North to Alaska
They say that travel broadens you. Well, actually, age has broadened me but after two years of Covid restrictions that curtailed, but did not extinguish, my wanderlust, I was more than willing this spring to start planning trips to “far-away places with strange-sounding names.”
I have always had a yen for Old World sites and sights but this year my normally compliant husband suggested it was time to tick off an item on his bucket list.
He had a mentor when he was a teenager, a surrogate father named “Red” Ludlow, who, as a youth, led an adventuresome life. Red was an adolescent hobo during the Great Depression and then was one of the Army troops who helped construct the Alcan Highway during World War II. He filled my husband’s head with tales of that task and left in him an abiding desire to see the wilderness.
For those unfamiliar with the Alcan, as it was then known, the highway was considered a defensive necessity by the American government in 1942 to allow “rapid” transit of war materiel to Alaska in case of a Japanese invasion. The US government negotiated with the Canadians to allow some 10,000 American troops to construct 1,700 miles of road across British Columbia and the Yukon Territory into Alaska.
For eight months—absolutely break-neck speed considering the terrain—the men slashed, cut and gouged a path through unbroken forests, over the peaks of the Northern Rockies and across the border into American territory. After the war the road was turned over to the Canadians who continuously upgrade it, shortening its original length to 1,422 miles but it is still an awe-inspiring adventure to drive it.
It was one of those trips where every turn in the road left one stunned by the beauty. Glorious views were everywhere—indeed, one day when I turned down a side road to Destruction Bay, my husband said, “What’s down here?” “It’s supposed to be a wonderful view,” I replied. “Oh, great,” he muttered.
But we saw it all, ticking off viewings of eight out of the 10 iconic species that call the wilderness home, missing only the grizzly bear and caribou. We stopped at “towns” so small that they consisted of a gas pump, a tiny store and a handful of trailers. Surrounding them were hundreds of thousands of acres of forest.
We had been warned about bad road conditions, to carry a spare tire and to fuel our car when we found gas as the next station could be hundreds of miles away. We heeded the warnings but what I didn’t factor in was finding food. In June, after a bad winter, many eateries remained shuttered and one morning we drove four hours before finding a cup of coffee.
All told, the trip was as advertised—gorgeous, interesting, expensive, with rough travel along sections of road where “thank-you-ma’ams” bounced your head off the ceiling of the SUV. But what really intrigued me was the conversations we engaged in in a country without cell service. People are willing to talk! Anywhere. There are no phones in their hands because there is no reception. They look you in the eye. Their hands are not permanently curled in a cupped position, thumbs are not poised over screens to text. It’s amazing.
And when you talk, it is remarkable what you learn. One night we ate in a tiny restaurant where all tables were taken. An old man was sitting alone at a table for four and my husband asked if we could join him. Graciously, he agreed.
There was that momentary awkwardness where strangers assess whether they should speak or leave each other alone. Eventually his meal arrived, a cheese quesadilla. He observed it was the best you could find in British Columbia. Chit-chat revealed he did not eat meat and that I, too, am a vegetarian—an instant bond.
There was a smile in his eyes and, despite his deafness, I began to ask him polite questions. Did he live in Teslin? No, he was a trucker. That’s a hard life. Where was he going? To Fairbanks. He planned to drive all night and be there on the morrow. How long could he drive without a break? Ten hours “but I have an old truck and a paper log, so I can lie like hell. I take a nap when I get tired.”
With hesitation behind us, the conversation flowed. I noticed he wore no wedding band and tacitly concluded the long days on the road had robbed him of a family. But, no. His wife had run the trucking business, managing 16 trucks and drivers.
“I don’t know how she did it,” he said. “She managed all those trucks and any time I came home, the house and kids were spotless.”
There were four children and one that was stillborn, he revealed. “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be,” he said sadly. He had “good kids,” and now that his wife was dead, 15 of the trucks had been sold. “She took care of all that,” he said with admiration. “I told her I was going to go on, so I kept one.”
He has a home in Minneapolis “when I get there” and his daughter keeps up the house and schedules loads for him to haul.
Then came the revelation. At first, I thought I heard him wrong. “Now my wife is dead and my kids are dying,” he said softly. One son has terminal cancer and his middle boy suffers from ALS. His statement was without self-pity, just enormous sadness, and I felt such compassion for this old man—now in his 80s—who endlessly drives the nation’s roads in the truck that is his real home and sanctuary.
Another conversation took place on a roadside with an insouciant character who was walking his “knucklehead” malamute. We were on our endless pursuit of breakfast and after driving two hours, we saw him in the parking lot of a closed restaurant. We pulled in to ask where to find some food and were engaged for almost an hour in his description of life on the edge of civilization.
And a fascinating life it is. He and his wife own a home just up the road a few hundred yards and he was about the renovate the restaurant and its cabins for road crews who would move in the following year. They shop once a month in Tok, 90 miles north over execrable roads where, he assured us, we would be able to finally find breakfast.
He said his wife, tired of the freezing Alaskan winters, had persuaded him to move to the Lower 48 several years before but after only 18 months she was disenchanted with congestion and pollution “and she let me move home” where she is happy with everything except the bad road. He was smiling, gay, content with his lot and his dopey young dog.
A woman at a Chamber of Commerce information center engaged us in a long conversation that answered my questions about the topography and environment and then she filled us in on her own history of life in a California commune and her move a quarter of a century before to Alaska.
We did not know these people after our lives briefly intersected but I felt a kinship with them all as they sought their most meaningful existence. In a region where bears, buffalo and mountain sheep far exceed people, it felt consequential to share our histories and aspirations—to recognize our common needs (a cup of coffee, at the very least), our joys and our sorrows. I hope that old man finds peace as he drives endlessly through the night and that the restaurant man’s wife finally gets a smooth road.