It must have been in 1957 that my dad's uncle Art purchased a new international scout and went up the famous Alcan Highway. I remember especially the new vehicle, and how it looked when he returned. It had taken a beating from the road, coming back pretty well used for a 6-month-old vehicle. But he didn't seem to mind; he had returned with hundreds of photographs, which he turned into a very impressive slide show, in chronological order, of his adventure. We watched that slideshow every time we went to his house or he came over to ours - you might think it would have been boring, as so many stories about someone else's vacations are. But I picked at the fruit cocktail eerily suspended in Mom's dreadful jello salad (it wasn't her fault; the 1950s were seemingly obsessed with alternative uses for both jello and Del Monte fruit cocktail) with rapt attention as we looked at slide after slide of stunning Alaskan vistas. To me, they looked like pictures from another planet.
To say that I was impressed was a bit of an understatement. I filed it away as a must-do someday. So 17 years ago, at the tender age of 53, I decided I would take the same trip. With the blessing of my then-girlfriend, now wife, I purchased a Pace Arrow motorhome. Like me, it had seen better days, but it was a comparatively spry 23 years old. She had about 75000 miles on her (that's the motorhome, not the wife) and the 454 CID engine. We went on a few shake-down trips to some of Montana's state parks and campgrounds before I figured we were ready for the Big One.
North to Alaska, up the famous Alcan.
Now, the first thing I have to say is that my wife, though she has a terminally low tolerance for my BS, is an amazing camping buddy: fearless, resourceful, industrious, totally unafraid of a little dirt, etc.
She is also stunningly beautiful, like a combination of Greta Garbo and Annie Oakley, only tougher and prettier than both (she's reading this over my shoulder as I type, nodding). At any rate, she is a delight to travel with, to any destination.
But having dated me for about four years by then, she had acquired a modicum of caution. As such, she had a question.
Can an almost 25-year-old motorhome make the journey and get us home? Safely?
"Sure," I said, "of course she will."
So starting in the fall, we started saving money for gas and groceries. We scheduled vacation to coincide with the summer solstice, knowing that the antique RV would probably burst into flame at the first encounter with adverse weather. We knew the 454 drank some gas, so we had saved enough cash for 6 mpg and 6 thousand miles, give or take. That was the extent of planning. Vacation time was arranged, with two weeks, and their weekends, we had about 18 days off in June of the next year.
Off we go, my someday wife, her second-grade son, and his cousin, a year younger than him. We get to the Sweet Grass border crossing to Canada and encountered a stern-looking Canadian gawping incredulously at our rig.
The inspection guy asked, "what is your purpose for entering Canada?"
"Goin' to Alaska," I cheerfully replied.
"You're kidding, right? In this old motorhome?"
I did my best to conceal a slightly insulted look on my face. "Like her owner," I said with wounded pride, "she runs better than you'd expect."
He just shook his head and waved us through, no doubt thinking that if we broke down and became the lunch of Kodiak bears, dinosaurs, or whatever the hell else they've got up there, it wouldn't be his problem. Incredibly, the RV did make it the whole way, although for nearly the entire trip it made a sound not unlike a moose being forced slowly and painfully through a pasta strainer.
It turns out to be quite a drive to get to where you can say we are now on the Alcan Highway. It was very near the longest day of the year, so we were entering that stage in Alaska where the days are virtually endless, although I'm not sure we'd realized it. What happens to me and mine is that, like chickens, we rise early and stay up until sunset, whereupon we come in looking for supper. So, needless to say, our biological clocks were getting more and more messed up as we traveled north.
So a few days later, on the Alacna proper, we stopped at Kluane Lake somewhere along the lake near Burwash, in Yukon Territory. We saw an RV Park, pulled in and were lucky enough to secure the best spot at the park, right on the lakefront. The kids piled out to blow steam after a long day of Nintendo - I'd be surprised if they looked out the window even once on the whole 3000 mile trip to Fairbanks. So I make my dear wife a margarita, and poured myself about a whole hand's worth of fingers of scotch before settling at the picnic table to soak up the view.
The kids were skipping rocks at the lake, making what I would call a joyful noise, when the camp caretaker walked up and said, "you best reign in those kids."
To which I replied, "ah come on, they're just being kids. Why?"
He replied, "because of the other campers, buddy."
I looked around and, except for the parked rigs, noticed a distinct lack of other people. What sticks in the mud, I thought. In fact, they were unimaginative sticks in the mud - why was no one else enjoying this incredible view?
We made another round of drinks.
I decided to check out the camp boss, who is sitting out front of his cabin scowling in my direction. "Howdy," says I, with as friendly a Montana howdy, as I could muster. He, with a nod to my scotch on the rocks, said, "I guess it 5 o'clock somewhere."
I figured he must be some sort of teetotaler, so, ignoring the barb, I pointed to the spot we camped in remarked comment on my luck to get the spot. He gave me a quizzical look and said, "do you have any idea what time it is?"
I glanced at my watch, but with the changing time zones and all, I had to admit I didn't know what time it was. "Still daylight, so I'm gonna guess 9, maybe 10 pm?"
He said, "It's 6 am."
With genuine shock I realize why no other campers are out, why he wanted the kids quiet, and why he had me pegged as some kind of profoundly inveterate drunk - I'd have to be to be imbibing at this time of day.
He told me the reason we got such a nice spot is that the camper from yesterday had just left for the day.
We never did get used to the sun not setting for the whole of our vacation. When we got back weeks later, we were so mixed up we went to bed at 6 pm for a week.
I've since reflected that Alaska is like Montana's bigger, weirder, crazier cousin, and that cousin's on steroids. The mountains are craggier, the beasts bigger, the people, well, just a little bit weirder. I loved our vacation, even when I was knocking them back at 6 am, the kids hollering and raising Cain while decent folks were trying to sleep, but I also have to admit that by the end of the trip I was more than happy, in point of fact I was relieved, to come back to Montana, where the bears are only gigantically massive and not downright monumental.
And where the passing of time observes at least some general rules.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.