Out of the airplane window, snow ripples bound for the horizon and enough time passes for an epiphany, no signs of human life for unusually long. It’s March so home is seeping away from winter but I’m headed back toward it now, mostly into sparsity and space, woods that aren’t just parcels and rivers that pick up speed to that geologic inertia less compromised by our interventions.
You’ve seen that map with Alaska superimposed on the lower 48 United States with Ketchikan covering Savannah, Georgia and Shemya in the Aleutians on top of Sacramento, California. In the absence of strong cultural pinpoint markers, that geographic immensity is hard to contain in the imagination and it therefore remains an abstraction, blurred assurance that on the ground it keeps going and so might you but little more than that. What is sharper is the lore and the mythology and boast, all those frontier woodchop cabin hunting standing fast against the elements stories that mostwhere are historical fiction but here is passably on the truth spectrum.
I land and Nick picks me up at the airport, we head to Lael’s parents to meet up with Alex and for dinner. Tomorrow we’ll do a highlights of Anchorage ride and then off toward sky and frost.
Anchorage is a place that is not about itself, its arrow of reference points to the mountains on clear days or towards the chop and surf of river and ocean. Wide linear strip mall avenues with cheap block era architecture, low downtown buildings huddled together as awkwardly as a group of strangers not wanting to be left out of a conversation at a party. When I’m driving it in my brother-in-law’s borrowed inevitable ’86 Toyota pickup, it takes longer to get anywhere because the one way streets take you ’round expansive city blocks, but it also takes less time because there is speeds and space, like going twice as fast at a 1/2 time frame rate. It’s a built up environment that isn’t an aspiration but an accommodation of the varied wants or realities that bring people here. Gold, adventure, work, birth, misanthropy, dreams, freedom, land, fear, courage.
The nearby riding is divine, rooty winding trails and then steep rises, we head up along powerlines toward a distant saddle, my hibernation fitness protesting, whooping an old friends pedaling familiarity.
The up north towns are spiritually their own version of that Anchorage experience, sagging cabin graced streets radial spoked to a general store with sixteen packs of beer and last season shot ‘bou jerky. And then the boats sitting off the ground are a hint that all those snow machine boulevards are some part of the year waterways linking lakes and wetlands, but that’s not now, now they’re not quite straight lines, almost, that we kick and race into.
Above where the clouds are hard to make out against the background silver, it’s atmospheric void, a backstop that bounces your celestial transmissions back to you so that you learn to broadcast only downward, only earthward.
We pitch a pyramid tent by the sinking sun and firming snow, anchoring the lines to our bikes, I draw a straw short enough to put me at one of the edges and I keep waking in the night to a suffocating dream with damp nylon on my face. Nick, who’s at the other edge, points out that one of the advantages is that he and I can just lift the edge to take a piss and that’s a plausible enough consolation. Inside it’s cozy, there’s no end to the eating. Nick and Lael each have used up an entire loaf of bread in making their sandwiches and they seem content with living on those, I seesaw between jealousy and quizzical skepticism for days.
Our hours are upriver and downriver churning on the Yentna, sometimes we spread out and I meditate the blinding white, the pulse of patches of soft snow, the ruts of the snowmachines. Sometimes we’re three and four wide talking, wave at the occasional mechanical speeder, the boys find unopened cans of beer in the snow from where they fell off supply sleds, we’re dehydrated enough to be left loopy after a few deep gulps.
And then we shuttle north looking for colder conditions as a reply to the warm snap that is consuming the southern part of the state. Toward the aurora borealis, in the direction of the top of the globe’s magnetism, in sight of North America’s highest peak, imagine rendezvous with waking bears, sliding upward oriented by landmarks in a land that we know is little marked, and that’s why we’re here.