August 8, 2022
Why do we go away? So that we can come back and see where we are with new eyes. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.
Susan was missing only Alaska in her hunt to visit all 50 states, and it was on her bucket list. On mine was dipping a toe in the Arctic Ocean. In the next few weeks we’d get to do both, if everything went well.
Susan is The Planner and typically spends weeks planning our long international adventures. But this time she merely planned a general route and rough timeframe. We were driving and would be sleeping mostly in our Yukon so we had a lot of freedom and no deadlines. Over the course of five or six weeks, we’d head northeast from Northern California to the Canadian Rockies, then take the Alcan (Alaska-Canada Highway) northwest to Alaska, dip south to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, drive north to Denali, head east across the Top of the World “Highway” (really an 80-mile long dirt road), take the Dempster “Highway” (a 560-mile long dirt road!) north to the Arctic Ocean, return south via the Alcan, Cassiar and Sea to Sky Highways, and then visit family in Anacortes, Washington before heading home. An ambitious trip that would encompass many thousands of miles. No reservations. No specifics. I was proud of Susan’s willingness, even eagerness, to keep the planning to a minimum and enjoy spontaneity throughout.
We’d had to make some space decisions because there’s only so much room in the rooftop carrier. Heavy hiking boots? No, our light ones would do, hopefully. I typically wear my comfortable Merrell light hikers and Susan would wear her new Altra Lone Peak trail runners all day long, driving, hiking or walking around a town so we were was able to each bring a single pair of shoes (plus Crocs for campground use). Parkas? Me, no. Susan, yes. Packing clothes was a challenge; it was hot in the US, but would eventually be chilly as we went north. The usual stuff also went in: swinging chairs, table, hiking staff and poles, lots of food.
Our truck/home Rocky required a little extra attention before the long journey—rotate tires, change the oil, add a “bra” (front-end and fender protector) to help prevent dings on the dirt roads, and bring along a grill cover to add later as additional protection once we reached colder temperatures.
Eager to make solid miles our first day, we stopped only for rest areas, eating sandwiches and snacks while we drove. It was early August and though numerous forest fires were raging near the California-Oregon border, we surprisingly had no smoke from the fires as we headed north. We followed beautiful Highway 97 through Bend, Oregon, stopped briefly at a favorite rest area for a stretch break on a path along the Crooked River, and eventually crossed the mighty Columbia River into Washington.
There was an intense heat wave throughout the west and the truck thermometer showed 103 by mid-afternoon. We knew that we’d be leaving that behind as our 40 degrees of latitude eventually turned to 70, which would make a huge difference in the weather. But for now, we blasted the air conditioning. After nearly 12 hours of driving and within two hundred miles of the Canadian border, we were ready to stop for the night.
We’d planned to camp the first night but it would be uncomfortably hot, we decided to stop at cheap hotel Susan found, the Empire Inn in Ritzville, Washington. We opened the door of room six and stepped into a puddle of 1950. Low ceilings, invisible-colored carpeting and dark paneling greeted us. A queen bed took up center stage, but a couch and wooden desk against the wall painted a picture of a traveling salesman three-quarters of a century ago peddling tractor parts or fertilizer, checking into town a for a couple of days. The sink and fixtures in the bathroom were clean but original. The phone was possibly the only thing not original; now a fancy push button job after the phone company stopped supporting rotaries. Sometime around The Beatles’ debut, someone had cut a hole in the wall and installed an air conditioner (thank God) but otherwise it was just as the 50’s left it. There was even a real key, none of this newfangled electronic doodadery. It was dark when we took a walk around town, and freight trains blasted through every few minutes. We loved it.