A bicyclist's guide to passing long hours

Editor’s note: Running every Tuesday over two months, The Daily Illini is featuring a series of columns by Guy Tal, a graduate student who began bicycling across Alaska and Canada on Aug. 2. Guy has previously biked across other parts of the United States, Eastern Europe and Israel.

The Unbearable Lightness of Biking

A bicyclist is a machine for turning granola bars into miles.

We’re several hundred granola bars into the Yukon, an unforgettable but unforgiving landscape, riding the rolling hills of the Alaskan-Canadian Highway. Here, the sun doesn’t set before 11 p.m., there are more moose than people and what scant civilization crops up is, at times, baffling. For example, at Mile 1379, 100 miles from any town, amidst snowcapped mountains and a sprawling spruce forest, you will find a working pay phone (I called my mom).

Still, with so much light and so few people, you might wonder how we pass the time. Sometimes we play distance games:

“How far do you think that mountain is?”

“Forty miles.”

“I think it’s 50.”

“We’ll see.” And we do.

Sometimes we keep each other focused by speaking in riddles:

“I spy with my little eye something that begins with the letter C.”

“Which eye?”

“The little one.”

“Is it Canada?” It was.

Often we sing:

“The sun will come out — tomorrow! Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow — there’ll be sun!” We wish we knew more lyrics.

And sometimes, perhaps like other would-be explorers who’ve trekked these lonely, beautiful stretches, we talk of women: those we’ve loved and lost, and those we love and lust. They’re conversations that begin with words but climax in shameless howls that echo across these empty valleys where even power lines fear to tread.

But mostly, we sit back in awe. Did you know the Yukon houses 17 shades of red, 23 shades of yellow and over 37 distinct shades of green? There’s the dewy-violet-of-fireweeds, the yellow-green-of-marsh-grass-at-sunset, the overcast-green-of-spruce-in-storm and the dusty-orange-of-roadside-aspen. If I survive this adventure I’ll consider starting a line of wilderness crayons.

And then there’s the scent. Oh yeah, that scent, an aroma so sweet I wish for bigger lungs and breathe into my legs and arms and fingers and toes. The sort of scent you only get where people are scarce and wild flowers are truly that.

There are at least two contending experiences of beauty. There is the RV beauty of national parks and pull-over photo opportunities, where beauty is an archipelago amidst a freeway sea. And there is bicycle beauty where the mountains and forests leading up to the parks are no less noteworthy, and the archipelago sinks into a continuous sea of sights. If you’ve never experienced the latter: Slow down. Breathe in. Look. But if you own an RV: get to the Yukon as soon as you kon.

Guy is a graduate student.