The dog race

The day after I was taken in by Judy and Richard was more or less a rest day. Breakfast, a groaning banquet of bread and eggs and meat and fruit and yoghurt and cake and cereal and coffee and juice, stretched on till almost midday, as we all sat back in our chairs, napkins crumpled up in front of us, exchanging anecdotes over our third and fourth cups of coffee. Judy held court, prompting me to recount the stories she’d already heard and encouraging Ed and Karen, a pastor and music teacher from Southern California, to reciprocate with their own. By the time I left two days later I had, at her command, retold the tale of my grandmother’s second marriage (unexpected; in her late 70s) to four or five different people. I was touched, and also slightly surprised by people’s interest in me and my life and my adventures, since their own had been by no means dull. Judy had been born in Arizona, brought up in California, and then spent a lot of her adult life in Central Africa with her children and first husband, before eventually meeting Richard on a hiking trip to Alaska, when he was working in bush schools on the remote west coast, corresponding for seven years, and then finally marrying and buying the Red Eagle Lodge where, their own travelling days mostly over, they now waited for the world to come to them. It wasn’t so isolated out here after all, I realized. In the summer months hundreds (or even thousands) of travellers would pass through, in their RVs and on their bikes, stopping to fill their bottles, put up their tents, refuel their vehicles and tell their stories. I was particularly interested to hear about a massive sponsored bike ride that came through every year, students from the University of Texas riding from Austin to Anchorage in a massive peleton, 4,000 miles in two months, raising money for cancer research. (By the time they pass through this summer, I thought, I’ll be somewhere between Belgium and Istanbul, in the throes of the Transcontinental.)

I didn’t see so much of Richard that day. As one of the people responsible for organizing the dog race, which would start early the following morning, he was constantly out and about, setting up the checkpoint, staking out the trail, and shuttling back and forth between Chistochina and Glennallen (a day’s ride for me; an hour’s drive for him) to liaise with officials at the start-line, keep an eye on his own property and deliver supplies back and forth. The mushers, on their arrival at Chistochina, were to be treated to hotdogs, cinnamon rolls and a hearty chilli, served up in one of the cabins dotted about the property. The dogs were allocated a field in which to rest and eat. Bales of straw were placed at regular intervals: before they retreated to the warmth of the log cabin the mushers would spread out the straw for their dogs to sleep on, light a stove to heat up their food and water, and watch while a vet checked them over for any sign of strain or injury. You can tell the more experienced dog teams, I was told, because when they see the straw they’ll immediately lie down to rest, whereas the younger dogs will be keen to get moving again, not knowing that they have another day or two of running ahead of them.

Shortly before lunch on the day of the race, Richard pulled up outside the lodge with a trailer the size of a small house hitched to the back of his truck, and he and I and his son John, who had driven up the Alcan from Idaho, arriving the previous evening, spent an hour unloading the enormous sacks of feed and packs of fuel that each musher had sent ahead to this and the two other checkpoints along the way. We arranged them in long lines at the entrance to the checkpoint, with aisles in between so that the mushers could walk along and pick out their own particular bags, each clearly marked with their name and the name of the checkpoint, some of them in bright pink or orange ink, so that their owner could pick them out quickly from amongst all the others.

One final section of the trail had yet to be staked out, and Richard, despite my protestations that I had never driven anything in my life, lent me one of his snowmachines and instructed me to follow him up the wide verge that led further into and then out of the village, under the road on a frozen river and then off out into the bush, stopping every couple of minutes to thrust a thin wooden stake into the snow, one end of it highlighted with orange paint and a small reflective patch that would show up in the mushers’ headlamps later that night, showing them which way to go and occasionally, when Richard blocked off an alternative route through the forest with two emphatically crossed stakes, which way not to go. The day was white and still, clouds hanging low over the trees and a few flurries of snow whirling about in the occasional gusts of wind. I soared and bumped along the wide snowy verge, following Richard’s ebbing tail light and timing my braking and acceleration so that I coasted neatly to a halt behind him every time he stopped, thinking how much longer this section of road would feel when I cycled it, at a quarter of the speed, the following day.

The first dogs were expected to arrive at around 3pm, and the lodge began to bustle as more and more cars drew up, disgorging people from neighbouring villages and homesteads, and as far away as Anchorage, Fairbanks and even Canada. A couple of very excited young girls told me how many dog teams they had counted on their way up the Tok Cutoff from Glennallen. They were making good time, apparently. They were almost here.

I joined the crowds milling around at the entrance to the checkpoint, passing the time of day, catching up on local gossip, and occasionally peering anxiously off down the road, where a temporary floodlight had been erected near the point at which the teams would emerge from the woods, and several vehicles waited, ready to form a temporary roadblock if necessary, in order to give the dogs safe passage. It wasn’t too cold, perhaps ten below zero, and a few people told me that mushers – and dogs – generally prefer it colder, about -25C being the optimum temperature (I later came to the same conclusion for cycling), and speculated about the state of some of the course’s several river crossings, which might prove more of an obstacle if the ice wasn’t entirely solid. People had come prepared though, and I admired the vast array of down jackets, fur hats and outsized winter boots all around me. A couple of men were even wearing huge all-in-one down-filled suits, bright red with a big fur collar, of the sort you might wear to cross Greenland or Antarctica.

“Here they come” remarked someone, and we all gazed expectantly down the road, watching through the swirling snow as a line of canine silhouettes streamed out of the forest, across the road, and swept across the white forecourt towards the entrance to the checkpoint.

People gathered close as the musher brought her dogs to a halt, squeezing a claw-like anchor into the ground with her foot as they leapt and strained against their harnesses, desperate to carry on running even though they already had fifty miles in their legs. A few people held the front dogs in check while a brisk, plump woman in salopettes instructed the musher to open the large, shapeless bag on her sled so that she could check she was carrying the required sleeping bag, stove, snowshoes and booties for her dogs. Another woman noted down her arrival time on a clipboard: the teams were obliged to rest for a specified number of hours during the race. Some would stay here at Red Eagle Lodge for the minimum requirement of four hours; others would follow a different strategy and sleep and eat for up to twelve, leaving in the early hours of the morning to strike out into the mountains that separated Chistochina from the second checkpoint, where they’d take a briefer rest before carrying on.

Once she had satisfied the officials, the musher collected her bags of food and fuel, dumped them onto the sled, pulled up the brake, called to her dogs to start again, and was led past the log cabin into the field. A few people followed her, but most stayed where they were, squinting off into the thickening snow, waiting for more. We didn’t have to wait long. Another team threaded its way out of the woods a few minutes later, and then another, and another. Over the next couple of hours they arrived almost constantly, sometimes two or three at once, so that the officials had to call to their helpers to hold one team back while they checked and registered the first.

One or two mushers had already dressed their dogs’ feet in brightly coloured booties, yellow and orange and blue, to protect them from the cold and the ice. One or two had the soft, furry, placid head of an injured dog protruding from the bag on their sled. I never found out whether these dogs would be left behind at Chistochina (and what would happen to them from there), or whether the musher would carry them for the remainder of the race. Some of the dogs’ snouts were coated in frost and ice, from their breath and sweat rising into the cold air around them. They didn’t seem to mind, or even to notice. I marvelled at their energy. They had run for over fifty miles, and most seemed uninterested in stopping.

I wandering into the log cabin where the food was being served and found that a third of it was strung with clothes lines on which so many jackets and jerseys and trousers and socks and mittens were hung that there was barely space for any more. A crowd of wiry-looking people in baselayers and longjohns were milling around or sitting at the edges, cradling steaming bowls of chilli, or queuing at the two large urns from which the coffee and hot chocolate were being served, and it took me a moment or two to realize that these were the mushers, since they looked so much smaller and more frail than when they had arrived, swollen to colossal proportions by their many layers of wool and fleece and down and fur, peering out from the tightly cinched hoods of their parkas, outsized mittens gripping the backs of their sleds. I was guiltily surprised by how many of them were female, having wrongly assumed that this, much like my own, would be considered a tough guy sport, and that any woman even attempting it would be lauded as brave but anomalous.

As the evening wore on and darkness fell outside, the cabin began to take on a rich, sweet, animal odour, as the sweat of the mushers mingled with the oils of their furs, was warmed by the portable heaters and warm bodies filling the building, and began to diffuse through the air. The list of arrivals, on a large sheet of paper pinned up in one corner of the room, began to grow, and people lingered in front of it, sipping their coffee, scanning the names, checking their time against those of their rivals, and commenting on who was doing better than expected; who must be disappointed by their late arrival; who wasn’t in yet.

Outside, the area where the dogs were resting had begun to take on the atmosphere of a busy field hospital. Each team of dogs lay curled up in two neat lines, still in their harnesses, stretched out two by two by two on the straw. People’s headlamps bobbed about the field like fireflies, and here and there a vet was checking over a team of dogs, one after the other, taking their pulses and manipulating their legs, making sure they were fit to continue.

The slower teams were still arriving as the leaders set off again. Every time a sled pulled out, along the trail Richard and I had staked out that afternoon, which would lead them up the road a couple of miles, then under the bridge and off through the forest towards the mountains, the whole field would begin barking and yapping, then settle down again, then resume their racket as yet another team slid past them out of the field and into the night. I listened to them as I crunched through the snow towards my own cabin and crawled into my sleeping bags, and fell asleep to the rising and falling sounds; frantic shrieking and yapping, and then silence again. When I woke up to restart my own journey, the last of the mushers were pulling out, Richard and the vets were enjoying a hearty breakfast after an almost sleepless night, and the snow had covered the road, so that I rode off into a world of whiteness, broken only by the dark shadows of the spruce trees.

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A cold snap

You won’t mind if I’m not strictly chronological about this, will you, dear readers?

The problem is, the rhythms of cycle touring are such that one generally has a lot more to report than one has the time, energy or internet access to record. So I’ve fallen a long way behind with all the major events of my trip that I’d intended to blog about. And then, of course, every day one or two minor but interesting occurrences dominate my attention – occurrences that by the time I come to write about them weeks down the line, I’ll either have forgotten or deemed sufficiently irrelevant that they get edged out of the main flow of the narrative (such as it is).

I’m currently in Stewart, a tiny town on the fissured coast of British Columbia, just a couple of miles from the narrow tongue of Alaskan land that extends down through the islands and inlets of the Pacific seaboard. The other day I walked along the coast and across the border to Hyder, an even smaller town, which seems to be populated mainly by eccentric souvenir shop owners and aging draft dodgers. My Canadian host paints it as a village of oddballs, who take advantage of the 24-hour daylight in summer to grow forests of marijuana, and scramble up the nearby mountainside to cross the Canadian border on the rare occasions when the State Troopers fly in. A Hyder resident told me: “We all got guns – we take care of our own affairs up here.”

I got here by taking a 66km detour through the mountains from the remote Cassiar Highway – itself a detour from the main Alaska Highway, but one I’m very glad I took. Since the teething troubles I described in my last few blog posts, I’ve grown to love the silence and solitude of the frozen north, and am now mildly dismayed that, as I edge further south, the weather will warm up and the spaces between towns will shrink. It will be slightly magical to rediscover civilization, and to stop and drink coffee at gas stations as if it’s nothing (rather than spending the first ten minutes profusely thanking the owners for being open, because this is the first time in two days I’ve encountered human company and an ambient temperature above -30), but I know it will be a long time before I get another chance to lose myself and my mind in the great white sparkling bubble of winter, to watch an icy road winding away through the spruce trees and into the mountains ahead of me, to hear my tyres roaring through the crusted snow at the edge of the shoulder, and to know the satisfaction of having somehow managed to put real life aside for a time, and retreat into my own world.

Stewart is a beautiful place. From both sides of the large sunny house I’m currently sitting in, I can see near-vertical rock faces, laden with snow higher up, and speckled with precarious-looking pine trees further down. And yet, despite being hemmed in by mountains, the town manages to be full of light, and its small clapboard houses are blue and green and red, and look (to me at least) vaguely Scandinavian. If I walk to the edge of town, I’ll reach the head of the 70-mile Portland Canal (one side of it American, the other Canadian) and far away at the end of that is the Pacific, across which ships carry Canadian logs to Chinese sawmills.

I tried to leave this morning, riding away with my usual  potent mixture of anticipation and regret. After a couple of days in a warm dry house, taking hot showers, eating hot meals and getting to know whatever wonderful person has taken me in (Maria, my current host, is a friend of the equally wonderful people I stayed with in Watson Lake, to whom I was introduced by another set of angels I stayed with in Whitehorse, with whom I was originally put in touch by the inestimable Sarah Outen), I am excited to get myself back on the road where I belong, and to see what adventures the next few miles will hold – but I hate having to say goodbye to new friends, after spending an evening, or two, or three sharing our stories and memories and plans and dreams, knowing that in most cases I’ll never see them again.

But my departure was foiled, only ten miles down the road, by a cracked seatpost. (I’ve cracked at least four seatposts in the eight years since I started cycling, so the ominous crack-clink-THUD is beginning to feel familiar. I don’t know why I have such a high hit rate, but this one was probably the result of the cold temperatures I’d been putting the bike through.)

I instantly knew that I was lucky, not only in that I had a permissible reason (in fact an unavoidable necessity) to return to Stewart, but also in that Maria had repeatedly told me I was welcome to stay another day or two if I wanted, or to return to Stewart if anything went wrong – and goodness, this minor disaster would have been a much more significant headache if it had happened on almost any other day of my ride. I might have had to wait for hours in the cold until someone came along who was able and willing to give me a lift to the next town; the next town might have been hundreds of miles away; it might not have had a bike shop anyway.

As it was, I pushed the bike back to Stewart within a couple of hours, and decided that my options were:

  1. Find a way of fixing or replacing the seatpost so that I could continue my journey – or at least limp as far as Smithers, three days’ ride off, where there’s apparently a decent bike shop.
  2. Failing that, find someone driving to Smithers, who could give me and the bike a lift. (Again, I’d got lucky here – much as I hate to consider a lift, the final downhill section of the Cassiar Highway was going to be its easiest stretch, and consequently the part I was least interested in, and least bothered about skipping.)

I went to see the local police, who are a friendly bunch, and had already offered to help me if I needed it, and within minutes was directed to a gentleman called Al, who lived around the corner, and was ‘one of those people who knows how to fix things’. Al confirmed my suspicions that the cracked post and sheared bolt were unfixable, disappeared round the back of the house, and returned brandishing a seatpost he’d removed from his own bike, which he said I could borrow to get me to Smithers.

It was 11am – almost early enough that I could start cycling again – but I knew it would be a long steep uphill drag for the first two-thirds of the day, and I’d planned big mileages for the two days following, meaning that it wouldn’t do to get behind schedule. I got back on the bike (such relief!) and pedalled the two blocks back to Maria’s house, which is where I am now. She’s still out on the 8-hour round trip to Terrace, where she gets her hair done, but luckily no one locks their doors in these parts, and knowing her as I now do, I don’t think she’ll be too dismayed to see me sitting here when she walks in this evening.

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Of motels and chance encounters

I ended up staying in a motel when I got to Glennallen, for reasons I won’t go into here (mainly because I’ve vowed to avoid that old cycle touring cliche and keep bodily functions  to a minimum in my blog, though I promise to tell you if we ever meet in person), and while it was in some ways deeply comforting to have a clean, warm, beige room to myself, once I’d spent an industrious 90 minutes washing my clothes, and draping them all over chairs and tables and curtain rails and coat hangers to dry, spreading out my sleeping bags to air, plugging in all my electronic devices in turn (it may save weight only carrying one adaptor, but it wastes a lot of time), tinkering fruitlessly with my stove pump (thank goodness I was carrying a spare pump – and a spare stove, for that matter) repacking some of my dry bags (not because they necessarily needed repacking, but for the sense of comfort, control and capability this gives me) and wallowing in a hot shower, I found myself at a bit of a loose end.

Motels are impersonal places. This is part of their charm (I spend so much of my travelling life either out in the elements or as a guest in other people’s homes that it’s sometimes wonderful to be in a place where there is no obligation to engage socially, and I can sit around in my underwear if I want), but also one of their drawbacks. The financial transaction of paying for a room feels paltry and impoverished compared with the rich and satisfying social experience of being offered one, and then spending an evening sharing food and swapping stories with your hosts. I strolled over to the diner next-door and ordered myself a large meaty pizza. (Although I’m officially an omnivore, my usual day-to-day diet verges on vegan, so it’s been interesting to observe how my (increasingly instinctive) eating habits adapt themselves to different conditions. Out here in the cold I am wolfing down red meat and animal fat in massive quantities – partly because that’s what’s on offer, but also because it’s very genuinely what I crave.) The waitress was friendly and smiley, but didn’t attempt to engage me in any more conversation than was necessary to take my order and make sure my water glass was kept topped up, and none of my fellow diners seemed interested in why a tired-looking woman with a distinct British accent was sitting alone in their local diner, poring over a book and inhaling a pizza that would normally have fed a small family.

Paying for accommodation, I mused, you spend more, but get less. At first my main reason for using hospitality networks like CouchSurfing and WarmShowers was because it would be a cheaper way of getting a roof over my head than staying in hostels, but now I do it because of the people I meet – and, in fact, I often spend more taking them out for dinner to say thank you than I would have on a cheap bunkbed in a sock-scented dorm room. I have friends all over the world now – proper friends, with whom I’ve spent a few days, got drunk, cooked meals, swapped stories, been introduced to family and stayed in touch afterwards. I’m so used to this that, as I rode away from Glenallen the following morning I felt as if I’d missed something; as if I’d barely skimmed the surface; as if this town and I had nodded at each other in passing, perhaps even shaken hands and swapped names, but never sat down, taken off our hats and coats, ordered a pint and begun the pleasant and gently surprising process of getting to know each other.

A man I’d met up the road had laconically informed me there was ‘nothing’ between Glenallen and Tok, where my ride would reach its northernmost point and then turn south-east towards the Canadian border. So I felt no more than a small twinge of regret as I rolled past a couple of log-built lodges and gas stations during the first couple of miles, one of which had planted a sign at the Gakona junction claiming to be open all winter, but neither of which showed any sign of life.

A couple of miles down the Tok Cutoff, I rolled down a hill, and suddenly the landscape opened up to my right, and I found myself exclaiming ‘oh!’ at the sight of the frozen Gakona River, many metres below me, twisting and braiding itself across the broad valley floor as it joined the Copper River on its journey down to Cordova on the coast. Beyond the icy channels, the opposite hillside was softened by thousands more of Alaska’s tall, scrawny, solemn spruce trees, and further back still rose the vast snowy peaks of Mount Blackburn, Mount Wrangell, Mount Sanford and Mount Drum.

It was a cloudy day, and the temperature had risen a few degrees – it was still cold enough to make my toes sting, but not so much that I had to wear my ski goggles and neoprene mask, which, when I had taken it off the previous evening, I had found to be hung with icicles, formed by my condensing breath, and looking very much like a set of fangs. The warmer air, together with the sense of having a good amount behind me and a rough idea of what was ahead, had calmed my nerves almost entirely. I was now within my comfort zone, having extended its boundaries quite considerably over the past few days.

I planned to spend the night somewhere in or near the village of Chistochina – more because this was a useful landmark by which to judge distance than in any hope of company or comfort. I had already learned that villages out here were not the cosy outposts of civilisation they might be almost anywhere else in the world. Usually, all there would be to give them away would be a sign announcing their presence, and then a few more miles of featureless snowy road, then here or there a few tracks winding off into the trees, half of them so deep with snow that it was clear no one had been in or out for many months, then a few miles down the road another sign, announcing to people travelling in the opposite direction that they were now entering the village, which meant I must be leaving it. About half the time there would be a local shop or filling station of some description, and about half the time it too would be closed for the winter. But Chistochina was a sufficient number of miles ahead of Glennallen to keep me on track, and despite my fondness of being out on the road on my own, I still somehow gravitate towards people when it’s time to sleep, whether or not it’s wise or safe to do so, and whether or not I will actually enjoy any meaningful human contact.

The sun rolled its way round a small section of the horizon, and began to blaze  ominously as it sank through the clouds behind me, letting me know that the day was almost done, and that I would do well to hurry up if I didn’t want to be pitching my tent in the dark. In the growing twilight, I spotted a single light moving rapidly towards me, along the wide snowy ditch on the other side of the road, and realized it belonged to a snowmachine, driven by a man who was the first human being I’d seen since I left the motel  in Glennallen that morning. I wondered if he’d see me, and if he’d bother to stop if he did, and why I still had this strange instinctive yearning for human contact, when really I had all I needed (tent, food, fuel) for several days without.

Sure enough, he pulled up directly opposite me, with a loud exclamation, turned off his engine, pulled up his mask, and shouted across to me, with amused incredulity:

“What’n the world – what is this?”

“It’s a bicycle!” I laughed back, pulling my scarf down from my face.

“Oh – it’s a woman!” He seemed even more surprised.

“Yep!” I laughed even more, partly at the absurdity of the situation (of course I’m a woman – it rarely occurs to me to consider that I might not be), partly with the relief of having someone to laugh with.

“I’ve heard about you” he continued. “People are coming through saying there’s this crazy biker down the road – you do know it’s winter, right?”

The conversation continued for a few minutes, in much the same vein as it always does with people I meet on the road. (Where are you going? Are you alone? Are you crazy?) He asked where I’d been spending the nights, and I told him that, although I’d planned to camp out, I had more often than not been taken in by kind people, like Josh and Anna and their family, two days’ ride down the Glenn Highway at Slide Mountain.

“Oh yes, I know them” replied my new friend. “They’ve only been there about seven years, right? It’s a pretty tough place. They have to haul water out there. I hope it don’t break ‘em.”

I thought guiltily about the hot tap I’d left running in Josh and Anna’s bathroom as I washed my face and scrubbed out my cooking pot, and then marvelled at the fact that this man seemed to know the business of his neighbours a hundred miles away in much the same way as my gossipy mother would remark on the comings and goings of a neighbouring farm, a couple of fields away.

Our voices echoed in the great silence – silence that I only really noticed when I stopped moving, since cycling makes your breathing heavy and your heartbeat roar in your ears, plus whatever noise your fat tyres make as they crunch and roar over the ice, plus the gentle susurrations of your thoughts. We listened to the sound of a car approaching – first a faint hum, then a growl, then an almost deafening roar as it finally reached us, and sped in between us with such force that the ground shook beneath us.

“They’ll be wondering what on earth they just saw” remarked my new friend, and indeed, we must have been quite the spectacle – a snowmachine driver and an overloaded cyclist, passing the time of day across the Tok Cutoff as if it was a garden fence.

“Well, I’d better get moving, before I get too cold” I said, reluctantly.

“Yes, me too – I’m staking out the trail for a dog race this weekend. We’ll have fifty dogs teams coming up this road, starting in Glennallen, and then heading off into the mountains after Chistochina. Shame you won’t be in the area then – it’s a sight to see. Hey, when you get to Chistochina, I own the Red Eagle Lodge there. Drop by and say hello to my wife – she’ll probably give you a warm drink or something. Her name’s Judy.”

“And yours?”

“Richard.”

For a moment, standing solidly and vividly there in his iron-grey overalls, with bright eyes and a square jaw garnished by a greying beard, he looked like a Norman baron might have done to a cold traveller, meeting him in the dying light whilst out hunting and inviting him back to a warm castle, or Good King Wenceslas, striding through the snowy woods laden with food and firewood.

We bade each other farewell, and I continued up the road, gnawing on a frozen cheese sandwich that I’d been carrying for several days, in order to fortify me through the last few chilly miles. I passed the sign welcoming me to Chistochina, but it was a couple of miles more before I began to see tracks (half of them snow-clogged) leading off into the trees. And then quite suddenly, the forest opened up to my right, and I saw a scattering of barns and log cabins, some of them with lights on, and a motley collection of vehicles, at least half of them without snow, and a small biplane parked next to a home-made runway that ran down the side of the road. As I turned off the highway, I noticed two silhouetted figures in the window of one of the buildings. They looked up, watched me approach, and then one of them waved. As I drew up outside, a small, round, beaming woman rushed out.

“Welcome! Welcome! I’m Judy. My husband told me you were on your way. You must be frozen! Now, come with me, we’ll put your bike in the shed, and then we’ll get you a hot drink and warm you up next to the fire.”

I followed her across the snow, through the last of the twilight, to the main house, where a few minutes later I was curled up next to the woodburner in a brightly decorated dining room, hung all over with wolfskins and antlers and other Alaskana,  my jacket and gloves and socks and scarf and mask hanging on chairs to dry out, cradling a mug of hot apple cider and swapping life stories with Judy as if we were already old friends.

“I’ll do you a deal” she said. “We’re running the checkpoint for a big dog race this weekend, and if you’ll stay for a couple of days and help out, I’ll give you a cabin free of charge, and you can have a bit of a rest here, and you’ll get to see the race when it comes through. Have you ever seen a dog race before?”

I hadn’t. In truth, until I arrived in Alaska, I had barely been aware that such things existed. It didn’t take me long to change my plans and accept her invitation, and I joined an ever-expanding collection of family and friends who were descending on Chistochina for the race, spreading out among Judy and Richard’s collection of guestrooms and cabins, and coming together at mealtimes to enjoy each other’s company and Judy’s fabulous cooking. Had it not been for my chance meeting with Richard out on the road, I might have ridden straight past this place, and never known it existed.

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Rediscovering the glow

The morning after Caitlin and Reese took me in, I woke up to the smell of petrol, rolled out of my emperor-sized bed, and realized that my stove pump had failed once again, quite spontaneously, and was wafting noxious fumes out of my open pannier and into the palatially furnished room. (This wasn’t the first

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Period drama

I almost wrote a blog post about menstruation last night. But then I talked myself out of it. I don’t always think very much about who reads my posts – because when I do it usually stops me writing anything at all. There’s no one version of me that could possibly be acceptable to all

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We interrupt our irregular blogging

to bring you this important announcement. To make up for being distant, out-of-touch, bad at updating my blog and worse at keeping up with my inbox (and because I was invited), I’ll be doing a series of talks around the UK on my return, hosted by Ellis Brigham and sponsored by Osprey. If you want

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Bringing out the worst

The first day after I left Tom’s place I was even slower than the day I arrived, and the following day, after camping in a gap between two deserted houses next to the highway that turned into a wind tunnel overnight, I covered 20 miserable miles in seven hours. The road at this point was

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The first day

Things are not going to plan. They never do really, do they? The plan, you see, was for this to be a tough, difficult, challenging expedition, where I’d ride for many days without seeing another person, let alone finding a warm bed and a hot dinner. I was looking forward to the suffering and the

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Welcomed to Anchorage

Oh, where to start, where to start? When I’ve been on the road for three weeks, and so much has happened, and so many people have told me they’re eagerly watching my blog for updates? I’ll start at the beginning, of course, in Anchorage, just a few hours after I stumbled exhaustedly off my third

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Home away from home

The road is different every day, but much the same as it ever was – which is to say: wonderful; endless; like coming home; just as I knew it would be. And I’m remembering all the little quirks, charming and infuriating, that I forget as soon as I stop – among them the constant exhaustion,

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