The Road to Alaska: Revenge of the Great Plains

June 5

Jamestown Reservoir flashing some sunrise action

Day 3 begins with a gorgeous sun rise over the Jamestown Reservoir in North Dakota. We take it in and photograph it every way we can, despite the urgent need to eat something, like anything. I content myself with Clif bars, they are the devil I know. Eric wants something more substantive. He is intrigued by breakfast pizza, I think largely because of the many signs from Casey's General Store, which is, apparently, known for their pizza (a strangely distant form of praise that has an authentic "I don't want to brag" Midwestern quality to it). Casey's might be known for their pizza, but that particular food is a big deal at every convenience store we encounter in North Dakota. Because when you think of the Dakotas, you think of bastardized ethnic food. Apparently. I drive this portion of the trip and that gives Eric a chance to eat. He thinks the pizza from the Casey's near Carrington, ND is pretty good.

The North Dakota back country roads are unsurprisingly straight and empty. We lap the miles up, but soon we discover a problem. We had fully expected the need to carefully monitor the gasoline sitch while on the Alaska Highway itself. Half of one day will be spent in the Yukon Territory, for Pete's sake. Driving through this vast space of green fields and fallow land waaaaaay south of the Arctic Circle, still firmly within the boundaries of the Lower 48, we realize this is wrong. Google Maps tells us that Minot to Regina is a distance of 260 miles and the gas station coverage is patchy at best. Scrolling through the gas station results near, ahem, Portal (GladOS did not make an appearance), the border crossing from North Dakota to Saskatchewan, reveals something disconcerting: there are only three of them. We choose the one in a place that struggles to qualify for the definition of hamlet because it has the virtue of being closer to our current gas tank situation than the others.

Lignite is nearby, I swear

Lignite is nearby, I swear

Lignite, ND is a cluster of grain storage and oil gathering/processing equipment topped with a dollop of people, the spoon sized helping of humanity on the vastness of the Great Plains that makes natural resource gathering go (not everything can be done by robots just yet). Lignite Oil Company dispenses gas with old fashioned analog pumps, which makes me suspect that gas stations aren’t Lignite Oil’s primary economic activity (they’re not). The lot isn’t paved; it’s just dirt. The road leading into it is only notionally paved as well. We are ten miles from anything else resembling human activity. Lignite is it between us and Portal (yes, yes, the cake IS a lie, I get it). I didn’t think we were going to be this far from civilization until we were in the Yukon. Shows what I know.

Crossing the border is easy though I have to explain why my official residence is in a different state than the one the car is registered (this concept is surprisingly difficult for people to grasp). The guard reels off an impressive list of items that Canada considers weapons (most other places do as well, to be fair) and makes sure we are not carrying any of them by accepting our answers at face value. Eric gives an exhaustive account of our current beer situation (good enough to last the next two days). The guard also asks Eric about his T-shirt. I disappoint the border guard by not remembering that I passed through Toronto in 2010 on my way back from a backpacking excursion in Europe. It was in Toronto that security confiscated a perfectly good bottle of duty-free gin because you get to pass through both Canadian AND US customs in Toronto (it's "convenient") and customs is not in the secure zone. The sequence of insanity goes: buy a bottle of Bombay Sapphire in the duty free in Belgium, pass through Canadian customs, have the security seal punctured by US customs, have that bottle rejected at security because the seal has been punctured and I can't carry it on DESPITE NEVER LEAVING THE AIRPORT TERMINAL. I remember it now, thanks border guard. Jeebus.


Just over the border from Portal, there is an open pit coal mine. Welcome to Canada, bitches.

Now, as in Tax Season

I finally joined the gig economy in 2014, after two years on staff at Shakespeare Theatre Company. I went whole hog and organized an LLC, in order to free myself to do the things I always longed to do when I was chained to the lighting console in the sound proof confines of the booth at Sydney Harman Hall and its many cousins in regional theaters across the country. The choice to fly and be free fundamentally changed how I related to my car. I was no longer the weight at the end of the pendulum, going back and forth between pre-determined points. The destinations were exotic or mundane, but always irregular. The Warner Theatre. The Kennedy Center. Ford’s Theatre. Arena Stage. Folger Shakespeare. The National Aquarium. The miles I drove weren’t just numbers indicating wear and tear anymore. They had become the most valuable commodity for any small business that isn’t straight revenue: they were tax deductions. Transmogrifying road miles from a regrettable hit to the car’s notional value into a certain economic gain is almost mystical. It's certainly a massive conceptual shift. The IRS offers a $0.54 deduction per business mile drive. Driving hundreds of miles to see the world premiere of a play and interview the cast after the show almost pays for itself after the tax value of the mileage, even if the podcast I produce is free and I never receive a tangible economic benefit from the experience. More importantly, this alchemy lets me clearly see that driving from Ellicott City, MD to Cambridge, NY to see Danielle Mohlman's show will be the kind of amazing experience with incredible people that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world.  

June 5

Pretty much every road in this part of Saskatchewan exists solely to facilitate the movement of wheat from farm to market, though judging by the derricks and the pumps that rationale might need to change soon. There are two states for your vehicle in southern Saskatchewan: You’re either in the middle of nowhere with fields and fossil fuels extraction equipment or you’re in some tiny oasis of human life huddled in the shadow of a grain elevator.

That’s a lot of grain elevators

Fuck Co-op

Fuck Co-op

We thought that our experience in North Dakota was instructive on the gas situation, but it's actually worse in Saskatchewan. Finding a gas station in rural Canada is what my physicist professor friends would call non-trivial. Part of that non-triviality is thanks to Co-op and the maddening concept of the card lock.

Co-op is actually a co-op of co-ops (a meta co-op?) where the broader cooperative is owned by a wide array of retail cooperatives for the purposes of pooling manufacturing, wholesale, even refinery services. As a civilian member, you buy into one of the member Co-ops. For fuel purposes, being a Co-op member gives you a card that you use to unlock the pumps. There is no up front payment; they keep track of how much fuel has been dispensed by your card and bill you. It makes sense when you experience how desolate and empty of human activity some of these places are. This is mighty convenient for members in grain elevator country and points north.

It appears convenient to us as well. Co-op is ubiquitous in these parts. Trucks bearing the simple red logo pass us constantly. Highway signs helpfully point out when a Co-op is nearby. We pull into a Co-op station to top off the tank, lulled into thinking that Co-op was just one convenience store among many. The approach is not easy. Even Google Maps doesn't have a clear sense of the weirdly complex tangle of roads between the highway, the railway siding, and the gas station in shadow of the grain elevator. The roads don't really connect to each despite the fact that there are, like, five of them and they all go either to the highway or to the grain elevator, just, apparently not to both of them, which is insane given the grid-like regularity of the rest of the damn road system. When we finally stumble our way to the station, we discover an another ancient looking analog gas pump. There's a place to slide a card, though, so I do. Again. And again. And again. The pump does not make any attempt to dispense fuel. There is only one conclusion: Co-op is not interested in our money. The card lock protected gas remains stubbornly locked. We still need gas though. We navigate our way back onto the highway, firmly embittered toward the Co-op brand as we spend mile after mile with jangled nerves looking for any gas station that does not bear the now hated logo, hoping we don't run out of fuel in the process. In the mean time, we flip the bird high and proud at every single one of those damn Co-op trucks we encounter, out of principle.

The Saskatchewan sky doesn't seem to move at all

Eric picked up a Cricket account before we left because he discovered that Cricket lets you use their (leased) data network in Canada for no extra charge, as long as you also use half data in the United States. We don’t look up too many things, like why Co-op is such a dick about letting people buy gasoline, but we do have Google Maps open, just in case. At some point, we will be rolling without a cell signal, so it will be nice to have a sense of direction before we lose it. It is very easy to lose that sense of direction out here, where the sky just doesn't seem to move and the roads stretch out in long straight lines in front of us.

We stop in Regina to get some lunch and prepare for dinner. We are experienced travelers now that we have made mistakes and been punished for them. Our new plan does not involve using the pan we had stopped at Cabela’s for express purpose of buying. That seems a lot like effort and after 12 hours of driving, effort is not something we want to muster. Just getting the tent up is about all we felt the need to do in North Dakota and we suspect this trend will continue. We stop at a Safeway, which works out very well for us because I need to use WiFi and there is a Starbucks inside. They sell lumberjack sandwiches the size of a body builder's forearm and that will cover dinner for the both of us.

The GoPro is a great little camera. The time lapses are brilliant (that's what we in the business call a tease). The remote control app is excellent. Downloading the video from the camera to the computer is unnecessarily stupid, and it, bizarrely, requires an online activation. In order to download the files, you have to get a program and then you have to log in to an account online to activate the program that downloads the footage, not the one that edits the footage, a fact that I did not quite grasp at this WiFi pit stop. Getting a good look at our footage on a screen that isn’t 2 inches square has to wait.

Eric takes the wheel and Saskatchewan slips away behind us as we drift northwest. Regina is dispensed with, then Saskatoon (Saskatoon is in the room — Mike Dougherty’s words on a loop in my head). It is a very long day, the third long day, even. The Great Plains . . . they are absolutely effing massive. 70 mph for 2.5 days straight and at least one more day on the sea of grass to go. The landscape stubbornly refuses to change. Eric and I are not bored or restless with each other, but there is a growing sense of anticipation for the mountains to come. We can't wait to leave the grasslands behind and climb into the mountains. We have to wait though because that's the how time and distance work. 

At one point, we see a caribou prancing through the wheat fields, running hard and fast, legs high, like it was enjoying it’s taste of freedom and there was captivity at it’s back. It happened so fast, I don't have any photographic evidence of it. It was way south for caribou, so maybe it wasn’t. A caribou, I mean. I can tell you which buildings in Berlin used to house the Nazi regime or which palace belonged to which Hohenzollern (and which ones were rebuilt after reunification or not) and which museum had been stolen from Greece but I am useless at identifying living things. I say caribou, you say, Erin you’re an ignorant shit. It was a prancing animal though and it lightened the mood as we sailed, full steam ahead, through the vast sea of boredom called the Great bloody Plains

The Sum of Many Points in 2015 (and Years Prior)

I’ve always looked at a map and wondered if I could make it from here to there. I grew up a wanderer: bop around Michigan, do a stint in Florida, pull a couple years in Nebraska, spend a couple in Colorado, finish out high school in Pennsylvania, go to college in Ohio, go to Germany, go to grad school in Texas, get a film degree in Pennsylvania. Get a job in Texas, move to New York, go to Vermont, get a job in Kentucky. Move, move, move. As a kid, my family would take two weeks and cover Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota. Or Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. As an American, there’s already a bit of the asphalt and concrete buried in my sub-conscious, but I think the road is in my blood as well. So there’s always a road trip or a destination in my head, always a few hours spent daydreaming about Alaska or the maritime provinces or the Trans-Canada or Yosemite or Montreal or Key West or Monument Valley. But it wasn't quite enough to dream of the road and to cherish the tax deductions that come from the miles that put me on the road to Alaska.

That took my sister finding her soulmate and ditching Pennsylvania, leaving me without that PA residence and a way to keep the Subaru legal. I no longer had the option of keeping the car beyond it's current registration, which ended in July of 2016. That Maryland inspection is well beyond my means. What am I going to do with a 1997 Subaru Legacy L with 197,000 miles on it? Sell it? Bitch, please. So the light goes on, as it does. "I must not own this car" becomes the philosopher's stone in this road trip alchemy and it transforms the daydream, “It would be fun to take that giant road trip to the only state I’ve never been to,” into this concrete idea that only needs the judicious application of logistics. A daunting 7,000 mile road trip there and back again (#sorrynotsorry) has become 3,500 miles, give or take, along with a one way plane trip . . . Less than a week on the road and still one hell of a deduction? It practically pays for itself.

June 5 (reprise)

Against all odds, and out of nowhere, Jackfish Lake breaks up the monotony of the Saskatchewan landscape. We are not expecting much from our campsite, but when we crest a hill, the lake spreads out like an expansive oasis before us, a stunning sight for our tired eyes. We feel much better about where we are and what we are doing. The pin that Google has set for Battlefords Provincial Park is on a public beach next to the park, rather than the main entrance. I am cranky about Google Maps’ betrayal, but Eric calms me down and we eventually settle in on the shores of another body of water as our camping destination, from Jamestown Reservoir to Jackfish Lake. Despite the extra stress and rigamarole and the long hours enduring the unchanging landscape of the Great Plains, the day ends on a high note.

Jackfish Lake continuing the sun over bodies of water trend

I had chosen the easy route, such as it is, from DC to Juneau. The most obvious route for maximizing mountain splendor is to pass through Calgary, drive into Banff and through Jasper, both exquisite national parks, then go west to Prince George, BC in order to follow the Cassiar Mountains into the Yukon. I was 80% certain that my car would handle that trip . . . it was that 20% that prevented me from planning for that more intensely mountainous route. But if I had taken that route, we never would have ended up at Jackfish Lake. That’s the thing about choices, right? Unintended consequences can be the worst. Or not.