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?

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