Tired, I stumbled into the airplane. Heading for Seattle on a BMW K 1200 GT, I had left Spokane at five o'clock in the morning. Four hours later, I spotted the city skyline, made for the airport and eventually fell into my seat totally worn out. Only a buzz of excitement about seeing Alaska could keep me awake. Our Boeing takes off. Seattle, the ocean and the many islands disappear behind a white curtain of cloud. And in a sense, so did I. The next thing I know, a flight attendant announces our landing in Anchorage. I had slept the entire flight.
What's going on in the lower forty-eight?" Phil Freeman asks, welcoming me to Alaska. "I don't know," I say. "I've been scouring the roads in Oregon and Washington for the last three weeks, so I wouldn't have a clue about the other 46."
This first night I'm on my own. I will be exploring Alaska with Phil and a group of riders. But I don't have to look very far for company and a good time. Gwennie's, a nice restaurant and bar, is right across from the Days Inn, and it's just the spot for the locals and lonesome tourists to meet. At the bar, Joe, a local Harley rider, tells me about his three years in Australia and New Zealand and how much he'd like to return. He's definitely a character and I enjoy exterminating a few tankards of beer with him before walking back to the hotel. No problem finding the way - it is still light out at 2:30 a.m.
The next day I pick up my boon companion for the days that follow, a Kawasaki KLR 650. Phil tells me a bit about the surrounding areas and gives me directions to Girdwood, where we're scheduled to meet the other riders in the evening. Then, I'm off to familiarize myself with the Kawi while exploring Anchorage and nearby back roads. The weather is dreary, overcast. Now and then, sprinkles fall from the deep gray folds of hanging clouds. Discovering some gravel roads, I soon gain experience with Alaskan drivers and have to hone my avoidance techniques when a number of cars and trucks, wildly careening and spraying grit along the route, attempt to cut me off. It doesn't take long for me to get my fill of their behavior - and the rocks, dirt and mud - before turning and burning my way to Girdwood.
That evening, I meet up with my riding buddies, the other members of our northern expedition. Bill and Ed, from Bloomfield, Michigan, are all about Harleys back home, a fact that I might have deduced from Bill's footwear. He's wearing Timberland boots and white socks. All in good fun, breaking the ice, I ask him when highly visible, "whiter than white" socks had become mandatory safety gear for riders in Michigan. He laughs. Dave from Mary-ville, TN, and Johnny from Abingdon, VA, live closer to my base in Clemmons, NC, and being so far away, it sounds good, like home, whenever they drawl a y'all (as in "How y'all doing?") in conversations. Last on the list, but not least, the international rep in the group is Nigel, from England. But he is quick to correct that territorial impression. "I'm from Wales and I live in Scotland. I only work in England," he emphasizes.
Our base for the next two nights, the Alyeska Winner Creek B&B in Girdwood is a beautiful lodge-style log home designed and built in 1997 by our hosts Victor and Kim Duncan. A terrific spot, and you couldn't ask for better breakfasts.
Monday, July 19 - We start out with a little warm-up loop to Seward and back. The scenery would be magnificent, but we see only cloud-covered mountains. At least it isn't raining. From time to time, the clouds disappear and we spot the Chugach Range. The outlook improves in the center of the Kenai Peninsula, and it makes sense for us to branch off on a side trip to Hope, a little fisherman's village on Cook Inlet.
Tuesday, July 20 - We leave our lovely, cozy place in Girdwood. The sky is gray-on-gray and sometimes raindrops hit my visor. We head toward Palmer on Glenn Highway. Just north of Palmer, the ride jogs west for a wilderness detour to Hatcher Pass. About 10 miles up Palmer-Fishhook Road, where the pavement gives way to gravel, the road enters a gorge. The brownish ribbon of pavement sneaks smoothly through the stands of willow, spruce and birch that border the Little Susitna River. It once yielded gold, but now it is prized for silver - silver salmon, that is.
After a pleasant, more challenging ride, we arrive at the Hatcher Pass Lodge. Nestled above the heart of the Mat-Su and Susitna Valleys, the lodge serves as a springboard for travelers who come to explore a world of stunning mountain vistas. From time to time, when the gray veil lightens and almost parts, I imagine how breathtaking this high tundra of alpine lakes and meadows with wildflowers in bloom can be in bright sunlight. The spot is an outdoor mecca for mountain bikers and hikers, and even a dual-sport rider could find his bliss here. I do.