“Where ya headed, buddy?” “Alaska,” I replied. The look the garage man gave me indicated that I might as well have said the moon.
Who could blame him? Our well-used 1973 Honda CB550 had holes in the twin exhausts and was covered with bright red tape. It was hopelessly overloaded with yard-sale luggage, and my girlfriend, Karen, and I were dressed in thrift store clothes and hand-me-down open-faced helmets, clearly not looking prepared for such a journey. He murmured “good luck” as I strapped the old hold-all to the gas tank and kickstarted the beast into life. Clicking into gear and rolling out of the gas station, we headed for the highway, destined for 10,000 miles of fun and adventure.
The Honda, which cost us $475 in Cape Canaveral, Florida, had no front brake, so our first ride was a bit hair-raising as we went looking for parts. A second-hand caliper and a tune-up produced a very smooth-running bike, even with the signs of neglect it had clearly experienced while accumulating the 28,000 miles on its odometer. We spent $10 on bungee cords, bought a box of plastic bags and a couple of cheap rain suits, sprayed our tent with waterproof spray, said goodbye to Karen’s family, and hit the road.
Riding off with America stretched out in front of us, we were in high spirits as the flat, low scrublands of central Florida gave way to the swamps and bayous of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. We made New Orleans in an easy three days of back road meandering, and right in the middle of the city the ignition switch failed. An old cab driver hot-wired it in minutes, and we found a new one at the local Honda dealership. New Orleans was weird and wonderful, and we saw as much of it on foot as possible before the call of the road drew us back into the saddle.
Following the Mississippi River north to Memphis, Tennessee, we turned west toward Arkansas and the beautiful Ozark Mountains, but not before an amusing incident with some local swamp rat dancing naked in the headlights of his car outside our camp one night, leaving us wondering whether to fear for our lives or die laughing. Fortunately, the sound of laughter put him off and we were left alone. For safety’s sake, we packed up and rode until dawn, stopping at a small diner for some much-needed breakfast and coffee.
We spent a couple of days in Arkansas, exploring the twisting mountain roads and small backwater towns in the soft rolling mountains before exiting out onto the prairies of Kansas. We had decided to make this journey across America on quiet back roads, away from the fast-moving freeways, and as we encountered small curiosity shops, slow-moving cars, and people who were ready to wave and smile, we knew we had made the right decision.
Into the mountains
The little Honda was running like a watch, and after two more days we were flying through Colorado and the one-horse towns of Kit Karson, Hugo, and Limon, constantly chased by nasty, black storms. Taking refuge in Hugo from the rains we met Parker Newbanks, the town’s mayor and owner of three Triumph Hurricanes, a Jubilee Bonneville and other British classics. He also owned and operated the local liquor store. With an invite to ride the Jubilee, stay at their home and help them erode some of the profits from their store we stayed on, visiting with local farmers and business owners, who were fascinated by our journey across America.
A small problem arose with “Elsie,” as she was now named, when an exhaust stud broke on one of the middle cylinders. Some farm knowledge from a local mechanic had the problem solved with a bolt and piece of metal wedged between it and the frame tube, essentially forcing the clamp back onto the head pipe. It wasn’t pretty, but it was quick and cheap, and soon Hugo was growing small in our mirrors as we made for Longmont, Colorado.
We spent a month in Longmont working to restore our travel funds and giving the old Honda some much-needed servicing. We installed a new chain and sprockets, a back tire, new points and plugs, and after an oil change and filters we rolled west to the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide, the Honda purring beneath us.
Climbing over two miles into the sky proved too much for the desperately overloaded Honda, as we lost more and more power during our ascent. A quick stop to pull out the air filter gave us back some horsepower to keep pace with traffic, and we marveled at the snow piled up beside the road, even in early summer up above the tree line.
The views that greeted us in Rocky Mountain National Park were simply breathtaking, and being from the U.K. something I had never experienced before. A Florida girl, neither had Karen and we spent miles poking, pinching and yelling to each other at each new majestic vista that greeted us.
The diversity of America was simply hard for me to fathom at first, and my bewilderment continued as a hard day’s ride saw us saying goodbye to the majestic snow-capped peaks and sailing through the vast, hot deserts of Utah. Back close to sea level, it was as if we had added a turbo, and we were soon powering north as the desert abruptly ended outside Jackson, Wyoming.
We rode up through Grand Teton National Park, its cathedral-spire mountains dominating the skyline as spring gave way to summer and the meadows came alive with multi-colored wildflowers. Then it was on to Yellowstone, where the mountains, geysers, fast-flowing rivers and abundance of wildlife took this British lad, who had never seen more than a badger in the wild, to new heights. Taking advantage of the many primitive camping sites, we hiked, took pictures, and sat around campfires with American families before packing up and heading north.
From Yellowstone we rode through the foreboding mountains of Montana, pump jacks relentlessly pumping oil as we passed, and by nightfall into Canada and grain country. By now the sun was setting much later, and it provided quite the picture across the prairies as it set behind the silhouettes of the massive grain barns that dotted the landscape, telling us it was time to make camp for the night. Most evenings we would free camp wherever we could find a place, and those nights out in the wild open spaces of Canada, a plate of steaming hot food and a cup of tea fresh from our small camp stove in our bellies, made us feel as connected to this universe as any person on earth can be.
Another long day of riding saw us just outside Calgary, Alberta, a refreshingly clean and vibrant city, at the BMW dealership of a fascinating gentleman by the name of Roger Reuben. Instantly excited by a pair of wayward adventurers on an old motorcycle, he dragged us into his workshop and found a couple of good used tires for the Honda. One went on the front and the other got strapped to the back for a spare. Next, he dug out a pair of shock absorbers from a Honda CB1100F. Although they were a little long, he knew we would need some suspension for the Alaska Highway. They would make all the difference on the rough roads ahead. Amazed again at people’s enthusiasm and interest in our adventure, we set off for the last and most difficult leg of the journey. At least people no longer looked at us in disbelief when we told them we were headed for Alaska; they just offered us good luck.
From Calgary, we roared north into the Canadian Rockies and up through Banff and the incredible national park. Setting up camp early one evening at the Columbia Icefield, we enjoyed a cold but fascinating evening listening to the wild sounds of the slow-moving ice off in the distance. We didn’t sleep much that night, so rising early we layered up and hit the road. With some of the most breathtaking vistas of the journey, it was difficult not to get a neck ache, twisting and turning in the saddle trying to take it all in: A herd of deer fording a wide, slow-moving river to our left, a brown bear in the woods to our right, and the Honda rolling along strong in the crisp, morning air. Could a couple of young people on their way to Alaska ask for more?
At a stop with some friends in Prince George, we were given a pair of good, used, full-face helmets and loaded down with a few thousand extra calories to ward off the cold, ready to tackle the famed and fabled Alaska Highway. Would it be logs lashed together with old Klondike gold miners lining the side of the road? Would we meet bears, bandits — or Winnebagos? Who knew or cared on that beautiful sunny morning, the little Honda still purring beneath us.
There was no brass band giving us a fanfare as we headed off into heavily falling rain, and soon the slippery tarmac turned to mud and gravel as low clouds obscured everything but the broken road ahead. At 9:30 in the evening, cold, wet and tired at the end of a 500-mile day, we broke down and took our third and last hotel room of the entire journey to thaw our bodies and dry out our clothes.
The heavy rain and dense, low-hanging clouds obscured much of the incredible scenery the Alaska Highway is famous for, and we would have to wait until our return to enjoy it. For five days we shook, rattled, and rolled, pounded by the rough road and pelted by the incessant rain. We dodged large puddles, played chicken with swerving semitrucks and came to loathe lumbering campers when we would have to jump the gravel pile in the middle of the road to pass. And then, on July 5, as the midnight sun was extending our riding days late into the night, we crossed into Alaska with an elation that’s hard to describe. Literally jumping for joy, we enjoyed a brief celebration before saddling up to continue with the business at hand: making it to Fairbanks. Our funds were depleting fast, and we needed work if our travels were to continue.
The land of the midnight sun it truly is, with broad daylight even at midnight, and it was hard to adjust to the permanent daylight, which induced a fun, childlike hyperactivity. We stayed in Fairbanks for two months, campaigning the old Honda up to 90 miles a day, seven days a week as we worked to make more travel coupons. Living and working at the world-famous Malamute Saloon, we met the wildest people from all walks of life and all corners of the world.
With summer turning to fall and the sun sinking lower each day, the tourist buses stopped coming to town, and we knew we would soon have to leave. Our occasional evening trips to the firebreaks in the neighboring forests to listen to the huskies howl now brought the most incredible experience we had managed to jam into the last few months — the Aurora Borealis. Lying beneath the trees, with the sky erupting into a multicolored kaleidoscope of movement and wonder to the accompanying sound track of what we felt must really be wolves, those moments were embedded permanently into our memory banks.
But the nights quickly became colder, and with winter fast approaching we made a decision to sell the Honda to a local BMW rider for $400. The speedometer had stopped somewhere on the Dalton Highway, a little over 38,000 miles registering on the faded odometer. We had ridden from the subtropical climes of Florida to within 50 miles of the Arctic Circle, and it was a sad moment trading our beloved Elsie for a pocketful of bills.
Soon, the place we had called home for the last few months would be cloaked in darkness and covered in snow, so we slipped on our backpacks, put out our thumbs, and started heading south to California to find some sunshine and plan for our next motorcycle adventure. MC
The Return: Alaska Ride 2014
While the ride on the old Honda has always been a highlight of my travel life, I was never at peace about not reaching the Arctic Circle. Back in 1986, the roads to get there were nothing more than rocks, dirt and gravel. I remember the moment we decided to return to Fairbanks as clear as day. We just couldn’t take the pounding any longer, and with little money and jobs that required the motorcycle for transportation, it was a self-preserving move. We had no idea how much farther it was, or what would happen if we broke down.
Twenty-eight years later, I rolled out of Calgary on a new Triumph Explorer with my 13-year-old son, Patrick, riding pillion, and my good friend Ray McKenzie to put it right. We had just under two weeks to ride up the Alaska Highway, through Fairbanks, up the Dalton Highway and on to the circle and back. Could we do it?
It was a long, tough ride, even on modern motorcycles, and we wouldn’t have made it without Patrick’s patience and ability to sit on the Triumph for long periods of time. We experienced every extreme of weather, and some of the most beautiful, pristine wilderness North America has to offer. My memories were very faded, like old snapshots in a photo album, and I was, as Del Amitri sang in one of their songs, “surprised by the lack of memories that I thought would flow through me.” But it didn’t diminish the journey in any way, as Patrick and I shared a new adventure and created memories we’ll enjoy for years to come.
The day we reached the Arctic Circle was different than I’d imagined. In 2014 the landscape was much greener, the road a lot smoother, but suddenly we came across an outcrop of rocks that looked familiar. We pulled over for some photos, and as I watched Ray take some pictures of Patrick sitting on a rock, the vast expanse of wilderness rolling away behind him to the place I’d dreamed about for nearly three decades, I had my moment of intense joy. We had made it. I was accompanied by my son and one of the best friends I’ve had in my life on one of the most incredible rides I’ve ever taken. We officially committed the achievement to pixels at the Arctic Circle sign some miles up the road, but standing there in that moment I realized that after 28 years, this time I was going to make it. — Neale Bayly