Despite how exhausted I was the day before, I got up early and was fairly well rested. I had learned my lesson. Earplugs. Unfortunately for those in the other rooms, I didn't hear the alarm for some time because the earplugs I use are so good.
I got up, grabbed a shower and put on my gear. I wanted to get to Fairbanks early and grab a motel with WIFI so I could get to writing about this section of the trip. I knew it would take me some time to say everything I wanted to.
I checked out and grabbed breakfast at the breakfast buffet. Breakfast consisted of too many eggs, some bacon and sausages. They did have fresh fruit. I don't want to think about what my blood work will look like after this trip. Chloresterol of 1000, at least.
I sat quietly outside for quite some time. A couple hours I think. It was cool, not cold. There was a slight breeze. There was some commotion inside. I couldn't hear exactly what was going on but a pilot was having some trouble finding a way to approach the camp. I heard rumor of a forest fire not far away.
I pulled my bike around to get gas. Travelling the previous day across all that muck had certainly taken a toll on my bikes good looks. "I'll need to get it power washed before the salt starts corroding everything.", I thought as I surveyed the muck.
I went back to the cafe for another cup of coffee. It didn't feel like time to leave yet.
"I like this place.", I thought as I sipped bad trucker cafe coffee which was served from an endless pot. I could hear something that I thought was coming from inside the cafe, sounds from some kind of nature show.
But somethihng didn't sound right about it. The sound of diesel trucks ceased for a moment and I could tell the sound was coming from distant hills ... I pondered what it could be when I heard that distinctive howl.
A pack of wolves was not far off. I could hear them howling to one another. I have never heard wolves in the wild. My sum total experience with wolves was with one that a friend of Gesa's was keeping as a pet. She had visited Fort Lamers and brought the wolf. She said I was the only man the wolf ever liked. Strange critter.
I tried to get the camera in movie mode to capture the sound but a diesel van rolled up making too much noise. By the time all the senior citizens got out to go to the bathroom and stopped making noise, the wolves had gone quiet.
There's something about wolves, about forest covered trees, about this landscape that invokes the shadow of a memory; a memory I've never had. But there was something strangely familiar about it. It's just a feeling, but it was a very powerful one.
In the parking lot you could see a trucker trying to get his rig started. It sounds like starter motor trouble. Overall it was a quiet morning, with little going on.
I like it here. It's got kind of a spaceport feel to it. People are always travelling through. Some come and go, others just pass through once not to return. There are stories. Reports of goings on. Tales of things that went wrong. People come up and talk to you to tell you what has happened or to ask you about your experiences.
"How's the road", is a frequent question.
I went into the cafe to get yet another cup of coffee. At this point I had had Too Much but kept going.
In the bar, they had a little souvenier stand, but nothing that I really liked. I had wanted a little Camp Coldfoot metal pin to attach to my bike, but they had no such thing. They did have cheesy thermometers listing Coldfoot as the coldest recorded spot in North America or some such. So I got one to hang up in my house somewhere.
There was a collage of photos on the wall which seemed to capture more realistically the kinds of mishaps that can happen up here.
I didn't want to post it too much larger. Some of that really invokes "ouch".
The "motel" I spent the night in .. strangely I'm going to miss this place.
I enjoyed hanging out and listening to the truckers stories and seeing into the lives of people who did Real Work.
I passed one of the rigs. The previous night one of the truckers mentioned the hazards of gravel that gets stuck in truck tires. "It can be a problem", one said. "Not really, I've got a full faced helmet and good leathers.", I replied. "Yea, but for these guys riding up here without a face shield or leather they can be lethal.". That I can see.
Clouds were still pervasive and hung low over the cafe.
I sat there, outside on the porch, for quite some time hoping I would hear the wolves again. I think they had moved off further away. Every now and again I could just barely hear them, but the ambient noise from diesel engines and the goings on in the cafe prevented me from hearing clearly.
I saw a couple of tourists walk off into the woods in the direction of the wolves. "I don't know if that's such a good idea.", I found myself wondering. But I would have really liked to see a pack of wolves, from a distance, a very safe distance.
The time came when I got that sense of "Goodbye". It was time to leave. I was making time. The road was wet. It was raining in places. I was going faster than I had at any time before on this road. And I was leaving a wide margin for error. I had gotten comfortable with how the bike felt on the dirt, over the ruts, the gravel and the other conditions.
I was even catching a little lean in corners, on gravel, a thing I would never have imagined possible.
The rumor of a forest fire turned out to be true. I started to smell smoke and saw a haze hanging down over the tree shrub things.
The excess coffee that I consumed made itself known as I had to stop and take a leak several times on the way down. I really did have way too much coffee.
In the little access roads that lead to the pipeline every so and so many miles, you see these kinds of security signs.
I tried to capture some of the hills and the steep grades you encounter on the road. I was thinking of Rick, the bicyclist, when I took this photo.
It doesn't do it justice. The far side is wicked steep. Doing down this road on the wet muck was a bit unnerving, but too bad.
I was still on my dream-catcher quest. I saw a sign for a gift shop and stopped in. No native art, but they did have coffee. I continued my efforts to over-caffeinate myself to death.
It was a funky improvisational camp style little outpost. A generator could be heard running in the back. And this is what I enjoy about having requests. It causes me, like my arbitrary destinations, to see things I would not have seen. Had it not been for the request, I would not have stopped here and seen this.
"Cool.", I thought. I talked to the proprietor for a while. She had this an array of "no bitching, no moaning, no complaining" signs pasted up everywhere while she complained about the weather and how cold and rainy it's been. She said the previous day had winds so strong it blew all of her stuff around.
I continued on down the road to Yukon River Camp to get gas. Since I had no reason to see it before, I failed to notice the little "Local Crafts" stand out in front of the camp. A rough outdoorsy looking woman, missing a few teeth, ran the stand. Unfortunately for my quest, everything she sold she made herself. She trapped furs of various critters such as wolverine, muskrat, lynx, etc. She had a disturbing wolverine purse, where the skin of the head of the thing made the flap that closed the purse.
She also made little canoes about of bark and other items.
She started showing me photos of her house, which she and her family had built off in the woods. I did not know you could mill your own lumber, to pretty exacting standards, using a chain saw. She showed me how her stand had been made using the trees they felled on their property.
She had photos of a forest fire, of clearing the lot and how they built the support stand to raise the structure off the ground. They built the entire thing in just a few months bringing in little more than tools. Aside from electricals and some modest plumbing, if I understood her correctly they manufactured everything right there to build the house.
I listened to her for a good 30 minutes and suggested she make a little book with her photos. "That's a story I think people would be willing to buy.", I suggested to her.
It was cool. Another life, very different from my own, all because of a quest. Cool.
I got gas at the Yukon River Camp and picked up a post card and an arctic circle pin for the bike. I was off again.
I happened upon this long sloping hill that turned into a right hander that I recognized. I slammed on the brakes just beofre I hit the deep irregular gravel. This was the spot that that tractor trailer had slid into my lane on the way up. I had asked James if that happens and he said it happened all the time, so I guess I wasn't imagining things.
It was in worse condition than the last time I was here. The photo doesn't do it justice, but this 100 yards was the only "bad" part of the Dalton I experience. It's a 15mph section.
(The phone just rang. I got called by a friend I haven't talked to in nearly 10 years. It's crazy how life and obligations gets in the way ... but now I have a new task. After coming back from Valdez I've been instructed, rather forcefully, that I should go see an Ice Castle at a hot springs resort ... hmmm, but checking google I'm not seeing it immediately. I'll have to look again later. There are a few other friends I haven't seen in 10 years I would like to hear from.)
This was just a 100 yard section. The gravel was several inches deep and confused. Hitting this in the condition it was in at too high a speed will likely result in a crash. It was around 30 mile or so.
I liked this shot.
This section of the Dalton highway is also built up crazy high. I walked down to the base and tried to capture it.
But it looks too flat. The bike, as you can see in the other photo, is on the edge of the road. So it's uphill from the point of the camera basically to the wheels of the bike.
Not long after the gravel spot I came upon the end of the road. As soon as I hit pavement, contrary to what I would have thought, I missed the dirt almost immediately. "That had been fun.", I thought as I stopped a the Dalton Highway sign.
"I wonder if this bike and I will ever be in this spot again?", I thought.
I kind of doubt it. This is not the kind of place you visit more than once. Maybe I would ride up here if I got some kind of contract to work at the oil field, but as a tourist I don't think it makes sense to come back. There are other places to see.
This road was fun though. I thought it was a lot of fun, but my sense of "fun" may be a little disturbed.
I hit the road down towards Fairbanks. It's a windy albeit frost heaved bouncy road. Coming off the Dalton riding on pavement seemed almost too easy. I was going at a good clip leaning into corners more than I had at any point on the trip before. The bike felt good.
Eventually I came upon another "gift shop" advertising "native art". "Maybe I can find something appropriate there.", I thought as I pulled in.
It was an odd place.
It looked like something you might see at Dancing Rabbit. The inside was clean and well organized though. They did have some dream catchers, but they were too large, made out of elk horn. The smaller ones they had looked like plastic. Ok, that won't work. I asked about bathrooms and they directed me to the outhouses outside.
They looked like something out of Tolkien, a common comment I make. I figured, "No problem. I've gotten used to pit toilets by this point.".
OMG. That was the foulest, vilest, most disgusting outhouse I have ever seen. I still cannot get the memory of that smell to leave my consciousness. I am forever scarred.
Chris, the R1200GS yoga stretching photographer guy I had met at Coldfoot Camp had given me the card for AdvCycleWorks and repeatedly suggested that I go by there to have my bike pressure washed to get all the muck off it. Given how hard it was caked on I was curious how well that was going to work out.
They run the shop out of their house. It's off a dirt road a ways out of the way, but well worth the trip. They specialize in tires for adventure bikes that are in the area to run up and down the Dalton and other "challenging" roads.
I arrived and hung out for a while. I wanted to let the bike cool before putting water on it. The exhaust system on 16valve K100RS's has a propensity for cracking badly. We chatted for a bit. Dan, the proprietor, suggested that I visit Valdez on the coast. There are a number of tour boats that go out to a glacier. He highly recommended the one called Lulubelle. He said it was the Switzerland of Alaska and worth a look-see. A number of other people I've talked to concurred, so I'm going. I'll leave for Valdez tomorrow, assuming I feel better. I'll probably hang out there for a day and then start the return trip. I'll check out this Ice Castle, assuming I can find it, and then travel on to Prince George then Victoria. From there I'll probably just do the top route across the US. I want to go through Glacier, the Badlands and take a look-see at Sturgis, even though I'll be there a week early.
Dan suggested I stay at the University of Alaska. They open up the dorm rooms to travellers in the off-season, but I looked and it appeared to be more trouble than it was worth. I wanted something closer to food.
At this point I was hungry. I was absolutely starving, so riding around town I stopped at a bar and grill and sat down at the bar. The characters there were, how should I say this politely, colorful. Political correctness was nowhere to be found. A friend of mine, Micro, would have felt right at home.
A guy sat down next to me, I think his name was Brian. He worked on oil rigs up on the North Slope and Prudhoe Bay. He was too lit to really have a conversation about it. All he said was he seemed to get assigned all the highest profile drills.
The food in the place was really good. I had ordered a steak with a salad and the salad was monstrous, and good. Guys at the bar were making off color comments about the bartender, as guys at bars seem to do when there's a cute bartender. It's something that I've never liked. She's working. Let her work. If you like her, just give her a good tip and leave it at that.
I guess there in lies the problem. They saw a cute blonde. Just some thing. I saw a person who was trying to work, and was doing a reasonably good job at it.
Some ages ago I sat at the Outback when Rachel K was working. It was a similar scene, but not nearly as bad as this. Guys at the bar were professing their undying love for Rachel, which happens. "So how often do your customers profess their undying love for you?", I asked. "All the time", she replied. "It gets creepy when it's the really old guys. You know, the ones over 40.". Laugh. Ouch. "Ok, then I'll be the one that never does that.", I promised. So it's become kind of a game. I sit at the bar and she's always takes especially good care of me, especially on those days during the Nightmare when I just wanted someone to look out for me for a change. I would say, "I'm thinking it, but I can't say it.". That always got a smile.
So I asked this bartender the same question. "I've lost count.", she said giggling. Good answer. The guy next to me starts saying rather loudly which body parts of her he liked the most, then turned his attention to the TV and started doing the same about the women he saw there. "Not good.", I thought. Oh well. It's just that I always hate that kind of thing. I just keep thinking about all the horror stories women have told me ... maybe I spend too much time remembering them.
I finished my steak and went to find a motel.
After stopping at some ridiculously overpriced hotels, I happened upon a relatively cheap one, at least for this area, across from a BMW, Harley, etc dealer. As I rode down the street to the motel I saw a clear sign of the forest fire in the distance.
I got a room. I was going to write but was too tired, so I headed out and asked where I could find a local bar. They directed me to the Boatel Bar, a dive down the street in walking distance.
It was serious local scene. You could tell everyone there had known everyone else for years. Customers who were also friends traded gossip with the bartender. She had a persistent uncomfortable laugh. Coincidently after a short while, the guy that sat next to me at the grill from before, came in from outside. He saw me, remembered my name and invited me to join him and his friends outside. The sun was extremely low and bright on the horizon bathing the back of the deck in an erry intensely orange light.
If I understood correctly, his two friends were in from out of town. California somewhere, I think. They mostly ignored me at first just talking about local antics. I hung out for a few hours with them. The one friends name was Nora, but I can't remember her boyfriends name. At some point they asked me why I was out here. So I gave the standard answer, "out here getting my head screwed on straight". After some more indirect questions, I think they concluded I had been through some kind of divorce. Later they asked me directly to tell them what happened. So I gave a quick executive summary of the Nightmare, obligations, lack of choice.
Nora's boyfriend, whose name I forget, suddenly became serious. He was not the serious type, constantly joking, but he was very serious and asked some more questions. After a while he said something interesting that I had not considered, which is the point of telling this part of the story in the first place.
"It sounds like you were playing the martyr.", he said.
That one comment has stuck with me these last couple of days. I've looked back over everything that happened over all these years and I've wondered if I had not stepped up, if I had not tried to do everything I did, how bad would things have gotten? Was all this effort in vain? Did I, through all that I did for everyone else, only make things worse?
I struggle with these questions. I struggled with them while I was going through it all. Could I have walked away? Everyone kept asking me that. "It's only money.", they would say. But it's more than that. It's security. It's about my mom being able to sleep at night.
"Martyr.", I would think. But if I look at it honestly, I just don't know. I don't /think/ so. But maybe it's possible.
If I look at the kinds of problems I get pulled into, they all seem to involve a great deal of self-sacrifice. I seem to be really good at that and am able to do it with ease. I am very rarely the kind of person who puts his foot down to impose my will on someone else.
Hmmm. Martyr. He might be on to something.
It's something that I'll have to think about some more.
I spent the next two days at the hotel. I haven't been feeling well, so I've holed up here. I've had some interesting conversations with one of the women that runs the hotel. She said at one point, about running the Dalton, "Maybe it was so easy for you because you're a better rider. We hear of guys not making it all the time. Many have to turn around. Some crash.".
That's another thing I'll have to think about for a while.
So I've spent the whole day writing. I'm going to go off in search of some food and will try to get some rest. Maybe I'll stop by that dive bar again for a bit.
I'm not feeling well today. I had trouble sleeping again last and woke up feeling very off and unmotivated. I had another episode of my guts letting loose yesterday. To top things off, while I didn't notice the smoke myself, the forest fire on the horizon has apparently been sending some smoke this way. I had noticed I was starting to get tired yesterday, a common allergic symptom for me, and today I was already completely wiped out.
So I've decided to stay at the hotel here in Fairbanks another day and see if I feel any better. I hope to catch up on all my writing and then get under way to Valdez tomorrow. I've been told it's the Switzerland of Alaska. There are boat tours that go out to a glacier which I would like to do.
I've been invited to join a ride in early August up to Nova Scotia with Phil who I met in Deal's Gap. I am sorely tempted to go, but I am feeling the pressure to make it back when I said I would, namely in early August. I have dear friends who miss me, problems that my mom needs help with and I need to get back to the business.
My business partner, Anatoly, has been extremely understanding and patient with me as I mess around out here trying to get my head screwed on straight. He's been extremely patient through the six years of the hardcore Nightmare that kept taking so much of my time. There wasn't much of me left to help. I am behind on so many internal projects, some of them by an embarrasing number of years. Can you say the new ecommerce system?
You can't imagine a better partner. But things with our little huge multinational corporation of two people are not going well. I was hoping to get some brilliant insights into what we need to do to turn things around, but so far I've just come up with simple ideas that may or may not help. It's not a good time to be trying to sell stock market investment software for the Windows PC. Websites and brokerages have gotten so good of late that our bread and butter target demographic, beginning and intermediate investors, no longer have a compelling need to buy our software. Most who do use it rip it off. Add to that the ascendance of the Mac along with a whole spectrum of varied hand held devices from the iPhone to the Android, and we have a near perfect storm of forces making our lives difficult. The investors we do reach these days tend to be more advanced portfolio management types, but we don't reach enough of them. In addition, we are competing against mega million dollar companies for their attention.
Despite the fact that our products are very highly regarded, investors who use it love us and that we've gotten all kinds of positive press and reviews, the bottom has dropped out of our business and we need to find a new and creative way to reposition what we do to survive.
I confess I feel very guilty about how badly things are going. I haven't been able to find any new relationships that are producing; just a series of small attempts that have brought exactly zero. Anatoly could easily make bank anywhere. A couple of phone calls and he'd be involved in the next big project making six figures along with equity, easily. He's the best applications software developer/engineer I've ever met. What he is able to accomplish with the level of professionalism and engineering discipline he brings to his work is simply unparalleled.
It's strange. The blog has helped me see what I do, motorcycling and this trip, through other peoples eyes. It helps me point out things I would never have thought to mention; things I would never have thought were interesting. This may turn out to be the one of the most important lessons from the trip.
We have an excellent product. It rivals Quicken in it's polish and professionalism and completeness. As a matter of fact, being out here and talking to so many people has made me realize, the best way to describe what Anatoly has built is probably "Personal Stock Monitor is for investors what Quicken is for personal finance.".
For our business, I need to see through other people eyes. I need to get out and talk to people. I need to listen. I need to write. I need to give people a personal insight into what we do. I need to show them that we are much more than just a couple of guys with a little product. We've tried before but everything we've written has been too technical, too matter of fact, too dry. There's an interesting story to tell about what we've done, who we are, if only we can get the courage to tell it.
I think this trip and the blog I am compelled to write is helping me see that. Maybe I can learn how to do this for the business. Maybe I can find a marketing partner or even a buyer.
I simply write about what I think about. I've been loathe to write about the business and about some other topics. Too personal. Too revealing. Too many reasons not to. But I spend alot of time thinking about the business.
I also spend alot of time thinking about the Nightmare, wondering how much I should reveal. I feel compelled to. I want to, but I fear to as well. There are illusions about my family that would be shattered if they knew. There are so many reasons not to.
So for the moment, sitting here feeling rather ill in my hotel room, I'll continue on with my motorcycling story. Sorry for rambling off topic.
When I arrived it was really cold. The tour guide would say later on that it had reached 25defF but I don't think it was quite that cold. Maybe 32. Having not slept the night before and having done 240 miles of mixed dirt, gravel and paved road requiring constant concentration I had no energy to go out and walk around. So I stayed in my little military style room in the Arctic Caribou Inn and wrote. I should have gone to bed after I finished but I ended up chatting with a few friends on Facebook until after midnight. This would have consequences later.
It was still light out when I went to bed. I bet I could have seen the sun if it weren't for the thick layer of clouds.
The Prudhoe Bay oil field operation is simply massive. It resembles a massive construction site. There are temporary buildings raised up off the ground to house workers. There are oil rigs in various states of readiness waiting to be deployed, others in operation. There are vast rows of construction equipment. Backhoes, graders, and other strange vehicles whose purpose I do not know.
It feels like a temporary camp. The temporal nature of this operation is evident everywhere. Moving through this place you can just feel how, once the oil and gas runs out, it'll all be abandoned. In fact, it was supposed to have been abandoned 10 years ago as the original estimate for the field was that it could only be operated for 20 years. It's now past 30.
I was told this operation supplies something between 20% and 30% of the oil in the US. It is in decline however. It used to produce 2,000,000 barrels a day but now produces less than 1,000,000, if I remember correctly. I'll have to look up and verify that I have my stats correct.
I had to get up early. Wicked early. At 6AM, which rolled around much too soon, I was up. By 6:30 I was at breakfast. I had a few cups of coffee after breakfast and went to the tour assembly room.
To go on a guided tour of the Prudhoe Bay operation you have to call 24 hours in advance. Each hotel can hook you up with a tour, but you have to provide them with your identity information, either a passport number or drivers license number. They do a simple background check on you before letting you enter the field.
The German tourists I had met in Coldfoot camp were there and sat down next to me. I continued to enjoy seeing the same faces as I travelled.
We were shown a short 17 minute movie about the history and operation of the oil field. In the movie, through the apparent rules and during the subsequent tour, they really attempt to do a good PR job about how they limit the environmental impact of their operations. While much of it is clearly a PR effort, some of it is very real. For instance, what I did not understand was how they set up the wells. As drilling techniques have improved they are able to place the well heads closer and closer together thereby allowing them to create a smaller gravel pad on which to place said well heads. From there they drill out in all directions for miles.
(I'll have to remember to ask Robyn from Prince George, BC about the realities of the environmental impact when I meet her for coffee on the return trip.)
After the movie we were herded out of the room and onto a bus. Each person had to show ID before being allowed on the bus. It had been raining for some time.
I should have taken notes or maybe they should have produced a flyer with relevant facts to hand out on the tour because I've forgotten too many of the details of what was discussed. The tour consisted of a several mile long drive around the center of the operation.
Oil rigs could be seen everywhere.
It's a muddy dirty place. As I mentioned, it feels like a massive construction site.
To the left an oil rig. To the right one of the "hotels".
Construction materials are stacked everywhere.
It doesn't feel or look like a "town". Imagine a flat space of dirt several square miles wide. Roll a trailer in here. Put a huge piece of equipment over there. Set up a tent in some other place. Pile up a bunch of wood and supplies in some other place. Now start driving around between the various places where you've put stuff. Eventually you decide to put down some gravel so the mud doesn't get too deep, and after a while you start thinking of it as a "town", but really it's just piles of equipment and temporary housing haphazardly dropped where ever it ended up when you first delivered it. At least, this is what it feels like.
Another thing that can be seen are seemingly endless arrays of pipes running from the various rigs, some miles and miles away, to the separation plants. I forget what the correct term is, but when crude is pumped out of the ground it contains impurities such as water, natural gas, bacteria, and sand. This has to be separated out before the crude oil can be sent down the Alaska pipeline.
Some of the stranger vehicles we were shown were these low impact crawlers designed to ride out on the permafrost and tundra without sinking in, and thus without impacting the ground too much. The tour guide told a story about how the pressure these exert on the ground as they roll is so low they could roll over a human being lying on the ground without injuring the person. The tall tale is that this is how these machines were originally demonstrated to the oil field operators. The tires are never inflated. They roll as the are seen here.
It is my understanding that the structures here are all built up off the ground to protect the permafrost. If too much heat escapes below a structure the ground can melt causing it to become unstable. Here's is yet another improvisational looking motel.
There are very interesting contrasts on this trip. I spent time with people at Dancing Rabbit whose very mission in life is to have the smallest environmental impacts possible. I now stand in the midst of what I believe is probably the single largest environmental impacts in existence, the oil and gas industry. "A necessary evil.", Robyn said and I agree with her. Without this industry, at this time, it is unlikely that even Dancing Rabbit could exist. They may not see it that way, but I think I could make a pretty compelling case for it.
Our modern lives are so dependent upon this industry that we are, to a large degree, held hostage by it. The very reason that I, a single middle class guy, have the economic muscle to, by myself, mount a machine and travel on it across many thousands of miles all the while staying in contact with everyone, being able to write this blog, is because of this industry. I imagine much of the gasoline, that magic substance that makes my bike Go, came from oil pumped out of the ground here.
As we toured the facilities, one thing that became very apparent to me are the tremendous risks involved in an operation like this. They deal with simply huge quantities of the highest energy transportation fuels we know of. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of pipe. Seemingly millions of pieces of interconnected equipment.
On the one hand we know what can happen when things go terribly wrong. There is always the business desire to reduce costs to increase profits. Infrastructure upgrades are always painful and with publically traded companies, such upgrades reduce quarterly earnings and thus affect stock prices. Often times, with lax regulation, safety protocols are ignored and Bad Things Happen as we are seeing in the gulf.
This is apparently similar to the device that failed in the Gulf.
But I imagined being an engineer, or a safety guy or an operations guy, who was responsible for designing this place. Imagine the magnitude of that task. Imagine coming up with the information systems, the mechanical systems and the human systems policies and procedures to make an operation like this run.
From what I see here, it's amazing this place runs. It's seems like such a hazardous line of work. Tens of thousands of individuals. Millions of pieces of equipment. And it all works, more of less, most of the time.
Everywhere around you can see small buildings dotting the horizon which cover the well heads themselves. Safety valves such as the one above are contained in each small building.
The tourguide, a native Alaskan who has done a tremendous amount of hunting, had this uncanny ability to see wildlife all around the operation I would never have noticed. I would strain to see the critters he was pointing out to the left and right. It's an excellent PR move on their part to have someone so versed in wildlife conducting the tour.
When a given critter crosses the road traffic stops. I watched as other vehicles also stopped, not just tour busses.
I was impressed by the number of critters seemingly living out their lives in the fields between the rigs unbothered by the presence of all this construction equipment. The tour guide pointed out a number of red foxes.
One of the scarier aspects of this operation is "natural gas injection". In the case of the Prudhoe Bay oil field, the oil isn't actually pumped out of the ground. It hadn't dawned on me but one doesn't see of the Texas style pumps out here anywhere.
What they do is take a portion of the natural gas that's separated from the oil and the reinject it into the ground pressurizing the entire field which forces more oil out of the pores of the rock.
The pressure use to reinject the gas into the ground is astronomical. Apparently a single uncontrolled spark at the injection site could cause the entire site and surrounding buildings to explode. The blast radius would be miles wide. If memory serves, there are several such injection sites at Prudhoe Bay. If any one of them were to go, the entire operation could be shut down for years.
The furthest point of the tour was on Prudhoe Bay, which is part of the Arctic Ocean. We were allowed out for the obligatory "walk around and dip toe into water" part.
The tour guide and I talked for a while about the operation. He was kind enough to shoot this photo of me.
There are a few islands in the distance across the water on which are oil well heads.
So I opted for the "boots in the arctic ocean" shot. I wasn't about to take my boots off out in this cold.The waterproofing goo I applied to my boots seems to work.
I talked to the German tourists a bit. They offered to snap a photo of me too.
We returned to the bus and having dallied at the water too long attempted to get back to the hotel quickly. Our progress was thwarted by caribou in the road. Traffic on both sides came to a halt. The tour guide explained that across the Prudhoe Bay operation wildlife has the right of way.
While we were at the water he had explained that grizzly and polar bears can be quite a problem. The grizzlies hibernate in the sand dunes in the field. Polar bears come back on land at some point. Taking photos of polar bears in forbidden. This is apparently due to it changing the behavior of the polar bear. They do hunt humans after all. Anyone caught taking a photo of a polar bear will be fined. For workers there, the tour guide said they could lose their contract. If a polar bear starts changing it's behavior and pursues humans it has to be destroyed.
We passed the Alaskan Clean Seas operation. These guys are experts in oil spill cleanup. I noticed the OSHA VPP Star certification and thought of my buddy Bruce, whose family I joined camping in Ouray, Colorado. Bruce is a safety specialist so I've heard alot of stories of what's involved in that line of work. Looking around the Prudhoe Bay operation I think Bruce would have a field day here. He has this incredible insight into how truly large operations are organized, both from a physical perspective and a human management policies and procedures one. I used to rent a room from him ages ago in College Park, before I bought my house. I learned alot about business from listening to him. I don't think he actually realizes how much I learned from him then and continue to learn from him now.
Signs of construction and construction equipment everywhere.
We got back from the tour. I was pretty tired at this point, not having slept the night before and having only gotten about 5 hours of sleep. I thought about taking a nap but I was told I had to vacate my room immediately.
So I got my stuff packed on the bike and had a couple huge cups of coffee. The KLR riders had reported massive mosquitoes. The tour guide had said the day before I arrived was the worst he had ever seen the mosquitoes in all the years he had been up there.
I walked out to my bike to leave when the sun came out and the wind died down. Within seconds of this, literally seconds, the mosquitoes were everywhere. One landed next to my keys.
Sorry it's blurry. THe mosquito is the huge thing in the upper right of the photo. It's was about half as long as the key. The wind would come and they would disappear for a few moments. Then they would be back with a vengeance. I put my helment and gloves on. The evil blood suckers attacked my transit suit. The bug spray I bought at Camp Coldfoot was working like a champ.
Then I noticed the first kamikazee of the day. This one seemed to be enjoying life for the moment.
During the tour the guide spent a great deal of time talking about cold weather conditions. All the roads around the operation had tall reflectors set up on the shoulders spaced evenly apart. Blizzards are a common occurance on the North Slope, what the larger area around Prudhoe Bay is called. Blizzards are measured in "Phases". Each phase is measured by the number of reflectors one can see from the cab of a truck. I forget, but Phase I is something like 4 reflectors. By phase III all traffic is forbidden except specialized emergency equipment.
Making sure engines can start in the extreme cold, which can reach -50degF or colder is a constant task. There are banks of extension cord racks in each parking lot. All the vehicles up here are equiped with block heaters, which you can tell from what look like extension cords hanging out of the front grills on these vehicles. Once it gets too cold engine oil gels and prevents engines from being started. A block heater keeps the engine oil warm enough to allow the engine to start in even the coldest conditions.
I wanted to find something I could attach to my bike to attest to the fact that I was up here. Ever since the very understated Deals' Gap Dragon sticker I put on my bike I've been looking for understated ways of marking my bike. Most guys just plaster their saddle bags with huge stickers. I hate the way that looks, so I wanted to find something small and understated.
For Pikes Peak and Yellowstone I picked up metal pins, like you would put on a shirt. I'll just file down the pin part and epoxy it on the bike. They are really small, like 1/2" wide, so only someone who looks really closely will notice them.
I headed over to the one "General Store", which had kind of a hard core construction and trucking feel to it. Upstairs they had some stuff to cater to the tourist crowd, of which I was firmly a member at this point. Outside the general store I snapped this photo. It's just another rig.
I looked around a bit. They had some native Alaskan art. I had wanted to bring some things back and had asked a friend what I could bring back for her. She mentioned liking "Dream Catchers", so I looked around the shop. They had some but none that I liked or would feel good about giving. "Too commercial.", I thought.
I did pick up a post card for a friend who asked me to send her one. Then I found a pin that would work. I paid for my items and headed back outside into the mosquito infested outdoors and headed out of town to points South. As I left I saw rain on the horizon.
Maybe I would experience how "truly 'orrible" the Dalton Highway can be. I was pretty seriously tired but awake enough to ride. As I headed out of town, I ran through swarms of mosquitoes. These things are so large you can actually feel them as they impact the helmet. You can hear them as well. Huge blood suckers. Even the caribou try to avoid them.
The road turned away from the looming rain storms on the horizon. I thought maybe my incredible luck streak would continue until ...
I've heard from people who live up here that the Dalton can become a real mess if it rains for too long. I guess I was going to find out.
It rained pretty hard for a while. It was long enough for the road surface to become good and wet. To top that off, for quite a stretch they found it necessary to wet the road even more using the water trucks. In addition, I found myself in a section where they were putting down new surface material, calcium chloride. There was a good wind from the right, for which I was grateful, since trucks coming from the opposite direction would throw up quite a spray of muck.
But even this road surface wasn't too bad. Yes, it was slippery. Yes, it was muddy. Muck got all over everything. But in the end, it really wasn't too bad. I was able to easily do 40mph on this stuff, slip sliding away.
In the intervals where it didn't rain they seemed to think it was necessary to water the road down some more. I had moved to the extreme right as I was sure I was about to get sprayed but this trucker turned off the water right before he passed. In contrast to what I had expected, truckers were very courteous on the road. They would move over if it was dusty. They would turn the water off as they passed. They would wave.
I was stopped at one of those pilot car required construction sites. I got to talking to the stop/slow guy for some time. It was a 20 minute wait until the pilot car came. He asked about the bike and told me stories of locals. There was some guy who had gotten very familiar with some black and brown bears in the area. He had semi-tamed them and would fly out to his shack somewhere out on the tundra. Eventually, wildlife and game or some other agency got wind of this. They fined him and took away his pilots license. Feeding bears is illegal because it makes them associate human activity with food which can be very dangerous. The construction guy seemed to think the guy knew what he was doing and should not have been fined like that.
Then he mentioned the naturalist who was eaten by grizzlies not too long ago, it was a famous case. And a woman who was attacked and killed by wolves who had been fed by humans.
There's alot of anecdotal evidence to say feeding wildlife is a Bad Thing.
The mosquitoes here were just harsh. It's strange. If you're moving they seem to disappear quickly but once you stop they swarm. It's as if they lie in wait for hours until some critter approaches then they pounce. I had to keep my visor down they were so thick. Some would get up in the visor and start buzzing around the helmet in terror. I had the bug spray on. Disgusting stuff but the mosquitoes seemed to hate it more than I did.
The pilot truck arrived and I was able to get underway. Within seconds I no longer heard the smack of terminating bloodsuckers. The road was good and wet and slippery for a while. Muck continued to accumulate on the bike. I was extremely tired and as I had shot photos of this area before I just rode on. Every now and again I would stop to take a picture.
This is not too far from Atigen Pass. As I approach the pass I noticed these low clouds that blanketed the tops of the mountains. I wondered what it would be like through the pass.
As had been the case for hours, the rain wasn't bad. It was just an on again off again drizzle that was just enough to wet the road surface in places. Most of the time the road was only damp.
As I approach Atigen Pass I noticed fog reaching to the ground.
"This could get interesting.", I thought as I wondered if I would run into anything difficult on this road. By now riding on this surface seemed entirely normal and I was able to do it without too much thinking. I was making really good time. At this rate I would be at Camp Coldfoot ini under 5.5 hours. I was really tired by this point, however.
I made my way to the area which had fog in it and just as I arrived and headed up the pass a breeze started and the fog was pushed out. The sun poked through and it got noticably warmer. I was making my way up the North side of the pass when I stopped in a pulloff to take a picture. I went to reposition the bike for a better view and let out the clutch lever out to go.
As had happened before, Nothing Happened.
I also knew, immediately, that this was not due to a piece of gravel stuck under the lower clutch lever arm.
"This could get really interesting.", I said aloud as I pondered being stuck here for an extended period. It was sunny here and warm with a strong breeze. Trucks passed by every now and again.
I stood there for a while taking in the moment. I took off my helmet and gloves and pulled out my earplugs. I surveyed the bike. It was covered in calcium chloride. It had caked on pretty thick, just like you would imagine cement does if you lob it at your bike for hours.
"Yea, I bet I know what happened.", I thought. I peered back to the lower clutch lever and sure enough, calcium chloride muck had accumulated under the arm and hardened layer after layer eventually preventing the clutch lever from dropping all the way. Hence the reason the motorcycle Would Not Go.
At this point, I was grateful for the gravel incident before. If it had not been for that, I don't know that I would have recognized that the lever was not all the way down.
I know this photo is a bit confusing. It was the best I could do. The band on the right is actually the rear tire. The camera is over the exhaust pipe, which is covered in calcium chloride and is lit by sunlight in the lower left of the photo. Directly in the lower middle of the photo is a muck covered catalytic converter. It's made of shiny stainless steel. As you can see, everything looks like it's covered in cement.
Above the catalytic coverter, in pretty much the exact center of the photo is a bar extending from right to left. That's the lower clutch lever arm. If you look, there's a little bit of space between the catalytic converter and the arm.
There should be alot of space there. You should be able to see clearly through to the engine. I hope that gives some indication to just how caked up this is.
So I got out my trusty victorinox and patiently attempted to contort my hand and arm in such a way to allow me to chip away at this stuff. This stuff is HARD. It's not quite as hard as cement, but almost. You chip at it with a blade and all that happens is a bit of dust comes off. You drill with the knife to cut a little hole into it and sometimes larger chunks come off. I worked on this for half an hour after which time I had made virtually no progress. I simply couldn't put enough force on the knife from that angle to get through the muck.
"Damn.", I thought, "I'm going to have to unpack everything, pull out the tools, and see if I can remove the rear wheel.". I was tired. Really tired. I took a break, had my remaining water and then thought, "Time to man up."
I pulled off all the gear and got under the seat to pull out my tool roll. "I have never used this toolset before to remove a wheel. As a matter of fact, I don't think I've ever need to make a repair on my bike using it before", I mused as I looked at my tools. The extension for the tire wrench had not been removed since the day I put it in the roll, 18 years ago. It had become fused with the roll.
It took 20 minutes to get the damn tire wrench extension out of the tool roll. It was glued in there pretty good. Without the extension there was no way to remove the tire.
Next, and I was starting to really hurt from fatigue, was removing the saddle bags. This was an operation that I had performed so often, it's like taking off shoes. It's something you don't think about or consider. Calcium chloride had built up to such a degree it took me over 20 minutes just to get the damned bags off.
I was really hurting now. It was all easy work but I was so tired.
I pulled off the little cover over the rear wheel bolts, dirt and dust getting all over me. I thought about how someone who was squeemish about their new $1400 leathers might be much more frustrated. "I bought this Transit Suit to wear to protect me, not to look good in.", I reminded myself as I get more and more covered in dirt, dust and calcium chloride. It got all over everything. Me, my hands, my gear, my clothes.
Using the extension and the tire wrench went to loosen the wheel bolts.
"Ummm, duh.", I thought. What problem could I possibly have encountered?
Wheel bolts are on pretty tightly. There's alot of torque on those bolts so when you go to remove them the wheel spins.
I put the engine in gear and thus the engine spins.
I put the bike on the sidestand. The whole bike moves.
What I usually do is have someone step on the rear brake, but inconveniently no one was around and the little Kamikazees were no help, being too occupied trying to achieve their warriors dream of ritual suicide.
"Ok, this could be interesting. Thwarted.", I thought as I imagined how long I could be stuck here. "How to push the rear brake pedal down?", I pondered. I couldn't tie it to anything. Maybe I could use a rock. Then it hit me.
Gas can! I hung the two gallon gas can full of fuel off the rear brake lever and it worked like a champ.
I got the rear wheel removed, but I had forgotten that you had to loosen the rear brake caliper to get the wheel completely out. Looking at how encrusted it was, it would take me hours to clean up enough to a point where I'd be comfortable taking it off. I pulled the wheel aside to see if I could get a better angle on the lower clutch lever.
Using the trusty victorinox swisstool and contorting myself from the right side of the bike, I started slowly chipping away at the rock hard muck. Pick, scratch, hit, pry, drill, scrape, scrape scrape to clear way the chips and dust. Repeat process.
I don't know how long this took. Probably three quarters of an hour before I got enough of the muck scraped away to let the lower enough to engage the clutch. I cleaned it out a bit further for good measure figuring I had more of the muck to travel through and I didn't really want to do this again.
At least it wasn't raining and it wasn't cold. I was out in the blazing sun but with the breeze it didn't get too hot.
As I re-mounted the rear wheel I wondered about torque settings. I could just hear Duncan asking "So Yermo, what's the torque spec on those bolts?". Defiantly, I tightened them tigher, probably tighter than spec but not too tight. The rear tire will need to be switched out in Washington State anyways so I'll address the torque setting then.
I packed some of the gear back on the bike and took a photo. No trucks had come by for some time.
And this was the photo I stopped to take originally. Over two hours had passed. I was really tired and what I had failed to notice was how dry the air was and the toll the sun had taken on me.
The shot wasn't that good. But it was good that I had the problem here at a pulloff rather than going up the middle of the pass at speed shifting between gears. That could have sucked.
I went over the pass, tired out of my mind and continued on. There weren't any shots I hadn't already taken. Atigen Pass was not quite as impressive the second time through. "It's just another beautiful pass.", I thought as I struggled to stay awake.
The road wore on but I was making good time. The clutch continued to work. The Dalton was not the road everyone said it was, but the risks were there. They were mundane risks. Fatigue. Dehydration. Mechanical failure. They were the usual risks.
But it's a good road. And by this point, despite being crazy tired, I was enjoying it. It felt right to be on this road.
The last 50 miles were hell. I started getting so tired I could no longer see straight. Innuits are said to have 200 words describing snow. I probably have as many to describe pain and fatigue.
I was horizontal hold lost hurting tired. I get so tired sometimes all my joints ache and my eyes lose horizontal hold. It's like they oscillate turning everything into a blur. Every once of my being wants to shut down. My body screams to let it sleep. I get to so I can't even form sentences any more and short term memory goes out the door. I shake my head violently trying not to close my eyes. Vision restored for another few moments. I tried to stretch, tense my muscles. I thought about stopping, I really wanted to stop, but I was concerned about bears. Grizzlies to be specific. I knew I would just fall asleep right on my bike and I would be easy pickings for the beasts. I soldiered on. It was a risk either way.
But it sucked, only because I was beyond the point of exhaustion.
I arrived at Camp Coldfoot about 3 hours later than I had expected. It was evening now. I parked my bike, got my room key, carried my gear into the room and promptly passed out, muck covered and boots still on. I don't know how long I was out, but it was a while.
After some time I woke out of one of those feverish sleep you get after you've overexerted yourself and every muscle and joint in your body just aches. Your hands and feet swell up. A callous had split open on my right hand and in general my right hand hurt like crazy. It ached just moving my fingers. My feet had swollen in my boots so they hurt. My back was in agony and every joint creaked.
So I got up and dragged my hurtin' worthless sorry carcass across the parking lot. There were no motorcycles. No busses. Just trucks. All the tourists were gone. I continued the slog to drag my carcass into the cafe and sat down at the bar still semi asleep and having trouble thinking. After quite a while, a different bartender than the one from the one the other night showed up, a hurried man with a curled mustache. I ordered a wine. He looked at me as if I was crazy and I said "man, if I could have a beer I would. I so want a beer but I'm sick so I can't, but I can drink wine and you don't have whiskey". "Fair enough", he replied.
I sipped my bad merlot and contemplated the ride down here when a man sat down next to me. He was watching the bartender. Some kid worker type playing cards at a table behind us shouted at the bartender rudely for another round of beers and the bartender jumped, leaving us, to bring the kid out his beers.
"Punk kid. That's just rude.", the guy next to me said. "He should get up and get his own fucking beer from the bar. He's just a punk kid. It's disrespectful." We got to talking about respect, courtesy and good manners. He was a bitter man, I would guess in his 50's. We talked about this work. He was a trucker working for one of the companies involved with the Alaska Pipeline.
"Maintenance. These fuckers aren't doing the maintenance that needs to be done.", he complained as I thought about the tour and impressions I had. "So much isn't being done that needs to be. As the oilfield is depleted, more and more sand is sent down the pipeline causing it to corrode. There's also this bacteria", he went on. "Like idiots we bought all the steel from Japan and it's cheap grade. I guarantee you it's not 3/4" any more. It's corroded. It'll bite them in the ass eventually. We just had a couple hundred thousand barrel spill up here not long ago, and that was just a small one."
Then he asked about where I was from and I told him about me being on a cross country trip. "Then I need to chide you about riding. You riders never pay attention. Make sure when you pass a trucker, to first be visible in his rear views. I had some idiot just blow by me and you know, we use the whole road as we're driving. I went to dodge a big hole and nearly ran the fucker off the road.".
I told him about my riding style, "Yea, if it had been me you would have seen me in your rearviews until we made eye contact, and I would have waved as I passed by. I'm the kind of guy when I see a trucker in the right side of a left hand turn lane I stop behind his tailer and prevent traffic from bunching next to him. Then after he's made the corner, because we know they have to cut the inside lane and would normally have to wait for all these cars to pass probably causing him to miss the light, then I go. I always enjoy the four way blinker thank you I get."
"Well, that makes you more considerate and more aware than about 99% of people out there", he replied.
"The way I see it, I'm a tourist out here just screwing around, you guys are the ones working, so I try to give extra consideration", I said. "That's smart", he said "you never know how many hours the guy has been working. After about 9 hours you get really tired". We talked for a while longer. He mentioned he was in his pickup truck and had given a guy who was broken down a ride. "15 miles out of my way and then 15 miles back!", he exclaimed. "I went out of my way. Gave him a ride. Dropped him off and the rude fucker didn't even say thank you! That just gets to me!". I told him one of the things I had been thinking about on my trip was how kind words, courtesy, nice gestures seem to have much less of a lasting effect than one rude event. "Yea, I know. When someone does something you expect, when they are courteous it's what you expect, so you think for a moment, 'that was nice', and move on. But when someone is an asshole, it sticks with you like a thorn in your back. That's probably why I'm still angry about this rude fucker three years later". Uncomfortably he got up and left.
I found myself thinking about the things I cannot let go. They are of a much greater magnitude. In some cases they are things people did with malice to hurt the ones I care about. They put real effort behind it, in some cases decades, in other cases years. I keep thinking about whether or not to write about it.
One spent a year and half going after my mother and me to do us harm after my sister was killed in an auto-accident. She got the absolute cheapest rental car imaginable because he complained so much about the money. He didn't want her to get a rental car at all. He wanted her to rely on my mom, my 70+ year old semi-disabled mom, to drive her around. I had offered her my car, a solid Mercedes. They had a combined income in excess of $250K/year and lived as if they made $40K.
After Gesa was killed in the horrific half on halk head on collision and her daughter in the rear child safety seat suffered a broken neck and other traumas, he filed a legal action against my mom. When that didn't work, he would call and threaten her, "You will never see your granddaughter again.". He wanted to be paid. He wanted part of my fathers estate, money from my mom, money from me. He was the one that left us holding the bag with over $13K of funeral expenses he had promised to pay back. That's what life insurance is for, asshole.
This was the man who prevented my mom from having any time at all with her granddaughter at the funeral and who tried to sneak her out during the reception without even saying goodbye. If it hadn't been for my friends, my friends who mean so much more to me than family ever could, my mom would not even had the 15 seconds to say good bye.
What kind of human being does that?
So, distraught, she would drink and then she would fall down and hurt herself, sometimes very badly. Sometimes very very badly. I call her every day, but I don't see her all that often. Unless she called me to pick her up off the floor when she couldn't get up herself, she wouldn't tell me what happened. "Why didn't you go to the emergency room!", I would yell after seeing her bloodied and blackened face. Yea, Nightmare, and this was only a very small part of it.
I was left having to pick up the pieces time and time again being terrified wondering what I could do. Powerless again. And this was in combination with everything else that was going on at the same time.
All my mom wanted was to see her granddaughter again. Using the tools of patience and sacrifice, I worked on it doing what little I could. I was careful to do everything very correctly, as I always do. It took a year and a half, to just this last August, to get him to stop and, at least, partially see what he was doing made no sense. "Evil is blind. Evil makes excuses", Kyrin would say. Yes, this was evil incarnate. "But you don't know how hard it is. I'm the one suffering.", he would complain having absolutely no compassion or insight into the pain of others. Evil not aware of what it's doing and making excuses.
The attornies and accountants would call me and warn that he sounded like he was out to do me physical harm and that he was out to do as much financial damage as he could. He actually came do DC specifically to go after my mom. At one point even I thought he might become physical.
I made no threats, no violence and took no legal actions in response, just in case you were wondering. I confess, that I can squelch any feelings I have and do what's "right", makes me feel impotent at times. There's a powerlessness to it. You feel so weak.
I find myself wondering what guys like Phil would do in situation like this. He's an ass kicker and fixer. I don't think the evil fuck would have faired as well if I had been more like Phil. But I'm me and I don't know, or maybe I've unlearned, how to be like that.
My niece, the poor child only 3 years old, had suffered enough and her father was too fragile and mentally ill to handle any kind of direct effort. I just carefully used words to get through his delusion. It took a lot of patience and time and enduring alot of abuse.
This was all after I moved heaven and earth to help him when my sister died, because he was too much of a weakling to do anything himself. He asked me to do /everything/ including all the funeral arrangements, all the coordination with his parents and getting them into the country, all the legal investigations into his options with regard to the driver that killed my sister. I stepped up. I was asked to. He was supposedly family. What else was I going to do? There wasn't anyone else. My mom was in no shape to do it. So I did it, again. Friends came out of the woodwork to help. Everyone pitched in. Then he pulled the rug out from under me. I was left having to apologize to everyone, including a close friends father would had been so kind to help us with the injury and insurance angle of things.
I commented to my mom at the height of his misbehavior, "You have 6 portraits of him up here in the house, but not a single one of me. Given how much he's tried to hurt you and how much I've tried to help you all these years, does that make any sense?". "But he's got my granddaughter.", she would reply.
Donna and others say I have to forgive the evil fuck for what he did.
That will never happen.
Stewing just like the angry trucker who had just left, I thought my time will come. Eventually that door that was closed to allow me to do what I did will open again and the pain will come out. It may be years from now, but I know it's coming and I am not looking forward to that day.
I turned my attention to the TV. There was some kind of outdoor life show on. It was a hunting show. So much of life up here in Alaska seems to be focused on killing critters. The show showed some clean cut clearly city slicker looking guy who was all excited about ending the life of some large critter. They showed how they went out in the woods with their scent blocking clothes and other advanced gear.
They stalked a critter and the footage of this huge bull moose with just impressive antlers walking out of the woods was just incredible. It was a magnificent beast. I wish I could see a moose like this in the wild. They made a few attempts on the thing but it would sense something and move off.
Then they finally got an angle on it. I thought they were going to use a bow, but used a rifle instead. The guy pulled the trigger and you saw the moose flinch and run off. I thought it would drop right there, but I guess it was a bad shot so the moose, that magnificent beast, suffered needlessly.
That image will burn in my mind for some time. Such a magnificent critter. There's something magical about the remaining large Beasts in the world. I think the world was better off with the beast alive in it than having it's antlers mounted on some wall somewhere.
Conceptually I have no problem with hunting, but sport hunting just for trophies; wasteful hunting seems like a crime to me. The tour guide up in Deadhorse said the caribou population has exploded and the herd was in danger of collapse because it's consuming up all available food. "Another analogy for humans.". In this case, hunting caribou, to save a herd makes sense and is necessary, absent enough predators to keep things in balance.
But this moose. It was huge and impressive. "Moose numbers are in decline.", someone said.
A guy sat down next to me, a bear of a man with scraggly beard and crooked teeth. I think he said his name was James. He had a calm demeanor about him, a kindness. No anger. He said, "Yea, watch to see if they can haul that thing out." "So how much does a beast like that weigh?", I asked. "About 2500 lbs", he replied, "They'll have have to quarter it up to get it out, if they get it out at all. We get alot of guys coming up here to shoot moose and they shoot them too close to water. A bullet in the gut is hot and the moose will run to the water to cool off. Once it does that, there's no getting it out." "Wasteful.", I said. "Yea.", he replied.
I was really bothered by the scene of the moose being killed. There was no respect. No apologizing to the animal. Nothing ritual about it. It was just pulling a trigger and putting an end to some beast. "That's not the way it's supposed to be.", I thought.
The bartender walked in and switched the channel to the "Ice Road Truckers" show. He had been interviewed for the show some time before and, as he explained it, they had asked for his consent. He said he would give it if he got a copy of the raw footage. They never provided that but went ahead and aired the footage anyway. He was none to pleased.
James exclaimed while laughing, "Aww, man, I don't want to watch work!".
It turns out James was an ice road trucker, although he wouldn't call himself that. He was a trucker. He hauls stuff year round. Sometimes he hauls things on ice.
I asked how realistic the show was. He replied, "Not that realistic really. Sure, stuff like that happens but what they show in one show might happen in 5 years."
These are professional truckers after all. These guys know how to do this job.
James said he had seen some of those guys around. "They hauled in a bunch of guys from Canada and the lower 48 just to make trouble. I think they want the accidents and the mishaps. It makes a better story."
There was a scene on where some guy is driving through a blizzard. "And so and so is driving through a Phase III", the announcer said. "That ain't no phase III. You can see 5 reflectors. That's hardly a Phase I. That's what I call good driving weather!", James said while chuckling.
The the next while he talked about what conditions on ice were really like and some of the mishaps and challenges he's faced. In a phase III, it's blowing snow so hard you can only see your reflection in the windshield. There's no progress. Sometimes they'll go behind construction equipment like a grader. "They can pull some serious weight", or something like that he would say. He talked about going up Atigen Pass and having a truck come down the hill too fast on the ice and start to jackknife. He recovered before they passed each other but they were so close the mirrors smacked. He talked about being in blizzard conditions in a convoy of trucks where visibility is so limited you can hardly see one reflector. "It's the last guy in line that's screwed. By the time the convoy moves he's the one furthest behind and they stop being able to see the truck in front of them. I've seen guys run off the road in those conditions, but there was nothing I could do so I kept driving", he would explain. I asked about what happens to those guys. "Well, they have heaters. The old guys would keep parachutes that they would strap over their rigs. They'd crack the windows and run camp stoves until someone came to pull them out.".
He said -25degF was good driving weather. "The ice isn't too brittle.", he would say. "Get to -50defF and it cracks".
We talked for a good long while. He talked about the company he works for. At one point, this bear of a man asked me why I was on for such a long ride. "I'm out here, Away, trying to get my head screwed on straight.", I replied. I figured he would be dismissive but surprisingly he said, "Yea, I can understand that. I did the same thing for year. I went out and hunted and fished. Then it came time to get back on with things."
He asked me about being on the road on the motorcycle. "Not too bad. It's not all that", I would say, "I thought this was going to be a real challenge." "You're about 5 years too late for that. The road is in the best shape it's ever been. It's that show and the tour companies. It's brought alot of attention to the road.", he explained.
I mentioned the one section of deep gravel. "Yea, there's 2 mile that can be challenging", he said. I asked where 2 mile was, was it a 2 mile hill? He explained that he meant mile marker two. You'll see that terminology used all over the place, even on maps. "At 25 mile turn right" kind of thing.
He was on the night shift so had just gotten up but it was his day off. He was bored. I should have asked whether or not he'd be open to talking more, maybe showing me the rig he drives and giving me more of an insight into this life. but I was exhausted. I had some dinner and went back to my room and promptly collapsed.
I like Camp Coldfoot. It's got that kind of staging area feel to it. You have the feeling you can glimpse into other lives very easily by just sitting at the bar.
I'm currently in Fairbanks at a motel that has WIFI. I arrived yesterday in the late afternoon. I've been tired these last few days. I had arrived early so I could write but realized I was just stupid tired. I decided to take a day off and just extended my stay here a day. I'll probably hit the road tomorrow.
I've heard from so many people about the blog. It's a bit overwhelming. The idea that so many people are reading what I write and responding with encouragement and, three today, with selfishness. "Yermo, don't feel like you have to write every day", Phil, who I met in Deals' Gap wrote. Today he recanted and wants me to write more. A few others have said the same kind of thing.
One friend who I haven't seen in more than 20 years said she was enjoying the blog but didn't understand all the motorcycling references. I try to write for a diverse audience. I've got the Advrider.com guys. Friends. People I've met along the way. Other motorcyclists. If I write something or make some reference you don't understand and would like to know, please ask! It would help me if you asked. If I can learn to do this well, do this in a more accessible fashion, maybe I can do more of it. So please do feel free to ask questions.
I have to admit I really enjoyed Coldfoot Camp. It has a neat feel to it. It's a working camp. The motel is primarily there for truckers. As you go down the hallway, you'll see signs "Day Sleeper, please be quiet.". Many of these guys work the night shift. Like so many things up here, it all has an industrial, almost military, feel to it. There's dirt and mud everywhere. Huge tractor trailers pull into the muddy open space between the buildings. It can't really be called a parking lot. Truckers come and go. You can watch them as they work on their rigs, adjust and tighten loads.
The entrance to the cafe has huge steel grates for steps so you can shake the mud off your boots.
When I arrived at the motel, some tourists walked out that had just come up on the one of the busses. "Er muss Deutsch sein", I heard one woman say to the other woman. ("He must be German".) "Ja, so mehr oder weniger.", I replied. ("Yea, more or less."). Everyone in the group laughed. A man in the group, I have forgotten his name but hope he contacts me here to remind me, worked for BMW. So we chatted for a bit about the fundamental superiority of BMWs in a tongue in cheek fashion. In German, you often refer to motorcycles, and other transport, as "machines". "That's a superb machine for this kind of travel.", would be how one phrases it.
As has been the case with so many people from as far out as 1500 miles, I would see them again and again on my way up to Deadhorse.
Rob and Wayne, who I met at the Arctic circle, were already there. They had parked their bikes, BMW R1200 GS's, around the side of the motel. They were going to do their run up early the next day. We talked about what we had heard about the road.
In the cafe they had a buffet until 9pm. Unfortunately, because of my crazy restricted diet there was nothing I could eat. They reopened the kitchen at 9pm at which time I could order off the menu. This evening it was mostly tourists. There were alot of riders.
I was standing in the bar waiting for a glass of wine. Yea, beer and wine only and because of my inability to deal with starches I fall back to wine. In a trucker bar. Drinking a glass of wine. Riding a BMW. Maybe I should break out the espresso maker. Yea, I'm from DC. Not the impression I wanted to make. These are no nonsense folks and don't take kindly to no sophistication.
I got to talking to a guy, a rider, named Christopher. He had just come back down from Deadhorse with his two buddy's Mike and Greg. They all rode BMW R1200GS's. I sense a pattern developing. I asked him about the road and conditions still fearing that maybe up ahead I would encounter the hell that everyone had been talking about. He mentioned sections of road and gravel and mud, but nothing awe inspiring. He seemed to think I would make it but suggested that I get my bike power washed as soon as possible. The calcium chloride reacts with metal like road salt does and if you leave it on there your bike will be damaged.
I sat down with him and his buddys and sipped my glass of wine. Christopher is a professional photographer and my impression was that he was probably a very good one. Mike had just retired. Greg worked in business development, but I forget for what company. A good bunch of guys.
One thing I dislike about not writing every day is that I begin to forget names and details of conversations. I was pretty beat that evening, and I guess that affected things.
As we sat there, a group of four KLR riders showed up. "No, that can't be", I said aloud. Sure enough it was the four guys I had met at the Exxon Station some 1500 miles ago. Chris, Mike and Greg got up saying they wanted to get an early start. I figured I would not see them again so I said "see ya". Chris had written down the name, address and number of a shop that has a power washer and offers a service to clean off adventure bikes coming down off the Dalton and left it on the table next to my wine before he left. "Very thoughtful.", I said aloud.
I went down and greeted the four KLR riders. They've told me their names like 5 times but I have forgotten all of them. Bummer. Really good guys. We ended up having great conversations. They came in to eat. I had already eaten but I sat with them and we chatted for a good while. This was like the third long conversation we had had on our way up this far. They had just returned from Deadhorse and were going to grab a quick bite to eat before heading south to a campsite. Eventually, they asked me, as so many have done, "Why are you doing this long trip?". "I'm out here trying to get Away so I can get my head screwed on straight. I've been through kind of a wringer nightmare these last several years.". Some people leave it at that others ask more. They wanted to know more so I told them a bit about what had happened.
I've been very surprised. Random strangers have been very kind. Not a single person I've met has been accusational, or negative, or anything other than complimentary and supportive. It's a bit unnerving and is messing with my world view a bit. That's good. That's part of why I'm out here. To change the way I think.
The dad in the group, again I've forgotten his name, said he was never able to do what I was doing because of the farm and raising a family. There were always obligations. "8 weeks on a motorcycle does not make up for 17 years", I said. Everyone agreed. "Yea, that would just not be worth it.", one replied."We could trade lives.", I joked. "Yea, no". Good answer. I wouldn't wish my life on any human being except maybe my worst enemies.
It got late. I was tired. The sun was still blazing in the sky. The Alaska sun up North is a bitch. It's like this searing radiation source that burns as soon as it touches you. The light comes in at a crazy low angle. Even at midnight the sun is still seen on the horizon.
The motel was loud. Really loud. Trucks idling in the parking lot, people shouting to one another and paper thin walls conspired to prevent me from sleeping.
6AM rolled around and I still couldn't sleep. "Now this is a recipe for disaster.", I said quietly to myself as I crawled out of bed. I was showered and packed up and at the gas pump by 6:30. Anyone who knows me knows that this is the sign of the end times. I probably got less than 3 hours of sleep. Unfortunately, I had many hundreds of dollars of non-refundable reservations.
As I was walking to the gas pump I noticed something I hadn't seen before. A post office. Mail is delivered every Monday. I have a friend who works as a postal historian and the office there made me think of her. With Jenny in mind, I snapped this photo.
Between Camp Coldfoot and Deadhorse is 240 miles of nothing. It's the longest stretch in the USA without services. My bike can just barely do 240 miles on it's 4.2 gallon tank so I had, as previously mentioned, picked up a 2 gallon gas can. I filled the tank and the gas can and using a better approach than the previous day bungied the thing onto my bike.
This extra weight was the difference between a bike that was heavy and one that was, in my humble opinion, too heavy. Getting this beast up on the center stand on uneven ground turned out to be quite a challenge.
I re-injured my back the first time I did it as I parked my bike in front of the cafe. I had injured my back pretty seriously back in September. Donna, a very close friend who is also a chiropractor, worked on me for ages to fix it. I had been afraid it would cause me problems but until recently it's been fine. Now it hurts again and my heels are all tingly. I considered briefly how an injury could really put me down. It's probably a greater risk than crashing.
I went into the cafe and had breakfast. As I was sipping my coffee Chris, Mike and Greg showed up so I got up, coffee in hand, and sat down with them. I was dead tired, so it was like my fifth cup of coffee. I remember being impressed by the fact that both Chris and Greg got up to stretch. They didn't care at all that they were in a trucker cafe. They just walked over to an empty spot on the floor and did various stretches. Greg had injured his back putting his bike up on the center stand. It's a common affliction. Chris practiced Yoga. He was a tall and muscular man who was also surprisingly flexible. I would guess he was around my age. You might think he was one of those flakey new age yoga types, but this guy had a seriousness to him. A substantive nature. It was as if the calm and peace he exuded was real, not a false affectation.
And, he did ride his R1200GS up and back from Deadhorse.
"Membership.", I thought. Here I was allowing my view of another human being to be expanded because of a single symbol. It's strange how that works, even in me. When you tell someone who hasn't been there yet that you've been up and back to Deadhorse it changes their view of you almost instantaneously. It imbues you with certain meta-data, certain attributes in the listeners mind that may or may not have any basis in reality.When I'm the subject of that view change, I'm stymied by it. "It's just some road to some arbitrary place in the middle of no where. It's just a destination as an excuse for a journey. I'm just some guy out for a Long Sunday Drive. Infrastructure in this part of the hemisphere is fantastic. The magic of gasoline can be readily found everywhere. This is no big deal.", I would think. But here I was, applying that same view change to another human being and he had "only" ridden up from California. "That's a long serious ride.", I found myself thinking ignoring the ride I've done completely. It's always fascinating to pay attention to how things are different when you see something in someone else and then to compare how that same thing feels when you are the subject.
He went and got the business card of the shop that had the pressure washer. "Wow. That's very thoughtful.", I said. "Damn thoughtful indeed. Good guy.", I thought to myself.
They needed to get going to get to a three day Ferry. They were going to camp on deck. I wonder how that went.
I sat alone for a little bit. Trucks came and went. Most of the tourists were gone.
I pondered the road to come. I had been told the stretch of the Dalton Highway up to Camp Coldfoot was the easy part and that it got bad going North. "Gravel the size of baseballs. Deep mud. 'horrible!", I had been told by many. Many others would say, "oh, you'll be fine".
The KLR riders had said the mosquitoes were terrible up there. "Like out of National Geographic", one said.
The time came to be gone. so off I went.
Out of the parking lot and onto the Dalton and it was less than 10 yards before I ran into my first contruction section where I had to wait.
Most of the contruction sections on the route from Coldfoot to Deadhorse involve pilot cars. You have to stand and wait. I had been told that the waits are terrible so I was prepared to hang out for a good long while. The Slow/Stop Sign guy waved for me to be up front so I went around the semi and parked next to him.
A few minutes later the pilot car showed up and I was off again. The pilot cars move very slowly and will stop randomly depending on what truckers and construction equipment are doing. I would guess I followed the pilot car for between 5 and 10 miles.
As I think I've mentioned elsewhere, they use calcium chloride, essentially a salt, to bind gravel and dirt together to control the dust. It forms a surface the approximates pavement for a fraction of the cost. In the process of creating the top surface of the road they dump out sections of the stuff. Then graders come to distribute it evenly across the road. Then the water trucks come and wet the stuff down. As it dries it hardens. However, while it is wet it's muck.
This section had been wetted a while ago so it wasn't too bad. It had not yet hardened. The surface was relatively soft with small gravel and stones.
But it wasn't bad. Once the pilot car pulled over I could easily do 45 to 55mph with a wide margin for error.
The surface of the road changes randomly and as I mentioned previously, what makes the Dalton Highway very dangerous is not that it's difficult. It's that it changes without warning.
The beauty of the landscape is also a danger. While it is not difficult, it does take attention to detail to ride this road. Looking around can distract you from potholes and larger bits of gravel, dips, etc. As you ride along you see views like this.
This mountain was impressive. The road here looks good but if you wander too close to the shoulders it becomes very loose and very deep very quickly.
There are bridges. Most have a wooden surface. This one stream was probably the clearest stream I have ever seen. The water was nearly invisible. I stopped on the bridge to try to capture it.
Mike and Greg had been talking about the photos Chris had been taking. He's a professional photographer. I would be curious to see what photos he took. I don't have contact info for them, but I hope they contact me here to let me know where their trip photos will be posted.
Along the Dalton there are countless streams flowing down from mountains and along valleys.
"The worst road in the world?", I thought. "Hmmm. Look. Bridge with guardrail. hmmm".
In places it's hard to tell if the road is actually paved or if it's the calcium chloride hardpack.
Many of the streams here had a skyblue tint to them.
Probably the most famous section of the road is Atigen Pass which is supposed to be crazy steep and just one long slog up and over a mountain. It's supposed to be miles long.
I came upon a pass and wondered if this was it.
There was no sign but I didn't think this was it. It was a long pass but not that long nor that steep. It opened up into this incredible valley.
I had still not run into anything really hard. I had been slightly caught off guard from time to time. Surface changes from pavement to gravel can wake you up. They happen very infrequently though.
After some more miles of uneventful hardpack and gravel road, I came across the Atigen Pass sign.
I had heard that the grade of the pass was something crazy steep. It wasn't. It was just reasonable steep. It was, however, long. The surface was a bit crumbly as if the hardpack was breaking up a bit. There were quite a few places for tractor trailers to pull over, so I had plenty of opportunities to snap photos.
The pass was just beautiful. Maybe it was that it had been hyped up so much or maybe it was that it was in fact that spectacular. It's hard to tell given how subjective these experiences are.
Avalanches are clearly a problem here as the guard rails can attest to.
The worst road in the world has guardrails. Yea.
The surface here was a bit dusty so I would go very slowly as tractor trailers passed. The dust would turn visibility to near zero for a few seconds. Fortunately, there was a strong breeze.
Going down the other side seemed more challenging than coming up the South side. Down is generally harder than up, but my impression was the grade on the North side of the pass was steeper than the South side. However it was not nearly as steep as some of the dips earlier on. I would be told by a trucker later that some of those dips, several hundred feet deep can reach grades of 12%.
This, however, was not 12%, I don't think.
Of course, the photos does not capture the down grade angle. Let's put it this way, my foot is on the brake to prevent the bike from rolling forward. If you put a bowling ball down here, it would roll away at increasing speed.
As you go through the North side of Atigen Pass, you'll notice critters on the road. On the last trip we called them Kamikazees. They like to run out and try to commit suicide as you pass on the interstate. These ones, truly tired of life and all it's burdens, just lie out in the road by the dozens.
These were seen every few hundred yards for over a hundred miles. I tried my best. I really did not to hit any of them. I try to dodge the butterflies as well. ("He's so sensitive". Yea, whatever.)
I would hit the horn if they didn't scatter. One time one of the little buggers lying in the road got up ran to the left and just as I was approaching made a mad dash for the front wheel. "SHIT!! Oh little guy, I'm so sorry! Shit!" as the little guy sliced himself in half, achieving his warriors dream. I beat myself up about it. I still do. I hate killing critters. ("Oh, he's so sensitive". Yea, whatever.) Cute little critters, albeit somewhat suicidal.
They talk about baseball sized gravel. Yea, there's gravel as you can see in the photo, but it's rare and it's concentrated on the sides of the road. In the traffic lanes, it's pounded down and really isn't all that hard to ride on. You can see the progression of gravel sizes from the lower end of the photo to the upper. The upper is closer to the edge of the road. (These guys weren't entirely in the middle of the road, although most would like out in the traffic lanes, I'm guessing because it's more comfortable.)
As you descend down the Northern side of the pass, it opens up into yet another overwhelmingly beautiful valley. How many dozens of these have I seen so far? I never get tired of them.
Remember the German tourists I met at the Camp Coldfoot motel? I'm pretty sure I saw them in this group as I passed by. Tour busses run this route up to Deadhorse. Run of the mill normal tour busses. I didn't see anything special about them, not even extra mud guards.
As I approached the far end, the mountains opened up into yet another vast rolling plain.
There's a quality to this land that's different. You really do feel far away when you're standing around out here. In many places, as far as the eye can see there's hardly any trace of human presence. Traffic is heavier than I was told. A truck, bus, or RV will go by at least every half hour or so. Often it's more frequent. Strangely I saw very very few motorcycles either up or back. Maybe 3 in total. All of them were adventure bikes. I did not see a single sport touring bike like mine.
I thought back to what Chris and others had told me. Calcium chloride gets all over the bike and it eventually eats into the metal causing pitting. Leave it on there long enough and even stainless steel can be eaten through. I thought about my bike. I had given Duncan and Ian a hard time about their pretty supermodel bikes. I had joked that I would take a Ducati up here, but now, seeing how sticky this calcium chloride muck is, I would think twice. I would at least put some kind of fork slider cover on, like I have on my bike. I think without some kind of cover on the forks, the fork seals and possibly even the tubes would be toast by the end of the ride.
At this point the bike wasn't bad yet, but I did ponder what it would look like before the end of the trip. Duncan had asked if I really wanted to take my pristine looking bike on such a trip. "Of course. That's what it's for. To be ridden.", I replied. He wondered if I shouldn't put a plastic film over all exposed parts of the bike or somehow protect it's appearance.
I can understand that, but it's not me. If I own something, I want to use it. I do not want the ownership of a thing to limit me. A motorcycle is a symbol of freedom. Attempting too much to hold back the hands of time and Use becomes just another cage. Another reason Not To Do A Thing.
I take care of it as evidenced by the fact I've owned it for 18 years and am riding it, so far successfully, across country. But I am not compulsive about it. I do not let it stop me from riding it whereever I want in whatever conditions, whenever. If I crash it and it dies, I am prepared to let it go even though I love my bike and would be very sad to see it go.The more I ride it the more I love it. This has been going on for years. But I have to ride it. There's no point just leaving it in the garage. I pondered how bad it would look when I was done. What if she really started to look like an 18 year old bike and not near showroom new?
"Just because she's doesn't look as young as she used to, doesn't mean you love her any less.", I mused.
I think I see another parallel to human relationships.
I once had a discussion a long time ago with a friend, Pilar, who is simply model beautiful. She was telling me about a photo shoot that reminded her of her modelling days when she was "young and beautiful".
I had thought about it long and hard and replied, "What do you mean "when"? There are passing fads in this world. things that in one context are beautiful and when you revisit them some time later they've lost their charm. Then there is that rare kind of enduring beauty. The kind that becomes more meaningful, more engaging, more nuanced the longer you experience it. That kind of beauty can never grow old.".
I think about my bike. I get more compliments from more people about my bike now than I ever have before. My own impression about how good my bike looks has changed, improved, with experience. Even cracked, faded, scratched, dulled, dented and scraped, I love the way my bike looks now more than ever. Each scratch, crack and blemish is a story.
People say that men grow more distinctive with age and women just grow old.
I think that's one of those things, like the Dalton Highway and Atigen Pass, that you just hear so often it colors your experience of it so in your mind, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, you still believe what you were told. I know so many women my age who look so much better, so much more interesting, so much more beautiful than they did when they younger. This applies to the youngin's I've known over the past few years as well. Yes, Rachel K., you too.
Alone, out here in the middle of nowhere, free to think. Free to be open, I began to understand, to experience, what it meant to be Away from the voices of the maddening crowd.
This calcium chloride is much nastier than I thought. This may do my bike in. "How can you do that?!? It's such a nice bike. It'll be a collectors item", they would say. But, alone, here out in the open vastness, I can let my bike grow old, on this ride if it happens. I love my bike and I know it cannot be replaced, but despite that I will not fear the day I lose it, even if that day is today. I will experience it as a moment and enjoy it.
I think there in lies another lesson for me. I do not do the same with people. When it comes to people I care about, my fear of losing them or causing them pain overrides everything else. I become paralyzed. I try so hard. I will not "take them out in the dirt" as it were. If I think I may lose them tomorrow, I pull back, sometimes abruptly. I'm like a parent so afraid of losing a child, I prevent that child from playing in the mud or getting scraped. Without those bumps, those bruises, those stories will that child grow up to be interesting? Interested in the world? Or just afraid?
I think I see now that this fear prevents me from doing many things that I would probably do if I were not Afraid, not afraid of the bumps, scapes, dings and scratches I may cause as we move through life, through this moment together.
It was really peaceful out here in the vast openness.
As I stood there, thinking the road was an easy cakewalk, a watering truck passed by.
"Bummer. More muck.", I thought. "But it's really not that bad. The bike will just get a little dirtier. That's ok."
It doesn't look so bad, and it isn't really. It's just that when wet this stuff turns into a kind of sticky dough that gets sluffed up and covers the bike turning into a kind of cement. You can pick at it with a pocket knife and it's hard and crumbly but sticks tenaciously.
The wet didn't last long. I guess the truck had just started it's run and the construction I thought was going to materialize didn't. Usually they wet the road down just after they put down new surface gravel and calcium chloride, which tends to be alot muckier. More on that later.
I passed one of those mega-oversized-loads. I should have taken more photos. I think there was a setup behind with motors that pushed. This was crazy large.
I was cruising along for some many miles on perfectly smooth hardpack similar to what you see in the photo above. There's usually a small layer of dust and ground up gravel on top so it's not exactly like driving on pavement. The tires tend to wander a bit and you feel that stopping performance won't be nearly as good. But you get used to it. And after many more miles you unconsciously pick up speed.
Then, as I've been saying, the road changes unexpectedly. Sometimes you can't really tell where the transition is until you've passed over it.
I hit it doing about 65 or 70. I got lost in thought and hadn't realized I was going that fast. It was a little squirrelly but not too bad. You don't hit the brakes. You don't grab the bars too tightly. The front wheel will do whatever it's going to do. You let off the throttle slowly, if you can and let the engine slow you down.
It's no problem. You just don't want to make any really sudden changes.
Once I slowed down I was able to cruise along at something like 45mph without a problem.
This gravel, about 80 miles outside of Deadhorse wasn't that bad.
What's interesting is that out here the road is built up in places 16 feet off the permafrost. I was told that they have a layer of styrofoam at the base to further protect the permafrost from melting. Underneath here there is 1500 feet of frozen earth, which is why water pools so readily on the surface. This pooled water is also why there is an amazing mosquito population.
So basically the road is a big mound in the middle of the permafrost. Many of the truck accidents you hear about are truckers tending too close to the edge of the road in the snow and falling over.
The Dalton Highway follows the Alaskan Pipeline. The pipeline is the reason the road even exists.
I did not know how central the pipeline and Prudhoe Bay are to the Alaskan economy. I have the feeling the pipeline touches every Alaskan's life in one way or another.
I eventually came upon the big bouncy gravel that everyone said was so hard. "Baseball sized gravel!", they said. "Yea, if you run off the road, maybe.", I thought as I saw this new type of gravel. Yea, this stuff was bouncy. It was uneven, but it was totally doable. You just get rattled a little bit. No where was there anything large enough to cause you a tank slapper or anything that might tip you. The Telluride fire trail up the side of the mountain I tried was orders of magnitude more challenging. This was easy.
It's the same as everywhere else. Don't hit the brakes too hard. Keep your hands loose. Keep the speed to something reasonable. I think I was doing 40mph or so. Don't make any sudden changes. Scan ahead. Watch the ruts. Etc. No problem.
Now if you wander too close to the edges, yes, there are big bits of gravel. So don't do that.
As I got closer to Deadhorse the temperature dropped suddenly. It went down from the mid sixties to the thirties in no time. A strong wind developed. In the distance I saw bluffs that still had snow.
I came upon a hiker who said he saw Muskoxen but unfortunately I did not see any. As a matter of fact, other than the little Kamikazee critters who continued to try to commit ritual suicide under my tires but failed miserably, I didn't see any critters at all.
As I got close to Deadhorse I saw a place a truck ran into the permafrost. It's soft. It sinks. "It would suck if I drove my bike into that.", I thought.
The gravel continued.
From here out it got really cold. I had heard from the KLR riders that it had been really warm in Deadhorse the previous day and that the mosquitoes were fierce. It was in the 30's with a strong wind. There were no mosquitoes and also no rain.
I should have put on the electric vest. It was cold out there. But the fleece jacket thing I had bought in Victoria and was wearing under my Transit Suit was working like a champ. That combined with the heated grips Duncan got me for was enough to keep me just comfortable enough to keep going. I really didn't want to have to take my jacket and fleece liner off in that wind to put the electric vest on. It was foolish. A moments discomfort for hours of warm bliss is a sacrifice I should have made.
There in lies another parallel. Sometimes we endure uncomfortable situations for much longer than we should because we don't want to deal with a short but finite much greater discomfort.
So I froze my ass a bit all the way to Deadhorse. By the time I rolled into town I was really tired and bloody cold. The lack of sleep had caught up to me. I figured I would be on the tour the next day so I could take pictures of Prudhoe Bay and Deadhorse then.
The crazy thing was I made it up to Deadhorse on a single tank of gas. 246 miles indicated after putting around a bit. I only have a 4.2 gallon tank. "Pretty cool.", I thought. My motorcycle, which as I've said I simply love, is also crazy fuel efficient.
I found the Arctic Carribou Inn, checked in, and got myself a cup of coffee to wake up and warm up. The Inn was much like the one at Camp Coldfoot. This one had an even more military barracks feel to it. There were alot of tourists.
As I walked around inside, I ran into the German tourists with the guy that works at BMW. Small world up here. Very small world, in a very big place.
Then I headed over to the General Store, which was a ways away, to take obligatory "I made it to Deadhorse, that's gotta mean something" shot.
Where I ran into Rob and Wayne. They had arrived some hours before and were staying at a different "hotel". There are quite a number of "hotels" up at Deadhorse.
One guy was telling me they get a lot of motorcyclists up there, some from as far away as Argentina.
"How many times have I heard about the 'Tierra Del Fuego' ride on this trip?", I wondered beginning to realize I should not think about that too much. Just a little while ago, just today, before I started writing this entry I ran into three Brazillians who were going up to Prudhoe. The stickers on the one GS they had indicated it had been in most South American countries.
"Oh, this is not good. An Idea is starting to form ...", I began to worry as I thought "I am honestly afraid of South America because of all the stories I've heard .. but fear paralyzes me and keeps me static. If the stories of Deadhorse were so exaggerated could the stories of South America be as well?" I had talked to several people, Tom, Zan, these Brazillian guys. "It's doable. A great trip. People all along the way are wonderful.", they would say. "No Problem".
As I stood here with the Deadhorse sign as a backdrop, I began to ponder ... "How long it would take me to relearn Spanish? Can I do something to train my body to handle starches and sugars again? Could I do a trip like that on a BMW K100RS?".
Today I got an email from some German friends saying there's a guy that's done it on an R1 ...
I wonder ...
I'm back in Fairbanks at a hotel. I'm too beat to write much today and there's alot to tell. I'm thinking I'm just going to hole up here tomorrow and write a long report about the Dalton Highway, Deadhorse and the return trip.
I think then I'm going to take a day trip down to Valdez the next day. There's supposed to be a glacier you can see from the road and a boat tour that sees the same. I've never seen a glacier so I was thinking I'd like to.
I was hanging out in the Coldfoot Camp bar when the bartender switched on the Ice Road Truckers show because someone mentioned he was on it.
"I don't want to watch work!", the guy next to me said. That led to a very interesting conversation.
More on that later. I'll be a very long post. My apologies in advance.
I had left Tok and headed to Fairbanks. I needed to make time so I rarely stopped to shoot photos but as I was riding through the landscape here, which continued to be beautiful, it dawned on me that I have not often mentioned the horror show that's been unfolding on my helment and bike.
Ever since I got into British Columbia, the bugs have just been horrific. I remember the mosquitos from the '92 trip, but this is much different. These beasts are HUGE. I don't know what kind of bugs they are but some leave truly nastly large green splotches. My Transit Suit is covered with them as is the bike. When they hit my helmet, it's such an impact that I can feel it through the padding. In addition, there seems to be an explosion in the dragon fly population. I have never hit a dragon fly before but now I'm hitting them left and right. These are not your average little dragon flies. These are beasts. When they hit the leathers I feel it as if it were a small stone. Yuck. It's going to take forever to clean this mess up.
The bugs are a constant. But after a while you just get used to it, so used to it that you forget to mention it.
At a gas station I saw one of the only older BMW's I've seen on the trip. This styles is called an "air head". They stopped making them in the '80s, but I think this one probably dates back to the late '70s. Bruce has one, an R100RS.
"Have you seen one of these before?", he said as he pointed to a patch on his jacket. He had his BMW 1,000,000 Mile patch. "Yea, but it's been a while.", I replied. I thought about that momentary exhange for some days to come. "Status symbol", I thought, "not one that I would ever want to have.". Riding used to be about numbers to me. How many miles did you do today? How far have you gone? Always numbers. Numbers don't mean much to me anymore. I haven't checked how far I've travelled. Is it 7000 or 8000 miles? More? Less? I don't know and I don't really care.
I saw more moose along the way.
I had stayed in a Super 8 Motel with WIFI, which took FOREVER to find. I had wanted to catch up on the blog since I hadn't written any posts in a few days.
It was hot in Fairbanks, really hot. Somehow the sun in Alaska is brighter and hotter than it is elsewhere. You can feel it immediately when you walk outside, even late at night. It burns. I imagine it's a small hint of what radiation burns must feel like. It's intense. I was hot and very unhappy about it. The Transit Suit does not do well in slow traffic in the heat. You just cook.
The next day I got up early because I wanted to make it to Camp Coldfoot on the Dalton. I had expensive reservations at the "motel" for Friday and Sunday, and a separate reservation at the Caribou Inn in Deadhorse. So I had to keep a schedule. Rooms book up quickly in both locations and given I didn't know what the Dalton Highway was going to be like I didn't want to press my luck by camping. I needed a good nights sleep. The reservations were non-refundable.
The section of the Dalton Highway from Camp Coldfoot to Deadhorse is 240 miles of nothing. No services, no stops, no nothing. My bike can just barely do 240 miles on a tank so I didn't want to push it. After some searching around I finally found a store that had some smallish gas cans. I could have chosen the one gallon can but I thought I should carry a bit more in case I encounter an out of gas rider. I would have plenty to spare.
With the empty can bungied down I headed out of town. Once you get north of Fairbanks things start getting remote very quickly. It wasn't too many miles up the road to the Dalton before I started seeing heavy equipment being hauled.
I had heard about grading repair construction on the Dalton which involved a grader evening out piles of material on the road. I was surprised to run into a section of road where this was being done well in advance of getting to the Dalton.
The mound of material was too high for me to cross. "This could become a real problem if I needed to jump sides quickly.", I wondered as I considered the roads ahead. When they do this work, they also wet the road making it slippery. The front and rear wheels slip and slide a bit. If you have no off-road experience this can be rather disconcerting. It was of no concern to me. The bike went in the general direction I wanted it to. "The Dalton is said to be much worse", I thought.
I came upon an overlook and wanted to take a photo. The scenery was spectacular as it has been for ages now, but I'm still not tired of it. I rolled left, came to a stop and when I wanted to move forward I let out the clutch but nothing happened. The clutch lever was loose and it would not engage. It felt as if the clutch cable had just broken.
I examined the clutch lever and could see that the cable was still, for the first 1/2 inch of lever travel, pulling the lever, but it would stop. "Hmmm, the clutch cable must finally be stuck." I got off the bike, took off my gloves, helmet and removed my ear plugs. It was hot in the direct sun. I played with the clutch lever some more and heard a clunking sound.
"Now this could get interesting.", I said outloud with zen like calm as I considered that the most likely explanation for the clunking sound was that my clutch had just disintegrated basically putting an immediate end to my trip.
I was calm. As a matter of fact, I was surprised to realize, as I stood there on the side of the road out in the middle of No Where with a broken motorcycle that Would Not Go, that I had no emotional reaction to this event at all. I started to imagine what would happen. I considered starting to tear the bike down right there. Maybe I could patch something together. I thought about how long I would have to wait. I checked the cellphone. Yup, no signal. I played with the lever some more confirming that an ugly sound was emanating from below. I thought about inconvenient fortuitous interruptions. "$600 in hotel reservations gone.", I realized. Oh well.
If this had been during the Nightmare where everything on earth would go wrong all the time, I would have had a strong emotional reaction. I would have felt that this breakdown was somehow my fault. It would have confirmed my worst fears about myself. The fact that my machine let me down would have brought back memories of being told "you're a failure", so many times. I would have found some reason to tie this event to my own self worth. It would have devastated me inside. Only those who know me the best could tell when this happened.
But today, Away, I was calm. In a strange way I was looking forward to the consequences. I could let Deadhorse go. "Deadhorse is an arbitrary excuse for a Journey. Maybe this new journey will be more interesting.". I poked around the lever. Yup. Let the lever go, and it only moves about 1/2 inch leaving the rest of the travel useless. Put the bike in gear, let the lever go, yup. Nothing. Bike No Go. I thought maybe if I engaged and disengaged the lever and thus the partially actuating clutch, maybe it would collapse enough to let me ride off in first. I kept hearing the clunking sound from underneath. "Before I jump to conclusions, let me investigate. I tend to jump to the worst possible conclusion and while most often it's been the correct one, maybe this time is different.". I played with the clutch some more, all the while frying in the intense blazing Alaskan Sun. "That's funny. I left the clutch lever out abruptly and the clunking noise I hear is coming from the exhaust." I began to imagine catastrophic internal engine damage, but realized I couldn't come up with a scenario that made any sense where the clutch self destructing would affect the exhaust. I looked underneath the bike. The clutch cable connects to a lever that is parallel with the exhaust on the rear of the engine. There's alot of mud down there. I reached up, pulled and let the clutch lever go. I could see the lower level raise and lower and heard the clunking sound.
"Now look at that.", I actually said aloud.
A rock had lodged itself exactly between the lower lever and the exhaust. When I let the clutch lever out the lower lever was hitting the rock and would move no further, thus not engaging the clutch. I pulled out my trusty Victorinox Swisstool and five minutes later I had a working clutch. I snapped a photo of the spot where this happened.
"There's a lesson here.", I pondered as I was finally able to feel a breeze again.
Some time later I came upon the start of the Dalton Highway.
This road is somewhat of a legend made famous by the show Ice Road Truckers. The legend was magnified in my mind by the seemingly countless riders I met along the way that told me, in essence, that I was crazy to ride this road. "Even with an adventure bike running knobby tires I wouldn't ride that road. It's the most hellish road on earth.", they would say.
I wondered what I was going to find. I imagined a road like the impassable trails I had followed in Missouri. I imagined stones the size of the ones on the firetrail in Telluride. I thought about the times I got my dirtbike stuck in two feet of watery mud. I had said to the Netjets pilot, "It's a slog if you have to get out a shovel.". I wondered how many times would I have to get the shovel out.
I also was interested to see what modifications had been done to the tractor trailers and RV's and other vehicles that drive this road to allow them to pass "the most hellish road on earth.".
Clearly I wasn't thinking it through very clearly.
I didn't have to wait long to see what it was like. Within 500 feet the pavement ended. "So much for it being paved to the Arctic Circle.", I thought.
"Heavy industrial traffic", it said. Great. I had heard of baseball sized gravel being kicked up and killing 10 riders at a time. Well, not really. I had heard people had gotten injured by baseball sized gravel being kicked up as tractor trailers passed. I was looking forward to seeing some of this gravel. "Baseball sized? How do they drive on that?".I would be disappointed. I got hit by a cherry sized piece of gravel once. It bounced off the leathers without ill effect.
The next clue I ignored, still being full enthralled by the legend of how difficult this road is supposed to be.
"50mph? These must be some World Rally Championship truck drivers.", I thought. 50mph on rutted wet mud roads? Are they kidding.
"This should be interesting."
I had read about the calcium chloride they use to bind gravel together. What I did not realize is it creates a surface that approximates pavement. It's a bit crumbly on top with some loose gravel and dust, but on the whole it's not as bad as riding your average farm dirt road. It's much harder and you can carry speed on it. The bike doesn't track quite as linearly as it does on pavement but the squirreliness is easy to deal with. Keeping up a speed of 50mph is no problem on this stuff.
It was early still and I only had 175 miles to go. I was making really good time but I was keeping the speed around the limit. I had that sense that conditions could change any any moment. I had heard the road north of Coldfoot is much worse than the road south of it.
The road continued on. The landscape was green and rolling. It didn't vary much however. Mile after mile it mostly looked the same. The quality of the road changed little in the first 50 miles or so.
I was beginning to think this was being too easy as I approached a section where they were working on the road. They were adding some gravel which was being graded. As had been described to me, they first put down a mound of the stuff and then run a grader over it. The mounds are pretty high and I would have been hard pressed to cross them with my bike. I think I could probably have done it but try it often enough and I would eventually fall over.
Then just as I was beginning to believe the stories of pavement were tall tales, paved sections appeared. This was not a good thing. The paved sections lulled you into a false sense of security. They would go from perfect pavement, to bouncy, jarring nightmarishly pothole filled sections one second to the next. But it was all still entirely manageable until ...
I was coming up a paved hill that had a sharp left hand sweeper up ahead. I was doing about 60mph. A tractor trailer throwing up alot of dust was coming down the hill towards the sweeper. I watched as the tractor and trailer slid laterally from the left lane into my lane as he came around the corner throwing up even more dust. He recovered as if he had done this 1000 times, but the meaning didn't dawn on me until too late.
I hit the corner doing about 50mph only to realize it was about 3" of uneven gravel. There were furrows and mounds of it in all kinds of haphazard patterns. I struggled to keep the bike going in more of less the right direction while shaving off speed. Just as I thought I was going to lose it I gained control of the bike and slipped and slid my way over the uneven terrain up the hill. It lasted less than 100 yards.
It wasn't that bad. It just caught me off guard. At 50mph it's undoable on my bike. At 25 to 30 it was just fine.
And therein lies the danger of the Dalton Highway. Conditions change instantaneously but it happens so infrequently that it easily catches you by surprise. It would be another 400 miles before I ran into another spot of deep gravel. It caught me by surprise too, but the outcome was the same. An elevated heart rate and increased vigilance.
I pondered how I was riding and thought how I should pay more attention. But, contrary to common wisdom, it's unwise to exert that kind of effort. Fatigue is the enemy. If you strain too much watching for particular hazards you become target fixated on them, miss other hazards and you waste a tremendous amount of energy in the process. "I've been riding like this for 35 years and it's served me well. I'll just continue and trust that I'll be able to handle what comes.". I am a very careful rider, but I am not over cautious. Surprises happen. I could have done the road at 15mph and the hazard would have been tractor trailers from behind, which, in my humble opinion, is much more dangerous.
As I pondered how easy the road was in comparison to what I had been told, I came across a dreaded "new wet calcium chloride" section. I had seen bikes covered in mud from top to bottom. I had heard stories of how this stuff clogs radiators and can stop wheels from spinning.
What I didn't realize was how sticky this stuff was. Within about 100 yards my bike already looked as bad as some of those riders I had seen. Then I understood. They too had only gone through a little bit of the stuff. It was a mud-like wet mixture about 2 or 3 inches deep. I had to keep the speed under 30mph and even then it would slip and slide as the tires tried to redirect me into every rut and fissure in the road. It was tricky riding. It also only lasted about a mile. My bike and I were covered in this thick cement like mud.
I now looked like I had been on the Dalton. "Well, that wasn't all that.", I thought.
Then I happened upon a bicyclist. She was also doing a charity ride. At first I understood her to say she was going from Prudhoe to Florida, but it looks like she's going to a place called Palmer. Her name is Caren Cioppa. Her charity page is at http://pages.teamintraining.org/wa/bigwilds10/habataku. I promised her I would link to it.
The lower Dalton runs through rolling hills covered with shrub like trees.
Every once in a great while you would see another rider, on a BMW GS of course. Actually, there was the occasional KLR and KTM. I saw no other sport touring bikes though.
I came upon the Yukon River Bridge. It's made of wood!
The Yukon River is a good sized river.
I stopped and got gas the Yukon River Camp. The worst surfaces I've ridden on in this trip have been the parking lots of the various "camps" along the way. Actually they matched what I feared the Dalton would be. Rutted. Irregular. Deep potholes.
In this part of the world you get a strange appreciation for fuel. You are keenly aware of it. I think it's in part due to the fact that fuel tanks are above ground but also because fuel is so rare here and running out is a real possibility. It takes a truly awe inspiring amount of fuel to enable modern life out here.
And it's expensive.
Another sight you don't see normally is planes parked by the road. This plane clearly uses the Dalton as a runway.
The Dalton Highway follows the Alaskan Pipeline all the way up to Prudhoe Bay.
As I mentioned the scenery between Fairbanks and Coldfoot Camp really doesn't change all that much.
Eventually it starts getting a bit hilly.
About 60 miles before you reach Coldfoot Camp, you cross the Arctic Circle. 18 years ago we had intended on reaching this point. We did a hell ride across the country with the intention of reaching this point on a tight schedule. We did between 750 and 950 miles a day for days on end. By the time I reached Washington State my health gave out and I had to withdraw from the ride. Duncan stayed behind with me. The other two went on to reach the Arctic Circle.
It was a strange reflective moment standing at the circle thinking about the intervening 18 years and everything that transpired; everything I sacrificed or lost.
I was standing there when a Suburban drove up and three women got out. They offered to take a photo for me.
I didn't get their names but my impression was it was a mother, daughter and friend trio. The mother wanted to have her photo taken on my bike. So I moved it around so it was at a better angle and helped her aboard. She seemed to get a kick out of it.
Their Suburban was covered in dust and mud.
They were really nice. The daughter took one look at me and then compassionately offered me a large bottle of water. "You must be hot." They offered me food as well. Also touchingly thoughtful. I didn't have the heart to tell them about the Illness and that I couldn't have sandwiches or that I was allergic to cherries. I was grateful for the water though.
After a little while two GS riders arrived, Rob and Wayne. As it would turn out, we would run into each other multiple times all the way up to Deadhorse. They are business partners who run a heating company. I told them "Too bad Anatoly doesn't ride. That's so cool of you guys to do together." Their business is apparently doing extremely well. At least somebody's is.
Slowly the scenery began to become more interesting.
I arrived at the "motel" in Camp Coldfoot in the early evening. The sun never set. I stayed at the Inn. It was basically temporary housing turned into a makeshift lodging facility. It was not quite as nice as the Deal's Gap resort, but it served it's purpose.
My bike wasn't too bad off. All in all the road from the beginning of the Dalton Highway up to Coldfoot camp did not live up to it's reputation.
I am currently in Deadhorse. I arrived around 4pm today. I have to get up at 6am tomorrow to make it to breakfast in time so I can go on the Prudhoe Bay tour. As a result I won't be able to finish up the Coldfoot to Deadhorse entry until after I get back to Fairbanks. There's no WIFI in Coldfoot.
Even all the way up to Deadhorse, the difficulty of this road has been so oversold as to be an outright exaggeration. The road itself is not difficult. I can see how it would be much more challenging in the rain, but even then my impression is, based on the wet sections I went through today, that it would still be entirely doable. There's always the risk that one might encounter the odd heap of construction gravel or tag the side of a rut the wrong way and go down. But nothing that I saw today in any way matched the kinds of horror stories that people had told me about.
So I spent quite some time thinking about where these stories come from. Experiences are, after all, subjective.
When I observe a behavior that I do not understand, instead of dismissing it out of a hand, I try very hard to imagine a set of circumstances in which I would exhibit the same behavior. I'm the one who looks at a homeless person and asks "what can happen to me today to cause me to be like him tomorrow". I always come up with plausible answers which keeps me humbler than most would suspect. This "the Dalton Highway is hell" scenario is no different.
The Dalton Highway is challenging in places, but not because it's difficult. There's nothing "difficult" about it. It's just long. It does require attention. Fatigue is the real problem. Hazards appear randomly after long periods of monotonous road conditions. Even I fell trap to lowering my guard after the 50th mile of perfect pavement or hardpack. Potholes in pavement can do serious damage. Some potholes can be a foot across and 8" deep. But potholes are relatively rare. Most of the pavement is very good.
The hardpack does tend of have a layer of light gravel and dust on it which causes your wheels to wander a bit. If you are not used to riding in the dirt or gravel this can be disconcerting. It is, however, not a problem. The muddy sections can be a bit challenging but are entirely doable, even on street tires. The wandering is much more pronounced and on the Michelin street tires I have, this is exaggerated. In addition, as your tires find the edges of ruts they tend to move in way that pitches the bike violently making you feel as if it's going to drop. However, there really isn't any need in my opinion to run knobby tires on this road. I think I could do this road in the same conditions as today on racing slicks. If it were raining I might change my opinion. And I may yet have the opportunity to.
So I thought long and hard about all these horror stories. Did those riders just have no experience? Two guys I talked to had been riding almost as long as I have. One said he had extensive hard core offroad experience.
Then I remember a Woman's pool match I watched on television some years ago. If I remember correctly, it was a championship match between the reigning champion and an unlikely upstart that had made her way to the finals. This was causing alot of commotion.
I enjoy the game of pool and it's one of the few competitions that I'll watch on the television when I get a chance.
It was also the only time an announcer has said something that made me pause and think.
It was the upstarts turn. She was making one jaw dropping shot after the next. Her shooting style was impressive and dramatic. She was pulling off shots that I could only do 1 in 10 times on my best night and she was doing them time and time again. But she would eventually miss a shot and the champion would have her turn.
In contrast she seemed only to do easy shots. Each shot was a straight line beginners shot like I could do 95 times out of a100. I didn't really think about it until the announcer said:
"Now that's the difference between championship material and the rest."
I thought he was commenting on the challenger and how good she was shooting.
"A champion makes her job easy intentionally. She plans ahead to make her life easy so she can reserve her best shots only when she needs them. In contrast, the challenger has to pull out her best shot each time and she'll eventually miss.".
Sure enough, she lost the match.
That comment has stuck with me. The Champion won because she put all her work in preparing for the shot, so that when it was done she was set up for the next easy shot.
I thought back to the comments the guys who said the Dalton was 'orrible made. Each one of them had a schedule. "I had to be up and back in two days.". Each went fast. "I was doing 70mph through most of it.".
And then it hit me. Each and every person who said the Dalton was a horrible road attempted to ride the Dalton on their own terms and on a tight schedule. They attempted to ride a partially improved road with random hazards the same way they ride a highway. They were going to ride this road pulling out their best shots at each corner and through each hazard.
They did not give this road the time or respect it needs to be done safely or well. They didn't make things easy for themselves.
While we worked on my boat, Lance once said "You have to give problems the time they need. If you try to force something quickly, bad things happen.".
I imagined not taking my time. I imagined having my self worth and identity tied up in how quickly I could ride up this road and back again. I imagined wanting to brag to my imaginary friends about how cool or tough I was that I could do the Dalton in a Paris-Dakar style.
And I think that is why I had a wonderful relatively peaceful ride and enjoyed the scenery and was unfazed by this road. Seriously, it's an easy road with some hazards that requires attention but is in no way difficult. I had no schedule. If things went badly I was willing to turn around. I was willing to camp. I was willing to push the bike through bad parts if need be. If it rained I was willing to let each section take all day, or longer. I was humbly willing to give the road it's due and as a result it was easy. Strangely, I had no ego tied up in this endeavor. I didn't need to go fast. I didn't need to do it quickly. But I also think that I have had the experience of taking vehicles, including my K100RS, through some truly difficult risky roads. So I did not approach the Dalton from a highway mentality. I approached it from an offroad travelling mentality and not a racing one.
What I enjoyed most, actually, was sitting in the cafes talking to other riders. I met Christopher, Greg and Mike in Coldfoot and had dinner with them. The next morning I happened to be up when they were leaving, because I couldn't sleep, and sat down and chatted with them for a while. Travelling is about stories, not miles or numbers.
For me it's about letting go the deterministic and letting chaos direct me. And I think therein lies another difference.
As a kid I was always fascinated by the game of pinball. Here you have a game where your inputs are so restricted. You have two flippers. The ball can do whatever chaotic thing it's going to do. If you attempt to control the ball deterministically, you lose. It won't do what you demand of it and instead will go down the chute every time. But if you let go. If you work with the game on it's terms knowing full well the that your inputs are limited to "influence", not "control", counterintuitively you can keep the ball in play for a long time.
It is similar thing when driving or riding off road vehicles or piloting a boat. It's less about control and more about influence. Once you let go the deterministic and embrace the chaotic with humility and patience you find you can enjoy them much more and be more successful than someone who attempts to force the machines, and thereby the road, to work on their terms. The latter tends to cause Bad Things to happen.
I have been thinking alot about the parallels between riding a motorcycle and human relationships. Yes, my mind actually does work like that. I believe I've begun to understand that when it comes to people, and especially those relationships most important to me, I do not do what I intuitively do when I ride or pilot a boat. Human relationships are not deterministic. They are chaotic. They have their own terms, just like the Dalton Highway. They are not difficult, but when forced Bad Things happen and they can appear difficult. I have always felts that if only I could teach better, influence better, control better I could be more good to those who I care about.
And in that, I believe I may have been making the same mistake that those unfortunate riders who try to force the Dalton make. I have not humbly embraced with patience my lack of control, my limited influence and just "let go" and accepted these relationships on their own terms. As a result Bad Things happened time and time again and I did not understand.
And for that, I am truly sorry.
I had wanted to make some mileage so I got up relatively early and had breakfast at the adjoining restaurant. My room was on the third floor so getting all my gear back down and on the bike was kind of a pain.
I was trying to make some miles so I didn't stop too often to snap photos. I did notice after a while that the landscape had once again change. Under a layer of vegetation it looked like sand.
I found this rather curious. I wonder if this sand was deposited as a result of the last ice age.
And, of course, there were more beautiful vistas of mountains and trees.
And yet more beautiful lakes.
And even more ...
And strange mountains ...
And due to budget cuts ...
I wonder if Kevin the Mounty needs to worry. :)
Actually, the officer who pulled me over for going to fast has been following the blog and sent me some nice messages through the Contact Yermo link. He said he liked the blog. Amazing. I've been floored at the positive feedback I've gotten about this blog. It makes it so that I want to continue trying to write.
I stopped for gas and lunch in a small town. I have forgotten the name of the place. It was 100 miles or so south of Beaver Creek. I was eating lunch when a guy on a GS rode up. I nodded when he came in and we got to talking.
His name is Gary Wallen. (This one I wrote down.) He had just done the trip up to Prudhoe bay and back again at speed. He had a schedule to keep and had been doing it at around 70mph. Damn that's fast. We talked for quite some time. I got the impression he did not enjoy the run up. At first he said "If I could talk you out of it I would" but after some more conversation he just said to be careful.
He asked me how it was that I was able to do this at such a young age. "I recently completely a rather difficult real-estate transaction." was my answer. He asked why I was doing it so we got into the Nightmare a bit. I told him that I was out here for no particular reason at all. Deadhorse is not a destination, it's an excuse for a journey. My destination is each point along the way. He was waiting for the friends he was travelling with to show up. When I told him I was going very slowly he said "Good for you.".
He went on to say, "You know, for me, it's the autumn of my life. For years I was concerned about raising a family, about work. At this age health becomes an issue. After a few heart attacks ..." and then his friends arrived and he abruptly ended the conversation and left. Too bad. I would like to have heard what he would have said.
Before he left he gave me his contact info. He has a blog about his trip over at blogspot.
I've encountered many people who are envious of this trip of mine. It's primarily the older guys, The ones who are my age and older who get it. The younger ones tend to still be caught up in numbers. In miles.
I hope to hear from Gary again. It was interesting talking to him. He thought the way I was going to do Deadhorse was the right way. Four days. One day to Coldfoot. One Day to Deadhorse. Repeat process on the way back. "The road is miserable", I've heard so often. It's over 200 miles of dirt, mud and rock.
It could be interesting.
I rode on. More beauty.
I came upon an impressive bridge over some kind of river/wash. There was a dirt road down to the water. I stopped to view the scene. The horseflies were oppressive.
I tried my hand at a little more artistic photography. Small vs large.
A couple in a Toyota Fourrunner or similar vehicle showed up and followed the trail down to the water. They got out of the track and I offered, as I usually do, to take a photo of the two of them. They weren't interested so I asked them if they would mind taking one of me.
They had taken their brand new 4x4 up to Prudhoe Bay and back again. They describe the Calcium Chloride and how it bound to their wheels so tightly it caused them to be out of balance. They ended up chipping away at the stuff.
Steve and Phyllis. Steve contacted me here and suggested I take photos of the guardrails at Atigun pass.
"No tagging guard rails.", she said. I have to remember that.
I rode on and encountered even more beautiful lakes.
The 100 miles or so before Beaver Creek are supposed to be Bad(tm). I was told by a number of people just how bad the road is. "Terrible!", one person said. My four adventure riding friends were told not to go on the road because it was so bad.
It was a cakewalk. Yea, there were sections where the frost heaves were large enough that you could catch air if you went too fast. There were places where the road had sunken and deformed.
It's a bit late. I was going to write a treatise on how experts make choices that make their jobs easier on them. I was going to describe a pool match between a master pool player and an upstart. The announcer saying, after the upstart had made a serious of just incredible shots, "this is the difference between a good pool player and a great one. The good one brings out her best shot each and every time, and eventually misses losing the game. The great one makes her own life easy and sets herself up to make the shot.".
If you ride to make it easy on yourself, the Alcan is an easy road. But you do have to pay attention and it is tiring. There are places, rare places, on this road where if you are not paying attention you could easily crash.
In places on the Alcan it's just a mud road.
Along this section I came across what I believe is a coyote. At first I thought it was injured. It just lay there. It looked at me but didn't move much.
But then it got up and, very doglike, just walked over to me.
I assume someone probably fed it and it's started associating humans with food. I left before it got too close.
After some more miles I arrived at the Alaska border!
Yermo at Alaska. Did you know Alaska has it's own time zone? Me neither.
A couple on a Harley took this shot for me.
We had been passing each other all day long. I would stop at a rest stop and they would pass. Eventually I would catch up and pass them. This had been going on all day long.
I was already at the sign when they showed up. In the Yukon and Alaska pavement is rare in parking lots. This area around the sign was on a slope and when he put his foot down he lost footing on some gravel and his Harley dresser went down. I ran over to help. Together with alot of effort we managed the right the bike. A few pieces were a bit bent but the bike seemed to be ok.
They took it all in stride. Nice people. They too were intent on making it up to Deadhorse. On a Harley. With a trailer. Duncan would be envious.
The landscape in Alaska is much as it was in the Yukon.
There was construction and yet another pilot vehicle construction zone. I saw this sticker.
One thing I haven't commented on is the dust. The roads here are dusty. Most parking lots are not paved. Tractor trailers kick up alot of dust.
And so the bike is covered in dust. I expect it'll be alot worse on the Dalton.
I slept like a rock last night but I woke up really tired and stayed that way. I'm in Fairbanks, Alaska now. It's 10PM and the sunshine is brutal. Just being outside for moments make you feel like your skin is on fire. I swear at this latitude, the sun is much brighter.
After working on the last post I thought I'd probably call it a night but it's too early to fall asleep and there's nothing to do. I went over to the Denny's, which is next door to the hotel, for dinner. It claims to be the northernmost Denny's in the world. I can believe it.
My first night on the Alcan I stayed at the Northern Rockies Lodge. There's no commercial power so they run generators full time to power the place. I think they said they go through 1600 gallons of diesel a month.
It's own by a Swiss couple. The swiss influence is readily apparent. Most of the staff is Swiss. The restaurant is in the main lodge. I got the last room in the place at the old lodge.
They have a float plane and do trips out to remote cabins, fly fishing spots and an arial tour of a glacier. You have to have at least two people for the float plane. I wanted to go on the glacier tour and was thinking about who I could conn into joining me.
At breakfast I noticed a guy who looked like a GS rider. We got to talking. He rode a GS, a R1200GS and had just done the Dalton Highway up to Prudhoe Bay. I asked him how it was and he didn't seem to think it was that difficult. "Maybe it was because I had good weather", he said. I have forgotten his name but he was a pilot for Netjets and was an avid rider. "When someone tells me something is difficult I take it with a grain of salt.". That's a mistake I often make. When someone tells me something is difficult I interpret it from my own perspective. What do I think is difficult? How would I define a "slog". "I'd say if I have to get out a shovel to move the bike it can probably safely be called a slog.", I proposed. He laugh. "Yea".
"So far I'd say this trip has been nothing but a long Sunday drive.", I commented. The Alcan is not hard. It's a good road with some rough spots. I wonder how truly difficult this road up to Deadhorse will be. If it snows I could see it being very bad. Many people have told me not to do it on street tires. This guy, I wish I remembered his name, did it on mostly street tires. Guys have done it on Goldwings and Harleys.
Leaving the lodge there were more critters. A mountain goat?
And foreshadowing ...
yup ... a whole herd.
Each bridge seemed to have this kind of cable car setup next to it. I wondered what they were used for.
And there were more bears.
And flowers. Interestingly they seemed to grow in particular numbers in burnt sections of forest.
There's rider culture up here. Virtually every time I stopped to shoot some photos a rider would slow down and give me the "thumbs up? thumbs down?" sign to see if I was already. "Thumbs up" I would gesture and on they would ride. It's cool. I've stopped for a few riders myself.
And there were more bears.
Sections of the road were one lane only. A pilot truck would guide a caravan of cars through the construction. The road surface is dusty and with an unusual courtesy they signaled that I should go to the front of the line. It's apparently policy. Canadians are so considerate.
Yermo in the Yukon!
In the town of, I think it's called, Watsons Lake there's a thing called the signpost forest. Visitors have brought signs from all over the world.
There were alot from Germany.
I looked for a sign from Ahuasen or anything from Kreis Rotenburg but didn't find one.
A nice lady offered to snap a photo for me.
Yea, I had been walking around without bothering to take my helmet off.
I think it was in this town and not in Fort Nelson that I saw the Most Beautiful Gas Station Attendent in the World, who will now join the legendary Canadian Info Booth Girl of 1992 in the annals of travelling mythology. Completely improbable. The woman should be a model. But that's how it is in Canada. Many things improbable things are just common place here. Bear. Seen bunches. Moose? Yea, that too. Beautiful women? Yup, simply an overabundance. In DC, she'd have rich businessmen offering to buy her Ferrari's and take her to Paris. Here they simply get put to work at gas stations pumping gas and cleaning windows of mud laden work trucks.
I was going to write a long monologue about how the Most Beautiful Gas Station Attendant in the World was able to do her work without being bothered. Truckers would drive up. She would come out and, being something like 5'11' or so, would diligently clean windshields, pump gas and do payments without so much as a single bad comment being made. No one bothered her. No one made lewd comments. No one hit on her. No one did anything but show her respect and let her do her work.
I liked that.
In the States, I don't think it would have been the same.
The more time I spend in Canada, the more I like Canadians.
Out of Watsons Lake, or whatever that town was called, my bike turned over 60K.
So I stopped and took a pic of the spot where it happened just to be random.
And I tried to be artistic in my photography.
I kind of like how the flower leans left while the bike leans right. There was a pretty strong breeze.
The Alcan highway ... there isn't alot of traffic on the highway, but there's enough that I wouldn't want to take a nap on it.
I kind of like this shot.
Of course there were more beautiful vistas.
and more lakes...
And weird skies. Misty clouds that partially obscured the sun.
And I made it to Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon, under a dramatic and even weirder sky.
Whitehorse was not what I expected. I had expected it to be an oil industry focused dirty industrial town. It was more like a hippy enclave filled with transients from all over. I stayed in a hotel in the city with an attached up-scale Italian restaurant.
I was in search of Away. I was in the Yukon after all. I sit down at the far end of the bar. At the other end of the bar were four attractive young women chatting away in French. No one bothered them for the entire evening. "I like Canada.", I thought. The bartender asked me where I was from. "College Park, Maryland. It's Northeast of Washington, DC".
"Yea, I know, I was just there. I go to Baltimore every year to watch baseball", he replied.
WTF!?!?! I'm in the F!#@$!@#$ Yukon and the first person I talk to had just been in College Park?
What's worse is, remember the four adventure riders I was mentioning in the previous post? The one guy who's in the Navy, had a girlfriend in Bremen, Germany of all places and he's fairly certain he drove through Ahausen at one point.
It's a crazy small world.
So I was sitting at the bar minding my own business when four women walked in. There were only three stools open next to me at the bar so I said I could scoot over and they could grab another one from the other side and sit down together.
I'm always doing that kind of thing as Outback Rachel and Dale can attest.
They seemed to appreciate that. They were from Washington State.
The one had just turned 50 and seemd to be feeling badly about it. Her sister and friends were a bit older. They were doing some kind of active bicycle pub crawl and were near the end of their run. They told me about a bunch of other things they had been doing.
"They say men age better than women do, but from what I've seen I don't think that's true.", I commented.
They all piped up. "Why do you say that?"
"So how many men your age do you know that go bicycling out from pub to pub, do the hikes and other things you've done. You're more active and alive than most 50 year old men I know."
"Come to think of it, I think you might be right ...", one of them replied.
It's the truth. Many women I know are far more active than most of the men I know. How many 40 year old + men do you know with flat stomachs? How many women? Me, I know far more women who are that fit than men. I know women in their 40's who looks better now than they did in their 20's.
And this bs about men aging more gracefully I think is a crock. Women are just more forgiving I think when it comes to appearance in men.
They were pretty lit, but it was ok.
They asked me where I was from and what I was doing and whatnot so I told them. At one point one of them asked why, so I mentioned the meatgrinder hell I'd been through. A few more probing questions and I told them a bit about the nightmare. I've got to find a better of way of being honest without bringing up the really bad stuff. I'm just too honest.
When I mentioned how the brother in law had gone after my mom, the woman who was sitting next to me started to cry a bit. "I think my sister thinks my husband is just like that. She hates him.".
Women being mistreated. I can recognize it a mile away.
I was able to divert the conversation to lighter subjects and it was ok. By the time I got up to leave they were so drunk they didn't even notice. I'm sure they won't remember my existence in the morning.
I should probably go to bed but I think I'll post a few pictures from yesterday's and today's ride.
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.
Been doing miles. If I do over 400 in a day, I don't have the energy to write. I hope to have some slow days coming up to catch up about the Alaska Highway ...
As I mentioned in the last post, I hardly slept at all last night. So at this point in the evening I am wiped out. I need to try to cover some real mileage tomorrow so my plan is to get up early, pack up, grab breakfast and just head out. As a result I want to finish up today's post before I go to bed.
I was wiped out tired all day. The introspection was at a minimum. Higher level brain activity was shut down to preserve energy for basic bodily functions like breathing and finding coffee.
I spent the morning writing. Then moved to a Starbucks in downtown Prince George and wrote until well past noon. Much of downtown Prince George is boarded up as the view out of the Ramada Inn Starbucks would indicate.
Once I had finished, I went in search of breakfast. I found a Denny's diner and ordered a huge pile of food in an attempt to counteract the copious quantities of coffee I had consumed at Starbucks. The waitress was very nice, as almost everyone in Canada has been.
Continuing my theme of "go slow", once I managed to get on the bike I realized I needed gas. Clouds menaced overhead. I have to admit the clouds up North are different than what we see in Maryland. They are spaced apart with small bands of blue between them.
Once I got gas I made it about 500 yards when it started to rain. No problem. I have my Transit suit but when it rains a bit more I still have to put a cover on the tank bag. (foreshadowing)
Once again, I was trying to cover some miles. I tried not to stop too often to take photos passing up a number of incredible lake shots. The landscape around Prince George is just littered with lakes.
And of course, the lakes are surrounded by flowers.
And as I rode on there were more beautiful lakes. This scene repeated itself dozens of times.
The clouds were odd. Rain seemed confined to very bounded areas. A cloud would appear, maybe less than a mile wide. It would rain under the cloud with enough intensity that the road surface would get wet but as soon as you got to the far end of the cloud it was dry. This repeated all day long.
At one point I was convinced that I was finally going to start getting really rained upon. It started coming down much harder than it had. I was fooled into thinking it would last. I stopped on the side of the road to put the rain cover over the tank bag when ...
Not more than 20 yards away from me a black bear appeared from out of the woods. Instinctively, I completely ignored the bear repellant and instead grabbed the camera. I snapped this photo just as he noticed me. Unphased by passing cars, the bear lowered his head and started moving it side to side and began to move in my direction slowly.
Put away camera.
Shift bike into gear.
Get the fuck out of dodge.
"No getting eated by bears.", she said. Noted.
I realized as soon as I clicked the bike into gear that bear disappeared back into the woods but I wasn't taking any chances. I was out of there.
I rode on for some miles when I came across what is arguably the most beautiful impressive awe inspiring sight of the trip ... and of course the photos don't do it justice. Somewhere on route 97 there is a pull off. As is the case with a number of such pull offs there is a cliff.
In this case, there is a huge cliff. I mean a huge sheer straight down several hundred foot tall cliff.
At the bottom is this pristine lake with a few evergreen covered islands in it.
On the far side is a steep mountain wall mostly covered in evergreens.
Photos again fail to convey ... but I will try anyways.
Ok, notice the foot. (Black boot). This drop off was more than vertical.
Some more shots, just to add to the frustration that no matter how hard I try or how much effort I put into it, these photos just don't capture it.
I admired the scene for a while and then moved on.
I happened upon a critter sign. "Moose!", I thought.
Unfortunately I did not get to see any moose today. I did see an eagle fly though.
As I rode North I noticed the trees were getting taller. I mean these are some tall evergreens.
After about 90 miles the pavement started getting a bit rough. You could tell it just wasn't being maintained as well as the roads closer to Prince George. At one point I hit some ice heaves that jolted the bike for a bit. Foreshadowing again? I slowed it down quite a bit. I began to lose confidence in the road. Up here that is probably a good thing.
There are rest stops every now and again. I try to stop at least once every 90 miles or so, so that I don't get too sore.
What has struck me is how green it is up here. It's the defining quality of the landscape here. Green. Vibrant living green.
While at the rest stop I walked to the woods to take a look in. Deep, dark and uninviting. The camera corrected for the low light. The woods are much darker than this. Think Mirkwood.
Have I mentioned I am completelhy wiped out. I'm nearly passing out here on the keyboard. Just a little more to go.
I rode on much longer than I should have. Gas was getting pretty low when I finally came upon a town with a non-bankrupt gas station. Through my helment and earplugs I could hear this chirping squeeling noise.
This little guy made an incredible noise and was hopping and jumping around all over the place until I stared at him. Then hne would get quiet. But as soon as I looked away he would go all nuts again. This little critter made some noise. Why is it the smallest creatures make the most noise?
Just outside Dawson Creek there are these fields of yellow flowers.
I was surprised to see them promote the Alcan highway.
I rode around town to see about finding a hotel and a place to eat when I coincidently ran into a couple who had stayed at the same hotel I had in Prince George. They recognized my bike. (There are very few royal blue BMW K100RS's in the world.)
There's a marker showing the start of the Alcan in the background.
I always look a bit crazy and deranged when I haven't had enough sleep.
They were nice and were on a tour of dams across the US and Canada.
Tim and Angela. I talked to Tim for a bit about the Englishman who had said the Dalton was so 'orrbile. "He had a nasty spill so he's probably biased. It isnt' all that hard if you just take your time and pick your weather window right.". That seemed to make sense to me.
He also mentioned he participated in an online motorcycle radio show called SideStandUp. Thye had podcasts and the like. Tim's focus is on motorcycling gadgets. On top of that he participates on advrider.com.
I snapped one more obligatory "start of the Alcan" and went in search of a hotel and place to eat.
As I pulled up to the hotel, I noticed an adventure bike. You see a tremendous number of them up here.
For the Dalton highway this kind of bike is much more appropriate.
Ok, now I'm falling asleep. G'nite.