Texas To Alaska And Back
A chronicle of two friends' 14,000 mile motorcycle journey to make a statement, although they can no longer recall what that statement might have been.
Day 1 - 5:30 a.m., Friday, June 17, 2005
The morning was fairly typical in every way but one. Although I was up and dressed only slightly earlier than usual, the rest of the day would prove considerably different from my normal routine. This particular morning I was leaving my beloved and comfortable East Texas to begin a journey of substantial proportions in a significantly different manner than any other I'd ever experienced.
I never dreamed I'd ride a motorcycle to Alaska. A year and a half earlier, I had not even planned on riding a motorcycle . . . I didn't even own one at the time. While I had ridden dirt bikes and moto-crossed many years earlier, I never considered riding street bikes until recently. It was just one of those things that pops up in conversation and normally dies of neglect shortly after its introduction. This one however, stubbornly and rather sneakily hid in the far folds of my brain as a bad idea that kept sounding better as I grew more accustomed to its irritating little re-occurrences . . . a kind of reason-resistant germ that wouldn't die.
Common sense had next to nothing to do with the ultimate decision . . . to straddle a sizable V-twin engine cradled between two wheels and ride as far north on this continent as pavement would allow. I suppose I deserved my fate for counting among my good friends one Bob Ewing, a man whose life has been spent on the proverbial edge, doing every day what most of us would consider dangerous stuff. The retired former owner and president of North Star Aero, Inc. and North Star Helicopters, Inc. of the neighboring town of Jasper, Bob spent most his life in the air and when he wasn't up there, he was down here on a motorcycle; hardly tame behavior by anyone's standards. As it turns out, one of Bob's lifelong goals was to ride to Alaska and back, a feat not attempted by many, especially as Texas is among the states most distant from Alaska. Once the idea was vocalized in that conversation, it took over and grew like a bad weed. He had found a riding partner who didn't immediately call him crazy, a response he had grown used to hearing until I came along. I had found someone whose personal ambitions were unbounded, needing only a "why not?" guy like me to explore the limits of that ambition. So a plan was hatched and the deed was begun.
6 a.m. found me at Woodville's West Magnolia Drive-In, our usual meeting spot for all points west. The morning started with jeans, T-shirt, and windbreaker, as 65-70 mph wind can be cool even in June. By the time we reached Huntsville and breakfast, the jackets were packed away and we became easy riders. The rest of the day was uneventful as getting across Texas always seems to be, especially when you start only a few miles from Louisiana. By late afternoon, we felt particularly strong, so with adrenaline still defeating good sense, we opted to push the day and spend the first night in Clovis, New Mexico, some 700+ miles away. I recall thinking that the 700 miles in one day represented about 5% of our planned trip so all we had to do was duplicate that day 19 more times and we'd be back home . . . a piece of cake.
Day 2 - Saturday. June 18
Road-wise, more of the same, the west Texas/New Mexico desert as far as one could see. However, by noon we could see mountains in the distance . . . coming up quickly. Our pace quickened as well. Our second night was a real joy as we spent the evening with a couple of Tyler County's finest, former Woodville residents Tom and Joella Knapp. Their beautiful new home in Taos, New Mexico proved the perfect rest stop after a great afternoon in the mountains and riding the "twisties" of the Sangre De Christos range. We passed the ski towns and slopes of Red River and Angelfire before looping back down to Taos. It's difficult to explain to anyone other than cyclists why we would choose back mountain roads and routes that are actually longer and more out of the way as opposed to taking the most direct path to a destination. I can only say, it's about the RIDE. The thrill comes not just from the sights and vistas, but the challenges presented by the sharp curves and switchbacks of mountainous terrain. We're in the open, surrounded by all the sights and smells of nature in its most beautiful state . . . not to mention the sounds of barely restrained horsepower as the bikes negotiate the passes and canyons wriggling before us. I recall being thankful for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Riding Course I took prior to licensing this time. Despite having ridden before, I figured you're never too old to learn a few more things and at 64, I had probably already forgotten most of what I knew anyway.
The night was passed with great merriment at Tom and Jo's favorite restaurant up near Taos Ski Valley. Boy, what a sunset as we dined on the patio on the western slope looking west. The sun's last gasp sat atop Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest at over 13,000 feet. As the perfect hosts, the Knapps (mostly Jo . . okay, all Jo) provided a great breakfast in the Mexican tradition the following morning before our early departure. As usual, they were both off after us to their duties at their new church where Tom was to read at one service and play at the other.
Day 3 - Sunday, June 19
The trip this day began with the still-amazing sight of the Rio Grande Gorge just a few miles west of town. Having skied Taos many years, I've seen that gorge as many times and am always shocked to see its depth as it simply cuts through the high desert. Here, you're riding out across gently rolling ground with no expectation of anything other than more gently rolling ground. Then a sign before a flat bridge warns of stopping on the bridge. You are a third of the way across before you realize the enormity of the chasm below you. It's a smaller version of the Grand Canyon, except you're crossing it on a bridge.
Once across, we begin climbing slightly through the Kit Carson National Forest and head toward Durango, Colorado. On the southern edge of the San Juan Mountains, Durango provides the lower terminus of the famed Durango/Silverton Railway. The motorcycle ride between these two and on to Ouray provided for me the most beautiful and challenging road-ride I've ever experienced. I hear the train ride is great, but it couldn't possibly provide the thrills and heart-stopping views of the mountain roads there. Silverton lay as a jewel in an upland valley. Your first glimpse of the town is from above it over a 1,000 feet and over a mile away. I could hardly believe I would spend the night there . . . once I negotiated the 4 or 5 miles of mountain road to get down to it. The town had a single paved street; the one down the middle, about 6 to 8 blocks long. All the others were dirt and gravel . . . not a fun surface for large cruiser-style motorcycles topping 800 lbs. each. We found our spot, a log cabin motel on the main street. The street was full of music as we enjoyed the Silverton Brass Band's street concert. Akin to early Dixieland, it was real toe-tappin', turn-of-the-century stuff and they drew a nice crowd. The quality of the musicians was quiet amazing. For such a small town, they sure had a lot of really good ones. Of course the community at large is a pretty "artsy" place and tends to draw artists of all kinds as well as intellectuals and writers. Musicians, it turns out, are in abundance. There were about 12-15 members and they perform regularly around the area. We had dinner at a restaurant/pub dating back over a hundred years. The food was fresher than that but not quite as fresh as it should have been. Bob ended the evening with a nice little bout of food poisoning.
Day 4 - Monday, June 20
Bob's having no fun whatsoever. Nor did he, all night long. Fortunately, we ate different foods and I got lucky. He stayed in the motel until checkout time while I rode the area looking for good photo ops. By noon, he decided he could ride a little. We departed there and while we were both on the route, he missed the most beautiful run ever, to Ouray and parts beyond. What spectacular scenery . . . for me. Bob on the other hand, simply looked for rest stops with porcelain scenery . . . and we didn't miss any including the smallest pull-offs where he could get his bike off the road for a minute or two for re-hydration and other considerations. One such stop included a long nap on a picnic table that refreshed him somewhat. We made landfall early that evening and he was asleep around 4 p.m. in Delores, Co.
Day 5 - Tuesday, June 21
With Bob feeling a little better we departed Delores and headed west. We took a route through the canyon lands of southeastern Utah. First, we got to see Natural Bridges National Monument, an incredible, natural arch (actually, there were several) created by wind and water over thousands of years. Further down and into northern Arizona, we rode through Monument Valley, or as known by the locals, "John Wayne Country" because he filmed so many of his movies there. There's even the small community of "Ford", named for Wayne's director of choice, John Ford. Before departing Utah, a particularly thrilling ride was the approximately five miles of loose gravel road descending from a high mesa down to the valley floor. Signs abounded warning of the conditions; steep switchbacks, poor traction; no campers or vehicles over 30 feet; motorcycles beware, etc. We could blame no one but ourselves for being at this precipice; the lady at the visitor's bureau in Blanding some 60 miles back had cautioned us of the gravel section. Unfortunately, to turn around now would mean 100 or so extra miles and neither of us wanted to be the first to suggest the more sensible alternative. So we began our descent . . . and what a descent. Within a mile or so down the steepest road I'd ever been on, we reached another very large warning sign, "CAUTION: 1,100 FOOT DESCENT OVER NEXT THREE MILES". Good grief, it was about to get steeper. The gravel was so loose you couldn't touch your front brake at all, and the rear brake was quite "iffy". We managed to slide our way down with some semblance of control and were much relieved (with puffed chests, I might add) that we had safely negotiated this descent into the Valley of the Gods. With the valley floor came another hazard . . . we were entering the 100+ degree areas of northern Arizona. This was pretty hot, or so we thought. We had no idea what lie ahead of us in the coming weeks on our second foray into Arizona during our return trip. We finally made it to Medicine Hat, a little town on the Utah/Arizona Border still within the Navajo Reservation. Good news greeted us at lunch: Bob proved he was over his distress as he downed two liters of water and a really big chilidog with onions and cheese.
We had a little more excitement as we headed out across the mesas and plateaus of wide-open country en route to Page, Arizona, the jumping off town to the Grand Canyon's north rim. I had only experienced winds like that once last year in Big Bend near Marathon, Texas and then only for a few miles. I remember wondering if a bike and rider could literally be blown off the road. We later learned the winds topped 50 mph as they raced down the slopes ahead of a thunderstorm. By the time we reached Page, I was physically drained from leaning about 20 degrees right to keep the bike going straight down the road. I'm sure the desk clerk wondered why we walked into the lobby with a tilt.
Day 6 - Wednesday, June 22
Grand Canyon is truly grand. We experienced our first rain and fairly cold temps on the way into the park, a nice change from yesterday's 110. While that didn't dampen the views for us, it made photographing the canyon difficult because of the haze, light drizzle in the area, and lack of sunshine. The colors of the canyon walls, while brilliant, would have been nothing short of spectacular in full sunlight.
After lunch, we made our way back into Utah for a run up the western side of the state and to see Bryce Canyon. The weather had other plans and proceeded to park a huge thunderstorm over the canyon so we were forced to bypass it. We got a glimpse of the pink hues as we were only a couple of miles away and we attempted to stay to the west of the storm. Normally, we would have had more patience and waited it out but we had plans to meet other bikers in Deadwood, SD a couple of days later. Twelve friends and fellow riders from the southeast Texas area had trailered up and were to ride with us in and around Sturgis, then to Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, and Glacier Park over the next week.
Day 7 - Thursday, June 23
After spending the night in Richfield, Utah, on I-70, we began our west to east cross-state trek toward SD. While interstate highways are fast and efficient, they're my last choice of conveyance. You have the trucks, the torn-off tires on the roadway, and the sameness, hour after hour. I kept thinking how nice the run would be when we turned north just shy of Denver and rode up through Arapaho National Forest and the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park to Estes Park. I was pleasantly surprised after we passed Grand Junction, Co. on I-70. Although an interstate, it goes straight across and over the Rocky Mountains. What a ride! That run has to be the most beautiful in the US interstate system.
We made much better time than we had thought (not to mention Bob feeling much, much better) and our plans to spend the night somewhere between Vail and Estes were changed to make it even further. We ended up in Cheyenne, Wyoming by nightfall and were pleased to find a room so late after a 620 mile day. I guess interstates have their place, even for bikers.
Day 8 - Friday, June 24
Well, this was the day we were to meet our other southeast Texas friends. Cheyenne to Deadwood, SD was an easy run 'though uneventful. Bob and I had made the same run last year on our way to the famous (or infamous) Sturgis Bike Rally. We managed to find the lodges we had rented for 4 days atop a mountain overlooking Deadwood and Sturgis. The accommodations were quite nice in both lodges and seeing old friends again made us feel at home. The others were all couples, two from Bob's and my church at Lake Rayburn and four from previous trips and all good friends. The Lake Rayburn crew, Gene and Trudy Hollyfield, and Gary and Charlotte Collins, along with Bob had been the ones responsible for getting me back into motorcycling a year and a half ago. The women's presence made Bob and me feel a little more civilized. Shaving became less a chore and a little more regular. Although we had called and visited our own wives every day since we had left, we were reminded how much we missed them . . . especially when one of the others would hand us a nice cold drink or cup of coffee we didn't have to fix ourselves. (Am I in trouble yet?)
Days 9, 10, and 11 Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, June 25, 26, 27
Great rides through Custer State Park to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, the Badlands National Park, and the Black Hills filled the next three days. I was as humbled by Rushmore as I had been the first time: it's amazing what a single, motivated person can do. Crazy Horse is another example of drive and determination to accomplish something of lasting value to be appreciated for years and years. The fact Crazy Horse is being built without any federal or state funds is amazing. It is strictly a private endeavor and represents the best of independence. Custer Park gave us a glimpse of the wildlife in the area. Buffalo, moose, elk, and wild donkeys remarkably skilled at begging were on hand. The twisties in the park were indeed fun and all of us enjoyed testing our skills. It was much better than last year when Bob and I were there during the Sturgis Bike Rally and had to share the roads with over a half million other bikes. The moonscape quality of the Badlands was nothing short of eerie. I never imagined they sat practically in the middle of the most beautiful grasslands this country has. In a matter of a hundred yards the terrain went from productive soil to waste. Amazing!
Day 12 - Tuesday, June 28
Gee, we hated to give up the lodges. We had not had to pack all our "stuff" on the bikes for three mornings . . . what a nice byproduct of staying for awhile in one place. Oh, well, it's off to bigger and better things, like Yellowstone National Park, about 525 miles away, another fairly hard ride. While about half of it was on interstate 90, the second half took us through Big Horn National Forest and the Big Horn Mountains bursting with wildflowers in the upper valleys, and the Absaroka range in Shoshone National Park. I was pretty excited to get back into the mountains until the really dark blue skies parked on top. As we took the Chief Joseph Scenic Parkway over 11,000 foot passes we encountered a major mountain storm and I got my first experience riding in a hailstorm. Prior to the marble-size hail, I was concerned with the incessant lightning, and freezing half to death. The hail was a blessing however as I suddenly forgot I was cold and wet, and the lightning seemed a more humane way to go. We slowed but continued riding as we were facing into it. Since hailstorms are notoriously short our thinking was it would be over more quickly if we kept moving. The blacktop road disappeared under a blanket of white. For a while I could see Bob's tracks, etching a black stripe into the white cover. Soon that disappeared as well and we simply rode down the middle of the opening between the trees. It's difficult to imagine hail hitting hard enough to hurt through Levi's, leather chaps, insulated gloves, two shirts, a leather vest, a leather jacket and a complete rain suit and a fully shielded helmet. The only thing that didn't sting was our feet and our heads. Then suddenly it was over. We dismounted and removed the remaining hail from the seats and crevices in the bikes. The depression formed between the gas tank and my legs held a good gallon or so of the marbles and I was glad they were no longer pelting us. The remaining ride into Gardiner, Mt for the night was nothing short of beautiful.
Day 13 - Wednesday, June 29
The whole bunch us left early for the long awaited ride down through the heart of Yellowstone National Park and Old Faithful. I had long assumed this famed steam powered geyser to be a singular wonder in the park. We had barely entered the northern park gate when we encountered the first of scores of geysers and vents. Bubbling caldrons of superheated water mixed with sulfur and minerals were found all along the roads with some being on lake shores and others overflowing the lips of their own formed mini-volcanoes in the woods. It was a surreal landscape in many places as steam rose into the morning cool. Of course, Old Faithful was the star of them all. We arrived there in time to have refreshments in the visitor's center, then watch as she blew high into the sky right on schedule. I know this event can be reduced to hydraulics, vessel pressures, thermodynamics, and other scientific explanations, but the very moment it happens simply causes one to stare in amazement at this phenomenon. It lasts for several minutes and finally settles back down to its benign-looking steaming vent, awaiting the next shift of tourists to sit patiently watching for the next eruption.
As we continued our journey towards Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons, we were continually treated to more sightings of the wildlife, this time in herds, not just a few individuals. Caribou were in abundance as were buffalo herds. Some in our group got to witness two large herds swim across one of the many rivers, entering the water upstream from their targeted exit on the far bank. Between their strong swimming and the swift current, they hit the spot exactly, as they evidently did everyday on their trips to and from their favorite pastures.
At the southern end of Yellowstone as we continued toward the Wyoming town of Jackson, the Grand Tetons came into sight, and what a sight. Magnificent snow-capped peaks jutted skyward on all sides of this most beautiful, alpine-like valley. Flowers in abundance painted the rich meadows with a colorful brush. Jackson Hole, the very descriptive name given this valley surrounded by 360 degrees of mountains was as beautiful as all the photographs I had seen. Nature's beauty is easy to experience and difficult to describe. I'm glad this time I was on the experiencing end.
Day 14 - Thursday, June 30
We awoke in the pristine village of Jackson, a very "touristy" yet quaint town in the middle of the valley. We were anxious once again to head north back into Yellowstone taking a different route to see yet more of the National Park Service's crown jewel. On this morning's ride, lakes dominated, shimmering in the morning light, framed with the rising steam of vents along the shores, and back-dropped by the magnificent Tetons. The weather was more moderate this day with no rain to speak of so we rode only in leathers and were able to pack away the rain gear. By the time we returned to the park's north entrance and another stay in Gardiner we were ready for a nice "all-together" meal. It's difficult for so many bikes to stay together while riding as traffic and individual interests break us into smaller groups. We looked forward to a celebratory meal that night as the Silsbee "bunch" were heading home the next morning.
Day 15 - Friday, July 1
Glacier Park, here we come. For the first time, the entire route from one natural wonder to the next was labeled "scenic" on our maps. For almost 400 miles straight up through Montana we were treated to wondrous sights and "Big Sky" country. I often wondered about that designation because west Texas, for goodness' sake, has a "big" sky. Well, I hate to admit it, but Montana's skies do indeed appear "bigger". I don't know why, perhaps the cloudlessness and the blue saturation level. For whatever reason, it was immense and thoroughly enjoyable. Feeling insignificant came quite easy up there.
Once again, Bob and I got to wear the sides of our tires by leaning into a fierce wind as we neared the town of East Glacier Park. For 50 or so miles it came from our right. Thankfully, the route changed and for another 25, it came from our left. What a relief. We got to balance the tire wear to the other side, and use different muscles to stay upright.
Day 16 - Saturday, July 2
Finally. Something that had worried me for quite some time was about to stop worrying me. I had planned on mounting new tires in Kalispell, Mt. prior to beginning the second leg of our trip into Canada. I had estimated I had about 4,000 miles left on the old tires when I left home and that the trip from home to Kalispell would be about 4,000. That and my skill at prognosticating wear-out already had me worried and my anxiety over the matter wasn't helped when we ended up putting over 5,000 miles on the bikes since home. So much for guessing . . . especially since Bob and I, riding just the two of us, never make plans, reservations, or decide routes until the last moment. So here I was, ready to make the last 90 miles through the mountains to Kalsipell and new tires, and I was riding slicks . . . having missed the estimate by a thousand miles. Now motorcycle tires use a very soft rubber compound to improve traction so tread is really only important on wet roads where it's necessary to get rid of water and avoid hydroplaning. Fortunately, it wasn't raining that morning . . . only a slight sprinkle.
I was awaiting the dealership to open at 8:30 a.m. for my scheduled appointment. One of the employees was a fellow Texan and saw to it the bike was serviced quickly. Bob, who had accompanied me, and I left before lunch for Logan Pass and the sights of Glacier National Park's highest road. I now felt really safe for the first time in several days so we headed up into the mountains with glee. We thought we might meet the others at the pass as they got a later start from East Glacier that morning and were traveling the same road backwards from us. It turned out they went north into Canada instead. Evidently they could see the weather from their side that we couldn't. Never trust mountains. However good it looks when you start can change in a heartbeat. They even have road signs that tell you that. So here we are, enjoying more twisties and the incredible vistas of the U.S.'s most northern Rocky Mountains. Then the blue turns navy and the rain begins. Okay, so we slow a little and I'm happy with new deep treads on new tires. But remember that warning about trusting mountains? The sleet began a few miles short of the summit. At least it wasn't hail . . . it was much softer, mixed with a few snowflakes. By the time we reached the pass and the visitor's center we had to stop. When the sleet and rain subsided we got to play in the snow for awhile before heading down the other side. The trip down was fantastic. It's amazing how quickly euphoria can become fear can become euphoria. Mountains are good at that.
Back at the motel we found a note from our riding companions. We had planned another "together" dinner that night as they were scheduled to head home the next day, leaving Bob and I to continue our Alaska or bust tour. They had gone into the Canadian part of Glacier Park and decided to spend the night there. They would then come back to U.S. Glacier for one additional day before heading home. We were happy they were enjoying Glacier Park as much as we.
Day 17 - Sunday, July 3
. . . . as good a day as any to head to Alaska. But neither of us had been to Idaho, so being somewhat spontaneous we decided to head further west and check out that part of the country. The only noticeable difference as we moved toward the Pacific was things becoming greener. The terrain was similar to Montana but sure enough, the sky was becoming smaller. That afternoon we crossed over into Canada and began our northward trek. We were anxious to ride the Icefields Parkway from Banff, Alberta to Jasper, through the Canadian Rockies and along the continental divide. We had heard this was the Alps of North America.
We ended up not going toward Banff at the first opportunity as we were told finding accommodations would be extremely difficult the closer we got. They were right. We passed "No Vacancy" signs in abundance. We decided to try Golden, BC a little more off the beaten path. Voila, we found a room in this little town before rain was upon us. Canada celebrates July 1st and many folks had made a long weekend out of their holiday so rooms were scarce.
A good portion of the pile of "stuff" on my bike was for camping. I had sleeping bag, tent, and a fine air mattress belonging to Doc and Peggy Burton of Woodville fame. Being a retired doctor I figured it had to be a "posture-pedic" or other such fine sleeping pad. Unfortunately, I never found out as most every night threatened rain or foul weather so we only packed it and unpacked it for a month or so. I may sleep on it in the middle of my living room floor before returning it.
Day 18 - Monday, July 4
The decision to go through Golden turned out to be a good one. The road to Lake Louise intersected the Icefields Parkway just above Banff and we only missed the heavy tourist traffic in the town. Canada's highway 1 was one of the most scenic roads we had found. A side trip took us to a fantastic river that had cut a hole through solid rock and gushed through the arch in an amazing display of waterpower. Coupled with breathtaking scenery, this turned out to be a great ride to the top of the Rockies at Lake Louise.
The Icefields Parkway was all it was cracked up to be . . . beautiful and magnificent. I would have to take issue with the comparison to the Alps however. In beauty it was similar . . . in immensity it was sorely lacking. The Canadian Rockies at this point were small enough to fit in one of the big alpine valleys I had seen last summer in the Swiss Alps.
As we left the Rockies behind a little beyond Jasper, Bob and I both expressed what we already knew . . . we had yet to see anything as stunning as our very own sights in the states like Glacier NP, Rocky Mountain NP, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, etc. This country is hard to beat in natural wonders and we were yet to see a great deal of it. I also wondered how the Tyler County Heritage Society's July 4th picnic would be going about that time. Was Doc Burton leading the singing again? I could almost hear "America, The Beautiful" in the rhythm of the bike's exhaust.
Days 19, 20, 21 - Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, July 5, 6, and 7
We awoke in Prince George, the one city in Canada you must pass through to go to Alaska by road regardless of your route. We have so many ways to get around in the lower 48 it's hard to comprehend the lack of roads in the provinces of BC and Alberta, and the Yukon Territory. I can drive 20 minutes into Woodville any one of four efficient ways not counting dirt roads. You can fly or sail to Alaska but if you're on wheels you'll go through Prince George.
We chose the northeast road to Dawson Creek because it begins the famous AlCan highway, started in 1942. We wanted our photo taken under the "Mile Zero" signpost located there. We arrived in the middle of the day and found the start arch by the visitor's center in town. Wow! This was the official beginning of the road to Alaska. Never mind we had already traveled over 900 miles in Canada to get to Dawson Creek. As if to slap reality into our senses, the sign said, "Fairbanks, 1,488 miles. That made the trek from Idaho to Fairbanks over 2,400 miles . . . about the same from Pittsburg to Los Angeles. One thing we found there eased my mind from what I'd read about the AlCan . . . the availability or lack thereof of gasoline. This highway goes through some of the most untamed wilderness in this hemisphere with precious few signs of habitation and civilization. Not very long ago, people carried extra gas in cans strapped to their cars and trucks. Bikes have small tanks and therefore limited range. I considered carrying a can until I was given an "AlCan Fuel Guide". This was a neat little pamphlet showing availability by milepost all the way to Alaska. Referring to it judiciously saved us from carrying extra fuel. The longest stretch I recall without fuel was 180 miles. Had we not topped off our tanks at the right place, we would not have made it.
Prior to the beginning of our trip, I read no less than a dozen accounts on the internet about others who had made this same trip on motorcycles. They covered several years and it was apparent that each year saw better and better road conditions as the Canadian Highway Department got better and better at making lasting repairs on the roads, especially in the Yukon where frost upheavals tear up the road each winter. The summer months are "repair" months and we knew we'd see a lot of road construction, detours, etc. When they repair a section of roadway, they begin by completely chewing up the existing surface down to the foundation that sits atop the permafrost. They've learned to insulate the base better so the repairs now last quite some time. The same gravel-laden soil (?) that constitutes the base can appear in four forms depending on the amount of moisture. When dry, the dust is so bad you can't see more than 10 feet in front our your handlebars and it can clog your air filter in a few miles not to mention your lungs. When it's dry they allow the motorcycles to come to the front of the line to avoid suffocation. There, in the stopped line of vehicles, the young lady manning the flag (99% young college women . . . don't know why, but we didn't complain) explains graphically the conditions you are about to experience. Not unlike Faith Hill grasping your hand and telling you, you are about to die . . . a rather bittersweet moment. Dust was our first trial near Fort Nelson.
I mentioned four possible road conditions: the second is immediately after the water truck passes that's used to keep down the dust. Now this is exciting on a bike. The hard packed surface remains . . . under about 1/2" of a wet, lime slurry, reminiscent of my uncle's over-populated chicken yard when I was a kid. Just outside Watson Lake, we're warned by the smiling co-ed to not get off the crown of the road. "Why just yesterday," she relates sweetly, "a biker got too close to the slanted shoulder and managed to ride all the way to the bottom of a 75' deep ravine before finally crashing". "If you keep it in the middle," she continued", it'll only wiggle around a little and you'll be fine." I'm thinking, "Hon, do you see this gray beard? Would you allow your grandfather to ride an 800 lb. bike through there?" Of course I don't say that out loud. I only manfully grunt something to the effect of, "Looks easy!". Speaking of "through there", Canada's repair stretches are nothing like Texas' where we have a quarter mile or so and we're back up and running 70 mph on a smooth highway. Nooo . . . Canada's repair sections are at least 20 km long at a time. That's almost 13 miles. Thirteen miles of ravine-bounded chicken yard is not a fun thing even if it didn't smell. Bob and I began asking each other, "Are we having fun yet?"
Then, there's the third and most challenging form of road condition, at least for bikers. This one just about put us both down . . . twice. This occurs after a lot of rain. We encountered the worst one after a full day's rain near Whitehorse, Yukon. We had had another earlier in the day but not nearly as bad. I'd teased Bob while telling other biker's at lunch of the experience and how I followed him through the 2" mud but couldn't decide which track to follow. At their quizzical looks, I explain he had laid down three: the middle one with his tires and one on each side with his feet. Everyone laughed as I described the caked mud up to his knees when we finally emerged. He grinned and swore I'd lead through the next mud course. I didn't have to wait long. The rain continued and the young traffic lady at the next barricade said it was a "little soft" for a few miles but she thought we'd be okay. Okay? A twenty-something's idea of okay is nothing like my idea of okay. I think she meant we'd most likely live. We hadn't gone a couple of miles when the mud went from an inch deep to several. Five to six inches deep and slick as before, we found ourselves in the ruts of vehicles that had passed earlier. Riding out of the ruts was impossible and staying in them just as impossible. When the floorboards of my bike began skiing over the mud on each side of the ruts I knew it was only a matter of time before disaster. Since several vehicles made the ruts, they soon parted and split into several paths. Of course my front wheel took one and the rear another. Riding sideways is a strange sensation. My solution was to counter-steer and accelerate . . . a tried and true method of pulling out of a skid on a dirt bike. Cruisers have little bite in the mud however so in wrestling the bike, I managed to turn it 180 degrees to slide in the other direction for awhile. Thankfully, both tires managed to find the same rut so I became stable again. Before my eyes could return to my head, it happened again and this time I knew I was down. Completely perpendicular to my direction of travel and moving about 30 mph I accepted my fate just before the bike again miraculously leaped straight. I can only surmise the floorboards acted as outriggers and prevented the bike from going completely down. Whatever the cause, I was thankful. The worst was over and I was able to glance in my mirrors to see Bob sideways in the same spot. If he had any confidence before watching my choreography it was long gone. How we both avoided a crash is beyond me but his fate would have been worse as an 18-wheeler was right behind him. Had he gone down we'd never found him or his Harley. That experience was the topic of conversation for the next several days.
I can't begin to relate the number of sightings of wildlife on the trip up through Canada. Buffalo, moose, elk, caribou, deer, black bears, fox, eagles, pronghorn sheep, bighorn sheep, and even a wolf pup met us at many turns.
We expected an easy entry back into the U.S. at the Alaskan border, but it was anything but. U.S. customs at first seized Bob's camera after observing him readying it for a photo while waiting in line. They were on high alert as the first London terrorist attacks had just occurred. They didn't have many details, only the heightened caution. Once convinced we weren't "casing" the facility, they let us pass after insisting we erase our photos with warnings to not take any more photos at crossing points.
A few more construction zones and 645 miles finally delivered us to the city of Fairbanks. The ride from the Alaskan border to Fairbanks was the most disappointing, I suppose because we had so many expectations. The terrain was fairly flat and uninspiring but we were nevertheless excited to have finally made it.
Bob needed tires by now and I needed another oil change. We decided to spend a couple of nights and get the work done before heading to Denali State Park and Anchorage.
Day 22 - Friday, July 8
We spent most of the day at the only combination Honda/Harley dealer I've ever seen. My 2004 VTX Retro had performed perfectly as had Bob's Harley Davidson Road Glide. Once the regular maintenance work was done that afternoon we spent the rest of the day washing clothes. We each had carried about a week's worth of jeans, shirts, and other required garments so we got by washing about once a week.
Day 23 - Saturday, July 9
We're now rearing to go as a day off the bikes surprisingly caused us to actually miss riding and seeing sights. We decided not to go any further north as the only main route out is to Prudhoe Bay in the Arctic Ocean and it's gravel/rock after a few miles. The type surface used on unimproved roads was larger rock and chipped shale, some of which was sharp enough to penetrate tires. Since my wheels are spoked, I use tubed tires and they can't practically be repaired or replaced on the road. Had I had a tire failure, I'd have to be towed in. The front tire of my bike is an unusual size and not easily found. I could have been stuck for a week or more awaiting a tire had I destroyed one. Additionally, these roads were hazardous for road bikes such as ours. They were better ridden on off-road bikes or "enduro" types with heavier knobby tires. We had visited with four guys on just such bikes from Alabama a few days earlier on their way home. They had traveled the rock roads and one of them (there were originally five) had two flats in a row and decided he'd had enough. He made arrangements to ship his bike back and he flew home. We were beginning to think he was the smart one. Alaska and the far country is tough on man and equipment.
So early that Sat. morning, we headed south toward a sight we were anxious to see . . . . Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America. What did the signs say about mountain weather? The rain set in again and with the low hanging fog and poor visibility, we didn't get to meet this goal. At the Denali visitor's center, we found even the bus tours to McKinley were not running due to poor weather. So we pressed on only slightly disappointed. This was really the first thing we didn't get to do thus far.
The mountains we could see in the distance near Anchorage were impressive. Following advice of others familiar with the area, we decided against going through Anchorage down to Kenai. Traffic was cited as reason enough. Even though we only got within 35 miles of Anchorage, the traffic was horrendous and we're glad we heeded the advice. The road from there back to Tok through the Wrangell Mountains was reward enough. They were beautiful and the road fun to ride.
Day 24 - Sunday, July 10
When we left Tok, AK after a good night's rest, for the first time we were actually heading home, although we didn't have a straight line in mind.
We wanted to take the "other" route back through Canada and began to question natives and travelers alike as to the road conditions of the more westerly route back to Prince George. It was a toss-up after talking to several people. Finally, we got a few in a row to say while it was shorter, it had at least 150 miles of gravel and torn-up roads. Additionally, the narrow road was heavy with truck traffic that gave no quarter to bikes or cars on gravel stretches. The final decision came when we realized we had no fuel guide for that portion and were told stations may be well over 200 miles apart. Reluctantly we headed back the same way. We were dreading the much-feared mud flats near Whitehorse, fearing they would be worse than the first time. However, the entire trip south through Canada turned out much better than going up. No rain to speak of. We finally experienced the fourth road type of the construction zones . . . damp! When simply damp from low clouds, morning dew, or light showers, the dirt was absolutely perfect. With a little light gravel on top, we could ride 80-90 kph on most of it. (We had finally been in Canada long enough to start thinking in the metric system). The mud patch from Hades had become as tame as my driveway. We were able to ride away from the now-dry ruts and visualize ourselves and our panic only days before in the same spots.
Day 25 - Monday, July 11
We bid the little town of Teslin goodbye and made it near 700 miles to Wonowon. These stretches of the AlCan are pretty boring, as they simply go on for miles and miles, straight as an arrow through the wilderness. One mile looks much like the previous, hence our greater distances on some of these sections. Wonowon was nothing much more than the motel where we stayed but it was a welcomed stay as we were growing weary. The worst thing for bikers is boredom and not only had the sights been boring, but it was the second time through as well.
Day 26 - Tuesday, July 12
We left Wonowon at daybreak and hoped to see some new country shortly . . . we weren't disappointed. We cut the corner before Dawson Creek and found two of the most beautiful pastoral valleys we had seen anywhere. A low cloud hovered down the center of the first, shading hayfields and cattle from the early rising sun. A river ran through it, pausing several times to form really nice lakes. Immediately after the first valley, they started. In a span of fewer than 40 miles, we encountered dozens of deer. They looked remarkably like our whitetails, but bigger and healthier appearing. I almost felt they were out to get us. Every curve produced several right in the middle of the road testing our reflexes as well as our brakes. We were a little frazzled as we finally left them all behind. Now on to Prince George and the new route toward Vancouver and Seattle. Unfortunately, more rain was in our future and we experienced the hardest rain of the trip on this day. We were south of Quesnel before it let up. But then horse country was upon us. I found these great farms and pastures of fine equine examples to be thrilling. Many of the pastures sat on bluffs high above the Fraser River and provided the most peaceful views of the trip. Alfalfa and oat fields abounded between the horse pastures. Huge dark-logged barns dotted the landscape and grand and obviously old homesteads sat in groves of large trees. I could live there.
Despite the several hard hours of rain during the day, we made it to Cache Creek, about 150 miles from Washington State. We knew this would be our last night out of the country and were happy about it.
Day 27 - Wednesday, July 13
We couldn't wait. Before us was another 150 miles of designated scenic highway on the way to the good old USA. The customs agent at the crossing in Sumas, Washington was very welcoming and made us really glad we were back. Now on to what I really had high expectations of . . . .the Pacific Coast highway 101 that runs from Washington through California. First we had to get past Seattle. We chose I-5 and hit incredible traffic 80 miles north of Seattle and it stayed that way all the way through Tacoma and south of Olympia. Houston and Dallas sees that kind of traffic only at rush hour and only for 50 miles. This lasted near 200 miles before we exited and headed to the coast.
We found once again, the natural beauty of the USA is the best in the world. The Oregon coast was breathtaking. Bob had made the trip in an auto before and had really pumped me up about its magnificence. He wasn't wrong. The shore side communities were as pretty and quaint as the shoreline was rugged and awesome.
Day 28 - Thursday, July 14
After a nice night in Tillamook, Oregon, a dairy community and home of Tillamook Cheese, we continued the 101 down the coast; this time to the sights of a morning sun peaking over the mountains down to the rocky shore.
I'm sorry Oregon wasn't a longer state. California, while losing to Oregon in coastal views, had a great one in the Redwood National Forest. Giant Redwoods are just incredible. The trees were so large and tall they inspired awe. The road through the park was as exciting to ride as it was beautiful. We stayed on the coast highway to Eureka, California but the coast was beginning to flatten out by then. The ride toward Redding proved to be our first experience with hot weather since leaving the states. There's only one thing hotter than 100 degrees in say, a desert; that's 100 degrees in mountain canyons with no breeze. We stopped in a great little town in northern Calif., Weaverville, and enjoyed dinner in a great old restaurant.
Day 29 - Friday, July 15
Reno, Nevada was our next scheduled bike service. Both of us needed an oil change and the Honda and Harley dealerships were next door to each other. The run across the top of Ca. was a great one except for the rising heat. Mount Shasta was quite a sight as was most all the area there in the lower Cascades.
Both bike dealers rushed us through so we could get back on the road. The fresh oil change made me feel better as we had been following the news of the heat wave a little south of us. With only a few more sights on the itinerary, we would be in the home stretch soon and facing the middle of what had been described on local TV as the worst heat wave in the area in quite a few years.
As we headed south toward Carson City and past Lake Tahoe, I saw road signs to Silver City and Virginia City, reminding me of the old "Bonanza" television series. Some of the sweeping scenes in the show's introduction and credits must have been made in the vicinity as it looked so familiar. I expected to see Hoss and Little Joe at any moment.
The trip down highway 395 followed the eastern side of the great Sierra Nevada range and we were headed to its star attraction, Yosemite National Park. As the temperatures continued to rise we found ourselves wishing for afternoon thunderstorms . . . things we had come to dread but now would welcome. We made it to Bridgeport, CA just before one appeared to be ready to pour. We found a hotel luckily as being near Yosemite everything was booked up.
Day 30 - Saturday, July 16
Sunrise found us passing the entry gate at Yosemite, reading a note that we should go right in and pay on the way out. Well, that was nice. We were afraid we may have had to wait until a park ranger showed up. We were freebies anyway as I hold a lifetime Golden Passport, or "old geezer" pass and Bob had his annual park passport with him. Everyone who travels should consider purchasing one or the other of these passes if they have any plans to vacation in any of our National Parks. I paid $10 for mine for life and figure I saved well over a $100 on this trip alone. This is a great time to tour the park. We didn't see half a dozen cars for the first couple of hours. Yosemite is beautiful in a less imposing way than the Rockies. Although it's in the middle of the awesome Sierra Nevadas, it's somehow softer, more pastoral in its beauty. The rock formations were different than we had seen . . . very smooth, as if molten rock had been poured down the sides of the mountains. We ventured quite far into the park on the only road to completely bisect it. As we were warned earlier, traffic began to appear and we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a tourist glut. The previously empty public restrooms at campsite areas and trailheads now had lines numbering a score or more at each. We found yet another good reason for being early risers.
Oddly, while impressed with Yosemite, we believe we had seen so much on this trip, following the U.S. Rockies right on up into Canada, and seeing the Alaskan Range and the Oregon Coast, spectacular sights had become somewhat pedestrian to us. What would have thrilled us had we seen it first was now becoming ordinary. We knew it was time to head home. We had only to see and photograph a few giant Sequoia trees. The maps we had indicated we could enter the Sequoia National Forest from the east side. We planned to ride in far enough to see them before turning east. The bad news came at the park's visitor center. Yes, the roads entered from our side but were loose gravel and not recommended for bikes, motorhomes, and trailers. They suggested we drive around the southern tip, through Bakersfield and back up and into the park from the west . . . an additional 400 plus miles. Since we already had great photographs of the giant Redwoods coupled with the fact we were both beginning to miss home and our wives, we declined. From that moment on, we were bikers on a mission . . . the mission being to cross the desert southwest as quickly as we could and return to the soul enriching green of Tyler and Jasper counties, Texas.
We knew the fastest route would be I-40 although it would take us right through the hottest of the heat wave now gripping southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico, not to mention west Texas. We had survived rain, hail, sleet, snow, lightning, and Alaskan mosquitoes . . . surely a little heat couldn't hurt us.
We continued south to pick up what was a western extension of I-40 at Kramer Junction. That should have been our first clue. The thermometer on Bob's bike hovered between 110 and 115 on the leg there. We loaded up on water and headed east after discussing our life insurance and if heat stroke would be considered accidental enough to qualify for double indemnity. We laughed that stupidity would probably be considered "purposeful". Joining official I-40 at Barstow, we continued our dash across the southern Mojave desert to Needles, California. When we arrived there around 5:30, the desk clerk told us the local weather advisory had just listed the record temperature there at 5 p.m. as 123 degrees. And we believed it. Bob's gauge had been pegged out at its maximum reading of 120 degrees since Barstow.
Feeling a little smarter after a good dinner and lots of liquid, we decided to ride the next morning's first hour or so before daylight so as to beat the heat. We went to bed thinking we had a good plan.
Day 31 - Sunday, July 17
I awoke first as I usually did, thinking about the ride before us. We had toyed with the idea of making it home in two days instead of three but because of the heat didn't think we could. It would mean two 800 mile days in a row and we'd never none that even in good conditions. On the other hand, we were starting well before daybreak, although riding interstates in the dark was not my idea of safe cycling. With the extra time on the road, we could go farther. We decided to see what the morning and our physical condition would tell us.
The first message was not good. I opened the motel door well before 5 a.m. to a blast of 90 degree desert air. We thought it might be warm that early but nothing like this. Oh well, we were up and dressed, we may as well hit the road. It was unbelievable. The air was so hot it felt like we were in full sun at noon, and it was still totally dark. The speed limits out there are 75 mph but that fast a breeze was no relief. Mercifully, we were climbing toward Kingman, AZ where it began cooling. I never thought I'd think 80 degrees was chilly but it felt that way. We were cooking now, but this time in our heads.
Although the temperatures continued into the hundreds, we kept running in and out of cooler areas so our spirits stayed high. We began to realize we could possibly make it in two days.
Sure enough, we left the interstate at Santa Rosa, NM and pointed our bikes to Clovis, less than 10 miles from Texas. Had we not been so late (we continued losing hours because of crossing two time zones) and afraid of finding lodging, we would have continued on into Texas to Muleshoe or even Lubbock. Deciding not to push our luck, and knowing we could ride in from Clovis fairly easily, we shut down at the Holiday Inn after 800 miles, calling our wives and surprising them with the news we'd be home the next evening late. We rode a couple of blocks to our favorite Mexican restaurant and had our second meal there in 4 weeks. The topic of conversation this time was about nothing but home and our loved ones. Oh, and the bragging rights we'd enjoy among our cycling buddies about riding from California to East Texas in two days.
Day 32 - Monday, June 18
Having ridden 800 miles the day before in record temperatures, we looked forward to the 700 plus we'd ride this day with the temps expected to not be much above the norm for Texas at that time. I can only say the last day's ride was uneventful and I suppose that was good. We have ridden this same route several times in the last year and a half. It seems we're always heading west. Next year, it'll be the other end of Canada; Nova Scotia . . . and I'll be meeting Bob at a convenience store some early summer morning in Jasper this time.
I must confess, a motorcycle trip of this magnitude was never in my wildest imagination. But as I found last summer when we rode to South Dakota, in most cases, we can do what we want to do if we don't let age or doubt deter us. For me, the trip represented an accomplishment . . . an accomplishment of the body and of the spirit . . and not the least, my ability to convince my loving wife to let me try.
We made the entire 14,000 miles in 32 days, covering the 14 states of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and of course, Alaska. We also rode the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, and the Yukon Territory.
The trip gave both Bob and me a much greater appreciation for the wonders of this world and particularly those on our own continent and within our own borders. We found we could tolerate extremes in weather and road conditions, we found comfort in God each day for delivering us safely from each challenge; and we found in the solitude of motorcycling, many hours among nature's wonders to contemplate our mortality and the countless blessings we enjoy everyday of our lives . . . not the least of which were the tall pines of Tyler County and my beautiful wife standing in the driveway among them.
Monday, July 25, 2005
Posted by Jim Boone at 10:54 PM