In 2015 I checked two items off my bucket list: getting a sidecar rig and doing a fly/buy/ride excursion from my Kentucky home to a distant state. In March I flew out to Tacoma, Washington and made the purchase of the little red sidecar rig I had seen at the BMW rally the previous July in St. Paul. Sidecars are a different animal from motorcycles and I learned to drive it on the way back, going down the California coastline.
At Stinson Beach, north of San Fransisco, I was tired enough to stop. I learned the hard way long ago what happens if I don’t listen to that inner voice that says it’s time to get off the bike. This tiny beach town had just three lodging places and two of them were full. I get to the third, a B&B, just as a couple in their 30’s, driving an expensive car, get the next to last room. I take the last one without any questions. It is a strange looking place, hard to describe, but I think,”I’ve stayed in worse”…and I have, but not by much.
There are chickens in the “courtyard” in front of the house, though it is hard to spot them amid the clutter. My rig is parked in front of the gate, out on the street.
I can’t really tell what the house actually looks like because of the objects, small and large, everywhere. There are signs allegedly from the Titanic, various bits of what I assume are sculptures, though I can’t tell what most of them might be, random pieces of inside and outside furniture, carved tiki gods and plants all over the place. Cats roam among the detritus. There is a fence around the house, but it is so covered in the decorative junk that I can’t get my eyes to focus on any one piece to tell what its contours might be. There is an iron staircase to nowhere. The proprietor is a muumuu clad lady of indeterminate age, probably older than me, and my guess is that in her day she would have been what back then was called a hippie here in the birthplace of that movement. She seems distracted, perhaps a little disconnected. Breakfast, she tells me is at 8:30 and when I say that I’ll be long gone by then, she gives me a discount on the room without my asking. Still, it’s the most expensive lodging of the trip so far, but I’m not in a position to quibble. My room is not in the house, but in an “annex” across a wavy cobbled brick patio, with a half bath in another building across the sidewalk. Inside the half-bath, there is a curtain across the space under the sink and when I look in, I find several broken toilet seats stored, presumably, for some future use. My quarters are small, obviously added on at some point from an outside area and there is a support column in the center. The decor is “Middle Hoarder Period” with so many things piled on every surface that I really can’t tell what I’m looking at. I do the mandatory bedbug check and find no evidence, which suggests that even they won’t live here. I devise a way of hanging my clothes from an abandoned TV rack jutting out from the wall, so they won’t touch the floor and whatever else is projecting. I keep the bags tightly closed.
A short walk outside brings me to the three restaurants in town, one of which is closed for the evening. On the porch of the next, a lady about my age is sitting, enjoying the sun she says, not here for the food, and beside her is a large dog tied to the rail (with a water bowl handy). He is of generously mixed ancestry, but she tells me he isn’t hers, that he belongs to one of the patrons inside, so I don’t try to pet him. (Cue the Peter Sellars, Inspector Clouseau “Does your dog bite?” routine.) She can’t recommend one restaurant over another, she says, but then informs me that the live music is about to start in this one, so I go to the other. The Parkside Cafe turns out to be a good choice, since the menu is eclectic, the draft beer selection small but thoughtful, and it’s quiet. I select a vegetarian combo with roasted this and that and subtle spices that I can’t definitely identify, but certainly enjoy. It is all washed down with a local oatmeal stout, which won’t knock Guinness off its perch, but was well worth a try. I walk back to the room and go to bed, even though it’s only 8, because there’s nothing else I can do.
Up at 4 in the morning, still dark but not raining yet. After a cold water shave in the half bath (no hot available), I sneak across the courtyard over to the main house for the showers before anyone else gets in. There are no towels, just a hand towel on the sink that folks have been using when washing hands. Well, any port in a storm. There’s also no soap, so I wash with my shampoo, which should mean that all my body hair is now silky soft, shiny and voluminous. TMI ? I write my journal entry by the light of the ipad screen, sitting outside at a rusty patio table, since there is no place to sit in my room. I’m waiting for dawn so I can hit the road.
At first light, I free the rig from its precarious perch by the gate and I’m off, keeping the ocean on my right. Highway 1 climbs sharply out of Stinson Beach, winding tortuously up the steep slope on a narrow shelf cut into the rocks. Much of the road is still dark, since the sun is struggling to get above the rim of the mountain but already it has illuminated the ocean a ways out from shore. It is spectacular, this chiaroscuro view of rocks and sea, a light show that would cost a fortune to imitate with technology, but here it happens every morning. I can’t watch as much as I’d like for the road is narrow, not much if any shoulder in many places and occasionally there is a large rock that just couldn’t adhere to the wall any longer and has come down to the asphalt to rest.
The curves are, as always on this north coast, tight and endless. As I reach the top of the mountain nearest San Francisco, there are more housing clusters, very expensive, beautiful constructions ingeniously engineered, the occupants hope, to cling to the sides overlooking the sea. I pull over at every turnout to let frantically rushing cars go by. These folks work in the big city to pay for these magazine-cover homes and they are in a hurry to drive their Bimmers and Volvos and exotic Italian cars down the mountain to get to the job. The racers who ascend Pikes Peak would have serious competition from these workers if the race was back down to the bottom.
Later I’m sitting in the Dipsea Cafe near Mill Valley, having breakfast and waiting for the rush hour to die down a bit on the Golden Gate. I remembered the intersection of 1 and 101 here when I saw it, probably because Brenda and I missed it the first time 20 years ago going north and had to “tour” Mill Valley until we could get turned around. We had pancakes for breakfast that morning at a restaurant in Sausalito, so I’m having pancakes here today. Can’t find the other restaurant and the traffic at 8 AM is too heavy and frantic for me to explore much. I dread the thought of going through San Fransisco, but it must be done.
The staff here at this cafe is ignoring me, probably because a travel-soiled Aerostitch doesn’t fit in well with the obviously upscale clientele they are used to serving. Three guys at the table behind me are talking about investors, debentures and who knows what in techno-speak lingo. Not sure what it all means, but if they were talking to me, I’d cover my wallet.
The Dipsea Cafe is named after a trail that departs near here and goes up over the mountain to end in Stinson. There is a footrace held on the trail every year. If it crossed the road in the weekday morning hours, I suspect some of the competitors would end up on the grille of a Volvo in an office park in the city.
It was yellow, badly painted with orange-peel effect and some spots with paint so thick it was still soft. The black interior with red trim was faded and cracked, the driver’s seat broken down in the middle like a 40 year old recliner in front of a rabbit-eared TV. There was a large steering wheel to accommodate the lack of power steering on a car that was front-heavy with its engine derived from a farm tractor. Made in the late 50’s and not well kept, it came to me in 1966 when I had all the optimism a teenager could muster for its future. The “please take this thing off my hands”bargain price should have been a clue.
Seated down in the well of the driver’s seat, rear end only a few inches off the floor, legs stretched out as far as they could go to reach the tiny pedals, a stubby shift lever fell readily to hand so that one could muscle the four-speed transmission out of its non-synchromesh first gear and row the car through its paces.
Behind the driver, a legacy of some previous owner, was a crudely welded U-shaped roll bar, held in its floor sockets with pins allowing it to be removed so that the top could be erected. And that was the correct term, since the top went up more like a complicated camping tent than what we now think of as a convertible car. In inclement weather I more often relied on the tonneau cover, half zipped to cover the passenger seat since the top leaked from every seam and joint anyway and the plastic windows were so nearly opaque as to be unusable.
It ran sporadically, a common characteristic of British machines of certain age. Among various other maladies it often required me to get out in the rain to lie down beside the car and reach back under to deal with the electric fuel pump that hung down from the frame where it could receive the maximum number of environmental insults. I learned to field-strip the pump quickly and then to rebuild it in the garage, testing its little contacts by seeing what sparked when I touched what with a battery lead, not thinking of course that the thing was usually full of gasoline when in operation. That pump’s failures cost me at least two second dates when the young ladies were not amused to be sitting on the side of the road in the rain in the leaking MG while I dealt with getting it running again, then got back in the car dripping wet and dirty.
I loved it.
Sitting in that broken down driver’s seat, looking out over that long hood, left hand on the huge wheel, right hand on the nub of a shifter, listening to the growl of the four-cylinder engine and the whine of the transmission I was Stirling Moss flying down a hedgerow-lined twisting British backroad (except for the good looks, phenomenal talent and British backroad parts).
Among the lessons I learned from that car, patience, mechanical skills and self-reliance, came the dangers of hubris.
I read of a Gymkhana race that would take place on a Sunday morning at a Sears parking lot in a nearby town (stores used to be closed on Sundays back in those days) and determined I would take my Moss-inspired dreams of driving skill for a proper competition. The fact that I had only the barest idea of what such an endeavor would involve was no impediment.
So on the appointed Sunday I left my home in the early dawn light and drove to Huntington, West Virginia. I was wearing what I assumed was the proper driving clothes for this mission, a t-shirt, old cutoff cotton jean shorts and tennis shoes, probably without socks. I did have my motorcycle helmet in the seat beside me and the roll bar ensconced behind….what else could one need?
I got to the parking lot entrance early and there to collect the entry fee (which I hadn’t thought about, but fortunately had brought some lunch money) was a beautiful girl, perhaps only a bit older than my age of not-quite -yet 18, standing behind a makeshift stand, smiling broadly. Male ego fully intact, I was ready to impress her.
I came to a stop at her place and flung open the long door of the MGA and leaped out of the car….at which point the metal projection on the doorframe caught the edge of my cotton shorts and ripped them off my body. The girl’s expression changed from welcoming to shocked disbelief as suddenly I stood there in my t-shirt and underwear, my shorts now ripped in half and hanging off my ankles.
Time stands still in such moments, so it was in what seemed like extreme slow-motion that I jumped back in the car, slammed it in gear, never mind the non-synchro, and u-turned out of the lot.
She is a septuagenarian grandmother now, still laughing as she tells that story to the young ones.
The drive back to Ashland took a lot longer than it seemed going the other way and I did drive more carefully than my usual custom since the thought of standing on the shoulder explaining to a police officer why I was driving in my undies seemed almost, but not quite, as embarrassing as what I had just done.
The MG saved me from further such episodes by cracking its head not long after, sending long plumes of white steam out behind the car as it tried quite unsuccessfully to combust the coolant that was now leaking in. I sold it at a junk price to another teenager whose ambition to restore it and love it forever mirrored my own of just a few months before.
( not the exciting one with John Wayne, Capucine and music by Johnny Horton, but theFly & Ride excursion with two guys in their 70’s on rented dual sports in the year before COVID)
Our flight to Alaska was canceled. After months of anticipation, Jay (whose given name is Stuart) and I stood at the Delta counter while two agents tried their best to reschedule us. It was like Central Casting had sent them for the comedy roles: the tall skinny one with the too-neat hair and mustache and the short pudgy rumpled one with the northeastern accent. They were working so hard, tapping keys and talking back and forth in numbers and letters when we heard them say “I’ve got Stuart !” and the other one , “I’ve got Smythe !”. We looked at each other, then at them and said, at the same time, “that’s the same person”. Their expressions were classic. Their efforts were to no avail and we had to come back at 5 AM Friday, the day we had planned to spend exploring Anchorage.
With a four hour time difference, it was mid-afternoon in Alaska as we caught the shuttle from the airport to the Inlet Hotel. Our driver is in his late 40’s, rides a Harley he says, but is moving to Arizona later in the year to be near the kids. He’s getting a Goldwing to ride there, figuring that it will be better for touring with his wife. The Inlet is a tall, cream-colored building, a rather European-style basic hotel near the harbor. From our ninth floor room, we can see distant mountains which we are told, include Denali, shining in the sun that won’t set until 11:30 PM. The PubHouse bar & grille downstairs had a nice selection of taps, from which I settled on the Denali Brewing Chuli Stout in honor of the big mountain outside.
On Saturday morning , Nancy Hall, the co-owner with her husband Keith of Alaska Motorcycle Adventures, fetched us in her pickup truck with a wrecked Kawasaki KLR in the bed. Seems a Spanish tourist had come off of it on the dirt and gravel road to McCarthy, a spot that was to be on our agenda in a few days. At the shop, Sarah, one of the mechanics, professionally looks our assigned bikes over for pre-existing damage and marks the various dings on her sheet. Mine is a 2013 KLR, blue, a new addition to the company fleet just purchased used and low-mileage from a local resident. The 12 volt pigtail I needed for heated gear isn’t installed, so Keith puts it on for me. Jay’s bike is slightly older, black, with a Sargent seat (the good news) and an aftermarket loud exhaust (the bad news). After all the paperwork and cautions about bad roads, large animal collisions, flat tires and limited gas are done, we headed out of town about 11-ish, up Rt 1 through Anchorage and on to Rt. 3, the “Parks Highway” that leads to the national parks along the way. Jay has been here before, during his military career, but the weather on those occasions was so overcast that he hadn’t yet seen the mountains which overlook our progress.
Lunchtime came in Wasilla at the MatSu restaurant, which is not Chinese food as the name had suggested to we lower 48-ers, but is instead the name of the borough (county), derived from a contraction of the Matanuska (Glacier) and Susitna (both a river and a mountain). The waitress tell us that Sarah Palin used to come in all the time, but since she “got famous”, they haven’t seen her. We check in the parking lot and are, sadly, unable to see Russia from here.
Rain had arrived in fits and starts before we got to Wasilla and by the time we were a bit north of the town, it was constant and cold. We found our lodging at Denali Bluffs, in a downpour, with no parking spaces at the inn. A young man from Macedonia came by with golf cart. “I’m the boss here”, he told us (perhaps a slight exaggeration of position) “and you can park where it says not to”. We unloaded our bags from the bikes into his cart and he drove us down a narrow path to a “rustic cabin” which contained our small room. We walked back up the path later to the restaurant on site where the beer selection was adequate though not inspired, but the food was quite good. As we would find everywhere on this trip, salmon is plentiful up here and well prepared.
Sunday we awoke to cold rain and low clouds. We know there are huge mountain peaks ringing the area, but we can’t see them. Our breakfast is served by a Jamaican waitress who, like many of the foreign nationals we will meet in Alaska, works here in the summers, following the tourist seasons through the parks around the country. We rode down to the Denali National park, but though we could see the centerpiece peak from nearly two hundred miles away, now that we are standing next to it, not a clue. We tour the park road, as far as we can go, until a ranger stops us at a kiosk to say that only busses are allowed to proceed from here. We decline to take a tour bus to not see the mountain when we can not see it on our own just fine from the bikes. My KLR has been acting up with occasional hiccups and now it is beginning to get worse. The tachometer has gone wild, going from zero RPM to redline, then stopping completely, then the needle flailing about without any actual connection to what the engine is doing. I’ve seen this before on later BMW airheads, when the battery is failing. My taillight begins flickering, Jay tells me. When we leave the park and head to a gas station, the bike quits, no electrics.
As Nancy had instructed us, I call the number supplied and get their mechanic on duty. He agrees that it sounds like battery failure, but isn’t certain I can replace a battery myself. A bit frustrated, since I know it will eat up the rest of the day for him to get here to deal with it, I tell him that I’ve been doing this sort of thing longer than he’s been alive and while my skills have diminished, I can handle this. With him still on the phone, we remove seat to get at the battery and discover that when Keith had added the 12 volt pigtail, he evidently had left off the washers (negative pole had some) and the positive pole connection is now just “floating”, having finally vibrated enough to come adrift. The Glitch….I can’t remove or tighten the bolt without a 5mm Allen wrench, which the tool kit doesn’t have. It has an 8, for something, but not a 5. I take Jay’s bike to Healy, ten miles away, to get an Allen wrench and washers to make their repair, hoping that the battery itself is still good. There are two young men at the Ace Hardware, here in the home of self reliance, but I had to explain to them what an Allen wrench was so they could point me to where in the large store it might be. Washer installed, bolt tightened, problem solved. All is good.
As the day progressed and we headed north, weather improved and with the blue skies and sunshine, the vastness of the country is apparent. Up here the mountains seem more distant, the pine forests and rolling hills seeming to go on forever on both sides. There are few signs of habitation, only occasional side roads with a mailbox, and the convenience stores with gas, so ubiquitous back home are completely absent. We spot our first moose strolling across the road and into the bushes on the other side, where she stops to look over her massive shoulder at us, mildly offended as we take pictures of her backside.
It was well past lunchtime when we came to the tiny town of Nenana, population 378, with the Rough Woods Inn where they serve an excellent apple pie with espresso for me and good tea for Jay. We were the only actual customers, though there were several people just passing the time at a center table. We listened as the indigenous women who own and run the place talked among themselves about daily life in this town and delivering the to-go orders to the truckers that supply everything in these parts. With such great distances to cover, these entrepreneurs will bring the men and women drivers food, so the trucks don’t have to be off of the road for long. Their necessities of dealing with the extremes in weather, distance, supply chains for staple items, nearly everything that forms the routines of human existence in a society, are foreign to our experience .
Our destination for the night was Fairbanks, 358 miles north of Anchorage and only 188 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Coming into town, it looks much bigger and far more cosmopolitan than its official population number of 33,000 would suggest. It is the hub of the North Borough which is roughly the size of New Jersey in area. Our modest hotel is by the Chena River, once a major transportation waterway, now supplanted by the highway and the Fairbanks International Airport nearby. The Pipeline, focus of much of the development in Alaska, comes through here.
After a walk around the immediate downtown area, we settle on Lavalles, the restaurant in an old hotel that harkens back to the early days, with a vibe reminiscent of a 1930’s establishment in a black and white movie. One can see the ghosts of travelers, men in double-breasted coats and fedoras, women in tight-waisted jackets and elaborate hats, wandering these narrow halls. This hotel and its restaurant would have dealt with people in transition, coming in for business, moving on to the next place tomorrow. They probably ate meat and potatoes, but for we less hardy travelers, it was an apple, blue cheese salad, with black bottom creme brûlée for dessert. The Denali Single Engine Red on draft bridged the gap between modern cuisine and days past.
Out in bright sunshine Monday, looking like noon though it’s only 6 AM, we walked across the bridge to “The Diner” for breakfast. Everyone seems to be here, so the simple name must be sufficient. The Special includes huge portions of scrambled eggs, home fries with the little crusty bits around the edges and marvelously spicy reindeer sausage. It is far too much, unless I’m going to be hiking the ridges and tree-felling all day, but I do my best to finish it anyway.
We rode up to Fox, where we gassed up and connected to Rt. 6, the Steele Highway headed toward Circle. The mountains in the distance, look softer, not as jagged, perhaps a bit older from some earlier continental collision. There is good pavement for the first 80 miles or so, then suddenly we are on dirt and gravel. The surface is fairly well graded, surprisingly smooth under the KLR’s wheels. These bikes seem to like it here. The road begins to get steeper and we crest Eagle Summit pass, only 3,600 feet but it seems much, much higher. We can feel the temperature dropping as we rise, deep snow appears on the sides of the road, and trees get sparse. Down the other side, we eventually came to the little town of Central, with a gold mining museum and Rick’s bar where the only gas, a single pump off to the side of the gravel parking lot, can be found. Inside, Rick’s mom is holding court at the bar, telling us visitors that after coming to Alaska in her youth for adventure, she has been here in Central since Rick was 17. He is now white bearded, a Santa Claus lookalike, and we are gentlemen enough not to ask her age. She and Rick tell us that in the heyday, some many years ago, there were three bars here, and the big Circle Hot Springs resort 8 miles down side road to draw tourists and locals for merriment. Now all are gone, with just this place, serving as bar, restaurant, grocery store, gas station and community center, surviving. The full time population of the town is 70, with a few more coming in summer.
There is some confusion over Jay’s order (they don’t get many vegetarians here, I think) and he is given a cheeseburger instead of the grilled cheese he wanted. He made a local woman’s day when she walked in seeking just such a meal and Jay gave it to her. Outside we met Ziggy and Fred, who had seen our bikes in the lot and stopped to inspect the newcomers . Ziggy is from Asheville, North Carolina and has trailered his new BMW 310GS up here to stay and ride with Fred, a local resident, for a week or so. He is maybe 30-ish, and reminds me of the comedian David Cross, in appearance and demeanor. Fred is nearer to our age, late 60’s or more, and lives here full time, one of the 70. He looks like a mountain man, long untrimmed beard, dressed more for comfort than style. He rides a new KLR, his second one after wearing out the first. He had a BMW once, but said it broke down and the KLR “never does.” Says he likes Ziggy’s 310 but doesn’t think it has enough power for him. (If the specs are to be believed, it actually has about the same.) We swap riding stories for a bit, as the mosquitos feast upon us, and then Ziggy and Fred depart, throwing gravel and dirt from their rear wheels as they tear away down the side road toward Fred’s home.
We were going on to Circle, another 20 miles or so on dirt to the Yukon River, but Rick tells us that the proprietor of the only store and gas station there, is giving it up. He is elderly and his wife recently died, so he doesn’t see the point anymore. When Rick was up there recently, the store was closed.
Instead, we took the eight mile detour down the dirt road to Circle Hot springs, to see the remnants of the once thriving resort. From all appearances, it must have been a great place to spend a week or two back then, but it is now abandoned and roofs of the various buildings have fallen in under the weight of Alaska’s winters. Nature here requires constant vigilance to maintain human intrusions. There are “no trespassing” signs everywhere and we decide that in this remote place, a closer look is not worth the bullet to ignore the warnings.
Our return trip was faster, since we now are more comfortable with these bikes and the road. We are skimming along the dirt and gravel at 50 mph, sometimes more, with the KLR suspensions soaking up all but the worst of the bumps, tires drifting gently back and forth along the surface as the gravel gives the tires what it will for traction and direction. On the paved section, Jay spots an eagle’s nest on a tall pole and we stop for a bit to watch the mama tend to some chicks. She is briefly upset by our interference, circling around the nest with warning calls, but quickly decides we aren’t worth the effort and returns to maternal duties. We gas up again at Fox (never, never pass up a chance for gasoline in Alaska) and make a brief stop at a roadside park where a section of the Pipeline can be seen. It seems to be completely unguarded, with tourists like us wandering around and under it at will, but I suspect there is some security that we don’t see preventing us or them from doing it harm. At least I hope so.
Back at our hotel at supper time, an 11 hour day, nearly 300 miles with well over 100 on dirt. Too tired to walk far, we opt for dinner at Big Daddy’s next door where a guy on a barstool hears us debating the tap choices and launches into his advice lecture on the subject, making very specific recommendations backed up with chapter and verse of beer technology and art. He is dressed as a hipster, baggy pants with suspenders, small white straw hat perched on his head inside the bar, well trimmed and perhaps dyed beard thrust forward and waggling as he educated us. He has waited all evening for this opportunity. We do try one of his choices and it isn’t bad.
Our Diner was closed on Tuesday morning, so we had “breakfast” in the hotel basement. On our way out of Fairbanks we stopped in at the large BMW dealer on Karen Way, out near the airport, where we wandered around among the bikes and goodies on offer and talked with some staff and customers. Upon hearing that we were doing a “fly and ride” all seem to agree on one thing, that the road here from the lower 48 is an ordeal, a real destroyer of bikes, and that renting someone else’s machine for exploring Alaska was a good idea. We have arrived on their “winter clearance” sale day and Jay found a good deal on Klim cold weather gloves, but, alas, there were none of those in my size. Though what the locals consider to be the real winter is over here, it’s still cold enough for us pampered folks from the warmer regions to appreciate such gear. After a brief confusion involving closed roads, we found our way over to Route 2 headed south, the east side of the Circle, down to Delta.
We saw a sign for “Rikka’s Roadhouse State Park which promised both some history and lunch with pie. Back in the early days of “settlement” up here, roadhouses sprung up along what was then a pack trail from the seaport of Valdez to Eagle, on the Dawson River. In 1898, the US Army constructed a road, later called the Richardson Highway, to offer an “All American “ route into the gold fields during the Klondike rush. Over the years, as the paths became roads, these outposts expanded, becoming hubs for commerce. This one, at the site of a ferry across the Tanana River, became owned by a woman from Sweden, Rikka Wallen, who began as a cook for one of the previous owners, then eventually took over and developed the site into what is there today. Several buildings are gathered around a main house which served as headquarters for the roadhouse and lodging for travelers.
South of Delta, the road is how I imagined Alaska would be, a series of curves in a canyon following a rushing glacial stream with enormous mountains looming over us on the sides, so high that from the road the tops can’t safely be seen. Craning one’s neck back that far would result in a dunking of bike and rider and the water coming off of the glaciers is, I’m sure, really, really cold.
Our destination for the day was the Denali Highway, crossing the diameter of the circle route, going back to the area of Denali National Park. We had read that this road was about 140 miles of dirt with the big mountain at the end…just what we were looking for. It was a bit worrisome when we found the gas station at Paxson closed up and abandoned, but decided to go on anyway. It would have been many miles back to Delta and we figured, “It all will work out, it always has”. This time, at least, it did. Gas was available at an outpost at Tangle River, near where the pavement ended. As is somewhat typical here, there is a gravel parking area with a complex of a few small rooms to rent, like a 50’s style motel, a single gas pump under a wooden shelter, and a dark, very smoky bar, with the lighted screens of gambling machines glowing in the haze, where we go inside to pay. Although most public places in Alaska are non-smoking, this is far from any population center and rules are “optional”. The locals sitting at the tables, playing cards and drinking beer from the bottle barely look up at the strangely dressed visitors.
Gassed up, we head west into what would be the setting sun, if it did that sort of thing up here, with Denali and its brethren visible all the way, snowcap shining brightly.
Then the pavement disappeared, replaced by awful gravel, deep and marble-like over very hard packed dirt, more like bad asphalt. Not the kind of dirt road we had enjoyed in other places, this was skittery and uncertain, with deep gravel making progress difficult, producing constant seat-clenching episodes . Slowing down meant the front wheels dug into the gravel, threatening a washout and speeding up produced the feeling of waterskiing above one’s ability, knowing that to then slow down raised the prospect of digging in the front, while continuing to increase speed had a very predictable outcome. Add to that the deep potholes, sometimes hidden, but not softened by gravel, and the sum came out as “not as much fun as we’d like”.
An hour or so later, we were glad to arrive at the McClaren River Lodge where we had reserved our room. It is a rustic place, , very friendly, with multiple resident dogs who wander in and out at will. They lounge around the “dining room” of the small lodge as we are checking in, raising their heads when the staff half-heartedly attempt to shoo them out. The dogs, we are told, have the run of the place most of the year, but are supposedly “trained” to stay out of the dining area when tourists are around. Like dogs everywhere, they have learned their humans well and know that they can stay where they want until the orders get more seriously delivered. We assure the staff that we are dog people and actually prefer to have the critters around while we eat. The dogs seem to understand the transaction and lower their ears, put their heads back between front paws and resume their naps.
The complex here is spread out over a large graveled plot, maybe a couple of acres, on two levels, bordering a backwater “lake” from the McClaren River that runs on the other side of the property. There are groups of wooden cabins spread out along the back side of the complex, with an older row on the “high” side behind the main lodge building and a newer set of small duplex units on the “low side” overlooking the backwater. Our room is in one of these, with a small unrailed open deck overlooking the swans swimming in the lake. The room is tiny, maybe 10 x 15 or so, with two double beds a tower lamp between them and no other furniture of any kind. There is a bathroom with shower, about the size of one in a camper trailer, with the sink out in our room, on the wall. There is no place to hang or even set down anything, other than on the floor, so we drag the two plastic lawn chairs off the deck and press them into clothes rack duty.
Outside, there is the machinery that keeps a place like this going. In a shed dug into the hillside there are large fuel tanks for generators, some machine-shop and welding equipment and an airplane wheel which suggests they are ready for any kind of transport into this area. Parked nearby is the most elaborate snowplow vehicle I have ever seen, looking more like some sort of lunar transport device from a science fiction movie. We realize that this is a groomer for the snowmobile trails in winter, a specialized piece of equipment that will go anywhere in the deep snow and leave a wide smooth road behind it. The teenage boy that still lives in a part of my brain immediately wants to drive it.
The owners of this lodge complex are , like a lot of the Alaskans we meet, ex-military, a married couple, who came to this place after retirement from service. They spend part of the year in a warmer place, but are here in the snowy months for the winter tourists. The place is open most of the year, biggest tourism here is in winter when snowmobiles allow access to places inaccessible the rest of the time. “We can go anywhere then”. A constant stream of hardy visitors come here for the fishing, hunting, and snowmobile trekking.
The husband -owner, who also rides a bit, tell us that the gravel is worse, deeper with more bad surface underneath, from here the remaining 90-plus miles to the Denali end. We have booked two nights here, intending to go over to Denali and back again, but he says, “I’m not trying to run you off, but on a motorcycle the next 90 miles are not going to be any fun.” Having found the previous 40-something miles to have been more that we wanted, we took his advice and checked out in the morning.
In the morning, we took the long nerve-wracking gravel route back down to Paxson and turned south, headed toward McCarthy. Route 2 is pretty much uninhabited along this stretch, just two lane blacktop bordered by endless pine forests with mountain peaks jutting above in the distance. Eventually we come to the town of Glenallen,at the crossroads with 4, where gas and food are available. There are two gas stations and the nice clerk at the one we choose tells us that there are three restaurants, of a sort, but she recommends “The Freeze” as being preferable. It is a modular-looking small building, much like an older style Dairy Queen inside, offering burgers, fries and, as an afterthought, salads for the wimpy southern visitors. At the table next to us are a couple of truck drivers, one as large as any two humans. I ponder how he gets in the cab of his truck, but discretion being the better part of valor, I don’t ask him.
We miss the turnoff to Chitina the first time, later finding that the marker to this road is visible only coming from the south. Not sure what the thinking on that might have been at the DOT. We realize we’ve gone too far and make our turnaround right at the base of a mountain that looks almost exactly like an enormous ice cream sundae, with the streaks of snow as ice cream and the brown surface showing through as the hot fudge. Makes me hungry for dessert, which I might have ordered if we weren’t a half day’s ride from anyplace that might offer it.
Chitina, population 126, is reached by a dead end paved road of about 30 miles, bordering a long glacial lake. Where the pavement ends, the optimistically named McCarthy Highway begins, 60 miles of dirt, some not much better than single track trail. This was where the unfortunate Spanish tourist had wrecked the KLR we saw in the rental company’s truck at the beginning of our journey and the place we were warned about as being the most likely spot for flat tires. Oh yes, and bears. Watch out for the bears. We fuel up at the unmanned single gas pump (as my son later said when we showed him the picture, “looks like an ATM for gas”) and head into the breach.
The McCarthy Highway was named by either someone with a perverse sense of humor or someone who had never seen an actual highway. It is 60 miles of dirt and gravel, some of it rutted like a single track trail, bordered with abandoned railroad rails in some places. About halfway in there is a high railroad trestle off to the left where the old tracks lead, leaning like a drunk on a lamppost, just waiting to fall. The railroad was built through here for copper miners, back in the day, going through McCarthy and on to Kennecott, four more miles down at the end of the road. Kennecott was the working town where the mines and processing plants were located and McCarthy was where the miners and others came to blow off steam with a variety of entertainments, some legal, some not, on offer. Kennecott is now a National Park and McCarthy is, well, still McCarthy.
Near the terminus is a large sign warning travelers not to take this road any farther. Seems that by this time, the traveler might already know that. We went on.
The “road” ends at a gorge, with a pedestrian bridge across into the town. We had been told at the rental company that our metal panniers were chosen to be just narrow enough to allow our bikes to cross the bridge, so that we wouldn’t have to leave the motorcycles and walk in. Some of the pedestrians on the bridge look at us strangely as we follow them across, feathering our clutches to avoid scooping up a walker or two as we go.
A few hundred yards up from the crossing is the historic “town” of McCarthy, reduced now to a smattering of buildings including our old -looking hotel (which we later learn is a reconstruction, using bits and pieces from others that had been here), a bar across the street and some supporting commercial establishments. The general store is more modern than the other places, stocked with everything one might need from food to clothing to tire repair equipment. The other visitors seem to all be younger than us, fit people here for hiking, bicycling and river adventures…and drinking. Lots of drinking. Also in town is a contingent of glaciologists, half of them Chinese and the other half US-based graduate students, come to study the Kennecott Glacier which runs through this valley. In addition to our hotel, there are numerous backpacker-style hostels and lodging rooms for such hardier folks.
We check in to our tiny room, distributing our gear as best we can across the floor leaving a walkway to get in and out. In keeping with the historic nature, there is no AC and the bathroom facilities are shared, across the hall. Making our way across the dirt Main Street, we meet bartender Megan who hails from northern Kentucky, happy to see fellow Bluegrass staters. An adventurous young woman, she tells us that she was working in a Newport bar when she read an ad offering work and lodging for summer jobs here in Alaska and decided on a whim to go for it.
Later we opt for some porch-sitting in the rockers at the front of our hotel, sipping a little bourbon, watching as dogs play in the dusty street and the youngsters are getting tuned up for a night of various excesses that we old folks know their bodies will regret in the morning.
In the early daylight, (not “dawn”, that would have been about 3 AM) Jay and I went exploring around the town, walking the few dirt and gravel streets and down by the river. There is a separate vehicle bridge for the local residents, closed by a locked chain link fence, access to which costs dearly we are told. If you really, really want or need a vehicle that won’t come across the footbridge, you can pay a hefty monthly fee for a key to the gate. Near the gate is an outfitter and water adventure company occupying a large old house. Some of the youngsters we saw last night are bivouacked here, draped around the house, in tents or on the porch, with various bits of nylon clothing strung on lines to dry. They won’t be up and functional for a while. In the river, a few yards from the bank, is an old van, mired up to the hubs in a sandbar, apparently being used as a party hut. Ahh, to be young again…no, wait, the hangover might not be worth it.
Along the lower road are private houses, many with extra rooms for the summer employees. There is the huge generator, the size of a house, supplying electrical power for the town, the one we heard starting and stopping all night through our open window.
It is still too early for the breakfast, so we sit in the tiny lobby of the hotel to wait. The hotel manager brought us coffee and tea. He is a slightly built, very busy guy, mid-50’s or so, closely cropped graying hair, black-rimmed glasses, with an air of quiet confidence about him. He says he can do this in summers, and live wherever he wants in the world, because of his “past life”, smiling but not saying what that was. It brings to mind the beginning of John LeCarre novels where the “retired “ MI-6 agent gets called back from just such a secluded life to do more extraordinary things.
Breakfast was at the Bistro when it opened at 7, next door to the bar across the street. There is a pleasant young woman serving “no choices, you get what I’m offering”, which turns out to be very tasty scrambled eggs and thick slices of grilled ham with properly done home fries. Jay’s a vegetarian, so I do my best to eat both pieces.
Outside we talked with the glaciologists who were laying out their complicated measuring equipment and loading up a truck to go down to the glacier. They, both the Americans and the Chinese scientists, are not fans of “head in the sand” environmental policies. No question, they say, that advanced global warming exists, is human caused and becoming irreversibly dire.
We packed up and rode the four miles of dirt down to the town and mine site at Kennecott. A Lynx ran across a few yards in front of me, a tall, impossibly long legged cat with a relatively small body, as if somehow a Kentucky bobcat had mated with a Great Dane. At Kennecott, the Park Ranger confirmed with a photo what I had seen, telling me that the warming weather had resulted in a bumper crop of snowshoe hares this season so the lynx are happy.
In one of the restored buildings, we watched a video including old films of mine and processing operations in the early 1900’s. The use of the available technology of the time to extract every bit of copper from the ore was amazing, and the environmental impact horrifying. The mine and processing plant operated 364 days per year, despite the Alaskan winters, closing only for Christmas.
Beside the town, the Kennecott Glacier is way, way down in its canyon now, covered in a debris field twenty feet or more deep, such that we can’t see the ice. Picture the dirt left behind in one winter by melting snow in a parking lot, then multiply that by 10,000 years.
Ending our tour of Kennecott, we reverse down the dirt road again, but Jay suddenly turned around having realized that he had lost his phone. He is met by a guy on a four-wheeler, coming up the road, holding the missing phone in his hand. What are the odds ?
A few miles from McCarthy, a large black bear, bigger than the NC and TN bears we are used to seeing, strolled out of the woods on to the road and stopped to stare us down. I thought there would be a cub crossing, as have seen in those mountains, but no, this bear just wanted us to know who is boss here. We didn’t argue the point.
As we came back into Chitina, there is a moose swimming placidly in One Mile Lake. She stops briefly to look at us, then proceeds on with her swim. “Can’t a girl get some privacy ?”
We were, of course, in rain off & on as we went down to Valdez, but it cleared as we got to the mountain range just north. As we ascend the spectacular Thompson Pass, I decided not to stop for pictures because it was getting “late” (by the clock, not the sun) which turned out to be a mistake. Never count on the weather in Alaska.
Valdez, with its large arch over the entrance to town, is the southern end of the pipeline that starts up at Prudhoe Bay. There is a refinery at the terminus, though gas is still expensive here, within a mile of where it’s being made. The big tankers come in at that harbor, which is around the point from Valdez, not easily seen. The city is all new since 1964, having been moved four miles away after the Good Friday earthquake, to this side of the harbor. The prior site was razed and made into a park after being deemed too unstable for resettling.
Our motel is a large, industrial looking affair, more functional than stylish. The room is tiny, with no furniture other than the two beds and some sort of small shelf thing under the window. We resort to hanging our riding gear from the water pipes that go across the ceiling. The desk clerks are a young couple who have moved here for this job, where they can live on site during the summer seasons and go elsewhere for different work when the motel, along with most of the town, is closed for the winter. Despite being an “ice free harbor”, we are told Valdez is the snowiest town in Alaska, getting an annual average accumulation of 25 feet. That is taller than a two story building. When you’re shoveling out the 6 inches from your driveway next winter, lift your gaze up high and give a moment of thought for that figure. In the worst of the winter the closed business lots, like our motel, are used by the city to “store” the snow pushed from the streets. We didn’t see it, but apparently they have some really impressive machinery to deal with the snowfall.
We walk through town to the waterfront for supper at the Wheelhouse overlooking the harbor. Not exactly memorable food or drink, but waitress Mickey who is an Alaskan, returning after having spent some time in Texas, is a font of local information.
On the recommendation of the motel clerk, we found TraDa’s a few blacks away for breakfast. Operated by its effusive owner and his shy daughter, the place opens at 4 AM to service the boat workers and others who start their day early, and need a lot of food to tide them over. We had no such plans, but ate all that was offered anyway. From there we walked down to the Valdez Museum, to stroll through exhibits of pioneer days here and watched a video of interviews with people who experienced the 1964 earthquake. Some were adults living and working in the town, some were boys at the time, playing on the docks when the quake hit. Several recall seeing a large cargo ship from the bay with its rear launched 30 feet in the air, water dripping off the propellor, then thrown up on the dock and back out to sea by the tsunami-like waves. I had been in college with a guy from Anchorage who was an early teen when it hit. He had described to me riding his bicycle down to center of town where one side of the street was now dozens of feet lower than the other. Later we rode over to the old Valdez site, now a sort of park, where we met a 64 year old man, who had been a child here in 1964, walking there with his wife, grandkids and dogs. He recalled the town as it was then, showing us around to where the docks were, and gestured down the gravel path to where his house had been before the quake’s destruction.
There is a road around the bay to the pipeline terminus, but “civilians” can’t get too near for security purposes. From the pullouts along the water, we can see Valdez across the water, but except for the cruise ship docked there, it is hard to tell it is a city at this distance. These little park-like pullouts have tables, barbecue grills and lots of bear warnings posted everywhere. Throw those steaks on the grill, but be prepared to run for your SUV.
Back in town we stopped along the harbor strip to discuss where we might find lunch when a woman walked up to us and pointed at two of the restaurants. “Lunch at the Fat Mermaid, dinner at Mike’s” she says with confidence. We took her suggestions and were not disappointed. The Fat Mermaid provided an excellent quinoa bowl and conversation with the Turkish waiter who is finishing up his PhD at the university.
Motorcycle dual sport travel comes with the necessity to do laundry, so we spent a couple of hours at the facility within our motel. There we met an Amish woman at the washers, dressed in traditional garb, with several baskets. She tells she is “old order” but she and 12 others, including children, drove up here from Indiana in a 15 passenger bus and she seems proficient at using the electric laundry equipment. Later saw one of the younger males of the group watching tv in the breakfast lounge, playing on his iPhone. As with many other subjects in life, there is a lot about the Amish that I do not know.
Under dense cloud cover we checked out in the morning and headed for Sheep Mountain. Heavy fog over the mountains occluded any view fromThompson Pass, making it hard to see more than 50 feet in front of the bike. I missed my chance to take a photo as we came in. On the way up we passed a family we had seen the day before in town. A man and woman, with a small child maybe 5 years old at most, on three bicycles loaded for travel. On the pass today, the child was perhaps in the man’s trailer, marked “Baby” on the back. Not sure where they’d stashed the extra bicycle. They were pedaling hard up the steep grade, but appeared to be happy about it. We went up to Worthington Glacier, but any view from there was fogged in as well. In and out of cold rain all the way to Glenallen, though the fog cleared enough to see the mountains on both sides, deep creeks and rushing water, so beautiful, but so common up here that it quickly becomes routine. What I first thought was a groundhog turned out to be a porcupine on the side of the road, munching grass. Sun had returned by our gas stop at Glenallen, where we ate lunch outside at a Thai kiosk, and talked to some Chinese and Philippine dip-netters. Not sure exactly what that sport entails, but they were excited about it.
The rain/sun alternations continued all the way to Sheep Mountain. At a pullout for leg-stretching and photos, we met two local guys on HD’s, one on trike conversion, both sporting lots of buttons and patches on their vests. They tell us that there was a brief “spring” a few weeks ago, then the snow returned until this week. Lucky us.
Sheep Mountain Lodge is nice, consisting of several rustic cabins on the hillside and a restaurant with excellent apple pie. We struck up a conversation with two couples at the next table who say they ride too and have recently done an Eidleweiss Tour of Europe. One of the women, no doubt visually impaired, said I“had a Sean Connery thing going on”. I thought about trying to adopt a Scottish accent, but didn’t.
Mark the owner of the lodge lets us ride bikes up the grass slope to our cabin. He’s a young fellow, a rider as well, with a dirt bike and a Triumph 800 Tiger at home. Mark tells us that snow motorcycling with a ski track kit on his YZ, is “the best thing he’s ever done” and recommends it highly, saying we should come back in the winter to try it. Ah, the exuberance of youth, where a fall at speed from a dirtbike brings laughter and maybe some soreness in the morning, not hospitalization…..too young to understand what being our age is like.
There are some of “our kind” up here. We met with two guys our age, maybe one is older, on rented BMW 800s, from same rental company as us. They have done a similar route to ours, but included a glacier flight over Denali. Back home they live in southern California, and ride in Baja. I took their pictures for them at the lodge and as they wandered around the grounds
Out early the next day, headed down to Palmer because the restaurant at Sheep Mountain isn’t open til 8. Despite the name of the place, we have yet to see sheep. In Palmer we find a very good breakfast at the very busy Noisy Goose cafe.
On our way out we visited the “only domesticated Musk Ox Farm in the world”. It didn’t open until 10, so we just took some photos of the huge, hairy beasts with their helmet-like horns and left, pondering just what makes a “domestic” Musk Ox. Do they do laundry, cook, light housecleaning ? Perhaps make good housepets ?
It is cold and overcast as we follow the huge Matanuska Glacier through its eponymous valley below. We can easily see where it once had been, many miles longer, now receded.
A moose standing near the pavement watches us passively as we approach, chewing slowly, until returning into the forest as if we are too boring to hold its interest. A mile or two later, a second one looks at us briefly from the side of the road then bolts forward in front of us, running like a horse…I didn’t know they could really do that…across the highway, big hooves clopping on the hard surface, and disappears into the woods on the other side. Knowing that they can trot that quickly heightens my awareness considerably.
We take a short detour over to the coastal port of Whittier, through what I shall always think of as “the Tunnel of Impending Doom”. There is a $13 toll to use the tunnel and when we arrive at the booth on our motorcycles, the operator leaves his place to come out and give us the “motorcycle lecture” and hands us the safety brochure. He and it inform us that the tunnel is 2.5 miles long (longest in North America, we are told) with a road surface only 11’ 6” wide. The rails are less than 5 feet apart, but with a channel of about 4 inches on the inside of each side of the rail for the train wheels, leaving less than 4 feet between to ride on. The toll operator emphasizes that if our tires are less than 4 inches wide,(the front ones are and the rear ones only a bit wider) they will go down in the channel and cause a crash. The tunnel is shared with the train and automobiles in alternating sessions and motorcycles go alone after the last cars have finished the trip. This is because when motorcycles crash, the crews have to go in there to drag them out. In the warning brochure, there is a section on the tunnel lights, including the sequence of flashes to watch for if you have been in the tunnel too long and a train is coming. You are instructed to get off your bike, leave it there and run for the nearest “safety” spot, a cubbyhole in the tunnel wall, where you can watch the locomotive smash your machine. I’m trying to figure just how I would explain that event to the lady at the rental company. We waited about a half hour for our turn, lining up with a young military man and his wife two up on a Harley with open pipes. We let them go first. If had been paint stripes 3 feet apart, anyone could have gone through at 50mph without a second thought. But after being warned “get in a rail channel and you will crash” and “if you are in there too long, the train will crush your bike”, the ride through at 25 mph was a nervous exercise. Just for spice, there are exhaust fans near each end, which give you a blast of air across your path as you go by. The sense of relief as you and the bike exit into daylight, making the 90 degree turn across the rails, is marvelous.
Whittier, a ferry docking and commercial port location, is tiny, with just one circle and one street on the harbor. There is a single residence building, apparently containing everything but the harbor side tourist stuff. Google “Town under one roof” for more information. Outside a restaurant, we met some German tourists and their German friend who has lived here for 52 years. The resident says, in a heavy German accent, that “everything was different back then”. He tells us that in those days, the train driver would stop for a while on this side of the tunnel to let passengers fish, if requested.
On the way back out, I could see the bright glow at the end of the tunnel and thought it was my cataracts making it look like a headlight…but it was in fact a headlight, of a train, waiting impatiently to enter the tunnel. This tunnel experience was not on my “bucket list”, but I’m going to add it just so I can check it off and not do it again.
Our destination was the harbor town of Seward, down on the Kenai Peninsula. Kentucky history will tell you that it was Ambassador to Russia, Cassius Marcellus Clay of Madison County, who actually initiated and negotiated the sale of Alaska to the US, but Secretary of State William Seward, a Clay nemesis , took all the credit. So for we Kentuckians, this town should be named “Clay, Alaska”. It looks more “old west” than some others we’ve seen here, built on the slope going to the water. Across from our lodging is an old hotel, restored, that would be at home in a black and white John Wayne movie. It has a restaurant, but like others on this street at this hour, there is a waiting line to get in.
We stroll up to another street and find, for me, an excellent halibut yellow curry at the Seward Brewing Company. The beer list is interesting but heavy on the ultra-hoppy IPA’s, catering to a younger crowd than us, but still a good place to be and we didn’t have to wait to get in.
From our room the next morning, we can see a bald eagle flying by our balcony, something unfortunate that must have had other plans for the day, carried in its talons. Ruined its day, made the eagle’s. Fortunately, we have less strenuous options for breakfast.
Later we walked along the waterfront down to harbor. Over the years I have developed the habit of picking up a Swiss Army Knife on significant (foreign or long) trips as my souvenir. I engrave on the handle the location where I got it and that way I have a memento that I actually use instead of something gathering dust on a shelf. Fortunately the manufacturer makes lots of models, so repeats haven’t been much of a problem. I hadn’t spotted one for sale yet on this trip and wanted to make one last shot at finding one. It is about one mile around the waterfront from our hotel to the dock area, a pleasant walk that takes us past some historical markers (Seward is “mile 0 “ of the Iditarod Trail to Nome but the race now apparently starts in Anchorage) and by the campground where folks can pull their RV’s almost to the water’s edge. We spent some time talking with a young woman and her grandparents about their nice camper van, the long journey they had made up here to hopefully convince her that she didn’t need the boyfriend of whom they didn’t approve, and, petted her dog. In the dock area is “the Fish House” which is neither a restaurant or a fish market now, but rather a large “everything shop” where one can buy hardware, outfitter supplies, some groceries, clothing, etc. There may even be some fish for sale there, but I didn’t see them. They did, however, have a Swiss Army Knife that would serve my purpose. Across the road there is a Norwegian cruise ship in harbor, with lots of folks in cruise clothes wheeling luggage down the sidewalk to get to the train station. One of them tells us that their cruise includes a train journey up into the country we’ve just come from. Seeing them all in line with their little rolling cases, I think I prefer our method of travel.
With time now growing short, we make the ride back up to Anchorage in sunshine, blue, mostly cloudless skies, no fog, and on this Monday morning, very little traffic. We pass a tributary leading to the sea where an unfortunate whale has met its demise on a sandbar. Alaska doesn’t mark its roads well, resulting in us losing Rt. One a few times. I guess the locals already know where they’re going.
Back in Anchorage, we have only a a couple of hours until we turn the bikes in, so we find lunch at Paris Cafe downtown. In keeping with its name, the restaurant offers excellent, delicate, flaky pastries. The personable owner tells us that she has a young baker, not yet out of her teens, whom she hired on a whim. The girl, she says, is a natural and her product confirms that opinion.
Reluctantly, we turned the bikes in, no problems or unexpected dings found on inspection, and got a ride to the Lakefront Hotel. Suddenly it was all over and we were just another set of tourists, waiting for our flights out in the morning. The hotel is across the highway from the airport and features its own “airstrip” on the lake. We enjoy a beer or two on the patio, watching the float planes take off and land. Several are parked in front of houses that dot the shoreline, the very picture of an idyllic life apparent in this summer evening.
Apparently, one could deduce from our hotel and motel experience here, no one in Alaska travels with any clothes, or perhaps because of the cold, they are wearing everything they have, all the time, so have no need for closets, shelves or any device on which to hang something. Having such conveniences seems to be very, very low on room designers’ priority list.
The KLR 650’s were exemplary for this place combining good road manners, steady and smooth, with more than enough off road prowess for the likes of us. Power was never an issue, though specs say only 35 horsepower, a meaningless figure with the tractable torque. Nothing, short of subtracting 35 years from our ages, would have been good on Route 8’s deep gravel, so that one bit of unpleasantness wasn’t the bike’s shortcoming. The bikes returned decent gas mileage, always a consideration when fuel is so hard to come by up here. We both often reached for a 6th gear that wasn’t there. But at the low end, where it really counts, anything from 2,000 rpm and above, the bike will tractor away with no problem. On pavement the KLR handles curves well, even with 50/50 Heidenau tires, its longer wheelbase making it less twitchy than, for example, my DR650.
I’ve not included much commentary about the scenery, though that is said to be the draw for coming here. I’ve ridden in the Alps and Rockies, which aren’t as high in actual vertical measurements but seem more so because the roads go up and over them, following centuries old paths. (Denali, at over 20,000 feet above sea level, is the highest peak in North America and, we are told, is a longer climb from base to summit than Everest, at 29,000 feet, which “starts” at a much higher base). In Alaska, the roads we traveled went around the mountains, so the feeling of ascent is lesser, though the sense of the peaks looming overhead is there. Instead, it is the vastness of the country that impresses. The emptiness, mostly devoid of signs of habitation, stays with me, but it is difficult to express, like trying to prove a negative or explain infinity. The forests go on to the horizon, the mountains that seem so dominant in one place quickly disappear behind the stands of trees along the roads. Power lines and poles are not along every road as they seem to be down where we come from, with many small towns using a combination of solar and generators for electricity. Services such as food, gasoline and other “necessities” are few and quite far between, leaving the rider with an aloneness that is not found down here in the “lower 48” not even in places like Montana or Wyoming or Idaho. “Civilization “ is looser. We saw a house in a remote place on a long lonesome highway with a small plane in the driveway. It is clear that the owner uses the road as his or her runway. We took pictures, but looking at them is the difference between a photo of the ocean versus standing on the beach at the water’s edge. Words, at least the ones I know, in any order I know how to place them, cannot begin to convey the spaciousness. You have to be there and I’m glad I was. We met many people for whom this is, with all its inconveniences, the exact place they want to be and they are more than willing to exert a great deal of effort to live here. I’m not one of those, at least not at my age now, but I certainly can understand the appeal.
If you haven’t been, perhaps you should go. Just stay out of the tunnel.
Science tells us that smell is the most evocative of our senses, intimately tied to memory, probably going back to our most primitive state when recalling where food was found before was important for survival of the species. This piece from Motorcyclist magazine brought into mind many memories tied to a particular smell from my youth.
The aroma often takes me back to arriving at an Observed Trials meet in the 1970’s. We slowly drive the van, with my trials bike in the back next to the bed, over a bumpy field at the edge of the woods. We start recognizing people by their bikes or their parked trucks/vans. We can’t yet hear the bikes from inside the van because we are listening to Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez or Harry Chapin or maybe Jefferson Airplane.
Then I turn the van off and we open the door to the soft burbling sound of 50 or more two-stroke trials bikes swarming like cicadas and there is that smell. The air is filled with it, hanging in a light fog. Soon our clothes and the inside of the van will be permeated with it. It will be a day of competition, wins and losses, but also camaraderie among the families of those involved in this esoteric branch of motorized sport, with children running in the woods, food eaten on tailgates and at the end a long, pleasantly tired drive home with muddy kids snoring in the back of the van.
It was a major part of my life for many years.
I was without a two cycle bike for many years as I transitioned out of trials riding and into street bikes again. (See “Long Term Relationship” earlier on this blog) Then I picked up an Alpina at Vintage Days one year and began riding in the woods again, savoring the aroma of the burned castors as I fell in love all over again with being out in a forest, following a narrow trail through the trees. Grandchildren arrived and I introduced them to the pleasures of riding on a gas tank as I had done with their father many years before. Now they are adults, with such bikes in their garages, building up memories to share with the next generation. Memories that will include that smell.
From the early 70’s through 1980, I had transitioned from a “dual sport” rider to a strictly Observed Trials competition rider, devoting all of my two-wheeled energy to the esoteric sport of beating a perfectly good motorcycle and its rider against large rocks, trees, deep boulder-strewn creeks and mud. Then in 1980, I developed the first of many auto-immune nerve problems, leaving my right arm extremely weak, nearly paralyzed, and therefore pretty useless for trials riding. Eventually I got some of the strength back in most of the arm, but not enough for serious trials riding and I began to think about returning to the street. “Not riding motorcycles” just wasn’t an option I wanted to consider. I purchased a somewhat derelict 1975 Suzuki 500 Titan two stroke twin and after some restoration, began exploring pavement again. While it was serviceable for the task, it left something to be desired for long distance two-up touring. A friend in Huntington, West Va owned this 1975 BMW painted Nurburg Green (or as a friend later came to call it, “Look At Me Green”) with just 10,000 miles on it. He loaned it to Brenda and me one afternoon for a test ride and when he later offered it for sale, Brenda was quick to take him up on it. Better seat, better shocks, almost no vibration and, perhaps most important, no chain lube stripe up the back of her clothes.
I bought the bike in the spring of 1981, as best I recall, and proceeded to ride it everywhere I went. To work, on evening “hamburger runs” with my son (we lived in Frankfort, Kentucky then and the burger of choice was in Madison, Indiana) and weekend trips. The gentle thrum of the boxer engine just suited me, fit some receptor in my body that made everything seem complete. Sometime that summer, I stopped in the motorcycle shop on Industry Road to pick up my copy of Classic Bike magazine and ran into a guy with another BMW, a Lexington firefighter and one of the early members of what would later become the Bluegrass Beemers. He told me about this group of motorcyclists, mostly BMW riders, who met for breakfast at Frisch’s on Harrodsburg Road every Saturday morning. I showed up one bright morning and met the group of riders with whom I would have breakfast once a week for the next several decades.
By fall of that year, I had decided that a career change was in order and I took the LSAT exam for entry into law school. Of course I rode the green bike to the test that morning and parked it across the street from the test center. When I stuck the key in the fork lock, it snapped off inside. Not exactly the stress free beginning I had in mind for the test.
When school started in the fall of 1982, I rode the green bike to Lexington from Frankfort almost every day, barring ice or deep snow. There was a long covered porch across the front of the law school building where I parked the bike each day. I think some of the professors didn’t like it, but no one ever told me to move it. The ride to and from school each day on scenic Old Frankfort Pike made a pleasant break from the pressures of learning a new profession. Since I was there, either in class or studying, 6 or 7 days per week, at 50 miles per day round trip, the miles began piling up.
Between my first and second years in school, I got a summer job with the Lexington office of of a Louisville law firm, the senior partner of which was Tom Cruise’s grandfather. On one occasion when the senior was in the library with us clerks, I heard him talking about his young grandson who was beginning to make a career in films. “I just wish he’d settle down and make something of himself and give up this actor foolishness” was the gist of the comment. My job included running real estate titles, mostly in surrounding counties, the perfect job for a motorcyclist. Brenda bought me an Eclipse motorcycle briefcase that clipped on to the same three point harness as my tank bag and off I went each day to remote county courthouses all around central Kentucky.
By this time, Brenda’s brother Jay had moved to Georgia with the beginnings of his military career and the green bike made a few trips to visit him there. On one of these, his wife Marimac gave me a large slice of chocolate cake for the trip home, which I placed in the top box. Later when I stopped to enjoy the treat, I found that the oscillation of the top box had disintegrated the cake into its individual component molecules inside. Still good, nonetheless and a lesson in proper packing procedure.
By my second year, my class standing had been high enough to qualify attending a job fair in Atlanta where students could get summer clerkships with firms all around the nation. I settled upon one in Albuquerque NM. In May of 1984, I loaded the bike in the back of my tiny, rusting, Chevy LUV truck and headed west for a two and a half month job. Once there, I found a one room “studio” apartment with a pull out couch for a bed, across the road from the office, and set about figuring out how to maximize motorcycle time while getting my work done.
Law clerks are “interns” who are expected to work all the hours in the day and half the night to get done the tasks assigned, which are basically the things the lawyers don’t want to do. Reading lengthy contracts looking for problem language, researching the law on various issues and writing memos, etc. Weekend work often is expected to get the volume done. I decided that since I was alone out there in the west, I could devote all of my time, except for eating and sleeping, to those tasks 5 days per week and spend my weekends, starting Friday night, traveling as far as I could on the bike, getting home on Sunday night in time for sleep. I had my son’s “backyard” tent and my old Boy Scout sleeping bag for camping. The green bike covered a lot of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado that summer, spending a fair amount of time on dirt and gravel roads as well as pavement. Over the 4th of July holiday long weekend, Brenda flew out to join me and we toured the southwest for four days, camping in the desert, listening to the coyotes howl in the distance.
Back home, I continued riding to and from school until graduation in 1985. The bike made a post-bar exam trip into the eastern US, and down the Blue Ridge while I tried to get back to some semblance of normal thinking after the long summer of study for the test. There were a couple of trips to visit my parents in Florida. Jay and I continued our habit of one long trip every year, often without a destination selected until the morning we left. On one such trip, we took the Blue Ridge from bottom to top, then, not having anything better in view, turned around and did it again the other way. Once we visited Atlantic City on a wandering trip in the northeast, and left our bikes at the end of the pier in the care of some young boys who promised, for a small fee, to watch out for them while we went off to win our fortune at the casinos. They did their part of that assignment, we didn’t.
A couple of years later I bought another bike and the green one went into semi-retirement for a while. After the infamous “ slime” wreck in Illinois, a few years later, the new one was totaled (for insurance purposes…it lived on, passing through two more members of the breakfast group including a stint in Hawaii ) and the green machine returned to full time duty for a while.
It got a set of tubeless Lester Mag wheels after an incident when Brenda and I, at about 60 mph, picked up a large nail in the rear tire. The resulting sudden deflation caused the tire to come off both sides of the stock spoked rim, leaving me trying to control the bike with the back end now skating inside the no longer attached tire. I used up both lanes of the thankfully empty back road and a bit of the shoulder bringing the thing to a halt still upright. Though I carried a patch kit in those days, the tube was completely shredded requiring us to wait until a friend could bring me a spare tube. I vowed to go with tubeless forevermore.
Other BMW’s came and went over the years, including one of each iteration of the GS series from the R80 to the “camhead”, (except, for some reason, the 1150), several other airheads and now even a sidecar rig. Through it all, the green one has been a constant.
The odometer quit several times, as was common for instruments back in the day. I took it apart and fixed it two or three times, but finally it was beyond help at about 89,000 miles sometime in 1989 or 90. Since then the bike has seen enough use that I’m confident that it has well over 100,000 miles on it. I sent off the instruments for professional repair and now they work and look like new.
In all those miles, it has been extraordinarily reliable, never leaving me stranded anywhere. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t had its quirks and required some maintenance and a few minor roadside fixes. Regular services and my own curiosity about how things work and could possibly be improved, meant that over the years the engine has been out of the frame, the heads and pistons removed and cleaned several times, and nearly every part of the frame and suspension have been disassembled, poked and prodded by my own inexpert hands. The timing chain and rings have been replaced once, not because of any failure, but out of guilt for the long miles. The transmission was replaced after I found a metal chunk stuck to the magnetic drain plug, that proved to be a shift dog that had broken off the central gear shaft. I’d never experienced any shifting problems, but would have if I’d left it alone. Other than those things, it is pretty much as it came to me in 1981. Now a sedate and settled middle age, in it’s early 40’s, has gone through several phases of “finding itself”. It has been a tourer with large Luftmeister fairing, Krauser bags and a top box, it’s been a naked bike and a sort of cafe racer on several occasions, even for a while having “S” bars, rearset pegs and controls. For now it is established with a sporty but practical look, lower bars but not really “cafe”, no fairing and just the saddlebags for touring cred. I was told by my son and grandsons that I cannot part with it, an unnecessary admonition given my long history with the bike, and that it would be passed down among them and their progeny.
Now it has been passed along to my grandsons, 20 and 22 years of age, who have taken up street riding after starting dirt bikes at age three. Their uncle Jay has given them his 1983 R100RT, so we are starting another generation of airhead BMW riders to keep the baton moving forward. I hope it is for them, another long term relationship.
” Hurricane Hortense, the first hurricane to directly strike Nova Scotia while at hurricane strength since Blanche in 1975, struck the Nova Scotian coast as a Category 1 hurricane. $3 million were inflicted to Nova Scotia by Hortense after strong winds, heavy rain, and power outages.. After re-entering the Atlantic, Hortense began to substantially strengthen and peaked as a 140 mph (220 km/h) Category 4 hurricane early on September 13. “
In September of 1996 Brenda and I took off on our 1993 BMW R100GS/PD for a trip from our Kentucky home to Nova Scotia to sightsee and to ride the legendary Cabot Trail route. It was as good as it’s press. We circumnavigated the entirety of the island, poking into little towns and staying wherever we found lodging. When the time came to head back, we headed for Yarmouth to catch the ferry over to the mainland.
In those pre-smartphone, pre-ubiquitous-internet days, we didn’t have daily up-to-date weather information. Our traveling style meant that we took our rain gear and rode in whatever conditions nature gave us. (Brenda has said that it “wasn’t really a vacation if we weren’t wet and cold at some point”) When we got to Yarmouth we learned of the imminent strike of the hurricane and that the ferry was canceled. We, along with a lot of other folks, formed a long line to get motel rooms. I tied the motorcycle to a rail along a wall in an alcove at the motel and we waited.
For that night and the next day we sat in the motel room, listening to the winds howling, the rain lashing the windows and occasionally venturing out to see if the bike was still there. Finally the word came that the ferry would go tomorrow…but it wouldn’t take motorcycles which were more likely to be tossed around in the still-high seas. But, we learned, there was another ferry, a shorter crossing, leaving from Digby about 70 miles up the coast that would take bikes.
In what turned out to be one of the least well-thought-out decisions in my long history of such, we left in the morning, headed for Digby.
The hurricane wasn’t finished. The main storm may have moved out to sea, but the leftovers were still powerful. I should have noticed that there were no other vehicles on the road. Brenda, ever the best passenger, was clinging on the back, pressed against me so that we were as one unit on the bike. I found that the only way I could make forward progress was to tack back and forth across the road as the wind would take us from one side to the other and I could slowly turn and make my way back across , often with the tires skittering, rinse and repeat. The “rinse” part was very real, as the rain was still coming nearly horizontal from the left. At one point I briefly looked away from the wet asphalt in front of the wheel to see the waves crashing on the shore just off to our left, brown as mud and so high that I had to bend my neck back to see the crest. It was, in a word, terrifying. Other than that glimpse, my memory of the ride is only of the few feet of pavement in front, looking more like a roiling stream than a road, trying my best to keep us upright and moving without falling.
If I had possessed enough brain power to divert any away from the immediate predicament I had put us in, I would have mustered the sense to go back to Yarmouth….but I didn’t.
Several hours later, having sine-wave traversed perhaps three times the actual straight-line distance, at a snail’s pace, we saw Digby appearing like a mirage ahead. The rain was beginning to lessen and the winds had slacked off to merely “awful”. We took the first place that had a B&B sign and got a little room on the second floor of a house near a restaurant. Like many such rooms we have stayed in on our travels, this one had been reclaimed from an alcove beneath the slope of the roof, not much space and a bit short of headroom, but it was dry and close to food, which met all of our requirements of the moment.
That evening we ate Digby scallops (some say the finest of the genre to be had) in a little restaurant next to the pier where the boats come in to unload them. I recall it to be one of the best meals of my life, though it is possible that the memory is colored by the relief in being there alive after the journey. One of my favorite quotes, often attributed to Churchill, goes something like “nothing is quite so exhilarating as being shot at without result”.
The next morning at 6 AM we met the ferry to load up for the crossing. At the dock with us were two guys on Honda Gold Wings, “old guys” we thought, all the way up into their 70’s. They had waited out the hurricane here, now ready to continue their trip. We were inspired by their eagerness to get on with motorcycle travel in their golden years.
In 2019 we returned to Digby on a trip up into New Brunswick, but this time on a sidecar rig and in much, much better weather. Now retired, we are in the same age range as the Gold Wing guys we met at the ferry, and like them, still traveling. The ride from Yarmouth was uneventful and calm, giving me a chance to see the scenery that was totally outside my narrowed view in 1996. The beach where I saw the monster muddy waves is now as placid as a postcard picture. The restaurant where we ate the wonderful scallops is still there, but now expanded with a deck overlooking the harbor. The scallops are still wonderful.
“There are only two kinds of motorcyclists: those who have crashed and those who are going to crash.” I have heard that cliche since I began riding at age 14, but I still don’t believe that pavement munching is inevitable. However, I have done my share, usually caused by my own errors but sometimes by the kind of random chance that fuels the cliches about our sport. Below are a few examples from my experiences on the road.
The first motorcycle crash I recall clearly was on Carter Avenue in Ashland, Ky when I was 14. A friend and I were headed downtown on my 50cc Puch moped, with him sitting precariously on the rear fender rack, the heels of his Converse tennies on the ends of the rear axle. A large brown dog darted from between two parked cars directly in front of my wheel. Contact was immediate and we, the three of us went down on the pavement in a tangle of 4 arms, 8 legs, one tail and a moped. When the short slide stopped he and I were laying spread eagled on the asphalt, watching as the dog, apparently no worse for the wear, got up, barked at us, and ran off, no doubt thinking that these humans were unreasonably dangerous. We, however, were scratched and abraded, even at the 20mph that was our usual top speed two up, since our ATGATT of the day was shorts, t-shirts and canvas tennis shoes and none of these things had held up well. We retrieved the moped, banged the handlebars into a reasonable semblance of straight, and remounted to continue our important errand, which probably was just to wander around downtown Ashland to bump into others we knew would be doing the same thing. The road rash on our elbows and knees was no big deal for young teen boys in the early 1960’s and we may even have been proud of it. I don’t recall my parents even remarking upon it.
On another occasion, about the same time frame, I was behind the elementary school that was across the street from my house, using the steep hill that served for sledding in winter for jump practice. I would wind up the moped as far as it would go in first, twist the grip to shift into second and attack the hill hoping to get a little air under the wheels. Another acquaintance showed up to ride around on the school grounds and in the woods behind them on his “hardware store” minibike. It was one of those with a pull-start engine in a hardtail frame and spindly looking forks that offered minimal undamped suspension to an 8 inch implement style wheel. I swapped machines with him, each of us wanting to see what the other’s ride offered. As I came up the hill this time, a bit faster, I cleared the top with a few feet of clearance….and watched as the front wheel, still attached to the bottom portion of the forks, parted company and fell to earth. As did I a second later. I rolled and tumbled, along with the minibike, coming to a stop relatively uninjured…which was just as well since the minibike’s owner was interested only in the health of his machine. He did tell me that this had happened to him before (“did you not think to mention it to me ?”) and this time, like then, the bike was fine. We stuck the tubes back in the holes and he rode off.
Much of my riding in the 70’s and 80’s was done off road and in Observed Trials competition, both venues for more get-offs than I can recall or anyone would want to read about.
In the late 80’s I had acquired a 1984 BMW R80GS, one of the many bikes I wish I’d never parted with, and enjoyed the nimbleness, the upright riding position and the compliant, long travel suspension. I was in a neighborhood near mine in Lexington, just riding around to unwind after a day at work, and as I came around a curve, leaned over a fair amount, there was a car stopped in the road. I braked, lost the front end and went down, sliding on my shoulder and left side. As I was doing that, I watched as the GS bounced off of its crash bars, back onto its wheels and meandered slowly across the street to a nearby yard where it came to a stop and laid over on its side in the grass, engine still idling for a few moments, to wait for me to get up and join it. I was reminded of this crash when I saw a video of BMW’s new self-driving motorcycle. If only my R80GS had been fitted with this technology, it could have just gone home and waited for me in the garage.
In the mid- 90’s, I was on my way to a Reg Pridmore CLASS session at Mid-Ohio race course, riding my 1993 R100GS/PD when I stopped in at the ATM in Eastland shopping center for some trip cash. As I was leaving the machine, focused on the exit of the lot, I made a quick turn and then I was on the ground, sliding. When I came to a stop and walked back to the PD, I could see that there was a small spill of coolant from a car on the asphalt lot, smeared by my front tire. Only about 4 inches square, it was at the exact point where I had made my turn and with essentially zero traction, the front had dropped out, putting me down. No damage, really (this is, after all, a PD) but a decent scrape on the underside of the valve cover. Later at the track school, young guys were circulating through the pits after the first session, checking out each other’s tires for comparisons of lean angle . Mine were scuffed out to the edges, not that difficult on an “adventure tire” of the era, but they were really captivated by the scrape on the valve cover which seemed to suggest that I had been touching down hard parts at extreme angles. I mostly let the macho youngsters think whatever they wanted, but if asked, I ‘fessed up that I wasn’t still on the bike when the scrape happened.
The worst one, in terms of injury, happened in 1999 at less than walking pace, in Virginia.
Brenda and I were on the black 98 R1100 GS, my first brush with modern technology, a bike that whispered seductive things in my ear to make me ride like I was a lot better at it than I was, but that’s not what got me. The fuel injection on that bike was problematic, BMW not yet having perfected their system. At constant speeds it would “hunt “, never being able to maintain a steady RPM and sometimes at low speeds, just transitioning from closed throttle to open, it would cough and die. I had taken a wrong turn up an incline and, as I was making the U turn to go back, the engine died. Suddenly without power, the bike lurched to the right and I tried to put down my foot to stop it. Unfortunately that leg was about 24 inches shorter than what was necessary on the slope and over we went. Brenda slid off the back, landing in a seated position unharmed. She described to me later that she watched as I was launched in an arc down the hill, landing on the single point of my right shoulder with a loud cracking sound. I recall the arc, having time to think that I had shoulder pads, then hearing the crack and knowing that things had just changed dramatically.
I got to my feet quickly and turned to check on Brenda who was standing up assuring me she was fine. But when I tried to reach out for the bike, my right arm wouldn’t raise..instead, the collarbone popped up like the Alien in that movie, trying to escape through the skin. Though it really hurt, I had to do it a couple of times just to see what was happening.
The 1100 was on its side, facing downhill. With Brenda’s help, I backed up to it and with my butt against the seat and my left hand on a frame rail, walked it upright onto the side stand. It started immediately (NOW the fuel system decides to work !) and after taking my left hand to raise my right arm onto the grip, found I could use the right hand for the brake and throttle as long as I didn’t have to lift it. I managed to get on and maneuver the machine into a position pointed downhill, Brenda climbed on the back and we set off for the nearest town with a hospital about 15 miles away. How Brenda had the nerve and trust to get on the bike, I don’t know. But there was no cell service, no sign of a dwelling near where we were and no traffic on the road, so it seemed like the only option at the time.
We pulled up to the Appalachian Regional Hospital that served the area, parked the bike and walked in. I suppose at that point I was still, against all evidence, hoping that some sort of splint could be fashioned to allow us to complete the trip. Brenda was not so convinced and as usual, she was right. In the ER, x-rays confirmed that I had a “comminuted fracture of the clavicle” meaning that I hadn’t just broken it, I had shattered it leaving jagged ends instead of a clean break. No surgery was required, but I wasn’t going to be riding anywhere for a while. The arm would be tied tightly to my chest in a sling. The ARC folks told us that, because they served a wide region, they had lodging rooms available to stay in for the night. Soon we were ensconced in what looked like a nice motel room, making arrangements for supper. The hospital cafeteria was closed, but there was a Chinese restaurant nearby that delivered. We learned that it had a minimum order for delivery and the staff here had just finished their meal break, so quickly the two of us were supplied with enough different dishes for a party of four, spread out on the bed in front of us. I called our son to make arrangements for him to come retrieve us and the bike-the first and only time I’ve ever had to do that. When he answered, I said, “we’ve had a little accident..” and he interrupted with, “Mom’s dead, isn’t she !”.. I assured him that she was alive, well and eating Mu Shu Pork at the moment and explained our predicament. He came the next day with my pickup truck and we started the return trip in a very different manner than I had planned 24 hours earlier.
On the Blue Ridge Parkway, just past Pisgah, route 276 heads downhill toward Cruso twisting and turning its way off the mountain. My brother in law Jay and I turned down the steep side road, him on his 1983 RT and me leading on my 93 R100PD, one spring day in, I think, the early 2,000’s. As we left the Parkway’s perfect pavement to head downhill, I thought “wow, this road’s in a lot worse shape” then there was the noise, BANG ! Skritttttttccccchh, of crash bars scraping along the pavement, the scene in front of me suddenly jerking up and down as my head bobbled, eyes wide open to a changed perspective as I was now a lot lower than seconds before,, watching my bike ahead of me sliding on its side in a long arc to a bumping stop, nose down in a ditch. I remember having my left hand outstretched, as if I could use the Force to bring the bike back to me. I heard Jay yelling “Don’t get up” but before I could process that information I was up and looking around to see if a car was coming as I headed toward the fallen BMW.
We had been going fairly slowly, no more than 25 or 30 mph, being careful. It was a steep downhill left turn, not particularly sharp. From my memory, I had just begun the process of a lean when there was the noise and the “does not compute ” sensation that what I intended to happen wasn’t and something quite unexpected was.
Reconstructing the scene, we learned that my front tire had hit a fine mix of sand and gravel from the deteriorating blacktop just exactly as I had tipped the bike easily into the turn, losing all traction and tucking the front tire under, putting the bike down immediately. Jay said it looked like someone had pulled on a cable, yanking the bike out from under me. The gravel/sand patch was composed of a fine mix of black pebbles in the shade from the direction we were going, so that it was in effect, invisible, though it could be seen from the other direction, in the bright sun disappearing into the shadow as we stood there looking up the hill. I was looking through the curve, ahead to the apex, and not down at the area right in front of my wheel, so the dark gravel in the shaded area hadn’t caught my attention. I know I’ve been through hundreds, if not thousands of sand and gravel patches on roads in all sorts of places, without more than a twitch at the bars. This one, however, was exactly at the point of turning, just the spot where the tire needed some traction and there was none to be had.
I went down so quickly that I didn’t put out a foot or a hand. Jay said I was still seated when the bike hit the ground and it slid away from me, with my body in the position of a man sliding into home base, head up and left hand outstretched. The design of the airhead BMW meant that the first thing that hit the ground was the crash bar, then the saddlebag, so my leg was not trapped underneath a sliding bike.
The bike needed no repair. I shredded a perfectly good ventilated Fieldsheer jacket and put a few small holes in my Aerostitch Darien overpants, got a small abrasion on my left boot, but that’s it. Not even a bruise, no scratches, nada, zip, zilch. I was a bit sore and stiff, but in advanced age, that’s the way I usually am, so I couldn’t really tell any difference. From that point in the trip forward, whenever I saw a rider and/or passenger dressed in tank top, shorts and flip-flops, I wanted to stop them and point to the torn places on my jacket and pants. If I hadn’t been wearing all the gear, all the time, I would have spent the rest of my vacation in the skin graft ward of a North Carolina hospital.
These aren’t the only times I’ve had an “incident” involving getting off a street bike unintentionally. But I wear good protective gear on every ride and so far the Virginia episode is the only one where I sustained any significant injury. Two thirds of the broken bones I have had in my long life have occurred while tripping over my own feet. But no one ever tells me I should give up walking. I am under no delusion about the possibilities for serious consequences from doing what I love to do, riding motorcycles, but like nearly everything in life, risks are inevitable and, with care, manageable.
There is a story which goes something like this. The racing driver, Juan Manuel Fangio was quizzed by a reporter about the risks of driving racing cars. He asked the reporter, “do you expect that you will die in bed?” The reporter said he certainly hoped so, and Fangio replied, “then how do you have the courage to get in it each night ?”
“For what is adventure, but inconvenience rightly considered?” (G.K. Chesterton, paraphrased, often attributed incorrectly to other writers.)
” An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered: an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered” G.K. Chesterton, All Things Considered, 1908. (Often attributed to others, but it seems to be originally his)
Khalil Gibran wrote, “The lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master”. It has long been one of my principles that a person has to get cold, wet and miserable sometimes so we can appreciate what comfortable feels like.
Everyone’s definition of an “adventure” is somewhat different, but most seem to have in common some aspect of pushing out of the comfort zone. I heard a speaker on the subject of “trust” talking about “a comfortable relationship with the unknown” and that seems equally applicable to the concept of “adventure”. For some, it can be extreme and most of us like reading the accounts of people who do extraordinary things in exotic places. But we know we won’t leave everything behind to follow those dreams. And that is a good thing, since if everyone did it, then it wouldn’t be extraordinary and those exotic places would get really crowded. Many of us never get far outside of our home area. We can embrace adventure travel, all of us, in some form between the extremes.
Recently I heard an advertisement recently for a “scheduled and scripted adventure”. It seemed to me to be an oxymoron
Stories about a trip where everything went well don’t sell books, so we hear about the mishaps and overcoming adversity, leading to a successful conclusion. And then too, stories don’t get written by the guy who quits in the first two weeks. (One American writer admitted that his round the world trip ended in the first few days after colliding with a bus in Mexico). In 1912, Carl Stearns Clancy and another rider began what probably was the first ever round the world motorcycle trip. Clancy’s companion wrecked his bike on the first day of the “round the world trip” and soon thereafter decided this adventure wasn’t for him and went home, leaving Clancy to finish it alone. Some want it more than others.
On the “Adventure Rider Radio” podcast, (https://adventureriderradio.com/listen) one can hear a wide variety of accounts, from the McGregor/Boorman no-expense-spared excursions to the Englishman who started out on a little coddiwomple and returned home 14 years later. He used no maps,(in South America, he said he “just kept the ocean on me right”) spoke no foreign languages, and “made do” with his skills and whatever came to hand, including meals made with roadkill. I particularly like the segments with Graham Field, a fellow who travels the world on an old KLR 650 and is brutally honest in his misgivings and, mistakes.
In my younger days, the later 1960’s and into the 70’s I would go out on my 250 (several different ones, at various times) and find a trail that meandered off into the woods in eastern Kentucky or West Virginia or Ohio and just take it to see where it went. In those times there weren’t many fences blocking roadside trails and the power lines and gas lines were wide open, unfenced and mostly unused. It was easy to go for miles across counties without ever touching pavement except to cross a road. I realize now that I was “trespassing” for the most part. But then, no one seemed to care as long as the rider left little evidence of his passing. ATV’s as we now know them didn’t yet exist, there were few people with 4WD vehicles used just for fun and not many motorcyclists of that time in my area cared to do what I was doing. There was no formal concept of “dual sport” motorcycles then, one just rode what one had, for whatever purpose seemed to be a good idea at the time. So the trails were not overused, the landowner was not confronted with hordes of machines tearing up the ground. One skinny teenager every now and then was not a great problem. When I did encounter a farmer or pipeline worker, the typical reaction was bemusement, wondering just how did this kid get way out here on that thing?
“Adventure” to me then meant seeing what was down a road or trail I didn’t yet know.
Now, after nearly 60 years in the saddle, I have motorcycled in all but two of the continental US states (not sure how I missed Nebraska and Louisiana) and in 16 foreign countries, eastern and western hemispheres, above and below the equator, often with my wife Brenda on the back or in a sidecar. We have had a lot of fun, a few mishaps (usually my own fault), but we have barely made a dent in the “places I’d like to go” list.
In the present, “adventure bikes” are a huge slice of the market these days, a segment that didn’t exist as a named category until the 80’s, when BMW came out with the GS series, bikes roundly criticized at the beginning as being too big for off road use and too tall and too slow for sporting use. The 800cc bikes, weighing a bit over 400 pounds, proved to be excellent for just going anywhere a rider wanted to go. Though the category is now one of the largest in motorcycle sales around the world, the genre has morphed and stretched into inclusion of anything with styling that reflects an idea of the originals, even if the resulting motorcycle is unhappy on anything more challenging than a well-graded gravel road. Many are now heavier and with more horsepower than what we used to consider as big road tourers.
In my experience-based opinion we, motorcyclists and the non-riding general public, place far too much emphasis on the size of the motorcycle in establishing its “legitimacy “ as a “real bike” for travel and adventure.
World traveler Austin Vince, who knows a thing or two about adventure, says “You’ll never wish you’d brought a bigger bike “. After picking it up for the fourth time in an hour on a remote trail or dirt road, lots of horsepower and the latest style doesn’t seem so important. Lois Pryce, as she has recounted in several excellent books, has been on the road for years, all over the world, with a Yamaha 225cc dual sport. (See her TED talk, “In Praise of Vulnerable Travel” here. https://youtu.be/QucYuQx7jnA)
Most of the world travelers and writers agree that over planning and over packing are the things to avoid. You don’t need most of what you think you need and if you really need it, chances are you can pick it up on the road. Most of what you think will go wrong, won’t, and when something does, you can handle it. You can. Trying to adhere to a rigid schedule and route means you miss a lot of what serendipity can offer.
I still adhere to the old notion that the best adventure bike is the one you have. No bike is “too small” to travel as far as you want to go. Get on it and go somewhere, out of your comfort zone. It will be fun. Just try not to hit anything big and you’ll do fine
Watching our dog Simon tonight exploring his world, following an agenda that he has in his mind but which is largely opaque to me without his keen senses, I think of how humans have been coexisting with dogs for millennia. (Some say 14,000 years ago, some put it back to 30,000 or more.) In the beginning , around the campfire, there must have been tension while the wolves pondered whether it would be easier to get some of the food the humans were eating or to kill and eat the humans. The humans viewed the wolves as a threat or even a potential food source if they could kill one without getting killed. Over the course of perhaps 1000 or more years they are developed a symbiotic relationship that eventually resulted in what we have today, where both species are different because of each other.
But there had to be a first one. There had to be the first proto-human who thought something different than the others about these predators that were prowling around the campfire. One who said/signed/grunted a different approach to the problem. It always has to be a first one who thinks something new.
I recall several years ago in South Africa standing on the edge of a rift valley and seeing the other edge, a steep cliff, far away on the other side. It is easy to see why things could develop differently on the two sides when traveling between them would’ve been extremely difficult. But I had a vision of a single protohuman, male or female I don’t know which, standing on that other edge and thinking to itself in whatever manner that happens before formal language, “I wonder what’s over there ?” Not because it needed a mate or a food source, since those things probably were available on its side, but rather just to know what was on the other side. I think that one led to us.
“Seven, not three” I was saying in my helmet as we paddled knee deep across what turned out to be the last water crossing on the Mid-Atlantic Backcountry Discovery Route. The DVD we had viewed before leaving, obviously not made in June, said there were only three and showed riders happily splashing across what was no more than a wet spot in the trail, only a tiny spray from the tires visible for the camera. My boots were full of water.
This started on June 19th, 2018, as my brother in law Jay (68 years) and I (just shy of 70) left Winchester, Kentucky on our XT250’s for Damascus, Virginia where the first Backcountry Discovery Route (“BDR”) in the eastern US would begin. We had ordered the paper map, DVD, and the GPS tracks earlier in the year, though true to our usual “causal navigation” style, we hadn’t really studied them. On the morning of the 20th, we attached Jay’s BMW Garmin GPS to my handlebars and turned it on for the directions to the first leg of dirt roads and trail. “Acquiring satellites “ is all it told us for the next three hours. Using old school maps and dead reckoning, we found our way along the first bits of the trail high up into the mountains of Tennessee. At one point we stopped near a cabin where a woman was cleaning a deck. Seeing us poring over the map, she asked it we were “following that trail”. “We see you fellows up here all the time”, she said with a smile, confirming that we were on the route and pointing us to the next turn. Lots of wildlife up here, deer, rabbits, groundhogs and one black bear, curious about these strangely dressed critters invading their space, but we were worth only a moment of their time before they went back to the business of survival.
Late in the morning, the GPS awoke and reported for work, but only would give us directions back to our starting point at Damascus, no matter what exhortations and threats we threw its way. We carried on with maps, finding the Wyrick Trail, a rough gravel and dirt track that took us high onto a ridge overlooking a wide green valley. Though we could see from the maps that there were towns nearby, from the ridge top there was no sign out there that civilization ever had intruded on these woods.
Nearing the end of the day, we came out onto pavement and found a gas station near what the map showed as a turn back up into the woods. The numbers on the map and the road sign didn’t match, so we asked a local who was getting in his pickup about the discrepancy. He was perfect, as if Central Casting had received the order for “Old Farmer in Overalls, with Heavy Southern Accent” and supplied him for this scene where he encounters the lost protagonists.
He scratched his head through his feed cap, looked us over carefully, then opined that he couldn’t see why in the world we would want to go up that “road”, even though it did, he admitted, go to the destination we had inquired about. He stared at his shoes, shook his head, and then told us which turn to take, and slowly got into his truck from which he watched us wheel around and head for the trail. I’d like to hear what he told his buds down at the store about us.
After a few miles of standing on the pegs on the steadily rising path, we began to doubt our directions and as if on cue, there was a wooden board with hand painted wording proclaiming that the “Woods Hole B&B and Hostel” was up a side road. We detoured up to the hodgepodge collection of rough cabins on a hillside where an eclectic mix of what one might describe as aged hippies and societal misfits were gathered on a porch. They confirmed that we were on the right track, but if we couldn’t make it to our destination, they knew of a homeless shelter in Newport where we could stay for the night.
Sixteen dirt and gravel miles later the track ended at Rt. 100, where the map said it continued on the other side, straight across…..but on the other side of 100 was a high solid wall of rock, extending as far as we could see in either direction. We opted to spend the night in the BDR suggested lodging, the Mountain Lake Lodge in West Virginia a few miles away.
This lodge was the setting for the movie “Dirty Dancing” back in the 80’s and still has memorabilia displayed for the faithful who return to relive the experience of seeing the film. Since Jay and I are among the twelve people in the world who have not seen the movie (the dozen of us have a meeting every other year to share the experience of not seeing it), much of that was lost on us, but it was a pleasant place to stay. The desk clerk looked us over and gave us a cabin well away from the regular tourists in the main building, rustic but comfortable. The restaurant was excellent. Supper was trout with roasted Brussels sprouts and hash browns, washed down with a very good local porter, dark and smooth with just a hint of some coffee notes in the finish.
In the morning, we took the road from our cabin around the lake and straight on to the dirt path the BDR prescribed. The GPS, atoning for its recalcitrant behavior the previous day, was flawless, directing me turn by turn such that by the end of the day I had no idea where on the map I had been, knowing only that without the device, I never would have found the otherwise unmarked trail branches. I can say that nearly all of it was off pavement, with lots of trees forming a canopy over the trails. From yesterday’s rain and the frequent showers today, the surface was mostly mud, but so well mixed with rocks that traction was not much of a problem. Even on the downhill sections, we were able to keep up a second or third gear pace, while I wondered just what a rider on a 600 pound loaded 1200 adventure bike would be doing right about now. We have yet to see any other bikes on this route, but occasionally spot the telltale tread pattern of 90/10 “Adventure tires” in the dirt. There were several long uphill sections, steep, rocky, and a bit slippery that would have been challenging on anything much bigger than these bikes. I recall in my 50’s taking my then new R100GS/PD up a steep, rutted, (but dry) pipeline hill in eastern Kentucky and being impressed by how it handled the climb. Then I realized that I had to get the big beast back down. The bike and I made it unscathed, but I am sure it wasn’t pretty. Now, 20 years of advancing age make that seem like an impossibility.
Our second bear spotting came today, with the furry critter, probably a relatively new edition, running hard from the woods on one side of the trail to the other. From its speed, it is easy to see why they say you can’t outrun the bear.
We have encountered numerous turkeys, in flocks by the side of the trail and in one case, a large one who exploded from a tree right beside me, launching itself into the air in front of my face, struggling for enough altitude to avoid collision. We, the bird and I, were both grateful for its success. Several deer have wandered across our path, on two occasions accompanied by spotted fawns delicately picking their way exactly in their mother’s footsteps. Momma kept an eye on us, the fawns looked only at her.
The seventy nine miles of Section two were completed as the steady rain began by mid afternoon in Covington, Virginia. We took a late lunch at Cucci’s Italian restaurant where the thoughtful waitress put us in a distant booth so our sopping rain gear wouldn’t create a hazard for other diners.
Section three, the longest one at 193 miles, started just a few blocks away with a narrow blacktop road that quickly became dirt just a mile or two out of town, heading up into the mountains. I thought how nice it must be for an off road rider to live in a town such as this, where access is so close. The rain, which had politely paused while we ate lunch, returned and kept us and the trail dampened for the remainder of the day. We managed only a few miles before turning in for the night at the Warm Springs Inn at, no surprise, Warm Springs Virginia. The Inn is a former Colonial era courthouse, now converted to a lodging and restaurant with the bar in the former Clerk’s office, complete with the old vault that once held important records. They tell us that Thomas Jefferson frequented the hot mineral baths here to treat his rheumatism. If we had known what the next day would bring, we would have soaked in them ourselves.
There was more rain overnight, but we were able to start out in a brief period of dry weather. A short bit of pavement, then back on to the mud pathways leading high into the mountains. This is the kind of thing we came for, endless twisting trails with views of mountains and valleys at every summit, riding that was technical enough to hold one’s attention but still not too challenging for our old bodies to take.
Until we came to the water.
The trail ended, it seemed, rather unceremoniously as we came around a turn to face not mud but a rushing river, complete with whitecaps. It was about 60 feet wide and of a depth we couldn’t immediately discern. There were rocks, big rocks, on the approach, leading us to believe it wouldn’t be any more hospitable under the water. Still, on the DVD we had viewed, the crossings looked simple and surely it couldn’t be THAT deep even with all this rain, could it ? So I went in. The younger me, a lot younger, would have kept feet on the pegs, leaned back and gassed it to splash across. The now me is much, much more cognizant of what can go wrong and the consequences of old bones hitting rock. Abandoning any hint of style or ego, I put both feet down and went slowly into the current. Within a few feet, the water was well over the tops of my boots, filling them completely, and the engine was up to the bottom of the cylinder. No choice now but to keep on and soon I was on the other side, looking back at Jay who was contemplating which of us was the crazier…me for going in not knowing what I’d find or him for now going in knowing how bad it was. His bike stalled in the current, requiring the two of us to wade through the torrent to push and pull it out. It took only a minute or two to dry out the spark plug and get the bike going again and then another few for us to convince ourselves that this must be the worst one of the three that were predicted and going back wasn’t a good option. The next six crossings told us just how wrong we had been.
I don’t have pictures of the worst ones because I just didn’t think of it at the time. The “getting across this” took all of my limited attention span.
In between the “water features” there were the fallen trees (three of them in various places) across the trail, some of which required some branch removal to clear a space big enough for the the bikes to fit through, long uphills and descents that kept us up on the pegs in our soaked boots and provided plenty of moments to say bad words inside our helmets. It was late afternoon when we emerged from the woods to what the GPS told us was a numbered road that led to a town. We met a young man going in, riding a BMW 450X, and stopped him to warn of the fallen trees and water. He smiled and pointed to the SUV following him and said they were his support vehicle, complete with chainsaw and winch to remove such inconveniences as trees. We realized that we had utterly failed to consider including such vital things in our trip planning.
The GPS, no doubt in “protection mode” to keep two overmatched old geezers from committing further folly, refused at this point to give us any directions forward on the route, insisting now that we go back to our starting point. We put it in “time out” to consider its disloyalty and used the paper map to set off in the downpour to find lodging for the night. We were beyond tired, weary to the point of near incoherence, soaking wet inside and out. In Petersburg, VA we found an “interesting” motel with a vacancy and the amused proprietor of a nearby Chinese take out restaurant helped these dripping customers load an amazing amount of food onto two bikes for dinner in our room. Being sophisticated diners, we stopped into a gas station for a bottle of their finest red wine for accompaniment.
Things always look better in the morning and a bit of sunshine and blue sky gave us all the optimism we needed. After way too much breakfast in a local restaurant, we filled our tanks and set off on the next route. Section 4 is shaped like a carpenter’s square and is mostly tiny paved roads in the countryside, working its way perilously close to the Washington DC area. The squiggly black lines on the map were a welcome relief after the previous day’s travails (we still had our wet boots as a reminder) and the 250’s ate up the miles easily, swinging back and forth through the tree lined lanes. We were detoured a time or two as a result of flooding but managed to find our way back to the route eventually. The GPS again decided that it knew better what we needed and kept taking us to major roads near, but not on the BDR, so again we shut it down and went with the paper.
On this route is the Oldtown Low Water Bridge, one of the very few private toll bridges still operating in the US, requiring a 50 cent fee to cross the Potomac River from West Virginia into Maryland. The wooden structure, first erected in 1937, was not much above the fast moving water when we crossed, making our way to the tiny toll shack on the other side. A tin cup on a long handle comes out, the change clinks inside and a voice from the booth says “Thanks ! You’ve just made my day !”
By late afternoon we had finished the section in Shepardstown Maryland and stopped at a church to take advantage of their outdoor pavilion to spread out maps and figure our next move. Jay had a prior obligation that required him to be home in a few days and we could see that the next sections would take us high into Pennsylvania and would necessitate taking major roads on a forced march back to Kentucky. Since we were now only a few miles from Front Royal, the beginning of the Skyline Drive (and a motel we knew was across the street from a fine brewpub) we elected to shelve the BDR for later completion and head south. We will come back.