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I Have Arrived
Twelve days across Canada to Alaska
I wrote this piece on Thursday, August 10th. My posts have been delayed by long days of driving and no internet, but I have so much to share. I think it will be a book when I have time to write it all. For now I’m focused on living it!
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Twelve days of white-knuckling. Twelve days of 8 or 12 or 18 hours behind the wheel. Twelve days of late nights and sleep deprivation. Twelve days of the deepest exhaustion I’ve ever known.
Twelve days driving 5,000 miles solo across the North American continent in a van I just bought that is 24 years old. A van I’d driven twice before (once to get it home, and once to get it an alignment). Twelve days of gas stations and rest areas. Twelve days sleeping in driveways and truck stops and the parking lot of a casino.
Twelve days learning how to feed myself on the road, how to shower in my vehicle, how to fill the water and empty the shitter, how to operate the 3-way fridge and the hot water heater.
Twelve days on remote highways through the boreal forests of Quebec and Ontario; through the flat farmlands of Saskatchewan and the rangelands of Alberta; through the jaw-dropping peaks of the Canadian Rockies with their green rivers and glaciers.
Twelve days that the sky switched from oven-like sun to apocalyptic smoke to Biblical rain and thunder and back again. Twelve days of red sunsets, pink clouds, and rainbows.
Twelve days meeting fellow travelers who invited me to sleep in their driveway or next to their barn, who gave me giant cucumbers and purple beans and crispy greens from their gardens and shared stories of their trips and lives and dreams.
Twelve days of speeding past deer then cattle then bighorn sheep then black bears and caribou, a herd of 100 bison, and finally a grizzly bear and a bald eagle and a Canadian Lynx.
Twelve days alone with my thoughts, questioning the life decisions that led to me speeding across Canada with my two dogs alone in an old van. When I tired of my thoughts, twelve days of Indigo Girls on repeat and CNN on satellite radio and podcasts about infertility and an audiobook by a child actor grappling with the death of her abusive, co-dependent mother.
Twelve days wondering if I would make it to Alaska, then wondering if I would make it home, then wondering if I would ever want to go home again.
Then at the end of the twelfth day, I arrived.
Technically I’m still in the Yukon, which is my favorite place so far. The road signs read “Yukon: Larger than Life,” and I bought a sweatshirt at a gas station in a First Nations community that says “Yukon: North of Ordinary.” It’s sprawling mountain ranges surrounding vast rivers and boreal forests. There’s one highway, and I’m on it: the famous Alaska-Canada highway, or Alcan, built during World War II and stretching 1,500 miles from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks. I go ten minutes at a time without seeing another vehicle, and two hours without seeing a gas station. Almost all the drivers I encounter are fellow van-lifers, RVers, or people with SUVs converted into overland rigs with roof racks, solar panels, and a trailer hitch rack carrying 5-gallon jugs of water and gasoline. There are occasional truckers and U-Hauls moving goods and people and petroleum back and forth from The Last Frontier. Otherwise, it’s me and my fellow wanderers and the bears.
I knew I had arrived when I reached the stop sign in Haines Junction and turned right. If I’d gone straight, driving due south, I would have crossed the US-Canada border into the Alaska panhandle. In less than two hours I would have been on the shores of the Gulf of Alaska at the northern tip of the Inside Passage. From there I could have caught a ferry to Juneau, the land-locked capital of Alaska, where earlier this week a melting glacier burst its dam and flooded the city, washing away riverfront mansions in an undeniable demonstration of climate change.
But I turned right, following the Alcan highway towards Destruction Bay, where I let the dogs loose on a gravelly beach at the southern tip of Kluane Lake to fetch balls and eat dead birds. The coniferous trees of the boreal forest seemed shorter and sparser than they were further south, as if beginning the transition to tundra. Bald mountainsides suggest that treeline isn’t much higher than the highway’s elevation, and snow-white glaciers sit at the top of the tallest and most jagged peaks.
This landscape has haunted my dreams for as long as I can remember, and I’m finally here. Moving to the White Mountains 15 years ago was my first step in following my longing to be in a wild place. But here, New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-footers would be foothills; there’s a Presidential range around every corner, and the glacier-capped peaks on the horizon tower above them. Wide rivers carve vast, muddy flood plains draining the year’s snow-melt into the Arctic Ocean.
Civilization is an afterthought. Signs off the highway point towards communities of native people whose ancestors have fished these rivers and hunted these forests for millennia. They sell sweatshirts at service stations where you pay for your gas inside and then watch the numbers spin on the ancient pump until it reaches the amount you paid for. These First Nations have cultural centers that teach visitors about their history and traditions. As a white woman I am aware of being an intruder, a colonizer of their ancient lands. They smile and sell me the sweatshirt. I wish I had more time on this trip to stop, listen, and learn. I make note to slow down and remember that this so-called wilderness has a rich human history that I’d like to know more about.
My planned stopping point for the night was a parking lot behind a gas station in Beaver Creek, just before the Alaska border. I drove into the night, the sun still high in the sky at 9pm. I noticed dirt pull-offs along the shores of lakes and rivers where vans and RVs had tucked themselves in for the night amidst a panorama of mountains. I needed to push on for a while, but I decided that if I saw the perfect spot, I would stop short of my destination.
I knew I’d found it when I was on the bridge across the Donjek River and saw three rigs parked along its bank, their windows facing glacier-capped peaks. I pumped the breaks and turned down the brushy dirt path to pull up alongside the other vans. It was still light at 10pm, and I walked the dogs and made some friends down by the river. I slept with all my shades up and my windows open, hoping to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis if I awoke in the middle of the night. But it was still twilight when I closed my eyes at 11:30pm, and the sky was already getting blue when a mosquito buzzed in my ear at 4:45am. I watched the moon set over the dark silhouettes of peaks outside my window.
After twelve long days on the road, I am living my dream of sitting in my van on my iPad writing, watching the brown current of an Arctic river flow by and listening to the wind whip off the mountains. The dogs are tied up on the tailgate in the sun, napping or dreaming or whatever dogs do while they wait for their humans to pay attention to them.
It’s a surreal landscape and a surreal moment in my life. After years of daydreaming and scheming and yearning, after months of van-shopping and van-fixing, and after weeks of non-stop driving, I am camping for free in the most beautiful campsite I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to believe this will be my life for the next 3 or 6 or 8 months, or however long the van runs and my budget holds out and I don’t get too lonely. This day, last night, this morning are just the beginning of a life I hope will bring me back to nature and back to myself after a decade of things falling apart.
I hope this trip will put the pieces back together again in a way I never could have imagined.
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