I’ve had this recurring feeling recently that I’m going to explode. No, it’s not a health thing — my heart’s OK (I think). It’s not anger. It’s more that there is a building pressure right behind my chest, of something I want to put out into the world that hasn’t quite figured out a way to release.
The timing for my vacation a couple of weeks ago was excellent. The destination was even better: Whitehorse, Yukon, the perfect place to do some bike riding and soul searching. I got a few quizzical looks when I told people where we were headed, but folks in the know nodded and told me we’d have a blast.
It’s about a 12-hour drive from Palmer to Whitehorse. My husband and I split the journey into several days, leaving Friday evening after work for the first leg to Tok. We were unhurried because the forecast for Whitehorse was rain, and our entire itinerary for the week revolved around the mountain bikes in the back of our truck.
It takes a while to decompress. One of our camp chairs busted so we both sat together on our cooler that first cool night in the 10 p.m. dusk, watching the Tok River and sharing a bottle of what I consider chewy beer (an intense stout).
By focusing my full attention on the rushing water and the trees moving across the river as my husband and I discussed whatever came to our minds, I reached a place bordering on real contentment. I say “bordering” because I felt it in flashes. It was a glimpse of fulfilling whatever it is in me that needs out.
When we reached Whitehorse, I was elated. The feeling of exploding transformed into a frenzied need to get out on the fabled, endless singletrack trails surrounding the city.
The sun was stretching generously across the enormous, vast rolling landscape of the Yukon, lighting up the emerging fall colors even as puffy clouds cast shadows here and there. My husband and I were trying to keep our cool as we did the things we needed to do — buy ice from a gas station, find a campsite, make sandwiches on the tailgate and eat them, decide which trail we wanted to take … all of these things take precious time.
We made it to the first trailhead by 2 p.m. and immediately started uphill, bikes in their lowest gears and spinning. It felt amazing after days in the car to move, and even more exciting to explore.
The trails were nothing short of incredible. As someone who has imposter syndrome when it comes to many outdoor things, I was thrilled to re-discover I am perfectly capable of riding singletrack trails.
But I also biked right up to the edge of my ability. Sometimes I rolled through or over that challenge, and sometimes I hopped off my bike and walked. There were a couple of times when I felt my back wheel threaten to lift off and push me head over handlebars, and others when I congratulated myself, like when I figured out how to mogul by quickly switching the direction of my handle bars in a hopping pattern down a series of steep drops.
Whitehorse is accurate in its description of itself as a “wilderness city.” The singletrack trails were well-mapped, and some of the trail networks started downtown and stretched all the way into the hills. We saw very few people on the trails, and some days none at all. Imagine a Kincaid Park-like network of singletrack trails multiplied by 50 and surrounding the city center and going up in the hills. The trails sometimes run thrillingly and precariously next to steep drops into valleys or the glacial blue Yukon River, sometimes they wind up and down through beautiful forest. Imagine those world-class trails practically empty. That’s what it was like.
In the center of it all is Whitehorse.
Whitehorse is host to a smattering of great breweries, coffee shops and restaurants. A popular bike/pedestrian trail skirts the Yukon River, which runs right alongside the compact downtown, carrying with it silty browns or glacial blues depending on the light. The mountains framing the city are rounded and green, with boulders jutting from their tops.
Whitehorse, similar to Fairbanks, feels as though it wears summer in disbelief. Downtown has a feeling of being hunkered down and cozied up. There are plenty of people out, but being able to sit or walk comfortably outside feels like it must be a luxury. Even warm breezes carry an edge of cool as a reminder of the latitude, and restaurants with outdoor seating offer heat lamps and blankets.
Every night that week, after grabbing a beer or a bite, we returned to our campsite and built a fire with the free wood provided by the province (it is not split — bring a maul!). We sat, listened to music, mused out loud, and sipped on something. We were often sore and tired. But my husband and I are happiest when we’re able to empty ourselves of all our energy while outside.
I don’t have a precise answer yet for that exploding feeling. Vacation didn’t give me that. But, through taking in vast landscapes while pushing my capabilities, I’m getting clearer on how I can better understand what so badly wants to get out. It has something to do with matching the vastness and awe I feel and see for the world with how I live my life.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.