There's nothing like a good midlife crisis: chuck it all, curvy Porsche and a blonde at your side as you mash the throttle and hit triple-digit speeds. Then again, some time on an adventure bike and sleeping next to bears seems like a great escape, too.
Maybe crisis is the wrong word. Perhaps a short-term escape from the repetitive agenda of day-to-day life is all one needs. How about a midlife dilemma or an imbroglio - a subset of the storied crisis, lacking the expense and sidekick but satisfying that nagging urge to elude desks, traffic and the weekly trash-can portage. Sounds ideal. Sign me up, please, and I'll take the latter of the two.
The details? There are very few at this point, but what I know involves landing in Anchorage, AK, and schlepping enough gear to camp and ride motorcycles for a week. Phil Freeman, the owner of MotoQuest Tours, later emails a list of kit suggestions. Food is not mentioned, but waterproof socks are, down to the brand. It seems odd, but I don't know much about riding in the Great White North so I follow along. Like most nonwork tasks of late, however, time and attention span conspire against me. I do take note of a warning regarding dodgy weather. Stocking up on long underwear while it's 102 degrees in Southern California is no easy task and elicits more than a few crooked stares.
On to the Wilds of Alaska
My ticket is booked, my gear is mostly assembled, and I have more luggage than I've ever carried in my life, knowing all the while it's probably too much and not enough at the same time. The weight of the world soon gives way to the weight of a backpack and an unfamiliar sense of detente. An event-free flight takes me into Anchorage, followed by a pickup in the MotoQuest van by none other than Phil himself. Tour headquarters proves to be exactly what one might expect: rows of enticing bikes and fresh gear framed by walls covered in images of past rides. Peru on a GS? Sure. Japan on tiddlers? Not a problem.
Motorcycle & Gear
2005 Kawasaki KLR650
Helmet: Arai XD
Jacket: Tour Master-Cortech
Pants: Tour Master-Cortech
Boots: Gearne MX
Gloves: Tour Master
Luggage: Twisted Throttle Tankbags and side panniers
I am excited to meet the trusty steed that will transform me from desk jockey to two-wheeled adventure tourer. I am overwhelmed by the selection of machines, but the crew points me to a weathered dual sport with more miles than all my bikes combined. How far from civilization will we be? Seems these folks have tested them all and prefer the venerable Kawasaki KLR650 over the more exotic German stuff. It's not the sexiest machine I've ever swung a leg over, but these bikes do have a few hundred thousand miles of Earth's worst under their belts.
Downtown Anchorage gives little indication as to the untamed wilds that are only a few miles beyond it. This vast state is equal to one-fifth of the continental U.S. in land mass yet is populated by less than a million souls. It's a true last frontier and the home to vast national parks, including Wrangell-St. Elias, which stands as the largest in the United States. Better known is the Denali, which encompasses Mount McKinley, North America's tallest mountain, and a staggering 6 million acres of wilderness. Adventure cannot be helped in this land, and in spite of a dicey hotel choice I sleep well knowing that tomorrow I'll join the ranks of those who have seen its interior.
Leaving It All Behind
A dozen bikes leave Anchorage with little fanfare and are tailed by a unique creation that the MotoQuest folks have dubbed Jethro. This one-off rig carries the bulk of our gear, spare fuel, water, food and even extra bikes. Some may call this cheating, but I prefer to have my midlife whatever-it's-called properly supported. After a few stops to enjoy the scenery we are given a specific location to meet at and are sent on our way. Strolling unaided into the Alaskan tundra is disconcerting at first, but a surprisingly short list of actual roads makes getting lost a near impossibility. The opportunity to ride at my own pace makes the group ride seem a lot less groupy. A few hundred miles of helmet time is just what the doctor ordered, and it isn't long before my brain pulls up a lounger and kicks off its shoes.
Lunch at Alpine lodge is followed by our first taste of dirt and instructions to meet at a gas station 100 or so miles away. Did I mention that this bike eats up the road miles like a touring machine as well as happily ripping across pockmarked dirt?
Now gassed up we are pointed down a poorly marked road, told it will turn to dirt, and to pull into the lodge at about 50 clicks. Not a problem. With a few hundred miles behind me I am feeling confident and grabbing gears. Wait. What did that sign say? Denali Highway? Before I can digest the significance of this road it turns to dirt and requests all my attention. If I had to pick a moment where I completely rid myself of the weight of the world it would be at about mile 30 on the Denali, cooking along at more than 60 mph and still enjoying the scenery.