Alaska’s Toll

Yesterday, I posted a photo on Facebook of Banjo’s last morning in Alaska, and two friends texted right away, enthusiastic about our trip and curious about where we’re going next. A third friend texted along the lines of, “Alaska wore you out, didn’t it.” Ha! Yes. The enthusiasm of the first two friends is warranted, and the concern of the third is warranted. We’re glad we spent the summer on this trip, but man are we glad to have left Alaska.

Where and When

Tracy and I consider this Alaska trip to have started in Edmonton, since that was the last big city we went to before heading north. We left there in late May, so we’ve been traveling in Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon, Alaska, and now Yukon again for three full months.

I circled in yellow Edmonton (down below), then Fairbanks, Anchorage, and where we are now, near Whitehorse. We need to go to Whitehorse again because that’s the only way down, but we’ll take a different highway south from there, more west than the one we took up.

All in all we went everywhere we’d hoped to go, with the exception of Homer and Valdez, both on the Kenia Peninsula, and that’s because of bad weather (see whining below).

The Experience

As I mentioned in my post about sharing this trip with Doug and Melanie, the grand experience of traveling slowly, seeing so many landscapes and animals and weirdos, visiting monumental places and hidden gems, has been hard to describe. I would say it’s like the famed big trip that changes you, but, heck, this is the famed big trip that changes you. I just don’t know how yet, exactly. But I wanted to get that on paper before I describe the parts of this trip that have indeed worn us out.

How the Weather Wears You Down

The weather in Canada (the parts we’ve been to this summer) is so very different than Alaska, especially the Kenia Peninsula, and I can’t complain about it. Right now it’s 60 degrees and sunny in northern Yukon, the blue dot, below.

But see that green swirl? That was on top of us nearly the entire month we were in Alaska. Well, it feels that way, but let’s say for nearly the entire last two weeks we’ve been down under the green swirl.

Stuck Inside

The cold and grey is terrible for your psyche, especially when you live mostly outdoors. We can spend downtime in the tent when it’s chilly or when it’s drizzling, but not both, so we’ve been forced inside the trailer for days on end. Inside, mold has grown on the curtains and cushions where they touch the trailer walls because of endless condensation we can’t get rid of. I can wipe the trailer walls down, but when there’s nowhere to hang the resulting wet towel (wet things are already hanging everywhere), what good does that do?

Winter coats and rain coats, winter hats and rain hats, work gloves and cold-weather gloves, wet socks, dirty dog towels, rain pants, moldy backpacks. These all live on the dirty towel we keep at the front door because we use them too often and they’re too wet to put away. The minute we have sunshine anywhere, they all get draped on bushes outside, along with rugs and dish mats, but never long enough to fully dry anything. Not glamorous and not fun. Several items are ruined, and I’m afraid some of them are expensive Airstream parts.

Limited Outside

We’ve been hiking anyway, Tracy especially. But as Doug and Melanie also complained about, the trails and rocks are so slick that you’re risking injury by hiking any kind of elevation, and that’s all the hikes that are worth the effort here.

And the glorious views we see in photos are entirely hidden in real life. This photo above is me trying to figure out if that low white thing is a glacier or a cloud bank. It’s a cloud bank.

This is a typical good view from the road, as we headed away from Homer and Valdez and the clouds parted briefly. What are we doing here if we can’t see anything outside, can’t hike outside, and are damaging the trailer and our mental health? So, we left Alaska a bit early, just like Doug and Melanie.

How the Expense Wears You Down

Everyone tells you that prices in Alaska are very high, but you’re a captive consumer: you came here for the experience and there’s nothing you can do about it, so I haven’t said much. But really, it’s exhausting. Cheap lunch out is $20 per person. A beer out is $10. Just imagine going to a brewery for lunch, two people. You get two beers and split a pizza and a salad. Your bill is $100. For lunch. That’s nothing compared to the cost of diesel, camping fees, trailer and truck parts, groceries. Enough said.

How the Road Conditions Wear You Down

I’ve mentioned before about the perfect storm up here that creates terrible roads: 1) permafrost melting and creating frost heaves (they’re like waves in the road, like giant washboard conditions), 2) long winters of damaging weather, 3) very few roads, so everyone is driving on the same ones over and over.

This means that the roads are being worked on seemingly everywhere all the time. I think half of Alaskans are employed by the Department of Transportation.

Now imagine this: near cities in the Lower 48 when the roads have to be worked on in a major way, traffic is sent via detour around the work. Here, there is nowhere for a detour, so the road crew builds a temporary road beside the one they’re working on and sends you that way. We’ve followed a pilot car and then another pilot car inside the route of the first one, and that is when you’re lucky to get a pilot car. Sometimes you’re on your own, trying to figure out where the “road” is.

These temporary routes are dirt and mud and rocks, just one narrow strip you could generously call a single lane. Once, we saw road crew laying dynamite feet from where we were driving. Yesterday, a huge road-smoothing vehicle was in the middle of the road working, without a single sign or flag or pilot car to warn you or show you which side you drive around it.

And that’s just the temporary roads; the ones not being worked on have so much damage that you’re either creeping along or slamming on the brakes. Oh yeah, add in wildlife on the road and people pulled over to take photos. It’s exhausting.

We’re still assessing damage to the trailer. We do know that all four doors are damaged: the shower door, the bathroom door, the pantry door, and the front door (I call it that, but it’s the only door on the frame). We’re hoping two of those hang in (literally) until we can get to the Airstream factory/service center this fall. The pantry door we have wedged closed with a dog bed in front of it during travel in the hope it won’t crash into the wall across from it, and the front door could simply fall off when we hit the next pothole. I am not exaggerating. Airstream has adjusted it twice, and Tracy has worked on it here, but I think we’ve just killed it.

Every wall inside has shifted; Tracy’s patch on the grey waste-water tank needs redoing; the black tank fill monitor reads 100% all the time; there’s a leak under one of the solar panels, on and on and on. And we have been conservative about our routes: Doug and Melanie saw an Airstream on the infamous Dempster Highway going up to the Arctic Circle.

Banjo Is Worn Down

Banjo is still a great traveling dog, so excited to get in the truck on travel days that we load her early just to get her out of the way, and always easy-going about whatever location she ends up in. But special circumstances on this trip have her more alert and wary than ever and have me positively freaked out about walking her.

When boondocking, during her little outside time due to the cold and wet, we’ve kept her close because of bears and foxes and porcupines, oh my. When in campgrounds, there are more than the usual amount of dogs off leash (Alaskans are not believers in dog collars, much less leashes). I’ve developed what’s probably a phobia about walking her, truly. I know the chances of us having a bad encounter with a dog are low, but my heart races anyway, and that puts Banjo on edge, and I’ve ended up asking Tracy to walk her in campgrounds, which increases all the stuff he has to do.

So, yeah, long-term and permanent damage has been done here on this trip, to our home, to the truck, to our psyches. We’re glad we did it all, all of it, but answering the question, “Where to now?” is going to take a little time. Let us enjoy the Yukon, see friends and family in the Midwest, and rack up a giant bill at Airstream in Ohio, and then we’ll have a plan.

(If this is alarming at all, know that we do have a plan, but I’m not ready to think about big trips quite yet! Also, check out my previous posts about the joys of this trip: Muncho Lake, Tombstone Provincial Park, Denali, musk ox, the state fair, random loveliness I’m truly grateful for, and for such a positive experience.)

4 thoughts to “Alaska’s Toll”

    1. Banjo would love to. She’d enjoy chasing kitties around your place, mightily. I’ll tell you kindly offered.

  1. A lot of people romanticize “van life.” I’m glad you’re able to give an honest assessment of what it’s like. Even having read all this though, I’m envious of all your time in Alaska. Someday!