Orion's Photos: places - the_road - jun2004

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Layla and I drove up the Alcan highway starting in Champaign, Illinois on Saturday June 5, 2004 and ending in Glennallen, Alaska on Friday, June 11 2004. The trip is 3,600 miles, according to Yahoo maps.

The reason is that as I close in on my PhD, Layla began to really want to move back to Alaska. Since it looks like I'll be done in the middle of winter, we decided to move up during the summer of 2004.

We had actually begun the trip in May, when we bought a huge 1985 Chevy Suburban [see /portrait/suburban]. The Suburban was quite ugly, with large rust holes and peeling paint, but the 350 cubic inch V8 engine seemed to run well, and the thing is rated for 4500 pounds of cargo, so we figured it would do well. We changed the spark plugs, wires, distributor cap, oil, coolant, transmission fluid, and rear differential.

Our other major purchase was a 1993 Interstate 4-wheel car hauler trailer, a heavy-duty model with 2"x5" box steel frame [see /portrait/trailer]. The trailer didn't have the legally required lights, so I added them; and as ancient as it was, I decided to also replace the wheel bearings and tires.

I began loading the trailer about a week before we left, which actually felt fairly hurried. Thinking the loading would only take a few days, I began loading right outside the front door, rather than in the garage. This meant hauling everything a shorter distance, but more delays due to rain. The trailer is flat-topped, so I'd originally planned to use our furniture as a frame, but during the actual loading process I realized I'd really need a little fence to keep everything contained.

So I put 2x4's in the stake pockets of the trailer and screwed some light, tough 3/8 plywood to the pockets. We then piled our furniture and boxes in the middle of the trailer, which took forever, and lashed a giant blue tarp over the top of the thing using rope and packing straps-- Lowe's has a cheap 4-pack of long, tough straps. The packed trailer can be seen in the [truck_trailer/] directory.

The truck contained our truly precious stuff: us, my laptop, Layla's writing, and our two useless but beloved mice [see /portrait/mice_2004/]. We loaded our mattress on top of the boxes, which made the Suburban a bit like a very cozy camper. We packed an absurd number of sandwiches in a cooler.

We actually finished packing Friday afternoon, but as we were both exhausted, we decided to watch the new Harry Potter movie and leave the next day. We left around 9am Saturday [0016], which was a typical time to leave during the trip, drove I-74 to Bloomington, I-39 to Rockford and into Wisconsin, past the Wisconsin Dells on I-94, through the horrible construction in Minneappolis in the pouring rain, and slept in the back of the Suburban at a freeway rest stop in the middle of Minnesota. We'd done about 600 miles on Saturday, and had discovered the Suburban gets about 9 miles to the gallon while pulling the trailer; with only a 20-gallon tank, this is a usable range of perhaps 150 miles.

Sunday we crossed into North Dakota, skirted Fargo to I-29, and almost ran out of gas (and had to detour through a tiny town miles off the freeway). We discovered that in an old beast like the Suburban, there's less exhaust smell if you keep the windows rolled *up*. This is suprising, but it makes sense: with the windows rolled down, the fast-moving outside air sucks air out of the cabin (Venturi effect), which sucks in more exhaust from the rust holes in the underbody. With the windows rolled up, the vent fan both brings in clean air and pressurizes the cabin, which blows air *out* of the holes in the underbody.

We crossed into Manitoba, Canada on MB-75 after only a cursory search, although they did look carefully at our papers: driver's licenses, passports, student ID, etc. We skirted Winnipeg without problems, zipped down the beautiful divided highway into Saskatchawan, and stayed at the North Star Motel, a cheap but clean trucker-friendly motel in Regina. We did about 700 miles on Sunday.

Monday took us through Saskatoon, where we took about 3 hours in a Walmart parking lot to re-tie the rope holding down our tarp, which the wind had torn along a seam. The tarp had become rather balloon-like, and tying it down better and flattening it out actually improved our top speed significantly--air resistance becomes an important factor when pulling a large trailer! We entered Alberta toward evening, past the spot on the prairie where I had my big breakdown in my trip down in 1999, and drove through Edmonton near midnight. Just after hitting AB-43, I parked in a railroad building's lot in the tiny, cool villiage of Onoway, and we slept in the Suburban Monday night, having done 600 miles.

We'd both run red lights on the trip, as the truck brakes, even when locked up and squealing, are slow to stop the truck and trailer. I'd hooked up the trailer brake controller wrong until a Walmart in Battleford, Alberta, and as we discovered later, the trailer brakes were almost nonfunctional, because the inside of the trailer brake drum where the brake electromagnet locks on was polished mirror-smooth. Lack of braking was a cause of much worry for us, and guilt for me.

We realized that at this point, we *were* truckers (driving a big heavy rig all day, and sleeping in it all night), so we began carefully observing and imitating truckers' driving and parking habits. The trick to braking seems to be anticipating stops at least twice as far as you would for a passenger car, and keeping your speed low when an unexpected stop (like a stoplight) is likely. Truckers will *creep* up to a stoplight, which is useful. There are several tricks for finding free overnight parking: first, it's easiest to get away with between midnight and 7am (because nobody's there to care); second, railroads and utility yards always have parking but almost never use or check on it; and third, a neatly parked vehicle looks much more like it belongs than one parked at a weird angle.

Tuesday I nearly killed us outside the town of Grand Prairie, where AB-43 northbound transitions without warning from a 2-lane divided highway into a rutted 1-lane gravel road, which because of the poor brakes I hit at about 50 miles per hour. To continue, you're supposed to stop and make an abrupt left turn onto westbound AB-43 at the top of an overpass--this is truly the silliest freeway design I've ever seen, although our bad brakes didn't help. We entered British Columbia, passed Dawson Creek, and began BC-97: the Alaska Highway. The terrain was finally starting to shift from rolling prairie to more mountainous ground, and starting to look more and more like Alaska [0097]. We found a pulloff in the tundra near a giant dirt road heading uphill [0115] and slept in the Suburban.

Wednesday took us into the hills, crossing in and out of the Yukon Territories, passing amazing scenery, like the Tetsa and Muskwa river valleys visible from Steamboat Mountain [0123-0131]. We continued up into the mountains, getting out at a little stream [0132-0137]. We had finally mostly driven out of the rain, but all through the trip the rivers were still in flood stage [0145]. We passed the sea-green Muncho Lake [0150-0157], then the beautiful Liard river suspension bridge [0160], but didn't stop at Liard hot springs. Toward evening, there was a strange fog occasionally slipping out of the forest [0163]. We parked in a gravel pit and slept in the Suburban.

Thursday we began to approach the Alaska panhandle, and since we didn't want to reach the US border in the middle of the night we decided to take a little side trip to see the Carcross desert. Billed as "the world's smallest desert", this is a little patch of the south side of a sandy hill that is kept vegetation-free by the wind (although I'm sure the ATV's don't help!) [0166-0182]. We began seeing the amazing drifts of wildflowers that are common in Alaska, including sky blue [0184-0185] in the alkalai sections [0189] and purple [0195] elsewhere. There's a cool (but reconstructed) log bridge over the Aishihik River called the Canyon Creek bridge [0202-0208].

The tree leaves in this area, as well as near Fairbanks, had a strange greyish look to them, which on close inspection is caused by the work of a little leaf miner [0209]. They're bad in northern Alaska as well. We got some really spectacular shots of Teslin Lake [0215-0235]. We passed the scar of the 1999 fire I drove through on my way down [0244,0245]. From there it was clear sailing [0247].

Thursday night we slept at the 1202 motor inn, a decent little hotel just this side of the US border. We wanted to be showered and shaved to go through US Customs, and we were quite tired of continually being in or near the car.

Friday we crossed into the US outside Tok, which only took about 2 minutes. There were a line of campers behind us, only one customs agent on duty, and with the Illinois driver's licenses reading Orion and Layla Lawlor, Illinois plates, Illinois trailer with tarp, and good jobs lined up, I suspect we looked like a safe bet to basically just wave through. We took the Tok Cutoff to Glennallen, my home town [see /places/Alaska/Glennallen].

The scenery on the trip was definitely amazing; but driving for days on end gets painful very quickly. I suspect taking a few days off in the middle to goof off, go hiking, or just get away from the dang car would have broken up the monotony nicely.

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All images taken by Orion Lawlor and placed completely in the public domain.
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