16 to 18 July Kms travelled – 31,021
I made it! I really did it! As my skin was tingling with the icy wind, my body was infused with a genuinely warming glow as I mentally punched the sky and silently whooped and hollered – not that there was anyone around to frown or tut even if I had vented my feelings externally. For I had just crossed the mightily chilly and most northerly of border crossing in the whole of the Americas, and quickly caught sight of the most fantastic of signs. A sign of appropriate proportion to help celebrate and bring home to me that I had successfully completed my sixth and final ´must do´ of Pat Around the Americas.
I had traversed the Top of the World Highway and was feeling on top of the world myself as the camera clicked away to evidence the achievement. I was in Alaska... after 117 days of travel and crossing some 20,000 miles of hard worn road... I was here. I had taken Idris (or had Idris taken me?) from pretty much the bottom of the world, right up to pretty much the top. I had a tear in my eye as relief stripped from me in waves, leaving me somewhat numbed but happy... oh so happy.
But I am getting ahead of myself here. When we left the last episode I was fretting about pretty much everything that crossed my mind as I counted down to my departure from Dawson City. That departure came early the next morning as I was unable to sleep through the whole of the light night. 7 am and I was sat on Indris´ back waiting for the non-stop free ferry to work its way across the fast flowing Yukon river.
A smile and a wave from the ferry staff, and we were away with engines running full tilt and nose pointing upstream as the boat slid sideways across the watery gap.
The off-load was uneventful, as was the climb up the mountainside (past one of the local campsites) towards the Top of the World Highway. An interesting name for a road, and one which I was given to believe not only stemmed from the fact that we were now in the extreme north of the country, but also from the fact that the road had been built right along the top ridges of the surrounding hills. A fact that was confirmed as soon as we had arrived at the top of the mountain and started heading west.
I had also been told that the road had been built this way to keep costs down and increase the speed of construction, as it had been put in place by the US army (yep, we were still in Canada) who were concerned about alternative supply routes should Alaska be attacked by the Japanese during the Second World War. Unfortunately while the road was originally sealed, it has not been maintained for many years (aside from the run uphill from the river) and now was rapidly reverting back into dirt and stone. In fact the patches of road that had already succumbed to time and weather were easier to ride than the ad-hoc patches of crumbling pot-holed tarmac. If it wasn´t for the cold wind, low cloud and rain, you could have placed this run somewhere between Ecuador and Guatemala. What a shame I was unable to sample the sights offered by riding a road along mountain tops, but I was pretty much alone on this ride and I was determined not to go crazy and blow the project at the final hurdle.
Needless to say that the weather got worse, colder, wetter, cloudier, as the ride progressed... and when I finally (and somewhat suddenly) arrived at the simple US border post I really was ready for a break and a chance to have a warm. But nope! Perhaps being stuck out in the middle of nowhere with a cold wind and no view is some sort of punishment for the customs officials – and this chap was taking it personally! This grumpy sort insisted I stand next to the bike in full blast of the mountain top wind (rather than 3 feet to the left in the shade of the building) while I handed him my paperwork – and then wait there while he went inside to take 20 minutes processing it! He even came back out to move me back into the cold, as I had inched into a bit of shelter while waiting! Sorry fella, but there might be a reason you were posted to one of the most remote borders around!
But as you will have noted earlier, I did cross over after confirmation that I was not carrying any guns... or firewood! Perhaps it is something about my personality, but a distinct chill seems to rapidly sap away any charitable feelings I may usually have. On being asked whether I was carrying any firewood, I quipped about how cold it was waiting outside, and agreed how nice it would be to get a good fire going.
My comments were met with a blank stare, then a wave on my way (plus a warning about the quality of the road ahead, in fairness). Hey ho!
And while the cloudy mountainside harboured no change, the fact we were now in a different country was immediately noticeable through the road surface. The road to Chicken (yep, Chicken) was maintained, but unsealed. In the dry this would be a fantastic surface to ride. Some light dust, but generally smooth hard packed dirt and stones. But it wasn´t dry, and Idris and I resigned ourselves to picking through a road surfaced with an inch or two of orange gravel porridge, with a poorly tread front tyre! Though as we descended through rolling hills the weather improved a bit, the road dried a bit, and we relaxed into the ride a bit satisfied that despite a couple of front wheel slides we had held it together and were still going.
Imagine my surprise, given that we had ridden pretty much out of sight of anyone else for the first half of the morning, when arriving in Chicken to a great crowd of ABRs rolling up within minutes. In fact, within half an hour (during which the BMW boys from the last episode had also rolled up) there must have been around 40 bikes and bikers chewing the fat and swigging the free coffee. And the good news was, from the Harley riders who had come east, we were back to tarmac again in less than 2 miles!
I took my time in Chicken, and enjoyed chatting to many like minded folk, but I was not going to stop here the night. I was heading for Tok, where I planned to stop at Youngs Motel, next to Fast Eddy´s restaurant – a famed must stop place for bikers. This would not have amounted to a great total distance this day but, as I had found in South America, poor weather and emotional moments seemed to impact on how much I could comfortably move in one day. And I had heard the weather was closing in again, so we rolled out of Chicken to the sight of many waves and congrats on the achievement from a great, though diverse bunch of people.
The road to Tok would have been a great rolling ride on a calm day, but that bad weather had indeed closed in and the surrounding hills were channelling the capricious wind into storm-force gusts. Arrival at Fast Eddy´s couldn´t have come soon enough, and after settling in to my room, I found myself sharing a beer and later dinner with those great (BMW) guys from Edelweiss / Motoquest Tours. They were doing a 2 week tour starting in Anchorage, riding out into the Yukon, around the pan-handle, through Whitehorse (where I had first seen them), up to Dawson, across the Top of the World, through to Fairbanks, then up the Dawson Highway into the arctic circle and Prudhoe Bay, before finishing back at Alaska´s capital. And what a capital tour that sounded.
Me, I treated myself to a lay-in and a rest day in Tok. I had to make a decision. I had completed my last ´must do´ but I had enough time remaining to do only one of my ´would really like to do´ tasks in Alaska. Ride the Dawson Highway into the Arctic Circle, or take the Road to McCarthy. Hmmm, I needed to think more on this. I could not afford to return the bike from Alaska, so that meant either a ride to Seattle or the 4 day ferry down. The latter was a little more costly, but saved time, and as that was now also at a premium, I needed to book myself a place on the boat – which leaves the Alaskan pan-handle towns of Haines and Skagway only once a week. Having made that booking, and also sorting my own flight home, I then counted back how many days I had left.
3 days only to ride around Alaska! How part of me envied the BMW guys, and how part of me was so glad to be going home! Was it to be the arctic circle or McCarthy? I only had the time for one, and I couldn´t decide... so I tossed a coin. No, I really did... threw it up in the air and everything. Left to the lap of the gods, I found myself sitting in Fast Eddy´s ordering dinner and planning the Road to McCarthy. And just then an anniversary edition BMW GS1200 Adventure pulled up outside, right next to my window seat. I know that bike, I thought, and as the rider pulled off his helmet and waved, I know that guy too I thought. Back in the midst of northern Chile´s desert, I met Guiermo from Argentina at a shady watering hole. We had different travel plans and differing timetables, but here he was rolling into Tok the same time as me months and continents later! Needless to say much catching up was done over dinner – what a lovely chap... what a great encounter! If you are interested in what he´s been upto, take a look at the link on the right to his website: la respuesta esta en el camino (the answer´s in the journey). Wise words.
An unremarkable start the following morning led to an unremarkable ride out from Tok. I had some distance to do today, Alaska being pretty big and all that, with not that many roads crossing it, I just had to dig in a go. But it I was not going long, before I was stopping again. An hour or two out of Tok and I was standing by the side of the road enjoying the most wonderful sight of a male moose having his morning feed – what an incredible animal – the sight of which set my mood up for the day.
A couple of hours later I was stopping at a general store, where I was instructed to help myself to coffee, take a seat, and join in with the local banter. Alaskan folk certainly enjoy a good joke, and seem generally well humoured – but there again, perhaps you have to be of a positive disposition when it drops to some minus 60 outside? The roads were, well, of mixed quality. Nowhere near the sort of standards you see in the lower 48 states, but there they don´t have the extremes of weather and low population density. But they were OK, and providing you were not in too much of a hurry, you can eat into the miles at a steady pace once you get into the zone!
It was, therefore, somewhat a bit of a jolt from my ´riding zone´ to come across a loaded KLR 650 on the side of the road, with an ABR wielding tools. We were not far from the start of the famed McCarthy Road – built with dirt and gravel atop an old copper mine rail line. A lovely Alaskan chap, retired and veteran ABR, was simply doing a routine chain adjustment having completed the run to McCarthy. But his advice and description of the road ahead gave me pause.
It seemed the entire road was in the process of being graded - where road workers dump fresh dirt and gravel onto the surface in a bid to even out pot holes and bumps. A good thing you might think, but when you only have 2 wheels the freely moving new surface provides for more excitement on a long ride than this ABR was looking for this day. Indeed, it had taken Mr KLR over 3 hours to do the 65 mile stretch, with all the roadworks etc involved. And he was not that impressed with the sights along the way either (seemed that much of the road was closed in by trees on both sides, so few moments to enjoy the views). If you are only going to McCarthy the once, he suggested, then you should fly and take in the glaciers on the way... so I did!
Recommendations from the flight company saw me getting a cheap place to stay in McCarthy. And with Idris parked up safe and sound at the airport, and $130 lighter, I was in the air for the most spectacular 30 minutes of air travel I have ever encountered... really! If you find yourself in this area, take a trip with Wrangel Mountain Air; you won´t be disappointed. Only seconds into the sky in the small 6 seater craft, and I could see that Mr KLR knew what he was talking about. And after coming into land, finding my bed at ´Brad´s´ place, and walking into McCarthy´s Bar – I finally felt I had come to the end of my journey.
Thought for the day
It was curious that despite my elation at reaching Alaska, I didn´t feel that sense of completion until I had arrived in McCarthy. And it was also curious that my final arrival in town was not on the back of Idris, but through the wing of a plane. It made sense though. The 20,000 mile solo run on the bike from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska was very much a bike challenge – but my arrival in McCarthy seemed more by way of completion of my mental journey.
The late, great Pete McCarthy´s outstanding book The Road to McCarthy was one of my key inspirations for reaching up from South America towards Alaska – and I felt it was fitting that fate dictated I make my stop and turn around here, in a town of my name, rather than at a signpost by the side of the road. It also helped that the town´s bar was jumping, stocked a most excellent McCarthy´s whiskey, and the people there didn´t so much as bat an eyelid as I flamed up the Cuban cigar I had been smuggling across borders since Colombia.
My trip was complete... I felt it in my bones, muscles, heart and mind. It was time to go home.