Nebraska to Alaska With Love

The call I’d waited months for finally came…
“The job is yours, if you want it?”
It was in Alaska.  In the peak of the financial crisis of 2008.  I was unemployed.  I needed – THAT – job!
I had interviewed several times months earlier.  Even flew to Anchorage for an in-person.  We had been preparing for the outcome for weeks…
“What if they say, yes?” my wife exclaimed weeks back.
“Then we pack up both cars and just go,” I said.
“What about furniture, our belongings, our cookware…the cats?,” she went on.
“Don’t worry about it…it’s cheaper to get new stuff.  The cats?  They can come with us,” I replied.
By late that evening our suitcases were packed.  I had purchased two cat carry kennels from PetSmart earlier in the day.  A trip to Walmart for “survival food” and Maps – check.  Extra gas cans – check.  Water – check.  Pet food – check.  Blankets – check.  A tent  (just in case) – check.  Camping gear – check.  The list went on.
We crammed it all into our two Subarus.
My 2004 Black STI.  My wife’s 2003 Yellow Baja.
The week before, both cars visited the shop.  Oil and filter changes.  New anti-freeze.  Transmission and brake fluids topped off.  A battery-warmer installed.  Brakes checked.  The cars were technically sound and ready.
The morning of the trip…
Saying goodbye to our three boys would be one of the hardest things we would ever have to do.  All three were in college, but living at home.  We would be leaving behind two cars and a house to care for, while they continued on with school in Omaha.  They were men now – I knew they could handle it. (follow this link to read more on that Perceptions)
Family had always come first in my book and…we were doing this for them, as much as for us.
So we said our goodbyes.  It was all I could do to fight back the tears with “their mom” tearing up.  Those hugs would need to be long.  It was June and they would need to last, at least until Christmas.  Not knowing our future, this goodbye was painful, and seemed almost like an eternity.  As tough as it would be on all of us, I knew the separation would make the boys even stronger and more-reliant on one another and more responsible.
With the front passenger seat pushed back, the cats would be riding shotgun on the floor.  Most cats and cars don’t mix well, so the day before I picked up some dimenhydrinate and gave it to them just minutes before departure. “Butter” (our black and white tuxedo cat ) would be with me.  Anita would get lucky and have “Heidi” (our gray cat) to keep her company.  They were very “talkative” (to put it mildly) as we started up both our cars…
Anita would be following me in her yellow Baja.
We had purchased “bricks” (military-short ‘speak’  for walkie-talkies).  They had a 1/2 mile to 1 mile range, so if we got separated (or lost cell coverage in the mountains) we had a “back up plan,” including extra-batteries!
The route would be simple.  From Omaha up I-29 to I-90 across South Dakota and Montana.  North on I-15 to Calgary.  From Calgary to Edmonton on Hwy 2.  From Edmonton north to Dawson’s Creek, where we would catch the historic Alaska-Canadian (ALCAN) Highway —  The ALCAN beginning at the junction with several Canadian highways in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and running 1,700 miles through the Rockies to Delta Junction, Alaska, via Whitehorse, Yukon.  The journey to Anchorage would be a long 7 days.
We kept both cars constantly fueled.  “Gas may be hard to come by in the Canadian remoteness,” we were forewarned, but despite several gas stations closed in the smaller towns, that never seemed to be a problem. Regardless, when our tanks were near half-full, we were fueling up.  The chance of running out of gas is why we purchased the two red, 5 gallon plastic gas cans (just in case) – we kept them unfilled (for fire-safety reasons).
As expected, the cats weren’t having any of the car travels!  Our normally “mild-mannered” Buttercup was by far the worst of the two. Instead of making the cats sleepy, the combination ride and medicine provided a “caffeine-boost” vs. the expected sleep-effect.  “This was going to be ‘one long ride!,” I told Anita on the walkie.  Haha. The two cats hearing one another (in the background) seemed to make matters even worse…
Less than 1 hour away, near Blair, Nebraska, we were pulling over “to tame the cats!”
Thank God for our Baja!
We set up shop in the back of the Baja’s bed.  Putting out a small amount of water.  A little food.  And the litter box.  This set-up in the Subaru would be our defacto “cat calming bed” the entire trip.  Thankfully, as the medicine wore off about 1/2 way across South Dakota, the cats settled into a mild-meow routine and our stops became fewer and fewer in-between.  Prior to medicine leaving her system, Butter did everything possible to escape from her black duffel cat bag.  Somewhere around the northwestern tip of Iowa, she had already ripped an escape hatch, a hole wide enough to pop her head through the bag’s viewing screen.
If the cats’ meows wasn’t enough, we ran into a MAJOR hail storm mid-way across South Dakota.  South Dakota is one of those states where you can drive 200 mph and this was a point where we needed to take full-advantage of it (just kidding LE).  My STI came standard without a radio so I got on “the brick” to ask Anita to tune into a local weather station.  She already had the weather on.  The clouds were abnormally dark and low.  About 1 mile to the north (out our right side window) the radio reported a tornado sighting in the nearby town.  There were cars pulled over all up and down the interstate.  We continued to hammer down in our All Wheel Drive Subarus, with the windshield wipers (and Rain-X assist), going full-tilt and hail bouncing off the car and windshield.  Less than 10 minutes and ten miles up the interstate, with cats a crying, we had finally blown through the worst of the storm.
We motored on toward Montana.
Just shy of Billings, Montana and more than 13 hours of stops and driving, we pulled over for the evening.  Anita went on and on about driving through “the storm” and how I tried to leave her behind.  I firmly reminded her why everyone else was pulled over is the reason why we drive AWD Subarus!
The next day’s journey across Montana was uneventful, until 10 miles from the Canadian border.  My STI and I were again in the lead, when I spooked a flock of pheasants nestled along the roadside.  I managed to escape hitting all of them EXCEPT the trailing bird.  It hit my air intake and exploded…feathers, flesh and bird remains flew everywhere!  I felt very sorry for the bird, but I’d be remiss not to mention I was worried about my car and making the rest of our trip.  After pulling over and assessing the damage, there was flesh and feathers all over my hood scoop, in the air intake and in the engine compartment, but…zero damage to the STI.  I took a moment to reflect on the bird, but was thankful to God for not damaging my car.  In the little town of Sunburst, we stopped at a car wash to clean off most of the debris, then continued onward toward the border.
We crossed the US/Canadian border, and finally made our way to Calgary at the beginning of rush hour.  Tired from a second full-day of driving, Calgary was a “wake-up call.”   I have driven all over the world…dirt roads, highways, mountain roads, motorways, super-interstates and the European autobahn…BY FAR…Calgary was one of the most-challenging interstates I’d ever driven on.  Even nuttier than rush hour in Indianapolis.  Queen Elizabeth Highway II – 6 lanes wide, packed full of cars, trucks, and semi’s all swerving in and out of traffic at 80+ mph. Putting things into perspective, my wife had never driven long-distance before, ever! Up to this point in 20 years of marriage, the most she had ever driven was maybe 2-3 hours in moderate interstate traffic. Calgary was by far and above a “white knuckle” driving experience.   We were in tandem, her Baja stuck to the back of my STI, like hot glue.  “What if I lost you?,” she later asked, followed by an eye roll and arm punch!   No response was needed, I had all the confidence in both her driving ability and our Subarus, and she knew it!
We pushed onward to Edmonton.  Then to Whitecourt where we spent the night.  We stayed in lodging the entire trip and never once pitched the tent, but it was available if needed.  Although, we would later realize the idea of cats in a tent, in the wilderness of Canada, was a bad idea and might lead to the cats becoming hors d’oeuvres and us the main course.
On day 3, we were off towards Dawson’s Creek.  This was open, back road country and less-stress driving. Passing through little towns like Fox Creek, Little Smokey, Beaverlodge, Hythe and Tomslake.  This part of Canada was breathtaking and the further north we headed there was so much to see, but…with little time to spare, stops were kept to a minimum (after all, I was chasing a job in Alaska).

 
We made it to the ALCAN at Dawson’s Creek.  Then passed through more than a half dozen small villages – some notable ones, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson and Toad River, to name a few.  In the Northern Rocky Mountains, we pulled over at a roadside rest, it was pretty packed with cars and campers parked and people taking pictures.  The view was amazing and definitely worthy of a picture.  A camper was parked nearby and a man and a woman had their tripod set up snapping away pictures as we approached.  My car rolled to a full stop, and just as I’m about ready to get out to snap my 30 seconds worth of pics, I see a large brown object (and two smaller brown objects) off to my right.  The camper couple (and everyone else stopped) were taking photos of a large brown Grizzly bear mama and her two cubs.  I did not exit the vehicle and was already on the brick to warn Anita as she was pulling in.  I no sooner keyed the mike, and she was warning me, “do not get out of the car.”  I had to laugh, because here is a couple just feet away from the bears…and they were too busy grazing in the grass to really care.  I had heard enough ‘bear stories’ to realize just how dangerous this situation could be, so I gladly just took my pictures from ‘inside the car.’

 

We were learning the highway was up and over…up and over…and up and over the Canadian Rockies almost the entire length of the ALCAN.  There were some pretty hairy moments along the way – incredible hills, valleys and passes that if we were driving anything other than our AWD Subarus, I would have been more worried about the yellow Baja chase car behind me.  I have personally known several people that have made this same trek when weather was not so promising.  One ended in a fatality.  The other in severe damage to their vehicle.  One took three extra days to complete the trip.
I took many shots of animals roaming free on the open plains and mountain sides.  There were ample buffalo, black and brown bear, and moose.  It was amazing to see.  The wild animals were pretty much undisturbed and didn’t seem to mind us passing so closely by in our cars.
There was a point where we reached the village of Teslin, at Nisutlin Bay.  The water was such a beautiful shade of baby blue.  I could only imagine what the early settlers thought seeing this area for the first time.  This was definitely a Kodak moment.  In fact, the banner photo of Anita atop our blog page was taken at the Teslin bridge.

Day 4 – 6, we had several more overnight stops along the way, traveling between 6-12 hours each day.  The reason for fewer hours had more to do with planning our trip between the bigger towns, where we knew there would be lodging.  Drive too far, and the series of towns may be too small to have a place to stay.

On day 6, we finally reached the US/Canadian border at Little Gold.  At this point, we had been driving close to 12 hours, and both were ready for a hot shower and nice comfy bed.  The wait at the border was well over 1 hour.  We never did find out what the hold up was, but patiently waited our turn and finally passed through customs. Our destination for the night was the town of Tok, Alaska more than an hour beyond the border.

We pulled into Tok, both of us exhausted, only to find out there was a big oil convention in the town of Tok and all lodging was full there was absolutely “no room at any inn.”  We had no choice but to press on toward Anchorage. We had been driving for 14 hours, and Anchorage was still more than 5 hours away. With no place in Tok we had to keep driving, because there was absolutely No Way we were going to pitch a tent, after all the (uhm) ‘wildlife’ we had seen!  So we fueled up and pressed on.
Recall Alaska summers are filled with sunshine.  The midnight sun worked to our advantage and helped us keep energized and awake.  Despite the sun, we were ready to stop.  We hadn’t been driving more than 1 hour outside of Tok, when we blew past a little 5 cabin motel out in the middle of nowhere.  I radioed Anita, “Did you just see what I saw?” thinking it might be a mirage.  She responded with an empathetic one word, “YES!”  And we stopped.  The cafe was closed (but we didn’t care).  “Just give us clean sheets, a bed to sleep in, and a hot shower in the morning, and anything you got to eat (we are starving).”  We ended up with two wine coolers and a bag of chips for supper, but we didn’t care that place was like a five star hotel to us by then!  We slept good that night.  I think the cats slept even better than we did, they were finally able to stretch and roam free.
The next morning, we woke up and could see our breath! Imagine our surprise when we went to get a shower, and there was no hot water!  Despite being early June, the temperature in these parts was a cool crisp 30 some degrees!  I didn’t care, I badly needed a shower.  So despite the room being freezing cold, and the water feeling almost equally as cold, I took the plunge anyway!
Finally on day 7, with almost 5 hours remaining to Anchorage, it was more mountains, steep hills and curves as we made our way down Alaska’s highway 1.  (The scenery in Alaska was equally beautiful, but we’ll save that experience for another time).  In  less than four hours, we were rolling into a McDonald’s in Palmer.  Those wine coolers and chips the night before didn’t go very far, and the place we were staying in didn’t have any breakfast food, so we were starving!

We made the final 40 mile drive from Palmer, arriving in Anchorage just before noon.
This turned out to be one of the greatest trips that we had ever been on.  It started with just two Subarus packed with a few essentials, two cats and two very-determined people with just the clothes on their back ready to explore the 3,300+ mile wilderness from Nebraska to Alaska.
Lee at Turnagain Arm Hwy 1 just outside Anchorage a few months after arrival.
Anita at Turnagain Arm Hwy 1 just outside Anchorage a few months after arrival.
Turnagain Arm Hwy 1 just outside Anchorage a few months after arrival.
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