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Hitching a ride

Hitching a ride

A flotilla of butterflies passes me going uphill;

The four-mile-per-hour breeze behind me chills my back;

That cheeky ground squirrel 20 feet ahead of me ambles across the road.

This first day of summer saw my average speed recorded at 8.6 mph. Now, that average includes my top speed of 33.6, so you know it was a slow ride. For at least an hour of tire-turning time I pedaled at under 4, and that’s when the butterflies—hundreds, maybe thousands of them—passed me. They covered the shoulders of Deer Creek Road, resting on the damp sand and I think soaking up moisture there.

Clark Fork panorama along the Kim Williams Nature Trail

Clark Fork panorama along the Kim Williams Nature Trail

That 26.5 miles took me far longer than the 3 hours that my average speed would suggest. I left home at about 10 am and returned at 4. The original plan was a simple jaunt to the Saturday farmers’ market down on the banks of the Clark Fork. Mmmmmm…cheese curds, iced mocha, and barbecued brisket breakfast burrito. All the hallmarks of a great morning.

Crowd? What crowd? We don't need no stinkin' crowd!

Crowd? What crowd? We don’t need no stinkin’ crowd!

Once enfolded in the crowd, I plummeted into a very Alaskan emotional pit—holy shit, there are way too many people here! I grabbed my breakfast and sprinted to the margins, to eat and observe, and acknowledge my small loneliness. Boy how I wished that Tom or Sharry were along to elbow through the crowds with me!

 

I subscribe to the philosophy that I’m only one bike ride away from a good mood. Circumnavigate Mount Sentinel to sweat away the blues? Sure! So off I spun along the Milwaukee Trail, the Kim Williams Nature Trail, the single track behind the Deer Creek Shooting Range and up Deer Creek Road. And up. And UP, puffing and panting to pause at the Milltown State Park Overlook. Then up some more, down a half mile at 33.6 miles per hour, and then…you guessed it. Up. Just me and the damn butterflies.

Hitching a ride...

Companionship

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Yesterday afternoon at work we were all discussing our weekend plans. Lydia would run, Mike would bike–no surprises there! My usual partners in crime are all out of town, so I was at loose ends until a casual Googlemaps search for something else entirely turned up a great campground and a very cool rail trail in Great Falls.

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“Isn’t that, like, 3 hours away?” asked Mike. He’s from Maine–in three hours’ drive time you could be six states away. I on the other hand have more of the Alaskan (or Montanan) viewpoint; 175 miles of driving doesn’t really get you much of anywhere.

We quickly determined that Mike, the cross-country bike tour leader, could probably ride that in two longish days. I on the other hand would much prefer to take four. Interesting to compare our viewpoints on distance when talking about driving as opposed to riding…

I rolled out of the sack this morning eager to pack up and be gone. I called the campground to make sure they had a spot for me, my tent and the Jeep.  I put some bratwurst, a couple eggs and the leftovers from last night’s dinner in a cooler. I gathered up my cookstove, camp chair, new bedroll and the borrowed camping pad and marched down to the garage.

**77–no dice. Hmmm. **77 again. Blank. One curse. **77 on the DAMN keypad and it still won’t roll up the garage door. Crap-a-rama. Yank the battery and march upstairs. No 9 volt to be found. Two curses.

Into the other car, down to the 7-Eleven. ( I couldn’t get into the garage to get my bike out or I would have ridden the 3 blocks…) Six bucks for a battery! Which, when I put it into the keypad, does NOT work! StompStompStomp back to the apartment, where I called the after-hours maintenance number. Wait for a call back/get a call back/ go try what the gentleman suggests/which does not work/so I call him back. Again.

Wait an hour for him to come to town and to my place, where he calmly uses the key I’d had for months, not knowing what it was, to unlock the super-secret emergency garage door release and roll it up, revealing my two bikes, my tent and tarp and my ignorance. Profuse thanks ensue, and probably a big bill will follow in the mail.

Hurray! I’m on my way! But wait, I need gas. So I go back to that same convenience store, where gas is cheaper than anywhere else in Missoula. I pop the cap open, stick in the nozzle–and promptly pump about a cup of 82 octane onto the ground. WTF?! I drop to the dusty cement and peer under the rear wheel. Oh yeah, now I remember. Tom’s duct tape repair of three years ago, to a fuel tank hose cracked by age and disuse, had finally expired.

The bike won’t fit into the Camry’s trunk. The old car’s bike rack will not fit on the new car either. Having been eagerly looking forward to new scenery, new campground, new ride along the Missouri River banks, I am finally stymied.

I wonder what horrible fate or gruesome accident awaited me on the road to Great Falls, that my guardian angel went to so much trouble to save me from it…

My guardian angel

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Sometimes it’s good to go out riding on your own, just you at your own pace, not feeling pushed or held back. My back-to-back solo rides the past two days have both been enjoyable, strenuous, interesting–and a little lonely. Not to mention photographically frustrating. No one to take my picture standing by the awesome talus slope I rode past!

The trail was not quite this rough...

The trail was not quite this rough…

Yesterday’s road ride out to the foot of Blue Mountain took me along the Milwaukee Road trail and then onto some pretty quiet paved roads. There was the long haul up O’Brien Creek Road–clearly a training run for Missoula middle-aged male cyclists. Three passed me going in, and smiled and waved coming back down. Their skinny tires didn’t pass the end of the pavement, but I braved another half mile to make it exactly 10 before I turned back. The only surprise is how little wildlife I see in these quiet places. There were a few whitetail, far off in a field, but no turkeys, moose, bears on the upper slopes.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Today was another in the series of blue-sky, mid-70s spring days that typify the Missoula area. Salsa Cycles, in conjunction with a  local bike shop, was having a mountain bike demonstration at Ten Spoon Winery, which is a mere mile from the Rattlesnake Trail trailhead. I have been somewhat less than thrilled with the fit of my own, relatively new mountain bike, and so pedaled the several miles up to the demo to see if they could do better. Alas, they only have bikes for folks who are 5’4″ or more–like most manufacturers, Salsa apparently believes that short women who would love to ride dirt don’t make a big enough demographic to build to. Damn.

I rode up the road, then the trail, disgruntled. But a funny thing happened on the way up to 4200 feet. I began to appreciate the bike I own. Yes, it’s too tall to stand over comfortably, and if I have to dismount fast I’m in trouble. But the gearing is a dream, the disc brakes could stop a buffalo in its tracks, and I was having so much fun screaming back downhill for 10 miles that I forgot to stay disgruntled. That’s what a bike ride does.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

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The very picture of happiness

The very picture of happiness

You know how it is, when you wish and work and wrangle for something you are convinced is your heart’s desire? Your positive thoughts, like an arrow, shoot straight from your heart to that all-consuming objective. Swoosh–miss; swoosh–grazed it! Swoosh–SMACK–bullseye! Snoopy-like dance of joy with ears in the air and a fat grin, whoop of exultation and a rush of adrenaline. On October 30 I got the telephone call that set me to dancing, that is changing my life.

Perhaps you read, a few months ago, about my Dream Job? It’s official; I am moving to Missoula and joining the amazing group of folks at Adventure Cycling Association, as part of the Tours Department team. The company offers more than 80 bicycle tours in 2014. I will join Arlen, Darrah, Lydia and Mike, shepherding these trips from Advertising copy to Zeroing out the last of the invoices. (I know, that was a real stretch…) I have a company email address and some business cards waiting for me–it must be true! I am beyond excited.

But one should always be careful about what one wishes for. Since the reality hit home I have been vacillating between “Wahoo!” and “What was I thinking?” The former is self-explanatory. The latter is a result of saying so long to family and friends-adopted-as-family; of the triage required to select what comes with me right now; of the madcap dash to winterize and button up the house. The over-arching mood is one of joy and excitement, but mixed in with all my hurrahs are the “darn, I’ll miss them” and “wow, I never did climb the Butte” wistfulness. In other words, a mixed bag, just like all of life tends to be. Not unalloyed joy, but joy, nonetheless.

And so I ask you friends to think positive thoughts for our journey of 2500 miles; maybe your concerted will can hold the snow at bay and prevent icy roads or buffalo collisions. No harm in trying, anyway. Wish me luck! Dream job, here I come.

It all has to go in here...

It all has to go in here…

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July 4 at Summit Lake on Hatcher Pass

Let’s go to the lake on the 4th, OK honey? What?! It’s still frozen?!

I have to laugh when people who live in the 48 contiguous states–variously known to Alaskans as the Lower 48 or Lesser 48–tell me about their Fourth of July celebrations. I’ve been gone for so long that it sounds like tales from a foreign land. Trips to the lake, shorts and flip flops, crepe paper decked floats, picnics full of ants and honey bees, spectacular fireworks viewed from a blanket on the grass–all but dim memories from childhood. The 4th in Alaska is very different.

Take, for example, the photo above.

Friend Sharry, husband Tom and I drove up to Hatcher Pass today to do some hiking. We woke to cloudy skies today and temps in the mid-50s, a huge difference from a week ago when it was relentlessly sunny and in the high 80s. Oh well, we are now back to normal I guess. Anyway, since it has not shed a drop of rain in the last week of cloud cover, I didn’t think much about our plans.

I dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, taking my rain coat, another shirt and a fleece vest in my day pack, “just in case”. Oh yes, a hat (I hate having my head dripped on), sunscreen, bug spray, sandwich and water.

Following Sharry’s truck, I knew I was in trouble when we passed the 1000 foot elevation level and went from sprinkles to needing the fastest intermittent setting on my windshield wipers. As we climbed into the gray mountains I removed my sunglasses; I glanced at Tom, a reluctant companion today anyway. When we arrived at Summit Lake, elevation 3800 feet, I got out and told Sharry that we were not going to hike. Neither of us had really brought enough clothing to be comfortable at 40 degrees in the rain. No rain pants, no gloves, cotton jeans–what had we been thinking?

She, brave (read prepared) soul, slipped on her Helly Hansens, pulled up her hood and bounded off into the fog. We slithered back into the warmth of the car and made our slow, picture-snapping way down the Willow side of the pass. And what a breathtaking ride it is, even in the dim.

The view from the top of Willow Fishhook Road

The view from the top of Willow Fishhook Road

Crossing Willow Creek

Crossing Willow Creek

That side of the Palmer to Willow road is all gravel. Willow Creek and its small tributaries, which drain the steep-sided valleys, are full of gold mining claims, both hard-rock and placer. At this time of year, regardless of the weather, and because Alaskans really ARE tough, the valley was full of folks camping too. Sopping dogs and kids in shorts and parkas, grownups wearing camo hoodies and rain gear, tents, RVs, fifth wheel trailers, ATVs and any number of non-motorized water craft parked cheek-by-jowl in the few small pullouts along the roadside. There is plenty of private property in the lower reaches of the valley, all marked with No Trespassing signage. The road right of way is often the only place to camp.

Summer camping in Alaska...

Summer camping in Alaska…Note the warm clothing…

Camping. In 40 degree temps. In the rain. I can’t count how many times I have been a part of that scene. The smoke from the campfire hugs the ground, the thin heat from damp wood unable to lift it more than head high. Hot dogs take an eternity to cook on willow sticks held over such fires, and end by tasting like spruce boughs. Don’t even think about S’mores; the marshmallow’s pitchy flavor does not do justice to Hershey bars and graham crackers. Our only consolation is that the dark, cloudy skies will allow us to see those midnight fireworks after all.

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Carol, who called me Saturday from the local bike shop, Backcountry Bike  and Ski did so to ask me my considered opinion about mountain bikes. Her grandson was in the market for a new bike.  Backcountry was having a 20% off sale on last year’s models and Carol inquired about what I would recommend.

Now, I am not the one to ask, and I told her so. “I trust the staff there at the shop completely” I told her. “Follow their advice. If they don’t have what he needs, they’ll tell him so.” As soon as I hung up, I uncovered the super-secret cash stash I had squirreled away and hot-footed it down to the  shop.

Last summer I had participated in the first women’s mountain biking clinic offered by Erin, the shop’s only female employee. Even though I had injured myself the first time out, the fire was lit, and I yearned for my very own bike that fit only me. I’d been using Tom’s second bike, and while it had been fine for gravel roads, it proved to be too unwieldy for me on steep uphills and single-track.

Sharry's pal, Pali

Sharry’s pal, Pali

Last fall, after my knee healed for the most part, I’d ridden the Jim Creek trail with Sharry and her new bike, Pali. That muddy ATV track proved to me that I needed more instruction, and a steed that was proportioned for someone only 5’1″. I’d been mulling and mumbling and gnawing on the subject for months. Carol’s call was the catalyst I needed to finally take action.

And voila! With Erin’s invaluable help and Tom’s complete support (“It’s your money–spend whatever you need to feel comfortable!”) I am now paired with something that fits like it was made for me. Now, if the snow would only melt faster…

MY new pal!

MY new pal!

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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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