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Recounting a Marriage Full of Adventures, including Racing Fires and Biking 83 Hours Straight
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Don and Shannon kayak the Prince William Sound in Alaska. PHOTO: Ed Cannady
   
Tuesday, May 14, 2024
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

Don and Shannon Jackson were just eight months into their marriage when Don presented his wife with a challenge: Let’s do the newfangled Lake St. Louis Triathlon.

With that, Don bought Shannon a bike and her first pair of running shoes and hired an Olympic coach to teach her to swim with power and speed. And, although Shannon finished the race with a mangled leg having fallen off her bike in loose gravel, she and Don were hooked on the adventure of it all.

They tackled the 1,200-kilometer Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race next, Shannon riding through rain, wind, dark, cold and four sunrises to finish third among American women and 11th among women overall, despite getting a flat 30 minutes into the race.

 
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The Jacksons encountered a lightning storm hiking the Continental Divide Trail that shocked Shannon and forced Don to pull his sleeping bag over his eyes to block the bright flashes that hurt his eyes through his eyelids. But that didn’t stop them from returning to Glacier National Park to hike the part of the trail they missed because of deep snow the year before. PHOTO: Ed Cannady
 

They summited 20,310-foot Denali in Alaska, enduring temperatures that dipped as low as minus-50 over their 19 days on the mountain.

And they hiked the Continental Divide Trail from Canada to Mexico just seven weeks after Shannon was treated for ventricular dysplasia, which made her unable to climb stairs without risking heart attack.

These are a few of the grueling but satisfying adventures the couple has enjoyed during 40 years of marriage. And Shannon has recounted many of them in her new book “Better and Happier Together: Stories of Epic Adventures During Our First Forty years of Marriage.”

The book is an easy page turner full of details that make the reader feel as if they are there with the couple.

 
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The Jacksons hike the razor edge on Denali.
 

Shannon reveals, for instance, that the best piece of equipment she bought for their Denali climb was a 75-cent sponge, with which she mopped up moisture on their sleeping bags and tent walls to stay warm. She describes how a guide threw toilet bags into crevasses in the days before rules prohibiting that, and she tells how one of the guides fell on frozen urine, breaking her collarbone.

She also describes the tears that welled up in her eyes as she stood on top, having been powered by Pop Tarts and white chocolate-covered Oreos. She describes walking above the clouds over a knife-edge ridge with a 1,000-foot drop on one side and a 5,000-foot drop on the other. And she recounts how the descent was the hardest as the men pulled her forward faster than she could walk on the anchored line.

Shannon never planned on writing a book. But she meticulously recorded their adventures in journals and letters she sent to her parents and Don’s. She and Don were watching “The Notebook,” Nicholas Sparks’ tale of a woman with dementia who engages when her husband reads to her the story of their love, when she turned to Don and blurted out, “If I get Alzheimer’s, you’ve got to read to me the journals.”

Shannon collected her notebooks and letters and began typing.

 
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Shannon Jackson has a smile on her face as she contemplates a descent on the Stelvio Pass in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains.
 

“Every adventure had a journal, and there were plenty of others that I didn’t include in the book, including bagging Mt. Borah.  I included the emotions I felt and described the birds we saw, the wind and freezing cold,” she said. “And I captured the humor, such as Don’s quips to lighten tough situations. I even went through four hours of video a friend took while kayaking Prince William Sound of Alaska.”

Originally, Shannon thought she’d write a book of recollections just for relatives, but Don encouraged her to make it more widely available. The book is available locally at Chapter One bookstore and can be purchased on Amazon and such internet booksellers as Target and Walmart.

But she delayed publishing until she could include the trip they had planned for their 40th anniversary—a 2,700-mile trip along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Antelope Wells, N.M., to Banff, Canada.

They called it “the bike trail in search of the best donut” but found few donuts worth mentioning. They did, however, get pie for dinner and breakfast in Pie Town, N.M., something they’d missed during their  Continental Divide hike because the pie restaurant was closed.

 
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Shannon Jackson says the best advice she got when hiking the Continental Divide came from a fellow hiker: “If you’re going to be a thru-hiker, you have got to learn to be flexible!”
 

With restaurants few and far between, they spent $50 a pop at gas stops on Fritos, refried bean dip, Snickers and Dr. Pepper. But they found a trail angel at Brush Mountain Lodge, a small family ranch in the middle of nowhere Colorado where the owner welcomed bicyclists with pizza appetizers and blueberry hotcakes, while inviting them to shower, wash their clothes and stay overnight free of charge.

Their adventures were not without setbacks. They narrowly avoided being stranded in Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park when Don doublechecked whether the air service had scheduled their pickup date. They had to circumvent a forest fire in New Mexico on their Great Divide bike trip and return to do it later.

Eight feet of snow fell in Glacier National Park as they set out on their Continental Divide walk, forcing them to walk around the park on the highway. When they returned the next year to walk the part of the trail they had missed, they found themselves staying just one day ahead of wildfires that eventually closed the park.

But the rewards were great. They saw the migration of the Porcupine Caribou Herd in Alaska the clickety clack of their ligaments slipping over the bones in their feet sounding like castanets. They climbed 50,000 feet over five days as they cycled in Italy’s Dolomites. And they got to gaze upon the beautiful Green River flowing along the base of Squaretop Mountain and Temple Peak in the Wind River Range.

Their least favorite trip would probably be their 3,200-mile bicycle ride across America from San Diego to Florida’s St. Augustine Beach. Although it was May, hot tar stuck to their tires. They were harassed by men in loud trucks, had to ride precariously close to a never-ending line of semi-trucks on one highway, and were forced to eat powdered donuts and hockey pucks, or breakfast sandwiches, at gas stations due to restaurants being closed on Sundays.

The only thing that kept them going was the thought of going to Disney World.

Shannon’s favorite trip is the hike along the Continental Divide, in part because it meant that her health scare wouldn’t keep her down.

“It will also be my favorite because it took five months of my life,” he said. “It was like walking a marathon every day as we averaged 22 miles a day. I was not in that good a shape having been through my ordeal so I had to want to be there and to commit to it. There was so much that nearly broke me, but we were celebrating. It changed me and my outlook on life.”

Don, who had traded corporate jobs in big cities like Houston to move to Sun Valley for the lifestyle, said he would have walked forever.

“We loved the simplicity of purpose, just putting one foot in front of another,” said Shannon.

While the book may be in the bag, the adventures have not ended. This summer the couple plans to head back to Alaska to bike 1,400 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Anchorage.

“We’re calling it the Arctic Ocean-to-the-Pacific, and we can’t wait!” said Shannon.

#P#The Jacksons hike the razor edge on Denali.

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