August 05, 2009

Top of the World

By Katitude © 2009

There are two ways to get from Toq, Alaska, to Dawson City, Yukon. Neither are easy, although I am sure that they are much easier than they were in the past.

You can take the Taylor Highway through Chicken to the border, then the appropriately named Top of the World Highway to Dawson City. Or you can go the long way, taking the Alaska Highway to Whitehorse and then up to Dawson City from there.

My husband and I stood in the visitor's centre in Toq and tried to decide which route to take. One was shorter but more grueling, the other longer but paved. Well, mostly paved. We had ridden along part of the longer route and had come face to face with the never-ending cycle of road repair in the far north.

We knew the longer route contained gravel patches kilometers long as well as a chunk of roadwork that had been the worst we'd ever gone through. The combination of the wettest summer in memory and the passage of huge heavy RV's and trucks had churned up a slurry of mud a few inches thick. I'd lost control of the bike in it and had ended up six feet to the left of where I was supposed to be. I didn't drop the bike, but it was close. Neither of us were eager to head back east that way, but we had talked to another biker who had gone the shorter route a few weeks ago when it had been raining, and his statement that he "had no business being up there on two wheels" had stuck in our heads.

The woman behind the counter at the Toq Visitor's Centre told us of other bikers who had recently gone the Taylor/Top of the World route. "It's hard-packed dirt mostly, some gravel. I drove up that way myself a few days ago, it was dry and in good shape."

OK, let's do it. How bad can it be, we asked each other.

Our first moment of real doubt came when we stopped for coffee about an hour in. The road had started out nicely surfaced but was becoming more broken up as we progressed. Asphalt patches were making it a bumpy ride. Keith gave me an out.

"Do you want to go back?" he asked.

"No. It might get bad but at least it's not ankle deep mud," I replied.

And we went on.

The road continued to break up until all that was left was gravel. The landscape became more barren as we gained altitude and around that point it had begun to drizzle making it even less lovely. The road twisted and curled around the mountains with no guardrails to soothe my fear of heights, and my bike was not handling well at all. The street bike, with the tires that already had a major trip's worth of wear on them, was not made for this kind of terrain. The weight of camping gear raised the center of gravity and with every curve I thought I could feel the rear tire slide a bit more than it should have.

Just after the town of Chicken, Alaska, the gravel disappeared leaving only hard packed dirt. The drizzle had wetted down the top layer of dust and made the road surface even more slippery than it was before.

I hated the bike at that point. I was so far out of my comfort zone that I even wondered where the zone really was. I was in clench mode. Teeth clenched against the fear, fear of falling, of going off the road, of this never ending. Hands clenched, wet and cold, around the handgrips in a constant adjustment of throttle and brake. Muscles clenched against the cold that was creeping in with the rain through my new so-called waterproof jacket and pants. I just wanted to stop.

Keith was able to comfortably go at a faster speed on his bike, so it felt like I was riding alone much of the time. He'd wait for me periodically, but would move off as soon as he saw me come around a curve or over a hill. He said later that he was able to get 10-15 minute breaks that way. I had none.

I remember thinking at that point that if someone told me I had to choose between riding that road again and never riding again, period, I would gladly hand over my keys and walk away.

But there was no walking away from that place, only going forward. The hope that it would get better mixed with the fear that it will only get worse, and left a metallic taste in my mouth. I sang in my helmet to keep my mind from skittering too close to the edge of a freak out. I became aware that when I was concentrating on the road, on keeping 800 lbs of bike and rider upright on two slippery wheels, I was singing Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", especially the verse that goes:
Always look on the bright side of death,
Just before you draw your terminal breath.
Life's a piece of shit,
When you look at it.
Life's a laugh and death's a joke it's true.
You'll see it's all a show.
Keep 'em laughing as you go.
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.
Yes, a bit macabre. But it helped.

I lost track of time. At the 20 mph I was going, it would take forever to get to Dawson City, but I accepted that. I accepted the road, the rain, the cold. This is the worse I'd ridden in, and while unhappy about it, I was managing.

You adapt; you go forward.

And then, as we grew close to the Canadian border, it got foggy. And THEN it was the worse I'd ever ridden in. Not only was the visibility reduced to no more than 20 feet ahead of me, the visor of my helmet began to fog up on the inside, reducing my vision even more. I had to ride with the visor up, blinking away the rain while still trying to see what line to take on the road.

Suddenly, the Canadian Customs buildings loomed out of the fog. I had read that phrase so often in books, and only now do I have a real reference for it. One minute the world is a uniform grey, then the next there's a dark shape beside you. Very disconcerting, especially when you are already borderline freaked out.

We answered the requisite six questions, and when we were cleared I asked the agent if there was a place to pull over.

"See that shape just ahead on the right? That's the Welcome to the Yukon sign, there's a pull off right beside it. Pity it's so foggy; it's a lovely view most days". Yeah, I'm sure it is.

I barely made it over there, put the bike on it's stand and got off the bike before I started to sniffle. I pulled my helmet off and rested my head against the pack and cried, letting the tension of the last five hours wash away.

After a few minutes I put the helmet back on and off we went. It was still foggy, and we still had another few hours of riding, but as the customs agent had said, the roads were better here than on the US side.

Eventually the fog lifted and the rain fizzled away. There was no more slick mud to ride over; the Top of the World Highway was gravel. I never thought I'd be happy to ride on gravel. This eventually changed to a patched asphalt, and then to smooth blacktop as we rolled closer to Dawson City. Oh, the bliss of pavement!

I couldn't get the grin off my face as we rode the ferry across the Yukon River to Dawson City. I felt a million pounds lighter, and more kick-ass than I have ever felt in my life.

I had done it. And gained little bit more knowledge about myself in the process. To be honest, there's a part of me that wants to go back and do it again. But don't tell my husband that.

Katitude is a martini-swilling, motorcycle-riding, poker-playing, cussing role model for young ladies of refinement.

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