The Alaska Highway

The first leg of the Alaska Highway is rough, dusty and barren. I cross a long metal-grate bridge high over a river, wobbling in the wind and imagining the effect if I stumbled. Facing a gap between gas stations, I fuel up at one of the card-lock systems, a giant automated pod with diesel at one end and regular at the other.

I’m in a grim mood. Though it has been a great ride, I wanted it to be more than that. Mostly, though, I have brought myself with me, and I can ruin almost anything. I am a black meteorite of bitterness hurtling across the landscape, pulled down from the Oort cloud to be judgy about everything.

At Stone Mountain, the trees fall away and great grey rock faces leap upward. I stop and Raven has words for me. He hops over and jumps up on a rock, then yells at me for five minutes straight. He does not sound pleased.

But I can’t quite get what he is saying. Eventually he gives up on me, snags a wormy bug from near my tire, and flies away.

Fueling up at an autonomous gas pod.

Mountains scrape the sky above while tiny rivers wriggle through the valleys far below; it’s the whole package, in one vertical panorama. The water is gloriously clear, a rippling liquid lens for viewing rocks, but with a crazy blue-green gemtone tint.

The more water, the more the color deepens. Summit Lake has a supernatural hue, like a lake in a Japanese video game. I stop again and prance along the shore’s edge taking pictures of flowers like an elf.

I am riding down off a mountain for several miles, and the river beside the road is running the other direction, behind me. If I’m going downhill, then the river must be going up. I can’t make sense of it. Maybe that’s how things work here, with a bit of magic.

A while in the mountains can be disorienting, though, and at one point I find myself using a lot of throttle to go down a slope, only to dimly realize that I’m not. I’ve just briefly lost track of which way is up.

Stone Mountain Provincial Park.

I keep trying to photograph the water, but the color does not come through. This is only a pale imitation.
Bluebells at Summit Lake.

The road is riddled with devil goats. At one point, a mother and two kids are in the road, water on one side and a sheer, 90-degree rock face on the other. There is nowhere for them to go. I stop the bike, not wanting to chase them into the lake; they dawdle for a bit, and then go 10 feet straight up the rock and hang there in the air, watching me. I can’t see what they are standing on; it’s as if they are levitating. Magic goats.

A bison comes out of the woods. He rolls around, urinates, eats some grass. I spend ten minutes trying to get a good picture in case I never see another one, then around the next corner is a herd of 30, mothers and calves grazing along both sides of the road as if it’s theirs.

They’re wood bison, distinct from the plains bison of the U.S., but alike in that they, too, were almost hunted to extinction, until a herd of 200 was discovered in Alberta in 1957. They’re doing better now, but not by much in the grand scheme of things; they are a long way from the days when their name meant “multitude” and their kind spanned the continent, shaping the land and cutting the paths that would one day become the roads of men.

The devil goats of the Alaska Highway are actually Stone sheep, seen here levitating.
Rogue wood bison.
Wood bison in numbers.

I stop at Liard Hot Springs, and it is spectacular. I almost didn’t stop, it seemed like such an indulgence but then there I am, paddling around in 100-degree hot tub water coming right out of the ground. The vegetation is weird, lush and exotic near the spring, and it feels otherworldly. I have been riding for days and days and now I am floating in a glen amid the gentle smell of minerals, surrounded by smiling people and rare snails and I want to laugh. I am all happiness, complete bliss, no future needed or past required. More magic water.

Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park.

They admit that they don’t entirely know how the hot water is made. I’ve heard that about Yellowstone, too. It’s a reminder that, taken as a whole, what we don’t know may yet outweigh what we do, and that just might be a reason for hope.

I float down out of the mountains, coasting most of the way. Stormbreaker purrs.

Advances, none miraculous

Great colossi graze the plains of Saskatchewan, each stamped with a name in an alien tongue: Cargill, Viterra, Broadgrain, Weyland-Yutani. It’s hard to gauge their size until you spot the tiny train or truck against their ankles, and then the scale of their metal digestive tubes and exoskeletons becomes clear. They move so slowly that they seem almost still.

The world has to eat, but the sheer scope of the endeavor begs suspicion. It blurs the line between mere harvesting and something more malicious, strip mining life-energy itself, the fundamental processes of Earth’s organisms being bought, sold and manipulated in massive bulk transactions.

Saskatoon catches me off guard. After hundreds upon hundreds of miles of bleak northern industrial agriculture tended by giant machines, I fully expected a hard farmer’s town; instead, it’s lovely and modern, thoroughly populated by bright, familiar chain stores and restaurants, awash in young professionals buying coffee like fairies sprouted up after a rainstorm. Waterlogged, wind-beaten and dirt-encrusted, I get back on my bike.

A province later, I don’t even try to get into Edmonton, but it’s another prairie city that just rises straight up out of nowhere, as if it had been dropped there. Back home there is an organic sense to cities, they coalesce out of areas of denser population; you can tell when one is getting close. Here it’s all or nothing, grass or skyscraper, 0 or 1, Tron cities on a grid made of chlorophyll.

If jump starting is to be a regular part of the process, I want it to go more smoothly. I wire an extension cord to the battery and tie it to the frame where I can reach it, then cut the matching plug wires so I can clip the jump starting device to it. This means I can keep the jump starter in the tank bag, then just connect the plug in order to complete the circuit and get back up to full power, which I can do without getting off the bike. This should streamline charging, also.

However, reading through my Haynes manual has had me looking for a short, and a dim little bulb has gone on in my brain. A couple weeks ago, the starter button had been sticking and causing the starter to stick and grind in the engaged position, so I had sprayed some goo in there to free it up. I might have used the wrong kind of goo, so I clean out the contacts with a piece of paper and the next two days I get a solid seven and a half hours of charge. That’s something I can work with.

I wash the whole switch out with alcohol that I brought for my stove. The next day I ride  for ten hours with no problem, and at the end of it the instrument lights still come on as bright as twin red suns. I have fixed the problem which I’d created.

Somewhere out on the Road, an idiot gets their wings.

It’s just in time, since the mile zero of the Alaska Highway is just ahead in British Columbia, the beginning of 1300-plus miles of legendary road.

A modification to the electrical system.

 

 

Manitoba

The land changes completely as soon as I pass into Manitoba, smoothing and leveling. The trees become round and leafy, the jagged woods turn into farms and golf courses, cars multiply and the highway becomes two lanes in both directions.  We’re feeding into Winnipeg, a city of 800,000.

The fields in Manitoba are yellow. I don’t know what the crop is, but it’s a brilliant, luminous yellow lying in great panels across the earth, a vast colorful monoculture.

I have a decision to make. There’s a BMW service place in Winnipeg, so if I want a professional to get my electrical system working, this might be my last chance in a long while. It would be great to have this resolved.

But it’s a beautiful day, and the bike sounds great, so I put all my chips on fuck it and keep riding. Whether it’s actually fixing the problem or just settling on a charging schedule that works, I have the tools, it’s time to stop whining and make my systems work.

Route 16 northwest from Winnipeg is a beautiful prairie highway, flat and smooth across the farmland and with no one else on it. As the day grows late, the yellow from the fields starts to bleed out into the grass, the trees, the road. Everything becomes golden. The sky swells and grows deeper, and the clouds build palaces, peninsulas, ranges.

The day before I’d been fighting the wind all day, but now, with a light tail wind, I go faster and faster, skimming over the pavement. The bike runs smooth and true, no wobbles or shakes. I am a jet-age spider hurtling down a perfect strand of silk. Not only is my battery charged and electrons, for the moment, dance around me doing exactly what they should, but my soul is on fire. I could go full Ghost Rider at any moment.

500 miles today. Tomorrow I’ll ride for Saskatoon.

I fall like a dagger of light across Manitoba, plunging toward the sun.

 

 

 

 

17 – 11 – 17

Vars to Temagami, Temagami to Longlac, Longlac to Ignace; three days in northern Ontario, route 17 to 11, then back to 17.

Three days on the Canadian Shield, the Laurentian Plateau, a vast mantle of metamorphic rock; literally a hard land.  There are lakes everywhere but they seem haphazard, just splatters of water collected in crevices.  Viewed from above, Lake Temagami has the profile of an octopus that has hit a windshield at high speed.

The endless and unchanging evergreen forest is just a thin froth of life on the surface of the Shield, like lichen on a boulder, the same thing at a different scale.

The map is almost empty. My ignorance of Canada is profound anyway, but the vast blank spaces on the map make it feel like I’m riding right out of everything. Trees and water and 100 miles between towns.

The two faces of northern Ontario: trees straight up, and trees with water.

Every 50 or 100 miles I pass a long-distance bicyclist and think, Now those people are crazy. The shoulder is only about 18 inches wide, the forest beyond is impenetrable and full of vicious flies, the traffic hurtles by at high speed and it’s stunningly far between outposts, surely a day’s ride each. Then I pass a long-distance unicyclist. I didn’t know that was possible, but there he is, one wheel laden with brightly colored bags, spinning along in the middle of nowhere.

This is what happens to motorcyclists with dead batteries. (Hearst, ON)

The new battery is all over the place, dead after 2 hours, dead after three and a half, dead after half a day. I can tell it’s almost gone when my turn signal indicators start to dim. At least I have the fast charger now.

The rubber stopper that covers the timing hole disappears, lost somewhere across 1000 miles of trees and lakes. I pour the last of the Jameson into a small jar and carve a plug out of the cork.

Jameson Black Barrel.

Canada Day

Even with the electrolyte topped up and a fresh charge, the battery only holds out through the morning. I lurch north into Ontario, then stop at the Canadian Tire in Cochrane to look for answers.

They test it again, and again it comes up good. The young guy at the battery desk offers to go ahead and charge it up for me, which would be great except that a few minutes later the battery boils over. He comes out to the parking lot to tell me; he doesn’t know why it did that, and he asked around and no one else knows either. He is self admittedly part of the B-team, since today is Canada Day and most of the North is closed, so his analysis doesn’t run very deep, but neither does mine. A new battery is a reasonable next step in this process of elimination, anyway.

Canadian Tire.

The battery doesn’t quite fit, but it’s close enough. It’s too thick for the tray, which is probably why I have two R65 battery trays at home which have either had the back lip sawed off or smashed flat. But it’s shorter than the original battery, so it perches on top of the tray edge and there’s still room to fit the tool tray in above it.

Two of the four mounting points on the fairing are broken: the top left one is cracked, and the lower right one is completely shattered. The JB Weld I’d applied at home has not held. Two mounting points doesn’t seem like enough.

A zip tie cinches the top one, but the bottom one is trickier. I’ve finally settled on a c-clamp/zip tie combo, and I am hopeful about the results.

I am very happy with this fix.

My odometer does not work. I have four R65 speedometers at home with broken odometers. A new one costs crazy money, and the used ones are probably broken anyway. For now, my solution is to go digital, an old iPhone running an app called “Speedometer.” It doesn’t need internet because all it uses is GPS, and it gives you speed, distance, altitude and  a few other functions. GPS still drains the phone’s battery pretty quickly, but with a booster battery strapped on it goes all day.

It’s a weirdly simple/complicated fix. How many satellites do I need to invoke to tell this slug the number of inches I’ve crawled across the earth?

I figure out where to put the bolt cutter, and then attach a $10 watch to it so I can finally tell the time.

The troll ward is rusting quickly. I will rub it down with oil eventually, but for now it serves as an additional instrument, measuring my rate of oxidation.

Vars, Ontario

I left two days late and late in the day, with one bag too many. I threw it on my back and went, and it pressed down on me like a giant’s hand slowly crushing my spine.

I ran out of time, and there’s a lot still undone. This will have to happen along the same operating model as old sailing ships, where the crew fixes and renews as they go, replacing planks, sewing sails and forging parts at sea.

Three hours of repacking the next morning got the bag off my back, but remarkably the bike was out of gas. I had switched to reserve when I coasted in to the cabin, and that should have left me another 15 or 20 miles of range; instead, I’m stalled out after 300 feet in the pouring rain. Apparently that slow leak in my petcock wasn’t so slow.

The nearest gas station was about 15 miles away, which isn’t that far until you don’t have gas. Soaking wet, I dully contemplated this potential day-breaker. Then I realized there was boat-gas in the pump house for the two-stroke outboard motor — how bad could that be? After sloshing it all over my newly painted gas tank, the bike roared back to life and I was off. Hopefully 15 miles of gas-and-oil mixture would’t be enough to foul the plugs.

On the plus side, the fairing is a revelation. It rains all day, the logical consequence of naming a bike “Stormbreaker,” but with the fairing on I barely care. I’ve never been able to beat rain, but now, as I barrel up the highway, I finally understand the trick. Get a goddamn fairing. The raindrops skitter across my visor with all the impact of an outdated screensaver. I’m not even wearing gloves.

In Essex Junction, Vermont I buy a new petcock, shiny and bright, for forty dollars. It works perfectly, silky smooth, flawless and beautiful.

On the morning of the third day,  my battery is dead. This is demoralizing; an afternoon on the highway should have left it well charged. The paperback-sized jumpstarting device works brilliantly, and I use it to limp 10 miles to the nearest expert. By the time I get there, the battery is again holding a bit of charge, so that’s encouraging — the bike is charging.

I ask about new batteries, and I ask for advice. He runs a test on the battery, and the device spits out a printout saying that the battery is good.  He explains to me that I probably left the headlight on overnight. This seems really unlikely, and it doesn’t fit the symptoms (the battery had enough power to at least try to turn over), but he patiently explains to me that he’s seen it happen 10,000 times; it is clear by “10,000 times” he really means “10,000 idiots,’ but is just polite enough to be careful with his phrasing. He also tells me that he knows the bike is charging, since the generator light goes off. He talks me out of buying a battery, or taking any action at all.

While it would be embarrassing to have left the headlight on, I want to believe it — that would mean problem solved. Unfortunately, the battery is almost dead again by the time I reach the Canadian border, and it just barely lurches to life in front of the border guard. Shortly after that the battery goes down for good, and I spend the rest of the day jump starting the bike with the device, and keeping the tachometer above 2000 so it doesn’t stall out. This becomes harrowing in the inevitable stop-and-go traffic around Montreal, and both the bike and I are tested on how hot we can run.

A couple times on the highway, the bike lurches and bucks violently. I realize dully that this is happening when I use the turn signal. That’s how thin the thread of electrons is that I’m hanging from, that even a tiny blinking light could be disastrous,

I stop at a gas station somewhere west of Montreal to consider my options, and I hook up the trickle charger since, why not — it takes days to charge a dead battery with this, but there’s no harm in hooking it up.  I am hot, tired and discouraged. Nigel comes around the corner to tell me that’s a fine old R bike I have there, and this is nothing, this is what makes it fun.  Figuring things out is what makes it an adventure. And this, a battery that won’t charge, this is nothing! He tells me a story about pulling bolts out of his transmission in order to keep his exhaust attached to his bike so he could get to Washington at 3 in the morning. He’d gladly ride to BC in my situation if he just had a good battery charger. “Get a faster charger, and you’ll be laughing!”

Nigel is reciting so closely from my own script that it’s unnerving. Am I imagining him? We talk through my problem for half an hour, unless this is just some sort of Mr. Robot scenario.

I want to be laughing, but the PTSD is kicking in. I rode all the way back from California with a dead starter once, but it only makes a good story with the benefit of time passed. On another bike, I rode up around New Brunswick with my girlfriend at the time and often had to jump start the bike — I thought at the time I was scoring points for being self-reliant, but later realized she’d been deeply horrified by the whole experience. There is something in me that batteries hate, and I don’t want to do this again.

It’s a puzzle because the battery tested as good, and the bike seems to be charging — except, somehow that’s not working out. We agree, though, that a fast battery charger is a solid play. Nigel tells me there’s a Canadian Tire in Casselman, just two exits up, go right and you can’t miss it. Perfect.

The battery decides to get a room in Vars and have a charging party.

The charger claims to be intelligent, and has 2, 4 and 6 amp modes. Upon being hooked up, though, it goes straight into “charged/maintaining” mode, which is no good. It’s not charging because it thinks the battery is full.

I finally pull the battery out and see that the electrolyte is half gone.

Had I really not checked it before I left? That’s humbling — I thought I had, I’d been moving the battery back and forth between the two bikes, but who knows.

Cause, or symptom? I carefully top it up with bottled water that claims to contain no minerals.

I remind myself that since the plan was to work things out as I went, then everything is going perfectly.

 

 

 

 

 

Stormbreaker

I am a terrible mechanic.

Almost two years ago, this bike came home on a trailer and in a box. Out of the blue, a friend had sent me an email to a Craiglist post of a free parts bike with the message, “Hey, isn’t this like yours?”

It was exactly like my old 1982 BMW R65, even to the year. It was amazing — parts are worth their weight in gold. From the pictures, I could see a couple things I could use right off the bat.

Another friend rounded up a trailer from his brother, and we took a day to cross the state and collect it. What wasn’t on the bike was in a giant plastic tub, but it seemed mostly there. I asked the woman what had taken the bike off the road in the first place, but she had no idea. Her son had it in his dorm at college, and then he’d brought it home; now she was tired of having it taking up half her garage.

It had been a black bike, color code 419, but the tank was half repainted blue, rust and dirt caked in the paint. The big black fairing was in the tub, cracked on both sides; the right-hand crash bar was bent. It looked like it had fallen over in both directions, but that happens.

They could not find the keys, so when I got home I wired around it, put in the battery and tank from my other R65, and the bike started right up. When I cleaned the acorns out of the airbox, it sounded even better.

This was no longer a parts bike. It just wouldn’t be right. Instead of one old bike starved for attention, I now had two.


I bolted things back together, cleaning and checking as I went. I swapped out the master cylinder and gave it a new front tire. For a while, I rode it around town with a headlight assembly from an old Honda CB550 that I’d lashed on as a temporary measure, but eventually I put on a new instrument bracket, which first needed to be straightened and painted.

The original bracket had the headlight and turn signal stems sawed off.
This one is intact, but needs to be straightened and painted.

This let me put on a clear fairing that I’d been lugging around for ages. I’ve never really wanted a fairing, but in thinking about this trip I thought it might be time to try it. I’m getting older, and I want shelter.

New handgrips; patched the clips for the battery covers; new taillight. It even came with Krauser bags and mounts, in pretty good shape. I found a center stand on eBay that didn’t have the tab snapped off and put it on.

Fixing the battery covers.

The engine itself continued to sound great. The timing chain is worn, but that will have to wait.

As time grew short, many of my restoration plans got abridged. I’d wanted to re-upholster the seat, but instead just rubber taped over the holes to keep the pan dry and then stretched an old coat over it.

About a month before I was due to leave, I got an unexpected email. They’d found the keys, and wanted to send them to me. This felt like a sign.

I didn’t want to repaint the tank myself, since I’ve never done that before — but, the quote I got was $1000, so that wasn’t going to happen. I got it stripped for $50 then went at it with cans: primer, paint, clear coat. I scrubbed out the petcock and got it flowing again, put it back together and it all worked, no leaks.

Suddenly, the keys turn up.

Except the next day after I filled the tank all the way, a tiny perfect pinhole leak appeared at the bottom, spraying a delicate hairline-thin stream of gasoline down onto the engine; apparently the paint had briefly kept it plugged. There was no time for anything more elaborate than plugging it with epoxy, but it was a small hole and that worked fine. It’s on the bottom and barely visible.

I did not repaint the mirrors or battery covers, but that’s a matter of esthetics. That flaked paint is earned wear, and this is a war rig, a machine for the the end times.

I was about to swap out the worn cables for the better ones from the other bike, but since they still worked it occurred to me that it might be better to use them up and bring the spares as replacements. I strip out the cables from the other bike and bundle them into the saddlebags.

A week or so out, my friend Dwayne (owner of Bavarian Heritage Werks) balanced the carbs for me. Mostly, though, I was just really glad to get another set of eyes on it — what Dwayne doesn’t know about old BMWs probably isn’t worth knowing. I don’t know why he still talks to me, since all I do is bring him terrible problems, generally of my own creation, but he took the bike around the block and said that it sounds pretty good.

The night before I’m supposed to leave, some friends took me out for a drink. It was unexpected and really great; I sometimes hold my plans close, and I’ve never had a send off before. Chris gave me a charm to ward off trolls, of obvious use in Canada; Trevor gave me a first aid kit, which was fantastic but also a bit alarming, since I’m pretty sure he actually uses it to stay alive. It’s in a great little tactical bag, which got passed around the table, and people stuffed money it — also unexpected, and also pretty great.

It’s fitting because this bike wouldn’t even exist without my friends; it would still be trapped in its old afterlife, unsummoned and unmade.

Stormbreaker.

 

 

 

40 days

There is a doom upon the land.

It is hard to think of anything that is working right. The world is cooking, and we are as responsive as frogs in a pot while life of all kinds sloughs off the globe in great, Thanos-worthy waves. My country has fallen under a darkness of hate and the worship of ignorance, and if the underlying system hasn’t outright failed, it is certainly at a failure point. Around the world, democracy doesn’t seem to be in vogue anymore, and the idea is starting to seem quaint and dated. Freedom means only free markets, or, at best, the freedom to hurt your neighbor.

The machines are rising. Not the old ones, not the gas engines and windmills, not the pulleys and tires and aqueducts. The new ones. They’re already in us, and we in them.

In my own life, things are not much better. I am rarely the person I want to be.

I want to be done with this. I want to cut a hole in the stomach of this thing and get out.

My cousin is getting married, though, and that’s a fine and hopeful thing. Even better, he lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and the whole family is flying out for the wedding. I’ve never been to Alaska, and that sounds great.

I don’t fly much, though, if I can avoid it.

Google says that it’s 4,500 miles from where I live on the Atlantic to Anchorage, diagonally right across Canada; a 9000 mile round trip. I do some math on how quickly I think I could ride that, then adjust downward toward the always-elusive and never achieved casual, enjoyable rate. Then I add a couple days as a margin for error, and arrive at 20 days to get there. Double that if I come back, and that’s 40.

I want to ride to the edge of the world. More than that; I want to ride until I find the outside, or at least until I reach the background radiation. I want to ride until time cracks.

I want to ride until I find where this went wrong. I suspect that it was a long time ago.

40 days is just enough time to wash the wickedness from the world and get a fresh start. I hope that it doesn’t actually rain the whole way.