the road i (shouldn’t have) travelled

originally posted on posterous on May 28 2012, 10:48 AM  by aaron freed

in late summer 2011, i embarked on a journey. i hadn’t planned my route out of seattle and just to keep people guessing, i went the one way that few would have guessed: west. i rode pebbles (my heavily laden and decrepit motorcycle) onto the 10 am ferry headed for the olympic peninsula. as the skyline of the emerald city disappeared behind me, i would have felt a greater sense of adventure had i not stayed up packing for all but 30 minutes of the night before. i didn’t know what lay before me, but i knew that i wanted no more of what was (for the first time) now behind me. and so my next chapter began.

i spent a few days on the coast acclimating myself to an itinerant lifestyle. i had never been much of a camper and had a lot to learn. my first night, laying alone in the tent, surrounded by nearly all that was left of my worldly possessions and by none of the friends that i had just left behind, i wept. besieged by a torrential rainstorm without and by self-doubt within, it was a decidedly rough start and nothing at all like the camping trials that i had held on the bamboo floors of my climate-controlled studio apartment. if you’re an obsessive-compulsive type, you might have a sense of the angst i felt upon discovering that nothing as yet had its place, and the attendant panic of not knowing where to put it…

in the morning, as if on cue, the sun came out so resplendent that even itsy bitsy spider would have been impressed. a family which had heard my lamentations in the night invited me to their campsite for bacon and eggs and coffee. i felt right as rain. to show my gratitude (and to lighten my load) i gave them some of the things that were cramping my inchoate organizational plan. for instance, a shovel. with each passing day, i became more adept at managing camp. i was emboldened by the sense of an imminent groove, as well as the hope of a high pressure weather system. the latter never really materialized.

my second ferry ride took me from port angeles, washington, to victoria, british columbia. it was like a second beginning. crossing borders leaves me unsettled yet energized: the abrupt aesthetic changes concomittant with the transgression of political perimeters, while often subtle to the point of ineffability, are nonetheless profound and exciting (such bombast!). suddenly the foreigner, i knew there would be no turning back. i ventured through the sundry breathtaking landscapes of vancouver island and hopped ferries along the preternatural inland passage to alaska. each passing mile, gust of wind, and following wave swept me further away from home and the cares that had weighed so heavily on me for so long. for week after week, i would be surrounded by beauty such as i had never seen. each bend that i rounded, i was compelled to turn to my imaginary friend and say “shut up! are you seeing this!?” like odysseus, i would encounter myriad strange creatures and sights.

the alcan is a highway that stretches 1400 miles from approximately fairbanks, alaska to northeastern british columbia. built during the second world war in just ten months through collaborative efforts between the united states and canada, it may be a modern marvel, but it isn’t the safest of roads. though it is now completely paved, loose gravel, frost heaves and wildlife present constant hazard (particularly for the two-wheeled). there are several spurs and loops off of the main trunk, each offering distinct experiences. some are known for their cinnamon roll nazis, others for their vistas, and still others for their dangers.

one such road is the ‘top of the world highway’…a treacherous 140-mile run from just south of tok, alaska to dawson city, yukon (not to be confused with dawson creek, british columbia, the alcan’s terminus). during the summer months, the route is frequented (surprisingly, given how remote and austere it is) by tour buses operated by cruise lines. i was there late season, so i had the road all to myself, which is of dubious merit. i had no business taking a 1980 yamaha xs1100 special motorcycle carrying 150 pounds of gear onto a road such as this, but something told me that i wouldn’t regret the digression.

the first stop of import is chicken. chicken boasts five year-round residents, two of whom are divorcees. this perhaps explains why one can be confused about where to turn upon arrival in a no-horse town in the middle of nowhere: there is a gratuitous surfeit of signs beckoning visitors to one of two sectors in this vehemently bifurcated outpost. if chicken were a mashup, it would be ‘war of the roses’ meets road runner ruse meets ‘deadwood’. the dystopia begs the question of just how far one must travel to find peace, for it certainly does not exist at the top of the world. after a quick fueling at the lonely town pump, i sat down with a few of the denizens to consume the season’s last public apportionment of chicken chicken strips (they were disappointingly foul). the most memorable of my fellow diners was digger, who is aptly described as a well-armed bigoted veteran cum recluse astronomer (is that redundant?). “gays would never dare come to chicken,” he said, as i quietly choked on mine.

after spending a freezing and somewhat uneasy night in my tent with pepper-spray at close hand, i set out in the morning to tackle the more challenging stretches of the ‘top of the world’. my defiant parting words to the proprietor were to please tell digger that this gay had thoroughly enjoyed his stay in chicken. clearly, i was tempting fate because approximately 30 miles outside of 75 miles outside of the middle of nowhere on a particularly hilly yet exposed section of unpaved road, i fell. the ‘highway’ had been recently graded, and the pea gravel on compact dirt reduced the coefficient of friction to something on par with an ice skating rink. as the motor died, silence engulfed me. i jumped into action, swiftly removing my gear and attempting to right poor pebbles. this wasn’t my first fall, but a brief inspection proved it to be my worst: i had punctured an engine casing. i’m not certain who i was trying to impress, but i pretended to know what i was doing by pulling out the toolkit and banging on a few things. i suppose there was something calming about doing something. anything. i made no progress. after about 45 minutes, i flagged down a swiss couple who, thankfully, were also late seasoners and undaunted by a strange man wearing leather chaps and unapproachable sunglasses. i asked if they would please take my bags to boundary – the next town on the map – and to tell the fine people there to send help if i didn’t show by sunset. i waved goodbye to my things, feeling like a parent nervously sending his kid to kindergarten for the the first time. the dust settled, silence returned, and i got back to playing mechanic.

there are three things that i will never travel without, unless a hotel is involved: tarp, duct tape, and a pee bottle. here, it was duct tape’s turn to shine. i ‘red-greened’ the engine and limped my way to boundary a couple of hours later. that boundary isn’t what i expected feels like an understatement. even chicken didn’t prepare me. boundary is a house with a gas pump on a barren hilltop. boundary likely inspired the movie ‘deliverance’. boundary was closed. so said the shaggy man who walked out of said house. said man said he didn’t have my bags. i didn’t argue with said man. i decided that the swiss had hoodwinked me. damn swiss. by now, i was low on gas, my front brake cylinder was shot, my engine still had a hole in it, and the border was about to close. for the season. and digger was likely waiting for me in chicken. i saw no choice but to press forward. the wind began to blow.

i really don’t know how i could have possibly missed the conspicuous pile of bags perched on the side of the road a few hundred yards shy of the border station — i was kindly sent back to retrieve them by the canadian customs and immigration official. “over there,” she said awkwardly after i had asked if maybe some nice swiss people had perchance left them with her. as i carefully inventoried my things, i felt guilty for having doubted my saviors. i suppose that ‘border’ and ‘boundary’ can sound synonymous to the ears of non-native english speakers. i can only imagine how the exchange must have gone: “hi – there’s a guy on a motorcycle who would like you to hold onto these bags for awhile”…nervous pause…”passports please.”

i was relieved to be reunited with my things and through the border. i still had 65 miles to cover, though, and it was getting late. instead of gravel, the road was now pitted pavement with soft shoulders on rocky cliffs. post-apocalyptic would best describe the scene. the wind was blowing harder now, and gusting. this not only added to the danger, but also provided me with an unwelcome reminder to have my prostate checked. hours later, harrowed and white-knuckled and finally dry, i crested my last peak and caught my first glimpse of dawson city. a site for sore eyes, indeed.

dawson city is the former capital of the yukon territory. situated near the confluence of the mighty yukon river, bonanza creek and the klondike river, it was the epicenter of the early gold rush. it is now a quaint town of western charm peppered with relics of a time gone by and by serpentine piles of rock (tailings from mining operations) squirming through the dramatic landscape. upon arrival at the banks of the yukon river, i noticed there was no bridge. i was only briefly confounded, though, as i soon sighted a small ferry which promptly ran aground in front of me and lowered a ramp. within minutes, pebbles and i were fording. on the far side, the road condition was markedly improved. i was ready for a drink.

the first people i ran into were a brother and sister team who were traveling by fifth-wheel. i had met them the day before in chicken on a corner of the general store’s front porch where the satellite internet signal was said to be strongest…the cyber equivalent of a watering hole. they had (obviously) preceded me to dawson. so precarious was their passage in a truck that they were concerned i wouldn’t make it on a motorcycle. so, instead of pressing on with their journey, they waited for several hours for me to arrive (or so i imagined). i was moved and asked them to join me for a drink. “let’s go to the downtown hotel for a sourtoe cocktail” i said. it was a suggestion i had been given weeks earlier from a man i encountered in a blue airstream trailer on a hippie compound in girdwood alaska after having consumed road kill, but that is clearly another story for another time. “you have to try it” he had said.

the three of us walked unwittingly into the bar, failing to appreciate the meaning of the tombstone out front. i saw the swiss couple from across the room and thought, “what are the chances?!” “obviously pretty good,” i silently retorted to myself, as i was increasingly wont to do after weeks of highway solitude. as if the place were my own personal ‘cheers’, i shouted to the bartender to make five sourtoes for me and my friends. the bartender rolled her eyes and said she would get around to it when she had a chance. this was not the response i expected. conversation between the five of us was easy – we all shared our experiences tackling the top of the world. we had all been through the fire and were now bound by a common story. i also had my opportunity to accuse the swiss couple of misappropriation. we laughed and laughed and laughed. but then the drinks arrived.

the sourtoe cocktail is not like a lemondrop or a cosmopolitan, as i had erroneously presumed. it is, in fact, a shot of something strong served with a toe chaser. that is, a severed human toe. forgive me, but i guess this ‘de rigueur’ cocktail turned out to be ‘de rigor mortis’. so, imagine our surpriserevulsion horror when a withered digit replete with disgusting nail was placed in the middle of our table. i was convinced it was a hoax – perhaps a wrinkled date or rubber replica – but the server, who was starting to warm to us, assured me that it was authentic. she pressed on it with her finger. as it squished and i as blanched, she said “yeah, the bone in this one fell out when someone bit down too hard on it.” i considered asking for my money back.

the origin of the drink seems to be in some question, but the proprietor, captain dick, is certainly responsible for its inception as a yukon phenomenon. several toes have been lost over the years: two were swallowed, one was lost, and one was stolen; many have disintegrated. each is commemorated on the aforementioned tombstone. an ample supply is assured by those who, for reasons i don’t care to know, will their toes to the bar where they are stored in a large jar. like an executioner reading last rites, the server began reciting the requisite canon which ends with “drink it fast or drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe.” four of the five of us walked out with certificates that day.i am sourtoe cocktail #43,640.

i’m now sitting at a beach bar in staniel cay, exumas, a million miles from dawson city. as i write this, the sun is setting and the bar’s satisfying din complements the fading light. around me are people from all over the world whose journeys have brought them here. now. they’re sharing drinks and stories. it’s as if we’ve all been out collecting trinkets and trifles and even some treasures, and we’ve come together to share them with each other. and when the night is over, we’ll all return to our beds (or, in my case, pool side lawn chair) to awaken tomorrow to new adventures that we’ll bring once again to the altar of companionship. may you always have a story to tell and someone to share it with.

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