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The ghosts of McCarthy to the top of the world

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I fuel the bike at Three Bears Alaska and catch glimpse of my family’s home for sale sign at the intersection. Leaving was hard, but each mile I ride assures me that this is right and what I want to do. Somewhere on the road ahead, I’ll camp for the night, eat dinner, wake to eat breakfast, and ride on again. New sights, sounds, and smells await around each corner and with every mile. Strangers and I will cross paths. We’ll wave simple acknowledgment to each other or possibly share a camp. Either way, the road ahead teems with opportunity and excitement, and I’m eager to see and embrace the unknown around the next bend.

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The ride to Glennallen, however, I do know quite well. The Glenn Highway covers a sensational stretch of land in Alaska. Mountains jet from ground to sky in sharp points and rounded curves with rivers and glaciers etching the landscape of rock and trees. A golden yellow valley of deciduous trees prepares for winter, losing leaves to the wind and holding on to the last few weeks of summer. I can’t imagine a soundtrack to match this light show of fall color. A few leaves fall to the road and whisk about in the draft behind me as I round corners and top hills. Matanuska Glacier beams white and blue in hard contrast to the coal black earth that frames its path from ice field to river. Ahead, the road escapes the mountains and river valley to open plains and long straight stretches into the Copper River Valley. Glennallen lay ahead, and so does my road south to McCarthy.

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I stop for fuel at the intersection in Glennallen before turning south on the Richardson for Chitna and ultimately McCarthy. The snow covered mountains of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve stand prominent to the east as a beacon of the winter slowly approaching. I watch unseen wind on the peaks send clouds of snow and ice into the sky as an older couple sit together in silence and awe of the scene before us. I’m reminded of a three day and two night trek across a windy ridge line in Hatcher Pass with my brother. I don’t think I’ll climb Mt. Wrangell on this trip.

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The sun sets low as I leave the Richardson and take the Edgerton Highway east and south to the tiny town of Chitna. I corner around lakes left and right where rock bluffs tower hundreds of feet above with no more of a foot hold for man than a mountain goat. Yet still, deep forest green vegetation and sturdily rooted trees climb skyward on the precipitous slopes, coloring the water in a deep emerald and almost black calmness. Through Chitna, the road meets what was once an obstacle of solid rock and is now a single lane carved through the mountain. I feel the air temperature drop several degrees as I motor onto the gravel road and through these gates to McCarthy. Sparkles of light catch my eye and an earthy wet smell of dirt whiffs into my helmet from the jagged and damp surfaces of rock not six feet on either side of my bike. What was a calm purr of a noise resonating from my motor echoes and turns into a deep guttural sound. As I clear the end, all sights, sounds, and smells return to normal and a cool breeze brushes my back as if welcoming me to a fate of terribleness through doors that refuse retreat. I’m overlooking the mighty flowing Copper River below and a still sky of clouds in front of a nearly set sun.

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I turn to the river in search of camp and find a messy wet riverbed riddled with trash and fish bones. An abundance of firewood and the prospect for a warm camp still doesn’t outweigh the risk of a bear encounter, and I backtrack to the grassy flat just up the hill and off the road to make home for the night. This real first day ends well. With a full belly, clean mind, and comfortable shelter, I bed down for the evening thinking of the road ahead and how to make day two just as spectacular as today. Also on my mind are my parents. I’m going to miss my family quite a bit.

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Morning arrives early as I wake full of energy and zest to push ahead. I strike camp with breakfast and coffee in hand and pack the bike in what has become a very routine and organized game of Tetris trying to fit a travel trailer’s worth of amenities onto a motorbike. Stuff sacks and shock cords, roll sacks and lock boxes — everything owns only the space it needs and fits meticulously together by order of use and weight. As I knew it would become, packing is quite pleasantly more orderly and efficient now than in the nightmares ahead of my first travels a few weeks ago.

I cross the Copper River and stop to witness an aftermath of resource extraction. Imagine the carcasses of mobile homes and cars that lay strewn in unrecognizable bits and pieces across south Florida after hurricane Andrew. Along these banks of the Copper River, salmon heads, tails, and back bones sit rotting in the sun for acres and acres. Automatic fish catching apparatuses sit still in the wake of a very successful fall salmon run, seemingly disconnected yet obviously responsible for the smelly mess about me. Some look new, and others wear badges of defeat, falling apart and in as good as shape as the dead fish. I ride snakes and circles on the riverbed between the obstacles before turning back and counting minutes between breaths just to avoid the stench.

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The first thirty miles of road to McCarthy are awash in loose gravel. Soft shoulders threaten to eat my wheels if I corner with too much speed or hesitate my lean afraid of tossing the bike. Dirt riders say speed is what I need — slide the rear tire and take a posture of authority. Instead, I timidly shake my way through each turn and hope not to find oncoming traffic too startling. Dust clouds my view and turns everything brown as vehicles fly past in the straightaways, but I hold a steady line and breathe with ease once the sky returns to blue and the road ahead looks clear. About sixteen miles from McCarthy, a flagger stops me ahead of a bridge crossing. I cutoff the engine to hear him ask if I’ll stay overnight. He riddles off opening and closing times for the damaged bridge after I say I don’t know. If I make it back by nine, the grouchy bridge patrol will let me out of the wilderness of Wrangell-St. Elias. Otherwise, I camp and wait for the okay, lest my thousand pound bike break the bridge that is somehow only safe to withstand traffic whilst an attendant watches.

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Sixteen of the best miles this road has to offer later, a foot bridge stands between me and the mining town of McCarthy. My parents and others said my bike would fit between the bumpers, and it does. I motor across the steel bridge the hundred yards to the other side and cross into a community that sustains itself for twelve months on six months of tourist traffic. That the bridge closed down traffic on vehicles over 8000 pounds has seriously impacted the town. Angry bridge troll turned RVs, buses, and large campers around all summer, and McCarthy’s residents have done their best to survive on the remaining car and motorbike traffic. I turn at the museum and dodge pot holes down main street. Closed sign after closed sign adorn windows of trinket shops, tour guides, and the like. People and animals walk about without a look of intent beyond simply crossing the road as if hope and despair fight for a presence only occupied by day to day living. I’m sure McCarthy is the bustle of Alaska with traffic during the height of tourist season and when the bridge ferries buses safely across the river, but today the town looks dead.

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I step into the McCarthy Center. With its doors open, the grocery and general wares store seems to be the only building accepting patrons today. Neil turns me away just inside, saying the town and his store closed for the season two days earlier. September 15 marked the end of the year for McCarthy, and now he and others prepare for the winter by closing shop, doing the books, and queuing hundreds of hours of TV to watch on the satellite DVR. Shocked, I ask about the year, the bridge, and what I can do in McCarthy beyond turning around and leaving. Besides riding to the Kennecott copper mine — nothing, he says. I shake hands with Neil and say goodbye. He refuses my money for two bars of chocolate I picked from the shelves, and I wish him the best during the winter. Thank you, Neil!

The five mile ride to Kennecott follows a ridge line above the Kennicott Glacier through residential homesteads and meager cabins soaking in the southern sun. Wind turbines and solar cells speckle the roadside, and I catch an occasional dish pointed to civilization and a connection with the outside. I pass and wave to locals as they smile and wave back. Dogs behave despite being unchained, and the road slowly narrows into a single lane encased entirely by yellow and orange. Trees remain thick and block the light as the road tunnels north and empties into a vast vista of mountain, glacier, and piles of rubble. What I think is waste leftover from mining is actually moraine from the glacier as it carves its way through the mountain, leaving deposits of round rocks to collect in piles, melt ice, and roll off to collect in new piles.

Giant red buildings and rubble from years of mining litter the landscape on both sides of the road. Stretching hundreds of feet up the mountainside, large industrial facilities, housing, and multi-use buildings find footholds in the absence of flat land. Foundations reveal the true effects of age and neglect as rooflines, porches, and walls resemble paper mache left soaking in the rain. Rusted steel rail and stranded wire lay loosely in piles or take off in unobstructed directions toward what once was a very useful job on the other end. I roll between the two largest structures to see the foundation of one building being refitted with new support posts and joists. By the look of the other buildings, preserving the historic presence of Kennecott looks formidable and expensive.

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This abandoned mine truly is a town of amazing riches turned poor and left to rot in the harsh winter elements and long, devastating summer sun. Several years ago, a torrential rainfall flooded rivers and sent mudslides down stream into the already abandoned wreckage of this mine. Lower floors of buildings nearest the bursting banks of the mountain stream filled with gravel and sand as high as a man. Windows shuddered with the rumble of giant stones cascading down the mountain. What remained after the storm is before me now and being rebuilt for preservation by the national parks service. Looking closer and inside one building, a wisp of cool air catches the hairs on the back of my neck. An image of angry Kennecott ghost miners sifting through these decimated miners’ quarters lingers as I back away. The building before me stands only by the sheer will of nature and the tenuous strands of fiber in the failing foundation.

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I leave the mine for McCarthy and a camp beyond the bridge troll. Stopping early affords me a much needed break two days into the trip. About half way between McCarthy and Chitna, I find a lake side flat of grass with a fire ring and sunny views of the surrounding mountains. My face burns hot in the sun as I ditch the riding gear for my birthday suit and stumble into the ice cold water of the lake for a bath. The plan included full submersion, but I quickly change the plan, turn about, and splash water instead. Once I no longer feel my legs, it’s time to exit. I decide that cold water is as good a cleaner as soap, and my first pseudo bath/shower feels great. For the rest of the evening, I bum around the lake, cooking dinner, sunbathing, and enjoying the remoteness of Alaska. As I crawl into a warm sleeping bag for the night, I reflect on the day and decide that it has indeed met the high standard of day one.

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Saturday greets me early with a dimly lit morning sky and frost about my camp. Everything about this place awakens with the sun. Fog looms eerily over the glass calm water of the lake. I don’t see them, but I listen intently as water fowl grunt methodically with almost inaudible wing flaps as they fly stealthy above the surface. Two majestic swan paddle in the morning glow, and fish tales break the water surface creating rippling rings of disturbance in the perfect reflection of sky. I shovel another spoonful of sugary oats into my mug when a gunshot breaks the tranquillity of breakfast and echoes around the valley to reveal the likely success of a hunter and fate of one unlucky moose. The moose too was probably eating breakfast.

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Day three for the moose is over, but my day three has just begun. After loading the bike, I’m off. These last thirty miles were the first thirty miles on the way in, and they’re just as miserable now as they were then. I concentrate on the road ahead but also stop to enjoy the views. A one lane bridge crosses a deep gorge, and I play chicken with oncoming traffic to catch a shot from the middle. A huge sigh of relief comes about me as the McCarthy road turns to tarmac in Chitna, and I close the doors on the wilderness behind me. I find fuel cheaper in Chitna than in Glennallen by almost ten cents per gallon. Suzie, the station owner, assures me that she prices her fuel lower than Glennallen as a matter of course. I thank her for the pleasant morning surprise, pump over five gallons into my 5.3 gallon tank and head off to resupply in Glennallen before making my way to Tok.

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I stay in Tok behind the fuel canisters of the Three Bears fuel station. The giant fenced barrier between me and the road makes for an inconspicuous free camp in a city full of paid RV facilities. I wake late on Sunday and make my way to the “closed for the season” RV park across the street for Wi-Fi and power. Last night, I found my laptop battery dead as a doornail. I isolated the problem to an interruption of power while starting the bike. The universal power supply ceases charging when the starter engages, and I ride off with a dead laptop battery at my next camp. This morning I’ll charge the laptop from a utility hookup in this RV park and then find a way to resolve my on-bike charging issues later. Internet costs $3 an hour, but the speed and chance to upload several days of photos makes the cost worthwhile.

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The road out of Tok empties into the vast rolling hills and dead tree wasteland of eastern Alaska as it stretches north and east to the Yukon. Besides a foraging moose, this land looks desolate and deprived of life. The trees take on a dead and scrawny look of famine, reminiscent of an overpopulated civilization of diseased dogs fighting for water and food. They stretch on beyond sight even as I close in on the town of Chicken. Like McCarthy and parts of Tok, Chicken turns my business away with “closed” signs. A single fuel station flashes the neon words “open” in its window.

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Chicken, Alaska.

Downtown Chicken, Alaska.

Chicken is also where the road revivification efforts to Eagle begin. The cute and bubbly flagger girl Katie stops me on the road to wait for the pilot car. She works several months through the summer here piloting vehicles and flagging traffic. Living conditions are quite nice if you bring your own trailer as she has. The worst part of working 14-hour days, 7-days a week in Chicken, Alaska is the part where you’re working 14-hour days, 7-days a week in Chicken Alaska. I laugh and make way to my bike as the pilot car arrives to lead me safely down a road I’m sure to be the deadliest, most treacherous road in the state by the account of the stories.

I follow the pilot car from 6:30pm until after 8:00pm at no more than 20-mph.

Carrie steps out of the pilot car and covers the obstacles ahead. From her descriptions of the road, I expect mud, large rocks, and parallel grade changes. Large side dumpers will pass us going both directions, and skid graters will push piles of earth in our path. For ninety very long, cold, and miserable minutes, I follow Carrie and the pilot car the thirty miles out of Chicken. Well past sunset and the onset of rigor mortis in my very tired joints, we emerge on the other side, and I’m left with finding camp in the dark, cold night. In actuality, the road wasn’t anything like she threatened. Short of driving carefully around the loaders, even an RV could set a 30-mph pace without plummeting off a cliff or into a river.

I wave to Carrie, thank her for her super duper safe piloting services, and motor off to the first flat to make camp. I find a grassy pull out at the “Y” junction occupied by hunters and stop to ask about the road ahead. Canada is too far off to make tonight, and this road offers no room for error in the dark. Donna and Ronnie look surprised when I don’t just pull in and pitch my camp right next to their camper. I sheepishly accept their invitation, very thankful of a chance to get off the bike and rest. They even share their camp fire! I couldn’t have found nicer folks. We warm our hands by the fire and watch the twilight turn black. Stars grow brighter by the minute, and I’m soon forced by a very tired body to make my shelter for the night. While my neighbors climb easily into the resort on the back of their truck, I search the road edge for rocks to pitch my tent. Trucks travel past on the bend in the road, sending dust and gravel my way. Bed doesn’t come soon enough.

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At five o’clock, I expect to hear Donna and Ronnie revving the four wheelers and prepping for their hunt — but I don’t. Not a sound disturbs my rest until traffic resumes at sunup. In fact, I make coffee and breakfast before my neighbors step out of bed. I joke about the late start to Donna, and she rolls off some rationalization that the caribou can wait to die until after she’s had a smoke and some coffee. They watch as I pack the equivalent of square pegs into round holes, jeering me along and suggesting I stop in Dawson for some more gear. We sit about and trade death defying Alaska wilderness stories — mine significantly less death defying than Donna’s. She hands me cookies before I depart and wishes me the best on my trip. Our late morning sitting around in the rising sun and sharing stories of life in Alaska will be well remembered for me. Atop the Top of the World Highway, I found friends in Donna and Ronnie. Moreover, I found a chance to embrace Alaska before stepping through the gates to Canada.

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Brian

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