We were three “twenty-somethings“ on a mission; that was to get ourselves and the rental car we were driving safely to Alaska and back again before the start of school. It was August of 1981, and 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. We didn´t have 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 well into the process of driving not just across the country (been there, done that), but diagonally across the entire continent was mind blowing.
There was a silence during dinner that night, not due to the stunning meal of canned veggies and boiled rice (again), but because idle conversation seemed as if it would undo the perfect balance of Nature´s own sounds, sights, and sensations. As the slanting rays of the 10PM sun painted the encircling mountains a deep golden color, we didn´t even try to find the words to express our awe at what we were well on our way to accomplishing. When the stars managed to sparkle out into the midnight blue dome of the sky, we retreated into the tent. That night, we all slept at the same time for the first time since Glacier National Park, 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 were just under one hundred hours into the trip, and had covered over three thousand miles. The usual thoughts of maps, charts, lists, and distances to and from were absent as I drifted off to a much needed night of restful sleep.
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 conversations around the campfires always turned to Alaska. We had taken 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 before on maps, in books, and in our imaginations. Pete had subscribed to Alaska magazine, and 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 turquoise waters of the Kenai River, the dark green of the spruce mountainsides, looking into the lives of the people who lived in Alaska. It was a glimpse into an existence that had, up to that point, been the stuff of fiction, spawned by the works of Jack London or Rex Beach. 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 and what gear we would need, and how we would fit it all in the Ford Escort wagon we planned to rent. We calculated milage, a car´s approximate miles per gallon, how many gallons of gas needed, price per gallon and so forth. The trip was handled with the precision that would go into planning an expedition to Nepal. Actually, for us, Pawtucket, Rhode Island to Fairbanks, Alaska to Homer, Alaska and back to Rhode Island again was more challenging and spiritually rewarding than any expedition to Nepal.
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 rental counter)and except for stopping and making camp twice, 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 taken two previous motorcycle trips out to Yellowstone National Park and seen pretty much what there was to see, 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, Montana, and the western Canadian provinces.
After our first real stop, which was Glacier National Park in Montana, we headed north and started to put the great plains of Alberta into the rear-view mirror. Our route took us to Calgary, then up into the Canadian Rockies, 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 road through to Banff and Jasper was beautiful and whetted our appetite for what was to come. At the beginning the home stretch - the Alaska Highway out of Dawson Creek- we decided to share our experience by picking up a hitchhiker. 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 experienced the thrill of traveling the legendary Alcan - the Alaska-Canada Highway. It was all dirt and dust back then, and we spent more time than we cared to having to dodge gravel 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; it seemed as though three out of every five cars were minus a headlight and two out of five had windshield 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. 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 headed once more out on the road. Unfortunately there was only one road, and as we left town, there stood our former passenger with his thumb out. We in the car exchanged looks and shrugged our shoulders. As we approached the hitcher, Adolph jumped on the gas and we sped off past him, avoiding eye contact. The guilt must´ve lasted all of a mile.
Reading Robert Service out loud as we crossed into the Yukon Territory (I proudly had memorized “The Cremation of Sam Magee“ in its entirety) and the lodge on the Coal River where we splurged and had real sourdough pancakes for breakfast remain pleasant 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. Moose, the occasional roadside bear, and more rabbits than we had ever seen were our companions throughout the journey. And in the deep, silent darkness of a Yukon night, I came to the conclusion that in spite of what the experts 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 the 7th, approximately one hundred and sixty eight hours after we had left home.
We met up with a friend of ours from high school who had moved to Fairbanks, and we stayed with him and his wife for one night before heading down the Parks Highway south to Denali National Park. The great mountain itself wasn´t visible, much to our disappointment, but while there, we decided to spend a night out in the bush. The yellow school bus that ferried passengers through the park let us off in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, and we managed to hike a few miles out from the road across the tundra towards Polychrome Pass. Then 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 singing and talking in loud voices so they would know we were coming. We wanted to make sure not to surprise anything large, furry, and carnivorous. But these tracks were different. Not only were they huge (longer than our own footprints by a half and as wide as ours were long) 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. Not being the last link in the food chain is a humbling realization, so we beat a dignified but hasty retreat, barely making it back to the road in time to catch the last bus of the day. The night was spent in a railroad car- turned- bunk house that served as the youth hostel in the park. Coffee and donuts for breakfast the next morning, and we were off to our next stop, Anchorage, where we were going to splurge for a motel - a real bed and a hot shower!
As fate would have it, there was “no room at the inn“. Except for the high-end hotels downtown which came nowhere near fitting our budget, there wasn´t a room to be had. 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.
The Kenai Peninsula was beautiful, and almost 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 storybook. The Kenai River, in all its turquoise beauty, was alive with the flashing red of spawning sockeye salmon. It was the first time I had seen salmon outside of a can. Pete and Adolfo had to take me by the arms, my jaw slack and my hands holding an invisible fishing pole making a reeling motion, back into the car. A short break for photos at the Cooper Landing Store and in a cloud of dust, we were off again.
At Kasilof we caught a first glimpse of the Chigmit Mountains as they rose up from across Cook Inlet. Although over fifty miles distant, they were huge, and their snow covered peaks were painted scarlet by the late afternoon sun. There were ten thousand footers among them, making “our“ White Mountains 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. We then walked down the road and discovered one of the more eclectic attractions that Alaska has to offer - the Salty Dawg Saloon.
The next morning came too quickly and much too raucously. A short but violent storm arrived with the rising sun and 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 white capped waves were hurled up onto the beach, crashing onto the rocky shore with a sound like rolling thunder.
I remember us sitting on the docks early one afternoon, drinking some god-awful coffee and eating shrimp, fresh off the boat, steamed to order. We sat there, peeling shrimp, 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 Thurston Howell the Third, asked, “Lovey, what do you think the poor people are doing this season?“ We all laughed, and the sound of it was so pure and clear that it seemed as much a part of the surroundings 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 moment in time. The sights ,sounds, 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 would never again be like this.
The remaining days in Homer passed in the type of reverie enjoyed by most young men when far from home on a grand adventure. We repeated our mad scramble on the return trip and were back in Rhode Island by the end of August, with quite the tale to tell the car-rental company to explain the almost 12,000 unlimited miles we had put on the car in a month.
The years passed. Adolfo got married, moved to Massachusetts, and eventually dropped off the screen. I haven´t seen him in over a decade and wouldn´t know where to begin looking. Pete and I remained close friends. He, although still enamored of Alaska, married, settled down, and never made it back, although we shared other adventures in other places. I went back to school at the end of that magic August, where I met my wife- to -be. We were married, and I graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 1984.
I eventually made it back to Alaska in 1996. Just to show how things can change, 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. 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 up International Airport Road and passed the “Anchorage Welcomes You“ sign, I broke out in an ear-to-ear smile that wouldn´t go away. I 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 the Fur Rondezvous 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. The Salty Dawg is still my favorite stop, and as I sit at the bar, I can still see Pete, Adolfo, and myself sitting there, twenty two years younger not knowing that it would probably never be better than it had been then. Well, it´s been different, that´s for sure, but I can´t say 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 getting back 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.
My trip this past February marked my twelfth visit to Alaska. The Great Land keeps calling me, and the dream now is to some day make a permanent move. The dream is alive, but one of the original dreamers has gone on to the long sleep. Pete passed away in November of 2001from cancer. Although he never physically 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. He´s always standing there next to me as I look 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 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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