Monday, October 28, 2013

Escape to Alaska via Motorcyle

It’s June 3rd, 2010 at 5 o’clock in the morning, my hands hovering over my keys as I take a moment to reconsider my actions.  At this exact moment, I am thinking about all of the emotionally catastrophic events over the previous 2 years, how they shaped my decision to escape.  To the average eye, I had a life most every American would want, but in reality it was all just a façade.  What most didn’t see was that I had just lost an almost 10 year career due to the recession, was bankrupt after 2 years of trying to save my home, my savings was nearly completely liquidated, a now failed marriage, and besides a few items I had tossed haphazardly into a storage shed, my life’s possessions now firmly resided between the two inline wheels of my Harley Davidson motorcycle. 
Preparing to leave

Have you ever heard the anecdote about the man who one day steps out to pick up a pack of cigarettes, and no one hears from him for years? In my mind, in less than 20 minuets this was about to be me.  Reaching down, I snatch up my keys, walk into my garage, press the button on the opener, and proceed to manually roll my bike into the driveway, as starting it is anything but quiet this early in the morning. 

I took a quick photo of my bags piled high on my bike, zipped up my leather coat, and I, in that very moment, chose an adventure I had only dreamed about since childhood, but never thought I’d have the “time”.  Now, in my choosing, all I had was time, an emotional emptiness that needed to be filled, a desire to be free of all the sadness that came with sitting amongst the possessions that now owned me, and starting from Chesapeake Virginia, I squeezed the clutch, pressed down into 1st gear a new life as I headed off across North America without a map, later into Canada, the North West Territories, the Yukon, and then back into Alaska.  Alone.

However, at that precise moment I only felt REAL freedom, and while I thought I was leaving my past behind me, I had no idea how much of it was soon to become my very real future. 

I’ve always been what one might call a dreamer, most definitely an artist, musician, and writer.  I have always been rapt in my desire to travel, to see places, and marvel at things with childlike wonderment.  Though, I can place my first personal desire to travel back to 1984, and a conversation I had with my mother.  In 1984, I told my mother; ‘what an awesome trip it would be to drive to Alaska! I mean just to think about it… that long epic highway out there’, across the continental divide, and just like opening up a can of reverie, it was this conversation that fueled the beginning of what became my motorcycle journey. 

Just as most of us in life, myself included, feel like we wander from tragedy to tragedy.  Somewhere amidst this wandering we most often neglect to revere the good moments.  Why is that? I like to think it’s because of a tragedy's ability to make us change.  Change; some are more open to it than others, and then again, all of us will experience it whether we want it or not.  It’s in what we do with that change that makes our paths illuminated.  In my case my feet always carried me where the wind blew, back and forth, between safety nets, and thus old habits. 

I have always sought out the extraordinary things in life. The only times in my life that I have stood still, accepted the ordinary, or wasn’t constantly fighting to see something new was when I was “in love” or in love with the idea of success.  Otherwise, it would seem I spent my time running away from some kind of heartbreak.  However, these are only the things that shaped my way of thinking, and how when I was at my lowest is when I began my greatest of journeys.  I will say there is one person in my past that started me on this way of life, and how if it weren’t for her, good or bad, I may not have ever known all this beauty in my life, or the ability to appreciate it the way that I do.  I’ve learned that when people discuss love, they talk about heartbreak, or if they discuss desire, it’s only importance is that it remains simply a desire, because once we obtain the desired, that gold can quickly lose it’s beauty.

As I pulled out of my driveway and on to Quailshire Lane, every foot and turn I made had not one single plan.  Even before I left, I only had a loose idea of heading to Alaska, but even then I didn’t have a route plotted, no destinations set in stone, nor did I even know where I’d ultimately decide I’d be finished.  Though, I will say, this was the first time ever that I didn’t care about money, what people thought of me, my career that I just lost, or even my failed marriage – in that moment I stopped caring that my soon to be ex-wife ever even existed in my life.  That may sound cruel, but I had worried about her stability for many years, and I had a deep-seated fear I would come home to her having hurt herself, or gone, but now she was resolved to leaving me regardless. This left me free from the possibility of guilt and it began with the wind in my hair as I literally road off into the sunrise to begin the greatest change I could have ever anticipated. 

Many people choose to “run away” at different points in their life for different reasons, in the Western World be it because of fear, responsibility, over bearing parents, curiosity, but moreover I believe it’s our human consciousness that is apprised of the same emotions we all share and we all crave adventure.  However, it’s in how we deal with these emotions that makes us the people we are to become. 

When I was young, a teacher of mine; told me “that no matter where you run, or why, your problems will eventually catch up with you no matter where it is you go”.  Though, I can say with absolute certainty that that is true, but you can for a short while ignore the past and fill your life with such beautiful wonders that it is hard to dwell on former ails.  Make no mistake in this thought process, as it is only a matter of time before the past will come back and kick your door in. When this occurs we are seldom prepared for it.

Like many people in the US, November of 2008 was the beginning of the 2nd worst recession in US history, the first being “The Great Depression” in the 1930's, and for me it may as well have been called that again except add the number 2 after it and call it "The Sequel".  I, like many other people lost nearly everything, but my story isn’t really about the recession, but what I found along the way on this new road I began.  In that month, America elected the first black president amidst the beginning of a deeply burdened, war tanked, and declining economy.  A month after President Obama’s election, on December 5th, my now estranged ex-wife lost her job.  A year and a half later,  I had a decent little stash of money in cash, (roughly 12K dollars which I had acquired by selling some of my music equipment). I then gave my ex-wife a 1/3 of it on June 2nd, 2010, a nearly paid for truck, and asked her to take whatever she wanted in our home—I emphasized I wasn’t sure I’d be back before the bank came to throw her out of our dream home I had had built 5 years prior.  She was still deciding where she wanted to go anyway. 

That morning of June 3rd of 2010, just before I pulled out of my driveway, I had told a few people I was going to drive my motorcycle alone to Alaska on Facebook, but honestly…. I had no idea where I was about to go.  I only really knew that; I had just lost my marriage, my career, my home, 10 years worth of work, all my savings, and short of that small storage shed I had paid in full for 6 months with some of guitar equipment in it and I was beginning anew.

Although, I had no illusions of how dangerous my steps may become; within my first 24hrs of leaving my home, I wrote my last will and testament in a ramshackle hotel somewhere in West Virginia and I emailed it to my mother.  I sincerely believed in my mind, I probably wasn’t going to make it out of this alive, but as low as I was honestly feeling… I didn’t even care.  I truly felt completely, utterly alone, but I at last felt as free as the wind blows.  I learned quickly freedom often is accompanied by alienation between lifestyles.

A couple of friends I had made online, but I had never physically had met, saw that I was on Interstate 64 heading west, and they asked me if I was going to pass through Louisville, KY, and while I was reticent at first, I agreed I’d stop by and say “hello”.   I had a feeling they knew where my head was, but at this point what did I have to lose? 

I got some wood!
Several hundred miles later, I stopped and visited Jeremy & Misty there in Louisville. After I humped the Louisville slugger bat downtown, Jeremy & Misty asked me to come on over stay.

In fact, they practically begged me to stay awhile till I figured out what it was I doing.  At this point, I still had nothing plotted, only a vague destination in mind, and was so heartbroken I would just breakdown into tears if I studied on my situation long enough.  I agreed to stay 1 night. Jeremy (who had just returned from a stint in Iraq) had me bring all my stuff inside, and he began a very military process of “shaking down my gear”.   Admittedly, I was under prepared for my current journey, much less the journey I was about to embark on, so he gave me his United States Marines first aid kit, a Marine arctic sleeping bag, a LED flashlight, some eating utensils, and a real hunting knife.  I was blown away by their kindness and generosity, and they asked me to stay at least a 2nd day, noting I still had not one defined route, or plan. I also think secretly Misty wanted to make sure I ate so well, I'd never eat another meal in my life!

Now, I need to interject here—That at this time in my life previous, I always tried to be a very generous person, so I was never good at receiving gifts or help from anyone (and I still suck at it).  Prior to this journey for many years, I was often told I was “the guy who had it all”, so I seldom would receive, or accept gifts, and if I did I would give them to someone who needed them immediately upon receiving it.   I am absolutely terrible at gracefully saying thank you, as I would rather say, “you’re welcome”.  As there is NO greater gift in this life than to give to others in need.  Jeremy KNEW I needed some things, but more importantly, he knew at the second he saw my eyes… what I needed at that precise moment was compassion, and maybe even a little hope. 

Everywhere I used my phone in 6 months during and shortly after Alaska. 
The 2nd evening I was there we began plotting a course on a road map, he asked me if there was anything in the US I wanted to see while driving toward Alaska.  I told him, that I had always had had rambling feet, and had already seen 46 out of the 50 states, and then I quickly interjected that I had never seen Mt. Rushmore.  So, we plotted a basic course that took me through St Louis to Kansas City, and then North to Sioux Falls, South Dakota before heading west again.  The next morning, I loaded up my bike at 4am, and drove off into the dark, feeling a little more grounded than before, and he asked me to make sure I continued to “Check-In on Facebook”, so they both could follow where I was online, and if I didn’t check in within a certain time frame he could call the authorities to look for me.  They clearly knew, I wasn’t stable in my current mindset.  I mean after all, I was a 37-year-old man running away from himself. 

I posted on Facebook again which direction I was heading, and sure enough, I got another private message.  This time it was from the wife of an old British friend of mine, who I had not seen since I was in London England in December of 2002. 

Kelvin, married an American girl and had moved to Jefferson City MO and she asked me if I would like to see them both in Columbia MO, a quaint college town in the middle of America, where when I had last been there was in 1992.  They put me up in a cheap hotel room, when I kept insisting I wanted to camp outside of town, and didn’t want to spend money frivolously as I didn’t know when I have any income again.  Here I was again, people being generous and kind to me, and I felt guilty for it.  They convinced me also that I should stay a few days and take it easy; after all, this will likely be the last time I see any friends till I get to Edmonton, Alberta, and see my boy, Jamie.

This was where someone had referred me to John Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild”.  I knew it was about a kid who ends up in Alaska, but that was about all I knew.  My 2nd day in Columbia MO, I left my hotel once, I went to the book store, bought the book, and read the whole thing in 8 hours, before I did anything else.  I said my goodbyes, and hit the road again.  From here it took me 3 days to get to Rapid City SD due to weather, where I spent another 4 days stuck in a hotel. I’d venture out in between the spells of heavy rain. In my previous occupation prior to being a modern day adult runaway, I was a fulltime business traveler…. I had so many miles that once you go beyond Platinum… there’s Diamond status.  I never had to pay for hotel rooms while on my own travels, and this excursion was no exception.

Deadwood, South Dakota
In South Dakota, after being there for 4 days, I visited Deadwood, Sturgis, Mt. Rushmore, and the National Black Forrest, but one reality became clear.  There is a reason they call it the windswept plains.  On a motorcycle, wind gusts in excess of 20-30mph are not normal. 50mph gusts happen frequently in early June there, along with the rain.  For a biker, this is very fatiguing keeping the bike upright and yourself off of the pavement in one piece.  I decided I needed to continue my journey to get out of the constant rain, wind, and even hail.  So, I went to U-Haul, rented the smallest truck I could find, some ratchet straps, and decided to haul my bike for a little while till I could plain escape South Dakota.  Now, for the record, I have NEVER hauled my bike anywhere before, but this time I needed to keep moving North West, through Wyoming briefly, and on into the land of the Big Sky Montana.  I pretty much assumed I would ditch the U-Haul in Edmonton Alberta.  Which for the record-- I was wrong about that.  When I booked the truck, I told them I would drive it to Alaska, simply because I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t experience any further weather that would slow me down, and when I felt safe again I would just dump it off early.  Lets just say, if you book a truck to a Canadian city, no problem, book it to Alaska and change your mind.  They’re not too hip or cheap about it.

I stayed one night in Edmonton, Alberta, and the next morning I began my long haul to Dawson Creek.  Yes, it is really a place in British Columbia.  This is the beginning of the ALCAN Highway.  The ALCAN Highway, originally constructed during World War II is 1387 miles long (1700km) by itself. 

The ALCAN entry point
Everyone has a different reason for wanting to do this journey, be it the challenge, the desire, a running away, whatever you want to call it—there are no shortage of people who have childish romantic ideas and let me be 100% clear on one thing, this is not an easy drive for an experienced rider even though the road is completely paved the entire distance on a bike or in a vehicle.  Alaska holds a tremendous amount of mystery for many people, just like it did for me as a boy from the east coast wanting to REALLY see mountains, but Alaska seems to hold a gigantic allure for many people wanting to see the summer solstice, climb, live off the land, or whatever you can possibly imagine.  However if you’re on a motorcycle, first remember YOU are a meal on wheels!  The wildlife on this highway is everywhere.  It’s beautiful without a doubt, even more so in the North Country, but you are the minority on this road.  You WILL have moose run in front of you, mountain goats, bison, and there are no shortages of bear.  The small townships, or sometimes only gas stations are few and far between; occasionally even 180 miles apart.  Be prepared for that.  You will see signs that say 120km to the next stop, but you can get there, and the place is either closed, or closed down indefinitely.  There are a few inns to stay at along the way, you can grab a room key and pay in the morning, but I chose, once I started, to drive all the way through till I got to the ALCAN border port where the Yukon, and Alaska meet.

My adrenaline was pumping the whole drive.  At one point, around 1am I began running low on fuel, my spare gas can was already empty, but I was only about 50 miles or so from the Yukon border.  I decided to stop and take a quick nap, knowing, any gas station I arrived at would be closed anyway, and I found a beautiful spot to stop where a few other campers and RV’s were, I balled up my leather coat as a pillow, and I took a brief 3 hour nap.  After all, I had already been driving since Edmonton Alberta (an additional 360+ miles or 590km)! I was awoken by a heard of passing mountain goats, and it took me a moment to scramble for phone to snap a quick photo, but they were un-phased by my presence; so close I could easily touch them. 
The 1 am midnight sun and my nap location in the rocks.

It was about 5am, and I headed off into the Yukon Territory searching desperately for fuel.  Once I crossed over the border into the Yukon that was an early easy find.  The man running the station was jovial and polite, he gave me a free cup of coffee, and also told me of another station almost 200 miles away where he knew the owner, and he’d give me a deal on fuel if I mentioned his name.  This is what I most certainly did.   

The Yukon, was breath taking, gorgeous views in any direction, although this is where I began having my first introduction to “Frost Heaves”.  Frost heaves are places under the tarmac where the permafrost has melted, the asphalt has unraveled, but is generally patched quite quickly.  Making the road drivable, but just barely.  The road is so bumpy that 35-45 mph is about the best one can handle in any vehicle, and it only gets worse after the town of Whitehorse.  

At this point I was somewhere around 4700 miles from where I had begun in Virginia, and at every corner I parsed, I waited longingly, and lustfully for just a view of that border crossing.  In my minds eye, while constantly searching for the ALCAN port guards, the mountains were surrounded by lakes of snow runoff of crystalline clear waters that just made the sky seem to sing of the lightest pure blue I’d ever known, and then—after climbing a small hill, I saw it; the brightly painted “Welcome to Alaska” sign.  I had driven nearly 2000 miles on merely a 3-hour nap to get to that damn sign and I wanted my photo taken with it.  When I first made it to the sign I wept.  I sobbed like a small child.  I told myself to buck up, and I stood there and patiently waited for 15min or so for someone else to stop, so I could ask them to take my photo.  Sadly no one had stopped, and personally I was a bit too excited so I didn’t even think of doing a “selfie”.  I took out my large SLR camera snapped a photo, and continued on.  I passed through border port, received an ALCAN stamp in my passport book, and continued my drive of the last few hundred miles into the Alaska interior.  Eventually arriving in Fairbanks.    Two Moose ran out in front of me on that section of road, and I even saw a Harley Roadking Motorcycle in a ditch, but the roads overall were much better in Alaska, having been recently repaved in entire sections.  
I made it!

All told, I spent approximately 45 days on this journey (although I spent well over a year traveling).  I stopped taking pictures (save a small few of me in Denali national park), because I decided that that beauty I saw there, I had earned EVERY single bit of, and I wanted to keep those memories for myself. 
Me w/ Denali National Park behind me

During this entire journey, I fought some very hard emotional battles within myself.  After all, running away certainly didn’t solve any of my real problems, but for 45 days I escaped a trap, that emotional prison that tells us we must conform, and follow some sort of daily routine that others do.  On this journey I never felt as free than I had been in my life.  I received encouragement, from the most unlikely of places, even when I didn’t think I could continue; as there were a few times I considered giving up.  I found myself in Alaska, in more ways than one, but most importantly I found strength I never knew I had. 

"I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life".  -Leo Tolstoy
©2013 Christian's Theory


  1. As you know, I'm preparing for my own cross country journey. This echoes for me. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Kat, I wish you nothing, but the happiest of adventures as you head west. I miss Seattle deeply.