In 2007, I made what is going to be my one-and-only trip to Alaska by motorcycle. Lots of things went wrong with that trip, mostly because I was burned out, discouraged, frustrated, and clueless about what to do next. My employer, the late-not-particularly-great McNally Smith College of Music (previously the very great Musictech College) had fired my boss, Scott Jarrett, very likely the best thing that ever happened to that school outside of the Director, Michael McKern, who hired both Scott and me and the cream of the school’s technology group. Scott is one of the closest, best friends I’ve ever had. And when he was knifed in the back by a pack of low-life, lucky-beyond-belief academic goobers and the two eponymous nitwits who were doing their best to turn their unearned golden goose into a pile of ashes I was torn between quitting the best job I’d ever had and going my own way or keeping the job and going my own way inside their totally chaotic “organization.” I’d planned the Alaska trip as part of my usual “system” of isolating myself to figure out hard stuff.
As I explained in an earlier essay, my wife had “plans” for how my solo trip would be curated by a friend of hers who was also trying to organize a ride to Alaska. He’d been there several times before, if I remember right, and had an agenda. His agenda and mine had almost nothing in common.
After a series of clusterfucks, incredibly long days that often wore on for more than 1,000 miles, and a decision that I didn’t make that resulted in me being somewhere I didn’t want to be and a crash that prevented me from going where I wanted to go later, I ended up crossing the Copper River by ferry out of Dawson City and riding to the Top of the World border crossing without a US passport (another long story). As an Alaska tourist site explains it, “The length of the Top of the World Highway is 175 miles/281 km and connects Dawson City in the Yukon to the Alaska Highway at the Tetlin Junction. The Highway is only open from mid-May to mid-October, however, it has been known to close earlier due to snow. Many travelers use the Top of the World Highway when driving between Fairbanks, Alaska and Dawson City, Yukon, which is 398 miles/640 km. The distance from Tok Alaska to Dawson City is 187 miles and the distance from Dawson City to Chicken, Alaska is 106 miles/171 km."
The Poker Creek Port of Entry was open when we arrived there on June 10th, but G.W. Bush had changed the rules for Canadian-US travel shortly before my planned departure time and I’d decided to risk it hoping my expedited passport would get to me before I needed it. Worst case, the US wouldn’t let me back in and I’d have to settle for being Canadian. I could live with that. Hell, at the time I was considering taking a teaching job at the Banff School of Fine Arts in the desperate hope of moving to Canada before Bush trashed what was left of the country and economy. So, the threat of not being able to “go home” was pretty weak. In the picture (above) you can see Michael doing the paperwork to cross from Canada to Alaska. When I rolled up to the window, the Border Patrol guy pretty much told me to go back to Canada.
I backed up to where you see me in that picture, hauled out a camp chair, my eBook, and a canteen and granola and proceeded to get set to stay awhile. Mike, now on the other side of the border was perplexed. Worst case, I’d ride back to Dawson, find a campsite (all the hotels were booked for the Dawson City Music Festival), and worry about my next move when I felt better. I didn’t have to wait that long. There wasn’t a lot of traffic through that remote crossing and the border guy was curious enough to walk over and talk to me. When he realized I was there for a while, he started asking questions about my passport, where I lived, where I worked, and what the hell I was doing in his place blocking non-existent traffic? While we were talking, a couple of guys came through the border, twice, heading toward Canada and coming back an hour or so later. One of the guys had driven his Hardly off of a cliff and called a buddy to bring his truck and trailer to carry back the remains. I have no idea how they managed to rescue that half-ton hippobike.
So, while we watched the two guys and their load slide down the hill toward Chicken, AK, we continued to talk about my “predicament,” which was more of a problem, I guess, for him than me. At that moment, I hurt badly enough that I would have settled for a nice hole with some dirt tossed over me. My list, discovered several days later when I finally found a doc in Valdez, included several broken ribs, a separated shoulder, and a fractured index-finger metacarpal on my right hand. Pain focuses you mind, though. The stress from my situation was dramatically lower than it had been for the last year or so and I was beginning to put a lot of things in perspective. “Finally,” as Mrs. Day would say.
Growing bored with our stalemate, the border guy got more aggressive/inquisitive in his questions. His last question was “Where were you born?” My answer, “******,” (concealed to protect my personal data) was a godawful eastern Kansas town that I’m sure no self-respecting terrorist would know about or pick for any reason. He waved at the crossing gate, which did not need to be raised for me to get around it, and said something like “Get outta here.”
And I did.
Michael was waiting not that far from the crossing and seemed to be relieved that we were still traveling together. I think my wife had somehow made him feel responsible for my welfare. He is that kinda guy. The US side of the Top of the World Highway is/was a mud trail. The Canadian side was a pretty decent gravel and asphalt road. It had been raining for days when we crossed and headed down that 4500-foot section of the mountains and it was slipperier than hell. I saw several trucks and motorcycles sunk to their axles and beyond when they had missed a turn. Usually, there was no stopping to help, either. Either because the road was too narrow, too slick, or the dumbass trucker behind me was intent on tailgating me until he slipped off into a ditch himself, I more often just had to keep going. With my injuries, there wasn’t much I could do to help anyone, anyway.
The first stop on the US side is Chicken, AK. There isn’t much to see or do in Chicken, except in my case to borrow a hose and blast off a thick coating of mud and clay from my ‘Stich, boots, and the bike. The rear brake was totaled from being coated by mud, but the disk mostly seemed to be newly “machined” by the abrasive material. So, I put a new set of pads on the rear wheel and cleaned things up as best I could. We had lunch at the Chicken Cafe and headed out toward Glenallen. And Glennallen is where we spent the night in a converted railroad car that had been used as housing for the guys who built the Alaska Pipeline. The next day, Michael headed for the ferry to Juneau and I met up with my son-in-law’s cousin.