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2010 Deadhorse Alaska Trip

'Tuesday June 1st, 2010 10:00'
This ride is over.

I feel uninspired today. The words refuse to come to me. Doors that were open now seem shut or maybe it's simply that I've learned what I've needed to. I'm not yet sure. This feeling different continues.

The days have largely been quiet. Phil and Valerie go to work and I hang out at the house either working on the computer or trying to write. Each night Valerie, who used to be a bartender, makes drinks or pours wine while Phil cooks dinner. Phil goes to bed early and Valerie and I stay up late chatting, usually by the flickering lights of an array of candles and lanterns.

"You know how you describe Phil walking into a room, surveying and picking a target? Yea, that's how I am with shoes. I walk in, scan, select a target and go.", she explained laughing. "Silly, I know.", she said as we both laughed. Valerie wears heels, even around the house. Very tall heels. We talked about shoes and back problems for a while, but I don't think she's going to give up the heels any time soon.

Not only have I not gotten the feeling that they want me to leave, they are making me feel like they want me to stay longer. "Now I've got a drinking buddy!", Valerie says to Phil, who doesn't drink. Tentatively, the plan is for me to stay here until Sunday. We might go sailing tomorrow or Saturday. I think Phil has secured access to a 40+ft sailboat and has picked a route. I haven't been on a sailboat in years and am really looking forward to spending some time with him on the water. Valerie and possibly a friend of hers will join us. It should be a good time.

Phil is already talking about doing a hard trip up to North Eastern Canada, the "Labrador Trip", that he wants me to join him on. I'm not sure whether or not I'll join him, but he's pretty insistent. There's a big difference in our styles across the board. My wants, when I'm even aware of them are muted and held onto lightly. I am very quick to compromise for the common good. His, in contrast, are pursued forcefully and he rarely gives them up. It's an interesting dynamic. "I'm concerned that you're too passive.", he has said a few times. This forcefulness is part of the culture up here. What I initially mistook for disapproval, this "ball busting", is more jovial in nature and an attempt to find peoples limits. "I know other guys for whom it's about confidence and is alot more serious. They'll push and push to see if you'll stand your ground. They'll tell you something false just to see if you'll call them out on it. And you have to push back but do it very carefully or there's consequences.", Phil would explain sensing that I don't yet understand how things work. He's very perceptive.

The projection of unwavering confidence is also part of the cultural identity up here. It can at first be misunderstood as a lack of compassion, anger or disapproval, but is to some degree just a front.

As I've spent more time around these people and gotten to know a wider circle I've come to understand I'm once again in a very different world, one, like the truckers in Alaska, I've never had any exposure to before.

The closest thing I can think of that might give a vague sense of what people around here are like would be the HBO series, the Sopranos. Actually, I think they mentioned at least one episode was shot around here somewhere. There are stories, endless stories of people with nicknames. Red Dog, the Harley Rider who is on his way back from Sturgis. Johnny Sprockets who is always willing to turn wrenches to help a rider in need. Rocko, Vinni and other names are thrown around, no one understanding how foreign all this sounds to me. There are stories of fights, tragedy, people rotting in jail and of every strata of society. In the company of these people one feels only one degree separated from CEO's of major corporations and also almost uncomfortably close to a side of life one might like to keep some distance from. "And they were staking out the funeral tryin' to take pictures ...", Valerie would explain. Phil, having to deal with every strata in his work, is an endless source of psychological insights to what drives people.

The stories are all externally focused. They are about anecdotes, events, facts and opinions. When feelings are discussed they are also approached from an external point of view. "Yea, he has it hard.", might be a comment one would make. Internal feelings are not discussed openly. Darkness, sadness, guilt, pain and self doubt seem taboo here. Only ever so rarely is there any sense of introspection. Most stories are presented with a great deal of Northeastern humor, even the tragic ones. Phil had been in business for himself in the marine industry when a series of three simultaneous disasters forced him out of business right before being able to cash out. "I can laugh about it now, but I was cryin' about it then.", he explained completely lacking any of the darkness I have.

As has been a theme for me on this trip, I'm amazed that these people have accepted me into their lives. I am surrounded by people here who are so fundamentally different from myself that it's surprising there's any common ground for conversation, but there is.

I've come to understand that this is all largely because of Phil. He decided I was alright and pulled favors to get me the help I needed to fix the bike. He "vouched" for me so his friends accepted me. "You know, I had to pull favors to get you this help. If it went badly, it would reflect badly on me.", he explained to me afterwards.

My hope is that I reflected well on him.

There are, of course, lots of stories of sailboat racing and the maritime industry. Phil showed me a poster from one of his races. He's the guy at the highest point in this photo.


These top class racing vessels are made as lightly as possible with the assumption that they will be sailed by the best of the best. They push the envelope of sailboat engineering and sometimes Bad Things Happen. Phil is also on the boat in this photo where things went Badly.


I guess you don't know how light you can make a boat until you break one.

Phil has worked on tugboats. One that he piloted had been built in 1929 and the processes they had to go through to run that boat were simply nuts. He would talk about delivering fuel in 30ft seas or pushing pitching container ships. He told a story where a sailboat he was piloting got flipped over.

Years ago I used to do contract software development. As a professional courtesy never to leave a customer hanging, if I build something and they are willing to pay my rate I will drop what I'm doing and help out when issues arise. There are systems out there I built 12 years ago that I still maintain from time to time. On tuesday I got a call from my very first contracting customer. A third party she had to deal with had some issues. Luckily I was in a position with a laptop and good WIFI access so I could help her out and save the day. It's the first time I've made any money for the company since I've been on this trip.

Phil had conferred with Charlie and set up a time on Wednesday for me to go over there to install the new exhaust, change the oil and deal with any other issues the bike might have. "Be there at 11. You'll want to motivate at 10.", he said with an unusual sternness. I picked up on the fact that it was Important.

I hate working on a dirty bike so in between setting up SQL databases and futzing with permissions, I went out into the midday heat to wash my bike. Phil had some S100. If you own a motorcycle and do not know about S100 become familiar with it. It's the best way to clean a bike quickly. After two hours of getting the grime off my bike while sweating profusely in the 95degF sun, I once again had a reasonably clean bike.


I guess between working at the computer and having overheated in the hot sun cleaning the bike, I fell asleep in a chair that evening. I woke up around 4AM not knowing where I was, then moved to my room and slept pretty well until 8.

Waking up to an empty house, I got motivated. The stainless steel and aluminum Remus exhaust I ordered had arrived on Tuesday. I came up with a way to attach it to the bike and off I went with just enough time to reach Charlie's.


I arrived at Charlies at 11:02AM. Charlie and another guy were sitting on the front porch waiting for me. I had thought they would be doing something else and that I would just use the space to do this repair. They had other plans.

And I can't believe I did not take a photo of the house and garage from the outside. Charlie built a steel frame house and a 60ft by 60ft by 30ft high garage using steel I-beams. "I know how to weld steel, but what do I know about nails and wood?", he commented.

Charlie opened the garage and I rolled the bike in and onto a huge truck sized car lift. The man that was with Charlie was Johnny Sprockets, a jovial, talkative, extremely helpful and enthusiastic guy.


I don't know which came first, the tattoo's or the nickname. Johnny had been a tank mechanic in the army and loved all kinds of engine powered machines. He had this infectious positive energy about him. "Life is good.", he would say. He talked non-stop and told story after story. They had been working on a Triumph the day before that they got up and running. I never really got whether or not they ever got paid for any of this work they did.

"I just like helping people.", Johnny would say.

The garage was nuts. I've never seen a privately owned garage like this one.


It was huge.


Phil had said the Charlie and Johnny were the two best mechanics in the Northeast. I know good mechanics as well. Lance is amazing. However, Charlie is in a league of his own.

Charlie used to build engines for racebikes. He worked on large ships. He worked on elevators. He welds. He also cast the cylinders and fins that he bolted on to this Honda engine.


He had also created a custom electrical system for this bike. It ran AC current instead of DC.

Charlie is not an arrogant man at all. It takes a while of careful listening to begin to understand the depth of knowledge and experience this guy has. I had not doubted Phil at all, but what I had not expected was how helpful they were. Both Charlie and Johnny dropped what they were doing and helped me work on my bike the entire day.

We pulled off the belly pan and lower bracket to expose where the exhaust bolts to the cylinder head.


NOT GOOD! If you look at the left most tube you'll notice something isn't right. There's a hole without a bolt in it. Actually, what's missing is a stud. A stud is a like a bolt but it's threaded on both ends. See the little hole in the next to the exhaust top in the top center of the photo? What's happened is the stud broke off in the hole so there's no easy way to get it out. This is kind of a nightmare scenario and one that I would not have had any chance whatsoever of resolving on my own in some parking lot somewhere.

The challenge is that a hole needs to be drilled into what remains of the stud up inside the hole. However, you have to be really careful to drill it straight because you don't want to go in at an angle and drill into the sides of the hole. Furthermore you don't want to drill too far up because you could drill into the engine and destroy it. All in all removing broken studs like this is a risky operation.

The mood was a bit dampened. Charlie was concerned that removing this stud could become a major problem.

I found myself once again thinking about focus. It's entirely possible that if this went badly the majority of the engine would need to be dismantled. I felt absolutely no stress.

"We don't want to rush.", Johnny Sprockets said. "Dude, seriously, like a good friend of mine said You have to give a problem it's own time. It'll take however long it takes and we'll do it carefully.", I replied. We were on the same page from there on out.

I tried to, gently, convince the both of them that I could do the work. I felt guilty that they were putting so much effort into this problem of mine. It was not how I had imagined the time going. I figured I would do the work and if I ran into some problem I didn't have the experience to handle I could ask them questions as unintrusively as possible.

But they both pitched in and we worked well as a team.


"You fucking nitwit, make sure you don't drill too deep!", Charlie would bust on Johnny. I had gotten used to the style. It wasn't what I had first thought.

Johnny, strangely, would say he didn't know what he was doing and was just here helping out to learn. He was a very accomplished mechanic and it came through loud and clear. I felt I was in good hands.

We pulled off the exhaust. As I predicted the exhaust came off very easily. It was more damaged than I had thought. Three of the four tubes were broken through. There was no saving this exhaust.


When we pulled the exhaust off one of the other studs came out. The nut had frozen to the stud. This was actually a very good thing as it alllowed us to get a sense of how deep the holes go. Charlie grabbed a special reverse rotation hardened drill bit and put a piece of tape on it to mark how deeply the drill bit could go in safely.

I was going to do the drilling but Johnny wanted to do it. I had to monitor the drilling to make certain it was centered. We didn't want to drill through the stud remnant at an angle.


It worked like a charm. He managed to drill through the stud into the void above but no further. He sprayed penetrating oil called PB Blaster up into the hole and let it soak for a while. "This is the big difference between us and some shop. We can take our time and do it right. In a shop where time is money, they'd try to get it out right away without letting the penetrating oil work it's magic.", Johnny commented. He seemed pleased that I had no sense of rush about me.

The next tool to use was called an "Easy Out". Basically, you just screw it into the hole you drilled in the stud remnant. It's reverse threaded so you turn it to the left, as it grabs deeper and deeper into the hole it forces the remnant to turn in the lefty-loosey direction.

And the stud remnant came out without damaging the threads in the hole. There was this feeling of "Whew!" in the room.


The lower right is the stud remnant. Above that is what a complete stud looks like.

The nuts used on the exhaust studs were one time use only nuts. We also needed a couple of new studs, so off to Maxes BMW we went. I had thought it was close but it took a good 25 minutes or more to get there.


We picked up the parts I needed and then we headed over to a Harley dealer to pick up some filters and plugs for the bikes Charlie and Johnny were working on. On a shelf I saw some S100, so I picked up a bottle. Charlie asked me why I was buying it so I told him I wanted to replace the bottle of Phil's I had used. "You're a good man.", he said. "I try to be. I really try to be.", I replied.

I had suggested that I take them out to lunch. "Somehow to me just saying 'thank you' isn't enough.", I explained. I like to try to do something, some gesture, beyond a thank you to "back up my bullshit" as I like to say. I don't ever want someone who goes out of their way for me to feel that I don't appreciate it deeply.

On the way to a grill where they are regulars, Johnny asked me, "So what are you doing out there?". Having told Charlie my tale of woe in some detail I didn't want to repeat myself in front of him. "I had some bad shit happen and I'm out here getting my head screwed on straight.", I replied.

"You know I never listen to music on the bike and I don't like radios. The whole point to motorcycling is to wash your brain out.", he replied. He would use the analogy a few times. He talked for a while about his relationship to motorcycles.

"Each kind of motorcycle is a key to meeting people. Triumphs are one key. BMW's another."

He and Charlie joked about removing the stud and how engineers make it difficult on mechanics. "Any time you need to use an angle drill there's some engineer that needs a punch in the face.", Charlie would joke.

Johnny went on to talk about how he enjoys helping riders. There had been a group of Hells Angles, HA guys they call them, standing on the side of the road earlier with their "chaindrive pocketbooks" as Charlie would call them. Johnny on his way over stopped to see if they needed a hand. "I just stopped to see if they needed anything. I like helping people. Even those HA guys. You just gotta be careful. I think they were prospecting. So you stop, say 'hey, you alright' and then go on your way.", he explained. The Hell's Angles were mentioned often. I'm not sure what Prospecting is but I guess it's some initiation.

Johnny talked about hubs and wheels and how he saw Charlie as a key figure that drew people to him. One big wheel where each person in it is a spoke. He talked about a guy he knew down in Virginia that he could call if I ever needed a hand down there. "He's another spoke in a big wheel. You know these triumph guys, good pot, no girlfriends, no job so they have bunches of time to run out and help people.", he joked. He had mentioned being single a number of times.

We arrived at the grill. The food was good.


Johnny ordered a drink. "You fucking nitwit! You have a drink and you're worthless.", Charlie would later joke.

We went back to the shop. Charlie has an array of bikes, a Ducati Monster, a Harley and an Aprilla.


We went back to the garage parts in hand. Charlie and I got to work bolting on the new exhaust. It fit perfectly.


We put on the muffler and tightened everything down to spec. All in all it the repair job worked out very well. Actually, it went much much better than I had hoped.


"Damn that's beautiful. You have a beautiful bike. What a nice machine.", Johnny would say multiple times. Even Charlie seemed impressed with my flying brick.


I fired it up. Below three thousand RPMs this exhaust is noticeably louder than the stock exhaust. I have a feeling passengers are going to need to wear earplugs, but I rarely have passengers. Maybe that'll change, however.

I prefer very quiet bikes. I have no need to make my presence known when I arrive. So I'm not sure how I feel about this more aggressive, throatier sound the bike makes. I'm a little self conscious about it, but unfortunately my options are to use this exhaust or get another bike. And I'm not about to get rid of my bike yet. I love it too much.

Strangely, Charlie, Phil and Johnny all refer to my bike as "she". Interesting.

I remembered thinking, if I was with someone who developed cancer and needed an operation that would make them look different would I trade them in because of it?

Hell no.

I let the bike warm up and then did an oil change. The lift was lowered and I took it for a test ride. It was nice to be able to engine brake again. I hadn't realized how much not being able to do that was dampening my enjoyment of the bike. I guess I'll get used to the sound of the exhaust and will just make sure to carry spare earplugs for passengers.

Every Wednesday, bunches of riders gather at Charlie's for an evening of food, drink, turning wrenches and swapping stories. About 10 people showed up. Usually there's more than 20 I was told.

Phil arrived to change the oil on his bike. So up on the lift it went.


Other riders arrived. I have forgotten everyone's name already. One guy rode up on an Aprilla that had over 100k on the clock. Instead of repainting it he covered the bike in Rhino-coat, which is a product used to harden pickup truck beds. It created a nearly indestructible surface.


The evening progressed. More riders showed up. I was distracted by problems with my customer. The third party needed some more work done and I knew she was behind schedule. However, after all the kindness and work they had put in the last thing I wanted to do was to be rude.

At one point Phil walked over and chided, "Man, you gotta put that droid away. These old timers think that's really rude.".

I put the thing away and sat down with the others now very concerned that I had offended them.


I sat and listened to stories of barges, engines, tug boats, sail boat incidents, motorcycle races, parts, machining and all manner of other "guy stuff". More than once Johnny could be heard saying to Charlie, "Man, I didn't know you did that. You're a fucking Einstein." The humor was ever present. There was alot of laughing and busting each other's chops. But there was also this very strong sense of a code of conduct, a set of unspoken rules I had not yet been introduced to. Think Sopranos. There was this feeling that there are just some things you have to know in order to get along with these guys and I often felt out of the loop. I guess it's something you have to grow up with. There was alot of joking, but it was in a style I wasn't comfortable trying to emulate. It's too easy to make a mistake and have it come across wrong. So I withdrew into my introversion and just listened.

Concerned as always how I came across given the generosity I received I checked with Phil. He seemed to think they all liked me. It came time to leave, but Johnny was insistent I watch some race footage of some bikes he had put together. It was pretty cool. I'll have to get the link from Youtube. Before I left he gave me all of his contact info. Phil said, "If they didn't like you they wouldn't have given you the send off they did.".

As we were about to leave, Charlie and Johnny came up smiling to shake my hand and wish me well.

I do hope to see both of them again.

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