Friday, February 6, 2009

Day 3 – Sheep Mountain to Glennallen

Monday, May 26, 2008

How long had we been riding? Only four days since we had left home, and I had already lost count.

Do you ever notice that no matter how odd the changes in your life may seem at first, you eventually accept those changes as your reality? Perhaps it isn’t the same for everyone, but it is the case for my brother and I. We weren’t quite used to it yet, but we were definitely adjusting.

Bright and early, we were awake and ready to make up for the time we had lost the day prior. There was a spark of excitement within us. The sky was a picturesque blue with many small, fluffy clouds, and we were warm and dry. We packed up our bikes and I plotted our course.

Food. Fuel. First priorities. We were beginning to act instinctually. We ate there in the restaurant at Sheep Mountain Lodge where they served us a decent helping of eggs, hash browns, and reindeer sausage, and also helped us to pinpoint the summit of the seemingly endless climb we had been making since Palmer. Our sights were set on Eureka because from there, we'd have a glorious downhill stretch into Glenallen.

I felt great as we continued the ascent to Eureka. The climb didn’t feel as steep, and my legs felt stronger, though sore.  It was a good pain.   What wasn’t a good pain was the one in my ass. We both had pretty sore butts from the past two days of riding. We had both spent a lot of time adjusting our seats to be more comfortable, but it didn’t seem to be doing much. In fact, at this point, the biggest problem with climbing was that it put us at an angle on our seats that was particularly uncomfortable. When I stopped to rest, it was to rest my sore butt, not my legs.  Also, the day prior, I had worn my walking shoes because my cycling shoes were still soaked. Big mistake. The shoes lack the support that you need when you are doing that amount of pedaling, and the muscles in my feet were really sore that morning.

No matter. I felt good anyway. The scenery was so wonderful to me, and the light hit everything just right, like a painting. To our left, Sheep Mountain and its surrounding peaks stood high above us as we climbed perpendicular along their bases. To our right, large groves of narrow spruce trees patched yellow grassy plains that spread for miles across a shallow vale, reaching green mountains with snowy crowns. Large, flat, gray sheets of snow that had not yet melted lay in the nadir of the vale, looking like frozen lakes. Straight ahead, as we crested the summit, we could no longer see any mountains.

Having only limited problems with my bike’s ratchet system, we made it to Eureka Roadhouse which has a restaurant, motel, gas station, and basic auto repair garage. Mark went to use the payphone to call home while I borrowed some tools from the mechanic. I set to work right there on the asphalt by the gas pumps in front of the garage.

With the right tools, I was able to get the rear cassette disassembled to find it all gummed up with all sorts of dirt and gunk. Some of the ball bearings fell out, and I scrambled to carefully collect them all. I cleaned out the cassette and bearings using the white gas type fuel we had stored for our camp stove. That sure did the trick to cut through the dirt and grime! I let it dry and then applied liberal amounts of petroleum based lip balm to the workings, lacking any proper lubricant, and put it all back together hoping that would work. I was missing a ball bearing. I scoured the asphalt all around me, but I never found it. Would it work without the last bearing? It seemed like the others held the axle snugly enough. Did I even have the other bearing to begin with? I scratched my head and stared at the mechanism trying to calculate how serious the situation was. There was nothing to do but hope for the best.

I tightened things back up and gave the wheel a spin… Oh buddy, did it spin great! The ratchet system was so quiet and smooth, and it locked in place perfectly with a solid velvet click when the pedals were engaged. It was going to work!

Finally I was able to relax a bit and look around. After all, we had been told that we were at the highest elevation that side of Tok. To us, that meant major downhill had to be up ahead. We looked around and enjoyed being on top of the world looking down for a while.

Before saddling up, we bought some colas and energy drinks, life nectar, from the convenience shop, then down the long road we went.  Things were relatively flat and strait. We had plenty of shoulder to ride on, and we had a slight wind to our backs. Every couple hundred feet we would pass upside down “L” shaped poles that probably were there to help mark the road during the snowy seasons.

Spruce pocked country spread out endlessly in all directions as the road slanted downhill, leading off into a little valley before leading slightly back up again. The road abruptly forked, and there were no signs to indicate whether we were going the way we wanted. We took what appeared to be the obvious route, but after a short while, Mark and I decided that we had better stop for a bit to study the GPS and maps. We were lucky I caught the mistake when I did. Both Mark and I had a suspicious feeling that we weren’t headed the right way. The road that appeared to be the obvious continuation of the Glenn Highway was actually not the Glenn Highway, but some sort of frontage road. We backtracked only a little bit, and got back on the right track.

After we climbed a little, we dropped back down. And then climbed back up. Then down. Up. Down. Up. Down. Although we had reached the main summit, we still had not been granted a major downhill slope, however the fact that it was about even climbing to descending made things much more enjoyable than a slow steady ascent (especially on our rodeo parts), and the weather remained picturesque through the afternoon.

It was hard to determine whether or not we needed our jackets. When we’d climb, we’d be just a little too warm with them on, but going down hill was a bit too chilly without them. Also, it seemed that there was a strange temperature dynamic where any exposed skin felt blistering in the sun and frozen in the shade. It had me stopping occasionally to try and adjust accordingly to zip or unzip parts of my jacket as the small clouds drifted in front of the sun. Mark mostly just left his jacket off and ignored the cold.

The spruce trees stretched out endlessly around us and became more and more densely packed as we gradually lost elevation. We passed a sign that said we were in Nelchina, but there was no sign of civilization except for further down the road where we passed a fenced off gravel clearing with a bunch of gravel hauling trucks parked. Just past there we stopped and had the usual lunch.

After a little downhill, the road had flattened out and we passed several recreation sites and campgrounds along with the occasional lodge. The spruce trees started looking kind of spindly. As we rode on, it became more and more pronounced until all of the trees looked like the forest of rejects. Their limbs were very short and disheveled making the trees quite lean, and they varied quite a lot in height, with lots of shorter ten foot trees, and plenty of lurpy looking twenty five footers. Somebody we met a few days later referred to them as “drunken trees” which seemed appropriate; they all tipped in odd directions like a crowd of drunks with no apparent pattern. It looked like something right out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Finally, we had some serious downhill stretches! If you have never experienced the thrill of cruising on a bicycle at 40 Mph with nothing between you and the empty road but a layer of spandex… you are probably smarter than us, but it is fun. This made for quick time as we descended down to Glenallen. Well, at least it helped…

I started to have a lot of drag on my back tire accompanied by a constant light buzzing noise. Now what!? I asked Mark to pull up close as we rode to check it out. He spotted the problem right away: I had lost the screw from the left side of my rear pannier platform so all of my gear was sagging down with the tire grinding against it. We pulled over and I hopped off to have a look. This was a pretty big problem. My back rack only has 3 anchor points to my bike and was carrying seventy percent of my gear. Without any one of the anchor points, the whole thing was useless, and the other anchor points could snap under the weight of my gear leaving me with no way to carry my equipment. We had to come up with a way to jury rig it. First, I tried using a zip-tie through the screw eyelet where the screw was supposed to fasten the rack. It snapped off after a few miles under the weight, but we tried another zip-tie anyway. Snapped again. I tied some nylon cord through the eyelets and did a bit of lashing to secure it, but that too eventually wore through and snapped. I needed some hardened metal to hold it. I ended up cutting the hook end off of one of my smallest bungee cords (lovingly refered too as our “wee bungees”) and hooked that through the eyelet. After a few miles though, it had popped out again. When I checked it though, the hook had not broken, it simply needed to be fastened more securely, so I re-hooked it and tightly bent the hook together with my pliers. That did the trick.

The next twenty miles were downhill and the drunken trees were replaced with much taller, more uniform, healthier looking trees as we coasted along. The highway made a large “S” curve as we made one particularly steep descent, and as we did, my stomach made some grumbling noises and felt like it was being tied in knots. It was extremely lucky that there was a rest stop at the bottom of the hill with some public privies.

We stayed there for a bit because I didn’t know if I’d be hit again soon. I lied down on the top of a concrete table and rested as my stomach continued to gurgle and rumble, and before long I was feeling much better, but we were both getting hungry, and we were practically out of food.

There were a few short, but steep climbs, and then we coasted the rest of the way down into Glennallen hoping that we could find someplace to use the internet. We had set up an internet blog for our trip, and I was anxious to get it updated and to check in with friends, and my GPS listed a public library on the edge of Glennallen. When we came upon the very small Glennallen public library, however, we saw that it was closed, and had been for hours. It was after 7:00 P.M. Boy, we still weren’t used to having that much daylight that late, and we were constantly making way North as the Sun was getting closer to the summer solstice so the days were only getting longer. We started to wonder if we’d even be able to get food, but we found a modest grocery store still open in the heart of the small town to support its population of roughly 580.

Mark was generally in charge of cooking our meals. I, on the other hand, generally had the task of getting the groceries, so Mark stayed outside to watch the bikes as I headed into the store.

It had a surprising selection of food considering our perception of the town, and it is always a bad idea to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. I had to be very careful not to get more food than we could actually carry, so I had to go around the store several times putting things back onto the shelves. I also had to find foods that were convenient to cook and carry, and also foods that could be eaten for any meal. Canned foods were not practical because of the weight of both the metal and of the water they already contained. Dehydrated things seemed best. Things that had individual packages were good. Hearty breads were always good because they were filling and they went well with just about every meal. I avoided dehydrated soups and stews because we didn’t have a whole lot of water to be able to clean all the mess it made. Breakfast was always tricky. This time, I decided that granola bars were a good idea, and they could double as snacks on the road. I grabbed a box of 48.

Being in the sun so long the past two days, I was starting to get sunburned. I grabbed some aloe gel and a small tube of SPF80 for our faces and ears, and headed to the checkout counter, since the store was starting to close.

Outside, we started packing up the food onto Mark’s bike. Mark picked up the box of granola bars and almost fell over.

“You bough forty…eight…granola bars!? Are ya freaking kidding me!? Where are we going to put all of these!?”

Well we… oh wow. I had just realized 48 probably was quite a lot. The box was about the size of Hawaii (or at least as big as a large tool box), and I figured it wouldn’t be completely full. We opened it up.

It was.

Mark repeated, “Forty eight freaking granola bars. You’re killin me Jake. You are killing me.”
We started packing them around all of the other food, and when there was no more room, we started packing them in any open space we had on our saddle bags. We had granola bars bulging out of every pocket and pouch, and we still had a quarter of the box left, with nowhere else to put them. We ate a couple from the box, and then I took the box back into the store and told the clerk that we just couldn’t take any more, and I didn’t want to throw them away. She laughed and said she’d give them out to the kids. We still didn’t know where we were going to stay that night, but she said there were a few campgrounds nearby.

Down the road a few blocks we found the Northern Nights RV Park, and we got there just in time. The office was just getting ready to close. We bought some tokens to be able to use the showers, and she gave us some fluffy towels to use then pointed us in the direction of our camp site.

The tent sites were tucked in the back up against the forest. They were cozy little sites with wooden platforms for the tents, concrete fire pits, and pick nick tables, all surrounded with the fine looking spruce trees. Wandering off a few feet into the wooded area, we found that the ground was very soft and spongy—like walking on a mattress. Layers of moss, pine needles, twigs, and dirt had all piled up to form this springy layer of the forest floor. It wouldn’t be fun to walk on if you were lost out in the middle of the forest.

We got the tent set up and had our showers. They had really nice shower units set up in the middle of the campground. It was a prefabricated building, and the showers were really nice for a campground; very clean, and plenty of warm water. The warm water made me realize how badly my face and ears had become sunburned that day. I was glad that I had decided to purchase the sunblock.

We settled into bed, and I was still in awe that there was still daylight at 11 P.M.. It had dropped behind the trees casting beautiful pink light with purple shadows through the forest across our tent. I chuckled to myself as I reflected on the day, thinking about the granola bars, and just how much of my bike was now jury-rigged together. We still had a very long way to go, and I tried to imagine what my bike might look like by the end of the trip.

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80 miles, Approximately 12 hours

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