I first noticed it in January, out on the trail with my husband on a sunny, cold Saturday.
We were fat biking, exploring new trails in Willow. There were signs on trees alerting us to dog mushers possibly around every corner. We saw one dog team pulling across the broad expanse of a lake; we pulled over to let them pass.
The trails were mostly flat, with short steep inclines every time we descended to or ascended from a lake bed. We wound through woods, past neighborhoods and a school, occasionally crossing a side street.
When I write about this kind of ride later, or any outdoor experience really, it’s easy to see it through rose-colored glasses. In retrospect, I imagine that the entire experience is purely fun — fun like being on a jungle gym as a kid, jumping rope, or hopping waves in the ocean.
I like to fancy myself one of those people who pops out of bed straight onto her feet in the morning, puppy-level excited to seize the day, hop on my bike, and see what the world has to offer.
That’s what “outdoorsy” people should be like, right?
The truth is that I start out sluggish. I’m the opening scene of a movie person when the main character who’s portrayed as lovably flawed shoots an arm out from under the covers to blindly paw around their night table to stop the alarm.
I can’t function before coffee — no, really. When I eventually get around to tugging on all of the layers that make it possible for me to do something as objectively stupid as ride a bike around in the winter, I poke at my belly and think about how I’m really having a hard time getting rid of Christmas this year. The spandex digs in a little too tightly and makes me feel self-conscious. I’m less inclined to want to be outside and exercising with a body that just feels a little slow and soft.
That day out in Willow when I first noticed the thing, it started out like that. I remember, now that I force myself to, that as we were starting out on the ride I was already thinking how nice I’d feel when it was over. It was single-digit weather, even in the bright sunshine, and even though I wasn’t cold yet I felt like at some point in the ride it would happen and it would be uncomfortable, particularly if I was sweating at all —inevitable for me; again I’m that character in the movie.
I rode through all that sunshine, the snow making a loud, cold crunching noise under my tire, with my brain immersed in a similar kind of life noise.
I thought about work things that were nagging at me, friends I needed to catch up with, the state of the world and Alaska. Meanwhile, I rode my bike through a clear, cold morning in beautiful Willow, surrounded by bright snow and postcard trees. My competing thoughts felt like when you wash your hands under two faucets — one running hot and one running cold. Both extremes are uncomfortable and don’t exactly blend.
It took about an hour for me to see — to really, fully see — what the light was doing. It was a slow build. I noticed in one stretch of woods that the daylight was filtering through the snow-laden trees in that unique, sharp way it does when the sun is finally getting high enough in the sky to bring real daylight. The contrast of lemon-colored sun casting patterns across blue and purple snow pulled my focus in and made my chest fill like a balloon with something that felt like joy.
Then snowmachines passed and the air stunk, and I had to force myself to remember that they’re getting outside, too, just in a different way.
I kept riding.
It was when we stopped briefly, about an hour later of riding through these new, seemingly endless trails, that it really hit me.
I felt content. Really, truly. It sounds almost trite — I was outside, on a weekend, with my husband, in “The Nature,” and I achieved contentment.
And again, it wasn’t what I’d think of content being — it wasn’t a sustained state; the other thoughts and noise didn’t completely go away. It was still mixed in with the splices of water coming from both faucets (work — state of the world; ooh bright sun! Work again — wow, look at the snow!). But the feeling was just a bit brighter and more sustained than the others. Instead of being a physical feeling, ballooning in my chest, it started in my head and worked its way outward, across and down.
I felt immersed in the entire scene.
In that moment, I was grateful to be out in Alaska. I felt grateful for my body’s physical health and well-being, for my ability to even be alive much less outside doing something as ridiculous as riding a bicycle in the single digits across snow.
I felt grateful for the sun on these woods; the incredible network of trails and the beautiful patterns January was bringing into the sky just by virtue of the season slowly changing.
I’ve realized since then that those moments happen roughly once a week, in a good week. I typically feel them when I’m out with my husband on trails somewhere and have the feeling of being really, truly “out there,” not fixed on the beginning or the end or knowing exactly where I am and measuring progress, but just pausing to take it in.
It’s this feeling that I’m after more and more, rather than summiting the mountain or finishing the race. It’s feeling something in-between, of belonging to something bigger than I am and appreciating it, even in just one quick moment.
It seems sometimes like it’s a lot of effort — a lot of dragging myself out of bed and tugging on layers and heading to the trailhead — to get there. But more and more it feels more than just worth it. It feels essential.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.