Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Our Kenai Peninsula Detour. Maybe THIS is what Sarah Palin meant...

Our departure for the Kenai Peninsula was delayed by our attempts to gather parts for the top-end job we intend to do on the Transalp in Smithers and Roel sourcing a set of brake pads for the Africa Twin.

The rain had mostly stopped and by the time we got to the turn off for Whittier, there was a nice blue patch of sky open in that direction. That settled it: if the first blue sky we’d seen in 3 days was on the other side of the $12 toll tunnel to Whittier, well, we were going there.

The single-lane tunnel is pretty neat: it’s the longest in North America and they have run train tracks through it. They make motorcycles wait for all of the other traffic to go through, in case one of us slips on the railroad tracks - they don’t want us to get run over by one of the 8-wheel motorhomes that go barreling through the tunnel.

We enjoyed the sun in Whittier and then headed on down the Peninsula to Homer. Eddie and John, the Dutch and Belgian we’d met the day before, were already on the Homer Spit, and joined us for dinner at the highly rated fish-n-chips shop.

It was quite a splurge for us, as we usually cook our own meals to keep costs down, but we couldn’t resist having freshly caught Halibut that had been filleted next door on the dock, hours earlier. And it was delicious.

We’d had a look at the Butler Map of Alaska before leaving MotoQuest and the 20+ mile dead-end road leading out of Homer was supposed to be one of the most scenic in the state.

If we could judge by the view from the Spit of snowcapped mountains and massive glaciers, that would hold true. So Steven, Travis and we set off to explore and were not disappointed by the views or the road, which continually climbed and went from pavement, to “road works” to dirt.

At one point, we came to a sign that had both English and Russian on it. We’d heard that there was a small “Russian village” down the road. What that meant, we did not know, as we were obviously in America. Right? (Maybe THIS was what Sarah Palin meant… hmmm.)

One twist in the road led to what appeared to be a steep 1000 meter descent to the bay below. I was tired and not up for the “excitement,” so I decided to stay put and enjoy the view from the top while the guys went down to the beach below.

Lame, I know. But I’ve always appreciated that “Arrive Alive” saying. And my personal goal beyond that is always to arrive with “Transalp Intact.”

I parked my bike off the road and wandered to an overlook that dropped away to the beach, and listened as the guys made their way down to the bottom. Roel was a tiny figure on the beach by the time he made it all the way down, but our Sena headsets kept us in touch. He said that one of the guys wasn’t down, yet, and may have dropped it up the hill a ways. We waited a few minutes, and all of the sudden I heard an engine coming down the road behind me. I turned to see a man in a strange fur hat, on a off-road trike, looking at my bike. I started making my way back to my bike as all of my belongings were on it, but then the man then aggressively powered down the slope towards me. He pulled up short in front of me, making me a bit nervous, but I greeted him brightly. He ignored my greeting and huffed “Is that on?” gesturing to my GoPro.

“Um, no. It’s off.”

“You’re by yourself.” Not so much a question as a statement. And I didn’t like the way he said it. Only static in my ear indicated that Roel was no longer in range. He was correct. I was by myself.

My heart fell to the bottom of my stomach. Something had my female intuition (or fear) kicking in and suddenly it was very apparent to me that this man stood between me and my mode of flight, and behind me was a cliff. Roel had our bearspray.

Quickly, logic squashed that uprising of panic.

I still had my helmet on. And letting my mind wander in awful directions, I soothed myself with the thought that if it was already a struggle for me to shimmy out of my riding pants, someone else taking them off was sure to encounter some difficulty. Not that I would stand for that of course: My Dad didn't make me take karate classes as a child for nothing.

Here we go, Azure. 

“Nope, the other 3 guys are just down the hill. I actually think my boyfriend is on his way up now.”

No answer. Dismounts his trike.

“This over here is my land.” He gestures loosely behind him and away from us, walking so close as he says this that I get a full whiff of boozy breath.

“Oh, sorry, we didn’t realize it wasn’t public. I can leave right now.”

“No, that’s OK. Why are you so paranoid.”

Well shit, if someone assuming you’re paranoid when you’re not doesn’t give you a reason to be paranoid, I don’t know what does.

I inched my way back to the edge of the cliff so that the Sena’s could connect again and Roel could hear that I was no longer alone. Every time my strange new companion left an awkward silence hanging in the air, I just brightly chattered over him until Roel caught on that he needed to come back up the hill.

Unfortunately, the other guy still wasn’t down off the hill, yet, and Roel didn’t want to make a run up it in case his bike was blocking the way. So Josef and I continued talking.

He told me how this was a Russian settlement, (leftover from the days when Russia owned/occupied what is now Alaska) and that they are Old Believers, which is not at all like the Russian Orthodox church because “they’re not going to hell.” Um, ok. He also told me that they don’t consider themselves a part of the US, and hence don’t hail to the US government, US law or any other governing body. Hm. Great. The conversation had lighter moments, like when he was pointing out local flowers and berries that they use in traditional medicines, which put me at ease until he was adamant that I had to climb down the cliff to where he was to see a particular berry, when I was clearly standing next to a bush bearing abundant bushels of that exact berry. Josef explained how he had caught a bunch of salmon and was curing it with sugar at home. He then invited me/us to go back to his home with him so he could show us around. I politely declined, stating that we needed to get back on the road. A likely story when it was already midnight.

I relaxed a little as I heard the Africa Twin roaring up the hill, carrying my big, strong boyfriend.

Eventually, we all collected at the top of the hill, everyone OK and in one piece. Josef extended the offer to join him at his home to everyone, but we declined and headed off.

These moments are the ones as travelers that you are simultaneously relieved to escape from, unscathed, but will also always wonder if you missed out on some incredible experience.  Though Roel and I both felt something was a bit off with Josef, no amount of touring or researching an area equals the experience you have when you spend time with a local of that area. Being invited into the home of a person from a background different from yours is a precious opportunity to experience another culture that should be cherished. As a traveler, being open to these experiences makes all the difference in your overall journey and leads to the moments that you will cherish forever; but you must also remain aware of the fact that you are “other” and you are on someone else’s turf and must live by their rules.

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