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Archive for Sunday, November 6, 2005

Epic drive reveals vast wonders

November 6, 2005

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Last June, we watched our two daughters drive away in the family car, crammed to its ceiling with pots and pans, fishing poles, camping gear and at least a thousand Ani DiFranco CDs. Destination: Alaska, the Last Frontier.

When the summer was over and the girls had returned to their responsibilities elsewhere, we were faced with a problem - and an opportunity. If we wanted the car back, we had to get ourselves to Anchorage and drive it home. On the plus side was a chance to make an epic drive through some of the planet's most pristine and gorgeous country without the necessity of an 8,000-mile round trip.

So we flew to Anchorage on Aug. 15. Two days later, after treating the car to a major tune up and four new tires, we set the trip meter to zero and headed out on the legendary Alaska highway. The only thing missing was "Born to Be Wild" playing on an eight-track tape.

For the next two weeks, we spent an average of eight hours a day in the car. Entire mountain ranges flowed past our windows: the Chugach Range, the Coastal Range, the Rockies. We crossed great rivers: the Copper, the Tanana, the Stikine (which John Muir called "a Yosemite 100 miles long"), the Bulkley, the Skeena, the Fraser, the Snake. The mighty Yukon flowed a hundred yards from our motel door one night. In Montana we came upon the strange spines of rock that mark the beginnings of the Missouri River, not the Muddy Mo we Midwesterners know, but a clear flowing, trout-filled stream.

We drove past storied towns and cities: Eagle, Dawson City, Whitehorse, Butte. We saw eagles, swans, mountain goats, black bears, grizzly bears and (we think) a cougar. A detour on the little-traveled Cassiar Highway brought us to the Fish Creek Wildlife Observatory, where you can watch bears gorging on salmon from the safety of a viewing platform. We crept along a mountain road for an hour to see Salmon Glacier, a boulevard of blue ice winding through the valley below. Along the way, signs warned us: "Year round avalanche area. Do not stop or get out of car."

At Prince Rupert, we took an overnight ferry to the mist-shrouded Queen Charlotte Islands for a couple of blessed days outside the car. Our neighbor, who turned out to be a retired violinist with the Toronto Symphony, serenaded us with a medley of sonatas of Bach. One night we joined a bus tour group for dinner in the home of a Haida tribe member who served us traditional native hunting and gathering fare: octopus puffs, dried sea weed, kelp encrusted with herring eggs, spring salmon, venison.

The downside to the trip was that we had little time to stop and explore. What we did get was a sense of North America as it unfolds over thousands of miles. It was a trip through geological and archeological time. The country we drove through bore the scars of catastrophic upheavals and the ruthless sculpting of glaciers. The Yellowhead Highway took us through Terrace, which has been inhabited by First Nations tribes for over 10,000 years, making it one of the oldest continuously occupied areas in the world.

At times we felt that we were making the trip the wrong way. We should have left flatland Kansas and headed north, away from congested America to the boundless, unspoiled frontier instead of the other way around. It was a trip for young people just starting out, whose future lies ahead of them.

"Vast" was the word that kept recurring to us as we drove through this inexhaustible, ever-changing country. Vast chains of mountains, oceanic valleys stretching to the horizon, chasms plunging from the side of the road, roadless expanses where no shoe has ever touched. It offered the rejuvenating sense of a continent too vast ever to be completely tamed and spoiled.

Spruces gave way to piñons, piñons to cottonwoods as we sped toward home. Eagles yielded the stage to ravens, ravens to magpies, magpies to crows. We went from moose and grizzlies to antelope and lowly cows, from alpine peaks to the buttes of Montana to the deserts of Utah to the irrigated croplands of Kansas.

When we drove in our driveway, the trip meter registered 5,319 miles. We had more than 300 photos of mountains with which to torture our relatives and friends. It seemed strange and a letdown to come to an end of our routine. For a second, we consider driving on south to Terra del Fuego.

One therapeutic aspect of the trip was liberation from the daily news. Stops for gas provided our only opportunity to keep in touch, but the magazines seemed devoted exclusively to Brad and Jennifer. We followed their saga from day to day: "Jen is in love! Sweet, down to earth Vince is just what she needs - the anti-Brad," "Angelina: Brad and I are going to adopt a lot more babies," "Watch out, Jen. Playboy Vince will break your heart," "Angelina's fears: Brad will cheat." Brad and Jen and Angelina and Vince. In the midst of all our differences and red state-blue state animosities, aren't they the threads that hold us together? Aren't they what E Pluribus Unum is all about?

George Gurley, who lives in rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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