As we cleaned up the remaining dishes from dinner — a conglomeration of wilted, end-of-the-road vegetables that somehow transformed into a delicious curry — Beat called one last time from the trail. He was about eight miles outside of town, he told me. "But still a long ways out," he added. It was just after 1 a.m. I suited up and left the warm comfort of Shana's home to greet a stiff Northeast wind, piercing the eerie silence of night in far western Alaska.
With the onset of darkness, I knew I'd have to stick to the trail to see Beat. I figured I'd only outpace him by a small margin, probably 5 mph versus 3, and I'd have to ride for about an hour to spot him. My legs felt heavy and a bit stiff after "riding" six hours earlier in the day. But then again, any effort compared to a Nome effort is not much of anything; so I shrugged it off and pedaled as hard as I could, which is the minimum such trail conditions demand. Temperatures had dropped to single digits under clear skies, but the wind made it feel much colder, and I shivered as I worked up an unavoidable sweat.
Just as I began to resent that I'd decided to come out here rather than snuggle up in my sleeping bag at Shana's house, I passed the final electric light at the edge of town and looked forward into unbending darkness. A sliver of moonlight framed the sharp edges of white mountains, and the northern horizon was filled with an undulating band of green light. I turned off my headlight and craned my necked sideways to stare at the Northern Lights, as slack-jawed and wonder-filled as I was the first time I watched them. The way they shimmer, the way they dance as though directed by some kind of cosmic choreographer. The bike swerved and pitched off the trail, and I didn't mind.
The wind moaned but everything else was quiet, almost unnervingly so. The flight from Anchorage to Nome spans hundreds of miles of pretty much nothing — no roads, very few visible lights, very few signs of any kind that modern humans could and have traversed that distance under their own power. I varied my gaze from the sky to the vast darkness in front of me and wondered at the world Beat had come to know over the past 17 days since he left me behind in McGrath. How magnificent the landscape must seem, and how tiny one must feel in comparison.
"How do you feel?" I asked.
He leaned against the wooden pillar and smiled. "Tired," he answered. "Pretty much just tired."
I didn't have the long perspective of the walk, and couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. "I'm so proud of you," I said, and hugged him again.
"I'm glad to be done," Beat said. But as he spoke I noticed him glancing west, as though looking for the trail's non-existent continuation.