Saturday, August 2, 2014

Cross Country

I have traveled from Alaska to Maryland and Maryland to Alaska numerous times. It was always an adventure, especially traveling with a family of five. On one particularly memorable trip, my mother and father and us three girls made the journey in a small truck with a regular truck shell. On another trip, we found ourselves narrowly averting disaster. During one trip back to Alaska, we had to out run a fire. The last trip I made was with my husband, shortly after we were married, and it quickly ended the honeymoon period. It wasn't always bad and it wasn't always good, but it was certainly an experience to remember.
Stone's Sheep licking the road in the Rockies.
 When I was young and gas prices were not so high, my family made the trip every few years. My parents were born in Maryland and moved to Alaska just before I was born. They left their family behind when they moved, so I think it was partly due to guilt and mostly because my mother missed Maryland that we spent so many Junes on the east coast. None of our vehicles ever had air conditioning and our sleeping accommodations in the truck consisted of a couple of plywood boards and pieces of foam. My father slept under the suspended board on the truck bed. During the day the boards slid together and formed a bench seat where my father attached seatbelts to get us through the border legally. We were always terrified the border control was going to rip our truck apart and leave us to put everything back. When we arrived in Maryland my father bought a camper for the trip back. Unfortunately the camper was in rough shape and it took my father nearly the entire vacation to make it usable.
The Painted Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
No matter how old I was, one of the best parts of the trip was the Alcan highway. It was bumpy, rugged and full of wildlife. I would one day like to take the scenic "Top of the World Highway" during the fall when colors are at their peak. Another route I would be interested to take is the Marine highway system. Hopping a ferry from Vancouver to Seward sounds like a relaxing and fun way to travel. Although the Alcan highway is mostly enjoyable, we did have one heart stopping moment. We were traveling through a rain storm along a dirt section of highway late at night. The dirt had become mud and visibility was near zero. The truck began to slide and I witnessed a reaction from my father I had never seen before- panic and terror. When we stop sliding, my father managed to carefully maneuver us back onto the road. There was a small truckstop a couple hundred yards ahead and, with much relief, we pulled over for the night. In the morning my father walked back to look for our muddy skid marks. He came back with wide eyes and reported that the skid marks had stopped just inches from a huge drop-off. It taught me that the Alcan highway should be driven with absolute care and caution.
A bison at a rest stop at the Painted Canyon.
There were couple of trips where we got to stretch our legs in the comfort of a motorhome. It was a particularly hot and dry summer, especially in Montana and the Dakotas. There are long sections of interstate cutting through grassy plains and farmland. There were so many grasshoppers it sounded like we were driving through rain. We pulled over at a store to get some icy treats and enjoy their air-conditioning. We hit so many grasshoppers they had clogged our grill, so my father had to put a piece of cardboard over part of it. When we hit the road again, we decided to roll down the windows for breeze. We immediately regretted our decision, as the grasshoppers started flying inside, one landing in my poor Grandmother's open mouth. Our windows had to go back up anyway, since we then approached an out of control grass fire jumping the road from field to field. We had to dodge a few flames and made it through just before the road was closed.
A herd of bison grazed along the road in Canada to our delight.
 Throughout the years I discovered I had a lot more in common with my father than I had realized. Right around the time he turned 20 is when my father moved to Alaska. He lived in Palmer briefly as a child and had always wanted to come back. During his first job in Alaska he had to pour a cement pad for the Palmer visitor center. He had to leave the job halfway through to get his wisdom teeth pulled and after the procedure he immediately went back and finished the job, leaving his initials in the cement. I was not aware of this when I began working at the visitor center. I too had to leave work one day to get my wisdom teeth pulled and by the time I turned 20, I had decided to move to Maryland for a while. My father told me his story when I had my wisdom teeth pulled and the first thing I did when I got back into work was find my dad's initials on that cement pad. I had learned a lot from my father and it was time to put that knowledge to use and leave home. In Maryland I met my husband and we married within a year. I got to show him Alaska for our honeymoon, taking him on all the road trips which my father had taken me. Of course, my husband loved the state, I would not have married him if I thought otherwise. It only took a nudge from me and before I knew it, we had bought a truck, packed it full of our belongings and hit the road. 
A cloudy spring day driving through the Rocky Mountains.
 I had planned our trip out in detail, most of it being the same route my father had taken all those times. This time I opted to travel through North Dakota's painted canyon area. Experiencing the canyons and the many bison helped break up the monotonous interstate. I have always taken the lesser used Montana border crossing and never had any trouble. My husband and I were praying the border patrol would not search our truck as it was so tightly and precisely packed, we were sure we'd never get it back together. We breathed a sigh of relief when we made it through the border crossing without a search and continued on to a hotel for the night. In the morning we awoke to find our truck shorter then we had left it. Our back tires were ruined and flat from the weight of the truck. We carefully drove the truck to a service station across the street from the hotel. The entrance to the service station was on a steep incline and the truck scraped bottom when pulling in. Then we were told our tires would have to be replaced and the only tires they could get us were pricey. We needed strong and durable tires to haul all that weight across the Alcan. It took most of the day to get back on the road, and a good bit of money. 

Nikka Yuka Garden, Lethbridge, Alberta. Its name means Japanese/Canadian Friendship. Though it had closed for the day, I managed to sneak a picture. 
I had planned a stop in Lethbridge, Alberta to visit the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden. My family had always made a stop there to stretch our legs and enjoy the beauty, but this time I arrived about a half hour after closing. I also missed a visit to Milk River Visitor Center, where a 36' tall tyrannosaur greets you upon arrival. Up until this point we had only pulled our camera out for the Painted Canyon and resident bison. Things picked up and we started seeing lots of wildlife, which was the best part of the trip. One thing to keep in mind as you travel north is where you'll be staying and where the next gas station will be. Both get harder to come by and by the time you hit the "Signpost Forest," the accommodations get downright dodgy. I won't elaborate on my hotel room's conditions that night at Watson Lake. I'll just say this; I will remember that room forever, and refuse to ever stay in another like it. Hotels in the smaller, northern towns of Canada and Alaska aren't great, so I would advise a little advance research and book your room early. The good ones fill up faster. The Alcan is reportedly in better shape with no gravel and fewer curves and hills than when I traveled its route so many times, so it should be a more relaxing journey for anyone wanting to see it now.
Sign Post Forest, Watson Lake
If I ever make the 5000 mile trip again, I want to do it as a vacation in and of itself.  No more tight schedules and timelines. It was never a sightseeing trip for me. I only traveled with the goal of getting to Alaska or Maryland as quickly as possible. I would visit the National Parks and probably try to travel the Pacific Northwest route up through British Columbia. I would search for dinosaur fossils and eggs in the Badlands of Alberta. I would put my own sign amongst the 72,000 at the sign forest, just as my parents did when they moved to Alaska. I would try to take the Top of the World Highway and experience more of the Yukon and the old gold rush towns. I have my plate full of all the things I still want to see and do in Alaska, but a cross-country journey to see the National Parks and visit beautiful Canada is something I just can't take off my list, and neither should anyone else.
Curious Caribou along the Alaska-Canada Highway

Muncho Lake, a lovely green even when frozen in May. The military had a tough time cutting the road around this rocky shore.

A deer sighting in Canada. I can't see the tail and I'm not sure about the ear size, so I'm having trouble telling whether this is a mule or black-tail deer.

The Klondike II, a sternwheeler that saw its last run up the Yukon in 1955, where it was retired in Whitehorse. Whitehorse is where it was built in 1936, after the Klondike I sank. The Klondike II is an exact duplicate of the first and it was used to transport materials for the construction of the Alaska Highway. It sits in Whitehorse as an historic landmark.

Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway in Dawson City

An elk stared us down before haughtily walking off along the highway.
Mt. Sanford, a 16,237' shield volcano in the Wrangells, a beautiful and welcoming sight to come home to.

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