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Fairbanks and a day of vacation

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If you haven’t slept with plugged ears in a crowded campground, then you likely haven’t missed a noon checkout deadline. I pluck the plugs from my ears and a roar of activity fills my head. Kids yell and scream, doors slam, and engines whine so loudly I’m disoriented for a moment. I wipe sleep from my eyes and nearly leap from bed at seeing the time. It’s 11 o’clock, and I have an hour to check out — no breakfast or coffee today.

Maybe the looming deadline is the cat catching tongues in this crowd of despondent campers. They all keep to themselves. Adults walk eyes ahead and intent on something other than a hello or good morning from me. At least the kids respond. A young boy pedals his bicycle around the circle, still on training wheels. His brother has already lapped him twice — the phantom GS rider of the camp. I relate better to the younger brother since he holds his head high and turns every which way to capture the buzz and excitement of morning. He stops at my camp and waves an eager hello. The sun peeks through the evergreens, and I see the biggest smile below the brim of his hat as he turns to greet the next camp with an anticipation for adventure and eagerness to explore. The phantom bicycle riding brother zooms by again, yelling a barely audible hello in time for me to look up and see dust settling around his brother. Between me and the road sits my motorbike, and I can’t help but wonder if Touratech makes training wheels for a GS.

By twelve and a quarter, I’m checking out and very pleased that my receipt is void of additional fees. The one lane bridge is also free of extras, so I set the bike at 55-mph and enjoy the hour ride to Fairbanks. Even when the road lacks traffic for miles, I find myself checking mirrors and turning about looking for vehicles. Not even that is enough today as a red Camaro blows my panniers away at 100-mph, wind and a roar of engine accelerating past. The sudden urge to kill is only barely stifled by a mental chant for ticketed justice. A few miles later, I see flashing lights and roll slowly enough past a park ranger writing fiercely to give a big thumbs up to the driver of the red Camaro. Excellent.

No traffic on the Dalton Highway compares to the dangerous traffic of a college town. Today is Sunday in Fairbanks, and every car in the city drives the streets for some destination or no destination at all. The red Camaro and this mess in Fairbanks remind me of every reason I hate riding around people.

Giving the Urbanspoon app a try, I settle on the $10 buffet at Sicily’s Pizza for lunch. Server boy says I can eat and hang out on my laptop, which are the top two items on today’s itinerary. More than an hour later, completely frustrated with the souring slowness of my iPhone’s tethered Internet and the tasteless food, I leave to find an open wi-fi access point elsewhere in town and far away from this buffet.

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The aggravation continues outside, and for the first time I wish I was doing something else. Fed up with a useless map and a GPS lacking the “free Internet access” category of places to go, I search in vain for the MacHaus Fairbanks store. MacHaus of Wasilla offers free Internet, and I’m hoping Fairbanks does too. Where the GPS fails, the iPhone prevails, and I pull into an empty parking lot. Shoot. It’s Sunday, and the store is closed. Moreover, they password protect their hot spot. I feel defeated again and cannot believe how hard it is to find great food for cheap and bum Internet for free in this city of poor and hungry college kids. I scour the parking lot for activity and rest my eyes on the neighbor’s sign. Clicking to start the scan again, three more protected networks say hello and a fourth opens its arms for a big, gregarious “come on in” welcome. Thank you Senator Lisa Murkowski for what I suspect is your campaign headquarters’ wide open high speed Internet. I take the remaining hour of life in my laptop and the first literal free lunch of the day to upload a week’s worth of pictures and journal posts, reply to comments, and check email.

Fairbanks is the last big city before I cross the Denali Highway and thus my opportunity to resupply at Walmart. Along with every college boy and girl in town, I walk the aisles for cheap food and obscure hygiene items. Wet wipes, for example, are the near next best tool to paper towels while roughing it on a motorbike or in a dorm. I use wet wipes to clean my hands, face, and body each day. So should college students. Wet wipes are perfect for wiping food out of cookware and invaluable for business in the woods. A dollar six buys two week’s worth of fragrance free Pure ‘n Gentle wipes, and that’s budget friendly clean on the cheapest of budgets.

I’m absolutely exhausted from the day in Fairbanks and leave town for Delta Junction. A quiet camp along the Tanana River awaits me, and I’m not using the GPS or iPhone to find it. Today marks seven days on the road without pause, and I need a vacation. A beautiful moon rises in the south as the sun sets, and I pick a private spot off the road as my camp before taking to the riverfront to forage wood.

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This is the first campfire of my trip, and it’s a huge one. Inspired by the full moon, I quell caution for a moment and then suddenly recall the smoke I saw roaring from the valley while driving into Fairbanks last week and again yesterday on the Elliot Highway. Bad Brian sits on my sinister shoulder and taunts for more wood while good Brian despairs to my right. Bad Brian makes a good argument — we haven’t seen smoke today. I throw more wood on the already roaring inferno, thinking of an opening line for the journal entry should I start the next Donnelly Flats fire, a fire that burned nearly 17,000 acres of central Alaska 11 years ago.

I wake Monday morning pleased not to see the world on fire and very content to stay put. I vote to enjoy a day of vacation. It’s a unanimous decision. Breakfast doesn’t happen until lunchtime, and lunch not until dinner, but I do make the day productive by sprawling naked in the heat of the sun and catching up on my journal. The sun gets too low for basking, prompting me to finish the last few passages clothed before focusing on food.

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While preparing to leave and choosing a menu for my road trip, I was reminded of the first time in my life that I ate cheese grits. A neighbor from Florida fed me my first grits, a food I was denied until my teen years despite a rather southern heritage. I didn’t tell anyone, and my parents were none the wiser. Ten years later, in the privacy of a camp outside Delta Junction, I set to mimic the culinary experience from my youth as best as possible. Limited cooking gear makes heating anything but water a fancy feat, yet I set the rumbling stove to a slow simmer and hope for the best. Twenty minutes later, sharp cheddar clings to the spoon, pot, and my teeth as I fight to eat every last grit. I’m seriously nomming the week’s best bowl of food yet.

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And it’s with dinner over, my body and mind clean, that I put today and my first week of adventure to close, eager to find more on the Denali Highway tomorrow.

Brian

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