Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 1: What Cross Street?

Ever had one of those phone conversations where you're technically speaking the same language, but in terms of mutual understanding, you're not?  Our second full day on the Alaska Highway, the famous Al-Can, started with one of those.  "Cross streets?  I haven't seen one of those in a hundred miles," I remember saying.

But I get ahead of myself.  Hi, I'm Stephen King, and I'm an Al-Can-aholic.  At least, I guess I qualify, having driven that stretch of asphalt and gravel that some mistakenly identify as a road in its entirety six times now.  I should add that I've taken six different routes, which may confuse some of you.  Along the path of those six crazy journeys I've picked up a story here and there, and I'm finally sitting down here to write at least some of them out in the long, mostly true, way.

Let me also add, before I begin this one, that I've not driven the Al-Can for the fun of it once.  Every time, it's been because I needed to get from one end to the other.  The first time, in fact, we were racing both the onset of winter and a leaky radiator as I headed to a new life in Anchorage.  This last time, I'd accepted a job offer down in Biloxi, MS, and had to get my stuff from one spot to another in the least expensive way possible.  Some days, mostly when I'm reposing in the twilight quietude of my own ponderings, I wonder if it wouldn't have been better to have just sold everything in Alaska, shipped a few boxes of precious pictures and memorabilia, flown down, and started anew and afresh in our new home.  But then again, I reason, if I'd done that I would've missed out on the experience.

Granted, I also often reason that experience is what I got those times that I didn't get what I wanted.

Going into the move, I had two vehicles: my old trusty (and rear wheel drive) pickup truck and a little commuter car I'd just finished paying off.  My lovely bride had her Jeep Cherokee.  We had three bedrooms worth of stuff in Anchorage plus a storage unit out in Wasilla, near where we'd started our lives together.  The plan, then, was to sell off two of the three vehicles (we picked the Jeep for its specially-inflated value in Alaska and the commuter car; a rear wheel drive pickup isn't worth much in the great white north), pack the largest UHaul we could rent (had to be UHaul; there are no competitors who'll do the Alaska-to-the-rest-of-the-U.S. thang), put the third vehicle onto a tow dolly, and boogie it on down the road.

Getting there was complicated--we'd been living in Mississippi for over a month already when we made the move.  See, you really don't want to drive a UHaul out of Alaska in the spring.  The winter is okay, as long as you don't mind stuff freezing.  The summer is grand.  The fall isn't bad if you don't mind occasional snow flurries in your windshield.  But the spring--no, don't do it.

To get back to Alaska to start the move we flew out of New Orleans, which is a decent haul from Biloxi.  I only bring this up because a good friend offered to let me drive to her place in Slidell, LA, park the minivan we'd bought in MS in her lot, and then she drove us to the airport.  The swing through Slidell in the UHaul will be a factor later.  Just--remember, that's where our minivan sat through this trip.

I bought the UHaul insurance, by the way.  I know, they say your auto insurance will cover you, but that's with a disclaimer or two, especially when you're pulling something behind the truck.  I'm glad I did, because our first night, before we'd even left Anchorage, somebody sideswiped the tow dolly on the side of the road at night.  With insurance, luckily, it was no problem! 

We packed the UHaul, and then we drove out to Wasilla and packed the UHaul again including the stuff from storage.  We ended up filling up nearly every cubic foot of it, which is quite a feat.  By that point, though, we were exhausted, and the sun was setting, so we drove to Palmer and stopped at a rustic motel on the edge of town.

(Incidentally, "rustic" in Alaska or anywhere along the Al-Can can mean an alarmingly wide variety of things.  Sometimes it means you'll need mosquito netting overnight to prevent the flying beasties from grabbing hold and flying you away to their lair--some really are that big, honest-ish.  But this one wasn't rustic in that way; it was just rustic as in they probably couldn't remember the last time they'd freshened the paint on the walls.  They actually used keys--real, metal keys--for the doors; I thought that was pretty quaint.  But the linens were clean enough, and the hot water was hot, so I have to lend a nod to the suggestion that we got what we paid for.)

The next morning our grand adventure began.  Our first full day on the Alaska Highway!

The Al-Can starts out awfully nice if you're coming from Anchorage (technically it begins in Fairbanks, but most people I know bypass that last bit to go directly to Anchorage).  Leaving Palmer, you go up and over a hill and then find yourself in Sutton, a little town that I'm not sure even has one horse.  We did stop for breakfast there in a roadside diner, and it was--well, it was breakfast.  Breakfast has rarely knocked my proverbial socks off, and this one didn't, but it was filling and nutritious.  So, filled with nutrition as we were, we left the vestiges of civilization, driving down the two-lane road that qualifies as a major highway in that part of the nation.

It's a gorgeous drive.  All of it is, actually, but the part just north of Sutton is particularly awesome.  It's a little terrifying at times, too, swooping as the road does up and around mountains as it follows the winding path cut through by the Matanuska River. 

Then it levels out and you learn, if you didn't already know, what a "frost heave" is.

Frost heaves have one of two possible origins.  Scientifically, they're what happens when nearly-freezing ground water gets up into a level of frozen earth (remember, the soil closer to the surface freezes first) and then creates what's called an ice lens, named for its shape that is similar to the lens in our eyes.  As the ice grows toward the higher freezing gradient (the surface), it forms a mound which pushes anything above it upward.  This upward growth causes entire sections of road to bulge by as much as a foot or more, thus making the driving experience awfully exciting. Or awfully terrifying, your choice.

The other possible origin, by the way, is that they're placed there by Satan to kill our cars, our trips, and our dreams.  But I like the more scientific explanation.

It was a frost heave that nearly ended the trip just as it had begun, in fact, just as it was a frost heave that nearly ended our first trip just as it was nearly finishing.  For our first trip, back in 1995, most of the road for the last 100 miles or so of Canada was still the original Alaska Highway--mostly gravel, and very few straight sections.  The road from the border to Tok, the first American city you come to, was under a lot of construction, and so I had gleefully turned my pickup truck (the same one I was towing behind the UHaul now, incidentally) and its following cargo trailer south from Tok and celebrated when I observed a nice straight stretch of black asphalt awaiting our passage.  I almost got out and kissed it, it felt so good, but instead of stopping I bumped the speed up to about 50 mph.

At 50 miles per hour, it felt like I was Speed Racer after the Al-Can, but then I hit the first frost heave, and then the second one hit me, and when the trailer came down onto the pavement the second time it broke the axle in two and turned our trailer into a massive truck anchor.

Yes, they're that bad.

Knowing they were that bad, I tried to take it slow in the big truck.  After all, who wants to drive down the Al-Can with your furniture and household goods only to open the box at the end to find 26 feet of crushed mulch in the back?  I sure didn't.  I wasn't taking it slow enough, though, as I learned when a Good Samaritan flashed his lights till he got my attention and then let me know that my pickup had bounced off of the tow trailer.

Another incidentally--nearly everybody on the Al-Can is a Good Samaritan.  It's in large part due to the great amount of mutual suffering you're all doing, but whatever the reason it's an awesome thing.  I pulled the great big truck as far off the road as I could with no shoulders (it worked okay; it's not exactly the Expressway) and soon somebody else showed up who had the torch and other tools I needed to fix the problem.  See, the truck had bounced out of its restraints and was held on by the safety chain, which hadn't been set in completely taut.  It was now, though, being dragged along halfway off of the trailer, held on by a completely stretched safety chain, and in order to get it back on I first had to get the chain off.

I used to have a picture of us after the Good Samaritan had helped us cut the chain and reattach it and the pickup was back on the trailer.  If I find it, I'll--well, I'll probably put it up on a dartboard somewhere.  That part of the trip sucked.

After tightening the straps down as much as I could, we took off again.  I took the frost heaves even slower, and eventually made it to the sprawling metropolis of Glenallen, AK, where I refilled the fuel tank with one hand while holding off the 'skeeter horde with the other.

The cutoff from Glenallen to Tok is really rather boring, traveling through mostly flat lands populated exclusively by the scrub pines that, anywhere else, would be called rather pitiful shrubbery.  It used to get really exciting around Gakona, where the road suddenly turned 270 degrees, dropped right down the mountain, spun a sharp corner over a waterfall-fed stream, and then climbed back up the other side.  Modern construction, though, has made that spot a whole lot easier on the knuckles, if not the brakes.

Arriving in Tok, I was sad to see the big Texaco had burned down and was out of business for a while (near as I can tell, it's still out).  I don't know what it was about the big gas station/convenience store with real bathrooms and such, but every single trip till then it had been our first/last stop on American soil.  This trip, though, I had to spin around and go back down the street to the Chevron.  Not that the Chevron was bad, it just wasn't the same place.  It's silly, I know, but it's meaningful.

The last 100-ish miles once you turn from Highway 1 onto Highway 2 (hey, there aren't that many roads in Alaska) and head toward the border are okay, despite seeming to be eternally under construction.  Still, as we trucked along, the construction wasn't bad but my every-20-mile pauses were showing that the pickup was bouncing further and further out of its restraints again.  I needed to call UHaul about it, I knew, and I needed to do it during daylight and probably from a phone in the United States.  Thus, we stopped for the night at the last hotel/gas station/diner/convenience store/etc.before the border (up in that country you'll usually find a little of everything anytime there's a building with a foundation) .

And we slept.  We slept well, after most of the day sitting three across on the bench seat in the UHaul.

The next morning we rose and got to work.  Heide and Jessa repacked the luggage and stuffed into the truck and then headed to breakfast while I called UHaul's service number and waited by the only telephone for a callback.

...and no, there wasn't any cell service there.  Are you kidding?

When I finally got a person on the phone, I started off just trying to describe the problem.  She didn't want to hear it, though; first, she wanted answers to the questions her computer was posing. 

"What road are you currently on?"

"The Alaska Highway."

"Is there an Interstate or highway number you can give me?"


"That's it, just two?"

"Yep.  There are only four, total, in Alaska.  This one's number two."

"Um, okay.  What's the closest cross street?"

"A cross street?  I haven't seen one for a hundred miles."

"No cross street?" She sounded incredulous.

"There isn't one."

"What's the nearest exit, then?"

"There isn't one.  Look, I'm on the Alaska Highway, passing through wilderness.  The closest cross street is back in Tok."

"How do you spell that?"

"Um, never mind.  Do you happen to have a map of Alaska?"

"I do."

"Okay, so there's one main highway that leads from Alaska into Canada.  It's right smack in the center of the border.  See that line on the map?"

"Yes, Sir, I do."

"Okay, see where that line crosses the big vertical line that represents the international border?  Zoom in on where those two lines cross and you'll see me waving at you."

"Oh!" she sounded like she'd figured something out.  "So what road is that?"

"So what road is what?"

"The one that crosses the highway you're on."

"No, it's not a road.  That's an international boundary.  Granted, they do cut a swath down--oh, never mind.  Look, can I talk to a supervisor?"

We eventually got it figured out how to tell their system where I was.  It turned out the closest UHaul service person was actually just a few miles away, right across the border in Canada, but because he was on the other side of customs I had to drive to him.

Heck, I was going thataway anyway.  I just had to hope the pickup stayed attached to the trailer that long.

Luckily everything played out okay.  The service guy was really quite nice, but all he could do was tighten the straps down as tight as he could.  Apparently it's a somewhat normal thing, as those vehicle towing trailers weren't intended to go over monsterhellbumps.  He advised me to take it slow and to watch out for orange flags.

Yeah--orange flags.  The bane of the Al-Can existence, right there, and the topic of my next story.



  1. "Okay, see where that line crosses the big vertical line that represents the international border? Zoom in on where those two lines cross and you'll see me waving at you." I laughed out loud, best line ever! You're such a great story teller, and what an experience! Thanks for sharing =)

    1. Thank you! I love your positive comments! And yes, indeed, it was quite an experience.

  2. This is amazing - remind me never to go to AL. My mother drove the Dawson Hwy to Yellowknife 40 years ago with two kids under 10 and an infant. My dad stayed home, but he did put a sheet of plywood under the car to stop the rocks from puncturing the gas tank.
    These journeys may be a challenge - but you remember them!! Are you going back to AL?

    1. Thank you! Yep, these are journeys I'll remember for the entirety of my life. I do plan to some day go back to Alaska, but I'll probably fly next time.