On the move 05/23/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: austria, border, brno, czech republic, ljubljana, rain, slovenia, vienna
My mantra of east, east, east got lost on the road. I pointed my bike north on a whim and decided I’d keep pedalling as long as I liked what I saw. My wheels spun all the way to the Czech Republic, and now, more than ever, I wish I had more time just to bike in beautiful, pointless circles.
My path would have been straight as an arrow were it not for Slovenia. For no particular reason, it’s a place I had always wanted to visit, and its green hills and quiet, winding roads were even more wonderful than the ones I’d drawn in my mind.
So I meandered, crunching gravel on country lanes, waving to kids in tiny villages and bumping along the streets of Ljubljana, a city not much bigger than Regina and one that brought about an unexpected pang for home.
The feeling didn’t stay, and sadly, neither could I. One of Slovenia’s charms is its modest size, but it meant that I reached the Austrian border far sooner than I would have liked.
Don’t ask me why, but whenever I enter a new country, I always expect that somehow, magically, things will be completely different the moment I cross the border – that somehow the imaginary line separates purple trees from green, that something will change.
Something did. The sky opened, and from my first moment in Austria to the last, it poured rain in torrents like I haven’t seen in months.
Looking back now, I dare say the only warm thing about my visit was the welcome I received from folks along the way.
I will never forget Ollesdorf, where I pulled in one night, soggy, black-eyed and limping from an ugly crash earlier in the day. After a short game of charades I was able to ask a soccer stadium manager if I could sleep under the bleacher awning. A roof is a roof and in the rain I take what I can get.
He agreed, happily, and I was nearly asleep when a voice peaked through the darkness with a very tentative “Hello?” It was one of the players who had been practicing on the field, and he wanted to know if I’d like to join the team in the clubhouse for a beer.
I followed him, wiping the night from my eyes, and when he opened the clubhouse door I was greeted by a chorus of cheers and well wishes. My day had been miserable, all wet socks and embedded rocks – to walk into this was like a dream.
I stood gaping in the doorway for a moment before my host squeezed me into the middle of the throng, plopped a litre of beer in front of me and helped translate 101 questions about my trip. And on this night I had plenty of questions of my own, so we talked into the quiet hours about our families, homes, decisions, and how difficult it can be to make them.
When the time came to walk back to my sleeping bag, the last of my lingering friends put his arm around me and insisted that I move my gear inside. That way, he said, I could have a warm, dry sleep and even take a shower in the morning.
That kindness may sound like a small thing, and to my hosts, maybe it was. But to me it meant the world. Comforts on the road are few at times, so to share a night of good spirits and to be able to leave the next morning, clean and rested, was a luxury I can’t begin to explain.
My midnight fun was sorely needed because life on the bike didn’t get any easier thereafter. The rains abated enough to give way to howling headwinds that kept me in my tent for days. Riding to Vienna was brutal grunt work and I lost count of the number of times I was blown clear off the road.
I arrived in the capital completely gassed, but luckily the city’s attractions were mostly confined to the downtown area and it didn’t take much energy to visit them. The parks and architecture were stunning, particularly the National Library and Austrian Parliament.
But I can only stare at buildings for so long. As evening crept across the sky I left the city and decided I was so close to the Czech Republic that I couldn’t justify not going.
Crossing the border was comforting, not only because the weather finally changed for the better, but also because the first thing I saw when I walked into the currency exchange office was a clerk completely engrossed in the Czech/Finland hockey game. A little bit of home in the oddest of places.
It didn’t take long to cycle to Brno, where I was greeted by hungry eyes and hordes of street “merchants” shoving everything from sad roses to boxes of condoms in my direction.
It was all a bit much – I didn’t feel safe with my gear – so I found a hostel and locked everything up tightly before taking to the streets by foot.
So far it’s been worth it. I took in a downtown beer festival and, on Friday, stumbled into a signless jazz club where I sat until 3 o’clock in the morning, sipping Scotch and watching Natalie Cole DVD’s with Frank, the enormous and wonderfully generous owner.
These past weeks have been an adventure without a doubt.
Now it’s off to Slovakia. I don’t know what to expect, which is exactly why I want to go.
Back in the saddle! 03/24/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: andalucia, camping, france, punta umbria, rain, sevilla, spain
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It was two full weeks after settling in Punta Umbria that I finally thought of my bike and realized, with little surprise, that I didn´t miss it one bit.
It sat unnoticed while I wandered up and down the beach, turning over splintered seashells and wondering where my passion for travel had gone.
The idea that I could go on but perhaps didn’t want to worried me. A lot. I knew I wouldn´t feel a failure if I suddenly stopped, if I said “enough” and just walked away from it all. But the thought of restarting my life when everything I own fits on the back of a bicycle was daunting, and probably always will be.
There was nothing to do but wait, take time to relax and let my wants take care of themselves. And, of course, they did.
At first all I missed was the simple pleasure of sleeping outside. The temperature drop at midnight, the symphony of insects humming while the frogs keep time, the first rays of sunshine dripping through my canvas - they´re all like a drug for me and the coming of a beautiful Spring hardly seemed the time to kick the habit.
Then, out of boredom I opened my European road atlas and, as ever, stacked hours upon hours planning imaginary routes for the only dreams I´ve ever made real. There was no going back. It was time to go.
In short order I´d organized my path to France, even using the street view on Google Maps so I could navigate around major cities without getting hopelessly lost. Why I didn´t think of that months ago is beyond me. I set Tuesday, March 16, as my departure date and spent its eve so excited, so positively tingling with electricity, that I hardly slept a wink for fear of missing the morning.
The first days on the road were awkward, but they always are. My shorts didn´t feel right, the bike seemed off balance and shifting was more chore than automatic. That´s what happens after more than a month off the pavement.
But by the time I reached Sevilla – a short day and a half into the ride – I felt supremely confident in the saddle, as though I belonged nowhere but that tiny space between the road´s white line and . . . everything.
The sights of Andalucia were spectacular, and even when I inched my way up a hill, tongue hanging out and sweat pouring down my face, all I could say when I raised my eyes was “wow.”
The now longer days and sunny weather were also having a huge impact on my mileage, which was almost double what it was in the dark days of winter. Call it ego (it is), but the kilometres I travel are wound so tightly around my satisfaction that the two can never be separated. So, to cover 130 km on only my fifth day back on the road felt very good indeed.
They say you have to be lucky to be good, and I’d be tempting fate if I didn´t acknowledge my fortune thus far. One day, after pounding up endless hills in the driving rain, I looked up at the settling night and down to sopping feet. For the next hour I searched olive groves and unplowed fields, even rocky slopes for a place to camp, and all I got was muddy.
I´d almost resigned myself to getting a cheap hotel room when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a decrepit building at the bottom of a small valley. I skidded down a boggy lane and discovered, to my absolute delight, an abandoned railway station with a roof as airtight as the one over my head right now.
It was amazing. I had the place to myself until the rain subsided, and a pair of discarded high heels, peeking white and strapless from the rubble, were enough to fuel my imagination indefinitely.
As I set up camp, I couldn´t help but wonder what the place had been like in its heyday, when men in grey suits and brisk watches leaned over the tracks to watch the train glide into the station, all steam and whistles. I pictured a porter, brass buttons glinting as he hopped onto the open platform to punch tickets for busy men or shoeless women.
But that last train had gone long ago, and now all that was left was me. Mostly. On my second day out of the rain, a red Jeep growled up the platform ramp and three olive pickers billowed out in clouds of cigarette smoke.
At first I thought I was going to get raped and murdered – granted that was a worst case scenario. At the very least, I supposed I was going to get in trouble and be told, in machine gun Spanish, to hit the road.
But much to my surprise, the three visitors were only looking for a way around the muddy road and, what´s more, they considered the idea of biking to Spain from Canada absolutely hilarious.
They insisted on a photo, teased me that bikers never get laid, shook my hand and were gone before the mud on their tires even had time to dry.
I suppose that episode best sums of this leg of the trip. Perhaps it´s that I finally have some travel experience, but things that would have ruined my day in the past are now interesting stories or, at worst, annoyances easily remedied by blue skies and friendly faces.
If we all knock on wood together, I might even venture that I´m getting pretty good at this cycle tour thing.
Back on the road and happy to be there – who could ask for more?
Silver linings on the the Green Coast 01/17/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: border, health, hostel, porto, portugal, rain
I’ve been in Portugal for four days and I’m still overwhelmed by its simple charm. It’s not at all like the other places I’ve visited, and when I bike on the cobblestone streets under endless canopies of drying laundry and sweet cigar smoke, I feel a million miles from the life I used to lead in Canada.
There was little doubt after crossing the border that Portugal is not as wealthy a country as France or Spain. The roads have more cracks, the faces more lines and the stockings more runs. Crumbling walls betray the age of many villages along the northern coast, and everywhere farmers sit at makeshift stands, selling their wares by the highway’s edge.
But it´s beautiful. The architecture is stunning and the intricacy of the churches, even in the tiniest community, is like nothing I have seen before. This, coupled with the natural elegance of the forested mountains and silvery ocean waves, and there isn’t a hint of hesitation in my mind when I say that Portugal is in a world all its own.
From the border I cycled to Viana do Castelo, where I camped behind a fallen stone wall not far from the highway. I awoke still feeling shaky from my stomach flu and I found the day’s cycling to be extremely difficult even though the terrain was not. By dark, in the pouring rain and soaked to the bone, I arrived in Porto to meet a friend for a cup of coffee and (I hoped) a dry place to sleep for the night.
The trouble with dates like this is that arranging a place to meet is often painful, particularly at night, in a strange city and without a mobile. After marshalling together enough change for a payphone, I called my friend and explained that I was at the train station downtown. We agreed to meet there in 30 minutes. No problem.
Well, one small problem. Being tired and, let’s face it, a bit of a hayseed, I failed to see the difference between a train and the underground metro. I saw passengers, I saw tracks, I thought train. But after an hour of waiting, it dawned on me that the gigantic “M” emblazoned on the terminal wall might just stand for metro. Red faced, I called my friend again and we agreed to meet instead at a nearby café, which I managed to find after asking three random people for directions.
The pity was that my friend had dinner plans for later that evening, so we could only visit for a few minutes. Still, she kindly walked me to a hostel, and though I flatly refused, she insisted on paying for one night’s stay. As she left I walked to the balcony, to the orange lights and narrow streets of Porto, and wondered, “how did I get here?” for the hundredth time on this trip. Sometimes it all seems so surreal to me, like someone else’s travels, and I’m constantly amazed that I always seem to land on my feet.
That night I gave my clothes their first proper wash since central France, and when the dryer stopped tumbling at 1 o’clock in the morning, I fell into bed thankful for the rare treat of a roof over my head. I slept like the dead, not stirring until the next morning when I skipped downstairs for breakfast feeling better than I had for nearly a week.
The next night, last night, saw all the travellers from the hostel hop from bar to bar together. There were three Brazilians, two Germans, a French, an Italian, an Aussie and me, the lone Canadian. I was blown away by the street life after dark – thousands of people gathered in the streets for no other reason than to meet friends, sample food stand delicacies and to pass the bottle of drink and laughter.
Among the throng I met the hostel hostess who was working the reception desk on the night of my arrival. She invited me to tag along with she and her friend, who invited me to stay at his place about four minutes after I introduced myself. That’s the plan for tonight, and even if it all goes sideways, I won’t complain one bit.
The rain in Spain just ain´t the same 12/31/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: basque, bordeaux, border, france, mountains, pyrenees, rain, spain
If the gods were to gather for a winter convention, it would surely be held in Spain. After spitting out buckets of rain in Belgium and freezing my particulars in central France, the Basque region was one of the most welcome changes of the trip.
I´ve been following the northern coastline from the border – nothing but miles of beaches on one side and the velvet green peaks of the Pyrenees on the other. The mountain climbs have been leg-screamers at times, but the descents make them worth the effort. There is nothing like blasting down a winding pass at 60 km/h - you have to enjoy every second because the next might see your guts painted on the highway with a 400-meter brush stroke.
I´m still trying to figure out the Spanish people, which is rather difficult since my vocabulary is limited to ¨I like¨ (I don´t know what I like, but I like), ¨water¨and ¨please¨. So far the folks seem incredibly laid back, kind of like the French without appointment books. But there are definitely two things I don´t like here:
- The Spanish don´t eat soup. I´ve checked every supermarket. No soup.
- Motorists think the frequency of horn blasts is directly proportional to the speed of traffic.
These are just minor annoyances, though, and since the temperature is hovering around 20°C, I´m not about to complain.
Still, I have to admit that a teeny tiny part of me is still in France. I crossed the border just when I started feeling comfortable with the language and culture, and truth be told, I miss it more than I would have ever expected. The cities there were so alive, so vibrant, that sometimes I´d just lean on my bike in the downtown plazas and soak it all up like some blue-eyed sponge, always thirsty for more. Here´s a clip of a random 30 seconds in Bordeaux:
There are so many things I want to experience that I´m starting to realize the only enemy of this trip is time. It´s like a bird overhead, always circling, perched around the bend, and yet never seeing what I see or feeling what I feel. All it counts are these days away.
A latitude adjustment 12/07/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: belgium, france, rain, vimy, war, winter
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Although this is my first update in a long time, it’s pretty easy to describe the past few weeks. Mud. Lots and lots of mud.
Everything about Belgium was spectacular except the weather. At one point I had nine consecutive days of rain, and with soggy feet and a runny nose, the novelty of biking in a new country quickly disappeared.
Still, I was able to visit all the spots I wanted – Antwerp, Brussels, Gent and especially Ypres. The latter was a vital point in the Great War and it was fascinating to tour the battlefields and cemetaries.
After getting soaked for the last time in Belgium, I happily crossed the border to France and explored the city of Lille. By explore I mean I got lost in Lille for an entire afternoon – very educational.
Then, purely by accident, I happened upon Vimy and ended up camping just below the famous ridge. Sleeping on the top would have been a poor choice indeed, because to this day there are still undetonated explosives littering the plateau, and the battlefield itself is guarded with an electric fence.
But what a place! The monument, a few kilometres from the trenches, is overpowering in its size and significance. Canada has a reputation for being modest, for never celebrating our heroes, but in this case we artfully (and rightly) honoured the memory of our soldiers. Visiting the site was sobering, but also reason to look at our flag with pride.
Tomorrow is Paris, and then it’s south to Spain as fast as my little legs can pedal. It’s getting cold!
Even the keyboards are different . . . 11/25/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: amsterdam, belgium, netherlands, rain, rotterdam
Free Internet is proving difficult to find in Europe, so my entries may be a little sparse for some time.
I only have 22 minutes on this computer, so I can’t possibly describe everything that’s happened since I arrived in Rotterdam. Holland was stunning in every way and biking with literally thousands of other cyclists in Amsterdam was a dream come true.
The weather has been brutal for the past four or five days, so I decided against going to Luxembourg and opted to bike west through Belgium instead. This is my third day in the country and I’m loving every moment of it. Already I’ve gone through cities and forests and muddy country lanes, and all I can smell are pine trees and good food.
Tomorrow I hope to make it to Antwerp, then Gent and eventually Brussels before I move south to France. For now, though, I’ll have to be frustrated that I can’t share the many pictures or stories I have of Europe. They’re coming – promise!
Tags: canada, manitoba, prairies, rain, saskatchewan, wind
After three weeks of rest and relaxation, I’m back in the saddle, cutting through the cold air on my way to my home province of Manitoba. If the first 100 km are any indication, the ride should be about as scenic as the inside of a hearse.
I’m not putting on a donkey-pout about my return to the road – I’m just being realistic. So far I’ve encountered 50 km headwinds, torrential rain and temperatures as cold as a meter maid. Plus, I think I picked the loneliest highway in Saskatchewan to make my departure from Regina. I’ve seen roads in the Yukon with more action than Highway 33.
But I would pick it again in a heartbeat, and there’s no denying that the old ticker is pumping a bit faster now that I’m back on the road. Despite the conditions, I’ve been grinning like a fool since my first pedal stroke and nothing from the sky is going to change that.
Only people can change my mood. After about 40 km on my first day, an old-timer, Hugh, swung his truck around and waved me over to the shoulder for a quick chat.
“Where ya comin’ from?”
“Alaska . . . “ I say Alaska now because it’s easier than explaining Inuvik.
He whistled and ran his arm across his forehead. “Think you can stand a pop?”
I don’t like Fresca, but when someone offers you something on the road, you take it. There’s no two ways about it. I cracked the can and he asked where I grew up.
“Brandon?” he squinted. “Do you know a fella named Joe Rogers?”
I said I didn’t.
“Shit, I guess ya wouldn’t. We put him in the ground five years ago. He was even older than me.”
I watched his leathery neck wiggle when he spoke and hesitated to even guess what a Joe Rogers might look like. I pictured a turkey with a walker and came back to reality only when Hugh was explaining his day’s mission.
“I’m out sightin’ a gun for a friend, you see. So if you hear some shootin’ out there in the bush, don’t worry. I ain’t firin’ at you.”
With that, Hugh waved and made a beeline for a grove of leafless trees where matters of the gun were best administered. The truth is I probably know more about three-headed monkeys than I do about weapons, so I focused on my Fresca and got myself back on the road.
Summer had sucked itself out of the sky, and from that point onward, grey clouds and gawking cows were my only company. As evening set in, I found myself approaching a whole lot of nothing. A comfortable sleeping arrangement seemed as likely as a glimmer of sunshine.
I prepared myself for a night in the mud, somewhere between rail lines and barbed wire, when a huge white truck pulled over and a guy with hair to match poked his head out the window.
“Need a place to stay tonight?”
I played it cool. “God yes!”
“Tell you what. See that gate just down the road? Well you don’t want to go there. What you want to do is head on past that gate until you see a wagon. Turn down that road, oh, say maybe a quarter mile, and you’ll come to a ranch. You just park your tent in the yard and tell my wife what’s up.”
I made it to the ranch in no time and quickly put up my tent before the rain set in. When I woke the next morning, Keith, the white-haired rancher, had a cup of coffee and toast with homemade jam waiting for me. I ate wide-eyed as he and his riders sat around the table discussing the fate of condemned cattle (cat food) and best practices for removing calcium deposits from bull penises.
I really didn’t have much to offer in those areas so I politely asked if I could stay on the ranch until the rain, now beating against the kitchen window, had passed us over. Keith agreed and offered me a shower and an afternoon seat on the couch opposite the television.
The rain ended up lasting two solid days, and though I did treat myself to a shower, I turned down the TV in favour of some dusty old books hiding in boxes in the basement. They made waiting in my tent tolerable.
By this morning I was ready to sling my bike over my shoulder and walk down the highway. I quickly broke camp, ate a pot of extra sugary oatmeal, thanked Keith, agreed to toast and coffee, thanked Keith again and hit the road with enough layers of clothing to make my mother proud.
It ain’t pretty, but hey, neither is October.
Halftrack trails 08/26/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alberta, bear, british columbia, canada, mcbride, mountains, rain
Bye bye British Columbia, hello Jasper. Gasper. The winding roads and serenity of the mountains are officially behind me, and I find myself in gift shop purgatory – a hub of zombie debit swipes and ascot-clad backpackers.
The detour to Jasper was a sort of litmus test to find if I wanted to make the journey south down the Icefields Parkway to Banff. I don’t.
To be honest, a good portion of my heart is still in British Columbia. The ride east on the Yellowhead was wonderful, a relaxing meander through sweeping valleys and lush farmland that smelled like home. It was so incident-free, in fact, that my mind wandered in every direction for hours. And, of course, that’s when something happens.
I was cycling through the hills near Prince George as black clouds gathered behind me. They mushroomed all day, but since I was facing the sunshine, I didn’t think much of them. Then, in the early evening, Mother Nature pulled a hood over the sky and it sounded like bombs were dropping in the distance. Day became an eerie night and I pulled off onto an abandoned hiking trail as fast as I could. I scrambled to put up my tent, and just as I snapped the last pole together, gumball sized drops started falling and lightning lit up the sky. And the thunder! It boomed through the valley, through my guts, and I couldn’t help but think the next bolt was headed for my tent.
But it wasn’t. Something else was. As the storm slowly subsided, I heard a huge crash through the trees and seconds later a nose in constant suction was sniffing at my tent. I looked up to see a big black nose pressed against the fabric, inches from my own face. The animal then walked to my bike, knocked over my cook pot and then plowed back through the bushes. The next morning I found a huge pile of berry-bear shit next to my camp. And that was that.
Further east, in the Robson Valley, I came to a small town called McBride. It gave me a good vibe from the moment I cycled down Main Street, so I grabbed some supplies from the local market and headed to the Visitor’s Centre for some complimentary coffee refills. True, I don’t drink coffee, but I’m always in the mood for free.
Admittedly, though, I’ve developed a bit of a problem with crowds. I’ve spent so much time alone, in the middle of nowhere, that large groups of people pour glue on my shoes and make me clutch the wall. So I stood there, eyes widening, until a woman gave me a huge smile that must have rattled off the mugs behind me. I turned red and scuffed the floor with my toe.
“Can I buy you a coffee?”
The glue melted and I smiled back. I said I’d be happy to have a cup with she and her husband. I sat down and right away they asked me all about my trip. Where was I going? Where did I start? Where was I staying tonight? My reply to the last question wasn’t up to snuff, I think, and they invited me to stay at their acreage east of town. Juliann and Gerald were such genuinely warm people that I accepted right away and asked that they repeat directions to their place, which I promptly forgot after the door swung shut.
I’m not much good at details.
So, after five cups of coffee and an hour-long conversation with a local cedar farmer, I headed off for the road that starts with an “H”, second house on the right. Or left. And I made it! The road was Hinkelman and the cream house with green trim was just as wonderful as I imagined. It sat under a canopy of beautiful trees and right beside the back door was a candy-coloured garden with flowers I’ve never even seen before.
Jullian and Gerry were the most amazing hosts. I asked where I could set up my tent, and they winked and suggested the guest bedroom downstairs. This, after they stuffed me with delicious food, threw my clothes in the washer and me in the shower. And as I ran my fingers across the titles of Jullian’s book collection, I smiled, warm and content, and realized how lucky I’ve been on this trip. I’ve met so many wonderful people, so many generous souls, and in the end I guess that was the point. It makes all the difference in the world.
The next day, Jullian and Gerry drove me halfway up an alpine trail so I could climb Mount McBride. I squinted at the treeless peak and realized, once and for all, that the Prairie flats are permanently ingrained in my DNA. The idea of climbing an actual mountain was so foreign to me that I set off with a ham sandwich and a big smile – I figured that’s all I needed.
I got to the top of Mount McBride without any trouble. In fact, it was fun, and as I looked down at the snow on smaller peaks, I found that I was having the time of my life. I peered across the horizon and picked out another ridge, this one a towering rocky mass, and decided I was going to climb that one too.
If you’re looking at the picture above, the peak in question sits centre frame, just to the right of the sharp triangle outcropping. I almost made it, too.
As I made my way up the ridge, I came to a sheer rock face that was impossible to climb. I had to go around, so I shimmied down, and that’s where I slipped. Or rather, the rocks slipped. They disintegrated under my feet and on my back I slid about 20 meters down the mountain. The slope continued beneath me, the angle growing sharper, and then it dropped off, straight down to a rock pile far below.
I dug my fingers into the stones to try to climb back up, but every time I moved I only slipped further down. A few inches at a time, lower and lower, sliding to a free fall. I clutched the wall for about 20 minutes, talking to myself and trying to quell the panic rising in my throat. Eventually my arms started to shake, growing weak, and the time to climb out was now or never.
I couldn’t get any sort of grip, so I slowly pried a rock out of the mountain and put my fingers in the hole. Then my knee and then my foot. From there, I scaled a narrow outcropping back to a tiny perch where I could sit, dizzy and very scared. But the top of the ridge wasn’t far above, and when I made it there I got off the mountain as fast as humanly possible. Mount McBride, far below, seemed like a gift and solid ground a blessing.
Jullian asked me what was going through my mind as I clung to the mountain wall. Here it is: In Endako, BC, I saw a random sign beside the highway that said, “Prepare To Meet God.” Sliding down the rock face, inch by inch, I realized I wasn’t even sure what God looks like. All I knew was that I ain’t it.
Go east, young man 07/20/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, camping, rain, usa
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The ride from Talkeetna was wet – the kind of pissy rain that won’t go away, and though it never bounces off the pavement, it soaks everything you own and leaves you shivering to the core.
It started falling as soon as I hit the Parks Highway junction yesterday, and continued into the soggy grey night around Nancy Lake. My tent was so wet that I didn’t even bother to set it up - I just unrolled my sleeping bag on a picnic table and did the best I could to get some sleep.
I woke up at 6:30, partly because I had a mosquito up my nose and partly because I’ve never met a State Park camp host that gets up before seven. I ate an unreasonable amount of oatmeal, grabbed some water from the lake and headed back out into the rain.
But it was more like a mist, and I thought, “Hey, today is going to be alright.” Fast forward two hours to find me standing in the Wasilla Wal-Mart bathroom, wringing out my cycling shorts under the hand dryer. I was utterly soaked. I think folks thought I peed my pants, and they probably nodded to their wives and whispered, “pant pee-er” when I finally left the facilities. Whatever.
I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, and I even considered getting a hotel room if only to have a warm shower and snivel in solitude. The very thought was over my budget, though, so I bellied up to the McDonald’s counter and ate a Big Mac instead. Call it a caloric hug.
There must be a shot of good luck in the secret sauce because when I emerged from the mega-sized shopping centre – with dry shorts, I might add – I saw a clearing blue sky and puddles drying on the ground. It was an odd place for my day to turn the corner, but I wasn’t about to argue.
From there, I took a detour off the Wasilla main street because, frankly, the avenue was so tarted up with big box stores that it was wrecking the view. Things looked much nicer from the trunk road two miles to the north. I gawked my way to Palmer, arriving at the library with shining sun and beaming face. How’s that for a schizo day?
Now, for the first time on my trip, I’m heading east. For the geographically challenged, that means I’m skipping Anchorage. Last night, it was pointed out to me by a lady from Utah that it’s “just another city,” and I’ve already had my fill of those.
Show me the sights, not the stores.
Meanderings 07/11/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, camping, fairbanks, forest fire, heat, rain, usa, wind
I didn’t pull out of Delta Junction until after 4 p.m., and though the first 30 km were great fun, the stifling weather finally caught up to me at the halfway point of the day’s trip. I didn’t know it at the time, but regional temperatures soared to 15-year records and the air was so heavy with heat and smoke you could almost choke on it. I could only muster 10 or 15 km at a time before gulping down a half litre of water and panting in the shade. I went through worse on my trip to Montana last summer, but this leg was a far cry from pleasant. I don’t even think it was within earshot.
After 66 km, I dragged my sweaty self to the Birch Lake campground and started my nightly supper ritual. But before I’d taken my food from my panniers, an unbelievable gust of wind whooshed in from the lake, bringing a wall of branches and leaves with it. Thunderstorm. The rain started to fall in huge wink-eye drops, so I quickly set about making a fire for my meal. The rain never cares how hungry I am, so I’ve learned that my hunger can’t care how much it rains.
Plus, I’ve had an ace in the hole since the Taylor Highway. At the West Fork Campground, I met a Georgian couple who gave me a piece of wood from their home state. Apparently it fell out of their camper and hit the husband on the foot, so he decided to give it to me. Good luck, I guess. Anyways, the stuff is chock-full of some sort of resin that can ignite under the wettest conditions imaginable. Even though it was pouring on the windy beachfront, I shaved off a few slices of the wood and had a fire going in just a few minutes. I’ve often felt a bit foolish about lugging the block half way across Alaska, but thankfully everything in my bags has its place.
As I was cooking, I looked up from the fire to see an inordinate number of noses pressed against RV windows, wondering what in the hell the crazy kid on the bike was doing in the rain. I think it’s hard for some people to appreciate that if I don’t stand in a downpour to make supper, then I’m not getting anything to eat. In fact, at the storm’s outset the motorhome crowd scattered as though the whole campground was headed for Oz, and I watched it all with a smile. I’m not cocky by any means – I know nature can knock me on my ass without a moment’s warning, but I’ve seen so much from the sky on this trip that it’ll take a lot more than a dark cloud to send me running.
After a double helping of tomato macaroni I hunkered down under a tree and waited out the storm in my 89-cent rain coat. Some pieces of equipment need to be expensive. Others, not so much. I stayed as dry as a bone can be in bicycle shorts, and fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing over the nearby shore. My first night on a beach.
Now in my experience, most camp hosts in American state campgrounds have a serious grump on their face. I think they’re all retired truant officers and I know they want their $10 camp fees. They’re like lurching zombies on a Main Street food march - there’s just no stopping ‘em. With that in mind, I quickly packed my camp in the morning and pedalled silently away before anyone could throw a tab in my direction. Call it cheap, but it’s money easily saved.
From that point on I had a near perfect cycling day. The temperature was cool and the terrain was interesting without being terribly challenging. I even met two other cyclists – one a German guy who was riding a recumbent bike to South America, and the other a 67-year-old fellow who was just getting into long distance cycling. He was headed for Delta Junction on tires I wouldn’t put on a Radio Flyer, but he also had a wonderful wide-eyed grin, and sometimes I think that’ll get you a lot further than any piece of rubber.
After the bikers disappeared down the road I came upon a tiny sparrow that was injured. Truth be told, I nearly ran over it by accident, and I only stopped because it didn’t make any effort to fly away. I doubled back and gently picked up the little creature, which had a bent but not broken wing. It would have died on the side of the road, so I perched it onto my handlebars and together we cruised down the highway until we came upon a rural elementary school.
Even though my inner eight-year-old wanted to keep the bird (and name it Salcha), I knew there was no way I could take it all the way to Fairbanks. And even if I did, I’d have no way of taking care of it there. So, I poured some water into my bottle’s plastic lid and watched the bird gulp it down. Been there. Then it had a bath in my miniature sauce pan and, after about 20 minutes, the little guy started chirping and making tentative stabs at mosquitoes on the grass. Figuring it might make it alone, I set the bird in the eagle-proof branches of a thick willow and biked away. Weird, but I’ve been thinking of the bird ever since.
I don’t really have much to say about Fairbanks. I’m at a hostel run by cute Swiss girls and I spent the night eating hamburgers, drinking beer and playing volleyball. I’m getting back on the road tomorrow.