Friday, September 4, 2009

Day 5

Day 5. The short stunted trees continued to get thicker as I headed south and they brought comfort and purpose to the landscape. This was the first day that minutes and even miles passed without my noticing.

I rode in a light rain and loved it. I rode into the wind and loathed it. I arrived in Coldfoot that afternoon.

Coldfoot is like a heart, but not in the way that is typically meant by that metaphor. It is not the center, it is not important. It is a steady and industrious pump along the vein of highway. It is a two day drive from Fairbanks to Deadhorse and Coldfoot is the only 'town' between the two.

It is really hardly a town at all, but rather more of a wide spot in the road partitioned in several places by clumps of shriveled Spruce trees. It has a population of 14 and about as many buildings. The buildings are of course trailer units, joined together like the buildings in Deadhorse. Well…every building but one. Across from the eating trailer is an ancient looking one-roomed wooden structure that looks completely unused and seems to be starting to sink into the ground. I assume that it has no value except for its age.

I pulled up tired and hungry, but very happy to be 'somewhere' at all. I parked my bike at the base of the short flight of wooden stairs leading to the front door, pulled some pants on over my cycling shorts, and changed into my nice shirt.

I sprang lightly up the steps and paused, completely surprised at my energy. I stepped inside and looked around. Several aluminum tables with composite board tops and a few plastic chairs were scattered around. Toward the back was a separate room containing a large table and a television guarded by a sign that said 'Truckers Only.' Several stereotypical looking characters sat around the table in silence, watching the TV.

I saw the sign for the restrooms and went back to have a look at myself in the mirror. I didn't have any idea what I looked like. I didn't know if my face was dirty or tan or if a wild look had crept into my eyes which I assumed were bloodshot. I nudged into the small bathroom and stared into the scratched mirror. The first thing I noticed was my hair, sticking out wildly in all directions, looked as though it was either very messy or aggressively stylized, depending on how you wanted to think about it. My eyes were not red, but were clear, framed by a permanent scowl that had affixed itself to my face against the wind, rain, and diffused glaring sunlight. My arms and face looked tan, but as I began scrubbing them with soap and water, layers of dirt and sweat peeled off revealing whiter skin underneath. I dried my face and arms, left my hair as it was and stepped back out into the dining area.

I paid for the buffet and ate more than I have ever eaten in my life: pork roast, sausages, chicken pasta, mashed potatoes and salad. I had the soup and several rolls to go with it. There was some strange semi sweet rice dish with questionable chunks of meat and vegetables in it. I had about three large glasses of soda and about four cups of coffee with my five different desserts.

Feeling relaxed and satisfied for the first time the entire trip, I took a seat on the deck in front of the trailer, lit a cigar, pulled out my journal and began making notes on the last five days on the road. A man in faded black jeans and a grey T-shirt, which was tucked in around his paunchy belly, stood by the stairs talking to a foreign couple wearing heavy motorcycle jackets.

'Yeah I've been running tours here for almost six years,' he said hoisting his fanny pack up a little higher, 'You'll probably see me on the road, I've got the big van, says 'Princess' on the side...'

Several very large and hairy truckers shuffled around him, pausing briefly before grabbing the handrail and laboriously climbing the five steps to the front door. A group of three motorcyclists pulled up and began unfastening their helmets as they dismounted from their bikes.

In the distance I could hear a pack of dogs howling. There was the faint smell of wood fire.

I set my half finished cigar in the ashtray and went to fetch a sweater from my bike. I felt like an animal, like some wild thing, savage and alive. I felt incredibly strong, as though the last five days had given me a lifetime of experience on which I could now confidently depend.

As I was rummaging through my bags, a van pulled up behind me. About eight people in their fifties slowly stepped out of the sliding door, looking at me and murmuring to one another. From around the driver’s side bounced a girl, about my age, blond pony tail bobbing wildly. She clutched a stack of papers in her hand.

She noticed that her group was staring at me and said, 'I know, isn't it amazing people can do that! I think it's so incredible.' Someone behind me agreed, loud enough for me to hear. They continued talking about me just feet away as though I couldn't hear them. I looked around, gave a sheepish smile and then turned back to my bag, zipping it up.

'Alright let's get a picture!' squealed the girl delightedly, turning to her group.

One of the members of the group protested, saying that she needed to be in the picture too, the rest of the group agreed good naturedly.

'I can take the picture,' I said, standing up and turning to face them.

'Oh really!' exclaimed the girl, 'thanks so much! You're awesome!'

There were murmured agreements from the group behind her. I stepped forward, taking the camera from her.

'This one too, please,' said a woman, holding out a large SLR.

'And this,' said another

'This as well.'

I found myself holding no less than seven different cameras of all shapes and sizes.

'...two three. One two three. One two three. One two...' I said moving quickly through them.

I finished and began to untangle myself from the straps and lanyards.

'Thanks, youre awesome,' said the girl smiling broadly at me. 'I'm Kim.' She stuck out her hand.

'Dave,' I said transferring some cameras to my left hand.

Her group closed in, surrounding me, and began asking the usual questions.

'Where are you going?'

'How much does your bike weigh?'

'How long do you think it will take?'

'What do you eat?'

'Where are you from?'

I answered politely while backing slowly away from the group, around the man with the fanny pack who drove the princess van and back up the stairs.

'Thanks!' they all chanted at me.

'Sure,' I said, returning to my seat.

My cigar had gone out and as I lit it again I could hear Kim’s voice coming from the parking lot.

'And this certificate is for Tom for making it north of the Arctic Cirlce!' there was a burst of enthusiastic applause and genuine congratulatory remarks from the others in the group. 'And this certificate is for Cathy for making it north of the Arctic Circle!'

I leaned to the side, looking over the railing and down onto the group in the parking lot. Kim’s arm was outstretched, holding Cathy’s certificate towards her. Kim was jumping up and down with excitement, pony tail bobbing wildly. The group applauded with undiminished enthusiasm. Someone shouted 'Hoorah!' while another proclaimed 'Way to go Cathy!'

Are they going to do this for everyone in the group? I thought to myself. Surely by the last person they will know what's coming and even Kim will lose her enthusiasm. But as I watched, they went through every single member, Kim jumping with joy, the other members applauding appreciatively in the slipstream of her energy.

My cigar was finished. I added it to the cigarette butts in the ashtray and stepped back inside. I had been planning on resupplying here, my food bag had gotten so low that it kept slipping out from the strap holding it on the back of the bike and falling onto the road.

I had seen the truckers who knew the cashier by name get styrofoam to-go boxes from a place beneath the counter and I discretely grabbed two as I headed back to the buffet line. It was an all you can eat buffet but I still thought it a good idea not to make it known that I was fueling the rest of my expedition from their kitchen.

I filled the boxes with food and then retreated with my bike to a far corner of the parking lot where I packed the food into ziploc bags and then stuffed the bags into my food sack. With a long last look at this small, humble place of warmth and light in the great Alaskan wilderness, I clipped in and pressed on. I had already ridden far that day, but jazzed on energy from coffee and social contact, I rode for another several hours before stopping and quickly falling asleep in the constant hazy sunlight.

No comments:

Post a Comment