Geographically, the village where I live is located six miles south of Dawson Creek, BC; ‘Mile Zero of the World Famous Alaska Highway.’ As a young adult, I spent many summers working in tourism. Since my paternal grandparents were American, I was thrilled to be able to meet so many of them. I think my dad may have passed on a slight American accent which tended to deepen from interacting with the tourists. Each time I’ve been to the US, they have trouble believing I’m from Canada, because they can’t detect a ‘Canadian’ accent.
Back then tourists often asked if I’d ever made the trip myself, from Dawson Creek, BC to Fairbanks, Alaska. I told them I would some day. In 2001, I decided to go ahead with it, and try to be in Fairbanks by July 4th. My car was fairly reliable and I had some time off coming. I have an independent nature, so I saw no point in taking anyone with me. Besides, I prefer not to have to listen to loud music of someone else’s choosing. I also like to have a fair amount of silence.
At first I was going to fly up. However, I was informed that it would take a few days and cost over $900.00 just for the return flight. The travel agent said it was because I’d have to fly to Washington, first, and go through customs there. I thought, ‘that’s crazy, when I’ve got this nice highway, almost fully paved, right here.’ It was several years ago, but I seem to recall spending less than $300.00 in gas for the entire trip.
I had no idea I’d get several opportunities to face my one phobia on this trip. I’m terrified of driving over long bridges with open water underneath. Covered, uncovered, it doesn’t matter; a bridge like that is about the only thing that really scares me. I grip the steering wheel really tight, and just keep telling myself ‘I can swim.’ It helps. A little. When I get to the other side of ‘a new one,’ I pull over and take a picture. I’m not sure why. Highway 97 North has several of these, and on a return trip you get to drive them both ways.
The distance from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks is 1500 miles. Since Canada is biligual–standard and metric–it took me some time to figure out that the reason the trip was taking so long was because I was still thinking in kms, even after crossing the border and seeing signs marked in miles. Think 2400 kms, one way. I wondered why it was taking so long to get through the Yukon, until I saw a satellite photo. It’s far enough North that the Earth’s curve is more ‘flat’ than ’round;’ the real shape of the Yukon isn’t a nice, neat, right angle, like paper maps show. It’s more a wide, sprawling, almost open triangle.
It was a lot of fun. I left Fort Nelson on Canada Day, July 1st, just before their parade started. Two cute RCMP officers waved from their paddy wagon and gave me that look that said, ‘wonder if she’s single…’ He who hesitates, guys… The day before I was joined at the Fort Nelson Museum by tourists from Ontario. The ladies were in charge of the cameras, so they asked me to get in the picture. I don’t know if I want to get used to being hugged by guys I’ve just met, while their wives take pictures.
The food was good. I stopped at a roadside cafe, and was seated near a table of conversation I couldn’t help overhearing. They were talking about a young friend who had just gotten her driver’s license, then hit a deer. Apparently she didn’t know to just leave it there, so she wrestled it into her back seat. Then they moved on to a different topic of conversation. I really wanted to find out what happened next, but I already felt like I was eavesdropping. It’s been bugging me for years, so next time, I’m turning around and asking. By the way, that could have gotten her charged with poaching. Just leave the roadkill to the road. Obviously, if it’s blocking traffic lanes, call the cops or the game warden, but don’t take it with you.
I encountered a road sign I’d never seen before in my life. ‘Road Separates.’ You see the sign about seven seconds before the road does, indeed, separate. A two inch gap across the road, from one ditch to the other, and only God knows how deep it is, which is why it hasn’t been fixed. Actually, it may have been the frost heaves. Areas that have semi-permafrost under the soil experience a shifting of the ground when the permafrost partially thaws, then refreezes–or not. Entryways to building sometimes get pushed up, and have to be jackhammered down to allow entry doors to open. Large potholes form on roads. What I first thought to be a chalk outline in a church parking lot in Alaska turned out to be markings for repairs. It turns out Alaskans are some of the few Americans who know what a frost heave is.
Delta Junction, just inside the US border, seems to have a competing claim to being ‘the end’ of the Alaska Highway; the section from Delta to Fairbanks was already built by the time the last bit of road stretching from Dawson Creek was laid. After a visit to their tourist center, I stopped for fuel. I looked at the pumps, and thought, ‘wow, gasoline is thirty percent cheaper here.’ Then I figured I’d better actually do the math: gallons roughly divided into quarts, then standard into metric, and the (2001) .6 exchange rate on the dollar. The math backed up my first thought, which made me realize why Americans think Canadians are so smart–it’s the ability to come to the right figure, seemingly without doing any math.
The air thins out noticeably, at least for a musician, once you’re nearing the upper mountain areas. Scenery is gorgeous, if you like that type of thing, what with being able to look at clouds from the sides. However, I think I would have passed out at one point if I hadn’t been a wind instrumentalist with incredibly efficient lungs. You must breathe a bit deeper.
It was unusually hot when I arrived. Fortunately, a local newspaper columnist ran a front page story on heat stroke, which made me realize I needed to treat myself for it. In its early stages, it’s easy to remedy. You lie down with a cool washcloth on your forehead, and sip water to bring your body out of dehydration, while you ponder the irony of getting heat stroke in Alaska.
There was a place to park RV’s, a theme park called ‘Alaskaland.’ It was within walking distance of my hotel. It had everything from a ‘train’ you could ride around the perimeter, to an aviation museum, a ‘village’ of historical buildings, and a theater with live performances. It was too late to attend anything by the time I learned there really were performances, since I had little more than a week off.
I went to take pictures of one of the churches, just as the pastor and his wife were coming out. They were kind enough to invite me to their July 4th Barbeque, a real treat for me. (July 4th fireworks don’t show up well in Alaska, with all that extended daylight.) I wondered if I should bring a watermelon, but was glad I didn’t…there was a huge amount of watermelon left afterwards. They had a number of people show up, and I think we all had fun, especially the dog, Nugget, who discovered a pile of bones from the BBQ.
I was tempted to buy an ‘Ulu,’ a traditional Inuit knife, but worried about bringing it back across the border. Certain types of bones are not permitted through customs, although I suppose I could have bought one with a wooden handle, or one that was all metal. Hindsight.
On the way back, I went through Kluane National Park again. With a deadline to get back for work, I figured I’d better drive for as long as I could. I stopped for gas, and while I went to find a restroom, the attendant cleaned off my windshield. He was probably near retirement age. I came into the store to pay for my gas, and while he put my credit card through, he pulled ‘a daddy’ on me. In an accusing tone he demanded, “Have you been driving all night?” I felt like I was about six, and could only muster a weak, embarrassed, “Yes.” He shook his head, and clucked his tongue. And all I could think was, ‘it was awfully nice of him to clean all those bugs off the windshield.’
There are some very deep ditches in Kluane Park, and obviously they don’t walk the moose often enough. One old bull saw me coming. His antler plates were huge, and so was his chest. He had this glint in his eye, and started to run alongside my car. The ditch was deep enough that his chest was parallel to the road. I think all he wanted was some exercise, but it can become extremely dangerous if an animal like that jumps onto the road. I kept increasing my speed, and was well over the speed limit before he started to fall behind. Then he looked disappointed, and stopped running.
Oddly enough, a few miles further, another moose was standing in the road. It just stood there and posed. I waited, and wondered if I should grab my camera. That might have tempted me to lean out the window with the camera, but I’ve seen those cartoons up in Alaska. (Do not get out of your car for any reason, where there are wildlife. The key word is WILD!) I had to honk my horn before he would move off the road. He kind of had a resigned, ‘your loss,’ look as he ambled into the brush.
I made the mistake of stopping to rest for ‘just a few minutes’ in one of those rest areas. My watch got tangled up in my jacket sleeve which reset it to a flashing ’12:00,’ and the car’s clock was still out from having the alternator replaced just before the trip. I thought I’d slept for maybe a few hours. I didn’t know I’d lost an entire day. I found out in Fort Nelson, when I phoned home. It turned out I’d be getting back on Sunday, not Saturday.
Perhaps the most important thing that happened on that trip was the self-discovery. I’ve never believed in the ‘go on a road trip/trip to Europe/journey to the center of the Earth and find yourself’ thing. But from the very first memory I have, something felt slightly misaligned. I could never identify exactly what it was. Then, walking around on American soil, it hit me. I belong in the United States of America. It feels like home. Legally, I’m Canadian, but I’ve always had more American leanings. It doesn’t matter how long I stay in Canada, because now I know where I belong.
Thanks for reading. 🙂
Phyllis K Twombly