Part II The Great Alaskan Bicycling Adventure

summitBy Karla Fetrow

“Our boys, left at the Chugach Summit in the first part of their 350 mile trip from Chugiak to Fairbanks, finish the journey of their metamorphosis from boys to men.”

The next morning was sunny.  Now that they were high in the mountains, the boys weren’t in quite as much rush to get around.  They spread all their wet belongings out to dry on the rocks and bushes first, and soaked up some of the sun, chasing away the memory of their wet and freezing day.  There was no need to anxiously clock watch.  There would be as much sunlight at ten in the evening as there was at nine in the morning.  Without a single obstacle to hide behind, the sun rotated in a big, bright circle, filling them with that free, sweet feeling that occurs for a few weeks in summer, when time no longer seems to have importance; when it seems to just stand still so you can enjoy the moment.

The complacent, pastoral ridges of the Chugach were slowly replaced by wilder, more violent protrusions gulping the sky and tumbling away in a cascade of boulders, choked, stunted trees, and rocky precipices that flared out in triumph, then fell away again, rolling into deep canyons and small valleys riveted with lakes and rivers.  There, thrusting above the more domesticated land of dirt and grass, of shrubs and rocks, were the Talkeetnas.  So tall, a wispy mist, like shredded clouds, clung to them, unable to drift or escape in any way.  The Talkeetnas are immaculate stone.  Nothing dares to grow on them, not a blade of grass, not a single fluff of moss.  They are the eruption of two mountain ranges slamming together over millenniums, their tectonic plates grinding and heaving higher and higher.

We were surprised to learn we were only a few miles from Cantwell.  Despite their slow start, the boys had covered over a hundred miles in their first two days.  Our first thought was that it would be nice to have something a little more refined than hobo coffee.  We pulled up in front of the general store that also served as a café and gas station, filled up the hungry van and went inside for some civilized fortitude.  Although it was nearly noon, the café wasn’t open yet.  The proprietor encouraged us to make use of some weak tasting drip grind he was selling in styrofoam cups for fifty cents a shot.  We made the best of his offer, happy at least that we weren’t swishing grit around in our mouths for ten minutes, trying to decide whether to spit it out or swallow it.

Cantwell can’t really be called a town.  It’s a mining settlement.  Beside the gas station/ store/ café, there was a post office whose dual flags were nearly as large as the building, a log church, and something that appeared to be used as both a community hall and a school.  Dotting the hillside were a few casually crafted together homes, the mining shafts and some scattered dredges, most of them idle and turning to rust.  But Cantwell was the last settlement we’d see for the next hundred miles.

The boys didn’t even want a ten minute break in Cantwell.  The ride had been easy.  They had rested well the night before.  Denali; the big mountain, was just around the corner.  They could feel its pull.  They took off before we could  finish asking them if they’d like to wait until the café opened so they could have a grilled sandwich.  We waited.  By two in the afternoon, the cook was still sound asleep so we decided it was time to abandon all hope of a home cooked meal and check on our boys.the talkeetnas

They had made good time.  By the time we caught up with them, they had biked a good thirty miles or so and were maintaining an even rhythm.  They waved cheerfully as we went by.  It wasn’t long however, before we realized we were climbing again.  Having left the Chugach behind, we were now visiting the staggering heights of the Alaska Range.

There’s something very amazing about summer in the Alaska Range.  You wouldn’t think it would be so virulent, so lush, so green.  It’s deepness assaults your senses; white frothed waters so clear you can see the sleek fish settling in the pools, white capped, blue mountains framing the background for wild flower covered hills and deeper blue lakes.  Somehow, it’s like paradise was set out there to thaw slowly, waiting for a time in the distant future when it would be more hospitable.  It wasn’t meant for us now.  It was God’s land, a place you enter humbly, conscious of how small you are, how impotent against the will of this savage territory.

We found a pull off with a good view of the big mountain and set up lunch.  Once again, Thomas rode in first, his face thoughtful and concentrated.  Squeeze came in about ten minutes behind him, drenched with sweat but grinning.  Another fifteen minutes and we began to feel a bit disquieted.  No sign of a third and fourth biker.  We began to wonder if we should backtrack and look for them.  “Give them another ten minutes,” advised Harmon.

The ten minutes were up and we were just about to pile into the van, when we saw two bikes coming around the bend, side by side.  Leon and Chris rode into together.  Chris’ bike was wobbling, but as rode up, he managed a tight smile.  “I made it,” he said.  Finding a soft patch of ground, he threw himself down, throwing one arm over his face.  However, you could see his mouth.  He was smiling blissfully.

A new pattern emerged in the bicycling team.  Instead of riding with Thomas, Leon held back and began riding behind Chris.  Their breaks became a little more frequent with pep talks in their preamble.  “This is how it is, gang,” said Thomas.    “We’re not going anywhere but up.  Nobody said it was going to be easy.  If you need to take a break, signal the van and use your fingers to indicate how many more miles you can do.  Chris, are you with us?”

“Yeah, I’m with you.”

“Don’t try to overdo yourself, man.  If you’re tired, let us know.  We’ll wait for you to get your second wind.”

“I’m not gonna cave.”

He didn’t cave.  Evening found us in an area more impossibly green than anything we could have imagined.  So green, the colors blended into deep blue and shades of purple.  So golden where the sunlight hit, the leaves and grass seemed to dance and burst in front of your eyes.  There were no campgrounds, but we noticed a new road diversion that swerved away from the older, more crumbling highway.  Believing on the untraveled road we could find a campsite, we stuck with the old road.  We were surprised to discover that just a couple miles down our little avenue, was a lodge and tavern.  There was nothing else around except a few cars parked out in front, some rolling acres of land that looked like it had once been farmed, but hadn’t been plowed in several years, a fox that ran quickly away when it spotted us, and some wonderful, soft ground for setting up a tent.

There was loud music spilling out of the tavern as we approached it.  Jo, Harmon and I went inside to see if we could get permission to set up camp.  The tavern owner was very nice and told us to pitch our tent wherever we pleased.  “Not too close to the house, though,” he warned.  “The mistress snores so loud she’ll keep you awake all night.”  He offered us each a drink on the house.  Jo and I had our drinks then drove out to the fork in the road to let the boys know where we were at.  Harmon stayed.

Whatever the boys thought about our choice of camping spot for the night, I didn’t notice.  I felt a great deal of curiosity about the place.  Prowling around, I realized my first impression had been correct.  This land had once been tilled.  Here and there were the cornerstones of old buildings; houses, sheds, some evidence of a green house.  “People used to live here,” I told Jo.

“Yeah.  I wonder what happened,,,” then she added, “I wonder what happened to Harmon.”

“Maybe we should check on him,” I suggested.

We went back inside the tavern.  Most of the customers had retired, leaving a couple of wrinkled old-timers, the owner and a sad looking waitress.  Harmon was sitting in a bar stool, chatting with the owner.  He swung away from us, showing his back when we came in.  Jo shrugged.  “I didn’t want to talk to your sorry puss anyway.”

The waitress hung around  after she’d given us our drinks, so I asked her, “what happened to the people that lived here?  There used to be other buildings.”pic0084

“They went away,” she said.  “You know that new piece of road you turned off from?”  I nodded.  “Well, that was put in about twelve years ago.  We were doing alright until they did that.  Tourists would come through here sometimes, you know.  It wasn’t any real money, but it was enough to keep roofs over our heads.  We all figured if we kept some chickens and gardens, a few lodges, we could eventually make a town.  But then, they built that new piece of road and cut us off.  Nobody ever comes here, just the few folk that live around here.  Most of the people who were hoping for a town, just up and quit.  Their houses weren’t much to look at to start with.  A few years after they were abandoned, they were looking pretty shabby, so we tore them all down.”

She sighed.  “It’d be real nice if more folk would move in, but there ain’t no work.  Nobody comes here.  They just pass us by.”

It was sad to leave the place.  I think they would have tied us down and kept us if they could have, but we had a mission to accomplish.  We left our deep blue dream of a town early next morning, despite Harmon’s hung over objections. We had grown weary the day before with the steady dips and inclines always pushing us higher into the mountains, and hadn’t really noticed, but the dips had started becoming more pronounced than the inclines.  We were finally beginning to go down hill.

The day before, we had been anxious over the sound of discouragement that was creeping into the voices of our very worn out boys.  This day, a new anxiety encroached upon us.  The gradual descent deepened into winding curves, spinning around the cliffs of the mountains.  Ahead of us was Hurricane Gulch, whose abyss caused even vehicle drivers to feel faint hearted when they crossed the bridge.  A long, curving slope appeared just before the bridge, its sharp angle of descent like a tongue stretching from the open jaws of the gulch.  We were about to cross over from one mountain to another, with the bases far below us.  Crossing on that narrow thread of concrete highway almost seemed like a leap of faith.

We made it without mishap and parked at a campground situated just beyond the bridge for all the Hurricane Gulch gawkers.  They were there in their usual numbers, snapping photographs from atop the bridge, sitting in their lawn chairs, watching the cars whip around the dizzying turns on their way to the lower valleys, poking dangerously close to the massive cliffs that shelved in a river far below them.  We stood outside the van, waiting for our daredevils to appear.

The wait didn’t take long.  High up in the mountains, they appeared as specks as they rounded the first curve of the spiraling descent.  We watched breathlessly as they disappeared into the trees, came out again on a lower plateau, then whipped away from sight again.  By the time they came around the final turn, they had everyone’s attention.  They were moving in like lightening.

The scattered crowd applauded as the boys barreled across the bridge.  First Thomas appeared, holding both arms high as he wheeled in beside the van.   Squeeze rode in just behind him, bent over his handle bars, trying at the last minute to finish first.  Leon rode in a couple hundred yards back, still cautious after his surfing episode.  Lagging far behind, but totally unconcerned, Chris coasted down the final hill and over the bridge.  The applause turned into cheers.  He was grinning from ear to ear.

hurricane gulchThere were no more hard parts, only the bumps and waves of a highway that was winding its way out of the foothills of the mountain range.  Just a handful of miles along the road was the small town of Denali, where we would freshen up and the boys would take a long lunch break before wrapping up their trip.  There would be no more long rests until they hit Fairbanks.

Denali is the most amazing artificial town placed in Alaska.  Nearly the entire infrastructure was fashioned by Princess Tours, stylish lodges, chalets with wide upper story walk through windows, a bright, neatly cultivated recreational center, sidewalks, two stop lights, broad streets.  The Department of Transportation was very considerate in accommodating them, even cutting off the possible rivalry of the would-be town.  A boardwalk decorated the other side of the three lane highway and bricked in crossing zones, filled with small shops, diners and grocery stores.

There was some evidence that people existed here before the busloads of guided tourists had made it their summer vacation spot.  Retreating shyly into the woods, here and there you could see a tired, sagging shack, a grocery store gone broke, a set of old fashioned gas pumps, and residents that tiptoed discreetly among visits to each other, embarrassed to be seen by the tennis shoes and Bermuda shorts, flawlessly tanned crowd.

During the summer, you can expect between seven and twelve hundred summer dwellers on any given day.  However, as autumn creeps in with its frost and biting winds, Princess Tours closes its lodges, the shops pack their bags, the help all collect their pay, and like migrating birds, they all fly south for the winter.  The traffic lights are turned off.  Road maintenance becomes slack as the winter snows pile up.  In the winter, Denali has less than a hundred people.  The locals struggle along, who knows by what means, until the summer when the trickle down effect of Princess tourism adds a few more coins to their pockets.

The boys snubbed the movie land boardwalk and took up residence on the porch of the weather blistered general store just before the edge of town.  They sipped sodas, ate hamburgers and talked to the old timers.  Jo parked the van just to one side of the gravel parking lot, brought out her lawn chair and grill, then busied herself casually frying the last of some moose strips on long, pronged forks.  Harmon looked longingly at the liquor store while Jo warned him, if he drank, he wasn’t driving.  With a sigh, he finally decided it would just be too humiliating if he wasn’t in the driver’s seat when they cruised into Fairbanks because he had caved to an excursion into the store.

This was the last stop of the last day of their journey.  They took their time.  They rummaged through the cooler to assure themselves they had finished up the last of the cheese, the fresh fruits, the reindeer sausage and the granola bars.  They borrowed the restroom to clean up and put on fresh clothes.  They exercised their legs a bit, walking around to get the kinks out, then decided they were ready.  We watched them leave, but didn’t remain in Denali long.  We were out of place; a little local color in a town that had been carefully and especially crafted for tourists.

The boys would be making rapid time now.  Just by idling down the hills, we could stay behind them for quite awhile.  We caught up with them at the last crest.  The highway tumbled for miles as it snaked out of the mountains and emptied onto the flat lands of Fairbanks.  They had made it.  All they had to do now was coast.

Their reward was a steak dinner at one of the finest restaurants in Fairbanks.  We sat up on their upper story deck, which was a mistake.  The sun was blazing hot.  The boys, exhausted from their trip, began to seat uncomfortably and complain over their poor decision.  But they ate their steaks.  They also kept their eyes glued to the Fairbanks girls passing to and fro on the sidewalks below them.  Fairbanks girls are as golden brown as Californians, with sun-streaked hair, and long, exposed legs; a far cry from the sturdy, thick muscled mountain girls of the Chugach rain belt.  Harmon tried to get them to go downstairs and talk to the girls, but they all denied they had been looking.

On the ride home, Leon and Thomas immediately sprawled out in the back of the van and fell asleep.  Squeeze stayed up for a little while, luxuriating in the experience of casually smoking the cigarettes he had found inconvenient to try lighting up while he was bicycling, but finally nodded off.  Chris didn’t.  He sat straight up in his seat, his eyes taking in the miles he had just completed, growing larger and shinier with each turn as he realized what he had accomplished.  He had done this.  He had peddled his bike through this vast arena of gorges and lakes, valleys and cliffs, mountains climbing into ever higher mountains.  When we arrived at home and he climbed out of the van, he was straighter.  He was taller.

They turned into young men that year, taking on the responsibility of their own upkeep, finding jobs within the community, becoming involved in social roles.  Chris became a construction worker, driving heavy equipment.  Squeeze lost his nick name that year, earning the respect of his companions by becoming a little more generous with imparting his share, a little more co-operative about helping others, and was called by his real name, Steve.  Leon remained pretty much Leon, a dreamer, a gentle touch and friendly laugh, a glow of sunshine as he drifts by.  Thomas, the philosopher, the natural leader, folds his hands and said this about his experience.  “I learned that plans aren’t always what you dreamed and your goals aren’t always what you think they were.  I had it all planned out according to what I dreamed the trip should be.  We weren’t supposed to be delayed in Houston.  We weren’t supposed to have to bike uphill in the rain.  I wanted one main picture; the four of us at the finish point.”  He looked meaningfully at me.  It was my fault.  I hadn’t been paying attention and snapped the last picture in the camera before they reached Fairbanks.  “I thought the goal was the feeling we’d won something, but it wasn’t that.  The goal was to work together, to stick together.  We woke up from the dream.  The goal wasn’t what we’d planned.  All we had left was high hopes.”  He smiled.  “It works for me.”