Return to the North: My Alaskan Odyssey, Part 3.

A slamming car door jolts me from sleep. Light is flooding in the windows, despite my meticulous arrangement of towels and sweatshirts in an effort to keep it out. A few hours ago, I could hardly keep my eyes open; now I can hardly wait to get on the road.

“Good morning,” a groggy Bix greets me. “Aren’t you glad I arranged our stay at the luxurious Hotel Subaru for our anniversary?”

I roll my eyes but can’t help smiling.

“You’re a hopeless romantic,” I tell him.

Provisions for a month on the road.
Provisions for a month on the road.

A few hours of sleep at a busy rest area somewhere in rural Wyoming—and the accompanying honking semis, drifting junkies, and indifferent State Patrollers—doesn’t sound all that romantic, at least not when you put it that way.

But we’ve spent long periods of the last year this way: sunrise and sunset as the only schedule, no appointments except the rumbling of your stomach, no destinations except where the wind blows you.

There. Doesn’t that sound more romantic?

Unless you’re Chris McCandless, who—for all his faults—was willing to eschew a comfortable lifestyle for (what turned out to be a very short) life in the wild, the open road and associated freedom present themselves only after a great deal of trouble. As with all things quixotic, the lead-up requires a fair amount of hard work, commitment, and other things those dreamy on-the-road types are not typically interested in. The irony here is not lost on me.

Attention to detail gets me really excited.
Attention to detail gets me really excited.

After all, when you’ve come to a point in your life in which a car is your primary residence, things have either gone terribly awry or, as I’d argue in this case, very well. Thanks to a summer of living rent-free with my parents, albeit on the income of one nonprofit job, we’d accumulated (read: scraped together) enough cash to make it through September without maxing out all our credit cards. Since the aforementioned sole income certainly wasn’t gleaned from my efforts, I was determined to be of some use. Fortunately, my anal-retentive nature allows me to plan with great attention to detail, a characteristic that has been compared to General Patton and also Ted Kaczynski.

It took the better part of two days to get everything ready to go. I spread out a big blue tarp on the floor of my dad’s garage and, beer in hand—I am a dirtbag at heart, after all—divided our worldly possessions into tidy piles. Kitchen implements, the most important of which is our handy Coleman two-burner stove, were heaped next to nonperishable foods—gigantic bags of pasta, dried beans, cans of tuna and coconut milk. Camping equipment occupied the greatest space, followed shortly by an impenetrable mass of climbing gear.

My parents came out several times to stare at the piles, wondering how we’d ever fit it all in the back of a Forester and still have room for two people and a dog.

Something like a thousand miles, starting and finishing in Seattle.
Something like a thousand miles, starting and finishing in Seattle.

Finally, the day after Labor Day, we pointed our headlights northwest and set off. We did the drive to Seattle straight through, stopping a few times to fill up, and once to cook dinner. It took twenty-two hours.

We spent the next two weeks traipsing around the Pacific Northwest, climbing at iconic destinations like Smith Rock, Oregon and Leavenworth, Washington. Coffee shops and grocery stores in proximity to these locations post signs above their bathroom sinks: “No bathing, laundry, or dishwashing!” This does little to stop the dirtbags from doing their dishes with Dr. Bronner’s, but it does serve a purpose: like a rough washboard road, it lets you know you’re getting close to the real deal.

Two tent-sleeping, thousand-mile-driving, not-enough-water-too-much-beer-drinking, campfire-cooking, starry-night-gazing, out-all-day-climbing, same-filthy-clothes-wearing, almost-out-of-cash weeks. It was pure bliss.

A quick stop on another perfect day on the road. Mazama, WA. (Photo by Daniel Cairns.)
A quick stop on another perfect day on the road. Mazama, WA. (Photo by Daniel Cairns.)

Note: A stretch of ten showerless days in Chacos causes a person’s feet to be caked in a sort of perma-grime, seemingly impossible to remove even once regular bathing has resumed. Of course, “regular bathing” isn’t exactly what went on immediately following our Pacific Northwestern Odyssey, because then it was time for the real driving to begin.

The Alaska Highway—or ALCAN, as it’s often sensibly contracted from “Alaska-Canada Highway”—stretches from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska. People usually think the ALCAN is the whole gauntlet, all the way from Seattle, but you have to do about a thousand miles of driving from the northern US-southern Canada border just to get to it.

We drove the West Access Route to Prince George, marveling at aspen groves with their golden leaves, watching as vast hillsides of birch trees replaced their summer highlights with shimmery gray hair in preparation for winter. The Yellowhead Highway connects Prince George to the most remote stretch of road in BC: the 450-mile-long Cassiar Highway, which boasts only a handful of gas stations.

The definitive guide to driving the ALCAN.
The definitive guide to driving the ALCAN.

The starry nights we’d enjoyed in Washington were a distant memory: the Cassiar provided us with two straight days of relentless downpour, punctuated by occasional glimpses of glaciers in the distance. The rain pitter-pattered on our cozy tent, a million popcorn kernels exploding as they bounced off the fly.

The Cassiar, in fact, is probably closest to what most people think of when they hear you’re driving the Alaska Highway. Bix’s mom drove up in 1968, before the roads were paved and the Yukon was as close as you could still get to the Wild West. We weren’t fording rivers or getting into barfights, as she probably imagined we were, but I remembered the Cassiar feeling wilder than most of the drive.

As I waited in line to pay for our fuel at the Bell 2 Lodge—a swanky truck stop-cum-heliski outfit, which is just as strange as it sounds—I eavesdropped as the man in front of me made lodging arrangements with the clerk.

“We’re arborists,” he explained, “Working on the powerline.”

Bodhi, with the best seat in the house, er, car.
Bodhi, with the best seat in the house, er, car.

I didn’t remember any powerline, but it was hard to miss as we continued north. Huge swaths of hillside had been annihilated, the work of the arborist and his cohort. Unattended fires burned towering piles of pine and birch remains. It was hard to stomach, especially with Ed Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang as our entertainment. I was glad when the Cassiar spit us out into the Yukon.

A few bear sightings and one uneventful border crossing later, we arrived on the Last Frontier. In just under a month, we’ve visited seven states, two Canadian provinces, and over 4,500 miles of road, and I’m feeling more grateful than ever for the perks of seasonal employment. I guess someday I’ll be tired of moving every few months, but for now, I’m glad this season is just a short break from life on the road.

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