The Wolf, the Bicycle, and the Disillusioned Samaritan

Yukon Territory News

The news story that inspired our afternoon drama.

I don’t always read the newspaper. Sometimes it’s just best if I don’t know what’s going on in the world, but one morning on our Alaska trip, I decided to go a little crazy and read some local news stories out loud. It was an honestly random decision, or so it seemed in those early hours. Everyone was entertained by the large number of animal stories in Canadian news. Politicians were quoted using words like “kerfluffel” with total seriousness. And there was a suspenseful story about a biker who had been chased by a wolf.

Wolves are not especially salient in Canada. Camile had wished to see one, but alas, not a single wolf had made an appearance on our journey up to that point. In the news story, a man was biking to raise money for some cause that I can’t remember. His buddies were some distance ahead of him and he was just biking along, enjoying the scenery. Suddenly, a wolf charged at him from the wooded areas that run parallel to the highway. The cyclist sped up, pumping his legs with all his might with the wolf nipping at his heels and his elbows. He was relieved when he heard a car coming. He waved frantically to try to alert the driver that he was in distress, but the car went right on by.

He was racing down a hill at that point, going faster and faster. The wolf was unphased. The cyclist heard another car coming. Again he waved with furious desperation. Again the car went by. Up ahead of him loomed a giant sloping hill. The wolf was right on him, even though he was going top speed down the hill.  He thought about his family. He was sad that his life was going to end this way. He knew he was a goner.

But, then he heard another vehicle coming. This time, he steered into the middle of the highway. It was an RV and when they pulled to a stop, he abandoned his bicycle, threw it at the wolf, and fled for the safety of the vehicle. The wolf continued to “attack” the bicycle as the man ran for the RV and climbed inside. He escaped from the ordeal unharmed.

Later that day, while I was driving, Lydian sat up front with me in the van. We talked about the story of The Cyclist and the Wolf and the much abused story of the Good Samaritan. My fundamentalist upbringing offered me only one perspective, one interpretation of the biblical story. I asked Lydian, “Wouldn’t you feel really bad if you saw that man flailing around and for whatever reason didn’t stop for help?” I asked her. Of course she said she would. But then we talked about the idea of judging people according to their ethnicity or their race or any other singular trait and how the Good Samaritan could also be about that. Camile was sitting in the back seat listening (though she didn’t speak). We considered a few interpretations of the story.

And then, I saw a bear.

“Bear! Bear! Bear!…Bear!…Bear!”

We hadn’t seen anything but moose the entire trip and I’d never been so close to a bear. John had been napping in the back seat. I continued shouting, “Bear!” until I heard myself and realized how stupid I sounded. John blinked and sat up. I stopped the car and flipped around to get a better, closer view.

“Get out and go stand by the bear so I can get a picture, girls…” I said, (joking, of course, although people do things like that for real.)

Black bear eating flowers

This was one of nine black bears we saw as we traveled one day along the highway in the Yukon Territory.for real.)

We sat for a while and watched as the seemingly innocuous animal nibbled tenderly at some flowers. The bear was oblivious to us and five minutes later, we decided it was time to continue on. We saw eight more bears along the highway that day, including two very adorable little cubs and a Mama Bear.

John and Lydian eventually switched places so that John was again in the driver’s seat.

As we were rounding the corner at the top of a hill leading to nowhere in particular in northern Canada, I spied a man at the bottom of a hill. Immediately, I knew there was something wrong. I didn’t know how I knew at that moment but I kept my eye on him as we headed downhill. There was something about his body language that was strange. John was looking down at his computer as we came closer to the man. I said nothing, a part of me thinking I was imagining that the man was acting strangely. There were no other cars on the highway as far as the eye could see. His back was to us as he walked along. A hundred yards from him, he raised his arms to the sky and then let them fall and hit the side of his legs, like he was making some sort of plea to the forces that be. Then, he heard us coming.

I slowed down as we got closer because he made some strange micro-movements. I  could tell he was going to do something unpredictable and I didn’t want to smack into him. He ran out into the middle of the road. I saw his face. He looked desperate. He yelled at us, pleading for a ride. John looked up from his computer and saw the man. I slowed. Hesitated. The memory of the wolf and cyclist still in my mind. The man lunged for the van and John suddenly and inexplicably rolled the window down 2 inches and yelled, “No!”

We kept driving.

I watched the man in my rear view mirror as we pulled away. He raised his arms again, put his hands to his head.

Was he crazy?  Desperate?

I tried to sort out my feelings about the situation. We had talked with the girls about never picking up hitchhikers and how hitchhiking was unwise, etc., etc.They sat in the back seat together, passively examining our reactions to the man on the highway. There was a heavy, unresolved silence between John and I. I stared into the distance, my mouth open and eyes wide with conflicting emotions about what The Right Thing to Do might be.

“He looked really desperate.” I said. “Most hitchhikers won’t just run out into the middle of the road.”

“I thought he looked crazy.” John said.

“But desperate people sometimes act crazy.” I retorted.

“Someone else will help him.” John said.

“Yeah…well, that’s probably the same frickin’ argument used by those people who drove by the man who got attacked by a wolf.”

John was momentarily silent.

We experimented with a variety of different possible scenarios that would cause a man dressed in red sweat pants and a camouflage shirt to behave in such a way. He was a little shaggy, but not homeless-looking. He was in the smack dab in the middle of nowhere in northern Canada. There were bears. There were bison. There was no cell phone service for miles in all directions. What if something happened to his family? What if he had a child who was sick or injured and he needed help? What if he was deranged and intent on killing someone, perhaps us?

Finally, John said, “Okay. Let’s trade places and just go back. We’ll ask him if he has an emergency and then drive to get him help if he does.” John was always good at getting to the meat of the matter with people. I wasn’t entirely sold on backtracking 5 miles at that point. We had driven about eight hours that day and still had five more left to go, but I wasn’t sure if I would sleep that night if we didn’t go back.

We turned the car around and went back to the man on the highway. As we drove, we discussed the various scenarios that could be presented to us.

“What if he says that someone is injured back in the trees somewhere?” I asked.

“We’ll tell him that we’ll go to the nearest town for help.”

The basic plan was to ask if he needed help, but not get out of the car or get too close to him. At the same time, we both knew we’d follow our intuition once we talked to the man. I just hoped the situation was clear cut and nothing muddy. I didn’t want to get murdered for being soft-hearted amidst the mosquitos in the outback of northern Canada.

As we came up over the hill, he was lying on the ground alongside the road. When he saw us, he got up instantly and ran out toward our van. John kept moving, rolled the window down an inch and asked, “Do you have an emergency?”

“Aw, man, I just really need a ride to the gas station, man…” He said, bringing both hands to his head, slicking his hair back. “Will you give me a ride, man?…I could like pay you ‘n stuff…”

John asked him one last time, if he had an emergency.

The man did not.

We declined to give him a ride.

As we drove away, I felt a little like an ass. I thanked John for indulging with me in hero fantasies. It’s unfortunate that the Good Samaritan of today could so easily be duped into being the next assault or murder victim on the front page of the Yukon Tribune, but I believe that the Good Samaritan of biblical times probably had the same perils to contend with. I may look down my nose as the people who drove by the wolf and the bicyclist (or the injured Jew back in the day), but it just isn’t always easy to decipher unusual situations. People often do the best they can with the information that they’re given. Let’s face it, sometimes the injured Jew, or the flailing man on the highway is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

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Two Flats, One Spare

Entrance sign to Denali National Park

A nice Indian couple offered to take our picture at the entrance to Denali National Park. We had been wearing the same clothes for three days…

On our last day in Alaska, before we plunged south into Canada, Lydian called a music store in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to find out if there was anywhere they could play on the Friday night when we would be passing through. Whitehorse had seemed like a singularly cool northern Canadian town. We had seen three music stores as we drove out of the small, isolated city a week prior on our way to Alaska. The people there seemed nice and there was a health food store that had all kinds of goodies for us.

We decided that Whitehorse was one Canadian town that we’d be willing to return to.

Within about an hour, as we made our way to Denali National Park, Lydi had lined up a gig for Tiger and the Freedom Birds at Epic Pizza in Whitehorse. Whitehorse was still some distance away, but we were confident that we could make it there by the next night at 7:00 PM. This gig became the focus of the next 36 hours.

About ten years ago, I would’ve been really stoked to visit Denali National Park. That was before I realized that throngs of tourists can utterly ruin a very decent tourist destination. We had decided that we were going to make an obligatory visit to the park on this trip, mostly because we would’ve been excited about it years ago. Our expectations, however, were low. The guide book noted that the park was often crowded during the on-season and the only access to the interior was on a shuttle bus.

We opted to stick to a short 3 mile trail right that was right on the cusp of Denali National Park rather than risk taking a shuttle bus. We still needed to drive to Tok, AK that night so that we could make it to Whitehorse the next day. Denali was cool, but not as cool as playing an impromptu gig at Epic Pizza in the Yukon Territory.

I think we all really enjoyed our short hike. It was all very meditative and nature-y. We had a moment of Zen on a tall overlook midway through our hike and made the observation that we could’ve all been on a five day hike to Macchu Picchu instead of an iron-man marathon journey through Canada and Alaska.

Then, we returned to the car, stuffed ourselves into our designated seats and took off for a six hour drive toward the Canada/Alaska border.

The trip to Tok was ho-hum. We saw a multitude of moose. A porcupine crossed the road, which was exciting in a backwoodsy-kind-of-way. We arrived, and reluctantly began the nightly ritual of setting up the tent camper and potty tent. Level it. Jack it up. Crank it. Hook it up. Fiddle and fight with the damn potty tent. Stretch it. Push it. Pull it. Stake it in. Tie it down. Clean up whatever spilled inside the tent camper. Cook. Wash up. Pajamas.

Sleep.

The next morning, we took the last non-timed American showers that we would enjoy for another four days. Then, we folded ourselves into the van for yet another very long day of driving.

Camile and Lydian were on edge. They were nervous and excited about their gig. The tension in the van simmered as we made our way along the meandering highways into Canada. The shape of the roads and ditches changed as we passed from the U.S. into Canada. I had a feeling something would happen. We had caught a small leak in one of the van’s tires just in time a few days prior. There was something of a poltergeist sort of vibe in the air. I waited for something or someone to explode or malfunction.

We stopped for a potty break along a desolate stretch of highway about two hours outside of Whitehorse. John had noticed that the trailer was behaving strangely when we passed someone and wanted to check to make sure everything was okay.

A quick inspection revealed that things were not okay. One of the tires on the trailer was balding. No worries (as they say in Canada). We got the spare, jacked up the trailer, and within about 10 minutes, we had the problem solved. Our efficiency was lucky and we congratulated ourselves because we were just barely going to make it to Epic Pizza at the rate we were going by 7:00 PM.

We got back in the van.

“Did you check the other tire?” John asked me.

“No. Why?”

He got out of the van and walked around to the passenger side. I remained optimistic, despite misgivings.

Thirty seconds and then a minute passed. I got out of the car. John was standing and looking at the other balding tire and feeling the small sections of the inner tube poking through to the surface through little frayed pieces of steel fibers.

I began this trip to Alaska knowing that the odds of getting a flat tire were relatively high. What I hadn’t counted on was a lack of cellular phone service along stretches of highway with nothing but trees and moose for hundreds of miles in both directions. Of all the places to get a flat tire on this trip, the Yukon Territory would’ve been my last choice. We reasoned that we could leave the trailer behind and go for help, if necessary, but it was 5:06 PM on a Friday night when we discovered our problem. And our experience with Canadians in the northern regions was that they’ll usually talk to you as long as you’re willing to talk to them, but they rarely want to help or offer real solutions to problems.

We decided to continue driving on the bald tire because we really didn’t have a choice. We were about 20 miles outside of Haines Junction, YT and about 90 minutes from Whitehorse and the much anticipated gig. We were right on schedule according to our GPS, but we had to drive more slowly to keep from blowing the other tire that presently started “flapping”.

Flap…flap… flap… flap…

We looked up a towing company as we got into Haines Junction and our cell service returned. The towing company recommended that we call Kal Tire. Kal Tire recommended that we call a person named “Tom” in Haines Junction. John called Tom. Tom talked with John for ten minutes, all the while indicating that he was going to help us out in some way. He asked John for the identifying numbers for the tires. He asked what type of trailer we had. He wanted to know where we were located. But then, when John asked if he had a tire that we could buy from him, he said no. John asked if he had any tire that would work at all. The man said no. John asked Tom whether he could help us out in some other way.

“We could bring the trailer to you. Where are you located?” John asked.

“Oh, I’m not anywhere you could drive to.” Tom said.

At this point, John cut the conversation short and called Kal Tire back. Unfortunately, the number was for an answering service of very young customer service representatives who told us they didn’t have the tire that we needed in stock. They didn’t offer us any other solutions.

The flapping sound continued and built in intensity. It was evolving into a full-fledged thump. John and I got out to inspect the damages.

A piece of rubber had ripped off the tire and was repetitively hitting against the camper. Fearful that we would be stranded all weekend in Haines Junction, we resolved to continue driving very slowly to Whitehorse, which was about 60 miles away at that point. We figured we could always abandon the trailer, take the girls to their gig, and then return later to pick it up. After driving for 8 hours already, we weren’t thrilled about the prospect of having to backtrack for two hours to pick up our wounded trailer, but at the same time, we were grateful that it wasn’t a tire on the van that was flapping furiously.

The mood in the van was scary in a silent, adolescent sort of way. We didn’t speak, but only listened to the sound of the tire, slowly unraveling.

Lydian called “Josh” at Epic Pizza before we lost all cell service outside of Haines Junction and told him our predicament. He was understanding and said that they could come in and play any time until midnight. The mood in the van elevated a few degrees and I became optimistic that we’d make it all the way there on the poor, forlorn tire. John and I counted down the miles as they passed, celebrating with every ten miles that went by.  A couple of times, we thought the tire was done for, stopped the van, and got out to check, but decided to keep going.

Forlorn  and Raggedy Tire

…Not what you want to see after a long day of driving through the Seventh Level of Cell Hell.

Nineteen miles outside of Whitehorse, we stopped again. Things had become dire with the tire.

At inspection, a two foot strip of the tire lay stretched out, injured, and broken, still technically attached, but only barely. Inspired by the distance that this raggedy tire had taken us, we decided to jack the trailer back up and put the other, seemingly less frayed tire on in its place.

I jacked it up.

A man drove up on a four-wheeler with his two daughters to see if we needed help. There was nothing he could really do for us, but his willingness to help gave us reason to put some faith back in humanity after our encounters with Talkative Tom from Haines Junction and the dildos at Kal Tire.

Lydian asked me if everything was okay.

I thought for a moment. Hesitated. Wasn’t sure whether I should be honest in answering the two emotionally fragile girls.

“There are Many Shades of Okay…” I told her.

We got the wheel onto the axel in record time and patted ourselves on the back only to lower the trailer down onto a completely flat tire.

“Okay…well, (heavy sigh) that’s it. Let’s go.” John said definitively. We detached the trailer from the van and waved goodbye to it as it faded into the distance.

John dropped Lydian, Camile, and me off at Epic Pizza in Whitehorse while he went scavenging for a trailer tire. His plan was to go into RV parks and start asking anyone with a pop-up trailer like ours if we could borrow their spare. We just wanted to get the trailer to an RV park for the ni ght. Then we’d solve the problem of getting a new, permanent set of tires.

Lydian and Camile set up in the front at Epic Pizza and played their set list to a good crowd of enthusiastic Whitehorse Canadians.

On their last song, John showed up, just in time to see them perform. He had tracked down not one, but two tires to get us into an RV park. The girls finished their set and we talked for a few minutes with some friendly Whitehorse folks. I spilled a glass of water on the floor, just to finish off the day with a bang and then we left to go retrieve our home on wheels.

After the gig, there were, of course, no issues getting the RV to the park. Everyone was relieved and invigorated.  The world was a good and happy place again.

Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean at Deadhorse, Alaska

We took this photo as we drove out of the Fairbanks RV Park at 1:00 PM expecting to arrive at Deadhorse around 7:00 AM the next morning.

A new character was born on our trip to Prudhoe Bay. We called her Wilderness Woman. Wilderness Woman could take care of business in the wild. She would pee along highways unabashedly, leaving a trail of tampons in her wake. Wilderness Woman would stay up to all hours with the sun and weather the ferocious mosquitos and other insects that bit her in unlikely places. And…she would not complain. Much.

The trip to the Arctic Ocean was surprisingly uneventful, though challenging and definitely tedious. Luckily, it was only 11 hours to Deadhorse, rather than the projected 16 which meant that the overall length of the trip was only 22 hours rather than 32. That’s a big difference when we’re talking about not getting any sleep.

The thing is, though we drove for 22 hours total, the sun never set, which was weird and a little disorienting. When it was 11:00 PM, it could have just as easily been 11:00 AM.

But more notable even than the sun’s relatively static position in the sky were the roads which were sometimes acceptable, but mostly pretty crappy. Frost heaving creates some interesting patterns in the tarmac and the whole trip was mostly white-knuckle because of it. For the person driving, there was no “space-off” time to chat or really enjoy the scenery.

And there was scenery. Most of our Canada and Alaska journey could be described with one word: trees. But this part of Alaska was different. Gates of the Arctic National Park was situated along the Pan-American Highway that cuts through this area and it was a striking, unique set of landforms and vegetation, different from anything I’ve ever seen before. Rather than heavily treed mountains, the topography was highlighted with bright green and yellow mosses that gave the landscape a surreal appearance, like the negative of a photograph.

As we neared the Arctic Circle, the ice road truckers populated the roadhouses where we’d stop to fuel up and get water or a snack. Truckers lined up for the pay phone inside these rustic log structures. One of them had  figured out a “system” and had his wife call back as soon as she got the payphone number. “You got the number?” John heard the man say on his way into the restroom. Then the man hung up and moments later, the phone rang again. As we walked inside, the men looked me over like a popular college girl at a party with my matted hair and smeared mascara. Those men hadn’t seen a woman for a long time. I wondered what on earth would possess any one to attempt to live or make a living in these parts.

I had hoped for a certificate that I’d read about online for reaching the official Arctic Circle latitude line. My urbanized brain envisioned a solidly built Visitor’s Center where a nice lady in a green vest would sign and stamp a certifying document for us that we could proudly display…somewhere. But alas, when we got to the Arctic Circle, there was nothing but a sign, some elderly folks who were on a bus tour, and bloodthirsty mosquitos.

We posed for a photo, but the mosquitos buzzed around us perilously. They weren’t ordinary insects and we weren’t exactly prepared to cope with frenzied blood-sucking  mosquitos on a trip to the Arctic Circle. We swatted and flailed. Tried to stand still long enough for the photo. Camile hopped on one foot and rubbed her arms trying to protect them from bites. Lydian screamed and ran off, her arms floundering. “Hurry! Hurry!” John exclaimed and held the camera out in front of us. We gathered into the shot trying to look “cool” or like we were having fun, but the mosquitos were unrelenting and the photos reflected it. Back in the car, we complained about our various bites.

We neared the Arctic Ocean and Prudhoe Bay around 11:00 PM at night. It was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside and the wind was blowing. The mountains receded into the background and the earth became flat, though the road twisted through marshy, grassy areas lined with gravelly riverbeds. In the distance, we saw a thick blanket of clouds descending over a bluff. It appeared to be a cold front and as we passed beneath it, the winds began to churn and John watched the temperature as it dropped 10 degrees within minutes. On July 8th, when we made the trip, it was only 36 degrees at the end of a long day of sunshine at the Arctic Ocean. And even under these cold, windy conditions, there were still mosquitos out on the prowl.

Intrepid, leather-bound motorcyclists made their way through the treacherous weather. People were tent camping in

Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

along the roads and rivers. Tent camping. Eleven hours into our marathon trip, observing their structures, weakly braced against the blustering winds with little holes through which mosquitos could gain admittance, I was not jealous of them at all. Though I would’ve considered camping at Gates of the Arctic National Park, the Arctic Ocean and Deadhorse would’ve pushed my limits. My body is only rated down to about 40 degrees. Then, I start getting lazy and inconsiderate toward others.

At 11:00 PM at night, John and I were a little concerned about getting fueled up in Deadhorse. We had expected to arrive around 7:00 AM in the morning, but the GPS calculations had been wrong. There weren’t many people out and about at this late hour (though it only seemed to be between 6:00 to 8:00 PM at night) and many of the modern conveniences that we take for granted in the lower 48 are hard to come by the further north you go. Card readers weren’t available in Deadhorse or many of the roadhouses along the way. If you can’t pay by cash, you can’t get gas at a lot of stations.

Deadhorse was a small town, but not especially intuitive in terms of finding one’s way around. The “city” reminded me of agricultural businesses in Nebraska where one might go to dump a grain truck or get a tank of anhydrous ammonia. Trucks were parked along special pipes with electrical cords hanging out of them so they could plug in and keep their engines warm in the inhospitable climate. It was the epitome of civilized desolation.

The mud actually made our car jolt around and shimmy even after we washed it off. It got in our tires and made them off-balance.

The mud actually made our car jolt around and shimmy even after we washed it off. It got in our tires and made them off-balance.

We fueled up. Stuck our hands in the water of the Arctic and then turned around to go back to the tent camper in Fairbanks. About 45 minutes later, we passed beyond the bluffs beneath what appeared to be the same embankment of clouds that were still whirling and raging with a wintery fury. I looked back into the rearview mirror at the stark line of dark blue clouds that were tumbling furiously  through the sky and it occurred to me that we were at the top of the world. Perhaps the cold and the clouds and the wind were always at this pitch in this part of the world.

On the way home, as we passed through Gates of the Arctic, the fog was so thick, we couldn’t even see the mountains as we passed through their midst. Visibility was perhaps only about 20 feet for about 30 minutes while John, Lydi, and Camile slept, but I was entertained (in a sleepy sort of way) by the bumpy, irregular roads as they surprised me again and again with potholes, frostheaving, and various ups and downs through the fog. John woke up at one point with a start in the passenger seat. The view out the window was nothing but a creamy white, which contributed to the overall disorientation wrought by constant daylight and a lack of sleep. He wanted to know where we were.

I thought for a moment, trying to come up with the correct answer.

“Alaska.” I said finally.

This is a good summary photo of Deadhorse. It captures the essence of the place.

This is a good summary photo of Deadhorse. It captures the essence of the place.

Huge and aggressive, arctic mosquitos make some of the tropical mosquitos seem lazy.

Huge and aggressive, arctic mosquitos make some of the tropical mosquitos seem lazy.

This is how we looked 22 hours later when we arrived back to the tent camper in Fairbanks, AK.

This is how we looked 22 hours later when we arrived back to the tent camper in Fairbanks, AK.

And anyway, we didn’t die on our big adventure, but we were very tired when we arrived “home” (to the tent camper) the next day. As all the other women tosseled their hair to add extra body to it and put on eyeliner to get ready for the day in the public bathrooms, Lydian, Camile, and I were just changing out of our daytime clothes and cozying up in our jammies after a much needed shower. The lack of daylight was a little messy as far as sleep was concerned, but we were tired enough that sleep came pretty easily for all of us over the next day and a half. After spending 22 hours in the car, the tent camper felt quite luxurious, at least to Wilderness Woman.

From Barnes and Nobel to the Arctic Ocean

Fairbanks, AK

Camile reads comfortably in front of the fireplace at Barnes and Nobel in Fairbanks.

After our long, arduous journey through the northern United States and Canada, we’ve taken two days off to collect ourselves here in Fairbanks. Yesterday, we indulged in Coconut “Bliss” chocolate ice cream bars and then sat for a couple of hours at Barnes and Nobel in Fairbanks, AK. Today, we skipped the ice cream bars and went straight for Barnes and Nobel. It’s a Monday, so Lydian, Camile, and I were even able to snag some soft, cozy chairs by the fireplace (which is burning vigorously, by the way, despite the fact that it’s July 8th.

Tomorrow, however, we’ll be leaving all the posh luxury behind to travel up north as far as we can go by car. It’s a 32 hour drive, round trip, to the Arctic Ocean and back to Fairbanks. We’re taking a tent and our sleeping bags, some food, and energy drinks.

The only motels along the way are quite costly and very basic. They’re the leftover lodging facilities for the oil pipeline workers, which sounds cool except that it would cost our group of four $400 per night to stay. John and I discussed the problem and decided that we were so close to the Arctic Ocean, it would be a big bummer to miss it and besides, we have an informal goal to drive the entire Pan American Highway from the tippy top of North America to the very bottom of South America. We’re letting ourselves do it in chunks as we visit different countries. We might as well cross this portion of it off our list. But spending over $800 to do it seems exorbitant and unnecessary, especially given that night never comes here in the Arctic regions.

We all agreed that as long as we didn’t officially know what time it was, we could probably stay up for 32 hours with only short cat naps, snacks, and an occasional jog around the van to keep us going. John and I will drive, taking turns sleeping in the back. Lydian and Camile will alternately be responsible for John’s and my feeding, watering, and entertainment (we told them we may have to do sing-alongs) when we get tired. If things get dire, we’ll have a tent, some sleeping bags, and

Lydi at Barnes and Nobel

Unabashedly soaking up the comfort and warmth fireside in July at the bookstore.

bear spray. It will be an epic adventure.

Leaving tomorrow afternoon around 1:00 PM, we should reach Prudhoe Bay by early morning sometime, hopefully before 9:00 AM when our shuttle is scheduled to take us to the Arctic Ocean. We had to make reservations for this tiny leg of the journey because access is restricted to the oil fields. It may very well be the pinnacle of isolation, but Prudhoe Bay is only 1200 miles from the North Pole, which makes it a worthwhile destination, at least in the summer months.

Alaska: Land of the Brochure Tourists

If hadn’t spent the last week in Canada, making our way to Alaska, John and I would have already purchased tickets for our big Egypt trip. I saw the headline in The Globe and Mail in Whitehorse early yesterday morning: “Egypt cheers as Morsi Ousted.” John and I were concerned two weeks ago when Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) became newsworthy in nearby Saudi Arabia. Though we’ve joked about getting great airfare deals by going to places torn by civil war or stricken with Ebola, the truth is, I’d rather skip countries that have recently been overtaken by a military coup. Egypt, right now, sounds too French Revolution for my taste.

We almost went to Mexico City instead of Alaska, which in a way, is too bad because a volcano erupted yesterday and didn’t kill anyone in Mexico City. That would’ve been a cool experience, I think (a non-lethal volcanic eruption, that is). We were near a volcanic eruption in Costa Rica, but didn’t get to see it firsthand (it was in Nicaragua). I rather enjoyed the 7.9 earthquake that didn’t really hurt or injure anyone during our stay in Alajuela. I’m only slightly bummed about it because we did get to see some raging wildfires close-up on our way up to Fairbanks.

I don’t relish tragedy enough to move toward it, but I do like a little excitement and finding a balance between these two things is a challenge while traveling. There’s self-inflicted challenge, like living in a tent for several months in a cold climate, or bicycling the Pan-American Highway from the far north to the far south. These challenges breed adventure, plot, and plenty of stories, but not without a lot of static in the grueling interstitial moments. Our pop-up tent camper challenge is pretty mild overall as far as adventures go, even with two teenage girls. We’ve had plenty of mind-numbing interstitial moments over the past two weeks, but the surprising part is that we’ve adapted to the constant sunlight, a prolific number of unfriendly, and rather backwardsy Canadians, and the lack of cooked food. It’s been a slow transition from normality to an RV-er’s reality and from the to and fro of typical human biorhythms to the onward inner march of having daylight 24-7.

It’s a small, man vs. self sort of plot, but it’s just enough to keep me interested. The trip hasn’t been filled with edge-of-my-seat material, but that’s okay with me. I didn’t expect that it would be.

Today, I gathered a selection of brochures from the laundry room at the River’s Edge RV Park here in Fairbanks and mindlessly perused them while Lydian and Camile went off in search of a microwave for our lunches. One of them promised a “relaxing adventure” and another, “a ceremonious guided trip” along with some cheesy photos of people taking photos or posing for photos on rafts, on glaciers, or on horses.

“I don’t think we’re brochure tourists,” I said to John. He agreed and upon noticing how many of the photos contain senior citizens we discussed the mythology of Alaska that seems to become mostly prevalent among the aged. Since we began our RV-ing career back in 2002, innumerable old folks have urged us to go to Alaska. “It’s so beautiful there!” they exclaim, romantically extolling the virtues of this cold, mostly inhospitable place. And it turns out, most of the people here are convalescents, hoping to soak up some adventure in their golden years.

But being old and having adventures don’t really go together which is why some marketing genius came up with the “relaxing adventure” catchphrase. There is no such thing in my opinion, but for those who put off living until their final, least productive years on earth, a relaxing adventure sounds like the perfect combo and may, in fact, stretch a person’s limits adequately. A long trip in a pop-up camper is mild when judged against the would-be trip to Egypt or even the Mexico City volcanic adventure. Sometimes, seemingly simple, relaxing situations turn epic. Sometimes seemingly epic adventures turn out to be relatively mundane.

Watching the clouds off in the distance over the mountains yesterday as we made our entrance into Fairbanks, I couldn’t help but think about autumn in Nebraska when the weather becomes dreary and the once towering thunderheads are reduced to harmless, fluffy cottonballs that shift and tumble over each other as they harmlessly cross the horizon. I wondered if I had missed any good thunderstorms back in Nebraska and I wondered if the people in Alaska ever longed for a raging summer storm. It occurred to me, at the end of our long drive yesterday, that sometimes, the water that’s swept up out of the ocean ends up at the northern or southern poles and other times, it’s carried into the monsoon season in India or Central America or tornado alley in the Great Plains. Those bubbly but innocuous gold-rimmed clouds beneath the midnight sun would go on to become giant super-cells, torrential rains, and dripping icicles as the earth spins and tilts and the winds blow.

Maybe Alaska-for-seniors isn’t just a romantic mythology. Maybe there’s a legitimate truth to the idea of a relaxing adventure. And anyway, it is beautiful here.

Eaten Alive in the Yukon

Construction in the Yukon Territory

Motorcyclists and the stop sign lady waiting with us in the construction zone.

I think that a place as chilly, isolated, and desolate as northern British Columbia and the Yukon Territory should at least be bug free. It doesn’t seem fair that there should be swarms of bees and hoards of gigantic mosquitos here. At the very least, people should be able to go to northern Canada to escape from insects.

But such is not the case. The mosquitos are fierce and persistent. Small black bees hoover around our tires when we park the van to fill up with gas or take a wilderness pee. Often, as John or Lydian or Camile walk back to the car, they are swatting at something as they approach. Sometimes they’re swatting and running from something. It’s true that the landscape is beautiful, but only if you’re enclosed in a protective barrier or slathered with 100% DEET.

Our windshield is covered with the remnants of these bugs having traveled many miles along the winding roads tracing a path through a thick forest of tall skinny evergreens and a smattering deciduous trees. Every now and then, through the insect-splattered windshield, we pass a cryptic sign along the road, the only evidence that humans inhabit the area. Sometimes, we’ll pass another sign explaining what the other sign means (if you’re lucky, because the signs aren’t usually necessary and often don’t make any sense). I recall from our last trip through Canada that the signs were superfluous and mostly unnecessary. If a group of people who knew nothing of human psychology, language, or behavior got together to communicate with drivers through signage along highways, the signs would look like the ones in Canada.

John and Lydian walking through the ditch in the Yukon Territory.

John and Lydi make their way into the trees to relieve themselves amidst swarms of mosquitos.

We’re just sitting here right now, literally in the middle of nowhere along the highway with a woman holding a stop sign. We’re waiting for a pilot car to take us to the other side of the road construction. The lady with the stop sign is also holding a cigarette and she tells us that the wait will be 10 to 15 minutes. Some rather scrawny and unhealthy-looking motorcyclists parked ahead of us are distributing donuts and taking a siesta.

Nature calls to John and Lydian as we’re sitting here. There are miles and miles between us and the next rest area and who knows how long we’ll be forced to stay parked here, so they decide to take off into the thick trees to find a suitable spot to pee. Lydian and John head down into the ditch first. I watch them through the window of the van descending into the deep, weedy ditch, stepping with high knees through the grass and wildflowers, their swatting and twitching increasing in pitch and momentum as they near the thicket.

They duck into the trees and I can see a sense of desperation cross Lydian’s face as they search for privacy amidst the multitudinous bugs. Around this time, Camile, still sitting in the van with me, says, “I think I need to go too.”

John and Lydian are now running up through the ditch, flailing their arms furiously, the motorcyclists and stop sign lady gawking at them with amusement. The stop sign lady says, “Don’t bring them back up here with you!”

I went around back to the camper and got the 45% Deet, hardly strong enough in reality for a job like this, but still the green bottle inspired bravery in Camile and Lydian who really did need to go. The three of us, descended down into the ditch toward the trees, spraying ourselves vigorously as we went. As they took their places behind some shrubbery, there were shrieks as the hoards of mosquitos and other biting, stinging insects swarmed around them excitedly. John opted out of the whole affair claiming that he could just “pinch it off” and wait for a less painful opportunity. Moments after the ordeal, as we climbed up out of the ditch, the pilot car arrived to take us through the construction zone.

At this point in the trip along this lonely road, the other travelers have only one question for us, “Are you headin’ up or down?” It is the Alaska Highway after all. It has been many days since I’ve seen an intersecting highway that would take us east or west. My road atlas excludes the northern part of British Columbia probably because it’s so desolate and the travel options so few. Hopefully Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory will be as progressive and hip as some people say it is (I doubt it, by the way).

 

2013 Total Desolation Tour: Rivers… Trees… Animals…

British Columbia and Yukon Territory border

This photos aptly depicts the way it felt to travel through northern British Columbia to arrive at the Yukon Territory border.

I have been so disenchanted with Canada and Canadians for the past three days that I couldn’t even bring myself to write about it. About midway through British Columbia, the population thinned out considerably and most of the Canadian folks (at least the ones we encountered) turn into rural yokums. It’s been hard to wrap my head around the swift change from progressive and liberal Vancouver to Fort St. John, where you have to rent your shopping cart at the grocery store.

Around the time that the people turned backwards, the showers at our campgrounds became coin-op, a disappointing development given that showering is one of the few times when tent campers like us can do some quiet reflection. Try as I might to enjoy a shower in discreet 3 minute intervals fully prepared for the pleasantness to end, whenever my water actually turned off, I felt shocked and utterly wronged. During shower-time at the Muncho Lake campground, standing in the tween place between shower and dressing area, dripping, soapy, and shivering, I fiddled with the antiquated coin-op machine cursing the Canadians wondering why anyone would vacation up north. Give up all the comforts of home, take up residence in a tent camper, and suffer through regular abrupt cessations in hot water only to travel through endless miles of mostly repetitive scenery to a destination that is really only lauded by convalescing seniors. In that cold, dripping, and traumatic moment at the Northern Rockies Lodge at Muncho Lake, I began to question our sanity.

I must admit, the landscape is beautiful in its own way. And it is very quiet except for the perpetual buzzing of robust and very persistent mosquitos, the occasional chirping of birds, and wind. There are big horn sheep, caribou, moose, and bison that pop up along the road every few miles. The animals are cool, but it doesn’t trump the closed-in, closed-off nature of the people. Although it would be great to wake up every morning to a view like the one I see through my window right now, I couldn’t stand to live with the small population of dopey people in this area. Though I imagine they’re nice enough to each other and insiders in their little communities, who knows what it would take to become One of Them. And I just doubt that it would be worth it to try to stumble through their various designated hoops.

I’ve sat on the outskirts of many small towns in far-off places in the world looking in, wondering how the people there can stand to be there all the time. Once, we parked along a gravel road leading into a small town in the Yucatan so that we could put together “salad in a bag” (i.e. lettuce and salad dressing in a baggie). As John was situating himself to eat while driving, I stared off at some young kids walking along the street toward some shabby, run-down house, a limping, mangy dog following them. Chickens clucked and strutted around our car as we sat there and I wondered, how a town like that could survive with more civilized areas so nearby. What possesses people to stay in places like that? I’d want to leave the moment that I had the chance.

In Yaxachen, Mexico, when we took some supplies to a family that lost everything in a fire, there was one young man who kept eyeing our English-Spanish dictionary and road atlas. I could relate to him and I wanted to give him the atlas, but we really needed it to find our way back home. We gave him the dictionary instead.

In Turkey, shepherds strapped goats, propane bottles, and their wives onto their tiny mopeds to travel treacherous roads. They lived in squalor separated from modern civilization and other people. With Istanbul so close by, I often wondered why any of them chose to stay in the countryside.

Canada is a perplexing place. Especially northern Canada. As pleasant as the landscape is during the summer, in the winter, the weather would be absolutely brutal. And it would be dark. A lot. If I lived in such a closed off, cold, and dark place, I think I would be excited and giddy about the light and the people coming and going, but then again, I wouldn’t take up residence in this area of the world unless I was forced into it by some unfortunate twist of fate (e.g. the rest of the world is overcome by nuclear war).

Apparently many of the people who are in northern British Columbia are there by choice. I guess they must be happy enough about their location to be choosy about including others like myself in their carefully guarded bliss.

Or perhaps they’ve simply figured something out simply to keep others from moving in on their piece of unpopulated paradise… Slightly cold, timed showers, unfriendly people, and chronic low-level discomfort can make the miles and miles of rivers, trees, and mountains into a tired, endless monotony

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