Great Alaska Adventure: A Look Back
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.”