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I’ve spent a couple of months thinking about it.
And now, I’m back in the UK, with my bike
For now at least I feel like I’ve done enough.
I set out alone from the Arctic Ocean coast of
Alaska at the end of May 2009, 250 miles
inside the Arctic Circle, unsure if I could
make it through the first day, let alone keep
going for …
6 months and 5,150 miles or …
… the equivalent of cycling the length of Africa
from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa.
And yes (aside from around 50 miles after a wheel collapse and 3 miles in a pick-up through ‘construction’) I cycled every inch of that!
Before this trip (and I can’t quite believe this myself) the sum total of my cycle touring experience was … 4 days in the South Downs (near London, UK) 18 years ago when I was 16, staying in Youth Hostels. This has been a ‘bit of a step up’ …! Its all a little bonkers really.
I was monumentally nervous back in May but, as I remember, having to focus on the practicalities of cycling and camping wild on the Arctic Tundra somehow meant my mind did not have time to worry (much!).
To this day those 2 weeks from Prudhoe Bay along the Dalton Highway to the town of Fairbanks remain some of the hardest, yet most fulfilling of my life so far, for I carried what I’m now sure was almost 400 lb (me plus bike plus kit plus food) for 400 miles along gravel and dirt roads (and then 100 miles on pave) across a mountain range through snow, blizzards, blinding dust, headwinds so strong I had to pedal downhill and temperatures dipping to -20c, with grizzly bears literally just feet away at times not to mention the ‘oversize’ rigs carrying equipment the size of the space shuttle to the oil fields.
I had a couple of very close calls in the dust where I just missed being mowed-down by one of the behemoth trucks, was buried in my tent under snow one night, survived on cold food for the first week after my stove broke, once used a welding torch to boil some water for soup, rode one day for 16 hours to make it across the mountains for a meal at a Truck Stop, spent a nervous night at the Arctic Circle after a hunter had told me of recent bear and wolf attacks at the camp and developed something akin to a Gatorade addiction.
I could write so much more but then of course, there’s the rest of the trip.
It was difficult to get going again from Fairbanks and to keep heading south – I felt like I’d already done an ‘epic’ just making it solo down the Dalton, but, after a great time off the bike with a friend from the UK I did get going again and on picking up the Alaskan Highway (or Alcan) I made it across the rest of Alaska and into the Yukon, Canada.
With Alaska, northern Canada had the most astonishing wildlife of the trip – in the far north I’d see herds of hundreds of Caribou rushing across the road in front of me and I’d regularly pull round a bend in a road through some woods to come face to face with a huge Moose or Elk. There were the Buffalo herds along the verges and the worrying but also quite weirdly magical encounters with Black Bears walking out in front of my bike, just feet away. Full-on wilderness with vast swathes of land for hundreds of miles in every direction seemingly comprised of nothing but trees, mountains and a stupendous menagerie except there were no cages or fences here.
I also remember this section of the trip for the temperatures (approaching 40c many days) as that part of Canada underwent a heatwave and as a result drinking upwards of 10 litres per day. And of course, I met Ward and Jacky from Iowa who taught me so much about life and the road and with whom I cycled for 2 weeks.
Not before seeing the astonishing scenery of the southern Canadian Rockies in Jasper and toward Banff (up there with the best I have seen anywhere, ever) I was welcomed back to the US (Montana) by what seemed like a week of constant rain. Montanans were a kind bunch and I slept quite a few nights, as I had done in much of northern Canada, camping on village greens or in front gardens, indeed, before reaching Montana I realised I had camped for 50 nights in a row (compared to no more than 10 days before this trip). I was going feral I think and, starting to get used to it!
Yellowstone was inspiring but the Teton mountains really ‘got me’ – including of course a visit to the hospital for stitches after accidentally digging a still-green snapped branch into my head during a hailstorm at a campsite! The Rockies of central Wyoming were like I’d imagine to moon to be, except maybe Wyoming has the odd shrub and of course the south of that state brought me my highest point (elevation) of the trip at just under 11,000 ft after a 4,000 ft climb (and mild hypoxia) over 20 miles, much of it dirt roads and tracks across open fields, followed by one of the most amazing 40+ mph descents.
The snow was starting to arrive in the mountains again by mid September (after I’d said goodbye to it in June in northern Alaska) and following a welcome weekend away in LA with some friends and some great R&R in Denver with some more, I began what to Charles, Derek and I would become known as ‘The Chase’. Climbing back up into the high Rockies from (already ‘mile high’ Denver) staying with some friends from Yellowstone initially, we made it the 500 miles south through Colorado and New Mexico just before enormous storms hit the Rockies, leaving areas that we’d ridden through only weeks before, buried under 3 ft dumps of snow in just one night! Even the fringes of the storm in central New Mexico meant we were almost flooded out of the tent one night spent at a Freeway intersection.
If I’d thought Wyoming was empty then parts of New Mexico gave it some very stiff competition – desert conditions (despite the recent deluges) meant stretches of 50 to 100 miles with no streams and certainly no shops or even houses so carrying 10 litres of water (normally I’d carry about 4) became commonplace. Santa Fe (quirky locals), Roswell (aliens) and Carlsbad (caverns) gave much needed distraction.
Carlsbad in southern New Mexico had been the last place that I’d begun the trip wanting to visit – it was late October by that point and the weather was worsening (getting colder) and it had been below freezing every night for weeks by this point, leading me to often wear my down jacket inside my sleeping bag whilst camping. It was draining to say the least. I decided to change direction and visit another new state, Texas, in the hope that it would be warmer and that I could ‘sling-shot’ further south into Mexico by staying longer in the US before crossing the border.
Texas was hotter, much so, wonderfully so, and also incredibly welcoming as I slept again in backyards and was given a bed for the night once too. It was around this point that I started to feel some locals just couldn’t relate to how far it was from Alaska, answering ‘oh thats quite a distance’ but not really grasping what it really meant until I told them just how far away it was, perhaps because it defied comprehension (or logic / sanity!) in many ways.
And so it was that I ran out of things that I ‘needed to do’ in Del Rio, Texas, USA and with a flight booked from Monterrey, Mexico 300 miles away and my US visa having only a few days left I took a (very) deep breath and crossed the border… It felt almost instantly as if I had travelled hundreds if not thousands of miles into another world, not just a few hundred yards across a bridge – a lot of people actually walked everywhere for a start, there were horses, chickens, cattle and children running around, crazed dogs trying to burst my tyres as I rode by and of course the inevitable shouts of ‘hey gringo’. I was expecting the transition to be more gradual, after all Mexico is increasingly well developed (especially in the north) and was surprised and slightly let down by how much it affected me (having spent time in southern Latin America before).
I was unnerved I’ll admit. The daytime temperature was increasing (toward 40c) as was the humidity at times – I was sweating buckets in the sun, ending my days riding with my t-shirt rippled with white lines of salt. I spent a couple of days holed-up in a hotel with Montezuma reeking his revenge as it were. Another night I had a knock on the door at 2am – it felt decidedly dodgy, my door fronting as it did onto the otherwise deserted car park and the knock being unaccompanied by anyone calling out so I trusted my instincts and stayed-put and will never know if it was totally innocent. Yet another night I realised that the (different) motel’s door-lock was, as they say, knackered, and that the ‘locked’ door could be pushed open by a meagre breeze (I shoved the bed up against the door for the night).
Later, as I climbed back up again, the mountains were beautiful. I met lovely, kind people. And also remembered how gorgeous some Latin women are, ahem. But, I was expecting to be excited at coming back to Latin America (I spent 4 months in the south of the continent a few years back). It was early November. I was slowly realising that even as I’d approached Denver back in late September I had been starting to ‘run out of steam’, although not physically.
I’d begun the trip in late May, unsure of how far I’d go, although as previously mentioned even then I harboured a desire to visit as far south as Carlsbad in New Mexico (along with the the more northerly Jasper, Yellowstone, the Tetons, the Colorado Rockies and Roswell). As I worked my way south into the lower US I decided that it was important for me to make it into Mexico such that I could feel that I’d crossed Canada and the US, regardless of what came after that.
And so it was, with heavy heart and after a couple of months of building-up to the decision, I decided to stop in Monterrey, Mexico. My feelings right now are of both relief but also some disappointment that I didn’t feel like heading further south. But that as they say would be a whole ‘nother kettle of fish …
6 months, solo, camping for 5 months, cycling all 5,150 miles, along the the 3,000 mile length of the Rockies, through Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Coahuila and Nuevo Leon, Mexico. I’ve found previously untapped resolve, stubbornness and drive. I’ve seen things that I’ve dreamt about for years and realised that if you really really set your mind to something that you can do it, but also been reminded that, just because ‘you can’ doesn’t mean you ‘have to’.
I feel like I’ve lived about 6 lifetimes and I’m sure it will be many years before I can ‘take it all in’. But, that sounds ok to me! Indeed, that which I’ve written about in this and prior posts only scratches the surface of what I encountered.
Thank you, profoundly so, to all of you who have encouraged me from the start.
I would like to think that I’ll use this website again for future trips so please feel free to ‘Subscribe’ using the button on the top right (scroll to the top).
Again, thank you.
Oh, and I simply love my bike – it is utterly utterly phenomenal. Well done Charles. And thanks Derek.