Sunday, April 21, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 5: Tok

Most places I've been, if you ask me about them, I'll describe a location of some sort.  Memphis, for example, I'll talk about Graceland.  Biloxi, the beautiful beach.  New Orleans, Bourbon Street.  Richmond--well, I live here now, so there are lots of places I'd talk about.

Tok, Alaska, meanwhile, is one place I talk about primarily in terms of a person, one who really made a difference in my life when I needed it the most.

More on that in a bit.

Tok is the place I consider to be the northern endpoint of the Alaska Highway.  Yes, technically, the Al-Can continues on to Fairbanks, but other than tourists doing the bucket list thing, I have no idea who would want to go that-a-way.  I've been to Fairbanks several times, myself, both for work and for SCA events, and unless you're a geophysicist or an oil company worker I just don't see the attraction.

Anyway, Tok is where the Tok Cut-off, also known as Alaska Highway 1, and the Al-Can, also known as Alaska Highway 2, or, confusingly, just The Alaska Highway, converge.  From the T intersection one road heads toward Fairbanks, another toward Anchorage, and the third off toward Canada.  Now, I've already mentioned the service station I'd always stopped at before it burned down.  The only other regular, touristy-ish, Tok business I've been to is an RV park somewhere just off the highway.  I stopped there for the night on my fourth trip, and, well, it was a campground.  Most campgrounds are campgrounds are campgrounds, frankly.  I seldom recall much of any of them.

I know my late mother and stepfather would disagree. They were dedicated RV'ers who kept their guidebooks to RV parks close at hand while traveling, always looking to see which ones had the most features they wouldn't make use of for the best price.  To me, though, especially when RV'ing for transportation, a campground serves one purpose alone: to sleep.  To sleep, and then to awaken, refreshed and ready to rumble down the road the next day. 

I do remember that next day, actually, and the breakfast we ate in the campground's little cafe.  I ordered a stack of sourdough pancakes, tasty treats that, done right, make my mouth water.  These, though, tasted like rotten milk.  I know good sourdough is supposed to have a tangy flavor that awakens those seldom-used umami taste sensors, but the pancakes that morning went way over gently awakening the umami and into splashing it in the face with dirty cold river water.  There wasn't enough syrup in all of Tok, I figured, to make those things palatable.

Haven't eaten there again, for the obvious reason.

Still, I can't pass through Tok without saluting one business--one guy--which is pretty much the same thing in this case.

In a blog post a few days ago I described frost heaves.  I'm an expert now, but I had no idea what they were in my first trip through.  That inexperience cost me.

Speaking of cost, I'd been doing some rough mental calculations toward the end of that first trip, and after gawd-awfully high Al-Can prices on food and fuel I had $300 left to my name when I left Tok with a full tank of gas.  With 300 miles to go till I saw the lights of Anchorage, I could, probably, barely make it to town without filling up again.  At that point there was a campground on the edge of Anchorage--Centennial Park, a great spot, really--where I could stay for under $10 a day. 

Okay, then, I thought--we're gonna make it, with even a little bit to spare.

Now, up in the Yukon we'd had an axle start to split, but a guy with a welder attached to a mower chassis had fixed it right up, bending the axle back in place and brazing the broken pieces back together.  It had held over the rough road since then.

It didn't hold over the frost heaves, though.  The first frost heave sent the truck and trailer up into the air (hey, it was the first straight stretch of black asphalt I'd seen in a long time, so I was doing the speed limit and then some).  The second frost heave smacked us as we came down, and suddenly there erupted a demonic screech from behind the truck as the tire that was formerly attached to the trailer shot past at a speed that had to be illegal.

All things considered, we were lucky we didn't flip the whole rig over, but you don't really think of things like that when you're broken down on the side of the road.

Wasn't long before a couple of guys on a hunting expedition happened by and pulled over to help.  The only real help they could offer, unfortunately, was to give me a ride back along the 30 miles of beautiful blacktopped road that laid between our five-wheeled contraption and Tok.

They took me to the first AAA shop we could find.  Then I learned that the AAA policy I'd bought didn't cover what I thought it covered.  Specifically, the policy covered towing of the vehicle, but not the trailer.  Oh, damn.

The fine print.  Read it, you should.

The guy quoted me $100-150 to tow the trailer back to town, and then $1200 for a new axle.  That, and a day or two in a campground waiting for the axle to arrive.  The math wasn't hard for me to do: nope, couldn't afford it.  The alternatives, meanwhile, were awfully black; after all, nearly everything I owned at the time was in that trailer.  What wasn't in it was tied on top or bolted to the sides. 

That was when somebody--one of the guys giving me a ride, I think--suggested I go talk to Iron Dog.

Iron Dog Outfitters is a guy--Mike, I think, is his actual name--who does general repair and welding and stuff.  If you were to look up a picture of "typical Alaskan working man" you'd probably find a good likeness of him: strong, gruff, bearded, Carhartt-wearing.  That, and he'd apparently earned a bit of a reputation as a helluva good welder/fabricator/etc.  Thus, as twilight spread across the land, I (timidly, I admit) knocked on his business/home door, praying he could help but not sure what I'd do if he didn't.

He answered the door with a fork in his hand.  I explained the situation, and he looked me up and down.  After a minute of thought he told me to wait for him to finish dinner, and then just minutes later he hooked up a tow-behind welding rig to his truck, tossed me into the passenger seat, and charged off down the road.

Remember the guy who'd brazed the axle together?  Yeah, that's a fine fix for something that's not weight-bearing, but the fact that it had held the wheel on as long as it had was a fairly good-sized miracle.  Iron Dog jacked the trailer up, growled a few words about the previous workmanship, and got down to working his own special kind of magic.  He welded a steel sleeve inside the axle, then welded the broken piece with the wheel back on over the strengthening sleeve, and set the whole thing back down onto the pavement.

I asked him the question I had been terrified to voice: "how much do I owe you?"

"How much do you have?" he asked, casting a rather pointed stare toward my rig, a setup that belonged more on an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies show than on the Alaska Highway.

"Three hundred."   

He shrugged.  "Call it a hundred, then."  Oh.  My.  God.  If you've ever priced quality welding work, especially mobile welding work 30 miles away from the shop and in the evening hours, you know that that was a steal, practically a charitable donation on his part.  We thanked him profusely, handed him two fifties, and shot on down the road.  We stopped and slept for the night at a pullout somewhere in the middle of Mosquitoville, and then the next day, as I sang the chorus of "Coming in on a wing and a prayer" over and over, we finally landed in Anchorage.  Talked to people about working for them the next day, and started work the day after that.  And--we made it.

Over the years I've met a lot of people, in Alaska and Canada and in other areas of the United States too, who are also Iron Dog types.  They help you out first, and then worry about what you can do in return later.  Still, Iron Dog is chief of that village to me.  That's why every time I think of Tok, and every time I've passed through, I utter a little prayer of thanks with his name on it.


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