One Hell of a Way to Start

Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks, Alaska – 500 miles – Leg One
The trip has now began, and it did so in great fashion. I have struggled with sitting down to write this first update partly because I haven’t fully processed what I went through on my first ten days of riding, and because I am becoming aware of the massive following I have built up behind me. I am sure most of you have jumped straight over to look through my photos from the first section of my trip, which is great, however I realized as I was looking through them myself that it all looks so great and beautiful that it becomes hard for me to express the level of pain and discomfort that region put me through. So, I must first begin by saying that the Dalton Highway, or Haul Road as it is commonly referred to, put me through one of the toughest challenges of my life.
The analogy of the rollercoaster is very fitting for this section of my travels. It adequately describes a good portion of the undulating road in addition to fairly accurately describing the pattern of my emotions and my mental state throughout the ten days. I can’t help but put a good portion of the blame on myself for much of what I went through. There were two primary reasons I see for that. First, I attempted to prove to myself that I was both strong and capable of handling the Dalton in addition to being motivated, excited and prepared for the 18 month journey ahead. So, while I felt as though my kit was appropriately light, I had inadvertently placed a massive extra weight on my shoulders for which I would be suffering under for a good duration of the road to Fairbanks. Second, I was drastically ill-prepared for the physical challenges of touring the Dalton Highway. With 225-250 lbs of person and equipment to haul up and over frequent hills and passes, many of which had gradients above 8%, I was not nearly ready enough to endure those challenges continuously, day after day.
No journey south from the Arctic Ocean is official unless you allow yourself to touch the icy cold salt water and christen yourself ready for the trip. This is not actually the easiest thing to accomplish in the land of the oilfields. Prudhoe Bay is technically where the oil drilling occurs, and Deadhorse is the town that “supports” the industry. Access from Deadhorse to the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay is restricted by British Petroleum for fear of an attack on their facilities. So, in a very ironic turn of events, in order to begin my solo, self-powered, bike tour south, I had to join a tour led by a BP security officer out to the ocean. We meandered through the drilling operations and all their affiliated facilities on a hulking bus over miles of built up roads that sit above the coastal plain. The oil operations are spread over a vast area, and the maze of roadways would seem to be a nightmare to navigate. When development in the Arctic began, they quickly learned that most typical construction applications would result in melting permafrost and a sinking structure. As a result, they now set everything atop gravel pads at least 4 feet thick to insulate the permafrost from the structures and maintain the integrity of the ground. What I noticed most from our journey to the ocean was the gravel desert that had been built to support the oil operations. The arctic coastal plain and the north slope are considered a desert, with only about 5 inches of rain per year, and 20 inches of snow. However, with the permafrost below, the water can not penetrate the ground and will pool upon the surface. This soggy tundra is a nightmare to walk, and certainly a nightmare to develop. Yet, our BP security officer tour guide was insistent upon their environmental precautions when building up Prudhoe Bay and in their continuing oil development around the arctic region. In this harsh and fragile environment it is also a necessity for them to leave all vehicles running all winter long, for fear of loosing them to cold. This is an understandable occurrence, but it continues to draw into question their efforts at a small, gentle footprint on the region.
It was in this city of machines and pipelines that I began my pedal trip south. Not a mile out of town and the landscape, the real landscape, exposed its true nature; flat, tussock covered ground, intermittently interrupted by clear pools and ponds of water suspended above the permafrost. Distances are extremely difficult to judge because their is no point of reference on which to rely. It is a notoriously challenging place for bow-hunters to hunt Caribou for this very reason. The road I was traveling was built for the express purpose of supplying the oil fields with the material and resources necessary to keep the operations active year round. It is primarily a haul road for trucks to transport their goods, and secondarily it is becoming a destination for adventure seekers to access the Arctic Ocean.
Tears welled up inside me as I dipped my feet in the Beaufort Sea thinking of the great journey ahead. I had spent 18 months thinking of such and adventure, and 6 months seriously planning this one. There I was with numb feet thinking of the scope of my next 18 months. It was, and still is, immensely overwhelming, so it was a great relief when I was able to actually start pedaling down the road. The familiarity of the bike underneath me, the road in front of me, and the reassuring repetition of the pedal-strokes all helped to bring me back to the moment. I traveled for the first 10 miles feeling on top of the world, so thrilled to be where I was and doing what I was doing. That elation soon gave way to the gravity of the moment; day one of a life-changing, multi-year trip. Holy Shit, what was I doing, how did I get myself into this, and how in the world am I ever going to get myself through this? The only two things I felt I could lean on, my legs, were underneath me and were already getting tired. Of all the days on the road, day one represented the most rollercoaster day of all my emotions. Depending on what I was thinking about, or looking at, it could in an instant change the attitude I had toward the entire undertaking. Out of stubbornness and a desire to prove to myself that I was capable, I pedaled 60 mostly straight and flat miles that first day, ending up about 1000 ft above where I started, on a hill overlooking the coastal plain. I was spent, and after struggling to eat dinner, I collapsed in my tent and my journaling quickly drifted into tears. Even at that moment, I was aware that they were partial tears of relief for finally being on the road with all the nervousness and anxiety about the trip behind me, and true tears of exhaustion and fear for what lie ahead. I woke up the next morning and could hardly stand up from inside my tent (a feeling I became very familiar with). My aspirations on the first day caught up with me on the second and third and fourth day of the trip. It took all the strength and mental resolve I had (not much at the time) to keep pushing the pedals down. I felt as though the hills were the steepest things I had ever tried to ride a bike up, and the breeze was a gusty wind in my face. The trials and tribulations of the road those next few days just represented all the hardships I have endured. I couldn’t rationalize why I could be put through such a grueling physical test when I was already lining myself up for the test of a lifetime. In retrospect, I certainly realize that the Dalton Highway was not out to squash me, or that a greater force was not trying to punishing me for any karmik misstep in my past, rather it was just being itself. The Dalton is a road that travels over a rough landscape, scoured by wind, snow and ice, exposing beauty one moment and the harsh realities of the environment the next. When I coupled that with my underprepared legs, I was in for a real hurt. On my fourth day I awoke to howling winds. I didn’t feel like sitting in a gravel parking lot for the whole day right next to the road, and so I pushed on. The wind was so strong at times that I was reduced to a standstill. I believe I used 1st gear primarily, and was assisted by 2nd and 3rd only on rare occasions when I was going down hill. It took me 5 hours to progress 15 miles closer to Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range. In that 5 hours I had fully decided that; A, Murphy was a bitch and I hate his law that says wind always has to blow in Justin’s face when he is on his bike, and B, contrary to popular science, wind actually originates at the South Pole and blows all the way north to the North Pole and culminates in the Aurora Borealis. Aside from breaking down on the side of the road in tears of frustration and exhaustion I managed to take a few stunning photos, cuss through a great assortment of swear words, and yell at every conceivable thing, entity, or power that was obviously against me and any chance of success on this trip. Failure was just around the corner, so before I got there I set up camp next to one of many rivers and contemplated how in the world I could possibly make it the next 350 miles to Fairbanks or the 17,650 miles left to Ushuaia. That camp was gorgeous, so when I awoke the next morning I saddled up refreshed and ready to tackle Atigun Pass. Just 10 steep miles later, I was atop the first big obstacle of my journey. How, I asked myself, could I have been so low, so down-and-out yesterday, and so easily on top of the world today. I pedaled 70 additional miles down the valley and wound up in Coldfoot, the halfway point. Coldfoot the truckstop has one great asset for the touring cyclist, and that is the expensive all you can eat buffet. Tired and starving, I sat down and consumed one plate of pasta, one plate of rice-pilaf, 6 tilapia filets, two bowls of salad, four pieces of hearty bread and four squares of butter, two glasses of sprite, and a coconut macaroon to finish it off. I tried again the next morning at their breakfast buffet, but after a week of fasting, I didn’t have the room for any more food.
I had planned to take a day off in Coldfoot to give my body a much needed break. Up to that point I had either been wincing in agony as my legs squeezed every ounce of strength out to climb each undulation, or I was screaming in pain as my rear end was batter and bruised against my un-broken-in fancy leather saddle. At the halfway point I was becoming desperately fearful that each additional day or mile would be the one to break open the blisters and send my ass into a new level of pain and discomfort. Fortunately, both my saddle and my butt began to break-in as the miles wore on. It is still uncomfortable to sit on my saddle, but I wouldn’t feel the need to describe it as particularly painful anymore. That morning in Coldfoot I found that the wind was almost, sort-of, partially at me back. So, without a second of hesitation, I was on the road again.
It was good that I decided to push on because after days of hearing of this mythical Englishman, Nathan, always about 20 miles ahead of me and always doing about 40 mile days, I managed to finally catch him. We ended up spending the next two days together and both seemed to enjoy the company on the road. His plan resembles much my own, and I don’t doubt that our paths will cross multiple times between here and SA. It was a blessing to run into Nathan because his attitude was such a breath of fresh air. While I had been torn up and in tears because of the difficulty and struggle of the road, Nathan had been happy to the point of tears for being able to ride his bike in such an amazing place. Needlessly to say, I sucked him dry of all his positivity, and actually feel that the remainder of the trip was relatively pleasurable.
Relatively pleasurable. We both had assumed Atigun Pass to be the big behemoth of a climb and that our largest hill was therefor behind us. As we rode together, and eventually when we split up at the end, we only encountered steeper, longer, and more grueling hills. It was more than once that we would stop atop a hill and proclaim it to be the hardest of the ride so far, only to proceed to the next hill and announce it all over again. Frequently the hills were 9% grades for a mile or two, and would often spike to upwards of 12% grades at points. Mind you, it was a gravel or dirt road most of the time. Standing up would sometimes cause you to loose traction on the dirt, and sitting down often seemed impossible. I can confidently say that my tough guy decision to stick with just two chainrings was a little foolhardy. The last hill of the Dalton really seemed to be excruciating, and after hearing from Nathan (who has a bike computer) that it peaked out at 14%, I realized that I must be getting stronger as the road wore on. Somehow after 10 days and about 500 miles I managed to reach Fairbanks, destination one on my journey south. It turns out that I could do what seemed impossible, and that with each pedal stroke I came closer to realizing my goal. This small step has instilled a great deal of confidence in me and my adventure. I feel I learned many lessons from the first leg of my journey. My attitude and outlook is very positive, and I am excited about the road ahead. I don’t believe it can throw the same challenges at me that I faced on the Dalton, but even if it did, I feel I might be more prepared to handle it.
I will celebrate my Birthday here in Fairbanks, before gearing up and setting off again. From here I will head south and east into Canada. My next sizable stopping point will be Whitehorse, the capitol of the Yukon.
I know I have left some things out, and if I remember some important ones I will add a new post soon. Thank you all for reading along. I hope I have inspired and entertained you, and that you enjoy the photos from my first leg of the journey. Thank you most importantly for your support. During the tough times, it was nice to know you were all wishing me along.

9 Responses to “One Hell of a Way to Start”

  1. Aunge says:

    Hey there buddy! Wow – it seems so surreal that you are out there. I am glad we chatted and hope you had the best of birthdays. I have to share a little story from a certain 6 year old – Sully. He was looking at a globe the other day and became quite frustrated. So his friend’s mom and I asked him what he was looking for and he said “I’m looking for the top country because my friend is there.” I was confused and named a few countries and showed them to him. When I pointed to Alaska (yes, I realize this isn’t a country), he exclaimed, “Thats it, there it is!” And then he went on to tell his friend’s mom about how his friend was riding his bike all the way from the top of the world to the bottom – and that’s when I realized he was talking about you. He kept saying, “Isn’t that cool?! That’s cool!” I think you have people cheering from you from every walk of life – big and small. Keep those pedals cranking! – Aunge

  2. Carol says:

    Hi Justin,
    You may not remember me, but I knew you at church in Colorado Springs. What a fantastic adventure you are on! You write beautifully and I’m looking forward to the next posting.

  3. Martha says:

    What a magnificent post! I did tear up a bit, and I had a great laugh at the food intake with the macaroon finale. Justin you are an incredible person and an amazing writer. The fact that we get to live vicariously through you on this journey is something that we’ll never be able to truly thank you for. Happy Birthday!

  4. Jake says:

    Happy Birthday Justin! Too bad we can’t be there to celebrate in Fairbanks with you but I’m sure you’re gonna have a blast anyways… Your last post was nothing short of amazing! Glad you got to Fairbanks with a smile and will be looking forward to hearing about the great fishing adventures to come!

  5. Heather says:

    Happy Birthday!! I loved reading your first entry and so glad you got over some of the emotional and physical battles so far. Not to be cheesy but it almost brought tears to my eyes!
    Keep up the posts and good luck with every bit of it,
    Heather

  6. dan says:

    happy birthday! do your clothes smell yet?

  7. Caitlyn says:

    My favorite part of this blog entry is when you label Murphy as a bitch for making the wind blow in your face. hahahaha. HAPPY BIRTHDAY and congratulations for reaching the first milestone of what will continue to be an inspiring adventure. You can and you will and we all are rooting for you!!!

  8. Becca says:

    Wow! Thanks for the update!! I had dinner with Aunge tonight and she said she got to chat with you today!! It is fun to read your first en route post and I wish you a VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY tomorrow!! I will try to reach you tomorrow too, but I will be in the woods for a large portion of the day, so I wanted to make sure to at least say happy happy once before then 🙂

  9. Danny says:

    Justin,

    You have a group of followers at the orthopaedic hospital, we were busy “working” today surfing your web site and admiring your spirit. A few bookmarked your page as a favorite. Jeanie say’s you need to stretch your hip-flexors, quads, and IT band..seemed you looked a little tight in a few photos. all the best, Danny and Jeanie

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