July 12: Dalton Broke My Keyboard

"Aieeeeeee!  Motocompy es muerto!"  That was my thought as I pushed the power button and received a SYSTEM DISK ERROR.  I’ve had problems with the computer before, but system disk stuff usually means death.  The story ends up well, but let me first tell you how I came to this point.  Two words: Dalton Highway.  The Dalton Highway, also known as Alaska State Route 11, is a road that leads from just north of Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, takes you through some of the most beautiful terrain you’ll ever see, and will never feel the soft touch of my motorcycle’s tires again.  I can’t remember three more challenging and rewarding days than the three that took me up and back on the Dalton Highway.  I’ll shall now try to summarize those days and the events that transpired therein.

I left Eielson AFB on the morning of the 9th and drove northwest up AK-2 to the point where it meets up with the Dalton Highway, some 80 miles north of Fairbanks.  The whole time I was wondering what I was going to be met with.  I had heard and read so much about this road that it had almost reach mythical proportions for me.  I finally got there and the gravel greeted me cheerily as if to say, "Don’t worry, you’ve ridden on gravel before, this won’t be a problem for you…(sinister laugh under breath)".  Indeed, I had ridden on gravel before and I felt fairly confident in my abilities to navigate said road surface.  The Dalton Highway broke me, and my bike, and my computer, and nearly my spirit.  I can’t count how many times I was certain I was going to crash/drop the bike/get a flat, etc.  I pulled into Coldfoot, AK, that afternoon desiring only two things: time away from my bike and a beer.  I found both.    The next day was even more difficult and beautiful.  I already told you all about the flat tire, but I didn’t tell you about the rain or the mud, or the crazy potholes, or the dramatic temperature drop to below freezing as I road across the barren tundra leading up to the coast.   The ride was certainly difficult but was also beautiful and even fun, at times.  I would be frustrated and tired, concentrating on the road and nothing else, when suddenly I was met with something that didn’t seem to fit in with my exasperation: a rainbow, fireweed (which is a purple flower that comes up in areas where there’s been a fire), a powerful river like the Yukon, or an amazing mountain in the distance.   It was as though God was giving me signs to help me break through my current frustration and appreciate everything around me. I crossed the Arctic Circle on the 9th and pass through the Brooks Range on the 10th.  Atigun Pass divides the vast coastal tundra plains and the inland boreal forest, and is both beautiful and eerie in its color and shape.

Hmmm…Ok, I’m starting to get long winded with this.  Let me try to speed things up a bit.  Sooooo, I road to Coldfoot on the first day.  Highlites from this ride: Yukon River, Arctic Circle (there was a sign posted here about a wolf nearby that had attacked a woman…I found out later that the same wolf had tried to run down a guy on a motorcycle), and fireweed.  The next day I woke up early, after trying to sleep through the lack of darkness, the presence of rain, and the intermittent yelping from the Mush Team Huskies in the woods nearby.  Fifty miles north of Coldfoot is where I got my flat, but just after that is when I got to Atigun Pass and then started descending towards the coast.  The crazy thing about this road is that there will be brief spots of decent asphalt or hard packed/sealed gravel…just enough to lull you into thinking that the worst is behind you and then, wham! potholes a’plenty.  On more than one occasion I would hit potholes large enough to nearly shake the handlebars out of my hands.  Highlites of the second day: Atigun Pass, beautiful blue skies with lush green tundra beneath (it reminded me of the Windows XP default desktop picture with the clouds and rolling hills…just way cooler and not so digital).  I stayed at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel there in Deadhorse…a first rate establishment, sortof.  Deadhorse exists only to support the oilfields up there and there are no actual residents, just temporary workers.  I stayed where they stay.  The Arctic Ocean was cold, (imagine that?) but it was fun to get in and join the Arctic Polar Bear club.

I met another couple of bikers that day, Andy and Scott, from Ontario, Canada.  They were on sport bikes, also not very suited for the dirt/gravel/mud road, and we decided to all ride back together the next day and to ride all the way back to Fairbanks, skipping the overnight in Coldfoot.  We were all ready to be done with the Dalton.  Scott and Andy were great guys and were just starting an Iron Butt challenge to drive from Deadhorse, AK, to Key West, FL.  We began our ride the next day at about 10:45 and quickly put a good amount of miles behind us.  Then the rain set in.  A few equations here: If "Rain + dirt and gravel = mud" and "mud + motorcycle without dirt bike tires = instability" then "brian + mud = unhappily unstable".  Check me on that…my algebraic rules might be a bit off, but you get the point.  Scott and I nearly went down on a number of occasions.  I was right behind him and every time I saw his back tire fishtail I would brace myself because I knew I was next.  Apart from the mud, the roads were in much better condition than they were the day before.  The road crews are constantly wetting and grading the roads (fun if you get behind the wetting truck…see above equations) and things were much smoother for our trip back.  We pulled back into Fairbanks at about 4am and promptly went to sleep.  The 24-hour sunlight helps for making long rides like that but it seemed to hit us all at once.  The day wasn’t all easy, though.  Scott’s bike kept overheating because his radiator was packed with mud.  Andy got a flat.  Motocompy got beaten to a pulp and stopped working.  I had to take him completely apart at Coldfoot and when I did I found numerous loose or missing screws, and a disconnected hard drive.  I pulled out the keyboard later on and found two of the keys had been shaken off.  All in all, the damage done by Dalton to myself or the other folks on bikes that I came into contact with on my trip up amounted to: 2 flat tires, a cracked crank case, and some cracked handle bars (from when one guy went down.  He was OK, just got caught in some mud).   That’s all in a three day period… We woke up after our long ride, ate breakfast and took our bikes to a car wash to pressure wash all the mud off of the radiators, exhaust systems, lights…everything.  That took a fair amount of time but when we were done we said our goodbyes and parted ways, Andy and Scott were heading for Whitehorse in Canada and I pointed my newly cleaned bike towards Denali.  It was a good ride down there (I mean, heck, the entire road was paved) and the park was beautiful,  I couldn’t actually see Mt. McKinley from the 75 mile viewpoint because of the weather, but I did see some beautiful landscape and a moose.  I spent the night in Cantwell Junction and am heading out onto the Denali highway shortly…yet another gravel road, but this one should be a bit shorter and better maintained.

Ok, so I could write or talk about this experience for much longer, but my guess is that it’s much more interesting to me since it’s so fresh and vivid in my mind’s eye and that my lame description isn’t going to quite do it justice.  Anyways, here’s some pictures from those few days (more on my Flickr page) as well as a video from our passage of Atigun.  Most of my other videos would make you sick from all the shaking and bouncing around.  Plus, there was usually mud, dust or rain stuck to my windshield…or the camera was shaken off of its mount.  Not the best conditions for movie production.  One more video from the Arctic coast.  Notice the weird layer of clouds that comes down to just above the horizon.

oh no Atigun Upcoming Arthur Atigun Pass Mud Brakes Major surgery Fireweed + Rainbow Freedom! Moose RIght here.

GPS track of me exiting the Brooks Range and heading into Deadhorse, AK is here.

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