The miles between Whitehorse, Yukon Territories, and the International Border seem to stretch on in a way that defies their already-significant actuality. With little to distinguish one from the next, they bleed into each other. And perhaps the rounding of kilometers into miles has a cumulative effect, so that everything is always a fraction further than imagined. A sunny morning in Whitehorse made for a lovely breakfast and hike with Hank, and the first few hours of the drive were as sun-soaked and cerulean as any day of my travels.
As we soaked in the deep-blue waters of Big Whitefish Lake in the intriguingly-named Destruction Bay, the wind began to whip and churn up whitecap waves and massive plumes of silt across the water. A few days prior, at a coffeeshop in Whitehorse, a woman at the table next to me had spoken succinctly about fall’s imminence. Day-by-day, I was beginning to see the signs of fall even as the calendar struggled to graze mid-August. The wind had a chill to it that seemed to shoo away the uneasy warmth of the sunshine and dry air. We loaded into the Land Cruiser and soldiered on, stopping again just down the road to pause at the very spot where the east and west construction crews of the Alaska Highway had met in 1942. It was an understated and weathered memorial to their monumental wartime effort, and if the spot felt faraway in 2017, its place in the world seventy five years prior was beyond my comprehension. I paid my awed respects to those real men and women, then loaded back into the truck while Hank groaned at me for our too-short frolic on the shores of the lake.
We lumbered northwestward along unstriped road, its chipseal paving high on grip and higher on noise, its dark surface capable of camouflaging the massive heaves and potholes that permafrost imparts on any manmade objects in the far north. The truck leapt and bucked wildly; Hank slept and eyed me with a faithful impatience. He was along for the ride, though he’d prefer we be out sniffing bear scat instead of hurling the far reaches of the continent. About this time, the weather began to turn. The sky took on a fierce, flat look as if the clouds were rendered in two dimensions above a complicated, folded world. The wind blew fiercely and birds struggled against it as they jumped from their roadside hiding places at the sound of my tires. Then the rain came, light and steady and pervasive, so grey and damp as to blot out any memory of the intense blues and greens of the morning. It rendered the whole world in faded, desaturated hues of brown and slate, and the way the droplets landed on our surroundings made me extra aware of just how much of this region is an undercover marsh. The water table rests a nanometer below the grassline, just waiting for the first hint of rain to flood the lowlands with chalky water and voracious mud. One expects to see dozens of moose, chest-deep in the ponds that line the lonesome road, but instead there is scarcely a raven. With rumor of so many dozens of thousands of bears and moose and eagles and sight of so few, it seems as though when it does finally rain wildlife it must pour. All day, we did not see so much as an elk.
The temperature dropped mightily, from a surprising mid-seventies high in Whitehorse to somewhere around fifty degrees as we approached Beaver Creek. The cold, prohibitive weather I had anticipated for weeks was finally here, and I was strangely glad for it. For one thing, it made progress slower and cooler which the Land Cruiser appreciated immensely. For another, it rendered the scenery more finite and brooding, which engaged the mind far more than an endless expanse of trees farther than the eye can see. We stopped for gas in Beaver Creek, a forlorn outpost that serves as Canada’s last town before the States, and it also seemed to serve as a last stop for things the way they were in days gone by. So many small, remote towns manage to resist the astronomical rate of change in the modern world, but this one with its plethora of instructional signs (Urinal This Way!, Bears Can Smell Your Food, Please Lock it Up and Be Smart When You Walk Outside!, Pump Gas Then Pay!) and all-in-one RV Park, Gas Station, Restaurant, Grocery Store was as stern in its devotion as any I’ve seen.
“How far to the border?” I asked the woman behind the counter, who had been dining with a motley duo at a folding card table in the other room of the grocery store until I stood for a few moments waiting to pay for my already-pumped gas.
“Eighteen miles,” she answered. I hadn’t heard miles as a measurement in quite some time, and I found that perhaps more energizing than the proximity to some sort of milestone along the arduous drive.
The rain and wind were strong enough that I was soaked even from halfway under the filling area’s awning, and when I got back into the truck, I was cold and wet and forced to run the AC to defog the windshield. This felt like Alaska. Soon, we passed the inbound customs booth for Canada, which did not have anything on our side of the road. We drove right past the long, standstill line waiting to enter the country and continued onward in bureaucratic purgatory—not yet out of Canada, but far enough that we’d have to wait in line to get back in. And then, after a seemingly long slog for eighteen miles, a few signs and a pullout emerged from the homogenous landscape. There it was—the geographic border between the Yukon Territories and Alaska. As we pulled into the turnout expressly designed for tourists to take their picture with the sign welcoming them to America’s Final Frontier, the rain relented. It was still, cold, and damp, and largely silent. One other pair of travelers was stopped to admire the sign. I noted a massive sticker among the collection of stickers on the backside from a group that was documenting its travels widely. I had run into them at the motor inn in Northway, British Columbia a few days prior. I thought of Steinbeck: “It might have been the American tendency in travel. One goes, not so much to see but to tell afterward.” This may indict me, but it hangs those who have six inch tall, two foot wide vinyl letters designed to plaster everywhere they might, as though their trip is a brand unto itself. I walked around, reading the signs about the hotly-disputed border between Alaska and Canada, which went from meaningless to contentious the moment gold was discovered in the region. Again, my mind was boggled by the notion of a geological survey in these thick woods a hundred and seventeen years earlier. What felt isolated now was the equivalent of the moon then. Of course, they didn’t know anything of cellular reception or television or international data roaming, so perhaps they felt less faraway than we do now when we travel for days without so much as a single bar of signal or one espresso shot to save us from ourselves.
It was both childishly and philosophically amusing to straddle the border, to bisect myself or Hank with a line between nations, to move freely between socialized healthcare and open carrying of handguns, to note the utter similarity between the two lands, to be both places and neither at once. It is a theme that arises every time I pass a border or a time zone change (or, in this case, both), that some arbitrary surveys and transactions can come to define a man or a place in a way that little else can. This one in particular was meaningful because it marked the beginning of an arrival. I set out from Austin to reach Alaska, America’s final frontier, the most extreme road trip destination our nation offers. A place so faraway in mindset and setting as to be almost forgotten, except for when mainlanders get indignant at some distant plan for a pipeline. Though we were hundreds of miles from anything, in a way, we had made it. I would now have the pictures and the passport stamp to prove it. Through incessant motion, stubborn resolve, and nihilistic expenditure, I had arrived at this physical milestone. It was perfect: the foreboding weather welcoming, the isolation soothing, the bygone territorial disputes suddenly immediately impactful on my life. These intersections of theoretical and physical delight me to no end, and I wanted to ask an international legal expert all kinds of questions about what might happen in any number of potential scenarios in this exact spot.
Arriving in bureaucratic Alaska was a delightfully unceremonious affair. Perhaps a quarter mile beyond the point where tourists flock to leave stickers and take pictures, there is a solemn one-lane, one-booth U.S. Customs and Immigration checkpoint. Though it was after seven P.M., it was relatively bright through the rainclouds. Alaska in the summertime is a disorienting place, for your old understanding of time must be discarded like Russia’s claim to oil on the North Slope. There was but one vehicle ahead of me in line, a Jeep Grand Cherokee with no license plate, which I figured didn’t bode well for their entry to Alaska. All the while, I noticed a relentless raven (the Territory bird of Yukon) hopping and cawing about on the Jeep. The officer stepped out and delivered the driver a stack of paperwork and made a halfhearted attempt to send the raven elsewhere. The conversation seemed to drag on, until at last the tough old female officer directed them to turn around and return from whence they came. Which must have been far away.
When it was my turn, I realized that perhaps this crossing would be a bit more scrutinized than the dozen-lane highway affair between Bellingham and Vancouver. I produced my passport and the woman analyzed it and then returned to the window.
“Is this a new truck?”
“No, I’ve had it a while.”
I told her the alphanumeric and she fumbled with her computer keyboard. The odds were in my favor.
“What was it again?”
“Juneau. Sierra. Charlie. Eighteen. Ninety two.”
“That’s Juneau – Sierra – Charlie – then wha—?” She caught herself. “Ok, got it.” I was speaking her language and likely had my facts a bit straighter than those who went before me.
“Are you bringing any weapons into the country?”
“Traveling with more than ten thousand dollars cash?”
“Do you have any produce in there?”
“I do not.”
“And how old is the doggie? Does he have his rabies paperwork?”
“He’s two and he does.” She stamped my passport. The raven was perched on my hood, glaring at me through the windshield like Edgar Allan Poe himself had placed him there. It was the first time it occurred to me that Edgar Allan Poe and David Allan Coe are a cheap slant rhyme. Evermore. Evermore. You never even call me by my name. Evermore. It was a phantasmagoria of thought and in-the-moment living, background knowledge and many miles ahead. A scorned outlaw country musician and a scornful poet from Baltimore were competing for attention inside of my exhausted brain. Something about an axe on a pendulum, some self-proclaimed inclusion in the duo of famous Texans Willie and Waylon, who had much recent importance in my drive by way of a Kaska Tribesman who repeated obsessively his love for Mr. Jennings. I snapped out of it and put the truck in drive.
“Thank you!” I offered to the officer, and the raven waited until we’d moved a dozen feet before he indignantly puffed up and flew back to await the next entrant to the United States of America.
* * *
Faced with the weather and distance ahead of me, I arranged for what seemed to be the very last cabin in Tok, Alaska, the state’s equivalent of Beaver Creek, Yukon Territories. An outpost that mostly exists for long-distance travelers and border patrol agents, an entire nepotistic society reliant on passers-through and the frivolity of international affairs to remain afloat. The small cabin resort was one of about a dozen such roadside attractions, with enough kitsch to justify its high prices that were really some sort of agreed-upon racket amongst their proprietors. If one wanted other options, why, they could just drive the additional six and a half hours to Anchorage. Which, if they started in the last place with a standalone grocery store, meant they were having a mightily long day.
* * *
I checked in and gave Hank a brief, dissatisfying walk in the rain, then fed him dinner while my body shook in thirst and hunger. This is a frequent motif in our travels, me tending to Hank’s needs while mine wait just a few more minutes, until I nearly break down out of thirst or hunger. He heartily chowed on his food and lapped up water then realized that finishing his own dinner meant I would now ignore him in search of my own. A real Catch-22. I stared into my cooler and decided I’d rather take my chances at the one, massive roadside diner at the Tok Junction. Here, the highways form a T and the traveler must decide between Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Valdez—famous as the namesake and location of a catastrophic oil spill twenty eight years prior, when the ship’s captain was sleeping off his drunken bender below deck and the third mate was too tired to make appropriate maneuvers and the ship had a nice hole punched in the side, releasing 11 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean and offering Dawn dish soap the most priceless type of PR fodder known to man. The same blue liquid that scrubs America’s dishes every night saved the lives of some of the hundreds of thousands of arctic waterfowl after that oil spill, in one of the few instances in American history where one major corporation managed to provide aid from the transgressions of another.
I admired a massive, Seveties-era Ford F250 parked right out front, and its owner walked out right as I took a picture of it.
“That’s a gorgeous truck,” I offered him. I find earnest compliments to be about the best use of the few words I utter aloud most days.
“When it runs!” he retorted immediately. I laughed knowingly, and felt both proud to be a part of that fraternity and a bit wearied from my membership, too.
The diner was rather full and eerily quiet, and I ordered a pizza and listened to the waitresses quibble between moving rhythmically amidst the tables. Their problems here in Tok were the same as anywhere else, the men who spoiled them and disappointed them, the dreams in the making and already extinguished, the excess of work and responsibilities and dearth of free time. The patrons ate dutifully and spoke in hushed tones; many wore more than one piece of camo attire. The clock whirred past nine P.M. and the sun continued to shine somewhere behind the thick rain clouds, which lent a flattened, silvery glow to the world outside the tired windows. We almost could have been anywhere in America at that moment. The generic menu fare and universal human concerns and dated, inoffensive décor conspired to make the mind forget that we were about as geographically isolated as one can be while sitting in a diner that accepts American currency and pays American taxes. And perhaps it was designed that way. Perhaps man has a tendency towards familiar conformity until the moment he bursts and craves uniqueness instead. But even then, he will almost always order a hot pizza after a long day on the road and with a long, cold, rainy night ahead.