Alaska postcard

Already more chats with strangers than one ordinarily has in a week in New England unless you go insisting, easily preluded outside an Anchorage downtown diner, “those are some massive tires, like a monster truck!” Becky Scott, not necessarily without a home but not necessarily with one, ballcap, navy blue sweatshirt from the Gap though it’s hard to imagine her shopping there. Then stories about a childhood with liquor cabinet break ins and Mom gone and accidentally shattered china, about camping in Denali on the 20th anniversary of statehood in remorseless rain with not enough room in the camper. About hitching rides to Wasilla at 2am because alcohol is available there until 5. She explains the cracks in the pavement as a hint of another big earthquake coming and eventually asks me if I’d gone to college. “Uh huh,” I hedge. “What did you study?” “Philosophy.” “I should have figured!” I know this Becky Scott likes me so it’s not intended as an insult, but still. “I would have studied science. Those are cumulous clouds, I think.” I offer to buy her a coffee, she declines, gets on her way but not before a genuine and long hug.

Passed two cyclists going in the opposite direction on this wide dirt track that parallels the highway. As they approach, they smile, nod and one says, overly loudly in a strong American accent, “Bonjour!” Do I look that stylish? I say, “Hey, what’s up fellas?” and we drift out of earshot of one another.

On the way to Hope, halfway there, I’m sitting for a spell and four mountain bikers catch up. Three from Oregon — Matthew, Mark, Paul — one their old buddy Jacob now living in AK. Great guys, invite me to share in their mandatory post ride beer, which I do, which turns out to be a great deal of it. “So what is philosophy?” I try to answer, and then we talk about the nature of fear, bikes, bears, Buddhism and math. They’re glad my name is “Joe” so that they can call me Joseph in order to preserve the biblical whimsicality of their coterie. Jacob’s girlfriend comes to ferry them home in a reassuringly enormous pickup, I end up camping nearby since pressing on, wobbly as I am, seems not such a good idea, even if there is an abundant enduring light.

So, leaving Girdwood the next day, I turn left to press the distance between me and what counts as urban in Alaska. And promptly find myself in the midst of a Livestrong charity ride. They’re headed to Seward, it will take them two days, and I pass dozens, cheerfully offering hellos and goodmornings. They’re primarily the neon yellow windbreaker riding decent Treks and Colnagos set, agreeable, but trembly in the primal headwind and a bit unpredictable in groups. I soon acquire a wake of guys who want to go fast but need someone else to pull. Or maybe the thought of a loaded tourer going by is intolerable. Anyway, 16mph, flags, windsocks, trees angling away from the gale, I’m stupid smugly on the rivet, stringing us out pedaling flats in light hiking boots, 70+ lbs 3.7 tire Pugsley with a bunch of guys on road bikes clinging on for fear of getting shelled. Then rounding the end of Cook Inlet, tables turned, I’m full gas to keep up for 14 minutes of 26 mph, flying before a storm in the lee of a strong 60something until he turns off for one of the feed stations, we shake hands, and I’m dizzy and sweaty.

Rain from Turnagain pass to Hope.