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.