Sunday, September 13, 2009

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.


  1. Harry here (friend of Vogel's & Cal Poly grad). Great journalism - you could be a great writer. Will be at homecoming at Cal Poly 16-17 Oct. Will be thinking of you. How's the knee?