Monday, 11 February 2013

The Epilogue

I´ve noted that many tales from the road seem to end abruptly when the physical journey is done...  and that makes a lot of sense, but I am often left wondering about the aftermath.  What happened to that particular character?  How did the protagonist feel about their achievements some months down the road of life?  How did they get back into the day to day swing of things, or did they simply turn around and head off somewhere new? 

And, indeed, I don´t necessarily feel that my own “...journey in search of direction...”  ground to a halt with my arrival back home in sunny Barcelona.  I have been thinking about what I have done, why I did it...  why did I do it? ...   and what effect it has had on me, and how I will take that with me through the rest of my life.  Before I headed off, I was told by some who have been and done that the journey would change my life...  I must confess I scoffed a little (inside) at such statements.  I am reminded now, as I reflect, how right they were.   

Perhaps I have been thinking too much.  Perhaps I should simply park the memories in that corner of my mind, for revisiting on cold and damp days.  Perhaps I should be setting my sights forward for further adventures.   But, I´m sorry to report, that is not necessarily me.  I am, therefore, driven to wrap up this section of my trip tales with an epilogue, where I explore the impact of such a mammoth journey and how I have managed to return to earth without too much of a bump.  I hope you will stay with me through this final leg.

So where do I start?  So many thoughts running around my mind on return home, the first of which fuelled by a small degree of fear, as reported in the final trip episode.  Why on earth I felt that way was a mystery.  Mrs Pat had done nothing but pour love and support in my direction from the outset of this project.  But it was nevertheless there, and I should acknowledge that.  Despite the wonders of Skype and mobile technology, it remains the case that we both spent quite some time out of contact, and out of the habit of sharing our daily woes.  When you decide to spend a life together, not spending it together becomes alien, and I think it was that which tossed tinder into the flames of my unsettled emotions.  Each traveller on return will undoubtedly feel different – we are all different people after all – but I am pleased to report that my worries were well and truly unfounded.

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder...  don´t you just hate such clichés?  Even more so perhaps when they prove to be true.  My time away made me realise with crystal blue clarity what I have at home, and I record that lesson here lest it be lost.  After close to 20 years together it is easy enough to accept your life partner, for better and for worse, but perhaps also without much real thought.  This trip has given me the opportunity to revisit who we are and why we (usually) work well together, and what I value most.  It has also given me the time and perspective I was looking for to put my own head in order.  I feel I have done that, and I feel a greater closeness and understanding at home...  something I value more than the chance to see more of this wild and wonderful world...  but only just!

I also find myself being more reflective and thoughtful of late, and measuring my life and opportunities I have seized, and wasted, against those available (or not) to the people I met on that long journey north.  I often say I am a lucky guy, but perhaps it is only when you open yourself up to others can you really sense the truth in that.  Travelling alone across continents for months on end forced that process in me, and I very much hope I do not lose that perspective as life and the daily grind takes hold again.  What we have far outweighs what we have lost.  A message I plan to keep close to my heart. 

And, equally, what we do does not necessarily have to revolve around our own needs and desires.  The generous giving I experienced from people with comparatively little has, since my return, impacted on my being more greatly than I had envisaged.  If they, without so much as a thought, can readily offer their time, energy and resources – then surely I can do more.  People, on seeing that I was alone (and at times I was feeling it strongly) readily shared their time with no desire other than to lift spirits and help me feel more at ease in their world.  Powerful stuff indeed.  I can now see that the feeling I felt when in receipt of selfless acts can be imparted to others, and that I personally should do more...  and that I will do more.  We are already discussing how we can make a difference and translate these reflections into more concrete measures, if only on a small scale.  A new journey in life awaits.  A man once said, “do the little things”, wise words indeed.

Talking about journeys, Idris had a much longer one than I, though it did indeed arrive back in the UK safe and sound.  My thanks to James Cargo for their support and service.  Though having to wait some 2 months for the return of the bike was more of a struggle for me than I had anticipated.  I missed the two wheeled freedom within weeks of my return to Europe.  This was eased somewhat with spending many weeks in the UK catching up with family, friends and (yep) work.  I wasn´t going to miss, for example, the Adventure Bike Rider Midlands Rally weekend, even if I had to hitchhike.  Though, despite the very generous offer of some wheels for the weekend, it did seem rather odd chatting to old friends and new about the trip when the trusty steed in question was still in a box heading around the world... the wrong way!

Needless to say that on Idris´ arrival back in the UK, I took the opportunity to ride out to see friends again, before heading down through France and home, where Idris will remain until warmer weather returns to the north of the continent.  There are, after all, many roads in Spain left to travel – and I hope to be doing as many as I can over the months to come. 

The committed few who have followed these ramblings over the last year or so will recall that I had a few falls, most notably one in Argentina that left me in pain for some time.  I´m happy to report that I am relatively pain-free now, though I felt the need to get checked out properly on arrival back in the land of the paella.  In case you are wondering, my clicking knee is nothing more than that, and with a bit of regular exercise should hold its own for many years to come.  My back, which was more of a worry, is now displaying a herniated disk – which looked a lot worse on the MRI than it feels. 

I am reliably informed by competent specialists that the physiotherapy that I am undertaking will be sufficient to strengthen the muscles in the area and take the load off the spine.  In short, a few minor worries that may limit my trail riding in the short term but, overall, a small price to pay for the experiences and wonder I drunk in through this amazing journey.  Idris also requires a bit of TLC, which it is now getting in readiness for more adventures to come.

Ride safe, and may sun always shine on your bike (it does on mine!).

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Day 128 to 131 – to home!

27 to 30 July    Kms travelled – 32,414

Rolling into Bellingham on a misty early morning, rested and refreshed from a wonderful 4 days on the Alaska Marine Highway, really did feel like the end of a long journey.  Idris and I only had the relatively short run down to Seattle together before I handed it over to the transport agents.  Seattle was the end of the road, but first there was Bellingham, and the promise of a farewell breakfast with Michael.  The lack of phone and WiFi connections on the boat meant that we needed to hook up with the world again at our earliest convenience... not least to check that the arrangements put in place before I left Haines to get Idris and myself home had not fallen apart in the intervening days.  This also meant that once disembarked Michael and I were looking for a local fast food joint that would offer an early breakfast and a ready supply of free internet.

Before ending up under the golden arches of the big M, we managed to get a nice little tour of the town, which I have to say looked the sort of place I should have spent more time in.  But as so often was the case on this journey, I was soon saying goodbye to Bellingham, and Michael for that matter, and hitting the motorway south for the final stretch of road.

The landscape was hilly, very green and quite charming... at least what you could gather from the multi-lane freeway and increasing levels of traffic that were reaching out to greet us each mile south we covered.  A while before hitting the outskirts of Seattle, the road ground to a halt.  Sheer weight of traffic was the only cause... a mix of grid-lock and slow moving three lane madness.  I hadn´t experienced this level of gas burning asphalt since Buenos Aires oh so long ago. 

It felt alien, it felt wrong.  Perhaps it was me.  Had I spent too much of the trip avoiding populated areas, favouring the countryside and missing the countries themselves?  I was struck by the sheer volume of vehicles alongside, in front, and behind that were being employed transporting just a single person.  OK, I recognise the irony in that.  Idris was doing the same.  But Idris had returned an impressive average 72 mpg on this journey, and I couldn’t help but think there was unlikely to be any other vehicle on this road this day that could match Idris´ incredible economy and low emissions.

But the traffic did flow, eventually, and before I knew it, or at least before midday, I was rolling my trusty steed into the transport agent´s compound.  Idris was due to be collected from here the following week, taken by road down to LA, and then popped on a boat back to the UK.  KGM made the farewells easy, and before I knew it I was jumping into a taxi and heading for an airport hotel with my roll-bag full of the gear I needed to stick on the plane with me.

My flight to Barcelona, via Philadelphia, was leaving the next day, so I had an afternoon to kill.  Seattle beckoned, and the easy airport light rail link facilitated the run into the city centre.  Years of watching episodes of Frasier had prepared me for what I was likely to expect in terms of the fixed sights to see, but it in no way prepared me for how I would feel walking again in a busy, bustling city.  Indeed, if it wasn´t for the people I might well have enjoyed wandering around the waterfront area, with its regenerated markets and craft shops – even sight of the original Starbucks – it seemed a bit like Sydney harbour! 

But there were people, and lots of them.  It was a Saturday afternoon and there was some sort of festival taking place that evening.  It wasn´t long before I started feeling uncomfortable.  This was strange.  Was I going to feel so alien in all situations I found myself from now on?  Had I been affected so much during this trip?  But with questions unanswered, the fact remained that I was experiencing a touch of anxiety – I needed to get off the street and find space to relax.  Not knowing my surrounds, I opted for the cinema.  The Dark Knight was an inviting option, though due to the recent shootings in Montana, having to pass through security to watch a film was, yet another, odd experience.

However, the American Airlines flights the next day were fine.  The service good, the food passable, and schedule maintained... what more do you want from a long-haul airline.  Even the short layover in Philadelphia was pain free.  And the following morning I was landing in a sunny Barcelona airport.  My physical journey was over...  but somehow I felt that my mental one still had some way to go.

Thoughts for the day
Time on the Alaska Marine Highway and on the flight home gave the opportunity to ponder what I had seen and experienced on the journey... and what that meant to me.  It also allowed me time to think about life at home, and those doubts about how I would be received after 131 days away could not help but creep into my consciousness.  I had already been unsettled by big city life, how easily would I be able to adjust to domestic life again.  I was secure in my feelings for my wife and family, but was that enough – and would they be so secure in theirs in return.  It is curious how these questions linger on a long journey, and build space in your mind as that journey nears its end, no matter how well or unfounded.

My return home was to an empty house – but that was expected.  People have to work, and not all can get the sort of time off necessary to do a trip like this.  But walking through my front door to the sight of a welcome home and congratulatory signs lifted a weight of worry off my shoulders that I hadn’t realised had settled there until that moment.  I literally breathed a sigh of relief and all was well with the world.  Conversations with Mrs Pat that day, and the reunion later was wonderful, and not for recording here.  Other thoughts from the journey are, however.

The trip had changed me... I really did feel different.  I was calmer for one thing, more relaxed and at ease with people and the world in general.  I seemed to have shrugged off, to a degree, that fear (or is it suspicion) that many of us in western society harbour about strangers.  Time on the road alone has resulted in me often seeking out company, being the first to initiate contact, putting myself in positions of vulnerability.  It was often an exercise born out of necessity...  we are social animals after all, and crave company.  But that process was an education in itself, and an education it would be remiss to not openly recognise. 

Most people are not out to cause us harm, most people don´t have a hidden agenda, most people are actually pretty decent and only willing to help, or just chat.  I didn´t meet a single idiot on the whole trip.  131 days on the road and not one person caused me grief or cause for concern.  Why is it then that the western media keeps telling me that all these people I met should have been out to do me harm?  Why is it that they say that I should be afraid to travel through the countries I visited?  Perhaps I was just lucky, my wife does say I am the luckiest guy around, but I prefer to think it is something more than that.

Media is business – and fear and violence sells.  It is nothing more than that; simple economics.  If you want to learn about the world, you need to go beyond the headlines on a global news channel.  The world is a glorious mix of people and places – with each having its own story to tell.  And there really are stories out there worthy of being read or experienced first-hand.  But these are not often covered by the business of mass media.  

The stories I heard were about pride and love.  They were about countries and peoples striving for betterment, when they were limited in real resources to help them achieve such goals.  The stories from Pat Around the Americas were about generosity and desires to do the right thing at the individual level, even though there was little to offer.  And when there was little to offer, people gave their time; a commodity so difficult to come by in our daily lives.

On my boat and plane journey home, I decided to report my experiences so that others might be inspired to look beyond the headline and reach out to a world interested in receiving their embrace.  I decided to dedicate some of my time to putting my full story into words, building on the headlines recorded in this blog.  And I decided to seek further public support through those words for Unicef´s work with children around the globe. 

So in addition to the fundraising through this blog, I´ll be writing a book about the trip with all my proceeds going to Unicef.  I have already been enriched beyond measure from the journey; I am not making any money from this experience.  But I do want to do more to help the children I saw along the way.  They are the futures of these countries – and futures that can only be fully realised through greater health and education services.  Unicef can help with that.  And we can help Unicef.  

If you have enjoyed following my travels in these postings, please feel free to become part of the journey yourself.  The links on the top right of this page will take you to more information on Unicef´s excellent work - and my just giving page, where you can send a contribution direct to Unicef.  Go on - start 2013 by helping kids who are not getting the life chances we had.

On the trip, I also resolved to give more of my time to do (as St David said) the little things – I can´t think of a better legacy from Pat Around the Americas. 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Day 124 to 127 – to Bellingham, USA

23 to 26 July    Kms travelled – 32,106

Having dined royally the night before on one of the finest rib-eye steaks I have ever eaten, I decided on an equally royal lay-in and leisurely breakfast at my hotel in Haines, Alaska.  There was no longer any need for the tenseness and clockwatching that I had been (generally) carrying with me since handing over hundreds of dollars for my ferry south and flight home.  I had arrived at the ferry port in Haines with time to spend much of the day enjoying the town and local area.

So having feasted well again at a sumptuous breakfast (a rare treat for me on this journey), I had Idris packed and ready to go by a somewhat tardy midday!  Still, the sky was clear(ish) and the scenes impressive from this little American outpost.  Haines had been largely ruled by the US army training post which now forms part of the town, having been decommissioned and sold off following the Second World War.  In fact, my hotel was located within the old barracks, overlooking the old parade ground (now a lovely village-type green), and alongside other impressive old buildings on ‘officers row’. 

Having picked up some hand crafted gifts for the lovely Mrs Pat – and there is a very good selection in the town - I spent some time chatting to locals about life in the high north.  It seems that the fiord-like vistas, nature and impressive cleanliness has encouraged an influx of semi-residents from more southerly states.  I can certainly see the attraction here, and also understand the rationale behind heading a little further south when the harsh winter sets in.  But I did note a degree of tension from those who have to try and scratch out a living in the Haines area on a more permanent basis.

The income from tourism in the summer months is a vital source of revenue for those not able or unwilling to maintain homes in the south.  And I sensed a degree of frustration with the lobbying against cruise ships visiting the small port (the number having already dropped in recent times).  The town once served the military post; without a replacement in the form of tourists it is hard to see how the locals can continue to maintain homes here.  But I hope they do.  Haines has an old-world charm wrapped in a veil of outstanding natural beauty that deserves to be admired.  Finding that balance that delivers a sustainable future for the port, and its residents, is a must.

But I digress, the fact is that while I was chatting to the locals I also heard about the lakes a little further up the estuary where salmon run by the thousands, where bear roam and feed, and where eagles soar.  With a ‘trailer’ such as this I could hardly sit around town drinking coffee all afternoon – despite the good company.  The short run out of town would also enable me to check out the ferry terminal for later in the day (this had recently moved some 5 miles out of town!).

If you are ever in the area and have time before your boat, take a while to ride this run.  Not only was I experiencing more of those wonderfully curvy roads that hug both the rocky / tree-lined fiords and the mirroring water, but the treat that awaits you at the end of the road will have your camera snapping away in all directions.  Unless there are bears that is! 

A couple of miles beyond the ferry terminal the estuarial waters that take the boats out to sea run out where a small but picturesque river begins.  But only a short dirt track further on that little river also disappears into a wondrous lake.  I had hoped to spend some time there.  There are spots (apparently) where you can look down on the migrating salmon so numerous that no human eye could keep count.  But on my arrival on the track I saw my route ahead blocked by big furry beasties.  Deciding to adopt the pythonesque ‘run away’ form of valour, I turned Idris while I still could do so easily and scooted away from the bears without so much as a glance back.  Beautiful to see, but there is a wildness about them that unnerves me, particularly when you come across them unexpectedly in this vast landscape!  Brave, brave Sir Robin...   sorry!

I did have a great ride back though, and stopped off at the terminal to check everything was on course and to chat to the numerous bikers that were now starting to gather (albeit some only for the short ferry hop over to Skagway).  And what a diverse bunch we are...  a mix of Harleys, of course, but also Goldwings, father and son on KLRs, various GSs and a fantastic Ural Combo transporting midlife newlyweds - nice!  There was also a somewhat grubby red XT660Z which sparked much comment from the waiting two-wheelers, and much fun was had chatting away the hours, while also admiring the odd eagle fly overhead (I failed to capture one on camera, despite many attempts).

Loading, when it was eventually time, was a simple but drawn out affair.  But on arrival up on the open deck I was well pleased to note that Michael (see previous episode) had already secured me a spot where I would be spending the next four days and nights.  A small boat, but it had most of what was needed, and having pitched camp on the deck and sorted my gear, we settled in for an evening of coffee and chatting with neighbours.

For those that are wondering, there are cabins on board but not as many as you would think - also at $850 one way just for bike and passenger, the cost was already more than sufficient for this ABR.  But, unusually, you can actually pitch your tent on the open area of the deck (it does get a bit windy though) or, like us, sleep on the plastic ‘deck chairs’ that fully recline in the covered solarium area – which also sports ceiling heaters at night.  With sleeping mat and bag laid out, I had 4 excellent sleeps and fantastic views.

You do wake early each day though.  You can´t really help it, with the sun rising and shining through the roof.  But you would not want to miss those sunrise scenes; they really are part of the whole experience on Alaska´s Marine Highway to Bellingham, Washington.  The boat stops a number of times on the way south, and at some of them you are allowed to get off and wander the local towns for a while.  I didn´t.  Having everything I needed, including a ready supply of books from the onboard shop and book exchange scheme (opposite the purser´s desk), I settled in for some of the laziest 4 days I have experienced. 

And what an experience!  Firstly to be blessed by being surrounded by interesting people...  and let´s face it, four days on a small boat with no phone signal or WiFi, you are going to end up speaking to lots of people whether you like it or not!  I am grateful to Michael, Tom, Erica, Larry and the two Johns for your company.  It seems that most people who venture up to Alaska are possessed with an adventurous spirit.  So it was great to be able to swap stories or, when you felt the need, simply to kick back and enjoy the views.

And that brings me neatly to my second point.  This area of the world is simply breathtaking.  The ferry route finds its way through often narrow gaps between mainland and the mess of islands that simply litter the coastline.  There was only one moment I recall from the whole journey when we were able to see open sea.  Consequently the water was as calm and clear as an alpine lake.  And in those early hours, or late ones for that matter, especially when the mists rolled through, it was simply magical.

Not wishing to sum up the journey with just two main points, I would be seriously remiss if I did not add the third; that being the wildlife.  OK, we couldn´t see bears or moose, nor was there that much flying around above.  But what appeared from the watery depths from time to time will stay with me for years...  whales, orca, and sea otters.  I´ve seen TV programmes where people have come over all emotional on sighting whales in the wild.  I was a little more reserved...  cough, cough...  but it is true, these animals really do strike a chord when you see them in their natural environment, doing what comes naturally.  The lovely Erica was able to capture some truly impressive shots – I wasn´t, so you´ll have to suffer my feeble efforts I´m afraid. 

And, unless you have already experienced this journey for yourself, take my word... travelling Alaska´s Marine Highway is one of the must do trips.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Day 120 to 123 – to Haines, Alaska, USA

19 to 22 July    Kms travelled – 32,106

I welcomed in my 120th day on the road with a leisurely stroll out of the bar in McCarthy, Alaska, across the river footbridge and down to my chosen hostel for the night.  I had really enjoyed my evening at the bar; good food, good drink, and good company is always the best recipe.  Surprisingly lively given the size of the town, the bar sported a mix of locals, seasonal workers (who seemed the most up for a relaxed party), and tourists.  I guess I fell into the latter category but I did, in fact, feel rather at home.  A strange place McCarthy, but one that was capable of very quickly getting under your skin; I could spend some real time here.

And it was also a strange walk back to my bed too.  Although in the wee hours, there was still plenty of light to see the way, and even try to take a few artistic photos (such are the effects of a good drink – I suddenly found myself thinking I knew what I was doing with a camera – oh how I laughed the following morning).  I was sharing a bunkroom with Tomas, a Czech chap who was in town for the wondrous wandering that an Alaskan summer can offer – doing his own thing but on two feet, not two wheels.  I hope I didn´t disturb him.

Indeed it was on two feet that I spent much of the next day exploring the town, its history, and its people (past and present).  One of the tiniest of places, having shrunk back into near nothingness following the closure of the copper mines so many years back, it was curiously difficult to wander down the dirt covered main street; I think it took me over an hour in all to make that walk.  I have rarely been in a place that was so friendly, open and where people seemed to have such a genuine interest in your story.  I can´t recall how many times I was stopped and engaged in conversation, most definitely more often than I am in my home town.  Was the word out that there was another McCarthy in town, and that he was humbly following the footsteps of the late, great writer Pete McCarthy?  I don´t think so...  I´d like to think that everyone encounters the same experience on arrival here. 

But time eventually ran out, and I had to make the walk back out of town, over the footbridge (bikes and quads can cross it – but not cars) to the car park at the end of the McCarthy road, ready to be collected and transported back to Idris in Chitina.  I was sad to say goodbye to McCarthy – and realistically it was truly a goodbye.  I was unlikely to journey this way again.  While I was already planning a return to Alaska and the Yukon – I was simply having to leave too many things undone here – but that would likely be a couple of weeks on a hire bike focussed on places yet to see, rather than things already done.  But who knows...  never say never I guess. 

The journey along the McCarthy Road by minibus took around 3 hours, and it was well into the evening by the time my cramped legs stretched down onto Idris´ all too familiar footpegs.  It was nice to be reunited, even for the short run to find a bed for the night.  But the journey along the McCarthy Road was not without its highlights.  There were still some parts of the original rail bridges available to view, and a reasonable dash of impressive wildlife too, including a most grand lady moose.

My views on the road itself mirrored those of my KLR friend of a few days before.  A whole lot of loose gravel, huge amounts of dust, and lots of road works – plus punctures galore.  We passed a few 4 wheelers doing the required tyre changes, plus our own vehicle had had a puncture earlier that day on its way out.  While the driver insisted this was nevertheless the best condition he had seen the road for years (as now the potholes and washouts had been more or less filled), I would imagine that next year (2013) would be a far better time to tackle the road on two wheels – once a summer´s worth of traffic and a winter´s worth of snow and ice had compacted down this relative gravel pit.

The next morning saw me rise and on the road in good time for the trouble free and pleasant ride back up to Tok.  Which we simply rode past this time as we headed east down a stretch of the Alaskan Highway that was both new to us, having arrived in Alaska via a more northerly route, and in fact new to everyone in places.  There were quite a lot of long patches of road works right through to the border with Canada and beyond, leaving a real mix (again) of road surfaces to navigate.  I guess they only get a short window each year to make the necessary repairs. 

Pitching up at a roadside motel just before the border, I decided to stop for the day.  I had made pretty good time, and the place looked clean and well run.  It also turned out to be reasonably priced (for Alaska) and friendly too.  Having settled in and had my meal for the day, I spent the late afternoon and evening sat on the porch chatting with travellers as they made their way through (it was also a fuel stop).  It was here I met Michael from Ireland (originally) and for the second half of his life, from Sydney.  He was on his own round the world experience (GS800) starting the Americas section at the top and heading down.  Hopefully this blog will prove of some use to him as he heads south.  We also found that we were booked on the same ferry to Bellingham, Seattle in a few days, so plenty of time to catch up then.  We also spent a while chatting to Ignacio from the Canary Islands in Spain (Fazer), who seemed quite buzzed to be able to chew the fat with someone in Spanish for a while.  Happy to oblige and buen viaje tio!

The Alaskan Highway on the Canadian side got a bit bumpy.  It was not so much pot holes that were causing the issue, but the regular and often deep undulations that had my heart racing and wheels airborne at times.  I resigned myself to a slower and more steady pace, not least as the compressive effect of bouncing up and down on Idris´ well worked suspension was causing my long forgotten South American back issue to flare up.  Better get that checked out when I get home... just in case.  The wind was also starting to pick up...  curious that this becomes more of a factor at the more extreme ends of the earth.

This slower speed, coupled with one stupid driver who insisted in driving right on my tail for miles irrespective of the poor and changing road surface and local wildlife which seemed to prefer the tarmac, meant that I started leaving all waiting traffic pass me by at each enforced stop for road works.  This happily left me with more time to chat away to the people working the road stop signs.  It was at one of these signs, before a 2 km stretch of dirt road, that the young chap shared a story of a bear and a bike.  

Some two weeks earlier, during the wet weather that had been plaguing the area throughout June, a solo rider on a GS1200 had passed through the road works riding relatively slowly due to the poor (dirt) road conditions, when a large grizzly leaped from the roadside and paw-swiped him from his machine.  Rider and bike went down pretty hard.  The bear went down even harder, as the construction crew on seeing the incident drew their weapons and killed the freaked animal lest it go for the injured ABR.  It was reported that the bike was a wreck, but the rider survived with a few bumps and bruises only.  I was waved on with a warning to watch the roadsides, just in case.  And this thought gave rise to another as the question came to mind:  Do bears, you know, do their business in the woods?  It seems, from my Alaskan Highway experience, that they don´t – but in fact undertake the majority of their ablutions at the side of the road!  This did nothing more than reinforce my view that I should not stay long in the land of the bear...  well, at least not without a rapid means of escape.  I must confess, they still scare me.

But as thoughts wandered in and out of my busy mind, miles rolled by, and it wasn´t long before I was struggling to a halt around Destination Bay (which seemed more like a lake to me, but what do I know).  That northerly wind had continued to rise in strength, and after crossing the plains of a wide river valley a few times, my muscles were starting to feel the strain.  As I pulled into the fuel stop, filled up and rolled on to a more sheltered parking spot, I noted that I was not the only two wheeler feeling the same.  Bikes were rolling in and parking up every few minutes, including a lovely German couple (GS800s) on their round the world epic, who spent much time complaining about the quality of BMW dealership mechanics.  It seems that after over 18 months on the road so far, the only mechanical issues they had encountered were the result of sloppy workmanship by BMW.  Needless to say, they were now doing all their own maintenance.  And then Michael rolled in too – so much coffee was drunk and chatting undertaken, before we decided that the wind had eased sufficiently to move on.

I left Michael find his own pace, and settled back into my mile munching rhythm. It was not long before Haines Junction came into sight, and after consulting a local about alternative overnight stops, I decided to pitch up at a friendly motel with a Chinese restaurant.  Sat outside supping a local beer it was curious to see the sky showing the hazy reddish signs of the wildfire raging in Siberia!   

I awoke and packed really early for the run down to Haines – along the famed Haines Highway – a National Scenic Highway (I wasn´t exactly sure what that meant, but it sounded impressive).  

A number of ABRs I had met along my travels from as far south as Argentina had highlighted this road as something to be done.  But I was strangely nervous as I headed out of town for the first 10 miles or so of dirt road (roadworks again).  This would be the last ´real´ road I would be riding as part of this adventure.  I was getting those end of the journey jitters, worrying about doing something silly and missing the boat, then missing my flight, then missing my wedding anniversary – something I promised both my long suffering wife, and myself, that I would not do no matter what.

But as the road rolled by, and the scenery opened up, I lost track of all my worries.  This road had started with dirt, but was now paved with the most wonderful of blackstuff.  Quick and rolling bends brought us each time to new vistas that took the breath away.  Each turn of the head, as we rose steadily towards the mountain pass, what like a photo shot.  You could spend days here capturing the wonder of snow capped mountains, green grass and tree filled valleys, bubbling mountain streams bursting over polished rock, with herds of horses prancing behind.  Amazing.  Then glaciers.  Then jagged, ragged rocks jutting in to the sky.  Then more open plains setting out the winding road before us.  

And then a grizzly bear...  what!  Yep, a grizzly with two young...  right by the side of the road.  I rode on.  I stopped.  With one hand I pointed the camera behind and started snapping away, trying to get a good shot, while covering the bikes controls ready for a speedy departure.  A wonderful sight, and I am so grateful to Canada for permitting me to experience that before I left its shores.

Then the ride pushed downwards, through narrowing tree-lined valleys.  Through the border once more into Alaska, and then we were rolling left and right along a wonderful road which matched the wide river bed´s track through the fiord-like mountains.  I must confess I turned around and re-sampled this 10 mile stretch a second (and third) time.  It was a perfect day, no traffic, wonderful road and incredible scenery.  Even Idris´ dodgy front tyre didn´t hold back the fun as we came again to the side of the eagle reserve where, in autumn, thousands of these incredible creatures compete with the bears in feeding on the last salmon runs of the year.  Ah, I thought, that´s what a National Scenic Highway is – and what an understatement!   

And then it was Haines and, as I rolled into town, I reflected on how good I felt.  I noted I was sporting the widest of grins; a smile that I probably couldn´t shake even if I tried (which I didn´t).  My aches, pains, worries and woes had all been blasted away on the Haines Highway.  It was probably one of the best roads I have ever ridden, certainly one of the best riding experiences of my life.  It is hard to get across to non-bikers how something like this feels.  Petrol therapy – to the max!

Thought for the day
It was during the evening that I stayed in the motel near the Alaskan / Canadian border that the news of the multiple shooting at the Dark Knight film premier in Aurora, Montana, came through.  Some crazy had gone... just that!  And after stockpiling munitions for months, had unleashed his anger on an unsuspecting movie crowd of young and old alike.  The young student couple who were working at the motel for the summer were from Montana, and the horrific events became the topic of discussion for the evening. 

Not surprisingly the subject came back around to rights verses regulation.  I can see both sides, and I´ve noted our friends in the US are generally more protective of their civil liberties than people I have encountered in Europe.  And generally they don´t respond well to big government telling them what they can and can´t do.  That said, just because you have the right to carry arms, does that mean that you should?  Is it true that a vast majority of weapons used in criminal activity in the USA are, in fact, stolen from legitimate gun owners?  If there were less legitimate guns sitting around, would less people be able to use them for criminal purposes? 

Also, I subscribe to the view that government, and in many respects society in general, is there to protect the weak.  It is this capacity to look after those who are less able clearly separates us from most other animals (which, on the whole, tend to discard their weak).  I am supporting UNICEF´s work because they do just that – they protect and support kids around the world who are under threat.  Taking the point a step further, if government/organised society is there to protect, then consequently laws and cultural dictates should principally focus on protection of those who may be at risk.  If there is no risk to others, then no law should be imposed – leaving instead personal choice.  Violent aggression within society is considered illegal.  It is illegal to protect and prevent violence against those less able to defend themselves.  If, however, everyone is armed then you could argue that everyone is able to defend themselves to a reasonable degree and, therefore, societal interventions are unnecessary.  Sounds a bit like the wild-west, doesn´t it?

The still hotly contested question remains in the US about the balance between what you can do and what you should.  I pondered this question as I rode the miles – and could only come to the conclusion that greater regulation was necessary.  More detailed checks, linked databases, and waiting periods would not remove the right to own guns (well, not for law abiding citizens), but it could only help flag up when a possible nutter was stockpiling fully automatic munitions!  Curious what you think about when you have time with yourself.  

These were my thoughts.