Sunday, September 6, 2009

On the Whole

Getting through the Dalton in my writing has proved to be almost as much of a challenge as getting through it by bike! I keep expecting to finish that section of the ride in the next journal, but find that there are things I just can't leave out for the sake of my own memory and for everyone to enjoy them as well. Nevertheless, I will wrap it up soon enough and should be able to catch up to where I physically am pretty quickly!

The Dalton is too arrogant, industrial, and efficient to curve, even when a quarter mile turn would allow you to avoid a three mile climb. It is never graded into hills. Ravines are never filled or bridged to level the road. It plunges straight up and down again and again and again. These repetitive hills were so brutal that although the Antigun Pass was a difficult, I much preferred it to the rest of the road. Riding over this terrain does not yield any kind of victorious satisfaction. The feeling is much more akin to suffering through hours of traffic in a hot car. It's painful drudgery. There is no music that suits it, there is no pleasure in the process.

This type of challenge is far more difficult than any other. It invites apathy and despair, pointlessness and hopelessness, which are far more subtle and seductive enemies than mere fatigue or pain. It felt unhealthy, like some type of repetitive and sick mental abuse. I had to quiet those very human portions of my mind which rejected to my yielding again and again with quiet submission to hill after hill.

More uphill or downhill?

It is slightly more uphill, given that you start roughly at sea level and Fairbanks is at an elevation of about three hundred feet. However, this gain is spread out over 500 miles so it's hard to notice. But that's in terms of distance; let's think about it in terms of time. I would often find myself struggling up hill at three miles an hour, and then descending around thirty. This means that I would spend ten times as much time going uphill as downhill. So in a sense, it is ten times as much uphill as down, but that’s awfully pessimistic so I tried not to let myself think it.

While it was sometimes cold, it was more often hot. Sweat ran down my chest and face. It streamed across my sunglasses leaving salty trails. Whenever I began to climb yet another hill, the mosquitoes found me and then greedily swarmed until I could crest the hill and bomb down the far side.

I rarely found it to be beautiful. This was perhaps largely due to the eternal orange haze which I eventually learned was from massive forest fires burning near Fairbanks. I wondered how much worse the smoke would get, the damage it was doing my lungs, and just how large the fires must be to cover the sky 500 miles to the north. I could often not see more than a half mile into the distance, leaving me isolated from my surroundings. Riding like this is like making someone follow a trail, but only allowing them to look at their feet with no idea of where the trail is going.

The mountains had crumbled to become endless hills just before Coldfoot, hills that were covered in millions of the shriveled Spruce trees. At times, isolated in the smoke, it would have been easy to believe that I had somehow been caught in some type of twilight zone, some world between worlds that had wrapped itself in an eternal dead forest.

I rode over countless rivers and streams, some deep blue and clear, others green and opaque. I was constantly struck by how little wildlife there was. Often all that could be heard was the shrieking of a squirrel, the sharp repetitive chirping, loud and mechanical, like a stuck power drill.

The thought of quitting:
I only bring this up because it is a common enough question and I assume people would like to ask, 'Did you ever think about quitting?' The answer is yes, I was of course aware of the option, but it simply didn't tempt me. It sounded less appealing than continuing on.

I would motivate myself with thoughts like God forbid, that this, the greatest challenge of my life, is actually difficult or painful.’ Or I would remind myself that with a bit of patience and a little hard work I would get where I was going. If you could sit through that two hour accounting class then surely you can ride another two hours. It also seemed to help to imagine ways in which things could be worse, The wind could be stronger. At least the rain is light. The road could be muddier.

Before starting the trip, I thought that it might be boring biking all day, but I realized that I was simply working far too hard to get bored. In fact, I was working too hard to get lonely or excited, anything except tired. That’s another thought I had again and again, I am working so hard! I just can’t believe how hard I’m working! I found simple calculations to be difficult. Let’s see, I've gone 43 miles, and I want to do 65, so that means I have to go... 30...30 plus 2... No wait, 65 minus 43... Uhh so 43, 53, 63, ummm... 65...

The thoughts that filled my head over those nine days were similar to those that fill one’s head just before falling asleep. Images of friends’ and families’ faces flit through, laughing or saying something they often say. Songs learned in the third grade come from nowhere and get stuck on repeat. Random memories, like sliding down the hall in socks when I was a kid, or of catching a bullfrog, or playing videogames at a friend’s house flutter around and mix together. Lines from movies and TV shows come randomly and repeat and then go away. Questions with some metaphorical meaning occurred to me and would repeat over and over. Are you churning cream or just treading water? Are you churning cream or just treading water? Are you churning... or else, will my bar tape burnish or tarnish? Will my bar tape burnish or tarnish? Will my bar tape... I forced myself to count breaths as I climbed hills to try and quiet my mind. count to 300. You can count to three hundred, then you'll almost be at the top. Whenever I stopped for a moment, I was always surprised at how screaming loud my random thoughts had become, and how quiet it was without them.

I built fires on occasion but generally found them to be more a smokey nuisance than a source of light and comfort. My knee always hurt, but never reached that point of failing weakness like it did the first and second day, which encouraged me. It hurt too much to crouch or kneel and I was always surprised at how badly I limped when I stepped off my bike to draw water or get lunch. Sometimes I would almost fall when I stepped off my bike, my legs being so fatigued and my knee being so sore. I rarely stopped. Even things like greasing the chain or adjusting the seat were delays I only rarely indulged.

The Dalton is not smooth enough to allow you to keep any momentum. If the grade is even slightly uphill you don't coast at all and the momentum of a downhill does not carry you even partway up the next hill, making any elevation gained a very poor investment. The tops of hills are quite often marked in order to warn truckers to downshift for the coming descent. Initially, I thought that these markers were my friends, they marked the end of the climb and the beginning of the downhill after all, but I soon learned what they really meant: 'Congratulations on completing another half hour of suffering. All your hard efforts will now be wasted in a dusty, rocky minute. This message will repeat throughout the day.'

I was still unemotional. My bike fell over again on its flimsy kickstand, scattering my toolkit. I carefully gathered my tools and righted the bike. I came sweating over another hill and saw three more on the horizon. I quietly continued. I hit a bad stretch of road and just kept riding. I was able to retain some sort of detached amusement at my situation anytime things became particularly horrible. I suspected that I might be filling a reservoir of emotion. It turned out that I was and that spite and anger would soon began to break through, but I'll get to that later.

I never had trouble sleeping, but always had trouble getting out of bed. I fell asleep early and slept in and could not have imagined getting less sleep than I did. Starting late like this always made me feel short on time. Despite doing everything quickly, I did everything full of care. I was careful with my trash, I pulled to the side of the road carefully. I was careful purifying my water and careful unpacking my bags. I was careful going downhill and careful going up. Part of doing this was recognizing the things that could go wrong, recognizing the things that would be horrible if they went wrong, and then taking measures to make sure those things didn't happen. It seemed to me a great epiphany at the time that everything done on the Dalton must be done 'full of care' but then realized with an obvious jolt that that is precisely what the word careful means.

One of the things I did discover with the brutal clarity that only personal experience provides is that strength lives on the far side of weakness. I found this on days where I had given all that I could, days where I was defeated and finished, but still had miles to go and then did them. Past that point of defeat I found a great deal of strength. The strength here is of a different essence, of a different quality than the strength used before reaching weakness. It's so different that I now call any feeling of strength before weakness mere energy. I think most people have this strength and that it is why when life asks more of us than we can possibly give, we stretch and bend and sometimes tear ourselves to handle it, but in the end we find a way to survive.

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