So how do you finish a perfect day? As with life, in the end you finish it alone.
Riding away from my Scottish friends, I entered the golden hours. Photographers in lower latitudes might know it as the (singular) golden hour, that perfect window of time when soft and diffuse light caresses the land at just the right angle. In trauma medicine, the golden hour is also sometimes referred to as that critical time period in which an individual requires treatment in order to fully recover down the road. If you don’t receive the proper care, you may live for a while but your chances of a full recovery are reduced significantly. Up here at this time of year, my golden hours would be long. My shadow ran ahead.
I would spend the remainder of the hours of that day completely alone. I saw no cars or trucks or signs of humanity other than the road. I did not think. I pedaled my bike. The repetition of my movement and the rhythmic travel over the land mediated a sort of visceral exchange between the outer, physical geography and my inner spiritual landscape. I climbed more mountains.
I screamed down the back side of each at 40 mph dancing lightly on the loose gravel. I had given up trying to “make time” in order to catch the last ferry over the Peel River. I was going fast because I could. I had no idea where I was going to sleep nor did I care. I was bone tired yet my legs held tremendous power. I had no concern that I would not make it to where I needed to go that evening, instinctively I knew where I was headed.
My final hours ran along a high ridgeline pockmarked with bogs. All the thought and reflection in this world was in the rhythm of my wheels. Spurred on by the force of my pedaling, the sun swung to its lowest point then began its slow climb toward tomorrow. It seemed the world required me to propel it along since no one else was around to keep it going. The outward reality of the world, through repetition and motion became a mirror for the inner terrain of my soul – it was written in the sky. Not once did I feel alone. I was completely in the zone and dared not stop pedaling in fear that the world would fall apart.
Some time later I threw my tent down beside the road in a swarm of mosquitoes (you can see some of the cloud in this pic if you look really close) and slept. I couldn’t go any further as the ferry was closed for the night. It was the finish of a 16 hour day on the bike, the end of The Perfect Day.
Of course I had no idea that it had been a perfect day until 3 days later as I lay in my tent in Inuvik trying to sleep. The wealth gained from a journey must always be measured in the right perspective. I had camped in a place called “Happy Valley” which was within walking distance of downtown. The weather had turned cold and nasty. It was somewhere around midnight and my flight back to Whitehorse was scheduled for the next morning. I had just returned from a flight and a visit to the Inuvialuit community of Tuktoyaktuk on the Beaufort Sea. During winter an ice road completes the 120 miles from Inuvik to Tuk so I felt like I had reached the end. You can get further north to take a mundane “shivering tourist standing in front of a sign pic”, but you really have to work for it.
Alone in my tent, I thought of how the further north I had ridden the more communities I had encountered. For some reason I had this idea in my head that as I traveled north I would encounter fewer and fewer people until I reached Inuvik. The opposite was true. On the day after the Perfect Day, I had stopped in Fort McPherson (population 800) and since then the traffic on the road had only increased. It was still a trickle, mind you, but I had seen a few cars about twice an hour with the flow of traffic largely regulated by the ferries used to cross the major rivers such as the one at Tsiigehtchic. They traveled in bunches based on how many had been on the ferry.
In my tent, I thought of how my side trip to Fort McPherson had been an eye opener. I’ve been to Lower Canada many times, but Canada’s north is still a frontier. It may have been a beautiful day but I had seen poverty and despair in Fort McPherson. Trash blew in the streets. Someone ran a stop sign and nearly ran me over. Perhaps it had something to do with the isolation and events of the past days but I was happy to jump back on my bike and pedal away. This was not the Canada I was familiar with.
Shivering in my tent on the final night, I thought about how hot it had been on the flats of the delta a few days ago. In addition to the mosquitoes, along this stretch a new admirer had found me: huge deer flies. They had hovered about me like sea gulls around a trawler; I carried forth a tiny solar system of flies with each spin of my pedals. For some reason they had only occasionally stolen a chunk of my flesh as if they were unsure this odd beast with the whirling legs was edible. If they had been more persistent I’m not sure what I would have done. I suspect all I could have done was bleed. Sometimes one needs to face facts and accept things for what they are. The water I filtered from beside the road along this stretch was brown with peat but I drank it anyway.
I remembered how it had felt to be done with the mountains and to be entering the delta of the Mackenzie River. The gravel had been soft, the road straight and long with rollers just high enough to obscure the view over the next rise. The rollers of the delta never ceased. Stopping to rest for a moment, I had looked back to the Richardson Mts where I had spent my Perfect Day.
Looking ahead from the same spot, I had witnessed the increasing desperation I felt with the Dempster dissolving into the horizon. How can something increase yet dissolve? As with despair and poverty, it’s a matter of perspective I suppose and as my mind tried to grasp the concept it ran on down the road. At this point I just wanted to get this thing done with.
I thought of these things as I lay staring at the roof of my tent listening to the sounds of Inuvik at midnight. Inuvik is a large town of 3500 and it seemed no one ever slept here. There were bearproof trash cans on every corner (grizzlies, black bears and in recent times, the occasional polar bear have been seen here) yet no one seemed to use them. Most everyone had dogs chained outside their homes and they howled occasionally in a chorus as if calling to their wild brothers and sisters, the wolves. It sounded like a plea for help. I heard a raucous group of teenagers approaching on bikes. I heard people arguing in nearby homes. I hadn’t thought to bring a lock for my bike (too much weight) and figured I wouldn’t need it, but this place had an odd feel at times. I was a stranger in this place.
Suddenly the teenagers were brashly milling around smoking cigarettes at the fringes of my campsite on their bmx bikes. I could see 4 or 5 of them through the venting of my tent. They were a varied bunch, the youngest maybe 12 and the leader the eldest at maybe 16 or so. I overheard snippets of their conversation:
“that bike would be cool if we put different handlebars on it… I wonder if he’s in that tent… let’s come back later when we can be sure he’s asleep… wait, he’s in there… I think I saw him… we’ll grab it later”
I pondered my options. I’m not a violent guy. I had no interest in confrontation with these kids, which is exactly what they were: poor kids in a desperate place that wanted something better but didn’t know how to go about getting it. However, neither was I was going to let them take my stuff nor was I going to pack up and run away. No freaking way.
After they left I got up, went outside and grabbed my bike that I had ridden through all those lonely miles. It lay just outside the entrance to my tent on its side. I thought it looked just fine with drop bars. I intertwined the wheels with my tent poles so that there would be no way anyone could grab it without waking me. I got back in the tent and tried to sleep again. Suddenly I felt very alone and exposed. I thought back to that Perfect Day. I thought of where I had been and how I now wanted so badly to get home. I thought of my bike and all those circles of despair that were now my memories.
I slept fitfully for a while until I was jolted awake by the sounds of feet shuffling in the dirt, then some swearing. They had returned but didn’t have the balls to come near my tent to take the bike. They yelled some more then threw some rocks at me from a distance. I heard one “ping” off my bike. Then they ran away like the children they were.
I smiled in my tent. You can yell all you want but no one steals my bike.