Monday, December 15, 2008

Day 0 – Anchorage, Alaska

May 23, 2008

Early in the morning at the Las Vegas airport, Mark and I hugged our mom, said our goodbyes, and boarded our flight. It was a surreal experience filled with silent questions. “What is it really going to be like? Are we going to make it? What is Anchorage like? What can go wrong? Did we research enough? Are we really prepared?” Despite these inner questions, Mark and I were both pumped with excitement, not fear.
We proudly told people we met about what we were undertaking, and loved the different reactions. Some people thought we were yanking their chains, others viewed us as heros, and others, as complete fools. Each reaction fueled us on.

We had to switch flights in Seattle to continue up to Anchorage and we were amused at the thought that we would be back in proximity of Seattle in roughly a month. Now, if you ever ride Alaska Airlines, you will notice one thing in particular: It always smells like fish. They are constantly shipping huge containers of Salmon down to the lower 48 states. It isn’t a bad smell, but it takes a little getting used to. It is all part of the experience.

We had a good time talking to the lady seated next to us. She was one who thought what we were doing was great. She even offered to buy us both in-flight meals, but we stupidly declined the offer. I guess we were tying to be gentlemen or something, but we should have accepted the meal as her gift. I’m sorry for that, and thank you, whoever you are, for looking out for us.

Well the lady decided to occupy one of the empty rows to catch some sleep, and Mark and I began watching out the windows. We watched over the next few hours as the terrain became more rocky, and the mountains taller—much taller than we expected. We said nothing to each other, but a pit started to grow in our stomachs. I really hoped that it wasn’t that kind of terrain that we would be riding through. Nobody had said anything about that kind of terrain when I was asking about what it was like.

Soon the mountains were covered in snow. Our hearts sank even lower. We were not outfitted for winter riding. We were under the impression that by May, most of the snow would be gone, or at least, a lot of it. We knew it would be cold and wet, but freezing and snowy is an entirely different situation. I started to doubt our ability to do the trip. The odds were just getting worse and worse for us. We didn’t talk much to each other; we just watched as our trip grew more treacherous.

I couldn’t see how we could deal with the snow. We would have to buy a few hundred dollars worth of gear to pack on to our already over-loaded bikes, and we’d be putting ourselves in a deadly situation. I was on the verge of telling Mark that I thought we might have to bail on the trip, but as the pilot announced that we were arriving in Anchorage, the snow on the mountains became less and less, until finally, only the peaks were snowy. The mountains ended abruptly, and the terrain opened into a broad, flat marshy plain that surrounds a shallow, muddy bay. We both gave a sigh of relief.

The landscape seemed to be incredibly barren and bleak. Several broad and shallow winding rivers flowed into massive misshapen deltas at the bay and around the central city. As the jet descended lower and lower, however, we could see that it wasn’t barren at all. Where it wasn’t muddy delta, the land was almost completely covered by these funny little spruce trees that were packed so close together that it just looked like a slightly overgrown lawn. It was nice.

We were finally there. Off the jet, we set off to find our bikes and gear at the baggage claim. We put our bikes together right there in the airport, and walked them out fully loaded and ready to go. We hit a snag though. Mark had to flatten his tires in order to get them to fit in his bike box, and when he tried to refill them at the airport, my compact tire pump broke. He had a little bit of air in the tires, but it was low enough to make it really hard to ride. The first order of business was to get air in those tires. We stepped out into the sunlight, and felt something that would become all too familiar; fierce winds.

I had researched Anchorage quite a lot in preparation for the trip. I studied all sorts of maps to help get us out of the city and on our way, but I couldn’t for the life of me get my bearings. Although we were at sea level, I had the uncanny sensation that we were at an incredible altitude overlooking the edge of the Earth, or that everything was upside down and if we lost our grip, we would fall endlessly into the sky. The sky! It was so blue! I was in awe. My GPS couldn’t get a signal, so I was out of luck there, and I didn’t have a compass as a backup. I held the map this way and that, trying to match it to my surroundings, but nothing lined up right. Using the sun was no good either, because that far North, I had no idea if it was near it’s zenith, or if it was setting, even at 5:00 p.m. When I thought I had my bearings, we headed off in one direction, and then asked someone how to get downtown, and they pointed in the complete opposite direction that we were headed. Boy was I confused. Under normal circumstances, I’m very good at finding my way, but in Anchorage, everything was upside-down and backwards to me.

We had a really hard time getting going. The winds were simply brutal. Both Mark and I had the thought, “If the whole trip is going to be this hard, I don’t think we can make it.” We had to back-track through the vicious winds several times because we ran into dead ends or ended up in smaller airports. We were amazed by the amount of small aircraft we saw. Around this relatively small lake, there were hundreds of water-landing airplanes docked, and around the lake, there were thousands of other airplanes parked. We finally found our way out into downtown Anchorage, and I was able to get my bearings. We filled Mark’s tires, picked up a new bike pump, a can of bear deterrent, an Alaska map, food supplies for the next two days, and a spicy reindeer hot-dog (YUM!) and we were on our way.

The plan for that day was to basically just find someplace to camp either in Anchorage, or on the outskirts, so we didn’t even bother putting on bike shorts. We were aiming for a place called Centennial Park that was about 15 miles from the airport. It would have made things easier once the GPS started working, but we decided to take these un-mapped bike trails instead.

Anchorage has these wonderful paved trails for joggers and cyclists that weave through beautiful wilderness areas and parks, but the problem is that they are poorly marked, so unless you know the paths, you will have a hard time finding your way. We were advised to follow some particular markings on the Chester Creek Trail that supposedly would lead us right where we wanted to go. That worked for a while, but we still had to back-track a couple of times because of the confusion caused by the winding of the paths. We’d get on one that was taking us in the right direction for a quarter mile, and then it would curve around and send us right back up the hill we just came down. It got frustrating for sure.

Eventually, we must have made a wrong turn because we ended up back on the city streets. For the sake of time and energy, we decided to scrap the trails and stick to the roads that were mapped on the GPS. After getting onto a main road, things ran much more smoothly. I guess the large moose we saw tottering along the side of the road was a good omen.

It was about 10:00 pm when we finally arrived at Centennial Park, tired and hungry. We still had about two more hours of daylight left, and the sky was bright and clear. We were eager to get some rest, because we knew we had a big day ahead of us, so Mark cooked up some canned raviolis and I pitched the tent. We tucked into our mummy bags as it got colder, and sleep found us as we tried to imagine what adventures we had in store over the next two and a half months.

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