Tuesday, December 08, 2009

What A Long Strange Trip It Was

A quick note: This took me forever to write--it started off small, but just kind of ballooned. Once I started writing, all the details came flooding back, and it kind of turned into a monster. Anyhow, this post is heavy on words and pictures, but only two of the pictures have me in them--The first one and the last one. In the first one, I'm the guy in yellow. In the last one, I'm the guy on the far right.

Get a cup of coffee and enjoy the trip... (also, clicky for full-sized goodness on the pictures)

The twentieth anniversary is still a few months off, but since I got so many offers that I just couldn't refuse (ahem, Josie and Tara...), I'm gonna go ahead and tell this story now. It's my gift to you this weekend.

Back in the late 80's, I was living in Rexburg Idaho, attending school full-time at Ricks College (now known as BYU-Idaho). Back then, it was a junior college, but now it's a full-on four-year university. Damn--I wish it would've been a four-year school back then. I would've stayed and gotten my degree there.

Say what you will about the overarching creepiness of Mormonism, but they have some damn fine schools. I cannot heap sufficient praise on the educational experience I had. It was top-notch and I would recommend it to anyone. As hard as it is to imagine somebody like me in an environment like that, I really did love the time I spent there.

Anyhow, when my time was up (I somehow stretched it to five semesters and a summer term), I had to move on. The original plan was to get married and move to Florida and attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, but me and the gal broke up and plans changed drastically that spring. Instead, I decided to completely give up on the Florida idea that the two of us had worked toward and go in a totally different direction. After a few weeks of soul-searching, I decided to attend ERAU's smaller western campus in Prescott, Arizona.

It was an allegedly exclusive private school, so I would need money. Scholarships, grants, and student loans would only go so far, but ERAU was ridiculously expensive (and overpriced too. Someday I may go on a rant, but basically it was the biggest fraud and waste of money I've ever experienced. If I could hop in the time machine, I'd go back and talk myself out of ever going there).

I really didn't want to go back to Nashville and sell shoes at Dillard's again, and even though there were some interesting jobs at Yellowstone and Jackson Hole, they just didn't pay very much. And I sure didn't want to work as a cashier in a gift shop. Word around the campfire was that if you wanted to make some real money over the summer, you had to go to Alaska.

It didn't take long to come up with my new plan--I'd go to Alaska for six months or so, earn as much as I could, take the fall semester off, and then move down to Arizona in time for the following spring semester with a pocket full of cash. Back then, there was no internet, so job searches involved going to the student employment office and digging through their files of companies that were always recruiting fresh meat from the colleges.

There were plenty of crappy low-paying jobs offered, but the big money jobs working for the oil, timber, or fishing companies didn't advertise. You had to take your chances and just show up and beg, but that seemed a little risky to me. Besides, I didn't have a dime to my name, so I couldn't support myself if I went that route, anyways. So I kept looking. Most seasonal jobs were tourism-related, and they didn't seem to pay very much. And most of them involved being a tour guide or a 'naturalist' or some other such thing, earning barely more than minimum wage. The supposed draw was the experience and the inability to spend what little money you earned, since you were usually isolated off in some small out-of-the-way place. Whatever.

But I also wanted to go to Alaska just for the sheer adventure factor. Besides, my dad had served in the Coast Guard and was stationed up there in the early 60's, so that was also a reason for me to go--I wanted to be able to have something in common with my old man, hitting the same places he'd been a generation earlier.

Eventually, I found something that caught my eye--a tourism outfit up in Alaska was looking for whitewater rafting and canoe guides. Oh hell yeah--that sounded like it was right up in my kitchen. I grew up canoeing all over Tennessee and Missouri, and I'd spent the previous summer running the Snake river outside of Jackson Hole every chance I got.

I went through the application process, had a phone interview, and got an offer a month before the semester ended. My plan then was to ship what few possessions I had down to Utah for my friends to store for me, and I'd just pack a couple of duffel bags on my motorcycle, point it north, and spend a week riding through the Canadian Rockies. Eventually I'd make my way to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, where I'd catch a ferry, North to Alaska. To a 22-year old, it sounded like the adventure of a lifetime.

Of course, there were all kinds of considerations--late April and early May were still pretty much winter up there, and riding a motorcycle for hundreds of miles through the Canadian wilderness--what if there were bears? I'd already been charged a couple of times by loose cattle up there in Idaho, and I couldn't imagine trying to outmaneuver an angry grizzly or an agitated moose. I thought of maybe carrying a sidearm, but then, Canadian gun laws weren't quite as open-minded as most of the western US.

Still, I had to get up there somehow, and I just planned on making the most out of it. But about two weeks before I was supposed to go, I got a phone call from my new employers. They had an offer for me...

We'd been in contact, and they knew of my plan to ride my motorcycle up to Prince Rupert, and the operations manager even offered to try and put me in touch with some of the other guys they'd hired and maybe we could road trip up together if any of them were bringing a car or truck. None of that panned out, but then an opportunity presented itself.

The company I was to work for had tourist gigs all over southeastern Alaska, catering mostly to cruise ship passengers. The job I got was to be a rafting guide outside of Juneau, but they had operations in Ketchikan, Sitka, and Skagway, too. Anyhow, one of the other tours they offered involved a float trip on some remote lake where they loaded a bunch of people on a 36-foot-long war canoe and went out to some island to look at eagles or bears or some other sort of wildlife.

So this is what they needed--they wanted me to fly from Idaho to Indianapolis, pick up a customized 25-passenger tour bus (kinda like a big Ford Econoline van airport-shuttle looking thing), then drive from there up to a little town up in the middle of Nowhere Canada, somewhere north of Toronto, and pick up a brand-new 36-foot long war canoe. The canoe company would mount the canoe upside-down on the roof of the bus, and then I'd drive all the way across Ocanada to Prince Rupert, and catch the ferry there. From there, I'd spend a few days heading north up the inside passage, dropping the canoe off in Ketchikan and then delivering the tour bus, and myself, to Juneau.

They offered me $500 for making the trip, and of course all the plane tickets and such were to be paid for. They also said I could make a few extra bucks by keeping the expenses down. No problem, said I. Instead of freezing my ass off and worrying everyone about me trekking across western Canada on my bike, I would also save the expense of taking the ferry. And a road trip like that, well, that sounded pretty fun, too.

As soon as I agreed, they said they'd get a package together for me with all the details and everything I'd need--they'd take care of all the arrangements. A couple of days later, a DHL courier showed up with a pouch full of goodies.

Enclosed were my plane tickets, a phone card (no cell phones back then), an American Express corporate card (for emergencies), an Exxon gas card, instructions on where to go in Indianapolis to get the tour bus, directions to the canoe place in Ontario, customs and importation paperwork for getting a brand-new $20,000 'boat' across the border, $500 worth of traveler's checks for me, and then another $1500 worth of traveler's checks for expenses of getting all the way back to west coast of Alberta--the deal was that whatever I didn't spend, I got to keep.

A buddy of mine agreed to keep my motorcycle for me, and my parents and friends all breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn't be riding my bike across all the way up there by myself. It all seemed to work out perfectly. In fact, I was told that I'd likely pick up another guy in Detroit and he'd be riding out with me, so I'd have some company. Also, I was told that the van was all tricked out and had a new-fangled in-dash CD player, so I could bring all the music I wanted. Cool!

It sounded like it was turning into a helluva trip, and a great way to kick off my Alaskan adventure. Most of my friends were actually a little jealous, too.

I remember that I left Rexburg for the last time on a Sunday morning. The weekend had been spent saying goodbye to all of my college friends and I had one last night with the gal I'd been seeing for the last several weeks. A buddy offered to take me and my duffel bags down to the Idaho Falls airport and drop me off. My adventure had begun.

It wasn't a direct flight--I was on American, so I went to Salt Lake City first, then Dallas-Ft. Worth, and after a layover, I got to Indianapolis late in the afternoon. Once I fetched my luggage, I caught a cab over to one of the local airport hotels. My instructions were to go to the front desk and there would be a package waiting there for me with the keys, and the van would be waiting in the parking lot.

For some reason, it felt like I was a spy on some sort of secret mission. I'd never met my 'control', and getting packages in the mail with documents, credit cards, and money just added to the fun, plus traveling to exotic locales like Indianapolis to pick up a drop, well, that completed the illusion as far as I was concerned.

I got the keys without a hitch and found the van sitting by itself out in the parking lot, so I was on my way. As soon as I got in, I noticed the first problem. The stereo had already been stolen. Shiat. No tunes for me, and I had several thousand miles to drive. This was long before iPods had been invented, and my Walkman was in a storage unit on the other side of the country. I debated whether or not to call the office back in Alaska, but it was Sunday, and nobody would be around (remember, no cell phones in those days). Besides, making a police report would be a waste of time, they'd never recover it, and I had a fairly tight schedule. I had to be back in Prince Rupert the following Friday to catch the ferry. And it's not like I could just catch the next one--they were usually booked full, and it would be tough to squeeze a 24-foot-long van with a huge canoe overhanging six feet on each end down on the car deck. I had a reservation for a 36-foot vehicle on that ship and on that particular day and I had to be there--no time for dilly-dally.

Besides having no radio to listen to, the tour bus was delivered with an empty gas tank, so the first order of business was to fill 'er up before heading north to O-Canada. My route took me east towards Dayton, Ohio, then I turned north and drove through Toledo and on to the crown jewel of American cities, Detroit.

I'd never been there before, but I'd been warned that no matter what, do not stop at red lights--just keep on motoring. Good advice, especially since I rolled into town sometime after midnight. And due to construction, I couldn't take the freeway to the Ambassador Bridge to get into Windsor, there were detours and surface streets to be negotiated. Great. Just great.

I drove around in circles for about a half hour, absolutely lost down in the most ghettofabulous parts of the motor city. A dense fog coming off the river didn't help much, either. Eventually, I found a sign that led me towards the bridge and with great relief I saw the sign welcoming me to the Great White North.

I was the only vehicle trying to get into Canada at that hour, and I got a thorough inspection from their border patrol/customs people. I was damn happy to be there and thought it showed in my attitude, but the guy I had to deal with was a complete prick. He was just a typical bureaucrat dick-head with too little education and far too much power. Even after all these years, I remember that encounter. He treated me like I was smuggling drugs, uranium, and Budweiser into his fair country and basically took the van apart while I cooled my heels for almost 45 minutes.

I had nothing to hide, but I was tired and wanted to get on my way--it had been a very long day. Eventually, after being interrogated about what reasons I would possibly want to come to Canada, I was free to go.

Windsor looked like a nice town, so I figured I'd find a Motel 6 or it's equivalent at the time (Motel 4.5?) and crash for the night. I found a sandwich shop that was open 24 hours and thought that the wrapping paper covered with printed maple leaves was one of the coolest things ever. Yep, mark another country off the list--I was a world traveler!

I found a room that would take American Express traveler's checks in US Dollars, but they warned me that I should hit the Royal Bank first thing in the morning to get some Canadian currency. Once I left Windsor, my American money would be no good.

I parked the van, took a hot shower, and hit the bed, too tired to even look and see what Canadian TV was like.

The next morning I got up bright and early, and hit the road long before the local branch of the Royal Bank was open. Lucky for me, the McDonald's down the block took American money, so I grabbed an egg McMuffin and thought to myself, So this is what Canadian bacon tastes like, as I pointed the van towards Toronto.

My first experience driving in a foreign country was interesting. Although it seemed like they tried really hard to be British about everything, I still got to drive on the right side of the road. And when I saw my first metric speed-limit sign, I got excited. Speed Limit - 100? Oh hell yeah! Of course, it took me a second, but I realized that they meant kilometers per hour, not miles per hour. And well, to tell you the truth, I doubt that the van would've done 100 mph even if you dropped it from a cargo plane at 30,000 feet. It was like driving a tugboat.

100 in O-Canada is only 62 in the real world, so that was a short-lived thrill. It was a long drive to Toronto, and it seemed a helluva lot longer because I had no music to help me pass the time. I was riding in silence, with nothing to keep me company but my own thoughts. That other guy who was gonna ride shotgun with me? Something happened and he backed out completely. So I was on my own.

At the time, there was a whole lotta nuthin' in southern Ontario between Windsor and Toronto. Probably hasn't changed that much in the past 20 years, either. Oh, there are a few little burgs here and there, but mostly it was a lot of empty space. So it was a fairly dull drive until I got to the outskirts of Toronto. Except of course, that the van kept overheating. I stopped twice to check the water and let it cool down, but for some reason, it wasn't running very well. I didn't need that.

For those of you who've never been, Toronto is a big city. It seems like it goes on and on forever. But unlike Detroit, where I was the night before, it is much more pleasing to the eye. I didn't see any boarded up, burned out, abandoned buildings, and none of the residents seemed to spend much time hanging around next to a burning garbage can. I could be wrong though--I didn't stop. I was in a rush. It seemed to take the better part of an hour to get from one end of the city to the other, but once I did, I was back in the wilderness again, heading for a little town out in the middle of nowhere.

I arrived early in the afternoon, surprised to see that our canoe supplier was just a couple of dudes working out of a ranch house with a shed out back. Once I backed in, I turned off the engine and climbed out, glad to get a break from driving. Happy to hear something besides road noise for the first time in almost eight hours, I was greeted by two guys straight out of the Red Green Show.

They certainly seemed friendly enough, but as an outsider, it looked to me that they'd been living out in the woods just a little too long. I didn't care--I was just along for the ride and this was just the first of many adventures.

The first order of business was to sign papers and pay for the canoe. So I slapped down the Amex card and signed my name. Before I knew it, I, as an agent of my employer, was legally the proud owner of a 36-foot long bright red Indian war canoe. It was pretty damn cool looking, and I had no idea how they were possibly gonna mount the thing to the roof of that shuttle bus thing I was driving--its roof was completely smooth.

They got to work measuring and such, while I topped off the radiator again and checked the oil. It seemed to me that the van was pretty much a piece of shiat, and my bosses probably got ripped off. They bought it sight unseen, probably through a broker who just mailed pictures to them and gave him his 'approval'. I don't know, but it seemed like a sketchy deal. I was expecting a nice new tourist van, but even though there were no dents or rust or anything like that, it seemed kinda tired.

While Red and Harold were building a jig out of scrap lumber, I asked if I could use the facilities to freshen up. I'd been on the road all day and needed to use the can and maybe take a hooker bath with a washcloth in the sink. Of course they said yes, and directed me to the house.

That's where the freak-out took place.

When I walked into the bathroom and turned on the light, I was absolutely shocked by what I saw. The entire room, small though it was, was completely papered from floor to ceiling on all four walls with old black-and-white 50's style gay porn.

I shiat you not.

Gay. Porn.

Ok, maybe I don't know what 50's style gay porn looks like--maybe it was the early sixties. But you can imagine. It was way past weird and deep into freaky. Oh and there was the obligatory stack of magazines on the back of the toilet, too. I don't believe any of them were copies of Playboy.


Coming from a severely repressed place like Rexburg Idaho and seeing that was a complete jolt to the system. It was one of those moments where you realize just how naive you are. Who knew that people were into that kind of shiat? I sure didn't. So I did my business as quickly as possible, careful not to touch anything unless absolutely necessary, and got the hell out. Of course, now I laugh about it and get a kick out of telling that story, but at the time, out there in the middle of nowhere with two hillbillies and shed full of power tools, it was a little much to handle.

I called the office to tell them that I was picking up the canoe, and then gave them the rundown on the van. I told them that I wasn't sure if it would make it, but that I'd call every time I stopped to get gas and let them know how I was progressing.

After the phone call, I pretty much sat by myself in stunned silence, trying to wrap my mind around the bathroom scene and worrying about the engine.

It didn't take long, but without me asking questions to distract them, they built a pretty cool padded wooden jig that attached to the roof of the van, hoisted that big damn canoe up there with a block and tackle, and tied the thing down. I didn't have a camera with me, but it was a sight to behold. And this is the best I can come up with on a Google image search:

You get the idea--now imagine turning it upside down and tying it to the roof of your vehicle--and then drive 2500 miles. Just another page in the Wikipedia of Mikey.

Thankfully I didn't have to sit around long before the load was secured, and I escaped without having to squeal like a piggy. I headed back down towards civilization, shaking my head, thinking Holy shiat, that was weird...

Having that huge red canoe tied to the roof instantly made me a rolling tourist attraction. And it came with a price. If I thought the van handled like a tugboat before, now it handled like a tugboat dragging an anchor. That canoe acted like a huge sail, and not in a good way. I had to keep my foot in it to maintain highway speed, and it sucked the gas like I was holding the handle down on a public toilet. So I had to stop a whole lot more often to fill the tank. And every time I did, I drew a crowd of onlookers and question-askers.

Yep, it's 36 feet

I'm heading to Alaska with it

No, it doesn't come with an outrigger

No, I didn't put it up there by myself

I have no idea how much it weighs, but it's a heavy sumbitch

No, I'm not putting a motor on it

Over $20,000

etc, etc, etc.

But that was mostly later in the trip. I had three and a half days to get out to the western edge of British Columbia, and at first I thought I might take a side trip for a half day down to Niagara Falls and see that--I'd never been before and it was just down the road. But going over my itinerary in my head, that was completely out of the question. I needed to get moving westward.

Originally, I'd planned on just driving all the way across Canada, but my recent experience with metric gas pumps and Canadian prices killed that idea. Even though it would be a couple hundred miles longer, it would be much cheaper to cross back into the States and drive west to Montana before turning north into Alberta. That Exxon card didn't work everywhere in Canada, so I would've had to dip into that thousand bucks, and I wanted to keep as much of that for myself as possible.

So instead of road-tripping across Saskatchewan and Manitoba, I headed back down towards Detroit. I got just southwest of Toronto when the van started acting up again. That canoe really put a strain on the tired engine, and I could barely nurse it along. I stopped and topped off the water, plus bought a couple more gallons to take with me, and filled up the tank. I was out in the middle of farm country near the town of Guelph, just before dusk, several miles from anywhere, when the engine blew itself apart.

It had run ok for awhile, but started acting up again almost as soon as I got out of the city. So I slowed down to about 30 mph, turned on the hazard lights, and just crept along for several miles. As soon as I heard the loud BANG! of a cylinder disintegrating, I immediately slammed it into neutral and coasted to a stop on the side of the road.


There was an exit about a mile up the road, but there was no town or stores there--it was just a country road crossing the highway.

Oh, and did I mention that it was my birthday, too?

So I left the hazard lights on, lifted the hood (and I saw that the radiator hose had split, too), and headed off down the road. You'd think that there would be a lot of traffic on one of the main roads between two major cities like Toronto and Detroit, but you'd be wrong. Oh, I wasn't out there alone, but then again, nobody stopped to help either.

I guess I walked almost three miles before I found a house, and they were kind enough to help me out--they called me a wrecker and found a motel nearby the Ford Heavy Equipment dealer in the next town. I also called the office and told them the news. That was a fun phone call.

I got a ride back to the van, and the tow truck showed up soon thereafter. He towed it to the Ford Truck dealer in Kitchener, and lucky for me there was a cheap motel just down the block. We dropped off the van, left the keys, and I headed back over to the motel to get some sleep. They'd look at the engine first thing in the morning and tell me what I already knew--the engine was toast.

I walked back over at 9:00 am, and sure thing--the engine needed to be totally replaced. I got on the phone with the office back in Alaska and told them the bad news. It would be at least five days before I was on the road again, and it was gonna cost somewhere around five grand.


Of course, we ordered a new engine to be shipped up from Detroit and I found myself stranded in Kitchener for the week. I don't know if any of y'all have been there, but there ain't a whole lot to do. The guys at the Ford dealer, knowing that they were gonna make a small fortune off of me, offered me the use of a courtesy truck for the rest of the day. So I went to the grocery store and bought a few toiletries and some non-perishable foodstuffs, along with a few magazines and paperbacks to keep me occupied over the next several days.

While I was doing that, my new boss in Alaska was trying to scramble around and change my ferry reservation. Not an easy task at all.

After that first day, I was on foot for the rest of the week, and there was nothing close by the motel. There was, however, a cafe attached to the motel, so I could get a hot meal there once or twice a day. Breakfast was normal, but dinner was an altogether different experience for me. It was there where my poutine cherry was popped, and I also discovered Labatt's Blue. It took a couple of days before I worked up the courage to try the abomination that is poutine, though.

My first meal was just a burger and fries. Mayo on the burger, no ketchup with the fries. They gave me brown gravy instead.

WTF? What's wrong with you people!?!?

But the waitress, who'd been working there for thirty years if she'd been there a day, was kind enough to educate this Ugly American about the finer points of Canadian cuisine. If you don't want gravy, you can have malt vinegar instead!


From the metric system, to the gay porn, to the gravy on French Fries, my first two days in Canada had been a major culture shock. After my first full day in Kitchener, I decided that I'd just hole up in my motel room for the day and watch TV and read books. Nothing could hurt me there...

Yeah, well, Canadian TV leaves a bit to be desired. At least the version I was getting there in that flea-bag motel. So I just dove into the paperbacks, hoping that they would help pass the time. Several hours later, not wanting to fight the gravy monster at dinner or offend my hosts, I decided that I'd just order a pizza from Domino's instead. They couldn't mess that up, could they?

Nope, the menu was the same familiar one I was used to back in Idaho, so I ordered a large single topping pepperoni--Seven bucks back in Rexburg. So imagine my jaw-dropping surprise when I learned that a large single-topping pizza in Canada was $26. I about shiat. No wonder Canadians don't tip--they can't afford to!

My only other excitement for the week was walking four miles each way to the nearest Royal Bank to change more American bucks into Canadian bucks. That wasn't much fun, but what the hell did I have to do all day? Nothing. I also bought a few more paperback books while I was out--I'd already plowed through three of them in a day and a half.

Luckily the guys at the Ford dealership had their shiat together and after five very long days stuck in a crummy motel room, I was back on the road. It only cost about six grand after all was said and done. During my forced exile, my boss had managed to get me on a different ferry--like two weeks later that the original reservation, so I had almost nine days to drive across North America. No problemo... As long as the engine held together, I'd have plenty of time to spare.

Leaving Canada, I had to stop at the customs office in Windsor, where they crawled up my ass with a microscope again, but since all of my papers were in order, I was allowed to make my escape. After five days in Kitchener, Detroit never looked so good. And it was even nicer because the American border guards waved me along after about thirty seconds--apparently they know who the good guys are. Either that, or they were afraid I'd get my canoe jacked if I remained parked for too long on the Detroit side.

Taking my queue, I didn't linger. I headed south, back to Ohio, and then west. I drove through famous places like Gary, Indiana (looked an awful lot like Detroit to me), then turned north to Chicago. Still having no music to help pass the time, the sights of Chicago were a wonderful diversion--I drove right by the 'new' Comiskey Park, still under construction at the time and found myself another motel once I got to the outskirts of the city.

Of course, I had to stop and get gas like every 200 miles, and that got to be a real pain in the ass. When I road-trip, I want to drive straight through as much as I possibly can (even driving from Nashville to Vegas five years ago, we only stopped to sleep for about seven hours and made the whole trip in two days). Of course, not having any way to listen to music made it a bit easier to stop so often, but then, having to give a lecture and an impromptu Q & A session at each pit stop was starting to get a bit tedious. It may be hard to believe, but there are dozens of photo albums scattered across the midwest that have a picture of me posing in front of the van and canoe at random gas stations all across the country.

My trek across country took me to lots of places I'd never been before--Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Dells, and across the wheat fields of southern Minnesota. At first, I was going to take the northern route though the twin cities and North Dakota, but thankfully I chose the southern route instead. South Dakota was much more interesting. I almost took an afternoon off from driving to visit Mt. Rushmore, but my timing was off--it was getting late, so I kept going. Besides, I didn't want to pay tourist town prices for a room. I figured if I kept going and stopped someplace off the beaten path, it would cost a lot less.

I did, however stop for dinner at some road-side cafe there in the Black Hills and had my first ever buffalo burger. It was ok, nothing to get excited about.

Driving across the expanse of the western US was a great experience, but it was a little boring. No radio, no tape deck, just the sound of the road and the wind to keep me company. Hell, I was even wishing I had a CB radio just so I could listen to the truckers talk about the huge upside-down red canoe that was heading west on I-90. At some point in my journey, I started to sing, out loud of course, just to keep myself from going crazy. I sang every song I knew for two days straight, trying to remember everything I had in my CD collection. It helped, but by the time I got to Billings Montana, I was down to Christmas carols and Schoolhouse Rock.

At some point in Montana, I realized that I still had plenty of time to get to Prince Rupert. The new engine worked like a charm, and the van had run great all week. Oh, it sucked the gas down, and trying to make my way against the ridiculous headwinds outside of Livingston Montana cost a small fortune--I had to keep the pedal completely floored just to maintain 50 mph. It took a full tank of gas to go about 80 miles during that stretch. But since time was now on my side, I decided to go 'off the grid' for a couple of days. I'd been calling the office a couple of times a day with progress reports, so I told them that once I got to Butte, I was going to rest for a day or two.

But there ain't much in Butte--my plan was to turn south for a couple of hours and head back to Rexburg--I'd have a free place to crash for a couple of days, I could see my gal Angela again, and I could enjoy a few free meals at the school cafeteria, too.

So that's what I did--I rolled back into Rexburg about two weeks after I'd left, but this time I was the center of attention, driving that van with the huge canoe on the roof.

It was nice to get off the road for a few days and hang out with friends again. And as much as I complained about Rexburg when I was there, I sure was glad to be back, if only for a short time.

While I was there, I grabbed a few essentials out of storage, most importantly, my Walkman and a bunch of cassettes. Two days passed much too quickly, and before I wanted to, I had to go. I said goodbye to my friends and took Angela out to breakfast one last time before I hit the road, mentally preparing myself for my return to O-Canada.

Heading north, I was back in Montana in no time. It was a little bit of a bummer that first morning on the road, because now I knew I'd probably never be going back. All those memories of the previous three years would remain just that--memories. I had truly turned a page in the unfolding story of life, and as much as I was looking forward to getting on with it, that previous chapter had been the best. I was sad that it was over.

I made it to the Canadian border that night, and the crossing between Montana and Alberta was somewhat less of a hassle than my earlier experience in Windsor. I still got a few questions, but it was a much more laid-back experience. I don't remember where I stopped that night, but it was someplace close to the border. My goal for the day was to just get to Canada, and once that was accomplished, the only thing I wanted to do was find a cheap place to sleep.

A few hours of sleep, a quick bite to eat, and I was on my way north to Cal-GARY, as my Canadian friends like to call it. Southern Alberta looked an awful lot like parts of Montana and Idaho as far as I was concerned--lots of prairie, mountains off in the distance, not much else. So it was kind of a boring drive. That is, until I passed a road sign that made me do a double-take.


I didn't stop to find out, but I have since learned that it's a historical site. In the days before horses swam over from Europe, Indians used to chase the buffalo herds off of cliffs to kill them for their meat and hides and such, and this place was like the Super Bowl of buffalo killin'. If I had more of the criminal element in my DNA, that road sign would be hanging on my wall.

Not long after passing Canada's answer to the Olduvai Gorge, I found myself in Calgary. It's a nice town, smaller than I thought, but kinda reminded me of Denver with hills. And a river. It's a nice place, and if I were forced to live in O-Canada, I'd probably stay there.

As nice as Calgary was, I had no idea about the eye-candy I was about to experience. My next destination was Prince George, far to the northwest of Calgary. To get there, I had to hop on the Trans-Canada highway and drive through Banff and Jasper National Parks, in the heart of the Canadian Rockies.

Not only was the scenery spectacular, but I knew it was gonna be an adventure when I saw this sign:

At first I thought it was a warning for moose, but it was actually telling me to watch out for elk. Having never seen a mule deer in the wild--only little whitetails, I was completely unprepared for seeing my first elk. It was HUGE. It was just hangin' out on the side of the road, grazin' like it owned the place. It didn't even notice me.

I saw three more within the next half mile or so, and then before long I drove by a meadow that must've had a couple of dozen of them scattered about. I stopped counting at fifty. They were everywhere. You definitely wanted to slow down and obey the speed laws, but you couldn't help it--you had to drive slow just to be able to take it all in! Here's a few more pictures of Banff and Jasper that I found floating around on the internet:

While I was driving through there, I couldn't help but pull over a few times and just take in the view. It was an amazing place, and it went on for over a hundred miles. One spot I found particularly appealing was Lake Louise. It looked like it was straight out of the Austrian Alps. Had I still been without a radio, I would've busted out with The hills are alive....

I believe the Trans-Canada Highway, at least through the parks, is called the Icefield Parkway. It's mile after mile of mountains, lakes, streams, wildlife, evergreen forest, and glaciers. It's truly an amazing place, and if you want to kill an entire afternoon, just do a google image search of Jasper and Banff. And pictures don't even do it justice. It's the one cold place I'd be willing to re-visit.

Even though the days are much longer when you get that far north, I couldn't make it to Prince George in one day. I ended up rolling out my sleeping bag on the back row of seats in the van, and slept in the parking lot of one of the glacier overlooks. I remember there was a full moon out that night, and it gave the snow-covered mountains an eerie but magical glow. I also remember sleeping for a couple of hours, but waking up freezing my ass off. So I ran the motor for about a half hour or so to warm up the interior again, and caught a couple more hours of sleep.

I was up and on the road again just as the morning sunlight started to make it's way down into the valley. I didn't have a long day ahead of me--it was just a few hours drive to Prince George, and once I got there, I could check into a motel, take a long hot shower, eat a good meal, and sleep for about twelve hours or more before making the final push to Prince Rupert.

Prince George is a nice little city--it's just inside of British Columbia once you get out of the National Parks. But the only thing I did there besides checking into a motel was to hit the bank again for some more Canadian currency, and then grab a meal. Of course, everyone I encountered wanted to talk about the canoe.

The next morning, I gassed up the van and got an early start. Prince Rupert was still 450 miles away, all the way across British Columbia. I'd heard that it was also a nice drive, although not nearly as spectacular as my trip through the Canadian Rockies.

It was on this day, however, that I finally saw my first bear. I was motoring down the road, enjoying the scenery when I saw a black bear come out of the brush about 200 yards in front of me--plenty of time for me to slow down. I coasted until I was about forty yards away from it and pulled over on to the shoulder of the road. The bear itself, a good sized black bear, was actually standing in the middle of the road, head high, sniffing around. I watched it for a good five minutes, and it stayed in the road for a long time. While I was fascinated, I was thanking my lucky stars, again, that I wasn't on my motorcycle. Between the incredible distances, the cold, the elk herds, and the bear I was watching, I figured I was much better off having the van for protection.

Eventually, the bear wandered off, back into the woods, and I was back on my way. It was just another incredible experience, and hoping to repeat it, I slowed down a bit and took off the Walkman, just to be on the lookout.

I never saw another bear that day, but the last part of the drive into Prince Rupert was really pretty. The road eventually intersected with the Skeena river, and it follows it all the way to the ocean, which is where Prince Rupert is located. It was tough to get lost at that point. I made it to town in the early evening, glad that the hard part of the trip was finally behind me. I'd been on the road for the better part of two weeks, and had basically driven almost the entire way across the North American continent.

I checked into a motel, called the office to let 'em know that I made it with 48 hours to spare, and then treated myself to a nice seafood dinner at a restaurant overlooking the water. Prince Rupert isn't really on the open ocean, it's on part of the Inside Passage that goes from down in Vancouver to up north to Skagway or some place like that. It's a picturesque little town that gets by on fishing and being a stop along the Alaska Marine Highway, but other than that, it's a pretty quiet place. I explored most of it on foot the next afternoon.

While it was nice to be able to rest, I really wanted to hurry up and get to Alaska. Prince Rupert was cool and all, but I was good and ready to go on departure day. I had to be down at the ferry terminal at O-dark-thirty in the morning. My vehicle was one of the biggest ones on the boat that trip, and they have to do some serious planning to make sure everyone gets on and that the ferry is safely balanced. So it was a busy morning.

Once I turned the van over to the stevedore crew, I was free to board the M/V Taku. Now, the Alaskan ferries aren't exactly cruise ships. Oh, they have cabins available, but a lot of people tend to just camp out on the upper deck--half of which is exposed, and half of which is under a plexiglass roof, called the solarium. My advantage, from being one of the first people allowed on the ship, was that I could get first choice of spots up under the solarium, claiming a chaise lounge, too, so I didn't have to sleep on deck. Since we were heading north, I chose the port side, as close to amidships as possible.

The ferry filled up pretty quickly, with the usual retirees and backpackers. There were lots of hippies, exchange students, and seasonal workers just like me coming along, so I had plenty of company up there in 'immigrant class'. Yeah, there was lots of hacky-sack being played, and nobody seemed to care about the amount of weed being smoked, either.

It was a three-day sail up to Juneau, with a couple of stops along the way. I had brought a couple more paperbacks with me to pass the time, but I made a few friends, so I never got bored. I met a nice English-speaking gal from Belgium named Michelle, and she was going to Juneau, too, so we ended up hanging out together for the entire trip.

Not only was it nice to have somebody to talk to, but we saw lots of incredible wildlife on the way north. There were plenty of bald eagles, but we saw a lot of porpoises, too. But the biggest hit among the passengers were the pods of killer whales we saw. And every time someone on the bridge saw a whale, they'd make an announcement and everyone would head to the rail with their cameras. I have to admit, it was pretty cool.

Our first stop was in Ketchikan, and that's where I had to drop the canoe off. While I wasn't allowed to drive it on to the boat the first time, I was able to drive it off once we got to Ketchikan.

As soon as I cleared the dock, I saw a couple of guys waiting for me with a crane and a flatbed trailer. It only took a few minutes to get the canoe dismounted, and I got back in line to get back on the boat. Of course, all the people in cars who'd been waiting in line for hours were pissed that I was shuttled up to the front, but oh well. That's the way it goes.

There was one more stop before Juneau, and that was Sitka. We were able to get off the boat and explore for a little bit while we were stopped there, but we didn't have long. I think the highlight of the day was going to the grocery store and getting some beer and crackers. Riding the ferry up, you were pretty much on your own. Oh, there was a cafeteria/snack bar on board, and lots of folks chose to utilize it, but most people just camped out up on the deck and lived on beef jerky, trail mix, weed, and Ranier beer. While it certainly had an appeal, Michelle and I hit the snack bar once or twice, too.

Oh, and living on deck didn't afford much privacy, either. There were restrooms up there for us to use, and each one had a couple of shower stalls, so hygiene wasn't an issue (well, there were a lot of hippies up there, so I guess I should say hygiene wasn't an issue for us). And even though we ditched the chaise lounges and zipped our sleeping bags together on deck, there wasn't much in the way of hanky-panky going on--just too many people walking around (not from lack of trying, but it was quite unsuccessful. Imagine trying to get freaky in a refugee camp, and then you'll get an idea of the level of frustration).

We finally got to Juneau late one evening after three days on the boat. Actually, we docked up north of town in Auke Bay. Michelle had to be down in Juneau proper the next day to meet up with her hiking-across-Alaska companions, so she stayed with me that night. I had directions and keys to the 'bunkhouse' where all of the rafting guides would be living that summer, but since I was one of the first ones to arrive in town, we managed to get an empty room to ourselves. Finally--blessed privacy!

The next morning, after packing up and getting dressed, I took her down to the main part of town and we said our goodbyes and I got my first good look at Juneau. No, I never heard from her again, either. But I drove back up to the warehouse where all the boats and equipment was stored, ready to begin my summer job as a rafting guide. I handed over the keys to the van, and just like that, my epic road trip was over.

I thought I knew what I was getting myself into that summer, but the experience was far different than I ever could've imagined.

But that's a story for another time...


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