The last few blog posts have given you an idea of some of the more intense moments along the roads to eastern Russia, but Dave and I still couldn’t figure out why so many people—even riders—told us not to bother going so far east. This was one of the more exciting routes along our trip and the scenery did not disappoint. It felt like rides we’d done the previous year along the Dempster and Dalton highways in the far north of the Yukon and Alaska, but without the bigger mountains.
Sadly, there was litter. Truckers would fix flat tires on the side of the road, discarding the unusable rubber where it lay; each fuel station we stopped at had overflowing garbage cans (definitely no concern for bears), and what was most disturbing was the leftovers from both active and deactivated mines along the way. But after so many miles around the world, we tried not to focus on it and saw the surrounding nature instead.
After a few days into riding the New Summer Road, the only oh shit moments now were oh shit it’s beautiful here.
On the morning of Aug. 24, we packed up our camp by the river then I started off ahead while Dave finished strapping gear onto his bike. The road was vacant, narrow and gravel, and the landscape incredibly pretty. I felt like the only person in the world and even stopped to pee on the side of the road without bothering to find a bush or something to hide behind.
After taking a few photos, I rode on but while topping out on a small hill, was very surprised to find two cyclists, a man and woman, coming at me from the east. Waving, I passed them in an instant but will forever remember those smiles; they both looked so happy and healthy. I still kick myself for not stopping to say hi and, more importantly, ask where they’d started and where they were riding to. Magadan was still almost 1,000 km (620 mi) in front of me and Yakutsk, the nearest large centre, was at least that far behind. It was cool seeing their thin tire tracks in the softer dirt on the road as I rode, though I lost them sometime later.
Dave caught up to me and I pulled over to let him pass and get far enough ahead the dust could settle.
I was feeling reflective; if all went well, we’d be in Magadan in 48 hours or so. It was so hard to believe our round-the-world trip was coming to an end. So many questions went through my mind; did I feel satiated? Did we do everything we wanted? Was Dave getting over not doing some of the roads he wanted? What was next in our lives? We couldn’t live together when we got home due to being in different countries and had considerable red tape to sift through to do so.
How would going home feel? So many days during our travels, we’d both longed for the luxuries and simplicity of life at home. Yet, once there, would we feel happy to be back or soon be craving more adventure?
Another thought was transfixing me; what did my life as a rider look like now? I’d recently had a pretty bad crash where I was lucky not to be hurt. That had taken me back to what felt like the beginning of my riding career and I wondered if it, and some of the other heart-stopping moments, had left a deep enough scar to amputate the sport of adventure riding from my life completely.
The day passed with Dave and I leap-frogging each other until around 7:00 p.m., when I saw him stopped in a pull-out off the road and down a little, talking to a trucker. When I rolled in, the man immediately came over with a big smile and an out-stretched hand. He asked if we wanted tea. It felt like a good omen to be in the middle of nowhere and have this random trucker invite us for tea, so we accepted, despite the day getting on and still needing to find a place to camp.
Dave and I spent over an hour talking with the trucker, (and by ‘talking,’ I mean gesturing and using our translation apps). He was incredibly jovial, which made his travelling companion, a grumpy-looking female, who didn’t set foot out of the truck the whole time Dave and I were there, seem a bit out of place.
Before long, another trucker pulled his rig in. This guy was just as friendly, though a tad bit looped on vodka, it appeared, and I was glad both he, and we, were off the road for the night.
While we hung out with these guys, the first (sober) trucker made us instant soup and fed us chocolate, all while continually topping up our mugs of tea. The second trucker chain-smoked beside us and smiled non-stop through a mouth clamped around his cigarette and eyes squinting against the smoky swirls going up into his face.
It was a great road-side moment on the road to Magadan and as it got later, Dave and I begrudgingly had to get going as we needed to find a place to camp, which we hoped would be down a dirt road just off from the pull-out. Both men looked at us as though we were crazy when we gestured we’d be camping. The sober driver went off on a tangent. We didn’t have to know the language to understand he was talking about bears. In case there was any confusion, he pantomimed a giant man-eating grizzly, with his hands roaming to and fro above his head and deep growls coming from his tea-filled belly.
Comforted by this vision, Dave and I rode off down the road, glancing a little nervously from side to side into the bush, which would soon be too dark to see into. We found an unceremonious spot in a huge gravel pit with rusty pools from leftover mine tailings. The view from our lodging for the night, however, was very nice, from what we could tell in the gathering darkness, and we set about putting up camp to the sounds of a nearby river.
Despite the trucker’s concern, we slept well and woke alive to a beautiful day.
Just for fun, Dave set off one of the bear-bangers in the morning that we’d been travelling with since our friend Al Sova gave them to us in Moscow, worried about us riding through the “bear-packed” terrain on the way to Magadan. We had no bear spray as that had long since been confiscated at some border or another, and, of course, no guns. The bangers were our only hope if anything carnivorous decided to visit in the night; that and a knife we normally used to slice cheese, which offered some false sense of safety (and was kept on my side on the tent as Dave usually fell promptly to sleep while I stayed awake for hours listening to noises in the night).
I didn’t know Dave was setting off the banger, so had a mild heart attack when he did so as I was stirring our instant oatmeal, my back to his shenanigans.
Still in my reflective reverie from the day before, answering and then re-answering my own questions about life after the trip, I didn’t really notice Dave wasn’t around the camp site. When I stood up to stretch my back, I saw him over in the nearby marsh. His exploring around our environs wasn’t a new thing so I turned back to our oatmeal and shut off the camp stove.
When he returned he had this sort of conflicting look: like mischief and the dying embers of adrenaline. Sheepishly he said, “I guess one of those bear bangers Al gave us was a flare…”
I started to laugh.
“What did you do?”
“Well, I had to go over to the marsh and put out a fire.”
“In the marsh?!”
It was good thinking to shoot off the banger/flare into the wetlands but a little disconcerting that we might have launched it from our tent, had the occasion presented itself, and started a forest fire. A potential bear would have been the least of our worries.
We both found it strange that everyone was talking about “the bears of Eastern Russia” though, like they were the supersized version of ours back home, but we never saw a single sign, let alone an actual bear. No prints in the mud along the rivers, no dashing fur across the roads, not even a smelly poop in the trees. Nothing.
Brian and the three burly members of Adventure Team Latvia had opted to blast from town to far-off town through this whole stretch of road, as they were too worried about bears to camp. (This might have been exacerbated by an evening spent listening to local Russian stories and too much vodka). The Latvians were built like they could easily wrestle any bear into submission, but I smiled myself to sleep at night thinking about them all snuggled safely in their hotel beds, while Dave and I were out there in Supersized Russian Bear (less) country.
On the evening of Aug. 25, Dave and I rolled into a small town whose name I can’t recall but it was only 550 km (340 mi) from Magadan. It was worn-down and depressing and, I hoped, not what Magadan would be like.
We found the Latvians, who’d already secured a few ubiquitous garages to store their bikes in and a place to stay the night. They squeezed us in as well and after some socializing, I set up my mat and sleeping bag on the floor of the kitchen. It was the only place I could be alone and close the door.
I felt extremely emotional coming to the end of our trip; almost panicky. It wasn’t so much being scared to return to reality at home, it was that the final hours didn’t feel right somehow. Dave was still in a pretty down state of mind about missing out on the BAM and Road of Bones and I felt like saying to him, come on, these are our last few miles, let’s make them happy.
It wasn’t like I expected to ride into Magadan weeping in joy and holding hands, (that would actually be quite difficult to do on a bike with panniers), but I wanted a more positive ending. We had come through so much together and were within 24 hours of our final destination—our monumental goal achieved. Did that not count for something? Hell, didn’t that count for everything?
But I began to wonder… maybe it isn’t possible to have an ‘ideal ending’ after completing something like this. Maybe no single outcome can leave you feeling satiated at its end. It’s just too overwhelming to slap a standard label of feelings and emotions to.
Both Dave and I were feeling anxious about the trip’s end likely because, well, it was The End. There was no more time or miles left to make up for what we hadn’t done yet. As we got closer to the end, we drew farther into ourselves, processing the scope of what we’d just completed together, separately. Perhaps this was the most perplexing of all.
The final 24 hours would have Dave and I rolling into Magadan on more than just two wheels each, after one of the more eventful days yet, testing the boundaries of our optimism to its limits.
Next post: what happens when both the Universe and the Devil catch a ride on Dave’s bike…