Sunday, August 31, 2008

The End of the Road


We did it. We hitch-hiked back to mile 74 of the Dalton with a new bike frame and a repaired brake and resumed where we left off.

We rode the road over hill and dale and the next hill and the next dale and on and on until Coldfoot, the last settlement/lodge/truckstop and midway between Fairbanks and Deadhorse. We picked up a box of food (mainly spaghetti and sardines) that we had mailed to ourselves there. The remaining 249 miles were strictly on our own.

The road was flatter and the weather drier for two days after Coldfoot until the climb up to the Chandalar Shelf. This was a stiff two mile incline which ended in a bizarrely beautiful wide treeless valley (There is a tree marked "The last spruce" at the foot of the climb) full of exotic brightly colored low-lying taiga plants. Some were dwarf willow and dwarf birch which had turned gold and orange with the mid-August onset of autumn. Others were some strange mint-like plant with blood red leaves. It stretched on in surreal vastness forever.

A few miles on we came to the foot of the Atigun Pass. This was five miles of continuous 12% grade, the steepest anywhere in Alaska. Seen from a distance it appeared as a diagonal line scratched into a mountain side in the Brooks Range. The pass was dark, cold, gloomy, with a fierce north wind, but we were elated anyway. My recollection was that the rest of the road was a nearly level 175 mile cakewalk into Prudhoe Bay.

My recollection was wrong. The next 125 miles were strongly rolling foothills on relatively soft gravel and dirt which required a lot of effort. Only the last 50 miles of tundra was level but by then the road had worsened and the north wind off the ocean had become strong and persistent.

The lands north of the Brooks Range are called the North Slope and are an Arctic Desert with only three or four inches of precipitation a year. Even so there are lots of ponds and streams in the tundra. This seemed paradoxical until it occurred to me that because of the low temperatures evaporation is very slow. When the freeze comes, evaporation stops. And because of the permafrost the water does not sink down into the earth. So it stays on the surface.

Also on the tundra were a family of muskoxen. They are astonishing animals. We were impressed with them. They seemed less impressed with us.

Eventually we persisted to Prudhoe Bay / Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay is the bay on the coast. Deadhorse is the "town" there.) From the unpeopled vastnesses upon vastnesses of the north we were plunged into a strange place, a settlement that is an oilfield, a company town, an industrial site, and seems to have only workers and no middle or upper class people at all. It has substantially no permanent population because the workers are rotated though there are generally six thousand people there at all times. It has no houses. Indeed, it has no real buildings because there is no way to lay foundations on the tundra. Unlike the rest of Alaska, the heavy work is done in the winter when the ground and the sea are frozen hard and heavy machinery can be used without bogging down.

Very much unlike the rest of Alaska there is prohibition of both alcohol and firearms. In the rest of Alaska, guns do not kill people, people do. Where there is big corporate money involved, as on the oilfield, such nonsense is of no interest.

We were much annoyed that we could not bicycle to the Arctic Ocean. The oil companies are unwilling to have people wandering around their oilfield unescorted. So we had to take a shuttle bus tour and got to take pictures of each other on the gravel beach and wade.

Then came finding a way back to Fairbanks. We had hoped to hitch-hike or, failing that, to take a shuttle bus. To our dismay, there was almost no traffic on the road. What little there was were truck company drivers forbidden to take riders. We found that the bus service had stopped for the season the week before. After eight hours beside the all-too-silent road we finally got a ride with the same truck driver who had picked us up when we had hitch-hiked from mile 74 with a broken bicycle frame and stuck brake. Ol' John is an angel in a Kenworth.

The next morning we were in Fairbanks.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What I Have Been Doing Lately

Briefly, in 2006 I bicycled from El Cerrito north and got as far as Kelowna, in southern BC. I had a scare that there was something wrong with my breathing and I went home and had a million tests done at UCSF Med Center. It turned out to be a false alarm.

This year I started out from Kelowna on June 6. I rode from Kelowna to the Cariboo Highway and followed it to Prince George. There I turned onto the Yellowhead and rode toward Prince Rupert as far Kitwanga and the Cassiar Highway which I followed to the Alaska Highway. That ended at Delta Junction and became the Richardson which I followed to Fairbanks.

Yesterday I got as far as mile 74 of the Dalton (after the Steese and Elliot Highways) when the top tube broke all the way through, just behind the head tube. I hitch-hiked about two hundred miles back to Fairbanks in a big rig to buy a new bicycle.

The lodging was all motels until I ran into a Swiss student named Florent Prisse at 100 Mile House on the Cariboo. He has less money so we have been camping, mostly bush camping, most of the time. We have been traveling together for about two months now.

There were constant mosquitoes and black flies and intermittent rain in BC. In Alaska, until yesterday, there had been constant rain and intermittent mosquitoes and black flies. Only the Kluane Country in the Yukon was both reasonably dry and only moderate buggy. And magically beautiful. Superlatively beautiful. Indescribably beautiful.

The Dalton has its moments but it is mainly a ball-buster. It is largely unpaved, frequently washboarded and potholed, until yesterday constantly raining, cold, and windy. Worse than everything else, it is an endless series of steep long hills. If we finish the Dalton, by no means a certainty, we will have earned whatever bragging rights go with it. I am told the Brooks Range has outstanding scenery if it is not fogged in.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Belated Reply to Anonymous

"Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Buddhism for the Unenlightened":

Great read on buddhism, I am a Hindu and would like to get your take on that religion (for western folk cuz to me it aint no religion)"

On the theory that ignorance should be no bar to having opinions, I will venture to agree with Anonymous. Hinduism is not a religion in the Western sense of the word. If you believe about five or six things about Jesus, you are a Christian. If you believe about five or six things about Allah you are a Muslim. That is how we define those folks and how they define themselves and their respective religions.

Hinduism is not like that. It is more of a universe of shared assumptions, beliefs, and ways of believing. It is a world-view. To Hindus, the issue is not so much which gods one worships, but the world-view that there are lots of gods and that they create the universe in an immensely complex way that often requires elaborate religious rites and rituals. Hinduism is also an expression of Indian culture. India has been the source of wildly imaginative theologies and mythologies since the time of the repeated Aryan invasions millenia ago. To Americans, flying monkeys are bad childhood dreams from seeing the Wizard of Oz. To Hindus they are the Ramayana, a hugely important Hindu religious document that, to one Westerner at least, made no sense at all.

Hindus do not quarrel between the devotees of Rama and of Vishnu. All gods fit somewhere in the endless and endlessly flexible Hindu pantheon. Official Hinduism sometimes uses this flexibility opportunistically to claim Buddhist shrines as Hindu because Buddha is treated as one of the incarnations of somebody or another, as is Jesus an incarnation of one of the Hindu gods.

Where Hindu tolerance ends is with the denial of all their gods and of their world view. Which is to say there is a large red line dividing Muslims from Hindus. That line has been written in blood, lots of blood, mainly Hindu blood, since the conquest of most of India by the Mughals in the 1400's. Buddhists fared still worse. Buddhists do not believe in a god per se, unpardonable atheism to the Muslims. So the adherents of the Religion of Peace adopted the straightforward strategy of killing them all. The Muslim genocide of a large fraction of the Hindu population and of almost all of the Buddhists of India, thought to have been as much as a quarter of India's population, has been largely forgotten by everyone as being too inconvenient to remember. Even now, the distribution of Buddhists in Asia corresponds to the old borders of the Mughal Empire. Where Muslims ruled, no Buddhist survived.

Even now, the relative tolerance of the two religions can be seen in that, of the two main parts of what had been British India, almost no Hindus were allowed to stay in Muslim Pakistan. Over two hundred million Muslims live in India.

The black mark on Hinduism has been, and remains, the caste system. Though nominally abolished by the Indian constitution at the time of Independence, it is alive and well. And flourishing horribly. It is responsible for the distortions of hundreds of millions of personalities by the reduction of their self-conception to a small handful of the possibilities that human beings can have. For the Untouchables, it goes further, much further. For two hundred million human beings the caste system prescribes permanent servitude and degradation.

The most important human being of the Twentieth Century arguably was Doctor B. H. Ambedkar (1891-1956), a nationalist ally of Gandhi and leader of the Dalits, the polite word for Untouchables. Doctor Ambedkar took the clear-sighted and courageous position that Dalits could never improve their lives and their horrible situation in society so long as they believed in the Hindu religion that inflicts that misery on them. You can't rebel against an oppression you believe that you deserve. Accordingly Doctor Ambedkar began a revival movement to convert the Dalits to Buddhism which has some similar tenets as Hinduism but which includes no notion of caste. Doctor Ambedkar's movement for conversion of the Dalits to Buddhism has had, I understand, mixed success. Still, as the history of the Zionist movement among Jews, and the Civil Rights movement among Blacks in America, have shown, the only effective emancipation for oppressed groups is auto-emancipation.

While there is much to be said for Hinduism as a way of life, to the extent that it supports and even creates the caste system, it is one of the great evils in the world today. Whether there can be Hinduism without caste, is beyond my understanding. But it is clear that there cannot be caste without Hinduism.

A View from the Frontier

I broke my bicycle frame on the Dalton Highway today and had to hitch-hike back to Fairbanks to buy either a new bicycle or a new frame.

Upon returning I learned that, according to the Times headline, "the Russians have invaded Georgia". Startled, I read a few of the background articles and found a slightly fuller explanation, from which I have excerpted this paragraph:

When Western countries decided to recognize the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, Putin declared this a dangerous precedent that opened the possibility of a change of status for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The war of words grew hotter; Russians shot down a Georgian drone aircraft; bombs went off in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; Russian aircraft flew over the disputed parts of Georgia. Finally, at the end of the first week of August, the Georgians reacted and launched a major attack on Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. They quickly overran much of the enclave, nearly taking the city. But the Russians returned with a ferocious counterattack, retaking the capital and upping the ante with bombing outside of South Ossetia.

Keep in mind that "the disputed parts of Georgia" is an oxymoron. From Moscow they are just as much "the disputed parts of Russia". That is what "disputed" means.

I have been out of town and out of touch for a considerable time so I do not know whether the Times and other Western media covered the Georgian invasion of disputed territory as avidly as they are currently reporting the Russian response. The article I have excerpted was buried four layers deep in the Times website. The current Times front page story as nearly omits the initial Georgian attack as they think they can get away with. This makes the story read like brain-dead anti-Russian propaganda. Is the Times, the Newspaper of Record, acting as a shameless mouthpiece for the Administration? It sounds like it to me.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Bush and I Arrive at Fairbanks

I am at a campground in Fairbanks. The Alaska Highway ended at Delta Junction. The road north from there is the Richardson. The Richardson Highway where it fronts Eielson Air Force Base, just south of here, was temporarily blocked for the arrival, and later for the departure, of Air Force One. (Grim-faced armed security guys on ATV's were combing the bushes. Not a good time or place for pranks or humor.) Bush is on his way to Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games and to beg for money.....

It has rained on and off, mainly on, since Tok four days ago, and all day yesterday. All part of the trip.

We are taking a rest day here, doing laundry, shopping for groceries, picking up packages from General Delivery, mailing food to ourselves at Coldfoot, and I am going to a dentist shortly to get a crown that has fallen out twice re-cemented. (Baruch Hashem it fell out before Fairbanks and not after.) Re-supply and repairs.