Sane people cruise to Alaska, or they fly. Not me and Bob. We saw a chance for two adventures – seeing Alaska and getting to Alaska. The getting to would have taken us 10 days if we’d driven seven hours a day. We gave ourselves a month, knowing we would be drawn off course often by such irresistible features as waterfalls, totem poles and campgrounds with flushing toilets.
Thoughts of sightseeing along the way were swept aside our first five days on the road, when temperatures topped 90 from Florida to Wisconsin. We knew we’d finally escaped the heat when we pulled into a North Dakota campground on a crisp, clear afternoon. That night I brought a blanket into the tent just in case it got cool. A couple hours later, I woke up shivering. Bob was asleep, inside a heavy sleeping bag. We had two more sleeping bags, so I crawled into the van looking for one of them. When I couldn’t find either, I settled for a second pair of pants and a long-sleeve shirt, which were helpful as an umbrella in a hurricane.
When I got up in the morning, Bob was not only inside a sleeping bag, but under one, too. I asked where he’d gotten the second bag.
“Amazon,” he said.
I wanted to let him have it, but I couldn’t. Bob’s no wise guy. He honestly thought I might want to have a sleeping bag shipped to the next campground.
“Where did you get it last night?” I said.
“Oh, it was next to me.”
“I froze all night and couldn’t find a sleeping bag. Will you please tell me where you got it?”
“I’m going to the bathroom.”
A couple days later, we were pleased to find a shady, lakefront site on a warm, sunny afternoon in an Idaho park. I told myself not to make ageist assumptions when a teenage couple set up camp nearby. Soon the pair expanded to a quartet, an octet, then a dozen. As it grew dark, they grew loud. Around ten, two girls got into a fight. Then came the fireworks. A gleeful series of bangs would have been mildly torturous. These sadists strung their bangs out at the rate of one every 30 minutes. Just when I was about to fall asleep – bang – another would put a quick end to that fantasy. As a member of the sex lacking milk ducts, Bob never acquired the ability to hear noises that might interrupt his sleep. When the 1 a.m. bang sounded, I knew it was time to take action.
I marched down to the teens’ site and said, “Please quiet down so the rest of us can sleep. Quiet time starts at 10. It’s one o’clock.”
They carried on long enough to prove they didn’t have to listen to an old fusspot. Then they stopped. I was floored. Why hadn’t I done that three hours earlier?
Our next stop on my can’t-miss list was the Glacier Inn bar in the tiny town of Hyder. Although it’s in Alaska, Hyder is 950 miles from the border crossing that’ll get you anywhere. The only road in and out of Hyder connects to Stewart, British Columbia. Knowing how much tourists love pictures of themselves in front of famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty, the owner created his own famous landmark on the bar wall. It’s a painting of a frog with a talk bubble saying, “I’ve been Hyderized.” Patrons earn the right to a selfie in front of it by chugging a shot of grain alcohol.
Thrilling as that was, I was more fascinated with bartender Jody Bunn. Jody looked to be in her mid-40s and had spent her life in Hyder. I asked what she did when she needed to meet with an accountant who knows American tax law, let’s say, or an American doctor who’s in her health plan.
“You just get a ride on the mail plane to Ketchican,” she said.
The plane comes twice a week, she continued, “if the weather’s good. Sometimes we go a month without mail.
“You get used to it.”
That conversation made me hungry for more insight into life in such remote northern locales. My appetite was more than satisfied the next night. We were at a lakefront campground in British Columbia where the weather was so pleasant we cooked outside on the Coleman stove. Hours later, I woke up to a loud whooshing sound. I woke Bob up, and we rushed outside. Every one of our heavy-duty stakes had pulled out of the ground. If either of us had let go of the tent, it would have blown to Oz. Bob grabbed his hammer and had me hold the tent while he banged the stakes back in.
“Is it worth the trouble?” I yelled over the wind.
“What’s the alternative?”
“Pack up and go.”
I could see the sun was about to rise over the hills.
The phenomenon of the midnight sun suddenly lost its charm.
When we left later that morning, the wind was calm and the sky partly cloudy, fine for meandering through the Yukon Territory’s Signpost Forest. I couldn’t resist this kitschy jumble of license plates, street signs and handmade placards nailed onto a maze of wooden posts.
I hoped we’d find an equally satisfying campground nearby, but the only one within miles was a dirt parking lot behind a busy truck stop. The host advised us to set the tent up away from the RVs. RVers evidently don’t want tent-camper entrails mucking up their tires. Foolishly, we decided to sleep in the van. That involved pressing eight homemade light-blocking shades against the windows then moving a six-man tent, double air mattress, step ladder, cooler, two folding chairs and a dozen duffel bags, milk crates and storage bins from the back of the van to the front. We had no idea then that the risk of frostbite would force us to sleep in the van every night for the next month. If we’d gone with the tent, at least we would have enjoyed one last night sleeping outdoors. And if we’d positioned it just right, we never would have had to do the camping-crap shuffle again.
Three days later, we crossed the border. Every picture I posted from Alaska showed us in parkas, wool hats and mittens. Snow-capped mountains locals swore were right behind us were hidden behind thick, white clouds. Oddly, this did nothing to dissuade Bob’s brother and his wife from taking a cruise to Alaska weeks later. Their Facebook posts showed fancy cocktails, thousand-calorie desserts and crab legs the size of baguettes. In every outdoor picture, their jackets are unzipped and the skies behind them blue. They had fun, but I doubt they had an adventure.