I was so close. I could nearly taste the Yukon River and the biting cold of those infamous winters that put Fairbanks on the map as the coldest in the country in the deep dark winter. But with virtually endless daylight, I press on pass Eilson Air Force Base, the town of North Pole and finally Fairbanks. It’s half-past four and I’ve got no clue where George’s shop can be found. The street doesn’t register on my GPS and the hotel clerk I asked didn’t know.
The guy at the custom chopper shop pointed me in the right direction. “And if you need something simple done like an oil change, we’ll do it for you.” He looked the part, long untrimmed beard, big belly, black t-shirt and plenty of tatoos. “You know sometimes George just doesn’t want to do oil changes, change tires or the other tedious stuff. No. I don’t mean to take away any of his business, just if you get shut down, let me know. We’ll help you out.”
Riding down Westwood Way in Fairbanks you’d never expect to find a BMW dealer. Maybe you’d find your long lost missing uncle, Grizzly Adams or the loner from high school that disappeared just after graduation. But ride to the end of the narrow tree lined street with a few houses and a hostel and you’ll come to a plastic BMW sign leaning against a wooden post that props up an aging mail box and a hand written sign on a broken piece of board with an arrow and the words “200 feet”.
I pilot my bike past a barn with empty shipping cartons, old tires and a few motorcycles covered with canvas. A new maroon Royal Enfield sits toward the end of the drive at the intersection of path that leads to an house which seems to have been enlarged using some sort of mobile home as a bay window or room annex. My boots stomp up the three wooden steps and through the screen I see a man in his 60’s, slightly disheveled and wearing a leather apron that sits slightly cockeyed around the rough leathery skin of his neck. He peers at me through his glasses as I pull the door open.
“Hey George, I think you’re holding a Fed Ex package for me?” I scan the room. There’s an old motorcycle with its rear wheel removed, its engine case balanced on a wooden box, piles of papers scattered throughout. Half-opened boxes and spare parts and debris seemingly strewn everywhere.
“Karl? Yeah, right here,” we move into the annex and he looks through the dirty lenses of his glasses at a calendar hanging on the wall and points to my name. “Allan Karl. Yeah. You’re right here. But I don’t think anything came in today. Fed Ex would leave it here.” His eyes roam the floor, he grabs a box with a UPS label. “Nope. Don’t see anything.”
We gather outside as I call for a tracking number. George disappears and returns with an envelope in his hand. “I like to use old junk mail to keep notes. When I’m done I throw it away.” Judging by his yard and office, George never throws anything away. There’s an old 50-something Dodge covered with moss, leaves and a tree growing through its bumper. A stack of empty plastic oil containers makes a nice mount on the side of the walking trail to his shop which sits about 200 feet deeper into the woods from his office.
“Here you are. Allan Karl.” He reads my telephone number. Despite the cluttered and seeming unorganized appearance, George knows where everything is. Later in the day he returns with a BMW model update notice detailing the difference in specs between model years of my Dakar. But this doesn’t look like your average BMW dealer. It looks more like a home mechanic’s shop. A perfect Alaskan back yard garage where one could earn a few extra bucks moonlighting. A far cry from the clean, pristine, and BMW logo-clad merchandising of a typical BMW motorcycle dealer. But perhaps nobody knows more about BMW motorcycles, how to keep them running and the various engine designs over the last 40 years than George. I wish he wasn’t so far away. He’s the kind of mechanic long lost in the world of big business, profit margins and residual sales quotas. No, George has been selling and servicing BMW’S since 1961 — years before BMW of North America existed. He tells me if he moves he must bring it up to BMW’s latest dealer requirements. “And that’s going to cost a lot,” he assures me.
We learn that Apple shipped my computer via DHL and it didn’t make it to Fairbanks overnight. It’s on a truck from Anchorage and will be here tomorrow. George arranges for me to pick it up at the DHL office which sits on the outskirts of town just off the road that will take me to The Arctic Circle and to the top of the world — Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay.
A big GMC pickup comes rumbling down his dirt driveway. A tall man with straight salt and pepper hair steps out. He’s looking for a battery for his motorcycle. There are three boxes sitting in the grass. “Those two are sold, but you can have that one if you like. It probably needs electrolyte, I’ll have to check.”
“I’ll come back next week George, but I want that one,” the man turns to me and asks, “where you from?”
“I’m sorry,” he laments after I divulge my Southern California home.
“Actually, I’m homeless,” I tell him, “I’m on a long trip and rented my home.”
“I’m still sorry,” he says. “But if you need a place to stay tonight you can stay with me. I’ve got a big house right down town with a spare bedroom, internet access and a cold beer… actually, if you stay, you bring the beer.”
I follow Rick “Stormy” to his home downtown. I negotiate my bike through a narrow opening between a fence and his house and park it next to his new 1200 RS. “I know how it is being on the road on your motorcycle. You can stay here as long as you like. ”
Over dinner Stormy tells me of his jaded past as a road racing motorcyclists (the fifth fastest in the world at the time), a line man for the power company, soldier during the Viet Nam War and a stint he spent in jail as a juvenile just turning 18. Then we hop in his big GMC and he takes me on a wildlife tour down Fairbanks infamous Chena Hot Springs Road.
As we race down the road at nearly 100mph he keeps rattling off the stories interrupted only by his constant spitting on the floor between his door and the front seat. “I’d love to stop chewing,” he looks at me as we careen around the corner. I lift my arm to grab the wheel but he catches it before we go flying off the road into the wilderness. “But I just can’t.” Spit.
“You’re lucky we’re not in my Volvo,” he comforts me, “it cruises nice at 145.” Spit.
“I see moose out here all the time.” Spit. He nearly locks the brakes and we come screaming to a stop and sure enough sitting in the wetland is a huge bull moose just picking his head up out of the water with green plant material falling from his massive antlers.
Spit. A beaver crosses the road. Then a porcupine. Spit. A couple more moose. It was amazed at how much wildlife we saw in just over an hour cruising up and down the road.
“I’ve had it with the lower 48,” he tells me. “Never going back.” He’s got a great job with one of the big contractor’s in the state, and like most Alaskan companies luring talent from the lower 48, he’s well taken care of.
Stormy has been in Fairbanks for just over three months. The best three months out of any year. He hasn’t spent a winter here, yet. “I’m not worried. It’s fine. Just get your work done and take care of business.” He makes it sound simpler than I’m sure it is.
The story unfolds further and he soon reveals other reasons he’s in Fairbanks. And his honesty, commitment and heart are all in the right place. Spit.
Pondering my thoughts over a thank you note the next morning, I’m anxious to get on the road to Prudhoe. So I blow off visiting him at his job site and decide against spending a few days canoeing down any of the amazing rivers and streams that paint Alaska so picturesque any time of the year.
Today’s Ride Stats: White River Crossing, YT to Fairbanks, AK
Moving Average: 57.4 mph
Maximum Speed: 87.3 mph
Moving Time: 6:14:11
Total Miles: 358.1
(1) Sign directing me to Fairbanks BMW dealer; (2) My 2005 Dakar road worn; (3) George proprietor of Trails End BMW since 1961; (4) My host in Fairbanks: Stormy