To the end of the road
It’s late. I’ve slept in, again. Ear plugs have a way of creating a soundless void perfect for long and restful sleep. I pluck the plugs from my ears and hear the faint rumble of Tom’s generator. He ran the dang thing all night long to power the chest freezer full of field dressed caribou.
The storm clouds have caught up to me again. It’s a cold, windy, miserable morning atop this hill. I know at least two hours of work eating and striking camp stand between me, this very warm sleeping bag, and another day of chasing the sun.
Dinner last night was the other half of my seven dollar $5 foot long. Breakfast today will be oats and blueberries, sweetened with brown sugar. This is just enough motivation to get me packing. I’m camped next to the absolute cleanest state maintained wilderness outhouse I’ve ever seen. Moreover, this solid concrete structure is warm and out of the sharp wind. So, with the cleanest corner of a seven foot square toilet all to myself, I fire up the MSR camp stove and heat water for coffee and oats indoors.
While mounting my bike, I see another rider on a GS zoom past the way side. It’s the first indication yet that I’m not the only fool riding his motorbike to Deadhorse so late in the summer. I speed off to catch up with the rider, but my 70-mph still isn’t enough to close the mile between us. Soon, the bike is out of sight and I give up the chase to resume a sensible 55-mph touring speed.
Don’t blink or you’ll miss the Arctic Circle. I nearly did, and now I’m breaking heavily to catch the second chance entrance for speeders. The phantom GS rider is here, chatting with a trucker. I ride around to the famous sign for a picture thinking that phantom GS rider will surely also want a picture. But, the next I know, the bike is riding off down the road. Inconceivable.
My florescent green vest with reflective cloth and the 3M conspicuity tape on my panniers make flash photography impossible. Three tries later, I kill the flash and hope for the best with Alaska’s built-in cloudy lighting.
Phantom GS rider and I meet up in Coldfoot. His name is JD, and I learn that this is not his first trip up the Dalton. We chat about the road ahead, and I muse about the new front and rear TKC 80s strapped to his top case. They’re obviously not helping a bit with traction unless he rolls the bike topside down. I think he’s going to take a gamble and ride the street tires all the way to Deadhorse and back. So far, the road is spectacular. Half the dang thing is tarmac, and the other half is the finest dirt, sand, and gravel oil money can buy.
While I fuel my bike, JD tells me of South America. He rode from the mainland US to Tierra Del Fuego and insists I go through Colombia to secure BMW parts. The most honest BMW dealer in all of South America is in Bogota, and I’d be silly not to make his acquaintance by JD’s testimonial. I’m excited to hear these positive remarks about my planned tour by someone who has already done it. Everyone who hasn’t done it is quick to warn me of the perils and doom that await over the border. This is just another example of how a positive attitude serves a traveler much better than does fear.
JD says he’s riding to Deadhorse today because he has to be back in Anchorage by tomorrow. I guess you can’t ride the Dalton slowly if you’ve already done that before. We wish each other a safe ride, and the phantom GS rider zooms away again.
I, on the other hand, take my time. There’s still no word on the road quality north of Atigun Pass. If it’s as nice as this brand new tarmac out of Coldfoot, I might not be far behind JD. Is this the real Dalton Highway? Maybe the real road is off in the bushes, sopping wet, riddled with cavernous potholes, and hungry to eat a big bike. I’m not yet adventurous enough to turn my speculation into a very bad day of finding out and instead choose to eat up the pavement. I lean back, set my penny tech throttle lock at 65-mph, and enjoy the nice road.
I’m stopped at the base of Atigun Pass by a tree of a man dressed from head to toe in matching florescent green coveralls and holding a stop sign. He tries to speak to me, but his pipe obscures whatever it is he intends to say and my ear plugs block the rest. With traffic backing up behind me, it’s evident I’ll be stopped awhile. We each clear the obstacles blocking our conversation and talk about road construction on the Pass. I guess the potential to fall and roll a thousand feet down the mountain isn’t motivation enough for drivers to drive safely and avoid just that. So, Alaska DOT is improving the road, widening the way sides for scenic viewing, and pounding steel into the ground for a guard rail.
Thankfully, it’s not long before epic green man turns the stop sign to slow, and I begin the climb over the Continental Divide. Thanks to Google Street View, I had a bit of a preview of this ride before I left. Google doesn’t do it justice on this clear day with the entire valley showing radiant fall colors. Whether this road needs improving or not, I can see why people like epic green man choose this place to work. The view is absolutely majestic, even with a guard rail.
I get my first unexpected taste of the real Dalton Highway on the other side of the Pass. This section of road is inches deep in mud and ruts. I nearly dump the bike by holding the bars in a death grip through the muck. A quick reminder of my ride on Burma Road and I let the bike ride itself through a hundred feet of slurry. This works, and I suddenly realize that I can actually feel my heart beating violently in my chest. A rush of adrenaline has sent my body into a blood pumping machine, and it takes a bit of slow riding and several heavy sighs to regain my confidence and head for Happy Valley.
I’ve started a list of reasons for choosing August to ride the Dalton instead of June and July. At the top of the list is that August is bow hunting season for the North Slope Caribou Herd. As I ride, through Happy Valley, the caribou are all but happy as hunters line the road trying their aim at very cautious herd. I stop because it looks like a large buck is about to cross the road. He’s timid, though, as he should be. The truck ahead of me and the other to my back are working in concert to urge the animals across the road at a specific location where there lies a hunter in vegetative disguise on the other side with arrow knocked and ready to fly.
I’m calling it pickup truck hunting, and boy is it worth watching. The caribou buck edges onto the road, but before he crosses into range, the hunter moves and gives his position. You moved too soon, I shout in my head! The caribou spooks and dashes back across the road and off to find a new crossing site. Some of his friends aren’t as lucky it appears, as I see numerous trucks driving past displaying large horns and full freezers. And deeper into Happy Valley, gut piles teem with ravens not 20 yards from the road.
After leaving the Brooks Range and the rolling hills of Happy Valley, the Dalton flattens as it slowly descends and jets north to Prudhoe Bay. The road is just wet enough to keep the dust down but still muddy and coating every inch of my bike. I know I’ll be finding mud from the Dalton as far south as Panama.
The White Hills turn to tundra as far as the eye can see. Not only is it not raining, but it seems I’m chasing the sun once again. In what must be the most beautiful sunset of my life, the sky to the north and west is bursting in light. Tall rock bluffs to my right shine red, reflecting the colors of earth and sun. Each lone pond of water that passes between me and the horizon is a mirror image of the sky.
I can’t help but stop and take in the experience. At almost the top of the world, I’m choosing this to be my life. Venturing into the unknown with no promise of success or the self actualization I seek. With no guarantee of good weather or safe roads, I’m choosing to risk rainy days and unfamiliar riding conditions for the chance at what is before me and around me at this very moment. Alone in the Arctic, I can’t help but ponder about South America. And I don’t mean what it looks like. I’ve seen pictures and know how it looks. I want to feel what it looks like, just as I’m feeling the world around me today.
Number two on my list of reasons to ride the Dalton in August is the sunset. Even though it takes hours — this isn’t your quickie five minute Floridian light show — the sun actually sets in the Arctic in August. And you won’t get that on the summer solstice.
Surprised by the absolutely amazing hard road, I cruise at 65-mph into Deadhorse as the sky turns dark and pitch my tent on a bend of the river just outside of town. Too tired from the day’s ride even to cook, I snuggle into my sleeping bag and call home to say I’m safe and sound at the end of the road.