I’ve always liked the statement “I’m not laughing at you – I’m laughing with you.” It’s the only thing that crosses my mind when I think of all the others out there who had the bright idea to proudly drive their Volkswagen buses up or down the Alaska Highway. And proud you should be this is one if not the great North American automotive achievement. You folks are a brave and dedicated group of enthusiasts/fanatics/lunatics with cojones of pure iron. This here is the long and the short of my take from the bay window and engine compartment of my “inherited” ’71 as well as a recount of some of the preparations that made it nearly impossible. I think it is important to also understand that somehow, some way I managed to rack up more than 4,000 trouble free (did throw a belt) miles from my non-existent front porch in New Mexico to mile 0, Dawson Creek.
The Alaska Highway or ALCAN as it’s locally known was built originally by the US Army during World War II as a supply route from the lower forty eight to an otherwise disconnected Alaska, at least by road. I certainly encourage everyone to make a quick Google search and check out some of the stories and images taken by these bushwhacking soldiers. You’ll find everything from the sign post forest to miles of army trucks plowing through mud up to their axles. It’s actually one hell of a feat. The original highway was 1,390 miles long but drops a few miles every couple years as a result of improvement projects. With the exception of a handful of towns along the route it is pretty much a no man’s land, a cleared line through the wilderness that thrives primarily on the tens of thousands of tourists that make the pilgrimage each year. The highway was peacefully turned over by the US to Canada at the end of the war as per the stipulations of its construction and each Country independently maintains their respective sections today. The US does a decidedly better job than Canada.
Two and a half years prior to this historic voyage I replaced the engine in my VW with a brand spanking new unit from Seranno’s out of California, carburetor to oil pan. I’m hesitant to give a recommendation to any of the VW guys that might read this after I link to The Samba, but I ran the engine for almost 35,000 miles prior to the trip and another 6,400 on the road. The motor came out of its cardboard crate sounding about like what you would expect from a coffee can full of bones shaking about, but it has survived for 40,000 plus miles most of which were in a desert climate. Before leaving I equipped the air cooled beast with an external oil cooler simply for the purpose of crossing the Mojave in the dead of summer. I ran a solid 195 with 35 lbs at ambient air temperatures up to 120 degrees for those interested. Aside from the above, bone stock was ticket.
In Port Townsend Washington I figured out with the help of the lovely banjo pickin’ Kia that if I played my guitar on the street people would give me money and with that money I could buy beer. At the bar, mile 0, Dawson Creek, I figured out that if I played the guitar inside of the bar where it was already warm people would give me free beer thus eliminating the need for the money in the middle. And there was joy. I stayed the day in town and wandered about, sent postcards from the mile zero visitor’s center, entertained the seemingly endless stream of passers by who wanted photos of the bus with its New Mexico license plate intact as if it were some sort of endangered species, made phone calls from the coffee shop, talked to the locals and made otherwise celebratory festivities on account of my good fortune up until this point. I left Dawson Creek and hit the 1,200 plus mile “highway” with good spirits and general jubilance.
Bobbin’ and weavin’, mostly due to excessive play in the steering, the rest on account of the radio, I covered the first, mostly flat and uninteresting miles of the ALCAN stopping briefly as I passed through the small outposts taking my time. It wasn’t until about mile 85 that my trouble began. Cruising downhill at a brisk 60 mph I noticed my generator light take hold, which in an air cooled VW usually means one of two things, a busted fan belt or a loose alternator wire. Figuring my situation still fare, all things considered, I settled on a pull out for lunch before greasing up my hands on the side of the road. The post sandwich outcome did not warrant the nonchalant theme of my luncheon, a thrown belt on top of an irremovable alternator pulley, threads stripped, key stripped and lodged somewhere in ensemble. The VW will run on battery power until there is not enough juice to fire the spark plugs so I shut the headlights and the radio off and made for the next town, the now infamous Wonowon at mile 101 some 15 miles up the road.
I remember writing one letter in particular of the half dozen I composed there that seemed to sum up my feelings for being broken down in this particular shit hole. It said something to the effect of Wonowon is like a dirty whore, but the only whore for a hundred miles. She’s just that. She’ll rob you blind while you’re sleeping, take a starving man’s last dime, leave you feeling wretched inside and smile unappealingly at you the whole time. I was miserable, it rained for a week straight and if that weren’t enough I came down with the flu. So there I was, on the side of the road, sick as a dog, 4,000 miles from home, lying under a blanket in the back of my VW listening to the raindrops on the steel roof drinking Southern Comfort from the bottle thinking of Janis Joplin and trying to pass out of my misery until the only garage for a hundred one miles opened three days later. That might be a run on sentence, but it was a run on time. The only thing that I actually accomplished was removing that blasted pulley over the course of the next three days only to reveal that the entire alternator assembly was completely FUBAR. Bad news in small town Canada, five business days for parts delivery, one day for ordering, one day for installation, that leaves me busted down for another week if they do indeed send the right part, which they didn’t. And here’s where my own ignorance put me out: I needed an alternator, they sent me a generator, I was pretty oblivious and the mechanic insisted that it would “werk jus’ fine.” Well, it didn’t “Werk.” It went up in a ploom of smoke within three miles and when I returned to the garage the mechanic’s response was “maybe you should have let me install it.” It’s the wrong… I was furious and out highway robbery prices for the part in the first place. So, if you ever happen to be in Wonowon and you feel like throwing something through the windows of the only garage in town, tape a note to it (or this story), whatever it is, and tell him it’s from me and all the other people he has undoubtedly screwed in what was probably a rather vulnerable moment. Ten days of my life, ten days, despondent in the cold rain of Wonowon for the wrong parts, ripped off, beleaguered, ill, I would have rather been nowhere than where I was so I hit the road and headed North not knowing if I’d make it anywhere, more or less nowhere.
I trumped nowhere, anywhere and actually made it somewhere. At mile 143 or so there is a camp ground and a restaurant at a place they call Pink Mountain due the blooms and setting sun of the spring. My first thought was of Albuquerque’s Sandia Range and I somehow felt at home, which was a pleasant feeling after 10 days in the hell that is Wonowan (I’m done now). My first night there I squatted the campsite of a nice European couple that was riding motorbikes around the world. It was the first shower and the best night’s rest I had had in some time. In the morning I set about ordering my new parts and spoke with Korey, the owner of the campsite, and explained my perdiciment. He didn’t hesitate to put me to work for the next week as a campsite lumberjack thinning dead trees for cutting firewood, and set me up with a free spot to call my own until my parts came in a week later. I actually settled in nicely there and was a bit on the sad side to depart. The other camp ground boys and I got on famously, took the afternoons off early and headed for the fishing hole, sat around the fire bullshitting to the endless hours of the night and had a generally good time laughing and carrying on. While half of the Podunk towns on the Alaska Highway are pretty much out to steal your trousers, Pink Mountain took me in like family and this was the first I saw of a particular spirit I have come to know and love in Taos and other remote parts of the country and now Canada as well.
Continue to Part 2