Companionship in extremis

(Warning: contains confession of possible craziness.)

In a short essay on the Adventure Journal website, Erin Windauer describes the occasional but not rare sense of athletes, adventurers, and others that they are in the presence of someone or something which is benevolent or reassuring but which isn’t actually *there*.

Ernest Shackleton’s epic tale of survival after the sinking of his ship the Endurance in Antarctic waters is well known, but less known is what he and two of his companions experienced after they made their way by open boat, above, to South Georgia Island and trekked across to a whaling station to find salvation. Each of the three felt the presence of someone with them: “During that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia,” wrote Shackleton in his memoir, “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

Though I don’t quite see the link between this sensation and the lab experiments summarized in Windauer’s piece, I can’t stop thinking about the phenomenon, which is one I’ve experienced in some of my winter races.

I didn’t even know that my feeling of being… joined? guided? accompanied? was a thing; I just chalked it up to being hungry, cold, and exhausted. And yes, all those stressors might have contributed to my sense that *something* was with me while I rode and walked off Two Top on January 8, thirty-six hours into the Fat Pursuit.  

But still: to have that experience in common with Shackleton is strangely satisfying.

Fat Pursuit Bike, Gear, and Kit

A lot of people – cyclists and not – have asked me about the clothing, bike, and gear I used in the Fat Pursuit.

On the start line

Given how much I’ve learned from talking with fellow racers about their systems, I thought I’d share mine.

With a couple exceptions, I’ve used the items here in several other long races, and the new items had been tested on long rides this fall and winter.

I’m not trying to name-drop with the brand info; I just want to be clear about what works for me.

And yes a lot of this stuff is expensive. I don’t think I bought a single item here at retail, though – I watch for sales, use shop/club discounts, buy on clearance, etc. Even the Buffalo, my beloved adventure partner, was bought used (albeit from a bike guy who took very good care of it).

CLOTHING
Worn Continuously (* Craft brand items)

  • wind briefs*
  • wicking undershirt*
  • cycling shorts
  • compression socks (Alchemist)
  • heavyweight wool socks (Da Feet Woolie Bullie)
  • upper thermal base layer*
  • lower thermal base layer*
  • heavyweight cycling pants (Endura MT500 – new to me this year and fantastic)
  • synthetic soft shell jacket (a discontinued model from Eddie Bauer)
  • wind vest (Pactimo, Salsa branded)
  • wool neck gaiter
  • heavyweight gloves (Outdoor Research PL 400)
  • thick wool cap (45NRTH Stove Pipe)
  • cycling boots (45NRTH Wölvhammer, 2014 model)
  • clear-lens glasses (cheapies I bought at a gas station!)

Worn as Needed (when it was so goddamn cold)

Spare Clothing (stashed in a dry bag in my seat pack and never used)

  • wind briefs*
  • wicking undershirt*
  • compression socks
  • heavyweight wool socks
  • upper thermal base layer*

FATBIKE AND GEAR


Bike: the Buffalo, a 2011 Salsa Mukluk ti, size large, and far from stock.

  • 1 x 11 drivetrain with a 28T chainring (the main change since my last winter ultra)
  • Carver O’Beast carbon fork
  • Easton carbon handlebars (metal bars are too cold!)
  • 45NRTH Dillinger 5 tires (no, not tubeless)
  • Surly Rolling Darryl rims
  • Crank Bros. Mallet 2 pedals
  • Brooks C17 saddle (given to me free by a Tour Divide racer who hated it!)

Bags and Gear

EQUIPMENT (* required items)

headlight setup (back)
headlight setup (back)


Grandma Cat, RIP

Grief drove me to spend a couple hours tonight combing our digital photos for the best shots of Sabine, our wonderful grandma cat. I was surprised by how few there were, but the photos we do have are nicely representative of her beauty and calm. “Beaner” was quite a cat, even leaving aside the fact that she lived 21 wonderful years (nearly half my life!).

Sabine was a stray, adopted by Shannon and me with her “brother” Snowshoe (also a stray but not her actual littermate) from a shelter in Chicago. When Shannon and I – newly married – adopted the two cats, we were making a real home for ourselves. In the contract with signed with the shelter, we promised to always keep them both indoors and to never declaw them. We were silly kids, but we kept both of those promises! “Schoobie” died of cancer when he was only five, which felt until tonight like an impossibly painful event. “Beaner” lived another 16 years! I asked her, at the vet’s tonight, to make sure she told Schoobie that we missed him and that we did a good job with her.

The defining aspect of Beanie’s life was being the object of the girls’ inexhaustible love. She sought out their love, and paid them back richly. Genevieve, especially, enjoyed a special bond with Sabine, whom she called by a million names, including “Benobi.” How many hours did Sabine spend with Julia and Genevieve on the sofa, snuggling into a blanket or draped over their laps?

She was a surpassingly gentle cat. I can’t remember her ever being truly angry, except when I trimmed her claws. And even then, she relaxed when Vivi would help me by cooing to her and stroking her back. She loved peace and quiet and sunbeams. Like most cats, but more so.

In the last couple years, as life with not-little kids calmed down, Sabine made a point each morning to come over to where I was eating breakfast and paw at my leg, reminding me that she wanted some of the milk from my cereal. I’m sorry that I wasn’t always patient with her begging, but I always gave her my leftover milk, which she happily slurped up. She often then waited at the door to the garage to go and inspect the situation there – but not if it was too cold. She liked to lick the spokes on the girls’ bicycles, bizarrely. Back inside, especially in these last few years of her life, she would find a sunny spot in the living room and make herself comfortable as I was leaving for work.

Even more than those weekday mornings, Sabine and I enjoyed each other’s company every evening, after the rest of the household went to bed. She and I had a little routine. When I came downstairs after saying goodnight to the girls around 8:30, she’d expect me to top off her food bowl. Then she’d sit with me or maybe sleep behind the TV in her “nest.” If I had a snack, she’d come over to check it out, dipping her paw in my water glass, licking salty chips if I looked away, and enjoying the last shreds of cheese from my nachos. Around 10, she’d come back for her bedtime snack, which I’d give her in the utility room, where she’d sleep overnight. If I fell asleep on the sofa or simply forgot, she’d politely come over from wherever she was and tap me on the knee or chin with a reminder. God how I’ll miss all of our evenings together, but god how I’ll treasure the memory of them.

Creosote

My maternal grandfather can be politely described as a distant figure. I didn’t know him well and was kind of frightened by him until one day when I was in my twenties on which I realized he was actually a pretty small guy with a flannel shirt over a barrel chest.

Grandma and Grandpa Jauquet
Grandma and Grandpa Jauquet

When I was a kid, he was an “owner-operator” at Jauquet Trucking, driving tractor-trailers for a living.

Grandpa in his truck
Grandpa in his truck

As such, during my visits to my grandma’s house he was usually on the road (hauling logs to the paper mills), working outside in his garages on his white and blue trucks, or asleep on the sofa.

My grandpa’s life then was as probably as far from my life now as two white guys’ lives can be, though of course his work (and my grandma’s, and my other grandparents’, and my parents’) made my present life possible. When I think about these facts of generational change, class mobility, and all that, I think that he would find my current life almost impossibly frivolous. Working indoors all day? In an office at a college? Not making my children work all the damn time? Spending my free time (free time!?) riding a bicycle?

And yet my bike has created an odd sense of connection to him. Being out in all weather? He might appreciate that, though he might also wonder why I don’t earn any money by doing my winter rides.

I’m hardly handy, but I handle some of the mechanical stuff on my bike now and then, and invariably I get grimy and have to wash up at the utility room sink with a dollop of citrus-scented pumice soap. That smell sends me right back to the kitchen at my grandma’s house, where I’d be sitting drawing or reading and waiting for dinner – maybe one of my Grandma’s homemade pasties. When Grandpa came in from the garage, he’d wash his hands at a tiny sink off the kitchen, scrubbing and scrubbing at the grease and dirt with a pumice soap that smelled faintly orangey.

the sink
the sink

His was a no-nonsense block of Lava soap, where mine is probably made from ethically-collected pumice and free-range oranges, but there you go. Once sufficiently (but never completely) clean, he sit down at his spot in the corner and we could all eat.

That indoors memory is complemented by an equally distinct but much less predictable outdoors memory. The truck garages were massive hangar-like spaces, dimly lit, full of trucks and truck parts and tools.

truck garages
truck garages

Their dirt floors were slick and black with oil, and the air was full of the smell of grease. My life now is as un-greasy as could be, except when I work on my bikes and at random moments out riding, when I encounter that same creosote smell. Sometimes it’s coming from wet railroad ties at the spot where some lonely road crosses the tracks. Other times, it’s coming from ties that someone’s repurposed for a bridge on a bike trail. Other times, it’s from telephone poles – maybe a stack of new ones awaiting installation or, like last Sunday, a pile of old ones stacked mysteriously at the edge of a marsh where I’ve paused to take a break. The melting snow was driving out an overpowering scent of creosote, and for the minute I was there, drinking water and pissing into the reeds, I was eight or ten or twelve again, standing in Grandpa’s truck garage. Luckily for me, there was a U.P. pasty waiting for me back home – not Grandma’s, but a good one just the same.

Montage of Heck

Last night, I finally watched Montage of Heck, the recent documentary about Kurt Cobain by Brett Mogren. The film was moving, as I expected (or worried), and pleasingly focused on Cobain’s and Nirvana’s music. (The dude could shred on the guitar.) The music was in fact the centerpiece of the film: album and live tracks of classic Nirvana tunes, rarities and covers by others (a plinking, nursery-rhyme version of "All Apologies" early in the film gave me chills), and – surprisingly to me – actual pages of lyrics from Cobain’s own voluminous notebooks. Seeing the original lyrics to "Frances Farmer" magnified the impact of that amazing song, which is maybe my favorite. The animations of the notebook pages, and of key scenes in Cobain’s life, were a nice touch, highlighting the fact that Cobain was a talented visual artist – something I didn’t know about him.

Frances Farmer

Of course the film is also and maybe mostly about Cobain’s life, and incidentally about his death, which is treated far too abruptly. I wished that the Mogren had dealt even more with Cobain’s biography. After an excruciating look at his childhood, the film switches over almost entirely to the band just before Bleach. I can understand that choice, but given the detailed examination of Cobain’s youth, I wanted even more about being Courtney Love’s husband and Frances’ father. (Courtney does not come off well from the film.)

Cobain
Maybe I was just falling prey to the tendency of a fan to also be a voyeur, which Cobain himself loathed in his ugliest moments and which he tried to redirect to his art in his best. Midway through the film, some journalist asks Cobain why he can’t or won’t explain his songs to his fans. "There’s nothing to be said, man," Kurt replies, visibly exhausted by the question. "It’s all in the music, man, it’s all in the music. It’s all in the meat… I’d like to hear what they have, have in mind, you know, like, how they interpret it."

It’s a simple notion, but a profound one. Even if he were still alive, I could never explain to Cobain just what his music – Bleach, Nevermind, In Utero, Unplugged, From the Muddy Banks, and all the rest – meant and means to me. It’s literally too much. Too much noise, too much rage, too much humor, too much beauty, too much feeling. Maybe, finally, Cobain is a kind of sacrificial lamb for me. The feelings that poured out of him created a kind of hole where I could and can stuff my own feelings. For that, I have to thank him – even if I also wish he were still around to make more music for me, and for us, and for himself.

Taste Recall

Twice this evening, I’ve encountered tastes and smells that have taken me back to childhood.

For dinner, Shannon made some ridiculously good Italian-style meatball sandwiches. The tomato sauce soaked into the crusty bread and created a taste-smell that sent me right back to the dim dining room at the Bell Chalet in Hurley, Wisconsin – one of the two or three places where I learned to love square-cut Midwestern pizza. I almost couldn’t finish the sandwich. Almost.

Then after the girls went to bed, I opened a little bottle of brandy that I bought experimentally a few weeks ago after hearing from a friend about its excellent qualities as a winter drink. The smell that floated out of the bottle was exactly the smell of the giant cabinet in which my Grandma kept her fine china and the liquor she used to make her beloved Manhattans. I wonder if in fact she was making Metropolitans

Though I never tasted any of the drinks she made, the scent of the VSOP made it seem like Christmas 1980 again.

Into the Woods

Though I’ve been living on the plains for ten years now, I still think of the woods as Nature. Like my affinity for winter and snow, my love for the woods is rooted in the experience of growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Some of my earliest memories are of walking with my dad and sister across a snowy field behind our house in Daggett to a big stand of trees, where we’d have a bonfire and roast hot dogs. Later, we spent many weekends at our "hunting camp" outside Ironwood, a one-room shack near "Mount Iilola" in the Ottawa National Forest. (Though our family doesn’t own that cabin anymore, I still fantasize about biking in to it for a stay…) And Houghton-Hancock are really just clearings on the forested shorelines. I loved skiing and running in the woods outside Hancock, and finding old mining ruins among the trees reminded me that the forest was far older and stronger than it seemed.

I was surprised when I started college to read in William Cronon’s seminal environmental history of New England, Changes in the Land, that English settlers in the New World were repelled and terrified by the forests they found. I couldn’t imagine a more opposite reaction to my own feeling of being welcomed and enfolded and dwarfed by the woods, and I still can’t.

One of the things that I’ve enjoyed most about cycling has been the discovery of new woods to ride in: Farmer Trail and Shady Lane Trail near Northfield; chunks of the Almanzo south of here and most of the Lutsen 99er and Heck of the North up north, and of course almost every yard of the Arrowhead 135 way up north

Arrowhead Trail

and the Fat Pursuit out west.

Yellowstone Trails

Idaho Woods

I can’t wait to get back to those snowy, dark, imposing, familar woods again soon.

To Idaho and Back (In Snippets)

Day 1
I35 south to I90 west to the Rocky Mountains. The long flat straights of South Dakota. Gas station stops for fuel, beef jerky, and water. Passing the Corn Palace in Mitchell. Lake Francis Case on the Missouri River. So many Wall Drug signs. Cheap Subway somewhere on the road, made by a sandwich artist who had recently been beat up. Finally, Wall, but not Wall Drug – just a dinosaur statue and a gas station. The dim Badlands at dusk. Wyoming warnings to chain up. The hellish-looking coal plant outside Gillette. A good night of sleep in the industrial-park Super8 in Billings.

Day 2
The mountains mounting in the distance. Flatlander freakouts start. A morning gas stop in Bozeman, where we saw no bozes. Lumberyards full of timbers for "log cabin homes" after the Four Corners south of Bozeman. The amazing morning drive south on US 191 through the Gallatin River valley. Overpriced Subway and snowed-in shops in West Yellowstone. Up and over the Continental Divide outside West. Dicey driving on US 20 down to Island Park, Idaho. "The longest main street in America." Pond’s Lodge and Cabin 17.
Cabin 17

Admiring the Mad Max snowmachines in the parking lot. (These aren’t Midwestern sleds.)
Mountain Sleds

Riding bikes along the edge of Harriman State Park).
Harriman State Park

Coyotes watching us from the banks of Henry Fork, snowmachiners watching us from the back of the Last Chance. Driving off the mountain through all the winter weather for dinner. Rexburg, home of the biggest Mormon temple in Idaho. All you can eat pizza at Pizza Pie Cafe. Sharing the dining room with a Mormon youth group discussing the best thing in your life right now. (Nobody said "racing bikes.") Getting groceries at Albertson’s, a Super Valu in different colors. Home again. One last night of good sleep before before the race, except for the nightmare about ferrets.

Day 3
A lazy morning. Meeting Kid Riemer, the voice of "The Push." Coffee and breakfast and a morning drive to Fitzgeralds Bicycles in Victor. Every kind of weather coming off the mountain. A snowmachine trail next to the road, wider than the road. The big potato at the Spuds Drive-in in Driggs. The invisible Tetons in the distance. Taking advantage of the sales at Fitzgeralds and having an excellent americano. Newpaper stories about wolverines in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Relaxing all afternoon, but not really. Meeting the other roomies. Setting up the bikes. Meeting other racers at Pond’s. A bowl of beef stew and a hard cider for pre-dinner. The pre-race meeting. JayP turning the stoke to 11.
JayP at the Pre-Race Meeting

A huge pre-race dinner. More bike and kit prep. A surprise visit from JayP. Trying to go to bed, but actually staying up too late, jittered.

*Day 4
*
RACE DAY.
Day 1

RACE NIGHT.
Night Trees

Day 5
ANOTHER RACE DAY.
Day 2

The six telephone poles leading to the US 20 crossing. JayP pulling me from the race. Disappointment shading into a shattered kind of satisfaction. Race talk with Ben, the fourth-place finisher. A horrible, wonderful shower. Dinner at Pond’s with other racers. The happy chatter of race stories. Swag from JayP. A hard sleep full of nightmares and visits to the bathroom.

Day 6
Up early-ish. Saying goodbye to Kid. A gas stop in West for double-caffeinated coffee. Wondering where Checkpoint Two had been. The morning drive up US 191 along the Gallatin to Bozeman – even more amazing than it had been on the way in. Surprised to be missing a place that I hadn’t even known, or left yet.
Gallatin River Valley

One annoyed big horn sheep.
Bighorn Sheep

Bozeman through the car windows. The big mountains turning to lower mountains turning to hills turning to almost plains. Wyoming again, "Forever West" (unless you’re in Idaho). A lone pronghorn in a field along the road. Devil’s Tower in the northerly distance. Loaded coal trains heading east, empty ones coming west. A superb burger and beer in Spearfish with a mountain bike on the wall. The Super8 in Chamberlain.

Day 7
A carb-y breakfast and then the rest of the road trip.
Backseat

A partial list of amusingly named gas stations on the trip: Pump & Munch. Kum & Go. Loaf & Jug. The long straight flats of eastern South Dakota. A stop for Caribou Coffee and amazing donuts. The mysterious barn-y building in Worthington, Minnesota. Turning north again. F’real milkshakes at one last stop outside Owatonna. The backroads into Northfield. Home again. Sad to see Ben off. Unpacking forever. Getting my laundry done before the family gets home from school. Satisfaction, happiness, tiredness.

Sleigh Bells Ring

When I’m out in "bad" weather, I think a lot about how much time my grandfathers – a farmer on my dad’s side, a trucker and logger on my mom’s – must have spent outside in horrible conditions, doing their jobs. I’m lucky that I can choose to go outside and enjoy (not just endure) the experience of being outside, no matter temperature, precipitation, wind, etc.

Of course, both grandpas knew how to enjoy winter, too. Here – at a Christmas in the late 1990s – is Grandpa Jauquet at the reins of his sleigh, pulled by his two Belgian workhorses and laden with grandkids, including me, Shannon, my sister, and a bunch of my cousins.

Sleigh Bells Ring

1994 Cold

The impending "blast" of super-cold temperatures has everyone in Minnesota in a tizzy. The governor has even preemptively canceled school on Monday, when the high temps are expected to be negative 30 or 900 or something.

We will see exactly how far the temperatures fall; certainly, record lows (and record-low highs) are possible. The chatter among amateur and professional weather geeks is that these temperatures haven’t been seen since 1994.

As it happens, I think I remember that cold snap! I’m pretty sure (but am too lazy to confirm) that it fell on MLK Day weekend. Shannon and I had started dating the previous fall, and we were spending a lot of time in her apartment a few blocks down Grand Avenue from Macalester College in St. Paul. You know how it is.

Anyhow, the night that meteorologists were braying (on Shannon’s tiny red black and white TV) about minus 100 windchills, we needed to go to the local grocery store, a block away. I forget if we both ventured out or if only I did, but I do remember feeling like my teeth were frozen by the time I got back to the apartment. They weren’t, and I don’t expect to lose any body parts this Monday, either.

Farm Dog

Musti on the Roof

When my mom visited a while ago, I scanned a bunch of old family pictures that she’d brought down. One of them is this (rather bad) shot of one of the dogs my grandpa had when we lived with him on the farm in North Ironwood, Michigan. This scruffy mutt’s name was Musti, which we understood to be Finnish for “Blackie.” He was a good dog, but a farm dog through and through. I’m sure he came inside sometimes, or maybe every day, but he spent most of his time outside. He must have smelled awful, but you can see the intelligence in his face. My recollections are of him trotting protectively after my grandpa as he did farm chores or, alternatively, lying on the roof of the entrance to the cellar – which is where he’s standing here. Rain or shine, sun or snow, Musti would lie there, just the other side of the kitchen window, where he and Grandpa could keep an eye on each other. The second he saw Grandpa get up from his chair at the kitchen table, Musti would scramble up and jump down from his perch to go wait by the front door.