Saturday, May 24, 2008

Beyond the dead ends

Date: May 24
Mileage: 147.4
May mileage: 909.3

I’d been feeling a serious need to leave town, even if only for a day. With the crunch of work and travel time, one day was about all I’d have. But where to spend a day? A flight to Anchorage seemed excessive. I thought about Sitka with its logging roads and trails, but then I realized what I really needed was a long road ... a road that doesn’t dead-end ... a road that, at least in the deepest recesses of potential, is limitless.

The Haines Highway is one of two roads that link Southeast Alaska with the outside world. That and the Klondike Highway are two of the most beautiful routes I’ve ever had to privilege to ride a bicycle along, which I’ve done only once, during a whirlwind tour last August. Back then I put a lot of pressure on myself to complete this post-injury, pseudo-fast-tour, which, looking back, did cut away from the experience. This time I was going out solely for the joyride, as far or as little as I felt like moving.

I booked a round-trip ferry ticket with less than 36 hours layover. The Marine Highway System is still running the slow ferries out that way, which amounts to a 4.5-hour trip to move about 75 miles. People who have lived in Juneau a long time always seem to groan sympathetically at the necessity of ferry travel, the same way others might when told about plans for airline or bus travel. I don’t really understand the objection. The ferry is like a mini-Alaska cruise. Unlike air travel, which really is tedious, the ferry allows free movement, unparalleled wildlife viewing, hot food and showers. I like to catch up on my New Yorker reading and take naps. If I were to do this stuff at home, after a few hours I’d feel guilty about my idleness. But on a boat, you have no choice. So I soak it in.

I arrived in Haines at 9:30 p.m. and went to grab my bike from the car deck only to discover that the front tube had blown up. I mean, it literally blew up - it blasted the tire right of the rim and hung there in shreds. I have no idea how that happened. I pumped the tires up to 60 psi, which is still 5 psi below the posted maximum, and took the bike for an 18-mile ride before I loaded it onto the ferry. And it’s not like there are cabin pressure changes at sea level. A mystery.

I swapped out the tube with my only spare and cursed my stupidity at only bringing one spare. The Haines Highway is nothing if not remote - 150 miles of not even a cell-phone signal. It seemed reckless to head out without even one spare tube, especially since I had already had one spontaneously explode on me. I felt a little discouraged as I hoisted my backpack and labored the five miles into town. When I am “base-camp” camping I like comfort, and a lot of it. I had books, a pillow, clothing, food, to the tune of about 60 pounds of gear that hung over my head. The large pack pressed into my shoulders, kinked my neck and dug deep into my hips. Still, the soft pink light of sunset hung over the Chilkat Mountains, and I was happy to be there.

I had hoped to get an early start the next morning, but I thought it better to wait until Sockeye Cycles opened so I could buy a tube before hitting the open road. I toured around town to kill some time and set out for real around 9:30 a.m. The morning was nearly perfect - low 60s, mostly sunny, almost no wind (I tried not to get too attached to that last condition because I knew it was bound to switch to a mean headwind when the prevailing breeze picked up in the afternoon.) The road hugged the wide Chilkat River, with chiseled and whitewashed spires of the mountains as its background. “People in Haines live in paradise,” I thought. “I could ride this road every day” ... momentarily forgetting that if I lived in Haines, where the Haines Highway dead-ends, I wouldn’t have much choice.

(August ........................ May)

But you forget how freeing the simple idea of the open road can be. I didn’t know how far I was going to ride that day and liked that I didn’t know that. I put my GPS in my backpack and let it tick off the miles where I couldn’t watch them. I had tons of food, iodine tablets, lights, a bivy sack, extra clothing, and enough confidence in my abilities to know that I truly could go as long as I wanted - as long as I made it back it time to catch my 9 a.m. ferry the next day. That, to me, is one of the best benefits of fitness - the unhindered freedom to explore.

(Haines Highway Summit, one of the great 1,000-meter summits of the world, near km 104.)

The unwatched miles passed surprising quickly and before I knew it, I was crossing into Canada and beginning the happy crawl into the heart of the mountains. Old snowpack lingered well below the treeline, and above the treeline the snow was streaked and stark against the gravel and granite. I veered onto a pullout at Haines Highway Summit just as a tourist in a giant Cruise America rental RV pointed his camera right at me. “Bicycle with snow,” he shouted in a heavy, possibly German accent. I shot him my best expert grin.

(Here's what the Haines Highway Summit looks like without my hammy mug in the way.)

Beyond the pass, the breeze picked up at my back and I became painfully aware of all of those miles of soon-to-be-headwind behind me. 65, maybe 70 miles? The tundra was so stark and beautiful that the thought of turning around hurt, but I had to think hard about how far I really wanted to push beyond the pass, how late into the evening I was willing to ride, how excited I’d be about arriving back in Haines after all of the restaurants closed to eat a dinner of the same Power Bars and dried cranberries I had been stuffing down all day. I decided to end my pursuit of the open road about a half hour beyond the pass. I checked my GPS before I turned around. 68.7 miles.

Dropping off the Haines Highway pass on a bluebird day in May is an experience to be lived again and again, if only in my head. It's 18 km of my-big-ring-is-too-little free coasting, with a beautiful span of distant mountains blasting toward me at tear-inducing speeds. It is a feeling as close to flying as any I can imagine, and I have been skydiving. In fact, I was just talking about my skydiving experience with my dad, who, at 55 years old and not yet retired, has decided he’s going to go full-steam ahead with his life list of “someday” experiences. Last week he went skydiving, and afterward we talked about the float and fall. On Friday, as I descended the pass with the wind ripping at my cheeks and cool air pumping through my lungs, I wondered about my own "someday" list and what I’d put on it.

The river miles into the wind were predictably tiresome, and for the first time all day I had to remind myself that my legs felt great and the tiredness was just perception, my mind too focused on the understanding that this was a return trip and at the end there would be French fries. This shift in perception is another benefit of endurance training. Two or three years ago, if I was already a century into a ride with 40 more miles to go into wind and flagging, I would have been so frustrated. Now I've learned to take the ebbs with the flow and understand that while my mind is my strength in the battle to keep on keeping on, my body's still stronger than I know.

I was still back in time for dinner, a lingering stroll around town at sunset and a few minutes with acquaintances who had just arrived in Haines for the actual weekend - Memorial Day Weekend. I readied my gear to prepare for my return to my own dead-end roads, with the Haines Highway still stretched out limitless behind me, promising me it would always be there.