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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