Thursday, November 5, 2009

Burwash Landing

I didn't want to get up, not that there was anything unusual about that! I never wanted to get out of bed, but this morning I felt particularly firmly glued to my mattress. I rolled over and checked the time: 9:45. Crap! Another late start. I set my head back down on the small pillow and moved my jaw around, clicking it back into place. My jaw was sore and out of place every morning. In fact, my whole face was a miserable affair. Far from healing, the canker sore in one corner of my mouth had cut deeper and another was forming on the other side, neither of which was very visible, but they made smiling and eating difficult. My wisdom tooth was still emerging painfully, making it hurt to chew or swallow. My nose was dry, painful, and somehow always runny.

I rolled over again and unzipped the tent just enough to stick my hand outside. The air was cold but at least it wasn't raining. Get up Dave. Get up! I drew my hand back inside the tent and curled up deeper inside my warm cocoon.

There was a faint crunching noise, the unmistakable sound of a heavy body grinding gravel into the dirt. Then came a quiet clicking, a rapid and soft tick tick tick. It was that distinct noise of another bicycle. There is accountability in being watched, and somehow the simple fact that another cyclist was present provided me with more than enough motivation to stop making excuses, sit up, and stumble out of my tent.

A man had pulled up several dozen feet away and was fussing with the trailer attached to his bike.

'Morning!' I called to him.

'Hello.' he said in return, unhooking the trailer and turning his bike upside down.

'Where you coming from?' I asked. It was the typical question, the question everyone asked me and the question I asked everyone. It is the touring cyclist’s version of How are you?

'Well I've come off the Dalton, from Prudhoe bay, and spent a couple of days in Fairbanks,' he spoke with a damnably charming English accent.

'Oh really! I just came that way also!' I said, instantly feeling the bond that forms between two people who have both endured the same misery.

'My name’s Dave,' I added, offering my hand.

He straightened up and took my hand, a smile spreading across his face, echoing in deep creases which spread comfortably down from his eyes. He had a good face, fit and proportioned. It was the kind of face that would look almost exactly the same at 25, 35, and 45. I squinted trying to guess which one was closest to accurate.

'My name’s Dave as well,' he said in his crisp accent.'Have you also come off the Dalton then?'

'Yeah, I spent nine days on the Dalton and then one day in Fairbanks. This is my sixth day out of Fairbanks.'

Dave removed the wheel from his bike and flicked the rubber off the rim with a practiced motion.

'We have the same bike tool,' I said pointing. There was nothing David could say in response to this that would sound natural, so he just smiled and pulled a fresh tube from the large bag on his trailer.

'So have you done anything like this before?' I asked, already guessing the answer.

'Yes,' said David, stuffing the new tube into the wheel, 'I did a ride several years ago from England to South Africa.'

I had guessed that he had done some touring before, but this surprised me. 'Oh wow,' I laughed, 'yeah that ride intimidates me. Wow. Did you go alone then?'


'Ha, well it's nice to know there are people out there crazier than me,' I said as he tucked the tire behind the rim of the wheel and clamped his pump onto the valve. 'Did you find the Dalton to be very difficult?' I asked. 'I mean I thought it was brutal, and it's been much easier since then, but I don't know, I was wondering if that type of road is typical.'

David began inflating the tire with a small hand pump. After a moment he said, 'Well if you've done the Dalton in nine days and come through with flying colors, you should be just fine.'

Flying colors? I thought. I didn't think I came through with flying colors. In fact the only part of my experience on the Dalton that has anything to do with flying colors would be the string of swear words I would like to use to describe any one of its hundreds of hills.

Dave squeezed the tire in his hand, checking the pressure. Satisfied he fitted it back onto the frame, turned his bike right side up, and re-attached the trailer.

'Well you'll probably pass me, I don't go that fast,' he said, offering his hand.

'Yeah well I hope so, and if not, good luck with the rest of your trip.'

David wheeled his bike back onto the road, waved and set off.

I quickly prepared breakfast, oatmeal and dried fruit, cleaned up my campsite and set off. The road was much the same as the day before; it weaved over and around the small hills of the valley floor, staying always between mountains just high enough to be peaked with white.

There were many more one building towns, marked on my cheap map, which were closed for the season, making me feel vulnerable to be so far north so late in the season. I kept my eye out for David, expecting to see him in the distance at any point, eager to ride with someone. Afternoon came too soon and I looked with trepidation at a bank of dark clouds several miles ahead.

As I drew nearer them, small drops of water started to ping off my arms and face, the promise of a heavier rain. I checked my map and knew that the next town was only a couple of miles ahead. If it was open I hoped I would be able to make it there before the rain began in earnest. I rode harder and made it to town.

An 'open' sign directed me to a restaurant down by the edge of a large lake. I balanced my bike precariously outside and stepped into the lobby. My initial impression was that this was the first place I had been that made an effort to be nice. The floor was carpeted and the walls were covered with faded prints of paintings. A tall window was set into the length of the back wall through which I could see the lake, grey and textured under the rain. I sat at a table by the window and watched the rain make patterns on the water.

I had only gone forty five miles, about half of what I had been doing since leaving Fairbanks. Since it wasn't going to get dark until late at night, and then only a dim twilight, I could eat an early dinner and then ride late. I ordered and quickly ate a hamburger and had a cup of coffee (two staples of life on a bicycle) and took out my journal to do some writing.

The door chimed and David walked in wearing his riding uniform of capri pants, t-shirt, and a beanie. I wondered how he could stand wearing that hat as he rode as 60 percent of your body heat escapes through your head, and even on a very cold day, biking is enough work to make you sweat. I waited to catch his eye, but he waved to someone at another table and sat down without noticing me.

I finished my journal and walked over to their table.

'Hello,' I said, 'mind if I join you?'

David looked up and, recognizing me, smiled.

'Of course. This is William,' he said, gesturing the other man at the table. I took William’s hand in mine, a big padded bear paw, and shook it. I sat down on the padded aluminum chair as the server poured us all a fresh cup of stale coffee. William, it turned out, was cycling as well and had met David earlier that day. William was tall, with a full beard that fell around his face as a natural extension of his wild hair. His mannerisms and tones of speech were that of an exceedingly kind and gentle person. The kind of person who, whenever he smiled, smiled shyly and whenever he spoke, inflected his voice with the timid, high pitched tone of someone nervously concerned with being polite.

'I'm not trying to impress anybody,' William said. 'I'm just riding to lose weight.'

He had a vast soft belly and a full, fleshy face, the result of a dozen years as a truck driver based in anchorage. And let me tell you, having seen the serving sizes at these truck stops, his excessive poundage was completely understandable.

I sat back in my chair, feeling blood run warm through my legs and arms as I subconsciously relaxed my tense body. I was very pleased to be seated with two other cyclists, two people who could confirm my experiences, who could offer advice and insight. Two people who provided a good excuse to stay inside out of the rain and drink coffee.

'So how far do you go a day?' I asked William.

He looked down at his plate, 'Oh I go slow, I'm not trying to impress anybody. I started out just doing about 20 miles, but I'm getting stronger. Now I do about forty. But I'm getting stronger every day. Do you guys feel like you're getting stronger too?'

'Oh yes, I do.' said David, smiling and taking a sip of coffee.

I laughed. 'Well I don't! If anything I feel weaker and weaker everyday!' It was true. I was really pushing myself, pulling huge miles. I knew I was getting stronger, but I also knew that it would take a long time to become comfortable with my new life.

William looked at me with an expression of great concern. Every line of his face full of empathy, eager to help me.

'Well what are you eating? You need to eat right. It's so important that you eat right.'

I laughed again and said that I ate way too many Snickers bars. This was also true, I had been eating several a day for the calories, but had also carefully ensured that I was consuming proper nutrition. I had with me enough powdered dietary supplements to supply a mission to Mars. So even when I could find only junk to eat, I was still providing my body with everything it needed.

William looked at me with horror on his face. 'Oh no, no you can't do that. Oh those candy bars won't do you any good.'

David chimed in, 'Well there's really not much else sometimes. I mean if it's all there is...'

William’s eyebrows were raised and pressed together and he was shaking his head with concern. I tried to explain that I was actually being careful about my nutrition. I tried to explain about the supplements and the good meals I had every day, but William’s opinions had formed, and my arguments fell on ears made deaf by the concern of someone who has much to teach you.

We talked for a long time. We talked about drinking water and campsites. We talked about sore backsides and bike locks. We talked about motor homes, motorcycles, headwinds, and hills. It was so good to know that others were sharing my experiences and frustrations. At length I was convinced to stay there that night and call it a short day.

I put on my ranchers hat and ran out of the restaurant into the rain. I fetched my bike from the side of the building and wheeled it around to a patch of grass where William and David had already set up their tents. I set up camp quickly in the cold rain and ran back inside for a warm shower, more food, and more conversation.

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