Monday, November 30, 2009

A Good Story

I had sent a lot of stuff home in Fairbanks. In Whitehorse I had again packed a cardboard box full of extra gear and sent that home as well. I had given my camping chair to David the day I left him by the lake. I carried less food, clothes, spares, and tools, but even still my bike was tremendously heavy. I don't know how heavy, I never weighed it, but I could barely lift it. Somehow every bag and pocket was still full to bursting and I had two nearly full bags of food stacked on the back.

The panniers had been somewhat protected from the rain that night by their bright yellow covers, but even still, everything was just barely damp inside the bags. I had on my hat, whose brim had been sharp and strong when I started, but now sagged slightly in the constant rain. I was in the habit of wearing the hat even while biking, its strap secured around the back of my head. At first it did well in the rain. It kept me warm and I could tilt the brim down to guard my face as I sped downhill. The felt wouldn’t become saturated but its surface would slowly change to dark brown as it absorbed freckles of water. While peddling uphill or across flat ground, a drop of water would hang from the brim between my eyes, swaying hypnotically back and forth with the motion of my body until it fell off and was replaced by another. Several times the hat had been blown off while I was riding. Heading downhill into the wind a truck would come speeding up the other way trailing a white cloud of water. The wet blast as it passed had ripped the hat off my head. The hat was my favorite piece of raingear but was aging, turning soft and losing its shape.

The only other piece of raingear that worked was my jacket. Despite the constant cold I never rode bundled up, even in the rain. I wore the jacket, which was really just a thin shell, with my riding jersey underneath. Even the Gore-Tex of the jacket would feel heavy with absorbed water after a day in the rain, but for the most part it kept me dry. I wore two layers on my hands, my long fingered cycling gloves and then a 'waterproof' glove over that. I had bought the waterproof gloves from REI mainly because of the picture on the box which showed a hand wearing the glove being plunged imperviously into a tank of water, and large text across the front that reads WATERPROOF! I can only assume that whoever wrote that was trying to make a joke because these gloves were no more waterproof than a sponge. My hands were always soft and wrinkled with the water trapped in my gloves.

The only other rain gear I ever wore was a pair of shoe covers, though I don't have a good explanation for why I wore them. Even with them on, after an hour in the rain I could wring out my socks and fill a half cup with water. I never bothered with rain pants. I felt that they would rub uncomfortably against the motion of my legs, and I assumed they wouldn't work anyways given the track record of my other rain clothes. I just let my shorts get wet.

It was a rather eclectic outfit, the trim shell of a ski jacket, black biking shorts, shoes covered like small surfers in wetsuits, and a hat that was subtly beginning to soften with use.

I needed to get back up the steep muddy road I had come down the night before to get back to the highway. I knew I couldn't ride it and frankly I wasn’t even sure that I could walk it. I pushed my bike away from the lake, back towards the trees and the steep dirt road. I put both hands on the wet handle bars and leaned my chest down between my hands pushing the bike forward. The metal cleats on my shoes crackled against the wet rocks half buried in mud with a sound like ice splintering. It was steep and a hassle, but I soon made it back to the top of the hill. I went back to the gas station to get breakfast and pick up the package my parents had sent to the post office there.

The post office was a sad and strange room. Like all things in the town it was a mobile building with counters and walls of curling wet composite board. The room had clearly been converted from some other use. It was too big and even with the lights on, half of it sat in semi darkness concealing piles of ambiguous junk. At the far end was a counter and a light. No one was there, but the electric crackle of the metal on my shoes against the linoleum floor had obviously alerted someone farther back in the darkness, for just as I was about to call out, someone appeared in the window.

I got my package with curious looks from the woman there and went next door into the grocery store where there was a table. The thing I was most happy to receive was a new taillight. I hadn't had one since losing my first the night in Deadhorse, and after more than one thousand miles in bad weather on a trucking road I felt pretty lucky I hadn't yet been flattened. I spread out the other items in the box across the table and began to organize them. I went back to my bike and pulled an armful of gear from the bags I wanted send back. I stacked this gear on the table in the grocery store and added to it the stuff from the package I was going to send back. I found the small piece of jade I had bought a few days prior and threw it in the stack along with a note explaining it.

A group of people roughly my age was gathering a few seats down and I couldn't help but eavesdrop, they were talking awfully loud. I gathered that it was the same people who had been partying up on the hill the night before, and this morning they were all meeting bleary eyed in the grocery store to go over the night before play by play. Who said what and how much they drank and why John is mad and why would she do that and on and on. The girl was telling a story with wide eyed enthusiasm about something she had done or said to someone and the ensuing emotional drama. I actually looked over to see if she was serious. So boring was the story that I couldn't believe anyone would actually tell it, let alone tell it with such intensity. She was serious and the entire loud conversation of the group followed a series of similar hugely dramatic and infinitely unexciting minutiae of social life in Dease Lake.

It took me a long time to get out of town. By the time I had gotten back over to the post office and the woman working there had figured out how to send a package, it was already after lunch. I went to the only other shop along the highway, a quiet restaurant that tried to be formal but didn't know how. No one else was there; I can't imagine anyone ever going there. I sat down and asked for a menu but was told that they were only serving soup... 'Well I guess I could make you a sandwich too,' the woman added. I ordered both, ate, and left.

I hadn't expected it, but immediately after Dease there is a very long and steep climb. The road crossed west back up and over the Continental Divide. It was grey and cold. The rain came lightly for some time, stopped, and then started again. I finally made it to the top of the climb, 'Gnat Pass,' an unremarkable turn in the road which just happens to mark the point at which it begins to descend. It wasn't so much a matter of going up and over a mountain as it was of going higher up into the mountains. Beyond Gnat Pass the road turned south and leveled off on a faltering plateau and did not fully descend for days.

It was much colder higher up. There was no snow, but the wind was strong and blew against me, pressing the front of my hat down into my eyes or up against my forehead. The rain hadn't stopped and the strong white grey of the sky promised that it wouldn’t. My hat was becoming a problem. I stopped and took it off, and instead, attached the hood to my jacket, pulled it over my head and cinched the opening closed over my mouth and nose. Across the road and a little ways into a field on the far side, I noticed a small wooden barn sitting quietly and darkly in the rain. Three horses stood together against the outside of the building sheltering from the wind.

The trees were smaller and more scarce and water oozed slowly through the muddy marsh that did not lead anywhere with any hurry. It would make its way to the ocean eventually, but not for a long time.

The road curved and climbed again and there were no cars and no buildings. Finally, it began a long steep drop into a narrow valley. The surface was never smooth and was sometime unpaved, a cratered surface of sporadic gravel and circles of brown water. I lacked the patience to descend slowly, and blasted down the steep grade in a matter of minutes. As I neared the bottom, it became clear that the road was simply dipping down to cross a river and then would return back up into the mountains on the far side.

The river was mean, fast, and muddy. The bridge crossing it was made of the same steel grid as the one I had crashed on days earlier. As the road leveled out on the bridge I cringed as I braked to a stop and wasted my thirty miles an hour of speed. I walked the bridge and looked around for a place to rest and eat before climbing out of the ravine.

I saw a small shelter, the kind state parks use to cover information displays at state parks. There was a car parked alongside it and as I pulled up I could smell food cooking. A young man was there, on vacation from somewhere and going so see some family member somewhere else. He had decided to drive the Cassiar as an adventure and had caught some Salmon that day. He was kind enough to share an entire steak with me and made tea as well. Drinking tea and leaning against the information under the awning, we made small and kind conversation.

'It just surprises me how raw everything is here. I mean, you go outdoors where I'm from and you’re fine, but here it feels like you go outdoors and, and it's just... really harsh.'

I didn't know what to say to this. He said the statement with a tone and expression that made me suspect he didn't really mean it. He said it in a way that someone says something they'd be expected to say, something they were told is true and then share the idea as though it were their own. I had been told that Canada would be as he described it, but my experience was different. My experience was that rain is rain, cold is cold, and wind is wind. In mass concentration it can be more difficult psychologically and physically, but there was nothing overtly sinister about the landscape. We exchanged emails and parted ways.

That was the first day I was ever forced to stop by darkness. I don't remember what time it was, but under the heavy clouds it became so dark I could hardly see. I had climbed away from the river and was moving through bland forest, curving hills, and obscure views. I wanted a camp spot with flowing water, with firewood, and shelter. Instead I found a rest stop, complete with an outhouse and picnic tables. I set up in the rain and darkness on a somewhat flat patch of gravel towards the far end, and with no trouble, fell quickly to sleep.

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