Thursday, May 2, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 13: A Shortcut

There are times when shortcuts are good things.  Other times, not so much.  Take, for example, the time that I was trying to complete the land navigation course at Fort Benning, Georgia, at a pace that would give me plenty of time at the finish line to rest and relax while everyone else struggled over hill and dale.  I can do it, certainly; my daddy taught me to read the land at an early age as we hiked around the Tombigbee Forest looking for buried Civil War treasure.  I can 'nav with the best of 'em, in fact. 

That's why, on the land nav course at Ft. Benning, I was so overjoyed to see my next point, identifiable as a white and orange triangular sack off in the distance, over on the very next hill.  Climbing hills can be a little tiring no matter how fit you are, but gaining momentum downhill first makes it easier.  So I set off at a sprint, figuring I could easily and quickly skirt closely around the pond at the bottom, then speed up the next hill to the bag.  I could already see the finish line in my mind. 

I figured that I could do it, anyway, until I saw the "Beware of Alligators" sign at the bottom.  I almost ran right by the dang thing in my hurry, in fact.  Oops.  Momentum: all gone. 

My first time up the Al-Can, I was as close to broke as you can be and still attempt it.  I only had a little over a thousand dollars in cash on me, but that will barely make it even partway up these days with the enhanced cost of gasoline.  Back then it was barely enough to satisfy customs requirements, and for good reason.  By the time I'd crossed over back into red, white, and blue territory, I had just over $300 left to make it to Anchorage and find a camping spot that would last us till a paycheck arrived.

Tight, that was.

That was why I read the maps closely and decided that a path that saved me 100 miles, give or take, was a good idea.  It wasn't the Al-Can, technically, but the Cassiar Highway is a well-known shortcut.  Saving gas was a good idea.  So, therefore, taking the Cassiar Highway up to Alaska was a great plan.

Uh huh.  My suggestion now, having done it?  Don't do it.  Don't take shortcuts when land-navving in Georgia.  Don't take shortcuts through Newark, NJ, at 2:00 a.m. in a government van.  Don't tug on Superman's cape, or spit into the wind, or pull the mask off that ole' Lone Ranger.  And don't, for the love of everything holy, don't take shortcuts on the Al-Can.

The Cassiar Hwy is actually identified as a "scenic route" by the AAA.  And that, it is, if by "scenic" you mean long, gravel-covered, and deserted.  It's about four hundred and fifty miles long, ducking as it does toward Juneau and logging country before leisurely turning back to the north.  And did I mention that it isn't paved?  At least, it wasn't in 1995.

It's rather spectacular, of course.  Nearly all of British Columbia deserves that description.  The forests and mountains are amazing.

The Milepost publication says, "watch for logging and freight trucks on the highway."  Yeah, and also watch out for the fellow inhabitant that they don't bother bringing up: moose.  They're there, and they're big. 

To be honest, I'd never seen a moose before I drove that road.

Early one morning we'd woken from our slumber on a gravel pit and gotten on our way with very little to-do.  I wanted to be off the Cassiar.  I hadn't had coffee yet, but I still wanted to drive.  Then, as my eyes adjusted to the early morning light, I came up behind the strangest thing--up ahead, a big black truck was swerving to and fro across the road.  He was also going much slower than I, which was something to say because on the gravel I wasn't going much over 30.  I slowed as we approached, becoming both irritated and concerned as I did.

Finally I looked across to where my wife sat.  "I wonder what the hell he's doing," I said.

"What who's doing?"

"That truck up there.  He looks like he's drunk."

She looked at me with one of those "I can't believe how stupid you just proved yourself" looks that only beloved wives can manage.  She started to say something, and then looked back to the front, sputtered for a second, and then gave me the look again.

Finally she turned to me and, voice quietly dripping sarcasm, said, "Stephen, that's a moose."

I didn't want to believe her, but as we neared the massive monster I had to admit my mistake.  Eventually the wide black shape resolved into antlers, and I finally caught a sideways profile as it left the road when we came close.

"What's with the side to side running?" I asked.  She explained, then, that moose can only see out of the sides of their faces, so the side to side running allows them to keep moving forward while seeing what's ahead. 


I never heard the end of that one.

So, folks, never take shortcuts on the Alaska Highway.  And if you do take a shortcut, men, never say anything dumb before your first cup of coffee.


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