Monthly Archives: June 2017

The Alaska papers – Part 3

North to Alaska

The Alcan Highway – Part 3

By Rick Cleveringa

(*You can revisit Part-1 here and  Part-2 here.)

***PART THREE: The Alaska Papers***

Mrs. Betty

The woman behind the counter at the Super 8 has been standing there 38 years though she does not show it. She said, “They say they built the motel around me”, her hair silver but neat as a pin. Her manors are southern and familiar. I ask about a room, “Yes of course” she says. We chat a bit and she tells me that she came up with her army husband in the 50’s, a tale I would hear often in Alaska.

Originally from Shreveport Louisiana and proud of her roots, I liked her very much and wanted to make friends. Up to the room for a shower and nap, I opened the door and said “Jesus!” It is a real shithole and it was not cheap, I may have had to pay extra to view the previous occupants murder scene. The room was dingy in every way, the furniture was battered and bruised and greasy looking. Every edge in the room was burnished shiny by use or struggle. The bathroom light switch cover had blood on it, that was surprising to me because I only notice that after I had turned the lights on. It was dank and funky. OK one night and I will find other quarters in the morning. There was no hot water for a shower, I was to wired and to disgusted to rest, so I went down town.

Parking the Jeep on 6th street I walked up and down the tourist parts enjoying it all. I loved Anchorage, it was old fashioned and slightly worn at the seams. It was enjoyable and small enough to get around easy. There was no real reason for me to pick this city as my destination because the Alcan heads North to Fairbanks. I wanted the coast I guess and here I was digging this place. Exhausted I went back to my dingy room and pulled the curtains tight. Using toilet paper I flipped the bathroom light switch on and took a cold shower. The wifi is criminally slow and I gave up and wanted to crawl into bed. Now I see I had left my pajamas in Saskatoon; that would make a great song title. Off to Wal-Mart to get a cheap pair cause I will not get in that bed with no clothes on.

Day 6

Up at 6:30 looking for a different motel on line. Camping is also an option; nearby Chaugo National park would be a nice place to set up. I went downstairs and see Mrs. Betty at the counter. Now I do not plan to stay or complain about the room, it’s OK I’ll just go. Mrs Betty calls me over to ask me how I rested. Well I don’t want to complain but… I tell her about the room. She is sorry and says “I’ll move you to a different room and only charge you $107 per night. Just go see this other room, I want you to be happy”. She insisted I stay and see the next room. OK she was a great representative for the Super 8. The next room was in a different motel I think. It had the same stuff in it, but was clean and the price was unbeatable. “Yea thanks Betty I will stay,” I said. “Oh good I want your first trip to Anchorage to be a good one” she replied. We chatted for 20 minutes and she told me her life’s tale, a lovely woman a real asset to her company. The next month Super 8 double charged me for the room for dates when I was sleeping at home in my own bed. I had to call Mrs. Betty and she took care of that. The new computer system was to blame. Thanks Betty it was a pleasure to meet you.

Back on the street and I go to Al’s Army surplus. Man they have the nicest outdoor gear, lots of canvas and leather. Real wool coats and high end out door clothes. Though for me its only a museum of the new, I can’t partake in buying all the cool stuff I love here. It was nice to see but I wander up and down the street and get a closer look than last night. I dig the souvenir shops and load up on Eskimo knifes and tee shirts for my pals, gifts for E’s family and friends, a hoodie for me and on to the next shop. The farmers market is happening down the street so I go check it out.

The market fills a large parking lot with white tents with strange foods and wild crafts. It’s chilly and a lite rain is falling. The market still draws a fair crowd and I walk the whole of it to see what is about. There are leather workers, jewelry, crafts and one guys have these beaver fur mittens that are so badass. You can picture yourself wearing them on a sled dog run to Nome. It was really nice. They had a band of 80-year-old women playing double neck guitars, sax and drums, a Townes VanZant knock off heads the mic. He plays standards and they tarry away at them.

Next to the stage are salmon and caribou tacos, yes Please! I take a seat at the picnic table and have a bite to see what they taste like. It was nice little taco that needed some hot sauce and they got it. I saw some Korean fish shaped waffles I wished I had tried. There was much I would like to go back for, I just had to keep in mind its a 65 hour drive. At one shop I bought Esther some pearls fashioned into a long necklace by the woman artist there. It was a nice stop I wished it had been sunny and I could eat like I was 20 again.

Wandering around I see the Anchorage Museum. Why not? It was full of modern art and had an incredible collection of Inuit art and weapons. There were lots of bows and arrows, quivers and harpoons, far better than one would expect. The windproof seal gut jackets were amazing, they look like Tyvek. I really learned so much about life current and past here. They have a large photo gallery of huge black and whites of abandoned work sites and homes in the far north. They were gripping and you walk into each photo and exist in that far off world if for only a moment. The effect left me dazed. It is a superb museum. The downstairs had a wonderful hands-on kid section, giant crazy machines and a land of bubbles. Pools with soapy water and large bubble wands, large enough you can stand inside the bubble. The kids were wild and happy here, the parents smiled. It was a happy wonderful place. When I left I walked back into the gray and rainy day.

I moseyed through the dripping city past the shops and tour buses, past the homeless and locals. Past the retirees that drove the RV up here from Michigan and past the wealthy in furs and nice shoes. The city was busy and I had work to do. I went to the Alaskan RR ticket office to book my trip. Over the tracks I walk into a venerable old train station, it was film Noir under my feet. Wow I loved it.

The ticket agent is a gray haired woman whose blues eyes are so kind and youthful. She has an accent of a Nordic background. Monika loves working here and is so glad to help me find a trip I can take Sunday. I have no clue where I should go so she suggested a day trip to Talkeetna. Why? I ask. “Oh its a lovely town. You can spend 6 hours shopping. They have a lot of restaurants for lunch or you can go to Denali.”

WHAT” Denali?” this peaks my interest. It never occurred to me to go to the tallest peak in the US. I ask her to tell me more. “From town you can walk to the airport and they fly you to the mountain. You land on a glacier and spend an hour there exploring. When you get to Talkeetna find K2 aviation they will take care of you.” Wow hell yes! The train ticket was set, $275 and I have my reservation in hand, this is exciting.

 Back down town I find the Captain Cook statue and look out into a long run of mud that leads to the open sea. After all, that’s what the good captain was doing. I bid Captain Cook and the sea farewell and walk back down town.

Who knew I was about to enter the best unintentional museum in the world? On 6th street, down past the tourist shit, was a gray unassuming building with a single glass and aluminum door, the sign read Antiques. Sure I have time to kill. This place was amazing, the brass telescopes, the whaling guns, the pre Colombian pottery and Roman glass; it’s a serious collection. They had a Rembrandt and Van Gogh, tons of dinosaur fossils, the largest trilobite I have ever seen, loads of stuff piled and packed on every spare inch of space. They had paintings I had seen in art books, racks of antique guns. It was amazing every piece was museum quality. One of the owners showed me around, he was a quiet fellow with a gray ponytail and small glasses. He was wearing a black turtleneck and slate colored slacks. There was a nonchalance about what he showed me and it seemed very strange that you could actually buy any of it.

If you were going to outfit a museum or one hell of a library this would be the place. I spent an hour just looking around. The owner was most kind to spend such time with me; he could see I did not have two nickels to rub together. He told me last week they sold a fully intact Mammoth skull for $250,000, he said it like he sold a pack of gum. I felt bad looking around but the staff was patience with my questions. This trip has shaped up far beyond my first thoughts.

 

I found The Coffee Cup shop and went in for a mug and a brownie. I wrote and looked at emails. I watched people for a while and rested my feet. Another remarkable day under my belt and I was beat. Back to the motel and sleep, the wifi was better, the room was clean, I watched some TV and lay back after a hot shower.

Day 7 Sunday the 20th

Up at 4:30 and get ready for the train. Washed some clothes and had a fast bowl of Frosted Flakes. Saw Mrs Betty this morning, she was taking the stairs down so I joined her. She asked how I rested seemingly genuinely concerned. It was nice to be asked.

I tell her I am off to the train, “Oh you are going to love it I promise” she said. I drove downtown to the train station. Now it was here that I notice that I am about 15 years too young to be doing this retired guy stuff. It dawns on me that many folk I have seen are all over 65. Ah yea, I’m still getting the idea that I too am retired for the moment. On the other hand am I just doing old guy stuff? Later along the coast an old fella would tell me “You have to be retired to do this”. I ponder my new situation as I drink a terrible $5 cup of coffee at the station. The station is full but unlike the Noir films I love so much, no one is in a suit. This I notice, as I have no inner pocket for my train ticket and meal voucher.

I hear the train! Announcements are made on a loudspeaker. A line forms and they yell “ALL ABOARD!”

The locomotive and cars are gold and royal blue, all sleek and beautiful as the diesel engines

purring away. Just like a movie, bells clang and air releases in a loud psshhssss.

In line I hear two guys with British accents. The British have a great love of trains. They are friendly and we chat throughout the trek. They are from Portsmith. “Oh cool I will be there in September” I say. “Great time to be in England” one says. “See Lord Nelsons ship”. “Yes I plan to see the Mary Rose” I reply.

They have been on the train South to Seward and now are heading North to Fairbanks.

 

On board I take a seat in the sight seeing car, glass domed and great views. The train is slowly moving out of Anchorage, I wonder, can you feel the excitement? Soon the call for the dinning car was made and I head down for breakfast. I see the chaps from the UK and sit with them. Rod and Steven say the food was really good on the train. I am hungry and ready for a good breakfast. We see a moose standing right next to the tracks. Wow, breakfast was tasty and hardy, all very good.

I really want to go out on the open-air deck of the train. Outside the cold air and the diesel fumes blow past you. It was a unique experience and I stay out till my head is frozen. I go back inside take a seat and drink hot coco. The backdrop was as scenic as the drive. I saw swans, bears, moose, lakes, great forests and rivers in the wild. All untouched all pristine.

 

Talkeetna

Talkeetna

The train station in Talkeetna was not downtown. Only a few people left the train and got into cars and drove off. This leaves me alone in the station and I don’t know which way to go, so I hoof it. I walk the way I think town might be and cutting through a campground I ask a camper. He was washing a pot and said, “Go down to the end of the pavement and go left”. He was from Anchorage and up for the weekend. I did find most people very friendly and willing to talk. A ten-minute walk and I was on Main Street and two blocks down and I found K2 Aviation.

It was a small house converted to an office; actually every house in town has been converted into some business. It would be like living in a Renaissance fair. I enquire about a Denali trip with glacier landing, but unfortunately, no dice today. Though it is a bright and sunny day here, the mountain makes its own weather. It’s too dangerous to fly up there today and landing is impossible. No luck, shit now what do I do? I have 6 hours to kill in this town of crafty shops in little houses.

Now I feel a little trapped. Dismayed I walk the two streets and look at the shops. I was told to go see the mayor of Talkeetna, maybe he can help me out? I have my little video camera and figure I can interview his lordship. It was nearing lunchtime and from what I heard, the mayor may be awake by now. I go Nagleys store to met him. Rumors of his death have been hounding the little town this year and the resident complaints about the press congesting the tiny streets with news vans are common. The mayor is alive but not well, he is resting at home today. That is what I am told by the woman at Nagleys. So I wont get to see Lord Mayor Stubbs today either. The reason why the press keeps a close eye on a small town mayor is, his death will be news for mayor Stubbs is a cat. He has unanimously been voted in as Mayor since 1997.

Crestfallen I walk up and down the streets looking at the cute little shops. This would be a wonderful stop on a road trip for an hour. Five and half hours to go and soon I despise the tourists and I am one of them. Though they were well behaved, the reality of depending on hoards of people stuffing themselves and buying trinkets made of beads and feathers, so you can work doggedly for a few weeks a year just to survive, bothers me deeply. The real pay off for the residents here would be the free days spent in this lovely place. When none of the tourist are blocking your driveway with their rented car. Then the winter sets in, the months of darkness and contact with only a handful of people you know all too well, it becomes a very strange place.

I have seen all the cute little shops one can stand. This is the time to come up with a new strategy, change your outlook. This exercise eludes me far too often on travel and in life but today I recognize what to do. Dig deep my man lets see what is here.

A small, often ignored wooden arrow, reads Museum. OK lets see what this is? It is pointing me to walk between two clapboard buildings. The buildings are about 2 feet apart, wooden planks on the ground were acting as a sidewalk in the mud. This takes me out onto the next block. Away from the main shopping streets to a more residential area. I open the door of the museum, pay the $3, and look at the books on the shelf. The man at the desk must have not seen a living soul in days and talks endlessly. It was like rescuing a man from a deserted island. The Talkeetna Historical Society museum is three buildings all with exactly what you expect. Old tools, rusty machinery, old saws, old clothes; things I have seen in every town museum everywhere. I buzzed through the three buildings in minutes and paused in the last room at the diorama of mount Denali. The little man ran in like the museum was on fire, out of breath he says, “Come back at 1:00 we have a talk about the mountain. One of the rangers comes down and gives a real nice speech”. “Ok thanks that sounds nice I say”. We both knew I would not be back.

The curator did suggest that I go to the Roadhouse for lunch. It is a family style restaurant with long tables where strangers share meals. Climbing gear, snowshoes and hammocks adorn the walls and nooks. I sat at a table after asking if the seat was free. A young German fellow with beard and lanky body says ”Yah”. This place is for mountaineers before and post accent. A few of these guys are around eating huge plates of food and laughing as one. Truly I admire their courage and strength, but there is an arrogance that sits with me wrong. The server ignores me for a long time, no menu, no glass of water. Clearly I do not belong here so I wandered out to an Inn down the way. Sat out side on the deck and waited. Was I invisible today or just another fat tourist? The town smells like hamburgers on a summertime grill. The waitress comes, I order the burger and slaw, it was all tasty. I actually felt good as I ate it the staff at the Denali brewing company was nice. I would meet the burger chef later.

After my burger I amble down to the river. The Susitna River boarders the town and breaks the land from the mountains. The river is high and the muddy water that looks like chocolate milk races by. There is gold out there somewhere. I toss a stone or two into the drink looking out to the cloudy horizon miles away. Mt Denali is somewhere buried in that mist and fog. A breath of air and I walk on. The ranger station was a block away.

It was an inviting new building and a most interesting stop. Ranger Mike at the counter was courteous and edifying. I watch the 17 minutes presentation on climbing Mt McKinley. Mike spent 20 minutes telling me about Denali and climbing. What I found out was all climbers of Denali have to check into this station. I asked about an application. He said you fill it out on line. There are over 1000 attempts in 2016 with 60% summit success. Many have perished; around 100 lives have been given to the mountain since the first attempt in 1903.

There were a few unsuccessful summits attempt until 1913 when a man named Walter Harper made the summit. A Native Alaskan, half Irish and half Koyukon, he was part of a four man team to be the first. In the end the mountains were not the danger he needed to be aware of, it was the sea. In 1918 he and his new wife died on their honeymoon in a shipwreck in route to Juneau. The SS Princess Sophia entered a heavy gale, she ran one mile off course, striking a reef the ship broke up. 40 hours later, unable to receive help, all hands perished in the icy sea. From the top of the world to the bottom of the ocean, he is a man who’s name we should know.

In 1906 a man named Cook was said to be the first. He also claimed in1908 to be the first man at the North Pole, both these claims were contested and soon found out not to be true. He was just confused by the altitude and the cold or a fucking liar?

My favorite group of mountaineers was the Sourdough Party; the name alone conjures up a good time. They spent three months on the mountain in 1910. They carried bags of doughnuts and thermoses of hot chocolate on their many unsuccessful attempts to summit. They at least had good eats.

“CMC’s”

It is a very serious climb. I will never see the summit so I liked the film very much. There was a sign on the door about Clean Mountain Cans or CMC’s. What’s that Ranger Mike? Climbers are responsible for taking their waste off the mountain; the CMC is brought to the ranger station for disposal. Under the water fountain I see 8 cans. They look like a black 3 gallon bucket. Never did I think about where one shits on the peak or the fact you’ve got to carry it around with you. The weather was posted on the board and daily update on climbing conditions. The climber’s registry books were on another counter and everyone who comes back off the mountain alive must stop here and be interviewed for the record. Elevation made, conditions and why they did or did not make the summit. I found all this very fascinating.

A group of climbers comes in from their attempt to check in. Army Team they were called, rugged young men and one older, seven in all. They made it to 16200 feet. Have you ever met anyone that has climbed that high? I am so impressed. They all have this terrible sunburn on their faces. Their forehead cheeks and chins all red as a beet except where their goggles protected their skin. It looks badass. It was called Raccoon eyes by the rangers. They had these crazy looking boots. I can’t imagine what they have gone through? I ask only a couple questions. It seemed they did not want to talk to a mere sea level walker like myself. They were going into to be interviewed by the rangers. Things were improving.

There is a shiny silver trailer on Main Street boasting of Spinach pie and Brazilian lemonade. In the side of the Airstream trailer there was an opening with wooden counter and canopy. Here you can place your order and receive a nice afternoon treat. Inside were a woman and two young girls bumping elbows, working in the tiny kitchen. A hot cup of coffee pressed into a big cup and a Blueberry, rhubarb cobbler comes my way topped with whip cream and looks like a tiny Denali. This will be my only summit here. I take a seat on a wooden bench in the sun. Watch the people go by and enjoy my afternoon pick me up. It was a great cup of Joe and the cobbler was sweet and tart. Three hours to go.

 

Still Waters run deep

Now I can’t face one more gift shop today. Though I have bought nothing, I am suffering from 30% buyers remorse and 60% retail burnout and 10% of me is ready for a nap. Across the road was a park where I could seek refuge, sitting at a picnic table writing all this, is when I met Marv. He is man of 60 plus, there is an ivory, Inuit fishhook pin on the left side of his red wool barrette. This tops off his oily gray nest of home done haircuts. He is wearing Carhartt insulated coveralls and I thought it was way to warm for that much protection. Marv is unkempt and smells as if he is late for a bath, very late. At least one week but more like a month. I saw him roll in to town earlier in a beat to shit black Ford Ranger, wood sideboards spray painted black to match the amateur painted truck. In the bed of the pick up he has some carvings for sale, three on bark, some on driftwood and four on stone. Mostly faces, poorly executed, without style or study, they are not even crude or folk art. Just thin and unwanted scratches on stone or in wood. He comes over and talks to me and I go look at his work. He takes out a face scratched on stone. He said “I did this 15 years ago”. It is not hard to see why no one has snatched up this sculpture in the last decade. I did not ask the price. Perhaps that is the rub. I politely ask about his choice of stone. He said “I dunno I found it by the river”. If anyone were to buy his work it would be out of pity. You would give him some money, look at it in the car and chuck it out the window in the ditch. About a mile down the road Marv tells me he has been up here 43 years, his place is 30 miles away.

He left Washington and a job at Lockheed Martin, claims he had been “STUCK”. Stuck at Lockheed. “They said I wasn’t Qualified” he stated. There is anger deep in his voice “I been stuck all those years” he said. For the first time on my trip I confessed my situation. “Marv I quit my job and drove up here with no plan”. I told him. Cathartic maybe? Perhaps I was looking at myself in Marv. Have I not been “stuck” as well? I sure was not “qualified”, whatever that meant to him? This was the second time on the trip I feared I was staring at my future self. The first was at the gray fat man at the Canadian boarder, it was not till now I was ready to admit that in writing.

Marv seemed unfazed by my life availing statement. I could have told him “Marv you are wearing a hat” or “Marv your pants are on fire”, his response would be the same. Disconnected and unmoved, Marvin did not appear he could be shook. He said “Lots to do up here in the summer, Things are slow till June when the kids get out”. Marv asked if I was camping up there? “No, train” I said. He looked around and said bluntly “I am going down to the river to nap”, got in his truck and drove off. This was an odd interview. Was I just a few bad moves from river naps and dirty coveralls? Shit what was I doing up here? Two and a half more hours to go.

I wrote till my ass tired of the bench and wandered down a less traveled street. Here I found a new wood plank building called The Gold shop. The place was empty of people and the display cases were filled with gold nuggets. Shit is that real? I looked for a shop keep and almost felt bad being in there alone with all that gold. The proprietor came wandering in from outside. Jessie was a thin-framed man with long hair tied in a ponytail. His beard was long and gray as a rainy day. He was prospector, a beat up looking old man more homeless looking then a guy who made 150K with just a little luck last year. Jessie said, “There are 500 million acres of gold out there. Just have to go and pick it out”. He was friendly and called the tourist “travelers”. He said tourist sounded too Mexican. There was something wise in his still clear blue eyes that were surrounded by leathery brown skin, cheekbones that owned the grand smile that was below them. I could see his best days were gone, behind in some long gone memories now. Hell I would like to hear all of them. You could tell he was a tough man in the day, still tougher than most right now. His real strength was internal, it was wisdom, and all those years of hard work was only a consequence of that sagacity.

He told me. “Winters are good up here in Talkeetna, miners and prospectors would come down here for the winter, we had coffee, whiskey and women”. Jessie laughed about the good old days. Then he pulled out a 4oz gold nugget in the case and let me hold it. My god it was amazing. It does something to you. I remembered Bogart in “The Treasure of the Serria Madre”, the fever was real. The gravity of this glob of material was so strong it vibrated; my hand was pulled to the earth by its weight. I had to give it back. He smiled, his eyes smiled, he recognized the sickness in me and laughed.

Jessie said he had a similarly large nugget that he sold for 21K cash to a Chinese fellow who walked in and bought it. My purchased would be soundly less. It was a $30 nugget that was shaped like Denali. With its taller South peak and lower North, this gold bit was the size of a large cupcake sprinkle. It was a small price to pay just to meet him. I liked this wise old man, somewhere in me is the blood that wants to stay and learn his secrets, study under this master. Learn the magic of gold, seek its hiding places, cast the spell to coax it from its sleep and warm my pockets with its color. Just till I have enough money to stop you understand. It was 4:05 PM and I had a train to catch. I shook his ruff hand and said thank you. He smiled like Buddha as I walked away.

Being on time for me means being there 20 minutes before I need to. Even though I have time to take a lazy pace to the station I need to walk like I was leaving an unpinned grenade, my backpack pounding away at my spine. In a few minutes I was cutting back through the campground and up a small hill to the parking lot of the train station. Ok you made it now what? Find a quite place and write in your journal. Outside the open station I sat on a long bench near the tracks. There is a crazy woman here talking on her phone, talking so loud and in a New York accent. She knows she is loud and she moves down 50 yards, but I can still hear her. “OhMYGwadd!” and “I Can’t believe he said that” She says over and over.

The train comes in from the north, all smooth, blue and gold. It is remarkable. The air brakes hiss the massive machine to a stop. No more than 5 minutes go by and ALL ABAORD is called. The return journey I opted for the cheaper ride and gave up my Gold Member status and rode passenger. No more outdoor balcony, free hot coco or a dinning car, just seats and a window. Car D is the ride home and it has exactly three people on it, one intense guy Mark, myself and the crazy lady. New York Betty is excited by everything about the train. She carries on and Mark is telling her that the D car is the best car; this is the only way to travel on the train. He slammed down into the seat and put his feet up. Betty was in the front seat and turning around to talk to Mark. He is from Talkeetna and has been living there for a few years. Mark seems to know a lot about Alaska, the laws, places and the train. He is in the entertainment business. The man is reluctant to say what part of the Biz he is in. Finally he tells me he is a DJ, Mark of the Wild he is called. That is his radio name. As a sideline he has a lighting gig in a strip club in Anchorage, a club he used to work at. “Just an over-nighter. I can not stand the city anymore” He said. Now in Talkeetna he is a prep cook and made my cheeseburger today.

New York Betty asks about our homes, but really that’s just her way to start talking. She loves the train, it was her first time and everything fascinates her. Mark seems like a decent guy. In a applying for a job he would interview well. He is neat looking, well spoken, and seems to be a very bright guy. Soon I start to see his personality unravel. “If I only had the money,” he said several times. He lives on two acres outside of Talkeetna. “If someone comes up to my property I’ll take care of them” Phrases that would have you believe that he is not comfortable around people.

Betty is clueless and talks and talks. Mark is kind of interesting to me and I want to ask him more questions. Betty moves back a seat to be better heard. She admits that she cannot afford to live in NY on the Hudson any longer. Her husband started a fire in the Alaska house to recover some of their losses. She has been up there working and painting, she is still loud and says Fucking all the time. The other words she repeats are Italian or Italian food. She said she had been cooking. “I made lasagna, meatballs and gravy”. By gravy she means sauce. I know this and when I say sauce she said, “Are you Italian?” No I am not. I ask Mark of the Wild about women in Talkeetna. He said, “There are no women up there. The ones that are there are involved with 5 guys”. Now I will quote him “The odds are good, and the Goods are odd” He is bitter deep down, he is a wounded guy. Hurt and hiding in this beautiful but lonely place. Does the natural beauty help or exacerbate the pain I wonder? Somehow he was a good example of a person to meet. I wished Betty were not there so I could talk with Mark.

Betty says I should go to the Alaskan Bush Company. It’s a strip joint and they have very beautiful women there. How do you know I ask? She says “I drop my husband and friends off there”. Mark said that is where his lighting job is. He worked there for years as a DJ. I sense he has a real disdain for the women who work there and perhaps most women. The ride back is pleasant and I ask Mark this and that. He said something about “climbers”. When he said climbers there was a tone of contempt in his voice. I asked what he meant by “Climbers”. He does not break bad on anyone. I press him, what did you mean? “Ok they are sometimes very arrogant” He said. I told him about the deutschbag I met at the restaurant. He went on about how poorly they treat the locals, how one rather famous climber was also famous for leaving his shit all over the mountain; he refused to use the CMC. It’s a real concern to keep the mountain clean. The locals here feel a connection to this place. They are caretakers of a national landmark. Hey I would too. Would you let people shit in your yard? Betty is oblivious and loquacious still. She and I went upstairs to the gondola to enjoy the view. We have some comments cards to fill out; I say the train is very romantic. She loves this word “Romantic” and peppers her conversation and the comment card with it. Happily she scrolls away in pencil at the card.

As I peer out the glass roof, the train gets close to the city and Betty said she is getting a taxi to the airport. What she really wants is for Mark or I take her. We don’t bite and the train arrives back at the station. We head out our separate ways, it is evening and I drove back to my Super room and call it a night.

The Alaska Papers – Part 2

North to Alaska

The Alcan Highway – Part 2

By Rick Cleveringa

(*You can revisit Part-1 here)

***PART TWO: The Alaska Papers***

Dawson Creek Odometer reading 28398

Dawson’s Creek – the start

It is 6:40 PM and I stop at the grainier gift shop. It’s a tourist trap filled with travelers. I photo the Jeep in front of the great red arrow heading me into an unknown. I drove downtown to have a look at the Zero mile marker. Exchanged some cash to Canadian dollars at BMO Harris. Gas and bad coffee in Dawson Creek and I was very excited to finally be on the Alcan. It is an odd feeling to pull onto a piece of asphalt that people live and work on. Where daily travel is no more special to them than the road in front of my house is to me. Some deep excitement of childhood adventure, some ancient wild in the blood boils and you are on just any old road for most but for me in this moment its pure adrenalin adventure. Just outside of Dawson I saw my first moose. It was dead on the side of the road. This beast was so large. I imagine the car from this clash did not survive. The Swamp Donkey was now a massive fur rug covering spoiling muscle. Seemed a real shame. I wanted to stop but the traffic was moving fast and so should I.

An hour outside of Dawson Creek, the road was empty, wet and ran up into mountains covered with pines. The Jeep passed through a great forest fire or the remains of one. Smoke was drifting across the roadway; miles of trees were reduced to black stems. The smell was a grand perfume but the sight was heartbreaking. Rain started lightly and went on till the next day. At 10:30 PM I felt very tired and was ready for some rest. I drove past a lot with a few motor homes parked for the night, so I turned back and pulled down the hill to park. Now I set up my back sleeping quarters for the first time of the expedition and lay down. My first road camp was between Wonowon and Sikanni Chief. The Jeep motel was tight but I found comfort in my tiny home.

In the early morning a dream vivid, enough to cause me to laugh out loud, woke me. It was still night so I lay back down, nodding off for another hour. By morning it was 33 degrees, around 6:00 AM, after night one snug in the back of the Wrangler I felt pretty well rested. I stepped out for a stretch and a piss, straighten out my shirts and got ready for the next big day. I climbed back into the commander seat and turned the key, the other campers still lay quiet as I pulled up the hill and back onto the highway.

Day 4 odometer reading 28560

This morning’s drive was through more forest fires; some were not completely out. There is a very large and dangerous fire North of my trek in Fort McMurray. Full on evacuations and houses have been destroyed. The roads up there are closed to traffic and where I am driving there are miles of blackened pines. Later I would find out these scrawny trees are Black Spruce and they grow only over the permafrost. With shallow roots the trees droop and are sometimes called a Drunken forest. These are charred and look like black pipe cleaners. The smoke smells like a cedar bon fire, it makes me dream of the souls of my boots roasting near the fire, pals in tents and sleeping bags near by. The road climbed up and up, away from the fires at lower elevations. I guess I’ll have a handful of trail mix and a granola bar.

What I begin to notice is where the highway is. Its laid in the middle of a 100-yard swath cut out of this wilderness. What did it take to build this? With these great open shoulders one can start to see the wild life. “What is that?” I say, there was this huge black-as-coal animal running up the hillside. I put on the tiny dash camera and all I can say is “Bear, BEAR, BEAR!” Wow my first bear in the wild, fantastic; I feel so happy right now. Soon Id see another, more and more as day ran on. That made my heart flush with joy as the Jeep climbed happily up into the mountains. Rain was changing to snow and up we went.

Fort Nelson Gas and Coffee

After a long stretch of deserted highway I pulled into to town. Fort Nelson was a welcome sight as I can never tell when fuel will be available this far North. At the gas station I see this guy on a

the motorcyclist

Suzuki motorcycle. He is in heavy jacket and matching pants, the bike is muddy and leaking fluid. I say “Hi” and ask where he’s from. “Texas” he said. “I drove up to Deadhorse and now working my way home”. “How was it? I say. “Long, bad roads all the way up. Coldfoot is the last stop for gas before Deadhorse and you have to stop there for fuel. Saw only Muskox up there. It’s just wide open. It ruined my bike. Look at my boot. Shocks leaking oil all over it.” His boots were oiled and mud caked. Damn it looked cool! “I have to change the chain when I get back. Wish I would of had your Jeep up there”. “Yea glad I have it!” I say. Somehow it made me feel like it was too easy in the Jeep.

There is some kind of camaraderie between travelers that take to the North. We parted and I said, “safe travels my friend”. I filled the tank and pumped $10 into the Gerry can just in case. The road took me up into the Rockies, rain had changed backed to snow and clouds and fog were all around. The edge of the road was a foggy uncertainty; one slip and they would never find me. This high road was empty and I loved it.

The French Hero

Snow was falling in a land that looked like Christmas. It was beautiful, crisp and pretty, air so clean you feel great. The Jeep could use a drink this morning. There was a log cabin with a single gas pump, their cafe was so inviting and warm I dreamt of breakfast, coffee and comfort. Hey I still have 2 lbs of Pete’s Jerky and trail mix in the passenger seat, so I “coffee and gas-ed” up and looked through the gift shop. On the way out I smiled at the lady behind the counter., and walk back out into the cold and slush to the Jeep.

At the pump was a young dude on a Triumph motorcycle. Jesus he has courage. You think you are doing something brave but then you see these guys on bikes. This cat was on this tiny bike, no helmet and only wearing a hoodie. You envy him, but are so glad you have a vehicle with doors and a roof to crawl into.

Up the snowy mountain road about a mile, in a roadside pullout I see a guy in an orange jump suit. He is leaning backwards on a garbage can stretching his back out. Two other men and a broken car are with him. When I get closer they run to the roads edge and start waving frantically. Now, an orange jumpsuit means one thing PRISON, … so I pull over and roll down the window. The icy air grates my face as the convict in the orange suit runs up to me. He is in his late 20’s, tall, lanky and long stringy greasy blond hair covers a bony face. Complete with a scruffy beard and a mouth missing a top front tooth, he has the face of a drug problem. He smiles and begins to yell, “WE NEED A BLAAADE!” He gets up to my window. With a deep Canadian accent he says. “A Balaaade do you have a Blaaade?” “What kind of blade do you need? I ask, “A utility knife, a knife? “Ahh Blaade! We got a busted shock and we need a blaade to cut it off. It’s the only way” The others come from their busted car towards the Jeep. “Oh you need a hack saw,” I say. “Yea a Blaaade.” “OK there was a station back about one mile you guys would be better off looking for help there.” They huddle up and decide that Fred was the cleanest and he will go back to the station and get help, if I would drive him back. So this little fella with a close cut sandy hair climbs in the passenger side.

As I move jerky and a backpack I ask him where he is from. “France” he says, the three of them are mushroom hunting. Their car broke down as they were headed for the Yukon to hunt morels. They found some mushrooms but wanted a larger haul for sale. Morels are big money in the culinary world, now this made sense, which explained the orange jump suit.

I stopped at the cabin with its dreamy cafe and chimney smoke. In five minutes Fred comes out with a hacksaw in hand. “Wow Fred that was fast, you will be a hero when you get back.” Fred says in his quiet French tone. “It will be the first time a French man saved anyone”. We laugh like hell at his joke.

“the Blaaaaaaade”

Soon we pull over to the boys at the broken car, now a truck has stopped to help. If I were to guess the man in the pickup only stopped to have a look, add his two cents and watch the struggle. The boys cheered as Fred slip down out of the Jeep, hacksaw raised above his head, they called he and I heroes. “Good luck boys!” I said as they cheered and thanked me as I drove off. The road climbed up the snow fell down in a wonder winter beauty. I was thinking if they cut the shock off the car then what? I hope they fixed their ride and found the Quivria of Morels.

Deadly and Beautiful

This drive is everything I hoped for and more. The remarkable beauty of the Rockies, the loneliness of open road, it gave me time to reflect and think. To clear ones head of old duties and concentrate on the new ones to come. Mostly I drove and watched miles of pristine wilderness unfold before me. There were occasional road construction sights that made the drive interesting enough. In the middle of nowhere you have to stop for a makeshift traffic light. It was like seeing an outhouse in the arctic. You stop and wait 15 minutes or longer. It gave you time to walk about and stretch the legs.

A lone muddy pickup truck would appear and you would follow it trough some ruff stretches of mud and ungraded gravel. I liked this very much. Seeing the workers in this backdrop, heavy equipment all the way out here. Thinking it would take hours to reach your work sight each morning, I had asked a road sign holder about bears. “Yea we are armed, but the trucks make so much noise we don’t usually see bears.”

After one of these work zones, I was first inline and first out to the open road. I drove perhaps a mile on good pavement when on the shoulder of the road up came a huge beast, a massive bull buffalo wondering into the roadway right in front of me. Jesus! It is going to cross the freakin’ highway right in the path of the Jeep! I slowed way down to not hit the big fella, mostly because I had never seen buffalo in the wild and on the road. My God I cannot believe it. As I was slowing a semi truck was boring down on me, as I was avoiding the buffalo I was about to get creamed myself. The air horn blast made my hair stand up. At the last second I pulled on to the shoulder, the great woolly bull stopped in the oncoming lane, the semi blasted between the both of us with inches to spare. Fuck I could have been killed!

This Alaskan Highway is dangerous. Its full of amphetamine truckers driving 100mph trying to make a buck, slow motor homes with retirees, stopping at every chipmunk, spending there pension, and a full array of very large beasts bears, buffalo, moose, herds of mountain sheep and caribou. This makes a dangerous combination not to mention the canines and smaller beasts. There were dead foxes and wolf I saw and the dazed prairie dog I ran over. He was standing in the center of my lane, I cleared him and the Jeep blew his fur around. He stayed between the wheels and lived. Loads of Jackrabbits, they are smart, rabbits were always facing the shoulder so when they high tailed it out of there, they never ran into the road. Later in Alaska proper a porcupine would bring me to a full hard stop on the highway.

It was a remarkable drive today, I saw more bears and buffalo in this single day then I had ever seen in my lifetime, zoos and circuses combined. They are as common as house cats or raccoons at home. I made cheerful rest stops by rivers, I drank volumes of watery coffee, and I spent the day in the mountains, in snow and rain, in sunny valleys on long stretches of straight road. I drove way too fast and far too slow, I could not be happier.

At Watson Lake I had to get gas and see the Signpost Forest, which was a real historic roadside attractions. This is where I remembered one of the photos from 1980’s National Geographic magazine article I read. The place seems to have grown in the years, it was far larger then I expected. As I pulled away from the forest I thought of my brother Mike whose misfortune made this possible. Had I any hindsight I would have brought his ZAPPA 72 license plate and nailed up here. One day I will return here with hammer and nail.

The Signpost Forest

Whitehorse

The sun was in the position of 2 in the afternoon, my thought was to watch for school buses, the kids will be getting out soon. Was it really 2? Something did not feel right, was it all the fatigue and bad coffee? I looked at the clock in the radio. Its 10:20 PM. I was driving through a city somewhere and people were riding bikes and playing golf. My mind was slipping. The day never ended.

Why were these people not in bed? There were little kids walking around, it is strangely the afternoon. The entirety of the universe was off kilter the world was in trouble. Soon the earth would spin dramatically out of balance and crash into the sun, what the hell was goin’ on?

I had been behind the wheel 16 hours without a real meal, sleeping just hours, driving and driving. I was really tired but it looked like it was 2 in the afternoon. Once I cut out of town the road opened into the wild empty. Thought of bedding down can no longer be ignored. I pulled into a roadside park, there were a few trees about to hide you from the road, but no shade. I parked and climbed into the back to sleep. The sun bore down on the black roof of the Jeep heating the cab up. The light was a silvery intense beam that shot down the gravel road through the front window. Impossible to rest, I tried to relax but could not; I gave up, the sun won. Climbing out my sleeping bag I went back to the drivers seat. Started the Jeep, and pulled back onto the ALCAN. Dog tiered I drove to after midnight just waiting for the sun to sink behind the Mt Martha Black ahead. Finally I stopped at a campground in Haines Junction for the night

Klume Kampground

The Jeep needed some fuel so I filled her up and then went into the tiny store/ Gas station/ campground office. There was pretty young woman behind the counter and I asked “when does it get dark around here”? “Oh after 2AM” she said. I inquired about the abandoned campground. “Can I park for a few hours?” I believe she was going to say sure, then her mother came by and charged me the full $14 for the night which, by the clock, was actually yesterday.

I paid up and went to the grounds. I saw an OK spot but I wanted shade, I wanted dark. Last nights rain and gray was helpful, now I was sun tanning after midnight. I drove a full circle around the grounds and went right back where I started like a dog circling before lying down. I put up a blanket to curtain the back window and angled my way into the sleeping space, pulling my stocking cap over my eyes. It was 60 degrees and I had no need for the wool blanket. After wrestling my thoughts and the sunlight for an hour I dozed off. I woke in the dark, pulled the wool over my cooling body and slept till 7 am. What a day that was.

DAY 5

Destruction Bay

In the lake I could see this island surrounded by fog. It had a high rocky side and a long tapper down to the deep water. Many spruce trees were growing on its limestone outcrops giving it this mystic look about it. This island had to be magic? I stopped to walk along the shore of the lake, to touch the freezing cold water and taste it, to stare out at the island and wonder. Are there bears on it? Could you camp there? Would the night let you sleep in that place? The beauty of this lake compelled me. A rock or two was tossed into the peaceful surface making tiny circular waves like radar. I wished I could camp here. Promising myself on the return, if there was one, I would stop here again to enjoy this place, it was strikingly perfect.

I did stop on my return, the day was windy and pissing rain but I found a pebbly beach and sat down. I loaded my Kelly kettle with dry pine branches, the wind was very strong and the water choppy. I made a bowl of noodles and watched the lake the scene was all gray and cold. I had promised to come back and did, even if it was an hour in the cold. I enjoyed this place, beavers swimming near by as I ate the last of my ramen and headed out.

Perfection is Hell

This morning’s drive is as fascinating to me and fresh as yesterdays. Empty roads wildlife along the way brings joy to my heart. Past Snag Junction I spy a set of log cabins with a gravel lot and a sign that reads Bakery and Creperie, this demands a “U” turn. The little restaurant and cabins are so remote, the mountain views unbeatable. Its pristine and I have not had a hot meal yet. This is the place, I open the door, the tiny bell rings and I can feel the warmth of the wood stove and smell bake goods. Have I stumbled into some version of heaven? A French woman with the face of forgotten expression is behind the counter. Under the glass are shelves filled with pastries, cookies, cinnamon rolls, delicious light flaky dreams with powder sugar and cream. The menus hang on the wall, written on red chalkboards. They have headings like Full Crepe, Sweet Crepe, Quiche and Soups, ah yes it is wonderful. I say Bonjour, the woman speaks to me in French. I say sorry that’s all I know, she looks even more dull. A man then appears from behind a tiny curtain acting like a door from the back. He is smiling and wiping flour from his hands onto his apron, he has the face of a clown. I know just minutes before I walked in here I missed his antics. I could picture him with a tray of dishes 3 feet high and some slip and fall, a cloud of flour in the wake. His detached wife, no longer amused with his Chaplin like situations, is now only bored. He looks like Roberto Benigni, he ducks back into the kitchen. He said something in French to her. She pokes her head through the curtain; she says something in French to him. I can tell it was something like, No just a poser tourist here for a cookie”. I order a full crepe with ham, eggs, cheese, tomatoes and coffee; this surely is worth a stop.

I take a seat next to the wood stove and absorb the place. It is a postcard come to life. The woody interior exudes pride everything is neat and clean. There was a bookshelf with books you would actually read. It’s all so inviting and cozy, this place was paradise, or was it hell?

The coffee had a soapy after taste, a poorly rinsed mug I guessed. Ok let’s see how the food was. My crepe meal was wonderful. The happy little man made it with care and joy, his wife served it to me with disdain. I did not mind, it was incredible, fresh, hot and filling. After the shock of the beauty of the place settled in on me, I may understand why she was bored or why her soul was dead.

I pictured them fresh from the La Cordon Bleu standing in the parking lot of these brown cabins. Surrounded by these majestic mountain views, they are smiling and excitedly signing all the papers. A man hands them the keys and drives off in his Lincoln. They hug, they cry with joy. The trailer is unpacked and they set up house, all their work and dreams and cash wrapped up in this place.

Setting up the dinning room and kitchen, painting and scrapping until the old place is venerable once more. The oven gives them some trouble, this is fixed and one day its all together. The pastries are baked to perfection, cookies, rolls and crepes all waiting to be tasted and enjoyed. No one comes. Trucks don’t stop and vacation traffic is a limited summer window at best. The closet town has a population of 103 and is 100 Kilometers away. The once fresh pastries, now hard and stale, were slid off trays into the wastebasket, her dream and smile slowly sank. The parking lot stayed empty. Olivier kept his humor and made the lightest dough in the mountains. Trucks zoomed by, groceries gathered dust just sitting on the shelf, the local bears rummaged in dumpsters getting fat.

Months later as I write this I did a little looking around. I see the place is up for sale, if you have an extra $400k you to can move to the most beautiful bakery in the world. Canadian newspaper stories from 2015 show the couple had owned it for 6 years; they had been unable to open due to water issues. The repairs had cost them upwards of $10,000 to correct, the place was a sad slow movie and I walked into scene three, “A lone traveler impressed and unaware”.

Emergency Pit Stop

After my first hot meal of the trip and certainly most tasty and memorable, all that jerky and trail mix had enough of my company and complained mercilessly. An emergency stop was imamate. As I pulled over into soft sandy shoulder the Jeep sank. No way I will get stuck here and kept racing till I saw a small flat spot next to a creek, I opened the door and dropped down. Now I had made pit stops all along the way so far, it is easy to go 100 miles before you see anything like a town. So this seems OK. The problem is I am afraid of one creature, bears, and I’ll be damned I know they can find me by scent now. Three days in the same clothes and making a powerful odor right now, all you can do is hope you did not stop in the wrong path. Man I have seen bears all along the way, their scat litters the highways edges. It was the only real unnerving thing about the trip. Still, I would do it all over in a minute.

Nevermore

As you pull into the towns along the Alcan. The speed limits drops to a brutal 30 kilometers per. Each town has these flashing lights on signs. When you drive too fast they flash a message Slow down, Slow down. They are ticket cams. I have been respectful to these once I noticed I was setting them off. Today I know popped one off, the message changed; it now read TOO FAST followed by a blinding white light flash. Shit, shit well there will be a ticket in the mailbox from the Yukon when I get home. That is the price of the trip?

After I set off the camera I stopped for gas. I love these old stations, they are large with cafes and often they have a shady motel attached. All of them are run down and have a road worn look that is attractive to me. Old paint over log-frames, cafes with the smell of pie and good soups. One station in Alaska was on the peak of a mountain, the view and the price of fuel was remarkable. It was on to top of the world, I wandered over to the cafe to use the bathroom. A long counter and stools greet me, a few booths and a family or two sitting, drinking coffee and eating. The smell of someone’s home kitchen on a Sunday afternoon fills my head with dreams. I’ll just stay here; I’ll get a job as the dishwasher, chuck it all in and go simple. Colorful, fruity pies filled a great glass case and I want pie. Digging deep for control, I go back pie-less to the Jeep, eat a chewy bar and drive on.

As I was edged back up to the main road in that nondescript, traffic-light-cam town, in the ditch I spy a black turkey sized bird. Its a raven and he’s about 4 feet away from me. He is a fierce looking bird, black and shiny, as wet coal. His caw sounds like a barking dog, this one is barking away in a rusty call, his partner in a pine across the road answers back in a lower Tom Waits burst.

These birds look like real scrappers, their great beaks house a large rise. They look like second rate pugilist.$100 boxers all with a high ridge of a broken nose. Each one I saw in the in silhouette against blue sky was missing flight feathers, as if they had been engaged in some life and death struggle with one of the other more dangerous locals. Its one big wildlife bar brawl up here, later tonight the authorities will have to be called in to pull these boys apart. I say goodbye, he just caws loudly at me, back to the road.

It’s about 11:30 as I reached the Alaska boarder crossing where I stop and they ask a few questions, suggesting I eat my last apple soon. The road condition shows a definitive improvement as I enter the state. WOW, Hey, Here I am! I made it! Oh Boy!

I see a Caribou cross the road near me and excitement begins. The area where I am is low flat and swampy and its hours before I see mountains or a town of any significant standing.

Tok is the first such place; it’s a wide road with gasoline, groceries and Mukluk shop. Now I feel like I have made it somewhere. I gas up at a Shell station and look around, use the muddiest magic wand I have seen yet, I think it did more damage then good. I found a grocery to buy more windshield fluid and some apples that were pricey but crisp. In the little store Doritos were $6 a bag, now I see I will be eating up the Top Ramen I brought along. Back on the road and heading to Anchorage.

Alaska was more spectacular diving, now my goal is in sight and I ball it to Anchorage. I cut off of route 2 onto route 1 and head South West. Passing towns never seen by these eyes, Slana, Gokona, Tallsona, Fishhook and Landing on 6th street and Downtown Anchorage. I made it.

I like the look of this old place; it seems a bit caught in time, like the 1950’s. It has a western feel but they’re way up North. I pass the tourist looking part of town and just by chance drive about to find a Super 8 motel.

 

*The journey will continue next week with Part 3 of “The Alaska Papers”

The Alaska Papers – Part 1

North to Alaska

The Alcan Highway

By Rick Cleveringa

An early calling

Once, long ago when I was a young teen in the early 1980’s, I opened a National Geographic magazine. Flipping through I saw photos of a man next to a signpost, arrows pointing in all directions. Written in hand painted letters were the names of cities, miles far from that point, and in the next photo was a dirty beaten vehicle on a lonely gravel mountain road. This man had driven to Alaska from the lower 48; part of his trip was on the Alaskan Highway or ALCAN.

The photos peaked a yearning in me to have such adventures. I sat and read the article in full, how he carried extra fuel, food, water, warm clothes, and a rifle. How the roads were impassable at certain times of the year, how you can be stuck for days without seeing another car or truck. It was like reading fiction only this was anything but. This lay somewhere deep in the back of the mind for years, wondering how could a kid from a small town in Illinois ever make such a journey? I had no car, no money and no license, this was pure fantasy.

Later in the High school I met a guy in my Latin class who would become a life-long friend. Back then, Dr, “K” and I shared a strange sense of humor, we played in a garage band together and often hung out in the woods behind his house. In 1984 his older brother had driven home from Alaska. “Man! how was it?” I remember asking. “Uhg long” he said. He was on leave from the Army and distance was only to be concurred. He said he drove for hours on end, his little white car with Alaska plates covered in mud. For him it was only a way to get back. Then a few days later he would turn around and do it all over. That drive, what was it really like I thought?

A third time, in 1991, there was this girl I knew. Her father had this beat 1968 black Ford bronco parked dead in the front yard. By then it was vintage and I asked about it. He said “Oh yea I bought the Bronco brand new in 1968 to drive the Alaskan highway that same year”. “Really!” I exclaimed. He went on, “It was in the summer. Still I only made it up to the Yukon before the snow was too deep and I had to turn around. The gravel roads ruined that truck. It ate the wheel-wells and floor boards right out it. Had to have all welded back in when I got home to Illinois”.

There it was again the Alcan. It would rear up and call to me every so often and I would ignore or fantasize about it for a time. It had to simmer for 39 long years until it no longer could only be though about, it had to respected and realized.

I quit

When I turned 50 something inside just snapped. My life was only 25 years away from me being a diaper-wearing baby again and what was I doing about it? My personal life, which by all means was safe and well, still had a few wrinkles. Something had to give. I went into work one day and thought I can’t be here anymore, so I went home, took the day off to cool down and settle back in. You put your head down, ass up and keep your mouth shut. It is your duty to be there, its your job, that’s what a reasonable man does. Hell they do it daily; you might be doing right now? For years I just had pushed the artist, the adventurer in me down too far. Always going for security and not to live like a man of letters. Thursday when I showed back up. I put in my two weeks and started making plans.

Work makes you Free

After I lay in my letter of resignation, work took on a lighter theme. I no longer had the tremendous stress of all the R+D projects in my queue; it would all keep running on long after I disappeared in to the wilds. My first thought was not the Alcan, not sure when that longing came back from my heart to my head. I had just bought a new 2015 tank green Jeep Wrangler, the kind of vehicle that can take you anywhere. One day I went to the store, needed to lay in some food stocks, Noodles, trail mix, granola bars. It suddenly hit me, I could this I thought, this could actually happen.

Its just what I needed I told myself. But what was the first step… where was all that camping equipment? Searching the house and garage, I dug through boxes and found tents, tarps, cook pots, Kelly Kettle and sleeping pads. The next step was to buy some static window tint for the Jeep’s back, side windows. The tint was to cut out the midnight sun I was so anxious to see as I planed to sleep in the wrangler.

The third step was to configure space between all the gear and a flat spot long enough for my frame. With the back, bench seat removed and the passenger seat in its far forward position it was possible. It was on an angle, but that made just about 6 foot place where one could lie down for a nights slumber. A double layer of foam padding on the floor along with my Therm-a-rest on top should make a comfy bed. I think this might work.

“The Gerry” Can

Finally I packed some tools, a roll of tape and some bailing wire in an ammo box. You never know what you might break. The only real modification I made was to weld up a Gerry can rack out of 1” metal flat stock. It would bolt over the spare tire lugs, bungee cords, a chain and lock to hold the can in place. A wonderful feeling came over me when I bought the new Gerry can at Harbor Freight. It is the kind of thing every guy wants but never really has a use for. That was about to change. I packed up the Jeep and filled the tank. Come Monday morning instead of going to work. I would go to Alaska.

Odometer reading 26349

Monday May 16 2016 4:17 AM. – The back of the Jeep is packed with the last few items. “It will be all right”, I said this to myself quietly. The engine started and excitement took over. Away I go…and immediately the Low tire light comes on. So I have to make a stop to put in some air before I even leave town.

I could see daylight on the horizon, cresting the big blue globe and I wanted to be long gone by now. I stayed on the interstates to fire me out of the land I knew all to well. Cutting up into Wisconsin I made my first gas stop in Camp Douglas. In part for the namesake of the town, the man who was my boss just a few days ago, his last name being Douglas.

Coffee and Gasoline

Up north you can pump your gas before you pay. Once so common everywhere but now it seems so nice and trusting. I grabbed a paper cup of gas station coffee, and was back to the road. This was to be the way of life now, as I would spend hours behind the wheel, stopping only to gas up and see if I could find the worse cup of coffee in each state. This include 3 states or territories in Canada, and by all means, the Canadians have the market on bad gas station coffee. It was as if they merely took an old used coffee filter, ran some boiling water through it and here you go, a piping hot cup of shit. It was terrible, almost comical. On the up side I had two free cups of coffee along the way. Both were in the Yukon and they were the best cups on the 7500 + miles.

The first was in Fort Nelson. The Gourmet girl coffee shop was so nice on the way I up. I made a second stop on my return. The door was open but the shop was closed but there was a young lady cleaning up. She stopped what she was doing, spoke to me like an old friend, and then made me a Cafe Americana. It was strong, rich and had a nutty flavor that made me want more. That young woman was beyond nice.

The second was in some tiny gas station shaped like a log cabin. A very pretty young girl and mother were running the place. The mother in a friendly tone said I could have “A cup on the house”. “OK thanks!”, I go to the tiny counter with hand pump thermos. On a piece of cardboard is written “Organic Coffee”. My taste buds had been assaulted so often by this point, everything amused me, so why Not? I pushed the plunger and pumped black liquid into a tiny cup. It was the best cup in the wild. I enjoyed the dark roasted beans, the pleasing aroma and the waking benefits of hot black coffee. But most of your life on the road is shitty coffee and filling the tank.

James McMurtry

“Looking out through the bugs on the windshield somebody said to me. No more Buffalo, blue skies or open roads”

By the afternoon of the first day the windshield was so crusted with insects I could barely see. The Jeeps design is wonderfully retro, I love the look and style. But the flat windshield attracts every bug within 100 yards of the highways edge. Being flat none escape, each flying shell gets cracked open and spread on the glass like Jelly on toast. I put these insects into two categories:

  1. June bug – this is any of the large insects that hit the glass like a round fired from a .38 caliber pistol. On impact the shiny black insects crack open like a small birds egg. The exoskeleton and wings fly off leaving behind a mostly clear viscous jam with a light green center. Its opaque but a nuisance.
  2. Black Fly – This was any of the smaller bugs that find their demise in my line of sight. Once they break open on the windshield the thorax burst and small red entrails adheres to the glass. The mid section tries to break free but is held to the glass by a light green cable that tethers the head and wings while the rest is wiping wildly around in the wind. A fast blast of wiper fluid will clean up the mess, but one never gets it all.

This is happening with great frequency. You often need to stop at a station just to use the windshield squeegee. I dubbed these squeegees “The Magic Wand”. The further I got northwest the muddier the windshield fluid in the buckets became. Near home it’s the nice clear blue, like a Jamaican ocean. Further up the road it is a muddy swamp, like a bayou in LA. Such is life behind the wheel.

It’s all highway time and I cross the state line to Minnesota, cut through the twin cities and see none of it. North Dakota ahead and I make the State line exactly 12 hours from leaving my home this morning. This brings the feeling of the first accomplishment; I’ve never seen or breathed the air in this part of the world. ND surprised me, a rolling green place with a lot more water then I expected, ponds and streams in abundance.

The friendly green hillsides were covered with strange signs, made of stones embedded in the gassy hills. It took some time but finally realized they were graduating class years. ND was pretty to drive. In Jamestown I got off the interstate and rolled peacefully on old state road 52, yes this is more like it. The sun was going down and I felt beat. So I drove the smooth Blue highway through to Harvey ND with its quaint Western downtown. I found a new hotel The Cobblestone and thought, “OK I’ll get a room a shower and get out of the Jeep for a few hours”. Thats just what I did, a bed, clean sheets a bath, wow so quiet and comfy.

I email “Dr K” and he says did you see O-G? Roadside America shows a giant purple gorilla that once was in this town. I enquirer at the front desk and looked for O-G in his old spot but he has long since disappeared.

DAY 2

Odometer reading 27227 7:00 AM

Sweet sleep last night in a big bed. A new day in front of the windshield and I feel great. All the burdens of work life are done and forgotten and I’m living a dream from 35 years ago. The two-lane is clear and I make for the line, nearing 11 AM I left Portal ND and America.

The Border

Slowing down I pulled up to the Canadian boarder, the young female boarder guard at the window asks me a few questions. I hear the Canadian accent for the first time. She hands me a yellow ticket and tells me to come in the main building. I walk in and sit down with a few others waiting. There are strange conversations with even stranger fellow travelers, and soon I would come to the harsh realization that I am not going anywhere for a long time. There was one young couple waiting, they were hauled off to separate rooms for integration. There was a gray man, his body leaned heavy against the counter. In his friendly tone he explained the medical reasons why he has all those drugs in his truck. They took him to a private room. Now I just wait, which would be 2 more hours.

Why does one feel guilty under the guise of authority? I did nothing wrong and would not likely do anything troublesome to the Canadians or there land? But here I was stationed in a pale blue hard plastic chair from the 70’s, holding a stupid yellow coupon to freedom. A fireplug of a woman in uniform called me to the counter. Through thick specs she reads my yellow ticket and said go wait at the red counter they will processes you there. At the red counter I stand and wait. Behind the counter I count 6 cubicles with computers and no people in them. I count 7 more computers at the red counter and no one is there either, It’s a ghost town. After 20 minutes of standing by myself, a line of one, an official looking a little like Frank Oz came over. He says “Where are you driving?” At least I thought he said that. I say Alaska. He says in a louder more authoritative tone “WHAT are you DRIVING?” Oh green Jeep I say. He looks at the yellow ticket and the keys in my hand. He says “I need your keys” and I drop them and my jaw on the red counter. I ask can I use the restroom? Just WAIT he barked.

The Land of Oz

Now I have to sit in the next area while he ransacked my car. My little home for the next few weeks is being tossed and there was nothing to be done. So I slept in the chair until the little blonde girl called. “Sir, Sir you have to see the officer by your vehicle”. I went out in the sunlight and walk to my car. He was standing there with most of my camping gear on the ground. As I got closer he said, “You have to take the top off”. When I heard this I thought what the FUCK! I m not taking the top off you dick! What the hell do you think you can find? Prick! You fuckers have kept me hostage for 2 hours. Then the little man with mustache said in a friendly Canadian tone “To let the wind through your hair” He is smiling but I am not. Now he is all friendly and wants to talk about the Jeep. He’s making small talk and I just want to get the fuck out of here. I say “Can I use the restroom now?” Right that way he pointed. He told me I could put my gear back in my Jeep and go when I returned, and after I used the can, he was still there, my gear spread on the pavement and he wants to chat me up. As I was tossing my equipment back into the Jeep, he was prattling away. I wonder if he felt better when he finds contraband or when he does not? Soon it would get windy, too windy but you would not want this in your hair

Through the Canadian prairie.

When you think of the word Saskatchewan what comes to mind? From now on I will think of the flat unattractive landscape, filled with pipelines, strip mining, dust, bad winds, terrible roads and a dry colorless backdrop for a long boring movie.

The road ran North-by-North West, the head wind so strong the Jeep struggled against it. I swear I had the peddle on the floor just to make 70 mph. When the semis came in the opposite direction at 100 miles an hour, you could feel the car stop momentary, then the hood would damn near blow off before you resumed driving at top speed. Rocks beat the windshield mercilessly. The stones thrown by trucks hammered the glass so hard I expected it breakout several times. I tallied the major rock hits, 7 in about 2 hours and numerous light strikes. It sucked. One stone drove a conical fracture so deep that a line spread across the windscreen on the first warm day back home. The Jeeps first battle scar.

North Dakota was green and hilly with nice watering holes all about, now just miles north it was one industrial wasteland. Iron pipes and dusty trucking roads with names like Pipeline road, Gas road, they intersected the highway and produced lots of heavy truck traffic. Around any standing water there formed a ring of white alkalized residue, and where the water had evaporated completely, there stood a white crust on the earth. Was this pollution from mining? Is the soil just filled by alkaloids? It was a terrible looking place with only gas stops and muddy magic wands along the way.

Once I headed due north the wind stopped beating the hell out of my driving, now the trucks were to the South. Traffic thinned and the land greened up. This was great relief. Finally it was evening and a stop in Saskatoon for the night in a motel room. That night I went down to the pool and relaxed. The shoulders feel the hours of clenching the wheel in the headwinds all day, and a little time in the pool helped soften the aching muscles. Last sleep in a bed for some time and I rest well. In the Morning I look for the highway North, the road signs are small and faded, hard to read and hard to find. Had to make a U-turn to pick up Kings Highway 16, I will be glad to leave the city of Saskatoon this morning and head to the grand open.

DAY 3

After yesterdays defeat at the border and a lower mile day, I decided to make a run for it, coffee, gasoline and the magic wand the only distractions. Highway 16 took me to Lloydmister and crossing the line into British Columbia then into Edmonton. Beef jerky and trail mix my companions, as I make way further northwest to Crooked Creek, Grande Prairie and Beaver Lodge for bad coffee and gasoline. On to Dawson Creek and the Zero Mile.

On this day three, I was missing my travel companions. There have been the four of us guys, road trip buddies, real friends from long ago. We met under strange circumstances, yet somehow seemed to have a special connection, a bond that was undeniable. When the four of us are together all things seem possible. While we cemented our friendship more than 25 years ago, a road trip south came up and it was a blast. We have traveled 10s of thousands of mile since, yet here I was, on some of the most scenic country, on a road completely empty and they were not there. It was odd.

I missed TC, his wiry jokes. They are un-insulated and electric, they are shocking, and they send sparks in every direction. I missed his un-diapered mouth. He is the most kindly and saintly little man you could know, yet he is capable of the foulest most horrific statements, diatribes so mortifying, tirades so insensitive that you feel uncomfortable when you hear them, but you laugh till your sides hurt. All because you know he is the sweetest guy alive.

I missed RP, his steady calm; his new Zen like reasoning that he exudes. This man has ice water in his veins. Once I saw him drive 90 MPH barely missing a Mississippi State trouper who, standing in the road by a mudslide, frantically waving for us to slow down. The cops face was red as a monkey’s ass as he was screaming, “Slow the HELL DOWN”. RP never missed a beat nor took his heavy foot from the accelerator. Today I could use a reasonable portion of the steady hand at the wheel for this monster 65 hours one-way drive.

I missed double B, his attention to detail, his planning, the spreadsheets, his nervousness on the edge of adventure. Once the real adventure hits, there is a light in his eye. A real spark that says I am afraid and we are going to die but this is Great! It’s a lux I have not seen in other men’s eyes before. You know he is alive and if you are observant, this light feeds your own life and you know you have shared real adventures with him.

“Damn I wish they could see this road,” I said to a package of beef jerky.

*Continue the journey with Part 2 of “The Alaska Papers”