My brother, Richard, volunteered to fly out from Atlanta to make the long drive from San Francisco to Alaska with me. It was his bride Gloria’s idea. Gloria has too much good sense to think it was smart for me to make the trip alone, and is too generous for her own good. I accepted Richard’s offer before Gloria could find out how long it would take to both make the drive and give Richard a couple of days respite before heading home.
“I said you could borrow him, not adopt him!”
She was joking, but just.
Richard and I drove for nine days. Actually, Richard drove for nine days. He drove more than 4,000 of the 4,375 miles from San Francisco while I nodded in and out of consciousness like someone who had retired during the Nixon administration instead of last week.
Those final weeks in San Francisco had taken a toll: physical, mental and emotional. Packing on nights and weekends, I looked at everything I owned to decide whether to take, store, sell, donate or dump. There must be some equation explaining how hundreds of small decisions are the equivalent in stress to a number of much larger decisions. The weekend before we left I rented a trailer, hired a guy to help me load it, and drove my furniture and everything non-essential to life in Alaska up to Oregon for storage. Between the packing and work and goodbye dinners I was already exhausted, and with the trailer the seven-hour trip took me ten hours. When I got back I had one day to get out of my apartment. It took three. With no bed and no apartment, I was lucky to have dear friends who put me up and put up with me and all my remaining belongings and even, on that last night in town, my brother! At work I tried to tie up all sorts of loose ends I had successfully procrastinated during my 15-year tenure. But that wasn’t the hard part. Leaving my friends and colleagues, knowing that however close we remain it will never be the same – that was the hard part.
The road trip itself was a lot of fun. When else would I ever have had the chance to spend so much time one-on-one with my brother? We laughed, cried, talked about our shared past and saw the same old stories through new eyes.
If you ever drive from the lower 48 to Alaska, you will find you have many routes to choose from. We were visiting friends and family in Washington and Montana, so crossed the border near Great Falls, Montana. Not knowing exactly how long the whole trip would take, as we headed into Canada we decided against the scenic route via Banff and Jasper along the Columbia Ice Fields. Instead we headed past Edmonton, Alberta to Dawson Creek in the Yukon, which is Mile Zero on the Alaskan Highway. Neither of us had seen Muncho Lake or the Liard Hot Springs in the northern part of the Yukon Territory, so we headed that way.
As we approached Muncho Lake we saw more wildlife than on any other day of our trip. We got a good soak in at nearby Liard Hot Springs. At Haines Junction we stopped at one of the good bakeries there for coffee and wifi. Getting back on to the highway we missed what is possibly the largest, least subtle junction road sign in all of North America.
We began to suspect something was wrong when we re-entered British Columbia, since our next border should have been customs at Port Alcan. Well, Richard began to suspect something was wrong. Still drowsy, I espoused the theory that British Columbia had just put up the sign in the wrong place. About 45 minutes from Haines Junction we were stopped by a flagman (woman) to wait for a pilot car to lead us through the construction zone. In a land where there are only a few short months to improve the roads and correct for the roller-coaster-like frost heave, we found ourselves waiting for pilot cars a number of times. Richard got out and asked:
“Is this the road to Haines?”
On our last day of travel, more than 4,300 miles from our start, a hazard light on the dashboard warned of a flat tire. We were in the final stretch, on a dirt and gravel road 20 miles from a B&B that ostensibly offered tire services and free coffee. A visual inspection showed nothing amiss, so we decided to go on 10 more miles and check again. Sure enough, my left rear tire had lost its characteristic firm, round quality. We felt every rock and bump in the road acutely as the Forester limped the final 10 miles.
We drove up the steep dirt driveway of the B&B. A man with a gray beard looked handy, standing as he was on a ladder nailing tarpaper onto some sort of extension to the main house.
“We seem to have a flat tire,” I told him.
“You’ll need to talk to Jennifer” he said, motioning toward the lodge-like house.
I found Jennifer at work in the kitchen. She offered coffee, and we accepted. Jennifer conferred with the man on the ladder, who confessed to being less handy than he looked. As he and I were similarly useless in this situation, we passed the time chatting about his real passion: bow-hunting. He was working for his room and board in order to be able to stay in this caribou and caribou-hunter’s paradise.
Jennifer emerged from the house with a young man in his early 20’s; Benedict said he had fixed three or four tires in his life. That was more than the rest of us combined, so he got the job. It took a while to unload the car sufficiently to get to the jack and spare. Richard positioned the jack, and Benedict took over from there. A rock emerged from the tire; it was the shape of a nail but considerably thicker. Benedict patched the tire, and the three men decided to put a lot more air than was called for, “just to be safe.”
“What do I owe you?” I asked Benedict. He shrugged and sent me back to Jennifer.
“Whatever it’s worth to you,” Jennifer told me. “Just pay the kid.”
Whatever it’s worth to me? That was not the answer I was looking for. I was less than 40 miles from my destination, the cabin where Gary was waiting for me. We had emailed ahead a few hours earlier and told him we’d be there for dinner. The going rate for the tire fix? Probably twenty dollars. What did I pay? Sixty dollars. What was it worth to me? Priceless.
When we got to the cabin, Ella found us first. She wriggled and wagged and talked and leapt. Her paws on my shoulders, she hugged me and kissed me copiously. Who knows where her mouth had been, and who cares? This language we share, and after almost three months apart we had a lot to say to each other.