Riding to School: MFA Student Rides Bike From Alaska to Forest Grove

“I’ll just ride my bike to school,” thought Sam Chamberlain MFA ’15.

Sounds simple enough.

But Chamberlain lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. “School” was Pacific University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing summer residency in Forest Grove — 2,000 miles away.

“I do stupid stuff like this,” said Chamberlain, standing outside Gilbert Hall next to his gear-laden bike, helmet still on his head. He’s a four-season bike commuter in Fairbanks, where temperatures range from 40-below to 80-above. He’s also run ultramarathons and skied 50-mile races.

“This is a little bigger than normal, but it just seems normal to me.”

An Army veteran and former middle school English teacher who now devotes his time to working in a homeless shelter for teens and writing, Chamberlain said he had the time to make the epic trek south — and so he couldn’t think of a reason not to.

His wife rode with him the first two days out of Fairbanks, then he was joined by a friend through much of Alaska, where they dodged migrating RVers, herds of caribou and piles of bear scat.

“I didn’t carry a gun or bear spray,” he said. A partner was a better safety precaution: “We expanded our footprint.”

In Haines, on the northern tip of the Inside Passage, he and his friend boarded the Alaska Marine Highway System, a series of ferries that connect the state’s coastal communities. They saved money on a cabin by pitching tents on the deck, “staking” them down with duct tape.

“It was very Jack London-ish,” Chamberlain said.

When the ferry landed in Bellingham, Wash., Chamberlain set off alone along the coast, crossed on a ferry to Port Townsend, rode down the Olympic Peninsula to Centralia, then anxious to meet up with friends and avoid 90 miles of freeway riding, boarded an Amtrak for Portland, before riding on to Gaston and Forest Grove.

By the time he arrived at Pacific, tanned but no worse the wear after about 1,000 of riding, he had been on the road nearly four weeks.

The journey, he said, will no doubt make an appearance in his future writing, likely in the form of a personal essay. Though he has specialized in Pacific’s fiction track in the MFA Program, Chamberlain said he’s also expanded his other writing genres.

“At the residencies, you can go to lectures with poets or nonfiction writers,” he said. “That’s one of the plusses of the program. Though you’re studying a genre, you really get to diversify.”

For Chamberlain, though, the program has had a more personal benefit, too.

After 15 months serving in Iraq, he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I tried to move on as a teacher. I moved to a little village, and it was great, but there were still underlying issues,” he said. “I’ve been able to engage with that as an intellectual writer. It’s better than therapy.”

Most of his writing in the MFA program has taken the form of short stories — semi-autobiographical fiction about war. Writing, and studying his writing critically, has helped work through his experiences.

“My wife says I’m a better person.”

Photos by Sean Birch

Monday, June 22, 2015