Winter approaches. It’s getting colder in Alaska, but the coffee houses all have brick fireplaces. In the mornings I head into Alaska Coffee Roasting Company, out of the cold, and with steaming coffee I sit beside the gray windows and write. I still owe money to the guy I rented the raft from, but I spend a couple afternoons stacking firewood for him until I work off the debt. I sleep in a comfortable parking lot with unobstructed views of the heavens. On three separate nights, the northern lights appear in the dark Fairbanks sky. In the frigid temperatures, I shiver beneath the ghastly green dance.
I head down to Anchorage, sharing gas costs with a kid who grew up in Fairbanks and did a couple tours in Iraq. He tells me stories about sniper school as we weave through the mountains. We pass Stampede Road an hour into the drive; I slow down for half a second but don’t say anything.
Fishing boats bob in a gray inlet beside downtown Anchorage. I sleep in the Wal-Mart parking lot and spend my afternoons in the coffee shops, trying to figure out how I will get south. I haven’t been here long, but it’s cold and it’s time to go. I don’t have enough money for the gas back down to the Lower 48, but I’ve met some other travelers over the past few days who might be interested in joining me for the trip. I’m waiting for a call from Ronan, a musician I exchanged numbers with at an open mic in a cafe one evening, and from Rob and Marcus, two European travelers I met in the Fairbanks Safeway. Then my phone rings twice in the same afternoon, and a new set of travel companions is established for this next leg of the journey.
In the morning, I meet Rob and Marcus at a café. We drive six hours to Tok, where we plan to meet Ronan. While we wait for him to hitch down from Fairbanks, we cook lunch in a parking lot and I feed scraps to a stray dog, trying without success to gain its trust.
When he finally arrives, it takes us a while to figure out how to squeeze everything in. We’ve got all of my stuff, three extra packs, Ronan’s guitar, and four people. It’s ridiculously tight, but we finally find a way. Then we hit the road south. Ahead of us, 2,500 miles of highway. It’s Ronan, 35, an Irish musician who has been on the road for 27 months supporting himself with nothing but music gigs and CD sales; Marcus, 18, German, on a working holiday visa, at start of one year of travel; Rob, 27, British, traveling with Marcus after spending a couple months as a rafting guide outside of Jasper. And me.
We make it to the Canadian border at sunset. I hand the four passports to the officer, and when he brings up our records, he immediately asks us to pull over and step out of the vehicle. We sit in a dingy waiting room as he looks over our paperwork. Ronan and I are each individually questioned, and Rob comes up with a list of the worst possible things to say to a customs officer (we decide NOT to say “good thing he didn’t look in the trunk” as we drive away). We are finally allowed into Canada, but I have to be out of the country within ten days, and I’ve got a slip of paper in my passport that I have to deliver to the border to prove that I leave on time.
The towns are spread so far apart, but we reach one just as our gasoline drops to a critical level. After filling up, we continue on into the evening. Everything is drenched in fall colors. We park at a darkened rest stop and make camp in the tall grasses, shivering amidst huge red and orange leaves. Rob and I set up the tents, and Marcus builds a blazing fire. How cold is it here, we wonder? My fingers go numb as I’m fumbling with the poles. But everything is better beside the flames. We all dump out our food and cooking gear, and we stir together an unusual but delicious shared meal of Ronan’s soup, Marcus’ and Rob’s teriyaki rice, and my summer sausage. Stars and hot chocolate come out around the same time. We kick off our shoes and warm our toes by the flames. I pour a splash of water into my bowl to wash it out. I turn to the fire, turn back to the bowl, and it’s filled with ice. I walk to my tent through red and orange leaves frosted over with frozen dew, a thousand tiny white crystals glittering in the glare of my headlamp.
Marcus has never eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We remedy this during the morning drive. We reach Whitehorse by early afternoon, and I return to the Starbucks where Carlos and I laid over to write on the way up. When they close at 10 they give us a bag of the day’s unsold pastries and sweets, and I take the guys to the campsite where Carlos and I made spruce tea. We sit around a blazing campfire late into the night, sharing our travel stories and heatedly discussing dreams, self honesty, the crises of our world. Rob is endlessly frustrated by the pervasive injustices that we are all tacitly aware of, and he is beginning to feel the need to bring a humanitarian focus into his travels, get involved with something larger than himself. We are all thrilled that we have taken ourselves out of the broken economic system and instead chosen to travel in order to open our minds and set ourselves free. As a traveling musician, Ronan is living the dream, the rest of us agree. Yet he isn’t happy. What he really wants to do is to stop moving and work on a linguistics project in a university setting. He is living other people’s dream, but that doesn’t matter if it’s not his dream anymore. A cold wind tears through the thicket, and the huge dark green spruces bow over in the gusts. We all go to bed with a lot to think about.