9. North to Alaska: Chapter 12 and Chapter 13 – Life Out Here
Watson Lake is a First Nations town, friendlier than we were told. At a makeshift border station, masked men took our names on iPads, made copies of our identification, gave us paperwork to sign. We were told the next checkpoint was Whitehorse.
“Make sure you don’t miss it,” he said. My border guy was tall and friendly like my freshman year agricultural teacher.
We gassed up next to the Sign Forest. San Marcos, Texas. Ely. Dublin. I saw a green “Entering Belgrade” sign as I merged onto the highway. I felt lucky again.
The highway flowed over the Divide a fourth and final time. Barricades and one way streets wove us through the heart of Whitehorse before we parked amid big rigs at the Airport Chalet. We had missed the checkpoint, but no one searched for us. Dump trucks and cranes and hundreds of locals lined the highway. They stood on its shoulder, lounged in truck beds, congregated in the parking lot. I joined one woman on the porch of the Chalet and photographed a parade of motorists waving flags and holding signs for number fifty-five. She looked at me funny. I retreated to our room.
“Maybe it’s for a hockey player,” I said. But it was a Celebration Parade for motocross competitor Travis Adams, a 43 year old husband and dad of three. He had died in a passing accident on the highway. The parade lasted two hours. The crowds dispersed but the atmosphere stayed heavy.
I noticed cameras on the eaves of the Chalet when I took the dogs to relieve themselves out back where fireweed grew out of pallet wood and through a chain-link fence. We were otherwise restricted to our room. allowed only room service, food box and ketchup exchanges done through the cracked door. The taunting tick of some invisible clock reverberated in my sleep. When sunlight streamed through curtain folds, I knew we would not make it out of the Yukon in twenty-four hours. In the rain and mud, we loaded our luggage and dogs and drove out of Whitehorse in the rain.
“If you’re not paying attention, you’ll fly right off the road.”
“The worst part is Destruction Bay. It’s two hours of frost heave.”
These were the voices of reason, of warning, which haunted me as the windshield filled with the St. Elias mountains.
I braced myself as time ran out. Our twenty-four hours, gone. I prayed for our tires. Would the Royal Canadian Mounted Police change flat tires before or after hauling us to the Whitehorse jail?
We drove in somber reverence over Slims River where a packhorse had died during the Gold Rush. We crossed a wick marshland of exposed yellowed water-grass and soil dark as soot, in some places grooved like sea sand and in others cracked like droughty desert earth. The long bridge ended at the base of Sheep Mountain. The slow approach over the drained watershed felt tidal and holy like Mont Saint-Michele.
Often the gray-silver silt streams of unseen glaciers trickled into lake waters topaz like the Mediterranean Sea. Over Kulane Lake, turquoise skies and a lemon-drop sun broke through gray clouds. At a gas station in Destruction Bay, Zach paid for a few gallons through a plastic veil.
“He won’t let us use their restrooms,” he said.
A few miles down the highway we came across two clean outhouses. We ran the dogs and watched the windswept Kulane whitecap. A semi-truck we had passed hours ago thundered by. Propelled suddenly by the fear of the unknown, we loaded the dogs and took to the highway.
Then the pretty highway turned to hell.
I knew all over again who I was and why.
“I’ll go with you anywhere,” I had told Zach at my mom’s house, and when you loosen your grip on life to follow God through unchartered territories, it is a greater peace you feel than any illusion of control can manufacture.
We had a friend whose wife was on the fence about active duty life, and while I sometimes long for a static backdrop, a common denominator for all my memories, I know some of us are called to be nomads. And maybe that common denominator for which I remain restless is already here, threading together every scrap of my life.
I forgot all of this when the body of the van bounced, suspended high above its wheels which clung to the Alaska Highway. I was a go-kart on the maddening Rainbow Road. A cartoon vehicle jouncing off and on the axles, tooling down some comical country parkway. The body fell back into place. Our heads whipped forward with the motion. I polluted my mobile quarantine bubble with words only the dogs heard. If you ask, they’re not saying anything.
Zach had seen a Grizzly and her cub. He signaled with his lights for me to turn on my radio.
“Did you want to turn around?”
I felt the highway fold. It pulled us down to the right. Another unsavory word. Rufus and Scout hunkered low in their hammock. I fixed my eyes on the rearview mirror, watched the UHaul bounce, rock right and then left.
Headlights filled my rearview.
“Can you go a little faster?” Zach asked.
“Can we keep to 55km/h?” I asked, which is about 25mph.
Radio silence. Then, “how about 70km/h?”
Now, the Canadian crews of the Alaska Highway will stop and ask, “are you okay?” even if you’ve only stopped to pee or empty a gas can into the tank because the fumes are leaking into the cab of your UHaul. They generously place red flags on each side of frost-heaved sections. Tire tracks at ruts in the highway are also good warnings. When I spotted two black trucks each towing a bleach-white RV, my tense shoulders relaxed. If their skinny black rear tires seemed to go airborne over dips and heaves, I braked. We tailed them at a comfortable 24km/h and I allowed myself to glance at the scenery, to hope for another Grizzly.
Looking out across an expanse of treetops, I saw the UHaul almost beside the van. Its bugged grill filled my side mirror. I saw the highway curve ahead. Zach did not fall back. I took one last look and gunned it. I was mad enough to cry, and I flew from 24 to 112km/h until the RVs had vanished and caught sight of that stupid brave semi-truck we had passed at the Continental Divide.
At the United States border, a scatterbrained woman glimpsed my Texas driver’s license and waved me onward. We descended into a wide valley flanked on the southern horizon by the Alaska Range. I was happy enough to cry. Afternoon sun blazed through birch trees. By the time we reached Tok, Alaska, I had cooled enough to ask Zach what had possessed him to pass two RV-towing trucks on a curve of the Alaska Highway.
“I thought they were going to check our time at the border,” he said.
When I asked him how he thought the last four hours had gone, he said that except for risking a one million dollar fine or one year in prison, he’d had the joy ride of his life.
I could tell you of our first meal in Alaska, how we felt foreign among broad-shouldered truckers and flanneled women. I could tell of Tazlina Glacier which first appeared like a mist on the horizon. I could tell you of turning for Sheep Mountain Lodge one road too early, of watching Zach reverse onto the steepest grade on record. How two boys out of nowhere and looking like Deliverance had emerged from behind their “no trespassing” sign to watch the drama unfold. I could tell you of the solace of Sheep Mountain Lodge and how Matanuska Glacier is really something to see even from the highway. It is a curved ice river as long as some byways through this country.
Instead, I will tell you that now I live in a valley of brambles, in the cradle of treeless peaks I first perceived in a dream the night Zach found the listing for the house we now fill. Wild creatures tromp through the brush undetected. A winding road keeps us distanced from town. An ongoing pandemic perpetuates that feeling of displacement which shadows every move. The sun, which was once a ceaseless twilight that outshone the stars, now arcs briefly over mountains that separate us from the Turnagain Arm. On my worst days, the darkness goes soul-deep. Yet it is the same summer sun which reflects on the cold Moon so bright you could drive without headlights.
How strange to coax my heart to love a place I had longed to see, but each morning the ridges seem less like strangers. The winding road becomes more my own.
And summer’s flowers now dance in the sky and daylight gained levels out everything, prepares me to embrace the next season in a place where Light is everything.