Thursday, July 7, 2011

And So Begins the Long Ride Home

I arrived back in Fairbanks around 10:30pm.  The ride in was relaxed; almost solemn. Suddenly, the most important event in my life, the focus of most of my attention and energy, and almost the very reason for my being over the last eight months - was over.  I was exhausted.  I had been on the road for 18 hours.  I felt numb in parts of me I didn't know existed.  I was unloading Hester in the parking lot when my friend Jeff showed up to congratulate me.  As sore, tired, and completely spent as I was, I was also almost ecstatic.  Jeff and I talked about the ride for a bit before I went to bed.  While I laid there, I was torn between my body's begging me to let go and drift off and the unwillingness to allow the moment to end.  Some part of me rationalized that as long as I stayed awake, it wasn't over and that yielding to the euphoric exhaustion was to acknowledge the end of the very chain of events that created it. The exhaustion won and I slept like the dead.

I knew when I planned this trip that if I simply rode straight home after reaching the circle, I would dread the entire ride back.  So, I planned to make the return trip as interesting as possible with planned stops that would only add a few days to my itinerary.

I awakened at 4:30am with much less enthusiasm than I had when I departed on the Alaskapade and when I started my Circle run.  I was awake nevertheless and took a few moments to review my planned routes.  I had been relying heavily on my Garmin Zumo GPS and it had been very accurate, even along the Dalton.I knew that I would have to backtrack along my inward route almost as far as Watson Lake in the Yukon Territory.  I knew also that that route included the dreaded ride through Destruction Bay and Haynes Junction where I almost bit it on the way in.  Short of riding south to Anchorage and taking a ferry into British Columbia or the States, there was no alternative.  I had paid tremendous prices to plan and execute this journey.  This was one more price to pay.  I am one of those people who at times will allow himself to dwell on the bad in things to the point that they will almost depress me.  That horrible road was all I could focus on and I found myself dreading the return trip because of that one stretch of terrain.  If there's a benefit to such stinking thinking, it's probably that the event which I dread so much never usually turns out to be as bad as my mind had convinced me that it was.  This was the case with the Destruction Bay ride.  Maybe it was because I had ridden it before and had an idea of what to expect.  Maybe it was because it hadn't rained and the surface was dry.  Maybe it was because I didn't have 600 miles under my butt immediately before I attempted it.  Maybe it just wasn't that bad in the first place.  Whatever the reason, the southbound ride through Destruction Bay wasn't nearly as bad as my mind had psyched me out to believe it would be.  Don't get me wrong; It sucked bigtime and I never want to ride anything like that again; not on a Harley anyway.

Burwash Landing Welcome Center
The hell that is the road through Destruction Bay ends traveling southbound in the Yukon Territory at Burwash Landing on Kluane Lake.  Burwash Landing is little more than a sign and an abandoned airstrip in the grass.  Kluane Lake is an enormous, picturesque expanse covering over 150 square miles.  It's glass smooth and reflective surface provided Hester and I with a tranquil welcome from the pounding we had just taken.  It was almost as if God was offering an olive branch as a reward for completing what was arguably the worst ride Hester and I had ever taken.  I would find out later that God was only kidding and the worst was yet to come.

Hester Enjoying Kluane Lake

I stopped aside the lake to rest a moment and to look Hester over for loose nuts and bolts.  I also adjusted and re-tied my gear.  Everything had slipped to one side and while it was tied down tightly and wasn't going to fall off, it made it difficult to ride vertical and it just looked stupid.  I noticed my right saddle bag was hanging low and upon examination, learned that the bolt attaching the mounting bracket to the frame had vibrated loose and was missing.  That was nothing a few zip ties couldn't fix.  Once back in the States, I could find a Home Depot and replace it.  Until then, I would keep an eye on it.  I mounted up and motored on.  Once I hit Haynes Junction, I knew I was out of the woods.  The roads north of Haynes were under heavy construction and there were several stretches were vehicles had to be led by a pilot truck.  The waiting point was usually manned by a cute girl; much too cute to wear a hard hat and reflective vest and be standing out in the middle of nowhere with a stop sign on a pole.  They always waved motorcycles to the front of the line and they always asked where I had been.  When I replied "the Arctic Circle", the response was always "on that?!"  After negotiating all the construction zones, one's natural tendency is to speed up; not to make up time, but because you're tired of going so damn slow for hours on end.  This is the perfect place for cops to sit and rake in the dough from unsuspecting motorists like me.  I suppose the availability of officers is limited up there because the only cop car I saw was the infamous fake police car made of painted wood.  From a distance, it looks real enough to fool most anyone and it certainly fooled me.  I laughed when I saw it on my way in and laughed even harder when it fooled me again on the way down.  I had to sop and get a pic.

Haynes Junction gave way to Whitehorse, which made for a good gas stop.  Getting gas in Canada was actually trickier than getting gas in Alaska.  My GPS had a listing of fuel stations along my route, but it was woefully inaccurate.  I learned on my way up that if I had less than half a tank of gas and saw an open station, that I had better stop and top off.  My general rule of thumb when traveling is to never buy gas at the first station that appears in a small town.  Their prices are usually higher because they snare all the suckers who are desperately low on fuel and have no choice but to stop there.  I had to remind myself that at only six gallons, a few pennies per liter were insignificant.  I didn't have to remind myself on the way down that in the remote parts of Canada, that first station might be the only station.  Even if there are stations, their schedules seem to be based on whenever the proprietor feels like being there.  Even though I stopped regularly, there were several times when my fuel gauge read empty and the miles remaining indicator dropped below ten miles and read "Lo".  I was carrying a spare gallon of gas in my saddle bag and the knowledge that it was there and the additional forty miles if afforded me offered a great deal of comfort. I was pondering the fact that I had not had to use it on Hester when I rode up on a BMW sitting alone on the opposite side of the road.  I saw its rider about three miles ahead of me and stopped.  He had run out of gas and was walking back to the nearest town near Teslin in the Yukon.  Tesln was only a couple of miles away.  I wondered why he doidn't gas up there.  Maybe there was no gas.  Nevertheless, I unloaded some gear on the side of the road, took him back to his bike, and gave him my gallon of gas. He rode up to me as I was repacking Hester and I followed him to Teslin to make sure he got there.  He was on his way to Alaska also and had a thousand questions.  We talked a few minutes as he filled up and then took off to the north.  Even after all that, I debated topping off Hester's tank, but did so before I left.

At this point, I needed to start thinking about finding a place to sleep. I wasn't tired yet and I knew the sun wasn't going to go down this far north.  I looked at my odometer and considered the possibility of making this a 1,000 mile Iron Butt day.  On my way up, I rode over 900 miles two days in a row.  I was pretty beat after those days, but how much worse could another 100 miles be? I decided to find out and so that I wouldn't wimp out on myself, I sent a message from my Spot Connect telling the world of my plans.  Now, I was accountable and had to to make it happen.  I had motivation, I had conditioning, and I had a case of 5-Hour energy shots.  I could do this.  The only potential obstacle that stood in my way was the availability of fuel.  My route would take me across Hwy 1 (the ALCAN) and would snake its way in and out of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory and across the Canadian Continental Divide before hitting highway 37 south towards Prince George.  If I couldn't do a thousand miles, I at least wanted to make it to the highway 37 junction.

Up to this point, the weather had been perfect.  It was cool enough to wear my leathers, but not really cold.  I had once again settled into that riding zone where man, machine, and road became extensions of each other.  That zone can be a difficult place to reach, but just like when I reached out and actually touched the Arctic Circle sign, once I got there, the feeling was worth the effort.  I had finished "The Pillars of the Earth" and "We The Living" audio books and by now was knee deep into listening to "Atlas Shrugged" again.  At 67 hours of unabridged audio, Atlas would probably carry me all the way home.  As I rode and listened, I couldn't help but notice the daunting clouds ahead of me.  Every serious rider knows that feeling one gets when the streaks of rain can be clearly recognized in the horizon.  You hope against hope that there's a clear path for you to ride through it, but you know you're going to get wet.  Just hours before at Kluane Lake, the skies had been an indescribable color of blue.  The magnificent display before me was of multidimensional clouds that were flat on bottom as if willingly yielding a view to the mountain peaks beneath them.  Above the clouds, the crystal clear horizon seemed to reach infinitely into space.  I felt like this might be what astronauts saw from above.  Like the an astronaut, I felt freed from gravity.  It was as if I had no origin and no destination.  I was just on the move and had this amazing view to infinity in front of me as a backdrop to wherever my destination might be.

But now, the clouds had closed their ranks and there was no more blue sky.  Occasionally a crack would appear and laser-like beams of sunlight would pierce through to the ground.  Such light would normally offer inspiration to the prospect of better weather ahead.  In this case, it served only as a reminder of just how bad the rest of the sky looked and perhaps as a warning of what was in store for me ahead.  I continued my east by southeast route toward highway 37, counting the miles as I rode.  I passed bears, moose, buffalo, bighorn sheep, and foxes along the route.  On the way up, I stopped and took photos.  This round, I was focused on missing any rain that I could and hitting my 1,000 mile Iron Butt goal. 

Eventually, mercifully, the ALCAN/ gave way to highway 37 south.  I was running low on gas again and it was after 9:00pm.  I had decided that if I didn't find an open as station at the 37 intersection, I would ride the additional forty miles on to Watson Lake.  I knew there would be no open gas station there, but I knew also that I had enough fuel to get me to the camp site at which I stayed when I was riding up.  Watson Lake is not a friendly town and I felt a sense of threat there when I rode through the first time.  My camp site was about five miles past town, safely away from the derelicts I described on an earlier entry.  I figured that worst case, I could camp there again, get gas in the morning and backtrack to highway 37 south.  Hester's luck held and I found an open station at the ALCAN/37 intersection.  I pulled in as the owner was walking out and locking up.  The look of exhaustion and desperation on my face must have been sincere because his wife felt sorry for me and convinced him to let me in to buy gas.  I asked what was ahead of me on 37 and he said nothing for a couple of hundred kilometers.  I thanked them profusely for staying and selling me the gas and sat on Hester looking at my GPS and paper maps.  Highway 37 leads to the Cassiar Highway, which is said to be one of the most scenic routes in the Yukon.  Scenic or not, it was the route I had to take.  Recent severe rains in the area took out a bridge somewhere between Watson Lake and Dawson City.  37 south was my only route home.  As I sat looking over my maps, an old man who looked like a western gold prospector asked me where I was heading.  When I told him south on 37, he replied "Watch out for the shroomies.  They're out thick tonight".  I replied asking what a shroomie was.  The store owner said that mushrooms grow rapidly after hard rains and that groups of gipsy like people go out in droves to collect them.  He added that they are very territorial and are not to be messed with.  I didn't (and still don't) know if these mushrooms are the dope kind that get you high or if they're just food.  I didn't intend to find out.  I had an agenda.  In about 100 miles, I would hit my 1,000 mark and I could find a place to sleep.

I headed south on 37 as the rain started pouring pretty heavy again.  I noticed a tent on the side of the road with a sign on it that read "I BUY MUSHROOMS".  I thought to myself that maybe the shroomies were just an odd looking arm of legitimate commerce and that these were indeed food mushrooms.  I didn't stop at the tent to ask.  Within minutes, the pavement on highway 37 gave way to graded dirt roads.  I thought to myself, oh great!  I'm back in Destruction Bay.  It was like Déjà vu all over again.  Honestly, I think Destruction Bay was easier than this.  I was riding this time in the rain, after 900 miles, and it was dark. Dark?  I thought to myself, why is it dark?  During my thousand mile ride planning, I had failed to consider that I had traveled far enough south that there was no more midnight sun.  The clouds that had been so inviting, so high and proud above the horizon earlier today had now descended into a brooding ceiling of fog which seemed to hover just feet above my head. Randon fingers of fog draped down to the ground like depressed gray columns  in the dungeon of an ancient castle. They seemed so thick that I actually found myself steering around them and fighting to remain vertical on the gravel road.  At one point, I saw an opening to the sky that yielded a prism of colors reminiscent of the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon.  It wasn't a rainbow.  It was a vertical wall of color; difficult to describe.  I had to stop and get a picture.  I was focused upward at the colors when I heard voices.  I pulled the camera down and saw a group of people working in the field below the prism. They were wearing tie-died shirts, knitted caps, and shorts and were carrying bags.  I thought to myself  that these must be the shroomies the guy at the gas station mentioned.  One of them dropped his bag and came walking toward me.  I dropped my camera and turned to ride away.  As I got back onto the main dirt path, I noticed a few of them hopped in an old pickup truck.  I twisted the throttle and screamed away as fast as Hester would take me.  For miles, I swear I kept seeing headlights behind me.  Perhaps I was just being paranoid.  In my mind, I figured they saw me taking pictures and thought I was spying on them.  Nevertheless, I ran Hester like I stole her and after about fifteen minutes, no longer saw headlights behind me.

I continued southward and while I was relieved that I was no longer being pursued (If I ever really was) I was more concerned now with wildlife.  I bet I saw more bears that night than on the entire trip leading up to it.  Seeing bears in the wild is exciting.  Seeing bears in the same wild where you're looking for a safe place to camp is a different kind of excitement.  In Canada, you can pretty much pull into any open space in the wilderness and pitch a tent.  In previous days, it had been little effort to find places to sleep.  Tonight was different.  I could barely see the sides of the road, so finding a clearing was a challenge. Add to that the fact that I was numb from head to toe (except for all the parts that hurt), I had been on the road for 18 hours, I was cold, wet, and I hadn't eaten in 36 hours, and there was one other feeling I couldn't shake.  I couldn't quite put my finger on it then, but looking back, I recognize what it was.  I was afraid.  I haven't been genuinely afraid in over twenty years.  Genuine fright is a powerful emotion.  I suppose in my case this time, it motivated me to just keep moving.  I had plenty of gas.  I knew I could just keep riding till dawn if I had to.  Finally, I saw a clearing where two camper trailers were parked.  I grabbed a handful of brakes, swung Hester around, and nestled in between them with each camper about twenty feet on either side of me.  I noticed when I was setting up camp that as my flashlight beamed into the woods, I could see the reflections from multiple pairs of eyes staring back at me.  These woods were full of foxes.  I saw several of them hovering around as I was setting up my tent.  Foxes are strange animals.  They trot about and have a gate like dogs, but they sneak around like cats.  I didn't know much about fox behavior, but I knew I didn't trust them.  They seemed to be working cooperatively, planning against me.  Like I said, I was really tired.  For all I know, there may not have been any foxes, bears, or shroomies.  I finished setting up my tent, transferred the day's pics and videos to my hard drive, and wasted no energy fighting sleep.