“We used to like to say that “our way was north” and as the years passed, more pages were added to our adventures, in New Hampshire and in other places. We would take a cross country motorcycle trip to California, a few more ‘cycle trips out to Yellowstone National Park and up through Canada, and eventually our journeys would lead us to take a nice little drive to Alaska.
But that’s a whole other story.”
From my short story “Pushing It”.
And this is it.
It was August of 1981, and we were three "twenty-somethings" on a mission; to get ourselves and the rental car we were driving safely to Alaska and back again before the end of August. President Regan was about to fire the striking air traffic controllers, so my friends and I were happy that we had chosen the long way and decided to drive on our great adventure. We had only a month to get there, see what we wanted to see, and get back home again. There wasn’t any time to waste.
The enormity of the trip hit me somewhere around McBride, British Columbia. We had stopped and set up the tent to camp for the night. We broke out the map of North America and saw the enormous distance we had covered, how far we actually were from home, and how far we still had to go. The realization that we were driving not just across the country, but diagonally across the entire continent was a little hard to wrap our minds around.
As the slanting rays of the 10 PM sun painted the encircling mountains a deep reddish-gold, we didn't try to find the words to express our awe at what we were well on our way to accomplishing. There was silence during dinner, not due to another stunning meal of canned vegetables and boiled rice, but because idle conversation would just seem to intrude on the perfect balance of Nature's own sights and sounds. When the stars finally managed to sparkle out into the midnight blue dome of the sky, we retreated into the tent for a much- anticipated good night’s sleep.
That was the first time we were all sleeping at the same time since Glacier National Park on the Montana/Alberta border, and it wouldn't happen again until we got to Fairbanks. I had been looking forward to sleeping in the tent, stretched out in my sleeping bag. Compared to the cramped back seat of the car, it was luxurious. At this point, we had covered over three thousand miles. The much- needed night of restful sleep was free of the usual thoughts of maps, charts, lists, and distances to go.
What brought us to this point, so far from home? Alaska had always been a dream destination for us. We had always loved the outdoors, and for years had hiked, snow-shoed, climbed, and camped all through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, in all seasons and weather. At some point, our conversation around the campfires always turned to Alaska; the Last Frontier, the Pipeline, Northern Lights, Gold Rush, glaciers, Mt. McKinley, wolves, eagles and bears, oh my!
We had taken motorcycle trips through the Canadian Maritime Provinces, cross-country to California and back and twice out to Yellowstone National Park, but Alaska - that would be the crown jewel of all our adventures. We had been there on maps, in books, and in our imaginations, and Pete had subscribed to Alaska magazine. Each month we couldn't wait to pour through its pages. It was an article titled "Cooper Landing, My Hometown" that had won us over. I remember seeing the photographs of the dark green, spruce-covered mountainsides running down to the banks of the turquoise waters of the Kenai River, and the story that allowed us to get a look into the lives of the people who lived there. It was a glimpse into an existence that had up to that point been the stuff of fiction, existing only in the works of Jack London or Robert Service. This was the real thing, and the planning for our trip began in earnest. Now was the time to fulfill the dream, to answer our own "Call of the Wild".
Maps were spread out, lists were made, and plans solidified. Over the many weeks, we debated which routes to take, what we would need, and how we would fit it all in the Ford Escort station wagon we planned to rent. We calculated mileage, divided it by the car's approximate miles per gallon to get the gallons of gas needed, multiplied the number of gallons of gas needed by the average price of gas per gallon to figure out the cost of fuel for the trip. It was hard to believe that math wasn’t our strong point in school. Our calculations were handled with the precision that NASA would use in planning a trip to the moon. Actually, for us, Pawtucket, Rhode Island to Fairbanks and then to Homer, Alaska and back to Rhode Island again was more challenging and personally significant than any old trip to the moon.
Peter, Adolfo, and I set out from Pawtucket, RI on August 1st ("You're sure it's unlimited miles?", we had again asked the agent behind the car rental counter) and except for stopping and making camp for one night in Glacier National Park, Montana and then again in McBride, British Columbia, drove straight through to Alaska. The three of us took turns behind the wheel, stopping only for gas, the bathroom (which we tried to coincide with the gas stops), and hastily eaten meals. The back seat of the car was the master bedroom where the on-deck driver slept as best he could. We referred to our driving strategy as "The Domino Principle"; when the driver couldn't drive any more, he would knock the navigator/radio man (the previous driver) into the back seat for some sleep, while the person in the back seat would then get knocked into the driver's seat, refreshed and ready to put in a few hundred miles. The new person would take over until he couldn't drive any more, and the process would repeat itself.
The country between Rhode Island and Wyoming was familiar territory to us. We had seen a good-sized piece of South Dakota and Wyoming when we had taken two previous motorcycle trips out to Yellowstone National Park and down through the Grand Tetons to Jackson Hole, so we didn't feel as if we were missing anything with the non-stop drive through. The new, uncharted region began with a right-hand turn up into North Dakota. After our first stop, which was Glacier National Park in Montana, we headed north and started to put the great plains of Alberta as the view in front of us. Our route took us to Calgary then up into the Canadian Rockies to Banff and Jasper, where I saw for the first time a real glacier-fed river, its water the same milky turquoise-blue as the pictures I had seen of the Kenai River. The scenery was beautiful and whetted our appetites for what was to come. At the beginning of the home stretch - the Alaska Highway out of Dawson Creek- we decided to add to our experience by picking up a hitch-hiker. He said he didn't have any money for gas, but we didn't mind. It was all part of the adventure.
Pulling out of Dawson Creek, we began the experience of traveling the legendary “Alcan”; the Alaska-Canada Highway. It was all dirt and gravel back then and we spent a lot of time having to dodge stones kicked up by eighteen-wheelers which zoomed by us in both directions. We also had the good luck not to lose a headlight or windshield to the barrage. From what we saw, it seemed as though one out of every three cars had suffered some sort of stone-related damage.
Whenever we stopped for fuel, we noticed that our passenger would go into the station and, although he had no money to help fill the gas tank, would fill himself with candy bars and other junk food that he could stuff in his mouth before getting back to the car. This began to rub us the wrong way, as well as the fact that we had lost our "bedroom" when we picked up a fourth person. I thought we were being soft-hearted, but as it turned out, we were soft-headed. But what could we do? We couldn't just leave him out in the middle of nowhere, so he was with us for almost 700 miles until we reached Whitehorse, British Columbia. We told him we were stopping for the night and we parted company.
Once he was out of sight, we grabbed a quick meal and once more headed out on the road. Unfortunately, there was only one road, and as we left town, there stood our former passenger with his thumb out. Adolph, Pete, and I exchanged looks and shrugged our shoulders. As we approached the hitcher, Adolph suddenly jumped on the gas and we sped past him, avoiding eye contact, and leaving him as a shrinking image in the rear-view mirror. Our feelings of guilt must've lasted almost a quarter of a mile.
Reciting Robert Service out loud as we crossed into the Yukon Territory (I had proudly memorized "The Cremation of Sam McGee" in its entirety) and stopping for breakfast at a lodge where we splurged and had real sourdough pancakes remain vivid memories. Then there was the incident when we missed a time zone change and woke up the gentleman whose gas station wasn't due to open for another hour. (What do you mean it’s only six o’clock?) Moose, the occasional roadside bear, and more rabbits than we had ever seen were our companions during the journey, and in the deep, silent darkness of a Yukon night, I came to the conclusion that in spite of what some people might say, the Northern Lights do make a sound, like the faint crinkling of cellophane, barely discernable on the edge of hearing.
We crossed the Alaska State line at about dawn on August 7th, approximately one-hundred and sixty- eight hours after we had left home. We were exhausted, excited, thrilled and apprehensive. After all we had done and seen, and all the distance we had put behind us, the trip was only half-way completed. There was still an equally long stretch of road ahead of us before we were safely back home. Fortunately, the pressure was off; we had made it to Alaska and had time enough to enjoy it and the return trip
Arriving in Fairbanks, we met up with a friend of ours from high school who had moved there, and we stayed with him and his wife for one night before heading south down the Parks Highway to Denali National Park. The great mountain itself wasn’t visible, much to our disappointment, but while there, we decided to have a wilderness adventure and spend a night out in the bush.
We had the yellow school bus that ferried passengers through the park let us off in what seemed to be a good spot, and we hitched up our packs and headed out towards Polychrome Pass. We followed a small creek that meandered its way across the tundra and got three or four miles out into the brush and scrub willows that lined the banks of the stream. That’s when we came across the bear tracks in the mud of the creek bed we were following. We had seen tracks before and were aware of the bears; we had "bear bells" tied to our packs and we were making noise and talking in loud voices so they would know we were coming. We wanted to make sure not to surprise anything large, hairy, and omnivorous.
But these tracks were different. Not only were they huge but they were so fresh that water was still seeping up into them. A few looks back and forth at each other and without a word being spoken, we had a sudden change of heart. When you realize that you’re not the last link in the food chain, it’s a humbling experience. Triangulating our position on the map, we chose the most direct route and beat a dignified but hasty retreat, back to the road, just in time to catch the last bus of the day.
The night was spent in the railroad car- turned-bunk house that served as the youth hostel in the park. After coffee and donuts for breakfast the next morning, we were off to our next stop; Anchorage, where we were going to treat ourselves to a real bed and a hot shower!
As fate would have it, there was no room at the inn…any of them! Except for the high-end hotels downtown that came nowhere near fitting our budget, and a basement room in a cheap motel that had an inch of water in it, there wasn't a vacancy to be had; it was still tourist season. We were still relatively fresh from a good night's sleep, so we decided to keep heading south. Destination: Homer and the “end of the road.” We headed south down the Seward highway, and found ourselves caught up in a small herd of Winnebagos, following their seasonal migratory route up and down the Kenai Peninsula. Using some questionable-but-effective driving maneuvers, we managed to lose them around Girdwood.
The Kenai Peninsula was beautiful, and before we knew it (and if we had blinked, we would have missed it) we were passing through Cooper Landing… THE Cooper Landing! Of course, we stopped. It was like stepping into a waking dream. The turquoise blue water of the Kenai River was alive with the flashing red of spawning sockeye salmon It was the first time that I had seen salmon that wasn’t in a can! Pete and Adolfo had to take me by the arms and lead me, slack-jawed, back to the car, my hands reeling an invisible fishing pole. A short break for photos at the Cooper Landing Store and in a cloud of dust, we were off again!
Stopping at Kasilof, we caught a first glimpse of the Chigmit Mountains as they rose up from across Cook Inlet. Although over forty miles away, they were huge, and their snow-covered peaks gleamed in the late afternoon sun. There were ten thousand footers among them, making "our" White Mountains of NH pale in comparison.
We got to Homer in the early evening under an August sun that was nowhere near setting and pitched our tent out on the Homer Spit a long, narrow moraine left behind by a long-ago glacier, jutting 4.5 miles into Kachemak Bay. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains and crystal-clear water, the small businesses and miles of beaches that make up the Spit also make it one of Homer's most unforgettable natural features. Leaving the tent, we walked down the road and discovered one of the more eclectic, man-made features that Alaska has to offer: The Salty Dawg Saloon. I wish I could say that I clearly remember that first, monumental visit to The Dawg, but we threw caution to the wind and celebrated our arrival in grand fashion. The details are hazy at best, watered down by a small river of tequila, and faded by the passing of time. They wandered off somewhere amongst the beauty of The Spit. One thing I do remember is sitting at the bar with Pete and Adolph on either side of me. Staring back at us was our reflection in the mirror behind the bar and we raised our glasses in a toast to ourselves and what we had accomplished.
The next morning came much too quickly, accompanied by a short but violent storm that almost blew the tent, with us in it, into Kachemak Bay. But as quickly as it had come, it was gone, leaving behind a freshly scrubbed morning of high, blue sky, with snow-capped mountains gleaming from across the other side of the bay. The wind was still blowing, and the white-capped waves were hurling themselves up on the beach with the sound of rolling thunder. It was a beautiful day to recover from the previous night.
I remember us sitting on the dock early one afternoon during those few idyllic days in Homer, drinking some god-awful coffee and eating shrimp steamed to order, fresh off the boat. We sat there, peeling shrimp, and staring out across Kachemak Bay at the Kenai Mountains. The sun was reflecting off the water, and a light breeze was blowing. Pete, in his best impersonation of a snooty Newport socialite, turned to me and asked, "Say Vudsie, what do you think the poor people are doing this season?" We all laughed, knowing that even though we were on limited funds, where we were was worth much more than the money we had spent getting there. The sound of our laughter was so pure and clear that it fit into the surroundings as much as the wheeling, crying gulls or the sound of the wind whistling through the rigging of the nearby fishing boats. I looked at Adolfo and Pete and realized that this was one of those perfect moments in time. The sights, sounds, and even the smells, were all frozen with crystal clarity; a still shot of the moment filed into the photo album of my mind. We had more time to spend, but none of it was going to have the same effect as this moment. It might never again be exactly like this. How could it?
We repeated our mad scramble on the return trip, which included a layover of three days in Yellowstone, and were back in Rhode Island by the end of August, with quite the tale to tell the car-rental company to explain the more than 10,000 unlimited miles we had put on the car in a month.
The years have passed much too quickly. Adolfo got married, moved to Massachusetts, and eventually dropped off the screen. As of this writing, I haven't seen him in well over twenty years and wouldn't know where to begin looking. Pete and I remained close friends. He got married, settled down, but never made it back to Alaska, although we shared other adventures in other places. I went back to school at the end of that magic August of ‘81, and I met my wife-to-be. We were married, and I graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 1984.
I eventually did make it back to Alaska in February of 1996. Just to show how things can change in a dozen years, I was going through a divorce. I had made friends online who lived in Anchorage, and they had invited me to visit if I needed to get away from the emotional turmoil that was churning up my life. I took them up on their offer and, flying into Anchorage International Airport that February day, I practically had my nose pressed to the window. The snow-white and ice-blue landscape below me was a different world than the lush green one I had seen that August, fifteen years earlier. The old feeling of excitement I had felt for the state was rekindled. As I drove my rental car up International Airport Road and passed the "Welcome to Anchorage" sign, I broke out in an ear-to-ear smile that wouldn't go away. I had been through a lot, and there was a whole lot of water under the bridge, but I made it. I really was back!
Since '96, I've been going to Alaska almost every year - twice a year when I can afford it; a week in February for Fur Rendezvous in Anchorage, and two weeks in August to fish the Russian and Kenai Rivers for salmon. Each trip in August includes a couple of days in Homer. I guess that’s where my heart really is when it comes to Alaska. The Salty Dawg is still my favorite stop. As I sit there, the reflection looking back at me in the mirror behind the bar is that of me sitting there with Pete and Adolfo on either side, almost twenty- five years younger, not knowing that it would probably never be better than it had been then. Well, it's definitely been different, but I can’t say with certainty if it's been better. Peter and I would often talk about our Alaskan adventure, and he would listen to me with undivided interest when I would tell him about my latest visit north. I would good-naturedly rag on him about his failure to get back to Alaska, and often upon returning from a summer trip, I would present him with spruce seedlings that I had brought back with me. I told him that if he wasn't going back to Alaska, I was bloody well going to bring Alaska to him. He planted them in his yard and probably had the only stand of Alaska spruce growing in the lower forty-eight.
The trip in August of 2009 marked my eighteenth visit to Alaska. The Great Land kept calling me, and the dream had been to someday maybe make a permanent move. It would be easier than the flying back and forth, but I’d probably miss those little bags of peanuts they give you when you fly on the airline so the move never materialized. Well, the best-laid plans often go astray, as they say.
The dream is alive, but one of the original dreamers has gone on to the end of the trail. Pete passed away in November of 2001 from cancer. After dozens of camping trips, thousands of miles of motorcycle adventures, and long years of friendship, it’s hard to believe that he’s gone. There’s an empty spot in the lives of all the people who knew him and were lucky enough to have called him “friend.” Although he himself never made it back to Alaska, I did post a picture of him, along with his obituary, on the community bulletin board at the Cooper Landing Post Office on my trip that following February. Somehow, I think he would have liked that.
Whenever I make the trip north, Pete is always standing there right next to me; whether I’m looking out over a moonlit winter landscape with the Northern Lights dancing overhead, or as the fireweed is topping out and I'm pulling a salmon out of the Russian River. Or as I sit at the bar in the Salty Dawg and raise my glass in a silent toast to friends gone, but never forgotten. In some ways, I guess that first trip has never really ended. The story has wheels that keep turning, and there have just been more unlimited miles added to it.
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