Friday, May 30, 2008

I spoke briefly with Becky that Wednesday night in Fort Nelson, BC. She worried that we wouldn’t make it to Anchorage by a decent time Friday afternoon, and therefore nullify our plans for food and beer at Humpy’s at 5pm. She had slept in Fort Nelson and drove the next day to Whitehorse(590 miles), which was a full day. Hmmm. We wanted to hit Tok, AK (970 miles) – a very lofty goal. Pulling a trailer over 2 lane mountain passes gave us an average speed of 45 mph. We decided to drive through the night until we had to sleep, find a turn off, and then close our eyes. We were gaining lots of daylight everyday so that was a benefit. Also, once we crossed into Alaska we gained an hour. The table was set.

Up at 5 am, we quickly destroyed as much as possible of the waffle continental breakfast and were driving at 6am. We were told that Whitehorse would take 10 - 12 hours by the guy at the gas station. We planned on 12 considering our stop at the Liard hot springs.

At various gas stations and rest stops we had been seeing a Tacoma with a blue tarp in the bed and Alabama plates. It would be ahead of us and then behind us, all the way through Alberta and British Columbia. Keeping track of this truck pulled us eagerly through the roads and towns along the way. We first saw them outside of their truck as they grab the obligatory photo in front of the Dawson Creek Alcan sign. 2 guys and 1 girl – maybe a year or 3 past college graduation. Every town would have us looking for “’Bama” and their blue tarp. As we pulled into the hot springs parking lot we joked about seeing them. Pow, there is the Tacoma! We chatted them up in the spring itself. They had plans for Tok as well, knowing that they were probably going to sleep in their truck somewhere. Turns out they left Alabama Sunday morning – the same day we left Indiana. We felt a little lazy about that, but then again they had no trailer. We wished them luck and pledged to see them in Tok, as they surely would arrive first.

The Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park is so worth the time to stop and chat with whomever happens to be there soaking away. We talked with a guy heading up to work on a Halibut charter in Seward, AK and a Texan heading back to his summer place in Wasilla, AK after having bought a truck in Texas to drive up. He was sleeping in it as well, though not shooting for Tok (he’s smart). Getting back in the car after a 30 minute soak was very tough and we soon found our journey getting groggy. After some coffee at the next fillup we were back on the attack. The Sirens had not won, yet. We had only tasted the Lotus, avoiding become full fledged Lotus Eaters.

We eventually made it to Whitehorse at the 12 hour mark and began scanning the strip for gas. “There they are!” Alabama was gassing up and we knew we had to gas up there as well. We chewed the rag again, exchanging hopes for Tok and the sweet release of eventually seeing Anchorage in our front windows. A car was filling next to us with Ontario plates and many bumper stickers, the main one being “Use less, conserve more.” She was chatting with a friend while pumping her gas, during which she neglected to see that she overfilled her tank and had about 2 gallons on the cement before she noticed it. She ran in, talked to the kid behind the counter, and it was quickly accessed that the amount spilled was not a huge red flag. Greg joked with the attendant after she left about her bumper sticker, concluding with, “And she’s from Ontario. What do you expect?” Neither of us knows what this means, but we do know they are an uppity province at times, it seemed funny, and whatever – we’re from Chicago so eat it. Chuckles finished, the road called.

The Yukon is truly where the wildlife comes out at dusk – black bear, brown bear, sheep, buffalo, wolves, moose, fox, etc. The wolf was truly the surprise of the bunch. We watched an animal cross up ahead from a small horse farm in the right to the brush on the left. I though it was a caribou with its head bent over when we first spotted it, but as we grew closer it was obviously a wolf. After slowing down and staring off the left, we met him eye to eye as he stood 20 yards away – much bigger and stronger than I would have expected. So cool.

I also cannot explain how unique and frustrating the permafrost is. The way it thaws and freezes over the years plays havoc with the road in ways you would need to see to believe. The 2 lane ribbon stretches out into the Yukon dusk and it endlessly and subtly bobs up and down, forcing the trailer and hitch to bump the entire way. I’m told that over time it may bend your truck frame, explaining why some trucks in Alaska and the Yukon have permanently bent frames that appear crooked as they drive towards you. My truck made it just fine and still moves in the direction you point it.

I was riding shotgun all day, devouring the Milepost and guiding Greg, whom was content to do all of the driving. Around midnight we found ourselves fighting sleep. Heading straight into the perpetual sun down didn’t help either, having long passed the beauty of the enormous and frozen Kluane Lake. According to the Milepost Beaver Creek, YT had a few hotels and was only 30 miles from Alaska, so that was the goal. If we could get a room, great. If not, we could park there and close our eyes. I’m sure there were rooms available, but at 12:30 am in the Yukon you cannot expect to find anything open. At all of the gas stations along the way we would ask for advice on where the next gas station was and how far it was to Tok, Whitehorse, etc. We knew what the book said but also wanted to know what actual people on the road said. Also, there was probably a genuine need to connect with other human beings outside of our truck. The common theme was to not expect fuel or services beyond 8 or 9 pm. Keep in mind that almost no gas pumps in the Yukon or northern BC take credit cards – you flip up the handle, pump away, and then head inside to settle up. So driving late into the night is limited more by fuel than sleep. So, no services are open in Beaver Creek as we expected. We found a gas station with a large parking lot, parked in the gravel on the side of its lot with the truck pointing up a slight incline (Greg knows how to park properly to sleep in a car – Chicago’s finest), and promptly leaned back, glancing at the clock to see it turn to 1 am.

At 4 am I awoke to a chilly 35 degree temperature and the same dusk we went to sleep in. An arctic fox still in white dashed across the road towards us. Greg stirred, felt chilly, and started the truck. We both left the idling truck to stretch, see our breath, and take a leak only to see one of the happiest sites in a long while. The Alabama Tundra was parked in the other side of the lot! How we passed them is beyond me, but they must have been dozing as well and looking for a pull off. I’d like to think they chose this sport after seeing our rig. We flirted with the idea of a note or something on their truck, but quickly decided against accidentally startling them and giving them a heart attack. Off we went, beaming and laughing about ‘Bama.

The truck kept us warm and around 4:45 am we saw the border. I had always heard that at this point in the trip you want to kiss the American soil, and I can assure you it is true. It took about 2 minutes to hand over the passports, answer a few questions, and have our passports returned. “Welcome to America” Yes sir! And thanks for the time change as well. 3:45 am now.

About 10 miles in is a chance at gas but it turns out the pumps were off, even though they did take credit cards. We didn’t have enough gas to hit Tok but that was no problem. We had been carrying 15 gallons of fuel over 3 gas cans so we simply poured 5 gallons in. Perfect.

Tok at 7 am gave us the perfect time to call Becky in Anchorage, already midway through her morning ritual. Yep, we’ll be in Anchorage around noon. After gas in Glenallen, AK we bombed for Anchorage. The weather was now in the 50’s, coffee was in our bellies, and our moods soared as Wasilla and Anchorage loomed.

What followed was a blur of meeting Becky for the storage keys, realizing that we smelt like ass after finding ourselves in the company of clean people, filling the storage unit, returning the trailer, showering/scraping off the road and filth, and finally having a few beers at 3pm while we calmly awaited Becky’s return from work. By 5 we were at Humpy’s eating Halibut, burgers, and pasta. After plenty of socializing with Becky’s friends and family we tramped around downtown a bit before passing out around midnight.

No major mechanical problems befell my 2003 Ranger. I did gain a slight pock mark in my windshield from some gravel on the Alaska Highway. No crack yet, but that will probably happen. Everybody up here has a cracked windshield though. I was told by numerous people that this makes me an Alaskan now. Everything made it safely and here I sit working at my new job.

Victory indeed!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

After paying way too much for dinner and the smoking room, we awoke at 5 am determined to leave Calgary, Edmonton and the rest of urban Alberta behind. Give us the wilderness and open road we yearned. Due to Greg’s Hilton card we triggered a free breakfast with our stay, so we lined up for that the minute it opened at 6 am. The Hilton Garden Inn does not have a continental breakfast, but rather a full buffet. Classy, and once again we planned on eating back some of our room rate, which is not classy. We sat down and were given small, laminated menus along with a felt pen. The items on the menu had underscores next to them. “Just write down the amount of each item you’d like and I’ll get it for you.” We read the instructions, which were fairly clear: ‘if you’d like 4 pancakes or pieces of French toast, mark 4. If you’d just like a full serving mark 1. If you’d like the ingredient in your omelet just check it.’ After a few moments we gave him our pre school worksheets and he questioned, “You marked 3 for French Toast. 1 means 4 slices from 2 pieces of toast.” No animosity came from us as we had accepted that Canada so far had rubbed us a little diagonally. Maybe it was us, though I now feel it was Alberta “Oh, 1 order then.” The instructions aside, the breakfast was delicious and we found ourselves outside of the city limits around 7am.

I had heard that passing directly through Edmonton was a recipe for disaster – poor signage, etc. I kind of wanted to get a picture with Wayne, but we opted for a crafty bypass that was in the Milepost. Everything went well and soon we were northwest of Edmonton without even a glimpse of its downtown. This day was going much better than the previous one and Canada looked prettier every minute.

Fort Nelson, BC was the goal that night and we reached it around 8:30 pm.

We did not stop for gas here, foolishly filling up 10 miles earlier.
I immediately regretted that fillup as we rumbled by the Sasquath Crossing.

As I walked in to pay at another place I met Greg walking out, having used the bathroom. “Cover your mouth because the guy in there has tuberculosis.” Sure enough, he endlessly coughed and spit phlegm before he paused to cough on my swiped Visa. His coughing went away when he lit up a smoke as I signed the slip.

As we got closer to BC the scenery got much denser and beautiful and our eyes went on moose alert. We saw a few munching on leaves near the tree line, but that was boring in hindsight. Across the 4 lane highway we saw a southbound pick-up truck emblazoned with official looking decals. It seemed like a county truck. Behind it was about 6 feet of rope tied to the hitch on one end while the other side was tied around the neck of a dead moose. The truck looked like it was moving about 45 mph. We can only theorize as to what was really going on. Maybe the animal was roadkill and getting gamey and the county had to dispose of it. Rather than lift the thing up and handle it he decided to just handle the head before dragging it down a back road? If so, why not just roll it into the ditch? I’m sure I’ll never know just I am also sure I’ll never forget it.

We stopped for the terrific, obligatory picture at the start of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, BC (still in my camera). Greg kept unknowingly adding a Chicago possessive “s” to the name, asking often “how many miles to Dawson’s Creek.” He may also have been thinking of the show. We’ll never know where Pacey and Chicago met in his brain on this account.

When we checked in to the Super 8 in Ft. Nelson we were told they had a government employee rate, but that it was only for Canadian government employees. “Oh, I’m Chicago police.” She thought that was pretty cool and put in the government rate anyway. We then chatted a bit about how her sister is training for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and how she had to go down to Vancouver, and what a far drive it is, etc. She was very friendly and we quickly were formulating a new opinion about Canada. She kept hiking up her pants constantly throughout the entire 10 minute conversation. We didn’t know what to do with that. Mark it down as a little memory from the trip. Fort Nelson courting rituals? There would be a continental breakfast the next day with a build your own waffle area. We had yet another chance to eat back our hotel $.

Canada is great, but Alberta is a dud.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

We awoke at 6am in Montana and devoured the Hampton Inn’s hot breakfast. The Mitchell Hampton had the eggs and English muffin concoction and the Billings location simply went for waffles – good, large waffles though. They went down easily and bananas were once again stowed away in the cab.

We rolled out at 7am right out on to the frontage road along 90 with the plan of getting on 87 and heading for Lewistown, eventually Great Falls. You could sense some rush hour traffic on the roads, though nothing to worry about. I believe we made it about 2 blocks before traffic ground to a halt. An accident? No. Arrest? No. Road damage/ truck cargo spillage? No. Police activity? It sure looked like it. We glimpsed lights flashing ahead, coming across the highway overpass. Some police cars were parked and a few crawled along the side of the oncoming lanes. Soon a group of people appeared in matching sweatshirts, walking somewhat briskly towards us, surrounded by the police cars. This is 7 am, on a weekday, on a main artery. We’re all clogged and frustrated and trying to divine just what is going on. Soon a plastic, lit torch is revealed through the doddering fleet of black sweatshirts and police escorts. As they grew closer it becomes obvious it’s for the Special Olympics (side story: My late aunt in Northern Wisconsin many years ago received a cold call asking for Special Olympics donations. Her knee jerk response: “No. I don’t care who the hell wins any of those games. Why should I give?”). This produced much swearing from our vehicle. Can’t they do that at another time or another part of the city or down some parallel street that isn’t the main drag? That would be best for everybody. Oh, and the overpass incline tired some people so they were resting on the curbs while the escort paused. Seriously, a different road at a different time. So after our 30 minutes of Chicago traffic memories relived we caught 87 and promptly smiled and beamed as the Montana you always read about rolled out in front of us. It was still a little brown and not as mountainous as western Montana, but the hills, valleys, and scattered pines made it beautiful.

Arriving in the town of Lewistown randomly gave me 4 Sprint bars so off we went calling our parents and giving updates trailed with “ … but I don’t know how long the signal will last.” I gave Becky an update on our progress and she questioned why we weren’t farther along. “The Special Olympics,” I replied plainly and let linger before explaining further.

It is a long, plain drive from Great Falls to the border. That sentence explained all you need to know.

God Bless the Canadians. They have given us Corner Gas and All Buttoned Up. However, they have not given us adequate signage, at least not in Sweet Grass, MT. Approaching the customs stalls we found the far left lane open with a sign stating “autos” and the far right lane open with a sign stating “trucks.” The middle 5 lanes were closed and had icons showing mobile homes, recreational trailers, etc. We had a Ranger with a trailer. What would your lane guess be? The state of Wisconsin made me buy truck plates. A trailer and truck does not make a car. Ergo, truck lane. There were commercial and mobile homes in it as well, so we felt we had made the right choice. Right when you get to the booth you see a smaller sign, visible only when you are that close, that explains “this lane only for commercial trucks.” We pull up to the booth for our sarcasm: “I hope you’re hauling commercial.” The Chicago attitude begins to kick in to match him: “No. You don’t have that on a sign back there. So where do we go?” After a few moments of silence as we attempt to calm down we are told to go to the commercial lot on the right, take this ticket, and go inside. Great. 45 minutes and 3 different officials later we are all squared away and told to look over towards the counter in the center of the room. We are pointed towards a small box with 2 Canadian flags sticking out of it. We see it. “Go press that button. It will give you a pass to get your vehicle out of the commercial lanes.” Nobody is manning this machine, nobody is watching it, and it is most certainly in the public area. That would have saved us 45 minutes if we knew we needed to come inside to push a button in order to drive my trailer full of whatever legally into their country. All in all it could have been longer and we were on our way so no real complaints.

About 30 miles into Alberta we heard a little “ping” and discovered that we then had no turn signals. We pulled over and went straight for the fuse box, finding the popped 15 amp fuse right in the hazard flashers slot. Of course, we had no spares. After digging through the book and deciding that the 20a one in the radio slot would do just fine we were off on our way. We ended up in Lethbridge, AB at the Canadian Tire store stocking up on 15a and 20a fuses along with a plastic fuse puller (I might not always be able to dig out my needle nose pliers). More time wasted.

The plan of sleeping in a hotel beyond Edmonton was gone thanks to the torch, improper signage, and the fuses. Calgary loomed on the horizon and according to the Hampton Inn book we snagged in Billings, 2 locations awaited.

We made it to the Hampton Inn around 8pm and only wanted to eat and sleep and put this day in the past. They’re full, but the place next door is not. Ok, but they only have suites available. “Why is it so full here in Calgary on a Tuesday night? The Flames aren’t in the playoffs anymore.” “Well, it’s always full here during the week.” Huh? Why? We ended up at the Hilton Garden Inn with the final available room, a smoking room. Off we went to Chili’s with plans of getting up at 5 to get quickly beyond Calgary and Edmonton. The scenery was calling us.

So far, Canada, not so good.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I believe we woke up in Mitchell, SD around 6 and attacked the hot continental breakfast by 7. Attacked is the precise description. It’s pretty much a standard continental breakfast with a single hot item – scrambled eggs and cheese on a English muffin. It’s the sort of concoction a bachelor would create. Not the tastiest thing (or the freshest) but we put down several. Being middle class means always finding a way to stretch a free breakfast into a full stomach well into the afternoon. It’s also what makes you figure on eating back some of your room rate, therefore “winning” as my father and I joke about. For example in a related way, if an event is charging for parking and you end up parking close by for free to the given event, you have “won.” Life it seems is an endless string of wins (“we ate back at least $20 at breakfast”) and losses (“they screwed me on parking yesterday. I had to pay”) out of which the south side polack gets ahead. It’s silly when I write it down, but it certainly makes sense in my mind.

We hit the road at 7:30 and made it off the main road towards Mt. Rushmore around noon. Mt. Rushmore is about 35 miles outside of Rapid City and involves some pretty steep roads. Very steep indeed. The descent into Keystone, SD found us on a 9%+ grade going through single lane construction. I believe Greg gained some grey hairs from that gauntlet. 10 minutes later when we parked at the monument the brakes smelled distinctly strong in the air. I dared Greg a $1 to touch the rotor but he turned me down. I got close with my finger but the heat from 2 inches away was warning enough.

The monument itself is awe inspiring. Just attempting to grasp how one goes about even creating and sculpting such a thing is plenty to chew on for me. Hearing all of the foreign languages and different American accents in the air was also fascinating and beyond what I expected. I always assumed Rapid City, SD was a little off the beaten path for a foreign family’s American odyssey. I guess not. Cool.

On we drive praying for Great Falls, MT, but as the afternoon waned we ended up settling for an 8pm Billings, MT hotel. I’m told that downtown Billings is a cool town, but peripheral Billings certainly is not. We drove by the refineries and stopped at yet another Hampton Inn (the breakfast now had a perpetual target on its back so to speak). After some Outback hamburgers and a blooming onion we dragged our bloated guts back to the room. We were a little behind our schedule and had also found that our stomachs were shrinking due to the long days of coffee, granola bars, and water. We sadly left some of the blooming onion on the table. But, our plans now had us getting up at 5am to hit the breakfast at 6am in time for a 630 am pull out.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

I'm going to attempt to break these entries into daily postings for each day the trip, but I have a feeling that might be too much to chew. We shall see.

May 2nd was a Friday in Madison whereupon a wonderful night of metal occurred courtesy of Jason, Lora, Eric, and a plethora of Madison's bike community. Jason provided the venue and turntables, Lora the delicious food, and Eric the black, doom, and thrash vinyl. After a viewing of Heavy Metal Parking Lot and Fubar, the records were spun and a good time was had by all. Chatting about Lost, metal, bikes, roller derby, bikes, and "3" was a blast and it made it very hard to leave Madison. I think I made it home around 1:30 am, promptly mopped my apartment, threw some stuff out, and then made it to bed around 3 am (thankfully the truck had been packed before the metal began). I feared sleeping in way past the 7:30 am wake up time, but I was so nervous and eager to hit the road that it was oddly not a problem. I pulled out of Madison around 8:30 and made it to the southside of Chicago around noon, droning and driving to Eric's terrific doom laced compilation cdr's. The afternoon descended into a blur of a 63rd street Torta with steak for the road, picking up 5' x 8' trailer in Crown Point, IN, loading my life into it within a short, single hour, and finally showering before a delicious lasagna dinner from chef Mom. It was delicious without a doubt, even more so given that we knew it would be our last decent meal for a week, minimum.

The plan was to make it to Rapid City, SD by Sunday night, though this was based primarily on Tater's 75+ mph estimates that he usually maintains in his trailerless Yukon. 2000lbs attached to my Ranger will probably not get over 75mph easily, at least not without filleting my miles per gallon averages. We decided to keep it at 65mph for the trip which yielded 15mpg on flat roads and 12-13mpg on mountainous terrain. I did discover a great tidbit in the fact that the IRS will allow you to deduct your move (minus food) for a new job. Yep, the gas, trailer, hotels, and first month of storage space is all tax deductible as long as I am moving for a new job, which I am. Great news to have. We ended up leaving Indiana around 7:30 am on Sunday, stopped for lunch in Minnesota just past La Crosse, WI, and grabbed a hotel in Mitchell, SD. Driving that trailer is so easy. I'll admit it was a bit of a question mark for me and gave me a little bit of concern, but aside from backing it into tight spots and getting it up to 65mph, you never know you're pulling it.

At the end of the first night we found ourselves a few hours behind schedule, but with a reasonable room that included a hot continental breakfast we considered ourselves right on track. Not having to stop for breakfast was perfect. We were already packing our own lunches and snacks so getting a freebie breakfast (with bananas smuggled into the truck) made the day that much faster and economical. We knew we would be grabbing a sit down dinner after we found a hotel so we let that dinner be a goal and guiding light for our day.

Tired and with a belly full of Ruby Tuesday I blogged a single line about Mitchell, SD before crashing out and heading for a 6am wake up. Glancing at the map is very daunting. Great Falls, Edmonton, Fort Nelson, Whitehorse, Tok, and Anchorage are still so far away.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Sleeping in the truck for a few hours in Beaver Creek, YT was chilly and uncomfortable, but we pulled in to Anchorage at noon on Friday. I'm unloaded and set but still living out of suitcases. Certainly there will more later but it is nice to be done driving.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Billings, MT

Kind of a dirty town, but beautiful scenery. Soooo many antelope.