Monday, September 10, 2018

You, too, can drive to Alaska. Part Two: Alan is an animal

When I left off last time, I was nearly breaking my neck in Watson Lake, Yukon.

Watson Lake is where we hit the official Alaskan Highway, a.k.a. the Alcan, the road that runs to Alaska through Canada. The Alcan used to be a messy dirt thing with very few services and lots of trouble. Now it's paved(ish) but there are still miles-long stretches of dirt road when there's road maintenance, which is constant. I'm thinking harsh winter weather is not kind to pavement.

There are more services along the Alaskan Highway now than in decades past, too, so you're much less likely to run out of gas and die of starvation with nobody around, which is pretty cool.

Even with such improvements, The Alcan is still not the friendliest of roads. It is rutted and wavy with frost heaves, which are speed bump-like ripples left in the pavement thanks to the extreme freeze/thaw cycle. The potholes are another obstacle; they are big, frequent, and tend to come in groups as if they enjoy ganging up on you. If you don't slow down in some of the more extreme patches of frost heaves, you'll go airborne and bust an axle. If you hit a group of asshole potholes, bye bye tires. It's a wild ride in some places, a wilder ride in others.

a common sight along the Alcan:
bumps, patches, potholes, isolation

Often the frost heaves would be marked with tiny bright orange flags on either side of the road --

teeny tiny helpful orange flags
Do you see them?
You better hope you do.

-- but just as often, they would be marked only with air, silence, and secrecy. I would hit one unexpectedly and scream, "You BASTARD!"

secret bumpies

There were long stretches of the Alaskan Highway I poked along at 10 mph for fear of injuring the Winnie B beyond repair. I was in the oncoming lane as often as I was in my lane to avoid obstacles. Thankfully, nobody's around up there so you can pretty much do whatever you need to do to avoid catastophe. You can just zig-zag and weave and tiptoe and drive like a general drunken menace, it's all good.

The geography of Alaska is unexpected to those who haven't pored over maps of the place. There's a little sliver of Alaska that runs down the side of Canada, much further south than you would expect Alaska to encroach upon our northern neighbor. Enjoy this colorful map for a second --

All of that scraggly skinny yellow stuff trying to claw its way out of mainland Alaska is still Alaska. Hyder is at the southern tip of that scraggly yellow arm. We've gone much further north since we visited Hyder but we're still hanging around the yellow arm, and are about to drop across that green/yellow border again to visit Skagway.

Alex, Lucien and I have been to Skagway before while on an Alaskan cruise through the Inside Passage. Lucien was 18 months old. He was a very hyper kid with poor impulse control. He enjoyed running into streets and directly into large crowds at airports and was therefore often on a leash.

Me strolling with my leashed son in Juneau, July 2007

In planning the road trip, I said to Alex I knew we'd been to Skagway before but didn't remember much about it. Neither did he. We both vaguely remembered the train trip along the Yukon route, a ride we took for over six hours, where we were trapped in a small train car with not much to entertain our toddler. It was light years before technology made such events more bearable with screens and iPhones and whatnot. I remember asking fellow passengers if Lucien could hold their water bottles for fun. That would work for a second or two before he returned to his escape plans with renewed vigor.

It wasn't our happiest time, nor the happiest time for anyone else on board. Though honestly, six hours on a train to nowhere is not the most entertaining thing even for the most mature and developmentally developed of people. There was lots of yawning from everybody, not at all related to our son attempting to destroy the train car from the inside out and continually attempting to take off his pants. It's not a surprise we'd blocked Skagway from our memories.

I planned for us to be in Skagway for the 4th of July because I suspected a small touristy town would do the holiday right. Maybe it would please us to be Americans again in this most desperate and odd of American times. At the very least, we could enjoy the holiday atmosphere of a small town and probably see a few fireworks to which we could say "ooooh."

The drive to Skagway from the Yukon was one of the prettiest legs of our trip. Craggy mountains, raspberry-colored roadside flowers against kelly green and yellow grasses, and the most gorgeous blue-green lake, fittingly named Emerald Lake, that stretched alongside the road for miles as we approached the town. The beauty is so beautiful it hurts. You have to remind yourself to just live in the moment, resist stopping the car every five minutes to take another picture because let's be honest, you're never going to look at those pictures again, they are going to live in your cell phone forever.

unless you have a blog

Skagway did not disappoint with its 4th of July festivities. There was a parade, of course, where the paraders threw water balloons and candy at the onlookers. I was soaking wet and shoveling mini Milky Ways into my mouth, grinning with chocolate-covered teeth.

There were also streetside arm wrestling matches, and egg tosses, and a rubber duck derby in the river through town.

My personal favorite was the slow bike race. The last person to cross the finish line won. From witnessing this event, I'm going to overgeneralize and say people in Skagway have really good balance --

it lasted forever

We had four rubber duckies entered in this race down the river.
None of our ducks won, 
a fact we still can't wrap our minds around,
as we had all felt so certain.

I had reserved tickets weeks in advance for the often sold out "The Days of '98" show at the historic Eagles Hall. The show told the captive audience the tale of Soapie Smith, one of Skagway's most notorious outlaws during the Klondike Gold Rush days.

The story of Soapie was interesting but most interesting to Lucien were the prostitutes (Soapie ran a brothel, of course he did). The "prostitutes," who in my opinion looked way too damn cheery to be prostitutes, dragged a poor audience member up on stage, a man named Alan who looked to be in his mid-80s. Alan most desperately did not want to be involved in the production judging by his bright red face.

After flirting with Alan and wrapping their feather boas seductively around his neck, the ladies then dragged Alan offstage for a period of time and we heard them squeal, "Ooooh, Alan, how did you learn to do that, Alan?" and "Oh, Alan, you're an ANIMAL." Alan returned to the stage a short time later wearing a bathrobe.

Lucien looked at me then and said, "Wow, Mom, thanks for the growing up lesson."

I had bought tickets to the family friendly version of "The Days of '98." There is an "After Hours" version of the show that was billed as "strictly adults only." The business with Alan made me wonder what happens in that other adult version? Do they have sex with Alan for real as his poor wife watches from the audience? It didn't look like Alan could have lived through that; he needed three actors just to help him up onto the stage and back down again when his part was (blessedly, according to his now ashen face) over.

dang, I ate some good crab legs that day

I am surprisingly not done talking about prostitution. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Skagway is the Red Onion Saloon, a former Gold Rush era brothel, where women dressed as REALLY SUPER HAPPY prostitutes serve you drinks and maybe some potato skins if you're feeling peckish. You can also take a dirty little tour of the upstairs rooms for ten bucks.

This is when Coco got weird. She balked at the front door of the Red Onion, pulled back on my arm hard as she planted her feet on the sidewalk and said, "I don't want to go in there." She looked serious as hell.

We eventually got her in the door by promising her a usually forbidden Coca-Cola, thinking she was just tired and could use a hearty caffeine-n-sugar jolt. But no, Coco truly hated the place. She went quiet as she slowly looked around the walls at the old black and white photos, her mouth set in a grim line. She whispered to me, "I don't like this place" and "This is a sad place" until we agreed to cut our visit short and leave without ordering our potato skins.

We had not mentioned to the kids what kind of establishment the Red Onion had been long, long before it was crammed full of cruise ship passengers so it seems pretty obvious Coco is some sort of empath psychic who was channeling hard stuff from a century ago. Then I felt guilty for making her sit there absorbing all the hardships of the world while drinking a sugar bomb and watching the tour participants come back downstairs, grinning and cracking jokes with cameras slung around their necks. We must have all looked like depraved soulless heathens to her all-seeing eyes.

Man, I love it when she gets spooky like that.


After our two days in Skagway, it was back through Canadian customs and on the road again through the Yukon. It was another long day, roughly 14 hours. After six days of constant togetherness, we were all fit to strangle each other. What started as "We love the Winnie B!" turned into "This f*cking thing is too small."

Alex and I began yelling "BEAR!" whenever the kids started bickering, which was often. It distracted them enough to stop arguing and then we'd say, "Oh darn, guess you guys missed that one." They would eventually start arguing again so we would again yell, "BEAR!" The kids now believe Alex and I saw thousands of roadside bears during our Alaska trip but in reality we only saw a handful.

This was a real one. Our first Grizzly.

RV owners wave at each other on the roads with a level of enthusiasm directly proportional to how similar their rigs are. Passing another Winnebago of any type was always nice, and we'd give them a little salute. But if we passed the same make and model as ours, our arms were fit to fall off with the waving and the honking. If we both even had the same exterior paint color scheme (!), you bet we were stopping in the middle of the road to hug and have a conversation about it.

You only wave at RVs completely unrelated to yours if you're bored.

Towards the end of that long day, we were in Alaska again, It was a bit anti-climactic since we'd already been there twice but this time was for REAL. No more yellow claw, we were fully embedded in the middle of that giant yellow blob.

We drove on until Tok, Alaska, which is not a very interesting place to stop. Tok is basically just a bunch of Alcan travelers happy for electrical hookups and a real shower. The only things of note in Tok are a very nice log Visitor's Center and a much-needed RV wash station. We'd killed so many bugs with the Winnie B: big, winged, foreign-looking things that would freak me the hell out if they ever landed on my body.

The next morning, on our way to Fairbanks, we stopped at North Pole, Alaska. It is as awful as you are thinking it would be. They really beat the hell out of Christmas there, complete with sad looking reindeer stuck in a pen you can pet if you're willing to pay. That part made us all sad, and Christmas is supposed to be happy.


Alaska is kind of weird

I haven't sat on Santa's lap in a long time
and I'm thinking I don't need to do it ever again.

And then we were in Fairbanks.

It's fun to note that at this point in the trip, Lucien was still squealing, "Ooooohhh, Alan!" every handful of minutes or so then laughing hysterically for another handful. Great. Can't wait to hear about that one on his first semester report card back at school.

Here's another map to show how far we made it this time --

The red circle in the bottom right is still Seattle.
First red arrow north is Watson Lake. Red arrow to the west of it is Skagway.
Red arrow above that red arrow is Tok. 
Final red arrow way up north in central Alaska is Fairbanks.
I added exclamation points for pizazz.

I'm still not even a third of the way through our trip. Yikes. I best pick up the pace for fear of droning on and on about Alaska forever. Though I would honestly be pretty happy doing just that.

In the meantime, life continues at a rocket fired pace. I took the kids camping in southern Utah the week before school started, which was awesome. Also, we sadly lost one of our pets. And my parents are pretty much the best. And the master bathroom renovation is all done. And yes, the Paris book still LIVES. I have a writing coach now, whose job it is to point and laugh at me and kick my butt when I don't do what I'm supposed to do. I'm finding there is too much to write about and too few writing hours in a day before I have to stop writing and go do something responsible.

I'll get there. I'll get to all of it someday. Or not.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

You, too, can drive to Alaska

We've been back from Alaska for a mere few weeks and I'm already plotting how to return to Alaska. My head is full of bizarre ideas, such as leading annual caravans up the Alaskan Highway for my friends, or sneaking into suitcases of unsuspecting cruise ship passengers, or maybe just heading off into Denali with a backpack and a dream to test my survival skills.

That last one would probably land me on a bush plane back to civilization within the hour. But the vastness of Alaska makes you dream big impossible dreams that are nowhere near your actual skills or abilities.

Our nearly month-long trip is almost too big to write about but I'll give it a shot for the sake of posterity, and in an attempt to maintain some sort of presence here on the blog. If I inspire anyone else to jump in a car and drive all the way to that gargantuan beauty of a place, I'll consider my work here successful. Contact me, I'll help you plan, and then I'll go with you.

The most important thing to know about driving to Alaska is you have to really, really, really love to drive. If you don't love to drive, this trip will be your personal hell. It's a lot of driving. A lot a lot. You should also probably appreciate trees.

I'm a long-ass road trip enthusiast, a well-established fact which has led Alex to often comment I should have been a long haul truck driver. There are fewer happier places for me than being behind the wheel of a vehicle, loved ones in tow, a jumbo sized can of Pringles in my lap, driving down a seldom-traveled road through incredible things. The Alaska road trip was made for me because you get a lot of that.

This is what the kids look like most of the time inside the Winnie B. 
There is a lot of sleeping.
Alex didn't drive for even one minute of this trip
because I am a road trip driving hog.

The legs are long. Our first day was 14 hours and we barely got to central-ish British Columbia, Prince George to be exact.  Our second day we drove another 11 hours to a town called Hyder, which is technically in Alaska but is not accessible from anywhere else in the state; you must enter it through British Columbia and go back through the cutest, tiniest little customs stop when you re-enter Canada.

We spotted four black bears on that drive to Hyder at various spots along the road. It's an exciting drive when every once in awhile you or one of your family members screams, "BEAR, BEAR, BEAR!" and you have to slam on the brakes real fast. I got a little jittery trying not to hurt bears nor us, but nothing a little coffee didn't make worse.

Hyder is charming in its friendly ghost towny kind of way. Maybe the best part of Hyder is the drive there, especially the 45 minutes spent cruising the Glacier Highway. You turn a corner and bam, Bear Glacier.


We got out of the Winnie B and flew kites for a bit along the Glacier Highway because the winds were favorable --

Entrance to tiny Hyder from Canada --

There are lots of abandoned structures in Hyder, remnants of the town's heyday as a mining hub --

We had a nice snack at the only open establishment in town, a bar/restaurant called The Glacier Inn. The server asked Alex and me if we wanted to get "hyderized" and we said, "Yes, of course!" before we knew what the hell she was talking about. It turns out getting hyderized involves doing a shot of Everclear up at the bar in front of all the locals. The instructions were serious -- we were not allowed to sniff it nor sip it and had to shoot it all in one shot without a chaser. If it came back up, we owed everyone in the bar a drink.

I hate Everclear, which is a hardcore grain alcohol between 150 and 190 proof depending on the bottle. It's like gasoline in an even less drinkable form. It's way too strong for my beer-loving body. My palms were sweaty as the shot was poured and the locals stared at me intensely, some smirking, all pegging me for the one that was gonna owe them drinks. I knew they were probably right, which didn't make the experience any more comfortable. Getting hyderized is proof peer pressure exists for adults, too.

Alex had no trouble but I did that shot and my entire body rebelled. I was on fire in my face area. It was a close one, a very, very close one, and it took several minutes to ensure I'd truly been successful as I rested my head on the bar and mentally invented lots of new swear combinations like "mothershit fucker fuck" while everyone watched and waited. That Everclear wanted badly to come back up but I held it down, didn't vomit all over the place, so my pride remains intact in Hyder. The locals looked a little disappointed but gave me high fives anyway. Then we got these little certificates --

(mine should say "just barely.")

We tried to teach the kids how to play pool at The Glacier Inn for awhile, the only problem being Alex and I both suck at it --

The locals then advised us to head to the food truck at the end of the road for "the best fish tacos in Alaska." That sounded like something we very much wanted to try so we walked through Hyder, appreciating its odd little self, feeling enthusiastic for fish tacos.

We walked up to the fish taco truck but the woman working there stretched her arms out towards us as we approached and said, "I'm sorry, we're all out, Ed ate them all." This struck us as funny and we threw up our arms and yelled stuff like, "It's always goddamn Ed! Dammit, Ed, you stop eating my tacos, Ed!" It may have been the Everclear talking.

No tacos for you, Coco.

After a night spent near Hyder in Stewart, B.C., the third leg of our trip was a very exciting one indeed. We took the Cassiar Highway, which at many points dissolved into a gravel road with no shoulder and little warning, and we saw lots of bears.

It's important to note here that no drive to Alaska should be attempted without the Bible of Alaskan travel, the Milepost. The Milepost is the most amazing thing you've ever seen, giving mile-by-mile information on all the most popular and most remote roads to Alaska and throughout Alaska. It's a traveler's best friend when you're in the middle of godforsaken nowhere. At the very least it's comforting to know somebody has been through there before you.

The Milepost is most crucial when it comes to finding gasoline. I mapped out our gas stops as fastidiously as I mapped out the rest of the trip. Calculate the miles, know your tank's limits, and for the love of God, stop for gas if the Milepost tells you to, even if  you have half a tank and it's a middle-of-nowhere nobody-around gas station that seems likely to be operated by grizzly bears.

The drive up the Cassiar Highway took us past a few glacier-fed lakes. Glacial runoff water is damn freezing cold but that didn't stop Alex from stripping down and jumping in. He just kept yelling, "I'm from Quebec, bitches!" as he floated around out there. I then turned to the children and said, "So we need to be prepared for when hypothermia sets in, which should be any second now, and we're gonna have to jump in there and drag him out before he dies."

Coco is saddened by the thought of losing her father
as he floats around behind her yelling,
"Is this all you got? This is nuthin'!"

By the end of the day, maybe 10 hours later, we had arrived in the Yukon. It was a triumphant moment when we crossed that border. It was also the moment mosquitoes the size of Volkswagens began attempting to devour us whole. Lucien grabbed our insect zapper racket thing and was very attached to it for the remainder of our trip. We should start him in tennis; the kid now has a vicious swing.

We stayed in Watson Lake, Yukon that evening, finally joining up with the mecca of Alaskan road trip travel, the Alcan Highway. Our campsite that night was a gravel parking lot with little going for it, yet was the most expensive of our trip at 50 bucks. They can really gouge you along the Alcan when pickin's are slim and you're desperate for a real shower.

There is only one thing to do in Watson Lake, Yukon, and that is to visit the enormous sign post forest. The sign post forest is a landmark along the Alaska-Canada Highway. Travelers from all over the world making the trek up the Alcan bring a sign from their home town to hang on any one of the hundreds of wooden posts to mark their crossing.

I had read about the sign post forest while researching the trip so came prepared with our Seattle sign. The four of us signed it, dated it, drew smiley faces on it, and prepared to leave our mark in the immense "forest" composed of over 90,000 other signs.

pleased to see my original hometown of Toledo, Ohio representin'

All the posts were full. The town cannot keep pace with the number of people who want to hammer the name of their hometown into a piece of wood and have fallen behind in their new post installation. The only place we could find to hang our sign was up very, very high and the only way to get any of us up that high to swing the hammer was to stand on Alex's shoulders. I was the only viable candidate, as Lucien and Coco were too short plus lacking in hammer skills plus it is our job to "protect them" or whatever.

This was a tense moment in our relationship. As you can maybe tell by my face below, I was getting serious with Alex and saying, "I swear to God, if you drop me, you won't live to see morning." He swore it would be OK, that he could do it with little trouble because he works out a lot. I've never appreciated his hours in the gym more --

Those were some stressful moments balancing on Alex's shoulders like an unskilled circus performer while hammering our sign into the post. The kids held their collective breath below, as did several other visitors. As I held that first nail in place with one hand and swung the hammer with the other, unable to hold onto anything else for stability, I seriously wondered if this damn sign had been worth the grievous bodily injury I was about to inflict upon myself.

It was. We did it. We left our mark as Alaskan travelers in the Yukon. 
The kids applauded enthusiastically. 
And Alex lived to see morning.

Trip thus far, for orientation's sake -- the arrow down in the lower right is Seattle. First leg was to the second arrow above it at Prince George. B.C. Next leg was driving west to the arrow at Hyder, AK. The third leg was driving north to Watson Lake, Yukon --

I really love to drive.

It's a looong trip and we're only three days in. These blog posts shall stretch out as large as the state of Alaska itself.

Everclear is the worst but Ed is a close second,