Today was primarily just a lot of driving. I got up early and took a quick walk around the NAU campus. Gotta say, pretty nice. There’s an older core to the campus with cool modern buildings that have grown up around it. I was pleasantly surprised. I made a quick foray into the surrounding neighborhood. It’s old. Somewhat rundown in places. But there’s character to it and signs of a quirky revitalization in some of the buildings. I saw a bit more of the touristy part of Flagstaff on my way out. On the whole, it really seems like a neat place.
A quick Keurig coffee, a bit of packing and I was off at about 6:30. The route took me on the old Route 66 through Tuba City and on to the Navajo reservation that occupies a good part of this area of the state. I wound through the desert, noticing that the rock formations looked oddly familiar. I finally realized that I had joined up at some point with the route that I’d taken to Monument Valley four or five years ago. Sure enough, the GPS dropped me straight in to the Valley just a little bit later. Still just an incredible sight.
I kept going north out of the valley, a bit deeper into Utah, until I hit the little desert town of Mexican Hat. Gassed up, I followed the road out of town and it curved back south into Arizona before quickly taking me into New Mexico. The area on the far side of Monument Valley slowly transitioned from bare rock, sandy desert, and striking geography into something of a high desert scrub. It was far more green than I would’ve expected, but actual farming seemed fairly rare. At least along my route.
After skimming the top left corner of New Mexico, I started the climb up into Colorado. The temperature, which had been up in the 90’s, dropped to the low 80’s and even into the 70’s. While there was a spot of rain here and there, the threatening thunderstorms never seemed to come my way. The road winds up from the high desert into the low mountains. The forest seemed to be in deep trouble, though. Probably a 1:1 ratio of living trees to standing dead ones. The dead stuff (mostly) didn’t look like the remains of a forest fire, but it may have just been long enough ago to bleach out the charring, I guess. It certainly looked like a tinderbox, though.
I stopped in a nice town called Pagosa Springs and had a bowl of (decent) gumbo and a beer for a late lunch. I decided to push on to Eastern Colorado and call it a day around the La Junta area, which is a small town on the US50. Once I got there, though, it seemed too early and the town was too lame to justify the stop, even though the sun was starting to set. I ultimately decided to push on a bit longer, which I ultimately regretted. Once the sun was down, the road was pitch black and empty for miles on end. My least favorite driving conditions (well, it gets worse if you toss rain in there, but it’s bad enough in the dry). I began to look for alternatives, but nothing palatable was coming up. I finally jumped on Expedia and committed to a joint about an hour and a half down the road in Garden City, Kansas. Since I jumped another time zone at the state line, it put me at the hotel at close to 11:30pm. Long day. I’ll likely sleep in just a bit tomorrow for the same reason.
Regardless, four more states down. No major catastrophes. A lesson or two learned. And I’m on track to skirt whatever remnants of Fred actually hit the Florida coast. So far so good. Trip-wise, at least.
So I’m calling this “Day 0” of the trip. I was supposed to be tied up in court and was hoping to sneak out of work soon enough to make it to Needles. The idea was to stage as close to Nevada/Arizona as possible to make the 48-states in 10 days a bit more doable. But two things happened. First, my court appearances morphed into quickies rather than drawn out hearings. Second, I pulled my head out of my ass. (Don’t worry, all you naysayers, it’s just temporary.)
Instead of heading out mid-afternoon, I was freed up by about 9:30. I said my (quick) goodbyes at work and rushed home. I took it as a good omen that I was at my house and nominally hitting the road at 10. I could feel Paul’s presence, smiling down on me from Heaven above. Yes, I know he’s still alive. And also an atheist. And currently in Cabo, lording over the locals like a good boss-man should. But that fucker was giving me a thumbs up from somewhere.
I actually got packed up and outfitted in my mesh jacket by about 11am. I rolled out and headed towards the I40, with Needles in my crosshairs. My starting milage was 54480, for those keeping score.
Up the Cajon Pass, through the high desert and off down the I40 to The River. This is the part of California we don’t talk about in polite company. It’s basically sand, meth, poverty and pedophiles, as best I can tell. Fittingly, as I drove into these desolate be-trailered hellscapes, the temperature started to climb. Low 90’s in Redlands turned into high 90’s at Victorville. It got worse from there.
So I recently bought a pellet grill/smoker. It’s awesome. I made my own going-away meal on it last night, as a matter of fact. Tasty. But good lord was I starting to empathize with my pellet-grilled victims. 100? Yup. 105? Keep going! It was over 110 as I drove north out of Needles into the vast wasteland of southern Nevada. I passed through Laughlin, Nevada, which is like a trailer-park version of Vegas, and crossed the river into Bullhead City, Arizona. Which is no better. The fact that Bullhead doesn’t allow gambling is either a positive or a negative, but I’m not really in a position to judge.
The road climbs a bit out of Bullhead City heading the short distance into Kingman, where the state highway joins with the I40 again. I jumped right on the 40, skipping most of Kingman, sadly. The 40 keeps trending upward, though. The road into Kingman passed through some nice rock formations, and then we moved into more of a green prairie land (almost) heading out. I took a quick detour into the old Route 66 town of Seligman for an A&W root beer and some gas, then got back on the 40. It’s pretty apparent that Cars was based on the building of the I40 to bypass the towns that had grown up along US66. Seligman was a great example of the type of place that Radiator Springs was modeled after. Slightly off the freeway, desperately trying to draw in modern travelers while clinging to its former glory. Since Seligman was just about a mile off the main road, though, it made me wonder what was still there further off the modern track in the more remote turnings of the old 66. Whatever may be out there, I didn’t find it. Even though I’m not pressing to crank out a 10 day loop, I do have a pretty tight deadline due to some September trial dates that are looming.
And yeah, that brings us back to the pulling my head out of my ass thing. I have no interest in forcing a 750mi/day average just to meet an artificial deadline. I already have enough to worry about between my aforementioned trials and Tropical Depression Fred which is racing me to the Florida panhandle. Screw that. I’m happy just driving.
As I climbed up past Williams towards Flagstaff, the clouds started to gather. I drove through one quick squall in my mesh gear, but it was pretty clear that bigger rain was coming. I pulled off and put on my new GoreTex® riding gear.
Dry and happy, I cruised into Flagstaff and checked in to my Patel Hotel for the night. Not fancy, but cheap, functional, and walking distance to a quite vibrant food/nightlife scene. No doubt the proximity of NAU helps. The food was excellent, the drinks were better, and it’s time for bed. Targeting an early departure tomorrow to get me in a position to beat Fred through the South.
So the plan was to Get The Band Back Together for a 2020 Epic Journey™. My people were talking with Paul’s people to hammer out an ultimate destination. I was all in for Antarctica, but then I was presented with a globe. So…no. Stuck on the “furthest south” motif, I pushed for Key West, Florida as the obvious backup plan. Paul, on the other hand, hadn’t gotten enough of the great white north, so he was pushing for a tour to the UP of Michigan. At an impasse, we decided to settle the matter in the traditional manner of his people: topless arm-wrestling. The match was set for the Ides of March, 2020.
Enter COVID-19, stage left. Exeunt travel plans and half-naked grappling. Sigh.
I still had a hunting trip to South Africa planned with family, though. That trip had itself been moved from 2020 to August of this year, and it was certainly something to look forward to. Then came the rise of the Delta variant and civil unrest began to sweep SA as our departure approached. Just last week we finally pulled the plug on the trip and called it off for this year, too.
This left me with a hole in my calendar, as I’d already set cases to either side of the Africa trip. Having been without a break for close to a year and a half, I knew what I had to do. ROAD TRIP! Paul was certainly out, as he is a responsible adult and has to plan these things in advance (and get permission from his lovely wife, no less). My family was out, too, as the kids are both starting school pretty much the same day I was set to leave for Africa. Which left me in the position of finding something that I was likely to be able to do not just by myself, but ONLY by myself. So: Two weeks or so. A motorcycle. A trip that sounds so stupid that no one else would ever want to do it with me. I’ve got it.
It’s the 48-State Loop! About 9,000mi in less than 15 days? Yes, please. I poked around on the internet and found a pre-made route that starts in Needles and ends in Northeastern Oregon. Even better, it has a bias to state highways over interstates. If I can complete the route in less than 10 days, I can even get a fancy certificate! I am not making this a primary goal, though. I suspect that this will be hard enough without stripping all of the fun out of it.
The eagle eyed amongst you will notice that this “loop” lacks closure. My current target is 14 days max to ride the route, giving me two full days before I’m due back in court. That should be sufficient time to make it from White Power Country (North) back down to the California Republic.
So, yeah. The path forward has led from Alaska through a pandemic to an aborted African safari, and ending in a calloused, lonely ass slogging his way solo through The Great 48. I strongly suspect this space will become just a place to document progress, rather than a pithy travelogue. Looking back over my posts from the Alaska trip, it really drove home how much a travel partner adds to the experience. I do worry a bit that this will just be a long series of self-indulgent miles passing under my tires without the benefit of being a shared experience. I guess time will tell.
The bike is going in to BMW for fresh road tires and a once-over tomorrow. My long-distance gear is coming out of storage. I’m looking sideways at Melissa to make sure that I won’t be coming home to changed locks and a process-server hiding under my porch. In other words, shit’s getting real.
After approximately 3,500 miles over 4 days, I’m home safe. I’ll write up a brief post about those last four days this week.
Paul is currently on an Alaska State Highway System ferry somewhere between Skagway and Bellingham. He will disembark on Friday, 8/24, and meander his way back home. Sad to say I did not quite have the luxury of time for the ferry ride, so I had to bust ass (almost literally) back while he sits back to watch the Inside Passage slide by his cabin window.
It’s hard to be bitter after such an incredible trip, though. Bon voyage.
Having swapped a 5hr ride to Homer for a 2hr ride to Seward as our last trip, we had plenty of time to get there and back before dinner with Paul’s family. So we got a super-late start…at about 11am or so.
It was nice to wake up in a real house for a change. It felt much more…grounded?…than the usual motel shuffle we’ve been doing for the last several weeks. I woke up initially to a familiar-sounding explosion of noise as Paul’s grandniece ran into his room to get his lazy ass out of bed. Being unrelated and, thus, uninteresting, my lazy ass rolled over and went back to sleep. Anonymity rocks!
I showered, thought about shaving just so I’m not mistaken for a Sasquatch or an oddly-handsome bear when I go out amongst these wilderness dwellers, but decided to take my chances. I wandered downstairs towards the kitchen, but heard the sound of Granduncle Paul hard at work being granduncle-y, so I went out to take care of some stuff with my bike instead.
My main task for the day was to set up my tent, just in case it was needed for my trip back (however unlikely that is). I hadn’t gotten around to assembling it before we left, so it’s been a bit of an open question. I grabbed the tent and my camping gear from the saddlebag they’ve been living in, unmolested, and brought the bunch inside.
It was about now that I drew the attention of the grandniece. The first I saw of her was this cartoony swirling cloud of activity, kinda like the Tazmanian Devil. She spun over to me, grabbed my hand and dragged me bodily into the back yard. I held her attention for about five minutes, in which she:
Set up my tent (it worked!)
Picked raspberries for me to eat (tasty)
Showed me a giant spiderweb by the raspberry bushes
Showed me how high she can swing
Showed me her Iron Cross move on the rings
Fed me some “stone soup” (which had no stone in it, oddly, but did have rose hips, green apples, groundwater, and various twigs. Oh, and a dash of cumin (genius!))
Played legos with me. She was the fairy and I was the mermaid
Told me how old she is (6)
Taught me how to spell her name (G-R-A-C-E)
Told me about the barbecue she was going to today (she brought pasta salad)
Went over her chore list
Read a book
Discussed the geopolitical ramifications of Israel’s aborted attempt to exclude two US congresswomen (okay, I made that last one up, but only because she probably didn’t want to confuse me with discussion about such a complex issue)
I somehow escaped her clutches by pawning her back off on Paul. I think I wandered off to take a nap. I was exhausted.
When Paul was able to briefly escape from her swirl of activity he grabbed me and practically dragged me to the bikes. He knew he had to get out of there soon or he’d be deep in his own grandpa-nap and done for the afternoon. We hit the road for Seward soon thereafter.
The road to and from Seward was pretty spectacular. It starts out at sea level, following the coastline outside of Anchorage for about an hour (past Turnagain Arm, which hosts the fantastically-named Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ). The road then climbs a bit over a short pass and drops onto the Kenai Peninsula. On the way it passes by and through a series of spectacular jagged peaks and several ice fields. We (of course) stopped to take pictures of the ice, but I was able to keep Paul moving towards Seward with promises of beer.
We cruised through the town, then headed straight to Ray’s, a restaurant recommended by…Sheryl?…Cheryl?…well, Paul’s niece. Unlike her daughter, she didn’t teach me how to spell her name within minutes of meeting her. I hadn’t realized it before, but that’s a pretty useful practice. Maybe I’ll work it into my professional life.
ATTORNEY: Good morning your honor. I’m Jeff. That’s J-E-F-F! I’m 49! THE COURT: …okay… JEFF: Could the record reflect that I’m holding up my fingers to confirm that I am, in fact, forty-nine? THE COURT: um. The record will so reflect, I guess. JEFF: Do you have any juice? THE COURT: We’ll be in recess. JEFF: Yay!
I think I’m on to something. Anyway, we’ll call Paul’s niece S/Cheryl, to avoid any misspellings.
Regardless, Ray’s was great. Good food. Good service. We clinked our glasses to celebrate a successful trip and reaching the farthest point that we would make it to. It was a nice “end” to a great trip. After lunch we shopped for some souvenirs and hit the road back to Anchorage.
This is a good point to interject an observation about Alaska. The winter cold is dangerous. The wildlife is dangerous. Having Russia peeking in your bedroom windows at night is dangerous. But the most dangerous thing in Alaska? The drivers. They are fucking terrible, full stop. All of them.
These drivers seem to have won their licenses in some sort of giveaway. They treat lane lines like a mere suggestion. The speed limit is apparently some sort of unattainable goal to them. “55mph? That sounds exhausting. How about 40…?” should be the state motto. We went through a roundabout and I’m pretty sure three or four people are still circling, waiting for their cars to run out of gas so they can finally give up. Seriously, on the off chance that you spot an Alaska license plate near you on the road, get some distance and (preferably) some heavy artillery between you and the offending vehicle. It’s only a matter of time before they find their next victim.
After lunch it was back to Anchorage for us. I had intended to head out about this time for Tok (a 6 hour drive or so) to get a head start on the trip back. But geography, pleasant company, the promise of beer, and an enticing lamb sous vide for dinner persuaded me to stay one more night. (The geography was an issue because once you head down the road past Whitehorse, there’s not much in the way of accommodations for hundreds of miles, anyway. So getting a jump on the road to Whitehorse wouldn’t have helped much, just made that leg of the trip a bit shorter.)
We stopped and bought beer and wine to go with dinner. Then back to S/Cheryl’s house, where she and her boyfriend Charles had prepped the lamb and some asparagus. What an amazing meal! Restaurant quality, at least, I must say. It was my first experience with home sous vide, and I’m sold. Good conversation, too. It was over all too soon, as S/Cheryl and Charles had to get up for work in the morning and couldn’t stay up too late. Paul’s sister Lori (or is it Laurie? What is it with these older Grech women not spelling their names for me?) had to get plenty of rest to prepare for Hurricane G-R-A-C-E in the morning, too. So we packed it in and called it a night. Good day.
Once again, we knew we had a relatively short day ahead. So we dawdled a bit in getting out on the road. Seriously, this time. It wasn’t until about 11 or so that we finally headed out! 🤯
We cruised down the road past Denali, stopping in the park for a couple of housekeeping items. First, we needed to take pictures with the signs (which were posted in this blog as if I had taken them on the day before because I am a liar). That done, we also wanted to check out the Denali train station. I expected it to be a bit cooler than it actually is, but maybe I’m just a bit jaded on actual log construction at this point. On the other hand, two independent train station employees scoffed at our plan to go to Homer and instead steered us towards Seward (which is also on the Kenai Peninsula southish of Anchorage. A quick look at the map app told us that Seward was a 2hr trip vs. the 5hr drive to Homer. Sold! Seward was now our ultimate trip destination.
We hit the road and continued on towards Anchorage. On the way I kept noticing a cloud that looked an awful lot like a mountain. Holy crap, it’s Denali itself, disguising itself, moose-like, as if it were something else entirely!
Take my word for it, we both saw Mt. McKinley-Denali’s snowy reaches at a great distance. And frankly, we weren’t even looking. We thought that we’d be well south of the mountain based on the accessible parts of the national park. Nope!
We kept driving a bit, keeping our eyes out for good views of the mountain. Unfortunately the trees moved in, followed by more clouds. Both effectively blocked our view for most of the trip.
We sped past a sign announcing the dramatically named Hurricane Gulch, followed by the most vertigo-inducing bridge I’ve been across in awhile. We stopped on the far side and hiked around a bit to get some photos of this incredible gorge.
I kid. Paul and I continued down towards Anchorage. We passed a Denali viewing point (which was odd, because I think you can see it from virtually every point in the state), so we flipped a u-turn and pulled into the parking lot. It was…less than magical.
We sat at a picnic table and ate yesterday’s sandwiches while looking at where Denali should be. I can assure you that we probably did not drink the last beer from our Fairbanks booze run for lunch.
Lunch done, we continued our meander towards Paul’s niece’s house in Anchorage. Paul assured me several times that he didn’t need to stop to get directions to the house until we got to the City. So we got to the City, he got the directions (that he “didn’t need”) and we headed back the way we’d come for several miles…
Eventually we ended up at his niece’s lovely home….without a gift for our host because 1) we’re bad people and 2) we’ve been in the North American Outback for weeks and she’s lucky we had bathed today, really.
What can I say about Paul’s family except, damn, what amazing people. They made room for us in their home and graciously let Paul take us out to dinner! Afterwards, we sat out back and (eventually) watched the sunset while chatting and drinking some tasty local and home-brew beer. It was easily one of the most comfortable, memorable nights of the trip.
We knew it was a slow day, so we slept in, took it slow, had breakfast, and headed out at a leisurely 10am or so. So nice to change it up a bit.
Breakfast was interesting, if only for the scenery. The food was tasty, mind you, but I kept getting distracted by the GIANT STUFFED MUSK OX in a box just over Paul’s shoulder. Let me show you:
Once we’d shooed off the zombie musk ox and eaten our (quite tasty) sausage and eggs, we rode down to Denali. It was just a couple of miles.
An aside about the weather is in order. On the way down to Denali, it was sprinkling but mostly dry. Paul opted to wear his dry weather gear, accordingly. There was initially some confusion about whether the predicted rain had actually come to Fairbanks, calling into question our snap decision to drive to Denali fairly late into the night at the end of a long day. We later met a woman in the park who had driven down to the park from Fairbanks that morning. She assured us that the skies had opened up last night, and in fact it was still pouring this morning. She said that the drive down in her rented truck was a bit hairy. We hadn’t regretted the decision to come down in any case, but the news certainly prompted a new round of self back-patting.
Once in the park we decided to drive in as far as possible, which is only about 10 miles. Unlike the other parks we’ve visited on the trip, Denali only allows private vehicles in to a certain point. We drove all the way in, got turned away by the rangers, and drove back out to the Visitor’s Center. We checked out a map and hit the souvenir shop, where we were told that in order to go any deeper into the park we would have to take a park-operated bus from the Bus Depot. We dutifully headed to the bus depot to find out what was available. Our only viable option at that point was a bus leaving in an hour at 2pm for a…wait for it…8 hour ride in and back. As Melissa said, “Fuuuuuuuuck.”
All right. If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes. So we took it. We had an hour before the bus left, so we boogied back to the visitor’s center and grabbed a quick lunch of beef stew. We also grabbed some sandwiches for the bus, just in case. We headed back just in time to jump on as the bus was leaving. While I didn’t capture a picture of the “tour” bus, I found this accurate representation on the internet:
Luxurious, no, but the ride up was fairly uneventful. A couple of wildlife sightings, including a moose mama and calf, and a close-up bear foraging on a hillside. Paul and I both nodded off once or twice, befitting of men of our advanced age, but we were mostly awake. At least for the good stuff. As we rode along the weather worsened. Pretty soon it was a steady rain and a very low cloud and/or fog cover outside of the bus. About 2.5hrs into the 4hr outbound leg of the bus ride we were about done, so we jumped off the bus at the next rest stop and grabbed a returning bus back to the bikes. The rain continued throughout the ride, increasing early on to “steady downpour.” It then ramped up to “deluge,” followed by periods of “torrential.” Paul began to ruefully joke with the other passengers that “at least my rain gear is warm and dry at the motel.” Ha ha.
The return bus had its benefits, though. First, the wildlife sightings were great. Close-up caribou running away from the bus. A very close moose lady browsing on some brush right by the road. A few Dall Sheep identifiable but at a distance. And best of all, a group of four bears that were foraging together on a slope. Paul and I were pretty sure it was one bear we had seen on the trip up which had been joined by a mama bear and twin cubs. Regardless, pretty cool.
Another benefit was the driver/guide. He took it upon himself to make dinner/drink recommendations for after the bus ride. We followed one of his recommendations and it was amazing. (More on this in a moment.)
The downside was that I no longer had my own row. I had to share with a young woman from Maui that was staying in Fairbanks. This woman could not shut up. Or if she could, she opted not too. Functionally equivalent from where I was sitting. It was nooooooonstop. Paul later complemented me on my restraint in not murdering her where she sat. He did appreciate the fact that one of my few contributions to the conversation was a joke (really) about my twin and I being identical, except she has the bigger penis. It was meant to generate a shocked silence. It didn’t work. Sigh.
But soon enough the ride was over. We were back well before our 10pm anticipated arrival, and early enough for dinner. Unfortunately the rain was still pouring down, but it was set to taper. Paul again declared that he had left his rain pants at home so we wanted to minimize the distance in the heavy rain. Which let to us taking the guide’s suggestion and going to Prospector’s Pizza. Neither one of us was in the mood for pizza, and we wanted to get back to the hotel, but it was just soooooo wet out that we took the compromise.
I would’ve driven past this place 100 times out of 100 without the recommendation. But that would’ve been a mistake. A big one. We ordered beer, of course, but also a pizza for dinner. While they had “normal” stuff, we went with a pizza with elk sausage and reindeer pepperoni. It was awesome. Possibly the best pizza I’ve ever had. Just magic in your mouth. Put simply, go there if you’re within 100 miles. Period.
And that was about it. We drove back to the hotel and crashed out around midnight. On the way in to the room Paul looked in his saddlebags and realized that he’d had the rain pants with him the whole time. But I didn’t make (too much) fun of him, because his mistake led us to the best pizza ever. And that was fine by me.
We rolled out of bed at some point and grabbed some breakfast at the hotel cafe. Then we started loading up the bikes yet again. With repetition this has gotten much easier, faster, and far more efficient. Because of this streamlining we managed to get on the road…at a little after 10.
We had stayed the extra day in Dawson for a couple of reasons. We both felt like a break would be nice after almost two straight weeks of pretty heavy riding. Also, Dawson was one of the first places that we’d been to in this phase of the trip that seemed to have some character to explore a bit. But perhaps most importantly, the Top of the World Highway between Dawson and Fairbanks is largely an unpaved dirt/gravel road. With the rains on Saturday night and into Sunday morning we were concerned that Paul’s street bike with street tires would be in deep trouble on the slippery mud. The forecast for Sunday and Monday was clear and sunny, so the hope was that the extra day would help dry things out for us.
We gassed up on the way out of town. I noticed at the gas station that my rear suspension was not “preloading” the way it should. (Preload helps set up the suspension for the weight on the motorcycle, and I needed a lot of extra preload due to my bags and generally monstrous size.) This had happened once before and I used my IT skills to fix the problem, computer-style: I turned the bike off and on. This trick didn’t work, so I set off on the first real test of my bike’s suspension with said suspension in some sort of failure mode. Sweet.
On the ferry, off the ferry, past the hostel (holding up crucifixes and garlic in front of us as we passed), and on to the Top of the World. In short, our plan worked! The road was dry and smooth, and the ‘wing glided through it with ease, although our speed was slower than usual. We stopped at a turnout to take a picture and I took the opportunity to diagnose my shock absorber. With my primary tool (restarting the thing) not working, I tried my second most effective tool: a good stern look. I stern-looked that shock like no shock has ever been sternly looked at. I got back on the bike, fired it up, and…preload city! It is a fine stern look, but the power of it surprises even me at times.
Onward through the dirt and gravel with hardly any other traffic to interrupt the scenery. After a few hours or so we got to the border and jumped through their hoops. I asked if the road was paved the rest of the way and got a hearty laugh. Nope. And, in fact, it’s in significantly worse shape than the Canadian side of things. Paul and I were both feeling a bit more confident and the pace picked up a bit for awhile.
We stopped along the highway in a town called Chicken, which is predictably a bit of a tourist trap. A bit of shopping, a trip to “the only flush toilets in Chicken” and we were off.
We slogged a bit through the remains of the largest forest fire we’d ever seen and eventually ended up back on the Alcan Highway, about 1,400 miles from where we’d started on it in Dawson Creek. It felt odd to be on a major road again, but the absence of traffic helped ease the shock. At a city called Tok we pulled in to get gas and were instantly surrounded by All Of The Bugs. Bees, wasps, mosquitoes, gnats. Hell, I think there was some species of flying dog in the mix. It was weird. And then we noticed that the whole place had a Deep In Appalachee feel to it. Bugs? Hillbillies? Screw this place, we’re rolling.
As we cruised through the first large Alaskan town I spotted a sign lettered with red and gold goodness: “Wells Fargo!” I yelled into the intercom. We pulled in and 10 minutes later I had a temporary ATM card to replace the one from my wallet. Heaven. While I got my cards, Paul booked a room for the night in Fairbanks. Job done, we got back on the road to Fairbanks.
Just short of our target we found ourselves in North Pole, Alaska. Of course we had to stop to say “hey” to Santa and to kiss his ass a bit for this coming season. That taken care of we stopped at the post office to mail some postcards and headed into town for dinner.
We drove straight to downtown and pulled up Yelp to find a dinner place. The pickings were slim and stuff was closing soon, so we jumped on The Chowder House and boogied on over. Bad choice. The food was meh and there was no beer to be had. Ouch. While stewing over dinner my eye wandered over a newspaper rack outside the window. Hmm. “NWS ISSUES FLOOD ALERT!” Whaaaaa? I pulled up Apple Weather and saw that there was rain predicted for the next three days (which I already knew but I hadn’t looked deeper). So I went to weather.com. The weather forecast for the next few days was: “RUN!” Hmmm. “Flooding predicted in the Chena Hot Springs area, with road closures likely.” Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm. “Hey Paul, what’s the name of our hotel?” “Chena Hot Springs, why?”
So we chatted for a few minutes about options. We’d just ridden about 11 hours to get to Fairbanks and found it to be a bit…disappointing. The food seemed to be meh, the scenery was blah, and the sky was trying to kill us. Our minds turned to Denali and the Totem Inn. I looked it up and it was just another 100 miles down the road and the rain wasn’t slated to start for about 2 hours. A call to the Totem Inn told me that there was just one room left, and it only had a full bed in it. Rollaway? Nope, due to fire regs. Couch? Nope. “Fuck it,” I said, “the heart wants what the heart wants.” And I booked it.
We grabbed some beer to go from a local liquor store, put on our rain gear and set out for Denali. Basically, we were racing god. And guess who won? Damn straight! We beat the rain by a good 20 minutes and got there dry as a bone. (How’s that for hasa diga eebowai?) Checked in and grabbed a beer at the bar to settle in. The hotel and bar were solid, we were dry and happy, and Denali was just a few minutes down the road.
And then the front desk guy found us to tell us the best news of the day. We were in a different room than he’d thought and he was bringing a rollaway bed in for us. Now that’s a happy ending we can all be comfortable with.
Overnight we realized that we had totally misjudged the hostel situation. We slept like logs, woke up happy and refreshed, and Dieter brought us breakfast in bed. And my wallet was on the tray!
Nope. Lies. It just sucked. I have a friend. We’ll call him “Matt” for anonymity’s sake. He travels the world for his job. Mumbai? That was Tuesday. Borneo? Next Saturday. You get the idea. I’m sure he would have loved Dieter’s Sex-And-Murder Hole. I’m not Matt. I like…electricity. Toilet paper. Living through the night. You know, all the modern amenities.
So we woke up a bit non-plussed, shall we say. Typically it was a tossup as to who was first to shower, etc. Nope. Neither of us set foot in the “washroom”. Teeth were not brushed. Bowels were not moved. We just Got. Out. Packed up our crap and boogied before Dieter got his knives resharpened.
We took our bikes across the river and grabbed a really humanizing cup of coffee and a pastry on Front St. Things were looking up. We walked around the town a bit, and it’s clearly primarily a tourist trap, but it’s fun. Dirt streets, wooden sidewalks, and a functional economy. Truly an interesting place. I slipped down to the local RCMP office and made a report for my lost wallet. In the unlikely event that it’s found, they’ll call me. In the more likely event that I’m pulled over for speeding, I’ll have a report number to corroborate my claim that I lost my license with my wallet.
This morning is when we realized that Paul’s bike it the true attraction in this place. BMWs like mine are a dime a dozen at this end of the world, but the latest model Goldwing doesn’t make it up the Klondike Highway much. It wasn’t long before there was a small crowd around the ‘wing and Paul was holding court over a small coterie of rapt, hard-looking bike aficionados. One asked if we were going up the Dempster, which is the dirt “highway” that leads up past the Arctic Circle to the Arctic Ocean. Paul assured him that, no, were were just going over the Top of the World Highway to Fairbanks. “Oh good,” he said, “if you were going up the Dempster I’d have to wrestle you to the ground.” I understood what he meant, really, but I couldn’t help but hear it with odd sexual overtones. An unsettling vision of some random biker guy humping Paul’s leg lingering in my mind’s eye, we moved away down the street.
After wandering a bit, we both independently realized that we really just wanted to go for a ride. So we hopped on the bikes and rode about a half hour south to the start of the Dempster, just to check it out. Unsurprisingly, it was just another dirt road heading off into the distance, and we turned around and cruised back into town. We both felt a bit liberated just driving for fun, rather than trying to get to a destination. It would’ve been a relaxing ride for me if I hadn’t been totally unable to stop myself from scanning the side of the road for my damn wallet. No luck. On the other hand, I did spot more mooses! This time it was a Mama Moose and a Baby Moose. And apparently Deadbeat Dad Moose was busy elsewhere. I had Paul circle back around so he could see the moosies, but he didn’t understand what was going on and began to scan the horizon for possible locations from his parent’s painting. The meese took the opportunity and slid back into the forest. Paul was, again, unsuccessful, but I scored yet another picture of the Eloosive Moose.
We got back just in time to check in to the Downtown Hotel for the night, and we checked in with enthusiasm! Shower. Tooth brush. Some down time in a quiet warm room. We felt almost human again.
After a bit of recuperation, we wandered out for dinner. But first, beer! Back to the home of the Sourtoe, where it was quieter because it wasn’t yet “Toe Time”. This time, though, the quiet was an unfortunate thing. You see, the Klondike’s Worst Singer had taken up residence and, sadly, we could hear him over the din of the crowd. It was…so bad. Soooo bad. I kind of wish I had a recording of him, but I love you all too much to subject you to that. Here’s a picture.
After suffering through good beer and bad singing, we wandered down the road to the local (ahem) “alternative” bar. Fair to say that not an eyebrow was raised when we walked in together. The beer was good and the drinks looked…interesting(?), but the major benefit was the conversation we had with Tim, a local from North Pole that was in Dawson on vacation. He warned that Fairbanks sucks (correct!), he recommended the Totem Inn outside of Denali (great call!) and insisted that we go to Homer before we leave (now in the itinerary). His passion convinced us on all points, frankly. So far so good.
After drinks, dinner at the local greek place. They do pizza, for some reason, which was great. We also had a very good greek salad. Still a bit tired from the night in the Hostel At The End Of The World, we went back to our civilized room and sacked out.
So this day was one hell of a mixed bag. Mostly good weather, until it wasn’t. Mostly good road, until it wasn’t. Mostly good luck, until it wasn’t.
Paul got up and washed his bike. I took the time to go to hike a local trail that had been recommended. It was nice, and it got my legs stretched out a bit.
Paul came back and we got on the road at about…10am. The first signs of trouble came as I was waiting for Paul to get rolling. My boot slipped in the gravel and the bike started to go over. I fought it a bit but finally gave in and rolled off as it hit the dirt. No damage, as the engine guards and hard cases did their jobs admirably, but damn was it hard to get back upright. I wrenched my back just a tad, but nothing more than a bit of tenderness really. Too bad the hot spring was yesterday…
Prior to leaving I had looked at room availability in Dawson City and come up empty. This was a bit concerning, since there’s no other options up there and you’re hours away from anyplace. I called Melissa and she was kind enough to poke around for me while we finished up packing and gassing up. I also reached out to Kim (who knew that we weren’t fully equipped for camping), and she volunteered to share a campsite and trade my one-man tent for her three-man for the night if need be. Not ideal, but nice to know that we’d at least have some sort of option for the night in an emergency. Just as we were done gassing up, though, Mel called to report that she’d booked us a room on AirBnB. Sweet! We were off and running, secure in our lodging situation.
We hit the road to Dawson, which is called the Klondike Highway and is in surprisingly great shape. The only thing that really differentiated it from a country road in rural California is the fact that you can drive 100 or more miles between villages/services. We made two stops for gas along the way, and generally took it easy and enjoyed the scenery. Traffic was fairly light, although there were more cars than I expected on a road that goes more or less nowhere. After the second gas stop we started driving though long sections of gravel, which wasn’t ideal, but also wasn’t much of an issue for me (or even for Paul on his ‘wing).
At about this time we passed through a zone of cell coverage and got the news that the B&B had declined the reservation and that there were no rooms available anywhere in Dawson. Awesome. Melissa continued to work from her end, and we kept going to Dawson because we could see the rain clouds forming up ahead.
But then…Moose Attack! Well, actually it was browsing the growth at the edge of the forest on the side of the road. We stopped and took a picture, high-fiving each other for finally sneaking up on an unsuspecting moose.
It started to rain just outside of Dawson, followed by strong winds. We rolled into the City in pretty heavy rain and Mel called to say that she’d got us a room at the Dawson City River Hostel, but we needed to get there ASAP. So we kept rolling through town to the (free, 24 hour) ferry at the end of the main street. A few minutes later our bikes were tucked in to an unused area on the car ferry and we were cruising across to the far side of the Klondike. Off the ferry and the hostel was right in front of us.
We were greeted by the weirdest conglomeration of signs, art, detritus, and hand-built shacks/sheds/lean-to’s and other structures, all of which together formed the hostel grounds. Tired, wet, and dirty, we eventually found the office and made our way in to meet the owner, a German ex-pat named Dieter. Damn was he weird. And then the bottom fell out…
I reached in my pocket to get my wallet to pay for the room. No wallet. I’ll spare the details, but I looked everywhere. It was nowhere to be found. Contrary to common sense and my normal traveling practice, I had everything in one place. Driver’s license, credit card, debit card, cash and passport card. Save the lectures. I know why this was insanely stupid, and I know not to do it. I’ll blame a bit of road fatigue and complacency which had led me to consolidate things into their normal places of the last few days, rather than keep them separated out like they had initially been. As best I can tell, this whole thing happened at the second gas stop. I went to stick my wallet back into a chest pocket on my jacket and missed. Because I’m wearing an airbag vest over the jacket I can’t see that pocket and I just assumed that the wallet went in properly. Again: road fatigue. I suspect that the wallet slid down and sat in my lap while I rode, likely falling unnoticed to the ground when I stood up on the pegs while driving through a gravel stretch. Once on the ground it would be virtually unnoticeable (except maybe as trash). Between the rain and other vehicles, I have no doubt it would be lost forever almost immediately. I reported the loss to the RCMP the next morning (Sunday) and called the local service stations to leave my name and phone number in case it’s turned in. I suspect that it will soon be encased in new asphalt and some archeologist for whatever species supplants humans will discover it a million years from now. Paul loaned me some cash from his stash and will cover my gas until I can make it to a Wells Fargo in Fairbanks on Tuesday. Proving once again that a good riding partner is invaluable. I should note that I had my passport in my saddlebags, so I’m still mobile and have ID.
While it’s certainly not the end of the world and is, at most, a bit of an inconvenience, that was a pretty major blow. I gotta say I felt embarrassed and angry in pretty overwhelming waves, but I calmed down a bit as we unloaded the bikes. So the next blow was the cabin. “It didn’t have rodents” is probably the best thing I can say about it. No power, no heat, bunk beds and a gappy wood floor. It was like walking into the camp cabins in Friday the 13th, just before Jason Voorhees discovers his true love for stabbing the daylights out of his fellow campers. It was time to find the outhouse, with a serious case of Bladder Urgency clamoring for my attention. I half-ran, half-peepee-danced through the maze of buildings looking for the camp bathroom. No luck. I ducked behind a convenient tree and soothed my angry bladder right there for all to see. About 10 minutes later, Paul told me that he’d done the exact same thing. Dieter needs to up his signage game, apparently.
About this time, as the rain continued to fall, Kim texted to find out if we’d had any luck. I let her know about the hostel and she headed our way, since the campsite was soggy and gross. By the time she got checked in and her dog settled in her cabin, I had calmed myself down a bit and we were ready to head back across the river to Dawson. The rain abated and a pleasant (but weirdly bright) evening set in.
We walked back to the ferry and into town. First stop was the Jack London Saloon, reknowned for its Sourtoe Cocktail. (Note that “sourdough” is local term for a person that lives above the Arctic Circle year ‘round, so the name of the drink is a play on that.) The Sourtoe is not for the faint of stomach or clear of thinking. It’s just a shot of booze with a mummified human toe in it, and it makes the saloon a shit-ton of money. We, like everyone else in the bar, decided that it was just an opportunity for a story that was unlikely to ever come up again. So at 9 o’clock we lined up with about 100 other people and waited our turn for the ‘toe. I went first, then Paul, then Kim. All were successful, if that’s the right word for this particular endeavor. I will say that my mustache acted like a hair force-field, protecting my sensitive skin from the monstrous cargo in my glass. We each got a certificate and our names entered in the Book of the Toe (seriously). When I say it’s a Thing To Do, I mean it. I am person number 90,305 to take part in this stupidity, according to their Book. Would I do it again? Probably not. Am I glad I did it? You bet.
From there we went to Diamond Gertie’s Saloon and Casino. Paul was insistent on seeing the can-can show, and I must admit that it was pretty spectacular. We got a late dinner, which was tasty, and Paul gambled a bit. By then it was midnight, and well past time to call it a night. So we walked home in the midnight twilight, but on our cold weather layer, slid into sleeping bags and crashed out.