Originally written Friday, July 8th, 2016
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As the purple Fireweed began to reveal more of itself across the landscape at 60 MPH, I knew we were closing in on Alaska. The Yukon Territory presented yet many more hundreds of miles of beautiful scenery, while snowcapped mountains further along the horizon eaked out from that inner-voice, “but wait, there’s more!”. Along Highway 1, or the Alcan (Alaska-Canada) Highway, we pulled into the border patrol station. An array of high-tech cameras and sensors unashamedly greeted us there, where the border agent would ask us the customary questions like whether we were transporting firearms, tobacco or even fruits. Such an odd feeling having to go through a brief checkpoint just to cross onto our native soil, but a necessity nonetheless. After being cleared to proceed, we headed Northwest towards Tok and eventually Anchorage, 93 miles and 421 miles respectively, from the “Welcome To Alaska” sign. It was this sign where I had a big dumb genuine grin on my face for a photo opportunity, and couldn’t believe we had made it. Not in the sense that I doubted we would make it, but in the sense that the trip as a whole was unreal and surreal all the same. We were here! We were really, seriously, feet-on-ground, mountain-air-in-lungs here!
“I’ve been thinking about the Alaska trip more and more”, my cousin Christopher Kruse spoke to me in 2015 over the phone, “and I’ve decided we should do it next year. I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve already talked about it for long enough that if I don’t commit to it, it’ll never happen.”, or something to that effect. I personally was more in disbelief of the entire idea when he asked me to join. I knew without a doubt he could accomplish it, but as for myself, I wasn’t entirely forthright with the undertaking. With around a year of riding experience just commuting around town, unprepared would barely describe how I felt about my ability. I had a fear of highway traffic and never rode on one. I imagined all the things that could go wrong: tire blowout at high speed, hitting an animal, getting run off the road, slamming into a left-turn “cager” (car), locking a wheel up, washing out on bad road conditions. All of the YouTube accident videos I’d prepared myself with before purchasing the bike helped me become very aware of the dangers and risks involved, things I was prepared to accept but never quite prepared for. Big difference. Meanwhile, here’s a 10,000 mile round trip and the farthest I’d traveled was 50 or so miles to Lake Michigan from home. Was I really ready for this? I spent some time debating whether my job and income were more important to me than the trip of a lifetime. A trip that, ultimately, was to honor our late grandmother Etta who passed in 2012, where we would bring her ashes to her native home. After some time pondering, thinking, researching, I decided “yes”, even if it meant I would have to quit my job. Mentally, I was prepared for that. It would be a sacrifice not in vain. Jobs come and go, nor was it a position I was in any way attached to.
A month before leaving, I knocked on the door for Human Resources at my job to follow up on whether they would let me use my remaining vacation hours and a leave-of-absence for the remainder of the trip. “You can go. Just let us know when you’ll be back”. A dry response with no wishing of luck, safety or enjoyment, but it’s all I really needed to know. I could return to work and not have to hunt for another job. No matter what the remaining days working could bring, you couldn’t have pried the relief and elation out of me with any amount of stress or bad days. Reality was sinking in, and on June 20th the day of departure, it sank in for those close to us. Family was going to miss us and had their worries, and my girlfriend couldn’t let go of me. Regardless, both of us had all of their support. Not that lack of it would have stopped us – there were some skeptical naysayers in my life that angered me to the point of frustration. It blew off once I shifted into first gear and embarked on the journey June 20th. “I can’t fucking believe we’re doing this!” I exclaimed over the helmet intercom to Chris. We hadn’t even made it out of the city limits yet.
Lansing, Iowa felt like my first confidence test on the bike as we took an offshoot street from Main, up into Mt. Hosmer park overlooking the Mississippi River. Steep, sharp turns with a 430 pound motorcycle were nothing familiar to me. It was a slightly unnerving yet fun path to our first little break of the day’s leg. It would end up being very tame in comparison to experiences afterwards, as I still had no clue what lied ahead or what I felt the bike and I were capable of. I’d learn the physically demanding offroad conditions and trails (wrestling the weight of the bike) being trial-by-fire as my absolute first experience on a long, long journey, were miniscule in comparison to the mental tribulations. Wyoming shoved my face deep into the proverbial shit. The wind was shoving us around, pushing my bike into unfamiliar lean angles, while the heat sucked all but one ounce of energy from your body. After a couple hundred miles, it was getting physically tough, and I mentally cracked under the circumstances. We pulled into an Exxon in Wright, WY where I sat down while Chris prepped his bike for refueling. A mix of emotions ran through me from defeat, anger and sadness and I couldn’t shake any of them while I remained there, silently staring at the ground. It was then I seriously contemplated going home. I was sad at the thought, all while upset with not just the Wyoming experience that day, but myself. How could I possibly resign to this?
Here I was thinking about plunking down for a hotel room for a couple days, offering the bike for sale in the KLR groups “ASAP” and flying home. It was a ridiculous idea, but Wyoming was equally as ridiculous in the mental state I was in. “It’s boring, flat, hot, windy, and there’s no end in sight” my brain muttered. When I quietly informed Chris of my thoughts his chuckle in response evoked “are you shitting me?!” and walked off momentarily. After minutes of contemplation I walked over and sat down, where we soberly discussed the issue at hand. We determined that if we didn’t try something different for the sake of our exhaustion, it would be foolish for me to turn around. The bigger matter at hand was what this trip was all about, for our grandmother and her return home. The suggestions sounded reasonable and sensible: some days do less mileage, take more frequent breaks, take a full day off after so many days. Anything to give ourselves some mental and physical relief. We were very accustomed to being constantly on the go, and environmental factors weren’t benefiting that kind of motive. It all started to make more sense, and I agreed to press forward. Later that day we would end up “herding” free-range cattle off our gravel path in a wide-open, desolate territory, a real moment of brevity and hilarity. It changed my attitude for the better, just as the wide open Wyoming expanse would become more scenic and visually stimulating. Finally, a second wind, so to speak.
Cody, Wyoming was another mental test for me but nothing so overwhelming. I was beginning to get a little better feel for offroad handling, but still had my hesitations. One of the particular rocky gravel paths we took up steep and winding overlook paths, looked downright menacing to me, but with Chris’s lead and intercom guidance proved pretty straightforward. I started to wonder why I was psyching myself out so much. By the time we were passing through British Columbia and being rained on the equivalent of an ocean, I was shrugging off a lot of mental hindrances. Sure, the constant rain and coldness sucked, but now I had a much better sense of perseverance and willingness to keep moving forward. There are dozens if not hundreds of slices of memories and experiences stretching from the Badlands of South Dakota, to Bighorn National Forest, Beartooth Pass, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, British Columbia and Yukon, Canada, and Alaska that in the most difficult days of this trip, one will eventually realize they are parts of a whole. Between the interesting people with their own stories we’d met along the way or befriended (Hi Jane!), and the hospitality and warmth of our Alaskan family (whom we’d never met before), the challenges along the way were worth it. Self-doubt is a great hindrance to progress, but without pushing back and moving forward you will never discover your true potential. What better way to discover, and to live and learn, than your worst day on two wheels upright? It still beats a day at work or never leaving the house.