On the first day I was working at the hospital one of the first things my coworker said to me was, “You have to get off the road system.” Me, being fairly new to Alaska didn’t actually know what he meant, like hiking off a road? I asked for clarification (as I had already done with every legal issue up to that point), “you know, the bush, fly out to a village.” Oh okay, sure, yeah I added it to my list of things to accomplish in Alaska before my fellowship ended. Most of the first fall I was still focused on racing and prepping for nationals. After I was back in January, COVID-19 began to thwart any plans of going to a village. Most villages locked down, and for good reason, the pandemic of 1918 has left scars throughout the state. They required an essential reason to travel and I did not have one. But with vaccines came some loosing of restrictions.
Early in the summer a friend mentioned trying to go to Nome to ride the three roads, not even knowing what those were I immediately said, yes, let’s do it. But this was early June and our schedule for the next two months didn’t exactly overlap for a weekend to do it and settled on next summer. I mentioned to Kevin how cool it would be to do that but put it on my ever expanding list of all the things I want to do.
For my birthday, Kevin bought me a ticket (and himself) to Nome to go ride the roads. I had a three day weekend in August and took an extra day so we would arrive on Wednesday afternoon and leave Sunday giving us time to explore the different roads. We booked tickets but then planning took a back seat as we did the Jurassic Classic followed by a long weekend in Denali, followed by a long weekend at a cabin in Seward, and my own personal turmoil figuring out if I was going to leave Alaska and lose Kevin or stay in Alaska and maybe at some point loose my job (more on that later, lolz). That decision was brought on by our landlord selling our house and us needing to be out by the end of August.
We realized that we didn’t have any spare time to not start planning though and were able to get a contact there, a friend of a friend who would let us camp in the yard. We also found a bed and breakfast off of one of the roads and another place to stay at the end of one of the other roads. We decided it would be worth staying at these places just so we would reduce the overall gear we’d have to haul. We’d do about 35 miles the first day, 100 miles the second day, and 55 miles the third day. Giving us a travel day on each end.
We packed up and a friend gave us a ride to the airport not realizing just how loaded down we were. I sat in the back with the bikes and kept thinking if we crashed all the ways my legs and hips would be messed up for life and just prayed a little extra harder especially because Anchorage drivers are bonkers. We settled into the airport, it was again strange to travel in the midst of a pandemic. For work I actually never interact with the general public and I’ve taken to ordering groceries so really have a very small bubble, which I realize how privilege and fortunate it makes me. Being at the airport I realized why we were were still in the midst of it all with noses hanging out and others having masks covering their chins, even one removing their mask to sneeze. I bought some postcards at the gift shop to send out and we situated ourselves away from anyone else. In 2017, I came down with some anxiety around flying that hit me out of the blue and has never entirely went away, I think it’s the whole trusting someone you’ve never met to get you to your destination safely. I’ve found ways to manage and usually in either doing work or writing to occupy my mind and telling myself, “I can’t die, I have to finish this.” Internally I felt so much turmoil that I was grateful that this flight did not also contribute to that. The last sentence I wrote before landing was, “about to arrive in Nome and I have no idea what the next 4 days will bring–hopefully a sense of peace, wanderlust, and healing but who knows.”
We landed and got picked up by Burr from the airport, she drove us to her house talking about the area and town, when they had moved, and giving us the lay of the land. Kevin had been there once before for the Iditarod but was there for only about 24 hours and in March. We got to her house and she offered up a spot to pitch our tent but then also offered up the dog kennel, where they put the dogs to sleep when it’s too cold.
That sounded amazing and I said yes absolutely, even better if we had the dogs with us. She said they only go in when it’s really cold and it wasn’t there yet. We unpacked, put our bikes together and then joined Burr and Tim inside for dinner. We chatted about the Alaskan experiences that we had had with some overlapping without realizing it. We asked a lot of questions about dog mushing and operating a kennel and they graciously answered all of them. We decided the next day that we’d hitch a ride into town with Tim when he headed to work so we could see them run the dogs too.
We went to bed and there was still tension between Kevin and I being in this weird space of am I leaving or going and where does that leave our relationship. I didn’t know what to say so managed a “I’m glad you brought me here, thank you” and left it at that. The next morning we saw the running of the dogs, you can feel the energy from the dogs and how much they want to run, heck it made me want to run.
They attached them all to the four wheeler (upgrade from the wooden carts that are maybe still in use some places) and took off, it was very cool to see. After some frantic packing on my part not realizing the car left in 10 minutes we made it in the car and on our way to town. I asked about the COVID situation in Nome how the response had been and what it had been like. It’s off the road system, which helped, so they reduced the number of flights in and then prior to vaccines did airport screenings upon arrival. We unloaded our gear and I loaded mine mostly on the bike but knowing we’d only be going about 35 miles and then would be stopping back by the house the following day was somewhat reassuring in case.
We spent some time in town knowing we didn’t have far to go, seeing the arch that they take to the Iditarod finish and stopping at a recommended coffee shop, from there we made our way to the beach and sat on some rocks for a bit and talked about the state of our relationship dispersed with information about the gold panning that still happens.
We finally were on our way out of Nome when Burr’s dad drove by and honked and waved at us, felt like we were already locals- ha. We headed out towards Solomon B&B, the road was pretty nice and could definitely ride a gravel bike on it, and not a lot of steep climbs so we were able to cruise for a bit. Outside of town I saw some wooden crosses on a hill and pulled off, kind of a when am I ever going to be back here to see these, and told Kevin I was going to venture up to see what they were.
The crosses offered little information about who was actually there and it seemed like they were remains that had been repatriated from various museums. I thought of myself and the connect to various lands that I’ve felt, especially in Alaska, and I wondered if the turmoil of being ripped from your land existed in the afterlife, if it did I hoped that maybe there were finally able to rest being back here.
I walked back down to the road, grabbing some blueberries on the way to snack on. We got back on our bikes and continued on. Kevin saw an opening for the beach and suggested we ride out there, I thought of my drivetrain but he was already in the sand and if I stayed on the road the shrubbery blocked him from view. I got on the beach and rode down near the water where it was mostly packed and my 2.2 tires had some traction.
There were a few houses and I couldn’t tell if they were lived in year round or just a summer cabin. I rode by one that had a large brown apparatus in front of it, it almost looked like a rusty fuel tank but was situated on the ground. I couldn’t figure out what it was and it was a little too close to the house to be snooping around. When I caught up to Kevin he asked if I had seen the dead walrus, “the head was cut off.”
“Ohhhh” I replied, “I couldn’t tell what it as and just kind of assumed it was a rock or something.” We talked about the reasons the head was cut off, maybe for the tusks after it had washed ashore and died, it didn’t seem like an animal would do something like that, and it wasn’t the only headless Walrus we would see on the trip.
We came up to the Safety Roadhouse, which we had planned to stop at for a drink. It’s the “last checkpoint” on the Iditarod Trail before Nome, about 22 miles. We went in and the walls were covered with signed dollar bills and Iditarod memorabilia. I couldn’t tell if it was a shrine or a dive bar.
We ordered some food making small talk with the caretakers. They were from Florida and had met the owners in Hawaii who offered them this job, they said they enjoyed it but wouldn’t be back because of how cold it was. At that moment it was 50 degree and they had some burly winter gear on. I, in shorts and a t-shirt decided that we both probably thought the other person didn’t have a good internal regulation of temperature. We grabbed our food and headed outside, they had a tee stand so we hit some golf balls, which immediately made me grateful I don’t do ball sports anymore as when I did finally make contact with the ball it made a pithy bounce off the tee and rolled close enough that Kevin walked a few feet to grab it so we could hit it.
When we left we only had about 15 miles or so our stop for the night and the road seemed to stretch on in this distance for miles, which it turned out it actually did. It reminded me of being in South Dakota in a strange way, there are a few areas that on one side you have the hills and the other side the prairie, except for here it was the hills and the ocean. When the road finally did curve, we got off to see the last train to nowhere, with its finally resting place being the marshy area that it had once traversed.
The locomotives were brought as part of a dream to build the most extensive rail system in the area. As with the boom and bust of a gold mine area, as the gold rush faded and only 35 miles of line put in over 5 years, the project was abandoned and the trails were left to deteriorate.
We saw the Solomon B&B we’d be staying at and pedaled the last half a mile. There was a vehicle parked out front but we had been warned that no one would be there and it was a self check-in/check-out. We walked around to the back and the maintenance guy greeted us, telling us that he knew we were coming and we’d be in room 5. He showed us in, saying he’d be leaving in a bit and then went back out to finish his work. The place had multiple individual suits and a few common areas, including a pretty stocked kitchen, with fresh fruit (which we decided was a real treat given our location). There were enough twists in the hallways and creaks in the floorboards that I decided I would not be out of our room at night by myself.
We learned that the place had been a former BIA boarding school and was currently ran by the Solomon Village tribe. With all the children remains being discovered this summer at various former boarding schools, I wondered if there were unmarked graves here. I decided that since it was now in the hands of the tribe they would be able to pursue that if they wanted to and I should leave it at that.
There was a large world map in the living room that reminded me of my looming decision. I saw just how far Alaska was from DC, I found it almost comical that we were considered the same country. I stared wondering if I could some how minimize the distance to make it feel physically closer, it didn’t move and I pushed the feelings of wanting to stay and feeling like I needed to leave down, that was a problem for future Kate I decided.
We got up a bit early since we had 90 miles of pedaling in front of us, made breakfast, got packed up, and back on the road. It was a bit chiller than when we had started the day before, reminding me that winter, especially here, would be settling in soon.
We rode back to the Safety Roadhouse and stopped to change layers and stopped to eat our own food as it wasn’t open this early.
Getting back on the road we saw bear prints in the soft dirt on the shoulder, they were headed the same direction we were going and they definitely had not been there the day before. With so much vastness we found it odd that if there was a bear we were unable to see it, but we kept riding, seeing where the bear prints disappeared and reappear, thinking they must have gotten off for a car or something. We made it back to Nome, having decided to skip the cut across road so we could get some coffee and maybe some food. No luck on the food but we had plenty and I was really after the coffee, and a coffee mug from the shop.
We headed past town and on the road that would take us to the Pilgrim Hot Springs, it also happened to be the road that Tim and Burr live on so we planned on stopping to switch out gear. Right before the turn off for their road, I heard the familiar hissing of air being released from my tire, ohhh no, I got off and immediately identified the spot, it was the same spot that had released a week before but I thought I had gotten it to seal. I put some air in but it still wasn’t sealing so Kevin gave me a bacon (not actual bacon just look like it) strip to plug the hole with, it worked and with a bit more air we were back at their place and swapping stuff out.
Tim was able to join us for part of the next leg; he told us about community, the land, the history, the hospital, how they came to Nome, it was almost intoxicating as I tried to weave it all together in my mind.
It came across how incredibly grateful he was to be here and how much him and Burr were taking advantage of everything the area offered. He point out Leonhard Seppala’s house, the musher who ran his dogs most of the way with the diphtheria serum and I thought of the barriers that still exist in accessing care and services in such a remote place like this.
Tim turned back after about 15 miles with us, we told him we’d see him the next day and settled into a more relaxed pace, not sure who was pushing it when we were all together.
It had been drizzling but had mostly stopped when Kevin said there was a bear, me being quite terrible at any wildlife sightings did not see it and was convinced it was just going to pop out of the brushes, I dinged my bell, Kevin quickly hushed me, “don’t bring attraction to us, it doesn’t know we’re here”. Oh, I just figured it was better to let it know, sometimes I feel like I’ve made great strides in my backcountry competence and then other times feel like I’m fresh off the farm. I asked him where the bear was as my scanning still provided no glimpse of it, he said it was on the other side of the brush, which again I was like is that 5 feet or 50 feet. He told me to keep pedaling, which I did, with one hand over the bear spray. We got beyond the brush and looked over in the clearing, I squinted, what the heck is that, my mind tried to make sense or what I was seeing, is that a moose, what else would it be, I squinted more and then started laughing, it was a hiker with a large external frame backpack that stuck out against the landscape, he was also quite a ways a way, you thought that was a bear?!? Kevin explained that he only got a glance and just assumed since what else would it be, I agreed saying I thought it was a moose and my brain couldn’t figure out what else it would be since it seemed so out of context. I wondered where he had come from and where he was going and if I would ever feel that comfortable being in the backcountry by myself. We pedaled by giving a small wave.
As has been the case over the past 18 months in the silent pedal strokes my mind wanders to COVID. This time it was focused on Nome though, thinking of their respond, did the fact that they have a spot in their cemetery dedicated to those victims of the 1918 flu impact the response, how about being internationally known for the serum run. With it being off the road system they had more control over those coming into the village, flights were reduced from 2 to 1 per day and they would test everyone at the airport as they arrived. I voiced some of these to Kevin, about how cool it would be to do a specific case study of Nome, tying in all these factors. He added that Nome was settled by gold miners and not an Alaska native village like some of the others, and that most villages had diphtheria outbreaks but Nome (being predominately white) was able to get the serum. At one point, Kevin used to be a tour guide, which is insanely useful for someone who is new to the state and looking for nuances in research questions. Ohhh interesting, yeah it would be interesting to do a comparative analysis between here and another off-the road village.
We began to see a lake emerge in the distance that told us that we were at least in the latter half of our distance for the day. The cabins that speckled the landscape were vibrant, seeming almost to belong in a Scandinavian country. Kevin said it reminded him of Newfoundland, where he lived for a year. I rode across a bridge and stopped, peering down at the water, “Kevin, look at this, it’s so clear, like I can see the bottom..” he reminded me that this is what water looks like when it’s not glacial fed and you don’t have the glacial silt. “I just want to jump in.” It might not be glacial fed but it’ll still be cold.
We checked the elevation profile, okay two more good hills with the last one being off the highway and up and down to the hot springs. As our elevation changed so did our layers with us putting our shells on before one of the summits so we wouldn’t have to do it at the top. I got a little warm but always much less concerned with temperature regulation when we aren’t sleeping outside at night.
We bombed down the descent and if Kevin hadn’t told me to keep and eye out for the turn off I definitely would have missed it as there was little marking, I turned left and saw Kevin waiting for me. Alright 7 miles left as we began the climb up, it really was just up and then down. I stayed on the bike to ride up, Kevin got off to walk, but he’s a much faster hiker than me.
I made it to the top a little before him and took in the views, in a lot of ways it felt like Denali with these looming mountains in the foreground and they seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Kevin reached the top and was just dumping gorp into his mouth, saying that he was reaching his limit, I reminded him that we have been riding for 93 miles, which I feel like my gauge is skewed for long distance mileage, but for mostly off the couch for him, he was a champ for only bonking at this point.
We descended down, avoiding the puddles as best as we could and turned onto the trail that went by the caretakers cabin, we stopped to check in and asked about the water situation just to make sure we would have enough for the next day, they said they would bring some more by in the morning.
We got to the cabin and were surprised by the accommodations, a stove burner, pots/pans and real silverware. We unpacked a bit and then decided to make our way to the hot springs. I’m not exactly sure what was going through my mind when I was packing but I did not include a swimsuit, and for some reason had a pair of underwear (again for being in bike shorts all weekend those were not warranted). I kept the sports bra that I had been wearing that day on, having a clean one for the next day and wore my sleep shorts to the cabin by the hot springs to change. I slipped into the hot springs and there was already a family in the other side, I told Kevin, given my white underwear situation we would be outlasting them to leave. I made sure to keep my head above water because brain eating amoebas and can’t be too careful with those.
We made small talk with the family, with them having moved to Nome recently and they talked about the decision to do so and where else they looked. After a while they left and feeling like our muscles had been sufficiently soaked we also got out to go eat some dinner. I laid out some of my gear to try and dry out before going to bed.
In the morning I woke to the thunderous sound of raining hitting the cabin, it was so boisterous that it covered up the white noise that I had put on. I figured we only had 50 or so miles to go in it if we needed to and rolled back over hoping Kevin wouldn’t be in a rush to get going. The next time I woke up the rain had dissipated and turned again to a similar mist we had had most of the day before.
We packed our bikes back up, I shoved my still wet clothes into a separate compartment to try and preserve some of my other layers and we rode to the caretakers cabin to check out. We asked about some of the buildings on the property, specifically the church. They said we could ride over to it, it used to be an orphanage for kids’ whose parents died during the 1918 flu, opening in 1919 and was run by the Catholic Church before being returned to the tribe in recent years. He also explained the network of travel that the surrounding communities used to get to the area and the history of the landownership.
We rode over to the church which was pretty dilapidated, I questioned out loud if history was repeating itself with COVID, a recent number was that 120,000 children had lost their primary caregiver in the US. I also thought about potential unmarked graves, the orphanage would have been removed from any village and wasn’t easily accessible in those days. The area had a former larger church, dormitory and school, and living quarters for the staff, which all remained somewhat identifiable. The site closed in 1941. We walked around a bit but didn’t go too close to any one building as they seemed near potential collapse, which surely would bury any secrets that remained in their walls.
We left climbing the hill that had delivered us the day before. I kept glancing back to take it all in, would this really be it.
We turned back onto the main road and on the first climb a truck coming down slowed to tell us there was a musk ox ahead. They continued but we weren’t sure how far ahead so proceeded with caution, and going uphill we weren’t exactly moving fast. We were talking when the musk ox poked its head around some shrubbery, it was almost like it was peeking out to say hello and then quickly disappeared behind the bush. Kevin yelled and waved his arms. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m letting it know we’re here” He replied. “What? They’re not bears, they’re more like buffalo.” I finally felt like I had knowledge to contribute. We took a wide berth around and part of me was worried that we would run into the entire herd reminding me of the times I’ve had to duck into cars when riding through parts of South Dakota to avoid the buffalo herds. Here, there would be no cars. We got to what we felt like was a safe distance and popped back on the road. I glanced back to see if the Musk Ox had made any moves but it seemed to have retreated further into the shrubs.
The weather cooperated for the most part with no torrential downpour or really hard rain, I kept my shell on for the duration of the ride and we stopped more frequently to eat food with the two previous day of activities finally catching up with us. At one point Kevin saw a bear on the side of a hill about 100 yards away, through the misty clouds I said I was pretty sure it was a brush or rock or something, ignorance is bliss.
We made it back to Tim and Burr’s without much instance and got showered and dried off. Friends of their brought over salmon for dinner, the friends live one month in Nome, one month in Missoula working for both healthcare systems. Oh, unusual work/life situations can work, especially given the remoteness of Nome.
Because of the rain we got to sleep with two dogs in the dog shed, as when it’s raining they don’t go into their kennel outside.
We went to bed and the next morning packed up our bikes and headed to the airport. We got back to Anchorage, unpacked our gear and I hit the harsh reality of what I needed to face, or rather still tried to avoid it.
I felt like it was an impossible decision and kept going back and forth with the pros and cons of staying versus going. At one point this summer, when I was packrafting, I flipped over in the water and was stuck in the boat underwater as the skirt that normally releases did not. In the time I was submerged I realized that no one was around to save me and was able to release the skirt and get above water and back into the boat. This decision felt like I was still submerged underwater and the skirt wasn’t releasing no matter how hard I tried. As any former partner of mine will tell you I get a little stressed about decisions and really they could all probably form a support group. I felt like either decision would have huge ramifications, if I stayed it could impact my job, and I love my job and the trajectory I’m on; but if I left I was giving up so much of my life. I couldn’t tell if by staying or leaving I was running from or towards my life.
It didn’t feel like Kevin and I were on the same page for any of it which was also really painful because I felt like in the backcountry and on these trips we were really the best version of ourselves as a couple but we couldn’t get that to translate to day-to-day life and logistics. Finally, Kevin released the skirt on my metaphorical packraft by telling me he wanted to break up [Or maybe we were both submerged underwater and he got out to swim to the shore]. Back in May he had made other housing arrangements when our landlord sold the house and it didn’t seem likely that I’d be able to stay. I didn’t know how to respond, I thought about staying but felt like without a job or a relationship it didn’t make such sense. At least in some sense with his decision, I was out of purgatory.
I also had to be in DC most of the month of September so decided to leave and then figure it all out. I decided to move all my stuff and ship my van, that way if I decided I didn’t want to go back I wouldn’t have to go back to deal with it. At each moment that required me to do something I tried to resist. It reminded me of when my grandmother died and the whole time leading up to the funeral I didn’t want to do any of it, I didn’t want her to be dead, and I didn’t want to have to acknowledge she was. This felt similar, I didn’t want to leave, and I didn’t want to acknowledge that I was. I spent the final two weeks mostly in a state of tears, one friend reminded me that everyone dies so we all technically end up alone anyways, another friend reminded me that everything I was going through was really challenging and these decisions weren’t easy. Other friends took me on final rides and threw Hail Mary’s my way, they would use my van, or I could store gear in their space but felt like it didn’t make sense to do that. And part of me wanted to leave in part to lick my wounds. But in a lot of ways I felt like I was losing so much more than a relationship. I dropped my van off for shipping, still not believing it was actually happened. I spent the last morning riding a trail I hadn’t done before with Rachel.
I kept reminding myself that even if I wasn’t moving I would be gone for September anyways so I just pretended that was the case. Later that evening, Kevin dropped me off at the airport, which felt surreal the whole way there, I even played Kesha thinking that something would prevent me from leaving. I got to the airport and that was it, time had run out and I hadn’t figured out any other options.
Leaving gave me some of the clarity I felt like I was missing in August, I wasn’t able to see the forest through the trees when I was in the thick of it. I also spent a lot of time this past month saying ‘be a river not a rock’. I felt like I was grasping so hard for an expected outcome that it was suffocating– one of the little girls that a friend used to babysit was so excited when she got a hamster that she squeezed it so hard that it’s guts came out. I feel like in a similar way I was squeezing so hard to how I thought things should be that all the guts came out.