Two longtime friends bicycle the world

Juneauites' search for roads with dead ends leads them half way around the world

Posted: Friday, May 21, 2004

They start their morning together but then don't see each other until dark. That's the style Mike Blackwell and Jim Johnson, both graduates of Juneau High School's class of 1955, have used to bicycle much of the world.

"Mike is into museums," said Johnson, speaking of their different styles. "I like to walk through them on my way to somewhere else." Rather than accommodating each other's idiosyncrasies, they meet up at the end of the day and tell each other stories, said Blackwell.

"It's better that we stay apart. That way we don't blame each other for whatever misfortune that may come our way."

On the road, Johnson's style puts him far in the lead, so they designate an evening stopping point before starting out.

"We try and do difficult trips," said Johnson. When told of Johnson's comment, Blackwell paused and then said firmly, "We're looking for fun. We're not trying to punish ourselves."

Blackwell can only think of a couple of occasions on bicycle trips where he wished he were somewhere else. One of those was in Argentina on a trip to the tip of South America. As they pedaled through "Estancia Siberia," so nicknamed because of its dead-flat, treeless terrain, they were thrown off their bikes by a fierce headwind. Johnson was miles ahead, so they separately pushed their bikes for 13 hours to find a place out of the wind, which turned out to be the ruins of an abandoned hotel where they camped.

"Blackwell's got a very tough head. I am never worried that he's back there. I know he's still coming no matter how difficult," said Johnson, 66, from his home in Anchorage.

Their confidence in each other is based on 50 years of doing similar sorts of adventures together. "We understand each other's style and quirks. We know how to talk to each other without talking," said Blackwell, 67, who was interviewed while traveling in Canada.

Johnson's favorite bicycle memory is of camping in the Chilean desert, "where it hasn't rained in 500 years." Right after they set up their tents the sun went down and within minutes the moon came up, larger than he had ever seen it.

"It was the only time in my life where I could feel the earth just rolling towards the moon," he said.

Before going to bed he took a sip of alcohol: "A shot and a half lets you relax," Johnson said. He set the bottle outside of the tent. In the morning there was a butterfly setting on the top of the bottle.

"There was nothing growing within 50 miles of that tent. Now where in the hell did the butterfly come from?"

Blackwell and Johnson met when Johnson moved to Juneau in 1953 as a junior in high school and they've been close friends since. Both went on to college and raised families. Johnson eventually moved to Anchorage, where he became one of Alaska's more successful businessmen, running automotive stores in several cities. Blackwell, who was born in Juneau, went on to be a partner in Dames and More, a distinguished international geological and engineering firm. He lived in various locations during his career, including Seattle, Anchorage, Tokyo and Los Angeles, returning to Juneau after retiring in 1993.

Johnson estimates that they burn up 5,000 calories each while averaging 75 miles on pavement a day and 50 on gravel. Not surprisingly both have biting recollections about food. Johnson said he could live on Russian tomatoes and cucumbers and the country's great bread.

"You don't need more than that," he said.

Blackwell agrees about the bread but gives the award for best meals to South Korea, where you find such things as tofu stew with several kinds of kim chee, not to mention the rice and fish. India's roadside stands have food so good it's hard to keep pedaling, said Blackwell.

Organizationally, Blackwell comes prepared.

"He was our class genius," said Johnson about their high school days. Blackwell speaks Japanese, Russian and Spanish at a conversational level and parts of at least 20 other languages. "We walk into stores and he's trying to talk to them. I am waving my arms trying to throw money at them," Johnson said.

Blackwell's trip preparation usually includes a trip to the University of Washington to copy some of the school's extensive map collection, especially military maps. He also has a small laptop that he plugs into phone lines to check his e-mail and keep an events journal.

And there's the sophisticated FM shortwave radio that got them into a little hot water in Kamchatka, Russia, in 1999. Blackwell had put up an antenna outside of their room to get cricket scores from England, Johnson joked. A loud knock on their door caused Blackwell to hide the military maps. The knock was followed by a shout, "Militsai! Vash Dokumenty!" and two Russian police, a man and a woman, barged in. "Nurse Ratchet and Inspector Clouseau," Blackwell wrote in his journal.

A half-hour interrogation in Russian followed, and was mostly cheerful. What concerned the police was that Blackwell and Johnson were wandering around Kamchatka, a peninsula that boarders the Bering Sea, without a Russian tour guide. Such travel was unheard of in communist times. They were told to make sure they checked in with the police at each town.

When planning their trips, the pair favor routes that come to dead ends, like Northkapp, said Blackwell, referring to a road that starts in St. Petersburg, Russia, runs through Finland and ends in Norway at the Arctic Ocean.

Their first touring trip together, in 1987, was from Dawson to Fort McPherson at the end of the road. This was followed by a Fairbanks-to-Prudhoe-Bay trip, then South America and many other routes that dead-ended.

"There is a certain exhilaration in getting to the end of the road. I don't know the reason, it's just fun when you can't go any further," Blackwell said. When questioned further, he admitted it might have something to do with growing up in Juneau.

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