12 October 2017

Seasons

Wednesday was the last bike team practice of the season and this weekend’s race was canceled because the forecast called for snow and a deep freeze. Our ride on that golden evening was tinged with melancholy. I asserted that I would take the girls, my favorite group. They cheered. We pedaled around Victor piecing together muddy singletrack laced with aspen leaves.


I watched the four high school girls ride in a little group ahead of me, all smooth cadence and skinny legs and teal accessories. I felt pride and contentment welling up in me.

I think each year of coaching has been more gratifying than the last. The team is huge now. Everyone likes each other. The kids are as happy practicing wheelies on the grass and playing noisy games of bike tag as they are pinning it on singletrack.

The time commitment feels so heavy midseason when I’m running from the office to practice or city council or high school soccer games and spending Saturday mornings with the kids instead of escaping into the high peaks.

I’ve been struggling with a sense of FOMO since it started snowing mid-September and shut me out of big runs in the Tetons. Last year I did around ten runs in the twenty-mile range, and this year I’ve only done three.

On Wednesday I rode the Krampus at practice because the Bronson is in the shop getting prepped for winter storage. I love the Krampus so, so much. It gave me a couple flashbacks to how I spent my summer. I’ve slept outside twenty-five nights this year, not quite the thirty I was shooting for but there’s still time. I’ve done a lot of thirty-six hour trips, bailing the second practice is over on Saturday morning and going for a bikepacking overnighter or driving a couple hours to explore new mountain ranges. I saw so many new trails this year, feeding my ravenous need for novelty. I can’t even count them.

This is life at its finest, traveling by foot and bike through this beautiful world and watching the next generation do the same.

07 September 2017

ORATB Part II – Here Be Dragons

The question mark.


Trail Creek was the motorized trail that I landed on in my Internet foraging. We started while the sun was at a gentle height and we mostly pushed up steep, loose, narrow trail for over an hour. As we gained elevation we could see some of the mighty peaks south of us in the Salt River range.


At the summit we chugged the other Gatorade and looked north into the non-motorized corridor that dropped to the Snake. We started following an eroded whisper of a trail that soon disappeared into a faint filigree of elk trails crisscrossing wide sagebrush meadows. Here I made the dire error of not consulting the map again and I chased a drainage that I thought was Pine Creek, but was at least two bowls removed from our objective. We gave up on finding trail and dropped precipitously. Every time we wearied of being raked by sagebrush, we ran into spring-fed nettle patches or hairy stretches of dense deadfall. And repeat. For 2,500 feet of descending.


Scratched, tired, disgruntled, we sat above the Snake and watched rafts full of tourists mosey by. Cy said we could hitch a ride across the river. I thought he was joking. Instead we picked our way over the treacherous rubble and snags on the east bank. I gasped and cried with the exertion of lifting my heavy bike and trusting clipless shoes on slabs of river rock.


After one too many session of my choked tears, Cy again suggesting thumbing a ride from a raft and I acquiesced, seeing the purity of my route slip from my fingers but also seeing that it had taken 45 minutes to travel 100 yards of river bank.

A raft immediately picked us up and ferried us to the west bank. The women paddled fiercely against the current and the guys handed our cumbersome bikes up to us on shore. 

Blazing up the highway, I watched the east bank and started to realize how dangerously foolish my time estimates had been. All the drainages leading to the Snake were brutally steep and even after the bank mellowed, the riverside trail shown on the map did not appear. It looked like many miles of hard-to-navigate, marshy up-and-down. I was achingly disappointed, but also relieved to bail on the Alpine to Hoback leg of the route.

We rolled into Hoback Junction, set up all our gear on a picnic table and hid from the afternoon sun, buying lots of food to satisfy weird cravings and drinking boozy sloshies.

After 4 p.m. we emerged rejuvenated and booked it back along the Snake to Fall Creek Road, which we climbed and descended forever as the sun sank lower and became more of a pleasant companion and less of a tyrannical overlord. We pedaled up Mosquito Creek Road until we found a flat campsite next to the water. The moon was fat and bright.

Smoke rolled in thick the next morning and tinted the sun salmon. Our toes were cold and our phones were dead as we started climbing.

I saw many signs of wildlife through the trip, fresh scat and matted grass and dried hoof prints in the mud, but only saw one deer golden in morning light and a moose that ushered her calf into the pines and watched me as I passed. There were more signs of grazers: cow shit, fetid wallows, and the lawn mower effect of a herd of sheep passing over a ridge.

The Internet said it was only five miles, but the climb from Mosquito Creek to Mail Cabin felt interminable. It was very nice trail at first, meandering along the creek bank, but after the many false summits of Mosquito Pass, the trail degraded and steepened. I felt every match I had burned in the last three days, both in climbing and pushing my bike. I also really wanted to meet the Smithhammers at Mail Cabin but my overly optimistic timeline was getting away from me. I was slow, cranky, and thirsty, and the normally exquisite views into the Palisade range were obscured and watered down by the haze.

But we made it to the Mail Cabin intersection. While we had missed Bruce and Kat, a sit-down lunch of jerky and chips righted my mood. I was ready to face Mikesell, the best-established trail we’d ridden the whole trip.

While it’s a technical descent, I was so happy to be in familiar territory that I didn’t mind rallying such a fun downhill on a fully-loaded rigid bike.


We finished with massive grins and pedaled slowly back on Old Jackson Highway. Our friends greeted us at Grand Teton Brewing with cheers, beers, and string cheese.

No grievous injuries, no trip-ending mechanicals, no petty fights, and my stupid, arduous, beautiful route came mostly to fruition.

150 miles. Three nights. Three mountain ranges. Two breweries. 10% paved road. 60% gravel. 30% of some of the gnarliest singletrack you’ll find.


Would I recommend this route? No. Obviously not. It’s a little foolish and very demanding for a short time frame. But I’m already thinking about other ways to link together the newly illuminated spaces on my mental map.

05 September 2017

ORATB Part I: 85 Miles, 24 Hours

I’m a sucker for loops. The symmetry, the lack of twice-crossed ground, pleases my soul.

Around the Block is a good road ride, not too hard and a nice way to bang out a century across state lines—Teton Valley, Jackson, Hoback, Alpine, Swan Valley, and back to Teton Valley. I rode it a couple years ago with a tall guy that liked to time trial. Real fast.

I’ve been obsessing over the idea of an “Off Road Around the Block” for exactly a year. On my first bikepacking trip with the Smithhammers we were casting around for a route idea and the thought occurred to me, but with a little research I realized it was too long and committing for us at the time.

I didn’t let go of the idea though. I bought the map and debated different route ideas. The dark spot on the map was Alpine to Hoback. Steep, tall peaks with dramatic drainages hedge the Snake River and its canyon, and while I trawled the Internet and begged friends for beta on the Greys River drainage, it remained the large and unnerving question mark on the route. Here be dragons. 

But I had my bikepacking set-up dialed and I had Cy as my a stalwart companion and I decided in May to shoot for Labor Day, when the flooded creeks and mosquitoes of early summer had subsided and I had that extra day of leeway to chase this fantasy.

We left from Victor at 5 p.m. on Friday and pedaled towards Pole Canyon, then onto the powerline cut. This slow push exposed the overarching theme of the trip—everything is harder than you expect it to be. No free lunch.

At the top of Pine Creek Pass we cruised dirt until North Rainey Creek, which was a long, fearful descent through head-high claustrophobic vegetation down a boulder-cluttered creek bed at dusk. We called every iteration of “hey bear” as we picked our ways and pushed and slogged down the canyon. We saw the moon rise over Rainey and met sunset on smooth gravel.

Rather than camp, we decided to mash big gears down into the valley, out of national forest and into farm land. We donned lights for the highway, resupplied with beer at the Swan Valley gas station, and death-gripped the handlebars on Highway 26 until we were safely across the Snake and on gravel again.

The next day was all gravel, nicely graded roads that wended along the Snake and the Palisade Reservoir in the Caribou range. The big climb over Jensen Pass was hot, so hot, the second theme of the trip—noon until 4 is the time of unbearable, intense sun and heat.


It was clearly autumn, not because many of the trees had turned, but because the vegetation was scorched by the same sun that was roasting us.

We made it back down to McCoy Creek Road, where everyone was driving back and forth with trailers loaded down with motorized toys or horses. Cy threw a front flip off a bridge into the reservoir with an audience of slack-jawed teenagers.

The road out of the Caribous was long and dusty with pointless climbs. We could see the beacon of Melvin Brewery’s big white building on a spit of land across the reservoir. We finally made it there and discovered they were serving street tacos as well as heady brews. We made little islands of gear on the deck and hoped no one minded our smell of untended body odor, salt, and dirt.


Fueled by several Mexican lagers, we remounted and pedaled drowsily with some groaning through Alpine and along the Greys River. Uncharted territory. I was optimistic because I had been underestimating the difficulty of the familiar sections, so here was a zone I couldn’t make assumptions about. The road was smooth and the river rushed aquamarine below us.

We cut up onto the Little Greys Road, found the next trail on the route, and made camp, but not before reclining in the shade until our afternoon fevers passed.


A man in jeans slowly rode his dirt bike past us…stopped. I shifted in discomfort, wearing only a sports bra and shorts, but he just wanted to make conversation. Sounds like he might’ve scared himself a bit, going up trails he used to hunt on when he was young, technical trails without the appropriate gear or a buddy. Maybe he wanted a little assurance that there were people out here in the sticks that would listen to him and appreciate that he hadn’t hurt himself.

He marveled at our starting point and said kind words. After fetching his truck he came back, and we sighed, but he just wanted to offer us Gatorades and Bud Lite. Yes please. You wonder sometimes, why are we so divided in this country when so many people are so generous in one-on-one situations? 

08 August 2017

Backyard Adventures: Darbghee


Saturday’s practice was canceled. I got an idea. I wanted to run from Darby Canyon to Grand Targhee and then ride trail from the resort back to Darby. The map seemed to indicate that those locations aren’t easily connected.

I put out a query on social media that was unsurprisingly answered by people that thrive on exploration. Results were…mixed. Lynne informed me that the singletrack connecting Alta with Aspen didn't go, or would at least be deeply unpleasant. Abby and Jason said there was a route between Darby and Teton Canyon, but others chimed in that it was impassable. I preferred yes to no, so I persevered.
I love my friends
On Saturday morning the air smelled like California. I only lived in Tahoe for one wildfire season and I’m on year four in the Tetons but for some reason the smell of smoke, the obscured peaks, the red eyes and thin sunlight through a veil of haze still remind me of 2013.

After parking our bikes at the Ghee and watching some Pierre’s Hole racers come through, we headed over to Darby. An unmarked but pretty obvious trail threaded its way off the canyon floor and quickly took us high onto the north canyon walls with big views of the Darby badlands and the three peaks, Meek, Jedediah Smith, and Bannon, that encircled them. We walked and jogged through meadows of cow parsnip, the blossoms leaving sticky sweet-smelling traces on our skin.
Looking down into the Darby badlands
All pics courtesy of Cy
As we neared the base of the Wedge I got nervous. I was somewhat prepared for the possibility of turning around but was also afraid I might get in over my head on a loose or precarious downclimb. We reached the saddle southeast of the Wedge and peered down. The bowl was dotted with snow patches, obvious and not-so-obvious cliff bands, and skree fields, but it looked like there was a way down and it wasn’t unmanageably steep.
The aptly-named Wedge
After snacks we started down, skating on ball bearings, eating snow, following ribbons of water cascading over rock faces. I moved slowly and methodically and we poked through the gut. A half-hearted glissade down the final snow bank and I made it onto the Teton Shelf.  Looking back up at the bowl, we realized we had taken the only viable route—every other line ended in massive cliffs.
Glissful
Travel was fast and easy after that. I flowed down the trail with the Cathedral Group at my back and the depths of Teton Canyon before me. We purified water at the trailhead and started up the north fork. The trail to Table was reliably highway-esque but when we took the turn onto Fred’s trail it immediately steepened and grew thick with foliage. We climbed and climbed, pleased to be gaining vert so fast. By the top I felt depleted and my feet were ragged in worn shoes.
Devils Stair 
We surveyed the familiar backside of the resort. It looks even more dramatic in the summer. After a fast run down to the base and a slow beer on the deck overlooking the awards ceremony, we saddled up. The minor climb to Lightning Ridge was a punch to the gut but when I dropped into Colter’s and Mill Creek I got a solid attitude readjustment. Mountain biking is so much fun compared to running!
Pure Teton porn...too bad it was so smoky
We blazed the road to the Aspen trailhead, watching the bright pink sun dip lower in the smoky sky. Even though we were low on water, I really didn’t want to bail on the final section of singletrack, so we loaded up at a stream and put our heads down for the rocky up-and-down of Aspen. I felt surprisingly great until we hit the last six miles of gravel, where my paltry caloric intake caught up to me and I groused at Cy for dropping me.

The playground behind Targhee
No pictures of mountain biking because we were chasing sunset.
Hungry but stoked, we reached the car. Triscuits and beer quieted my angst and we ruminated with some disbelief on the amazing adventure. Connecting points on the map in a painful and aesthetic way...in my own backyard. Is there anything finer? 

20 July 2017

Muscle Memory

"I think I already know your answer, but I had to ask," said Molly, the new production manager at Tram Bar World, when she called me yesterday morning.

Apparently the factory was in crisis mode and needed bars made stat. I really, really didn't want to do it, but once someone puts an idea in my head, I have trouble saying no without a good reason. I had a bar-sized window of time between sending the paper to print and going to kid's practice. I was planning to veg out, clean up my piles, go mountain biking with girlfriends. Instead I donned a sleeveless tee and skate shoes and went to the factory.

I walked in with my trademark churlish swagger, accepting happy greetings but trying to broadcast a half-amused, half-resentful attitude. Then Molly told me what the crisis pay scale was, and I saw that my ingredients had already been measured out. Well, that's better.

Since I left, the factory has seen almost twenty people cycle through, attempt to make bars, and quit with little ado, so my princess treatment was warranted. It's not often one gets acknowledged as the Greatest of All Time, but my bar-making record backs that up.

That said, I was pretty nervous that I wouldn't remember how to do it. My brain had already deleted the file, confident that it was obsolete information. I couldn't mentally walk through the steps beforehand. But once I was in front of a tub of ingredients, dressed in my whites, muscle memory took over and it was like the last nine months had never happened.
Back in my native habitat
I flowed through the steps, performing my weird little granola dance, barely thinking, luxuriating in nostalgia. This was the thing I was better at than anything else I've ever done. But to be excellent isn't enough when there is no personal growth, when my brain melted into custard even as my arms gained definition, when I did the exact same thing day after day.

I left the factory many dollars richer and reeking of peanut butter and honey. I was dehydrated but not as achey as I expected. Deeply-ingrained skills don't go away that quickly.

18 July 2017

The Fire

Once you open the door to housesitting in a new place, you get tons of requests. I watched my coworker’s big dumb Goldens for a couple weeks and then her wealthy friend enlisted me to watch an independent Bernese, some chicks (she described their care with bemusement—her kids were in charge of the poultry), and a semi-feral cat.

The house was nice-not nice, a model I’ve seen so many times when housesitting. Shockingly expensive touches (immaculate gas range, flagstone flooring) compete with chintzy touches (all of the doorknobs barely functioned). I have stayed in modest, thoughtful houses and I have stayed in garish houses where the thoughtful touches happen to exist because they were the premium option.

I am hopelessly nosey. When I stay at a house, I poke around, observe, judge. My biggest takeaway is often a suffocating claustrophobia—how can these people own so much STUFF? I have moved almost twenty times in my adult life and the thought of filling every drawer, closet, rafter, and bureau in your four thousand square foot house makes me choke on anxiety. I was in the midst of moving the last time I stayed at this particular house, and I stashed all my earthly possessions in a single bay of their three-car garage.

Four days after they returned from their most recent trip, I was lazily checking Facebook in bed and started seeing posts about a fire.

The house had burned to the ground. Every matched pair of toy firetrucks (twin boys), every elaborate wall hanging, the countless drawers of stainless steel specialized-use kitchen implements (pizza scissors?), the three sets of flatware ordered by occasion, the pantry full of organic kid’s energy bars, the four-post king-sized bed with decorative throws, the shower with multiple heads and a sauna setting, the four bikes, three stand-up paddleboards, and two lawnmowers…all gone.

By some divine grace, a neighbor saw flames coming from the house at 2 a.m. and was able to wake the family. It sickens me to consider the alternative. The gregarious Bernese also survived.

I went to the property, shifting roles from family acquaintance to journalist. I took photos of the blackened shell, smelled the aftermath of the burn, registered the empty space where the big wooden chicken coop had been.

The outpouring of support online was immediate, because people are good. Well-wishers were offering food and clothing donations. The family’s friend took me aside and asked how the newspaper could help head off this generosity—she didn’t go quite so far as to say, “They don’t want other people’s used clothing,” but it was implied.

Their cell phones and three (four?) cars burned. Their friends quickly provided them with new phones and a new car. Someone in their network set up a GoFundMe page and it’s currently sitting at an incredible $24,000.

Looking at that number, more than I make in a year, and thinking about the size of the insurance check that I know they’ll get, makes me sick and confused. The tragedy of losing everything, birth certificates and wedding photos and special art, is a terrible blow, but these people are positioned to weather it with minimal suffering. I couldn’t help thinking what $24,000 could mean to nonprofits, other families, people less blessed with opportunity, affluence, or a support system.

It made me squeamish to question this family’s right to benefit from the generosity of others, but I also kept imagining the McMansion they’ll be able to build with their insurance pay-out--bigger, better laid out, more storage space for newly-acquired possessions.  

Then I ran into her at the grocery store. It was the first time I'd ever seen her without make-up. I was scared to engage but she didn’t mind talking to me about the fire. She said they were looking for a long-term rental while they rebuilt. “Housing here is hard,” she said with tired amusement. I choked out an agreement. Housing here is hard, and it’s harder if you have a limited budget and if insurance isn’t footing the bill.

I used my mournful tone (I’m so awkward with condolences) and tried to express how glad I was that she and her husband and their two boys had made it out alive.

There is no right answer.