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Getting to Alaska, the hard way

I felt great when I left Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory, and rolled through that desolate stretch toward the U.S. border crossing. I was almost home, hours from Tok, and then one more day would complete the trip from the San Francisco Bay Area to Talkeetna, Alaska.

My family and a three-days-late Thanksgiving celebration awaited me and my 10-year-old dog, Sandy. I could almost smell the turkey and stuffing. I could definitely smell the dog.

That was when the sound of my trailer tire shredding scared away a wolfish thing that had been watching my approach to the final hill.

I hate U-Haul trailers and their ever-deflating cellophane tires. I hate Canadian gas prices, although the rest of Canada was pretty great. At that point and at 40 below I’d had enough of all that colorful cash that kept flying out of my wallet.

Sandy and I had just about finished driving the ALCAN in late November and this third tire failure was the final straw.

“You’re screwed,” the border crossing agent said with a smile. “There’s no services until Tok. You have to go back to Canada.”

This trip taught both Sandy and I new life lessons.

Mine were:

• Never brake uphill on an ice-encrusted back-highway mountain pass at 50 below while towing almost 3,000 pounds of household goods.

• Never believe the parking attendant at a major hotel when he says the clearance sign in the parking structure is accurate. Your trailer will get stuck, and this gives hotel security absolute fits.

• Bison have the right-of-way, for however long they want it.

• There are more than enough nice people along that frozen route to make up for the ones who just want your money.

• GPS systems will get you lost or killed if you believe everything you hear them say.

Sandy’s lesson, (remember this dog was raised near California’s hot Central Valley) was to do whatever she had to do outside in about 10 seconds before her paws froze. (That knowledge came in handy for her during this last cold snap.) I later learned about dog mitts.

Later I’d learn that it takes more than a strong belief that a place needs a newspaper to actually create one. But that’s the next part of this story.

* * * *

I suppose this is a story about how optimism and canned tuna and beans alone are not enough to get someone whose snow-driving experience numbered just weeks all the way through Northwest Canada without incident.

No, for that you need a block heater, advanced planning and a copilot who doesn’t bark. I’m afraid dog was literally my copilot this trip and I couldn’t buy a block heater in Canada because the garages were all busy changing-out tires.

My copilot only lost faith in me once on the road. On Whistler Pass I think it was between Prince George and Dawson Creek in British Columbia there was a whiteout. Then another, and another. Big trucks were still passing from time to time. For a while I could only tell were the road was leading by watching the line on my GPS and bumping the snowbanks created by Canadian snowplows.

Sandy, hearing the wailing winds and seeing nothing but dark and snow surrendered to her fate, wedged her tail against the glove box and buried her head against the seat. This is the canine equivalent of the airplane crash position.

I got through a couple of hours of blizzard, curvy treacherous roads and blinding truck wash by listening over and over again to a Bing Crosby Christmas CD. I pictured my family decorating the tree back when I was about 6, Mom compulsively trimming the long, lead icecicles to a uniform length after hiding every light wire.

I stopped at the first place with RV parking, as I hadn’t actually had to back the trailer up since I got lost in Oregon on a rural logging road. I didn’t care what the place was like, I just wanted some food and a drink.

The first thing I noticed as I led Sandy to the room was the tremendous smell of skunk weed blasting through the corridors. More than one guest was on the road to Munchie Land.

“Be like Clinton Sandy,” I warned the dog. “Don’t inhale.” Aw, what the heck, it was probably good for her arthritis.

“Remember Dad,” my daughter said sarcastically asI described the scene by cell phone, “Just Say No.”

There was no food service, so I ate cold Chunky Corn Chowder soup.

The room was vibrating due to some amps somewhere below me. A woman making up one of the rooms said, “Oh yeah, heck, there’s music tonight in the lounge. You should go see the show.”

I guess I should, I thought, since I was certainly going to hear it.

I found the lounge, got a drink and settled down at the bar by the stage to go over my travel guides, tally mileage covered and plot my route.

“So, drivin’ the ALCAN, eh? Tough this time of year,” came a pleasant voice just above my head. As I downed my shot I saw through the bottom of my glass a portion of female anatomy one should expect to see at eye level — if one is at the Alaskan Bush Company.

Not in a mom & pop motel’s lounge on a Tuesday night.

Apparently stripper night is a town tradition, which is just one reason I didn’t mind putting the place in my rear-view mirror. Tiny excuses for breakfast steaks are another.

My luck ran out Thanksgiving night two days of roadside desolation later in Watson Lake. First I had to eat fish & chips. It was pretty much that or Chinese food. No turkey to be found. I call that General Cornwallis’ revenge.

The best was yet to come. My alarm didn’t go off, I didn’t restart the car at 2 a.m. and by 6 a.m. the Trailblazer was an ice cube with upholstery. No block heater. The nice people at my motel tried to give me and two other poor souls a jump start, but nothing would budge the SUV. A trailer wheel even froze in place. Canadian AAA took me to a legitimate garage, which got me up and running, fixed the flat U-Haul tire and warned me not to turn the vehicle off until I was home in my driveway. My driveway was a three-day drive away. I took their advice.

Back at the hotel a military guy from Anchorage was yelling into his cell phone at a local garage that wanted $400 to thaw his car, all the while pacing and staring at the small heating pad he’d bought hoping it would warm up his engine. Next stop was Whitehorse, where I pulled right up in front of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Headquarters and left the thing idling all night long. Boy did I choose a great hotel again. The lounge was below and the floor again was vibrating. I lit my last Cuban cigar to cover the smell of the room and left with six hours sleep.

It’s funny how onramps to the ALCAN and freshly-plowed snowbanks look alike at 7 a.m. when everything’s blue, but it wasn’t very deep, so I was soon back on the road to Whitehorse. It was so cold the insides of my gas cap snapped and it spun uselessly. About -50.

Caribou were on suicide missions before dawn as I drove toward Haines Junction. An entire herd appeared and filled my windshield’s view. I stopped and they split along each side of my Trailblazer and charged down the snow-covered highway. No one was behind or in front of me.

The road between Haines Junction and the aptly-named Destruction Bay, well, I’m glad it was paved with solid ice. It was rough, desolate and the limit was 35 mph. Two big trucks drove ahead of me the whole way to Beaver Creek blasting ice crystals from their twin stacks. I thought I was bidding Canada goodbye. After the tire shredded I limped down to the gas station at the base of the hill to make a call to U-Haul.

An ex-military-type guy who ran the gas station quickly cowed me into submission. I was using the outside phone at 50 below (no cell service for miles) and he overheard me screaming into the phone at a U-Haul operator that it was not OK to put me back on hold — I was freezing to death.

“You’re going to have to drive that thing back to Beaver Creek!” he said sternly. “I’ve already called the guy who runs the auto shop, and he’ll wait for you, but not for long. It’s 4 p.m. on a Saturday.”

U-hauls make good snow plows. I kept the tire in the snow berm beside the road for most of the 45 miles back to Beaver Creek saving the rim, and a nice man honored U-Haul’s contract and sent me on my way.

That’s what I mean about finding good people on the road.

Finally I was in Tok, paying normal prices for gas at the Three Bears station and paying greenish money for dinner at Fast Eddie’s. The SUV ran all night and it didn’t cost a fortune. Best of all we were back in Alaska. After a quick stop in Wasilla to once-again tighten a treacherous trailer hitch that bedeviled me all trip I hit the highway, tuned in the all Christmas carol radio station and headed home to Talkeetna. As I turned the corner I saw my wife had hired some young men from the high school to put up old-fashioned Christmas lights on the cabin we’re turning back into the Talkeetna Landings B&B.

That sight made the whole drive worthwhile.

“I’ll tell you all about the trip,” I said at dinner.

Well, everything except the part about the stripper.

And the snowbank.

And a few other things…


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