The 450 Tour Part 2: The Glenn Highway

…continued from Part 1: The Seward Highway

I got my bike and touring gear out of a U-haul storage in midtown Anchorage and went north through the city. I passed by the neighborhood that reminded me of a woman from 2012, who turned out to be the best ghosting story I’ve ever had. We met online and went bar hopping in downtown on what ended up being a good first date. She was a licensed pilot who worked for a local flightseeing company, and halfway through the night she offered to fly me out to the Knik Glacier as an idea for a second date. So of course I’d be up for that. The night went on from bar to bar, and we continued to have a good time. I followed up later to pursue this whole glacier idea further… yeah, ghosted. Like straight up nothing. After talking up all this game, I did not get my glacier, I got fuck-all. On the bright side though, at least we don’t live in the same town.

But I knew if I was going to get through the next 300 miles, there were more important things to worry about than my dating failures, like the downpour that hit me on the outbound Glenn Highway. I rode into a lot of hard rain and shit for visibility. And my rain gear was about as waterproof as a mesh T-shirt. The big problem was that my rear blinker wasn’t working. Luckily, the highway had a huge shoulder. That said, I don’t know how I survived to tell the tale.

I got to Eagle River after about an hour and waited in a shopping plaza for a bike shop to open. I checked my work email. Dammit, one of the client websites was busted. To fix it, I would have to write about 10 lines of code, but I didn’t think I could do that from my phone without screwing it up even more. I realized that I could patch it with one line in the login process to bypass the bad part of the code for now until I can get back to my hotel next week. I was in the site admin panel trying to wipe droplets off of my phone and code it in. On my phone’s keyboard menu, you have to go to submenus to get to some of the characters used in PHP syntax. A pain in the ass. I saved the file and tested. Looks like that got it. People ask me what I do and I tell them I get mad at a computer for a living.

The bike shop opened and I got a new tail light and set of fenders to keep the wheels from flinging mud on the drive train. It was great service from Alaska Velo Sport in Eagle River, and I’d be glad to recommend them to other cyclists going through. I went north as the rain backed off and clouds started breaking on the ridges.

Thirty miles later, I started climbing the eastward hills into the mountains just after Palmer. What the hell is that sound? Something in my drivetrain was squeaking with each pedal stroke. After some investigation, I realized that the guy at REI forgot to put lube on my chain. I didn’t have any chain lube with me, and the last shop for the next 250 miles was in Palmer, five miles back. After that it’s just me and that road. I called the guy there and asked him if there was any possible way they could wait for me to get back at 6:30. He said dryly, “We leave at 6.” Fuck.

I had 40 minutes to get back, but luckily it was all downhill. And I was hauling ass. I didn’t want to risk a chain break over the next few days in the middle of nowhere. I made it in just under 20 minutes. He lubed the chain for free, which was cool. I finally thought I was ready for this tour. I climbed the hill above Palmer again and listened for the squeaking. It was gone.

Ahead, familiar mountains closed in as I climbed along the rush of the Matanuska River. Clouds lifted, thinned out, lightened, and broke away from mountaintops in the late sun. Soon, I arrived at the Pinnacle Mountain RV Park. It was an eclectic place, full of pretty old junk, flower gardens, ducks, swans, goats, llamas, and alpacas. Antique tractors lined the road in a row, some of them with flags. Flower beds had colors that you would never see in the state, clearly built by somebody with an eye for aesthetic design.

When I walked to the outhouse, I kept getting hissed at by one of the swans. I gave him a wide berth of 20 feet, but it still wasn’t enough not to piss him off. Can’t win em all, I guess. But I wondered, how do they protect all of these pets from wolves and bears?

I waited for the lodge restaurant to open the next day. It was my biggest day of climbing yet, and I needed to eat as much as I could. The lodge owner cooked me breakfast and talked my ear off for an hour. This lodge, its antiques, flower gardens, animals, and quirky random things were her creation. She has it exactly how she likes it. And I like that. She was so much fun to talk to that I lost track of time. I got going at 11:30 for the next pass. But hey, it’s going to be a long day. It’s summer in Alaska.

I’ve done this road before. Right after the RV park is a bridge crossing and the first of three steep uphill climbs over the next twenty miles. I pedaled against an incline, gravity, and doubt. Behind, the familiar stoic King Mountain rose above the roar of the river as it made its way westward. The climb at Long Lake was the next big fight, as I paced for a slow hour on low gears. The Chugach Mountains to the south came in and out of clouds and shimmering glare, occasionally lighting up in breaks of sun, only to be enveloped in showers a minute later.

My favorite part of this pass was near the Matanuska Glacier. Here, the mountain ridges curved along the valley above a bed of forest, split in half by a huge glacial moraine whose streams would eventually feed a charging river. It was good to be back. Not just to be back, but to keep going and make this adventure even bigger and more personal.

Soon, I reached the part of the road that I knew and hated: The Caribou Creek Gorge. The road descends for a mile to the canyon floor, crosses the creek, and then goes back up the other side at an 8% grade for a full mile. It’s a real cracker jack of a climb. But I knew what I was in for, and got going slow on the grade at an easy pace. The important thing is to keep your gears low and cadence high. Head down, pedal, and fight it out. It hurt, but I made it to the top after 20 minutes with no breaks and surprisingly no bitching. The Grand View Cafe was just a mile downhill after the top, and was well earned.

It was a slow weekday at the cafe restaurant, where I chatted with a young Latvian lady working there for the summer. She was jealous of my tour. She said she did the same thing last year from Whitehorse to Vancouver, which is bloody impressive. That’s farther than anything I’ve done. I told her she should get back on the road and she agreed.

I continued east out of the range. Clouds darkened over the mountaintops, dumping sheets of rain on the high tundra. The peaks of the Chugach range broke away from the road as I went eastward. Big grey clouds and summer showers rolled across the plains ahead. I made one last stop at the Eureka Roadhouse for food.

At mid-evening, I was flying down a huge series of hills as the road made its way out of the mountains and into a huge plain of taiga forest and a million lakes. And with them, a horde of mosquitoes. I didn’t care. I was living. I crested a hill and saw the alpenglow of 12,000ft snow capped Wrangell Mountains rising high above the plain, 60 miles away. ATV riders rode along a track parallel with the road. I kept up for a second. I pedaled on, glowing amidst a tremendous, gorgeous landscape.

I was in such a good mood that I thought fuck it, I’ll get to Glennallen tonight. It’s another 40 miles, but I’m kicking so much ass. And it’s been years since I’ve done a proper century, on a tour no less. I charged on, high on endorphins, protein, life.

What you don’t see on a terrain map – the one of this area included – is all of the steep river crossings. Even on a straight road like this, which was mostly downhill. Each creek crossing meant a descent and a climb back up the other side, eroding my energy levels faster than I expected. I crossed a river at 11:00 and spent 10 minutes getting up the next hill, finally getting burned out. I stopped for a break at the top, looked at the trees by the traffic pullout, and thought that’s it. It’s time to call it a night. My hubris got me another 15 miles that day.

I set up camp in the woods next to the road and slept under a lavender sky.

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I made for the town in the clear morning. The road straightened out and leveled into a gradual downhill coast as I approached Glennallen. Black spruce trees, muskeg, and brushy tundra carpeted the landscape while patches of fireweed flowers decorated the sides of the road. At midday, I passed the town with the blink of an eye and got to the junction and the end of the Glenn Highway. Here, I would head south to the ocean.

This story continues on the Richardson Highway.

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