Updated: Jul 27, 2019
North to Alaska
The Alcan Highway – Part 4
By Rick Cleveringa
The Jeep was in need of an oil change. I looked around online for a place, but up here oil changes were up to $80. No way! I find a Sears that changes oil for $40 so I drive over first thing in the morning. In the waiting room are four other people, all locals waiting on their cars. A younger woman runs in from outside, she is frantic and says, “They took all my money and left me here, those god damn bastards! I need to use your phone!” She is screaming this to the Sears employee dressed in his gray and red shirt at the counter. All of us are looking at the show. She picks up the phone, says a few expletives and cries; she slammed the phone down hard and says “I have no money!” She runs out, and the guy opposite of me is watching this close. I say “here is your chance to be a hero and help her”. He was a kind faced man with curly brown hair about 35. He said “She talked on the phone without dialing a number”. “Really?” I said. “Yea, I don’t know what it is about this corner but it is filled with scammers. You will see them all over here”, Jon said.
Jon is a nurse and tells me about the drug problem up there. The homeless issues in the city, and a drug named Spice. He was not even sure what it was yet. It can wreck a pretty face and a person in a few months of use. Jon was self proclaimed part Eskimo he told me, saying “I was proud of it as a kid, but I see a real problem with the people who get kicked out of their villages up North because of alcohol and end up here in the city on the street”. I agreed having seen a lot of them here. A sad state of being when walking in the two worlds. Jon and I both are of the two worlds but walk in one tread or the other. We spoke till my Jeep was ready. I have found over the years of road travel, if you want to meet the people who really live in a place, do common things.
I left the shop and on the first corner was a young native guy in his 20’s still fucked up from last night’s revelries. He is in bad shape, cardboard sign in his shaking hands. I roll down the window and ask if he was hungry? “Yea” He said and I handed him the last of my beef jerky. He said thanks and went off the street to the grass. He sat down and opened the bag and reached in. The light turned green and I drove off. none of that made me feel better. The number of natives that you see as just human wrecks is astonishing. Later that day I walked into a food line on the street, for a moment I did not understand why they were handing out food. Ah street food I thought, hey this is a cool city. I got in line. When I saw no money exchanged and the shape of the people in the line I kept walking hoping no one noticed me. I could see the woman passing out the food eye me up. Hey I really don’t look much different, hell I may not be that different.
Anchorage is a city of extremes, even the architecture. Next to a 10-story building there can be a tiny one-room log cabin. It’s a city with a love hate relationship, mostly I was still loving it.
For some reason I had to see Earthquake park, it must have been the name? It was a fine park on the coast I guessed, within 2 minutes of stopping the Jeep I decided I did not need or want to be there. I drove back to town and head down the Seward highway for a ride. I had no idea where I was going, now this was more like it. The drive along the coast was priceless; eagles are flying overhead along the cliffs. In the ocean I see some behemoth rise from the water, blow off and one more leviathan break the water behind the first. What the hell was that? If I had a guess I just saw a whale? A pair of whales in fact! Jesus how cool! I pull over to a lookout spot. Two women with field glasses are looking out into the ocean. I ask what they are looking for. “Oh we just saw a Beluga whale”. “Hey I saw that! Actually there were two!” My heart just sores. The animals I have seen in the wild this trip has just blown me away. This drive has been best zoological trip in my life, now I have the feeling of being full. The feeling of this coming to a close is seeping in on me. I start to ponder the drive back, the miles, the car food, the hours, and the bugs on the windshield, shit I have to do it all over. Its getting time to go, Lets do one last thing before I leave.
“My heart where’s that medicine?” HST
The travel brochure from the motel said Flattop Mountain is a nice 3-hour hike. By the time I get back to Anchorage it is late in the afternoon. There will be daylight for hours so I may have time to do a quick hike. The drive to the mountain is tricky and you find yourself in a neighborhood, the grand houses here all built on the hillside. They are all new and shiny with spectacular views out to the Cook Inlet. After a few creative turns I find the parking lot, pay the fee to park and see the trailhead to Flattop. This trail is paved and on a slight incline, shit I flag quickly. My heart is pounding like a rabbit in a death grip. The trail comes out of the pines and I see a hill up the way. Is that it? That’s not that bad, but I am breathing like a marathon runner. OK I can make this grassy hill, forcing myself up and onward. It is apparent that this hill is not Flattop. Beyond this first crest I see the next challenge and behind that a real ass mountain. “That cannot possible be it? I say. There are kids, dogs and families returning. Hey I am a flat lander and that is a serious mountain. There is snow on the peak; I’ll never make that. Get it together, let just keep working our way up to the next hill.
The brochure said it was 1.7 miles and 1300 feet of elevation in a moderate to difficult skill level. I pressed on and got a second wind. All those days, months and years of sitting at my desk, all that inactivity is fucking me now. All that brain rot for a soulless company had taken a toll on my body. At work I daydreamed of such adventure, here I was and completely unprepared. Push on, just go to that fence up there and turn around, keep going, just make it to the big rock and turn around. Once at the fence I pushed to the big rock. From the rock I made the next landmark, taking much time and resting when my lungs ached. An hour later somehow I was up into the snowy part, the last few hundred feet was straight up. The path became unclear and hikers made their own trails through the rocks. The path is over large boulders and loose stones and patches of snow, it is the most difficult part by far. It was hands and knees climbing. I struggled, I rested, and I fucking made it. I really made it. This 1.7 mile was far harder then the Half dome hike, or I had deteriorated even father in that year? No matter, I was there, standing next to the American flag, the flag was popping as it waved in the strong wind.
At the summit I have some lanky students take my photo, proof was necessary, even if it was just for myself. The view was spectacular, you could look 360 degrees down to Cook Inlet, to the city, to the higher range and trail cut in the snow behind. Feeling pretty damn good about it, the idea of hiking on into the mountain range floats around in my mind. This is when you need your pals to egg each other on, or, talk some sense into each other.
Though its sunny right now, it is cold and windy. I have a tiny bit of water left in my pack, no food and there is no help beyond this point. Ok settle down. I spend some time in the wind exploring the great flat area the mountain that it is named from. There are a few rock shelters dry stacked and an Inukshuk or two around. Just stand there with me for a moment, hear the wind, feel the sun on my face, feel your legs burning; the straps from the pack have dug sore strips into your shoulders. From the edge you can see for miles, it feels like you can take flight from this spot. Shape shifting into an eagle is a real possibility right now. The view warps your perception until you see the parking lot and can you make out the car. That is really far away now. I guess I better go. I exhaled and started back down the mountain.
Going up was difficult, I had burned up the better part of my energy. My leg muscles are strained and worn out. So getting off the mountain was even harder. My legs had very little to give me in the way of support or mobility. The way down took twice as long as it did to get up. From the top of the mountain a young dude who ran up the trail, was over at the steepest part of the edge, the snow filled this valley and ran for a 3/4 of a mile. He got down in a sitting position and glissaded down the mountain. This seemed completely nuts to me, dangerous as hell. He slid with great speed and made it down the mountain in seconds. It took me an hour to get to where he was and he was half way back to the lot. Jesus that crazy fuck! Stopping and resting is the next hour for me, my feet are sore, and my legs gave up on me hours ago. Slow and sure I make it to the paved path to the lot. Never had I been happier to see my little green Jeep. Unbelievable I made it. I did it. To me I felt as If I had made Everest. Time to celebrate.
The Best Hot Dog in the World
Back in Anchorage I went to a corner I had been eyeing up for days. The guy asked what do you want? “I don’t know what the special?” I say. The Bogogi dog is the popular, a young girl says “I loves those get that”. “Ok sure I’ll have the Bogogi dog. that is just what I want” I say. The hot dog stand owner is from Hawaii and works just a few months a year up here is Alaska. We talk as he grills my reindeer hot dog. He tells me about being a young man in Hawaii, taking wave runners from one island to the next. “It was not a good idea once we got out there in the middle. We were blinded by the sunlight off the water and all the salt spray”. “Yea sounds crazy” I say. He is friendly and thinks I am a local. I ask what is the Bogogi? “It’s a BBQ Hawaiian pork. Say do you want the best hot dog you ever had in your life”? “Yea” I say !” He said “I am going to put cream cheese on it. I usually charge an extra dollar for it but for you my friend it’s free. Once the cheese melts it mixes with the pork man its good. I have a guy who shows up every day at 3:00 for two of them”. The dog is handed to me like a trophy. Hey, I deserved this hot dog, it was10:30 at night. Still sunny and bright as 5 PM, my legs are rubber as I sat down on the bench eating the best hot dog in the world, a fantastic day.
The next morning I pack up my bag and load it in the Jeep, drive down 6th street to the Highway, now heading back home. I found myself retracing my steps to Illinois, stopping at the same gas stations in Alaska, now I need to break this up. Intentionally I fill up in a strange town so I will be out of gas at a different point than the way up. I loved driving the Yukon up and down it is beautiful beyond description. In the late afternoon a driving rain came in and the road became wet and could be icy, soon it would be time to find a safe place to rest. Towards evening I crossed a long iron bridge, there was a gravel lot down the hill next to the river there. This is a place I can sleep a few hours in the sound of the rain. The first night in my room in Anchorage I was missing sleeping in the Jeep, now I feel unsettled lying down in the back. I feel exposed it takes some time to settle into sleep. The sound of the rain and the river take me to Nod.
The next day was more snowy mountains, bears and vistas and I started to think about Saskatchewan. Shit I cannot take that ride again. I stop for gas in a muddy lot with a single pump; my boots get caked as I went in for coffee. I parked out of the way of the truckers in the lot and I pull out the map and seek a different route home. In Grande Prairie I can take route 40 through Jasper Nation Park, I have loved the mountain driving so far, so why not? It adds hours and miles to my way home but that’s OK because I will never drive through Saskatchewan ever again. This was to be a brilliant decision.
The highway cuts right trough the park and to my surprise, there is a gate on the highway where you have to pay to enter the park or use the highway. It was all very beautiful but I noticed that the traffic here has some cash. I stopped at a very nice tourist restaurant; it has a large gift shop and big dinning area. This is no rundown café, the diners are all well dressed and I hear German accents. The guy who works in the gift shop strikes up a conversation with me and he tells me about Jasper and who is coming up here, how the parks will be free next year for the 150 year anniversary of Canada. I get a cup of coffee and head out. The drive is amazing. That night I pull over in a tiny spot next to a stream, the water is running so fast. As I lie down and try to sleep I think, “what if floods”? Before I realize what has happened, I’ll be sucked into the water and pulled into the tunnel that goes under the road. Sleep in the Jeep has changed. Some dark thoughts accompany me as I roll up in the wool blanket. Did I just get out of the habit or did something else change? When you have hours alone to drive you can think about this until it does no good.
This drive takes me through Dead Mans Flats and on to Calgary, this is the largest city I have seen in days. I cannot remember why I know its name? I see some silly colorful architecture with the Olympic rings on the side. Yea that is it; back in 1988 they hosted the games, now the city is stuck with these buildings that look like it they boast of having the worlds larger day care center or some such nonsense. I can roll down the window as I drive in the city the weather is warm and I look for one thing that might be an interesting stop. No luck, and I am on a flat road heading south. Nanton, and I take my last 10 Canadian dollars and spend it on a uninteresting burger and fries. The place is called the Zephyr Drive in and a young girl is outside struggling with a table umbrella in the wind. She is the only one here and I have to wait for her. After 13 minutes of fighting she gets pissed and chucks the umbrella next to the shack. After another 5 minutes she shows up at the little window, she slides it open and through the screen I order. The food and drink cost $9.95, and sitting at the table writing, eating the burger and greasy fries, I am ready to leave Canada.
Its a flat easy run to the line. Back at the US boarder I slow down for the boarder station. There is an native looking guy with police type hat on sitting in this tiny shed with a gate. He sees me and gives me the secrete head nod, I never even have to make a full stop, no questions, nothing. I rolled back into the US and into Montana, from Sweetgrass, Sunburst to Shelby and the famous Route 2. In Shelby I find a room for the night. That evening I want some diner but opt out and walk to a gas station and get a bad sandwich, chips and a pop. Sit in my room I make contact with home. It does feel good to be closer to home.
The Montana morning was bright and sunny and I throw my backpack into the Jeep. I pull on route 2 and think of those books I have read, books that are written about this highway. The road skirts the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and in a shitty looking gas station I notice I am one of ten guys with long dark ponytails. Somehow I do not feel like I am home, Rez life is a different world. One hidden from most, and the rest would not believe it. They want $4 for an egg salad sandwich here, I’ll move on. Through this trip I had no real focus on food or the search for really tasty cafes, hidden gems and house specialties in 4 calendar cafes.
Perhaps this was not that kind of travel? It was great miles to made and food was an after thought. Perhaps it was I had no one to share meals with? No road pals for succulent steak sandwiches or Scrapple. No “E” to share plates of fresh seafood, the only other notable meal was on the way home. I stopped in Dawson Creek at dinnertime, asking in a coffee shop where I can find Poutine? Some nice ladies told me to go to Le’s family restaurant. With some local directions I found Le’s on route 2, it was an old motel with a café, white wood siding building that looked as neat as it did in the 1940’s when it was built. The Le’s have owned it since 1988. It was a comfortable little dinning room, movie perfect. I order poutine and a coke. Well I can tell you that was the best damn poutine I have ever had. All I could do is ask myself “Why do we not have this in the states”? Damn it was good. Other then a crepe, hot-dog, and some fries smothered in gravy and cheese my meals were only sustenance so I could drive. Eating in the car hides some of the road loneliness of an empty table in a rosy cafe. I was not on the hunt for that magic Po’ Boy, or a BBQ joint called Bubba’s, food that leaves you searching the rest of you life for a decent comparison. Once with “E” in some forgotten town along the Dixie highway in Florida, we had fish tacos that were so unforgettable, to this day I always order fish tacos in every Mexican joint I eat at. Even when they are good and most are not, none have come close to the ones on that lost coast road. Search on that is all I can do.
Meanwhile back on route 2 in Montana, a food trailer run by an Indian couple is parked in front of a dilapidated motel. To say this town was rundown would be a compliment. It was a shithole. What was not closed, like the Indian Museum, was run down. It’s shocking to see a people in this condition. I would have really enjoyed seeing the little museum too. I turn back to the gravel lot and park. This is the spot. How could it miss? It is the only thing here. The woman in the trailer is not very friendly to me. I order a burger, now I do not want another hamburger but it’s the best strategy in a questionable place. As I waited I walked around the motel to have a look. Shit! It’s half collapsed and rooms are boarded up, there is a late 80’s Cadillac parked out back. It came here on its own motion, which means someone is here. That means someone, who is not looking forward to company, is in one of these rooms. I duck back around to the front and sit by the Jeep. The burger deserves to be in this town and I only felt bad for eating it. I drive on and Route 2 runs back into 52 and North Dakota, soon I was back in Harvey, back in the Cobblestone motel.
Red Haired Tornado
This was it; I could be home later today. The ride now had a little familiar feel as I run down 52. The only stop of mention would be in the hometown of Red Lewis, Sauk Center Minnesota is my last stop before home and sleep in my bed. The town is picturesque and was strangely perfect looking. I drove down to the birthplace house of Sinclair and unfortunately it was closed. I walked down the street, it was sunny and pretty, there are two people with power tools working on a picnic table. A couple in there late 50’s so I say Hello, can you tell me where to find Sinclair Lewis house? I have used this technique in the past. Find the place you wish to see, then find a local and ask them where it is. “Oh you are close it right down the street”. The woman says to me. They walk down the concrete drive to size me up, they are both friendly as can be. The next half an hour they tell me all about Sauk Center. Bill and Claire inform me that the Sinclair Lewis Center near the highway is closed, “I think it has been a coupla years now”. Bill said. There was a gentle breeze and Bill’s soft white hair blows like smoke back and forth. It was like he was under a smoldering grass fire. They sold their house in the Twin cities for $380.000.00 and bought this beautiful two story for $84K. The taxes are less than $800 a year. Everybody works here, everybody knows everyone Claire tells me. Her hair is quaff and perfect, it is a monument to hairspray and 30 minutes craft each morning. In the stiffest wind today it never moves. They seem to like me very much and I liked them. They tell me I can move next door, jobs pay between $14-18 dollars up here. “It so much better then the Twins” they say. “We love it here” they tell me. Lots of rich people here in the summer Bill says. “They don’t bother anyone, just come and go”. Had it been closer to lunchtime I am positive they would invite me in for Tuna salad sandwiches, shoestring potatoes, lemon aid and homemade oatmeal cookies and I would have gladly accepted. In all my life of meeting people, or strangers in travels, they were the sweetest of all.
When Sinclair Lewis left this town and wrote Main Street in 1920 he pissed off most the population of his hometown. Ten years later he was the first American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. The town forgot or forgave him and liked the tourist dollars; now the native son has been recognized by the world and should be honored. The city fathers put a sign in the front yard of his house and charge admission. To further the literary tour the town built the Sinclair Lewis Center near the highway. I took a drive over just to have a look, it was true, it was closed. I peered through the windows saw some garbage on the floor and display cases now abandoned. I wanted to sneak in, but it was shut tight and broad daylight. I guessed the town was mad at him once more. Or Mr. Lewis has been forgotten. Anyway you sliced that, it was sad. I drove on.
Now it was all interstates highways and a $2 gas station sandwich to home. The trip is all behind me, all the bears and birds, the long miles and the mountain views. Even when it was only through a windshield a mountain is a majestic body to see. To visit, to be on, to run down and to sleep on, dreaming about a place for 40 years is dangerous way to approach it. It can lead to disillusionment in a hard way. All the years of having the Alaskan highway come to my mind, telling yourself “Yea one day I’ll drive that, If I only had the time, It would be a great adventure, That would be the trip of a life time”. The actual trip was beyond my feeble thoughts, years of dreaming about it, days at shitty jobs when you think if I just could quit I drive to Alaska right now. I fucking would. Finally the courage the support and timing were right. The road was still there, gas was cheap this year and I let go….
… and I did it.