Monday, November 9, 2009

It Always Astonished Me at Just...

It always astonished me at just how long it took to get everything ready to go in the morning. You need to clean and sort the pots used for making breakfast, which also means putting the soap and sponge used to clean them away. The stove must be disconnected from the fuel can, folded up and secured in its bag. The utensils must then be cleaned and put away. Food and seasoning must be re-packed and secured once again to the back of the bike. Then the sleeping bag and air mattress have to be compressed and shoved into their pannier.

Journal, pen, map, iPod, Kleenex, water bottle, chapstick, GPS, pocket knife, bear spray, flashlight, chair, pillow, battery, camera, cables, pajamas, and toiletries must all be gathered, organized, and put back onto the bike. Then you have to change into your riding clothes, which somehow always feel a little wet and nasty, put your shoes on, and clean the sweat off your glasses. Then the clothes from that night have to be rolled and folded and stuffed into bags on the bike. Then the tent must be disassembled and packed away, don’t forget to gob on the sunscreen and then, finally, head back onto the road. Wait, there are always one or two things you've forgotten: this zipper’s open or your sandals are on the ground or your washcloth is still hanging from that branch or something. Every time I left anywhere I was always extraordinarily careful to check the ground around where I had been, making sure I had forgotten nothing.

Finally, leaning heavily into the handlebars, I pushed my bike up the steep rocky turn-off and back onto the road. I looked back the way I came before starting and saw an ambiguous black shape moving towards me. William? I waited as it moved slowly closer, until finally it materialized, not as William, but as David.

'Morning!' he smiled his big English smile at me.

'Morning,' I answered back. 'I thought you were William. Did you see him? He's right back in town.'

They had somehow missed one another, even though they both camped in town.

'I think William’s going to take the day off,' I said smiling. 'Yesterday was by far the biggest day he's done so far.'

David and I agreed to ride together, although I was intent on making it all the way to Whitehorse, something to which David would not commit. It was a long day, over a hundred miles through dull forest and aggravating hills. It was strange there, in northern Canada, because you could see so far. In all of Alaska I was either in cloud or smoke or rain and so could rarely see more than a mile in the distance. Here, however, the landscape was arranged in such a way that I could frequently see 50 miles distant, and so it was possible to imagine where your destination was, which hills it was set between, or which mountains you would have to cross to get there.

I soon rode ahead of David and hoped he would push all the way to the town, but I wasn't banking on it. Prior to that day I had had two culinary inspirations. The first was to combine Nutrigrain bars with butter and sliced apple in order to approximate apple pie. The second was to combine beef jerky, rice, potatoes, and Ramen together to make a stew (this did not turn out well). This day I had my third. I planned to cook pasta and pour a can of chili over it. Would that work? That can't be that bad, chili is just kind of like a meat sauce anyways right?

Two days previously I came across a Dutch couple having lunch on the side of the road who were also cycle touring. They had set their stove up on the wooden post of the metal guardrail and looked so relaxed and so comfortable I was inspired. 'Ve go slow,' the man had said in a strong accent. 'Ve go slow enough zat ve don't svet. Ve don't want to need a shower.' This approach was so contrary to mine and looked so appealing that I was impacted by it.

So that day I set my stove up on the little wooden post supporting the metal guardrail and took my time preparing a big lunch. I had a suspicion that David would catch up and I wanted to have enough for him too. I carefully drew water from the river, boiled the noodles al dente, and warmed the chili. Excited and hungry, I clamped the handle on the pot of chili and poured it over the pasta. I retrieved my bowl and fork from my bike and started to serve myself when, with lightning speed, the pot twisted out of the handle and spilled all over the street. Oh bother. I leaned out over the guardrail and pulled some noodles off the top of the pile, those that didn't have so much gravel sticking to them, and put them in my bowl.

I managed to save enough for a small lunch, which I was still working through when David finally arrived.

'What's for lunch?' he asked.

'Pasta,' I said.

'Alright! Where's mine?'

I pointed to the mess on the street.

'I actually did mean to make enough for you, but...'

David laughed.

He decided to make it all the way to Whitehorse with me that day. Riding with David I barely noticed the rest of the day go by, and soon enough I began to see billboards along the road advertising restaurants, museums, auto shops, and hotels with... wait... swimming pools? Admittedly they were all indoor pools, but the fact that they existed was a sign of my making progress south.

Even now I often make the mistake of feeling myself arrived before actually, truly, and completely being there. Whenever I let myself feel this way too early, the road always seems to make ten miles longer than they really are, seems to find a way to fit the biggest hill of the day in this distance, or otherwise punishes you for arriving mentally before physically. In this case the march of billboards continued for what seemed like an eternity, but must have been about an hour and a half before we finally arrived in Whitehorse.

As many towns are, Whitehorse is surrounded by a sprawling shamble of run down little shops and alleys full of potholes. The road finally curves through a deep gorge which seems to filter the junk before finally dumping into the town center which sits on the slow, muddy Yukon River.

David had done his research better than I and had in mind a place to stay along the water. Roberts Service Campground was located just upriver of the town, tucked in the trees along the water. Biking through the entrance it was apparent that this was a destination, or rather a hub, for all sorts of young international travelers going fishing, kayaking, and hiking. The campground was fairly full, although David and I found good spots adjacent to one another. The campsites were raised boxes of meticulously raked dirt, a fire pit, and a picnic table, for which we each paid fifteen dollars a night.

The campground had coin operated showers. Shove a loony into the aluminum box on the wall and water sprays out of the far wall for five minutes. There was a covered area next to the office which was stuffed full of old, faded couches and miscellaneous blankets and pillows all surrounding a fire pit.

I took the next day off in order to go to the grocery store, post office, and to do my laundry. The town was nicer than Fairbanks, clean, and still retaining the feel of an old western settlement. That evening I followed a trail down to the river from my campsite. The ground was like a sponge, a mossy deep green mesh of leaves and half rotten twigs. I noticed the increased variety of foliage. In Alaska there was about four different types of plants: two low, bushy kinds of things, Birch, and Spruce trees. It seemed as though life was coming to the landscape which was even beginning to develop a scent: the sweet smell of rot.

At the airport before leaving on my trip, my friend Nam had given me four cigars. I had planned to smoke the first one in Deadhorse as an acknowledgement and celebration of the fact that I had gotten everything in order and actually made it to the North Slope. My time there was so frantic that I never had the chance, but the first night, that night on the tundra where I sank into the mud and cooked fish, I did try to have one. The experience was utterly unsatisfying. The wind was too strong and cold and kept stealing its heat, and I was too preoccupied cooking and managing my belongings that I couldn't tend it properly. I had the second in Coldfoot, where I met Kim and had the buffet. Again the wind was too cold and I was too distracted to ever really get it burning properly. The third I was saving for Fairbanks, a celebration of finishing the Dalton Highway and reaching civilization. But once again I was too busy to have it, and so wound up lighting it at my campsite the first day out of town. But everything had gotten wet in Fairbanks and that round woman was making me nervous and so that cigar was really my biggest failure. The final cigar had bounced around in the hopelessly disorganized mess that was my handlebar bag, and had become cracked and bent and discolored. Nevertheless, my last night in Whitehorse, I cut off all of it, save the last inch, which had not been so badly damaged, and tried my luck again.

I was seated in one of the sunken couches around the fire pit at the campground. I had my journal, a full stomach, and everything prepared for the following day. That one inch, that last remaining inch of tobacco, was, finally, perfect. I suppose I had finally reached a level of comfort with my nomadic life that I was able to properly relax and enjoy a moment’s rest.

The following day David left before me as I had to stay behind in order to finish up some journals, so I bid him a casual farewell, confident I would see him later that day. Several hours later I was finally on the road again. After the billboards and streetlights finally fell away, I wound my way through a maze of grey granite and trees and finally emerged alongside a long, skinny lake. The lake looked metallic under the clouds and a strong wind whipped north along the water creating little grey peaks and shook the trees along the lake. This made it very difficult to go on. The wind was strong enough to cut my speed in half, making it tempting to pull off and wait until the wind died to continue on. I finally came to a sign along the road marking a state campground. You know what...I thought. I bet... Yeah he's gotta be. I pulled into the campground, which was along the lake but was sheltered by trees. I found David a few minutes later, his tent set up, book in hand, with water on the stove. It looked like heaven to me, to take a day off to relax and read, and he invited me to join him, but I just couldn't justify it. I took down his contact info, took a photo of him and bid him a real farewell.

Back on the road the wind was relentless, but all things end, and finally, at a small town called Jakes Corner, the road turned east, away from the lake, and shot off into a very narrow valley between dramatic rock faces.

One thing fairly common in this part of the world are young backpackers traveling by thumb. While we are different, cyclists and hitchers, there is a certain lonesome and adventurous thread we share. There was one such traveler standing on the side of the road and I pulled over to say hello. He told me he wasn't having any luck finding a ride, and he was thinking about just camping where he was.

''s already getting late. It's six thirty.'

Six thirty is late? With this nearly constant sunlight, I bike until, say, nine at night.

I was again tempted to stop as there was a campground and a restaurant there... and I had already worked so hard...

'Well good luck,' I said making up my mind to continue on into the valley. I finally did make it to a campground, a pretty place in the trees above a small lake, and I slept well.

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