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 time and MSR stove let me down in this way. Somewhere between my final Iranian campsite near Rafsanjan and the Khunjerab Pass in Pakistan, another pump cup failed, and rich, green, geopolitically significant Iranian petrol gradually evaporated through all of the miscellaneous tools and spares I carried in my front right pannier. Better tools than clothing or food, I suppose, though it did also permeate and utterly ruin the bar of Lidl chocolate I had been saving for a special occasion, and which Michael and I tried and tried and ultimately failed to enjoy and had to abandon after our triumphant ascent of the Khunjerab.)
I had intended to be on the road at seven, a couple of hours before sunrise, but after unpacking my toolkit to fix the stove, swearing at it as I tried to fish a detached pump cup out of the mechanism with a pen and a pair of tweezers, and wolfing down a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, I didn’t manage to get to my bike until long after the sun had started to tip the tops of the nearby mountains. The air was still bitterly cold, snatching at my chest and throat with every breath I took and I fumbled and stumbled, trying to balance the bike between my knees as I strapped everything onto it, cursing the brand new rear light that I’d bought in Anchorage and never managed to turn on, and gazing fondly at the cheap back-up light I’d bought to replace it, which was so large and dazzling there was no danger of drivers failing to spot me. I placed it carefully on my saddle as I wrestled my shovel under the bungees, promptly knocked it to the ground, and on picking it up, discovered that some mysterious internal connection had been dislodged, and the light would no longer turn on, no matter how much I shook it, or knocked it against the top tube, or replaced the batteries, or examined its innards for obviously protruding wires.
It was not an auspicious start to the day. But I was perversely comforted by my annoyance, which at least felt like a more familiar emotion than the numb fear of the previous day. Over dinner, Caitlin and her boyfriend Reese had described the road ahead (a sharp dip down to Caribou Creek, then a long slow climb up to Eureka Pass, the highest point of the Glen Highway, then a gradual descent towards Nelchina), and lent me a copy of The Milepost, an annually updated resource for the legions of road trippers who infest Alaskan roads in the summer months, which gives a mile-by-mile account of lodges, gas stations, campsites, viewpoints, pull-ins and any other feature than might conceivably be of interest. Although most of the facilities it mentioned would be closed for the winter, it was apparently enough for my fearful mind just to know what lay ahead – that I wasn’t really riding off into a world whose colour and warmth would gradually dwindle down to absolute zero; that people had been there before me, and documented what was to come; that I would end up somewhere, rather than nowhere.
Most of my day was spent gaining the 1,000 metres or so of the Eureka Pass, crawling slowly up almost imperceptible inclines, worrying that I was sweating too much, and that my clothing would end up full of ice (how on earth do you stop yourself from sweating at -25C, when you’re already in your lowest gear, and would topple over if you cycled any more slowly?), and cursing inwardly whenever the road took a downward turn, knowing that all the altitude I lost would have to be regained before the day was over.
I sometimes find, during a difficult day on the bike, that my mood shifts and undulates in exact correspondence with the terrain I’m covering. On a flat, clear road, with perhaps a slight downward tilt, I’m jovial, meditative, rolling along with a few fragments of thought or song rattling repetitively around in my head. On a long-anticipated downhill, my mood hitches itself upward and I burst into song, forgetting all the mental tangles and downward spirals of the previous hour, and deciding that none of it – whatever it is – is so bad after all, really. My mind, suddenly regaining some of the oxygen that my legs had hogged on the climb, blossoms into life and I start having ideas, composing and editing future blog posts, fleshing out future business plans, planning future expeditions, fantasizing about all of the dozens of directions that my life might take from this point onwards.
But on a long slow climb, usually without my realizing it, everything swings around and I can’t help but look on the dark side. And it’s not so much mere pessimism as active annoyance. I dwell on all that’s gone wrong that day, obsess gloomily over anything that might be ailing me or the bike or the tent (or in this case my lighting strategy, now reduced to a cheap blinker I’d had for years, held together with duct tape, and the tiny red LEDs on the back of my head torch). I dredge through my long- and short-term memory, looking for people to be annoyed with, recalling angry London drivers I had tried to forget, twisting long-resolved arguments around in my head in order to wind myself up all over again, lingering with inexcusable self-pity on all the minor infractions of family and friends over the years. Failing all else, I get angry with anything that’s immediately to hand. The road surface. The headwind. The unfavourable gradient. The lack of a lay-by when I need a rest. The fact that my water has frozen again – which in this case it had.
Late in the afternoon, I finally hauled my way to the top of the pass, and from a long way off, spied the Eureka Lodge, which Caitlin and Reese had told me would probably be open, at least for petrol and snacks. For two miles or so I had it in my sights, glistening in the snowy sunlight on the flat top of the pass, smoke pouring from its chimney into the clear blue sky, telling me that here were people, and here was warmth, and probably something I could drink, and possibly sympathy for this terrible ordeal that had been inflicted on me. (In order to remove any obstacles from my raging annoyance, and to allow its downward spiral to flow unimpeded, I was ignoring the fact that the only person truly to blame for this unbearable suffering was myself.)
I pulled up on the flattened snow of the lodge’s forecourt. There was no one to be seen. I parked the bike against a tiny shack, through whose locked door I could see a fridge full of soft drinks and a couple of racks of candy, jerky, and other irresistible delights.
“Closed on Tuesdays” said the sign in the window. I refused to believe it was Tuesday, or that, even if somehow it was, the owners wouldn’t sense my desperation from within their cosy warm house, and come rushing out to rescue me. I stomped up and down the line of ramshackle buildings that made up the lodge. Through the window of the largest, I could see an industrial-looking kitchen, with stainless steel counters and racks upon racks of crockery. The lights were on, but there was not a single human being in evidence. A sign informed me, once again, that the lodge was closed on Tuesdays. Up at the other end of the lot were two houses, clearly inhabited, but with no sign of life, no matter how pointedly and plaintively I walked past, and stood, looking all around me, waiting for someone to respond.
Eventually I came to the inevitable conclusion that it was indeed Tuesday, and that no one was going to come – and that walking around in the cold was warming up my feet, but turning my hands, in their damp sweaty gloves, into shuddering claws of ice. As I rode away over the pass a shameful, entirely irrational wave of hatred swept over me, for these selfish, ignorant, unthinking people who would close their shop for a whole day, leaving a shivering and vulnerable cyclist to fend for herself. At the back of my mind I knew that this wasn’t even slightly true – that these were probably kind, hard-working, generous people, who took the opportunity to have a little time off in the quietest part of the year, to work through the backlog of chores that builds up during the busy tourist season, or to drive down to Anchorage for a day off. I hated myself for hating them. The spiral continued.
A couple of miles further on I was suddenly gripped by a frenzy of thirst, stopped the bike, stood astride it, and undid my jacket in order to get at the water-filled backpack beneath it. My numb fingers plucked uselessly at my cuffs, unable to grasp them tightly enough to pull them over my hands, and in the end I ripped the jacket off over my head, turning the sleeves inside out, and noticing as I did so that the fleecy lining was coated in thick white frost, from all the sweat that had been steaming out through my merino jerseys. The water, once I had managed to unscrew the lid, was not only still liquid, but actually tepid, the temperature of a swimming pool, or a draining bathtub, or, in fact, my own warm body. I gulped down half a litre or so, trying hard not to spill any drops on the backpack, knowing that they would freeze almost instantly and add to the quantity of ice nestling amongst my clothing, then put my backpack and jacket back on and resumed my slow crawl down the road.
I had only been cycling for a minute or so when I felt an ominous trickle of warm water down the small of my back. Panicking, I tore off my jacket and backpack, and quickly discovered that the cap was on squint and the bladder was leaking. Dolefully, I put it right, and wondered whether, once I crawled into my sleeping bags, my so far reliable body heat would be capable of melting the ice and evaporating it far enough away from my body that it would condense into my bedding rather than my clothing. If not, then I might be stuck with this ice for days.
The downhill that followed Eureka Pass was not a rewarding one, so my mood continued in the same petty, self-pitying groove it had worn itself into on the way up. I should really have been grateful to have to pedal down the hill, since it was far too cold to freewheel, but it wasn’t really about the hill at all. This was annoyance without an object; annoyance that chased its tail, around and around, growing ever more pungent and pointless.
The daylight began to fade, retreating to the tops of the mountains and mocking me as I sped downwards into the gathering gloom. I reached up to turn on my head torch, and to my dismay, felt nothing but the sheer edge of my helmet. I couldn’t even remember when I had last had it on. Probably, I concluded, it had pinged off my head and into the snowy verge when I was tearing my clothes off in a panic on top of the pass. I wasn’t going to go back and look for it. The last few miles had taken me long enough in a downward direction. And now, I realized, I was down to a single rear light, having started out with an over-cautious four.
And then, as the day’s final insult, I fished my glasses out of my left pogie, wanting to protect my eyes from the icy breeze that was numbing their edges and freezing their lashes together and, as I wrestled them over my helmet, broke off one of the arms. I stood there at the side of the road, unable to muster the emotion to laugh or cry, and suddenly noticed that there was a lodge to my left – a lodge whose existence I was somehow, despite poring earnestly over The Milepost the previous evening, entirely unaware of. A short drive sloped down off the main road, and arrived in front of a modest wooden building, with a couple of smaller cabins stretching away behind it and dark spindly spruce trees all around. Were it not for a few outdoor lights shining out into the twilight, I might have sped (who am I kidding? crawled) straight past it.
I propped my bike up against the edge of the veranda, and started as I looked up, as someone was already opening the door, almost as if they’d been waiting for me all along. It was a sturdy blond man of about my own age, dressed in jeans and a cosy-looking red hoodie. I mustered just enough of my already fading annoyance to envy him his warm dry clothes, and then all my senses were flooded with pathetic gratitude as he ushered me into a bright, wood-lined reception room, assured me that yes, it was no problem to camp on his property, and no, he didn’t mind if I spent a little while sitting around and warming up before pitching my tent. Down the hallway I could hear the cheerful noises of a young family – shouts and chatter; somebody reading aloud; somebody playing the piano. A long-haired, long-skirted woman appeared, with two tiny boys hovering close to her legs.
“It’s that biker” said the man, indicating me. My presence on the Glenn Highway had not gone unremarked. Josh and Anna (for these were their names) had driven past me the previous day on their way home from Anchorage, where they went twice a month to stock up their larder from Costco. It’s an eight-hour round trip, but they have seven children to feed, and groceries are far more expensive in Glenallen, sixty miles further north, so it’s worth their while, and just one of the many challenges of living in rural Alaska. Later on, Anna told me that Josh spends all of February and March out in the woods, rebuilding their stock of firewood, since their house is entirely heated by a couple of wood stoves, and in a place where temperatures regularly dip below -30C, it wouldn’t do to run out of logs. In the summer they’re rushed off their feet catering to all the tourists who pass through, and I guessed that must be when most of the money came in.
As we talked, night fell outside, and although the sun had set long ago, a faint glow remained on the horizon I’d recently ridden over, like the lingering echo of the day just passed. I remembered a similar day in the Zagros mountains of Iran three Januarys ago, where I had pushed myself all day through the fear and the cold and the cruel, glittering sunshine, and then watched the light drain out of the sky from inside a small teashop in the village of Shirin Su, while local gentlemen bickered amicably over who would host me for the night.
Josh and Anna invited me to join them for dinner (Josh was just on his way out to fire up the barbeque to cook the hamburgers), and eventually also offered me a cabin for the night, since the temperature was still falling, and Anna couldn’t bear the thought of me sleeping outside. I thanked her as sincerely as I could, but I don’t think I really needed to say anything – the crack in my voice and the tears in my eyes were probably enough.
And so, after a cosy and convivial meal with Lydia, Judah, Hannah, Evelyn, Obed, Ezra and Sylvia (and their parents), I hauled my bike up onto the veranda of the cabin Josh had warmed up for me, spread out the contents of my panniers to variously dry, air and recharge, stripped down to my baselayers and stretched out on the bed. Just before I fell asleep I wrapped myself up again and walked over to the main house to use the bathroom. On my way back, confident of the warmth that awaited me, I lingered in the cold for a minute or two, and for the first time was properly struck, as with an arrow to the heart, by the beauty of where I was. All around me the spruce trees were caked with pure shining snow, glowing in the light from the cabins. Above them, a velvety black sky glistened with a million stars and a full golden moon shone down on me. As I watched, the faintest green glimmer of the northern lights played across the night sky. The air was crisp and sweet and silent, as if the snow was swallowing up all sound – or simply because, aside from the occasional swishing, scraping noise of a car passing by on the highway, there was almost no sound to be heard.