Follow Tom Bowman and Ian Schmeisser as they work their way from Georgia to Alaska, to the BMW MOA Rally in Montana, then back to Georgia.
A Long, Strange Trip to Alaska
In the song Truckin’, the immortal words of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia say it best: “…sometimes it occurs to me what a long strange trip it’s been!”
Today, I find myself on another long strange trip… a motorcycle camping trip to Alaska.
“What’s so long & strange about that?” you ask.
Well… it is 6,000 miles from Atlanta to Alaska, and while long-distance riders may be underwhelmed, it is the last great road trip in North America.
And given that you’re reading about the ride on the Internet as it happens means it’s not your average trip.
Add in the fact that I’m typing these words on my notebook PC (see the picture for proof!) while listening to the Grateful Dead on it’s CD player, uploading proposals to clients, and keeping tabs on the work that’s in process — all while sending e-mails to my mom — means the trip is a strange mix of pleasure, work and adventure touring that won’t be quickly forgotten… at least by me!
You can read about the details of the ride on my friend Tom Bowman’s page… he’s the guy who’s good at planning these things. This page here is for my friends, my family, and my clients (who are like my friends & family) to help them keep track of me.
Days 1 & 2
For the most part, I’ll be keeping you posted on the strange things I see along the way, like Itchy’s Stop-n-Scratch Flea Market somewhere in Missouri, or Stoner’s Drug & Fountain, somewhere in Iowa. Tom will keep everyone posted on the serious stuff.
Can you tell we’ve been slabbing it (riding the Interstate) for the most part to this point? Tomorrow (Monday, June 22) we head off on the back roads of South Dakota, through the Badlands and Black Hills territory, winding our way to Rapid City. At this point, we’re just about 1/3 the way to Alaska!
Finally – some decent riding! And I always thought that South Dakota was something you just blasted through on the way to or from “better things” such as the Rockies, or home.
Tom has taken the time to write at length about the details of the ride, so I will keep with my “Long Strange Trip” theme and summarize the weirdness I saw along the way today. Suffice it to say that we took the back roads and got an up close look at the real South Dakota… not the wasteland you see just off the slab. It’s simple stuff – hay, corn & cows – but it’s the stuff that great rides are made of.
The Red Man’s Revenge
It’s gambling. Casinos, replete with electronic blackjack and Keno are the way that Native Americans are repaying the white man for all the demeaning treatment they’ve dished out over the past 200 years. When you see a skinny, sallow-faced guy with a cigarette dangling & drink close at hand brainlessly poking a blinking plastic button to the electronically synthesized tune of PacMan and Handel’s Messiah, you’ll know what I mean.
Vermilion Odd Fellows
They do the Adopt-a-highway trash detail along Highway 50 somewhere in South Dakota… I didn’t know if they were vermilion or even if they were odd… but they sure did pick up the trash real well because it was nowhere to be seen during our ride.
Just Daub It.
Does anyone know what this means? It has something to do with gambling and I haven’t a clue.
Gas n’ Git
Another fancy word for a gas station and convenience store. Some of the world’s most, uh… unique creative work is on billboards. Often times these signs were placed close to the stockyards… where the smell was the clearest indication of how advertising is really made.
Now here is a good idea, and given that we’re riding to Alaska, I thought it worth a mention. Several farms along the way had them… small plastic shelters that the calves could go in to get out of the snow. I’ll bet they’re heated, too. What a great idea… I always feel so bad when the cows are standing in the field in the snow and the wind.
Why in the heck is it that when the cows have about fifty bazillion acres of grass to hang out in, they all stand tightly packed in the corner of the field?
There are signs all over the place in South Dakota that say “Think.” When you look closely, the tagline says “X Marks the Spot” and identifies the place where some driver or passenger “bought the farm.” I don’t know if these are all alcohol-related accidents, but they sure do a lot of thinking in South Dakota.
Birds have this insane game of seeing how close they can fly to your motorcycle without actually hitting you. Today, one found out the hard way that you can only get so close before you become a punchline in a borrowed joke: “What’s the last thing to go through a bird’s mind as it hits your windshield? It’s asshole!”
Talk with you all tomorrow!
Days 4 & 5
On day 4, we play tourist… visiting Mt. Rushmore, not visiting Crazy Horse (it’s still not done!) because of rain, visiting Devil’s Tower and then blasting across Wyoming to stop in Cody for the night. Tom got pissed because we couldn’t see Crazy Horse (he wanted a T-shirt). I saw it nearly 30 years ago, and from pictures in today’s brochure, they haven’t made much progress. Who wants to see a half-done tourist trap.
Listen up all you rally-goers coming across I-90… in Wyoming, you should take a break from the slab, exiting onto Highway 16 West from Buffalo. It takes you over the Bighorn Range, through Cody and into Yellowstone. Those riding GS models, and all you airheads who don’t mind a little ground pounding, instead of taking 16 into Yellowstone, take 120 north from Cody, look for Chief Joseph Highway, take it to 212 West (you’ll miss the Beartooth Pass, or you can run up and down it for giggles), then west into Yellowstone. This is a world-class ride, but 212 as it gets to Yellowstone, as well as the road going in the park’s northeast entrance, is abominable. I loved it!!! But not for bikes with wheels that bend easily.
Strange things on Days 4 &5:
New Tom on Mount Rushmore.
It’s now George, the new Tom, Ted and Abe. And I’ve got pictures to prove it.
As we approached Devil’s Tower, strange forces took hold. My odometer clicked over 8080 miles, the same number as my license plate. And at the same time, the same number appeared over the Tower… in purple! Coincidence? I think not! And once again, I’ve got a picture to prove it.
A thousands thanks!
As we head into Helena, my odometer clicks over 9000 miles. Every time my odometer rolls over another thousand miles, I spend the next mile giving thanks to God… thanks for this fine world, for my fine family, and a great motorcycle to ride. You may think this strange, but I don’t. Life is good.
Retired in Missoula
I started this trip with about 1K on a new set of tires. I have been nursing these puppies big-time all across the continent…which is very strange for me. But when I got to Helena, with another 3K to go before getting to Alaska, I got paranoid about my rear tire being able to make it. So… I swung by Missoula and bought a new one. I saw the rally site (no dental floss to be found) and visited the local dealer: Smith & Jones. Met the owner, Rich Gates… really nice guy. He kept his shop open an extra hour so that I didn’t have to stay overnight.
So here I am with Tom and now Ted… the Wasserman in the Alaska Sojourn logo.
Stay tuned… things are bound to get really strange tomorrow… we’re heading into Canada.
Oh Canada, Eh? (Oui?)
Canada is cool… literally and figuratively. These people really have it together, even if their money is worth 30% less than ours. Everyone smiles, everyone is nice to you, everyone has a lyrical accent, and no one is sarcastic, cynical or even the least bit jaded (at least out here in the sticks). I’ve spent quite a bit of time in almost every part of Canada and I get exactly the same impression: I love this place, I love these people, and I would really like to live here. In the summer.
After many days of riding past strange things in the USA, I haven’t seen many weird things in Canada except the bilingual signage. I mean, you see signs in every National Park that say things like: Canadian Lake/Lac Canadian. Everyone knows that the French are contrary, but this starts to feel like you’re living in a house with a big white line painted down the middle of it. Come on, you guys… work it out!
We entered Canada just north of Missoula & Whitefish, Montana at the Port of Roosville. “What kind of guns are you carrying with you?” asked the nice Canadian Customs man, who assumes that all motorcyclists carry guns (or is it every American?) “I’m not carrying any guns,” say I, to which he responded “Do you have any weapons to declare?” Now, not wanting to get a cavity search at the Canadian border, I bit my tongue and politely respond “No sir, no weapons of any kind.” I thought it wise not to tell him about my Leatherman tool.
We rode through the Canadian Rockies, which are way rockier than ours. Tom went ga-ga over them, and he thanked me for being so persistent about riding this way when we were planning this trip months ago (back then he wondered what the big deal was…). Our first day through this area took us over the mountains, past Numa Falls to Lake Louise and then to Yoho Pass… where we wimped out and stayed in a fancy lodge and had a fru-fru dinner and slept in beds.
The next day (Day Seven) through the area was much more challenging. We started early, and it was cold and wet for several hours of riding along the Icefields Parkway. Unfortunately, many of the mountain views we had traveled so far to see were shrouded in clouds. But enough were visible to make the miserable conditions worthwhile. We had to pull out nearly all the stops in our preparations. But we were macho men and left the electric jackets packed away. We didn’t want to use our last line of defense so far south… we had a long way north to go and needed the psychological “margin.”
Heading out of the hills, we went off northwestward through Prince George and stopped to camp alongside Francois Lake. For the most part the countryside was unremarkable… looked like just about anywhere. Every trip has some of this… no big deal.
Day eight took us into the middle of nowhere along the Cassiar Highway. Going this way is a tad shorter than the western approach to the Alaska Highway, but the real reason we chose this route was for the gravel roads. Our R11GS machines really showed their stuff, handling us, all our gear and 75mph power slides around corners with casual aplomb. These motorcycles are by far and away the ideal mounts for this trip. I honestly can’t think of anything more suitable short of a Hummer… and those suck too much $2.50-a-gallon gas to be practical!
It was a dusty, bumpy and long ride… and I loved every mile. Right now I’m sitting at Red Goat campground, listening to Grateful Dead’s Mars Hotel and typing on the PC, sitting next to the campfire beside the lake. I’ve done my voicemail & answered my e-mail. Somehow I’m going to figure out how to do this all the time!
We’re near Denali National Park tonight (June 30, Day 11), and gonna bag a park stamp for our passports tomorrow am. Getting to Denali involved some of the best riding I’ve ever experienced.
From the Red Goat Campground on the Cassiar Highway we headed to the signpost forest in Watson Lake. I managed to park next a sign from Snellville, GA (just a few miles from where I live) completely by chance. Strange, eh?/oui?
From there, we head northwest on the Alaska Highway and after a gorgeous ride that included crossing the Cassiar Mountains land in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. I was surprised at the excellent condition of the road, especially after everything I’d heard to the contrary. The next morning we changed oil, adjusted valves and hit the trail to finally enter Alaska.
The next day (Monday, June 29) the Alaska Highway lived up to its reputation. The remainder of the Yukon Territory consisted of alternating stretches of fabulous scenery and treacherous road conditions. The mountains and lakes are completely unspoiled, but the same can’t be said for the road. Frost heaves and motorhomes have a lot to do with this, along with a very short season for maintenance and repair.
If you’re planning on riding to Alaska after the National Rally (or at any time, for that matter) please don’t believe the statement that the Alaska Highway is completely paved. There are miles and miles of construction, with loose gravel, major league potholes, and frost heave that will tear the suspension right off your bike. And that doesn’t even count the trucks throwing gravel at you (and I’ve got the fractured eyeglasses to prove it.)
Needless to say, the R11GS is the ideal motorcycle for this trip. It handles all this adversity without even breaking a sweat. This is a world-class bike and it has actually made these rough roads enjoyable. I wouldn’t ride my K-bike here… the potholes would bend the wheels, the gravel would trash the bodywork and the attention required to avoid all the bumps instead of just riding over them would be exhausting.
Take a right turn at Sunset
One last strange thing before we leave Canada (where there was nowhere near as much strangeness in the US)… the sun sure takes its time setting up here at the top of the world. In fact, it barely sets at all. It gets close to the horizon, starts taking a right turn, and finally dips below the horizon at about 1 am. Sunrise it at 3 am… it seems like night because you’re tired, but it doesn’t look like night. It’s day, but there’s no one around… eerie… kinda like the Omega Man movie.
As we entered Alaska, back in the US, the strangeness picked up as if on cue. It seems that ancient man chose to leave messages in the sand along the Alaska highway. They did this by stacking rocks in recognizable patterns on the banks along the side of the road. Some people wrote primitive messages, such as their name, others made pictures… and it looks as if some of these primitive images have been copied in these modern times. I have the pictures to prove it!
The day ended in Tok, Alaska (pronounced “toke”… no jokes, please), where we stopped and ate at the Gateway Salmon Bake, eating our fill of salmon, reindeer sausage and beef ribs… real biker food.
(picture of salmon bake place)
Today (June 30), was one of the best rides of my life. We departed toke, uh…. Tok, early, rode the Glenn Highway past some excellent mountains and some awful construction, and found our way to the Denali Highway… the original route to the Denali National Park. What a great road, about 100 miles long, only 20 of them paved. We were (and have been) extremely lucky with the weather… we got an excellent view of Mt. McKinley (or Mt. Denali, depending on how PC you are).
Stopping for lunch at the Gracious House was a real experience…. a very strange place, smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, staffed by 60’s holdovers who had visited Tok perhaps once (or twice) too often. The cook was the best… by his own admission the guy could only do one thing at a time, otherwise he would get, uh… confused. Definitely one Tok over the line! I apologize… I completely forgot to take a picture of this place… perhaps I should stay away from Tok on our way back home, eh?/oui?
So here we sit, two days into Alaska, with 6 remaining before heading to the National Rally back in Missoula. We’re having a great time, and looking forward to more.