I’m walking up the aisle of a Safeway in Honolulu, searching the shelves for the highest calorie food items. My bikes back at the hostel, a sweaty 25 minute walk along the humid streets. I left Australia yesterday and tomorrow, after months and months of daydreaming, I’ll be in Alaska.
I neatly squeeze 10 days of food into one of my panniers, relax back in my squeaky bunk bed and open my phone to use the weak internet connection to check the 511 Alaska highway website. The flashing red light indicates a warning and no matter how many times I read it in disbelief, my eyes are looking at the words – HIGHWAY CLOSED. Shit. Unseasonably high temperatures on the North Slope had caused the ice to melt at a rapid rate, inevitably flooding the tundra and washing out the first few miles of the Dalton Highway.
I’m now riding out the door, across the airports car park and onto the highway into town. I struggle to contain my excitement, the warm spring sun on my back, and I scream out a loud, “Yeeeehaa!” Freedom.
I board my scheduled flight to Anchorage and sit there, nervously twisting a piece of paper in my hands to pieces. Once the plane lands I quickly rush to check into my connection to Deadhorse – the intended start point of my round the world cycle. After a long chat with the airline, I’m encouraged to divert to Fairbanks and stay away from the area. I’m on the next flight to the middle of the State, staring out the window at Denali National Park, mind racing with anxiety and disappointment. I can’t tell you how much extensive research I did on this road and now I wasn’t even going to touch it. Another few pieces of paper twist and fall to pieces at my feet.
I arrive in Fairbanks, Alaska. The bike box looks beaten up however the contents remain intact. I breathe a sigh of relief and spend a slow hour in the arrivals lobby, piecing the bike back together. I’m now riding out the door, across the airports car park and onto the highway into town. I struggle to contain my excitement, the warm spring sun on my back, and I scream out a loud, “Yeeeehaa!” Freedom.
Thinking I’ll be camping in the sub zero temperatures of the Arctic, I put on additional fat to keep me warm, and, to be honest, I just love a large Double Whopper with cheese meal. But there I am, overweight and sweating it out on my loaded Long Haul Trucker.
I make camp quite far into the woods one night, down an old hunting track to keep away from the truck noise and wind. The forest is dense in this area, the birds chirping in the neighbouring trees, a welcome change to the highway racket. Around 2AM I hear something moving through the forest and I freeze in fear. I don’t even have the ability to reach for my bear repellent, a big gnarly red canister, capable of compromising someone or something’s sight and sense of taste forever. There is a bear at the foot of my tent, in between me and my bike. I hear the water bottles in the cage cracking as pressure is forced against them, and then a few deep exhales. I’m so scared that my teeth start to hurt, if I’m eaten right here right now, it would be weeks before someone found me. After a few moments the bear is making its way in the direction of my food that is thrown up in a tree, then its gone. Some hours pass before my heartbeat leaves my ears and in the morning my food stash and myself are quickly back on the road.
This road takes me to the Yukon and turns into dirt. For two days I’m cruising along hard packed gravel and past teams of road workers, resealing. A lot of them ask if I have a gun to protect me from the animals. I say no and laugh it off and they frown at my ignorance. I guess they know the area better than I do but I feel confident in my wild animal contingency plan. Which, as I found out last week, is to lay there in fear as I’m mauled into another life.
The scenery is out of this world. Traffic is almost non-existent, there is a wide valley between two beautiful ridges and the sunset lasts for hours. This is one of the hardest adjustments for me. Sleeping in a tent with almost no night time strings me out. Especially trying to adjust to the opposite side of the world’s time zone. Though, the endless amount of sunlight has allowed for some large mileage days. The biggest clocks up 210km and a midnight arrival in Whitehorse. Here I take a few days “rest” with some wild locals, quickly realising that it’s always 4pm no matter how long you stay at the bar. The summer up there must feel like one really, really long day. The winter: one really, really long hangover.
A lot of them ask if I have a gun to protect me from the animals. I say no and laugh it off and they frown at my ignorance. I guess they know the area better than I do but I feel confident in my wild animal.
I regather some focus and head off again, enjoying the desolate stretches of the Yukon and Northern British Columbia. I feel this strange feeling of connectivity to the other motorists out there. I throw out hand gestures of acknowledgement to the holiday makers, as if to validate our position on the planet and somehow relay a message of commendation for making the effort to get out into this glorious landscape. These hand gestures are somewhat reciprocated, quite often with an iPad or iPhone pressed against the windscreen of their car snapping images of what looks like a lonely guy on a bicycle in the middle of nowhere. My favourite interaction is with a Texan couple in a small apartment on wheels. They approach me laying under a tree at a rest stop and inspect my set up. The middle-aged woman, in crisp white shirt and shorts, comments, “Wow, I thought we were roughing it.” They offer me an apple or maybe it was an orange and drive away. Once the sound of their huge Diesel engine is out of ear, there isn’t a sound at all and I feel happier.
Around the 2000km mark I snap a chain. I pushed too hard on the pedals in the highest gear while trying to be a hero and break a top speed. A few kilometres down the road I see a wolf and a few days after that, when I’m collecting water by a river, two bears less than 10 metres away, watching me. I begin to embrace the wildlife and no longer fear it. I ride through herds of bison, with their black soulless eyes, but still, see no moose.
Boom. The front tire explodes and I slink back to Prince George to buy a new one. There are people around now and more traffic on the road. Gone are the days of solitude so I ride with music in my ears to drown out the droning engines. My Spanish vocabulary builder comes on shuffle. I hit skip.
Boom. The other tire explodes. This time nowhere near a bike shop. I’m stressing out and find it hard to think clearly. Then Mario enters. A middle-aged dude that looks like he lives for the outdoors. We chat for a while, I explain my situation and he lends me a wheel he has in the truck. It’s for a road bike, skinny profile and the wrong diameter but it rolls with clearance and I use it to get to Jasper in the Rockies and then leave it at his friend’s house to collect the following day.
Now I have two bulletproof tires under me and a spare on the back. I don’t want anything taking my attention away from the magnificent beauty of Jasper National Park.
We hike the mountain with the dogs in the morning, relax on the ski slopes to the music of the festival in the day and dance up a storm well into the night. It’s an awesome weekend and I feel sad riding off down the canyon the next morning.
As of now, I’m in Del Rio, Texas. Tomorrow I’ll cross into Mexico, an entirely different culture and language to learn. I feel a little apprehensive about the great shift in my comfort zone, though I know I’ll feel confident after a week or two. It will be like overcoming my fear of bears in Alaska. In hindsight, I could have been more prepared by listening to those language building tracks on my iPod…
If you have some down time during your own adventure, or you’re on the bus to work, dreaming of your next trip, then you can follow the Mexican fiesta at the Facebook page ‘Gone Full Circle’. Get in contact if you have any questions or you feel like joining up on the journey. This is when the trip is going to get interesting. Look out for uploads to my VSCO account and stay tuned to AHB for Chapter 2.