A RIDE THROUGH THE WOODS

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - StevenGed­des

It’s hard to re­mem­ber some­times what mo­ti­vates an idea. Is it fear, lust, stu­pid­ity, a yearn­ing for ad­ven­ture, or some weird mix of them all? But I guess that’s not the part of the story you need to re­mem­ber. After all, it’s just a split-sec­ond de­ci­sion. What fol­lows, how­ever, is an in­fi­nite se­quence of once un­fath­omable events that have now burnt that orig­i­nal, in­no­cent idea from ob­tain­able mem­ory.

SOME YEARS BACK, when there was less grey hair on my head and more time on the hori­zon, I was on my way to Canada to study at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia. With a month or so be­fore the se­mes­ter started, I headed north to Alaska to visit a part of the world that had caught my imag­i­na­tion years be­fore.

Now as any­one who has vis­ited the north­ern cap­i­tal of Anchorage would at­test, this rough and rugged city has barely a hill to its name. There­fore, my morn­ing stroll into town to pur­chase a bus ticket south to the town of Homer, was quite pleas­ant. The warm sun was out, the air was cool, the birds were singing, and I was filled with a youth­ful en­thu­si­asm that ma­te­ri­alised into a spring in my step and a whis­tle on my lips. The next part of the story has been erased from my mem­ory, the haze lift­ing around the time I re­mem­ber head­ing back to the hos­tel with no bus ticket in my hand and no bus money in my pocket. How­ever, I was cruis­ing through the streets on top of what is best de­scribed as an over-loved, un­der cared for, cheaply re­built moun­tain bike.

After a few sim­ple ad­di­tions – sad­dle­bags, a bag rack, a bell, and a can of bear pep­per spray, I loaded up a se­mes­ter's worth of sup­plies on to my new trusty steed. In no time,

I was on the road south. The snow­capped moun­tains were too far in the dis­tance to worry about, the heat from the mid­day sun warmed my skin just enough to coun­ter­bal­ance the soft, cool north­ern breeze per­fectly. At the time, I had no doubt that it was a bril­liant idea. The next day I woke to tor­ren­tial rain; the type the area is ap­par­ently known for at that time of year. The wind had picked up and brought with it all the chill from the Arc­tic cir­cle. How­ever, the heat from yes­ter­day's mid­day sun still resided in my sting­ing and stiff thighs, which were now glow­ing a fright­en­ing shade of red. The bike hadn't fared any bet­ter. The back wheel had buck­led out of shape due to the weight of my gear and my re­lent­less need to try and jump ev­ery­thing like I did when I was a 13-year-old BMX ban­dit. After of­fload­ing my nonessen­tial gear (Univer­sity books, for­mal shoes, out­fits, lap­top and speak­ers, etc.) to a seem­ingly hon­est cou­ple on their way back to Anchorage, I headed to the lo­cal bike re­pair shop.

The young lo­cal guy run­ning the place was a friendly, un­for­tu­nately talk­a­tive, type of bloke. While mend­ing my twisted back wheel he told me the un­set­tling story of a young cou­ple who was re­cently mauled to death by a griz­zly. They were cy­cling not too far from the city. The prob­lem, he ex­plained, is that push bikes were just too quick and quiet. You ride around a cor­ner with­out mak­ing a sound and bam! you've star­tled an un­sus­pect­ing griz­zly. This of course in­stantly would send the mas­sive beast into a crazed, at­tack­ing frenzy that was sure to be fa­tal for the cy­clist. Luck­ily he had a so­lu­tion that would help me on my jour­ney. After search­ing around in an old card­board box for a minute or two, he pulled out two small bells. Bear safety bells to be pre­cise. The idea was sim­ple – at­tach these to your feet and ev­ery time you moved the bell would ring, and the bears would hear you com­ing and of course po­litely get out of your way. Fool­proof. Just to make sure I would be safe he in­sisted I make as much noise as pos­si­ble while rid­ing. “Sing, yell, count out loud, just don't make the same mis­take as the oth­ers,” he de­manded. I was bet­ter equipped, slightly more fright­ened and back on the road in no time. ‘Dling dling dling', the charm­ing lit­tle bells rang out as I rode off once again on my quest south. It's not easy to re­mem­ber the words to any songs when you're con­stantly on the look­out for crazed bears. The best I could muster was a dis­jointed, ren­di­tion of Bar­nesy's ‘Khe Sanh'; well at least the three or four lines I could re­mem­ber. “Well the last plane out of Syd­ney's al­most gone. And only seven flyin' hours, hh­mmm hh­m­mmm hhh­mmm, till I'll be landin' in Hong Kong. Well the last plane out of Syd­ney's al­most gone,” I repet­i­tively sang in a slightly dis­tressed tone at the top of my lungs. Over the next few days, the rains didn't stop, the winds con­tin­ued to blow, and the snow-cov­ered moun­tains that once dec­o­rated the dis­tance now dom­i­nated my view. Mile after mile I pushed on. Ev­ery time a tourist bus al­most wiped me off the high­way, I tried des­per­ately hard to re­mem­ber that orig­i­nal mo­ti­vat­ing idea, but to no avail.

Now a few days on and with plenty of miles passed, this six-foot-three pasty white with bright red thighs Queens­lan­der pulled his still over­loaded moun­tain bike into a road­side diner in a lit­tle back­coun­try, one-horse-town truck stop.

As I en­tered the diner, it was like a scene from an old cow­boy western.

The bunch of rough-look­ing hom­bres in­side im­me­di­ately stopped what they were do­ing and stared. The only noise to be heard was the sound of my spurs (bear safety bells) as I made my way over to the bar. Dling dling dling. With a steely look, a nod at the bar­tender, and the words “Whiskey, one triple cheese burger, a large coke and can I please change my fries to sweet potato?” the sin­is­ter crowd ac­cepted the mys­te­ri­ous stranger and got back to their busi­ness.

As I shov­elled the last few chips into my al­ready over­full mouth, the hobolook­ing stranger from the other end of the bar came and sat next to me. We got talk­ing, and after a while, he had a per­fect, fully le­git­i­mate short­cut for me to take.

A few miles out of town I would get to a ranger's hut and in­for­ma­tion sign. Straight across from this on the other side of the high­way there was a sin­gle lane dirt road. Ap­par­ently, if I took this route, it would take me to some of the nicest land­scapes the state had to of­fer. There'd be no one else around, plenty of great views, moose, deer, bears, ea­gles, ev­ery­thing I'd want to see. There were even a few places to camp along the way. And the best part, a few days fur­ther down this road I'd pop straight back on the main high­way south, sav­ing my­self time and guar­an­tee­ing me a truly au­then­tic Alaskan ex­pe­ri­ence.

Dling dling dling. With­out hes­i­ta­tion I rode off with a full belly and the re­newed sense of ad­ven­ture that my trust­wor­thy friend had in­stilled in me. ‘ Well the last plane out of Syd­ney's al­most gone. And only seven flyin' hours, hh­mmm hh­m­mmm hhh­mmm, till I'll be landin' in Hong Kong. Well the last plane out of Syd­ney's al­most goooone'. I was back and bet­ter than ever.

Sev­eral hours of tough rid­ing later, just be­fore mid­night, I ar­rived at the sign post and hut. For a while, I took shel­ter on the front step of the empty cabin. The rain shower that I awoke to on my sec­ond morn­ing of the trip still hadn't passed. I sat gaz­ing at the dirt road on the other side of the high­way. Thoughts were rac­ing in my head. Sure, the friendly stranger had got the dis­tance wrong to the sign. A sim­ple mis­take. What could go wrong, rid­ing down this long, aban­doned road, in the mid­dle of nowhere? With an im­por­tant de­ci­sion to make I left it to fate and flipped a coin. Heads I stick to the high­way, tails I take the dirt road.

Un­der the eerie glow of the dis­tant, mid­night sun I ten­ta­tively be­gan to cy­cle down the dirt road. A fog slowly drifted across the road on ei­ther side of me. The rain con­tin­ued to fall re­lent­lessly, and my ever-vig­i­lant bear safety bells con­tin­u­ally an­nounced my pres­ence. Dling, dling, dling. The en­thu­si­asm in my voice had dwin­dled. My ren­di­tion of Bar­nesy was now noth­ing more than a quiet mum­ble, “The last plane out on Syd­ney's prob­a­bly gone.” My eyes darted back and forth to the thick bush on ei­ther side of the road. Fa­tigue and lone­li­ness aren't good for a man's imag­i­na­tion. The hor­ri­ble fates in my head that awaited me around each bend, kept me on edge. Dling, dling, dling, as I slowly pushed for­ward into the un­known.

Like a bad ap­pari­tion, a bush on the side of the road 50 me­tres ahead be­gan to move and mur­mur more than my mind could fan­ta­sise. My heart started skip­ping beats, and with my stom­ach twist­ing I awaited the beast that was ob­vi­ously on its nightly hunt. A 1,000-pound bear, a gi­ant male moose, that crea­ture from the X-Files episode my older brother made me watch years ago? What­ever this thing was, I wasn't look­ing for­ward to cross­ing its path.

‘ Un­der the eerie glow of the dis­tant, mid­night sun I ten­ta­tively be­gan to cy­cle down the dirt road.’

A jolt of adren­a­line fol­lowed by some pri­mal sur­vival cal­cu­la­tion flooded my brain when on to the road ahead stum­bled three bearded, heav­ily armed men, dressed in full cam­ou­flage hunt­ing gear. I could tell they were heav­ily in­tox­i­cated by the way they stag­gered around and car­ried on with each other. Each of them had at least three guns strapped to his body with who knows how many more tucked away. Their eyes, when they could fo­cus, were locked on me. Dling... dling... dling... My mo­men­tum slowed as the gap be­tween us grew smaller and smaller. “Thee lasssttt plaan­neahhh ou­uut of SSyyyd­neeeee,” I was now whis­per­ing to my­self. They walked with in­tent to­wards me and the thought of ca­su­ally cy­cling by had com­pletely van­ished from my mind.

Now mur­der and sodomy weren't on my list of things to ex­pe­ri­ence on this trip. So, in the 30-or-so sec­onds while they were mak­ing their way over, my mind was rac­ing through all the de­fence mech­a­nisms I had on hand.

1. Grab the bear pep­per spray and quickly blast them in the eyes.

2. Take the pocket knife out from my back­pack and try to re­mem­ber how Sea­gal would take out three heav­ily armed men.

3. Hit the foetal po­si­tion quickly, cry­ing un­con­trol­lably while soil­ing my­self – all com­pletely nor­mal op­tions while in a high-pres­sure sit­u­a­tion. I would just have to wait and see what the mo­ment called for. “G'day fel­las,” I yelled in the thick­est,

tough­est Aus­tralian ac­cent I could muster – a sure fire way to break the ice when deal­ing with the Yanks. As they grew close the smell of body odour, old fish and rum filled the air in a thick haze of feral man­li­ness. Clearly pow­ered by a lot more than a love of the out­doors and a few rums, they asked me what I was do­ing in these parts. This was prob­a­bly the most cliché and in­tim­i­dat­ing line pos­si­ble. In a firm but friendly tone, I ex­plained that I was just a poor trav­eller, peace­fully mak­ing his way across their truly stun­ning part of the world.

They seemed un­easy but thank­fully sat­is­fied enough with my re­sponse not to harm me then and there. They were camp­ing, fun­nily enough, at the camp site I was mak­ing my way to. Ha yeah… the three poker-faced men in­vited me back to their camp. They'd been fish­ing, drink­ing, and shoot­ing all day. Their plas­tic bag full of rum cans was run­ning fright­en­ingly low, so they were head­ing back to kick up their heels for the night. In a tone that made it clear that I had no other op­tions, they in­sisted that I was com­ing with them. I was ex­hausted, cold and still scared stiff wait­ing for the in­evitable hor­ror show that was clearly ahead for me.

Now, of course, I re­spec­tively de­clined about seven or eight times be­fore it started to get weird. Not want­ing to of­fend them any fur­ther I told them it would be great if I could stay at their camp, in the mid­dle of nowhere, at night, when the only per­son on the planet who knows where I am is the tooth­less gen­tle­men at the ran­dom truck stop diner. So back we went.

Back at camp they piled wood and petrol on to the fire, grabbed an­other few bot­tles of rum out of their seem­ingly end­less stash and started cook­ing up some freshly caught salmon. All the while I'm sit­ting un­der their old blue tarp, pock­etknife stashed in my shorts pocket, try­ing to keep my eyes open and seem gen­uinely in­ter­ested in what­ever they grunted to each other. Ev­ery time I moved slightly, ‘dling', my ever-re­liant safety bells would give out a faint cry re­mind­ing me that I had suc­cess­fully warned off any bears in a ten-me­tre ra­dius while un­for­tu­nately show­cas­ing my in­cred­i­ble man­li­ness to my new­found friends.

After about an hour or so back at their camp I had to con­cede I needed sleep and couldn't keep my eyes open any longer. I worked up the courage and told them I was go­ing to set up my tent and hit the hay. Gen­er­ous once more, they in­sisted I didn't waste my time set­ting up my tent in the rain. I should just share with them. Ap­par­ently, they had plenty of space. Look­ing at their shabby, three-man dome tent, barely stand­ing, and I'm sure soak­ing wet from the re­lent­less rain, we went back into our dance of me try­ing to be po­lite while they con­tin­ued to in­sist.

After five min­utes of back and for­ward, I just went about my busi­ness. Mid­con­ver­sa­tion I quickly set up my small hik­ing tent. “My home away from

home,” I in­sisted with a fright­ful smile. I thanked the guys for their out­stand­ing com­pany and wished them good night.

I lay there on top of my sleep­ing bag, boots still on, pock­etknife in one hand, bear pep­per spray in the other, fight­ing back any urges of sleep. Spray, strike, run. Spray, strike, run. My mind was like an in­sis­tent flight at­ten­dant de­mand­ing you lis­ten to the plan for the un­likely event that the plane catches fire and plum­mets to the ground. How­ever, like al­ways this stew­ardess failed to men­tion the first and most im­por­tant step – don't die on im­pact. I was in a nose­dive but at least felt pre­pared and ready for im­mi­nent im­pact.

After about 15 min­utes of ly­ing in wait, I heard their ro­bust voices turn to soft, omi­nous whis­pers. My heart and mind be­gan to race even faster. Adren­a­line was flow­ing through my body. “Spray, strike, put my own oxy­gen mask on be­fore help­ing oth­ers.” Shit! I was scared and con­fused. In the cold still night air, I lay there silently, frozen by nerves as I lis­tened to them whis­per­ing to each other.

“What the hell are you fuck­ing do­ing?! Are you high or just crazy?” one said. “Keep it down, or you'll wake him,” said an­other. At this point, I knew they were talk­ing about me. They were an­gry, and I was close to tak­ing on the foetal po­si­tion.

“What was I meant to do? Why did you in­vite him back here? All I know is that no-one in their right mind rides a push bike through here,” one mut­tered. “Yeah, es­pe­cially with bells on his feet, and mum­bling like that. He's ob­vi­ously got a few screws loose,” came the re­ply. “Thank god he's not stay­ing in our tent, who knows what would have hap­pened then. Still, sleep with one eye open tonight guys.”

I can't say reign­ing fear and un­ease over strangers has, or ever will, help me sleep so well again. But on this oc­ca­sion, it did and from that point on I drifted quickly into a pleas­ant and peace­ful night's sleep.

Some­times now when I sit back and rem­i­nisce, it brings me joy to know that some­where on the far end of the planet, in an old run down diner, three burly blokes are sit­ting around re­cap­ping the har­row­ing story of the time they had a run in with a mys­te­ri­ous stranger. I hope the hairs stand up on the back of their necks when they tell of how they stum­bled across him in the mid­dle of an eerie, foggy night, in the re­mote woods. More than any­thing I hope the sound of small, soft bells gives them chills. ‘Dling, dling, dling'.

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