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...

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.