Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Conditions May Vary
I wandered inside the mini-mart at the front of the RV park for my complimentary hot chocolate. Starting a cold day with a hot drink works for me, and I don't like coffee.
The folks inside, one of which was an older German (I think) gentleman, asked me where I'd be camping tonight.
"Burwash Landing. I heard it's a good place." For some reason, I didn't tell them that I'd stayed there years before and had enjoyed it, aside from the cold.
"Well it was, but it's all abandoned now. The resort is still standing, but no one's there."
They went on to tell me about a half a dozen campgrounds, all of which would either make today laughably short or bring the distance to over 180 km. Not so sure about either of those. They warned me that bears are bad in this area.
"Whatever you do, always stay with people!" insisted the German.
I didn't see a bear, but I saw a lynx! Apparently I'm lucky, because sightings are rather uncommon. My favorite animals have always the large felines anyway. Bears look big, lumbering, and stupid to me, but cats are sleek, lean, silent, lightweight, lightning-quick, astonishingly strong for their size. Nature's best solitary predators.
For whatever reason, it felt like I was going uphill all day. I checked the GPS data later, and it looked like I was in rolling hills, gradually making an increase. Maybe it was the wind that made it feel that way. Not the strongest wind, only about 10 km/h, but that's enough to notice and definitely enough to slow you down on a long, grueling day in the saddle.
Already exhausted, when I crested the Kluane Lake basin with only 15 km to go, I was looking forward to a nice, long, steady downhill to the lake. I got that...with a strong headwind in full force. Compared to the uphill immediately preceding, I was trying just as hard and going roughly the same speed. Frustrating end to a long, tough day, my fourth in a row of over 170 km.
When I got to Burwash Landing, all the buildings were still standing, but there was no one there. It was a ghost town. I went to the RV park and set up my tent in between a cabin and a patch of trees. At least this would get me out of the wind. I went to bed later than I wanted, as always, confident that tomorrow morning the wind wouldn't be as bad.
It was worse. A lot worse.
It was the kind of wind that makes it difficult to even stand up straight. The road barely had any hills, only inclines and declines along the lakeside. I was staying in my low gears, gnashing my teeth, and grinding through it...on the downhills. On the uphills I was reduced to a ridiculous crawl.
15 km into the day I stopped at a gas station to fill up my water bottles (the abandoned RV park didn't have running water). I saw a native woman there and asked her,
"Is all this wind just because of the lake?"
"Oh yes, the lake has lots of wind."
So there will be less once I get to the hills?"
She nodded. "About once you get past Slim Creek."
"And how far is that?"
"About 60 km."
Thankfully, it was closer to 50 km, and I found a visitor's center there. I went inside to ask about conditions, hoping to confirm that the wind would be dying down now that I had just about made it past the lake.
"Oh, it'll turn around and be behind you!" a friendly woman explained. "The wind comes off the lake and spreads out, so it'll push you up the hills!"
Now that I could handle. I was already wiped out halfway through the day, but if the second half had a tailwind like the first half had a headwind, we're in business.
The wind didn't turn around. It wasn't even any weaker, once I got over the first hill near the lake. But for 3 glorious km, I was next to a mountain that blocked the wind. There wasn't tailwind, but there wasn't headwind either. I put Valeria in a higher gear than I had all day, pedaled easy, and watched the world effortlessly slip by. This is how it could always be if conditions didn't suck. This is what riding a bike should always be like.
At the top of the hill leading away from Kluane Lake, which I had been following for 60 km (it's a long lake!), I met a group of folks who were driving the other way. They told me that I would be mostly descending to Haines Junction, since they thought they'd been mostly climbing in the car. I took that information with some healthy skepticism. How could you pass a lake and then go mostly downhill?
The road mostly climbed. The wind was equally ferocious as this morning. My pace was pathetic. I had to listen to "WRHHRHSKHKSRKHRRKSKHRK!!!" for several hours at a time (I hate loud noises). I'm glad the Yukon is sparsely populated, so no one heard the words I was screaming. Why was there so much wind? Why are there so many hills? Why is it still cold after Memorial Day? Why does the pavement suck so bad? Why does wind have to be so LOUD? All questions I never got answered for me. If it were possible to commit murder on an air molecule, I probably would've done it.
Maybe the most frustrating part was today was supposed to be the easy day. The short flat day along a lake, the day I'd get in early. It never works out that way though, does it?
15 km outside of Haines Junction, I was met with the most impressive downhill to date. So steep that I could barely keep up if I pedaled, even into the wind! About a third of the way down, the wind abruptly shifted into a gusty cross wind, pushing me halfway across the road and nearly knocking me down on multiple occasions.
About 5 km from town, a white car passed me, then slowed down and drove at my speed only 20 meters ahead of me. I thought they might want to say something to me, but they never stopped or slowed down enough that I caught them. As they sped up, only a little, they put their right blinker on. Does that mean they're going to pull over in a minute? They kept getting away from me, again, slowly, and just before disappearing around a corner, put their hazards on for a few seconds, then turned them off. I never saw the car again. I have no idea if they were trying to tell me something or not.
I made it into town later than I wanted, as usual, and found a man named Ted selling flowers outside an Anglican church.
"Are you with this church?"
"No, just here selling flowers."
"Do you know if anyone's there, or who does run the church?"
"Oh, that's Lyn, she lives right here," he waved at the house behind him, "Go on and knock on her door, she's real friendly."
I knocked, but no one was home. I explained to Ted that I was looking for a place to stay.
"Oh, you need a bed? Yeah, we can getcha a bed for the night, everyone knows everyone in this town and we can just ask. We can getcha a bed. Lyn will probably be by soon and you can ask her, or half the town is going to the salmon bake tonight and we can ask someone there."
About every other adjective Ted used was the F word. It seemed to work its way into every sentence at least once.
"Why don't you F'n wait here until Lyn comes by? Get yourself some F’n grub in there if you want," he pointed at a cooler. "I'd offer you something to drink, but all I got is Coke and rye."
"Coke and rye?"
"You know, whiskey."
After a day like today, that didn't sound too bad. He guided me into his trailer and handed me a cup of ice and a bottle. I poured about a shot in and reached for the Coke.
"Oh come on, have a F'n shot o' whiskey!" Not to be rude, I poured a little more in.
After a spell, Ted left for just a minute to run and get something and trusted me to keep an eye on the plants in the meantime. Just after that, Lyn showed up, wondering why a bike was leaning against her porch. I explained, and she promptly said it would be OK to sleep in the church, if we couldn't find anything better, and she also invited me to the salmon bake. We waited for a minute for Ted to get back before walking over (it was only a block away). Ted told me he found a friend I could stay with.
As it turned out, Ted was correct about half the town being at this salmon bake. Outdoor patio, great live music, the best salmon I've ever had. I filled my plate with heaping amounts of the side dishes, then went back for another entire plate of salad. And overall, for a small town, I was impressed that something this cool happens once a week! I used to live in a somewhat larger town that never had anything this exciting going on.
Inside was a bakery where everything on display looked outstanding. After talking about it for eight years, I finally got my hands on a Yukon Red beer. It was handed to me by an energetic young woman named Katie. I only mention her because she was particularly fun to talk to, and, well, she was cute.
Watching the band outside, I sat next to Hedy, my host for the evening. About the best description I can give is she's a cross between my brother and my grandma. Kind, no-nonsense mountain woman who cares about people and also doesn't give a crap. Now I like that.
Apparently there's some confusion, because Ted referred to Hedy as his girlfriend, and Hedy later referred to another man, whose picture she had framed in her house, as her boyfriend. Turns out that man is married. If these weren't all friendly, easygoing rural Canadians, we'd have a soap opera on our hands.
Hedy woke up as early as I did the next morning and fixed me a coffee and a bowl of oatmeal without me even asking. She apologized for Ted's rude behavior the night before, explaining he gets obnoxious when he's drunk (for the record, he was uncouth, but I've seen much worse).
For no particular reason, I dropped by the Village Bakery on my way outta town to say thanks for the salmon. It was only a block away anyway. I set off on a cool and cloudy morning, 160 km to Whitehorse. Yesterday had been only 120 km
The wind was behind me!
It wasn't as strong as yesterday, maybe about 30 km/h, and was more at four o' clock than directly behind me, but I'll take it! It couldn't have come at a better time, on a long day when I wanted to get in early, and after a demoralizing ride the day before. I was cruising easy today.
After a few hours, the sun came out and the weather warmed up. Perfect.
Just as I pulled over to take off my jacket, another touring cyclist approached from the other way. He came over and stopped.
"French!" he said, in an unmistakably French accent.
"Vous êtes français?" I asked.
"Oui, et vous aussi?"
"Je ne suis pas français, mais j'ai etudié des courses de français a ma université."
"Ah, bon! Merci!"
Turns out this guy, Luc, was just finishing up biking to Alaska from the tip of Argentina, the opposite of what I'm doing right now. And he started in December, so he finished in less time than I have planned! He covers 140 km a day on average, less than I'm doing now, but more than I have planned overall. And he's 62!
Amusingly, he wanted to go to Texas and Nashville because he loves country music, but his family convinced him to ride to California because they wanted to visit him and see Hollywood. Changing course across an entire continent just for that! I love my family, but I don't think I love them that much.
After about half an hour of talking about biking, we parted ways. It's encouraging to know I've retained enough French to have a real conversation.
I didn't know the French word for "longhorn," so I had to tell him that at my university, we're the cows. I then explained the hand sign I was making him do. He looked at it again. "Oh! I know this!" He held up his hook 'em again. "AC/DC! Rock!"
The wind picked up as the day went on until it was formidable, thankfully in my favor. In the last 20 km, the road curled around a mountain and changed direction from east to southeast. The wind must've curled around the mountain the other way and changed direction from southwest to southeast. Once again, I was fighting an impossible headwind, grinding it in low gears to make the descent into Whitehorse. I had hoped to show up early enough to visit a bike shop, but it would now be almost closing time by the time I got there.
I called my first WarmShowers host of the ride, an intelligent young woman named Jenny who was both an elementary school teacher and a grad student. Apparently she had volunteered at the school that day and was finished up her semester project that night. She wanted a quiet Saturday night at home. That suited me fine, because I wanted the same thing. We made homemade pizzas together and did our own thing quietly the rest of the night.
So things have been up and down lately. One thing after another. Hills, headwind, tailwind, hints of rain, ghost towns, warm hospitality. The one constant has been my saddle: it's not working out so good. My local bike shop screwed up the order on my saddle (among many other things), changing my order without telling me. I didn't get the bike until <48 hours before my second flight (their ineptitude had already forced me to postpone the tour by a week), so I used a saddle I had lying around at home. It's the same one I used for Texas 4,000, and it served me well there, but it may be past its prime. The padding is all foam, which slowly breaks down with repeated use and over time. It might be that I'm not used to it after not riding it for six years now, or it could be that after over 10,000 miles of use and eight years of age, it's no good anymore.
If things don't improve, I'm getting a new saddle in Prince George, even if it's not exactly the one I had in mind. Because even with the conditions, on many days, my worst enemy has been my saddle.