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My Nomadic Experiment II: The Lower Forty-Eight – The Inland Passage – The Arctic Circle

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes” – Marcel Proust

WITH A FESTIVAL of thoughts swirling in my head, I rode away from Virginia Beach, a place I had called home for most of my life. After so much planning and preparation I had to remind myself that the time had come and I was on the road. Like throwing the lines from a sailboat and pushing from the dock for open ocean I welcome the unknown that awaited.

The night before I said my goodbyes to what little family I had with plans to visit relatives and past relationships during my travels. Time with people was a vital element to my separation from the life I had led. And I knew that visits would be cathartic and a bit of closure, to use a word I detest. The life I was choosing was not the norm. I was destroying the paradigm of a structured life and now free beyond anything I had ever known. For most, retirement meant relaxation and a time of ease. I was choosing to be nomadic and explore North America on a motorcycle with what few possessions I could carry. I was anxious to share this with others, not for validation but with the pride of my decision to ride away from the familiar and live a nomadic life—My Nomadic Experiment.  

My trusty steed that I named Brother was pointed to the opposite coast. My plan was to meander, roam, explore with my only obligation three-months out: a ferry reservation in Bellingham, Washington for a three-day ride up the Inland Passage to Haines, Alaska. Still winter, spring was peeking in the door with pleasant weather. In north Georgia I rode through the last of winter with gray clouds and spitting snow. It meant nothing to me, in fact, such weather was fabric to my experience and I knew I would encounter a full range of seasonal possibilities.

In Texas, I spent time visiting a cousin I had never met and then the town where mother was raised. I was revisiting all that I had known; the history of my time on Earth and the ghost of my past. Exploring more of Texas, I was lucky to be in the Hill Country during wild flower season with the Blue Bonnets abundant in every direction. The German food was delicious, there from a heritage of those who settled the area. Continuing south for Big Bend, I rode through the country’s largest National Park. I stopped for several nights in the curious town of Terlingua. Visit this border town but don’t ask anyone’s name—chances are they’re on the lam.

Heading north, I reached New Mexico and spent time in Santa Fe and Taos to satisfying a promise to spend more time in the unique and beautiful landscape north of Albuquerque once I retired—my new life was all about making wishes come true. Some say I’m lucky—Luck? — this didn’t fall in my lap. My efforts were satisfying my intentions with luck having little to do with it.

From the beginning, as I created routes through the Lower Forty-Eight, much of my focus was on the Four Corner States; New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah—in particular Utah. The state deserved more time as it always set my mind in a whirl of questions of how time created what I was seeing.

I meandered through Colorado then south through Arizona to Flagstaff and west to Kingman. Approaching Las Vegas, I had plans to visit but oddly, my body took over to never allow my arms to take an off-ramp. The moment was a cathartic message telling me that through my Nomadic Experiment I should always trust my gut. The city was a curiosity but my psyche thought otherwise. So, Brother blazed through to reach open desert.

Entering Death Valley, I parked at Furnace Creek nineteen miles north was Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the western hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. The thermometer on Brother read 113. I considered it odd and amazing that eighty-miles to the west stood Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower Forty-Eight at 14,494 feet. Travel was giving me a clear picture of America and it chilled me with excitement when such realizations occurred. 

Leaving Death Valley, I climbed to over 10,000 feet. From a precipice, before dropping down to enter California, I was awestruck at the distant view of the Sierra Mountain range. The expansive vista and the steep downhill ranked with anything I experienced during my time on the road.

I spent time on the west side of the Sierras. It was like nothing else in the Golden State—remote, isolated, and mostly undeveloped. The town of Independence was where Charles Manson was arrested and held for trail. Knowing that accentuated the spooky atmosphere.  

Pointing Brother to the Pacific, I was excited to complete my first cross-country motorcycle ride. Staring at the map, I made Morro Bay my choice for the epic moment. Reaching the coast, I parked at the beach and hailed someone over to document my achievement with a photo—me, Brother, and the Pacific. Achievement—I was gathering achievements. And I had a growing love for the great U S of A with the diversity, landscape, and culture.

Along the road I encountered many people. I enjoyed getting their angle on life and I became a listener. Because of that, I came away with fascinating stories, opinions, and personal takes. From loving life, praising the lord, and claims the country was going down the toilet, I heard it all. Some stories were chilling, involving the personal loss of sons and daughters who sacrificed their lives on foreign soil for our freedom. America the beautiful—my patriotism was enflamed.

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, I headed for the PCH: Pacific Coast Highway. Along the road I was spreading the ashes of an old friend by the request of his wife. The man had once been an older brother figure and an inspiration. I was certain that his influence was a spark to inspire me to live this adventurous life I had created. Now, I was living off a motorcycle with a portion of his cremated remains in a pannier. The idea was surreal with a heavy message—Live it NOW, Man! I spread his ashes at the PCH and before that Big Bend, and then at the Four Corners Monument where I rubbed his ashes into the grooves of a stainless-steel cross symbolizing the borders connected.

In Oregon, I made a visit to my uncle who had become one of my best friends following years of bicycling trips together. During my visit, I found he was both curious and skeptical with my new life. Like my mother, he was disturbed about the divestment of my belongings to live as a minimalist. He struggled to comprehend how anyone could rid themselves of everything in what he perceived as a random and flippant manner. Trying to explain the cleansing philosophy behind my decisions I did not convey. To travel and not be tethered to belongings gave me peace and freedom and there was no material item more important than the experiences I would gather. I had reinvented myself.

I spent time in Astoria, Oregon enjoying the Great Columbia River as it emptied into the Pacific Ocean. The Astoria-Megler Bridge crossing the big river from Oregon to Washington was an engineering and structural marvel and captivated my attention. It was becoming obvious that there were no rules to my nomadic life and relaxed to appreciate those things that grabbed my attention and chose to immerse myself with what fascinated me with a childlike innocence.

Near the top of Washington, I made a visit to a friend of my sisters who was a writer and a mystic while living a reclusive and eccentric life. She spent much of her time translating her own version in Sanskrit of the ancient Hindu scriptures of the Bhagavad Gita. Before my arrival she had my sister forward my date and place of birth so she could perform an astrological reading. Her reading was accurate, as she detailed how my nomadic life was and how I should be living my life. Innately trusting her, the reading relaxed me to surrender and trust my nomadic spirit.  

Further north, I reached Bellingham for my ferry ride to Haines, Alaska. For $1,200, I got a cabin and Brother got a spot in the well deck. I was anxious for some relaxing time off the road. It was good time spent while watching the landscape change, meeting fellow travelers, and mesmerized by brilliant sunsets. In particular, I was inspired by captivating conversations with those traveling by motorcycle to cross the Arctic Circle. At the time, crossing the Arctic Circle was not a certainty for me. But speaking with others about the infamous Dalton Highway my mind speculated, knowing that if I didn’t take on the dangerous road there would be regret in my old age. Travel—it’s as if every day you are anointed with gifts and inspiration. Throw yourself to the Universe and it will deliver.

From Haines, I ferried to Skagway and rode the Klondike Highway north to Whitehorse, a city I knew nothing about. There is no feeling like being somewhere far from your familiar comfort zone—it’s what the nomadic spirit craves.

Still in the Yukon, I was on my way to Dawson City and encountered numerous Adventure riders like myself. I kept answering the same question—”Heading to Dawson?” I was not aware that there was a motorcycle rally in progress called “Dust to Dawson” and all about Adventure riders and dirt bikers. Again, the Universe provides.

I was awestruck by Dawson City and the grand and sophisticated architecture from the turn of the twentieth century. Once considered the Paris of the North, it had been a destination for people all over the world. Because of the rally there was not a hotel room to be found. Even the campground was packed with no space to pitch a tent. Informed about a campground across the Yukon River I caught the ferry for the two-hundred-yard crossing. Riding with me were two brothers who when hearing about my woeful predicament, graciously offered a spot at their campsite. It was the beginning of a long friendship.

For the two-days that followed we enjoyed the events of the rally which included off-road poker runs—somewhat of a race to reach designated points then finish first. One of the brothers took me under his wing knowing I was heading to ride the Dalton with little off-road experience. “This is an opportunity, Morgan,” he told me—and I knew he was right. So, I joined every event, eating dust from other bikers while riding in the back. But I got my chops with memories I’ll carry to my grave.

Leaving Dawson City, I reentered Alaska riding the appropriately named Top of the World Highway; an unpaved seventy-mile road with views to distant horizons over tree tops in valleys below. It terminates at the tiny outpost of Chicken. Miles before arriving, the skies were building a summer storm. Into the parking lot of the small complex of rustic businesses that made up the said town, big drops began to fall with heavy thunder and lightning strikes. During lunch the storm passed so we were back on the road for the seventy miles remaining to reach the town of Tok. There, I rented an RV for the night and the following morning went to the office to extend, wanting to organize my approach of Alaska. Walking to the office, I was shocked at the thick smoke, causing watery eyes and a gagging sensation. The desk clerk told me, “Lightning strikes set off eighty fires all too deep in the woods to put out. They’ll just let’m burn.”

Leaving Tok, with the Alaskan Range to my left, the smoke was too thick to see anything but hazy silhouettes of the high mountains. I was heading to Valdez on the Richardson Highway south, a road that would be my friend throughout my Alaskan tour. An older motorcyclist on the ferry told me that riding the Richardson into Valdez would be something I would never forget. He was right, and I was in open-mouthed awe once engulfed in high conifer covered mountains to both sides of the road. It was difficult to keep Brother on the tarmac while staring up to the sky at waterfalls at high altitudes.

Four nights in Valdez was a dream with breathtaking views in every direction. Each evening at a nearby pier stood a man who would feed bald eagles. Standing with a bucket of fish he would toss them in the air with twenty or more of the stately birds jockeying for position to get their share. Spotting one bald eagle was luck—this was amazing. 

Catching the ferry from Valdez, I crossed the impressively scenic Prince Edward Sound with views of the Columbia Glacier. Disembarking at the town of Whittier, I rode towards Anchorage and, in the tiny town of Indian, found a saloon that rented rooms across from the Turn Again Arm. The Brown Bear became my basecamp for my exploration of the Kenai Peninsula.  

Leaving, I rode to Homer and camped on the spit enjoying time to write, eat fresh Halibut, and enjoy nightly beers in the world-renowned Salty Dawg Saloon. As I stated in one of my books, “Let it say what it says about me—I do enjoy a good saloon.”

I headed for Fairbanks and, on the way, spent time in Palmer visiting one of the brothers from the Dust to Dawson bike rally. My Nomadic Experiment was schooling me on the extreme variations that some lived their lives. The unique and authentic man lived in a cabin on fourteen acres with a pond. He won the property in a raffle when Alaska was creating methods to increase the population. An educated psychologist, he gave up his home and profession in Seattle and moved to build a new life. Now he earned a living with a window washing business and spent most nights playing guitar and singing at open mics. He put me up in an RV parked close to his makeshift cabin and we enjoyed great conversation while viewing the ecology around the pond and waited for Alaska’s brief period of darkness.

From Palmer, I was heading for the Dalton Highway. Leaving, my friend gave me encouragement—”You’ve got what it takes for the ride, Man! Go for it!” Heading north, I spent several days in the town of Talkeetna located at the confluence of the Susitna, Chulitna, and Talkeetna Rivers. Watching those waters merge from my sandy beach campsite was meditative and magical. The town was the best vantage point to view Denali at 20,194 feet, the highest peak in North America. But thick clouds continued to form from summer heat meeting the ice-covered peak to prevent me from ever having a momentary glance.

I spent one night exploring the dank and somewhat depressing city of Fairbanks and wondered why anyone would want to live there. Exploring distant areas of Alaska, I rode deep into the wilderness to reach the town of Central. After a meatloaf dinner, I made the unpaved ride deeper in the wilderness to the town of Circle on the Yukon River. It was another gold mining town once as populated and high society as Dawson City.

Leaving Central, I passed through the town of Fox where I saw the Howling Dog Saloon—I repeat, I do love a good saloon. The owner greeted me as I walked in telling about the blues band playing that night, his cabins in the back, and his bikers discount. Man! —It was a no brainer, loving everything he offered. After two nights I gave up my cabin, crammed as much gas in Brother as possible and headed for the Dalton. At the gas pump I met a fellow Adventure rider from Texas on his fully loaded KTM and, like me, he was heading for the Arctic Circle. “Want a partner?” he asked. “Hell yea!” I said and together we hit the Richardson Highway for the seventy-mile ride to reach the Dalton.

After an hour, we looked ahead to see river rock and pea gravel flowing from the unpaved Dalton at the termination of the Richardson. With an apprehensive knot in my stomach I made the turn. What I experienced was gravel about six to twelve inches deep, and wet. Deep wet gravel was like swimming in syrup.

Hills were steep and encounters with eighteen wheelers were dangerous with a plume of dust and gravel twice the height of their boxcar. I heard stories about rocks flying off of those massive tires to break bones and damage motorcycles. Seeing an approaching truck, I would move to the edge of the road, pull the shield down on my helmet, lean down behind the windshield, and hope for the best. I was one of the lucky ones and came away unscathed.

Reaching a bridge crossing the Yukon I saw a restaurant with a gas pump and went inside to relax and enjoyed their fish tacos for lunch. Then I topped off Brother’s tank abiding to my rule in Alaska— see gas, get gas, not knowing when you’d see it again.

After sixty-miles I reached the turn off for an attractive sign that designated the said location of the Arctic Circle. Having researched the highest northern circle of latitude I knew the exact location fluctuated and was dependent on the tilt of the Earth. North of the Arctic Circle there was one full day of sunlight, and one full day of darkness per year.

Proud of my accomplishment, I caught the attention of an Asian family to take my picture. A young girl in her teens grabbed my iPhone and took the photo which included me, the sign, and Brother. Handing my iPhone back, I stopped her and asked that she take a picture of me tossing the ashes of my friend in the air. No one in the family spoke English but I got the point across and obtained the photo of a spreading at the epic location. I stood and stared at the interesting sign while savoring my accomplished goal. Then, from a viewing deck I looked out on the Brooks Range. I saw an eighteen-wheeler blow by with that large plume of dust and thought—”Where now?” Knowing all the possibilities, I was ready to get back to my Nomadic Experiment.”

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Morgan Stafford currently lives in Staunton, Virginia in between his travels in the UK, Europe, and Turkey. His three books of his My Nomadic Experiment series can be found on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle.

To the Arctic Circle
My Nomadic Experiment / BOOK I

Arctic Circle to Austin, Texas
My Nomadic Experiment / BOOK II

The Trans-Labrador Highway
My Nomadic Experiment / BOOK III