The Richardson Highway
The Richardson Highway stretches from Valdez, AK in the south to Fairbanks, AK in the north. We got onto it fairly late in the day. Our ferry from Whittier docked at Valdez at around 4:00PM. We descended down to the deck, unhitched our bikes and departed tooting our horns and waving at the sailors who disappeared from view as we rode out of the ferry docks and into the little town of Valdez, AK.
In 1964, Valdez acquired notoriety when the Enron tanker spilled oil into its waters causing massive destruction of wildlife and rendering the destroying the economy of the fishing town – an incident that the residents are fighting for damages to this day.
The town was quiet and sleepy. We needed to drop off Sarah’s oil from her oil change before we took off and hit the road. The Port of Valdez harbor toxic waste dump was where we got pointed to. The deed done and the light already starting to fail on us, we left Valdez to turn onto the Richardson Highway, intending to end the day at Slana, AK.
The day was gray and listless with not a shred of sun to brighten the way. We were still going pretty slow because we were both tired from a long day’s riding. About 20 miles down the road, we stopped at some waterfalls to take pictures. It seemed to be a bit of a tourist hotspot with a big tour bus parked outside it and throngs of people in and around the area.
That was the last we were to see of a crowd of people for the next few days though. As we left the waterfalls far behind, and entered deeper into the heart of wilderness, we rarely saw more than a couple of vehicles an hour.
The mountains thronging the Richardson Highway were unbelievably huge and green and lush – again reminding me of the Scottish highlands – and the highway snaked through them in isolation. As I rode, I had this feeling of being the only person on the planet carving my way through unknown territory. It was a strange feeling with mixed emotions – there was triumph, freedom, excitement, fatigue with the slightest hint of danger and fear of the unknown. One thing I did know is that we had to keep going forward and onward.
…until a hundred miles later when we hit a wall of fog.
Visibility suddenly went plummeted so that we could barely see 30 feet in front of us and we were forced to slow down and crawl along. Suddenly the beautiful valley seemed hostile and dangerous. After about fifteen minutes of slow inching along, I pulled over and Sarah stopped behind me. I was feeling a little frustrated. We had almost a hundred miles to go before we hit any civilization but there was no way I could ride at that pace for too much longer. It was too late to turn around and go to Valdez though. As we discussed our options, as if out of nowhere a bicyclist rode past. We stopped him and asked him how much further the fog was and he told us it would end in just five miles.
Five miles – that didn’t sound too bad. I was relieved and we got back on again. The fog was still bad and I didn’t care for it very much but at least it was a known enemy now. Pretty soon as predicted we broke out into sunshine and the world was a warm, friendly place again.
And that was my first experience of riding through a cloud – at times cold and clammy and almost consistently unnerving.
The road now seemed almost a little rural with little settlements whizzing past as we made good speed. Pretty soon we started seeing glimpses of the famed Alaskan Pipeline. By now we were both tired and in need of rest and nourishment.
We pulled over into the gravel parkway of a little roadside shop. The owner was an older lady who welcomed us with a warm smile. Her little store was full of little knick-knacks. At the back though, there was food – we helped ourselves to frozen burritos and pizzas and heated them up in the microwave and wolfed them down. Some hot cocoa to go with it and we started feeling human again.
Now we finally felt able to look around and talk to the owner. She was a sweet woman who told us how she had come out to Alaska twenty years with her three children before to escape from an abusive marriage because she knew that her husband would never find her there. She told us a bit about her life there and about her kids who had all grown up and left Alaska but had returned within a couple of years. I could understand that. Live here long enough and it gets in your blood. As someone who grew up in a big urban city, I couldn’t imagine making my home in such a place, there was no denying the thrall of the complete isolation and the appeal to a certain spirit of hardiness.
She showed us a little blanket she was making from seal skin – caught fresh by an Indian hunter friend. It was the softest thing I had ever touched!
Sarah and I went outside to the back of the shop to look at the numerous antlers for sale – they gather them from the forests after the deer shed them – and got one each to mount on the backs of our bikes. I picked mine out for a friend back in Seattle who was fond of collecting skeletons and dead things.
We finally said our goodbyes and took off, but not before she had told us how to find a good spot to get a closer look at the pipeline. We had to ride a couple of miles down the road before hanging a left down a gravel road which led to the pipeline.
Out came the cameras again as we walked below the pipeline. It was a curious thing – to see stark, clean technology here amidst wild nature. The pipeline stretched all the way north to Prudhoe Bay up in the Arctic. We wouldn’t be able to go that far north on this journey but we would follow it at least for a little while further.
Pictures taken, we got back on to finish the last leg of our journey – to Tok – back where we had come from.
It was really late in the day though and it didn’t seem possible to make it as far north as we wanted. We pulled out the list of hostels and found that there was a stop a little earlier than Tok that seemed like a likely possibility – a place called Slana at a hostel called “Huck Hobbit’s Homestead”. We had to stop at a place called Huck Hobbit’s Homestead! It seemed like the thing to do.
From here on it was about 50 more miles before we went through the cursed town of GlennAllen. Not too many happy memories attached to this place after the horrendous rains we had encountered there the previous week!Slana was about 60 miles north of here. We knew we were going to be pushing the limits of energy what with the gathering darkness and the rain that was starting to fall, not to mention our own flagging energy at the end of a long day, but we wanted to get in those extra miles and get to Slana.
At the gas station in Glenn Allen, we stopped and got a rude meal – a cold sandwich, some fruit and protein bars along with the old familiar gas station coffee. I sat outside on a bench eating and trying to get warm while Sarah called the hostel to find out if it was okay for us to show up. They did have room and told us that they’d be expecting us. The lady on the phone gave us directions – off the main highway for about 10 miles – although the last five were a bit muddy. She told us to call them when we got there so that they could come and pick us up in their truck.
“Oh don’t worry about it,” Sarah said, “We’re on dirt bikes.”
And as it so often happens, those words would come back to haunt us.
The sixty miles between GlennAllen and Slana were an ode to willpower. That particular stretch of highway hadn’t been fun the last time we had ridden through it five days ago and it still didn’t have very much to commend it. We went a steady clip of 70mph on a lacklustre road where everything looked gray and blurry, punctuated with gravel patches – gravel not bothering me anymore as we rolled straight on through it. It was raining profusely now.
We took turns leading. At one point she pulled over and pointed at my headlamp as I came up close to her and said – “Did you know that your lamp is dead? I had to keep turning around to assure myself that you were still there!”
Uh-oh. Not the greatest news. But I wasn’t too worried because I had enough light to see by and we weren’t exactly in the most trafficked place in the world. I figured I’d replace the bulb the next time we were stopped for the night.
And so we kept going until finally we saw the turnoff in the distance and we got off the main highway to go toward the little Slavic sounding town called Slana. Just a few more miles – I thought to myself – before we can stop, peel off our soaking wet clothes, get warm, eat, get a hot shower, and curl up in a warm bed with thick blankets and know that we earned it.
The smooth tarmac road soon turned into uneven gravel which wasn’t much fun, which soon turned into mud – yet more non-fun. I wasn’t very happy at the way things were going anymore. It was a struggle to keep the bike going in a straight line. We eventually reached a little bridge with signs that said “Bad road ahead. Do not drive unless you are on a high clearance vehicle”.
This sounded ominous and I didn’t care to disobey the sign. I hated to quit but I’d rather have called them and have them pick us up as they had offered.
“C’mon! It’s only two more miles! We’re almost there!” Sarah yelled.
Two more miles of this sticky, gooey shit along tight little turns that led into who the hell knew where? No can do. I didn’t have much of a choice though as she kept going.
The next few minutes were some of the most hellish moments I’ve had on any motorcycle as the bike kept sliding around no matter what I did until it finally slid halfway into a ditch and I landed on my side caked in mud and furious. A few yards away, Sarah’s KLR was completely stuck in the mud and refused to move.
And there we were, two bikes stuck in the middle of nowhere, one of them literally so. As muddy, tired and near to tears I was at that moment, little did I know that just around the corner was the best part of our adventure yet, and a story that we would remember and recount for the rest of our lives.