Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Apple Pie for Breakfast

Apple pie for breakfast, I thought, rolling over in my sleeping bag and smiling to myself. I would make warm apple pie for breakfast. Even with this incentive I found it difficult to get out of bed. Nevertheless, a few minutes later I managed to stumble out of my tent and grab the cooking stuff from the bag on my bike. I cut one of the apples I had taken from the hotel in Deadhorse into thin pieces. I simmered the apple in one pot and placed two apple cinnamon Nutrigrain bars in a second pot. Since I only had one stove, I turned it on high heat and alternated the pot with apples and the pot with the bars over the flame, switching them every few seconds. Soon the apple slices cooked and the bars began to get crispy so I combined them into one pot and broke up the bars with the edge of my spork.

To the north, green rolling hills retreated for many miles before dumping back onto the perfectly flat tundra which then spilled into the Arctic Ocean. To the south was the formidable Brooks Range, a 700 mile East to West barrier dividing the North Slope of Alaska from the rest of the state. I knew that the Atigun Pass was ahead somewhere frozen in granite, but I had no idea how far it was or what it was really like. All I knew were the wide eyed stares that I had gotten from people who had driven through it as they learned that I would be doing it by bicycle.

I took a bite of the warm apple mess in the pot, deciding that it wasn't bad, and that it was nearly as good as the real thing. It was still by far the best breakfast I had eaten on the road.

I cleaned up the camping site, bid farewell to the small creek, and pushed my heavy bike back up onto the road.

There is a certain trick of perspective that occurs when cycling great distances. Assuming that you are not on a particularly large hill, it always appears that the road is headed down into a distant valley, and looks as though you have just climbed out of a valley. That is to say that the road always appears to be downhill in both directions. Since, at the time, I did not know that this was illusory, I looked forward with excitement to the valley that ran off down between the mountains in the hazy distance. The road would surely follow the valley, I thought, so I'll at least have some nice downhill before I get to the pass. I clipped in and started to go.

I slowly weaved my way through mountains that steadily became more sheer and grew in height. Everything was still a hazy, subdued, and slightly orange shade. It looked as though whoever had painted the landscape had used too much white, rendering every color a soft pastel.

The road weaved between the mountains, rising and falling over their rippling bases. I struggled over hill after hill, convinced that the next would be the one that would finally drop me into that long descending valley. The air was still when I started, but slowly began to blow against me, an icy trickle at first, but soon it had escalated into a mean spirited resistance. I imagined the wind being sucked through the pass somewhere in the mountains ahead, curving sleekly through it, ambitiously climbing over the highest point of the range so that it could dive to the bottom for the sole purpose of making my life miserable.

I was becoming very discouraged at how slowly I was going. And I'm headed downhill, into that valley, I told myself naively. Why is it so difficult?! Why am I going so slowly?! I must have really overdone it

yesterday. After hours of toiling, I stopped for lunch, crouched from the wind behind a wooden sign on the side of the road that cited important information for traffic entering the pump station for the pipeline just up ahead.

I pulled food from my bag and looked back the way I had come. The road descended in long repetitive dips for miles. The rolling hills in the distance were clearly beneath me now and I was completely surprised to see how high I had climbed or even that I had climbed at all. Maybe this is the pass, I thought to myself, looking around at the sheer granite walls all around me. I mean I am pretty high up, and it looks like the road might just curve around those two mountains ahead, and then maybe that will be it! I loaded my food back onto my bike, hardly letting myself hope that I was right. My knee still hurt tremendously, my back was aching, and my backside was fast becoming very sore. I was also tired, very tired.

Far from riding at a leisurely pace, I had been clawing aggressively over steep hills all morning, the kind of hill that looked small in the vastness of Alaska, the kind that would stand out and be regarded as 'that really big hill' in my hometown. The road was still rock and dirt and dust.

I soldiered on. The cliffs around me drew closer. There was now a small splashing river following me into the mountains, and it grew thinner mile by mile as I drew higher. This must be it, I thought, but don't even let yourself hope. I'll climb all day and night if I have to. I slowly came around another corner in the granite and then saw it. A sharp diagonal line was cut into the mountain in front of me as though someone had slashed across the mountain’s face with a knife. Halfway up the grade an enormous semi truck looked like a miniscule rocket, a long plume of dust bellowing up behind it. The truck’s engine hammered and roared, its echoes filling the canyon. I stared for a moment, struck with the brutal geometric beauty of the scene. I fumbled around in my handlebar bag for a moment, pulled out my camera and absently snapped a picture, knowing that it would utterly fail to capture the moment.

I was tired. I was beyond my limit just in reaching this point. I could not give any more. I stood and stared as the truck finally reached a turn in the road and turned out of sight. The noise of its engine seemed to die away unnaturally quickly. I wondered how much higher the road climbed around that corner. It didn't matter. Staring a moment longer, my mind began to accept the situation and I suddenly found myself ready to continue.

I set off towards the grade at ten miles an hour. As the road steepened I watched my speed drop to six, and then three. Do you know how slow three miles an hour is? It is hardly fast enough to balance.

My tires slipped a little on the gravel every couple seconds. I began to slalom, back and forth across the road to lessen the angle. I counted my progress in inches, not feet.

My back was aching, my knee was splitting, and the wind was loud and horrible. Yet inevitably the valley floor fell away and the cold grey granite walls became level with me.

I did not find it beautiful. The mountains were cold, still, and lifeless. A pale green moss clung to some of the faces. Every so often a small gushing finger of water sprouted from the boulders lining the road. I couldn't imagine any of these mountains having names, or being worthy of having names. They seemed too unloved, too eternally frozen and dead to be considered anything other than an obstacle for the road.

I wanted to stop. I wanted to stop so badly, but I just kept pushing myself a little further and then a little further still. I eventually reached the corner I had seen the truck disappear around and saw that the road did continue to climb, curving dramatically away towards two stone grey peaks.

I added inch to painful inch and continued to climb. I tried to quiet my mind and relax the muscles I wasn't using. I noticed that my face was strained, contorted with exertion. I relaxed it and told myself to keep it calm. Despite my best efforts, every couple of minutes I would suddenly notice that my face had contorted once again into a pained expression. Finally, clawing, scraping, and sweating in the cold wind I reached the top of the pass. There was a dirt turn around which I coasted over to in order to rest and take in the view.

There were beaten metal signs with bullet holes through them warning of avalanches and rock slides. Some sturdy silent weather equipment had been installed a short ways away. On either side of the road stood two sharp granite peaks. The distance was hazy, the sky was white and the wind was cold and strong. There was nothing alive.

At almost five thousand feet above sea level and more than 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, this can indisputably be counted as one of the far corners of the world. I realized that at the time and paused to ask myself how I felt. Nothing. I still felt nothing. Not accomplishment, not loneliness, not anything. It was cold and now that I was no longer biking it was starting to chill me. Time to get out of this wretched place, I thought to myself.

As I clicked into my pedals to go, I noticed that I was no longer alone. At the far end of the lot sat a man on a Harley. He wore all black leather, black sunglasses and had a black skullcap framing his face and full red beard. The man was staring at me. He was also positioned between me and the road heading south.

I pedaled towards him, shouting hello above the wind as I drew near. I noticed his liberal gut filled his leather jacket, practically resting on and engulfing his large gas tank. The man stared at me with a determined lack of expression on his face and then gave me a quick nod.

I wondered what he must think of me. I wondered if he barely considered me, or if maybe he was insulted by my presence as though by doing on bicycle what he no doubt considered a great achievement by motorbike made him feel less adventurous. I wondered if I made him feel fat and lazy. I returned his nod assuming an equally stoic expression and began to coast down the grade.

I am writing this roughly thirty days into my journey, and I still have not gone faster than I did on that descent. Even after more than a thousand miles of smoothly paved roads and large Alaskan hills, nothing has come close.

I tucked down into the headwind hoping my gear would stay strapped on, hoping that my bike would hold together as it bounced and skidded and pinged rocks out from under the tires. Once or twice I hit soft gravel, every muscle in my body instantly going rigid to keep the bike from drifting. Soon I began to slow and found myself pedaling again.

I had hardly blinked on the descent, and had not risked even the quickest glance from the road, but as I leveled out and slowed down I looked around.

The change in scenery was immediately apparent. While the sky was still white and hazy, the plants were deeper and more lush. The cliff faces around me seemed more warm and alive. A couple minutes later I came to the 'Furthest Toilet.'

This is not a cleverly named rest stop as it quite simply is the furthest north public restroom on the highway. A small, brown wooden outhouse, it is not impressive, but it was the first sign on my trip of any services for a traveler. About one hundred feet south of the toilet is the 'Furthest North Spruce,' also accurately named. I rode over to the tree and read the plaque explaining it.

The poor tree, hundreds of years old, but only just over a dozen feet tall, was killed several years ago when the bark at its base was vandalized, scored deeply all the way around exposing it to the elements. The tree now stands leafless and grey, but otherwise perfectly intact. This tree marks the beginning of the Borreal Forest and the end of the tundra. The siblings of the tree begin only feet south of it. Grinning to myself I wondered if maybe the 'Second Furthest North Spruce' had killed its brother out of jealousy.

As I continued south I began to hear birds chirping. There was sparse leafy foliage timidly filling in beneath the now common spruce trees.

A small squirrel ran out to the end of his stubby branch as I passed, every muscle in its small body tense with fury as it squeaked loudly at me.

It was still not beautiful, and the forest was stunted, barely alive.

The trees here grow slowly and only ever reach about twelve feet in height. Their branches are short and clumpy, giving the tree a sad shriveled kind of appearance. It all adds to create a bizarre otherworldly kind of place.

The Dalton highway is never nice. Let me repeat that because I mean it very seriously: the Dalton highway is never, ever, not for one moment, nice. In this case, for instance, although it was trending downhill, it continually rose and fell over the legs of the mountains surrounding the valley, preferring these hills to the flat valley floor. The wind was still in my face and was wearying. Finally I had covered an acceptable number of miles and found a place next to a stream where there was room to set up my tent.

Unlike the nearly dead stream to the north of the mountains, this one was chortling and happy and fresh. It seemed absolutely delighted to bound over and around the small boulders in its bed before disappearing off into the stunted forest. I set up my tent on the rocks to the side of the stream, prepared food, washed in the happy, ice cold water and quickly fell asleep.

1 comment:

  1. | You do realize your are writing a book.

    Good work David !!