Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Ain't No Rest
Delta Junction was over 150 km past Fairbanks, and about 170 km past where I stayed. Tok was about 170 km past that. Beaver Creek was about 170 km past that.
I don't do half days.
Fairbanks sits at a low elevation, and rivers flow into it. To get to Tok, I would thankfully be following one river the whole way (the second half of the Dalton Highway was cutting across the grain, which explains the abundance of hills), and while I had to go upstream, a slow, steady incline still didn't sound too bad.
Before I left Fairbanks, Patrick helped me set up a sign on the back of my bike. Decals don't stick to the fabric my panniers are made of, so we had to get creative with a piece of cardboard, plenty of clear packing tape, zip ties, twist ties, and four soda can tabs. I conceptualized a good part of it on the bike (you have lots of time to think about pointless subjects on a bike tour), but some of the attachment was Patrick's idea. I gotta say, it would not have turned out as well without his help.
Just getting out of Fairbanks was a solid 20 km. Another 20 km put me in North Pole, AK, where just about anything that could be described as pole-shaped is painted in a candy cane pattern.
Halfway through the day, one of my eyes started hurting. I pulled over to put an eye drop in, in front of a store called the Knotty Shop. A guy who looked like he was at least part native wandered over and asked about my ride. After I gave him one of my wristbands, he said, "I wanna give you something too!"
He returned with an Army-issue camouflage shirt, complete with thick elbow pads and Velcro tabs for patches. It was obviously good quality outdoors gear.
"That stuff is great at night in the cold, or for camping, and it lasts forever. I want you to have it!"
I was kinda touched. This shirt probably meant something to him personally, and he was giving it to me! I would've felt horrible telling him I already have all the clothes I need, and I didn't want it because I'd be weighed down an extra pound or two (it was a thick shirt), and it was also two sizes too big. I just said "Thank you" and made a mental note to give it to someone who would appreciate it even more than me. And in Delta Junction, I found just that: a teenager who thought it was just about the coolest thing. I'm glad I at least helped it find a good home.
There were a few hills on the way to Delta Junction, but nothing I couldn't handle. Late in the day, the wind kicked up and tried to keep me out of town. I arrived in town late enough that no one would still be at a church. Might be hard to find a place to stay...
I went to a grocery store that I'd been hearing about for almost a week. I mean multiple people, and more than once each. With that much said about it, I had to check it out just to see what the big deal was. And for a town that size, especially somewhere as remote as Alaska, I was impressed!
In casual conversation with the cashier, I mentioned that I was looking for a place to stay in town that night. She told me to check out a certain church again, but before I got the chance, a gentleman approached me as I was packing my groceries on Valeria.
"I understand you're looking for a place to stay?"
"Well, if you're OK with very modest accommodations, you're welcome to stay at my place."
"I'm happy with a floor and a ceiling!"
"Well...it's very modest."
I followed Bruce's green pickup a couple blocks to his place. It was a little small, and a little rough on the inside, but I thought it was a cool place! Three stories (you non-Texans don't understand how good you have it, getting a basement is like doubling the size of your house), and just a cool setup, I especially liked the small upstairs bedrooms.
Bruce offered me soup, chicken, beer, and hours of good conversation. Bruce was an NRA advocate with a son in the military, another who had won an Oscar, and a daughter who was an engineer. He'd homeschooled all of them. I'd say he must've done something right along the way.
In the morning, after a thoroughly satisfying breakfast of eggs, toast, ham, and hash browns, Bruce took me over to the visitor's center, found at the northern terminus of the Alaskan Highway. Just as we headed out, I noticed I had a flat. Bruce was too far ahead to wave back, so I rode the few blocks on my flat and patched the tube there. Switched out the tire as well while I was at it, from the knobby cyclocross tire to the smoother, but more durable touring tire. Now that I shouldn't see much more gravel, it's an improvement. Still not as smooth, light, or durable as the ones I asked my bike shop to get, but oh well.
Getting to Tok was much the same as Delta Junction: straight, a little uphill, and long.
About a third of the way there, I stopped at a highway rest area and found a friendly custodian named Kathleen, from Tok. She told me I should meet a couple that runs a church there, and that they'd be likely to put me up. The idea was she'd call them when she got to Delta Junction, then pass me on the way back to Tok and let me know the status.
The wind today was indecisive, like it couldn't make up its mind if it wanted to be a headwind or a tailwind. Aside from that, the weather was just about perfect.
Halfway through the day, I ran into a couple on touring bikes. First touring cyclists I've seen this trip! They were from Alaska and were just spending a week or so touring the state, which is still a boatload of riding!
"The wind up ahead is weird," one of them warned. About the same as I'd been finding it.
Turned out they'd biked through Patagonia before and told me 100 km/day is literally impossible, and I should get the fattest tires that will fit on Valeria. The roads are that bad. Great...
For about a 25 km stretch, the wind turned on me and blew right in my face consistently. Right when I was thinking I might make it to Tok at a halfway decent hour, no such luck. At least it was pretty.
Kathleen caught up to me around 5:00 PM and explained that she didn't get a hold of the Abels, but that she left them a message, and then she went ahead and gave me their number. I'd have to wait until Tok to try it out.
Only a few minutes later, I found two more touring cyclists! An odd couple, a young guy from Colorado and a middle-aged guy from Germany. Both of them were essentially dressed in street clothes, and looked like they were going to camp at a highway rest area. I declined their invitation to join, determined to press on to Tok. Their bikes were impossibly weighed down. One of them was even carrying a full-size guitar!
Once I got in cell phone range, I tried calling the Abels. No luck. About 2 km shy of town, I saw a church with about half a dozen people standing outside of it. Well that could work! It was already 7:00 PM, so the odds of finding anyone at another church were slim.
"Are y'all with this church?" They smiled and nodded. I explained my ride and asked for floor space. They looked at each other uncomfortably.
One of them broke the silence: "It's not my call."
It turns out they're between pastors, and no one felt like they had the authority to say yes.
"Do you have a tent?"
"You can definitely camp in the grass behind. There's water and an outlet there, and no one's gonna bother you in this town."
Water, electricity, and safety is about as much as it takes to make me happy. I wheeled Valeria around the back and started unstrapping my tent.
"Sir?" I turned around. "Are you allergic to cats?"
I smiled. "I like cats!"
"Well then, if you're OK with very modest accommodations..."
Does everyone in Alaska describe their house this way?
Wayne and Lisa took me in and fed me more than generous portions of chicken, potatoes, and veggies. Hot, tasty, and a lot of it! Perfect after a long ride. Lisa teaches elementary school an hour away from Tok, and Wayne grows vegetables. I hadn't thought about it, but you can grow things rather well in Alaska: the growing season is short, but the hours of daylight are so long that things grow quickly. Funny how things balance out like that.
Crossing the Canadian border was, well, interesting.
I don't know why, but when I got there and saw the Welcome to Alaska sign, it looked a lot smaller than I remembered. That happens a lot with things you saw as a kid, but I saw it as an adult!
As soon as you hit the Canadian border, construction. They're resurfacing the road and you had to wait for a pilot car.
While I was waiting, a couple in an RV was taking photos of the border sign. After they asked about my ride, they insisted I come in the RV and have a snack. Apparently "snack" means two monstrous sandwiches, a can of cream soda, a bag of trail mix, two bananas, two nectarines, and about a pound of strawberries. Holy moly! I wouldn't even be able to finish this off tonight!
I wound up having to wait for the pilot car a couple extra times because they wanted to drive me through, but needed to unload the back of the truck first. When my turn finally came, the driver helped me load Valeria in the back.
"So what are you doin' out here?" He looked like he was probably still a teenager, and mentioned that he lived in Beaver Creek.
I explained my ride. More than most people, he seemed particularly impressed with the charity aspect of it.
"Well we need more people like you, man. Helping people." He paused for a second. "Damn people and their greed. Destroying everything!"
I guess I can agree with the sentiment, but I dunno if I've ever said it so bluntly before. At least not out loud.
7 km later, I was dropped off. The road was loose gravel for a while. I felt like I should warn Texas 4,000 that the Alaskan Border Race will be under horrible road conditions, but from the look of things, it's possible that the road would be better by then.
Oddly enough, the Canadian customs office is 30 km past the border! The officer seemed most interested in my occupation and when and where I'd be returning to work. Trying to protect Canadian jobs, I guess.
I went ahead and paid up the $15 for a campsite in Beaver Creek, the first time I've spent money on lodging thus far. A shower, clean water, electricity, Wi-Fi, and hot chocolate in the morning was worth it. If not for the mosquitoes, I probably would've cowboy camped. Looking forward to when I can do that again.
Nine days in, and I've had my first border crossing! Of course, I'm not done with the USA yet, but Alaska is larger than a lot of the countries I'll be visiting. This feels like an accomplishment. And three consecutive days of >170 km isn't bad either! Now if I could just start getting to bed at a decent hour.
Onward through Canada!