Part 3. Up to Prudhoe Bay, Deadhorse, Alaska


Monday, June 23, 2008

At the border crossing into the U.S.--the northern-most U.S. border crossing--I was the only person there when I arrived. The completely bored, young border guard stood there and didn't even look directly at me until I was fully stopped next to the stop sign, engine turned off, side stand down, and off the bike. He then slowly pointed his face in my direction (although I'm sure he wasn't actually looking at me) and waved me forward. Okay, then. I got back on the bike and pulled up to the line. He asked me for identification as he looked at my dirty motorcycle. I handed him my driver's license, which he immediately handed back to me. "I need to see a passport," he said wearily. "This is worthless as an I.D."

I told him that I had a passport, but that it was locked in my aluminum box and would take a while to get to. He didn't care. I asked him if I could move the bike out of the way, since other cars were arriving behind me. He nodded and pointed to an area just beyond. I left Mister Personality to antagonize the next victims, and started to unload my gear to get to my passport. I suppose that I should have had it ready, but I had heard that passports were not yet required for land crossings.

I got the passport out and waited with it until he was ready for me. I took a photo of the building next to the border crossing office, but was careful to not point my camera in his direction. Didn't want to take any chances.

The border guard strolled over to me, wrote my bike's license plate number down in his notebook (is that a bad thing?) and held out his hand for my passport. I handed it to him, he glanced at it, then asked me the usual questions about my purpose for bothering him... er, I mean my purpose for entering the U.S. He asked no follow-up questions and handed me the passport before walking off. His uniform was spiffy and neatly ironed, so he had that going for him.

The road was very pretty, and the weather was nice. I think that I was lulled by the nice ride, and when I got to the turn-off to the town of Eagle, I supposed that the chain and sprocket would hold up for the 130-mile detour. I was wrong.

It was 65 miles to Eagle, and the dirt road had some of the worst gravel I have ever ridden. There were sections of very large, sharp-edged broken rock, golf ball-sized and larger. The recently-crushed gravel rock was a red color and contrasted sharply with the underlying yellower dirt road. When I approached each stretch of the sinister rocks, I stood up and made myself relax. Because the gravel was big and sharp-edged, riding over it caused the rocks to snap and pop and throw my front tire around. It was impossible to ride a comfortable speed on the sharp turns and steep grades on this rock, so it was tense progress. My chain was getting torqued a lot. I started getting the feeling that I had made yet another bad decision.

The broken rock sections ended, and the road entered the mountains. I crossed a long bridge over a big river. I would make it only this far on the way back down.

One truck almost got me on a sharp turn. I was afraid to get close to the edge of the road when the surface was bad, since the drop-offs were sometimes serious. The truck came around one of the sharp turns too fast and was on my side of the road. I slowed and he was able to pull back to his side, and we passed each other within a foot or two. Many of the turns were decreasing-radius (got tighter as you went through the turn), and were downright scary.

I refused to turn around, and I finally got to Eagle in the rain. The town was small, not much there, but seemed a nice community. I took a couple photos where the road dead-ended at the Yukon River.

I had passed a gas station on the way into town, and I headed back there. As soon as I started moving, I felt and heard the chain slip briefly over the front sprocket. The teeth of the sprocket were starting to wear off. The final death of the sprocket was imminent, so I tightened the chain again--which turned out to not be much of an adjustment. The adjusters were maxed out and there was no more to be done.

I have heard of some riders removing a chain link to shorten the chain, and I carried a few extra master links for chain repairs, so I considered it. I've never done such work on a chain, and although I had the tools and the parts, I was reluctant to begin. First, it was raining and I didn't want to spend the next two hours doing the work in a parking lot. Second, once the chain was severed it was all or nothing--if I goofed up the fix, I had no chain left. What would a care-free adventurer do?

Motor on, of course.

I eased the bike up the hill and out to the wooded edge of town, and managed it well enough with hardly any slipping. I stopped at the Telegraph Hill gas/service station, and the guy there came out in the drizzle (like he didn't even notice it) to pump my gas himself. Some people start conversations easily, know what I mean? He grilled me quickly and efficiently, and remembered everything I told him. I also learned all about Bo in the next half-hour.

Bo had been "working in the hills" when he suffered a bad back injury that had him laid up for a long time. He bought this service station in 1992, but he's been "up here" for over 30 years. Like a lot of small gas stations, he bought whatever gas was cheapest at the time, and he ranted briefly about people who were brand-conscious when it came to gasoline. Then he ranted about how hard it was to get anything done anymore. He was very articulate, obviously well educated.

I asked about the two-seater airplane parked in the lot behind a broken-looking truck. He assured me that it still works, and he takes it to Tok every now and then. I automatically had this image of him "flying" the plane on the bumpy road all the way to Tok, the propeller screwing up a 65-mile long dust storm. Somehow, I couldn't conjure an image of the plane actually flying. In fact, I'm not sure that he local hills had a flat spot big enough for an air strip. The local road, maybe.

When he asked what I did "back home," I told him I had recently retired from police work. That turned out to be his favorite thing to bitch about, so we had to go inside to finish paying for the gas and give the topic of police work the attention that Bo felt it needed. His office was like a bad movie set, the kind of place where some slasher flick starts to get really gory. The room was a character in itself.

As soon as we entered the office, I knew I was back in the U.S.A. Behind the door was a pump-action shotgun leaning into a corner, and a loaded revolver was on a shelf next to his desk. Boxes of ammo were scattered around the room, mixed in with stacks of automobile magazines, open cartons of candy bars (for sale?), car parts, broken furniture, pieces of lumber, stacked cardboard boxes (none appeared to be leaking blood, so that was good), and several dusty chairs. Next to the desk was what looked like a go-cart tire. I would have taken a photo of the room, but Bo seemed to be wrapped a little too tight. I sat in the least dusty chair and Bo stepped over a big box (full of peanut shells and candy wrappers) to get to his desk chair. The desk itself was completely covered with piles of crap. It was obvious that this was going to take a while.

When I handed Bo my credit card, he slumped and asked if I could write him a check. Disappointed, he shoved over a stack of magazines and found the cord for his telephone. He plugged the cord into the wall socket and moved other things around while he looked for his credit card scanner. He talked the whole time about all the police officers who have screwed him over. He told me that he never got pulled over when he used to drink a lot, but now that he doesn't drink anymore, he's been stopped and harassed many times. To any police officer, this is a familiar rant.

On the wall behind Bo's desk was a photo of George W. Bush, an American flag, and car photos that had been torn from magazines. Go to his shop and see if I'm lying about Bo's office.

Bo finally gave up on getting the card reader to work, but he found his old manual card impression roller, and he worked to get one of his old carbon slips to fit into it. He griped about the fees that credit card companies demanded. I felt that it was necessary to offer cash instead, but he insisted that he could get the darned thing to work. It's been years since I've heard that "shick-shick" sound of the impression roller going back and forth over a credit card, and it seemed nostalgic.

I signed the slip, got my copy, and started moving toward the door. This required Bo to follow, and we ended up back outside in the drizzle while Bo finished his story about that Las Vegas cop who stopped him for no reason.

I managed to change the subject, and he lost his steam. Up until this time, I didn't know his name, and when I asked, he drew "Bo" in the air with his finger while he said it aloud. He even wrote it in mirror-image, so it was legible from my perspective. He's done that before, I thought. I promised him that I would tell everyone I knew to come to him for gas and gab if they ever got to Eagle. He let me take his photo, so that people would know it was him when they got here.

I told Bo that I was concerned about making it to Chicken or to Tok, and showed him my chain and sprocket. He looked at the tortured parts and told me that I would never make it.

I mounted the bike and started onward. As long as I was moving steady, things went well enough. When I had to accelerate or climb a hill, the chain would slip and grind with increasing frequency. I stopped and looked at the sprocket. It was almost completely rounded-off, only the suggestion of teeth left.

A family in a tiny SUV came by, headed for Eagle, and they stopped to ask if I was okay (I was sitting in the rain next to a motorcycle on a winding muddy road, so it was an obvious but unnecessary question). I told them the problem, but there was nothing they could do for me. I assured them that whatever happened, I would be okay.

I started coasting down hills when I could, just trying to squeeze out whatever miles I could before the end came. The end came quickly.

I was maybe 40 miles from Eagle, amazed to have gotten that far, and I decided to stop at a safe location. I coasted down a gentle slope toward a river. I remembered this area, and knew that there was a large parking area on the other end of the bridge. I glided across the bridge, turned into the nearly-flooded dirt lot, and saw a few trucks parked there. Coming from the other direction were several more trucks, some of them towing trailers. They turned into the parking lot right behind me.

I worked the bike to the back of the parking lot, expecting that I might be camping there for the night. The mosquitoes greeted me, and we were old friends right away. It was impossible to ignore the noise my chain was making, and the men and boys from the trucks were just staring at me. I walked over to them and told them that my chain and sprocket had given out. I couldn't quite bring myself to ask for their help, and the closest I got was to ask if they knew any way for me to get to Tok (several hours away). They didn't, so I started to unload the bike. I took a photo of myself, in case I was never seen again.

I then walked out to the bridge in the rain to update my notes and wait for the next passing car. None ever came by.

The group in the trucks turned out to be a Troop of Boy Scouts. I kid you not. After they began to unload their rafts and camping gear under the bridge, they offered to help me out. I took a few photos as they got the kids organized. They were from Anchorage, on a 5-day rafting and camping trip. The kids started shooting fireworks off in the mud lot. Then there were bottle rockets. The loud reports from the fireworks echoed back from the canyon walls very clearly.

One of the men, Dave, put a ramp at the back of his truck, and they all helped me push the heavy bike up. We strapped it down on four points, and Dave had me toss my jackets, helmet, and other gear into the back of his quad-cab diesel monster truck.

We chatted lightly about various things as he drove me back over the red broken rock (which I would never have been able to manage on my bike), then he turned toward Chicken, back on the Top Of The World Highway. It was beautiful in spots.

An hour into the ride, we managed to get onto the subject of the military (he was obviously currently serving). He was in the 9th Ranger Battalion, currently stationed in Anchorage while recovering from wounds he had suffered in Afghanistan last year. He had been torn apart by a rocket that hit a wall right next to him, and he had his guts ripped out and almost lost both legs. He had seemed a bit gimpy while we loaded the bike, and I appreciated even more that he had agreed to help me.

I told him that he Army unit I had been stationed with (back in the '70's) was apparently now located somewhere in Alaska. I told him that I had been in the 164th Military Police Company, and he said, "Oh, yeah. They're right there with me at Fort Ridge." We agreed that the world is tiny, indeed.

Once in Chicken, we had a problem. We had neglected to bring the big ATV ramp with us. No problem, we were each used to solving problems. We pulled into the part of Chicken that is "down the hill." Although this building is new, it's the older of the businesses in Chicken.

We started looking for ways to unload the bike. A bearded guy came out from the gift shop and asked what we needed. He pointed out a pile of old lumber and we took a plank to a big gravel pile nearby. Dave backed his truck to the pile and we carefully backed the bike down the plank until the back tire hit the higher gravel. Between the two of us, it might have been possible to push the bike backwards up onto the gravel, but that would have been work. I steadied the bike and Dave just drove the truck forward, out from under the front end of the plank. Worked like a charm; the plank dropped, the bike bounced a couple of times, and all was well. Whew.

I insisted on filling Dave's fuel tank, and he resisted. "Do you know what it costs to fill this tank?" he asked. I told him that I didn't care, that his help to me was worth it. The bearded guy from the store heard this and agreed that calling a tow truck from Tok would have cost at least $800. I was happy to fill Dave's tank. Dave gave me his phone number in Anchorage, and insisted that I call him when I get there. He and his wife would be happy to put me up and feed me. Great guy. I thanked him again as he headed back to the Scout troop, a couple hours away.

So far, everyone has been wonderful, if only in their own way. Some, like Dave, were wonderful in big, obvious ways.

I came to learn that the bearded guy who runs the gift shop was Scott, and by his accent it was obvious that he was from Bah Hahbah, Maine. That would be Bar Harbor to you and me. He had been locking up the shop, since they were actually closed, but stayed open when he learned about my issue. As it was, I bought ice cream and a few snacks and kept him open long enough that several bikes, cars, and RVs came through with their credit cards at the ready.

Scott told me that there was no phone service here, but that they had wi-fi internet access. He said that I could probably bum a ride from someone to Tok, and could call the bike shop in Fairbanks about my parts. If necessary, I could arrange for them to mail my parts to me in Tok or Chicken. There was nothing else to do.

We talked about Greater Downtown Chicken, about the local historical walking tour (which Scott leads), the local "Over The Top" dogsled event each year (Scott cooks the food), the ghost towns nearby (Scott is the local archeologist and geologist), the new gift shop we were in (Scott helped build it and was currently installing the sinks and urinals), the new flush toilets (!) in the shop, the ambulance and fire truck in the parking lot (Scott is the regional paramedic).

You get the idea about Scott. I was surprised to learn that Scott didn't own the shop, but works for a guy named Bronc.

Scott had a brainstorm, and suddenly grilled me on which motorcycle shop in Fairbanks had my parts, my name, etc., and he sent a text message (via his internet connection in the shop) to Bronc, who was on a 2-day errand in Tok and Fairbanks. He assured me that Bronc could pick up my parts, and we should know by tomorrow. If that worked, I just had to hang out in Chicken for a couple nights. That didn't seem like a tough thing to do.

An hour after he should have been drunk already, Scott finally locked the doors. He had directed me to pitch my tent under a roofed picnic area across the parking lot. The rain was light, but I was happy to do that.

After getting the tent up, sheltered from the heavy rain, I followed Scott's directions and slogged "up the hill" to the local saloon at about 22:30. This is the classical image of Chicken; the gift shop, the liquor store, the saloon, the caged attack chicken (according to the sign), the cafe, the bakery. I think that there actually was a chicken in the cage, but it wasn't attacking anything at the time.

Scott had also sent me on a mission. I was to find Wayne and tell him to go find Scott, and to tell Wayne that it was an emergency.

The tiny bar itself was empty because the people (all six of them) were all sitting out front. Sue was obviously the boss. She ordered me to tell her what I wanted right away because, as she put it, "The bar is closing right now because my bartender is sick and I have to get up early to bake the pies for tomorrow so the bar is closing right now and I can't stay up any more so what kind of beer do you want because I have to close the bar because my bartender is sick and I can't stay up so late tonight so the bar is closing right now so what kind of beer do you want because I don't have time to mix any drinks and I only have time for beers and that's it because I have to close the bar..."

Yeeks! I think she was toasted. Maybe she was just stressed. In any event, it took her about half an hour to close the bar "right away," and I got her to pour me a couple pints of some unidentified beer. After I had my beers, another guy pointed out a chair on the patio and said I should sit. I did, and I joined in whatever conversation was going on around Sue's unending complaint about her bartender being sick and she had to get up early to make the pies so she couldn't stay up so late so the bar was closing because she had to get up early... Sorry, now she's got me doing it.

I asked if anyone was Wayne, and he identified himself. I told him that Scott needed to see him right away and that it was an emergency. "Yup," was all Wayne said, and he sipped his beer. When Sue heard Scott's name, she griped about him for a while. It seems that there is some bad blood between the part of the town that is "up the hill," and the part that is "down the hill." I won't bore you with the details, but I heard it all. I thought that it was all very "small town," and quaint. They had the only two gas pumps, so there was competition. Wayne casually wandered off to find Scott, and I gabbed with the others for a while.

Wayne had left, leaving Sue at the picnic table. Ken and Sandy in the background on the left, my two beers at the blue camp chair on the right. The local sots in the foreground at left.

Finally, Sue literally leapt to her feet and screamed, "I have to go! Bar's closed!" She slammed and locked the rickety door (which had a couple of holes patched in it) and strode away, around the building and out of sight. The other customers laughed. Our group now was a motorcycling couple (Ken and Sandy, from British Columbia), two locals (both completely drunk), and me. I chatted with Ken and Sandy about our rides, and the local guys mumbled along.

Ken gave me his card and I promised to send him an internet link to my ride report. I saw (by his card) that he was a trainer for a fire department. Makes sense; that had looked like a fireman's mustache and not at all like a policeman's mustache. Hah!

When the rain stopped, the drunk guys announced that they were heading off. The drunker of the two staggered ahead toward a pickup truck, and I asked the other guy which of them was driving. The guy I asked pointed to empty space and said, "He is, it's his truck." It took him a moment to realize he wasn't pointing at anyone, so he turned his whole body until his arm was pointed to the guy trying to open the truck door. "He is," the guy repeated. "It's his truck."

"Well, okay, then," I said. "I just wanted to know who's truck it was," I lied. The two guys took a while to get into the truck and finally puttered off very slowly. I reminded myself that I was retired, I had a swig of my beer, and I chose to not care about the two guys any more. Ahhhhh...

A German couple came striding by. They talked with us for a while, but said that they had to get at least 30 minutes of walking done before bed time. They were in a rented RV that they had picked up in Whitehorse, Yukon. They had 5 weeks of vacation to use, and by the looks of them, every moment was well-regulated. Their allowed ten minutes of talk time exhausted, they went off down the road. They were even walking in sync.

It was close to midnight (no darkness to be found) when Ken and Sandy said good-night. Sue was allowing them to use a cabin of some kind behind the saloon, since it was no longer used. Something about Sue's mother-in-law used to live back there...? (If you know the story, you are already laughing.) I slogged back "down the hill" to my tent.

I sent a SPoT Check signal at some point that evening, but I don't remember when.

It started drizzling again after I zipped into the tent. Fell asleep right away, apparently.

I was HERE

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I was awakened early by the sounds of traffic going through the parking lot. It was hot sunny, so after dozing and contemplating the world's many problems, I finally dragged myself out of the tent at 08:00. Scott sent another text message to Bronc, who was either still in Tok or enroute to Fairbanks. I hung around the store, buying breakfast and snacks for the day (I wasn't going anywhere). I chatted with the passers-through, had a few laughs with them at my expense after telling them about my predicament.

Scott did his rounds through the RV campground, and came back to the shop in a fury. "Fahking electrician, my ahhs!" he shouted. Apparently some guy in one of the RVs had fiddled with the electrical switch box during the night and had accidentally shut off the power to other sites. Scott had kicked the guy out of the park, revoking his second night's reservation. When the guy's RV drove slowly out past the store/office, Scott told me that he hoped the guy would come inside to argue some more, because Scott hadn't kicked anyone's ass in a while. The guy did not come in for a whooping, but kept driving out of the campground.

The wi-fi was working again (it had been knocked out the previous evening by storms), so I set up shop on one of the picnic tables in front of the shop and stayed there most of the day. I got a few more days of my online ride report uploaded, so that was good.

Several tourists and I watched a cow moose and two calves walk across the road about a hundred yards away. They were totally casual about the cars that were approaching them. I guess they were locals.

Scott had me move my bike from the picnic shelter, so I broke camp and loaded it all back on the bike. I barely managed to get the bike tucked away behind some service buildings.

The guy who ran the tire shop there (and did other miscellaneous tasks) was called Digger. I watched him fix a few flats and do some other work on some cars.

Ken and Sandy rode out, stopping to say bye. It's the first look I got of his '92 Norton with a custom faring.

The weather got cooler, more humid and clammy. It was a big storm front moving in.

We finally got a response from Bronc, and he would go to the motorcycle shop and get a chain and sprockets if they had any. That made me feel better. Just after that news, a couple riders come into the lot and start fiddling with their bikes. One was a BMW that had some electrical problem, and the other was a KLR that was even more loaded than mine. They bought some stuff in the store, then went back out to the bikes. I wandered over and talked with them. They were at the end of their ride, and were headed for home. The KLR rider asked if I was the guy stuck with a worn-out sprocket (Scott had apparently been advocating on my behalf in the store), and I admitted that I was.

"Guess what I have in my pocket," the guy asked. "Ummm..." I started, but he took out and displayed his well-used spare sprocket before I could make my guess. "Here," he said, "You can have it." He also gave me his business card and said that I could send him another one when I got home. Just like that, I was a lot better off. The guy's name is Ron Cline, and he works at (or owns?) G&R Plumbing in Firebaugh, California. Send him your business if you need HVAC work in the area, okay? That's Ron on the right.

I knew that with the sprocket, I could make the bike go. The chain was also toast, but it hadn't broken yet. I felt better still, knowing that if Bronc was unsuccessful in Fairbanks, I could almost certainly get there now.

A caravan of sixteen big RVs and motor coaches rolled into the parking lot like a circus coming to town. It was an impressive sight. I munched a couple Hot Pockets and drank coffee while watching them for nearly an hour. The license plates were from all over the U.S., mostly from the Southern states. They had come a long way. They pumped a lot of fuel, bought a lot of t-shirts, ate a lot of junk food, and knocked a lot of merchandise on the floor. When one of them complained that the new toilets weren't flushing very well, Scott explained that the water here was very "hard" with minerals, and even clean, treated water had a slight yellowish tint to it. The tourist seemed dubious.

The sky stopped teasing and finally just turned to rain. Lots of rain. The parking lot flooded and the river started to ease up over the banks. The customer traffic eased up and we stood and watched the downpour. The internet connection had crashed as soon as the rain started.

By dinner time, the rain had ended. Scott called me over to where he had set up on a picnic table. Prime rib cooked with teriyaki sauce and slices of garlic, wild rice, corn. He had cooked enough for me, too! Geez, I started to feel like a "kept" man. The gal working in the store, Jessica, ate with us. She was from Texas, here to visit someone. "The job just came with the visit," she explained. "I'll work for a while and head home." I have no idea who she might be visiting. Digger finally showed up and finished off all the food.

I kept offering to help with chores, and Scott almost had me help him with installing some of the wiring and plumbing on the bathrooms, but he finally decided not to take the chance that I would kill myself with his tools.

Bronc wasn't expected back until very late, so there was nothing else to do.

Digger offered me a beer (he had a stash in his truck), but I said that I would wait a while. Scott scoffed, and said that I hadn't been in Chicken long enough to start drinking at noon like the others here. Then we stood around saying "Yup" a lot.

"Might rain again."

"Yup. Gettin' colder, too."


I noticed that the old outhouses behind the new building (still being used) had latches on the inside and on the outside. Why on the outside? I forgot to ask anyone. Maybe it was to pull a prank on someone by locking them in. Maybe it was to keep the bears out at night?

At about 21:30, I heard BOOM! from up the hill. "Panty cannon," Scott said.

"Yup," Digger agreed.

Panty cannon?

I had it explained to me that along with the baseball caps nailed to the walls and ceiling in the saloon, there were the shredded remains of women's underwear. If a gal offered up her dainties, they were stuffed into a black power cannon and blasted out into the parking lot. Whatever was left was mounted like a trophy in the saloon. I hadn't been inside the saloon yesterday (because Sue was going spastic when I got there), so I hadn't seen the decorations.

I finished writing at about 22:30, put the computer back into one of the aluminum boxes on the bike, and headed for the tiny saloon.

There were fewer than a dozen people there when I arrived, drinking and shooting pool. A few at the bar had European accents. Scott, Jessica, and Wayne were sitting at one end of the bar, and I bought Scott his next beer.

Finally got to see the decorations. Scott pointed out his hat that he had nailed to the ceiling several years ago. It had "Madman" written on the bill.

A short while later, about twenty people crowded in. The Australians and Europeans were all in a tour van convoy, having come up from San Francisco. They were a bit of a hippie group, I suppose, ages ranging from late teens to early 60's. None of the pretty girls volunteered their undies (if they were wearing any), so I didn't get to see the cannon in action.

There were a couple holes in the door, "mistakes," apparently. Scott said that sometimes they mis-handled the cannon. That was not comforting. One of the holes in the door was patched on the inside with a piece of particle board, the other had an old brass porthole mounted over it.

The jukebox played 45 rpm vinyl records. These were old records, scratched and just about worn out. I found out that John Denver's Rocky Mountain High is the most popular song in Chicken. It played dozens of times while I was there. Some other odd country, old rock, blues music, but Rocky Mountain High was mixed in between them all. One song sounded like Elvis, but it was so far gone that it was unrecognizable.

Gary, the bartended, had been in the Marines for 26 years, ended up in Chicken, and intended to stay there. I suppose he had other things to do besides tend bar on occasion.

When it was time to leave, Scott and Jessica insisted that I not pitch my tent again, but instead they let me sleep in one of the cabin rooms that hadn't been cleaned yet. It was a basic room, bed with a plastic-covered mattress, a small night stand, plywood floor. It was wonderful. I threw my sleeping bag on the mattress, and I was set.

I had another temporal disorientation, since it was 01:00 yet still light out.

I heard Scott talking outside with someone, so I went out to meet Bronc, the owner of the place. He had tried to locate my parts, but the motorcycle shop had no idea what he was talking about. No one had claimed to have taken a call from me last week about a chain and sprockets.

Oh, bother.

What the heck. I had a used sprocket and a chain that hadn't broken yet.

I was set for another day.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I got out of the cabin room early to take a leak, then snoozed again until 08:00.

Once I snacked on stuff that I will call "breakfast," I got to work on the bike. I unloaded the bike and got it up onto the center stand. The sandy, gravel soil was so soft that I needed to get some scraps of wood to put under it to keep it from sinking altogether.

Another shot of the front sprocket, and one of the rear.

Dig this chain. Some links have rollers and some don't. It was no wonder that it kept jerking and was hard to keep tightened, but it was a definite wonder that it didn't snap before now. I was depending on it to hold a bit longer.

The sprocket, being so far gone, would not hold the chain enough to allow me to break loose the nut that holds the sprocket in place. I had been sure to have the right size socket, and to ensure that I could break it loose with the tools I carried, but that was with a good, tight chain. Every time I tried to break the nut loose, the engine would roll over its compression and the gears would move.

When Digger came out to his tire shop, I asked if I could use his pneumatic wrench. He said I could, then he got it set up for me. As I got the air hose pulled out and move the bike closer to his shop, he got into his truck and left. I later found out that he was on an errand to Tok, and was going to be gone most of the day.

Even with the air gun, I had to put a piece of pipe on the chain and stand on it, just to keep it from rolling over. The nut off, everything else was easy. I installed the new (used) sprocket, let out the chain adjuster nuts all the way, got everything mounted back on, and snugged the chain adjusters back up. With the chain so damaged, I was torn between leaving it a bit slack or making it snug. I ended up making it a bit more taut that I would normally do, just to keep it from slapping around.

I was done by 10:00, and as I took the bike off the center stand, it rolled away from me a bit and flopped over. Some tourists from another RV caravan looked horrified when the bike fell over, but they didn't know that it was normal for me. I got the bike back up right away and tried to look casual about it.

I loaded the bike up, said my goodbyes, and left a big tip for Scott.

As I rode out of the parking lot and headed for the main road, I tapped the rear brake and nothing happened. I grabbed the front brake and kept from rolling into passing traffic, then made a u-turn and went back to the parking lot. I found that one of the rear brake pads had fallen out. I finally found it in the gravel where I had been working, and got it back in there. It was worn thin, but would do for a while. Extra brake pads were something that I had with me.

The ride to Tok was easy, more of the typical scenery.

Bronc had suggested a place in Tok for a chain, so I hunted until I found Tony's Stihl Shop, where chain saws and snowmobiles were the main items serviced. Bryce was a whiz with a chain breaker, and we had the old chain off in no time. He measured and cut a new section of #520 0-ring chain, 106 links (with a masterlink), for $126. With Bryce's help, I had the new chain on in no time, and was much better off. He said that the chain was for snowmobiles, and was designed for heavy duty--intended for harder use than a dual sport motorcycle.

While I worked on the chain, a guy on a bicycle came by several times, worried about his chain and insisting that it didn't feel right. Bryce alternated helping me, helping the bicycle guy, and several people who came by with chain saws that needed some minor service.

After the bicycle guy was finally satisfied, I joked with him that I might need someone to follow me to Fairbanks with more parts. He said he would be glad to help, but I'd need a tow rope for him, because he couldn't pedal that fast.

After lunch at Fast Eddy's, which I chose based on Bryce's recommendation, I was feeling good. I had saved the old sprocket and chain, which I later mailed home, and I intend them to be reminders to myself to not be complacent about parts that start to go bad.

Riding toward Fairbanks was sweet. The chain was playing nicely on the sprockets. I took it real easy during the ride, not accelerating hard or getting to great speeds. Traffic was heavier between Tok and Fairbanks, but the road was great.

The rivers in this area were wide, sandy, and shallow.

I got to Delta Junction, the official northern end of the Alaska Highway. I pulled into the tourist area and rode through the posts to put my bike next to the monument-style signpost. I talked a Harley rider into taking my photo, but he seemed to resent having been asked. I told him that I was a celebrity, because I was famous at my house, and that seemed to ease the tension. I think that he got the joke.

The Tanana and Salcha rivers meet in Delta Junction (I hope that I got that right), and it's a decent sized town. But I needed to be elsewhere, so I didn't look around. From this point and northward, I saw more and more motorcycles loaded up for the "big ride." It seemed that a third of the bikes were BMWs, a third were KLRs, and a third were big cruisers such as Harleys and Gold Wings. Only a few other types of bikes. Many loaded heavy like mine, some even more so.

I took fewer and fewer photos when on paved roads, I noticed. The easy riding seems too easy, less engaging and involved somehow.

After passing Eielson Air Force Base, I did a riding tour of Fairbanks, getting to know the place. Most motels were out of my price range, which I was getting used to. Even places that should have been cheap were over $100 per night. I later found that many hotels and motels were full of military personnel, so vacancies were few and that drives prices up.

I rode into the "downtown" area and it looked nice and well-maintained. I pulled in to the Towne House Motel with little anticipation. It looked well-kept, but it was a typical style that suggested (to my police instincts) that it had once been a trouble spot.

The motel was undergoing some remodeling of the office area, and I walked through some minor construction to get into the office. In the office, I was surprised. It was one of the rooms that had been re-done to serve as an office, and it was set up to look just like someone's living room with a desk. And a baby grand piano.

The gal behind the desk was having dinner with an older guy who was sitting in one of the chairs. I got to kidding around with them right away and soon we were talking like old friends.

The guy told me that he never got into riding motorcycles because it seemed too risky to him. I talked about the risks for a few minutes, but fortunately not for long. He told me that he had driven to Alaska in an old van back in 1954, when part of the Alaska Highway was a wooden road. He had since been flying aircraft in the state ever since, mostly bush planes and some sea planes. I was glad that I had shut up about the risks of riding motorcycles.

When I found that the rooms were $120 per night, I gagged a bit, but I was tired and I was ready to be done for the day. I said okay, and declined a chance to inspect the room before paying. It turns out that Connie, the manager/owner, is very proud of her rooms. I got the Hollywood room.

Connie and her husband have operated hotels before, and had hoped to retire by now, but this motel fell into their possession, and they had been fixing it up for a few years. It used to be the biggest drug-dealing motel in town, Connie told me, but ever since the police department moved in up the block and the fire department build a new station across the street, they had been able to change the place's reputation.

While moving into the room (which Connie had chosen since it was on the ground floor, so I could watch my bike out the window), I met JP, who was in the room next door.

JP was in the military, awaiting assignment to Iraq. He had been living in the motel for a couple months. He was very interested in the bike, about my travels, about anything that wasn't military. He insisted on giving me some maps and guidebooks for the area around Fairbanks, and he recommended things that I should go see.

When I asked JP about a local bar or someplace I could go for a drink, he gave me directions to the Mecca Bar, only a couple blocks away. JP's pizza delivery arrived then, and he disappeared into his room with his dinner.

It was nice to take a hot shower and settle in for a while. Connie had given me a key to the laundry room and a zip-lock bag of laundry detergent, so I took a stack of quarters to the basement. The cement stairs down to the basement were different sizes, in both width and height. It almost tripped me a few times when the next step wasn't where I expected it to be. The excitement just never ends.

I did some notes while the laundry ran. I was also jazzed that I had cell phone service again. I started to make some phone calls, but I remembered that it was 21:00 here, which made it 23:00 in Colorado. Oops. I sent a SPoT message from the parking lot instead.

When the laundry was done, I walked down to the river, passing the new City Hall and police station on the way. The Veteran's Memorial park was adorned with the usual drunks passed-out on the grass.

Fairbanks is a city of about 80,000 people, many of them in the military. At least, that is what I was told. It looked like a big suburb of a larger city, but there was no larger city here. The downtown area was a bit more dense with stores and hotels, but not crowded. A few nice bridges and park areas.

I went to the Mecca Bar, which JP had recommended.

It was obviously a bar for the local natives, and aside from the gal tending bar, I was the only Caucasian there. Every other person stopped and stared at me while I sat at the bar and ordered a beer. None spoke to me when I said hi, and none moved at all for a while. As I drank in silence, they started gathering in small clumps, obviously talking about me. Well, it was fun, but look at the time. Gotta go.

I asked a very bored security guard (dozing at one of the tourist info areas) about another place to get a drink and some foot at this late hour. He was not at all interested in helping me, but he finally suggested going across the river to the Big-I.

The Big-I was also a bit rough, bikers and regulars at the bar and shooting pool. One guy looked out of place at the bar, so that looked like the tourist section. I joined him. Turns out that he flies corporate jets around North America, and was in Fairbanks overnight. We got to talking about travel, and he's been a lot of places. I learned, however, that he didn't really know those places well. He goes to the airport, to some hotel, back to the airport...

He had left his money clip (lots of money in it) on the bar, and I saw a woman watching it. She had moved from another part of the bar to sit next to the guy, opposite from me. Since he was a bit drunk, I suggested that he put his money out of sight, and that made him embarrassed and maybe made him nervous. He left soon after, and the woman who had been watching his money went back to sit with some other guys in a booth.

I asked the fiercely-tattooed woman tending bar if they served food and she sent me back outside to the shack in the parking lot. It was almost midnight when I got in line behind some Harley riders who had big buck knives on their belts.

When it was my turn to order food, the bikers fired up their bikes (parked on the sidewalk in front of the bar). They were so loud that I had to wait for them to leave before I could make myself heard.

I ordered a Philly steak sandwich and munched on it while walking back toward my motel. I put my camera on a bridge rail for a self-portrait.

I did some work on the laptop in the room, getting some photos uploaded, doing some writing, and checking email. The motel had wi-fi, so that was nice. I worked for a few hours with a big box fan blowing on me. It was again surprising to me how warm it got up here.

I conked out at about 04:00. It was still light outside.

I was HERE

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I was up early and called the Arctic Caribou Inn to schedule a tour of Prudhoe Bay. Since the whole area is a private facility (co-owned by several oil corporations), the only way to actually get to the sea was to take the tour. For security reasons, you need to call in advance and provide identification so they can run a security check on you. That will keep all the international terrorist fugitives away, I suppose. I was unable to give them a specific date for the tour, but I told them my ID so they could clear me in advance.

I didn't take many photos as I ran errands in Fairbanks, sorry.

I wandered off to a local coffee shop for breakfast, then returned in time to catch Connie running errands. I got to talking with her again, and I learned that she had been a concert pianist "back in the day." She has had an interesting life, but I won't share any of it here. Now, at 62, she was slowing down and just wanted to get the motel "all fixed up" and eventually sell it. Her husband was 85, and wasn't flying much anymore, so they wanted to just go someplace quiet.

I told Connie about JP sending me to the Mecca Bar, and she just about blew a gasket. The Mecca Bar was the sleaziest place in the whole city, she insisted. Locals (aside from the natives) and tourists simply did not go there.

She told me more about her motel's history and how she had won the last few awards for best Christmas decorations on a business. "Up until last year," she sighed. The Mecca Bar had won by getting all the local natives to vote for them, so they won--even they did almost nothing for decorations. Apparently it was a popular vote, not a judged contest. Small town stuff in this moderate-sized city.

Connie brightened again while telling me about one Christmas when she and her father had been featured on 60 Minutes. They had hand-built a merry-go-round in the city's public Christmas display. She said it was a cold holiday that year, something like minus 60 degrees. Brrrr.

Although I still gagged a bit at the cost, I registered for another night so I could get the bike worked on today. Connie offered to move me to the Yukon room, complete with polar bear rug and other appropriate decorations, but I said that I was getting used to the sequins on the pillows in the Hollywood room.

I rode to the main post office and bought a box and a roll of tape. As I was puttering out of the parking lot, a guy in a big SUV backed out right in front of me and almost got me. I had to roll the bike backwards to let him continue backing out, because he refused to pull back into his parking space to let me pass. Whatever.

Back in the room, I boxed up the worn-out bike parts (mementos, remember?), some souvenirs that I had been carrying around, a trip planner portfolio that had been worthless during the whole ride, and a few items of clothing that I hadn't used. I strapped the box to the back of the bike and headed back to the post office. I mailed it off, cheapest cost would take 2-3 weeks to get home, but that was my schedule, too. As I rode out of the parking lot, another guy in another big SUV backed out right in front of me and I had to lock up the brakes to keep from hitting him. What the hell is it with this parking lot?

I found that Fairbanks Motor Sports had been bought by the local Harley-Davidson shop. In fact the Harley shop had bought out the Honda shop and other bike shops in the area. It was strange to see the Harley shop also advertising Honda, BMW, Ducati, etc. There were several Gold Wings parked in the lot, and no Harleys at all.

As I parked in the lot, two guys got out of their truck and were in full Harley costume. They looked at the Gold Wings, pointed at some of the bikes' accessories and said the bikes looked pretty cool and were probably nice to ride. They turned to the shops doors just as I did and they were right in front of me as we entered. An amazing transformation happened as they crossed the threshold. Both of the guys started to swagger and cuss, pointed to a Ducati bike on display and made rude comments about non-American bikes. Their de-evolution to the stereotypical Harley bad-ass mentality was a wonder to behold. I think one of the guys magically developed a limp. They were mesmerized briefly by the new Victory bike--the one that looks almost like a Gold Wing. It was a beautiful machine, no doubt.

Most of the merchandise on display was Harley-Davidson, with other brands tucked away in the corners. The smell in the shop was a mix of leather and attitude.

I went to the parts counter and asked about my tires. They did have the tires and they handed them to me straight away. I asked about whether or not they had managed to find me a chain and sprockets, but no one there knew anything about them. I explained that I had called a week ago, after having earlier bought tires from them, and was told that they had a chain and would find sprockets before I arrived. Again, as Bronc had found, they claimed ignorance. When I asked if they could mount and balance the new tires, one of the guys (also in full Harley costume, complete with the official Harley-issued ZZ Top beard) told me that he wouldn't mount the tires because he wouldn't work on my Japanese bike. I thought he was kidding, but he was not. When I told him that it would be okay for him to work on my bike if he would change his t-shirt from a Harley shirt to something more accommodating, he got almost hostile. Another guy at the parts counter cooled his buddy off, and told me that I could try to get the shop manager to allow them to work on a Kawasaki. I decided not to bother.

I found (from the calmer guy at the parts counter) that my best bet for finding sprockets was at the Alaska Fun Center, on the north side of town. I found my way there and discovered that they had both sprockets in stock! Huzzah!

The rear sprocket they dug out of a box was aluminum, not steel, but it was precious indeed. They were the only KLR sprockets they had, so I was lucky to get them. I asked them to mount and balance the tires, mount the sprockets, and leave the same chain on. The chain had only gotten me from Tok to Fairbanks (while I rode it softly), and it still looked new. The mechanic, Dave, also thought it would be fine. While he started working, I casually asked if they might have fork seals, and the day just kept getting better. Not only did they have seals on hand (the very last set), but would mount them as well.

A rider came in and I recognized him from Dawson City. Travis had been at the D2D rally with his wife, and we had been hanging out for a while in our impromptu group. He had just about talked his wife into getting her own bike, and after she saw all the women riders in Dawson City, she was starting to like the idea.

Travis had come to the Fun Center to have his own tires mounted on his '08 KLR. He had dropped off tires here some time earlier, and had returned for them. What he found, however, was that the shop had accidentally sold his rear tire. Seems that they have some issues to work out when it comes to separating their merchandise from customers' property. Travis was not happy, but there was little to be done about it right then. I hope that eventually works out well.

Several other KLRs came in and out of the shop while Dave worked on my bike. He told me that the Fun Center is the only place for KLRs to get worked on here, and that he was "the guy" when it came to working on them. He hoped that in a few years, he would open a dual-sport bike shop in Livengood, north of Fairbanks, working on KLRs and other bikes starting up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay. It would be a good location, I agreed.

I made some phone calls while I waited, but my cell phone's battery wasn't charged up so it didn't last long. There was a campground across the street from the bike shop, so I wandered over there to check the place out and see about availability in a few days. I was assured that there would be space for me when I came back through after coming down from Prudhoe Bay.

Dave finished the bike just as the shop was closing, and it was good that I had helped clean all the fork oil crud off the bike. If I hadn't helped, they wouldn't have gotten it done today. Whew!

While the front wheel had been off, I replaced the brake pads with the new ones that had with me. The shop manager finally kicked me out of the workshop (which was understandable) before I could get the rear pads replaced, so I would do them later. I talked Dave into holding on to my used tires (which still had a lot of tread on them), and I would pick them up on my way back down. Dave marked the tires and set them aside, promising not to sell them accidentally.

The total bill came to $392, which was worth it to me. I could mount the tires, but I wanted them balanced, and the sprockets and fork seals were like gold. Now, the only thing not working was the turn signal blinker. No problem.

When they rolled the bike out to me, Dave handed me one of my rear brake pads. He said they hadn't noticed that it had fallen out until after they had the wheel mounted. Since he knew I was replacing them anyway, he didn't bother putting it back in. I can work with that. I rode the bike around the lot to make sure everything was working, and it felt great to feel smooth chain and sprocket action again. Forks felt better, too, with oil in there.

I swapped the rear brake pads and was set for the day.

There were several nice restaurants in the downtown area, and I settled into Gambardella's Pasta Bella, next to the river. It was nice to just veg out for a while with nothing to do. I stopped at Office Depot to get a replacement mouse for my laptop (the Bluetooth mouse hadn't worked for quite a while), then I topped off the fuel tank so I wouldn't have to do that in the morning. The kid at the gas station recognized my bike from the Harley shop that morning, and he pointed out that there was something wrong with my brake light. I told him that it was designed to flash like that. He went, "Ohhhh..." and decided that it was pretty cool. He was amazed that I had ridden from Colorado, but I assured him that the people who had ridden up from Florida or the Latin American countries had done more riding than I had done. He just couldn't imagine long rides like that.

Back at the motel, JP came out and talked with me for a while in the parking lot. When I told him of my experience in the Mecca Bar, he seemed surprised. I told him that I figured that he had sent me there as a joke. Apparently not, since he got a bit tense and went back into his room. That was the last I saw of JP.

I logged back onto the internet, did some email and browsed some forums. I got a couple more report updates done and finally got tired at about 03:00. Back to my old swingshift schedule, apparently.

Friday, June 27, 2008

I was up and out at 11:00, popped into the Home Town Family Restaurant before heading north. When the young waitress told me that I could sit anywhere and she'd be with me in just a moment, I told her that I had chosen a shady seat near the marketplace next to the Marienplatz in Munich. She froze in her tracks and just stared at me with her head tilted slightly to one side. I explained that if I could sit anywhere I wanted and she would be with me in just a moment, then I would wait for her in Germany. She tilted her head the other way like a puppy that didn't quite understand. I gave up on her and told her that I would take a booth over here, and that made her happy.

The restaurant was decorated in a mixed nautical and dead-flower theme. The "hot link-stuffed hash browns with a side order of omelet" was good.

When I got up to leave, I had trouble getting into my rain jacket and I turned around several times in slow circles trying to get my second arm into the sleeve. The waitress just stared at me again as if I was doing some strange foreign ritual. "I used to be able to dress myself," I joked with her. She tilted her head the other way and just kept looking at me with wide eyes. I wanted to pat her on the head as I left. "Aren't you a nice puppy."

As I tried to leave Fairbanks, I hit a construction detour that had me going in circles again. The GPS was no help, and I saw some very nice neighborhoods with cul-de-sacs. Back the way I had come, then, finally figuring out another way to go north. The road was easy and paved, trees galore.

I got my first sight of the pipeline. For the next thousand miles, up and back down, the pipeline was never very far away.

I decided to take the side trips to Circle and Manley Springs on the return trip, so I passed them by and kept heading north. Later, in Livengood, I did a brief detour to see the ghost town. Nothing else there but a highway maintenance facility. One house looked lived in, but the other shacks and many old cars were being claimed by the forest.

This was the official beginning to the James Dalton Highway, also known as the Haul Road.

The pavement ended for the most part (some brief sections of pavement in varying states of repair), and the dirt road was in pretty good shape. The constant truck traffic kept it well-packed. Unlike the Dempster, new gravel here would get punched down quicker. There were some areas where the road was rougher, but it was easier than I had expected. There were occasional information signs along the road, explaining about the pipeline, the local wildlife, the forest and the terrain. I read a few of them, but it was time consuming so I gave up on them after a while. I was moving along pretty fast most of the time.

I passed one on-coming truck that had stopped on the road (in a safe stretch of road). The driver was out looking at a freshly-shredded tire. I dodged his tire shards for the next half-mile.

Where the pipeline was close to the road, there were places to walk over to it, so I rode around a barricade and took some photos. I hope this won't get me prosecuted for trespass or something.

While taking photos, I developed an urgent personal need to wander off into the woods. Fortunately, I carry a small shovel and toilet paper. The mosquitoes got me right away, and somehow the bites on my neck and ears bothered me more than the bites on my ass. Oh, the troubles of being an adventurer.

At the Yukon River crossing, I wanted to stop for a photo on the long bridge, but there was no shoulder. I had already been chewed out by a pipeline inspector in a truck who didn't like me stopping to photograph the pipe a few miles earlier.

The small bridge I had stopped on was probably not a safe place, so he was doing me a favor, I suppose. The trucks do come zooming, so you have to take that into account whenever and wherever you stop.

There is a gas station and diner at the Yukon River crossing. I think they have rooms to rent and maybe a campground, too. After getting fuel, I had a bowl of soup which was very good. It had been 155 miles since Fairbanks. Some truckers were in the diner complaining about things that anyone could relate to. Their bosses were jerks, the work schedule was stupid, the pay wasn't worth it, they should quit and do something else. When their lunch/bitch time was over, they roused themselves from the funk they had sunk into and they went back out to their trucks. "Well, the money is worth it," one of them said as they left. "Yeah, I guess," the other reluctantly agreed.


North from the Yukon River and into rain. Soon, the rain got colder and actually started to sleet for a few minutes before getting warmer again. Just a local weather anomaly, I hoped. The road got slimy when wet, the calcium chloride coating turning into something that they could have used on the Ghostbusters movie set. Just like the Dempster, the gravel sections were actually better in the rain, but worse when dry. I was still moving pretty fast, considering that maybe I'd run all the way to Deadhorse today.

At Finger Mountain, I stopped to look at the Finger Rock formation. A rider in the parking lot was adjusting some gear on his bike, so we took the opportunity to brief each other on road conditions since we were going in opposite directions. He told me that he had met a large group of wealthy Japanese BMW riders several hours north of here, and they were being accompanied by a big bus that was their support vehicle. He had casually given them one of his business cards, and found himself stuck on a long ceremony as each Japanese rider took their turn to formally present their own card. There were plenty of bows and handshakes. I looked for the Japanese riders for the rest of my ride, but I never saw them.

At the Arctic Circle, I took a couple photos and asked another tourist to take a photo of me. He left just as a tour van pulled up.

The tall, blond, tanned gal driving the van put out a piece of carpet that had a bright yellow line through the middle of it. She put the carpet in front of the Arctic Circle sign, and each tourist took their turn standing on the carpet with one foot on either side of the line while they had their photos taken. The van driver came over to me and slapped me on the shoulder like we were old buddies. She grinned and laughed while she asked me about my ride, seemingly happy to take some time away from the retirees in her van. She was wearing khaki shorts, and I noticed her unshaved legs had some nice muscle tone. Twice more she slapped and punched me on the arm, each time knocking loose a gray cloud of dust. I think she was either just a knock-around tomboy kind of gal, or maybe she was desperate to touch such a fine example of manly manhood. Later, as she helped the oldsters back onto the van, she slapped one of the fogies on the shoulder as she had done to me. Of course, she almost knocked the guy down, but he seemed to take it in stride.

Onward. The pipeline and the road crossed each other several times, the pipe taking more of a zig-zag path.

The weather got clear and hot on the way to Coldfoot. I stopped briefly at the new Visitor Center before crossing to the truckstop/cafe across the road. I got gas there, which at $5 a gallon was cheaper than I had expected. I had gotten only 28 miles per gallon, and was reminded that riding fast was killing fuel mileage. I had been buzzing along at 75-80 mph for some stretches.

From the cafe, I called the Arctic Caribou Inn and booked a tour for the following morning, at 10:00. They had no record of my security clearance, so I gave them my info again. The tour was $38, payable in the morning.

I had been told that there would be cell phone service along the Dalton Highway, but that was not true. The cashier at Coldfoot told me that there would be cell service at Deadhorse, but that was it. She also confirmed my suspicion that I would not be able to pitch a tent in Deadhorse. I was told that there might be a camping area about 15 miles before I got to Deadhorse.

I had the buffet at Coldfoot, then headed back up the road at 19:30. The weather was good, and I was again making good time. I knew that I would be okay with the extra fuel I carried, so I decided to not worry about riding slow just to conserve fuel. There were more sections of pavement, some of it was long stretches of good asphalt or chip seal.

The truck traffic was lighter this late, and the tourist vehicles were fewer as well. Riding north kept the sun in my eyes the whole time, and since it never set, my face eventually got tired from all the squinting.

I passed a red Gold Wing with a couple on it as we neared the Brooks Range. They were towing the largest trailer I had ever seen a motorcycle pull. It was a fold-out camper. We actually passed each other a few times as we stopped to take photos.

Some of the mountains were very rugged, and their scale was deceptive. Because of their shape, they looked like they should have been much further away, but they were up pretty close.

Mount Sukakpak was stunning. A few minutes later, I got the profile view.

I passed a sign marking the northern-most spruce tree along the pipeline, and the sign cautioned people not to cut it down. It looked like the tree had been dead a long time, so the sign should have been re-done to mark the northern-most sprucewood stick.

It got cool and cloudy for a while, then cleared up again. I zipped and unzipped my rain jacket at different times, but had to keep it on as a windbreak. More rain made for slow-going again, and a few very muddy sections almost crashed me. The transitions from one road surface to another were sudden and frequent, so you have to stay alert and a bit tense. When the road changed surface on a curve, it was almost panic-inducing. I had already passed a few road construction zones, so you have to be ready for that, too.

I started up Atigun Pass, expecting it to be something challenging, but it was nothing interesting aside from a few nice views. There wasn't even a sign marking the actual top of the pass. Just another road.

Beyond that was a high crossing of tundra that slowly descended toward the sea. Clouds were building and the temperature was dropping steadily. In the distance, there was a line of clouds at the horizon, and I knew that that Prudhoe Bay was near.

Another road grader was tearing up the road, piling rocks along one shoulder. I stopped to take a photo and I was immediately beset by thousands of mosquitoes. I had one of them push the camera's shutter button for me.

Because the sun didn't set (it's up there in the clouds), it made some photos seem too dark.

Rather than wait until I hit reserve, I stopped and put the gas from the two spare cans into the tank.

The terrain had flattened out, and aside from some hills visible under the harsh fog bank that came over like a blanket, there was nothing to see but tundra. It was like an eerie Stephen King moment, and I kept waiting for the Twilight Zone twist in the road.

The twist came in the form of a small bird that swooped over the road, turned toward me, chirped "Banzai!" and hit me right in the face. I snapped my head aside at the last instant and the little kamikaze beak got me in the nose before the rest of it smacked into the edge of my helmet. I had been riding with the visor up (which is how I kept it most of the time), so my sunglasses were all that protected my eyes from the brief explosion of feathers. Thank goodness it was a small bird. I stopped to wipe my glasses off and took a self portrait.

The road got wetter and wetter from the fog, but it didn't actually rain. There was not much gravel, so the wet road was very slick and the going was slow. The slippery surface and the limited sight distance made me nearly a nervous wreck over the next hour. According to the GPS, the altitude was about 40 feet. And dropping.

I never saw the anticipated campground before Deadhorse, but by then I didn't want to camp anymore. Any room I could find in the Deadhorse village was going to be mine. Once I got into Deadhorse, the Stephen King feeling came back. Something about a weird fog in a coastal town, you know? Trucks moved slowly, headlights spooky in the fog. Heavily-clad men wandered around like zombies, appearing at the last second from the mist.

I had ridden from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay in about 12 hours. As on the Dempster, I had zoomed on much of it, but had long stretches of slow riding in the rain.

The Arctic Caribou Inn was a welcome sight. It took me a while to get my bearings in Deadhorse, and the map was little help. The GPS wasn't much better. There were few landmarks to go by, since only the immediate area was visible. I became one of those heavily-clad zombies myself when I plodded, stiff-legged into the Inn, just happy to finally be inside. After a while wandering the empty hallways, I finally caught the attention of a guy who worked in the cafeteria. He went to check for me, and came back to tell me that they were full. I walked the hallways until I was warm enough to venture back out.

I rode on, making my way to the Prudhoe Bay Hotel, which was a clone of the Arctic Caribou Inn. They were both made from modular units, and they both looked like a basic dormitory. Here, there was someone at the office counter to greet me, take my $110 for a room without a private bathroom, explain that the cafeteria was always open and I could help myself to all the food I wanted at all times. She also gave me a stern warning about Prudhoe Bay's strict policy that prohibits any alcohol. I assured her that I had none, and she gave me the evil eye until I repeated my promise.

Once I had moved some stuff from the bike to the room, I went outside to send a SPoT Check signal and take some notes. I also moved the bike away from where the trucks seemed to need some space. There was a constant, thin stream of oil field workers coming and going, all of them wet and cold. Some took the time to comment on my miserable-looking motorcycle or my miserable-looking self. I learned that the typical oil field worker flies in for a two-week work cycle, then flies home for two weeks. Many of them had never been over the Dalton Highway. It turns out that the airport was right across the street from the hotel, but I couldn't see it.

I went back inside and sat in the cafeteria for a couple hours while I finished my notes and snacked. When the cafeteria was not in full operation, there were always coolers full of sandwiches, salads, other foods that could be zapped in the microwaves. Other coolers had a variety of desserts, fruit, Jell-O. Shelves and bins held snack-sized bags of various chips. There were huge coffee brewers going strong, soda machines, and ice cream dispenser. One TV was showing The Godfather 3, and the TV at the opposite side was showing an old western movie. There was nobody in the place but me.

Eventually, a guy came out from the kitchen area and started cleaning up. A few oil field workers came through, but they got their coffee, stuffed sandwiches in paper bags, grabbed some other snacks and hustled back out. The schedule for hot food service was posted, but that was not going to be good for me, timing-wise. Hot breakfast food was going to be served from 04:30 until 08:00. It was about 02:00, and I intended to sleep until I needed to get up for the tour at 10:00.

One guy wandered in and out of the cafeteria for a while, gaunt and lightly dressed, clutching his arms around himself like a junkie going through withdrawal. He never spoke to anyone, never ate anything, never stopped moving. The Stephen King feeling came back again.


I was finally HERE


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