Monday, November 30, 2009

A Good Story

I had sent a lot of stuff home in Fairbanks. In Whitehorse I had again packed a cardboard box full of extra gear and sent that home as well. I had given my camping chair to David the day I left him by the lake. I carried less food, clothes, spares, and tools, but even still my bike was tremendously heavy. I don't know how heavy, I never weighed it, but I could barely lift it. Somehow every bag and pocket was still full to bursting and I had two nearly full bags of food stacked on the back.

The panniers had been somewhat protected from the rain that night by their bright yellow covers, but even still, everything was just barely damp inside the bags. I had on my hat, whose brim had been sharp and strong when I started, but now sagged slightly in the constant rain. I was in the habit of wearing the hat even while biking, its strap secured around the back of my head. At first it did well in the rain. It kept me warm and I could tilt the brim down to guard my face as I sped downhill. The felt wouldn’t become saturated but its surface would slowly change to dark brown as it absorbed freckles of water. While peddling uphill or across flat ground, a drop of water would hang from the brim between my eyes, swaying hypnotically back and forth with the motion of my body until it fell off and was replaced by another. Several times the hat had been blown off while I was riding. Heading downhill into the wind a truck would come speeding up the other way trailing a white cloud of water. The wet blast as it passed had ripped the hat off my head. The hat was my favorite piece of raingear but was aging, turning soft and losing its shape.

The only other piece of raingear that worked was my jacket. Despite the constant cold I never rode bundled up, even in the rain. I wore the jacket, which was really just a thin shell, with my riding jersey underneath. Even the Gore-Tex of the jacket would feel heavy with absorbed water after a day in the rain, but for the most part it kept me dry. I wore two layers on my hands, my long fingered cycling gloves and then a 'waterproof' glove over that. I had bought the waterproof gloves from REI mainly because of the picture on the box which showed a hand wearing the glove being plunged imperviously into a tank of water, and large text across the front that reads WATERPROOF! I can only assume that whoever wrote that was trying to make a joke because these gloves were no more waterproof than a sponge. My hands were always soft and wrinkled with the water trapped in my gloves.

The only other rain gear I ever wore was a pair of shoe covers, though I don't have a good explanation for why I wore them. Even with them on, after an hour in the rain I could wring out my socks and fill a half cup with water. I never bothered with rain pants. I felt that they would rub uncomfortably against the motion of my legs, and I assumed they wouldn't work anyways given the track record of my other rain clothes. I just let my shorts get wet.

It was a rather eclectic outfit, the trim shell of a ski jacket, black biking shorts, shoes covered like small surfers in wetsuits, and a hat that was subtly beginning to soften with use.

I needed to get back up the steep muddy road I had come down the night before to get back to the highway. I knew I couldn't ride it and frankly I wasn’t even sure that I could walk it. I pushed my bike away from the lake, back towards the trees and the steep dirt road. I put both hands on the wet handle bars and leaned my chest down between my hands pushing the bike forward. The metal cleats on my shoes crackled against the wet rocks half buried in mud with a sound like ice splintering. It was steep and a hassle, but I soon made it back to the top of the hill. I went back to the gas station to get breakfast and pick up the package my parents had sent to the post office there.

The post office was a sad and strange room. Like all things in the town it was a mobile building with counters and walls of curling wet composite board. The room had clearly been converted from some other use. It was too big and even with the lights on, half of it sat in semi darkness concealing piles of ambiguous junk. At the far end was a counter and a light. No one was there, but the electric crackle of the metal on my shoes against the linoleum floor had obviously alerted someone farther back in the darkness, for just as I was about to call out, someone appeared in the window.

I got my package with curious looks from the woman there and went next door into the grocery store where there was a table. The thing I was most happy to receive was a new taillight. I hadn't had one since losing my first the night in Deadhorse, and after more than one thousand miles in bad weather on a trucking road I felt pretty lucky I hadn't yet been flattened. I spread out the other items in the box across the table and began to organize them. I went back to my bike and pulled an armful of gear from the bags I wanted send back. I stacked this gear on the table in the grocery store and added to it the stuff from the package I was going to send back. I found the small piece of jade I had bought a few days prior and threw it in the stack along with a note explaining it.

A group of people roughly my age was gathering a few seats down and I couldn't help but eavesdrop, they were talking awfully loud. I gathered that it was the same people who had been partying up on the hill the night before, and this morning they were all meeting bleary eyed in the grocery store to go over the night before play by play. Who said what and how much they drank and why John is mad and why would she do that and on and on. The girl was telling a story with wide eyed enthusiasm about something she had done or said to someone and the ensuing emotional drama. I actually looked over to see if she was serious. So boring was the story that I couldn't believe anyone would actually tell it, let alone tell it with such intensity. She was serious and the entire loud conversation of the group followed a series of similar hugely dramatic and infinitely unexciting minutiae of social life in Dease Lake.

It took me a long time to get out of town. By the time I had gotten back over to the post office and the woman working there had figured out how to send a package, it was already after lunch. I went to the only other shop along the highway, a quiet restaurant that tried to be formal but didn't know how. No one else was there; I can't imagine anyone ever going there. I sat down and asked for a menu but was told that they were only serving soup... 'Well I guess I could make you a sandwich too,' the woman added. I ordered both, ate, and left.

I hadn't expected it, but immediately after Dease there is a very long and steep climb. The road crossed west back up and over the Continental Divide. It was grey and cold. The rain came lightly for some time, stopped, and then started again. I finally made it to the top of the climb, 'Gnat Pass,' an unremarkable turn in the road which just happens to mark the point at which it begins to descend. It wasn't so much a matter of going up and over a mountain as it was of going higher up into the mountains. Beyond Gnat Pass the road turned south and leveled off on a faltering plateau and did not fully descend for days.

It was much colder higher up. There was no snow, but the wind was strong and blew against me, pressing the front of my hat down into my eyes or up against my forehead. The rain hadn't stopped and the strong white grey of the sky promised that it wouldn’t. My hat was becoming a problem. I stopped and took it off, and instead, attached the hood to my jacket, pulled it over my head and cinched the opening closed over my mouth and nose. Across the road and a little ways into a field on the far side, I noticed a small wooden barn sitting quietly and darkly in the rain. Three horses stood together against the outside of the building sheltering from the wind.

The trees were smaller and more scarce and water oozed slowly through the muddy marsh that did not lead anywhere with any hurry. It would make its way to the ocean eventually, but not for a long time.

The road curved and climbed again and there were no cars and no buildings. Finally, it began a long steep drop into a narrow valley. The surface was never smooth and was sometime unpaved, a cratered surface of sporadic gravel and circles of brown water. I lacked the patience to descend slowly, and blasted down the steep grade in a matter of minutes. As I neared the bottom, it became clear that the road was simply dipping down to cross a river and then would return back up into the mountains on the far side.

The river was mean, fast, and muddy. The bridge crossing it was made of the same steel grid as the one I had crashed on days earlier. As the road leveled out on the bridge I cringed as I braked to a stop and wasted my thirty miles an hour of speed. I walked the bridge and looked around for a place to rest and eat before climbing out of the ravine.

I saw a small shelter, the kind state parks use to cover information displays at state parks. There was a car parked alongside it and as I pulled up I could smell food cooking. A young man was there, on vacation from somewhere and going so see some family member somewhere else. He had decided to drive the Cassiar as an adventure and had caught some Salmon that day. He was kind enough to share an entire steak with me and made tea as well. Drinking tea and leaning against the information under the awning, we made small and kind conversation.

'It just surprises me how raw everything is here. I mean, you go outdoors where I'm from and you’re fine, but here it feels like you go outdoors and, and it's just... really harsh.'

I didn't know what to say to this. He said the statement with a tone and expression that made me suspect he didn't really mean it. He said it in a way that someone says something they'd be expected to say, something they were told is true and then share the idea as though it were their own. I had been told that Canada would be as he described it, but my experience was different. My experience was that rain is rain, cold is cold, and wind is wind. In mass concentration it can be more difficult psychologically and physically, but there was nothing overtly sinister about the landscape. We exchanged emails and parted ways.

That was the first day I was ever forced to stop by darkness. I don't remember what time it was, but under the heavy clouds it became so dark I could hardly see. I had climbed away from the river and was moving through bland forest, curving hills, and obscure views. I wanted a camp spot with flowing water, with firewood, and shelter. Instead I found a rest stop, complete with an outhouse and picnic tables. I set up in the rain and darkness on a somewhat flat patch of gravel towards the far end, and with no trouble, fell quickly to sleep.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


My parents, bless them, sent me packages on several occasions. They would choose a town somewhere ahead of me and then address the package to general delivery with a note to the postman to expect a wet and tired guy on a bike to stumble in at some point and pick it up. These packages primarily contained pieces of gear that I asked for, such as my new kickstand, a replacement tail light for the one I lost in Deadhorse, new earphones, etc, but they also contained, or so I had been promised, some food from home.

Up until this point in my trip I had only received one package in Fairbanks, and it had snuck out without my mother’s knowing. So when I opened it eagerly, hoping for an offset from the Alaskan diet, I have to confess to slight disappointment at finding only the kickstand inside. To make matters worse, expensive as it was, the kickstand turned out to be worse than my original, and so after going through a tremendous ordeal installing and adjusting it and many failed attempt to use it, when I got to Whitehorse, I finally traded back to my original flimsy, simple one and threw the other away.

My second package was waiting for me in Dease Lake. Dease Lake was a dot on my map like any other, but I had heard that this particular dot was the location of a grocery store. By the time I drew near the town I was well into the mountains.

The light was cold and lifeless, the result of thick low clouds and the sun beginning to slide diagonally into the horizon somewhere unseen. The town began as all those towns did, with several mailboxes set beside mysterious dirt roads in the trees. Then houses, quiet and dark in the rain. Then a paved street or two branching off from the highway and finally the town proper. This is usually just the large mobile building which serves as convenience store, gas station, post office, and restaurant. Dease Lake was no exception. I went in to buy some pasta and chili.

It took a very long time for me to reach a point far enough south that at least half the customers in any given store weren't family members and friends half working and half eating. This store was not that far south. It wasn't empty, and it was fairly well stocked, but as I worked through the rows I soon gathered that most everyone else in the store were either related or good friends. I took my basket up to the counter to check out.

'Where's the lake?' I asked the young native girl who was bagging my groceries. I had seen a large lake a dozen or so miles back, but had lost track of it in the trees as I came closer to town.

'What lake?' she asked freezing midway through scanning a loaf of bread, looking distressed and surprised. Being in Dease Lake I meant the question to refer to Dease Lake.

'Isn't there a lake here? I'm looking for a place to camp.'

She still looked startled and a little frightened by my question, but after a moment she answered, still holding the bread and using it to gesture like a pointer.

'Oh, yeah, there's a lake over past the bar. Just go right before the bar, then turn left just after and then go to the end and you'll see a dirt road that'll go down to the water.'

Those were good enough directions for me. I paid and snugged my hat back on my head before going back out into the light rain. It was too late to go to the post office, which was adjacent but kept different hours than the store, so I rode off to find the lake.

I found the bar, a sad quiet affair, and went to the end of the road behind it. Several dirt roads split off in different directions, all muddy, rocky and steep. I wasn't even sure that I'd be able to get down any of them, let alone push my heavy bike back up.

This type of situation is very common when touring. I frequently find myself at some point of decision, with limited information and relatively high consequences for failure. Choosing the wrong road could mean an hour of muddy frustration. Do I go and find someone to ask about which road leads where? Do I camp where I stand? Do I get back on the highway and find a more sure but less ideal place? I decided to choose a road, but which road? I feel that I have a sense for this type of decision. I don't think that there is anything mysterious about such a sense, but assume that it springs from a subconscious evaluation of many minute and subtle factors in a situation. Like in this instance, I was probably doing nothing more than looking at tire marks, inclination of the terrain and roads, and imagining where the lake might be situated. Regardless of why I did what I did, I chose the road on the right. The decision turned out to be correct. After a few minutes of skidding carefully over glossy mud covered stones and dodging ruts I arrived at a small clearing in the trees along the water’s edge. The light was now a deeper and more sinister shade of grey. The lake looked small from where I stood, more like a pond, but at the far end it may have taken a corner and connected to a bigger body of water. The bottom was deep black mud and the edges were fringed with twigs covered in dark moss.

I immediately set about making a fire. People had obviously camped here before. There were several dark scorch marks and half hearted fire rings in addition to sparse pieces of soggy trash. A canoe sat filling slowly with water half up on the beach. I threw some wet branches down in one of the fire rings and slopped a generous amount of gasoline from my fuel tank over them. I took a napkin from my bike, wrapped it around the end of a stick and doused it with gasoline as well. I lit the napkin and threw it onto the branches which exploded with a warm -woosh!-

As the fire started I began the thousand and one chores that camping requires and that make you appreciate the convenience of a modern life. But before I had even set up my tent I noticed that the fire was in critical condition. The gasoline had all burned away and only one small part of one branch was still burning, a small cold candle defiant in the drizzle. By the time I knelt down next to the fire even that had gone out. I don't have time to deal with this right now! I thought, frustrated. I retrieved my fuel canister and this time unloaded an even larger quantity of gasoline onto the smoking pile, arranged the branches in a more deliberate way and repeated my technique with the napkin.

The fire died down quickly again, but this time the branches burned with enough energy to overcome their moisture, the coolness, and the rain. I nearly had my tent set up when I caught movement in the trees fifty feet away.

A man tromped down the hill and onto the beach, a backpack slung over his shoulder and a box of Canadian Beer under his arm. I appraised him for a moment and then called out,


The man waved a casual hand at me and continued coming forward.

'This isn't your property is it?' I asked him.

'This? No, f--- no man. This isn't my property. Hell I camped here last night. Over there, by that tree. Damn good camping spot. You should camp over there.'

'Well, I’m about set up here,' I said gesturing to my tent and fire, 'I think I'll stay here.'

'F--- man, there's some damn good fire wood over there. You wanna beer?' He held up the box in offering.

'It'd be hard to say no to that,' I said smiling.

The man very happily tossed me a beer and opened one for himself. He squat down where he was and looked at me through narrow eyes.

He was one of those people who talks, who needs to talk. It doesn't matter what he's talking about, as long as he is the one doing the talking and there are sufficient places in the topic for him to alternately complain and then to offer advice.

He had hitch hiked up to Canada from the US some years ago and had been slowly passing his life chopping firewood, working in mines, logging, and acting as a handy man as he wandered around the country.

He was an operator. He invested in people with beer and company and always earned a return. He would readily side with you on any of your grievances, and damn those anonymous third parties who had grieved you. It's a funny fact of life that those whose advice you'd like to hear are generally tight lipped, but bums are inextinguishable sources of insight and wisdom, not to judge a book by its cover, Socrates was something of a bum after all. But far from Socratic questioning, my friend was a fount of simple advice, 'you just gotta be open to opportunities man,' complaints, 'F--- the US,' and the precious stories of his daily life, 'That canoe belongs to a fat Samoan dude. Huge f----- guy. He came down here last night and we had way too many beers and he's like 'let's go fishing maan!' and so he gets in the boat and I start pushing it out and he just tips over and his feet go straight up and he fell in with his clothes on and everything, f----- hilarious man!'

We spoke for a short while, but he seemed to realize that I was not going to be able to match the fat Samoan, so he offered me more beer, climbed into the canoe and disappeared slowly to the far end of the lake. Twilight lasted for hours, and by the time I had bathed in the lake, made dinner, cleaned up, and gotten in bed it was dark and I fell instantly to sleep.

Coming out of the timeless obscurity of sleep sometime in the middle of the night is always disorienting. It is not so bad at home; lights come in from the street or off the microwave or the other room.

It's warm and secure and dry. But sleeping alone on a thin membrane above the muddy ground is different. I was still too focused, too consumed and resigned to my situation that I remained emotionally distant from it, but was still aware of it. And so it was with a detached understanding that I was suddenly awake. The rain still parterre lightly on the roof of my tent, but that was not what woke me. In the distance, across the lake and through the trees a deep booming had begun.

I checked my clock, 2:35, What on earth is going on out there? ‘Boom, Boom, Boom,’ it continued in cadence, loud and pulsing. Then I heard shrieking, the high-pitched wail of a girl’s voice. Then laughter, shrieking, and then the shrieking broke into laughter. Guys were yelling, girls were yelling and through it all continued the deep ‘Boom, Boom, Boom!'

Why do they have to have a party now? I thought rolling over in my sleeping bag. I listened and made out the song above the booming base. I wasn't expecting to get blasted with Rihanna here of all places. Apparently there was a house hidden in the trees not too far from where I slept and there was something worth celebrating that night, something worth celebrating for hours. I can't say for sure but I assume that that thing was alcohol itself. Laying down there in the mud by the lake I was distantly aware that the people in the house were probably my age, or at least close to it. I had no desire to go join them but was suddenly struck with the realization of how far my life had drifted away from that of my peers and old friends. I don't think I have ever felt so estranged from my peer group. It wasn't a sad feeling, it wasn't a feeling of superiority, it was simply the recognition of there being a great separation between me and them.

It's a distance I have felt all my life, but has sprung into tangible existence since my setting off on this trip. I lay awake thinking that the music would never stop, but the next thing I knew it was morning, and aside from the rain, it was quiet.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Heavy Like Gold, Hard Like Diamonds

The minor differences between British Columbia and the Yukon were enough to amuse me for a while. At the border of the province are several large signs bearing tourist information and touting the land’s greatness. It seems every town, province, state, and country has a slogan in which it tries to convince any visitor that their land is the best place on earth. Often this theme is hinted at or implied indirectly by making some statement about the richness of culture or the beauty of the landscape. British Columbia, however, simply comes out and states it directly. 'British Columbia: the Best Place on Earth.' Bold statement, I thought. But they don't stop there. They have selected two slogans which are repeated with equal frequency and seem to compete for official status. 'British Columbia: Super, Natural.' Oh no, a pun.

The road was narrower and more coarsely surfaced. There was no strip down it's center and, like the Dalton, it was completely subject to any whim of the terrain. The road was pasted to every undulation and dip and seemed to choose its course without any grand plan in mind. Road signs were often supported, not on standardized sign posts, but on pieces of wood nailed together and set on the ground (or by one of many other means of ingenuity).

In the Yukon Territory, short, washboard sections of dirt were a minor nuisance and were fairly common. Here, on the Cassiar, unpaved sections were very common, only much longer and generally more problematic. I dove headlong into my first day, eyes on the road and mind on the weeks ahead. I was aware of drawing closer to the mountains but I didn't give them much thought except for a detached anxiety about how much climbing they might mean.

I soon came across a young German couple. The woman spoke very little English and her boyfriend was not much better, though he did not hesitate to make an effort.

'Ve love it here. This very nice. Is beautiful!' I looked around. It is beautiful, I thought. My tense frame of mind hadn't allowed me to notice or appreciate the emotional resonance of the setting. I was directly at the base of the mountains whose rocky bases began across the pond and through the trees. The mountains had color, orange volcanic rock drawing out the deep purple in the granite and the green of the trees on their shallower slopes. The mountains were not especially large, and perhaps for that reason alone I had written them off, expecting instead the sheer dizzying grandeur of those peaks shown with dramatic music in nature documentaries. I resolved to try and appreciate my experience more as I wished the German couple luck and set off again.

The road wasn't mean, although perhaps a little spiteful in some of its short steep climbs, but I didn't mind. Every half hour or so an RV, construction truck, or local car would creep around me, but other than that it was silent and I was alone. That evening I found a place to camp at Good Hope Lake.

In addition to being a body of water, Good Hope Lake is a couple houses with large satellite dishes and a large convenience store. The store is a large mobile building that has one or two small and mostly empty shelves inside and is tended by an angry young local. I found a rocky dirt road that descended a steep embankment from the highway and led to a small sandy beach on the edge of the lake.

The water was crystal, cool, and blue. Small ripples pushed up on the shore through which I could clearly see sand and pebbles swelling in the refraction. I wondered if my camera would be able to capture the effect that I found so mesmerizing, so I took several photos before setting up camp.

Until that night I never really had a proper fire. I had built other fires, but due to the amount of attention they required, my level of fatigue and the direction of their smoke, I never drew much comfort from them. But this night I was so ecstatic with my campsite that I decided to do the thing properly. I had a cable saw with me, a thin steel wire with sharp teeth protruding from it and I decided to give it a try. I found a large dead branch still firmly affixed to a nearby tree and wrapped the wire around it at its widest point. My first several strokes stuck suddenly in the grove and I had to jerk the wire back to free it. After a moment I realized that by keeping my arms wide and fixed and rotating through my shoulders and hips, the wire wouldn't catch. The cable cut quickly, but it was exhausting for my back and arm muscles to keep my fists spread. The branch finally broke with a dry crack and fell down the embankment. I dragged it with one hand over to my camp and began to break it down into fire size chunks. I picked up a large boulder and threw it down onto the branches where I wanted to break them, but soon the boulder began to bounce off of the thicker points and I had to revert back to my saw. The wood burned well. It was warm and constant and I had enough of it that the fire maintained its critical heat and so did not make any smoke or require constant attention. I listened to music, prepared my dinner, and sat staring at the flames as darkness came and stars appeared. After that night, whenever possible, I always built a fire.

I have spent enough time rock climbing to develop a sincere affection for stone. Rock climbing puts you in intimate proximity and dependency with stone. It requires visual and tactile scrutiny of every detail, every flake and crack and texture. You learn to feel the softness and warmth in some, the sharp coldness that drains heat from your fingertips in others. It takes on innumerably varied forms and offers a dramatic template in which to entirely immerse yourself. Every time I rose past a curve in the road that had been blasted into rock it was always an interesting study for me to wonder at the age and composition of the exposed layers.

I came to a place called Jade City. I had heard the word before, of course. Jade. I had some notion of a polished green stone which was sometimes used on ancient necklaces or art. I knew that it was sometimes used in new age healing and was supposed to carry a positive energy, but I had never given it a second thought. There is a shop in Jade City which I only visited because of the sign out front offering free coffee and because it was beginning to rain. This shop is practically the only thing in the 'town', aside from several other unremarkable buildings set quietly into the trees along the road. It sells jade in the form of several dozen slightly imperfect and cheesy statues of local animals, rings, necklaces, doorstops, paperweights, charms, totems, and on and on.

I fetched my coffee and looked around, grateful for an excuse to be off the bike. The raw jade is flown in from a quarry somewhere off in the mountains. Large boulders are strewn about in front of the shop waiting to be processed by large screaming saws that are left unattended to work their way through chunks of stone. Jade is such a dense and fibrous material that it is only worked with diamond tipped tools, and even then it can take hours for one of these saws to work its way though even an inch of a quality stone. I couldn't find anything in the store that I liked. I gazed over shelves of imbalanced green bears reaching across their wooden pedestals for a little metal fish, at bins full of delicate translucent jade rings, and at the minute pieces of green that had been worked into countless earrings, bracelets, and necklaces. I didn't like any of the transformed pieces, but the stone itself, raw, heavy, deep green, and pure, seemed to me a substance of such legitimacy that I understood all the claims made about the stones healing energy. I finally bought a small, simple little oval of rock, unornamented, plain, and tucked it into a pocket on my bike.

I mark that store as a transformational point in the forest. North of here the trees are dry and dull. Sometimes dense and sometimes as sparse as the furthest reaches of the Boreal Line, they simply did not carry the electric mystery I was expecting and hoping for. After Jade City the forest was suddenly dark and full. It seemed intriguing in the way that only something alive or seemingly concealing life can be intriguing. In the cool light rain I moved without effort for miles, trying to stare as deeply as possible between the trees as they flashed by, trying to catch glimpses of concealed moss covered rock faces, ponds happy with lily pads, and the never visible, always audible, sound of flowing water.