A RIDE THROUGH THE WOODS
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'.