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.

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