The Dalton Highway: Fairbanks to Coldfoot and back

Early the next morning, a warm, sun-kissed day of opportunity commenced.  I treked north of Fairbanks on the Elliott Highway–a trafficless 80 miles of beautiful mountain curves through the black spruce and granite.  Then I saw it.  It read “James W Dalton Highway” in white letters on a field of green.  Scores of motorcycle logo stickers enhanced the signs aesthetics, as riders who have come before me marked their triumph on one of adventure motorcycling’s holy grails.


Stickers, in the AdMo community, serve as a form of social currency.  Community respect correlates directly with the number of destination-denoting stickers displayed on the panniers, top cases, and plastics of one’s motorcycle.  Further, stickers promoting brands or individuals afixed to signs, like this one denoting the Haul Road, serve as trophies communicating the accomplishments of the rider.  They also create a sense of community.  When I start this engine and roll forward, I will become a member of an elite group of adventure motorcyclists.  My mind wandered as I imagined who has come before me and what complexities permeated their lives at the time.  Was this a journey to celebrate life and experience joy? Was this a trek to heal wounds and move past tragedy?  Was this a sojourn that bonded a father and son, a mother and daughter to a new level of love?  I asserted that if adventure motorcyclers were a tangible community located in a particular space (rather than being spread out all over the world), I’d be the chaplain, the minister.  Although, I wonder if I could be more effective than the road itself.

The Dalton Highway, 414 miles of adventure motorcycle heaven, was built parallel to the northern Trans-Alaska Pipeline System as a maintenance access road for the pipeline and a thoroughfare for goods to reach Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay .  This pipeline system, powered by 12 pump stations,  carries crude oil from the North Slope’s Prudhoe Bay oil fields (North America’s richest) south to the Valdez Marine Terminal, the nearest ice-free port.  Large tanker shipping vessels then transport the oil.

My expectations of the Haul Road derived from two places: legendary myths about the hazardous riding conditions and  treacherous road surface propagated throughout the motorcycle community; and the famous show Ice Road Truckers which chronicles passage over the frozen surface at negative temparatures.   I expected vast, flat arctic tundra with horrendous obstacles: mud, potholes, and boulder-sized rocks .  But for the first 60 miles to the Yukon river camp, spruce-lined, snakey mountain curves with suberb road conditions refuted those expectations.  My thermometer read 70 degrees.  The melon sun with its azure backdrop created a dream-like environment.  Every motorcyclist in the world would say that those were perfect conditions.  “This is fucking awesome!” I boisterously confirmed aloud over the sweet hum the opposed cylinders.

After an hour devouring the ideal riding conditions, I approached the Yukon river bridge.  The southside of the bridge, perched high on a cliff face, created a downward sloping grade to the north bank.  As I rolled over the wooden slatted bridge surface, “What a weirdly appealing bridge.  Super unique, I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Just across the river, there was a small grouping of maintenance buildings, a few trailers, and a sign for a restaurant and hotel.  With a brief glance to the left, I failed to spot a gas pump.  I twisted the throttle and upshifted into 4th gear, then 5th.  I stood up on the pegs and flew with the white-tailed ptarmigan.  But then fret and agony crept into my mind.  Did I miss the only gas station before the Coldfoot truck stop?  There may be nothing more effective to ruin a jubilent, spiritual high than worry.  

After 6 miles of overthinking, I glimpsed a sign for the Hot Spot Cafe. I grabbed the front brake and stomped on the back.  The rear wheel locked, skidded on the gravel surface, causing the bike to briefly wobble.  I corrected the imbalance and veered left into a gigantic parking lot, obviously built for trucks.

The Hot Spot Cafe was composed of several kitschy, country chic maroon mobile trailers conglomerated together.  I noticed several motorcycle stickers placed by my comrades on various decorations.  That could only mean two things, I thought.  Either the food or the company is going to be worthwhile, or both.  It was both.  I asked a preoccupied middle-aged woman with tender eyes but a stern face if they sold gas. “A trucker that had just arrived jumped to answer.  Coldfoot’s only 120 miles”  “I can’t make it that far,” I contended.  The tender eyed shop-keep reported “Nah, we used to sell it, but the only petrol before Coldfoot is back 6 miles at the Yukon River.  You passed it.  But why don’t you have a BBQ sandwich and a coke.  We just opened up today.  You’re early for a motorcycle.  Maybe, the first one up.”

While I was anxiously anticipating my meal, I shared conversation with Dick, a truck driver for Alyeska, the coroporation that owns the pipeline. “Are you headed up to Deadhorse?” he inquired.  “I’m thinking about it, but I’m worried about the snow up there on Atigun.”  Patty, the shop-keep, chimed in, “I heard that it’s in the twenties and snowing up there.  You better not risk it.  Especially travelling alone.”  Dick challenged, “I just saw an old guy on a harley ride up through there.  You’ll be fine.”

I devoured my scrumptious pulled-pork masterpiece, bought a Hot Spot sticker to boast my achievement on my top-case luggage carrier, and backtracked to the Yukon River for gas.  I entered the trailer, exhibiting a run-down exterior, but found a warm and inviting restaurant inside.  I paid for 4 gallons of petrol and asked, Vicki, a college student at UA Fairbanks about the conditions on Atigun Pass, Alaska’s highest road at almost 4800 feet through the mighty Brooks Range.  The slender and handsome brunette coed claimed she just got off the phone with her cousin, a park ranger in the Gates of the Artic National Park, who said 6 inches of snow had accumulated on the road surface in the last hour.  With those words, I bid farewell to my dream of tagging the Deadhorse.  At least on this adventure.  Six inches of snow creates perilous, almost impassable operating conditions for a motorcycle.  Let alone, I was traveling solo in one of the most remote and harshest climates in North America.  Riding beyond the artic circle and up to Coldfoot would have to suffice for me.  I wonder if the Harley rider made it through, unscathed.

I trudged out to the above ground petroleum tank to refuel and then remounted the 1200GS.  Next stop: the Artic Circle.  A few miles pass, and I drift into an internal mental debate.  Should I chance the possible treacherous conditions on Atigun Pass? Or should I let go of that dream for now?  I realized that my attention was drifting away from the road.  Focus.  I need to focus on my art.  Focus is the gift that motorcycling gives me.  I must accept it.

Traveling, especially by motorcycle, throws the individual into a meditative, reflective state of being.  One can question presuppositions and alter perspectives of one’s self and one’s world.  When I focus on the road, my life comes into view.

For the next 60 miles, love, resentment, fear, and hopeful anticipation flooded my heart.  A deep agape love for my wife of 9 months intermixed with resentment of the compromises for the relationship I chose to make in leaving an excellent chaplain ministry in Texas.  A 9 month failed struggle to secure a full-time ministry position in Michigan had left me drained of energy, spirit, and self-confidence.  I terrified I may never secure an equally fulfilling position again.  The negative emotions of resentment and fear confusingly amalgamated with the positive emotions of married love and hope in things to come.  I’m thanked the God of who made this vast, magnificent Alaskan landscape, for this healing road I was riding at that moment, was created just for me.

And just as my mind finished that eucharistic prayer, I crossed into the Artic Circle.  I pulled over into the rest area to snap a photo of the Artic Circle sign with the bike in the foreground.  Proof.

I followed the pipeline to Coldfoot, basking in every mile of this super-road’s eminence, around sweeping turns, over glacier-feed rivers.  I could see for miles.  Miles across land.  Miles into my heart.

The Coldfoot truck-stop had character.  The parking area was rutted out.  The exterior of the restaurant and store where delapidated.  The hotel consisted of a series of trailers attached together.  A depressing gunmetal, charcoal hue of the structures dominated Coldfoot’s mood.  Then I entered the restaurant to inquire about camping.  As I walked through the door, I hit a wall of bustling energy.  Truckers at card tables laughed gruffly and gregariously.  Tourists marvelled over the day’s travels.  The servers clanked flatware, plates, and trays.

The teenage cashier granted me permission to set up my tent near a small lake beyond the parking area.  I rode through the mud ruts created by the massive tractor-trailer rigs and began to set up camp near a stone circle fire pit.  I felt a wincing pain on my neck.  Mosquitoes.  The damn things were everywhere.  I applied some 100 percent deet and finished making my temporary home.

I ordered a Silver Gulch at the bar, near a middle age couple with an Aussie accent.  Jack and his wife Katie, hailing from Brisbane, were touring Alaska with an Outdoor Adventure Company that provided opportunities for thrill-seeking clientele to hike glaciers, fish for king salmon and halibut, back country camp in the Brooks Range, and sea kayak in the Prince William Sound.

Jack inquired about my travels.  “Is that your 1200GS I saw? Brilliant! We are huge adventure riders ourselves.  Big fans of MotoGP, too.  Hailing from Brisbane, Australia, Mick Doohan is our home town hero.”  Mick Doohan, from near Brisbane, won 5 500cc MotoGP championships and is considered one of the greatest ever to race.

“I pull for The Kentucky Kid,” I offered.  “We love Nicky Hayden, too,” Jack agreed. “Believe it or not, we love to see him beat the other guys on the Ducati.  Or at least finish in front of Casey Stoner. Even though Stoner’s an Aussie, we’ve never liked him much.”

Jack, energetically invited me to travel to Cape York, the upper Northeastern peninsula,  for Australia’s quintessential Adventure motorcycle ride.  After 2 hours of lively two-wheel themed dialogue, we exchanged contact information and I closed out my tab at the bar.  How coincidental or maybe providential that I sat down right next to two adventure motorcycle enthusiasts at the most remote truck stop in the USA.  A shared interest or passion can connect people instantly, even though thousands of miles separated our lives.  How can we cultivate that truth in the spiritual and religious world?

A common method, championed by the Interfaith Youth Core out of Chicago and other groups, consists of focusing on service to the community, justice work, and advocacy, rather than different theologies or beliefs.  Through service alongside other’s who hail from different religions and philosophies, a bond forms which breaks down barriers that divide and builds bridges.  Once these obstacles of xenophobia and prejudice fall, true connection, true conversation commences.  And diversity becomes not a point of contention, but of celebration and beauty.  Through deep conversation, conversion happens, and both parties are changed.  Notice the words conversation and conversion contain the same root.  It is this phenomenon that I am exploring on my interfaith pilgrimage.  How am I converted by deep conversations with others?  How am I converted by my intimate conversation with adventure itself and all that accompanies it? And hence, how are others converted and how are the communities converted? I have a hunch, that understanding conversion in a multifaith context, individually and communally, may be the key to answering religion and spirituality’s most pressing question of the 21st century.  But maybe it’s a question that cannot be answered, merely experienced, lived.

A few months prior, I tried to answer this question, reflecting on my ministry experiences.  This article was originally published in PLGRM magazine.

In 2009, I began a two-year stint as Associate Chaplain at Texas Christian University. Little did I know when I began, most of my spiritual care-giving experiences would be with non-Christian students, many of them Muslim.

So there I was, a Presbyterian minister, providing spiritual care to Muslim students.  I listened to their hardships and struggles, empathized with them in crisis, and celebrated with them in success.  I accompanied them on their spiritual journey, careful of the differences between our contexts, cultures, and religions.  Several times, my spiritual identity and Christian faith were challenged and strengthened by these interfaith encounters.  In observing the dedicated prayer life of many of my Muslim students, I reexamined my own Christian prayer life.  In fasting with them during Ramadan, I deepened my own self-awareness.  Hopefully, my students experienced our time together in such a relevant and consequential way.

I call this phenomenon interfaith spiritual care–spiritual care across religious boundaries.  While interfaith spiritual care should not replace spiritual care given by a leader in one’s own religious/spiritual community, I have found it can: transform and develop the spiritual identity of both parties, break down the walls of prejudice and bigotry, and build diverse communities that work for social justice together.

I liken religious expression to speaking a language.  Christianity is the most foundational story of my religious existence.  Analogically, it is my native tongue.  But, in our increasingly multi-faith environment, it is compulsory that we learn a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth language, and so on.

Islam has become my second language.  And while I will never be able to understand the meaning and nuances of Islam, like I understand Christianity, I can make strides by deeply engaging with my Muslim sisters and brothers.  Through conversations, ministry experiences, and shared social justice action, I can learn to speak Islam more fluently.  And result of these authentic interfaith encounters, both parties are changed.  I incorporate a little bit more of the Muslim story into my story.  My story becomes fuller and more complex.

Some people may claim that learning about Islam and relating to Muslim individuals will contradict their Christian faith and detract from their religious identity.  But it’s not true.  Through interfaith encounters, I more fully speak the language of Christianity, and improve fluency in my second language of Islam.  One’s religious story is not a zero sum game.

To the critics of interfaith work who cite contradiction, I often have the urge to respond with the words Walt Whitman, the nineteenth century American poet, wrote in his masterpiece Leaves of Grass, ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’  The sentiment Whitman communicates here has helped me immensely in coming to peace with balancing the complexities of an interfaith life and speaking many different religious languages.

So in an effort to increase my second language fluency, I decided to read the entire Qur’an in 29 days, from the first Sunday in Advent through Christmas day. I called it Advent With Islam.  I read four Surah (similar to chapters) per day and blogged about my experiences.  Further, my Muslim friends and I enjoyed frequent conversations about the history, context, and interpretation of the Qur’an.  New to the area, I also visited the local mosques in Coldwater, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio.

Prior to this project, I was aware of only one Muslim family in my rural area south-central Michigan.  Now, I am connected with a local mosque that has over 500 Muslim members, mostly from Yemen.

Several of my former Muslim students from TCU stayed in frequent contact with me during my project.  They sent me articles on the interpretation of the Qur’an, provided historical and literary context, and answered my many questions.  But then an interesting phenomenon occurred:  three of these Muslim students decided to read the Qur’an along with me.  One student confided, ‘I’ve never actually read the text in entirety.  Thanks for the inspiration to finally sit down and read it.’

I could not believe what was happening.  I, a Christian, was inspiring Muslims to read the Qur’an.  What a profound and humbling experience.  And this is just a glimpse into the transformative power that interfaith relationship-building has on our spiritual lives and our communities.

Maira, one of the students who decided to read the Qu’ran with me, had been very active in the Muslim Student Association and the Interfaith Community at TCU.   She was an outstanding student, a political science major. She wore her hijab proudly on campus. I saw her as faithful and courageous.

Maira and I had developed a close spiritual care relationship.  In the past, she shared with me her struggles concerning her future vocation.  But while we were reading the Qur’an and dialoguing about it, she began sharing about her faith and her doubts, about her family and her relationships.

Maira shared with me something very sacred. “Jake, I’m starting to have doubts about my faith.  I’ve never felt like this before.  You see, I’m dating a Christian.  He’s asking me questions and pointing out contradictions in the Qur’an.  And my family would not approve of me dating a non-Muslim.  And they would not understand my doubts about Islam.  I have no one to talk to about this.  Would you talk with me about it?”

And so we talked for hours about her life, about faith, about relationships.  I listened and empathized with her struggles.  I offered insight from my experiences.  I was blessed she trusted me with this very private part of her life.

Reflecting on this profound experience, I am struck by the fact that she felt safer telling me, a minister from a different tradition, about her struggles with Islam than she felt telling someone from her own religion.

I wonder if we can use my relationship to Maira as a window into the massive impact interfaith relationship-building can make in our lives, in our religious groups, and in our communities.  How many people, like Maira, don’t feel safe sharing important issues with their own Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or even Atheist family?  How many people’s spiritual lives, like Maira’s and my own, could experience healing, growth, and transformation if only we could spread and promote interfaith relationship-building?

As a church, we must have the courage to cross the boundaries of our religious comfort zones, to interact with those who are very different from us.  We must have the courage to face the complexities of interfaith encounters and their impact upon our own religious identity.  We must be willing to sacrifice an easy definition of what we believe as Christians, for a more complex, relationship-based faith that lives out radical love and works tirelessly for social justice. This diverse, 21st century religious landscape demands it of us. The countless others, like Maira, out there demand it of us.  And as a church, this may be our most vital mission.  But we can handle it.  Remember, ‘(We) are large, (we) contain multitudes.’

I waded through the parking area which resembled more of a 4×4 mud bogger’s paradise, and began my evening ritual.  My belly full of ale and the truck stop’s only option for dinner, a surprisingly tasty 40 dollar buffet, I wrapped up in a -20 degree down sleeping bag I had borrowed from Molly’s boyfriend, Josh. It was 10pm and still light.  It took hours to drift into slumber, my mind pre-occupied with the concerns of travel.  Should I attempt a ride to Deadhorse in this weather?  What if I never get an opportunity to do this again?  I hope I am safe here in this tent.  It will be good to get back to Ester and spend time with Molly, Josh, and their crew.  I hope it’s good weather tomorrow.  It was nice to meet Jack and Katie today, but I sure am lonely.  

Damp from dew and joints stiff from the frigid arctic ground, I awoke early to another chance to choose to live.  I breathed the cold life into my lungs and shivered.  For a moment, I yearned for Pure Michigan, to be fishing Lake George on the dock Poppy built with a Two-Hearted Ale in my hand and my dearest Emily monitoring my angling prowess from the boathouse deck.  Late nights and early mornings, for me, have always been surreal, unfamiliar, even a little scary.  Coldfoot tent-camping magnified this.  I mustered the energy to cut through that sentimentality.  With gusto, I opened the tent flap, stood upright, raising my arms and eyes to the horizon that promised adventure.

During my return trip, retracing my route back to Fairbanks, my attention wandered to another pilgrimage.

When I was in seminary in 2006, I had the privilege to tag along with my brother’s undergraduate study abroad class to Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. The class was called Sacred Byzantium. We studied Byzantine Christianity, but also the other world religions of the region like Egyptian and Greco-Roman traditions, as well as Islam. Our last destination was St. Catherine Monastery.  St. Catherine’s has its origins in the 3rd or 4th century as a Greek Orthodox monastic community. It is built on the site of the burning bush through which YHWH appeared to Moses, and the bush is living to this day inside the monastery walls.  Visitors, pilgrims have created a custom to place written prayers among the vines of this rather sizeable bush growing in the midst of an absolutely barren landscape. And not only is the burning bush there, but the monastery sits at the base of the famous Mt. Sinai where Moses received the tablets upon which the ten commandments were written (he received them twice if you remember the story, the first set were shattered in the golden calf fiasco).

But for me, the most amazing aspect of the monastery at Moses Mountain is its multifaith history. The monastery contains one of the world’s most important and extensive religious libraries. Ancient manuscripts abound, some of which are the oldest translations of Christian sacred scriptures. As the resident librarian monk, who hailed from El Paso, energetically told stories relating to the manuscripts, one story really caught my attention. The library had an original letter written by the Prophet Mohammad, PBUH. During the rise of the Prophet, and his followers in the Arab world, as the area including Egypt became Islamic, Mohammad, PBUH, had written a letter to give to the Christian monks of St. Catherine. The letter was a peace offering to the monks, outlining Mohammad’s, PBUH, respect for their tradition, assertion of their value as friends of Islam, and the letter finally charged the Bedouin Muslims that lived around the monastery to protect the monastery from intruders, and to live in harmony with them as people of different faith in one community. That began what is now a 1500 year old interfaith community of cooperation. The bedouins still live in harmony with the monks, sharing resources, meals, and a small business in the area offers a camel caravan for pilgrims to ride up to the summit of Moses Mountain.

My brother, myself, and our friend Joe Aziz decided to pass on the camels and ascend the mountain by foot. They have preserved the Path of Moses, which is also called the path of repentance, which ascends 3700 steps to an elevation of 7500. We decided to try that pilgrim path, the same path of many monks and pilgrims who followed in the footsteps of Moses. But the most striking part of the journey was at the summit, where I found 3 religious sites, commemorating YHWH’s conversation with Moses. There was a Jewish, Christian, and Muslim site. All three faiths sharing the story, the wonder, the mystery of this great event. I remember sitting at the top, not thinking of my Christian identity, per se, but how I felt so connected to both Judaism and Islam. I wondered how our how our relationships with each other can be sometimes so strained and divisive, when we have a tradition of being a community of cooperation, love, and respect, in places like Sinai, a most holy and miraculous place, for hundreds of years.

I leaned the bike over, my body remaining perfectly upright. I slipped the clutch until the rear tire made traction with the gravely stone dappled path of my current pilgrimage, the silvery slate cylinder glimmered and sun-blinded my eye momentarily as the pipelined snaked to line the pockets of Big Oil.

Deep emotions arose, catching my heart off guard.  While I still had several days remaining on my motorcycle excursion, returning from Coldfoot I realized that this was the beginning of the end.  I achieved my dream of riding a motorcycle from the lower 48 North into the Alaskan Arctic.  Now, I was heading back to where I had already been.  Somehow I knew that something deep inside me had changed dramatically on this pilgrimage from Portland to Coldfoot.  But what was it?  How was I different?

I tear ran down my cheek.  “At this moment, I am at peace,” I told myself.  I had proven to myself that I could do this.  I had proven that I was good at something, that I could do something great, even extraordinary.

For years, a constant, nagging voice in my head demanding achievement had driven my life.  This voice had stolen my peace and my joy, as it perpetually asked for more.  I could never relax.  Whenever I did achieve something special, it was never enough to satiate my inner search for significance, for excellenece.  Due to this voice,  I constantly yearned to be special, significant, even legendary.  I had to matter.

As my fleeting moment of peace subsided, I began to feel uneasy and anxious.  The bike started to feel wobbly.  The throttle jumpy and erratic.  Instantly, I worried about another flat tire.  Several times I stood up on the pegs and peered over the front and back sides of the bike to check air pressure.  There was nothing wrong or amiss on the bike.  It was running perfectly.

Then why was I feeling anxious, even scared?  At that moment, I realized there was something, some feeling or emotion or spiritual truth, deep in my subconscious, that I was uncovering.  What was it?

Was I scared of failure, of failing to achieve something meaningful in life?  Was I scared of being just a normal person, someone that wasn’t special?  Was this incessant voice that demanded achievement the voice of my critical father, misapprpriated and project upon my self?  Was this all about seeking his approval?  Or maybe I felt I was underachieving in my life and knew deep down that I had so much more potential.

Why was I scared of these things, now?  I thought I was content with myself and my life.

Immediately, then, I flashed back to my first sojourn to Alaska in 2008 with my brother and my parents.  At this point of the trip, it was just me and my brother, my parents were flying out to meet us later.  We were hiking to Jenny Lake, a beautiful glacial body of water at the base of the craggy, ominous Teton mountain range in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  I wanted to show my brother a special, even spiritual place.  A 15 foot tall, monstrous granite boulder sat near the bank of the crystal azure waters.  Five years earlier in 2003, I had climbed that boulder and mourned the loss of my grandpa, Howard Dawson, during a summer philosophy course through Hope College called Self, Nature, and God.

I waded out into the water, scrambled up the steep face of the boulder, and plunged into the frigid lake.  “Woohoo, it’s cold!  Kyle it’s your turn!”  He followed suit, screaming louder than me on his return swim to shore.  He dried off, barely avoiding a touch of hypothermia.  We lounged on the rock and basked in the grandeur of the landscape.

“Jake, what I don’t understand is that you are so adventurous when it comes to nature, the outdoors, and sports, but you are so timid when it comes to interacting with people.”  That observation cut right to the core of my being, in the way only massive, life-changing truth can.  Especially since it named a monumental growing edge in my character.

As I drew closer to Molly’s house in Ester, I wondered if my fear of how others percieved me or whatever it was that Kyle named at Jenny Lake had truly controlled the arc of my life.  Was that what drew me to adventure motorcycling, was that why I am on this pilgrimage?

I pulled into the Gold Hill convenient store and stocked up on Sockeye Red IPA by Midnight Sun Brewing.  It was only 3pm.  Molly and Josh wouldn’t be back for several hours.  Back at their house, I dismounted the BMW, cracked open a tasty libation, reclined on a hardwood chaise lounge on their deck, and contemplated all that had transpired on the adventure.

Too cold to go all the way up to Deadhorse, but I had an amazing ride to Coldfoot. 



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