The Milepost is an exhaustive dead tree travelogue covering the sights and services of every kilometer of all the major roads in the Yukon, Alaska and BC. It's the kind of thing you thought would have been unceremoniously wiped out by the Interwebs, like course catalogs but the Alaska Highway scoffs at your desire to be connected. This thick ass book will be "Google" for the remainder of this road trip. And according to "Google," in whom we must trust, there are mountains nearby. The Great Plains are over, it's time to get our awe and wonder on.
It's one thing to read such things in a book (or, well, a blog, natch); it's another damn thing to actually experience it. Our first hint that the Milepost/Google might not be complete crap comes in the form of a tiny settlement called Taylor, which exists because of the gasification plant on the Peace River (thanks, "Google") and the Alaska Highway. It’s not a gas stop, we’re just here for ice and batteries. The one is for the beer (Eric ensures that we always have beer for the end of the day, like the gentleman that he is) and the other for my recalcitrant camera, which does not seem to care how much electrical energy is actually stored in the batteries, it always tells me it's on the verge of turning off. The retail joint we roll up to is a true, old fashioned, general store, it’s aisles, freezers, and floors crammed with every conceivable thing, right down to Mr. Noodles' kimchi.
During the last two days of the trip, Eric and I were consumed with the impulse to capture each hill, each cloud, every audacious sky. I worry that out of context, which is to say, out of the experience of two people in a small car with thousands of miles of grassland behind them, these images stored on my hard drive probably do not have the power to move anyone, but that's because worry is irrational and useless. Eric and I drove to Alaska, ffs. Anyway, a proliferator of images is not dissatisfied with the results of not quite having captured the experience digitally in some photographs a stuff; a proliferator of images creates a situation that makes the experience of that context live for someone else again. It's hard. Which is why it's worth doing at all.
What does that mean, "make the experience live for someone else?!" How, the hell, do I do that? I don't know the answer to this questions or even any time frame for getting answers. It's an anxious time because failure is a whole lot more likely than success, whatever success might be. But first steps are inevitably bad. They are also necessary. It helps to remember that.
The highway makes a 90 degree turn to the west at Fort Nelson, and then bends north. The mountains peek out and wave a quick hello. Eric and I are over the damn moon for the next two days.
The rest of the day is a blur of photographs and digital video on any device that can record it. The phone needs to be dumped to the computer, it gets so full of video and pictures. The GoPro only stops because the battery is so anemic (a 2 hour battery great for ski runs, and dirt bikes, and helicopter skiing — it isn’t really meant for 10 hours of driving). But most of the day is this kind of elated, digital mediation between those of us inside the car and the natural wonder outside.
If you ever find yourself following the Liard River on BC 97 (what the officials call the Alaska Highway at this point) and you need a place to spend the night . . . make sure you book Liard River Springs Provincial Park campsites ahead of time. Oops. The Milepost assures us that there are places to crash ahead, so we plow on. We soon find ourselves at Coal River Lodge, one of the many places that exist solely to service the Alaska Highway traffic. It's cozy and there's a kitchen and a place to pitch a tent and take a shower and have a glass of Grand Marnier. The Alaska Highway is a bit like a vehicular version of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela: you are going to pass through some desolate places and you are going to need to stop at some point and there will always be a bed and a shower close to that point (usually past it when you are on foot, usually past it).
We keep East Coast time the whole trip, that’s what 70 mph will do if you go northwest. It’s not so far that your body is disoriented, but it is fast enough that your circadian rhythm has no time to catch up. We are exhausted as we set up the tent and record our impressions of the day under the glare of a sun still set on full blast. The tent is a bit of a sweat box, but we are worn out by a day of gawking at nature and just being excited to have something to look at that wasn’t mostly sky, so we power through the sweat to fall asleep. We hope that turning in early allows us to catch a glimpse of the borealis. Our hosts tell us there is a half hour window around 1:30 AM while the sun dips near the horizon when it might be possible.
We are idiots.
Do not visit the near Arctic in early June expecting anything dimmer than twilight, let alone the kind of darkness necessary for the splendor of that magnetic lightshow.