Katie and I had just returned from our yearly Christmas Pilgrimage to Missouri (seeing her side of the family and a certain bulldog named "Stella" is a religous experience of the best kind), where we had announced (to unanimous approval) that we were leaving the city to live in Wrightwood full time. Her extended family had seen LA and Wrightwood, and believed we were making the right decision. We returned home and continued going through the junk we needed and didn't need (most of it) with a sense of adventure, eagerness, and anxiety. The adventure of experiencing the town and the local trails in a new way, the eagerness to get through a move that was going to be painful due to our lack of pre-existing organization, and the anxiety was for things that may go wrong that we had know idea about (our budget, standard rural hardships, response to altitude, etc.) were strong feelings that dominated our thoughts. Whether we wanted things to go slow or fast didn't matter, we were already in the saddle.
For the first time in the last few years, Wrightwood broke 90" of snowfall, which conveniently keep our moving truck from making it up our road until late February. This is a beautiful thing in the moment, and something that makes you proud of where you live. In the following days when temperatures are in the teens, and you missed your opportunity to shovel powder, you are so upset and frustrated with the rock hard snow that you just might throw your back out hacking it with a pick ax. We had a storm on January 21st that deposited a solid 20" of snow. I unfortunately was back in LA with Katie packing up the rest of our apartment, and when I arrived two days later on Monday night, I found a most glorious house warming (freezing) present: a good 2 hours of shoveling frozen snow out of our driveway so I could park my car and walk inside. By the time I laid down later that night, my back was in knots and I laid in bed exhausted and in pain. Never mind that I had to work on shoveling even more snow so that Katie had a spot to park later in the week, or that I was supposed to run the Sean O'Brien 100k in two weeks (I didn't/couldn't), or that I was starting a new job that had jam packed days and little down time, or that our drought busting winter had even more snowfall in the forecast... The snow had to be shoveled.
Over the course of my life, Catholic school, growing up in LA, NCAA Division I Cross-Country and Track, college engineering classes, and the real world as we know it had fostered a healthy believe that I was an impostor in every aspect. I was a Catholic that probably sinned too much, I wasn't a child phenom at anything, I rarely ever made the traveling team on my college track team, I struggled in more than one engineering class, I applied to dozens and dozens of internships before I was accepted to one, and I got laid off from my first engineering job. At my last job, I had received a promotion, and gotten a good taste of engineering leadership, but I didn't achieve all I had wanted to when I left. Starting in a new field of engineering with six talented and experienced engineers looking at me to lead them, I didn't exactly feel like I belonged. I was lucky that my boss encouraged me to "fail fast" and speak up because occasionally getting something right were the morsels of success I needed to believe in myself and stay through the low points. Still, I believed that eventually my boss would have a 1 on 1 with me and explain that my time was up. The immediacy of our next big program, the engineers on my team that were quitting, and the high expectations for my position were surely good reasons to explain that I wasn't going to fit in with a fast moving research and development department.
Yet, my self-doubt had an equal in my mind, and that was real admiration for my new company. Before I had started, I had read a book about the development of the original Predator UAV. In 1991, General Atomics bought Leading Systems Inc's tooling, airframes, and designs, and brought over a small team of 10 engineers. The company grew almost every year and filled a new role in the aerospace industry in which it became famous for high reliability, cost effective, customer centric designs. As an engineer, these three descriptions are rarely used in the same sentence, yet GA had developed a culture that made this a reality. Going from reading the book to actually working at the company, I was really impressed with how coherent this philosophy was across the company of 8,000+ people. It felt good to be apart of a team that hustled everyday to reach such ideal engineered solution, and my fear of being an imposter was challenged by my sheer desire to work here long enough to see our next aircraft's first flight. So, even though I was always nervous, stressed out, and working long hours, I kept on going to work each day excited to see what was next.
Running at altitude
There is a certain ideal in ultra running that if you can become a good runner at altitude, you can be a great runner anywhere. Though I'd raced and trained at altitude a fair amount in my career, I'd never lived up high full time. Sleeping at 6,600 feet every night, our cabin was not the get up early and go train at. I would set my alarm for 5:30, but with no one to meet at the freezing and snowy trail head, I rarely got a run started before 6:30, and would have less than a few miles to huff and puff through befoe I'd have to jump in my car and head in to work at 7:30. I'd sometimes run at work at 3,000 feet, but the sandy, flat, fire roads of the desert were less than inspiring. Eventually I would head back to sea level and feel a boost of energy, but the rest of the time in Wrightwood was much slower plodding along.
I had signed up for the Georgia Death Race after pulling out of Sean O'Brien 100k. I knew that I'd have to be ready to run hard on technical and steep Appalachian trails, but there wasn't much similar terrain during the week in Wrightwood to train on. The steep and technical trails were under a significant amount of snow that only left icy ridges to (very slowly) hike up or lower snow free trails that were more mild and gentle that the rock and root fest awaiting me. I began to realize how much easier training in the Santa Monica mountains was in the winter, and why my peers from snowier regions rarely raced in the early spring..
Still, I would be remiss if I didn't mention how magical a feeling it was to run everyday at Inspiration Point watching the forest, desert, and city come to life from a peaceful and surreal vantage point. Occasionally I'd see another person braving the cold, but most of the time it was a completely solitary and spiritual experience. I didn't miss the dirt during the snowy weeks as the highway was so empty and scenic that it met most of my requirements for what I get out of trail running. Getting started in the cold felt a lot like jumping into a pool to swim laps, but eventually I'd warm up, and would spend the rest of the run grinning from ear to ear at my luck to spend every morning here. I didn't know how long this privileged would last, and I stopped in my tracks more than once and gawked at how lucky I was to be here even if things didn't work out.
One big benefit of the new job was the 9/80 aerospace schedule. Every other Friday was off, and I made the most of those days. I would go snowboard or snowshoe, get in a good long run, and run errands done without the threat of snow play crowds. Just the freedom of a 3 day weekend itself would help me settle nervous energy and spend quality time with Katie who was busy working remotely for her former employer. Without those weekends, I don't know how I would've found enough time to enjoy the main reason we moved to Wrightwood (mountains, duh).
We were really not ready for the move. We had spent years ignoring all of our material possessions and stacking junk on top of junk, which had resulted in an absurd amount of magazines, running gear, old scrap books, and semi-useful gear that came with us to Wrightwood. The moving package from GA packed and moved everything for us, which was nice except for the fact that didn't have enough time or space in the dumpster to get rid of all the junk we didn't need, and the rest was packed and padded thoroughly. When the moving truck finally made it up our road, we were made prisoners of a box fort that we didn't have time to go through as Katie was still working extremely long hours.
Though we had a cheaper cost of living than the city, we also had to pay all our bills and save up for trips and purchases. Those that know the contractor life know that the feast and famine nature makes it tough to balance work and the rest of life. It wasn't 100% of Katie's waking hours, but there were days when it felt like it was all she did anymore in life.
Wrightwood isn't a food desert, but it's not a cornucopia either. In LA, you can have ten places in the burger, pizza, Mexican, salad bar, coffee, bakery, vegan categories within 15 min of you. We found simple joy in Tuesday margarita specials at the Mexico Lindo, but the menu didn't really change. We were so busy, we didn't notice it much, but after a few nights out we started to get excited when we'd head back to the city for the old favorites.
The small mountain luxuries became big things for us. Laying on the couch in silence and watching snow fall, walking to the back of the canyon to take a moment for ourselves to reflect, and sitting in the car and watching the sunset at Inspiration Point was incredibly fulfilling. We had done these activities on the weekends and loved the cabin life, but knowing that there was no looming drive back to the city in 24 hours made these little luxuries incredibly satisfying.
At the end of each day, we went to bed and realized we were really stressed but really grateful for the mountains being apart of our everyday life. Much like when we worked long hours in the city to enjoy its small perks, we were pushing ourselves hard for perks that meant more to us than anything else in the city ever had. We were nervous, we were worried, but we were also really, really, really grateful for every week that things worked out.