Cranked - Alaska or Bust

Cranked

By Joe Gresh, Photography by Joe Gresh

I heat-gunned a Plexiglas panel into a windshield and conned Precious, the girl next door, into knocking up a set of heavy canvas saddlebags for my Honda XL600. A textbook paranoid, Precious claimed to hear voices coming from the dashboard of my Impala station wagon. "Listen, listen ... can't you hear them?" She could stitch like a Singer, though, so I turned up the radio.

Too Purdue to go to Alaska alone, I called my father in Florida and asked him if he'd like to come along. He was packing his Suzuki as I finished the "ka" in Alaska. When dad's GS450 rolled into San Diego sporting a huge, baby-got-back, fiberglass pannier/trunk with Naugahyde cover and a 600-watt portable generator bolted to a custom-made rear subframe, it brought into stark relief why I will never be as good as him.

The 110-volt generator staggered me. It was to power his drop light, the heat radiating from the 100-watt bulb keeping him toasty during the chilly nights found near the Arctic Circle. I made a mental note to have my serotonin levels checked regularly in case his behavior was hereditary.

The Alcan Highway was muddy roads, cold weather and rain. The overloaded Suzuki twin wallowed in the unpaved sections and my 40,000-mile Honda single developed a nasty, half-quart-a-day smoking habit. We rode north to Fairbanks, then made south to Anchorage, the beginning of the end for the Land of the Midnight Sun.

After three weeks on the road, the Honda's transmission stuck in fifth gear. No amount of jiggling the shift shaft would unlock the box. I got underway by running alongside the bike, then hopping on and bogging the engine. Smoke, mingled with the smell of burnt clutch plates, poured from the XL's breather pipe. We had 5000 miles to go, so I was relieved to see a Honda dealership when we pulled into Whitehorse.

Whitehorse Honda had no parts for an XL600; in fact, the mechanic had never seen one. We were on our own. The dealership let us use their gravel parking lot and some cardboard packing materials for ground cover. For me, it seems like motorcycle touring always ends up being about the fragmentation, not the destination. Early the next morning, we removed the engine from the Honda.

My dad had a Snap-On 15-drawer roll-away toolbox in the left side of the baby-got-back Suzuki, so we made rapid progress with the teardown. The dealership's mechanic buoyed our spirits by saying things like, "Last time we ordered a part, it took six weeks" and "Two guys on motorcycles were killed by a grizzly bear a mile from here."

When the head and cylinder were removed, we found the cause of the smoke: one of the two compression rings was broken. Digging deeper, we removed outer gears and unscrewed case fasteners. Everything looked fine. The center case halves slid apart using a little trick I call "force," and the crank, including the entire transmission, was laid bare. "Hmm, seems okay."

His parking lot strewn with engine parts, the manager of the dealership wore the pained look of a man who had gotten more than he bargained for. He stood and watched the two of us probing screwdrivers into the oily transmission. Then I heard it. A slight click; barely audible. The shift pawl, an escapement mechanism that rotates the shift drum, must have been hung up. I cast a guilty glance at my dad. "Try the shifter son." I reattached the side case, slid the shift lever on and rowed the box. All five gears worked. The mechanic dropped by to let us know that it was rutting season.

"You know, I could have fixed that without removing the engine." I ignored the mechanic and ran through the gears two thousand times. The transmission was okay. We reassembled the engine, omitting the broken piston ring. Blobs of Permatex resealed the joints and a shot of copper spray paint annealed the head gasket. At closing time, the Honda started. I didn't have time to test-ride it; we re-packed the two bikes and rode away to the relief of Whitehorse Honda's management.

On the Highway to the Sun road in Montana, dad's GS450 rolled to a stop. Dead battery. Suzukis of a certain age were known to burn out stators, and the GS was true to form. Pops cranked up the 600-watt generator and connected the 10-amp DC output leads to the bike's battery. We were back on the road, and after 60 miles the generator could be shut down, the Suzuki running a total-loss electrical system.

Except for a droplight-induced sleeping-bag fire, our troubles ended. We made it back to San Diego, stopping whenever the Suzuki sputtered to fire up the portable generator. In the weeks we were away, Precious had slid helplessly into full-blown insanity. She raged incoherently into her imaginary microphones. Cameras, she said, were everywhere, watching her night and day. Precious no longer spoke to me except to make accusations: I was an informer for the police; I was spying on her; I had her saddlebags. She was convincing: I did have her saddlebags. I began to suspect me myself. What was that noise? It sounded like it came from the dash of the Impala...

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