What does it mean to experience wonder? To experience discovery through exploration? In a world where it often feels like everything has already been seen and done, these experiences can be hard to come by. Some people seem to do it by picking a new route between locations or using a means of travel that’s not been used (I’m hearing of a guy who’s unicycling around the world lately). Others try to make from here to there faster than anyone else has. I had thought in some way I might be a jet setter at least in terms of being the first to ride my route. As it turns out I was so very wrong, as countless cyclists have done what I’m doing. I’m also not the fastest and certainly not the first man to ride a bike long distances, even off road. Given all this, I really crave the need for discovery and wonder, for finding this world, for the first time. “But you’re discovering it because it’s new to YOU!” I guess, but think about this: Is it EXCITING to see the Statue of Liberty or Niagra Falls? For me not so much. They may be inspiring or beautiful, but going to touristy locations or places that “you just have to see” along with a thousand other people ends up feeling flat to me. The excitement you find in that moment is in what makes that experience come alive, for YOU. Maybe it’s achieving something that you didn’t think you had the capacity to do, or maybe it’s just pausing in the place you’re in to feel for the aliveness available within this very moment. All I know is that feeling a sense of wonder is important to me in this one short life I have.
So… I’m riding my bike around the world.
I have a route, of sorts, that I’m trying to follow which brings with it a timeline in order to get through certain places by certain seasons. One cannot reasonably start a ride from the Arctic Ocean on the Dalton Highway before Mid-May unless extreme cold conditions are a goal. On the contrary, one cannot easily ride through the single track trails in Colorado at 12,000’+ when there’s 3 feet of snow on the trail. One could ride the rim of the Grand Canyon in December… but it’d be damn cold. You get my point.
So long as I’m trying to follow the auspicious route I’ve designed up to the Mexican border, I must stay on a pretty tight schedule, riding big days with little rest time. Why am I pushing so hard to do this? Why not take a more direct route down the Pacific Coast that would leave more time for lollygagging when inspiration strikes? I am plagued with a need to follow through with certain crazy ideas once they enter my head (After all, I AM riding my bike around the world on a whim from last Summer). I do intend to lower my intensity once I get into Mexico, as there will be less seasonal limitations for a while South of there. Ignoring the monsoons for now, of course…
Within this busy stage of my journey, I have discovered a profound need for the feeling of volition and discovery on a smaller, more regular scale. Similar to my approach while riding the Great Divide last Summer, the way to reach this seems to be through regular small detours from the main, direct route. These include stopping in towns like Whitehorse in the Yukon to ride the single track with new friends:
Other big examples have been two phenomenal detours along the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, which in itself was spectacular (see separate post about this), but these moments were almost unworldly:
Detour #1 — Telegraph Creek Road and the Grand Canyon of the Stikine:
It was July 7th, 2 days before my birthday. I was in a tiny random town in North Central BC by the name of Dease Lake. I’d hoped that there might at least be a town or some sort of community goings-on that might help me to celebrate another revolution around the sun, but it was pretty quiet. I could ride 2 100 mile days and end up at some unknown lake, or I could turn off the highway and take this small dirt road for 70 miles which led to what a local told me was a sight I shouldn’t miss. It would be hard riding, with steep grades, but worth it. The choice was clear.
The road started nicely enough, with rolling gentle hills through birch forests and the occasional pothole. It was lovely to be off of the pavement for a while, to hear the sound of the dirt and gravel on my tires, and the silence which afforded it due to lack of vehicle traffic. About 40 miles in however, the hills got steeper. A LOT STEEPER. We’re talking up to 20% grades. For reference, this is the kind of steep where on a loose gravel road riding my loaded touring bike I had to struggle to keep the wheels in contact with the road. Lean too far over the handlebars while standing up and the rear tire slides out. Don’t lean enough and the front wheel starts popping up off the ground. All while climbing at 2-3 mph on this 100lb beast. I finally began a very steep descent into a deep river canyon to cross one raging river, thinking I would then ride along the river’s edge the rest of the way in. So very wrong. The road climbed at the same grades, back out of the canyon, for about 800 feet back up to a ridge.
(insert canyon drop video here)
From here things got really amazing. Sweeping views of enormous rock cliffs towering over raging rivers, cascading volcanic cones covered with lush green plants, and a huge set of mountains behind as a backdrop.
I considered camping at the rest stop from which I took this photo, presuming that it could not possibly get more beautiful than this. I’m SO glad I pushed on….
A few 20% grade descents through hairpin (and hair raising) turns later, the road led me out onto a point where the Stikine river raged to my left, 250’ below the sheer cliffs just a few feet to the left of the road, and the Tahltan River rushed down from the right, no further away from the road’s edge. I couldn’t imagine how people drive big RVs with trailers down this thing! Another hairpin turn and the road was carved into the hillside to the right, dropping all the way down to the water in a very short and steep distance. Feathering the brakes became quite crucial in this moment! Crossing a small bridge I ended up in the town of Tahltan, a small First Nation fishing village.
The town of Tahltan was all locals, all First Nation Talhtan people. I rode past the small row of modest homes, dwarfed by beautiful a beautiful volcanic cliff
I did not feel welcome at all there, as if I was intruding on their lives, an outsider who should just move along as quickly as possible. People in town seemed quite preoccupied, and I couldn’t tell why. I later found out the answer:
Looking upstream at the cliffs of the Tahltan River just before I descended to it. In the center of this photo you can see the result of a recent rockslide which almost entirely blocked the river. For reference the boulder closest the water flow was about 25’ across. As I found out 2 days later, the rockslide had completely prevented all the local salmon from traveling further upstream to spawn, threatening the entire livelihood of the Tahltan people for the next fishing season. Locals were catching salmon out of the water and airlifting them via helicopters upstream to allow them to spawn. Quite a complicated process I’m sure, but lovely to hear how much the town came together to solve this serious problem.
Evidently rockslides happen here all the time due to the unstable union of lava with other layers of rock. I actually saw this slide happen just after I passed through that stretch of road. Lucky!
By the river’s edge, I walked down to a small rocky beach where some men were fishing. There I came across one of the most beautiful natural geologic features I’ve ever seen. The rock face below hovered over the beach, creating a natural amphitheater appearance. Due to the volcanic history of the area, the release of lava and gasses (I don’t understand the details of this at all) formed the rock face and it’s brilliant colors. The cliff dove directly down into a delta between the Tahltan and Stikine rivers… each of completely different color as they swirled together.
By now it was getting a bit later, and I wanted to consider where I’d be camping. knowing i wanted to find a place to stay still for a whole day around my birthday, I rode on to the end of the road, where I found a small, deserted town called Telegraph Creek. Nobody was out on streets, and most of the homes in this hilly little town appeared to have been vacant for some time.
I assume this was the local church at one time, given the signage!
This town was not the solace I was seeking. Not at all. Unfortunately it was 9:00 PM and the road had descended about 1000’ feet to a deep river valley. Taking a deep breath and eating a big snack, I climbed back on the bike to ride back up the huge hills towards a rest stop I’d seen about 15 miles back. 15 miles of insane hills. It took me until almost 11pm to get there, and I could do nothing but crawl into my sleeping bag when I did.
The following day I awoke to complete perfection: A sweeping view of the river and surrounding mountain valleys, a perfect grassy knoll on which I could lay out in the sun, and plenty of wind to keep all the mosquitos and other flies off of me! I was in heaven. There I spent my first true rest day since leaving Seattle — reading, napping, eating, writing, napping some more, and trying out various configurations of the “Buff” I’d bought myself as a birthday present…
It was a strong and simple reminder of how important it is to contrast the continuous movement I’d been having with moments of pause, to see the little things all around me.
They are everywhere, no matter where I do or don’t ride to.
I rode out of Telegraph Creek Road back toward the Cassiar Highway on my birthday. At one point, after a grueling 1500’ climb out of a river valley I stopped by the side of the road for a snack. A car stopped beside me, and inside were two First Nation Tahltan people who’d lived in Telegraph Creek their entire lives. They asked me about my journey, and I asked them about their lives in such a small town. It was amazing, like sitting on opposite ends of a spectrum to realize we were still exactly the same. For me every day is a different place with different people. For them the differences are within the stability of people and place, in the subtlety. I left the conversation inspired that in this life, it really doesn’t matter what you do. But no matter what, slow down to talk to people. It is impossible to know where these words can lead and what gifts you can share in just a few moments. There is enough time, if we believe that there is. I know this all to be true and yet I must re-learn the lesson all the time. Such is life.
Detour #2 — Salmon Glacier and 4 International Border Crossings in One Day:
Let’s just get this photo out on the table:
Salmon Glacier, near Stewart BC
… I stood at the Meziadin Junction 2 days after returning from my Telegraph Creek excursion. I’d ridden one 70 mile day and one 130 mile day. I was a bit tired from the long day but knew I needed to go see what all the locals had convinced me to explore: the road to Stewart. It was a 40 mile out-and-back from my route which would pass various enormous glaciers and land in a small town where I could get some desperately needed groceries. Even though I’d just taken a detour a few days before, this time it came easier. It didn’t even feel as much like a detour per se, but just where my journey was naturally leading.
From the moment I began the long descent from the highlands of Meziadin Lake to the sea-level town of Stewart, I knew I was in for a treat. My soul lifted as I dropped down steep slopes with enormous mountaintops looming to either side of me.
Huge waterfalls coming off of the top of Bear Glacier
More huge waterfalls, same spot
Entering into the small town of Stewart was reminiscent of a few towns I’d entered while riding the Divide last Summer: perfect little mountain town nestled under enormous peaks. I could only think about how lucky its inhabitants were, at least from my initial outside perspective. I stocked up on some groceries and asked around about if there was anything else that I should check out while I was down there. The woman at the visitor center told me that just down the road was the US border and the tiny town of Hyder, Alaska. Beyond Hyder up a steep dirt road, I could find the Salmon Glacier, which supposedly put Bear Glacier to shame. How could I resist??? Plus I could cross 4 international borders in a day: Stewart to Hyder, Salmon Glacier road crosses back into BC, then crossing both borders on the way back! I couldn’t resist, nor was there any reason to…
Sea level!!! It’d been over a month since being at such a low elevation. I missed the smell of salt water…
Hyder, Alaska. A town of about 100 people, but endlessly interesting.
Around the first curve once entering the US (no border patrol for those who are curious!), I saw this bus. The lines in it are from axes thrown at it. You can’t see all the additional bullet holes. As it turns out, Hyder has an annual 4th of July parade, following the Stewart Canada Day celebrations on July 1. Festivities include axe throwing competitions, and a contest for the most beat up bus/RV. This school bus was this year’s winner. Somehow hearing the reason for it’s significant destruction made me more curious about the goings on of this funky little town…
I entered the local bar to ask for a place to stow my bike bags in order to ride up to the Salmon Glacier unloaded. The bartender without hesitation told me where her house was about a mile away and invited me to stow my stuff and take a shower as well while I was there! I don’t think I smelled that bad at the bar, so it must have just been a little more of that fantastic Alaskan hospitality. So very kind. I left my bags and began the 20 mile, 3500’ ascent to Salmon Glacier.
Looking back down the glacial drainage, the Salmon River. The road to the left was my route up to the glacier. Quite a workout!
Half way up the road, looking across at the glacial runout
At the high point of the road overlooking this vast glacier, I found a man sitting in front of a small table of videos and postcards. Keith has been spending every Summer living at that rest stop overlooking this glacier, for 18 years. He sells photos and videos of glaciers and bears to keep supplied with food and lives out of his little car. He hikes around when the tourists all leave at night. I deeply wished I had chosen to keep my bags on the bike in this moment. What an opportunity to sleep with a view such as this, accompanied by someone who knew and loved the area so well to spend so much time there. We spoke about his life and about the recession of the glacier. He showed me where I could find clean drinking water, straight out of glacial runout, that he’s used for years. It was hard to leave.
Descending down the 3500’ road was spectacular. Really, descents like this are every biker’s dream. We work so hard to get up something and it is ecstasy to reap the benefits we sow. It took about 4 hours to climb this road, and I was at the bottom again within 45 minutes. Lovely
Upon gathering my things at the bartender’s house, she ended up offering me to sleep in her yard. It was soft, dry grass, so soft I didn’t even bother to use my sleeping pad! We enjoy a beer together and talked about the inspiration of traveling and the joy of giving. She told me she was storing up some extra Karma points, taking me in. I told her I believed her Karma bank account was plenty full.
The following morning after a wild breakfast with Hyder locals, I slogged up the grand climb, back to the Cassiar Highway. It felt as if my bike had balloons attached to it. It had been the perfect little side trip to energize me back onto the main route. It would only be 1 day on the highway then another detour onto a dirt road for 60 miles through a First Nation reservation. I think I’m onto something…
The Art of the Detour as I’m currently considering it has a simple recipe: make a plan for the most efficient way to do something, then intentionally vary from your own plan based on a moment’s whim. You get to feel like you’re getting away with something but really you’re just living your life in the moment, listening when inspiration strikes. Since leaving Stewart I’ve changed my plans in some way at least once every day. It has brought a sense of life and excitement into the journey that had been missing as I slogged along the highways of Eastern Alaska and some of Northern Canada. It creates a feeling that anything is possible if I just say yes to it. The most recent example of this just happened to me today. I stayed last night at a beautiful farm in Eastern BC near Jasper National Park. I was to head into the park today. But in this case, the sense of wonder was not to push into some new location or route, but just to pause here for another day. I listened. I’m so glad I did.