8. North to Alaska: Chapter 10 and Chapter 11 – Life Out Here
Just outside of Whitecourt we saw our first moose. Her body and folded legs a dark mound on the shoulder of the highway, her neck outstretched over the white line, her lifeless eyes and closed jaw square on the asphalt. Highway signs called it “Moose Row” and amber digits tracked moose deaths the way San Antonio displays Loop 1604 deaths. Moose Row cut through high flat earth covered in half-grown trees which kept hidden those riparian zones moose love to haunt. I kept my eyes open for off-the-shoulder movement.
Fields of trees morphed into fields of canola yellow as the sun, pleasantly contrasted with the marbled summer sky. Grand Prairie, Alberta is a sprawling agricultural town and it is the first town with signs to the Alaska Highway. We stopped for gas and pizza at what I believe to be the last Costco before Fairbanks, Alaska.
Grand Prairie to Dawson Creek is river country and the road meanders over forested plateaus and bluffs. I began to envision Zach and I standing with Rufus and Scout in front of the sign I had seen in Milepost advertisements for Dawson Creek: “Alaska Highway: Mile 0!”
We could park our caravan behind the sign. Achieve a triple-layer effect.
Where was the selfie-stick?
I concluded I’d just Clorox my phone if someone else was around to take our epic photograph.
The sign was a few kilometers away. It had to be. I scouted the roadside for a truck stop I had never actually pinpointed on the map. In a small town where the only highway becomes the Alaska Highway it would be hard to miss the famous Mile Zero. Right?
(Credit for this and the cover image: The Milepost)
We followed big trucks turning left at a short light. The highway kept on through the grasslands and hill country.
“Do you want to turn around a look for it?” The day was young and Zach heard bitter frustration in my voice. But for me it was all about that debut moment on the Alaska Highway. And there is no recovering missed moments in time.
Truly, you must always believe in the power of over-planning everything down to the last hour, the last mile. Or the first mile.
The Alaska Highway wasted no time. It dipped low into a river valley and signs warned, “Extreme Grades.” We were by then familiar with the feel of a seven, eight, and a nine percent grade in both the van and the UHaul. I had taken the UHaul down an unlabeled “steep grade” in Montana, but no matter the grade, engine braking in the UHaul always makes you feel a bit out-of-control.
Bless its oily, metallic soul, the new UHaul engine does you one better than your classic pumping of the brakes. It decelerates the engine and downshifts automatically. Relieves you of the task of braking, though instinct forces you to pump those brakes anyway. It stays stuck like that until you are slow enough to unlock the automated braking and resume normal RPMs, which is a terrifying feature when you need to accelerate. It is a loud experience and makes you feel as if the engine might blow at any moment.
I kept an eye on the rearview mirror, sorry for Zach, relieved to not be in the engine braking UHaul.
There was no escaping the bridge to Fort St. John.
At the top of a hill I saw a river – the Peace River – and its wide dark blue waters glistened. The Highway was sloped like a half-pipe and the bridge was the bottom of that wide half-pipe, the connector between one high bluff and the other. Fort St. John waited at the top of that other bluff. All that kept us apart was the Peace River. And the scariest bridge known to my life.
We began our descent, and I pumped my brakes. At the bridge, I wanted to cry.
No pavement, no wooden planks, no dirt. It was only a long metal grate that spanned over the Peace River. The kind of grate rainwater spills into and from which steam rises to vaporize on city sidewalks. Speed limit signs advised that I cross slowly.
The tires over the metal grate made a whirring noise that rose and fell with the speed of the van. When I looked beside the van door I saw the rush of green water. The lip of old pavement and the soundless feel of asphalt. We climbed the slope to Fort St. John, a city of dam workers that had recorded their first Covid case that week.
We were the only UHaul in sight, the only folks who looked lost. Forget blending into any tourist scene; forget hesitantly telling strangers, “we are moving from Alabama to Alaska.” We kept to ourselves, kept to our room, except to venture out to Taco Time and a local kabob place.
That’s when I began each night to study the Milepost in earnest, paying attention to when we could expect high elevation passes, extreme grades, grated bridges. It tells you when bison might cross the road or which gas stations went belly up the year before.
It even told me that to stop at Mile Zero is good luck.
I chose believe our missing of the very start was God’s way of proving that a notion such as that is hogwash.
Dang it anyway.
For all the dam workers and truckers on the Highway, Fort Nelson was oddly more residential than industrial. We stayed at the legendary Fort Nelson Hotel in a poolside-facing room that smelled of dog urine and featured a non-working thermostat. It was one of those relic hotels of the recent past, the kind that highlights indoor pool glory and centralized convention space. The theme was Polynesian. We took the dogs on a walk and noticed boarded-up rebuilds either abandoned by Covid or victims of slow-dying tourism. We saw a souvenir shop with “No Americans Allowed” posted on the glass door. I checked the vehicles one more time and swatted at swarms of lackadaisical mosquitoes.
When we left the next morning, we finally tried Tim Horton’s for sausage biscuits and hot coffee, by then quite tired of the complimentary brown bag breakfast.
Fort Nelson to Coal River is the stretch of the Highway that empties you west of the Divide, a final crossing. It proved to be the second trickiest stretch of the whole dang thing.
(It was cheap, but Scout rather enjoyed its peculiar charm.)