Tuesday, August 11, 2009

North to Alaska . . . Heading Out

On August 27, 1988, Todo Myane, another friend Larry, Larry's father Jack and I left the sprawling metroplex of Dallas, setting our sights to the north and the fabled 'Land of the Midnight Sun' . . . Alaska.

Planning an early start, unexpected delays and extended preparations extended our departure until around six that afternoon. The temperature was still hovering around 102 when we found ourselves headed north. We drove a Jeep Wagoneer with two canoes strapped on the top, with a tarp-covered trailer in tow. As we rolled northwestward across a barren Texas landscape, dust devils and shimmering waves of heat created mirages in the distance. The air was hot and arid, and it felt as if we were breathing air from a furnace when we left the air-conditioned comfort inside our vehicle.

The sign read 'Welcome to the Land of Enchantment' as we crossed the border into New Mexico. The last light of the sun bled into the barren landscape and cast the few fleecy clouds in crimson as it slowly melted into the distant horizon. We continued the push toward Raton Pass in the fading twilight. A strong gust of wind slammed into the side of the Wagoneer, and the vehicle rocked against the force as we slowed to a stop to change drivers. Stepping out onto the shoulder, I felt the fresh chill of a strong north wind flowing around me. We pushed north into it, thrilled that the heat fell away into the lower sixties. The climb up to Raton brought us briefly into the realm of granite, pine-covered mountains. Light snow fleeced the very tops of some peaks. We rolled down windows a bit and pulled the cool sweet air into our lungs. All too soon, we descended back to the desert floor, pushing on through Pueblo, Colorado Springs and into Denver.

We had remained to the east of the Rockies, moving through sparsely vegetated foothills. Small groups of antelope were spotted occasionally along the way. We stopped briefly in Denver for vehicle maintenance, then moved on north through Colorado into Wyoming. I had not been here since a young boy on vacation with my family, and a young boy's memories came flooding back--log cabins with wood heaters burning compressed one-pound coffee can sized chunks of pine sawdust, black bears rummaging through trash cans outside looking for snacks, Old Faithful spewing plumes of steaming water high into the frigid air, a moose walking, unconcerned, along the side of a lake with impossibly blue water, his great antlers and strange beard rocking gently from side to side. These bits and pieces flowed unbidden from the past and lived again briefly in my mind.

We only paused to eat or change drivers, stopping briefly in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to check the possibility of an antelope hunt. We discovered that all available buck permits had already been issued, so we pushed forward into Montana.

Todo and I never tire of each other's company. We entertained Larry and his dad with tales of growing up together in the small town of Premont, deep in the Brush Country of South Texas. We had gotten into and out of so many situations that the telling of one story would trigger the memory of another. Our childhoods had been touched by magic. On the rare occasions when conversation lagged, we would break into an off-key chorus of "North To Alaska" by Johnny Horton. Apologies to him!

The Montana foothills slowly gained in height. Even here, we saw and smelled smoke from the great wildfires in Wyoming that were ravaging so much of the Yellowstone country. We heard a news report of a father who had taken his wife and two children camping in the area of the fires. That night the wind changed and flames swept over and through their campsite. He dragged his wife and children into a nearby stream and shrouded them in soaking sleeping bags to filter out the smoke so they could breathe. He was hailed as a hero. We viewed him as a complete fool. Who would take his family into the proximity of an inferno consuming tens of thousands of acres?

A beautiful mule deer buck crossed in our headlights. We later saw a freshly killed bear on the shoulder of the road. It had been hit and killed by a vehicle. Due to the steep cuts on each side of the road, we were unable to turn around and get a good look at the huge animal. We had driven almost continuously and crossed from Sweetgrass, Montana, into Canada just after sunrise on the morning of August 29th. This part of Canada appeared similar to West Texas. The crops were either wheat or alfalfa.

Entering Calgary, we witnessed a large, beautiful modern city. The roads and highways were excellent and exceeded ours back home in some respects. Farther north, we had an excellent meal near the community of Red Deer, meeting wonderful, gracious people along our way.

August 30th. Our first stop for showers and sleep under clean sheets was last night. The trip is taking a bit longer than planned due to a couple of maintenance delays, but is still going really well.

We have driven into beautiful forests. I see juniper, aspen and birch in abundance. The air is clear and sweet. Small lakes and ponds are numerous, many created by beaver dams of various sizes. Canada, thus far, is beautiful beyond description. We have just passed through Dawson Creek and embarked on the Alaska Highway. Images conjured by Jack London through 'The Call of the Wild' and 'White Fang' begin to materialize. Home stretch! There are only about 1,500 miles to go. We passed through Fort St. John. The Peace River overwhelms!

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