The Mother of All Road Trips
On Memorial Day weekend this year, my husband Donn and I hopped into an aging 2003 Chevy Avalanche pickup truck with the intention of travelling round-trip from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Fairbanks, Alaska, via the Alaska Highway. The bright yellow pickup, with 300,000 miles already on the odometer, was to be our transportation and sometime-lodging on a planned multi-thousand mile road trip.
Wait a minute! Three hundred thousand miles?! That’s a lot of mileage!
You might call it a crazy, hare-brained idea to take that roomy old vehicle, but it was not a hasty decision. Before the trip, we debated the pros and cons and the cost factors of buying or renting a newer vehicle for the adventure. But the Avalanche had been meticulously maintained and well-kept over the years. Our regular mechanic gave us a thumbs-up on the idea. And, we brought along the vehicle title, just in case we were forced to abandon the truck along the way.
Our mission, between Memorial Day weekend and the 4th of July, was to venture up the fabled 1500 mile Alaska Highway, from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska. Of course, that meant we had to get to Dawson Creek first, so an additional 1600 miles had to be conquered before we could even start!
We left our suburban Minneapolis home that Saturday, headed northwest through North Dakota, and crossed the Canadian border into Saskatchewan. We zipped through Alberta, and made it to British Columbia in three days. In Dawson Creek, we were almost giddy as we posed for pictures at the “official” road marker that begins the Alaskan Highway. After a good night’s sleep in a comfortable hotel bed, and a shower that might be our last in a while, we set our sights on Fairbanks. Three more days of hard driving through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory followed, before we pulled into Alaska’s northernmost city.
Sounds easy, right? Well, it’s not a trip for the faint of heart. An oft-recited adage can be heard among highway travelers:
“Winding in and winding out,
Fills my mind with serious doubt,
As to whether the lout who built this route,
Was going to hell or coming out.”
The doubt is valid. Many miles of the route travel through sheer wilderness, with no access to gas or even the most basic services. Other traffic (coming or going) is sometimes non-existent. Cell phone and internet coverage is simply not available in many areas. If help was needed, one would have a tough time finding it.
The road itself is not a highway by most definitions. Though paved after-a-fashion in some places, the two-lane path demands respect. It’s been continually upgraded since its beginnings in 1942, but many areas still consist of simple gravel and packed dirt, with no lane markings and few signs. Because permafrost heaves are common year round, an unwary driver going too fast risks a broken suspension. Short shoulders, no guard rails, sharp curves, and sheer drop-offs along mountain passes make it a real (sometimes heart-pounding) adventure. Oh, and don’t forget that wild animals (black bears and brown grizzlies, bison, moose, elk, caribou, mountain sheep, eagles and antelopes) abound along the route. If you were to be sidetracked by a bear, go off the road or into a lake, you might never be found.
Despite the adventurous conditions, we reached Fairbanks with the vehicle and our minds intact! We spent a relaxing weekend in the interior city, then decided to venture further north to the Arctic Circle via the Dalton Highway. Watchers of TV’s Ice Road Truckers are familiar with the Dalton’s harrowing trails, steep grades, and rutted dirt roads. It takes some time to navigate, but on arrival at the Arctic Circle marker, we were rewarded with a sunny 60 degrees on a June day.
In a state where the majority of the land mass area is wilderness accessible only by boat or plane, we cruised nearly every paved road. From Fairbanks, we visited Denali National Park, where we were among the fortunate thirty percent to actually see the legendary mountain on any given day. (Mount McKinley has a weather system all its own.) We hung out in Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula, home of Alyeska Ski Resort, Seward on beautiful Resurrection Bay, and the Homer Spit. Valdez (called the little Switzerland of Alaska) was another necessary stop. A cruise through the ice fields of Prince William Sound, and stops to watch scores of sea lions and otters, whales and porpoises in their natural habitat was also a must. We made stops in the crossroads town of Tok and infamous Chicken, Alaska, with its local band of eccentrics. Chicken is an oddball story in itself, and barely large enough to call a town, but that – and the food – are enough reasons to stop.
There are stories, lots of them, in every one of these places.
Leaving Chicken, we were ready to throw the rule book out the window, and decided to let the days and routes unfold, as we began to meander to a different beat. We looked at each other, and said, “Where do you want to go?” We endured more rutted roads and steep grades from Chicken to the border of Canada’s Yukon Territory, and over the Top of the World Highway.
Our welcome to the Gold Rush town of Dawson City was aboard a vehicle ferry across the mighty Yukon River. Historic Dawson City is the only place in the world where you can dine at Klondike Kate’s and see a vaudeville show (complete with the requisite can-can girls) at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s. Or seek out a local honky-tonk, and enjoy a colorful local character pounding the keys of a hundred year old piano. It was the perfect place to toast a honeymooning couple from Switzerland.
We learned about drunken forests, braided rivers, the retreating Columbia Glacier and massive ice fields. We learned Gold Rush history, and the grim wartime reasons the AlCan highway was pounded out in a record eight months in 1942. We recited the tongue-in-cheek Gold Rush-era poetry of Robert Service in the town that celebrates his memory. We bathed in hot springs, and were awed by spectacular scenery at nearly every turn. We experienced the utter silence of the wilderness.
Despite the sometimes sparse surroundings, food deprivation was not a factor. We dined on reindeer sausage and bison burgers, monster cinnamon rolls and blueberry pie and the freshest and finest halibut on the planet.
With little prior planning and zero reservations, we found hotels, cabins, and RV parks/campgrounds along the way. Some nights we spent in a tent rigged up on the back bed of the truck. With air mattresses and toasty sleeping bags, we had comfortable nights, though it’s a bit of an effort to attempt sleep outside in the land of the Midnight Sun. Other times, we found other unique lodging options, like the canvas cabin we rented near Denali National Park with no heat, water, or electricity. An added attraction at that campground was the Thai food truck in the front parking lot! And we were able to walk across the Alaska Highway to find evening entertainment in an even swankier resort.
One time, we even parked for the night in the used-car parking lot of a Chevy dealership in Anchorage (we had an appointment for an oil change early the next morning). Campgrounds were hard to find within the city limits, so necessity demanded a little creativity. Besides, the Avalanche fit right into its surroundings!
Though very few are privileged or able to take a trip of this magnitude, folks of all ages and abilities from all over the world are drawn to the adventure and the camaraderie of the legendary Alaskan Highway. Retired folks in state-of- the-art RVs, college age kids with backpacks, hardy bicyclists, leather-clad Harley riders, and parents traveling with babies and young kids in pop-up campers – they all share the road. Again, the old yellow truck was not out of place. Remember the Swiss newlyweds? They were our neighbors at a Dawson City RV park.
A “What the heck?” travel mentality continued as we headed south over the Yukon border to cruise the entire length of the province of British Columbia, from the remote little outpost of Dease Lake to the very civilized city of Vancouver. We explored the scenic mountain highways of southern British Columbia, and revisited Lake Louise in Alberta.
The journey wasn’t quite finished, however, even after we headed back south into the U.S. at the northern Montana crossing near Glacier National Park. Since we still had time, we made a snap decision. Over the following ten days, on our eastbound trek back to Minnesota, we knocked five national parks off our bucket list: Glacier and Yellowstone in Montana, Grand Teton in Wyoming, and Mount Rushmore and the Badlands of South Dakota.
At the outset, we had no idea we’d expand the adventure this far. We pulled into our driveway exactly five weeks – 35 days – after we’d started. And we had put over ten thousand more miles on that old Chevy. Sure, we’d spent a chunk of change, but we came back with so much more…a crash course in U.S. and Canadian history, politics, and geography…and the fascinating military reasons why the Alaska Highway was built in the first place. Geology lessons challenged what we thought we knew about climate change. A million humorous and trivial facts, along with the people we met along the way, make for great memories and a lot of laughs.
We learned one more valuable lesson: Five weeks and ten thousand miles in close quarters is a real test of marital harmony!