Friday, December 17, 2010

Story Time: Twas A Week Before Christmas

Forgive me for pulling out another Alaska-themed tale, but the timing for this one is perfect: this time of year nineteen years ago I made my move west and north and it makes for a pretty good story.

Fresh-faced, black-haired, and naive, the wanderlust I spoke of in a previous post had taken hold and I accepted a job offer in Chugiak, which is outside of Anchorage. Preparations included getting Lynne's Jeep Grand Cherokee tuned up and having the transmission replaced. The West Virginia inbred who repaired the car installed the wrong transfer case and I had no four-wheel drive the entire trip, though was blissfully ignorant of this fact for most of it. Front seats were moved all the way forward to allow the back of the car to be filled with various possessions (mostly milk crates stuffed with books, if I recall), forcing me to drive knees to chest across the continent. A plastic clam-shell secured to the roof filled with what wouldn't fit inside added aerodynamic style. To save money, of which I had little, the passenger seat held a cooler packed with trail mix and jerky. My gastrointestinal system still holds a grudge over
that decision. For entertainment, my buddy Gary gave me a stack of cassette tapes of various comedians--Gary Shandling, Robin Williams, Robert Klein--invaluable during those long stretches where the only radio signal was from some Children-Of-The-Corn community in the American outback. Gary would continue to abate my homesickness by sending tapes of the Howard Stern Show to Chugiak. That my friends, is a true friend. My last act before leaving was to put an engagement ring on Lynne's finger. To this day I'm unsure if this was a gesture of commitment or a male marking his territory. Either way, it was apparently the right move because I've somehow managed to hold onto that little jewel ever since.

Day 1: Fairfax, VA to Altus, OK (1,456 miles)
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Coffee is a miracle. A full 24 hours of driving the first day. True, I was fueled by excitement as well as caffeine, but it still made for a long first leg. Looking at a map, you'll notice that this is not the straightest distance between two points. There was a method to this madness. My friend Matt worked for the Air Force at Altus and had a free place to crash and grab a meal or two (did I mention how small my travel budget was?). In the end, I spent most of my time there in bed, moving on shortly after waking, but his was the last familiar face I'd see for almost a year.

Day 2: Altus, OK to Salt Lake City, UT (1,045 miles)

Aside from a free night's stay, going through Oklahoma also set me up to cross the Rockies near Albuquerque, something I thought might be best in late December. As it turned out, I hit an ice-storm in the Texas panhandle and drove through a fog in Utah that turned to ice on the windshield faster than the defroster could melt it. I drove a winding canyon road hunched over, navigating through the clear spot just over the defroster vent. When I finally found a cheap dive of a hotel on the outskirts of Salt Lake I was exhausted. I hated spending money on a room I would only be in for about six hours, but it was way too cold to chance sleeping in the car.

Day 3: Salt lake City, UT to Bellingham, WA (924 miles)

Woohoo! A sub-thousand mile day! I was in a groove now. My ass was conforming to the car seat (or vise-versa) and the miles seemed to fly by. Things got interesting going over
Snoqualmie Pass in Washington. See, to this Virginia boy, the word "pass" conjures up visions of a low spot in the mountains where cars can pass freely in all seasons. The concept that a pass might actually close due to weather was beyond me. My AAA TripTik had no elevation markings, just a blue-highlighted I-90 that seemed to shout "clear sailing, by Jove that's a pass up ahead". I found myself in a blizzard, semis splattering my windshield with dirty snow. Cleaning fluid ran dry. It was then, trying in vain to see lane lines through a muddy smear, I realized, not for the last time, that I might be in a bit over my head.

Fortunately, on the other side of the pass snow turned to rain, which allowed for better visibility and a chance to get off the highway and replenish my washer fluid. From there it was a wet, but easy drive to Bellingham. The next day I would be headed over the Canadian border for my date with the AlCan Highway.

Day 4: Bellingham, WA to Dawson's Creek, British Columbia, Canada (722 miles)
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Slept in for the first time and was well rested crossing the border, with more than a few suspicious looks from the officers there. Sure, I
said I was moving to Alaska, but I had a car packed to the roof with all my stuff. Who would know if decided to find myself a cozy little town in the interior and become a Canuck? The drive on this stretch was not as easy going and fast, but the British Columbia scenery was fantastic, and I started to see the first wildlife of the trip, stopping to let a herd of Bighorn Sheep cross the road. (the pictures here were taken with a disposable camera almost two decades ago and scanned, so no cracks about the photography!). Across Canada I would see caribou, moose, bison, fox, lynx, and even a lone wolf on or along the road. There are definite benefits to driving dawn to dusk with almost no traffic on the road.

Day 5: Dawson's Creek, BC to Watson Lake, Yukon Territory, Canada (967 miles)
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Getting pretty far north now and the scenery was white and desolate, but no less beautiful for it. The road was now a line of packed snow and the distances between services so long I had to consult my Milepost to be sure I didn't pass up a chance for gas and get stranded in the Yukon like some character out of a Jack London story. The trip was wearing on me now, no doubt about it. The lack of sleep, the poor food, the concentration of driving on snow. You can hear a stand-up routine only so many times before the jokes get old (the official number is three, like a Tootsie Pop). By now I had figured out that there was something going on with the four-wheel drive. I had slid off the road, trying to stop too quickly to get a picture of a moose (by the end of the trip, seeing moose was such a common occurrence it barely raised an eyebrow) and had to get towed off the shoulder and back onto the road by some helpful locals. The Jeep wasn't in deep snow, so this was surprising, but i wasn't about to stop and try to figure it out--not that I could have done anything about it anyway. Future wildlife sightings were handled with much less enthusiasm--stopping in the middle of the "highway" was not an issue when you rarely saw half a dozen other cars in a day anyway!

Day 6: Watson Lake, Yukon Territory to Tok, Alaska (1,058 miles)
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USA! USA! Christmas Eve spent on a fourteen-hour marathon drive just so I could get across the border. I was able to find one hotel still open in Tok (it might have been the
only hotel in Tok, now that I think about it). The room had no phone, only a small tv with antenna reception. In the cliche of cliches, on the one grainy channel that was viewable, the thing playing when I checked in was--you guessed it--It's A Wonderful Life. I called both Lynne and my family collect from the phone booth in the parking lot, shivering so badly from cold I cut both conversations short and ran back to the warmth of the hotel. My room was tiny and dirty and I slept fully clothed on top of the threadbare comforter. I was very depressed and lay there wondering if I had made a terrible decision.

Day 6.5: Tok, AK to Chugiak, AK (303 miles)

Morning didn't start out much better. It almost didn't start at all. The first turn of the key produced a weak "rrrrrroww" sound under the hood. Ugh. Of course. Too cold for the engine block. Second try: "rrrrrrow". On the fifth it started, I breathed a sigh of relief and was on my last, short sprint to the end. I had some money in my pocket and treated myself to a Christmas breakfast at a diner along the way. As is typical throughout the state, portions are of a size befitting Alaska itself and I gorged on pancakes, eggs and sausage. It was a cold, clear, gorgeous day and between the weather and the food, my dark mood lifted away. I sat at the counter next to a trapper. No, I mean it. An honest to God guy who made his living setting a trap line and checking it every day on his snowmobile. No electricity at the house except via gas generator which they fired up on Christmas to light the tree. Fascinating to talk with and the conversation renewed the sense of wonder this adventure had produced at the beginning. I pulled into my new job late in the afternoon, 6000-plus miles and a week after leaving Virginia. What more could a boy ask of Christmas?

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