June 10, 2012
Denali – Valdez, AK: 370 miles
“The sky was blue and the sun was shining. My spirits were lifted and I was pumped to head for the Denali Highway, 130 miles of gravel road through one of the most scenic remote areas in Alaska.” (Journal excerpt)
I was up early, eager to enjoy the nice weather. I made coffee and ate oatmeal in the hostel kitchen while writing postcards for everyone back home. The excitement I felt, contrary to my depression yesterday, was almost unbearable. I felt like a child that could hardy sit still in anticipation of riding a roller coaster before exploding with thrill. I knew the weather could change fast and I was fervent to enjoy the little bit of blue sky and sunshine I finally had.
I packed up the bike and headed to the post office down the road before realizing it was Sunday. I had lost track of the days from traveling. They were all starting to blur together, not to mention, my mind was fogged with dreams of riding the epic road ahead. I stowed the cards away safe in a zip-lock, so they would stay dry if it decided to rain later.
I headed back to Cantwell to fuel up the bike and RotoPax. I knew I’d be stretching it thin to get to the next gas station in Paxton on the other side of the Denali Highway. All was ready and I headed down the gravel road.
“The scenery was unbelievable. I felt like I was riding through a painting from some fantasy enchanted land. It was unreal. There was open tundra with streams and ponds surrounded with lush grasses and snow tipped peaks in the background. The mountains were so massive a photograph couldn’t even capture it.” (Journal excerpt)
The condition of the road was worse than I imagined. Heavy rains made sections soft and muddy causing my tires to slip and fish side to side. I stayed in the tire tracks made by other drivers avoiding the deep mess while averaging 5mph.
Other sections consisted of hard packed gravel similar to the Top of the World Highway that made cruising a bit easier and less stressful. However, the gravel often included large rocks that would grab my tires and jerk my handle bars around. I had to ride with strong arms but soft joints to bare the impact and keep the bike straight.
Pot holes scattered the road everywhere. They were impossible to miss. I crossed a bridge at one point with a lip on the end to meet the road. As I came off the bridge I went straight down into a deep pot hole hidden on the other side. I felt the forks bottom out hard and suddenly heard a loud dragging sound on the tire.
The edge of the road had thick gravel rimming a deep ditch. I stopped in the middle of the road to avoid possible disaster while preparing myself for a disappointing halt to my adventure. I walked around to the front of the bike wincing as I barely squinted a look. The fender was fractured on one side hanging half way off, lying on the tire.
I was relieved it seemed trivial. I can ride without a fender. It didn’t look repairable so I helped finish the job and ripped it off the other side, freeing it from the forks. I chuckled thinking how naked the front of the bike looked now. It almost looked like a dirt bike, which it may as well have been for this ride.
I felt it was my endowment to Denali, a piece of armor sacrificed as a contribution in humble respect for the epic road. It was my token for passing through the untamed territory on two wheels unscathed. I carried it with me the rest of my journey.
I realized at this moment my side cases were getting caught in the shocks and ripped from the bottom seam. I had already duct taped them when I noticed the holes but now that was failing as well on the bumpy road. There wasn’t much I could do about it, other than raise the cases a bit higher. However, I was unwilling to unload all my gear to make that adjustment in the middle of the Denali Highway. They would just have to do.
I continued on averaging 15-30mph. I wanted to find a place to hike around but there was never a good place to park the bike safely. I hardly saw a soul and continued stopping in the middle of the road to take pictures.
I knew there was no way I could capture its beauty thoroughly enough to serve it justice. Around every bend in the road and over every hill my eyes were stunned with such exquisite magnificence I wanted to record every image in my mind forever.
It took me seven hours to get to the other side of the Denali Highway. I was surprised I almost made it without pulling out the RotoPax. It’s amazing how much gas you save when you slow down. I finally refueled just ten miles or so from Paxton. It’s a good thing I had it too, because when I got to Paxton, the gas station was closed. I’m glad I wasn’t relying on it.
I headed South on the Richardson Highway until Gakona Junction at the Tok Cutoff 56 miles away. When I got there I was exhausted and starving. I realized I was so excited on the Denali Highway I hardly ate or even rested in the last seven hours. All I did was ride and take pictures from the middle of the road.
It was starting to sprinkle, but I could still see blue sky in the direction of Valdez which kept me optimistic. I pondered going back up to Tok to the motorcycle campground 125 miles away. But I had heard Valdez was a beautiful “must see” town to visit in Alaska. It was another 130 miles, but if I could get a second wind, I wanted to take advantage of the little time I had left riding in Alaska. My time was passing too quickly.
I was sick of my trail mix and peanut butter but my options in the store were limited. I bought a loaf of white bread, pack of sliced cheese, and bologna. I made my sandwiches on the porch out of the rain while I contemplated what to do.
I had never enjoyed white bread and bologna so much as I did then. I think I ate four sandwiches. I would never have thought to eat such a thing in “normal” life. But it gave me the energy I needed. Plus, anything different from what I had been eating was far superior.
I decided to head for Valdez keeping my fingers crossed that I’d ride out of the rain. I settled back onto the highway at a comfortable cruising speed thankful to be on smooth pavement. Every now and then, I’d catch a glimpse of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline all the way to Valdez.
Just 50 miles before getting to Valdez, I stopped for gas at Tiekel River Lodge. The rain had stopped and the sky was still blue. When I went inside to pay, the gentleman there was very friendly and seemed just as excited as I was about the weather. I told him I was headed to Valdez. He said I was a lucky girl to have a clear day and to hurry up and get there before anything changed. It was rare to see the mountains on the coast of Valdez.
The next 25 miles of the Richardson Highway were gorgeous winding between the Chugach Mountains. After passing Mount Billy Mitchell the highway began a steep twisty climb perfect for any motorcycle enthusiast. The hairpin turns spiraled around the mountain passing Worthington Glacier all the way to Thompson Pass.
This is where I felt I was on the top of the world. When I summited the pass I felt my heart lift and I smiled and laughed thinking of Dan. I could feel his face in my face and imagine his expressions in my expressions. I knew he was there and felt giddy being there with him.
The elevation is only 2,678 feet, however it’s above treeline showing bare-bone peaks of the snowy Chugach Mountains as far as the eye can see. It was breathtaking. Snow poles marked the edge of the highway for snow plows and the road looked as if it would fall off the edge of the world.
The next 7 miles descended the mountain with steep switch-back turns and dropped me back to sea level in just a quick fifteen minute ride. The change of environment was amazing. I went from an arctic wintry terrain to a lush canyon following a river winding along steep rocky cliffs blanketed with emerald moss laden rocks and waterfalls trickling down to the road. It was just as majestic as any fairy tale setting.
I came into town and headed to Valdez Glacier Campground. It was a cheap $10/night so I got settled with my site and wandered around the campground. There was a beautiful waterfall close by and nesting bald eagles I could hear from my tent. They were nesting above one of the campsites that were blocked off to not disturb them.
I talked to the camp host about trails to the Glacier, and he offered to take me up there tomorrow since the trail was hard to find and follow. I asked if I should worry about bears and my bike overnight. He said the bears recently got into someone’s cooler and he couldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t be intrigued by a motorcycle with food in the cases. He let me borrow a blow horn just in case I had a problem.
It was good to be in the tent again, although sleeping was a bit difficult worrying about bears. Eventually I fell asleep. It was the first time sleeping in my tent in Alaska.