Postcards from the Alaskan Highway

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Muncho Lake: Milepost 409

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Taking an extended break from the highway

At over 1400 miles long but barely ever wider than two lanes, the Alaskan Highway barely dents the sub-Arctic wilderness it travels through. The services hug close to the road and it is entirely possible to travel from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks without every venturing more than a few yards from the pavement. There are a couple of nice lodges along the way, but for the most part travelers are confined to small generator powered outposts. The usual settlement includes a couple of ancient gas pumps, a greasy diner with big city prices, a rough motel, and a campground. It is a short season with most of the businesses shut down by September. Those that do stay open year round report little to no business with one person stating that he sometimes works an entire winter shift without seeing a single customer.

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Liar River Hot Springs: At Milepost 496 you can walk a short boardwalk trail through a moose infested wetlands area to a very cool (actually quite hot) natural spring. Also has a nice campground and, the day we were there, a good food truck.

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Just chewing the cud a bit south of Fairbanks

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Just north of Tok, this very nice family run campground has a laundry mat which locals (some of whom have no running water) frequently use. 

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One of several churches housed in a discarded quonset hut, Our Lady Of The Way is located in Haines Junction, Yukon

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We spent two wonderful nights at the Cottonwood RV Park which allows you to camp a few feet from Kluane Lake. A small imprint in the wilderness, grizzlies often wander the campground looking for berries. By late summer those berries begin to ferment and sometimes the bears appear a bit over served. So always beware of drunk bears.

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Stretch of Alaskan Highway between Fort Nelson and Muncho Lake

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One of the many private campgrounds we stayed at along the Alaskan Highway

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Sign Post Forest, Watson Lake

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Been home a few days now and we are just starting to sort our photos. In doing so we are also beginning to sort out our memories of the trip. A journey lasting almost two months and involving over 10,000 miles in travels takes some time to digest. There is a lot we saw and there is just no way to tell it all. But we can tell a few stories. Like this one.

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In 1942, Private Carl K. Lindley was helping to build the Alaskan Highway. Spurred on by fears of a Japanese invasion, the entire highway was completed in less than a year. The original road was almost entirely gravel, not so level, and certainly not something a bunch of tourists from Chicago would ever attempt. But it did allow for military convoys to travel north.

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Henna did the hammering and we left a little something of ourselves at Historic Mile Post 635 on the Alaskan Highway

 

So while recovering from an injury, Lindley was asked to repaint a few directional signs. As a joke he added a sign pointing to his hometown of Danville, Il (just 2,700 happy miles away). Over the decades people kept on adding signs and the official count is now over 77,000. Make that 77,001 as we added a signed Frisbee to the mix. That Frisbee, by the way, was purchased by Corey and I almost twenty years ago. It likely has joined us on most of the trips we have taken including the first time we drove the Alaskan Highway. In the moment it just felt right adding this personal memento into the mix.

 

Hibbing, MN

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Bob Dylan’s childhood home

I am a huge Bob Dylan fan. Huge.  Which is why I am writing this from his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. The family and I just did a walk by his boyhood home, albeit very discreetly.  I didn’t want to be one of those tourists that stalk old haunting grounds of famous people. So I begged Noel to put the camera away so we could just blend in. But I have to admit, I am one of those people. I got a thrill being on the steps where MLK gave his I Have a Dream Speech then felt an incredible sadness standing at the ledge where he was shot down. I felt a similar feeling walking Dylan’s hometown.

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The hotel where Bob Zimmerman (Dylan) had his Bar Mitzvah

Bob considered himself a gypsy of sorts and concocted and crazy stories of his childhood. But Dylan’s boyhood was both normal and stable and deeply entrenched in this area.  So the idea that he roamed these streets, slept in that house and developed his history here makes me feel connected somehow.  While travelling, the idea of home and place is more vivid for me.  As we move further from home and all things familiar it puts you into a sort of out of self-place.  All the things that help to define you are gone, and your free to be something new. So meeting people, hearing their stories, sharing your own is one of my favorite things.  Finding out how folks end up where they do is very intoxicating so when we meet people, the first question is “Where are you from?”, which always begins a conversation of history, or the reason they got where they are.  Usually the answer is for love, but there were other crazy stories of adventure.  We have met and heard many stories along this trip, and usually the farther we get the more I realize how similar we all are.   One reason why I love Dylan is that his songs are steeped with tales about all kinds of folks. At first glance the words might seem disjointed and out of place, but if you take a deeper look they become a rich tapestry. Same is true for our own stories because as different from each other as they might initially appear, there is still ultimately at least one connecting thread. So, very soon we will be back in our home.  With our people.  Continuing our story.  Although it’s always fun to step outside of oneself, my second favorite thing about the journey is coming back home.      

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The only Dylan display we found in Hibbing. It was in a library basement behind a locked door. We had it to ourselves and were told to shut off the light and lock the door behind us when we were done.

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Looking down Howard Street in Hibbing, MN

 

 

 

Can’t Come Home Again

 

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Havre, MT

They didn’t seem to care that Corey and I stayed at the same hotel fifteen years ago. It was quite an oasis on the very hot and dusty Highway 2 or, as locals here like to call it, the Hi-Line. We ordered pizza, walked complementary drinks across the highway (big rigs slowed down and the star twinkled while we did so), and felt all bad ass in the way that only those under thirty can feel. Six weeks ago the teenage hotel clerk smiled when I told her all this, but honestly she did not seem that interested.

So the three of us ordered pizza here and hung out at the pool. Our trip, and summer, were almost completely in front of us and it felt good to be back somewhere where Corey and I began. Now the leaves are changing in Waterton and there ain’t much summer left to be had. Trying to do things a bit different this time we went out to dinner. Then saw a movie and even had a little time left over to hang out at the pool.

The restaurant, a funky looking Mexican diner, was recommended by the hotel. It was horrible. Henna’s vegetarian fajitas had non-Hispanic things in it like cauliflower that you knew came straight out of a frozen veggie bag. My chili relleno was like soup. Afterwards I asked almost every one I met if they would recommend the place. The hipster bartender at the casino next door said he loved the place for its authenticity. The teenage girl at the coffee shop next to the movie theater ate there the other day and would gladly do so again. This genuine affection for such a lousy place depressed us. The hotel clerk, the same one who recommended the place, later told me she used to work at the place but actually does not care for the food herself. She recommended it though because, “everyone just kind of has to work it out for themselves.” Travel is kind of the same way.

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Floating away on Waterton Lake

Talking Politics With Strangers

 

I try not to. But sometimes I just cannot help myself. Or someone else starts the conversation. Like in Cantwell (about 30 miles east of Denali National Park) where we camped next to a very cool collection of Scottish tourists. Mostly retired teachers and school administrators as well as a salesman and a builder, they made what could have been a buggy, tired night into a joyous folk festival.  We called it, they played it plus they introduced us to a few mournful Scottish ballads. In between tunes they questioned how someone as unabashedly racist and ignorant could earn the Republican nomination. I asked if they had ever watched Fox news. And I reminded them that Europe also has their share of right wing nationalist nut jobs in or almost in power. They told me that as much as they enjoy traveling through America they would never do so during a Trump administration. That type of sentiment is something we (who love traveling through the red states) often struggle with. Especially when some of the nicest, most helpful people we meet are the same folk who perceive our current president as the devil. And by devil I mean a literal agent of hell.

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We also talked quite a bit to others about health care. We have now visited almost every corner of Canada and have yet to meet a Canadian who envies our system. Most truly do not get it. A common question is “So if someone is sick and does not have insurance no one will help them?” This is even true in socially conservative Alberta (where a pick-up truck passed us by with a sticker that said “I support global warming”). Even when I mention the benefits of our system, such as not having to wait for “non-essential” medical procedures (so long as you have insurance) they scratch their heads at the thought of not being able to walk into a free clinic whenever they want. Everyone in Canada though does agree with me that their liquor is too expensive.

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But mostly people talked about Trump. Both to us as well as on the radio, television, and in print. Even the small local paper in Dawson Creek gave a very thorough analysis of the race. And in Atlin, at the visitor center, a very worried and politically obsessed older woman originally from Ireland expressed her fear that a Trump presidency will likely lead to a nuclear holocaust. Other people, especially European tourists, do not understand why people dislike Hillary. If I mention that her husband had an affair, then lied about it to the American people (as well as possibly under oath) they smile that peculiar smile that says “ah you naïve Americans.” Trigger words like “Benghazi” or “email scandal” mean even less to them. My guess is that there is no Fox news in Europe.

 

 

Oh The People We Have Met

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One of the many bears we saw along the Red Canyon Road in Waterton National Park

Oh the people we have met. So many stories. Here is one to start. Cody, just nineteen, was camping with his mom in Waterton National Park when he saw a help wanted sign. He kept the tent, a few dollars, and a couple of other things while mom drove home to Manitoba. Cody worked his first shift the night we rolled in and in the morning we talked politics. Mostly he wanted to know exactly which states legalized pot. And how the electoral college works. So it went like this: “Nebraska has three electoral votes because they have one representative and two senators.” “Can you buy pot there?” “I don’t know.” He also asked Corey if her hair is highlighted. It is. He then took off his cap and asked if it looked like his hair was also colored. He thought maybe someone had played a prank on him. I think they did. Later Cody traded me one Pabst Blue Ribbon for a ride into town so that he could move into his new digs. The restaurant he works at offers good food and lodging for $300 a month. It is a good deal but all the beds are taken so he plans on sleeping on an air mattress under the stairs Harry Potter style.

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Bears Hump as viewed from our campground

We also made quite a few friends. On the ferry to Juneau we met Grace and her mom Tracy. We ended up camping next to them and their friendly dog Mac. From Tracy we learned how special living in the Southeast can be. Things her and her family have done in the past few years include digging up whale bones, kayaking to remote islands, and witnessing epic displays of the Northern Lights. And Grace taught Henna how to make a wicked torch from moss draped sticks. Tracy also has written a series of children books detailing some of these adventures. They are very creative and will make you want to move to the Inside Passage. Take a look.

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Our campground as viewed from on top Bears Hump (relatively easy, but steep 1.6 KM hike from visitor center)

The sun was high but it was late in Seward and we were ready to go to bed. The city campground was cheap but poorly organized and right off the main road into town. It was also overbooked and we shared our site with another group (polite kids, they were taking a small break from working at Denali). At the moment I was putting out the fire a beat up Subaru pulled up next to us and honked the horn. The front door opened and I recognized the smiling face. The first thought that popped in my mind was that Eric had stolen a car.

He had not. Each night in Juneau we stayed up late with Grace, Tracy, Mac, Eric and Mara. Eric and Mara were backpacking from Holland. Both have a good sense of humor and endeared themselves to Henna by treating her like an adult. After Juneau they had a series of adventures that included impulsively flying to Homer in order to rent a crappy car at a ridiculous price in Homer. Now in Seward they had nowhere to camp. Luckily we had done a favor for another European couple and they had no problem with Eric and Mara camping on their site. So it was in Seward we had the chance to hang out with friends for a few days more.

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Waterton Lake (taken from on top Bears Hump)

We have more stories. And pictures. Over the next few weeks we will catch you up. But right now it is morning in Waterton and the ladies are beginning to stir. The sky is blue and the soft grass is wet with dew. It is so sunny that I have to use our tent’s shadow in order to make out what I write. Been on the road now for almost two months and it is about time to go home. But right now I feel like I already am.   

Atlin, B.C.

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Atlin, B.C.

As our friend Eric would say, Atlin has seen some shit.  It has been a gold mining town (population at least 5,000), an off the beaten path tourist destination for rich folks with them spending the night in a grand lodge, and then a virtual ghost town all before the mid 1930s. That was when the depression hit and suddenly there was a shortage of tourists willing to take a train to Whitehorse and then a series of boats to the “Switzerland of the North.” Atlin was reconnected to the outside world in 1951 via a 60-mile gravel road extending from the Alaskan Highway. When Corey and I drove it in 2002 the road was pretty good but still mostly gravel. At the time we marveled at the nicely kept up frontier style buildings and wondered where all the people were. This time through the road was recently paved and felt a whole lot more connected to the outside world.  We also met a few residents. A lot of them are Americans and even more of them are artists. During the summer they live in the surrounding hillside then return home before winter comes. Those that do live year round (about 450) keep themselves stocked up. But the road is plowed and the winters are much milder in Atlin than they are in Whitehorse.  A lot of properties were for sale and we saw prices ranging from $65,000 (century old miner’s cabin without running water) to $1.2 million (a large solar and wind powered mansion that included a private lake).  An incredibly sleepy town, Atiln wakes up for one weekend in July when the Atlin Music Festival draws thousands of people.

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Cold but beautiful Atlin Lake

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The volunteered run campground is just $10 a night and paid on the honor system. Really a pretty site and close to a fast running stream where we filtered water for our morning coffee.

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View from the short but very steep Monarch Mountain trail (6 KM round trip)

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Atlin’s Warm Creek is partially fed by underground streams but is only a tad warmer than the average creek.

There Ain’t No Shoulder on The Top of the World

North of Tok on The Alaskan Highway

Near Delta Junction on the Alaskan Highway

On The Alaskan Highway

Another pretty view on the Alaskan Highway

Subie in Chicken, AK

Taken from the post office in Chicken, Alaska

And precious little payment either. The Top Of The World Highway may not be for everyone, but the payoff really is something special. Especially Dawson City where miners still work the river for gold while hipsters sit around drinking craft beers. About 2,000 strong now, Dawson once had a population of 30,000. After Dawson the highway is much better maintained and follows the Yukon River to Whitehorse (which at 28,000 is just a smidgen smaller than Fairbanks). Whitehorse has a great art scene, very friendly people, and wonderful (but pricey) restaurants. Winters might be a tad cold, but man are there some nearby trails worth tackling. After Whitehorse we hit up another gold rush town (Atlin) then drove three hard days to Dawson Creek which just happens to be mile zero of the Alaskan Highway. We may not be on the top of the world right now, but we are still feeling pretty good.

Henna in thought on top of the world

Sitting on top of the world

A few moments before the gun fight

Dawson City- Most of the place is better maintained than this picture would suggest. A walk around town is like walking through a museum. A very cool place to visit.

Best damn breakfast sandwhich ever!

Best darn breakfast sandwich ever! A cheechako is a First Nation name for a visitor to the Yukon. Supposedly a stranger was asked his name and instead answered where he was from. Chicago. That’s what they told me at the visitor center near Kluane Lake.

Just a bit past Dawson

Just a little past Dawson we saw this guy crossing the road

Dawson across the water

In order to reach Dawson from Chicken you have to cross the Yukon River. In summer there is a free car ferry that operates 24 hours a day and holds 8 cars or fewer RVs at a time. In winter the river freezes solid and cars are allowed to drive over the ice bridge.

Traveling Blues

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The mountain was not out during the stay but the wild flowers were.

Through our deft management of credit cards, we have amassed a pretty impressive amount of Marriott points. Last night we were hoping to cash some of them. But Fairbanks is as popular as it is expensive and the one Marriott property here was sold out. Seedy looking motels by the side of the road go for $100 a night and something like a Super Eight can go for $200. So we did what we do best and camped.

The Chena River Rec Area is an island of trees bordered by busy roads and strip malls. There is also a nearby runway so all night we were serenaded by trucks and odd assortment of bush planes and commercial jets. We could smell but not see the river and for the first time this trip the mosquitoes were out in full force. They really liked the damp area near the fire so Corey and I sipped our wine a good ten yards away while Henna read in the tent. It rained during the night which made the insects worse in the morning.

We were packed and in our car by eight and at a good diner before nine. In Tok we caught a nail in a wheel and were lucky to have it plugged a few miles later. Maybe 600 miles and several opinions later we decided to get new tires and I am writing you now from a tire shop. One of the people working here is from Bridgeport. He moved her in ’99 and when I asked him if he ever missed Chicago he said no and alluded to all the violence he hears about on television. He did not believe me when I tell him that Jefferson Park (a nearby neighborhood with about the same population as Fairbanks) probably has a lower crime rate than his adopted city. A very quick google search suggests I may be right.

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By Denali standard this guy was pretty big and not someone I would want to mess with.

A little while later I met another former south sider also working in the same tire shop. He moved to Fairbanks ten years ago with his sister who was in the military. A very dignified and personable man, he has lived all over the U.S. and loves the mountains. But he has yet to visit Denali National Park or anywhere else outside of Fairbanks. When I asked him why he told me he has a bad sense of direction. He seemed surprised when I told him that there is only one road leading to the park meaning it would be impossible for him to get lost.

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Moose are less predictable and maybe as dangerous as brown bears (especially when protecting their calves). Something to remember the next time you think of inviting one over for dinner.

So I sit typing away while Corey and Henna both read in the car. We hoped to be on the road by ten. It is past noon and we are still waiting for the tires to come from across town.  And we also need to visit the Verizon store in order to fix Corey’s phone. We hope to get to Chicken, Alaska tonight. The place is supposedly called Chicken because the first residents spotted a bunch of Ptarmigan but could not agree on how to pronounce them. So they went with what they taste like. Right now this seems to sum up the state.  

(note: shortly after writing that Corey told me she was taking a walk and then the tires came in and our car went up on the lift. In a panic I raced to the car afraid that Henna was still inside, oblivious to the car being serviced. She was not in the car and is assumedly with Corey on her walk).