Our friend, faithful reader, and occasional contributor Tom Sexton is driving across the continent with his wife, Sharyn, headed from Alaska to Maine for the fall and winter. He will send us dispatches from the road while they are out there. Following is the first report. Tom is on the list of Distinguished Alumni of Lowell High School and is a former Poet Laureate of Alaska. He has a new book of Lowell poems, “Bridge Street at Dusk” (Loom Press)– PM
“On the Road with Apologies to Everyone” by Tom Sexton
I thought when I told Paul Marion that I would send a few reports about our drive from Alaska to Maine, I would report on how the Alaska Highway has changed since we first drove it in 1968 in a Volkswagen bus. This trip, our tenth in ten years, is being made in a 2007 Volkswagen Passat. On day three, I was wishing we still had the bus but more about that later.
Our first stop after leaving Anchorage is Tok, with a population of about 1200, and pronounced Toke, for some reason. It began as a construction camp during the building of the highway in 1942 because of a fear that the Japanese would invade Alaska, which, in fact, they did, but far from Tok. They landed in the Aleutians where Mr. Nason, who lived across the street from us on Oak Street when I was a small boy in Lowell, spent several years during the war. I’ve written four poems about the poor man so far. He doesn’t seem to be able to escape me.
An interesting but seldom mentioned fact about the Alaska Highway is that most of the actual building of the highway was done by African-American soldiers working in minus-60 degree temperatures during the winter and mosquito-infested swamps during the summer. When we first drove the highway, it was still a winding narrow primitive road lined with roadhouses where they could repair anything. Most of the curves are gone, and you can drive as fast as you want most of the time. All but two of the roadhouses are gone, so don’t break down.
If you do find yourself in Tok, eat at Fast Eddy’s. Good food and interesting customers. I watched a guy visit the all-you-can-eat salad bar eight times. Now, for our first and perhaps last Lowell connection. In Tok we stay at Caribou Cabins. They have four beautiful log cabins built by owner Chris Beeman and his wife, Carrie, who appear to be in their mid-thirties. Chris was born at the Lowell General Hospital and grew up in Chelmsford. Carrie grew up in Worcester. He attended Middlesex Community College in Lowell and once applied for work at the Radisson. Carrie works for Head Start, and Chris runs the successful business. Their children are Alaskan born. It’s pretty clear they miss Massachusetts though.
The first city down the highway is Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory. It’s about 750 miles from Anchorage and always a pleasure to reach. It’s right on the Yukon River and has a 10-mile walking trail. It was a sleepy government town, but now it’s becoming a jumping-off point for oil and gas exploration. It’s more liberal than most of Northern Canada, but that’s changing. Like Alaskans, many Yukoners consider themselves to be exceptional because of the riches beneath their feet. You can get sushi and German food as well as vegetarian. Whitehorse must be closing in on 30,000 people.
After you leave Whitehorse, you can see the Northern Rockies to the east, and before long you are climbing summit after summit. This is buffalo country, and they own the road. This is also where our Passat’s computer had a nervous breakdown. Warning light after warning light came on telling us to get to a dealer. The only problem was the closest dealer is in Grand Prairie, Alberta, about a thousand miles down the road. I called Volkswagen, and they offered to have us towed to Grand Prairie from Fort Nelson, B.C., because we were passing through Canada. No one in Fort Nelson could scan the computer, and we were faced with renting a car which came with a $900 fee to return the car to Fort Nelson as well as $89 a day while we were driving to Grand Prairie, plus 79 cents a kilometer. All in all, about $3000 to get us there, not counting hotel rooms. Did I mention we have a 12-year-old Airedale? Now the good news. I started the car just before the wrecker arrived and things seemed to be back to normal, so we drove on. Sharyn, calm as calm can be; me, in a state of panic. Tomorrow I’ll report on our adventures from Fort Nelson to Dawson Creek.
Alaska Highway, Yukon