Friends of ours, who lived in Southeast Alaska, returned to Massachusetts every summer to visit his parents. Usually we spent some time together during these visits. This year, they had an additional objective to buy a small airplane. They had driven down in their pickup with two German shorthaired pointers, one very pregnant.
Our friends couldn’t find a plane to meet their criteria, and my husband volunteered to make a few calls around Central New York to locate a suitable candidate for them. They drove to Syracuse to view one of his finds and promptly purchased it. Now their dilemma was to get their plane, their pickup and two dogs back home with them. They made us an offer. If we would drive the truck and take the male dog, they would give us some traveling money and entertain us for the time we’d spend with them in Alaska. Since we couldn’t afford such an adventure on our own at that time of our marriage, we agreed.
Our route would take us across Canada and up the ALCAN Highway, an unpaved road constructed during World War II to connect western Canada with Alaska. On a tight budget, we camped all the way, sleeping on a platform in the truck cap and cooking on a charcoal stove. The main road across Canada offered easy access to a large variety of improved campgrounds where we could view the scenic wonders, have a hot shower, stock up on fresh water, and chat with the friendly Canadians. Still, the long drive took its toll. By the time we reached Dawson Creek in British Columbia, the beginning of the ALCAN Highway, we felt somewhat bedraggled, and we still had a thousand miles of road to drive.
Riding on a dirt road for long distances is body punishing. Gas stations, stores and restaurants along the way appeared in the middle of nowhere, every fifty or sixty miles, but their quality deteriorated as we penetrated the interior. Some stops contained characters as rough as the road. We’d gas up, buy drinks, and clean up at their rudimentary restrooms, and by the time we reached the next outpost, the constant vibration made us desperate to relieve ourselves again.
The scenic campgrounds with amenities that we had utilized across Canada disappeared. We just picked a spot along the road to eat and sleep for the night. I remember my mother’s adage that you had to ‘eat a peck of dirt in your lifetime.’ I think we ate our whole peck in that one trip. Dust was a constant, penetrating our clothing and our bedding, Flying debris from oncoming vehicles fired stones at us that tried to punch out the windshields and headlights. Insects took advantage of the long summer days to add another layer of misery to the experience. The scenery was certainly breathtaking, but our discomfort made it difficult to appreciate it quite so much.
Much of the route followed the Coast Range, some of the highest mountains in North America, pristine, wild, scarred only by the bull dozers which had cut the roadway across the hips of the massive peaks. Hanging off the edge of one mountain, we could see the road returning on the next, knowing that we’d have a long way to travel around and in and back out again to reach the spot we could easily view across the canyon. We met few people, occasionally coming upon equipment clearing rockfalls. We didn’t linger anywhere. When respite offered, I no longer had the inclination nor energy to talk with the people we found there.
One individual, however, made a lasting impact on me. To this day I remember our brief interaction. He drove a big rig full of merchandise for the population of the sparsely settled communities along the Alaskan trail. As I left our car to walk into the small store which accompanied the gas station, I felt the impact of his presence, and I hesitated. He stood close to seven feet tall, his body in perfect proportion to his height. His hair was burnished red-gold, his fair features shone with health and good nature. He wore a checkered shirt and heavy, yellow work boots. Had he carried an axe over his shoulder and accompanied a blue ox, I wouldn’t have been surprised. This man appeared perfectly suited to this forested, overly-endowed world we had entered.
He greeted us in an effusive, friendly manner. His speech held more than a trace of a Russian accent, and it made me think of the term white Russian, those dissident transplants from Communist Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. Russians had been early settlers of Southeast Alaska, and many of their isolated communities still kept remnants of their ancestral language and customs. Feeling very out of place, dirty and unattractive in comparison, I stomped on past him with only a brief nod. My husband, filling the car with gasoline, spoke with him while I continued into the little store.
After I made my purchase, I avoided returning immediately to the car because I was ashamed of my disheveled appearance. Through the window, I could see the two men part with a friendly handshake. The man stepped into his truck and continued up the highway.
Because it had begun to rain, we decided to eat at their diner, lingering over the meal until the storm had passed. We spoke of the white Russian’s astonishing looks, and his friendly manner. At some point, my husband mentioned that at the end of his conversation, the man had said, “Thank you for talking with me.”
Those simple words made me feel guilty about my unusual lack of courtesy. A big frame like his would have intimidated others the way it did me. It wasn’t that I feared him, but his presence made me feel small in comparison. For that same reason, others might have shunned him. Those frequent long trips on the Highway and brief acquaintances would have made for a lonely ride. I could have been more friendly.
In a little while, we continued our drive into the mountains, creeping along switchbacks now soaked with rain. Predictably, we came across a place where the runoff had brought down rocks and debris which had collapsed part of the fragile roadway. Already the road crews were clearing the rock. A narrow one lane along the edge of a huge drop-off would allow one vehicle enough width to pass the blockage. A crew member stopped our progress, offering a severe warning to be cautious. A truck had already gone over the edge, he told us.
I saw the mangled truck as we drove past, and it indelibly infused the memory of the white Russian in my mind.