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 unforgivingly wrapped around the spurs and tributaries of the Matanuska Valley, undulating constantly in both directions, so that I crawled painfully up hills, only to turn a corner and see that the road fell right back down to  river level, crossed whatever creek it was, and then climbed back up and around the next spur.

At one point I had to get off and push the bike up a hill – not so much because of the gradient as because the stronger gusts of wind would sometimes edge my front wheel to the right and threaten to send me tumbling down the unfenced slope into the icy river, far below. A lot of people in Anchorage had warned me about this first section of the Glenn Highway, suggesting that I hitch a ride for that part, or even detour several hundred miles to take the Denali Highway instead.

The road was no worse (and indeed much better) than many of the rougher segments I’ve covered in Pakistan, Kosovo, and even Wales, but anxiety clouded my head as I pedalled slowly along. It wasn’t fear of the road, I realized, or the unfenced cliffs to my right, or even the proximity of the traffic, since all of these were things I’d spent many hours growing accustomed to. For better or for worse, I can ride a lot closer to a thundering juggernaut than most other people, and think nothing of it, thanks to my years on the streets of London and bombing up and down dull-but-fast British A-roads.

What was scaring me here was the growing sense that I was riding into the unknown, that the buildings were thinning out, and that even when I did pass one, every hour or so, it was usually shut up and deserted, tucked away among the trees, its driveway clogged with two feet of snow and its owners very clearly spending the winter in more temperate climes. I had been told that there were relatively few services along this road, and that most would be closed for winter. I was carrying enough food for several days, and two stoves with which to heat it, so this shouldn’t have been a problem. And it wasn’t a problem, I told myself. The worry nibbling at the edges of my mind wasn’t based on any concrete concern, but on the nebulous fear of knowing that I was all on my own, that there were no other people here from whom to seek comfort, even if only in the short quotidien exchange of buying a Snickers bar and asking where the toilets were. I couldn’t talk myself out of the fear, I realized, because you can only convincingly reassure someone if you’ve been there before, and know it’ll be OK. I hadn’t been here before. I didn’t know if it would be OK.

As I crept north, the temperature crept down – and sometimes plummetted several terrifying degrees as I rolled down a hill, since as you know, cold air is heavier, and sinks into the valleys. The grey clouds that had swaddled Anchorage were long gone and the sky was a sharp, brilliant blue. I’m often struck by the fact that you can’t discern temperature visually. Photographs of the coldest places on earth are often bright and sunny. My father once took a photo of me splashing out of the Pembrokeshire sea after a frigid Boxing Day swim and, but for the expression on my face, I could just as easily be romping through the waves in August. Here in Alaska, the brightness and beauty of the blue sky and the shimmering mountains on either side of the road seemed to heighten the cruelty of the cold, which gnawed viciously at my feet, despite their several layers of wool and felt, froze my nostrils and eyelashes together, and implanted a visceral fear, somewhere in the primal depths of my mind, that this cold was a predator, that it was out to get me, that it was hunting me down.

Early in the afternoon I topped a hill, rolled down the other side into a landscape just as beautiful and just as empty of people as the one I’d left behind, and felt the air cool suddenly, the way it does when you walk into an air-conditioned shop on a hot summer’s day. The road disappeared entirely under a crust of compacted white snow, and my fears crept closer to the front of my mind. ‘It’s the end of the world’, my subconscious muttered insistently – and true enough, it was as if all signs of life were slowly being sucked out of my surroundings. First the people were removed – I hadn’t seen a house for ages, and even the cars passing me were separated by long miles and minutes of silence. The reassuring warmth of human colour was draining away – no people, no houses, fewer and fewer cars, and now even the road was almost invisible. And the cold was deepening with every hour that passed. The only thing I could rely on was my own fragile warmth, defended by a few flimsy layers of wool and gore-tex, and fuelled by an unreliable MSR stove and a handful of packet soups.

To keep my water from freezing, I was carrying it in a bladder strapped to my back, with a hose down my sleeve and a nozzle tucked into my right glove. By the time I felt thirsty, the hose had become a solid snake of ice, which cracked as I rubbed and twisted it, but remained stubbornly frozen. As the day wore on and the temperature sank, my body began to groan with thirst, and there was no obvious way of satisfying it. Anywhere else in the world I’d be able to rely on finding a service station or shop of some sort, where I could stamp the snow off my feet, buy a cup of tea, and stretch my frozen fingers out above a wood stove or an electric heater. Here I’d have to wait until evening, clumsily put up my tent with my numb fingers, coax my stove into action and tend it with alternate hands, keeping the free hand inside my two sleeping bags for warmth. Attempting to unpack my panniers and boil up a pan of water by the side of the road would involve too great a sacrifice of body heat – by the time I’d unloaded the bike, fiddled my way through the cooking process and got everything strapped back together, I’d be so cold that even a warm drink and another few hours of cycling might not bring my extremities back to life. I resigned myself to carrying on.

A few miles down the road I passed a sign for a lodge, allowed my heart to leap for a few seconds, and then firmly reminded myself that whatever establishment it was would almost certainly be closed for the winter. I briefly entertained the thought of camping out somewhere among its deserted outbuildings, for shelter from the wind and the comforting delusion of human proximity, but it wasn’t even 2pm. I had another couple of hours of daylight, and I was well aware of how far behind I was.

Two miles later, a small and very widely dispersed scattering of buildings on either side of the road suggested that I was entering what in any other part of the world might be a village. None of the houses showed any sign of life, beyond that they were there, and must have been put there by people who were once alive. Across the valley, the snout of the Matanuska glacier glowed an almost iridescently pure white through the steely air, and I dimly rebuked myself for not being more awed at its icy beauty. (The only other glacier I had passed this closely on my travels was the Baltura, which terminates mere metres from the Karakoram Highway, but it was a dank, muddy-looking beast, like the piles of grimy snow that decorate city streets a few days after a blizzard.)

Finally, to my left, I found the turning for the lodge. And – oh heaven! – the snow was flattened by vehicles coming in and out, and a couple of snow-free vehicles were parked outside a large golden log cabin, three stories high, with stained glass windows, a wide veranda, and smoke pumping energetically out of the chimney.

I abandoned my bike and stumbled up the steps to knock on the front door, holding my (solidly frozen) Nalgene bottle in my hand, as a pathetic token gesture of my thirst. The door was opened by a girl in her early twenties. I guessed she must be the daughter of the owners, but later found out that she and her boyfriend were caretaking the lodge for the woman who usually ran it, but spent her winters in South Carolina.

“Hi – I’m, umm, really sorry to disturb you,” I stuttered, only then realizing that my lips were so numb I could barely speak, and slurred my words like a drunk, “but could I possibly get some water?”

Of course I could. Caitlin ushered me in, watched patiently as I struggled out of my boots, and my helmet, and my jacket, and my gloves, and my backpack, and offered me a cup of coffee and a chance to warm up for a bit beside the fragrant log fire that faced me as I walked in, like a happy ending. I could tell instantly that this lodge was a labour of love and luxury on the part of the owner. Every chair was differently shaped and vividly upholstered, as if it had been salvaged and then stitched back to life. I sank in amongst a pile of brightly coloured cushions, each one fringed or beaded or frilled or otherwise adorned, and admired the polished logs that knitted together to make the cabin walls, gradually noticing, as my mind warmed up and my curiosity rekindled, that the place was hung with what must have been a lifetime’s collection of whimsical signs, on wood and canvas, in a variety of fonts and colours, celebrating friendship, wine, dog ownership, and sundry human quirks and failings.

“Cleaning the house while the children are growing is like shovelling snow while it’s still snowing.”

“Please ring the door bell – the dogs need the exercise.”

“A friend is someone who when you’ve made a fool of yourself doesn’t think you’ve done a permanent job!”

“Wild women don’t wait till they’re old to wear purple.”

“Some people are like slinkies. Not really good for anything, but they still bring a smile to your face when you push them down a flight of stairs.”

“Friends welcome – relatives by appointment.”

Caitlin and I got to know each other as I grimaced through the pain of defrosting toes. She and her boyfriend were both originally from Colorado, but had lived in the Matanuska Valley for several  years now, him working as a glacier guide, and her doing logistics for the same company. He was currently an hour or two’s drive back the way I’d come, studying welding in Palmer, but due home that evening. She was about to head out to the lake behind the property, for a couple of hours of cross-country skiing, but I was welcome to hang around as long as I wanted to to warm up – and, she added, visibly reaching a decision as she spoke, if I wanted to stay in one of the rooms that night, free of charge, I’d be very welcome.

It only took me a few seconds to say yes. Despite my worries about how I’d ever make it to Seattle at this rate, and my faltering urge to use every last minute of January’s scant daylight to push myself forward, I knew I couldn’t force myself to leave this warm, peopled haven and head back out into the cold. I remembered a snowy day in London, years ago, when I stormed desperately into Condor and spent £50 on a pair of gloves, because the agony of cold fingers has a way of rearranging your priorities, no matter how careful you are with money, and how much you might struggle to pay the rent as a result. I remembered afternoons in Eastern Turkey where I prayed that none of the truckers would stop to offer me a lift (as they quite regularly did), because I was suffering so much there was no way I’d be able to bring myself to say no. I remembered how extreme cold brings out the worst in me – my lazy, cowardly, pathetic, grasping, undisciplined side – but also how it brings out the best in other people. I thanked Caitlin, with tears of gratitude in my eyes, took a deep breath, and walked back out into the cold for just a few more minutes, to unload my bike and bring my bags into the warm.

Leave a Comment

3 Comments

  1. Posted January 30, 2015 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Cracking read really enjoyed it.. :-)

  2. judy carne
    Posted January 30, 2015 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Emily, Never ever think that you are alone, we are all with you every inch of the way, willing you on and always hoping for a warm refuge for you to `happen on`. You are the most inspirational young woman I have ever known!! Keep going and be brave, use those good genes you have!!!
    Our family send huge hugs and love
    Judy
    xxxxx

  3. Anne Elkins
    Posted February 1, 2015 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Em! Roisin and I are sitting here catching up on your blog. You should’ve seen our facial expressions! Amazing, amazing. Lots of love, AE and RA aka HS and HBP :) x x x