Sunday, September 20, 2009

Larger Than Life

I woke up sometime in the middle of that night, unzipped the screen door of my tent, and then the door of the rain cover, and stepped out into the night. The silhouettes of the trees stood out in one flat jagged edge against subdued orange and yellow hues of a sun tucked just below the horizon. The wide band of color faded coolly to meet with the deep black blue of the dome overhead. Night, I thought, I’m going to begin to have darkness at night. I stared at the orange and yellow band feeling closer to the sun than I had yet on the ride. I couldn't see the sun, but there was life in that band of color, refreshing after a monotony of steel grey cloud.

I heard a squawking high above me and looked up to see several large flocks of geese heading south, their sleek bodies’ flecks of pure black against the lighter sky. There were three V formations, the birds riding in perfect streamline, sharing the work of cutting through the wind.
They don't want to be this far north either, I thought to myself.
I crawled back into warmth of my sleeping bag and fell quickly back to sleep.

It’s hot, I thought, coming to out of sleep and back into consciousness. Why is it so hot? It’s too hot. I opened one bleary eye and stared out of the slit in the top of my sleeping bag. The tent was bright and orange inside. The tent poles were casting shadows against the fabric. I sat up, looking around the exceptionally bright, warm tent and smiled. Sun!

I scrambled out of the tent and turned my face up towards the sun, which was hanging bright and sharp in a clear blue sky. I like Canada better already. I walked several paces over to a larger boulder and sat on it. I closed my eyes and held my face up to the sun feeling its warmth. It gave me shivers, the same kind of feeling you get when crawling into a well made bed. But then cold; in the next instant a cold breeze flickered over me and I shivered for cold. Not yet, I thought, I’m not there yet. I opened my eyes again and looked at the sun and my surroundings and this time noticed that the sun was white and distant, the light falling on the trees was cool and grey.

I unpacked my bags, which had been wet since Fairbanks, laying everything out to catch the breeze and the sun to dry. I rode back two miles to the Deeterdings restaurant hoping to get breakfast (it turns out they didn't serve breakfast either) and wound up seated with a cup of instant coffee, checking emails and keeping one eye on the TV mounted on the wall above the microwave.
'The bodies of eight more homeless men were found this week,' the news woman was saying, 'between Anchorage and Fairbanks...' Eight bodies? That's quite a few. ‘ sleeping bags and seem to have died from exposure during the…'. Oh that makes a bit more sense, I was thinking homicide. Nevertheless, the news was disquieting. I had heard that the coldest part of my ride through the Northern Hemisphere was in Canada, which I would be beginning that day.

I finished my coffee, jumped back on the bike and collected my nearly dry gear from my campsite down the road. Soon I found myself riding past signs welcoming me to the Yukon Territory and boasting the slogan, ‘Larger Than Life.” I hope not.

I rode out of Alaska with zero melancholy, spitting good riddance to the road as I had done when leaving the Dalton. Canada was at once more beautiful, helped greatly by the better weather. In the distance were large snow peaked mountains, a range 100 miles across that finally fell into the sea. After several hours the clouds began to return. At first small and puffy, as though God had scattered hundreds of wet cotton balls across a pane of glass in the sky, but soon swirling thicker, taller, and darker.

I looked down to check my speed. 0 mph. Oh no, my odometer isn't working! I coasted to a stop, stepped off the bike, and began to examine the sensor. I checked the magnet attached to my spoke, adjusted the sensor on my fork, and checked the contacts for the display. I lifted the front of the bike with my right hand and spun the tire with my left..'0 mph. Crap. I looked over all the points of failure again and was about to give up when I noticed that the wire had frayed where it wrapped around my brake cable and had been getting pinched against the frame whenever my handle bars would tip to one side, knocking my bike off its kickstand, (a very common occurrence.) I took out my pocket knife and sliced through the wire. Holding the blade against my thumb, I stripped the rubber outer sheathing back and then delicately removed the covering from the fine strands of copper of the inner wires. I twisted the exposed copper back together, wrapped it in ductape, and spun the wheel again. 9mph. Good to go.

I continued on the road, which was usually a coarse pavement, but occasionally gave up and submitted to washboard and gravel. Massive RV's crawled carefully around me as I climbed hills, making my way towards the mountains in the distance. The mountains drew nearer until eventually I found myself riding into a narrow valley with a blade of peaks running along my right and left. Held trapped between these peaks near the road were several lakes, the water a deep blue and black, somehow more pure and rich than anything I had seen in Alaska.

I was hungry and rode past many old wooden buildings, marked on my map as entire towns. Some were in such a state that I assumed that they had been closed for years. Many others were simply padlocked, with logs and oil drums blocking their driveways and signs stating, ‘Closed for the Season.’

Finally, I came to a place between the fins of mountain that had a small ‘open’ sign peeking from behind a faded curtain. Although I had long ago lost the sun in the clouds, it was becoming so dark that I knew it must have already tucked behind the mountains. I coasted across the gravel parking lot and timidly balanced my bike on the kickstand I had still not learned to love.

The store was a small, one roomed old building made of wood. Someone had gone through the trouble of maintaining a small flower and vegetable garden out front, which was decorated with several painted stones, a small wooden scarecrow, and a sign that read, ‘One Old Buzzard and one Cute Chick live here.’ I took off my glasses and hobbled through the old front door.

It was dark inside, and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust. The small space was filled with old shelves lining the walls and extending out into the room. The shelves were full of local crafts, canned foods, interesting rocks, and bits of wood. Five people were positioned about the room listening to a middle age man with big cheeks and pale skin who was standing in a corner talking rapidly.

‘I mean to say… It is about the government…because if you watch conservative television, I mean, if you watch conservative T.V. in the states… It’s one of those things… They will say that Canadians hate the system. Because it’s the thing about, now I’m not saying that I think this, but of course it is, in the states…’

I surveyed the shelf with food, which was dismally stocked, and selected a can of peaches. An old man who was sitting at a small table in the center of the crowded room stood up and limped over to the cash register, having seen that I was ready. The 'Old Buzzard,' no doubt.

I paid for the peaches and sat down in an old metal chair near the door whose paint was flaking off. The man was still talking. He was wearing a long sleeve Hawaiian print t-shirt which he had tucked into a pair of cargo shorts. The Old Buzzard seated himself back at the table and sat back, crossing his arms. A woman who I guessed to be the ‘Cute Chick’ was sitting against the far wall and two other women were examining the items on the shelves. Wife and daughter, I’d guess.

‘You see I study these things, well it is, I mean it is my field, of course, because I am a political scientist, well I’m a political scientist, I mean I studied political science in college.' The man stopped, looking around to make sure that no one would voice any objection to his assertion of authority. ‘Oh. I’m a political scientist too,’ the old man said, speaking each word with the raspy cadence that comes with age. ‘I got my degree in school…in the school of life!’

He turned in his chair to look at me, opened his mouth in a wide laughing smile and gave me a pronounced wink. I smiled back.

‘Yeah, oh yes, school of life. But it’s like I was saying, now I’m not saying I’m here nor there on this, but it is, I mean with healthcare, of course, they would like you to believe, in America, they would like you to think that Canadians all hate their state run health care.'

The old man huffed. ‘I had my hip replaced seven years ago and then had my whole leg off three years ago. Never cost me a dime. Course what we don’t have are doctors. Doctors here see the money in the states and then they think, what am I doin’ stayin’ here!’

He said the last several words as though they were a punch line, and looked at me again for affirmation of his wit, throwing me another loud wink.

The pale portly expert in the corner continued his faltering monologue as I finished my can of peaches.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, leaning forwards and addressing the Old Buzzard, ‘You don’t happen to have a tap I could refill my water bottles from do you?’
‘No,’ he said shaking his old head. ‘No. No, all the waters trucked in. It’s delivered. We haven’t got any water.’
‘We’ve got water, in the car. I can give you some water because we’ve got a whole bottle full, in the back of the car,’ the expert said.
‘Oh, great. Please. That would be a huge help.’ I followed the man out to his car as he explained where he’d gotten the water in red-light green-light scraps of word. ‘Someone just gave us the jug, just gave… well a couple miles ago. So we don’t need it. So I figure, I mean I figure if someone helps you, I figure you can help someone else.’
‘Thank you.’

I rode for another hour that evening, between the blades of mountain, finally pulling off in a patch of dirt on the side of the road. Three or four rusty old oil drums stood not far from my tent. Still being paranoid about bears and lacking any better option, I put my food bags on top of them. Might keep a three legged gopher from getting them, I thought, but not much more than that.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Deeterdings

I was awakened early the next morning by the sound of rain on my tent. The rain cover was on, but my bike was not covered. Before starting my trip I had tested the permeability of my canvas panniers, running water over them in the sink. They did not even become moist. So I rolled back over and fell asleep again, feeling sure that this drizzle wouldn't saturate the bags. When I finally got up several hours later, the rain had not stopped and had mixed with the ash that was covering everything and had turned it into a thick grey paste. As I cleaned up camp and put things in their bags, I noticed that everything in the bags was wet. The rain had gotten through and had made damp everything from my clothes to my journal to my sleeping bag. Fine.

I threw on my rain jacket, donned my felt rancher’s hat to keep the rain off my face, and took off. It was not an energetic rain. There was no electric sense to it, no mysterious freshness. As I rode along the freeway to get out of town, trucks roared past, trailing plumes of water behind them. My own bike made a slick slurping noise across the wet asphalt. A thin stream of water sprayed out in front of me off my front tire like the stream from a weak super soaker with dirt stuck in the nozzle.

Slowly the city broke up, becoming auto, lumber, and industrial yards. Then an airfield and then a four lane highway lined by dense, shrubby fir trees on either side. Traffic thinned and it soon became a two lane highway. After some time the road swung along a river, a swift wide mass of chocolate milk swirling around small moving islands of sand and debris. The road was mostly flat, an entirely new experience for me and one I greatly appreciated.

Riding all day was still far from enjoyable but, as the road narrowed and traffic thinned, I finally racked up enough miles and found a campground.

I wasn't yet sure if I could camp wherever I wanted, so I decided to try the state run park and maybe even get away with not paying. As I pulled in I was greeted by the friendly state park 'NO' signs: 'No swimming,' 'No stopping,' 'No Overnight Parking,' 'No Gathering Firewood,' 'No Fishing,' 'No... Etc.'

I pulled into a spot and began setting up. I hadn't been there two minutes before getting the distinct sensation that I was being watched. I turned around quickly and saw that a woman had materialized on the trail about twenty feet away.

She was standing squarely on both feet and staring at me curiously through her round spectacles. She was very short and perfectly round. She had a round face framed by a short round haircut. Round arms fell over her round body and her sturdy round legs were stuffed into little round hiking shoes.
'Did you get a chance to pay yet?' She asked without preamble.
'No, not yet,' I answered grinning to myself.
'Well it's twelve dollars just as soon as you get a chance,' she said in a not unfriendly way.
'Alright, just gimme a couple minutes to get settled,' I said, and went back to setting up. I could feel that she was not leaving. I could feel she was still standing there watching me.
'You know I can just pay you now,' I said, reaching into my bag and grabbing my wallet. The woman stepped forward and handed me the stub from an envelope she was holding.
'Just fill this out and attach it to that post over there,' she said.
'Sure,' I said, taking the piece of paper and handing her the money.
'So where are you goin’?' she asked, looking at my bike.
'Argentina,' I said.
'Oh,' she said simply, and then after a pause added, ‘I'm goin’ that way myself, except you'll probably get there much faster, I'm on foot.'
'You mean you're walking it?' I asked her incredulously.
'Yeah,' she said smiling.
'You didn't start in Deadhorse?' I asked, 'You didn't walk the Dalton!'
'Yeah I did,' she paused and then added vehemently, 'it was horrible.'
'Yeah it was...terrible,' I said. She continued to stare at me, with a pained wide eyed expression on her face, wanting more confirmation on her opinion of the road.
'Awful, miserable. It was suffering,' I said.
The woman stared at me a minute longer before deciding that I meant it and then continued, 'Come over to the cabin over there and I can show you my notes for the trip if you want to see them.'
'Sure. I'd like that,' I said, 'just give me a couple minutes to get settled and I'll be right over.

A few minutes later I stood on the deck of a small cabin with the woman who had retrieved a large binder and was flipping through it. The pages were full of cut outs from maps, motivational quotes, pictures of cities, and faces. All of it was meticulously arranged, annotated, and laminated.
'So how do you carry your stuff?' I asked.

She flipped forward a couple of pages and pointed to a picture of a large simple cart with a steel frame and a large plastic tub affixed to it.
'I can either push it,' she said, 'or tie it around my waist and pull it. Pushing’s easier cuz you can sort of lean on it, but going downhill it is better to be in front of it. I'm only going about ten miles a day, but I hope to get up to twenty.'

As she told me about her previous trip across the US (twice), showed me pictures of herself pushing the cart and told me how she had paid the truckers to deliver her food as she was on the Dalton, I couldn't help but think what an unlikely athlete she was. It struck me that I was not even tempted to do what she was doing, despite doing something seemingly similar, and how very different the two of us were in motivation and outlook. That night I lay awake in my wet sleeping bag trying to imagine the depressing pace of ten miles a day and to imagine five years as a transcontinental vagrant.

The next several days were long and flat. I followed the river past towns consisting of a single truck stop, through low mountains and mist and rain. Occasionally it was pretty, low misty clouds swirling slowly in the tight green draws of the mountains. My miles jumped. Eighty miles here was equal to about fifty on the Dalton. The next two nights, I found places to camp along wide silty rivers that were fairly secluded but were never out of earshot of the highway. Bears were always on my mind, but only caused me the level of anxiety one gets when wondering whether or not they remembered to close the garage door. I was usually able to reach about one small town a day where I would stop and get dinner.

People would ask about my bike, where I'd been, and where I was going. One man told me about a bike trip he had started several years before.
'I started at the Canadian border, headed east, but the roads were so bad I stopped the second day cuz I wasn't havin’ any fun.'
Fun? I can remember thinking, I haven't had five minutes of fun since I started.

Coffee was usually weak and was always Folgers, food was expensive and towns were for truckers and RVs. Finally I came to the Canadian border. I was assuming that I could find food at the border crossing, and sure enough, as I approached I saw numerous large signs decked out with mostly burnt out bulbs advertising the 'Last Stop in the US' and the 'Last Duty Free Gas.' I pulled into the dilapidated little shop.

As I stepped off the bike, I noticed a larger and nicer looking place just a hundred yards farther down the road that was actually the last stop in the US and the last place to get gas. A man was standing outside the door of the little store.
'You need something?' he asked aggressively.
'Yeah I'm looking to get dinner.' I peered around the man’s shoulder into the mostly bare shelves of the small convenience store. 'Is there a place where I can get dinner?'
'Oh yeah,' said the man loudly and sarcastically, 'there's a much better place just down there.' He gestured dramatically, 'You see how stupid that question is? Here you are talkin’ to the owner and I'm gonna be like, yeah, go to the other place.'

Now, I have a certain ability to make anyone agreeable and reasonable. I can find hospitality even where hostility is what's being offered. The secret is not complicated, nor is it difficult. Simply don't acknowledge anything juvenile or confrontational, but move forward expecting the person to behave. I fixed the man briefly with a look that I hope said 'Are you done with your little tirade?' and then pressed on.
'Oh I just mean a place where I can get a hot meal. It doesn't look like you've got a kitchen back there.'
'Uh, no I don't.'
'And do they have a kitchen down there?' I asked gesturing to the other place.
'Uh, yeah, but they close their kitchen at six thirty!'
I checked my clock, seven. It was probably a lie, I thought, but then again it might not be, and a bird in the hand...
'I'll come in and take a look,' I said.
I walked around the nearly bare shelves for a minute and then picked a can of chili.
'Do you have a microwave?' I asked him.
'Duh!' he said, changing his voice and screwing up his face in retarded imitation, gesturing to a table against the back wall.

I flashed the guy the same expression I had given him a moment ago thinking, this poor guy has to live with himself, that can't be easy. I dumped my chili into a styrofoam bowl and put it in the microwave.

As I waited for it to cook, I stared fixedly at a tiny ancient television hanging above the door. The Discovery Channel was fuzzily detailing some new weapons system. I knew the man was watching me. I could feel that he had already realized I wasn't going to have a piss'n and spit'n fight with him and that that made me a friend. As a friend I had become something of extreme value, something I knew he didn't have many of. I knew it was coming and I waited. The man sighed loudly, louder than he would have if he had been alone. I didn't move. He yawned loudly and stretched his arms wide glancing at me. Unable to take it anymore he finally dove in:
'So where are you headed?' he asked in an entirely different tone of voice than he had used so far. I told him. I'm not sure he registered my answer, either because he didn't really know where Argentina was or because he wasn't listening.

He pressed on, 'Weather sucks. It is too damn cold and wet and the rain won't stop, cloudy all the time. Course a couple weeks ago it was hot as hell. Sunny and miserable all the time. Guess if it's not one thing it's another.'

The microwave beeped and I removed my bowl, stirring the scalding bits in with the cold parts. He had reminded me that I hadn’t really seen the sun since I started. I had seen it very rarely on the Dalton, and then through a heavy haze, and had had nothing but rain since Fairbanks.
'Well you can always find something to complain about.' I said flatly. I knew he wouldn't like my response, as there was no pity in it. The man was silent for several seconds then said,
'Well you better get south fast. The weathers gonna’ change and then,' he laughed, 'well then you'd be in real trouble.'
'Yeah I know,' I said eating my chili and staring at the TV.
The man looked up at the TV and said, 'You wanna run a store?'
'This one you mean?' I asked.
'Yeah. It's less and less customers every season, and this season’s about done.' He was looking at the TV without seeing it, 'I just leave the TV on cuz it's all I got for company.'

I thought about telling him that if he wanted company he could start by not being so rude to his customers. I thought about telling him what I thought about him and his place, but it was a fleeting thought, gone before it formed completely.
'No, no I don't.' I answered him.

I was not satisfied with my bowl of chili as dinner so I decided to try the place down the street. It turned out that the man had told the truth, they really did close the kitchen at six thirty. They even had less selection than the other place. I eventually found myself seated with a cup of ready mix hot chocolate and some prepackaged pastries.

The dining area was large and mostly empty. Shelves too small for the walls they stood against were mostly empty, save for a few t-shirts, stickers, and candy bars.

I heard running footsteps from around the corner inside the building followed by a shrill, piercing scream. A second later two little kids tore around the corner, both screaming with delight. The one in back was about eight and carried a fly swatter which he was using to whack his little brother on top of the head. The younger one was barely older than a toddler and ran with his arms protecting his head, shrieking with delight. The kids tore several laps around the store before the younger one sped behind the cash register, clutching the jeans of the man standing there. The man didn't break his attention with the customer he was helping, not even for a moment.

Realizing his father was no refuge, the younger one tore away again, swerving between the customer and the counter and off through the merchandise, screaming the whole time. The older one pursued, bringing the fly swatter down repeatedly on his head.

As I took another sip of hot chocolate, I noticed a picture frame hung on the wall. Inside, two blond kids with overly combed hair grinned back at me maniacally. On the frame was a plaque with the words, 'The Deeterdings.' Perfect.

A woman walked tensely out from around the corner where the boys had emerged. She caught the younger one and scooped him up, holding his face level with hers.
'Stop it!' she spat at him, the muscles in her neck and arms pulsing, 'Stop it! Knock it off!'

The kid would not look at her, but was staring around at the floor, no longer smiling. The mom set him down and the moment his feet touched the ground he was off again, screaming in delight as his older brother pursued him.
Canada, I thought, I wonder what Canada is like?

City of Ash

Fairbanks has one redeeming quality: it's flat. When I woke in the dirty, expensive campground the first night, I found my sleeping bag and hair covered in ash which had slowly been drifting through the mesh of my tent all night. I threw a rain cover over my bike and bags to keep any more ash from building up on them and then jumped on my bike to go and find a nice place to have breakfast.

I don't need to go into the details but it will suffice to say that I ended up in the Safeway a block down the street after an hour of looking for somewhere nicer to go. Not wanting to linger in the grocery store, I finished breakfast and headed back to the campground.

The layer of ash covering my belongings had grown thicker in my absence. I dusted off the picnic table and disgorged the contents of my panniers across its surface.

Flashlight, headlight, gps, camera, batteries, charger, solar panel, water filter, two fuel bottles, stove set, dishes, and cookware. Spare cord and cables, strapping, and wire. Bike tool, pocket knife, survival knife, knife sharpener, multi-tool, chain grease, chain links, patch kit, tire repair, four spare tubes and two spare tires, sleeping bag and mat, tent, rain fly, footprint, and stakes. Medical kit, sutures, four pair underwear, and four pair socks. Rain jacket, biking gloves, long fingered gloves, ski gloves, rain gloves, shoe covers, PVC bike cover, Gore-Tex pannier covers, wide brim hat, beanie, helmet, and sunglasses and spare lenses. Long underwear, t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, long pants, cycling pants, rain pants, compass, chamois towel, two pair cycling shorts, cycling jersey, fleece, bike pump, tire irons, bear mace, two 13 liter Gore-Tex food bags, journal, bullet proof cigar case, water filter...

I looked over my belongings, spread out across the table and its benches, spilling onto the ground. Most of these items were still strangers to me. I didn't know where the zippers were on the jacket or that the rain gloves didn't work or how many stakes the rain fly used or where I could find many of these items on my bike. I was determined to sort through them and send home what I could do without.

I also needed to get to the laundromat and wash everything I could. Dirt had gotten inside everything and the endless bumps on the dirt road had rubbed it in, abrading every smooth surface and dirtying every clean item. I packed what I would need back on the bike, threw the rest into the tent in order to keep the ash off it and struck off to find first the post office and then the laundromat.

The post office was downtown and I knew I had a new kickstand waiting for me under general delivery. I found the office without much trouble, and in the process got a tour of downtown Fairbanks: A dirty sprawling mess of closed and boarded buildings, rubbish strewn highways, scary looking people, and questionable looking liquor stores.

I filled a shipping box with what I decided I no longer needed, threw in the memory card from my camera, and addressed the package to my parent’s house in San Diego. I picked up the package containing my new, stronger, kickstand from general delivery and stepped outside to install it.

After some fiddling I determined that the bolt it came with was too short; I would have to ride all the way across town to the Home Depot to try and find a longer one. I also needed to get to a grocery store in order to re-supply for the next portion of my trip.

I made it to the Home Depot and after much drawer opening, measuring, checking and talking with the sales person, I finally determined that they did not carry the size bolt I needed. Nevertheless, I finally emerged with a bolt of the right thread size and a packet of washers. I debated throwing the hardware into my bag and installing it back at my campsite but decided it would be more prudent to do it at the hardware store in case anything else should go wrong. That turned out to be a very good decision.

I used the whole packet of washers but still had too few, and the head size of the bolt was different, so my wrench didn't fit. Also, the legs of the kickstand where much too long. I went back inside, bought more washers, a wrench, and a small hacksaw. After much fiddling I managed to secure the stand to the bike in a slightly ridiculous but secure way. I turned the bike on its side and hacked through the aluminum legs of the kickstand, taking off no more than a quarter inch at a time. After some adjustment, it worked, clumsily, but whatever. The rubber feet that came with it turned out to be comically too small to fit, so I threw them in my bag along with the old flimsy kickstand, returned the wrench, and set off to find a laundromat.

I was almost back to the campground by the time I found one. When I pulled up, two large woman stood out front smoking. The older one was talking loudly in a voice made raspy by years of smoking and strong by years of gossiping.

'Yeah so it was Paul got me this job. I just showed up for the interview and I don't know what he said, but then they called the next day and said you got the job. I started the next week and I ain't screwed anything up and I told him I wouldn't give them no problems and so I work about everyday now and...' she paused and took a big drag on her cigarette.

'It's these damn fires, I can't breathe and I can't sleep and I woke up this morning and I was on time for work, but I told Paul I wasn't gonna be able to take it anymore and it's been real bad so I ‘spect it's gonna last a while longer...'

The woman continued talking to her younger friend as I gathered the dirty clothes from my bike. 'It doesn't stop, you know, when you get married. I party more now I'm married than I used too. You don't need to worry about getting married it's all about just what you want to do and not letting yourself stop,' she took another long drag on the cigarette, 'and havin’ fun. That's all I care about just having a good time.'

I made my way past the woman and through the door. The woman flicked her cigarette onto the sidewalk and followed me inside, stepping sideways to fit behind the cash register. I approached the counter and looked into her face.

The woman looked as though she had been squeezed out of a tear in the side of a tube of old grease. Her face was swollen, one eye pressed nearly shut, sweat glistening from discolored patches beneath each. Her breath came in short strangled rasps from the gash in her chin that served as her mouth.

'Can I help you?' she spouted quickly at me between wheezing breaths.

My god, I thought, this woman is dying. She stood squarely, waiting for a response.

'Yeah I just need some change for a load of laundry and some detergent.'

'You wanta shower too?' the woman gasped.

'Oh, yeah, that would be great how much is a shower?'

'Five dollars for five minutes,' spat the woman.

Fine. I handed the woman a twenty and got a handful of quarters and some bills in return.

'Use that machine over there,' she said pointing, 'most of the others don't work and when you use the dryer put it on high heat and it'll save you some money and let me know if you need help.'

'Thanks. Thanks very much,' I said.

I loaded my clothes in the dryer and stepped into the shower. Five minutes of vigorous scrubbing later, I emerged feeling clean for the first time in a long time. As I waited for my clothes to finish, I looked out the window of the laundromat at the restaurants with signs so faded as to no longer be legible, trying to decide where to eat. In the distance I could see a pair of golden arches. Well it's not a caribou steak, but it'll have to do.

I took out my phone and called my mom for the first time.


'Hi Mom.'

'Oh Dave, yay! It's so good to hear your voice! How are you?'

'Uhh, good...tired.'

'Oh. How's it been? Is it just beautiful?' She asked expectantly.

'Umm, no. Well a little, sometimes, I mean. It's really smoky up here so I don't know if there are mountains in the distance or anything.'

'Oh. How's it been? Has it just been amazing?'

'Uh, well it's been very difficult. I'm glad to be off the Dalton.'

'Yeah I bet. Boy, how amazing. Well how are you? I mean how are you doing?'

'I'm good, I'm focused. I'm kind of just doing what I need to do you know? It's not like I really have time to do anything else.'

'Yeah, yeah,' she said. I could imagine her smiling as she said it on the other end of the line.

'How's everyone at home?'

I took my clothes out of the dryer as my mom filled me in on what was happening back home. After securing everything back on my bike I went back inside to make sure that I hadn't left anything behind.

'Hey mom, I've gotta get back on the bike, I still need to get dinner and get over to the grocery store. It's really good to talk to you though, and I should be able to stay in touch much more often now I'm through Fairbanks.'

I thanked the woman at the counter again and got back on the bike.

I wound up not getting back to the campground until about nine thirty, having spent the better part of an hour wandering around the massive grocery store and somehow winding up with only half of my groceries back at the campsite.

As I climbed into my tent, I imagined the good places in the world, the nice places, the small places. The places where the sun seems close and small and bright, where the air is life and birds sing and friends laugh and food has flavor.