It's hard to believe I left the ski mountains of my dreams. But on March 21st, with a painfully heavy heart and tear-filled eyes, I drove out of Jackson headed for Alaska. Ahead were new adventures, for sure, but leaving my home and friends was the hardest move I've ever made. It really wasn't the mountains, although they're the best anywhere, I would argue. It was more the community that they inspire. After many years, I finally achieved the sense of belonging I'd always wanted but never attained. And now I was leaving. What was I thinking? And as I passed the top of Teton Pass and glanced back one last time in my rearview mirror, I cried again.
The drastic change was driven by a need for more professional satisfaction as a physician assistant, something I spend 40-50 hours a week doing. I struggled and failed to find peace for 6 years. My new job in Anchorage promises to deliver. Time will tell, of course.
Alaska is a big playground so I think I'm going to find the adventure I need. But first I had to get there and doing so required a traverse of the famous Alaskan Highway with a loaded UHaul in tow. It seemed like the only proper way to move to the 49th state. It allowed me time to grieve and ponder the changes I was making. Shit, I was going to miss a lot of people.
Leaving Jackson at 4pm, I set no firm goal for the first leg, eventually eating in Butte, Montana and settling in for the night in Shelby. Although I was budgeted for hotels each night, I decided that sleeping in the van and saving the cash was more efficient. A quick diner breakfast, a tank of gas and I was off early in the morning. Next stop, Canuckistan (as Nate Brown likes to call our sensible neighbors to the north).
I'd never driven across a border so it felt like a nice milestone for the journey. Driving up to the window of the border check point I passed an array of serious looking technology, some shooting video while others scanned with infrared, no doubt. The customs agent was sort of cute in that woman-in-a-position-of-authority kind of way. She asked me a bunch of questions and then sent me along. Her nonchalance and failure to dictate any sort of shake down confirmed my suspicion that all those clicking and whirring devices I passed going in were quite thorough in their assessment. I mean, I was towing a freaking UHaul, ferchrissakes. It could have been stuffed with a couple dozen homeless snowboarders looking for deep snow Nirvana in the Great White North. She apparently knew better.
Onward to Calgary. The road had been clear up 'til now. But shortly after entering Alberta, I drove into falling snow and greyness which would dominate my world for the next 24 hours. Conditions were intermittently bleak, with full on winter driving at times. Edmonton loomed after dark and my first, and really only, bad patch descended upon me. The capital city is big and finding my route north required circumnavigating the metropolis to the west. I got lost. Twice. I finally stopped and asked for directions.
Now, Canadians are an interesting and wonderful lot. I like to say I've never met one I didn't like. After traveling through a big chunk of their outback I would still say the same. It's funny. No matter what color they are - and there is diversity in Canada - they're all disarmingly the same. Friendly, non-threatening and helpful.
At the risk of stereotyping, in America, when you travel through big cities, the experience can be variable, to say the least. And not always in a good way. Brothers in the hood, Latinos in the barrios and other ethnic groups all occupy sections of our cities. Each presents its own unique qualities, some wonderful, others downright dangerous. For a milk toast white boy like me, cultural stereotypes often trigger a variety of predictable emotional reactions to encounters with residents. The funny thing about the ethnic Canadians I met along my journey is that they bucked most of my stereotypes. They were simply…well… Canadian. Very disarming. Not sure why the difference. I didn't get mugged. I wonder if that was what Michael Moore was talking about in Bowling for Columbine.
Anyway, I made it to my route, almost. About 8km shy I came to a steep hill on an otherwise quiet two lane road. This hill was littered with vehicles, all with hazards flashing, in various states of stuck. How bad could it be, I thought. Pretty damn bad, it turns out. As I slowed to navigate around some disabled cars on the 12% grade I suddenly found myself tractionless and sliding sideways off the road. Not good. I was stuck. And worse was the fact that my trailer was perpendicular to the road blocking both lanes.
I and those around me all feared the next out of control vehicle coming over the rise would plow into me. Suddenly my adventure was turning into a nightmare less than 30 hours into it. A semi came over the hill and we all ran for the snow-covered embankment fearing the worst. We finally rallied and simply pushed the UHaul sideways to the edge. One problem solved but I was still stuck. A few phone calls got me to the Alberta Motor Club and a tow was arranged. In the mean time, a prototypical Canuck couple living nearby offered me a tow. A quick tug to the top of the hill and I was on my way. Phew. Disaster averted. What could be next?
It was late but I felt obligated to make up time so on through the night I went. Around 12:30am I stopped in a typical Albertan town dotting the oil and gas rich hinterlands, in this case, Whitecourt. Chain restaurants, hotels, plenty of gas stations and endless lines of truckers were standard through this section. Lots of burly looking dudes in ball caps and dirty Carhartts were the norm, all flirting with the somehow out of place cute waitress each establishment seemed to be blessed with. I never loitered beyond the meal or tank of gas and continued pressing ever northward.
I would wager that Americans and most southern dwelling Canadians have no idea the degree of energy exploration going on up there. It's staggering. Roads going into the wilderness appear suddenly every few miles, some with trucks coming and going but all with signs of frequent travel. Its a vast, densely treed expanse that extends to forever. And under it, apparently, the key to our energy salvation, or so the gas companies would have us believe. Regardless of your take on that debate, you can be sure that the extraction business is bustling north of the border.
Mid-day on Friday I found myself in Dawson Creek, the official start to the Alaskan Highway. I decided to take a break and hit a local gym for some exercise and a shower. Back on the road and in British Columbia, I gradually left the gas and oil development behind in exchange for more mountainous vistas and narrower roads. Weather was improving and the forecast for the next two days promised splitter conditions. I was psyched to see the Yukon in all its glory.
I struggled into Toad River and slept next to the local diner, the only business for dozens of miles. Abiding by the number one rule of the Alaskan highway, never letting my gas gauge descend below half, I filled up my belly and tank. The one tourist site I was warned not to miss, Laird Hot Springs, turned out to be the mid morning treat I needed after a chilly night in the van.The hot springs were as nice as promised and I had them to myself for the 20 minutes I'd allotted.
This part of BC and into the Yukon lacked the bustle of Alberta. I saw few cars, some bison and the first caribou I've ever seen. The roads and weather remained clear and I was able to go 70 mph for long stretches. Toward the end of my 3rd day I hit the first of the gnarly frost heaves I'd heard about. I frequently slowed to 40 mph fearing for all my worldly possessions bucking around in the trailer. I decided to get new wiper blades in Whitehorse, a full-blown big town with all the amenities. It boggles my mind that there is that kind of human density that far from anywhere. People will live anywhere to make money. Hard to fault anyone for that.
One thing that freaked me out on this day was the utter desolation on long stretches of this section. There is no cell service or anything else. The good weather helped but there were anxious times when I wondered just what I would do if I broke down or worse. It sort of felt like soloing to me. Occasionally unnerving. Driving into a town along the way and suddenly having cell service for a few miles felt like reaching a ledge during a ropeless ascent of a long route.
There is some spectacular scenery in this part of the Yukon with giant lakes and big peaks everywhere. There was also no one on the road. Just me and the Bison (or buffalo, as the Canadians like to call them). Call me a wildlife snob from Jackson, I guess. No luck with camping on this night. Just some random, albeit quiet, roadside pull out in the wilderness.
On my final day of driving, I enjoyed glimpses of the Wrangles and Saint Elias range as Alaska loomed.
The final treat on the menu before hitting the full-blown freeway into Anchorage was the view of the north face of Pioneer Peak as I left Palmer. Holy crap. What a ski line. 5,500 vertical feet right off the highway. I can't wait to pluck that prize before the season ends.
So, under clear skies and sloppy roads I descended into my new home. Took me only a day to get a condo and dump my worldly possessions in the front room. I couldn't wait to rid myself of the trailer. I felt like a hostage to that thing. The van is much zippier now.My second day here I sampled the front range of the Chugach just above town. No Snow King here but Peak 3, as it's known, serves as a reasonably accessible alternative. Twenty minutes from my door and 2,300 feet of climbing from the car.
Awesome views of the city. With daylight extending to after 9pm already, there is plenty to do after work. I'm excited to explore. Stay tuned for the further adventures of this displaced Jackson ski mountaineer.