A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, April 30, 2011


“It’s so warm here, we don’t even have to wear puffy mittens!”  Lizzy is so astounded by the balminess of a New England January that she feels the need to remark upon it to the stranger seated across from her, a friend of my sister’s.  Never mind that this woman actually lives here in Cambridge, and doesn’t seem favorably impressed either by the 12-degree breeze or the latest blizzard. Fairbanks, Alaska is the center of Lizzy’s universe, so her perspective is a little skewed – and I feel guilty for producing kids who think it’s a treat not to have to wear three hats.
I cut up Lizzy’s samosa, scoop some dahl onto her rice, and try to field my new acquaintance’s bemused queries about our life up north.  Do I really pee outside at forty below zero?  How do I manage to ride a bike in January?  Are the mosquitoes as large as Black Hawk helicopters?  Is the average IQ higher than the average annual temperature?
“So, are you guys settled up there for good, then?”
It’s a yes-or-no question, and yet I find myself waffling and hedging like a senatorial candidate. “Um… well, we’re both pretty happy with our jobs and our community… and the schools are good… the outdoor opportunities…” I meander to a stop, uncomfortably aware of how unconvincing I sound – not just to my questioner, but to myself.
It’s that word, settled.  It still gives me indigestion.
“Settling” has connotations of resignation, of agreeing to something that is less than it ought to be due to some sort of miserable compromise.  Back in college, my friend Colleen described “settling down” as a process by which people pair off, go into their houses, and close the doors.  The implication was that they then become too dull to do anything even remotely fun ever again.  Parties are exchanged for potluck fundraisers, outdoor adventures disappear in favor of pee-wee soccer practice, and international travel is subsumed by staying at a Holiday Inn near Disneyland. 
I argued that this didn’t have to be the case.  I insisted that it ought to be possible to say “forever” to a person (an idea that my well-hidden romantic side rather liked) without having to say “forever” to middle-management, business-casual, and lawn flamingos.  Surely, I said, one didn’t have to stay in one place forever.  I wanted passport stamps from around the world, bus rides shared with baskets of chickens and sacks of mangos, a jar full of fascinatingly indecipherable coins, and a working knowledge of a dozen different subway systems.  I wanted remoteness, bucolic bliss, and mountain vistas, but I also wanted second-hand bookstores, museums crammed with artifacts, and an occasional night at the symphony.  How could I ever settle? 
As a kid, there were many things I loved about my hometown – the ability to bike to the beach being near the top of the list – but I took it for granted that I would one day leave. I would go off to college, and I would move on from there into a half-realized future full of job satisfaction, adventure, and hypothetical children. . . somewhere.  I was clearly either dim-witted or a poor planner or both, because I was halfway through college before it occurred to me that “somewhere” really had to be somewhere.  I balked at the mere idea.
When I graduated, I did what all over-educated, idealistic, indecisive, adventuresome 22-year-olds do.  I joined the Peace Corps.  There I got plenty of bus rides with chickens.  I learned a lot, but probably not nearly as much as I ought to have.  When I completed my service, I came back to the US and earned a Master’s degree, all the while limiting my possessions to what could fit in the trunk of a compact car.
When I completed that degree, I was lucky enough to have not just one, but two job offers to choose from.  One was based in the northeast, at a respected college.  It paid reasonably well and seemed like a stepping-stone into a professional career in environmental ecology.  The other was with a small non-profit.  It paid badly, offered no particular upward mobility, and required moving to Fairbanks Alaska.
My dad said he never had any doubt about which job I’d choose.
I moved to Fairbanks in the last year of the previous millennium, back before muffin-top and plumber’s crack became mandatory features of feminine attire, before tweeting became a means of communication for species other than songbirds, and before anyone had misunderestimated the American people.  I intended to stay a year or two -- maybe three, if I was having a lot of fun mushing or whatever the heck it was people did in Fairbanks.
Fast-forward twelve years.  A husband, a house, a PhD and two kids later, I am sitting at a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, trying to weasel my way around the word “settled.”  My sister’s friend is affable to her core, but she can’t quite hide her incredulity at the idea that a well-educated woman would really think of Fairbanks as home.  Forever.
Lizzy wants more rice and dahl, and some of “the thing with the peas in it.”
“Mutter paneer,” I tell her, although I’m sure I’m mangling the pronunciation.  We don’t have an Indian restaurant in Fairbanks.  I sorely miss this cuisine.
“What’s that?” Molly asks, pointing to another dish. 
“Eggplant,” I tell her.  “It’s a little spicy…”
“I want some,” she says. I do my signature eyebrow raise. “Please,” she adds, resigned to the inexplicable inevitability of good manners.
“We do have several good Thai restaurants in Fairbanks,” I remark.  My mouth is full.  I swallow, and try again.  “There’s a good Korean place, and some ok Chinese.”  I sound like an apologist for the sub-arctic.  We can practically see Asia from our igloos!
The conversation shifts to what the kids and I have been up to during our whirlwind four-day visit.  I rattle off the list of destinations: the Science Museum, the Children’s Museum, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the MIT Museum.  “That’s a lot of museums,” says the husband of my original questioner, smiling at me over his naan bread to show that he’s not criticizing.  He probably thinks I’m starved for culture. 
“Well, they’re all so different, and besides, we spend a lot of time walking from one place to another, just kind of seeing the city.”  I feel embarrassed by how much fun this gawking is for the kids.  In Boston they can see a congested cacophony of garbage trucks, fire trucks, construction equipment, ambulances, and people.  Hundreds of people, thousands of people, people of all colors and sizes and habits.  This is a city as it exists in their picture books, not the 40,000-inhabitant strip-mall version up north.
The adults ask the kids what they’ve enjoyed most, and are treated to a disorganized litany of high points that includes meteorites, a live snake, chocolate milk, and a disturbingly wonderful display of deformed human hands that I had trouble wresting them away from at the Science Museum.
And what about at home?  What do they like to do there?
“We have our own mushing sled,” says Molly, proud as the title-holder of a new Corvette.  She soon realizes that these silly grownups know almost nothing about mushing.  She is happy to fill them in.  Molly likes to educate people.  When she is done talking about the sled and the dogs, there is plenty more to describe.  Her skis.  Preschool.  The two big kids in our community who go to big kid school and therefore know almost everything, but who are nonetheless friends of hers. 
As I listen to the twins talk, I imagine what I would have described when I was the same age.  Preschool at the YMCA.  My big sister.  The three children up the street.  The park with the playground and the ducks who struggled along on a constant diet of moldy crusts.  A “fancy” dinner out at which I was allowed to order breaded shrimp.
Kids, I realized, are the little hubs of their own little universes.  As such, they are always “settled.”  They like new experiences, but they judge them by the yardstick of their own reality.  For Molly and Lizzy, that reality includes riding to school in a bike trailer with four hot water bottles when the mercury is below -30.  It includes counting the new reindeer calves at the farm in the spring.  It includes wilderness hikes on which we can go hours or even days without seeing any other traces of human beings.  Molly and Lizzy are quite likely to leave Fairbanks when they grow up.  I know that, and I think they already know it too.  But for now, they are quite happy to be settled.
But what about me? 
Some of Colleen’s predictions have come true.  I’m married with kids, and I hang out with a lot of other married-with-kids friends.  My idea of a party these days is something that involves several different people’s salads and ends at 9 p.m.  On the other hand, Fairbanks is GOOD at doing potlucks, and let’s face it, I wasn’t the life of the party even when I was 19.  I can see now that some of my fears were hyperbolic. 
I relax in my seat, and grab another helping of the eggplant dish.  I tell the couple across from me – who are themselves married, and settled, and yet still very interesting people – that living in Fairbanks means I can combine my love of wilderness and open spaces with my desire for libraries and ridiculously intellectual friends.  I mention that we have theatrical performances, poetry readings, film festivals, visiting scientists, and a symphony orchestra.  I get to be a university professor.  I allow myself a small smile at the realization that I don’t have to worry about business casual (patched jeans and a thermal hoodie will do) or lawn flamingos (no lawn around my outhouse). 
Of course, staying in Fairbanks also means having only one real museum, very few bustling urban scenes, obnoxiously cold and dark Januaries, and no decent Indian food.  But that is what travel is for.  My passport hasn’t acquired as many new stamps as I’d like in the past few years, but I’m looking into correcting that.  I’m settled – I can admit that now – but there are still some things I refuse to settle for.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


            “Do you have any slippers that would fit a four-year-old?
“Uh-huh.  D’you wanna see the boys’ ones, or the girls’?”
“Um… It doesn’t matter. Both, I guess.”
The Payless Shoe clerk looked at me as if I’d just told her I had a child with three feet.  Clearly she thought I was a drooling imbecile, but she directed me to my choices: pink shiny Cinderella slippers, or clunky rectangular Cars slippers.  They were at opposite ends of the store.
 I sighed – but I wasn’t really surprised.  Almost five years ago, I felt the leading edge of this storm, and tried to fend it off.  A friend watched with a mixture of amusement and concern as I plunged a sack of miniscule onesies into a bucket of dye.  Maybe she thought I was suffering from some sort of postpartum hormonal imbalance.  “You won’t be able to escape it in a few years, you know,” she said. The laundry sink was spattered with dark green.  “You will let them choose their own clothes when they’re older, won’t you?”
            I didn’t want to be Evil Controlling Parent, so I assured her that of course I would.  I nodded and smiled with exaggerated bonhomie. I told my friend that if my kids went through a Tinsel Princess phase and insisted on carrying sequin-covered purses to kindergarten, I’d honor their freedom of expression. 
But I wasn’t looking forward to it.
I hate pink. Ok, I said it.  I detest frills, and ruffles, and flounces.  Makeup and high heels and nylons are not my cup of tea -- to the point where I feel awkwardly cross-dressed on the increasingly rare occasions when I put them on.  Girly stuff just… grates on me. 
I’d like to think that my aversion to the stereotypical hallmarks of femininity has a reasonable basis – but I’m not sure this is true.  I can rationalize at least some of my arguments: stilettos are murder on the feet, dyes and bleaches are toxic, and waxing sounds – um – kinda painful.   Barbie might give a little girl a complex if her waist is larger than a dragonfly’s.  But Hello Kitty and Strawberry Shortcake are relatively benign, aren’t they?  Why do they make me bare my teeth?
Even as I dyed that batch of bubble-gum onesies, I felt a twinge of worry.  Maybe rejection of pink is a sign of some sort of deep-rooted hatred of myself.  Maybe it means I’ve absorbed the males-are-better assumptions of the patriarchy.  Maybe I’m a traitor to my gender – and therefore a traitor to my daughters.
Where do my biases come from?  As a kid, I was a tomboy, but not a die-hard one.  I loved climbing trees, constructing Tinkertoy and Erector Set masterpieces, and wrestling other kids to the playground sand.  On the other hand, I also liked skipping rope and playing hopscotch, and I adored a baby-faced cuddly doll whom I named, with the inimitable logic of toddlers, “Bedtime.” I took apart the vacuum cleaner and regularly shimmied up the swingset poles, but I also sewed myself a quilt and baked countless cookies.  Sometimes I wished I were a boy, but I couldn’t throw a snowball the width of a residential street, and I was so nurturing that I insisted on rescuing the ants my mother was trying to exterminate from the kitchen.  I was only really concerned with gender when it imposed limits on something I wanted to do.  I didn’t want to be told that only boys could help the teacher get the heavy textbooks from the supply closet. I didn’t want to be told that only girls could come to my birthday party.  When I grew up, I was going to be an inventor, an astronaut, a novelist, AND a mommy.
As an east-coast college student, I sometimes felt like a fish out of water in my baggy overalls.  I didn’t like Wonderbras or lipstick, but I did like boys, and for a while that seemed like it might be a problem.  But when I moved to Alaska, I found my ideal man.  Not only was he smart, funny, and kind (you’re welcome, Jay), but he also gave me skis instead of flowers, and said, with some consternation, on the morning of our wedding, “You’re not going to wear makeup, are you?” I slipped comfortably into a social and professional circle in which Carhardtts can pass as eveningwear.  Jay and I built our own cabin and dug our own outhouse.  I taught college classes and met with the mayor in my jeans and t-shirts, and felt pretty comfortable in my own skin. 
Then I had twin daughters.
Newborns are not aware of their own gender, and they are not concerned with fashion. Nevertheless, the fashion industry for the under-three-months set is booming.  To the credit of my friends and family – who know me, and who know Jay – our twins were given lots of green blankets, yellow pajamas, and snuggly teddy bears.  But pinkness is so ubiquitous that it can actually be hard to find clothes, toys, crib mattresses, ANYTHING that isn’t gender-specific.  Girl stuff has to be not only pink, but also lacy, frilly, and emblazoned with cute animals: bunnies, kittens, My Little Rainbow Sparkle Pony with Humongous Eyes.  Girl clothes say things like “Daddy’s princess.” Boy stuff comes with modes of transportation, or bigger, fiercer animals -- dinosaurs, dogs, rabid saber-tooth tigers -- and says things like “Li’l Trooper.”  Needless to say, baby boy clothes are hung on different racks from the girls’, sometimes many aisles apart, to avoid infectious cross-contamination.
What I discovered, while lugging two infant cars seats in and out of Fred Meyers, is that everyone I talked to – which was fairly close to everyone in the store, given the apparently magnetic qualities of infant twins – expected me to follow the unwritten laws of gender assignment.  Talon-fingernailed cashiers and pumpkin-shaped grandpas were embarrassed, awkward, and sometimes even openly pissed-off that I had not dressed my six-month-olds in a manner that made it obvious which sort of genitalia they had under their diapers. 
Did these people not realize that pale pink looks particularly hideous with strained carrot stains?  Frills and ruffles collect little chunks of curdled spit-up or other substances that ooze out of babies.  Some of the girls outfits on the rack defy all logic, all reason, and all laundry realities.  And if you think I am going to glue a ribbon to my kid’s bald head, I wanted to tell those well-meaning strangers, please return to aisle six: Tacky Plastic Seasonal Ornaments.  But at heart, I knew that my logic was masking a deeper annoyance.  I just… didn’t like pink.
Four years have passed by – sometimes as quickly as a full bowl of rice cereal catapulting off a highchair tray, sometimes as slowly as a toddler dressing herself.  My two wiggly squalling bundles have grown into waist-high humans with large vocabularies and even larger opinions.  Preschool gives them peers, and peers mean peer pressure. Daily, I watch, fascinated, waiting to be appalled. Let them make their own choices, my good-parent super-ego tells me, even as I try to stack those choices.
Their drawers overflow with clothes, mostly hand-me-downs, in shades and styles ranging from rose-petal-kitten to khaki-dinosaur.  Their room spills toys across the whole house: herds of stuffed animals, toe-stabbing beads, a fire helicopter that makes hideously annoying noises, and a thousand art projects made from old yogurt containers, toilet tubes, and duct tape.
Molly is my social child.  At the playground, the pool, the library, her eyes are always on the other kids – especially the bigger kids.  She can tell me who is already five, and who is still four-and-a-half.  “Alex can put on his outdoor gear the fastest,” she tells me.  “Anna skis in Junior Nordics.”  She knows who can ride a bike, who can read, and who can tie shoes. Molly has also taken note of which toys and clothes are preferred by which gender.
Lizzy, meanwhile, is in her own happy little orbit.  On Planet Lizzy, making a cardboard mushing sled for her stuffed dogs can reign supreme over human interaction for hours at a time.  She’s happy to play with her peers and their toys, but she’s blissfully unconcerned with pecking order, competition, and petty social conventions.  Lizzy has strong opinions about her wardrobe – sometimes so strong that I have to wrestle clothes off her body in order to wash them – but her three favorite pairs of pants are too-short corduroys with Dora on one leg and patches on both knees; olive drab overalls with multiple pockets and hammer loops; and navy stretch pants decorated with a skull and crossbones motif that she insists is “stylin’.”
Of course, both kids have a clear grasp on the existence of gender. A few months ago, the whole family was in the car together.  Lizzy, as usual, was clinging to a stuffed animal that apparently needed extensive care.  “She’s too jumpy.  I have to tell her to behave. Now she’s tired.  Now she’s hungry.”
Jay, perhaps feeling outnumbered, inquired how Lizzy knew that the creature in question was a girl.
In her chipper slightly lisping voice, Lizzy supplied an immediate answer.  “She doesn’t have a penis, Daddy.”
I had no sympathy for Jay’s discomfort with this response.  “Well, you did ask.  And their Mommy’s a biologist,” I reminded him, grinning.
Molly, strapped into the car seat next to her sister’s, was cogitating and extrapolating.  “All our animals are girls!” she announced, with obvious glee.  None of them have penises!”
Maybe someone should tell the toy manufacturers that for all their efforts to maximally exaggerate the gender segregation of Toys R Us and Walmart, they’ve been missing something obvious.  Your son’s Tyrannosaurus Rex might be fierce, sure – but she’s an egg-layer.
We don’t make a lot of off-the-shelf toy or apparel purchases, but this spring it became clear that the kids’ head size had outstripped their bike helmets.  Great excitement was engendered by a foray into a remote aisle of Fred Meyers, back past the guns and motor oil.  Not surprisingly, the selection was distinctly dichotomous. 
Molly honed in on a hot-pink helmet with an air of inevitability, as if this were a multiple-choice test on which she was concerned with filling in the correct oval.  The helmet was adorned with Pet-Shop caricatures that take the big-eye thing to monstrous extremes.  It came with a mini bike bottle, which, needless to say, was also pink. 
Molly seemed pleased enough with her selection, but her zeal was nothing compared to Lizzy’s.  Lizzy chose a black helmet with silver streaks.  It came with a Hot Wheels race car.  This car didn’t leave her sight for the next three days.  “It’s zoomy,” she told anyone who would listen.  She demonstrated the zoominess on the couch, the kitchen floor, and the dining table.  She took it to preschool to show to Bodin, Callum, and James.  “They really like Hot Wheels,” she said, with great enthusiasm.  She did not seem to have noticed what other category those friends fall into – a category to which she does not belong.
The twins’ birthday is fast approaching, and since I was being given an obvious hint, I looked up Hot Wheels online.  Not surprisingly, several gazillion cars and accessories are available.  Not surprisingly, every photo depicts little boys.  No girls.  No pink.  But the thing that really captured my attention was the way the vehicles and plastic tracks are described in the hyperbolic marketing prose. Every toy seems to involve death, crashing, slamming, destroying, or exploding.
I don’t like pink, but I’m not a fan of wholesale holocaust, either.  I don’t give my daughters guns. I wouldn’t give my sons guns, either.  If I had boys, I wouldn’t tell them that “boys don’t cry”, or require that they “toughen up,” or frown upon them if they enjoyed skipping, giggling, snuggling with dolls or decorating doilies. 
As I shook my head over the Hot Wheels, I realized something that should have been obvious to me from the start: I hate stereotypical boy toys just as much as I hate the girly stuff.   Moreover, I don’t like the grown-up versions -- monster trucks, pro wrestling, Budweiser -- any better than I like Cosmo or eye shadow.  I could have saved myself some of the time and mental energy I’ve spend navel-gazing, because ultimately, it dawned on me that I don’t hate my gender.  If I’m betraying my daughters, it’s not because I’m sexist. My problem is not with the color pink, per se.   My real phobia is about being cornered. 
I really, really hate being put in a box.  When someone thrusts assumptions at me, some devious part of my soul is compelled to circumvent them.  My politics aren’t libertarian, but my toy selection is.  I don’t want the girly stuff because I want MORE than that.  Inside, I still want to be an inventor, an astronaut, a novelist, AND a Mommy.  And I want the same degree of freedom for my kids.
I found a set of Hot Wheels that come with regular tracks that can be set up creatively, with no explosions required.  I’m looking for a present for Molly that’s equally creative.  I’m ok with it being pink – or not. 
As for the slippers, I walked out of Payless without buying any.  I know the kids would love some fleecy new footwear, but I can make it at home.  I’m a decent seamstress – and I’d like my daughters to learn how to sew, too.  While we’re at it, we can sew some slippers for Bedtime.  She’s a little worn-looking these days, and could do with some new wardrobe items.  She doesn’t sleep in my bed any more, of course.  She sleeps in Lizzy’s – with the Hot Wheels race car.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Last winter, Jay competed in the inaugural White Mountains 100 -- back-country skiing a hundred miles through wild Alaskan forests and mountains, slogging up long ascents, struggling over a windy 4000-foot mountain pass, and barreling down what the official website describes as “bowel-clenching descents.” Temperatures dropped to twenty below zero. Ice, slush, bumps, tussocks, and ruts abounded. It took him over thirty sleepless hours.
While Jay skied, I stayed home playing mom.  The kids and I made congratulatory welcome-home signs, did some baking, and organized the post-race party, at which the racers all said overly kind things about the cheap Sam’s Club spaghetti, the veggies and dip, and the cake decorated by preschool artisans.  I felt tubby and torpid in a roomful of people with less body fat than Olympic gymnasts.  I saw the frostbite-blistered fingers, toes, and noses, and I heard the stories.  They were epic.
Certain members of my social circle like to use the word “epic” in its adjectival form to describe adventures that incorporate all the best components of, say, Homer’s Odysseus.  Are there seemingly impossible quests involved?  Pain and suffering?  Blood-thirsty many-headed sea creatures?  Epic.  On the other hand, outdoor adventures that include designated campgrounds, bedtime stories, or marshmallow roasts may be fun, but they aren’t epic.
Several of my friends had completed the race, and they were happy to share the details of their odysseys. Tom admitted that near the finish, snow-bent boreal spruce trees started to look like people.  He began peering over his shoulder in sleep-deprived paranoia.  His knees were swollen from repeatedly crashing on sheer sloping ice.  Amy, who received the perseverance award after 38 grueling hours, told me about high-velocity impacts between her face and the snow.  She said she spent hours longing to glimpse the next little white sign promising “one mile to checkpoint.”  She was terribly dehydrated, yet unable to eat or drink.  Meanwhile Jay, in characteristically self-effacing fashion, said that his biggest concern was the poor job he did cleaning up the trail after he sullied it with partially digested ramen and coffee. 
Jay then went on to protest that the race was “fun.”  Lots of fun, he insisted.  Boy, was he excited to do it again, he told me.  When the registration opening for the 2011 race rolled around, he stayed up until midnight to make sure he garnered a slot.
So did I.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a masochist.  At least, I don’t think I’m a masochist.  I signed up for the race because I love backcountry skiing and because I wanted to challenge myself -- not because I actively desired pain, misery, suppurating blisters, or delirium.  Still, there were issues of pride at stake.  In recent years, Jay has done a lot of trips that make for really excellent stories.  I – in part because of two fabulous little fans of campgrounds, bedtime stories, and marshmallows -- have fewer tales to tell.  As much as I wanted to finish the race, and as much wanted to avoid frostbite, hypothermia, and regurgitation, at some level I wanted my Odysseus story, in all its drama-queen glory. I wanted to be epic
Thanks to a truly magnificent set of friends who were willing to babysit twin preschoolers, Jay and I were both able to register for the 2011 event. But by the time late March rolled around, I was more than a little worried.  Who did I think I was, anyhow?  Not an ultra-racer, certainly.  Besides, I knew I hadn’t trained enough.  No, that was too generous.  I hadn’t really trained at all.  My total skiing for the winter added up to about 300 miles, which is mind-bogglingly little for someone who plans to cover 1/3 that distance pretty much nonstop.  The remainder of my physical exertion consisted of commuting four miles to my job at UAF, by bike or on foot, towing or pushing the kids in their nifty convertible Chariot trailer.  Granted, jogging 8 miles round trip with two four-year-olds can work up a sweat, but it doesn’t exactly qualify one to cover the length of four marathons in a row.
At the pre-race meeting, I was reminded of the fact that most of the people I’d met at last year’s party had visible sinews, complex competitive strategies, and dozens of ultra-races under their belts.  A BLM ranger sat mute at the back of the room for a full hour before offering, as a parting one-liner, the information that an early-waking bear had been sighted near Borealis.  “Early bears are hungry,” he noted, as if a roomful of Alaskans might think it was a good idea to smear themselves with peanut butter and honey.  I won a coveted door prize at the meeting, but worried that if I didn’t make it through the race, I’d feel guilty about keeping it.
When I dug in my ski poles at the start, I was sure that at some point in the next two days I was going to begin hating snow. . . and hating trees. . . and hating my skis, my backpack, all the free audio books I’d downloaded from the library, and every Ziploc of Cadbury’s Dark, Nutter Butters, Combos, and peanut-butter-and-jelly-on-pilot-bread.  In fact, I was pretty sure that somewhere along the hundred-mile course I was going to assume a personality that blended the least likeable attributes of Eeyore, Marvin the depressed robot, and a partially decayed zombie.  I wasn’t sure that I should be out there at all – but at the very least, I was expecting the race to be epic.
I hung back, watching the speedsters disappear up the first hill in a jostling rush.  The early part of the trail was back-yard-familiar to me, all rolling landscapes and easily-earned views across valleys of dark spruce and sun-reflecting snow.  The early morning sky warmed to a deepening blue.  I shared a few upbeat words with my fellow slowpokes, and at mile seven I smiled for my friend Ned’s camera, but by mile ten I was skiing alone, in a private sunlit world of shushing snow.  I was stripped down to a tank top.
Conditions in late March can range from icy slush that forces you to coat your skis in hideously gummy klister, to the -25 degrees and howling wind that froze Amy’s feet at the top of the pass last year. This year, the sun warmed the snow just enough to make it slick and quick, but not enough to wreck it.  I was slathered in sunscreen, mock-hip in cheap sunglasses, and basking Vitamin D.  After a long sub-arctic winter, spring feels like a revelation.  Constant entertainment streamed in via my headphones – novels carefully selected to include nothing in the emotional range of Steven King or Jack London.  I had forgotten just how starkly beautiful the blackened stems of an old burn can be, or how friendly the broad tree trunks look in the valley bottoms.  I had forgotten how much I like having someone read stories aloud to me. 
At mile seventeen, the first checkpoint was a flurry of goodwill and free cocoa refills.  At mile 26, affable strangers called hellos over the ecstatic barking of their dog team; apparently watching 65 people race past was canine nirvana.  I managed the precipitous drop to Beaver Creek without removing my skis or shattering anything, and made it to the second checkpoint at mile 39 feeling optimistic enough to grin for the race volunteer wielding a camera.  The long ascent to the Cache Mountain Mountain Divide lay ahead, but I had a foil-wrapped cheese-filled baked potato in one hand, and the sun was still shining.
The next eight hours were slow and dreamlike.  The trail wove through mile upon mile of grey-green forest, rolling over hillocks, but tending ever upward.  The sky darkened and snow began to fall.  At last, the trees thinned around me until I was surrounded by sheer white, windblown and austere.  I reached the top of the pass just as the very last glimmer of daylight disappeared.  The tracks of all those who had crossed ahead of me were already being subsumed by fresh snow and wind.  Visibility by headlamp narrows to a half-dozen feet in a swirl of snowflakes, a phenomenon that I partly blame for my snaillike progress – even when gravity again began to work in my favor.  Flying headlong down the slopes seemed ill-advised.  I picked my way across the sloping surface of the notorious ice lakes with my feet slush-protected by plastic bags that had once contained wood pellets, and anti-skidded with Yak Trax.  It was no doubt a stylish getup.  The medics’ wall tent glowed temptingly, but I replied to a cheery greeting by explaining that I was doing just fine, thanks.  I waddled on by.
Any dramatic claims I might have made about mind-altering fatigue or about pulling an all-nighter alone in the dark were negated by the three-hour nap I took at Windy Gap checkpoint, at mile 62. After consuming at least half a box of crackers, I lay down fully clothed on a wooden bench amidst a cacophony of comings and goings.  Three fellow races were exchanging stories around the rough wooden table.  Someone had been frozen into her own snowshoe bindings on a 300-mile trek.   It sounded epic.  I snored.
When I hit the trail again at 5 a.m., it was still dark -- but I felt rejuvenated, even ebullient.  Who wouldn’t, gliding through a winter wonderland of new-falling snow, listening to Bill Bryson’s sweetly mid-Atlantic voice reading aloud the comic escapades of his 1950s childhood, and munching four chocolate chip cookies?
It was soon after this Breakfast of Champions that I experienced a moment that might have qualified as drama, if this had been somebody else’s story. I practically ran over the obstacle before I saw it.  It was a person.  Lying in the snow beside the trail.  Face down.
I had about two seconds for all my first-aid training to run through my head in completely random order before I realized that the guy I was now stooping over was neither hypothermic nor the tragic victim of marauding yetis, but merely asleep.  I had two more seconds of confused indecision before he woke up, sprang to his feet, and showered me with thanks and apology.  He’d told himself he’d lie down for just one song, he explained, pointing sheepishly to his headphones. 
The fresh snow made for particularly slow progress.  The sun rose as I passed the dramatic limestone jags near Caribou Bluff.  They towered over me on both sides, somehow simultaneously protective and intimidating.  The mottled light filtering through dense cloud was as gorgeous as the nighttime snowfall and the clear hot skies of the previous day had been. 
Throughout that slow second morning, the weather was all magic and no skullduggery.  The temperature did not plummet.  The icy sections of trail were at a minimum, and I did not plunge any limbs into liquid slush. No starving bears appeared.  Yesterday’s views were veiled, but not obscured.  Mile upon mile, valley upon valley, in every direction, lay forests, marshlands, rivers, crags.  No roads.  No houses.  No overpasses, no strip malls, no car alarms, no Walmarts. I was soaking in the tranquility, while at the same time, with somewhat guilty pleasure, enjoying The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants -- a novel I’d selected on the grounds that if I’m going to write for teenagers, I should at least do a little research. 
At mile 82, the volunteer at the Borealis checkpoint snapped another photo.  In it, I am holding a bowl of ramen noodles and crushed Fritos, and wearing an expression that implies I am delightedly anticipating the next crunchy-soggy, tepid, salt-infused spoonful.  At mile 91, further photo evidence was recorded: I’m beaming like a kid at her own birthday party – albeit a sweaty and perhaps slightly deranged kid.
By the last ten miles of the race, all familiar territory, I was undeniably stiff and sore.  I’ve had bad Achilles tendons for years, and they were starting to remind me of their displeasure.  Crouching down for potty breaks seemed a lot more challenging than it had the previous day, and I began to regret my hot cocoa consumption.  When I reached the unrelenting mile of hill known as “Wickersham Wall” it seemed expedient not only to remove my skis, but also to walk backward all the way up it.  Three miles later, at the bottom of the last steep downhill, the effort of rigorous snowplowing made me think that my knees and ankles might enjoy a one-minute rest, which is why I was lying ignominiously in the trail when not one but three dog sleds came barreling down at me.  But climbing a small mountain while facing in the wrong direction and flailing stiff-legged in front of thirty confused canines are still not epic – especially not if one is also listening to Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits, and giggling.
I completed the race – without grievous bodily harm, dalliances with bears, or even a single blister -- in exactly 35 hours, placing me 54th out of 65 entrants.  Since seven people didn’t finish, there were actually only four behind me.  Three of them were walking the course.  I was pathetically pokey -- but not quite slow enough for the perseverance award.  I never got dehydrated or cold. I never needed the medics’ extensive first aid kits, or even my own, which consisted of nothing but pain killers and duct tape. I was pleased to have an excuse to consume enough cheese sandwiches and Reisen chocolates to fuel an army.  In other words, my pace, my health, and my digestion were decidedly non-epic.
At the end of the race, a stalwart volunteer snapped one final photo.  I am holding one of my kids in each arm, and grinning at Jay.  Clearly, if I was still strong enough to lift 75 pounds of preschooler, I can’t have been working hard enough.  The four of us don’t look epic – we look Family Circle.
I hosted the post-race party again.  It felt different from last year – but not exactly in the way I’d expected.  My co-organizer added some fresh bread and heaps of strawberries, melon, and pineapple, to the menu, and everyone was even kinder in their thanks.  I still felt dumpy compared to most of the crowd, but I cared less.  Last year, I was looking forward to this year’s race because I was jealous of all the epic-ness around me.  This year, I realized to my own surprise, I was looking forward to next year’s race for a whole list of reasons.
Wilderness inspires me.  Exercise invigorates me.   I now have an official time to beat, and I do love a challenge.  But most importantly, it dawned on me that in my life as a busy working mom there are only rare respites in which I can experience the bliss of being on a mountaintop at sunset, or having hour upon hour all to myself, or absorbing an entire novel nonstop, or eating a gigantic Cadbury bar without even a twinge of remorse.  To do all these things at once? 

At the race finish.  Photo by Taryn Lopez