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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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
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
I never saw those three old men again.