Another three days and I reached the turn onto the Cassier Highway. This road runs south behind the coastal mountains for 750 miles to the Yellowhead; the east-west road connecting the Rockies to the coast of British Columbia. I stopped at Sally’s Café and had an omelet and potatoes and toast followed by pie and ice cream and the sensuous pleasure of that good meal floated me down the first 20 miles or so of the highway.
Bikers’ shorts are made with foam sewn into the crotch. I bought two pair and a Costco sized tube of Butt’butter, a skin lubricant to help reduce chafe. The only thing that really worried me about being able to complete this trip was a sore (acheingly, I will not sit down, I will never ride again, sore) butt.
To my distress, it was unclear from the directions whether one puts his/her lubricated butt directly on the foam in the short’s crotch, or whether one put it in underwear and then in the shorts. The biking literature was silent on this as well.
Suzanne had given me a pair of 13:1 briefs. The ratio refers to the number of days worn to washings. 13:1 might be shocking for some, but was about my standard towards the end of my laundry cycle. The 13:1s, when slipped on, are snug, everything is well arranged, making me look very dapper and properly tucked away.
It was a day out of Whitehorse, the butt had been mighty sore the previous day, when I first slathered on the Butt’butter and pulled on the 13:1s. Ah, the joy of proper foundation garments.
After some miles, heat was beginning to be generated in the nether regions. Enough to focus my attention there. Every time I pushed down a pedal, the elasticized nylon of the 13:1s pulled across the top of that organ that is distinctively male. When that foot came up and the other pedaled down, the material pulled across it the other way. Every circuit of the pedal rubbed off thousands of epidermal cells, like a nylon sawzall. I rearranged, retucked, reslathered—to no avail. I was being castrated.
An aside: For those girls who envy the boys’ easy roadside whizzes and whose list of grievances against God include the inconvenience of their plumbing: Know that the bicycle is your revenge.
I stripped off the 13:1s and put my nether regions into the biking shorts al natural.
A side note: In my late teens, I had been converted by a radical feminist essay about the patriarchy or whatever of panties. It was the obvious next step on the path to liberation after burning the bra. So, joining the struggle, I debriefed. This lasted for several years until I was in Africa where, my belly roiling from dysenteries, I discovered it was much easier to wash, as the British say, your smalls several times a day than your pants. At that point I surrendered to patriarchy (I don’t, actually, remember what the pantyless fight was in cause of) and rejoined the briefed and boxered.
Back on the bike, zooming down the Alaska Highway, the heat regenerated: the bike shorts rubbed that well nerved organ with each stroke.
Why is this not discussed in the biking literature puzzled me. How could something so debilitating be unspoken of? Was it a form self-hazing? To be inducted into the society of true bikers one had to have scars in the nether regions? Do male bikers show them off to new amours? “This one is from the Great Divide campaign, and this from the trans-Africa.” Does the scar tissue that develops over time enable male bikers to provide the benefits of ribbed condoms without having to mess with the Saran Wrap?
I stopped again and changed into my loosey-goosey, find-them-if-you-can cotton briefs and the warmth went out of the nether regions.
I have more electronics on the bike than I did on Kainui when I circumnavigated. On the boat I had: A digital watch; a single-sideband radio, and a depth-sounder. The last two were gifts from my parents, the first to call home with if I got in trouble (I never got it to broadcast and used it mostly to pick up the time-ticks and Voice of America’s Jazz Hour) and the latter so I wouldn’t run into things (I never installed it and I ran into things regularly).
On Succotash, I have: a digital watch, a bike computer, a Kindle, a cell phone (to call home with), a digital camera, AA & AAA batteries for the stove, headlamp and bike lights, and a solar charger to keep everything working.
A hundred million years more highly evolved than you
Every campsite so far has had mosquitoes. The bad sites also have black flies, no-see-ums, and other critters that bite without mercy. It is one of the stunning ironies of the north country that people—tourists, locals, and Natives—invariably ask me how I protect myself from bears: do I carry a pistol, bear spray, how can you be out there so undefended? When, in fact, bears are not the problem. Bugs are.
When you are swarmed by bugs, when they get into your every crack and crevice, when they get stuck between your eyeglass lens and your eyeball and buzz in panic, when they bite and crawl and fly into your mouth and spelunk up your nose, when they never never ever let up, you–even a remarkably well-balanced guy like me–feel yourself losing it. Distantly you watch yourself slipping off the very razor’s edge of sanity. Intimately you understand the impotent rage that has plunged nations into genocidal chaos. Sic transit gloria mundi–bullshit, bugs never go away.
The Cassier Highway started well east of the Coastal mountains, but slanted westward as I traveled south. Until one day, the spindly black spruce had been replaced by hefty Sitka Spruce, devils club grew in the stream beds and the forest was again bushy, wet, and impenetrable. I was back in the rainforest. One night, I camped beside Beaver Pond Creek, a slowly moving stream. The wood was wet and I had to blow on the fire to keep it going. But the bugs were there. I swatted, slept with a headnet and well coated with DEET. It wasn’t a comfortable night.
It was just the prelude.
The next day, the bugs caught up with me on my bike. Tiny black flies, about 3/8” long. Sweat slicked, pumping up hills, I was swarmed. They crowed around me, a black cloud, reveling in my stinky sweat, biting in places I couldn’t swat and on the bike, I was a one handed swatter. And they were built for speed–I couldn’t lose them until I hit 10 mph and it was to their great advantage, that, tho uphills are as long as down hills, I spent much more time climbing than descending.
I’m climbing a long, but not particularly steep, hill. I’m averaging 7 mph–good for uphill. There is a black fly three inches in front of my face, close enough to cross-eye me. He’s flying vertical, all 3/8” of him, as if he’s casing the meat (me). I speed up, pumping hard, 8 mph. He stays with me, effortlessly. What are the areodymanics of these things? Their wings are tiny, they’re tiny and yet he’s cruising backwards on his butt, easily matching my speed. I lean into the pedals. 9 mph. He’s still there. It’s as if he’s backstroking on my bow wave with the insolence of a snotty kid who knows no matter how much you curse and scream you’re still going to do what he wants. You’re his bitch. Ten mph. He’s gone. Then I find him hunkered down in a crease in my shirt. Swat.
That evening, I searched for a bug-less campsite; I knew I wouldn’t find one bug-free. I chose a ridge that had a good breeze and no marsh or still water nearby. I walked it slowly, playing bait. No bugs. I commit, hang the hammock and the tarp, find a tree to hang the food, break out stove and pots and started dinner. I never heard the bugle bugling charge, but they were upon me. So thick I had to squint to keep them out of my eyes. I scrambled into my thickest fleece pants, insulated jacket, and headnet. I poured on the DEET (To anybody getting huffy over using toxics like DEET instead of citronella: When it comes to bugs, I’d pancake on DDT, if I had it).
Years ago, I’d accidentally ripped a 3 or 4 inch slit in my tent’s mosquito netting. I ignored it per standard behavior (see above), rationalizing that the dumb bugs bumbling up against the other side of the netting would never find it, and went to sleep. It was a miserable, bug-infested night. The next evening, I sat with my watch and timed the mosquitoes. They bumbled into the netting randomly, but ever moving, one mosquito bumbled thru the slit every 12 minutes. That’s five an hour, 40 a night, enough, to cause misery. Which is to say, as I frequently demonstrate, random bumbling through one’s life can be an effective life strategy.
Bugs are also an effective strategy against plumber’s crack. I cooked that dinner extremely well-tucked in.
The night, however, was horrific. Cocooned in my sleeping bag, its string tied at my neck, the head-net also cinched tight at my neck, they still found pieces of me to drill and I couldn’t swat or itch because my arms and hands were swaddled in the bag. Then came the nameless horror: When you know that you are defenseless against beings that have a 100 million year evolutionary head-start on you. They got inside my head and made my back, arms, legs and feet feel as if they were being bitten, crawled over, pincered; my flesh eaten raw. Logic, so frail, so inept, told me that there couldn’t be bugs in the bag. It was a delusion; a telepathic ruse created by the bugs to get me to open the bag to scratch, to swat, to rub and itch. And once the bag was open, I would be naked to their onslaught. I would be theirs.
It was a hot day when I turned west on the Yellowhead highway into Terrace looking for a food store and something to drink. An hour later, I was back on the road headed east to Prince Rupert two days away.
The road down the Skeena River Valley was a biker’s dream: flat. The only ups were to get over headlands jutting into the river. I was racing the cars and logging trucks in top gear.
Until things started getting painful in the nether regions. Legs pumping hard, it was if fire ants were swarming my left nut. I slathered it in butt’r, repackaged, and rearranged it. Nothing helped. I sat my seat crooked, I stood on the pedals, I gave myself a wedgie to sequester the nut from my pumping thigh.
I pulled open my shorts and looked into the blackness–it glowed red, as if it were radioactive.
I camped that night in rain, in a second growth forest: scrub and tiny trees so packed together it was hard to hang a hammock between them. A Native, married to a Juneau Tlingit, came by harvesting Labrador Tea–we talked until he couldn’t take the bugs any more. He offered to drive me to the top of the hill that stood between me and Rupert. Out of principle, I refused, but I quailed the next morning: Rupert was 20 miles away, a short day, but I knew I would hurt.
But the run in was pain-free. I checked to make certain all my dangley bits were still there. It hasn’t bothered me since.
I was in Bella Bella a Native community on an island mid-way between Prince Rupert and the north end of Vancouver Island. I had a twenty-four hour wait to pick up a ferry to Bella Coula on the mainland. Except for the short road to the ferry terminal, there were no roads on the island and no trees from which to hang my hammock. After wandering the village streets, I discovered a gated road leading away from town. I squeezed Succotash around the gate and followed the road back to the village’s water supply. All the trees in the area were young, closely packed second growth and impossible to hang a hammock form. I was finally able to in an isolated copse of young cedar. Tucked in bed,the summer sun still up, I snapped on my Kindle to be told that the batter was dead. Instead of charging the Kindle, the solar charger had completely drained the battery.
Solitude with books is heaven; solitude without books is intolerable.
The next morning, I rode into town and looked thru the little general store’s book rack. I couldn’t bring myself to buy any of them. And it wouldn’t get better for the next week until I got to Williams Lake–a town large enough to support a bookstore. I couldn’t imagine pedaling 300 miles entertained by Danielle Steel.
Bereft, I ask a passing woman if there were a cafe in town, hoping someone might have dropped off something by Sartre. She points behind me and I walk into heaven. The cafe easily had most of the literary canon of Britain, the US, and Canada on its selves. And spectacularly, I could check them out and mail them back.
The library was the project of Jessie Housty, born and raised in little Bella Bella (pop 1000), but who was working on her masters in medieval literature: Plants cited by John Mandeville when he was wandering thru Asia in the 13th century.
I spent the entire day inside despite the blue sky and warm weather outside and left with Keri Hulme’s Booker award winning,The Bone People.
Early morning, the sky light but colorless, I powered off the ferry and through the little town of Bella Coola, founded by Norwegians a century ago at the very end of a very long fjord, in the hopes of building a Utopian community, and onto the Chilcotin Highway, a narrow, two-lane road that led into central British Columbia. The road was flat and straight and I expected to be resubmerged into wilderness after leaving the town, but instead I biked past horse ranches on the flat bottom land squeezed between high rocky mountains. I was coming out of the north country where human settlements were outposts in the wilderness and into the rest of the world where wildernesses were outposts amid human settlement.
I camped that night in an old horse corral in Tweedsmuir National Park where signs posted at every trailhead warned people to be off the trails by 4:00 pm because of the grizzlies. The next morning I climbed the Hill.
At one time, the Chilcotin Highway dead-ended atop the high Chilcotin Plateau. The government roadbuilders claimed that it was impossible to build a road down off the plateau to the coast. So volunteers, working from both ends with a bulldozer each and supplies bought on credit, built it themselves. This part of the highway is still not paved. It rises 4000 feet in about 14 miles with sharp hairpin turns, no guardrails, and one five mile stretch with an 18% slope. There are stories of tourists who, after driving down it, refuse to drive back up.
After I’d been laboring up it for some time, a Ministry of Transport truck came by. I asked the driver how much farther to the top of the pass. He said, a long way. Fifteen minutes later, he came back to clarify: “It ‘s a real long way.”
Some of it I had to walk. But as the road rose out of the valley the view behind me was spectacular.
Up on the plateau, biking into the small town of Anahim, three Native girls on horseback, long black hair flying, looking like goddesses so perfect was their form, cantered past me. I later learn they’d placed first in a recent rodeo. I stopped by a little country store. Three Native men, their faces ravaged by weather and poverty crowded around me and we laughed about bears, cold weather, and bike computers. An older Native shuffled out of the store caring two bottles of cheap wine. The younger ones told him I was biking to Mexico.
“You crazy sun of a bitch,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, “But next winter when it’s thirty below here, I’ll be toasting buns on some beach down there.” It didn’t impress him
The high country was ranching country, my introduction to cows, cow shit, and fences. Many of the ranches had been carved out of the forest by confederates who wanted nothing more to do with the United States after the south lost the civil war.
Succotash ripped down the road as we dropped steeply into the Fraser River Valley coming off the plateau. Mile after mile speeding down 10 degree slopes. Every kilometer there was a truck run-away road of loose gravel heading steeply uphill. On the other side of the Fraser, the road climbed high once again and I had a second glorious run down the final miles of the Chilcotin Highway.
Three Old Men
About half way down the Cassiar Highway in an old man in a Chevy Chevalier waved me down. Short, a tad stooped, he walked over to my side of the road and asked if I were a certain Frenchman. Apparently he’d been following on the web, a French biking group headed to Argentina. He’d emailed and invited them to stay at his place and he’d hoped I was their point man. Maybe 5′ 6”, but more likely shorter, he looked up at me, impishly, thru clear trifocals. He had a wool jacket on over a ragged down vest over old woolen underwear, all meeting in a flurry of confusion at his waist. Clothes worn by a man who’d learn to dress for the north country long before Polar Fleece and Gore Tex. He held his thumb and forefinger together in an “O” and buzzed them around between us as if imitating the flight of a bee. His eyes were alight and he fairly burbled with good cheer.
I forget his name. He’d come north as a young man, found work in an asbestos mine–he pointed to the distant hills. “No lung problems; it was a clean outfit.” When the mine closed he did odd-jobs until finally landing a job with the Ministry of Transportation. For years–several decades–he’d worked maintaining the road we were standing next to, now only recently sealed. He married, and lived in the towns that clung to the road, their only connection to the outside world. About 12 years ago, he and his wife bought a small piece of land, built a cabin on it and semi-retired there, though they now spend the winters in Terrace to the south. The first years they had no running water, no indoor john, no phone, and certainly no internet. Now they have it all. He smiled a joyfully subversive smile: what’ll it be next?
I met Wayne Plodgett twenty or so miles in from east of Bella Coola on the Chilcotin road. I’d stopped for lunch by a river, milky with glacial silt, and as I was packing up Wayne came around the corner walking his dog. His clothes were also well worn rough cotton and woolens. He and his wife had come into the valley in the late 60s–both were from Virginia and wanted to get away from a crazy war and a crazy time. They found a ranch owned by a man living in Vancouver who offered it rent-free if the couple worked it—the taxes were lower on working farms. Wayne and his wife subsistence farmed while raising a family for 15 years until the owner wanted to sell. They, of course, had no cash and so were forced to move. They bought 7 acres closer to town, got jobs with the Provincial government (she in the schools, he in the Ministry of Housing), made enough to pay for the land, build a house, and finish raising the kids. Along the way, he became interested in the medicinal properties of local herbs and plants and began making ointments, creams, and unguents for their own use. Neighbors began buying them and over the years word of mouth spread their business across Canada and the U.S. The business now supports them in their retirement. As an aside, Wayne was disgusted with the Province’s efforts to control invasive species; some of them were his money-makers.
The valley had been home to him for more than 40 years and he had no interest in the wilds of civilization, just a day’s drive away. He yelled at me as I was biking off, his email telling me to stay in touch, but it was too long for me to remember.
Three hundred or more miles later, I was biking down the main north-south route in central BC along the Thompson River. The road was a loud, traffic-jammed two lane highway with no room for the big rigs to pull into the other land when passing me. The shoulder grew and shrank and was often pitted with potholes. I’d biked well over my 50-60 miles a day limit, the sun was setting, I was hot and stinky and searching for a place to camp. Camping is hard in ranch country, because every acre is fenced, every gate has a No Trespassing sign on it, and cows shit in every stream and lake.
I spotted a 20-30 acre field that, curiously, had not been mowed. Standing in it, roofs collapsed, unpainted clapboards falling off their frames were a barn and an old homestead. Down the south edge of the field ran a curving line of cottonwoods–which told me there was a stream there leading to the river. The gate on the adjoining field was open, I ignored the No Trespassing sign and biked down to the line of trees and set up camp. Although I was trespassing, I didn’t like to be sneaky about it, a somewhat maladaptive behavior, so I left the bike visible resting on its kickstand in the tall grass–figuring it was too late for the farmer to be out and that it was hidden by a small rise in the field.
An hour later, as I was writing in my journal on gravel bank of the river, I heard twigs snapping and knew I’d been found out. I walked toward the sound and came across a lean man with the thick tracery of wrinkles that remind me of the sugar glaze on glazed donuts. I asked if it was his land I was camped on, and, said if it wasn’t OK, I’d leave. He said I was welcome (he told me he had many trespassers, usually RVs though).
G Gundevoff’s father was born in Russia, but shipped out on a sailing ship just before WW I, or, more importantly, a few years before the Bolshevik Revolution. He jumped ship in Seattle, wandered, and finally settled in Chicago where G was born 80 years ago. G moved to San Francisco in the early 60s and worked for the health department–his beat was Haight-Ashbury and he got to know the early hippies who began collecting there. He also was aware of several wealthy families buying up the neighborhood’s cheap housing and evicting the elderly residents.
He didn’t like the system (he was convinced the CIA killed Kennedy and that Bush had planned the 9/11 attacks) and had a dream of owning a ranch before he was 40. He searched Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico with nothing hooking him. He “bought” a ranch in N. California only to have the owner subsequently sell it to someone else for $50K more. Soon after that, he wandered north into Canada and found this river valley, bought several old homesteads and consolidated them into a single ranch. He glowed as he told me the story. He talked about his cattle, the water (always an important consideration in the west: get land with “live” water, don’t rely on wells), the early homesteaders who built the now collapsing barns and houses.
He’d given the ranch to his son, though he still worked full time on it (“I threw my watch away when I bought this land–and get up when I damn please”). I said that it was good to meet a man who’d truly found his home.
“I never looked back an ounce,” he said.