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

Sunday, March 4, 2012

What the DIckens?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
“Too bad it costs two hundred dollars to get a snowmachine ride back,” sighed the long-haired young man. 
I didn’t know my fellow racer’s name, but I’d caught glimpses of him as I had of many others, through a day, a night, and a second day on the trail.  He was one of the runners – as opposed to a snow-biker, or a skier like myself -- but now, at mile 83, he was more of a trudger.  His hair looked like a cozy nest for a squirrel, and his eyes seemed to be focused on something a few miles beyond my left ear.  He was ten or fifteen years younger than me, but here at the back of the pack, the Susitna 100 was long enough to make us all look a bit like something past its expiration date. 
I wanted to say something peppy and motivational, but my brain was as foggy as his gaze.  Why had he wanted to take part in a hundred-mile “Race Across Frozen Alaska” in the first place?  Why had I?  Why, for that matter, did anybody?
A few competitors, of course, were impossibly buff and optimally trained: superheroes in snowgear.  They were racing to compete, and to win.  I, on the other hand, was a mom from Fairbanks with scant training and goofy skiing skills.  I was covering a hundred miles at three miles per hour – which, once I’ve worn out my initial energy in the first 25 miles of back-country skiing, is the inelegant pace I can maintain, for hour after hour.  After hour. I knew this from last year’s White Mountains 100.  And yet here I was again.
How far is a hundred miles?  To put things in perspective, it’s almost four marathons, or thirty-two 5k races, or -- for the less ambitious -- 880 laps from one end of Fairbanks Fred Meyer West to the other.   It’s roughly three times the length of the companion “Little Su” – a race that has to cap its roster because lots of people actually want to take part in it.  A hundred miles is also long enough to listen to the Audiobook version of Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities – every gorgeous, rolling, imbued-with-significance paid-by-the-word syllable of it – and still have plenty of time to listen to two other complete novels as well.
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…
At the race start, on that Saturday morning in February, the atmosphere was bustling, businesslike, foot-stompingly chilly, and slightly anxious.  People muttered about gear and trail conditions, and eyeballed their competition.  But that mood dominated for only a half mile or so, until the horde of zippy fat-tire snow-bikers and the three insanely competitive skate-skiers were out of sight.  Then the ambiance became that of a peculiarly linear social gathering.  “Are you from Anchorage?”  “Have you done the hundred before?” “Here, let me see if I can help you get that sled adjusted.” “Hey, we have the same skis!” 
I met Tom, a cheerful classic skier with a gray beard and two teenagers back at home who apparently were just not into this kind of thing (sigh).  I told him about my own kids and my secret fear that they would one day take up video games and/or cheerleading as their primary hobbies. I met Fiona, a perky young champion skate-skier who wanted to know if I recommended using her bra as a battery-warming holder for her ipod.  I did, of course.  I’m not sure how males overcome their obvious disadvantage in this arena.
The sun came out.  The temperature rose.  Sweating in my longjohns, I kept removing my easier-to-strip upper layers until I was sliding along in a tank top.  “Ooh, I didn’t know there were going to be bikini babes in this race!” teased a skate-skier who had been jealous of my classic skis on the hillocky narrow trails of the first ten miles of the course, but who would soon blast past me on the endless wide-open rivers.  My fish-belly Fairbanks-winter skin set to work producing vitamin D. 
Via my earbuds, I met the inimitable Dickensian cast: a revolutionary who never stops knitting, an alcoholic attorney, a darkly hilarious grave robber.  Their world blended with the world of bright snow and dark spruce around me.
It didn’t seem like long before I was at the first checkpoint, Flathorn Lake, amidst a bustle of skiers and runners.   We were all about efficiency and camaraderie as we filled water bottles and snarfed down homemade brownies.  All the chocolate you want!  This was why we were doing this!
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…
I left Flathorn with great faith that I’d finish the race – faith that I lost within the hour.  I’m not quite sure how I wrenched my shoulder.  The course was almost entirely flat, nothing like the crazy descents, mountain pass, and ice lakes last year in the Whites 100.  But somehow I caught a pole wrong, and the 25-ish pounds of food, water, and required emergency gear on my back didn’t help.  A ball of muscle wound itself up into a jangly nervy mass.  By the time I made it to the second checkpoint at mile 41 -- and Madame LaFarge was storming the Bastille with her knitting buddies -- every plant of my left ski pole ached and stabbed.  In Luce’s Lodge, I could barely raise my arm high enough to take my hat off.  It was dinnertime.  Many of the bikers had already passed me, whooshing back toward the finish line.  Why was I trying to do this?  I’d never make it.
 “If you don’t mind getting a massage from someone you don’t know…”
Um, was that a trick question?  My only regret is that I still don’t know the name of the woman – the fiancĂ©e of another racer, visiting Luce’s Lodge via snowmachine -- who spent a good fifteen minutes working on my sweaty, nasty, shoulder.  She had nothing in the world to gain from this.  I was shoving a grilled cheese sandwich and fries into my face as she worked, and I’m pretty sure my greasy thanks were utterly inadequate payment for her compassion.
It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…
Fortified emotionally, physically, and gustatorially, I headed out into the darkness for the long slog to Alexander Lake and back.   The round trip was 24 miles, and I knew it would take almost all night.  With only the light of my headlamp on the snow, the voice streaming in from my audio-library selection seemed all the more potent.  The tale seemed increasingly likely to end in high-Dickensian pathos, with a woeful widow, a fatherless girl, and a mad – albeit industrious – shoe-maker.  And yet, I couldn’t help but hold out some hope for them.  The stars were out, my blood was burbling with high fructose corn syrup, and this was the section of the race in which I saw all the other racers who were anywhere close to my league. 
First, I encountered those who were outbound while I was still inbound.  “Good work,” they told me.  “Keep it up!”  I saw Fiona, going strong, still smiling, and still presumably warming her ipod.  I saw the “bikini babe” guy, skating through the darkness, cheering me on with jovial conviction.  Tom and two other fellow classic-skiers were sound asleep at Alexander Lake, but others were there to share the cocoa and gird for the return journey.
And then, in the 230 surreal minutes between 1:30 a.m. and 5:20 a.m., after I’d wrenched myself away from the snug, sweet hospitality of the cabin, I saw those who were even slower than I.  “You can do it,” I told them.  “Looking good!” 
Good, of course, is relative.  Under Dickens’ pen, it sometimes neared perfection. The story’s message of bravery, hope, and generosity mingled in my sleepy brain with the world of free massages, all-night volunteers offering soup and sympathy, and tenacious runners smiling in the darkness.  When the Tale surged to its bittersweet closing and Sydney Carton earned his “far, far better rest,” I was semi-ebullient, although there was no rest for me -- not only because there were, thankfully, no guillotines in the middle of the Yentna River, but also because I was only half way through the race.  A hundred miles is really that long.
I moved on to my next literary treat, the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy.  A dystopian tale of guerilla-style murder in the wilderness is a psychologically risky choice, on an isolated trail after midnight.  But no – the theme wasn’t really kill-or-be-killed.  It was a tale of evil governments and a subjugated populace, of risking everything to subvert the oppression, of hope and loss and the triumph of the human spirit.  Not so different from Dickens, after all. 
“Great job,” I told my fellow racers, my fellow humans.
And then, above me, the aurora blossomed.  For hours, it teased the edges of my vision.  Look up for too long, and I’d trip over my own skis – but I looked up anyhow.  The lights danced. 
We had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
Luce’s Lodge, outbound.  There was going to be a shortcut on the return route, so there were only 35 miles to go!  Wait… only?  Not so long ago, 35 miles was further than I’d have been willing to ski in a day, even with a good night’s rest behind me and no wobble in my knees.  Sleep.  Must. Sleep.
And sleep I did, for three hours, in bunkroom number eight.   I have no idea who the other two people were, sacked out with me, although one of them kindly gave me a bunk and took the floor.  I protested, but he seemed to be instantly snoring. 
Rise and shine, creaky self!  Time to half-fall out of your bunk and lurch toward the outhouse!  Around the wooden tables in the lodge, someone was eating spaghetti and meatballs at 8 a.m.  Several people were downing pancakes.  Two were fast asleep with their heads face-down on the table.  My stomach roiled at the thought of the Lodge’s breakfast options.  The rich slabs of chocolate in my pack mocked me.  I sipped warm Gatorade. I went on.
We were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…
Between Luce’s and Flathorn, I met the Irondog.  There was something oddly comic about a snowmachine race raging past me at 80mph while I slithered along at 3.  They were, in fact, going the other way.  They were catching air.  They were churning the trail with their powerful paddlewheels.  They probably thought I was a lunatic, especially when they chanced upon me peeing, skis still on, breezy river on all sides.  They gave me a polite berth.  I sipped my Gatorade, but my pee had turned orange and I remained untempted by Nacho Cheese Combos or Nutter Butters.
At Flathorn, the cozy cabin seemed so quiet that for a moment I thought I was the only one there.  Then I saw the six or seven forms, slumped and sprawled on chairs and couches, slack-jawed, half-lidded.  Obviously I’d reached the Zombie Apocalypse section of the race.
“Would you like some jambalaya?” asked the kindly hostess. 
She’d been up for two days and a night, too, and yet she gave me her chair, and mixed me some Tang.  I tried to make my anti-jambalaya groan a polite groan. 
She looked at me appraisingly.  “How about some plain white rice?” 
I ate two bowls, as grateful as I as was incoherent, and washed it down with more warm Tang -- an epicurean’s delight – before staggering out the door.
It was then, as I was setting out on that final 17 miles, that I spoke with the disenchanted young man who was dreaming of a snowmachine ride.  I knew exactly what he meant, and he knew that I would understand.  It doesn’t take much to pare us all down to exposed little husks – certainly not 18 years in the Bastille.  But I also hoped that he would not ask for that ride, or take it if it were offered.  It never occurred to me that I was supposed to be competing against the cabinful of zombies.  In my mind, they were on my team.
“It’s not really the two hundred dollars,” I said.  My smile used up precious energy reserves, but I tried to make it speak volumes.  There was something besides lack of funds that was driving him forward – his pride?  His stubbornness?  His dreams?  Only he knew, exactly.
“Yeah.”  He took another step, and another.  “Yeah.” He sighed, as if damning the demon on his own shoulder.  “I know.”
He was falling behind me, but I knew he’d finish.  I knew we both would.  And I figured Dickens might have understood if I’d said, with no intention of being oxymoronic, that we’re all in this together… and we’re all in this separately.
I started a third novel.  It was the story of a twelve-year-old boy who finds out he’s the son of Poseidon, and has to brave a series of Greco-Roman monsters to save what really matters.   It was a story of compassion, and tenacity, and what it means to be human.  In my addled brain, I imagined that Dickens would have liked that one, too.
Six hours later, I clambered into Jay’s truck, clutching my Finisher’s medallion.  Jay, who had come out onto the course in the darkness and walked the last mile at my side, plunked a quart tub of fresh melon onto my lap.  He told me it had been selected by the kids, who had somehow psychically known that it was about the only food that I’d want to cram into my mouth in juicy handfuls at midnight.
“Did you have a good time?” he asked for the third or fourth time, as if unconvinced by my previous efforts at a positive response.
I thought back on the race – every mile, every face and hand and smile, every flicker of light in the darkness and every word that poured into my head and indelibly mixed with and enriched the experience.  Ninety-five people started the race.  Eighty-two finished it, of which I was the seventy-third.  The last one had yet to stagger in, eight hours behind me, in the early light of Monday morning.
Why would anyone want to bike, run, or ski a hundred miles?  Every one of us had an answer to that “why,” but the only answer I could ever be completely sure of was my own -- and that one was too complicated to explain.  Especially with my mouth full of melon.
A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.
Dickens understood.  And maybe, almost, I did too.  “Yes,” I told Jay with more confidence.  “It was great.”
It was the best of times.