Thursday, August 14, 2014

Uphill, Through the Past

The view up Powerline Pass From a trail near the Glen Alps parking lot

A sure test of whether you are in Anchorage and not some plodding Midwestern town is to lift your eyes above the traffic, filling stations, fast food joints and big-box stores, and see the broad shoulders of the Chugach Mountains holding up the sky. New Orleans has music, San Francisco has food, New York has art, Anchorage has the Chugach Range.

There's little point to living here if you don't take advantage of Chugach State Park. The park is just under half a million acres of mountains, streams, and glaciers, home to wildlife from lynx and wolverine to bull moose and grizzly bears. It lies just East of town. Thanks to various other parks and green spaces, it can be a little difficult to tell just where Anchorage leaves off and Chugach Park begins. It's been said our city is unique in that, one half hour after eating a perfectly cooked and served gourmet meal, you can find yourself dangling from a precipice deep in the wilderness, convinced that you are about to die, and your body never found

I'm no Dick Griffith, or Billy Finley, but my Dad was a serious enough amateur climber to keep on hand an ice ax, lengths of climbing rope, and a pair of lethal-looking metal crampons, arrays of spikes he strapped to his boots to keep from falling where the going was icy. I never was serious enough about climbing to need such tools, still, Dad left me with an appreciation of our local mountains.

Over the years I hiked the usual peaks, from Rendezvous and O'Malley, to Girdwood's Crow Pass. I stood on summits in cold sunshine, shivering while admiring the views of the city to the West, then turning to see hundreds of miles of forbidding, serrated mountains stretching East and South along the coast all the way to Seattle and beyond.

There is no reason Parkinson's disease should keep you from the high country. But having PD makes it all too easy to say you're too tired, too busy, too bad at balancing, or too sick to risk a tumble on a scree slope or a slippery stream crossing. You consign the mountains to your healthier past and try to content yourself with the flatlands.

That turns out to be mysteriously difficult. Flatness is another way of saying "boring". Trips unmade and favorite routes tug and pull, deaf to your reasonable excuses. The mountains gnaw at you. Walking high trails can restore and reward. Forsaking them feels like punishment.

Three days ago, at 1:30 in the afternoon, I got tired of being punished. I have always wanted to ride my bike up to the Glenn Alps area, the most popular gateway to the park. I chugged some water and pumped air into my tires, and was on the way up the 1700 foot climb by 2:00.

This is not as bad an idea as it seems. Many people with Parkinson's who can barely walk are able to ride a bike. Bicycling requires little in the way of fine motor skills (unlike say, typign, er... ttping... dammit!.. TYPING). And provided I remember to take a pill every two hours, my body remains fairly well-controlled. Besides, if it got to be too much, there was a simple solution. Just turn the bike around and coast home.

The ride turned out to be more than a simple passage through space from point A to point B, as different places on my route marked different moments of my past. Just a few minutes into the ride, the memories began to flit by as I passed Jupiter Street, where we lived for years in a house built on a lot that was given to my parents by the State of Alaska to compensate them for land they lost in the 1964 earthquake. It was in that house my son grew up. It was the house where we lived when I was diagnosed with PD.

Keep climbing.

Further on up the road, breathing hard, I traveled up a steep curve I used to roar around in a VW fastback in the mid-1970s. Back then it led to jam sessions at the semi-palatial, partially-built home of my friend Paul. Stoned, loud, and alienated, we plugged in and purged teen angst with squalls of three-chord Rock and Roll. Occasionally we were joined by a real musician, David Palmer. Two years behind me in school, he easily and unintentionally humiliated all of us with brilliant playing. David's road proved harsh. His father was a preacher who had no use for his son's guitar virtuosity nor his interest in jazz. Inevitably, conflict followed. A few short years later Dave was run over and killed on a street in Northern California.

Keep climbing.

The way runs by the former house of a man to whom I used to give a monthly ride to the Parkinson's support group meeting. This I came to dread. Gaunt, with a harsh glint in his eyes, and semi-delusional, he would brag that he got George Bush elected by convincing him to take on Colin Powell as his Secretary of State. Right. Then it was time to boast about his alleged close friendship with Senator Ted Stevens. Next he'd complain about the lack of state services for old men who lived halfway up a mountain. On the way home he would cajole me to stop at McDonald's where he'd buy hamburgers he saved for later. When we got back to his house he'd have me fetch his mail, which I remember as a combination of religious material and titty magazines. Good times.

Keep climbing.

Made the turn onto Upper Huffman Road. Here the way becomes truly steep. My lungs felt like they would  blow through my chest wall as I reached Ginami road. I saw the house where a reporter for the paper lived in the mid 1980s. Not terribly long after arriving, she scared the crap out of all of us by making a serious attempt on her own life. She later invited Pam and me to dinner and I seem to recall her accidentally scalding herself with boiling noodle water. Or is that my memory playing tricks on me? Eventually she disappeared back down South. What has become of her, I don't know.

Keep climbing.

At the intersection with Toilsome Road, I was forced to walk the bike until I regained my breath. I remounted at the hairpin turn by the gated home that used to belong to Dr. Gary Archer. Larger than life, even by Alaska standards, Archer became wealthy selling cut-rate vacations to Hawaii through his explosively growing travel agency, while simultaneously working as a cardiologist. I remember him on TV in an Hawaiian shirt and lei, plugging tickets to the islands. Eventually his travel agency, plagued by customer complaints about slow refunds, went bankrupt, and Archer returned to full-time medical practice. He died in a 1997 river-rafting accident. The raft he was riding in capsized after hitting a canyon wall on Sixmile Creek.

Keep climbing.

This stretch of Toilsome road is where, in 1975, I tore a hole in my enormous, puffy, blue, down coat, and came within a hair's breadth of winning a Darwin Award. It happened when I was sledding down the road, and wrecked at high speed. Beyond that, details are fuzzy. I believe it was the same day I sledded past a Volkswagon Beetle on its way downhill. We gave this stupid pastime up when, in an event foreshadowed by the hole in my coat sleeve, a friend broke his arm when he ran his sled into a dog.

Keep climbing.

In the mid 1980s our friends Peter and Kathleen lived in one of a small clutch of houses perched near the park entrance. They threw terrific parties where we would talk until late, with the lights of Anchorage glimmering far away below. As we drove home, we could sometimes  watch the Northern lights as we descended through the dark. Our friends paid the price for their remote sanctuary. Many a winter night, they had to stop at the foot of the hill, don rubber suits, and wrestle traction chains onto their tires. Some nights they would attempt the road without chaining up, eventually encountering a section that simply defied them. Then, Peter told me, he would sometimes resort in his frustration to "berm bashing", driving his small car in a rage into the frozen banks of snow and ice which lined the roads. He could see the marks he left as well as those of his neighbors. The two of them eventually threw in the towel on the place after howling winds tore a big chunk of their roof off one winter.

Keep climbing.

Unbelievably, I find myself pushing my bike up the final leg of the trip and into the parking lot.  It's been only an hour of hard pedaling. The familiar profile of Flattop mountain rises toward the sky, evoking a few last memories. Every summer when I was small we'd climb Flattop with a new crop of visiting college students from the South Pacific. It was the unofficial start of Summer, and always one of its highlights. The first time I made it to the summit, my shock and disappointment at the fact that the top was not perfectly flat was echoed years later by my son, who reached the mountain top at the age of five, looked around and said "It's not flat. Let's go."

I didn't tarry long in the parking lot. I was wary lest I get chilled by the cold wind on my sweaty body. Besides the glorious ride down was calling. Enough of the old memories. It was time to make some new ones.

Anchorage from a short walking loop at the Glen Alps parking lot.


Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

My apologies to Terrence Cole, who went to the trouble to leave a gracious comment, only to have me mistakenly delete it.

Sorry Terrence!


Dan Mohn said...

Thanks, Peter, for a wonderful essay. From the far climes of Louisville, I regularly follow your blog -- and share it with family and friends to educate them in a gentle and humorous way. You are providing an incredibly valuable service.

As a former outdoorsman (camper, caver, whitewater canoeist) who grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, I can fully share your awe and wonder at the beauty of nature.

Seven years into a confirmed PD diagnosis (on top of degenerative spine disease) I am becoming more limited in my outdoor activities. But I have developed some skill at photography (using tripod most of the time) to retain a close connection with the Earth. Garden photography, birding, macros, and wild landscapes help fill the time and keep me sane.

I strongly recommend that form of therapy to our fellow PDers.

Keep up the great work.camiocam

Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

Thanks Dan, you raise a good point for those who may be precluded from hiking or biking by the advanced stage of the disease, dystonia, depression, or what have you. There are other ways to enjoy the benefits of the outdoors beyond hiking. That said, we know enough now about the benefits of exercise to urge all people with PD to partake at a level they can handle safely. Thanks again for reading, and for the warm words.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your "bike" down (or up?) memory lane. I grew up in Anchorage, hiking Flat Top with my high school friends in the late 70’s and early ‘80’s. Now, I return each summer to visit my mother. She was diagnosed with PD a few years ago. Thank you for your beautiful post. Your words resonate with me in a deep, inspirational, and satisfying way. Keep climbing! Damn it. Keep climbing.

Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

Will do, same to you. Best, Peter

Steve said...

Peter, You remind me I should call you to bike or hike again. But I'll pass severe uphills like this one. I thought Alaska Airlines bought out Hawaiian Vacations and that's why there are no bargains to Hawaii any more. I thought another travel agent going bankrupt with lots of people without the tickets they paid for. But a quick google didn't answer the question and I gave up.

Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

Steve, most definitely,let's do a ride or hike. below is a link to a couple of stories on Dr. Archer from the ADN. His business went chapter 11 in 1987. My sense is that there has been much maneuvering in the Alaska-Hawaii market since those ancient times. stories here