It’s been almost four months since my sister and I took our trip from Alaska to Wyoming, down the Alaska Highway. It seems like forever ago because life is so different now. This post is the final installment in that adventure. And, thankfully, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Day 1 or Day 2 or the pre-trip. This post is all the fun stuff. Well, except for almost running out of gas just a few miles from our hometown. And the crazy weather. And…okay maybe it’s the fun stuff mixed with a helping or two of drama.
Day 3: Haines Junction to Watson Lake
After the drama of Day 2’s blown tire, it was great to wake up in Haines Junction ready to hit the road again. We got coffee and headed out of town. I have a friend who has made the trip many times. She instructed us to stop outside of town for a dog walk. Even though we hadn’t been on the road but an hour and really needed to get some miles behind us, we stopped at Canyon Creek.
The first bridge across Canyon Creek was built in 1902. It survived high traffic and a lot of high floods up until 1920 when it was rebuilt. Then during the construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942, the old bridge was dismantled and a new one built in just 18 days. The new one has been described as the most ambitious and important bridge built by the US Army Corp of Engineers. When a more permanent structure was made, the bridge was left in place. There is a sign that says all this and then it says the bridge doesn’t meet highway codes.
But it was great to walk across. I imaged the men cutting down trees to build it in 18 days without the benefit of modern machinery. Over the bridge and down the path, we found an old structure. It’s falling down now so we didn’t risk going inside. Still it was fun to see. I can only guess it was the headquarters for that stretch of the road.
The sun was coming up as we explored and the beauty in the new light of day was a great start to a long day of driving. Remember it was early October so winter was days away. The place, no doubt, is even more lovely in the throes of summer.
By the afternoon we were in the mountains and running into sleet. It was a bit scary. We crossed the Continental Divide and continued on.
Just after sunset, we pulled into Watson Lake. Watson Lake is known for its sign forest. From a distance and even in photos it can resemble a junk yard. But the experience of walking through it is nothing like a junk yard. The experience is closer to having a fairy tale read to you. In some ways it reminds me of a cemetery where every single piece has a life. A whole entire story behind it.
For the most part, the Sign Forest is, well, signs. But it is full of other gems too. One of my favorite was the flattened yellow coolant bottle with the message: We made it all the way from North Carolina with a leaky radiator!! It had been added just weeks earlier. It was below another perfect sign:
One more check off the bucket list.
I wished we’d arrived an hour earlier. Coming at sunset, we had to rush through and didn’t see nearly enough of the 75,000 signs. Nor were our photos able to do it justice. More light may not have helped but, at least we would have been able to take more of them.
When we checked in to the hotel, it turned out to be the day of the Canadian Thanksgiving so a dinner buffet was complementary. That was fun.
I have to admit, I’m not sure I fully understand the Canadian Thanksgiving. It struck me as a combination of the American Thanksgiving and 4th of July. I say this because dessert was a birthday cake and there were balloons. We asked if it was someone’s birthday and the hostess said the cake was for Thanksgiving.
I couldn’t find anything on the internet that supported this notion. But that is what she told us. If you have any insight, I would love to hear it.
Day 4: Watson Lake to Ft. Nelson
The pro of driving the Alaska Highway outside of tourist season is lack of traffic. It is also the con. But the biggest con was the weather. Because it was cold we ended up in hotel rooms instead of camping. And our timing seemed to be just about one day ahead of the really bad stuff, cutting things way too close. Day 4 and 5 were our worst and scariest weather days.
We pulled into Liard Hot Springs in the early afternoon. Neither my sister nor I had made the stop when we drove up to Alaska in 1993 and 2006, respectively. It was the thing I most looked forward to when I planned the drive.
Until we stepped out of the van.
It was cold and windy. My sister spent 10 minutes cajoling me before I agreed to go to the hot springs. From the parking and picnic area, it is a quarter mile walk on a boardwalk to the hot springs pool. I had on a sweatshirt and my big Alaska winter coat. Changing into our swimsuits was cold but we were out of the wind in the group dressing area.
Once in the water, though, it was fantastic. It was easy to see why almost everyone I knew stopped. It was relaxing and warm and all around enjoyable. I am so happy I didn’t miss it.
We had a nice conversation with a woman who lived a few hours away. She and her husband came to Liard for the week every Canadian Thanksgiving. She took a dip in the pool three or four times every day of her visit.
We stayed for about 30 minutes, until we had properly pruned skin. Getting out was the hardest part.
Back on the road we made our way to the highest point of our trip through Canada, Summit Pass. That was where we ran into more sleet and rain. It was slow going on the windy slick mountain road. It was scariest when we crossed paths with the big semi-trucks that blew ice and mud across the windshield.
Day 5: Ft. Nelson to Valleyview
Day 5 was also a windy one. When we made it to Dawson Creek and the famous Mile Marker 0 of the Alaska Highway, again we had to talk ourselves into getting out of the warmth of the van and into the whipping cold wind for a photo.
And with that, we had officially driven all the miles of the Alaska Highway. From Dawson Creek to Great Falls, Montana, we used the East Access route.
Day 6: Valleyview to Great Falls
I concentrated my planning efforts on the trip from Alaska through Canada. It didn’t occur to me to figure out what to do once we crossed back over the border into the U.S. And the trusty Milepost ends once you get to Great Falls, Montana. We overnighted there and figured out what roads we would take on the last stretch.
Day 7: Great Falls to Laramie
In the last couple hours of the trip, we learned that during our gas panic of Day 1, after the 2-hour detour from a wrong turn, our tank wasn’t nearly as empty as we had thought.
How do we know this?
Because just miles from our destination, we learned what the gas gauge really looks like when it is a handful of miles from being empty.
It was dark (unlike the first time we thought we were going to run out) and we were on a mountain pass between Casper and Laramie, Wyoming. In Casper, we planned on stopping. We knew we didn’t have enough gas for the final stretch. But we decided to get through town and find something on the other side.
We also may or may not have been on a “shortcut” road our dad told us about. We were a tiny bit lost. And I felt so foolish. After 3,000 miles, we are confused in our own home state, less than 150 miles from home.
After some back roads, we were on the highway to Laramie. But we never passed a gas station. And we didn’t want to turn around. If we had actually run out of gas, I’d be saying that not turning around was the stupidest decision of our trip.
After a while my sister suggested we pull off and get help, but my vote was we don’t ask for help unless we actually need it. Maybe we would make it. We continued onward. I relayed all the tricks I knew to save on gas: keep a consistent speed, take your foot off the gas pedal on the down hills.
We let out a sigh of relief when we finally saw a sign for Medicine Bow. It was still miles and miles away but at least we knew it was somewhere in front of us on the pitch black road.
Ten miles out of Medicine Bow, an “idiot light” came on the dash board. Since the van was new to me and I still hadn’t read the manual, I didn’t know it had an idiot light. In fact, I was pretty sure it didn’t because it didn’t come on the last time we almost ran out.
None of this was comforting.
I wasn’t sure the specifics for the idiot lights but my instinct said we had a gallon left. A single gallon. I hadn’t done my gas mileage calculations but estimated we were getting 10-12 miles per gallon. It was going to be close. Really really close.
Soon we saw the town’s lights which was a huge relief. When we saw the town itself, my shoulders stopped hurting from the tension. At least we were within walking distance if the van started to sputter.
It was after 9 p.m. and I’d been so concerned about actually getting to Medicine Bow, there hadn’t been any room in my brain to wonder if the gas station in the town of 284 people would even be opened.
Turns out, generally it would not be open. But the owner was late in closing down. So, we got lucky.
As I was telling the guy our harrowing story (one, he informed me, he had heard many times before), he told me a little secret. You are welcome to use this tidbit if you ever find yourself looking for gas in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, and find the gas station closed. Go a few buildings down to the Virginian Hotel, ask the clerk to call the owner of the gas station and he’ll come down and open up for you.
I love and appreciate small town life for exactly that reason.
By the way, the Virginian Hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1911. It’s believed to have been named after the book The Virginian as Owen Wister wrote it in Medicine Bow. And, in a six-degrees-of-separation kind of way (though really it’s one degree of separation) the Owen Wister Review out of the University of Wyoming was the first literary journal that published one of my short stories.
We made it the rest of the way. Anchorage, Alaska to Laramie, Wyoming. Seven days and lots of drama.
In Alaska, everyone seems to have an Alaska Highway story. Drama on the historic road is part of the lore. Part of its charm, even. Despite the drama, it was an amazing road trip. There is a reason driving to Alaska is on so many people’s bucket lists. If you ever get the chance to drive the Alaska Highway, jump at it. Grab it with both arms and pull it in tight. You won’t be sorry. Know going in that there will be drama. And that your story of surviving the trip will be richer for it.