We entered the park area about 11:00pm and found that all rooms in the park hotel were taken. That day had been special in that Laura Bush had come-a-calling. The staff directed us to the campgrounds but it too was filled to capacity. On the way down to the park we remembered seeing a sign that read DUCK LAKE. We were not sure if a trip back tracking our path would be any more fruitful, but now the options had been diminished and the signs warning of the presence of grizzly bears did not make the thought of a night under the stars so appetizing (for us). So we headed back and then up a long side road to find this so called Duck Lake. We took the road up to an open meadow on which sat a single wood frame home with a few out buildings. It was now getting close to midnight and I was a little hesitant to just drive right up and knock on a restful household, although the lights were on. As we parked we could see that there were people inside, sitting at a bar and having beers in hand. It looked like we came to the right place! We stepped in and asked if they had any room indoors. We could already see that they had an outdoor camping space for us. They invited us in, got us a room and even made us dinner at that late hour. It was strange how packed the park lodge was with people and just a few miles down the road this hotel was glad to see us pull in even after midnight. We were sure happy to have found them! That evening we sat around while we enjoyed our meal and told stories of the adventure we were on to the two hotel owners. It's a great feeling having genuine interest from your audience. We logged about 500 miles on that day's ride.
We rose to a day with bright blue skies and perfect riding temps. Our host of the evening past suggested that we first go into the Many Glacier roads before hitting the main tour road thru Glacier Park. Besides its abundant beauty and less crowded road, the Many Glacier area also has the hotel that was used in the movie, The Shining.(As in Here's Johnny.) It sits on the most magnificent lakeside setting I have ever witnessed. At the end of the road the park service has a restaurant in which Jeff and I enjoyed breakfast. We next headed back south to the main park road, paid our toll and got on what amounted to an on again/ off again (auto) train through Glacier Park's splendor. Truthfully, we traveled numerous miles with only a car or two in sight but at some of the most majestic areas the traffic backed up to 30-40 vehicles long. This took away from the natural pleasure and I could only think of how great it would be to return to this place someday when the crowds were away. I distinctly remember one section of hairpin turns that we had to parade through that, along with the beauty of the geology, we were also forced to smell the perfume wafting in the air from the tour bus somewhere ahead of us. When some gals seek nature it's important for them to smell just right! (Maybe it helps keep the bears away?) I was surprised to find how fast we got through the park. We next headed south toward Yellowstone cutting through the grassland of Montana. As we sped down I-89 from the north, Jeff pulled into the lead. That gave me some time to take some pictures of the passing landscape. We rode like that for a few miles before my GS started asking for more gas via a gasping stammer. I reached back to the auxiliary cell and flipped the valve to release the gas. The bike continued to falter, eventually coming to a stop. I got off my ride to take a look at what had previously been a reliable backup system. About two or three minutes into the examination I remembered that I had undone the system when I saddled up the bike for two back in Watson Lake. So I pulled off most of my baggage to get the seat off and reconnected the quick release hose connector. By the time I was almost back together, Jeff had returned to see what was up. The next section of the ride was perhaps for me the most surreal of the whole trip. I'm not sure if Jeff would feel the same about it, although I have never discussed the event with him. We rode on I-15 for a short piece and then turned onto US-12 heading southeast. A little past the junction where 12 meets up with US-287 the road traffic was starting to build. We were last in line of a caravan of RVs with a few pick-ups in the mix, maybe 13 in all. The whole line up seemed to be on a continuous chain progressing along the heated highway, all traveling at a good clip. As we continued on, the road gradually descended so that from our vantage point we could see each vehicle in plain site. The landscape was wide open and there were just a few puffy clouds in the sky above casting spotted shadows on the view. In the distance I could see that we were approaching an intersection of roadways. The crossroad was askew to the road we were coming down from. In clear view I could see a car coming towards the meeting point. It was a large full size gold sedan. I'm sure the whole line of traffic could also see the car approaching. I saw clearly that the car had a stop sign and by the slow progression it was making to the intersection it appeared that was the intent of the driver. Our convoy was lead by a large RV and it continued along the highway, we all did, as if the junction was just a passing moment. Time slowed down as I watched the gold sedan not stop - at the precise moment that the RV passed the junction - T-boning the car dead center on the passenger side. Both vehicles landed off the roadway on the right-hand side of our path of travel. There was a sudden slamming of brakes, though each member of our chain had a good distance between vehicles, so a rear ending was avoided. As the last members of this pack, we watched the entire line up of traffic pull over and stop to help. As we passed the meeting point, I looked over into the sedan to see an old man, perhaps in his 80's, slumped over with his head leaning on his side window, looking as if life was already gone. The drivers of the RVs were out of their vehicles running towards the car. I thought to myself as we passed that whatever needed to happen at that site now would only be impeded by our stopping so I continued on a now open highway ahead.
We then rode US-287 to I-90 to the Livingston, MT. exit where we picked up US-87 south heading towards Yellowstone's north entrance. Once there we took the obligatory gate sign picture. I thought it funny that we had to wait for a Japanese family to capture their photographic memory before we could use the location. As we rode on into the park I remember thinking to myself while taking in the geological outcropping "so this is why this place is called Yellowstone", yellow stones. We traveled along the grand loop north road and then on to the Northeast Entrance road. Our objective was to get to Billings via US-212 outside the northeast gate. We had no idea what we were heading for, only that we were told by the two amigos from Watson Lake that the road was not to be missed. It was getting to be 7pm by the time we turned off onto Tower Junction.
At this point we had another taste of tourist traffic, getting stuck behind a RV that was pulling two Harleys. For 50 miles this brother would not let us pass no matter how convenient the location. We'd give him a blinker; he'd pull the rig out further into the center of the road. God bless him, I hope only the best for his riding adventures. We finally parted company at the road's junction with US 212, which we now could see was also marked as The Beartooth Highway. To the north we could see a large mountain range, its peaks covered in clouds, and were glad that we were not headed in that direction. The sun was still in the sky but it was more perpendicular to the mountains we were approaching. It produced a warm red glow that seemed to stay with us as we ascended the elevation. The more we climbed in altitude, the lower the temperature dropped. I had one glove off from the entrance of the park to make it easier to snap off a shot here and there and now my hand had started to get real cold. Convinced by the warmth from that day's ride, we were certain the next turn in the road would bring us a welcome breeze of warm air. In fact the more twisty the road became, the more we drove into the same cloud mass that I had been positive was not in our path, and the more the temperature plunged. The turns became an endless series of tight hairpins now obscured by a thick pea soup that was the cloud. Visibility was hardly seven feet ahead. We proceeded with great caution; making every yard we traveled a calculated effort. There was no turning back now, baby. We were near the summit, and reversing our direction back from where we came seemed to be just as bad of a choice as cresting the mountaintop to ride down into the unknown that lay on the other side. Then suddenly, a set of lights appeared from the soup. I flashed my high beam to warn this oncoming car that we existed in its path. I remember thinking "what the hell is this guy doing riding over the mountain in weather like this?" Then I thought, what the hell was I doing? Within 3 minutes another pair of headlights was bending around the hairpin on which we were about to turn into. Once again we went into our emergency warning system by flashing our high beams, avoiding a near hit. When we finally reached the top, the winds were blowing a stiff breeze adding to the chill factor, but also pushing the clouds along, making visibility much better. We stopped at the parking area and Jeff went about putting on every piece of clothing he had with him. I placed that missing glove on the now exposed raw flesh of my hand that was as stiff from gripping the handlebars as it was from the cold. I took a few shots of the dark roadway up ahead. At least the majority of the cloud cover was on our uphill trip and now past us. Although there was still enough light that we could see about us, we were definitely now about to descend these heights with a moonless night sky. We pulled together our muster and mounted our rides for what was ahead. The first miles of twisty persisted, cold and windy, but as we descended the elevation that warm breeze we were hoping for began. Now that we could see what was ahead of us we remained in a cautious posture, maintaining our alert for the potential animal crossing our path (or vice versa). Eventually the twist got less tight, the road got wider and our bodies got a chance to relax from the defensive stature we had been holding the past hour. We were beat. The ride to Billings became an unnecessary objective. We began seeing signs for Red Lodge, which sounded just like the kind of place we could use for a rest. When we arrived in town it became apparent that snagging a room without a reservation was not going to happen. It was Friday night and every motel parking lot was filled with bikes and trailers whose owners were now in the towns bars preparing for that ride we had just made (only for them, by the light of the next day). We pushed on and had similar bad luck not finding accommodations until we hit the interstate, where we grabbed one of the last rooms available in Laurel. That day we had put in 650 miles.
The next day we finally made it to Billings and passed right through on I-90 until we hit US-212 again, following 212 southeast to Rapid City. In route we stopped at the gates of the Little Bighorn monument. Jumping back onto I-90, we opted to ride past the Rushmore monument and keep rolling. We continued on east to the town of Wall, staying long enough to shoot a picture of the world famous Wall drug store, then gassing up for a sprint thru Badlands Park. The ride thru the park was fantastic, with very little traffic and perfect weather. I was amazed at how accessible the park is to visitors. Unlike Bryce Canyon, a park with similar geology, guests at Badlands are not restrained from walking off the marked paths.
When we had our fill we found I-90 again and traveled due east to Sioux Falls, at which point we picked up I-29 south to lead us into I-80 for our final day's stretch. We stayed in the Omaha area that night. My most fond memory of the highways out this way were of the state metal signage which all seemed to bear the markings of gunshot from target practice. Welcome to South Dakota - bang, bang! That day we put in another 650 miles.
Now that we were on I-80 it was a straight shot home to New Jersey. When you ride across this country of ours you get a real feel for its nature. From the Rockies to Ohio the plains dominate your view. Many of the trees that exist look as if man had a hand in their placement. The grassland has the power in forming the landscape and this authority is present for a 1000 miles along this highway stretch. As you get near Ohio, the landscape changes to the hardwood forests found up and down the east coast. Having lived in the east all of my life I was ignorant of this gift we have, but now riding into it after my brief absence, its beauty came out as if welcoming me home. Jeff and I stayed overnight in the Youngstown area, which gave us a short ride home the next day. The closer we got, the more the eastern forest grew in size around us. I-80 has this amazing approach from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, right through the Delaware Water Gap. I remember thinking how wonderful an entrance and how magnificent things are no matter where we go on our two wheels. The night before I called my wife to let her know about the time we'd be pulling into the driveway. She, in her flair for fanfare, met us with a streamer finish line for us to brake through as our final effort on this fine trip.
The day after I arrived home I gave Joe a call to find out what his story was. To this day there is still a little mystery to the whole disappearance and I am not quite sure if I know all of his side of the tale. He made it to Fairbanks the night he changed his tire and left us. The next day he headed north and made it as far as the Arctic Circle. On the ride north from Fairbanks he started feeling the effects of dehydration; the process probably started days before. He decided to turn back and not go to Prudhoe Bay. He must have driven past us somewhere outside Fairbanks on our ride up that afternoon. There is a section of road that runs a number of miles where the highway divides and the median between is filled with trees and brush. This must have obscured our view of him passing. When Joe made it back to Fairbanks he was feeling so bad that he went to the hospital, where they treated him for dehydration. The whole ordeal must have hit him pretty hard because he decided to bring his KLR to a dealer, put it up on consignment and fly home. As I have written before, the smoke was intense outside of Chicken, AK. Jeff and I had purchased breathing masks while we were in Dawson City and wore them until we got to Tok. The night before we headed that way, the same night that Joe was traveling, the conditions were the worst they had been all summer. And the smoke really did not go away until that downpour we saw in Hot Spot. My guess is that Joe, riding alone, neglected the niceties of stopping to taking a breath, watering down and fueling up his body to keep going. I feel bad about the whole incident. I hope he knows that we would have stuck by him, no matter what it took to get him back on the road. The thing was that once Joe had decided to fly back, he was too busy preparing to exit to keep up with the communications. Within 24 hours, he was gone.
The real story here is about Jeff. I know people that have been riding motorcycles for forty years that would see a trip to Alaska as an insurmountable journey. Jeff knew nothing about riding, but had the tenacity and determination to learn the skill safely as well as enjoy its thrills.
By the end of this trip he was willing to follow me anywhere, including the top of the Bear Tooth Pass thru a cloud mass. In addition, his mud riding dexterity kept him up thru all the wet stuff we managed to get ourselves into without one spill. Most days we were riding the back roads putting in over 500 miles a day and on the highway we did at least 650, with not one protest from him. Both Joe and Jeff are great riding partners and I'm glad that I got to share this adventure with them. While riding back I thought to myself that this trip was a once in a lifetime experience. Today, I'm thinking that I can't wait to go back. Amen.