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Notes from a cold, dark road

Driving the Alaska Highway in the depths of winter is not for the faint of heart
Caribou hang out on the Alaska Highway about 100 kilometres south of Jakes Corner. (Jesse Winter/Yukon News file)

Lori Fox | Special to the News

The kindly woman behind the gas station counter had a sleepy face and a tropical accent. She said she was from Panama and had lived in Watson Lake for 30 years.

“How was it running?” she asked, meaning the gas pumps. She had seen me struggling with the nozzle, trying to fill up my little car. It took so long for anything to come out that I suspected it was broken. I was about to hang it up when it turned on and I spilled it all down the side of the car.

“Everything takes longer, at this temperature,” she said. “It was -54 C when I got up this morning at my place, could hardly get the door open for ice.”

“I’d believe it,” I said, holding up my reusable coffee cup. I turned it upside down and banged it on the countertop. A muddy puck of frozen coffee clattered out. I tossed the coffee puck in the trash. When I had turned on my car that morning the built-in digital thermometer had flickered and displayed a series of confused symbols. It was too cold for it register properly.

“I’m headed for some place warmer, anyway,” I said, and turning to fill my mug.

“Oh? Lucky you,” she said. “Where you headed?”

“Montreal,” I said, putting the lid back on my cup.

“Oh my! That is a ways to go all alone,” she said.

“A long, long ways,” I sighed. I reached into my wallet to pay for gas and the coffee, but the till displayed only the price of the fuel.

“You forgot the coffee,” I said.

“Coffee’s on me. You’re going to need it.”

* * *

It was bitterly cold inside the car — the heater simply couldn’t keep up. The moisture from my breath froze against the inside glass and I had to drive with hands tucked into the sleeves of my parka. The extreme cold sharpened the light. When the sun rose it caught in the mountains, shimmering like the inside of a shell.

At the Liard Hot Springs I stopped to let my dog — Herman, who had been riding patiently — out to pee. I contemplated a dip but the thought of changing, wet, at -40 C seemed like suicide. I tried to make a coffee on my camp stove, but it was too cold even for the isopropane blend to start. Herman whined, lifting his chilled paws. I put him back in the car and drove away.

Bison stood along the edge of the highway in the thin snow. Beards of hoarfrost had collected on their muzzles, all the way up to their ears and along their stubby horns. They looked like old men waiting for the bus, silently shifting their great weight back and forth on their stocky legs. Farther up, at Stone Mountain, wild sheep leapt suddenly up from a near impossible angle, two does tailed by a knob-kneed youngster with downy brown coat.

I was making poor time — I had meant to get all the way to Fort Nelson, B.C., on the first day, to drive all night if I needed to, but I left late, in true Yukon fashion. There were last minute errands to run, friends to say a few words to, a certain woman to kiss goodbye.

Moreover, the roads were terrible. It had thawed, snowed and snap-frozen, leaving the road between Whitehorse and Fort Nelson a glassy mess. When the sun was out the glare was blinding. Patches of drifting ice fog made the roads unpredictably slick. Ditched cars littered the highway.

Near Coal River a Volvo lay on its side like a downed animal, cab crushed, doors mangled, yellow caution tape flapping in the wind.

I drove slowly.

* * *

I took a room with a kitchenette in Fort Nelson. It took so long with my little, two-wheel drive car on those slick roads that it would have been midnight by the time I got into Fort St. John. That stretch of road is riddled with moose and tanker drivers, neither of which I trust driving in the dark.

There is a special pleasure in drinking a cold beer in a motel shower after a long day’s drive.

Maybe it’s because it’s not something you would usually do, or because you’re on the road, between places and things, but it’s one of my secret pleasures. I drank two shower beers, because I was trying to learn all the words to Waylon Jennings’ “You Can Have Her,” which was playing out of my phone, propped up in a plastic cup, and you just can’t sing that song without a beer in your hand.

I cooked a little moose steak I had brought with me in beer and butter, lay down on the bed with the dog. I fell asleep watching a terrible cut of The Matrix.

In the morning the extension cord on my block heater was frozen solid. I had to turn it sideways to make it fit through the door so it could thaw and be wound back up.

* * *

I flew down the highway. It straightens out after Fort Nelson, I suspect to make way for the oil and gas trucks. I stopped in Wonowon for coffee and smoked a cigarette on the hood of my car while Herman took a piss. Ravens sat with fluffed feathers and feet tucked beneath the down of their wings.

I broke down in Dawson Creek. A tanker driver hopped out of his cab with a tool kit and helped me get my car running again. We couldn’t really speak over the traffic but we shook hands and I was off.

It got dark fast.

The high mountain roads were twisted black ribbons slicked in places with glare ice. Electronic signs hung over particularly dangerous curves, reading WARNING: ICY CONDITIONS. A strange white creature perched on one signpost as I drove by: A rare snowy owl, watching the cars pass with luminous eyes.

I had to drive very slowly and it took a long time to get to the cutoff. You can either turn right, and head into the logging town of Mackenzie, or left, south to Prince George. Mackenzie was country I knew, rough mountain ranges and pothole lakes teaming with rainbow trout. Taking the turn away from it felt somehow ominous.

Down the road in the dark there was suddenly movement. A huge bull moose stumbled out onto the road like a drunk, looking ghostly in my highbeams. I swerved and jerked the wheel. I could see him hesitate, rear back like a horse, and dash back the way he had come. I’d missed him.

I pulled over and smoked a cigarette with trembling fingers.

* * *

I drove on to Prince George and took a room in a motel where the shower was too dirty to use. There was a sign in the lobby that said NO VISITORS AFTER 11 PM. That’s a code. It means “no dealers or hookers.”

I checked the mattress for bed bugs and slept without eating. When I got up in the morning I drank the half-full can of warm beer I’d left on the nightstand for breakfast.

It was grey and damp out. Not exactly cloudy. Just sunless.

Prince George bills itself as the capital of the North. It’s not. Whenever I’m there I know I’ve left the North and its people some 1,800 kilometres behind me, and I’m sad.

I drove out of town and down the highway. I watched the temperature on my dashboard thermometer tick up degree by degree as the kilometres piled on the odometer.

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