The Alaska Papers - Part 1

Updated: Jul 27, 2019

North to Alaska

The Alcan Highway

By Rick Cleveringa

An early calling

Once, long ago when I was a young teen in the early 1980’s, I opened a National Geographic magazine. Flipping through I saw photos of a man next to a signpost, arrows pointing in all directions. Written in hand painted letters were the names of cities, miles far from that point, and in the next photo was a dirty beaten vehicle on a lonely gravel mountain road. This man had driven to Alaska from the lower 48; part of his trip was on the Alaskan Highway or ALCAN.

The photos peaked a yearning in me to have such adventures. I sat and read the article in full, how he carried extra fuel, food, water, warm clothes, and a rifle. How the roads were impassable at certain times of the year, how you can be stuck for days without seeing another car or truck. It was like reading fiction only this was anything but. This lay somewhere deep in the back of the mind for years, wondering how could a kid from a small town in Illinois ever make such a journey? I had no car, no money and no license, this was pure fantasy.

Later in the High school I met a guy in my Latin class who would become a life-long friend. Back then, Dr, “K” and I shared a strange sense of humor, we played in a garage band together and often hung out in the woods behind his house. In 1984 his older brother had driven home from Alaska. “Man! how was it?” I remember asking. “Uhg long” he said. He was on leave from the Army and distance was only to be concurred. He said he drove for hours on end, his little white car with Alaska plates covered in mud. For him it was only a way to get back. Then a few days later he would turn around and do it all over. That drive, what was it really like I thought?

A third time, in 1991, there was this girl I knew. Her father had this beat 1968 black Ford bronco parked dead in the front yard. By then it was vintage and I asked about it. He said “Oh yea I bought the Bronco brand new in 1968 to drive the Alaskan highway that same year”. “Really!” I exclaimed. He went on, “It was in the summer. Still I only made it up to the Yukon before the snow was too deep and I had to turn around. The gravel roads ruined that truck. It ate the wheel-wells and floor boards right out it. Had to have all welded back in when I got home to Illinois”.

There it was again the Alcan. It would rear up and call to me every so often and I would ignore or fantasize about it for a time. It had to simmer for 39 long years until it no longer could only be though about, it had to respected and realized.

I quit

When I turned 50 something inside just snapped. My life was only 25 years away from me being a diaper-wearing baby again and what was I doing about it? My personal life, which by all means was safe and well, still had a few wrinkles. Something had to give. I went into work one day and thought I can’t be here anymore, so I went home, took the day off to cool down and settle back in. You put your head down, ass up and keep your mouth shut. It is your duty to be there, its your job, that’s what a reasonable man does. Hell they do it daily; you might be doing right now? For years I just had pushed the artist, the adventurer in me down too far. Always going for security and not to live like a man of letters. Thursday when I showed back up. I put in my two weeks and started making plans.

Work makes you Free

After I lay in my letter of resignation, work took on a lighter theme. I no longer had the tremendous stress of all the R+D projects in my queue; it would all keep running on long after I disappeared in to the wilds. My first thought was not the Alcan, not sure when that longing came back from my heart to my head. I had just bought a new 2015 tank green Jeep Wrangler, the kind of vehicle that can take you anywhere. One day I went to the store, needed to lay in some food stocks, Noodles, trail mix, granola bars. It suddenly hit me, I could this I thought, this could actually happen.

Its just what I needed I told myself. But what was the first step… where was all that camping equipment? Searching the house and garage, I dug through boxes and found tents, tarps, cook pots, Kelly Kettle and sleeping pads. The next step was to buy some static window tint for the Jeep’s back, side windows. The tint was to cut out the midnight sun I was so anxious to see as I planed to sleep in the wrangler.

The third step was to configure space between all the gear and a flat spot long enough for my frame. With the back, bench seat removed and the passenger seat in its far forward position it was possible. It was on an angle, but that made just about 6 foot place where one could lie down for a nights slumber. A double layer of foam padding on the floor along with my Therm-a-rest on top should make a comfy bed. I think this might work.

“The Gerry” Can

Finally I packed some tools, a roll of tape and some bailing wire in an ammo box. You never know what you might break. The only real modification I made was to weld up a Gerry can rack out of 1” metal flat stock. It would bolt over the spare tire lugs, bungee cords, a chain and lock to hold the can in place. A wonderful feeling came over me when I bought the new Gerry can at Harbor Freight. It is the kind of thing every guy wants but never really has a use for. That was about to change. I packed up the Jeep and filled the tank. Come Monday morning instead of going to work. I would go to Alaska.

Odometer reading 26349

Monday May 16 2016 4:17 AM. – The back of the Jeep is packed with the last few items. “It will be all right”, I said this to myself quietly. The engine started and excitement took over. Away I go…and immediately the Low tire light comes on. So I have to make a stop to put in some air before I even leave town.

I could see daylight on the horizon, cresting the big blue globe and I wanted to be long gone by now. I stayed on the interstates to fire me out of the land I knew all to well. Cutting up into Wisconsin I made my first gas stop in Camp Douglas. In part for the namesake of the town, the man who was my boss just a few days ago, his last name being Douglas.

Coffee and Gasoline

Up north you can pump your gas before you pay. Once so common everywhere but now it seems so nice and trusting. I grabbed a paper cup of gas station coffee, and was back to the road. This was to be the way of life now, as I would spend hours behind the wheel, stopping only to gas up and see if I could find the worse cup of coffee in each state. This include 3 states or territories in Canada, and by all means, the Canadians have the market on bad gas station coffee. It was as if they merely took an old used coffee filter, ran some boiling water through it and here you go, a piping hot cup of shit. It was terrible, almost comical. On the up side I had two free cups of coffee along the way. Both were in the Yukon and they were the best cups on the 7500 + miles.

The first was in Fort Nelson. The Gourmet girl coffee shop was so nice on the way I up. I made a second stop on my return. The door was open but the shop was closed but there was a young lady cleaning up. She stopped what she was doing, spoke to me like an old friend, and then made me a Cafe Americana. It was strong, rich and had a nutty flavor that made me want more. That young woman was beyond nice.

The second was in some tiny gas station shaped like a log cabin. A very pretty young girl and mother were running the place. The mother in a friendly tone said I could have “A cup on the house”. “OK thanks!”, I go to the tiny counter with hand pump thermos. On a piece of cardboard is written “Organic Coffee”. My taste buds had been assaulted so often by this point, everything amused me, so why Not? I pushed the plunger and pumped black liquid into a tiny cup. It was the best cup in the wild. I enjoyed the dark roasted beans, the pleasing aroma and the waking benefits of hot black coffee. But most of your life on the road is shitty coffee and filling the tank.

James McMurtry

“Looking out through the bugs on the windshield somebody said to me. No more Buffalo, blue ski