September 3-September 30--Coastal Alaska

September 3 Broad Pass, AK to Trapper Creek, AK
Heavy rain, forty degrees, and a headwind made it hard to leave the roofed picnic shelter. But, with no firewood, the option was to stay in our tent all day, and this weather could go on for days. So off we went into the rain after a hot breakfast. As it turned out, it would have been a better idea to stay. Henry started out warm but got colder as we went, and the wind and rain increased. After two hours, Henry needed shelter. We stopped to put him in the trailer next to Timmy, but he didn't like being squished in there. A minister named Doug, returning to Anchorage from moose hunting, stopped because he had seen us in the paper. Soon we were in his truck, the bike on a trailer next to his four-wheeler. He brought us to Trapper Creek, where Rick and Kathy Ernst, Aaron's parents, had agreed to host us. We were soaked to the skin and, since we had stopped riding, we were all freezing (except for Henry, who warmed up in the truck and was running around in his shirtsleeves.) Waiting at the Trapper Creek Inn, we met a crew of college students from Seattle who were biking from Homer to Haines, the reverse of our route. We all ate at the inn and swapped stories and road information. They were a great bunch, full of enthusiasm, despite being soaked to the bone in the forty degree cold. At least they had a tail wind.

Rick Ernst arrived, we prepared to ride the last three miles to his house, and Patti's brother Tom and his wife Michele surprised us by showing up in their truck. They had two freezers full of scallops fresh off of Tom's fishing boat in Homer, and were selling them to customers up and down the highway. They accompanied us to the Ernst's, where superior coffee and hospitality passed the evening quickly. Tom and Michele would have stayed, but the Ernst's off-the-grid, battery-powered home couldn't keep Tom's freezers running, so they said goodbye, after leaving enough scallops for a feast. Kathy & Rick's great cooking filled our bellies and the woodstove warmed our bones. Sleep came easily.

September 4 Layover, Trapper Creek, AK
This place is just too nice to leave so quickly. Ellie and Henry went to the Alaska State Fair all day with a friend of the Ernst's, and Patti and I stayed here to dry gear out and enjoy the wood stove. Rain and wind made riding unappealing. The forecast is for improved weather soon. While Kathy baked bread, I serviced our bike and hers, helped Rick a bit with his old pick-up, and wrote some letters. Another feast, with Sondra, a neighbor, was followed by a game of Croquet on the lawn, which finished in the 10:00 PM twilight. The kids returned at11:00 PM, tired from a big day at the fair.

September 5 Trapper Creek, AK to Talkeetna, AK
Kathy and Rick have certainly been wonderful hosts. And to top it off, Kathy rode on the quad for the first ten miles today, while Patti, then Ellie rode her bike along with us. The flat road and tailwind made things nice. We stopped for a last view of Denali. Kathy's halibut and salmon sandwiches on home-made bread made a memorable lunch, and we reluctantly bid her farewell.

Along the road we got to talking about our trip and our plans for the future. We all want to spend the next few years supporting and participating in Patti's dream of racing in the Iditarod. A natural extension of this trip would be an around-the-world trip on a five-person bike, and we talk about that a lot. We would like to live in the Arctic bush for a year or two, another favorite topic. First we have to write a book about this trip and get it published. It certainly seems clear that our lives will still be busy, perhaps busier than before. We are really looking forward to the week after Christmas, a week when we traditionally do nothing but rest and eat. These are the things that occupy our minds and make up our conversations during this final phase of the trip.

September 6 Talkeetna, AK to Willow, AK
We were never famous for our early morning starts. Wrangling a family of five onto a bike, with all the details of packing and eating and brushing of teeth and hair, we have settled on ten o'clock as our standard departure time. Since arriving in the north, where the sky is bright so late at night, we have been eating and retiring even later, getting up later, and leaving later than ever. So today we counted ourselves lucky to get a noon start, and at one o'clock we were still just a few miles down the road, stopped at a store, answering questions.

Since almost all travelers use the same few highways up here, many of the folks stopping at the store had passed us in their travels, some as far away as Haines or Tok, days or weeks ago. In fact, we ran into Erna and Karen, who had brought Ellie's gloves back to her at Kluane Wilderness Village in the Yukon Territory, about a month ago.

We camped by the Willow River after meeting a dozen more people on the highway who had seen us either on the road or in the media. Time spent talking is increasing as we near our destination. It's a good thing we enjoy talking as much as we do riding.

September 7 Willow, AK to Palmer, AK
Today is Labor Day, the official end of the tourist season and, since it is also moose hunting season, there were both summer RVs and rental cars, and tons of hunters towing trailers with ATVs or boats. Some hunters put a boat in the huge rivers here and go hundreds of miles from the road to set up camp and hunt for a week or two. Some have cabins back there that they only use once a year for moose or caribou hunting. When they leave, they make sure that there is a supply of firewood and enough food (canned foods and things like sugar, pasta, and coffee) to rescue a stranded wilderness traveler. These cabins are open, and rarely does a traveler use them without replenishing the wood and leaving the food for a real emergency.

When we arrived in Wasilla, we re-entered civilization as we know it. The first traffic light told us that, and soon we were at a small shopping center. At the first bike shop, we replaced the tires on the trailer, which were just a few hundred miles short of making the whole trip. At Palmer we found Gene and Priscilla Horner, our hosts for a couple of days here. Gene had rescued us from tire-killing road construction (and ridiculous mosquitoes) in Haines over a month ago. When he extended an invitation to stay with him in Palmer, he meant it. He has contacted us several times since then to be sure that we were on our way. I believe I have discovered a certain type of Alaskan, and Gene is a prime example.

A pile driver who has built bridges and piers and docks all over Alaska for the past thirty years, Gene is a big, burly, bearded man with a football player's physique. He dresses in dirty canvas work clothes, and his boots and gloves prove that he works hard. Yet, a few minutes of conversation with him shows that he is a thinker with a broad range of interests and a keen grasp of politics, philosophy, and the natural sciences. He does people's taxes in the spring and is handy with computers. His wife Priscilla says, "He's not nearly as dumb as he would like you to believe."

September 8 Palmer, AK
We will spend several days here at the Horner's house. Gene usually works in the bush, three or more weeks at a time, and he is home for a week between jobs right now. The day started with a visit from the local CBS TV guy, Chas, who interviewed us in the Horner's living room, and was game enough to take a ride on the quad. Then we took a ride in Priscilla's big black Cadillac with Gene, stopped at the Iditarod Dog Sled Race Headquarters, and visited Priscilla's office. Perfect weather.

Palmer is situated in the most beautiful valley, nearly at sea level, with peaks rising up to 6000 feet to the south, the Knik Glacier to the east, the Talkeetna Mountain Range to the north, and beauty everywhere. Fifty miles from Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, Palmer and neighboring Wasilla are in the state's "bread basket" where much of the Alaskan-grown food is produced. Famous for their huge root crops and cabbages, the local farms are situated in dramatic surroundings. Several of the flat, bright green fields we saw were framed by the braided Matanuska River, with huge mountain peaks for a backdrop.

September 9 Palmer, AK
Borrowing Gene's van, we drove out to visit Martin Buser, three time Iditarod winner and highly respected sled dog veteran. Although we have been fans of his for years (a picture of him racing in the 1996 Iditarod hangs in our kitchen), we were not prepared for what we found. Martin is a rare combination. He is an intense, focused competitor, with decades of top-level results in one of the most demanding sports in the world. At the same time, he is genuinely warm, and genuinely friendly. During our visit, it seemed that his main concern was that our needs were met, our kids were involved, our questions answered. He took the time to ensure that we got a complete tour of his kennel, and showed us every dog and every piece of equipment that he uses in the race. Patti left feeling that she had a friend and supporter for her Iditatrod dreams.

We also visited Gene's friend Kirk and his family. Today being Gene's birthday, we conspired to get him complimentary presents. Kirk lives up a road called Hatcher Pass. We continued past his house to the summit, where hunters now frequent old mining areas. Back at the Horner residence, a party took place in honor of Gene's fiftieth birthday. About 20 people, including kids, enjoyed a good time. All of them were nice. Nearly all got a ride on the quad.

September 10 Palmer, AK
Another glorious fall day, sunshine and big puffy clouds. The wind was high, though, as we climbed the Bodenburg Butte with Gene. This 875-foot mound rises out of the flat valley floor to give hikers an impressive view of the area. We watched as ominous clouds poured over the Chugach range and spilled onto the Knick glacier. This wonderful high pressure system that we have been enjoying is about to be replaced by colder, rainy weather. Our timing could be better: we are about to leave the comfortable Horner home and return to the road. We will spend the evening preparing for an early-morning departure tomorrow. Perhaps we can make the fifty mile stretch to Anchorage in one day.

September 11 Palmer, AK to Anchorage, AK
We lucked out with the weather again. As threatening as it looked for the past few days, the rain held off and we rode under partly cloudy skies, with a favorable wind, all the way to Anchorage. About half way, in Eagle River, we got on to one of the Anchorage area's famous bike paths. We are frequently disappointed with bike paths; they are often twisty, poorly marked, and full of gravel and glass. They usually are slower than the highway, and have dangerous intersections. Today we rode twenty miles on a nice, clean path along the highway, with tunnels under the roads, adequate signage, and decent grading. A pleasure. We rode directly to Sammi and Bruce Grahm's house. We had met Sammi in Tok, camped with her church group, and she had extended the invitation then.

Anchorage is Alaska's largest city; nearly half of Alaska's people live here. We think it is a beautiful city, with the mountains and the sea nearby. In the bush and in the interior, many people were in the habit of bad-mouthing Anchorage, calling it "Los Anchorage" and joking that the nice thing about Anchorage is that it is only fifteen minutes from Alaska. (We have long heard the same joke about Burlington and Vermont.) Perhaps they express their disgust at Anchorage in order to proclaim their rugged individuality, their love of the sparsely populated areas they have chosen. But, as a city, we find nothing wrong with it.

Sammi entertained us with stories of the 1964 earthquake. She was a five-year-old, stranded downtown with her mother and sisters after the street they were driving on became impassable. There are still places in the area to see the effects of the earthquake now, some 35 years later. One stretch of highway passes through some flats with dead trees on both sides. The land sunk four feet as a result of the quake, and the subsequent flooding killed the trees.

September 12 Anchorage, AK
Want to meet a whole lot of nice people in Anchorage? Go to the Sunday service at the First Presbyterian Church. That's what we did this morning, and the welcome we received was warm and genuine. The rest of the day was spent in a relaxed manner, puttering around, cleaning the bike, airing out the tent, and reading the funnies. Henry and Ellie both read books all day, and played with the kids.

At an evening barbecue we met some very interesting Alaskans, mostly relatives of the Grahms. People from this state often have a story to tell, a fascinating occupation, an unusual residence, or something that makes meeting them memorable. Win flies experimental planes and just bought a farm, Dave operates a guided helicopter skiing operation, and does avalanche patrol for the railroad. Even people with regular occupations like teacher, doctor, or lawyer, have often spent time practicing their profession in places like Nome, Bethel, or Barrow, where planes and sleds are the only transportation.

September 13 Anchorage, AK
Wishing we had all gone to bed earlier last night, we arose at five o'clock for a six o'clock departure. We were keeping our promise to be at KD's Coffee Shop for a radio and television appearance. Using our headlamp for the first time on this trip, we rode through dark, rain-wet streets, and arrived only a bit late. We finally met Hal and Holiday, whose morning radio show is an Anchorage tradition, after talking with them on the phone so many times. For three hours, we were interviewed, filmed, congratulated, fed, and greeted. Tom (Patti's brother) & Michele Gilmartin were there, and Gene from Palmer.

On the radio show, sister Christine called from Connecticut and we were presented with a surprise: KMXS radio is flying her out to Homer to see us arrive at our destination! It seems all of Alaska knew about it, and the Romp family were the last to know! This is so exciting to us. Christine has done as much work as we have to make this journey possible. We have dubbed her Mission Control for the way she takes care of all of our mail, bills, business, e-mail, web-page chores and phone calls. Hal and Holiday are to thank, and we are in their debt.

After the festivities, we made our way to the home of K.C. and Kathy Kaltenborn, who had met us on the road a few days ago and extended an invitation. They are bicyclists, athletes, campers, cross-country skiers, and musicians. Along with their teen-aged son Zach and eight year old Dominic, they live in a section of Anchorage called College Village, where we found them playing music and preparing the hot tub.

September 14 Anchorage, AK
We have a lot to share with others, and when we start the day by doing a school presentation, as we did today, it seems to put us in a great mood. Dominic's third grade class was thrilled to see us, and we spoke to them outside, in the schoolyard.

Riding around Anchorage in the rain, we visited the bike shop and the chiropractor, and picked up a few foodstuffs for tonight. We stayed quite dry, despite the sometimes heavy showers, mostly because we were not working up a sweat, due to the flat terrain. We will really be using our rain suits and fenders a lot, since September is a rainy month here in coastal Alaska.

The feast at the Kaltenborns was massive. Late night talk tended to be about the Iditarod and health (K. C. and Cathy are both physicians). We have stories to tell, that's for sure, but we want to hear other people's stories more than we want to hear our own over again. K. C. obliged with dog-mushing and arctic camping tales, and told us what it is like being a cellist in a string quartet.

September 15 Anchorage, AK
Way back in May we got an e-mail from a teacher in Anchorage, inviting us to visit her class. Today we cycled to Northwoods Elementary School and met the whole school. Our hosts, Alisa Bissonette and her colleague Wendy treated us like old friends. They had crossed the USA on tandems this year and our routes were similar, even coinciding for a few hundred miles. When it came time to leave, it was raining so hard Wendy insisted that we take her car, which we used to do several errands.

And RAIN it did, buckets, cats and dogs, sheets, whatever! We returned in time to ride the bike back to the Kaltenborn's during a lull, and then went to dinner with Alisa, Wendy, their friend Lani, and a fellow cyclist from Tasmania named Matt. He's bound for Tierra Del Fuego, leaving tomorrow. Good conversation (during which I learned a lot about Tasmaina) persisted until the waiters had to throw us out so they could close the doors.

September 16 Anchorage, AK
After a pleasant early morning ride to KMXS radio station, we had a fun morning on the air with Hal & Holiday, their engineer Buzz, and all the crazy folks at the station. We rode the bike around the neighborhood, on the air with a cell phone.

Afterward we rode downtown for a meeting that is sure to be one of the most memorable highlights of the trip. At the Captain Cook Hotel's fine restaurant, we met with Colonel Norman Vaughan, polar explorer and 13-time Iditarod finisher. He is the Iditarod's oldest finisher, and he was a key member of Admiral Richard Byrd's 1928-1930 South Pole Expedition. At 96 he is still spry and sharp, although a recent operation has him using a cane, "Temporarily, that's for sure!" He and Patti talked dogs for two hours while the proprietor of the restaurant made us feel at home.

We were drawn to Colonel Vaughan because he shares our philosophy of believing in one's dreams. His motto is, "Dream big and dare to fail!" He has done more in his life than a battalion of average people, and he has inspired more adventures and dreams than anyone could count. I could say a lot about our meeting and our admiration for this great man, but this one detail will have to suffice for now. Upon our departure, he didn't hesitate to accept our invitation to ride on the bike, but laid his cane down and climbed aboard. Despite the obvious pain and discomfort that it cost him, he declared that, "The hurt was small compared to the enjoyment. Besides, when will I get another chance to ride with the Romps?" All of us, even Timmy, will long remember his hearty laugh. Colonel Vaughan plans to climb a 10,000 foot peak in Antarctica on his hundredth birthday. The peak was named for him by Admiral Byrd, and he is mounting an expedition to the peak in 2006. He has agreed to consider my application to be a member of the expedition. I couldn't be more excited.

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