Even though I frequently read what others have to say about their own experiences, somehow when I go to write something about what I’ve done it always seems so, well I guess the best way to describe it is self-indulgent: I’m not sure why anyone would care what the hell I do. However, I’ve often found inspiration reading the experiences of others so in that spirit I post this little tale. Lately my thoughts have been returning to a day I had a few years ago, a day that I can’t seem to get out of my head. I’ve come to realize why: it was The Perfect Day. No question about it. Yes this is a lot of words about just one day, but Perfect Days seldom occur and when they do it is only with the right mindset. So if you have the time, read on.
All of us who ride a lot know that a bike can mean very different things to different people. To some a bike is an object of desire, something to be color coordinated and stressed over while determining the perfect frame material, the blingiest components or the optimal fractions of a degree on this angle or that for whatever our riding style may be. That’s all well and good and on occasion I’ve done the same. But with the accumulation of candles on the birthday cake funeral pyre I’ve noticed a change in my relationship with the bike. The bike has become more of a tool through which I experience life rather than something to be obsessed over. While this has always been true to some extent, recent events have accentuated this feeling for better or worse. My bikes get me places. Sometimes they even get me into trouble, and I’m not talking about crashing.
I’ll spare you the personal details of the past year of my life that lead up to The Perfect Day. We’ve all been where I was in some form or another. After all stupidity is one of the universal constants of human society, especially when applied to interpersonal relationships. Stupidity in midlife is virtually guaranteed, but when you finally realize that the soundtrack of your life is beginning to be written by Social Distortion it’s time to reexamine and perhaps change a few things. I know no better way to pause and reflect than to take a trip, the farther away the better. My mind was set. I needed to get away. A trip on a bike would be best. A solo trip would be sublime, it would give me time to think. I had never really done a “tour” but suddenly I wanted to try my hand at it.
I’d read about the Dempster Highway years ago and became obsessed with the idea of riding my bike its full length. A long and lonely dirt road that crosses the Arctic Circle in northern Canada with few towns along its path, the Dempster was always in the back of my mind whenever my thoughts turned to escaping. Originally built for oil and gas exploration, there is some traffic on this road (mainly huge trucks barreling at breakneck speed) but it is widely spaced over its length. The road crosses a few mountain ranges and lots of tundra before depositing itself on the expansive Mackenzie River Delta. It’s a wilderness of permafrost, grizzly bears and caribou with a human to mosquito ratio off the charts during the summer. You can’t get much farther from southern California culturally or climate-wise and I needed to get away. So I decided to ride from Dawson YT to the road’s end in Inuvik NT, just shy of 500 gravel miles to the north. I’d fly into Whitehorse, take a puddle jumper to Dawson, start riding and then fly home from Inuvik. I would go near the summer solstice in order to experience the midnight sun at its peak in this alien landscape.
Speaking of aliens, my tool for this trip would be a Salsa Fargo. Any bike whose name evokes such misery is a friend of mine. He’s half mt bike, half road bike and 100% mutant. He’s his own best friend. Here he is on a training ride before the trip (yes, there are 6 cupholders on that bike if you’re counting along at home):
He seemed the perfect bike for this trip. Nowhere else do you learn the rise and fall of the world as intimately as from the seat of a bike, and as any cyclist knows it’s not always pretty. Intimacy with place is something sorely missing from our highly technological society and bicycling at its best is about becoming one with your environment. It’s suffering every climb and pebble in the trail when you ride a rigid singlespeed, it’s the flow you can only feel when you hit a line on that difficult section of trail just right using all 6 inches of travel, it’s the brutal efficiency of a road bike coupled to the rise and fall of the hiss of traffic while riding to work early in the morning, it’s the give and take of a conversation and a moment shared with a friend while on a social ride. Through all of these different types of bicycling experiences there is an underlying theme, a cadence beyond the mere spinning of cranks. And whether it more closely resembles grinding slowly uphill or attempting to restrain the wildly spinning cranks of a fixie on a steep downhill, life undeniably has a cadence – its ups and downs.
And in case you’re wondering, yes I ride alone a lot
Anyway, in the interest of getting to The Perfect Day I’m going to fast forward a few days from my arrival in the Yukon. Fast forward through an 8 hr delay brought on by “an electronic problem” on a battered Air North Greyhound bus of a plane that forced a hasty emergency U-turn midair. Through incredible landscapes in wild country.
Through thousands of mosquito bites in serious grizzly country. Through 3 days of silent pedaling without any human interaction other than pleading (usually unsuccessfully) with my eyes to the drivers of oncoming bloodthirsty trucks to at least slow down before they showered me with gravel.
Then on the final “night” before I arrived at the halfway point (the sun had ceased setting by now, even in the gloom), a few hours of hard rain, a rapidly rising river and a poor choice of campsite had forced me to move my tent lest I be swept downriver. After all this I found myself poised for disaster at the end of a cold day about 40 miles shy of the Arctic Circle. Nearing the refuge of Eagle Plains, the only “town” for 250 miles, any thoughts of a perfect day were far from my mind at this point.
The road had followed the Continental Divide for miles. I had been a little slow in my ascent of “Seven Mile Hill” earlier in the day, as I had also been in climbing the several unnamed three and four mile hills that rolled into the distance after that one. Not having any sources of water along the divide to filter from had left me high and dry, even with all those water bottle cages. I had failed to restart my GPS at the beginning of the day and I had no idea how much further I had to travel in order to make it to Eagle Plains. As my cadence slowed under the weight of my gear my speed fell and the bloodthirsty swarms of mosquitos found my flesh. I lost my patience. I cursed my poor decisions as if I were on the business end of a karmic retribution of some sort. I stopped eating properly and bonked hard, all alone with my ungainly mule of a puke green bike in an endless expanse of uncaring tundra. I had started to fray at the edges.
Not really having much of a choice, I forced myself to keep pedaling and climbed with the road onto a ridgeline where the wind began to blow bitterly cold until my teeth began to chatter. At least most of the bugs were now gone. Gone also were any romantic notions of a trip in the wilderness alone with my thoughts. I had begun to find my intimacy with this place and was quickly learning it had teeth. Suddenly it was like that first day you look in the mirror while brushing your teeth and realize the face looking back at you is old – I was a little scared. The spin of my cadence rattled through the corners of the squares of my pedal stroke. What seemed like hours later I staggered into Eagle Plains wondering what the hell I was doing up here and how I was going to get to the end of this road.
By the end of the next day I would have my answer.