It’s done. Six years in the dreaming. One year in the planning. Sixty days in the riding. 13,200 miles. The Great Alaska Adventure is in the books. And what an adventure it was.
Two months on a motorcycle accompanied by my best friend through some of the most beautiful country in the world. How do I sum this up? How do I condense all the days, all the miles, all the excitement, all the splendor, all the fun into a final blog post. I’ll start with my riding partner, with whom I’ve traveled many a long and winding road for more than 45 years.
Marilyn, as most of you know, has only been riding a motorcycle for a little more than three years. She came to motorcycle riding late, and a little reluctantly. But, as she will be the first to say, if she wanted to see much of me after retirement, she had to learn. So she learned, sometimes the hard way. She still doesn’t like twisties and leaning into a turn still feels too much like falling to her. But, with only a little pressure on my part, she committed to go on the Great Alaska Adventure. I tried to make the trip as comfortable as I could for her, using every anniversary, birthday, and Valentine’s Day to add more leather, heated cold weather gear, padded seats and other motorcycle amenities to her arsenal of riding weapons. In the end, though, all the gear, all the accouterments, all the over-priced crap I could throw on the bike wouldn’t matter if she didn’t have the heart. I can say after 60 days on the road: She had the heart.
One week into the ride, as anyone who’s been following along knows, Marilyn had a parking lot spill that probably broke or cracked a couple of ribs. It took about two days to realize how serious the injury was and to guess the diagnosis. With almost no second guessing, she began to wear an “abdominal binder” to stabilize her ribs during the jarring that continuous riding would inevitably produce. Bumps, sharp movements, sneezing and coughing aggravated the pain, but she grimaced and kept riding. Her abdominal binder became part of her daily uniform regardless of the road or the weather. When we began our last day on the road yesterday, she bound herself once more and saddled up. 13,000 miles is tough enough, but 13,000 miles with her injuries? Do you think she had the heart for the ride?
How did she do it? One day at a time. She’d (grudgingly) crawl out of bed each morning, gear up, saddle up and spin the odometer another 250 or 300 or 350 or 400 miles, rain or shine, often having fun along the way and each day adding to her growing collection of Great Alaska Adventure memories. Part of the motivation for climbing back on her Deluxe every day was remembering the new sights she had seen the day before and wondering what additional new sights lay ahead, down the road, around the bend. Marilyn sometimes said she was holding me back because I couldn’t ride as far or as fast as I wanted to with her along. While I didn’t ride as far or as fast as I wanted to, she didn’t hold me back. She spurred me on. She made me proud. She’s still not an expert rider. She still doesn’t go fast into the turns. She still sometimes falls too far back. She still has throttle aversion. But she has heart.
Will we do another ride like this together? No. But we did this one. And it will always mean a lot. To both of us.
When we started this trip I wondered, with increasing trepidation, how two Harleys–one nearly brand new with fewer than 5,000 miles on it and the other six years old with 27, 000 miles–would hold up for more than 12,000 miles over what I knew would be trying conditions and sub-standard roads. I had heard and read stories of the Alaska Highway–frost heaves, road construction, miles of rock and gravel, limited repair facilities. Anyone who rides a Harley and has put the children of Harley mechanics through college has to be concerned about a trip like this. Roadside assistance is of limited help when the nearest Authorized Harley-Davidson dealer may be 400 miles away and the nearest grizzly may be 400 yards away, doing whatever it is that bears do in the woods. I’m pleased and pleasantly surprised to report that the bikes performed almost flawlessly. No breakdowns, no mechanical problems, not even a flat tire. One broken spot light on the Alaska Highway, but blame that on chip seal and a speeding big rig, not the Motor Company. Chips, scratches and dings can just be written off as Alaska Highway battle scars.
We had communications problems frequently because of broken wires, unsecured cords, terrible static from the J&M, and finally, (I think) a reception problem (I can transmit but not receive) with my Harley CB. We got through it, but not being able to communicate about such things as a moose on the road, a bear in the woods, a deer in the brush, a spine-smashing frost heave, a crater-like pothole, a sudden turn, an open saddle bag, and the always-present need for a personal pit stop made the adventure more adventuresome. We got by, though, using pre-arranged hand signals and flashing high-beams, but better audio communication would have been preferred.
Even when we viewed the scenery through rain-spotted face-shields (and that happened far more frequently than we deserved), the landscape and the vistas on this trip were phenomenal. From the ocean views on the ride to and from Key West, to the stark but captivating Great Plains of the central U.S. and Canada, to the thousands of miles of mountain peaks and verdant valleys, the scenery that flashed by as we rolled along each day was fascinating, spell-binding, beautiful, powerful. In short, just plain damn awesome in the very real sense of inspiring awe. I love mountain riding and do it whenever I can, but the mountains on this trip were more than I expected. And I expected a lot. From the time we left Edmonton, Alberta, going northwest until we headed across Nebraska going east I can’t remember a day we were not in sight of mountains covered with rich forests and geologic wonders. Mile after mile. In all directions. Sometimes with blue-green glaciers flowing slowly down their sides, changing the mountain relentlessly along the way. There is something about a rocky, snow-covered peak soaring into misty clouds or into a cloudless blue sky that makes me want to pause, take a deep breath and go for a long hike to the top and scream at the world “I’m here.” How could we not be impressed with a landscape that continuously over-dosed our senses. I’ve said it before and here I go again: I’m going back.
A trip like this is measured not only by miles covered, but people uncovered. How about Merl in Fort Nelson, BC, who took us on a tour of his antique cars and told stories about many of them? Or Ben Miller in Hope, Alaska, who despite being blind still sees a long way into his community’s past? Or Colette at the OK Cafe in Vanderhoof who’s trying to preserve the history of her small town? Or George the Road-King-riding lawyer from Boston who described Marilyn as courageous? Or the rangers and parks personnel who took time to tell us why their neck of the woods was the best anywhere and encouraged us to explore their piece of paradise? Or the countless hotel managers and operators who steered us to the best sights and the friendliest restaurants. And who can forget the waitresses whose pie recommendations always seemed to be what the doctor ordered. Friendly people everywhere who made us feel welcome, who helped us out of minor jams, who wanted to hear our story and to share theirs. The scenery will bring me back to Canada and Alaska, but so will the people.
Why the Great Alaska Adventure?
Hard to say, exactly. Maybe because it combined all the things I love: Riding motorcycles, cruising on the open road, the great outdoors, mountains, Marilyn. After 50 years of working for a living it seemed like a good way to enjoy living. A two-month, 13,000 mile motorcycle trip to Alaska and back isn’t for everyone. Good thing, too, or the roads would have been very, very crowded. Many years ago, when I first started backpacking, I didn’t want to hike ON the Appalachian Trail, I wanted to hike the entire Trail. But I never did. When I took up bicycling, I didn’t want to ride around town, I wanted to ride across the country. But I never did. So, when I started riding motorcycles again eight years ago, I didn’t want to ride to Alachua. I wanted to ride to Alaska. And this time I did. I’m fortunate to have decent health, time on my hands, and a little bit of money to do some of the things I want. The Great Alaska Adventure has strengthened my resolve to do what I want as long as I can. Because the day will come (who knows when) that I won’t be able to do the things I dream of doing. And the dreams will die.
I thought a lot about this during the Great Alaska Adventure. Now that I’ve reached elder status in our society (which has little respect for elders now that I am one), I think I’m entitled to give unsolicited advice. And my advice is this: Don’t wait until it’s too late. Pursue your dreams as soon as you can. Make life worth living. Of course, none of us can do all the things we dream of–given financial, family and personal limitations. But do something. Do something big. Do something soon. Fill your life with memories, not regrets. I know it’s easy for me to say all this now that I’m retired. It’s true. Retirement makes it easier. So, unsolicited advice #2: Retire as soon as you can. Waiting until you have enough money? You’ll never have enough money and you’ll never have more time. So start as soon as you can. Growing old isn’t fun. Prolonging youth can be. I’ve decided I’m going to stay young for as long as I can. And I’m going to stay on the road for as long as I can, too.
I’d like to write more, but I’ve got things to do. Trips to plan. Places to go. Things to learn. People to see.
Thanks for joining Marilyn and me on the Great Alaska Adventure. Hope to see you on the road or where ever your dreams take you.
Stay safe and watch out for the moose in the road.
“I can’t wait to get on the road again.”
Two ancient and exhausted bikers rolled into their driveway today, relaxed their death grips on their handlebars, climbed slowly off their dusty steel steeds, dragged themselves into their humble abode and collapsed in a heap, waiting for a beer fairy to magically produce the golden elixer that would give their groaning bodies new life.
Somewhere I’m sure that probably happened today. But not here. Not at my house. These two spry bikers are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to hit the road again tomorrow. Well, that may be a little bit of an exaggeration, but after 60 days on the road, 13,200 miles, innumerable slices of waist-enlarging pies, several frost-heave induced sphincter spasms, and battle scars from the monster mosquito gauntlet, we’re still in pretty good shape for a couple of old, retired motorcycle riders who just returned from the ride of their life. The bikes are unloaded and the washing machine is running. (It’s amazing how dirty clothes can get in just two months.) My beard is fuzzier than when we started. The weird tans on the backs of our hands are more pronounced. Marilyn’s injured ribs are almost healed. All-in-all, we’re not much more degenerated than we were on May 30.
Our plants are all alive, thanks to our neighbor Margie. And our mail is neatly stacked and the bills paid thanks to Brian. Well, it’s neatly stacked anyway. The car started up after sitting unloved in a dark garage for two months and all the household appliances still appear to work. It’s as if we just left yesterday, except I’ve got two filthy motorcycles covered with various parts of Canada and Alaska, four worn-out tires, a fairing with rock scars that look like the craters of the moon, and lubricating fluids that no doubt have the consistency of Canadian tar sands. Like their riders, however, the bikes will recover from the Alaskan ordeal and live to take on new challenges and new adventures.
Please check back tomorrow night and I’ll post a wrap-up of this trip, thoughts about aging and retirement, and dreams for additional cross-continent adventures.
I’ve ridden the Wichita to Orange Park trip several times, and each time it took me two long days of about 700 miles each day. But because of the Ozark interlude and not wanting to push Marilyn too hard, we made the trip in four sections of about 350 miles each. As a result, each day is an easy ride: today only about 6 1/2 hours on the road and tomorrow will be about the same. Sometimes a 9 a.m. start isn’t a bad thing.
Today’s ride was all on four-lane highway and, except for the 30 minutes we spent slogging through Birmingham stop and go traffic in the noon heat, it was a piece of cake. We arrived at our hotel by 3:30 and by 4:30 I was enjoying a refreshing dip in the pool. This evening I ate yet another larger-than-necessary steak dinner washed down with an oversized mega-calorie beer and followed by an absolutely necessary Dairy Queen Banana Creme Pie Blizzard. The inevitable return to the gym can’t come too soon, even though I know my unused muscles are going to ache and painfully remind me of my sinful gluttony on the road. I have a lot of pie-pounds that need to be worked off. But it sure was fun while it lasted.
Marilyn and I looked back at the Great Adventure during dinner and agreed that it really has lived up to its name. If you can stay with me for a few more days, I’ll post a wrap-up sometime Wednesday evening.
Tomorrow is our final ride to Orange Park. We may run into some typical north Florida thunderstorms along I-10 about mid afternoon, but we’ll be (mostly) glad to be back, wet or dry.
After a nice couple of days riding with brother Jon and his wife Ulla, we parted ways in Eureka Springs this morning. They returned to Kansas and we continued our final road assault on Orange Park, covering about 320 miles through Arkansas, cutting across the southwest corner of Tennessee at Memphis and ending for the night at a mediocre Best Western at Olive Branch, Mississippi. Our original thought was a late breakfast/brunch in Eureka Springs with a departure sometime between 10 and 11 a.m., but Jon had a wary eye on storms moving across Kansas and wanted to avoid them if possible. Turns out he did, all except for the final few miles into Wichita. Marilyn and I pulled out at 8 a.m. and, as it turns out, could have gone further than we did, but the reservations were already made so we finished our ride at 4 p.m.
When I googled the route, it looked like the best route would be through Little Rock, heading south out of the Ozark mountains and then west to Memphis. But the Garmin GPS had other ideas and plotted an eastern route first that didn’t dip south until about 200 miles into the ride. I think this was a far more scenic and enjoyable ride, as we rolled along through hilly farm country, miles of flea markets, scenic lakes, more flea markets and nice, cool cloud cover for the first six hours. Either way, the time and distance would have been about the same and I’m glad I opted for the Garmin route.
The route didn’t have any serious twisties, which Marilyn liked, and she was able to maintain her speed at the posted speed limit, which I liked. Nice sweepers which required a little lean, but no floor-board scraping. We passed lots of bikes, so other bikers also must have liked the route, too. It’s a shame the Ozarks are so far from Florida, because I’d like to come back and spend more time exploring the hills and valleys. Maybe on my way back to Alaska I’ll detour in this area again. In the meantime, the mountains of North Carolina are close enough to exercise the Ultra Classic the way a motorcycle needs to be tested every now and then.
Another good-weather, uneventful ride in store tomorrow and then the final dash home on Tuesday. I’ll add a short post tomorrow night and then Tuesday or Wednesday will try to post a rambling wrap-up post on the Great Alaska Adventure. As always, thanks for following along.
We spent all day yesterday trailing a huge rainstorm on the way from Wichita to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. We managed to avoid most of the heavy rain, sometimes by only 10 or 15 minute judging by the condition of the road and the ditches running full of muddy water. The good news is that we didn’t ride through much rain. The bad news is it took about 4 hours longer because we stopped longer and added more miles to dodge the rain. But we arrived safe, had a Jack and went to bed.
This morning, Jon and I took off for a 4 hour ride that included some really great twisty, mountain roads and involved a piece of pie called “Company’s Coming Pie.” Don’t know for sure what all was in it, but it included pecans, pineapple, meringue and a flaky crust. Very sweet, but good.
Marilyn and Ulla spent the morning shopping/walking through Eureka Springs and met us for lunch when we finished our 150 mile ride. After lunch the four of us went on another, shorter ride of about 1 hour but also through some beautiful country and along a part of Table Rock Lake. Marilyn, preferring not to ride on twisty mountain roads, climbed on behind me for the short ride.
Tomorrow we really do head for home. Destination Olive Branch, Mississippi. Then Columbus, GA, Monday night and home on Tuesday.
A few more short blog posts and a wrap-up after we get back.
After a pleasant and relaxing three day, family-oriented rest, we return to the road tomorrow for a short, and probably wet, trip to the Arkansas Ozarks for a little riding in the mountains there. We’re currently looking at a 50% chance of rain at 8 a.m. when we expect to go kick stands up and an 80% chance of thunderstorms when we arrive in Eureka Springs early tomorrow afternoon.
The good news is that Saturday is predicted to have good riding weather in the Ozarks and I’m looking forward to enjoying the mountain roads. Brother Jon has ridden some of them, as have I, but we will probably find some roads that are new to both of us. For those of you not familiar with our family motorcycle dynamics, Jon has my 2007 Ultra Classic. It had 99,000 miles on it when I sold it to him in 2011 and currently has about 108,000 miles on it. Seems to still be running pretty good.
Other than the rain, which we’ll try our best to avoid, it should be a good couple of days riding before the final dash from Arkansas to Florida. The Great Alaska Adventure is winding down, but I’m trying to stretch it out as long as I can. Will report on Ozark riding in the next couple of posts.
Other than helping brother Jon with one small chore requiring a little lifting and washing two very dirty bikes to get rid of as much of the remaining parts of Alaska and Canada as I could, Wednesday was uneventful. As an aside, the problem with washing my bike was that I can now begin to see chips and scratches that I could have fooled myself into believing were dirt or bugs, but clearly are not. So far I’ve counted four chips in the fairing. When the Ultra gets on my lift at home and I go over it thoroughly from top to bottom, I expect to find more road scars. Part of the price you pay for taking on the Alaska Highway.
When I was in the Yukon, I bought a book that describes the raft trip I want to take next year and Wednesday I started reading it. Now I REALLY want to take that trip. The Complete Guide to the Tatshenshini River was written in 2011 by three guides on the river and covers geology, botany, animals, equipment, rafting tips, and answers some of the questions I had.
Here’s one of the descriptions in the book:
It is the place to which all other alpine rivers will eventually be compared. It has it all: wildlife, glaciers, icebergs, towering mountains, whitewater, wildflowers, birds, salmon, history, untouched wilderness, all arrayed in the most beautiful way imaginable. It is a place where geology carries on at an audible pace. It’s a place that is at times tranquil and serene, and at other times brutally demanding.
The river trip from put-in at Dalton Post, Yukon Territory, to take-out at Dry Bay, Alaska, winds 138 miles through the largest continuous block of protected park land in the world, which has been declared a world heritage site. Geologically, the area is still very active, as the 15,000 foot peaks continue to be thrust upward by the Pacific tectonic plate grinding away at the North American plate, continuing a mountain building process that has been in the making for hundreds of millions of years. At the same time, glaciers on the edge of the largest non-polar ice field in the world continue to carve U-shaped valleys while their melt water rushes to the sea carving V-shaped valleys.
Grizzlies, black bears, bald eagles, caribou, mountain sheep and hundreds of other animals make their homes along the river and are described as an integral part of every trip.
The book was written for both independent travelers (not me) and members of guided parties (me) and describes the river, where to find fresh water, how to make camp on a river that can rise several feet suddenly when hidden dams under the glaciers give way and send millions of gallons of water rushing into the river.
The trip has much more floating and drifting than whitewater, but there is enough of the latter for excitement and plenty of the former for appreciating one’s “speckness” in an immense wilderness and a much larger universe.
I can’t believe that I haven’t quite finished this year’s adventure and I’m already looking at next year’s (?) trip. But I am. I’m hoping to make this raft trip as part of a longer trip back to Alaska. After all, my bike is already beat up so what’s another 12,000 miles. If this sounds interesting to anyone (you can fly to Whitehorse and return in about 2 weeks if you don’t have a couple months), I’ll loan you the book. Marilyn has indicated pretty strongly that I’m on my own on this one.
Tomorrow, Jon, Ulla, Marilyn and I take off for Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and a couple days riding in the mountains. Weather forecast calls for 80% chance of rain/thundershowers tomorrow but clear for riding on Saturday. By Sunday, Marilyn and I should start the final leg home to Florida, arriving sometime Tuesday.
Today was the least active day we’ve had in 54 days. I helped brother Jon install in microwave oven in a condominium he’s remodeling and Marilyn went to the store with my mother. Other than that it was a pretty restful day.
I did plan a two day Arkansas trip with Jon that will extend the Great Alaska Adventure by two days. He’s found a a “motorcycle only” hotel that’s in the middle of some really great riding roads in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. We’ll drive over there Friday, ride a little, ride all day Saturday (Ulla and Marilyn may occupy themselves part of Saturday in shopping pursuits), and then head home on Friday and arrive in Jacksonville on Tuesday.
Had a monster thunderstorm go through here an hour ago and discovered a leak in a basement window, so tomorrow may be a little more active. I also have to try to knock some of the Alaska and Canada grime off the bikes, but it’s going to be in the 90s and humid, so I’m not sure how hard I’m going to work at it.
It was nice to have a day off with nothing to do but visit.
Rain was all around us when we woke up yesterday in Kearney, NE, but not on us. I had originally planned to head directly south on state roads but that would have involved some rain, so we headed east on I-80 for about 80 miles then dove straight south. That added about 30 miles of boring road to the ride, but it was fast and we avoided the rain all day, much to my delight. For the first time since we left Florida the first week in June (except one day in Fairbanks) we were riding in 90 degree temperatures and I didn’t want to add the rain gear to the mix.
The ride was only a little over 300 miles and it was good road all the way, so even with a couple of breaks and an intentionally late start, we made it to Wichita by 3:30 and reconnected with my mother, my brother Jon from Wichita, and my brother Bob from California.
Jon, knowing my dietary needs, had a Village Inn Key Lime pie waiting for us.
We had a nice visit but an early bed, so the blog didn’t get posted last night.
We’ll be here for a few days, probably until Friday, before heading out again. There’s a real good possibility that Jon and his wife Ulla will join us for a few days on the way back and we’ll extend our trip (isn’t retirement great) for a few days to ride in the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks.
I’ll try to keep keep posting everyday. Maybe I’ll include a picture of Marilyn finally getting to sleep in after almost two months on the road.