After perhaps the liveliest non-rallies I’ve experienced—Dust to Dawson—the road to Thompson’s Eagle’s Claw Campground in Tok beat backward under us. I rose the following morning muddy-eyed having burnt the candle down to a nub. Stepping out of Tok and leaving behind the fairytale of trees whose brindled bark reminded me of muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason, we rode into a peevish wind towards Fairbanks. The sky told of something dark and foreboding, evening-coloured beneath an unbroken ceiling of charcoal grey at two in the afternoon. I got the most spectacular chills. Something wayward and menacing, wild as the day was long, not knowing a forest fire had triggered part of the expansive cloud cover.
Refuelling the bikes and bodies at Josh’s place in Fairbanks, a two-day ride up the Dalton Highway was all that stood between us and reaching the journey’s end. Northbound, at least. Forewarned by a good moto-friend wizened to the Dalton Highway that when the calcium chloride road gets wet, it’s like riding snot on marbles, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were in for a lively 500-mile slog.
I leaned over to Jase in the wee hours and whispered nervously, “Are you awake?” But he was already far gone into the night, mouth open, snoring like a truffling hog. Even my earplugs threw in the towel having to admit defeat over the cacophony of noise emerging. My body was tight as a bowstring, tensed to fire off a woman’s heart on a final path to glory or damnation. I pulled up the sleeping bag and tried to sleep like a desperado.
Lo!—our four day weather window to Prudhoe Bay and back was set to be glorious. Believing I’d somehow curried favour with Mother Nature where every crack in my soul could be chinked with the her sunny interval keeping the calcium chloride dry, I wasn’t about to question it. I declared the weather forecast legendary: a unicorn. No slimy roads for us on this occasion; by the grace of Mother Nature and some high pressure, we were about to be spared that frustration. The perfect excuse to break off from the Fishhook Fatties, and climax our two-wheeled jaunt: up the Dalton until we run out of road.
True to predictions and absent of snot on marbles, an easygoing 250 miles deposited us at Wiseman, just 13 miles from Coldfoot; the last place to gas up for the remaining 250 miles and halfway point to Deadhorse and Prudhoe. Turning left at Milepost 189 and then 3 miles farther on, alongside the middle fork of the Koyukuk River, awaited Jim “Clutch” Lounsbury: a larger-than-life retired goldminer who beamed broadly as we pulled in.
An avid fan of moto-travellers, Jim dressed in old blue denim dungarees, sporting an “Alaskan Pioneers” cap. Grinning through a great big white beard, I couldn’t deny his shaggy appeal, a real character. Not to mention a consummate ladies’ man who exuded all the mature playboy charm you could wish for. But tempered with a deep vein of generosity. Heck, he was Alaska’s equivalent of Coco at Coco’s Corner on the Baja.
He was a fourth generation Alaskan miner whose grandfather was one of Alaska’s early Gold Rush pioneers. Residing in a snug wooden house on a lush piece of land: also home to mining machinery used by the early pioneers on his front lawn, gold-mining artefacts in a small museum and wildflowers everyplace. Quiet, remote and rustic, a campground steeped in rich history.
Fed and watered on steak and beer, the following morning gave rise to the Dalton’s second act. The sun gleamed through the canopy of trees above my head where the sky was a flag-waving, patriotic shade of blue, making it a day teetering on perfection for the last push. The scenery took on a bleak Wuthering Heights aspect, the only feature vying for one’s attention being the pipeline, which pretty much follows you all the way from Fairbanks to the top.
The landscape had a raw, peculiar beauty to it, which transformed into epic at Atigun Pass. A dramatic high mountain pass across the Brooks Range (where the Dalton Highway crosses the Continental Divide, and is the highest pass in Alaska that is maintained throughout the year), with strong resemblance to those found in Patagonia, northwestern Scotland or New Zealand, take your pick: it’s impressive.
Although Jason did let it slip that he was starting to feel cheated by northern Alaska with its bland blue skies and optimum riding conditions. “What now?!” A recent bad spell had just seen potent weather of marble-sized hailstorms, four inches of snow and heavy rains. Eyes rolling into the back of my head, I happily ignored him and carried on watching for the Dall sheep on the upper slope, around 500 caribou and the odd moose grazing while our wheels drummed below on the smooth dirt road.
Just off the highway, there was even a family of muskox, which if you haven’t seen, are heavily built goat-antelopes with thick straight-haired curtains for coats. Made distinctive by their large curved horns, presented in a Lego lady meets Viking hairstyle. A rare find to my mind, compensating well for the lack of grizzlies.
A long but highly doable day on the bikes saw us take a final pit stop 70 miles from Deadhorse. Belting it up the Dalton and pulling several eye-bulging wheelies, changing gear mid-wheelie just because he could, over comes Lyndon Poskitt. A moto-racer that rides the bike (a bored out 690cc KTM to a 730cc) he races from place to place; cue his brand name, Races to Places. Great to meet the guy whose thick Yorkshire accent went a long way in making me think of home. And builder’s tea for some reason! That will be the Tetley.
Around 35 miles up to Deadhorse treated me to a white-knuckle ride on a loose section of road under construction. If I’m going to cruise beneath warm sunny skies to this point, I’ve at least got to earn the last smidgeon of it. My stratagem: to keep riding. Like a drunken sailor in part but press-ganged into the ride more by myself than anyone else, I was inclined to be brutal to myself. I reached down into my mind, held my breath and got Pearl to swim deeper. Drowning in doubt, hardcore and the solid hot-licorice feel of adrenaline, Lyndon managed to pull me on the riptide of his confidence. Awestruck by his fluid style of riding—the at-one-with-his-moto length of bone and muscle that he is—I hoped that a little bit of his magic had rubbed off on me.
I found that more or less against my will I’d become capable only, singularly, of making it. I suppose it was stubborn resolve, though I didn’t taste anything like sweet determination in my mouth. I wavered, tyres everyplace in the gravelly soil. I glared at the choppy road ahead and called up yet another fistful of energy from my empty reserves. The road looked continuous in theory from here to somewhere distant.
I laughed in my pure, unenlightened struggle. After all this time, my journey was set to continue as a great enterprise of balance: feeling good, Pearl flies. Feeling tentative and we nosedive accordingly. (A textbook example materialized on the way down from Prudhoe where I didn’t much slow below 60mph all the way to Wiseman: loving life and savouring the release of having done it.)
HURRAH! We. Have. Made. It.
Where there’s pinnacle pleasure, there’s Prudhoe Bay and all told, a good deal more. Three minutes into our arrival, I noticed there was lot of time up here but not much to spend it on. Not unless you count a hotel bus driver coming hurtling towards us at 20mph as we—a trio of elation—smiled for the birdie in front of Jason’s tripod, stood a few feet away in the road. Clipping Jason’s camera with the wing mirror, the oncoming bus had veered out of its lane into ours, obliterating several thousand dollars into the bargain.
I stopped. My thoughts were thick with panic. A cold sliver of dread needled my chest and whiplashed through my belly. I tried to bring order to my tumultous thoughts while Jason was seething, seeing red. Silence crowded in; to have had our hopes of revelling in our personal little moment at the top raised and then so comprehensively dashed was a hard blow. Not to mention Jason’s expensive pride and joy.
Picking up the remains of the camera and lens, smashed to smithereens, the dread fermented into a sickening brew in my belly. Unbearably raw with a growing sense of desolation invaded the pit of my stomach—Jason’s livelihood and creative outlet to connect with the world would be suspended for the foreseeable.
During a brief conversation with the bus driver, a roar of indifference and lack of culpability lombarded my ears and filled my head to the brink. Betraying no remorse for such an unfortunate turn of events, the aftermath burned with the strength of a snake’s venom in my veins. Thoughts chased around in my head as I fought to stay calm. I did in spite of myself but saw how grief imprinted its tracks on Jason’s face, tightening around his mouth and incredulous eyes. A paroxysm of exasperation.
Lyndon still in tow, we were urged to follow procedure and engage in a group meeting with the hotel safety officer and local law enforcement; tantamount to nothing more than protocol and a civil matter respectively. Sometimes, you just have to draw a line and write these things off. Notwithstanding the inevitable haemorrhage to our budget, which had now plummeted to somewhere below plumb crazy, I forced myself to admit that there had been no harm done to bodies or bikes.
While there were open wounds to lick, leaving a taste in my mouth so bitter your tongue wants to turn itself inside out like a salted slug, the hotel offered us two complimentary rooms with full board. It’s little gestures like this when you’ve not been in a place for five minutes that endear you to it. Even if the memories still rise out of me like a buzz of flies from a carcass—stuff happens, right?
Camera catastrophes dead and buried, reaching the oil production centre from the farthest navigable point on the planet put a somewhat anti-climatic full stop on what has encompassed epic souls and scenery, high highs and a lifetime of firsts over the last two and a half years: motorcycling 47,500 miles side by side through 21 countries. To journey from the furthest place on Earth—Antarctica to the Arctic Circle and about 300 miles beyond. It rang in me like a bell. I couldn’t revert back to my former life in old Blighty for all the gold in the Klondike.
Is the trip over? Crikey no, we’re just getting started.