Sat in England planning this trip I had all sorts of expectations and preconceptions, frequently daring to look into the future to imagine where I would be when. I saw myself heading the season’s cyclists, trying to snatch glimpses of World Cup football matches from Canadian backwaters and celebrating my 30th birthday blissfully alone by the side of a deserted highway. Experience has taught me the weakness of my own body so I expected that at some point along my way I’d be getting injuries. What I didn’t predict was that one such disruption would strike me down so soon.
I arrived in Fairbanks on June 1st, not on two wheels but four. Once I got off the Denali Park road it was clear that there was something going on with my right Achilles. I figured I had some form of tendonitis and recognized that there would be no point doing further damage by trying to bike up the two days to Fairbanks. So, I freewheeled down to the highway, lined up my bags so they looked less and started thumbing for a lift. A large percentage of people in Alaska drive huge trucks so I knew my expectations of a ride were not unrealistic. And sure enough within 20 minutes I was sat aside Dan travelling north with my bike safely stashed in the following trailer. It turned out that Dan was with a group who were camped by the Nenana River a few miles down the road near Healy. It was Memorial Day weekend and they had travelled up from Anchorage to use their time off rafting the silty Nenana waters.
Next thing I knew it I was dry suited up and fighting waves in the front of Dan’s raft. As Dan paddled JR and Erika joined me as crew as we were expertly piloted a mellow 10 miles of Nenana rapid. Thankful for the experience, I would spend that evening around the campfire with this merry group. On eventually dragging myself into my sand pitched tent my thoughts turned to all the great experiences I have had hitch hiking. Before I had time to curse my bike and body I was asleep.
The morning of the first had Jillian drive me back up to Healy to thumb my way the remaining 100 or so miles to Fairbanks. I was interested to discover that she had been recruited to massage Mark Beaumont when he was in Anchorage the previous year. I spent a good hour in the blazing sun aside the Healy section of the George Parks Highway, time spent pondering the state of my foot and the significance of my present location.
I think most people of a like mind have heard of Chris McCandless, the young man who shunned society, adopted the alias Alexander Supertramp and walked into the creative imaginings of John Krakauer and later Sean Penn. ‘Into The Wild’, the book and subsequent movie about McCandless had fascinated me for a while, although I despise certain things of the mans character I really respect much of his philosophy. I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t been influenced by the mingling reality and romance of his personal freedom and ultimately selfish quest for ‘something’. On April 28, 1992 McCandless turned off this highway just north of where I stood and started hiking the Stampeded Trail. His subsequent efforts to sustain himself in the wilds would leave him dead and turn him into a legend for many. I had been surprised how often his name had cropped up in conversation in Alaska (many people had been involved in making the movie) and even more shocked at how many Alaskans respected this character citing the belief he may have been looking to die.
Despite my fleeting respect for McCandless, I still feel he suffered for his lack of basic and obvious respect for the power of the Alaskan wilderness. He barely scratched the depth of this magnificently unforgiving environment, yet having succumb to its charms he would ultimately be slain by its bite. If he was looking to die then this naivety can be conveniently ignored. I think Krakauer is creative and knows how to write a good story. McCandless’s quest was interesting but his death was unremarkable, following the tragic template of many an inexperienced escapist who have fallen and doubtless will continue to fall to the call of the wild.
I arrived in Fairbanks in the front of Stu’s truck. Born and bred in the city, he had travelled south for a weekend of partying. A young man, with breath that betrayed his boozy thirst of the night before, Stu was good conversation as we surged up the highway through thickening forest fire smoke. Having stomached a bowl of Stu’s homemade soup he dropped me off up in north Fairbanks where I had arranged through warmshowers.com to spend a couple of days with Phyllis and Chase, a couple of retired bicycle touring anthropologists with rave warmshowers reviews. The moment we pulled up to their house I knew I had fallen on my feet, but at this time I didn’t appreciate just how lucky I was.