Sunday, August 7, 2016

Look for Alaska: Broken Down on the Alaska Highway

Day #59

We are in Haines Junction, a small town in the northern Yukon Territory. We didn't plan to stop here but somewhere around mile 975 on the Alaska Hwy my battery light turned on and was accompanied by the message "Battery Not Charging". I have a pretty decent understanding of cars and decided to drop to a lower gear to increase the RPMs, thus causing the alternator to spin faster. To my surprise, this caused the warning light to turn off. I knew I had to pull over and put my multimeter on the battery to test it myself but knew if I stopped I was taking the risk of being stuck on the side of the road. So, we tore down the highway at 4000 RPMs for 25 miles or so until we got here. 

When we arrived we found an RV park/grocery/gas in town. You see this a lot on the Alaska Highway, businesses responding to the particular needs of travelers and trying to offer it all. I grabbed a space, unhooked the trailer and popped the hood on the truck. The battery was still at around 11 volts but dropping. A normal car, when charging properly, will put out 13 or more volts and hold steady. One of the things I learned from working at my dad's shop as a kid was testing the charging system on a car is one of the easiest auto diagnostics to perform. You just need a $15 multimeter from the auto parts store. It serves countless other purposes around the home too. If you don't own one, you should.

When I saw that the car actually wasn't charging that left two possible culprits. The belt or the alternator. Checking the belt is easy. Make sure it's there and rotating freely and spinning the pulley on the alternator. If it is, the belt is not the problem. So, with a car that was not charging and a belt that was functioning properly I was led to believe that our alternator was shot. Luckily, there is an auto parts store within biking distance of us. I will head there in the morning, roll up my sleeves, bust out the tools, and do some auto repairs. 

This puts the Alaskan auto repair tally at:
2 flat tires 
3 oil changes
Brakes and rotors all around
A new battery
And an alternator 

...and we aren't even out of the Yukon yet

Once we got settled in this evening I noticed my neighbor, an Asian gentleman, had started a fire in the community fire pit so I went to join him. Turns out he is from Seoul and him and his wife were pleased to learn I was also Korean. It's a brotherhood. Koreans actually do look out for each other. Their English was far from perfect but I have experience translating broken Korean/English because of my grandmother. He is a writer who is publishing a book (in Korean) about his travels to Alaska. She is a pianist. Like a legit pianist who does it for a living and teaches lessons on the side. The dude, Mr. Kim, must have been doing some heavy research on Alaska because he was teaching me about the Alaska Highway and the war with Japan. Interesting stuff. At the end of the night I gave them a pound of my bulgogi to try. Mrs. Kim must have felt obligated to give me a gift in return and went inside and grabbed me a big bag of legit Korean ramen. 

So I have some work to do tomorrow but I will have plenty of soup to eat. 

Day #60

I woke up early and scouted the town for auto parts. Turns out the auto parts store in town is closed on Saturdays and after peering through the window I realized they don't carry the kind of stock I need. There is a big parts store in Whitehorse so I devised a radical plan. Remove the bad alternator and hitchhike to Whitehorse, Swap out the alternator and hitchhike back. So there I was standing on the side of the Alaska highway with my thumb out and an alternator in my backpack. 100 miles of road between me and Whitehorse. 

I have never hitchhiked before so the whole experience had me in observation mode. I'm not gonna lie. It was awesome. Families in RVs all looked the other way and pretended not to see me. Young girls driving along mouthed "sorry" to me. You don't have to be sorry. You're a girl driving alone in the Yukon and I am a creepy dude. 

After 30 minutes of coming up empty I returned to the RV and asked Jessica to make me a sign. My retail sales experience was telling me I needed selling points. I am not just a broke dude drifting around looking for a ride. I am on a legit mission. So we agreed on this sign. 

Within 5 minutes a man named Neil picked me up. He lives in Whitehorse and was in Haines Junction watching his granddaughter's swim meet. He was a quiet man who didn't have much to say. 

"You smoke?" He said as he offered me a Canadian cigarette. 

"Sure." I replied. When in the Yukon, smoke mini cigarettes with old strangers. 

Neil moved here from Newfoundland 20 years ago because he loves to hunt. He has gotten a moose 19 out of the 20 years he has been here. He also has a few bears, caribou and elk under his belt. At one point, during one of our awkward silences, it occurred to me that he is a big game hunter and is probably equipped with a large gun that could take out a big Korean hitchhiker. 

"You want me to take you right to the auto parts store? I need to get me a Tim Hortons coffee anyhow."  He said. 

"Sure. That would be awesome."

Then he took me to the parts store. He said he was going back toward the highway anyhow so he would wait and drop me back off where I could hitch a ride back to Haines Junction. I went inside, inspected the new alternator, side-by-side with the old one, gave them money and the swap was complete. I had the goods. I was in the home stretch.  

So there I was, back on the side of the road with a new part in my bag and my thumb out. My sign had become obsolete and I felt it had aided me earlier so I went into a gas station and asked for a marker. The store clerk was excited to help a hitchhiker with a sign. I bounced some ideas off her and eventually came up with this sign. 

After what felt like an eternity, a Jeep Liberty with a woman inside stopped and offered to take me a few miles up the road. She was just staying local but I figured I would take the ride out of town and hitchhike from there. After all, beggars can't be choosers. There was a big CD drawer full of Jewell cases and a badass 90s music collection sitting on the passenger seat. 

"Put this on your lap. You're in charge of music. I like it loud!"

Barb is a Yukon native and she is unlike any person I have ever met. Within minutes it was obvious that we got along well. She chain smoked, had a roaring laugh and whipped her head around to the music. She turned the music down and asked me the usual set of questions. Where I am from, what I am doing here and why the hell am I hitchhiking to Haines Junction. I told her about the car and my family waiting for me at the RV. 

"Well look, I'm gonna be your angel today. I need to make a couple stops, you come with me, and then I will take you all the way to Haines Junction." 

I agreed and felt relieved. My mission was basically complete. I just needed to roll around town with this local for a bit. Game on. 

With my ride back secured I was feeling relaxed so it wasn't long before we were hanging like old buddies. We stopped at a pizza place that she likes and got some slices and drinks. Then we got back into the car and her CD drawer became our table. I handled the tunes and the pizza and she did the driving while we jammed out the Spin Doctors. 

Our next stop was her bosses house. She insisted I get out of the car and say hello. It was awkward but that's the thing with Barb, she doesn't care. She treats everyone as an equal and encourages everyone to be friends. Her bosses sister was unloading groceries in the driveway when we showed up. 

"This is Mike." Said barb "I found him hitching on highway 1 and I'm taking him to Haines Junction to fix his car."

"So basically she just showed up at your house with a hitchhiker." I said, trying to be funny but realizing it was still early and the jury was still out on me. I could still be a murderer...right? 

They handled business and then we drove off, CD's and pizza on my lap, down the Alaska Highway. She had a couple of those dancing hula knick knacks on the dashboard that she named Auntie and Uncle. She referred to them often and talked to them like they were people. One of them fell and she said, "Oh auntie!"

I tried reaching around the bulky CD box and pizza wrappers to grab her. 

"Don't worry. She'll be alright down there. She's been through worse."

The whole ride was a riot. 

Barb has a lot of stories. She worked for the visitor center and met lots of tourists. She was the postmaster for a while. She was a flagger on a construction crew. A jack of all trades. I learned about her personal struggles. This lady is amazing. She has been dealt some shit and she is still all laughs and good times. And I learned a lot about roads. How they're made and where frost heaves come from. Shit I have kind of been wondering about since we started driving on these awful, north country roads. In between her stories I made jokes and she belted out her infectious laugh. We really bonded. 

When we got back to the RV she busted out a cooler and had some drinks while blaring Led Zeppelin from her Jeep. Jessica and the boys were off at the visitor center across the street so I got to work on the truck with Barb keeping me company, like pals hanging in the yard. I got the part bolted down, put the belt on and hooked up the wires...the moment of truth. I turned the key and it fired up. I put the multimeter on and IT WAS CHARGING! WOOHOO!

My family showed up and I introduced them to Barb. Jessica instantly took a liking to her and they chatted while I sat back and enjoyed the feeling of a completed mission. Then we had neighbors show up and Barb, being Barb, brought us all together around the fire and we drank. Everyone was drinking and laughing and sharing stories. It had gotten late so Jessica offered Barb a bed. She accepted and we all crashed. 

I am really pumped that the car is fixed but I feel more fortunate to have met Barb and have this experience. For me, hitchhiking is putting yourself out there in the purest form. You are vulnerable. You don't have the vehicle that everyone is expected to have on a barren stretch of highway. Everyone that passes you judges you and their final judgements about you become evident as they pass by without stopping. But you have to have enough faith in the ways of humanity that many of us assume don't exist. The world isn't as harsh as we think it is. I started the day with big problems and ended the day with a new friend. An angel. 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Look for Alaska: A Tiny Town with a Big Heart

Day #57

We are parked in Chitina in a tiny RV park that sits on a gravel lot. There are no laundry facilities or bathrooms. They don't even have a front office. You just drop money in an envelope and pick a spot. No frills camping. Jessica is reading a book about crazy Alaskan pioneers and the boys are feeding their new obsession, Pokemon. Not that 'Pokemon Go' stuff that is taking the world by storm. We
play that too but they really like the card game. We are having a relaxation day because sometimes we are just a family that lounges around in an RV all day. But that was certainly not the case yesterday. 

We spent the night in McCarthy last night. You may have seen the show "Edge of Alaska" on the Discovery Channel. If you have then you know about this town, though the locals all insist it's more of a dramatized reality that is sometimes guided by producers. I have never seen it so I just know what the locals told me. Anyhow, the town is really remote. If you started in Anchorage you would drive 150 miles to a tiny town called Glennallen. From there, you turn off the main highway and drive 65 miles along wavy, frost heaved concrete to the even tinier town of Chitina, that's where we dropped the RV. From there you drive 62 miles along a dirt road through America's largest national park until you reach a river. You park there and cross a foot bridge and walk (or bike in our case) one mile to the town of McCarthy. 

The town is technically in Wrangell St. Elias National Park. In fact, the townies and the Park Service sort of have some tension between them. It's easy to see why too. The locals have owned their land since the early 1900's then one day, back in the 80's, the NPS designated the vast wilderness surrounding them as a National Park. Suddenly the place where they hunted, hiked and snowmobiled was a well regulated piece of government property established for the purpose of conservation. Meanwhile, the park service employees were sent to work at this park that encapsulates a town of pissed off people. This tension plays a role in many of the towns controversies. 

If you travel another 5 miles past McCarthy you come to the reason why locals settled in this area, the town of Kennecott. Once the home of the most profitable Copper Mining operation in America, Kennecott was, at one time, the largest town in Alaska. The mining started around 1908 and ended abruptly on November 11, 1938, when the last train left town and never returned. Ask the locals, guides and historians why it shut down and they'll tell you the copper ran out. Or that the unions drove labor prices up and the price of copper plummeted. Or they might say the State of Alaska began crushing them with regulations and railroad restrictions in an effort to cash in for the state. I am guessing it was probably a perfect storm combining all of these factors. 

The history of these two towns is huge and fascinating. I could seriously go on all day about vandalizing NPS aircraft, mail day massacres and hippie communes but you probably have to get back to work or wash your car so I will stop there. 

We showed up to town with one mission: hike on a glacier. We had planned ahead a little. We made reservations at a hotel which turned out to be more like a Hostel with shared showers and bunk beds. We got free breakfast at the Saloon with our reservation so that was nice. Dining in Alaska is expensive and the further you go into the bush the crazier it gets (i.e. $19 for a burger and fries). We also had some trail food and water so we were able to skip a meal and just eat on the trail. 

One of the things we needed to get in town was crampons. You know, those spikes that ice climbers and glacier hikers strap to their shoes. We had heard some of the guide companies rent them so we took a chance. As it turns out, for liability reasons, all of the companies stopped renting them. So, we decided we would hike TO the glacier, check it out, maybe play around near the edge, and go home. Okay, great, where is the glacier? Just bike 5 miles uphill along this bumpy dirt road, then hike 2 miles and you'll be at the edge of the glacier.

...or hire a guide who drives you there, provides you with crampons and teaches you shit along the way. So we did that. It is NOT cheap to do it this way but we went to McCarthy to hike on a glacier dammit. 

The glacier was awesome. Breathtaking, once in a lifetime, holy-shit-I'm-hiking-on-a-glacier awesome. But the more time we spent in town the more drawn to the people, history and way-of-life we became. 

We spent a lot of time hanging around the saloon where the locals all sit on the porch and watch tourists. They all smoke cigarettes and carry props like books (Michener's "Alaska" was being passed around the local guides) or beer glasses. 

We hung out in front of the general store all afternoon and shared laughs with the store clerk. I was just telling him how incredible their fresh bread was when the town baker showed up. She gave me the recipe and told me her secrets. She got the technique from a baker in Italy. It's an herb focaccia bread and I am pumped to start making it. We learned the names of the dogs that live in town as they came to the store. Their masters would walk inside and they would instinctively stop at the door. There are probably 50 dogs in McCarthy and not a single dog leash. They just wander around, usually following their masters and always waiting outside the bar, store or restaurant. 

We ate lunch at the Potato, the town cafe, where the owners son, Max, invited Noah and Sam aboard his pirate ship, a fort that him and his dad constructed from pallets and other junk scraps. They played for a couple hours while Jessica and I bummed around town. Like the dogs, the kids are free range and don't have leashes. And the parents aren't worried about it. The way it should be, really. 

We made our way back to the car late this afternoon and as we rode off we waved to people that we had met. Some of them walking, some on 4 wheelers and bikes. It was weird to think that just 24 hours earlier we were biking in the other direction wondering just what the hell we were getting ourselves into. 

This side trip was sort of the Alaska finale for us. Tomorrow we head back to Tok. We will toss some pancakes and eat some Thai food for the last time. Then we will head across the border and back towards the lower 48. So we went out with a bang. This was easily one of the most bizarre and memorable experiences of my life and it will definitely be in the front of my mind when I think back to our summer in Alaska.