Saturday, September 8, 2012

Behind the Scenes: Travels with Lynne, Part II

This account of my Alaskan road trip with open-water swimmer Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica, was first published in Westways magazine in 1993. In Part 1, an editor for Four-Wheeler magazine taught us how to drive off-road. Then, for some crazy reason, the folks at Mitsubishi entrusted us with a brand-new Montero, with which we set out from Anchorage on a 2,000-mile road trip just as winter was setting in. In Part 2, we are on our way north toward Fairbanks, and starting to go a little nuts from the tension and boredom of all those lonely miles with no one to talk to but each other. Mad Dog and Booh were the names we gave ourselves when we wrote up the piece. In reality, we referred to each other most often during the trip (and still do) as "Lynnems" and "Sarams," because of the honorific "Ms." that was printed on our plane tickets: CoxLynnems and TuckerSarams.

The George Parks Highway is a lonesome stretch of road, especially in the winter. On its way to Fairbanks, it crosses mile after mile of barren tundra and hundreds upon hundreds of creeks, many with sinister names: Troublesome, Slime, Hard Luck. Mad Dog and Booh stopped only once—for gas and coffee and a trip to the outhouse (temperature: 0 degrees F) at a little store right next to a white igloo-shaped building the size of a barn, which someone told them had been for sale for the past 10 years.

The sun began to set when they were still a hundred miles from Fairbanks. Except for an occasional truck, they were pretty much alone on the highway. They were just outside of Ester (an old mining town and home of the Malemute Saloon) and whiling away the time by practicing dog and cat noises, when a giant shape—no, two giant shapes—loomed from the side of the road.

"Moose!" yelled Mad Dog, swerving to the left and stomping on the brakes. The moose vanished into the black of night. Mad Dog was furiously blinking her headlights.

"What are you doing?" asked Booh.

"I'm warning other motorists. Get on the radio."


"I want to report a moose sighting."

That was when they realized that neither one of them knew how to work the CB.

Lynne is fearless in the water—sharks, ice floes, nothing fazes her. But she was right scared of the many dangers presented by the Alaskan wilderness. Moose were high on her list of things to watch out for. Another footnote: By this time, we had spent hours alone together in the car, and were both starting to get a little unhinged, not to mention testy.

When they came to the Ester Volunteer Fire Department, Mad Dog pulled over.

"We ought to tell somebody," she said, cutting the engine.

"They're going to laugh at you. People around here see moose all the time." But Mad Dog had already sprung from the driver's seat.

"Don't you want to come in?"

"I'll wait here."

After 10 minutes, Mad Dog came back out. "They weigh between a ton-and-a-half and two tons, and it's common to have them up there on the road."

"See? I told you."

At the Sophie Station Hotel in Fairbanks, they asked the desk clerk if he knew how to operate a CB radio. He threw up his hands: "Just press the button and yell "Help!"

The next day, they paid a visit to Mad Dog's cousin Brenda in Fairbanks. "You should take the Steese up to Arctic Circle Hot Springs," Cousin Brenda said. North of Fairbanks, the Steese Highway—gravel except for the first 44 miles—runs 150 miles through gold country before dead-ending at Circle (30 miles beyond the hot springs), on the Yukon River. Circle is so named because the miners who founded it erroneously believed it was within the Artic Circle, which is actually 50 miles to the north.
The road expires at a sign that reads The End of the World.

Cousin Brenda told them about 80-mile-per-hour winds that could flick a car off Eagle Summit, the road's highest point, and weather that could turn suddenly, stranding travelers in a blizzard, their cars clinging to an invisible road on the edge of the mountain with nothing ahead but a wall of white. Mad Dog flashed Booh a big grin.

Cousin Brenda frowned. "The more I think about it, the more I think you'd better not try it," she said. "I wouldn't want to be responsible."

"We'll be fine," said Mad Dog.

Suddenly, Cousin Brenda was pleading. "Don't go," she said. "It was a stupid idea. I'm sorry I suggested it." She was practically wringing her hands.

"We'll think about it," said Mad Dog.

They said good night and climbed into the Montero. Booh turned to Mad Dog. Mad Dog turned to Booh.

"Let's go!" they shouted in unison. They rolled down the street toward their hotel, yipping and yowling.

Before Lynne and I left L.A., a friend of mine, a woman travel writer who had spent a lot of time in Alaska, had given us three pieces of advice about how to comport ourselves in our nation's northernest state: (1) No table dancing, (2) don't accept rides from strangers, and (3) beware of men with initials for names. By the time we finished our trip, we had broken two of the three rules. Read on to find out which two.

The next morning, they rose early, filled a thermos with hot coffee and headed out in the predawn, arriving in Chatanika, at Mile 29, just as the sun was coming up. At the Chatanika Lodge, Fran, a gray-haired man in wire-rimmed glasses and a baseball cap, poured two cups of coffee from behind the bar, then told them story after story about early and present-day mining around Fairbanks. Before they left, Mad Dog and Booh pulled out a pair of dollar bills, wrote "Thelma" on one and "Louise" on the other, and stapled them to the barroom ceiling among hundreds of similar mementos.

The road was practically deserted. After several miles, they passed their first car. Mad Dog, sitting in the passenger seat, waved jubilantly.

"You wave like a beauty queen," said Booh. "In the country, you're supposed to do it like this." She raised two fingers from the steering wheel and tipped her head ever so slightly. Pretty soon, however, they passed a sign that read Pavement Ends Here, and after that, there were no more cars to salute.

In the days that followed, Mad Dog and Booh had many more adventures. They took a flightseeing tour over a glacier near the town of Glennallen, rode in a dogsled across the snowfields under a moonlit sky in Fairbanks, saw whales and seals and sea otters near Valdez, more bald eagles than they could count, and even, once, a silvery wolf bounding across the highway.

They hit seas so rough that tankers in Valdez were ordered to remain in port, and everyone on board the ferry ended up seasick. They encountered a driving blizzard in Seward, which Buddy plowed through with nary a slip, and in Homer, where they stayed in a little cliffside cabin overlooking the bay, they survived a frightful early morning jolt that Mad Dog thought was a moose stampede but turned out to be merely an earthquake.

But months later, after many parts of the trip had begun to fade from their memory, Mad Dog and Booh would still recall the drive to Circle as one of the funnest days of all.

In fact, it was somewhat uneventful. Despite Cousin Brenda's fears, they were not blown off Eagle Summit, although it was indeed windy and desolate, and the snow blowing across the road made ghostly shapes in front of them. Nor were they kidnapped, although at the Miracle Mile Inn, a roadside cabin with dogs and snow machines in the yard, Mad Dog jumped on the back of a snowmobile behind someone named B.J. and roared off across the tundra, leaving Booh to wonder if she'd ever see her friend again.

Other than that, not much happened. If the truth be known, they didn't even make it to the end of the road, because they wasted so much time along the way. But it didn't matter.

What mattered was that on the Steese Highway that day, Mad Dog and Booh finally found what they were looking for: that feeling of being on top of the world, north of the north. And in the snow shadows dancing in their path, they even thought they glimpsed twin specters that looked strangely familiar. One of the drifting forms turned and bowed, ever so slightly.

And one of them waved like a beauty queen.

The End

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