Saturday, June 01, 2019

The Great Alcan Adventure: The Slow Goodbye

Okay. So I checked and saw that I left off last time telling you all about the snowfall that hit on the day before we were set to drive out of Anchorage.

I have to pause to tell you a little side story about me and that damned Subaru.

Not only were we leaving my brother and the SIL, but we were also leaving their newborn - my then newest niece. She had been born small and had issues with her esophagus. Something about it needing more time to fully develop. My mom, sister and I hated that we were going to miss her first months of life. Then - just before we were due to leave - we had a little family scare. We thought it was a big emergency but it turned out to be a little one.

On my last Friday at work, there had been a going-away celebration for me. I really loved the people I worked with and (as you will see later) they kind of loved me too. Because of the party, I got home about an hour later than usual. This was great because I'd missed the normal traffic and I was a lot more relaxed once I got home. That's such a good thing because my nerves got a great workout about an hour later.

Since most of our belongings had already been shipped off to Arizona, we were living like campers. The kids thought it was great and we all were having a nice bonding experience. All we had were pallets to sleep on, food and beverages in coolers, and the house phone that was going to be turned off on Monday. What a blessing it was that we had left it on because it rang while we were getting the kids washed up after dinner.

I don't remember now which one of my brother's kids called but they were pretty frantic, telling me to get there. I could hear my SIL in the background just freaking the hell out. All I could make out from the call was that something was wrong with "the baby". I yelled for them to call 9-1-1 right now. (Tells you something about our family dynamic that the kids called us first instead of emergency services.)

And then this is where I relayed to my mom and sister that we had to get to my brother's house right now. I think all they probably got from me was that something was wrong with the baby.

Now, here comes a lesson in the way the human brain works.

My mom, sister, and I leave my teen niece with the twins and run for the car. I have ZERO ideas about how I was the one who ended up in the driver's seat - may be just because I had stupidly grabbed the keys???

Listen, I jumped behind the wheel, started the car and drove like a maniac all the way from the Northwest side of town where we lived to South Anchorage where my brother and his family lived. The three of us jumped out of the car and ran inside to see that... the baby was now fine. Apparently, she'd had some baby slobber slide back down her throat the wrong way. The doctors had warned her mom and dad that it could happen. They'd also told them not to panic when it did. There were ways to hold the baby that would clear the passage - WHILE SOMEONE CALLED 9-1-1. I remember that that had been the most important part of the instructions.

We were all so relieved that my niece was okay that we didn't give her mom much of a hard time about calling us instead of the ambulance. She thanked us for getting there so fast. And then it hit all of us at the same time. Everybody looked around at me in amazement.

My mother would always tell this story later and remind everyone that "my baby drove the hell out of that car."

I never did drive a stick shift as smoothly as I did that day. As a matter of fact, my sister ended up driving us back home that night. Isn't the human mind a strange thing?

Anyway, back to the main story.

The drive down the Alcan started off kind of rough. I was really worried about that snow. My sister and I had just gotten the hang of driving our new (old) stick shift car on dry ground. Okay, let me quit lying. My sister had gotten the hang of it. I was just managing not to hurt myself while driving that Subaru.

Everyone hated when it was my turn behind the wheel. It wasn't that my driving was that bad, but I had to have complete silence. When my sister was driving, conversations could be held, music could be played, the kids could sing silly little songs. I, on the other hand, could not handle distractions of any kind. One of the things I hated about that car was that I couldn't listen to the radio while I drove. I'm too easily, well distracted. If there is a conversation, I must be a part of it. If the kids sing, I find it too adorable not to join in. But music is the worst for me. I am the person that cannot help dancing a little even if I just hear a catchy product jingle. So, as soon as I took the wheel, the twins took a nap, my older niece pulled out a book, and my mom and sister shut down like they'd been unplugged.


Anyway, we got to Whitehorse and spent the night, thinking that we would stop every few days, long enough for mom to stretch out and get some rest in a bed. Well, we got about 60 miles (I'm just guessing) out of Whitehorse when the craziest thing happened. The entire chassis dropped from underneath the car.

Thankfully, my sister was driving when it happened and she had felt a slight shaking just in time to pull off to the side of the road before CLUNK. Yeah. I didn't even know that was a thing that could happen - to drop the whole bottom of the car. It happened.

My niece and I had to hike back towards a closed-for-the-season campground we'd seen. I don't know how far back. It might only have been maybe three miles, but in my memories right now, it seems like it could have been ten miles.

We hopped the fence of the campground, hoping that there might be payphones. It turned out that there were caretakers living on site. They only spoke German. I knew 2 German words: bitte and Guttentag. However, I was fluent in charades. They called for a tow truck and a second vehicle to carry our family. At least I was able to say "thank you" in their native tongue.

We spent a couple of days in the same Whitehorse motel we'd just checked out of while mechanics figured out that the car was (and I am serious here) repairable. They said that some bolts had vibrated loose but they had soldered them.

Of course, I had called the brothers and discussed the situation. We had options of buying a car in Canada or getting on a plane. One of the brothers was insisting that he should fly into Canada and drive us the rest of the way in a different car.

If my mother didn't believe in the power of prayer (and if we didn't trust her belief), we would have either been digging into our budget for another car or plane tickets. But we Conway chicks were tough and we didn't want the boys in the family to forget that. We decided to keep driving in the Subaru.

There is a reason you see a lot of rusted out Subarus on the roads in Alaska. Believe this or not but we had no more trouble with ours (and, as a matter of fact, we gave that car to Arizona friends who might still be driving it to this day.)

We really didn't have to worry anymore about the Subaru breaking down. We did, however, almost slide her off the edge of a cliff. I can't even remember where we were in Canada when that happened but I remember that it was pitch-black nighttime. I also know that it's a good thing my cool-headed sister was driving and not me. And that there was only the slightest bit of slick snow on that part of the road.

What had happened was, we had started up one of those steep inclines that curved. We were steering around the curve just as we were getting to where the incline was about to level out. There was no guardrail to the driver's side of the road where there was a deep drop - which I why I used the word "cliff". On the passenger side was a slight ditch. In that ditch is where we saw the headlights of an upside down car.

We were startled and my sister's first thought was that people might be hurt. She slowed down enough to glance over but then our car started to slide just a little.

If we had been in an automatic transmission, my sister would have instinctively known how to turn with the slide and get some traction. Being in this new (to us) stickshift, she panicked a little and we were just... sliding.

I have no idea how she got hold of herself long enough to think, but she did. Somehow, she got traction and the Subaru whined a little and then the wheels caught and we made it the rest of the way up the incline. All of this happened within the space of maybe four or five seconds. A very long four or five seconds.

Have you ever caught your breath and forgot to breathe again? I think that's what happened to all of us. I know it's what happened to me because I was about to faint before I remembered to take a breath. My mother was the only one who just sat there, arms crossed under her breasts, eyes closed and (I'm sure) praying. When we made it up that hill, she just said, "Oh, thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord."

We were still really worried that someone might have been seriously injured in that other car. I mean, how the hell had it flipped like that? I was trying to remember if the wheels had still been spinning.

Just maybe a mile up the road, we saw a little shack-like motel or inn that had a light on. We stopped there and my sister and I went in to see about calling for some kind of emergency service or something. Guess what? The people at the desk told us that they knew about the wreck. The driver and passenger were okay and had been driving drunk.

I was pissed. Why the hell hadn't the drunken fools turned off their headlights? Why had they been driving drunk on such a bad stretch of road? (Not that anyone should drive drunk on a good stretch of road, but...) And, by the way, who the hell did you call if you got hurt out here in the middle of nowhere?

When we reported back to my mom, I was still really mad. Then she pointed out something I had thought about. Wasn't it a blessing that we hadn't been in the wrong spot when that car was careening around on a dark mountain road?

Okay. Score one for Mom.

The rest of the trip through the Yukon and into British Columbia wasn't too bad. There was that one long stretch between Watson Lake and (I think) Ft. Nelson that will make you happy to have a gas can. A lot of smaller stations and businesses shut down for the winter season so fuel stops have to be timed really well.

And then there was the time I was driving one morning and made the entire commuting population of a town hate me.

I can't remember the exact place but I was driving out of one little community and toward another one that was maybe 10 miles ahead. And because it was really early and still dark, I wasn't driving so much as I was creeping like an octogenarian with bad eyesight. I think I was going maybe 35. In my defense I was tired and the road was all gravelly and rutted. In addition to all that, there were all these blinding headlights behind me. At least it was quiet because everyone else in the car was asleep. Until my mother woke up.

She looked back at the lights behind us and asked, "What's happening?"

Happening? I had no idea what she meant. My sister had woken up now and she looked back at the lights behind us. She commented that it looked like we were leading a funeral procession.

Apparently, I might have been slowing up the morning work commute for some folks. And this time there was no nice lady riding behind me with her flashers on...

As soon as the little gravel road turned into a two-lane street, I couldn't even get over into the slow lane before cars beat me to it and started zooming past.

You know that stereotype about Canadians being some of the nicest people ever (I see you, Keanu). Well. They weren't very nice to me that morning. As a matter of fact, I've driven my bougie ass through gang territory in Oakland that had friendlier people. Shit.

There's really not much else to tell you about that drive. We didn't run into very much snow, thank God. Unlike back in the early seventies, most of the Alcan was paved - or at least not hobbled together with gravel and mud. The Alcan is an incredibly beautiful experience. I highly recommend it as a bucket list item. Kids will see so much natural beauty that they won't mind being in a car for days and days. I, however, have done that drive more than enough times and the only way I would ever do it again is if I was madly in love and the object of my affection wanted to drive it. And I do mean he'd have to be ready to do the whole damn drive!

Fun fact: One of my Iowan neighbors actually helped build the Alcan. When he found out I had moved here from Alaska, he was pretty psyched. He actually wrote a book about the Alcan.

The best thing is, when you are driving the Alcan out of Alaska, it gives you a chance to do a slow goodbye. It's like getting that last sweet and lingering kiss from a lover. I want all my goodbyes to be as beautiful. To this day, I miss some things about Alaska. Most of the family memories I have were made in that place.

The people of Alaska are a big part of the state's beauty, More and more lately, that is fading. Back then though, people who moved there became infected with the friendliness and laid-back attitude that is being Alaskan. The company I worked for there had come up to expand on their hubs in Portland, San Francisco, and Memphis. After just months of the transplanted employees being around us Alaskans, they fit in perfectly. As a matter of fact, I didn't last long in Arizona that time around (another story for later maybe) and ended up going back to the same employer after less than a year and a half. The company was one that I was associated with for a lot more years. Some of the people who moved to Alaska to work with that company stayed after the business was sold and incorporated into what is now FedEx Trade Networks.

Just to make you understand why people love Alaska the way they do (if they do) is to show it to you. It's a gorgeous place. And it's one of those places where you don't have to be rich to enjoy the loveliness. Even with the unzoned, unmatched architecture of Anchorage, you can ignore the manmade ugliness just by looking up at the mountains. Just a ten-minute drive out of Anchorage in any direction and you are in the middle of postcard territory. Seriously. Let me share just a little bit of the view.

This is Beluga Point - just about a 5-minute drive heading out on the Seward Highway.

I'm a horrible photographer and even my bad shot can't kill the beauty in that pic. I took the next one a few years ago just holding the camera out of the car window.

My niece - who still lives in Anchorage (and is a much better photog) took these recently to post on her Instagram:
While out walking her dogs

Just on a drive somewhere in town
 And this beauty right here. I think my niece was on her way back from a fishing trip. Tell me this isn't postcard-worthy. (And don't steal the photo like I did.)

I think you get the idea. Basically, you can live in the poorest, most run-down and depressing part of town and still be just a glance up or a short drive away from magnificence.

That beauty was one of the reasons I was sad to be leaving Alaska. That and having to drive that damned car.