When I’m on an intense trip I’m completely ‘in the moment’, I’m so purely and solely consumed with what I do, where I am, what I feel and what I see, that I loose myself. After a shower, combing my hair in front of the mirror, I retrieve myself.
‘Hey, it’s me! Hera!’ and ‘Wow, it’s been me all that time!’
That’s what happened here in Fairbanks yesterday, looking in the mirror after a short but thorough shower (water is delivered here every two weeks) wherein the grizzled soap dripped of my legs. I was exactly the same as always, but now I’d cycled to the Arctic ocean!
The Dalton highway had been high on my ‘to-bike’ list when I was planning my trip to Alaska. It’s an extreme road. 800km/500miles including a lot of up- and downhills on bumpy roads in an area where the weather can be very fitfully, with no phone reception, no services or shops on the way, no villages, but with bears and other wildlife around. All in all it sounded like a big adventure and a little frightening as well.
Why I wanted to bike it so badly? Mainly because it’s extreme, cycling in the arctic, the most northern road of the USA.
When the possibilities seemed vague and scarce (expensive flights up, little chance of hitchhiking, sending food parcels ahead) I easily let go of this ‘plan’. My motivation to bike it wasn’t all that substantial anyway, I figured. ‘Because it’s possible’ has always sounded like a poorly inspiring motive to me.
How I ended up in that shower yesterday, rinsing the dust of 800km Dalton highway off my legs and into the drain, I’ll tell you in a moment.
First, let’s go back to Denali National Park.
I was riding together with Joost who got some trouble with his knee after just a few days of biking and soon it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to bike again anytime soon. He took a bus as I rode my bike into Denali National Park. In the morning the weather was very clear and the mountain ‘Denali’ was visible. In the afternoon I got on a bus with Joost and saw lots of wildlife. Grizzly bears, moose, caribou. One grizzly with two cubs came within just a couple of meters from our bus and for once I was happy to be inside this tin can on wheels.
I made two long bikedays alone heading north. On the first day, in the pooring rain, I passed Healy. Some might know it from the book and movie ‘Into the Wild’. From Healy Chris McCandless, in his quest for purity and adventure, followed the Stampede trail and crossed a river to discover the ‘Magic Bus’. 118 days later he would die in this bus as a result of starvation and eating toxic potato seeds.
When I first read the book in 2010 it had a great impact on me. His quest, lust for life, puzzlement, passion, intelligence and character intrigued me. At the same time it frightened me to recognise so much of myself in this young man, who chose a path so extreme that he would end up paying for it with his life. His story, the pictures and the atmosphere of the book and the movie were my main motivation to choose Alaska as a start of my trip.
I decided to not visit the original ‘Magic Bus’, even though it’s still there in the same spot. Since Chris’ story became famous worldwide, a lot of people visited the bus or attempted to do so. Several ‘pilgrims’ have died trying to cross that river that also blocked Chris’ way out and several ended up in the emergency room.
The replica, used in the movie, is parked in the parking lot of a café in Healy. There, cycling the road where McCandless spend his last hours among people, his story impacted me again. The locals here like to call him an ‘idiot’ and disgust that he is idolized by many. To me he’s neither an idiot nor an idol but mainly an inspiration to follow my heart. (with a slightly better preparation and a SPOT gps tracker with S.O.S. function).
In Fairbanks I met up with Joost to discuss ‘what to do’.
Cycling wasn’t an option for him anymore and apart from that things hadn’t been working out as great and beautifully between us as we had hoped. For him this conjuncture of circumstances was so disappointing that he decided to end the trip and travel back to Holland. That decision came quite hard on me and the day he left I felt very sad. All of a sudden the world seemed extremely big, Holland very far away and I small and alone.
I decided to take a 4 day ride to Manley hotsprings after which I’d come back to my nice guest address in Fairbanks. Take a short ride to clear my head.
Only the first day I would ride with a German cyclist named Holger, who we’d met in Denali. He was riding up the Dalton highway to Deadhorse. For a moment I considered joining him north, but at that moment it was too big a decision to make in such a short time.
As we left the city the next day and we traded the heavy city traffic for a silent road in the wilderness the first layer of sorrow slipped off me. During the day a careful voice raised up inside me: ‘Why don’t you just ride up to Deadhorse?! This is a great opportunity to do so!’. I only stocked up on food for about four days and left my warmest clothes in Fairbanks. But when I discussed the possibility with Holger we quickly decided we’d find a way to make it work. After sending a text to a friend in Fairbanks on our last stripe of phone reception to ask her to drop off some extra food, the decision was final.
I was going to ride the Dalton highway!
The Dalton highway, by locals referred to as ‘the Haulroad‘ is known in the rest of the world from the tv show ‘Ice Road Truckers’. It connects the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay to the rest of Alaska. The pipeline that carries the oil often runs along the road and is almost always in sight. Along the whole stretch there’s only one village connected to the road (5km away). It’s named Wiseman and has about 14 inhabitants (counting of 2010).
This road was 100 times more beautiful than I expected. As I wrote before, my motive to ride it was mainly it’s ‘extremity’. Now I could add ‘incredibly beautiful’, ‘intense enjoyment’ and ‘adventure’ to that!
While I thought I had found ‘the Alaska of my dreams’ on Denali highway, now that experience got doubled here on the Haulroad.
This, yes THIS, was the Alaska I had dreamed of. ‘Aláska Alaska’ like it’s said in Into the Wild.
The roadsurface varied between asphalt, dirt, gravel and mud, all that with potholes and bumps. But all in all I wasn’t disappointed with the quality of the road. The most frustrating parts were those were they just sprayed some kind of saltwater on the road to prevent it from dusting. After rain the toplayer would become one pasty mess that made my tires stick to the road and turn an easy ascent into a hard climb.
We cycled long days. 8:00 wake up, 10:00 get on the bike till about 20:00, eat, sleep and up again around 8:00. When we arrived in Coldfoot after four days we were quit tired. Coldfootcamp is about halfway to Deadhorse and a popular stop for both truckers and tourists. It’s nothing but a restaurant and a ‘hotel’ (containers with tiny twin bed rooms for $219 a night). Camping was free but a shower cost $14! After a chat with a trucker and a lamentation about the insane high price, he invited us to use the shower in his room. How lovely! I washed myself every night with riverwater but that doesn’t compare to a nice hot shower.
We decided to take a day off at Coldfoot and stuffed ourselves and our handlebar bags at the breakfast buffet. In the evening I gathered some courage and asked one of the workers what they do with the leftovers of the diner buffet. He admitted they don’t have a good system for that and it actually just gets thrown away. Big amounts of food! Wouldn’t it be a better idea to feed some hungry cyclists with that?? Maybe in exchange for some cleaning? He quietly told me to come back at 21:00 to have whatever there would be left (lots!) of the buffet for free.
The next day we cycled to the foot of Atigun pass (with its 1444m the highest pass of Alaska). At the pass I was surprised to find trafficlights and a Dixie toilet! There was constructionwork going on on the other side of the pass and a flagger was regulating the northbound traffic. He had to make a few calls to find out if we had to wait up there till the end of the workday, get on a pilot-car or maybe would be allowed to just descent on our bikes. We were incredibly lucky that there were no big machines working that day and we could just fly down the pass on our own bikes. While waiting for that result the flagger made us some ramen and coffee and I warmed myself at the generator.
He also told us about the workerscamp about 40km down the road where he incidently would join for a very good meal..
Our ‘goal’ for the day lay quite a bit further, but I had a weak day. My legs felt like pudding as we fought ourselves a way into the headwinds in what was supposed to be a downhill. My back, humping and bumping on the bad road, hurt more with every meter. We decided to try our luck at the camp. Producing my biggest smile possible at that moment, I asked one of the workers if they had room for two more at the table that night. He checked it with his boss and in no-time we were sitting in a warm canteen having tasty nutritious food and freshly baked pie for dessert. All the workers there knew us from passing us several times on the road and informing each other through their walkie-talkies about our whereabouts between the machinery and around corners. We talked to the workers hailing from Tennessee that are stationed there for the whole summer and fall (trying to extract some English out of their super strong southern accent)! They let us use their showers and clean and well-fed we put up our tent behind the camp for the night.
By now we had passed both the arctic circle and the Brooks range and there was no barrier left between us and the icebergs of the arctic ocean and that we could feel. The temperature dropped to about 5 degrees Celsius (40F) during the day, which isn’t even uncomfortable as you’re toiling on your bike.
After the pass we cycled two long days to finally arrive to the start of a 55km stretch of roadwork that we would have to cross by pilot-car to get to Deadhorse.
Riding towards the flagger who marked the end of our northbound bikeride I felt like a warrior coming home from the battlefields. I made it.
I made it to the most northern (at that moment) reachable place by road of America.
The pilot-car brought us to Deadhorse. Nobody lives in Deadhorse but there’s always at least thousand people around who work at the oilfields. There are no houses. Everything is build out of metal containers and barracks on a raise of gravel. Everything that’s not a road, parking lot or building is ‘wetland’, a marshy ground with some bush and grasses.
We had no idea yet about how we were going to spend the night here. The cheapest twin bed room cost $250. Pitching our tents was not an option in the wetlands and spending the night sitting outside wasn’t very temping hence the cold and the presence of bears.
I found Deadhorse quite impressive, mainly because of its unreality. But as we didn’t have a real reason to stay there, apart from our exhaustion, we decided that the best way to spend the night would be in a car or truck on our way to Fairbanks.
After a tiny tour of Deadhorse we headed back to the start of the road construction site where one truck and two cars were waiting for their turn. I asked the trucker where he was heading; Fairbanks! And if he could take two cyclists; No problem!
We tied our bikes to the back of the unloaded truck and made ourselves at home in the cabin to start the very long and bumpy ride.
In 17hours, including a nap of the driver and a flat tire of the trailer he picked up in Coldfoot, we rode all the way back to Fairbanks. Between 21:00 and 16:00 the next day we passed every meter that we cycled and every place where we camped or had lunch. Rivers and hills with names like ‘Bonanza Creek’, ‘Beaver Slide’ and ‘Rollercoaster’ and the campspots we named ‘Muddy Creek’ and ‘Frisbee Hill’. We passed the place where we saw wolves on the road and the arctic circle where we camped on night three.
9 bikeways passed by within 17 truck hours.
Obviously I didn’t catch even a minute of sleep during the ride and I was more than ‘done’ but also slightly euphoric when we arrived back in Fairbanks. When I dropped by Wallmart to get some groceries two motorcyclists started praising me for riding up the Dalton and my trip in general. They were super excited and kept calling me ‘Dude!’ and give me high fives while reassuring each other how ‘awesome!’ my trip was. Hilarious and delightful at the same time! A mini-celebration in front of Wallmart before I got on my bike to ride the last 12km to my hosts to have a lovely meal and finally crash on a bed after being awake for 38 hours.
I am so incredibly happy I cycled this road! I’ve seen and experienced the Alaska I came here for and now I can leave it with peace and satisfaction. Monday I’ll visit the ‘Lifeline Organization’ here in Fairbanks as a part of my suicide prevention mission. I am looking forward to learn about their work here in Alaska, where there’s a relatively high suicide rate.
After that I’ll head towards Canada!
Time for a new country that I’ll enter over the Top of the World highway!
Something in that name tells me there might be new adventures waiting for me.
More? Go to www.heravanwillick.nl or facebook.com/heravanwillick
note: pictures with a * are made by Holger Franz