I’m a radical secular materialist, I don’t believe there is any higher power meddling, for good or ill, in my life. There are, however, two aspects of my life where I don’t poke at the metaphysics too much. First: Every lesson I’ve learned as a result of a dumb mistake—and there have been legions—I have paid a fairly low price for. Not that losing a hammock is serious, but it was a dumb mistake, and I got it back without having to repedal the pass. I have friends who are far better skiers who have broken legs, friends who are far better sailors lose boats, friends who stretch before they run, snap tendons. They get the serious pain; I skate.
The story that flooded my mind on the way to Whitehorse was of a woman I’d met when sailing in Tonga who’d held a coconut in her hand and whacked at it with a machete. The blade glanced off the shell and sliced into the fleshy heel of her thumb. Fortunately, there was an American warship in the harbor and she and her husband leapt in the dingy and raced over. After the corpsman had sewed and bandaged her hand, he told her she’d cut the nerve and would never regain full functionality of her thumb.
After she’d told me the story, she’d looked at me with great pain and frustration clouding her face and said: “It was a high price to pay for a little mistake.”
I have driven knives and chisels into my hands, even burned the flesh through to the bone sliding down a rope, but never damaged a nerve; even the scars have disappeared.
I’ve had a lifetime string of dumb luck.
Two: there’s usually some silver in the lining, or some larger but initially unknown purpose served by the consequences of my dumb mistake.
So queue secular materialist pedaling direct to Whitehorse expecting to fall into the arms of a blonde starlet.
Blonde with a halo of curls, she was a he; a real Canadian (you can’t fake them) behind the service desk at Icecycle Sports who spent a long time poking thru rack after rack (Dickensian as in Bob Cratchet’s ledgers) of drawers of spare parts and found nothing that matched my cone nuts. My mind is whirring with logistics: could they be ordered and posted in care of general delivery to Prince Rupert? Would the nuts I had survive a thousand miles? Should I camp out in Whitehorse for a week while a pair are airlifted north?
But it was worse. “These are too big for your bike.” He points to where the bearings are riding–not in the crook of the nut, but at the edge. Does this trip to Mexico end in Whitehorse?
The blonde is way ahead of me. He lays a brand new wheel on the counter. The Gordian knot is severed.
In Icecycle’s parking lot, I strip the tire, reflectors, computer sensor off the old wheel and fix them on the new one. Without remorse or celebration I spin the old into the dumpster and am quickly back on the road wheeling out of Whitehorse.
So did my procrastination save me? If I had tightened the nuts as soon as I saw the wheel wobbling, no grit or rainwater would have clotted up the bearings and I would have pedaled far into the wilderness where, if the cone nuts had broken because the ball bearings weren’t riding where they should have been, I would have been in trouble.
In the way of all my dumb mistakes–I skated again? Why? But a secular materialist doesn’t poke too enthusiastically at such questions.
Instead, back on the bike, I occupied myself with more quotidian concerns: Three days into the trip and already two days behind schedule.
The Alaska Highway
Thirty-six years ago, I hitchhiked up the Alaska Highway. Back then, in Canada, it was gravel and was torturously curvy. Now, sealed and straightened, I sped along. The black spruce that lined the road and carpeted the mountainsides, looked, even in summer, cold–their branches held close to their trunks as if shivering. In December of 1974, I took a Greyhound bus back east for Christmas. Coming back in January, it was 50 and 60 below. Two industrial heaters blasted the windshield with hot air directly in front of the driver, but even still, the glass was a quarter inch deep in frost. To keep a few square inches of glass clear, the driver scraped continuously—never once letting up—with an ice scraper in one hand, holding the steering wheel in the other.
Now the road was busy with immense RVs–larger than that 1950s vintage Greyhound I’d ridden south—most hauling vehicles, usually SUVs, behind them. Perhaps their owners were bringing them to Alaska in the hopes of finally finding terrain that would justify the 4-wheel drive.
It took me a day and a half to reach Jake’s Corner–where I would have come onto the Alaska Highway, if I hadn’t detoured to Whitehorse.
On June 28th, I crossed the Continental Divide for the first time. Apparently, it was the lowest point along the Divide and, without the good agency of the Yukon Tourism Bureau’s explanatory signs, I wouldn’t have known it was there. Even still, the Bureau thought the Divide remarkable enough to provide a couple of pit-toilets on its summit.
In the years since I’d hitchhiked up the Alaska Highway, the Yukon had built many turnouts and informational signs describing the local history, geography, plants and animals, and the like. One day I stopped at a roadside turnout to read a sign describing the world as it was 250,000,000 years ago. The mountain in the distance had apparently been 10 kilometers taller and submerged in a yet deeper Mesozoic sea.
As I was reading, a red truck pulled up and a middle-aged man with brushy hair and 20 pounds or so of gelled beer stowed around his waist climbed out. We started chatting. He asked me the usual: where from, where going, etc. As we talked, he became more and more agitated–rubbing his face, hands going in grand flourishes, until he burst out: “I’m just not happy doing what I’m doing.”
Rex worked in a warehouse for Yukon Energy and had for 20 years. He was 50, although he looked younger.
It was his dream (or one of them) to take off on a long bike trip, ending up who knows where, but somewhere else. He had a nice looking bike in the back of his truck and he was headed to southern BC to bike trails that had once been railroad beds–but, in two weeks, to his great frustration, he’d be back at the warehouse.
“Where do you get the confidence?” he asked. It wasn’t a question I could answer; I murmured something inane like, we each do what we can do.
He gave me some fruit, very much appreciated as I was days between stores, said with some distress that he envied what I was doing and we parted.
I couldn’t answer his question because I don’t have an answer to it. Confidence or courage seem to show up in different ways in different people–one person’s no big deal is another’s holy terror. And it would be unfair or churlish to think that either person chose to be they way they were.
Setting off for different places has always been easy for me; it is, in fact, my default behavior. Sitting still, putting down roots, and making myself part of a community has been a struggle, one that I can endure for at best 5 or 6 years before I need to break loose. To me, there is no “confidence” involved: either I go or I wilt.
There is an irony in Rex’s envy of my pulling up stakes and biking away. The irony is that, a number of years ago, this trip would have been an admission (to myself) of a grand failure.
In 1989, when I was sailing across the Atlantic, my last passage in a four year circumnavigation, I set three goals for myself:
- Find a meaningful job
- Buy land and build a house
At the same time, I committed to not going on any long multi-month/multi-year trips until I’d nailed each of them, as any such trip would be a diversion.
21 years later, I had achieved not one of my three goals and here I am biking away on a trip with no definite end. But that said, I am happy to be biking, content to be on the road; those goals were way too tough for me. I’ll maybe revisit them when I’m more mature.
How much of our lives we spend wishing for what we are not.
The plan was to bike the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail, which parallels the Continental Divide from Banff, Alberta to the Mexican border. It is 2700 miles long, has 200,000 vertical feet of climbing and crosses the divide 30 times. Eighty-five percent of the route is on gravel roads or trails through remote landscapes.
The 2000 mile ride down from Juneau to Banff was the approach.
Not long ago, the approach was hard to distinguish from the event. If you were a fourteenth century Scotsman, for example, and wanted to go on a pilgrimage to Santiago in northwestern Spain, where legend has it that the remains of the Apostle James are buried, your journey started when you stepped over the threshold of your croft.
Today, one flies into Paris or Madrid, buses to the appropriate village, looks around for someone to stamp your pilgrimage book and then you are off.
Or, to climb Denali, one no longer needs to run a dog team down from Fairbanks before bending into the first gentle upslope of the mountain. One flies into the Kahiltna Glacier at 10,000 feet and begins half way up the mountain.
Or, buying a package tour down the Colorado River, where all gear and food are provided. All you need do is climb aboard.
No judgment here; our lives often only permit a few weeks of extra-curricular activities a year and it’s best to take full advantage of them. But, I think something is lost when the approach is over flown.
What we miss in skipping the approach is inserting yourself into the planet. I first noticed this when I moved up the transportation system’s tropic levels: from walking, to hitchhiking, to hopping the Greyhound, to owning my own car, to flying. With each level, I saw and experienced less of the planet I was traveling thru–until, with flying, I leaped over huge sections–latitudes and longitudes–of the planet with grand obliviousness. It was as if great hunks of it had been torn out and tossed into space.
Absent the approach, you miss feeling your breast part the air, the ground arch beneath your step. You miss meeting a man who has made a niche of the planet his home, who knows the roadside flowers and ground squirrels, who has stories to tell. You miss knowing, viscerally, how big the planet is, how far this place is from that place.
More metaphysically, you miss the time the approach gives you to think what it is you have set out to do–the reasons why, what you hope to gain and what you hope to find in yourself.
I would have missed the essential hardening of my butt before taking on the backcountry gravel roads of the Great Divide Trail.
My plan had been to get rid of everything I owned that won’t fit on Succotash, excepting tax records and old journals and photographs, which now sit in a duffle in a cabin in Maine. In the end, I quailed and left some boxes of books at a friend’s house and sent three boxes to my sister containing two parkas, one used my first winter in Alaska (1974-75), a down comforter I’d made out of an expedition sleeping bag I’d found frozen in a crevasse on the Mendenhall Glacier, and some miscellaneous stuff which I can’t remember now.
So, I wasn’t squirting as naked into this new life as I had at the beginning 55 years ago, but I was close.
This contrasted somewhat with the RVs that bulleted past. Bovine in shape but not in speed or the zeal in which they raced hither and yon. Many were the size of buses; most that size towed cars and occasionally also hauled trailers. Cynicism to the side: what could a couple possibly need on their vacation that would fill all that space?
Judgment: It was hard not to condemn the RVers, but then I remembered entering my lifestyle stats into a planetary sustainability web site (and this is when I lived in a small, wood-heated cabin, drove a 40mpg Civic once a week, was vegetarian and basically lived a life pretty low in stuff) and was told that if everyone on the planet lived at the same level of consumption as I did, it would take four planets to support us all (If all seven billion of us lived the average American lifestyle, we would require 17 planets). So even in my relative stufflessness, I was more than the planet could bear.