A Boyhood Journey Every Man Needs

denali highwayToby: I want us to celebrate your 14th birthday by doing a real, tough adventure that no other 14-year-old boys have ever done before.  If you could choose anything, what do you want to do?

 … extended pause …

Elijah: I want to go on a super long bike trip.  But I don’t wanna ride on the back of your bike.  I want my own motorcycle.  And I want to go to South America or Texas or someplace erotic.

Toby: You mean exotic.

Elijah: Yeah.

I had a hard time falling asleep that night.  I thought a lot about prepping the bikes and gear.  I thought more about my teenager barreling into manhood unprepared.  And honestly, I wasn’t prepared for him to even want to be a man yet.  But, I was ready to initiate him into something less than full-on manhood.

Then, it came to me.

This adventure could be his official welcome into being a young man … or pre-manhood.

The real prep started like all good expeditions – with maps.
We scoped out the Denali Highway; a 130 mile dirt road that winds through the Alaska interior just southeast of Mt. McKinley.   Every stream boils with grayling, and ptarmigan sit under every bush.  Wolves run the hills while moose and caribou watch from every ridge. It is paradise.

Denali Highway map

After mulling it over, my dad wanted in.  His choice ride was a 2009 Yamaha Grizzly 700; a Cadillac of wheelers.  I prepped a 2002 Honda XR200 with a sheepskin buttpad. Elijah rode a 2009 Yamaha TTR125 with a 2×4 for a seat.

After months of angst, finally the day arrived!

We loaded the bikes in the trailer and drove North for half a day.  Every half hour Elijah would ask if we were there yet.  “I’m just ready to get on the bike and ride,” he would say.

It was late afternoon when we arrived.  We were giddy, unloading the bikes and strapping on the gear.  Shotguns.  Fly rods.   Waders.  Tools.  I was glad Dad was driving the pack mule; his toiletry kit alone was enormous.

Elijah loading up

Elijah hollered above the awakened engines, “How far to the lodge?”

“Sixty miles.” I yelled.  “That’ll be base camp #1. We’ll explore that area, then two days later we ride 50 miles to base camp #2 for more exploring.”  I was yelling more for joy more than to be heard.

Elijah revved his bike, grinning ear to ear.  Inside his helmet, Dad was chewing gum so fast I thought his internal rpm’s would redline. I squeezed my clutch and dropped into first gear.

In that moment, before we put any distance between us and civilization, we became boys.  Yet somehow we were like kings at the same time.  We were unified, powerful, equipped. There was nothing we couldn’t handle.  The journey lay before us.

We three kings kicked up dust as we tore down the road.

Within the first 5 miles, we jumped an enormous caribou with a rack so large it wouldn’t fit on any wall in my house.  At our first creek crossing Elijah wanted to stop riding and start fishing. By the second creek, his skinny butt had grown pretty sensitive, and he swiped my sheepskin buttpad.

Elijah crossing stream

When we stopped at a scenic overlook, Elijah dug into the food bag.  “How much longer?”

“Only 35 miles to go before sundown.”

He sighed, “I’m just ready to be at the lodge!”  His helmet looked like it suddenly weighed 50 lbs.
Elijah scratching

I patted his back to encourage him, and then sprayed dirt on him as I tore down the road.  Within seconds, he passed me, pretending like he was going to kick me into the bushes.  We were having fun and I enjoyed watching him ride.

Elijah and dad

For the next 35 miles I thought about my dad’s dad.  I wish Elijah could’ve known Papaw.  One day Papaw and I were fishing, and he got upset with my whining.  Rather out of context it seemed, he asked if I knew the difference between a man and a boy. He flipped his rod, watched the cork plop, and said, “A boy always wants to be somewhere other than where he is.”  At that time, I thought it was some dumb grandpa advice.

As the sun slipped behind the mountains and the air became thinner, I listened to the sound of tires on the rocks and our motors droning on.  Papaw’s wisdom would have to be passed onto Elijah.

The next 5 days were unbelievable.
Glorious weather.  Great fishing.  Animals everywhere.  Fantastic meals.  We rode nearly 400 miles of trails and only used the winch once.  By far, it was one of the best trips ever.

Elijah hooked

Dad Tangle Lakes

Looking back, it was an intentional journey out of the routines of our lives and into the unknown.  Two generations of men welcomed a boy into that great and crazy time of pre-man.

I was reminded that in life, just as our journey, there is nothing that a family of men cannot handle together.  And somewhere along this journey, my son, my dad and I became something more than family, if just for a week.  We became boys again, and kings of Denali.

 Elijah and dad snacking


  1. This is absolutely awesome.

  2. Great story Toby. Do you guys in Alaska have to get permits to ride off road vehicles on dirt roads? We are hard pressed to get that many miles of trails in one spot here locally, unless we ride dual sport bikes that are road liscened and all. This is something I would really love to do for my nephew this fall.

  3. Toby Stevens says:

    Ha! Jerry, well … I did my homework about riding the Denali Highway, but not thoroughly. When we reached the far end, at Tangle Lakes, we found out that earlier that summer the State Troopers started ticketing any non-liscensed vehicles driving on the road.
    The lodge dining room was full of fishermen and hunters who were mad as hornets about it. It was the first tickets they’d ever heard about in 50 years. The lodge owner ambled over and asked how far away our our truck and trailer was. I think he was up for giving us a ride to avoid getting a ticket or three.
    When I told him we parked in Cantwell, the whole room burst into laughter. Nobody was driving us 130 miles.
    Suddenly we became an outlaw biker gang!

  4. Roger Yadon says:

    I so much enjoyed the story and the photos. What a memorable journey for each of you. The time together with you guys at the cabin in Willow at the end of your trip is a cherished memory for George, Rog, Danny, Eldon and myself as well.

    You have become an inspiring father, not just to your boys but to many others as well.

    Love you, my outlaw biker gang leader, son-in-law. Even Sonny Barger would be proud of you.

  5. Hannah Muder says:

    What an awesome experience! John & I will be in Alaska this June. We will be traveling from Anc to his hometown of Valdez…we are so excited!

  6. AKBlacksmith says:

    That picture of your son holding the fishing rods is prieceless. By the sourpuss look on his face I’m guessing he hooked himself pretty good. Thats what granpas are for.

  7. ….and hopefully in another 20-25 years you can do it again with another generation.
    Great Ride Report……….!!!!!!!!

  8. Good ride report Toby! You have a knack for writing.

    I’m looking forward to reading about your upcoming ride to South America with Elijah :)

  9. Kathy Payne Cochran says:

    You are an EXCELLENT writer, Toby. But even more important, you are a wonderful storyteller. Pawpaw would be very proud of you for so many reasons. What an adventure this must have been for all of you!

  10. Monica A. Wiggins says:

    What a wonderful concept concerning introducing a young boy into manhood with an adventure. This is a serious missing element in today’s boys / men in our country. Our children desire and deserve our attention, love, affirmation, instruction in the ways of holy godly living and clean fun. Bonding is so important in the life of children, even with girls.
    Way to go Toby !

  11. I love this life memory Toby. I know he will have that for the rest of his life and you are the MAN to show him how and what to become. I am proud to be part of the family

  12. Bill Stevens says:

    I can always trust my son to take a simple event (birthday present) and turn it into something fantastic. Words fall short of helping anyone understand just how great this trip was and how much it meant to all of us. Turning 14 is a BIG deal in the Alaskan native culture. This trip ended at the family camp on a lake outside of Anchorage. All of the men in Elijah’s life had gathered there to offer advice to this boy entering manhood. Around a campfire on the edge of a lake in ALASKA (of all places) with perfect weather, we took turns talking about challenges he would face and discussing ways to meet those challenges. We talked about women. How they should be treated was the point, but the seemingly impossible task of actually understanding them soon emerged. The pursuit of happiness took up most of the time. Identifying what is really important in life was the goal. Finally our discussion ended with acknowledging that God already has His plan for us and our job is to find out what that plan is for our lives. The meeting culminated with each of us giving Elijah a memento of this meeting – his “becoming a man” meeting. I have never experienced or even heard of ANY birthday party being so meaningful. Thanks for allowing me to be part of it. With much love, Dad (or Bill or Papa)