Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Big Smile to the End

On the last night before I left Maggie and Gaby’s in San Rafael, Albert had mentioned that he wanted to see some of the USA’s National Parks. I said that if he wanted to join me for a while, on the way back into the lower 48, I was planning to hit a few National Parks and make the most of my annual pass. I must admit, it came as a bit of a surprise, when I got an email a couple of days beforehand in Prince George, checking to see if I was up to meeting and going together to Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore. It was great news to potentially be riding with someone again, even if the extra weight over big distances would make the riding challenging.

After I woke up this morning at the Columbia Icefield to three degrees, (I don't mean the ones liked by Prince Charles), I spent all day riding downhill for more than 800kms, into the summer warmth of Montana, crossing the border into the Big Sky State and from winter to summer. I cruised on into the evening and camped in the lovely Glacier NP. The scenery and the warming, evening sunshine was spectacular, although there was little evidence of the eponymous glaciers, or of the grandeur of the north. I had a relaxing evening by the fire and started getting up at 5am, surprised to find just a glimmer of light in the east and sharp, clear morning stars and a setting crescent moon to meet me. Clearly my rapid south – east trajectory had dramatically shortened the length of the days. I hurried to pack up and was off to meet Albert at Missoula airport for 10.30am. On the way out of the National Park, one of my pannier – boxes disintegrates after the hinges break (again), which really pisses me off, as it requires yet more time -wasting strapping, whilst my fingers refuse to move with any dexterity in the early morning chill.

Still I make it to the airport in time to meet Albert, dressed in a mischievous smile and his flat – mate’s borrowed helmet and jacket. He’s also brought 2 fairly large bags with him, including his laptop from work, so after some more macramé on my part, the bike is strapped up. With Albert on board, the bike loses it’s adventure, over - lander height, and starts to ride and handle like a Harley Davidson low – rider. It also sounds rougher than normal and I have realised over the past few days that another set of tyres will be required before long. It is fine at speed as soon as we get out onto Interstate Highway 90, but stopping and cornering involve a lot more wallowing from the suspension and hauling around from my arms and shoulders. Nonetheless, despite being loaded up, we are in good spirits and off to Yellowstone. Riding with Albert around Butte, Bozeman and Coeur de Alene on my newly Harleyesque bike reminded me of the final chapters of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, although I am no Phaedrus and Albert is no Chris.

We pass signs for Cache Tete Jaune on the way to Yellowstone and a yellow colour theme seems to be developing, as I remember the calcium chloride, looking and smelling like mustard powder and compare it to the yellow wildflowers growing in the summer meadows being browsed by bison as we cruise by. Once again, we have dramatically under – estimated the distances involved and it is getting late into the afternoon as we rush through the randomly named “towns” of Phosphate and Anaconda before entering the Park. Yellowstone is the jewel of America’s National Parks. We are greeted by greater than average scenery Boo – Boo, almost immediately seeing elk, bison, nesting bald eagles and an osprey on the way over to Grant Village campsite from the west gate. We stop at the Paint Pots geyser area and get a dose of hot spouts of eggy steam. Apart from being packed full of great scenery and wildlife, we are slap bang on the continental divide, hence all the geological activity.

We pitch camp in our forested lot and then we are off, two – up, to the Lakeview Restaurant for beers, pizza and pasta and a good old yak. We chug back as it is getting cold and dark and are rapidly approached by Chuck from Fargo, North Dakota, riding a Buell Lightning. He did the trip, through the Badlands, in one day, which was quite a feat for a 59 year - old. He was a chatty old dog, who wanted to share our massive plot after having been told by the Boy Scouts that the campsite was full. He had waited until he heard a bike arrive and then made his approach. We shared some beers and he took some vodka from his hip – flask and mixed it with a bottle of Gatorade. We chatted for a while, but the chill and the long ride, without the draw of a fire, meant we were getting sleepy. He gave us some good tips on what to see on the way to Mount Rushmore the next day - e.g. the Devil's Postpile and recommended we get there for the dusk lightshow at the mountain. We left him putting up his tent in the dark and crawled into our tight little pocket of a tent.

Next day we were up at 7.30am after a cosy night together in the tent to find Chuck already gone. Apparently, he was off to compete in a sailing competition somewhere equally distant by midday, which was very impressive for an old – timer on a notoriously uncomfortable bike. We head off to get some breakfast and then check the schedule for Old Faithful and get there just in time to see it spout, as it does every 92 minutes, regular as clockwork. Back to the campsite and we are late for the 10am check out as we pack up and discuss whether we will make it to the appropriately named Mount Rushmore. The rangers stop hassling us to leave as a large male grizzly wanders into our campsite. There are about 6 ranger / shepherds for every bear, which seems a ridiculous proportion, but is the result of them having a restricted population of human - habituated, semi - tame bears. This is partly the fault of the National Park itself, which until the 1970's, acted as a pseudo zoo / wildlife park and used to organise public feedings. Anyway, this frisson of excitement is heightened on the way out, when we see a cluster of RVs and 4x4s clogging up the road ahead, mother grizzly and two cubs feeding by the lake.

We zoom around the lake and head through the still – snowbound mountains, through the east exit to Cody and Sheridan and onto Custer. Already the sun is lowering over the wind – rippled, golden sea of grass that surrounds us. We have to pass the Devil’s Postpile without stopping, which is a shame as the igneous column of lava from an ancient volcano whose softer cone has been totally eroded by wind and water sounded really interesting. Instead, we go straight through Custer without booking a motel and head straight up to the mountain in the chill dusk, just in time to see the impressive video and light display about Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. Tired and dazed by the long journey, we head back to Custer and are lucky to eventually get the last motel room in town just as the night porter was shutting up the office. I quickly zoom around town and pick up some pizzas and beers, once again counting my blessings that I am in the US of A, possibly the only place so far where I would have been able to get bed and fed at such short notice this late at night, even here in the boondocks of South Dakota.

After greedily attacking our pizzas and slurping our chocolate stouts, we chat for a while and then succumb to slumber. Next day looking at the map, it is clear that to get to Denver airport by 8pm for Albert’s flight, we have some serious distance to cover, easily making more than 3,000 km in our 3 days of riding together. I am also concerned about the parlous state of my luggage, with every accursed plastic hinge and lock broken or cracked and needing daily lashing and re-lashing. My oil leak seems to be getting progressively worse and my tyre is getting seriously worn. I resolve to give my bike some much needed TLC tomorrow, as soon as I have dropped Albert off at the airport and I get myself settled somewhere. First, we zoom back to Mount Rushmore to use our 24 hour car park pass, see it in the daytime and take advantage of the well – provisioned canteen which has a great view of the Mountain. I must admit to having mixed feelings about Mount Rushmore, mainly about carving human faces into a mountain. But concerned about being too extreme about such things and not wanting to be accused of identifying with the Taliban, I conclude that it is the result of America’s need to create a cultural mythos that is missing? It doesn’t have the equivalent to an ancient Bamian, Petra, White Horses or Nazca Lines of other cultures. This attempt in the 1930’s, to fill this cultural void, at least from the dominant white, European elite of the USA, should be seen alongside those of other cultures in relatively early stages of their development of their own distinct identity.

We get back into Custer and check out before heading south through the shimmering green of the Great Plains, crowned by the rich blue firmament of a crystal clear sunny day. I entertain myself with the question as to where is the real West that I grew up with as a kid? Apart from the obvious answer of between north and south and to the left of the East, I had always assumed that it was further to the south and west, but here seemed more genuine for some reason. Was it the signs for Shawnee, “elevation, 4325 feet, population 1” or “Fort Laramie”, or the herds of bison on the plains or having been close to Deadwood, Wounded Knee and Sundance the day before that led to the feeling that we were riding through the true heart of the American West. We had also noticed over the past 3 days that the weekend – warriors we saw at truck stops and gas stations sporting Harley fashion (if that is not an oxymoron), formed a tripartite structure composing either a cowboy, a pirate or trying to look like Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”. In a lot of the western states, helmets are not mandatory and we had seen a lot of harley riders wearing cowboy boots, chaps, waistcoats and cowboy boots and we couldn’t work out how they managed to get their floppy hats to stay on. The second “style” was following the pirate motif, with bandana around the head, skull and crossbone T-shirts revealing lots of tattoos and body piercing. Finally, there was the classic biker look, a la Marlon Brando, with leather jacket, blue jeans and cap with chain, but actually ending up looking like the biker from the Village People, a la Jean Paul Gaultier.

Once again, as the sun was getting lower, we chugged through Cheyenne and onto Denver International Airport. We stopped for a farewell drink after buying a cheap bag for Albert to take some more stuff back for me to San Francisco, including my stinking motocross boots, which were becoming way too hot in the western summer heat. It had been great to have Albert’s company for a few days and we had been to some great places, but I was resolved to take a day to give my bike some TLC and then take a nice steady pace over the following 4 days to meet up with Lena in Houston. Knackered and finding it difficult to focus, literally and metaphorically, as I rode into the setting sun out of Denver, I pulled over before reaching Colorado Springs into a non – descript roadside motel. I was glad to get off the corrugated highway, unclear whether the vibrations were due to my rough – running bike or the road surface itself. The motel had a pool, so after a refreshing swim, I collapsed in my bed and took a long, deep draught from the chalice of slumber.

Next day, I topped up the leaking engine and gear oils and was shocked to see that my buckled wheel from Ecuador was not only making the ride uneven, it was also wearing the tyre unevenly. On the way to drop off Albert in Denver after 3,000 kms, 4 states (Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Colorado), 2 visits to Mount Rushmore and one night's camping in Yellowstone, they were definitely worn on the section I looked at. However, the section that I didn't look at until I spun the wheel really shocked me. The metal banding was clearly visible and even that was worn badly. So the rest of the day involved removing the wheels, hiring a car (one of those wannabe ZZ Top PT Cruisers) and getting new tyres fitted. Performance motorcycles seemed to be the only motorbike shop in Denver open on a Monday, where I was able to pick up a pair of Metzeler Tourances, fore and aft and Woody's Wheel Works down the road not only fitted them for 20 dollars each, they had a second hand rim available to replace my buckled old one which we agreed on for 250 dollars (I thought this was a good deal). Immediately the bike was running so much better it was difficult to imagine how I had been able to ride from Ecuador, through Central America and up to Alaska on what were one step away from comedy, clown wheels.

Made a cone from a sheet of newspaper and poured in half a bottle of hypoid gear oil. These small mechanical victories, may seem trivial to those of you with a more mechanical bent, but they are major steps forward for me in vanquishing fear. I also knew that I needed to clean the air filter as there was a rattling sound coming from it when accelerating. My upbringing, without a father in the house and without ever having a motorised vehicle in the house, meant that I was a mechanical novice. This was always going to be Neil's role and I was going to take the role of Spanish - speaker and blog writer, I guess those roles my upbringing in a female dominated household prepared me for.

Next day, I was quickly through Colorado, clipping the north – east corner of New Mexico and into the Texas Panhandle, during which time the plains and the mountains were left behind and I was back into the red rock and sand of the South - West. I went through the town of Shiner, (population 207), where I recognised the brewery of the same name. It’s Bock beer was one of the best on the trip so far and it was great, if a little odd, to ride through the small, dusty desert town that produced it. Where did they get there water from, let alone their hops and barley to make the beer? I was on my way to Amarillo, with the helmet – iPod playing the eponymous Tony Christie song, which seemed apt not just because of the geography, but also because I was well on my way to my rendez – vous with Lena – “every night I've been hugging my pillow, dreaming dreams of Amarillo and sweet Marie who waits for me”. There was a sign at the New Mexico - Texas border, which said “Drive Friendly, the Texas Way”. I saw another sign, this time of the God fearing attitude of the locals. Indicating a clear concept of right and wrong, based on the concept of sin, Texans seemed happy to adapt the word of God to their personal and social needs. On the side of the road, I saw a sign outside a church saying "My Way IS the Highway - God".

I was soon into the unremarkable outskirts of Amarillo, over a large hump – backed, steel – girder bridge and out again. Having made good progress, I stopped at another roadside motel that doesn’t warrant description and ate a pizza in front of the satellite TV screen. It was the first time I had spent an evening in front of the goggle – box for a long - time and I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by the constant talk of recession on CNN (“issue number one”), revealing another great American fear, that of being poor. According to the American Dream, America is the land of opportunity. If you’re talented and hard working you can do anything. Every boy or girl could be president, get rich or fly to the moon. The flip-side of this belief is less beautiful. If you are poor, it must be your own damned fault. I think this is why it is so hard to combine the best part of America's economic and social system (openness, opportunities, meritocracy, etc) with Europe’s social safety net. In Europe, the well-off feel guilty about the poor. In America, the guilt is thoroughly laced with resentment, so a proposal to give the federal government another ten or twenty percent of GDP to string a safety net under the economy would be political suicide. Take the health-care example. In Europe, all but the most extreme right-wing parties support universal health care underwritten by taxpayers. In America, it seems more like the domain of lefty ideologues. To Margaret Thatcher, universal basic health care was a no-brainer; to Ronald Regan it was a non-starter.

Regardless of the why's, the facts are clear. Most poor Americans had poor parents and most rich Americans had rich parents – just like every other developed western country. Intergenerational transmission of income inequality is the jargon for this. Plainly there may be some natural selection component. Tall, strong and beautiful people tend to have tall, strong and beautiful kids; smart people tend to have smart kids, etc. And all these features are associated with higher incomes. However, the research shows that even controlling for a person's observable features, a parent’s income is a strong predictor of their children’s incomes. If we are ever going to get beyond the "your own damn fault" reasoning, we will have to illuminate the social mechanisms that perpetuate income inequality. From my evening’s viewing of CNN, it was also clear that Barack Obama was doing the best job of articulating this fear, but he really didn’t seem to be half as clear about what he was going to actually do about it. This view also affects the US approach to luck too. Good luck in life is due to your own personal efforts whereas bad luck in life (investments, health, even relationships) is the subject of litigation to ascribe fault to someone else. Luck in the sense of random chance has to be experienced, which is why gaming is so big in the United States.

Up and out the next day, I met Mike from Indiana on his new Triumph Bonneville. He clearly wanted to travel together that day, but I ignored his suggestions as I wanted to make good progress, was focused on meeting Lena in 2 days time and was enjoying riding solo after the great weekend company of riding with Albert. I had noticed since making it back into the lower 48 that the only people who come up to me to talk are either from out of State (Chuck, Mike) or Canadian. No - one locally comes to talk with me, they just stare at me intently from the safety of their car. When I stare back and nod, they look away and ignore me. Not since that other oil - rich, conservative state (the Islamic Republic of Iran) have I felt like more of an outsider.

Not wanting to linger, I headed to Lubbock Texas, which I thought sounded more like a 1970's police show than an actual place. It wasn’t until lunchtime, when I passed through Big Spring, that I stopped for a BBQ, my first meal of the day. It could have been the heat or the lack of anything but America – Generica fast – food outlets that meant I didn’t stop before. As soon as I got into the air – conditioned, family – owned place and had washed my hands and face, that I realised I was HUNGRY. Texan BBQ is made with beef brisket and sausage, and mine came with pinto beans and fried okra on the side too. I really enjoyed this rib – sticking meal and was looking forward to comparing it with the Southern BBQ made with pork ribs instead of brisket when Lena and I would be travelling together. Riding through the sleepy afternoon heat, I kept going until Boerne, just outside of San Antonio, attracted by the alluring combination of a motel and a UPS store visible from the road. The motel allowed me to have a scrub and wash up, even going so far as to trim my scraggly beard, all in preparation for meeting Lena the next day. The UPS store allowed me to reluctantly send off my bike documents at the insistence of the shipper in New York who was going to send my bike home in a fortnight’s time.

I was up early the next day, keen as mustard to get going in the cool hours of the morning and take in The Alamo before heading off for the few hundred kilometres to Houston International Airport to meet Lena at 4.25pm. I got to the surprisingly small Mission at the heart of the Alamo, it’s white stone façade, still pock – marked by munitions looking golden in the early morning light. Unfortunately the romance was destroyed by the posters all around proclaiming, “The Alamo - the price of freedom, IMAX experience, relive 13 unforgettable days of history”. Well I only had a couple of hours, so that was out of the question. The romance was also crushed by the blurring of the history surrounding the battle and it’s subsequent use as a propaganda tool, from the Battle of San Jacinto right up to the modern day. In 1836, after becoming President in a military coup, General Santa Ana suspended the Mexican Constitution of 1824. The northern provinces of Mexico, principal amongst them Zacatecas but including Texas, rebelled. Santa Ana went north to crush the rebellion and had done so successfully until he reached Texas. James Bowie was the rebel leader at the Alamo, when he fell ill, William Travis took over. Davey Crockett was also famously there - all the major Norteamericanos from outside Texas, Loiusiana, South Carolina and Tennessee respectively. Juan Seguin was a Tejano and a courier, along with Toribio Losoya, who was a native of San Antonio de Bexar as the town nearest to the Mission was called. What is interesting is that at that stage the rebels were protesting at the suspension of the 1824 constitution and not to secede from Mexico. Only later once the Alamo was used as a propaganda tool by Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto some weeks later.

Eschewing the opportunity to buy a raccoon – tailed Davy Crockett hat and a replica flintlock musket, I got on my bike and headed due east towards Houston, feeling the heat and humidity as I rode parallel to the Gulf of Mexico littoral. The Sam Houston Parkway ring road was a massive 12 – lane highway in parts, interspersed with toll – booths and speeding car – drivers anxious to get home in the mid – afternoon on the last working day before the Independence Day holiday weekend started. Taking longer than expected, I eventually parked up and got into the arrivals area. Waiting for Lena in the airport with flies, rather than roses, in my teeth, I realised I was pretty smelly too as all my clothes had been mashed in the bottom of the shower or in various rivers since the start of the journey and were no longer getting a proper clean. All these silly anxieties melted away as I saw Lena come through the automatic doors and immediately all was in place for the end of the journey. Lena had brought 2 holdalls with her, and with these strapped to the top of the panniers and the best pillion passenger in place, we went against the busy traffic into the downtown and up to the door of the Hotel Zaza. Lena had been busy on the internet booking some great places for us to stay in, normally at discount prices and the Zaza was no exception.

It was the sort of hotel that you felt immediately at ease in and after a long hot shower and lounging around in the complimentary robes, we were in for the evening. In the morning, we went out into the sultry heat of the Museum District of Houston and just about made it the 12 blocks or so to the Breakfast Klub before we melted. The large portions of soul – food were great, especially as they were served in a lively atmosphere with some powerful AC. The rest of the day was spent looking around the Mark Rothko Chapel, Sculpture Garden and the Museum of Fine Arts - Houston amidst sultry weather and thunderous downpours. At one point in the afternoon, we got stuck under the entrance porch of an apartment building in some of the hardest rain I have ever seen. Then we went back to the hotel and enjoyed one of my favourite things – swimming in a pool during another heavy downpour. The rest of the evening was spent on our balcony enjoying the 4th of July fireworks, with a great view of the flat, griddled city spread out before us.

Next day we went to the Houston Space Centre, which was great to see the sheer size and power of the Jupiter Rockets up close and the mission controls and artefacts too. Some of the iMax films were also great too, although it was really hot and humid there as it is right on the Gulf Coast on the way to Galveston. It was also odd that you had to wait to travel around on a plodding diesel tram between locations in a place dedicated to interplanetary travel and were short enough to walk in between as well. Welcome to America! There were also lots of exhibitions to mark the 50th anniversary of NASA, an organisation which shows the best and the worst of the USA. It was clear in the display about “America’s next 50 years in space”, that the USA wants to develop a permanent base on the Moon and / or Mars, mainly as a means to exploit the potential mineral wealth of those celestial bodies. After having been in Alaska less than a fortnight before, the American approach to land and nature is all about taking wilderness and exploiting it. The concept of long – term land stewardship that we are so aware of in Europe in particular, seems absent in the USA. Now that virgin land has effectively run out, apart from a few areas that are now under pressure (e.g. Alaska), the US plans to do the same in space. I think this is worrying on a number of fronts, in that it is the ultimate example of the use it up and throw it away approach to economic consumerism as well as undeniably leading to neo – colonial competition between the superpowers and continued environmental degradation for those of us who remain on Earth.

After another quiet night where Lena said goodbye to her jet – lag, we packed up the bike, said "laissez le bon temps rouler" and got ready to head off to New Orleans (N'awlins), the Big Easy, home of jazz, the blues, its own great cuisine and the most celebrated and most northerly of all the great Caribbean cities. Before we left, the 2 Peruvian doormen noticed the stickers on the bike, seemed amazed at the distance and the roads travelled and had lots of questions for us. It was great on a number of counts. Firstly, it was great to see Lena get involved in some of the conversations I had along the road so far – friendly people wanting to talk to you about your bike and your journey. Secondly, it had been a long time in North America since I had met people with any detailed knowledge of their neighbours to the south at all, apart from the misconceptions generated by fear – “did you get robbed?”, “did you get sick?”, “how bad were the roads?”, etc. Thirdly and finally, it was great to converse in Spanish again. Although it was little more than a month since I had crossed from Mexico at El Paso, my Spanish was very rusty, and it was great to have a laugh with these fun Peruvians in their own language, must to the consternation of the gringos within earshot, who really didn’t seem to approve of me speaking Spanish.

Anyway, we were soon zooming east I – 10, through Beaumont, into the big “L” shaped state of Louisiana, past Lake Charles, Lafayette and the State Capital of Baton Rouge parallel to the Gulf Coast. It was hot and sticky all the way as we rode through sugar cane fields and then over increasingly common elevated sections across bayous, lakes and swampy jungles. We took the interstate highway because of the heat, thinking the extra speed would keep us a bit cooler. This was probably true, but it was still horribly humid and we had to stop three times along the way and dive into little oases of air conditioning and to release the pressure on my bladder as I was drinking loads from my camel back. Firstly just before the Louisiana border we stopped for breakfast at a tacky but enjoyable family – owned roadside diner. Then near Lafayette, we stopped in a Popeye’s fast food fried chicken place, luckily just for a cold drink. It was the most filthy food establishment that I had eaten in, possibly since the truck stop in Penientes outside Mendoza in Argentina. There was food and rubbish strewn around the “restaurant” and persistent flies to accompany it. The toilets were full of unmentionables too but none of this seemed to put off the mountainous customers who eagerly tucked into buckets full of fried chicken, grabbing fleshy fistfuls of fries. This was our first encounter with so many consistently enormously obese Americans, an experience that was like walking into a surreal Beryl Cook painting and one that was to be repeated throughout the South in particular. Although I had to queue up for 15 minutes to get our drink, a flower – vase sized receptacle, but we were hot and thirsty and it was worth it.

We were soon on our way and zooming over and through the Big Easy on the elevated highway past the New Orleans Superdome that we recognised as the scene of the riotous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina some 3 years ago. Lena had booked a great motel on the internet a few days before, which ticked the 3 “C” criteria – central, clean and cheap and had the "Lagniappe", a little bit extra, of having a swimming pool too. We literally and metaphorically chilled out in the plunge pool, with a few Abita beers, the local brew, where we met some interesting people. There was a couple of ladies, who had driven overnight straight through from Milwaukee, pale and drawn skin, covered in tattoos and body - piercing and some great black kids who were busy bombing and jumping into the pool whilst their Mum and their auntie sat by the side, fully dressed in their bright Sunday Best, munching on fried chicken from big polystyrene buckets.

After we had chilled out, we went out in the late afternoon for a promenade around the Latin Quarter and alongside the Mississippi levee. We stopped frequently to enjoy more Abita, with its Belgian – style raspberry ale, “Purple Haze” being our favourite, and music. We also stopped for a few in the Old Forge bar, an allegedly genuine old blacksmith’s forge in the heart of the Latin Quarter. It was a great people watching spot. We also noticed, that unlike most of the rest of North America, N’awlins (and Memphis and Nashville) allowed you to walk in the street with a drink. N’awlins also had a loud and proud gay community, unlike Texas, and there were lots of Peruvian flags on display. Then feeling chilled in the approaching evening, we promenaded along Union Street, enjoying the street theatre atmosphere and music joints spilling onto the sidewalk, even though it was Sunday night. We ended up at the Red Lobster and shared a gumbo and a fried catfish. It was great to be out with Lena and sharing all the sights, sounds and food together. The gumbo was good and Leon our waiter, helpfully explained "Gumbo", where okra (from the West African kingombo) is used as a natural sauce thickener. We took our time over our meal, catching up on news and enjoyed our PPP (post – prandial promenade) through the city, still booming on Union Street and darker and quieter on the side streets.

Next day at breakfast, we had a motel – style breakfast and unsatisfied by the food I was annoyed intensely by an ignorant American sitting opposite. I listened, mouth agape, as he lectured a polite family of Germans, that Ronald Reagan was personally and solely responsible for the destruction of the Berlin Wall because he said "Mr Gorbachev, tear that wall down". Before I could say anything, Lena pulled me outside and we walked through the city, visiting some cemeteries, cafes and an interesting museum. I learned the origin of the word "Zydeco", one of my favourite musical styles, which comes from the verse of a famous cajun song - "Les Haricots n'est pas sale". Said repeatedly in a cajun accent, it gives you the word zydeco – try it. Then also the word "Dixie" was also interesting. It comes from the ten – dollar paper money printed in both English and French in Louisiana, the French being the most common, leading to the term Dixie for the South being used by Yankees. Lena also bought some great clothes from some of the unique little boutiques, most memorable was the Voluptuous Vixen. There were a lot of attractive women in New Orleans, whose confidence and assertiveness with themselves was one of the most attractive things about them and it was great to see Lena following the local fashion.

The afternoon heat had soon driven back to the hotel and to plunging into the pool for relief. On the way in, a couple of people were looking at my bike and one of them, cigar - smoking Dick from New Orleans, was the most engaging. He was a local who was living there because he had an argument with his wife and had been thrown out of his house. He rabbited on about some hare – brained internet business that he was investing in, as well as rattling through a raft of conspiracy theories. His skin was thin, tanned and papery, like the Cuban cigars he was smoking, especially stretched across his shaved bald head. Anxious to get out of the heat and back to Lena in the room, I made it know that I needed to move on and we parted with Dick saying, "come up and see me Dave in two - teehn, when you are free". I never did, and so missed the opportunity to share his cigars and more of his conspiracy theories. After a bout of afternoon cooling off, we headed out for more atmospheric and alcoholic promenading, ending up in a fantastic side street bistro for dinner. It had a d – shaped bar projecting like a prow into the room and an automatic piano, all decorated in pre – war shades of brown, from sepia to tobacco. I had the most enormous and delicious pork chop and Lena had a lovely seafood jambalaya, all washed down with some Californian Zinfandel.

Next day we were up and out heading along Highway 55, following the designated evacuation route north. We pulled off to take in a piece of the Natchez Trace Parkway with the heat and humidity hanging so heavy and solid in the air it felt like we were riding through the swamp itself. The parkway was lined with trees, bearded with hanging creepers and moss. Even in the daytime, it was very eerie and would have been even more so in the evening with swamp mist hanging across the road. I was happily singing Paul Simon's Graceland in my helmet iPod - "I'm going to Graceland. Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee, I'm going to Graceland. The Mississippi Delta lay out before me, shining like a national guitar...". Before long, having negotiated Jackson, Mississippi, we had gained some altitude and speed back on the interstate highway and were entering the outskirts of Memphis. Slowing down and chatting to each other about what we had seen, we both remarked at how many cracked windscreens and ragged burst tyres we had seen along the way. We pulled into the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, another place that Lena had found and booked ahead a couple of days ago. It was the old grand hotel of Memphis, but was most famous for its resident ducks. Every morning, they paraded from their “palace” on the roof, into the lift and down to the lobby area, across a strip of red carpet, past crowds of residents and visitors, standing 5 – deep and snapping wildly, and on to a day’s splashing in the fountain. Hilarious.

Still giggling, we walked through the afternoon heat to Beale Street, where we enjoyed some fall off the bone BBQ pork ribs at the Blues City Café. The service was as good as it normally was in North America, although we both noticed that it was rougher and more direct here than we had seen in Texas or New Orleans. Stuffed, we then walked to the Lorraine Motel, where on the 4th April 1968, Martin Luther King was shot. The instantly recognisable cream and turquoise motel front had been turned into a museum, which was shut. We hauled ourselves back to Beale Street and refreshed ourselves with some cool Shiner Bock. The people watching on Beale Street was brilliant. So many fatties were on parade in a bizarre array of stretchy, baggy, flappy and strained clothing that we were entertained for several more rounds of beers. Ironically, the favourite form of footwear was pretty consistently trainers. We were also entertained by some brilliant street acrobats, somersaulting and cartwheeling down the street. The young black lads had their shirts off and their taut, skinny muscularity contrasted with the puffy, flabby, slack bodies of their audience, staring under the lurid neon.

The next morning as we were leaving, we saw Robert Plant in the lobby of the Peabody, looking dazed and confused by the duck parade. We were loaded up and headed to Graceland, a surprisingly normal looking suburban villa from the outside. We parked up and stored our stuff in a locker before starting the tour. It wasn’t as tacky as I though it would be, although it was clear that Elvis had bad taste and, even worse, the money to indulge it. We stopped in the diner and had a banana and peanut butter grilled sandwich as the heaven’s opened, in the heaviest rain of the whole trip. As we waited for the storm to blow over, we noticed a small boy who had chosen to emulate his hero and was wearing a replica Las Vegas era Elvis jumpsuit. Or more correctly his grandfather's hero, who must have been the person who had bought it for him. We thought this must have be considered as tantamount to child abuse to foist your preferences onto a small boy who couldn’t know any better, although people do this all the time as far as religion is concerned.

The rain had passed for now and so we left and headed off to the I 40, the Music Highway, towards Nashville. We noted again the profusion of tyre debris and cracked windscreens on the side of the road as we made slow progress through the periodic rain and heavy traffic. All of a sudden, Lena started digging me in the ribs with more gusto than I had been digging into the delicious BBQ pork ribs the night before in the Blues City Cafe on Beale Street. Her Burberry Bag, (Posh New Bag was it’s name, as we have a tradition of naming all our luggage) had come free from its lashings on top of my panniers. Lena reported looking over her shoulder to see it bouncing rhythmically along the Music Highway as I throw the anchors overboard, taking a surprisingly long time to come to a stop in the wet on such a heavily laden bike. Running back along the hard shoulder, it was clear that it remained intact remarkably well and was being dodged in the outside lane by trucks and pick – ups. That was until just before retrieving it, a double articulated lorry, who was already overtaking, ran over it rather than sacrifice themselves to the central reservation. This sent Lena's pants scattering over the greasy tarmacadam. Fortunately, all fragile, expensive and technical items were still securely fastened the bike in the waterproof protection of the ortleib bag, so after several forays across the Music Highway, like a riffing plectrum across a bluegrass banjo’s fretboard, all was retrieved. As I waited for the next foray, standing in the grassy median, clouds of large crickets sprang up ahead of me, disturbed by what must have been an unusual human intrusion into their territory. We returned to the bike with our jetsam and came across a sad tortoise with his shell cracked on the side of the road and secured the tattered remains of the bag to the bike with a medley of zip ties. We stayed outside Jackson, enjoyed Zinfandel and a Domino's pizza delivery in our motel room as we re-jigged our luggage.

We quickly made it to Nashville, “Music City” at the end of the “Music Highway”, and stayed in the Best Western. Lena wore her country belle top from Volumptuous Vixen, went into The District and Broadway. Nashville is not only the “Music City”, but it is also the State Capital of Tennessee and so has much more of a big city feel. Buoyed by the success of withdrawing 400 USD from the First Tennessee Bank in the ATM lottery that had been going on throughout the USA, we went into a Honky Tonk and soaked up the atmosphere, once again helped along by some cold, cold Rolling Rock and Shiner Bock. After a while, the band, who took requests for every song they played, which was pretty impressive, lost their allure and we headed out again into the humid evening, with the neon on Broadway shining waxy in the moisture – laden air. We enjoyed a pulled pork dinner in a bar cum restaurant cum casino and then enjoyed a PPP tour of the terribly fascinating tacky gift shops, followed by more beers and bed.

Next day, feeling the worst for wear in the heat and humidity, we went to the surprisingly well – done Country Music Hall of Fame and returned via the First Tennessee Bank, only to be refused cash this time? The cashpoint lottery was really odd, but throughout North America, my ATM card worked once at any new institution’s hole in the wall, but never seemed to work twice at the same place!? At least I was getting the opportunity to visit some pretty obscure financial institutions. Since visiting the Graceland gift shop, there was also another added bonus every time I reached into my jacket for my wallet. Lena’s colleague and friend, Sally, liked to collect fridge magnets from around the world, and, of course, there were a fine range of that domestic art form available at such a sophisticated place. We were obviously interested in only the classiest musical varieties and after a lot of sampling and discussion in the shop, opted for the “Suspicious Minds” one, over the “Jailhouse Rock” and “Teddy Bear” options. The only problem was that I stored the said item in the only waterproof pocket I had in my jacket, along with my wallet. Every time I reached for my wallet, to pay for petrol, checking in at a motel, paying the bill at a restaurant, etc, the King started playing the 30 second climax verse from this classic track. Lena and I then felt obliged to explain that it was a gift for a friend and that we weren’t really Elvis fans and so on, to which we always received knowing looks. We were packed up and out way before the 12 noon check – out and on our way past Cookeville, Lebanon and Knoxville to the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains, allegedly the USA’s most visited National Park. In a moment of weakness on the telephone months before, Lena had submitted to my pleas to go camping together for one night, something she wouldn’t normally entertain. I was glad that as we gained altitude and started to enter the hills and mountains, carpeted in thick forest, the heat and humidity subsided as we entered Pigeon Forge and, luckily, just missed the entry to Dollywood.

We were hungry by now and Lena pointed out a great Italian restaurant, where we enjoyed “salad” for the first time in the week or so we had been together, along with other culinary luxuries that we wouldn’t be getting, whilst camping. Fully satiated, we went onto the GSMNP and through the horrible Gatlinburg (full of mechanised fibreglass models of animated bears, hillbillies, banjos, moonshine stills, etc) to a nice campsite at Elkmont. We quickly set up camp and I went back into town, to fetch some supplies for the evening, where I had 2 encounters worth remarking on. Firstly, in the General Store, I was served by a skinny man, wearing a stained vest called Cletus, according to his name - badge. We ended up having quite a long conversation, as I couldn’t understand him much and he couldn’t understand me in return. After some gesticulation and interpretation from other customers, I gathered that the gist of the conversation was about my bike. Firstly, he wanted to know if it was good for attracting “females” (I assume he meant of the human species, but couldn’t muster enough resolve to try to clarify) and then, secondly, he wanted to buy my bike from me because he ain’t gone to see many of them there motorcycles round these parts afore, he’ll be darned.

Again, reluctant to explore his kind offer further, I left the shop, anxious to get back to Lena as soon as possible. Just as I came into the campsite, I was passed by the Park Rangers in a patrol car, who evidently turned around and followed me in amongst the trees and tents. Putting their flashing lights on, I stopped and was confronted by 2 Rangers in Boy Scout uniforms, circa 1921. Suffering from a bit of windrush deafness and pulling my helmet off to better engage with them, I found once again that I couldn’t quite get the gist of what they were saying. Trying to sound like a friendly buffoon, I smiled and explained that I was from Dubai, handed over my Dubai driving licence and all seemed to be going perfectly when they started scratching their heads and started talking about “a warning is all”. Then I made the mistake of putting my hands in my pockets, which led them to reach for their holsters and shout at me to “cease and desist”. Now, my Mum had always told me that it was a bad habit that I had got into when I wanted to get my hands out of harms way during awkward moments, but I never realised that this had been criminalised in the USA. Withdrawing my hands slowly I automatically found myself putting them in the air and jokingly saying without thinking, what did they think I had a gun or something, ha, ha, ha, which of course clearly they did. Anyway, things calmed down after that and after they had looked at the 2 bottles of wine, beef jerky, pork - scratchings, milk, bread and cheese I had got for our supper, I got off with a warning after promising not to reach into my pockets in public again, which seemed to please them.

Making it back to Lena and our tent after being away for a couple of hours by now, we sat by the fire and had a cosy evening with our picnic, before retiring for an even cosier night together like two peas in a pod in the deceptively spacious tent. I was gallantly using my motorbike jacket as a sleeping mat so that Lena could have both, which led us to get periodically serenaded by Elvis singing “Suspicious Minds” from Sally’s fridge magnet. Initially this was hilarious, but after the fifteenth time, we lost our sense of humour and it was lucky to survive the night. Then we were up early, getting packed up in the Smoky morning mist as I enjoyed making camp cappuccino coffee with my little espresso maker and the milk I had bought from Cletus the night before. We were out onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, which according to our new AAA map of “The East”, led us almost all the way to Washington DC. The Parkway was a lovely road, consisting of winding mountain switchbacks across the forested ridges and valleys. I was really enjoying myself in the sunny, crisp mountain air, playing “Take me Home Country Roads, West Virginia, Mountain Mama, Oh Take me Home, Country Roads” on my helmet iPod as we left the Smoky Mountains and headed North – East along the Blue Ridge through the Mount Rogers area and the Shenandoah Valley towards Roanoke and Lynchburg. The only problem was that it became increasingly clear that I was suffering from map scale delusions again. The new map was half the scale of the old one. So stopping for a sandwich at the next petrol station we decided to head for the main road, heading towards Bristol, Tennessee, which also took us ages and it was getting seriously dark when we rode past the Pentagon, largest office building in the world, and entered Washington DC at approaching 10pm.

Luckily in one of the most dangerous cities in the USA, we didn’t get lost and knew exactly where we were headed. Lena had booked ahead again at the Hotel Rouge, and thanks to the logical grid layout of Washington DC, with it’s lateral alphabetic avenues and perpendicular numbered streets. Dedi and Mehmet, the Sudanese doormen, met us and were very interested in the bike and its Dubai registration. They were cousins who had other members of their family working in Dubai, which led to a long conversation, some of it in my broken Arabic. As a result, they waived the cost of parking in their underground car – park for us, helping me unload and also letting us order from their kitchen, even though it was officially closed by that time.

The next morning we were out walking in the bright sunlight to see the Whitehouse, The Capitol and the Mall of the Americas – which Lena was disappointed to learn wasn't a shopping centre, but the central promenade on which the main memorials and museums were based. We stopped for brunch at the Native American Museum Canteen, for some brilliant indigenous American food. The smoked oat salad, cornbread, bison, salmon, wild rice and berry ice cream was lovely and quite different to anything else we had eaten so far. By the time we left the Museum, the weather outside was scorching and so we headed back to the hotel for a siesta before coming out again to do the western half of the Mall of the Americas. Those Freemasons clearly got everywhere in the USA, with the Washington Memorial, the tallest building in DC, standing at 555 feet and 5 inches. It is also noticeable in Washington DC that there are no McDonalds or other fast food anywhere and very few Starbucks in the central areas and consequently less fat people and litter than we have seen recently in the Deep South.

Torrential rain is on the way after ominous thunderclouds overtake the bright sunshine. We got soaked to the skin, but the views were very atmospheric at the Lincoln, Second World War, Korean and Vietnam Veterans memorials, before stealing ahead of another sodden couple to grab a taxi back to the Hotel to dry off and get ready to head out again for the evening. Turning back, once in the taxi, just in time to see Lincoln lit up in his rainproof, classical bus – shelter as the light switches on as it passes 7pm. Nonetheless, the Korean War memorial was my favourite, not because of the quality or artistry of the sculpture, which is actually not very good up close, but because of the design where you are placed amongst a platoon of soldiers on patrol for a uniquely insightful and originally unheroic perspective on war. All the neo - classical architecture we have seen during the day reminds me of the pre - classical aspirations of Mount Rushmore, and how the founding fathers clearly were concerned with the creation of a classic past for the new federal capital, especially designed to replace New York and Philadelphia. This clearly indicate a cultural need for the European elite to re-create a pseudo – European architectural heritage which patently did not include the indigenous natives of the USA, with the Native American Museum as a late twentieth century afterthought.

After recovering from getting soaked on the outside, we get a taxi to Scott Circle in order to get equally soaked on the inside. The Brickskeller Bar is in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest selection of beers in the world, allegedly with more that 1, 300 available at any one time. Whilst it was clear that some of the beers on the menu weren’t always available and some were mis-classified, with the sole Serbian beer actually being from Montenegro and some Welsh beers being ascribed to the English section (heaven forfend), I was like a pig in shit, poring over the menu. It was actually quite a nice place - not pretentious or fake, really it was enough of a dive to make me feel comfortable. Apart from being able to retrace the steps of my journey so far in ale with Lena, we ended up concentrating on some of the excellent American microbreweries. Bar Harbour Blueberry Ale from Maine was excellent – strong and fruity, as was HighRollers Wheat Beer from California – fresh and light, ideal as summer beer. Two more of my favourites were Brekenridge Oatmeal stout from Colorado and Buffalo Bill Brewery Orange blossom Cream Ale from California, which we both thought had a startlingly tangy taste. Each beer was ordered from a menu and brought up from the cellar a few minutes later, and we ordered some bread and cheese to go along with it too. The last ones I remember drinking were the Pyramid Apricot Ale from Washington State, which was very well balanced beer and claimed to be unfiltered, so we can expect active intestines tomorrow and a Woodchuck Dark and Dry Draft Cider from Vermont. Despite concluding that we could both drink the cider all night long, we walk through the glassy, wet streets to an empty Thai restaurant for some floral Singha beers and spicy food.

The next day, we checked out, put our gear in storage and went on a fantastic Smithsonian Institute exploration - starting at the stunning Air and Space Museum, with an extremely fragile looking Eagle Lunar Lander, looking for all the world like it was made from dustbin lids and golden foil, followed by the far more elegant Wright Brothers Flyer and the Spirit of St Louis. Lots of hanging rocket exhibits hung around the main entrance, with the work of Von Braun featuring strongly. Both his devilishly ingenious V1 and the V2 doodlebug bugs, produced during his work with the Nazis in WW II and his subsequent work with NASA during the Cold War Space Race was also on display. It reminds me of a quote from Khrushchev, who said when asked why America seemed to be winning the Space Race after Russia’s strong start that simply it was because “your German rocket scientists are better than ours”. Then we went to the Hirschorn Art Gallery with a great video installation and then onto the brilliant natural history museum. We had spent all day visiting museums of such quality that we weren’t bored at any point.

We got back to the hotel around 4ish and started unpacking and loading up. Checking the map, I could see how diamond - shaped DC, originally carved from both Maryland (east of the Potomac) and Virginia (west of the Potomac) now only consists of the eastern portion after Virginia took the donation back in the nineteenth century over the right to continue slave trading in a pre - cursor to the issue that split the nation in the Civil War. We rode on out of Washington DC and soon made it past Baltimore to stay in another roadside motel. Watching CNN it seemed that Black Americans were on a self - destructive path in the run up to the presidential election later in the year. Despite the fact that he is the front runner, Barack Obama is being criticised by some self – elected black religious and community leaders for being an "Oreo", i.e. black on the outside and white on the inside. The history of blacks and their fight to gain freedom from slavery and prejudice is well documented, perhaps too well documented. Compared to the similar economic and social plight of other immigrant groups or the holocaust faced by Native Americans, blacks don't seem to have a future orientated self - image that is easily able to deal with members of mixed race backgrounds who don't fit a pre - defined stereotype.

Next day we headed up the last leg of the journey to the Big Apple and were due to arrive well before my bike documents, which had still not arrived from San Antonio to New York, via UPS. Cursing sending them off in the first place, I wished I had kept them with me so I could hand them over myself directly to the shipper. We were soon past signs for Philadelphia and onto the New Jersey Turnpike, where we stopped at a service station for a drink, with Manhattan clearly in view across the Hudson. We stopped to have a conversation with a trucker who was from Guatemala and wanted to chat about our journey, the first of lots more people in New York who also stopped us and asked questions and came to chat to us about the bike. It seemed that Americans on the east and west coasts were much more geographically aware than their hinterland compatriots. We headed into the Lincoln Tunnel, with Lena continuing to take care of the toll booths from her pillion seat and all of a sudden we had zoomed up into the traffic and pedestrian chaos of Manhattan. New York City is the only place in the USA where people don't slavishly follow the directions of the walk / don't walk signs, so we had to negotiate crowds of people, along with stereotypically demonstrative taxi and lorry drivers. Our big smiley loop across America together was complete, as was my whole journey from Dubai just over a year before. I was overwhelmed by the thoughts of where I had been, what had happened and who I had met, along with all the emotions that went with it. Switching between wanting to cry and wanting to laugh, as soon as we got to the hotel and giving Lena a big bear hug, I reacted in the only way I knew how and lay down on the bed and had a lovely afternoon nap.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Up to the Artic and Down to the Lower 48

Well, inevitably I eschew the opportunity to abide with my fellow bikers and indulge in keg - throwing and slow bike riding contests. All the Alaskan Stout must have put some iron in my blood, as I find myself drawn North, into the big, wild country, as strongly as a needle on a compass. The road out of Anchorage opens up and the forest starts to thin slightly as big areas of muskeg open up the view. Just outside Trapper Creek I catch a glimpse of Mount McKinley or Denali (the big one), encased in its gleaming carapace of glittering ice at more than 20,000 feet. It is the jewel in the crown of Denali National Park, more than 6,000,000 acres of wilderness, 1,000,000 of which are glaciars. There is only one sealed road at the park entrance for 16 miles, and less than a hundred miles of designated dirt roads.

I rapidly get to the Visitor's Centre and secure a campsite at yet another fantastic National Park Campsite. I am off in the walk - in camping section, surrounded by trees and away from anyone else and yet only 10 minutes walk away is a General Store with wireless internet access. I enjoy an evening reading, eating and drinking next to my fire until it approaches 3am and the natural light is just to dim to make out the characters. Up the next morning and drowsy in my tent, which I have draped with my tarpaulin to provide a little more shade from the almost constant daylight, I am confused and then aroused by a munching sound outside. Slowly and carefully, tooth by tooth, I open the tent door a smidgen to make out a large brown beast, feeding a couple of metres away. They say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, but I believe the moose is the ugliest creature on the face of the earth. With a long, knobbly face, accentuated by a goatee beard, attached to a gawky body that seems to have been constructed from the biological parts bin. The bulls I saw on the roadside, were certainly magnificent, with their enormous crown of antlers, which I was told later in a bar somewhere, always have 14 points on each side. This was certainly true of all the ones I saw subsequently. Despite the strong smell and cloud of flies following it too, nonetheless, to see this female so close, chomping at the bushes where my clothes are drying, was a lovely start to the day.

After camp coffee from my fab Italian coffee pot and some fruit and nuts, I head off to climb up Mount Healy. It was great to stretch the old legs, as the distances up here are enormous. This, along with the long hours of daylight, inevitably mean a lot of time in the saddle recently. Mount McKinley was shrouded in cloud, but the climb was still enjoyable and afforded a couple of interesting encounters along the way. At the top, I met 2 friendly ladies from Oklahoma and we start chatting. I soon realise their reason for bing friendly, as they explain they are on a evangelising trip in Alaska. After a little more probing, I realise that this is a big business recruitment campaign. Their "church" has more than 20,000 members, all of whom pledge a tithe of their earnings to the church and they receive a bonus for every new member they sign up. They were staying in the expensive Park Lodge and seemed amazed that I would openly declare that I am an athiest and question them to consider what Jesus would be likely to think of this degree of commerciality in their church.

Driven off the mountain by the Christians, I skip down the hill and after 15 minutes meet, Sandy, a solicitor from Edinburgh, lying across the trail. It soon becomes clear that he was not taking a breather, but had in fact stumbled, fallen and broken his ankle. Checking that he was comfortable, had food, water, plenty of clothing and some anti - bear, chili spray, I headed back to the Ranger Station at the entrance as fast as possible. Excited by the prospect of getting a helicopter to guide the Rangers to the spot where Sandy was, I was disappointed, and confused, to have that dismissed by the man in the Boy Scout uniform, saying that they didn't have an helicopter available, so would I be able to help out with a gurney instead!? After some clarification, it became clear that we were talking about a taking a stretcher back up there to pick up Sandy, which we did, humping the gear up the hill, where Sandy was being harassed by the God - squad press - gangers. We rolled him on to the stretcher and slowly ferryed him down the hill, sending him off to Fairbanks in an ambulance. It was interesting to be part of the "rescue" and chilling to consider that if he had been in the "back - country", Sandy would have almost certainly ended up as bear - bait.

Another long day ended with some more of Alaskan Ales finest and a tub of Cherry Garcia from Ben and Jerry's. Up late, I had a leisurely breakfast and a ride out to Savage River, at the end of the road, passing bears and moose. At the bridge over the river, there was still ice on the surface, despite it being mid June. There was no clear view of Mount Mckinley, but a great glimpse of Silverthrone, her smaller sister peak through a gap in the clouds. Off and out towards Fairbanks, whose approach was announced by the enormous, satellite dishes at the University of Alaska. I checked in at the College Inn, which seemed frequented by seasonal workers and so was a cheaper option at 40 USD a night. Walking around, there seemed to be lots of Russians and Russian influence in Fairbanks. I saw one restaurant offering a double Stoli with breakfast, something which I decided not to go for, as I had resolved to head up the Dalton the next day. It was also clear, that the population of Alaska must double in the summer. You can spot the local cars, who saty through the winter, by the electric cable and plug hanging from the engine grill. There are sockets outside most shops and bars, where the cars get plugged in to keep the engines from freezing solid in the winter months.

Difficulty sleeping in the now constant daylight and lots of noise from revellers in the paper - thin hostel walls, meant that I was quite late leaving Fairbanks. Pretty quickly, the State Capitol, disappeared and I was out into the back country and catching my first sight of the Trans - Alaskan pipeline. Carrying 88,000 barrels of oil an hour, the pipeline is punctuated by regular perpendicular radiators, which carry the heat away from the oil and reduce the pressure inside the pipeline, and along with it, the danger of an accident. Good job too, as the pipeline is fairly regularly shot at, either by protesters, or more like, drunken locals desperate for some entertainment, as the road follows the pipeline for most of the way, as it was originally laid as a service road to the well - head, more than 450 miles away at Prudhoe Bay. The Haul Road runs 414 miles from the Alaskan interior to the North Slope, crossing the Artic Circle on the way and following the Trans - Alaskan oil pipeline. It is the most northerly road on the continent and was built in a staggering 5 months in 1974. It was a private trucking road for the first 20 years of its life, until the Alaskan legislature voted to open it to the public in 1994 for 12 months of the year. It is mostly dirt and gravel all the way, although it is seen to be safer in the winter, when it becomes a solid, consistent trail of ice.

The dirt and gravel starts straightaway, and was made slippery by the rain and my street tyres. After 50 miles it descends to the Yukon River Bridge, the only place in Alaska that the river is spanned. Wooden Decking was slippery in the rain and the calcium chloride residue and rocks used during the winter to keep the ice under control. After just over 50 miles or so, the road starts descending into the Yukon Valley, switchbacking across the dirt and the "gravel", with some stones as big as softballs. The heckles on my neck start twanging as below me, I see a triple - articulated lorry below me, with an enormous tractor behind it to push it up the hill. Clearly, there was no way the driver could stop, as the tractor kept going all the way to the top, so its driver could get back and pick up his next ride. I pulled over to the side as close as I dare and waited for the leviathan to rush past, pluming rocks and dust behind it. Other such encounters along the way broke my foglight and bruised my thighs and ribs as the spinning rocks arced through the dust towards me.

After squirming up the north slope of the Yukon, I get into a good riding rhythm again, relaxing slightly, enjoying the gradually opening scenery of the tundra, filled with summer colour. A few hours later, I hit the Coldfoot Saloon, where the last petrol on the road is until Deadhorse. I enjoyed a Glitter Gulch ale and a greasy burger on the balcony overlooking the idling trucks - at least the diesel fumes kept the flies away. After setting off again, a while later the sparse taiga turns to persistent tundra and the trees are no more. I now have a starkly clear view of the saw - toothed Brooks Range, seeing herds of caribou tracked by wolfpacks in such piercing clarity ahead of me. Then the last climb up through the jaw - jangling corrugations and unstoppable trucks of the Atigun Pass and on past the legendary Gobbler's Knob, feeling increasingly like a Frodo and Sam approaching Mordor, as I head closer to the North Slope.

The weather has turned windy and misty with a cold, drizzly sleet as I arrived in dystopian Deadhorse, blocking any hope of seeing the Artic Ocean. This terminal town consists entirely of aluminium warehouses, truck repair yards and portakabin - buildings. There are 2 hotels in the place - The Artic Caribou Inn and the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. No rooms and no food were available in either, the only difference between them is that one is marketed at truck drivers, hence the porno mags on sale at reception and the other has latte coffee for sale, for the tourists. There was a bar in the latter, which served the consistently excellent Alaskan Ales, with which I greedily slaked my thirst. I rapidly fell into conversation with some oil workers, who introduced themselves as "roughnecks", but who seemed to meet my stereotypical image of rednecks, so instead I thought of them as Deadnecks. Soon as bored by them as they were by me, my journey and their surroundings in general, I started talking to some Inupiat indians at the other end of the room. They dismissed the oilmen as "cheechakos", someone trying to survive their first year in Alaska.

These guys were much more interesting, their gentle humour and slow calm conversation, interspersed with their tongue twisting terminology was getting increasingly challenging. Some of the most challenging was to do with the "snacks" they took me out to their truck to share. First up was "muktuk", presented in various greasy jars, which I first took to be full of pickled eggs, an impression reinforced by the smell. Instead, the jars contained a variety of pickled boiled or raw whale skin, flesh or blubber, which apparently to the aficienado, had quite distinctive tastes between them. To me they tasted like lardy tripe. Then for dessert, we shared what they called, eskimo ice cream, which came from a filthy coolbox and consisted of surprising light whipped animal fat, berries, seal oil and shredded caribou jerky. Ben and Jerry had nothing to worry about from these blokes as I can't remember having a mouth so coated in animal fat since eating pie and chips on a day - trip to Bridlington in 1989. The boys were heading home and I realised that it was gone 2am and I had no bed for the night. I went back for a final cleansing ale and pushed my bike around the back, pulled my scarf over my face inside my helmet to keep the flies out of my face and lay down in the dirt and slept like a baby.

I was woken a few hours later by some scuffling and rustling noises. Fearing grizzlies again, perhaps attracted by the rubbish bins at the back of the bar, I pulled my scarf off my face and warily opened one eye. Unable to focus, I opened the other eye and was relieved to see a couple of rascally racoons sifting through the rubbish. In a mood of whimsy, I named them the Lone Ranger and Tonto and enjoyed watching them, whilst I was pleasantly surprised how well I felt, apart from the salty, lardy mucus sock that lined my mouth. Remembering that the "beach" on the Artic Ocean was 8 miles from Deadhorse "town" and that the barmaid said that I had to apply for the oil company tour the day before for "security clearance", I woke up to realise what a one - horse town this was, and as the name suggested, that nag was dead. So, I decided to try a new direction for a change, after 7 months and more than 40,000 kms heading pretty consistently north, I got on my bike and tried south for a change. I was surprised how I didn't feel hungry until I got back to Fairbanks around 8 hours later, I guess because the amount of fat I had eaten the night before was so calorie - laden. Nonetheless, I check back into the College Inn and go straight out for an Alaskan Salmon Bake and then crash until the morning.

Next day I head out onto the Alaskan Highway towards Tok. The Alaska Highway was only built in 1942 as a result of the perceved threat of a land assault by the Japanese after Pearl Harbour. Remarkably, it took little more than 6 months to build the more than 1,500 mile long hard - topped road from Fairbanks to Dawson Creek. Before that, the rivers in the summer (Yukon, Klondike and the like) and dogs in the winter were the main form of transport. I stopped in Tok at the Grizzly Bear Cafe after a couple of hours of travelling alone on the road for most of the road. Enjoying soup and a sandwich, a whole bunch of bikers, mostly on adventure bikes turned up. They were a friendly bunch of almost 200 bikes on the Dust to Dawson, 48 hour off - road run from Anchorage to Dawson City across the border in the Yukon Territory. The Top of the World highway to was all dirt and it was great to be riding with other bikers for a while. We passed through the Gold Rush settlement of Chicken, Alaska. Allegedly the town was supposed to be named Ptarmigan (the local prairie chicken / grouse which surrounds the area), but the locals couldn't spell it so settled on Chicken instead. It also made me chuckle that the next town along the road was much more heroically called Eagle.

Felt psychologically great to ride through Chicken and on to Eagle, although the metaphor was ruined when I had to double - back to continue on the Top of the World Highway to Dawson City. Met a bloke panning for gold and eventually came down from the plateau to see Dawson City down below across the swirling Yukon. Crossed the swirling Yukon this time on a ferry and met the remnants of the Dust to Dawson run from Anchorage to Dawson City. More than 150 bikers were there at the midnight Main Street meet and a good atmosphere ensued along the wooden raised boardwalks and bars. Riders at the Dust to Dawson were also planning big trips of their own on their adventure machines. I was curious as to whythey were so often limited to North America. Turned into bed as the sky darkened approaching 3am and headed out the next day, passing the turnings for the Dempster HIghway to Inuvik and later the road to Yellowknife and the Great Slave Lake, objects of desire for a future trip. The road was long down to Whitehorse, but I was spurred on by the D2D crowd and the thought of seeing Lena in Houston in less than 2 weeks, I also wanted to get to Watson Lake relatively early, hopefully in order to avoid the crush on accommodation that had forced me into a more expensive hotel in Dawson City. The Alaskans and Canadians I have met have been some of the friendliest and most helpful people that I have met on the whole trip.

Up in the morning to find that someone had left a sweet on my bike and then onto Whitehorse through stormy weather. Past the turning onto the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, no doubt a better North Slope destination than Deadhorse, I was chasing the storms being whisked in from the Great Slave and Great Bear Lakes to the north - east. All these late, light nights are taking their toll, but I slept very well last night in my dingy and dark motel room, which was perfect. It's been somewhat shocking for me to catch some of the US television news this week and to see how the role of women in the presidential election has descended into a staged catfight between the respective candidate's wives and discussion on what they were wearing and what charities they are involved in. It was hard to believe that until a week previously, America was seriously considering the possibility of electing its first woman president. It is hard to believe how advanced the US is in lots of ways, but how it is also so retarded in others. I was online again at the Stratford Motel again in the sleet of Whitehorse, in anticipation of receiving the missives from Lena's tinklig digits and her sparkling conversational wit.

Walking along the riverside in Whitehorse was lovely and the Klondike was the most magnificent of all the steamships I had seen so far. Once again this morning, someone had left a sweet on my bike. I then got back on my bike, conscious that I had less than a fortnight to get to Houston in time to meet Lena. It was the worst riding weather yet from Whitehorse to Watson Lake - sleet, hail and driving rain all the way, which made the gravel sections and the wooden plank and steel - bottomed bridges particularly difficult to negotiate, as well as making the potholes invisible as they quickly filled with rain. Suffering from sensory deprivation too as all the colours and shapes bleed into shades of grey, sound is drowned out by the pinging on my helmet and there are absolutley no smells whatsoever. Also, despite wearing several layers, eventually the rain seeps through and my extremities get colder and colder until I am shivering and my teeth are chattering. The worst part is the area between my arsehole and bollocks, my "tisner" seems to be the collecting area for the cold water and feels like some sadist is constantly applying an ice cube to that most tender of regions as the miles rumble by.

Passing the turning for the Cassiar Highway and reaching Watson Lake, I stopped at the cleanest, newest and cheapest place in town, the Historic Airport Lodge for 65 CAN, run by Michael, a very welcoming if fastidious German bloke who insisted shoes were taken off before entering. I trudged back down the road in the pelting rain to see the milepost forest and then stop in Bee Jay's Truck Stop, the only place open at 7.15pm on a Sunday Night. The vegetable soup followed by liver and onions with mashed potato was just what I needed despite the fact that "cafe" came after "Diesel, auto repairs and tires (sic)" on their roadside hoarding and only just above "propane" in the list of services they offered. The place was run by grandparents and grandchildren, who seemed to treat the place as their living room, with the CBC equivalent of Radio Two playing "light music" in the background. I snorted when Gershwin's "Summertime" came on as I looked out over the puddled yard being lashed with torrents of rain through the misty window. I was entertained by the interplay between the family members, the visiting truckers and the locals but even more by the discovery of a publication previously unknown to me.

The June edition of the "Truckspeaker Newsheet - published every month in the free enterprise market with no grants or subsidies in Penticton, British Colombia", was a literary revelation. Along with journalistic gems such as the headlining "Incorporation is the Only Way for a Trucker to Go", ads for "The Cat's Ass Electronics. Do you suffer from lack of power and fuel economy in your semi - engine? Try our performance modification. Money back guarantee (a true inspiration in web design if you care to check it out)" and a plethora of brilliant jokes. For example, the following, sent in by a reader from Fort Nelson, " A thief in Paris planned to steal some paintings from the Louvre. After careful planning he got past security, stole the paintings and made it safely to his van. However, he was captured only two blocks away when his van ran out of fuel. When asked how he could mastermind such a crime and then make such an obvious error, he replied "Monsieur, that is the reason I stole the paintings in the the first place. I had no Monet to buy Degas to make the Van Gogh". This was followed by the epilogue, "And you thought I didn't have De Gaulle to send this to your paper did you. Well I figure I have nothing Toulouse!". But, the very best thing about the whole experience was that, for me, it represented a genuine slice of life from the post - Gold Rush Yukon and will stay with me longer than the pristine paint of Dawson City's saloons and the beached "Klondike" at the roundabout in Whitehorse.

The next day, in the chill of the early morning torrential rain, I rode past Contact Creek, where the two crews of the Alaskan Highway met in September 1942 after starting from Delta Junction and Dawson Creek respectively. It is more than 1,000 km from Watson Lake to Prince George, where I aimed to be by nightfall, whatever the weather. It started out really foul again, all the way through the continental divide, very cold and very wet. Then it slowly started to improve to showers and eventually full sunshine. The wildlife came out too - an enormous bull moose and a black bear running along the side of the road just before Fort Nelson (it had nowhere to go for a couple of hundred yards due to the elevated roadway), a bald eagle and a swarm of flies as I stopped for a call of nature. I pulled over on a deserted forest lined road, desperate to go. I quickly fumbled with my 2 pairs of trousers and was in full flow when I noticed the big buggers swarming around me. By the time I had finished they were inside my undercrackers and helmet and biting like hell. At the end of the day, I had red angry bites all over my hands, in my pants and inside my helmet - with a lumpy, bumpy head and neck in a line 3 inches from the edges and openings.

I was surprised by the rapidly approaching dusk, despite it only being 9ish, the sun was skimming the western horizon in a long and low sunset. My south east trajectory and the last few days of bad weather had meant that I hadn't seen the sun from my new global position for a while. The benefit though was a gorgeous golden glow to everything . I love riding in the sunlight of early morning or late evening. It sounds very egotistical, but riding along and seeing your own shadow, especially as you go through corners, is a great thrill. I come off of Highway 97 and onto 29 through the lovely Peace Valley, on through Hudson's Hope and pushed on through Chetwynd too, enjoying this section so much that I forgot to stop for petrol. I eventually made it to Mackenzie to a truck stop run by a friendly Korean family who were shutting up for the night, but didn't seem to mind re-opening for my 15 dollars of petrol. I pushed onto McLeod Lake, gilded by the rapidly descending sun and was soon into Prince George. I went straight to the motel I was in before and fed - up with constantly removing and replacing my boxes, all of which had broken plastic catches and required lashings of lashings to keep them on, I left my bike as it was outside the window, and went in for a shower. Nowhere else in the world apart from North America would it be possible to be fed and watered, with a bed and quarters in less than an hour after getting off the bike. By contrast, I was so fed - up of the stupid BMW boxes - leaking, falling off and the time it takes to pack and re-pack, that I just left them.

As I left the next morning, I felt as though I was leaving the wild northwest and as a brief visitor, I would have to say that Alaska, the Yukon and northern British Colombia, in that order, are simply stunning. This is probably because of the combination of great mountains, lakes, forests and coastlines too, but most uniquely, they were respectively the last places definitely in the Americas and and probably in the world too, to have been touched by the hand of modern man. Only for around 100 years or so (slightly more for lower British Colombia, slightly less for upper Alaska) has any significant human impact been registered on the landscape. It really shows. Even when viewed from the road, there is an untouched, pristine nature to the far North West which is tangible and simply beautiful beyond words. What makes us feel so arrogant to believe that we, or the generations that follow us, have nothing to learn from such fantastic and unusual creatures that live here - from polar bears to ice worms? These areas must be protected at all costs for the sake of the human race and our appreciation of the wonders of our planet.
Raining again, I was heading east for Banff and gradually into better weather as I skirted the town and headed onto the Icefield Parkway. The Canadians penchant for self - promotion was immediately obvious as the road was subtitled as the most beautiful in the world. It was gorgeous, with craggy, snow - capped peaks all around in a constantly changing vista of superlative proportions. At the heart of the National Park is the the Columbia Icefield, the meltwater of which flows into 3 oceans, at the heart of which is the Athabasca Glaciar. When I got there, I got a great camping spot right opposite, pitched my tent and shared a chatty evening and some wine with a couple from Holland on bicycles before the snow drove us into our tents. The next day I woke up to a chilly 4 degrees inside the tent and decided to stay for a day's hking and climbing around the Glaciar. I really enjoying stretching my legs and filling my lungs after a hard few days of riding, with some close encounters with Mountain Sheep and enjoying some long distance Grizzly Bear viewing across to the opposite valley. Next day I pack up and turn off the Transcanada HIghway and head south to the US border, away from Medecine Hat and Moose Jaw and excited about heading into the lower 48 and to meeting with my Lena in Houston.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Alaska - The Last Frontier

I was late picking up Dave after some difficulty getting my rear tyre changed and after a warm welcome we set off into the worst weather of the trip. It was cold with driving rain and sleet, so after 3 hours we stopped at a non - descript Best Western motel in a non - descript Hope. We showered to warm ourselves up and stop our teeth chattering and then headed out for some warming soup, burgers and beer, accompanied by several rounds of pool, which I let Dave win to help him get over his jet - lag. The next day was freezing cold but clearer and after crossing the Allison Pass, wary of ice, especially as they don't use salt on the roads here so as not to attract animals out of the woods, I started to speed up. It wasn't long before Officer Stockmeister of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police flagged us down and gave us a speeding ticket. He was quite decent about it all things considered, giving us the minimum fine of 138 canadian dollars - 100 for speeding and 38 for each KPH above the speed limit. He also explained that we had 30 days to pay or contest the ticket, so looks like I won't be paying that one then and will be adding British Colombia to Turkey and Australia to the list of places where I am wanted for unpaid speeding tickets.

Along the border, seeing lots of joint US and Canadian flagpoles, interestingly not something I noticed south or north in Alaska on the American sides of the border. We arrived in beautiful Kaslo set on the long vertical finger of Lake Kootenay and starting seeing black and grizzly bears on the road along way. Julius and Kristen, owners of the Grizzly Bear Ranch greeted us and we met Davey and Julie and Timon and Lisa at dinner. Davey was a retired fire officer and Julie was his younger partner, both were good company, whilst Timon (presumably named after Shakespeare's least popular play?) and Lisa were a couple of Actuaries who maintained the reputation of the profession as making chartered accountants look interesting. Next day we went bear watching together, also seeing plenty ofwhite tailed deer, mule deer, elk, a Bald Eagle and an Osprey. Most surprisingly, there were tiny, buzzing migratory humming birds in the garden, which was patrolled by Koro and Masher, the ranch's two Alsatian bear - dogs. They went bonkers one evening and we rushed out to see a black bear on the opposite side of the river that runs past the Ranch being warned off.

Julius (an ex - War Reporter) and Kristen (an ex - Diplomat's wife) regaled us with tales of the locals in the surrounding area, which is renowned for pot growing. Their neighbours on both sides, O'Shea and Dibble seemed to be doing a great job in keeping up the reputation of backwoodsmen for drunkeness and excess. One day, Dave and I joined Duff (nothing to do with the Simpsons, that was his real name) and Suzanne from Johnson's Landing for a day kayaking on the lake, which was great and a nice break from being in a big group. We stopped on a beach for lunch and Duff revealed himself as a conspiracy theorist sans pareil. His favourite themes were about Chem Trails and Con Trails, which are being used bu the government to control the weather and as communication mechanisms, and this "must be true" because Beck has just realeased a song about it. More convincing were his references to Building 57, the 3rd tower that was demolished on 9/11, but which no-one seems to know about and references to the film, America: From Freedom to Fascism, which is actually a very good, thought provoking film about who ruled the USA in the twentieth century.

Anyway, all to soon it was time to say goodbye to Dave B at Castlegar Airport and I headed north to Kelowna to see about my clutch. The people were very nice at SouthWest Motorrad and after suggesting I wash the bike they thought the gear oil level was just overfilled and so was splashing around. They helped me to drain the level, gave me a T-shirt and sent me on my way having saved me a tidy sum in unecessary repair bills. They also said they would keep hold of the clutch and send it onwards as an when I may need it. I headed north, now a day ahead of where I thought I would be, and made it to Prince George for a night in a bog standard motel.

The road out of Prince George, Highway 16, is a noticeably quieter "highway" and I start to recognise the other travellers on the road, seeing the same people throughout the day. There is the redneck in his green Ford truck with the Leer trailer cover, the double trailer petrol tanker, reassuringly heading north, the old couple in the camper van and Greg, the biker from Vancouver. Names here are strange too. Yesterday I was heading for Williams Lake and Prince George and today I am heading for Watson Lake and Prince Rupert. For anyone who like me is a fan of the Simpsons, Burns Lake and the next town along, Smithers, would also raise a snigger or two. I stop in the Tim Horton's in Smithers and meet Talking Bear, an enormous Gitivangak Indian who was riding an even bigger Triumph America. He gave me what appeared to be some good guidance on the fuel situation ahead on the Cassiar Highway. There was fuel at the beginning at Kitwanga, then at Meziadin Junction and 333 km later at Dease Lake according to Talking Bear. He also guides me to the ring of mountains that surrounds the town, still crested in ice and snow even though it is the middle of June. Once again the names are funny - along with Mount Cronin and the Seven Sisters Mountains, the biggest one nearest town is called the Hudson Bay Company Mountain, no doubt named by some brown - nosing pen pusher in the 18th or 19th century.

Immediately I get on the Cassiar there is loads of Moose Scat in the gravel on the road and an enormous blood stain on the road surface, indicating both just how enormous these beasts are and how dangerous it is to hit one. The flies are getting thicker as I pass through dense forests of fir and the strong raina and sleet showers become a temporary relief as it affords the opportunity to clean my visor off.

However, when I get to Meziadin Junction there is no fuel and the station is all shut up and the pumps wrapped up in tarpaulins. I go to the nearby campsite to see if anyone has any fuel I could buy, but there are only a friendly group of cyclists who suggest I get off the road and go to Stewart, 59kms off the Cassiar Highway and right on the southern border of Alaska, butting up against Hyder on the Inside Passage. It was marked as another unsurfaced road on my map, but I had little choice but to try it out as I had already done 170km since Kitwanga and didn't have enough fuel to make it to Dease Lake. Even though when I got there the petrol station was shut for the night, the ride alone made it the best enforced diversion ever. The birch trees fringing the road and the lakes and rivers shimmered in the strengthening wind and sun as the clouds dispersed and revealed a deep sapphire sky. The mountains stand firm in their icy fastness with the lowering sun glinting off the glaciars. The biggest of which, Bear Glaciar, has fingers of blue ice that reach down the edge of the road itself. Like runnels of white - hot lava that have cut through the stands of Douglas Fir, Cedar and Larch that cling to the precipitous mountain slopes, the scene is mesmerising. Only the plethora of black bear feeding off the sage and dandelions on the side of the road focuses me on the road ahead.

In the bar in the Stewart Hotel, I meet a bunch of BIH Miners, with black faces and dirty overalls who have been off road and helicoptering into some of the old mines. They explain that the rising global commodity prices have encouraged their company to send teams like theirs into some of the disused mines to recover previously uneconomic ores. I started out the next day, cold in the shade of the mountains and soon realised that the bumps of the rocks on the road had snapped my speedo and odometer cable. I was stuck at 87417 km, and I stopped and fiddled around at the Rabid Grizzly rest stop (honestly that was its name!). I was initially stressed out by this, as my LED fuel indicator had broken on a similarly rough section of road around Lake Atitlan in Guatamala and I had been relying on the odometer to predict my fuel range. Now that was gone and some of the longest inter - fuel sections and the most remote roads were just about to come up, the Cassiar being a case in point. Also, my rider display now looked a sight, as my ABS red warning lights flashed constantly (broken in Argentina), my LED didn't work at all and now only my rev counter worked amongst my clocks. I was also pissed off because I was hoping to cross the magic 100, 000km mark on this trip, by far the longest I have ever ridden on any of my motorbikes.

The stress disappears as I realise that I have nothing to prove to anyone apart from myself on this journey and this has always been a thing with me that I have recognised for a long time. I always seem to strive to collect certificates and awards as a way to get the recognition I craved as a kid. I have got to know myself so well on this trip and I have nothing to prove to myself after making it this far, that I don't feel I have to do anything I don't want to do. Maybe I am starting to grow up a bit and just like Jack London in 1897 when he joined the Klondike Gold Rush when he said "It was in the Klondike that I found myself. There you get your perspective. I got mine". I carry on for a great day's ride through the most remote road I have been on so far. You know you have been through somewhere isolated when you see more bears than other vehicles on the road and more moose than people you have conversations with, including the people at petrol stations and the motel.

The mud and gravel sections were slippery and wet with the road tyres on and the petrol staion at the ironically named Good Hope Station is also shut. I run out of petrol before getting to the junction with the Alaska Highway, but like everything that day, I take it in my stride adn thanks to the litre or so of fuel in my camping stove bottles, make it with fumes left in the tank. I meet Bellingham Bill and Simon from San Rafael on their KLRs at the petrol station heading in the opposite direction. They tell me about the onward road conditions, although they point out that there biggest challenge was the flies that got bigger and thicker the further north you went. They show me their radiator grilles that looked like someone had just taken the top off an Eccles Cake as testament to this. Still feeling fresh, I quickly polished off the last 464 kilometres into Whitehorse in just less than 3 hours into the setting sun as I headed north east, mostly on tarmac now, over sparkling lakes and the glinting slippery surfaces of the metalled bridges of the Yukon Territory.

I get to Whitehorse to find all the hostels and motels full. At one motel, Ron, a Harley - riding Vietnam Vet and muppet look - a - like, flagged me down to say that my box was hanging off as I went by. He was just unloading his bike and had noticed the loose strap. By now, all the stupid plastic locks of my BMW panniers were broken and needed to be strapped on and this one had gotten too close to my exhaust during the long day of riding and burnt through. At the office they said they were full and so I went back into town to see what else was available. The answer was nothing, and I was resigned to riding out of town to try my luck on the road towards Alaska, when passing the same motel, Ron flagged me down a second time. Ron Johnson is one of those rare Christians who actually seems to be focussed on emulating the behaviour and philosophy of the religions founder. He offered me a bed in his large suite style motel room and we agreed to split the cost. In Whitehorse there are no generica North America restaurants here, so we went out for a Chinese meal together in a bright and sunny Whitehorse at gone 11pm. I learnt that Ron used to work on the railroad and he had recently lost his wife to cancer and his Mum to old age. I also learnt that not only did he have a face like Ernie from Sesame Street, but he also sounded uncannily like him too.

I am absolutely knackered after 2 tough days of riding more than 1,000kms each day. I have underestimated the distances here and realised yesterday that my Yukon, NWT and Alaska map is half the scale and so double the distance of my previous Canada map. As soon as the food hit my stomach the long day's ride caught up with me and I was ready for bed. Next day after breakfast together, Ron and I said our goodbyes and wished each other well. What a gent. I have been so lucky on this trip to meet so many good people. In fact, I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as evil people, there are only bad situations or sick, ignorant or fearful people that get involved in bad things. The thing I don't understand is, why are governments so consistently unrepresentative of the people who I have met that live in those countries?

As Albert Einstein and any long distance bike rider know, time and space are relative on a continuum. Now that my speedo is broken and the distances between places are getting longer and longer, I start to measure distance in time and vice versa. I also notice that the grizzly bears seem to have fur to match their surrounding fauna - from cinnamon brown in British Colombia, to almost white around Stewart and and blonde / sandy up north. There have also been reports that bears are attracted not only to food and perfumed smells but also synthetic smells too and there are accounts of them demolishing vehicles to eat batteries, tyres and rubber hoses! I also read one funny story of a group of French hikers who would be hiking away from their vehicle for a number of days and who decided to spray their car with bear - repellent to make sure it would be OK whilst they were away. However. because the repellent is basically made from chillies and is effective in temporarily blinding and confusing a bear that gets too close allowing you to escape, it actually made their car even more of a culinary attraction than normal and they came back to find all the tyres chewed off and the bonnet ripped open and all the delicate little amuse bouche inside taken by the furry gourmands!

Whereas there are estimated to be between 800 to 1000 brizzlies in the lower 48 states. As I approach the border, I read in my guidebook whilst taking a break over a brilliant spicy, homemade pizza, that in Alaska, there are estimated to be between 12,000 to 13,000. These numbers have been declining in inverse correlation as the human population of Alaska has soared from 70,000 to 500,000 people since the second world war.

I pass Haines Junction and eventually cross the border into Alaska and immediately get stuck at the front of a queue waiting for a flagger to let us go ahead. This is frustrating for two reasons. Firstly, I am waiting next to a bloke on a Harley who is talking to the flagger and explains that he has come 3500 miles from Seattle in just less than 2 weeks. She seems amazed at this distance, absolutely stunned that someone could ride a motorcycle that far and that fast. She then asks me hwo far I have come and I say that I have come from Argentina since the beginning of the year and she nods and just says "u-huh" in recognition. I am stunned at her response and guess that she only knows US High School Geography (which seems to be to be able to memorise the State Capitals of the 50 States) but the Pilot Car has eventually arrived and we are off. The section of road is wet, muddy and slippery, but it is not that bad and it is frustrating to have to follow the Pilot Car for nearly 20 miles at 15 mph, the boredom only relieved by seeing the Harley rider skid and buck over the uneven ground in my mirror and to get a great view of a large bull moose crossing a lake. His large palmate antlers are majestic and comply with the rule that they always seem to have 14 points.Whilst the bike is a great place to view wildlife, unfortunately it is not such a great place to take pictures from, once you have fiddled about taking gloves off, getting the camera out, etc then the moment has invariably gone.

I arrive in Tok and manage to get a room in a motel made from portacabins. Although it is getting quite late, it is bright out and the sun is stronger now at gone 10pm than it has been all day. I go for a stroll. I almost wet myself with laughter when I read a poster on the community health centre noticeboard that they have a big problem with ticks in Tok, much to the bemusement of some Tlingit winos who are hanging around the car park. I decide to take Michelle Shock's advice and anchor up in Anchorage for a couple of day's R&R. and get a great viewing of an enormous bald eagle, sat on a bridge railing as I cross it. I get a close up view of his fearfully enormous high - bridged beak and his cold steel - blue eyes as he stares at me on the bike for a few seconds. He is simply enormous and seems like a wolf with wings. Thankfully he decides that I am not worth eating and he flies down to the stony beach below and picks up the moose calf carcass that he was feeding on and carries it off into the forest, easily supporting its weight with its terrifying talons and wingspan that seemed at least 12 feet across. As I get closer to Anchorage there are also some panoramic views of the taiga, tundra and mountains beyond, and I can see for miles as the clouds clear. The air quality is brilliant after rain and I can see Moose in th valleys, Dall Sheep on the mountains, a beaver swimming across a lake and even a family of chipmunks being shepherded just across the road in front of me.

My visor is just caked on with flies and insect debris. It looks like the inside of a perspex mixing bowl that has just had rock cakes or fruit scones prepared in it. Bits of dried fruit and splashes of egg yolk with other indescribable gunk chucked in for good measure - it is also about as transparent too. There are a lot of parallells here in Alaska with being in Patagonia 6 months ago. The flags are similar (mountains and the southern cross on the Patagonia flag and Ursa Minor and the Pole Star on the Alaska flag. There is also the perpetual daylight issue, although that is much more pronounced here. I am having to use my tarpaulin over my tent and the airline facemask that Dave B left with me to be able to get off to sleep. It is also strange here to see everyhting closed at a "normal" time when it is still bright daylight whereas in Patagonia people seem to adapt their behaviour more to fit in with their natural surroundings. Here nature is ignored or expected to adapt itself.

Calcium Chloride is laid on the roads here and rocks too, scattered around randomly from icy patches that have melted since the spring has begin here. They never use salt up here as it makes the roads more dangerous as it draws all the animals out to lick it up! There are lots of delays for roadworks here as they are digging up the road to lay blue felt underneth to try to prevent buckling of the surface in the winter due to the ice expanding underneath. Road from Tok to Anchorage was constantly changing, with a rollercaoster of buckles, gravel and dirt and then some silky smooth new tarmac too, all with a dash of moose to keep you awake. No external stimulants were required on the middle section from Glenallen Junction as the scenery was simply breathtaking, turn after turn after turn. Snow and ice - peaked mountains in the distance and low forest and tundra in the foreground with herds of caribou clearly visible. It was like entering some mystical kingdom, like the legends of Shangri - la. The wind - buffeted cottonwoods and feverfew gave off a wonderful scent too from the side of the road. Small planes in front of cabins on the road between Tok and Anchorage. There was no discernible runways, so presumably they used the road to take off and land.

I get into Anchorage which feels like a teeming metropolis after all the wilderness and tiny hamlets I have been in for the last few days and get a place at the Backpacker's Lodge, courtesy of directions from Arnold a Harley rider I met at the traffic lights. It is cheap (for North America anyway at 50USD), central and clean. I fall asleep almost immediately after I have unpacked the bike and then get up for a walk in the bright evening. After a stroll through town past the rows of gift shops and unhelpful ATMs I stop at a Japanese restaurant to celebrate getting this far with some sushi and Kirin Ichiban. By the time I have finished and walk back to the hostel through the dusky gloom brought on by the rain at gone 1am in the morning.

I can't sleep in my portacabin because the light is streaming through the inadequate ventian blind, so I flick on the television. Inevitably there are loads of medical related adverts on (again playing on American fears that they won't live for ever, it will just feel that way). Straining. Going Too Often. Not going at all. Going when you were not expecting to. Incomplete emptying - which always puts me in mind of an inefficiently run fire drill in a public building, but which of course refers to an altogether different, trouser-dampening reality. The biggest single market is in drugs that deal with erectile dysfunction. My favourite features a group of men who gather together to play in a band. I think it is meant to show them looking relaxed and happy, but they are such good musicians you cannot help noting that impotence has left them with plenty of time on their hands to practise their instruments.

The best part of the adverts tends to come towards the end when the law requires the pharmaceutical company to list the possible side effects of the various products. Sometimes these are spelled out in a warm tone implying this is all a bit of a formality imposed by the fussy government. On other occasions they are rattled out at speeds normally only reached by horse racing commentators in the closing stages of a big race. The symptoms include coughs and sneezes, runny noses and rashes but there is a more alarming end of the spectrum too where you are solemnly warned of the possibility - presumably small - of suffering a stroke, a heart attack or even death - the last and greatest side-effect of them all.

It got up to 10 degrees centrigrade at one point today - and this is summer! In Tok, they proudly claimed that it was the place on earth with the coldest average temperatures in the world at -30 degrees throughout the winter months! I am sure that I have heard of a colder place in Siberia, but I guess they are less concerned about such statistics there... I had a busy morning, running around in the pounding rain and hail on the bike and sorting out my speedo and odometer cable and pin - key thingy by replacing it with a second - hand one from a wrecked RT BMW, Whilst the RT had a 17 inch front wheel and my GS has a 19 inch one, which should mean that it underestimates my speed and distance, at least it is working again despite having about 5,000 uncounted miles since it went on the Cassiar Highway last week. I then enjoyed another fantastic afternoon nap, did some stuff on the internet the weather cleared about 9pm with bright sunshine streaming through the thinning clouds and then enjoyed an evening walk along the Tony Knowles coastal path to Lake Hood to watch the sea planes take off and land.

I am beginning to warm to Anchorage as the weather improves. The people are all warm and friendly and Alaskan Ales IPA is one of the best beers I have ever tasted. All of which, along with Lena's advice and reading about Buck's problems heading north without enough rest in "The Call of the Wild" lend me to considering staying here a while longer. Walking around in the late night sunlight I also start to appreciate the town's architectural merits too. Most of the public buildings date from the 1920's and 1930's and so are heavily Art Deco influenced. The cathedral is a fine example and must be one of the few Art Deco churches in the world.

The residential areas vary from smart to ramshackle wooden buildings, sometimes traditional cabin, sometimes chique modernist statements in clapperboard and clinkers and sometimes without any distinguishable style whatsoever. All are charming though and surrounded by trees and often painted in muted sages, greys and cinnamons, which gives the city an overall low -rise, low impact impression with Cook Inlet and the mountains beyond dominating. Ushuaia and Anchorage are the polar twins of each other. Surrounded by mountains and the sea, perpetual light in their respective opposite solstices and a cold, dampness. Gift shops and cruise passengers during the day and raucous nightlife thereafter.

Captain James Cook arrived here on his third and fatal journey on the Resolution in search of the North West Passage. He failed and instead of finding the long sought after route, which now due to global warming is becoming a reality, after leaving here and reaching Hawaii, he fell sick and died. Another song I am singing in my bike helmet iPod - on the way here I added "Anchorage" to my repertoire and since arriving here I now have been thinking more and more longingly of being with Lena and in the more or less perpetual daylight the Kinks have been rolling through my head "girl, I want to be with you all of the time, all day and all of the night" seems particularly appropriate. I notice that Anchorage also has the same cruise - crowd who flow in and out like the tides, wearing the same branded red anoraks as each other and their counterparts at the other end of the Americas in Ushuaia. No crowds of feral, free - running dogs here though, even though Anchorage is the start of the annual Iditarod dog - sled race. The tens of thousands of gold seekers who rushed to the Klondike learned quickly that only dogs could survive and serve as the major form of transport here, as attested by the carcasses of dead horses and mules that covered the trail. This is also well documented in the attempts of Amundsen and Scott in the Antartic and their relative success using dogs and mules respectively.

I take a ride out along the Kenai Peninsula to Homer (why is there such a strange link between NW place names and The Simpsons?) and stop by on the way to see the Russian Orthodox Church and beach in Ninilchik, looking across Cook Inlet to the Aleutian Range. Around the Turnagain Arm, allegedly named by Cook as he thought it was so broad and grand an entrance, lined with glaciated mountains, that it must be the entrance to the Northwest Passage. It is in fact an estuary and so Cook had to turn around (again), but its grandeur is undeniable. The next day after a great short order breakfast at the White Spot Cafe, I was packed up and off to Denali National Park.

I get stopped by a flagger again along the road, and whilst we wait, she offers me some spicy and gamey moose sausage which was very tasty. She also explains to me that just as Arabs have many names for sand, Alaskans have many names for flies. Everyone seems to know the cycle of seasonal hatchings intimately and she explains that the big spring female mosquitos are now in decline and the small, almost invisible stinging "no - see - ums" are just about to hatch out. Thankfully the pilot car arrives and I am off, leaving the annoying cloud of flies behind - they seem to gather whenever you stop for a few seconds. As I head north to Denali, I realise looking down at my map that there are no more intercity roads west of here for more than a thousand miles all the way to the Aleutian Islands. Should I stop in lower Alaska for the solstice bike rally or head north through the wilderness on thousands of miles of unsurfaced roads amongst the wildest wilderness on the planet and guaranteed close encounters of the furred kind?