Riding the invisible highway
At any given moment, if you could trace a path over the contours of your mind, what do you think it would look like? A complex freeway system weaving around immovable concrete structures? A country road stretching across sectioned tracts of farmland? A dirt track cutting into the heart of a mountain range? At the moments I am most content, I imagine this path would appear as a white line across a quiet, open expanse. The place of Zen. The invisible highway.
The Denali Highway is a 135-mile stretch of gravel road the connects the nowhere towns of Paxson and Cantwell, Alaska, with pretty much nothing in between. It was built in 1957 as what was then the only road access to Denali National Park, but has since been bypassed to the point that it sees almost no use beyond hunters, trappers, adventurers, and the occasional bold RV driver. After I rode a large section of the road on my mountain bike in May 2010, I had a notion that the winter experience would mimic a Zen state of mind — a snow-covered path that rolls through high alpine valleys in the shadow of the massive peaks of the Hayes Range. This year presented enough time to finally try the route during the winter, so when friends asked me about my Alaska plans, one of the first ideas I expressed was "ride the Denali Highway." One of my friends, Jenn from Whitehorse, was particularly interested in the specifics of such a tour. And because we were hoping to recreate the great times we had while riding the Dawson Trail last March, we pulled Sierra from Whitehorse and Jill from Anchorage into the conversation. It would be a grand venue for a reunion of "Pecha Kucha Mountain" — four women on fat bikes in the Great White North.
The two Jills drove from the west and the Canadians came from the east, converging at a tiny hotel room in Glennallen. The gear explosion was just the first of many bursts of giggling and debauchery. The Pecha Kucha girls were together again.
Unfortunately I failed to take a picture of all of the bikes — a major faux pas in realm of fat bike trip reports. But the breakdown was a titanium 9:Zero:7, a titanium Fatback, an aluminum Fatback, and a Salsa Mukluk. Sierra's Fatback easily won the prize for the most stylish rig, with her matching green rims and bike bags. (As in perfect matches. She actually gave the bag maker a pantone number.) Combined with her hot pink ski pants and matching hat, she was easily identifiable from long distances in the stark landscape.
For the most part we were able to pedal through it, but our pace was jogging speed (4 to 6 mph), frequently dipping into walking speed (2 to 3 mph) even when we weren't pushing. And of course powering our rather heavy steeds through the mush was hard work — generally expending the effort level of running for the output of walking speeds. I've said before that the whole reason I found my way into trail running was because a few years of snow biking convinced me that wheels aren't always an advantage. Luckily, we were still fresh and excited for our adventure, and no one even seemed to notice the grunt of the first big climb.
"Do you really want to know?" I replied.
She thought about for a minute, and then resolutely said, "Yes."
"We've ridden seven miles in two hours," I said. "Maclaren Pass isn't until about mile 35 and I expect we'll have at least one big descent and another climb in there. This might be the only big descent. Or there might be more. I don't know."
"So seven kilometers an hour is what we might average all day?" she asked.
I paused for a second. "Well, yes," I replied.
|Photo by Jenn Roberts|
My friends showed up about 45 minutes later, as they had more difficulty riding the soft trail on the descent after darkness set in, but they were able to stick together. We ordered a round of burgers and four or five different kinds of drinks each (for me: hot tea, hot chocolate, Diet Pepsi, and cold water.) Life was good out here, miles from anywhere.