Saturday, August 22, 2009


I carefully lifted the pot of icy water over my head, cringing where small drips splashed over the edge and fell on my bare torso. My feet and ankles were in that prickling burning frozen phase that comes before numbness and after the initial shock of the cold. I stood in the mouth of a large steel pipe that channeled the creek under the road. The creek was fed by water oozing out of the tundra in the summer heat like water from a sponge and moved just barely enough to keep from getting sick.

I took a gulping breath and upended the pot of water over by head, gasping as liquid icicles spread slender fingers down my body. I filled the pot again and poured it over my face. The water tasted salty from the sweat in my hair and on my forehead. I stepped a little deeper into the pipe to avoid the wind as I began to lather soap across my chest and down my arms.

Three days. I had finished three days on the road and still I was stoic. I expected that I would thaw as my routine formed and that feelings and emotions would begin to flow and trickle over me in sometimes icy sometimes warm rivulets. But there was nothing.

I leaned over, and with a light and unhealthy scraping noise, picked up the light aluminum pot from the rock I had set it on and filled it again. I lifted it and poured it slowly down my hair. I imagined my first day washing off, imbuing the water with stress and pain and hard defiance. I dipped the pot again, its metal rim clinking against stones in the small stream, and poured it over my shoulders. Day two washed off in a dirty sheet of dust and sweat. It washed off in a sheet of rolling hills and low coiling bushes and black mudded river valleys.

I had awoken late the morning of my second day. Ten o'clock and my sleep still sat on me heavily, making me not want to move. Some combination of small pillow and hard mattress had caused my jaw to slide out of place. I moved it around slowly and with a strong internal, thock, it slid back in place. I felt a canker sore forming in the corner of my mouth and it seemed that one of my wisdom teeth had chosen that night to begin its painful debut. I rolled over and crawled out of my bag and staggered out of the tent. The day, once again, was the same as the day before. Plain white sky and empty cold wind.

The rain had stopped and I noticed with relief that it didn't seem to have saturated the road during the night. I noticed a small brown disc on the ground beneath my bike and picked it up. It was the plastic lid I had been using to place my kickstand on. It had cracked under the pressure in the night and that was why my bike had fallen over. I held up the lid and turned it over. It was still useable; I would just have to be very careful how I weighted it.

It took me a couple of hours to eat breakfast and clean up the campsite, so I didn't get started until nearly one. I pedaled slowly across the large parking lot back towards the road. The truck that had been parked at the other end of the lot, the truck that gave me company and felt like my friend, had moved on before I woke.

I made it back to the road and pedaled tentatively at first, unsure how violently my knee would object to being put to use again so shortly after the prior day’s abuse. Within a couple miles the pain returned, and the pain was worrying and wearying.

Trucks continued to pass, flinging me with rocks that sometimes stung and dust that coated my clothes and skin. Occasionally two trucks headed in opposite directions would pass me at the same time so that I was forced into the deep and dangerous gravel further on the side of the road.

The road was wide and elevated about ten feet above the tundra. Tall metal posts with reflectors at their tops lined the road so that its path would be discernible in the winter when even breath froze. Motorcyclists on rugged roaring beasts flew past in both directions several times an hour and usually gave some sign of recognition. My favorite of these signs was the clenched fist, raised and meant to impart strength. It worked.

The Alaskan oil pipeline, the only reason that there's anything this far north anyways, materialized out of the haze to the right of the road and ran parallel to it. Large signs marking the mile of the pipeline came with it and reminded me how slowly the miles were passing.

52, the last one I've noticed said 52. I thought, the next ones got to be like 57... Or maybe even 58. In the distance the orange sign came closer and closer until, finally, it was legible. A large 53 was inscribed across it in big black letters. That was the way it went. Miles crawled by. A minute never passed that I wasn't painfully aware of. Time was eternal. Feet added to feet and very, very slowly added to miles.

Out of the haze in the distance I saw some large structure loom, like some gaudy fictional city of spires and light and steel. What on earth? I wondered as I drew closer and the towers became more solid. I thought there wasn't anything for hundreds of miles. Because the haze made everything look more distant than it was I quickly arrived at the structure. A chain link fence surrounded it and there was a sign on a metal post across the street that said 'Pump Station One - No Services.' I rode by staring up at the structure, wondering what other bizarre things were lurking in the haze ahead.

At last the road made its first turn, a big yawning turn to the right, stretching and flexing its muscle like the first stretch you make in the morning after a night of good sleep, arms wide and fingers curled. After this, the road seemed to wake up and dove headlong into the first hills rising out of the tundra. I climbed it slowly, inevitably, taking care not to strain my knee.

Far beneath me to my left, the river veered away and I bid it farewell and regretted never getting to meet it. I climbed and found that I could climb. The temperature had come up and it was warm now, in the seventies, and I was sweating. The road fell and then rose again, steep and rocky. And then again it fell and climbed. And again and again it rose and fell, climbing as aggressively as possible over the rolling hills, turning only just enough so that a truck could rumble up the hill in its lowest gear. I sure hope there's a point to all this up and down, I thought. I kept climbing. After some time I would peak the largest hill on the horizon expecting to look from its peak and have a clear and distant view of where I was headed and where the road flattened out but was always disappointed in seeing more hills identical to the ones I had just climbed. Minutes still ticked by with painful lethargy and I tried not to look at the mile markers because I already had learned that they told discouraging lies.

The road curved around and began a long descent. I had not realized that I had climbed so high. It was steep and I was moving quickly, a bit faster than I felt comfortable with. The road was bumpy and curved sharply. A semi blasted from behind me and I slowed slightly as it flew around a blind corner leaving me in a cloud of dust. The road dropped further and as I came around the next corner I realized that it was dumping me back along the river. Great. Thanks for that. You know we could have just stayed down here. I hope you got that out of your system, I muttered to the road.

The road, it turned out, had not gotten it out of its system and continued to shoot randomly up into the steep hills to the right of the river, roller coaster along for a while, and then plunge back down into the valley. It was wearying and I pushed along hard, not leisurely cruising, but sweating and breathing hard and working hard. The miles inevitably began to stack and I reached forty, feeling pleased that I had been able to match the previous day. In the haze ahead, partway up the next hill, something quivered into form.

'I can't let you ride here.'

The man was maybe forty. His skin was red and peeling lightly from, as he later explained to me, getting a cold burn several years ago working the road in the winter. He still had most of his teeth but it didn't look like he put too much effort into trying to keep them. He wore jeans, work boots, a hardhat and an orange reflective vest.

'You'll have to ride in the back of the truck, it's only a couple miles. We're working here and it's not safe.' he said. It was only my second day and the idea of getting a free ride for a couple miles both tempted and appalled me.

'Is there no way I can ride it?' I asked him.

He eyed me and my bike for a minute and then said, 'I can understand you wantin’ to ride the whole thing. We had some biker come through here last year, rode all the way from Argentina and then we made him go in the truck. It was the only part he didn't ride. I said to him don't worry, I won't ever tell nobody.'

I stared back thinking well you're telling me now, I wonder how many other times you've told this story. After a pause the man said, 'I tell you what, I get off in an hour, or an hour and a half, or half an hour or somthin’, whenever the trucks stop coming. You can ride through then. You can just wait over there,' he pointed to the side of the road behind his parked truck. I pulled over and sat on the ground and pulled out my bags of food. The worker spat some words into his walkie talkie and some other words spat back out of it. Then he turned and stared at me shamelessly, taking in every detail of my appearance and making me feel uncomfortable.

'I'm Ken' he said.

'Dave,' I answered.

'Where you goin?' he asked.

'Fairbanks and then Argentina,' I said.

'You goin’ alone?' he asked, still staring at me too concentratedly.

'Yeah, that's the plan,' I said.

He looked at me a moment and then said,

'You guys are all crazy. Do you have enough food?'

I told him about the food I had gotten in Deadhorse and how I thought that it was enough.

'I got some in my truck, if you want it,' he said, half starting towards the car.

'Sure!' I said, 'If you don't mind.'

He fished around in the car for a minute and then handed me a snack size bag of Cheezits, trail mix and a mostly empty bag of jolly ranchers.

'It's not much,' he said apologetically.

'It will help,' I said, 'thanks very much.'

He smiled at me, feeling immensely proud at the tremendous good deed he had just done.

'Sure' he said, 'I think people ought to help each other. You know, just when you can, kind of do a good thing for somebody.'

'Course,' I said, 'you want some beef jerky?' (beef jerky was one thing I had plenty of)

'Oh no, no you need it.' he answered smiling. He knew he had just been elevated to sainthood and he wouldn't let any charity on my part detract from his nearly divine status.

'I've got some water too.' he said, the idea just coming to him as he dove back into his cab and emerged with two bottles of water.

'Oh I don't want to take all your food.' I protested feebly, knowing that there was no stopping this force of goodness now anyways.

'Oh that's alright. It's all free at the camps anyways.'

A white pickup headed the other way pulled up next to us and stopped.

A man with a sparse but long white beard leaned out the window and said in a quiet, serious voice, 'Well that's the last truck, Ken.'

'This is Dave' Ken said proudly, gesturing towards me, 'I've helped him out, given him some food. He's going to Argentina.'

'The man in the truck stared at me seriously, behind serious sunglasses and then said, 'You got bear spray?'

'Uh yeah. Yeah I do.' I said.

'Good,' he said quietly, looking over me and my bike. 'Remember, if a bear attacks you, you just play dead, but if he starts to eat you, you kick him in the balls.'

I looked back at him, trying to detect some trace of humor in his expression. There was none.

'Uh, yeah. Good to know,' I said.

He turned in his seat and pointed back up the hill the way he had come. 'Stay on the left side of this hill,' he said, 'the left side has been compacted, the right side is still soft. The left side.'

White beard put his truck in gear and drove away slowly. Ken turned to me to make a big goodbye out of our parting.

'Just, uh, take care. Be careful,' he said, looking like there was something more he wanted to say.

'I will,' I said, positioning myself on my bike and getting ready to leave.

'Vaya con Dios,' Ken blurted awkwardly and then looked nervous about whether or not he had said the correct thing.

'Is that right? I mean, that means... Uh that means...'

'Go with God,' I said, 'yeah, you said it okay. From Pointbreak right?' I asked him as he had pronounced the words in exactly the same way as Keanu Reaves does in the movie.

Ken looked affronted, 'Yeah - no- I mean... It's a little more deep than that.'

'Of course, I'm only kidding. Thanks very much. I really appreciate your help,' I said, trying to mollify him. I clipped in and began to make my way slowly up the left side of the hill.

A few miles further on the pain in my knee had spread out around the tendons and muscles surrounding it and it moved from pain to weakness.

It felt as though the joint were made of a material not suitable for the stress and that at any point it simply would stop to function completely. Climbing the final hill that day was the first time the pain reached a cry-out-loud level. Three times spasms ran up and down my entire leg, a sharp and shocking pain over the top of what I was used to dealing with. I saw a small pull out up ahead and coasted over to it, relieved to have a place to stop.

The turnaround was small and with my tent set up at the back end of it, I was still only about eight feet off the road. A few feet behind my tent was a small pool of stagnant water from which poured thousands of giant mosquitoes.

I quickly dug into a pocket on my handle bar bag and found a bottle of 100% DEET. I squeezed some drops into my palm and then smeared it into the mess of dirt and sunscreen and sweat already covering my face, neck, legs and arms.

If mosquitoes are supposed to be repelled by mosquito repellent, then these particular ones missed the memo. The large things hummed around me with an audible buzzing noise as I slapped at them constantly. As quickly as I could, I changed into long sleeve clothing and then dug to the bottom of my bag and retrieved a hat with mosquito netting built in which covered my face and neck. The only part of my body that was exposed was my hands, which I kept moving constantly to prevent the mosquitoes from biting them. I set up my tent, trucks still roaring past, and threw my stuff inside as quickly as possible to prevent mosquitoes from flying in through the door. I had a quick dinner and then packed my food back into its bags and looked around for a place to hang them.

The pipeline was perhaps a hundred yards away and I thought about going over to it, but the grassy tundra had gotten deeper, mile by mile that day, and now was covered in hard, waist deep bushes. There was a sign post across the road set about 20 feet into the bushes marking an underground pipe. Why on earth there was an underground pipe there I still cannot guess. After much struggling with my nylon cord and heavy awkward bags of food and unyielding bushes, I had managed to hoist the stuff as far as I could up the sign. I stood back to admire my work. The bags hung pathetically about five feet off the ground and the sign now leaned at an awkward angle, threatening to uproot under the weight. As I watched, the cord slipped and the bags fell a couple of inches lower. Well that's the best I can do tonight, I thought, somewhat annoyed.

The pool of water next to my tent was too disgusting and too thoroughly guarded by mud and bushes to draw water from, so I conserved what little I had, brushing my teeth carefully and measuring what I drank before crawling into my tent and quickly sealing the door behind me.

On the ceiling, a half a dozen mosquitoes buzzed around, banging against the mesh windows. I reached out quickly and caught one in my hand, crushing it. These things are about the size of hummingbirds, I thought, hummingbirds that suck your blood. I deposited the large insect into a paper napkin and reached up and caught another. Actually that's a good name for them. 'Hummingbloods.' Charming. and I deposited the second insect into the napkin. As I caught the rest I wondered what on earth they must eat when there are no people around.

Finally, dirty and sticky, I fell asleep.

The noise of a truck along the Dalton highway is unlike anything else. You can hear it roaring miles away, smooth and piercing and powerful, almost indistinguishable from a jet engine at a distance. Then, as it gets closer, the pure jet noise is supplemented with the rumbling of tires, the grinding innards and changing gears of the machine. It is loud. You would not believe how loud it is in the otherwise perfectly silent world. As I lay in my tent, half asleep and only a couple feet off the side of the road, it sounded like the noise was coming straight towards me and I had to tell myself again and again that I was not going to be run over as I woke up from dream after dream in which I was crushed under some giant machine.

Despite the noise I managed some decent sleep, and then, in a moment of silence, there was a voice.

'Hello? Hello?'

I turned in my sleep, sure that the voice was part of my bizarre dreams. Then the voice was much closer, the undeniable reality of it harshly contrasting with the expected ambiguities of my dreams.


I rolled over quickly, looking out of the mesh of my tent towards the road. A stooped figure dressed in all black was creeping tentatively towards me. He had long black hair and a scraggly black beard. He walked as though he had lived his whole life in a cave whose ceiling was too low to allow him to stand all the way upright. As he walked his hands absently clawed the air ahead of him as though feeling for spider webs.

'Yeah?' I said, feeling around for my can of mace.

The man crept right up to my tent, so close I could see the dirt on his face.

He surveyed me for a moment and then said, 'You know where Happy Valley is?'

I relaxed. Happy Valley, I knew, was the work camp along the river about ten miles back.

'Oh, yeah,' I said rubbing the sleep from my eyes, 'it's about ten miles that way, on the right. You can't miss it.'

The man was quiet for a moment and then noticed my bike, 'You on a bicycle?' he asked.

'Oh, uh, yeah. I am,' I answered, wanting to go back to sleep. The man was quiet for a long moment, thinking deeply. Then he asked, 'Are you crazy?'

'Yup,' I answered immediately, rolling back over and pulling the sleeping bag over my head. I heard the man slowly creep away, get back in his car and drive off. I fell asleep again almost instantly.

Beneath the Atigun Pass

Hundreds of small slimy fingers rushed up at me and then in unison pulled away momentarily before reaching up again in a synchronized dance. I stood crouched on a low flat stone near the edge of the river, staring into the water and watching the strange mossy tendrils swirl in the current. This was the first time I had filled my water bottles from a non stagnant source and I watched with pleasure as the plentiful clear water poured into their open mouths with a slight gurgle. I hoped to make it to Galbraith that day, a full ten miles further than the day before, twenty miles further than the first day.

Day three had been a near exact repeat of the second day, except that the rolling hills had rolled higher, and to the side of the road the first small efforts of the Brooks Range to make mountains rise high above the road. The third day, like the second, had been full of sweat and short of breath and time. It was hotter today, into the eighties, and was humid. It rained a little as I rode, which felt good in the mucky air and the heat.

The road still seemed to prefer a good hill to the flat smooth river valley, to which it frequently returned in order to remind me that there was no purpose whatsoever in ever having climbed the hills to leave it. At times the road was smooth as glass, a moist, packed river mud that glazed by undulating with a wet noise under my tires. Other times it was gravel and deep and rocky and hell. There were small slow creeks every ten miles and pools of dead water everywhere. Time still passed with intolerable lethargy and my knee still hurt, but did not feel worse than the first or second day.

I capped my bottles, climbed back onto my bike and began moving slowly up the next pointless hill. I worked for miles more, swatting at mosquitoes and beads of sweat that felt like mosquitoes. Dust continued to build on my skin and clothes. Another truck blasted by, incredibly loudly. A large chunk of gravel shot from behind it and struck me hard on the cheek, stinging. An impossible amount of time later, and after an impossible number of hills, I arrived at Galbraith, where a small oozing creek ran under the road.

It was paradise, camping there. The mosquitoes were tolerable and fresh water was abundant. I was a good ways away from the main road on a secondary road that led to an old airstrip. After setting up my tent, I grabbed my cooking pot and my soap and towel and waded into the cold water by the mouth of the large steel pipe that channeled water under the road. I filled the pot and, after taking a large breath, poured the water over my head.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Day One: The North Slope of Alaska

By the time I woke, gathered the food I had drying under the heater in the bathroom, loaded everything securely onto the bike and checked out of my room, it was already after 12. I had hoped to get an early start this morning, making a short and leisurely day of it in order to give myself time to adjust to life on the road. The late start bothered me.

I wheeled my bike down the hall of the hotel feeling slightly stressed. I made it to the front door, which was two doors wide, but had a metal bar running down between the two. There were two sets of these doors creating a small entry room as is often done in areas that have extreme weather. Both sets of doors were heavy metal and swung shut quickly and powerfully when opened.

I maneuvered myself around so that I was standing in front of the bike and grabbed the handle bars with both hands. The bike wobbled and I could feel it flex and wiggle like a fish under all the weight. As I began to back through the doors I noticed a bulletin board to my right that had a printout with a photograph of a large grizzly bear sniffing around a window of the building. Beneath the picture it said: WARNING! GRIZZLY BEAR SIGHTED IN AREA. NO TENT CAMPING. It also had a date, a few days prior. Great, I thought. Perfect.

I backed slowly through first the inner door, the bags on the sides of my bike scraping against the door posts on either side, then the outer door, and then stopped at the top of the short flight of perforated steel stairs leading down to the gravel road. The rear half of the bike still stuck part way into the entry way even as the front tire flirted with the edge of the top step. I wiggled around to the side of the bike and grabbed the handlebars with my left hand and hooked my right beneath the seat. Very slowly and very carefully I lifted and lowered the bike one stair at a time onto the gravel.

The day was identical to the day before, the sky a monotone white blanket, the wind cold and strong, the horizon disappearing into a distant orange haze, completely devoid of any feature whatsoever.

The road officially began several miles north of the hotel, back further along the road I had ridden yesterday while going to the store and getting fuel. I had never before ridden my bike fully loaded and wondered if I'd even be able to ride the heavy precarious thing on the mud and gravel. I awkwardly maneuvered my leg around the gear piled on the back of my bike and over the crossbar. I checked everything, looking in the mirror attached to my glasses to make sure it was at the proper angle and tugging at the strap which held my food bags, spare tires and rain gear to the rear rack.

A van pulled up right in front of me and a group of tourists spilled out looking around and laughing and talking with one another. These brave and intrepid explorers had obviously made the dangerous two day drive from Fairbanks to come and see the arctic ocean. They wore warm jackets, long pants, hats and gloves. I looked down at my bare legs sticking out of skin tight bike shorts and crammed into awkward mountain bike shoes. I felt the wind creep into my wind breaker in a thousand different places and up my shirt. I had to dress cool because I knew I'd be sweating soon. The tourists looked at me as they shuffled into the hotel, (headed to the kitchen no doubt) and one stopped to ask me what I was doing.

'Are you crazy?' she asked after I told her my plan.

'I don't know' I said.

'Do you have bear spray?' she asked.

'Yeah, a nice big can.' I said patting my handle bar bag. The rest of her group was nearly inside and she could tell that I wasn't in a conversational mood so she wished me good luck and hurried after her friends.
Standing over the bike, I waddled it out of the deep gravel by the stairs and onto the section that had been compressed by the constant flow of pickup trucks and big rigs. After a moment of fiddling I managed to click my right cleat into the pedal and half pushing on the ground with my left, half peddling with my right I set the lumbering beast in motion!

I brought my left foot up to the pedal and, after a couple strokes of fiddling, managed to click in that shoe as well. I was really going! I heard a loud diesel engine behind me and glanced over my shoulder. The glance caused me to swerve wildly out into the road and into oncoming traffic. The truck coming the other way braked indulgently as I over-corrected and swung off the road to the right and hit a spot of deep, soft gravel. The handlebars cocked sideways and I started to go down. I leaned hard the other way and pushed hard on my pedals and somehow, just barely managed to keep upright. I eased back to the edge of the road and continued on as though nothing had happened, which I guess is smart because if I had tried to wave or else look at the drivers apologetically I would have almost crashed again.

I made my way north through the town, trying to check the traffic behind me in the little mirror clipped to my glasses, having to turn my head at awkward angles in order to see with it properly. Finally, I saw the security booth up ahead that marked the official beginning of the Pan-American highway.

I coasted up to the booth, checking behind me to make sure that I wasn't cutting off any trucks and was greeted by a short rather round woman in a tight uniform. Well, to say I was greeted is perhaps a little generous on my part. She stuck her head out of the window of her booth and said, 'You can't go any farther,' in a harsh voice.

'Oh I know' I answered. 'Do you mind if I rest here a moment?' I really didn't need to rest, but wanted to take a minute to gather my thoughts and take a couple pictures.

'We gotta lotta traffic today. It's not a good idea,' she answered.

I made a rather big deal of turning my bike around and then of pretending to fix something near the front so that I would be able to have my moment. The woman's head continued to hang out of the booth staring at me disapprovingly. Whatever, I thought, she's not going to mess this up for me. I looked down the muddy road, across the bizarre steel structures and towards the horizon in the distance trying to preserve the moment in my memory. What does everything look like? What does the air taste like? How do you feel? I stopped at this last question. I had expected to feel a rushing surge of emotions. I expected excitement, nervousness, curiosity and fear, but I felt nothing. Nothing. My mind was clear and calm. I was a soldier and an executioner. I was focused and resigned. I was not scared. I was not excited. I simply was. I might as well have been going to the grocery I was so devoid of feeling.

I think that my mind and emotions must have ducked down to avoid what could have been an absolutely debilitating onslaught. I had only a very rough idea of what lay ahead as I hadn't really researched this road. I knew that the first real stop, Fairbanks, was in about 500 miles, that the road was gravel, and that mountains, mosquitoes, bears, moose, snow, rain and God knows what else divided us. I needed to head south and take care of myself and my gear. That was it. I clicked in to my pedals, a bit more expertly this time, and began.

A bit more than a month prior to setting off on this trip I had a minor surgery done on my right knee. I had not had opportunity to condition before setting off on the trip because of the surgery.

'Can I bike?' I remember asking my surgeon.

'Well... a little,' he said. 'I mean I don't just want you to jump on your bike one day and go ride ten miles.'

I had the surgery in order to be able to do the trip. Six months before I left I had gone on a thirty mile bike ride which hurt my knee badly and caused me to walk with a painful limp for the next several days. I tried various stretches and physical therapy routines but none of them seemed to help. I finally resorted to surgery, the result of which the surgeon warned me may not have fixed the problem.

'We'll just have to wait and see' he said. 'I'm cautiously optimistic, but we just won't know whether or not it's better until you really get a chance to use it. And take it slow. Don't expect it to be at full strength for a couple months at least.'

I was nervous, and of course, a little reckless and foolish to even be starting the trip. In the back of my mind I struggled to quiet the fear that I may, after all the preparation and excitement, be forced home after only a couple days on the road.

I was moving quickly, the road a black mud topped with large sporadic chunks of gravel that went skidding out from under my tires with a deep chucking sound if they were pinched in just the right way. The road was wet because trucks with peacock tails of water continually sprayed it in order to keep the dust down. I rode past the corrugated steel buildings and ambiguous steel towers and the lake that the town curved around. There was a fair bit of traffic, and I was eager to get out onto the highway where I hoped things would clear up.

The wind was at my back, traffic was clearing, and the road, while still full of dirt and rocks, was smooth and hard and was decent. But still I felt nothing, no excitement, no sense of the area, no fear. I checked my odometer which I had set to zero at the gate where I started. Mile 8. And then it started.

At first just a quiet stinging sensation that would peak as my knee bent to its deepest on every stroke. Give it time, I thought. Don't worry yet. Your knee is just warming up. A mile later and the quiet ping of pain in my knee had escalated to become a consistent pulse of tearing pain across my right kneecap. Change the angle you're peddling, I told myself. Raise the height of your seat. Relax and make sure you're stroke is even.

It was no use. Three miles later the pain was worse and nothing I had done had helped. It's okay, I told myself. Just ride what you can today and worry about tomorrow tomorrow. I rode on and imagined the pulsing point of pain as a red dot in my mind's eye, blinking with the pain in my knee. I focused on the dot, watching it and associating it with the pain I felt. That dot was the pain. Then slowly, very slowly, I imagined the dot dimming, becoming slowly less and less each time it flashed. The pain receded with the light and became more tolerable for several miles.

But even as my acknowledgment of the pain lessened, the pain itself increased. Despite my best efforts, the small point of pulsing red light grew into a raging panorama of bright red, tearing across my mind's eye like a wildfire burning on pain.

I held my knee with my right hand, digging my fingers in hard around my kneecap. This did help relieve the pain slightly, and I rode for miles, one hand on the bars avoiding trucks and deep gravel, the other hand supporting my knee.

Hunched over to reach my knee as it went up and down with my stroke was not a comfortable or sustainable solution to my problem. Even worse than the pain was the thought that I may be doing myself permanent damage, that tomorrow would be worse and the day after that just unfathomable. I couldn't hunch over anymore, it strained my back and neck too much. I tried standing up on the pedals. This helped a little also. Great, I thought, I'll just ride to Argentina standing the whole way.

I rode on, the pain holding, endurable but mentally taxing. I still felt nothing emotionally. I was aware of the facts, but had no emotional reaction to them. My knee hurt, I would do what I could that day and I would deal with tomorrow tomorrow.

The eternally flat horizon and the hazy atmosphere did weird things to my perspective. It seemed as though I could see forever (which made the fact that you could see nothing at all particularly disturbing) when in fact I was only able to see a couple of miles. Despite it being cold, heat waves rose off of the tundra blurring approaching trucks at their base and making them look tall and precarious and mysterious. After several hours of riding, I saw what I thought were huge mountains way off the distance. However I reached them in a matter of minutes only to discover that they were just low bluffs. Likewise, I thought I made out trees beginning miles ahead, but as I drew close, they slowly stopped quivering like mirages and materialized as low, scraggly bushes growing along the banks of the river that ran from the Brooks Range to the south and dumped into the Arctic Ocean.

I struggled on, astonished at how slowly the miles passed and with how much difficulty each one was earned. And it's perfectly flat, and I have a good tail wind, I thought. I wonder if I'll be able to go on at all if it begins to rain, or if the wind changes direction.

Bending low to hold my knee, I saw something on the horizon. It looked like the top half of an hourglass, pointed at the bottom and bulbous at the top, that had been dipped partway into rippling water so that its base quivered like a mirage. A person? A mountain? Another truck? An animal? As I rode towards it, the object's base slowly became solid, and its top became discernible. It was a water truck spraying the road down with a thick stream of water. I passed the truck, which was headed the other direction, and rode onto the sopping wet part of the road. My speed dropped from 15 mph to about 4. Mud flung up, despite my fenders, and coated my ankles. I was sinking into the muck and peddling hard, barely moving fast enough to keep my balance, which was already poor because I only had one hand to steer with. I had no idea if this mud would last for a mile or for twenty.

It didn't matter, I still had no emotion. I was tired and I was in pain, but I observed these things as though detached from them. I couldn't let them reach me. A truck blew past from behind me spraying me with a fine muddy mist as I tried not to swerve into it from my narrow tract.

I thought back to the moment I left my house in San Diego for the airport. My neighbor and friend was there, and was choking back tears as she hugged me and said goodbye.

'It will take such strength.' she had said in her thick Spanish accent, 'such strength.' She was right, I thought to myself as I pedaled slowly along. She has no idea just how right she was.

I needed a break. I had covered a little more than twenty miles since the gate and was getting hungry. I found a small pullout where a tractor had plowed some of the gravel off the road making an area where a pickup could turn around. At the end of the pullout was a pile of dirt and gravel which provided some shelter from the wind. I crossed over to it and coasted to a bumpy stop. I balanced my bike precariously on its flimsy kickstand, placing its metal point on the cap from the container of almonds so that it wouldn't stab into the dirt and cause the bike to tip over. I unfastened my food bags from the back and limped over to the gravel pile, collapsing with my back against it. I massaged and stretched my leg and then pulled a snickers bar from my bag and started eating.

I was only fifty feet from the road and watched semi trucks and some adventurous motorcyclists blast by at sixty miles an hour. After a couple of minutes a dusty old van pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. Someone stepped out from the passenger's seat and began walking towards me.

'Are you crazy?' he shouted over the roar of a passing semi and the rush of wind. He was smiling a big genuine smile beneath a big genuine beard. He looked young, in his twenties, and was dressed ruggedly, clearly no stranger to these hostile parts of the world.

'People keep asking me that' I responded.

'We saw you making good time back there and we both said 'that there's a real man!''

He continued smiling at me broadly. I didn't know how to respond to this comment. In truth I guess I felt a little sissy in my spandex shorts and having only made it a little over twenty miles. The compliment buoyed me.
'We're cooking some caribou steaks just a couple miles down the road. Come by if you'd like one!' he shouted at me, turning to go.

Caribou steaks sounded good, very good. To be able to rest a while longer and get a good meal was very tempting. I considered it deeply. But it was getting late and I had not made the distance I was hoping for. I would press on. No steaks tonight. Fairbanks, I thought. I'll buy a steak in Fairbanks.

The rest of the ride that day went like the first part. I was tired and ready to stop by about mile 32 and slowed to pull off the road. Looking towards the river to see if I'd be able to draw water there I saw a small grizzly walking along the bank. He was about a hundred yards away, and upwind from me which mean that he couldn't smell me, but also that my pepper spray would just blow back in my face if I tried to use it. I would have to ride further to camp.

I pushed on for another ten miles before my knee forced me to stop. I pulled off at a thousand acre flat gravel area that had been built for some purpose I could not fathom. It was empty except for a semi that was parked at a random angle near the far corner. I rode across the lot.

There were some bushes just past the back edge of the lot and so I assumed that that was where the river flowed and that I'd be able to get some water there. I was nervous about the bear and hoped that I had ridden far enough.

The first thing I did after I chose my campsite was to change into my 'nice' clothes: a button up shirt and khaki pants, both made of indestructible nylon. I wanted to at least to pretend to be civilized. I set up my tent, threw my sleeping bag and pad inside, zipped up the door against mosquitoes, grabbed my water bottles and headed, limping, across the tundra towards the clumps of bushes. The ground here was mostly spongy grass, but there were frequent and sporadic low gnarled branches, twisting like thick rotten pieces of leather along the ground. The air didn't smell like anything and I suspect that that's because it's too cold for things there to rot, and there's nothing to decay anyways. What is there to give smell to the place? I reached the low strangled bushes and the edge of the water.

It was immediately apparent that this was not a part of the river, but rather one of the stagnant thermokarst ponds. The pool was shallow and its banks muddy. I walked to the edge of the tundra, where the dirt thawed and fell into the muck below. The mud beneath was fine, and soft. I inched towards the edge and noticed how shallow the water was, a couple inches of clarity hovering timidly over a mud that had no definable beginning. If I could just reach out a little farther I could dip my bottles. I stood as near the water as I dared and reached out as far as I could with one bottle. The edge broke the surface and immediately black swirling clouds of mud rose from the bottom and began pouring in with the water. I felt a flash of cold on my foot and looked back realizing that my shoe had sunk in the muck and muddy water was pouring in.

I wriggled out of the mud and glopped back to the grass. Still no emotion. In the distance a truck drove past on the road, barely audible in the wind.

I limped back to my campsite and grabbed my largest cooking pot and my towel and returned to the cold, muddy pond. I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants to my thigh and walked slowly into the mud, carrying my water bottles and the cooking pot.

I had no idea how far I would sink in, and hoped that I wouldn't end up waist deep, having to army crawl out of the muck, wet and black.

The icy mud crept up over my ankles and up to my calves. I took another big and tentative step further out, feeling the ancient mud surging around my feet as I sunk deeper. I came to rest up to my thighs in the filth. I reached out as far as I could with my water bottle, trying to get some clearer, undisturbed water. Holding the bottles at a shallow angle I managed to fill them most of the way. I filled the pot to brim last and waded back to the grass.

I sat next to my towel, the cold wind quickly hardening the liquid mud on my legs. I pulled out grassy chunks of earth and used them to remove some of the mud. Then I took my cooking pot full of water and poured it little by little down my legs, scrubbing at the same time with my hands and managed to get the rest of the mud off. I dried myself quickly with my towel and then put my shoes back on.

I limped back to my tent and forced myself to eat the halibut steak I had taken from the buffet. I told myself before setting off that I would eat like a king the first night, and I did, despite knowing that there was a grizzly nearby that would be attracted by the smell of cooking fish.

I cleaned up dinner using as little precious water as possible and packed my food back into its bags. When camping, you're supposed to hang your food bags from a tree to keep critters from getting them, but there weren't any trees for hundreds of miles, let alone any feature whatsoever.

I walked across the gravel a quarter mile and laid one of the the bags of food on the gravel. I placed the second bag a quarter mile further hoping that if one bag was smelled out, the other might still stand a chance. There was nothing else to do and I hoped that the tundra was actually as lifeless as it felt.

Very ready for bed, I crawled into my sleeping bag, and after sitting up for a last look at my small, forlorn, and vulnerable bags of food, I laid down to try and sleep. Questions about the rain on the south side of the mountains, the foreboding Atigun pass, my knee, my food, and the billion unknowns that lay ahead were slowly overcome by fatigue and I fell into a dense and heavy sleep.

Some indiscernible amount of time later, I was jarred out of sleep by the feeling of cold water on my face. Water? Rain? I thought this was supposed to be the desert! Coming to my senses, I willed myself out of the warmth of my sleeping bag and out of the door of my tent. Still bright as day, I knew it was late at night. I threw the rain cover over my tent, picked up my bike which had fallen over, threw a rain cover over its well and then dove back into bed. As I lay there wet, cold, and listening to the sound of rain, there was still no emotion.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Deadhorse (a.k.a. Prudhoe Bay but I prefer Deadhorse for dramatic effect) is little more than a patch of gravel on the infinite tundra whose sole purpose is to feed the mouth of the Trans-Atlantic oil pipeline. Deadhorse is accessible by either the airstrip or a 414 mile dirt road. The airstrip is home to large rusty steel parts and an old cargo plane that sit hissing in the wind which blasts off the Arctic Ocean. The 414 dirt road endures a roaring and sporadic flow of truckers that service the massive steel oil machines of Deadhorse and the thousands of seasonal workers that live in camps there on the tundra.

The sun, of course, does not set here this time of year, and although my flight had taken place mostly in the dark, we flew over the Arctic Circle, over the top of the world, and back into the sun, so I was able to see a bit of the landscape before we landed. From the airplane window, tundra stretched away, perfectly flat and disappearing into an orangeish haze many miles in the distance. The North Slope of Alaska, which rises slowly inland to meet with the impressive Brooks Range, is technically a desert even though temperatures here drop to minus 80 in the winter. It receives very little precipitation, but the ground is frozen year round. Parts of the icy ground, which thaw in the warmth of summer, create small muddy pools which become trapped and stagnant on the surface, unable to trickle down through the ice and unable to evaporate away due to the weakness of the sun. As I flew in I could see hundreds of these small thermokarst lakes, the sun behind them, making them look silver, like thin pieces of melted aluminum spilled across the top of a table.

On the tarmac, the wind was cold and strong. I could see no mountains, no features whatsoever in any direction. Neither trees nor bushes grow this far north and the ground off of the runway was covered in an endless spongy grass which survives by weaving a dense mesh of roots firmly into the thin layer of unfrozen soil near the surface.

The terminal is essentially one room, divided arbitrarily into the 'secure' area and the general area by a half-hearted partition. I had made no hotel reservation, had no map, and no idea what I was going to do aside from the knowledge that there was a hotel somewhere near the airport. I asked the woman working at the baggage counter,

'Yea, there's one jus across the street.' she points.

'Just across the street?' I point also hoping to get some more specific directions.

'Yea jus across the street.'


Deadhorse is not a town in the way that we typically think of towns. It has a population of about 14, but there are thousands of workers there in the summer who live in large, self-sufficient trailer complexes. Because of this there is no grocery store, restaurant, or any of the other amenities one normally associates with a town. In fact, the word town evokes completely the wrong idea of Deadhorse. Deadhorse is really a sprawling industrial oil complex. All the buildings are made of stacked and joined double wide trailers with ribbed steel siding. Massive steel machines, steel parts, and steel pipes are everywhere. It seems that if it is not made of steel, it is not strong enough to survive on the north slope of Alaska.

I managed to find the hotel and secured a room. I went back to the airport and assembled my bike in the baggage area and then heaped all of my supplies on top of it to wheel it over to the hotel. One thing as common place in Deadhorse as big steel machinery are large gravel expanses. Such an expanse is the 'street' that the hotel was across.

As I made my way across the gravel big-rig sized parking lot, the cold wind persisted from the side and kept blowing my belongings off of the bike and sent them tumbling along the ground towards a small thermokarst at the west end of the parking lot. My bike did not have a kickstand at this point and was very difficult to balance under all the weight. I finally gained the entrance to the hotel, my person and belongings disheveled and hoped that I would be able to keep my stuff and my person on my bike when I set off in the morning.

I needed food and gasoline. I got a map from the large and less than cheery woman who was working the front desk and asked her where I could buy some supplies.

'Well they have sum fud here...' She made a mark on the map. 'n the gas station’s here.' she made another mark and handed me the piece of paper. It has no street names and no scale.

'And where are we?' I asked.

'Wur right here.'. Another mark.

'And how far is this? A couple miles?'

'Yea sum'n like at.' I could tell I was pushing the limits of her hospitality so I thanked her, took my map and left.

To the untrained eye (my own) it was very difficult at first to distinguish 'wide gravel street' from 'wide gravel area,' both of which Deadhorse has in great abundance. So following my blank map to destinations unknown in the middle of a vast industrial park, absent of any people aside from those who drove by looking down at me from dusty truck windows, was a bit of a challenge. Nevertheless, a half hour later I stood outside an unmarked steel door set in the side of a large blue steel building. I looked at my map again and looked around for someone to verify that I was in the right place. A half mile away, a dusty pickup crawled along the gravel and I could hear some machinery clanking and a diesel engine gunning in the distance, but other than that it was silent. I climbed the short flight of steel stairs to the door and opened it.

Rows of metal shelves holding metal parts filled the room and receded to the far wall. A man with a moustache stood behind a counter to the right and stared at me.

'Uh... You sell any food?' I asked.

'You want upstairs.' He said.

I turned to look where he was pointing and noticed a flight of stairs to my left.

'Oh, thanks.'

Upstairs there was another counter behind which stood a girl of about 17. The rest of the room was filled with clothes racks containing heavy jackets, pants, hats, and gloves. A magazine rack stood against the far wall and some hand tools hung on a peg board near the back.

'Hello.' I said, giving the girl a friendly smile. 'Do you sell any food?'

She eyed me for a minute and then said 'Um not really. We got some over here. How much do you want?'

'About seven days worth.'

She looked at me puzzled and I explained what I was doing.

'You got a can of bear spray?' she asked.

'A little one.'

'You might want to get a big one.' she said indicating a large red canister in the display case beneath the counter.

'That's what the woman at the airport told me also' I said. 'She also told me about the couple that got eaten by a grizzly a few years ago.' and I told the girl about the two people who had been on a rafting trip and had been stalked by a bear and attacked in their camp and killed.

'... and they had a gun and bear spray and bear canisters for their food and everything. They did everything right but I guess they just got unlucky.'

'Uh... are you crazy?' asked the girl.

'That’s what the woman at the airport and the woman working at the hotel asked me. No. Well no I don't think so,’ I answered.

I went over to the aisle containing food and my heart sank. Here I was, the day before embarking on the most mentally and physically challenging endeavor of my life, and I was going to have to do it on beef jerky, Slim Jims, Snickers bars, and Tic Tacs.

'Where do people eat here?' I asked the girl.

'People eat in the camps, or at the hotel. There's a buffet. It's all you can eat.'

I grabbed several handfuls of Snickers and Nutrigrain bars, three 3/4 pound bags of beef jerky, and some Tic Tacs (I don't care how hungry you are, Slim Jims are just scary.) On the bottom shelf I found a large tub of roasted almonds.

'I’ll take the bear spray as well' I said.

I left the store and took several minutes stuffing the food into a bag on the back of my bike and then secured the bag with bits of nylon cord before setting off to find the gas station. I peddled into the wind, up the road which was black mud and gravel. Trucks passed every few minutes and I looked constantly over my shoulder to try and stay out of their way.

I saw a sign for the fuel station on the left and pulled off the road into the maze of industrial machinery. I found an empty small portable building with a pump on the side. A sign on the door said 'Temporary Pump' and had an arrow beneath it that pointed unhelpfully deeper into the maze of steel and gravel. Another sign around the side said 'Call for Gas' and had a phone number beneath it.

I looked around. It was still silent and still except for the distant sound of machinery and the hiss of the wind. I took out my phone and turned it on. A signal! I had a signal. I dialed the number and held the phone to my ear.

'Hello.' Came a tired sounding male voice.

'Yeah I'm here at the gas statio-'

'Gimme a minute' and then he hung up.

I stood waiting, not sure what to do. I checked the time. It was nearly nine at night. I hadn’t realized it was so late. Getting my luggage to the hotel and putting my bike together and finding the store had taken longer than I realized and since the sun was still up, it was as bright as it had been all day. A few minutes later, a man stomped out from an obscure corner of the steel maze wearing the Prudhoe Bay uniform: blue jeans, hat, sweatshirt and work boots.

'Hi thanks for coming out' I said. 'I just need a little bit...

It's for my camping stove.' I said holding up the fuel can.

'You'll want unleaded, I expect.' was his reply as he turned towards some large steel boxes nearby that I hadn't recognized were pumps. He went over to a loud diesel machine and switched it on. Then he went around behind the pumps and came back a minute later, grabbed the nozzle, and held out his hand for the canister. He was staring at my bike so I said,

'I'm going down to Fairbanks. Headed out tomorrow.'

The man was silent for a minute and continued looking at the bike then said,

'Are you crazy?' in a matter-of-fact kind of voice.

'Well maybe more than I know' I answered.

'You got bear spray?'

'Yeah, a big can of it.'

'Where you gonna carry it?' He asked.

'Right here.' I said quickly, pointing to my handlebar bag, the thought having just occurred to me.

'You got a gun?'

'No, no I don't.'

'You might want to get a gun' he said and turned his attention back to the pump, squirted a little into the bottle and handed it back to me.

'Thanks' I said.

'Don't worry about it. So are you stopping in Fairbanks or are you gonna keep on goin’?'

'I plan to ride all the way to Argentina, but I'm just thinking about Fairbanks today' I said storing the bottle in my bag.

'That's one hell of a trip' he said. 'Hell! Ridin’ to Fairbanks is one he'll of a trip. You goin’ alone?'

'Yeah, I am.'

'Hell of a trip' he said again looking from me to the bike.

'Yeah, well thanks again for the gas.' I said, swinging my leg over my bike not wanting to get caught up in a conversation.

'Oh of course. No problem. You be careful out there okay?'

'Will do sir.' I said and began to ride off across the gravel. I felt him watching me as I made it back to the street and turned the corner to head back to the hotel.

The bag of food I had taken such care to tie on properly kept slipping off the side of the bike as I rode and falling with a frustrating scraping noise against my tire and onto the gravel road. I made it back to the hotel a half hour later and maneuvered my bike up the short flight of stairs, through the double front doors, down the long and narrow hall that led to my door and into my cramped room which was messy with all of my unorganized gear for the following morning.

I needed more food. I had powdered supplements from my Dad, enough to last me until Fairbanks, but they were mainly for nutrition and wouldn't provide near the amount of energy I was going to require over the next nine days to Fairbanks. I wandered out of my room, down the hall and into the mess room where some leftovers from the buffet were set out for late night snackers. I grabbed a couple to-go boxes and filled them up with what was there: a large halibut steak, a couple baked potatoes, and a lot of rice. In the eating area I found some cup-of-noodles and hot chocolate mix. I grabbed four of each and headed back to my room feeling tired but knowing that there was still a lot to do in order to be ready for the morning.

The door bumped against my bike as I squeezed through it into my small messy room carrying the food. I cleared a spot on the bed and laid out all the food I had. It looked like enough. I thought it looked like enough but really had no idea.

I took the to-go box containing the rice and placed it on the floor under the heater in bathroom, spreading out the rice so that it would dry evenly. I dumped the container of almonds into a large Ziploc bag and then emptied the cups-of-noodles out of their styrofoam bowls and into the now empty almond container. I used my fuel cannister to smash the cylindrical bricks of noodles into little pieces which I poured into another Ziploc bag. I spent the next several hours organizing the rest of my food and equipment and making sure that everything was in working order.

Finally having cleared the bed and feeling very ready to crawl into it, I noticed that the expensive and very powerful taillight I had bought and affixed to the rear rack of my bike had fallen off. 'Oh no' I mumbled to myself 'It must have fallen off somewhere along the road back there. That's going to be just about impossible to find!' I sat debating whether or not to even try to find it. 'Well,' I thought, 'I promised everyone I'd be careful, and this is what being careful actually means.'

I put on my jacket and strapped into my shoes and maneuvered the bike awkwardly out the door of my room and out of the hotel. It was after midnight, but the sun was still high in the sky. I set off, riding along the same path I had taken earlier that day, looking for a flash of red or a bit of plastic that had been run over and pressed into the gravel and mud. I looked around the entrance to the store, and then searched carefully around the gas station. I looked along the path I had ridden earlier but was unable to find it. 'Well, hopefully those truckers keep their eyes on the road tomorrow' I thought, feeling somewhat anxious about not having it. I made it back to the hotel late and fell into bed and slept well. Tomorrow, I knew, would be very, very difficult.