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.”
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.