“Did I hear that you are taking your four kids and driving the Alaska Highway?” The red-faced, obviously angry man stood spraddle-legged in front of me, indicating he was going to stop whatever I’d planned. (This was 41 years ago, when the Alaska Highway was almost seen as a death drive; today, it’s more like a piece of cake.)
“Yes, why?” We were standing outside the local school credit union; I was on the board, so didn’t want to offend one of our customers.
“Someone should take those kids away from you. You’re not a fit parent!” I’d never met, even seen, this teacher before, but based on my summer plans, he felt I’d become unfit. I didn’t want to get in a fight on a public street, so I just nodded, walked widely around him, and carried on into the credit union.
Two weeks later, my four children and I, loaded to the gills in our VW bus, went right ahead with our plans. We plastered signs on the outside of the vehicle: Alaska or bust was the largest. Horns cheered us as we tracked our route up I-5. We took a ferry from Bellingham, WA to Haines—even that was an experience.
With four children, one needs a laundromat, so while Pete, my oldest at 17, began “decorating” the VW, I did laundry in Haines. There I overheard some women clucking like hen
s: they’ll never make it. Who in the world drives the Alcan? That car will be a wreck before the first day is over. No spare tire on top; tsk tsk.
I scrunched down, not wanting to admit that I knew the lad who was using flattened box cardboard to protect the sides of the car. He also put cardboard halfway up the front and side windows, to prevent flying rock from causing damage. (It made it interesting to look out and over.) We didn’t put the spare tire on the roof of the car, as we noticed others had done. Enough was enough.
But we were into Canada, and our twisting, beautiful drive up to and along the Alaska Highway rewarded us with sights and sounds of animals not seen outside of a safe zoo enclosure. Deer, bear, foxes, and other unidentified animals were part of the show. This road also periodically had a sign that said, “Watch for landing planes.” (With tall timber on both sides, there was nowhere else a plane could have landed.) It was “fun” driving across at least two rivers on our way north, with our four tires clinging to two single logs as we went across.
When we reached the Alaska Highway proper, work crews were doing some repairs on the road; later one of the flag girls was killed by a heedless driver. Everyone waves when passing or meeting; evidently only “fools” took this road, and so needed cheering-on. The lakes are that cold blue of the north.
And then the VW stopped moving. Pete, certainly no car expert, checked to see what the problem was: a loose spark plug, which he jimmied back into its holder…and we went on.
So far north, nightfall seems never to come, so one continues driving, thinking it’s four o’clock when it’s really nine! Children’s stomachs seem a better judge of time. We ate “stuff” that was packaged and easy to prepare. When nightfall comes, it comes with a vengeance—talk about not being able to see one’s hand in front of his/her face! And the sounds of night are fun—or worrisome—but one is safe in the car. With five of us, a tad cozy, but safe. Until we heard an escaped murderer was last seen along the highway.
Now this will seem eerie or thoughtless, but the cemeteries that are found in most towns, no matter the size, are a fascinating study in the history of the place. From dates, it’s obvious when a disease swept the little town, because so many people died during the same time period.
When we finally reached our destination—safely, no flat tires, no broken windows—we first went to a car-wash. Our blue VW had been a pale brown for days. At one overnight stop in a real motel, I went for a walk with my dachshund, Popeye. Then I lost him; I was certain a bear had grabbed him when I wasn’t looking. I was desperate, then I noticed something moving on the asphalt walk ahead of me. It was Popeye, completely covered with little gray flying things. Covered! So, in the north, one uses what’s called in Australia the “Aussie Wave” or the “Royal Wave” or whatever name is currently popular…or unpopular, to keep the bugs away.
The other highway (in the North) I’d recommend driving is the splendid Cassiar, a north-south route that connects the Alcan (to use the old name) and “civilization.”
But we were forced back to civilization; school called us. And we survived just fine. Try it, you’ll love it!