A Thanksgiving Trip

November 26, 2004, 7:36 PM · There's nothing like a 4,500 mile road trip to make you a little more thankful at Thanksgiving. Last Thursday, the second my last student vacated my home, George and I loaded up our chocolate lab, Ben, and headed for the Yukon. We had never driven the Alaska highway this late in the season, and I suspected we would be in for a treat. We were.

We spent the night in Anchorage with my wonderful friend, Nora, who is resting between rounds of chemo for her lukemia. At 4:00 AM, we headed through the first mountain pass to reach Glenallen by sunrise. The roads were half decent, but a freezing rainstorm had just passed through Tok, and although temps were sub-zero, we noticed a wind-polished glaze on the road. At less than forty miles per hour, we rounded a bend to see a herd of caribou migrating across the slick. At least, that's what they were attempting. George started braking and honking, and I laughed. The scene unfolded so lethargically, I remember everything as a slow-motion ballet on ice, with caribou spread-eagled and long scraping sounds as our studded tires clawed the slope. We drifted to a gentle stop directly in front of the last caribou and admired its tip-toe balancing act as he trotted to the other side. Accident number one detoured.

We spent the rest of the long day crawling toward Whitehorse, the happy highlight of civilization deep in the middle of nowhere. Whitehorse is the kind of town where you could leave $20 in the "Tim Horton's" bathroom, come back for it fifteen minutes later, and find it still sitting there. If it wasn't, some nice stranger would be walking around the restaraunt, looking for its owner. I know this because I've done it--acually, more than once. I've also been offered housing by a Tim Horton's cashier, gotten my right front axle changed for pocket change in the time it took me to eat a Canadian Maple glazed donut, had my coffee payed for by a complete stranger, and gotten Alaskan discounts from the friendliest hotel managers, all in Whitehorse. I recommend Whitehorse to anyone.

The next day, we caught up with the culprit responsible for hundreds of miles of glazed ice--The Storm. We had originally planned to cover 850 miles that day, but rain-slicked frozen roads and patchy sanding made for precarious hairpin turns through each mountain pass. We went 55 mph, then 45, then 40, then 25. At this rate we would arrive in Oklahoma on December 22, just in time for Christmas. As my gut tightened into a wad of muscle, I thought about some things. My family. My violin. How would we get out of this country if we wrecked the car? Would anyone find us if we missed that turn and ended up at the bottom of that ravine? Do we have enough Ramen noodles to sustain us if we had to build a cabin at the bottom and wait for spring, or would we have to eat Ben? What do dogs taste like, anyway?

Accidents #2-22 avoided, we finally made it through The Storm and found lodging in Fort Nelson, 300 miles short of our goal for the day. At 3:00 AM, we signed out of the hotel and stepped outside to find that The Storm had caught us again. Our car was covered in a quarter inch of smooth ice. We let out our wiggling dog to feed him his breakfast, and watched as his bowl slid across the parking lot. Ben drooled. He wiggled again, and his back end slid after the bowl. You'd think it would be obvious what the next decision should be, but we debated for twenty minutes before deciding to go ahead an try it out. We got to the end of the town and the end of the sand, and saw a cop car flashing its lights for us to stop. The highway was closed. Accident #23 avoided. We returned to the hotel and begged to get our room back. I lay in bed and wondered what it would be like to celebrate Thanksgiving in a hotel with the Fort Nelson people. Later that morning, fresh snow and sleet actually had made the roads more drivable, and so we set off to conquer The Storm once more. Tractor trailors lay like slain buffalo on the side of the highway, yet we pressed onward, to Animal Pass.

Actually, I don't know the true name of this mountain range, but we all call it Animal Pass, for the obvious reason that it is guaranteed that we will see at least twelve species of animals on the road while driving through it. I recommend this route for anyone who wants to see buffalo, caribou, deer, mountain goats, sheep, and herds of beaver. (I didn't see the last one. George's friend did). Accidents #23-31 were avoided in this segment.

Sixteen hours passed. We crossed into Alberta, where the roads straightened and the sky lifted a little. We had reached the head of The Storm. George handed me the wheel, and I released my pent up anxiety on the road. I knew that if we stopped for the night, we would be caught once more, so I turned southward, to Calgary and beyond. We reached the border by 5:00 AM the next morning. I refused to rest until George insisted, after I missed my turn to the on-ramp and made a U-turn onto the interstate and saw headlights in both lanes. I calmly (okay not-so-calmly) pointed the car into a ditch and waited for the coast to clear. Accident number 32 avoided.

George drove through the rest of the day. We saw pheasant, antelope, and decidedly bigger skies in Montana. We saw where General Custer ended. We saw real cowboys in Wyoming. Night #3 was spent in Cheyenne. Ben got to sleep in the hotel this time; he peed on the floor, and somehow woke me in the night when he crunched a bit too loud on his chicken bone. Chicken bone? I still don't know where he got that chicken bone. Accident #33 avoided.

Then we lost the key to the car. I had time to think about what it would be like to stay in Cheyenne for a week and wondered which would be easier, re-keying the lock, hotwiring the car, selling the car and buying a new one, or taking up residency. The thought also crossed my mind that the key had magically turned into a chicken bone during the night. Luckily, George picked the lock and found our key inside the car, thus avoiding being turned into Wyomingans.

As we made our way eastward, a strong north wind forshadowed what we knew in our hearts would be waiting if we didn't make it to Salina, Kansas, by supper. And as we peeled out of the Subway at the intersection of I-70 and I-35 south, our fears were realised as ice pellets began to ping on the windshield. The Storm had found us. We sped on, The Storm lapping at our heels the entire remainder of the trip.

We were delirious. I was cross. I ate all the prunes I could, but I was losing the battle to remain fully... functional. George finished off the last of the Ramen noodles. Ben made a smell that remains to be explained and will haunt the car for the rest of its career. The sign for the Oklahoma border could not have come sooner.

After avoiding one more accident (#34) in Tulsa, we drifted away from the city lights and the cars thinned to a trickle. The air was thick, warm, and full of familiar smells of fall. I heard crickets for the first time. We turned onto a brown gravel road; a friendly scarecrow greeted us at the driveway of my parents' home.

I thought about my fiddle tucked safely in the back window. I looked at George and Ben. The car's engine was quiet now as we stepped into the night air, and a figure stood, silhouetted by the porch light.

Yes, we have so much for which we can give thanks.


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