"And what is your destination?" the Canadian Customs officer inquired.
"We're headed up the Alaska Highway" I replied.
"Do you understand the distance?" she asked.
The inquiry was void of any real concern -- obviously a standard line from Interrogation 101.
"Are you carrying any fruits or vegetables? Alcohol, tobacco or firearms? Any dead bodies in the trunk? And by the way, did you know Alaska's a friggin' long, long way from here?"
"Yes, we understand the distance," I chirped back. But as Evans and Verlin and I rode away, I wondered if we did. Perhaps miles and sense don't add up to distance on the Alaska Highway.
Sure we'd read the books and stared at the maps, but the truth was, we had absolutely no idea what lay ahead.
Normally I carry a warm, fuzzy blanket of expectations on motorcycle trips, but this time I felt only the invigorating chill of inevitable adventure. We'd heard the tales of bike-swallowing mud, moose attacks and man-eating mosquitoes. It's also well known that on the Alaska Highway roadside assistance is preformed mostly by grizzly bears, and if you happen to be unfortunate enough to require emergency medical services, the odds favored vultures over Life Flight by several hours.
Tall tales aside, it was a certainty that food, lodging and fuel would be scarce. We'd made no reservations since we had no idea what daily mileage road and weather conditions would allow. Winters this far north eat pavement for breakfast, and though they spend all summer trying, construction crews simply cannot keep up with the damage. July is the ideal window for travel to Alaska, but we knew rain was a certainty and snow a definite possiblity. We were about to ride into a little chunk of Grey Area, the enduring hinterland of North America.
What we found in the long, dream-fulfilling days that followed was that we had no understanding of the distance -- the mileage, yes, but not the scope. There's a whole world up there that doesn't mirror our own cozy existence. It's vast and wild and the human element hasn't made a dent.
The Alaska Highway officially begins in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, at the "0" milepost. This isn't anything like "Dawson's Creek," home of principally attractive and sexually active teenagers bent on emotional growth. It's a high-plains town that could just as well be Kansas except the vast fields here brim with flowering canola instead of corn. We did meet two small boys who were fascinated with our motorcycles. They assured us they were going to have their fathers install engines on their bicycles immediately.
Getting this far into Canada can be a quest in itself depending on where you're coming from, but strangely, once beneath the famous Alaska Highway sign, it feels like the journey begins anew. We had an easy and very scenic two-day ride up from our meeting place in Bellingham, Washington. If you're traveling from the East, the favored route has you enter Canada above Great Falls, Montana. Coming from this direction you can take in the magnificence of Banff and Jasper National Parks and the Canadian Rockies that you'll be flanking most of the way to Alaska.
By the time you actually reach the official start of the Alaska Highway you'll have gotten the idea that road hazard warning signs in British Columbia don't match their American counterparts. One idiosyncrasy is they often use pictures instead of helpful words like "Loose Gravel" or "Bump." It's like a game of Pictionary where you're only given about three seconds to guess. Once you're bouncing or sliding across the hazard it all becomes very obvious. The worded signs weren't always more enlightening. Our favorite was "Don't pass into oncoming traffic." Okay, thanks. And can someone please tell me what a flashing green light means? The most endearing thing we noticed is that Canada's little slippery-when-wet guy is wearing a smart little fedora while he fishtails. Our American slippery guy is about to swap ends in the identical sedan yet we didn't think to give him a hat.
You learn to have a keen eye for road hazards signs once you're on the Alaska Highway, and we can tell you that sometimes they just aren't there. It might be easier if they only marked the sections of smooth pavement, or perhaps they could just place one enormous warning sign in Dawson Creek that says "Crappy Road next 1422 Miles."
Home Is Where You hang Your Helmet
A couple of righteous bumps and one long, sobering grated bridge out of Dawson Creek and everything seemed suddenly and stupendously different. The grassy plains began to churn, then erupt into mountains. A heavy storm greeted us there yet did not sodden our spirits, and the Peanut M&M-sized hail served only to heighten our sense of challenge and confirm our escape from normality. The storm was dark and dramatic, but as we breached its far edge, the setting sun crept beneath the clouds and colored the sky gold and peach. The wet road stretching north before us reflected deep steel blue and a delicate steam rose lazily toward the darkening sky. The bikes made the mist swirl up from the road in smoke-like tendrils.
This incredible storm and ensuing sunset had been wildly exhilarating, at least for Evans and me, and we were pretty giddy as we pulled into the muddy parking lot of the Pink Mountain Motel. (Although the entire Alaska Highway is surfaced, there are oddly no paved parking lots.) It turned out Verlin had to ride for almost 30 miles kneeling on the tank of the Royal Star Venture in order to see beyond its gigantic windshield and he was a bit non-plussed. The sunlight refracting on the wet windshield had made it virtually impossible him to see the road, much less enjoy the powerful visual display. After a quick vote it was decided the Yamaha had a date with a hacksaw in its future.
Motels on the Alaska Highway are nothing like the common chain-style variety we've grown so accustomed to. They might be cute, bizarre, tacky, quaint, rustic or ramshackled -- but you won't find anything that even approaches ordinary. The motel at Pink Mountain where we stopped that first night is a classic example. The big cinderblock building looked more like a crematorium than a motel, or maybe an overgrown peep show palace. Certainly it didn't look like anything in the Milepost Travel Guide. Inside it was set up like a mental ward. Most of the guests were sitting in a central area that resembled an underground bunker watching (of all things) the movie "Fargo." We had to drag our gear through the middle of this scene, dripping wet, one load at a time. At some point a woman said, "Boy they have a lot of shit!"
Down the narrow red, bare-bulbed hallway we went, into tiny cubicles that were also fantastically weird.
The place wasn't bad weird though; it was just bizarre, which felt perfect. Wherever we landed the establishments were clean and inviting, and the variety made it that much more wonderful. For example, the next night we stayed upstairs in a huge log house at Laird Hot Springs. We never had a problem finding rooms on the highway and the prices were always reasonable, considering they had us by the soft pillows. Our camping gear never saw the light of day.
Don't expect much variety when it comes to food though. I ate bacon cheeseburgers so many days in a row we worried we'd have bad luck if I ordered something different. The surprise about the food is how much is made fresh each day. We delighted in the wonderful baked breads served at almost every restaurant. Even the burgers were blessed with lovely homemade buns.
There was also a steady supply of soup, stew and chili to warm your belly and fresh pies to top it all off. At afternoon stops we often found ourselves gorging on delectable bakery treats. We fell deeply in love with butter tarts and stuffed our saddlebags with them.