By Todd & Mary Logan & Dawn Groth
“Don’t tell me you rode those bicycles all the way out here!” said the folks from Atlanta.
And so began an amusing lunchtime conversation with the vacationing couple from Atlanta. Mary, Dawn, and I were filling our stomachs, resting our legs, and enjoying a spectacular view of the Kuskulana River bridge at milepost 17 on the McCarthy road. We had each peddled out of our driveways in Anchorage on bikes six days before and had ridden 280 miles since leaving home.
The folks from Atlanta were enjoying their first visit to Alaska. They were at this remote place in their rental car only because they were traveling with friends who had been up to Alaska several times before who were looking for something different – a trip to McCarthy and the Kennicott mines. We each traded a few stories of neat things we had seen or done so far, and we shared some smoked salmon. But the couple kept returning to the idea that what we were doing was super-human and unbelievable. They were younger than us, and lamented that they should be doing more biking themselves and leading a more active lifestyle. They would arrive in McCarthy in a couple of hours, while it would take us another day to arrive. We encountered them two days later in McCarthy at the McCarthy Lodge. We were on the deck eating a celebratory dinner of curried rice with local duck eggs, and up they drove up in a shuttle. We yelled to them, “Don’t tell me you drove all of the way here in your car!” Later they offered us shots; we demurred, as “nothing good ever came from a night of shots!” The theme for our trip reflected the common refrain from Anchoragites regarding the long distance to McCarthy; “McCarthy–too far to drive, but we can bike there!”
This encounter with driving tourists illustrated a common misconception about bicycle travel – that bike travel is only for super athletes and not for average people. Subscribe to a magazine such as Adventure Cycling or Google your way to any of hundreds of bicycle travel blogs and you will quickly learn that average people do travel by bicycle . . . all the time. And it’s not surprising. Cycling is more efficient than any other method of travel,
and it is even 5 times more efficient than walking. If we compare the amount of calories burned in bicycling to the number of calories an automobile burns, the difference is astounding. One hundred calories can power a cyclist for three miles, but it would only power a car 280 feet (85 meters)!
In the lower-energy world of the future, cycling will play an ever-increasing role in both transportation and leisure travel. There are already over a billion bicycles on the planet today, and bicycles are currently the major form of transportation in many parts of the world. For leisure travel, Americans could learn much from Europeans. During our 2-week ride we met only two other groups of touring cyclists, and those bikers were all from Germany. And while we considered our ride to be quite ambitious – 550 miles over two weeks – the touring cyclists we met were on rides two or three times the scale of ours.
The idea of getting a group of friends together, hopping on bikes, and peddling around a place as big and wild as Alaska over a month was not a great stretch of the imagination for the cycling-centric Europeans. It shouldn’t be for Americans either. Americans have been conditioned to think that bikes are toys for children, that bikes are recreation rather than useful tools, or that bikes represent low status unless they are used for competitive racing, using expensive bicycles and special spandex clothes and bike shoes.
Not only is bicycle travel efficient, it is inexpensive and fun! And bike touring is an independent way to travel. Alaska suffers from the bane of industrial tourism; tourists are funneled into corporate restaurants, hotels, and venues, making it harder for local tourism businesses to survive and thrive. Touring on bikes supports relocalization.
Three themes emerged as we pondered how our trip was different on a bike than if we’d done it in a car: (1) you see and experience a lot more when you are moving slowly; (2) people really want to talk to you when you are traveling by bicycle; and (3) the challenges you face build a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment.
On our gear-laden bikes, we averaged about 45 miles a day. But we saw – really saw – more dramatic vistas, heard more rushing streams and singing birds, and stopped at more quirky places than most drivers would experience when traveling ten times that far. We also experienced things that drivers almost never notice – the assist of a pleasing tailwind or the energy-burning slow grind up a particularly steep hill. We learned to never ask road condition advice from drivers. For example, we asked a park ranger about taking the gravel “Old Edgerton Highway” as an alternative route one day. We were urged to avoid it because it was winding and rough. We took it anyway, and found it to be the best part of
the ride thus far. It was a great shortcut, avoided some huge climbs, and we were passed by two cars as we rode its twelve miles. We were also warned about the 60-mile gravel McCarthy road. It was described as rough, washed out, pot-holed, spike-ridden, tedious, boring, and even dangerous. It may be a few of those things in a car, but its 120 round-trip miles were some of the easiest riding of our entire trip.
We both saw and heard the pick-up as it slowly approached us from behind. “You want a doughnut?” a voice called out. Then two hands holding a Hostess donut box sprang from the passenger window as we peddled along at an easy pace. Of course we stopped and partook. Two young state DOT workers were out doing survey work on road culverts. It was clear that they would rather be doing exactly what we were doing. They got all the details of what we’d already done and what was yet to be done. They carefully inspected our bikes and gear for future reference. This type of interaction, and hospitality, happened again and again over the two-week ride. We think people liked to talk to us for two reasons. First, we looked interesting. Out of the ordinary. Adventurous. Secondly, to some we appeared vulnerable. We were not ensconced in a several ton box of glass, plastic, and steel. We were exposed to the weather, bears, mosquitos, and vehicle traffic.
We couldn’t just press on a gas pedal to overcome a hill or headwind. And surely we were lacking the type of food and drink often carried in boxes and coolers in motor vehicles. We shared lots of fun stories with these more traditional travelers. We were sought out again and again. And our conversations were not one-sided. Every traveler had an interesting story to tell. We also spent one night indoors after a very rainy day on the McCarthy Road
with a lovely couple at the Alaska Halfway House B&B in their Halfway Done Bunkhouse, and we shared our stories there as well. When we saw a field full of Yaks on the Edgerton Highway, we stopped to investigate, and had a fascinating discussion with the owners of Circle F Ranch, while Little Drifter licked our sweaty thighs with his rough tongue, and we chatted about yak fiber, yak meat, and sustainability policies for Alaska. The most common farewell from folks we talked to was the concerned advice to “Be Safe!”
We started the trip as good friends, and ended as great friends. We got to know each other’s strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and senses of humor. We shared some glorious times and some real challenges. We traveled and camped in some pretty wild places, and thus were often a community of three; bike touring opens up a lot of novel options for places to camp. We helped each other and looked out for each other. And we had a lot of fun.
Never done a bicycle tour? You should try it! While some people “go big” right off the bat, a saner route is to apply the permaculture principle of starting small and slow. Check out what your local bike clubs are up to. Ask a friend who might have experience or want to go. A super resource for getting started in Adventure Cycling’s “Bike Overnights” website: http://www.bikeovernights.org/. They have hundreds of reader-submitted short trip ideas, gear checklists, and more.
Slow travel is about quality rather than quantity. And rough travel makes you appreciate the comforts of home–commodes, stoves, and hot showers! Welcome to the lower energy world!