Saturday, June 25, 2011

Day 5 - Hinton/Jasper, Alberta to Watson Lake, YT

June 22nd - Jasper/Hinton, Alberta - Watson Lake, Yukon Territory
912 Miles
15 Hours Saddle Time

Hermann & Joanne

I left Hermann and Joanne's place in Hinton, Alberta around 8:00am and headed north with neither an agenda nor a distance in mind.  I planned to just ride until I felt like stopping.  My goal once I hit Canada was to roll back the throttle and enjoy the ride.  I knew Dawson Creek was only 250 miles away and since that was the start of the ALCAN (Alaska-Canada Highway), I wanted to be sure to stop there for a photo.  I figured that would also be a good spot to stop to buy a blanket!  The extreme mountains and cliffs that had been the backdrop for my ride into Canada and up to Hermann's place had subsided into rolling hills and vibrant green meadows which were scattered with a variety of livestock.  Looking side to side, it reminded me of the Microsoft Windows log-in screen.  I could almost hear that stupid Microsoft sound.  The mountains maintained their presence in the distant horizon, but they were secondary to the meadows on either side of the highway.  The hours flew by like minutes and the miles like meters.  I hate to sound cliché here, but with no other way to describe it, I'll say that Hester and I were like one entity.  When I left Dallas, the bike's handling was strange because of the high center of gravity and the load I was carrying.  I tried to keep heavy stuff like tools and spare gas low in the saddle bags, but even as light as I packed, it took me a couple of days to get accustomed to different feel.  By the time I hit Dawson Creek, the odd feeling subsided and the handling was effortless.  All I had to do was look where I wanted to go and Hester took me there. 

Navigating the ALCAN traffic circle was a moment of significance to me.  The sign said it all.  I was really, finally on my way to Alaska.  I was also starving because in my haste to get on the road, I foolishly declined Hermann's offer for breakfast.  I hopped off the bike and snapped Hester's photo at the ALCAN sign and decided to look for a bite to eat.  I had hoped to find something relatively healthy.  When I took off again, I had to pee so bad I thought I'd burst.  I was squirming like a five year old and trying to keep Hester vertical while I searched for a place, ANY place to stop.  I pulled into a KFC and literally did the potty dance while I disconnected the USB wires that tethered me to Hester.  I burst through the doors in the middle of their lunch rush, still wearing my helmet and goggles and with my leather jacket zipped, bolted past the people in line straight to the hallway with the bathroom sign.  If the men's room door was locked, I was determined to use the ladies.  If it was locked too, I figured my chaps would hide my pee-stained pants. The men's room was locked, so I swallowed my pride and tried the ladies.  It was open and I tap danced though the door, locking it behind me.  Relief was only seconds away.  All I had to do was shed my gloves, and work my way past the buckle on my chaps, unzip my jeans, dig around to find the waistband of my Under Armor full-length pants, and then dig through the flap in my underwear to try to find my dick. Sounds simple enough, but the light in the ladies room was out and I was still wearing my goggles.  At this point, the potty dance had swung into full-on Jack Lalanne calisthenics mode.  I looked like a blind, poorly-dressed, epileptic cat on an electrified floor.  I found what I was looking for and managed to not stain my pants.   Relieved and re-dressed, I opened the bathroom door and found the KFC manager staring at me.  “The washrooms are for paying customers only. And this ones for the ladies” he said.  “I replied that it was an emergency and that I planned to buy lunch there.  Short of McDonald's, KFC was the last place I wanted to eat.  But I felt obligated at this point and figured I could order something grilled.  I washed down something they called chicken with a slice of lettuce on a bun.  I remember it was brown, but that’s about the most remarkable part of it.  My usual diet on road trips is beef jerky and Monster Energy, so this was no worse, I suppose.  I walked out of the KFC much more casually than I entered, mounted up and headed north.

Belly full, bladder empty, I thought a moment about the trip so far.  It occurred to me that I had yet to see them.

I had been listening to “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett, a great (albeit long) story about 12th century cathedral builders in England. I'm fascinated by history and love history-based literature.  When I came to the end of a chapter or when I just couldn’t stand being read to anymore, I switched my GPS to play tunes from the playlists I had created in the weeks before I left home.  Yesterday, I listened to “The Who – Live at Leeds”. That was some pretty blistering stuff for its day.  Today was Led Zeppelin day.  I’ve always been a Zeppelin fan and considered John Bonham among my top three drummers. Bonham’s timpani instructor Joy Gentile taught my drum instructor, so the Bonham influence manifested itself in my playing. Bonham’s ability to hold back the tempo of music that wanted to run away was amazing and his knack for playing as little as possible, yet seemingly creating more sound always amazed me. But I digress…  I’ve always had several favorite Zeppelin tunes, but had never listened to their entire discography.  I knew I would have plenty of time on the Alaskapade, so I loaded up every album and planned to listen to them in order of their release.  There were amazing tunes I’ve never heard before.  There was also a lot of crap.  With the exception of “The Immigrant Song”  (my favorite on-ramp tune) .Led Zeppelin III really sucked.  I made mental notes of the songs I want to add to my regular playlists and promptly forgot them all.

Hat Collection at Toad's River Ranch
The meadows gave way to the mountains again and looking at the path before me displayed on my GPS, I knew I was in for a great ride.  I kept a close eye on my fuel gauge as I motored through the canyons and sweeping turns.  When you’re outside the towns (which is most of the time), the gas stations seem to open and close whenever the feel like it. After a while, I saw a sign for a landmark I had been told to look out for.  Toad’s River Ranch is famous for its collection of over 4,000 hats left there by visitors over the years.  I pulled in and figured this was a good place for dinner.  After standing for almost ten minutes, I realized the poor girl serving some guests was also the cook, waitress, hostess, and cashier.  I snapped a photo of the hats, noting the count update written on a dry erase board and split. A couple of miles from Toad’s, I glanced back at my fuel gauge again and decided to turn around and head back there to fill up.  I’m glad I did because as it turned out, there were no open stations on the road for hours.  The fuel through much of Canada is low octane and Hester's mileage suffers as a result.  I keep a gallon of gas in my saddle bag, but haven’t had to use it yet.  Even with that reserve can, I don’t let Hester’s tank drop below ¼ full.

As the roads wound on, I was increasingly wound up.  Every turn made me eager to get to the next to see what was beyond it. For hours on end, I was dodging moose, elk, sheep, goats (and all of their droppings), fallen rocks, potholes, and slow-moving tourists pulling rental trailers.  As much as Hester had become an extension of me, the winding Canadian road and all of its hazards had become an extension of Hester.  She effortlessly navigated the curves and hills and I was just along for the ride.  And what a ride it was.  I had been on the road over twelve hours and felt as fresh as I did when I left Hermann’s.  Before I knew it, I needed gas again and much to my surprise, it was 11:00pm.  The sun doesn’t set up here this time of year.  It just goes from dusk to dawn without any real nightfall.  I rode into Watson Lake and decided to look for a place to camp.  Watson Lake was a mainstay for US Army Corps of Engineers soldiers working on the ALCAN during World War II.  One of the soldiers erected a pole with a sign indicating the distance to his home.  Shortly thereafter, more and more signs were added.  Today, the Signpost Forest has hundreds of poles with thousands of signs from cities and towns all over the world. I stopped to take a photo and got a glance of some of the derelict-looking locals who were staring me down intently.  They seemed to be everywhere.  It was like a scene from Dawn of the Dead, only this was duck.  .I decided this might not be the best place to camp after all and looked for gas.  The stations were all closed for the night and none of their pumps took credit cards after hours. I was hungry and tired and I had too little gas to try to ride further.  I was stuck in zombie land.  It struck me again that I still hadn’t seen any of them.  I was wondering if I ever would.
Signpost Forest - Watson Lake, YT  - 11:00pm
I remembered that as I was riding in, I had noticed a small gathering of camper trailers about five miles before entering Watson Lake. I decided to ride back to them and try to find a place to set my tent.  I coasted in, trying to avoid waking anyone and found a spot off the pavement that was shielded from the road by a couple of motor coaches, but still had a direct view of Hester from the spot I would pitch my tent.  I unloaded only the essentials (which included my new blanket) and quickly yet quietly set up camp.  I was still awestruck by the fact that it was almost midnight and still light out. I had ridden 912 miles across varying degrees of terrain.  I stretched out in my sleeping bag and was out before I count to ten.