The original plan, the dream, was to motorcycle all the way to Prudhoe Bay and back, a ten thousand mile, six week, round trip to the top of the world highlighted by travel on the infamously dangerous Dalton Highway of ice road truckers. Of course, the elephant in the room, or maybe the bull in the china shop, is Covid, which is still a long way from releasing its grasp on the course of events of the world. Covid washed out efforts to ride last year but this year we remained hopeful all the way up until June 21st waiting for and expecting Canada to open its borders. But Canada faltered, I think perhaps their low-budget wall to keep us lower 48 Americans out. You are dead to me Canada! Until our trip to Jaspar and Banff anyway.
Some trip had to be made and it had to be made this year because I am no spring chicken and because I had the housesitter arranged and the vacation time approved. So after flailing around with alternate trip ideas, Hetal convinced us (and rightly so) that the heart of the original trip was to stand at the top of the world and travel the Dalton Highway to get there. We met some people that made the trip through Canada on the Alaskan Highway. It required either a work permit or a house in Alaska, a rigid itinerary that didn’t even allow for a visit to Whitehorse just a few miles off the main highway, and typically an interrogation by Canadien border personnel.
So the compromise trip was to ride motorcycles to Seattle, fly to Alaska, and drive a ruggedized rental car to Prudhoe from Fairbanks, then sightsee in the rest of Alaska for a bit, fly back to Seattle, and then finish the trip with a ride inland hopefully to Jaspar and Banff to visit the Canadian highlights of the originally planned trip. Of course, the Jaspar and Banff piece didn’t pan out either as Canada still hasn’t opened its borders as of this writing. Oh, Canada. You are nothing but an ocean to fly over to me.
Another casualty of Covid is car rentals, the agencies having sold off most of their covid-idled stock. But Hetal made it happen and we planned our trip around rental car availability. Of the few motorcyclists we met, one rider made his trip by shipping his bike to Anchorage, a five thousand dollar proposition at best. It would have almost made sense to buy one for those costs.
Masks are still required in airports and on planes. Mask requirements were lifted in Oregon and Washington only a few days before we arrived. Many people still wear them now out of habit, something unimaginable just a year and a half ago although some Americans are kicking and screaming the whole way down. As one woman who refuses to give in to the demands of Covid with either mask or vaccination put it, I hope I don’t get Covid but if I do get it, I hope it is mild, and if it kills me, then it is just my time. Maybe she could just substitute the idea of not getting a vaccine with the idea of standing on the traffic lane of an expressway. Maybe she should think about the people she might give it to.
And so on July 1, 2021, some three years after conception and significantly compromised due to world events, three travelers left San Diego in a caravan of two motorcycles and an SUV.
The caravan has a daily rhythm. Ride the ride. Find a place to stay. Set up camp. Do whatever the place affords. Sleep. Morning coffee. Tear down. And on your way. Never a night in the same place. (On only two occasions did we stay in the same place, Denali and Oakland.) Each day has a different feel and each night is a new setting and a new cast of characters.
- A trafficked ride through LA and a meandering ride through Ojai with hints of the heat and cold to come. Pizza and wine on the square at Paso Robles.
- The winding roads of the PCH1 stopping to see elephant seals. An austere house in Hayward and brutal Covid stories of a respiratory therapist.
- A time costly trip to Pt. Reyes National Seashore to see a lighthouse and fortuitously, a pod of humpback whales. A walk-in campground at the mouth of the Russian River.
- More time on the PCH1 through red wood forests not stopping to see them to make up lost time. Fourth of July in a Crescent City in a warm Air BnB after searching for a camping spot on a crowded holiday and a cold, cold shore.
- Slow travel up the crowded roads of Oregon. A night in a hotel under the impressive bridge at Astoria.
- Weaving through the tree farms and clear cuts of Washington and hiking to a waterfall in Olympic National Park. A night staring at the forbidden shores of Canada across the Staits of Juan de Fuca.
- Ride to the airport with a backdrop of Mt Ranier and flight to Fairbanks. A night at Salty’s talking about the challenges of travel through Canada.
- Ride to Coldfoot in the spotty rain through spartan spruce forests each tree ever diminishing in size as we travel north. Dinner on a pull out just outside of town in a barracks hotel.
- Ride over the Atigun Pass in the Brooke’s range and through the tundra. A trip to the Arctic ocean and through the oil works at Prudhoe.
- Return to Coldfoot on a much drier day driving over the Atigun Pass. A night in the farthest North bar in Alaska drinking canned beer with the locals.
- Return to Fairbanks stopping at the Yukon river for a roadside lunch and a hike to the scrotal finger. A night in the Musk Ox house finding Musk Ox in the morning.
- A short drive south to Denali for two nights of camping at Savage River campground hiking Mountain View and the Savage River loop. Attacked by an Alfred Hitchcock gull and sleeping in the rain.
- Ride down to Knik stopping for a plane ride over the Anchorage glaciers. A night with an overly friendly dog on a horse farm in Knik.
- A day in Anchorage hiking the Knik arm from Earthquake park to downtown for beer and reindeer sausage pizza. Drive back to Fairbanks for a quick night in a small apartment with an all-night TV.
- Transfer to the Bridgewater. Walk ten miles covering the entirety of Fairbanks including an Indian lunch and a flock of sandhill cranes. Lousy company at an overcrowded bar.
- Fly back to Seattle to recover bicycles and a night in a crappy basement Air BnB for Chris’s birthday.
- A morning brunch in East Lake with Chris’s people and a ride through the cascades stopping for a river float. A night in Pateros sleeping on the road next to the bike.
- A smokey ride to Sandpoint, Idaho stopping at the Coulee Dam. Dominoes pizza and craft beer at a pub.
- A smokey ride to Westchester, Idaho through the unbelievable scenic Hell’s Canyon National Park. A night fishing and sleeping on a dock holding a woman’s hand while she unloads and cries about all her family issues.
- A smokey ride through the unbelievably scenic stretch of the Snake River with the road just feet above the dam lake and a night ride with a near death experience. Night camping at a BLM site in the middle of no where.
- Another amazing stretch of scenic highway with a not so dry lake of water and salt and various shades of algae. A night in the pine forest of Lassen national forest.
- Various stops in a very smokey Lassen national park followed by a fifty degree temperature change from the mountains to the valleys. A pizza party at Brooke’s new house.
- A long ride home more cold than hot.
Each moment is structured to be free within the matrix of destination, camaraderie, and equipment. The reward is the experience of ups, downs, and in-betweens while the regret is the unchosen and the left behind.
Here it is in pictures: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1t1iTJmhaAUycbphfRdvGRz2NCZO0pNQd&usp=sharing
In general, the highlights are the unexpected moments of turning a corner and running into stunning scenery.
- Turning onto the PCH1 to see a white wave washing over a black rock in a green ocean. (Actually, pretty much everything on the PCH1 if it weren’t so damn cold.)
- Seeing the sixteen percent grade of the Dalton Highway ascend up the side of a mountain into a cloud bank.
- The entire valley of the Atigun pass surrounded by snow-patched black mountains with green bases and interesting rock formations overlooking a river road, the pipeline, and the soon to be ubiquituos tundra of the North slopes.
- Big sky country stretching to the horizon under puffy cloud shadows throughout central Alaska.
- Driving through Hell’s Canyon, a river gorge in Idaho deeper than the Grand Canyon.
- Driving along the Snake River at near surface level for twenty or thirty miles on a road selected off a map for its gray line and off-the-beaten-path route.
- A near dry lake stretching for miles in Northern CA on the 395.
- Glaciers on the small plane ride over the Knik glaciers outside of Anchorage. You can’t ask for a better view though we were somewhat worried about that co-pilot.
- The view from the mountain view trail in Denali.
Traveling within the Arctic Circle was certainly interesting. The midnight sun messes with your head as much as your circadian rhythms. Time has no meaning during the two-month day at the 70th parallel. The sun never sets playing havoc with your sense of time and normalcy. Every day has a second noon: a high noon and a low noon and what business does the sun have being to the North of you in the northern hemisphere anyway? Why do stores close? What do owls do? Would you dare to pull an all-nighter in the winter? It broke my weather app which showed a 3 PM sunrise at Prudhoe. We started a three-hour hike at seven in the evening and never worried about hiking in the dark. We came out of the farthest North bar in Alaska in Coldfoot at midnight in the middle of the day. Or maybe it was towards the end of the day, the day not ready to end until sometime at the end of July.
Wildlife viewing is always a highlight for me. A day of travel in Alaska is measured by the number of moose seen. Our best day was a four-moose day. In total, we saw one bear from the safety of a plane, more than a half dozen moose, deer, elk, a lynx, an angry fox chasing after shorebirds, a golden eagle taking a crap at the top of a pine tree, a flock of sandhill cranes, caribou, a pod of humpback whales off the point at the lighthouse at Pt. Reyes, and myriads of small critters. As side notes: Caribou and muskox live off lichen and moss under the snow during the dark winter of the tundra, my definition of heroic. In the western hemisphere, reindeer are simply seasonally employed caribou.
Flower-blooming flora, though generally more overlooked than fauna, was on full display. Large patches of fireweed added reddish-pink hues to the landscape. Alternating yellow, violet, white, green, and purples lined the roads.
Of course, it was great to see and even stay with the relations. We thank them for their support.
In general, the lowlights were the temperature extremes and swings. Ironically, I nearly froze my ass off riding on the trip North where we hugged the coast in the perpetual fifty-degree chill with Mark Twain’s astute observation gliding across the ice in my hypothermic head, “The coldest winter I’ve ever experienced was a summer in San Francisco.” But on the inland trip ride home, we fought the heat much of the way experiencing the remnant of the heat dome over the Pacific Northwest. Forced out of the mountains by a fire in Lassen National Forest on the stretch of highway from Chico to Fairfield, we rode in a dehydrating 105 to 110-degree heat. On that particular day, the temperature swing went from 50 in the pines of a Lassen campground to 110 on the I-5 heading south and then back into the low 60s as we headed into Oakland. Note to self, need to lobby for flexible roads in that narrow band of about five miles between the freezing coast and the burning inland empire. Maybe put Elon Musk on the job.
It’s hard not to mention another elephant in the room, or on the ride… Global Warming was in our faces during much of the trip. Alaska has interior warming of 7 degrees. The spruce beetle population is exploding resulting in the devastation of spruce forests around Anchorage and beyond. As one Alaskan put it, “You don’t have to prove global warming to an Alaskan. All an Alaskan has to do is look out the window.” There is nothing subtle about the direct cause or the results. The spruce forests are patchworks of green and dead trees. Back in the mainland, we dodged forest fires in Washington, Idaho, and California. In California near Lassen, we had to double back due to road closures or drive all the way to Reno to go around. The re-route briefly took us back into an ominous, sun-obscuring, red-orange smoke cloud on a road lined with green fire trucks and firefighters in their yellow suits.
Mosquitos were inevitable and anticipated. In fact, they were not nearly as bad as I anticipated. In Denali, I spent two nights under the stars (ok, under the twilight) without once fainting from blood loss.
An Alfred Hitchcock moment when I was forced to wave off an angry seagull with a stick because I had inadvertently entered a nesting area. Warnings were posted at the side near the road but we came in from the opposite side. Birds make people happy, particularly if those people are the ones watching you get accosted by an irate nesting bird.
And one near-death experience, when a jackass decided to pass the SUV and me on a blind curve and had to cut me off to narrowly avoid a head-on collision with a car coming at it from the other direction. If I wasn’t on the right side of the lane or if the oncoming car was going just a couple of miles an hour faster, it would have been ugly for a lot of people. F**king jackass.
Driving over the Atigun Pass was actually a highlight tempered only by the confabulation of what it would have been like if we had attempted the thirty or so miles of slippery road on a motorcycle on the trip up. Slippery mud from light rains looked manageable on the mostly hard-packed road but slippery mud is a tricky thing on a steep grade. On the much dryer return trip, it looked easy, at least in my confabulation of the ride. But we will never know.
Standing in the Arctic Ocean was an emotional highlight. it represented the pinnacle of the trip and the purpose of the mission but it’s not a particularly pretty sight, rocky and barren with a backdrop of oil-pumping plants in the background. You have to pay for a tour for the few miles across the privately held oil lands to actually get from Deadhorse to the Arctic Ocean. I always have mixed feelings about the canned patter and the false camaraderie of people working the trade. But in this case, it was useful learning about all the inner workings of the oil pumping process at Prudhoe and tires that under a million pounds of drilling equipment burst into flames from overheating if they move too fast.
My favorite met person was a bi-polar, elderly lady working an information kiosk in Fairbanks. She is bi-polar only in the sense that she has been both to the Arctic and the Antarctic. She worked out of Point Barrow providing medical care to nearby villages for many years and then participated in expeditions to the Antarctic to teach high school children about the environment depriving them of their electronic connections during the journey. We should all be bi-polar! After our conversation, I drifted over to the exhibits. The bi-polar woman shamed me as I walked past her again asking me in a good-natured spirit, “What did I learn?” I muttered something about the Ididerot race but I hadn’t really read anything, just looked at a relief map of Alaska. So she called me out on a wasted opportunity.
The weirdest encounter was with a forty-six-year-old, single woman proprietor of a flower shop on a yearly gathering with her family. She poured out all of her family issues and tragedies on a dock in a state park to three complete strangers. At one point when she was crying, I offered my hand for her to hold. I felt kind of awkward because I didn’t know how long she needed it for but I didn’t have any immediate use for it, anyway.
Other interesting encounters included a dance in Sandpoint saloon with a decent band, an itinerant worker in Coldfoot who skied tree-barren mountains in Alaska by driving up in a snowmobile then letting it self-drive to the bottom while he skied down to meet it, and all the people Hetal introduced herself to, particularly in bars. The names and stories of the others have already faded. But that is the way of the caravan.
There is a certain glamor in motorcycle riding but the reality is isolation in a space capsule helmet with earplugs and the discomfort of riding in more or less the same position for hours on end despite alleviation from bike yoga stretching routines. Of course, hiking is pretty much the same way in the sense of isolation and discomfort. Both are long periods of repetition punctuated by a few moments of interest justified by the sense of accomplishment at the completion.
Pulling off-road to cook a meal is a great alternative to paying for every meal at a restaurant, especially if you are on a road like the Dalton Highway that doesn’t have them for stretches of a couple of hundred miles at a time. On more than one occasion, we cooked with the stove in the car on account of inclement weather. Sitting down at a restaurant on occasion is nice too; different food to try and different folk to interact with. We never succumbed to convenience food at the many gas stations we frequented though I did pick up a couple of bottles of convenience wine as gifts for Brooke so we didn’t come in empty-handed.
I spent five nights sleeping under the stars without using a tent, once under a shrubby tree in Woodland Hills, twice in Denali, once in a parking lot in Pateros, and once on a dock in Westchester State park. Actually, it’s pretty comfortable but for some reason, haha, I tend to awaken at sunrise. In Denali, on the second night, I retreated into the bivy for an hour or two when it started raining at 7:30 in the morning. Not all city folk need a roof over the head, Mr. Muir.
Rant all you want about being online and connected, we relied heavily on the devices to navigate and find places at night. On every day during the trip, we were connected at some point. And I still took satisfaction in providing my trophy pictures to the world through Instagram completing my mission of a daily post for one year.
All of our equipment never gave us any serious trouble. The motorcycles and the truck fired up each morning and started promptly after sitting for ten days at a Seattle motel doubling as an airport parking lot. Given how rarely equipment actually does what it is supposed to do, I might consider this a highlight, too.
So now it is over and while I am quite happy that my motorcycle performed and I performed on the motorcycle, its future is definitely uncertain even though I am much more confident of my riding ability. I am staring at four walls and have a ceiling permanently over my head. I don’t think I will miss sleeping literally on the road but, damn, a couple of weeks ago I was standing knee-deep in the Arctic Ocean at the top of the world having traversed the Dalton Highway. Even though I conceived of the idea, I would have certainly failed to execute without the determination and persistence of Hetal and Chris. A proverb echoes in my head, “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” I might change that a little, “If you want to back out, tell no one, if you want to go far, go together.” Damn it, motorcycle or not, we did the Dalton Highway. We went far. To the ends of the Earth far.