Sunday, November 8, 2009

To the Something Junction

The following day I wasn't sure what level of goodbye would be appropriate to make towards my new biking friends. A large and dramatic goodbye would become awkward if I saw them again only a couple miles down the road, but I didn't want to be rude. I settled with an, 'I'm sure I’ll see you on the road, but if not I wish you luck.'

I was the last one to leave, but being the fastest of the three I was confident of catching them at some point during the day. I set off excited to have friends tucked around some bend in the road ahead.

The road followed the lake, bright blue, clear and beautiful.

Within ten miles I had caught David and we pulled off the road at a small convenience store set against the mountains bordering the lake. I balanced my bike delicately on its kickstand and went inside to survey the poorly stocked shelves. Trail mix, candy bars, chili, and soda. There was not much here but I had heard rumors about the grocery store at Teslin Junction.

That's the way life works on the road. Information is usually acquired by rumor and you learn to discern what is accurate and what is likely not. Grocery store rumors are a subject of such importance that they are rarely wrong. Other rumors, such as of headwinds, bears, snow, and hills are open to individual perception and experience and are generally not reliable.

For instance, we had asked the woman at the restaurant whether there were many hills coming up over the next several days. She answered with a definitive 'no,' paused for a moment and then said, 'Well, I guess your ears do pop at one point after the lake.' In general motorists have a very distorted perception of where and how large the hills are. I found that the best information about the terrain is to simply assume that the going will be tough.

I also found that maps were comically inaccurate. Free tourist maps are fairly easy to find, but don't seem to relate to the terrain with any accuracy. Roads often seemed to be approximated by hand, and trying to look at elevation lines does not provide an accurate way of knowing where the hills are. Even still, with some practice, I was able to learn to use these maps. The techniques were often counterintuitive.

One could easily assume that roads that run along the edge of a lake would be flat given that the lake itself is necessarily flat. However quite the opposite is true, for lakes are often set into steep mountains, the spurs and draws on which the road is obliged to drop into and climb over. Additionally, strong winds often build over lakes, and according to the laws of misery (I will discuss the laws of misery shortly), this wind is necessarily a headwind.

One would assume that roads that squiggle into the mountains would have more hills than roads that run straight over terrain that looks flat on a map. However, once again, the opposite of intuition is true.

Roads that 'squiggle' necessarily turn, and turning is always an effort to avoid hills, while roads that run straight over 'flat' terrain simply climb and fall steeply over hills that are not quite mountains and so are not displayed on a map, but are large enough to be a lot of work to climb over.

As I collected my items from the flexing metal shelves, two more people entered the convenience store. I recognized them at once. Cass and Dan, whom I had met in Alaska, smiled and greeted me. They then turned and greeted David by name. It was an odd feeling to have been so alone in such a vast and empty world for so long and then to suddenly have people you know around every corner. I was eager to get moving, especially after doing only a half day the day before, so after a brief conversation, I left with another uncomfortable goodbye and set out on my own.

I knew William was out there somewhere, and I knew he was slow so I expected to catch him soon. The road dipped and rose around the lake, cutting into the wind. Steep snow peaked mountains loomed threateningly and beautifully to my right.

Even though the scale of my trip is impossibly large, it does not at all diminish the distance of one mile. If anything it seems to increase it. Here is what I mean, if I had to bike 5 miles instead of 4, it makes very little difference, but if I instead am made to bike 81 miles instead of 80 miles, that additional mile is a far greater chore than it would be on a shorter ride. So even traveling around a lake like this, which in the grand scale of my trip is very small, does seem to take a great deal of time. However, at length the road curved around the southern end of the lake, passing over the wide silty river feeding it, and then running next to fields of grass barely submerged under a crystal clear foot of water that had spilled over its edge. The road then turned off into rolling hills which filled the narrow valley between two new ranges of peaks.

At no point on this ride have I ever been biking to Argentina. The impossibility of such a feat would overwhelm and cripple me. I bike to the next city, the next hamburger, the next downhill, or the next time I will see the sun. In this particular case I was biking to Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon territory. It is very easy to construct idyllic mental images of the places you are headed, based on some rumor you've heard, or some movie you saw as a kid, or simply some desire for it to be as you wish it to be. People do this all the time about all sorts of things, and very rarely are our imaginings close to the reality. On the road, in the extreme north, this problem was exaggerated so much so that it was often comical.

For instance my imaginings of the mountains and forests of Alaska were contrasted to a reality of smoke, ash, and strangled trees. My imaginings of Fairbanks, a sanctuary of culture and comfort, were replaced by a reality of run down shops and unhealthy, idle people. My idyllic vision of Canada as a place of log cabins and home cooking was steadily being substituted by truck stops and packaged snacks.

Although it is often inaccurate, this ability people have to dream and hope about a better future is very important in getting through difficult times. So I still held onto a vision of Whitehorse as an interesting and friendly town, quaint and comfortable. That's where I was biking, several hundred miles, not several thousand.

In the distance the road curved like a mile long Nike Swoosh up and over another hill. Halfway up a black speck moved slowly up the shoulder. William! Finally! A short time later I pulled up alongside him.

'You don't give yourself nearly enough credit,' I said, 'you're really not very slow at all.'

'Ha, oh hey. Yeah I'm... Well I'm... I guess I'm getting stronger every day.'

'Yeah but I don't care how strong you are, this headwind is just horrible!'

'Oh the headwinds never bother me,' William said gently, 'I just don't like the hills.'

'Oh really?' I exclaimed, 'See, I could bike up hills all day, but I absolutely hate headwinds! Do you mind if I draft off of you for a while?'

Drafting is when one cyclist rides very closely behind another so that the wind resistance is reduced for the person in back. It is the same reason birds fly in formation and it actually has a very noticeable effect when biking. I pulled close behind William and into his slip stream. Immediately I noticed how much slower his pace was.

For some reason I normally bike just about as fast as I can. Frankly, it’s difficult for me to pace myself. I don't know why, but I'm the horse who, when cut loose, runs off at full gallop as though it's got somewhere to go. Whenever passing motorists would tell me that I was 'really movin' I would jokingly respond by saying that I was just trying to get it over with.

William had his bike geared far lower so that his legs spun quickly and lightly. His handlebars were very high so that he sat nearly upright, and he had a rest for his forearms running between his brake levers. Everything looked very comfortable, if a little silly, and I couldn't help but think that I had a lot I could learn from him.

This was the first time I had really ridden with anyone on my trip, and I was astounded at the strength you can get from another person.

You draw strength from a friend’s strength and an enemy’s weakness. As the day wore on, and William remained constant, I drew strength from his strength. We were friends. It must reveal some weakness in my character to confess that many times, doing things with my friends, whether physical challenges or other, I could draw strength from their weakness. When you see an opponent tire, it is encouraging, and while maybe the word 'enemy' is too harsh here, I do think that if you ever find yourself drawing strength from the fatigue of a 'friend' you should stop and take a look at yourself.

If we use this criteria to determine who our friends are and who our opponents are, I can definitively say that the road is my opponent. As the road weakens, as I peak a halfway point or begin a descent, as I come out of the mountains or detect any weakness whatsoever in the road, that gives me strength.

William was constant, slow, and patient. He must have been drawing strength from me as well because we managed a big day, the biggest day he had ever done. I did leave him after riding together for several hours, his pace being too foreign for me. I arrived at a small town, really just a couple dozen buildings lining a junction, and found a small cafe.

Carefully, always carefully, I balanced my bike on its kickstand. Its metal points stabbed slowly into the grass and the bike toppled over. I left it on its side. I had crossed my first 1000 miles that day and celebrated by getting a beer with my dinner. I sat out in the sun on the large wooden deck and noticed something incredibly odd, something I hadn't yet seen on my trip.

There was a young Canadian couple seated several tables away and the girl, I did a double take, the girl was actually skinny. She was not especially pretty, but she looked fit and active. Most of the women I had seen so far were your stereotypical coffee-pouring, pie- serving middle aged women. Seeing a fit young couple made it feel as though the industrial north was finally beginning to weaken. Like real life, life for the pleasure of life itself, was beginning to return to the landscape.

As I was getting up to go, out on the street a large, hairy man sitting upright, with legs spinning quickly rode past the restaurant.

'William!' I called going out to him, 'You made it! Well done.'

William smiled, sheepishly pleased.

'Are you staying here tonight?' I asked him.

'Yeah, yeah there's a trailer park over there I’m gonna stay at. We can share a campsite if you want.'

'That’s alright,' I said hoisting my bike upright, 'I want to do another ten miles or so. There’s supposed to be a creek up ahead where I can camp.'

I pulled a handful of trash from a bag on my bike to throw it away.

William looked at the crumpled paper and plastic in my hand with an empathetic grimace.

'That's so many candy bars,' he said shaking his head slowly, feeling deep compassion for the nutritional ravages I was putting my body through.

In my hand I held exactly one Snickers wrapper and the wrapper for four Jolly Ranchers.

'Oh, actually it's just one candy bar,' I said to him. But William is the type of person who believes things, and no offhand remark would change his perceptions. He kept shaking his head slowly and said again, ' many candy bars.'

Another goodbye. I was fast becoming bored of all the goodbyes, but I managed another. Heading out of town I felt my head clear, feeling that I was finally on my own again. In addition to being somehow invigorating, it was also somewhat depressing, like stepping out into the dark on a cold night.

The stream was not far and ran under the road through a large metal pipe before disappearing off into the trees. The sky had become a deep blue twilight, a color it would keep throughout the night as the sun swung around just beneath the horizon. An hour later I was washed and in bed when I heard the sound of a car pulling off the road and heading for my tent. I sat up and saw a woman and two children getting out, fishing poles in hand. It seemed odd to me that they would choose this time and this place to go fishing as I couldn't imaging there being much in the creek.

The woman apologized for the intrusion and the proceeded to warn me about the bear they had just seen less than a mile back along the side of the road. I was beyond caring, and pulled my can of bear spray a little closer before falling asleep.

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