• Benji Pollock

Rain With A Chance of Showers

Updated: Oct 7, 2018

In Fairbanks, I stayed with a guy named Ben that I met on Couchsurfing. Ben was an incredible host. He hosted me before I headed up to Deadhorse, and then hosted me again when I got back. I was only supposed to stay for a night on the way back, but after my gear fiasco, he offered to let me stay a few extra days. Those few extra days were crucial to figuring my shit out, and great to be able to spend some extra time with Ben. Ben was an awesome guy. He was an avid cyclist, and we shared lots of stories of travel, his bike packing and cycle touring adventures, and my time up on the North Slope. I worked on my bike a bit, and took it in to REI where Oona - a total adventure junky and one of the coolest cats around - helped me with a couple small repairs. Luckily, I lost a bunch of gear in the middle of a big sale at REI, so I was able to replace most of my stuff cheaper than expected. Big thanks to Christina at REI Fairbanks and Ian at Ortlieb USA for helping me figure out all my gear issues (and to Ian for keeping my mom sane while I was out on the road). After my bike and gear were set to go, I went to a cafe to get some wifi work done. Here, I got slammed with notifications from the previous 12 days, and after sifting through everything, saw a Venmo notification in my menu. “Hm, I wonder what that is, I haven’t used Venmo in ages,” I thought. It ended up being a payment from my friend Katelyn for a celebratory beer for making it halfway through Alaska. I can’t wait to use that well. Thank you Katelyn!         On my last day in Fairbanks, I hung out and talked with Ben while I was packing up. It took me forever to get out the door, but I really enjoyed the time I got to spend with him before leaving. I then ran around the city doing last minute errands (I needed groceries, some random camera gear, and some last minute bike gear). I got out of the city at about 5pm (way too late), and logged about 40 miles before sunset. I rode by North Pole, Alaska - not the actual North Pole, although they do have a giant statue of Santa on his sleigh. They had a big Blockbuster Video which had me laughing for a bit. I haven’t seen a Blockbuster in YEARS. As the sun started setting, I scouted out a place to camp, and ended up stealth camping in a little clearing in the woods right off the side of the road but completely hidden. I always feel like such a ninja when I find these spots.         The next day, I woke up and started riding in the rain. It was cold and wet riding (because why would Alaska ever shine sun on me). A little ways into the ride I was running low on water and was getting really cold, so I pulled over at an RV park to warm up. I spoke to a woman there about sunshine and my route. I told her that I thought Alaska was stunning, but didn’t think I could handle the dark in the winter to live here full time. She argued that it was no different than in the Northeast, where in the winter you go to work when it’s dark and get home when it’s dark, and while I understood her point, I wasn’t fully convinced. She gave me advice on where I should go on my route, where I should stop, and what I should see. After a while I decided I needed to get going, so I said goodbye and went outside and hopped on my bike. I was cycling to Delta Junction, and saw that there was one host in the entire town named Lara. She seemed awesome so I reached out to her, but lost service before hearing back. I stopped for a snack break, and when I turned on my phone I saw that I had service, so I turned on my data to check Couchsurfing. I had a message from Lara that said she was out of town, but her boyfriend’s mom Tiki would be more than happy to host me. Seeing as I was already wet and cold, I got incredibly excited to have a roof over my head that night. I called Tiki to let her know I’d be in at around 6pm and to get info on where to go. For lunch, I found a beautiful lake with a pull off next to it just as the rain was letting up, so I pulled over and unpacked my food. A couple in an RV saw me at a bench, and offered me a bottle of water. We started talking, and when they noticed I was dripping wet, they invited me into their RV to warm up. We talked for a while, and they gave me 2 cheese sticks, 2 bananas, a cup of apple sauce, and some time to charge my phone. It was a well needed rest. It turned out that the woman had actually lived and worked in both Philly and Pittsburgh. Small world! Now, they were retired and traveling. After a while of talking, I looked at my watch and realized that I had been there for an hour, so I said goodbye and thank you, made a quick lunch, and hopped back on the road. I texted Tiki that it was looking like I’d be arriving at 7. It was raining again, but the riding was nice. I saw a few moose on the side of the road, and later learned that the area I was riding through was a moose corridor because of all the bodies of water and vegetation that was around. The last 5 miles of the day were flat, but surprisingly difficult. I pulled up to Tiki’s at 7:01pm. One minute off!! Maybe I’ll start actually being on a better schedule! Tiki was absolutely incredible. She took me in, let me shower, do my laundry, and then fed me an incredible homemade smoked salmon stew for dinner and a freshly picked blueberry square for dessert. We chatted for hours about Alaska, her family’s adventures, the area, and my trip. After, I hit the hay because I was exhausted from the cold and wet day.         When I woke up the next day I saw the sun for the first time in a while, and it was the warmest day I had. Despite wanting to get out and ride in the sun, I stayed at Tiki’s until about noon to have a delicious oatmeal breakfast and get some internet and mapping work done. My plan was 60 miles so that the next day I’d have a good amount of time in Tok to run all the errands I needed to run. Along the ride, I found a really nice campsite with a shelter where I ate lunch. The day was absolutely gorgeous and the sun was such a nice treat. This was the second day all trip that I only rode in one long sleeve layer, and the second day all trip that I used my dark grey sunglass lenses. I have a light pink lens to wear when it’s dark out, and a dark grey lens for when it’s sunny. I like wearing sunglasses all the time while riding to protect my eyes from gravel, wind, bugs, and rain, but I wished I had been able to use the dark lenses more. At one point, a ladybug flew onto my handlebar bag, and rode with me for about 5 miles. Between the sun, the warmth, and the ladybug, it actually felt like I caught the end of summer, and not like I showed up too late in the season.         In the afternoon, I crested a hill and gained a bunch of speed when I noticed a fully packed cycle tourist coming up the hill. This was the first time I had seen another cyclist! I started seeing motorcyclists a lot on the Alaska Highway, but even when I give them a biker hello (yes, there’s a secret hand signal for motorcyclists that I hijack to seem like I know what’s up) and get a friendly hello or thumbs up in return, the main thought in the back of my head is always a joking “…cheater…” I slammed on my brakes so I could say hi to the cyclist. His name was Yu Yang, he was from Beijing, and he had been traveling for 2.5 years. His chain was really stiff, so he asked if I had some chain lube and I gave him some of mine. He was heading north, trying to ride up to Deadhorse. “Are you flying out of Deadhorse then?” I asked. “No,” he responded, “I'm flying out of Anchorage, so I'm biking back down.” “Jeez,” I thought. The North Slope was apparently covered in snow on August 4th, there was a snowstorm in Deadhorse 3 days before I got there and another one 2 days after I left, and I hit snow on my trip through the Dalton going South over a week ago. I told him all of this, and he responded by saying that he wanted to test himself to see how much cold he could handle. Props to him. I thought I’d be one of the last riders going south on the Dalton. I reckon he’s probably going to be dead last going south from Deadhorse for the season. I asked him about the grocery store in Tok, because I was running low on food, and he said it was too expensive so he skipped it. “I don't give myself the ability to skip grocery stores,” I thought. I carry almost exactly what I need to get to the next town with a grocery store, plus some emergency rations. “Can you get rice in Deadhorse?” He asked. “I assume you can at the general store, but I don’t know for sure, since I didn’t actually go in when I was there,” I responded. Hearing that he skipped the grocery store and was only worried about rice in Deadhorse, I asked what food he had. I’m crushing thousands and thousands of calories a day and still crave gross, fatty foods like it’s my day job. He grabbed a Ziploc bag of red berries that he said he had picked. He offered me some, and I told him to be careful picking berries up here. He told me he'd been eating them for a few days and it didn't do anything to him. I still respectfully refused. He then showed me his collection of dandelion leaves that he had picked, and told me he also picks mushrooms when he sees them. Seeing that he had made it 2.5 years on his bike, I figured he knew what he was doing, but there are so many poisonous berries and mushrooms up here that I’m more than OK sticking to groceries stores. We then checked out each other's gear. He had a lot. His bike was 17kg, and his gear was 45 kg. Apparently, he was in New York and rode up to Canada through Montreal, and there someone stole all his gear. They caught the thief’s face on a security camera, but the police couldn't actually find him. Yu Yang ended up coming back to the states to rebuy all of his gear for cheaper, and then continued Northwest. I was a bit nervous for him on the Dalton. I didn't think he was ready for it. But he had a ton more experience than me on the bike, so I didn’t think about it for too much longer. He made me realize that the gear you have really doesn’t matter all that much. What matters way more is what’s in your head. The gear isn’t going to get you up and going, and it’s not going to get you to the finish line. It might make the journey a little less difficult and a little more comfortable, but without the motivation and drive in the first place, the exact gear you take barely matters at all.         I ended up riding through a residential area as it was getting dark and got nervous that I wouldn't find a place to camp. As I thought I’d have to camp directly on the side of the road, I found a parking pull off with a mossy patch behind some trees that would be perfect for the night. I pulled over and had an awesome wrap of Mashed potatoes, cheese, smoked salmon that Tiki gave me for the road, and crushed up crackers. It was delicious. I craved ice cream all day, so I was excited to get to a town the next day.         The next morning, I woke up and had a quick breakfast of a blueberry square that Tiki gave me and some granola, and then was on the road by about 9:30am. It was cold and grey in the morning, but I was feeling really good and making really good time. I pulled over for a snack break at a windy and cold spot and got back on the road as it started raining. Rain. Again. Of course. I've been trying to appreciate the rain more (it’s really difficult when you're wet and cold nearly everyday, but it's really good mental practice). The rain gets rid of the bugs. Rain changes the smells of the atmosphere. Autumn brings rain, but it also brings incredibly beautiful fall colors. Cloud cloaked mountains are stunning. Fog over water is stunning.         I was riding through a beautiful valley where I was getting rained on. The mountains to the right of me were almost whited out, and the mountains to the left of me were perfectly sunny. I thought, “of course I'm in the rain and not even half a mile to the left of me the sun is shining bright.” I quickly got that out of my head when I remembered an important proverb that I learned in Haiti (in 2012, I was immersed into a small community in Haiti for 2 weeks to build a school) that translates to "the rock in the sun can't feel the pain of the rock in the water." Just because you think somewhere else is better, or someone else has it better, doesn’t mean it’s the truth. I realized that the sun on the other side of the valley was gorgeous, but the smell of the wet asphalt, the cloud veiled mountains, and the fog laced autumn colors where I was were magnificent. “How lucky am I to be here right now?” I thought. I got so cheery and happy and appreciative that I got bouncy. “But wait, I'm not actively trying to bounce,” I thought. “Am I really this happy?” I looked down at my bike to figure out why it was bouncing. I noticed my rear tire wobbling as it was losing air from a flat. I pulled over to try and fix it, and pulled out a huge piece of glass from my tire. There was no shoulder and no place to pull off the road. I moved into the thick tall grass so that I'd be safer fixing the flat but I was sketched out. Three 18 wheelers blew by me, and then a guy in a pickup right behind them saw me and pulled over. He came to check up on me and I told him I was trying to fix my flat but didn't feel safe. He responded “yeah, you aren't safe, let me take you into town, it’s right down the road.” I rode with him for the last few miles into Tok where he dropped me at the visitor center (which was closed for the season) so I could fix my flat. His name was Bill Stanley, he lived in a cabin outside of Tok that was only reachable by ATV, and had another cabin by Juneau closer to where he worked on a 2 weeks off 2 weeks schedule that he loved. Once I fixed my flat, I ran to the post office to mail some stuff home. I wrote my parents a letter on an Alaskan postcard in USPS, and as I started writing I started crying. The more I wrote, the more tears ran down my face. I was facing the wall, trying to write coherently while hiding my tears from the people coming in to do their regular errands. I’m not much of a crier. Most times I cry are as a result of the loss of a loved one. But here I was, writing a thank you letter to my parents for raising me how they did and supporting me and my trip completely (after quite some time of them rejecting the idea), dripping tears everywhere in public. “If I’m crying from this letter,” I thought, “I can’t imagine what it’ll do to mom.”         After that tear jerker, I went to a restaurant called fast Eddy’s for food and wifi. On my way over, a guy on a bike rode across the street to come talk to me. He was a French guy named Cheri who was also riding to South America via the continental divide. We talked for a while, took pictures and then he asked me to grab coffee. I was in a rush to get my blog done so I suggested we ride together the next day. He agreed, but told me he was a pretty slow rider. I told him that would be completely fine. I’d be just a bit outside of town in the woods. I’d wake up and wait and hope that he'd find me. When I got to fast eddy’s, I wanted something fatty, but I hadn't had much fresh food in a while, and they had a pretty cheap all you can eat salad bar. My mind wanted a burger or pizza. But my body needed the fresh food. So I ate tons of salad and used their wifi to finish up my Dalton blog. I had been craving a Dairy Queen Blizzard or McDonald’s McFlurry (they’re gross, but a cyclists mind will tell it’s taste buds and body the craziest things) for a few days, so I got a milkshake for dessert. There was a couple behind me that ordered a pizza, ate half of it, and then when they were asked if they wanted a box to take it with them they said they didn't know what they'd do with it. I was absolutely sure of what I'd do with it. I wanted that pizza more than anything. I waited to call over the waitress to ask if I could take it. Think I'm gross? Whatever. You know what's good? Pizza. You know what's even better? Pizza while bike touring. You know what's the best? Free pizza while bike touring. So call me gross, but I was salivating at the thought of half a pizza for free. While I was waiting, the bus boy swooped in and threw it out. SHIT. I should’ve spoken up. I should’ve said something to the couple instead of the waitress. I lost my chance.         I lost track of time and still needed to get enough groceries to get me to Haines Junction and then find a campsite, so I rushed out of the place and frantically grocery shopped. When the lady running the cash register at the grocery store saw me rushing and could tell I was all over the place she told me that the Chevron gas station right next door had a lawn in the back that people camp at for free all the time. I went over to check with them, and Dave the cashier told me that I'm good to set up a tent and use the bathroom. They closed at midnight and opened at 6am. I got some snacks, went to set up my tent, then to brush my teeth and then to bed.          When I woke up the next morning, I was about to walk over to the gas station to brush my teeth when a couple sketchy drunk guys claiming to be locals started talking to me. They then moved their tent right next to mine, so I decided to pack up my stuff first before going to brush my teeth. They seemed well intentioned, but were hammered at 9 in the morning and started smoking something in their tent right next to me. They offered for me to join them, but I politely (and obviously) refused. They claimed they were going moose hunting so I got out of there as quickly as possible. I did not want to be next to a bunch of messed up guys with guns. I ended up meeting and talking to people all morning so I got on the road late when I realized that Cheri never found me because I was camping in a different place than I said I would. Maybe I’ll catch up to him in the coming days. I met a couple named Bradley and Jill that gave me Cassiar Highway advice and then I raced out of town to try to catch up to him. The ride ended up being beautiful and sunny for most of the day. I pulled over into a lookout point over a lake to have lunch and saw the first bald eagle of the trip gliding in circles above me. The bugs were also out in full force today. They're apparently called noseeums because they're so small you can't really see them. But they're great. They're extra protein and calories for no extra effort. You don't have to chew them. In fact you don't even have to swallow them. They’ll fly straight to the back of your throat for you. They’re also explorers and adventurers, so I related to them. They love discovering the unknown. They try to check out what’s in your ears and nose and eyes and shirt. I really loved climbing with a swarm of them around me. 15 minutes of a swarm flying my speed around my head is my idea of fun.         People often ask me what I think about while I ride. I’d like to tell people it’s all intellectual. Sometimes it's about my past, sometimes it's about people I love and appreciate, sometimes it's about philosophy, sometimes about music, sometimes it’s reflection and introspection, sometimes how to pack my bags better. But today was a completely different story. ALL I could think about was the damn WASTED PIZZA. I craved pizza so badly all day that I pulled up on a native community at Northway Junction with a general store and went in on a crazy hunt for pizza. Digiornio’s pizza, $22.95. No thank you. Hot pocket, 3 bucks! I'll take it. And add an ice cream for a buck because it's warm today (55 degrees). I ate it and then continued riding. I got in about 5 more miles before the sun set, but I was having a hard time finding a place to camp. Finally, I found a pull off that was a bit too open and close to the road for my liking, but I set up camp anyway for the sake of being in bed by dark.          I woke up to pee at night, and the stars were gorgeous. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but it was too cold to stay out and enjoy them. In the morning, after a quick breakfast, I started riding, and then had snack at a rest area. As I was pulling out, I noticed that while I was eating, construction had started on the road and flaggers came in. One of the flaggers asked “how's it going?” I responded, "cold but great!” He then told me that he thought the motorcyclists looked colder, so I told him that’s only because they're going way faster and barely using any energy to do so. After that interaction, the day took a turn for the worse pretty quickly. It started raining on me, I was sick again, everything hurt, and I was moving at a snail's pace with constant breaks. I was completely beaten to shreds. I finally got to the Tetlin Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. The building was warm and the women at the front desk invited me in to have some hot coffee. I stuck around for a bit for more coffee and to snack and stretch and rest and use their wifi. After an hour and a half there, I just couldn’t muster up the energy to leave. I knew that there was a restaurant with warm food and a campground with warm showers only 30 miles away, but couldn’t motivate myself to leave. I was dead. I kept sitting back down to stretch because I was so stiff. All I needed was a warm meal and hot showers, but nothing was motivating me to get up, and I started telling myself that I didn’t have the time or energy to get there.         A lady named Mary who volunteered at the visitor center ended up coming up to me and asking how I was. I told her I was really feeling beaten up. She asked if I wanted a lift just to the border. I said “if you guys are going that way anyway, I'll take the ride, but otherwise it's absolutely no worries and I'll get there.” She said “let me go talk to my husband.” She came back with Kenneth and he said he was ready to leave. I asked him if he was going anyway, and he said “for you, yes. I have nothing else to do.” I told him dropping me just before the border would be great and then I’d ride the rest on my own. He told me he brought his passport, so he’d drop me right at the restaurant. He walked in with me, and said he wanted to check if they had a cabin for me. I told him not to worry about it, and luckily they ended up not having any available anyway. “Cool" I thought, “I'll just camp and they won't have to worry about me.” Then the cashier recommended checking the motel for a room. I told him to really not worry, but he insisted. "if I don't bring back a receipt, I'll have a very angry wife". He won that argument. They put me up in a motel so I could warm up, take a warm shower, relax my muscles, and recover from being sick. They were incredible. Mary and Kenneth were absolutely incredible and went above and beyond.         That night, I told my parents about what Mary and Kenneth had done, and my Mom decided to try to contact Mary to thank her. She was like an investigative journalist calling all over to get in touch with Mary. After a few calls to a few different places, she finally reached the visitor center. A woman answered, and my Mom asked to speak to Mary. The woman that answered was skeptical, so my Mom explained what Mary and Kenneth had done for me, to which the woman replied, “yeah that sounds like Mary and Kenneth, they’re incredible people.” Once my Mom got in touch with Mary, she told her that she wanted to send her a check. Mary refused and told my Mom, “Listen, I’m a mom, and if either of my kids looked like your son did that day, I’d hope that someone would help them out too.”         After I thanked Kenneth, I went to the restaurant and got a burger. I found that I had gotten used to being on my own and in the woods all the time. The constant noise from the TV in the restaurant drove me nuts. It wasn’t even very loud but the sounds started hurting my ears. While I was eating my food, a commercial came on the TV that said “don’t grow up too quickly and enjoy high school.” A mother with a 2 year old daughter bent down and held her in a tight embraced, and said softly “please don’t grow up too quickly.” It was absolutely adorable. After I finished my burger I was still hungry. I had still craved pizza after the wasted pizza because the hot pocket only did so much to satiate that craving, so I decided to get a pizza to go.  Since there was a fridge and microwave in the motel room, I thought I’d eat a few pieces and then save the rest for breakfast the next day. I wrecked the whole pizza by myself. And was still hungry. If Mary and Kenneth could treat me so well tonight with barely knowing me, I could treat myself a bit better too. So I went to get an ice cream.         I had wifi in the room, and so I started mapping out the rest of my route through Canada. I started thinking a lot about the people who I’ve met on this trip, the incredible acts of kindness I’ve experienced, and my mindset over the past week. A ton of people who I talked to about my trip mentioned how late I was starting. They all warned me about the impending winter weather and about my need to rush out of here. Tonight as I was paying for my meal, I started talking to one person in line and the cashier and told them where I was going. “No you’re not,” the cashier said jokingly. “You’re about to get stuck here in the snow.” I had internalized all of this. My trip had become me escaping from winter. Even once I got wifi, my main goal in planning my route through Canada was to find out how long it would take to get to Vancouver. Vancouver, I was thinking, was the spot where I start knowing people regularly along my route and having more regular places to protect myself, where I start hitting towns more regularly so that I didn’t have to worry about being able to carry enough food in between grocery stores or rationing what I got so that I had enough calories to get to the next grocery store, and where I’d hit a more temperate climate so I wasn’t always in the cold. The grey and cold rain had started effecting me emotionally, and people’s warnings made we want to get south ASAP. When I started the trip, I had the huge challenge of getting through the Dalton highway. This section was the most planned section I had. My original big goal was to get to Fairbanks. But I never set another goal destination. So Vancouver became my next goal. But Vancouver was 2,000 miles away. That left a month and a half of spectacular views, riding, people, adventures, campsites, hosts, and experiences under appreciated and overlooked. I was no longer present. Fuck that. I’ll get to Vancouver when I get to Vancouver. If strangers can treat me so well, then I can treat myself a bit better. I have a low daily budget for this trip, but given the cost of living up north, I end up spending my daily budget almost all on food. If I needed a place to stay and dry my gear and wash my clothes and shower, or an extra meal at a restaurant, or a day off, then I would take it. If I run low on money, I can stop somewhere and work for a bit. I knew from the beginning that I was starting this trip 2 months later than most because of my surgery and job abroad. I knew that the weather was completely out of my control. But I researched weather averages for the places I was going and gave myself buffers. I had all the gear and experience I needed to get through the north at this time of year. So if my limiting factor becomes my mentality, I thought, then I can spend a little bit more money up north to make my life a little bit easier, and the section a little bit more enjoyable. I pledged that I would enjoy everyday I had left up in this absolutely beautiful region of the world, even if the day sucked on paper. I promised myself I’d be more present, and not let my mind wander to a place months away. I had to re-choose to be HERE, wherever here may be. I stopped planning all of Canada, and the next destination I planned up to was Haines Junction. There was a fun hostel in town, so I decided to spend a bit extra to stay in the hostel and meet other travelers. I’d take a day off to hike and enjoy the town. I also knew someone there, so I’d be able to visit with her for a bit too. I knew there would be incredible views and people between Beaver Creek and Haines Junction, so I didn’t even set the town as a goal in my mind. It was just the next place that I knew that I would have a roof over my head.

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