Thursday, December 1, 2011

Talkeetna

The rain that fell the next morning was another reminder of how unpredictable the weather could be in Alaska in the summertime, and by now it seemed as though I had been wearing my rain gear for most of the trip - a continuous precautionary measure while riding the bike. I set my sights on continuing south on the George Parks Highway towards Anchorage, staying open to whatever might catch my eye along the way. Although the rain let up as the miles passed, the clouds that blanketed the sky never let me put my guard down.

The perpetual possibility of rain...

While on the highway, 140 miles from where I had begun that morning, I came across a sign advertising a music festival in Talkeetna, a town that sounded vaguely familiar, from either stories told to me by friends who had already traveled in Alaska or perhaps from the Lonely Planet guidebook - either way, my instinct was telling me to stop, and I turned off the highway onto a 14 mile stretch of road that took me into the heart of town.

After navigating my way to the main street of Talkeetna, full of small shops selling everything imaginable to the hoards of tourists that are constantly bused in off the Princess cruise ships, I found my way to the hostel, situated on a quiet, unpaved street just past the local airport. It was a small, converted house in a predominantly residential area, tucked back into the woods and surrounded by lush foliage. I walked into the main entrance, seeing no one until a large, lumbering figure rounded the corner from the living area. The man, well over six feet tall, with thick features, a bushy mustache and a baseball cap, immediately started showing me around, speaking in a low, growly, almost monotone voice that reminded me of Brer Bear from Disney's Song of the South. In fact, almost everything about him was reminiscent of the character; from his hunched posture and slow movements to the suspenders that held up his pants. It wasn't until I stumped him with a specific question about the hostel that he admitted that he was only a guest himself, and that the owner, who would be back later, had "left him in charge".

To save a bit of money, I elected to pitch my tent in the yard instead of taking a bunk bed in one of the rooms, and the man showed me the area in the back where he thought it would be most appropriate to camp. When I asked him his name, he answered with what sounded like "manual", so, trying to make a joke, I replied "Like the transmission?" He stared at me, squinting slightly with a confused look, and answered "Huh?" When I asked the question again and got the same reply, I resorted to asking him to spell it, to which he responded "With an e",  leaving me no choice but to smile and drop the subject. Clearly Manuel (the name and the spelling I assumed he was alluding to) was going to be a little slow on the uptake in conversation, and as he lumbered away I wondered where he had come from and what could possibly have brought him to this place.


At the Talkeetna hostile, you had the option of sleeping in a Volkswagen bus. As tempting as it was, I passed.

The camper's mascot, permanently glued to the spare tire up front.

Beer cap decorations on the deck of the hostile.

After pitching my tent and settling in, I passed Manuel in the living room, intently staring at the monitor of the desktop computer set up for internet use. As I glanced at the screen, I saw that he was looking up descriptions of how to use old-style flintlock rifles. This, combined with a conversation I had with him soon after on how he was worried about several conspiracy theory emails he had seen recently, namely that the government was selling off national park land to the Chinese, really had me wondering what his intentions were in Alaska. After more discussion, it was revealed that he had come to Alaska to get away from "things" in the lower 48 states - the noise, the people; and apparently some run-ins with the law that he wouldn't elaborate on, other that to say that alcohol and fighting were involved. After clearing up as many of the conspiracy theory misconceptions as his brain would allow, I made my way to town to stock up on groceries, unsure of how long I was going to remain in Talkeetna.


I began to fall asleep to the sound of rain on my tent that night, until it dawned on me that I hadn't covered my bike. It certainly wasn't the first time it had gotten wet during the trip, but I was usually mindful of protecting it when it wasn't in use. A mixture of laziness and exhaustion delayed me from getting out of the tent until it started coming down even harder. Reluctantly, I slide out of my sleeping bag, threw on my boots, and ran to the front yard to throw the cover over the bike.

When I started up the bike the next morning to ride into town, it hesitated before firing up, and it stalled several times on the dirt road that lead to the main road to town. It had happened before, but never this frequent and pronounced. When I got into town, turning the corner on to the main drag, the bike died again, and this time, no matter what I did, it wouldn't start. In fact, the engine wouldn't even turn over. I pushed it to a parking spot in front of the town's general store. I assumed that it had something to do with the bike getting wet the night before, but, having limited knowledge of the bike's electrical system, I had no way of knowing for sure.

Trying to remember my lessons from this trip about letting go of the things I can't control, I decided to simply let the bike sit there for the rest of the day, in the hopes that whatever had gotten wet would dry out, allowing it to fire up again. I took a walk to the lake, and eventually made my way back to the hostel. Someone new had arrived - a fellow named Martin in his mid thirties, sporting a a thick reddish beard, baseball cap, black-framed glasses and a squat, thick frame that was accentuated by blue and white stripped overalls that fit him snugly. He looked like the actor Zack Garifalakis dressed for a steam train convention, and he spoke with a thick southern accent; polite, soft-spoken and earnest in all that he said. He, like, Manuel, seemed to be trying to start new, but I could get no sense from him as to what he might be running from in his life.

Unsure of when (or if) my bike would start, I realized that I was stuck in Talkeetna indefinitely, so I decided to put the time that I had to good use. I booked a flight with one of the local flight-seeing companies, and the next day (after another failed attempt at starting the bike) I walked to the airport down the road, excited to fly to 12,000 feet for an up-close view of Mt. McKinley. I was fortunate enough to even sit in the co-pilot's chair in the cockpit; one of the advantages of traveling alone, I suppose. The following pictures tell the story better than I can with just words...

I like how the little girl on the sign is practically air-born from being dragged by her mother to safety...
There she is.
My view from the cockpit.

My view from the air...

The top of Mt. McKinley ( aka Denali) - 20,320 feet of pure, cloud-cutting awesomeness.


Lots of glacier viewing...

At times, it felt as though we were going to fly right into the side of the mountain - it looked THAT close!

Checking out more of the glacier.





A rain-swollen river we passed over during the landing.

As exhilarating as the plane ride was, as soon as I touched ground again I was once again faced with the dilemma of how I was going to get my bike back on the road. I walked back into town the next day, preparing for the worst, which is exactly what I found. The bike was still dead, refusing to turn over.


As I started to take the seat off and tinker around with the electrical system, my manual for the bike opened up to a diagram of the electrical system that may as well have been written in Swahili for all the good it was doing me, a man approached me and offered his help. It turned out that he traveled to Alaska every year to be a park ranger in the summer, but actually lived the rest of the year in New Jersey, not even a half hour from where I live. By this time I was getting used to coincidences and chance encounters on this trip, but it still seemed amazing that I would run into someone from so close to home in such a random fashion, several thousand miles away.

Both of us were stumped by the motorcycle's refusal to start, and after an hour or so there were several locals who had joined in the diagnostic mystery. When all avenues were explored unsuccessfully, we resorted to the last option; the old school method of pushing the bike down the street, popping the clutch in second gear and hoping for the best. When that didn't work, as if on cue, a man walked out of the local bar, and one of the men who had helped push the bike called him over. He, in turn, motioned for another local, riding by at that exact moment on his bicycle, to take a look. "He knows how to fix these things", the first man reassured me. And sure enough, just by asking me to start the bike while in neutral without holding in the clutch, the bike fired up instantly. "Neutral safety switch.", he said, "They go bad sometimes." And off he went, hopping back on his bicycle and making his way down the street. I didn't know whether to be more relieved or embarrassed, but I was thankful for the flawless timing of everyone involved nonetheless. I made my way back to the hostel, relieved that I could now continue on my trip.


I was able to rest easier that night, and my last evening at the hostel afforded me the opportunity to talk easily with the other guests, confident that I would be back on the road by the next morning. A young group of Canadians had arrived the night before, and we spent a good deal of time teasing them about their drunken behavior from the night before. Particularly chatty was Martin, who, after some initial reluctance, began telling us about his sorted past. It was twice as shocking considering his mild manner and constant references to his strong belief in God, but after he was finished telling us about his association with motorcycle gangs, drinking, fighting and meth labs, it was no wonder that he had turned to a higher power for guidance. It looked as if he, like so many of the people I was meeting in Alaska, was trying to escape a sorted past and start new. Considering Alaska's reputation for its high rates of alcoholism, though, I wondered whether Martin had chosen the best location to exorcise his demons. We shook hands and said our goodbyes that night, as I was planning on hitting the road early. Manuel was nowhere to be found, and I assumed he had already moved on, looking for his peace somewhere further along.

 The weather the next morning once again held the possibility of rain, and by the time I had packed the bike, a light mist was falling. The bike, despite a premature sinking feeling in my stomach as I turned the key, started right up, and I pushed it through a K turn in the hostel's driveway, pointing it towards the road. I had had yet another unexpected experience while making my way through this land, and what started as curiosity over a music festival (which I ended up never attending), had turned into yet another opportunity to trust that, no matter how bad of a situation I found myself in, circumstances always seemed to right themselves. I had no way of knowing that this belief was going to be pushed to its limit in only a few weeks, and I pulled out onto the road, oblivious to what lay in store for me...

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