The Wrong Road
IT WAS EASY TO GET LOST. OUTSIDE OF TOK, AT the end of the Alcan, we came upon a forked road with no signs. From the map, the Richardson Highway would take us north to Fairbanks, the other, south to Anchorage. With a 50 percent chance of getting it right, we got it wrong. Through a hundred miles of ice, we drove deeper into the tundra, the sky dimming with ice fog, the day fading into night. Before us loomed a spectacular mountain that seemed to split the heavens. Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, failed to tip us off to our error until we saw a sign that read, “University of Alaska, Fairbanks 60 Miles.”
“Oh my God. This isn’t right.” Mom lurched the car to a stop. A look at the map showed that we were just 260 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The single-lane road seemed abandoned; not a single vehicle had passed us in hours. The temperature was dropping again, and I could feel cold air creeping through the baseboards of the car, wrapping my ankles in a permanent chill. Paul began to cry. I reached over the seat and picked him up from his basket. Rocking him in my arms soothed us both as Mom turned the car around. A storm had swept in with the darkness. Snow swarmed about us and ice formed along the edges of the windows. Just then, along the side of the road, we saw a gate with signs on a wire fence proclaiming, “No Entrance Allowed.” Pulling up to the gate, Mom honked at a soldier sitting in a small guardhouse.
She cranked the window down a couple of inches and an icy blast of wind whipped about our heads. “Where are we?” she asked.
“This is an early warning military installation,” the soldier said. When Mom asked for a place to spend the night, the soldier said, “There’s a lodge that’s always open down near Paxson.”
“Can you tell me anything about the road?” Mom had to shout through the window and against the wind and her voice sounded muted and worried.
“Oh sure, the road’s good.” He waved us off and hurried back to his guardhouse.
Bad advice. The highway had been closed ahead of us and behind us due to the storm. That night we drove with the angels, along the tops of mountains, and the winds howled like angry dogs. We drove along the edge of possibility through Isabel Pass and through tight bends and steep pitches. A roller coaster ride in the dark.
The “lodge that was always open” was closed, the windows boarded up. We had no choice but to continue on to Glennallen. In daylight and with good weather, the town was an hour’s drive away, but not in a horrific snowstorm. A white, trackless expanse bobbed in the headlights as we inched our way to Glennallen, then suddenly, the road was gone.
Mom calculated her thoughts aloud. “We’re descending. All we have to do is assume the road follows the lowest spot ahead and point the car in that direction.” It made sense, I guess.
Eventually a dark, long patch came up alongside us. “I assume that’s a river.” Mom pointed to the right, “Let’s use that frozen line as a guide for the road’s outer edge.”
We assumed a lot, but they were good guesses.
The engineers of this road must have known of its treachery and planned a series of mini-rescue stations along the way. Food caches showed up every fifteen miles or so along the way, small huts on high platforms out of the reach of bears. They contained biscuits, an oil stove, and other survival items for travelers who got stuck. We wrote down the mileage as we passed each one, just in case we stalled, were forced to turn back, or worse.
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