All posts filed under: North to Alaska

13. Where Light is Everything

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 …

12. A Last Chance to Sleep

When Donna gave me the room key and took our credit card, I recognized her voice. I recalled Prattville, the hours of reconfiguration and recalculation at my dining room table that had driven me to the Milepost one afternoon and an advertisement for the Coal River Lodge and RV. “Yes, we are the last stop before Watson Lake,” a matter-of-fact voice had said. “If you leave Fort Nelson mid-morning, we’ll expect you for dinner. It’s a beautiful drive.” She was direct, but kind enough, and had given me all I wanted: confirmation on what truly is the last stop before the Yukon. I had decided every destination up to Fort Nelson but I was hung up on Watson Lake, our Yukon entry-point. Mobile quarantine is required; you must exit the Yukon within twenty-four hours; you may sleep either in Watson Lake or Whitehorse if you must break the journey. These are things the Yukon website told me, and the hotline man I called at least three different times to check for changes. I was fraught …

11. Mile Zero

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 …

10. Far Flung Horizons

Shadowed only by a park ranger hat, her smile was sunlight. Of course we could pass through. So long as we did not stop. The Kootenay Highway became the Banff-Windermere Highway—roughly 103 kilometers of storied asphalt through Kootenay National Park to the Trans-Canada Highway. Morning sun reflected off the canyon as an iridescent copper and vermillion glow. Shadowed ponderosa were a cool slate blue. A valley of stately firs and larch and poplars grew in steep waves up mountainsides, the snowy peaks of which touched a sapphire sky. I put on Jackson Browne; his “Solo Acoustic, Volume 1” became my album of the trip. The cold Kootenay River wove back and forth under the highway, its turquoise waters shallow and rushed, slipping over sprays of speckled light and polished driftwood. Then I recognized the valley of my childhood memories which, until that moment, had been the hazy kind of memory you can never quite place. My heart had responded to this place decades earlier and I remembered why. Skiffs of daisies spangled lime-colored grasses, gathered …

9. Brighter Was the World

Briefed on the details, and gifted with graphic leaflets on when and how to contact Health Canada, we were mandated to mobile quarantine. Mobile quarantine means you must be masked whenever out of your vehicle, and you must never be out of your vehicle unless gassing up, checking into a hotel room, or, if absolutely necessary, buying groceries. “Would you rather pay the one million dollar fine or spend one year in prison?” Zach and I mused over this question sometimes when it came time to mask up and blend into the Canadian tourist scene. We stopped at the A&W in Cranbrook, borrowed their WiFi to download the map to our motel in Radium, and ate our burgers on the steps of the truck. I could never decide if our Alabama plates or the twenty-six foot long UHaul made a couple of purse-lipped women stare at us as they hurried by. Maybe it was both. “Why don’t people wear masks here?” Zach surmised it must be that things hadn’t been too bad for them, that …

8. Not One of Those Americans

When the new lottery machine pulled a twenty from my fingers, I knew I had made a mistake. My gone money was reincarnated as an electric-green balance. “I don’t know anything about that machine,” said the woman at the counter, “but I don’t think it makes change. You’ll have to play all twenty dollars.” My mistake blazed, unsympathetic. Waited for me to make my choices. My twenty-dollars worth of choices. I felt unlucky as card after card slipped into my hands. “All I wanted was a dollar scratch-off,” I explained to Zach as I set my stack of bitter opportunity atop my Bible and started the van. We had gassed up at the Three Mile Corner Store where almost every dollar scratch-off is a winner. Instead of turning left for Montana as we usually did, we turned right for Canada. The world outside my window was gold rolling meadows, emerald forested hills, and old pearl-white farmhouses set like buttons on a patchwork quilt. As we gained elevation we lost cell service and the dreamer’s vistas …

Out On Skyland Road: An Intermission

In his characteristic all-caps print, and with precise lines and arrows, Michael scrawled a crude map on the back of a Glacier Bank envelope. With the pen tip he pointed. “Just take the Skyland Access Road, clock about nine miles, and you’ll see us a little past Challenge Cabin,” he said. Zach asked, “won’t Cassie need her bank statement?” “Will the van make it?” Just three years earlier, I had driven our family car to Challenge Cabin. New beargrass blooms had crawled hillsides and valleys combed with the toothpick shadows of blackened trees. The Camry, twenty-years-old that summer, had taken the washboards of Skyland Road like it had taken all other washboards in its faithful service. Michael reassured me that if the Camry could make it, so could the van. Still, I braced myself as I turned off Highway Two and onto the upturned dirt of Skyland Road. Now, in my mind, dirt road driving translates to winter driving thanks to washboards – a series of grooves that develop with time and overuse. On a …

7. The Only Place that Ever Feels Like Home

The way was dark, the road winding. We lost elevation and the rolling Black Hills like ocean waves broke on the Great Plains, spilling out near-flat beneath a volatile sky. Electric air buzzed white, then the world went black again. The Buck Moon illuminated fence posts and barbed wire. Sometimes stars glinted as the calmer storm clouds wisped past. That’s the way of the prairie. The sky is everything.   Wyoming and the first small town. Civilization. It whooshed and crackled with fireworks. People darted into traffic from gas station doors to the parking lots of closed-up storefronts. Firecrackers popped on the streets and we gassed up, let the dogs out to stretch and hydrate. A Confederate-flagged truck billowed out of the shadows and into the chaotic night. We moved on into the darkness, alone and hours from the Buffalo Inn.   Out there, calm skies brightened miles of grassland. It must have been a herd of fifty deer we surprised just after midnight when we still had thirty minutes on the road, a detail …

6. God’s Fireworks

The hand-painted signs pop up politely as you enter South Dakota.   “Five Cent Coffee.” “Homemade Donuts.” “Western Wear.” They evoked the scents of leather, cinnamon sugar, hot coffee. I pictured post cards, stickers, souvenirs. I saw a collected mass of humanity.  “No. No, we cannot stop at Wall Drug,” I told myself. We have a ten hour drive on our hands – some 500 miles to The Buffalo Inn – and we have no business risking our lives in COVID crowds.  Alongside the hot asphalt highway west of Sioux Falls, tall prairie grass grows lonely except for the endless parade of out-of-state motorists. We passed by another Ingalls homestead. I noticed the hand-painted  signs were now big as billboards and frequent as telephone poles. They were bold. They were weird. “Six-foot Rabbit” “YOLO” “Free Ice Water!” Free, mind you, because, like shade trees and locals, cold water out on the prairie is hard to find. “Let’s stop at the Corn Palace real quick,” I requested an hour into the drive. We were at Mitchell and …

5. Sentimental Mother Trucker

I have travelled the highways and backroads between Alabama and Montana enough times to regard that patchwork Midwestern route as yet another home street, its road signs and roadside attractions more like memorabilia than mile markers. It was day two, and we rose early to climb out of Arkansas and through the Missouri Ozarks.  Sometimes the sky above was a river, narrow and winding as the highway; sometimes, at the crest of a rise in the road,  it was miles of white-hot haze, buzzing over rolling woodlands. In West Plains, I  tipped my hat to Porter. I wished to detour to Branson. I longed to pay homage to Laura in Mansfield, to again walk the grounds of Rocky Ridge Farm, to share that with Zach.  Then, I remembered the time I dragged Zach to the Mexican restaurant my family had long-ago discovered on a Colorado road trip. “I’ve always wanted to find it again.” I told him about the flag you raise if you need more chips  or Coke. Actors jump into deep pools of …