Orion's Photos: places - the_road - jun2004
Download these pictures
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 , 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
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 . We found a pulloff in the tundra
near a giant dirt road heading uphill  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 . We passed the
sea-green Muncho Lake [0150-0157], then the beautiful Liard river
suspension bridge , but didn't stop at Liard hot springs.
Toward evening, there was a strange fog occasionally slipping out
of the forest . We parked in a gravel pit and slept in the
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
 and purple  elsewhere. There's a cool (but reconstructed)
log bridge over the Aishihik River called the Canyon Creek bridge
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 . 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 .
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
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.
All images taken by Orion Lawlor
and placed completely in the public domain.
Converted to HTML on Wed Aug 31 22:38:08 AKDT 2011.
Back up to Photo Archive
Back up to Orion's Homepage