Listening to Pandora this afternoon, I was whooed back to 1971 when Johnny Horton’s rendition of North to Alaska roused my senses. Nearly 50 years ago, in mid June, my boyfriend Ronny and I picked up his mom in Seatle, Washington. For the next two weeks we bellowed the words to this hit tune for all the world to hear. We were on an adventure bumping and bouncing along the thousand mile dirt road. Mile marker zero was posted in Dawson Creek, Btitish Columbia. A thousand miles later we sang out a ‘Yahoo,’ when we turned onto the main street in the Yukon Territory. This journey is a part of my life I am blessed to have etched in my memory.
Imagine, me, my boyfriend and his mom sitting shoulder to shoulder in the front seat of an F150 Ford pick up truck. I was a barefoot, long haired Joan Baez imitator. Ronny was a recovering heroin addict. His mom was a well endowed widow from Miami Beach. Our adventure began when Ronny and I quit our jobs in Lubbock, Texas. Although I never met his mom before this trip, she seemed eager to come along. We picked her up at the Seattle airport. The second she hopped into the truck and slammed the door shut, Ronny peeled out of the airport. We were on our way.
By nightfall we were well into British Columbia. Sleeping arrangements were modest. Ronny had installed a slide on camper into the bed of his truck. He also built a shelf for his mom to sleep on. It didn’t dawn on me until our first night on the road. I recall thinking, “This is weird, I can’t sleep with a guy whose mom is in the upper bunk. What if he wanted to…” Without much ado, I suggested his mom snuggle up next to me on the thick foam mattress covering the truck bed. “Ronny,” I whispered, “you’ll sleep better on the shelf.” And so it was for the remainder of our two month Alaskan adenture.
Ronny’s foresight about access to fuel was appreciated. Before leaving Lubbock he installed an auxillary 25 gallon gas tank. Just about the time the needle on our fuel gauge moved to the outer stems of the capital letter ‘E’ we spotted a log cabin. A sigh of relief spewed from each of us when a single fuel pump was spotted around the side of the building. There was always a much welcomed outhouse around back. Inside the cabin we could get some lunch. Grilled cheese and tomato soup were always on the menu. Potato chips and soft drinks were usually available.
At our first fuel and lunch stop my eyes grew wide at the site of a chalkboard hanging on the wall behind the counter. Big white letters spelled a concise message, MAIL. Printed below was North- Monday, South-Friday. I grew up with a mailbox nailed to the outside of our house. It was next to the front door. Mail was delivered daily. Here, we sat at a picnic table, in a log cabin, in a remote section of a wilderness road. It was forged during the Alaskan gold rush days. Staring at the mail delivery notice I swear I heard Judy Garland’s epic phrase from the Wizard of Oz. “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Then, two men, who rode up on horseback, confirmed that we were far from the suburban lifestyle where we lived.
Because fuel stops were infrequent we made several concessions to relieve ourselves. Finding a narrow opening alongside the muddy road, Ronny would pull over anytime one of us signaled a need. He would walk far enough away from the truck so we couldn’t see him. Ron’s mom and I stayed a little closer while we took turns squatting between a few trees. “Watch out for poison ivy,” we reminded each other before dropping our jeans. As the days passed our balance improved and our patience increased while squatting to pee, and then drip drying.
Pooping was another matter. To begin the ordeal I dampened a paper towel with a dab of soap on it for wiping. Then,I used our folding camp shovel to dig a hole. Next to the hole I’d make a pile of freshly fallen leaves. After wriggling my tight jeans down to my ankles I squatted over the hole to let the dung fall. After a lavish soap and water paper towel washing to finish the job I dabbed a few drops of baby lotion on my bottom. To hide my excrement I placed a clean paper towel on top of it. Then I piled the huge mound of leaves, sticks, and stones that I had gathered.
Most of our stops were motivated by nature’s call. Surprisingly there was usually a crystal clear river flowing within a few yards of where we parked. After doing our business we slipped off our boots, took off our socks and rolled up our pant legs. “Wahoo,” we squealed as we dipped our toes into the icy water. Taking baby steps we ventured into deeper water. We never went beyond knee deep. On two or three occasions we completely stripped down and splashed the chilly water on our bodies. Despite 40 degree temperatures we air dried before putting on clean clothes. Back on the river bank we each kept one of the pebbles that had gotten got stuck between our toes. The pepples served as our souvenirs.
Arriving in the Yukon territory was like entering a western style movie set. There were no lights or cars on the street. The buildings and landscape were a beige, light brown color. The air had a dusty feel to it. The sky was grey. A hitching post was in front of a cafe that boasted a large picture window which distinguished it from the other barren looking buildings. After days of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we decided to go in and get a proper meal. When the waitress brought us a menu we asked her the time. “Eleven thirty,” she casually replied. Aghast, we stared back at her. “Eleven thirty? It’s still broad day light!” She took our amazement in stride and asked if we’d like some coffee.
With our bellies full of crispy cooked bacon, scrambled eggs, and home fries, we decided to go for a stroll. Leaning on a lamp post was a man wearing an ankle length distressed leather coat. He had a feather in his hair. Seemingly in a trance he didn’t move an inch when we passed by. Another man was sitting on the sidewalk. His head was turned down, looking fixedly at the ground. The stillness of these men reminded me of characters in a John Wayne movie. Noticing my glare Ron’s mom leaned into my side and whispered, “Quit staring. Those men are drunk.” It was broad daylight. it was midnight. It was time for us to drive on.
“North to Alaska,” we again shouted as we climbed back into the truck. Within a short distance it took a mere millisecond for the front tires to bump onto a black tarred road while the rear tires were still in the dirt. Barely 100 feet beyond the Alaskan Welcome sign the golden arches marred the landscaped. For the previous week or so we slept in a remote forest, ate home cooked meals in the front rooms of family owned cabins, and bathed in fresh water streams. There were no street lights along the dusty, rutted road. We hadn’t seen a billboard in more than a thousand miles. We grew content living in harmony amongst the trees, birds and fish. The only damage we sustained was a tiny pinhole crack in the windsheild. Other travelers were not so lucky as oncoming RVs were notorious for kicking up loose gravel breaking windshields. Flat tires were also noted.
Driving the ALCAN highway was my introduction to camping which has remained a favorite past time. In Alaska we had other memorable times. Highlights of the trip include:
*Ron’s mom treating us to a hotel room where we each took a long hot shower after the two week camp ‘n ride along the Alcan Highway
*Flying to Point Barrow, the northernmost 1500 year old settlement on the North American continent
-Climbing down a ladder into a room sized hole in the the frozen tundra which the villagers used as their freezer to store for their hunted game (caribou, seals, polar bears, arctic hares)
-Watching the sun circle the horizon at latitude 71.9 (in July it doesn’t rise nor set)
-Noticing the absence of a shoreline where the frozen land and the frozen sea seamlessly meet. Faint cracks in the ice formed tiny islands that could easily find you drifting away from the land
-Being overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the wind, the water, the endless sky, the infinite ocean, the howling dogs and the absence of trees
*Learning that a post office in 1906 was responsible for changing the name of the village, Utqiagvik to Point Barrow. This was in response to the British Admirality who found Point Barrow easier for non-natives to pronounce. In 2016 the voters approved the official name change to Utqiagvik.
Over the years I lost contact with Ronny Selleck and his mom. Yet, the two days we spent with the Eskimos is so etched in my mind it is as if we were there yesterday. And to this very day scouting a privvy where ever I roam serves me well.