==This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World.==
“You’re crazy,” one of my high school students told me one day. “I call you my crazy teacher.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because nobody actually does what you’re doing!” she replied. “I mean – people talk about riding a bike around the world, but nobody ever actually does it!”
I suppose she was right – we weren’t exactly choosing a well-worn path through life. Most people chose to live in a house with a yard and a bunch of cars in the driveway, but we decided to go our own way. We sold or stored nearly every physical possession we owned and reduced our belongings down to what would fit on three bicycles. Three bicycles worth of stuff for the next three years. Maybe we were crazy after all.
But as I stood there on the shores of the Arctic Ocean and looked ahead at the road that would take us southward, I couldn’t help but feel they were the crazy ones. The journey ahead could only be magical – how could it not be when the four of us were together exploring our planet? Yes, we would struggle over passes and collapse into bed at the end of many long days on the road, but we would be living. Truly living. Was that really crazy?
Yet I still had to consider the fact that my husband, John, and I were about to attempt a feat that had never been done – bike the Alaskan Dalton Highway with ten-year-old twins. Originally built in the 1970s as a supply road for the oil fields of the north slope on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, the Dalton Highway had long been known as one of the most challenging bicycle routes in the nation due to its rough conditions and sheer remoteness. It would be many miles of nothing more than dirt track meandering through pristine Alaskan territory. Maybe there was a reason it had never been tackled with kids. Maybe we should get back on the plane and leave it that way.
My mind came back to the look on my sons’ faces – that look of sheer determination and excitement when they talked about the journey. They were so determined, so resolute in their desire to cycle from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina. I owed it to them to at least allow them to try. If we failed, we would fail trying.
I surveyed the enormous pile of gear strewn about our feet in the warehouse of the Arctic Caribou Inn in Prudhoe Bay and wondered, once again, if we had planned well enough. Adequate rain gear? Check. Appropriate warm clothing? Check. Tent, sleeping bags, and stove? Check, check, check. Sufficient food? Maybe check. We had planned the best we could. Now, only time would tell if we had done it well enough.
“For the record,” an oil worker said as he picked his way through our piles, “I drive this road on a regular basis, and I think you’re nuts.”
“I think you may be right,” I retorted as I glanced out the window at the road we were about to tackle.
John and I, along with our sons Davy and Daryl, had arrived in Prudhoe Bay the day before. Now, the boys were out throwing rocks at icebergs floating in the nearby lake while John and I attempted to sort our massive piles of gear.
In the next few hours we piled our gear and more than fifty pounds of food on our bikes. We were about to pedal from the northernmost terminus of the Pan-American Highway on the shores of the Arctic Ocean to Fairbanks 500 miles away. And beyond that? We would keep our bike tires pointed south until we could go no farther – at the southern tip of South America. At least that was the plan.
Even after so many months of planning, preparing, stewing, fretting, and organizing, I wondered if we would actually make it. Could we actually make it? The odds were against us – how many ten-year-old kids had ever cycled the Dalton? None. The Alaska Highway? None. The Pan American? None. We were drawing blanks as far as examples to lean on. We would have to be our own example.