Big Wide World

July 28, 2013 Day 15: Anchorage Express Heading Home

It was the coldest night I have experienced. I was shivering no matter how many layers I put on.  Lying in my cot, huddled in my sleeping bag bag - not even showing my nose, I remembered with regret that I was planning on taking my insulated winter cycling jacket with me. At 7 a.m., I got up from a restless night and took a hot shower, hoping to get warm.  Pete and Neil were eating breakfast at the picnic table outside.  I grabbed a coffee and joined them. We sat in silence, just occasionally breaking it for a meek conversation when Joan and Lisa spotted us.

Here we were 13 days and 480 miles later. We were companions through a physically and mentally challenging trip and about to return to our distinctly different lives.  There was so little and so much to express that we could not find the words. Small talk was safe.

Our train was leaving a little after noon, but we had to be there at 10 a.m. to crate our bicycles. Jamie did well given the strenuous terrain. Two broken vendors I fixed temporarily with wires and a lost screw.  No flats.  It felt weird to crate her.  I have not been separated from Jamie and her well-engineered design for two weeks.

Saying Good-Bye

We arrived after an eight-hour train ride in Anchorage.  During the ride, I was standing at the open wagon window feeling the sun and the cold air on my face.  Mount McKinley was slowly disappearing. Last glimpses of Alaska passed me like the silty rivers with floating trees.

At the station we mounted our bicycles for the last time and headed back to the hostel where some would stay one more night. Jon and I had to catch the midnight and 2 a.m. flights.  He was heading back to San Francisco.

Both of us rushed to break down the our bicycles at and pack them into the bicycle boxes.  I was struggling to take off the pedals and Joe had to help me.

We joined the group for our last supper of delicious pizza and salad before heading to the airport at 11 p.m.

The goodbyes were very sad. I could not find Lisa for a goodbye hug and was getting upset.  She did find me just before I was ready to jump into the cab.

I will miss Neil's dry, smart-ass humor, as well as Joe's foresight and help with all the mechanicals. Pete's stories about his cars and bikes. Joan's smiling face, even when it was hailing. Lisa's frank advice and her thoughtfulness. Ron's watchful eyes and generosity. Phil's jokes about how I should be used to gravel because of all the Brooklyn's potholes. The other Joe who is a super kick-ass cyclist and my hero. Gosh, cycling across America in 25 days!? Insane! I teased him that we should get together in 35 days.

I will miss Jon the most. We bonded initially over technology since we both work in similar fields. Our conversations graduated during the trip to deep topics about life and relationships. I'm glad that he was the last person I said goodbye to at the airport.

As I write this I have tears in my eyes from the amazing trip and thinking about the events.  How can someone really describe this experience? It pushed me to my limits in many ways. While sitting in the plane that will take me far away from what  just happened, I'm left with the memories of amazing landscapes and new friends.

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July 27, 2013 Day 14: Denali National Park

If I could have done anything differently  I would have planned my one day stay at the Denali National Park better. I played with a plane trip to Mount McKinley. It was dependent on whether or not the sky would be clear.  I did not make an alternative plan.

Everyone was busy at the tourist center finalizing plans for the next day.  The sightseeing offering was vast from Range Rover trips to see wildlife, hiking trips to unknown floras and kayaking down the river. I was still undecided. Fighting my physical exhaustion and desire to see more - to be in nature before I would return to the skyscraper jungle of New York.

Denali made me miss my childhood in Germany a lot, as well as my hiking trip to Austria. Alaska's landscape differs dramatically from the Alps due to its location on the longitude grade in the  coordinates. It has many pines and shrubs.

It was overcast when I woke up.  The flight was out.   I finally settled for an early afternoon hike with a park ranger.  It was just under a mile and using my legs for another activity would help with the soreness from the lactic acid built-up in the muscles.

During the hike, he told us about the history of the Denali National Park and the animals. The squirrels have a red coat from eating the pine trees nuts. He pointed out some rusty cans with his hiking stick and an old shoe laying 50 yards off the trail. They were considered historic since they were more than 50 years old.  It is prohibited to remove them and they have to be preserved for future generations.

At the end I asked him for another short hike and he recommended Savage Lake. It was one of the most beautiful hikes in the world, he said, and I thought, “If I cannot believe a park ranger who else could I trust?”

The Savage Lake hike is two simple miles along a creek that merged with a river downstream. It was gorgeous! The rocks flanking the creek formed more than 60,000 years ago.  Short grass was growing on the hills and some shrubs were in bloom.  I passed two fellow tourists who pointed out a couple mountain goats on a summit. From a distance they looked like small cotton balls. That would be the only wildlife sighting in Alaska for me.

On the way back to town I fell asleep. I was glad that I did not go on a more strenuous hike. In town I  ran into a couple guys from my group and we headed to the Salmon Bake for dinner.

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July 26, 2013 Day 13: Final Riding Day

It rained during the night, but stopped before breakfast. More rainfall is expected, but we can't complain since we've had beautiful weather every day except for the one where it rained and hailed. Alaska has summers where it just rains non-stop.

Our breakfast had the usual eggs, hash browns, oatmeal, ham, sausage, and bacon. I know it sounds like paradise, but I was getting sick of eating eggs and refined carbs every morning. On the counter was a basket of apples and bananas for $1.75 each. Fresh fruits were rare and a highly valued commodity on our trip. I added them to my oatmeal to avoid eating more refined sugars.

It rained pretty much the entire ride. I love riding in the rain. Nature is silent and only the monotonous sound of the rain interrupts it. I can lose myself in the fast rhythm of the the raindrops hitting the pavement. The lowered visibility and the isolation form an invisible wall protecting me from the reality. Jamie just runs on the wet surface making it easy to accelerate up to 16 mph, even with headwind.

Today, I was not wanting to go into this meditative state and just wanted to be done. Twenty-seven miles down and counting. I shifted into the wrong gear several times, making my climbs or descents harder than they should be.  Exhaustion was taking over. I visualized how nice it will be to arrive in Denali and not to have to be on Jamie for a day or two.  I was longing for the trip to be over and not a bit sad.

I got into Denali National Park at 3 p.m. as the last person. I may have caught up if I would have taken a shorter break at the cinnamon roll place or had I not cycled way past the campsite and had to turn back.

It is almost time for our final communal celebration dinner. My previous frustration left for an overwhelming sadness. There was just one more morning left where I would wake up to share breakfast with Joe or Phil, who have become my breakfast companions.  I've grown to appreciate their quiet, yet poignant sense of humor and friendly smiles.

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July 25, 2013 Day 12: Sore Arms and Cursing

Denali Highway Gravel Road
Denali Highway Gravel Road

I woke up lying in my cot dreading today's 52-mile ride with 49 of it on gravel.  Yesterday’s 21-mile ride climbing on gravel brought me almost to tears. While I was frustrated - fighting my exhaustion and the street conditions - I muttered over and over again that I have survived much worse in my life. It became like a chant in my head to make it to camp.

I took my time to get ready, taking down my tent and getting my bike loaded. Pete, our awesome tour leader, was riding sweep. Usually, as sweep he would have to wait for me to leave with him as the last person. Maybe he noticed my resistance or he gained enough confidence in me or he did not want to wait until noon to leave.

The first 20 miles were just up and down. “This is ridiculous!”  I have no clue how many times I repeated these words under my short breath. Within 200 yards, I would ride 50 yards down, 50 on even ground and then a very steep 100 yards up. It was a real roller-coaster ride, except my legs substituted for a nice motorized engine!

On a regular road surface I could gain enough momentum to get halfway up-hill. On gravel I had to slow down drastically to 7 mph (compared to 20-plus mph) to avoid holes and loose stones that may make me fly across the handle-bar or fall down with heavily loaded bike.

Jon, who mountain bikes in California, gave me some advice on how to use my disc brakes under rough road conditions. His advice helped me to avoid the worst by slowing down and stopping safely. Any drastic shift and turn would have turned Jamie and I over. I just held tightly onto my handlebar and hoped that, if I avoided any rapid movement, I would remain on the top of the bike.

 

I am tougher than I thought….

There were no beer or pie stops and no filtered water access for 52 miles. Pete and Joe carried water pumps, yet the water was even too silty to be filtered. I must have drank about a gallon of water with all the climbs and the heat.

Today I learned that I am a much stronger rider than I previously thought. Even though I am a slow climber, I surpassed the stragglers and caught up with the front of the group where the 30s were. I left at least an hour later and took numerous long breaks throughout the day.

Jessie and I led the group for 15 miles. He is stronger and stayed a tiny bit ahead of me. The hills, both downhill and uphill, gave him the advantage to pull away. Going downhill, I was too scared to push 30 mph and stayed at a max of 21 mph.

I slowed down the last 10 miles and let the group pass me, trying to enjoy the last hours of the ride and hoping to get a glance of Mt. McKinley in the distance.  It was too cloudy to see it though.

When I arrived at the campsite I could only think of pitching my tent and going to bed. We ate dinner at another local place before I fell asleep at 9:30 p.m. There was no attempt to stay up and join for a drink. Sleep sounded too good.

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July 24, 2013 Day 11: DUI, Drinking Binges, Zombies, Fatigue, and Painkiller.

If an Alaskan has a DUI, the driver’s license carries a mark that says he or she cannot be served alcohol.  After three DUIs and three marks the license is revoked, forcing the offender to use just a regular state ID. He is prohibited by law to enter any business premise that serves or has alcohol. I learned about it one night when another bartender asked me again for my driver’s license. Over the last week we blended with our environment in behavior and appearances, if one goes beyond our super-tight cycling spandex. The guys stopped shaving and had three-plus day beards and lots of stubble.  As each night and day crept up earlier in the afternoons, we congregated at the bars on our way to the next camp site. Beer and pie were ordered at once.  Now, instead of slices, we ordered entire pies.

It was only 40 miles to get to Gracious House! No one knew how much gravel, sharp downhills and continuous cycling would impact everyone - including the five of us who are just in our 30’s. We were fatigued when we arrived at 5 p.m. By 10 p.m. everyone was in their tents, deep asleep or resting. Neil, Joe and I were still at the bar, barely conscious, having absurd conversations one only has when one is close to collapse. Everything and anything seems to be hilarious and significant.  Exhaustion is a fantastic drug for hallucinations.

Being at Gracious Home fueled our imaginations late at night. It was an odd place: a huge outdoor attic with relics from various times. One could find anything there from trailers, lodges, tires, fences with antlers, motorcycles, a couple trucks, helicopters and a random airplane.  It was also one of the few lodges that remains open during the cold winters, only accessible by snow mobiles or dog sleds.

A perfect set for a low-budget horror movie where researchers get attacked by grizzly bears or zombies during the cold winter months. They would struggle in the darkness to find a way to escape via the plane. In the meantime, mutated zombie bears would attack them.  Several would die before arriving to find out that the gas in the tank was frozen. They would be found many years later. The end.

 

Archaeologists, Helicopter and Obliviousness

Breakfast was in a megatrailer with white plastic-looking walls, cheap carpeting, a row of white foldable tables and chairs with no windows.  I imagined that I was a big part of an experimental science project with an unknown outcome.  Several other groups were randomly dispersed at the tables waiting for their turn to have breakfast.  They were in quiet murmured conversations.

Next to us were some geologists and archaeologists. We had admired their helicopters the night before. Their job was to preserve Alaska for future generations by flying and checking out areas where corporations were planning to build or change the landscape. If they found a potential historic site,  the company would need to pay to further investigate or select another piece of land and repeat the same process.

The arrival of Joan and Lisa lifted our mood and our hushed conversations. All of us were tired and on drugs by now - I mean painkillers like aspirin, Tylenol and its cousins. Joan, however, is one of the natural highs on the trip. Her chipper attitude and her bright smile and spirit can motivate anyone! Supported by the steady pace of Lisa and Ron, all three kept the touring spirit going.

You just had to love it, especially in the morning when it was hard to hit the road. They keep it real.

Our trip was coming closer to its end.  Denali National Park was three days away and the excitement to finally see it was rising rapidly. Except, Neil and I had no idea what was so amazing about it. Neither he nor I did any research and we just kind of thought, "Oh, Alaska, cool… Cycling, nature, and a resting day in Denali National Park. Sounds fun." Neil thought he'd do laundry, while I contemplated where to get espresso and read. In summation, we had no clue that we would see one of the highest mountains in North America - “Mount McKinley” - and one of the most stunning national parks.

We all had mixed feeling. I was sad and deeply grateful for the wonderful scenery I witnessed on this trip. Yet, I was relieved thinking of not having to ride each day and instead be soaking in a hot bath, getting a manicure/pedicure while sipping a cappuccino in NYC. My girly side slowly emerged and was getting fed up with dry hands and looking like a grizzly bear each day.

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July 23, 2013 Day 10: Reputation Management

Labels - we are all getting labeled when we are in a group.  Mine were for owning the road, being the last person to leave camp and for ending up in long conversations with strangers.  I was proud for my new labels, especially for my conversations! I've met some very interesting people so far.

Robert stood at my campsite entrance with his beautiful collie. The site was an opening on very rough and stony ground between short, scrubby looking shrubs. It felt very desolated. Walking toward my site our colorful and bright tents poked out like small, little aliens from a distance. He watched me quietly while I was approaching. I was going to break down my tent to leave.

He had a warm smile and appeared to be in his late fifties with withered face and white hair. Both of them were extremely well groomed and, except for his clothing, nothing would make me think of him as homeless. The group, though, would refer to him later as the “homeless guy” in a condescending manner.

He shared his simple life motto with me: right, wrong, good, bad. At first I interpreted this in the biblical way and waited for him to elaborate and hoped he would not try to convert me. “Life is very simple,” he explained. “Everything boils down to human respect and our gut feeling - if it's either right or wrong, harmful or beneficial. We feel it before we can accept it. Life is too fast and we don't stop to observe anymore. People reveal so much about themselves nonverbally when we pay attention.”

I left Robert with heavy thoughts about life and humanity while I entered the first of 120 unpaved miles of the Denali Highway.

The loose gravel worried me. I was at 6 mph flat and maxing out at 12 mph going downhill, fearing I may fly off the bike. Once I shifted the gears too fast and almost fell.  As memories, I got a few new bruises on my left leg.

We did reach the second highest point of the Denali Highway. Each day it seems as we are reaching another high point with another gorgeous and surreal view on the glaciers.

Our overnight camp was at a sled dog rescue with cabins. The owners, an ex-model and her husband, rescue sled dogs and rehabilitate them. The model used to be a close friend of Lucas, yet, when I mentioned his name, her eyes had a very distant and stand-offish look.

After dinner, across the river from the dog rescue, we met a few locals and played penny poker.  It reminded me of one the nights with my friends in Germany when I was 13 years old. It was the perfect ending to my day: being lost in my memories after the heavy start thinking about life.

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July 21, 2013 Day 8 Epilogue: Chivalry: (Maybe Not) A Dying Art

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New York is known for its cynical women.  The stereotype says that we expect the worst of them. The show/movie Sex in the City is a pretty close portrayal of dating in NYC.

I would never have thought of Alaska as a place with smoking hot, attractive young men who are charming and extremely polite. Maybe the disparity between the male and female ratio may bring out even more chivalry. Or, I am still a cynical New Yorker who is not used to sheer human kindness.

Here I was, sharing time and space with other men without having any expectations or worries. I felt free to be me: no pressure or need to guard myself.

Like Chris, tonight, Lucas came to help me and share a bit of himself. He helped me get Jamie and my heavy, loaded panniers to my cabin and invited me to join them later at the bar for dinner. After I rested and finally reached normal body temperature, I went over to the other building where the bar was located.

His story started in Minnesota, but he moved to Alaska to join his friends who had a dog rescue a few miles (few miles are 50-plus miles in Alaska) down the road.  Apparently, something tragic happened that ruined the friendship and left him stranded at the lake campgrounds.  It took a while for him to recover. He found various ways to make his living and eventually built his own lodge.  He was just 3-4 years younger than me and yet so content with his life (except for the lack of women). His love was his dogs, cycling in the morning and working outdoors.  That is what life and happiness meant to him.  I was truly jealous that he knew what life was about for him.

At the end of the evening he invited me to join his friends at a bonfire at his lodge. It was tempting and sounded so romantic - Alaska, the wilderness, a lodge and beer at night (hopefully without a bear!).  It deeply  saddened me to decline it.

He gave me a hand kiss and in the morning, cycled with me to the lodge where I would meet up with my group. There was no cynicism in our flirtation and not followed by the typical NYC offer “to go to your place or mine?"

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July 22, 2013 Day 9: Passing Out is Not an Option

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The group was already having a second breakfast when Lucas and me arrived at a lodge 13 miles down the road.  We leaned the bikes against the stone wall and talked quietly before walking up the steps to the terrace where the group was sitting inside.

The older men of our group gave me an amused smile, and the younger ones could not stop making innuendos.  Lucas was uncomfortable and left pretty rapidly.  I saw him cycling away through the big windows along the winding down pine covered road.

I stayed longer worried if I could make the trip today.  The short 13 miles already wore me out and I had many more miles to go.  I finally got on the road alone.  After a few hundred feet of climbing  my blood pressure dropped, my vision got blurry. Worried that I may pass out I got off my bike and sat down on the street side.  I felt  embarrassed and weak about being 36 and not having the strength to do this trip.

I lied down waiting for the dizziness to subside when I remembered that I had some Pro Bar Bolt Organic Energy Chews. Slowly chewing them my sugar levels (or nutrients) slowly returned and I felt sturdier on my feet.

The rest of the day would continue to be hilly for another 10 miles.  I must have been at 3 mphs and I did not care.

Alaska was all of that what I imagined today (besides the passing out) cycling in an open untouched landscape. In the distance were lakes that emerged from the glaciers 8,000 years ago. The mountains were snow covered. The vegetation were deep green and yet sparse.  It was quiet besides the whistling sound of the headwind that slowed me down even more.

When I reached Lisa and Joan they told me with excited voices that a live bear crossed the road  in front of them within 10 feet. It happened all so fast that they did not have a chance to photograph him.

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July 21, 2013 Day 8, Part I: Oh, What the Hail

Today was the longest ride with 60 miles on the cue sheet.  There were a few climbs ahead and none of my training in New York, Jersey or Pennsylvania have really prepared me for what I was about to face. Climbs in Alaska seem endless. Once I started I would need to mash at 3-5 mph until reaching  the top. The grades are steep and stopping was more futile.  Kicking off would be at an angle to the grade just  get back on.  My quads were burning. Lisa, Joan, Ron and I were climbing another monster hill  when it started to rain.  It started very light, and I did not think that I needed my rain coat when it came down close to reaching the peak.  The sky was black and we felt the wind pushing the rain against us.  I jumped down from Jamie and grabbed my coat, but I was already drenched. The road conditions also deteriorated, becoming more of an uneven surface with a lot of gravel.

We continued slowly, reaching the peak and the sun came out.  The sky just disappeared as fast as it started. It got hot, sweltering, humid and we all stripped back down when suddenly gray clouds of mosquito swarms attacked us. Quickly, we pulled out our mosquito net and put it over our helmets.  There were so many of them that I resisted drinking under the scorching sun  to avoid lifting the net.

In the distance I again saw some dark clouds.  They were ahead of of me on the next peak. I was on my own when the sky turned again and this time pea-sized hail shot down on me rapidly. They were very painful and there was no shelter in sight.  The road was lined with small, stubby pine trees.  I had to keep on cycling and all I could think about was protecting my eyes. I stared down at the road and hoped my glasses would be enough protection.

After unrelenting 10 minutes the hail subsided when I was going down the hill.  Snow covered-mountains were in front of me.  The sun was breaking through the clouds and reflected off the road. The world changed within a few seconds.

 

Hypothermia and Bailing Out.

My feet were soaked. The fancy waterproof hiking shoes were definitely false advertisement. I tried to change my socks and dry off at one of our lodge stops.  I hoped drinking warm tea and pie would cure anything, but I remained very cold and started to shiver.

The last climb for the day was short and brutal under a beautiful sunny sky. I arrived at the lodge, waiting for Joan, Lisa and Ron to catch up with me.  They weren’t far behind me. I was still very cold and now exhausted - Jamie looked the same way as I felt. Her chain was dirty and I had to peddle twice as hard. I changed into a dry set of clothing, ordered an Irish coffee and waited to finally warm up again.

When Lisa, Joan, and Ron arrived, they looked at me and were worried. I must have been pale and shaking. We had just seven miles left to the campground at the lake.  It was supposed to be the best campground on the trip.

I really wanted to finish, but I had to admit that getting sick would be much worse than to bail and stay overnight at the lodge.  I  took a very long hot shower just to warm up, but even then was still freezing.  The heat was turned off, and I turned it up to the maximum. Covered in all the bed sheets, I finally reached normal body temperature after two hours. I quickly fell asleep to the low voices of an HBO movie. Some man trying to kill a woman.

 

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July 19, 2013 Day 6: Cycling with an Open Mouth Might be Dangerous

Fatigue is setting in. Comfort and intimacy are forming within the group. Conversations are shifting from what-do-you do to sharing thoughts and having practical fun. We are all way past small talk.

Sitting at the campground over oatmeal and coffee, covered from head to toe in DEET and mosquito jump suits, our conversation shifted to mosquitos and our mosquito-phobias.

Tom’s ex-wife loved to torture them. She would blow against the mosquito net to attract them via her carbon dioxide emission. They would furiously try to poke their proboscis through the net and she would bend them. She was fascinated watching them struggle to straighten themselves out. Joe, the explorer type, uses binoculars to watch the mosquitos at mega-life size. Jesse was simply impressed that they could be one inch long in Alaska.

We were in Alaska's mosquito paradise, so there were plenty of them for everybody to find their own methods of enjoying or torturing them.

Along with the mosquito swarms that may just appear, we also had plenty of bees. On my way to Glen Ridge, bees and other insects bumped into every part of my body: elbows, legs, face and arms. And when a bee hits your face at 19 mph it hurts like a small stone!

After a short stop at the Black Bear Lodge, we arrived at Glen Allen, which was a dry (and pieless town) so we had to booze up a bit before entering. It would be our rest stop for one day to recover and take care of basic needs such as doing laundry and sleeping.

Cooking Duty And Good-Bye Andre.

Phil and I were in charge of cooking dinner tonight.   In my panniers I had now the thawed salmon and halibut from Maple. We were not sure how to cook that much fish without a proper stove, grill or oven. We unloaded our bikes and ventured back to Glen Allen’s little town center to see what we could find.

Phil was in charge of vegetables and I settled for wrapping the salmon in a salt crust so I could toss them into hot coals in an open fire pit. Both of us were stressed about feeding 15 hungry people. To him the challenge was cooking for that many people, while for me it was not having a proper stove and kitchen. After a couple of hiccups, discussion, and heated moments, we served dinner two hours late.

It was our last night with Andre, who joined us a few days ago. He became 16 and an official member after we met him a up a few nights ago at the bar. From Brazil, he was cycling on a self-contained tour back via Canada, the continental USA and central America.

We were sad. Over the last few nights we have gotten used to the comfortable familiarity of meeting him at our campgrounds - sharing laughter over drinks and meals. He has the most beautiful and contagious smile with sparkling white teeth that I've ever seen. He would be perfect for a Colgate commercial ;).

It started to rain toward the night - our first rain since we set out on our tour. Rain is unusual for Alaska and the season.

I fell asleep immediately after dinner from exhaustion. The last thing I remembered was spraying myself with DEET and listening to the mosquitoes buzzing around my tent. In my semi-delirious state, fueled by my irrational fear of mosquito bites, my mind wandered thinking about what might happen if one got trapped in my sleeping bag. How many times can a mosquito sting before dying? I fell asleep listening to Billie Holiday.

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July 18, 2013 Day 5: Cruising Along

There is a great saying that the beauty of cycling is that it can be a group sport or solo sport. Today it was more of a solo sport. I was very exhausted from the last few days.  Sore and sleepy and not really in the mood to have company. During our morning cue sheet review, Pete mentioned a few hills until we get to Grand View. The rest of today’s ride would be flat. I was so happy to hear the word “flat.”

It was a rocking cycling day. I listened to my pretty shabby music selection, singing along while no one next to me. The music kept me at a fast and consistent pace of 19 mph on flats and 7-8 mph on hills.  When I saw a lodge I stopped to try their pies. It seems to be the big thing here in Alaska and each lodge has its own homemade pie. I am sure there is a map just for the best pies in Alaska.

We arrived at the Grand View after climbing another killer incline. I surprised myself with how strong and determined I was to pedal up each hill. It was completely worth the suffering. We were surrounded by snow-covered mountain peaks with a magnificent view of the valley.

In the evening I arrived only 15 minutes late to camp. It surprised me since I left 2-3 hours after the rest of the group that morning. Our campsite was a part of a lodge. It was quite different from the other places we've stayed. It reminded me of a Vermont lodge with its rustic decor, stone walls,  romantic fireplace, several dining rooms and greenhouse where Maple, the lodge innkeeper, grew all of the vegetables for our dinner.

In the morning, Maple sold me about 5 pounds of fresh Alaskan salmon (king) for Phil and I, who had cooking duties.  She told us that most Alaskan salmon is shipped off so that Alaskans can only buy imported salmon or go fishing for it.

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July 17, 2013 Day 4: Not All Miles are Created Equal

It should have been an easy 33-mile day, but I did not consult the cue sheet in advance to check on the degree of the in-climbs.  Ignorance is bliss!  They were 4 to 11 percent steep and that continued for miles. The first 10 miles we were just going up and up. I was in my granny gear at 3 mph, cursing and scared that I wouldn’t be able to manage the whole trip.  I really had no choice because there was no SAG (van) that could pick me up.

While I was climbing up one of the hills, a truck passed me when I had just about reached the top.  I was completely dehydrated and exhausted when he honked his horn.  Looking up into his mirrors, I saw him smile, wave and give me a thumbs-up. This little gesture meant everything to me when I was so close of giving up.

After each hill we climbed, we were rewarded with an amazing view. Rolling hills and snow-covered mountains made each mile, and every lost drop of sweat, worthwhile. This definitely beats climbing hills in New Jersey where the only view is of another hill.

When I stopped to take some photos, I saw a car that had completely flipped over. It was hanging in the tree branches below the road. The drop was steep at my right shoulder. The car was in such bad shape that I don't think the driver could have survived.

It was nerve-racking to cycle along these edges. Going downhill at 35 mph with a heavy, fully loaded bike.  It would not take much to veer off the road. I started cycling in the middle just in case I would lose control of my bicycle.

On the top of the Glacier

We planned for an excursion: a Glacier Hike. The last time I was on a glacier was when I was in Austria at 13 years old.  I remembered vaguely how difficult it was to walk on ice and was just not sure what to expect.

Our handsome guide, Richard, outfitted us with “crampons.” We had to chuckle about that name - I mean how did they come up with that?! Apparently, the name comes from France!  Crampons (for my non-outdoorsy friends) are little spikes that attach to boots and provide extra traction on an icy surface. They would be great for the NYC winters as well.  I have fallen down way too many times when it gets slippery there.

We had some challenges to get used walking in them.  Some people fell over trying to reach the top, so I suggested trying to walk like a pregnant woman: spreading the legs to balance the weight better. It was pretty amusing to see the everyone’s reaction to my comment.

Finally, we arrived on the glacier. It was breathtaking, undescribable and beautiful! It even had me thinking about learning mountaineering! The blue ice just unfolded in front of us for miles.  The springs of melted glacier water, combined with the purity of the ice and the sun refraction made it surreal. None of the photographs in National Geographic compare to it.

Richard and Kate, our guides, provided some more scientific information about the formation of the glaciers.  The ice is intersected by thin lines of deep blue water. When the glacier melts and refreezes, the melting lines become deep blue because of the purity of the water. The layers of mud below the glacier lead to the  shifting and melting of the glaciers. The more a glacier melts, the more the mud  pushes up.

It was very disturbing and upsetting when Richard showed us how much the glacier has melted in the last few years. The current glacier, which is about 21 miles long and maybe 60 feet deep, is melting 15 feet every year. It might not be long before I say, "Back in my day we had these things called glaciers.”

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July 15, 2013 Day 2: Going Local

Who knew that loading a bicycle with panniers and a sleeping bag is so difficult!

We started to take down our camp and reload the bicycles.  Jamie tipped over as soon as I attached one pannier.  How the hell will I manage this for 14 days? I thought to lean her against the floor and attach the other pannier.

In the distance I saw how one of the other members leaned their bicycle against the picnic table.  Neil, from Vermont, attached the sleeping bag to the sides of the panniers to balance the weight better.

The day before I was struggling with the sleeping bag weight on the top of my back rack.  It seemed like a brilliant solution and I quickly imitated both.

What is a city chick to do in the wilderness!

I knew camping would be tough for me.  I do love my firm mattress with the pillowtop.  Sleeping on the ground and feeling small, tiny rocks in my back already worried me when I started planning. On the web, I found a light-weight foldable cot that weighed only 2 pounds.  It was probably one of the best investments I made.

Breakfast would be another adjustment.  I could not escape my desire to have a soy milk latte with cinnamon, even though I knew I was in a rural area and this made me look like a spoiled “Brooklynite.”  It would take a while to get comfortable with roughing it.

Today would be the last day close to a town for a while.  Before there would be no soy milk lattes for sure, I decided to take off and treat myself to a nice breakfast in Palmer.

Small town Alaska: Palmer.

In my mind I expected to find a deserted little diner.  It was 10:30 a.m. when I walked into the Valley Inn. The quaint place was bustling with people having breakfast like it was a Sunday brunch service, instead of a Monday. I did not expect it and it caught me completely off guard.

I was disoriented and was not sure how to interpret the situation: I was surrounded by teenagers and adults.  I would have expected students to be at school and adults to be working. The menu was expensive ($16 for an omlette).  The houses in Palmer were small and some were shabby looking. There were also plenty of trailers.  How could they afford these prices?  Were they tourists like me?  It seemed as though they knew each other.

Back in the Saddle-heading to Mountain View

I cycled with Joan and Lisa for a while after I caught up with them since they left camp before me.  They remind me a lot of the Five Borough Bicycle Club (5BBC) cyclists: meanderers who did not mind stopping, enjoying the landscape and eating.

On the ride I observed an emerging pattern that started to worry me a bit. I passed by many correctional facilities and churches. If there was a jail, it seemed as if a church would appear shortly thereafter, then another jail and church. It seemed like a disproportionate amount compared to its population.

It made me wonder what the natural order is in Alaska. Do Alaskans go to church, then to a bar and then to jail? Or, maybe, they go to a bar, then jail, and then redeem their souls at church?

Alpaca, and Pies!

Toward the afternoon we stopped at a very cool RV park with old bicycles and who knows what. Pete, our fearless leader, marked on our cue sheet that this place would have amazing ice cream. I hoped to find some pie in the diner!

When we were about to leave I saw a beautiful hand-knit scarf and a hoodie with a sign that read, “Made by Jill."  Jill, the owner's wife, told us the story of her scarves. She made them out of the wool from her Alpacas.

We suddenly found ourselves what felt like a different time in history. It could have been the 1920s. She sheers the alpaca wool, washes it, combs it with a machine and then uses a spinning wheel to make the wool before hand-knitting the scarves. I was floored that she still takes the time to maintain such a precious craft.

Joan, Lisa and I went to the backyard to see the alpacas and passed some free-range turkeys — and they got pissed off and followed us! We did not know how to escape them. Everyone has warned of the bears, but not of free-range angry turkeys. In my mind I read the local headlines: "Chinese Chick Attacked by Turkeys and not by Bears."

Single Life and a Alaskan Mining Tradition

After dinner, we all headed over to a local bar -- the only one for a few miles. I met Chris there, who is from Fairbanks, works at the bar and does construction work to support himself.  We chatted about how difficult it was to meet single women in Alaska. He said if he wants to date, he has to drive all the way to Anchorage. There was only one single woman in his neck of the woods and he said she is gay. It was very touching hearing this, as I was coming from one of the biggest cities in the world that is bustling with single men and women. They might be as alone, but have at least an option to meet.

Behind the bar I noticed many dollar bills stapled to the walls and the ceiling.  I asked the bartender about their purpose. He said in the old days, miners would stop by the bar before work, write their name on a dollar bill and pin it up to make sure they would have a dollar for their drinks after work. Tourists have now adopted that custom.

My favorite days are the ones where I can meet locals and hear their stories. Chris taught me that night to box with the punching bag located in the back or the bar. He also showed me some of the local fire engines that were hidden in the barn and must have been from 1960s or ‘70s. And how smoked-salmon-flavored vodka from the Alaska distillery tasted.

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July 14, 2013 Alaska: First Riding Day

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Today ended with another long night. I did not feel comfortable sleeping in a hostel. It might be construed as snooty behavior because I've become dependent on the convenience of Priceline to find a last minute hotel deal. The last time I stayed in a hostel was as a teenager in Germany.  I remember the white walls, bunk beds and uniform looking tables and chairs. Random memories of lights out and poker games under flashlights came back to me, along with sneaking into the guys’ rooms.

What about an American Hostel?

Some of my friends would rather stay at a hostel where they can meet new people and share travel adventures. I prefer the amenities offered by a hotel: the impersonal atmosphere with the delusion of cleanliness.  Many studies have disproved that hotels are clean. I guess I am paying for the comfort of knowing that room service and a bar are just a call or a few steps away.

That said, the Spenard Hostel in Anchorage is a charming place with a welcoming staff.  There were white walls, but randomly put together furniture that made it feel like a fancy college dormitory.  There were also two kitchens where travelers could cook meals, as well as a laundry room to wash dirty clothes.  All the necessities were provided.  The only drawback was the dust level, but I have yet to encounter a dust-free hostel outside of Germany and Switzerland.

The Next Morning-First Riding Day and Show-Off Time

In the city, we check out what other people are wearing. But among cyclists the most important thing is -- “What’s your ride?” All types of touring bikes were present, from my Jamis Touring “Jamie” to the Surly Long Haul Trucker in various models and years.  And each cyclist (except me since I had no idea) approved or showed disapproval with a faint smile or neutral expression that indicated disdain.

The first few miles on a loaded bicycle are terrifying. I have not been on Jamie with an additional 40-plus pound for a few months. The two back panniers, sleeping bag, tent and other gears made me wonder when I would lose balance and fall, either to my right or left. It is a wobbly business!

It took a few miles before I gained my confidence and could go a steady 13 to 15 miles per hour and leave Anchorage behind.  We slowly made our way and found our place within our pack like all herd animals. The pecking order is always based on each rider's speed and style. I tend to ride at end of the front, just before the middle.  It makes me feel as if I am strong enough to keep up, but it doesn’t make me a leader.

The landscape changed and plants are gigantic (and apparently without Monsanto’s help).  We all hoped to see wildlife deeper into the tour. Yet, unexpectedly a moose and her calves jumped in front of our group!  The riders up front were startled and came to an abrupt stop, but after the initial shock they rushed to get their cameras out of their panniers to take photos.

I started to lose my herd position and fell behind when I saw a coffee shop sign 15 miles into the ride.  For anyone, who has not ridden with me, I stop for anything that says “Coffee” and “Pie,” especially when it says “HOMEMADE.”  Hell, if need be, I would even balance a homemade pie on my helmet to take it with me if there would be no rack space left.

Bonding, Churches and Liquor Stores

Joan, Lisa and Joe L. joined me for coffee. It was my first bonding experience with some of my co-riders.  Joan and Lisa are from Florida and be-friended each other before going on the trip.  Joe L. is the sweep, works as tour co-leader and also modifies bicycles for handicapped people. FYI: For all non-cyclists, the sweep is the last person in a cycling group. He or she makes sure we do not lose people on the ride to a grizzly bear or a turn down a wrong path.

When we returned to cycling, we had lost the front and middle, so we rode together as the tail followed our cue sheet.  A pattern of a church, followed by a liquor store emerged along the road. I started to wonder if people drink before church or after.  Or if they saw drinking as their salvation.

I was in search of a restroom when I decided to stop at a raunchy looking bar at the side of the highway.  It was a small wood shack with a motel against the pine forest.  It felt like a movie prop left by John Wayne 50 or 60 years ago.  Two heavy motorcycles were standing in front of it. I wondered if I would enter and exit that bar safely.

While I was exploring the bar and looking for the restroom, Joe L. continued to explore the road where I turned off to get to the bar.  When I came out, I saw Lisa and Joan and waved them toward the bar. In the meantime, they told me that Joe L. had gone to the huge church that was next to the bar (as I said, church-bar-church-bar).

There he met Chris, a member of the church, who asked us to have lunch on their picnic table in the grass field behind the church. Chris joined in and I was reluctant because I have experienced too many church members trying to convert me when I lived in the Midwest. Chris was no exception. Fortunately, Joan sensed my distress and came to my rescue. She changed the conversation so elegantly that I was truly impressed.

Alaska revealed its true beauty after lunch. The landscape opened up with snow-covered peaks, winding roads and an abandoned bridge that must have been a highway in its past life. It was so spectacular that we could not stop saying, “this is just beautiful,” during the entire five minutes.

I have a love-hate relationship with the first days of any trip: still mentally held captive by NYC references, trying to leave it and wanting to submerge myself into the new experience and a different mindset.  But my mind still does not let go easily. We were cycling past a sign that read “12.5 AC.” I keep playing with it in my mind what it might mean. A/C stands for air conditioner and is desperately needed in July in NYC, but that hardly applies to Alaska. The idea started to spin out and I asked myself absurd questions about the meaning of AC, but what else do you have to do when cycling for miles. Finally, I asked toward the end of the day and I learned that AC stands for acres.

Around 5 p.m. we rolled into camp and started setting up. I figured out how to pitch a tent successfully, though some friends in NYC had their doubts. For my cyclist friends, today was a pretty easy 50-mile day.

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