My apologies for having taken the longest pause between updates. Between lack of sleep, brake issues with the bike and a new friend here in Prince George who has helped me out tremendously, there's been little time to even think about what to write.
Back several days ago ...
Despite having gone to bed at around 1:30AM after having been in the hot springs too long, I woke up around 6:30AM feeling too tired. After trying to go to sleep for what seemed like a very long time, I misread my watch and decided to get up. I thought it was 8:30, but it was in fact 7:30. When he heard me milling about quietly, Dani got up as well.
Coffee and breakfast were in order so we headed downstairs to the restaurant. Because of his funding issues, I offered to treat breakfast, which turned out to be the most expensive bloody breakfast of the trip. The prices at this lodge were simply outrageous but, not thinking, I didn't discover that until the bill came. Oh well.
As I had mentioned, Dani had been on the road for two years. He would ride a while and then get odd jobs while camping and living as inexpensively as he could. Once he was able to save enough money for the next leg of his journey, he would ride on never really knowing where he was going or where he would end up next. He was a bit older than I had expected, being almost 32. He had worked in Italy for 10 years, I believe for a hotel. He had hated the job and had prepared for his trip for over two years.
I had been wondering how he was able to do all this since he was travelling on such a shoestring budget.
I asked about insurance, "How do you afford health insurance? If something were to happen to you on the road it could get to be very expensive very quickly."
"I'm Italian. We have free health insurance.", he replied. He went on to talk about a friend of his who was riding an older Gold Wing up the Dalton Highway when he had a nasty fall which turned into a bad accident. He had shattered two vertebrate and needed to be medivaced down to Anchorage. "The helicopter bill alone was $55,000 and he didn't have any insurance.", Dani explained. "Then he had to have multiple surgeries. I think the whole bill was more than $250,000 just for the surgeries. And they charged him $2,000 to move his bike down. He's screwed.". We went on to discuss health care and insurance in the United States. "It's not fair!", he went on. "It's human to make mistakes. To have accidents. Here you cannot have an accident, you cannot make a mistake. One mistake and your life can be over. My friend will never earn enough money to pay those bills even if he works his entire life.", he complained. "It's no way to live like that, always afraid of an accident or mistake. After what I saw happen to my friend, I got travellers insurance just in case. When my girlfriend and I got to the States she needed a blood test. Just a blood test to see if she had an infection. They wouldn't listen and put her in the emergency room. $2000 they charged us." He went on to explain after that incident his girlfriend no longer wanted to come to the States. "You could not pay me enough to live here. Even $50,000 a month I would not live here.", he said.
"What about retirement? Aren't you concerned about that if you spend all these years riding a motorcycle not really saving any money?", I asked thinking through more scenarios. "That's taken care of too. I get a retirement from Italy. I have to work 40 years or I have to reach the age of 65 and I get a retirement.", he replied.
I started to think through what effects not having to worry about retirement or health insurance would have on a life as we commented, "Of course, we don't have the same opportunities. It's very difficult to become rich in Italy."
Not having to worry about retirement, about your increased expenses in the future would have a huge impact on what you thought you could do with your life. I have read articles that claim we need about $6M in investments by the time my generation reaches retirement age to maintain the same middle class standard of living.
I hardly know anyone who is on track to amass that kind of fortune in the next 25 years. I certainly am not and my financial adviser tells me I'm doing much better than average. I have no debt other than a mortage. The house, boat, car and motorcycles are all paid for. I never hold a balance on a credit card. And I have about two years worth living expenses saved. But even so, at this rate I won't ever be able to retire.
Dani said, "Trips like this are no big deal. I've met people who have been out here for 5, 10 and even 20 years.". "Nomads.", one friend would say later.
"For Americans, the fact that I'm off for only 60 days is something only very very few people ever get to do in a lifetime. The average American takes less than two weeks of vacation per year.", I explained. "You need at least a month a year for sanity.", he replied.
I suspect this is why you see so many vacationing Europeans all over the place. Unfettered by health insurance and the pressing need to amass a fortune, they are freer to live lives like the one Dani is living. If I understood what he was explaining, the likelihood that he'll be homeless later in the life is somewhat limited. Contrast that to the US, where the leading cause of bankruptcy, and I suspect a contributor to homelessness, is serious illness.
We finished breakfast and started the morning ritual of gathering our gear, packing it just so and carrying it down to the bikes. While we were doing this, I noticed another adventure bike with stickers on it from all over the world. "Another real adventure rider.", I thought. There were stickers from all over the world plastered all over his cases. Shortly thereafter, he walked out of the cafe and we chatted briefly.
I asked him if he had gone up to Deadhorse. "Yea, just coming back down.", he said in a thick Irish accent. "How did you go up?", I asked. "I didn't. I came across from Magadan in Russia.", he explained. His name was Oisin Hughes and he was on the last leg of a Round the World Tour. He gave me his card and suggested I read the free ebook he wrote about his last trip which I promised I would link to although I haven't had a chance to read it yet.
"That guy came through Siberia.", I said to Dani enthusiastically. Unimpressed, Dani replied, "Russa is just a 15km ride. I've met countless guys like that." I thought about my little Sunday Drive which, as I spend more time out here, seems less and less noteworthy until Dani comments. "It's about the story.".
It took a little time to get a photo of Oisin and his bike. Dani, frying in his suit, took off down the road. I followed shortly afterwards and caugh up with him.
Dani was in the lead riding in his Italian style, but less so today. We rarely stopped. I was dead tired, having not had nearly enough sleep.
At one point we saw a bunch of mountain sheep, or are they goats, licking the calcium chloride on the side of the road. As cars passed they would pretend to scatter but then immediately turn around to continue their salt feast. I had been warned that they did this. Silly acting creatures.
The mosquitoes, biting flies and other bugs were just horrific this day. We would ride for 30 miles at which time we would have to stop to clear our shields. This too became it's own ritual.
We came upon Muncho Lake, on which the Northern Rockies Lodge that I stayed at was situated. We stopped at a nice view where Dani wanted to take some photos for his videos. I walked down to the clear green and blue water and Dani snapped a photo.
This was a truly beautiful lake even the second time around.
But as we travelled down the Alcan I realized I became more aware that I've become used to this land. It no longer seems strange or new. The novelty has slowly started to wear off. The beauty hasn't. Not wanting to slow Dani down since he needed to make Edmonton to meet a friend combined with having seen it all, I didn't take many shots. There was much beauty as there has been the whole way up, but if you want to see what it looked like just look at the posts about the way up.
We arrived in Fort Nelson. At one of our stops to clear our shields, I mentioned to Dani that I was going to stay in Fort Nelson. I was just too tired to do any serious riding. I needed a good nights sleep.
We stopped at a gas station where Dani filled up. I waited so I could say good bye to him. While I waited I inspected the front brakes on my bike more closely. They had been making some very disturbing sounds on the way down and they had grabbed surprisingly as I went to stop in the parking lot.
"Oh shit.", I thought. The entire pad material of the brake pads had worn away and I was running metal on metal which had scored my very expensive rotors badly. "Well, I'm not going anywhere until I can fix this. No problem.", I thought with the calm that has been typical of this trip. "I'll just have parts fedex'd. I'll stay here one more day. I'll fix them tomorrow or the next day and I'll still be able to meet Robyn as planned.", I thought. Robyn was the self-described advocate for environmental capitalism I had met in Prince George on my way up. It was a completely improbable meeting. She and I had had a wonderful time talking at a bar one night and I had promised I would meet up with her for espresso and wine on my way back down. I do try to keep my promises.
Dani and I said our goodbyes and off he went. I went off in search of a hotel with WIFI. Fort Nelson strikes me as a trucking town. There isn't much there. There are a few motels. I checked the first inexpensive looking one. No WIFI. The second one had WIFI but it was down. The clerk there had run into some problem with her computer while she was trying to diagnose the wifi connection. I helped her get her computer back up and running and went on to a third hotel. They didn't have WIFI either but pointed me to the Fort Nelson hotel which was older but quite nice, well at least in comparison to the kinds of places I had gotten used to.
I got into my room, got online and immediately started calling BMW dealers in British Columbia. My thought was fedex'ing something from the East Coast might be very expensive so getting something in-country would be better.
I finally found a dealer that had the pads in stock. Pacifc Yamaha BMW. The woman in parts, Anaz I think her name was, despite being at the counter alone really took care of me. I ordered the parts and she would ship them overnight via the express company they used. Fedex was not an option.
Some time later I got a call back. At this time it was after close on Wednesday. "The fastest I can get them to Fort Nelson would be Tuesday, at the easiest.".
At that very moment, the calm I had was gone. My Schedule was in jeopardy. "Shit! I'm supposed to meet Robyn on Friday?", I thought. As I considered Tuesday at the earliest and all the other issues I would have I became less and less calm. "Shit. How am I going to find a place to do the work? How will I wash the bike?" The stress mounted.
I hate letting people down to an almost pathological degree. Once I say I'm going to do something and something gets in the way of me making that happens, I'll damn near panic. It's completely irrational and is tied in with the Nightmare and the psychology resulting from it.
In the YML.COM forum Lance suggested that the calcium chloride muck had probably prevented the pads from moving causing them to wear prematurely. That makes sense.
On facebook, a couple of friends pointed out that when pads are worn down this far, it's possible for the brake pistons to push out far enough to cause fluid to leak by the seals Ruining Your Whole Day. Of course, this would most likely occur during a panic stop.
I paused. I considered spending five days in Fort Nelson waiting for parts. I considered the money it would cost to stay at a hotel there.
I called the shipping company to see if maybe they could ship to some nearby town more quickly. No luck. The northernmost point they could ship to overnight was Prince George, which was 500 miles away.
"Too far.", I thought as I realized trying to make time down to Prince George with dysfunctional brakes would be a crazy risk.
I felt defeated.
Then in a moment of clarity I remembered being stuck with a disfunctional clutch lever on Atigen Pass on the Dalton Highway. At that moment I felt none of the stress I was feeling now. All these other thoughts were crowding in preventing me from thinking more clearly.
What was different now?
I wanted to see Robyn. She owed me a glass of wine after all.
I wanted to meet Phil and Geo.
I had made commitments. People had made plans and changed schedules. Phil and Geo changed plans entirely. Just for me.
What was different at this moment was that other people were involved. Their lives affected by what I was able to accomplish or not accomplish. Stress.
I feared letting them down. I feared that sick to my stomach guilt when others have gone out of their way for me and I have to change plans. "I feel that way about not swinging back around to see Ian. I had said I would, but I spent too much time in Fairbanks and Valdez. I really wanted to see Ian and Tanya again.", I thought.
Can I let that fear go? Can I accept that maybe I will have to let them down?
"Maybe I could ride down to Prince George.", I considered. "The front brakes sort of work; they can stop the bike if I really need them to. The rear brake works but not well. Engine braking works. The road is sparsely travelled. I haven't had to do a single serious panic stop in the entire trip."
If I let go that /need/ to get down there. If I make a calm and measured attempt, without stress, without obligation, without the need to get there. I may have to decide it's too dangerous. I may have to stop at any moment. I may have no choice but to let them all down. If I can accept that with the same calm I had on the Dalton Highway, then maybe I can make the trip down, evaluating at each moment how dangerous it is.
"I'll go, but I'll go slowly and if I feel the risk is to great I'll just stop, even if it's on the side of the road.", I thought. "To accomplish a difficult task you have to decide what you are going to risk. I won't risk my life, but I will risk my commitments."
And I decided to do it slowly. Instead of trying to do the entire 500 mile run to Prince George in one day I would break it up into two days. I'll ride to Dawson Creek and then onto Prince George the next day. I reasoned that once I reached Dawson Creek I could evaluate the days ride and would then decide if I would continue on.
Feeling resolved and once again having that calm that I have grown to like Out Here, I walked over to the pub next door to the Fort Nelson Hotel and grabbed a bite to eat. There were truckers there and they matched the stereotype I had in my mind as to how truckers would behave. This was a serious contrast to James, the bear of a man I had met in Camp Coldfoot. One trucker leaned over and said, "I have a joke for you. Did you know that Kodak has invented a camera that can capture the millisecond when a woman has actually shut up?".
"And, if you had half a brain, you'd wonder why you're sitting here in this bar by yourself, asshole.", I thought as I considered the women whose stories I love to listen to. I didn't respond to him though. There was just no point.
First thing Thursday morning, I called the motel I had stayed at in Prince George to see if they could accept a package for me. I made a reservation and then called the motorcycle shop and asked them to overnight the brake pads to the motel.
I checked out, grabbed a quick bite to eat which, of course, was another omelette, packed up the bike and headed off tentatively. As I headed down the service road to the Alcan Highway, I tested the rear brake. It wasn't working very well. I practiced engine braking. I tried an aggressive engine brake downshifting through the gears to first. That worked reasonably well. "As long as nothing runs directly in front of me.", I thought.
I headed down the Alcan Highway and it was largely ok. There are wide margins on each side of the highway for most of it so you can see when a large critter is running out onto the road well in advance. Traffic was very light. Where there was traffic I opted to pass it. Cars and trucks have a nasty habit of randomly stepping on the brakes. When you have brakes that work well, this is not a problem. But in this situation, I didn't want anything in front of me.
Of course it started to rain heavily.
I rode on through the rain having to stop only to put the tank bag rain cover on. It had gotten quite cold so I decided not to make the mistake I had made on the Dalton Highway on the way to Deadhorse. I braved the cold and seriously wet for a few moments while I fumbled to put on the electric vest, trying to rush it. "To go fast you have to go slow.", Ryan, who races, would always say.
I let the rain come down and calmly put on the now somewhat wet electric vest and put my jacket over it. I plugged it in and flipped the switch.
"Ahhh. Warmth is good.".
I continued on through a whole tank of gas. I didn't stop to take any photos. I didn't want the distraction. I was making good time but aside from having to do two quick engine braking maneuvers when vehicles in front of me decided to randomly slow down to 30mph, the ride was entirely uneventful. As a matter of fact it was easy. The whole way I was honestly prepared to stop at any moment and give it all up.
Eventually, I needed to stop for gas.
I stopped at a lodge. They had coffee and some benches outside. A group of motorcyclists were there. Six or so in total. They were travelling up to Alaska. I paid for gas, grabbed a cup of coffee and stood outside chatting with them. They were older, I would guess in their mid to late 60's. They, of course, asked where I was coming from and I said "Deadhorse". One was going to try to head up to Deadhorse so they called over to him, "Hey, this guy just came down from there.". They asked me what the ride was like and I said it was a cakewalk.
This older gentleman was riding an R1200GS, an adventure style bike well suited for that road. He had tried to ride up to Deadhorse a few years earlier and said it was too sketchy so he turned around. He thought the road was terrible.
I asked him a few questions about the conditions and they seemed to match what I had ridden through. "It was just too sketchy. I couldn't maintain any kind of speed through the muck.", he said. That seemed telling to me. So I asked some more questions and he replied, "A buddy of mine was waiting for me. He didn't want to ride it so I thought I could just ride up quickly, do it, and ride back down. I had a schedule to keep.".
"So while you were riding you were always worrying about how much time was passing? Feeling stressed that you needed to make it in a certain period of time?", I asked. "Yea, if I kept going that slowly it would have taken 12 hours just to get up there. I just didn't have that kind of time.", he replied.
"Yea, that'll make it difficult. It's not the road that's difficult. It's the way you're riding it. The Dalton Highway is a road that needs it's own time. If you approach it thinking you have to do it in a certain time and have no room for errors, it will stress and distract you from the task at hand. If, however, you give the road all the time it needs, being willing at any moment to go slowly or even calmly stop, then the road becomes very easy and more fun. When you reach the 25mph sections, you do 25mph. When you have to stop to scrape off the hardened muck from your bike you just do it.", I explained.
"But what if I don't have the time?, he asked. "Then just don't ride the road", I replied.
He thanked me and decided to change his schedule up and back. He was going to do it in the four stages that I had done.
Lance always says "You have to give problems their own time. You can't force them. They take as long to solve as they take." The same applies to doing anything difficult. The trick is finding that balance between giving a problem it's time and letting it drag on far too long. When you are calm, that balance is much easier to find.
But it's more than just time. They take a clear mind. Adding extra layers of stress in addition to the problem you are trying to solve diverts your attention and energy from the task at hand and makes you more likely to make a mistake.
I thought for a long time about how I've been working these last several years. There have been so many distractions. There has been so much at stake. The Nightmare was made much worse by the feelings of obligation, duty and so badly not wanting to let important people down. All these distractions added up to create a buzz of stress in my mind which I could feel down as low as my chest.
I didn't have the calm in those times that I had now as I rode down the Alcan without well functioning brakes.
And then it hit me. The reason the Dalton Highway and now this Alcan trip were so easy was not that I didn't fear failure.
It was that I was willing to fail at any moment, when it made sense to.
I rolled into Dawson Creek early, around 5pm and checked into a hotel. I laid down for what I thought was a second only to realize two hours had passed.
I got dinner at a surprisingly nice steak house. After that I went back to the hotel and once again laid down on the bed still in my boots. I woke up after 3AM feet and hands swollen. I hate when that happens. Fall asleep wrong and my hands swell up around my ring making it impossible to take off. My feet had swollen in my boots. Painful.
I managed to pull all that off and went back to sleep for a few hours. It got up the next morning and repeated the process I had performed the previous day. Omelette. Pack the bike. Head on down the road.
The sun was shining. It was perfect weather. I was tired and had way too much coffee. Traffic was sparse. At one point, coming up on a construction site I saw a black bear cub cross the road a couple hundred yards ahead of me. I didn't need to slow down, but I did to tell the stop/slow sign woman that I saw a cub but did not see the mother. She thanked me for that several times.
I rode on, continuing my careful sans brakes riding style. Eventually, the coffee and water I had caught up to me and I need to stop to take a leak. On the far side of a bridge I found a little access path. I parked the bike and walked down the path.
Of course, there were pretty flowers.
The path itself was rideable but challenging. When adventure riders would describe the gravel sections of the Dalton Highway I always imagined it would be a road like this.
Now this stuff will tear up tires.
Deciding, since I was still tired, that I should take a longer break I walked down to the river to take a look. It was simply a beautiful day, of which I have had so many up here in British Columbia.
I eventually went back to the bike and continued to ride on through the rest of my tank of gas and then another. On the second gas stop, only 50 miles outside of Prince George I ran into a guy named Steve who was riding a Harley. We had actually seen each other at a construction stop/slow sign. He was headed somewhere around Prince Rupert. At first he seemed like a "real" Harley guy, whatever that is. But slowly the geek in him came out. I asked him what he did and he replied, "Small engine work and blacksmithing.". "Blacksmithing?", I said quizzicaly. "Yea, I make battle axes and knifes. You know, SCA stuff.", he replied. He had two battle axes with him but he didn't feel like unpacking everything to show them to me, but he did have a knife he had made. It was highly polished, thick and well made.
What I had envisioned as a quick pitstop turned into an extended conversation. We talked for quite a while. He's on facebook and I think mentioned that he had a page where he shows some of his creations. We were both heading towards Prince George so he suggested we ride together. So we did.
I was a little concerned about the traffic into Prince George. It was much heavier than it had been anywhere else on the Alcan. Some of the stop lights were a bit challenging to stop for. Steve rode on to his destination and I followed the GPS's instructions to the Downtown Motel. I got there around 6. The parts were there and they were the right ones.
I txt'd Robyn to let her know I had arrived. We agreed to meet at the restaurant where we first me at 8. It was around the corner from the motel so I could walk. She had a few things to take care of. I needed to remind myself to ask her if there was any place in town she could think of where I might be able to wash my bike and work on it. That would be the first thing I would have to do the next day. I figured I could wash the bike, get the pads replaced and be on my way by the early afternoon.
As I write this I am still in Prince George, BC and it's now Monday morning. I am now about to hit the road once again.