It had been a challenge to the nerves the night before. From the time I stopped twenty four miles past the junction for Chicken, I waited twenty minutes for Goat to arrive; over an hour for our clogged stove to heat up the water for lunch -which transitioned into dinner- and then three hours more for the sun to dissolve into the perpetual dusk and realize the riding had been completed for the day. Certainly Goat and I were worried about Jacob -and we had not thought of the fact that he might be running out of water. We flagged down several cars and asked the drivers, “Have you seen any other cyclists out?” Two trucks stopped to say they hadn’t seen a single thing on the highway. One S.U.V. ignored my desperate hand gestures and sped right past. It occurred to us that Jacob may have acknowledged the ‘Canadian Border’ sign as destined path and mistakenly followed the road to Haines. As far fetched as that seemed to us, it was even more difficult to believe that he would have attempted to backtrack and catch up with us in the course of one night. We were deliberating whether we should hitch-hike back to toward the junction and try to steer Jacob in the right direction. His sudden arrival in the middle of the night confused my dream riddled mind; surely it was a band of rambunctious red-necks bored to hell in Chicken and informed by one of’em truckers I flagged down that this group of outsiders camped by the road were down a man and easy pickings. Then I saw Jacob with his haggard features and his floundering dismount and his ferocious appetite as he consumed the cold remains of lunch â€“rice stained blood red from boiled beets. I sighed with a bit of relief, and realizing that the cold wind had driven the mosquitoes to their cowering solitude felt content that there was one less torment Jacob would have to endure on this day. After considering the possible consequences of one man being separated from the group, I felt that this had been a sobering experience, one that demands contemplation of the ethics of bike nomadism. Later on in Dawson city, three Australian drinking companions responded a bit outraged to the Jacobâ€™s story. The eldest reprimanded our carelessness; â€œhow could you leave each other alone, youâ€™re like brothers now, you depend on one anotherâ€�. The younger Ausie suggested we each keep a walkie-talkie handy so that we could easily reach out and â€œtell the dumb bastard that heâ€™s headed the wrong wayâ€�.
At breakfast the next morning, we realized that it was a Friday, a sure sign that the world famous bar in Chicken would be flourishing in a drunken ecstasy with all walks of life -from miners, RVers, to lost and resentful tourists- colliding in explosive interactions. The forty remaining miles proved to be mellow and we arrived in Chicken well before nightfall. Our eyes, lackluster from floating over endless expanses of Northern White Spruce, were naturally drawn to an oddly shaped edifice near the banks of Old Chicken Creek; it was an ancient river dredge. Instantly upon finding the dredge, we spotted nearly a dozen cyclists; their tents pitched and cloths hung up to evaporate the days sweat. It appeared at first as though every one of the riders on this Adventure Cycling tour was over forty. Instead of encountering the ancient white bearded miners of Chicken as had been anticipated, we came across these old guys mashing a trail that we would soon be riding in reverse. We talked to them about gear and the conditions of Canadian roads as we knifed off the caps to the last of the beer bought in Tok. One man nearly discouraged our spirits when he spoke of treacherous terrain, endless hills, and nearly no stores to buy supplies. Then another man, late in his forties bearing thick smoky sideburns reassured us, â€œdonâ€™t heed too much of this talk of hardship, it is just an exercise in asserting oneâ€™s macho manlinessâ€�. There was one German woman on the trip who set up her tent a few paces distant from everyone else, as she reasoned â€œThe older men snore loudly and plus they wake up early. How am I to manage getting myself up at their hour when they make it so hard to fall asleep!”
Surprisingly, the leader of the tour was youngest of all in his mid-twenties, and yet he expressed the difficulty in keeping up with the oldest man of seventy â€“an ex marathon runner and the strongest cyclist in the group. Being the greasy, unkempt cheapskates that we are, we just stared dumbfounded at spotless tents, clean shaven faces, and just the overall tight organization of the whole package. We were devoted to a different set of priorities, ones that may not have been internalized as rational concepts yet, but ones that nonetheless were functioning to keep us motivated, driven, wild creatures of the road. Encouraged by the dimming sun light and the chill breeze, we went to check out the bar scene.
Bar in Chicken translates to tiny shack outlined with neon light advertisements of bud and Coolers light, fit snug between a gift store and a narrow chicken coop that holds the town mascot. Inside lies a claustrophobic environment; a ceiling significantly lowered by the presence of hundreds of baseball caps and burnt braziers and underwear tacked haphazardly in multiple layers, a billiards table that demands play with a half cue in absence of any elbow room, a record machine, and a half dozen chain smoking locals. To our amazement they carried the strong dark ale of San Diego, Arrogant Bastard. Goat and Jacob ordered the last two of these treasures, while I managed to get talked into ordering a strong porter tasting strongly of smoked salmon. The locals were taking whisky shots, and playing some game involving push ups the gist of which I failed to understand. Suddenly a small kid stumbled into the room followed by an old man floundering even more severely. A young woman set her glass down and morosely swiveled toward the two; â€œThanks, thanks a lot dad for bringing my kid into the barâ€�. The bar tender, a thin honest man inevitably dedicated to maintaining a swinging atmosphere tried to calm her, â€œHey, as long as they can walk, their allowed in the bar no problem.â€� He hesitates and scratches his chin momentarily and continues, â€œActually just the other day we had a woman in here breast feeding her childâ€�. No one seemed amused by his comments, the frustrated woman took her kid and left her drink unfinished. The elder man took her place at the bar and enjoyed some attention from an acquaintance. Outside, the German woman was trying to get the cafÃ© chef to cook up a salmon feast. He was evading his post to smoke and take a hike, and ultimately the task had to be taken up by the eternal bar tender. Certainly he was a dynamo of energy, running back and forth from the grill, to the kitchen, back to the bar to match a giant â€“whom he referred to as â€˜Eskimoâ€™- in shots and at one point to the gift shop.
The â€˜Eskimoâ€™ became thoroughly lacerated by the drink, he could barely explain the essence of his labor, only repeating â€œI take big problems, and I make them smallerâ€� gesturing furiously with his hands as a vice like contraption. The touring group leader and I could only fathom that he was a heavy machine operator, as we listened to him complain of his bosses and comrades taunting him on to do nearly impossible feats of strength and endurance. He was eventually herded into the cab of his friend/co-workerâ€™s pick-up truck and we were deprived of his company the rest of the night.
Near the eveningâ€™s decay, we were treated to the Chicken community fireworks display. This involved cannon and gunpowder, and usually the underwear of a willing female, but no provocative article could be produced. Toilet paper served the alternative, a male teenager packing a mortar full of it with a stick. A loud explosion and fluttering confetti filled the air. It was carnivaleque, and I wished that I had been able to contribute to the festivities with dangerous thoughts and circus stunts. The mortarâ€™s report failed to wake â€˜Eskimoâ€™ who was sleeping soundly five feet away from the detonation.
The next morning, over a cup of horrible coffee, I heard about a guy known only as Chicken Dick. He died of prostate cancer only three days before our arrival. He had spent most of the summer working the cafÃ© and bar scene and than one day on the tip of a hat, picked up and went to Maine where he had relations. â€œHe woke up one morning convinced that he would die that very day, and ordered his last meal of spinach, boiled potatoes, and Spam,â€� the manager lady recited as she filled up a bucket to water plants and cursed the lack of a garden hose. â€œThat was his favorite. He even bought me a pair of Spam earrings once. Heâ€™d frequently get a hold of the companiesâ€™ accessory catalogue and order weird shit.â€� She somehow had a premonition of his eminent departure and intrigued a famous portrait artist to travel to Chicken and make a sketch of Dick. â€œThe painter was thoroughly taken with Dickâ€™s endearing qualities, and gave us the sketch portrait for free. She usually charges some two thousand dollarsâ€�. I studied Dickâ€™s features for a while, It seemed that he would have made an excellent time machine, and I wondered if I would have been able to meet him had I not blown a fork and had to vacation in Fairbanks for six days.
One man approached me out of curiosity as I struggled to patch a pinched inertube outside the cafÃ© doorstep. He had been contracted by the air force to install a radar tower on top of Taylor Mountain â€“same name as the highway we had been on since Tok. This project was supposed to allow the air-base to keep track of planes as they engage in supersonic speed excersizes. The military does more supersonic flight training in Alaska then anywhere else in the world â€“So Iâ€™ve been told.
â€œOhhâ€�, began the manager lady having listened in on the manâ€™s story taking on the skeptical tone, â€œI heard the construction on Taylor was for missile defense system.â€�
The man laughed and reassured her, â€œNo, most certainly not.â€�
â€œWell, how much could this radar tower cost?â€�
â€œOh, itâ€™s not that expensive.â€�
â€œSo like a hundred million?â€�
The radar man chuckles again and throws his head back to emphasize the absurdity of the declaration. â€œNo, certainly not in that range.â€�
His partner looked ready to get back on track and they debated whether to get beer to take on the run. Then the radar man cried urgently to me, â€œhey, watch out that bird donâ€™t steal your stuff.â€� I had been spaced out, gazing in disbelief at another hole that appeared right next to the one that I had just patched, and suddenly this gargantuan Raven had swooped down and was inspecting my scattered belongings for a an item of intrigue. The radar men departed, I couldnâ€™t tell if with beer or not. Then a trade-marked hunter rolls up on a six wheel buggy cart; patchy stuble covering chin and cheek, cheap sunglasses and a fishing cap shadow the face complete. His vehicle towed a wagon filled with firewood, a rifle was strapped to the front of the cart, a gas can and a chain saw fixed on the back. My tourist sense nearly forced my hand to grab the camera and snap a shot of this dude, but I just sat in the dust. A few moments later I listened candidly while he smoked Marlboros and chatted with the chicken regulars, reflecting on chronic back pain and chastising chiropractors for offering quick fixes that needed to be upgraded a month later. His command of the subject of Chinese medicine impressed a few, and valued acupuncture, which in his experience lasted much longer than anything conventional medicine could offer.
A three legged husky named tucker stumbles about in front of the bar. Out of a Ford mini-van steps a heavy set miner lugging around an empty jerry can. He asked for water. The manager lady, always mortgage weary gives him the run around, tells him the tapâ€™s for cooking that they have to dredge it out the stream themselves, and finally allows him access so long as he doesnâ€™t make it a habit. I feel glued to the spot, tempted to remain in a perpetual state of repairing the same flat â€“grooming all those puzzling C-shaped micro-fissures-in order to be in contact with the natural flow of the diverse mix of folks coming and going on the Taylor Highway and colliding in explosive interaction at this little town of Chicken.