Friday, July 15, 2011

Riding Home - Alaskapade! Over & Out

Hester - Packed & Ready to Roll Home
This day started like every other in the Alaskapade; I woke up.  I looked over at my phone to see what time it was and to try to figure out why my alarm didn't go off.  It was set for 6:30am, but it was only 6:00.  Had I been at home, I would have rolled over and slept the extra half hour.  But like food, sleep just didn't seem to be something I needed on this trip.  I was living on the adrenalin rush of just being out here.  Well, that and 5 Hour Energy shots.

Where Did All This Crap Come From?
I took my time rolling up my sleeping bag, deflating my air mattress, and generally sorting out crap to be packed for the journey home.  After just two days in this location, I had spread out and made a huge mess.  The ride to Dallas would be about 1,200 miles south through South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and into Texas.  My goal was to pack so that I could take just one small bag into the hotel wherever I decided to stay.  To be honest, I considered making the 1,100 mile trip in one day.  Lord knows if I did 1,000 miles across the terrain I did when I left Fairbanks, I could do 1,100 on highways standing on my head.  I thought better of it.  I was only going home and was in no rush to get there.  It was Monday, July 4th and I figured the traffic inbound to the cities through which I would have to pass would be stacked up with cagers returning from their long weekend.  I decided to stop halfway in Wichita, Kansas and had made reservations at a hotel there the night before.  Wichita was a short 722 miles from Sturgis and the ride from there to home would be a breeze.

Home of Arbor Day. Wow.
Hester was packed and ready to roll.  I walked over to Ed's camp to say goodbye and to express my thanks to him for the riding company and for cooking dinner last night.  He was planning to hang around another day or two in Sturgis and then pack up and head off somewhere, but I don't recall where.  Actually, I'm not sure he knew where he was heading next either.  Despite all the adventures I had just experienced, I was envious of Ed.  I saddled up and headed east on Interstate 90.  My southbound route through South Dakota took me through such thriving metropolises as Winner and Bonesteel before crossing into Nebraska.  It struck me that I had never ridden in Nebraska.  After a few miles, I realized why.  No offense intended to any Corn Huskers who might be reading this, but Nebraska was little more than just a state to get through.  The welcome sign said "Home of Arbor Day". I wondered, don't they need trees for that?  The view in Nebraska never seemed to change; just flat fields and railroad tracks as far as the eye could see.  Fortunately, I had vivid memories and images from the previous weeks dancing in my head to keep me sane.  I found myself actually looking forward to gas stops so I could actually see people.  Interestingly enough, the people in Nebraska - as boring and absolutely unremarkable as it was - seemed happier and more content to be there than did the people of Sturgis.

The 270 mile southbound trip through Alaska was as quotidian as was Nebraska itself.  I saw no motorcycles, no law enforcement vehicles, and for that matter, very few cars at all.  It seemed like mere days past since I entered Nebraska and I was already seeing the sign for Kansas.  I had driven through Kansas before and I knew that it would set a completely new standard for tedium on today's ride.  I stopped for the obligatory photo at the welcome sign and tried to adjust my eyes to seeing in black and white.  About twenty miles from Concordia, I noticed Hester's ride felt squishy.  I thought I was just tired.  Then I noticed I was turning the handlebars to the right just to keep her straight on the highway.  The erudite in me realized that this wasn't normal.  I pulled over to look her over.  I had a flat rear tire.

Only Flat on the Bottom
I had ridden over 9,000 miles through the worst terrain imaginable and I got a flat in Kansas?  I had put 19,000 miles on Hester's original tires when I arrived in Fairbanks and I got a flat on a new tire with less than 5,000 miles, in Kansas.  KANSAS!  I looked the tire over and didn't see any visible tear and figured it was just a puncture.  That would explain the slow decline in handling as the tire lost air.  I was carrying a tire plug kit, so I decided to try to find the hole, plug it, and move on.  I removed the saddle bags and closely examined the exposed parts of the tire, then pushed Hester forward a few feet to look over another area now visible after the roll.  I located what appeared to be a small puncture, dabbed some spit on it, and saw bubbles.  Encouraged, I broke out the plug kit and got to work.  The plug process was pretty simple.  I had successfully used plugs before and they held up well.  I reamed out the puncture wound and inserted the mushroom-shaped plug using the clever insert tool in the kit.  I stretched the piece of the plug protruding out to seat the plug against the inside of the tire and used my CO2 cartridges to inflate it.  After two cartridges, the tire was full.  Success!
Not so fast.  I heard a faint hiss emanating from somewhere in the wheel well.  Upon closer inspection, there was another puncture.  I repeated the process described above and used the remaining two cartridges to inflate the tire again.  No hiss.  Success!  Well, semi-success.  The tire was only half full and I was out of cartridges.  My GPS indicated there was a gas station about three miles down the road, so I decided to slow roll Hester there.  It was closed.  Not just closed; closed down. I slowly rode another twelve miles to a convenience store in Concordia and paid a dollar to use the air compressor in the parking lot.  All I had on me was a hundred dollar bill, which the guy at the counter said he could not accept unless I was buying fifty or more dollars worth of merchandise.  I tried my meanest look (which wasn't difficult to generate), I tried my nicest voice.  I was about to break down and ask the guy to just loan me a dollar when I realized I has a two dollar Canadian coin in my left vest pocket.  I kept my Canadian currency in my left pocket with my passport and my US currency in the right.  When I exchanged currency back in Oak Harbor, they wouldn't take my coins.  I offered the guy the $2 Canadian coin and you would have thought it was gold.  He opened the register and handed me four quarters as he called someone on his cell phone to tell the good news.  I had about $9 in Canadian coins in that pocket.  Judging from his excitement, I bet I could have walked out of there with a case of Monster Energy and Slim Jims in trade for it.

I inflated the tire to the proper psi.  No hiss!  I performed the spit test on the two plugged spots.  No bubbles!  This was looking good.  I waited around a few minutes and re-tested the pressure.  No loss!  Success!  I took off and was looking forward to getting to my hotel.  It was well over 100 degrees out and I was melting.  I had drunk all my water and didn't want to buy $50 worth at the store where I inflated the tire.  All I wanted was a shower and a soft bed.  I passed through Concordia and was heading towards Selina when the tire completely let loose.  Hester was fishtailing all over my lane and I fought to keep the bike and its top heavy load vertical as I slowly rolled to a stop.  I had a towing plan and I wasn't too far from Concordia.  I was planning to stay somewhere that night anyway.  I figured Concordia was as good a place as any.  Tomorrow's ride would just be a few hours longer.  The optimist in me was just glad this didn't happen on the way up.  The Road America towing number was pre-programmed into my phone.  I pulled it out to call and the battery was too weak.  I hadn't been able to charge it because of my previously mentioned electrical issues.  I had pre-programmed a message into my Spot GPS transmitter that read "Flat tire at the location indicated in this message" It continued with the Road America phone number.  I had one or two key people I could send it to and know that the message would be relayed.  It would be a waiting game from there because the Spot doesn't receive messages.  I sat on the road for about an hour pondering my next move when a Kansas State Trooper blew by me, made a U-turn, and then pulled up.  I admit that I'm not normally happy to see a State Trooper's lights flashing behind me, but I was happy to see this guy.  He invited me into his air conditioned cruiser and let me plug my phone in to call Road America.  I waited another hour in the trooper's car for Road America to call me back with a status.  They did, twice; and both times told me they couldn't find anyone, but that they were still looking.  The trooper was perfectly happy to let me sit there in his car.  He said that they were not allowed to drive over 130 miles a day and he had already hit that.  He added that he was on overtime for working the holiday, so sitting with me was no bother.  We chatted about our families, his recent 18 months military service in Iraq, what it's like to approach potentially angry drivers, and whatnot.  Another hour later, a truck pulling a flatbed trailer arrived.  Road America called the Concordia Police and had them dispatch a local towing agency.  I had to pay him and will hit Road America up for reimbursement.  Turns out, this guy was a local cop with a Harley and a trailer.  He loaded Hester and dropped me off at a Super 8 Motel.  He said he'd store Hester in his garage overnight and pick me up in the morning to take me to a local motorcycle shop.  It literally was an offer I couldn't refuse.

A Rare View of Hester on a Trailer
I checked into the hotel and when the lady at the desk saw my Rockwall address, she asked me if I knew where Wylie was.  Wylie was minutes from my home.  I replied that I rode through the back roads there often.  She and her husband were from Wylie.  Her husband used to work for Nortel Networks.  I used to work for Nortel Networks.  Her husband worked in the Technical Assistance Center as dedicated support to the Global Crossing account.  Global Crossing was my account.  I even knew his name, but we had never met in person.  Still, what were the odds?  As thrilling as those coincidences were, I was still whipped and quickly made my way to my room and after a much-needed shower, hit the sheets.  I laid awake listening to an endless barrage of fireworks and screaming voices seemingly right outside my window.  I peeked out and realized they were right outside my window.  Apparently, Concordia has no laws against fireworks because dozens of kids were running around going crazy with bottle rockets, roman candles, and sparklers.  I was reminded of my days as a kid when we used to shoot bottle rockets at each other and chase each other around shooting fireballs from roman candles on our bicycles.  Fireworks were cool.  My kids got jipped.

Tuesday morning arrived and Hester was waiting for me on the trailer behind the pickup truck when I stepped out of the hotel.  The parking lot was littered with burned paper, melted plastic rocket fins, and little colored dot trails where smoke bombs had been rolling around the night before spewing their smokey haze.  We rode over to the repair shop, which was only a few blocks away.
Hester Meets Phil's
California Phil's was an independent bike repair shop and the owner, Phil specialized in Harleys.  From the instant we met, I could tell Phil was a cool guy.  Actually, I knew it before we met when I saw the sign in his window.  Phil had the tire I needed in stock and got to work on it right away.  I tried to stay out of his way, even though he invited me into his shop as he worked.  He had all manner of bikes and cool old cars back there.  The mint condition 1972 Corvette he bought in high school still stands out in my memory.  I especially liked the Harley Davidson desert bike with the Rotax motor that was purpose built for the military for use in Desert Storm.
Phil and I talked while he worked and before I knew it, the tire was mounted and balanced and Hester was off the lift.  I strapped the old tire to my Trunk because I have a road hazard warranty through my dealer.  It's pro-rated and the tire is brand new, so when I need a new one, I'll exchange it.  I saw several BMW and KTM adventure bikes carrying spare tires up in remote Alaska, but mine was the only Harley I saw doing that.  I paid Phil for the tire and labor.  He shot me a great deal on both.  I was stranded and he could have raped me for parts and labor, but he didn't.  I got the impression that his character wasn't the type to do that to customers, but when you're used to dealing with Harley Davidson's dealer service shops, you tend to keep your guard up.  If you're in the Kansas area, or you order parts on line, look Phil up.  He ships all over the country.  He's made a customer out of me.

Harley Davidson Rotax MT-500 Special Forces Bike

I was back on the road by late morning heading south in I-135 towards Salina, KS.  There was a Harley dealer there that I had considered taking Hester to had she made it that far with the two plugs I installed.  I wouldn't have considered trying to ride the remainder of the trip home on that tire, but it was irrelevant now.  I was riding without any leathers now.  It was hotter now than it had been on the entire trip.  Texas and much of the southwest entered an extreme heatwave after I left back in June.  Other than rain here and there, I had enjoyed great riding weather.  Now, I was melting.
I looked at the air temperature gauge and it read 60 degrees.  Something told me it was off.  I tapped the fairing and it jumped to over 115.  That was more like it, but I still didn't trust it.  Honestly, I don't know why I even bothered to look at the damn thing.  It's never been right, which made me wonder.  Harley can design internal engine sensors that can detect that the crankshaft is 1.5 degrees out of sync and then send engine killing alarms to the Electronic control Module, but they can't figure out a stinking thermometer?  I'll be opening up the fairing to clean, tighten, and re-seat everything after the trip.  Maybe I'll replace the air temperature gauge with something more accurate like a mood ring or a divining rod.   
The 187 miles from Concordia to the Oklahoma line passed quickly.  Atlas Shrugged had me pleasantly distracted from the heat.  Hank Reardon had joined the strikers; Dagny was surely next.  Oklahoma to Texas was 220 miles.  Once in Texas, I had a short 80 miles and I was home.  Atlas ended.  I had read it before, but it's such a great and profound story that a repeat was warranted. I was heading south on Interstate 35 in Sanger, TX, jamming out to Ace of Spades by Motorhead using the spare ear buds I discovered in my glove box and then recalled that I had placed them there before the trip.  In one of my routine mirror checks, I saw red and blue lights flashing behind me right on my ass.  Oops.  I pulled Hester onto the right shoulder, killed the motor, and dismounted.  The Sanger Police officer patiently waited for me to remove my helmet and then told me that he clocked me doing 80 in a 70 using a laser gun.  I had seen him on the service road several feet off the highway and I wondered where the flat, reflective surface on Hester was that he used to clock me with a laser.  Nevertheless, he was probably right and as much as I like a good debate, I don't argue with law enforcement.  I explained that I was on the final leg of a 10,000 mile trip and that I believed was really just trying to go with the traffic flow and not impede other drivers.  I never denied the charge.  He ran my license and let me off with a warning.  The irony of it all struck me.  I had ridden almost 10,000 miles through twelve states and two Canadian provinces.  With the exception of some courtesy assistance from a Kansas State Trooper, this was my first interaction with the law on the entire trip.

My last night in Sturgis while sitting atop "Mount Rodney" in the the RV park, I began musing about the past few weeks; the miles Hester and I covered and the places I had seen.  This trip was many things to me.  In fact, it was many more things than I planned for it to be.  My attitude before I left was piss poor.  I needed to get away.  I felt like with the exception of one or two friends, nobody seemed to get me.  I left with no fanfare.  No one at home even bothered to get up to see me off.  I was OK with that and realistically didn't expect them to.  This was my dream and it had been made clear to me from the beginning both directly and indirectly that it was a selfish and risky endeavor that I had no business taking.  I agree that this was somewhat selfish and that there was a degree of risk.  I was also fully aware that I am genetically prone to wanderlust. I wrote about it months ago and I've always managed to keep it in check.  That mindset notwithstanding, I was somewhat angrily looking forward to being alone; just an anonymous guy out on the road on a bike with no responsibilities and no sense of commitment other than to realize a long suppressed dream that few who really mattered to me seemed to understand.  I got to experience those moments of solitude and they were wonderful in a liberating sort of way.  I wouldn't trade the feeling for anything.

Fat Shrug - December 4, 2010 & Slimmer Shrug June 21, 2011
Speaking of feelings, this trip took a physical toll not just on Hester, but on me.  I had worked hard for six months to condition myself and be ready.  I was in the gym at 5:00am doing heavy cardio  five days each week and had altered my diet considerably.  The hard work paid off and I dropped almost fifty pounds before I left.  The reality is that no amount of gym time could have prepared me for the pace I maintained while I was out there. I began at almost 250 pounds in January and weighed 186 when I returned. I've been reviewing the video I shot while out on the road and I think the transformation my viewers will see when we're finished editing it is astounding.  There's a tremendous amount of footage to review and edit, but when it's finished, I believe it will yield some exciting stuff and provide a pretty insightful view into my head and my heart; dangerous places - not for the weak.
I sat looking out over Sturgis and considered the people I met along the way. Hermann and Joanne in Jasper, Alberta graciously hosted me and cooked a wonderful meal for me in their home.  Jeff in Fairbanks let me use his corporate rental as a base of operations while I was in Alaska.  He also gave me encouragement and invaluable information about the Dalton and pipeline weather conditions.  Christian from France riding Mustang Joe; his months-long south-to-north journey was an inspiration.  Meeting Scot at the Arctic Circle and then again on the road in the Yukon Territory and getting to ride two days with him gave me someone to share the experience with after being alone for days. Ed from Florida in Sturgis helped me to remember to slow down and enjoy the view.  He cooked a great steak too.
Pastor Jerry & Shrug at the Circle
I met a guy named Jerry while sitting at the Circle.  He and his friends had commented that somebody forgot their hat, pointing up at Martin's Harley cap I had left there moments before they arrived.  I replied that it belonged to a friend of mine who "couldn't make it."  Jerry walked over to me and mentioned that he was a Pastor for a biker church and added "I think there's more to this hat than that."  I related Martin's story to him and he seemed genuinely moved. I was already somewhat emotional having finally reached the sign, having kept my promise to Martin's widow, and having had time to contemplate things.  I'm not a religious person, but this was indeed a spiritual moment for me.  Well-timed compassion and understanding are powerful things.  Jerry emailed the the photo on the left that one of his friends shot after he returned home.
There were countless others who were along from a distance tracking me via the web page.  There were times when I felt very alone and insignificant out there and I would then realize there were thousands of eyes looking down at me, watching my every move.  I received a phone call at my hotel in Great Falls from friends who tracked me using Google Earth, saw the hotel, called it, and had the front desk ring my room - just to tell me they were watching and were hoping the best for me.  I loved it.  I received hundreds of texts and emails from people telling me they were living vicariously through my adventures and my writing. When I was in the parking lot at Yukon HD in Whitehorse, the parts guy came out and asked "Are you Shrug?"  I answered and he said, "You gotta phone call inside."  A reader from New Zealand tracked me to the dealership, called their number and jokingly asked me to pick him up a t-shirt.  Again, I loved it.  I saw a passenger in an SUV staring me down as I passed them.  A few moments later, they sped up next to me honking their horn and waving.  The passenger was waving her arms and pointing to her iPad which had the Alaskapade page on it.  They told me at a gas station hours later that they saw the logo on the back of the bike and "tuned in".  They emailed me the day I got home congratulating me on the trip's success.  I received an email from a group of soldiers in Iraq. They were all Harley riders who were tracking me and commented that they would be proud to ride with me any day, anywhere.  I was humbled beyond description.  My point isn't that I was gaining notoriety.  My point is people really cared.  What started out as a simple means of on-line self affirmation and a dream to deliver a stupid hat somehow grew into something much bigger than any words I could write or photos I could post.
I considered all of what I just described and compared it to the times I spent alone and it occurred to me that I needed people more than I thought I did.  I was ready to go home.  I missed my family and friends.

Crossing into the Lone Star State
I rode the last hours through Texas genuinely excited to be getting home.  A close couple of friends who had been tracking me since I left were on the road waiting to follow me in and videotape my arrival.  They had actually gotten up the morning I left, met me on the highway forty miles from home, and taped my departure.  Here they were again to support me and share the experience.  About fifteen miles from home, I spotted a Harley rider on the side of the road and I remember looking over at him wondering if he needed help.  He waved and started rolling as soon as I went by and then rode up to me at a traffic light and yelled "Welcome Home!  He added something along the lines of "You and Hester are famous".  He told me that California Phil in Kansas was a friend of his, had read my page, told him I was coming through, and that he was moved to join me on a triumphant ride in for my last few miles home.  I have to admit I was glad I was wearing goggles.  I rode down my alley and into my driveway feeling a sense of accomplishment that I still can't pin words on.  The reception at home was about as warm as the one when I left.  Zeus was happy to see me and the friends who taped my departure were there.  Otherwise, the attitude at home was as if I had never left.  I accepted my role at home of being financially necessary but otherwise emotionally insignificant long before I left.  Perhaps that's one reason this journey was so important for me to make.  This journey wasn't for the readers.  This journey wasn't even for Martin.  This journey was for me.
Five years of dreaming and eight months of planning came down to 18 days and 9,764 miles for one man on two wheels.  It was more wonderful on every level than I could have possibly anticipated.  It was also much harder than I thought it would be.  The triumphs were great - crossing into Canada, reaching the Arctic Circle and slapping that sign, riding a thousand miles in one day, crossing back into the States, and the people I met who I'll never forget.  The trials were plenty also - horrible roads, motorcycle malfunctions, losing gear along the way, the flat tire, intense storms, and unplanned detours.  I wouldn't trade the triumphs or the trials for anything.  The events in our lives - be they good or bad - make us who we are.  Before I left, someone told me that this journey would be a good opportunity for me to find myself.  Since I returned, a few have asked if I feel it changed me in any way.  I'm pretty sure that although I wasn't looking, I indeed found myself.  The guy in the photo below is the guy I found and I hope I never lose him (hair notwithstanding).  I wonder a bit if the people who really know me will like that guy.  The answer to that last question is yes because before I left, I would have actually cared whether or not those same people who really know me like that guy.

Alaskapade! Over & Out.  Stay Tuned for the Video, Coming Soon.