Going full circle

When Randy Whitmer of Tiffin was 8 years old, his mother died in a car crash. Only 24 years old, she left behind a husband, her son and two daughters. Devastated by the loss, Whitmer lapsed into depression and could not function at school.

“She got killed two days after Christmas over in Willard, Ohio, on that sweeping curve (on US 224). I was in third grade over at Washington Elementary,” Whitmer said. “My dad knew he had to do something, so he took me to the Betty Jane Center.”

The counseling had little effect on the bereaved boy.

In an effort to ease Whitmer’s grief, his dad made arrangements to send him on a trip to the Arctic Circle with family friends, Dale and Opal Cook. Whitmer remembered taking “a suitcase full of comic books” to read in the car. That trip in 1967 stirred his senses and helped him realize his life did not end with his mother’s death.

“It was just me and Dale and Opal and the dog, a poodle,” Whitmer said. “That did the trick and snapped me out of it. It was the first thing I really remembered.”

This summer, more than 45 years later, Whitmer was able to recreate that momentous trip, but this time, he traveled solo – by motorcycle. He covered 11,000 miles in 27 days. In spite of a too-close encounter with a grizzly bear and a few glitches in travel plans, Whitmer made it back to narrate the trip.

“I started out in Tiffin. I wanted to stay in the United States as far as I could, in case something happened, because nobody else in my family has a passport. Once I got into Canada, nobody could come and retrieve me,” Whitmer said.

Riding west to Montana, he headed north from Butte to Dawson Creek, to pick up the Alcan Highway, stopping at the same places he saw with the Cooks. From Fairbanks, Whitmer continued on for about 200 more miles to the Arctic Circle.

From there, he came back to Anchorage, planning to put his bike on a ship and sail back to Washington state, as the Cooks had done. Whitmer said he remembers seeing whales on the three-day ride back to Washington.

Whitmer had to resort to “plan B” when he could not get on a ship at Anchorage.

“They were booked, so they said they had an opening on a ship over in Haines, Alaska, which is clear on the east side,” Whitmer said.

During the ride, he saw multiple miniature rainbows in the mountains near Haines. After buying straps to secure his bike on the ship, he got word the craft had blown an engine. It had to stay in port, and there was no room on any other boat.

Whitmer said he had to ride back through Canada to Seattle to visit his son, John, in the Air Force before returning to Ohio.

Whitmer said he had been planning the excursion since 2011. Online, he found a 2005 Harley Davidson 883 Sportster and bought it for the trip.

When he reached the 20-year mark at the Ford plant in Lima, he used his three weeks of vacation and a week of personal time to spend the whole month on the road.

“To do this trip, I tried to think ahead on everything. … I got a new tent, a new sleeping bag, bear spray, insect spray, first aid kit and a water purification kit,” Whitmer said.

He wanted to stop at some of the same places he had seen in 1967, so he consulted multiple sources to plan the route. The longest distance between gas stops, according to Mileposts Magazine, is 150 miles, and Whitmer’s bike could make 200 miles on a tank of gas. He carried four gallons of spare fuel and used it twice.

“The gas stops might just be a gas pump and a little shack. … If you did miss the 150-mile one, you weren’t going to make the next one,” Whitmer said. “The Alcan Highway just shreds tires. When I went with Dale and Opal in that car, we had five flat tires on the way to Alaska.”

Frost heaves cause dips in the road that can damage vehicles and the coarse stone used in the pavement makes it rough, Whitmer said. Although the road has been straightened and improved since the 1960s, it still is a rough ride. The extreme temperatures cause the pavement to crumble, requiring constant construction and repair.

“About every windshield up there is cracked from the stones. I even put an aluminum screen on my headlight, and the rocks went right through it,” Whitmer said.

In addition to wear on his vehicle, he worried about driving too late at night. On a few occasions, he was forced to do so when his planned stops were closed and he had to continue to the next rest area. The extended daylight was helpful to a degree, but the wildlife came out at their “usual” time, regardless of whether it was dark. Whitmer had read about a rider who died in a collision with a deer, and he feared a similar incident for himself.

“There were hundreds of elk. They’re huge, and the first one I saw was looking me right in the face and was not scared at all. I thought ‘What’s a camel doing here?’ It looked just like a camel,” Whitmer said. “I saw everything – grizzly bears, black bears, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, tons of buffalo, wild horses.”

Whitmer has photos of a black bear feasting on road kill side by side with a grizzly in a “wild kingdom moment.” To look a grizzly in the face “and not die” was amazing to him. At a road construction site, a Native American flagger told Whitmer he had just missed a cougar and a bear dashing across the road.

In British Columbia, Whitmer wanted to revisit the Sign Post Forest at Watson Lake. Tourists from around the globe are encouraged to put up signs there.

“There’s 79,000 signs from all over the world,” Whitmer said. “They give you a hammer and nails and everything. People have made signs out of anything they could get their hands on. There’s toilet seats, spare tires, Tupperware containers.”

The Whitmers had a camper in the 1970s, and Randy remembered a wooden sign they would put out at the campgrounds. Shaped like the state of Ohio, the sign said “The Whitmers – Tiffin, Ohio.”

He had saved that weathered sign, to leave his mark at Sign Post Forest.

“I kept it all these years … I carried that with me all the way up there,” he said. “It’ll be there ’til it rots.”

Also in British Columbia, it took Whitmer three hours to pack his camp and get back on the road because so many other travelers wanted to talk. They saw his Ohio license plate and asked about the bike and his trip. One man said people were interested because they wished they could be doing what he was doing.

“It was just awesome. I met so many nice people,” Whitmer said.

One store clerk especially was patient as Whitmer made phone calls to get his credit card unblocked. While they waited and talked, Whitmer learned the man was a refugee from Sudan who had lost six brothers. The man’s story struck a chord with Whitmer, whose half-brother had died in a job site accident at age 25. Whitmer said that tragic event made him realize he should not put off things he really wanted to do and miss out on rewarding experiences.

In Fairbanks, Whitmer met a man riding a special edition BMW motorcycle he had restored. About that time, Whitmer needed to change the oil in his bike. The BMW owner had a home near Fairbanks and invited Whitmer to the house to change his oil, make repairs and stay the night.

Whitmer said he had planned stops for lodging, but some were closed when he arrived, cold, wet and tired. Then, he had to ride more miles, late into the night, to find something else. He said he rode through the rain at some point every day and often got chilled. On the plus side, he was able to drink water from mountain lakes blue from melted snow and watch rivers tumbling down the rocks.

From Fairbanks, the Trans Alaska Pipeline runs along the Yukon River, and the rough and muddy road follows the pipeline. Whitmer got a good look at its twists and turns. He learned the pipeline’s support posts are equipped with cooling mechanisms that prevent the metal shafts from heating in the sun. Anchored in the permafrost, they would sink farther into the ground and rupture the pipeline. Where it passes underground, the line is refrigerated.

“The pipeline sits on nylon slides. They can slide back and forth on this beam that will give. They have to do these zig-zags or the thing will destroy itself from the velocity of the oil. It also goes on the ground in some places. The oil goes through at 100 degrees,” Whitmer said.

The mosquitoes were bad at Arctic Circle, and Whitmer missed the lowly gas stop on the way south. His reserve fuel saved that leg of the trip.

From the Arctic Circle, he turned south to Anchorage. There, Whitmer met a young, French-speaking couple from Belgium. They were on a hitchhiking and backpacking tour around the world, heading for Mexico and South America. Having put the harshest part of his trip behind him, he left his tent and other gear with the couple.

Reflecting on the ride, Whitmer said he “learned a lot of things beyond the scenery” by talking with a variety of people that included an information technology specialist, corporate executive, pipeline workers and other travelers.

“It was really fun to talk to them and hear their stories,” Whitmer said. “That was as much fun as the trip itself.”

Next summer, he plans to travel by boat to the Hudson River in time to watch the July 4 fireworks.