MemberFebruary 12, 2020 at 6:08 am
Previous Post – Beginning our Trek to Alaska
All around the post at Fort Hood you could find bumper stickers that read “Happiness is Fort Hood, TX in your rear-view mirror” and that is the way that we felt. My assignment there had been a fairly successful one and we looked forward to a change of scenery and climate. This was a very exciting but also a very daunting journey. I’d certainly never attempted any kind of move of this magnitude and had never traveled anywhere in the northwest United States or Canada. But first, a quick detour home to the Louisville, KY area were our families live and where we were leaving my wife’s Mustang. One of our many discussions over the previous months was about one vehicle or two for the move and we both agreed that the Mustang would not be a practical vehicle in Alaska so it stayed in storage back home.
After visiting everyone and a lot of tears because we were going to ALASKA of all places, we loaded up the truck and headed west. My wife’s sister Mary and brother-in-law Bill lived in Leavenworth, Kansas and since it was on the way, we of course stopped in to visit. It was a good visit and the only time I ever got to meet Bill as he died the following year from cancer. We spent the night there in their pop-up camper trailer which was an interesting enough experience for me to determine that I would never buy one myself. Then the next morning we were off to Denver.
We’d taken time to plan out route to Alaska to maximize visiting with family and friends and to see parts of the country we wanted to visit that were along the way. Roughly, the route Leaving Fort Hood, TX consisted of overnight stays during June 1985, in the following locations:
• Louisville, KY.
• Leavenworth, KS
• Denver, CO
• Ogden, UT
• Twin Falls, ID
• Mountain Home AFB, ID
• Yakima, WA
• Merritt, BC, Canada
• Summit Lake, BC, Canada
• Fort Nelson, BC, Canada
• Whitehorse, YT, Canada
• Anchorage, AK
We also planned the trip for economy as we were in much better financial shape than when we moved to Fort Hood, saving as much as we could on this trip was a factor. We stayed with family in Louisville and Leavenworth, camped in the truck in Ogden, Yakima, Merritt, Summit Lake and Fort Nelson, Visitors Quarters in Mountain Home and only three motels in Denver, Twin Falls, and Whitehorse.
One thing about this ambitious plan I want to bring up here is that we undertook this travel escapade with a three-year old and a four-year old in tow. A month of travel with two boys under the age of five and better that half of the journey it was just the four of us all together in the cab of a 1977 Ford F-150 Supercab pickup truck. I attribute the success of this journey to my spouse and partner who always seems to have the capacity to make the best of any situation. I admit, she did most of the parenting as I was either working, away for National Guard, away in the Army or just away trying to earn enough money we didn’t starve.
Early in our marriage we’d decided that one parent would stay home and raise the kids and the other would work and I ended up the breadwinner. In all honesty, I can’t imagine it working out differently as she made some spectacular achievements with our children. Small events sometimes are the most defining of what we have achieved.
One example of this was an incident in a truck stop café somewhere in Kansas on the leg between Leavenworth and Denver. We had stopped for lunch and it was a pretty busy restaurant. During the meal, my oldest son split his glass of milk and was quite upset about the mess he’d made. He was mostly upset because he’d wasted his mike being careless but he also wanted to clean the mess. He “helped” mom and the waitress clean the mess and was happy to learn that she was bringing him another glass at no charge. All of this was done with a minimum of drama and if you weren’t at the table you likely wouldn’t have noticed as our children knew to behave in public. This opinion was validated later when we got up to leave and an elderly couple sitting nearby marveled to us about how well-behaved these two boys were during the meal. Often, unsolicited praise for small things can be a most poignant moment. It made an impression on me for sure.
My wife, was keeping the boys entertained while I was driver/navigator. She would make a great boy scout as she is always prepared. During the trip, she had activities for the boys and never failed to make something an educational opportunity for our young charges. She in charge of the “in Trip” activities and I was the guy in charge of plans and logistics. Since this was before the age of the Internet, one of the tools I’d used was my American Automobile Association (AAA) trip planning services (Yeah, 5000-mile adventure and no GPS for backup.) AAA was the best source for maps and they also had a service making route plans called a “Trip-Ticket”. The trip ticket was a custom, hand held bound map set that contained the entire planned route with both detail maps and key details like known road construction, detours and the like. I’d purchased AAA for the roadside assistance package and found the route planning was a fortuitous side benefit.
Our journey between Denver and Ogden, UT, was punctuated by wilderness beauty. The rolling grasslands of the high prairie in Wyoming and the majestic beauty of the mountain valleys as we entered the Rockies in Utah were things I’d never witnessed in person. My youngest son at the time, may have been introduced to his love of maps and geography during this trip. We all were fascinated with the natural beauty were encountered and there were new adventures for us around every turn. Ogden was the first time we stayed at a campground and the one we found was one of the nicest that we saw on the trip. Camping was a big economic incentive for us as we’d only planned motels for about one-third of our stops to save money, and heck it was an adventure too. We stopped in Twin Fall, ID, along the Snake River made famous by “Evel” Knievel. The valley carved by the river is beautiful and the falls that are the namesake of the town are also a beauty to behold.
Our stop in Twin Falls, ID, was a prelude to a visit with a family friend in the Air Force. She was a Chaplain’s Assistant at Mountain Home AFB and she was also the person who helped us finance the truck. We would have been remiss not to stop and visit. The costs were low as we qualified for Visiting Enlisted Quarters (VEQ) where I rented a furnished house in the base for five days for about the price of the motel room, we’d stayed at in Twin Falls. It was educational to drive through the northwestern part of the country. I’d read about it in geography but I’d never really understood the concept of “High Desert” until driving through Idaho and the eastern portions of Washington and Oregon. But then again, this was my first experience with it so I was broadening my education at every turn. One of the highlights for me was seeing F-111 (Aardvarks) that were stationed there. The F-111 dual afterburner night takeoffs there were a fabulous sight.
Well rested from our stay in Mountain Home, we continued with our adventure as we trekked toward Yakima, WA, and our next camping site. During the entire five-thousand-mile odyssey, I made one wrong turn and it was in Washington state. Apparently, Washington kept taxes low by not investing in extraneous signage. To be truthful, we had encountered road construction for a twenty or thirty-mile stretch and I will give them the benefit of the doubt about not having signs at the intersection where I’d made the wrong turn. It was a dark and overcast evening and I had to choose left or right. I chose wrong and it was another thirty miles down the road before my error became evident. But aside from ninety minutes lost, it wasn’t a big deal, we just had a later than planned leg of the trip and we rolled into the campground much closer to midnight than desired.
The next stop was Canada. I had never gone outside the United States and I’d never been west of Texas before beginning this trip. We were always entering new territory or doing something new as this adventure progressed. We’d crossed the continental divide the day prior and could actually see what it meant as far as the geography of the mountains and how the rivers all drain away from the divide east and west. Eastern Oregon’s desert was also one of the first times I’d encountered large scale farm irrigation. We all were wonderstruck with the technology and the circular layout of the irrigated fields.
The border crossing into Canada was fast and uneventful. This had been one of my concerns as we had never lived near or traveled to the border. I was unsure exactly how things would transpire. But a quick check of my military ID and orders for travel and we were waived through. There were no grand differences having crossed the border but there were several nuances to adjust to we encountered. Metric conversion was evident with kilometers instead of miles and seeing the majority of things in both English and French was a bit different. One thing that was evident was the Canadian penchant for ending a phrase with “You know what I mean, eh?” I’d always thought that was just a Bob and Doug McKenzie joke from the SCTV skit “Great White North”, but there apparently was a lot of truth to that gag.
Exchanging money was also a first for me, and the colorful Canadian currency almost seemed like play money. Especially the two-dollar and three-dollar notes. We camped at a campground near Merritt, BC, and the fact that we were going north was becoming evident as more and more blankets were needed to stay warm at night. One lesson we learned was that a foam mattress was a much better idea than the air mattress we used during the trip. The air mattress didn’t keep us warm. You live and learn.
Our second day in Canada marked our entrance to the Alaska-Canada (ALCAN) highway. We travelled up the highway from Merritt to Dawson Creek where the ALCAN originates. Historical note: The ALCAN was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1942 to provide land road access to Alaska during World War II. In 1985, all but about 150 miles of the ALCAN were paved. The 150 segments were gravel but just because they were “unpaved” didn’t mean that they were not well maintained. In many aspects, some of the gravel segments were nicer that the paved ones, and a lot smoother.
As we travelled further and further north in British Columbia, we could tell that we were in the wilderness. The farthest stretch we traveled without seeing anything man made aside from the road was 70 miles and for a boy from the suburbs that was an eerie feeling. The one thing I can say for sure is that isolation is not for me. Travelling the length of the ALCAN (1700 miles in 1985) I tried to be prepared for anything. I had three spare tires on rims, fan belts, oil, antifreeze and three weeks of food and water for four. First aid kits, medicine, bandages and more.
Still, I was unsure and I felt a bit of relief each time we returned to a small patch of civilization. The further north you went, the friendlier people were, the more primitive things became and the menu options at restaurants were fewer. One place we stopped to get gas and have the truck checked out for an unusual noise advertised a bathroom with real plumbing. It was a heated outhouse with very leaky pipes and it just barely qualified, but that was rural Canada.
The first full day on the ALCAN seemed to go on forever and ever. The miles were passing by and we saw fewer and fewer vehicles and more wildlife. We were checking off an informal list of animals we sighted on the trip. Beavers, moose, black bears, deer, elk and Dall Sheep (also known as “Tinhorn Sheep”), they are the northernmost of the sheep breeds. There was a large rock outcropping and we spotted 30 or more of these sheep at the base of the rocks 50 to 100 feet from the road. We stopped and Anna rolled down her window to take some photos as one Ram walked closer to the truck.
The sheep had no fear of humans and were curious about us. My wife was fast taking photos with a “Pocket Instamatic” (110-format) camera when this ram stuck his head into the cab and she about climbed on top of me to get away from him. I slowly let the truck roll forward and he backed out of the cab, and she quickly rolled the window back up. That ram had the most intriguing yellow eyes.
We got back on the road and further north and edging westward the drive continued. Finally, I was feeling pretty weary, I asked my wife if we could stop for the night, but she wanted to drive until sundown. I pointed out we were nearing the Arctic Circle and it was 2 AM and the sun hadn’t set yet when she said okay and we stopped at Fort Nelson, BC.
The previous night we’d camped at Summit Lake, BC. We’d chosen that campground because it was full service and had showers. Like many things in Canada, we learned the hard way that even luxuries like showers were often less that optimal. These were coin operated and at least in the ladies’ room, the water heater was subpar. Fort Nelson we opted for a real room and real showers and gladly paid the room rent without a second thought. Armed with a warm shower and a full belly at the local restaurant, we left British Columbia the next day and headed into the Yukon Territory.