A few hours later, I sat sipping water on the edge of my bed in the Eagle Plains Lodge. I had planned on sleeping in my tent for the duration of the trip but the promise of showering 3 days of grime off my body and a dry, bug free place to sleep had overwhelmed any qualms I had about breaking my pledge. I booked a room.
Traveling north from Dawson, Eagle Plains is the first sign of civilization on the Dempster. The highway is open year round and Eagle Plains serves both as a refueling point for vehicles and a refuge for travelers stranded by the nasty winter storms that sweep through this area. Chosen mainly for its roughly halfway location on the highway and its geology (building structures on permafrost is an expensive proposition and there is extensive exposed bedrock upon which to build here), it contains a motel, a small café/bar and a maintenance yard/garage. A lycra clad cyclist is sorely out of place here, a frivolous interloper riding a child’s toy in a workingman’s world of diesel smoke, rusted metal and blinding weld flash.
In my depleted state the only refueling I needed was food related as most of the 91 cents of unleaded gas I had purchased for my stove in Dawson was still sloshing around in my fuel canister. I had read during my trip preparation that they served a delicacy here known as the Eagle Burger: a monumental mound of beef, turkey and smoked pig topped with a fried egg. Unfortunately I had arrived late and the kitchen was closed. There would be no Eagle Burger for me. At least a barnyard massacre had been averted. The barkeeper took pity on me and threw together a couple of cold sandwiches from leftovers. After washing it all down with a few beers I retired to my room.
Sitting on the edge of my bed I thought about how close I had come to getting myself into trouble by not eating and drinking properly, a problem I have had over the years during my 12 and 24 hour solo races. I always get lost in the moment and forget to fuel. I also recalled all the incredibly stupid things I had done recently in pursuit of my cycling passion. I thought of loved ones I had wronged. I thought of how I continually isolate myself from everyone in my life in ever deepening cycles of cycling obsession from which I often have difficulty extracting myself all in the pursuit of some goal, be it a trip like this or a race. I wondered whether I had finally crossed the line into the realm of exercise addiction. I questioned whether it really mattered. Does cycling create such obsessive personalities or are those with one inexorably drawn to it like muskoxen to cold, barren places? Aaah, the Arctic had entered my metaphorical world.
The midnight sun shone through the window in my room. I smiled like the exercise junkie that I am as the food energy surged through my body. Deplete, replenish, rehydrate – we all know the cycle. The clouds had lifted and it looked like tomorrow was shaping up to be a good day to ride. Or was it already tomorrow? The passage of time in a land devoid of night played with my mind and I forgot about all the yesterdays and todays and vowed to get to the end of this road.
I was both excited and apprehensive to begin riding the next day. From what I could tell, this was to be the toughest day and I had just had difficulty with the previous, seemingly easier day. I needed to make the ferry across the Peel River that closed at 12:30AM in order to arrive at a developed campsite near Fort McPherson. I wanted to avoid sleeping along the road. This was to be the queen stage of my tour. I headed north with the road.
The Dempster was completed in 1979 and the raised roadbed (which insulates the road from the permafrost beneath to keep it from melting and disappearing into the summer muck) was sourced from local materials. A motorist might not notice it much, but to the cyclist the tenor of the road changes dramatically as you travel along it, sometimes from manic euphoria to somber reflection in the space of a few miles depending on where the gravel was quarried. It is a living breathing entity with moods to match. If you give it the opportunity it can read your soul.
Jack Kerouac once wrote “the experience of life is a regular series of deflections” from one’s goals. According to Kerouac, as one is deflected from a goal he or she establishes a new goal from which he or she is also inevitably deflected until one makes a complete circle that circumscribes one unknowable thing central to existence. Kerouac termed it “the circle of despair”. Long distance cyclists know it as their pedal stroke. As he put it, any attempt to avoid this circle will end in failure for, “the straight line will take you only to death.” The road rolled before me. I spun my pedals through their circles of despair but a smile was on my windburnt lips. In the distance I saw death chasing me along the straight sections of road and laughed in his direction. This is what it’s like to be healthy and alive. I ride a pale green horse and his name is Fargo. Jack may have spent a lot of time on the road, but he should’ve ridden a bike instead of driving a car. Maybe he wouldn’t have been so damn miserable.
I reached the first major goal of the day, the Arctic Circle. Much to my chagrin a motor home was parked there, the first (and only one it turned out) I had seen the entire trip. I was bummed as the loner in me wanted to experience this artificial line in total solitude for some reason – after all you only get to pedal across the Arctic Circle a few times in your life. I sat down on a rock and sullenly unpacked my camera for the money shot like an impetuous child.
Out of the motor home popped Hans, a fit looking older gentleman. He was about to start their generator so they could cook lunch and he didn’t want to startle me. Would I like to join them? I’m not sure he understood the calorie deficit I was approaching at this point in the trip so I practically leapt at the chance like a stray cat being offered a can of tuna.
Two retired couples were inside the motor home. A place at the table was already set for my stinking body. They were returning from Inuvik on their way back to British Columbia where they lived. They were practically out of food but had a spare hot dog or two to share. We made small talk for a while before Hans, after saying grace, said with a smile, “I used to be a cyclist. You must be hungry. Please have another hot dog”. Yes, he did understand the hunger of hours in the saddle. (thanks for taking this photo Hans, wherever you are. I don’t believe in god, but I believe in you – and thanks for the food!)
Continuing up the road I thought of why I had embarked on this trip in the first place. True, I love to ride my bike but I can do that anywhere. If I wanted to perfect my circle of despair I could take up track cycling and be able to see what was at the center of the velodrome anytime I wanted. Was I really trying to escape or was I looking for something? If so, what did I expect to find on what is not only a dead end road, but a dead end road with no intersections? Something was building here. I continued to spin my cranks forward to my fate.