My Great Dalton Highway Debate

Lebron James thought he had a decision to make… he should put himself in my shoes!

In the grand scheme of life, the world and suffering this is a trivial matter. In the context of me, the last couple of years and the coming few, it’s a crux move. Should I ride the Dalton or just spin out of Fairbanks?

For the uninitiated, the Dalton Highway is a haul road that runs from the Prudhoe Bay oil fields on the Arctic ocean, 414 miles through forest, tundra and mountains to Livengood (84 miles north of Fairbanks). The star of the popular TV show ‘Ice Road Truckers’, this is at least a challenge and at most one of the holy grails of the touring cyclist. With only one gas station and no other utilities along the route, a cyclist is required to carry two weeks of food and truly be self-sufficient. Riding the Dalton, the most northerly road in North America, marks the true start of the pan american cyclists dream but has dealt a fatal blow to more than a few contenders.

The Dalton Highway (courtesy of http://www.go2moon.com)

So why should such wonderment and challenge need any thinking about at all? For me it comes down to one word… injuries. You have to be fit to ride the Dalton and I have spent the last two months crocked. First with Achilles tendonitis and then with suspected posterior tibialis tendonitis. I was pain-free for the first time only a couple of days ago and my bus takes me up to Prudhoe in three days. I have had no chance for proper rehabilitation. My foot is weak, my legs lack training and my mind is all too aware of my own fallibility. I give the Dalton a lot of respect, I am desperate to ride it, yet know that doing so will more than likely hurt me and certainly (if I am still able) have me riding into foul winter weather later down the road in Canada. When things go wrong on the Dalton, there is nobody to hear you scream.

Everything in my brain is telling me to take my bus up to Prudhoe, then get back on it and bus back to civilization. Yet my heart, my pride and all my passions are telling me to man-up, hit Prudhoe then get on my bike and ride it.

Before the physical pain had left me I had made up my mind: I would take the bus back out of Prudhoe, get off at the Yukon crossing and limp out into the wilderness for a few days camping. Then having hitch hiked back to Fairbanks, I’d start my ride south down the easy Richardson highway, easing myself back into the tour. This way I’d gain a couple of weeks that would be invaluable later down the road in terms of winter, I would be in control of how far I could travel daily, would have lovely paved highway falling under my wheels and would escape having to haul the added weight of two weeks food. Two days ago this was the plan. I was upset that I would have ‘failed’ in my challenge before even starting but satisfied with my adult decision and rational thinking. I thought I’d be sacrificing something amazing for the greater good of the long tour down to Argentina.

Whenever athletes do too much too soon their body will likely break down, coming off a couple of injuries with virtually no rehabilitation, for me too much is virtually anything and too soon is always. It would be hard for me to ease myself into riding the Dalton on account of a harsh climate and exposed landscape. First I would encounter 60 miles of exposed coastal plain and then 80 miles of north slope, before hitting the Brooks range and climbing 4,739 feet (1422 m) up over Atigun Pass, the highest pass in Alaska and vulnerable to snowstorms 52 weeks of the year. To ride only 20 or 30 miles a day would almost certainly condemn me to many long hours cowering in my small single tent. Surely my weakened foot cannot stand this sudden onslaught, let alone my vulnerable knees or complaining lower back. But I lose $280 if I cancel my bus and with the winter freeze getting ever closer I cannot afford to waste any more weeks.

Should I default on cycling the Dalton, what would it mean for the philosophy of my hemistour? This journey has quickly evolved from travelling on a bike to an expressed goal to cycling north to south. There is no rule that I have to cover the entire distance clipped-in, but should cycling fail me, I would prefer to not use any scheduled transport services. Hitch hiking is okay but taking a bus is cheating; working my way onto a cargo ship is okay but taking a ferry is a cop-out. Since missing my ride up to Prudhoe I’ve had little choice but to get the bus up there, but this is not a problem as the trip won’t start until I turn south. To get the bus back south from Prudhoe would be marked as a failure but with hitch hiking reputedly impossible on this stretch of road, sans cycling, it would be my only option. The frequent truckers will never stop for hitch hikers and any tourist vehicle will likely be full or manned by folk understandably reluctant to commit the next five hundred miles to conversation with a complete stranger and potential bore/nut-job.

What price for my dreams? Ask me at any time over the last ten years whether I’d be happy to while away days in the wilderness, sheltering from bears and hostile weather in the name of some greater purpose, and it would be a no brainer. This is part of the point; it is the suffering that leads my dreams into the highest mountains of the world; it is the desire to stretch myself that has led me to Alaska; and past failures that made me pledge an oath of success before the start of this journey. Whole hearted commitment has led me to the brink of wonder, it is not my place to succumb to sense. I owe it to my future self to tackle the Dalton. If I were going to let reason rule I wouldn’t be here. I have chosen spirit and half measures is not an option. The chance of physical break down is very high, but I think I’d rather prove this than fear it.

At 6 am, Tuesday July 27th, I will be on the Dalton Highway Express out of Fairbanks and so will my trusty steed, Shermy. Sixteen hours later we will arrive in Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay and my tour will finally start.

When in doubt, ride it out.

Unfortunately ESPN turned down my request for an hour special on ‘the decision’.

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2 responses to “My Great Dalton Highway Debate

  1. Your north to south route was the one I was planning until I was talked into England to Singapore (www.zentack.com). Enjoy the trip. If you ever decide to detour into Texas, I’m currently in Houston. Warm shower and soft bed bead await.

  2. I drove up to Prudhoe from the Yukon and then down to Seattle in 1995. I found the Dalton Highway was much better than the main road from Anchorage to Seattle. During the summer months lots of retirees blanket every road of the entire state. If I were going to cycle to Prudhoe I would drive up first and stage supplies along the way (in bear proof containers roped up into trees) fly back down and cycle up to the car in Prudhoe.
    PS I hope you like DEET.

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