(Sent to Friends Fri, 24 Dec 1999)

For those of you celebrating during this festive season, a little something for you:


This morning I decided to push the envelope home. After a wretched night of very little sleep, I was up before my alarm watch went off. Had the tent down and packed within five minutes. The biked packed within ten. The legs limbered up in another five. And breakfast--

"No breakfast for you, my boy, for a little while. You have to earn it. You had your carbos from your beer and chips last night. Now work them off. On your bike and see how far you get before you stock up again. We want no accidents for now. Keep your stomach light and..."

Okay, okay. And I mounted and set off at 8am on the dot from:


It was a very foggy morning, and the morning mists were gathering on my bare arms and beading up on my hairy legs. My glasses were fogged-up useless, and were soon put inside my shirt with one earblade hooked onto the collar. At every blink I could feel my eyelashes flapping condensation onto my eyebrows and cheeks. Visibility was below ten meters, but that did not scare me--in summertime mists abound in the underpopulated bits of Hokkaido, and they generally clear once the morning sun comes forth with a sense of conviction to reveal how the rest of the day's weather will be.

And as visibility stretched, I found the next 30 kms very pleasant. Get out your maps and look at the lay of the land. I was riding Route 336--the only road here that went anywhere--and that was essentially an elevated paved beach with less ocean erosion. To be sure, topographically this was a kissing cousin of yesterday's Ougon Douro, with the Hidakas commanding the landscape from Erimo town to Urakawa, and likewise the road consisted of caves that pierced the cliffs. But here on the eastern side the roads looked as if they were permitted to round the bends without fear. A couple of times, when some of the caves were being repaired and double lanes were narrowed to single, I had to cycle over rafters jerry-rigged around bends (with the ocean visible through the slats, crashing below me--I wondered why there was a pedestrian path in an area with no pedestrians; legal requirements?). Traffic was light and the ocean was calm and becalming, and it helped resolve last night's agitation from all the spirits in the night.

However, that would not last. Because once I rounded a coastal mountain callled Apoi-dake (a popular lookout for the elderly hiker), the Hidakas would retreat and give way to coastal plain. Like Southern California spreading out from Ventura after one heads south from Santa Barbara, I would be hitting the first signs of civilization. starting from:


Try and imagine the kanji for that. Okyakusama no sama, "resemble" no niru no ni. Anyway, the reason I say civilization starts here is that, for some reason that is probably financial, the railways do not head to points south of Day Three's Obihiro, or round or through the Hidakas to meet Day Four's Hiroo. The terminus is in Samani--where the two rails that make the single track suddenly blip upward and curl downward a few meters after a unwalled unelevated train platform. Mighty Japan Railways finishes at this tramway stop with a larger gauge, and JR busses take up the slack with a placarded schedule next to the taxi stand announcing further southbound destinations. I briefly left Route 336, rode a half block inland to the station's roundabout, cycled on and off the unfenced platform, and back again past the bored cabbies to resume my course.

But let's not overmock. A station is a station no matter how small, and I hadn't seen a train since Memuro, three mornings and nearly two hundred kms ago. Public transportation, one of the hallmarks of civilization after a writing system, meant I had more options now--if my bike should disappear in a crack in the earth or I become disabled by a bolt from Zeus, I had a failsafe. All I would have to do is hitch a ride to the nearest platform and I could be back home by nightfall. Emboldened, I continued my course north on my own steam as far as possible.


This is the first big settlement along the coast, meaning one with any real money. The main street had gone through an urban renewal project: The sidewalks and curbs were made of cut stone and tiling, not asphalt and cement. The unsightly power lines which follow Route 336 (now suddenly Route 235 after a Hidaka-short-cut intersection) suddenly go underground and free the skies and the eyes for the shopfronts. The stores themselves looked new and prosperous, and the reason became apparent through motif: hanging from fancy lampposts and the like were sillouhettes of horses--yes, horses--with long flowing manes running towards the Urakawa's (or should that be "Umakawa"?) huge Japan Racing Association office. Clearly the JRA was a big patron of the arts in this region, and from now on there would be pockets and flashes of flush-money juxtaposed with the rest of regularly scraping-by rural Hokkaido. Once one leaves Urakawa's showcase storefront area, the powerlines resurface, but so also do the products of a regional commuting customer base: discount stores, car dealerships, larger-scale pachinko parlors, supermarkets that were no longer just glorified convenience stores. And after that would come the fallow fields and make-or-break grubstakes that typify frontier settlements.

I bought breakfast at a covenience store on the northern outskirts of Urakawa, and munched there in the mistless sunshine happy with my progress. I had gone over an hour an a half without fuel yet did not feel tired. I pounded down some fuel over a twenty-minute break, and continued as before.

Communities began to blur by as digestion enabled the Second Wind:


This is a mere stretch of New-Mexico style nothingness with a name for a map. I was hoping to find a car dealership there which would play on the local name: "Mitsu-ishi Mitsubishi" or something like that. Yuk yuk. But there was no money for such levity--Mitsu-ishi is a nowhere fishing town that deferred to its northern neighbor:


I stopped here, having satisfied myself that I would soon cover a regular day's distance before morning was out. I wanted to take on more fuel and a mental inventory on this next katamari of wealth.

And there is a surprising amount of it in this region. Nestled in a "half-valley" (meaning a valley bordered by retreating mountains on one side and ocean on the other), Shizunai benefits from being the epicenter of this Hidaka-retreat flatland, running about eighty kilometers from Urakawa to near Hidaka Monbetsu. As Ventura's coastal car dealerships and "more-cars-than-people" strip malls signify the start of the space and wealth of Southern California, you see flowing mane and umamanure and you know you're in Hidaka Horse Country. This valley's obsession with painting the galloping things on cliffsides and offering horse-this and horse-that in every single tourist trap reflects the lucrative equestrian industry. Horseracing is big business in Japan, as it is not only legalized gambling but also has a lively subculture--with hero worship of jockey and hoss (it was practically a national tragedy when thoroughbreds Narita Brian and Silence Shizuka were put down, and they still have a devoted cult following), dozens of newspapers and magazines with weekly results and cheating tips, oodles of spin-off collectibles that would put comic-book fans to shame, and a legion of horse-watchers that spend whole lifetimes chasing both fleeting tails and profits.

But that's the retail side. Who produces these racehorses? A sizable number are imported, but of those bred and raised in Japan, the most reputable come from Hidaka, where breeders make out coming and going in this no-longer cottage industry. In addition to wrangling high margins on thoroughbreds, people on equestrian quests create a flourishing tourist industry. Of course, all settlements with any corralable land in this area--Urakawa, Shizunai, Niikappu, even Hidaka Monbetsu--try to claim the horse motif as their own. But Shizunai remains the most prominent--with the largest town, the largest expanse of green for profitmating horse breeders, a major crossroads back into the Hidakas, a second major tourist draw in the springtime (the Sakura Namiki--a country boulevard with ancient flowering cherry trees) and, with the twin city of Niikappu less than five kms away, a major regional economic center. Shizunai was indeed huge--compared to the other settlements I had passed through these past few days: the main street seemed interminable, and the only thing separating the twin cities was a broad river and a big hill.

A hill where I almost got killed.

(You'll never guess the kanji for this town either: "New Crown"--with the "kanmuri" reading of "crown" cutely atejied into "kappu", from the English "cap".)

Levity aside, I was in dire circumstances. After Shizunai, I recalled Frank's warning to me on Day Two when I first told him of my Erimo biking pipedreams:

"Going down there is not a problem, Dave. It's coming back. You have to get back to Sapporo somehow. Returning to Obihiro then crossing the Hidakas is worse than a waste of time--it will kill you in your present condition. But cycling up the eastern coast from Erimo is also hellish and I do not recommend it. Flat as it may look on the map, there are hills everywhere, plenty of traffic, and the closer you get to Tomakomai the more trucks you'll face because Route 235 is the only road available. Make no mistake--you will be risking your life."

But did I listen? Um... actually, I did. But like a mother who realizes that a few hours of pain will bring a lifetime of joy and so decides to have yet another baby, I stayed the course, wanting to accomplish a personal best even if it entailed risks. Just exercise extra care, I thought, and all will be well.

And up to Niikappu, it was easy to be careful. The road was wide enough for two trucks, plus allotted to me a meter minimum of shoulder clearly demarcated by a white line. If I stayed within the shoulder zone and close to the guardrail, there was no problem--the lack of opposing traffic meant people passed me with a wide berth anyhow.

But now approaching and beyond Shizunai, there were several factors which would entrap a cyclist.

The first was that after Mitsu-ishi the road was no longer flat--it was a series of sine curves where you grunted your way to the top of a fifty-meter hill then made up time going 50 kph down the other side. This was fun until communities started appearing around every trough, with locals darting out onto main street either unaware of my presence or oblivious to how fast a mountain bike with this much ballast on it could go. So it was either a choice of riding the brake pads down or swerving into traffic. Neither was desirable and thus easy to lapse out of.

The second was that the further north I went, the more destinations I left behind that warranted trucking to, and thus the heavier the opposing traffic became. Wide berths, especially necessary as my tent was a full meter long and packed perpendicular to my wheels, became less possible.

And the third and most fatal would be the shoulders themselves. From Niikappu for about thirty kms, the shoulder literally disappeared. The white line went flush to the wire or metal-flap guardrails, and at times one could get a clear view into the sea, Croatian-coast style.

But the most terrifying point--it would only last about five seconds but the lessons still remain--would come at Niikappu-bashi, the bridge over the Niikappu River. After Shizunai, I was ambling down a hill preambling that bridge and I heard a truck barrelling up behind me. So I gave a little to the shoulder but stood my ground enough so that the driver would have to take notice and provide berth. The problem was the Niikappu Bridge itself--it ate into the rest of the shoulder and caused the white line to disappear. Thus there was either the dichotomy of guardrail or tarmac, giving me no choice but to cycle into the road proper. And it would turn out at this very moment that a truck was coming in the opposite direction, meaning zero berth from behind. I would be shooting the flue.

All this I have dealt with before in the past, with one truck fortunately always slowing down behind me and letting the opposing truck go past. It wasn't until I was on the bridge when I realized I was in unprecedented territory.

The bridge had been resurfaced recently, leaving an inch gap between the old and the new surface and a trough between the curb and the new. Since there was nowhere else to go, and an unpredictable swerve right then would have the truck clip me or worse, I hugged the bridgeside. And that's why my tyres went straight into that gap and started shaving the edges at 50 kph, kuzusing both my whitewalls and my balance. Mounting my steering wheel and trying to keep the front aligned and steady, I screamed, "This is it!"

I have been in a lot of traffic situations where certain death or at least collision was imminent. In 1988, an uncharacteristic downpour in San Diego had created a lake in the middle of the highway and swamped several stopped cars, yet I managed to stop without hydroplaning into them (I downshifted instead of braking). In 1982, atop a hill in my hometown, I saw only after starting down that two cars ahead were not actually moving--were in fact parked on opposite shoulders with two housewives nattering from their windows; realizing that I again could not brake because of black ice, I managed to thread the needle between them--one-handed, too, because I had a soft ice cream in the other! In 1993, the day after my daughter Amy was born, I was minding my own business (of course) going through an intersection, when I was clipped perpendicularly by a driver who had run the red light; I was spun 180 degrees, narrowly missing a utility pole, into the opposing lane when fortunately there was no traffic coming. Thus up to now, the patron saint of impacts has spared me anything but shock and the afterrealization that, "hey, that could been it."

But this time there was traffic coming in the opposing lane, and I had no luxury of being shielded by a car from the impact--only the realpolitik of asphalt on skin and road-kill tyre marks. No wonder actuarial science says that 10-year motorcyclists have a greater than fifty percent chance of a near-fatal accident. Dear life was always in the bike balance.

But again, this was not "it". Balance was maintained, the trucks roared past, the bridge was traversed, and I stopped by the roadside for a few minutes to afterrealize. This bridge with its uneven surface was a cycletrap, and I was going to make sure somebody knew about it before the patron saints averted their eyes and some other biker was not so lucky.


Here Route 235, which had after Niikappu included beaches, kelp fisheries, and even a military base proposed for test-launching missiles, finally stopped being indecisive about whether it wanted to be a plateau or a beach road and rose to coast the Monbetsu plain. There are two places (with different kanji) in Hokkaido named "Monbetsu"--one a city in its own right near Kitami on the Okhotsk Sea coast, the other this little town I was in with its own railway station. This seemed to be the last outpost for a service industry within easy reach of the Sapporo plain, and Route 235 became framed by signs of drive-by prosperity: fancy tourist horse farms within easy reach of Tomakomai or Shin-Chitose Airport, the occasional souvenir shop with prominent outdoor toilets, and love hotels for early-twenties day-tripping lovers. And as if to show its goodwill towards us two-wheelers, Monbetsu's Route 235 warped into a lovely four-lane flat road lined with trees and a sidewalk. Despite the fact that by now traffic had turned from trucks and tourists to the basic gas-burners-for-the-sake-of-it--all congested behind a single town's traffic light for miles--I was happy. Not only could I skip all this waiting in line by shouldering my way through, it was clear that I was back in from the frontier. Best of all, it was only mid-day and I was basically halfway home.


The signposts had long since stopped indicating Tomakomai as 235's primary destination and now showed distance to Sapporo proper. I felt within range. Here, realizing that I had already broken my former one-day distance record (109 kms on Day Two), I gave myself a break, stopped by a nearby supermarket, and gave my wife and kids a call--just to let them know I had survived the Erimo Coast Road and would be aiming for home.

"And how far are you away?" she asked. "About 90 kms," came my answer that would have been daunting only a few hours ago. Not anymore. I felt great. Distance was now only a matter of time, not possibility.


I had left the coast and 336 behind with Mukawa and was following the Hidakas north. The atmosphere had changed from the ionic and caustic salt of the seaports to the febrileness of evergreen forest, as the turbulent Dover-coast heathcliff gave way to more pleasant taiga-style rippling hills. The new artery, the Chitose-Mukawa-Sen, was more than happy to take me where the lumberjacks of days old had lost out to farmers and golf courses. I stopped for a late-afternoon dinner at a convenience store in Atsuma, a farming intersection surrounded by rice paddies at the foot of evergreen and beech-tree hills. This, I thought, is my favorite kind of country, a lot like southern Niigata Prefecture near Kashiwazaki (sans swarms of mosquitoes, horseflies, or bats), with its golden rice wetlands abutting and reflecting the thigh-contoured hills that challenged but posed no threat to these tired but motivated legs. I began counting intersections and consulting my maps between tuna sandwiches laced with Pringles, as I now had choices in my routes home again.


It was nearing dark, so I turned north at a golf resort area called Hayakita and, against my better judgment, took a major route that would lead me practically to home base Nanporo. Despite the rotten traffic (trucks with cowboy drivers that even hogged shoulders), there were often sidewalks, and the scenery was lovely. Route 234 is a Sapporo bypass connecting Tomakomai and Chitose with points north of Sapporo, like Iwamizawa, and as a backroad it is tucked between two hill ranges to the east and west. The time of the day was just right: the sun was setting behind the western hills, and it was both framed to the west then reflected on the east. The evening clouds suddenly surrendered the perfect aperture for a magenta-ing sun, and it highlighted the railway lines running abreast of the road, then illuminated the translucent wings of dragonflies over near-ripe rice that blended its yellow to make a luscious orange. Serrugated below it was the paddy water, which itself reflected the ochre and vermillion of the evening sky. Colorful enough to make you believe in Creationism.

"Sights like these are what makes the cycletrek worth it," I summarized for the daily epiphany--"for if I were in a car like the rest of these bozos out here, to take my eyes off the road and take this all in I would have to stop. And there are no places to stop here save these ramps into the paddies." It was the perfect distraction--a mental paddy padding, if you will: any pain in my legs, hands, and wedgie zones was quickly forgotten, while my pedalpower, which had long since become aerobic and self-sustaining, showed no sign of flagging from lack of fuel. I felt like I could go on forever. Or at least until after sunrise.


It was goddamn dark out--even along this main road, the only places that decided lights were worth it were communities, and they were now crossroads five kms apart. I couldn't see my map anymore, but by now I knew the way home by simple dead reckoning. Keep going north to Yuni and hook around the western hills because they end around Kuriyama; that would be slightly out of my way, but so what--it would be flat. Or turn right now and go straight up over and down the hills to Naganuma. Either way, I would have about 30 kms to go, and that after the wear and tear of going nearly double my average daily distance. The choice of directions would have been obvious yesterday. But not today.

As I have mentioned many times before, I had been allergic to uphills as an unnecessary energy sucker, and had always planned my route to avoid them. Until now. Crossing the hills was suddenly an option. It was only one range with a rise of a couple hundred meters, which meant that the only difference between these and the coastal cosines I had braved all day would be one of degree. Moreover, once surmounted, that would be it--for the perfect sense of closure: I would also have a great night view from the top and a Screaming Jay Hawkins on the way down.

The deciding factor was the remnant of my precious sunset, whose afterglow was still visible between some of the hills and thus beaconing me up. I decided not go quietly into that good night and raged right uphill.

I must have been nuts. Temporary insanity, your honor. But no, actually, in retrospect it was a form of pennance. Anybody can keep pumping along plains if they stay refueled--for according to physics equations, carrying a load at a fixed height involves ZERO work if one walks on flat ground. The real challange is maintaining the burst of sustained energy required to maintain speed, balance, and just plain grit on an uphill, and, after that disgraceful performance on Day One going up Tokachi Dake, where Frank could walk and push two bicycles uphill yet still outdistance me, was a shame I wanted to prove to myself was just a matter of fitness, not of will. I have always had the confidence in my staying power. Ask my old girlfriends. Now it was time to see if a week of constant aerobic exercise had made the body as strong as the spirit.

It was amazing. The road was as steep in places as anything I had gone up on any day of the Cycletrek. Only this time it was late at night, and there was no light but the stars, no cars, no breeze and no possibility of mental paddying. Only the sound of nocturnal animals catching their meal, with June bugs that had no sense of timing bashing against my bike helmet, and Asian cockroaches full of eggs that were attracted (like Asian cockroaches peculiarly are) to the only source of light in the area--my bike lamp. The sound of them getting slapped upside the head by my spokes was like that made by playing cards we used to insert there to make our bikes sound like fighter planes. For twenty minutes the only thing that stopped the experience from being a sensory deprivation tank was the buzz of the bugs and the hum of my generator. For all that mattered in life was the pump of my legs and the self-hypnosis of the day's umpteenth Second Wind.

And you know what? I made it all the way up to the top without stopping, balking, or letting my feet touch the ground. Debt of self-doubt cancelled. As I stood up there at the top, panting but not tired, soaked with sweat but cooled by the wonderful temperate summer breeze coming up off the sparkling valley that contained my home at last, I said, and I am not kidding:

"David Christopher Aldwinckle, you are a machine. You have been blessed
with a body that houses that overactive brainbox of yours, with arms that
will point you and legs that will carry you anywhere you want to go. And a
heart that keeps them fed in good time. Take good care of them. You are
34. You have probably lived nearly half your life but definitely a third of
it. You put yourself through a lot this past week to get back into this
kind of shape. But you cannot do this every time--a training curve this
steep will probably kill you next time around. So stay in shape. Write
less and work out more."

I plunged down into the valley of darkness but with landmarks of light that would eventually guide me through the remaining quarter-century of flat kilometers to my final destination.

was home. Nanporo. Aya brought out some Calpis to resugar my fluids, and Amy and Anna came out to see what happened when their daddy channelled Jim Thorpe instead of James Michener. He grunted his way into a shower and early bed.


I called Niikappu town hall two days later to tell them about the danger that lay in their main causeway, and was referred to the Tomakomai branch of the DPW (which services all prefectural roads from Tomakomai down to Erimo). I told them exactly where and what was wrong and they said they'd send down a resurfacing truck in a couple of days. Two days later, I received another call from them that the site was found and taken care of. Very impressive, I thought. No senator potholes here, thank you very much. One of the advantages of having an overfunded public works budget seeking jobs to justify it.

To this day, the physical endurance feathers in my cap--the teenage walks and cycling home from downtown Geneva to my house ten miles out of town, the Philmont Ranger Marathon of 1985 (54 miles hiking over seven mountain ranges in one 24-hour period), the run up 14,000-foot West Spanish Peak in Colorado in 1985, the mile swims every time I get into a pool regardless of condition, the daunting goals set and accomplished over those six days of the 1999 Cycletrek, my chest still swells when I think about Day Six, August 17, 1999. Thanks to following the outlines of the coast, I can even look at a globe of the earth and see my one-day distance. To be sure, my sporadic accomplishments there may be nothing compared to the adrenaline or endorphin junkies who rock climb mile-high needles on Baffin Island, get past the Orient Express on Denali, escape the South Pole like Shackleton, canoe the Mosquito Coast, or row across the Atlantic before breakfast. But for someone who is not an athlete and got by on sheer will power, there are some laurels that deserve resting on here, and I'll gladly do so.

"198 kms in one day, Dave? Not bad at all," said Frank over the phone afterwards.

"Which means I tied your record, right?"

"Not exactly. You missed by two kms. Why didn't you just jump on your bike and cycle around the neighborhood until you got that third digit changed?"

"Yes, I did consider that. But that would have been cheating. Unnecessary energy sucking."

I am writing this last segment of the Cycletrek from a hospital bed at the moment. Two weeks ago, I found a lump on my chest near my left armpit, and yesterday had it operated on. A tumor. A benign lipoma, fortunately, but as big as a prize oyster or scallop or two McNuggets (appropriate, given my eating habits). Been there for two years, the doc says. But it's not alone. I look down at my flabby self and see where my potato-chip predilections are taking me. I either have to start getting on the treadmill of frequent exercise or eat less, and preferably both. Noble goals, but hard to achieve in practice when facing six month winters when cycling is impossible, with a personality type bored by weight-training rooms and gymnasiums, and trained to eat like an American. So it looks like I will be swimming in winter and biking in the summer, in order to try and offset the new lifestyle habit developing of being sessile, unable to avert my eyes from the computer screen and stop writing about what goes on around me.

I concluded the Eurotreks 1996 by saying, "Looks like I'm getting old." The Americatreks 1997 by saying, "Looks like I'm getting wise." This time?

Looks like I'm getting fat.

Dave Aldwinckle


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