Something’s Out There
A Bicycle Journey into the Wild
D. S. White
CHAPTER ONE: WHEELS ON THE WATER
ENTERING THE ISLANDS
“All I have to do is pedal,” I told myself as I took off down the road.
Two blocks from the house I stopped to vomit. My nerves were tense, my muscles tight. This was going to be one really long bicycle ride.
Three blocks later I met another rider on a bicycle.
“You going camping, bro?” he asked, seeing the mountain of equipment strapped down on the back of my bike.
“I’m going to Alaska, man.”
“No way!” he shouted above the wind.
“Yeah, this is my first day out on the road. I’ve been planning this for months.”
“Bro, I ride my bike to work every day and they think I’m a hero.”
“You are, man, you are,” I said and waved him goodbye.
I rode my first five miles in fifteen minutes. I tried to tell myself to slow down. My helmet felt too tight. My stomach was tied in knots. I couldn’t slow down. I couldn’t breathe. After seven miles I stopped to gag three times and nothing came out. I couldn’t even spit. I grabbed my water bottle and took a drink, but it didn’t help.
It was early morning in Seattle and a light rain was falling. Cars and buses took to the streets and boats fanned out across the harbor. I arrived downtown and bought a ticket for a ferry going north. Over at the dock a deckhand asked me to unload my bicycle. I hesitated. For the last two weeks I had been packing and repacking the contents on my bike and I hadn’t expected to have to unload it so soon.
“I need to lift your bicycle up to the second deck,” he explained. Up above another man waited, arm stretched out, ready to pick my bike up and stow it on board.
My bike weighed more than I cared to admit. I could see why they wanted me to unload it.
Figuring out the right configuration of camping gear and clothes and food had been challenging, as I tried to foresee every possible scenario that might unfold in the journey ahead. Then, that first test ride had nearly killed me. It was damn heavy, but there was no way I was leaving any of it behind now. Alaska was a wilderness. There was no telling what I’d need up there.
Where was I to begin? I’d never considered unloading the bike, only loading it up. There was a right place for everything. The gear on top had been strapped down tight. The bags secured to the sides of the rack would only come off with a tool. I’d tested it and didn’t want to change anything. If loaded unevenly, the bicycle would canter to one side, with a tendency to want to fall over, nearly pulling me down with it. To dissemble such artwork made me question my motives for being here. Had I taken a wrong turn already? Should I have just biked up the coast to the next port? Did I really need to take this boat?
For over half a year, I had played around in my head with the idea of riding all the way to the Arctic Ocean without any boats or vehicles. I had imagined myself meandering through river valleys and trekking over mountain passes in the heart of Canada. I would live the life of the solitary traveler, taking in the beauty of the great outdoors. I would write of the bliss I experience in poetic perfection. The world would be stunned when I returned, when they learned of it.
But the ocean I sought was a long stretch from my home here in the northwestern corner of the Pacific Northwest. At the moment, feeling hassled by the deckhand, Canada almost sounded romantic, compared to the bears and wolves I expected to find in Alaska. Should I just ride all the way north, to the top of the world, from right here in Seattle? Then a chill in the air woke me up again. Riding through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory would take several months on a bike. Summer was just beginning. If I stuck to the Alaska Highway, I’d wander back and forth for over fifteen hundred miles before even coming close to the Arctic Circle, which was short of the Arctic Ocean. It would be the middle of winter by the time I got where I wanted to go. Riding all the way on a bike just wasn’t possible at this time of year.
I removed a backpack the size of a boulder from my bike and waited to see what would happen.
“Nope,” the man said. “The law requires we tie your bike securely on the second deck.”
Two more bags came off, my sleeping bag and sleeping pad.
“You’re traveling kind of light,” he joked.
“How is it now?” the man waiting up above asked.
“It’s still heavy,” he replied.
I looked at him and shrugged. He picked my bike up and hoisted it in the air. The man up above complained about his back. They tied it to a rail on the inside of the bow of the boat and pulled a tarp over it. Beads of rain formed on the tarp as the boat moved beneath my feet. Suddenly, I felt an uncomfortable distance away from everything that was vital to me. The realization that I was now committed to going north, north, always north, reverberated in my very core. This was it, the moment I had been dreaming about.
Between Seattle and Alaska lie hundreds of miles of wooded coastline. Out in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of islands cluster together, forming a water route called the Inside Passage. Boats pass between these islands every week, transporting passengers and freight north. By going around Canada I could cut out months of tedious pedaling. With this in mind, I put my life in the hands of the captain and went down below to find a seat.
We left the port promptly. The vessel I was on was a clipper boat, a high-speed catamaran which moved forward under a water-jet propulsion system. It was one of the fastest boats of its kind in the world. We bounced away from the dock and skipped across the harbor. Once out in Puget Sound, we turned and raced north toward San Juan Island.
An amplified voice called our attention to the sights out the window. The Olympic Mountains were just visible to the west through a dense cloud cover. On a bobbing sea buoy slept a sea lion, rolling back and forth in time with movements of the ocean. Two bald eagles perched on a protruding rock and a flock of seagulls circled them looking for a place to land. To the east, hidden below a curtain of rain and behind layer upon layer of clouds, were the Cascades.
Farther north, killer whales shot through the surface of the water. It was a rare to see so many of them at the same time. A crowd ran to the side of the boat to take a closer look. Fins flipped and tails tipped. Black and white markings indicated which were male or female. I counted eight whales in the pod.
When we arrived in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, the men handling my bike complained about the weight again. They said I’d have to unload it completely next time. They had no idea I wasn’t planning on returning this way. In fact, I had no idea whether I’d ever return or not. The future was a mystery to me, as clear the fog that now enshrouded the harbor.
I threw my gear over the side of the boat and it landed with a thud. At least it had hit the dock and hadn’t landed in the water. Passengers left the boat and wandered into town as the crew prepared to shove off. Then the boat pulled away and I watched it recede across the water. Alone now, I heard the lap of the waves against the shore and the sound of a seabird whose cries were lost in the fog.
I waited there a while, standing still, growing acclimated to this new world all around me, before I prepared to move on. There’s something about the gentle motion of the waves in the water and the inner still silence one feels when you and the ocean come into harmony. If ever you’re having a rough day, try it sometime. Just go down to the water and do nothing but listen and feel the pier move beneath you.
The San Juan Islands are part of a great archipelago of 172 islands. In 1790, Spanish explorer Francisco Eliza named many of them. In 1858, Great Britain tried to rename San Juan Island as Bellevue Farm, hoping the name would encourage English farmers to move there, but the name didn’t stick.
I packed my bike up again, laboriously attaching my bags and gear in the appropriate places, then tested the bike to be sure it was balanced, before I got on and rode away. Crossing the town took some time. More than once I got lost and had to stop and look at the map. The streets stood vacant now, tourists all driven inside by the rain. Like most harbor towns, the land stretched uphill away from the water. Row after row of quaint shops embraced the road with a welcoming appeal, as if inviting me to stay there for the night, or maybe forever. I struggled to get anywhere.
Once out of town the land leveled out. The road I was on circled the island, following the coastline. It moved over low rolling hills and through open countryside, passing farmland and cows. The view was scenic, but in the drizzling rain I kept my head down and focused on pedaling. All I had to do is pedal, I reminded myself. Someday, somehow, I’d get there.
The morning’s adrenaline rush had dropped off, and a lack of sleep the night before was quickly catching up on me. I was also in desperate need of something to eat. At midday I pulled into a campground, my internal compass spinning in unpredictable arcs. I reminded myself that this was I had set out to do, to ride as far north as I could go; however, the road was already fighting me. It would not stop fighting me for the next two months.
“I rode my bike here from Seattle,” I told the lady working behind the counter, after stepping into the campground office.
She glanced up at me. I smiled broadly and reveled in the warmth of the room as a hint of satisfaction rose up from deep inside me. I had accomplished my first goal on the long ride north. I had made it to the first campground on my map, with still half a day left to spare. Then I remembered that I was on an island. What I had said to her didn’t make much sense.
“I mean I rode my bike on the ferry,” I said, trying to correct myself, but it still didn’t matter that I wasn’t making sense.
She wasn’t paying much attention to me. For a moment I pictured myself riding circles on the top deck of the boat, like a clown in a circus, swaying from side to side under the heavy load as we traveled over rough waters, and I almost let escape a laugh.
“What kind of car are you driving?” she finally asked, ignoring for a second the paperwork strewn out in front of her.
I pointed out the window to where my bicycle was waiting, leaning against a tree. She took a look outside and paused.
“How often do you get people who show up on just a bike?” I inquired.
“Oh, we get those kind, every now and then…” her voice trailing off, concern now chiseled across her face.
The phrase ‘those kind’ ricocheted around in my mind. Who was I? It was a question that would come back to me over and over again as I moved farther and farther away from home. What kind of people did things like this?
She handed me a map of the campground and I went outside to look around. I needed to pick out a campsite and let her know which one I wanted. Not that there was much competition. The campground was mostly empty, probably due in part to the thin drizzle of rain as well as the fact that this was not a weekend. I wasn’t in the mood for crowds anyway; I had left home to get away, to travel the seldom trod path. It was solitude I sought and a chance to get to know myself better.
And so there I was, camping on an island in the sea. I had picked out a place near a river and set up my tent overlooking the water. How there could be a river on an island, I didn’t know. It was all part of the mystery. The sky was overcast, a cold mist blew through the trees and dew clung to the grass. Yet even with the miserable weather, something drew me out. I stirred to the call of birds I’d never heard before. Sounds became clearer, colors grew stronger and the air was filled with scents. A kind of magic overcame me, as often does when I spend time outdoors. This sure beat working.
After a warm shower, a sparse meal and a hot cup of tea, I put my thoughts aside and settled down for the night, well before the sun went down. A few hours later, something awoke me in the dark. It was the urge to go north. It arose from deep inside me, like a forgotten dream from my childhood. It was the need to get out and discover new worlds, to experience life in a way that I would never forget. Alaska, Alaska, I kept repeating to myself. I knew I wouldn’t stop going north until I saw the farthest shores of that dreamlike world called Alaska.
You have to believe there’s something out there or you’ll never go looking for it.