Saturday, June 25, 2011

Day 6 - Watson Lake, YT - Fairbanks, AK

Snapped, Crackled, Popped, & Ready to Ride - Watson Lake, YT
Waking up in Watson Lake was strange. It was one of those nights where you blink your eyes and six hours have passed.  The light outside my tent was as bright as it was when I fell asleep.  For all I knew, it could have have only been six seconds.  I suppose I slept dead still, never moving because my body was stiff as a board and every joint popped as I laid in my sleeping bag and went through my awakening stretch and yawn routine.  The snap crackle pop from my bones reminded me of the more rude awakening I experienced back in Canmore.  It occurred to me then that my new blanket did its job well.  Money well spent.

I unzipped my tent and peeked out to see Hester, still there, still covered.  The derelicts from town didn't find us.  I uncovered her and turned on some music.  My Sirius satellite had no service.  I thought that to be rather odd and switched to mp3 tunes stored on my Garmin GPS.  I was in a pretty mellow mood, so I played from my massage music collection.  This stuff is like musical Quaaludes and it set my mind up to be able to think about today's ride.  In the brief seconds before I fell asleep last night, I decided that I would ride all the way to Fairbanks today.  It would be another fifteen hour day with over 900 miles to cover, but I proved to myself yesterday that I was capable of making a run like that and I figured today was no different.  Today would prove to be very different.

I wondered again if I would see them today.

The ride out of Watson Lake started with a fill-up at the only open station in town.  The woman behind the counter looked at me and the patches on my vest and asked "What's Shrug?"  I told her it was a nickname and she asked me why they called me that.  I shrugged my shoulders and replied "I donnow."  She didn't get it.  I thought to myself what life in Watson Lake must be like.  Her job in that store was her window to the outside world.  I live in a place where people go as a destination and I had a destination on this trip.  I'm not sure I could live in a place that was just a stopping spot for the rest of the world on their way to their destinations. I wasn't sticking around to find out.  As I buttoned Hester up and tightened my helmet strap, I saw one. It was just one solo, but I was sure it was one of them.  I got a little excited.

The Stop Before the Bridge - Christian Rode On
Christian From Brazil & Mustang Joe
The rider was on a BMW adventure touring bike.  This was the ultimate machine for a trip like the Alaskapade.  I could see myself on one of those beasts.  I followed the BMW from a distance, figuring he was a local and knew better where to risk speeding.  The Canadian speed limits are woefully slow, even in the most open and flat roads.  Driving this slow on highways in Texas would get you killed.  This rider was on the move and I sped up to catch him, but maintained a respectful and safe distance.  We were carving through the corners like a heated Shogun JP series knife through a stick of butter.  I followed him for miles and he eventually started pointing out road hazards as he passed them.  Doing that is a common courtesy among groups of riders.  We weren't a group, but his warnings were a sort of acknowledgement that I was there.  We came upon a park with a scenic lookout over a large suspension bridge that traversed some river, the name of which I can't recall.  I stopped to get Hester's pic there before crossing the bridge.  My anonymous companion rode on and waved as he disappeared over the hilltop.  I snapped a quick shot, crossed the river and pulled into the first gas station I saw.  Apparently, this was the only open station and the line of cars and  trucks was long.  I rode around a large trailer and saw my BMW riding buddy there in line.  I pulled in behind him and waved as I dismounted.  He said something to me that I couldn't quite understand, but I know I heard the word "coffee".  I just smiled and nodded.  He went into the store and returned with two cups of coffee, sipping from one and reaching out to me with the other.  "How cool is that?" I thought to myself. I thanked him for the coffee and offered him some money, which he refused.  I hate coffee.  I love the smell, I just never acquired the taste.  Nevertheless, I forced myself to drink it with a smile.  I introduced myself as Scott from Texas and he replied as Christian from Sao Paulo.  Holy shit!  He had been on the road for months and was heading to Prudhoe Bay.  We chatted briefly and took a photo.  As we talked, I glanced up and noticed two others. I was starting to see them more frequently now.  The closer I got, the more I would see. Christian noticed the graphic on my fairing and said questioningly, "Hester".  I replied that Harley calls the color of my Road Glide Scarlett red and before I could explain the literary reference, he said in a thick Portuguese accent "Hester Prynne; very clever".  He was the first person to whom I didn't have to explain the correlation.  He pointed to a graphic on his fuel tank of a ferocious looking horse with the words "Mustang Joe" above its head.  His BMW model is the Mustang.  We had a laugh over the similarities of our situations and mounted up to ride on.  I had to ride with my helmet face mask opened to avoid smelling my own coffee breath.

I was confident now that I would see more of them.

Christian pulled over and motioned for me to take the lead. I was still enjoying my Siamese relationship with Hester and confidently motored past Joe and into the lead.  We rode together until we reached Whitehorse whereupon Christian and Mustang Joe exited.  I looked in my mirror in time to see Christian waving goodbye and waved back.  I pulled into the Yukon Harley Davidson dealership to pick up a t-shirt and something to drink.  One can never have enough Harley t-shirts.  I asked the guy behind the counter if there was a Subway nearby in hopes that I could grab a quick salad.  He gave me directions which I completely forgot after one turn out of the parking lot.  I decided to just head north to Destruction Bay.

I had read horror stories about the road to the Alaska state line from Destruction Bay. After completing that run, all I can say is it was aptly named.  The start of the run should have been a premonition of what was yet to come.  After topping off Hester's tank with more watered down, low octane gas, I came upon a road block.  This stretch of highway was under serious construction and vehicles had to be led through by a pilot truck.  I was the first to arrive and the woman with the flag said it would be about ten minutes before the pilot truck would be back.  The truck arrived and led us though a muddy swamp of a road with scattered ruts and potholes that could swallow a Volkswagen whole.  I probably logged ten extra miles just from meandering back and forth around the holes and ruts.  After about ten miles, the pilot truck waved me by and turned around for to lead the southbound traffic.  I figured I was out of the woods, so to speak.  That was rough, but it wasn't that bad.  I figured wrong.  The next fifty miles were the worst I've ever encountered in a car or on a bike.  I was being bounced around like a ping pong ball dropped onto a field of loaded mouse traps.  There was no getting around the ruts, humps, dips, and holes.  They were everywhere.  There was no safe speed either.  Go too fast and you would hit a hole before you saw it.  Go to slow and you didn't have sufficient speed or inertia  to maintain vertical balance and forward motion.  I was on and off the throttle and clutch like a mad man.  It was both mentally and physically exhausting.  Figuring I was past the worst of it, I picked up speed and began to relax in the saddle a little.  Suddenly, I was launched into the air high enough to see the gap between the "road" and Hester in my shadow.  My front wheel hit the ground first and then my back wheel rolled into a huge pot hole. when it did, the rear end bounced so violently that I was literally bucked out of the seat and was doing a handstand over the bars.  I could actually see my reflection in the chrome of my console trim.  I had my helmet face guard closed and all I could see inside it was a mask full of eyeballs.  I was going over the bars; I knew it.  In a flash, the Alaskapade would be over before it really even started. In a last-ditch panic effort, I twisted the throttle in an attempt to get Hester to lunge forward and pull me down. It worked. In a flash, I was face down between the handlebars with my stomach on the gas tank and my legs flailing behind me over my tour pack. I pulled my knees forward and managed to slow Hester to a stop.  She tipped slightly to the left and rested on the highway peg which was mounted on the engine guard.  My heart was pounding and my hands gripped the handlebars like a boa constrictor around its prey.  I quickly took stock of my situation.  There were no cars approaching me from the north, which was fortunate because I came to a stop in their lane.  The impact had popped both saddle bags open and my camping gear sack was laying in the road.  I scrambled to collect my gear and button up the saddle bags.  I stood Hester upright, pushed her to what would be the shoulder if this had been a real road, and paused to collect myself and wash out my pants as my heart rate settled.  The road continued like this for another couple of hours.  It was insane and somewhat maddening.  Thinking back on it, I'm not sure if the end result would have been any different had I been fresh on the bike as opposed to eight hours in like I was.  I was just thankful it was over.  A sign said the US border was 30 km away.  Alaska was finally within reach.

Mecca to Bikers
I quickly passed through Customs and stopped for a brief celebration and a quick photo at the Alaska sign.

Finally, I saw them.  There they were. Groups of them.  All along the route I had been looking for the others.  Surely Alaska had called others like it had been calling me.  Could I really be the only one on the road who answered the call?  Thankfully, no.  From the Alaska welcoming sign all the way into Fairbanks, I saw bike after bike.  Groups of riders, some with trailers, some on trikes, but all with the same goal in mind.  It reminded me of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". In that movie, people were motivated, inspired, called to a location they had never seen.  Like myself, they overcame numerous obstacles, distances, and ridicule to get to a common place.  After thousands of miles and a week alone on the road, I felt like I was a part of something; something synergistic if you will.  I don't know these people and they don't know me.  But we silently acknowledged respect for each other and our common goal.  I felt great.  If I never reached the Arctic Circle, I could go home and feel great about my journey.  This feeling motivated me to stretch to make the final leg of the day's ride up to Fairbanks.  I had been out of touch for two days with no email or text messaging.  My Spot communicator had allowed me to send outbound status updates, but I couldn't receive anything and hadn't for two days.  I had an important message in response to my announcement that I had crossed into Alaska from a fellow rider named Jeff who lives in Alaska.  I just wasn't able to receive it.

To be continued...