July 14, 2013 Alaska: First Riding Day


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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