From Alaska to Aspen by bike: Taking the road less traveled
August 4, 2012
ASPEN – Friends and family often ask Pat Callahan about what occupies his mind during one of his marathon bike excursions.
They wonder if all those hours spent in the saddle are an exercise in self-realization. They wonder if the experience engenders some grand epiphany.
“There’s really none of that at all,” the 47-year-old joked Wednesday as he ran a hand through his sun-bleached locks. “I’m thinking about traffic and doing math – what speed I need to go to make it to a town before the store closes. I’m thinking about seeing the sights and the smells, the smell of wildflowers or the rain, things you’d never notice until you’re on a bike.
“Life on a bike is simple. It’s a great existence. I met these two girls in Montana who were riding across the country, and one of them said bike touring is magical. I couldn’t agree more.”
Callahan’s two-wheeled infatuation has taken him to nearly all corners of the country. Recently, it took him to Alaska.
For 52 days, Callahan pedaled from Fairbanks to Aspen. He covered 4,019 miles and crossed the Continental Divide 12 times.
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There were 48 bear sightings and three flat tires – coincidentally all in Colorado. And, fittingly, there was one final photo taken in front of the Mill Street fountain July 18.
“In some sense, it was even better than I expected as far as the scenery, the wildlife and the people,” Callahan said. “I was beat up mentally, though. It was one of the most challenging trips I’ve ever taken.”
Callahan’s passion for cycling was cemented on a ride down the Baja California peninsula with his brother, father and uncle when he was just 13. Years later, admittedly for no apparent reason, he hopped on his Schwinn 10-speed, left Middlebury College in Vermont and headed home – through the Appalachians, vast Midwestern prairies and the familiar Rockies, a distance of nearly 2,400 miles over 35 days.
The Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club alpine coach and Aspen Winternational chief of course since has crisscrossed the contiguous U.S. – from New Mexico to Florida, Oregon to Wisconsin and North Carolina to New York, among others – on an unofficial quest to ride in all 50 states.
After 2009’s jaunt from Maryland to St. John’s, Newfoundland, Callahan ticked off No. 48.
Then, he set his sights on the Last Frontier.
The original plan: Complete a triangle from Anchorage to Fairbanks to Delta Junction. The revised idea was far more ambitious.
“‘You know what – maybe I should ride up to Alaska. That’d be cool,'” Callahan remembered thinking. “Being the smart guy I am, though, with the prevailing winds going in the other direction, it made sense to ride the other direction.”
For three years, Callahan contemplated what he calls the trip of a lifetime. The unbridled excitement intensified as the excursion drew closer. He found it hard to sleep – instead, he repeatedly examined his gear and searched for ways to shed weight, going so far as to cut the tags out of his shirts.
He found it hard to concentrate.
“I had this national ski meeting in Park City (Utah) on May 10 or 12, and I was so checked out already,” Callahan said. “I was ready to get on my bike and go.”
A few short weeks later, Callahan pedaled his loaded 20-year-old Trek carbon fiber bike out of sunny Fairbanks and down the Alaska Highway.
The shortwave radio and MP3 player attached to his handlebars was blaring. He was beaming.
“It’s totally exciting and not at all daunting at the beginning,” said Callahan, who rode just six miles in preparation for the trip.
He continued, “It’s great to get out there and have no responsibilities and be in no rush. But in the same sense, you have a plan every day. You know you’re going to wake up, pedal your bike, look for food and a place to sleep at night.”
And he knew he’d most likely be contending with the wind – a harsh reality that set in once he hit the Yukon Territory. Pervasive gusts from the south rendered expected tailwinds nearly nonexistent.
“I had about three days of tailwinds in 52 days,” Callahan estimated. “In the Yukon, it was blowing 60 kilometers an hour. It was hard to stay up on the bike. One day, I rode with a couple doing some touring, … and we covered 30 miles in six hours and were fighting as hard as we could to keep moving.
“Those are the days when you stop to take a picture of anything – a pond, a stream, a tree. Mentally, it’s hard to get on a bike and ride into the wind again.”
He pushed on through the Yukon’s dense spruce and pine forests and into perpetually drenched British Columbia.
He reveled in his isolation on lonely stretches of highway where towns are separated by 150 or more miles, where it’s common to see fewer than one car per hour and where one can set up a tent virtually anywhere. Callahan spent all but about 12 nights outside.
Callahan did have some company. He had the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones. He had Spanish-language tutorials.
And he had bears. An abundance of them.
“Initially, I was so scared of them. The first one I saw, I got a car to stop and escort me by,” Callahan said. “After a while, I was sneaking up on them, taking pictures, then announcing I was there before riding away.
“One day I stopped along this road in British Columbia to get some water out of a stream, and as I was walking back there was a bear sitting on its butt on the other side of the road eating dandelions with both hands and just watching me. It was the cutest thing, like right out of a cartoon.”
A return to civilization did have its advantages, however.
There were the interactions with locals – “If you pull up to a gas station in a car to get food, no one will come over to say hi. But if you’re on a packed bike, every local will come over and talk. I met so many people, and they were all so genuinely nice,” he said.
After days spent rationing his food, there was the chance to indulge.
“Whatever I wanted – gas-station hot dogs, ice cream, cookies. I didn’t really worry about it,” Callahan said. “I literally would eat a dozen doughnuts in a morning – I was popping them down like Pez. One day, I ate a box of Lucky Charms without getting off the bike.”
And, after a period of good fortune, there was help when mechanical issues cropped up. It was in a bike shop in Prince George, British Columbia, where Callahan discovered his Trek had a cracked frame.
He was about 1,500 miles into his trip and initially contemplated buying a bus ticket and heading home. Instead, he had the shop order and express ship a Surly touring bike from a distributor in Vancouver.
Callahan spent a weekend in a hotel “watching the rain,” spent a day in the shop transferring parts from his old bike to his new – “They said, ‘Here’s your bench, and here are some tools. Go to work.'” – and was back on the road.
He continued to battle the elements while trying to maintain a steady pace.
“It was hard to get those constant hours on the bike some days. It would start raining hard, and I’d have to sit it out under a tree or bridge,” Callahan said. “The other problem was when I hit the Canadian Rockies – it was too scenic. I would see a waterfall and want to hike to it or see a lake and want to take a swim.
“I didn’t worry about the miles. This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I wanted to take advantage of the scenery and see what was out there.”
Callahan lingered in Canada, soaking in views of 15,299-foot Mount Robson and visiting Lake Louise and Glacier National Park, among others.
He even tackled a daunting climb through picturesque Jasper National Park in Alberta, later saying it was the first time he felt strong the whole trip.
Fatigue took its toll some time later near Kalispell, Mont.
“I camped out just north of town one night, and there was a big lightning storm, and I didn’t sleep well,” Callahan recalled. “I woke up, went through town and got about four miles out when I was just so tired that I stopped. I sat on the steps of a convenience store drinking a Diet Coke and watching the wind blowing the wrong way. I must’ve sat there for 21⁄2 hours before I said, ‘I’m done.’
“I pedaled the four miles back, got a $32 hotel room and fell asleep from 3 to 7 p.m. I showered, did some laundry, worked on the bike, then slept for another 11 hours. It is just an exhausting thing.”
Still, after finally reaching Colorado, Callahan was determined to end on a high note.
“I got to Rangely and had 3,600 miles. I thought, ‘OK, I can be home around 3,800,'” Callahan said. “But on a trip like this, you can’t end on I-70 and come up Highway 82.”
Instead, he pulled out a map and charted a more circuitous route – one that included a 6,000-foot climb up Colorado’s Grand Mesa plus ascents of Cottonwood and Independence passes.
On July 17, he set up camp north of Buena Vista on a flat tract next to the Arkansas River.
The following day, he summited Independence Pass and snapped an obligatory photo next to the sign. He reached 4,000 miles on the first switchback as rain pelted him.
Soon after, sheltered under a tree near the Independence ghost town, Callahan pulled out his rain gear one last time.
The drops abated as he rode through town greeting family and friends.
“It was a perfect way to end the trip, but it was also bittersweet,” Callahan said. “I was a little sad to see it coming to an end. Sometimes you get done with a trip and you want to get rid of the bike, put it away. … Those first few days, I was wishing I was out riding again. Even today, I wish I was still on a bike tour. Maybe someday I’ll do a longer one.”
First, there is one more state to cross off the list: Hawaii.
Perhaps he will experience an epiphany there. At the very least, the weather should be better.
“I’m thinking I’ll do some surfing and kiteboarding for a week, take the bike out for a day and call it done,” Callahan said. “That sounds just about perfect.”
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