ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Tired of stressing about what your pale skin and flabby muscles are going to look like on the beach during your summer vacation? Then do what I did. Trade in your shorts for a pair of long underwear, jump on your motorcycle and head north to Alaska.
For 15 days, traveling 5,133 miles, my dad Tom, my uncle Tim and I were covered head to toe in winter clothes, despite the fact that it was July.
But only during the harshest of downpours did I wish we had started the trip with a left turn – to sunny California.
Instead we took a right-hand turn out of Spokane with the goal of making it up to Alaska in six days, spending three more touring part of the state before returning home.
We crossed the Canadian border in the middle of Washington state and spent the next two days riding north through lower British Columbia to reach Kitwanga, the town at the start of the Cassiar Highway.
This remote stretch of pavement, also called Highway 37, stretches for 456 miles and joins the Alaska Highway in the Yukon Territory.
The key term here is “stretches of pavement.” We were warned there was plenty of road work under way.
What we didn’t expect was a major rainstorm to sweep through the area, making the conditions miserable.
During a second day of rain, there were discussions of turning around and heading home. But we pushed on.
My uncle Tim was riding a bright red Harley Davidson, with shiny chrome pipes and tassels hanging from the handlebars. It was clear it was never going to look the same after this trip.
For the most part, the only scenery we saw along the Cassiar were the bushes along the roadside. There were a couple of breaks in the weather, just long enough for us to gaze up at the Coast Mountains and realize what a beautiful area we had just gone through with our heads focused on the ground.
Once we hit the Alaska Highway, we headed east to a small town called Watson Lake, Yukon Territory, where we would camp among mosquitoes that almost carried our tents away.
The town is known for its Sign Post Forest, which is filled with more than 50,000 pieces of metal in the form of license plates and street signs from all over the world. I searched about a third of the area in 15 minutes and was unable to find evidence of my hometown, Spokane.
Watson Lake was our fourth night sleeping under the stars. We wanted to experience everything the outdoors had to offer and save a few bucks for gas. So we decided to camp every night, only springing for a hotel room if it was raining.
Somehow I convinced my two riding partners, both over 50, to sleep on an inflatable mattress amid the mosquitoes for nine of our 14 nights on the road.
That brings me to my first “must have” item for the trip: a mosquito-net hat. There are few things worse than getting a mosquito bite on your head and not being able to scratch it because of your motorcycle helmet.
The next morning was our first full day on the Alaska Highway, which had noticeably more motor homes on the road. The crowded roads were tough to get used to after practically having the road to ourselves on the Cassiar Highway.
The traffic increased as we reached Whitehorse, the capital city of the Yukon Territory. We ventured into town in search of the free beer tours at the Yukon Brewing Co. I had read about the brewery in a local tourism magazine and I’d rather bring home a beer shirt than the Hard Rock Cafe souvenirs I was so eager to purchase when I was younger.
But I was a responsible rider, skipped the tasting tour and headed straight for the gift shop. Inside, I found about a dozen visitors filling up growlers (glass jugs) with beer, buying merchandise and encouraging me to try the Yukon Red ale.
Avoiding franchise food joints was one of our unspoken rules. Only three of our 29 post-noon meals were at a chain restaurant we could find back home.
Of course, many of these small towns only had one or two options for food. Many times we were forced to eat at gas stations.
But these weren’t the typical junk food stops that you find in the lower 48. We even stumbled upon wonderful homemade soup at a fill-up station in Dease Lake, B.C., along the Cassiar Highway.
The day after our Yukon beer tour, we started hearing about road construction around an area called Destruction Bay. This turned out to be some of the worst road conditions I have ever ridden on.
Farther up the highway, the road turned into what I can best describe as a roller coaster. Up and down we went over these bumps that were identified by these little orange flags, about a foot off the ground. Our speeds slowed down considerably after a couple of bumps sent us skyward off our seats.
The little orange flags eventually stopped appearing, just in time for our eyes to focus on the sign saying “Welcome to Alaska.”
After answering a few questions and showing the border guard our identification, I thought to myself – we did it! We made it through all of the challenges the weather threw our way, to arrive in the 49th state in one piece.
Parts of me wanted to get off my bike and do a little dance but at this point, I knew my body wasn’t going to cooperate. I nodded at my two riding partners with a major sense of relief and started snapping pictures of anything with the word “Alaska” on it.
We stayed the night in the first town we drove through, Tok. We spent the evening in a hotel drying off our gear, power-washing our bikes, rejuvenating our spirits and discussing our options for the next couple of days.
My dad thought we should head northwest to Fairbanks and Denali National Park. But my uncle Tim was set on visiting the Harley-Davidson shop in Anchorage, and I wanted to take the advice of my co-worker (a former Alaska tour guide) and travel southwest to Valdez.
I must have thrown the biggest temper tantrum, because my wish was granted.
We took the Richardson Highway to Valdez, and found it absolutely beautiful. It had everything motorcycle travelers love: curves, waterfalls, elevation gains, a mountain pass, glaciers and something we hadn’t seen in a while – sunshine.
The incredible scenery provided us with the strength we would need that day to travel more than 551 miles, taking us to Anchorage under the “midnight sun.” Up until this point, the most we had traveled in a day was 432 miles.
The dim sunlight behind the mountains, not our flashlights, provided the necessary light to set up our tents at the free campsites the Harley-Davidson shop offers next to its building.
I awoke to engines being revved at the motorcycle rental shop next door, and jealous thoughts consumed me. How nice it might have been to have flown up to Anchorage in a couple of hours, jumped on a rental bike for a trip to see Denali National Park or to touch your front tire in the Arctic Ocean.
Then my uncle reminded me of the old saying: “It’s not about the destination, it’s the about the journey.”
I knew he was right. Despite the rain, the mosquitoes and the sheer hard work of biking all those miles, I’ll always be able to say something that few others can claim: I rode my motorcycle to Alaska.
And I’m glad I did.