How We Roll: When A Bike Trip Is A Stumble

Words by Frank Hyman.
This story was originally published in Bicycle Times #25, October 2013.

My summer of hiking, biking and inflatable kayaking began with an embarrassing stumble. I planned to celebrate my fortieth birthday by spending four weeks hopscotching the islands of southeast Alaska. My boxed up bike had arrived intact with me at the tiny Juneau airport. The rainbow-colored Specialized mountain bike was all put together except for the rear derailleur cable. No amount of tugging could get it back into place. I’m kneeling in the airport with my bike upside down on the carpet and scores of travelers, in their Carhartt jeans or long skirts and leather boots, are moving quickly past me while I sit stymied. I’m not a wrencher. But before my trip I had met a guy who was. I brought my bike and a couple of six-packs to his backyard shop for some tutoring. I figured bike shops might be few and far between in what the locals call Baja Alaska. My new friend Tom helped me take my bike apart and put it back together again. We added a rear rack, a handlebar rack and fenders against the likely wet weather. Thinking back, by the time we were putting cables back into place, I’d had too many beers. A month later, I figured out how to pack my bike without disconnecting that cable. Whaddaya know? There’s not much of a road network in Baja Alaska so you couldn’t bike more than five or ten miles even if you wanted to. I was counting on getting from island to island on a state ferry with a little village of tents duct-taped to the aft deck. I made great plans to use my bike as a pack mule to cover the few miles from airports and ferry docks to hostels and campgrounds. My bike would carry me swiftly and scenically to trailheads, put-ins, restaurants and museums. With my inflatable kayak in a duffle bag strapped over the back panniers and a two-part paddle sticking up like smokestacks, I was only a short distance from any put-in. I could explore coves, harbors and icebergs. The planning and packing were almost as fun as the traveling. Baja Alaska is wetter than Baja, Mexico—the locals have thirty words for “drizzle”—so I bought a full set of rain gear. And I made up a recipe for a lightweight camping meal that was filling and delicious: quick grits, a bouillon cube and Parmesan cheese. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a cathedral-sized tunnel through Mendenhall Glacier waiting for me to explore its blue, icy-smooth interior. But for now, I couldn’t even get myself out of the airport. “Want help with that?” says a fellow with a beard and business suit as he crouches down with the bike between us. “Got it all together but the cable,” I say. The stranger reaches for the bike with both hands and, like a harp player, strikes a happy note as the cable pops into place. I’m speechless, but my face shows equal parts gratitude and wonder. “Lots of late nights putting bikes together before Christmas,” he says with a smile and a wink as he walks away. Thank. You. Santa.

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