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Archive for the ‘bicycling’ Category

Husband Tom, BFF Sharry, on an Adventure Cycling trip in Idaho

While I love my cycling partners—my best friend, my husband—and even like them most of the time, there is something to be said for biking alone, even on long journeys.

There is the zone, the long silence of the mind when the rhythms of the body dominate and the pounding of the blood has only birdsong or traffic noise for accompaniment. There is the freeing sense of having only yourself to care for, feed, entertain, encourage. There is the ease of your natural cadence, unencumbered by someone slower, unpressured by someone faster. And there is the satisfaction that comes from meeting challenges on your own terms, conquering them unaided, unsupported except by the memory of your friend’s parting encouragement.

Finding my silent cadence

My first ride up Thompson Pass was one such challenge.  One of the local doctors had committed suicide, a shock to the community. He was famous and notorious there, loved and hated, a man of extremes. White water rafter and author, fanatic cross-country skier and ice climber, he was a disciple of the “quit your whining” school of medicine. His memorial service was crowded and more than 20 people spoke. What moved me that day was Joe Roth, Andy’s friend and fellow physician. “It’s a rare beautiful day in Valdez. What the hell are you doing indoors? Get out there and challenge yourself—Andy would want that.”

I walked out of the civic center high on his missioning.  I’d been riding my bike again after a long hiatus, training for a tour. I had nothing to prove, or so I told myself whenever a friend wanted me to ride Thompson Pass with her. Truth? I was afraid of it. What if I don’t make it? How would that look to my friend, as she powered past me? What if I wanted to turn around midway? Then boom, Andy and Joe kicked my ass and I went home to get my bike.

My only choice for that first attempt was to ride alone. No pressure, no expectations, no responsibility except to myself. No conversation to rob my breath. I took the scenic route around Blueberry Lake, running into some climbers who had taken Joe’s message to heart also. I stopped to watch for a while, then slogged on up the final stretch.

At last

2678–the magic number.  2678–the summit of Thompson Pass at mile 25.5 on the Richardson Highway. Nine miles of 7% grade, another four of flatter stuff before that. It might as well have been Everest for the elation I felt. And the long downhill run after. No brakes, all smiles and cold sweatiness. What the hell had I been doing indoors?

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I am caught off guard, over and over, by the stunning beauty of the place I live in.

It’s the end of the season, my favorite time of year when every green leaf changes into its holiday clothing; scarlet, gold, pumpkin orange adorn every field, forest and glade. Sandhill cranes, Canada and snow geese, black-capped chickadees, ravens and magpies join in a rollicking, avian version of “On the Wing Again”, and my heart leaps into the air with them. I want to GO!

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Summer in the Valley

Today was just one of those days–you know, when rather predictable, mundane chores turn into something else again. I started the day by driving into Palmer for an appointment, but was met at the door by the office manager who told me that it had been cancelled, as the physical therapist thought we were finished. Well, OK, that left more time to get into Anchorage for my afternoon appointment and a bike ride. So Tom and I loaded up the bikes in anticipation of a spin along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, always a favorite of ours.

However, the state troopers had other ideas. Seems they had the highway closed for HOURS, chasing a bad guy between Palmer and Anchorage. We cooled our heels in standstill traffic for over an hour before we could exit and  turn toward home.

I just couldn’t stand wasting the day however, so I had Tom drop me back in Palmer, where I changed into bike togs and hit the road. One of my favorite rides is around Farm Loop Road. There are several Community Supported Agriculture farms on this route; you know, where you buy a “share” and get a box of produce each week, allowing you to feast on whatever is in season. There are also several nurseries and greenhouses here–Palmer is the premier agricultural area in our Southcentral region. Here we combine two-to eight-foot topsoils with 19.5 hours of daylight in the height of summer to spectacular effect.

Earth Works Farm’s vegetable and flower offerings

There are hundreds of acres of flowers, vegetables  and hay grown here in the Mat-Su Valley, and I am very fond of telling my guests on the train all about the agricultural colony that was established during the Depression in 1935 in Palmer. Part of the New Deal, it aimed to settle the country, showcase Alaska as capable of supporting farms, and assist struggling farmers from northern states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan.

Such a sweet little Colony barn.

There are still some fine examples of period homes and barns, like the one to the right here, still in existence. And though only about 20 percent of those relocated farmers were still on their land after five years, agriculture is again a staple of the economy here. With the surge in interest in local, organic foods, farming in Palmer is experiencing a renaissance. Even before the “locavore” movement really got rolling you could find locally grown potatoes, carrots, cabbage and greens in the grocery stores. Now there is everything from summer squash to herbs to cheese, milk, meat and eggs available at the farmers’ markets. There is really no excuse for not eating well in the Valley!

Matanuska River and Knik Glacier in the background

On the ride home I stopped at the Matanuska River overlook, about 500 feet above that braided-channel, glacier-fed river. Recently, swollen first by melt due to fine weather and then by heavy rains, this river has carved a new channel, chewing through established banks to claim several homes and outbuildings in its relentless rush to the sea. For years I have watched the river’s depredations, swearing that I would never purchase property in its flood plain and ridiculing those who had. Now, all I feel is sympathy for those folks, losing their dirt, their home, their dreams to the iron whim of Nature. The Matanuska is beautiful, powerful, unpredictable and sometimes grim, reflecting the larger reality of life in the Last Frontier.

Matanuska River panorama

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My backyard

It’s not often that I take up the challenge to try something new. I’m pretty content with the recreational activities I am familiar with, and I seem pretty comfortable in this groove that I refuse to call a rut. But just lately I have been striking out into some uncomfortable territory.

When I applied for the rail guide job with Princess earlier this year, I thought it would be fun. I never thought that I would experience the level of doubt and stage fright that I found myself carrying around when it actually came time to lay it out in front of my fellow employees during our training run to Denali. I quickly got over that, but I have to admit that the five minutes between boarding passengers and the moment that I start talking still find me with butterflies in my stomach.

Silly me–my guests are so ready to set off on the next stage of their Great Alaskan Adventure that I could say anything and they would at least start to listen raptly!

I’ve started new jobs four times now in the four years that we have lived in Palmer. Each time I have had no problem with the learning curve; I have been my supremely confident self, knowing that I have the knowledge, experience and intelligence to enable me to accomplish whatever is demanded of me in the job.

I have not risen to  any new physical challenges, however. I have not taken up one new  sport, activity, hobby or skill. I have been content with my very limited repertoire of road cycling, gardening, writing, reading and singing in my church choir. No snow boarding, though I’ve told myself I’d like to learn. No hiking the Butte, though I’ve had a couple of friends wanting to go. No mountain biking on the local single- and double-track trails–until tonight.

I’m so far back you can’t see me!

BackCountry Bicycles here in Palmer sponsors rides every Thursday night for women. Sometimes these are road rides, sometimes mountain biking, some nights there are both, like tonight. I have not joined any of these in the entire four years that I have been in the area. Oh sure, there are plenty of reasons–I forget, it’s at dinnertime, it’s all the way into Palmer, I have to work tomorrow. Whatever; I have never gone. And yet I loudly bemoan the fact that I feel so disconnected from the community; that I am having such a hard time making new friends here who share my interests.

This is a rut as high as the Great Wall, keeping new experiences out as if they were the Mongol Horde.

So, I determined to join the group tonight. I vacillated; should I go with the roadies or the muddies? I am most comfortable on my hybrid road bike, I am confident in my skills, I know the routes the group most often rides. Comfortable. I called the shop–which route was the road group taking? The usual leader, Erin, said that one would be an unled ride–the group would decide its own route; did I have a suggestion?

She, Erin, would be leading the other group, the muddies, in a beginner session of hills, tree roots and gravel at Matanuska Lake. I hemmed. I hawed. I wasn’t up to it. I would be the oldest woman there. My old mountain bike didn’t have suspension. They wouldn’t wait for me. They’d all look cuter in their bike shorts. I examined all that hogwash, upbraided myself (with my husband’s help) and loaded the mountain bike. I had a ball.

The badge of honor

Yes, the hills were hard. Yes, all the young women looked better in their bike shorts. Yes, I was the oldest woman there. Did everyone feel the same way as I did? Well, we are a group of females, so from experience I would guess yes. Were we all challenged in some way? Yes. Did we all have a great time and learn something new, gaining a bit of confidence along the way? It certainly seemed so. Will we come back again next week for a slightly tougher route? I hope so. I wrote it in my engagement calendar–no more “forgetting” excuses. It’s still biking, so it’s in my comfort zone–just. I have the bike grease tatoo on my banged up calf to prove that. It’s enough of a challenge that I feel like I’m striking out into new territory, a satisfying thing. Is this all just an excuse to buy a new bike? Maybe so.

It’s not snow boarding, but then winter is still a long way away.

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I live in such a small town! And I mean that with all the attendant good things about small town life, and none of the bad.

Today Tom and I took advantage of the 50+ degree temperatures and rode our bikes into Palmer, to Vagabond Blues, the local coffee house. Along the way, we saw the bike shop owner and his wife, decked out in the shop’s logo jerseys, taking much speedier advantage of the great weather. Greetings exchanged, we all pedaled on.

Upon arriving at the coffee shop we leaned our bikes against the wall, hung our helmets on handlebars and walked away. There were a couple other bikes keeping our steeds company, but nary a lock in sight. Just down the street there was a table with one adult and several pre- and young teens. They were selling lemonade.

Now, lemonade stands are common everywhere, big city, small town, even rural crossroads. Lemonade stands often have a dog in attendance as well, smiling, tongue lolling, adoring his kids. Less often will this dog be a yearling Great Dane, but there he was, happily dashing up and down the sidewalk with his girl on a leash.

“Lemonade 4 Sale!” proclaimed one hand-lettered sign. The kids promenaded themselves and their pets back and forth in front of the stand, waving at the traffic and beckoning people in to buy. Three girls, a boy, a dog–and a goat. Watching this little private circus from the comfort of our windowside table, we hooted with laughter; the 12-year-old on the other end of the goat’s tether was clearly shocked and embarrassed when it left its calling card on the public sidewalk.

Responsible and resourceful young woman that she was, she soon returned with a snow brush she found in her dad’s car, and commenced sweeping the little dark marbles into the gutter. So intent was she that she failed to notice the woman behind her, who had to jump around a bit to avoid the enthusiastic cleanup.

It was then that we saw the second hand-lettered sign. “Lemonade 4 A Goat!” What? They already had a goat. What’s the story? Upon our exit from the coffee shop, our investigations revealed that today is National Lemonade Season kickoff. There is actually a nationwide, non-profit organization, Prepared 4 Life, dedicated to teaching kids basic business practices by encouraging them to set up and run lemonade stands. These entrepreneurs would use the monies raised to buy another goat, presumably another business investment. We bought chocolate chip cookies and left it at that, satisfied that the future of capitalism in Palmer is in good hands.

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Would that I could!

A friend posted this photo on FaceBook today, and I immediately co-opted it for my profile picture. When I filled up my car yesterday evening, I paid $4.26 a gallon. Today I passed a station in Wasilla where regular is $4.32. Believe me, if I could ride my bike to where I need to go these days I would!

I rode outdoors for the first time this season last Monday. In truth, my friend and ofttime bike partner Sharry unknowlingly shamed me into it. She lives in Valdez, the snow capital of the western world, and posted in her own blog that she had ridden that day. She said she was missing me, her partner in misery. In Valdez it was snowing lightly and only about 35 degrees. Farenheit.

So, there was nothing for it but to unhitch the mountain bike from the trainer, pump up her tires, dig out my windproof tights and smart wool turtleneck and slog up the subdivision road in the slush. Once on the main road things were fine, fairly dry and without ice. The potholes were fierce though. It’s pothole season you know; every little blemish in the pavement is full of water, which freezes, expands, breaks away a few more pieces of aggregate each night. Day comes with the traffic, which rolls over those slightly larger, water filled dimples. Water hammer effects force the loose aggregate out of the hole, which refills with water, freezes, expands ad infinitum. Pretty soon you could hide an elephant in it, and four bales of hay to feed it with.

It was glorious to be out there riding, regardless of potholes, wet patches of road, dust and traffic. Here it was about 40 degrees, and at 5:30 was still wonderfully light. I expected to see moose along the way, but was disappointed. Masses of chickadees sang their heads off and the birch twigs glowed red with that special hue they take on at this time of year.

In my route I avoided all but a half mile of the Old Glen Highway, mostly because the bike trail that I normally use is right now impassable, and I knew the highway would be full of impatient commuters anxious to get home for that first beer. I admit to being a bit car shy since being knocked into the gravel while riding in Iowa last October. The mountain bike does not have a mirror, and I could not hear the traffic behind me very well due to the earband I was wearing under my helmet. I almost turned around at the highway junction, just to avoid it. But fuck it! I thought. I am not going to be intimidated, I refuse to let trepidation cripple enjoyment of my favorite activity. The only way to get over being afraid of the horse is to get back on.

And, just as before, people went around me, people slowed down when passing me, people didn’t deliberately run me down, if only because of the hassles with their insurance company. Things were fine, and though I will probably have a few qualms again when I ride on the road, I’ll get over them.

I will.

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Pearls beyond price

One of the things I most looked forward to, and that made more tolerable the certain cold and dark of home in Alaska in December, was the thought of three months of the Adventure Cyclist magazine waiting next to my most comfy chair. MMMMM…hot coffee with Bailey’s, wood stove cranking out the heat, no job to interfere and a stack of publications celebrating my favorite activity. Not quite as engaging as a three month bicycle trip down the Mississippi River, but given the circumstances of said trip, a tolerable if distant second best. Devoured cover-to-cover, these missives from Missoula nourish a soul that pines for spring.

Alas , ’twas not to be! Somehow, some way our several magazines have gone astray. In late August, before we commenced our odyssey I had temporarily forwarded our mail from the P.O. box to our physical address, which is actually a several unit lockbox at the corner of our subdivision. A friend had agreed to pick up our mail there, as she also has a box in the kiosk. But there must be conditions on what is forwarded that I was unaware of, because not only did all our many magazines get consigned to a black hole, but two packages have also failed to arrive, including one with all the bike tools inside my seat post bag, and my swimsuit. Nothing else in that package is even remotely important.

Not actually my bike, but you get the idea!

Lovely. I can’t put my bike back together, not that I would be able to ride in the cold dark slipperiness anyway; now I can’t even drag my unexercised white butt down to the pool to make up for it, without a rather large capital outlay for a new suit!

Mostly I’m just depressed about the Adventure Cyclist magazine. Some months it is the candle in the cursed darkness. The vicarious experience it provides is like a siren song, and I must lash myself to home and husband in order not to leap overboard. Winter in Alaska can be brutal. In the dark months, when Adventure Cyclist arrives I almost can’t bear to read it. I have a nearly irresistible urge to fling responsibility to the wind, hop on a plane and go romance the open road.

It’s a bad case of “let’s leave tonight”.

Today I received the December/January issue. Excuse me while I wipe the drool off my face. Time to go find the Bailey’s.

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