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

Friday, April 20, 2012

Honk, honk

“Yerba Wubba Zrrrrble Uggugg!”
I hear the distinctively incoherent call as I jog along the muddy verge.  It’s springtime, and a common migratory species is once again rolling down its truck windows and exercising its vocal cords.  That’s right -- the Drive-By Warblers are back.
April offers lots of other signs of springtime, of course.  Slush and gravel whisper invitingly to small people in big boots.  Puddles large enough to be given names lurk along roadsides.  The cranes have returned to Creamer’s Field.  The swans are here, and so are the geese, the newborn reindeer and the adorably homely baby muskoxen. Flocks of bikers, their spandex plumage lurid in the sunlight, have repopulated the routes that were my private terrain in black January.  Family birthdays are gathering on the horizon, chirping “six, six!” and honking “forty!” These are iconic harbingers of the season – but so are the Warblers. 
Warblers are not just a Fairbanks phenomenon, of course.  In fact, they seem to be a species with a vast range, inhabiting every continent I’ve visited. While emphatic, their comments have almost always been obtuse.  I figure that the participants in this warm-season sport must have been cutting class on the day that the Doppler Effect was discussed in high school physics, and are thus blissfully unaware of the distortion of their voice effected by the motion of their 1989 Ford pickup, not to mention the masking effects of an elderly muffler.   They may also have missed out on the finer points of elocution and grammar.   
In years past, out-of-truck pronouncements unsettled me.  They undermined my need to be invisible, and augmented my hefty burden of insecurities. I’ve been walking, biking and jogging around -- in several states and nations -- ever since I was a kid.  To varying degrees, my non-motorized habits have been considered unusual, quirky, and downright weird.  Although I’ve always preferred to imagine that I’m utterly unremarkable while undertaking these perambulations, it’s hard to maintain that pretense while getting hollered at from a moving vehicle. 
Even when I couldn’t hear what was said, correct interpretation of the commentary always seemed like a lose-lose bet.  Option #1 was that these unknown males were making fun of me.  Maybe they were telling me that my butt looked vast and jiggly, or that my running style was reminiscent of Daffy Duck.  Maybe they thought that my speed was more glacial than their great-grandma’s, or that my bike helmet was the dweebiest thing they’d ever seen, and was buckled crooked besides.  My own imagination provided dozens of possibilities for humiliation.  Option #2 was even worse.  Maybe these guys were objectifying me, to the tune of, “A female!  In shorts!  With arms and legs in what appear to be roughly the correct numbers!  Woohoo, let’s engage in reproductive behavior immediately!”   Objectification, my angry-white-female self told me, was socially depressing, slightly threatening, and embarrassing in its own way.  In any case, whatever the options, humiliation was always on the menu.
I encountered my first Warbler a quarter century ago. I was biking back from the beach with my friend Mia, shorts pulled on over our damp bathing suits.  We were 14.  I had yet to hit puberty, and was such a blissfully clueless late bloomer that I turned to Mia in confusion and asked why some grown-up was offering up loud garbled pronouncements.  She rolled her eyes.  “Because we’re girls,” she said.  I blanched.  Because, you know, ick.
Ten years later, I was living in rural Jamaica, where it’s always the warm season, and where a young white woman on a bicycle is about as unnoticeable as a firecracker in an elevator.  No one had a truck, so as soon as my brain could parse Jamaican Patois, I understood the comments.  The many, many, many comments.  Every day.  For two years.  Options 1 and 2 were both employed, with myriad creative embellishments. My skin got thicker.  Not thick enough, but thicker.
Nevertheless, I never stopped walking, biking and jogging.  I do it because it’s a cheap and convenient form of transportation; because it’s often my sole source of exercise; and because it’s an excellent way to multi-task – I’m commuting, saving gas, saving money, trying to save the planet, and saving myself from cabin-fever in one easy maneuver. 
Fast-forward another fifteen years.  Some things are the same: it’s April, and the local truck windows are starting to roll down once again.  I still run, walk, and bike all over the place.   I still look like Daffy Duck, and I still can’t get my bike helmet to sit completely symmetrically.  On the other hand, a lot has changed.  I’m a professor – with, you know, an advanced degree and a career and everything.  I’m also a mom, and there’s often a kid-trailer or a tag-along bike clamped onto my own set of wheels.  Thus, when I met the first Warbler of the 2012 season, I was on my way from work – my I-have-a-doctorate mad-scientist job – and was heading over to pick up my kids from kindergarten.  And I was running, because, as mentioned, I’m a bit strange.
“Yerba Wubba Zrrrrble Uggugg!” shouted the guy riding shotgun.  I had no idea what he’d said, or which option it fell under.  That part was normal.  But then I realized that the game pieces had shifted.  Option #1, The Insult, now seemed to have a slightly new translation in my mind.  It sounded something like, “I am a pasty-faced under-employed young man who feels a peculiar need to shout rude things at almost-40-year-old professors.”  Option #2, The Come-On, now meant, “I am an awkward, incipiently paunchy 22-year-old who feels that he’d really like to sleep with some random almost-40 mom who is about to pick up her twin kindergarteners.”
This year, the season’s first Warbler didn’t leave me feeling irritated, vulnerable, or over-aware of my goofy, jiggling running style.  Instead, it left me laughing. 
Maybe laughter wasn’t the correct response.  I suppose I could get worried about my impending birthday.  I could develop a sudden urge to buy a red sports car, wear polyester pantsuits, or pen mournful existential poetry.  I could stock up on wrinkle cream and hair dyes and worry about my over-ripe ovaries. But, then again -- nope.  I’m not going there.  I wasted too much time in my pre-forty years feeling insecure.  It was supremely unhelpful.  Laughter is way more fun.
I think I have another ten years or so before I’m officially a crone, but I’ve already decided that I want to pick and choose the aspects of crone-ness that I embrace.  I think I’ll go with the part that allows me to wear odd hats, champion unpopular opinions, and laugh at things that I’m not supposed to laugh at.  I want to dispense wisdom on the rare occasions that anyone asks for it, and know how to shut up when they don’t. 
And of course I will continue to walk, bike, and run all over town in every season – and enjoy it. I’m already enjoying spring.  And I think I’m going to enjoy this birthday, too.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Long and the Short of It

The cozy log shelter known as Lee’s Cabin is not a race checkpoint on the White Mountains 100.  Of course not!  Any real ultra-racer who is snow-biking, skiing, or running 100 miles wouldn’t even pause to rip open a Clif bar a mere seven miles into the adventure.  And yet two weeks earlier, Lee’s had been not a blip in the background, but the Grand Destination – and I’d spent a lot more time planning for that two-day fourteen-mile round-trip than for this (theoretically) non-stop hundred-mile one. 

As I meandered past on my sturdy classic skis, I did stop for a moment, and take a good swig from my battered Nalgene of hot chocolate.  I felt a little self-conscious for even noticing the cabin’s existence, but I could practically hear the echos of our Spring Break visit.

“Two, three, four…” The scuffling of ten small hands and an equal number of small feet in the loft of Lee’s Cabin sounded like an infestation of forty-pound squirrels.  “…seven, eight, nine…”  After several false starts, a total was reached.  Down below, the adults exchanged sardonic glances and waited for the census results to be announced.  The stuffed animal census, that is.

Placing limits on the plush beast population was part of the elaborate packing process.  So was preventing the kids from stuffing their allotted toy bags with cherished blocks of wood, railroad spikes, or chunks of granite.  But despite these efforts, the invisible gurus of Traveling Light mocked me. 

“They’re all small animals,” Lizzy told me earnestly.

Part of the trouble was that all undertakings involving kids need to be double-buffered against Worst Case Scenarios.  And if the adventure involves getting our two five-year-olds (not to mention three small people belonging to other mommies and daddies) to ski seven miles to a backwoods cabin when the temperature is hovering around zero Fahrenheit, make that quadruple-buffered. 

I knew that bringing a whole pint of maple syrup – from real Canadian maple trees! -- might be overkill.  Then again, running out of syrup?  That would be tragic.  I knew that the twins were unlikely to wear more than one sweater under their snowsuits for the simple reason that if they did so they’d be unable to move – but what if one sweater got wet?  What if it was accidentally drenched in real Canadian maple syrup?  I brought extras.  I worried that the rigors of the trail, the limitations of a cramped space, or the chill of the cabin floor might cause my kids to decide that (horrors!) they didn’t actually like ski trips.  I countered this eventuality by bringing approximately eight million snacks, plenty of art supplies, slippers, and, of course, stuffed animals.

Jay likes to spend whole evenings reading up on the riveting nuances of gossamer-light sleeping bags, tents less hefty than the average guinea pig, stoves that fold into your pocket, and rain jackets that practically levitate.  And yet there we were in the woods with not only three boxes of Girl Scout Cookies, eight bedtime stories, and a non-stick non-gossamer frying pan, but also a well-travelled Lamby and a toy cat named Dirty Snow.  I like to think I know how to prepare for the most extreme of Arctic expeditions, but what I actually prepared for was a slumber party at which the greatest danger was that someone might wet their sleeping bag or mislay a teddy.  The irony stared me in the face with its fuzzy little sewn-on eyes. 

In contrast, for the Whites 100, packing took roughly half an hour.  It wasn’t that I was trying to take the race less seriously than I took the family camping trip.  But I escaped the waiting list and inherited bib #16 only two days before the event -- and even then, I couldn’t immediately begin stuffing my old blue backpack.  I had a few other jobs to do first… starting with lining up 30 hours of childcare.

Luckily, our friends are saintly.  As far as I know, no one even groaned or rolled their eyes.  Still, I had to call upon the collective goodwill of six different long-suffering individuals, each with sleep habits to match their allotted shift.  These folks are savvy to the ways of kindergarteners (no unsupervised use of Sharpies; no eating pudding in the living room; beware of scientific experiments involving Silly Putty, food coloring, or grownup scissors), but I still needed to write a few basic instructions about things like pajamas, family doctors and school schedules.  I packed lunch boxes two days in advance, and I packed a canvas bag with enough apples, fishy crackers, cucumber slices, and smoked Gouda to fill the time in between. 

I also had to face the uncomfortable reality of my work schedule.  The race started on a Sunday morning.  I estimated that I would finish on Monday night… or maybe Monday evening, if I was lucky… or possibly even Monday afternoon, if I was an incurable optimist.  But however things panned out, on Tuesday morning I needed to wax lyrical – or at least wax coherent -- about climate change impacts to an audience of forty people from around the state.  I was planning to flagrantly violate the rule that states “Don’t Lead a Three-Day Conference When Utterly Annihilated.”  At the very least, I needed to finish my Powerpoints and put my laptop and paperwork in a bag, and make sure that bag was so handy that I could not possibly forget it, even if my Tuesday-morning brain had all the cohesion of a fruit smoothie.  While I was at it, it seemed prudent to lay out my clean clothes and semi-professional shoes.  Am I the only one who sometimes has dreams in which I show up at a podium with no clue what I’m supposed to talk about, clad in muddy overalls or Superwoman underwear?

And then there was the party planning.  Back when I thought that Jay was the only member of the family who was going to be out on the racecourse, I’d happily agreed to do all the shopping, cooking, and planning for the after-race party – a dinner (hopefully at least passably edible) for 100-ish people. I figured it would be fun to check on Jay’s progress on the SPOT tracker while stirring up a few gallons of brownie batter and simmering chili in a pot large enough to bathe a wildebeest.  Instead, I rushed to do all this in advance, my demeanor more Demented Line-Cook than Betty Crocker.  I took advantage of the vast size of our freezer – otherwise known as Fairbanks Winter – to store the results.  A hundred slabs of homemade cornbread?  No problem… so long as I didn’t also need to prepare food for the race itself.  Except that, of course, I did. 

It turned out there was one other task I’d forgotten.  It was my turn to clean our community’s shared building.  Quick, get out the mop!  By the time I’d laundered the tablecloths and played the requisite game of The Vacuum Cleaner is Going to Nibble Your Toes, there wasn’t exactly time to shop for Powerbars. 

Luckily, there’s always plenty of food in our house.  Pilot bread?  Check.  Peanut butter?  Crunchy and creamy.   I was pretty sure other race participants would be fuelled by carefully calibrated rations and high-performance brand-name gels and goos – but there were plenty of those animal cookies left over.  I filled two sandwich baggies.

I figured those cookies must be good trail fuel, because they’d been popular among the three-foot-tall skiers.  “’Nother cookie, please, Mommy?”  The treats were just the right size to stuff into Molly, one at a time, as she struggled along on her Lilliputian skis.  No need to take off your mittens when your parent is imitating a bird feeding its fledglings.  Look, this one is shaped like a lion!  At least, I think that’s a lion.  Tiger?  Endangered snow leopard?  Mmmm, chocolatey snow leopard.  Keep those skis moving, kiddo!

I kick-waxed my own skis the night before the race in the infinitesimal interval between almost-kids’-bedtime and really-truly-right-now-kids’-bedtime.  I tossed the waxes into the top pocket of my backpack, where they fought for space with the headlamp, extra batteries, and small ration of toilet paper.

On our Spring Break trip, we carried a full medical kid, complete with salves, ointments, and cherry-flavored medications for the kindergarten crowd, just in case.  In other words, we had all the necessities. My race backpack had all the medical necessities, too: duct tape wrapped around a pen, and six Alleve tablets in a Ziploc.  There were four race medics out on the course, and I had a lot of warm clothes.  I’d be fine without the Winnie the Pooh Bandaids. 

My slush-proof overboots – for use on the notorious Ice Lakes and other sections of overflow – were actually plastic bags that had once held spruce pellets for our stove.  I knew they worked.  But I didn’t exactly feel like an ultra-racer with legs that said, “Made from 100% Alaskan Wood.”

It was when I was removing this low-rent footwear for the second time in a mile, at about mile 92 of the course, that a racer on foot caught up with me.  Strictly speaking, skiers ought to be far ahead of those who are walking the course, but I knew there were already two foot travelers ahead of me, so my pride wasn’t exactly at stake. 

In fact, my fellow racer didn’t seem scornful of either my slowness or my pellet bags, although I knew that if anyone is a real ultra-racer, he is.  Not only has he completed umpteen events, but he was one of the 18 entrants who actually finished this year’s snow-mired Iditasport, a race that Jay dropped out of after pushing a heavily laden bike through drifts for three days straight.  I was very grateful to find that such a supremely accomplished walker was willing to hike the next section of the course with me, because mile 93 is Wickersham Wall, a hill just as daunting as it sounds. 

And yet, somehow, the Wall wasn’t demoralizing at all.  Oh, I’m not saying I flew up it at lightning speed.  I was panting along with my skis strapped to my pack, my knees aching, and my ankles threatening mutiny.  But as I chatted with my new friend about his background in theoretical physics, his girlfriend who had snow-biked the course and was (hopefully) awaiting him at the finish, his political frustration and amusement, and his job at Google, it seemed easy to tell him about my kids, my logistical contortions, and my hope that Jay was there at the finish, too.  Maybe this guy was a real ultra-racer in a way that I would never be, but he was a real person, too, with a jumbled calendar and competing interests.  Moreover, he had a sense of humor – a trait that seems crucial for dealing with not only sleep-deprivation and steep hills, but also Powerpoint presentations, party-catering, small children, and just… life, the universe, and everything.  Sunshine was pouring down on us, there was still enough afternoon to carry us to the finish line, and we were both having a blast.

The course of the Whites 100 is a loop with a spur at the beginning and end, meaning that I passed Lee’s Cabin at mile seven, but also passed within half a mile of it at mile 94, right after topping Wickersham Wall.  This time, I was too far away to actually see the cabin, but I gave the left-hand trail a glance and a smile anyhow.  I’d be back again.  Jay and I would bring the kids back next winter, or perhaps even in the fall, with extra sweaters, chocolate cookies shaped like bison, and plenty of cuddly toys.  Maybe we’d even beat 2012’s record – although that might be tough. 

No, I don’t mean we’d beat the four hours that it took our family of four to cover those seven miles.  Who cares about speed?  I’m talking about our stellar packing job. Because when the plush-critter census was complete, and the number was relayed down from the loft, even the grownups were impressed.

How many stuffed animals made the journey? The answer, it transpired, was eighteen.