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

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Two Easters

All photos involving children are courtesy of Mark Conde

“But Mom, you can’t be gone on EASTER!”
Wait.  I can’t?  But… I have this hundred-mile snow-bike ride…
Sunday, March 27th, six a.m.  Lacing my boots seems difficult when I have not yet had my coffee.  Jay is driving me to the start, because, tireless volunteer that he is, he has volunteered to set up the race headquarters.  Margaret has shown up to tend to the still-sleeping children, because, unsung hero that she is, she offers free baby-sitting at times when most mortals would quail. Even on Easter. 
When I signed up to compete in this year’s White Mountains 100, I somehow failed to notice that it happened to fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal Equinox.  Much as I love the arcane, migratory, blatantly Pagan scheduling of this religious holiday, I can no more keep tabs on it than I can remember when my oil needs changing. 
Five past six. Am I forgetting something?  I’ve done this race five times, so you’d think I’d know what I was doing, but… Chapstick?  Check.  Ultra-light waders for the expected knee-deep water flowing over ice?  Check.  Extra headlamp batteries?  Check. From the windowsill, two chocolate bunnies stare at me from their colorful baskets.  Are they trying to tell me something?  Did I mention I haven’t had my coffee yet? 
Even if I had been hyper-aware of lunar cycles, I doubt I would have realized that the date of the race was a problem.  I am not actually a Christian.  Ergo, I don’t actually celebrate Easter, in the sense of holy observation.  But, as it turns out, unholy observation is a different matter. 
Eight a.m.   The race starts with a rush -- for perhaps a dozen people.  For the rest of us, it starts with something more like a stumble, a shuffle, and a cheerful grin.  A hundred miles is … well, it’s a whole heck of a lot of White Mountains.  We’ve got all day.  And all night.  And, if we need it, all day again.  It’s still early, a kind of misty white-out of an Alaskan spring day.  I’m hoping the kids are still asleep, but I’m betting they’re not – because, CHOCOLATE BUNNIES.
Sure, the kids don’t believe in the Easter Bunny, but they were not buying my excuses, either.  I tried to explain to them that neither the non-existence of said member of the family Leporidae nor the non-presence of a maternal figure would prevent them from receiving all manner of marshmallow-based foodstuffs.  In my absence, I protested, they’d still be permitted to achieve a full-on sugar-high before 9 a.m. and run around in the Fairbanks Easter snow with their bestest neighbor-friend, shrieking like rusty castors.   In all likelihood, they would find yet more chocolate concealed in the trees by our gracious neighbor, William -- who has no children of his own, and no responsibility for ever, ever getting the twins to bed at night.  This, in sum, is pretty much all the “Easter tradition we’ve got going on.  What more could they ask for?
Ten-something a.m.  The seventeen miles to the first checkpoint are well-packed, easy, quick, and yet slightly stressful, as they always are -- because there are still people around me.  I’m a racer who doesn’t really like the feeling that I’m actually racing.  Go figure.  Now, though, the whiteness has closed in around me.  Snowflakes are flying in my face.  The trail is softer, and it’s hard to tell the difference between the snow that will support my bike and the snow that will send me catapulting into an ungraceful bicycle-tangled snow-angel.  I deflate my tires still further, for extra buoyancy.  I pull a handful of chocolate from my pogies and stuff it in my mouth.  Well, it’s Easter, isn’t it?
The twins stared at me soulfully. By the age of nine, all kids have perfected this gaze.  It means, your parental failings and overall neglect are crushing our youthful joy and innate childlike optimism, but please don’t let that bother you or anything.  Yeah.  It’s a powerful gaze.“How about,” I heard myself saying, “I set up an Easter treasure hunt?  Then you’d have something fun to do while I’m out biking!”
Eleven-something.  Damn this flat light.  Damn my monocular vision, so particularly useless in this flat light.  Damn my Easter snow angels. I get passed by a skier: a hyper-athletic Spandex ghost.  Seriously, why do I keep signing up for this?  Why?  I could be at home, in that other Easter, the one with a ludicrously complex scavenger hunt in it.
In order to understand just what an imprudent offer I made my children, you need to know that, in that final week of March, my time was stretched as thin as an orthodontic rubber band.  In addition to repeatedly signing myself up to compete in the White Mountains 100, I repeatedly commit myself as an event volunteer.  I purchase and organize all the food for the 100-plus people involved in the event – for the checkpoints, the finish line, and also the post-race party, two days later.  But my time was also stretched thin simply because… it usually is.  I have a foolish penchant for thinking that I can hold down a job as a research professor, raise a couple of kids, and also enjoy hobbies such as, for example, writing plays.  Or acting in plays.  Or plunging headlong into snowdrifts. 
Noonish.  I wimpishly white-knuckle the brakes on the descent down to Beaver Creek.  Race or no race, I’m never willing to go any faster than the speed at which I’m willing to crash.  And then, at the bottom – firm trail!  No more wind-touseled dross.  As I eagerly reinflate my tires with my too-small pump, the sun blasts away the whiteness, highlighting the texture of the trail in sharp-shadowed relief so beautiful that I could kiss the tire-tracks of the many, many racers ahead of me. 
Once the treasure-hunt promise was made, I had to fulfill it, of course.  My cogs ground into action.  What kind of clues would be hard enough to challenge three kids aged nine, nine, and twelve, but not so hard as to make them hate me forever?  Word searches?  Rebuses?  Cryptograms?  Wait, wait, what about something involving trivia and Google searching and codes and letter substitutions and…
Early afternoon. Oh, how joyful to pedal quickly in a blaze of sunshine!  Cache Mountain Cabin arrives in a flurry of good cheer, and is gone again.  (Why  yes, that’s a baked potato in my pogies, why do you ask?)  Up, up, up – seeing no one now, I turn on my audiobook and revel in introverted bliss.  Yeah, the snow is soft again, near the top of that divide.  Yeah, I get passed by another superhuman skier.  But those things, at least, I expected.  Slogging feels cathartic.  The whiteness is dreamlike. 
Semaphore!  Yes, semaphore would offer a perfect substitution code with not only a readily accessible key, but also a sense of camaraderie with all the twins’ friends from the Swallows and Amazons books.  Okay, fine, my friends, too – my semaphore-loving fictional-children-friends.  Don’t judge.
Midafternoon.  There’s nothing quite like doing somersaults off a bike while getting run over by skiers.  But I mean that in the best possible way. 
So, how about a number-letter-substitution scheme that involves obscure numerical answers?  Heck, yes.  I’ve had a subscription to GAMES Magazines since I was eleven.  It shows.
Dinnertime-ish.  Okay, I’m not eating dinner; I’m eating half a PB&J and brownies that I baked myself, three days ago.  BJ, a cyclist about my own speed and temperament, called me “an animal” when I blasted in and out of Windy Gap Cabin without bothering to sit down.  He used the term with such enthusiastic affection that I feel as magical as the Easter Bunny.  I’m having a blast; I’m also wading through ice water while pushing an enormous bicycle.  It’s like one of those dreams in which the rules of physics don’t entirely apply.  Both my feet are marginally wet, because I’m overly optimistic about what constitutes “deep”, but the weather isn’t cold, by the standards of Alaskan “not cold”.  When a young rider catches up with me and flounders butt-down in the water, she is tough to the core.  I give her plastic grocery bags to protect her new pair of dry socks.  A skier lends her his spare gloves.  These are my people.  Seriously, I totally love these people.  Happy Easter, ice-water-soaked friends.
Words hidden in songs.  This one was tough to compose.  How many songs do the kids know?  Not as many as they should.  I’m better at outright nerdery than at imparting any vestiges of pop culture.  But that’s okay – They Might Be Giants albums are chock-full of wordy, nerdy awesomeness.
Sunset.  Borealis Cabin.  Trusten is making me ramen.  Trusten is the best.  The ramen is the best.  I change my socks.  Dry socks are the best.  Several people are wearing wigs and pretending to be Presidential candidates.  Not the best, perhaps, but full marks for effort.  As I depart, BJ is incoming, his smile preceding him.  He reminds me that I’m an animal.  Well, of course.  Homo sapiens.  I totally crack myself up.  Only twenty miles to go.  Gloriously packed trail.  Unintimidating little black spruce trees against a clear sky.  Sunset.
Prizes.  We needed prizes.  Jay, can you pick up some more prizes?  I have some second-hand paperbacks.  Kids love second-hand paperbacks.  Duct tape?  Awesome.  Thanks, Jay.  Kids love duct tape.
Darkness.  The Wall.  Yeah, it’s a lot of up.  And yeah, I get passed by a skier again.  But I know this trail so well that it feels like solace, like home.  I’ve given up on trying to digest any more trail mix, but I’m floating along on just enough Gatorade to get me through the last five miles of rolling solitude. 
Where to hide all the clues, such that they would be findable, yet not found accidentally?  Butter box in the freezer?  Excellent.  And there is a sweet point of obscurity associated with the phrase, “on the book shelf behind the Alaska Statutes”.  I needed someone to oversee the treasure hunt, of course.  But no worries -- Jana and Mary-Clare agreed without question or complaint, even though telling your neighbor and your sister-in-law to jointly help your kids solve cryptograms while you skip town is not actually standard holiday procedure. 
Midnight-and-change.  The finish line, complete with clanging bell, barbecue, and smiles as welcoming to the fortieth finisher as to the first.  A couple of skiers, my heroes in Spandex, cheerfully agree to give me a ride home.  But I am still hanging around eating a veggie-dog slathered in ketchup when the stoic ice-water-swimmer crosses the line, and, a few minutes later, BJ.  My Easter is over. 
So was my other Easter, the uber-nerdy-yang-Easter to my crazy-wilderness-yin-Easter.
Going on for two in the morning.  Bed.  Happy collapse.   
Thank you, Mark.  Thank you, Jay, Jana, Margaret, Trusten, Mary-Clare, William, fellow racers, fellow volunteers, and tolerant families.  You’re all animals.  Even the Easter Bunny.

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