Sunday, September 28, 2008

Golden days on the Golden Circle, Day 1

Date: Sept. 25
Mileage: 108
September mileage: 634.0

I stepped off the ferry at 8 a.m. Thursday in a mental fog, vaguely aware of only two things - the morning could not have been more beautiful, and I could not have felt more awful. As the warm light of the sun rose into a bright blue sky, I regarded it with something that was almost like irritation. If it had been pouring rain, I might have been able justify slinking back onto the ferry and hitching a return trip to Juneau. I had slept restlessly Wednesday night on the floor of the ferry's top level, at one point waking up half out of my sleeping bag and completely drenched in sweat. It was as though my body had tried to expel a week's worth of sickness in one spectacular flash fever. It didn't know if it was nerves or if I really was getting sick. It felt like a little of both.

I pedaled through Skagway, stopping at the grocery store to try to cram down some yogurt and granola. I was only able to eat a few bites and had to throw the rest away. It's not the way to start a beautiful day and certainly not the way to start a three-day fast-tour around the Golden Circle.

It doesn't help that the way I was riding the route, backwards by almost all accounts, allows almost no time to warm up. I had three miles of fairly flat pedaling along a river before the climb began in earnest. The road rises from sea level to 3,200 feet in 14 measly miles - 11, really, if you don't count the flat "warm up." I took my first break at mile five, trying to calm all of my apprehension and bile with a little bit of big-picture perspective. But perspective was hard to find. Beautiful weather the day before had coaxed me into a five-hour hard hike, which not only ate up precious energy reserves but also precious time. I had little of that left to finish preparations, and had to cram so much between work that I didn't even take the time to eat dinner. Then I slept poorly while trying to overnight on a ferry. In short, I felt completely physically unprepared for the trip.

The only way in which I did feel prepared was my gear. I had packed up the supplies I would need for cold rain and hard frosts and remote repairs and a big handful of spare batteries for my lights. I was admittedly way overpacked for a three-day trip, but I don't regret any of it. I was traveling alone in late fall in remote areas where eight-hour spans of silence can pass between the cars that go by in the middle of the night. I would rather be prepared for the worst than live on the edge of comfort and hope for the best. But I also, unfortunately, never trained with any kind of weight on my bike. So to suddenly load it up with a lot was a big shock. I don't know if it was all the weight or the crappy way I was feeling, but I had no power climbing up White Pass. I was still in the single digits of miles and already formulating a plan should I feel the need to turn around.

A man I had talked to on the ferry, a Haines candidate for the state Legislature (can't remember his name), told me "the ride from Skagway must be great. It's a quick trip up to the pass and all downhill from there." No, I told him, there's a lot more climbing after the pass. My GPS later confirmed what I suspected. It's 3,292 to the pass, and more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain beyond it to Whitehorse, mostly on steep rolling hills along a seemingly endless string of lakes.

Still, that first glance into the northern edge of British Columbia, with all of its breathtaking open space, will soothe any physical maladies, even if only for a moment. I tried to take in some more calories, relying on an old stand-by that always seems to go down easy no matter what: Peanut butter cups. The air was calm and stunningly clear. If I couldn't find a way to enjoy myself on a day like that, there really was no hope for me. The big picture perspective was starting to sink in.

I dropped a few hundred feet to Canadian customs, where the border guard recognized me from the 24 Hours of Light. After I answered the string of seemingly ridiculous questions (I mean, really, what bicycle tourist carries alcohol, firearms and $10,000 in cash?), I told him where I was headed and how long I planned to be in Canada. "Wow, you sure like to ride a lot!" he said. "I hope so," I answered.

The afternoon was largely a struggle with the haze of low-level nausea, punctuated by startling beauty. The region was enveloped in the peak of fall colors, with winter creeping in from above. The views really were enough to keep me on task, namely, turning the pedals away from Skagway. I always wanted to see what was up over the next hill or around the next bend. The thrilling descents also always seemed to come along just in time to lift my spirits when I needed it most. If there's any one thing I've never failed to be on the Golden Circle, it's lucky.


Lucky, lucky, lucky.

The hills around the endless lakes did threaten to break me; the bike I was pedaling felt like it weighed half a ton. But if there's anything I've learned about distance cycling, it's that eating will almost always make me feel better. Physical stress puts my emotions at such extremes that I could be on the edge of despair, and a simple peanut butter cup would quickly lift me back to normal, where I can continue pedaling to the brink of elation. So I used the miles to slowly recover, knowing I had a lot more ahead of me.

And there were plenty of calm, quiet moments, when I stopped thinking about my sour stomach and my blood sugar and my heavy legs, stopped worrying about elevation and destinations and miles, and simply let the landscape carry me, sometimes deep into the past, sometimes into my hopes for the future.

I was near a low point again when I reached the town of Carcross, still only 65 miles into my 370-mile trip. I chugged some Gatorade at a gas station and limped up to the "Carcross Desert," which is actually not a desert at all but a large deposit of silt left behind by a long-faded glacier. Still, I take a lot of strange comfort in these dunes. They remind me of a far-away past, of my home. Much like I did a year before, I stopped in the desert, set down my bike, and laid all the way down in the cool sand. I breathed deep as grains of sand crept around my arms and neck until I felt like I was dissolving into it. I also was locked in physical distress when I stopped here one year before. Only then, I was facing the last 65 miles of my trip, not looking back on the first. But just like last year, the softness of the sand was rejuvenating. I could look around at the big picture again. I also realized that if I did not pick up my pace, I was going to be pedaling to Whitehorse well after dark.

After 45 miles of subdued but determined pedal-mashing, I finally arrived in town right at dusk - about 7:30 p.m. Alaska time. It was 8:30 in Whitehorse, and my friends Sierra and Anthony had waited up for me, holding out on dinner the entire time I dawdled into town (I had told them, very optimistically, that I would be there by 6.) Sierra cooked up a delicious northern delicacy, moose stew. "Everything was grown and shot right here in the Yukon," Sierra told me. She made it with potatoes and greens from her garden, and moose meat from a co-worker. Sierra and Anthony are really great. I always manage to stop by when I'm completely wrecked, and they make everything better with amazing homemade food and a warm bed and real understanding, because they do all this crazy bicycle stuff themselves.

I went to bed telling myself I would feel much better in the morning, and believing it.