Northern ‘Splorin (Alaska) – 1995-2008

Alaska

Going to Alaska was part of my job managing this huge territory for the company. Having some free time gave me opportunities to do some ‘splorin’ or maybe just some drinkin’ at the bar; I chose to look around for the unique. Since I went there once or twice a year, I ‘splored’ something different each time. Most of us lower-48 folks go to the 49th state on tour or on business; most don’t stick around for much else, especially if they don’t have to …or, God forbid, if it’s winter.

Alaska is called a frontier for a reason. It’s on the edge of many things not experienced by those who live in the burbs, downtown or on the farm …so much on the edge that the word “normal” is redefined by those traversing past its few fences. This inspiring process of redefinition is what attracts me to such roads less traveled. ‘Splorin’ is just my own word for this process as I’d get into my Hertz Ford Explorer and head out.

Four Plus Two Alaskas

First, one needs to know there are four different geographical Alaskas. One is a long panhandle where Juneau, Sitka, and Ketchikan govern rainforests, fjords, islets, and islands at the skirts of mountain majesty protecting this isolated coastline from the rest of North America … or even the rest of Alaska for that matter. One can’t even drive a car from these inaccessible cities to anywhere else …too few bridges and too much rugged terrain in the way. Vehicles are used around town of course, but nowhere else.

Another Alaska is Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula, Cook Inlet, and two valleys to the north and east that let travelers escape semi-city civilization. With good roads there is more than a modicum of urban-ness, boulevards, and neon signs that fade into beautiful countryside, farms and barns, fences and roadside stands with behemoth pumpkins and vegetables that grow wildly huge in an extraordinarily stretched out season with prolonged sunny days.

Yet Another Alaska can be seen on the road itself to other places, those paved connectors where you grasp twice as much per mile than expected yet overwhelmingly empty of published references. Fairbanks is on top of it all geographically, governing both of two paved roads south with laissez faire because it is the ultimate destination of every road mission from virtually anywhere else. The little city has all the mileage markers and winter accommodations to prove it. These north-south road corridors abound with from-the-road scenery that overload cameras and make eyes dizzy repetitiously.

Then there is the everything-else few ever see. Y’ know, the places where you need to own a kayak or a pontoon-equipped plane or a batch of sled dogs to get to …where myriad pristine lakes and picturesque but unnamed mountains lie fortressed, guarding valleys without much access or very many trails, no real roads or telephone poles or cell phones or fence posts, and only once in a while that occasional wisp of blue smoke curly-cuing up from a handmade stone or log cabin nestled invisibly in the bush where that stereotypical bearded Jeremiah Johnson chops logs all summer to keep warm over that ten-month-long winter in the backwoods.

Finally, there are two climatic clichés Alaskans talk about in every bar or grocery store: winter and road construction. Honest below-zero type winter can last three or four months; but, this hoodwinking season can make its presence known during any one of the calendar’s twelve. I was able to taste a little bit of each of these “four plus two” realms …some more than others, some more than once. Here’s a couple:

Moon Landing
Summer 1997

The Mendenhal Moon. Once when I and others were working on an emergency road service project in Juneau for AAA, we decided to educate ourselves on glaciers. At first we thought we could just drive to the glacier; but, then we found out we had to rent a tour helicopter to take us to Mendenhal Glacier. Glaciers are just not something one sees every day.

It was a clear blue-sky day making the entire world slashed into two distinct pieces: one bright razor white, the other cold cloudless blue. In the far away distance were darker blue zigzagging saw-toothed peaks on the horizon; further beyond that horizon was Canada along with vast forests and more mountains. Our noisy craft hovered and landed on this flat ice sheet that was also being used by several other similar “touristing” choppers. We were able to walk around on top of this enormous, clean, hard-packed, mile-wide white ice cube as long as you didn’t get too close to the edge of anything precipitous. Sunshine might have been warm to the face, but you could sense coolness radiating upward in a peculiar cold reversal, a kind of glowing coldness pushing upwards. Odd!

Randomly here and there were crevasses of solid frozen deep blue and blue-greenish ice emitting a translucent luminosity from an unseen light source, possibly the most noteworthy surprise of the trip. Leaning as close as we could to an edge, it was still unrealistic to determine just how far down into the ice block these glowing bluish-green caves and caverns and canyons descended.

It was eerily noiseless when chopper engines shut down, as if sound around us had been frozen solid. Shoes didn’t make any noise when clomping around, voices were muffled even though our ears were not. Does sound freeze? People talking not that far away were audibly invisible as if someone had turned the volume knob way down.

The place was unique; but, there was little to ‘splore’ at all. We basked on this Spartan stage investigating landscape that looked like a moonscape. We appreciated both the utter remoteness alongside creepy isolation like nowhere else except for the moon itself.

Upstate Take
Summer 2005

Only One Bridge. Another time when visiting staff in Fairbanks on a summer Friday afternoon, I had two full days to drive back south to Anchorage. I decided to drive north of Fairbanks as far as paved roads could take me Saturday, maybe further time permitting. I passed towns named Fox and Livengood (I wondered how it got its name). Then I ran out of fences. Every mile north on Route 11 (no one calls it that) added acreage between rough-hewn cabins and tucked-away trailers within eyesight of the road. I judged nearby population by the number of mailboxes I could see. And yes, there was this skinny single-pole power line that must’ve been taking electrical juice upcountry to virtually everyone who lived further north of where I was.

Asphalt evolved into a dirt-colored hard-pack gravel roadway with surprisingly few ruts and minimal vehicle vibration typical of other unpaved roads. Besides a surprising 5 o’clock-rush-hour-type truck traffic on this Saturday morning, there were a handful of RVs, some cars and remarkably little evidence of tourists at all.

Faster vehicles would pass slower traffic as if we were on a more conventional paved highway. I kept up at a steady 50 to 55 mph while curly-cueing my way in and around tree-lined backroad boulevards as these ever-narrowing main roads devolved into a dark reddish-brown, then khaki brown, to a light dusty tan backwoods thoroughfare. Gravel hazed the metal around my tires like background radio static. Streaming traffic movement stayed about the same despite all tiny stones that were sprayed onto my rental SUV every time a vehicle passed … this spray is what likely induced everyone to keep up and stick with equivalent speeds. But there was another reason.

I quickly learned how drivers remained alert for these pinging little stones nipping the hood and how their volume increased when average speeds dipped below 40-45. I’m not sure why such pinging increased but surmised there must be some magical speed to minimize this nuisance; veteran drivers knew how to zero in on it. I followed suit. The influence of what ruts there were, were also minimized by averaging just over 50 mph. On North Slope “Haul Road” (locals called it “North Slope Highway”) I found that 52-55 became the ideal speed, minimizing vibrations and noise while maximizing safety within this never-ending rough-hewn entourage. Wondering about tire size and wheel base length, I concluded it probably didn’t matter much.

I also guessed that situations such as these might have been the reason this particular roadway was on Hertz’s “do not drive” list.

Flat gravel road aside, as beautiful and as un-impacted by civilization as this scenery was, it also became routine, then repetitious. I liked to walk alone in the wilderness, but driving alongside literally millions of tall, old, almost identical coniferous trees, mile after mile, gave little to spur imagination. Yet, the remote isolation of where I was in central Alaska made me recognize I was on the literal edges of genuine frontier nonetheless.

There were few side roads. When there were, there might be two or three mailboxes at most but few other clues of civilization: no houses or barns or even a fence. I saw little evidence of wildlife, seldom a road sign or even much human debris. The roadway itself became the enduring attention point since it exhibited the most unpredictable variations. But, even then, infrastructural objects, like plain concrete bridges, shiny metal culverts or rock-sided drainage ditches, carried their own irregular yet repetitive look … a mere cement-gray sterility. Something always seemed missing.

Passing anything man-made, I found myself studying details. I marveled at how folks chose to live in remote areas, wondering how they bought food, gas and other essentials, and concluded virtually every trip to town required a gasoline fill-up. What did these folks do to earn money? Was there was a barter system? Did they buy and sell things gathered or produced here in the wilds (e.g., animal hides, wood products, etc.). Did they hunt fauna for food? Electricity must be difficult to get out here; how much extra did they have to pay? Was there off-road mail delivery; if so was delivery daily? Questions went on and on especially when there were breaks in the trees where I could see distance. Sometimes I could see tiny columns of that iconic blue smoke here and there on mountain slopes many miles away and figured a couple of people must be at home …way, way out there.

As I progressed within my pensive observations, these green and brown mosaic distances began to look like an ocean, vastly huge yet singular in dimension. Especially where there were no trees alongside the road, I’d pause contemplating this implausible vastness, these farfetched distances with row after row of faraway mountains, or immense sweeping vistas. This was an austere but extraordinarily beautiful, almost untouchable landscape canvas few people probably ever much examined or appreciated. My eyes filled to capacity.

One thing I noticed early on in the journey (especially on the two main roads leading south of Fairbanks as well as this particular road north), I did see an inordinate number of rusting junked cars near the road (as often as one or two every few miles), and concluded it was probably just too expensive to tow them anywhere else.

Eventually I came to the Yukon River Bridge, the only bridge (I’m told) crossing the Yukon in Alaska. Considering Alaska is from 700 to nearly 1,000 miles wide, that there were no other bridges across this major river was phenomenal unto itself. Unusual to my lower-48 eyes was the oil pipeline nestled alongside the bridge. Good-sized, this metal conduit was otherwise mostly unseen from the road when away from the bridge.

A ways further up the road, there was a tiny little town of sorts where travelers bought gasoline, fixed flats, and had lunch, but little else. Inside, the Hot Spot café was ultra-basic and plain, menu choices fitting the ambience. All structures around the small collection of buildings here were fabricated and reinforced by metal, heavily insulated. Small windows were tripled-paned, evidence suggesting anticipated tough winters. The Costco-type “Open” neon sign plus a few parked vehicles were visible proofs of active business. Food, coffee, gasoline, bathrooms … what else did anyone need?

From this little community I did drive further north. I had wanted to drive to the Arctic Circle, but fell short I think (I was told there was a sign but I never saw it, so I don’t think I drove far enough) …then again …

I came to a wide spot in the road that invited me to pause then stop, a geographically elevated place to ponder it all in one privileged, eye-filling 300 plus degree wide submission …even the curvature of the earth seemed detectable against the smallness of self in the hub looking round from northwest to east to southwest in one huge swoop of forever-type surrounding panorama. Amidst so much light, space, and distance, it was challenging to breathe in enough air to complement the fated reaction this visual inhalation commanded …this perpetual mind-boggling, head-toppling expanding vastness.

Traffic, mostly trucks and tankers growled, groaned, and graveled by north toward to Prudhoe Bay or back to Fairbanks. I turned my car into the southbound lane. While on one hand I had felt “at home” being by myself and feeling content in the wilderness, I also felt like a visitor who must not overstay his welcome. Would the southbound journey produce a different look as the crispy daylight slowly waned on.

Terrain in the distance undulated in remarkably different hues and strata, trees towering up or felled looked remarkably identical as I swam the bloodstream back toward a more familiar heart in this welcoming but alien place. Although I got back to Fairbanks after midnight, it was still very light with the sun skimming low in the western sky before it dipped momentarily behind the horizon and rose again without blinking an eye within an hour. This far north, the sun does not appear to go east to west, rather it seems to circle around the sky above. Near midnight when the sun does set, it slides into the horizon at a very low angle left to right. In summer, twilight lingers till dawn. There is no darkness.

What was indeed strange upon my arrival back in Fairbanks, however, was how nearly all houses in Fairbanks were dark in this dusky light …no cars on the road at all, businesses closed, no one walking around. It was as if there was no life existing at all even though it was “daytime.” No wonder drapes on all motel windows were so thick and heavy. June sunshine was ubiquitous.

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Dark and Cold. Going to Fairbanks mid-February, on the other hand, is seldom a touristing event at all. It was a blood-solidifying cold where inhaled air seared lungs like fire, and exhaled air froze in place almost into cottony clouds of frost. Glasses fogged. Fingertips hardened then numbed. No matter what clocks suggested otherwise, it always seemed to be sorta approaching dawn with dusk-like dimness shadowing those couple hours of subdued daylight. Moods sagged …eyes heavy-laden …fewer smiles …glassed-over eyes.

Headlights were on 24/7. Virtually every vehicle had black cords hanging from radiators like skinny tongues … electrical cords to plug in to assure at least minimum heat to start engines later. Even rental car companies disavowed any sort of free jump-start in the event a renter left his car outside too long inside winter’s stomach. This is why stand-up electrical outlets for engine-block heaters were strategically placed in front of stores and motels as they were so essential. Home garages were more advantageous as a source of warmth than for providing a shield from snow when it didn’t snow. Winter was just plain nasty. Winter was in charge.

People tended to be grumpy even though they put on artificial smiles; it was amazing how much light contributed towards attitudes. In many places of business, there were these ultra-white light bulbs casting a more intense, sun-like brightness throughout the room. I’m told these lights were also used to trick houseplants into thinking they were thriving in more southern climes. It made people happy too; office productivity went up and WalMart sales were better underneath such fixtures. After one swallowed a few Vitamin D supplements for a few weeks, life went on as if it were merely winter in Wisconsin.

After flying from Fairbanks to Anchorage, coincidentally it was just before the annual Iditarod, and dog handlers and dog paraphernalia were strewn all around hotel lobbies. There were stacks of brochures about sled repair, huskies, seasonal wear, temporary winter quartering, and all the related social things for this blitz of activity.

But if you didn’t have to go out in the cold, you didn’t. Our office in Fairbanks doesn’t get many out-of-town visitors during winter. My coming earned me unanticipated credibility, I suppose. My coat and gloves were put to good use. It’s hard to fully appreciate Alaska’s winter grandeur especially when nights are long, dark, and depressing.

Lake Lost
Summer 2007

Back in the Bush. The following year, three of us managers finished up early with a full day to use before heading back to’ homebase (in Montana); and, the local manager, Bill, suggested we check out this remote lake that might be worth some “lower-48 scrutiny.” There are not many roads in Alaska, so it sounded a bit outlandish to talk about alternative transportation modes, like prop planes and tug boats, like cross-country skis and snow machines, like dog sleds and canoes, but it’s perfectly in order for locals. We were easily persuaded. I learned one always can tell a “lower 48’er” when they said “snowmobile.” Only Alaskans say “snow machines” and know what it means.

Anyhow, that afternoon Bill made one simple phone call, and we had a prop plane with pontoons reserved for the next morning. The plan was we would be dropped off on this lake, wade ashore then explore the area, have lunch then fly back in time for dinner. Now, which lake should we choose?

Mottoes on Minnesota license plates remind us they’re the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Once we landed on this nameless lake, I asked our well-seasoned pilot how many lakes were in Alaska. He told me there were more than three million which simply seemed too huge a number to be credible. I verified it later to be accurate. Bill told me bodies of water over two acres were considered lakes. Did all three million lakes have unique names or did they have numbers like the stars in the sky did? Nobody knew the answer to that one.

Once airborne, however, lakes indeed carpeted the landscape as far as one could observe. Below us were round lake reflections that produced shades of blue and green amid repetitive streaking sun flashes that reflected the sun off the ground as we cruised along. Ofttimes, there was more lake than land.

Our pilot explained flying by dead-reckoning could be hazardous, as it obviously was in times past, because so many of these lakes looked so much alike. He modestly told us how he had grown accustomed to these lake patterns and occasional faint roads or almost invisible utility lines, and how he used these to guide him like anyone else would use a map. It was undeniably a form of dead-reckoning despite the presence of new cockpit technology.

Anything to do with maps of course captivated me. While these lakes were uniquely beautiful, especially to a “lower 48’er”, the thought of walking around marshy shores and examining native plants was less interesting than all we could see 5,000 feet up in the air. There were mountain ranges in the distance and low rolling pined hills nearby; but, I was truly more fascinated with flying above this type of naturally mapped countryside. I’d be a darned good dead-reckoner, I conjectured, had flying been my occupation.

The pilot told us about a woman who lived alone “quite nearby”, maybe 10-15 miles north of where we were. Since remarkably few people ever passed through or even over here, we had questions about how she lived without much human contact, supplies, electricity, etc.; but, the pilot assured us she got along just fine on her own. I wondered how he knew that for sure. I also wondered who else might be living inside that 10-15 mile stretch of lakes and land between us and her, if any. What if she died, would anyone notice? How many others were there like her?

We all had earphones that helped reduce prop din; these enabled the pilot to converse with us too. Our chatty bush skipper did expound on a few navigational instruments and how useful they were in winter’s night sky, in bad weather, or on foggy days; but, he definitely liked his own form of backwoods dead-reckoning better. So today he was happy in a curmudgeonly fashion.

Our prepared sandwiches and apples made for an uneventful lunch. We walked all the way around this small (but factually-mapped) lake of more than two acres. While fauna consisted mostly of mosquitoes, we did see ponding ducks and a pair of heron-type birds.

Upon returning east later that afternoon, my nose was glued to the plane window taking in this particular rendering of “maphoodness” entirely new to me, kinda like my 13-year old nose in the dome car of that El Capitan train ride four decades before. It was a full hour before any actual civilization was re-detected. Until we got close to Anchorage and the landing area at Lake Hood, we didn’t see another plane (or any other vehicle for that matter) on a lake, on the ground, or in the air for the entire all-day voyage.

– – – – –

There were other treks to, around, next to, through and into Alaska. Three times onboard ships to places like Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka, or over land to Seward, Soldotna, and Homer on the Kenai Peninsula by car …once even to Whittier through a long one-way tunnel (they controlled alternating the direction of traffic).

Although not 100% true, I can almost claim I have driven on virtually every single paved (non-urban) highway in the State of Alaska, one state about a third the size of all of lower 48 states combined. Of all places in Alaska, if I had to pick one iconic place, I would pick Homer. It was blessed with the best postcard-worthy setting due to its picturesque harbor with an amazingly rugged mountain backdrop … an exceptionally beautiful one-of-a-kind place.

Does Hertz Hurt?
Summer 2008

Yukon Gold. Letting my map-mind trek around on yet another business voyage when I was absentmindedly pumping gas into my rented green Ford Explorer in Fairbanks, I was simultaneously studying the map, making judgments about how far I might drive if I had nothing else to do but drive. My eyes kept sweeping over to the right-hand side of the Alaska map to that void, that marginal border with Canada with few towns and even fewer roads. I mulled about never having been to Yukon Territory. “The Yukon” was always so far away, so distant …so remote. Could I actually drive there?

There were two “improved” roads (that meant unpaved) on my map; yet “improved” roads in Alaska weren’t all that bad. I deliberated driving pros and cons via Dawson City on my way back to Anchorage. A two day weekend free of business to see what I had never seen before was technically within reach. Becoming lured, I was not yet completely seduced because I thoroughly enjoyed my process of deliberation.

Driving this rented new green Explorer from Hertz, I acknowledged to myself that I had already accumulated over 700 miles on the odometer with no less than another five or six hundred to go before airport check-in in Anchorage Monday morning. With map-gears meshing quietly in my head while driving south through the tiny village of North Pole early that morning, I finally reached Delta Junction, the critical crossroad with that semi-famous tall white mileage marker displaying the number of miles to big cities in the U.S. and around the World, thousands of miles in most cases. I wondered why Delta Junction might be a significant place to measure such enormous distances; probably someone’s PR stunt years ago that stuck.

I could head due south to Glennallen or southeast to Tok. Heading south was more logical and bore fewer miles; from experience I knew both were beautiful drives. Delta Junction was the decision-making point. Why not fill up the day? I chose the longer southeast route around the fenceless greening hills and bluing white-capped mountains in the distance.

By the time I descended into Tok I eventually turned left onto Route 5 northeast as my Yukon decision finally took hold. It was paved for maybe twenty miles before real asphalt got gritty and turned into a pretty good “improved” Alaska road. After passing Chicken, the road became less and less “improved” and more and more rocky as it vigorously climbed into the hills …and much slower especially for a stretch over twenty miles of harsh grinding rock where going over 30 mph was problematic as well as noisy.

Coming down off the low mountain east of Chicken I then approached the border station with Canada at Mule Creek. Once in the Yukon, terrain changed into high country plains with rather barren undulating hills in all directions. They called it the “Top of the World” highway, but it looked rather alien as if I were on some Moon-based backroad. It was paved with hardened gray gravel, not really paved; it seemed like it might have been under construction even though I saw no workers or trucks, no road graders or machinery, just painted sawhorses and orange road cones occasionally here and there …evidence of “earthly human” presence. Someone later told me that these almost-paved roads were deliberately constructed the way they were to reduce impacts from annual frost heaving. That sounded logical to me.

Making it to a broad hill overlooking Dawson City by dusk pretty late at “night” in these parts, I still had to wait in line over an hour for the ferry. There were a few RVs, quite a few big trucks, and a couple other cars also waiting. I thought I might not make the crossing. But no one was left behind despite this after-midnight illumination from a sun just beginning to regain its own bounced-back altitude during our mutual half-hour trip of night light across the horizon. We successfully crossed the wide Yukon River.

There’s no bridge across the Yukon for literally many hundreds of miles (that one I crossed north of Fairbanks, and another one southeast of here on the road to Whitehorse), but there were a number of ancient, whitish gray, weather-worn ferryboats piggy-backing tons of big vehicles back and forth across this wild, unimpeded waterway. Tourists utilized this crossing from May to September. The trucking industry was always taking things from one place to another. Look at a map sometime and see just how few roads serve such a vast territory like The Yukon.

Dawson City is a small, but important town, probably no more than a few hundred year-round residents at best. There are a handful of towns in this Texas-sized landmass; this particular touristy crossroads was one of the bigger ones, the largest in the northern half of this almost-a-province huge territory. Much of the street-look here was frontierish, and some buildings were probably even original; others were manufactured to fit in historically, and all were built to withstand extremes of climate. There was an authenticity coupled with obvious remoteness that made one feel trans-placed in time. Only cars and trucks themselves distracted from an atmosphere of days long gone. Perhaps the most important social activities going on were in bars. There were many dressed in period costume …fluffy white skirts, tight waists, low necklines and lots of heavy lipstick …or six-guns, scuffed-up boots, black leather vests and heavy dark chaps …and most customers in blue jeans and western-cut shirts. Visitors were happy to be there, but there really wasn’t much else to do. I retired to an authentically-furnished but small 1890s-styled hotel room, got up early and enjoyed a substantial authentically-prepared lumberjack breakfast with enough calories for maybe three guys before gassing up my Explorer at about twice the price per gallon as it was in Alaska then headed back west.

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Tok-Tripping. Ferry lines being rather short, I effortlessly got on Load #1 with room to spare behind large transport trucks. On the other side, the process getting off was laborious as these trucks couldn’t exit quickly. Eventually the first truck clanked off a down-ramp and took off, then the next one spinning tires through muddy ruts. Following these two trucks proved tedious and I couldn’t pass them especially in heavy rain affecting visibility. I tailgated the second truck in anticipation of passing it later on this now mucky, gravelly turnpike. A rock kicked up and hit my windshield, cracking it instantly; fortunately, I still had unimpeded vision on my side of the glass. I contemplated how much I’d now have to pay Hertz to replace it, and how I would need to explain it since I was driving on one of those do-not-drive roads we renters were admonished not to use.

Remoteness settled in again as distance was gained between vehicles with wipers working better on intermittent. No businesses, no signs or mile markers, no ranches or houses or trees or fences, just quiet emptiness that seemed somehow synonymous with the word “Yukon.” The rain pelted the SUV in quick spurts then subsided. I thought about how useful this might be to keep the Explorer cleaner than it would be otherwise. I crossed the border back into Alaska at Mule Creek, got my passport stamped, and noticed a ranch fence (probably the international border?) then headed up into forested hills onto that nasty, yellowish solid-rock road in now stronger assaulting rain, rain that resumed precisely upon crossing the border. The particular road from the border back to Tok was made of this orangey-yellowish, gravelly rock that rested atop jagged slabs of mustard-colored solid granite, just smooth enough for most vehicles to navigate it at grippingly slow speeds. I speculated it’d be good material to use for improved roads around here since it was low maintenance, plentiful and obviously impervious to heavy-duty wear and tear.

Most Alaska roads have names, for example: Seward, Dalton, Glenn, Steese, Richardson or Denali Highway. Locals didn’t use highway numbers. I recall seeing those signs at the airport saying driving on certain highways were prohibited. I knew I had surely driven on one or more of them; but, I couldn’t recall the road name I was using today; it was Route 5 as far as I was concerned. I focused on throwing the dice with truth coupled with ignorance. I found out later I was on the Taylor Highway, and, yes, one on the prohibited routes list.

As I contemplated rock invincibility, my rear tire was pulling the SUV sideways. I stopped, got out in the pouring rain, and checked it; the tire was going flat. Deciding to try making it to Chicken to get it changed (it couldn’t be that far now, could it?), I slowed down to about 10-15 mph and started grinding my way over and through fast-bucketing, strafing, almost stridently vocal rain over this colorfully rugged, hard-rock path that was officially Alaska State Highway 5 on my map. Rain resonated, sounding out words like repetitive “no’s” against the Ford’s hood metal as my imagination festered. It relentlessly battered even heavier, accompanied by windy torrents and pounding large drops thumping loudly on the roof almost like hail, but just huge drops. Vehicles passed me ever so cautiously at less than 20 mph. My mind stewed as my mood muddied.

In the next couple miles, the pull intensified. Checking it out again (getting soaked again in the process), it now looked completely squashed flat on the orangey stone road. After reading the owner’s manual, and inspecting how Fords stowed spares below the chassis, I deliberated just how difficult it would be for me to get this fifth tire. I decided to drive some more not wanting to stop in such a remote spot! Surely, Chicken couldn’t be more than a mile or two away …surely. The road was narrow, but I couldn’t go more than a hundred yards further before metallic sounds grating against stone compelled me to stop. I picked the widest spot on a narrow berm, trying not to get too close to a 25 foot steep precipice to my right. Considering the aggravating pouring rain provoking an already deteriorating mood, aloneness conjured thoughts of bears, dinosaurs, and other marauders surely lurking nearby. I felt hapless, helpless with frowns contorting my brows … a form of vexation nearing anger.

I got the jack out. It looked odd to me as I stewed about not having changed a tire for maybe thirty years. It wasn’t a typical bumper jack that flashed forward in my memory. I think they’re now called scissor jacks, and there was this long tool that fit into it somehow. My trousers were soaked. I felt muddy and cruddy.

I couldn’t figure out how to make the jack work; besides, the spare was on the bottom of the chassis in back now inaccessibly pinned down on dark yellow granite. The rain got heavier and louder; I got wetter and distressed with newfound anxieties. For an hour, a couple more SUVs or RVs passed me heading west, and despite the passengers’ concerned looks, no one stopped to help. Without cell phone service, I wasn’t sure what to do next since calling AAA or anyone else for that matter was out of the question. I didn’t have a handkerchief; I guess a white t-shirt might do as a flag “…argh!” I tried again to make the jack work. I waved toward the next two RVs to no avail. I was now covered in a dark orangey mud. The once green SUV had been transformed into a reddish brown mud-ball with caked muck decorating its wheel wells. With spirits sinking into the mire, I kept exploring how to make this scissors thing work. I couldn’t figure out how one was supposed to lift the vehicle to get the jack underneath the frame, let alone get the tire out from its cubby hole. Frustration set in; cursing followed. Even if I could possibly get towed, it’d undoubtedly cost me hundreds of dollars; I hoped they took credit cards. I mulled options.

In the next RV to pass, a gray-haired lady looked out with her hand covering her mouth in an “oh-my-god” expression, and eyebrows arched in some dismay looking at me. I guess she was thanking her stars they didn’t have the situation that I was just then experiencing. They certainly didn’t want to stop either. Maybe it was just the way I looked: muddy, angry. Though it doesn’t get dark late in the afternoon this far north, I was getting hungry amidst being tired, wet, and grouchy, grappling poorly to a disintegrating situation. I finally concluded I wouldn’t be able to help myself and it was going to cost me a ton of bucks to get everything right again. I’d need to become more assertive at blocking the next vehicle to pass. Meanwhile, I sat in the driver’s seat, muddy scissors jack in my lap, reading the owner’s manual for some yet undiscovered insights on what next to do when something surprising happened.

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Jack in the Box. Another light green Ford SUV approached up the yellow brick hill, stopping right behind me. A tall uniformed man jumped out and approached the window which I cranked down as rain pelted into his face. After a couple of seconds, I recognized him to be the very same crossing guard who stamped my passport at Mule Creek on the Yukon border a few hours back. The young man, still dressed in a clean green government uniform with a name badge on his pocket, asked if I needed any help and introduced himself. His name was Jack Glover. Jack’s government-licensed Explorer, like the one I rented, was essentially the same vehicle in a lighter shade of green with similar reddish-brown muddy splash streaks all over. After surveying my messy situation, he knew exactly what to do and went right to work.

To get to that notch where the scissors jack had to go was now problematic due to rocks and how low slung the chassis lay; but, he approached it from the left side where a still good tire allowed access. Lying prone on wet yellow gravel and stretching arms around rubber, he squiggled the jack back and forth until it was in place. He then began jacking it up bit by bit cranking the removable handle until the frame was high enough to un-lug the flat tire and remove it. He then unlatched the hook device holding the spare to the bottom, removing the spare by letting it fall a couple inches to the ground. I helped drag it into place for eventual mounting on the other side.

Shirt and pants now wet and muddy too, he didn’t cringe. Once removed, he showed me how the rim had entirely penetrated the flat tire’s tread, damaged so much it was irreparable. While there were scrape marks on the rim, he thought at least the rim might be still reusable. “We might find another tire in Tok, it’s a common size,” Jack said. “If they don’t have one, I know they can fly one in from Fairbanks, but that’d take at least a day, and it’s kinda pricey.”

“But I have a plane to catch tomorrow morning,” I answered. “Can’t I just chance it and use the spare to get to Anchorage?” I was adding up damage costs in my head. Like a big gunny sack of wet potatoes, he threw the reddish-brown, slimy, mud-caked flat into the back of the SUV. The windshield and the tire, maybe the rim, plus the cleaning of mats and upholstery …well, it could easily be a thousand dollars, probably more. Anxieties shifted. My mind became preoccupied with costs; his mind changed from that jack and spare to getting me and the Explorer to a place of safety. As he was tightening lugs and cranking down the scissors jack, he urged me to follow him to the little crossroads of Tok. He knew just the place to inquire about replacements. He speculated, though, if I had one flat, I’d just as easily have a second en route as he examined tread depths on the remaining three tires while pinching his lips. I agreed.

Tok was two to three hour’s drive away. I followed Jack, and we passed Chicken in about seven or eight miles. My distance-to-Chicken calculations had been way off. Although it was still raining, we traversed the ever-improving road at a pretty good clip, maybe averaging 30 mph until real asphalt kicked in, and we averaged up to 50. The rain abated as the road improved and altitude lowered.

In Tok, the place was closed up so I said I’d chance the drive to Anchorage. Since he refused to accept any money, I bought him dinner for his efforts. Because he was going home to Wasilla, the same direction as Anchorage, I could follow him in case there were another flat; and, he would keep an eye in his rearview mirror. We both gassed up, took off into more drizzle. This arrangement worked out, and after another few hours of excellent paved road, I flashed my headlights as I veered left southbound toward Anchorage as he took the right to Wasilla westbound. Flashing his turn signals right then left then right, he acknowledged a quick good bye. Jack’s help was indeed consequential.

Recounting this story in my head, it occurred to me in a humorous way how my biggest problem had been trying to find out how to use the jack; and, a young man named Jack, ended up helping me. Such word coincidences amuse me. Anyway, Anchorage had been a five hour drive so I knew I’d be getting in late and tired. My Hertz Ford drove well on the roadway especially where there wasn’t road construction, and especially considering the rain never did stop.

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Day of Reckoning. Quite early next morning, I drove the humbled rental into Hertz’s receiving lot, and a small, young Asian woman came out with her handheld computer device to record my mileage along with a broad, welcoming smile. “You put on lots of miles didn’t you?” Though she’d seen the windshield, she seemed to ignore it at least for the moment and kept smiling as she glanced at all the mud while pushing some buttons. My mind cringed at what payback I’d now have to forfeit…

…then my mind wandered back at a cheap cross-country rental back in 1973 when my friend Jimmy and I crisscrossed the United States coast to coast on one of those unlimited mileage deals for less than $150 …over 8,000 miles worth! Retribution time caught me in the gut as I sustained composure to think about my odometer reading. “Yeah, I went to Fairbanks and back the long route through Tok.” I thought I’d bring up the glass first. “Y’know there’s a lot of road construction and debris on these roads in Alaska …plus the rain and…”

But before finishing my sentence she politely added “Yes, I do know what you mean. I see so many rentals come back with cracked windshields; it’s amazing. I should be in the windshield replacement business, I’d make a fortune, I think,” her smiles never leaving her face while she walked around the green, now reddish brown Ford Explorer. She was both talkative and quite understanding. She explained how car rentals were more expensive in Alaska than the lower 48 for that very reason, and how she guessed that one out of five came back with some sort of glass ding, especially ones taken on the road for long distances. She said I was lucky it was on the passenger side. Patting the hood she said “these guys clean up pretty well, so don’t worry about that mud either.”

I wanted to address the flat. Apologizing for mud and being unable to clean the tailgate storage area, I explained how that’s where the infamous flat tire had to be stowed. Walking around, she examined the now-caked drying reddish-brown wheel well sludge while I opened the tailgate, with clumps of mud falling off. I guessed she probably was looking for dings on the body. She didn’t touch anything, but she did take it all in with her upbeat business demeanor as she went on to notice the rim showing through the rubber threads of the tire. She did touch the protruding metal on the rim.

“Did you have any difficulty changing the tire?” she asked sincerely.

“Well it didn’t happen in a place where it could be handled easily and it was pouring rain.” I went on apologetically about not having changed a tire for decades, for not knowing how to use the jack, and not being able to use my cellphone.

“Oh my!” she went on to say. “It sure looks like you must’ve had a challenging time replacing the tire while on the road. Did you get a receipt for whatever it cost you to be towed?”

“Well, no, I didn’t” I said overlapping her sentence, “I didn’t need to.” I didn’t have time to mention the help I had received from Jack, the border patrol agent.

She went on without pause “…because this sort of thing can be quite expensive; oh, you didn’t need a tow then, did you?”

Within this paradigm shift, I was taken aback. I said I didn’t need anything and took care of it on my own with help from a passerby. I did want to thank her for her understanding, of course. My doom and gloom mood became indebted to her buoyant empathy and kind words; yet, my heart was readying itself to hear bad news. “No, no towing expense. So, what’s the damage?”

“No, really. Hertz would be pleased to reimburse you for any expenses you may have incurred for having to change your own tire.” Her eyes were genuinely compassionate.

“That won’t be necessary …really!” I felt embarrassed.

“Then would you at least accept $50 from Hertz for having to change your own tire?”

I declined.

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