One Year in the Substackverse
Plus, an appreciation of Hilaree Nelson
I’m using this week’s post to reflect on the newsletter’s purpose and growth, and to share some goals for the coming year. If you’re new here, I hope you’ll subscribe and explore the posts linked in the story below.
First, however, a reflection on the loss of an extraordinary trailblazer.
I woke this morning to the news that crews recovered the body of Hilaree Nelson following two days of searching in the Himalayas where she summited and then disappeared. I feel gutted and full of sorrow for her two sons, her partner Jim Morrison (who in 2011 lost his first wife and two children in a plane crash), and her friends who live here in Telluride.
I did not know Hilaree except for meeting her briefly at events a couple of times, but her presence here in town inspired and captivated me and countless others. Living amongst extreme mountain athletes, she was the outlier in terms of going to extremes and accomplishing mind-boggling feats.
I’d occasionally cross paths with her while running and imagine what it would be like to be her, scaling the world’s highest snow-covered mountains and gliding down, but I couldn’t fathom anything like what she did. And yet, I wanted to be more like her. Strong and beautiful—her strength and fitness enhancing her natural beauty—she personified mountain adventure and a woman’s ability to be as tough and daring as men.
Almost exactly a year ago, she posted this Instagram about running up Ballard, a 12,800-foot mountain that rises above town, and when I saw it (because I’ve long followed her on social media), I asked myself, why had I not yet gone up there too? I made it to the top of Ballard for the first time a few days later, blown away by the fast time Hilaree had shared. She was first and foremost a ski mountaineer, but her mountain-running abilities and fitness were off the charts.
For those who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend this short documentary about the 2018 ascent and ski down that she and Jim Morrison accomplished on September 30, 2018, of the 27,940-foot Lhotse, which sits next to Everest and is the world’s fourth-highest peak. They were the first to ski its couloir.
Near the end of the film, Hilaree says, “I think there’s so much aversion to risk-taking, and I don’t think that’s the right direction we should be going. You have to take risks if you want to learn anything about yourself. You want to expand the self-imposed walls we put around ourselves. I think that’s what’s interesting to me about us as a species, is we can do that and that’s how we move forward, how we create things and have ideas, by taking risks and being a little different and being impassioned about something.” She adds, “You don’t have to climb Lhotse to do that”—meaning, I suppose, that we each can push our boundaries in our own ways.
But it seemed Hilaree did need to climb Lhotse and similar summits to do her dance with danger while attempting new feats. Because she was exceptional, that’s where her boundaries lay.
I have mixed feelings about what she says above, because admittedly I am risk-averse, as described in last week’s post when I timidly went up a challenging 14er in the most safety-conscious way. I’d rather push my limits of endurance on a safer trail, not by climbing or skiing with the looming threat of falling off the mountain or being buried by an avalanche.
That’s the main difference between us: bravery. She had the courage to be a pioneer and go where no one else has been, and in the process show us what’s humanly possible. Me, I follow in footsteps. Pioneers like her embolden the rest of us and spark our imagination.
Funny thing is, two-and-a-half years ago, I almost shared a stage with her. But it wasn’t meant to be, and in hindsight, I feel I don’t deserve to be called a “trailblazer” like her.
The Telluride Mountain Club invited me, Hilaree, and an accomplished mountain biker to give talks on being mountain adventurers. “Trailblazers” was the theme of the evening. I felt incredibly honored (and intimidated), and I prepared a 20 x 20 talk (20 slides, 20 seconds each), on “Life Lessons from Trail Running”. But the event was scheduled for March 19, 2020, and it got canceled when the pandemic’s shutdown hit.
Hilaree was and is the ultimate trailblazer. I run trails and take baby steps up easier mountains deeply inspired by her accomplishments and gutsiness, but also sticking to established routes and taking extra precautions.
My heart breaks and I send condolences to her 8th- and 9th-grade sons, her partner, and all her friends whom I know in town who knew and loved her.
A little over a year ago, imposter syndrome kept me from calling myself a writer. I no longer actively pursued freelance assignments and had shelved a memoir idea. My 2017 book’s sales were dwindling, and I referred to my decade-old glitchy blog as a neglected child because it sorely needed updating.
I attended a writing workshop at our library around that time, probably because I drift toward library events when feeling lonely or in need of inspiration. Jonathan P. Thompson, who writes about land and culture in the West, gave a workshop on getting published. Toward the end, he mentioned his excellent newsletter, The Land Desk, on Substack.
I asked, “What’s Substack?”
The conversation and online discovery of Substack newsletters that ensued sparked an internal drive similar to what I felt the first week of journalism grad school in my twenties—that feeling of, I have so much to read, write, and do! The inspiration to mothball my old blog and start fresh on a new platform, with a new mission and a commitment to publish at least weekly, filled me with ideas and purpose. The community aspect of Substack—a network of writers and readers supporting each other, who practice and celebrate longer-form writing in this age when Instagram captions pass for essays—appealed to me as well.
One year ago, I launched this newsletter with a title more practical than clever, “Colorado Mountain Running & Living,” and the tagline “personal essays with practical advice about trail running, mountain living, and midlife grit.” Since that day, I have published 71 posts and grown a subscriber base nearing 1000. Thank you for being a part of that.
It’s fitting I launched the newsletter at the start of autumn when the leaves turn golden, because transition and aging are themes woven into most posts. This publication is as much about life in midlife as about being a runner and training for ultras.
It’s also about celebrating everyday mid-pack runners and adventurers, and finding and sharing their stories. While I have spotlighted a few top-level competitors, I’m more interested in those who struggle to make time to get outdoors for human-powered locomotion, who don’t readily self-identify as athletic, and who repeatedly stumble, literally and metaphorically, on the way to a finish line.
My stories also share and celebrate this place and lifestyle in southwest Colorado not to promote or brag about it, but rather to preserve and nurture it. It’s a special place and way of living threatened by the forces shaping the future of the West, in particular water scarcity exacerbated by climate change, population growth, and income disparity. Mountain living gets pulled and polarized between luxury and poverty, reflecting the state’s urban-rural divide.
I don’t really have any solutions, I just seek to show that as a homemaker—a label that doesn’t have to be embarrassing or undervalued—the somewhat old-fashioned and semi-rural pursuit of caring for one’s home, land, and animals while giving back to the community is worthwhile and full of stories.
This newsletter’s first post featured musing about potential races for 2022 and advice for how to structure a calendar of running races. I introduced myself partially this way:
“It hits me that this anticipation, and plan-making, for racing in 2022 is the manifestation of optimism, and I savor it as an antidote to pessimism about the future. For a quarter-century, I’ve structured my life around an annual pattern of building up to, then recovering from, long-distance races. It started out with road marathons, then became ultra-distance odysseys on trail. How strange, and how wonderful and privileged, that this calendar of races has shaped my adulthood and given me motivation and a greater sense of purpose.”
Now, I would add, this newsletter also gives me motivation and a greater sense of purpose.
I write stories that fall into these general categories. To mark this anniversary, I’m linking to a few favorite posts in each category. If you’re one of the subscribers who signed up relatively recently, I invite you to read some of these older posts.
Please do me a favor and comment below: What stories appeal to you most? What would you like to see more of in this newsletter?
Looking ahead, I plan to write more bonus posts for paid subscribers and enhance our monthly online meetups with one-on-one virtual coffee chats. I’m also considering introducing a separate section to this newsletter with memoir posts. To those of you who support this publication at the paid level for $6/month, thank you.
Now I’m out the door for a run, the 2009 tune “Live Like We’re Dying” in my head.
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