Wednesday, September 06, 2006

my view of the al-can highway, from dawson creek alberta to tok alaska, was that there was an awful lot of gravel that was pretty close to our windshield. i'd gotten a ride from a guy in a volkswagen hatchback, from massachusetts, and this was unusual in a place where most people had trucks, with metal grills to protect from the rocks, and several spare tires and extra machinery. this guy had just a carful of stuff and still made room for me and a pack. together we put that volkswagen pretty close to the gravel, and had to stay a ways from the bigger stuff that would spray it up into our windshield. we'd gotten some nuts and seeds at a grocery in canada, but one morning when we woke up from camping we found a little trail of critters who had found it, and were crawling up through the wheel well into the car to bring it back to wherever they were.

he had a kayak on top. that was his passion: to stop at ice-cold blue yukon lakes, dip that kayak into it, and flip the kayak so that the bottom of the kayak was up- for just a second- and then flip it back, refreshed and yelling into the cold summer morning. he dared me to do it but i wouldn't. i was a witness, though, when there didn't seem to be many others, except bears.

we'd see many cars over and over again, since people would stop for various amounts of time- and the whole thing took days. we knew them by their license plates, and knew that they recognized us. i also knew a number of the hitchhikers, from when the highway was washed up back in fort nelson bc, but of course we had no room for them. at the highway rests, coffee was a dollar, which was excessive in 1974, and pie was three or four- that was excessive too. we got used to a spartan diet, and when someone offered fresh fish or some such thing, we'd take it. we became aware of sources of food in our environment- blueberries, etc., and one guy once taught me how to make bread with easily carried ingredients...

the town of whitehorse, yukon territory, supposedly had more bars than people, but we didn't stop to count. it was paved- and we sailed right through. we might have found a grocery store in one of the larger towns, but generally, i'd had enough of towns- i sure didn't want to spend a day shopping. i do remember seeing some license plates with only bears on them. these would be from the northwest territories, nwt. in the end i considered this part of canada much more exotic, scenic, toward the edge of the earth, than alaska. i saw many times more bear in canada. the craggy purple mountains shot up from these deep blue lakes into a clear summer sunset: these would last forever and turn into northern lights.

i parted ways with this guy at tok, the fork in the road to beat all forks, in southeastern alaska. he had told me of growing up in cambridge, rigging up a car so he and his friend could hide in the way-back part of it, out of sight of everyone, and still drive it, through mirrors and machinery. thus the car would appear to have no driver. i wasn't sure whether to believe this story. in kansas, maybe, but not cambridge. nevertheless what did i care? i wasn't there to decide whether it was true. this guy was a nice guy, camping partner, lent me his kayak, saw a good portion of canada with me, got me through the rough part.

and we saw, together, a monument that still stands, somewhat clearly, in my mind. the border between canada and the us, where hundreds of cars lay still, being overtaken by nature- they had been impounded, and never moved. nobody had bothered- it was too far from anywhere, maybe. so they just stood there, being overtaken by nature, standing as testament. maybe the border guards liked it that way. i've been through a lot of us-canada borders in my time- lived near niagara falls in high school- and this one was, well, different, surrounded by tall pines, miles and miles of endless forest on either side. the cars and vans, mute witness, represented, at the same time, the price of messing with the border folks, and the stark reality of utter remoteness.

a border, of course, is the ultimate test of faith for the guy who picks up a hitchhiker...this is more or less a total stranger, after all- and do you really want your car to be among the others? they let us in, though...we were, after all, coming back to the u.s., and utterly drug-free, a little dirty, a little broke, but looking right at them, and they'd say, as they often would, welcome home, welcome to the usa. the volkswagen started up again, stirred up some gravel, left the car-ghosts behind.

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