Part 4. Prudhoe Bay to home
Saturday, June 28, 2008
The industrial-style maid, shouting like a prison matron, pounded and woke me at 07:30. I went out to the hall to see her doing the same on all the doors. I asked her what was going on, and she told me it was time for room cleaning and laundry swap. I told her that I was not a regular, but had only been staying the night. She apologized sincerely, and said that she had been mis-informed at the desk that morning about my status. I found that the regular guests have their rooms serviced each morning while they are out working.
I went back to bed for a short while, but got up and started packing at 08:00. My cell phone started going berserk at 08:30, and I still don't know why. It got some weird signal from alien spacecraft, maybe. They've been tracking my progress, I suspect.
After stuffing a couple sandwiches and snacks into a paper bag (I was too late for the regular breakfast service), I went out and started loading the bike. Several more workers gabbed with me, and then I talked with a local cop for a while.
The police officer was older, had been a cop for a while "down below," which means in the lower 48 states. He told me that the North Slope Borough Police Department here had 42 cops, the 3rd largest police department in Alaska. Only Anchorage and the State Police were larger. I asked if Prudhoe Bay generated that much trouble, but he told me that many of the town and villages had a few cops stationed in each of them. The towns were far apart, and transportation was slow, so they were almost independent stations.
I bundled up again and rode over to the Arctic Caribou Inn for the tour.
My bus group was only 9 people, all but me had stayed at the Inn. We had our IDs checked by the tour guide/security guard. He informed us that due to the weather front that had come in yesterday, there might be a fog and ice alert issued. If that happened, we would have a limited tour and would not be allowed off the bus. That stressed me a bit, because my intent had been to get into the water, and the only way to do that was via the tour bus. Would I stay another night just to take the tour again? Probably.
The guide/guard searched our carry-on bags (and my helmet, which only had my gloves in it), loaded us onto the bus and we were off. He gave a short, bored speech about the Prudhoe Bay area. About 7,000 workers on average, world's largest natural gas production facility, ice roads in winter, blah, blah, blah.
Mostly, the two-hour tour was a waste of time. He pointed out the various corporate structures as if they were somehow interesting. Only a few things were even remotely worthy of attention. He pointed out the tundra trucks that build the ice roads in winter. They rode on huge balloon tires that did no damage to the frozen tundra.
The guide also explained a few things that we were curious about, such as the burning flares in the distance (burning off residual natural gas from some wells). Mostly he pointed at far-away buildings and told us things that we immediately forgot.
When we got to the east security checkpoint, he handed over the roster with passengers' names, and the guard checked us through. The guide also alerted the security gate guard about some people we had seen carrying small inflatable rafts in the swampy tundra near the oil fields. When I asked what the people with the rafts were doing, he only stated that they weren't allowed to be there.
This wasn't a wildlife tour, so he just kept driving when we passed animals. He did point out a few of the critters, including an arctic fox that looked more like a cat. We did see some caribou lying on the tundra.
Eventually, we came to the shore. When I asked where we were exactly, he changed from tour guide to security guard and told me we were on Earth. When I asked which direction we were facing, he said, "Straight ahead." Okay, I got the message. Apparently this was the most top-secret worthless tour you can take.
Almost worthless, that is. It got me to the water's edge, so it served its purpose. We stopped near a narrow bit of rocky land that jutted out into the Bay.
The bus stopped and we were told that we had about 20 minutes to walk around. Several of those in the bus were elderly, others were younger. One Japanese couple, and a couple guys from Germany. I was the only "swimmer" in the group, and the driver had brought a couple towels for me. As everyone exited the bus, I started getting out of my riding gear. Stripped to only my hat, a pair of synthetic pants, and my special t-shirt, I padded across the rocky shore with a towel and my camera. I was able to talk one gal into coming with me to take my photo. Her name was Dolly, and she did not like walking on the wet sand and rocks, but she toughed it out and came with me. Most of the others stood up on the road to watch me dunk my crazy self into the frigid water.
I handed my camera to Dolly, but she didn't know if she could operate on of those new-fangled "electric cameras." So, standing in the cold wind, on the cold, wet shore, I gave her a short lesson on my digital camera. I took her photo to show her that it worked like a regular camera. This is the shot that I took. She wasn't quite as miserable as she looks here, and she had a sense of humor about the whole thing, but she is apparently uncomfortable having her photo taken.
I waded out into the (very) cold water, careful on the jagged rocks under my bare feet and black sand between my toes. It suddenly got deeper under my feet and that's where I decided to stop. I did my dunk and posed for the photo for quite a while, holding my pose and smile while asking her if she got the shot. "Oh, I just don't know," she complained. I kept telling her the simple instructions (talking like a ventriloquist), and she looked like she took about twenty photos, but she shook her head and said that she didn't think the camera was doing anything. I was starting to shiver, and the wind was picking up, so I had to force myself not to bail out and check the camera. Eventually, she thought that maybe the camera went "beep" or something, so I waded out to check it.
She had managed to get two photos, one with my eyes closed. But this was the other photo.
So that's me, somewhere in Prudhoe Bay, in the East Dock area, off the Beaufort Sea of the Arctic Ocean, at 10:30 on June 28th, 2008. More than 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Altitude zero. Body temperature about 96.
I thanked Dolly for the photos and started to dry off with the towel that I had left on a rock on shore. The towel was gritty from the blown sand and seemed colder than my skin, so maybe I was better off just air-drying. By the time I got back on the bus, the cold wind had mostly dried me off, so I just patted the nylon pants dry and started getting dressed. After I had gotten myself back together, the other tourists started getting back on board. They all congratulated me for being crazy. They were congratulating themselves for putting their hands into the water, too, since they now got to have a certificate.
Certificate? They told me that back at the Inn, the office would issue a "dipper" certificate to anyone who had touched the water. They gave a "swimmer" certificate to anyone who had witnesses see them go all the way in. Well, I thought, a certificate would make it official. I wondered what the certificate would cost me.
During the ride back, we talked about how cold the water was. I asked the other passenger if they had seen my testicles anywhere, and they all got a laugh at that. Except the Japanese couple, who looked confused. One of the ladies joked that if my testicles were small and blue, then she had seen them floating off in the water. The Japanese couple missed out on all the laughs. I talked one of them into taking my photo with Dolly and her husband Howard. Dolly put her "camera face" back on for the photo. Trust me, she didn't look like that all the time.
Howard kept apologizing for not going down to take my photo instead of Dolly going, but his knees were too bad. He had retired from being a lineman for the phone company for forty years, and he now regrets that he never used knee pads.
Back at the Arctic Caribou Inn, we trooped like conquerors to the gift shop where we were each issued the appropriate certificate. The gal at the counter actually asked the others if they had witnessed me go into the water, and only then did she write down my name and the date. I became a member of the Polar Bear Plunge Club. No extra charge.
Normally, we would have seen an informative video prior to the tour, but the tour room had been used at the time, so we gathered now for the video. There was maybe a minute's worth of actual information on the 20-minute video, and the rest of it was a commercial for the oil companies. Emphasis on preserving the wilderness and the wildlife.
We said our good-byes, and I rode around Deadhorse until I found the general store and the post office. The post office had just opened at 13:00, so I bought a small box and sent some more things home. I took a photo of the bike at the Deadhorse sign on the front of the general store. Another one of those iconic images you just have to do if you are here.
I also took a photo of a framed aerial photo of the Prudhoe Bay area at the Post Office. I had a hard time getting a decent photo, since it was behind glass. This is the best I could do. The little hand at the bottom of the photo is a "You Are Here" marker near the airstrip, and if you look for the narrow bit of land jutting into the right side of the Bay, I think that is where we were taken to the water.
I found the Tesoro gas station, filled the tank and the two spare cans, then at 13:45, I pointed the front tire south and headed back. Mission accomplished.
It was cool, still mostly overcast. Some of the hills I had seen under the fog last night now had a dusting of snow. Maybe the snow had already been there yesterday but I hadn't seen it.
There was a lot more truck traffic during the day, and they drove slower than they had late yesterday. I passed lots of motorcycles headed north. All were BMWs or KLRs. I passed the same construction zones again, and traffic was going slower through these areas now that there were more vehicles on the road. It rained a lot of the time. Even when not raining, the road was always wet.
My camera developed a problem with the lens, and it would often not open when I turned the camera on. It must have been the cold or dust, because after a while it started working right again. I took a photo of my bike at the top of Atigun Pass, I think. The top was a long flat section with no marker, so it is all effectively the top of the pass. A lot of the guardrails along the pass had been crunched by avalanches and rockfalls.
I got stuck behind a semi rig for a long time. He was going too fast to pass on the wet roads, and not fast enough to leave me behind. I tried staying close to it, hoping for a chance to overtake it, but finally gave up and backed off. My radiator was getting packed with mud, and the motor started running a bit hot. The cold air helped keep it cooler.
The skies eventually started breaking open south of the Brooks Range, and the sun was welcome. I rode back into Coldfoot, cold and exhausted from the ride. With the inability to relax at all during the day's ride, I was spent earlier than before. The lower speeds would also keep me from making the ride back to Fairbanks in a day.
I ate again at the diner, then relaxed in the lounge with a few beers for quite a while, writing and watching the local work crews come in for meals and breaks. Most of them were road construction crews, some were other utility workers. Those who were staying overnight in the rented rooms were also having beer and watching DVDs on a laptop computer that they set up near me in the lounge. We shared the only available electrical outlet. They huddled around a little closer when they were watching some porn, but that was to be expected.
I gassed the bike, threw some water onto the radiator mud (which helped a lot the next day), then puttered the bike across their parking lot and pitched my tent off to one side.
I was not going to pay $179 for a room, and the people in the cafe told me that it was okay to put my tent anywhere. Mosquitoes were everywhere, since there were stagnant water pools all around the area. Sometime around 23:30, I send a SPoT signal and zonked out. It was warm with the sun out again, and the sun did not set. A big generator was running all night, but I stopped noticing it pretty quickly.
I was HERE
Sunday, June 29, 2008
I woke several times during the night, now hot, now cold, then hot again. Weather fronts passing through, I decided. I was still sleeping on the thin foam pad that I had bought in Dawson City. Should have sent the Thermarest pad home, too, but I thought that it would add more padding if I was on rocky ground again. I never zipped into the sleeping bag, but pulled it over or tossed it aside as the temperature changed. As usual, I was sleeping in my clothes.
I finally got up at 11:00, got packed up and had coffee before riding onward. Since I was going no farther than Fairbanks today, I had no need to get started earlier.
Again, it was cool and cloudy, interrupted by occasional moose running across the road. Many of the cow moose had calves with them; in fact, most of the moose I saw along the road had calves with them. There were more potholes than I remember from Friday, and evidence that the road graders had been through other areas. For a while, I pretended to be Luke Skywalker, flying between the potholes like they were in-coming Tie-fighters. I had to make the sound effects myself.
I stopped again at the Arctic Circle to send a SPoT check signal.
Again, I was HERE
Another tourist, Richard, was there and he turned out to be from Colorado Springs, up here on some job assignment. He had rented a car (careful not to tell them that he was going up the Dalton Highway--they apparently don't allow that), and decided to zip up to the Circle and back. Richard told me that as I headed south, I would encounter a large piece of oilfield equipment being trucked up the road to Prudhoe Bay. He said it was so big, they were completely closing the road in long sections to allow it to proceed uninterrupted. He headed off, speeding back to Fairbanks just as another tour van pulled in and put out the carpet for the tourists to stand on.
I collected a rock to add to the one that I had gotten from the Circle along the Dempster Highway. I had also picked up a rock from where I dunked in Prudhoe Bay.
I met Richard again before getting to the Yukon River. He and other traffic had been stopped, so I pulled up to the front of the other cars and trucks and parked the bike. The cute gal driving the traffic control truck said that the equipment convoy was still a ways back, and it would be a while. She started stretching and doing yoga poses, probably because all the truckers and I were watching her. I don't know why I didn't think to take her photo. Maybe because she was very "bendy," and I was unable to look away.
Finally another truck came up to take her place and she rode ahead to block off the next section of the road and gather new admirers. The guy in the second truck was probably not "bendy" and certainly was not cute.
We felt the rumble long before we saw the trucks coming. Then, over a hill, it came. The yoga gal had told us that the piece of equipment weighed 148 tons, and that did not include the rigs that were moving it. It was some kind of sulfur pumping plant, and it was huge. There was one semi pulling it, and five rigs pushing, like multiple locomotives moving a long coal train. The multiple trailers it was loaded onto were to help spread the weight out.
The impressive and noisy monster passed at about 40 mph, and they opened the road and allowed us to proceed. Richard screamed out of there before I even got moving, so he must have had a need to be somewhere fast. I went next, not wanting to follow anyone. The monster convoy had left ruts in the road, and wherever the ground was soft, the ruts were huge. Again, I managed not to crash when I got into a few of them (they were unavoidable), but it was nerve-wracking at times.
There was another section of road that could be closed off for aircraft. Somehow I had missed noticing it on the way up.
Eventually the road got drier and the ruts were fewer and easier to manage. I got to the Hot Spot Cafe, a place I had decided to pass on the ride up, but I wanted to take a break right about then. Richard was there, coming out of the outhouse. Aha, mystery solved.
The diner area was very interesting, with cute signs and curiosities all over the place like a flea market. A gallon jar was jammed full of mosquitoes, and a sign insisted they were doing their best to control the insects. The cafe and gift shop was open--as in unlocked, but there was no one around. A sign on the door indicated that the proprietor was away to make a phone call, and the truck drivers should just help themselves.
The outhouse was constructed with a door from a walk-in freezer--a big lever handle on the outside and a plunger handle on the inside. It had a bear warning sign next to it, and the urinal had its own sign.
I went into the diner and had a cup of coffee, put $2 into the can as the sign there demanded, and went out to sit under the canopy and relax for a bit. There was much to amuse the eye.
I really wanted to meet whoever ran this place, but it was not going to happen. After a while, I reluctantly motored onward to the Yukon River.
When I got to the turn off to Manley Hot Springs, I wanted to take the 60-mile detour to see the springs, maybe soak for a while. The weather was getting bad again, but I gave it a try. Right away, I passed three on-coming utility trucks, but no one after that. After about 20 miles and seeing no other cars, I started the ascent over some hills and that is where the weather snuck up on me.
The wet, cold mist came in like a wall and I was instantly wet. The hard-packed road was wet, too, and where it was not rocky, it was muddy. I went sideways a couple times at slow speeds, and despite my best effort, I was having trouble making much progress. At least I didn't fall over. Where the road was like this, it rattled me a lot, but I didn't slide around too much.
When the fog turned to ice crystals, that was the end of that. I had made it 27 miles and that was all I was going to attempt. It was likely that once I was down off the hill, the weather would be better, but I totally chickened out and eased the bike around. The fog bank kept blowing up behind me, coating me and the bike with muddy mist.
As I had expected, once off the higher terrain, the fog lifted and it got warmer. If I had continued over the hill, it should have been easy to make it to the Manley Springs, but then, I've been wrong before.
I made it down to the Dalton Highway again, back onto pavement, and headed for Fairbanks. I got to Joy, Alaska, and I was ready for some coffee. This place also had character. Outhouses out back, moose antler for a door handle, sign on the door for those occasions that must sometimes happen.
The teen working inside barely took her eyes from the laptop screen when I came in, and never removed her I-Pod earphones. I got some coffee and a muffin, then browsed some of the typical merchandise before sitting down to write some notes for a while. When I was ready to leave, she hardly noticed. I finally got her attention and asked if she had a water hose or some water I could use to wash off my radiator. She shrugged at first, but then thought of something. She unplugged herself from the computer and took me to a back room where she pointed out some 5-gallon jugs. She told me they had water to use. I carried one outside and poured water into my smaller water bottles to spray on the radiator fins. I managed to knock out most of the mud, and that was better. I returned the water jug and thanked her, but she was back in cyborg mode and never noticed me leave. It looked like she was in some chat room on the internet, busy in several chat windows at the same time.
As soon as I started south on the road again, a moose walked very casually across the road and started grazing. I finally got another moose photo, but it's mostly moose butt in the photo.
I had seen the pipeline information site when I had started north a couple days ago, but this time I stopped to check it out. It was a nice, informative display, explaining a lot about the pipeline and its construction. It was a little like an interpretive walking tour with lots of signs.
After the trouble with my detour toward Manley Hot Springs, I decided to pass on the longer side trip to the town of Circle. I'll give them another try some other day. I got back to Fairbanks on the nicely paved road, and I headed for the campground I had seen across from the Alaska Fun Center. As I pulled in and parked, I knew it was too late to register at the office, so I got one of the late-registration forms and sat down to fill it out.
"Hey!" came a familiar voice. It was Mike, a firefighter from Colorado that I had met at my last KLR tech day. I knew he was on this trip with a fellow firefighter, but we had no specific plans to meet up. Chance and circumstance again managed what we had neglected to arrange on our own.
Mike directed me to his camp site, and I headed that way to set my tent up. Mike introduced me to his co-worker, Kevin, and another rider they had met with and had been riding with. Steve was on a Scorpion, a single-cylinder street bike, but he was going to make a valiant effort at the Dalton in any event. He hoped to find better tires in the morning, but wasn't worried about it.
Kevin, Steve, Mike.
Kevin walked me down the lane a short ways to where a long camper trailer was set up. He had met a former fire chief from Colorado in the camp, and had learned that the guy was from Aurora. I met and chatted for a while with Dick Jones, who had been (for a while) the Deputy Fire Chief back in the city from where I had just retired. He had retired a few years ago. When we got to talking about old familiar issues from our careers, the conversation got stale fast. His perspective from the fire side wasn't that different from mine on the police side. His frustrations were no different than mine, just at a higher level. So, in other words, we just re-hashed old news. It was nice to be away from all those politics and all that departmental stress. We said good night, and I went back to our camp site.
Also in the campground was a guy having car problems, tools and parts scattered around. He disappeared for a long time, leaving the car in this condition. Eventually he returned and gathered his things up.
We chatted for a while, but it was late. Pretty soon, we were snoozing.
Again, I was HERE
Monday, June 30, 2008
By our activities, we roused each other at about 07:00, and chatted while we got packed up. I briefed them on the road conditions (as they were for me), and we headed out together at about 08:30. Mike stopped at the campground office to check out and pose for a photo in the very short door.
The Fun Center wasn't open, so we found a McDonalds for breakfast and lazed around there for a while. When the shop was open, we returned. Steve went tire and helmet shopping. I found Dave and told him that I decided not to carry the tires with me, that he was welcome to give them away, sell them, or trash them. The tires weren't worth carrying or shipping home, so I was done with them. I scraped some of the dried crud off my tail light and turn signals, too.
Then we said good-bye, wishing each other good rides. I headed for Denali National Park and Anchorage. As I got near the park, I saw lots of rafts in the Nenana River.
At one of the resorts, I found that a bus tour into the park (the only way to get deep into the park aside from hiking) was $130. At the park visitor's center, the tour was $103, so I signed up for the next day's 07:50 tour, an 8-hour bus trip into the park to see wildlife. Another tour was offered, a 5-hour ride to see and hear about the park's history, the geology, and have a guided interpretive walk.
After registering for the tour, I saw that I was going to have to clean the crud off the motor again soon.
I rode up the park road as far as the motoring public was allowed to go. I got turned around by the very pleasant rangers at the 15-mile point. There was evidence of the railroad along the way.
I returned to the collection of resorts outside the park, and flopped into a chain in the lounge for all the iced tea I could get into me. The smoked salmon pizza was surprisingly delightful.
Also surprisingly delightful was the ass of the waitress. I snuck a hazy photo of her rump as she passed. The one on the left, by the way.
I found a campground several miles south of the park entrance, and parked in the designated spot.
I got the tent set up in rocky soil, then took a shower in the coin-operated shower stall. The weather was cool but clear, so I didn't put the rain fly on the tent. I found that they had a weak wi-fi signal in the camp office, so I set up shop in a corner of the store, under a moose head. It still had a surprised expression on its face.
After a while, I went back to the tent to get one of my notebooks. It was a good thing, too, since it started to rain as I got to me camp site. I hastily put on the rain fly and put all my gear in the tent or under the fly. The synthetics I had washed in the shower and hung on the tent to dry were not dry yet, so I had to put them in the tent still damp.
I bought enough snacks to keep the employees happy. All the employees had Russian accents, and they often spoke Russian with each other. The girl (twenty years old--maybe) who registered me into my camp site had lots of prison- or gang-style tattoos. Some of the tattoos were in the English alphabet, some in Cyrillic. She had "hate" on one forearm, "love" on the other. Tattoos on her hands, neck, etc. She had had a hard look in her eyes, too. Her accent was almost unnoticeable when she spoke with the tourists, but when she spoke in English with the other employees, it was with a heavy Russian accent. Odd.
After a few hours in my corner office, I finally had to vacate when they closed the store. I managed to buy a bottle of wine just as they were closing the doors. I stood outside under the porch (to keep the wi-fi signal) for about an hour, finishing with uploading ride reports. The sacrifices one makes to get his story out there...
Back in the tent, I drank some wine and listened to the rain while sending a SPoT signal. I hoped the SPoT would get out over the trees. Finally, around midnight, I was sleepy enough to call it a day.
I was HERE
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
By the time I got up and starting packing, I wished that I had registered for another night. Having internet access would allow me to get some more things uploaded, and it would be nice to have another non-riding day soon. The camp office wouldn't open until 08:00, and I needed to be at the tour by 07:50, so the timing was bad.
I got the bike loaded and barely made it in time to the resort where I was to take the bus. I wrapped my riding boots in a plastic bag and strapped them to the bike, changed into walking shoes and went to join the waiting group of tourists who would be my bus-mates for the day.
I was carrying my helmet, was still wearing my riding clothes (quite dusty and grimy), and I was the only person who was not with at least one other companion. Therefore, I got a bus bench seat all to myself, which was nice. We had box lunches on the bus waiting for us, plus I had a couple of Snickers bars and water with me.
The bus got up to where I had been turned around the previous day, and it was a while before we saw any interesting wildlife. The creature that stopped the bus was a ptarmigan, Alaska's state bird. The elderly tourists went, "Oooh!" and, "Aaaah!" as if the meandering bird were something exotic and rare.
The bus driver/tour guide, Paul, had us flip down the in-flight monitors while he used his Sony camera to zoom in on the ptarmigan as it darted beside the road. Even those on the bus who had a clear view through the window chose the monitor view, and like everyone in the TV generation, they sat down and stared at the screen. When a fox held their attention for an inordinately long time, I knew I was in trouble. It was going to be a long day.
Paul gave us some running narrative as he drove up the road into Denali national Park. Some of it was interesting, but mostly it was just to kill time. Finally we saw some Dall sheep, and Paul told us about the habitat, diet, and life of the sheep. He had been doing these tours for seventeen summers, so he had the patter down pat.
Things got more interesting as we got farther into the park. We saw Golden eagles, lots of grizzly bears in the meadows (including one that wandered into the road and walked right next to the bus), a few caribou. Other fauna, such as the small hares and ground squirrels were common, and Paul talked about them, too.
I didn't take many pictures, and I never bothered to crowd to the windows in those rare cases where the monitors did not suffice. The bus had some foreign tourists who chattered with each other constantly and took thousands of photos.
In the seat behind me were a couple of older women, one of whom was completely unhappy about everything. The bus was too cold, now it was too hot, can't the driver make it be smoother on the dirt road? She had a tiny, whiney voice, but she was always very polite. When it got hot, I left my window down for fresh air, and the biddy said to her friend, "Oh, I just can't stand all that wind. Oh, my goodness, is there some way to make it stop?" She could have spoken to me, but she chose instead to complain loud enough for me to hear. I slid the window back up. She didn't thank me.
There were a few stops along the road, for potty breaks and to stretch out legs. The biddy never got off the bus. "Oh, it's just too dusty out there," and, "Dear me, I just can never use those unpleasant toilets."
Yeah, I thought she was full of shit, and now she confirmed it. Why she came on the tour is a mystery.
At one rest stop, I saw that the walking trail had been covered with the same type of broken rock that had been so hard to ride on when I was riding up to Eagle. This is the stuff.
We went up about 63 miles into the park, turned around and headed back. We had been disappointed so far in our hope to see Mt. McKinley (or Denali, as it is sometimes called). The clouds were persistent, and only a third of the tourists ever got to see the mountain. Paul told us about the effort to re-name the mountain back to its native name, Denali, and the political stonewalling that prevented it from ever happening. As we headed back out of the park, he told up to keep watch back behind us in case the mountain became visible.
We saw more bears and caribou on the return ride. It was getting hotter in the afternoon, and several people were dozing, including me. I wished that I had skipped the tour, not sure that it was worth the money or the time.
Suddenly someone shouted and we stopped the bus to watch the clouds part briefly in the distance behind us. Denali, "The high one," made a short appearance, then was shrouded again just as quickly. I felt heartened about taking the tour, I suppose, if only because of the rarity of the sighting.
Back at the resort complex, I changed back into my riding boots and hit the road at about 17:00. In the rain.
Two bears crossed the road in front of me, not far from each other. That makes you pay attention. It was hard to get photos of the wildlife crossing the road because they don't just stand around.
This building caught my attention. Maybe it was once a gas/service station, but now it was marked as belonging to the Department of Transportation.
Tourist traffic was heavier south of the park. The road was in good shape, which meant that it was a boring ride. The views were nice, but there had been plenty of nice views. I passed a Pinzgauer, then stopped to take a photo as it passed by.
I later saw the Pinzgauer at a Denali viewing area, but the driver was already swamped with others asking about the vehicle, so I didn't butt in. The viewing area was nice, but again, Denali was hidden. The other mountains in the Alaska Range were also spectacular.
There was increasing evidence of civilization in the wilderness. Small towns, farms, homes along the road all by themselves. Lots of small Bed & Breakfasts, Inns, resorts. I wanted to stop at the Gigglewood Lakeside Inn, if only to see what was so funny about it.
I was zooming again, and hit reserve at only 177 miles--a new low. I suspected that my air filter needed cleaning again, too. I hadn't brought filter cleaning or oiling supplies with me, so I would keep an eye for those supplies.
I found that once I was moving along easily on nice roads, I took fewer photos and stopped less often. There was less to catch one's eye, of course. Most of the oddities and quaint places were not along major roads.
Anchorage was just another big city, and I had no interest in stopping. I decided to ride a loop around the city just to get a sense of its layout, and I managed to get stuck onto the elevated ramp to the docks area. Then I somehow found the train station.
After finding my way back to the city, I got onto the main street downtown. Two guys arguing on a corner, cops watching vagrants near what looked like a bus depot, shoppers crossing the street between cars stopped in traffic. After I passed them, I looked back in my mirror at the arguing men, and they were already in a fight, rolling on the ground. The bored cops saw the scuffle and slowly started walking in that direction. Yes, I reminded myself, it's good to be retired.
At 22:30, I stopped at some diner, hoping for something interesting to eat. Nope. It was Denny's in disguise. Ugh.
My front tire was low, but not flat. I aired it back up at a gas station and it held fine after that. I had gotten well over 35 mpg on the ride into Anchorage, keeping my speed at 60-65 mph.
I headed south from Anchorage, determined not to stay the night there. I would look for something on the Kenai Peninsula. The road along the Cook Inlet was very nice, with a great view over the low-tide mudflats and endless water beyond. Very abrupt mountains in Alaska, I noticed. Few foothills between the flat terrain and the ragged peaks.
Pointed kinda at the sun (up in the clouds), I managed to get this shot over the Cook Inlet.
Three moose crossed in front and behind me in short order, so I stopped and waited with my camera in hand, just in case there was a fourth. Alas.
An hour or so south of Anchorage, still riding along the coast, I came upon a public campground. Many campgrounds were starting to fill up for the coming holiday weekend, but this one looked promising. I turned off the pavement and down onto the dirt road, slowing to see which way to go. Some kind of small furry critter scurried quietly out of the bushes and attacked my front tire. Or maybe it was trying to hide under by bike, but it certainly made straight for me and I was going to smoosh it. Maybe it was a vole, or a big tail-less rat. Maybe a pika. Anyway, I tried to stop and turn the wheel away from the suicidal pest, but it faked right and went left, and I almost got it anyway. The bike went over, and I had my first tip-over in quite a while. No witnesses. No help, either.
I was right in the road, immediately off the highway, surely in harm's way if another car came off the highway. I grabbed the bike, told myself that there was no alternative but to get the bike up fast, and gave it a heave. Amazingly, I was able to get the loaded bike up all by myself. Whew!
I found a nice camp site, near other tents, and unloaded the bike. Other campers had been walking around, but it was close to midnight. By the time I had put some money ($15) in the registration envelope and dropped it in the box, everyone was sacked out. I quietly got the tent up in the still night. It was still wet from having been packed wet at the Denali campground. I hoped that it would dry out during the night.
At about 01:00, I was done taking notes, I sent a SPoT signal, and I tried to ignore the freight trains that went by every now and then. The highway noise was endless, too. Somehow, I slept.
I was HERE
Wednesday July 2, 2008
Another train at 08:00 was my alarm clock. I lazed and tried to ignore the daylight for a while, but eventually got up and packed. The tent was dry. I chatted with a couple who were wandering around the campground. Like most others who feel the need to comment on my bike, they asked about it being loaded so heavy. Again, I explained my "dress rehearsal" plan, and they wished me well in South America after saying that they hoped that I wouldn't be kidnapped or killed "down there."
I rode through the campground before getting back onto the highway. I was surprised at how large the campground was, stretched out along the land between the highway and the shore. Most of the campground was full, and some folks looked like they had been there a while.
Traffic was heavy. This was the only roadway between mainland Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula. (Kenai is pronounced, "KEEN-eye.") I got to the exit for Whittier, and headed that way. I got to the tunnel toll booth too soon, and the twenty-something toll clerks were sitting in the road between the booths. They obviously didn't expect any traffic for a while. They got up and explained that access through the tunnel to Whittier was on a schedule, and I had to come back later. I returned up the road to the visitor's center and killed some time wandering around the exhibits. Local flora and fauna, things to touch and listen to. It was perfect for little kids. Which explained all the little kids running wild in the place. It looked like they were supposed to be in a group, but mostly they were everywhere. Frenzied parents were just about worn out.
I rode up to see the pier where the tour boats take passengers on a one-hour ride to see the glacier that feeds the lake. I stopped in another souvenir shop. Same old stuff.
I returned to the toll booths to find many cars in a line on the other side of the booths. I paid my $12 and took my bike off to the side as I was directed. The tunnel served both train and vehicle traffic, alternating one way direction traffic every few hours. The train had priority, then the cars, then the trucks and RVs, and motorcycles last. The reason for this was that if a bike crashed because of getting a tire stuck in the rail tracks, it wouldn't hold up the other traffic. Every now and then, a bike goes down when the rider wanders into the rail rut.
After all other traffic was through, I was made to wait a short while, then finally waved through. I had used the wait to rearrange my Ram mounts, and had my camera mounted on the handlebars now. Riding with one hand is no issue, really, but the claustrophobic sense in the tunnel, the wet grooved concrete, the wind turbines, and the narrow path between the rails all contributed to an unease when trying to take a few pictures in the tunnel. I wasn't even sure if the camera was taking pictures, since I was focused on riding straight. The shots I got were also a bit jarred by the vibrations from the mount.
The first air-circulating turbine wasn't so bad, and the darkness wasn't so bad, and the cold, dank air wasn't so bad, and the dripping water from the tunnel's ceiling wasn't so bad, and the play of the tires on the grooved surface (at slow speed) wasn't so bad, and the need to stay on a narrow path wasn't so bad. All of these things combined at the second air turbine caused me to almost ride into the rail as I tried to take another photo while staring at the on-coming train.
You've all heard the expression, "light at the end of the tunnel," right? As I neared the end of the two-and-a-half mile tunnel, there in glaring suspense was the unmistakable headlight of a train. Fortunately, by the time I got to the end of the tunnel, I had realized that it was the next freight train parked on the rails waiting for the next out-bound signal. Waiting for me to get the hell out of the way, essentially. There were at least a hundred cars and trucks waiting in several orderly lines.
Whittier was a secret submarine base in World War II, and maybe during the Cold War, as well. Access is limited to the tunnel and the sea. There are obvious remnants of the former military presence, but it is a busy tourist destination and marina now. Private pleasure and fishing boats were crowded in the available berths.
I rode to the end of the road, at the water's edge. I had a tourist who spoke a language I didn't recognize take my photo. Cameras he did understand.
I was HERE
I ate at a Chinese buffet and later regretted not going to one of the seafood huts. The next exit time for the tunnel was 15:00, so I puttered around the shops for a bit, but bought nothing.
When I headed back to the tunnel, I was waved off to one side by the guy directing traffic. I was the only motorcycle on the way in, and it looked like I was the only one on the way out.
The guy (I never got his name, so I'll call him Guy) stood with me and talked, since he had nothing else to do for a while. Guy has a small booth he can stand in while waiting for traffic to come, but he prefers to walk around outside unless it's cold and windy. Or rainy. His booth has no power, so he sometimes plays a battery-operated Nintendo game, sometimes sits in the truck that is parked next to the booth so he can listen to the radio. It's worse in the winter, since the booth has no heat and he has to stay in the truck most of the time. He lives about 100 miles from here, stays in an old barracks dorm here in Whittier during his work week and goes home on weekends.
Guy seemed cheerful, though, and stuck his arms out wide. "But look at the view I get every day!" he nearly shouted. The sea, the harbor, the mountains, a small glacier to one side. Not bad, I agreed.
After the cars and trucks came through the tunnel, several motorcycles came through at the end. The first two riders stopped and told Guy that the cement truck that had come through in front of them had been dropping wet cement all through the tunnel. We could see where it had been splattered on the road next to us. The riders were might pissed, since the gravelly mix had caused them some stress in the tunnel.
Guy radioed the tunnel maintenance crew who went to inspect the tunnel. They also sent someone after the cement truck, which looked to be in some serious (or expensive) trouble for dropping things in the tunnel. Those of us waiting to leave Whittier had a long wait while the tunnel was inspected and finally pronounced clear for traffic. They were aware that motorcycles had to ride between the rails, and had checked the surface with us in mind.
Finally, we were allowed to pass. Right after the other traffic went into the tunnel, I was given a green light to proceed. They didn't make me wait a couple minutes like before, so I was right behind the last truck. I saw very little evidence of the dropped splatters of cement, and it caused me no trouble.
Out of the tunnel, I pulled over and replaced my equipment to how I normally carry it. When I later looked at the photos, I was a bit disappointed, but what the heck.
I rode onto the Kenai Peninsula, headed off to Hope, which was at a dead-end. The road was nice, with a few views of the Inlet, but mostly it was tree-lined.
In Hope, I stopped in a diner for a snack. Chocolate Berry Cheese Pie. Cheese as in cream cheese. A la mode. Yum.
The waitress suggested I visit the Hope museum and go to the SeaView, supposedly the oldest bar in Alaska. I wasn't in the mood for the log cabin marked "Museum," but I did ride past the SeaView and stopped near the water. I walked around the marshy tundra and the mud flats, but the mud was absolutely vicious. It was a gray glue that stuck like epoxy to my boots. Where it looked firm, it was not, and it was almost like quicksand.
A family was playing at the edge of the mud, and the kids were screaming each time their feet sank into the muck. Their father told me that the in-coming tide would cover it all within the next few hours. The mother pointed out a sea lion that was swimming near the shore.
As I walked back to my bike, I stopped at a creek and it took a long time to get the goo off my boots. An Australian man approached me as I got to the bike and said that it looked familiar. He told me that he was in a Green Tortoise tour bus group that had come up from San Francisco. I asked if they had been in Chicken, and if there were any Polish people in his group. Yes! This was the same group that had been in Chicken when I was stuck there. Many of them had been in the saloon while I was there. That's their Green Tortoise bus in the distant left, the SeaView bar on the right.
The rest of my ride into Kenai was nice, but it got drizzly for a while. One construction area was a grooved, muddy mess that one of the worst sections of road I had ridden on so far. A lot of traffic on the peninsula, since there are lots of towns and small cities. Many people spent their whole lives on the peninsula.
I stopped at a small town, got gas, used a garden hose to wash my bike down a bit (it was running hot again). The mud on the wheels was throwing off the balance, and the radiator was blocked again. I had gotten 40 mpg at moderate speeds.
I got to the coastal town of Kenai, saw another town called Kalifornsky and had to laugh at the name.
Before heading down toward Homer, I did a big loop north for a few hours. I passed a Conoco-Phillips refinery on the coast, and it looked like it might also be an electrical power plant. Signs prohibited stopping or taking photos. Or what, I wondered. I doubt they had snipers. Anyway, I didn't stop or take photos.
A small plane flew at tree-top level right over me, and that was unexpected. Soon after, I rode past an airstrip, and a field where planes were parked for sale like a used car lot.
As I headed back south, I saw someone with a basket walking along the side of the road picking something. I finally got curious and stopped the bike. I wandered around the bushes and shrubs along the road but found nothing. I later learned that blueberries grow wild along the coastal areas, and they ripen at different times depending on where they are growing.
I tried to find some public access to the shore, but it proved harder than I expected. Most of the coast is developed with large residential lots. Some public access roads were closed off. My GPS helped a bit, and I finally found the appropriately-named Cook Inlet View Drive, and turned onto it. It didn't go far, nowhere near the water. I walked to the edge and saw why beach access was very limited. The entire coast appeared to be a beach below steep sand cliffs. I was tempted to walk down, but decided not to.
I headed south, missed some more moose photos, finally got to Anchor Point and stopped for the night. The Anchor River Inn had a bar, a restaurant, and a vacant room ($56). I used all three.
I put the SPoT locator on a small tree in the parking lot while it did its thing.
After a shower, I ate and finally landed in the bar. Bill was the only other patron so I sat near him. Amber was the bartender. Bill has worked at a Kenai sawmill for 17 years, but I got the impression that he once operated a fishing boat since the subject kept coming up in his stories. I asked him questions about the area just to keep him talking. He used short sentences and saved his words. I nearly had to interrogate him.
I asked about beach access, and both Bill and Amber lamented about property owners taking over the coast, even though erosion is tearing off the coastline in huge chunks. They moaned about rising property costs, rising taxes, the influx of "outside money" buying property up, and how the area is changing from the fishing community is had been for so long. I never learned about beach access. The talk turned to fishing, as if it were required.
I told him truthfully that I was not a fisherman, and he shook his head as if sorry for me. I asked him about the fish on the walls (all were fiberglass replicas), and he finally brightened and explained them to me. What they were, where they were to be fished, what type of fishing was best for each one. When I had asked him about the sawmill, he wasn't nearly as interested in that subject.
Amber chimed in with fishing tips, too. When I asked if fishing was a popular activity here, they both just stared at me for a while, dumbstruck. Having made me feel stupid, Bill told me that Kenai was the number one fishing destination in the whole world. Well, excuse me...
I pretended to take a photo of the plastic fish just I could get a photo of Bill. He was still thinking that I was stupid when I took this photo, and I think he was watching me a bit too carefully.
A guy barged into the bar--a bit too enthusiastic--and he appeared to be full of adrenalin. Or something. He was maybe in is late 20's, baseball cap on backwards, Red Sox shirt. He told us he was up here from "Joisey," as if his New Jersey accent needed further explanation. I decided that he was the Jersey Kid.
The Jersey Kid changed the big screen TV to a previously-taped baseball game, turned the volume up, and then ignored it for the rest of the night. He told us all about his success fishing for halibut today, did the "it was this big!" gesture several times, and bragged that his arms weren't long enough to show us how big it was. Bill nodded seriously while he listened, and I no longer existed in his world. That was okay; I had fun watching Bill, Amber, and the Kid talk about fishing. I learned more about fishing for halibut and cod than I had ever known before, or would likely ever need to know.
They all laughed as The Kid told about catching a 75-pound skate, but I didn't get the joke. Seemed like a big fish to me. Maybe skates and rays are not good game fish?
The Jersey Kid smoked a lot, which is common in bars in Alaska. The smoke really irritates my eyes, but otherwise it didn't bother me too much. The Kid and Bill kept each other entertained until closing time. Bill's bar tab was $59, one whiskey after another. The Kid paid up and disappeared in a flash. High on life, maybe.
I wrote for a while, but I was unmotivated. This was a decent place to stay a couple nights and get the ride report updated.
So that's what I did.
I was HERE
Thursday, July 3, 2008
After sleeping in until 10:00, I registered for another night. For some reason, this required me to move to another room with twin beds instead of the double bed. The wi-fi access was not good in the room they moved me into, so I set up shop at a table by the window in the restaurant and hung out there most of the day.
Against that window at the right. I had a view of the dreary day and the passing traffic.
For the first couple hours, two chatterbox waitresses worked the breakfast/lunch crowd, talking to each other non-stop. After the rush was over, Ducia took over and worked by herself. She had a slight Russian accent, but she had obviously been here a long time. She told me about the collection of plates on the rafters. One of the owners collected them, and customers sent them to her from all over the world.
I had breakfast, a snack, and dinner at my office table. Ducia kept the coffee or iced tea coming. I got several days' worth of ride report written and the photos sorted, selected, copied, and resized. When I went walking around a few times, Ducia watched my stuff.
When the restaurant closed at 21:30, I left Ducia a big tip and moved into the adjacent bar, where the wi-fi signal was strong. I found a small table at the back, away from the large crowd, and started uploading photos. I saw that Bill was back on his same barstool, the same whiskey glass in front of him. He was with a lot of other locals tonight, however, all of them ready to start the long holiday weekend right by getting drunk as fast as possible. When a group of drunks came to the back of the bar to shoot pool, my quiet place went away.
One of the guys, the youngest and drunkest of the bunch, kept watching me suspiciously. When I went past him to the bar for another beer, he asked me, "Hey, you making a million bucks over there?" I told him, no, that I was just using the internet. He nodded and went back to his game. Later, he came and stood near me, watching me type. I looked up at him and waited for him to say something. It took him a long time to do so.
"So, hey," he started slowly, "I been watching you, eh?" I nodded. "You been here a couple hours on that thing, right?" I nodded again. "So, hey," he finally asked, "what the hell are you doing?"
He wasn't belligerent or hostile; he was just curious and very direct. I told him that I was writing an on-line journal of my travels, and it takes a long time to write it and get it loaded onto the internet. He just looked at me with bleary eyes and nodded. Eventually, he plopped into a chair near me and his pool-shooting partner went and sat at the bar.
The guy asked me where I had been, and I gave him the short version. He asked if I was going to Valdez. When I told him that I wasn't sure where I was going, he insisted that I go to Valdez, and he insisted that I call his family there, and he insisted that I let them take me out fishing on their boat. He started to write his parents' phone number down for me, but it took him a while to realize that he had neither pen nor paper. I did not offer him any of mine.
It's possible that his offer was sincere, but a pushy drunk does not bring out the best in me. I declined his offer, telling him again that I was not sure where I was going from here. When he got angry that I was "pissing off" his generous offer, I just stopped talking to him. Eventually he left me alone and his buddy came back to shoot pool with him.
The uploads finally finished (a faster internet connection would have been nice), and I spent some time browsing some forums and doing some email. When the bar closed, I went up to the room but I couldn't sleep. I did some more writing until about 03:00, finally feeling spent.
Friday and Saturday, July 4 - July 5, 2008
This was going to be a long two days.
I got packed, and after breakfast, I was on the road by 10:00. It was cool, cloudy, but not raining as I headed south to Homer. The place was packed with tourists and Alaskans who had headed for the peninsula for the holiday. Campers, vans, RVs, motor coaches were everywhere. Tents in any available space.
I rode out onto the Homer Spit, a narrow, 2-mile long bit of land that looked artificial. Probably a breakwater that was built to calm the incoming waves. Maybe it was natural, I don't know. It was very touristy, with shops and restaurants bunched up here, fishing boats and their office cabins bunched up there. The mud flats around the Spit showed that the tide was out. (edit: I have since been informed that the Spit is a natural formation.)
I didn't take many photos because none of it was interesting. There was a Seafarers Memorial.
I rode a loop north of Homer, hoping for anything different, but it was just a small community on the coast. I went back up again, past the hotel I had stayed in, then east away from the shore. When I got to the turn-off for Seward, I just took it without much thought. After a few hours, I got to Seward to find it in the same condition as Homer, only worse. It was a bigger city, many more people packed into the streets. The downtown area had been closed off, and the streets around the barricades now seemed to be parking lots. I barely made it to the shore.
There were people active all over the place, a marathon race was taking place, bands had set up stages and music was blaring. This was the major place to be on Kenai, obviously.
I walked along the shore, watched people fishing, looked at a few of the historical markers, saw the sign for the Iditarod dogsled race.
I found a hardware store, bought another ratchet strap to replace one that had been jamming up, and had a light halibut snack. I tightened my bike's chain just a little, since it had sounded loose at times. Then I got out of there.
The weather improved as I rode through the afternoon, back up through Anchorage along the beautiful coast, leaving the Kenai Peninsula behind. I chose not to call Dave (the guy who had trucked my bike down to Chicken), and decided not to stop at Fort Richardson, where my old Army M.P. company was now stationed. I was in traveling mode.
I took the Glenn Highway toward Glennallen, and went through some construction areas that were pretty rough. There was a blasting area where they were tearing out the side of the mountain to widen the highway. Not today, of course, since it was a holiday.
For about an hour going over Tahneta Pass, there was a heavy rainstorm and violent cross winds that pushed me around. I stopped at a gas station for a while, just to let the storm pass. Other motorists had done the same.
There are a few glaciers visible from the Glenn Highway, although they were far off. You could see the end of the Matanuska glacier, and later down the road the upper part of the glacier was visible farther away.
Finally the storm moved on, and although it stayed mostly cloudy, the weather improved. For about an hour, the Glenn Highway runs fairly straight east-west, and I had this growing view in front of me for quite some time. I have been informed that it is Mt. Drum, 12,010' high.
At Glennallen, I turned south and headed for Valdez (pronounced "val-DEEZ" by the way). It was another spontaneous decision. I ran into the pipeline again.
It got foggy as I started up over the mountains. There were some very nice views, slightly dulled by the fog and the drizzle that had started. Still, it was a very nice ride. Worthington Glacier.
Once over the pass, the fog lifted mostly, and the views got better. I saw a rocky ridge off the main road, and it had a jeep track on it. That was for me.
The track was bumpy and it was kind of fun to be standing on the pegs again after days and days of pavement. I took some photos, and found a cairn that someone had stacked up to look like an Inukshuk--a native representation of a human form that has some spiritual significance.
Back onto the road to Valdez, the rain came again until just before I got to the ocean. I had seen fireworks over Valdez and over the water for quite some time, but the lightness of the sky kept the colors from being vivid. Near the docks and the ferry station, there was a large municipal fire burning inside a huge log ring.
People were just starting to wander off, since it was now after midnight. Me and two other guys stood around and talked for a while. One of them works for the pipeline, and he had to get up early. He poked at the fire for a while with a long piece of lumber. The other guy ran a fishing boat. He asked how it was riding over the pass and I told him it had been rainy and foggy. He told me that he hadn't been out of Valdez (aside from being at sea) in several years. He keeps intending to borrow a car to drive up and see the new road over the pass, but he never got around to it.
I walked along the waterfront for a while, took a self-portrait with the oil-town in the background, across the inlet, then a photo of the bike on the ferry dock (I rode around the barricade).
Before heading out of Valdez, I stopped into a bar for coffee. A very intoxicated middle-aged couple was at the bar, near the only available stools. Several other people were talking quietly. While I sipped my coffee, Mister Shitface started with the typical, "Where are you from?" questions, but went wild when I told him about my trip. He turned to his wife and said, "You see, OTHER PEOPLE go places and do things!" Obviously this was an issue between them. She blew smoke in his face.
He then had several Jekyll-and-Hyde moments, alternating between congratulating me for the guts to do such a thing and condemning me for being so foolhardy. When I told him that I was later planning to ride into South America, I might as well have just kicked him in the nuts. He got up from his stool, clapped both hands to the top of his head and stomped around the bar screaming that I was crazy. "You're fucking stupid, you know that?" he yelled from across the room. Everyone was now watching us. "Don't you know they just rescued those people who got kidnapped down there? Don't you know you'll get kidnapped or killed? You're fucking crazy to go down there!"
I told him that aside from the rare dramas and headlines, most people travel in South America with no problems and have a great time. I told him that I had spoken personally with several motorcycle riders who had no problems in Latin America, and that I was confident that I would get through it okay.
He then decided that I had an "attitude." He never elaborated on what kind of attitude he thought I had.
Missus Shitface told me that if I wanted to go, then I should go. I thanked her for her slurred approval. Mister Shitface, having spent all his energy, sat back down and sipped his drink. "Hell, yeah," he said, "You should go." But then he just had to add, "But you're fucking stupid and you have an attitude."
The bartender had watched all this from nearby, and calmly told Mister and Missus Shitface that he had called them a cab. They both nodded without saying anything.
I wrote some notes while the bartender refilled my coffee. Mister Shitface asked what I was writing, and I told him that I was taking notes on today's ride. That got us into a very civil talk about where I should go from here, where I should not go, etc. He told me that I should not go to the town of McCarthy (a place that had been recommended to me by others), because only crazy people came from those hills, and they would kill me. He added that he has never been there, himself, but he heard about it from others. I totally ignored him and kept writing.
"So, what do you do when you're working," the Missus asked casually. I told her that I was a retired police officer. That changed the mood completely, and both the Mister and the Missus shook my hand and thanked me for my service. It turns out that they have a son in police work (somewhere in Alaska, I forgot where), and the bartender is a former cop. That brought the bartender over and I learned that he retired from the San Francisco PD several years ago. He and I chatted while the taxi came and took the Shitfaces away.
All coffeed up, I got the bike gassed up and headed out of Valdez at 01:30, intent on getting as far as I could before looking for a place to camp. It started raining as soon as I started up the pass, and the fog was much worse than before and it was colder. It's a good thing that I took photos on the way in, because there was nothing but fog on the way out. The sight distance was so bad that I was riding along the right edge of the road, following the white line. Then I followed a truck for a while who also seemed to be following the edge of the road. The few on-coming cars were not visible at all until their headlights appeared quite near.
At the top of the pass, the weather ended and it got almost completely clear, although still cold. It was almost dark, too, which was a change from the last few weeks. The truck turned off and I was able to ride a bit faster. A couple hours later, I almost hit a big porcupine in the road. It bristled and raised its quills when I turned around and took a photo of it. Porcupines are slow and not very bright.
Over the next hour, I saw more porcupines, some walking on the road, some that had been recently hit by cars. I saw lots of moose and rabbits, too. My speeds were kept in check because of all this.
The sun wasn't down for long, and it started getting brighter very quickly. I was riding north-north-east, which is where the sun came up. I rode into the sun for the next four hours. My face started to hurt from squinting.
Every now and then, I felt something that sounded like a *tick* sound in the suspension, such as when going over a bump or in a small pothole. I stopped the bike and looked at the forks and rear shock, but both looked fine. Jumping up and down on the bike didn't create the sound. Hmmm... Maybe it was just some piece of equipment or an accessory knocking against something when I hit a bump. The chain was a bit loose, so I tightened it.
I got to Tok at about 08:00, refueled, and went back to Fast Eddy's for food. As I ate, I added up my mileage and found that I had ridden 884 miles since leaving the motel in Anchor Point in about 22 hours. No wonder I was a tad tired.
I talked a while with other riders in the restaurant and in the parking lot. They were just starting their day. I was in the middle of a long 2-day ride.
I had planned to find a campground, and there were some in Tok, but I also didn't want to lose a whole day sleeping. I compromised and rode to the Visitor's Center, which has a nice lawn and some big trees. I sent a SPoT signal, and completely flopped like a dead body onto the grass. A few minutes later, I moved into the shade to get out of the bright sun. I tried to sleep, but I was still too wired.
I moved back into the sun after a while, deciding that the warmth was worth it. I was still completely dressed in my riding clothes, my helmet on the grass next to me. I must have looked like a dead body, flat on my back with my arms and legs spread out, because a woman from the Visitor's Center came out and asked me if I was okay. I told her that I was just taking a break, and she seemed relieved. When I was warmed up, I moved back into the shade of the trees and plopped down for a while longer.
I was HERE
I might have slept a bit, but not much. After a few hours, I used the restroom in the Visitor's Center, looked at some of the displays, and then just walked out and got back on the bike and rode on.
After passing the turn-off to Chicken, I was on new roadway for me; back on a part of the Alaska Highway that I had not yet ridden.
There were lots of breaks in the pavement, sections that were badly torn up and being repaired. Some of the transitions between pavement and gravel were very bad, with a severe difference in the road height. Buh-bump, at each change. I didn't like the way the bike was feeling at those bumps.
I passed lots of riders, most were loaded heavy and headed north. I overtook a few, and I was passed by a few when I stopped to take photos. Before leaving Alaska, there was an hour of very strong side winds that gusted and switched directions. My elbows started to hurt from having to ride so tense, and I had to force myself to relax.
The last gas station before leaving Alaska is well marked, and gas prices here are less than in Canada. I stopped to top off. Located here is an old Canadian customs building. It was used in the '40's and '50's, but somehow got moved onto U.S. soil when it was abandoned. The guy who owns the gas station told me that he is trying to sell it to Canada as a historical building. Apparently, they didn't want it.
There was nothing involved in leaving the U.S.
It was several miles until I came to the Canadian customs building, all by itself on the road. When I had entered Canada from Idaho a month ago, I had only shown my driver's license, so I handed it again to the pretty customs guard. She, however, demanded my passport. Again, I had to move my bike out of the way and unstrap things to get into the sidebox that had my passport. When I walked up to her window, she asked the same routine questions and gave my passport back to me. She didn't run a security check or anything.
There were more areas of road construction, another place where they were blasting rock away (not today, which is Saturday).
Several big lakes and rivers made for good scenery in the nice weather. It started cooling in the afternoon, and rained for a while. When I got to Haines Junction, I had a decision to make. I wanted to ride to both Haines and Skagway, but those were both on long dead-end side roads. An alternative was to ride down to Haines here, take a ferry across the short distance to Skagway, and ride back up to the Alaska Highway.
I went into a convenience store to ask about the roads to each city, if either was more scenic than the other, etc. I found several people who had been to either Haines or Skagway, but not both. The clerk sent me to a restaurant/motel next door to ask someone there. Once in the restaurant, I flopped in a chain on the patio and decided to relax for a while. I had some iced tea and a "Chef's Chow Mein" that looked like it came out of a can. I talked with two couples on the patio, one couple recommended the ride to Haines as the better ride, the other couple preferred the road to Skagway. Phooey.
About that time, I was tired of riding. Hours and hours out of Tok, after an 844-mile ride, I felt like a worn-out tire. I found that the motel office was at the bar/lounge. There are a lot of bar/motel/restaurant combined businesses in Canada. Maybe just along the tourist routes. This was the motel office.
I got a room ($55) and was surprised to learn that they had wi-fi access, but the signal was only good in the lounge.
I took a shower, washed some clothes (all synthetics) in the sink and hung them up to dry. I took my laptop computer down to the lounge and plugged it in the back of the large room. I people-watched while I did some uploading.
There were several men in the bar, clustered around a long, narrow table facing each other. You can see them in the photo above. The women in the bar (a lot of them) were shooting pool or sitting together at another large table. A few of the women were Caucasian, but most were Athapascan or other natives. One of the women shooting pool was short, had long black hair, and huge breasts that swung around and slapped together under her sweatshirt. She was a pretty good pool player, and she won game after game. Many of the women seemed to be pretty "handsy" with each other, and I decided that it was either a gang of pool-shooting Athapascan lesbians or maybe they were just a bunch of drunk friends.
I was afraid to use a flash (they were armed with pool cues...), so I tried a slow-shutter photo from my safe corner of the lounge.
After a while, one of the women came over to me and asked why I was sitting alone and what I was doing on the computer for so long. I told her about my ride journal, but she just didn't understand the internet at all. She got called away by another Athapascan woman who told her it was her turn to play pool. That was all the conversation I got out of her.
When the bar closed, everybody left but the bartender/motel manager let me stay as long as possible before kicking me out. I stood outside the bar until the last upload was done, and a SPoT Check signal had been sent, then went up and flopped into bed. Over the last 40 hours, I had ridden 1,200 miles and dozed only briefly on the grass in Tok.
I was bushed.
I was HERE
Sunday and Monday, July 6 - July 7, 2008
I got up and gabbed for a while with a couple of '08 KLR riders in the parking lot. They had gotten in last night, so I hadn't seen them earlier. Both were having high oil consumption, and I told them that that was a known problem with the '08 models. Neither was having a problem with cold-starting their bikes, so at least that was good. Neither of them were users of the internet forums, so they were totally unaware of the common issues. I gave them some references, but I doubt they were the kind of guys who would go to the internet for advice.
I did some inspection of my bike. The *tick* sound when I went over bumps had me worried. I checked the steering stem, but the bearings and the nut were tight. The wheels and spokes looked good. Was the chain loose again? Yup. I noticed that there was some minor wear on the front sprocket, and the back sprocket seemed unusually worn.
I remembered that it was an aluminum sprocket, and once-a-day lubing was apparently not enough for it. Riding long days made it hard to stop and lube the chain every hundred miles, as some riders do. The sprocket seemed scraped up on one side, too.
I tightened the chain a bit, glad that I was done on the dirt for a while. I just needed to cruise toward home now.
I decided to skip Haines, so I headed east on the Alaska Highway. It was again dreary and drizzly all the way to Whitehorse, where I stopped for some food at a motel restaurant. I didn't want to pass both Haines and Skagway, and Skagway was the lesser detour, so I headed south.
The weather improved into the afternoon, and the views got better and better. I passed a very long line of trucks, at least fifty RVs, coaches, and buses coming out of Skagway, and I assumed that they had gotten off the ferry there together.
The altitude increased, and for a long time I rode past lots of small lakes and rocky islands.
Near the top of the pass, where the U.S.-Canada border was located, I entered another Twilight Zone fog bank.
Then it rained for a while and got colder at the top. No chance for photos (except where the Alaska sign was). It got clearer as the road descended to Skagway, and eventually I got below the weather line and things got nicer.
I rode a tour around the town, looked at the White Pass & Yukon Route train station, the airport (lots of small commuter planes), and the harbor. Finally, I went into the downtown tourist area for coffee. The place was packed with tourists from a cruise ship.
Not exactly a Trunk Monkey (r) but close enough.
I didn't spend much time in Skagway (spelled Skaguay on some signs), and headed back up the mountain.
The fog had risen to a higher elevation, so I got to see a group of bicyclists doing a coasting ride from the top of the pass to Skagway.
A little higher and the scenic views were a bit impaired.
Passing into the States had been easy coming into Skagway, but I was interrogated again coming back into Canada.
More great views headed back north toward the Alaska Highway.
I had just passed through Carcross on the way south, but I stopped here for gas on the way back. What was that red bridge off to the side?
I found that it was a private bridge, and it appeared to be used for both foot- and snowmobile traffic. There was a collection of houses and shacks on the other side of the river. The rails looked like they hadn't been used in a while. There was a warning sing, saying it was private and you should use it at your own risk. Should I ride across for no particular reason? Well, of course.
While gassing up, I saw some trucks loaded with big white bags of something go by. I saw them again on the Alaska Highway. Each truck was towing three short trailers loaded with salt. Each bag was 1.5 tons, 26 bags per truck. So what we have here is a semi tractor pulling 39 tons of salt on the wrong side of the road while another rig comes at it. The salt-loaded rig barely made it back to his side of the road (while I started braking to stay out of the fragmentation zone). He was almost completely over in the other lane when I got my camera out, and this is him easing back onto the right side of the road.
Back onto the Alaska Highway, and eastward, Ho!
Passing the beautiful Teslin Lake area, I spotted Mukluk Annie's Salmon Bake and decided that it just seemed interesting enough for a meal. They run an RV park as well.
Inside, there was a mixture of knick-knack souvenirs and local artwork. Behind the front store area was the common dining room with some small tables and several long, community tables. Caps and mugs were hung overhead for sale.
When I asked the young waitress, Chelsea, (big '50's hair, facial piercings) what the best thing on the menu was, she waved her hand in the air and made a noise like air escaping from a flat tire.
She was all like, "Psssshhh... The salmon, duh," and I was all like, "Nuh-uh," and she was all like, "Uh-huh," and I was all like, "Okay," and she was all like, "Okay."
Well, it appears that it's the salmon plate for me ($22). I went to the salad bar, but I had gotten there just at 20:00 and they were starting to shut it down. One waitress stood nearby, bored, waiting for me to get my salad so she could start clearing it away. That made me hurry, and I managed to splash bleu cheese dressing all over myself, the floor, the cabinetry, the no-longer-bored waitress, and everything else within arm's reach. I borrowed a towel to start cleaning up after myself, and the waitress laughed. She didn't help, but she had a sense of humor about it.
While I ate my sloppy salad, I read on the menu/placemat that if I had gotten there a bit earlier, I could have had a free (with the meal) houseboat ride onto the lake. That would have been a nice, unexpected diversion, but I missed it by "that much."
The salmon was tasty, not so much baked as grilled over a (hickory?) log fire. The meal came with a small chocolate brownie that was pretty good.
I rode on, crossing a high plains area. When I stopped for gas, I decided that I needed a shower pretty bad, since I smelled like a truck full of pigs. It took me a couple minutes to realize that the smell came from a truck full of pigs at the next pump. Whew!
I had a jolt when I came around a slow curve and there was a horse in the road. It wandered to the shoulder and started to graze. I pulled up next to it to take a photo, but it mostly ignored me. It had a cow bell tied under its jaw, so maybe that was supposed to make it safe.
I've ridden across lots of metal bridges, and they can be challenging--especially when wet. I came to one that was very long, and for some reason the grid was worse than usual. My tires played all over the place, and I had a hard time keeping a line. Different tires treat these bridges differently, I know, but mine (at their current state of wear) did not like this bridge.
The Alaska Highway is very scenic in areas, very tree-lined in many areas. The trees are nice, but they limit the view, sometimes. I saw two large wolves along the side of the road, just standing there watching me pass. They were mostly black with some grey or blond trim. Big, they were. Probably with a mean streak a mile wide.
When I got to Watson Lake, I was low on fuel and had already switched to reserve. There were no 24-hour gas pumps in town, which I knew from my earlier visit. I stopped into the same motel I had used last time and asked the guy running the place where the next gas could be found. He said I could go back the way I came 24 miles and find gas just off one of the side roads, or I could go on to Liard Hot Springs, which he said was 110 miles east. (By the way, I noticed that in casual conversation, Canadians are more likely to use miles rather than kilometers, but all the signs are metric.)
I was headed east anyway, and with the remainder of my reserve fuel and the extra gas I carried, I could make it okay. I dumped the spare gas into the tank and motored on. More bears running across the road. Ho, hum.
I had seen many places where people had spelled their names along the side of the road, using rocks on the berms where the road had been cut through the terrain. It's fairly common. Right about now, I needed to take a leak, so when I saw a John, I peed on it. Sorry, John.
After relieving myself, I started off again and felt the chain slip. Uh-oh.
I took a look at the chain and sprockets. The front sprocket was showing some wear, the chain looked okay, but the rear aluminum sprocket was very badly worn. The tips of the teeth were gone. It hadn't been long since I last looked at it, so the amount of wear was quite a shock. I decided that an aluminum sprocket (the only one available in Fairbanks) was not meant for the kind of riding I was doing. When it started to go, it went in a hurry. I tightened the chain, took it easy on the throttle, and ventured onward.
It was already getting dark by the time I got to Watson Lake, and it got darker still. That was kinda new, since it had been light through the night for the last several weeks. It was now a couple weeks past the solstice, and I was farther south, so the dark came back. An hour east of Watson Lake, the dark almost killed me.
I was running at a fuel-saving speed, which is good, since I came over a rise and saw a bunch of black things along the side of the road. I then saw more of them in the road.
Bison. Lots of them. At least a hundred.
Mountain Bison, by the way, which are the big ones. Half the herd was on the left shoulder, half the herd on the right, several crossing the road. I scrubbed off some speed, wove between them, and to my surprise, they let me pass with no reaction whatsoever. Holy Crap! I thought, that was close! That was also pretty cool!
So, of course, I turned around and went back for photos.
The bison paid more attention to me this time, maybe because I came in slower. As I passed slowly by, I snapped a hasty photo of the only one who stayed on the pavement, walking along the shoulder on my right side.
I went past the herd, turned around again and came back to them a third time. Half the herd on the left, none moving. Half the herd on the right, none moving. All staring at me. The one big guy was standing on the shoulder across the road from where I stopped, and he wasn't moving either. I killed my engine, thinking it would calm them, but I was wrong. They started acting nervous, and that made me start to feel vulnerable. I decided that the bison who stayed on the road was the Sergeant-at-Arms, and I took a photo of him. The white dots in the background are the eyes of other bison.
That made him look away suddenly, then he squared up to me and I decided to get the hell out of there. I pulled in the clutch and started rolling down the hill. That was maybe the worst thing I could have done. I think that they had gotten used to vehicles being lit up at night, making lots of noise, going fast. They were probably not used to a dark motorcycle coasting quietly in their midst. That caused them to start freaking out.
Those on the right shoulder of the road turned and started to run in the direction I was going, right along the side of the road. Maybe 50 of them, bunching together and starting to panic--actually running into each other right alongside me. There was heavy forest not far from the road, so maybe that's why they starting running onto the road.
I got the motor started, gunned it and accelerated past them just as they all came onto the pavement behind me.
Egads! Zounds! Gadzooks!
Okay, quick show of hands... How many of you have ever run roughshod on a herd of stampeding bison?
Just me, eh?
Okay, that was exciting. Gotta watch out for bison now, in addition to all the other crunchy things.
Soon after that, it got foggy in a low, marshy area. I saw something along the right side of the road and I slowed as I neared it. My headlight was lighting up the fog, so the visibility was very bad as I passed the thing walking along the right shoulder. Just as I passed it, I looked right at the guy just as he turned to look at me. It was a hiker, loaded with gear, slogging his way down the road. It could just as easily have been Sasquatch for the fright he gave me, suddenly snapping his bearded face towards me just as I passed, his dreadlocks spinning around his head.
SHIT! I yelled aloud in my helmet. Shit! Shit! Shit!
I gotta stop getting the crap scared out of me, or I'm going to be a nervous wreck before long.
Several trucks moving at careful speed made me send happy thoughts to the bison. Then more bears.
I was still full of adrenaline when I passed the Liard Hot Springs area, because I went right by it. I went over a bridge that was being renovated or painted or something, because it had been reduced to one lane, and automatic traffic lights were giving red and green signals on a timer. After crossing the bridge and riding for a few miles, I realized my mistake and turned back. At the Liard Hot Springs Lodge, I found that the gas pumps were locked, no one in attendance. I went into the Lodge, still found no one, so I made the best of it. It was about 03:00.
I was HERE
In the lobby, I camped out in one of the very uncomfortable wood chairs and tried to snooze next to a rare white Black Bear that was on display. He kept giving me the eyeball, so I never was able to sleep. I got a lot of rest, though.
At about 05:30, some guests leaving the lodge started things happening. More people starting coming out of their rooms, going out to their cars, employees started working in the restaurant. I stayed in my chair, having called 'dibs' on in for the morning, and some others came down to sit and read before breakfast. At 06:30 or so, the restaurant opened, and I had some food. Other riders came down and we chatted about the road, the bison, the hot springs. I learned that the Mountain Bison are a major hazard in the area, and about 20 are killed each year. No doubt.
I was tempted to ride across the road and try the hot springs, but had decided early that morning that a relaxing, draining soak in the springs would not be a good thing for me, since I had a lot of riding yet to do. Too bad, but maybe I'll be back some day.
At 07:00, the guys running the gas pumps were supposed to be working, but I waited with several others until almost 08:00 before two bleary and stumbling young men finally showed up to take the padlocks off the pumps. I think that the long holiday weekend hadn't worn off them yet.
Gassed up and well-rested, I was ready to rock and roll. Within the next hour, I passed some bears, several moose, and more metal bridges. The chain would slip whenever I tried to accelerate, so it was slow going. Gave me more time to enjoy the views.
Finally, I decided to try flipping the sprocket. The rear sprocket can be mounted with either side facing outward, and the teeth were worn in one direction. By flipping it, I hoped to use the other side of the teeth, which still had some surface to work with.
I pulled over to a safe area and unloaded the bike. Once I managed to get the bike onto the centerstand (which I had to put on rocks to keep it from sinking into the ground), I had to strap some gear to the front tire to weigh it down enough to get the back tire off the ground. Then I had to dig a hole under the front tire so it would sink low enough.
As I worked, several bikers passed by, usually slowing until I gave them an okay signal. One rider stopped and offered to help, but I was managing okay. He chatted while I worked, and he was amazed to see my sprocket in that condition. Me, too, I told him. I also noticed that the sprocket had been mounted with some crud under one side of it, so it was not tracking straight. You can see the wear on the side of the sprocket.
I limped the bike into Fort Nelson eventually, going slowly.
I asked at a gas station for a motorcycle shop, and then made my way to the recommended Northern Metallic Sales, Ltd. Not a bike shop, surely.
But, Hold! One of the guys there was a biker, and they even had some dirt bikes and accessories for sale. Along with chain saws, ATVs, welders, tools, hardware. I found another hero in Gary (seen in the photo above), one of the guys at the parts counter. Gary first came out with a stack of miscellaneous sprockets to see if any would fit. None did. He went into hunting mode.
Meanwhile, two riders rolled into the lot, both on new '08 KLRs. They had ridden from Michigan, had been around Alaska for a while, and were now heading home. Each had done the same chain maintenance, but they had gotten different results. One of the bikes had a very worn rear sprocket. That's nothing, I told them, and pointed out mine.
They decided that I was the winner. We talked about how tight they were keeping their chains, how the bikes were loaded, etc., but in the end, all we could figure was that some sprockets give up the ghost earlier. I would rather have things be a bit more predictable than that, but oh, well...
They decided that they could make it to Edmonton, and would look for parts there. Off they went.
Gary had been calling around town, but no luck. He had then called around the whole of southern Alberta, finally finding a Kawasaki shop in Grand Prairie, a few hundred miles away. Country Motor Sports had KLR sprockets and the 520 chain I needed, so we made the sale over the phone ($187) and they promised to ship the parts to me overnight. It was late afternoon, and I had nothing to do, so I checked into the Super-8 motel right behind the shop, cleaned and re-oiled my air filer (which really needed it) and called it a day.
After a shower and something to eat, I felt a bit refreshed. I lounged at a nearby restaurant for a while, had a couple beers, and started to get sleepy (go figure).
Frumped back to the motel...
Did some notes...
Wrote a little...
I was HERE
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
In the morning, I found that the parts had not been loaded on the truck the previous day, so they were being shipped overnight. I was told that they should be here by noon.
I went back to the hotel and lazed around, managing to do some writing. Since I had a bike issue, they let me check out later than usual and I was able to leave my luggage and gear in the room. At noon I walked back over to the shop, where I had left the bike. The box of parts showed up, and my mood brightened.
They let me wheel the bike into one of their service bays, and mostly left me alone. Gary let me use an air impact wrench to pull the front sprocket nut off, so that went easy. The D.I.D. chain that arrived was 120 links, so I used a grinder to flatten off one of the pins and knock the chain down to 106 links. The small chain breaker I carried turned out to be worthless, but I did use the pin (and a hammer) to knock the chain pin out.
The work was easy, and went quickly.
I left Gary a big tip for his assistance, and they didn't charge me anything for the shop use.
For the first time in a long time, I had a new set of sprockets and chain at the same time. Yay! The road kept calling me.
I loaded up and hit the road at 14:40, determined to ride another long stretch. Five minutes out of Fort Nelson, it started raining but didn't last long. Most of the afternoon was sunny and warm, very windy, increased traffic. The wind gusts were bad at times, so I never could relax for long.
Eventually, Dawson Creek came into view. The end (or the beginning) of the Alaska Highway. It was easy to find the big "Mile 0" sign at the traffic circle, so I pulled into the parking lot and waited for my turn to take a photo. Two gals were in front of me, taking each other's photo. I offered to take their picture if they would take mine. They had driven the length of the highway twice, once up and once back down, so they were pretty frazzled. I took their photo and handed them my camera. I climbed up onto the short pillar under the sign, but the gal took my photo so close that you can't see that. So I took another photo of just my bike at the sign.
I stopped at a fast food restaurant and asked about the other "Mile 0" sign, which is somewhere in town. I got directions and went to find it. The smaller sign is in the middle of an intersection, and there was constant traffic. Eventually it looked clear enough that I swooped in, parked, ran to the curb for the photo, then waited for traffic to pass before jumping back on the bike and heading out of town at about 20:30.
So the Alaska Highway was done, but I wasn't. I kept motoring on to Grand Prairie through buffeting sidewinds that came and went very suddenly.
South of Dawson Creek, I saw many fields of some low-growing crops that were yellow. No idea what it was and I didn't feel like stopping to ask. (edit: I've been informed that it is canola.)
In the town of Beaverlodge, I stopped to take a photo of the biggest beaver I've ever seen.
As I started off, I felt a big POP! and SNAP! at the rear of the bike, and I thought, "Oh, great. Now what?"
Turns out that one of the straps I used to secure the extra gas cans had snapped and wrapped around the rear hub. The tire was looking about worn out, too.
I was lucky that the steel hook had come loose when the strap broke, because it might have otherwise caused me more grief. I unwound the strap, tied it back together, and pointed the bike east again.
I wanted to be in Silverton, Colorado by the weekend, so I decided that it was going to be highways all the way back. Not fun, not interesting, not as scenic, but it was all about mileage and time. I kept on until I got to Edmonton in the dark. It had gotten cold in the last hour as well, and I was done for the night at 04:30.
The hotel was expensive, but I needed a shower.
I was HERE
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
I got out of the hotel at checkout time, committed myself to more dull, draining highway riding. It rained on and off, but the day was mostly sunny and warm. Riding the highways leads to almost no photographs, sorry.
I decided to look for a new rear tire in Calgary, since the almost-bald rear TKC80 didn't give me much confidence in the rain. I stopped at a restaurant and asked the waitress if she knew any motorcycle shops in town, it turns out that she didn't know anything about motorcycle shops or waitressing.
I rode around, finally stopped at an auto parts store and asked a gal at the parts counter if she where I would find the nearest motorcycle shop. Well," she began hesitantly, "there is Blackfoot Motorsports, but most people don't like them." I asked why that was, but she didn't know. She only knew that they had a very mixed reputation. I used a phone book to look them up, called and confirmed that they had a rear TKC80 for me, and got directions to their shop. It turns out that my instincts had been good and I was not far from them.
I got to their store, went into the service area and waited. And waited. And then I waited some more. Nobody was working at the counter, and another customer looked as if he were about to pass out in a chair. Finally, a guy came out to the counter and I asked if he could get a tire mounted before they closed for the day. "Too busy," he said bruskly. "Got no time for it." He started typing on his computer. He was already done with me.
I went to the sales area for the tire. Blackfoot Motorsports is all about sales, make no mistake about it. A huge showroom full of bikes, parts, accessories, and riding clothes. Several sales clerks snapping up the cash and grabbing the credit cards. It was finally my turn, and I asked for the tire. Before he went to get it, I asked if there was any chance of getting it mounted. He said that it wasn't likely, and he went to fetch the tire. He came back out, nearly threw the tire at me over the sales counter and got to work on his sales register. Okay, I can see why some customers don't get a welcoming feeling from this place.
The deal done, I told the guy that I would be out in their parking lot mounting the tire, but he didn't care. "Next!" he called out.
I went out and relocated the KLR at one side of the parking lot. It was nearly closing time for the shop, and the parking lot was thinning out. I saw several shop mechanics standing together in the open, mostly-empty service bays. They didn't look busy to me.
Another customer coming out of the store helped me get my bike onto the centerstand while the mechanics watched. As I kept working on my bike, the mechanics watched me and joked around for half an hour until the shop closed. Then they closed the overhead door on the still-empty service bay and disappeared inside.
Other riders chatted with me as I worked, usually offering to help. One rider, on a BMW GS, told me that he didn't like to take his business to Blackfoot, but they had a large parts department. He told me that they have bad customer support and their service department was no good. I told him that I had already seen the truth in that.
I got the old tire off, and then decided to mount a new tube as well while I was at. The tube I took out had been the one that Calvin had swapped with me in Dawson City, and it looked a bit scrubbed up. The TKC went on easily and I aired it up. The tire got up to pressure right away, and seated the bead with no problem. I loaded the bike, strapped all the gear back on it, rocked it off the centerstand and started to ride away when I saw that the back tire was completely flat. What the...?
I aired it back up with my electric pump, then watched it for a while. It took some time, but it eventually lost pressure. Crap. There was no one in the parking lot as I threw my gear back on the ground and began to unstrap and unload everything again. I knew that the only way I could get the bike onto the center stand by myself was take all the luggage off, so I resigned myself to another hour in the empty Blackfoot lot.
As I started removing the tire, two KLR riders pulled in and parked next to me. They had seen me in the lot as they rode by, and seen me working. It turns out that they were following my ride report on the internet and they recognized my bike! How weird is that? They needed to be someplace, so they didn't stay long and I never got their names. They did take a photo of me working, so maybe that will show up at some point.
After they left, another KLR rode a couple times. Eventually, it cruised into the lot and stopped right next to me--a little too close, actually. The rider introduced himself as Lee, and within the next few minutes, I knew all about his history with his previous KLR, how he had crashed it, how he decided on a new '08 model this time, how he wanted to ride the roads in British Columbia, how he had heard lots of rumors and urban legends about the KLR and the parts that he should upgrade right away.
Lee talked with a stream-of-consciousness as I worked, and although I tried to respond and answer some of his rapid-fire questions about the KLR, he made it hard to give detailed answers. When I was able to discuss some specifics about the bike, he told me that it was, "nice to finally talk to a KLR fanatic who knows about this bike."
I got the tube out and found where I had pinched it. I was surprised that it had taken enough air pressure to seat the bead. My first thought was to patch the tube, but Lee sat down on the ground to watch me work and that was not comfortable for me, so I decided to re-install the used tube. He told me that he had never seen anyone do this before, so he wanted to watch. We talked as I worked (he did offer to help, but I declined), and after I got the tire mounted, I asked him to hold the tire so I could take a picture of him with it. He sat up and I took his photo.
Lee didn't know much about the KLR's particular issues, and he called me a "KLR fanatic" and an expert several more times--but always in a friendly manner that he probably meant as a compliment.
A rider pulled into the lot on a Triumph sport bike and parked near us and I talked with him a bit. Lee assumed that the other rider and I were traveling together, and he started putting his gear back on. I gave Lee some references to KLR650.net and KLRWorld.com, and gave him Fred's ArrowheadMotorsports.com web site address. I told him about my ride report, so he might look it up and chime in on one of the KLR forums.
Lee rode off, and the other rider and I talked a while. He was just dropping off his bike at the shop, and his wife would show up to get him. He told me that he hated bringing his bike to Blackfoot, but since it was the only Triumph shop that could work on his bike, he had to bring it here. "Their service department sucks," he said flatly. "They're a bunch of jerks."
Hmmm... that seemed to be the consensus.
Finally all fixed up at 20:30, I scrubbed in the new rear tire on more boring highway. It was about 22:30 when I got pulled over in Lethbridge by a police officer. I had gotten off the highway to take a scenic route around the city, and I was apparently enjoying my ride a little too much. About 20 kph too much.
I stopped in a safe place, got off the bike and removed my helmet. He could then see that I was no young kid. He was pretty casual, saw that my license plate was from the States, and he asked me about Colorado. He asked me about my ride, where I had been, etc., then we got to chatting about the cost of my six-week ride and how I had prepared for the journey. After a while, he finally told me that he was letting me go with a warning (which had been apparent from the beginning), and I told him that I had just recently retired from police work myself. We chatted a bit more, then went our separate ways.
I had my passport ready this time, so when I got to the U.S. border, I wouldn't have to dig it out. The border guard asked the necessary questions, then finally asked me if I was bringing any pot into the U.S. Somehow, that struck me as funny, so I asked him if he was kidding. He told me that he "just wanted to be sure." I had to bite my lip to keep from having too much fun with his sure-fire pot-prevention technique.
There was almost no traffic on the Interstate highway to Great Falls, Montana. I stopped at the Flying-J truckstop for food, but by the time I had eaten, I didn't feel like riding anymore.
Hotel. Shower. Sleep.
In that order.
I was HERE
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Today was the first day of the Horizons Unlimited meeting in Silverton, but I wouldn't make it by tonight.
I sped off southward again, and got absolutely sand-blasted and wind-battered all day. The headwinds and sidewinds were terrible; fuel economy dropped, speeds were kept low, my arms, back, and neck were cramped and sore before I got out of Montana. Riding with one hand to take this lousy photo, leaning into the wind with my camera at my chest, was one of the most dangerous things I did on this ride.
The Missouri River canyon was pretty and I managed a few photos.
Somewhere, I had lost the spray nozzle from my can of Chain Wax, so I stopped at a gas station and bought the cheapest thing I could get that had a similar nozzle. Turns out that a big can of windshield de-icer is cheaper than a small can of deodorant, so that's what I got. Hey, it worked.
The winds started changing direction and hit me from all sides. After going under an overpass, the wind turbulence got so bad that it started me into a speed-wobble that almost crashed me. I was able to ride it out, dragging the rear brake lightly until I could start a slow weaving pattern and regain control of the bike.
I stopped in Dell, Montana, to let my arms relax. The gas station was also the post office.
Apparently, they spell casino as "cusino" in Dell, Montana.
The battering day continued, getting hotter and drier as the afternoon passed. I went quickly through eastern Idaho, entered Utah, then suffered through the extended trial that was the Ogden-Salt Lake City-Provo metroplex monster. Doing it at night almost made it a sublime misery, but it was stressful enough to be real.
When I got off the Interstate and chose U.S. 6 to continue, I was torn between continuing and stopping for the night. The canyon was probably a beautiful ride, but it was lost in the dark. There was a lot of construction, too, with long stretches of limited lanes and changing conditions on the twisty road. It got cold, then it got warm, then it rained, then it got cold again. And all of this with a big rig semi-truck on my ass for an hour.
By the time I got to Price, Utah, it had dried up and gotten warmer. I stopped at the first motel I saw off the exit and was happy to be done for the day. The price for the room was decent, the strength of the wi-fi signal was decent, but the trains passing by with regularity--each blaring its relentless warning at the road crossing--was very indecent.
Still, I got some writing done, then flopped outside on a big swing as the SPoT device sent its signal out.
I got a ride report uploaded, then tried to ignore the trains through the remainder of the night.
I was HERE
Friday, July 11, 2008
I got started again late in the morning, determined to be in Silverton that afternoon. The day was warm, then hot. U.S. 6 left the canyon behind and entered more open terrain. Open, gray, dusty, dreary terrain. There is a beauty even in desolation if you look at it with eyes that can see the beauty. My eyes were giving me mixed signals, and although I can appreciate the monochromatic palette of this Utah landscape, I was mostly seeing endless miles of the same old same old. Mood changes one's ability to enjoy monotony, too, I know, and I had to remind myself to enjoy the ride and not focus on the destination.
Back on I-70, back on familiar highway, then. I resisted the urge to turn back down to Moab, but kept droning on toward Grand Junction, Colorado. South, then, to Delta, where I stopped to dump all my spare gas into the tank and get a much-needed root beer float.
As I strapped the empty gas cans back on the bike, it occurred to me that I might have made a bad choice in where I had been hooking one of those straps. Ever since I picked up the two gas cans in Watson Lake a month ago, I had been hooking one of the straps to the centerstand. I did this to keep the centerstand from slapping up and down on rough roads, but doing so might have caused another problem. When I cinched the strap down, it was pulling the back of the bike (everything on the subframe) down onto the rear shock. So, I was effectively compressing the rear suspension an extra inch or so. Worse, I was limiting the rear shock's ability to rebound. I had heard and felt some clues over the last several weeks, but I kept looking for other causes. Everything looked okay, so I ignored the clues.
Whether or not the strap (that was compressing the suspension and limiting rebound) had contributed to chain and sprocket damage, I cannot say, but once I thought about it, I decided that I had caused a lot of the heavy wear by something so simple as where I hooked a tie-down strap.
Stupidity is easy; you don't even have to work at it.
I relocated the attachment points for the tie-down strap (after about 10,000 miles), and the suspension immediately felt better. Life can be simple.
As I rode south through Montrose, the bike started sputtering and coughing badly. I suspect that some water had collected in the spare gas cans, and now it was working out through the float bowl. I limped along for a while thinking that I should drain the float bowl, but it started raining again and I just hunkered down on the bike and kept riding. After a while, the sputtering stopped and the bike ran better.
I rode through Ouray, and started one of the greatest roads anywhere.
I was very familiar with the Million Dollar Highway, between Ouray and Durango. The mountain views are great, the road is great, the tourist traffic... not so much. People puttering along, slowing to point out the sights to each other in their cars and RVs, stopping on the roadway to take photos, being indecisive about whether to keep driving or stop and use a defibulator on Grandma.
Nearing Silverton, traffic was stopped for a long time in a construction zone. They were repaving a long section of the roadway, and traffic was limited to one-way. I parked the bike and walked around for a while.
Once the on-coming traffic was clear, we were allowed to proceed. The lead vehicle was a truck with a load of asphalt, so we barely knew we were moving up the mountain. When it finally turned off, I looked for the first chance to pass the only vehicle still in front of me, and I took it when it came. The new pavement was great, but the rain had made it slick and I had to curb my enthusiasm or slide off the road. Red Mountain still looked great.
Getting to Silverton was great--largely because the weather improved, largely because my wife and others I knew were there, and largely because it was a symbolic end to this leg of the Prudhoe Bay-To-Ushuaia ride. I was back in Colorado, I was going to be at the Horizons Unlimited meeting for the next couple days, then it was just a jaunt (~300 miles) back home from there.
The HU meeting was nice, as usual. I sat through several travelers' presentations that evening, met several people I knew, and got recognized by several people who had seen this ride report on one of the forums (which still kinda weirded me out). Greg Frazier gave his talk about his rides in Southeast Asia, mostly in the Philippines, so I sat through that. Then I got to relax with no further feeling that I needed to be anywhere.
Until my wife informed me that we had a date with friends in Salida on Sunday.
I met and chatted with Larry Toby and Lonnie Toby (below, with me), motorcycling gurus indeed. Larry's ride to South America with his daughter (LikeFatherLikeDaughter.com) on a KLR had led me to meet with him recently about his experience.
I had a few beers around a campfire with my wife and a friend, Mary, who had ridden her Harley (with sidecar for her dog, Hanna). It had been on Mary's property where Don and I had camped on the first night on our ride to Moab.
Mary, on the right with Hanna on leash.
I caught the last part of a presentation by a guy who had done a long ride in South America, but that took us until after 23:00, so it was too late to hang out any more.
Since my wife, Laurie had trailered her bike to Silverton, we had the Tahoe to sleep in and I didn't need to pitch a tent.
I was finally HERE
Saturday and Sunday, July 12 - July 13, 2008
It got hot in the Tahoe soon after the sun hit it. I drowsed as long as I could manage, but finally got up and joined a few others in town for Breakfast. The campground was on the edge of Silverton, so it was a short walk to the main street where all the restaurants were.
Back at the campground, I sat with Mary and watched Laurie and others take a basic off-road riding class that worked on slow-speed bike handling skills. A few people asked about my bike and how I had set it up. Greg Frazier asked a few things, but he is not a guy who needs to ask anyone about taking a KLR anywhere. I have read most of Frazier's books, so I know that he sometimes likes to ask questions as if he didn't know anything, but since he was a featured speaker here, he knew that everyone knew who he was. Anyway, he and I only chatted a few moments, and he asked about some of the KLR websites (I had decals from KLR650.net and KLRWorld.com on my bike--along with other sites--and those were the ones he asked about.)
The HU lunch was fish tacos (very good), and then I plopped myself in the lodge and decided to do nothing all day. I passed on some rides that others were doing, and I worked on writing this report for a long time. I got recognized by several people who had seen my ride report on one of the forums, and they asked me outside several times to talk about things on my bike.
There were several riders here who had known me prior to my ride, and some had known me for a few years. Many of those had been to the KLR tech days that I host at my house a couple times each riding season.
The recognition here, near home, was no less weird than it was in Alaska or Canada. Andy Warhol had said that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. If he had lived longer into the internet age, he might have said that everyone could GET famous in fifteen minutes. I wasn't famous (and had no desire to be) but recognition by strangers from a limited niche or subculture was close enough to make me uncomfortable. I will admit to enjoying the talks about the bike and what I had done to it, the "best" and "worst" parts of my ride, and especially enjoyed when someone told me how much they liked reading my ride report. I know that some will only skim the report and look at the photos, and that others (the smartest, wittiest, most discerning, and best-looking group) will read the whole thing. So there!
The evening presentations were interesting. A Danish gal who rode solo around South and Central America, a guy who rode down South America and up Africa. I sat out of the last couple presentations, and finished writing my ride report up until that date. Caught up, at last!
No internet connection in the camp, though, so it would have to wait to get uploaded.
Again, the sun heated the Tahoe on Sunday morning. Laurie had pressed me to be in Salida at 14:00, so we packed up and I put some stuff from my bike into the Tahoe for her to drive home. I watched Mary load Hanna into her sidecar.
As we were nearly ready to leave, we learned of a guy in the campground who had a dead BMW bike, and he needed a ride to a larger city where he could load the bike into a rental truck. So, that's how we met Jeff and saw the damage to his bike. His bike had a bunch of fried wires under the gas tank. Looked like something shorted out or got overloaded and burned lots of wiring. No way to fix it here. We loaded Jeff up onto our trailer, and he joined Laurie, Mary, and me for breakfast.
Laurie and Jeff headed off in the Tahoe, and Mary and I said our good-byes. As I started out of town, I saw some of the KLR riders I know on the side of the street working on a bike. I stopped and learned that one bike had a bad battery, but they were getting it taken care of. So, off I went.
No construction on Sunday, so U.S. 550 north to Ouray was easier this time.
Laurie and Jeff might have stopped in Montrose to look for a U-Haul shop, but I didn't see them anywhere. I finally caught up with them near Gunnison, and we stopped there at a U-Haul business on the main street. Jeff rented their smallest truck, we unloaded his bike from our trailer and wished him luck getting back home (Washington or Oregon, I forgot).
Laurie and I got to Salida just after 14:00, and I was surprised to see several bikes parked in front of Duke and Tami's house. As it turned out, a few riders had decided to meet me there to welcome me back from the ride.
Of the group, I knew Alan well, had met a couple others. We chatted and took each others' photos. Tami was playing hostess, but Duke was still at work. Some of the riders had to leave, and a few of us rode to Duke's Fat Tees shop to say hi. After visiting with him a while, the four of us (Storm, Alan, me, Lee in the next photo) rode up the Spiral Drive just outside Salida. The rough dirt road winds around the conical hill a few times to the top, and the views of Salida and the area are great.
With my KLR escort, we rode U.S. 24 back to Woodland Park. This was the first time in a long time that I had ridden with others, and I kinda felt like they were chasing me.
Alan and I have ridden over Rampart Range Road and Mt. Herman Road a few times together, but the others had not. The road was in excellent condition--about the best I have ever seen it. We only met a few other vehicles going over the Rampart Range, and we stopped a few times for photos. When we stopped here, they recognized it as one of the spots where I had taken a photo at the start of the ride report. So, this is them in the same spot.
We took Highway 105 north to the entrance of the Perry Park neighborhood, where I live, and we parted there. I hadn't expected any company to this point, but it was nice. Thanks, guys.
Another couple of minutes and I was home.
Laurie was unloading the Tahoe, and I started unloading the KLR.
Screw it, I decided. It'll wait until tomorrow.
Now let's see... What needs to be done over the next ten weeks to get ready for South America?
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Part 4 - Prudhoe Bay to Home
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