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Archive for May 22nd, 2009

We’ve asked Jim Mackovjak, author of the forthcoming FHS book, Tongass Timber: A History of Logging and Timber Utilization in Southeast Alaska, 1804-1960, to share his thoughts on his recent cross-country bike trip and his time here in Durham. Around our office he has earned the nickname “Lawrence of Alaska” for his ride through the American desert.


When I left San Diego on my bicycle trip across the country two months ago, I envisioned evenings spent camped behind roadside billboards and nourishing meals of road-killed animal parts that, cooked over an open fire, would invariably taste like chicken. Not really. But though I had done little planning, I knew which way to go: head into the morning sun and keep Mexico on my right. Despite the facts that I had not trained at all and my equipment was very basic (though sound), some 50 gallons of Gatorade and five and a half weeks later I arrived safely in St. Augustine, Florida, none the worse for wear.

The hot, southern tier of the United States is not my customary environ. I hail from the small town of Gustavus, in southeast Alaska, where I have resided for forty years. Southeast Alaska’s climate is a bit harsh, but it is truly a region of great natural abundance, both terrestrial and marine, and offers a stark contrast to the three deserts I crossed. The bicycle ride was a lark, something I had wanted to do since I was a teenager, but work and family responsibilities had always prevented. These days, I do contract writing and my wife teaches school, and our three children are grown and off pretty much on their own. I made time for the trip.

Some of the stretches through the deserts were long, hot, and lonely, and, in my own small way, at the end of a day’s riding I felt like Lawrence of Arabia emerging from the desert on a bicycle. The first real trees I saw along the route, a juniper-like species in the hill country of Texas that reached a size that would at least provide a modicum of shade, were a welcome sight. I relished the increasing amounts of greenery as I journeyed east. I understand the importance of the pineries of the southeastern states to our nation’s wood supply, and the plantation forests, with their neat rows of evenly-spaced trees, were of great interest to me. But constantly feeling the need to push east, I never made a serious effort to learn more about them firsthand. I nevertheless enjoyed the shade they provided.

Jim Mack traveling in Texas. Trees took on a new significance to him as he biked across the country.

Jim Mack traveling in Texas. Trees took on a new significance to this "Lawrence of Alaska" as he biked through three deserts.

One question that I often asked myself while pedaling along was: What am I learning? I’m still not sure what the answer is, other than the fact that I had the strength and stamina to complete the trip.

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