Monday, December 16, 2013

Tales From the Frozen Trail: The Real Story

Tales about gear choices, what I ate and where I slept are all well and good, but not what I imagine most people really want to know about a week spent dragging sled along the Iditarod Trail. The questions are myriad: Are you alone the whole time?, Do you get bored? Aren't you scared? What do you think about? Don't you go crazy? How do you keep it together? Ultimately, they boil done to this: Just what the heck do you do out there dragging a sled across the snow all day?

The simple, if slightly apocryphal, answer is that I've never had trouble being alone. Spending quiet time living in my own head while out on the trail enjoying nature's beauty is one of the best things there is. The full truth, however, is that it does get a bit weird out there (or inside there) at times.

It started with music.

I don't run with headphones except on the rare occasion where I am relegated to the treadmill. However, for this event I brought an MP3 player loaded with both music and audio books along with a portable charger. I was especially interested to see how the audio books would work out, but I wanted to save those until later in the race. Slogging in the middle of a wide expanse of the Yentna River on a sunny afternoon, my mind started taking a wrong turn. In some ways, the early miles were toughest. With too few miles behind, any thought of the vast distances ahead would quickly become disheartening. Once I had a few days under my belt, I could try to find some sort of routine, but in this first full day on the trail, I was struggling just to keep focused on the immediate.

I put on my headphones and tried to find some fitting music for the stillness and beauty that surrounded me. I tested a few options, but nothing really seemed to match my mood. I tried some motivational music then something pensive then upbeat. For some reason, nothing resonated. Nothing seemed appropriate. I put it on random play for a bit until an odd thought hit me. Maybe I should try something wholly inappropriate. What music would one least expect to fit into a romp along the frozen Alaskan wilderness?

So, that was it, bopping along the Iditarod Trail to C+C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)". It may not fit the mood you'd expect to accompany an adventure of this sort, but it certainly got me moving. In fact, I was pretty much "bustin' moves" across the trail when a bunch of snow-machines came whirring by bringing me back both to my senses and a sense of where I was. The dance music stayed on, but I kept the actual dancing a bit more contained as I marched my way into Yentna Station.

As the third night deepened and my long, difficult trek towards Winterlake Lodge began, I once again turned to the Dance/Electronica genre. I'd finished off some audio-book content during the day, but as the sun went down, I held my own little dance party on the tundra with my trekking poles as my partner. I listened to that album on repeat making it through three full rotations before reaching my destination. As the hours crept on and the checkpoint seemed no closer I began to dread the start of each new song. There was no more dancing, but the music became like a lifeline and I desperately wanted not to finish another set before arriving at the cabin.

Looking back, I'm not sure why that seemed so important at the time, but when my battery drained before finishing the album again, it seemed actually seemed worse. I stopped in a little stand of trees and just knelt beside my sled. It was probably the forth or fifth time that I assured myself the checkpoint must be just ahead. I contemplated just setting up camp there, but my experience spending a night just a half mile before a cabin the previous night drove me forward. The silence dragged on in those final miles to the lodge.

Though I recharged my battery, that would be the last time I spent listening to music for a long while. I would, however, make some of my own out there on the trail later on.

On Books

If my music choices seem a bit questionable then consider my book selection. It was right around dusk when I decided to test out some spoken word content. As the sun went down, I put my headphones on and sampled a selection of Vincent Price reading the poems and short-stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Choosing "The Master of Macabre" may seem a bit dark and uninspiring especially relative to my musical selections. However, the intrigue and plot twists of Poe's tales kept me engaged. Besides, I've been a fan since I was young; I'd read most of the stories, but not for some time so it was a nice little dose of reminiscence  along with my entertainment.

The only downside of this particular audio book collection was that it wasn't very well organized. Some tracks covered multiple stories and/or poems while others stories spanned multiple tracks. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the time listening to "The Gold-Bug" and "The Fall of The House of Usher". There was occasional talk-back and I did make a rather futile effort to recite along with poetry favorites "The Bells" and "Annabel Lee" when following some of the stories became difficult. My only wish was that it had been easier to scan back and catch any bits I missed when my mind ran off on its own.

My second foray into audio books out on the trail was even more epic. I saved my longer selection for the longest unsupported section of trail in the race and it turned out to be nothing less than brilliant. Homer's classic The Odyssey was another favorite from my youth and I listened to the entire recording between the Rohn and Nikolai checkpoints. I knew the framework of the story, but the details stood vague in my memory. It was a bit like listening to an old friend recalling a story I hadn't heard in years. I so enjoyed it that it left me with a bit of lingering sadness once it was over.

Things that go bump in my head.

When not listening to music or stories, my mind worked on its own to keep my head filled. Most of the time I spent just trying to enjoy the moments either letting my thoughts wander or directing them towards one meaningless train or another. Sometimes, my mind would just seem to decide on its own where to go. And, occasionally, it got a bit odd.

It was only the second morning and I was on my way to Skwentna. I had just taken a caffeine pill to wake me up when it started. It just popped into my head as some random syllables at first. Then I started playing with the consonants and making non-sensical rhymes. Finally, I found myself chanting it out loud.


Meaningless. Over and over. Rearranging the order, altering the intonations, it went on for the better part of two hours. This simple chant, repeated in my head followed me, off and on, throughout the remainder of the race. It would disappear and then reappear in my mind. I would think that I had lost it and then it would return out of nowhere. I would sometimes struggle to recall the original order even though it didn't matter as I would just as quickly change it once I remembered, deciding that I preferred another sequence. I would play games in my head where the final "nee-dul" would try to sneak in early and then the other syllables would rebel and try to keep it from vocalizing at all. Epic battles were held.

Strange though this little incantation was, it kept me occupied and moving along the trail for countless hours even helping me through a few rough patches along the way. Some how it managed to wend its way into my psyche. Even now as I write this, I can hear its echoes.

Funny things

Traveling up and down the Happy River steps, things went in different direction. I mentioned before how much I really enjoyed this section. Perhaps it was the variety of the hills, perhaps the contrast to the bad night I'd had before or maybe it was just that it felt a little like being in a wooded Christmas-y setting. I'm quite certain that must be the origin of my starting to sing carols. It started with the chorus of "Jingle Bell Rock", but it was "Winter Wonderland" that really got me going. It was just the bridge and chorus from the actual song (or at least something approximating it):
In the meadow we can build a snowman,
then pretend that he is Parson Brown.
He'll say 'Are You Married?' We'll say 'No man,
but you can do the job while you're in town! 
Later on, we'll conspire,
As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid, (sang as: "dum dum da dum")
The plans that we've made, ("da dum dum da dum")
Walking in a winter wonderland.
However, after singing it a few times, it began to warp into something completely different and even bizarre. The words took on a rather perverse and even pornographic bent. A strong desire not to incriminate myself keeps me from writing the entire lyrics to my "F*#king in a Winter Wonderland" XXX-mas charol here on this blog, but needless to say, it provided endless hours of entertainment as I marched up and ran down those hills. Nothing helps the hours go by like laughing at oneself. And, for me, there is apparently no better way to do this than to just let the twisted side of my personality run bat-ass crazy, free.

This became even more evident as I headed out for two long days in the wild. Holiday jingles just weren't going to cut it for the vast barrenness of the Farewell Burn. So, what else was there to do than to start composing limericks? It started simply by playing with names. In the end, I covered most of my close friends and work colleagues composing poems running the gamut from just silly to downright raunchy. Again, I'm not going to fill this blog with the perverse language that occupied my brain after 5 days out on the frozen trail.

I will share one of the most tame one's since it is very timely given the subject's recent stint in the desert (or was when I started writing this).

There once was a girl named Jill
Who rode her bike up a hill
Again and again
She just wouldn't come in
Even when she took a bad spill

Things went pretty sharply downhill from there as you may imagine. For example, Beat's name is actually pronounced "BEH-awe-t" but most people tend to say it like "beet" which happens to rhyme with "meat". I'll let your imagination fill in the details. As for my imagination, it ran wild as I repeated these little inventions out loud, using a variety of voices. Occasionally, I would send myself straight into fits of maniacal laughter. So much so that I would have to stop to keep myself from stumbling off trail or falling over. Had someone seen me out there, I'm certain they would conclude that I had escaped the asylum and would eventually be found as a frozen corpse with a perma-grin stuck on my face.

But, of course, there was nobody out there to see.


For two full days, I don't think I saw a single living thing that wasn't rooted to the ground beneath the snow.

The emotional stuff

Up until now, I've written primarily about my thoughts, but little about the feelings accompanying them. One of the reasons for undertaking challenges such as this is to experience a breadth and depth of emotions beyond what may hit you in the course of a normal week. Many people may assume that a certain amount of fear might accompany a journey that involves wondering over remote mountains, through empty woods and across frozen lakes in the dead of winter. However, I can't really say it was any significant part of the experience except in minor moments when crossing some glare ice or a snow-ridge over a river. It certainly wasn't as integral to the experience as was the case back in my rock-climbing days.

There were times, such as heading up Rainy Pass in the dark with snow blowing in my face, where I was filled with a sense of urgency. It wasn't the feeling of being in a full on emergency, but more just being impressed with the immediacy of my situation. In such inhospitable environments, you're made acutely aware of the need to keep moving and not make mistakes. People often describe a rush of "feeling alive" directly after some life-threatening event or upon completing an adrenaline-filled challenge. While not with the same intensity, an aspect of that feeling stuck with me as a sort-of driving force, prodding me forward along the trail.

As the days went on and I became comfortable with the long hours alone pulling sled across snow (or at lease became comfortable with the discomfort), the range and intensity of my emotions varied. Despite the fact that I travelled by myself for nearly the entire race, I didn't feel lonely. I've never had trouble being alone and, at times in my life, have even felt almost too comfortable with it.  However, I can't claim to have been completely untouched by the isolation. No matter the distance of the event, as finishing became a conceivable, everything seems to become accentuated. Somehow my psyche always seems to be "set" for the particular duration of my undertaking such that the final miles, hours or days are often the most difficult, the most rewarding and always beset with strong emotions.

Nikolai was the last stop before the final 50 mile stretch. Arriving there is pretty much knowing that you are going to finish the race. After two full days alone, I can't say that this fact was forefront in my mind. I'd had a fuel failure during my attempt to melt snow earlier in the day and was considering giving it another go when a sign indicating 10 miles spurred me on. Those miles did not pass quickly, especially after dark as the wind swept up the trail while crossing what seemed an endless series of small lakes. I'd donned my outer layers and goggles for protection, but was having a terrible time keeping them properly together on my face. My frustration grew as I'd adjust my goggles and my hat would slip. I'd fix my hat and my balaclava would become misaligned. Eventually, I just couldn't take it any more.

I snapped. I ripped the goggles from my face and threw them to the ground, screaming at them, my voice cracking. "WHY CAN'T YOU JUST DO WHAT I SAY!"

I collapsed onto my poles, hanging my head. After finally catching my breath I propped myself onto my feet and looked up at the perfectly clear night sky. A billion stars met my gaze. And, there, foremost among them, just above the horizon, shone the Big Dipper, the symbol of the very land across which I was traveling.  I stood there in the center of the frozen lake, tears in my eyes, repeating to myself "look where you are, just look where you are."

Finishing before you're done

The race ends in McGrath, but in some ways, making it to Nikolai felt like the biggest accomplishment. At that point, I knew I would finish even with one last, very long, day ahead. Having been on the trail for nearly a full week, there was a part of me that just wanted to stop and revel in "being out there' before it was all over. What better place to do so than in this tiny village populated with people whose ancestors have called this land home for 1000s of years? One of the negatives of these types of events is that, while you get to spend a long time covering a vast range of amazing locales, there still isn't much time for pause and reflection in situ. So it was, with a certain ambivalence, that I headed out for my final slog an hour before dawn.

As the sun rose over the Kuskokwim, my spirits were up. It was a beautiful, crisp morning. I could feel the many miles on my legs, but I was happy to be moving. Despite my growing weary of the river travel earlier in the race, I was happy for the wide expanse and obvious trail allowing my mind to wander. As I approached more "civilized" locales, and as the dogsled race began to approach from behind, there was increased activity along the river. This wasn't to say it was busy. I was still pretty much completely alone taking the time to amuse my addled brain with a Braveheart yell of "Freedom!"

The day was uneventful and dusk arrived before I knew it. I tried to pick up the pace hoping to get off the river before dark. I was rewarded coming upon a "10 mile" sign as I headed into the woods and then the 8 mile hand-written one specifically for our race that could not have been 2 miles from the previous one. Little did I know they were both bald-faced lies.

I was ready to "kick it in" and get this thing done, but the course went up a long and gradual climb so it was more slow slogging. Biding time and dreaming of a long night's sleep in a warm house, my mental strength began to waver. This is when the trail made a sharp turn and headed in the direction of a single red light in the distance. Like the proverbial dangling carrot, the light never seemed to come any closer. Furthermore, I could't tell whether it lay just a little ways in front of me or atop a distance hillside. It seemed to be wavering back and forth taunting me, or so I imagined. It so played with my psyche that I simply refused to look up as I ground my way up the trail, mumbling nonsense under my breath.

After what seemed an eternity, the trail finally came to a "T" at a road. An actual road! Right at the intersection was a hand-written sign lying that the finish was only 2 miles away. Of course, they could have included an arrow indicating which direction to go. It was probably obvious, but in my addled state, I ran back and forth, up and down the road looking at the less than specific track on my GPS. Eventually, I noticed what looked to be some tracks in, of course, the direction of the red light. When I finally passed that blasted thing (some sort of radio tower or something), started to run.

I ran on, but after more than a mile ticked off my GPS, still was not anyplace resembling a town. I slowed back to a walk. As I passed the 2 mile mark, I let a bit of frustration into my head, frustration that eventually turned to resignation. Upon finally reaching the edge of town, I dragged on expecting the finish anytime soon, but the dragging just seemed to continue. It's always the case that the last mile is the longest (especially when its much longer than a mile). Finally, just as I began to entertain images of not being able to find the finish and setting up bivy in the middle of the road, there it was.

I stood for a while in front of the house in silent contemplation. How fitting that this race where I'd spent nearly every moment on the trail alone would be finished in the wee hours of the morning, everyone else nuzzled quietly inside, sleeping.

I gathered my things from my sled one last time and headed in to prepare to join them.


The next morning I awoke to see Beat off on his long, long continued journey to Nome, completely unimaginable in my state of mind at the time.

One of the best things about the Iditarod Trail Invitational was spending the next few days in McGrath. After most races, even the week-long events I'd done in Europe, the aftermath is basically crash, burn and move on home. After the ITI it was an enjoyable time spent with like-minded people, sharing tales of the trail, spectating the main event of the dogsled race and immersing oneself in the culture of small town in remote Alaska in the winter. I don't ever remember having a more enjoyable post-race experience.


Anonymous said...

Wow - your audio book selection makes me feel quite guilty, my ITI audiobook selection was full of escapist trash. I made it though a section of Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle while pushing my though some of the softer sections between Skwentna and Shell lake. Literary junk food to go with my physical junk food.

After biking the iti, I have a strong interest in skiing it, but am thinking that being by myself, as probably the only skier for 7+ days might be a bit much. You aren't reassuring me - thanks :)

Jill Homer said...

Great report Steve. Your segment about non-sensical rhymes reminded me of Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow" — generating complex inner patterns to reach a flow state.

As for playlists, I have what has become a go-to list of junk songs to pick up my spirits. One of my favorites is a death metal song by Lonewolf that I just happened to download from a huge list of freebie Amazon singles the night before I set out for the 2012 White Mountains 100. I just wanted a quick hit of new music, as I'd become so sick of my own during the Susitna 100. As you can imagine there was a bunch of random crap on there, but this song just happened to first pop up on my Shuffle as I was miserably pushing my bike up the Wickersham Wall. My initial impression was, "This song is ridiculous," but then I listened to the lyrics and soon I was laughing out loud. It's become my Alaska theme song, much more appropriate for walking than biking, and I recommend it for the 2014 playlist.

Lone Wolf "Army of the Damned"

And thanks for the fun limerick. Basically exactly what happened to me at Frog Hollow, so thanks for cursing my race. ;)