The End of the Americas (August 2004)
Ushuaia. 17th February 2003, 56 degrees South
Prudhoe Bay. 12th August 2004, 70 degrees North
“The Journey is the Reward”
“… What we do in life is the foundation of our humanity… in standing up for those old ideals of service and sacrifice, we stand apart from others. We are a band of brothers who do not seek fame but quiet solitude in doing a difficult job well. …Life has taught me that courage is not a gift, merely the brutal application of willpower; be strong. …Much [has been] done and [there is] much yet to do: failure is not likely – it is quite simply not an option.”
—A British general’s valedictory speech to British troops completing a 6-month tour in Iraq.
* DEDICATED TO THE VICTIMS OF THE LUNACY IN SUDAN: IGNORED BY THE TRUMPET-BLOWING ï¿½LIBERATINGï¿½ NATIONS *
This Stage: Dawson, Canada to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska
Next Stage: by ship across the Pacific, cycling across Siberia
Dawson was a crazy old town and ‘The Pit’ a wonderful bar. Open daily at 9am, it is the seemingly permanent home of several cheerful stumbling drunkards, and every afternoon at Happy Hour ‘Barnacle Bill’, a scary looking man with a fine ear, can be found hammering at the piano. I chatted with ‘Caveman Bob’ who has lived in a cave for many years and cannot remember his last haircut.
Dave and I set out on the last big haul, beginning by riding the ‘Top of the World Highway’. This scenic yet hilly mudbath passes through the town of Chicken (population 25), named (so they say) because the original settlers could not spell ‘Ptarmigan’, and on into Alaska.
I was delighted to reach Alaska and be back in the USA. I had been expecting to misquote LP Hartley and write that ‘Alaska is a foreign country: they do things differently there’, but it actually feels to me very much like the rest of the USA – welcoming, friendly and hospitable. (Even way up here they still have wonderful American conveniences such as butter in a spray bottle to save the effort of spreading.)
The end of the Americas lay so close now – just 500 more miles up the ‘magnificent desolation’ of the Dalton Highway. As the Americas had begun, so now were they ending: over a dusty gravel road to a ragged corrugated iron community.
Our bikes were heavy with ten days’ supply of food but we were fortunate to be able to camp by clear creeks each night, including the interestingly named ‘No Name Creek’. Our nightly swims became ever colder as we crept northwards into the Arctic.
Trucks hurtled past, laden with supplies for the oilfield at Prudhoe Bay. The Dalton Highway is nothing but a Haul Road for the oilfield and for the oil pipeline that runs 800 miles across the state. The trucks fired stones from their tyres and churned dust as the road climbed and dropped endlessly over viciously sweaty hills.
A petty official in love with his rulebook made us ride 1.7 miles in his truck because of dangerous roadworks. To my knowledge, the only person who has ever been run over by a steamroller was the guy in Austin Powers.
As we entered the Arctic Circle [the line north of which the sun does not set on June 21] I became ever more melancholy and reluctant to rush. The end was so close. For 18 months, ever since I left the southernmost town in the world, Prudhoe Bay had been my goal. Over the last few months it had been exciting to think of ‘Prudhoe Bay’ because it had at last become realistically attainable. “Not far now!” I often thought.
But once I reached Prudhoe Bay it would no longer be a goal; it would only be a milepost behind me. I would be back at a beginning once again, with yet another terrifyingly far ride ahead of me. I did not want to have to summon the strength to be back at a beginning once again. It was so much more pleasant to be approaching the end. It is certainly true that ‘to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’. As I approached this journey’s end I had to remind myself that ‘the end is a goal, not a catastrophe’.
Pale mountains closed in – the craggy majesty of the Brooks Range and a truly remote wilderness. Slowly the trees had petered out until we were too far north for trees to survive. There was nothing left but scrubby tundra. The Atigun Pass is the final mountain crossing in the Americas. I had attacked the final climb in Africa as hard as I could, raging at the final obstacle. But things are different now – my journey and myself. I rode slowly now up this pass, stopping often to look back, looking down over the bronze tundra in the late evening light, remembering back with gratitude over all those places and times and people that had made the Americas so hard for me to leave now. If the end of Africa was an unexpected and exultant victory over a fierce opponent, the end of the Americas was becoming a sad drawn-out goodbye to a friend.
Mountain sheep scrambled high on the scree slopes above us, caribou and muskox grazed and a shaggy blond grizzly bear trotted across the road in front of us. Streams danced and the road and the pipeline strode on. The mountains flattened to nothing; nothing but a flat plain of soggy green, empty and silent and virtually untouched for unimaginable swathes of distance in every direction. Sunsets slide strangely and slowly across the sky this far north, very different to the swift straight up and down of Equatoria. The flat horizon blushed a crimson midnight sunset beneath a still blue sky and shortly afterwards the sun rose again.
Dave and I had done it; we had reached the end of the road together. As I stopped outside the Prudhoe Bay Post Office – the end of the road and just 1200 miles from the North Pole – it was with a feeling of sadness yet gentle satisfaction. But I still could not escape the thought that this endpoint was nothing more than a new beginning, with a hemisphere of the world and all of Asia still standing between me and home.
Besides, the ultimate winner was pedantic bureaucracy. From the Post Office to the Arctic Ocean lies 10 miles of private road owned by an oil company. Despite having survived 30,000 miles of lunatic Third World drivers, a few deserts and mountain descents and anarchic states, the rulebook still deemed that this 10 miles of quiet, flat gravel road was too dangerous for me to be permitted to cycle.
And so 18 months of hard work ended with me sitting on a tour bus of old people on the short drive to the Arctic Ocean where a quick swim meant that that the Americas really were over at last.
Despite the whimper-like end to the continent I hope that I can still put in a plea for you to help support the work of Hope and Homes for Children – more critical than ever given the current situation in Sudan. I know that many people have already been extremely generous so I would ask you please to pass on word of my ride to as many other people as possible. If you would like to make a contribution to Hope and Homes for Children please visit their website. It has an online donating facility and an address where cheques can be sent. If you sponsor me just 10p a day, or 1 cent a mile, or whatever you can spare, I would really feel that all this cycling is not quite so futile!
Sitting now in front of a large, daunting map of Asia and trying to find a ship across the Pacific whilst also filling in forms to apply for visas for Russia and investigating the logistics of riding at temperatures of ï¿½40, I am struggling with the question of “what was the bloody point of those last 18 months, Al?” The best answer I can find is from the final page of The Worst Journey in the World, a book about a winter Antarctic expedition to collect penguin’s eggs, and one of my favourite books:
“…And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man, you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say ‘what is the use?’ For we are a nation of shopkeepers and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers; that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.”
Thank you to all the strangers who have become friends over the past 18 months and without whom I would never have got this far
“…I remember ev’ry face Of ev’ry man who put me here” ï¿½ Bob Dylan
Thank you to the ladies at Prudhoe Bay Post Office and General Store. They were so incensed at somebody having stolen David’s camera there that they amazingly managed to track it down and have it flown back down to Fairbanks! Osama take notice – this is the real USA.
Thank you to those attending a recent dinner party in Phoenix, Arizona for apparently voting me cooler than Ewan McGregor despite his own recent adventure!
As Siberia and the Himalayas loom large I would really appreciate a new infusion of MiniDiscs from any budding DJ’s out there! (I would love books, poems, interviews etc, to try and rescue my ever-shrinking brain…)
Information for Cyclists on the Dalton Highway:
There are no grocery stores between Fairbanks and Prudhoe, though there are cafes at Yukon River, Coldfoot and about 30 miles north of Fairbanks. There are streams everywhere – I never carried more than 3 litres. There are streams up both sides of the Atigun Pass. Only a complete novice or a fool would carry 13 litres up and over a continental watershed, only to camp beside a stream that evening. The Atigun Pass is not a big deal. However much you beg, you cannot ride to the Ocean at Prudhoe – you have to phone the Arctic Caribou Inn and book a ridiculously over-priced and boring $37 bus tour. The road is usually pretty good gravel. 100 miles is paved – 70 miles south of Coldfoot and 30 miles north of Happy Valley.