October 19, 2013, Category: Alaska, Travel

Another one of the great Alaskan back-road adventures: the Top of the World Highway. The toughest road of the trip. Brutal.

Day 15: Top of the World Highway

Check out the novel: Trudge On, Soul

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...

DSCN0645Today marked the third straight day of riding through prime Alaskan wilderness without seeing wildlife (we saw something cross the road but it was too far to identify). I saw Mike lumber at one point, which almost counts. And we saw approximately 50 dead caribou, but that doesn’t even almost count.

Today was also the most brutal day of riding on our entire three week trip. We spent 10 hours riding 300 miles. What started in sunshine ended in a torrent. What began on pavement morphed into dirt, rocks, and muck as slick as ice. So in other words, the Top of the World Highway was everything we hoped it would be (except for wildlife). I wish I would have kept taking pictures and GoPro video when it got bad but I was too busy concentrating on the road. So the pictures aren’t the best in this post and I don’t have coverage of the worst moments, dangit.


But as I said, we started the day with sunshine in the sky and in the forecast. A storm threatened Dawson City but we’d be there and gone before it even came close. We woke up, geared up, and filled up with another hearty Red Eagle Lodge breakfast. Then we rolled down the road on a cool, brisk, but sunny morning anxious to see a highway so amazing that just mentioning it made a grown woman squeal with excitement.

My new vDDDideo project2We traveled out on the same stretch of road where my throttle cable had snapped during our rainy trip in. Although it was barely over a week back, remembering it required that I travel back through so much adventuring that the handful of days seemed like an entire lifetime ago. It still amazes me how full our days were. Every single one of them.

Without clouds and rain to block our view, we were able to see everything we missed on the way in (except for the wildlife, of course, we still didn’t see that). It is amazing how different the same stretch of land can appear. One day limited by rain and haze so that only a handful of trees are visible on each side of the road, and then another with the lid popped off to expose two massive peaks, thick forests, and mile after mile of gorgeous scenery.

My new video project2We passed Tok, turned onto the Top of the World Highway, and passed truck after truck returning from the hunt. They were loaded with camping gear, 4Wheelers, and up to five sets of antlers hanging off dead caribou. Once the pavement ended, we ran into campsites and groups of hunters along the roadside with rifles on their backs. We passed caribou being gutted, skinned, and butchered. No wonder we didn’t see any live animals!

DSCN0641Despite the lack of live animals, the drive was yet another spectacular display of Alaskan wilderness. A light cloud layer smoothed over the sun’s glare which made the early fall colors bold and vibrant. The dirt road we followed wound and carved through the forest along rivers and mountainsides. My visor was open so I could feel the cool, fresh air against my face. With one hand on the throttle I leaned back on my bedroll and kicked my feet up onto the highway pegs and soaked it up. Until we hit Chicken.

WP_20130830_005Chicken, Alaska. Population 7. Named Chicken because the prospectors couldn’t pronounce the name of the common bird the town was to be named after (a ptarmigan). They just called the birds chickens, and so that also became the name of the town. We stopped in Chicken, took some pictures, and grabbed some snacks.

We ran through our typical afternoon routine (caffeine, jerky, and trail mix) and headed out. Rain started to drizzle and the roads got ugly.

My son rides a ninja. Before we left for the day, he texted me the same phrase he hears from me every time he heads out, “Remember, everyone out there is trying to kill you.” It was the perfect day to be reminded of it. Mother nature had our number.

WP_20130830_0071The first tough spot was a section of golfball sized stones that had been spread across the road like gravel. Except gravel is pebble sized. Front and rear wheels sloshed in opposite directions and we both stood and rocked with our bikes to stay upright.

On pavement steering is accomplished by counter-steering with the handlebars (turn the handlebars in the opposite direction you want to go). But handlebars would only throw us out of control in this stuff. We steered by moving our bodies, leaning the bike, and gunning the throttle. Flipping a light, nimble dirt bike from side to side in the rough is a blast. Navigating an 800 pound beast with street tires through it is challenging, exhausting, and scary.

My new video project2bWe hit two sections of deep gravel, which I thought was bad terrain. But that turned out to be nothing compared to what came next.  I wish I had Mike’s GoPro footage. He was leading and this is what I heard over the intercom:

“Oh, this looks bad. This looks real bad.”

I looked ahead and saw tire ruts that weaved through a mud that shined with a glossy finish. His brake lights flashed and went off just before he hit the shiny stuff (you don’t want to be braking when you hit something like that). He was talking the entire time.

“Oh man, this looks like ice man, I think it’s bad–” He sailed into it and his front tire veered left. “YUP YUP YUP YUP–” He flipped right, back tire slid left. “YUP YUP YUP YUP.” Right, left, right, left as he weaved huge S’s and threw mud everywhere. Yelling the entire time “YUP YUP YUP YUP YUP YUP.”

My new video project2ffI didn’t laugh at the time, I was standing on my pegs with with my gonads in my tonsils and braced for the worst. But watching his footage later I laughed until there were tears in my eyes. Somehow in the intense moment, his body locked in on the words which were picked up in the video. “YUP YUP YUP YUP” until he had gained control of his bike.

But back to me, standing on my bike, slowing, and getting ready to get thrown off the edge of the mountain. Let’s pause it here.

To prepare to lay gravel on this road, they had graded it smooth, down to the clay. But it was the weekend and the work had stopped. All the trucks were sitting quietly in the drizzling rain on the sides of the road. The top half inch of the ground was saturated and underneath was hard clay. I was approaching a thin layer of slick, slimy mud that rested on very hard ground. My Anakee 3 were not made for this. It was like black ice.

DSCN0658I don’t know how long we rode through it, it seemed like hours although it was probably only a couple of miles. I had to breath deep and focus. My heart thumped like I was running from a hockey-masked-knife-wielding lunatic named Jason. I slid. I made crazy S curves. Once I was on the wrong side of the road when a truck came around the corner towards me and I couldn’t get my bike over until the very last second. Another time I slowly slid to the edge of the mountain and couldn’t get traction to turn back in. Yet, somehow we finished safe. I was sweaty and breathing like I’d just sprinted from Anchorage. And neither of us fell once.

I was a little sick to my stomach. We weren’t even halfway across the Top of the World. What was still ahead waiting for us? It was going to take us days to reach Dawson City.

My new video projedfsft2We hit one more slick stretch, and I went through the entire routine again. We slid and danced our way though, again safely without dropping a bike. I was relieved to get through but very concerned. We had a long ways to go, the weather was getting worse, the road was getting worse, and it was getting colder. Only one thing we could do. Plug forward. I had to encourage myself with words from my daughter Mikayla, “Trudge On, Soul.”

We reached the Canadian border and went through the routine of digging out passports, answering the questions, and explaining that our bear spray was legal because it was labeled “Bear Spray” (pepper spray is illegal in Canada).

My new video project2ggdI looked at the border guard and asked a question I wasn’t sure if I wanted an answer to, “Is the road ahead as bad as what we just rode through?”

“Oh no, you’ve been through the worst. It’s in good shape from here.”

I almost cried I was so happy and relieved!

He was right, the rest of the road was great. Often paved, but even the unpaved sections were covered in gravel. The road wasn’t the problem. The weather was. We hit fog so heavy that at times I couldn’t even see Mike ten feet in front of me. We crawled along, carefully trying to stay on the road. Then the rain picked up, and soaked us. Trucks would pass us in a mud cloud and leave us caked in muck. Where we normally counted off miles, we counted yards. Our progress was painfully slow. We stopped once to take a break and considered setting up camp. But it was raining so hard we figured we may as well keep trudging on.

DSCN0671I’m making this sound miserable, but it wasn’t. The truth is, most of me absolutely loved it. Challenges like this force me to be in the moment, 100% focused. The dire situation requires I set aside my fear and ignore the misery. I have to in order to move forward safely. And forward was by far our best option.

A little fear is exciting, too much fear is crippling, and managing the two is a tricky task. Fear is meant to keep me from killing or hurting myself. The problem is that for me fear seems to stop me from achieving things more than it saves me from danger. I am conservative by nature (yes, even though I love skydiving, rock climbing, and motorcycles, I am conservative). Time and time again I’ve given up on things I could have totally achieved because of fear; talking to girls in high school, leading a tough rock climb, or reaching out for new career opportunities. The irony is that fear has both limited my life and saved it. Oh, if I could only master it.

DSCN0663In the moments fear destroys me, it is because nagging thoughts creep up and doubt questions my abilities. Once that happens my performance plummets. Without fear I can lead a tough climb like a rockstar. The same climb with fear and I’m almost useless.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to identify my fears. Sometimes it’s that I’ll get injured or even hurt somebody else. Sometimes it’s that I’ll look stupid. And sometimes maybe it’s even as Marianne Williamson says, “our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” The more I seem to learn about fear, the less I feel I know about it. Fear is so complex and finicky that I can’t really even tell you exactly what I am afraid of. But I know it stops me and I know I don’t like to be afraid. Unless it’s a nightmare. I love a good nightmare!

My new video project2ggtThat is why moments like this are wonderful. I have no choice but to face my fear because there is no option but forward. And with no other options, the fear is forced to take a back seat so I can focus on performance. When we are forced into situations like this we do amazing things.

I watched my buddy James “onsite” a route far beyond our abilities when another climber’s life depended on it. He led a route two grades beyond anything we had ever led to reach a climber who was dangling helplessly. No options except success, and he rocked it. My daughter Aubree, on her first experience on a dirt bike followed me through mud, hills, and over stumps. She blew my mind at the technical stuff she tackled. We were in a group on a narrow trail and she told me later she had no choice. She was amazing (and scared to death for most of it). No options but success.

Without the option to fail or stop, I can’t second guess myself. With the door closed on fear, my entire focus is on the ride. Focused on staying balanced. Focused on the road. Focused on the hazy fog. No room for doubt or thoughts of turning back. It’s not that the road was horrifying, it was just long and difficult. And we pushed through it successfully.

DSCN0683We boarded a ferry to cross the Yukon River and after a short ride across, rolled into Dawson City much later, much colder, and much wetter than we had expected.  Rain was dropping on us in buckets. Rivers poured off the rooftops and splashed into the road which looked like a criss-cross of canals through town. We drove through them until we found an RV campground. I didn’t like unplugging my heated gear to get off my bike, but I liked it even less when we found out they were booked (they offered an RV site on a rocky base but we decided to keep looking). They said we were welcome to try, but the town was booked.

It turns out they were right. There was a softball tournament in town and everyone was full. Mike walked down one side of the street and I walked down the other without luck. Then good news. A lady had called around for him and found a place that had just had a cancellation. We rushed over, got our room, and once we got all our gear hauled inside it stopped raining. Yes, it did. We strung wet gear all across the room and laughed at the crazy day. And I was so glad I wasn’t in my tent.

WP_20130830_007We warmed up, changed, and walked several blocks to Diamond Tooth Gerties (a gold rush era gambling hall). We had dinner, watched the can can girls, and lost some money. At one point, Mike had octupled his money and I said, “Mike, listen, as your Accountant, I have to tell you, now is when you stop.”

“Duly noted,” he said.

I tried again, “Dude, you’ve paid for our meals, our drinks, and everything with this.”

“Duly noted,” he said, raised his glass, and took another drink. And then proceeded to lose it all.  It was awesome, we laughed, sang along with the show, and had a great time.

Some time later, we stumbled our way home, crashed on the beds, and slept long and hard. Click here to continue to Day 16.

Thanks for reading about my travels. To read more of my adventures, click here to visit my travel page.

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