Thursday, July 21, 2011

Two Wheels to Alaska

A Journal

Prologue



A “Bucket List” is a list of things a person hopes to accomplish before they die. The term evolved from the phrase, “Kick the bucket”.

This journal records the acts and events of one of the items on my Bucket List… a long distance trip by motorcycle with close friends, loosely organized so as to not be driven by itinerary but rather, by events as they unfold and opportunities as they arise. Selfishly, it is written by me, for me, inasmuch as the finished journal serves to help me recall and enjoy the personal experiences of the journey. At the same time, it is not a private record; for while I believe that a journal isn't written for an audience, I have come to understand that a journal may be enjoyed by others, is often shared and thus, may sometimes have an audience. Accordingly, if you are interested, come on along…


My journal is dedicated to my extraordinarily bright, beautiful and sensitive wife, Christine, without whose blessings and encouragement RKW - CVW 2009 Cruisemy participation in this journey would not have been possible.   Few wives are willing to give their husbands a six-week “hall pass”, especially to ride off on a motorcycle on an ill-defined route with only the approximate destination known. Christine, however, understands the mystique and irresistible appeal of a bucket list and, as a Cardiac Nurse, the fleeting physical ability to take advantage of life’s opportunities. Thank you, Sweetie; I love you!

Chapter One


Johnny Cash and Gus Fitch.

Who are these guys and what did they have to do with my going on a motorcycle trip?
Johnny Cash. I’ll start with him. I enjoy Cash’s music and one song in particular has always captured my imagination: “I’ve Been Everywhere”. In it, Johnny sings of a rambler; a man who’s had his share of travel and “traveled every road in this here land.” The lyrics list 91 places including, states, cities, towns, mountains and lakes. It occurred to me that I too have traveled a great deal in my life. Listening to Johnny’s song, I tally having been to 56 of the 91 places he sings about as well as countless places he doesn’t mention; but, I haven’t been everywhere.

Having been raised in a small rural town, I consider myself fortunate to have traveled much of the world. Besides vacations and visits to family around the country, my 21 years in the Marine Corps and 18 years as a pilot with American Airlines have given me opportunities to see and be in places most of my childhood friends can only imagine. I’ve been to the bottom of the Grand Canyon three times (on foot, on a mule and in a raft) and, with son Kevin, hiked to the top of Mt. Fuji in Japan; I’ve been to the bottom of California’s Death Valley and the top of the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona; have hiked in the Swiss Alps, hunted doves in Argentina and snorkeled around Vieques Island in Puerto Rico. I have been to the top of the Empire State Building, the Seattle Space Needle, and the Eiffel Tower; climbed the steps to the top of the Washington Monument and bicycled across the Golden Gate Bridge. At one time or another, I have been on the ground in every one of the 50 United States, and almost every Caribbean island; spent time in Guam and Rota Island in the Marianas, Wake Island, the Philippines, Okinawa, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Viet Nam, Thailand, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Venezuela, France, England, Belgium and Switzerland. I’ve toured castles, cathedrals and historic sites in Europe and hiked among the natural geographical wonders in almost every National Park in the United States. In short, I’ve been almost everywhere… but I haven’t been everywhere.

Like the rambler in Johnny’s song, there is wanderlust in my soul and I will seize almost every opportunity to go, see and experience places where I have not been. There are always more places to see and experiences to capture; and, as we travel through life, fewer days in which to do so. Given an opportunity, I will always “Seize the Day!”

Gus Fitch. In late 1973 I was assigned as a flight instructor in VMFAT-201, an F-4 Phantom training squadron in Cherry Point, N.C.  232 Phantom_fully armed_Nam PhongIn the  Marine Corps, pilots don’t just fly planes; they are assigned collateral leadership duties in various departments within their unit to conduct the day-to-day operations required in the squadron. In my case, I was the squadron Administration Officer (akin to the Director of Human Resources in a civilian company). 

One day, a tall, thin officer walked into my office and told me he was reporting for duty.  He was (then) imageCaptain Gus Fitch. Gus had been out of the Marine Corps for about two-and-a- half years and, although successful in the civilian world, missed the flying, the leadership, the camaraderie and purpose-driven lives of the Marines. Now he was back and his first assignment was to be an instructor in our squadron.

Something seemed amiss when I first saw him. His uniform was screwed up somehow (not a good thing in the Marines!). It was his tie! Uniform regulations had changed the width of the “field scarf” during Gus’s absence and he had not gotten the word when he suited up for his first day back on active duty. Recognizing he had a good sense of humor and not wanting to miss a chance to “bust his chops”, I unceremoniously called him out on his flagrant lack of attention to detail. Later I would learn that Gus was a “chop buster” of legendary skill. He took the criticism with a smile and an “I’ll get you later” look in his eye. At that moment, then and there, we became the best of friends. Oh… And he did get me later, a lot!

In April of 1974, the Marine Corps consolidated its flight training assets and combined two training squadrons in one location. Our squadron, VMFAT-201, moved its aircraft and some personnel assets out to Yuma, Arizona and joined with VMFAT-101. VMFAT-201 was decommissioned and 101 became a single, very large training squadron. Gus and I were among the 12 or 14 officers who were transferred. Our families were to follow, but not for several months so we lived in the Bachelor Officer’s quarters aboard the Air Station.

Soon after arriving, a group of about 9 or 10 of us got together and offered a local Kawasaki Dealer a one-time sales opportunity. For a substantial discount, we would all buy new Kawasaki 250cc Enduro motorcycles. He agreed and we took delivery. The bikes became our primary mode of transportation. In the evenings after work we’d head out to local eating establishments and on weekends, out to the desert for serious dirt bike riding. We gained a lot of motorcycle experience in those years, both on and off-road and established an enthusiasm for the freedom that riding provided. Lots of stories came from those trips long ago (I have the scars to prove it!) but this journal is about our 2010 trip.

During that period, Gus and I became very good friends… I considered him my very best friend.  Our families joined us in the Fall and they too became very close. In fact, all the squadron officers were tight and our families spent many a weekend camping in the desert, going to the White Mountains or Big Bear in California, San Filipe on the Mexican Baja Peninsula, boating on Lake Havasu, or just gathering in groups getting together for barbeques and parties. Those were good times.

In (I think) early 1976, Gus was hospitalized at the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, CA with a very serious disease, Coccidioidomycosis, or San Joaquin Valley Fever. He was an inpatient for about five months and on many weekends, I would drive Gus’s wife, Margaret, the 170 miles or so from Yuma to San Diego to visit him. About the time he was recovered enough to be an out-patient, I received transfer orders. In the summer of 1976 Gus returned to Yuma on limited duty and I went to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ to complete the remaining year of my Bachelor’s degree and then on to a Master’s degree (the Marine Corps believes in and encourages education).

In the early 1980’s, as pay back for my education opportunity, I was assigned as the Comptroller at the Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, Japan. About the same time, Gus was fully recovered from his illness and now commanded a fighter squadron in Kaneohe Bay, HI. There were a few opportunities for me travel on USMC business to Hawaii so when I did, I visited Gus and Margaret. Those visits were infrequent and we didn’t see much of each other until about 1985 when Gus and I were both assigned as Program Managers for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation at Headquarters, USMC in Washington, DC. The rigors of that job coupled with the distance between our homes in different communities around DC made it difficult to resume the same level of social interaction we enjoyed back in Yuma but we remained the best of friends all the same.

In 1988, I retired from the Marines and began a second career as a pilot flying for American Airlines (the “Dark Side” of piloting according to Gus). Gus retired in 1989 and began working for a Defense Contractor (disdainfully considered a “Beltway Bandit” by many of us while working in the Pentagon). Both our families had moved to different parts of the country and, except for the annual Christmas card exchange or an occasional note, we pretty much lost touch with each other.

Fast forward to 2009. Gus and Margaret are living in South Carolina and Christine and I, in Florida. Through the tentacles of Facebook, I reconnected with Gus (I knew where he lived, but never really got into frequent exchanges of communication). Gus has no affection for, nor interest in Facebook. Margaret, on the other hand, is an active participant as is my daughter, Kelly. Coincidentally, after graduating from college  in 1993 Kelly was hired by Margaret as a Technical Writer for the Mortgage Company where Margaret (and briefly, Gus) worked. So Kelly remained in contact through Facebook (fb) with Margaret; I was a fb friend of Kelly and at some point observed that Margaret was on her friends list as well. I connected with Margaret and saw that Gus was also a (reluctant participant) friend in Margaret’s list.

That prompted me to send Gus a note and friend request. Bingo! We reconnect! In the course of catching up, Gus sends me a link to his photo album containing a couple hundred pictures of a motorcycle journey he took in 2008.  That trip, dubbed “The Four Corners”, encompassed riding to and through each of the outermost of the four corners of the contiguous 48 states of America! Wow! Incredible! I found the photos fascinating and began asking questions: Where did they stay at night? How far did they ride each day? What was the total length of the trip? How did they pack for the trip? Did the bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin last the entire journey? (Simple answer- “No, not even close!!”) …and so on. Gus told me he had written a journal and would be happy to share it if I was interested, though he couldn’t understand why anyone but he or the guys who traveled with him, would find any interest in it.

Well, he sent it; I read it and was blown away! It was simply amazing, answered my questions and tied together all the pictures. I told him that I would have loved to have gone along but guessed I would simply have to live vicariously through his stories and pictures since I no longer had a motorcycle.  When living in New York State we owned a Harley Davidson Heritage Classic but sold it just before we moved to Florida in 2008. His response was simple: “I’m still motorcycling frequently. Get yourself a bike… You do and we are back on road trips together!” Hmmm… I wonder what Christine would think of my getting another bike?

Thanks to the influence of Johnny Cash and Gus, the seed is planted...

DSC04550         
  View Slide Show (Slides are labeled and readers can get a good idea of the Alaska trip without having to read the entire narrative of this journal should they have neither the time nor inclination).


Chapter Two

 

Back in the Saddle.

 

It takes a lot of work for a seed of this nature to germinate. Gus explained that he and his riding buddies had several trips planned for the early part of 2010. Among them, a trip to Key West in January, a trip to the American Le Mans Series races in Sebring, Florida in March and, finally, a five or six day trip to the Smokey Mountains in May. At this point my only inkling of any plans for a trip to Alaska was a hint in the last paragraph of Gus’s Four Corners Trip Journal: “This has been a work of months of writing and I believe I have said all that needs to be said. Except, Stu, myself and a fellow Cedar Creek rider, are planning a trip to the Arctic Circle in 2010.” For now, Alaska is not really even in my thought process. I’m thinking of joining Gus and his “Cedar Creek Gang” for a couple of those three to five day trips in or near home here in Florida that he mentioned. Buying a Bike for just a couple trips seems an expensive proposition (Note: Airline pilots are notorious for their thrift - ”Cheap”, my wife would say - and it is said that copper wire was invented by two airline pilots fighting over the same penny!). How about renting? Looking into that pushed me into a cold sweat! A five day rental would cost more than a pretty substantial down payment on a new bike!

It is now October and if I’m going to ride in January I have to get Christine involved. She’s not interested in riding her own bike, but likes to ride on the back with me. In fact, our last bike came at her suggestion after she bought some Harley Davidson sandals at, of all places, a Nordstrom’s. Within days of her purchase, we received a catalog that must have weighed at least ten pounds and which was Harley’s marketing flyer for their biker clothing. After she looked through the catalog, she remarked that it would be fun to have a bike to ride on the winding back roads through the beautiful New York State country side. About five minutes after that comment I was at Moroney’s Harley Davidson store in Newburgh picking out a new motorcycle!

Moving on, I told her that I was really interested in traveling on a couple of trips with Gus and company and had been looking at rentals. An astute judge of character (at least of my character), she said, “You’re going to buy a bike, aren’t you!” I denied any actual intent but did offer that I was going to do a little research. Ironically, at this same time, Margaret posted a comment on fb that Gus had just arrived home with his new motorcycle, a Honda Goldwing. A Goldwing?! He’d ridden his Harley over 100,000 miles. How in the world could he sell a “man’s bike” and start riding an easy chair fastened to a rice rocket? I queried him (well, chided him) instantly on an e-mail and his response was, “You can talk to me after you’ve put 117,000 miles on your bike!”

In early November I was traveling to Cordoba Argentina to hunt doves at the invitation of my son Kevin, his partner Tommy and Tommy’s dad. It was an event Tom Senior had done for years and he thought it a great opportunity for some father-son bonding. I was in the Miami airport, waiting to board our flight to Buenos Aires and decided to write Gus for advice on motorcycles that might be best for touring. Since he had numerous long distance trips in his experience, and like most pilots, researches mechanical equipment with greater scrutiny than if he were choosing a wife, I knew I could trust his opinions. We exchanged e-mails back and forth for a couple hours and I still had trouble wrapping my arms around big bikes with fiberglass boxes all over them like the Goldwing. Ultimately, and probably with some frustration, Gus wrote the following: “A Harley is cool; and it’s noisy and it vibrates and is fatiguing. A Honda is not cool; it is quiet, smooth and comfortable. Most riders will give up 600 miles of cool for 600 miles of comfort every time.” Enough said. I’ll look at Harleys, Honda’s and, Victory. Don’t know much about Victory, but it is American-made and looks to be a good compromise between cool and comfort.

After my return from Argentina (with a black and blue shoulder: shotgun recoil),Wing Shooting in Argentina 036  Christine and I checked out the local Harley dealer. The economy was slow and deals were available. The more I looked, however, the more I thought about Gus’s comments. Harley has been slow to evolve technologically. Their success lies more in their marketing and customer loyalty. In fact much of their loyalty comes from an aura of mystery; a Zen-like mystique about Harley’s harbored by true believers that somehow the rider is transformed into the characters in Easy Rider or Then Came Bronson. You ride a Harley around Daytona Beach and you are somebody! It works… they sell a lot of motorcycles. Nonetheless, I’m going to be riding long distances and I like technological advances so I’m not sold on the Harley Ultra Classic. A quick trip to a local generic dealer, Pompano Pat’s, allows me to sit on and study in detail a slightly used Honda Goldwing. Black. Clean. Nice. It even has a reverse gear that will come in handy when trying to move a 900 pound bike backwards out of a slightly negative inclined parking space. Not much wiggle room on price though and I do want to investigate Victory.  With apologies to Gus and other Goldwing riders, it just seemed a little “old guy” in its stoic comfort.  (Visions of couples traveling in their “matchy-matchy” outfits, drinking green tea and eating at the all-you-can-eat buffet before five o’clock).  Admittedly, that’s my perception.  It’s not really fair; the Goldwing is an extraordinarily well engineered and constructed bike.

The internet is amazing. You can purchase everything from groceries and clothing to automobiles and homes, and yes, even motorcycles. You can research whatever it is that you are interested in and you can study it from the perspective of those who either like it or dislike it. Manufacturers provide data sheets, statistics, comparisons, specifications and lots of subtle and not-so-subtle advertisements. Victory is no different. They have videos showing the open road, riders with smiles on their faces and scenery that takes your breath away. They also have put together a series of videos which star their development and design engineers and show in detail the technological advances they have made with respect to structure, suspension and engine performance. The Victory Vision Tour, the bike I might be interested in, has a cast aluminum frame which also serves as the intake manifold, an engine with four valves per cylinder and overhead cams and which is a stressed member of the frame; all features similar to the engineering in a Formula 1 race car. The rear suspension works with a push rod, rocker and hydraulic piston, again similar to a high-tech racing machine. It has the greatest suspension travel and the lowest seat height of any touring bike (important feature allowing even the shortest among us to put both feet down, flat footed, when stopped). Enough said… I like it.

One weekend in late November, I convince Christine to accompany me to New Smyrna Beach to visit Andy Pallemaerts’ Volusia Motorsports store, the nearest Victory Dealer. As we pull into the parking lot, there, off to our right sits a midnight cherry  Key West Bike Trip 01.18-21.2009 007Victory Vision Tour. Unorthodox in appearance, it looks more like a rocket ship than a motorcycle. Sweeping polycarbonate side bags remind me of the fender skirts on a 50’s era Cadillac or Chrysler; the trunk sits high above the rear wheel and, were it not for its width, would pass for the fairing behind the driver’s head on an open-wheel race car. Swooping fairings surround the chrome 106 cubic inch V-twin engine as though it were artwork in the Louvre. It doesn’t really look much like a motorcycle, but knowing the engineering beneath its skirts and my own fondness for vehicles that stand out from the everyday, I like it! Christine, on the other hand, is uncertain. She has a bit of loyalty to Harley Davidson; particularly when remembering the passion many of the Harley riders had back up in New York. There were actually groups of riders so disdainful of anything not Harley that they refused to let other manufacturer’s bikes even tag along at the rear of the group on their weekend forays! Ready to turn around and go home, my frank, tell-it-like it is spouse bursts out, “I’m not riding that George Jetson looking thing!” I convince her that we should at least ride it before we make up our mind… “Okay, but I still think you’ll be sorry if you buy anything but a Harley.”

We’re in Florida and unknown to us at this point in time, we are about to experience the coldest winter on record in the state. Today is kind of a beginning… it is only 45 degrees. Pete Harraka, our salesman, shows us the switches for the seat heater. The handgrips as well as both the rider’s seat and the passenger’s seat on this bike have electric heaters that can be selected to maintain comfort. I crank the temperature of the passenger seat up to “full bun warmer” and off we go on a test ride. We’re warm, but the wind in our faces remains a little chilly. Not to worry, Sweetie; Victory has an electric powered windshield that can be raised or lowered about eight inches at the push of a button. I raise it to the full up position and the wind graciously parts, distributing itself around to the outside of our bodies and above our helmets. No chapped cheeks and no bugs in these teeth! Nice! The ride is smooth, the power immediate and the handling more like a sport bike than a heavy old touring machine.  Oh… and the bun warmer does its job!  Christine likes the comfort.  “This is not such a bad bike after all!” If I’m going to ride long distances, and if I plan on riding often on trips with Gus and his crew, I think I just might have to actually purchase a motorcycle. Christine just shakes her head… she knew two months ago that this would be the outcome.


Victory Vision Tour 2009 01.02.2010 003We purchase the Victory, have a couple modifications added and take delivery on December 31st, 2009.  Modifications? Just like buying a car, there are always a few options that sweeten the deal. I add a CB radio.  Way back while I was on my way to Cordoba, Gus told me he wouldn’t own a bike without a CB. In his view, it was the life-blood of communication and safety when traveling with a group of riders on long trips. This would prove to be true.

 

Chapter Three

 

On The Road Again.

 

Now that I once again have a trusty steed, it is time for some shakedown riding and getting used to the bike.  As I said, a major influence in getting back into motorcycle riding was the thought of traveling on some of the longer rides that Gus organizes.  You may recall from above that he has provided several options; a four day trip to Key West in January, a trip in March to the American Le Mans Series races in Sebring Florida and a five day Great Smokey Mountain trip in May.  These trips are all planned and scheduled and include groups of guys who live near Gus in South Carolina and who ride together on day trips almost every week.  Wanting to take advantage of my new ride, I am in for all of them!

The first trip to Key West in January begins for me with a solo ride to St. Augustine, FL where I hook up with Gus and three of his friends.  Because I live in Florida, Gus suggested prior to the trip that I find a reasonable hotel and book accommodations (“for around $30 apiece if you can find one”).  I did and that’s where we met, seeing each other for the first time in about 22 years.  It was a great reunion.

Gus and his friends checked out my new Vision offering a few compliments and of course, the requisite disparaging ones about it not looking much like a real motorcycle.  A quick trip to a local seafood restaurant for dinner and then back to the hotel for rest in preparation for tomorrow’s longer journey.  It was here that I learned how the boys traveled without great expense.  We had two guys in one room and three in another.  Where the three bedded down, there were only two beds.  With none of us wanting to be “too close” by sleeping in the same bed, Gus brings out his sleeping bag and air mattress.  He also has an electric air pump to inflate it.  What unfolds next is the beginning of my understanding of what it means to travel with Gus.  He is a great and detailed planner but (and he readily acknowledges this) has a problem with short term memory. There will be much more about this as my journal continues but suffice it to say that he cannot find the cord for his air pump and so we take turns using lung power to inflate it.

The next morning we headed south to Clewiston Florida which is on the Southwest side of Lake Okeechobee and stopped at another inexpensive motel for an overnight.  At daybreak the following morning the three other guys head off on their own to visit friends and/or relatives in other parts of Southern Florida and Gus and I head South toward Key West.  The ride is unremarkable other than it is comfortable and once we break off the mainland and start heading down the Keys the ocean is stunning in its brilliance.  We stopped at a place for lunch that Gus had been exposed to a couple years earlier by Stu Schippereit, a retired Navy Commander and one of his Four Corners traveling companions who now lives in Key West.  Alabama Jack’s is an open walled bar and restaurant on Card Sound and sits along a tidal waterway outlined by Mangrove trees.  Frequented by an eclectic mix of locals, tourists and bikers, it is a really cool place and the food is actually very good.Alabama Jack's January 2010
        
Alabama Jack’s             
After lunch we continue down the Keys to Key West, arriving in mid-afternoon.  We plan to stay at the Navy Lodge (A benefit of being retired Military) because it is much less costly than public hotels in the area.  It is a wonderful facility aboard the Key West Naval Station and is probably much nicer than most rooms costing three times as much out in town.  After checking in, Gus calls Stu and arranges for us to meet Stu and his wife, Marianne, later for dinner.  As I mentioned, Stu was one of the Four Corners riders.  Their connection resulted from Gus working as a project manager for a “Beltway Bandit” after his retirement from the Marine Corps and Stu, at the time, being a Naval Intelligence Officer whose department was one of Gus’s customers.

Stu and Marianne pick us up around 6 pm and we head into town for dinner at a fabulous Cuban restaurant.  Key West 3 Jan 2010 Gus had given me some insight into this Key-dwelling Florida couple (all good) and he was right.  They are lovely and unique at the same time and I enjoyed their companionship immensely.  Although I am considered a bit gregarious (meaning my wife thinks I talk too much) I interject only occasionally since Gus and Stu are discussing their past associations and reliving events from their Four Corners trip.  After much banter and equal teasing, we finish dinner and head to Stu and Marianne’s for a night cap.

As the conversation continues at their home (mostly about motorcycle trips) the talk of an upcoming trip to Alaska surfaces.  I didn’t recall that Gus had mentioned an Alaska trip in his Four Corners journal nor had he said anything to me earlier on this trip about it, so I was surprised.  Of course we had only been together for a couple of days and spent most of our conversations catching up on the 22 years we had not seen each other.  As Stu and Gus continued, I realized they had already put together some major planning for a trip to the Arctic Circle in the upcoming summer.  Eventually Stu looks over at me and asks, “So, Dick, are you going to join us?”  I was certainly intrigued but my response was something like, “I’m not sure I’ve been invited!” and looked at Gus.  He scoffed and said, “Of course you’re invited – if you can get away from home for that length of time!”  Me: “How long do you think this trip will be?”  Gus:  “About 6 weeks.”  That did seem like a long time and I guessed it would be pretty expensive so indicated that while I thought it would be a great trip, I didn’t think it would be possible for me.

Since this journal is planned to be largely about my trip to Alaska, I will curtail any more discussion of getting back in the saddle in this section and finish by saying only that I did, in fact, finish the Key West trip with Gus and then went on to accompany the various groups to both the Sebring races in March and the Great Smokey Mountains in May.  All were phenomenal trips with great scenery, action and camaraderie and I was now, hopelessly addicted to motorcycle trips that lasted more than a day.  During those trips, Gus and I talked a bit more about Alaska and I let it be known that I was very interested but remained cautious about my ability to do so.  Six weeks was a long time to be away from my family.

Alaska – I’m going!  After the Sebring trip I cunningly floated some trial balloons about Alaska to Christine.  Well, probably not so cunningly; I made a few statements like, “Gus and some of the guys he rode with on his Four Corners trip are planning a trip to Alaska.  That will be a long trip!”  Her guarded responses were something like, “Yes, it would be”. Or, “I can’t imagine being on a motorcycle seat for that many miles!”  Whatever the case, she didn’t seem all that interested, neither pro nor con, and didn’t seem to pick up on the fact that I was fishing for some signal, any signal, that would suggest that she understood that I would like to go on that trip.

In March, we flew up to Washington, DC to help our middle son, Jason, move down to Florida from Virginia.  My eldest son, Kevin, lives in DC and we usually stay with him when we visit the area.  Over cocktails one evening he asked how I was enjoying my new motorcycle and reuniting with Gus again after all these years.  I described a couple of the trips we had taken and expressed with some degree of gusto the joy I was now taking from these rides.  Kevin and Christine were standing next to one another in the kitchen when I again brought up, subtly, Gus’s plans to make an Alaska trip.  Kevin looked straight at me and said, “Dad!  You ought to go!  Gus was your best friend, you love the travel and you have the time.”  Finally, Christine pipes up and says, “Kevin is right!  You really should take advantage of the opportunity now while you are still young and healthy enough to make such a trip.”  Me (pensively): “Well, I would really like to go, but it will be about six weeks long and that’s a long time to be be away from home; and there will be some cost involved.”  Christine:  “Doesn’t matter.  You need to do this while you can and I’ll be fine.  In fact, it would be a pleasure to be able to shop without you looking over my shoulder!  Also, Connor (our youngest son) will be at camp all summer so he won’t need to have you around.  This is the best time for you to go!”

Two days later we returned home to Florida and I called Gus with the news.  I was going to Alaska with he and his riding companions!  I was pumped!

Chapter Four

 

Planning and Provisioning.


Cast of Characters.    An overview of the planning must necessarily begin with the participants.  I’ve already introduced Gus and Stu.  The third member (I of course, am number four) of the planned group of riders is Rex Decker.  Rex’s connection to the gang began a few years earlier when Rex and his wife Deborah moved to the Cedar Creek subdivision in South Carolina where Gus lives.  Rex and Gus got to know each other through resident golf matches and eventually ended up in the loosely organized group of motorcycle enthusiasts all living in Cedar Creek.  That relationship and Rex’s love of anything with an engine and a lust for the open road led to Rex accompanying Gus on several of his longer trips.  Those trips included a trip in 2005 from South Carolina to Sturgis SD for the annual Motorcycle Rally, and a year or so later, a three week trip to the West Coast traveling through the panhandle of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada.  In 2008, Rex also participated in the Four Corners trip after he joined Gus and Stu in Sturgis.  I’ve not met Rex yet, but am assured by Gus that Rex too is a great guy and a fellow with whom I will enjoy traveling.

The group of riders is set: Gus Fitch, Stu Schippereit, Rex Decker and me.

 DSCN0790 Stu Schippereit 1 Rex Decker 2  Dick Ward 2

When we were talking about this trip at Stu’s house back in Key West, he remarked that four riders is enough; any more than that becomes unmanageable and begins to resemble herding cats!

The Plan.  As I mentioned earlier, Gus and Stu had already put a great deal of thought and route planning into this trip and I had a lot of catching up to do.  There would be two parts to my getting ready; 1) making arrangements/reservations on the Alaska Marine Highway, the ferry we were to take from Prince Rupert BC to Haines, Alaska, and 2) purchasing and generally outfitting my bike and myself with the necessary communication, navigation and protection for the long journey with potentially extreme variations in temperature.

Gus had already made reservations in April for the original three bikers on the Alaska Ferry. That included passage for the three guys, their bikes and a three-berth cabin.  I needed to act quickly because ferry accommodations are in peak demand during the summer months.  I am certain I will be able to get passage okay but a place to sleep might be difficult (as a last choice option, travelers are allowed to “camp” on the aft deck but that didn’t sound particularly appealing to me).  After a few minutes online and on the phone, I was able to find that a four-berth cabin was available and, if Gus and the others were willing to change their reservations, we could all share the same cabin at slightly less individual cost than their current reservations.  I shared that information with Gus and on April 26th booked passage for me and my bike (each is a separate cost).  Gus contacted the Ferry reservations folks on the same day and, using his itinerary number, had the cabin reservations changed to the four-berth cabin (there are only two on the ferry so we were fortunate to get one).
 
This is a good place to reiterate that the trip was to be largely fluid and unstructured; that we did not want to be driven by itinerary and intentionally did not make reservations ahead of time for lodging, etc. This is a trip on which we will savor the experience; where we will follow events as they unfold and seize opportunities as they arise.  We will have the freedom to travel as far or as short as we desire on a particular day and take advantage of any “roses that need smelling” along the way.  To that end, there were only two hard dates that we needed to meet:  the ferry departing Prince Rupert, BC on Tuesday, July 20th and the tour we wanted to take at Denali National Park which, at this time in April, we had not yet locked in.

Stu and Gus had worked out several potential route segments and high among Stu’s wishes was a trip to Hyder, Alaska.  Although Hyder is in Alaska, it can only be reached (by road) through British Columbia.  Hyder sits at the head of Portland Canal, a 70-mile-long fjord that forms part of the U.S.-Canadian border. All that Stu had heard about Hyder, its beauty and location made it a “must see”.  So, although we could not just pass through it en route to the ferry, we agreed that it would be a side trip of note and worth the round trip off our planned route to Prince Rupert.

Stu took on the responsibility to schedule and reserve a tour of Denali National Park.  We discussed the several tour options and settled on the Kantishna Experience; an 11-12 hour tour, 92 miles one-way to the end of the Park Road at Kantishna in Denali.  Though it was a little more costly than the shuttle busses, it ran farther than the shuttles, had a skilled guide and all the reviews were essentially, “if you’re touring Denali, you must take the Kantishna bus”.  Again, with a short tour season in Alaska, expeditions such as this fill quickly.  We all voted for the day we thought would best fit into our travel plans and selected the 25th of July.  Stu got shot down when trying to reserve (online) seats on the 25th but, by telephone with the Park Office, was able to wrangle a tour for the four of us on Monday, July 26th.

Gus’s planning involved building route segments on a mapping program called “MapSource”.  MapSource is a tool from Garmin, Inc., maker of GPS navigation systems, and can be used to build routes then download them into a portable GPS unit.  Many emails between Gus and Stu, and now including me, put together a loosely defined travel plan:

The route out would take me to Gus’s in Aiken, SC on the 4th of July and spend the night.  The next day on to Nashville, TN where we would stay with Gus’s daughter Louise and her husband Shane.  Stu would meet up with us at Louise’s on the 5th.  (Note: each location that follows would be a remain overnight {RON}). From there to St. Louis.  We would leave St. Louis and attempt the Iron Butt certification (more about the Iron Butt later) by riding a little over 1000 miles to Sundance, WY in less than 24 hours.  During that 1000 mile day, we plan a small excursion off-route into Sturgis SD so I can photograph my Victory in front of the Sturgis Harley Davidson dealer (Sturgis is sort of the un-official Harley capitol of the world).  Aside from this one long high-mileage day for the Iron Butt qualification, most days we plan to travel between 320 and 500 miles maximum between RON’s.
 
While we three were completing this part of the trip, Rex would execute a plan to share part of his journey with Deborah.  His plan was to have Deb fly to Denver to meet up with him after riding his bike from Broken Arrow, OK to Denver. They would then ride two-up together on their bike and tour Jackson Hole, WY and Yellowstone.  After Yellowstone they’d ride to Surrey, BC where they would meet up with Gus, Stu and I.

While Rex and Deb were completing their trip together, the three of us continue our tour, leaving Sundance for Cody, WY, then Great Falls, MT, up to Calgary, Alberta, Jasper, AB (without RON) and return to Revelstoke, BC, then Surrey, BC (near Vancouver) where we would hook up with Rex and Deborah and then to Butchart Gardens in Brentwood Bay, BC. Following the Butchart Gardens tour we will RON in Vancouver and, the next day, put Deb on a plane back home to Broken Arrow .  Leaving Vancouver the four of us would head north to Quesnel, BC, Hazeltons, BC, then west to Hyder, AK, on to Prince Rupert where would board the ferry at 1530 on July 20th.

A day and a half on the ferry then disembark at Haines, AK and on to Beaver Creek in the Yukon Territory, then Fairbanks, AK.  Depending on when we actually made Fairbanks we would spend a day or two resting up, doing laundry and servicing our bikes as we waited for the 26th when we would ride to Denali Park for the tour.  After Denali it was back north to the Yukon River and up to the Arctic Circle.

I’ve not yet mentioned it, but my friend Gus has an active mind… I mean a really active mind.  Whatever the subject, whatever the activity, Gus is fully engaged.  In fact, Gus is the poster child for Newton’s “First Law of Motion”; that is, the tendency of an object in motion to remain in motion, or an object at rest to remain at rest, unless acted upon by a force. In Gus’s case I can’t address the “at rest” part, but as for an object remaining in motion, I can assure you that Gus’s brain is ALWAYS in motion!  When Stu, Gus and Rex first had the idea for this trip, they planned the Arctic Circle/Coldfoot as their destination. On April 18th, Gus sent the following in an email: “Do we want to extend that to Deadhorse?  If so, what else do we need to do, logistically, to make it happen?  For example, I am pretty sure I have 240 miles in a tank of gas, but would be on fumes depending on riding speeds.”

Now, for those who haven’t looked at a map recently, Deadhorse is near Prudhoe Bay on the very northernmost shore of Alaska.  There is one road up and back; the James W. Dalton Highway, or in local parlance, the Dalton Haul Road.  It is gravel and dirt, filled with potholes and big rocks and is covered in calcium chloride that is slick when wet; the road is treacherous.  What was Gus thinking?  Well, I guess the same thing as all of us; why not?  My response went something like this, “Do we want to extend that to Deadhorse?”  “I’m the new guy on the block here and even making Coldfoot will be an accomplishment beyond anything I have previously dreamed.  Nonetheless, I am an ‘All for one and one for all’ kind of guy and I can hang tough with anyone.  If you guys want to do it, I’m not going to sit in the cozy comfort of some Fairbanks hotel waiting for you to come back!”

If we made it all the way to the Arctic Circle, what would an additional 500 mile round trip to the top of the world add?  Simply the bragging rights that we had done it! Stu emails that he’s all for attempting it too so, although we have not heard from Rex, we’re all in.  Gas will be a problem.  I can get farther than Gus or Stu on a tank full; 280 miles at 55 mph on smooth, paved roads but suspect something less when trying to maintain traction on gravel, potholes, etc.  There’s no question it can be done.  Very careful and well considered planning will be necessary if we’re going to do it.

After the Arctic Circle or Deadhorse if we make it, our plans are even more flexible (perhaps ill-defined is a better word).  Essentially we will travel the full length of the Kenai Peninsula to Homer and Seward, AK then back to Anchorage and up to Tok, AK.  From Tok the plan is to ride the full length of the Alaska (or ALCAN) Highway all the way to Dawson Creek, BC. From there we cross Alberta into Saskatchewan; down through the Dakotas and corner of Minnesota into Iowa where we would make a side trip to Spirit Lake for a tour of the Victory Motorcycle assembly plant. Following the tour we head down to Broken Arrow, OK where Gus and I drop off Rex and RON two nights at his home before hitting the road for Key West. From Key West, home to DeLand.

Stu’s comment about “herding cats” manifests its validity during the course of all this itinerary planning.  Human events and family circumstances inevitably seem to arise when least expected. In early June, Stu’s Mother-in-law became gravely ill giving rise to the possibility that Stu would have to drop out altogether.  At the same time, doctors  determined that Rex’s wife, Deb would need a surgical procedure and it had been scheduled for August 10th.  That meant Rex needed to be home not later than the morning of August 9th.  Both of these events made flexibility a key factor in further planning and we decided that we would “play it by ear” after the Denali tour. Our timing for going North after Denali would more than likely put us in Deadhorse on July 28th and a return to Fairbanks on the 30th or even the 31st depending on weather and/or fatigue.  If Rex were to leave for Broken Arrow on the 31st, he would need to cover 450 miles a day for 9 days straight in order to be home on the 9th.   That is a lot of miles to cover, solo, every day, and leaves no room for contingencies.  My thought is that Rex may not want to set out for Deadhorse on the 28th.  The uncertainty of that leg of the trip coupled with his need to get home may dictate that he pass on Deadhorse and start for home when Gus, Stu (if he’s with us) and I go north.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

One credit and a big thanks I’d like to extend for all the help in our detailed planning goes to my cousin, Rhonda Butterfield who lives in Anchorage, Alaska.  Somewhere prior to this point in our planning I corresponded with Rhonda and told her that we would be making this journey and that I hoped to be able to see her at least, briefly while passing through Anchorage.  Two days later I received an express package from Anchorage containing a copy of the 2010 “The MILEPOST”.  “The MILEPOST” is a legendary Alaska trip planner and Alaska travel guide to the highways, roads, ferries, lodgings, recreation, sightseeing attractions, services and even local laws along the Alaska Highway to and within Alaska, including Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories and the Yukon.  It has been published (and updated) annually since 1949 and covers everything one may need to know about travel in the region, broken down into individual routes and specific mile markers on those routes.  It contains nearly 800 pages of detailed and valuable information on everything from the famous Alaska Highway system to cruising Alaska's Inside Passage.  The MILEPOST turned out to be an invaluable aid for us, both in planning and execution.  Although it is large and takes up a lot of space I carried that book with me the entire trip, referring to it on many evenings as we discussed the next day’s plans.

Personal Planning and Provisioning.  My planning would necessarily include some semi-expensive purchases before I felt comfortable with undertaking a trip of this length and expanse.  As I wrote previously, I asked a number of questions of Gus after seeing the pictures of his Four Corners trip. He answered most of them in his journal; what did he pack? “three pairs of jeans, six T-shirts, two long sleeve T-shirts, six sets of skivvies, six sets of socks.”  He discussed cold weather gear (electrically heated gloves and jacket liners, “over pants”, winter rain gear) and tools/miscellaneous small spare parts.  He also had a major discussion of his use of a Garmin Global Positioning System (GPS) Navigation computer and  display.  I have used GPS for years, both in flying and in my car so knew the value of the device.  In airplanes there are a number of systems that include voice prompts, commands and warnings; the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) is one.  The TCAS has a voice that warns you of several things, not the least of which is an impending collision with another airplane if you don’t do something promptly.  Similarly, the Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) also has a voice warning you of other types of dangers, not the least of which is an impending collision with the ground if you don’t do something promptly. Both result in bent aluminum and hurt folks if you persist and fail to heed the warnings.  Depending on the make or type of system the voice commands may be either a man’s or a woman’s voice (I’m certain some psychological study has been done to determine which voice is most effective in a particular situation). In those systems where the warning is a woman’s voice we pilots have affectionately dubbed her “Bitching Betty”.  Following that lead, and realizing the voice in my car’s GPS is that of a woman, I named her “Nagging Nellie”.  Gus (or rather, his traveling companions in disdainful discourse) named his unit “Sue-Sue” apparently after one device on the market with a brand name of Tom-Tom.

Notwithstanding all that, one item I would purchase in preparation for the trip would be a new Garmin 550; a GPS specifically designed and hardened for the elements and vibration existent in motorcycle travel.  Besides navigation,the 550 has Bluetooth capability so one can use a cell phone through the GPS unit and it also has a built-in mp3 player so you can listen to your personal music while traveling.  Finally, an extra-cost option is an XM radio receiver;  I have one in my car and use it more than any other media so that would be a nice enhancement to a motorcycle GPS for me.
Once again, thanks to the internet, I was able to get an extraordinary deal on the purchase of a Garmin 550.  Normally selling for bout $900.00, I found an outlet selling brand new units for $459.00.  Ordered, received and with some consternation (the Vision has an integrated wiring harness that coordinates all sorts of electric and media components but does not provide for any GPS other than the factory installed unit which is a $1200-plus option), I got the 550 mounted and powered up.  Now, since Christine had made the disparaging comment about the Vision looking like something George Jetson would ride and recalling that George’s wife, who lovingly and dutifully nagged him, was named Jane it seemed only natural to name my new GPS “Jane”.  And so it was.  Jane and Sue-Sue would become fast friends on this journey.

In researching motorcycle travel and Alaska I came across several articles by a man who has made multiple motorcycle runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Gregory Frazier.  One article in particular was “Dr. Frazier rides Deadhorse Alaska”.  A few excerpts:
  • Adventurist motorcyclists know that reaching Deadhorse, Alaska, is an accomplishment on most of their personal check lists. It is the highest point on the North American continent to which they can pilot their motorcycle, sidecar, or three-wheeler. The Dalton Highway, the 414-mile road to reach Deadhorse, is through some of the wildest environment one can attempt. Not all make it to the top, the pumping stations at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. Crashes are common, as are flat tires, mechanical break downs, grizzly and polar bear tales, and snow in June and July.
  • For long sections there are no connections for cell phones and the 240-mile stretch between Coldfoot and Deadhorse has no services for anything: no gas, food, or sleeping facilities. In this same 240-mile section the temperature can easily be well below freezing in the middle of summer, and during the winter months minus 80-100 degrees Fahrenheit is not uncommon. On June 21st this year (2009), when I checked the temperature at Deadhorse, it was just above freezing, but that evening it dipped down low enough to cover the road in a thin coating of frost and ice. The small pond by the hotel was still frozen from the winter. That morning motorcycle engines were slow to turn over if they were using their usual straight 50 weight engine oil.
  • Wear the right motorcycle gear. It can be below freezing in Coldfoot when you arrive while it was 80-degrees when you left Fairbanks, and you might have to drive through some rain or snow. Waterproof breathable gear, with an electric liner, can make what could have been a miserable journey into a fun run.
And then these two items:
  • Tires are the most common failure on motorcycles. Carry a good repair kit with you and know how to use it. While you may not need it, you can earn some good karma when you find the traveler who did not heed this advice.
  • Purchase medical evacuation insurance (for your entire trip to Alaska). If you have to be plucked off the Dalton Highway by a helicopter and transported to Fairbanks, it can cost you up to $30,000.
I forwarded the article to Stu, Rex and Gus; not as a way to scare them back to their senses but to provide some insight that might help with planning.  I used much of Dr. Frazier’s advice in constructing my duffle: to include a substantial tire repair kit, a well thought out tool kit that had a wrench for every size bolt, screw or nut on the Vision as well as a six-foot siphon hose to transfer gas if it became necessary, duct tape, stainless steel wire, tie-downs and a small funnel.  Included too were heated clothing, mosquito netting and spray with DEET and a zero degree sleeping bag.  I made copies of all important documents; insurance cards, registration, title, credit cards, driver’s license, etc.  to be given to one of the other guys to carry in case I lose mine or am in some way incapacitated. Finally, I found a reasonable medical evacuation insurance policy that covered all of Alaska and Canada, just in case…

As a pilot, I have come to be most comfortable in preparation for anything with the idea of using a checklist.  In commercial aviation the simple checklist has been elevated almost to an art form.  Every action, every step, every procedure is articulated in some form of checklist… using them means precision and exact execution and the avoidance of “oops, I forgot!” situations that can lead to (you guessed it!) bent aluminum and hurt folks.  There is a saying in aviation which originated only a few years after the Wright Brothers first flew: “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect.”  So too it is with motorcycle riding especially when travels take you to unknown and rugged territory. With all the stuff I’ve acquired or continue to acquire for this journey and with all the potential pitfalls, I think I’ll build a checklist!

image

You have to admit, that is a lot of “stuff” to pack on one motorcycle! But it was planned, considered and it all fit.

As departure nears, the activity to get ready accelerates.  One partially sleepless night (I am usually a sound sleeper but as the trip draws nigh, I often awake and start thinking about what I may have forgotten.  Not nervousness, just eager anticipation) it occurs to me that motorcycle tires wear out faster than automobile tires.  A quick call to the Victory Dealer the next morning to ask the question, “How many miles can I expect to get on my tires?”  I already know the answer… “It depends! How are you going to ride it?”  Eventually we get to the suggestion that about 10,000 miles is a good average.  After that I will need to check frequently and prepare for the requirement to re-shoe my trusty steed.  Since I have close to 6000 miles on the bike already, it is apparent that I will need new tires perhaps even before we shoot for the Circle.

An internet search around the 22nd of June helps me find several Victory dealers in Canada and Alaska.  I make a few phone calls and am advised by most of the service departments that tires in the size I need are kept in stock and they will be happy to fit me in as I pass through.  In Fairbanks there is a dealer; Harley-Davidson Northernmost Outpost (they also sell Victorys) but I am unable to reach the gent I need to speak with by phone so I send him an email.  The Victory Ambassador at the Outpost is a guy named Russ Kosman.  In my message to him I inquired about tires and casually mentioned that we were planning to ride to the Arctic Circle and more than likely, to Deadhorse.  Russ responded almost immediately.  He had tires alright, but it was the rest of his message that lit up a master caution light in my brain housing group:

“I would like to take some time and brief you on the Haul Road.
We do not recommend that you ride a Vision to Coldfoot, here is why.
This road is dirt and has many different sizes of rock, most of it made with rock crushers so it is sharp and reeks havoc on bike tires.   Next there is the calcium chloride they dump to keep the dust down sometimes.  This is a few inches thick; when wet it gives you the greased cookie sheet effect.
Weather is a MAJOR issue on this road - it can make or break a person trying to go up.
I give these warnings to everyone and I know someone riding a BMW GS will look at me and smile and go do it anyway.
I just had a gentleman from Italy in here week before last who was on a Gold Wing coming from the southern tip of South America.  We knew there was no talking him out of it so we warned him and gave him Phone #s to call us if he had problems.  I got a call from the nurse in an Anchorage hospital that he had my card in his pocket and that he had crashed on his way back down the Haul Road.
I don't mean to scare you but my opinion is the road is not made for street bikes. At best you will require a paint job, tires, and a new windshield after a trip up and back
We rescue several touring bikes off this road every season and I have seen a rear shock torn completely out of the frame on a Wing!
You have a beautiful ride I would hate to see it damaged and worse yet any injury to yourself.”


Wow!  This guy lives there and doesn’t recommend our riding the Haul Road!  Dr. Frazier told of some of the pitfalls but said it was doable. He, of course was riding a BMW GS like Russ mentioned… they are made for that type of travel and have knobby off-road tires and a limber suspension.  We, on the other hand, are riding 900 pound road cruiser bikes with street tires!  Maybe we need to rethink this!  I spent a lot of money for my George Jetson rocket and don’t want to destroy it!  Off goes a forward of this email to my traveling companions.

Gus, never one to procrastinate, called Russ right after he received my message and discussed in even greater detail the risks associated with riding the Haul Road.  An additional concern that surfaced with the phone call was the size and speed of the trucks that use the haul road.  They own the road, don’t slow down and send huge rocks flying into the air that, at 55 mph can hit a biker like a howitzer round!  As soon as he’s off the phone with Russ, Gus calls me and we start re-evaluating.  As retired Marine Corps fighter pilots we're both pretty sturdy and adventurous, but always, always try to temper our adventures with common sense and detailed preparation.  This no longer sounds like a good idea.

Chapter Five

 

Off to Alaska!  Departure.

 

It’s the night of July 3rd, 2010.  I have filled the Vision’s gas tank, loaded all the route information that I currently have into Jane’s memory bank and loaded and unloaded the bike twice.  I photograph the odometer to record the starting mileage.  Checklist complete!  DSCN0011 A lovely meal with Christine and profuse thanks for her understanding and indulgence. Early to bed for a 0530 wakeup.  I am excited.  Sleep comes quickly but lasts only a couple hours before I awaken and mentally run through my checklist – again!  Did I mention , I am excited?  0530 arrives a little too soon but fortunately, despite a bit of restlessness during the night, I am rested. 
I am so blessed to have Christine for my wife.  Few men are as happily married as I and it is a great feeling.  She arises with me, worries over my getting ready, checks and rechecks that I have included everything I will need, makes coffee, reminds me for the zillionth time to call – “at the end of each day, every day” – and to be safe.  It is a clear and warm day.  The morning sun has just crested the eastern horizon casting a golden glow on the driveway and surrounding neighbor’s homes. Christine takes a couple quick pictures and I fire up the Vision’s big V-twin, pull the clutch and drop the transmission into first gear.  At precisely 0615 on the Fourth of July, 2010 I pull out of the driveway… my Bucket List trip has begun.
 

0615 July 4th, 2010: Alaska Trip begins!
  




      









Mornings are my friend.  I love the stillness  of the morning air, the colors warmed by the rising sun and the sounds of the earth awakening.  On this day, our Nation’s birthday, the Holiday keeps early morning traffic to a minimum.  Very few cars on the road as I wind northerly through the rural country side of Central Florida.  Perhaps I will be slowed by celebration later this morning as small towns put on their parades and barbeques but for now, I own the road.  DSCN0013 The plan was that Gus would ride south from his home in Aiken and meet me in Surrency, GA.  We’d gas up there then ride to Statesboro, GA for lunch at the Statesboro Inn, a Victorian style home now used as a quaint restaurant.  We had eaten there on a previous outing and enjoyed a wonderful buffet and casually elegant atmosphere.  Unfortunately, I called to make reservations yesterday and the young lady who answered informed me they would be closed today, the 4th of July.
As planned, I meet Gus in Surrency.  He’s waiting in the grass next to the service station.  An excited greeting and a few comments about the day of departure finally being here and then we discuss the effect of this holiday on eating establishments along the way.  Our guess is that most will probably be closed as is the Statesboro Inn.  My first meal of the trip becomes an overcooked sausage on a dried bun from the gas station… not a great start!

I gas up and head north with Gus in trail heading for his home in Aiken.  The day is warm, clear and sunny.  We arrive at Gus’s around 1530 and are greeted by Margaret, Gus’s doting bride who has spent her life pointing Gus in the right direction and generally picking up after him as he goes.  She is a tremendous personality and the perfect definition of a Southern Lady.

Gus’s neighbors and riding buddies, most of whom I know from our earlier rides in the spring, have staked out an area at the Cedar Creek pool and Margaret, Gus and I drive down to meet them and their wives for an informal Fourth of July celebration.  We exchange stories and laughter for a few hours, consume pizza, snacks, dessert and a little wine and beer and then head back to Gus’s for final preparation for tomorrow’s departure.

Evening of July 4th, 2010 - Gus's friends and fellow bikers at his community of Cedar Creek in Aiken, SC

At this point, we have not heard from Stu.  We expect to meet him tomorrow evening, July 5th, at Gus’s daughter Louise’s home in Nashville.  Wanting to make sure we have everything coordinated, Gus calls Stu’s home in Key West.  Stu is not there and his wife, Marianne, answers the phone.  She says Stu has not left yet and plans to meet us at Louise’s on the 6th, not the 5th.  We haven’t even left yet and the group is already lost!  Herding cats indeed!  Gus asks Marianne to have Stu call as soon as he arrives home and, in the mean time, we break out a calendar to see how this one day delay might impact our plans.  As I mentioned, we intentionally built fluidity into our schedule but two constraints we must meet are connecting with Rex in Vancouver and making the port at Prince Rupert by the afternoon of July 20th.

Detailed planning begins once more.  What if we do this?  Or that? If we can make (somewhere) by (some time) we’ll be back on track.  And so on…  Eventually I’m ready for sleep and am of the impression we’ve looked at every angle and filled every day on the calendar to the best of our ability based on uncertain knowledge.  Gus is still spun up and I am sinking fast.  Eventually, Stu calls and tells us worse news than a simple day’s departure delay.  He is not going to be able to make the trip!

While Stu was tending to the needs of his mother-in-law, he severely lacerated his left hand and required stitches.  That set him back a bit in preparing his motorcycle which needed some work on the clutch.  When he finally was well enough to ride it and got it to the dealer, they worked on the clutch.  Apparently not well enough inasmuch as the clutch would not disengage fully and in trying to sort that all out, Stu dumped his bike!  When he tried to right it, he damaged/stretched/pulled something in his back and he was now in the hands of a physical therapist.  All that said… his hand, the condition of his bike and his back injury meant he was simply unable, physically, to ride his bike safely.  After all the work he’d done on behalf of the entire group, after all the provisioning and after all the emotional build up, it was not to be for Stu.  I think Gus and I were as disappointed, if not more so, than Stu.  I was really looking forward to traveling with him.

Chapter Six

 

West to St. Louis.

 

Despite our sadness over the loss of Stu from the trip, we are at least back on track with respect to the timing.  Early the next morning, we arise, load up anything we had taken in the house the night before and back the bikes out of Gus’s garage.  As usual, Gus awoke long before departure and so, to fill the time, printed out some signs to put on our bikes. 232323232%7Ffp6339 )nu=3366)686)24;)WSNRCG=34 68 923;337nu0mrj When I left home the day before, I had a large sign stuck on the side of my bike with the words, “North to Alaska – the Old Gray Hogs” (referencing the movie, Wild Hogs about group of suburban biker wannabes looking for adventure on the open road).  My sign was ungainly and I didn’t expect to display it any longer than the day of our departure.  Apparently Gus liked the idea so came up with a more manageable solution by making them smaller and fastening them with clear tape over the sides of our saddlebags.

As the sun begins filtering through the Long Leaf Pines in the Fitch’s yard, Margaret steps out to wish us well and snap some photos. We fire up the trusty steeds and pull out of the driveway, headed down to the Cedar Creek Clubhouse where we met a few of the Tuesday morning riding group, aka, “Cedar Creek Gang”for  breakfast and an escort out of town.



Countdown - departure T-5 minutes and counting  Early morning, July 5th, 2010 - departure from Gus's on our journey.

It was a nice send off and several of the guys escorted us for a good part of the morning, all the way to Washington, GA.


The Cedar Creek Gang meets us at IHOP for a sendoff breakfast
 Cedar Creek Gang prepares their motorcycle escort to ride with us us out of town
End of the escorting bikers - Washington, GA

We and our escorts attempted to lunch together in the old Fitzpatrick Hotel in the town center of Washington.  Unfortunately it was closed.  So, without further fanfare the Cedar Creek guys turned for home and Gus and I set off for Nashville.

The rest of the day was uneventful.  The scenery through the parts of Georgia and Tennessee that we traveled was unremarkable.  I did, however, take photos of road signs (to help me remember the places through which we traveled) and bridges and river crossings.  Within a few days of our departing I realized that such photos were fairly nondescript and to a casual observer would be boring.  Thereafter I stopped taking all the random photo shots.DSCN0032 
We stayed “off the beaten path” for most of the day.  By that I mean that as much as feasible, we avoided traveling on the interstate highways.  This is a good place in my story to discuss such travel avoidances:

Most of the guys we know who travel on longer distance trips by motorcycle avoid interstates and other limited access highways as much as they can.  In fact, our GPS’s provide an option to program them to avoid interstates, toll roads and other unfavorable road conditions.  Such roads are considered “the Slab” and there can be a couple meanings to the term.  First, while they often provide the shortest time and distance between two places, they can be at once boring and exciting.  Boring because they provide mile after mile of relatively flat (slab) and straight pavement, usually at higher speeds necessitating the rider keeping his eye on the road ahead with a great deal of focus (looking for threats), little sightseeing opportunity and virtually no cornering.  As most riders will tell you, rounding curves and riding the “twisties” provides some of the greatest joys of riding. Second, as for the exciting part, it is exciting in a negative sense.  Flying is often described as hours and hours of sheer boredom interspersed with moments of stark terror.  So too can it be on a motorcycle. Drivers of automobiles tend not to notice motorcycles and change lanes abruptly; truckers have very large wheels and tires with a tendency to blow out leaving huge chunks of rubber on the pavement or hurling them at high speed into the face of an oncoming motorcycle; wind gusts and turbulence from an eighteen wheeler traveling at seventy-plus miles per hour can send a motorcycle careening across an entire lane of highway.  Any of those events or situations can end up with the motorcycle rider needing at the least, a change of underwear or at the worst, lying on a slab of his own.  Back roads on the other hand are more leisurely, have less traffic, more interesting design with changes of elevation and direction and offer the rider a chance to look away briefly to take in the scenery.

We arrive at Louise and Shane Truett’s (Louise Fitch Truett) home just a little before 1700.  I haven’t seen Louise since she was about thirteen and living with her family in Hawaii.  I have, however, been a fb friend of hers for a year or so and have followed her career and marriage.  She’s quite a gal; at once sophisticated and strong-willed.  Like her dad, she tells it like it is and grants no quarter to fools.  Shane is an attorney and good ol’ boy… not necessarily in that order.  Having lost his mother at a very young age and raised by his father along with four bothers he too is his own man and exhibits a strong independence.  I like them both a lot and they make a beautiful couple.

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As we settle in at the Truett’s, we off-load the bikes and take our duffle to where Louise has directed.  Gus wants to clean up a bit so unpacks his toiletry kit (“Dopp Kit”) only to find that his expensive shampoo has exploded and soaked the entire contents; toothbrush, comb, medicines, razor, etc.  With some understandable frustration, he takes everything out of the kit and goes outside to wash it out with the full force of Shane’s garden hose.  He then spends a few minutes wiping and rinsing all his toiletries, including his electric beard trimmer which to my casual observation looks to be totally ruined.  Oh well… mishaps will inevitably occur.

We have a delightful dinner (Louise is a world traveler and kind of a Renaissance Women -if there is such a thing- meaning she’s seen and experienced many cultures and has become a great cook!). Gus and Shane begin talking politics.  Gus and I are old guard Conservatives and Shane, perhaps not Liberal, but certainly questioning fairness within society and wanting to defend the underdog.  Louise says usually these discussions set her off because she’s either not included or thinks Shane and her dad ought to get a life and talk about other things once in awhile.  My presence softens her stance a little because we have years of catching up to do.  Thus, she and I converse about her work and life since I last saw her, my children’s activities and the like while Gus and Shane continue picking each others’ arguments apart.  All in all a very pleasant evening.

The next morning we are up early again as we begin setting a pattern for our daily routine on the trip.  We find that waking early and starting right out with only a cup of coffee gets us ahead of a lot of traffic and puts miles quickly behind us.  After an hour or so on the road we stop and eat breakfast, use the rest room, gas up and then press on.  This morning is like that.  We have a quick cup of coffee, uncover and load up the bikes, thank Shane and Louise for their hospitality and head toward St. Louis; Louise cautions her dad to “Be careful!”  Our breakfast stop is in Joelton, TN, about 40 miles from Louise’s.  It is 0745 when we stop at The Country Junction Family Restaurant.

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The waitress is young, not particularly attentive but friendly.  The management is patriotic and proud of our country.  The walls are covered with posters and memorabilia which pay homage to America’s Military men and women and they openly express their gratitude for the sacrifices of so many who have served.  We will find this patriotism in small towns and villages all across America.

Gus orders his typical southern breakfast which includes Grits.  Now if anyone reading this has a Southern heritage, you will know that cooking grits is an art form; they are either really good in both taste and texture or else they are awful!  We get the latter.  Instant grits from a package mixed with (too much) warm water. Blah!  The rest of the breakfast is tasty though and we’re out and on our way.

By 0845 we cross into Kentucky near Fort Campbell, follow I-24 (some times the avoidances are worse than the interstates) for several miles and cross the Ohio River at Paducah into Illinois.  Shortly after that we exit the interstate and follow country roads over to State Route 3, turn north and parallel the east side of the Mississippi River.  The road takes us through a beautiful, lush, green valley east of the Trail of Tears State Park.  We stop along the way for a brief rest and cooling stop.  In the following photos, notice a tan vest that Gus is wearing.  We both have purchased evaporative cooling vests (usually worn by construction workers) which contain bands of absorbent polymers that hold significant quantities of water.  At gas stops we immerse the vests in cold water and the absorbent material soaks it up.  We wear the vests beneath our  protective motorcycle jackets, so we can be both protected and yet remain cool in the hot summer weather.  This morning the temperature is already in the 90’s.  The cooling of the vests will last up to about four hours before they need be re-saturated.

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As we continue to follow Route 3 we come into the village of Chester, Ill.  Chester is a surprise; one of the many unknown finds we will discover on our journey.  At the intersection of Routes 3 and 51 is a small town park and next to it, a brick building that bears the sign “Spinach Can Collectables – Popeye Museum”?  Curious, we pull over and dismount to walk around in this little area and see what it is all about.  Turns out that Chester is the home of E.C. Segars, the cartoonist who developed the characters and story line of “Popeye”.  We find Chester to be a quaint little town and it is obvious that the residents are proud of their part in the creation of Popeye…

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Just as we found earlier in Joelton, Chester is a patriotic place with an unabashed gratitude for the sacrifices made by their hometown men and women who served in the Armed Forces.  Those honored here “Gave the last full measure of devotion”.

As we head out of town we pass the Chester Republican Party Headquarters; a building that looks as though it too has a history and story to tell . . .
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From Chester we continue up Route 3 and cross the Mississippi River just south of St. Louis, MO.  We track around the outskirts of St. Louis on I-255 and finally pull off in Wentzville, MO on the west side of St. Louis near the junction of I-70.  It is early afternoon and we have some preparation to do before bedding down very early, around 1800.  Why in bed so early?  Tomorrow I intend to qualify for membership in the Iron Butt Association.


Chapter 7

 

The Iron Butt Ride.

 

The Iron Butt Association (IBA) is an international organization dedicated to safe long-distance motorcycle riding.  Members proudly display their slogan, “The World’s Toughest Motorcycle Riders.” To qualify, a rider must plan and execute a long distance ride and document in great detail the route and timing of the ride.  It is not a race and safety is paramount.  There are a number of qualification types of rides; the minimum is entitled “The Saddle Sore 1000”.   Other rides include: “Bun Burner 1500”, “Bun Burner Gold”, the “Iron Butt Rally” and ultimately, the”100K Club”.  To be certified, the rider must be able to PROVE that he or she has ridden 1,000 miles in under 24 hours, or 1,500 miles in under 36 hours, or 11,000 miles in under 11 days or, ultimately, 100,000 miles in less than 365 days.  I plan to complete the Saddle Sore 1000 tomorrow, a ride of 1000 miles in less than 24 hours.  While that seems excessive, in theory I could ride non-stop for 24 hours and never exceed 45 miles per hour. Why, you may ask, would anyone in their right mind want to accomplish such a thing? There is no prize money and no reward other than a certificate and a license plate bracket that indicates one is a member.  Motorcycle enthusiasts accomplish this because they can; because not many people do and because they get “bragging rights”, pure and simple.  You have to be an enthusiast, a lover of motorcycles and the open road or you simply don’t do it.

Now, when I say PROVE, I mean the rider must have an individual on either end of their route who will affirm to an Iron Butt Association official that they witnessed the rider’s departure on a specific date, at a specific time, and the arrival at the end of the route on a specific date (within the time limit for the particular ride). Riders must receive and save all gas receipts. If there is a turn on the route, say from a westerly heading to a northerly one, the rider must stop at a gas station even if he doesn’t need gas and purchase gas so he can obtain a receipt proving that he made a turn at that particular location and did not cut across the hypotenuse of the triangle on the route. The Association is very strict. They do not allow two riders trying for a qualification to ride together because it may look to the Press like racing (Gus can ride with me because he is already certified).  And, since he will be riding with me, he will be allowed to serve as my witness at both the start and finish of the ride.

Tomorrow will be an all-interstate highway day.  The best way to eat up miles is on the slab.  To avoid traffic, particularly around St. Louis, we will leave very early and make it out into the sparseness of the plains by sunup.  Our planned route (with the 1000 mile distance verified by MapSource) will take us west on I-70 to Kansas City, MO, then turn north on I-29 to Sioux Falls, SD then onto I-90 west to Sundance, WY.  It is important to be rested for the trip.  The Iron Butt Association recommends several good nights’ sleep before starting out on a qualification ride.  So we scout around the Motel and find a gas station next to the interstate where we can fill up and document our start in the morning, eat a light dinner and climb into bed at 1800 with the alarm set for midnight.  Hopefully we will pull out of the gas station tomorrow morning at 0100. I’m a little worried about Gus’s ability to get to sleep so early.  He suffers from insomnia as it is (more about that later) and this is really off schedule.  On the other hand, in all my years of flying across time zones and sleeping in strange beds, I have acquired an ability to close my eyes and fall asleep at almost anytime of the day or night and can usually stay asleep for at least five or six hours even if my circadian rhythm is out of sync.

This night I awaken after only a couple hours of sleep.  I am restless and worried some about my ability to accomplish this task.  Gus has already qualified… what would he think if his fellow Marine and traveling companion can’t hack it!?  I have always recognized a reduction in my performance at mental tasks when I am not rested and lose focus easily when tired.  What if that happens on this day?  Pressing on when I know I am too tired to ride safely is a non-starter; we both agreed at the outset of this trip that we would be honest about fatigue with both ourselves and with each other.  Get to sleep you old fool!  If you don’t sleep longer, your fears will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I drift off and sleep soundly until the alarm goes off at midnight.  Must not have been awake as long as I thought because I am surprisingly well-rested.  Gus says he slept fairly well, although admits not as long as he would have liked. Everything was pretty much packed the night before.

A quick freshen up and tooth brushing, throw on my jeans and boots and we’re out the door.  We head over to the gas station we scoped out yesterday and I pull up to the pump.  Gus tops off more quickly than I (I always “top off” and the last half gallon has to go in slowly to avoid overflowing) and goes into the gas station for some reason I don’t recall.  I press the “print receipt” button and pull it from the pump’s printer.  It reads: QUICKTRIP, 1140 West Pearce Blvd., Wentzville, MO., Date- July 7, 2010, Time- 12:48 AM.  Since I had filled up the night before, I only do this for the starting documentation; my bike takes only 0.17 gallons for a cost of $0.51.  I take my logbook out of the little compartment to the left of my gas tank and record the starting mileage from my odometer as 7356.7 miles.

Gus reappears, mounts his Goldwing and we exchange the obligatory “radio check” on our CB radios.  We’re both up loud and clear.  I take the lead (a requirement of the Iron Butt qualification) and pull out of the gas station, over a bridge and make the sweeping turn around the clover-leaf onto Interstate 70, westbound.  It is dark, very dark, but the night is cool and clear.  We accelerate to five miles per hour over the speed limit and set the cruise control.  Gus rides at my right rear several hundred yards behind me.  We usually ride much closer together nose to tail, but in the dark my Vision’s tail lights are bright and a little hypnotic.  A closer position requires greater focus and since this will be a long day, we make every effort to reduce fatigue.  Only long haul truckers are out at this time of the morning and there aren’t many of them.  Nevertheless, as we pass them their presence is well signaled by the wind as it is forced apart, split by the large mass of moving metal into great balls of turbulence thrown into our path, buffeting our helmets and pushing our bikes into unstable wobbles until we are clear.  It is never a pleasant experience.


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A couple times we pull along side one another to exchange a thumb’s up and snap a picture.  We ride for about two hours in darkness and make our first gas stop in Higginsville, MO.  After two-and-a-half more hours in darkness the sun begins to rise over our right rear shoulders.  The clouded sky above begins to take on a light purple hue with streaks of bright reds and oranges.  In our rear view mirrors the sun penetrates the clouds in brilliant rays like bolts of pure light streaking through every small opening. It is stunningly beautiful and reinforces my love of mornings.  The miles have flown by almost effortlessly and I can’t stop smiling.  I have such a feeling of freedom, of life.  No worries, no cares… only exuberance.  And focus.  Always, always focus; on the road ahead, the road condition, the traffic, Gus in trail and the environment surrounding the both of us.  While it is focus, it is nonetheless an easy focus, not fatiguing, because it is part of the experience.

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As the sun continues to rise, I check with Gus over the CB about his fuel quantity.  We agreed that for most of the trip we would start looking for fuel when the gauges got to about half.  This would be particularly necessary in northern Canada and Alaska where gas stations are scarce.  It is a good idea on this day as well if for no other reason, than it forces us to take a quick break and stretch our legs every couple of hours.  We decide to get off the slab at the next exit and fill up.  After all, there is a gas station at every exit on every interstate isn’t there?  Well, maybe not!

Somehow, I got off on another interstate, I-680, and started heading back east!  This is not good!  First, it will add miles that will not be counted in the Iron Butt qualification because I didn’t get a gas receipt right at the intersection where we turned off.  Second, it will cut into the time we have to complete this ride in 24 hours.  Damn!  How did I let this happen?

Fortunately, not every bad decision turns out with a bad result.  I lead us off I-680 at the first opportunity and head north, paralleling our route on I-29.  This puts us on a narrow two lane country road which winds beautifully through rolling hills and farm land.  It is a gorgeous ride and a nice diversion from the slab.  And, while we are still eating away at our available time, we are at least headed in the right direction.  Eventually we pull into the town of Missouri Valley, Iowa.  It’s a small farm town and perhaps because it is still early, not much appears to be open.  There is a gas station up the hill on the right.  I rolled up to the pumps only to discover that the place was closed!  We do a U-turn and head back down the road eventually to find a Country Store and independent gas station.  Jane tells me it is an easy and short ride back to I-29 from here so off we go.  Just short of the on ramp I spy a McDonald’s and pull in for breakfast.  If we do this quickly, we will have not lost too much time; all in all I think we used up about 20 minutes and rode about 8 or 9 miles out of our way.


As we dismount and go in for a healthy (?) breakfast I note the front of my Vision is covered in bugs.  Farm land early in the morning will do that every time!  DSCN0074 Inside we get our order quickly and make our way to a table.  In the corner near where we are sitting is a round table with seven guys enjoying breakfast.  They appear to be farmers and that observation is confirmed by their conversation.  The subject is farm equipment and fertilizer.  During all of his travels, Gus has made a point of trying to photograph people, using the pictures to help tell the story of his journeys.  He always asks permission of the intended subjects (well, almost always – on this trip I found him occasionally taking pictures surreptitiously!)  To break the ice with groups like this we ask a question about the town or how to get somewhere.  Sometimes, we explain that we are retired Marines and ask if anyone has served in one or another of the military services.  Usually those tactics work and we can then bring the conversation around to asking if we can take their picture to document our travels.  Seldom does anyone say no.  Some are more shy than others and look away or pull their chairs back, but most folks are friendly and accommodating.

  
DSC04308 This group will be the first of many we experience along the way.  In almost every town where we stopped for breakfast or early morning gas we encountered groups of locals who meet almost every day at the same place and discuss business, local politics and the world in general.  Usually they tend not to be in a fast food place but rather, in a local Mom & Pop type establishment. It is fascinating to meet these folks; they are good, caring people.


After replenishing our bodies we head back to the bikes and once again ride up the exit to I-29 north toward Sioux Falls.  We remain in little traffic and the speed limit has increased to 70 mph so I set the cruise control at 75.  We hit Sioux Falls at around 1020 and exit onto I-90 westbound.  I check with Gus on the radio and ask how he’s feeling.  “Great!”  We’ve been on the road now for over nine hours and neither of us is feeling the slight bit fatigued.  That’s a good sign.  As the miles click over I continue to be pumped… this is a great country and I’m having the time of my life! Morning gives way to afternoon and we continue to eat up miles despite gas stops about every 2 hours.  Early in the afternoon we stop in Murdo, SD and at the exit seeDSCN0084 an interesting (perhaps ungainly?) advertisement for a nearby auto museum.  It would be fun to visit but this is the one day of the trip where we can’t just stop to smell the roses… we have miles to cover.


Around 1515 we are ready for yet another gas stop.  I pull into a little town called Wasta, SD looking for fuel.  Not much to the place but we do find a self serve gas station.  By “self serve” I mean literally.  There are pumps with card readers but not a person in sight.  There is a block building nearby with no windows but there is a door and some signs that indicate we might be able to get a bite to eat.  Gus walks up to the door and hollers out a couple of hello’s.  No answer and nobody around.  So, we mount up again and head a little further down the road and come to red and white block building with the sign, “Dixie Diner”.  I guess we can get something to eat here.  The signs on the outside of the building say “Honk for Hops”… apparently the Hops must have taken the day off because the only person around is a young lady behind the counter inside the building.  She is very nice, very friendly but apparently business is so bad that they don’t really serve food any more.  In fact, she doesn’t even have ice for our drinks!  We buy a couple of candy bars, a bottle of water and bid her adieu.

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Back on the road and we query each other about our alertness and level of fatigue.  Surprisingly, neither of us are the least  bit tired after almost 14 hours of riding!  There is something about the clarity of the day; bright sun and blue, almost cloudless sky (no bright white overcast to strain the eyes) and the relative absence of traffic as the flat plains give way to the rolling terrain of the Black Hills.  The ride is effortless and the changing scenery keeps our interest peaked and our spirits soaring. Around 1630 we near the exit for Sturgis, SD, home of the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.  We check the time and distance traveled so far and determine that we have only about 60 miles to go to cross the 1000 mile threshold and lots of daylight remaining.  We can easily afford the short delay taken to drive through Sturgis and stop at the Harley dealer for a couple of snap shots of my Vision in the foreground.  We pull off the exit and Gus, having been here before, leads me through town to the Harley dealership.

As sure as the sun rises every day, my bike becomes the center of attention every time and every where we stop!  This is especially great now because Sturgis is “Harley  country” and many a loyal Harley rider has cast aspersions on Victory as a competitor to Harley.  On our trip to Key West earlier this year I found it fascinating to see the reaction of bikers from all over the place; bikers with other brands like Honda, Yamaha, etc., and sports car owners all would come over to ogle my Victory.  Harley riders on the other hand would usually avoid it by a country mile acting as though to get within ten feet of it would cause them to acquire some awful sexually transmitted disease.  And, of course, Gus… he’s not jealous (so he says) but he is simply ready to puke every time somebody drools over my sexy bike! As the trip continued he got so he would just say, “Oh!  Not again!”, shake his head and turn away (I’m not sure, but I think on a couple of occasions he may have actually paid people not to walk over and see my bike!).

Just as expected, a group of older, burly guys in Harley jackets appear out of the showroom and swarm around my bike.  A couple had only seen pictures of the Vision so this was their first look at the real thing.  They talked, admired and seemed to enjoy our short visit.  Of course to Harley riders everywhere this is shameful behavior on the part of these guys… right out of the Harley dealership, indeed!  And, true to form and to no avail, Gus pleads with them to simply walk away for fear my ego may inflate to such magnitude that my helmet will get stuck!

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The stop is necessarily brief because we still have to complete the day’s mission; certification for membership in the Iron Butt Association.  Gus reminds me that we need press on so we bid adieu to my new admirers and head back out to I-90, destination: Sundance, WY. About 45 minutes later as we approach Sundance, the mileage on Gus’s Goldwing clicks over at 1000 for the day.  Mine is still short of that by a few miles.  We had earlier determined that the  speedometers on the Honda’s tend to indicate about 3 mph faster than the actual speed.  Thus, we might not have actually travelled 1000 miles to this point.  My odometer still shows about 10 miles to go.  Also, recognizing that we have to have complete, total and accurate documentation of the trip, verified by gas receipts, I’m concerned that the 8 to 9 miles we rode off route earlier in the morning will not be reflected in my documentation.  So, just as a precaution, I tell Gus that I think it a good idea to press on another 20 or 30 miles to ensure that when the Iron Butt Association researchers calculate the miles we have traveled we don’t end up a couple miles short.  He agrees and we press on to the next exit which takes us to Moorcroft, Wyoming. Right off the exit at Moorcroft is a “Coffee Cup Fuel Stop”.  At precisely 1654 (Mountain Time) we pull in and I top off my tank.  Since starting this morning the total mileage shown on my odometer is 1045.6 and our total travel time is 17 hours and 6 minutes.  Check the box!  The Iron Butt is complete!  

Side note:  Of some interest, and a word of advice for others who may attempt this certification, is the importance of actually checking the receipts.  To my horror, in late August when I submitted the documentation I discovered that the last gas receipt obtained in Moorcroft was missing some information!  The printer failed to print certain letters and numbers so although I had the receipt, and could interpret it because I knew exactly what transpired at that stop, I was afraid the verifier would not consider it a substantive proof!  The name of the place was missing half the letters, reading only “co   cup” and the city only reflected “croft, WY” and gave no street address.  The time was correct and so was the month and day but the year was completely missing!  In my exuberance at completing the day, I failed to read the receipt when I pulled it from the pump.  Fortunately the manager at the Cenex gas station there in Moorcroft was another of the many truly nice people we met along the way.  In a bit of a panic, I called her from home in late August.  She walked out to her warehouse, rifled through some boxes, found the electronic record for that day and hand wrote a receipt containing all the information I needed and faxed it to me.  Nice lady!  I sent both receipts with an explanation to the Association. Post script:  the verification took 4 months but in December I finally received my certification and membership.

After fueling we rode about a mile into town and found a cozy motel.  We checked in with a really nice young lady, took her picture and unpacked the bikes.
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No nearby restaurants but we had seen a Subway at the gas station so we saddled up for the short ride back there, bought a foot-long and headed back to the room for some much needed R & R.  We briefly checked in with our wives, finished the sandwiches and crashed for some much needed sleep.  All together it was about 20 hours ago that we awakened for the day… what a day it was!  Both Gus and I will remember this day forever.  As I drift off to sleep I am unable to wipe the smile from my face.

Chapter 8

 

Homestead, Mobile Phone and Yellowstone.

 

Last night when I was talking to Christine I told her where we were and that this little town was only about 30 or 40 miles from Hulett, WY where her Paternal Grandparents used to live.  Back in 1993 we had visited her Grandmother there for a week.  With some excitement, she suggested we travel up to Hulett and take a few pictures of her “ancestral” home.  I told Gus about the conversation though he already had an inkling of what I was going to ask since we were in the same room when I was talking to Christine.  Hulett was not on our planned route of travel, in fact, it was north and somewhat behind us.  Gus was not sure we should take the time and he knew he would enjoy listening to me try to explain to my lovely bride why I didn’t think a trip to her Grandparent’s old home was important enough to devote an extra hour or so of travel time.  He loves to see me squirm! Anyway, I recalled eating in Hulett with Christine’s grandmother in a really quaint restaurant/bar where the local cattlemen gathered for morning business and afternoon libation.  Knowing Gus’s fondness for good country breakfasts in small town America I threw out the possibility of a really great breakfast in Hulett (not knowing whether the restaurant was still even there or not).  With not much reluctance he agreed that it might be a good idea, especially since we had not found much more than the Subway in Moorcroft.  Just as our unplanned side trip yesterday turned out to be a nice diversion, this early morning side trip will turn out to be quite spectacular.


We saddle up early and head northeast out of Moorcroft on Highway 14.  It is cool, around 50 degrees and the sun is just cresting the eastern horizon and illuminating slight golden pockets of early morning mist in the low spots.  There is not a cloud in the brilliant blue sky and the visibility goes on forever.  The road is extremely well maintained (surprising because of the harsh winters here), smooth, curvy and lots of up and downs as it winds through the rolling terrain of the Black Hills following the Belle Fourche River.  The road is dry and there is no traffic.  It is a stunning morning.

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This is as good a place as any to try and explain the sense of freedom, beauty and wonder I take from riding.  I grew up working on my grandfather’s farms from about the age of 7.  Electronic stimulation was nil in those days.  We only had AM radio, one channel on our black and white TV, no computers, no cell phones (we actually had a crank phone and talked to Nina Brown, the town’s only operator), and no electronic games.  What we did have was creeks, fields, forests, tractors, barns, garages, tools, imagination and the great outdoors. 

At the age of 15 I took a job on a dairy farm outside of our family, working for a man named Chuck Williams.  It was hard work, literally dawn to dusk seven days a week and I loved it!  One recollection is a morning, not unlike the morning I describe on our ride up to Hulett, when after milking the cows and having breakfast, I was assigned to mow one of the hay fields.  Chuck’s farm was on top of a hill on one side of the glacially formed Catatonk Valley in central New York.  The field I was to mow was about 500 feet above the valley floor and I could see for miles.  I sat on a Farmall tractor.  There was no cab, no roll bar, no windshield, no nothing except a seat without a back rest which perched me high above the ground.  I recall the smell of the new mown hay, the warmth of the sun on my back, the powerful sound of the tractor’s engine and the ability to look all around me, up, down and 360 degrees around with no visual obstruction.  Over the engine’s mechanical clamber I heard the screech of a hawk as he dove to capture a field mouse and in the distance, the warning “Caw! Caw!” of the ever present crows.  It was the melding of man, machine and nature at its best.  As corny as it may sound, I was so in-the-moment happy that I started singing familiar show tunes from Oklahoma, The Sound of Music and The Music Man.  “Oh! What a beautiful morning… Oh!  What a beautiful day!”  It was a glorious day and I will remember it for eternity.

Fast forward to my years in the Marine Corps flying fighters.  Once again, the only thing separating the pilot from nature is his cockpit and the bubble canopy above him which affords him an almost spherical view of the world around him.  But now we add speed far in excess of that of a tractor and, most of the time, a flying partner; another airplane in close proximity as you travel from one point to another.  That is known as formation flying; two or more aircraft traveling and maneuvering together in a disciplined, synchronized, predetermined manner.   There are tactical reasons for formation flying in combat and it is also an efficient way to move more than one aircraft through the same airspace at the same time.  Military pilots practice and use formation flying almost every time they fly.  Formation flying demands an exceptionally high level of pilot skill and focus; it's demanding, disciplined, rewarding, and to most of us, a lot of fun.

All of these experiences, emotions and senses are homogenized when touring on a motorcycle.  The rider feels a part of the environment through which he rides.  The senses are alert, quick and intense.  He feels the condition of the road, the weather around him and his view is unobstructed by door pillars and roofs.  The smells are unfiltered; whether that of new mown hay, pine forests, organic decay from the forest floor or salt water near the ocean.  On a cool morning, a change in elevation equates to a change in temperature the rider can feel; or a change in humidity the rider can feel as he penetrates a bank of fog. A slight twist of the wrist on the throttle produces an instant response and the feeling of acceleration is enhanced by the change in wind noise and buffet.  When traveling with others (and in my case, particularly with Gus due to our years flying together in formation) we develop a trust between us and can move en mass as one, banking into a curve, accelerating through the apex and rolling out of the bank as the road straightens. Motorcycling is the ultimate marriage of man, machine and nature and for me, produces a euphoria unknown in almost any other activity…

We turn off Highway 14 onto Highway 24 which takes us past the Devil’s Tower National Monument.  Once again, it is a place I have previously visited though the number of visits never diminishes my awe of its grandeur.
              
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About 50 minutes after leaving the Rangeland Motel we cross the Belle Fourche River and descend into the little town of Hulett.  Sure enough, right there on Main Street as we pull into town is the Ponderosa Cafe… the restaurant Grandma Virginia Bare took us to 17 years ago.  We do a U-turn, park directly in front and dismount.

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We amble in and look around.  The place is bustling.  Most everyone in the place is involved with ranching in some manner and all seem to know each other.  We’re the “Bikers” from out of town so we get the once over and apparently don’t look too threatening so everyone goes back to eating and talking.  Once again there are tables, usually of men folk, conducting the business of the community while they nourish their bodies with bacon, eggs, toast, hash browns and coffee.  Talk of beef prices, weather and local politics abound. 

We are greeted by a very nice waitress who takes our order right away.  I ask her if she is a resident of Hulett (in retrospect, a stupid question… who would commute 40 or 50 miles from another town to be a waitress?) and she confirms that she is. So then I ask her if she ever knew Jim or Virginia Bare and explain who they were and why I am asking.  Turns out she has only lived here a few years and Christine’s grandparents had passed away sometime before she moved to town.  Being helpful though, she said, “I’ll bet Russell over there would know them; he’s lived here his whole life.”   The man she points to is sitting at a table with three other gents, all appearing to be involved in agriculture of some form, and all having an animated discussion about the “goings on”… it is the usual morning men’s club we have found in every little town through which we have traveled.  DSC04345 She taps “Russell” on the shoulder (the man in the left foreground of the photo)and tells him I need a little help finding something.  So I get up, introduce myself, apologize for the interruption and ask about the Bare’s.  Turns out his name is Russell Stenson and he knows of them, “Of course I remember Jim Bare!  He was the principal here when I was in school.  A tough disciplinarian and a good man!”  I tell him I’m looking for the Bare house… that it has been so long since I’ve been here I can’t remember exactly where it is.  He graciously tells me it is two blocks down on the corner, that it has been re-sided so looks a little different but that’s it for sure.  I thank him, return to my breakfast (no grits for Gus today… Hulett is long way from South Carolina!) and we discuss plans for the rest of the day.
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We finish a really tasty country breakfast, mount up and ride down the street to where Russell said the house was.  Sure enough it was the place I remember though the brush around it is overgrown and the siding is now a natural wood color rather than white.  I take a few pictures and send one in a cell phone text message to Christine.  She responds almost instantly and is really thrilled that we’ve taken the time to visitDSCN0124.

All in all a great morning; great ride, great food and a happy wife!

Now it’s time to set out for the rest of the day’s journey.  We plan to make it to Cody, WY tonight.  It is now about 0900 and Cody is quite a hike from here.  So we climb aboard our trusty steeds and back track down the same route we came up from Moorcroft.  The sun is slightly higher over our left shoulder but the route back is just as beautiful as it was coming up. As we roll back into Moorcroft, Gus needs to use the rest room so we check back at the Rangeland Motel.  We checked out when we left earlier, but the room hasn’t been cleaned yet so the maid lets us back in to use the facilities and freshen up.

We don’t need fuel yet since we gassed up last night at the end of our Iron Butt ride so its back onto I-90 and off to Gillette, WY. Somewhere between yesterday afternoon and this morning Gus has lost his cell phone!  He’s not sure when he had it last but somewhere along this segment of our trip he discovers that it is missing.  Neither of us has a recollection of when he last used it.  I think he talked to Margaret last night which would mean he lost it this morning somewhere.  At breakfast?  Back at the motel several miles behind us?  There is no way of knowing and the only certainty is that it came off his hip somewhere and its gone!  So we decide to look for a Verizon store in Gillette.  It is times like this that Sue-Sue and Jane prove to be invaluable.  There are modes built into the software that allow the user to search for food, lodging, gas stations and other businesses at the touch of only a few buttons.  We tap on the “food/lodging” icon, select “shopping” and type in “Verizon Stores”… Presto! Up pops nearby Verizon stores, the closest one listed first, and in this instance, it is in Gillette. Gus sets that as his destination and off we go.


Time for another aside:  This is not meant to be cruel in any way and I discuss it only to set the stage for the reader’s understanding of our human frailties.  Along with increasing age, Gus has noticed a decline in his short term memory.  It is only very recent events that seem to escape him; if you query him on any thing associated with long term memory he’s a champ, brilliant actually.  On the short term side though he simply gets a little distracted and then can’t remember where he was going with some discussion or activity, or he misplaces things.  On this trip he lost his keys almost every time he took them out of the ignition!  Not really lost, only misplaced.  Rex and I teased him often and even offered suggestions to help.  I told him he ought to always put his keys in the same pocket then they would always be in the same place.  He said he tried that.  The only problem was he never remembered which pocket he decided he would always put them in!  I suffer from the same thing although not to the same degree.  At home I can walk out of one room into another with an urgency of purpose only to arrive in the new room with no clue what it was I was going to do or say.  Usually it comes to me in a few minutes and I’m left baffled as to why I couldn’t remember what it was for that brief instant.  The loss of the cell phone is probably not associated with the loss of short term memory other than perhaps remembering to check frequently that it is still on one’s hip might be helpful.  In any event, however, Gus acknowledges this shortcoming, is troubled by it and it will continue to surface from time to time during our trip.  Usually no harm, no foul.

We arrive at the Verizon store in Gillette around 1015.  There’s a little activity and we’re going to have to wait a few minutes so I offer to go across the street and get us a couple of soft drinks.  When I get back, Gus is at the counter explaining what had happened and hoping that he either had insurance on his phone or that his contract is up, either circumstance resulting in an inexpensive replacement.  Such was not to be and the replacement was going to cost him something in the neighborhood of $350.00!  I take a seat in the corner of the store and start reading email on my phone (which I have not lost) while Gus starts exploring replacement options.

A couple minutes into the conversation, a young man, slightly scruffy in appearance and probably in his late-twenty’s joins the talk.  He apologizes for eavesdropping but says he has the same model phone that Gus just lost except it is one generation earlier.  He goes on to say that he is there at the store today to pick up a new phone he had ordered and has no use for his old phone.  If Gus would like it, he can have it!  Gus, in some disbelief, says, “How much do you want for it?”  The young benefactor says, “Nothing.  I have no use for it.  You can just have it.”  DSC04349 Wow!  For the first time I can remember in a very long time my good friend Gus Fitch is speechless!  He then (calling on his very accomplished long term memory) asks the guy if he’s seen the movie, “Pay it Forward”.  In the movie the main character conjures the notion of paying a favor not back, but forward…repaying good deeds not with payback, but with new good deeds done to three other, new people.  They, in turn, each do the same kind of pay it forward act and the world becomes a better place.  So Gus explains the concept and tells the young man that he will pay this act of kindness forward. Hearing all this touches the Verizon store manager’s kindness strings and he agrees to start Paying It Forward by not charging the man for the transfer of data to his new phone!  Amazing!  What an incredible and heart-warming set of events!  (This will prove to be one of several acts of kindness we will experience over the course of our trip and I will tell you now that because of them, my belief in the greater good of man has been renewed.)

With much gratitude and hand shaking, we leave the store, mount up, find a gas station, fill up and leave Gillette for Cody.  At Buffalo, WY we finally turn off the interstate and onto our friend, the two lane country road; in this case Highway 16 which will take us through Big Horn National Forest.West of Buffalo, WY 
Big Horn is a beautiful park with little traffic, significant elevation changes, remarkable vistas noteworthy by their visual changes of texture and fresh, clean air.  We pass over 9,666 foot Powder Pass  then descend over winding, twisty roads into the town of Ten Sleep.  Ten Sleep looks as though it is a town straight out of the wild west and we stop for lunch at the Ten Sleep Saloon.
DSCN0134Town of Ten Sleep, WY:  Lunch at the Saloon

DSC04363Following lunch we head west out of Ten Sleep and find a remarkable change of terrain.  The rolling mountains and lush mountain forests have given way to dry, arid, relatively flat desert.  It is now very hot, Gus is getting sleepy and I, thirsty.  We stop at some nearly abandoned roadside honky-tonk and go in for a pee break and some water. When we come out Gus pours some iced water over his head and the back of his neck then offers to give the rest to me.  Not to drink, mind you, but to do the same thing.  Oh well, I’ll give it a try. Whee-ew!! That is cold! Nevertheless, it is refreshing once the original shock is over and I am certainly perked up.

Except for a small concrete pad next to the side of the building the parking lot at this place is loose gravel, very loose gravel.  As we pull out, my Vision rebels a little at the unsettled surface, fishtailing, wobbling and throwing stones.  It is an uncomfortable feeling and the only safe way to get through it is to try and maintain straight line forward movement.  Any attempt to turn will more than likely end up with the bike on its side!  Not scary, but certainly not fun.  We make it out onto the highway and press on toward Cody.  Along the way we pass several dry irrigation canals.  We remark to one another that they seem oddly out of place inasmuch as there doesn’t appear to be any agriculture in the area and only the hint of a stream which for the most part is a dry gravel bed.  We never did figure out why they were there.

Pulling into Cody we see a lot of activity.  Normally a quiet cow town with some tourism the streets today are overflowing with tourists and there are motorcycles parked everywhere.  We begin seeing “No Vacancy” signs in many places.  Usually Gus uses the Bluetooth feature of his phone connected to Sue-sue to call motels as we enter towns.  I can’t do that with Jane because the one thing I could not integrate when I installed her was the intercom/CB system’s microphone.  I have a cheap mic that I can plug into her and run as a separate cord to my helmet but the road noise makes it unreadable.  Consequently Gus is our usual telephone communicator.  Today we left Gillette in a bit of a hurry with his “new” phone and have not yet used its Bluetooth feature to marry it up with Sue-Sue. To cover more ground we decide to split up and check out nearby motels independently.

The first one I pull into looks promising.  Several motorcycles out front lead me to believe it a popular place with the touring bike crowd.  I shut down my bike, dismount, remove my helmet and walk into the lobby.  The place is packed with women in leather jackets and blue jeans!  Checking at the desk I am met with the “Sorry, nothing available!” statement.  Inquiring about all the bikes and ladies I am told that Cody is this year’s convention site for the Motor Maids, the oldest continuously operated women's motorcycling organization in America.  They meet for a several day convention in July of every year and now we’re smack dab in the middle of it!

I call Gus and he’s just found out the same thing.  He tries one other off-the-beaten-path motel, the Budget Host, and they have one double room left.  He reserves it, calls me with directions and we meet in the lobby.  It’s small and old, but clean and the staff seems helpful.  Interestingly, when Gus asks the young lady behind the counter if he may take her picture she says no!  She hasn’t had her picture taken since high school and doesn’t like to have it taken.  I kind of feel bad for her.  Yes, she’s overweight and I think self-conscious because of it.  Nonetheless, I find her personality bubbly and certainly, as evidenced by her interaction with us, she is smart and a good conversationalist.  Taken as the whole human package, she’s not unattractive.  In all the years of traveling and documenting his travels with photos, this is the first person ever who has denied Gus’s request to take their picture.

We finish checking in and move our bikes and duffel around to our room.  A couple doors down from ours is a couple sitting in chairs outside their room smoking and drinking Budweiser.  From Canada, they are very pleasant folks DSC04364who frequently come to the lower 48 to buy booze, cigarettes and have a short vacation.  For about 20 minutes we chat with them about some of the differences between Canada and the US; things they like or dislike more here than in their home country.  They have interesting perspectives and it is an enjoyable conversation.  We excuse ourselves to unload and unpack; returning a few minutes later, they are gone and we never see them again.

Now Gus tries to marry up his new phone to Sue-Sue via Bluetooth but they won’t communicate.  We can’t figure it out so tomorrow before departure he will head for the Cody Verizon store for assistance while I do a couple loads of laundry.  For now it is time to eat.

We mount up and head down town to the Proud Cut Saloon for a good steak.  Wyoming is after all, cattle country.  The Saloon is popular, decorated with old-time pictures of Cody and full of both tourists and locals.  The steak is decent, the rest of the meal ho-hum.  We get back to the motel and as I am putting the travel cover on my bike an “upper” middle-aged lady comes out to meet me.  She too is from Canada and one of the Motor Maids.  Her ride is a Victory Vision like mine only in powder blue and she just wants to talk motorcycle since the Vision is so rare in this area.  Prior to the Vision she owned a Goldwing so she has something in common with both Gus and me.  It is another nice visit with another nice person.  After 10 minutes or so, she excuses herself and Gus and I head inside for a nightcap of blue elixir and a good night’s sleep. Final observation of the day: Gus tries to use his beard trimmer.  The reader may recall that a few days ago it had been covered in shampoo when his shampoo exploded in his Dopp kit.  Well the clippers are toast!  Electrically shorted and mechanically frozen up as though the shampoo were glue, they are beyond repair!

Good morning!  Today is July 9th, 2010.  Gus, itching to get to the Verizon store to fix his “new” phone is up early and uncovering his bike.  I gather up my dirty laundry from the first four days of the trip and head to the motel’s laundry room.  Gus departs for the store thinking he will not have to wait long for it to open.  About an hour later he returns having unhappily shelled out about $350 for an actual new phone.  It turns out that despite the generosity of the young lad in Gillette, the phone he gave Gus is only Bluetooth compatible with headsets; after much gnashing of teeth and on-line research by the Verizon technicians, they determined the phone is incapable of connecting to a GPS or any device other than a Bluetooth headset.  Drat!!

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DSC04367Before lights out last night we discussed our travel plans going forward.  Since we had completed the Iron Butt certification by covering over 1000 miles in one day, we are actually ahead of schedule with respect to meeting up with Rex and making the ferry in Prince Rupert on time.  We also agree that we are not overly tired or road-weary and where we thought we might have to rest up one day by making only a short leg we now determine that by increasing one of the planned short days by as little as 100 miles we will actually gain an entire day.  Accordingly we modified our plan and will now travel through Yellowstone which we had not originally intended to do. We have both visited Yellowstone in the past, although for me it was 46 years ago and I think it will be interesting to see it again.  Now, instead of going from Sundance, WY to Great Falls MT and then to Calgary, AB as we originally planned, we agree to ride due west to and through Yellowstone, then travel northwest to East Glacier National Park ( a park I have never visited).  After Glacier we will bypass Calgary and ride directly up to Banff, AB.

We load up our clean laundry and new phone and head over to Granny’s Restaurant for breakfast.  Granny’s is a non-chain diner with a western atmosphere.  Typical breakfast and pleasant service.  As is almost always the case, the local and unofficial men’s group meet to solve the day’s problems over breakfast; only here they gather at the counter rather than in a corner table.  Gus snaps his trademark “surreptitious” picture and we depart for the gas station across the street. At the gas station, the Motor Maids come out in full force with their passengers to fawn over my crimson  George Jetson, artistically swooping bike… Gus bites his tongue and takes the obligatory picture.  He just can’t stand it (and I, of course, love it!!)

The trip to and through Yellowstone is not without frustration.  While the weather is gorgeous… warm temperature, low humidity and a bright blue almost cloudless sky… the congestion is terrible.  Just getting in through the East Entrance takes about 20 minutes… even my Senior Citizen National Park Pass affords no priority in the queue.  Unquestionably the park is beautiful, but it has become so popular that it is difficult to traverse without delay.  The roads are two-lane, narrow and winding which, without traffic, would be a joy to ride on a motorcycle.  The wildlife is not interested in showing up conveniently next to a view spot or pull-off.  So when a bison or elk or bear come within sight of the road, our inconsiderate fellow tourists simply stop, often in the middle of the road, to watch, look and photograph! Some even get out to feed them or get (in my view) perilously close.

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Being summer, additional delays are created by significant, but necessary, road repair throughout the park.  We stop for lunch at the “Old Faithful” Lodge, another park facility packed to the eaves with tourists.  Lunch is warm, pre-packaged and largely flavorless.  We mount back up and head for the park’s north exit into Montana.  Two more lengthy construction delays and we pass out through the North entrance and into Gardiner, MT.  I know my reporting sounds unappreciative; negativity is not in my normal personality.  It is just that the magnificent natural beauty of the park is difficult to see past the masses of humanity!

Gardiner is a small town with a population around 1000 permanent residents right outside the North Entrance.  Because of its proximity to the park, it hosts hundreds of tourists every day in the summer, thus, there are several motels and restaurants.   Much of the town is quaint and the streets have an upscale yet old west appearance.  On the north side of town we find a Super 8 motel at a reasonable price and check in at about 1700.  The front desk staff is friendly and helpful and we ask where they recommend getting a good meal.  They suggest the “Loft”, a second floor establishment in the Town Cafe located right next to the park entrance. We off load the bikes and clean up a bit then head for the Loft. Town Cafe in Gardiner, MT - Bar tender was former Marine On the way ( only about a mile in total) we pass a car wash… I’ll keep it in mind for tomorrow morning as my bike is pretty dirty from all the road construction we passed in the park.

By 1745 we’re pulling into the parking lot of the Town Cafe.  The parking lot in front is gravel with a slight downhill grade from the road to the boardwalk in front of the cafe.  When one rides a 900 pound motorcycle (and doesn’t have a reverse gear … Gus’s Honda has reverse but it is a costly option … a reverse is available on the Vision but I thought {foolishly} that I could spend my money more wisely on other options) the first thought that crosses your mind when looking to park the bike is how can I do this and be able to get out of the spot when I leave?  Often, on a down sloping spot it is wise to use gravity to your advantage.  That is, pull away from the spot slightly then let the bike roll backwards into the spot. Doing so gives you the ability to power forward out of the spot when you leave vice having to try and push the 900 pounds backwards uphill with only your leg muscles as power.  The other consideration in parking is the condition of the surface beneath the bike.  Sand or gravel can be a problem in two ways: first, if the material is loosely packed, the small surface of the kickstand creates a significant force in terms of pounds per square inch and can simply sink into the ground and the bike tips over; secondly, sand and gravel make for poor footing.  When the rider puts his foot down to hold the bike upright when it is stopped, the loose material can allow the foot to slide away from the bike… the further away the foot gets from the bike, the more the bike tips and eventually, 900 pounds wins and the bike goes over! Such is the case for me tonight.  As I start backing my Vision into the parking spot, the loose gravel acts like marbles under my left foot, my foot slides out and away and both the Vision and I go down in a heap!  Neither the bike nor I am hurt, other than my pride.  I look up at Gus, desperately hiding his grin behind a feigned look of concern.  He does come over to help me right the bike and musters up a positive “Are you okay?” to which I respond that my only injury comes from dropping the bike in his full view!

As I mentioned in Chapter 2, the Victory Vision is a well engineered bike.  Among the considerations in design was the knowledge that from time to time a rider will drop a bike, usually as I have just done; that is while the bike is stopped or moving very slowly.  Knowing that there are only two types of riders, those who have dropped a bike and those who will, Victory engineers built in tip-over protection.  Incorporated in the Vision are two metal “bumpers” on each side of the bike, one in front of the rider’s floor board and another just below the passenger footrest. Vision on Tip Overs When the bike tips over it lands on the protruding edges of those bumpers preventing it from tipping over further and damaging it.  They work so well that some owners actually lay the bike down intentionally on the bumpers for access when cleaning and polishing the wheels!  A clever solution to a very real problem. Picture to the right shows a Vision (not mine… it is a file photo) laid over on the tip-over protection.  No harm, no damage.

With the bike back upright and my wounded pride quickly healed, Gus and I look for the Loft restaurant.  We can see the large windows above the main floor of the Town Cafe but are unable to find the stairs to the entrance.  Outside the bar on the first floor is an early middle aged man talking with an attractive young woman.  The guy is dressed in typical western fashion; blue work shirt, light gray vest, blue jeans, boots and a cowboy hat, and strikes a traditional cowboy pose with one booted foot up against the wall behind him.  Gus and I amble over to the guy and ask where the access to the Loft is.  He points to the far end of the building and tells us it is around the corner.  We thank him and turn toward our destination.  We haven’t gone more than 5 steps and our cowboy sings out, “Semper Fi"!”  This is a signal to us that he is a former Marine so we do an about face and go talk with him a little more and discuss the “where were you when” familiar to all Marines who chance to meet.  We find that he is the bar tender in the bar behind him and that he had served in the Marine Corps, not for an entire career, but certainly for a few years, long after Gus and I retired.  What did he mean by “Semper Fi” when he called out to us?  The Marine Corps adopted Semper Fidelis as its official motto in 1883 (Semper Fidelis is also the title of the official musical March of the Marine Corps). Translated from Latin, Semper Fidelis means "Always Faithful." U.S. Marines use an abbreviated verbal version, "Semper Fi," to voice loyalty and commitment to their Marine comrades-in-arms. He knew we were Marines because both Gus and I had sewn Marine Corps patches and name tags onto our motorcycle jackets. Seeing the familiar emblem, this perfect stranger like every other Marine, signals his brotherhood with us by the simple expression, “Semper Fi”.

Finished with the brief pleasantries and acknowledgement of our common bond, we shake hands and depart for the stairs at the end of the building. With that pleasant encounter behind us, we climb the stairs and enter the Loft.  Just as the host at the motel promised, the atmosphere is inviting and the view looking out over the stone arch of Yellowstone’s entrance and the forested mountains of the park beyond is stunning!  We order some very tasty rib eye steaks, a couple glasses of wine and discuss travel plans for the next few days.  To help with that discussion, I run out and down to my bike and retrieve my road atlas.  As I head out the door, I notice our cowboy Marine walking down the stairs ahead of me but think nothing of it.The meal is excellent and the young waitress properly attentive.  We finish and ask for our checks.  When we ask, the waitress has a strange expression on her face and at first I can’t determine what it means.  She seems at once happy but at the same time, misty eyed.  Somewhat haltingly and with an averted gaze she says, “There is no check… it has been taken care of.”  I ask her “Who … why… who did this for us?”  She said, “ I promised I wouldn’t tell.”  Then it dawns on me; the cowboy Marine was walking down the stairs because it was he who had come up to pay for our meal!  It was a gesture of respect, of recognition of a common bond between warriors, warriors of the United States Marine Corps!  I said to the waitress, “It was the bar tender down stairs wasn’t it!”  She looked away again and said nothing, but nodded her head positively… yes, it was him.  We tip her handsomely and head down the stairs. Gus and I are deeply moved by this simple act.  Here’s an every day Joe, a hard working guy in a small town who has never laid eyes on us before.  Yet he is as committed to the spirit of the Corps and the pride at having served in what is arguably the most loyal of all U.S. Military organizations as any of us.  Simply said,  Marines have a downright fanatical dedication to each other, their service, and their country and our benefactor is no different; he is, after all, a Marine. So, before saddling up we head into the bar.

It is dark inside with most of the lighting coming from colored neon bar signs and a juke box…the place reminds me of a typical West Texas Honky-Tonk.  As our eyes adjust to the darkness, we see our new found friend behind the bar, wearing his cowboy hat and charming his customers; he is clearly the master of his domain.  Every customer seems to know him and as we walk up to express our gratitude, he breaks out in a big grin.  While he wanted this to be a secret and he to remain anonymous to us, I think our brief conversation and expression of gratitude publically was a nice way to remind all who knew him of this man’s service as a Marine.  Gus and I both shake his hand and thank him profusely for his generosity.  As we step back outside in the waning light of oncoming dusk, our waitress runs up to me and hands me my road atlas… in all the emotion of the evening I had left it on the table as we departed.  I thank her again and we mount up. Gus announces over the CB that he wants to go take a few pictures of the restaurant and the park entrance so will meet me back at the motel.   We split up and as I make my way back, I once again pass the car wash.  Since Gus will be a few minutes, I do a u-turn, head back to the wash bay and take the opportunity to wash the road grime off my Vision with the high-powered hand wash wand.  We get back to the motel about the same time.

Back at the motel, Gus reminds me that his camera is broken.  Before leaving on this trip he somehow snapped off the metal door which covers the battery and memory card compartment.  His quick fix was to put duct tape over the end of the camera to hold them in place.  The problem he is having though, is that both the battery and chip have springs pushing them outward.  After a short while against this pressure, the duct tape stretches and, although the pieces remain in the camera, the connections are lost.  He challenges me to come up with a fix while he works at programming our next few days routes into the MapSource program on his netbook computer. My fix is quite simple really.  I’ll still use duct tape to hold everything together but I take a plastic door key card (from some other motel) which is made just like a credit card, and cut it with the scissors in my Leatherman tool to the size of the missing door.  The plastic provides the stiffness over the compartment to hold the battery and chip in place against the springs and then I cover the plastic strip with duct tape and pull it down over the end of the camera to hold it all together.  It works! (Gus used this repair for the entire rest of the trip, replacing the duct tape only occasionally when he removed the battery to charge it).
 
Now it is almost time for lights out but I want to call Christine before going to sleep to make sure she’s doing okay and to give her my daily report.  Using my Android cell phone we speak for a few minutes and I am happy to find that all is well at home.  A problem I continue to have with the Android is that when completing a call and placing the phone back in its holster some button inadvertently gets pushed and I often make a call to someone, anyone, without having planned to do so.  This happens tonight.  I hear the phone dial and start ringing somebody’s phone.  Before the call goes through, I pull the phone back out and hit the end call button.  This turns out to be a fortuitous accident. A couple minutes later my phone rings and the caller ID says “Alaska Travelers”.  Before leaving home I had set up an “ICE” (In Case of Emergency) number in my contacts in case someone found my phone and I was in some type of trouble.  At the same time I set up the “Alaska Travelers” in my contacts which included phone numbers of Stu, Gus and Rex.  I answered the phone and it was Rex Decker, the traveler I had not yet met.  When my phone “butt dialed” him, he recognized my name on his caller ID and so called me back!  We verbally introduced ourselves and discussed a little about each other.  I found out for the first time that Rex had been a Director in the engine maintenance department at American Airlines and that his wife, Deborah, had been both an administrator in the American Airlines pilot pension department and for a short while, a flight attendant!  Small world… we had all worked for the same company at the same time!  We also found that while Gus and I were touring Yellowstone today, Rex and Deborah were touring the Grand Teton National Park in Jackson Hole Wyoming, just a few miles south of Yellowstone so we were even in relatively close proximity!  It was a very pleasant conversation and I knew right away that I was really going to like Rex.  We finished the conversation with a confirmation of travel plans and time and place of our intended meeting which would now be at a hotel in Vancouver rather than in Surrey as originally planned.  A good and productive phone call from an accidental dialing!

Chapter 9

 

Glacier Park, Banff and Jasper.


We depart Gardiner for Glacier National Park.  Several sections of this route, US 89, cross Gallatin National Forest then Lewis and Clark National Forest.  Lewis and Clark National Forest Beautiful country.  A little further north and much of this part of Montana is flat with mountains to our west.  By mid-morning we swing south and west of Great Falls, MT then continue up Route 89 towards the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to the east of Glacier National Park.  We cross miles and miles of farm land mostly growing wheat and barley and about noon we stop for gas in the small town of Fairfield, MT.

With all this agriculture around us we start to see more and more ethanol enhanced fuel.  A couple places have pumps with E-85, a fuel  mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.  E-85 is generally the highest ethanol fuel mixture found in the United States. Most E-85 pumps are concentrated in the Midwest.  E85 produces approximately 27% lower fuel economy (miles per gallon) than gasoline and can harm engines not designed for its use.  So much for the green good of ethanol.  We avoid it at all costs.  Our stop in Fairfield is not hampered by this and we fill up at a Cenex station which curiously is almost surrounded DSC04402 by grain silos.

While we are filling our tanks, an older, somewhat portly gentleman wearing a one-piece jumpsuit and a Tam o’Shanter cap comes over to chat and, of course, examine my bike.  He’s a town elder and explains that Fairfield is, indeed, an agricultural town and it has until recently, contributed almost eighty per cent of all barley used in the manufacture of Budweiser beer.  Since Budweiser has been sold to a European company, however, the sale of local barley has been negatively affected and many of the local farms are struggling.  He’s a charming and talkative fellow, compliments me (to Gus’s disgust… although he did snap a picture) on my motorcycle and walks off.

While all this is going on, Gus looks across the street and sees a place that from somewhere in the back reaches of his mind, he recognizes.  It is a bar and casino which a few years back had been just a cafe and where he and Rex stopped for lunch on one of their trips back in 2006.  Being lunch time we decide to investigate.  When we enter, we are greeted by a bubbly and smiling barmaid.  We ask if they still serve food and she responds that the original owners have established another cafe using the original grill in the back of this building but servicing another place just around the corner.  She would be happy to order for us and they will deliver… so that’s exactly what we do.
We take a few pictures and settle down at a table next to a couple slot machines and drink iced tea while we wait for our food.  A short while later, another very nice person (nice is a prevalent behavior and characteristic in the mid-west) who seems to be close friends with the barmaid brings our lunches.  We have ordered hamburgers and we are not dissatisfied… these are among the best burgers I have ever eaten!

As we are finishing up our meal, a tall brawny young man walks in off the street, exchanges a pleasant greeting to our hostess and saunters over to our table.  You guessed it!  He’s noticed the Midnight Cherry Victory Vision parked out on the street and comes in to discuss its merits.  He has been reading about them and fully intends to buy one when he can convince his wife that it will be a good thing to do!  Oh no!  At this discussion Gus’s hamburger starts churning in his stomach… We chat with the guy for several minutes discussing our trip, the local economy and agriculture in general.  He bids us adieu, we bid adieu and we’re back outside to continue on up to Glacier.  Out in the street, another person comes over to examine my Victory.  This time an older, well groomed matron.  She likes the style of the bike and after I tell her of our trip including plans to Alaska, she gives me a motherly “Well, do be careful!”

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Leaving the barley silos and pleasant folks in our rear view mirrors, we spend the next half of the afternoon en-route to East Glacier. The weather and ride remain pleasant and around 1400 Gus begins calling motels in and near the park for tonight’s overnight accommodations.  No luck!  Everything is full thanks to this being the height of the summer tourist season. As we close in on the park entrance, the mountains begin once again to tower in their majestic splendor rising above the agricultural plains just off to our northwest.  The country is humbling in its magnificence!

We decide to go right up to East Glacier Park Village and in to the East Glacier Lodge immediately. Experience has proven to us that we can sometimes get lodging by walking into a place where we have been told by telephone that their is no vacancy.  It is a busy hotel desk and when we first reach an associate we are told that there is only one room left.  Actually a suite… only $400.00 a night!  For the most part, the associates are trying to check in a large group and are very busy for the time being.  We decide we’ll head up the road and do a little sight-seeing and come back in an hour or so to see if we can get help finding lodging or, at worst, a campground.

Before we mount back up I do a quick reconnoiter while Gus hits the head.  This building is amazing in its natural grandeur!  Built in 1912, Glacier Park Lodge is nestled in East Glacier at the foot of Dancing Lady Mountain. The lodge is huge and reminiscent of the lodges I have seen in other national parks; hand hewn timbers and native materials put together by skilled craftsmen in the early 1900’s.  Styled in the theme of a Swiss chalet, this lodge has 60 Douglas Fir timber poles as the main supporting structure.  Each pole is about 40 feet tall and 40 inches in diameter.  Having been involved in the construction of a number of homes and cabins during my life, I am awed by the size of the structure and the ability of the engineers and craftsmen to construct such a beautiful building using horse and steam power and the basic hand tools existent some 98 years ago!


Grand Foyer, Glacier Park Lodge, East Glacier, MT                                     DSCN0175 




We head back out to our nearby bikes, mount up and head north up Two Medicine Road, a seasonal park road with stunning views.  Unlike Yellowstone, the traffic is almost non-existent and I really enjoy this short side trip.  About 4 miles up the road we come to Lower Two Medicine Lake.  The view is picture perfect post card…

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We know we need to find a place to stay before much later so head down the road and back to East Glacier Lodge.  The associates have taken care of the large group and now have a little time to discuss our options.  We are not disappointed by their efforts.  Two young associates, I’m guessing college students in summer employ, start making phone calls to every hotel/motel within about forty miles… all to no avail!  Even many campgrounds are full.  Eventually an older associate, perhaps an experienced year-round employee, comes over and asks how they’re doing.  She hears that “no vacancy” continues to be the answer and then offers, “Have you tried Brownies? It is just down the street.”  We respond that we have not and didn’t even see a motel by that name when we came into town.  She said, “ Oh!  It’s not a motel, it is a deli with a youth hostel above it!  Would you like me to give them a call?”  Now, I’m no fool.  I’ve stayed in youth hostels before and can tell you that even a cheap bed and a hot shower are much better than a tent, sleeping bag and no toilet facilities whatsoever, so asked her to give it a go.  She called, Brownies answered and the deli clerk said all their rooms were taken but there was still room in the dorm!  The dorm!?  “Tell them to hold it.  We’ll be right over to give it a look.”  A big thanks to the Lodge staff and we’re off on (perhaps) another adventure.

Just as advertised, a bunk room with twelve bunks, a plywood “locker” for each bunk and a community head with shower; all for $20.00.  We are given a padlock for our “locker” and leave a $5.00 deposit to ensure return of the lock in the morning.  The drill is that we are to take the lock down and exchange it for clean bed linens, go back up and make up the bed, return the dirty linen and then pick up our $5.00.  Oh!  And use the back stairs to enter when the deli closes.  Easy enough.


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As we’re arranging our space in the hostel, we meet a fellow biker who has also checked in.  The guy is living either a life of incredible open road freedom or intense loneliness.  It’s hard to tell which.  He’s been on the road since March, has been to the Arctic Circle and, because of some event in his business and/or life back home he is just riding around with no real destination or time line.  Strange!  A non-stop talker, he shares two things with us.  One, that the University of Alaska at Fairbanks caters to bikers in the summertime when the student population is low.  They rent out dorm rooms for about $25 a night.  We file that away as a future possibility.  Two, no one, absolutely no one, likes to sleep in the same room as him because of his sleep apnea and associated snoring!  Great!  I’m going to be cooped up in a room with eleven other guys and this one is going to sound like the fog horn on the Titanic!

He doesn’t stop talking and we’re getting hungry so excuse ourselves to go get some chow.  When Gus and Rex came through here on their 2006 west coast trip they found what Gus describes as the best Mexican restaurant on the planet.  A couple years later when Gus, Rex and Stu were on their four corners trip they stopped here to eat again because it was so good the first time.  Looking around this touristy, northern Montana town I am somewhat skeptical but I do like Mexican food so even if it is not that great it will fill the road-settled void in my tummy.

When we get to the restaurant it is closed.  There are eight or ten folks already lined up to get in when the place opens at exactly 1730.  They too have heard great things about this place, Serrano’s Mexican Restaurant.  Gus and I chat with the folks waiting to eat.  They’re a friendly bunch and intrigued by our trip.  I am so happy to be meeting so many genuinely nice people on this journey so far.  It is refreshment for the soul.
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DSCN0193At 1730 exactly, the doors swing open and we are greeted by a number of young college-aged men and women who are the wait staff.  Of interest to me, however, is that most  of them are from other countries in Europe and South America.  Yes. they are college kids, but have been granted special temporary work permits to work over the summer in the United States to gain exposure to and understanding of our American culture.  From what our waitress tells us, almost every major tourist area in the country have these students.  I never knew!

Gus’s claim about the quality is right on the mark.  I’ve been in Mexican restaurants all over the world and have never had better food!  By all measures this place is awesome!  The only disappointment, and it is not the restaurant’s fault, is that we can have no beer or liquor (Mexican food without Margarita’s?).  It seems here in East Glacier this weekend there will be a pow-wow of some sort among many Native American tribes in Montana and the state forbids the sale of alcohol within some large radius of the event.  Our very helpful waitress, however, fixes us a couple cups of ice in a to go container and we take them back to our hostel and pour a little of our traveling supply of Blue Elixir over the ice for a night cap.  Gus does a little work on the netbook he promised to share with us and I go out on the porch above the deli entrance and visit with some of the other tenants.  As the summer sun sets we climb into our bunks and fall asleep to the sound of an un-muffled chainsaw in our room…

As I awake this morning, I hear the sound of rain.  The windows have been open all night for ventilation and the gentle sound of the rain helped mitigate the resonance of our resident snorer.  Now, however, the rain continues and I have a problem inasmuch as my rain suit is outside in the saddle bag of my bike!  Another lesson learned:  check the forecast before bedding down.  If rain is in the future, bring wet weather gear inside so it will be available the next day precluding the need to run out in the rain to get it!  (To give appropriate credit, Gus had warned of this possibility last night, along with the advice to bring my gear inside.  For some reason, I just didn’t get around to it!).  It is early, well before the deli below opens, so we cannot turn in our dirty linen and locker key and we intentionally forfeit our $5.00 deposit rather than delay our departure.

The rain abates slightly as we uncover and load up.  It is still dark and visibility on the road this morning will be aggravated by both the rain and some fairly thick fog.  Everything starts up okay despite the wet, GPS’s are brought on-line and we depart, fully outfitted in our rain suits heading up the very winding and twisting Looking Glass Hill Road.  In the darkness and low visibility I am very focused.  Some parts of the road drop into slick mud-covered wet spots where the heavy rain caused minor flooding and washed across.  It is treacherous on a motorcycle and we both exercise extreme caution.  As the sun breaks the horizon, the rain stops and the fog becomes only patchy.  Our route intercepts Route 89 again and we continue riding northward in what is unquestionably the most beautiful mountain terrain I have seen in North America.  The mountain tops, ruggedly defined by their rocky crags and resplendent in blankets of fir trees are gilded by sunlight and wear long robes of wispy clouds flowing almost vertically in the light breeze. The experience is all-encompassing, almost spiritual; the stunning views, the smell of the moist air permeated by scents of fir and juniper and my almost insignificant presence in terms of scale among these stately pinnacles.  The beauty is almost mesmerizing.

After about twenty miles we pass beautiful St. Mary Lake, almost 7 miles in length, then turn off onto Many Glacier Road which will take us to the Many Glacier Hotel.  Many Glacier Hotel is yet another of the early 1900’s Lodges in the park and is of similar construction and size as the lodge in East Glacier.  At the lodge, bright red 1930’s-looking buses pull up right behind us with smiling passengers embarking and disembarking, cheerfully coming and going from their travels throughout the park.  These “Red Bus Line” buses are classic early 1930’s touring coaches, bright red with black trim; seeing them here in this setting moves my mind to feel that I have just stepped smack dab into the middle of the set of “The great Gatsby”.  They are elegant in their portrayal of the vacation life of the well-to-do in the early 20th century.  And, they are the “real deal".”  In the 1930’s the National Park Service developed a program with the White Motor Company of Cleveland, OH, for the production of canvas-topped touring coaches to provide transportation for visitors within national parks.  Glacier is the only National Park where these original “Red Buses” continue to operate (they have all been fully renovated, retaining the original classic frame and body-work but having been converted to run on propane and replacing the original clutch and gear-grinding transmissions with modern automatic transmissions).
 2010 looks like the 1930's at Many Glacier Lodge
We pull into the upper parking lot and dismount.  After a couple of photo-ops we remove our rain gear and head into the lodge for breakfast.  This meal is the only disappointment of our entire visit to Glacier.  It is a Starbucks-like facility relegated to a small corner of the basement floor serving heat-your-own, plastic-wrapped egg sandwiches and pastries.  I am surprised that with all the natural and man made elegance around us that this is the best that can be had.

A visit to the head takes me down a long hallway.  On the wall are photographs taken of glaciers here in the park – some 50 or 60 years earlier and then again taken recently from the same location.  The melting and receding of the glaciers over time is evident in this time-lapse kind of display.


After our less than satisfactory breakfast, we move up to the first floor and out onto a beautiful balcony overlooking Swiftcurrent Lake with towering Mt. Grinnell to the west and Altyn Peak to the north.  Again, my grasp of adequate superlatives is woefully inadequate to describe the view.  This place is amazing!  As we walk out onto the deck, an older couple are walking inside and the gentleman holds the door for us after his wife passes through.  Then we hear it again;  “Semper Fi!”  The gentleman is a retired Sergeant Major of Marines and, recognizing our patches, sings out the familiar greeting as all Marines do everywhere.  We have a nice visit (perhaps a little longer than either his wife or Gus wanted to endure) and then bid him well.  We snap a few more pictures, then, with weather almost completely cleared, head back to our bikes.


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About 1000 we pull out of the Lodge parking lot and head back northeast on Many Glacier Road.  The weather has continued to clear and there are incredible orographic cloud formations forming along the sides and peaks of the mountains as the sun warms their faces and the warm air is forced to rise into the cooler atmosphere above.  Our pictures do not do the scenery justiceThe sight is almost impossible to describe and even our photographs do not do justice to the beauty of the entire valley through which we ride.

I have come to realize that because of this visit, Glacier National Park has become my new favorite of all United States National Parks.  Someday I will return with Christine and we’ll stay in one of the lodges.

Eventually we are back on Route 89 and then intercept Route 17, the “Chief Mountain Highway” and follow it North through the valleys and mountain passes of Glacier Park area until we reach the Canadian border at Waterton Lakes.  Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada is essentially the extension of Glacier Park; some refer to it as Canada’s Glacier National Park.  We pass through Customs and Immigration and stop immediately at the park entrance monument for a picture.  There is a middle-aged Canadian Biker  riding a BMW who offers to take our picture.  We exchange pleasantries, snap the photos and continue Northward into Canada’s interior.

Entering Canada from Glacier Park MT into Waterton Lakes NP, Alberta, Canada
My thoughts as we continue riding through the Canadian Rockies are best reflected in Canada’s National Anthem; “Oh! Canada!” Once again the beauty is beyond my ability to describe.  The road sweeps in gentle curves, ascending and descending with the natural terrain.  The countryside is blanketed in forests of slightly dwarfed conifers; white and black spruce, and balsam fir all reaching into higher elevations.

Eventually we make our way to Longview, Alberta.  It’s mid-afternoon and we’re getting a bit hungry so decide to stop for lunch.  I lead us into the parking lot of what appears to be a nice cafe only to find that it is a beer hall... no food. Gus leads out and a few hundred yards down the street finds the Twin Cities Cafe.  As we pull up to park at the foot of their front porch, a group of Canadian sport bike riders are saddling up to leave.  They halt their departure long enough to come investigate my Vision, give us some thoughts on travel in the area then head down the road.


Lunch stop enroute to Banff, AB; Bikers interested in Dick's Vision (as always!)
We enter the cafe and since it is a nice day with moderate temperatures, we ask to be seated on their outdoor porch.  As we order our burgers, the unmistakable sound of Harley pipes rumble in our ears and a gorgeous older Harley Heritage Classic pulls into the parking lot next to our bikes.  The rider dismounts and disappears into the front door of the cafe.  Seconds later he, a local character and biker, saunters up to our table and, uninvited, sits down with us.  He’s a pleasant gent and gives us a brief history of the area and some route guidance for our ride up to Banff.  Though an unexpected intrusion, it was nice to have him join us and we enjoyed his conversation.  Gus snaps yet another "surreptitious” photo of some of the locals taking a smoke break, we pay our bill, bid adieu to our local guide and saddle back up.


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The mountains have given way to broad and open flat plains as we continue North on Canadian Route 22.  Along our route, electric generating Wind Farms capture the fleeting energy of the wind to contribute power to the local grid.  Impressive in their size, I maintain a healthy skepticism of their functionality.  Everything I have read to date indicates they are highly subsidized and must remain so to continue to produce electricity.  The true cost of their impact on the environment (from manufacturing and installation) is also unreported.

As the afternoon wears on, Gus calls on the CB and tells me he needs to stop briefly.  He’s getting a little sleepy and needs a quick break.  Sounds reasonable to me… I am not sleepy, but could use a butt break.  DSCN0214 Gus pulls over, turns on his flashers, and dismounts.  He opens his trunk and takes out a small hand towel.  For the life of me I can’t imagine what he’s doing so just watch.  He walks down the slight embankment at the side of the road and over to a small pool of stagnant water, apparently remaining from a recent rain storm.  He squats down, submerges the towel then stands and starts walking back to his bike.  While doing so, he takes the soaking wet towel and wipes his sparsely haired head and sweating brow with it.  Voila!  A cool, refreshing afternoon pick-me-up! (This behavior will surface many more times during the course of our trip).

Our route takes us West of Calgary and we eventually intercept the Trans-Canada Highway (CA Route 1) westerly, which takes us back into the mountains.  Of note, Banff, Alberta actually sits inside the boundary of Banff National Park thus, requiring visitors to the city to purchase a Canadian National Parks pass.  Gus leads us up to the gateway and we purchase an inexpensive pass that allows us to proceed along the highway and on into Banff.  DSCN0217

The approach to Banff is, once again, stunning in its mountainous beauty.  The city is in a valley resting at about 4800 feet above sea level (MSL) making it the second highest community in Canada (Lake Louise, AB lays claim to being the community of highest elevation).  There are mountain peaks in every direction rising to nearly 9800 feet MSL so the vistas are spectacular.  It is simply a beautiful place.

As we pull into town, we look for The Homestead Inn, a downtown hotel that Gus contacted a few miles out of town to determine price and availability. DSC04449 We ride past it then turn left twice to head down an alley to the parking lot behind the building.  Of course, Gus is the first one unloaded, chides me for my dawdling even though he realizes my GPS has locked itself in its mount (due to vibration) and I’m having trouble getting it un-mounted…  Finally I get it off and we check in, walk out into the main part of town for a quick dinner then a quick touring walk of the down town area including a stop at a pharmacy for Gus to replace his gummed up and completely useless beard trimmer.  Banff is a lovely city, well groomed and bustling with tourists.  Back at the hotel as we bed down for the night I notice there is no air conditioning.  We are now at a latitude where summer heat is rarely oppressive and simply opening a screened window for air at night is sufficient to keep us cool.  The night time temperature drops into the mid 40 degree F range.

It is the night of July 11th.  Total mileage travelled so far since leaving home: 3544.

Before proceeding further I am compelled to discuss yet another of my traveling companion’s idiosyncrasies.  Gus has trouble sleeping.  He suffers from Restless Leg Syndrome and Sleep Apnea, both afflictions that make it difficult for him to sleep soundly for an entire night.  Usually he can get to sleep with little problem but sometime a few hours later he awakens and can’t get back to sleep.  He’s been to sleep clinics and tried everything from medication to counting sheep but most to no relief.  Some nights are worse than others and he’ll get only two or three hours of sleep.  This, not surprisingly, often translates to sleepiness during the day (hence the wet towel trick).  He has medicine for the restless leg problem and more medicine to take during the day to help him stay awake.  It seems to be a hopeless situation and he hates that he is thus afflicted.  Recall that back when I was discussing our planning I mentioned that Gus has a very active mind.  I submit that his sleeping problem is not caused by sleep apnea or restless legs but rather by “Restless Mind Syndrome”!  He just wakes up and starts thinking of “stuff” and is unable to shut it down!  In any event, though I am sympathetic to his situation I am also victimized by it…  Once Gus awakens, he is up for the day whether it is 3 AM or 5 AM.  He tries desperately to be quiet, even going so far as to leave the room and go to the lobby to use his computer.  Nevertheless, at some point he just can’t stand it anymore and has to come wake me up.  Usually he has completely packed and readied himself for departure so when he turns on the light he expects I (and Rex as well later in the trip) should be ready as well.  Picture being awakened from a sound sleep, the light suddenly switched on and there, sitting on the opposite bed, fully clothed to include leather jacket and helmet sits Gus tapping his foot in eager impatience to get back on the road!!  All in good fun, we make it work… he is, after all, my best friend.

In my rush to get cleaned, packed and loaded, I leave my glasses in the room when we hit the road.  I will not realize it until much later in the day.  Gus also creates a problem that will later surface… he forgets he has the room key in his pocket and doesn’t leave it in the room when we leave.  It is a real key, commercial grade, and there can be a significant financial cost to not returning it.

It is slightly overcast this morning and the forecast is for rain in parts of Alberta.  The temperature is a little on the cool side though not terrible… yet.  Since we are in a latitude where cold is always possible even in summer we discuss and decide to “wire up”; that is, to put on our electrically heated gear and have it available at the turn of a switch in case the temperature drops.  We also have our rain suits at the ready and decide to wear our cold weather outerwear as we start the day.  We head out of Banff with Gus in the lead.  Our destination is Jasper, Alberta.  The plan is to see Jasper then turn southward again and ride to Revelstoke, BC for tonight’s RON.

As usual, we plan to ride a couple hours then stop for gas and breakfast, possibly at Lake Louise as we head up the Trans-Canada Highway before turning off on Route 93, the “Icefields Parkway” to Jasper.  Approaching the turn off we run into a lot of construction, exit closures and barriers.  Maneuvering around these hurdles causes us to miss Lake Louise and we find ourselves on the Icefields Parkway.  The further we go the more remote the area through which we travel.  Fuel remains okay, but I’m getting hungry and we’re not seeing anything resembling a commercial  business let alone a restaurant.   We’re also running through patches of rain that are increasing both in


DSCN0226                            Moisture ahead... a harbinger of things to come

frequency and intensity and the temperature is dropping.  Good thing we wired up… I have my gloves and jacket liner turned onto “low” already.  Soon we are in constant rain and there remains no sign of a place to stop and eat.

Eventually we see a sign for a lodge of some type and a small reference to the possibility that food may be available to the public.  The lodge sits at the north end of Bow Lake, a large glacially fed lake surrounded by sheer-faced mountains rising 3000 DSCN0231feet above its surface.  The lodge is the Num-Ti-Jah, built from 1937 to 1950 to accommodate early tourists traveling up the Banff-Jasper highway.  Very remote but beautifully situated, it has become a destination for folks from around the world. 
We turn into the driveway which is dirt and gravel and today, very wet and muddy.  Over the CB we caution each other to be very careful … it is slick and treacherous and any distraction could result in dropping the bike.  As we park I look for the spot that will allow me to drive out going forward under power; this is no place to have to rely on pushing backwards with my feet.

The entrance is not clearly evident, but I do find a small door beyond which is a Plexiglas window much as one might find at a fast food drive up and behind the window is an office with a young lady inside.  She directs us into the lodge’s dining room.  The room is very rustic with log walls, several antiques and mounted wildlife heads.  Most importantly, it is dry and warm!DSC04462   The waitress points us to a buffet, “hot or cold” and we choose the cold which consists of yogurt, granola and a little fruit.  With coffee, the tab for each of us comes to about $20 bucks!  Shortly after we start eating, another group of motorcyclists enter the room, couples traveling together, and we make brief but pleasant conversation with them about the weather and their travels.
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Breakfast complete; wire up, suit up and mount up.  The rain continues, but for right now it is less intense.  We gingerly make our way down the muddy drive and back onto the Icefields Parkway.  For another two-and-a-half hours we ride through beautiful mountain scenery which, unfortunately, is mostly obscured by low hanging clouds and rain drops beating on my visor.

Thank God for heat!  As we pull into Jasper, the  temperature reading on my bike says 39 degrees F! We pull off the side of the road at the welcome to Jasper sign to take photos; proof of our arrival and proof that we are not exaggerating about the weather.  Gus makes a field-expedient tripod for his camera out of a pile of rocks…

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We quickly mount back up, continue a half mile or so north, pass under an overpass where a long train of the Canadian National Railway lumbers along and go into the town of Jasper.  There is an Esso gas station right next to a cafe named the “Soft Rock Cafe” so we pull in, gas up and park at the gas station then walk across the street to the cafe for warmth and sustenance.  I order a sausage biscuit and large cup of hot chocolate; both were comfort foods for a wet, cold soul.

After about an hour of enjoying the dry, we don our outerwear and head, through an even more intense rain, back to our bikes.  The trip back down the Icefields Parkway is almost mindless.  As I write this I can recall no scenery, no sense of beauty; nothing except driving rain and Gus’s tail lights blurred by the rivulets of water flowing across my visor.  Water runs off the back of my helmet and drips inside the collar of my jacket and down my back; even though the rain proof outerwear prevents water from penetrating the fabric, I still get wet.  I have turned on the seat heater and now as the water continues to run down my back inside my jacket I am sitting in a pool of warm water!!  Next time I’ll find some way to seal the back of my neck…

Five hours later we turn off the Icefields and head west on the Trans-Canada Highway.  Just a couple miles along the road we leave Alberta and cross back into British Columbia.  Another 5 or 6 miles and we see a gas station on the right across from a rather nice lake, Lake Wapta.  It is still pouring rain and I don’t want to go much farther.  Hopefully we’ll get some gas and find a place to bed down shortly thereafter.  As I’m pumping, I look at a building just behind us and adjacent to the gas station.  It looks for all the world like a motel!  As we pay, we ask the attendant if it is a motel; “Yes, it is.”  I don’t need a second clue… we head over to see if there is vacancy and to check price.  All is good on both counts and we, happily, check in and get out of our wet stuff.  Everything is wet.

Drying out at the Lake Louise Lodge in Field, AB July 12, 2010After 8 hours of heavy rain on a motorcycle, everything is wet!  










Every piece of paper in my wallet, my boots, my gloves, some of my packed clothes, and my sleeping bag which was in a nylon bag is hung over the shower curtain and is actually dripping into the tub.  All is set out to dry and the room smells like a wet dog.  It is about 1900.

We head for the motel’s restaurant for a quick bite before bed.  For the first time today I reach for my glasses.  Like everything, the case is wet because I had kept them in a pocket of my backseat bag.  Surprise!  Nice case, but NO GLASSES!!  Trying to remember where last I used them and it dawns on me;  when we left the motel in Banff this morning, I had them next to the bed on the night table.  The case was next to my bag as I was packing it.  Obviously, and to my dismay, I packed the case and never checked to see if I had returned my glasses to it.  They’ve been left in Banff!  Fortunately I have a pair of reading glasses which I brought along so I’m not totally helpless but I hate to lose an expensive pair of prescription glasses.


Now, for yet another side discussion of our group dynamic.  Gus is often frustrated with me because we’ll end up in a restaurant, gas station counter, etc. and I can’t see because I’ve left my glasses back on my bike somewhere.  Knowing that I need glasses for some part of my day, every day, he doesn’t understand why I don’t wear them all the time.  He’s absolutely convinced that it is vanity on my part!  Vanity?  Me?  Not even close.  I just find them distracting when I wear them for anything other than reading.  They’re bifocals and looking through them is not at all like the way nature intended for me to see…  So, not thinking ahead when I dismount to go into some place to eat, I usually leave them outside. Later, when Rex joins us, the problem will double since Rex doesn’t wear his regularly either.  In Gus’s journal he writes the following: “Every day one or both of them forgets to bring his glasses into an eating place and they go through the same routine of trying to order without looking at the menu. This is funny for the first 40 times but after that its embarrassing to sit there while they try to fool some poor young little wait person that they are just taking their time deciding.” I’m not sorry because every time I have to go back out and get my glasses, I get his wry smile and “the look”.

Thus, sans glasses, we finish a quick (and tasty) meal at the restaurant in the motel and then to bed.

Chapter 10


George’s new shoes, Family, and Vancouver.



Early morning, July 13th, 2010.  We’re up before the sun and bid adieu to our hosts in the Lake Louise Lodge.  The rain has stopped although low clouds and mist remain. After firing up our bikes we exchange the customary, “Radio Check!” over the CB. I can hear Gus loud and clear but all he hears on my transmission is the click of the mike.  I am not transmitting.  I can’t even hear my own voice when I transmit.  (Normally, I leave my intercom “hot” meaning that when I speak into my microphone, I can hear myself talking in my headset.  When I was flying, the communications were set up similarly and I like knowing what it is I am transmitting so I have my bike communication set up the same way.)  Now, I hear nothing other than the mike click.  Something is wrong and I suspect it has to do with all the water through which we traveled yesterday.  We move out anyway.  I can hear Gus just fine and I can acknowledge his transmissions by “double clicking” the mike button so at least we have a basic way to communicate. Our destination today is Vancouver and I’m thinking I may be able to find a Victory dealer in the vicinity and get repairs.

We head out, west on CA 1, the Trans-Canada Highway.  The highway is four lane divided through some of the most remarkable scenery in North America.  The Canadians obviously spend a great deal of effort and money on their major highways; here we are in the heart of harsh winter country yet the road is smooth and unscarred by frost heaves and potholes.  As the day progresses, the clouds lift and ever more beauty unfolds around us.  We are traveling through winding valleys with towering, often sheer-faced and snow capped mountains on either side.  It is a motorcyclist’s dream ride.

We do encounter some areas of construction but not to a degree that affects our travel.  It looks as if they are widening the road in some areas but they have thought out their construction phasing so as not to interfere with normal traffic.  Well done.  One sight that is repeated in several places along where the construction is on-going are overpasses going from one side of the highway to the other, almost as though they are anticipating putting in or extending some secondary highways crossing the Trans-Canadian Highway.  Yet, to my observation, there are no secondary highways in any of these areas and neither are any shown on the map of my GPS.  Wondering what these large and extensive overpasses are doing, literally out in the middle of nowhere, it finally occurs to me that they are wildlife crossings established to protect vital habitats and prevent vehicle-wildlife collisions. A clever design, with animal routes directed by high “funneling” fences, they look natural and provide a means for large animals such as Elk, Moose and Bear to cross the highway which bisects their habitat.


Wildlife Crossing Bridge

In Revelstoke, BC we stop for lunch (I did bring my reading glasses in this time!) and discuss my need for maintenance service.  At this point in the mileage traveled, I am past due for an oil change, may need tires and would like my CB repaired.  I am carrying a booklet which lists all Victory dealers in North America. The closest one to Vancouver is in Mt. Vernon, WA.  Since our plan is to meet Rex and Deborah in Vancouver tomorrow, we can work it out that we cross back into the US in Bellingham, WA and spend the night tonight there.  Tomorrow morning Gus will travel to meet up with the Deckers in Vancouver and I will go to the dealer in Mt. Vernon which is just south of Bellingham.  Rex, Deb and Gus will tour Buchart Gardens while I get my bike serviced and then I will join them in Vancouver tomorrow night.  An added benefit is that I can see my daughter and granddaughter, Kelly and Kaetlyn, while my bike is in work since Kelly lives only about an hour south of Mt. Vernon.  So, the plan is hatched and that’s what we do.

In mid-afternoon we turn off the Trans-Canada Highway at Kamloops and proceed south on CA-5 to the US border at Sumas, WA.  Gus finds a motel in Bellingham and makes a reservation.  As we arrive and check in, we are greeted by three folks who want to admire my bike… while Gus sulks off into the room to avoid having to hear any new superlatives about my “cool” bike.  We start a load of laundry and make a couple of phone calls; Gus to Rex to coordinate meeting tomorrow and me to set up an appointment at the Skagit Valley Victory Dealer in Mt. Vernon, WA.  I also call Kelly and let her know where we are and coordinate a visit for tomorrow.  Dinner at a next door IHOP is followed by a check of our emails.

I have a note from the hotel in Banff.  They have found my glasses and also advise that one of the keys we were issued had not been turned in.  Gus rummages around in his pockets and ultimately finds the key.  I respond that we do, in fact, have the key and will send it back to them tomorrow.  I also ask that they send my glasses to my home and tell them to use the credit card they have on file to pay the shipping cost.  Now it is off to dreamland.

July 14th, 2010.  Breakfast at IHOP this morning.  Gus and I are the only customers this early so we get great service. We order spinach/mushroom omelets from the “healthy choices” part of the menu.  The cook, obviously not a women who shies away from food, doubles the recipe.  We receive huge omelets that literally extend past the edges of the plates.  She advises us that the normal recipe calls for three eggs but she likes to “enhance” them a little, thus, used six eggs in each one!!  So much for eating light.  While we’re eating, we notice the decor over the counter includes small American and Canadian flags.  Gus has enjoyed seeing the American flag I have displayed proudly on my bike and thinks he’d like to show a little patriotism as well.  He asks the manager on duty if the little flags are for sale.  She responds that they are only for decoration and not for sale but thinks she has a few extras in the closet.  Then she reaches up and plucks one of each from the top of the cabinetry above the counter and hands them to Gus.  “No charge!”.  Nice folks abound on this trip.

Now we split up.  Gus heads for the rendezvous with Rex and Deborah in Vancouver and I look for a UPS store to send the key back to the hotel in Banff.  Nice folks serve me at the UPS store too inasmuch as sending something across the border entails a little more paperwork than usual.  Gus’s forgetfulness costs me twenty bucks but I’m certain that their receiving the key will be incentive for them to send my glasses home.

I head down I-5 to Mt. Vernon and the Victory dealer.  Last night I called to see if they could fit me in for service.  Their response was that they always make a space for through-travelers and if I’m there by 0900, they’ll put me at the front of the service line.  Nice!  And, they were true to their word.  This is one very nice store and is managed by friendly, competent people.  As a subsidiary of Polaris Corp., Victory motorcycles often are relegated to a secondary role in the dealerships, secondary to snowmobiles and ATV’s.  This becomes more noticeable the further north we go.  Skagit Valley, where I am now, busts that stereotype.  Skagit Valley Victory Dealer in Mt. Vernon, WAThis is a motorcycle shop!
 
My mileage is now at 10,480.  Dan Jantz takes a look at my tires and suggests that they are safe for a couple thousand miles of easy freeway driving but probably should be replaced if I’m going to be riding secondary roads and in particular, some of the winter damaged rough patches throughout Canada and Alaska.  After studying them myself, I agree.  He also thinks the CB problem is more than likely due to moisture in some of the connections and it will probably correct itself as dry air circulates throughout the bike.

Oil change and new tires at Skagit Valley Victory
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Daughter Kelly (Phreddie: my nickname for her) and beautiful granddaughter, 6-week old Kaetlyn, show up about 1030 and we leave George Jetson in the capable hands of  Dan and go to Lowe’s for some supplies and then an early lunch and a nice long visit. Phreddie pays for lunch (it’s great to be “Grandpa”) and we go back to the dealership, say a teary good-bye and I pick up my trusty steed with new lubes and shoes then head for the hotel in Vancouver where Gus and Rex agreed to meet.

I check in to the Comfort Inn about a half an hour before Gus, Rex and Deborah get back from their tour of Buchart Gardens.  Gus calls me as they arrive so I go down to meet everyone.  Rex and Deborah are in front of the hotel when I walk out and first impressions do not disappoint.  They are a friendly, happy, loving and attractive couple.  Of course, my bike (parked right next to the door) is covered by now in its travel cover and Gus makes some comment that being covered is a good thing so as not to shock Rex and Deb.  That, of course, is my signal to go uncover George and let them have their first look.  Gus makes a couple more disparaging comments and Deborah ignores him and reassures me that George is a fine looking steed.  As I begin replacing the cover, Rex steps up to help.  This is a behavior I will get used to as the trip goes on… Rex is a genuinely nice guy who always looks for ways to help.

We head up to the rooms and break out some Bombay Sapphire to discuss tomorrow’s departure.  Deborah is all set up with a van to take her to the airport early in the morning to catch her flight back home to Broken Arrow.  We decide to ride north en-route to Hyder, Alaska rather than go back over to Vancouver Island and directly to Prince Rupert and the ferry.  Plans settled, it is off to the Richmond Boathouse, a seafood and steak restaurant within walking distance of the hotel.  We have a lovely dinner and I am taken in by Rex and Deborah.  Rex has a smile about three miles wide and Deb, the most piercing and sparkling blue eyes I’ve ever seen.  Both have bubbly personalities and a great sense of humor.  They are obviously very much in love and are simply just fun to be around.  The three of us, Rex, Deb and I, all had careers at American Airlines so much of the conversation centers around “who did you know?” and “where were you when?”  It was a fun evening and way too short.


Chapter 11 


Hyder and Prince Rupert.



The morning of July 15th arrives with bright sun and warm temperatures.  Rex has already sent Deborah off on the bus to the airport and we load up for our departure.  Gus has programmed Sue-Sue and Jane with the route to Hyder, Alaska via Quesnel, BC.  Of course, like all computers, the GPS’s are only as good as the information they have programmed into them.  Today as we wind through the streets of Vancouver trying to get onto CA-99 North, we run into detours and construction; these disruptions were not available to the GPS’s when they built the routes.  Accordingly, we get a bit confused and turned around.  At the same time Gus and Rex are running low on fuel and we have to find gas.  Rex doesn’t have a GPS, but he does have a CB and although I still can’t transmit, I can hear.  On several occasions he advises Gus to find some place soon or he’ll run out!  Eventually, we do find a gas station, fill up and get back on the road away from all the confusion and intercept 99 Northbound.

After a few miles on the road we’re breaking out of the city environment and passing through a few outlying small towns.  Our stomachs signal breakfast time so we stop at a McDonald’s along the way.  One thing good about fast food places when traveling is that one knows what to expect in terms of service and food.  Today changes that perspective just a bit.  I did not realize that places like McDonald’s and Burger King modified their menus for the areas in which they serve.  Here it turns out that when you order sausage biscuits, there is no such thing; in this part of Canada sausage is served on McMuffins.  That’s your choice… period!  Similarly, when asking for coffee, Gus and I ask for it “black”.  The young man taking the order, a bit precocious (a polite word for “mouthy”), is shocked!  He says he has never had someone ask for black coffee.  Coffee in these parts is always served with cream.  His astonishment that someone would drink “just plain coffee!” is unmasked. 

The weather is nice so we amble out onto the deck outside the building to eat.  There are three local guys, motorcyclists out for a morning run, also enjoying breakfast there as well so we strike up a conversation with them.  After getting the local scoop on road conditions ahead and advice on speeds beyond which we can anticipate the local “Gendarmes” pulling us over, we bid them a nice day, mount up and head north.

Canada 99 is known as the “Sea-to-Sky Highway” and follows along the eastern edge of the Salish Sea past Horseshoe Bay, Lion’s Bay, Murrin Provincial Park and Darrell Bay; a beautiful ride with open water in the foreground leading my view out to distant peninsulas and forested islands.  It is nice to add Rex to our group.  He is particularly welcome because he is an experienced rider and knows and anticipates our actions and movements.  It enhances the sense of teamwork as we ride in formation along some beautiful and twisting highway.

Today evolves into a magical motorcycle touring day. Route 99 winds through valleys and then climbs into mountains were it just hugs the terrain; the road winds and twists into every crevice and out over every hummock giving it hard turns and switchbacks that challenge the soul of the bike and the skill of the rider.  There are some places where the road,  500 or 600 feet above the valley floor below, turns sharply through 90 to 120 degrees, and yet there are no guardrails!  I’m very cautious in these parts because one slip of a tire on loose gravel can result in a nasty spill or worse, turn the Vision and I into the main character in a Wiley Coyote movie!  Seton Lake near Lillooet, BC Nonetheless, it is beautiful!  For almost 250 miles of winding and challenging road we pass lakes and streams with towering, snow-capped mountains in the distance as we move the three bikes together almost as one articulated machine.  It is a magnificent ride!

We turn off of route 99 and onto the “Caribou Highway”, CA route 97, in a valley.  The mountainous terrain begins to give way to high rolling plains.  At one point, I am leading and we come to a 90 degree left, fairly sharp turn which immediately disappears into an underpass.  Not sure what lies beyond, I slow to a crawl and just as I start to turn, a long and large 18 wheeler sticks its nose out of the entrance to the underpass.  Based on his size I know he will have to swing wide to keep the trailer from hitting the sidewall of the tunnel as he turns so I signal a hard stop to Gus and Rex.  Glad that I did… the tractor pulls clear into our lane and onto the shoulder of the road which is on our right.  The driver waves a “thank you” as he passes and pulls back into his lane, making it now safe for us to proceed through the underpass.

About 1300 we stop for lunch at the Caribou Lodge in Clinton, BC.  The lodge is large and of log construction.  Although rustic in appearance, it is modern and well-kept and the food is good.

We continue to follow 97 the rest of the afternoon through country that would best be described as the “Land of Lakes”; there are hundreds of small lakes that can be seen over every rise as far as my eye can see.  Eventually we pull into the town of Quesnel, BC.  Gus has called ahead for reservations at the Best Western in town which is just off the highway.  At some point, Rex gets stuck at a light and Gus and I end up in the motel’s parking lot.  This concerns us a little because, while Rex has a CB, he has no navigation device to direct him and he’s out of range on the CB.  Fortunately, he sees one of our bikes and makes the turn onto the road which takes him to the parking lot.

The motel provides us a double room with two beds; and they are happy to rent it to three folks and divide the cost by three.  We will repeat this process night after night for the rest of the trip.  One of us will sleep on the air mattress and the other two, in each of the beds.  As I am paying, the hostess explains an offer that sounds really good.  If we sign up for their “rewards” program, we can stay one night free after staying (and paying) for two nights.  Since The Best Western is a large chain it seems to me that it would be easy to find and stay at least two nights at Best Westerns during the course of the rest of our trip so it seems like a “no-brainer”.  We all sign up… that way, for six paid nights we can get three free nights.  Stay tuned:  this is not going to work out…

The next morning we breakfast in the motel’s dining room.  Our waitress, fairly cute, is dressed in western attire and wears a shirt with a picture in sparkling beads of a cowboy boot.  The verbiage around the boot says, “My boyfriend was a heel so I gave him the boot!”  Clever.  I ask her if it was really that bad… then have to listen to five minutes of a scorned woman’s tirade!  Rex looks up from his coffee with an impish smile and Gus just shakes his head, wishing I had never asked.

After breakfast as we are loading the bikes I try once again to see if I can fix the transmit capability of my CB.  Rex, being a retired aircraft mechanic and guy who can build an entire car from scrap pieces, comes over to help.  We unscrew and disassemble everything we can think of but to no avail.  I am beginning to think the problem is in the headset and not the CB radio itself.

Once again we roll out of town on route 97 heading almost due North.  By mid day we plan to be in Prince George, BC where there is a Victory dealer.  I had called them before leaving home to see if they had tires to fit my bike.  Since I’ve already purchased new tires, I won’t need those but am hoping they can trouble-shoot and repair my CB’s transmit problem.

About half way to Prince George we enter the town of Hixon and stop for gas.  Inside the gas station is a small deli with a couple of tables and it is here that we see the ultimate in “old time local resident good ol’ boy morning coffee clubs”.  One of the tables holds five of these guys.  They have a great sense of humor and are happy to share with us their court proceedings for the day.  Even more fascinating is that although they are an informal group with no defined role in the town’s actual governance, the manager has recognized them as a force and bestowed on them the honorary title of “Hixon Senate”; to include a sign hanging from the ceiling above the table that reads, “Hixon Senate – Sittings Daily –8 am to 10 am”.  Meeting them was a hoot!

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We continue on and arrive in Prince George in late morning.  Gus calls the Victory dealer and we get directions.  The dealership is very interesting in layout.  The Cycle North dealership sells both Honda and Polaris/Victory products but out of two separate, side-by-side buildings on the same lot with a shared parking lot.  I don’t know if it is a condition of licensing or just local marketing ideas but it seems to work.  I go into the Victory side and talk to the service manager, Gus mills around outside and over in the Honda section and Rex takes off to find a nearby Wal Mart to purchase a sleeping bag.

After about two hours of discussion with the service manager, including a long conversation with the Victory factory electronics director by telephone, I am told they don’t have the parts they think I need nor do they have time to get me into the shop to even try and physically evaluate the problem. I am more than a little frustrated because, again, the further North I go the more Victory’s parent company Polaris concentrates on ATV’s and snowmobiles and the less they seem to care about motorcycles.

While all this is going on, a couple (husband and wife I think) pull into the parking lot.  He is riding a Honda trike and she, a Harley Sportster.  While I am flailing about with the service department Gus starts a conversation with the couple.  Turns out to be fortuitous.  They describe a town about 230 miles up the road (CA route 16) called Smithers.  They assure us we can find food and lodging there but even better, they describe a place about 20 miles past Smithers named Moricetown.  Morice Canyon is one of the five Native Canadian tribal communities located near Hwy 16 of the Wet'suwet'en Tribe of natives. In the canyon is the roaring Bulkley River, which tumbles through Morice Canyon and where young men of the tribe still dip net for Salmon.  They describe it as a fascinating scene. As I’m wrapping up my failed visit Rex returns from his shopping excursion and we saddle up and head Northwest toward Smithers.

We arrive there late in the afternoon and decide to pass right on through and go see the fish and fishermen at Morice Canyon.  Just as promised by the couple at Cycle North, the canyon and activity is right off the highway and there is a prepared parking area for tourists to stop.  We pull in.  The area is flat, and a mixture of gravel and sod.  I gingerly stop and put down my kickstand… I have no desire to have Gus see me drop my bike again.  The surface holds and I am pointed so I can pull out straight ahead without having to muscle my bike backwards. We walk over to the edge of the canyon and the scene is even more powerful than we had expected.  The river is funneled naturally from a width of several hundred yards and flat water into a narrow canyon that is perhaps only 30 yards wide, dropping quickly and producing tumultuous white water rapids.  There are a couple of man-made fish ladders along one side, and tied off with ropes to prevent being pulled into the torrent and drowning are two or three young men with dip nets on the end of long poles catching huge salmon as they try to swim upstream.

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Gus and I see a trail leading down into the canyon and take off to snap a few pictures.    We’ve already lost Rex. Sitting on a bench high above the river is an older gentleman.  He is a tribal elder who fished for years in his younger life and who is now “observing” the next generation.
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Rex, I soon learn, is never one to shy away from a conversation.  He walks over and sits down on the other end of the bench, offering a respectful distance from the Elder’s space.  He is soon engaged in conversation.  He later tells us of some of what he learned from the Elder:  Tribal leaders have staked areas or “territorial claims” where a specific location (fishing spot) in this small canyon is exclusively theirs.  The demarcations are known but unmarked.  The younger tribal members (now fishing) respect these exclusive fishing sites and are there only at the invitation and approval of the Elder for whom the spot is reserved.  So it has been for hundreds of years and each of the fishing youth will someday become the elder and the “ownership” of the specific fishing location will transfer to him.

I’ve known Rex for less than 36 hours and already am aware of his ability, perhaps even “need”, to strike up conversations with people unknown and to find some common thread from their past.  Gus speaks of these encounters, which we all have from time to time, in some of his writing.  He refers to them as “casting the strings of historical experience” and theorizes that if you investigate long enough you will always find some place, some thing, some experience you and the people with whom you are speaking have in common.  Frankly, I think he’s on to something because it happens to me all the time, in every clime and place I have traveled over the years.  He assures me that Rex, however, is the master of casting strings and finding some coincidence of history. As our days together continue I will find this to be true…

Gus and I get our photo ops and climb back up to the precipice of the canyon wall.  As we near the top of the trail, we meet a young family who have also stopped to watch the action.  A husband, wife and two small children.  We exchange courtesies and the wife asks where we are headed.  I give her a brief description of our overall itinerary and mention that  before catching the ferry in Prince Rupert we plan on visiting Hyder, Alaska tomorrow.  At that mention, she breaks out a plastic sandwich bag containing smoked salmon jerky and offers a piece for me to try.  I do and it is delicious.  She then tells me that she bought this freshly made jerky a couple days ago in Hyder at a little fish place called the Hyder Bus.  Small world.  They’re coming from and we’re going to Hyder.  I might try to find this “bus” and buy some of the salmon.  String of historical experience?  Perhaps.

We drag a reluctant Rex away from his fishing mentor and mount up for the quick trip back into Quesnel.  We find a small place right along the highway called the Florence Motel which has vacancy.  It is a quaint, older and rustic motel and they have a three bed suite available for a very reasonable price.  The driveway and parking areas are narrow so we pull the bikes up onto the lawn right in front of our door and unload.DSCN0296  I am not entirely comfortable with this because if it rains tonight the ground will soften and I have visions of our kickstands sinking in the soft earth and the bikes going over.  Better to risk that though than the chance of a car entering the narrow drive and hitting one of our bikes. Next door to the motel is a car wash and beyond that is a Wendy’s hamburger place.  After unloading, we back the bikes out and ride over to the car wash for a quick cleanup.  Interesting to me is that there are no token dispensers.  We have to purchase our wash tokens from a young lady in the office and if we need additional time we must go back into the office to get more.

Looking across the parking lot to the Wendy’s we see a site that is common to hundreds of small towns across America on Friday nights; an impromptu antique or classic car show.  Apparently such drive up and show gatherings are popular in Canada as well.  Now, Rex and I are “car guys” more than Gus, and Rex, more than I.  He has built custom cars and high performance drag boats for most of his life.  He re-built an old jeep from the ground up for his son and just a couple years ago replaced the entire front end, from the firewall forward on a wrecked Corvette.  He is a mechanic’s mechanic and I am learning to both respect and admire the depth of his knowledge and ability.

The three of us head over to Wendy’s for dinner and to look at the classic cars. DSC04545 A sign in the  window at Wendy’s advertises a sandwich meal of some sort for four or five dollars and after dragging Rex away from his “historical string” conversations about cars we go in to buy one for dinner.  When we go to pay for our meals, however, the price is about double the advertised price!  The “special” was over at 2000 and so now we pay the original full price… about $12 for a fast food sandwich!  We missed it by three minutes and the manager has no  thought of extending the deal. One thing the reader may notice as my journal continues is that photos I have taken at the later hours of the day remain bright and full of daylight.  We are very far North (54.8 degrees North Latitude) in the Northern hemisphere during the summer months which make the days very long.  Today, “civil twilight” is at 2247, meaning that at that time the sun will be just below the horizon and there will still be enough daylight to carry on normal activities.  It is often daylight when we go to sleep at night up here.

Good morning!  It is early on July 17th and another bright and sunny day looks to be in our future.  We load up and prepare for departure.  Like I have on most mornings once I get my bike started, I turn on my external speakers and play Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again!” for the benefit of my traveling companions.  It always elicits a smile from Rex and Gus and expresses very well my feeling of joy to, well, get on the road again! We pull out of town Northwesterly on CA-16, now called the Yellowhead Highway and head for Hyder, Alaska.  Our route of travel takes us along a beautiful valley generally following the Bulkley River.  The valley floor is about 1300 feet msl and the mountains on either side tower upwards of 6500 feet msl.  They are covered with Fir, Juniper and deciduous Aspen, Birch and Walnut trees, and even though it is July, there are patches of snow on most peaks.  Eventually we make our way to Kitwanga and turn right (North) on CA-37.  The turn is well marked by a 20 foot tall sign with large letters reading “North to Alaska” and, at that location is a gas station so we stop to refuel and take pictures.  After fueling we are trying to get pictures of each other in front of the sign when two very large motor homes, each towing a jeep, pull into the station.  They no sooner stop than a well-groomed attractive woman in her (50’s?) steps out the door of one of them and offers to take a group shot of the three of us.  We graciously accept and thank her for taking the time.

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Back on the road and we travel 138 miles to Hyder through some of the most stunningly beautiful and rugged mountain terrain I have ever ridden.  The road is in good shape considering the climate in which it exists, and for the most part it is flat because we travel in valleys along rapidly flowing rivers.  There are glaciers in many places and, because the day is mostly clear, we see them in all
 their glistening blue-white colors.


Bear Glacier along Route 37A - Departed Hyder, AK on July 18, 2010        DSCN0339

The road takes us through very narrow valleys with almost sheer vertical walls of mountain on either side.  Natural water falls are evident in many places, scribed by raging rivulets tumbling down the sides of these sheer faces, caused by both recent rains and melting glaciers.  The scenes are almost surrealistic; a combination of the backgrounds in “Harry Potter” and “Avatar” come to mind, only this is the real thing.  It is almost indescribable and my pictures, in two dimension, cannot possibly  reflect what our eyes can see.

DSC04565DSC04560DSC04559Eventually we enter and pass through Stewart, BC, noting a gas station at one of the intersections.  Immediately after Stewart we ride along the base of Mt. Weller along what is known as the Portland Canal , a 70-mile-long fjord that forms part of the U.S.-Canadian border, and just a couple miles later come to the border crossing between British Columbia and Alaska in the United States.  The facility is tiny.  Of interest to me is that the only way into Hyder is through BC if one is traveling by road; and, it is the only community in Southern Alaska that is accessible by road.  Otherwise the option is by boat or float plane.  Hyder has a population of about 125 permanent residents and is essentially isolated from the rest of Alaska. We clear Customs and Immigration and in the next hundred yards, come to the entry onto the main street of Hyder.

Hyder is a study in days gone by. The streets are not paved, the few stores in town have boardwalks attached to their fronts and to me it has the flavor of an old  west or 19th century gold rush town. The entertainer and raconteur, Garrison Keillor, would refer to this as “The little town that time forgot”.  Local tourist  brochures refer to Hyder as “The Friendliest Ghost Town in Alaska”. At this point we’re not even sure if there is a hotel or motel in which to spend the night. We’ve made it without camping so far and although we are prepared for that eventuality, I would rather not. Slowly we work our way through town and eventually come to a sign which reads, “Biker Friendly”, “SEALASKA INN”. Just to the left of the sign and across the road is a larger building which is the SEALASKA INN so we ride over and park in front. There is no apparent lodging office so we go into the bar on the first floor and ask. We are directed to a friendly and quick-witted (“smart ass” or “chop buster” are probably more accurate descriptions) woman who tells us she’s the lodging manager and offers to show us a room. It will do fine so we book it.

The SEALASKA is a backwoods version of an all-inclusive resort. Besides the rooms it includes a bar/restaurant, a laundry, a liquor store, a dance floor and internet café. We later learn that this is sort of the Biker Headquarters of Southern Alaska and they cater to biking events which end up here. We snap a few pictures of the inside of the bar; funny signs and quotes, a stuffed grizzly bear and the dance floor all contribute to the uniqueness of the place. Its lunch time and we’re a little hungry so ask the barkeep/owner if we can get lunch. He (also a former Marine) tells us they don’t do lunch but suggests the Glacier Inn which is just a couple hundred yards away. We walk into the Glacier Inn and find it as unique as everything else in this town. There’s a liquor counter on one end of the dining room and a gift shop on the other. The walls are papered in real money; U.S. and Canadian currency as well as a few notes from Europe, South America and even Malaysia, each signed by the donor. A hardened but very friendly and spunky waitress in her early 30’s named Karen greets us. For a Podunk, out-of-the-way place, the food is very good. Rex has a huge fresh shrimp salad and Gus and I sandwiches. The bread is home made on premises. There are two couples eating at a table across from us. Rex does his “string casting” with them and we learn that they are bikers (on trikes) who have ridden from Ottawa. 
Friendly folks and we will see them later. Karen keeps us entertained and suggests that the best haddock in Alaska is served just up the road at the “Bus” if we are looking for dinner later in the evening.

After lunch we decide to fuel the bikes since we may leave early tomorrow morning and are not sure the only nearby gas station will be open.  That station is the one we passed earlier back across the border in Stewart.  There are no gas stations in Hyder.

The gas station is a story in itself.  When I go in to pay, the young man Gas Station in Stewart, BC ("If we don't have it, you don't want it!")behind the counter is fixing some auto part.  Behind him are shelves of hardware, some auto related, some not.  It was the kind of place where you might expect to find a sign reading, “if we don’t have it, you don’t want it!”.   Back across the border again into the USA and we decide to tour the area a little. Rex needs to go to the Post Office and we’ve been told there is a bear viewing area operated by the U.S. Forest Service just up the road. Thirty miles further up that road is Salmon Glacier - the fifth largest glacier in North America. The road starts in Hyder at sea level and follows the Salmon River to the glacier at 4,300 ft. msl. It is one of the few places in North America where one can actually drive to and walk on a glacier. The road goes by several old gold mines including the famous Premier Gold Mine (now called Westmin Gold) which has been in operation off and on since the 1920s.

The post office is a single-wide trailer with a post and beam gable roof above it; I’m thinking this is an indication of the amount of snowfall they must have here in the winter. Another indication is that most of the satellite dishes on the sides of houses have little roofs over them.  At first it makes sense to me but then I question, doesn’t it obstruct the satellite?  The answer is no.  The satellite dishes all actually point level to downward!  Note satellite dish pointing down; at top of the world, geosynchronous satellite is over the horizonWhy would this be?  Gus and I talk about it later and conclude that it is because of the high latitude where we are; geosynchronous satellites orbit primarily over the lower 48 states.  Thus, for the dish to aim at the satellite, it must point low, over the horizon.  Cool!

The Post Office is closed (only open until 1 PM) so Rex will have to wait. We start up the road toward the glacier. Gravel roads are normally difficult but this road is a washboard, bone-jarringly rough and dusty. About three miles up we come to Fish Creek, the bear viewing area. Generally both brown (grizzly) and black bears are easily observed or photographed at the site as they fish for chum and pink salmon in the clear shallow waters of Fish Creek. The viewing season is normally July through September but this July we’re too early and the salmon haven’t started running so we don’t see any bears.

               Looking for bear at salmon streamDSCN0324

Based on the short ride up we decide to turn around and head back into  town. The road will tear our bikes up if we continue. Gus and Rex mumble to one another over the CB’s that if the Dalton Haul Road is like this we’ll never make the Arctic Circle. Since I can hear but not talk on my CB, I acknowledge a “yes” by double-clicking my mic switch.  (For the sake of brevity back in our days of flying, straight-forward radio transmissions involving questions or simple acknowledgement were often answered by mic clicks – two for “yes” or  “I acknowledge”, and one for “no”).

Back at the Inn, we do some communication with our families and a little planning for the trip to Prince Rupert.  Across the road from the Inn is a single family home sitting on large lot.  On the lot is a concrete pad and in front of that is a sign reading, “RV Pressure Washing”.  During the summer, a lot of tourists visit the area and many by motor home.  The dusty roads make a mess of the exterior so many travelers have their vehicles washed before heading out of town.

This afternoon I notice a large motor home being hosed down and recognize the lady standing next to it as the woman who took our picture back in Kitwanga so strike up a conversation with her.  She asks if we have eaten at the “Bus”.  The answer of course is no… to which she responds that she and her husband have and recommend it highly.  That’s three positive recommendations, one from the couple with the jerky at Moricetown, one from our lunch waitress, Karen, and one from this lady. I shared the comment with Rex and Gus and we decide we should try the Bus for dinner this evening.

The bus is about a ten minute walk back up the road toward Fish Creek and down a side street.  As we approach, we see an old school bus with a sign “Seafood Express”  above it and a wooden deck along its side with several tables and benches (which are actually the passenger seats from inside the bus) beneath canvas shelters. The Hyder "Bus" - Food cooked inside the bus and served through the bus's door.  Really GREAT Fish N' Chips! Started in 1998 the owners converted a school bus into a little fish & chip eatery and it has become a “must stop & eat” seafood restaurant in Hyder.  They offer the very best fresh Alaskan seafood served Alaskan style and offer Alaskan beer and fine wines during the summer months of June, July, August and September.  The food is cooked inside the bus and then served through the door.  We ordered Halibut and Chips and were not disappointed.  It was perhaps the best fried fish I have ever eaten.  It was fresh, hot and flavorful, lightly breaded, crisp on the outside and tender and flaky on the inside.  A real treat!

While waiting for our dinners, we strike up a conversation with a couple sitting at a table behind us.  This was their “night out” and had driven about 70 miles up Route 37A from their place in British Columbia just to eat here!  They said they do this about once a week... there aren’t many restaurants in this part of the world, and the food here is incredible!  Considering how remote it is up here, we are curious about the types of occupations they had.  She runs their home and offers a couple rooms for travelers... sort of a small B & B.  He spent many years in the logging industry over in Stewart, BC across the border along the Canal.  Logs are timbered in the forests along the strait and floated in large rafts down to a collection area on the West side of the canal.  He was involved in the selection and loading of the logs onto freighters and log trucks for transport.

While we are eating, Karen, our waitress from the Glacier Inn, happens to walk by with her dog.  She knows the owner of the Bus (in fact once upon a time, the owner was her mother-in-law!) and comes up to visit almost every night.  She recognizes us and comes over to chat so we invite her to sit at the table with us.  A really nice girl with a story…  it occurs to me that everyone living full time in Hyder probably has a story and many are escaping from something in their lives.  In Karen’s case, she originally arrived here because she married the son of the Bus’s owners.  The marriage didn’t last because “he couldn’t keep his zipper up” but she remained very good friends with his mother.  While she was married, she and her husband lived in California.  After their separation, she was convicted of DUI and lost her license and, because she couldn’t get to work, lost her job.  Knowing folks up here in Hyder, this seemed like a good place to get away from it all so hired a float plane to bring her here from California.  She couldn’t drive here for two reasons; first, because she had no license and second, because Canada will not allow Americans convicted of DUI to cross their border.  So, except for those times when she has saved enough cash to charter a flight out she stays here.  When she can get out, she visits family in California then comes back.  Hyder, however, is a small town and everyone here knows everyone and their histories.  The Border guards on the edge of town know her.  If she needs to go into Stewart for something, they are “momentarily distracted” knowing full well that she will return.

Walking back to the Inn from the Bus, we notice a work boat of some type being rebuilt.  It is a large wooden boat in very rough shape but someone is restoring it with a great deal of craftsmanship and more than a little patience.  Gus heads back to get DSC04590 his camera to document this work.  Rex and I head for the bar on the first floor of the Inn.  We are joined by our friends from Ottawa and two other couples, younger, riding BMW on-off road GS 1200’s.  Another very funny and “wise ass” waitress attends to us.  Perhaps “wise ass” is a prerequisite for employment here.  Don’t know, but it does fit with the ambiance. We have a little wine, tell a few stories then head up to our room for a good night’s sleep.  It is close to midnight and finally dark.  Remember, we’re in “the land of the midnight sun” and this time of year daylight lasts for over 20 hours!  My turn for the air mattress and sleeping bag tonight.  I think it more comfortable than either of the beds.   ZZZZzzzzzzzzzz!

It is the morning of the 18th of July.  I realize that before leaving the Bus last night I forgot to buy some of the Salmon Jerky I had tasted at Moricetown.  Too bad.  It was very good.  We arise, pack and head over to the Glacier Inn for breakfast.  Our friends from Ottawa are here and preparing to get on the road, Karen is back at work, bright-eyed and bubbly and we’re washing a light breakfast down with a second cup of coffee.  When I pay my bill, I thank Karen for her hospitality and hold out my hand to welcome a good-by handshake.  Karen wants none of that!  Rather, she comes out from behind the counter and gives all three of us hugs and cautions us to be careful.  She’s a nice person… hopefully her life will work out. Once again Willie Nelson belts out “On the Road Again” and we’re off, heading back down 37A.  Hyder was only a side trip, not our destination.  But it is, after all, the journey that makes the trip worthwhile and this was a memorable 24 hours.  A unique place with unique people, a unique history and stunning geography.  I’m glad we visited.

A couple hours into the ride and I make my most stupid and careless error of the entire trip.  The day is bright and clear making the scenery even more vivid than when we came up this road.  I have my camera out and as we pass Bear Glacier I take several shots.  My focus is on the pictures, not the road.  I’m doing 60 mph and all of a sudden, there is a slight bend in the road which I don’t see and the bike drops off the pavement onto the gravel shoulder, starts to wobble and heads for one of the sheer rock walls that line the sides of the highway!  Quickly both hands go to the handlebars and I put my full effort into keeping the bike upright and getting both wheels back on the pavement.  It was a close call.  Once I recover, I scold myself and vow that this will never happen again.  Meanwhile, Gus, traveling behind me, sees this near miss as it unfolds.  He asks me if I’m alright and I reply in the affirmative by giving a thumb's up.  Later this afternoon he will share with me his concern.  It was less for my safety or fear of my being injured and more about how he was going to call Christine and tell her I had been in accident!!  Nice!  Thanks, Pal!  :-)

Once again we stop for gas and a butt break at the intersection of 37 and the Yellowhead Highway in Kitwanga.  We have a little time to kill because tonight’s destination, Prince Rupert, is only about three hours away.  Rex starts chatting up locals who are patronizing the gas station/deli to ask if there are any parks or other sites of interest between here and Prince Rupert.  One gentleman asks Rex if we’ve seen the totem poles of the Gitwangak Tribe right here in Kitwanga.  The answer of course is “no”, and the gent gives him a brief description and directions.  They are just off the right side of our route as we leave town so head over to see them.

An interesting site, there are 13 of them all in a line, are hand carved and, by their weathered texture, probably very old (a check of the Canada Museum of Civilization reports these date back to at least 1899).  In a somewhat eerie distortion of time and worship there exists directly across the street from these Native Tribal totems an Anglican Episcopal Church, itself showing the architecture and ravages of a time long ago.  imageNext to the church is some type of church tower, the use of which I cannot  determine.  It looks like something from the movie, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”.

 After about an hour of looking and picture-taking we mount up and head down the road en-route to Prince Rupert.  As has been the case since arriving in this part of Canada, the scenery continues to fill the senses at almost every turn of the highway.  Eventually the “Seven Sisters” mountain range comes into imageview.   These mountains are a dramatic row of jagged peaks, four of which rise to an elevation over 8,200 ft.  Even in late July they remain snow-capped.
The Yellowhead Highway follows the Skeena River which widens the closer we get to its mouth.  Eventually it empties into the Hecate Strait and at this point we stop at a viewing area to take off a couple layers of clothing because the afternoon has turned pleasantly warm.  The road sweeps northerly and by mid-afternoon we enter Prince Rupert, BC, our point of embarkation on the Alaska Marine Highway.
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"No!, I think it's that way!" 
We’re actually a day ahead of schedule.  It is the afternoon of July 18 and our ferry doesn’t leave until the afternoon of the 20th.  We’ll use this time to do some maintenance, laundry and rest up from a fairly intense few days of travel.  The motel we have chosen suits our situation well.  We have a “suite”; two rooms with three beds.  The place is relatively inexpensive (because it is old) and caters to sportsman who come to the area for what is reported to be spectacular fishing.  They have refrigerator space outside to store the daily catch and a prominent sign above the check-in counter admonishing all not to cook fish in the rooms because of the smell!

We have an inexpensive and not-so-elegant meal at McDonald’s next door, head back to the room for a Blue Elixir night cap and a little Skype time back home.  The Netbook computer that Gus brought along for all of us to use is conveniently setup on a table in the room where Gus will sleep.  That way, we can work on the pictures and communications we have been sending to family and friends every couple of days on our journey.  The setup also affords Gus the ability to control my use of “our” computer.  For some reason he gets a perverse pleasure from limiting the amount of my use.  Of course HE uses it half the night when his insomnia erupts and Rex and I are asleep, but as soon as I want to check my e-mail or some communiqué on Facebook, he claims some important need of a higher priority for himself and I am pushed aside…  ??  :-)

In the morning we go down town for breakfast.  As we usually do, we look for an out-of-the-way Mom and Pop establishment where breakfasts are almost always excellent.  We can find no such place so go into a local coffee shop chain called Tim Horton’s.  It is fast food, mostly pre-made and pre-packaged but is, nevertheless, sustenance.  As we leave, we notice a hotel across the street with six on-off road bikes parked along side;  BMW’s and KLR’s.  They wear mud, dust and scratches as badges of being well-used and hard-ridden.  One of them has a sign on the luggage rack with the word “SNIVELER” in large letters.  Gus’s curiosity gets the best of him and I tag along to see what, I don’t know.  Rex passes on the investigation and heads over to an adjacent parking lot where there sits a beautifully restored 50’s era pickup truck.

DSC04618
DSC04618Gus and I walk into the hotel’s restaurant and notice a group of gray hairs about our age sitting at a table along the back wall.  Gus introduces us and asks if the bikes outside are theirs.  They respond, “yes”.  We chat for a bit and learn that they are on their way back home to California after a ride up to Alaska.  The Sniveler sign is passed each day to whichever riding member whines the most!  I’m not sure if the determination is by vote or edict.  Today’s “awardee” is not at the table and remains sawing wood up in his room.  One of the guys notices my scraggily attempt at growing a Van Dyke and asks if it is a recent acquisition.  I acknowledge that it is and he then tells me that all of theirs are also new; not one of them had grown one before this trip.  (Why do we do that I wonder?) We bid them a safe journey and head back outside.  

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Rex is nowhere to be found and then I remember the truck.  Sure enough, there he is casting strings of history with the owner.  Years earlier Rex had restored a similar truck so he and his new acquaintance were discussing engines, gear ratios and the fine art of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!

We mount up and go hunting for a car wash…the bikes are pretty dirty from our trip to Hyder.  We find one close by and as we are drying them, the owner and his dog stops by to replenish stock and clean the facility.  He’s a young fellow in his early forty’s and full of the entrepreneurial spirit.  This is a side business to his “real” job as a harbor tugboat captain.  He offers a few expletives for the tax rate here in Canada and complains that simply getting by becomes increasingly difficult.

Both Gus and I have some almost imperceptible scratches on our bike’s fuel tanks.  They came from the constant rubbing of the headset cords that run between plug receptacles on the bike and our helmets.  We’ve taken steps to prevent further rubbing but now need some type of polish/scratch remover to repair the marks so ride over to a NAPA Auto Parts store to see what we can find.  While we’re inside, Rex remains in the parking lot.  Once again, the “Rex effect” takes place and he strikes up a conversation with a couple who have just ridden into the store’s parking lot.  Gus and I finish our shopping and go outside where Rex introduces us to his new acquaintances.

Sean and Pat, a husband and wife couple who live in Alaska, are riding two-up as they return home after picking up their brand new Harley Ultra in Oregon and have stopped to get something here at the NAPA store.  Coincidentally, they will be boarding the same ferry tomorrow as we … unexpectedly, we’ll be traveling companions.  Their new bike is a two-tone pearlescent blue and white; colors that together look good although in my opinion, perhaps not the best color for a motorcycle.  I don’t know why I have that opinion … it just doesn’t do anything for me? They wear matching Christian Motorcycle We get advice from an Alaskan couple - he's a former trucker on the "Haul Road" Club jackets and it is our good fortune to meet them.  Shane spent time in the Navy and, seeing our patches, thanks us for our service.  More importantly, he has experience as a long haul trucker up and down the Dalton Haul Road which he’s happy to share with us.  In his opinion generally, the road is not all that bad.  He says you do need to be mindful of the weather because it is treacherous when wet.  He also acknowledges that the truckers pretty much “own the road” and don’t care to slow down much for cars or motorcycles … but, they are good guys and will help if you break down.  Perhaps the best info he passes is that traveling up the haul road we’ll have to cross the Yukon River and at that crossing is a restaurant and fueling stop, which we will necessarily have to use.  Truckers will be there for breakfasts or lunches and will enjoy talking with us and give us the latest weather up ahead.  He tells us that information will be of invaluable help to us because it  will be the most current.  Shane and Pat share a few thoughts on good eating places along the ALCAN highway (“Buckshot Betty’s”, for one).  This is yet another another “chance” meeting that proves helpful.

In the late afternoon, Rex and I walk from the hotel back into town to buy a replacement bottle of Bombay since the one we have will be finished tonight and buying a cocktail aboard the ferry tomorrow will probably be more costly than any of us want to spend.  It is a warm afternoon and we enjoy the walk and the visit.  Rex is just one super cool guy and it is my good fortune to have met him.

Dinner tonight is at the Smiles Restaurant, recommended by someone with whom we talked today.  It is a seafood place at the lower end of the town, right in the harbor.  We park the bikes across the street and head in.  The place is packed but we are seated quickly.  Gus and Rex order fresh halibut (served as fish n’ chips) and I order grilled salmon.  Both meals are delicious and enhanced by a good merlot that Gus ordered.  Our waiter is only about four feet tall and tall for his age… probably not yet 12 years old.  He is being supervised by his older brother and for his experience, does a credible job.  At first he screws up the wine order by bringing us three glasses of some pink white zinfandel looking substance.  We explain that we want an entire bottle and that the bottle should contain merlot.  The lad corrected his mistake quickly and with graciousness.  I am surprised that a boy of his age can legally serve booze… he couldn’t do so in the States… but this is a different country with different laws.  Following is a collage that Gus put together and which I have taken the liberty to use (with appropriate attribution) because it depicts very well our evening at dinner.  Note our waiter and his supervising brother in the lower right corner.
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After dinner as we are returning to our bikes, “it” happens again.  Some fine, obviously discerning gentleman sees my DSC04633Victory Vision and develops a fawning interest, much to Gus’s chagrin.  I take my time - and more pleasure than I should - explaining all the benefits of this fine machine.  I may not get to use the computer as much as I would like, but my good friend has to put up with this as payback!!

The morning of the 20th and we sleep in a little then pack, load and plan for the day ahead as we fill time waiting to board.  First it is breakfast at a restaurant that serves real food, not just a coffee shop.  The food is unremarkable but filling.  As we leave the restaurant, we see a rain gear and sporting goods shop across the street and head over to investigate.  Perhaps we will find something that might be useful in Alaska. Lots of foul weather gear is available although most is too heavy or bulky for motorcycle travel.  I do find a Nordic-looking knit fishing cap that might be put to good use on the ferry but once I see myself in the mirror, I know it just isn’t me! 

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After leaving the store sans hat, we ride an exploratory route to the ferry port so we will know where to go and what to do this afternoon.  Time permitting, it is always useful to complete a dry run when you have to be somewhere at a specific time and have not been there before.  This was a good decision.
   

Chapter 12  

 

Alaska Marine Highway, Haines and Tok.


Departure time on the ferry to Haines, Alaska is scheduled for 1830 tonight, July 20th.  We will embark on the “Matanuska”, an older ferry in very good condition, she began service in 1963. The Matanuska carries 500 passengers, and provides 4 four-berth, 23 three-berth, and 81 two-berth cabins. The Matanuska is 408 feet long, with capacity for 88 vehicles (20' lengths), an unspecified number of motorcycles and has a service speed of 16.5 knots. Amenities include a cafeteria, gift shop, cocktail lounge, solarium and forward observation lounge. There is also a rear covered deck with radiant roof heaters where passengers can lay out sleeping bags and avoid having to pay for a cabin.
From the Alaska Marine Highway website: “The Inside Passage is a natural, protected waterway extending from the Queen Charlotte Island to Skagway, Alaska.  routes_se_map Bi-weekly departures from Prince Rupert, BC, provide ferry service to the communities of Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau, Haines, Skagway and Whittier.  Haines or Skagway provide access to the Alaska Highway.  (We will pick up the Alaska Highway to Fairbanks at Haines).  The driving distance from Haines to Fairbanks is 650 miles.”  

Unlike the “lower 48” many of the communities throughout Alaska are not accessible by a land based road system, thus the ferries of the AMHS are a necessary and large part of the transportation system to reach communities in Southeastern Alaska.

Our scheduled check in time is 1530.  On the way to the port, we stop at a local grocery store and buy some food items; fresh fruit, cheese, crackers, bottled water and some wine, the thought being that food aboard the ship will be costly and these snacks will serve to mitigate some of our hunger before we hit the ship’s galley.

About 1400 we arrive at the port.  All seems well organized.  The terminal building is a modern structure sitting in a huge parking lot.  Inside is a waiting room and a small ticket office. More importantly, inside the terminal is a very helpful young woman dressed in a uniform not unlike that of a park ranger.  She is not stunningly attractive on the outside, but her inner self is exceptionally beautiful.  Obviously she meets hundreds of people every week and gives and takes some joy from every encounter.  With rapid fire conversation and an impish smile she processes our boarding reservations and gives us directions of where to be when.  There are few cases in my memory of dealing with a bureaucrat (think DMV offices!) that left me smiling and satisfied with my service.  This person is a wonderful exception to that history!

DSCN0370In due time our ferry, the MV (motor vessel) Matanuska comes into view and slowly approaches the landing. When she is tied up, the huge loading bridge at the stern of the ship lowers, and the vehicles - including several large trucks - roll ashore, followed by the passengers.
Our Ferry, the "Matanuska"
While the ferry approaches, we are cleared through Customs (embarking at a Canadian port and disembarking at an American one) then moved through the queue to a motorcycle holding area off to the side of a large parking lot.  Along with us are perhaps another 7 or 8 bikes; we will all be staged in this area.  Since we are early (the ferry runs on Alaska time; we’re still on Pacific time so we’re even earlier than we thought) we will have an hour or two before we can board so begin visiting with the other bikers.

In simple understatement, this is a group of characters.  Sean (with a foot-wide handlebar mustache) and Pat, the Christian Cyclist couple we met yesterday at the auto parts store. Another husband and wife team riding individually (his and hers bikes) … she rides a Ridley, the only American made motorcycle with an automatic transmission.  A couple of beer-bellied guys who don’t converse very much.  A solo women rider who, I’m guessing, Solo lady traveler - Appears not to have shaken the shopping habitis in her early forties and from the look of all the stuff she has on her bike, does not have “traveling light” in her vocabulary.  Canvas bags, tarps, coolers, you name it… She is obviously an addicted shopper and just keeps adding to her caboodle.  And finally a pony-tailed, bearded hiker (yes, Hiker. Perhaps a “hiker-biker”?) with tattoos on every visible appendage who uses his bike to get from hiking spot to hiking spot all the while carrying a 5 foot walking stick tied across the back of his duffle like a skinny wing.  Characters all, lined up waiting to board. 

While waiting to board we watch two Bald Eagles apparently fighting while airborne. Eventually they literally “lock up” and begin falling with wings spread, looking almost like “Maple Keys”; the seeds of the Maple tree which fall spinning like the blades of a helicopter. Listening to several folks familiar with this behavior we learn that these are a mating pair of eagles and that they actually breed during this aerial dance. The afternoon sun is warm and after visiting with all these folks I wander over to a pallet of planks and lie down for a short nap in the sun.  Rex helps a trucker hook up a tandem fifth wheel to a trailer and Gus continues to visit.
Waiting at the ferry port continuesWaiting for motorcycle boarding       Rex supervises the trailer connection

Eventually we are signaled to move up to the boarding ramp and then pull up and in to the ferry.  The bikes are all maneuvered into two columns, side-by-side along the aft starboard bulkhead.  Deck hands pull a long chain alongside the left column and secure it with come-alongs.  Then, each of us, all the bikers, secure our bike to the bulkhead on one side and the chain on the other with tie-downs brought along for this purpose.  Whoever may need help gets it, without asking, from one or another of the rest of us… bikers tend to be a helpful group.

After unpacking, we head up to the passenger deck with all our gear, find the purser, are issued our cabin key and walk forward to our cabin.  DSC04648Seems like I’ve got more stuff than the lady with the coolers and tents as I make my way down the narrow passage to our cabin.  As I enter the cabin and try to remove the big bag from my back, the shoulder strap gets stuck on a pad in my jacket and in the struggle, lose my balance and fall over… right in front of Gus’s unforgiving tell-all camera! Oh well, I guess if you can’t be good, you can at least be colorful!!

The cabin is surprisingly roomy with four bunks (one was to have been Stu’s), a desk and a couple of chairs and a full head (bathroom to any land lubbers reading this).  Because we’re in the forward most cabin, there’s even a forward looking window that looks out over the bow.  We snack on some of the food we bought, an apple and cheese and crackers, then head up to the main deck to observe departure.
View from our cabin window
  There's nothing I can say about this picture!
The day remains warm and beautiful.  As we tour the several levels of ladders, walkways and generally familiarize ourselves with the ship, the sky overhead has patches of high clouds and plenty of blue sky and bright sun.  Eventually we make our way to the stern and observe the rest of the loading of vehicles.  The port is busy but clean and the water reflects brilliant sunlight off the dappled facets of tiny, wind created bowls on its surface.  We’re already fairly far north and less than a month after the summer solstice so the sun remains well above the horizon even though the time approaches our departure at 1830.

Most passengers are on the deck, watching all the goings-on. An interesting observation: at the stern on the upper deck is a covered (roof and three sides) lounge area with rest rooms at the back and probably thirty or so lounge chairs capable of fully reclining.  Throughout this area are back packs and sleeping bags . . . and mostly college aged folks.
Youth Hostel? This is where passengers who have not booked a cabin can seek shelter and sleep during the course of the trip. Although it is completely open to the elements where there is no aft bulkhead (sort of like a very large Adirondack shelter), there are radiant heaters suspended from the overhead making the area quite toasty despite what the actual outside temperature may be.

Rex, Gus and I all explore a bit independently. We haven’t even cast off yet and Gus is becoming bored. On the other hand, Rex is out and about talking with whoever gets in his path (no surprises here) and I, as always, am Mr. Curiosity, darting from deck to deck, talking with a few folks, taking pictures and watching deck hands prepare for departure.

It remains beautiful and clear and we watch as a Princess Cruise Line passenger ship (not a ferry) departs ahead of us. Eventually it is our turn . . . the ship’s horn makes three blasts, the Captain comes on the loudspeaker and advises we are departing then offers some idea of the course and ports we will traverse and finishes up with the obligatory safety remarks and concerns. We continue to stay on deck to watch the sail-away and pass a large cargo handling facility with huge cranes to load and unload containers from cargo ships.
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Eventually we make our way to the galley/wardroom and dine, cafeteria-style on burgers, fried chicken and standard easy-to-prepare cafeteria food. As we finish dining, we head back out onto the deck and observe, with some disappointment, the closing in of clouds and fog. This weather it turns out, will be with us for the entire voyage, and quite frankly dampens my excitement.
As the sun sets, the damp and cold envelope the ship and the wind picks up. It is no longer enjoyable to be out on the deck. Briefly we head into one of the ship’s lounges and order a cocktail . . . it will be our last because the cost is excessive.

Around 2200, all three of us head forward to our cabin and bunk down for the night. The racks are comfortable and the movement of the ship, despite the foul weather, is almost calming. I sleep well. Sometime around 2330 or midnight, I wake to the sense of slowing and previously unheard noises which signal our first stop: Ketchikan, Alaska. The stop is brief and we’re soon underway. I drift off into a comfortable and restful sleep.

In the morning we arise, head up to the wardroom for breakfast and observe once again that the weather is abysmal. About the only enjoyment on the voyage is the occasional stop at a port where we can head out on deck briefly to observe the communities in Alaska that are accessible only by watercraft or float plane via the “Inland Passage”. It is surely an interesting existence.
DSCN0400In Petersburg, we see twenty or thirty Bald Eagles sitting in groups in the surrounding fir trees. Occasionally one lifts off and flies by close aboard and swoops down to capture an unsuspecting fish. The eagles are beautiful in flight and I’ve never seen so many at one time. What I can see of the Inland Passage is beautiful. In many places the passage narrows to only several hundred yards with heavily forested and rocky banks, then at some point spreads out into almost open sea. We do see a few whales broaching off in the distance, but unfortunately so far away that photos are impossible. A cruise ship passes abeam heading south in the late afternoon and at some point we pass a rather large and curiously blue ice berg also drifting south.
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Nevertheless, boredom has certainly set in for the three of us.


We spend one more night in our comfortable cabin then suffer an early get up on the morning of July 22nd to disembark at Haines, Alaska. Although it is about 0400 when I awake, the morning light streams through our cabin window because of the long days here in the northern latitudes. We breakfast then pack up and head for the vehicle deck when cleared. I help the solo female traveler whose bike is parked beside mine unfasten the tie-downs (so I can get to my bike).

We load up, fire up and head forward for off-loading at the starboard side ramp. One of the deck hands warns us of the slick surface on the ramp and cautions us to keep moving. Good advice, as I suspect that were I to stop and put my foot down, it would probably slide out from under me. As we get up onto the concrete parking pad above the ramp, the slipperiness goes away and the bike is steadier. We stop briefly to allow our GPS’s to boot up and “find themselves.” Sean and Pat, the couple from the Christian Motorcycle Club ride past and wave a pleasant good bye.
While that is going on, one of the deck hands calls out to me and walks briefly up the ramp. I had dropped a glove (which I wasn’t wearing) during my climb up the ramp and he saw it fall, picked it up and brought it to me . . . Yet another nice guy.

We are in the Chilkoot Inlet and Gus leads us south out of the port on Lutak Road which parallels the shoreline and into the town of Haines. Haines is kind of a neat town, clean and quaint. The weather is finally lifting and I see several folks out walking their dogs and taking a morning jog. We apparently devote more time to sightseeing than we should, because Gus makes a wrong turn and, against the screaming of Jane, Rex and I follow. Of course, I can’t say anything because my headset is still not functioning. Eventually he realizes the error of his ways (Turns out Sue-Sue was screaming at him too) and gets us back on track.

We’re now on the AK 7, the Haines Highway going north towards the Canadian border. The road follows the Chilkat River bed which has been carved from some beautiful mountains on either side. Although the weather has improved, we are still unable to see or photograph the complete magnificence of the mountains. I have to say though, that I am excited. We are in Alaska, about to cross into the British Columbia and then into the Yukon, farther north than I have ever driven, let alone ridden a motorcycle; and I started in Florida!

About an hour up the road we come to the border crossing at Pleasant Camp, British Columbia. Just before heading up to the actual crossing point with the Canadian customs authorities we stop to dig out our passports. This is our first encounter with the legendary Alaskan mosquitoes and it is not pleasant! Gus is quicker on the draw with his mosquito net headgear and puts it on.It's a wonder the Canadian Border Patrol didn't think he was a terrorist! I think I’ll not bother inasmuch as we’ll have to remove it to show our faces to the border crossing agents and once we’re on our way again, our helmets and the wind from the speed at which we travel will prevent the little suckers from biting. Another thought crosses my mind; if the border agents are looking for terrorists, Gus looks more like Atallah Abubakar with that thing on his head than Rex or I do!  The crossing is quick, we exchange pleasantries with the female agent who is dressed in short sleeves and seems oblivious to the biting insects, then head up the Haines Highway through BC.


DSC04675About another 80 miles along we cross into the Yukon and pull over to document our arrival into the Yukon with photos next to the “Yukon–Larger than Life” sign. At this point, the Haines Highway adds the route identification “CA-3”. Our plan was to RON in the Yukon tonight along the ALCAN Highway at Beaver Creek. As we stop for a “butt break” and a drink, however, we hear from some other bikers that the road ahead is under construction a few miles past Beaver Creek and it is really slick from the construction crew’s dust control (spraying water on the dirt). The concern is that heavier rain is expected and if it comes tonight while we are staying there, the road may become treacherous if not even impassable by morning. Accordingly we decide to press on past Beaver Creek now and RON in Alaska at the village of Tok. It will add some length to our riding day, but in the long run it may save us time.

Pressing on, we come into the crossroads at Haines Junction. Here we swing left onto the Alaska Highway (or ALCAN) and the route number changes to CA-1. We stop at the Kluane Park Inn for lunch. After ordering, a group of four Bush Pilots come into the restaurant and sit at a table across from us. They too are riding motorcycles and are en-route to some annual Bush Pilot gathering nearby. I can’t tell if they enjoy flying or riding more. After lunch, we’re back on the road and eventually pass Kluane Lake. The water is incredibly clear and blue, yet has a “milkiness” about it. We think it may be heavily mineral-laden from the melting snows of winter bringing minute particles of the mountain’s rocky surface with it. The lake is huge, I’m thinking it must be at least thirty miles in length, and the road runs right along next to the shore making it almost flat. It also occurs to me that for such a beautiful lake there are almost no homes or cottages along its banks nor are there any boats trailing wakes of frothy water. Wonder why? Perhaps because winter here is long and severe making what is, during this season, beautiful and inviting, largely uninhabitable for seven or eight months of the rest of the year.

An hour or so after passing the north end of Kluane Lake, we descend into the town of Beaver Creek. Beaver Creek is home to the White River First Nations tribe of Indians and is the most westerly community in Canada. Locals consider it the Yukon’s gateway to Alaska. This was where we had planned on spending the night but altered our destination because of the advice we earlier received. It turns out the advice is valid. As we pass just out of town the road is very slick and the bikes wander and wobble on the edge of controllability as we traverse the construction area. Fortunately we all make it through without incident, and press on about one hundred miles further to Tok, Alaska.

Crossing the border back into Alaska was uneventful. Arriving at Tok was, at least for me, a milestone. We have been on the road for eighteen days, have logged 6,162 road miles thus far and are now in the main part of Alaska. I remain “pumped”! Tok is kind of a crossroads in Eastern Alaska. Located at the junction of The Alaska Highway and the Tok Cutoff to the Glenn Highway, it sits about 200 miles southeast of Fairbanks. It is called the “Gateway to Alaska” (seems like there are gateways to somewhere just about everywhere!) as it is the first major community after entering Alaska, 93 miles from the Canadian border. Its existence is based, in my observation, on travel; commercial truck traffic inbound from the lower forty-eight and summertime tourism with the inbound rush of RV’s. Originally founded as an Alaskan Road Commission camp (for construction workers building the Alaskan Highway) it remains largely a transportation hub of sorts due to its accessibility to both Anchorage and Fairbanks from the point where the two highways intersect.

There are a few businesses, mostly eateries and hotels, and some construction and “outdoor adventure” companies with their own necessary support industries such as the local ATV and Snowmobile dealer. It is the busy time of year so we are turned away at the first motel we try. Next stop is the Snowshoe Inn and Antique Store. Rooms available for about $30 apiece – right in our price range! Internet is not available so Skype is out for tonight. We drop our duffle and head down the street to the Grumpy Grizz Cafe for a quick, less than healthy, but filling meal. For me its pot roast and mashed potatoes.

Back at the motel we meet a couple of bikers riding a BMW and a VStrom, chat with them briefly and notice the rain that had been forecast is fast approaching; probably Beaver Creek has already been hit with it so once again we feel justified in passing the construction site and making it to here. Rex does his daily chore of retrieving a bucket of ice (he was never assigned this task – he just usually does it because he’s a nice guy), and we have a round of Blue Elixir before turning in. I should mention that I do not take my rain suit into the motel as insurance against the possibility of rain in the morning; apparently my recollection of traipsing out to my bike in a heavy early morning rain back in Glacier Park has not yet made a lasting impression.
DSC04699Early rise (as usual, Gus can’t sleep so when he’s ready, we are presumed to be ready!) and out into the rain for departure (after I retrieve my rain suit by getting drenched!). The two guys we met last night have elected to wait it out but we enjoy misery, so we’re off to the gas station next door for fuel and then hit the road. Fortunately, the skies clear abruptly, the rain stops and the sun shines brightly on our day. Gus and Rex tease me over the radio (remember, I can hear okay, just can’t transmit) about being the “Sunshine Boy” because I always expect it to be a nice day and so far have only been completely wrong once.

After an hour or so of riding, we stop in Delta Junction for breakfast. Just as we finish up and are leaving, our two friends from the motel show up, of course dry as a bone!


Back onto the bikes and an easy ride up to Fairbanks. Just outside of Fairbanks we pass Eielson Air Force Base and see a moose cow and her calf leisurely dining on the luscious grass along side of the road. DSC04704 These guys always concern me a little, not because of potential aggression, but because of their size. If one of them gets spooked and runs in front of me I am certain the moose will always win the encounter. We continue into town and have programmed the Northernmost Outpost into our GPS’s as our first destination, arriving just after noon. Recall that the Northernmost Outpost is a combination Harley, Honda and Victory Dealer with whom I exchanged e-mails back in May and who advised against riding the Haul Road. Gus and Rex need oil changes and I need to speak with the Victory guys about my CB radio.

This all becomes an adventure in itself. Once again, the technician is not sure of the problem and calls Victory corporate maintenance for a telephonic assist. After much discussion (and me interjecting comments to the local technician as he talked with Victory), I was advised that I needed a new headset jack on my bike. Of course they neither had the part nor the time this afternoon to help me and once again I was about to go down in defeat. To his credit, the technician suggested there was one possible solution; “You can try Radio Fairbanks. They’re a CB radio shop and all they do is sell and work on CB equipment.” After expressing my concern about a third party working on my still-under-warranty bike, he called Victory back and was assured that having Radio Fairbanks work on my bike would not void the warranty. “After all”, they said, “we can’t fix it!” So with an address and brief directions I was off to the other side of town to Radio Fairbanks.

They are housed in a rather non-descript building, kind of a metal warehouse-industrial looking place with a side door and few windows. I pull into the front parking lot and enter the building through what appears to be the customer entrance. A very pleasant lady greets me and I begin telling my tale of woe. She says, “Sid is in a meeting, but when he returns, he’s the guy who can help you.” Of course, I don’t know who “Sid” is but this sounds promising so I wait patiently. Eventually she suggests I run my bike around to the side of the building and just wait for Sid.

As I pull around, there’s an older gentleman wearing a red ball cap who, with friendly animation and a big smile, motions me up to the bay door. He says, “Go on inside, I’ll be with you in a minute”. Back to the nice lady who greeted me. In about a minute, she escorts me back to “Sid’s” office. There, in red ball cap and wearing the same welcoming smile sits Sid Childers, the owner and patriarch of Radio Fairbanks. Sid is probably in his late 70’s, thinly built and wearing the well worn facial lines and wrinkles of a man who has worked hard, lived a full life of many interests and experiences, and who I think, finds joy and fascination in almost any circumstance. He has a permanent smile and sparkling blue eyes and he loves motorcycles! His office is surrounded by pictures of airplanes. I see this as an opportunity to fall into his good graces; he loves motorcycles and is apparently a pilot. I ask, “Are you a pilot too?” “No”, he responds, “but everyone in Alaska loves airplanes! They are the life blood of our commerce.”

Getting down to my immediate needs I share with him the problem I am having with my radio and the events that led up to it no longer working. “Let’s bring it in the barn and take a look.” For the next two hours Sid gives me the indoor shop space to tear down my bike, let me use any tool in his well stocked rack of tools; “Just put’m back where you found ‘em!”, and offers his two technicians at my disposal to answer any questions as I trouble-shoot the system. Try as I might, I am getting nowhere and Sid comes back to the shop and jumps in to help. He puts test equipment I have never seen on the radio and antennae, gives me a spray can of alcohol to spray and “dry up” any water that may have been in the connections and he’s just a pleasure to work with. Eventually, he comes to the same conclusion as I am beginning to have. The problem is in the helmet headset/microphone and not the radio itself. Now the problem is that Radio Fairbanks doesn’t sell Victory compatible headsets . . . aarrggghhhh! So I put everything back together and just then, Gus calls to let me know they are done at the Outpost. I tell him I will be leaving shortly and should be back within half an hour.

clip_image002Now I go back in to Sid’s office to settle up. I have no idea what this is going to cost me, but it probably won’t be cheap. “How much do I owe you, Sid?” I ask. “Nothing!” he responds. “We didn’t fix anything, didn’t use any parts and the bay was empty anyway.” “Besides”, he says, “we had a good time visiting.” Amazing! What a wonderful gentleman. This is yet another case of the restoration of my sense of the greater good of mankind. I will be forever grateful to this gentle, enthusiastic purveyor of goodwill. If any reader happens to be in Fairbanks, please stop by and meet Sid. You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

Chapter 13 

 

Fairbanks and the Arctic Circle.


I head back over to the Outpost to pick up Rex and Gus so we can find a place to stay for the night. While they were waiting, a number of characters (and I do mean characters) rode in for any number of reasons on their various motorcycles. As they rode in, it was evident by the caked mud and the hard ridden look of the bikes that a few had ridden at least part way up the Dalton Haul Road. Rex and Gus, never shy of a new conversation, started asking these guys about their travels. As the stories unfolded, it began to sound as though the treachery of the trip was, perhaps, a little over-stated. Most felt that as long as the road was not wet, it was quite passable even for road bikes such as our Gold Wings and Victory. Yes there were patches of loose gravel and certainly some big rocks and big trucks, but if we were exercising caution, most felt we could easily make the Arctic Circle. Prudhoe Bay was another story because it would necessarily be a two day trip and weather forecasting even two days out would be difficult in that vast area. We decided we’d find a place to RON and discuss the possibility of heading up the Haul Road amongst ourselves.

Recall the solo traveler and big-time snorer Gus and I met in Glacier Park. He had advised us to look into staying in the dormitory at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. We programmed the University into Sue-Sue and Jane and headed in that direction. After a couple of stops on the campus to ask where the dorm office was we finally settle in the parking lot in front of Bartlett Hall; obviously the right choice because there are several motorcycles parked here. In we go and meet a very efficient and sweet co-ed who tells us that rooms are, in fact, available and the cost will be about $23 each per night. We’re a little concerned that there are no heads in the rooms but rather, we will have to use a community head containing toilets, sinks and showers. Modesty is not the concern . . . we’re all in our sixties and the ravages of time on our prostates and bladders means that a visit or two to the rest room at night is not uncommon. She assures us she can provide rooms right across the hall from the
head, so problem solved.

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As long as I’m talking about bathroom procedures, I will add a short diversion here about our protocol on this trip. We’re guys. We pee standing up. We wake up in the middle of the night to pee. At the outset of the journey we discussed and agreed that we would leave the bathroom light on at night as kind of a night light, a “beacon to the porcelain throne” if you will, and would close the door so only a crack of light would interrupt the darkness of the room. Further, we (mostly Gus) decided that it would be appropriate to leave the seat up! Yes! I said it! We left the seat up all night, every night because there were no women to whom we needed to answer!
 
Dinner tonight is at a Thai restaurant a short hop from the campus. The food is okay, the décor tacky in an Asian sort of way, but we have a good time. The place is full of college-aged men and women and we smile at each other as we observe the ancient art of courting among twenty-somethings; men brashly embellishing their accomplishments as women coyly bare a neck and shoulder and look wantonly over the top of their drink feigning interest in the escapades of these worldly college men. Things never change!

We head back to the dorm after dinner stopping at a convenience store to obtain a few plastic cups. The dorm is not, after all, a hotel and they have no cups in the room for us to use to enjoy our nightly elixir (which we’re not supposed to have in the dorm anyway). We quietly and unobtrusively break that rule and begin a serious discussion about tomorrow. Do we want to try the Haul Road? All concerns point to whether or not the road is wet. There has been no rain in either Fairbanks or Yukon Station over the past two days. Yukon Station is about half way to the Circle from Fairbanks and we will stop there for gas. At Yukon Station we can expect to meet Haul Road Truckers eating and taking a break, and our intel says that they will be happy to give us a current update on the road conditions of the day north of the Yukon. The plan is hatched.

We will arise early (and it will already be light because there are only about two hours of a twilight sort of darkness up here this time of year) and do a final check of the weather. If it appears that rain is not imminent, we will mount up and head north toward the Arctic Circle and at least ride a few miles of the Haul Road to “test it out”; to see if we think we can be comfortable riding it for 140 miles or so one way.

July 24, 2010. Saturday. I awake at about 0500 to find Gus rummaging and fidgeting as he patiently (?) awaits Rex and my awakening. No telling how much or how little sleep he has had. I ask about the weather. “Maybe not so good. It rained last night.” Reluctantly I climb out of bed and over to the open window. It is definitely wet outside, but there are reassuring patches of blue sky in the northern horizon. Being the “Sunshine Boy”, I am optimistic that the rain is over and hopefully, the haul road is only slightly wet and will have a chance to mostly dry out by the time we actually get onto it. I tell Gus, “My vote is a go. At least up to the haul road and then we’ll evaluate and make a decision.” He agrees and about this time Rex pops his head into the room and we tell him what we want to do. He had already made up his mind that that course of action was best.

At 0630 we pull out of the parking lot and head up State Highway 2. We have smaller loads on our bikes than on our other days of travel. This is supposed to be a round trip and we don’t need seven days worth of clothing. I have only my small roll bag containing my rain suit and cold weather gear. My sleeping bag and air mattress are in the Vision’s trunk should something happen that will require an overnight. Of course, I still carry all my tools, tire repair kit and siphon hose in one of my saddle bags. Eventually we make it to the intersection of Highway 2 and the James W. Dalton Haul Road.

At this point, about 70 miles north of Fairbanks, we stop and discuss continuing. Do we make the left turn and head up the road or do we turn around. Weather is good, only patchy clouds and a warm sun. Consensus is to press on. I use this brief stop to pull the “North to Alaska” stickers off my bike that Gus had put on before we left Aiken. We are after all in Alaska and they are starting to look a little
worn from the weather.


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Initially we continue on pavement. I am leading and soon enough, a very light and brief rain shower passes. Just as it finishes, we run out of pavement and start riding on dirt. The road is not very wet and at least in this part, is not slick. Our spacing opens up so that we can each focus on our own riding without worrying about formation riding. After about fifteen minutes, the road begins to get rough and there is a substantial amount of loose gravel. This gravel requires all of our attention because in such conditions, a motorcycle wanders and fish-tails and to stay upright the rider must maintain constant forward speed and be cautious on the use of the throttle. One over-zealous burst of throttle can throw the bike sideways and result in loss of control.

Since I am about a half mile ahead of Rex, and Gus is behind him, I pull over and wait for them to catch up so we can discuss whether or not to continue (this is one place where I really wish I had my CB radio working). We all agree that this is tough going but passable so we will continue. From here on, the road condition has all sorts of changes; mostly for the better. The loose gravel gives way to hard packed dirt, slick where wet, but those are only in small patches.

Overall, the ride is much less arduous than I had anticipated and my thoughts turn to the countryside and terrain. We can see the Aleyska Pipeline (the 800-mile-long Trans Alaska Pipeline System which runs from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez) looming into view as we get closer to the Yukon River. The Boreal Forest has given way to mostly scrub brush and thinly branched and relatively short and slow-growing Black Spruce, White Spruce and Tamarack trees. You can see long distances because of the rise and fall of the terrain and the fact that the foliage, such as it is, is sparse and low lying. The road and pipeline are the only indication that man has been here and there is certainly a sense of isolation. Accept for the three of us and the occasional truck, there is no sign of man out here. I am almost transfixed by the mixed senses of beauty and desolation. It is beautiful and vast.

Around 1030 we cross the Yukon River on a long plank-surfaced suspension bridge and arrive at the Yukon River Camp. The pipeline is suspended from the bridge and makes its crossing here as well.


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The bridge is the only crossing of the Yukon River anywhere in Alaska, and the Camp is a decidedly unspectacular motel, restaurant and gas station. If you should happen to want to stay overnight in the motel (which appears to be a series of interconnected mobile home like buildings), you can expect to pay $199.00! The restaurant is the focal point, handling gas transactions and serving traditional, although basic, meals. Rex and I opt for the healthy (well, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration) breakfast full of carbs and fat.

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I can’t remember what Gus had but if there were grits available, he had them. At a table across from us is a very loud-mouthed patron willingly bragging about everything to anyone polite enough not to tell him to shut up. I’ll just leave it at “annoying”.

The most dangerous event on the Haul Road; oncoming trucksDSCN0459 After breakfast we fuel up and head on up the road. Gus is in the lead and the weather, if anything, has improved and it looks as though we’ll have sunny, dry travels the rest of the way. I mentioned trucks a few lines back. The one thing we have been warned about and the one thing over which we have almost the least control, is the passing of huge haul trucks which service the pipeline.  They are not purposefully aggressive, but there is no question that they maintain their  superiority of purpose over all other modes of transportation on the road. They pass fast, give little quarter and kick up mountainous clouds of dust and big rocks. We know they are our ally if we are in trouble, but beyond that, we don’t count for much.

Eventually we make it to milepost 115, the turn off for the Arctic Circle site.

It is 1213 on July 24th, 2010 and we have made it! The site is not much. A small drive takes us up to a parking spot and the sign signifying that this is indeed the Arctic Circle. Behind the sign is a deck of sorts with some standard U.S. Park Service photos and stories which we all peruse. I feel a real sense of accomplishment knowing how far we’ve come from Florida, on a motorcycle, and how few people have actually been to this National Landmark. We park the bikes and start taking pictures. There is a crew comprised of 3 young college-aged people, two women and a man, eating their lunch off the back of a pickup truck. As one of us always does, I strike up a conversation with them. They are on a biological survey crew of some kind and spend much of their summer out here documenting flora and fauna and man’s intrusion. The cutest girl offers to take a couple pictures of the three of us together and does so. We linger about fifteen minutes then mount up and head south. Fairbanks and our dorm room is now about 190 miles away and thus, we have miles to go before we sleep.

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On the way back we move a little faster – our confidence in what to expect has increased because we have traveled this road only hours earlier on the way up. At some point where the pipeline is close to the road, we pull over to get a couple photographs. The pipeline was built in the 1970’s after oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay. It is 48 inches in diameter, insulated and covered with a special material to ward off corrosion. The pipeline accounts for roughly 20% of all U.S. oil production annually. Much of it is buried where the ground is well drained gravel or solid rock and thawing is no problem. Wherever the warm oil would cause thawing of the icy soil (which would cause sinking or heaving) the pipeline sits on top of above-ground supports (78,000 in total over its entire length) spaced about 60 feet apart. Despite all the environmental concerns, the pipeline is raised high enough off the ground that no animal native to Alaska could reach it let alone be slowed by it. Except for its visual presence, and that of the road along side, I can see no valid concern for any infringement of migrating animals or melting tundra.


  clip_image028clip_image030 A short section of pavement on the Haul Road

There are a couple of paved sections on the Haul Road and they are surprisingly smooth although in some places there are heaves sufficient to cause “whoop-de-doos!” At some point Rex and I pull onto the pavement after leaving the gravel part of the road and accelerate. Gus, who’s bringing up the rear, falls well behind. That concerns me because he is hardly ever at the rear and when he is, he’s close aboard. I have completely lost site of him so signal Rex to pull over. He does and then shouts out over the CB to find out if Gus has a problem. Gus’s response is that no, he does not, but he’s simply not going to ride as fast as we have been. I am surprised at this and find out later, at our next rest stop, that he accelerated just as we did, but hit one of those whoop-de-doos incorrectly and was almost thrown completely off his bike! We are reminded that we can never lose focus, no matter how confident we feel.

A quick gas stop back at the Yukon River Camp and then an uneventful trip the rest of the way back to Fairbanks; with appropriate regard and respect for road conditions. Back in Fairbanks we decide to get something to eat before going back to the dorm. Although we usually eat inexpensively, we decide tonight is a cause for celebration and pull into a Chili’s. As usual, right after we are seated, both Rex and I realize we have left our glasses outside on our bikes and are perfectly helpless to read the menu without them.clip_image032 Since this is a regular occurrence and we have apparently embarrassed him yet again, Gus berates us (in jest) and accuses me of being vain.  Vain!?  I just don’t like having to wear them.

Remembering a trick taught me by a Flight Surgeon a few years back, I show Rex how one can squeeze their hand into a tight cone with the small end of the cone being by their little finger. If the aperture (or hole at the end of the cone) is small enough and you look through the cone, all the light is focused through that little hole and your retina opens up to adjust for the low light – and you can actually read, albeit only one or two letters at a time! Rex tried it and it worked . . . and our insensitive travel companion took a picture that makes Rex look more like he’s crying than reading!

clip_image034After a light dinner of steak and mashed potatoes followed by a low calorie (well . . . maybe not so low!) dessert (shared by all) we head back to the dorm, do a little laundry and hit the sack satisfied in the knowledge that we really did accomplish something special today.

The next morning we arise (early again; is anyone surprised?). We do have one casualty. Gus simply could not sleep last night. I don’t know what the problem was – his bouts of Restless Leg Syndrome, excitement over the day or, perhaps my snoring - but he simply could not sleep. Finally, around 0300, he got up, got dressed and looked for someplace to quietly use his computer and get a bite to eat. He said he found a Denny’s, it was full of college kids and noisy, but he could at least read and surf the net. I think he came back to the dorm around 0600 inasmuch as I have just finished my shower and am packing when he enters the room. He looks terrible! He takes a shower and cleans up, finishes packing and begins to look like he’ll survive. We carry everything down to the lobby, express our gratitude to the dormitory staff and load the bikes. It has been a memorable couple of days. Today our goal is to ride approximately 175 miles to the vicinity of Denali National Park.  Our reservations for the "Kantishna Experience", the guided all day bus excursion through the park, are for tomorrow.

DSC04760As we leave the university, we take a short side trip to the City of North Pole, Alaska just on the outskirts of Fairbanks.  Its biggest attraction is a gift shop named Santa Claus House, the modern-day incarnation of a trading post established in the town's early days.  The Santa Claus House is known for the world's largest fiberglass statue of Santa Claus outside.  Prior to Christmas each year, the US Post office in North Pole receives hundreds of thousands of letters to Santa Claus, and thousands more from people wanting the town's postmark on their Christmas cards to be sent to friends and family. By the way, the City of North Pole is actually somewhere around 1700 miles south of the earth's real North Pole.

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After a few photos, (and Gus hands ol’ Santa his Christmas wish list) we’re back on the road and the morning sun is high overhead (remember, the sun has been up a looong time by now) and the sky a remarkable blue with very lightly scattered high cirrus clouds. Our route is down Alaska’s Highway 3, The George Parks Highway. The road is well maintained and runs from Fairbanks to Anchorage through some of the most magnificent terrain I have ever seen. Initially, we follow a ridge that is about 1100 feet msl with the broad river bed of the Tanana River out to our left and some 500 feet below. Our ability to see much of the countryside is often obstructed by large patches of Dwarfed White Spruce and other foliage on each side of the road. Every now and then the forests give way to a quick view and off in the distance we can see a number of mountains. Mt. Hayes is 100 or so miles away and is clearly visible under the brilliant blue sky rising to 13, 600 feet. I am hoping that at some time along this route today I will capture a clear look at Mt. Mckinley.

Riding in trail, I’m number three in our line. Eventually, we ascend a sweeping right hand turn in the wide road and as we crest the top, the road switches into a broad left hand turn before beginning its descent into the valley floor below. At this point, my wish for the ultimate “Alaska experience” comes true. The trees suddenly give way to a magnificent view . . . a view that flashes so quickly into sight and then drops away again that it almost seems as though it didn’t happen. It did though and it takes my breath away. Unconsciously I say out loud to myself, “Wow”. What I am seeing is almost beyond words. Off to my left I can see across the valley floor, 500 or 600 feet below us, with perfect clarity for over 100 miles. There are streams winding and crossing one another like wisps of braided hair, stretching across the glacial plain. Small changes in color and texture present changes from glacial till to mountain uplands and distant snow-capped peaks. It is Mother Earth, dressed in her finest damask and taffeta, her face peering coyly from beneath a blanket of blue sky and golden sun. And, at the same time, rising majestically off to my right are the snow covered slopes of Mt. McKinley with its 20,320 foot summit disappearing into thick and brilliantly white, almost silver, orographic clouds formed protectively around its pinnacle. The feeling is euphoric. For some reason, perhaps because we are high above the valley floor, I am reminded of the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee Jr.:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.


 
I’m not alone in this feeling. Both Rex and Gus exclaim their surprise and awe transmitting over their CB’s as the vision disappears. In hindsight, I’m not sure why we didn’t turn around and go back to where we first were surprised by the view and take some pictures . . . I think nobody wanted to be the one to suggest it. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more perfect view and I am reminded yet again that I am but a speck on this big blue marble we call planet earth. Incredible! I shall remember this until the end of days.
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Crossing the Wood River (tributary of the Yukon River) into Nenana, AKDSC04771As we descend onto the valley floor, we reach the confluence of the Tanana and Nenana Rivers and cross the Alaska Native Veterans’ Honor Bridge. As soon as we cross the river, our views become limited to close aboard the road once again as there are miles of dwarfed and spindly White and Black Spruce growing right up to the shoulder. A couple miles further we encounter yet another construction delay, waiting for nearly a half an hour for the crews to let us pass. The time is well-spent because we strike up a conversation with a couple, summer-time Alaska residents, traveling in their motor home. Nice folks.

About 20 miles or so from the Denali Park entrance, we stop for gas. Gus gets on the phone and starts calling motels nearby for us to find a place to stay both tonight and tomorrow night recognizing that our tour tomorrow will start early and last until very late afternoon. He doesn’t have much luck. It is tourist season and every place we call is sold out. Eventually he is directed to a place closer to the park that does have reservations available so we decide to go check it out.

The wind has picked up to 25 or 30 knots and has occasional gusts exceeding even that. As we pull up to the entry back onto the highway, there is a lot of gravel and loose stones on the driveway. Remember what I said about loose surface and sliding feet? Well just as I stop and try to put my foot down, a huge gust of wind broadsides me and in trying to stabilize my bike, my foot slides on the loose gravel and over we go! No injury to either me or my bike (nor to my ego since Gus had already pulled out and didn’t see it happen). Rex, ever the Golden Retriever, is right next to me so puts his kickstand down and comes over to help me lift my bike. Damn! I hate when this happens.

DSC04776Back in the saddle and on the road we ride to Healy, Alaska. There we check out (and ultimately, in to) the Denali Park Hotel. Kind of a cool place, it offers lodging just 10 miles north of Denali Park with surprisingly nice accommodations. The hotel has on its premises three railroad cars. One of these is a 1943 historic World War II troop carrying car and serves as their lobby. The very nice lady at the front desk helps us by telling us about a relatively decent place to eat right down the street.
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We saddle up and head to Rose’s Café for lunch. It is surprisingly busy with bikers, tourists and college kids and the food is “down home” cooking. “Rose” provides a decent meal at the right price. There is one fellow at a table across from us who astutely picks up from our attire that we are riding motorcycles and comes over to interject himself into our conversation. Turns out he is a solo biker traveling form California and, as we have discovered elsewhere, solo bikers are always looking for company.

He turns out to be a bit of an “odd duck” (maybe that’s why he was traveling alone) but we make polite conversation with him for a half hour or so then head down the road and go past our motel with the intent of checking out the time and distance to the entrance to Denali National Park. We have made a substantial investment in the purchase of our tickets for the “Kantishna Experience” bus tour tomorrow and want to be sure we know where we’re going and how long it will take to get there.

It is a nice ride and we’re actually closer than we thought. As we near the park entrance, we pass a freight train with probably over 100 cars in tow high up on our right crossing a fairly long trestle. The air is clear enough and the train far enough away that it almost looks like an HO scale model as it moves along. The trestle is there to provide a crossing of a fairly deep tributary feeding into a canyon through which a river runs. We come to a long bridge parallel to the track which crosses the same canyon. There are warning signs cautioning about high and turbulent winds and a wind sock to help signal what those winds are doing. As we cross the bridge it becomes obvious why the warnings are posted . . . the wind just whistles down that canyon, buffeting us as we go and we consciously lean the bikes into the wind to keep them going straight. It is not a comfortable feeling being on the edge of control. Once we arrive at the park, we snap a picture to document our arrival and then head back
to the motel.  
  
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It is still early in the afternoon so I go out to clean some of the road grime off my windshield. As the reader will recall, I am not fond of wearing my glasses; particularly since having left my bifocals in the hotel in Banff and now being equipped with only reading glasses which allow me to see out to about a foot-and-a-half and not beyond. Well, at some point while working on my bike, I take them off and set them on the seat. Bad plan. Unbeknownst to me they slip off onto the gravel and I step on them. Another pair of glasses shot! The lenses are fine and the frame is not broken but one of the screws holding the lens in place popped out. A tiny screw buried in loose pea-gravel about 6 inches deep. I can’t find it anywhere. Not one to give up or, for that matter to have to look at me with duct tape all over my glasses, Gus sets about finding a solution. He calls the front desk and asks if they have any wire. The lady doesn’t know, but her husband does some routine maintenance at a nearby camping trailer park and maybe he has some.

Gus goes to the office and meets the lady who walks with him through a stand of trees to the park to meet her husband. She asks her husband to give Gus whatever he needs and heads back to her office. Husband takes Gus into what could loosely be defined as a shop and finds an old electrical cord, cuts off a piece and gives it to Gus. Back at the room, Gus strips off the insulation, separates three or four strands of very fine copper wire from the bundle, twists them into a kind of copper cable and threads the cable through the hole that once held the screw. He then twists the ends tightly together and snips off the excess. A perfect fix and one that, if I remember to carry the glasses into the restaurants, I can once again read the menu!

As evening approaches, we decide to “eat in”. Lunch was good and we’re not terribly hungry but we know that we should eat something to tie us over until breakfast. We had seen a “Subway” as we passed through Healy on our way back from the park entrance so Gus volunteers to ride the 8 or 10 miles back into town to buy dinner. During his absence, I sort out what it is I’ll be taking on the tour tomorrow (for me it is a warm jacket and rain gear). The additional mileage that Gus puts on his bike while running this errand will become food for yet another story in the next couple of days . . . 

 

Chapter 14  

 

Denali Park, Anchorage, Homer and Seward.


July 26th. Up and out of the motel by 0600. We know we’re supposed to get a lunch of some type on the tour, but want to have a hearty breakfast before arriving at the park because we anticipate a long day and are uncertain about the quantity of lunch provided. It is early and not many places are open but we pass the Subway Sandwich shop where Gus purchased last night’s dinner. It appears to have quite a lot of activity so we check it out. (Until right now, I did not know Subway served breakfast). We grab a couple egg sandwiches, coffee and juice, eat quickly and are again on our way. There have been a couple passing light rain showers and the sky is mostly overcast. I am doing my best “Sunshine Boy” voodoo because we really want a nice day for this once-in-a-lifetime tour.

Checking in for our 0700 departure, we’re herded into a line while we wait for the bus to arrive. Shortly thereafter the bus pulls up and out steps George, our “Certified Interpretive Guide” (and bus driver). George has a great personality, tells us where the food is and we all board, pick up our box lunch and find a seat. I have to laugh because in the tour’s description they indicate that we will also have a “Real live certified Interpretive U.S. Park Ranger”; as though they are some rare or endangered species! It sounded so special . . . sort of like if we were taking a bus tour of Washington, DC and being told we would have a “Real live former president!” Anyway, I thought it sounded funny. By the way, George was not the Park Ranger; the Ranger will join us up the road a bit.
Denali National Park encompasses a huge land mass. Within the park’s borders are almost six million acres of tundra, streams and rivers, mountains and glaciers. The park covers 9,419 square miles. The “Kantishna Experience” is a twelve to thirteen hour bus trip to “the end of the road” in Denali National Park. It is 92 miles one way into the heart of the park which includes a stop at the historic cabin of Fannie Quigley, an infamous Kantishna resident who settled in the area during its Gold Rush days in the early 1900’s and remained there until her death in 1944. That part of the tour will also have a US Park Ranger to interpret and tell the story of the Gold Rush experience and the settlers that came to the area. (I am assuming that Ranger will also be a real live and certified one!)


 


Just a little after 0730 we start out on the Tour with George beginning a full day of driving and narrating. The bus is nearly full of eager tourists anticipating a special and unique day. About six miles up the road, the pavement ends and we begin our 92 mile journey through the park on a well-maintained gravel road . . . not without a first stop at a Ranger Station, its purpose being to ensure only authorized vehicles pass this point. Our first “Interpretive Ranger” boards, welcomes us and gives us a few instructions and rules about being in the park. He then steps off the bus and heads back into his Station. Not much interpretation was provided at this point!
Off we go again and I think at this point I will summarize:

The day was a little less spectacular than I had hoped. The two highlights of the trip for me were George, who really knew his history, geology, flora and fauna about the park, and the visit to the Fannie Quigley cabin at the far end of the park road. Other than that, the bus was a little stuffy and visibility was somewhat limited (think about how well you can see out of a school bus). The park is indeed vast, and there are quite a few spectacular views. Having said that, there were also long boring periods where we just seemed to ride and ride along. Because of the brutal and long winters, much of the terrain is covered in scrub brush which does not provide a great deal of nourishment for the few species of animals that have adapted to this rugged environment. 
As I mentioned, the park is about 6 million acres in size, but wildlife is not abundant and have thousands of square miles of terrain in which to hide. Consequently, we didn’t see much wildlife and that which we did see was often hundreds or even thousands of yards away. To his credit, George was able to help us get at least a glimpse of: a Lynx, a couple of Gray Wolves, a herd of Dall sheep, a couple of Moose and Caribou and a Brown Bear with a small black cub. He also talked quite extensively about glaciers (the one we saw clearly was covered with silt and vegetation –tundra- so we could see its outline but not the actual ice of the glacier). 
My biggest disappointment was that the sky never truly cleared sufficiently to see Mt. McKinley other than the slopes at its base. One interesting geological phenomena George discussed were the many “Braided Rivers in Unsuitable Beds” resident in the park. Glacial processes produce high discharges and large volumes of sediment which make the valley floors relatively flat. Rivers respond by developing a braided river pattern. Braided rivers contain multiple channels separated by bars and islands and criss-cross each other with no apparent or stable channel. Unsuitable beds simply mean that the glacial till and sediment are constantly eroding and piling, moving if you will, which in turn, cause the courses of the rivers to constantly change.
Finally, I will point out that we did in fact have a “real live certified interpretive U. S. Park Ranger” join us as we approached the end of the road. She was a hoot to listen to and had a real understanding of life during the Gold Rush days and the history of Fannie Quigley and her cabin . . . a real wild west legendary character. The Ranger was fascinating and knowledgeable.
 
Certainly the park visit was not quite as I anticipated although I’m glad we did it. Chalk it up to “complete”; I wouldn’t care to do it again. Around 1900 we arrived back at the Visitor’s Center, disembarked and walked over to our bikes for the quick trip back to the motel.

Morning, July 27th, 2011. Awake early and saddle up quickly. Gus has a gift certificate for the “Berry Patch”, a Bed & Breakfast in Homer, Alaska. My cousin Rhonda raves about Homer and says it is a “must see” destination in Alaska. A couple days ago Gus called the Berry Patch and made tentative reservations for the three of us for tonight. Last night, he called again and confirmed, and because of the gift certificate, the price is right. Homer, a place noted as a quaint fishing town with a lengthy spit extending out into Kachemak Bay across from rugged and glacially dressed mountains, is a long way from here. Our MapSource route shows it to be about 515 road miles and we will pass through the city of Anchorage on the way.

As we depart (without breakfast) and head south again along the George Parks Highway, the temperature and dew point are close together and we encounter mist and dense fog as we ride along. The road is relatively flat and the dwarf White and Black Spruce we have grown accustomed to continues to form a sort of vegetation canyon through which the road runs. It is cool and I have my heated jacket liner on at its lowest temperature setting. After an hour or so it begins to warm and the morning sun slowly burns away the fog. As is our custom, the first person whose fuel gage indicates a half tank of fuel remaining calls out that it is time to start looking for gas. That would be Gus. Recall that because of his trip to the Subway for sandwiches the night before last, he has used about 30 or so miles more of the fuel in his tank since last filling up than have Rex or I. Typically, my Victory gets about 285 miles per fill-up while Rex and Gus can get around 250 miles. Our tanks are the same size, but I average just a little more in miles per gallon. So, Gus queries Sue-Sue on the nearest gas station and a few miles further up the road pulls in for fuel. There is no restaurant or even a snack bar at this place and we’re starting to reach a “low food light” in addition to our need for gas.

Rex suggests we not stop and continue down the road to a gas station with a restaurant. Forgetting for a brief instant that gas stations are few and far between here in Alaska, we all agree to continue. After another 30 miles or so, Gus begins to chatter a little more frequently over the CB. He is becoming very concerned about his fuel status. He has queried Sue-Sue for directions to the next gas station and she responds that it is about 90 miles further up the road! Gus says he thinks he’s only good for about 70 miles at best, even with having slowed to a speed right on the speed limit to conserve gas. Rex and he discuss options (remember, I still am unable to transmit on my CB so am resigned to listen) and none are really pretty. Among us, we have a couple siphon hoses, but Rex and I aren’t all that fat on gas. If Gus runs out, we could off-load gear from one of our bikes and ride two-up to the next gas station, get gas and return. That is chancy because we are, after all, out in the middle of the wilderness. Somebody could come along and steal our stuff, or worse, damage or steal parts from Gus’s Gold Wing. Gus could camp there while we went to get gas for him, but if alone along the side of the road, who knows what evil may befall him. Suddenly, with his “Low Fuel” warning light blaring brilliantly in his face, a gas station pops into view just ahead on the left! Whew!

Of note here is that GPS’s have a lot of data, but not all data. I believe businesses that are shown in the Garmin data base have probably paid some fee to be included in the data base. So, on occasion a restaurant, gas station, hotel, etc. will appear along the side of the road that has not paid for this “advertising” and is therefore, not shown on the GPS. Good news in this case!
 
Well, some days are diamonds and some days are coal! A very pleasant lady sticks her head out the door of the building to report there is a power outage in this area. It has been out for several hours. They don’t know when it will come back on and, you guessed it, the gas pumps run on electricity! No power – no pump – no petrol! Skunked! I can see Gus sucking back in all the air he expelled when he breathed his sigh of relief just a minute ago. Not to worry though, this lady turns out to be the diamond after all. She tells us there’s another station just a little further up the road. “Great” I exclaim, then cleverly ask, “How much farther?” (Distances in this part of the world are not measured quite like they are in the lower forty-eight . . .) She says only about a half mile up on the left. Okay; good, again. “Is their area out of power too?” “Probably, but since power outages occur frequently in these parts, they have installed a generator to power their gas pumps.” . . . “and their restaurant!” Thanking her profusely, we mount up, head up the road and sure enough, life is good!!

At mile 114.8 on the Parks Highway we find the Trapper Creek Inn and RV Park and the lights are on. Of interest to me, the village of Talkeetna is right across the river from Trapper Creek. Years ago I read a book by Don Sheldon, a historic legend from Talkeetna who was an Alaskan Bush Pilot. The book, “Wager With the Wind” was awesome and made so even more by being non-fiction. It was a tale of incredible hardiness, innovation and aerial skill. A friend of mine in the Marine Corps knew Sheldon from trips to Alaska and had the book personally autographed for me.

After gassing up we pull into the parking lot in front of the restaurant/office, park the bikes and go inside to see if they have something to eat. This time we’ve hit a home run! The place is a combination gas station and travel trailer and RV park with a small convenience store, fresh-made sandwiches and hot breakfast. I order biscuits and sausage gravy (yogurt is not in great demand in Alaska) and find a table. The cook calls out our order number and we go to the counter, pick up our breakfasts and return to the table to discuss the reversal of our misfortune. The only downside to this repast and respite from the road is the presence of some very loud guy sitting at a nearby table. My guess is that he is of middle-eastern descent (he’s speaking a language that I do not recognize) and frankly, his sound and appearance look remarkably out of place here in Alaska. (I am ashamed to admit that the word “Terrorist” comes to mind; foolishly. This is Alaska and not a hub of mass population). He has a laptop out in front of him and is chatting away with someone on Skype oblivious to those around him as well as to the volume of his rather heated discussion. I fail to understand the boorish behavior of so many folks these days when it comes to cell phones, computers and their use in public places. Personally I am very self-conscious if I get a call that I feel is necessary to answer in a public place and either don’t answer and call back or, at a minimum, answer as I am walking toward the door so I can take it outside. On a positive note, I guess the fact that this generator powered oasis with gasoline has WiFi for their customers is a blessing in such a remote part of the world. We’re not using it though so we don’t much care for Mr. Loudmouth. We’ve heard enough. Let’s hit the road!

Full bellies and gas tanks, it is now 118 miles to Anchorage. While we were eating, we discussed the continuing saga of my CB/headset problem. Rex and Gus are familiar with a couple brands of headsets/microphones. One in particular, J&M, is a high end company making sets for all types of motorcycles. They know that most Honda Dealers carry J&M equipment. Perhaps when we get to Anchorage we could find a Honda Dealer and see if they have one with a plug to fit a Victory. Sue-Sue and Jane are tasked to search for a Honda Motorcycle dealer in Anchorage. Honda must pay Garmin because in about 30 seconds they come up with the location of the Alaska Cycle Center. Gus and I both tap “Go” on the GPS’s and we’re back on the Parks Highway headed South. The rest of the trip to Anchorage is uneventful and we pull into the Honda Dealer around noon. No joy. They have a few headsets, but all are wired for Honda’s plug receptacle and not Victory. The guy behind the counter is helpful though and tells us there is a Victory Dealer in Anchorage as well. (True to form, however, they are listed primarily as an ATV and boat dealer - The Marita Sea & Ski Kawasaki Dealer - so they don’t show up on the GPS when looking for Victory Motorcycles).

The Honda guy gives us an address and across town we go. There are only two or three motorcycles displayed on the floor but if you want a snowmobile, an ATV or a trolling motor the selection is immense. Their motorcycle accessory section is pretty sparse too, and there are no headsets of any kind to be found. To be fair though, the lady behind the counter was very friendly and helpful. She told us there was a place not far from here by the name of Alaska Leathers. Obviously an apparel shop by its name, she said they do sell a lot of helmets and believed that they might deal in J&M equipment. “Would you like me to call them?” she offers. “Yes, please.” She does and determines that they do indeed carry J&M.

imageAgain, we are provided an address and off we go. Now this becomes yet another highlight of the goodness we have experienced on this trip. This place is unique in all my travels to motorcycle supply stores. They started out and became famous designing, manufacturing and selling their world famous “Sheepskin Buttpad”; an accoutrement for motorcycle seats that is exactly as it is named. From that simple idea they have become the largest dealer of aftermarket motorcycle parts, helmets, accessories and clothing in Alaska.

We are greeted by a sweet and friendly young college woman named Mikela and I briefly describe what I am looking for. She smiles and says I need to talk with Noah. In about 15 seconds I come to realize that Alaska Leathers has much more to offer than boots, chaps and jackets . . . they have Noah, the absolute King of customer service. imageNoah is a twenty-something college kid from California who rides Supercross bikes, is noted for his affinity for lint rollers (?) and has a personality that could sell Sham-Wow’s to people in the desert. Interestingly, his primary responsibility at the store is Shipping; the area where companies usually put the socially inept who track everything well because of their obsessive-compulsive disorders. In Noah’s case, his OCD translates itself into customer service.

Once I explain my dilemma regarding my inability to transmit on my CB he checks the communication section of the store to find a J&M headset that would work with my bike. Unfortunately he determines that they “had” one but it was sold yesterday. Skunked again! Not one to send a customer away without full satisfaction, Noah tells me he can call the factory and have what I need sent directly to the store. I thank him for the offer but tell him we are on our way to Homer to spend the night and then tomorrow we’re heading for Seward and will be back in Anchorage late tomorrow night, Wednesday July 28th, after his store is closed. With all the enthusiasm he can muster, he says, “That means you won’t be leaving Anchorage until the day after tomorrow.” A correct interpretation I said, “Yes, and so what?” He quickly checks his computer then tells me the parts I need (there are two pieces he needs to make a complete headset) are available in Iowa and California – one piece from each. He assures me he can have them over-nighted and have them available for pickup here at the store by 1000 on Thursday, July 29th. This seems almost too good to be true but if the planets align, I may be able to fix my problem.

Being the practical one, however, I have to add one more hurdle to Noah’s magic. I tell him that my best diagnosis is that the headset is bad, but absent any test equipment I’m not completely sure. Again, no problem is too large for Noah. He tells me he’ll order the parts, have them delivered by Thursday morning and we’ll plug it all into my bike and try it out. If that solves the problem, I buy it . . . if it doesn’t, there’ll be no charge. He’ll just restock his shelves! Amazing! Really amazing!

While all this is going on, Rex is checking out helmets and Gus is talking to the store manager about Gerbing’s heated gloves. The reader will recall that Gus and I have electrically heated Jacket liners and gloves. Well, at some point when last we used that equipment, Gus somehow, somewhere lost one of his gloves and needs to replace the set. Noah to the rescue! The price on these is not cheap, but because we are traveling through and because I may be spending a tidy sum on a new headset, Noah convinces his manager to give Gus a significant discount on the gloves. Done deal. This kid is great!!

We still have about 220 miles to go to get to Homer so we saddle up and head south out of town on Alaska Highway 1 (the Seward Highway) along Turnagain Arm. Turnagain Arm is a long narrow bay heading east southeast off of Cook Inlet. Cook Inlet forms the western side of the Kenai Peninsula and is the body of water that grants access to the Pacific Ocean from Homer and Anchorage.  There


Traveling along Cook Inlet                   Heading south of Anchorage - Route 1 along Cook Inlet - July 27, 2010

are no bridges across the broad bay so Highway 1 takes us to the eastern-most end of Turnagain Arm then makes a hard right turn back toward the west on the south side of the Arm. The road hugs the base of the mountains along the shore line and the view is once again incredible. Steep mountain slopes rising almost directly from the water’s edge and disappearing before I can see their summits in banks of low lying clouds. Across the bay are the rugged snow-capped Kenai Mountains rising into their own mantle of clouds. It is an easy ride with a few long swooping turns and little or no elevation change. The air is moist from a narrow temperature/dew point spread but there is no rain and the smell of fresh salt air is refreshing.
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A few miles after the turn back to the west, the road meanders southerly in the valley of Six Mile Creek in the Kenai Mountains with the valley floor some 2000 feet below the mountain ridges on either side. The creek along with many, many others bearing names like Quartz Creek, Daves Creek, and John’s Creek, are tributaries feeding into the Funny River whose estuary eventually empties into Cook Inlet. It is fast flowing and an immense volume of water rushes through its bed. Wherever the road is closest to the river, there are fishermen in boats or wading in the fast current attempting to catch the abundant Salmon swimming upstream to spawning grounds. Like many of the streams and waterways in Alaska, the water has a milky-blue look brought about by the glacial tailings of eroded mountain rock. It is a stunningly beautiful ride.

Eventually we make our way over to Glam Gulch and the eastern shoreline of Cook Inlet itself with a view of the Aleutian Mountain Range across the inlet. Those peaks are all snow covered and rise to about 4400 feet above seal level. Just south of the little village of Anchor Point we turn slightly inland away from the coast and begin a gradual climb to 800 feet. This takes us ultimately to a crest which begins our descent into Homer. From this vantage point we have a remarkable view of Kachemak Bay, Homer Spit and Grewingk Glacier directly across from the spit. Homer Spit is a famous geographical landmark extending southeast out of the village of Homer into Kachemak Bay. The spit is 4.5 miles in length and contains numerous restaurants and both deep and shallow water docks serving upwards of 1500 commercial and pleasure boats during the summer. The sky is crystal clear right at this moment and we witness yet another breath-taking view.

Homer Spit in left distant DSC04812


Before continuing into town we turn off the highway into a residential area and search for our B&B, the Berry Patch. A couple wrong turns and we finally find it. It is not well marked and looks like any other well-groomed home in this tidy subdivision. A knock on the door and a friendly welcome from our hostess Coletta Walker and we are ready to off-load and find our rooms. Coletta has recently had her hardwood floors re-finished and asks us (warns us, actually) to remove our boots before we enter and climb the stairs, lest we scratch the finish. This is understandable but a bit of a pain as we have to put our boots on and take them off for each trip into the house.

My initial understanding (misunderstanding actually) of her request was that once we were settled, we were to please remove our boots. Thus armed with the wrong interpretation of her request, I make my first trip up the stairs with my boots on! A stern admonition and a look of disbelief that I have actually defied her is all I need to ensure future compliance.

I have to say that the home is very nicely appointed and clean but I am a little uncomfortable with the “closeness”. Other B&B’s in which I’ve stayed had a public gathering area and the owners stayed off in a separate living area. Here, we are more like visitors to someone’s home, sharing the living room and sleeping in one of the children’s bedrooms. It all works and is certainly lovely, but it just feels weird. Anyway, Coletta, provides several recommendations for places to dine, all on the spit, and we re-boot ourselves and head out to the bikes for the trip into town.

Descent into Homer continues to provide beautiful views as we make a turn onto the last 4.5 miles of Highway 1 which take us out onto the spit. Lots of folks have the same idea as we encounter more traffic than we had most of the day. This is, after all, a destination. Lots of restaurants, the boat docks and a campground all summon the summertime tourists in Alaska. We choose Captain Patties (highly recommended) who, like many of the eateries out here, advertise that we will eat today’s fresh caught fish right off the boat. DSC04817 Patties is packed! We are told the wait will be an hour, perhaps a little more. It looks good, we aren’t yet starving and want to get a few pictures of the area before dark so put our name on the waiting list and walk back out to the bikes. As we were leaving the B&B, Coletta told of us of a road that rises well above the town and bay and which provides a clear and unobstructed view of the entire area from an elevation of about 1000 feet. We decide to ride up and take in the view during our wait for dinner. We are not disappointed. The view spot is about 15 minutes from the restaurant and makes having to wait for dinner worthwhile.
DSC04813

DSC04821Back to the restaurant by the end of the
anticipated wait time  and we are quickly seated. I order the grilled Halibut steak and it melts in my mouth.

After dinner as we are riding back to the Berry Patch, Gus gets a call from Mother Nature and diverts into the McDonalds just off the spit on the way into town. Since he’s going to be busy for a minute, Rex and I decide to go inside and get an ice cream cone. Unbelievably, sitting back in a corner booth is the fellow we saw at Trapper Creek this morning, equally as loud and obnoxious on his Skype and looking even more to me like a Terrorist! The guy gives me chills. Finally, with the thought of calling the FBI racing through my mind, we make it back to the Berry Patch, park and cover the bikes, remove our boots and hit the hay.

The next morning we awake to the smell of fresh coffee and a home cooked breakfast. A quick shower and we head into the Walker’s kitchen dining area and meet Raymond, Coletta’s husband. Although not native Alaskans, they have lived here for many years and are steeped in the area’s history. Raymond, a (retired, I think) preacher provides a lengthy look into the differences between Eskimos and Native Americans, tribal boundaries and the white man’s impact on all. Very interesting information although much more detailed than I am prepared for as we make ready for another day of riding. We thank the Walkers, pack up and return to Highway 1 for our ride back up along Cook Inlet and then east toward Seward, Alaska. Original, Eh?  Heading out of Homer, AK enroute to Seward, AK - July 28, 2010 Photo (left) depicts original Alaskan Art as we make our way out of Homer. (?)

Entering the town of Soldotna we stop for gas, a drink and butt break. As we walk back towards our parked bikes, Rex points across the street and, low and behold, a Victory dealer! Unlike so many others of the dealerships we’ve seen up here, this one actually looks like a motorcycle store. No boats or snowmobiles to be seen. We ride across the street and pull into the parking lot; it looks as though it may be closed. I get off my bike and look through the door. There is movement inside, they just haven’t opened yet. It is not quite 1000. A young lady sees us, unlocks the door and Gus and I go inside. She’s attractive in a hard way – “Biker Chick” comes to mind. We talk briefly and find out she is a big fan of fishing, which is apparently world-class in this area, then turn to my CB problem. The girl directs me to the owner and he and I discuss my needs. Unfortunately, he doesn’t sell headsets. Aarrggghhhh!

Meanwhile, Rex comes in and unexpectedly provides a humorous diversion. The girl asks if she can help him, not realizing he is with Gus and me. Rex just says, “Just looking for the rest room” and starts nosing around. She points the way just as Gus chimes in and tells her to “Be careful. He’s a serial killer! . . . With Aids!” You never know what you’re going to get. In this case, the girl seems intrigued, almost as though he might be fun to hang around with!? I am a little embarrassed but my amusement at her reaction takes over. No joy on the headset so we’ll be on our way. We thank the two of them and leave . . . with our young lady’s expression showing a bit of sadness that she can’t get to know Rex a little more.

About half way back to the eastern end of Turnagain Arm we intercept and turn south on Alaska Highway 9 to Seward. Seward is a fishing town on the east side of the Kenai peninsula at the north end of Resurrection Bay. The city is named for William H. Seward, Secretary of State under both Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. He had been a contender for the presidential nomination in 1860 and, at that time, was a staunch rival of Lincoln. After Lincoln won the nomination Seward joined forces with him and became a member of the War Time Cabinet. (Read “A Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin). While serving under Johnson he engineered the Alaskan purchase from Russia and at the time was ridiculed; his efforts and the ultimate purchase became known as “Seward’s folly”. Perhaps the Alaska Pipeline and its 20% of all US oil production may vindicate him today. The price was certainly right: the US paid $7.2 million for Alaska which works out to about two cents per acre! I submit that was a pretty good deal, all things considered.

Seward is certainly not as scenic as Homer. It has a sort of industrial look about it with a railhead, warehouses and a mix of pleasure boats, commercial fishing boats and ocean going container ships in the harbor. We do find a nice harbor-side restaurant for lunch; Chinook’s, then head out of town for Anchorage.DSCN0580 (While we were eating, the owner of Alaska Leathers called me to advise that they would definitely have the parts for a new headset delivered by 1000 tomorrow morning. All I need do is stop by and they’ll fix me up. Impressive!)

Our travels have now taken us as far north (the Arctic Circle) and as far south (Homer and Seward) as we will travel in Alaska and this turn back toward Anchorage marks the beginning of our trip back to the lower 48 and to Key West.

We arrive in Anchorage early in the evening of July 28th and book a room in the Best Western Hotel. A quick and inexpensive dinner at a nearby steak house then walk back to the hotel for talk of tomorrow’s activities, laundry and a glass of blue elixir. July 29th, 2010. Today is my 65th birthday. Recognizing that fact, as well as the realization that this has truly been a trip of a lifetime, a time of wonder, awe and comradeship, please forgive me while I digress just briefly:


YOUTH     
Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.

   Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity of the appetite, for adventure over the love of ease.  This often exists in a man of sixty more than a body of twenty.  Nobody grows old merely by a number of years.  We grow old by deserting our ideals.


   Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.  Worry, fear, self-distrust bows the heart and turns the spirit back to dust.

   Whether sixty or sixteen, there is in every human being's heart the lure of wonder, the unfailing child-like appetite of what's next, and the joy of the game of living.  In the center of your heart and my heart there is a wireless station; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power from men and from the Infinite, so long are you young.

   When the aerials are down, and your spirit is covered with snows of cynicism and the ice of pessimism, then you are grown old, even at twenty, but as long as your aerials are up, to catch the waves of optimism, there is hope you may die young at eighty.

~ Samuel Ullman ~

 
And so it is with this trip. I doubt I could have enjoyed the experience half as much at the age of twenty as I am today. We check out of the hotel and ride over to the Victory dealer where we stopped two days ago and I get my bike in for an oil change. To their credit and to the credit of almost every dealer where I needed service, the shops move the “Travelers” (bikers on trips passing through) to the head of the queue for repairs and service. While they are working on my bike, we walk across the parking lot to Denny’s for a hearty breakfast. The service is complete at about 0930 and we depart for Alaska Leathers.

Noah, my “Mr. Ambassador of Anchorage” is waiting, almost as excited as I that he is able to help. Time for the test. Noah unpacks the parts and assembles them (not in my helmet yet, just so the headset can be plugged in to test the whether or not I can transmit from my bike to the others). Rex turns the key of his Gold Wing to “on” and turns up the exterior speakers. I plug the headset into my bike, turn on the key and, holding the lip microphone to my mouth, press “transmit”. “Test, Test, Test, this is a Test. How do you hear?” I needn’t have asked the last question because we could all hear it. In fact, I wouldn’t have needed to hear it because the grin on Rex’s face told the whole story . . . he can hear my radio just fine! Wahoo! Success! Thank you Noah!

One other problem then surfaces and again, Noah jumps to the rescue. The earpieces that come with my new J&B headset are significantly larger than those I originally had installed in my helmet. I can’t get my helmet on with the new earpieces inside! Noah tells me he can fix it but that it might take awhile. No problem. We have lots of daylight in which to travel this time of year up here in Alaska and I want this fixed.

Given the new delay, I call my cousin Rhonda Butterfield who works nearby and she and her son, Danny (a recent high school graduate and Eagle Scout) come over for a visit. Gus, of course is not shy so starts asking Rhonda about my youth. Rhonda is equally outgoing so takes great pleasure in embellishing some of the stunts of my ill-spent youth and sharing them with Gus. After all, why have friends and relatives if you can’t be humbled by them? In the meantime, Noah is working away on my helmet. He uses a Dremel Tool to shave down the inside of the helmet liner where the earpieces will go and assures me (as he works on my $300 helmet) that he does this all the time. Eventually he has it all shaved, fitted and assembled and it is a work of art. Art in which everything works! Unbelievably he only charges me for the headset – his labor is included for free. “I wasn’t busy anyway!” he tells me. What a great young man.


Chapter 15 

 

Tok and the ALCAN Highway.


About noon, we bid adieu to Noah, Rhonda and Danny and mount up. Destination tonight is Tok, the crossroads town we stayed in as we came into Alaska a week ago. The ride to Tok will be a little over 300 miles so we mustn’t dally. We head up Route 1, the Glenn Highway. The road is a nice ride with gentle turns and rolling terrain and there is scenery in every direction. Eventually we make our way to the King Mountain Lodge in Chickaloon and stop for lunch. This is yet another “hole-in-the-wallroadside rest with incredible character.

DSC04843 DSC04844DSC04845

As we enter, there is a small dining room and a small group of senior citizen tourists just finishing their lunch. A spunky and energetic waitress who makes us feel as though we’ve been invited into her kitchen as an old friend greets us. The food is “down home” and delicious, and our waitress makes several attempts to serve us dessert - fresh-baked and home-made Lemon Meringue Pie! She’s so proud of this pie and really doesn’t want to take no for an answer. As we finish dining (without succumbing to the pie offer) we get up and briefly tour the establishment. Adjoining the dining room is a bar/lounge complete with sitting nook and fireplace. The bar has more character than about anything I’ve seen on this trip. It is plastered with wood-burned signs displaying smart-assed pearls of wisdom, antique artifacts to include the boots of the first women to ever win the famous 1150 mile Iditarod sled dog race; Libby Riddles in 1985. Check the photos for some of the clever signs. 

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After lunch and about 20 more miles into the ride we pass the Matanuska Glacier off to our right. It is one of the most accessible glaciers in Alaska and our view affords us one of the best looks at its significant size. Alaska Travel Information describes it as, “a stable 27-mile long river of ice flowing from the Chugach Mountains north almost to the Glenn Highway.” The road remains one of the most fun to ride we’ve been on in Alaska. The surface condition is good and the twists and turns and elevation changes, though not aggressive in any way, lend themselves to a good balance between focusing on the road and sightseeing.

We have been in a gradual climb since leaving Anchorage and now crest a ridge at 3,294 feet. Eventually we stop for gas at milepost 128 and the Eureka Road House, another historic roadhouse with character. DSCN0614 They advertise food, lodging, bar, gas and “flight seeing” (one can only imagine!). The original building is a log cabin bearing a sign indicating its establishment in 1936.

Back on the highway, the terrain gives way to a more gentle and flat appearance and the road straightens out. Off in the distance straight ahead the Wrangell Mountains-St. Elias Preserve and Wilderness come into view. Front and center is 12,010-foot Mount Drumm rising as though a mirage from the very center of the highway. DSCN0617 The Wrangell Mountains include 12 of the 40+ Alaskan peaks over 13,000 feet. Mt. Drumm, Mt. Sanford (16,237 feet), Mt. Wrangell (14,163 feet), Mt. Jarvis (13,421 feet) and Mt. Zanetti (13,009 feet) can all be seen simultaneously today. Wow!

At some point along here, I dial “home” on my GPS telephone keypad (through the Bluetooth connection between my cell phone and GPS) and call Christine. I can hear her through my headset, but cannot talk through my boom mic because the Victory’s wiring connections don’t include a provision to make that happen. So, once the call goes through, I un-holster my phone and hold it up under my face shield and talk into the phone while listening through the headset. Cumbersome? Yes, but it is my birthday and I want to talk with her. Thankfully my cruise control makes it possible to take my hand off the throttle to handle the phone. Later both Gus and Christine scold me for doing this once they find out how I made the call . . . (They are both right to do so and I do know better, I say with lower lip protruding).

Glenn Highway comes to a “T” (before running into Mt. Drumm) and we make a left turn onto Highway 4, the Richardson Highway. Right on the corner is the “Hub of Alaska”, a major gas and tourist information stop. We pull in for gas, a pee stop and a drink. As I pay for my drink, I ask the lady, “what are those mountains off in the distance?”; hence the info in the foregoing paragraph. She was well informed and took great pride in explaining what it was we had been looking at for the past several miles. We really eat up the miles the rest of the way into Tok. It is a beautiful, warm late afternoon and the road is almost mesmerizing in its graceful turns and long straightaway's. No traffic, just three good friends flying along in loose formation taking in the sights and smells of a beautiful country.

In Tok we once again check into the Snowshoe Motel for the night then set about looking for a place for dinner. It is late and most places are closed. We walk down a side road and see a liquor store and just a little further, a club-type of place that looks promising. Dark inside. Looks like you either go here to drink your dinner or put up with a micro-waved sandwich. We’ll look elsewhere. Just across the street is a restaurant, apparently affiliated with a campground or RV park. It has the appearance of being open and, perhaps, on the verge of closing. We rush in and sure enough, there is one person working - working to close. She’s a kind soul, however, (with a personal history, shared but not requested - don’t they all have a story up here?) and agrees to feed us. She is a one-person band: waitress, cook, cashier and bottle-washer. They don’t serve liquor so I walk back across the street to the liquor store we passed and buy a bottle of elixir while we are waiting for or order. Our “Girl Friday” looks the other way and brings us glasses of ice to “pour our cokes over”.

The food is unremarkable but palatable and we tip her handsomely for being such a good sport. Walking back to the motel we encounter the famed Alaskan mosquitoes for the second time (Recall the first was just after the ferry trip as we crossed into BC). These guys are huge and aggressive! We start almost running to get away from them and find a short cut behind a couple of buildings that takes us as quickly as possible back to the motel and the protection of walls and screens!

Morning of July 30th. We get an early start inasmuch as our plan today is to make Whitehorse, Yukon which is down the ALCAN Highway about 390 miles from here. Just northwest of us is the town of Delta Junction, the start of the ALCAN. The Alaska-Canada (hence, ALCAN) Highway runs a total of 1390 miles from Alaska through the Yukon and into British Columbia, ending at Dawson Creek, BC. We traveled part of it northwest bound on our way up to Alaska, but today we start southeasterly with the intent of ultimately riding its entire length. I am looking forward to the ride inasmuch as there are reported to be many stunning views, as well as an abundance of wildlife and small towns steeped in turn of the century history and characterized by rugged individualism. It is a tough environment in which to live.

About 93 miles after leaving Tok, we come to the Canadian border crossing at Port Alcan, BC. It is always a little cumbersome crossing the border on a motorcycle because when we stop, we have to really stop. That is, put the kickstand down and more or less park the bike so we can get our passports out, take off our helmet (sometimes that is not required depending on the mood of the border agent), answer questions then reverse the process when we’re cleared to move on. We do this drill three times at every stop because we have to go through the border as individuals in three different vehicles. I’m not complaining though; most agents are good natured and simply doing their job to protect our mutual borders.

DSC04877Around 0900 we stop at one such “rugged individualism” type place for breakfast; Buckshot Betty’s. Shane, the Alaskan motorcycle rider we met back in Prince Rupert told us Betty’s was a good place for breakfast. It is not much of a place to look at. It appears more like a roadside cabin than a restaurant and motel. Small in size, and upon entering, noticeably confined and hand-built. The floors are not level leaving the management to put up a humorous sign indicating that the “floors are slanted so the drunks can stand up too!” There is no Betty in sight either. The cooking and waiting staff is comprised of a couple of young guys in their mid-twenties who, like most in these small establishments, are blessed with a large helping of “smart-ass” and good humor.

DSC04881A tasty breakfast and we’re back on our way.   Over the next hundred miles or so we encounter some severely damaged pavement. This section of the ALCAN, between Beaver Creek and Burwash Landing, is notorious for frost heave in areas where there was once only permafrost. Permafrost is soil that remains at or below the freezing point of water for more than two years. In the case of the highway, construction removed much of the protective insulating vegetation and allowed the permafrost to melt, essentially giving way to mushy soil conditions beneath the road structure. Now, traffic in the summer pushes down on the unsupported pavement and then as the winter temperatures freeze the soil again, the water in the soil expands and pushes up against the subsurface and surface of the road giving it the name “frost heave”. All this translates to a road full of heaves, dips, potholes and cracks; an irregular surface particularly noticeable on a motorcycle. This is also the reason for so much construction and attendant delays that we have encountered.  Beside the “pothole” and “frost heave” photo following is a pic of yet another one of these delays:


 ROAD HAZARD!  Frost damage is everywhere on Alaska's and Yukon's roads DSCN0621


Late in the morning we begin the circumferential ride around the west and south sides of Kluane Lake, the beautiful blue lake we passed on our way up. The sky is almost totally cloudless giving the water an even more intense color, remarkable in its clarity.


Kluane Lake, Yukon - incredibly large and beautiful blue waters

Gas service and food replenishment are scarce in this part of the world with some stretches of over 100 miles between them. Accordingly, we stop at Burwash Landing along the lake to refuel. Although the gas station is part of the Burwash Landing Resort, we do not know that bit of information and the lodge is not visible from the gas station so we don’t even know that a lodge exists. The gas station itself is not much more than a shack with two pumps outside. Being that we’ve ridden for a couple hours non-stop, I ask the attendant if there is a rest room available. He kind of grunts and laughs at the same time then points to an outhouse behind the shack. Not a chemical toilet or porta-potty, but a real outhouse with a board seat over a hole in the ground and not even a door to close! Well, a fellow has to do what a fellow has to do so in I go! I’ve used these before, but this one was awful . . . enough said.

On Kluane Lake, Yukon - stopped for gas and a drink
Of course, after all that, one of the guys asks about a cold drink and the attendant directs us down a driveway (that looks to go nowhere in particular) to the resort’s lodge. We each buy a soda and I, no longer in need, spot a real rest room! Oh well.

As we finish the trip around the lake, the road surface improves and we make our way comfortably through Haines Junction (where we first joined the ALCAN on the way up) gas up and continue to Whitehorse. Whitehorse is actually a good-sized town with several motels and eating establishments. We see a sign for a Best Western; recall that we have a free night owed to us as a consequence of signing up for their “reward” points back in Quesnel, BC on the 16th of July and having stayed one additional night a little later on. “The deal was stay two nights and get one free”. The motel is right downtown and we park in front and go inside only to be told by the desk manager that we have to have a voucher! I tell him we were never given a voucher but I have the membership number and I’m sure he can check his computer to verify that we are owed a free room. “Nope! You should have been mailed a voucher to use!” Nice idea, but I haven’t been home in three weeks.

Now, as Rex and I try to sort this all out (and find that rooms are “really expensive because, after all, it is the tourist season!”) Mr. Patience (Gus) expresses some rather uncool expletive and walks out and around the corner. Just as we realize we have no place from which to negotiate with the manager, Gus walks back in and signals us to come with him. He found a motel right around the corner that has a room for the three of us at about half the price of the Best Western. It is clean, has WiFi and free parking. The only issue is that we must walk up a narrow flight of stairs from the parking area with all our gear to get to our room. Collectively we determine that to be a small price to pay for having a pretty nice room. Checking out the WiFi we find it to be spotty in our room but a quick visit to the front desk and the nice lady there gives us the key to another unoccupied room that we can use for our computer needs so all is well.

Right around the corner is a Chinese restaurant that we decide to visit if only for its proximity. (I like the taste of most Chinese food but always find myself hungry about two hours after eating, no matter how much I consume.) The Asian lady waiting on us was friendly and efficient . . . the food, horrible.

Back to the room and a comfortable night’s sleep. As is our norm, we are up early and saddled up by around 0600. Today’s starting mileage indicates we have ridden 8,521 miles to date. It is a Saturday morning and the streets of Whitehorse are quiet although the sun has been up for hours. We pull out of the parking lot, and ride over to a nearby McDonalds for breakfast. “Mickey D’s” has become a frequent breakfast stop for us if for no other reason than it is usually available in the larger towns here in northern Canada and the food is consistent (albeit not always healthy – in fairness, however, they do have yogurt and oatmeal for the rare occasions that desire succumbs to guilt) and the rest rooms clean. Our choice remains the out-of-the-way mom and pop diner when we feel we are in no hurry although they are usually a little more expensive.

The ALCAN is an easy drive for most of this morning. The familiar white and black spruce trees begin to look more stately as they are not as severely dwarfed as the ones back up the road in Alaska. Apparently even a few degrees of latitude further south mitigate the harshness of the long winters and these trees like it. The highway is advertised as one of Canada's most memorable driving routes to explore and we are not disappointed. The route is as scenic as they come, filled with wilderness beauty and roaming wildlife, it runs through deep valleys, over mountains, around lakes and over hundreds of rivers and creeks. We have been warned to expect that at any given moment local wildlife may appear on the side of, or worse, on the road.

About noon we stop at The Continental Divide Lodge for gas and lunch. Located at milepost 721 in Swift River, Yukon, it is a tiny place, a log cabin actually. It sits one mile from the continental divide between the McKenzie and Yukon River watersheds. The folks are friendly, clip_image002[1]the burgers excellent, although about as expensive as if we were  in a deli in Times Square. While waiting for my sandwich, I strike up a conversation with a very pleasant husband and wife couple riding two-up on a Harley. It turns out they are from Wallace, Idaho, a town where I lived briefly in 1964 while working on a road survey crew. Wallace is known for two things: copper mines and five or six brothels. The guy teases me about perhaps frequenting the brothels when I was there . . . I assure him I did not. (My grandfather warned me about such “dens of iniquity” and the very idea scared me into my best choirboy behavior).

Around 1500 we stop just on the outskirts of Watson Lake at the famous “Sign Post Forest”. From what I can determine, this started during the construction of the ALCAN back in the 1940’s when some lonely soldier put up a sign pointing to his hometown and listing the mileage thereto. The idea caught on and now there are over 10,000 signs of all description and a formal adopt-a-post program to keep expanding it. We take several pictures and then Rex, aka “Mr. Gregarious”, notices four senior citizens from Washington State struggling to put up their own sign so walks over to help and then take their picture, complete with victorious smiles.



Watson Lake


After the photo shoot, we head into town for sustenance and bed. The first motel we pull into advertises that bikers are welcome but apparently not welcome enough because the place is out of business. Next stop a little further down the road is open and cheap. I won’t describe it, but keep in mind two things: I said “cheap” and “you get what you pay for.” Nuff said. Rex is starting to look a little shaggy and thinks he ought to find a barber. Since it isNo, his finger is not broken... late in the afternoon and no barbershops are nearby, Gus offers to use his beard clippers and give Rex a trim. Now Rex usually wears his hair short, perhaps 3/8 of an inch or so on top. Gus’s beard trimmer has various attachments that allow for adjusting the amount of cut . . . but why bother? He just uses the bare clipper blade and gives ol’ Rex a zero-length buzz cut – right down to the scalp! After exclaiming that he’s “never had my hair this short!” Rex decides he likes it so all is well.

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There are no restaurants nearby except for the hotel’s, which does not look all that appetizing so we walk across the street to a supermarket and buy some sandwiches and a couple microwave meals (there is a microwave in the room) for dinner. Like much in this part of the world, food in the grocery is very high-priced. It occurs to me that basic groceries consume a much larger portion of a family’s budget up here than back home. After dinner we have a little elixir and help Gus write up the day’s activities on his computer for dissemination to all back home. Since he does the actual keyboarding, (“hoarding” may be a better description – just my perspective) Rex and I simply provide ideas for the narrative . . . for a while. Somewhere along in here my eyes slam shut and, according to Gus, Rex follows suit about 30 seconds later. Now, for the record, I didn’t hear anything, but Gus swears there was an entire logging crew at work in the room with chainsaws running at full speed! Eventually we both awaken enough to get ready for bed and retire to our individual beds while Gus gets the air mattress blown up and climbs into his sleeping bag.

August 1st, 2011. Arise about 0630, in-room coffee courtesy of Rex, and begin the process of saddling up; tonight’s destination is Fort Nelson, BC, approximately 320 miles down the road. One almost daily action that I have not discussed before is our technique to clean the bugs off our windscreens. Motorcycle windscreens are made of Plexiglas. Good for durability because it is flexible, won’t crack and is light in weight. The downside is that it is a soft material and therefore, easily scratched. Simply rubbing a wet paper towel over the carcass of a bug can put a permanent scratch in the Plexiglas. Our solution is to soak a hand towel in warm water then drape it over the entire front of the bike for about five minutes. This action softens the dried bugs and they then come right off with a gentle wipe of the towel. Next, we spray the windscreen with a purpose made plastic cleaner (one brand, Plexus, is superb), which is a combination cleaner and polish. This gets rid of any water spots and bug residue and serves an additional function of making any rain droplets bead up and roll off the windscreen without streaking. The important thing is that this works, and after some really rough riding for thousands of miles, our windscreens remain free of scratches and damage.

Back on the ALCAN we head southeasterly for a couple hours. The highway winds along the Yukon and British Columbia border mostly within the Liard River valley so we ride in and out of each territory a couple times. At 0830 we come upon yet another small, all-inclusive, full service rest stop, the Coal River Lodge. Like so many of these places along the ALCAN, Coal River Lodge came into being in the 40’s as a camp during the construction of the highway. It includes an RV park, small motel, an airstrip, gas station and restaurant.

We gas up then go into the small restaurant for breakfast. There are perhaps only five tables and one attendant who is combination, cook, waiter and bottle-washer. The menu is on the wall and advertises buffalo burgers and of course, standard breakfast fare; eggs, bacon, sausage, etc. Our host is not one of the most outgoing and gregarious of chaps. In fact he’s a little grumpy and if body language is a true read of emotion, he is telling us, “You’ll get what I want to cook for you when I want to serve  you!!"


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Among those waiting for “Mr. Happy” to serve them are a group of bikers about our age traveling as couples, I think from Montana, a couple of folks who spent the night in their RV and at least one long haul trucker. If girth is a truth-teller, most have not missed many meals in their lives. They’re all friendly and we enjoy a few laughs as we wait and then (as once again guilt succumbs to pleasure) dine on eggs, hotcakes and bacon. Our fellow travelers, who have come from the opposite direction, warn us of a couple herds of bison a few miles down the road. Apparently they are not aggressive, but have no qualms about walking en mass across the road at their convenience. Sure enough, after about a half hour back on the road we ride past a fairly large herd of bison, although most are lying in the grass along the side of the road casually chewing their cud.

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As I have described earlier, most of the terrain along here is wild and heavily forested. Thinking that bison are a plains-dwelling animal, I am not surprised they stick to the wide grassy areas along either side of the highway rather than roaming through the woods. The grass is lush and plentiful and animals are routinely attracted to salt (think salt “licks” placed in fields by cattle farmers); the salt here being residue left from winter ice removal from the highway.

At some point we cross the Liard River and make a sharp left turn. The river is now on our left and a sheer rock wall of a mountainside hugs the right side of the road. Unexpectedly, a large Stone Sheep Ram jumps up from the riverbed and crosses the road right in front of us then stops at the base of the mountain to watch as we ride by, eyeing us suspiciously as if we had somehow trespassed on his private property. Big Horn Sheep He’s a magnificent looking animal with almost a full curl of his massive horns. He’s a rare sight that we are fortunate to see inasmuch as in all of North America the stone sheep habitat is limited to just south central Yukon and north central BC.

I’m not sure how much sleep Gus had last night, but as we ride along side of a fast moving stream he broadcasts that he’s getting a little sleepy and is going to pull over. We all agree. Recall that we made a pact back at the beginning of the trip specifying no one of us would continue if even the slight bit fatigued. It’s a safety thing. Recall as well my discussion early on in this journal about Gus’s “head wetting” trick.  Yet again, as soon as we stop on the side of the road Gus grabs a towel from his trunk, walks across the road to the stream, soaks the towel in the cool water then wraps his head in it. While this may seem as if he’s trying to give new meaning to the term “Towel Head”, in reality it is these frequent interventions that serve him well in increasing alertness. The combination of cool and wetness on the brow, standing up and walking a few steps all work to invigorate.

Eventually Muncho Lake looms into view. The lake is stunning! About 8 miles long it is 332 acres of brilliant, slate blue water, having a mirrored surface un-marked by a single wave or ripple and captured for eternity by high, fir-covered mountains on either side along its entire length. There is a “water aerodrome” about halfway down its length on the west side; simply meaning an area in the lake restricted for use of floatplanes. Adjacent to the water aerodrome is the Northern Rockies Lodge, a log building advertised as the largest Hotel on the Alaska Highway. We pull in the parking lot to use their facilities and purchase a coke. It is a beautiful place nicely situated on the lake’s shoreline.



DSCN0686    Northern Rockies Lodge, Mile 462 Alaska Highway, Muncho Lake, BC - August 1, 2010

Further along we pass an airplane in front of a small cabin on the lake. Many, many of the homes and ranches in both northern Canada and Alaska have their own small airstrip, sized appropriately for small Cessna’s, Beechcraft and other light planes capable of flying in and out of small, unpaved airstrips. The remoteness of this part of the world makes air travel almost a necessity. Flying in this area would be beautiful this time of year, but I suspect is most treacherous in winter and requires strong piloting skills, an intimate understanding of weather patterns and a substantial knowledge of the terrain for a couple hundred miles in every direction.


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Forty miles further along we stop at the Toad River Lodge for gas. This is a unique place and yet another started during the construction of the highway back in 1942.

One thing I noticed as I was paying for my fuel inside (no credit card operated pumps here) was that the ceiling was covered, literally, covered with ball caps and hats of all types, stapled or nailed in orderly rows. Surprisingly, a little later on when I mentioned something about the hats to Rex and Gus neither had noticed them. Here’s the picture I took when I was inside (with Rex paying for his gas) as proof that I wasn’t making this up. The Toad River Lodge speaks of their history thusly:

“Back around 1942 when the Canadian and U.S. armies were busy building the Alaska highway (it was not the super highway you just drove in on), there were problems crossing the river because a bridge was not yet built, so it was par for the course to be "towed across". The proprietors of this establishment at that time adopted "Towed River" as the name of their lodge. Did someone really think they meant "Toad" or were their language skills lacking? Your guess is as good as ours at this point. So that's our story and we're sticking to it, for now anyway. The hat collection began in 1979. One evening after a stressful day at the lodge, the proprietors (could be the same two mentioned above) were having a brew or two. One left to see a man about a horse and the other tacked his hat to the ceiling. There you have it, doesn't take much to get something started around here. At the time of this writing there are over 7,200 hats from all over the world tacked to the ceiling in the lodge. Do not leave your hat unattended!” (At the time of our visit on August 1st, 2010 there were 7,933!)

For the next 130 miles we ride through extraordinary wilderness with mountains as high as 7,500 feet to our left and right, remote streams and lakes of incredible beauty and all on a clear, almost cloudless day . . . the perfect day, on the perfect road with the perfect companions to make a memory for a lifetime. Eventually we arrive at Fort Nelson, BC, mile 300 on the ALCAN and check in to the legendary Fort Nelson Hotel. It is one of the nicer hotels we have stayed in here in northern Canada and contains an indoor swimming pool, lounge, restaurant and some just plain nice people. DSCN0693 After unloading the bikes, we ride a little further into town and wash them at the local car wash. As we’ve experienced for many services in much of the Yukon and BC, it is expensive. I paid about $15.00 US to have sufficient time on the power washer to really get my Victory cleaned! Following that, we stop at a Subway for dinner then head back to the hotel to do a little laundry. As I wait for my laundry to complete, I go out to the parking lot and change my air filter (I have carried a replacement for most of the trip in anticipation of the need knowing that much of our travels will take us on dusty roads and through construction sites).

August 2nd. With Willy Nelson blaring out his daily rendition of “On the Road Again” loudly over my Victory’s speakers we leave the hotel for breakfast around 0745 and ride down the road to the edge of town, stopping for breakfast at an A&W Root Beer restaurant. As we have come to expect in every town across the North American continent, we meet and then photograph the “daily men’s political and breakfast club”. Such an interesting phenomenon never fails to put a smile on my face.
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While I’m eating I receive a phone call but do not answer because I don’t recognize the number. At the same time, I realize I have forgotten to leave the room key at the hotel so, to prevent an extra charge on my room to replace it, I tell Rex and Gus to hang tight and I’ll ride the mile or so back up to the hotel and turn it in. After doing so I again check my phone and discover a voice mail. I retrieve the voice mail and find out is my credit union calling . . . this raises some concern as I assume it is not a social call! So now I am incentivized to call them back. It turns out they were concerned about excessive charges to Apple iTunes made on my credit card - about $100! That is a lot of music! During the course of the conversation I recall that Christine had recently purchased an iPad and, among other things, was using it for reading electronic books. I told the credit union not to worry and that I thought I knew what the charges were and would call them back if I needed to put the card on hold. Then I called Christine and she verified that she had in fact “bought a few books.” After all these years of marriage, I have come to realize that her vague or evasive answers are simply acknowledgement that she has spent a bundle of money! All is well and I am actually pleased that my credit union is looking out for me.

By now I have taken a rather lengthy time away from my traveling companions and they are concerned. As I ride back toward the A&W I see their black and magenta Gold Wings coming in the opposite direction, obviously to check on me. I wave at them, slow down and wait for them to do a U-turn and catch up with me. Finally, we’re “on the road again.” Destination today is uncertain other than we intend to make the end of the ALCAN in Dawson Creek and then press on from there until we tire. It is an easy ride and the highway is well maintained all the way. At around 1430, the large sign appears on our right indicating we have reached mile “0” of the Alaskan Highway. We pull to the side of the road to get the requisite photos and realize that we can actually ride down onto the grass and park in front of the sign. Obviously we want the bikes in our “hero” picture. After all they made our travel of the entire 1390 miles of this highway possible. In all honesty, we really do feel a sense of accomplishment at this point in our journey. We may not actually be heroes (other than in our own minds) but we’ve come a long way, seen incredible sights and met incredible characters.


Presentation Mile 0  


Chapter 16  

 

Back to the USA, Spirit Lake and Broken Arrow.


Out of Dawson Creek we head south and then east on BC-2 for another 99 miles, cross in to the province of Alberta and to the town of Sexsmith, Alberta for a gas stop. There is no telling how the town got its name but I’m sure comments are numerous and tongue-in-cheek by all who see the town’s name for the first time. Once again Gus has to grit his teeth as a group of bikers, also stopped for gas, walk over to admire my Victory. I love the pained expression on his face and have learned to tolerate his envious calls for my admirers to “back away!” A great friend and worthy chop-buster.


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After refueling, we continue another 130 miles on AB-43 to the town of Fox Creek. I’m in the lead and in charge of finding an inexpensive hotel for the night. There are several chain motels along the way but I avoid them because they are usually a little more expensive than the one-off type. Eventually I see a sign for “The Grizzly Motor Hotel” at $64 for a double. That fits the bill.Departing Grizzly Hotel in Fox Creek, AB morning of August 3, 2010 This is an interesting place - a combination, hotel, liquor store and bar. Add a gun shop, and this place would be the perfect “man’s layover!!” Most of their patrons are construction workers doing the annual rebuilding and maintenance on Canada’s winter-ravaged highways.

Total mileage for today is 491. . . a long day but more or less an easy ride. There is WiFi available and we spend a little time “Skyping” home. In need of ice for our nightcap, I walk to the front desk to ask about an ice machine. The desk is vacated. Our hostess does double The "perfect" layover ... duty as front desk clerk and liquor store manager.  She’s in the liquor store according to the sign on the front desk so I enter to ask about ice. She tells me to go to the bar and they’ll provide some glasses with ice. Never seen this before, but it is interesting and it works.

We depart Fox Creek this morning at 0748, once again with my daily ritual of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and head southeast on AB-43 toward Edmonton. About 25 miles before reaching Edmonton, 43 turns due south and eventually intercepts AB-16, The Yellowhead Highway, a highway traveled several weeks before although not in this section. The Yellowhead is a major highway, really the same as our Interstates in the U.S. The route takes us just around the north side of Edmonton and eventually we find ourselves riding in wide-open plains with very little elevation change and literally tens of thousands of lakes in every direction. Rain threatens ahead so we stop and don our rain suits. Back on the road we travel trough a quick shower and the sun appears magically again. My reputation as the “Sunshine Boy” continues largely unscathed.

DSC04948Around 1230 we need gas and sustenance so pull into a Petrocan gas station and diner along the highway just outside of Innisfree, AB. This place is similar to the Stuckey’s chain of rest stops one finds along the interstates back home. The menu is decent and the food above average although that pesky Canadian costliness chokes me a bit. While we’re eating, I watch as some touristy-looking fellow with a great big camera studies my bike in great detail, walking round and round it and snapping pictures. From his body language and interest it is apparent that he’s never before seen a Victory Vision. Gus gives me that “look”; his blue eyes twinkling while he fakes a grimace to signal his feigned revulsion.

Eventually, 499 miles after departing this morning, we make Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and check into the Travel Inn just on the southern outskirts of Saskatoon in Grasswood.

August 4th. Up early, mounted up and on the road by 0630. The flat terrain along SK-11 continues with thousands of acres of agriculture including a hay crop I remember from my youth – Birdsfoot Trefoil. I recall my grandfather planting it in areas of poor soil because it is a hearty legume crop and grows well in less fertile and poorly drained soils. Highway departments in both Canada and the U.S. use it as ground cover along the sides of highways to control erosion. This time of year it is abundant as both crop and erosion control and on this day its yellow flowers paint a golden hue over the ground for miles and miles along the highway.

By 0730 we’re hungry and looking for breakfast. Gus is in the lead and pulls off in the small town of Davidson, SK. As we drive through town we begin to get the eerie feeling that they don’t sell food here. Everything is either closed (strange for a Wednesday) or a farm equipment store. As we near the end of the street we’re on, Gus spies an older couple getting into their car and pulls up to a stop. I’m not sure what they must have thought initially, but Gus puts them at ease and asks if there is indeed a place to get a nice breakfast. They direct us to a gas station near the next entrance back onto the highway and tell us we won’t be disappointed.

They were right! The gas station is incidental to the restaurant. The restaurant is one of the more unique places we’ve seen to date. Rather than one large room as in many diners, there are a number of small, what I would describe as cubicles – each with an antique-filled motif. There is the “coal bin”, the “laundry room” etc., all with artifacts, memorabilia and signs from days gone by here in Davidson. It is really a cool place. We order a “light” breakfast of sausage, home fries, eggs and toast (this is the healthy part – the toast is whole wheat!). As we finish up, we notice the couple who directed us here dining in one of the other rooms so walk over and have a brief conversation with them and a few other residents about farms, taxes, government and living in Canada – just as we might have back home. This stop was an unexpected joy in every regard, yet another in the pearls of grand experiences on this trip.


Presentation Keepers

At Chamberlain, we turn south on SK-2 and ride down to Moose Jaw, SK where we again refuel. Leaving Moose Jaw we follow SK-39 to the U.S. border crossing at Portal, North Dakota. This becomes the only frustrating border crossing to date. We don’t know why, but the wait in line is lengthy, perhaps as much as an hour with no indication of what the delay is. I chat with a young mother in a car behind me who crosses here often and says, “It never takes this long!” Eventually we move up and, as is always the case, the border agents motion us through one at a time. Gus goes first. For some reason, he’s targeted for a complete inspection. They make him go through every bag, every container and every compartment on his bike – then let him through. Rex is next, and then I. Neither of us has to do more than show a passport and answer one or two questions. Go figure!

 DSCN0708 The wait for border inspections was long... about 45 minutes.  US Border agents looked through everything in detail

Shortly after arriving back in the good ol’ US of A we intercept ND-5 and start looking for gas. I’m leading and see what looks to be a town of some size and, by its appearance, assume it would have at least one gas station. It doesn’t. This is Flaxton, ND and what was once a vibrant town and rural gathering center is now all but a ghost town. Most homes and businesses are abandoned and boarded up. There is the tragic remains of a once proud county World War Memorial built in 1931, its pad mounted machine guns on either side of the door rusted relics of a time long past. DSC04973 As I continue through the town I see one lone resident, a young Hispanic boy probably running an errand for his mother, although I can’t see anyplace that would offer something to sell. It is a hollow and tragic place and I leave it behind as I swing back onto the highway in search of the next town and gas. Gus hangs back for a couple minutes to take a few pictures while Rex and I ride down the road, slowly, waiting for Gus to catch up.

About 8 miles further along we come into the town of Bowbells, ND. This is unique as well. Riding through town on the only main street, we pass a town square packed to the gills with tents and people in skin-tight bicycle clothing. We find a gas station (no pay at the pump) and after refueling, go inside to pay. The girls at the counter are happy to chat with us and a senior citizen whom they have already served makes a comment to the effect that she’s never seen a real stranger in this town in her entire life! Now they’re everywhere! I ask one of the girls what is going on in the town square and she tells me it is an overnight stopping place on the route of the “CANDISC” bicycle event. (Later I Google CANDISC and find that it is the Cycling Around North Dakota in Sakakawea County annual event).
DSCN0711 CANDISC - "Cycling Around North Dakota in Sakakawea Country"  Bicycle event, August 4th, 2010


The three of us are approaching the “food level low” warning in our brain and ask if there might be a fast food place nearby. Apparently “near” is a relative term out here in the plains. Without batting an eye, (but with a well timed snicker) our cute little hostess tells us there is in fact a McDonalds – 68 miles away in Minot, ND! As some of those reading may know, Minot is home to a sizable US Air Force base so I’m confident that we will find food there.

We mount up for another hour or so of riding to get some lunch. After lunch in a busy McDonalds with a few service members and their families in Minot, we press on to Bismarck, ND for the night. This turns out to be another “event”. One more try for a free room in a Best Western is met with the same denial; “You need to have a copy of the voucher we mailed you!” Persistent, aren’t they . . .

This is not the worst of news, however. It seems that Keith Urban, a country singer of Australian descent (now living in Nashville), is performing live in Bismarck tonight and every hotel within 150 miles is sold out! The girl at the desk tries to put a nice face on this and hands me a sheet of paper with the phone numbers of every hotel and motel in Bismarck. Out to the parking lot we go and start calling. No joy, no joy, no joy! Suddenly, the girl who gave us the list comes running out and says that the Country Suites motel just on the other side of the parking lot has a cancellation and are on the phone, holding the room briefly, waiting for an answer as to whether we want it. Of course we do! And thank you to this very nice girl who remembered we were out in the parking lot making calls to find a room. Over we go to the Country Suites, check in, unload and clean up.

We’re out of blue elixir and it is my turn to buy. Across the street is a huge liquor store, Captain Jack’s, so I ride over and with my Viet Nam Veteran patch proudly displayed on my jacket, am treated like a returning hero by the young man in the store. He couldn’t have been more gracious or sincere in his thanking me for my service. Nice people here in North Dakota. Dinner at a next-door Hooters and then to bed for some much needed rest after a 552 mile day in the saddle. We’re making good time and covering a lot of distance each day. Remember, Rex needs to be home by the 8th of August or at the very latest, the morning of the 9th because Deb is scheduled for surgery. Accordingly we need to continue making these fairly long days.

Two other events we’re trying to pack in before Rex needs to be home are lunch at the Cattleman’s Club in Pierre, SD (Gus, having eaten there on his four corners trip, swears it is the best steak in the entire US) and a tour of the Victory Motorcycle factory in Spirit Lake, Iowa. The first is not to be. We call shortly after getting on the road this morning and are advised that they don’t do lunch and are not open until 1700 every day. That’s a shame, because I’m a man who enjoys beef, especially when it’s as good as it can get. We decide to postpone the visit there for a year or two and now press on to Spirit Lake.

Continuing on along Route 83, the bright yellow tinge reflecting from the surrounding fields is still present in this bright morning sun only it is no longer Birdsfoot Trefoil causing the glow. We are now passing hundreds of acres of cultivated sunflowers with fully developed heads. Knowing that sunflower seeds are a popular snack and salad addition, I find it odd that it has never occurred to me that there are commercial farms that grow them. DSCN0714 Based on this view, I’m here to tell you, there are! I’ve never seen so many fully-grown sunflowers in my life.

While there are no mountains to be seen in any direction, the rolling hills and vibrant colors make for a gorgeous ride and we soon pass through the town of Strasburg, ND, birthplace of bubble machine maestro and orchestral entertainer Lawrence Welk. Just like the “Popeye” town back in Chester, IL, these folks are pretty proud of their “hometown boy makes good” story.

Eventually we stop for gas in Selby, SD in what turns out to be yet another fun and unplanned event. The local antique and custom car club is out for a Thursday morning ride and has stopped here for gas as well. There are some incredibly beautiful classic cars from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, most customized, cut, chopped and lowered. My favorite is beautifully customized deep maroon colored 1949 Mercury coupe. We each chat with one of the owners or their wives and enjoy some spur of the moment camaraderie. Their interest in our trip and what we have done equals our interest in their accomplishments with respect to their cars. Then, looking across the parking lot we see a large group of Harleys’. These folks are part of a HOG (Harley Owner’s Group) club from France! A rowdy bunch having a good time in Middle America on their way to the annual Sturgis rally. When they roll out of the parking lot the thunder of their big V-twin’s echo in salute and their French flags proudly wave while the riders whistle and call out “Au Revoir!” Fun times.

Presentation Custom Cars


Some time in the early spring when I began planning for this trip, Andy Pallemaert, my Victory dealer back in New Smyrna Beach, offered to grease the skids with the powers that be at Polaris headquarters to set up a factory tour of the Victory assembly plant in Spirit Lake. I have a phone number to call and because I can’t use the phone on my GPS, Gus calls to set up a tour.  We’re good for tomorrow, August 6th at 0930. We pull into Spirit Lake in late afternoon and find a motel almost across the street from the Victory factory. A quick dinner at a next-door restaurant, a trip to the Wal-Mart across the street for some highlighters to annotate my map and then back to the motel for the night. DSC05004 Rex is just finished with his shower and calls out to us, “Hey! Bring your camera!” Take a look at this!” Knowing Rex and his impish humor, I’m almost afraid to look around the corner – there’s no telling what he might be up to. Bravely, Gus and I peer into the bathroom only to see Rex’s head and smiling face completely covered in shaving cream! Apparently he likes his new short haircut so much he decides to shave his head. With his almost permanent smile and a billiard ball smooth head, he looks like a living Smiley Face! What a guy!

Early on August 6, we arise, eat the nicely prepared continental breakfast offered by the motel then go to a car wash and scrub the grime from our bikes while we await 0930 to arrive so we may begin the factory tour. I don’t care about Rex and Gus’s bikes, but I certainly can’t show up at the Victory plant with a dirty machine!

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By 0915 we’re parked in the Victory parking lot – me in the “reserved for Victory Motorcycle owners” section. We enter the visitor door and are greeted with a “May I help you?” I explain why we’re there and that we have made a reservation. “Are you sure? We’ve pretty much shut down operations for now.” We’re shown into a room with several other folks to wait for someone who will give us the tour. The other folks in the room are not here on tour. They are new hires filling out forms and watching some kind of HR video. I am sad to say that the rest of the tour was not much more exciting.

DSC05007First, the plant is tooling up for the next model year so much of the line is shut down. Next, we’re joined by a group of young teens from a local school. They were nice enough, really cool kids actually, but not as interested in manufacturing as I and their presence elevated our manager/guide’s concern for safety so he spent more time directing the flow of our herd than informing us about the process. The tour was over in about an hour. Simply said, it was a bit of a disappointment. Our guide was very knowledgeable, in fact one of the senior plant managers and, had he been with just the three of us as I expected, I’m sure we would have been more enthusiastic.

DSC05011By 1100 we are on our way heading toward Broken Arrow. Except for a stop at a really nice restaurant in Early IA, the ride is just hot and not much else. The Crossroads Restaurant and lounge is a remarkable “down home” good old boy place to eat. The first clue as we slow to investigate is the number of bikes in the parking lot – always a good sign. The waitress is another “pie hawker’ like back at the King Mountain Lodge in Alaska only this time it’s chocolate pie. The food is comfort food at its very best. I have an open-faced roast beef sandwich with too much gravy and way too many mashed potatoes and clean my plate! It was delicious!

 Continuing south, we refuel just outside of Missouri Valley, the town where we ended up after I made the wrong turn during my Iron Butt qualification.

As the day winds down and our butts are indicating it is time to call it a day we stop in a little town in Kansas called Sabetha. It has a quiet Mayberry look about it with nicely groomed tree lined streets and not much else. At the gas station where we refuel, some local tells us of an inexpensive older motel just down the road. We head down there and Gus goes into the office to see what we can get. Note from the picture that not everyone in Sabetha is happy. Nevertheless, she provides us a room with three beds and an air conditioner that works – all for a total of $45.00!

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After unpacking ad completing a few house-keeping chores (in my case, a power nap) we ride a half mile or so up the road to a local eatery called Gus’s. Appropriate, eh? Unremarkable food and atmosphere, but clean and pleasant. Some guy sitting alone at a table next to us strikes up a conversation. He’s a college professor from somewhere I don’t recall and he’s in town to buy land for his oil exploration and drilling business.

Basically he’s a speculator intent on supplementing his modest professorial salary. He’s an interesting character to speak with but hard to get away from. Eventually we get away, pay our bill and head back to the motel. As we turn in to the driveway, a car follows us in. It is our talkative companion from the restaurant. He’s staying in the same place. Gus is tired and heads right into the room, but our new friend captures Rex and I for another 30 minutes or so of conversation. Eventually I get the sense he’s looking for investors in his oil speculation business. He never comes right out and says so, but the conversation is eerily similar to those I’ve had with time-share purveyors, and it is uncomfortable. Wishing him well, we finally make the break and head in to our room for a good night’s sleep.

It is now August 7th. Gus is up and packed well before Rex and I are ready. As Rex and I finish our morning routine and start loading our bikes, Gus is already sitting at the end of the driveway with his engine running and fully ready to pull onto the highway. DSC05020 I’m not sure what he thought he would accomplish by this urgency because we’ll be ready to go when we are ready to go . . . and we’re not ready, yet! Anyway, it is pretty funny and the three of us exchange appropriate barbs with one another after Rex and I get started and Willie Nelson starts belting out “On the Road Again.”

It is 0615 when we finally depart. It is only about 300 miles to Rex’s house in Broken Arrow, OK. Most of the day is spent riding through the relatively flat countryside of Kansas. As we near Tulsa, OK, we split up. Gus has severely scratched his glasses somehow (I can’t remember how or where) and they are almost unusable. If you recall, a few strands of copper wire hold my only remaining pair of glasses together. Gus finds a Lenscrafters optical store on Sue-Sue’s directory so takes my glasses along with his to their store in a Tulsa mall for repairs. Meanwhile Rex takes the lead and leads me to the local Victory dealer for a much needed oil change. Happily, this Victory dealer, Roadhouse Motorsports, is a real motorcycle shop much like the Skagit Valley dealer was back in Washington State. They focus on motorcycles rather than ATV’s and sell Victory, Indian, and Triumph bikes. Rex suggests we can save a little money and he can get home to Deb much sooner if we just buy the oil and filter and change it at his house. Great idea. The folks at the parts department are really helpful and, an added benefit is that the dealership is having an open house and has hot dogs available for a buck apiece! It is early afternoon and Deb has been working on a nice dinner for us. My thought is a quick hot dog now will tide us over nicely until dinner this evening.

We’re quickly back on the road toward Rex’s. Broken Arrow is almost a suburb of Tulsa and is just a few miles southeast of Tulsa so we make good time and ride up Rex’s driveway at about 1400. Deb is waiting and it is a nice reunion for Rex and a warm welcome for me. Gus arrives about an hour later. My glasses are fixed and his, because they require new lenses, will not be ready until tomorrow. After Gus sets up the tent he has carried for all these weeks in an effort to air it out, we partake of an afternoon cocktail sitting in lawn chairs next to the driveway of Rex and Deb’s most beautiful home.

I have mentioned Rex’s abilities with things mechanical. Their home is no exception. Together, he and Deb designed it and then built it, acting as their own general contractor with Rex doing a substantial amount of the actual construction himself. The results are spectacular. The home is gorgeous. Deborah, in anticipation of our arrival today, has prepared a repast fit for a king (or three road-weary slightly older guys) and we sup on her incredible home made lasagna and a couple bottles of excellent red wine. A truly great meal prepared from the heart and shared among wonderful people - Life is, after all, really good.

Today is Sunday, August 8th. We will spend today in a little rest and relaxation here at the Decker’s’. Rest doesn’t begin, however, until after we service our bikes and I change my oil. This simple task becomes the perfect example of a “Chinese Fire Drill”. The engine is warm because Victory recommends running the engine for a few minutes before changing the oil to warm the oil making it less viscous and easier to fully drain. Rex has an oil drip/collection pan in which to drain my old oil. It just fits under the engine of my Victory and leaves little room for me to remove and manipulate the bike’s drain plug. In removing the plug, I accidentally drop it into the drain pan. The pan has a funnel-like cover with a small hole designed to allow the oil to flow through into the pan beneath the cover. The hole is about one mm smaller than my drain plug and, as is directed by Murphy’s Law, the plug rolls into the hole and blocks the oil from flowing through. This causes the used, hot (emphasis on hot!) oil to approach overflowing the slightly concave cover of the pan and risks making a mess on Rex’s pristine garage floor! To stop the flow of oil from the bike, I stick my finger in the drain – and it is hot! Rex tries to get the plug out of the hole but it is lodged and impossible to remove without some tool or magnet or something. My finger is burning, the oil pan is plugged up and Rex and Gus are both trying to dislodge the plug from the pan’s drain hole! What a mess! Finally, as I am about to give up and suffer the slings and arrows of the owner of this immaculate garage, Rex grabs his dog’s water bowl, dumps the water and puts it under the oil drain so I can remove my finger. Whew! It takes us about 10 minutes to get the plug out of the hole and then we clean everything up and put it all back together. Had we had a movie camera running, there is no doubt we could have won the $10,000 prize on America’s Funniest Videos!

This afternoon we each do a laundry and organize for our departure tomorrow. Gus borrows Deborah’s Cadillac and drives back up to Tulsa to retrieve his glasses. While we are all putzing around, Deb puts together another scrumptious meal, (believe me, this Lady can cook!) - tonight a slowly-cooked exceptionally tender roast, and after dinner we are forced to watch a movie that Gus brought along for entertainment on the nights he can’t sleep. He reports it to be, in his opinion, one of the best war flicks ever made. “Zulu”, an action epic from 1964 starring Michael Caine, is based on the famous heroic exploits of January 22, 1897, when a handful of British soldiers, stationed at Rorke's Drift, withstood an onslaught by some 4,000 Zulu warriors. Actually, it is a pretty good movie and thanks to Rex and Deb for being such great hosts to join us in watching it even though I’m sure there is probably some “chick” flick that Deb would much rather enjoy! Gus and I make our good-byes to Rex and Deb as we all head for bed. We will arise very early tomorrow and get on the road before the stifling Oklahoma summer heat begins to radiate. Our hope is to leave quietly without waking them. I am saddened to some degree by our leaving Rex behind. Although he is my newest friend, I consider him among the very best and shall miss his quiet optimism and ever present good humor. He and Deb have been wonderful hosts for the past two days and Gus and I could not have felt more at home.  


Chapter 17  

 

Key West and Home.


It is dark, moonless and humid as we back our bikes out of Rex’s garage. We roll them down the driveway without engines running for a few feet to be as quiet as we can then fire them up and head out. It is 0500. Fortunately, Sue-Sue and Jane are exchanging data with their satellites and fully on duty; the roads leaving this part of Broken Arrow are narrow and winding and the darkness envelops us with little regard for our never having traveled here before. Without the guidance of our GPS’s and warnings of upcoming intersections and bends in the road we would have to travel much more slowly. Highway 51 is a beautiful ride with lots of “twistys” which Gus and I enjoy so much, or would enjoy were it now daylight.

The sun eventually peeks over the eastern horizon as we turn onto Highway 62 east toward the Arkansas border, which is also a beautiful ride especially now that we can see. The road follows a small river and is highlighted by shallow ups and downs over hills and hummocks and hundreds of turns, one rolling into another with hardly any straight sections between them. This is riding at its most fun and we are synced together as one, leaning left then right, braking and accelerating moving effortlessly in the formation we learned long ago in our Phantoms and now relived on our motorcycles. It is exhilarating!

After about two hours, we make our way onto highway 59 south and Gus mentions over the CB that the countryside looks strangely familiar. He realizes that he has passed this way on some previous trip and recalls a nice place to eat somewhere along in here. As we pass a sign for “Natural Dam, AR”, he slows down and pulls into a combination gas station, deli and breakfast shop. This is the “Sunshine Café” and is a perfect biker stop. The owner tries to keep a record of his patrons through photos. The walls are plastered in pictures of motorcycles and people from all over the country who have stopped for fuel and food. We order breakfast and eat at the counter so we can visit with the owner and his daughter, a cute little high school aged waitress who works for him. We’re two of only a five customers for now, perhaps because it is still very early. After eating, we go out to gas up and the owner comes out with his camera and snaps our picture. Someday I may revisit and look for us on the wall. The owner is proud of the earth’s sculpture for which Natural Dam is named. Just a few hundred yards from here is in fact a stream, dammed up by a natural rock formation and so perfectly formed it looks as though a concrete mason could have placed it there. He convinces us to take a quick look as we depart so head down an intersecting road for less than a quarter of a mile and find the dam. It is pretty and remarkable in its formation, naturally occurring and perfectly level across its top for almost 100 yards. We snap the obligatory photos, make a U-turn and head back down highway 59 and through the Ozark National Forest, destination Greenville, MS.

Presentation Natural Dam


The next three days are pretty much a blur with little of interest to report. We spend the night of August 9 in Greenville, MS, August 10th in Albany, GA and August 11th in Clewiston, Florida. It is 1200 miles of almost straight pavement, some of it Interstate, little interaction with any locals and daily temperatures rising to 102 to 108 degrees. We wear our cooling vests but even they don’t completely squelch the oppressive heat.


Presentation Cold Water

In McGehee, MS it is 108 degrees when we stop for gas and a drink and Gus does his “bucket of ice water over the head” trick. I finally concede that anything is better than suffering this heat and take the plunge myself. It does help, if only fleetingly.

Crossing the Mississippi just south of Greenville is, perhaps, the highlight of these three days because of the unique and architecturally beautiful suspension bridge over which we ride. Other than that, it is just hot and mind numbing.   Crossing the Mississippi from Arkansas into Greenville, MS

The city of Clewiston, Florida is on the southwest corner of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. We spend the night at the Plaza Travel Inn, the same motel we stayed in last winter on my maiden trip with Gus and my new Vision on our way to Key West. A quick SKYPE visit with Christine to fill the “missing her” void in my otherwise happy and satisfied countenance and it is off to dreamland.


August 12, 2001.  Willie Nelson belts out his daily rendition of “On the Road Again” over my speakers at precisely 0730. A quick breakfast at a non-descript diner (apparently with no daily men’s club) and we head south out of town on County Rd 835. This road takes us through very flat terrain with many canals and quite a bit of agriculture. For a large part of this route we traverse the tribal lands of the Seminole Indian Nation. The Seminole tribe of Florida is the only tribe in America who never signed a peace treaty. There were wars with Spaniards in the early 1500’s followed in the 1700’s by over a century of conflict with English settlers and then Americans. By May 10, 1842, when a frustrated President John Tyler ordered the end of military actions against the Seminoles, over $20 million had been spent, 1500 American soldiers had died and still no formal peace treaty had been signed. Today they remain independent and relatively prosperous (farming, tourism and casinos) in relation to other Native American tribes in the U.S.

As we approach the center of the reservation, we pass a neatly groomed ranch-style house with a life-sized statue of an American soldier next to a flagpole proudly flying the American Flag and just below that, a POW-MIA flag. We pass it quickly and only see it briefly out of the corner of our eyes. Because it was so unique to see in the front yard of a private home, Gus transmits over the CB that he wants to do a U-turn and go back to take a picture. I agree and we slow to do so. Before we can make the U-turn, a black pickup truck is approaching from the other direction so we wait until he passes before making the about face. As we approach the house and statue, the black truck now just ahead of us, slows down and makes a turn into the driveway which circles around the house. Just as we stop in front of the house and dismount, a man in cowboy hat, boots and red bandana climbs from the truck and walks toward us – I am assuming to find out who these bikers are in front of his house and what they want. Gus is quicker on the dismount than I and with a big smile on his face, walks purposefully toward the man and introduces himself as a former Marine with more than just a little curiosity about the statue. This is a great start at disarming the man’s initial concern and he responds that he too had been a Marine in Viet Nam and had been medically discharged. We three establish an instant bond.

DSCN0749The cowboy homeowner and tribal elder has a warm face and bright smile, is short in stature and a giant in pride: pride in his service, pride in his country and pride in his Indian Nation. He found the statue a few years ago at a garage sale and brought it home. He then poured a concrete foundation for the statue and placed it prominently in his yard along with a flagpole to show respect for and honor those who have fought for our freedom since the birth of the nation. He generously agrees to pose with his “war memorial” and we take a couple of pictures, thank him for his service, bid him adieu and mount up. This is yet one more of our constant “casting of strings of historical experience” which catches us a unique and pleasant encounter.

Back on the road we leave the reservation boundary, gas up and then roll out onto Interstate 75 east bound, also known as “Alligator Alley” which runs across the Everglades from Naples to Fort Lauderdale. After a few miles (and it is still fairly early so we are not subject to the oppressive heat we experienced the last few days) we exit I-75 and turn south toward Homestead Florida. After passing Homestead, we bear left off of US-1 and onto Old Card Sound Road with the intent of stopping for lunch at DSCN0759 Alabama Jack’s – again, a place where we stopped to eat on our way to Key West last winter. The original route to Key West from the mainland used Old Card Sound Road, crossing Little Card Sound over to North Key Largo. The increase in traffic and the need for the U.S. Navy to move heavy equipment to its Naval facilities during WWII required a stronger and larger bridge, which is now on US-1 a few miles further south on Key Largo . . . so this has become the road less traveled.

Alabama Jack’s is unique in all our travels. This weathered restaurant floats on two roadside barges in an old fishing community. Regulars include weekend bikers, Miamians out for a break from the city, vacationers on their way south and boaters. It is really more of an open pavilion-like structure with a large over-arching tin roof above a wooden floor surrounded by railings. Diners can stare at the mangroves and watch sea birds dive and swoop over the waters. It smells like the Keys, it looks like the Keys, and I doubt you could find a more Jimmy Buffet-like atmosphere anywhere. The waitress has the free-spirit look (complete with many tattoos) of those who prefer the “island life” rather than the structure of the business world. She is funny, friendly and efficient. At the bar are two or three middle-aged couples, the ladies somewhat in their cups, having a roaring good time. At the table next to us are three businessmen traveling through, dining on the restaurant’s “sampler platter” which is huge and looking mighty tasty even if not necessarily healthy! Gus chats them up while I make a head call then we both sit and review the menu.
Presentation Alabama Jacks
 
We both decide on the fish and chips. Even though it is not as abundant as that huge sampler platter on the table next to us,it is still too much food, mostly deep-fried, yet, everything on it is tasty and well prepared. The beauty of the day, the clarity of the air, the smell of the ocean and the knowledge that we two very good friends are nearing Key West on the final push toward the end of this spectacular trip all blend to make this one of the most euphoric days of the last forty we’ve been on the road. We linger at lunch longer than normal, ensconced in good conversation and savoring the moment.

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After lunch we pay the toll to cross Little Card Sound and turn south on Key Largo to join up with US-1 and ride the remaining 97 miles to Key West. The temperature has continued to increase and the oppressive heat has returned. Although we soaked our evaporative cooling vests before leaving Alabama Jack’s, it is hot and seemingly even hotter because we are in stop-and-go traffic on almost every key and small tourist town that we pass through. When you are stopped on a motorcycle on a hot day, there is no breeze and the engine heat rises up from below to surround the rider with even more heat. I have iced tea in my cup (carried in a handlebar mounted cup holder) and as we stop at a traffic light on Islamorada Key, I reach for the cup to take a cool sip. Stopped in her air-conditioned car in the lane on my right is an attractive 30-something young woman. She watches me take a swig of my tea and then points at the cup and shakes her finger. My initial thought is that she thinks I must be drinking alcohol and disapproves. That thought is quickly vanquished when she breaks into a big laughing smile, makes a drinking motion with her hand then passes me a quick “thumb’s up!” Obviously a party girl who thinks drinking and driving are okay in this laid back, party loving chain of islands!

I will say that despite the traffic and DSC05063 heat, the brilliant blue of the waters, the engineering of the roads and bridges and the unique island nature of all the shops and homes makes this ride down through the keys one of wonderment and beauty. On a cool day with no traffic (does that day ever exist?) this would be a magnificent ride. At around 1500 we cross the last bridge and onto the island of Key West. We make our way past the City Marina and the Naval Air Station and follow Route 1 to its very end. The end of Route 1 is well marked by signs and large groups of tourists. It is officially right in front of the City Courthouse where on the front lawn sits a large “End of the Rainbow” sign.

Gus is in the lead and pulls into a driveway leading to a parking lot behind the Courthouse building. We stop our bikes in the driveway close to the sign and put our kickstands down. No sooner have we done that then a police officer (actually he is the court Bailiff serving double duty as outside security and parking monitor) comes over to inform us that we can’t park there in the driveway. Before he can finish his statement, Gus puts on his smiley face and tells the officer that we have just ridden here from the Arctic Circle and want a picture.

The Officer instantly changes his official demeanor to one of understanding; he is a motorcycle enthusiast and awed by what we have just accomplished on ours. He says, “What the heck! Its okay to just leave the bikes there and come on over by the sign and, if you’ll give me both your cameras, I’ll take your picture together!” We hand him our cameras, provide a brief operating instruction and walk over in front of the sign. As soon as we get there, we bust out in big smiles and give each other an exuberant bear hug . . . we did it! The policeman, just getting into position with the cameras sees the hug and asks if we want to hug again so he can take a picture of it; “This is Key West after all!” We both start laughing as we shake hands. The bear hug was simply a spontaneous recognition of our having just completed what could be considered the longest one-way trip in North America. We felt great!!!

Presentation Key West End

Following the photo shoot at the end of Route 1, we get back on the bikes and ride the few blocks to the marker identifying the southernmost point of the continental United States (which is only 90 miles from Cuba) and ask a friendly tourist to take another picture for us. Then we head back up the road to the Naval Air Station, pass through the gate and ride over to the Navy Lodge. The Navy Lodge is a very nice military-sponsored (using non-appropriated funds) hotel-like facility for the use of servicemen and/or their families when traveling to military bases away from home. Our ability to stay in it (at a substantial cost savings from out-in-town hotels) is a benefit of our being retired Marines.

The facility is well appointed and sits at the backside of the base overlooking theNavy lodge, Key West, Florida crystal clear waters of the surrounding ocean. There is always a certain calm and sense of security that arises in me when I am back on a military facility. After all those years living on places like this, it seems as though I am home again among friends. We have a room with two beds so Gus doesn’t have to pump up his air mattress tonight. After checking in and cleaning up a bit, we call Stu and report that we have arrived. He suggests a place to eat and tells us he’ll be over around 1800 with Marianne to pick us up.


Right on time, he and Marianne show up in their Chrysler PT Cruiser and take us to the Rusty Anchor restaurant for their weekly lobster special. The restaurant is informal and decorated in a nautical motif – no surprise here! The lobster and sides are excellent and the conversation, even better. I am reminded once again how much I enjoy this couple and how disappointed I am that Stu was unable to ride on this trip with us. Gus and I share a few of our experiences, somewhat reluctantly, inasmuch as we don’t want to bore Marianne or create any regrets in Stu. Since we are planning a very early get-up tomorrow morning, we pass our regrets to Stu and Marianne for being “short ball hitters” and ask to be taken back to the base so we can get to bed. Before they leave the parking lot of the Navy Lodge, they get out of their car to inspect my Victory, leaving Gus mumbling as he does whenever anyone expresses interest in my George Jetson-looking rocket ship.

Dinner with Marianne and Stu in Key West DSC05076

It is Friday morning, day 41 of the trip. We awake at 0400, clean up and pack up. Our intent is to be on the road before the heat and traffic. By 0450 we’re making our way past the guard shack at the entrance to the base and turn left on Highway 1 north. The early departure is a good plan. August 13, 2010: sunrise over Key Largo on the way homeThe morning  is cool and there are but a few cars on the road. My only disappointment is the darkness for so many miles and therefore only the unnatural lights of humankind on all the various islands along the way and nothing of the natural environment. It is not until we turn north off of Key Largo that we begin to see the golden rays of first light rising off to our rear quarter and reflecting across the placid waters.

I find myself in quiet reflection this morning. It is with eager anticipation that I will see Christine again, and I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that I missed her over the past several weeks. We have a blessed relationship and I have missed our love, laughter and quiet times together, our weekend morning coffee in bed, our family dinners and our daily discussions about anything and everything. She is the love of my life. At the same time I have a sense of sadness - sadness that this amazing journey with its new sights and experiences, its spontaneity, its freedom and its good times with close companions is coming to an end. I have the best of all worlds, and I am thankful.

Around noon, we take our cue from the GPS’s calculations of arrival time and Gus calls Christine to tell her we should be arriving around 1430. We remain off the interstates and toll roads, preferring as always to take the road less traveled. Our route today takes us up the east side of Lake Okeechobee, west of Miami and, further north, east of Orlando. It is a nice ride, often through farmland, and despite the never-ending flatness of Florida, we do find a few roads that have broad sweeping turns.

Right on the mark of 1430 we pull into my garage, the door conveniently left open by my beautiful bride for our benefit. As I turn off the engine on my trusty Victory Vision and record the final mileage at 19,917, Christine comes out the door with a great big smile. I’m overwhelmed to see her. Glad to be home. Gus snaps a couple of last pictures in the garage, among them pictures of our two well-worn and tattered American flags that have served us so proudly all these many miles.


Presentation Home

We offload the bikes, carry as much as we can into the house and then clean up for dinner later. Christine has planned a scrumptious barbeque and my brother John and his wife, Rosemary, who live nearby will join us. We share cocktails at 1700 and dine splendidly on grilled Ribeye steak, two different homemade salads, bread and dessert after. It is a great welcome and I’m pleased that John and Ro have joined us although somehow I become the butt of many stories, amplified in their telling by my brother or embellished by my good friend Gus. Good food, good friends, good fellowship; we have a grand evening.

Saturday morning. Gus is up early (of course) and preparing for his trip home to South Carolina. It has rained a little during the night so Gus dons his rain gear and we have a quick cup of coffee. After he’s loaded, we say a quick goodbye, he backs his Gold Wing out of the garage and we part company with a promise to do something similar, perhaps the Canadian Maritimes, in a year or so.  In mid-afternoon, he calls to let me know he’s made it home safely. . . Journey complete.

This journey started as a “bucket list” trip and I am happy to check it off the list as complete. During the course of the last six weeks, the experience became even more than I expected. Perhaps the greatest achievement was the restoration of my sense in the greater good of mankind. We met wonderful people, all characters in their own way, and all helpful out of a basic goodness and generosity in their soul. I’ve added three more places to my list of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” song, and hundreds more which were not included in his minstrel’s travels. I was gone 41 days and covered a total of 13,806 miles, riding through 20 states and 4 Canadian provinces. I qualified for membership in the Iron Butt Association by riding over 1000 miles in less than 24 hours. We rode the entire 1,390-mile length of the ALCAN Highway, all in good weather, and rode to the Arctic Circle and back on motorcycles. We completed one of the longest of one-way trips that can be made in North America, riding from the Arctic Circle to Key West, Florida. My Vision averaged 48.8 miles per gallon and I filled the tank 94 times. Total expenses for gas, food, lodging, new headset, new tires and maintenance was $4,800.00 or $117.00 per day average. I have built on the bond of brotherhood that Gus and I started 37 years ago and established a new one with Rex which I hope lasts for the rest of our lives. I remain deeply indebted to Gus for getting me back on the road after a couple years of being without a motorcycle and to Christine for her understanding and acceptance.  

Epilogue


It has taken me a year to complete the writing of this journal. Fortunately I spent the first couple of weeks upon my return sorting, labeling and geographically cataloging all the photos I took during the course of the trip. Those photos, coupled with my fuel logs, MasterCard statements, and Google maps were the tools necessary to reconstruct this journey as the months passed. In my final paragraph, I had wanted to post, and have looked for, a quote that sums my feelings. None of the great orators have hit it exactly so I’ll go with my own emotions:  Every day of our lives is a gift. We know not how many we will have. Each day is expendable, can be used only once and regardless of how it is spent, can never be used again for once it is gone it is gone forever.  A life well lived is one that uses every day wisely; there is no such thing in anyone’s life as an unimportant day. And so it was with this trip. Every day contained a glass that was at least half full . . . and we did indeed “fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run”.

 
  View Slide Show  For any reader who has come this far, congratulations!  These slides are the same ones that I linked to near the beginning of my journal.  If you didn’t stop to view them then, this will take you there now.  There are many more photos in the slide show than have been in the written journal, and most are labeled and geographically tagged.


  Following is a Google Earth snap shot of our entire route.  The blue segment in Southern Alaska represents the route of the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry:
Full route Google Earth Image