Thursday, December 18, 2008

Day 1 – Anchorage to Chickaloon

Saturday, May 24, 2008

We woke up around 8:00 a.m. after a good nights rest to find that it was a bit cold. While I showered, Mark packed his things. While Mark showered I bundled up because the gray sky didn’t look good to me.

Over a breakfast of oatmeal bars, we discussed the morning’s immediate problem. The Glenn Highway, the only way for us to go, forbids bicycles on it. Big signs were posted at all highway entrances forbidding us to go any further. What to do? Supposedly, there was a bike path leading out of Anchorage to Eagle River, and after Eagle River, we could supposedly ride on the Glenn Highway without any problem, but we already lost the trail to Eagle River, so the highway was our only route unless we wanted to waste several hours finding that path. Another cyclist rode into our camp with the same dilemma as we were eating. It was hard to understand him. I’m not sure of what nationality he was, but it was clear that he was headed the same way we were. Eventually, he decided to just ride the highway despite the signs, and so did we.  Just as we were saddling up, small raindrops began to fall, and quickly grew to be heavy raindrops.

Things had become quite wet by the time we made it just out of camp. My hands were frozen and numb, and we had been riding less than one minute. The rest of me was bundled up enough that even if I was soaked, I’d still be warm, but oh how my hands ached with cold already. It was one of those times that the thought crossed my mind. “We can’t make it if it stays like this…”

We hopped off of our bikes and scrambled to a covered path going under the highway entrance. It was yet another bike path, but who knew where it would lead. What we cared about was the shelter from the rain. It was a tunnel made of corrugated metal pipe and it provided excellent shelter for us to think things through and make a plan. I wanted to make sure that Mark was doing well, and he appeared to be. The conditions made it appear that we would have to take shelter and wait the rain out. That would put is behind a day, most likely. I didn’t want to get delayed on the very first day. No, not the first day. That day would make or break the trip, I thought. If we could physically do it, then we had to.

After talking it through with Mark, the only real problem with riding in the rain was how cold our hands were. Yes, we would be soaked once we got to camp, and we’d have to deal with that problem when we actually got there… So we would just deal with it then. We put on our heavy gloves, and then emptied some of our belongings out of their protective Zip-Lock bag containers right into our panniers, and wore the bags over our hands. Immediately our hands felt much better, and we felt that we could once again tackle the road, so up to the highway we went.

I kept an eye out for law enforcement, and we entered the highway cautiously. It was more like a freeway. There were four or five lanes running each way, and a LOT of traffic zipping past us, throwing even more water up into the air. I’ve got to say, it was exhilarating. The road was practically flat, and the shoulder was plenty wide for us to ride on, so things were good. Things got a little dodgy though when we had to cross over highway exit and entrance lanes. Those cars and freight trucks were going fast, and the wet road would be slick, I’m sure, if they needed to slam on their breaks for us. WOOOSH! Every vehicle that passed us left us with a wave of water and air wailing against us. This went on for 8 miles due North until we got close to Eagle River city.

Just as we were crossing Eagle River, the elusive bike path joined up right along the highway, so we decided to move our bikes over there, but we had to lift them over the highway barricades, which is no easy feat with them loaded up to 90 lbs. or so and sopping wet. The path led us right into the city of Eagle River about a mile later.

We hadn’t called home yet. I don’t think we even called to tell our parents that we had made it to Anchorage. The last that they had heard from us was when they sent us on our way at the airport. I didn’t think too much of it, but my dad was in an absolute panic. I really mean an absolute panic. He was sure that we had been killed, or kidnapped, or something and he was at his wits end worrying. He left message after message on our cell phones, sure that he would never see us again. So we got an earful when we casually remembered that we hadn’t called home yet. After all, we had left our phones off to conserve battery power, and had no idea that they were trying to get in contact with us. Well, we put mom and dad’s fears at ease, and let them know that we were perfectly okay.

After making a mental note to call home more often for the sake of my parents’ sanity, we headed further into Eagle River. We stopped at a gas station convenience store for some energy drinks, and then a Fred Meyer store to grab more food supplies, and to dry off a little. We loaded up on more Zip-Lock bags, and also took a handful of grocery bags out of the recycle bin to put on our feet, which we found after riding a while were also a problem to keep warm. It was nice to get out of the rain for a while. While I did the shopping, Mark watched the bikes and charged up our phones using an outlet in the foyer. We switched places so Mark could get some things, and then we were off again into the wetness. We probably would have spent more time getting supplies there if we had known that it was the last major store that we would see for approximately 700 miles.

I was still getting used to using my GPS. I hadn’t yet figured out how to make it draw a route and give an accurate estimate on distance, so as far as I could tell, our destination, King Mountain State Recreation Area, was about 45 miles away or so. We got back onto the trail we had been riding on, and followed it out of town. Just at the edge of town, it branched off though. Going strait would take us down the old highway, and I figured that would be better than riding on the Glenn Highway again, so we headed that way. After a mile or two, a guy stopped us to tell us we were going the “wrong way.” He was a member of the local cycling club, and told us that firstly, our current route was steep and dangerous, and secondly, if we backtracked and took the other route, the trail followed right beside the Glenn Highway, taking us where we would want to go along gentle slopes. We took his advice, and backtracked to where the trails split up. We always hated having to backtrack, but in this case, it was for the better. The path was great! It kept us off of the highway while keeping us right on track. Rain had pretty much stopped falling, but things were still wet and cold. It boosted our spirits quite a lot though. I felt really good.

We had to cross a few roads that bridged over the Glenn Highway, but soon the bike path ended and spit us right out onto a much smaller version of the Glenn Highway than what we had been riding on earlier. It was down to two lanes each way, and it was open to cyclists, so there were no worries of us getting into any trouble. Although the rain had subsided, there was still a lot of water on the road, and passing vehicles still got us. Mark also learned that if he rode too close behind me, he would get sprayed with water from my back tire. We stopped and had a good laugh when we figured out what was going on because Mark’s face was splotched with grime from the road. The scenery there was amazing. It was so lush and green. To our right, massive black and white marbled rock faces jutted up, covered in moss and foliage, and to our left was a broad forested plane leading out to the ocean.

A great river flowed beneath the highway out to the bay. The river was at low water mark, leaving gray sandy banks in odd places, as if during certain times of the year, angry torrential flash floods washed through them. Pools of water were trapped in deep parts of the banks with nowhere to go, but each pool was a beautiful dark emerald green with the deepest parts a dark navy blue. All along the shore aspen groves flourished with bright green leaves, climbing their way up the mountain faces, packed together closely as if trying to stay warm in the chilly air.

We approached the junction which would take us North East continuing along the Glenn Highway, and I became quite hungry. I had put it off for a while, thinking that I would only eat when I absolutely had to. Well, I absolutely had to eat there. I couldn’t wait to find a nice little area, much to Mark’s dismay. Instead of having a full meal though, we just had some snacks to hold us over. We had some fruit, and some cheese, and that would hold us over until we could have a proper lunch.

As the two highways split and we headed North East, we also began to climb. It was very gentle at first, but we were definitely gaining elevation—and it was starting to rain again. The bags on our feet had become shredded and mangled; no use to us anymore. We put some fresh bags on as our feet began to get cold again. We came upon a little RV Campground, and decided to have lunch there. We asked the management if it was okay for us to use an unoccupied table, and they said that would be fine. Mark boiled up some chicken broth, and I made my special bike-trip sandwiches that I had developed. Thick sourdough bread, mayo, and turkey. It isn’t much, but that is the idea. It is quite filling, and, when dipped in the broth, tastes like heaven. We used that opportunity to dry off a little using their heated restrooms. We called our dad again to give him an update, and we were really tempted to stay… Heaters… Warm showers… oh boy it sounded good right then, soaking wet and freezing. We hadn’t gone far enough for the day though. Getting behind that day would mess up our whole schedule, so on we went.

We rode through the town of Palmer, passing through it without realizing it would be the last sign of  civilization as we know it for several hundred miles.   Outside of Palmer, the road kept getting steeper. We kept thinking that we would get to the top of it, but with every crest, we’d find another crest above it. Soon we were high above the broad riverbed we had been riding beside. The riverbed itself could easily have been at least a mile across, and the much smaller river, gray with mud, weaved in and out of itself through the bed like a dozen snakes entwined. We could see titan like mountains growing up ahead of us, and the feeling started to come back. That fear that I had on the jet looking down and the mountains was creeping back up inside of me. I started to vaguely remember seeing on Google Earth that we had a couple hundred miles of nothing but uphill shortly after Anchorage, but I think I was in denial about how serious that would be. My greatest fear of the trip was that it would be filled with steep mountain passes—something that we were not at all used to. I kept telling myself that it would flatten out though… just after the next crest…maybe the next one…

But it didn’t. The climb was steady, and there were no flat stretches in sight, let alone downhill runs. My feet were getting numb, and so were Mark’s. Even with the bags on our feet, cold water sprayed incessantly from our front tires onto them, keeping them cold constantly. We started to realize what a mistake it was to pass up buying the shoe covers we had looked at.

The hours seemed to drag. The GPS kept saying 30 more miles… 30 more miles… 30 more miles, no matter how far we rode. The odometer read that we had gone well over our estimated distance for the day of 55 miles, and we still had a long way to go apparently. I became weaker, and weaker. We packed some special energy spray that is loaded with caffeine and B vitamins, and we each took a couple of sprays to get us going, but we still could hardly ride at all. I started thinking of the possibility of hitching a ride with someone to the campground. I was completely beat. We were still clinging to the hope that we would hit some flat or downhill stretches, but when we finally found a laughable little downhill stretch, we dreaded any more for fear of having to lose ground and ride back up the elevation that we had just lost because it was quite apparent that we would be climbing much, much higher before things evened out. We were both getting physically ill. We had no strength, and we were shaky, and couldn’t think clearly. We stopped at the crest of one steep climb, and I laid down in the long grass on the side of the road staring up into the rain, and I just rested. I couldn’t get any wetter, so it didn’t matter. It was a very low point for me. After a bit, we had some more energy spray, and pushed on through the rain.

We hadn’t seen a store of any kind since Palmer. When we finally came upon a small gas station convenience store, we parked our bikes, not even bothering to put them out of the rain, and we dragged ourselves inside. We were on autopilot at that point. Our bodies started grabbing things off the shelf while our minds thought “Huh, I wonder why that sounded good.” We loaded up with all sorts of sugary sweets; licorice, gummy bears, muffins, sodas, chocolate, and cookies. We gobbled them up like we had never had food before, and we felt instantly better. We had simply run ourselves low on glucose and other sugars that our bodies needed. I felt like a million bucks after I took down all of that junk. My sourdough sandwich and broth diet was filling, but it simply lacked the major sugars that we were incinerating on our bikes. After this, we ALWAYS had a hefty supply of raw sugary treats. It was necessary for our bodies to function properly.

The convenience store had a little more than your average gas station store as far as amenities go. It was sort of like a mini truck stop, with showers you could pay for, rooms to rent, and washer and dryer. Up there they are called “roadhouses” which is an appropriate name. These roadhouses would be the closest semblance we’d see to civilization for quite some time.

We decided to use the dryers they had to dry off our riding clothes, so we took an hour break to do that. It was nice to get back into some dry clothes, even if they would be soaked again within minutes of riding. My feet were so cold. I ran them under the warm water in the bathroom for a while, trying to thaw them out. They didn’t warm up as much as I had hoped, but it helped.

We asked the lady behind the counter what kind of hills we could expect up ahead of us. She made it sound like we had some good downhill stretches up ahead. As we got back out on the road though, it did go down… for about an eighth of a mile. And then it was just uphill again.

Sure enough, we were soaked again in minutes, but we were within twenty miles of camp, give or take. After two more hours of uphill riding, we could finally see what we assumed was King Mountain. It looked like an entire side of the mountain had just fallen off, leaving a gigantic hard rock face jutting hundreds, if not thousands of feet up into the air.

The road leveled out a bit at that point. We were still generally climbing, but at least we had some flat and slightly downhill stretches to ease our legs. Spruce trees now replaced the aspens, and they created a narrow corridor down the highway. To our right, the river had become nearly level with us, and it was now solid as one flowing mass rather than the tangled mess of split up streams that it would become further downstream. The rain let off a little, and we took our last energy reserves and pushed with all of our might for the last two miles. Adrenaline flowed in our veins, and I let out a “YEEEEAAAAAHOOOOOOOOO!!!” that Pecos Bill would have been proud of. It was a lot further than we had planned on—88 miles for the day, but finally, we were there.

The campground was nice and small. A gravel road led us into the camp loop that already had a good little handful of RVs and travel trailers. King Mountain stood proudly above the camp on the other side of the river. A guy had tipped us off that there was a little pavilion at the campground, and luckily, no one was camped near it. It was actually a public area, not a campsite, but we set up camp there anyway. We needed the shelter from the rain. The pavilion was only about ten by twenty feet and had one corrugated plastic wall and a lean-to roof of the same material. Right in the middle was an elevated barbecue fireplace with a little chimney leading out the top. There were two picnic tables inside that we shifted around to make room for our bikes and our tent. I left Mark to start unpacking as I went to pay the campsite fee and to get some firewood.

When I knocked on the door of the camp hosts trailer, I suddenly noticed that it was 10:30 p.m. I still wasn’t used to having daylight that late yet, so I felt bad if I had woken the host. She answered the door right away though and hadn’t yet gone to bed. I explained our situation and she said it was just fine for us to stay in the pavilion. I bought a load of firewood, and she told me to take another bundle free of charge. That was probably the first major favor that we gladly accepted. She could see we could use some help, and help she did.

Mark worked on getting a fire started, and I began to assess the damage. As I unpacked my things, I found that just about everything, bagged or not, was soaked. I was left only with a dry pair of dry socks, pants, and a single long sleeved fleece sweater to keep me warm. We had all of our things draped over our bikes and scattered over the one table. We pulled the other table right up to the fireplace, and sat right on the table top so we could warm our feet. The tent was soaked, but I set it up anyway. Mark’s sleeping bag was fine, but mine had taken on a lot of water. We sat around the fire for a good two hours drying off and warming up. I draped my sleeping bag around me to both keep myself warm, and to also aid it in drying. It would be no good trying to stay warm in a wet sleeping bag, and it was much colder by then. The sun had finally dropped far enough for it to get pretty dark, which meant that it was past midnight. I didn’t check to see what time it was though. I had other things on my mind.

We needed to dry out. It was too cold and humid for our things to dry on their own. If we wanted to continue our trip safely, we needed the next day to be sunny. I couldn’t do another day of rain right after that. I tucked into my sleeping bag while Mark stayed up a while longer waiting for the fire to die out. He was so trusting of me to make the right decisions and keep us both safe on that trip. It was a lot of weight to bear, honestly. It is easy to be reckless on your own, but we both were depending on each other’s safety to make it through the journey alive. If one of us had a problem, so did the other. I decided that if it was rainy again the next day, we would have to find someplace to stay—a hotel, or a cabin, or something. We would have to find some way to dry our things and get back on our way. But what if it didn’t stop raining? What if we were cold and wet through all of Alaska and Canada? I didn’t like to imagine that scenario, because if that were the case… we couldn’t do it. Mentally, and physically, we couldn’t hold up. We would have ended up hypothermic pushing ourselves like that. No, if it was still rainy in the morning, our trip was probably over right then and there. All I could do was sleep.

Sounds Intense.  What Happened Next? 

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