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.

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