We walked along the beach in front of the Chicago skyline, I was nervous, not quite shaking but close. I’d been looking for a place to do it for about half an hour and we were getting tired. If I didn’t do it soon the moment would pass and I’d have to wait.
I sprung up a little conversation about whether or not she truly wanted to stay in Chicago with me. She jested along, not aware of where I was going with it. I went down onto one knee, feeling the warm sand on my leg. Her face went into shock and she began to shake.
6 months earlier…
So I was thinking about driving to Alaska.
I don’t mean the casual Sunday afternoon pondering whilst sipping coffee and staring at the garden pond, I’m talking more along the lines of the I’ve been fixated on this for five years now, why haven’t I just done it already? type of thinking. Since moving to America from England five years earlier, I had made it a personal goal to boldly road trip where no one had road tripped before. My five year mission had thus far resulted in 46 states visited by road and car rental, which I thought of as a reasonably boast worthy achievement. I had two more mainland states to hit, the pesky North Eastern duo of Maine and Vermont, though these I knew would be an easy trip from my home in Chicago. My final reward would be Hawaii, a tropical well deserved pat on the back to myself, and then there was Alaska, distant and wild Alaska.
In April of last year I returned to England to see the family for a few days and take a mini road trip around the beautiful Lake District countryside. In the weeks prior to flying, I’d found out that an old acquaintance who’d been living in New Zealand for the past few years would also be in town and we arranged for a quick meet up.
Sat in a country pub enjoying drinks we chatted about life, our mutual travels and adventures and eventually ran out of time.
It was obvious we had more to say, and so arranged a second meet for later in the week. This time, at a lovely cafe which had a superb classic cake selection. The kind a foreign tourist imagines all quaint English cafes to resemble. I was about to take another oversized bite into my treacle tart when Steph perked up.
“So you want to go to Alaska, and I want to. You wanna go this summer?”
I looked at her in astonishment. Wide eyed, like someone had asked me a taxing math question. We had only ever met up in person three times, and hadn’t seen each other in years, aside from the odd email we were strangers. I had two real thoughts occur; she probably didn’t mean it, she probably won’t follow through with it.
Back in Chicago a couple of weeks later, I stood in my office lost in a menial work task when my phone beeped. It was a text from Steph.
“Okay, booked my flight, I will be with you June 29th.”
After a few moments of pure panic, I began to think about what the trip would be like, would we get along for seven weeks? Would it be awkward? Legitimate concerns I thought, for a first time travel partnership. Then two major realizations kicked in. First, her flight was booked so there was no backing out. Then the second, I had absolutely no idea how to road trip to Alaska.
Alaska is truly America’s last frontier, with landscapes that appear almost infinite and ecosystems with more variety than most continents, from arctic tundra to rainforest. In one trip, an intrepid explorer might stumble upon volcanic valleys, calving glaciers, fishing bears and look up to notice the northern lights. The adventurous type may climb the biggest (though not highest) mountain on Earth, kayak into a glacier or hike in a national park larger than a number of mainland states. The prospect of endless possibility had me excited but mentally paralyzed.
Over the next two months I bought and read multiple guide books, scoured hundreds of websites and forums, booked a good number of campsites through the not quite effortless Canadian government camping websites, and acquired new and exciting camping gear, including a Tensile Stingray tree tent, the single greatest purchase of my adult life.
In the same period, Steph and I had been communicating between continents, discussing logistics and bookings routes. Slowly and entirely un-deliberately we had been spending less and less time talking about the trip and more and more of our time simply talking. Unwittingly, we had become involved.
The end of June came around, Steph arrived and we loaded up the car (which was no quick feat) and hit the road the following day. Our route would take us on a winding journey from Chicago, across Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Washington. From here we would cross into Canada and wind our way up through the Rockies, eventually locating the start of the official Alaskan Highway. This old road would take us through the Yukon territory and eventually over the border and into Alaska. Just getting into the state would require a 4,000 mile drive.
As I re-read that last paragraph, it occurs to me that the prospect of covering such a vast expanse of road in order to even reach our destination may illicit responses such as bemusement, and the widening of one’s eyes. I love road tripping. For me the drive, the scenery, the random stops in towns and gas stations as well as the road side attractions are all part of the adventure. There’s a feeling of freedom so pure it’s taxing if not impossible to describe. Something transformative happens when the trunk of the car slams shut and you get inside for the first time, realizing this is my life for the next two months.
We plodded for two days through vast, uninteresting cornfields and open plains until we arrived in Cody, a small Wyoming town where we planned to stop for 4th of July. The town has a great old fashioned 4th of July parade so we put our camping chairs to good use.
After driving through the beautiful state of Washington we camped in Gladstone, I got my first chance at trying out my Tentsile, and spent an epic night sleeping in the trees looking at the stars. The week that followed was spent driving into ever more desolate and sparsely populated regions and as we moved further and further North, there was a real sense of leaving the world behind.
Once you cross Highway 16, the last main road going East to West across central British Columbia, a whole lot changes. Instead of going two or three hours between small towns, it becomes six or seven. North of Dawson it becomes full days. These days are spent negotiating unpaved roads, tracks really, stoping at a gas station, knowing it may be the only one you see that day. At one such roadside extravaganza we walked into small wooden cafe to pay for our fuel and met a rugged looking old lady who sold gas, coffee and machetes.
“This highway is full of strange characters” she said. “Just the other week, a bunch of tourists sat in here, they waited an hour after closing before they asked me what time the Northern Lights got switched on.”
The Alaskan Highway is a remarkable road, but only in that it exists at all. It was built in a hurry during World War II, when it became something of a concern that Japan or Russia might well invade Alaska and find the only real resistance to be the bad weather. The road connects the mainland states to Alaska, but really only penetrates the South East corner of the state, the rest remaining untouched by modern infrastructure. It’s original length, at 1700 miles, was legendary for being a hard drive, mostly due to it’s being unpaved and a long way from anywhere. These days it has been certified officially ‘fully paved’, however, it turns out this isn’t entirely accurate, we traversed hundreds of miles of unpaved sections on our grueling mission North.
Along the way there are two established, reasonably sized towns way up in the Yukon; Whitehorse and Dawson. We hit Whitehorse around two and a half weeks into the trip. The previous week we’d been camping along the road, often in empty tent sites, Whitehorse allowed us to clean up and buy a few supplies. We hit Dawson two days later and fell in love with it instantly. We enjoyed what was now 24 hour daylight, strolled along the mighty Yukon River and learned about the steamers which once brought men here seeking their fortunes.
From here we crossed into Alaska via the ‘Top of the World’ highway, another testing drive, especially in our tame rental car. The sense of achievement at reaching the border was tangible and gave us fresh energy for the next leg of the trip.
Our route would take us South, to Fairbanks (the second of the two main population hubs), then down into Denali National Park, where we were going to backcountry camp for a few days, to Anchorage (where over 40% of the states population resides) then onto the South coast, ferry hopping to and around the inside passage until we would run out of time and begin the big trek East.
Denali was something new to us both. A wilderness larger than ten of the mainland states, including West Virginia, it is home to Grizzly Bears, Moose and the ever elusive Alaskan Wolf. Neither of us had backcountry camped around such animals before and there was an unspoken notion that my little bear bells might not be a sufficient deterrent.
We spent three days hiking around Denali, gaining confidence and feeling ever more emboldened by our accomplishments until, upon ascending a mountainside Steph noticed something up ahead.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Is that a…..” I trailed off.
“It a Caribou right?” Steph asked.
“Not sure, it might be, it’s looking right at us.”
It turned and galloped uphill, the distance it covered in five strides was astounding.
“Okay that’s definitely a Caribou. It’s too big to be anything else, isn’t it?” I said sounding uncertain. We began to move on. Then came the howl.
The enormous Grey Wolf assumed the howling position and let out two powerful sounds.
“What do we do?” Steph shouted.
“Just keep walking!” I replied, having no idea if this was the correct etiquette for a Wolf encounter. Seconds later came howls from all across the ridge of the mountains. The Wolf was alerting the pack. We double our pace and altered our course.
Just keep moving I repeated in my head, just keep moving.
That night, we set the tent up at high altitude, in fierce wind, so tired it hurt and crawled inside. In the glow of a small tent lamp, cocooned in a sleeping bag, the world outside (no matter how scary) can seem less threatening. Even so, our thoughts were often drifting towards images of prowling, salivating canines.
The next day we came down the mountain and the second our feet hit the flat ground at its base we heard the celebratory howls of the pack behind us. We had left their territory.
We came out of Denali feeling dirty, worn out, blistered and tired. We also felt exhilarated, inspired and bonded. We were a team, we had passed a test of survival together and we didn’t even need a machete.
The rest of our tour felt easy in comparison to the drives and camping experiences we’d had so far. We hit the South coast, left the car to ferry hop around the Alaskan Islands, camping as we went, living on our wits. When it came to the six and a half week mark we made our four day drive back to Chicago.
The journey East felt somber. We sensed the end looming over us and with no further plans it had me feeling spun out. I like a plan. Steph stayed for a week or so before flying home to England. At the airport we said our goodbyes and she walked into the gate vanishing from view. As she did, something yanked on my stomach and throat and I totally broke down. Oh shit.
We quickly fixed a flight for her to visit six weeks later, and in October whilst walking on the beach on the shore of Lake Michigan I got down on one knee.
I saw a cheesy meme recently which had the phrase “there is no wifi in the woods, but you will form a strong connection.” I don’t know who said that, but it’s true. We spent seven weeks together camping, hiking and talking with absolutely no internet, social media and no other people and it created the strongest relationship I’ve ever known.
Anyway, the other day I was thinking of going to Africa…