The 450 Tour Part 1: The Seward Highway

…continued from Flightseeing with K2 Aviation

Whenever I’m not traveling in the country, I like to be somewhere with a lot going on. That’s why I live in Chicago. When I want to get some good beer and fish tacos, I can find them down the street. When I want to meet new people, I can. When I want to go to a festival or a museum, it’s around. Which was why I based my operations out of Anchorage. Because even though it’s nowhere near as big as Chicago, there was still plenty to do in my downtime. I set up my work station out of shitty hotels next to downtown, which made it very easy to find things to do. For two months, I spent my weekdays in hotels working on my company projects, planning my outdoor trips, drinking, or hanging out with women from OkCupid.

CW was an OkCupid fling-turned-friend from 2012 who I have stayed in touch with over the years. We met up numerous times for pizza or food trucks, where I also met her bestie KM. One night we went to the MST3K Reunion at a nearby cinema. The cast of MST3K and Rifftrax broadcasted the event to theatres all over the country via livestream, and spent two hours destroying some of the best stupid-awesome shorts I’ve ever seen. One of the best ones was a video from the seventies about how kids can have fun with grass. If you want to play with grass, go outside and pull some out, and start braiding it on a table. You can use grass to make a mask! Or braid it into a headband! Or make grass earrings! Fun with grass! I hadn’t laughed that hard since my best friend showed me Maddox’s website.

I also had an email exchange with Nickel, and we met up for a bar crawl date in downtown on my first week. And then it became a fling that lasted for my two months there and after. For many evenings, we met in hole in the wall restaurants or local haunts, or did shots and Game of Thrones at her house. Often times, it was the only chance I had to relax between my workload and outdoor logistical hassles.

So when I got back from a two week adventure in Denali, it was just in time for the annual Pride Parade. And who better to call up than Nickel to join me. Cause I wouldn’t say that I’m out or proud, but I wanted to show up and support Alaskans who are. That, and I thought it would be a good idea for a date.

I went by her house late that morning and we left with her roommate Alpha for the downtown parade. When we got there, a big crowd stood on the sidewalks as numerous floats and groups marched down the street. The local VA, school groups, Alaska Air LGBT, and so on. Later, there was a festival in a nearby park with local folk bands and rainbow bracelets by the truck load.

Nickel and Alpha ran into numerous friends, including DD, who has become a force of reckoning on the local interwebs. She told Alpha about a guy who she recently hooked up with on her Tinders. Which wouldn’t be any big deal, except that her reason for hooking up with him was because they went on a date once a while back, and she remembered that he was a nice guy. Only to figure out later that this guy she hooked up with now was a different fucking dude!

This anecdotal gem and many others can be found on her website All the Dicks. After a bad divorce and some soul searching, she made it her goal to find and score with as many young dudes as she can, because fuck it. Which I think is awesome. You can read all about it here (but note, my dear traveler, that what is read therein cannot be unread).

It was fun, but I needed to catch up on my work, and Nickel wanted to hike Flattop with her uncle. We parted ways and I went back to my hotel.

I was up in Denali for the last 15 days, and at the end of the next week, I would be leaving for another 7. So along with catching up on two weeks of work, my boss piled on everything ahead. This included two big software upgrades, which, if you work in software you would know amounts to a dogpile of QA testing, patching, and retesting. All that afternoon and Sunday went into the first rollout. Then for the rest of the week, I was hurdling smaller jobs to get to the other project before the Friday deadline. Somehow I managed to find time to get my bike from REI and a drink with Nickel at Mad Myrna’s.

That Thursday, I was charging into the night with Red Bull and bloodshot eyes, trying to make my deadline on Friday 9:00 Eastern. In Alaska, that is 5am. At 3, I did what should have been a final QA test, only to figure out that there was a whole section that I forgot to add in from a previous draft. I spent the next hour writing a new block of code, which I hate doing when I’m tired. At 5, I finished one last QA run, uploaded, hit the switch, and fired off a one sentence email to the clients, making my deadline down to the minute.

Then I slept for two hours, worked all day on even more of this shite, tied it all off at 5, packed up my computer in storage, went back to REI for a last minute derailleur fix, and packed up my panniers for the train ride out tomorrow. Fucking hell.

Finally, I was ready to do what this is really about: My 450 mile bike tour from Seward to Valdez. If it went as planned, the train would drop me off in Seward, and I would spend the next week riding on the highways to Valdez, and then board Alaskan Highway ferry for the trip back across the Prince William Sound. It was ambitious, cause it’s got to be when you ride like Dan Hagen.

I got out at the Seward depot at noon on Saturday and went north along the highway, planning to reach the town of Hope at mid-evening. I climbed the mountain passes for hours on a well-paved road and big shoulder, often looking out at the big, forested mountains and blue skies. Halfway through the day, a blanket of stratus clouds spread across the land.

The Summit Lake Lodge marks the high point of the pass, where I stopped to eat. After this, it is downhill for two hours to the ocean, starting with a 6% grade into headwind for a few miles to the Hope Junction. What I didn’t know was that at that speed, an 18 wheeler can fly by on the road and break the headwind, creating a powerful vacuum of tunnel wind that would end up pulling my bike towards the road… WOAH, SHIT!!! I almost got thrown into the road as the truck flew by at 65. I pulled away from the wind, fighting with all my strength to keep control. I screamed in horror for the first time in more than 20 years. Remarkably, I kept it together and coasted back onto the shoulder.

I got down to Hope Junction a few minutes later and continued on Hope Highway, relieved to be away from the traffic and freaking out because I almost died. The silence of that slow two lane road calmed me down. Keep going, Dan Hagen, keep going. You’re 10 miles out from food and sleep. And you didn’t fucking die. Not today.

The highway descends from the mountains to the edge of the inlet and sea level. From there, it follows the south shoreline of the Turnagain Arm for 7 miles west before ending at the remote town of Hope, Alaska. There, I would find hot meat and cold beer.

When I rode few miles out on the hilly coast, I looked and saw a wall of rain engulf the mountains across the water. It was heading this way, and I needed to get to town before the shower did. That didn’t happen. The rain hit my face and arms with a mile to go.

I had spent an entire day alone on this highway. I had adapted to the solitude of the quiet forests and closed in feeling of the mountain country. I felt content riding in the comfort of my own thoughts (despite that scary dustup at the junction). So when I came around one last turn to the main street of Hope, I was surprised to see a big crowd of people outside of the Seaview Cafe. On Saturday night, you will likely find lots of people drinking in the bar and patio, reggae music playing, kids and dogs running around, campsites, bonfires, and people cooking meat in the yard. What the hell? I coasted in with a huge grin on my face. This was exactly what I needed. I was glad to set up my tent, get some bar food, and talk to the locals.

“Hey, you got out here on a bike? That’s pretty badass! Where ya headed?”
“Seward to Valdez.”
“Hell yeah!”

After a burger and two beers, I went outside as a local jam band started playing. I was exhausted from the day ride, and the food and beer just about knocked me out. I crawled into my tent and quickly fell asleep to the white noise of live music and local partiers. It was a happy place to be on this big, wild shoreline.

I left for Girdwood the next day. As the eagle flies, it’s 15 miles across the water. By road it’s 50 miles, and the first 30 of it is all uphill until you clear Turnagain Pass. I spent 4 solid hours beating my way to the top before descending back down to the edge of the ocean, 12 miles away from where I left it. Once I got to the westbound side of the highway, the tailwind blew me all the way to Girdwood. I could have opened a sail and coasted. Today, the wind is my friend in the fjord country.

Girdwood has a Forest Fair every summer, where Alaskans from all over the state come together to watch music, buy and sell art, celebrate, and be hippies. I was lucky enough to roll in during the last day of it. This town felt like a mini-Asheville.

A local woman who I met in Hope last night told me I needed to check out the band playing at 5:00. I went to the stage to watch them. It was relaxing after all the hours I had busted ass that day, but I soon got bored and left. They had a clear semblance of the Grateful Dead, whom I have never liked. Besides, I could smell funnel cakes from the food stands, so priorities. I sat down to eat one when I heard the band play a rocked out cover of Pancho and Lefty. That got my attention and I went back.

Later, I went to the hostel, a homeshare in the residential part of town. An old lady greeted me and showed me around. She let me hang up my tent in the back yard to dry. I sat on the back porch, and she came out and told me that the porch was off limits to guests. Okay. I moved to the front to eat while my tent dried. The daughter, who usually manages the hostel, came by for a few minutes to talk to her. From what I overheard, something was up. The daughter left. Then the woman told me uncomfortably that her friends would be coming back soon for a barbecue, and I had to move all of my camping gear to the front, and that the back yard is actually off limits to guests anyway. Awkward much?

Look, I get it if you want to make money out of your house, but get your boundaries sorted out, people. I was polite and did what she asked, but I won’t be going back there again. Not that I plan to go back to Girdwood anyway, but you know what I mean.

It was all grey skies and fireweed from here. I rode a solid 40 miles along the coast and got back to the city in the late morning. I had some extra time to sort out my gear and get my computer out to make sure everything was okay while I was gone. I checked my work email. Nothing from the customers. Good. No news is good news.

Later that night I stayed in a HI-Hostel in Spenard, where unlike the one in Girdwood, I was allowed in the back yard. It was the 4th of July, and they were having a barbecue. I met an old guy who had lived in his RV for 10 years, a man who met a lady in Florida on his bike 16 months ago and they have been riding ever since, a young girl from the Chicago suburbs working in Alaska for the summer, and a dude my age with a 3 year old daughter who knew she was the cutest person in the whole place. And then there was me, the guy riding his bike from Seward to Valdez.

We drank and hung out as bottle rockets echoed across the city. The Chugach Mountains turned purple in the late evening sun. Fireworks continued to bang into the night.

This story continues on the Glenn Highway.