A stinging desire for home
Two nights in one camp makes for a lazy camper and one heck of a mess. Everything from clothes to cooking gear lays strewn across the tent vestibule. If not for two entrances, I’d be sleeping in oats and cooking in down.
It’s while boiling water for coffee that I glimpse my arch nemesis from the corner of my eye. Like in the Matrix movie, everything slows, steam bellows from the cook pot in slow motion swirls at a thousand frames per second, and a lone mosquito beats its wings slowly enough to count seconds between strokes. What hasn’t slowed with the rest of the scene is the karate chop I execute in mid lunge from across the tent on the one bug I dare never wish to see again.
Caught in mosquito netting that the mosquito seems to have avoided is the villainous caterpillar. An infestation of these otherwise harmless creatures literally fell upon south central Alaska this summer and is devouring acres of helpless vegetation. More dreadful than that, a handful of these loopers chomped holes into my green tent during a through hike of Crow Pass last month. I wipe squishy guts from between my fingers and go about breakfast before cleaning the mess of gear and clothes, thankful to have saved a tent’s life and maybe a tree’s too.
While leaving Delta Junction, I happen upon a dump transfer site and stop to ask the attendant to weigh me. I left Palmer last week not knowing my laden weight and am eager to verify the best guess I calculated before leaving. After weighing individual panniers, bags, and gear, I think the bike and I weigh a thousand pounds together. Today, with full food and water stores and seven gallons of fuel, the bike, my gear, and I weigh 960 pounds. Allowing for ten pounds of the Dalton still caked about my bike, we round down to 950 and have a good laugh. The attendant says I’m by far his most unique customer of the day and jokes that if I make a habit of dropping the bike, I can afford to skip a few workouts. Funny guy.
I try something new today that I’m surprised I’ve lived without for the last 1600 miles — music. Ear buds inside a helmet are the next most uncomfortable thing to pointy ear jewelry, but I think I’ve figured it out. I jam the buds deep into my ears and then slowly squeeze my head into the helmet cavity while holding a plug at a time in place, alternating the fit left and right until my head hits the lid and I’m jamming to some unknown indie band.
And it’s while rocking out to the reggae of reggae music that I see the absolute most uncomfortable thing to have inside one’s helmet. Worse than ear buds, worse than pointy ear jewelry — a lone yellow jacket contently makes its way across the inside of my face shield. This can only end one way, especially while riding down the road. I stop at a way side without a plan, hoping the intruder will thank me for the lift and buzz off to better smelling flowers. Except, it isn’t buzzing off and instead seems more than happy to wait it out on my chin skirt.
I try to control my now elevated breathing because I know I’m about to be stung. I turn my head into the wind, maybe to encourage flight, but now the bug is on the Tour de Face, stepping its way between my sunglasses and temple. I nearly release three days of buffet dinners in my britches when I finally catch view of the insect buzzing away in the side mirror. Breathing the heaviest sigh of relief since the mud on the Dalton, I move to strap shut the collar of my jacket and feel a sharp sting radiate with the heat of a sunburn across my neck. The bug hadn’t flown off after all but instead took to the heat of my neck!
I know I have just seconds to reach the needle in my first aid kit before I suffocate to death alongside the Richardson. And after skirting death in Fairbanks traffic and hunters’ wayward arrows along the Dalton, I’m just a bit wry with this bug. I leap from the bike and throw gear left and right to find the kit.
Seriously, and all kidding aside, I’m not allergic to bee stings. But, I do wish I squashed the terrorist against my helmet when I had the chance. Now I’m left with beating myself in the chest and neck hoping I’ve killed it against fabric and a heavy fist. With two bug disasters in a day, I wish for a few mosquitos to ice the cake.
A bit of salve from the kit soothes the pain, and I ride the final miles to Paxson with the visor down and my jacket lashed firmly shut. It’s in these miles that I witness the beauty of the Copper River Valley and a section of Alaska’s road system I still vote to be the most scenic of all. The Richardson Highway follows the Delta River as it passes mountainous glaciers, rolling hills, and towering rock bluffs. The Trans Alaska Pipeline takes a new southerly build, losing its heat sinks from the north and dipping in and out of view from the road. Ripe wild berries stretch miles from view to send a solid message that this valley is full of life. I see a dumpster at a way side fenced in a security mesh tighter than the Mex-Zona border and think briefly about the hidden bear traffic known to this area. I stop frequently, sometimes forgoing the camera to just enjoy the stillness and serenity of Alaska without people.
At Paxson, I turn my ride south to the west. A convenient tail wind now becomes a menacing cross wind as I start my journey on the Denali Highway for the Tangle River Inn. My employer of nearly five years recommended I stop and say hello to the inn’s owner. She’s known Naidine and her husband since their days in Valdez many years ago. Over hot chocolate, macaroni salad, and secondhand smoke, I trade stories with the inn’s crew and get to know what running a restaurant, bar, and hotel a hundred miles from nowhere is like. Naidine and her Alaskan crew work 18 hour days five months of the year at this compound to serve worldly and wayward travelers alike a hot meal and a bed. Be they from Germany, Sweden, or Australia, everyone enjoys the respite and hospitality at Tangle River. Even hunters on the road for bird season stop to eat or warm up with coffee.
Before I left home in Palmer, people recommended I ride the Denali Highway from east to west. I’ll see better views of Mount McKinley, they said. So far, all I have to say about the advice is that it blows. Like the other 364 days of the year, Mount McKinley is covered in clouds today. Moreover, I’m left to ride 134 miles of dirt with 134 miles of sun in my eyes. I feel like I’m riding into a perpetual sunset, and I constantly adjust for follies in the road hidden by the sharp shadows of the angled light.
The Denali Highway rides as well as loose gravel on a washboard. I see porcupines and unidentifiable four legged mangey animals scurrying away as I tear down the road. Ponds dot the horizon on both sides, and rivers etch their way through the valley. I stop for pictures while crossing the Susitna River and the biggest bridge since the Yukon on the Dalton. About mid way along the Denali Highway, this bridge certainly solidifies the vastness of terrain and land in Alaska. I’m a long way yet from home, but here is the same river I passed at the start of my trip, a river that snakes its way from the Alaska Range all the way through the Talkeenta Mountains for over 300 miles before emptying into Cook Inlet just west of Anchorage.
By the time I reach Cantwell and the Parks Highway, the odometer ticks 230 miles for the day, and I consider the 170 miles between me and a real bed. I fuel the bike and air the tires for tarmac, vowing to sleep in my bed if it takes all night. And then, like a bad memory reminding me of an even worse experience, another sharp sting stabs my throat. I pull at my collar in haste only to find a very much alive and angry yellow jacket hanging by its stinger end from a second epicenter of pain on my neck. Son of a bee!
I shouldn’t have wished for mosquitos earlier; the tent chomping caterpillar and the double dipping stinger bug are pushing my luck for the day. And in the Mat-Su Valley as dusk descends on the day, a plague of mosquitos that were said to be on the Dalton are instead swarming here, just feet above my bike. I smell bug guts burning on the pipes, and my brights look dim ahead of me, masked by a thick layer of grubby goo and wing parts. Oh, but there ahead lies a comfortable bed, and I push on to avoid being a blood buffet.
This becomes my mantra. Even as 65-mph slows to 45-mph and I rely on the Godly light of trucks ahead to spot moose along the road, I push on. The moon is bright in my eyes and not helping to light the night as I pass Talkeetna, Willow, and finally Houston and Big Lake. I welcome the street lights of Wasilla and thank my good fortune for surviving more than a hundred miles of riding in the dark with face shield up and sunglasses off just to see the road ahead. I turn onto Trunk Road, two miles from bed, and watch the GPS tick 400 miles for the day. It’s my longest and most wearing ride of the week.
My parents and brother stir from bed despite the 12:30 hour and greet me with love and double hugs in the garage. We all stand back and look at my bike. It has ridden me 2000 miles around the most remote areas of Alaska in nine days — and it shows it. Silver paint is now brown and black. One of the PIAA driving lights is dark, its filament burned out from some unknown jostling that was just too much. More yet, the panniers and their racks look welded together for life by Dalton Highway glue. This bike is truly a sight for sore eyes.
Ben and Matty have names for their bikes. I think mine is yet too young and early in life for a name. Despite the gore of the last week, it is still developing the character and experience needed for a meaningful name.
Over the next two weeks, I’ll take the bike apart and clean its insides in prep for the trip south. I’ll also revisit my gear and change aspects of my daily living that I learned to fine tune on the road. I expect to finish a GPS tracking map on my website and make updates easier for me to post and readers to follow. Right now, however, I’m just happy to be home and falling asleep in the most comfy bed of my life.