Thursday, April 18, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 2: Orange Flags

Orange flags.  If you haven't driven the Al-Can, the mental imagery inspired by those two words may not mean much of anything to you.  If you have, they probably induce at least a shudder, if not an outright panic attack.

Why?  Well, first of all, the roads through the north are rough.

That may seem an obvious statement to you.  Of course northern roads are rough, right?  That was one of the things they talked about on that TV show all the time.  I mean, up there where it snows and stuff, they get snow and stuff on the road, and that does--um, stuff--to the roads. 

So sure, it's rough.  But what's rough?  You might have narrowly avoided a pothole on a drive recently, and in that line of thought you're probably supposing that by rough I mean there's a couple, or even a few, potholes instead of just one.

Nuh uh.

When I ran my first marathon--hell, who am I kidding?  When I ran my only marathon, I was amazed at "the wall" that I hit toward the end.  I mean, I'd been tired before.  Running long distances makes you tired.  A marathon is a really long distance, so running it should make you really tired, right?  Thus, I assumed, the wall was simply what they called it when you got really tired.


The wall, the one you hit in a marathon, is actually when your body runs out of anything and everything it can use in the immediate sense to fuel its continued operation.  It's not just a "hey, I'm really tired" signal.  Instead, it's your body screaming "hey, Bozo, I'm done here, I got nothin' left, so you just dang well better stop moving those feet right now, you hear?"

Have you ever had a major muscle cramp up when running?  The wall gave me four of those at the same time.  Luckily for me I was too numb, both physically and mentally, to stop because of it.  Somehow I shambled across the finish line despite the painful yelling my body was directing at me.

So yeah, the marathon isn't just a really long race in which you get really tired.

Similarly, the Al-Can isn't just a really rough road where you find more potholes.

Yes, yes, I know: "but they say it's entirely paved now."  Sure, it is, sort of.  But the extreme weather of the northern part of the continent tears roads up pretty fast.  Thus, there's always construction going on.  At the same time, there's always torn up road that the construction teams haven't gotten to yet. 

The Canadians don't play around with construction, either.  Most crews in the United States will take three times the amount of time and resources that it would take to just build a road in order to craft a beautiful bypass, then tear up the original surface and lay a new one down.  Once the American road has been restored to its normal grandeur, traffic is redirected over it, the bypass is dismantled, and the crew is (finally) off to another spot.

In northern Canada, it's a lot simpler and faster, though perhaps a bit more panic-inducing for the drivers at times.  The surface gets ripped off and gravel put down--and by "gravel" I'm referring to assorted rocks that may be as large as your fist--and you get to drive through the actual construction zone while all this is going on, behind a pilot car whose sole purpose seems to be to slow you down enough that you inhale all the construction dust rather than just some of it.

Once, while driving toward Alaska for the first time on the Al-Can, I happened to be at the front of the line of cars.  Their budget must've been tight, because they decided to use a dump truck as the pilot car.  Only thing was the dump truck was doing double duty, piloting us through the site while dumping its load of gravel onto the surface just ahead of us.  What fun it was!  (just kidding on the last)

I guess that's an inexpensive way to tamp the gravel down.

As rough as they are, the construction sites become a welcome sight after a while, believe it or not.  That's because there aren't any orange flags of doom in the construction sites.

Said orange flags--the bane of my entire Al-Can driving experience--are really rather diminutive in stature for all the pain they cause.  You've seen the orange flags people put on the backs of bicycles, right?  These aren't that big.  They're only a few square inches of orange plastic stuck to a couple of feet of wire that is then pressed into the soil beside the road.  Total height is about a foot and a half, or sometimes as much as half a  meter.  Sometimes they're on one side or the other, and in rare extreme situations they're on both.

Regardless of which side of the road they're on, they mean one and only one thing to the driver: slow the hell down, because this spot is rough.  And by slow down, we're not talking 80 to 60 (kph, not mph).  No, we're talking 80 to 40 or even 30 in some cases.  For the conversion impaired, 30 kph is less than 20 mph.  Imagine transitioning from a highway to an American school zone, except they have giant alligators walking around ready to shred your car if you drive too fast, and the only warning you get is a little swatch of orange on the side of the road.

The rough spot is never just a pothole, either.  Oh, it may be a pothole, but if so then it goes so far down you can smell authentic Peking duck cooking at the bottom.

(Yes, I'm aware that the opposite point on the globe from the Yukon Territories is closer to Madagascar than to China, but I don't know anything from Madagascar that would've worked in my exaggeration.)

More often, the orange flag signals the presence of a series of ridges and ruts in the pavement that look sorta like the ground does near an older tree with surfaced roots.  These create the Grand Poo-Bah of all washboard effects.  Go over it too fast and you'll wonder if your teeth are still attached, and to heck with your muffler.

They say Pavlov had his dog well trained.  Every time the scientist would ring a bell, the dog would salivate.  A few miles on the Al-Can will do the exact same thing to a driver, only with orange flags instead of a bell and a penchant for rapid braking rather than salivation.  It still works with me, actually, four years later.  Wave an orange flag at me and my hands clench around an imaginary steering wheel while my right foot presses down on a brake that isn't really there.

It's frightening how trainable we can be.

Frickin' orange flags....


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