BETTER LATE than never, say highly placed sources who request anonymity because they’re not authorized to discuss lateness or betterness. Allegedly.
But you decide.
Allow me to preface the big journey across America and Canada with a little side trip across the headspace, to wit: Please don’t ever buy a motorcycle because of anything you read at the Nickels. If motorcycling has found some other way into your blood, soul, mind and imagination, that’s cool. Just please be advised, you can, uh, break your ass doing this.
I submit this cautionary caveat, for your consideration, because I recently rediscovered a photo envelope long forgotten on a shelf in the basement utility room.
This is about a dozen years ago now. A stop sign scofflaw totaled the Super Glide. Not a survivable get-off without a helmet.
See the hospital transport guy pushing buttons for the elevator? With my arm trussed up like that, I appear to be hailing us a cab instead. The arm wasn’t fractured that I recall, at least not in need of surgical repair (like the leg, in three places), but it had a pretty good puncture wound. They debrided it for me in the ER.
I watched a doc cut a hole in the good side, put in a tube, pump water through to flush bits of leather and assorted crud out of the ugly side, sew it up … The world was a blurry, happy place. Morphine, baby! You’re gonna love the morphine.
We’re gabbing about something while he works on the arm, what, I have no idea. Probably didn’t then, either. Somebody says, Hey, you’re fighting us! I turn and notice two docs trying to reduce the fractures in the leg. They’re twisting, pushing, pulling… Fighting you? I didn’t even know you were there.
Temporary hardware on the outside. It came off when they installed 15 pieces on the inside.
Still hurts. Every day.
It didn’t hurt at all when it happened. I awoke in the street after a little power nap on the dotted yellow line—never felt better! Enjoy the endorphins while they last.
Leaky hydraulics on the starboard landing gear, constantly soaking through pillows and sheets. Not visible here: bruised brain, kidneys, B-cup hematoma in the lower spine, bruises measured in square feet from the lats down… But what I want you to see is the dead-eyed oxycodone stare.
When the instant emergency is over, the war on drugs kicks in. On drugs grown in the ground, that is. No more cheap ER morphine. Now, your opioid receptors, a million years in the making, are fitted with insanely expensive brand-name synthetic molecules.
The shareholder-value-type drugs do kill the pain, but about half of you with it. You’ll never feel worse than when the pain stops.
Next time I get run over, I hope it’s in a poppy field. I’ll roll right up at the feet of an Afghan farmer and put in my order. Yessir, I’ll have the, uh—Whoa! Buddy. You want to point the Kalashnikov in the… air? … not at…?
Thanks, Farmer Ahmad. Peace out!
Back home at the humble manse, working on the peggedy-legged hoppety hop. I’ve already ordered the iron piggy new from the factory. Did that from the hospital. One more surgery to go and I’m back up on two wheels!
But here’s the thing, the point of all the above: It was nothing. I got off easy. It’s the common cold of motorcycling. I just happened to catch it. Achoo!
AND NOW, if I haven’t completely turned you off on the two-wheeled life—On to Alaska!
Time to load the iron piggy, May 17. Usually I’m raring to go, but the bride and I had hardly seen each other in months. She had put in crazy hours all winter and spring, weekends included; was part of a team that had a lot of responsibility for pulling off a systems merger with two other banks. It would have been easy to shelve the ride and wait a year, but next year isn’t promised to anyone. And her hours weren’t about to let up, so what would be the point of staying? I can miss her on the road as easily as I can here.
Before I left, I told her the project she was working on amounted to the first time in 37 years that I had ever felt lonely in the marriage. That went over well.
A blue start to the journey, to be sure. But I knew at some point the motorcycling would take over. It would reboot the world and become its own thing and I’d be digging where I was, wherever that happened to be. The winters are long when you work out of a home office. They always leave me feeling like Captain Willard holed up in his hotel room in Saigon. Not that I’m completely wigged out by spring, running around naked punching mirrors, but it’s true: “Every day I sit in this room, I get weaker. Every day charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger.”
So! Time to reconnect with my inner guerrilla. I’m loading up the iron piggy, about to set out across the continent the long way.
It’s the first day of 83 days. The first mile of 11,341 miles. Not my longest miles ever, but it’ll scratch the itch.
CLICK HERE for a 30-second animation of the way out and the way back. Or as close an approximation as iMovie would allow me to construct.
I’M ON THE ROAD for maybe 15 minutes and have my first of three near misses. Dunno if the driver is reckless or oblivious, or both, but he almost clips my highway peg on the interstate at 65mph. He wanted half my lane while passing someone else.
If everything’s an omen, you turn around and go home, right? I won’t say there’s no such thing as omens. As Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey of H.M.S. Surprise said, to his naturalist pal, Dr. Maturin, “Not everything is in your books, Stephen.”
I like to be respectful of the possibility of mystery in the world, and to embrace the humanity of incomplete knowledge, and even error. The way to do that, I think, is to strive for a balance between awareness and wariness; to be aware of your intuition, but wary of the mind’s ability to create meaning where there is none. We, as a species, are wired for it. Hence all the crazy shit that people believe on no evidence whatsoever. Or even on ample evidence to the contrary. We count on things that have never happened, discount things that have always happened, etc…
Anyway, I see in my journal that I didn’t worry much about the near miss. Why would I? Any motorcyclist will tell you what it’s like out there. I just noted it and moved on. Wherever you see bold italics ahead, that’s out of my journal.
Here’s part of what I wrote that first night, camped in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Almost hit at Mile 11 in RI. Older econobox, PA tags. Husband, wife, son… Son not belted. Very close call. Used up all my bad luck already? Hopefully not all the good. Bedroll setup is wrong, makes the front end feel light. Not sure my heart’s in [Alaska], despite a year of anticipation. Would rather spend time with Pam but… I could be dust next year.
In Carlisle, I meet up with Saab pals from Rhode Island. They’re here for the weekend because the annual import show is on. I have Sunday breakfast at the Fairgrounds Diner with Mike, Mike, Mike (collectively, the Mikes) and George. Have lunch under the big tent with the sound system playing Everything But The Girl, a song that begins with the sound of Big Bully Boy Felix coughing up a hairball. Be that as it may, who doesn’t like the girl that will come Driving… driving… fast as wheels can… turn…
Piggy digs the girl. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. George says I’d be great on a St. Paul-to-Minneapolis endurance race for Harley riders, with a parts truck parked in the middle of the bridge.
Ha! See you in 11,000 miles, says the piggy.
Boring west through the Allegheny Mountains of “Penn’s Woods,” the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Long road ahead. Grab a good twist on the throttle and aim for something brilliant.
People who run out of time and then, whoops, no, you’re getting sent back to Earth, bub, they say they remember accelerating toward a bright light. I draw the logical conclusion: When you die, you fly around forever in one of these tunnels in the Alleghenies.
When I fuel up in Carlisle on my way out, the gas station’s playing The Rembrandts, so I have that stuck in my head for the rest of the day. I won’t see the bride for months and I’m missing her while pumping gas to Baby… that’s just the way it is, baby…
Exactly. Just the way it is. Get your road zen on and go.
Here’s that song to a few minutes of footage I shot with the helmet cam while crossing Pennsylvania. See it before YouTube takes it down, for I have no idea how or where to get permission to use the music. Read by tens of people, I’m sure I must owe The Rembrandts a cool .0001 cents in royalties.
I STOP IN WEST VIRGINIA to visit with Lester Ross for a few days, my friend John Ross’s dad.
Good ride to Lester Ross’s house, New Cumberland, WV. Got here, aired out wet gear, bought Kool-Aid from a sweet kid next door. She was making money for her vacation to Virginia Beach this summer
Lester tells me how an accident in the steel mill in March, 1944, may have saved his life. He thinks his alternate destiny may have been to die in Europe, fighting Nazis.
Lester and three other local boys are drafted, pass their physicals, and are sent back to their jobs to await the final call-up. Then a fellow mill worker crushes Lester’s leg with a vehicle that loads steel coils onto boxcars. The docs want to take his leg but his father won’t allow it. Lester undergoes many reconstructive surgeries and a long rehabilitation. Meanwhile, the three young men drafted with him die in the Battle of the Bulge.
Lester refuses to consider himself reduced by the accident. At 46, he makes a 200-mile hike through the Yukon, hauling a 54-pound pack and an 8-pound rifle. Thirteen days up and down mountains. He tells me he was in tears at the end of it because he didn’t think he could make the last quarter mile. Which he could, and did.
Quite a remarkable and determined man. I know I’ll think of him when I get to the Yukon myself some weeks down the road.
A recent photo of Lester and Virginia, provided by John.
BACK ON THE ROAD through the midwest. I’m getting sunbaked and it’s only May. The interstates are often jammed in daylight hours. So are the nearby blue routes because so many frustrated drivers are jumping off the interstate.
I’m never in a hurry, always happy to wait it out. Will hide under an overpass every so often to get out of the sun, get water going in, let the engine and primary drive cool down.
It’s fun to gab it up with the drivers when they’re going slow enough to say something to you. Hey, Rhode Island! Long way from home! Not yet I’m not, brother.
The sky ahead is white hot or blue or lead gray, sometimes all three. Five days down the road and I’m only as far west as Crawfordsville, Indiana. Goofing around, visiting people, blah blah…
A tough ride in heat and high winds. In camp by 6, in my tent by 9:20. Fixed a big dinner, got a shower, washed out my clothes and hung them up to dry.
It’s hot on the backroads of Illinois. I stop at a store for coffee and drink it at a picnic table outside, with a worn-out old man and an obese teenage boy. The old man says, “I always wanted to go to Alaska, and I never did.” Bingo!
Down the road, in Waverly, Missouri, I’m peeking in the window of a defunct hardware store and an old gent pulls up on a riding mower.
John Hinz, 81, a well-read man, amateur historian. In a few minutes I pretty much have his life’s story, and his town’s. He tells me lore of Jesse James passing through Waverly, and of native son Joseph O. Shelby, who led Confederate troops into exile in Mexico after Lee surrendered. Waverly is south of the Missouri River. Johnny Reb’s Missouri.
It’s always amazing to me how you learn so much so fast from strangers when you’re riding through their towns. And it’s all so personal. In minutes, you know their greatest triumphs and tragedies, their fears, the cancers, the miracle babies, who did who wrong, who’s in rehab…
Mr. Hinz tells me he was orphaned before the age of memory. In his 70s, he learned he had siblings and managed to track down two, a brother and a sister. His sister was a Harley rider when he found her. She’s decreased now. And so on, and so on…
I grab for a loose dog that goes running by. I’m thinking she might get hit on the main road. A golden, she looks friendly enough to grab for without getting bit. Mr. Hinz hands me a cord to tie around her collar, then he calls the town office. A minute later two town employees pull up, in separate vehicles. One has an idea the dog might belong to the man who runs a little barbecue place in town. She calls him.
Sure enough, here’s the owner, arriving to collect the wayward Sadie.
Mr. Hinz says the barbecue place has “the best catfish sandwich in Missouri,” so I backtrack and buy one for lunch, and I think it just might be. Then I ride on to Moberly and set up camp under white oak trees in the town park. There’s a check-in number on the bulletin board. I dial it and Tim the ranger drives by to collect the town’s $8.
I meet Bruce and Cheryl here, who lead a traveling life working in power plants across the country, six months here, eight months there. They’ve just finished a job in Missouri and are bound for another in Florida. They invite me to their camp for dinner.
Cool points for kindness to strangers. Steak and scalloped potatoes…
Next day I’m off to see Bill and Sandy Peterson, in Pleasanton, Kansas. The helmet cam joins the windshield in killing farm bugs by the score.
First bee sting today…
I draw the logical conclusion: Revenge.
Poke along, poke along, ziggedy-zag…
At Bill and Sandy’s, I pitch my tent in the side yard, under one of the pin oaks. There must be a hundred hummingbirds in the trees, turkeys clucking in the woods, big red-eared sliders wandering about. The Petersons’ cats are on the prowl, Putzy and Spiro. Coyote song and train whistles at night.
Dusk. Hummingbirds on a sugar high. They zip around real zippety-like. I shot video of them earlier in the day. Quite a breezy day under the oaks. Don’t get seasick.
Bill and I pick rocks out of the garden and wheelbarrow them to the low spots on the long gravel drive.
Local lore has it that William Hanna and Joseph Barbera came out here from Los Angeles in ’59, an impromptu retreat for creative purposes. They were stuck. Couldn’t think of a name for an animated cartoon they were working on. Hanna picks up a handful of these and says Hey, these stones look like flint. Barbera says, Let me see those flint stones…
Aw, I made that up. But dig the well-traveled flint stones of Pleasanton. They tumbled a long way to get here. The Flint Hills are more than 100 miles west of town.
From previous Nickels blab, some of you know my pal Johnny Danger, on the Eastern Sierra, Bishop, California. Jon is Bill’s Peterson’s brother, one of four Peterson bruisers.
We go paddling around on the pond out back, after beaver. So to speak.
Well, no, literally after beaver. They keep plugging up the outflow, trying to spill the pond over the berms, make new wetlands. We set two traps around their dens. Dunno if we got any. Hadn’t by the time I left.
Dewfall in the heartland.
Out of nowhere, a guy who works with Bill drops in over the trees and buzzes the house. I’m the only one in the yard to see him do it. Because I… I live in the yard.
He climbs to circle around, for a second pass.
Bill comes out of the house and moons him. Bill’s charged later by the FAA. Cheeky behavior, two counts.
Junior Birdman’s had enough. We never see him again.
Besides posing a hazard to aviation with Swedish butt glare, the light of a thousand suns, Bill knaps flint and obsidian into razor-sharp arrow heads.
Imagine fashioning these cutting tools by striking one rock against another at precise angles. Next ice age, I’m hanging with Bill’s tribe.
Just in case the mastodons come back…
I’ll write stories where the Flintjets mix it up with the Flintsharks over a girl named Ug.
Accidental selfie, on the sinister side… Head’s on a swivel, watching that train headlight down at the lower left. It’s coming fast enough that I’ll stop at the crossing.
People get ready… There’s a train a-comin…
If you need Curtis Mayfield to tell you that, you’re gonna get run over.
I grab the video cam and shoot the train.
Friendly Jesus bikers. I draw the logical conclusion: The ghost of Curtis Mayfield hopped off the train and is riding with me now.
Juanita and Kenny Adams, of Quenemo, Kansas. While I’m fueling the iron piggy, they ask if they can pray for me to make it to Alaska in one piece.
I can’t tell you how common this is; strangers volunteering their concern for the lone rider far from home, in whatever tradition is familiar to them. It always makes me thankful for freedom of conscience wherever it exists in the world. Mine, theirs, yours…
I’m not into My ancient text can beat up your ancient text, but I do like to think there might be a mystery at the heart of things. Something we can’t quite see from here. For me, the most spiritually exciting things going on today are in quantum physics and the interstellar gaze of the Kepler space observatory. But that’s me.
As for running into Kenny and Juanita while hanging it all out here on the road, you don’t have to be religious to know an act of love when you see it. Can you pray for me? Fuckin A you can pray for me! Brother, sister, gimme the good juju if you got it.
Old-media advertising in Council Grove, Kansas, a historic stop on the Santa Fe Trail. The Indians used to meet here to pow wow under the trees. In said grove, they convened their councils.
West of Council Grove, passing the mayor’s motorcade.
Saw many an Old Glory up ahead and realized—Memorial Day! I had lost track of time. This is somewhere on U.S. 36.
Home that night was the town park in Phillipsburg, Kansas, not far from the Nebraska line. It was stormy and close to 90F on the way up.
89 and strong storms forecast for Phillipsburg today. Cooler and dry in Scotts Bluff, NB, where I’m headed.
Piggy and I ride north into Nebraska then west along the Platte River, U.S. 26. We pick up the North Platte around Ogallala and follow it toward Wyoming.
I’m about ready to stop for the day just before we get there, set up camp on the Nebraska side. I check in at a small-town police department. Not even a town, the Village of Morrill, founded March 1, 1867. Home to 1,000 people. There’s only one cop on duty, the chief. Shawn Noon looks 20 years too young to be chief. I get the idea he’s a good boss, though; gave his guys the holiday off instead of hogging it for himself.
Anyway, no sleeping in the park, there’s an ordinance against it. Chief Noon suggests that I camp along the river in Torrington, just into Wyoming. There’s a town park there, he says, and camping’s allowed.
I’m about to ride off when Chief Noon comes back outside the station and hands me this patch. Carry it for safe travel, he says. I say thanks and put the patch in my shirt pocket. It’s the only button-down shirt I have with me. The patch lives in the pocket until I get home nine weeks later.
Up against the Rockies now, riding north for Canada.
Rode with weather much of the day. I think it was on this road that a pickup driver coming head-on decided to take half my lane, brushed me over into the right-wheel track. Near miss #2.
It happens fast at closing speed but I was paying attention, saw him coming over the yellow line… No need to go flying around in the Allegheny Mountain tunnels just yet.
Piggy and I race many a coal train across Wyoming. We see loaded cars coming south, empty cars going north.
We never see where they’re digging it. The mines must be way back in the hills somewhere.
Headed north through the valleys between the Bighorns and the Rockies. Horses range down low, Bad Mr. Grizz up high.
On the shore of Boysen Reservoir, north of Shoshoni, Wyoming. I pick up a little trash others have left behind and hope that a family of RV people nearby will turn their generator off at some point. They don’t, so my earplugs go in and I’m out for the night. I sleep the good sleep of the rode hard, put away wet.
Rained overnight, 50F in the morning, very heavy clouds, and low, coming over the hills to the north, hiding the tops… Gonna be cold in Beartooth Pass, I’ll bet. Going up to 11,000 [feet]. About 4,500 here.
The rain comes and it’s heavy all morning. I’m not sure the pass will even be open so I cut east at Cody, Wyoming and cross into Montana at a lower elevation. I hold up in Harlowton, Wheatland County, for a few days until my passport catches up with me. I’ve forgotten it at home and the bride’s sending it out general delivery.
For three rainy nights I sleep by the rodeo arena in the town park, 3,049 miles behind me, 8,292 to go.
Tough day today. Rain and chill. Steady rain all night. Maybe piggy will be on her side in the morning.
The ground can soften in a deluge. The kickstand sinks in and over she goes. I don’t worry about it. Piggy only falls as far as her engine guards allow. In the morning I’m pleased to see she hasn’t fallen over at all.
Next night, heavy rain, high winds.
WY and MT was a good test for Yukon and AK. I have enough clothes… Got shelter, food, fuel for cooking, water, doing all right in adverse circumstances. No bugs and no DEET, a huge plus. Many wet days to come in Alaska, I think… It’s an interesting experience to be affected by weather. Most people aren’t. Might be inconvenienced but not truly affected. Not gonna be wet because of it, or cold because of it, or taking a risk because of it.
I forget to write won’t be hungry because of it. Rain makes it harder to stay fed. You’re in the tent and there’s no cooking in the tent. I don’t even cook near the tent. Might as well hang out a sign for bears.
It costs $7 a night to camp in the town park. Ed and Virginia Taylor come around to collect. He’s 85, she’s 81. Married 60 years. They have three daughters, just like me. I mean I have three daughters, too, not that Ed and Virginia’s daughters are just like me, good godda mighty…
Ed and Virginia are curious about the trek, New England to Alaska and back. Sounds risky.
So many people talking about my safety. I wonder if I’ll pull up to a toll and it’ll be Rod Serling in the booth.
Kindly an odd rule for a rodeo arena. They must mean horses that aren’t taking part in the festivities: bucking, jumping, kicking a clown or whatever… Anyway, piggy and I are in compliance.
On this one, I advise piggy to keep a low profile.
ALL RIGHT, BLAH BLAH, two weeks on the road, I’m beginning to look homeless. I draw a bucket of water at the post hydrant and wash up. Write myself a note on the matter as well.
Beard trim once a week with a scissors, in a side-view mirror. Appear presentable insofar as that’s possible.
Given the rain, I’m in the tent more than usual, with the soggy gear. It’s like rooming in a dumpster.
Should I think about new gear after this? All my stuff is pretty battered, duct-taped, UV’ed, scratched… Must say, I enjoy using stuff up…
I take a quick inventory.
Definitely using too much cooking fuel. Was geared up for alcohol, too, but the fuel bottle didn’t get aboard. Will pick one up in Calgary.
My boots have been wet since Wyoming.
Drying out nicely. Will see if I can’t load up tomorrow a.m. and do some local riding, and will do some Saturday as well.
A day passes.
Dry but tremendous wind. Tough to walk into it. Lean into it and go. My jetboil regulator is shot. Hope there’s an REI in Great Falls. Sun’s trying to peek out. I’m saddling up!
And that night…
Rained on again on the run up to Two Dot. Back in the park for rainy night #3… Calm air at 7:30 p.m. on third night here… I’m sun-scorched and cold and damp, 45 degrees… A tablespoon of molasses, great for fighting the rain and cold. And avocado, good fat.
I have neighbors on my last night in town, a couple from Whitefish, Montana. They’re traveling in a luxurious fifth-wheel trailer, spiffy digs. Overnighting in the park because they have an early sales call to make at a local store.
Lee Patterson, lives in Whitefish summers, Arizona in winters. He and his wife in sales, western gear. Offered me an electric heater. Going down to 30, he said.
I was drying out all right. I thanked Lee for the kind thought and declined the use of the heater. Still going by the Captain Willard rule: “…Every day charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger.”
Ed and Virginia drive up before dark. We gab a bit as I hand over the $7. “Every day’s a thank the lord day,” says Ed, “I’ve had enough of rain but I thank the lord for it.” I tell the Taylors my passport will probably arrive in the morning and I’ll be gone the next time they come through. Ed reaches out through the car window and puts a grip on my hand. Virginia puts her hand on Ed’s shoulder. They bow their heads, close their eyes and Ed prays that I’ll get to Alaska all right.
In the morning, I load up, grab an early lunch on the main road, and we’re rolling again.
My favorite burger joint in Harlowton, and two of my favorite Montanans, Margie and Mike Ewing. They moved here years ago from Port Angeles, Washington. I’ve been there, a nice working town, not too touristy, water view…
PIGGY AND I ride north out of Harlo and make a wide arc around to the northwest, around the Little Belt Mountains, through Great Falls, then dead north for Canada. We camp in Fort McLeod, Alberta that night, and, in the morning, through the hardest rain yet, a real deluge, we make for Crossfield, a town north of Calgary.
I’ve been invited to hold up there for a few days by an old friend I’ve never met.
I knew Bill Boogaart from an internet listserv for we who work on vintage Fords. When I was restoring the ’49 truck the first time, in the mid 90s, I was out of luck trying to find two springs to replace the broken ones under my radiator saddle. I posted something on the listserv about it. Bill took a shovel, tool box, drove to a wrecking yard, dug down through the snow, crawled under a truck like mine and removed the springs I needed.
He wouldn’t let me pay him for the springs, or his time, or the gas. Not even the postage.
So, 15 years later, I ride up and we meet for the first time. I meet Bill’s wife, Gerrie, and their son, Liam. I can’t talk to Liam without laughing. The kid’s hilarious! The next Craig Ferguson.
I have the run of the garage, where I change the iron piggy’s engine oil and primary oil. There’s Big Rock Traditional Ale in the fridge. Bill takes a day out to give me the grand tour of the Reynolds-Alberta Museum, in Wetaskiwin. Vintage cars, trucks, motorcycles, tractors, planes—I’m in!
A ’39 Junior Scout, 500cc v-twin.
I enjoy a great welcome from a great Canadian family and don’t even think to take pictures to show you. It’s so easy to leave the camera in the backpack and just enjoy the company.
After 3 days, fish and guests start to stink. I arrive pre-stinking, so that’s even better.
Headed west and north on a route that Bill mapped out, up past Banff National Park and Lake Louise.
Canadian Rockies ahead. There are huge gaps in my geology education but you can’t mistake how the Canadian Rockies look different than the U.S. run of the cordillera. Shale and limestone up here, mostly granite in the U.S. And there was more ice up here in the last ice age, so the peaks were shaped by different forces acting on them.
A brisk June day in Alberta. Not much sun, but no rain on this side of the Rockies. Plenty of cold rain up ahead, though, in the passes.
It gets brisker as we go. I pull over and say, Piggy, dig it! Bow Glacier!
I can’t tell if that’s approval or aw-go-stick-your-bow-glacier.
The passes are punishing but there’s no stopping the iron piggy.
We ride down to lower elevations west of the Rockies and make a run through the trees on the Yellowhead Highway. It’s a great motorcycle road pointing northwest down the middle of a broad valley, the Rockies on your right, Columbia Mountains on your left. Lots of forestry, farming, ranching….
We camp that night in McBride, British Columbia, a nice little town on the Fraser River.
Saw black bear cross the road nearby, near horses, cattle. A fantastic route outlined by Bill B. A great day on the road. Alcohol stove rocks. Great meal. In my tent at 9 p.m., still daylight. Fierce rain and wind in the passes today.
A bit of rain falls overnight. It’s cold enough in the morning that I can see my breath. Time to get the alcohol burner burning, heat water for tea and oatmeal.
Clouds coming over the tops of the mountains to the northeast. [Is that] Cows or moose [I hear] on the river?
Then I’m off on the Yellowhead, riding for Prince George and points north. We make 410 miles to Dawson Creek, the start of the Alaska Highway. I buy a cheap campsite from a friendly First Nations woman and do mileage calculations for the road ahead. From where I stand it’s 875 miles to Whitehorse, 1,573 to Anchorage, 1,795 to Homer.
I’m up early and making breakfast before the rain can get here and see to it that I ride off hungry.
Leaving out of Dawson Creek by 7 a.m. Slept great. Rain coming here later. Very humid, starting to mist. [I’m] Breaking out the electrics. Thought of Tom C. today while policing up other people’s trash.
That’s a reference to the late Tom Coforio, who ran our local Scout troop in Philly when I was a kid. He trained us to leave campsites cleaner than we found them. Forty-five years later, I still do, without fail.
One place to buy gas. One pump at the one place.
The sign puts the smackdown on Alaska-bound RV tourists who never really thought through that 5-miles-per-gallon thing. Or about scuffing off $2,500 worth of tires at an alarming rate. Riding Alaska Highway chip seal is like taking a belt sander to your tires. Piggy’s skins were certainly disappearing fast.
This fuel stop is on the Tetsa River, British Columbia. Gas was $1.79 a liter, equivalent to $7.20 a U.S. gallon. Everything costs in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t get here by itself, and there might not be another place to buy within 100 miles.
For the record: Piggy never snivels.
We make camp for the night at Summit Lake.
No bugs here in the pass. Cool, some wind, 4,250 feet, highest point on the AK HWY. High alpine country… Tomorrow, the Yukon.
Next morning, racing about, eager to get out of Dodge, but I take a moment to scribble the immediate news and a line of philosophy.
Cold rain all night and in the a.m. Packing up in the rain, gotta get to lower elevations. Three teaspoons of peanut butter for breakfast. This is supposed to be hard. That’s why it’s interesting.
I stop for big bison-shaped speed bumps around Muncho Lake. If they move off the road it’s because they want to. All you can do is stop and wait for an opportunity to nose through. Don’t get 2,000 pounds of bison bull annoyed enough to hit you with his big coconut.
Wood bison are bigger than the plains bison. I’ve sat around on roads in the Dakotas, too, waiting for plains bison to cross. Either kind have the right of way.
The trucker gets an opportunity and creeps through at 2mph. My side’s slower to clear. I’m not in any hurry.
Interesting when you stop to think that the biggest bears in North America, the apex predators—polar, kodiak, grizz—top out at 500 pounds less than these guys.
Not that weight is everything. I’m sure I wouldn’t sit the bike at idle with 40 bears crossing the road.
This is another bunch farther down the road. I slow to 10 mph and motor by. They never even look at me.
In Whitehorse, the Yukon, I get word from my next-door childhood pal, Frank Cellucci, that his mother has died. He’s emailed her obit, so I’m sitting in Whitehorse reading it. Mary kept after us when we were kids. It was tough to put anything over on her. If Frank or I struck a match to light a stolen cigarette in the backyard, she heard the hiss of the match from the front porch. I was semi-afraid of her, to tell you the truth.
I wonder what my 8-year-old self in that small, big-city world of ours would have thought if a wizard said, This lady dies a half century from now. You’re wandering the Yukon Territory when you hear of it.
Who would have guessed the future?…
Not a lot of clear weather in the Arctic, but I get a look at it now and again.
This is far more typical. Push through! Ride on! What else?
It’s not complicated. Way too simple a thing to require step-by-step directions. Like lather, rinse, repeat.
In motorcycling terms, Ride the bike, get off the bike, stuff food in your face, lie down on the ground, get up off the ground, ride the bike, get off the bike, stuff food in your face…
Stick to the daily repetition of a few simple tasks and whole continents pass by under your wheels.
The arctic rain often clears as fast as it hits. Then you’re out in the sun again. Then it rains. Then the sun. Then the rain. Lather, rinse, repeat on a meteorological scale.
Headed for Teslin Lake, the Yukon, my stop for the day. A decent run, 412 miles. The last dozen or so are over gravel.
I camp next to Roshan, an interesting young woman from central British Columbia. Her last name isn’t in my journal. I didn’t get it, or didn’t write it. Didn’t note her town, either, but I recall her saying she’s from Smithers, BC, double-majoring in political science and forestry. Her dad’s a forester.
Kluane Lake might be the most beautiful stretch of the entire 1,700-mile Alaska Highway
Kluane’s in the Yukon. It’s a good road around the lake, too, very unlike much of the highway.
Pushing on for the U.S. border crossing at Beaver Creek.
It’s a haul getting here. I’m headed for Homer, on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. That’s still two days off. From here, you ride up and over the Wrangell-St. Elias, take the cutoff at Tok, down through the Gakona River Valley, then it’s a straight run through to Anchorage and the Kenai south of there.
This is Alaskan night riding around the vernal equinox. Around 11 p.m.
Up ahead, I camp in Tok the first night, 521 miles behind me for the day.
Frost heaves are like your very own on-board chiropractor. Very easy to damage sidewalls. Light rain this morning. Hard to take pix in the rain. No breakfast. Rode about 175 miles in rain and cold, stopped on the river to cook beans and rice. Wind kept bugs down. Haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday.
It feels good to have an appetite! So often we eat when it’s “time to eat.” It’s a habit, not hunger.
Weird perspective here. It doesn’t look it but the river’s a few hundred feet below my dirt kitchen.
What’s the story? Who sits in a chair on the edge of a cliff? Do they come up here every day? If I hang around will I see who it is? Is it a Yup’ik shaman? A lunatic? Dangerous drifter? Maybe it’s a woman. Maybe a child…
I’ve got the What and the Where, now I want to ask the Who and the Why. If the mystery cliff-sitter happens to show up anytime soon, I’ll see for myself the When and the How.
I think about sitting in the chair, seeing if that will make something happen. But I know I’m just inviting John Quinones and a camera crew to appear in the willows. Next thing you know I’m on “What Would You Do?” with Quinones announcing to the world, This sumbitch would sit in your chair, that’s what.
Belly’s full. Back to work.
The Gakona, braiding its way into the Chugach Mountains.
It gets higher and colder before it gets warmer.
Back down at sea level, on the tidal flats in Homer, AK.
The stalwart iron piggy carried me 6,331 miles to get here.
John Newton’s rig, on the flats. John’s a first cousin to Ryan Sheehan, Daughter #1’s significant other. John works on an offshore oil rig in the northern Cook Inlet. I sat the house for about a week, while he was at work, did some writing there.
It feels like a good house. I get a good vibe here…
The ride up the hill where John lives.
Pretty good elevation gain. Motor’s hot when I get up here from sea level…
Dig it, John Newton’s and Ryan Sheehan’s grandfather, John Rohweder. This is Seattle in the 1930s. Harley man. Rode a knucklehead.
John’s backyard. The wildlife’s a mite bigger than the groundhog that lives in ours. And better tasting! First night here, John cooks moose meat from the freezer.
I see this cow and calf just about every day I’m here.
While housesitting, I was tapping away at the Macbook one day, doing work for King Features, saw the cow and calf come up over the bank, leaned out the door and shot this.
From the hill where John lives, looking down on Kachemak Bay. That’s the Homer spit obscured by trees on the left.
Closer view of the spit. Bars, restaurants, marinas…
Time to heave the piggy over and change oil again. With her down on the crash bars I can prime the clean oil filter about two-thirds full before I install it. Brings up the oil pressure a little quicker.
Cool and windy on the spit, very warm up top, 77 in the house…
I think I’m probably not riding back down the Alaska Highway, or the Alcan as some call it. From here it’s a three-day ride to Haines Junction, in the Yukon. That’s where the road splits. You either stay on the Alaska Highway or hang a right and head back to Alaska; the southeast panhandle of Alaska. The way home from there is by sea.
The Alcan, no reason to be overawed by it. Once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. It’s a road through the trees. BTDT.
On the spit, the maw of a 110-foot landing craft. They haul vehicles in and out of remote settlements that don’t have road access.
Wednesday, June 19, 1st day of summer. Drizzling here in Homer. 1st precip I’ve seen on the Kenai. 1st time mountains are obscured…
I read My dad was cool, a blog update by Katie Lord, film producer and daughter of the late Peter B. Lord. Pete and I worked together at the newspaper for many years.
“My dad was cool.” Makes my day! My friend was one of the truly great humans to walk the earth. Mortality: I suppose I’m here [in Alaska] because of it. Where do we go? Somewhere. Nowhere… What a gift these days are.
One of Uncle Sam’s stockpiles of new navigation aids waiting to go in the water.
Look at that fickle piggy, hanging with other buoys. Piggy, you heartbreaker…
MY TIME ON THE KENAI is getting short. John’s finishing up a week on the oil rig and bringing his girlfriend with him when he comes back.
I might saddle up and camp on the spit tonight, give him some privacy… I’m eager to cover miles.
John won’t hear of me camping on the spit. I stay up on the hill a few more days.
And then the spirit moves and it’s time to ride north for Anchorage.
The two farthest points on the U.S. road system, Homer, Alaska and Key West, Florida. This is Key West, 2008.
Homer’s roughly 5,300 miles from Key West. You can get to Cranston, Rhode Island from Homer about 650 miles quicker.
I could absolutely live in Homer, or anywhere on the Kenai.
No way! I say it loud, hoping to be overhead. What kind of cad would trade in his piggy?
All evening, Piggy coos more than oinks. Pretty transparent ploy on my part but…
Mixed media, Alaska style. A big chrome motorcycle bear greets you at the dealership.
The Harley dealer in Anchorage lets bikers camp on the property. There’s nobody else here the night I stay. It’s a city, so there’s city noise all night. People shouting, fighting, cars racing around. I’m a Philly boy, I sleep fine, only faintly aware of occasional mayhem.
On the road to Tok.
Road crews everywhere. It’s a short road-building season in the Arctic.
Nothing to do but put the scrub behind you. And keep putting it there. To cover these big distances you need to be inclined to ride.
After riding, follow up with a ride, then ride some more and pencil-in some riding time, make a mental note to ride, then ride, and after you ride try to squeeze in some riding and…
Ride toward what’s ahead…
Ride away from what’s behind…
Check that off your list and, yeah… ride…
5,000 miles over the horizon… but ever with me…
The day’s getting old when the white line starts running through my helmet. I think of Colonel Kurtz. “And then I realized—like I was shot—like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead…”
Grub! Get it while you can. There will be times when you can’t.
Quick refresher: Get on the bike, ride the bike, get off the bike, make grub, lie down on the ground, get up off the ground…
Uh, get on the bike, make grub …?
No, no, dammit…!
Gas prices are easy here. This is Alaska still, near the Yukon border.
I’m not good with colors but even I can see that every glacial river in Alaska and Canada has its own look, depending on what kind of ground the ice grinds through. Some are pure light and otherworldly brilliant. Others look like sink water after you’ve washed the dishes.
Back in the Yukon, taking a leak in bear country. Maintain your situational awareness. That means motor off, eyes up, ears open and a… vague idea of where you might have packed the bear spray.
Here’s one Yukon yacht that has sailed its last.
Gilligan could have made it off the island, but, overall, a maintenance nightmare…
Back around Lake Kluane, gorgeous country.
I might come back just to ride this stretch of road again.
Actually, I will come back to the Arctic. You read it here first.
On my way up here, in Fort Nelson, British Columbia, I saw the Laird Highway turnoff for the NWT. Had to stay focused to avoid taking it! I was pretty close to the border at that time. It wouldn’t have put me more than four days out of my way.
Hang a right off the Alaska Highway in Fort Nelson, cross the border and ride up to Fort Simpson, NWT, on the MacKenzie River. I’ve read accounts of it. Mostly it’s gravel, about 300 miles between the two towns. I really do hope to ride it one of these years.
A fantastic day. Dry, rain, dry… Only one other camper here. Very bad frost heaves today. Saw no wildlife. Fair amount of gravel, the 50mph type. In my tent at 11:30, still daylight. Easy day to Haines in the a.m.
In my mirrors, Haines Junction, Yukon Territory. Up ahead, Haines, Alaska, with a stretch of British Columbia in between. A gorgeous ride through the Tatshenshini River Valley, home to the densest population of grizzly bears in the Yukon.
Remember: motor off, eyes up, ears open, Mr. Meals On Wheels. (That’s what RVers call bikers up here.)
It’s a two-day ride from one border crossing to the other.
On the Alaska side, heavy till in the Chilkat River, maybe 25 miles downstream from its glacial headwaters in British Columbia.
Chow time in Haines. Breaking out the grub.
I resupply at a store in town, then ride down to the water to eat.
I want to keep an eye on the channel so I know when the ferry steams up to Haines. I’m getting on it.
Windy down near the water. Rocks shield the alcohol burner, keep the heat going into the pot.
Sidecar bikers pull up, one from Oregon, then one from Texas. Like me, they’re killing time while awaiting the ferry south, due to board around midnight.
2nd night on the boat, toasty, drizzly. Nice to feel the flex wave in the steel as the boat jinxes down the channel. Saw bears last night through binoculars. Slept through Petersburg this a.m. Hilarious yesterday to find that Jan knows Chip Thomas and Maria [from the] Peace Corps in Columbia in the 60s. Wild.
Jan is Jan Daub of Houston, a way more disciplined motorcycle blogger than I’ll ever be. When he’s on the road he files here every day.
Met him on the side of the road in Haines, got to talking, it turns out he served in the Peace Corps with my sister’s daughter’s husband’s father. What are the odds, Kevin Bacon?
Jan Daub and Chip Thomas married Colombian women while serving and, 40-plus years later, are still married to them.
Shower and laundry, clean again! Might go ashore in Ketchican. With the sides of my beard cut I don’t look so entirely used up, just mostly used up.
I doubt that babes on the street will call me “grandpa” when I hold open a door for them. Probably something way better, like “pops.”
Well, we sail, we sail on, blah blah…
I dig snoozing out in the open on the four-night sail. The roof keeps the rain off but the sheltered area is open to the world facing aft.
No cooking on deck, obviously. The food in the galley is all right and decently priced. Thumbs up for the Alaska Marine Highway System! By all means, go.
I forget where this was… some little stop along the way.
The big cruise ships navigate the Inside Passage as well.
I would have been in trouble on this ferry in three minutes flat when I was this kid’s age. And with Frankie Cellucci from next door? My partner in crime? Stand back!
Luckily, Mary Cellucci would have intuited whatever mischief we were planning the moment it occurred to us.
Can’t imagine taking this voyage and then gawking at movies indoors for three days but… people do it.
Dawn #4, back in U.S. waters, sneaking up on the Port of Bellingham, Washington.
Made friends here that I’m still in touch with.
Keith Hackett, Navy vet, Vietnam, saddles up his ’01 Road Star. We ride together down to Tacoma, where I split west for Gig Harbor and Keith continues south to his home on the Columbia River, in Rainier, Oregon. He and his wife, Robyn, raise magnificent English Mastiffs there.
Speaking of dogs, remember Jimi the dog?
After Alaska, I end up bunking on Jan and Connie Nelson’s boat dock out at Lake Cushman, on the Olympic Peninsula.
What a mop! I’m not sure I ever saw it dry.
!! Where’s the human who’s supposed to be in this bag, huh? huh? where’s the human? huh? I want to bug the human, but it’s not dark yet, I bug him when it’s dark out, but where’s the human…?
Pam flew in for a while. That’s Pam, Connie and Jan, after we rode the four-wheelers to a high point over the lake. I’m up on a steep bank because our friend, Jim Hanna, spotted a chunk of petrified wood sticking out of it.
I climb up for a closer look.
I spend more time here than I probably should, but I have the Macbook with me, an internet connection courtesy of the Nelsons, paying work to do, so it not a total goof-off. And I get some work done on my novel… still picking away at it.
The day I’m getting set to leave and ride east for home, Jimi the dog won’t leave my side.
Jimi knows I’m leaving. [He’s] Hanging on to my wrist with a light, retrieving grip…
I have dinner with Jan and Connie that night in Gig Harbor, enjoy watching Julie Taymor’s Across The Universe with Jan, arise early and get on the road.
It’s a complete change of environments once you cross the Cascades, the mountains that separate wet Washington from blazing-hot desert Washington. Might as well be different planets.
It’s an oven. Keep the water going in. Push through.
I log 451 miles in fairly terrific heat and make camp in the Bitterroot Mountains, near Clark Fork, Idaho. It’s a little mom & pop campground run by nice people, Jack and Sandi Schepens. I want to get out of Dodge quick in the morning, so I’m planning to bunk in a lean-to where they keep the riding mower. The shelter’s full of bats. That’s fine by me if I can get out early and make miles before the heat of the day, so… don’t bother me, bats, I won’t bother you.
I sweep batshit off the floor, roll out my sleeping bag, and just when I’m all set the bats get seriously active close to home around dusk. I thought they’d fly off somewhere, but they don’t, so I unpack the tent after all, set up, crawl inside and pass the night without dreams.
Back in Wheatland County, Montana for a few days. Jed and Annie Evjene invite me out to tour the 40,000-acre American Fork Ranch.
Here’s another place I could live in a heartbeat!
Just about every place has something to recommend it. I’d like to live in New York City, too. For part of the year. New York, New York, helluva town, Bronx is up, Bowery’s down. See, I already know the lay of the land…
Piggy’s a handful on gravel. Especially with worn-out tires.
Back up on the hardtop, rolling east…
The heat’s still with me in eastern Montana. Been hot for days now…
A scorching ride through the dry alkali lands, across the Big Porcupine River, then back into the trees and up onto the interstate around Forsythe, Montana. This is Miles City, where Larry McMurtry’s Augustus McCrae gave up the ghost. (My late friend Pete Lord used to call me Gus. I called him Woodrow.)
I have gracious neighbors under the cottonwoods at a campground here. Joe and Elizabeth Valentino, of my home state of Pennsylvania. They’ve tent-camped in Alaska, traveling by minivan, and are on their way home to Reading, PA. Lovely people, near retirement age. School teachers, and very Catholic. We drink coffee from a battered old percolator pot that once belonged to Joe’s grandfather, an immigrant from the Abruzzi region of Italy. Some of my own people hail from there.
As Joe and Elizabeth are leaving in the morning, Elizabeth hops out of the van, walks over to my camp and shows me this card. She and Joe say the words together every morning before they set out.
A fellow road warrior wants to share something that’s meaningful to her. Another random act of love. Happens all the time. Our ideas may be a little different but Elizabeth says it doesn’t matter, as far as she’s concerned we’ll meet again.
I snap a pic for the Nickels and my friends from Reading are off on the final 1,900 miles of their long journey home.
Piggy heads east again…
Ride on through the nothing nothing nothing… a little town… the nothing nothing…
I like to poke around the tumbled-down places. I wonder who worked in this little garage. What were their lives like?
Across the South Dakota line, moving east and south.
Another little town… Piggy and I ziggedy-zag along the side streets, then get back on the blue route and snick up through the gears.
This is something I’m sure you don’t know. I don’t like to think about it much less talk about it. I don’t even know why I’m getting ready to talk about it now, but…. I was up for the Governor Dennis Daugaard Award of Excellence myself. The town of Lemmon beat me out for it. And not on the merits, either. It was a political thing.
It took a whole town to beat me. They can’t take that away. I did all right, considering it was 1,398 against one.
Funny, I rationalize it and rationalize it and, still… I’m oddly wounded by the whole experience.
In the Great Depression, my old man rode the rails. I ride along them.
More tumbled-down places. Minnesota this time. I like to drop in unannounced, catch the ghosts by surprise. If they know you’re coming, they don’t straighten up the house as people do, they actually mess it up a little more.
Ride, scribble, ride, scribble, blah blah…
Good Ride to Aberdeen. Crossed the Missouri River today…
And on through Wisconsin…
Great day. Chilly in the a.m. Got to 80. Fantastic luck at every turn…
More and more, my notes are about the whole ride, not just the day. They’re about being out there, free on the earth.
I was supposed to live like this. I knew it as a kid…
And on through Illinois, and near miss #3. An old man from New York comes up fast from behind and apparently doesn’t care if he collides with me and the car to my left. I duck into the breakdown lane at speed and he just misses us both and grins at me as he goes by.
By Chicago, my tires are dangerously used up. I get equipped with two new sneakers on August 4, while enjoying the kind hospitality of another old friend I’ve never met, Roger, from the Ford listserv.
Don’t tell Jimi the dog but I made a new canine friend at Roger’s, Sammy the dog. Blind since birth and deceptively sad-eyed, he’s a happy, sweet-natured animal.
Back into the industrial highway mayhem of the Rust Belt.
Left lane’s usually a good bet. Just creeping along at 10mph here… It’s the same drill as crossing a desert or an arctic wilderness, it’s just the urban kind now. Keep doing what you’re doing, one mile at a time.
Traffic’s not so bad, really. My boot’s not on the road all that often.
Connecticut, not far from the Rhode Island line.
I never planned to come to Rhode Island for good when we left Maine in 1986. Just came here for a newspaper job. Rhode Island was supposed to be a stop on the way to somewhere else, but the Biggest Little has a weirdness that grows on you. A unique state with a rich culture, people from around the world, a great capital city, wonderful neighborhoods, gorgeous beaches, farms and woods in the west—three huzzahs for Little Rhody!
Maybe we’re here for the duration. Or maybe not. Half the fun is not knowing what lies ahead. That means everything’s possible.
Our humble street…
One more turn and there’s the humble manse. I draw the logical conclusion: You can go home again.
Rode away on May 17, rode back up the walk on August 7. Now I strip all the heavy gear off the hard-working iron piggy. Get her looking trim, for local rides.
She digs showing off her figure at Ocean State Harley-Davidson. I pop in to see friends, drink the free coffee, learn where others have been…
Five months later—today—I finally post the road report. I draw the logical conclusion:
No, actually, there… isn’t any.
Tony DePaul, February 5, 2014, Cranston, Rhode Island