The Alaska Highway: 4000 Miles Solo in a Subaru

The mundanity of the drive’s start was what jarred me the most. After dinner with my mom, I stepped into my blue subaru just as I would on a normal commute to work. I drove down to the end of the street whose sidewalk squares had contained my childhood, turned on my right blinker, and waited for traffic to pass. The only difference was that today that I had no plans of stopping in Orange County, in Long Beach, even in Santa Barbara. The wheels hugging the pavement past the beach where I had learned to swim would carry me almost as far as the highway could take me, through 4,000 miles and across two countries to Seward, Alaska.

 

In the back of my subaru I had a makeshift bed that would appear when I folded down my seat, six packing cubes, and a backpack with miscellaneous outdoor gear including a shower-in-a-bag that I knew I wouldn’t use. The floor of the middle seat held my kitchen on one side, the camping stove packed atop a pile of ramen, soups, and snacks of all varieties, the other side holding extra water and a jug of oil atop a sampling of shoes and boots. In the consul, bear spray, a knife, a pair of headlamps and a lifestraw. Maps in every corner. In the passenger seat, my companion until just past Monterrey, Dale Frink of dalefrink.com.

“I’ve got to be forgetting something,” I said to Dale as we passed Pacific Coast Highway and I made my way towards the freeway. My hands gripped the steering wheel tightly, at ten and two, as if the firmness of that grip would carry me all the way north.

For my third summer in Seward, I would not fly to Alaska. I would drive instead, learning the roads that linked together my two homes, kept alive by the contents of this blue subaru that would form my home.

We continued onto the freeway. The dashboard clock read 8:13 pm as I drove onto the onramp, already on the dark end of twilight in Southern California. We drove through city first, then hills unseen. When the hours passed and my words began to grow sluggish, Dale called ahead and found us a Motel 6 in Paso Robles in which to stay a short night.

The next day we drove through a blur of sleep and sunrise, blinking into the fog that poured onto the highway as we neared Moss Landing. We parked beside an otter crossing sign for the best breakfast burrito of my life, and duly caffeinated, drove across the street to check in at Sanctuary Cruises for our whale watch. As we waited, I stood in the jarring sameness of a harbor I’d never seen. Docks and seiners and derelict sailboats filled their proper space, familiar components fitting together to form a place wholly new. I stood under a tree as the fog cleared, searching for otters with Dale. Dale’s presence somehow that felt solid, a nucleus around which to pad the unfamiliar riggings in the harbor below, and I wondered at the difference a companion makes.

After a talk with the naturalist we walked down a swaying dock to our boat, Sanctuary. First were the sea lions piled shoulder to flipper atop a submerged dock, then the sea otters drifting through their own buoyancy, so much smaller than the otters of Alaska. As we left the jetty we passed a gray whale pointed inward toward the back of the harbor. Then, as we left a coastline smudged by white fog, twin blows appeared from the blue water: humpback whales, here to feed. We watched them for a while, saw the massive lift of their flukes. Dale hopped onto happywhale.com and identified them as Inverse and Check, two humpbacks he had seen on earlier trips to Monterrey, then showed me on his phone screen where these whales had been sighted in their breeding grounds in Mexican waters. We headed out further and more humpbacks followed, breaching and tail lobbing, all set against the close press of fog. By the time we returned I stood deep within the peace of watching life move.

A research vessel that stopped to explain their process to our boat

Back on land, we had an hour or so to kill before I dropped Dale off at the airport in San Jose. Looking at the map, I noticed we drove past a park with “redwood” in the name, and so within an hour we found ourselves wandering beneath a different kind of giant. The trees stretched tall, rich in their rust-red color, drowning the sky. “There is so much dimension here,” I told Dale, “like being underwater.” We wandered through the trunks, lost in scale.

But Dale had a plane to catch, and after I dropped him at the airport there was only myself, my subaru, and the memory of the giants of land and of sea. I put “Seattle” into maps and followed the highways, hoping to make it as far north as I could before grabbing a few hour’s sleep. I followed the screen of my phone through the steep drop of San Francisco, passing painted houses until the world fell away and I drove across the thin line of Golden Gate Bridge. Red supports rose and fell across my windshield as I drove forward, the lines of this bridge twisting like a living thing. Fog had turned to gold, struck through with afternoon light, speared by the forest that rose on the far side of the bridge. I swept through a sunset marshland as darkness stole the road one moment at a time, until I finally joined the straight lines of I-5.

I slept safe and warm in the parking lot of a Walmart outside of Redding that night, secure in the curtains I had made from two scarves and two sarongs to shelter my bed. After a quick stop at Mount Shasta the next morning for water that tasted better than any drink ever has, I continued north, making time towards Seattle. By the time I reached Portland I was racing time to make it to my friend’s house by 7:30. I arrived just a few minutes after the others to the perfect combination of pizza, beer, and old friends. We passed the night easily, and I took what was to be the only shower of my trip the next morning before hurrying off for breakfast with family and for a second cousin’s first beachside walk.

I hugged my cousins goodbye, and got into my car. This was it. I took a moment to sit in that fact, with the Seattle skyline in my windshield and wind from the north scouring my car. Today I was to cross the border to Canada, by myself, and drive the remaining miles across the Canadian and Alaskan wilderness. I decided this was as good a time as any to look at a map for the first time.

Can you say “procrastination?”

After consulting with a friend via text, I opted away from the Cassiar’s Highway, which offered stunning views in exchange for the “The Highway of Tears” portion famous for swallowing solo travelers with no trace. I went with the classic Alcan instead, or Alaska Highway, which ran from Dawson Creek in Alberta all the way to Tok in Alaska, where I would turn towards Seward. The roads held 2,692 miles and 48 hours of driving time from where I sat in the parking lot, the sky in front of me pinned down on the Seattle skyline.

I stopped off for extra oil, just in case, and checked the pressure in my tires one last time before heading towards the border. The roads carried me through farmland thick with blossomed trees, the white in the blossoms matching the white of the mountains ahead of me. Green lay low between. The border came suddenly, unexpectedly, and I just had time to ask of my sisters in a voice message a song to play as I crossed into the unknown.  The border guard nodded through my answers, waved me through, and I drove into Canada and into the rising notes of the Tarzan soundtrack’s “Son of Man.”

The roads barely gave me time to adjust to the idea of a new country before a sign on the side of the road blinked out the message “Congestion Ahead: Tulip Festival.” Well, I thought, some things are more important than making time, and so I followed the congestion to a dirt parking lot where a barn hid a spread of striped color. I paid my six dollars, then walked through to a gluttony of color. Tulips spread as far as the eye could see, lined in rows of reds and pinks and whites and yellows, rows so long that their edges met into a point at the far end of the field like a high school lesson on perspective in art. I wandered, struck into awe by their hues. A row of pink tulips cradled the sun like goblets of light, interspersed with rare cups of fiery yellow and orange. A row of red flowers gripped color with a steely resolve. White flowers glutted themselves with palettes, their row interspersed with splashes of pinks and yellows. And all of these lined beneath the white of the mountains and a single tall barn, all of them open beneath the flat of blue sky.

My subaru hummed with the rush of color as I drove away, with only the goal to make it as far as I dared before sleep. I stopped off at Kamploops for a dinner of poutine. Slowly night sank onto the trees, and then there were silent rivers and the mash of nighttime construction. When the lights of oncoming traffic began to dazzle my eyes I pulled over into a riverside picnic area and made my bed, wishing I had not taken my friend’s advice by listening to a podcast detailing sci fi horrors along lonely roads.

The next morning I woke up into the warm smooth of a day fully by myself, on my own time, with days before me of a highway winding through the wild spaces. I followed fog aglow with morning light along a low river, then rose and fell between between mountains I couldn’t name. Once a wooden bridge spanned the river to my right. As I continued driving the peaks rose taller and stonier, until they fractured the blue sky. The road dropped me into Jasper National Park, and I followed a map to a viewpoint of cold white peaks and a frozen waterfall deep within a rocky canyon. Stone sheep bobbed along the highway as I slowly made my way out of Jasper National Park to fill up on gas and an obligatory Tim Horton’s coffee.

The hills turned sour after Jasper, the trees dusty and the ground dry. I drove through the next few hours of dry soil as Dawson Creek grew closer kilometer by kilometer. Dawson Creek appeared around me just as the afternoon light grew denser, and I made the point of stopping off for gas and supplies before letting myself drive towards the bright sign marking the start of the Alaska Highway. This was the official mile zero of the highway, a monumental 1,422 miles of road constructed in only 9 months in some of the most inhospitable country imaginable after the US entered World War 2. The sign looked cute, too.

The day had grown longer already. After taking my pictures at the start of the highway I drove an hour out of town, waiting for the sluggish dark, then found a rest stop in which to spend the night. In the early morning I made coffee and oatmeal and then started on the road again, this time headed towards the famed Liard Hot Springs. I passed a moose and calf.

My car climbed up a mountain pass and as I reached the top, a spread of mountains rose in ruptured height across the horizon. Thus began the portion of the trip in which I drove in wide-eyed silence, staring up through the windshield as the mountains slid along their own stony pasts. The road dropped low and narrow, following along a river before rising up to Summit Lake, the highest point along the highway. At the snowbound rest stop I blazed my way to a cleared picnic table, drenching my boots along the way, then sat cross-legged in my socks in the sun as I made ramen on the top of a table surrounded by snow. Back on the road, I wowed my way through a road pinned to the side of a plummeting mountainside, then stopped to take pictures of butterflies feeding on the fuzz of new buds. Caribou, the first I’d ever seen, wandered off the road as I approached. Three stone sheep startled up a rock face at a sprint.

The most beautiful sight of the day came a few hours later, in the form of a sign reading “Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park.” This was the most fabled spot along the Alaska Highway, and after several long days of driving I could feel the knots in my shoulders desperate for a hot water soak. I parked my car and walked along a long boardwalk through a gently steaming marsh, stopping to read signs of the unique species that dwelled in these oases of warmth in a harsh climate. One species of snail lived here and nowhere else in the world. At the end of the boardwalk was a platform studded with bright wooden changing rooms, and beneath the platform, the clearest water imaginable. Wisps of steam rose from the surface. I changed into my bathing suit, my body bleary from so many days on the road. I wandered slowly through the crystal water, tracing the way the water grew warmer as I moved towards where travelers had balanced stones marking the source of the springs. I followed the flow down towards a second pool, where a cut between the banks made a thin channel moving deep into the forest. On the surface the water was warmest, and so I swam shallow, dipping below logs on the banks above. Later I lay where the water was warmest, watching droplets of water bead on the end of small ferns as my hair spread wide around me, turned to silk by the clear water.

I met some birders heading north to Whitehorse and we talked for a while about orca and arctic shorebirds, pausing once to read aloud a section from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I had spread on the platform just out of touch the water. But though they were staying in Liard I had to make time, and so I waved goodbye and rose from the water with warmth held deep within my core. As I left the highway I found another surprise: bison lined the road, in herds of three, then five, then thirty. Sometimes I waited as they lumbered off the highway. Once, a calf rolled with frantic exuberance in a pile of dust beside the highway. The final time I looked up to see a large, dark animal at a full sprint along the treeline, and just had time to recognize as I drove past that the shape I saw was that of a grizzly.

I made it to Watson Lake as the sun had just started its downward drop. Flags from every country lined the street. I stopped in for gas at a gas station with peeling linoleum and the kindest lady at the counter, who directed me where to fill my jug of spare water at the mop sink. In the center of town, I saw what had made Watson Lake famous: The Sign Post Forest. Licence Plates from every place imaginable rose on posts rising high overhead, stacked so tightly together and stretching so far that I couldn’t see daylight outside. I wandered through the spirals of stories, touching the physical remnants of the journeys that had taken people like myself through this space year after year after year.

But the sun was low, and I needed to find a place to sleep. I headed out into the open and found a decent pull-out, safe within the confines of my comfortable curtained home. I was very much in Yukon Territory now, and the next day as I drove through winding mountains and past frozen lakes the scenery that had wowed me earlier in the trip seemed commonplace by comparison. Under a bridge, I first saw and then heard a large spread of trumpeter swans, and I parked under the bridge to walk out to where the sounds of their calls filled the cold air. A few hours later, after I had driven around the rim of a vast frozen lake, I saw a sign pointing off the road towards “Swan Haven.” The gravel road took me past cozy lakeside dwellings towards a wooden platform beside a two-story cabin turned interpretive center, where an interpreter was positioning scopes to allow visitors to see the flurry of bird life in the open water at the far side of the lake. Two dogs rested at my feet. After chatting with the interpreter for some time, I took home a poster that spoke of “A Celebration of Swans.”

Spotting Scope at Swan Haven

Next came Whitehorse, the Klondike steamer, and the best chicken shawarma poutine I could have imagined. I spent a few hours wandering around the city, pausing in a used book store and watching ice fracture upon the Yukon River. Then I was back in my car, with a full tank of gas and leftover poutine for dinner. I drove until the San Elias mountains splintered the forested hills and then I stopped, falling asleep to a shaft of light illuminating a glacier high in the mountains above.

Seriously the best thing on the planet

The next day the land morphed into the frozen spread of Kluane Lake, the mountains rising behind. Somehow the air felt lonely here, no doubt because of the wind that bent down the grasses. I felt fully north, and fully free. The thought sat wild as my car moved forward, beaten by wind above a moonscape of ruptured ice. I followed signs for Sheep Mountain, and walked a trail lined with grizzly tracks to a slope where three dall’s sheep fought their way uphill. This was the wildness I had come to see and I was at home within it, resting into the ease of bear spray in my pocket and a world cracked open beneath my feet. I filled my tank at a stop named Destruction Bay, and when I commented on the wind the man my age laughed and said I should remember the name of where I stood. I pulled back onto the highway and followed it along the line of mountain peaks, watching mountains from flat earth. One rest stop hosted only a wooden dock dry atop a frozen lake.

The Canadian border surprised me first, as I drove through without being stopped into the no-man’s land between the two border crossings. A few moments later a pull-out appeared with a sign that read, in large letters, “Welcome to Alaska.” I had finally made it, driving the height of Canada through frozen vistas and gold rush towns to reach the wildest state of my own home country.

A bench had been marked with a line down the middle, Alaska on one side, Yukon on the other. I took a picture, not for the bench as much as for the excuse to get a quick picture of the car parked alongside with moose antlers just barely fitting atop its luggage racks.

I drove through the US border with no problems. Quickly I began to notice how the road had changed, pitted with frost heaves as the telephone lines careened at odd angles in the marshy soil along the road. I passed the Tetlin Wildlife Refuge, but did not stop except to circle through the parking lot of a boardwalk along a frozen pond. After some time I came across the town on the Alaskan side of the border, Tok, and filled up on gas that I was pleased to see was cheaper on this side of the border. I could feel the difference, somehow, something subtle in the corners of the buildings and the font of the signs pointed towards the road, something elusive that made me recognize this place as Alaska and nowhere else. Unexpectedly, that something left me feeling cold, and as I left Tok I tried to shake off the sense of something solid that before had been only weightless flight across a frozen earth.

I passed through beside white lakes staggered with islands of drunken forests. The valleys filled with the fuzz of rain, and then the rain turned to snow, and I drove through the wild froth of a flurried road. Once, driving across a bridge, my windshield wiper flung off and I had to circle back to find it. But soon the snow lay down and gave way to a steely light, and the road rose and fell with a rhythm that I learned to move alongside, and I started to look for a place to stay that night. A town appeared, and I kept driving past. A friend texted me that he was less than an hour behind, and I entered into a four-way phone conversation tinged with delirious exhaustion; their caravan had left Minnesota five days after I left Long Beach, and they were pushing to reach Seward that night. I said goodbye, hung up the phone, and turned off the highway to climb toward a view of the Chugach mountains beside which I would spend the night.

The morning dawned still on my last day of driving. Just as I had so many mornings past, I tucked away my sarongs-turned-curtains and folded the seat up to hide my bed in the covered trunk. I climbed into the driver’s seat and sat for a moment before I turned on the car, watching light shift upon the mountains. Then I turned the key, and drove.

The landscape today was larger than any I had seen the whole trip. Vast spread of snow staggered with trees, spreading down to the rise of impossible peaks. I dropped towards a river valley that took my breath away. Matanuska glacier traced its slow trail down a valley of its own creation. Then I found a river and followed it along the highway, soared with frost heaves through a tight forest, and finally found myself in Palmer heading towards Anchorage.

Each first familiar sight hit me like a punch. I had driven this road before, noted those road signs, camped between those mountains. As I drove toward Anchorage the familiarity widened, until I moved solidly through streets whose contours rose around me the same as they always had, before I had flown away, before I had driven almost 4,000 miles to return to the same Mooses’ Tooth pub and ordered the same Brewhouse pizza. I had left the house where I had grown up and had simply followed the highways along their links to this same seat where I had sat before, unaware of the potential lying hot within the distance between my two homes. I had made it, finally, unshowered and perhaps a bit dehydrated, with the soil of two countries in my tires.

Worth the drive.

The road from Anchorage to Seward along Turnagain Arm was absolutely stunning, just as it was every time, just as it had been the first time I took this route three years past. I looked for beluga, as I always did. I stopped off for gas at Girdwood, as I always did. And the road climbed, and I with it.

And then I drove into Seward, to where Resurrection Bay spread like a miracle between the peaks of Mount Marathon and Mount Alice. I pulled into the parking lot of the bunkhouse and found a spot beneath the jetboat Yukon Queen. And just as when I started this journey 4,000 miles past, I was home.

2 Comments:

  1. You are one awesome and crazy girl!!! Glad to hear you made it safe and sound. We’ve been praying for you!!!

  2. Really enjoyed your blog. You are an awesome writer. I admire your almost fearless tenacity! I am looking forward to reading more. Thanks for sharing…

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