Despite dire warnings of missing towns and burned out gas stops I was northbound out of Tok, Alaska and headed for Dawson City in the Yukon Territories. I had chosen to try the "Top of the World Highway" to help get me north of the smoky conditions I had been experiencing for days. The catch was that there were three major fires and a couple minor ones on that particular road. The first available gas stop was beyond my point of no return…if for some reason it was not open or I could not reach it…I'd be walking.
It took me some time to get used to the distances out here. The warnings about conditions up the road always had to be taken with a grain of salt, as they usually were not accurate. "The next town" might be 100 miles away. The warning might be about a place 1000 miles away. Imagine asking for road conditions for Denver, Colorado…from Shreveport, Louisiana. The distances involved were similar. Unless the warning was some sort of official closure, I would just try to get as close as known conditions and fuel stops would allow and re-check conditions from there. That strategy had paid off handsomely, getting me places others were bypassing just on rumor alone.
Not completely foolhardy, I had checked with the fire officials in Tok for the most current information concerning the fires and the status of Chicken, Alaska, my required gas stop. They were stationed at the end of the road and were quite helpful.
Contrary to rampant rumors, Chicken was open. That alone made me determined to go see them. I had been enjoying the folks at the fuel stations and roadhouses and I am sure the rumors and fires were hurting their business. All I would need would be some fuel and a drink or two, but every little bit helps.
I had to chuckle at the warning about the smoke. "Visibility is only a half-mile in some areas. It could cause respiratory problems if you're susceptible."
I licked my lips and could taste the smoke. I had been in it for days and a couple-thousand miles. "Well, if I smoked, I would be saving a fortune on cigarettes!"
Obviously he had not heard about Fairbanks, just a couple hundred miles away. I had just come from there. A massive forest fire immediately north of the city and a stagnant weather pattern were combining to make some of the worst conditions in the state. The visibility there was measured in feet, with headlight beams showing up in the smoke even at high noon. It was snowing ash in the city and the news was advising citizens not to panic. The emergency rooms were overrun with people that were having trouble breathing. Few places could be worse.
The fire guys warned me not to set up camp between the fires (well, duh!), and to get the hell away should any of them become more active near the road. Hmm. My plan exactly.
A warning I took seriously was that there were thunderstorms forming above the smoke deck. They told me to listen for thunder and watch out for lightning strikes. With the dry conditions the lightning would be like dropping napalm wherever it hit. Accompanying wind could fan the flames and cut off travelers quickly if a strike was near the road. Apparently that was reasonably common around the big fires when storms were brewing. The fires themselves tend to heavily influence the weather.
The ride was interesting. The burned out landscapes were something straight out of hell, and elicited a deep sense of foreboding in my gut. The active fire fronts visible from the road made me unconsciously crack the throttle open a little more each time.
Fifty-some miles in, just south of the biggest fire area, I pulled off the road on a scenic turn-off to take a quick stretch and grab a drink. The next stretch was, according to the map, through the biggest fire boundary. It would be unwise of me to stop and rest once in that area so I'd best do it now. The spot overlooked a smoke filled valley, and it was heavily forested. For the moment both bordering fires had missed it. I could just barely make out the boundary of the northern fire in the distance when the smoke shifted just so.
Sitting on the concrete block border overlooking the valley, I realized how tense I had been on the ride so far this morning and forced myself to relax. I had a long way to go and more challenging conditions to deal with today. Slowly I calmed my breathing, relaxed my muscles, and leaned back, my eyes half closed. Breathing slowly but deeply I let my focus wander out into the woods.
The silence was eerie. I had seen nothing living, not even birds, since I got on this road. I could hear absolutely nothing. No animals, no insects, no airplanes, and no vehicles. Complete and total dead silence, not even wind.
Colors were muted along with the silence. Everything had a grey cast to it, even the trees. The smoke and overcast had turned my entire world nearly monochrome.
Grey and silent. Very soothing…in an eerie sort of way. It almost invited my awareness to slip into the woods. Completely relaxed now despite my unease, I just stared out over the valley, contemplating the world and just how big it could be.
All that just made the explosion of noise, color, and pure chaos much more staggering.
A prolonged lightning strike hit the woods near the northern fire line, less than a mile from me. Multiple white-hot lines of energy smashed into the trees and burned the electrical strike patterns into my retinas. I had been staring precisely at the location it struck. I just had time to hear my own sharp intake of breath before the thunderclap struck with what felt like physical force. I could actually see the shockwave travel toward me as it disturbed the smoke and treetops.
The strike location simply exploded. The fire guy had told me it would look like somebody dropped napalm…he wasn't kidding.
He didn't tell me about the scream. Not that I would have believed him…
Especially coming on after such dead silence, the scream was intense and unnerving. It sounded much like slightly wet wood burning in a fireplace…that little pop and squeal, only thousands of times louder and undulating as if some voices faded and new ones joined in. Something very much alive was screaming in agony…or ecstasy.
I realized that I had closed my eyes against the assault of light and noise when I felt the gusts of wind and the sudden radiant heat on my face. Steadfastly I forced them open again as I half-stood up from my impromptu seat. What I saw made me gasp and nearly squeeze my eyes tightly shut again. With effort I controlled my impulse to dive behind the wall and forced myself to look.
He hadn't told me about the dragon either.
The fire had already involved an amazingly large area, and the sudden start had shot a huge fireball into the air. As I watched, a downdraft from the very thunderstorm that had ignited the fire smashed the fireball into an odd shape, curling it over itself. Then a straight-line wind swept it toward the road, sheering it off from the burning trees underneath. There it was, headed right toward the road, just a hair north of my position. A free floating, writhing, flying mass of flames. It seemed to hover over the road for a moment, and then it just vanished. The roar was deafening, and my ears popped in the sudden vacuum as it left.
That would have been unnerving enough, but the shape of the thing convinced me it moved with a purpose. What I saw, just for a moment, was a dragon. Born of the lightning and fire, it flew into the air, writhed in the pleasure of its freedom, and screamed in ecstasy as it flew toward me. I got the impression as it paused over the road that I had been scrutinized and dismissed. No…that was not quite right. I had been scrutinized and acknowledged…or maybe accepted. Was that an eye…and a wink I had seen, or was it all just my stunned mind trying to make some sense out of sudden and inconceivable chaos?
Either way I felt I could have as easily been snatched up and utterly destroyed as left alone. I got the very strong impression that the fact that I stood there and faced it was the deciding factor.
Strange…to feel honored to be a witness…to feel honored to be alive.
The fire in the woods had calmed down a lot, its spectacular outburst ending with the birth, but it was still burning steadily and moving toward the road north of me. The winds were picking up too. I mounted the Valkyrie cruiser and started her up. I was more determined than ever to make the town of Chicken…and later Dawson City...but it would have to be another day. I eyed the fire again, and then looked upward to where the fireball had vanished…to where I had seen the dragon. Reluctantly I turned the big bike back toward Tok. I would try again early in the morning.
As I reached the end of the road I stopped at the pair of brush-fire trucks stationed there to let them know that particular fire was active. The same guy that had told me about the lightning strikes seemed skeptical when I told him I had seen one start. He asked me where and I showed him on the fire map he had given me that morning. It was an easy location to pick out, right on the road at the southern end of the big fire (the Chicken fire).
"It's active there?" he asked and looked toward his older supervisor that was sitting in the truck, "It's approaching the road?"
I looked him in the eye. "Yes." A pause. "You told me about the napalm…you didn't tell me about the scream."
That got his attention. He believed me now. Turned out they weren't going to fight it as there were no structures threatened and it was already on the edge of an existing fire, but they would need to close the road until it was safe to drive through the area.
They made a couple radio calls and the younger guy took one of the trucks and headed up the road. The supervisor came over to talk.
He smiled, "You can try again in the morning. These kinds of flare-ups don't last very long and are not dangerous when there is no wind. It's usually calm in the morning."
"Thanks. I will." I had reseated my sunglasses and quickly moved my hand back to the handlebars. I hoped he hadn't seen how badly it was shaking.
He had. "Are you ok?"
I looked up the road, "Yes. I'm fine. I just wasn't expecting…well…he didn't tell me about the scream."
He laughed. "Yes. Unnerving isn't it?"
I looked back at him and said, "He didn't tell me about the dragon either."
He laughed again, a cheery and carefree thing. He winked and clapped me firmly on the shoulder as he said, "What dragon?
"Try again tomorrow." He winked again. "You'll make it through." With that he turned and went back to his truck. One of the other guys was dragging out a "Road Closed" sign.
Hmmm. Lunch. Yes. Lunch in Tok sounded good.
Strange…to feel honored to be a witness…to feel honored to be alive.
The fires outside of Tok