Bound South

Editor’s Note:  Wharton students embark on ventures across the globe.  Isaiah Berg WG’20 designed his own international journey after graduating from college.  Here he details some of his experiences cycling across the American continent.

If you ride hard north out of Anchorage, you will see Denali in a couple of days. An ominous, endless tree-line flanks Highway #3 all the way until Trapper Creek, where a wildly successful RV park will rent you some dirt for your tent, an internet connection, a warm seating area, and a juicy burger for around $20. They are the last game in town for a hundred miles and they know it. The alternative is wild-camping and stringing your food and belongings up i

n a bear bag in a tree to keep the bears away from your tent while you sleep. A great deal of satisfaction comes from appreciating the little things in life: like warm seating areas, and not having to think about dying from a bear attack while you sleep.

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We happily ended our second day at the campground in Trapper Creek. Our ride began in Alaska and would end in the city of Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. We were three brothers, farm kids from northern North Dakota. We had a few thousand dollars in savings, some tough bicycles, and a big dream. It was an awkward stage for us. The infrequent passerby would ask us where we were going and where we started from.  Argentina, huh? Anchorage, hmm. They would glance down at our bags, covered with gear and bungee cords, perched on top of our over-burdened mountain bikes. At the beginning, we had a lot of stuff that we didn’t need. We really didn’t know what we were doing. We were hungry that second night because we had overeaten the available rations of our grim delicacy: rotini noodles, canned white chicken, and Mrs. Dash seasoning. We had ridden all day, and after staring at a small portion of our bland protein-carbohydrate medley, we knew that we needed something more to stay sane. Burgers it was.

I recall those early days of our bicycle travels with surprising difficulty. Smells and sounds and other senses trigger memories most often from our last months in South America. We flew through the Andes when we weren’t dying of food poisoning or going uphill. We were professionals. We had shed weight from our bodies and bicycles, tossing the nonessentials as we rolled into Latin America with half the stuff and twice the legs we started with. We rode fast and enjoyed living slow, taking long lunch breaks out of the sun with a 3L of Coca-Cola and as much peanut butter and tortillas and vegetables as we could eat. Most evenings we’d find a home restaurant that would mystically conjure a bowl of beef stew and a gigantic arroz con pollo with unlimited fruit juice for $2. If we shared conversation and bought a couple big bottles of Coca-Cola, the mother of the house might even offer us a place for our tent out back. We would share stories and sit in the dim light of the kitchen until long after closing time, playing with the kids and learning a little bit more about their family. The next day we would leave to hammer the Andean climbs, propelled by our sibling rivalry. We knew ourselves and how to live well together as brothers. Nathan had music, I had books, and David had his camera. We prayed for a sense of peace with the wild uncertainty around us every day. We were one, together against the enormity and occasional danger of it all. It was a peace that we had paid for over many long months. Of all the gifts of the journey, an enduring sense of gratitude might be the greatest.

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In Trapper Creek, we had not yet earned our gratitude or sense of peace. As darkness fell near midnight in the extreme northern latitudes, we crawled into a tent that still smelled like the REI where it was born. We were alive, which was a good enough metric for success. We were untested. Our knees had the dull ache of tendonitis, a concern that would only grow as we pressed on towards the Yukon Territory. We were exhausted and already a little behind our goal pace; we had figured that a restful night with some amenities would be better than bear-proofing a wild campsite closer to Denali. The next day would take us to Cantwell, 104 miles away through the mountains. We overslept and a late departure added to our sense of collective foreboding. I could tell that my brothers were already tired, and the forecast called for rain and temperatures below 45 degrees all day. Welcome to Day Three.

I counted the grim green mile markers from Trapper Creek to Cantwell. By the end of the ride, we were fully internal, oblivious to the wonders of Alaskan wilderness shrouded by rain clouds. But even on the worst days on a bicycle, there are always moments that elevate the suffering and make the moment holy. We met a retired Spanish couple who gave us a warm tour of their RV and drinking water. The clouds parted briefly to give us a vision of Mount McKinley and awe-inspiring gorges. After grinding for many miles, we found ourselves near an ostentatious example of igloo-inspired architecture atop the last mountain pass before Cantwell. Locals reported that it was designed to be the most gregarious liquor store in the state, but the builder’s exuberance got the best of him. It ran afoul of every building code and zoning regulation in the book, and after a failed attempt at renovation and reinvention as a quirky lodge for travelers, it lay barren and fell into disrepair. Locals consider it to be an eyesore. We thought it was pretty rad. Not all things turn out as they are originally envisioned. We still build.

Darkness had already fallen before we arrived. We were at our physical limits. This small town of 200 was fast asleep, save for Longhorn Bar on Cantwell’s western outskirts. We rolled up, soaked and chilled to the bone, and walked inside to find ourselves in an Alaskan honky-tonk, replete with big game animals mounted on the walls and lots of plaid lumberjack and Carhartt couture. We were desperate for food and warmth. The bartender and his wife owned the place. They gave us triple-decker cheeseburgers that weren’t even on the menu. They had a hot shower in the back. Heaven is a room with a heater and a floor to sleep on.

The next morning was Sunday. We went to the only church in town and met the only Iron Bob in town, a Nebraska cowboy and an Army-man-turned-electrical-engineer working on the North Slope. His wife Janie is a veterinarian. They welcomed us into their home for some much-needed rest. Bob and Janie have a marriage, unlike anything I have ever seen. Their courtship was comprised of backcountry hunting expeditions. A large bighorn sheep stands vigil on the wall of their lodge, a romantic reminder for Iron Bob of the time when Janie shot it and he “knew that she was a keeper.” In his spare time, Bob climbs mountains. He has climbed the Seven Summits of every continent, and newspaper clippings show him performing cowboy rope tricks on the summit of Everest, jumping through lasso loops on the roof of the world where mere mortals typically lay exhausted. Janie cares for animals and specializes in the legendary sled dogs of the Iditarod. Their family is made of fourteen Siberian Huskies, brimming with spirit, who carry them across the mountain valleys during long Alaskan winters. Iron Bob once had a friend of his, a bush pilot, drop him in the middle of Denali National Park to give him the opportunity to walk home in the middle of winter. Wearing a giant parka and snowshoeing with a sled pulled behind him, this was Iron Bob’s idea of a vacation and a good time. Bob was delayed by a fall through some river ice that forced him to erect his tent to warm up and dry out and avoid hypothermia. After a day or so, Janie grew concerned at the delay, and so she mushed her sled dogs from their lodge across the Denali wilderness to find Bob. Upon finding his tent, she found him warming up and drying out after his dangerous mishap. Seeing that he had the situation firmly under control, she tossed him some snacks and hopped back on the sled to head home. “See you soon, honey!” The right dose of adversity is a leaven for love.

We annihilated moose stew, moose chili, salmon, and biscuits and gravy in epic proportions. Rested and restocked with supplies, we steered our bicycles onto the lonely dirt of the Denali Highway with the assurances of a friendly host connection somewhere down the road. Overnight, we had crossed a threshold where the idea of a bicycle journey of this scale became real. The accumulation of simple, daily disciplines on a bicycle would accrue into three happy hearts and a 16,000-mile ribbon of the road leading to Ushuaia.

About Isaiah Berg, WG'20

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