Well, today was the day of departure. The group was going it’s separate ways: Ray & Karen up the Klondike Highway, Kevin & Karen running errands and doing a day trip around Whitehorse, and us headed to Anchorage to get a new chain.
The morning greeted us with bluebird skies, with barely a trace of tiny clouds scattered throughout. We knew it was Solstice, and didn’t have set plans. Bear & I had imagined a few options – camping early, taking lots of photos, maybe doing some writing, but there was no way we could have planned how beautiful the day would turn out.
We woke up slowly, taking our time as we packed. There were hot showers and Bear saved me $2, which meant I had 10 whole minutes waiting for me! It’s so easy to wake up this way, and Bear was so sweet to make oatmeal & coffee while I cleaned up. The other two couples were consulting their maps and GPS to decide their routes and plans, and we knew that there was a lot of sunlight ahead of us, so we continued to pack up slowly.
After they all had left and we had said our goodbyes, we kept packing and oiled our chains. My chain was still a bit on the loose side, but better too loose than too tight. Right about then, Ray & Karen rode back with good news–they had just been holding a 525, 120-link o-ring chain! Where they found it? The Suzuki dealer & Repair shop. So Bear & I finished packing, and headed over to the shop.
Ray was right-they had the chain and I was able to pick it up for a good price. Roughly the same as what it would cost down in California. The only downer was, they were booked 2 weeks out, and couldn’t put it on for us. We decided to play our luck with the Honda dealership, hoping they still had availability to install it for us. We rode over there, and were in luck, but their mechanic was just leaving for his lunch break. So Bear & I took a lunch too, and came back an hour or so later. They swiftly put my bike in the shop and installed the new chain for us, and by 4:30 we were all set to start our days ride.
It felt so much better having a new chain on, I’m obviously not a mechanic or motorcycle guru, but I could feel the difference in vibration in my foot pegs, and could feel the difference when I shifted between gears. The subtle lurching that I had become accustomed to accompanied by a warble in the foot peg vibration was no longer there… only a smooth and consistant purr and driving sense of power was evident. I could ride all night! And lucky for us, it was solstice so we should have plenty of daylight to go 250 or so miles!
We took off for Anchorage, via the Alcan Highway. Weather was still incredible, even hot! Sunny and blue skies, intermittent clouds, and hardly any traffic to be found. There were incredibly long stretches with no cars, long, straight runs through humungous valleys edged by ragged mountains. It was this way for 70 or so miles, then the frost heaves really kicked in.
We had been warned about the “potholes” on this journey, but in our minds a pothole is a roundish or ovalish shape, sometimes as large as a manhole cover, where the asphalt has a sharp and sudden drop two to four inches or so then a bit of gravel below.
These weren’t potholes that we were looking out for, these were entire sections of the road that had dropped in varying patterns.
Some drops were the length of a car or two, and could drop about 2 to 4 feet. They had swooping edges, scooped and smooth looking, but the very edge where the asphalt had bent was still a little sharp and could really give you a jolt. If you slowed down to around 5o mph they were pretty fun, unless the closing edge was sharp, then it would kindof boost you up in the air a bit. Riding above the seat for these made me feel like a jockey, with my bike disappearing below me just to meet my seat again seconds later.
Some drops were along the side of the highway, so they were more like ovals creeping into the road. Sometimes they would eat up the entire right lane, sometimes just half of the lane. These drops were similar as above, but since the location was along the side, the round shape could really trick your tires. The entry and exit angles become vital for staying on the bike, not entering at a parallel to the drop was very important. Most of the time, since there was such little traffic, we would bypass our lane entirely by swerving into the oncoming traffic lane (vacant of cars, of course) and use the unbroken asphalt to drive on.
And then some drops weren’t drops at all, but devilish canyons of doom. Imagine the regular tar-filled crack line that most of us are used to seeing, but then make that a foot or two wide, with rounded edges. These “wiggle woops” would wander their own sweet way along the road, sometimes starting from nowhere, and getting wider or thinner, zigging and zagging through the lane. More than once, these would sneak up on me, and it was really difficult to not freak out while wrestling with the bike to keep it upright.
The most challenging part of this road, was the mental involvement in spotting these varying drops before we were upon them. Shadows and texture changes are incredibly helpful, and for most of the light it was easy to spot them and choose a good line through. Sometimes though, the lighting didn’t change, but the wiggly woops would be right there, and all of a sudden you had to swerve and doge and try to enter or exit at more of a perpendicular angle.
This went on for miles and miles, hours and hours.
We stopped in for gas and a snack at Destruction Bay, and met a doppelgänger for one of our musician friends back home. Literally, this gal was a spitting image of our friend, and she was even a musician! She and the cook kept us company, and filled us in on local life in the Yukon. They let us know that there was a piano graveyard right across the highway, and we had to check it out. The story is, that there was a truck driver with a load of pianos back in the day, and his truck somehow caught fire. There was no way he could save the cargo, so he pulled over and let it burn.
We rode over to the driveway they had told us about, parked our bikes, and went for a very short stroll through mosquito-ridden brush. Then, in awe, mystery, and dispair, were the weathered remains of once-pristine upright pianos. Story & Clark, hand-painted soundboards, stamped iron surrounds the rusted metal pedals… these were bound for the north before Alaska was a state, probably during a gold rush and some striped-shirt wearing man would make these sing for ladies in petticoats on some wooden stage lit with the first stretch of electricity…
It was a sacred place and a sad place and filled me with wonder and quiet… seeing these instruments that in normal condition make my heart sing in such a state of beautiful decay was just quiet. The artist in me was stunned at how beautiful the dried and peeling wood was, the singular white tips on the ends of the broken keys, the hammers still holding on but unable to strike a sound, the strings still stretched and full of rusted vibrations. Relatively in key, Bear stroked his fingernails along the span of the strings, making the beautiful remains alive for a moment, then dead and blending in with their surroundings.
Carcasses. One could mistake them for these. Statues. One could say that as well.
I’d never seen anything like this piano graveyard, and I won’t forget it anytime soon. It did make me wish for a moment to play it, but I didn’t dare touch the keys for fear they could crumble even more. Some things are just too beautiful to touch.
We left Destruction Bay around 10:30 pm, and the daylight was still ample. This is the stretch of road we had been double-warned about, between the bay and Beaver Creek the potholes were supposed to be especially bad. And they were. Since the light wasn’t overhead anymore, the change of shapes was easier to see, and the hours that passed felt like my closest experience to a motorcycle race. Zipping and dodging, slowing down and speeding up, swerve here, stand on the footpegs there, it was a full-body, full-mind coordinated workout.
Just when it started to seem frustrating or exhausting, we would see something incredibly beautiful that would remind us of how alone we were in this beautiful Yukon Territory, and how incredibly lucky we were to be here. No traffic for hours and hours, just rows and rows of these tiny dwarf pine or spruce trees that bend in every direction, with tiny limbs and tufts at their very tops. They are Dr. Seuss trees, for sure. He must have been to the Yukon to illustrate his books.
Then the sun started to “set”. This isn’t a noticeable event like it is back home, it’s just that the lighting continues to slooooowly change. The clouds begin to show a slightly pink hue, like cotton candy tufts on a robin’s egg blue sky. The trees slowly become silhouettes against the backdrop, and the mountain ridges in the distance become flat shapes of torn colored paper. The clouds began to form sherbet orange edged dark clusters, then they offer windows for the rays to shoot through, creating vibrant orange shafts of light that last forever.
Countless times my attention would veer from avoiding the winding drop offs and whoops and dips, to the sky, saying, “Bear-it’s just so beautiful!!!”
What a wonder! To have the most technical riding we’ve needed to be a part of happening at the same time as the longest sunset of the year! How fortunate are we!? We rode and rode, looking for the perfect place to stop and take a picture. The featured image above is just one moment in the long spanse of beauty we saw on our way to Beaver Creek…
The towns up in the north often aren’t really towns, but a ramshackle building with some aging gas pumps under an awning. Beaver creek was a bit bigger than this, and had proper billboards and advertisements for multiple gas stops, RV stops, and vehicle repair shops. That’s when I saw a sign that said “Camping! Motorcycles Welcome”
We took the gravel drive back, guessed at which way to turn when the road forked, and found ourselves in a very nice deserted campground. It was small, maybe only 10 spots, but the whole thing had a gravel floor and a once-useful cook shack. The door on the outhouse was locked, and the shack was a bit falling apart, but this would be our home for tonight. After all, it was after 1:30 am, and we were feeling pretty tired at this point.
I turned on the Thermacell, and we set up our tent. Since this spot looked a little on the edge and potentially on a bear path, we put our food cache well away from the tent and bikes. Sleepily tucked in our bags, we congratulated each other on such great riding. This is something we try to do often, because we know this can be stressful for the both of us at times. It’s important to try and verbalize the good things, not just talk about how hard the road was, because the truth is, it was sooo beautiful! We had never seen a sunset like that, in scenery like that, and will probably not see one again anytime soon. We are blessed, and we were pretty sure we were getting free camping that night. That meant more money for food the next day! And hungry motorcycle artist musicians love a good meal 🙂
Goodnight, longest day of the year, Goodnight Yukon Territory, for tomorrow we will ride into Alaska!