The Top of the World Highway had given me some confidence taking my Vespa on rougher terrain, but from Fairbanks I wanted to ride at least to the Arctic Circle on the Dalton Highway. I anticipated the stretch ahead to be the most challenging – the sheer distance without a soul in sight was intimidating. I went back and forth as to how far north I would travel, and to this day I’m unsure what informed my final decision. Maybe it was sleep debt. Maybe it was FOMO. Maybe it was hubris.
As you may have guessed from the title, this doesn’t end particularly well.
Renting the couch in a common area meant sunlight poured in at all hours, but it wasn’t without its merits: I woke to the smell of coffee being brewed practically bedside. A guest from Rhode Island commented, “You could run a Dunk with coffee like that!” I was ready to rush in defense of Billie’s roast, until I remembered that’s Rhode Island for a compliment.
Billie’s Backpackers was full of things that chime and chirp, and music or NPR on the radio. It was clearly a home as well as a business. It’s always a relief to find a hostel that genuinely embraces independent travelers – especially after Dawson City.
The real shock for me was big-city shopping. Once the wintery mix let up, I resupplied at American chains like Safeway and AutoZone. I needed an H4 bulb; a kind man at Delta Junction told me my headlight was out, but I hadn’t noticed in the constant sunlight.
I should have felt at home back in the US. I was back among familiar currency, and Americans with whom I supposedly share customs and a value system. But I felt as foreign as ever. Perhaps I’m most at home out of my element after all. Or it’s just the growing divide between my particular lifestyle and those who choose a more conventional path. Maybe it’s just Alaska.
I hadn’t seen internet speeds like this since Vancouver, but data must have still been priced per gig – an explanation for why Blockbusters were still alive in Fairbanks. Fairbanks also appeared to have the highest concentration of Thai restaurants I’d ever seen outside of Thailand. That said, if you only visited the downtown you’d believe the town’s primary pastime was alcoholism.
At the Cookie Jar Restaurant with the military kids, I introduced myself to a Beerock: ground beef, onion, sauerkraut, and cheddar baked into whole wheat dough. It’s reminiscent of a calzone, or an oversized minced beef bun.
Although the internet could finally keep up with a FaceTime call, it was difficult talking to Fred that evening. The difference in timezone and widening gap in shared history was piling up. After he went to bed, I poured myself a heavy glass of wine (leftover from wine day!), caught up on social media, and allowed myself to revel in longing.
What a life it must be to traipse the world with your loved one, a constant presence amidst an ever flowing stream of new places, new languages, new cultures, new circumstances. I envied the ride reports of traveling couples, in the same breath I relished the independence of going solo – it’s the only what I know how to go, anyhow. I still wonder if having access to such an individual would dull my drive to share travel to a broader audience online, but it’s a moot point. There was no loved one with me except my bike, and I’d go on with her until one or both of us breaks.
With that pity party out of the way, I readied myself for the Dalton.
Before I set off, Billie’s son, Art, asked when he should call emergency services. I knew I only had enough fuel to get as far as Coldfoot, so it seemed wise to tell him I would only overnight.
Before reaching my first refuel point, I recall getting stuck behind a road grader. On that particular road in that condition I didn’t feel confident in passing for a while, though a muddy van lingering behind me eventually went for it.
Come to find out at Yukon River Camp, the van was a tour group that included Soo Young (I knew I had his name somewhere), my friend from the Top of the World Highway! He decided to spare his camper van the ravages of the Dalton and left it in Fairbanks. Instead, he joined an arctic tour group. Rachel, leading the tour, informed me I was the talk of CB radio.
Grader: This sounds crazy, but I think I just saw a Vespa on the Dalton.
Rachel: Yep, you did. There’s a blue Vespa following you on the Dalton.
Then Rachel passed us both. After lunch, they would go on to the Arctic Circle sign before turning around.
Research revealed several free campsites by the Arctic Circle sign, or more free sites roughly 70 miles on at Coldfoot Camp. The skies were holding up and I was feeling pretty good, so I kept riding.
Over dinner, a couple in a car regaled me with stories of how beautiful Atigun pass was that day, even though they picked up 3 flat tires since arriving in Alaska. I hadn’t considered going so far north, but I had a spare tire with me, along with a patch kit and Ride-On tire sealant already applied. Atigun pass was only 70 miles on, if I woke early in the morning like I did anyway due to the sunlight it would be possible… I decided to sleep on the decision.
The weather was clear in the morning. I decided to go as far as Atigun Pass for the views, return to Coldfoot to refuel, and then take advantage of the long daylight to make my way back to Fairbanks. It would be an exceptionally high mileage day, but I was up early anyhow and feeling rider-fit. Nevermind the hidden dairy in the salmon potato soup from Yukon River Camp that made a surprise reappearance at 2am, interrupting my already diminished sleep with cramps and a dash to the bathroom! I was fine now! I had enough leftover reindeer sausage and tater tots to get me back to Fairbanks! I could ride all day!
As I descended out of the snow and clouds on the other side of the summit, the thrill of accomplishment coursed through every fiber. I was utterly elated, my spirits were up in the clouds. I generally see myself as plodding and slow, but I’d made it. This was farther than I’d ever imagined taking my Vespa.
But this was as far as I’d go.
For many people, riding Alaska is a once in a lifetime experience. For whatever reason at the time, I felt I was riding as if I would come back. In retrospect, it seems ridiculous to go as far as Atigun and turn around, but I’d already built in a limit for myself. I reminded myself I wasn’t here to just check off a point on a list. Besides, Art would call emergency services if I didn’t arrive back.
I hated doubling back, but the hard part was over. So I thought.
That may have been my undoing, thinking the hard part was over. Still gripped in the rush of excitement, I pulled over to take a photo and calm down. The high felt fantastic, but I recognized this was how I dropped my bike shortly after reaching West Quoddy Head.
I chugged my way south again along a straight stretch of road that had been freshly sprayed down with calcium chloride. It was like riding on clay. A small mound had been pushed up in the center of the road, and for a moment I considered trying to surmount it to ride on the dry side of the road – no one was coming down the other side. Nah, it’s not that bad, I thought, I’ll probably wipe out trying to get over this giant ridge in the middle. I’ve ridden through worse and I’ve already done this section. The pavement will start again anytime now. So I held steady, with visions of my refuel break in Coldfoot in my head.
That’s when it started: my old enemy, a front end wobble. Maybe it was a rut in the road. Maybe I was overconfident and despite my steady speed, now that my tires were slick from snow and sealant I was going too fast for the road condition. Or I was overtired, having not slept well for too long, and my entire decision making process to go as far as Atigun was flawed. Maybe I was too rushed in the first place, trying to cram all this in before a family trip at the end of June. Maybe I should have tried to surmount the muddy crest in the center, ride on the dry side after all. Maybe I hadn’t calmed down enough. Maybe maybe maybe.
I tried to rescue it, but too quickly the oscillations became stronger and propagated into my back end. When I felt the rear tire lose traction, I knew it was going down. For a horrifying moment my entire bike danced as if on ice, traveling on a vector independent of wheel alignment, with me perched helplessly atop it.
I don’t remember exactly how the bike went down. Low side low side low side… I told myself, but the bars were ripped from my hands in an instant. Instinctively, I threw both my hands to my helmet and tucked for impact. I hit the ground on my right shoulder, the wind knocked out of me, and rolled and slid to a stop on my butt.
One moment you’re flying, the next you’re hitting the ground. The truth is, everything could end at any moment. It’s a truth everyone has to ignore to function, and it goes doubly for motorcyclists. You just hope it isn’t your moment, not yet.
For a surreal moment after I picked myself up from the ground, my music still played in my helmet. I shut it off and checked my limbs. Operational and accounted for. I ran to my bike and lifted it, gritting my teeth through the pain, and set it carefully on its side stand. With shaky hands, I fished 800mg of ibuprofen from my bags and pounded it. The ammo cans had been ripped off (unsurprised, they’re only lightly bolted on), but I could bungee them back on until Coldfoot, I thought, and sort it out back in Fairbanks where there were hardware stores. Then I tried to put it on its center stand, and screamed in pain. Something felt…wrong.
Through layers of thermals and leather, I checked over my right collarbone again, more closely. There it was, a bump. I would not be riding back to Fairbanks today. I couldn’t believe it, I’d pulled an Alton Brown.
There was no one in sight, except a grader (pictured above) who could not help me. I considered riding to Coldfoot before my adrenaline wore out. It was only 30 or so miles away, my cruise assist would be crucial. I needed to collect my belongings either way.
Then I saw a pickup truck coming my way. Fuck this, I thought, and waved my good arm wildly.
Thankfully, Mark stopped for me. He helped load my things into his truck, and agreed to deliver me to Coldfoot. My hero even offered the aid of booze and legal herb, but I wanted to remain clear-headed.
“Is it bleeding?” he asked.
“I don’t want to know yet, but I don’t feel any wetness or additional warmth.”
A mile down the road, we found my Gasolina can.
The irony is that the day before, as wind pushed sheets of freezing rain down the mountain towards me, I thought to myself, “These road conditions are no joke, I better be careful.” I am not thrilled to add my bike to the list of Dalton casualties.
Well, I hated doubling back, and now I didn’t have to.
At Coldfoot, the kind postmaster did up an impromptu sling and laid out my options: a bus would depart tonight, for a bumpy 10 hour drive to Fairbanks. Or I might be able to get a spot on a private flight around 4pm. As for my bike? Mark might be able to pick it up after his workday… or…
Sometime in 2009 – May 28, 2017. Farther than a Vespa ever thought it would go, Serenity figured she’s seen all that she could see. She belongs to the Dalton now, I thought to myself.
I gathered my belongings for the plane. After my up close encounter with the Dalton, everywhere I walked I left a little puff of dust, like Pig-Pen from the Peanuts. To this day, I still find caked on dust from the Dalton on my belongings, like the corner of the camera I was wearing around my neck at the time (my Nikon AW110 still works, truly shockproof!).
The plane wouldn’t depart for several hours. I’d forgotten how much waiting you do when you don’t have a bike. Waiting for buses, ferries, cabs, planes…I was spoiled on my bike. It merely compounded my misery, but there was another feeling… a feeling I am a bit embarrassed to admit.
A small part of me felt… relief. No more manic weather checking. No more camping in the cold, putting layers on layers. No more rain gear and armor and leather. No more thinking ahead about making reservations for places that fill up early. No more counting miles to gas, measuring my reserves for endurance. No more checking in with Fred on Spot or FaceTime. I don’t know when this lifestyle became so tiresome, but there would be no more of it for a while. The accident would usher in an entirely new set of hurt and difficulties, but I must have been much more weary and compromised than I was aware of at the time, that somewhere in the painful mix of emotions I found a tiny part of me felt relief. I had overextended myself, much farther than I realized.
I rushed this trip.
When you’re crawling along the ground, thoroughly in the moment, it’s difficult to get a sense of what kind of ground you’ve covered. Looking down from a plane, you’re gifted with a new perspective, a sense of scale.
These are the mountain ranges I rode through. This is the terrain I covered.
When you look at a road map of Alaska, you see the portions for automobiles barely extend over the lower quarter of the state. The rest is wilderness, fly-in only, on small propeller planes such as this one.
I would learn later that at least one of these small planes crash every year around Atigun pass. There’s an unusual draft caused by the mountains, so I was told. In spite of the excruciating pain caused by even the slightest jostle, I admired the view and our plane landed safely in Fairbanks – paradoxes of pain and beauty.
Let’s fast-forward past the boring parts in the ER, and skip to the part where I learned the only orthopedic surgeons in Fairbanks were on vacation until June 15th. I wasn’t going to wait, so I got the refund for my Alaska Ferry ticket and booked a flight out of town. Billie went ahead and moved me to a private ground floor room for my last night in Fairbanks. She is the kindest.
With one good arm, I sorted out which things would come with me and jettisoned everything else. Joe dug up some cardboard boxes from the garage. My ukulele went to Heidi, Billie’s daughter, who was learning to play and helped me drop off my other boxes at Fedex and USPS. I couldn’t get to a grocery store, so I hung around the hostel eating leftovers, waiting for my flight.
A hitchhiker checked in at the hostel. He’d found work along the haul road for years, and shared that truckers had nicknames for many of the turns on the Elliot and Dalton, like “Oh Shit Corner,” “Beaver Slide,” or simply, “The Rollercoaster.”
“The Dalton does weird things to cars and bikes,” he assured me.
It was a small comfort, when I felt defensive for potentially being seen as incompetent – I’m not a reckless rider, nor am I a noob. I just wasn’t careful enough this time.Before I took off, a British military expedition that started in Tierra del Fuego blew through.
When the Brits departed in the morning for their final leg to Deadhorse, I found myself on the other side of the rider and those-left-behind divide. I checked the weather and told them everything I could about the portion I’d seen, even though I knew they’d seen more swash-buckling adventure in less time that I ever had. They also had the benefit of dedicated training, two medics, and a mechanic in the party, plus the endorsement of the British Armed Forces to my…well, just me trying to get by wearing all the hats. Still, I couldn’t help but tell them, “Be careful. Get there safely.”
And that was it. I was off to the airport. What was left of my life that wasn’t on the side of the Dalton, was packed into a bulk toilet paper box, a desktop printer box, and a single flat-rate shipper. I lived so light and fast, my life could be shipped across the continent for about $150, and the rest carried on one good shoulder.
Not exactly how I wanted to remember this leg of the journey, but there it is.