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Gotta give way to an Anchorage moose


We finished lunch with a light mist falling from the gray-white sky. The air had been warm for most of the bike ride, but in the higher elevations we could feel a hint of arctic air—deceptively warded off by the brief warmth of summer. This new, colder air felt volatile, untrustworthy, as if at any moment it could rain down death with utter disregard for one’s self important existence.

It wasn’t death that fell from the sky as Andres tucked the fuel can and camping burner into his pack, but it felt like it. The mist picked up to an undeniable rain. The rain became a torrent. Andres reluctantly snubbed out his cigarette, placed the butt into his pocket, and climbed onto his bike. I fumbled with my pack and pulled out a poncho; put the pack on, then the poncho over it. Andres looked back to make sure I was ready. ‘We go? It no stop I think’, he said in his thick Spanish accent. I nodded.

I was already on the bike, and he was gone in seconds. The assent of the mountain road had been an arduous and leg numbing ordeal. The descent was like being tossed off the mountain’s spine in a thrilling torrent of speed, wind, and water.

The rain was cold. A few moments after setting off down the mountain I was saturated. My denim jeans, a stupid choice of apparel for a long day of biking, hung heavy over the pedals and formed to my skin. There was no need to peddle. The brakes were wet and next to useless. I clung to the handle bars and prayed I come across no pot holes or bumps. Hell, at this speed even a pebble would likely send me hurtling to my death, or at least to a broken neck. I wore no helmet, another symptom of the spontaneous nature of this excursion.

I met Andres in the common room of the 26th Street Hostel in Anchorage only an hour before we rented the bikes and set off in search of Flattop Mountain. The hostel’s proprietor was a squat Argentinean man who had cycled from Argentina to Alaska, stopping after two years of cycling only because his wife, also along for the ride, became pregnant—that, and the fact that there was not much left of North America for them to pedal over.

After unlocking the hostel’s bikes from the shed out back, checking the tires, and adjusting the height of the seats for us, Sebastian, the Argentinean, recommended a trek that would take us through the Chester Creek Trail, a narrow greenbelt that bisected the heart of Anchorage, down a private airstrip access road, into the Far North Bicentennial Park, and finally, to Flattop Mountain. The journey sounded ambitious, but Andres seemed up for it, and Sebastian, the proprietor assured us we could handle the ride. He scribbled the route on a map while explained the paths and roads we would navigate. Hours later, I would have paid damn good money for a recording of what he had said. The directions made sense though at the time, and having spent most of the day prior on an airplane, I was ready to stretch my legs. Why I hadn’t bothered to run upstairs and change into some hiking pants, or hadn’t taken one of the many helmets strewn about the bicycle shed, still befuddles me. We got one the bikes, Andres pocketed the map with Sebastian’s vague scribbling on it, and we were off.

We started off on the city streets of a surprisingly urban Anchorage. I suppose, like most outsiders, I had expected something, I don’t know, a little more rustic. This was like being in some forlorn neighborhood of the Bronx, or L.A. It surely didn’t feel like the last frontier. The air was clean and crisp, seemingly at odds with the urban setting. In the outskirts, where the hostel is located, the houses are run down. The homeless, who mill drunk on the side walks, are mostly native— high cheekbones and dark faces speak of their heritage. The newspaper reports another death due to gang violence, this a result of a broad daylight drive-by shooting on 5th street. 5th Street is the epicenter of Anchorage’s posh, or at least as posh as it gets in Alaska, downtown.

We past through the quasi-squalor of the Spenard neighborhood and entered the Chester Creek trail. The transition from urban sprawl to Arctic wilderness was shocking. The creek babbled just a few feet to our left, the tranquil gurgles of clear water drowning out all but the most persistent of city noises. The smell was of verdant undergrowth, an earthy vibrancy that filled one’s nostrils with a sense of purity. Foliate green shrubs and grasses grew alongside the paved bike path. We were told by Sebastian that we, ‘might see some mooses today.’

We peddled for hours through the verdure, past a lake called Goose, left the pavement behind for bumpy dirt paths, and came out of the inner city wilderness near the Alaska Medical Center, not that far, really from where we had started from. It was a few miles at least, but shouldn’t have taken two hours. We suspected we had been lost at some point. Andres, from Bogotá, I from Boston, considered ourselves adept metropolitan navigators. This vast wilderness area, right in the middle of the city, had thrown us a curve. We must have circled Goose Lake a fair few laps before getting back on course again. This was just to be the beginning of our aimless meanderings through Anchorage. By the time we had eaten lunch, and the rain began to fall, we had given up completely on Flattop Mountain—a view which sometimes afforded a glimpse of Mt. McKinley, or as the natives call it, Denali, 126 miles away. By lunch, we weren’t even sure we had found the Bicentennial State Park. We had found the airstrip access road, a jarring dirt road perpendicular to Tutor Road. After an arduous trek over gravel that seemed to grab at the tires of the bike and slow them down to something like the impossible butter-legged sluggishness of dream walking, we had found no sign of the Bicentennial Park. We continued on anyway, and after climbing an increasingly steep mountain road, the name of which neither of us had the faintest idea, stopped, exhausted, and ate with an entirely new respect for Lance Armstrong.

 I have no way of knowing for sure, but we had to have been going at least 100 kilometers per hour as we zipped over that tired, sub-arctic weathered gravel. We passed a car coming down the slope in our direction as if it stood still. We had been passed by many a car in the city; now the bike was the supreme vehicle.

My glasses were beaded with water, the road ahead a gray blur, a stroke of green on either side was forest. I hazarded a hand from the rubber handle grip and pulled off my glasses. The world came back into focus. On a mountain descent like this one, a bicycle may leave a car behind and one may take off their glasses to see.

I passed Andres. I couldn’t turn back to glance at him. All my attention was commanded by the road. The hood of the poncho was flapping with a choking violence like a flag in a heavy storm. The water slashing my face and hands felt close to freezing. It had been a 70 degree day in the city, about 60 in the mountains. The rain and wind robbed the air of any former warmth. This was winter. Winter, at least, to a New Englander. Alaskans know winter on another level.

I thought I would die. Bumps, cracks, tiny pebbles, innumerous maladies that may have sent me over the handle bars to my fate were invisible to me. I dared not hazard a look back at Andres. I hoped he was there, but for now, my body was my main concern. This was a guy, after all, that I had known only since this morning. Still, over that time, I felt a bound had formed with Andres. Getting lost, even if only in the wilds of Anchorage, a mere hint of the vast sea of wilderness that sprawls north from Anchorage all the way to the Arctic Ocean, has that effect.

Over lunch, we had talked of our lives in different hemispheres and discovered them to be quite similar despite Andres being born and raised in Columbia, myself in the U.S., and apart from him being an avid, or formerly avid, mountain biker, (Andres pronounced the word mountane).  We both worked a day job, getting by on a middle-class salary, nothing extravagant but enough to travel a few times each year. We both had moved out, and then back into our parent’s homes as the tides of our fortunes rose and fell. We loved and missed our girlfriends who we took camping on weekends in the summer and to the cities near our homes, Boston and Bogotá respectively, for nights out with friends. We belong to a generation of travelers who live remarkably similar lives around the world. We grew up amidst globalization and the dawn of the internet age. Our cultures are in many ways one, with myriad local customs and traditions. We both played Nintendo and watched the smurfs in the eighties. In the nineties we learned how to surf the internet and listened to Nirvana. In the decade yet to be named we went to University, graduated, got jobs, cell phones, and Ipods. We traveled. We met our peers in this massive worldwide culture. We sped bicycles down one hellacious mountain path, and survived.

A death defying ride down a mountain road can cleanse ones mind of all the trappings of everyday life. There were no thoughts of money, bills, plans for the future, relationships, or dreams— only the hope of survival. My mind was free. It was a damned fun ride, and we both survived.

We made it back to the city streets. Our adventure had proven how isolated Anchorage really is— just an oasis in one of the world’s last great wilderness domains. From the mountain the busy city streets were invisible, the car horns inaudible, and the blaring TV’s non-existent. Anchorage is not Alaska, but one needs not venture far from the city to find the last frontier.

We navigated poorly once again, this time in driving rain, up the long gradual slope of Tudor Avenue. We mistook a loop road for a route home and ended up were we had started. We were past the point of conversation. We had fallen into a kind of hypnosis. There was nothing but the drenched feeling of heavy clothing, the steady pulse of legs on pedals, and the whoosh of rubber on wet pavement. We didn’t discuss navigation anymore. We just kept the Chugach Mountains at our backs and peddled. We struck trails that looked similar to the ones we had followed in the morning, but were a labyrinth of now muddy tracks, spidering off in myriad directions. Somehow after at least another hour of peddling, we made it to a trail that I recognized. I don’t know how I recognized it. Andres had long since given up.

‘They all look the same to me,’ he said. The first words spoken in eons.

In this state of trance, I rode fifty yards ahead of Andres. When I came around a bend in the bike path it took me about four seconds to realize that the mammoth brown animal standing in the path no more than fifty feet ahead was indeed a moose. It was a girl, and she was having lunch. Water dripped from her heavy fur. She looked happy to be standing in the rain. I learned later that the moose prefer to feed in the rain. She stretched her long neck and lifted her comically goofy head to pull leaves from high branches. I screeched to a stop. She turned her head and gave me a casual gaze. She studied me for a brief moment, decided I wasn’t much of a threat, and went back to eating. She was not going to let this afternoon meal be cut short by some cyclist who thought the trail was his.

Andres stopped as I waved to him. We pulled out cameras and began to snap away. Another cyclist came around the corner, took one look at our cameras, and said, ‘You guys aren’t from here.’ It wasn’t a question.

‘No,’ we replied.

‘Where are you from?’

‘Bogotá.’

‘Boston.’

‘Cool,’ he said and gave the moose a brief glance. ‘Well be careful, they really are dangerous, and fast. Don’t get any closer. There’s a little path through the woods back here when you’ve seen enough.’

With that he turned around and headed back down the trail without another look at the moose. It was absolutely nothing to him, like one from the lower 48 would react to a squirrel. This squirrel though, demanded a detour in your bike ride. We stood in the rain for a while watching her eat. We talked about how strange it was to see such a massive animal in a metropolis. It was the largest animal either of us had ever seen in the wild. Major streets were no further than 50 feet on either side of us through the trees.

Finally we gave up on waiting for the moose to move, and detoured around as we had been instructed. We made it back to the hostel about a half an hour later, exhausted, and soaked, but exhilarated and inspired.

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