Where the North Wind blows, part one
I'm not as independent as I like to believe I am, and that realization struck me as I stepped off the plane in Unalakleet. Wind screamed down the frozen shoreline and a wall-mounted thermometer read -5F. A baggage handler herded the passengers inside even though we were supposed to gather our gate-checked luggage at the back of the plane, yelling over the howling gusts that frostbite could happen in minutes. The windchill cut like a razor blade. I dragged my bike box into a storage area and slowly put it together with hands that were visibly shaking. What the hell was I doing? Putting this bike together, by myself, to go ride it into the barren wilderness, all alone. I didn't actually want to be here, at all.
"He trains right over there on the beach," he said, pointing out the window to a fifteen-foot wooden ramp and other hand-built obstacles, encased in ice and snow dunes.
"That's amazing," I said. If a kid from rural Alaska can train to be an American Ninja Warrior on this icebound shoreline, perhaps a bike ride wasn't as impossible as it seemed.
Even amid what I expected to be heavy traffic during the dog sled race, the trail was already buried in spindrift — fine-grained snow that looks and feels exactly like sand. It's been tumbled around by the wind so long that the crystals have been polished to a sphere, and the water content is so low that it won't compact under foot, wheel, or snowmachine track. It can't be ridden, and wading through the loose grains requires consistently strenuous effort. Every hundred yards I needed to stop to catch my breath and let my heart rate slow to a manageable hum. Each time, I turned around and watched my own tracks disappear in seconds.
"No, no, I'm just on a short trip," I'd reply. "Touring the trail." They'd give me a slightly disconcerted look that reflected my own inner questioning of where exactly I went wrong in life to consider this a vacation. There were short sections where the trail was still mostly blown clear of spindrift, and I could ride nearly as fast as the dogs were running. But then there were the direct climbs up several hundred feet of seemingly endless Blueberry Hills, where bracing my bike while digging for foot anchors in the bottomless drifts took every ounce of strength even when I wasn't moving at all. One musher who'd probably watched my struggle from the lowlands for the past ten minutes playfully heckled me as he passed.
"I thought you were Hugh Neff because you were moving so slow."
I traipsed around the woods gathering a bundle of deadfall, and spent fifteen frustrating minutes haplessly grinding a saw to extract a small log from the large logs on the porch. If this is what it took for fire warmth, I was better off burning less energy to keep a cold sleeping bag body-heated. I made a small fire from my wood bundle, which I thought might be enough to dry off my wet clothing. It didn't even do that, and I awoke to frozen-stiff clothing the following morning. Ah, well. I cooked dinner and curled up in my sleeping bag, reading the philosopher Albert Camus's essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," which I downloaded a while ago and hadn't yet read. Here, the setting seemed apt ...
"Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
Listening to snow softly pummel the plexiglass window, I thought with a smile, "This really is the life."