Denali Highway and Fairbanks

Chet, rotund, warn, with warm eyes, nonchalantly fixed my breakfast as he drank coffee and reclined with his family.  I paid cash, they didn’t take plastic, and I headed for the door.  “You’re lucky”, Chet yelled over the sizzle of bacon grease.  “The Denali just opened this morning.  You’ll be the first motorcycle on it for the season, maybe the first anything, well except for snow machines of course.”

That was a weird place, I said under my breath as I walked to my trusty stead.  The people were adequately hospitable, but a strange aura permeated that lodge which contrived an eneasiness I couldn’t explain.  Maybe, my prejudice and xenophobia projected the anxiety onto this group of quirky, clannish rural Alaskans.  Would it have been different if I were traveling with a companion? Was the fear of aloneness and the unknown cutting me off from deeply connecting with others? Did I see them as exotic, which was on the top of the list of Do Nots for the traveler. I have to keep that in check, I vowed.

The Denali Highway. 135 miles of adventure motorcycling bliss. The second highest road in Alaska, peaking out at over 4,000 ft at Maclaren Summit, 2500 ft above the tree line.  I stood up on the pegs, rolled back on the throttle, and lifted the front end for a wheelie.  My way of saying yes to adventure.

I passed a sign that read Denali Highway closed for the season.  I hoped Chet was right.  The first 20 miles boasted winding tarmac, and then dirt, over 100 miles of gravel, mud, and rocks.  Life was still frozen on this road.  The dramatic vistas still slumbered under a deep blanket of ice and snow.  Four foot snowbanks, cut at clean right angles perpendicular to the surface, enveloped the route.  Due to the thawing temperatures, quagmires and mini rivers and snow-mixed-mud dotted the highway, increasing the danger but also the fun.  I cut through the Amphitheatre Mountains like I was Marc Coma in the Dakar. I stopped at Maclaren Summit, admired the icy tundra, and hopeful anticipation caused me to mistake Mt. Hayes for Denali.  Mt Hayes is still over 13000 ft, impressive especially with a base to peak rise of 11 thousand feet, but it’s no 20,000 rising 18000 above a 2000 ft base.

The immensely wide valleys in Alaska are snaked by a multitude of twisting, turning glacier blue rivers.  The craggy pinnacles lift up ice fields and dreams skyward.  I felt insignificant, almost meaningless in contrast, but concurrently that this landscape was made specifically for me.

The muddy surface hardened up and smoothed out, I got into a rhythm, into a meditation.  I was the artist, my lines chosen on the highway my art, and I entered that divine flow time once again.

I embarked upon this adventure at a time of monumental transition.  Only months earlier, I just married my wife, left my job, and moved half-way across the county.  Sure, the impetus for the trip was learning and awareness building in the mutlitfaith pilgrimage arena, but there was an underlying deeply spiritual and emotional motivation, I realized.  This pilgrimage was a ritual to mark this immense rite of passage, to process the emotions, to deepen my spiritual awareness, to cope with the transitions.  I yearned to come out on the other side more human, more mature, and more skilled in my relationships.

I had compromised a meaningful and fulfilling chaplain position at TCU, my friends and colleagues and my home in Texas, and my single life full of bachelor dreams, for love and partnership and intimacy.  Even though I made the decision for love with can never be wrong, I still experienced resentment, bewilderment, and grief.  A spiritual quest, since the days of my youth, provided me with the time and space to take the leap of faith, becoming a little more than I was, before landing on the other side.  Like when Jacob became Israel after wrestling with the Angel, I too, endured the pain of becoming who I am supposed to be.  And even though I may walk with a limp, with scars of struggling with God, I am more complete.

The higher altitude tundra of the Amphitheatre Mountains gave way to greener, snowless black spruce.  The road surface a flawless, hard-packed dirt.  I increased my speed to 65, stood up on the pegs, and felt the sensation of flying.  After crossing the Susitna River, I ducked as a 2 person supercub buzzed overhead at tree height.  The airplane landed just up the road at the Clearwater Airport, which merely consisted of a bearded man and a pickup awaiting his pilot friend’s arrival.

After 3.5 hour sojourn as the first motorbike of the season, I arrived at the Cantwell Tsesyu filling station on the Parks Highway.  Clouds crowded the sky and threatened my opportunity to see The High One.  Four years earlier, my family took a dreary bus tour to Wonder Lake.  The weather so poor, my dad read the entire text of Into The Wild.  They say only one third of visitors to Denali actually see the mountain, which is so massive it creates it’s own weather pattern. I still hadn’t seen it yet.

I rode north on Parks Highway, basking in the energetic boost of joyful anticipation.  While on the road, I perpetually turned my head like a nervious twitch up and to the left, knowing the mountain should be there.  It wasn’t .  I rode on past the natonal park gates.  The High One would have to wait, on to Ester, outside of Fairbanks, to see Molly Rettig and her boyfriend Josh Kunz.

Just beyond the Stampede Road, where Chris McCandless began his final and tragic journey of self-actualization, a dark storm front ominously and swiftly rolled in.  Alaska weather is classically unpredictable, changing dramatically from still to threatening.  Rain began to pour down.  The massive drops rapping loudly upon my helmet visor.  Then, blinding sleet.  The frozen rain began to build up so thickly on my face shield, I pulled over to the side.  Visibility was almost zero.  Then, I summoned the courage and trudged on through the dangerous conditions.   Every couple seconds, I wiped my face shield and monitored the air temparature gauge on the cockpit display that was hovering around 33.  I vowed to stop indefinitely if it touched 32.  I hit play on my GoPro helmet to capture the evidence.

After 20 minutes of enduring the monsoon-like sleet weather event, the sun revealed it’s warming rays.  I crossed the Tanana River at Nenana and journeyed the last 50 miles to meet Molly at the Cold Climate Housing Research Center near the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  I felt the irony as I rode my petrol guzzling two-cyclinder machine past the neverending wall of solar panels to the headquarters of an energy coservation non-profit.  Molly snapped a photo of me riding in the foreground with the solar panels in the background.  

I consider myself a person who attempts to live a green life.  I recycle even if that means hauling my own items to the drop off location, take my own grocery bags, try to buy local, walk when possible, conserve water, and use energy efficient appliances.  I try to reduce my carbon footprint.  Afterall, I am a product of the 80s and Captain Planet.  “With your powers combined, I am Captain Planet!”

But what does it mean to the environment, to my spirituality identity, that my choice mode of spiritual expression means burning fossill fuels at 40 miles per gallon? In the eyes of my friend Molly and people like her was I selfishly destroying the environment? Energy conservation, global climate change, and pollution are deeply spiritual issues that our present religious institutions have failed to address in a meaningful way. Maybe, I am part of the problem.

I greeted Molly and she showed me around the grounds. Since Fairbanks regularly dips down to negative 40 degrees for long stretches in the winter, CCHRC was experimenting with many new techniques in their  cold climate energy conservation building projects: foam insulation, geopolymer cements, ground source heat pumps, and solar thermal.

Moly then climbed into her Subaru and I followed to her home in Ester, west of town.  We turned right off of Parks Highway and proceeded to snake left and right up a 15 percent grade dirt lane.  This might be better riding than the Denali.  We pulled into the drive of their semi-remote, homesteader-esque residence.  “They have to truck in our water,” Molly noted, “They store it in a 500 gallon tank underneath the house.  We are lucky though. Many people around here don’t have water.”  With low temparatures during the winter commonly reaching negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit, Fairbanks residence requires a special mix of hearty courage and craziness. I unloaded my gear, met Molly’s boyfriend Josh, and then we went for beers and dinner at Silver Gulch in Fox.

Molly played on the women’s soccer team at the University of Richmond and became good friends with my class on the men’s soccer team.  Though we were close friends in college, we failed to interact very frequently over the last decade.  Josh, a native Alaskan, who worked for an electric company was also an avid soccer player.  All three of us enjoyed beer.

Traveling alone on the road for several days, I desperately needed conversation and company.  We found  seats at the bar and ordered up three Copper Creek Ambers at North America’s northernmost brewery.  The restaurant, complete with mountain lodge ambiance, buzzed with conversation and energy, filled to almost standing room only capacity.  My neighbor, drinking solo, struck up conversation and proceeded to distract me from interacting with my hosts Molly and Josh.  He rode motorcycles, too. His KLR 650 was parked outside.  He was a proper Fairbanksian.  He resided in a remote dry cabin on 10 acres located outside town.  I hoped he would slow down on the guzzling, I thought, he’s a little boisterous and tipsy.  After about 10 minues of trading stories, he loudly proclaimed, “Jake, you were born to be an Alaskan.  I can just tell.  There’s that something about you.  You have to move up here.”  I glanced over at Josh and Molly and back at my new friend Rick.  “I agree, I should move up here.  I’ve thought about that for a while.  I almost did a few years ago right after my first visit.”

Back at the Ester abode, I plotted my sojourn up the Dalton Highway, sometimes called the Haul Road.



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