Alaska

image001Slideshow: Alaska to Alberta

Not Covered in Glory

I was lucky there were no witnesses when I tried to push an overloaded Succotash out the door. I forgot to shift her into low gear before I started up the driveway and I had to walk her up to the road. Three miles into the trip with no system failures, I stopped at the top of the small rise before the hospital to call Suzanne to let her know I was off. No answer, I left a voice mail. I remounted, and glided down the hill and there she was listening to my message and taking pictures. Final hugs.

Gray, spitting rain, tires slick on the asphalt, a black Volvo with a bike strapped on its roof honked, the driver shot me a thumbs up. At the terminal, I stood last in line: an alien in tights, shoes that click like a dog’s overgrown claws, head gear that looks majorly encephalitic, and a diaper between my legs. It’s hard to take this sport seriously when it’s such a sartorial catastrophe. Sunk in my dweebishness, behind me, a silky voice spiced with German said: You’re riding a bike too? Six foot, bronzed, clear green eyes, with a translucent complexion, she leaned over my bike odometer and said, 13. First day, I murmur.

In the ship’s hold, she secured her bike and walked away, swaying like a tall ship, her top gallants catching the sea breeze–no clicking shoes, no diapers. It could be done.

Without apology, the ferry left me at Skagway below mean low water. It was still raining, the wind was blowing up the pass and the clouds scudded just out of reach. It was late in the afternoon when I made it out of town, after a last futile search in the tchotsky shops for a little orange Alaska license plate; something to hang my identity on even as I was evacuating the state.

A tourist asked warmly where I was going and I told her Mexico. Unironic concern flooded her face: “You’re going the wrong way.” I was headed north.

The road turned vertical at 3 mile; it was 4 pm. In the next hours I would become deeply intimate with low gear. White Pass was high and neither God nor the engineers had made many concessions to bikers.

At seven mile, I crawled into the belly of the clouds.

At thirteen mile, deep in the clouds, a van with two bearded twenty-somethings slowed. The window rolled down and with aggressive good cheer they shouted into the rain and wind to ask where I’m going.

“Mexico,” I said and they belly-laughed at the utter implausibility of it.

Moving at a medium walk, I wobbled back and forth across the road to take the pitch at an angle. Every few minutes I look between my legs to check that Succotash hadn’t maliciously shifted up a gear. Three times, I quit peddling and walked, but when walking, my inboard leg banged into the pannier behind me. My front wheel was loose in the forks. Procrastination, denial, and foolish hope kicked in and I decided to wait and fix it when I make camp that evening. It was a fateful decision.

Some few miles south of the summit, I unpacked a bag looking for some electrolyte flavoring to make the water go down easier. I still hadn’t my packing well organized, and things not needed during the day were on top, things needed at the bottom. I found what I was looking for and repacked. Sort of.

Over the top, at 3280 feet, around 8 pm, we raced down the other side, the clouds higher, the pass rocky and sharp edged and cold and wet and I think of those thousands of stampeders chasing their golden fantasies without a stitch of Gore-Tex among the lot of them. Fraser, Canadian Customs, at 10 Pacific Time. The gray-haired 40ish agent took my passport and asked one question after another–inane, senseless questions, including whose business card it was he spied in my wallet. Bob Weinstein, former mayor of Ketchikan. Oh, he says, I don’t read the Skagway papers much. It was as if this man’s life was hollow and the brief peek he got into other people’s lives as they passed into Canada was his only sustenance. He stamped my passport, a first for Canada.

Twelve miles later, I pulled oveimage002r to set up camp. Even as I reached for the straps securing the pannier, I knew my hammock wasn’t there. What synaptic failure precluded my brain from letting me know miles and hours ago? I search anyway–without luck. I rigged the tarp as a lean-to and the light drizzle whispered on the green nylon during the night.

Hero

I had no choice but go back over the pass to look for the hammock. I’d spent the previous evening trying to resurrect my short term memory and figured I’d taken it out when searching for the electrolytes and had failed to repack it–leaving it on top of a rear pannier.

I hung all but survival gear in a tree, breaking another rule–never to separate yourself from your gear–and headed back. If I didn’t find it, I’d drop down to Skagway, eating all the altitude gained the day before, to call Suzanne to airlift my tent up. Biking the pass two days running would set some kind of record, but it wasn’t one I lusted after.

I tightened up the bearings and headed out. On the first spin of the wheel, the bearings cracked and crunched. Clearly, Mexico wasn’t in their destiny.

I checked in at customs, but there was nothing in their lost and found. Above customs was a Ministry of Transportation shop. I pushed Succotash up and knocked on the door. A young guy with a backwoods Canadian accent let me in and gave me all the tools I needed to clean the bearings. The bearings were still good–I had five full minutes of joy. Then I took a look at the cone nuts–around which the bearings spin–and they were chewed up. I filed them as smooth as I could, thanked my man, and headed up the pass.

A couple miles up the road, there he was filling potholes with asphalt from the back of a pick-up. Throw your bike in the truck. I did. I did my standard interview conversational style, until I ran out of questions and then, stepping out of my box, I told him my story about losing the hammock.

“It’s like a fish net?” he asks.

“Yeah.”

“I think we just passed it.”

He three pointed the truck around and raced back the way we came. And there, lying on the road like old road kill, was my sleeping arrangement. Twice in the same 30 minutes this man had saved me: my hero.

He couldn’t fix the cone bearings though–and I headed to Whitehorse.

 Lessons

While I was whizzing back down the pass with my wayward hammock once more in my possession, the chain started making a scraping noise. That voice in my head, my constant, nay, relentless companion, told me to ignore it: It wasn’t anything; I could take a look at it later. In meek submission, I capitulated to it and pedaled merrily along, listening to my cranky chain.

But the night before lying in my improvised lean-to, reviewing the day’s disasters, I’d committed myself to fixing problems right way—to never put them off. If I’d tightened the bearing nuts on my axle as soon as I notice the wheel wobbling, I would have saved my cone bearings and wouldn’t have to go three days out of my way to replace them in Whitehorse.

Even with that lesson freshly burned in my mind, it took me a mile or so before, I asserted myself, pulled over and investigated. Like the bearing oil, I assumed the rain had washed the lubricating oil out of the chain. Experimenting, I put a drop of chain oil on the joint of every link. Back on the bike, the chain was smooth and quiet and we zippered along.

I was astounded at how difficult it was to learn my lesson and how seductive my little voice was. For some years now I’d known that that little voice that runs nonstop commentary and backseat driver directives in my head was not my friend, but more often my saboteur.

There was another lesson in this incident, one not yet fully learned–but would be (frustratingly) soon: Don’t leaving things on my rear panniers, because if I do, I’ll ride off forgetting they’re there. In coming days, I would lose my “Weather Permitting” hat, my reading glasses, and several times, my waterproof gloves—but, because my hands would quickly grow cold, I’d realize I’d spaced them again and bike back to find them lying on the pavement.