Something’s Out There
A Bicycle Journey into the Wild
D. S. White
CHAPTER ONE: WHEELS ON THE WATER
THE ROAD TO BELLINGHAM
In the morning the sun was out and the land drying up. I rolled over in my sleeping bag and peered out at the short vegetation growing on the ground nearby. I stared at the grass and weeds for a while, mesmerized, wondering how these little plants had escaped my scrutiny the day before. They were fascinating, vibrant with color, soaking up dew and sunshine. I took a picture, but later, when I looked at it, something was missing. The picture only appeared dull, nothing more than a cluster of pointless vegetation. Something was different inside me today and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Yesterday’s cruise from Seattle to San Juan Island had cut two-thirds the distance to Bellingham off the map. I had given myself three days to get there, the port city in Washington where ferries bound for Alaska depart. Arriving at the port in Bellingham on time depended strongly on today’s bike ride. It would be my first attempt at riding so far on a bicycle loaded down with a mountain of camping gear. The ferry up to Alaska only left once a week at this time of year, and if I failed to get there, I’d have to return home and wait another week before trying to head north again by way of the Inside Passage.
Just like the day before, my stomach rebelled against the thought of riding. How long would this routine continue in the mornings, I didn’t know. Adrenaline pumped through my veins as I prepared for the day ahead. I forced down a few dry salty crackers for breakfast, but then gave up on eating anything, afraid I’d throw it all back up in a few minutes. I bid the campground goodbye, straddled my overweight bicycle, and worked my way down the road I had traversed over yesterday, back into Friday Harbor, where I found my way down to the docks. The next boat was not scheduled to depart for another two hours. This gave me time to ride around town and see the sights. The sun was out and the air was crisp. I stopped off at the post office and mailed out some postcards, letting friends know that I had made it this far, that I was really going north for the summer.
The state-run ferries along the Washington coast are free when heading east, back to the mainland. I walked on board and tied my bicycle up against a wall. No one told me to unload my bike. No one questioned a thing I did. The crew ran around and readied the boat for departure, content to let me be. Cars lined up on the lower level of the boat and people got out. A motorcycle pulled up next to me and parked and the driver went upstairs to find a seat. I followed suit.
In the Pacific Northwest, public boats like this one sail under a much looser flag than the privately owned ships such as the one I had been on yesterday. People walked around. Some stretched out on the seats to sleep. No one minded. Warm air blew across the open deck and soon I was nodding off. Later I went over to the side of the boat and watched the waves as we worked our way between the islands and back toward the coast.
When we came to port, I was the first to exit the boat. I shot out of the terminal, well ahead of a long line of cars, putting on my best show, hoping to stay ahead of the crowd. Within seconds I came face to face with a giant hill. Like Friday Harbor yesterday, the land around the port climbed upward away from the ocean. But this hill went straight up, or so it seemed. By the time I reached the top, I’d lost sight of the last vehicle exiting the boat, somewhere now far ahead of me.
The road progressed over a series of small rollercoaster-like hills. The weather was warm and I made good time, bobbing up and down them. I stopped long enough to buy lunch in the town of Anacortes. The sun was hitting the top of the sky, half a day already gone, and I knew I needed to keep moving. But my hunger was escalating and this was the first full meal I’d had since leaving home.
“How far are you going?” a man asked, seeing my bicycle outside leaning against the window.
“Bellingham,” I said.
“How far after that?”
“Bellingham,” I repeated and dropped the subject. That would be far enough for one day.
The truth was I wasn’t sure where I was going in the long run, and at a time like this, I didn’t want to think too much about it. I just figured I’d look at the map each day and pick a road and follow it. As long as I headed north, the details hardly mattered. It was all part of the adventure.
The real problem with answering the question lay in the fact that I had left home without telling anyone exactly where I would be. This meant I had already broken the cardinal rule of outdoor travel: always tell someone where you’re going. But when you venture into the unknown, how do you know? My closest friends and family knew I was heading to Alaska, but nobody had a clue about where I might be from day to day, not even me.
This wasn’t my first journey into the wild, though. I had spent years camping outdoors every chance I got. I had been lost in the mountains for days and found my way out again. I had a collection of books on edible plants that would impress the hardest of outdoors survivalist. Suffice it to say, I had done my homework before leaving home, and on that level, I felt confident.
But still, I hesitated, not wanting to tell anyone what I was really planning. It seemed to lessen the experience, the more I talked about it. The idea behind my journey lost that raw edge. It was my adventure and mine alone and I didn’t want anyone trying to change that. I just knew I would reach my goal, I would realize my dream, that I would make it to the Arctic Ocean. After all, I only had to pedal. At the same time, I squirmed at the idea of telling anyone because I expected them to say it was impossible. How could someone like me do something like that? What kind of person does something like this, anyway?
Most of all, I was afraid I would start to believe them. By talking to someone about it, I’d give them the opportunity to hammer away at the confidence I had been hoarding up deep inside me for so long now. What courage I had would vanish, quickly dried up, just like the worms outside the restaurant window in the parking lot baking under the sun.
Highway 20 ran east. The road was level and the wind was at my back. I flew along, next to four lanes of busy traffic. The Cascade Mountains were visible on the horizon and I picked out one major peak to act as a reference point. Fourteen miles later, I stopped at a gas station to buy a bottle of water. Then I turned north and was hit by a heavy headwind. Two miles down the road I had to stop and rest. Throughout the afternoon, mile after mile, I pressed on, each time getting a little farther before I had to stop and gather my strength again.
Farmland swept across the world. I marked time by counting the passing of fence posts. A robin landed on the fence line just ahead of me and there it waited for me to catch up. When I did, it took flight again and moved further up the road. We played this game for a while until the bird flew away.
The town of Edison took me by surprise. I had been lost in simple thoughts, now careless about the wind, when I looked up and noticed the streets and shops passing by. Edison is the center of a farming community and it reminded me of my childhood. I would have liked growing up in a town like this, I thought to myself, before it was gone. Time returned to the present as I left the town behind.
The road stopped at a T-shaped intersection and I turned left. I made better time here, as the wind was now cut off by the hills rising up in front of me. I stopped by a bridge to munch on a snack before attempting to tackle the hills. When I looked back behind me, I saw another rider on a bicycle approaching and I waited for him to catch up.
“Get moving!” he boomed as he came nearer. Warning signs were already flashing inside my head.
“I’m going to Alaska,” I replied. “I’ve got plenty of time.”
“You need to lose something,” he said after visually surveying the mountain of gear piled up on the back of my bike.
“Alaska is a wilderness,” I countered. “I’ll need everything I can carry, once I get there.”
He stared me down sternly, as if unconvinced.
“Is that a wool sweater?” he inquired squeamishly, as if he really didn’t want me to answer.
“And are those cotton sweat pants?” he asked, sounding almost insulted.
“It’s not as heavy as it looks,” I said.
“Oh, yes it is!” he said, mocking me, as if he were somehow pedaling on my bike, and I on his.
This was just the kind of person I had dreaded running into. He was the exact opposite of the man I’d met riding a bike yesterday morning, the one who’d hinted I was hero.
I had discovered a few years prior that although I was slow on a bike, I could ride forever. I just wouldn’t stop. It was the secret to long distance riding, something that people who focused only on being fast never seemed to grasp. They were clueless about endurance. The two approaches to riding were radically different in terms of the mental preparation they required. And the two kinds of rider, racers and endurance riders, usually didn’t mix. What I was attempting to do in Alaska probably went against the grain with this man, just like how our bikes, mine a mountain bike and his a road bike, differed vastly in both appearance and riding technique.
As I went over these things in my mind, I realized how far I had come today. Bellingham was less than ten miles away. This challenge was already in my back pocket. I would be going north, all the way to Alaska. It didn’t matter what this man said. I only needed to get to the next campground, just over these hills.
“There isn’t much further to go today,” I said quietly, more to myself than to him.
“Be careful up ahead,” he said, softening his voice. “These hills are deceiving.”
The next four miles turned out to be the most demanding part of the day. The unwelcomed stranger had been right about that. The road cut back and forth as it climbed up, away from the plains. Once higher, I glanced to the side, taking in the ocean. Sunlight fell down through gaps in the trees and the air was filled with the fresh smell of salt and the sea. The water stretched out forever.
Larrabee State Park was established as the first official state park in Washington in 1915. The Larrabee family donated twenty acres to the state, and in1923, the park was officially named after Charles Xavier Larrabee. Today, it covers thousand of acres on the western side of Chuckanut Mountain. Down below, Wildcat Cove is open for swimming, and up above, miles of hiking trails lead to scenic viewpoints.
After finding a campsite, I threw together a pot of macaroni and cheese for dinner. A gray and white cat, drawn in by the smell, came over to see what I was cooking. It looked half-starved, as if it had been left behind. Often, pets will be abandoned at campgrounds, either intentionally or by accident. This has been a growing concern for park staff everywhere. I dropped a spoonful of food on the ground, but clumps of dirt stuck to the cheese, and the cat, uninterested, walked away to find something better to eat.
Not much later it came back and ate what it could. With a twist of the face and a scrunch of the nose it indicated that it did not like the pepper I had dumped on my food, but would eat it anyway. I tore off a piece of paper from my journal and put it on the ground and gave the cat some more to eat.
As I wrote out the day’s events in my journal, a squirrel jumped up on the park bench and climbed inside my backpack. I had left my pack lying there, half-opened, and the animal jumped right inside. The furry little creature pawed at my things for a while, and then, coming up empty-handed, turned to look at me. I offered it some almonds, then some raisins, and finally some potato chips, putting them on the bench in little piles. Each time, the squirrel ran off into the woods with whatever it could carry, and then came back to grab something more. In time, I had to stop feeding it. I wasn’t even sure if it was even the same squirrel or not. It occurred to me that I might have been feeding the whole countryside one mouth at a time.
A tall thin man with graying hair and a beard stopped by my campsite to talk.
“Have you seen my cat?” he asked. He’d been hiking in the woods behind the campground when he’d lost his cat, he explained.
“I fed a gray and white cat about a half hour ago,” I said.
“No, my cat is black.”
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Mr. Happy,” the man said with a smirk on his face. I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the cat or himself.
His said his name was John and he was camping next to me. It wasn’t easy to miss the yellow school bus parked one site over, blocking my entire view to the south. Then I noticed the Alaskan license plates on the vehicle and we struck up a conversation about life in the north.
He had proptery on Prince of Wales Island and was going to build a house there soon. He owned a small sawmill and was using it to cut the lumber growing on his land. Over the winter he worked in California and each summer he returned north to continue the project. The school bus was a new and he was using it to haul building materials north.
“Have you taken the ferry before?” I asked.
“Oh, many times.”
“What’s it like?”
“Once the boat leaves the dock, I already feel like I’m home,” he said, his eyes lighting up.
“What do you mean?”
“The atmosphere on board is exhilarating. Just wait. You’ll see what I mean tomorrow.”
John looked over my bike with a keen eye for mechanical things. It had a lightweight aluminum frame and a front shock. There were bar-ends, straight handlebars and wide knobby tires. Instead of a road bike, I had taken a more radical approach to long-distance cycling. I had stuck to my mountain bike and had not altered it in any way from the off-road riding style that I preferred. I had no idea if they paved the roads in Alaska.
I recounted for John the events of the last two days and the distances I had traveled. Today’s ride from Anacortes had been significant. It meant I was physically in shape for what I was about to do. Also, on a mental level, the warm weather and passing scenery had been helpful. And I had learned something useful from fighting the wind; that was, to break the ride up into segments. In fact, the past two days had been a series of short rides with small rests thrown in between. Now, the ferry to Alaska was just a stone’s toss away.
John said goodnight and went back to his campsite. He’d been encouraging to talk to, not one of the naysayers. I regained my confidence and shut out my vulnerabilities. When you’re exhausted, especially when riding a bike, it’s not easy to see everything in a positive light. And those outside influences, people, not nature, can put a damper on what you’re thinking. I wished I could say I was stronger as an individual, but I was just too exhausted to do handle people better at a time like this.
I climbed inside my tent and opened a book to read. The sun went down and in the flashlight glow I continued to follow the words across the page. Then I grew tired and shut the book to sleep.