The trip started for me in Dawson Creek at Mile Marker 0 of the Alaskan Highway, also known as the Alcan.
I had thought maybe it would start in Colorado, Yellowstone or maybe Vancouver. But that moment where it sinks in, where you have travelled long enough far enough that the road gets inside you, happened as I left Dawson Creek. I could feel it happen. Inner boundaries vanished, walls finally camed down and the road got inside.
I was gone; nol concerns, pain, guilt or holding on to the Nightmare. For an Angelean moment that lasted three and a half days, I rode the Alcan and it was good for me. Very good.
I was, however, frustrated by the fact that I knew that I would never be able to convey the landscape, the endless array of animals or the people to anyone else. "You just have to be here", I thought and was dismayed. I could neither capture it with the camera or even find words to craft a shadow of a hint as to what this road through such a vast wilderness is like.
It is not the best motorcycling road. It's dangerous, but not terribly challenging. It's dangerous because it lulls you into a false sense of security lasting for hours that is suddenly interrupted by a clear and present danger. Oh, you were doing 60 leaned into a corner after a hundred of miles of perfect pavement and were surprised that it turns into gravel and inch thick? Or you're wondering as you're a few inches in the air "was the what they call a frost heave?". It's a road on which you cannot relax.
It is however the most breathtaking, most varied, most engaging, most "oh my god I can't believe that exists" scenery I have seen anywhere. Yellowstone is varied and feels very young. This vastness is different. There's a character to it that's not present elsewhere. Mountains that look polished as if honed. Ledges that are more crumbly dirt and rocks than solid stone. Trees. Trees everywhere. Trees to the horizon and beyond. Green trees all the way up the sides of mountains. Tall trees. Lakes. Hundreds upon hundreds of lakes. Multi-colored. Deep blue. Aquamarine. Turquoise. Areas that I can only describe as paths of former glaciers. You can just see how ice age and ice age impacted this landscape and made it beautiful. Rivers. Strange rushing rivers brown with flowing mud over a sand and pebble plain as if a mountain had disintegrated and was washed out. Intense sunshine. It was warm, but not too warm. The sky is an intense blue, the kind of blue you don't see on the East Coast. Clouds appear in the afternoon and are always varied. And angry. And marhes. Marshes to the horizon.
Animals. Animals everywhere. Big critters. Bear! So many bears that they are common place. "Oh, see, there's another bear. Yawn.". Moose. Carribou. Sheep. Goats. Arctic Fox. Wolverines. Coyote. Critters everywhere. Serengeti of the North I think I've heard it referred as.
And people. It seems every motorcyclist on this road is either going to Prudhoe Bay or coming from it. The feeling is much like at Deal's Gap. Motorcyclists here stick together. "What have you heard about the Dalton" is a common conversation starter. We share stories of what we've heard about that highway. Horror stories and anecdotes. All of us who have not yet done the road wondering just how bad is it going to be. Some who have done the road tell horror stories. "Fuckin' 'orrible!" Others say it was a cakewalk.
And pavement. You become keenly aware of pavement, especially when it's suddenly gone.
So four days ago I set off on the Alcan wondering what I would encounter. Would the road be what they had said? Would it be broken and challenging? Would it be remote? Would I find Away?
I got some gas and set off from Dawson Creek under cloud dotted blue skies.
I had gotten it into my head that Dawson Creek was kind of a farpoint station after which I would encounter the Big Nothing. But it was not so. There are a number of sprawling little towns with car dealerships and the like. As I was riding between these towns I realized that I've ridden nearly 7000 miles now only to rediscover Kansas.
It's flat for a while. I had thought I would need to pay attention to fuel consumption and plan out gas stops carefully as I had been told gas stations close early, but availability of gas turned out to be no problem.
After some more flat, the road descended into a canyon and things started getting interesting.
I forget how far I rode but I decided to take advantage of a gas station that looked unlike any gas station I had ever seen. It was a building in a mud pit with some pumps.
"Now this is more like it", I thought as I pondered whether or not this was just a taste of things to come. The amount of water here did concern me. It had clearly been raining around here quite a bit. Undaunted, I decided to practice handling the bike in the mud and rode through the bumps and puddles. The ground was too soft and crooked to use the center stand so I filled up with the bike on the side stand.
While I was filling up a group of four adventure riders rode up.
It seems to be rider culture up here. You always ask "Where are you headed?", "What are the roads like?", "What have you heard?". We got to talking. They've told me their names like three times but I have forgotten all of them. (If you guys are reading this, please contact me and let me know.) They too were headed to go up the Dalton but were on a might tighter schedule than I was. Good guys. I left before they did but as it turned out we ran into each other again at a restaurant a couple days later.
They had not heard as many of the stories that I had so I shared with them what I had been told. It seems that every person you meet up here has a different idea of how bad the Dalton Highway is going to be. It ranges from "Don't do it. It's 'orrible" to "it's a cakewalk". From what I have gathered, those who say it was horrible are also those that had the tightest schedule. It's 414 miles long. The ones who said it wasn't too bad gave themselves enough time. "Problems take their own time.", Lance has said many times. I've reminded myself of that out here.
This place is green. Very green. Life green.
Riding along the earlier sections of the Alcan you do get a sense that real Wilderness is not far away, even if it's not always apparent from the road. Aircraft on the side of the road might be an indicator.
I had been told so many times how bad the Alcan highway is. I did not find this to be the case. The vast majority of it is like a back country two lane road. The pavement is good.
There are, however, a few stretches where there is a real sense of "nothing".
250km. Yea, I stopped to get gas.
I was trying to make time. I wanted to try to push 500 miles for the day. I ended up doing something like 470. So I didn't stop all that often to snap photos until I happened upon another bear.
He was hanging out on the side of the road. I stopped a good distance away. A tractor trailer passed and the bear took off instantly at full speed. He ran kind of like a greyhound. Rear legs moving well in front of his front legs as he bounded off. He was down in that gulley and on the other side before I could snap a picture. I think he was probably doing better than 30mph. This critter was fast.
He then casually sauntered off into the woods and I continued on my way.
The Alcan does not look at all how I imagined. I had always thought it would be this rough dirty truck laden road. It is, in contrast to that, simply beautiful.
But you can tell that it is a working road and not a park road, despite all the scenic beauty. Tractor trailers are constant and they move through here at a very good clip. The RV's are endlessly going too slowly. The engineers of the Alcan mercifully included many passing lanes, so the RV's and the tractor trailers are not in conflict too often.
Out in the middle of nowhere probably an hour outside of the last gas stop I came across a guy with a broken down pickup truck. I stopped to see if I could lend a hand but he said a tow truck was already on it's way. He also mentioned that a bicyclist had stopped to see if he could help some time ago. "That guy's come all the way up here from Key West Florida and he's heading up to Deadhorse, just like you.", he said. "Ok.", I thought, "this is someone I've got to talk to. Me, hardcore? Hell no. That's hard core.".
I rode on for alot longer than I thought I would before I saw him, a lone bicyclist pedalling up a huge mountain. His Rick Giffin.
And yes, in fact, he had spent the previous 60 days riding his bicycle all the way from Florida and was intent on making it up to Prudhoe Bay. We got to talking and he mentioned he wasn't feeling so well. He asked if I knew where the nearest town might be. Steamboat was on the map and was supposed to be up ahead a few kilometers but my fear was it was a ghosttown. He said he thought he might just be dehydrated but had already gone through all of his water. I had picked up a bottle of water at the gas stop and had also filled up my liter bottle. I gave him both and we got to talking. It was a nice break standing there on the side of the road.
Turns out he was formerly in the Navy "doing difficult things". I wondered if maybe he had been a Seal. As part of his cross country adventure, which can really bad called an adventure, he had been doing the survivorman thing, getting water from streams and purifying it with iodine tablets.
He's doing this in support of the Wounded Warrior Project. He said this would be his last big hurrah to which I replied I thought he'd have a few more in him after this. He laughed. He mentioned that he had wanted to show his kids that their old man still had it in him to do something they couldn't match; "or maybe they will", he mused. He had a pretty versatile tripod so we took some photos of the two of us.
We hung out for a bit and it came time to press on. He said he was feeling much better and wanted to find some more water and a campground. He pedalled on as I put on my gear. By the time I got my earplugs in, helmet, sunglasses and gloves on he was quite a ways up the road and this was on one serious incline. That guy can move on a bicycle! "Hard core", I thought.
I waved as I passed him and headed up the mountain side to the pass.
At the pass, which was only a couple of kilometers up I stopped abruptly when I saw a large black bear. It was rummaging around in the bush and then walked out on the road.
I thought about riding back down and giving Rick my bear spray; but I figured he had already encountered quite a few bear and was probably prepared. So I rode on. I passed Steamboat, which as I feared was a ghosttown.
I rode on for a bit. Road work seems to be a constant on the Alcan. There are sections of gravel. Most of them are marked pretty well. It's the ones that are unmarked that are a problem because often the color of the pavement masks the transition to gravel.
Several miles later on the other side of the pass I noticed a state campground. It seemed strangely out of place in the middle of nowhere. The sign said there was camping there. I thought about how high the pass was and how far the campground was. I looked at my range trying to guess how far back Rick was. I thought I should ride back and tell him about the campground. It was a pretty high climb and then for the most part a nice easy coast down. "well, from the perspective of a motorcycle.", I thought. How far had I ridden? 10 miles maybe? Or was it 20? If it was 20 then riding back to him would add 40 miles which might put me close to not making it to the gas station in 150 miles.
"Fuck it. This is me and I do this kind of thing.", I decided. I have to admit I felt a bit questionable about turning around just to tell him about the campground, but he had been dehydrated and having seen the bear I thought it would be a decent thing to do to let him know. So off I went. It turns out it was 13 miles. He was pushing his bicycle up the hill. I rolled past, turned around and came up beside and told him about the campground and about Steamboat. He mentioned he had found a stream, had gotten some water and was purifying it with iodine tablets. He thanked me and I was off again.
I'm always doing this kind of thing, it seems. I rarely talk about it. I give people rides. I try to help out when I have the opportunity to. When I'm on "vacation" do it much more frequently.
Something Rick said stuck with me. He said he wanted to show his kids that his old man still had it in him.
I thought back to the Nightmare and how I always seem to try to do for others as best as I can no matter what else is going on in my life.
Writing helps. By attempting to describe things I've done in prose it sheds a new light on the stories. I can tell the stories verbally but other than conveying what happened, I don't really gain any new insights from the telling.
However, in putting it down in words without having someone in front of me to see my facial reactions, or lack thereof, puts things in a different context. It raises different questions.
Before the Nightmare Proper began, actually just a couple of weeks before, I was in Germany for my mothers 70th birthday party. My aunt, Lena, had asked if I could talk to her son Ludwig about a crazy plan he had to ride a bicycle across the United States. She was very worred. Actually, she was near panic about it. Life has not been kind of her and if something were to happen to either of her sons it would be devastating.
Ludwig is partially disabled. He had been in a terrible car crash at the age of 25. He's in his 50's now. The crash left him mostly blind. He's been on disability and to make some additional cash he does a paper route using an old German Post bicycle. These things are three speeds and made of steel. Sturdy but extremely heavy.
My aunt had pleaded with me to please try to talk him out of it. She said she had tried but it had turned into such a sore subject that he wouldn't listen. Many people had tried.
I thought about it for a long time. I imagined being disabled but being the kind of person he was. A person doggedly determined not to let it stop him. I imagined what it would be like to say I wanted to do something and everyone telling me that it will fail. That it's not a good idea.
"What would he hear if I told him that this effort of his will fail?", I questioned. "You're disabled", I decided. That's what he would hear. I suspected this entire trip idea of his was about proving he was not disabled. So contrary to what my aunt wished I realized I could not tell him not to do it. I had to carefully not make it about him or his disability.
When the opportunity arose to talk to him about it he said "I want to do something my kids can be proud of". That hit me pretty hard. I talked to him for a while and told him that without the proper preparation that I thought it would be unwise. It's a dangerous country. It's a very big country. Few people who do a trip like this do it alone.
And that's where I left it. When I came home the Nightmare took off in earnest and I was completely overwhelmed by obligations and responsibilities beyond my capability to handle. That was November 2005. I forget exactly when but it must have been June or July of 2006 I get a call from my mother. She's screaming at me that she heard that Ludwig is actually going to go through with the trip.
Now Ludwig has lived his entire life in a small town in Northern Germany. He's an intelligent man who has read an impressive amount. He's curious and interested in the world. But he has not experienced alot of it directly. We all judge descriptions based on our own experience. He would easily do 100 kilometers in Germany so he reasoned he could do that in the States. Of course, Northern Germany is also called the Flatland. He had read about others who had done the trip.
Now one can say that it was an ill-conceived trip and one can be accusational and say he should never have considered a trip of this magnitude. It was, after all, a fools errand. But he had heard nothing but he's disabled for so long, I reasoned this was his way of attempting to prove them wrong.
Life was falling apart around me. We were on the verge of losing the building, a huge part of the Nightmare, due to lack of funds. I was desperately trying to sell a piece of property for my mom to get some funds to keep the building sale afloat. My girlfriend and I had broken up, again. My company had a huge contract that was taking more than full time hours. The alarm at the building was going off regularly requiring me to run down there at all hours of night. My mom would call up late at night, drunk, screaming at me because she was powerless due to the Nightmare and needed to unleash on someone. I was the only one who would listen, so I got the brunt of it. "You're incompetent. I can do this better than you can! I'm going to go down there and do it myself!" kind of thing. The building in question was part of an estate; an estate my attornies described as the most messed up, evil, antagonistic estate they had ever seen. The way my father left things left my mother largely powerless; a fact that had been eating away at her for the last 17 years. Small stresses became huge stresses. She didn't trust men, me included. But the idea of a 70+ year old woman going down into the hood of Oxon Hill by herself to do "something" terrified me. She would sober up and the next day the whole screaming fit would have been forgotten. Of course, I didn't forget. I spent yet another sleepless night worried about downside consequences. My mothers future well being hung in the balance if I didn't make this work somehow. Then there was the trouble with my sister and her husband which was making my life even more difficult.
In the midst of all of this, I get the call. It's Ludwig. He tells me he's going to arrive in something like a week just up the street and was wondering if I could pick him up. He was arriving at Kennedy Airport.
Shit. You know that feeling you get at the top of your stomach when a new surprise stress has been unleashed? That feeling of a knife going through down into your guts as your heart starts to race and your mind realizes the magnitude of the problem.
Blind German Northlander. New York City. Kennedy Airport. No experience. Doesn't speak the language. All alone. No contacts.
He'll stubbornly leave if I don't pick him up.
He's gonna get himself killed if I don't do something.
My mom called shortly afterwards, screaming at me at the top of her lungs as usual. "Don't you dare pick him up! We all told him. He's a grown man. It's his own stupid fault if he gets hurt!".
The grown man argument. It's a topic Duncan and I have discussed at great length. "At some point a person just has to start acting like an adult.", he would say, in reference to people not growing up. I would alway reply "Until you can see, someone can tell you but it won't get through. People learn when they are internally open to it and externally have the opportunity. Both have to line up.". I thought about this. Ludwig was a grown man and responsible for his actions. But he was moving forward on an erroneous assumption. He's an intelligent man, just misguided.
I was also very afraid. Once again I found myself in the situation I have found myself in so often over the last many years. I had all the responsibility to fix an intractable problem but no authority.
The idea of not picking him up never entered my mind. If something happened to him and it was believed that I had the opportunity to affect the outcome, my relationship with my family in Germany, my safe haven, my sanctuary, would be forever changed. I would not be able to look my aunt in the eye again.
I had to do something. But how do I make a blind man see?
So I devised a plan. A plan to make him see. I would pick him up. At least he wouldn't come to an unfortunate end in the city. I had to find a place to put him that was relatively safe and that would highlight as quickly as possible how difficult this trip of his was going to be. I investigated bike routes and found a company that produced them. I had them fedex me some maps of a route that started in upstate New York in the mountains. "Excellent.", I thought. I also got a smart phone with a GPS feature. This way if my plan worked and he gave up after a few days or several, he would have a way of calling me and telling me exactly where he was.
Whenever you are in the too much responsibility too little authority situation, you have to decide what are you going to sacrifice? In this case, I was going to sacrifice time. I was going to give this problem however long it would take. I would take the laptop and stay at a motel somewhere near the route and hope he calls. If need be I'd follow him for days if necessary.
But this took a serious toll on me. I was responsible for the building and the company. I had dealings with lawyers, attornies, brokers and customers. What happens if there's a problem? What happens if I don't succeed? I remembered the sound of desperation and panic in my aunts voice. If something happens to him ...
The day arrived and with maps and cellphone in hand I drove up to Kennedy Airport through some of the worst most epic traffic I have ever seen. I arrived nearly two hours late. He was not yet out of customs. Some problem had occurred and he had been held up and questioned. Looking like a homeless person they rolled him out in a wheelchair. "Shit", I thought. He didn't recognize me at first but then realized it was me. "Where's your bicycle?", I asked. They wheeled him back in and 45 minutes later back out again with pieces of his bike. It had been damaged. One of the tires was flat and they had lost his tire pump. Of course it was a German stemso any pump I had in the car wouldn't work.
"It's really hot out here", he said in the parking lot. "It's only 85F. It gets alot hotter than this". Again, I was very careful never to say anything about his disability or that he couldn't do it. He got his stuff together and we mounted his extremely heavy bike on the bicycle rack I brought and off we went.
As a fortunate accident I took a wrong turn and we drove through the city. I was surprised at the kinds of things he could see clearly and what he could not. It was as if his eyes were permanently at one focus depth. As things passed through that depth he could see them clearly. Street signs. Sidewalks. Buildings. "I wouldn't be allowed to ride there, would I?" he would ask about a tunnel or a bridge or a freeway. "No, not there", I would reply.
We eventually made it onto the highway and I told him that I would be taking him to the Adirondack Mountains where the route starts that I had selected for him. "It's in a state park and there are good bicycling roads there", I said. "We'll be there tomorrow sometime", I carefully stated.
We drove along for hours discussing various aspects of traffic laws in the US. Fortunately, as the sun was going down we happened upon a motorcyclist who was out of gas. I stopped to help the guy but he said he couldn't leave his bike because it would get stolen. He would just have to push it for the mile or two to the next gas station. "Bummer. Sorry i can't help you". Unbeknownst to me, Ludwig understood the conversation.
It got late so we stopped and I got us hotel rooms. He had asked alot of questions but I saw no indication that he was "getting it". I decided to get two rooms. I would let him sit in a room alone and think.
I took him to dinner and showed him the cellphone and the maps and we went over the route I had found. He carefully studied the phone and the GPS feature, looked at the map and asked some more questions.
"Time", I thought. "I just need time. If he goes off on his own he is going to get himself killed.".
We called it a night. I called my mom to let her know what had transpired. She wasn't too unreasonable. Her sister had been calling wondering what was going on and whether I was with Ludwig.
I didn't sleep much. If this didn't work out I would be blamed. I had stepped up and taken responsibility. If it fails, like with so many other things going on, I would be blamed. It had now become My Problem.
Morning came too early and I knocked on Ludwigs room. "How did you sleep?", I asked. "Not at all", he said. We went to breakfast and were talking about routes when out of the blue he said "I've really screwed up, haven't I? This trip of mine is not going to work, is it?"
"No", I replied.
It was the motorcyclist not wanting to leave his bike alone in the dark that hit it home for him. How would he manage since he was alone to park his bike, go into a store and figure out what he needed.
"That's why you don't like to travel alone, isn't it?", he asked.
"What do I do now?"
"Come back with me. Have a vacation and we'll figure out what to do next".
Success. But I was spent. By the time I got to my mom's house where I had decided to drop Ludwig off, since I really had too much work to do, I was spent. It was over 1000 miles of driving, no sleep and too much stress. I passed out.
But it was a success. It's funny to think that it doesn't feel like a success. Whenever I'm confronted with problems like this and I use the tools I have at my disposal, namely my ability to force myself to do anything necessary regardless of how I feel about it personally, I feel badly about it afterwards. It always feels like there should be a way to force a situation; to in some manly fashion use the force of will to solve problems.
But it never seems to be the case in my life. Self sacrifice seems to be the tool I use most often.
My aunt, however, was extremely pleased and continues to thank me for my efforts to this day. Getting through to Ludwig about anything at all is extremely difficult. It can be done, however, it just takes time and sacrifice.
A very similar story would, two years later, play itself out where I once again used the same tools to, at least partially, get through to someone to make them stop; someone who was hell bent on hurting my mom. That was a much bigger part of the Nightmare. How can someone torture a mother who had just lost her daughter? One and a half years it took. But that's a story for another time.
These are the kinds of memories that are invoked from time to time. I considered Rick and his epic journey. He was doing it alone but he was prepared and didn't have vision problems. Ludwig could have made it if he was better prepared, more reasonable and had someone to travel with that could act as a guide.
But even for Rick the trip is not without it's risks. I heard a rumor today that a grizzly went after some bicyclists. After how fast that black bear could run I don't think a bicyclist can out pace a grizzly.
I rode on. Sections of the Alcan reduce to a very small road. In one section it was completely torn up and was just dirt. It wasn't even packed all that well.
There were more critters to be seen. Carribou, for instance.
And mountain sheep.
At one point the road opened up into what I would, unknowingly, describe as a glacial plain. It just looked like this had been carved out by some massive glacier. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and is always the case the photo just doesn't capture even the slightest hint of how spectacular this view is.
Road conditions continued to vary widely. For instance, "Corner. Gravel. Nice.", is what I thought at this particular spot.
Many bridges here are just steel grates. The bike gets squirrelly on it. Sometimes the plates are bent causing them to move as you ride over them. This can be quite disconcerting.
There are these rocky fresh streams that can be seen everywhere. It's as if the route of the stream gets recarved daily. The branches of the stream criss cross haphazardly between mounds of sand and rock. In some places they widen out into vast plains.
As I mentioned, the Alcan makes the impression of a working road. There are endless tractor trailers and other trucks running it's length. I came upon some 4x4 beams, sections of steel, hooks and chains in the middle of the road around a blind corner. "Oh that's not good". I thought about it for all of 5 seconds and got off my bike and started hoofing it to move all the debris off the road. I could just seem some motorcycle coming around that corner and crashing. I didn't want that on my conscience.
The chain was much heavier than it looked. I think I tweaked my back moving it. It's been hurting ever since.
I am always doing things like this. I rarely mention it to anyone though.
Did I mention the lakes? There are incredible number of lakes along the Alcan.
I was starting to get concerned about gas and lodging. It was getting pretty late and I was getting tired when suddenly.
Moose are big.
Up this far north the sun doesn't seem to really set all the way. It just kinds of turns dim. As the sun was turning dim I came upon Muncho Lake.
As with so many other scenes here it was beautiful, and dangerous. Notice the mud in the left lane, how it's wet and slopes down towards the water.
I have two additional days of Alcan photos and stories to share but I don't know if I'll have time. I have reservations in Coldfoot tomorrow and Deadhorse on Saturday. I need to leave early tomorrow and have not yet had dinner.
Based on conversations with countless riders, I've concluded it only really sucks in the rain. Looking at the 10 day forecast however, there doesn't seem to be a clear path of weather in the foreseeable future. The nice lady at the Inn in Deadhorse said that today was the nicest day they've had all summer. Today it didn't rain.
I don't know what I'll encounter on the road up. Maybe it'll be ok. Maybe it'll be a slog. Maybe it'll be misery. I simply don't know.
I'm going to give the problem the time it deserves and take it slowly. If I have WIFI in Coldfoot and/or Deadhorse I'll try to be in touch.
But I am going.
I doubt Ludwig reads this, but his son, who I am much closer do, probably sees them. His wife would translate, I think. I was torn about whether or not to tell that story. I never admitted to anyone what a toll it took on me or let anyone know how much other stuff was going on at the same time.
There are so many other stories to tell ... Duncan knows them all. A few select few know most of them ...