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The Yellowhead

The Yellowhead Highway of British Columbia and Alberta almost defies categorization.  Between the world’s largest fly fishing rod and a children’s costumed bike parade, the Yellowhead brought us a puzzling array of memories.  We left snow-capped mountains at the beginning of Highway #16 in British Columbia, sped across rolling pastures and farmland, were beset by heavy logging trucks on the highway’s narrow or non-existent shoulder, mowed lawns and picked apples on our days off in Prince George, and now leave the Yellowhead amidst glacial lakes and vast mountain ranges in Jasper National Park.

Mount Robson

Picking apples in Prince George

Every day is an adventure. We start some days with a destination in mind and others with nothing more than a direction (South, perhaps?).  The concerns of time and distance dissipate throughout the day as we meet friendly tourists and locals. Setting aside the time to talk is one of the most important lessons that I have learned thus far.

One of our hosts, Johnny, puts us down in his "black book"

From mushroom pickers to Mounties, we have met some fascinating people on the road with valuable knowledge to share.  Our conversations led to an powerful phenomenon on the Yellowhead: referrals. For a period between Smithers and Prince George, we had several home stays. Church congregations and folks we met would refer us to their friends and family down the road, which led to a cycle of home stays.  After returning to the usual routine of a small camp stove and tent, I know firsthand how magical a family’s dining table and guest bedroom can be. To all who have fed, hosted, or helped us in any way, thank you.

huckleberry "bear" pancakes!

Seven-Eleven's two-for-one dollar doughnuts + peanut butter + honey + granola = joy

Enduring the rain has been a challenge for us all, but we continually attempt to improve our waterproofing methods. We have begun to tie plastic bags over our boots and wear dishwashing gloves to keep our hands and feet dry. We certainly do not look “pro” with our new accessories (you would probably laugh if you encountered us on the road), but it sure beats being wet at the end of the day. After days of rain, days like today (the forecast calls for “abundant sun”) are uplifting.

As we ride closer to the U.S. border, I reflect over all that Canada has meant to us – the kindness and generosity of those we have met, the harsh weather, and spectacular scenery – and know that it will be missed.

I wanted to share one highlight from the Yellowhead.  After a grueling 150 km day to McBride, where we camped in the city park, we were surprised to learn that the town had planned a fall fair for the next day. At the time, we were particularly interested in the costumed kids bike parade so rather than leaving that morning, we delayed our departure so that we could take part in the festivities. Although we didn’t decorate our bikes, wear costumes, and ride through the parade, we thoroughly enjoyed the day’s activities. Conversations over coffee and doughnuts, singing for the fair, cheering on the young bicyclists, and watching a horseshoe tournament made for an memorable day and capstone for our time in British Columbia.

Our new friend, Pete "the Heat"

By The Numbers #1

With over a month between us and Anchorage, the time has come for an accounting.  We reminisce about our single flat tire that occurred within two hours of beginning our trip in Anchorage and the endless washboards and blueberries of the Denali Highway.  We ride each day as jars of peanut butter, bags of rice, and kilometers accumulate in our wake.  Each day is its own adventure which makes it easy to forget how much lies behind us.  I won’t try to explain any of the inside jokes that have developed between us, but I will show you the numbers behind the journey thus far.  And maybe a few jokes.

This is a nontraditional post for Bound South.  I even chose some theme music.  Since we are passing through Canada I am featuring a Canadian artist that we all enjoy.  To start things off for my numerical post, a numerical song by Feist:

A quick sample of the food that’s been put before us:

Now that we’ve piqued your appetite here are the cold, hard, numerical facts of Bound South. Enjoy!

Miles Covered: 1915

Max Speed: 39 mph

Steepest Grade: 10%

Hours Riding: 184 hrs

Flat Tires: 1

Isaiah’s Bike Fails: 2.75 (.75 for bike tipping)

David’s Bike Fails: 1

Nathan’s Bike Fails: 1 (David’s fault)

Calories Consumed: ~580,000

Peanut Butter Consumed: 24 lbs.

Trail Mix/Granola/Raisins consumed: 12 lbs.      

Honey Consumed:  1.5 gallons

Rice and Noodles consumed:  Countless servings.

Roadside Cookie Donations: 3

Photos taken: 2094

Memorable Quotes:

“David, you’re like the sergeant” Host in a hot-tub in British Columbia.

“Boys, don’t tell your mother I gave you this” – Host mother in British Columbia

“Such a double standard!” -Me, referring to a standard that applies to them and me

“You’re going the wrong way!” – Alaskan locals, informing us that Argentina was the other way.

“I’m reading War and Peace, your books are 100pg children’s novels half of which are pictures!” – Isaiah pretentiously comparing his completed books with my own.

Favorite Meals:

Breakfast: French Toast in Dease Lake at Mama Z’s

Lunch: Chinese Buffet in Frasier Lake, BC with Wendy

Dinner: Salmon Dinner in Cantwell, AK with Bob and Janie

Website Views: 23,493

Favorite Website Search Engine Hits:

“metaphors for ice cream”

“met a guy at gas station”

Commenter of the Month: Krista

The numbers have been crunched, and the results are in: we’ve had an amazing first leg of our journey.

Mind, Body, and Machine

Shattered.  Any cyclist could tell you that the adjective isn’t all about glass.  There may be other sports that share cycling’s terminology of physical and mental exhaustion, that understand suffering that would “ennoble the muscles” as Henri Desgrange put it when he founded the Tour de France.   There is something profound about the bicycle: if your running shoes tried to draw as much sheer effort as a bicycle can, you would simply fall over.  Suspended by a bicycle saddle, the immolation of your legs can always be arranged to leave you breathing, moving, yet completely shattered by day’s end.

I was steeped in a culture of road cycling since I started college, cutting my teeth on collegiate racing and the four seasons of Vermont dirt roads and New Hampshire mountains.  Occasional sacrilege had put me on a mountain bike during my years at Dartmouth but my heart was always with road and cyclocross racing bikes.  I was never a phenomenal competitor, mind you.  I rode well and hard and knew The Rules and the art of a group ride. I loved the sport and racing with all my heart despite my lackluster results.

No matter how strong you are, cycling humbles you.  There is always someone faster or a ride that is harder.  I’ve eaten my fair share of humble pie, my last serving being an epic 150 miles through New Hampshire.  Hubris suggested that this Alaska to Argentina thing wouldn’t be that big of a deal.  We’ve got most of the day to go our average 110k, meet new people, take photos, eat 5,000 calories, and set up our tent.  The third day of our journey was a very hard hundred miles in the mountains to Cantwell, AK that we began at noon.  We got it done in a little over ten hours.  Barely.

New life springs from below the burned forest

I knew this journey wasn’t going to be easy.  Deep down, I didn’t think it would be quite this hard.  Pushing heavy bikes through the wind and up hills is an exercise in constant mental toughness.  We are getting stronger every day.  Yesterday we had our first true tailwind of the trip with southwest winds helping us along to Vanderhoof, BC.  It was spectacular.  The three of us flew past farm country and pasturelands at speeds that rivaled a spirited road ride on skinny tires and race bikes.  A humming paceline is music for the soul.  It almost made up for the day before, a grueling ride of 150k to Fraser Lake that proved the inverse rule correct: once you leave the spectacular scenery of the mountains, endless rolling hills and winds conspire against you.  We had done longer and harder days already, but there was something profound about that ride in particular.  I felt beaten, even if I finished the ride like any other.

We love Canadian signs.

The intensity of that feeling subsided once we were taken in by an older couple who stuffed us with spaghetti that night and huckleberry pancakes the next morning.  Yet the feeling of that cruel brush against my limits still lingers and reminds me somewhat of human nature.  We would rather eschew the cold rain, the long climbs, the achy legs, the doubt and the mental stress of life on the road because it brings us uncomfortably close to the limits of our own mortality and nature.  Yet only by facing those austere limits can we appreciate the vast expanses of the little worlds between Alaska and Argentina.  There are corollaries in faith and love and family and life.  If we take the time to listen, there is much to learn on the road south.

Looking down through the Barrage Bridge

Mudslides & Mama Z

We leave the Cassiar Highway of British Columbia with heavy hearts.  Good old #37 has been just what we needed when we needed it, even if we didn’t ask for it.  Small miracles define our days.  We ride too quickly and often overlook their occurrence.  Yet like our shadows they are never far, and when the days grow old they remind us to reflect and to talk.

Endless roads in British Columbia.

Some days we finished with no energy left to speak into an audio recorder.  Ever been high up on a patch of cold highway asphalt in the Cassiar Mountains, chilled to the bone with the sun on a long vacation, and holding a hot plate of rotini and Campbell’s Prime Rib in your hands?  You praise God for your good fortune, wolf down your food, and figure that it is best to pass out quickly in your sleeping bag before a bear comes along to change your luck.  At least that is how I rationalize all of this fun to myself.

Feast at our abandoned logging camp.

New fall fashion: roadside belts.

It is fun, after all.  There are the difficult parts to contend with.  Drying off a tent on a cold wet morning is one of them.  I still have not mastered the Sleeping Bag Arts so as to not overheat as I fall asleep or freeze my toes by 6AM.  Heavy bikes get heavier when the hills get steeper.  I smell bad and look questionable, which makes our efforts at spreading goodwill and attracting support a dubious endeavor at times.

Cold sunlight in the mountains.

Yet to quote George Santayana, this difficult world of ours is “shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these, the spirit blooms timidly, and struggles to the light amid the thorns.”  Riding our first day on the Cassiar Highway, we passed up a pleasant campground to fight the dying light and move another 25 (or so we thought?) kilometers to Jade City.  We finished our ride in the pitch black of the mountains, headlamps as our only light, looking like ghosts on some twisted family vacation.  Through the bright lights of oncoming big rigs and the real or imagined sounds of large animals beside us and the snow flurries, we made it.  You dig deep inside of yourself and lean on your brothers in a profound way after a day like that.  Small miracles, like shadows, weren’t even recognizable to us until the day after.

First glorious live potato sighting since Whitehorse.

Claudia's unforgettable rhubarb cake in Jade City, BC.

The family and owners of the Jade Store took us in from our cold tent the next morning.  We dodged torrential rains the next day and were given the gift of goulash and potatoes and meatloaf and rhubarb cake and love, all of it thick enough to cut with a knife.  We left dry, warm, and well fed only to be cold and hungry once more on the doorstep of Dease Lake.  I stopped a man outside of the grocery store in the rain for information; he happened to be a chef at the restaurant just down the street.

Brotherhood: I'll trade peanut butter for your honey.

Before we knew it, we had a tenting spot out of the rain on the back porch of Mama Z’s Jade Boulder Cafe.  Zora is the name of the owner of the establishment, and she is a spectacular woman.  The chef at Mama Z’s is a man by the name of Chris, who happened to share David’s love of music.  Chris has tremendous talent as a chef, and we miss his creations dearly.  Chris and Zora were so generous and kind and we cannot thank them enough for giving us a place to stay for a time.  We will pay their generosity forward and hope it returns to them tenfold.  Torrential rains continued to plague the Cassiar Mountains, and Highway 37 was closed to all cyclists and vehicles alike for a time.  We rode on past the highway barriers and closure signs, trusting that we would figure things out when we got there…wherever “there” was.  And we did.

Surprise roadside reunion with Zora, one week later. We will miss her.

Mud, water, and debris strewn cross the Cassiar.

Abandoned logging camp of luxury.

One of many mountains.

We rode all but the 35k of the Cassiar Highway that a Ministry of Transportation truck evicted us from.  Kindness continued to come from unexpected places, like a campground that placed us in an unbelievable cabin after one of our hardest days of headwinds and climbing.  The rest was unforgettable.  We tented on questionably bear-ridden rest areas in the freezing cold.  We camped inside deserted old logging camp trailers.  We consumed disturbing amounts of peanut butter, Oreos and some awfully discolored water.  Things could not be better, except perhaps our laundry situation.  And maybe that is what keeps us going, why we leave each morning for a new patch of earth to pitch our tent.  There is more road before us.  David just finished On The Road by Kerouac and found a particular quotation that we would like to share:

It was no longer east-west but magic SOUTH. We saw a vision of the entire Western Hemisphere rock-ribbing clear down to Tierra del Fuego and us flying down the curve of the world into other tropics and other worlds.

Watching the washout before they closed the Barrage Bridge once more.

Something deep inside me feels left behind here on the Cassiar, bound to be picked up again on another ride or drive through these mountains.  It’s that feeling that there is too much we didn’t get to see, too many conversations that we didn’t get to have because we’re bound south with such haste.  There was time to talk just as there is now time to pause and think and write and hope for a day when we can come back.  I hope we have enough of our hearts left in Argentina when we gladly leave so much of them behind.

The view from the cabin outside Iskut at Mountain Shadow.


A Time to Talk

Less than a week ago, we came to a road crossing. We could have continued down the Alaska Highway but chose to ride down the more scenic and remote Stewart-Cassiar Highway. Since that juncture, we have experienced both great difficulty and unsurpassed hospitality and generosity. These recent experiences brought Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken“, to mind.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– 
I took the one less traveled by, 
And that has made all the difference

Heavy rain has brought forth some obstacles on the road ahead. Currently, the highway is closed to motor vehicles and crews are working to stabilize roads and bridges affected by mudslides. Uncertainty lies ahead, and that can be disconcerting.   The interruption of our riding rhythm and daily work is stressful, yet another Robert Frost poem comes to mind:

When a friend calls to me from the road 
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit. 

“A Time to Talk” reminds us that the people and circumstances around us might distract from our work, but their “meaning walk” through our lives and their friendly visits are what make the road so rich for us.  We are glad for the road we have taken, and we won’t let mudslides distract us from the magic around us.

Away From Alaska

We learned our lessons after Whitehorse.  Surging through 100 mile days in the mountains, only to need frequent rest days and battle mental and physical fatigue, was not a sustainable way to move south.  We adopted the maxim “slow, smooth, and steady”; we have been covering ~100 kilometers each day since Whitehorse and have just left the Alaska Highway forever.  Originally a simple WWII supply route, the Alaska Highway taught us a great deal.

Here I will present a few of our new Rules as we have learned them:

Riding into the storm.

1.  The difficulty of a ride will be inverse to the beauty of the scenery.  The more spectacular mountains around you, the better.  The more endless timber-forested hills around you, the worse.  The Alaska Highway brought us consecutive days of bone-chilling cold and steady downpours.  The scenery  from Teslin to the Continental Divide was relatively unremarkable while the climbs and conditions were miserable.  The day after, the spectacular valleys east of the Divide made for beautiful and sunny riding. 

The Continental Divide Lodge saved us from the storm and inundated us with borscht, sandwiches, and more.

2.  You can only eat so much, and then some more.  Sometimes you arrive at dinnertime cold and hungry.  Wielding the appetite of a touring cyclist, you know you are capable of devouring 2,000 calories in a sitting like it was a handful of trail mix.  Your hosts seem to know this, and because they get some kind of sick satisfaction from this challenge, they do their very best to overfeed you.  Tragedy ensues.  You find not one, but two or three bowls of delicious Russian borscht in front of you along with sandwiches.  And just when you think you’ve vanquished the foe of hunger forever, a surprise attack of cinnamon rolls brings you to your knees.  Or perhaps strawberry rhubarb coffee cake; and don’t forget, you have to finish all of the meat loaf and potatoes.  Our Wonderful Hosts 1, Bound South 0.  Except everyone wins.

Teslin Bridge in the Yukon.

3.  The generosity and goodness of people rises in proportion to how wet and cold and pitiable you are, with few exceptions.  This rule is connected to #2; if you are ever asked, “How can I show love to a touring cyclist?” you can correctly respond, “By feeding them.”  But this is about more than that.  In innumerable ways, people rise to the occasion in the smallest ways to help you when you need it.  You don’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.  Sometimes you’re looking for some shelter to set up your tent out of the rain or perhaps a simple furnace to dry out your boots.  The little gestures of kindness make all of the difference in the world, no matter where you are.

Mud Lake in British Columbia before night falls.

4.  Avoid riding a bicycle through a dark night in the mountains, but if you must, enjoy the ride.   Despite our best efforts we sometimes underestimate the terrain and overestimate our abilities.  The result is a dreaded late arrival.  When one has been pedaling since 9AM, you don’t want to be pedaling after 9PM.  Once darkness falls the headlamps come on and the world compresses to the patches of mountain road illuminated by your lights.  At first it is terrifying; one might pass by a bull moose or grizzly bear on the side of the road without either realizing it.  We yelled out a few songs to warn the wildlife and to lift our spirits.  We hurtled through the darkness of the Cassiar as the drizzle turned to snow.

This present autumn is fleeing the mountains.

One day off the Alaska, one day on the Cassiar.  One day is all it takes to be unforgettable.  Winter threatens the northern latitudes and we’re Bound South on the Cassiar as fast as our legs can carry us.

What We’ve Been Reading

In our travels thus far, we’ve had much time at the end of our days without the distractions of phone or internet. So, we play cards regularly, be it hearts or cribbage; we sing church hymns or ’90s pop anthems or whatever comes to mind; and we read.  We would like to recommend our current reading list to you.

On our drive up to Alaska, I read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. In the fantasy novel, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a child, is Earth’s last hope in defeating an alien world threat. Utilitarian ideals abound in the novel and are ultimately challenged by Ender’s experiences. That, in addition to values of love and friendship, combine to make this a gripping novel.

I am currently reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac. It follows Jack on his quest for meaning and identity across North America in the late 1940s and early 50s. It’s a novel full of surprising and powerful on-the-road experiences. “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

Nathan is reading Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun.  It’s the story of a Norwegian man named Isak who ventures out to find a homestead in the wild and raise his family.  So far it is a testament to the cooperation of man and earth through his hard work and available resources. “Many things he had thought of doing. But hard as he worked, unreasonably hard–what did it help against time? Time–it was the time that was too short.”

Isaiah has read Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, a convicting jeremiad of the modern university and the liberal arts.   Bloom writes that, “Education in our times must try to find whatever there is in students that might yearn for completion, and to reconstruct the learning that would enable them autonomously to seek that completion.”  As it stands now,”There is no vision…of what an educated human being is. The student gets no intimation that great mysteries might be revealed to him, that new and higher motives of action might be discovered within him, that a different and more human way of life can be harmoniously constructed by what he is going to learn.”

Isaiah is finishing Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, a convicting exploration of the sciences of human nature.  If you are interested in social and evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, and the social sciences you will find this book incredibly rewarding.  It will inform your worldview.

Why We Ride

We were given a very special gift before we left for Alaska: Nooks.  We have at our fingertips a small and simple gateway into the endless world of literature and ideas.  It fits into pockets that books simply cannot.  I do miss the pleasantries of an archaic, physical page turn; yet I find myself hopelessly content with this device that eliminates all of the material distractions from reading.  Minimalist high technology has let me dive into Tolstoy, Bloom, and Sun Tzu.  I’m currently wading through Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, a real intellectual game changer in understanding neuroscience, psychology, human nature, and social science.  

Pinker writes about proximate and ultimate causes.  Why am I hungry right now?  The proximate cause is my active hypothalamus signaling hormones to me that I could demolish a tub of ice cream.  The ultimate cause is that the human body is evolved to seek out scarce food resources and enjoy eating them to survive.  My need for ice cream isn’t actually life threatening.  Yet the ultimate cause is still manifest in the proximate.  Proximate ice cream is a wonderful thing but it is not as profound as the ultimate system of which it is a part.

I think of every day on our bicycles like a big tub of ice cream.  Except you lose weight, increase your hunger, and regret eating so much ice cream every day.  The proximate cause can seem silly.  We are going to this campground or that town (why not something closer?).  Sometimes it is less silly, like when we must reach a certain water source or escape a very certain grizzly bear.  The proximate envelops the breathtaking peaks of Denali and the miserable windy days outside of Haines Junction.  Proximate causes have us climb dozens of mountains, capture hundreds of photos, eat thousands of calories, and move with great intention between lonely old places that we might never see again.

There is a greater ultimate cause that we are about.  It does not take away from the magnificence of the proximate.  It is the raison d’être.  We’re riding our bikes to build a home with Habitat for Humanity.  Every photo, story, person, and mile between here and Ushuaia is proximate joy.  To build a Habitat home in eastern North Dakota is an ultimate necessity.

This is our dream and our vision.  We will pedal across these proximate Americas and attempt to capture their stories and blessings.  That journey will come to an end in Argentina while the ultimate work will remain at home.  If we are successful in our fundraising, we will return home to North Dakota and volunteer to help build a Bound South house.  Our Pan-American bicycle expedition can build windows into the manifold wonders of the world and the walls of a single-family Habitat house.  Please help us make a difference.