Saturday, August 23, 2014

"I'm done with this..."

Denali National Park’s headquarters was crawling with tourists fresh off the boats. Given that we now had a rendezvous in a few days, we decided that we’d done justice to the giant bronze moose in the museum and headed south and east along the Denali Highway. It was as well we did, for as a road this ribbon of dust and rocks gave us the finest views of Mount McKinley we could have wished for. Opened in 1957 the highway stretches for 135 miles between Cantwell and Paxson and for us was how we were going to shave off a day’s riding. According to Wikipedia, the highway is poorly maintained and closed from October to mid-May each year. The recommended speed limit is 30 mph. But that’s for four wheeled, caged drivers with no ground clearance. If you have the right motorcycle you can knock it out in about three hours of glorious dirt track riding alongside some of the most stunning scenery Alaska has to offer. The long wide valley stretched out under the snow covered peaks of the Alaska Range, the highest in the world after the Himalayas and the Andes. Thankfully there were few cars in the dry conditions and I let Sledge ride ahead so I could avoid his dust. The late afternoon light finally warmed up as we turned due south through rolling fields of grass covering rounded hills. The last five miles of the highway are paved and I was confident that we’d find gas at the end of what must be a major traffic artery. We arrived in the gathering darkness to an abandoned lodge and some busted up gas pumps. All that was needed was a dust devil, a rolling tumbleweed and a harmonica’s wail to complete the scene. Perhaps a rattlesnake sound effect to fully tie things off. Thanks to the wizards of Wall Street the complexion of Alaska’s tourism industry has changed greatly in the past five years. Hotels, gas stations and lodges all closed thanks to a combination of the recession, sky high gas prices and the growth of drive-by tourism fostered by the cruising industry.

There was nothing for it but to head south towards more civilization. Route 4 was our only option, but at least it was twisty, well paved and pretty. The road traces a high bluff alongside the Gulkana river giving us a great view of the valley. At the junction with Route 1 we turned left towards the Gakona Lodge and Trading Post. There we sidled up to the barman and inquired if there was accommodation available or space to pitch a tent. We could have a room for about $100, or camp for free out by the old barn. Free sounded like the right price and we ordered a round of beers before we changed for dinner. 

As we made smalltalk our host mentioned he had a motorcycle for sale; that a guy about my age had pulled his bike up to the lodge a couple of weeks ago, walked into the bar and announced, “I’m done with this shit!” He proceeded to write down his name and address on a card, hand over his keys and said, “If anyone wants to buy my bike, that’s the number to call. I’ll make them a great deal!” And then he left. A little while later Sledge and I walked outside and looked over the bright yellow Suzuki V-Strom 650 standing in the long grass. We briefly considered how we’d get it home and finally decided the costs of flying up and riding back in a year’s time would be more than the bike was worth, even if we got it for free. With that we were left wondering just what the hell happened to its owner...

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