Tokyo to Los Angeles, the Hard Way | Part 2

Moose Glide

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Shasta Willson

The bike was an afterthought. This trip was all about cars: Suzuki's Kizashi (bless you!) sport sedans celebrating “Tokyo to Los Angeles, The Hard Way.” Each two-man car crew carried iPods, iPads, GPS, SPOT tracker, special maintenance mats, comprehensive tool rolls, electric compressors, industrial first-aid kits and satellite phones (plus the obligatory weapons, ammunition, clinical opiates and prophylactics).

“Will I have a flat-repair kit?” I asked, over a dinner of sablefish and The Macallan. They told me not to worry. The tires on the DL650 were new, and specially chosen.

“Uh, is there any luggage on the bike?”

They pushed a small envelope across the glossy tabletop. I counted it, looked up.

“What should I do for emergency communications?”

They looked at each other, then passed over another envelope. Looking inside it made me feel much better prepared, but when I walked out to the bike the next morning, it was fettled for a 4000-mile highway tour with Continental TKC-80 knobbies. And a cable lock.

The Wee-Strom proved a capable trotter. Even on Specially Chosen Tires, 500-mile days would slip by fairly easily if I kept an eye out for special test sections, woombahs and wabbles.

At speeds over 95 mph, my knees gently patted the tank sides. The wabble, which went thunk… thunk… thunk-thunk-thunk, was a serviceable speed governess.

Woombahs were road features, sometimes marked with cones, sometimes not, as befit the playful caprice of highway crews. On asphalt mixed from permafrost and prayers, “frost heaves” are consequential. At 83 KIAS, the bike would pump up and down, preparing to take flight. Gathering herself at the penultimate hump, she would crest the final peak, temporarily—and, it must be said, with evident joy—shedding the fetters of gravity to soar with aching, mechanical heart toward yonder rainbow. Whoomp… whoomp… whoomp… Woom-Bah! Go toward the light, little bike…

Special test sections are best enjoyed by sailing around a corner at Alcan Cruise Speed, helmet screwed down tightly over a speed-stupored grin, only to find the asphalt ended in a straight cut across the road.

The mother of invention is pant-squeezing fear. De-clutch, grab all the brakes while dropping three gears, then let out the clutch as the front drops in, stand up and gas it. It’s kind of fun, once you get used to it.

In Glenallen with just 188 miles on the tripmeter, I bought 5.3 gallons of regular. I repaired to The Freeze, a burger shack where two boys bragged to their big sister or maybe their mom. When the days get short up here, it can be hard to tell.

“A trooper shot it, but he didn’t get it, either,” said the towhead. “It was a bear.”

“What’d you do to it?” She sounded bored, checking her eye shadow for seismic fissures.

“Shot it,” said the other kid. He chewed his fries thoughtfully. “It got all mad.”

Those boys were maybe nine years old.

I’ve dreamt Alaska dreams for so long; making it hard to excuse myself for never visiting in the nearly half-century I’ve lived in the upper left Conus.

Having waited 46 years to see it, I left Alaska after one day’s ride, entering Yukon Territory at 20:30 with magic light firing the golden leaves of aspens and the temperature reading about 50 degrees F. For 90 minutes I’d navigated a refractive funhouse of rainbows.

This glory wash was mitigated by lurid, two-wheeled slides when my fascination with the horizon overcame my attention to morphing road surfaces. Those tires hunted a little on dry roads. In the wet, they secretly planned to kill me.

Rounding a 90-mph sweeper (kindly devoid of woombahs), I noticed the bike scrithering. A lil’ slide is one thing, but no motorcycle should scrither. The problem with two-wheel drifting on pavement is that just as you sort it out, the tires catch and launch you like a SCUD.

This is often considered suboptimal.

Owing more to fatigue-level reflexes than mastery, I stayed in the throttle and rode it out, waking right up and yodeling into my helmet. The helmet remained inexplicably unimpressed by my bravado fortissimo—it was, in its defense, a Shoei, and thus inscrutable.

A pressing need was conceived. The North Country maintains appropriate traffic density: one vehicle every six to 15 minutes head-on at closing speeds averaging 160 mph, and a vehicle or two overtaken and passed every 20 minutes to an hour when you’re pacing the road confidently.

Hearing nothing, I unzipped to salute the road with everything I had in me. It took quite a while. No family drove by to be scandalized.

Shortly thereafter, the highway turned to dirt and my knobbies came right into their own. Beating the cars into Beaver Creek by nearly an hour, I followed a rainbow of particular intensity straight to our motel.

On their last night open, Beaver Creek’s young staff was lax on policy. We schlepped schooners of tap beer to our rooms, checked e-mail on their back-office computer and made unseemly suggestions to half-smiling waitresses who tucked Suzuki’s money into their aprons, dreaming of younger men and home. Over Yukon Arctic Red ales, Todd Lassa of Motor Trend asked why I kept passing the car crew and running out in front.

“Well,” I lied truthfully, “I don’t have comms, first aid, tools, a riding partner or a flat kit. Anything happens, you guys’d be 200 miles south before anyone thought to look for the idjit on the bike.”

I motored out alone to remember what my Neanderthal progenitors knew without learning. To run and throw yourself into the world—there is liberty requiring no document, nor government to grant it. Nothing can take it from you but fear.

It’s dumb to just get on a bike and ride, and I’m foolish about it: anywhere, anytime and most likely too fast for conditions. But it’s hard not to imagine, pelting south through the onchilling autumn air, that I really was born for this.

Of course that’s easier to imagine when someone just hands you a key and says, “Meet us at the hotel.”

At a Haines Junction gas station, I gave my spare gloves to Marcello, who was headed into the teeth of the north with a leather vest, open helmet, tent and bedroll. His gloves, windproofed with duct tape, were tattered from a trip out of Uruguay. On a stock Harley-Davidson Street Bob. My Tinbutt pretensions have rarely left me feeling less worthy.

RVs and I chased each other south. I’d pass half a dozen every hour or two before they blew past my fuel stops with 300 gallons of diesel in their bellies and movies on the big screen. Multi-purpose properties populating the Alcan Highway every few dozen miles were increasingly shuttered for the season. Logging chains stretched between stone cairns enforced caution of twilit driveways when jonesing for coffee or urgent about fuel or the men’s room.

While I chatted with Jürgen and Tilde from Stuttgart about their BMW R1100GS, the car guys rolled up. They convoyed out before I finished my ninth cup of warm-up coffee, but cars are rarely difficult to catch.

Before the rear tire could melt off its last knob, I wiled some happy hours pooting around enough dirt tracks, gravel pits and logging roads to discover that V-Stroms are what you might expect them to be off-road: top-heavy and over-geared.

Laughing my way out of a mudhole, I looked to the far horizon. Then I looked to the opposite far horizon. Then I looked at my cell phone, which showed zero reception and little time before dark. I slither-whomped back out to the highway and lit the smoking lamp, safe in the loving embrace of motor homes, RCMP and onrushing Kenworths.

Slowing for a corner marked “Extremely Dangerous Curve,” I noticed a young moose lying dead in my lane. Good signage, that. In Watson Lake I encountered the Forest of Signposts, originally planted by Carl Lindley of Company D, 341st Engineers in 1942—and since replicated by GIs from Korea to Qatar.

Two Calgary riders outside the Alaska Highway Interpretive Centre told me it was raining south. I told them it was raining north. When they asked how to get my job I lied inventively, because that’s how I got my job.

Inside, a breathy brunette with liquid eyes insistently particularized the area’s attractions for me, laying emphasis on the Liard Hot Springs.

“Especially on a day like this,” she sighed, fingertips gentle against dripping gray panes, “if I were on a motorcycle, I’d just want to get off and just ... just be in there, all deep and warm.” She looked at me in a way that suggested she hadn’t actually been on a motorcycle—yet.

“I’m going there later today,” she added helpfully. “When I get off.”

On the way out, she smiled enough BTUs at me to soften my back protector.

Liard made a well-timed lunch stop. I received gasoline, soup and coffee from the earnestly helpful Scots-Irish proprietor; cold looks and change from his First Nations wife. After lunch, I begged loan of a dishrag to debug my visor. She stared fully 10 seconds while I basked in the café’s heat.

“Can’t you use a napkin?”

“’Fraid it would scratch my faceshield,” I said, smiling.

A 20-second wait ensued. Holding my gaze unsmiling, she bade her husband to fetch one.

The road out of Liard passes through the Muncho Lake Provincial Park and into Stone Mountain Provincial Park. The Liard River bridge leads directly to a series of curves that could only have been more fun if either a) the road were dry, or b) the bike weren’t shod with tattered knobbies. Or both, in a perfect world, but you could die waiting for one of those.

Shortly after the road opened up, a pair of woodland caribou materialized on the right shoulder. With the sublime grace of wild creatures, they spun in opposite directions, bumped into each other and leapt like startled cats. One crashed into the woodline. The other landed in my lane.

Presently, the highway crossed a plain bordered by lateral moraines, each of which generated its own brutally abrupt crosswind. I was wrestling one of those when a six-point elk strutted up the left bank. Squeezing the “pro-lock” brakes hard enough to force an unearthly howl from the front knobby, I watched as he made a decision and bulled across the road, nose up and horns back, legs pumping like Michael Johnson at the tape.

I have never been so close to a wild elk, pre-bullet. Had my hand been less busy with braking, I might have stroked him as he thundered past. It’s probably possible to gut one with a Leatherman, but he was far more likely to walk away from it than I. There are well-armored garments and there are superbly armored BMW Streetguards, but there are no elk-proof riding suits.

When a spike bull wandered out of the woods seven sweepers later, I knew exactly what was coming.

My prediction proved inaccurate. Failing to yield the right of way, he pulled into the southbound lane and accelerated. Flashers blinking, we promenaded companionably for a couple of miles before he took his exit up a steep bank of glacial till.

Right about Buckhorn the temp slouched 20 degrees, cold water rolled down like Justice from clouds foaming black over the Cariboo Range and the wind smacked me around like a latex slave girl. Over a railroad and up a mud road, I made cabana at a farm shack to zip my liners back in. Ten minutes later, brilliant sunshine split the roiling clouds again.

I wicked it up then, so grinningly happy that the fuzz-mustachioed Royal Canadian Teenager who pulled me over couldn’t help but celebrate the weather with me. We talked bikes and cars, weapons and women, work and family. He didn’t bother writing a warning.

The next constable was hollow-eyed, jumpy and 100 percent less accommodating. He asked about Iraq, grieved his recent officer-involved shooting and wrote me a demerit that cut a healthy slice off Suzuki’s largesse. Following an obligatory safety lecture, he strongly hinted that I purchase fresh tires.

Few things are better than new friends when you need ’em, and I found mine in Williams Lake. John at New Life Cycles, who stocks rear tires for GSers coming out of Prudhoe, snap-sold me a new Battle Wing before rushing off to a funeral. Spectra Power Sports down the road not only levered it onto my rim for free, but shop owner Haino Seibert took me on a demo blast in a freshly race-prepped Polaris ATV. With upgraded suspension, 12 psi of boost and Haino’s maniacal slope attacks, if we didn’t see God it wasn’t from failure to jump high enough. Since neither dealer had a front streetie in stock, I would have continuing chances to visit Him that very afternoon.

Fraser River Canyon clove the Coast Mountains under unbending iron skies. Shafts of late sun glared off ferrous cloud bottoms. Tunnel to tunnel, the updated Cariboo Wagon Road is as dazzlingly dimensional as low-altitude aerobatics. I rode it half-blind, with rain splooshing through my chin vents and an unscuffed rear radial pushing my shagged front knobby, wailing out “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” occasionally throwing out a bootrigger and grinning ’til my face broke.

The one thing better than new friends is known friends. In Vancouver, Newfie Dave had already procured a Michelin 110/80R-19 to match my new Bridgestone better than the toasted Conti. Bayside Performance gave me a Sunday-morning tire change. The Wetleather™ cabal (Google it) had struck with a seen hand.

With that it was only a hop, skip and a border crossing back to home and a barbecue with friends. The last thousand or so miles was just a ride to the office on new tires. Rusty lance held high, I’d already finished off the main windmill.

Once every long while for a fleeting glorious moment, conditions are ideal. Rainbows blaze out between squalls, three corners in a row aren’t just great but perfect, and you catch the flash of a wolf’s eyes as your headlight sweeps the trees.

If you’re not already out there—dodging trucks, navigating gravel and fending off the weather—you’ll miss all those things. They won’t fit on the widest screen; never manifest over a cubicle farm. This is ephemeral magic, some of the last that’s left.

Russian loggers pulp the Siberian taiga as fast as they can run their saws; Chinese soldiers sedulously secure Tibet for Chinamen; Canucks and Yanks cooperate to make their great World War II project, the Alcan Highway, straighter and safer. Cutting the natural curves out of roads is as appealing as grafting fake curves onto women, but re-engineering that road will get trucks to Fairbanks a couple hours quicker.

It may not take you to the same place at all. Maybe you shouldn’t wait as long as I did.

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