventures I have had on the CA, stay with me as I retrace my steps for you.  I will ride south though parts of Argentina and back into Chile, to fly out to Santiago and back home the first week of March]


Sunday, January 25, 2015

half-time

I intended to write an account of my daily journeys that might provide a useful resource for others who might like to make a similar journey (although I would hope with a different impetus). I searched the internet before I started planning in earnest and was helped immensely by a couple bikepackers who had already made this journey, particularly Bill Hoadley who keeps a journal at the crazyguyonabike website detailing his trips with bike friday.  Bill and I have exchanged emails and I am grateful to him for his sage advice.

Anyway, the best laid plans...  I have had only rare access to the internet and, after biking for 6-10 hours with a fully loaded bike, the effort to keep a journal seems monumental. I will go back and fill in the blanks, but not tonight.

I am at the Patagonia Hostel in Coyhaique for a down day while I work on my bike. The rear derailleur has not been shifting, initially shifting poorly and then yesterday not at all. Serendipitously, I already planned to take a day at a hostel and clean Friday and myself up, so the timing was good. I thought mud and debris must have gotten caught up in the rear derailleur, so I got the toothbrush out and applied degreaser.  I noticed that the shifting cable was not moving easily through the outside cable that surrounds it.  I found that the shifting cable had become quite frayed and was hanging up in the supporting cable.

Now, Coyhaique, where I am staying, does in fact have a bicycle shop with  a repair person. But Chuck Sherman from the Bisbee Bicycle Company was wise enough to provide me with an extra shifter cable and he would not have done so if he didn't think I might be able to figure it out myself.  Additionally, if this happened 50 miles down the road where no bicycle shops exist, I would have to woman-up.  Being within walking distance to the only bike shop for a few hundred miles in either direction provided a nice safety net in case I screwed something up.

Needless to say, I felt like I was preforming neurosurgery. I managed to identify the problem that precipitated the first cable event just a few miles out of Puerto Montt, which simply got worse as the days went by. I took the leap, pulled out the old cable, inserted the new cable, tightened everything, and gave it a try.  I think it shifts better than it ever has. I immediately went to the bike shop and bought another shifter cable.

Coyhaique.  The halfway point for the Carretera Austral. I am halfway there with ample time left.  I am not rushing but neither do I linger.  People ask me what my average mileage is per day. The question is not useful.  I ride somewhere between 6-10 hours a day, either until I cannot ride another meter or I have reached some place I wanted to camp.  How far those hours get me depends on the road.  Some short segments have been paved; however, most of it has been rocky, pitted, and sandy.  Some of the road has been simply unrideable. On any given day it may be a combination of some or all of those.

Why I ride 6-10 hours a day is a useful question, though. I ride because I love to move. I love to ride my bike; but I would run this road and could do so faster, but for want of someone to pack my camping gear. Something in me needs to move- not in an antsy, squirming out of my undies need, but a need to move through...hmmm... what?  Through this plasma, this stuff around us we can't see?
How does the universe know we exist if we do not move? I sometimes imagine that the wind is the way the universe senses me and interacts with me. Sometimes it does so playfully and sometimes it challenges me. And so movement is a way for me to create my own wind, to inform the universe of my presence, my intent.

I am halfway done with cycling the Carretera Austral. In half the time I planned.  I will have to move the goalpost. If my bike surgery is successful, I plan to ride as far as Puerto Natales. Time permitting, I would then take the bus down to Punta Arenas and ride around for a couple days looking for penguins.  If time doesn't favor my plan, I can catch a couple buses up to Santiago.

The road is a fat tire road. No question.  Two inch tires would have been better. That said, I saw a younger bikepacker with bigger tires walking the same segments as I, heading north. And what I am able to ride has evolved over the past ten or so days. The condition of the road is not static, so it's difficult to describe. Much of it is like desert roads, rocky and sandy, doable on the flatter portions but near impossible to get traction on the hills, which are endless. Other sections resemble a river bed with either coarse sand or smooth, palm sized rocks, both utterly unfordable. And then there's the mud.


The most dangerous segments of the Carretera Austral are those with fine sand and gravel because they give the illusion of being traversable. These are the portions that require my absolute attention. When the front tire hits a piece of gravel at a certain angle on loose sand, the gravel shoots out in one direction and my tire in the other. In an eyeblink I am on the ground, retina detached. This is the road that took me down in New Zealand, landed me in surgery. Needless to say, the moment I feel out of control, I am off the bike.

The worst sections of the road are where road construction is ongoing. Outside of the towns and off the pavement, this is not a heavily-traveled road. I see few vehicles on the dirt portions and the road is mine. But in the construction areas, scores of cumbersome trucks laden with gravel, sand, and rocks pass you within inches. Curves in these areas are day trails and I dismount and walk.

I have walked far more often than I'd care to admit, especially when, like in NZ, I had trouble with my climbing gears. I have spent significant hours pushing this little bike and her fully packed packed up hills I just couldn't conquer, especially in those last two hours of my ride.
I fixed my rear derailleur during this mid point down day and have reached a reasonable compromise with my front derailleur. On dirt and very steep hills, I manually drop the chain down to the smallest of the three front rings. On the rare paved segments, I move the chain up to the middle ring. It's a compromise that seems top be working. I climbed about 4000 ft coming out of Coyhaique today and only had to hop off to pee.

This is hard and not for everyone. I met a young man from France today whose cycling partner dropped off in Coyahique. I suspect that happens a lot. I also met a woman from Oregon who, although an accomplished and passionate mountain biker, is not drawn to the long road. She is here to hike. I would like to hike as well, but my short hike up to the glacier viewing area was enough to know that I can't do both.

First, I risk a sprained ankle or some hiking injury that would pull me of the bike for a period of time. I had a couple near misses on the short hike. Second, I push my legs to the point of exhaustion. Not intentionally but I do. Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night with a leg cramp so severe that my foot is grotesquely distorted. Liberating my leg from the sleeping bag under those conditions is extremely painful and takes a monumental effort. I cannot ask more from my legs then they are able to give. They get me out on the open road, running and biking. I learned from my Oregon hostel mate, who is also a physical therapist, that pickle juice works wonders for muscle cramps. I intend to pick some up in the next town.

As to the state of my heart?  I will keep biking...


Friday, January 9, 2015

Santiago bound

Sitting here on the flight to Santiago, I find myself wondering what I've gotten myself into. What possesses me to leave the comforts of home to pursue the unknown, the unknowable?  This time a broken heart perhaps, but maybe a mild chest cold would have been sufficient to propel me out of a routine into which i had not yet reconciled myself. I suspect an inverse correlation exists between the strength of the foundation and the length of time it takes a life to settle. Small wonder, then.. 

Adventure is in me, it percolates. As I face the next 8 weeks without a plan more solidified than, "get to Puerto Montt and start biking south", I am emboldened and reluctant in equal measure, I am reminded of Spelele, a tiny little spit of a girl we went to visit in Africa, to see if we could provide some assistance following the loss of her parents to AIDS (see my Africa journal for more info). As we arrived at her grandmother's home (I went with some of the older girls from the orphanage where I was living), Spelele ran out to greet us. Equally terrified, she moved as though to run away. So, for a period of time, she did this odd little dance in the middle of her yard, one step toward us, one away.  It's like that.
Spelele as we found her

I sit here reading these words, staring at the screen, shaking my head, still trying to make sense of it all. I can't. Disbelief immobilizes me. And so it comes down to the list of things I'm not enough- pretty, young, smart, hip, clever, talented. It's endlessly self-depricating.  And pointless. To paraphrase my friend Susana, if something is taking up a lot of space in your life, unpack it in a larger room. Chilean Patagonia is that larger room. Perhaps it's just a matter of scale.
I am now only hours outside of Santiago. The next two nights are booked in a small dorm room at the Princesa Insolente- the insolent princess. Perfect. I'm feeling a bit insolent of late. Beyond that, nothing is known.  I will find a bus to Puerto Montt, put my bike friday together somewhere there, fill my one remaining empty pannier with food- the others being fully booked with camping gear, electronics, and biking essentials- and start pedaling. I have been assured by the man in the seat next to mine, a Chilean native, that I will be challenged, that the road, the wind, the rain, will conspire against me some days, and that the lack of a good cup of coffee may be the mechanism of my undoing. Little does he know, I'm already undone.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Joel's day


As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me 
like a swimmer's long hair in water. 
I knew the weight was there but it didn't touch me. 
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible


Most people take stock of their year each new year’s day- what worked, what didn't, whom they loved, where they went, what they bought, whether weight was lost, if a treadmill was used, and so on.

My new year’s day arrives a bit earlier, on November 18, to be exact.  November 18 was the day Joel’s life was cut short, the day his heart stopped. The autopsy showed a mild structural abnormality in the atrioventricular artery, a weakness in the vasculature that can go unnoticed for a lifetime but, in an instant, can collapse in on itself and stop blood supply to the heart.  Many people have said that they cannot imagine anything worse than losing a child, especially a single parent losing their only child.  While it’s true that’s as bad as my life gets, I can imagine a myriad of scenarios in which his ending could have been worse.  I don’t have to live with any of them.  Joel died quickly, relatively painlessly, and well-loved by many.  He was the best thing I ever did and if I could have traded places, I would have.  I offered to.  I begged a god I didn't believe in to undo it all, to take me instead. 
Amanda lit candles
at Baker St.

And now 11 years have passed.  He would be 30 next May.
A magnificent kid, his life cut short.  So, this is the day that I examine mine.  I got another 365 days.  I review.  In no way could I do anything over the course of 365 days that would match the magnitude of the loss of him. Nothing I might do would compensate for the adventures he didn't get.  But since his death, I have lived my life in a way that would allow me to extract some of the juiciness of living or would allow me to give back, to achieve some reciprocity for the extra time I have been given.

This year, I did nothing to help others, a major shift from the past 10 years.  I did not want to become a disaster-chaser, bouncing from one crisis to the next.  I had to stop running. And, by standing still, I managed to create adequate disaster in my own life. 

So, what were my key accomplishments from the last year?  Three very spectacular things:

1. I went to Alaska to seek the Northern Lights.  With the rabbit. The only time we caught a glimpse of what should have been an epic season for the aurora borealis was on the ride into Chena Hot Springs, where we stayed for several days in a quintessential winter wonderland so pretty it could have come right out of a storybook.  
About 60 miles from Fairbanks, in the middle of nowhere, I floated on my back in the natural hot springs, suspended at the interface between the searing water beneath me and the icy air above.  The rabbit’s hands kept me afloat as he gently guided me across the still surface of the water.  I stared up into the dark sky, only slightly obscured by the mist rising off the pool.  I lack descriptive words here. As I stared up into the dark abyss, the moment seemed quite profound; however, I cannot say exactly why. Beyond that, it gives me no joy to remember our time together there.  What we had, what we shared, was as ephemeral as the steam escaping the heat of the springs, as fleeting as our footprints in the snow.



Mt Cook
2. I biked the south island of New Zealand.  An epic adventure at its best.  I started in the north island, expecting to bike both; however, several spills on a 27 km loose gravel road (that, according to the Kennett Bros book, should have been 5 km) resulted in a detached retina, emergency surgery, and about 3 weeks in Auckland living in a hostel and eating cheap Chinese food.  Once the eye was sufficiently healed, I hit the south island running.  Well, biking. 
Rotorua

Cycling New Zealand was tough.  We have a lot of hills here in Bisbee and we’re at a mile high, but I don’t ride around carrying about 40 lbs of gear.  Nor will I.  Between the bike and the gear, I was moving more than half my body weight up impossibly steep hills and on narrow highways frequented by fast moving, indifferent logging trucks. 

The north of New Zealand, with all its pasture land, cows, and sheep, looked remarkably like Sonoma County, California, where I lived for a number of years. The scenery was lovely on the first day and maybe the second; however, the endless rolling hills dotted with livestock quickly dulls the senses.
The notable exception to the soporific scenery in the north was the thermal area around Rotorua, where I spent a few days and got the bike ready for the south.

1500 km, 36 days, 2 cyclones,
and one badass little bike.
Nugget Point
I took the ferry across to Picton and started riding.  I rode through spectacular gorges to get to the ocean. 
Once there, I stayed close to the coastline until the time came to veer inland and view the glaciers and Mt. Cook.  I flew past Lake Wanaka and Queenstown, down to Lake Manapouri where I spent the day on a ship touring Doubtful sound, one of the highlights of my trip and my first sight of penguins- the fiordland crested.  I biked down to the Catlins at the southern tip, where I found yellow-eye penguins, and around to the Otago Peninsula, with its abundance of wildlife- to include the Royal Albatross, seals, sea lions, and the sweet little blue penguins.  All of this I will detail in another blog at another time.



3. I loved a man.  


And adventure awaits just around the corner.  Chile will be a more demanding ride.  Fewer amenities, rougher roads, and hand gestures as the only shared language. However, what it may lack in conveniences, it should compensate for in the chance for a new perspective, an opportunity to heal.

godspeed joel

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What's a Bike Friday?


Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, 
I no longer despair for the future of the human race.
H. G. Wells


So, what’s a Bike Friday anyway?  In sum, these are hand-crafted, custom-made bicycles that fold.  I read a review once on folding bicycles and the writer essentially said, “There are bikes that fold and there are folding bikes.  Bike Friday is a well-made bicycle that happens to fold.”  I am paraphrasing, of course, but he captured the essence of the bikes.  These are brilliantly devised bicycles that will cost you a pretty penny, but will be worth every pretty penny you spend. 

So, how did I come to own a Bike Friday?  I returned from Afghanistan in January of 2013 with an injured back.  My L4 vertebrae had slipped over L5 when I stepped out of an MRAP in my body armor and made a hard landing- you know those- when the ground is much closer or much farther than your brain anticipates and you hit hard. So the vertebrae slipped, the disc herniated, and I was in intense pain for the duration of my time in Afghanistan (and much longer thereafter). 
The State Department decided they wouldn't pay for my medical expenses since I could not prove that I was injured when I said I was (oddly, there were no MRI devices on the border of Pakistan in the most kinetic area of the conflict).

So, I came back to Bisbee in terrible pain, uninsured, and discouraged about the time spent in Afghanistan. 
So, there I was, in intense pain and not able to either run (which has kept me sane over more years than I care to admit) or do yoga.  I spiraled down to a very dark place from which there seemed to be no return.  That time is summarized in my “notes from my balcony” blog and I won’t rehash it here.  So, deep dark depression, can’t get drunk, won't take pills.  What’s a girl to do?

I remembered that a friend had given me his old mountain bike just before I left for Afghanistan.  I pulled it out of the shed, threw it in the back of my pick up, drove to the main road, and hopped on.  And a miracle occurred.  I was not in pain- my tailbone was just off the back of the seat and I was bent down just slightly on the handlebars, so no compression was on my spine.  It was heaven.  I rode every day and healed, both physically and emotionally. 

In May of 2013, I contacted Ken Wallace, the owner of the local bike shop and someone who has traveled in cycling circles for many years, about traveling with my bike.  He suggested I look into a Bike Friday. “Bike Friday?  Never heard of ‘em”.  So I did some reading, a lot of reading, and I had no doubt that I needed one of these gems.  The only problem was that Bike Fridays are pretty expensive.  When I came back to the States, I was able to get a job teaching Neuroscience online for the UofA in the fall semester only.  It was a great score because, not only is Neuroscience my field, but I love Neuroscience.  I am and unabashed NeuroGeek. The only problem was that teaching only one course a year, which is all I could get that first year, was about $8000- and only that high because I was designing the online component as well.  While I did have some reserve from Afghanistan, it was far less than one might think and I still had, and have, a lot of work left to do to finish my little house.

Well, Ken, knowing just about everyone in cycling circles, told me he had seen one in a friend’s bike shop in North Carolina while he was visiting out there.  He contacted the shop owner and, between them and the bike owner, I was able to score the bike for $300.  I could do that, not much more than that, but I could do that.  Ken helped me assemble the bike when it arrived.  Ok, well, Ken assembled the little jewel for me as I stood watching, captivated and in love with my new best friend.

Riding Friday for the first time was sublime.  And it has been so for every ride since. Not only was there no compression on my spine, but she was so light.  We flew; at least it’s as close to flying as I will get without wings. We soared.  And I continued to heal.

And for the next just-about 12 months, I had a life I could only have dreamed of.  I took Friday to New Zealand and together we conquered the South Island.  The post on my FB page at the end of ourjourney pretty much summed it up- “1500 kilometers, 36 days, 2 cyclones, and one badass little bike.” 

And when I wasn't cycling, I spent 2 nights a week pressed up against a man I loved with an intensity the likes of which I've never known before. I laid my head on his chest, just under his chin, and believed I could live off the air he exhaled.  I lay awake for hours just to feel the way he moved across the bed with me, keeping me close even as he slept soundly.  I would press my nose against his back, intoxicated by the scent of him. He made me coffee in the mornings and we ate sourdough bread dipped in olive oil while we talked about physics, metaphysics, and scifi movies.  I adored him.


And so we’re off to bike the Carretera Austral, Chilean Patagonia. Friday will bear the unimaginable weight of my heavy heart as we climb to excruciating altitudes and confront glacial winds.  But our load will lighten with each kilometer we tackle, with every lake we set a campsite by, with everyone we meet that shows us a kindness on our travels.


No question, I have anthropomorphized this amazing little piece of technology.  She is mine and I am hers. We have been together so much and so long that when I ride her, I feel bionic; we ride as one. And my back?  Well, for the first time in 3 years I am running again.  I believe that is directly attributable to the time I have spend riding Friday.
Someday (probably soon- she was quite old when I got her), Friday, too, will have to let me go.  But I believe we will make it all the way down the Carretera Austral together before that happens.  Then I will probably retire her and hang her on my wall with photos of all the wonderful adventures we have had together.


So that’s a Bike Friday.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Chile

Greetings all.

I am starting a new blog on my upcoming bikepacking trip down the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia.  I will be leaving in a little less than 10 weeks. If you would like to follow me on my journey, you can receive emails of my posts by putting your email address in the box on the right sidebar on my blog page. It looks like this:

If you put your email address in to subscribe, you will receive a verification email from either google or feedburner.  It is not spam.  You must verify your subscription in order to receive the emailed blog entries.

Alternatively, you can subscribe to the RSS feed if you are an RSS subscriber.

This should be an interesting journey, although it will be a pilgrimage for me, of sorts.  More on that to follow...

If you want to learn more about the Carretera Austral and what I will be experiencing, here's a great BBC article:  http://www.bbc.com/travel/feature/20131230-chiles-land-of-ice-blue-lakes

Hope to see you on the road.