October 9, 2013, Category: Alaska, Travel

We ride the Denali Highway: one of the most famous off road adventures in Alaska. Rain, mud, and wind make it a challenge. And our day is not without mishaps…

Day 13: The Denali Highway

Check out the novel: Trudge On, Soul

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The icy wilderness of Alaska is the perfect place to lose yourself. But Warren doesn’t want to lose himself. He wants to lose someone else.
The book, Trudge On, Soul, is the result of three long years of late nights, critique groups, and editing. If you haven't read the blog, I'd suggest you stop reading and at least click here to read the preview chapters of the book. The blog and pictures have spoilers and the book is a much better read. Think of the website as a documentary, and the book as an engaging movie. Triumph Motorcycles did an article on my Adventure here. A Photo Album of the trip is available here. Click here if you want to jump to the start of the blog with an index of each day.

The Adventure Continues...


I woke up to the same sound that put me to sleep, the steely rapping of hundreds of raindrops pelting my tent. I was warm and dry, we weren’t in a hurry, and Mike wasn’t making a sound next door so I rolled over content to stay warm and dry for a bit longer. It lasted until the rain suddenly died way down. Without a word, Mike and I both jumped into action. By the time I got out of my tent, dressed and with my sleeping bag stuffed, he was already starting to pull down his tent. The rain had baited us and we fell for it. Once we were out in the open, it didn’t hold back.

DSCN0551I managed to get my riding gear on before my inner layers soaked up too much water but I had to wring my tent like a rag to try and get as much water out as possible before cramming it into the sack. It was already shivering but I knew once we started riding my heated gear would chase away the chill. Other than my hands getting pickled, there were really no drawbacks to riding in the cold and rain.

Anxious and nervous for the Denali Highway, we stopped for gas and a snack for breakfast. This is were my morning took a major turn for the worse. In our rush to leave camp, I hadn’t mounted my GPS. Now it was nowhere to be found. After a frantic search, a review of my pictures (to see when I had removed it from my bike), and running countless scenarios I came to one conclusion. In my rush to catch the shuttle yesterday I had forgotten to take it off my bike and pack it away safe. During the day, it had been stolen.

DSCN0552We stopped by the park again to check lost and found, but that turned up nothing. I tried to put it behind me. “Don’t let it ruin even 1 hour of your trip, War. It’s just a GPS.” But it was difficult. I finally resigned myself to allow 30 minutes of frustration, grumbling, and pouting. I cursed myself for forgetting, I’m usually so good about stuff like that. My blood burned that somebody had actually taken it from my bike. For a while I felt like I didn’t trust anyone. Hmmm, did Mike take it? And I mourned the lost of my awesome, rugged GPS that had tons of maps on it. It also had all the campsites along our trip route to help us locate our stops.

I did break free at one point when we passed two cow moose on the side of the road. We splashed past and they didn’t seem to mind us at all. Just before we turned on to the Denali Highway I gassed up one more time even though we’d only traveled 30ish miles. I didn’t want to take any chances.

I was still kicking around the GPS hard in my head (I had to get the most out of my half hour). After my time limit passed I did pretty well but still occasionally fell into spats of remorse. I told myself it was a good lesson. Possessions are fleeting and meaningless, in the end. I need to get over my hold on money and stuff because I’ve never liked that about myself. Grow from it Warren. Let it go. Enjoy every minute of the trip and let this pass. Take this lesson it and become a better person. This was a good thing, I needed it. Yes, I know it is a stretch, but I may as well make it positive, right?

DSCN0571The Denali Highway is a dirt road that cuts across the belly of Alaska between Fairbanks and Anchorage. If you want to go east or west, you can take your chances on it or go north or south and make a large loop around. Although it makes a great shortcut, we hadn’t chosen it because we wanted quick route east. We chose it because we had Adventure bikes. And what use is an adventure bike unless you get it dirty, right?

Remember the story about that wolf that chased the biker? That was this road. And despite the rain, my stolen GPS, and my anxiety about off-roading on a heavy bike without knobby tires; I was excited to leave the pavement for 120 or so miles.

WP_20130828_001Picking the right tire is critical for a trip like this. A tire ideal for off-road will not be as reliable on pavement (and vice versa). Knowing most of our trip was on road, we had picked tires that fared well on gravel and excelled on pavement. Mud, sand, and snow (gasp!) would not be kind to us. And on the start of the drive we hit some deep gravel and mud that demanded enough concentration that I forgot all about wolves, GPS’s, and rain. But, those rough spots were few and far between, the road really wasn’t too bad. Potholes were the worst part of the road. They seemed to suddenly open their mouths up out of nowhere right as we passed over the top of them.

DSCN0569Although it was fun and challenging to ride the rougher parts of the road, it meant less time for watching scenery. The land was vast: rolling hills of shrub, rivers and creeks, ponds and lakes, distant mountains. And tons of moose…signs. Signs of moose everywhere (road signs and habitat signs). But not an actual moose anywhere. Nor Caribou. Or anything else. A road often teeming with animals, in what looks like animal Disneyland, and we didn’t see a single wildlife. Blame it on hunting season. We saw campers, trailers, and 4Wheelers also out looking for moose. From what we could see, they weren’t having any more luck than we were.

WP_20130827_020After a few hours, the rain must have realized it couldn’t break us because it gave up. We hit road construction a time or two where the ground was soft and deep. Our bikes slid around a bit but without incident. On several clear spots we were able to fly along pretty fast. It was during these moments that the potholes liked to suddenly open their jaws to try and swallow us just as we passed over them.

DSCN0580Often, when we saw the potholes it was too late to do anything except, BAM, smack right into them. It was like stumbling into a mine field. Mike lost it on one such occasion. He’d had enough of the bouncing, jarring, and thrashing and became an evil laughing demon that reminded of the movie Forest Gump (when Lieutenant Dan is hanging from the mast cursing God during the storm). “That’s the best pothole you got? Come on baby, bring it on! Oh yeah? Well, I loved that! Do it again harder this time biatch!” It was a great show, motorcycle bouncing and weaving, Mike yelling and laughing like a demon. I wish I had it on video. The road took a heavy toll on Mike. He still hadn’t recovered when, hours later, we stopped for gas.

At one one of our stops about midway across,  I had to lay on a rock to try and work a knot out of my upper back. It generally bugs me when I ride for over an hour but now it felt like a pair of vice grips had locked down deep in my muscle. 600mg of iBuprofen and 10 minutes of work on a nobby rock helped.

DSCN0555I dug some jerky out from deep in my saddle bag and, low and behold, my GPS! I don’t know if crack cocaine could match the same sudden thrill I felt at that moment. I cheered and held it above my head as if I’d just ripped out the heart of a Kraken. Not only was it in the wrong bag, it had even slipped down to the very bottom. In my rush I hadn’t forgot, but I had put it somewhere in the wrong bag. This gave me a lot to think about. I realized I got to eat my cake and have it too, which is always a sweet deal. I didn’t have to return the emotional work I’d done earlier just because I had found it. I mean, did I? Then I realized that I wouldn’t have celebrated so much had I really learned the lesson I thought I had. Had I really learned, I would have even chucked it far into the river. I decided that was what I had to do. I turned and hucked it as far as I could into the river. There, lesson truly learned!

No, I didn’t. I’m not that detached from my possessions. I continued to do the happy dance that I had found it. I also apologized to Mike, I told him I had started to suspect he had stolen it and hawked it off on the GPS black market when I wasn’t paying attention. He said, “how do you know I didn’t, but then felt guilty and put it back?” I knew it! And now I was more determined than ever to steal his REI chair.

We hit some heavy winds on the tail end of the highway, which coupled with the gravel roads gave us a bit of a challenge. I was very glad to hit pavement again for the last 20 or so miles to Paxton. We passed a gas station but I had plenty of gas. We’d just gas up in Paxton.

Here are clips from the ride, most of it highly compressed. It is all taken after the weather (and my GPS-regulated mood) had improved.

We hit Paxton and couldn’t find the gas station. I didn’t panic, the Milepost said there was gas here. So we stopped and I went in to a restaurant to ask. I walked into what looked like a very run down elementary school cafeteria. All of the chairs were upside on the tables except two. And in those two sat the old man and banjo player from Deliverance.

“Excuse me, can you tell me where I can get gas?” (Insert the Deliverance bango jingle here.)

They looked at each other and then the banjo player spit while the old man laughed and said, “Gas? Why there ain’t no gas in Paxton!” I thanked them and cautiously walked out the door to the sound of their evil laughter.

Well, at least that’s how I told Mike it went down. For the rest of the trip we’d user our most gruff and evil voice to say, “Muahahaha, there ain’t no gas in Paxton. Why, there hasn’t been gas in Paxton since [insert random funny anecdote here, must be different every time].”

We decided not to backtrack to the gas station we’d passed and took our chances on the 70 miles left to Glenallen. We each had a spare gallon so there wasn’t really a problem. But I had to take off my side bags to get to mine and the thought thought of all that work was almost as scary as running out of gas. But risking it and going forward was better than backtracking and driving an extra 40 miles.

DSCN0579The first gas station we found looked promising but it turned out they were out of gas. Then, once we hit the Richardson highway, I was sure we’d found a gas station when we saw a small town off to the left. I saw a large church so I told Mike by law there had to be a gas station. “If you have a church, you have to have a gas station, it’s in regulation 49.” So we turned in, and stopped at the corner. We couldn’t see a single soul. Two dogs barked and salivated behind a fence.

“Should we turn around?” Mike asked.

The dogs charged, there was no fence. “Yes!” But it was too late, I swear I thought those dogs were going to take down Mike (good thing I let him go first). But they just tormented him while he turned around and we got back on the highway.

My “miles remaining until empty” calculation was at zero for the last 15 miles. Mike’s gas light had been on for at least 20. But we rolled up to the pumps with our engines running and hadn’t even had to use our spare gas. We had made a large circle. This was the same place we gassed up the day my bike had the reverse throttle and idle issue as we made our way to Anchorage.

We stopped 20 miles short of Chitina, which had been our goal. We found a nice campsite and it was early enough to enjoy the daylight and an evening that wasn’t too cold or wet.

 DSCN0586WP_20130828_009

We strung our tents out in the trees to dry before setting them up. The laundry room had power so I took my surge protector and plugged in a mass of batteries that I’m sure exceeded the fire code. Then we cooked dinner (along with a dinner guest…that we didn’t feed by the way) and roasted marshmallows. We had nearly a full bag of ‘mellows left and decided to burn the rest which turned our fire pit into a gooey marshmallow lava volcano. Mike was concerned that bears liked marshmallow lava and I assured him they did. So he started a stick on fire to keep the bears back and that I got out my camera out to play around with slow shutter speeds and my headlamp.

IMG_2638WP_20130828_015

As I closed out the day in my tent, I wrote the following in my journal:

The day was filled with rough edges yet it was glorious. I wouldn’t change a thing. We road the Denali Highway! We didn’t even ride 300 miles today and it felt like 1,000. We are 20 miles from Chitina, where the pavement ends and another long stretch of off-roading begins. According to the article, the road to Kennecott requires an expert level of riding skill. I’m not an expert, argh. Why do I do these things? Because they are exhilarating. And once I’ve done them I feel like a million bucks!

Click here to continue to Day 14


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One thought on “Day 13: The Denali Highway

  • By Liz - Reply

    I’m laughing so much, you’ve got me crying. The GPS found happy dance is the best!

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