The Shortest Distance between Two Points is … Irrelevant

By Scott A. Sabol

Co-instructor, GCE 528

Time to think. As we get older and busier, sometimes the most precious commodity becomes time – unfettered time to let one’s mind clear and to become renewed while one ventures out to see the world. It having been a dozen years since my last major vacation trip, summer 2009 provided the opportunity for a month-long getaway. This particular getaway was done on my 1998 Harley-Davidson Heritage Springer, with the goal of riding to, in, and from my 49th state and all the western provinces I could enter. What follows is a travelogue of my journey.

July 1 (Northfield, VT to Williamsport, PA) – The journey begins in Northfield, Vermont. As one might expect, the forecast called for rain. With my bags packed and secured to my bike, my starting odometer mileage logged, and my rain pants on, I start my trip. Four miles into the trip, the rain starts to fall. I stop the bike, put on my rain jacket and full-face helmet, and continue. My plan is to ride to Alaska, leaving only Hawaii as a state I have not ridden a Harley in. I head south. Yes, south.  Alaska is west of Vermont – I know that.

In Duanesburg, New York, the rains are so heavy that I am nearly forced off the road. Thankfully, the hard rains are brief. I see no more rain until I get to my Day 1 destination of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. It was a long hard ride, and my overnight plans are always to stay in a hotel or motel (some friends recommended camping, but after 12 or more hours in the saddle, a soft bed and hot shower are worth the cost).

July 2 (Williamsport, PA to Elkview, WV) – I start the day as I will start most days, sipping coffee in a motel room and watching The Weather Channel. The forecast is iffy, with probable showers. I again suit up in a rain suit, and then I head for State College, Pennsylvania. I went to graduate school at Penn State University in the 1980s, and it had been a long time since I had set foot on campus. Luckily, the sun came out and the return to “Happy Valley” (as the area is known) was wonderful. I had coffee with Dr. Harry H. West (my academic advisor at Penn State, the author of Fundamentals of Structural Analysis (a textbook that students in the MCE structures track may have used as undergraduates), and my instructor when I took Structural Dynamics in graduate school (GCE 528 students are benefitting to this day from his legacy as I pass on what Dr. West taught me)). I then met up with Dr. Ed Gannon, who was my officemate and just plain ol’ Mr. Ed Gannon when we were graduate students together. It is these kinds of visits that make riding a motorcycle through the rain worthwhile. As I departed Happy Valley, the skies opened up, and my trek through southwestern Pennsylvania and the winding mountains of West Virginia was in fog so thick and rain so cold that it boggled my mind. Although I usually eschew interstate highways, I traveled on I-79 in the darkness, noticing that West Virginians cherish their cell phone signals (based on the number of towers I saw along the road).

July 3 (Elkview, WV to Cookeville, TN) – This day marks my first day of truly nice biking weather. Cool and partly sunny, I am able to wear jeans instead of rain pants. My route takes me through Harlan County, Kentucky –I became interested in the town after watching a documentary about the coalmine strikes of the early 1970s (although I am a native Vermonter, coal mining is in my blood. Both of my parents come from the anthracite region of Shamokin, PA, and my paternal grandfather was killed in a coal mine when my father was a youngster). The beauty and poverty of this part of Appalachia were particularly striking, and some scenic views were awe-inspiring. It was also here that I saw my first lawn sign proclaiming that Jesus is coming – are you ready?  After seeing the 50th such sign, I decided that these people must know something that I do not, so I made a quick stop for some post-retirement planning and snapped my first photo of the trip (see Figure 1). I later decided that the guy I really wanted to talk to was the man whose lawn sign read,  Jesus is coming – He’ll be here a week from next Tuesday. I continued my ride all the way to Cookeville, Tennessee.

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Figure 1- A worthwhile stop, although my own convictions are more a synthesis of Episcopalian and Snake handler

July 4 (Cookeville, TN to Laurel, MS) – Another beautiful day for riding, this time including one of the most fabulous stretches of roadway on the trip. I headed toward Nashville so that I could get on the Natchez Trace Parkway. It being July 4, my trip incurred a brief delay as I rode through the town of Franklin. I missed at least one detour sign and managed to start driving down what was clearly their 4th of July parade route!  Imagine the sense of power I felt as I rode down a main street with people lined up in lawn chairs looking at me. Had I been about 20 minutes later, I think I would have actually been in the official parade.

After leaving Franklin, I got on the Natchez Trace Parkway – which is famous, in part, to us structural engineers for a beautiful arch bridge at its northern end (see Figure 2). The Parkway was a fantastic scenic ride at 50 MPH with almost no stops. Had I not needed gas, I would have taken it deep into mid-Mississippi; as it was, I left the Parkway and headed directly south to Laurel. This day had been my first day of pure sunshine and intense heat, with a bit of a sunburn resulting.

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Figure 2 - Bridge near start of Natchez Trace Parkway

July 5 (Laurel, MS to New Orleans, LA) – This day’s ride proved to be short, which meant I could sleep in (in contrast to my typical wake-up time of 4:30 AM) and enjoy a leisurely breakfast. I worked my way slightly westward so that I could ride the Lake Ponchatrain Causeway (which I had only seen on engineering shows on television) into New Orleans. I believe it was in Bogalusa, Louisiana that I had the pleasure of riding for miles on a jointed concrete pavement for which every single joint had faulted. Ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump. It makes for a horrible ride on a motorcycle. For a while I decided to try to match the forcing function of the highway imperfections with my motorcycle’s response to estimate the damping factor of my suspension – but I quickly decided that I did not need to be doing structural dynamics on the road. I managed to get lost (I’ll blame the Louisiana DOTD signage) near Mandeville, Louisiana and took a tiny road into the swamplands before turning around to find the Causeway. Riding the Causeway (over 20 miles long) was a great experience, including seeing a hard thunderstorm approach, pour down on me, and then continue its way toward New Orleans.

It was on this day that I noticed I had lost the feeling in much of my left hand. After working the clutch repeatedly for days, some carpal tunnel syndrome had taken effect.

July 6-7 (New Orleans) – I was able to stay put in New Orleans for a few days, and herein lies the reason for my trek to Alaska being a southbound journey. My first real destination of the trip was the annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Highway Subcommittee on Bridges and Structures. It is a meeting I attend every year, riding my motorcycle to it whenever feasible. My last motorcycle journey related to the AASHTO meeting was documented in a previous Director’s Corner article you can find at

http://grad.norwich.edu/mce/directorscorner/06_05_06/index.html

The meeting is always educational, giving me information that I can use in my courses at Vermont Tech or in GCE 528. It is also a chance to enjoy the annual Friends of Kulicki dinner (a smaller version this year for special reasons; the dinner was first written about in an article located at

http://grad.norwich.edu/mce/directorscorner/08_04_08/index.html

The participants for 2009 are shown in Figure 3. My stop in New Orleans also allowed me to get an oil change done at the local Harley-Davidson dealer. Lucky for me, the dealer noticed that a bolt had fractured on a bracket supporting my tailpipe, and that a fatigue crack was growing. Their welder fixed me up in no time (and thus eliminated additional backfiring I had been experiencing). New Orleans is a wet, smelly, vibrant, wonderful place to visit – and the French Quarter had rebounded from Katrina well.

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Figure 3 - Clockwise from bottom left are Tracy and Dr. Joey Hartmann, Dr. John Kulicki, Diane Long, Dr. Dennis Mertz, Dr. Ian Buckle, Ian Friedland, and me. The jambalaya was fabulous!

July 8 (New Orleans, LA to Beaumont, TX) – Today’s ride took me through some bayou country of Louisiana, and it started with a ride over a great bridge (the Huey P. Long, being widened under the design auspices of Modjeski & Masters, Inc.). It stormed on and off (if you are counting, you now realize that about half of my travel days include some rain – this continued the whole trip), but nothing strong enough to stop me, and when the sun came out the temperatures approached 100. It was around here on the trip that I started to not eat dinners and restricted liquid inputs greatly so as to reduce the number of stops needed at restrooms (that were often the McDonald’s along the way that seem to serve as America’s Bathroom).

July 9 (Beaumont, TX to Austin, TX) – Today’s highlight was the best breakfast of the trip. Just north of Houston, I asked a local for a recommendation on a breakfast diner. I was directed to Frankenstein’s (not the name of your typical diner). When I walked into a dining room not much bigger than my Vermont Tech office and saw a wall-mounted menu with only three offerings, I began to wonder if the local had seen my Vermont license plate and decided to prank me. However, I was served a heaping plate of eggs, sausages, and hash browns (the good kind fried in bacon fat) and an endless cup of coffee, all for about $3.99. When the wait staff found out my travel plans, they asked me to return and show them pictures after my trip was done. I almost think that breakfast would be worth another long trip to Texas. As I left the diner, the sun shone brightly. The now defunct band The Beat Farmers had a song titled, The Texas Heat is High. No truer statement has ever been made. Although the ride was gorgeous, the temperatures were over 100 degrees and there was not a cloud in the sky. I found myself desperate for a few minutes out of the sun, and a roadside rest area magically appeared (see Figure 4). As I answered nature’s call, I remembered that Texas has rattlesnakes and decided that standing on the rocky banks of an ephemeral stream might not be the best place to do this. Later, as I approached Austin, I finally decided to get stronger sunscreen. I did not even know that SPF 85 sunscreen existed, but I was thankful to find it. I spent the evening near Bee Cave, Texas, and a former colleague of mine (Dr. Kevin Folliard, now a professor at the University of Texas and one of the nation’s experts in concrete materials) stopped by and took me out to a bar (The Oasis) with a fantastic multi-level deck overlooking a large lake. This was in the hill country of Texas, which is much different than the stereotypical Texas landscape.

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Figure 4 - Respite from the Texas heat

July 10 (Austin, TX to Shamrock, TX) – Today would be the hottest day of my ride. Shortly after leaving the Austin area, I was able to get on Highway 83, which would take me all the way to Canada. It also took me near the wind farms outside Abilene, which were truly beautiful (at least from a distance). By mid-morning, the temperatures had reached 100 degrees F under pure sunshine (see Figure 5). SPF85 sunscreen was meaningless at this point, and I had to put on a long-sleeve shirt and wear riding gloves.

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Figure 5 - I would have sold my soul for a cloud at this point

The one-inch unprotected strip at my wrists between sleeve and glove ended up blistering from the sun, and I found myself wandering through a Wal-Mart to buy cotton tennis sweatbands to cover that area. By the end of the day’s ride, the temperatures were even higher (see Figure 6). I was told by a person who talked to me while I snapped a photo that temperatures reached 111 degrees F a little farther north. This same gentleman (Eddie Davis – which I only remember because we swapped business cards) worked for the Texas DOT and gave me the lowdown about local roads and bridges, including a beautiful, historic through-truss that I was about to cross as I continued north. Bridge lovers are everywhere!

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Figure 6 - I would have sold my MOTHER'S soul for a cloud by this time

July 11 (Shamrock, TX to North Platte, NE) – It was at about this point in the trip that riding 12 hours a day without anything to listen to started to affect me. A tune would enter my head, often some God-awful Thompson Twins’ song from the 1980s and it would linger for 100 miles. I do not know which bothered me more, thinking of the song or realizing that I still knew most of the lyrics. The highlight of this day was the best donuts of the trip. If you are ever traveling on Route 83 through Kansas and see Daylight Donuts, stop and partake!  The lowlight of this day occurred in Oklahoma. I stopped to switch from normal glasses to sunglasses, and when I went to lift my sunglasses out of their case, the right ear stem fell off. These are prescription sunglasses, and I could not imagine riding thousands more miles without them. Also, it was Sunday, without an open optician in sight. I pulled over to a rest area and hoped for a miracle. My prayers were answered when I found the tiniest of screws still in the saddlebag. I carry a tiny screwdriver, so I was able to fix everything. It was such a victory (it is funny the things that seem like victories on a road trip) that I captured the spot in a photo (Figure 7).

In North Platte, I briefly talked with two bikers who were looking over maps. Their plates were from Missouri, and they were telling me about their plans for their long trip to and around Wyoming. I had changed into street clothes by now, so they did not know I was a fellow rider, and I did not want to let them know that what they were planning for their long trip was the equivalent of two days of my ride.

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Figure 7 - The only photo with both bike and rider. When will they start installing camera rests for single travelers to get photos taken?

July 12 (North Platte, NE to Minot, ND) – My short streak of clear but hot weather continued this day as I rode 600 miles to Minot, North Dakota. As I approached Minot, I was pleased to see a roadside wind turbine used as a tourist attraction. It was mammoth in scale (see Figure 8) and is part of a rest area. It is also used to educate the public about wind turbines (see Figure 9).

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Figure 8 - That is my Harley at the base

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Figure 9 - Turbine information for tourists

July 13 (Minot, ND to Saskatoon, SK) – Today would be my day to enter Manitoba, Canada. I got a slightly late start, which turned out to be a good thing because the Canadian port of entry on Route 83 did not open until 8 AM. I was the only one on the road at the time. I pulled into the customs stop and gave the officer my passport. He went into his building. I waited. And waited. He came out and asked me a few questions, then returned to his building. I waited. He came out again and asked me to follow him. By now I was getting a little nervous despite my clean criminal record and lack of affiliation with any known terrorist groups. He proceeded to interview me in depth. The hang-up to him seemed to be my open-ended date for leaving Canada to return to the USA (around July 31, I told him; why not August 15, he asked me; I have no fixed schedule, I told him; how can you be so flexible, he asked me; I’m a professor, I told him). When I finally stated that I did have to be back by July 31 for my 25th high school reunion, his demeanor changed instantly and he sent me on my way with well wishes. I must be on some list. I recommend any MCE students or colleagues think twice before traveling internationally with me!

I followed The Yellowhead Trail highway for the entire day. I noticed several interesting things this day. First, highway road worker safety is a bit different in Manitoba. There was a surveying crew on the road, and all they had was an orange cone as they stood in the middle of the road. No flagman, no real warning signs, no nothing. Second, for virtually the entire distance to Saskatoon, there were fields of yellow as far as the eye could see. There were occasionally beautiful fields of blue as well. I was stunned by the beauty and extent of the fields. I’d seen corn fields in Nebraska that went on forever, but this dwarfed that experience. Another noticeable item was that each small village in Manitoba and Saskatchewan proudly displayed a similar banner, noting which National Hockey League player(s) had come from that village. Ricky Vachon – Boston Bruins 1974 and stuff like that. They take their hockey seriously in Canada. But perhaps the most interesting thing I saw this day was the sign for what I think was called the Introspective Center for Potash. I am not sure what they teach you about potassium carbonate (potash) at such a center. All I could picture was a person walking into the Center thinking, wow – that is some potash; on exiting the Center and its instructional exhibits, perhaps one says, wow – that is some angry-looking potash!

I ate dinner this night in a Tim Horton’s, which is a restaurant chain found primarily in Canada. For some reason, whenever I saw the sign that read Horton, I heard Jackie Gleason’s voice in my head, saying Hey Horton (instead of Norton). That amused me. Until I passed about my 300th Tim Horton’s and was still reflexively hearing that same voice. I grew to hate Tim Horton, whoever he is.

I also learned via Canadian television that the marmot is the rarest mammal in Canada. I am now ready when that question comes up in Trivial Pursuit.

By now, my left hand was substantially numb from the carpal tunnel syndrome that had started a week earlier. It would remain for the entire trip (and it remains as I write this travelogue). I had the choice of turning back to Vermont or continuing on my journey. Easy decision.

July 14 (Saskatoon, SK to Valleyview, AB) – I awoke this morning to find the Canadian version of The Weather Channel on television; it is called The Weather Network. Its local forecast segment is accompanied by a very catchy tune. I asked the young women at the motel desk what the fields of yellow were. Mustard plant was their reply. I thought to myself, who can be eating that many hot dogs?  Then I thought of my friend Rich when he eats, and I realized it is possible that they were right.

Huge thunderstorms had gone through the region overnight, and it was pouring rain as I loaded my gear onto my bike. A man in a pickup truck stopped and asked me if I was heading north or south. When I answered, he warned me that flooding had closed the highway, causing multi-hour detours onto dirt roads (wet dirt roads and motorcycles mix like Scotch and carrot juice). As I rode north, the rain let up, but I saw that the southbound lane of the divided highway was completely flooded and closed as I entered Alberta. The northbound lane had debris washed onto it, but the water receded just enough to let traffic pass (see Figure 10). I felt lucky.

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Figure 10 - Looking back on highway I had just traveled

It was at this point that I realized that the catchy Weather Network tune was really an addictive tune. It ran through my head hour after hour. It turns out it would run through my head every day for the remainder of the trip!

The skies cleared as I exited Edmonton and worked my way north. It was in Whitecourt that I had the biggest scare of the trip. I pulled into a town for gas, and as I went to leave the gas station and shift into 2nd gear, I noticed that my foot-operated shift lever was hanging loose. I was stuck in first gear. My heart raced – thousands of miles from home and stuck in first gear!  My guardian angel must have been looking over me that day, because it turned out that a motorcycle shop was just a block or so away. I stopped in just before their closing time, they put my bike on the lift, realized the problem was a simple disconnected shift lever rod, fixed me up, and I was on my way. Thank you, RPM Motorsports!  Although I carry tools with me, I am not very mechanically inclined. Had this breakdown occurred in the middle of the wilderness, the trip and result might have been far worse.

It was now in my trip that the roads were clear of vehicles and the distance between stopping points was great, allowing me to think about all the things I sometimes do not get a chance to. How can I instruct better?  How will building information modeling affect the infrastructure industry?  Exactly how would Scotch and carrot juice taste?  I was able to deal with any midlife crisis thoughts through the tranquility of the remaining days.

As I arrived in Valleyview, Alberta, I was finally starting to appreciate the later sunsets. It was bright out until at least 10 PM. I decided to ask a different person about those yellow plants, and he told me they were canola. Ah, that made much more sense to me!  I feel better eating so much deep-fried food now that I know I am keeping all those fields in use. (I later found from a Vermont Tech colleague that the blue plants were flax.)

July 15 (Valleyview, AB to Fort Nelson, BC) – This marked my coldest morning. The Weather Network had the temperature listed as 4 degrees C, with a wind chill of 0 degrees C (32 F). It was very sunny, so I waited a couple hours for solar heating to help me and hit the road. It was about this time that I started doing two calculations over and over: 9/5 + 32 (to change degrees C to F) and 5/8 (to change kilometers to miles – my speedometer only had MPH). I did those calculations, especially the latter, probably 20 times a day. Thank you, Mrs. Grace for that solid 1st grade education!  It turned out to be a beautiful day. In Dawson Creek, British Columbia (the start of the Alaska Highway), I stopped for lunch at an A&W. It was so refreshing to be handed a frosty glass mug of root beer. For the remainder of the trip, I noticed that A&W restaurants were ubiquitous and McDonald’s were rare. The joy of the day lasted until the last 50 km of the trip. Thunder, lightning, and rain came down on me in a way that almost forced me to stop riding. It was bone-chilling cold – so much so that I later would buy a pair of flannel pajama bottoms to wear under my rain pants (instead of the gym shorts I usually wore under rain pants). I was happy to get into Fort Nelson, knowing that I would be in one town for two consecutive nights.

July 16 (Fort Nelson, BC to Fort Liard, NWT and back) – In theory, today would be an easy day. I wanted to ride in all of the western provinces (except Nunavut because it has no connecting roadway system), so I was doing a small spur route into the Northwest Territories and back. Unfortunately, just 40 minutes into my trip, I hit road construction that left me standing in place for 25 minutes. It was very cold (12 degrees C) but warming quickly. After I finally cleared the construction, it became clear how very desolate this part of Canada is. I took a photo that illustrated the vast nothingness of a straight road (Figure 11).

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Figure 11 - Nothingness as far as the eye can see

 

It was with great excitement that I officially entered the Northwest Territories (Figure 12). Alas, my destination, Fort Liard, where the only gas station existed, was still 50 km away. This portion of the Northwest Territories does not have paved roads. Even worse, the dirt roads not only have potholes, but they are covered with a thin layer of pea stone. And they were wet. 100 km (60 miles total back and forth) on that was very slow going. But it was gorgeous. I averaged only 53 km/hr (33 mph), but when two wild bison sidled up beside me on the roadway, it was all worthwhile. I entered Fort Liard, filled my gas tank, and returned to Fort Nelson. On the way back, I realized that I had not taken many photos of bridges, so I took one of a one-lane bridge with a wooden plank deck (Figure 13).

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Figure 12 - Another province under my belt

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Figure 13 - One of the more interesting bridges on the trip

July 17 (Fort Nelson, BC to Watson Lake, YT) – This day would be wildlife day. For anyone thinking about riding a stretch of the Alaskan Highway, this is the stretch I recommend. This is where the scenery goes from nice to breathtaking as you experience the northern Rockies to their fullest (Figure 14). Along the route, the first major animals I saw were caribou. Although they were skittish, I managed to snap a photo (Figure 15). A few miles later, the first of what would be dozens of bison (Figure 16) – bison just roam slowly across the road, unconcerned about a motorcycle and rider smaller than them. I saw mountain goats and even bears (I decided to not stop the bike for bear photos) lumbering alongside the roadway. I also enjoyed the camaraderie of four bikers from Texas this day. They were on their way to ride in Alaska for a couple weeks, and we shared the road for many miles. They were on BMWs with bigger gas tanks than mine, so there came a point where I stopped for gas and they continued on.

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Figure 14 - Lakes and mountains of the northern Rockies

 

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Figure 15 - Am I checking out the caribou or vice versa?

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Figure 16 - Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam...

Watson Lake is the home of the Signpost Forest. Many travelers stop and tack up a sign of some meaning to them (I did not bring one with me; I was going to put up a cosine instead, but I did not think anyone would get the joke). Today, there are over 64,000 signs in the forest, with thousands added each year. One could spend days just reading each sign (Figure 17).

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Figure 17 - I did not see any signs from Northfield, Vermont

July 18 (Watson Lake, YT to Skagway, AK) – It was sunny but cold this day, and I had gotten into the habit of wearing my rain suit and full-face helmet for warmth even if I did not need them for precipitation protection. The scenery continued to be great as I was riding near the snow level, but I quickly saw that the mountains of Chilkoot Pass were holding bad weather on the Alaska side of the mountains (Figure 18).

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Figure 18 - Yukon is on the near side of the mountain, Alaska on the far side

The fog as I traveled over Chilkoot pass was as thick as I had ever seen. Behind the Welcome to Alaska sign (see Figure 19) is apparently a beautiful vista according to the locals, but I could not see 10 feet beyond the sign. The descent into Skagway includes a stop at US customs. When I handed my passport to the security agent, he asked if I was related to Steve Sabol. When I told him that’s my brother, he almost died. Then I realized he meant Steve Sabol of NFL Films, not my brother Steve.

Skagway is a cute little tourist town with good bars (I recommend the Red Onion Saloon and Brothel, by the way) and a port for cruise ships. And every other store sells either gold or fur items. I met up with two riders with Florida plates on their bikes – so I was not the only one who had traveled a long distance to get here.

When I entered Alaska, only Hawaii remained on my list of states in which I have not been on a Harley. They need to start building a bridge…

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Figure 19 - Both bike AND rider made it to Alaska by the way

July 19 (Skagway, AK to Whitehorse, YT) – Several quirky things marked this very short ride. First, the breakfast was the antithesis of the one in Texas. I spent $20 only to wait 30 minutes for a very tasteless meal to arrive. I was amused when four people came in and asked if they had time for a sit-down breakfast before they had to get on their ship. When asked when they had to board the ship, they replied that they had 20 minutes. Needless to say, there was no sit-down breakfast for them. For my ride, the ascent over Chilkoot Pass was as misty as the descent had been, and the Canadian side of the Pass was again sunny.

On my way to Whitehorse, I stopped at a rest area and saw a marmot run in front of me. Rare indeed!  Because of the issue of not having any music to listen to on my bike, I spent the next 20 miles composing a song in my head which I titled Marmot Wedding. Alas, I will not seek publication because, in retrospect, it was pretty much Billy Idol’s White Wedding but just with the word marmot stuck in a dozen times. The road to Whitehorse is in a very remote part of Yukon Territory, and my favorite sign of the day was for a small café in the middle of nowhere: If you don’t stop here to eat, we’ll both starve. I did not stop. I do not know when the memorial services are for the café owner.

July 20 (Whitehorse, YT) – This day was a stayover as my motorcycle got a 10,000-mile interval mechanical service, plus replacing both tires which I had worn down to the canvas. I spent the day checking out the local coffeemaker (Midnight Sun, not quite as tasty as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters) and the local brewery (Yukon Ale). I also bought a siphon (I wish I had thought of that earlier in case of running out of gas). I had the best meal of the trip in Whitehorse. I had a choice of bison steak, caribou stew, musk ox stroganoff, or Arctic char. I opted for the fish but was tempted by the musk ox. The meal was expensive (and the Canadian dollar was climbing in value against the US dollar the entire trip, which I did not like) but worth it. I also was able to photograph the first LEED-certified building in the Yukon (Figure 20), so maybe I can use that as a way to write off the entire trip as a business expense. It was interesting to see that people used English units of measurement in this part of Canada (although official government signs were in SI). The sun set at 11:13 PM that night in Whitehorse.

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Figure 20 - First LEED-certified building in Yukon, or so it claims

July 21 (Whitehorse, YT to Watson Lake YT) – My demeanor changed this day as I realized I was now heading home. I felt a bit of anxiousness to get home, even though I had 3,700 miles to go. As I departed Whitehorse, I passed a Tim Horton’s … darn, there’s Jackie Gleason’s voice again for another couple hours. After the first hour, I started retracing what had been my route westward days earlier. It was an easy ride to Watson Lake, and I got in to my motel early enough that I was kicking myself for not trying to ride farther. However, my dismay turned to glee when I turned on the television and saw a bridge engineer I know on the screen. A documentary from 2004 about the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver (a suspension bridge built in 1938) was on, and esteemed Canadian bridge engineer Roger Dorton, whom I first met around 1993, was one of the talking heads providing commentary for the film. It was a great show with both entertaining and informative content. Little did I know that the Guinness family (of ale fame) had paid for the original construction of the bridge, and then many years later sold it to the province of British Columbia. Thus, this day was my bridge day, because earlier in the day I had traveled over the longest bridge in British Columbia (Figure 21) – a lovely bridge except for the steel deck that is so very hard to manage on a motorcycle.

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Figure 21 - A long, lovely bridge shot from the south

July 22 (Watson Lake, YT to Dawson Creek, BC) – Again, this stretch proved to have the most abundant wildlife. Bears, moose, deer, and bison all wandered by the roadside. This day also had the dustiest construction zone I have traveled in, where pilot cars covered with strobe lights led the way (and motorcycles were escorted to the front of the line, thank you very much!). I also traveled through an active forest fire this day, although only some minor smoldering was observed. A large sign reading Active fire – do not stop – trees falling down! was enough to keep me moving steadily.

July 23 (Dawson Creek, BC to Lloydminster, AB) – In Alberta, I again started seeing the fields of canola. Their brightness just makes the ride so very cheerful (see Figure 22).

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Figure 22 - Next time you deep-fry a corn dog in canola oil, thank a Canadian

July 24 (Lloydminster, AB to Portage La Prairie, MB) – The third motorcycle mishap occurred on this day. As I left Lloydminster, the bike was riding a little rough. I thought I might have condensation in the gas tank or something similar. It was nonetheless worrisome, because I did not want to break down some 80 miles from the nearest phone or person. As I got near Saskatoon and the problem persisted, I pulled off the road and checked out everything I could think of. It turned out that the spark plug cap on my bike had worked loose and become caked with dust. I shook it out, pressed it back on firmly, and the bike returned to perfect performance. There were some thunderstorms this day, and I also occasionally met up with some other riders; and sometimes, as it turns out, their dogs (see Figure 23).

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Figure 23 - Man's best friend also gets the best seat

July 25 (Portage La Prairie, MB to Thunder Bay, ON) – This was a particularly uneventful day. I was happy to see that each province had a well staffed and informative welcome center, and Ontario’s did not disappoint. Clean restrooms and lots of information are nice things. Even many individual small towns have their own welcome centers with restrooms!

July 26 (Thunder Bay, ON to Kapuskasing, ON) – It was on this leg of the trip that I became more aware of the native American (First Nation as they call it in Canada) population. Sadly, based on the comments written in some restroom stalls, I saw that Americans do not hold exclusive license on racism. This day also was my first major kill of the trip – a sizeable bird hit my windscreen with a thud. It got stuck between my windscreen and headlight (it was clearly dead), and despite my attempts to force it loose through accelerations and decelerations, it stayed put. So me and Bird (I decided to name it) traveled along together for a while, until eventually Bird must have found an appropriate final resting place and became unwedged by the breeze and dropped to the road. Bird was my best friend on this trip, and I think of him often. RIP, my little fractured, feathered, dead friend.

The day ended with me being one of the very first customers in a brand new Super 8 in Kapuskasing.  It had opened less than a week earlier. If you ever find yourself traveling in that area (but why would you?), I highly recommend it.

July 27 (Kapuskasing, ON to Ottawa, ON) – This was another uneventful day of riding, with the highlight being that I stayed in a hotel that had a very large-scale indoor water park. A nearby bar called Monkey Joe’s had Labatt’s draught beer on sale that night. I do not seem to remember much else – I am not sure why.

July 28 (Ottawa, ON to Northfield, VT) – Although I was in a rain suit and full-face helmet for half the trip, because of either precipitation or cold, I was very happy that my last day was in warm, sunny weather. As I entered the province of Quebec, I was running out of gas, so I ventured into the welcome center near the provincial border. I decided to try a little of my French (basically saying, I do not speak French well so I would prefer English), and the staff quickly switched to English. Gas was a mere few kilometers away, so that was good. Unlike the other provinces, in Quebec many signs are solely in French (Figure 24). My high school French saved me as I passed signs indicating Travaux (construction) and other warnings. I soon came to the Canada-USA border, and with very little delay (our customs people must not use the same blacklist that the Canadian customs people do), I was back in my home country.

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Figure 24 - This loosely translates as Big Brother is Watching

I know I am biased, but by far the most beautiful scenery on my trip was that of Vermont’s green mountains as I entered the state and returned home. I was disappointed, after so many accommodating welcome centers in Canada, to see that my own state closed its welcome center at the border for budget reasons. It was the first closed welcome center I saw on my entire trip.  What is Vermont saying to the world by doing that?

By mid-afternoon, I rolled into the driveway of my own home (Figure 25), a sight and a site for sore eyes.

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Figure 25 - Home sweet home

My goal this summer was to ride to Alaska and back and to spend the time thinking about life. Sure, I could have taken the direct route through Canada both directions and cut off two weeks and a lot of miles.

But when you are riding a Harley, the shortest distance between two points is…irrelevant. (See figure 26)

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Figure 26 - 28 days total, 24 days riding, 10,256 miles. Where to next?