False Starts

_Editor’s note: Running every Tuesday for the next two months, The Daily Illini is featuring a series of columns by Guy Tal, a graduate student who is bicycling across Alaska and Canada. Guy, who has previously biked across other parts of the United States, Eastern Europe and Israel, is submitting articles about his experience. Because of The Daily Illini’s two-week publication break, this column and the next will only run online._

Rain gear? Check. Stove? Check. Water tablets? Check. Thermal blanket, sleeping bag, long underwear, yukalele? Check, check, check, and check. Bicycles?

There are many invaluable, potentially life-saving items one should pack when attempting a cross-country bicycle trip. Indisputably, a bicycle is one of them. “Your bicycles haven’t arrived yet,” says the Anchorage post office manager.

“But they were due a week ago,” Dan and I chime.

“That estimate came from a computer in the lower forty eight. We’re the USPS, not the UPS, this is Alaska, and nothing is guaranteed.” He really said that. “It may be three weeks before you see them.” The manager insists that, though we paid for tracking confirmation, it is impossible to know where our package is until it arrives. “It may still be in Illinois,” he voices our fears.

In times of crisis control can be maintained through denial. We rent bicycles, pretend they’re ours, and run our intended errands around Anchorage. We’re last minute people and we’ve left the purchase of a few items such as bear mace, Dan’s rain pants, and an intimidating supply of beef jerky for this minute. As we bicycle around town I can’t help but devise back up plans in case we tire of waiting for our bikes.

“We could kayak down the coast of Alaska.”

“Pass.” says Dan. “Should we get one can of bear mace or two?”

“But our panniers are waterproof.”

“Is one propane tank enough?” He looks worried as we fill our shopping carts with gear. I pretend not to notice.

“We could trade our panniers for backpacks and hike down the state.” I find inspiration in my hands. “Or we could take shopping carts.” We compromise and purchase one can of mace because it’s expensive and I’m convinced it’s a hidden tax on tourists. We agree to regularly alternate holding it, like having health insurance only on even days of the week.

Back in our hostel Dan is distressed. Words like “calamity” and “disaster” pepper his senences as he falls asleep. To our surprise and delight, the bikes arrive the next afternoon. We rush to assemble them only to discover that my front rack did not survive the journey. My chainring is also worse for wear, but I won’t discover that for another several hours. It’s 8 pm. All bike shops are closed. I call anyway.

Amazingly, a voice! Chris Wineck’s, in fact. If gear clusters could talk they’d sound like Chris Wineck. If chain grease grew a body it’d look like him. Here was a mechanic who enjoyed his job so thoroughly he stayed after hours with beers and buddies to continue doing it. Here was a titan who could cut the steel stays of a fender without straining a forearm muscle. Here was a samaritan so decent he agreed to outfit me with a new front rack in the middle of the night.

The next morning — really! — we’re off! Blue skies, beckoning mountains. I’m bicycling behind Dan, letting him set a comfortable pace, enjoying a lake view on my left when, shockingly, Dan’s back rack flies off! He stops, notes the damage, holds my gaze. The word “catastrophe” is furrowed in his brows. He is, as it were, a few screws loose.

But luck found us a third time. Inspection reveals no severe damage and, with a few tools and a bit of patience, we’re soon on the road again. As we finally leave civilization behind the crisp, birch tree air fills us with a sense of freedom. Purple fireweeds bloom all around. In the distance, the mountains fade from dark blue to azure, indistinguishable at the edges from clouds. Further still an ominous gray builds in the sky, but we leave that concern for future Dan and Guy. For now, we content ourselves with a last inspection.

“Waterproof socks?” Check.

“Frisbee?” Check.

“Sunscreen?” Check.

But I mean it about the bicycles.

_Guy is a graduate student._