All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day
When I was a kid, growing up in flat-as-a-pancake and boring as television western Kansas, I led a kind of Walter Mitty life. On the surface, I was a normal kid. I went to school during the week, went to movies and church on Sunday, played sports, threw a paper route and had part-time jobs, and tried to act normal. Under the surface, I read science fiction and adventure books, listened to jazz records, and planned my escape. My two favorite writers were Mark Twain and Jack London. My two favorite escape destinations were California and Alaska. I lived in California for almost a decade and discovered that frontier had been overpopulated long before I got there. Alaska is different.
I read about Twain and London's adventures in the wilderness and among men who risked their lives for a chance at doing something unusual and imagined myself living that kind of life as soon as I ran away from Kansas. I imagined myself saddling up a couple of horses and taking off for some remote part of Canada or Alaska, never to be seen again. The phrase, "this isn't Kansas anymore, Toto" held nothing but positive connotations for me. I couldn't wait to get as far from the Midwest as I could travel. Life didn't turn out the way I'd imagined and I've spent most of my life near the center of this country, including a dozen years in Minnesota. Now that my kids are grown and on their own and I'm in pretty good shape, financially, and in reasonable shape, physically, some of that old wanderlust returned to itch at me.
Three years ago, my 60th birthday was on the horizon and a collection of unrelated events jumpstarted my interest in traveling to Alaska. I began to seriously plan an extended trip to Alaska in the spring and summer of 2007. "Extended," for me, meant more than two weeks. I've been employed since I was 14, so two week vacations have been the limit of my adventures for more than 45 years. I planned to take 30 days to ride to Alaska and back. I mapped a route through northern Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana, up through Alberta, nicking British Columbia, into Alaska. I'd hoped to hit every significant historical and natural high point in the Alaska before I headed back down through British Columbia into Washington. I had a fairly extensive route planned for my return, too. There was a lot of wiggle room in my plan, because I'm usually pretty spontaneous once I get on the road, but I had a specific set of goals in mind for my first real adventure.
Then my wife stepped in and starting maneuvering some "security" into my plans. She, apparently, decided that I'm too old and fragile to do something like this on my own, so she recruited a work friend, Michael, to ride with me. She and I had dozens of conversations about how this wasn't going to happen, but I lost. "Conversation" is the word wives use for "argument" and "agreement" is the word they use for "I won."
For 50-some years, I have done almost every cool thing in my life on my own. I backpack alone, scuba dive alone, bicycle alone, and I dislike riding in a group, even for short distances. A "group" is two or more people. Having someone else along on my first month-long trip was a major concession for me. "Concession" is the word I use for "losing."
Michael and I met once, in January, as part of my wife's plot to get me to take on a co-rider. My wife introduced us. Michael asked when I wanted to leave. I said, "the first of June."
He said, "That's too early, it will be cold."
I said, "That's when I'm going."
He said, "Huh."
He rightly seemed to think I was far too stupid to ride with, if I thought Alaska in June was a good idea. I figured that ended that and went back to planning my trip. In May, my wife mentioned that Michael had put in for his vacation days and had been given the time off from work.
I said, "Huh?"
She had, apparently, continued recruiting him for the trip all through the winter and he'd decided that June was good enough for him. Now I had a co-rider, so I began to rationalize how this might turn out to be a good thing. By mid-May, I'd almost convinced myself a traveling companion would be less uncomfortable than a sharp stick in the eye. I figured we could start off together and, if it didn't work out, we could go our own ways. We'd both been on long solo motorcycle trips and we'd proven we could do it alone. That's the ointment I used on myself to keep from giving up on the trip altogether.
We had one more meeting, a week or so before June 1, and I discovered that Michael had his own route planned and it was a lot different from mine. I assumed we'd be going our own ways a lot sooner than I expected. You know what "assume" means, I assume.
Due to two cases of Midwestern Guilt and both of our well-evolved desire-to-get-along genes, it took us ten days to split up. The first 3,500 miles of my trip plan were scrapped for a route that Michael picked and one that only included a few hundred miles of my plan. I'd waited more than 50 years to make this trip. Some of Michael's plan was better than mine, but I'd have rather gone where I wanted to go. We went north, mid-Montana, into Saskatchewan instead of making the crossing at Glacier National Park where I’d planned to exit the US. We attempted to ride the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, where I crashed, separated a shoulder, cracked a collection of ribs, bruised a kidney, busted a bone in my right hand, and gravel-rash’d my bike and luggage. The Dempster had not been on my route plan, but I'd hoped to make a run at the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse.
In Glennallen, Alaska after a day of rest and maintenance, I was sort of back on track; although I was off schedule and busted up. Michael and I shook hands and began two different adventures. He needed to get back home for work. I needed to get used to being on my own with my mending injuries. I arrived at the base of the Dalton Highway, just north of Fairbanks, where it took me an hour of staring at the road to accept the fact that I was too beat up to take on 1,000 miles of dirt road. As I turned south to explore more of Alaska and Canada, I also realized that I was completely in charge of where I’d go next. The next 6,500 miles and 18 days were some of the best moments of my life, let alone on a motorcycle. Nothing beats being by yourself, in the middle of nowhere, knowing that you are in control of everything that happens in your life at that moment.
So, if my wife ever tries to recruit you into going on a motorcycle trip with me, she's working on her own agenda, not mine. If she tells you I'm old, feeble, incompetent and suicidal, she's probably right. If she tells you that I need someone to take care of me in the wilderness, she's still probably right. If she says I want someone to ride with, she means she wants someone to ride with me. She is working from the purest of motivations. However, she is also working with poorly socialized material; me.
I'm as likely to want company on the road as I am to want you to slide your foot into my airport bathroom stall. I'll call you if I want company, otherwise, I'll be on the road; alone and enjoying my solitude.