The Road to Athabasca — The Adventure Begins

Doug’s route in Alaska. Click to enlarge in new tab.

The Road to Athabasca

By early 1990, my brief marriage was all but over, about the same time my job was. After a false start with another company in a town where I knew no one, I quit and decided it was a good time to have my mid-life crisis. I went directly from my new ex-employer to the bookstore and bought two books about a subject that had fascinated me for some time: Michener’s ‘Alaska’ and “The Milepost’ a soup to nuts travelers guide to Alaska.

Thus armed with literary fact and fiction about our 49th state, I set out to find the appropriate vehicle to get me there. I knew little about motor homes, only that they were big gas hogs and relatively expensive. My budget situation dictated that I’d be limited in what I’d be able to afford. Much of my funds would come from selling my beloved 1948 Willys Jeepster, a rare vehicle made more unusual by its customization over its long life.

I owned the Jeepster for about six years and had enjoyed every minute of it. We’d gone through a lot together, once driving through hurricane Elaine on a camping trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Because it was a ‘phaeton’ convertible, meaning it had side curtains, not windows that rolled up and down, it wasn’t much good against wind-blown rain. So, by the time my buddy and I got to Georgia, we were soaked. People were generally amazed by its unique look: somewhere along the line, someone had exchanged its original chassis for a Jeep CJs’, making it a muscular, four-wheel drive vehicle. Additionally, the original four-cylinder, 63 horsepower engine had been replaced with a 327 cubic inch, V8 Corvette engine. Unfortunately, I let a blown head gasket go unattended for too long and the head ended up fused to the block.

The mechanic was someone I picked out of the phone book. When he finished replacing the head, my wife and I went to the shop to pick it up and met with him in his office.

“What do you do for a living?” he asked my wife.

“I’m a psychological counselor” she answered. “I work with children from broken homes.”

“You must have gone to college for that,” he guessed.

“Yes,” she replied with a smile, “for six years, as a matter of fact.”

“Wow,” he said, genuinely impressed. “I did good in school until the second grade, then I started having trouble.”

It was everything we could do to not burst out laughing.

So to pay for my mid-life crises, I had to part with the Jeepster, to the first guy that looked at it. I then parlayed those funds into a 1979 Class C, American Clipper motor home, in pretty good shape for its age. It slept six, not that I cared, had a full kitchen and a full bath.

I notified the landlord I was vacating the premises, rounded up friends and family, packed up and put my possessions in storage. With that, I was on the road to Alaska, not sure of my route or itinerary, but determined to go.

However, engine trouble in the motor home plagued me from the start. The ‘mechanic’ I took the van to for a tune-up before leaving town put the distributor cap on backwards, which caused all kinds of mysterious problems to occur. I eventually landed in a garage in Ft. Worth, Texas, where the owners, two guys from Santa Fe, encouraged me to go through New Mexico and see their hometown, the Jemesh Mountains, Bandolier National Monument and the Carson National Forest. I’m glad I did – New Mexico’s cultural heritage and geographic beauty are under appreciated. I even got a little taste of the spirit world from a Navajo woman in an art gallery in Santa Fe. I was admiring a local artist’s work, an oil painting of a high desert scene, featuring a coyote. The curator, an Indian woman, noticed me and explained its significance:

“The coyote is a god on earth to the Navajo people.” She pronounced the word differently than we do: “coy-YO-tay”.

I fumbled for something bright to say.

“Why is that?” Was the best I could do.

“He is known as the Trickster. He is a survivor who uses his wits to adapt to changing times and conditions. Even with these powers, the Coyote is humble; that is why he has the respect of the people.”

I didn’t think any more about the Coyote until somewhat later in my travels.

I stopped in at Mesa Verde National Park near the Four Corner’s of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. After touring this extensive and impressive site, I wondered, like many have, as to the back story of the Anasazi, the original residents of the cliff dwellings. Anasazi is a Navajo word that means either ‘ancient ones’ or ‘ancient enemy’. The story goes that when the Navajo first came to this part of the world, somewhere around the 14th or 15th century, the place was deserted; the original occupants had left their cliff dwellings for parts unknown, probably because of a pervasive drought. Anthropologists believe these folks were from the Athabascan people that had migrated south from Alaska.

The cliff dwelling of Ancient Pueblo in Mesa Verde National Park of Colorado, southwest USA. The Cliff Palace features various adobe building structures on the face of the cliff in Mesa Verde National Park with living quarters, community space, storage areas, and spiritual kivas.

I thought about the Athabascans as I drove north through Colorado along a lonely stretch of highway I dubbed “gopher death”. For 100 miles, the carcasses of hundreds of dead gophers littered the roadway, thick like love bugs on a windshield. So many that I actually acclimated to the thumping the motor home made as I ran over their corpses. I chose that route in order to visit Dinosaur National Monument, built over an active archeological dig site. I was fascinated by the thunder lizards as a child, and seeing the jumble of their bones encased in an ancient riverbed made their existence that much more real. Unfortunately, the road to their ancient burial ground had become a contemporary one for the prairie gopher.

The Cassiar. Route 37 in western British Columbia.

The Cassiar

After Dinosaur, I motored through the big sky country of Montana, Glacier National Park and into Canada. I stopped in Calgary, a town I’d heard tell of but never visited. I thought I’d do something normal like catch a movie, so I stopped in a multiplex and bought a ticket for Die Hard II. I’d really enjoyed the first one and thought I’d like this one too. Not so much. When the National Airport air traffic controllers in the film were sweating the fact that the planes circling overhead were running out of fuel, it was everything I could do to not yell out “go to Baltimore”!

From Calgary, I went to every tourist’s favorite Canadian Rocky Mountain spot, Lake Louise, where you feel like you’re in a postcard. I’d been up this way before in happier days, back in ’73 and remembered Banff National Park as drop dead gorgeous and it still very much was. I turned north from there and headed for parts unknown, where I encountered what I now think of as my second favorite stretch of road: the two hundred or so mile drive between Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta. If there’s such a thing as a ‘bucket list’ in life, this stretch of impossible-to-describe-and-do-justice-to-scenery, should be on yours. As if the mountainous eye candy isn’t enough, there’s a plethora of creatures to see along the way: mountain goats, big horn sheep, 6 x 6 elk, moose and golden eagles. Not to mention a coyote, my first sighting of ‘God on earth’ on the trip.

(I guess I should add here just what I considered the best stretch of road so far in my travels. That would be the highway between Cuzco and Lake Titicaca, through the Andes, in central Peru. It was a longer drive than this one – all day, and I was with my erstwhile friend Troff. This was ’83, and we’d rented a VW Beetle – the real deal – with a drop off at Puno on the shores of the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet. While I still don’t have the words to describe the incredible vistas we saw, the cultivated fields high up on the sides of the mountains were both beautiful and amazing. Add to it we had to ford three rivers, the last of which caused the VW to momentarily float sideways – a true ‘balls in the throat’ moment – made for an incredible travel day.)

On to Prince George, where I made a fateful course selection: instead of continuing north to Edmonton and the popular Alcan highway, I went west and headed for the Cassiar Highway, a route that traveled north through western British Columbia. The Cassiar, a 450-mile-long dirt road, was originally built to serve the gold mines located in the remote regions of the province. It was eventually improved to serve logging trucks, then became an alternative to the Alcan for intrepid travelers. I picked up a hitchhiker as I turned off the paved road onto the Cassiar, a young man on his way to work in the gold mines.

We traveled through the beautiful woodlands of British Columbia for a couple of hours before stopping for lunch. I made a couple of sandwiches: bologna, a hunk of Swiss cheese, thick slice of tomato, lettuce and mayo on whole wheat, with a pickle. When you’re traveling with a kitchen, you can make a decent sandwich. I was about halfway through mine when I noticed he had finished his.

“Do you want another one?” I offered.

“Sure, if you don’t mind.” He devoured the second one too.

Back on the road, my passenger dozed off as I listened to music and avoided the worst of the potholes. The occasional oncoming logging truck, with huge clouds of dust billowing behind, caused a few white knuckled moments, but all in all it was an enjoyable ride. Until it happened; I refer to it as ‘it’, because to this day, I don’t know exactly what happened.

What I do know is that driving along, I heard something pop in the area under my feet. In the next instant, dust was in the van, everywhere. My passenger awoke with a gasp.

“What the hell?!” he shouted. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know,” I said, gagging, desperately looking for a place to pull over.

“Something popped.”

I rolled down the window and found a place to pull over. I parked the motor home off the road and looked around; a fine layer of dust coated everything in the van, including both of us. I wiped my face as I walked around the outside of the rig, looking for some telltale sign of what caused ‘it’ to happen. There was nothing amiss that I could see. We cleaned out the cab area of the van with rags and continued on our way, eventually coming to the turn off for the gold mine. I dropped him at the front gates and drove off, only to spot his jacket on the back seat a few miles later. I turned around and headed back to the mine, parked and took the jacket inside.

I found him in the cafeteria, already chowing down a hamburger and a large plate of fries. The guy could eat! He was grateful to get his coat back, as it was literally his only luggage. As I walked out, I noticed that a lot of the young men there looked similar to him: young, healthy and hungry, for both food and money.

My trip went on for months after the ‘dusting’ and I owned the motor home for another two years before (finally) selling it. But I never quit finding dust, in every nook and cranny of that vehicle and in everything that was in it at the time of the incident – clothing, dishes, food – you name it. Without intending to, I brought some of the Cassiar back home with me.

If you missed the earlier installment of Doug’s journey, click here to read his account of what happened next, i.e., the day he encountered Earl the Athabascan. You can also follow Doug’s adventure in its entirety by clicking on this link or by entering Athabasca in the search box on the OLLI Connects opening page. Stay tuned for the final chapter of the story in a few weeks’ time. — Editor

Originally from Detroit, Doug Guido graduated from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, after cramming a 4-year education into 6 years. Subsequently he set off on a ‘Siddartha’ journey through North America in a ’64 Corvair Greenbriar camper van, covering 20,000 miles in six months. After arriving in Houston Texas, he entered the homebuilding field in the roaring ’70’s and ended up in Tampa in 1981. He has written short stories over the past thirty years, reflecting on various incidents in his life that he hopes are entertaining.

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