Motorcycle diaries: The road less traveled, from Aspen to the Arctic
July 8, 2011
ASPEN – “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this,” Anthony Todaro eagerly uttered. “It’s one of those things that I’ve thought about so many times.”
The Aspen native had left the interview no more than 10 minutes earlier, yet he was compelled to call and share one last tidbit of information – an anecdote about American inventor Robert Fulton.
He recounted a story about Fulton, a 1931 Harvard graduate fresh off another year of study at the University of Vienna’s school of architecture, attending a dinner party in London. During the course of the conversation, one guest inquired about Fulton’s future plans; the 23-year-old declared his intention to drop everything, hop on a motorcycle and travel the world.
Fulton later would log 25,000 miles during an 18-month odyssey from London to Tokyo, an experience he chronicled in the novel “One Man Caravan.”
The tale has the power to incite spontaneity and the adventurous spirit in all of us, but for Todaro it has added significance: He grew up with Fulton’s granddaughters. And the motorcycle on which Fulton took that famed trip – a twin-cylinder Douglas – sits in a Roaring Fork Valley garage owned by one of the girls’ uncles.
“That bike should be in a museum,” said Todaro, a supervisor for Pitkin County’s road and bridge department and an Aspen Junior Hockey coach.
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“That story is still one of my favorites. I’ve never given it the credit it probably deserves because it definitely was one of the catalysts for me wanting to do this trip.”
This trip was the culmination of a lifelong passion – one forged while littering Smuggler Mountain Road with dirt bike tracks as a boy and one crystallized early last summer. It was then that Todaro traded in his Ducati and purchased his dream bike – a on- and off-road capable 2010 KTM Adventure R.
It seemed only fitting then that he would embark on the dream ride – an 11,000-plus mile trek from Aspen to the Arctic Circle and Alaska – with good friends and well-traveled motorcyclists Dave Reeves and Paul Neilson in tow.
“It’s like I say on the first page of my blog, this trip’s been done before by lots of other people, but this is my time. It’s my turn,” Todaro said. “I’m just a regular guy who got on a bike and didn’t stop for 35 days.”
• • • •
Todaro knew the question would come. He even spent much of his last day in the saddle, July 1, trying to formulate a succinct yet adequate response. Inevitably, however, he was caught off guard.
So, how was it?
Honestly, how do you encapsulate 35 days spent in the saddle, covering a large swath of North America? How do you describe the sights, the sounds, the emotions?
Maybe you start at the end of the journey – with the celebratory ride past the Mill Street Fountain, the subsequent embraces with friends and the touching reunion with family, including bulldog Dignan.
Maybe you expound on the challenges of an undertaking of this magnitude – from the cold, wet slogs through Alberta oil country, to falling asleep in damp sleeping bags and waking up to fresh snow. Or the afternoon your chain exploded outside Primm, Nevada, and you spent more than a hour picking pieces of metal off the interstate in 105-degree heat.
Don’t forget to mention the near-disaster at a remote Yukon Territory fueling station, or the brief, largely harmless encounter with a grizzly – one who gave you “this look like he knows he’s at the top of the food chain … [and] had the nastiest looking claws” you’ve ever seen – at a visitor center.
Or, maybe you just start at the beginning.
It was last summer that Todaro broached the subject of an Alaska trip with his friends.
Neilson, a 37-year-old gearhead who once rebuilt an ’86 Yamaha bike and rode to Massachusetts and back, was on board from the start – assuming, of course, that he could fix the transmission on his new bike in time.
“It was totally eviscerated all over my garage. … I was back on the road less than three weeks before the trip,” said Neilson, who works for Atlantic Aviation.
“If you like to ride motorcycles, that’s kind of the trip of a lifetime. I didn’t want to miss this.”
Reeves, a property manager in Snowmass Village, was intrigued but not expected to take part because of a planned June four-wheeling excursion in his native Australia. Flooding in the Outback led to a cancellation, however, and he was quick to contact Todaro.
“I’ve always said Alaska was one of the goals for me to do,” said Reeves, whose motorcycling resume includes a trip on the Continental Divide Trail and the Trans-America Trail, among others. “It’s the last real frontier in North America, one of those trips you hear legendary stories about.”
Todaro, meanwhile, spent the winter banking vacation time, selling a dirt bike to generate extra money and attempting to figure out what equipment to bring. His space was limited to one waterproof duffle bag and two, 41-liter aluminum containers. He planned to haul about 100 pounds of gear – including four pairs of underwear, a tent, sleeping bag, stove, spare tire tubes, tools, parts and a few luxury items like a camp chair, pillow, iPod speakers and a trusty leather hat.
No amount of preparation could alleviate his anxiety on Day 1, however.
“To be honest, I was a little bit nervous. As you’re leaving you’re thinking, ‘What am I doing,?'” Todaro said. “You don’t know if your bike’s going to hold together, if your brand new tent is going to fail you. Some people can afford to just get a hotel if they break down, or call a tow truck. I’ve always been on that ragged edge where if I have a big mechanical problem, if the motor blows, you have to toss the bike and hitchhike home.
“The nerves were out there, but it’s that excitement that pushes you through.”
• • • •
That excitement abounded as the threesome sped out of the valley May 28 and headed west to Rifle, Meeker and Dinosaur.
During the next few days, they steered north, passing through Idaho, Montana and, ultimately, into the great unknown – where sunlight lingers well into the evening, where roads seemingly stretch toward the horizon and massive clouds hang low over the sparse landscape.
“We in America tend to think ethnocentrically. In my own head, I close my eyes and picture the U.S., and I picture me in Colorado. But then, when you get to the border, everything is somewhat dark – we really don’t think about Canada that much,” Todaro said. “That was a highlight for me, getting to see stuff you’re not used to seeing in your daily routine. It was just incredible.”
Day 5’s trip included a stop in Banff, Alberta, and a drive up Highway 1 to Lake Louise and Jasper National Park, an area dominated by imposing glaciers, lakes, waterfalls and abundant wildlife.
“This was by far the coolest road of the trip,” Todaro gushed on his blog, rockymountain76.wordpress.com. “Beautiful mountain scenery, almost no traffic, fast turns and breathtaking views.”
The group would just as soon forget the following two days, which were spent in sub-freezing temperatures and intermittent snow on the opening stretch of the Alaska-Canadian Highway.
“Weather was probably the biggest challenge on this trip,” Todaro said. “It probably rained or snowed 70 percent of the time. I’m glad I had the electric vest, heated grips and really good rain gear.”
On Day 8, the group decided to split up; Neilson headed for Fairbanks, Alaska, while Todaro and Reeves opted for the road less traveled – the unpaved Campbell Highway.
Later in the day, the duo pulled into the sleepy Yukon town of Ross River. While helping Reeves fill the tanks on either side of his bike, Todaro gave the pump hose a slight tug and it popped off, spewing gas into the air and into a fuel truck idling nearby.
“Gasoline is going everywhere, we’re freaking out, I go grab a tiny little fire extinguisher and we realize at that point that our only hope is to run,” Todaro recalled. “All the locals started coming out – that was the biggest thing to happen to that town in a while. …
“We looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s get out of here. They’re going to lynch us if we stick around.'”
The duo managed to leave without incident, and two days later began their ride up the famed Dempster Highway, a remote, packed-gravel route that stretches nearly 500 miles to Inuvik – a largely nondescript town of about 4,000 on the Mackenzie Delta. (Inuvik does have a community greenhouse, however, which is housed fittingly in an old hockey rink.)
Todaro and Reeves passed by the Richardson Mountains, the last stretch of the Rockies, and watched as they slowly receded into the surrounding tundra.
Soon, they crossed the Arctic Circle.
“Seeing that sign gave you that sense of ‘Here you are,'” Todaro said. “That’s the culmination of 10 days riding in one direction. If you think about it in modern terms, we’re all used to going to an airport and flying somewhere – I could be in Africa in two days if I wanted. But when you’re overland traveling, or whatever you want to call it, you really get that sense that things are far away.”
That sentiment likely materialized once more a few days later, when Todaro’s lone means of transportation unexpectedly shut down; luckily, he was just 5 miles outside Fairbanks. He later would learn that a faulty kick-stand switch was the culprit – a $30 part that rendered a nearly $20,000 bike completely useless.
While Reeves headed for Prudhoe Bay via the Dalton Highway – an unforgiving stretch of road spotlighted on the History Channel’s “Ice Road Truckers” that Neilson tackled a few days earlier – Todaro spent the night in a University of Alaska dormitory and had his bike towed to a local KTM dealer; he changed his oil and his tires in the parking lot while waiting for a UPS truck to deliver the part.
The KTM was up and running soon after, and the whirlwind tour of Alaska continued – through Denali National Park and Talkeetna down to the glaciers and fjords of the Kenai Peninsula.
“I’d love to go back up there and spend more time … but it was pretty much all about the ride and covering miles,” Neilson said. “We weren’t chartering any fishing boats or anything.”
• • • •
Todaro admits he would’ve loved to spend a few weeks exploring “The Last Frontier.” But not all was lost; the brisk pace afforded Todaro the time to take a scenic route home.
After parting ways with his friends, Todaro ditched the electric vest and headed for the Pacific coast.
“It wasn’t until I got into Vancouver – which by the way I showed up at 5 o’clock on a weekday and was trying to get into the city with all the traffic – that I realized I hadn’t seen a stoplight since Anchorage,” Todaro said. “That must’ve been 1,800, 2,000 miles since I saw a light, let alone people or traffic. … That was the best part of this whole trip. I like that challenge of going to far places that not many ever get to see.”
Todaro spent little more than a week roaming the coast, stopping intermittently to snap photos, soak up the scenery and some welcome sunshine and catch up with family and friends.
Then, it was time to head home – after stopping in Las Vegas for a new chain, after the cheap one he bought in Los Angeles exploded on the Nevada highway.
He arrived in Aspen on Friday, June 1.
Finally, after a month in motion, Todaro had a few days to collect his thoughts. A few days to start figuring out how to answer that popular question.
“The one thing I’ve been telling people I learned is that Alaska is really [damn] far away,” Todaro joked. “I didn’t have any delusions about it being easy. I figured there would be days that I didn’t want to get on the motorcycle but had to. … The thing that surprised me most was how excited I was to get on the bike very day. I thought I would hit that wall, but I’d get that thing loaded up, fire it up and I was pretty happy about it.”
Added Reeves: “I think there’s a real degree of freedom on a motorcycle. You’re at one with the elements, which is a positive and a negative sometimes, but you really see some scenery you might miss in a car. You can smell it. You can feel it.
“When you set it up correctly and plan for a trip like that, it’s really satisfying when it all comes together. I’d do it again today.”