Friday, April 26, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 9: Three Old Men

Before I get into today's story, I should mention that I'm what's known as an "old grad" from West Point.  Not that I'm particularly old (don't let the kids chime in on that), but anybody who's been gradded for more than 5 years is considered an old grad.

Of course, there's a joke associated with us old grads:

Q: How many old grads does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Five.  One to change it while the other four talk about how much better the old one was.

Get it?  We old grads are all sit around talking about...yeah, okay, you got it.  So, that leads to this story.

There's a spectacular point on the Al-Can called Johnson's Crossing.  Wikipedia says: "Johnson's Crossing is a settlement in the Yukon territory of Canada, located at historical mile 836 of the Alaska Highway, at the junction of the Canol Road where the highway crosses the Teslin River.  The community had a population of 15 in the Canada 2006 Census." 

I admit, the Wikipedia posting gives you absolutely no reason for my characterization of the place as spectacular.  Johnson's Crossing is a settlement, true, and in the Yukon, true, and the population is itty bitty, true. That said, the Teslin River is beautiful, stunningly so.  The Alaska Highway spans above it by several hundred feet, and its crossing crafts amazing vistas for everybody but the terrified driver as he pilots the vehicle carefully across the two-lane really, really high bridge to the tune of everybody else's oohs and ahhs.  Then, on the opposite side of the river (if you're headed away from Alaska) he/she reaches the settlement/gift shop/gasoline store/motel/restroom stop/watering hole/etc. known as Johnson's Crossing, where he/she can remove his/her entrenched fingies from the steering wheel.

Remember what I said about any building with a foundation being chartered for multiple uses up in the great white north?  That one qualifies.

Beauty of the gorge aside, I've hated stopping there the last five times I've been by.  Oh, I've stopped.  You don't not stop when driving the Al-Can.  It's not like an American Interstate, where if you miss the exit with the Flying J mega-truck-stop you can go another couple of exits down the road to pull off at another massive truckers' complex of a different brand name.  No, on the Alaska Highway the stops come few and far between, and you never know which ones lying ahead will be closed for the season or forever, so when you see one, you stop.  You stop and top off the fuel tank even if it's not on E.  You stop and empty everyone's bladders even if you don't think you need to go.  You stop, period.  Do not let a stop pass you by, young Al-Can traveler.  Not ever.

So, given that wisdom, every time including the last, I pulled into one of Johnson's Crossing's marked parking spots after refueling at the gasoline islands, got out of the rig, and entered a nice, pretty, clean retail establishment that would do a United States Circle K or 7-11 proud.  The well-lit retail area is served by large public restrooms where the stalls are actually painted.  The whole place smells gently of air freshener as you shop, and charming clerks are available to process your cash or credit card payment once you've decided what to purchase in their fine establishment.

I'm sure the facility makes tourists happy.  I saw it in 1995, though, and when I go in now I feel the pangs of a time long lost.  Back then there weren't parking spots; there was a big, open gravel area in which you drove to the side, applied the brake, and stopped your engine.  You then walked into the ancient cabin on creaky wood boards, entering an area that offered, in a dimly-lit space of about twenty feet by twenty feet, nearly everything a traveler, camper, or wilderness guide might want, so long as he or she wanted the single brand that happened to be stocked.  At the counters you could purchase fresh pastries or meat pies that you could then consume in easy chairs in a lounge area heated by--yes, you guessed it--a pot-bellied wood stove.

If you've never shaken off the dust of a long day in an area heated solely by the burning of wood, I suggest you add the experience to your bucket list.  There's something about being wrapped up in the unpretentious warmth of aromatic pine or birch wood heat that is truly heavenly and startlingly relaxing, in addition to being entirely absent from our modern electric or natural gas heat.

The bathrooms in the old place, by the way, were single tiny rooms containing porcelain fixtures that were probably lovingly crafted back before my grandmother was a teen.  The thought that each of the "thrones" had probably been carried individually up the Teslin River in a boat made the experience all that much more--well, special. 

Put simply, the old place had 'tude, man.  It was exactly what you needed to walk into after a long day of driving over monsterhellbumps in the great Yukon wilderness.  It was absolutely cool in the coolest way possible.

Then, sometime shortly after the fall of 1995, they "fixed" it. Ah, well.  Hell.

So anyway, our first time there, back in '95, I pulled up to an ancient gasoline pump--you know, the old white rounded-off pumps with the numbers that folded over in half?--and started topping off the tank.

My wife, at the time, noticed the three old men first.  She pointed them out to me with a quiet, "Oh, crap."

I looked over that'a'way, back behind the truck/trailer combo.

There's a look an old man gets on his face when he's watching a younger man doing something that's really rather dumb.  You've seen it before, right?  I'm finally learning to make that face, myself; my step-son is ably teaching me the fine art of "The Look."

The three old men were all making that face.

They stood in a single row just outside the front door of the establishment, each looking silently across the lot at the King's Camping Rig, each with his head tilted to the side slightly and his face pulled back into a "well, look at what the dumb kids are doing now" expression.

I'd seen it enough to recognize it, though not yet enough to mimic it.

With a sense of dread, I left the gas pump clacking and sidled over to them, joining their line and tilting my head to the same angle they were using.  Didn't take me long to see what they were making the face over.

"Well, howdy," I said.

"Nice day," the man next to me said.

"Sure is," I agreed.  "Feels a bit chilly for the evening, though."

"Yep," the same man said.  "Not gonna be long now till the snow flies."

"That's what I hear," I agreed.  "I suppose that axle's gonna be tough to fix, isn't it?"

I'd bought my cargo trailer back when I had more dreams than money, more stuff to load than trailer loading sense.  It wasn't particularly well built, being just a 4x8x4 plywood box on top of a frame.  The axles weren't on springs, and the supports were too far in toward the center which put too much distance between them and the wheel. 

You'd think a physics major would've been able to put two and torque together, but no.

Didn't help that I'd filled the plywood box up, tarped it, stacked and tied plastic totes another row on top of the tarp, hung bicycles from the sides, and even mounted folded lawn chairs on the front of it.  It looked like the Beverly Hillbillies were moving to Alaska, and it was loaded to at least twice the weight it was rated to carry.

"Kid's got a welder.  He can fix it for ya," the old man said.

There not being all that many kids in the vicinity, I quickly located the 20-something guy with a welding unit mounted on an old lawnmower chassis.  I'd never seen a contraption quite like it, but I was overjoyed when he hauled it and a heavy hydraulic jack over, used all that and a chain to bend the axle back to the shape it should have been, and braze-welded the split in it closed.  I was even happier when he said it would only cost us CAN$25, which at the time was worth about US$15.

Happily, then, we drove off into the sunset--literally.  With axles straightened and hopes renewed, we crossed the scenic Teslin River gorge and ambled our way on toward Alaska.

I never saw those three old men again.


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