Dandy days in Dawson
I twist along the last US miles of the dusty ridge road after saying goodbye to Donna and Ronnie. Brown clouds of aerated road bellow behind oncoming cars. I picture myself in a wind tunnel and try willing a force field air foil ahead of me to cut through the dirt, but I just end up coughing and swallowing a mouthful of earth on the next breath. On the last turn before the border, I stop to embrace a few last moments of Alaska — not that the land looks much different in Canada. I draw an imaginary dashed line down and across the valley before me. It cuts through the middle of the customs compound where a collection of green buildings fly American and Canadian flags. A stop sign politely asks travelers to submit for questioning, but the road to Canada is surprisingly open and unblocked. I chuckle at the thought of razor wire and armored traffic barriers while gazing at the hundreds of miles of unprotected border stretching north and south of the roadway. Fences truly do keep your friends out. And here, a fence simply makes no sense.
I’m greeted at the border by the stop sign and a very handsome border patrol woman. She walks with an air about her from the office to my bike and asks for my ID. I prepared and practiced to make this a smooth crossing but now I just stammer and fumble for documents, distracted by her navy blue skin tight border patrol outfit. I’m taken aback by the sternness in her voice and the crisp edges of her outfit. She asks where is home for me, if I posses drugs, am I carrying weapons, and what is the purpose of my visit. A barely intelligible Palmernonovacation seems to satisfy her as she drops her sunglasses down the bridge of her nose, switching between looking at dirty motorcycle Brian and clean shirt-and-tie passport Brian. I collect my documents and am waved through the stop sign and into Canada, invisible traffic barrier and razor wire rising to accept my entry at this northern most crossing. Welcome to the Yukon.
Before calling this the Top of the World Highway, bushwhackers dubbed the epic stretch of gold rush era road the Ridge Road. It does what the American Taylor Highway doesn’t do — it follows the ridge. From the border all the way to Dawson City, cold arctic wind screams over the tip tops of mountains and into my jacket. I don’t see another vehicle for miles, and the land stretching beyond view on either side looks barely habitable even by wilderness standards. Ragged rock faces crumble into piles of rubble at every turn. Even the weeds take on a look of despair and desperation, holding tight onto life that just won’t last. Their reds and browns mark the end of fall and the start of long winter nights that loom around the turn of the next month. As the road dips into the northern shade of a mountain, the temperature drops ten degrees within seconds. My eyes adjust to the dark in time to catch a stretch of ice in the shoulder that extends to the limits of the ebbing summer. Winter cries out in all directions behind the shelter of this rock like vampires cry for darkness. I breathe more easily when the road turns into the sun. Pools of water replace the ice for now, but tonight the ice will return. I put a few more RPMs between me and winter as I try to hurry my way to Dawson City and a lower elevation.
Kilometers on the GPS tick away, my elevation in feet drops, and the sun retreats to the horizon from its already dangerously low zenith. I watch the temperature rise degree by degree despite what looks like a very cold end to a cold day. Foliage changes from the dying weeds of the arctic tundra into the fantastically colored deciduous trees of a river valley. I stop for a black bear at the top of the hill and stare in surprise not at the bear but at the size of the city before me. As if the Klondike Gold Rush left its bullion behind, Dawson City glows white and large against the fall colors of a golden wilderness. Cars tangle their way through the city streets and boat traffic put along the river.
At the bottom of the hill I meet the Yukon River and realize what “ferry” means as the next waypoint on my GPS. Motoring its way across the river is, well, a ferry. I suppose I thought a bridge crossed the river, but here I wait for my turn to float across the Yukon not unlike the prospectors of 120 years ago.
I stop in Dawson at the tourist information center for tourist information. Jerry greets me with a warm smile and tries her hardest to up talk the few if any remaining open attractions in Dawson. What must be a long winded list of activities at the height of the season fits awkwardly alone at the very center of a piece of copy paper. I read slowly: Diamond Tooth Gerties, the Jack London Museum, and the Dawson City Museum. According to the dates beneath each, all three attractions close in a week. Jerry sets me out with a map and directions to find accommodations out of town. Bonanza Creek is my only hope for a camp site nearby the city since the park in town is closed for the season. I stroll about the city before riding out to Bonanza Creek.
Out of town about two kilometers, Bonanza Creek climbs its way into the Klondike. At its base, a giant compound of RV hookups, buildings, and the like welcomes travelers year around. The witty and kind Sarah banters with locals as I wait in line for a site. At my turn she offers $10 a night camping for me and my bike. I buy two nights on the spot and decide to spend an extra day exploring the nearly abandoned Dawson City. After pitching camp, I ride back to town for dinner and a short walk. Dawson’s general store bellows with activity. A single checker stares petrified at the growing line of impatient customers before yelling at a customer by name to call the other checker on the intercom. Really? This is a small town. I sit by the river to eat a short rack of markdown ribs, discounted bread, and a liter of milk. I eat dinner alone and watch boat traffic cruise up and down the river.
Evening finds me at Gerties for the three shows, drinks, and a stab at gambling. Bartender Samantha makes a mean margarita and shares interest in my travels across Alaska and the Yukon. We speak of Canada and the mask of excitement that is Dawson City. Once ripe with lucrative reasons to exist, the city now claims its fame as the historic epicenter for the Klondike Gold Rush. Dawson once stood as a beacon of gold bearing land in the far north. Now, places like the museums, Gerties, and others work the other way around, trading outsiders’ gold for entertainment or enlightenment. From now until next season, Dawson is a ghost town. Then, everyone in town gears up for another round of shows and tours.
I’m watching people play the slots while we talk. In the movies, successful gamblers scope the scene before they take the casino to the cleaners. A machine goes off in a roar of lights and clanking coins. No one seems the least bit excited, including the floor attendant who now retreats to the office for a giant bag of money to pay the winner the remainder of her winnings. More machines flicker lights and spit coins into their trays. Dull sounding circus ride noises flood the room from all which way as three, five, and seven wheel slots turn their wheels. High and low tones alternate just loud enough to make the room sound like an arcade.
Across the floor, men and women sit around a card table to play Texas hold ‘em. I see John, the proprietor of Bonanza Creek Hotel and RV Park at the table. We talked earlier in the day about Dawson and his reason for moving to the city. John always wished to be a regular at the Diamond Tooth Gerties poker table, so he moved here and bought the hotel. Samantha says he plays cards every night.
I sip a second drink and think twice about the blackjack and roulette tables. A fool and his money are lucky enough to get together in the first place, but I’m not eager to part so quickly with it. I decide to levy my attack on the slot floor. Penny slots, nickel slots, dime slots, a dollar. A giant of a man displaying the name badge Socrates takes my money and pours a $20 bucket of tokens before me. My pile looks markedly limited compared to the bags the winner drug away moments earlier. I stand like a noob before the throng of machines, unable to choose or know how to read the cryptic instructions lit at the top of each.
A helpful man in gambling hall attire leads me to a machine after I ask for help. I listen as he describes the betting. Despite giving a very easy to follow and short set of instructions, he focuses primarily on the betting part of this game and leaves out a great deal of instruction on the winning part. He laughs when I ask more about the winning, smiles, and leaves me to my betting. I roll a coin down the slot. The machine announces the credit with a chirp and increments a digital display that counts down with each turn. I stare at the complicated matrix of winning scenarios and decide to focus instead on how to bet.
Picture five rolling wheels side by side, each marked by a dozen or more icons of fruit, logos, and other colorful symbols. Look closely, and the differences between seemingly similar icons become very apparent. The betting matrix is easy enough to follow. First, choose a penny, nickel, dime, or quarter bet. Next, bet one or more lines. Last, throw the handle to spin the wheels. Choosing more lines increases the cost of each turn but also increases the chance of a win. Betting more money for each line does not affect the chance of winning but increases the payout in the case of a win. A penny bet across seven lines costs seven cents. A nickel bet across nine lines costs forty-five cents.
The winning matrix for a multi-line bet looks like a city bus map. Different colored lines travel from left to right horizontally across the wheels before cutting off at a diagonal to another row. They may stay put or cut back again. As many as nine different paths mark the map of wins. Moreover, the printed display at the top of the machine includes icon sets and the corresponding payouts. Should a path along the winning matrix match one of the winning icon sets, the machine multiplies the bet against the payout and credits the till. The whole process is rather mindless. I don’t even pull the lever thanks to a conveniently located “repeat bet” button next to my drink coaster. The machine swirls flashing colors of light as the wheels roll to a stop one by one. Occasionally it jingles signifying a win, but I soon realize that my $20 bucket of tokens is a $20 bucket without tokens. Others walk away with heavy pockets; I walk away with a very satisfied smile having enjoyed my first gambling experience and ready to see the show.
The sharp start and stop notes of ragtime echo through the floor as the piano man intros the show with music. A drummer chimes in on a jazzy number, and together they play a set while the Gertie girls ready back stage. Lights dim and a spot appears from the balcony on Gertie herself as she opens the night with a tumultuous welcome in song. The crowd of ten try hard to applaud as if a hundred, but the audience tonight really does feel pathetically small compared to the grandeur on stage. Gertie and her girls trade sets. A handful of tiny and athletic doll faced women run onto stage flashing the under areas of fanciful skirts whilst jumping and twirling about the stage. In time to the piano and drums, these girls basically alternate between dance moves and as many opportunities as possible to shout and lift their skirts to the boys.
Three shows later, I call an end to my Diamond Tooth Gerties experience for the day. It’s past midnight even by my unchanged Alaska clock, and I still must ride back to camp. Outside, the vampire cold from the highway shadows has extended its death grip to the entire Klondike. A young group of French travelers shout at the sky in excitement matched only by orgasm. Bands of green and white dance in curtains of movement against a moonless pelt of black. They chastise me when I shrug my shoulders and pay more attention to getting dressed than to the aurora. Tom says its his second time and matched only by his first tumble in bed. He can’t understand why I treat his excitement like just any day, and I listen with interest as he describes the light show in the sky and what brings him to Dawson City.
Moneyless and full of adventure, Tom and his friends left Europe to travel the United States and Canada. They’ve made it to Dawson and will drive the same road to Alaska that delivered me to Canada. He hopes to find a fishing job in Homer to fund the remainder of his journey. The four of them sleep in a car they bought on Craigslist, huddled tightly together for warmth in these subfreezing temperatures. I don’t hesitate to exclaim how crazy they are traveling so ill prepared; Tom smiles and gestures to the sky. It’s worth it, he says. The aurora look beautiful, but not beautiful enough to freeze off my bum in awe. My bike warns of ice when I turn the key. With my dash blinking 24ºF and Tom still shivering below the northern lights, I ride like a stuffed marshmallow back to camp, forced to turn my entire body at stops just to look both ways. I climb into a cold sleeping bag and shiver myself warm before falling fast asleep.
Drip. Drip. Drip. The sun glows golden orange through the two layers of tent and warms a night’s worth of frozen condensation into falling drops of water. Tiny puddles grow in the vestibule, colliding with each other in a fight for territory, forming alliances with other puddle colonies, and overtaking neighboring puddle foes. I cuss too loudly for the family friendly camp after miscalculating my footing and landing square on the largest pool. Socks wet, I scramble into chilled pants and a jacket before stabbing my damp feet into very cold shoes. The zipper on my tent roars to life, and I emerge in time to catch an eye full of unfiltered sun. I blindly shuffle a stubborn heel into the last bit of shoe while stomping off to the camp toilets to start my first full day in Dawson City, Yukon.
I’m looking forward to a shower. Even at the ridiculously exorbitant cost of $20 an hour, this morning’s shower is my first since leaving Palmer last week. I quickly realize that shampoo and soap never made it to my pack list and scrounge around the bathroom for enough used but pubeless bar soap to clean my body. I grab three dry bars at the sink and scamper off to the shower. But when I get ready to roll the coin down the slot and start three minutes of watery bliss, I hesitate. It could take a half minute just to get the temperature right! I eye the spigot position and sneak around to the other two stalls to compare. All three look the same. Trust the previous patrons, I think to myself. And with cringed eyes and tense muscles, I step into the stall, pay, and pray to get the most out of every second no matter their temperatures.
The shower sputters for a brief, very chilling moment, and then a surge of steaming hot water spews forth and pelts my skin. The race begins as 180 seconds count to zero. I lather a handful of the used bar soap and slather it all over the place. Suds fly all which way as I attempt a wash and rinse combination shower. Wash, rinse, move on. I try to keep count of the time, but my Mississippis are out of sync to the bumps and bangs I make hitting elbows, knees, and ankles against the stall. A stack of Loonies sits on the shelf in case I’m left waterless and blinded by soap. The thought of fumbling for coins and then searching by touch for the coin slot encourages me to hurry. The last bit of soap washes away just as my count hits zero, but the shower doesn’t stop. I count another thirty-seconds and it continues, still. After a whole minute, I step out of the stall and marvel at having taken the quickest shower of my life. I’ve taken 15-minute showers my whole life, but in just two minutes today, I washed every nook and cranny from head to toe. That’s budget friendly hygiene.
After the shower, Sarah offers free coffee and a pastry in the office. We talk about the painfully slow Internet after she reiterates the “no downloading, no uploading, and no Skype” threat from yesterday. The newspaper article she passes over the counter reads of substantial overage fees local hotels pay when customers take advantage of their Internet access. All of Dawson is enraged that the local tel-co began levying obscene fines. I hold back from explaining the technical impossibility of using the Internet without downloading or uploading and sit down to update my website. I try submitting the post I wrote in McCarthy, but WordPress just doesn’t work. Overage fees for this terrible connection would outrage me too.
I resign efforts to update the blog after an hour of barely audible, terse curses at the interwebs and head back to camp site number six for breakfast. I decide over pancakes and the remainder of last night’s liter of milk to explore Dawson. I gear up for a ride to the top of Dome Road. The road curves around a giant hill at the east side of town, climbing to the perch and overlooking all of Dawson. I slow to a stop at a treacherous looking side road. Marked as the forest fire lookout, the road climbs steeply from here to a tower barely visible in the distance. The road pan looks like a dry riverbed. Rains have cut wide swaths through the gravel and dirt, leaving large, rocky debris behind. Essentially, this fire trail represents the perfect off road road for my bike. I power from my stop and take to the road with high hopes for the view ahead. If I drop the bike, I’ll just pick it up and keep going.
The road reminds me of a scene from Charley and Ewan’s Long Way Down series. They ride into a canyon and find on the return that the way out is harder than the way in. Their warning doesn’t escape me as I ride up this road. The ride down will be worse without gravity as a safety net. At the top, the wind beats against a flag and spins a vane into humming loudly. The lookout tower climbs higher still and looms over the greater Dawson City area. A fire from here must look quite formidable. I see for miles in every direction, past the Yukon River below and into the most remote of expedition mining camps. The terrain reminds me of Fairbanks but without the smoke. The road down makes up look easy. I stand on the pegs, ease my grip on the bars, and slowly roll down the road. Dodging the swaths of missing road and sticking to the high ground, my bike handles remarkably well. Tires grip when needed, brakes hold tight. I take a breath at the bottom and smile at having successfully pushed my comfort zone a bit further.
The perch from the dome doesn’t climb as high as the wildfire lookout, but it does sit directly overhead Dawson City. A film crew points its cameras west and over the city. I keep my distance not wanting to disturb them. I must be something of a unique sight because they walk over, camera in hand, and ask to interview me for an Irish travel show. Crazy Irishman comedian and travel TV personality Hector O’hEochagain asks me about my trip. It’s odd being filmed for once. I try to handle it cooly, speak up, and answer his questions with as much enthusiasm as Dawson City will allow. We do two takes of the same questions from different angles. I’m intrigued by Hector and his show but a bit perturbed when he consumes an entire page of my journal with 72 point font writing devoted to himself. This wanker sure is into himself.
At the Jack London Museum, I sit down to thirty minutes of history about the Klondike Gold Rush and how a year in the north country inspired Call of the Wild, White Fang, and others. Donna narrates Jack’s life with a quiet librarian’s passion for an adventure story. From his early teenage years in California to early adulthood aboard a sailing vessel, Jack read endless novels and works. Historians claim he always wore deep pockets for books if not for money. Gold fever in 1897 sent Jack packing for the Klondike. For over a year, Jack survived travels from California into the Yukon and back again with a winter’s worth of illness and prospecting between. After fleeing down the Yukon and into the Bering Sea, Jack returned to California to write. He wrote every word of the experience he could find and composed some of the most notable fiction pieces of his time that are today translated and republished all over the world.
I thank Donna for the opportunity to learn more about Jack London before stepping outside and gazing into Jack’s Klondike cabin. The bottom half of the cabin sits here in Dawson City while the other half sits atop a recreation of the bottom half in California. These two very important places of Jack’s life share a piece of his life for visitors like me to see and experience. The meager cabin offers the comforts of eat, sleep, heat, and nothing more. Floor to ceiling wood and dirt speak of hard times even in the summer; I can’t pull together the courage to imagine an arctic winter inside this cabin.
With nothing left to do in Dawson City, I head to Gerties for dinner and drinks. I’ll skip the gambling tonight, but a giant pizza sounds perfectly tasty. The hip looking cook behind the counter asks for my order in a thick Canadian accent. We barter for a whole pizza since it’s already made and ready to eat on the plate behind the counter. He sells six individual slices of pizza for $24 and offers me all six for $21. I pull a twenty-spot from my pocket and shut up. First one to speak loses. He eyes the manager across the room before grabbing the bill, and I walk away with a whole pizza for $20.
I don’t take long to realize that tonight’s show is verbatim to last night’s show. When the floor man who helped me learn the slots says that the show has been the same every night for the last six months, I cringe for his sake. He let’s his guard down and says he ******* hates the show. I imagine the nightmares one must have after working here for a season. Slot machine wheels chase you in your sleep and wrap brightly color fruit stems around your arms and legs. Cancan girls tie you to the topside of a card table as poker chips and slot tokens pour down your throat. With your insides distended to the limit, your three eyes turn to cherries just as a deluge of money ruptures your stomach in the biggest jackpot of the night. He stares very uncomfortably at me while I paint the scene of the nightmare before turning and walking away. I think if he hasn’t dreamed this yet, he will now.
I finish a piece of pizza alone ahead of the first show. For no reason other than to keep moving in the cold room, I bounce back and forth between the front door and my table. The audience is fewer tonight than last, but I see girls dipping behind the curtain and prepping for the show. On one run back to the door for my jacket, I run square into the person I least expect. Ben and Matty look as puzzled and surprised as I when I shout a big hello and run in for a mildly inebriated bro hug. I last left Ben and Matty on the Dalton Highway over three weeks ago. Seeing them in Dawson City, Yukon is by far the most unique experience of my ride to date. I offer pizza and the best seats in the house — as if the house were packed and out of eats. Together at the head of the room, we catch up on our travels to date and watch the first of three shows. Gertie finds a soft spot next to Matty, and Ben finds a hard spot for the dancers. We’re all three smiles for the evening, but a long day catches up to us after the first show. I call it an evening, walk outside with the boys, and recommend a closed camp inside town as their accommodations for the night.
Seeing Ben and Matty at Gerties is the surprise of surprises for me to date. How unique is it to run into the same two traveling blokes nearly a month later in the middle of the Klondike that I ran into at the very north of Alaska? We both aspire to ride from Prudhoe Bay to Argentina, but our routes and destinations share very little similarity. Back at camp, I splurge on a $3 shower before retreating to bed and complementing myself on a very exciting Dawson City experience. Tomorrow, I’ll put rubber to road and make a mad dash for British Columbia. Sarah says the weather report predicts snow for the weekend. That it’s Tuesday and warm outside doesn’t seem to matter. I think I need to hurry.