Wednesday, November 25, 2009


My parents, bless them, sent me packages on several occasions. They would choose a town somewhere ahead of me and then address the package to general delivery with a note to the postman to expect a wet and tired guy on a bike to stumble in at some point and pick it up. These packages primarily contained pieces of gear that I asked for, such as my new kickstand, a replacement tail light for the one I lost in Deadhorse, new earphones, etc, but they also contained, or so I had been promised, some food from home.

Up until this point in my trip I had only received one package in Fairbanks, and it had snuck out without my mother’s knowing. So when I opened it eagerly, hoping for an offset from the Alaskan diet, I have to confess to slight disappointment at finding only the kickstand inside. To make matters worse, expensive as it was, the kickstand turned out to be worse than my original, and so after going through a tremendous ordeal installing and adjusting it and many failed attempt to use it, when I got to Whitehorse, I finally traded back to my original flimsy, simple one and threw the other away.

My second package was waiting for me in Dease Lake. Dease Lake was a dot on my map like any other, but I had heard that this particular dot was the location of a grocery store. By the time I drew near the town I was well into the mountains.

The light was cold and lifeless, the result of thick low clouds and the sun beginning to slide diagonally into the horizon somewhere unseen. The town began as all those towns did, with several mailboxes set beside mysterious dirt roads in the trees. Then houses, quiet and dark in the rain. Then a paved street or two branching off from the highway and finally the town proper. This is usually just the large mobile building which serves as convenience store, gas station, post office, and restaurant. Dease Lake was no exception. I went in to buy some pasta and chili.

It took a very long time for me to reach a point far enough south that at least half the customers in any given store weren't family members and friends half working and half eating. This store was not that far south. It wasn't empty, and it was fairly well stocked, but as I worked through the rows I soon gathered that most everyone else in the store were either related or good friends. I took my basket up to the counter to check out.

'Where's the lake?' I asked the young native girl who was bagging my groceries. I had seen a large lake a dozen or so miles back, but had lost track of it in the trees as I came closer to town.

'What lake?' she asked freezing midway through scanning a loaf of bread, looking distressed and surprised. Being in Dease Lake I meant the question to refer to Dease Lake.

'Isn't there a lake here? I'm looking for a place to camp.'

She still looked startled and a little frightened by my question, but after a moment she answered, still holding the bread and using it to gesture like a pointer.

'Oh, yeah, there's a lake over past the bar. Just go right before the bar, then turn left just after and then go to the end and you'll see a dirt road that'll go down to the water.'

Those were good enough directions for me. I paid and snugged my hat back on my head before going back out into the light rain. It was too late to go to the post office, which was adjacent but kept different hours than the store, so I rode off to find the lake.

I found the bar, a sad quiet affair, and went to the end of the road behind it. Several dirt roads split off in different directions, all muddy, rocky and steep. I wasn't even sure that I'd be able to get down any of them, let alone push my heavy bike back up.

This type of situation is very common when touring. I frequently find myself at some point of decision, with limited information and relatively high consequences for failure. Choosing the wrong road could mean an hour of muddy frustration. Do I go and find someone to ask about which road leads where? Do I camp where I stand? Do I get back on the highway and find a more sure but less ideal place? I decided to choose a road, but which road? I feel that I have a sense for this type of decision. I don't think that there is anything mysterious about such a sense, but assume that it springs from a subconscious evaluation of many minute and subtle factors in a situation. Like in this instance, I was probably doing nothing more than looking at tire marks, inclination of the terrain and roads, and imagining where the lake might be situated. Regardless of why I did what I did, I chose the road on the right. The decision turned out to be correct. After a few minutes of skidding carefully over glossy mud covered stones and dodging ruts I arrived at a small clearing in the trees along the water’s edge. The light was now a deeper and more sinister shade of grey. The lake looked small from where I stood, more like a pond, but at the far end it may have taken a corner and connected to a bigger body of water. The bottom was deep black mud and the edges were fringed with twigs covered in dark moss.

I immediately set about making a fire. People had obviously camped here before. There were several dark scorch marks and half hearted fire rings in addition to sparse pieces of soggy trash. A canoe sat filling slowly with water half up on the beach. I threw some wet branches down in one of the fire rings and slopped a generous amount of gasoline from my fuel tank over them. I took a napkin from my bike, wrapped it around the end of a stick and doused it with gasoline as well. I lit the napkin and threw it onto the branches which exploded with a warm -woosh!-

As the fire started I began the thousand and one chores that camping requires and that make you appreciate the convenience of a modern life. But before I had even set up my tent I noticed that the fire was in critical condition. The gasoline had all burned away and only one small part of one branch was still burning, a small cold candle defiant in the drizzle. By the time I knelt down next to the fire even that had gone out. I don't have time to deal with this right now! I thought, frustrated. I retrieved my fuel canister and this time unloaded an even larger quantity of gasoline onto the smoking pile, arranged the branches in a more deliberate way and repeated my technique with the napkin.

The fire died down quickly again, but this time the branches burned with enough energy to overcome their moisture, the coolness, and the rain. I nearly had my tent set up when I caught movement in the trees fifty feet away.

A man tromped down the hill and onto the beach, a backpack slung over his shoulder and a box of Canadian Beer under his arm. I appraised him for a moment and then called out,


The man waved a casual hand at me and continued coming forward.

'This isn't your property is it?' I asked him.

'This? No, f--- no man. This isn't my property. Hell I camped here last night. Over there, by that tree. Damn good camping spot. You should camp over there.'

'Well, I’m about set up here,' I said gesturing to my tent and fire, 'I think I'll stay here.'

'F--- man, there's some damn good fire wood over there. You wanna beer?' He held up the box in offering.

'It'd be hard to say no to that,' I said smiling.

The man very happily tossed me a beer and opened one for himself. He squat down where he was and looked at me through narrow eyes.

He was one of those people who talks, who needs to talk. It doesn't matter what he's talking about, as long as he is the one doing the talking and there are sufficient places in the topic for him to alternately complain and then to offer advice.

He had hitch hiked up to Canada from the US some years ago and had been slowly passing his life chopping firewood, working in mines, logging, and acting as a handy man as he wandered around the country.

He was an operator. He invested in people with beer and company and always earned a return. He would readily side with you on any of your grievances, and damn those anonymous third parties who had grieved you. It's a funny fact of life that those whose advice you'd like to hear are generally tight lipped, but bums are inextinguishable sources of insight and wisdom, not to judge a book by its cover, Socrates was something of a bum after all. But far from Socratic questioning, my friend was a fount of simple advice, 'you just gotta be open to opportunities man,' complaints, 'F--- the US,' and the precious stories of his daily life, 'That canoe belongs to a fat Samoan dude. Huge f----- guy. He came down here last night and we had way too many beers and he's like 'let's go fishing maan!' and so he gets in the boat and I start pushing it out and he just tips over and his feet go straight up and he fell in with his clothes on and everything, f----- hilarious man!'

We spoke for a short while, but he seemed to realize that I was not going to be able to match the fat Samoan, so he offered me more beer, climbed into the canoe and disappeared slowly to the far end of the lake. Twilight lasted for hours, and by the time I had bathed in the lake, made dinner, cleaned up, and gotten in bed it was dark and I fell instantly to sleep.

Coming out of the timeless obscurity of sleep sometime in the middle of the night is always disorienting. It is not so bad at home; lights come in from the street or off the microwave or the other room.

It's warm and secure and dry. But sleeping alone on a thin membrane above the muddy ground is different. I was still too focused, too consumed and resigned to my situation that I remained emotionally distant from it, but was still aware of it. And so it was with a detached understanding that I was suddenly awake. The rain still parterre lightly on the roof of my tent, but that was not what woke me. In the distance, across the lake and through the trees a deep booming had begun.

I checked my clock, 2:35, What on earth is going on out there? ‘Boom, Boom, Boom,’ it continued in cadence, loud and pulsing. Then I heard shrieking, the high-pitched wail of a girl’s voice. Then laughter, shrieking, and then the shrieking broke into laughter. Guys were yelling, girls were yelling and through it all continued the deep ‘Boom, Boom, Boom!'

Why do they have to have a party now? I thought rolling over in my sleeping bag. I listened and made out the song above the booming base. I wasn't expecting to get blasted with Rihanna here of all places. Apparently there was a house hidden in the trees not too far from where I slept and there was something worth celebrating that night, something worth celebrating for hours. I can't say for sure but I assume that that thing was alcohol itself. Laying down there in the mud by the lake I was distantly aware that the people in the house were probably my age, or at least close to it. I had no desire to go join them but was suddenly struck with the realization of how far my life had drifted away from that of my peers and old friends. I don't think I have ever felt so estranged from my peer group. It wasn't a sad feeling, it wasn't a feeling of superiority, it was simply the recognition of there being a great separation between me and them.

It's a distance I have felt all my life, but has sprung into tangible existence since my setting off on this trip. I lay awake thinking that the music would never stop, but the next thing I knew it was morning, and aside from the rain, it was quiet.

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