Monday, September 7, 2009

Out of the Wild

Why do all good things come to an end? I have heard the question asked rhetorically many times. Well if anyone actually wants an answer, the answer is of course very simple: all things, both good and bad, come to an end. No further proof of this is needed than to say that one day, although I thought that it would never happen, even the Dalton Highway came to an end.

Despite wanting to move on mentally from the highway as far as I physically am now, please allow me one more moment of lamentation on another of its miseries.

I neared the end of the road, 12 miles left, 10 miles, 8... I was excited. I made the mistake of thinking that I had climbed the last hill of the Dalton. I have now learned to never, ever let yourself think that way, and especially not on the Dalton.

So I came down a hill and saw revealed in front of me, not that long descending valley (oh never that long descending valley!) but a sharp line cutting up into the hill ahead.

Miserable and amused I began again. I mentioned previously that the reservoir of emotions that I was unconsciously storing at one point broke through, and as this hill stretched on and on, my acidic frustration began to run over me as thickly as the sweat that held the dust to my skin.

It was though a crack was splintering through the levy in my mind, allowing all the anger I had been refusing to direct at the road to spray through, high pressured and impossible to stop. I stood in front of the spray, soaking wet and gasping for air, trying to plug the crack, or at least to keep the ocean from spilling through. This was the only point on the Dalton that I screamed out loud. I didn’t mean to, but on one exhale I screamed with exertion and frustration. Before I realized it I cried out again. And again. I felt like a rock climber hanging by a single finger, my body swinging loosely over an abyss I would not look into. Every muscle and tendon was stretched to breaking. But then, as all things do, it ended. The ocean of emotion retreated.

As I transferred from the dirt of the Dalton to the pavement of the Elliot highway, which would carry me the final hundred miles to Fairbanks, I spat good riddance to the dirt and rode on.

A very short ways away is a large ravine, and (forgive me if I get a little bit weepy here) a large bridge spanning it. A bridge! Those who built the Elliot had actually gone through the trouble of building a bridge over what would have been a miserable half hour ordeal on the Dalton. A mile or so further on my jaw dropped again. There was a short, sharp little hill ahead falling across the road, and (sniff) the road was cut into it, staying level. Just beyond that, the road turned, it turned and avoided the worst of a hill!

It was getting late, but I managed to press on past the town Livengood (pronounced Lie-vengood which is appropriate because this far north, and with no services of any kind, the name 'Livengood' is surely a lie) and set up camp near a stream just off the road. I was about 85 miles away from Fairbanks.

The following day I was determined to get to civilization. I followed the Elliot, which was by all ordinary standards still a difficult road, but it was paved, and it occasionally made an effort to avoid the worst terrain. I was shocked to find just how well I could keep my momentum on pavement.

I began to see things like mailboxes and driveways, rusty old cars and even old wooden buildings. Many of the drivers on the highway wore breathing masks in the smoke. Great I thought, huffing along, this is healthy. Before too long I came upon a wood log building advertising souvenirs and coffee. I couldn't believe it. Coffee! A place right along the road that I hadn't expected where I could just walk in and get a cup of...

'Thas' cheatin.'

I looked around. To my left a kid of about nine or ten had walked up beside me as I pulled into the lot. The kid was wild, wearing dirty blue overalls and muddy shoes. His straight sandy blond hair stuck out in all directions. The kid looked and moved like such a little animal that if he had wandered into my camp the night before I probably would probably have snared and eaten him, thinking him to be some strange kind of wild Alaskan animal.

'What's cheating?' I asked him.

'That,' he said pointing to my face.

'Cool! What is that? Is that a mirror?!' Another boy had just materialized from the bushes around the shop. This one was perhaps twelve or thirteen and clearly the leader of the two. He had dark matted hair and a stout pudgy face.

'Oh yeah, it is a mirror. That's what's cheating?' I asked the little wild animal, 'my mirror?'

'Yea thas' cheatin,' he said stepping forward to examine my bike computer.

'Don't touch that!' shouted the older one, with a quick sideways glance at me as if to say, See? Look how well I know my manners.

'That's not yours! Don't touch that!’

'What's it for?' said the little animal, drawing his hand away and smiling up at me.

'It tells me how far I've gone.'

'Thas cheatin,' said the boy quickly and definitively.

'Oh? Well I like having it,' I said.

'Don't listen to him, he's stupid,' said the older one.

The little wild one beamed up at me for a moment and then said, 'You gotta water filter?'

'Yeah, I do,' I said grinning at the kid.

'Thas cheatin,' he said again quickly.

'Boy everything’s cheating isn't it?' I said to the kid. He didn't answer but smiled his little wild animal teeth up at me.

I went inside the store and found the pot of Folgers tucked between a rack of books and a shelf of t-shirts. I went back outside and sat down on the deck. The kids swarmed.

'Well they closed the school house, nottanuff kids,' the older one was saying, 'so my dad got the schoolhouse and he got a really good deal and so now whenever we want something we can just go take it from the schoolhouse. He built an outhouse with the wood...'

'I bike all the way to the river to go fishing,' said the young one excitedly.

'Only once!' protested the older one authoritatively. Then looking at me he said, 'He's only done it once so he can't say he does it.' The little wild one smiled at me and swung his legs happily on the bench.

When I could no longer justify sitting with the boys, I climbed back onto the bike and continued on. I rode all day and it was a dreary, muggy, white sky day. The forest was definitely thicker now, but was not pretty or interesting. Finally I came to a place I had heard of, Hilltop, a trucker’s cafe about fifteen miles out of Fairbanks. It was dinner time and as I walked in, too tired to change out of my tight biking clothes, I noticed that the place was covered in signs. Not fun, decorative, or eclectic signs, but sharp, new plastic notices. 'We Card,' 'No Roller Blades,' 'Visa Mastercard,' 'No Sale of Tobacco to Minors,' and on and on. Just inside the door was another sign with a picture of their apple pie and text reading 'You've earned it.' Damn right I have, I thought as I stepped inside.

The building was, of course, a mobile unit that had been hauled out here and dumped beside the fuel pumps. The inside was harshly lit under fluorescent lights and was largely empty, except for the large truckers sitting in the 'truckers only' area. I took a table against the far wall as a middle age woman clutching a menu came towards me.

She walked with a slow and deliberate sway in her hips. Her hair was salon blond and sprouted out of a pony tail on top of her head.

'What can ah dew for you, biker man?' She poured her sweet southern accent over me like synthetic syrup warmed in the microwave.

'Well I'm very hungry, could you recommend something?'

'Oh you're hungry? Well the hamburger steak is real nice, and it's a big meal too.'

'That's fine,' I said 'and I’ll have a ginger ale as well please.'

The woman smiled at me, 'Sure sweetie,' and then sauntered back to the kitchen.

A few minutes later a huge steaming salty brown mass landed in front of me, along with a massive cup of Ginger ale. I understood suddenly why truckers are so large. Looking at the plate of food, I was certain that I would not be able to ingest all of it. Nevertheless, several minutes later, I found myself scraping the salty remains off the plate with the side of my fork.

The woman came back and sat on the edge of the table, striking a rather deliberate pose with her arm thrown back supporting her upper body.

'Everything all right?' She asked.

'Yes, very good. I haven’t been full in a while.'

She smiled at me and began making usual conversation, asking where I was from and where I was going. I had the impression that her southern accent might have been deliberately acquired and then exaggerated for effect. I told her that I hoped to make it into Fairbanks that night and find a place to camp.

'Fairbanks? Oh sweetie, that's just a hopnskupumjump...' she cleared her throat, 'Hop Skip and a Jump away.'

'Do you know where any campgrounds are in town?' I asked her hopefully.

Peeling herself off my table she went behind the counter and returned with a map of the city.

'Well the only one I know is over here,' she said making a mark on the map, 'but that's so far, that's all the way across town...'

'Are there any hills between here and town?' I asked her, knowing full well that the odds of any ten miles of road in this part of the world being flat were extremely low.

'Oh, yeah, well there's one. Oh and it's such a big hill too...' she furrowed up her brow empathetically. 'But from the top you have a great view and you can see the skyline of the city.'

Skyline? I thought to myself, I didn't think Fairbanks had a skyline. And for a moment I imagined myself, clean and comfortable, sipping a coffee and casually digesting the first leg of my journey in some nice cafe downtown. (this idea turned out to be comically inaccurate)

'Well thanks for the help,' I said, handing her my debit card 'I've got to get back on the road'.

The woman took my card, gave me the map, and wished me luck as I headed back out into the smoke.

As I came closer to town, things changed further. The two lane highway swelled into a four lane freeway. Traffic thickened, driveways and junk became more common. Billboards began to line the road advertising auto shops, lumberyards, gas stations, and motels. Small debris became more abundant along the side of the road where I was riding. Eventually I came to the final hill.

It was long, and steep, but fairly straight forwards. As I crested it I looked eagerly through the trees to the right to try and get a glimpse of this 'skyline' I had been told about.

Well I never did see it, but what I did see was an increase in junk and junky cars and junky car dealers whose merchandise parked in the grass alongside the road. As I drew nearer, there were pedestrians, large, shuffling, and shabbily dressed, giving off the distinct and unhealthy air of someone who is 'not doing too well.'

When I came to the Wal-Mart I knew I was in town. I had made it. 500 miles through the wild and I was here. Civilization. Of course I still did not feel arrived, I still had to make my way all the way across town, find a place to stay, set up camp, and then, mercifully sleep. The road across town was loud, strangled, confusing, bumpy and long.

The town passed as a series of dirty industrial yards, falling ash, rusty auto shops, and fast food restaurants. I finally found the campground and coasted in, looking around.

I had not yet stayed in a campground. On the Dalton I always just slept wherever I pleased. No one minds and while I did have some nice spots, I looked forward to amenities such as drinking water and, more importantly, a proper shower. Riding around the campground I soon discovered that all the tenting spots were full. The only remaining sites were the large and expensive ones for motor homes. Near the entrance was a camper that looked permanent that had a sign out front which read: 'Camp Host.'

I pulled up my bike, walked to the trailer door and knocked. A moment later a small and confused looking woman opened the door. I explained my predicament and asked her if there was anything that could be done.

The woman looked at me as though horrified, as though my problem was beyond human comprehension and help. She seemed unable to find any words so I suggested, 'Well are there any other campgrounds nearby? Or should I just pay for an RV site?' The woman opened her mouth without making any noise and shook her head slightly, looking at me as though I were crazy. 'I'll just pay for the RV site,' I said. 'Oh, and are there showers or drinking water?'

The woman stared at me a moment longer before finally managing a weak 'no.'

Charming, I thought, climbing back onto my bike, I think I preferred the Dalton! I found a site, paid whatever the ridiculous amount was for two nights, set up my tent, and crawled into my sleeping bag. Oh well, I thought to myself yawning, I’ll take tomorrow off, get cleaned up, do a couple errands, and just make a nice leisurely day of it. Ha ha! How wrong I was!

1 comment:

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