The first of a two part article that covers the 350 mile journey four young boys, on the verge of turning into young men, made across two mountain ranges on bicycles to arrive in Fairbanks, Alaska.
There is a summer when the young boy begins to turn almost imperceptibly but with the steps of finality, into a young man. The age differs. For some, the season comes clashing in not long after puberty; for others, it’s a sleepy wait, sometimes well into their twenties. For Leon and Thomas, it was the age eighteen.
Leon and Thomas had grown up together; two rough and tumble boys that had survived bee-bee guns and archery, four wheelers and rock climbing, extreme weather camping and lunatic fishing trips on open water in a fourteen foot skiff. They were best friends. Whatever one agreed to do, so did the other, whether it was delinquent studies, chasing girls or joining a fund raiser. In that eighteenth year, with the growing consciousness that they would soon become adults, they decided on one great adventure; a bicycle trip that covered the 350 mile Park Highway to Fairbanks.
Two other friends agreed upon this great enterprise, Squeeze and Chris. Squeeze wasn’t nicknamed as much for his markedly elongated and narrow head, as for his habits. In his early childhood, if all the children were given a dollar each to buy candy, he was the kind to buy fifteen cents worth, pocket the change, and beg nibbles from the rest of the kids’ bonanzas. As he grew older, this habit extended to squeezing such things as cigarettes and sodas off his friends, and clipping their lighters. He became so abusive in this habit, Thomas and Leon finally raided his dresser drawer and discovered over a hundred stolen Bics inside. They promptly confiscated them and distributed them among their grieving companions. It was months before any of them needed a Bic again. In recent years, Squeeze had become more considerate about stealing lighters, but he was still a squeeze. He paid the least amount of money for supplies although he drank the most gator aid, and had the biggest appetite at meal-times. He always managed to acquire the best spot around the camp fire in the evenings and the most comfortable area for spreading his sleeping bag. He shot out ahead of the others on the first leg of the journey, always lagged behind at the end of the day.
Chris was the little guy. He was several years older than Leon or Thomas, but he figured out at a early date that if he wanted to survive as an individual in a school where if you were neither a football star nor an achiever, you simply didn’t exist, he couldn’t be too particular about the ages of his friends. Leon and Thomas weren’t football stars either, nor were they devoted achievers, but their pure size and sharp, cunning tongues had won them enough respect, even if it was grudging, to receive very little opposition. Chris wasn’t very sure he could bicycle 350 miles through two mountain ranges, but another of the skills Leon and Thomas had in common was, they were good pep talkers. They had talked Chris into joining a protest against a municipality land grab. They had talked Chris into putting on a scary costume at Halloween and joining them in their own horrific masquerade while they lurked through the malls of Anchorage, startling passers-by. They talked Chris into trying.
Their trip was very well planned. They enlisted the aid of Thomas’ mother, Jo, to drive her van and a small trailer piled down with crates of soda, gator aid, bottled water, food, firewood and camping equipment. I was to ride along as her companion, which wasn’t a difficult task as she was one of my best friends. We were given strict instructions that we were not to be mothers. Our job was to give them two hours of bicycling time, then drive ahead of them to find the next resting spot and to check on their safety and progress. The bicyclists themselves needed to carry nothing except light backpacks containing bottled refreshment, energy bars, rain jackets and one or two sandwiches.
The first day was peaceful and sunny in Chugiak. The boys started out early, even though we cautioned them it would be several hours before Jo and I would be ready to go. “No problem,”they said. They would meet us at the ice cream parlor in Houston, forty miles away. Houston was the last goodby to sidewalks, business buildings, shopping malls, residential housing districts and the first step into a wilderness that stretched the three hundred miles to Fairbanks. They were anxious to get beyond the scanty confines of civilization and dwelt with yearning on the humble ice cream parlor in Houston, with sparkling Lake Lucille in the background.
We took a couple hours longer than we expected. We were also taking along the van’s mechanic, who lived as a temporary permanent tenant in Jo’s house and whose only function seemed to be keeping old vehicles going. He further served as our most experienced driver. Although neither Jo nor I were intimidated by the hilly bumps of the Chugach, the Alaska Range was a whole different story. There the mountains were taller than fingers into heaven. There, the long, yawning curves barreled straight into deep, lush tundra valleys or climbed violent, erupting cliffs. Harmon quarreled with the calibrations of the engine and the readiness of the gear shifts through the entire morning and most of the afternoon. When we were finally ready to go, Jo and I had exhausted all our initial conversation, which included keeping up on the gossip concerning all our neighbors, and speculating on how the weather would be during the trip, next month, and whether or not it would mean a mild winter. We were largely quiet as we began our drive, trying to think of loftier things to say while gazing out the window, half expecting one of the boys to be stuck out in the mud flats with a flat tire, or diverted by one of the alluring young Wasilla girls, but apparently our boys had escaped the first hazards.
We found them at our first destination point, irritated at having had to wait so long. They had gotten bored with skipping stones across the lake, eating ice cream and lounging in the sun. They were ready to journey on.
The first forty miles of their trip had been easy. After leaving the hilly disturbance of Chugiak; the Matanuska Valley, with its broad, glacier fed rivers, is relatively flat. The mountain folk, when visiting valley friends, develop a type of sea leg as they readjust to level ground. After Houston however, begins the last great climb that carries you out of the Chugach and begins your ascent into the Alaska range. The next twenty miles proved more strenuous to our boys.
They caved for the evening on the Susitna river, high in the mountains of the Chugach. Tomorrow would bring a grueling quest for the summit, sixty miles away. The boys went to bed early, still somewhat irritated at not having achieved their first goal, which was to have been twenty miles farther up the road. They all blamed Harmon.
A sixty-five mile trip in a van is nothing more than a leg stretcher to me. While the boys grumbled and made their tents, and Harmon grilled steaks to make up for his delinquency, I walked along the water’s edge, looking for interesting stones or other paraphernalia generally associated with beach combers. Some fishermen were out, lazily casting their poles. They were between runs. The first red salmon run had already spent its course and the silvers were idly slipping through by the twos and threes. But the fishermen were patient. They had set up their motor homes and camping trailers for the long term duration.
A raven flew down to the ground close to me, and I eyed him with suspicion. He was a particularly large and well fed raven and it occurred to me I probably knew him. Noticing my somewhat unsympathetic expression, he flew off suddenly, leaving a tail feather behind. I picked up this fine example of his unusual size, a feather nearly as long and generous as a young eagle’s, and gave it to Jo. “I think this is the same raven that fattened itself up on my baby chicks and eggs last spring. He’s an unusually large raven.”
Jo nodded. “Well, there are those that say the raven and the eagle sometimes cross. He could be a hybrid.”
“I think he just got spoiled on easy pickings and now he wants to know where his meal ticket is going.”
“That’s good. He left you a feather. That’s a sign he approves of our journey.” Jo tied the feather in to an assortment of other symbols under the rear view mirror designed to bring us luck; a small spirit catcher, a bracelet of jade beads, a miniature macrame done with sea shells. Despite the boys’ somewhat soured mood, they would persevere. The talisman said so.
During the evening clouds gathered in the Chugach, clustering piled stacks into the deep crevices of its mountains. The boys began their climb on a brisk, foggy morning when even the fishermen decided to sleep in late. Jo and I sat around the camp fire leisurely, speculating on how close they would get to the summit before they caved. After the agreed upon two hours of waiting, we prepared for our own part in the adventure. Packing up the last of the camping equipment and waiting another twenty minutes while Harmon made sure all parts and pieces of the van were functioning normally, we drove off to check on our boys.
Ten miles beyond the Susitna River, the road twisted into its first sharp ascent. This new stretch, that had been relatively benign before now, followed a forty-five degree, eight hundred foot hill, paused, traveled on a gradual incline for a few hundred more feet, than climbed an even taller, steeper one. As we geared into the second of these tremendous obstacles for our bicyclists, the clouds that had been ripening with more burgeoning force all morning, suddenly burst open and a downpour of rain greeted our rise. The boys were now riding their bikes on the steepest part of the climb to the Chugach summit on slick roads in pouring rain. We began to watch anxiously for them. Part of the team be damned. The mother instincts were taking over.
We saw them finally, attempting yet a third hill, although not one quite so challenging as the initial two. Chris was in the rear, peddling determinedly, his face grim and stubborn. He waved us on. Squeeze was a couple hundred yards ahead. His face looked tired. Sweat dripped freely from his upper lip and mixed with the rain drops pouring from his hood. He crouched over the bars, giving his long legs less weight to peddle, and also waved us on with a limp gesture. Half way up the hill, we could see Thomas in the lead with Leon not far behind, the usual buddy system they had learned since childhood. We stopped at a turn off a few hundred yards beyond them and waited for them to catch up. We asked where they wanted to rest.
Thomas waited for the stragglers to catch up, then went into a huddle. After a little debate, they decided we should look for the closest campground further up the road so they could eat lunch and take a major break. After exchanging the empty water bottles for full ones and chugging down a gator aid apiece, they were ready to go. We waited until they had disappeared from view, then slowly meandered up the road, looking for a good campsite. We passed them and drove several more miles before we saw a gravel road with a wooden sign announcing a picnic area by a creek. It was raining too hard to make a fire, but we heated hot chocolate on a coleman stove and put together some fresh sandwiches.
They came in sopping wet. They climbed inside the van to get out of the rain for awhile and pulled off their wet socks and shirts, hanging them in the windows to dry. They shivered awhile, until their fresh dry clothing had warmed them, then made plans to go out again.
Our mothering instincts got to us. We clucked in dismay. We suggested spending the night by the creek and waiting to see if the skies cleared in the morning. They would have none of it. They were almost to the summit. They were determined to be riding it before the day was over. We watched them peddle out of site, hunched over in their jackets, water streaming from them, then settled back to drink coffee, read, listen to music and chat.
While we waited, the rain swelled the creek, spilling it quickly over its banks. We reflected as we drove back onto the highway, it was just as well we had decided on higher ground for the evening. By morning, our little picnic area could have been flooded. The hills gradually became shorter and longer. One more rise, and we were over the top. Gentle mounds of languishing mountain tops on each side of us told us we were as high as we could climb. In front of us stretched miles of nearly straight road. Far ahead, we could see the boys, appearing like beetles scuttling up the highway. They had made it! There was still some climbing to do at the junction where the Chugach collided into the Talkeetnas that splintered off the Alaska Range, but nothing quite so rigorous as that first stretch.
We drove ahead of them slowly in case any of them wanted to flag us down. They each raised their heads long enough to smile and gave us their victory signs as energetically as they could muster. We found an abandoned gravel quarry to set up our campsite and had a hot fire crackling by the time they arrived. The rain had died down to a drizzle. It was as though it knew that it had already delivered the worst malady on the little team of bicyclists that it could, and had given up on trying to discourage them.
They were too tired to be grumpy. Their first priority was warming up their soaked bottoms. They huddled around the fire, their jackets raised, exposing the seat of their pants to the heat. As the steam rolled up their backs, and some fresh food filled their bellies, they began to talk and laugh. “What was that you said?” Thomas asked Squeeze. “You were going to be number one? Isn’t that what you said, that out there on the road you’ll be number one?”
“I’ll be number one tomorrow,” assured Squeeze. “The rain screws with my vision.”
“Move out of the way. You’re hogging all the fire.”
“I have a skinnier butt. It needs to be closer to the fire.”
“Say, Leon, it looks like you just about did a three sixty on that last curve.”
“Yeah, I thought I’d try out a little surfing.”
Mother alarm went immediately into battle station. As soon as I got a chance to privately talk to him, which wasn’t easy as he was already on to me, I asked what was meant by the three sixty.
“Oh, mom,” he said, “I’m not sure what came over me. I’d been peddling all day. I was tired and miserable. Then I noticed, the rain had let up and it was quiet. Really quiet.. Here were these rivers and gorges that I was passing over. It was so beautiful, I forgot… I forgot for a moment what I was doing. I slipped on a turn.”
He slipped… I shuddered at the thought of an out of control bicycle on a hairpin turn. Damn the necessity of having to allow your children to flirt with danger. “Well, don’t forget again,” I grumbled. To be contd.