Down the Alaska Highway (part 3)

Day 5/Day 6

Continuing south down the Alaska Highway, we run into roadblocks every hour during one stretch.  Other people get frustrated and drum their fingers on their wheels.  We get out and stretch and make coffee on the hood of the car.

The vast empty spaces of the past week decay into suburb without much warning.  Then, it’s not long until we are driving into a major city again.  We arrive in Prince George after dark and in the rain.  There is nowhere to set up tents, and the rain makes it impossible to just lay our bags out somewhere.  We search for a bridge to sleep under, but we quickly get lost in the city.  We pass a Starbucks and decide to pull over to collect ourselves.  The rain is pouring down, and we sit inside restlessly.  We talk to everyone who enters, trying to somehow manifest food and shelter, but we are failing.  It’s like nine at night.  We have no idea what we are going to do.  “Take your time, don’t panic,” Marcus and I say to each other.  Eventually, I strike up a conversation with a girl who is reading a biology textbook.  She thinks for a while and then mentions that we could probably sleep at the university.  It’s open 24 hours, and there are usually people there studying all night.

We drive up the hill into the bucketing rain.  I can barely see through the fogged windows.  After a few wrong turns, we finally arrive.  We park in a restricted lot and grab books and backpacks, then march up to the buildings.  But we have no idea where we are supposed to go.  Finally a pair of students appears, and we follow them in as if we know what we’re doing.  Rob leads the way, making random turns through the hallways with an expertly feigned confidence.  Eventually we find a cove with a cluster of couches, and we sit down.  Nobody is around, but an occasional person walks through the hallway and ignores us.  This spot is perfect, we decide.

But we still haven’t eaten.  So we head back out to the car.  Nobody feels like cooking, but finally Marcus grabs the stoves and begins to boil water.  He throws a bunch of random cans into the pot and crafts some sort of strange and delicious tomato vegetable soup, while Rob, Ronan and I huddle in the black drizzle and watch with gratitude.

After hot chocolate, we head back to the building.  The doors are locked.  We search for another student—“we have forgotten our swipe cards”—but Rob finally finds an unlocked side door.  We return to the couches and sprawl out, plug in computers, open books, lay down to sleep.  Marcus disappears to Skype with someone back in Germany.  I curl up on a couch and I must have fallen asleep at some point, because at 3:15 I’m woken up by a guy with a badge.  “Hey,” he says to me.  “Uh…what are you guys doing?”  Taking a nap.  “Are you…students here?”  Well…we are travelers, just passing through.  A student told us this might be an ok spot to catch a few hours of rest.  “How long are you planning to stay here?”  We were going to be out before classes start in the morning.  “Ok…can you be out by five?”  Absolutely.  It’s ok if we stay until then?  “Yeah, just be out by five.”

He leaves, and Rob and Ronan open their eyes.  Marcus is still gone.  I shrug and go back to sleep.  Ronan shakes my shoulder at five.  I sit up; Marcus is still gone.  And Rob is gone.  Where the hell are they?  Ronan and I pack up and grab Rob’s and Marcus’ stuff, and we head back down the hallway.  We find Rob and Marcus in a corner somewhere, Marcus still on Skype, and we all head out to the car.  Marcus hasn’t slept at all.  The rest of us have gotten maybe a couple hours.  What the hell do we do now?  It isn’t raining anymore, but the ground is soaked.  Should we search for a bridge?  It’s 5:30 in the morning, still black outside, so we head to a Starbucks.  We drink coffee and then immediately regret having done so.

We rest for maybe twenty minutes and then hit road at sunrise, determined to escape the city.  As we pass into farmland, the clouds are lavender shells over blueberry mountains, and we barrel onwards into the sleepy morning.  In Quesnel we pull over and park, all of us wrecked.  Ronan decides he isn’t tired and he goes to a café.  Rob, Marcus, and I grab our sleeping bags and lay them out on a slab of concrete beside a mighty river.

When I awake, Marcus is gone.  I doze until Rob stirs, and then we wander into the town in search of the other two.  Ronan is in a coffee shop, but Marcus is nowhere to be found.  I ask Tim Horton’s for a day-old pastry or donut, and they say no.

Eventually, we all reconvene, tumble into the car, and drive to Williams Lake.  I park beside a café/library, and we all split up.  The sun is warm, even behind clouds, and I wander barefoot through the downtown strip.  I decide to manifest a feast for our dinner tonight, and when I return to the café I’m carrying several huge boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables, pastries, and garlic French bread.  I join Marcus and Ronan in the café, pass around strawberries, and sip a mug of coffee.  The gray shroud parts momentarily and orange sunlight floods in through the windows.  When the café closes, we drive up a steep hillside and make camp in a wooded meadow overlooking the entire city below.  I unveil the food I have collected, and the others begin to prepare for the evening: building the fire, gathering wood, staking down the tents, washing the dishes.  I take a step back while this is unfolding, and I watch them for a moment.  Everything seems so beautiful right now.  Is there anything more lovely than camping out on a hillside above a town, watching the lights of the homes flicker to life as the sun buries itself into the fields beyond?  Far enough from society to live as we will, yet close enough not to feel lonely.  We know how to survive, how to take care of ourselves.  None of us has spent money today on anything but coffee, yet we are living like kings.  They munch on apple slices and juicy pineapple chunks as they begin to lay the strips of garlic bread onto hot stones around the fire.

I return to them as the sunlight falls away.  The others reveal their own surprises: Ronan produces a huge box of cookies, Rob pulls out a container of cinnamon buns.  We make hot chocolate and dip in the cookies.  Stars emerge, those brilliant flecks of light scattered across the empty vastness, reminding us of our true size in this universe, thousands of them, millions, billions, and we are full, warm, happy, and safe.  Is there anything more that anyone could ever ask for?

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2 Responses to Down the Alaska Highway (part 3)

  1. karen says:

    That was quick! Awesome…keep the reports and photos coming!! Loved seeing you last night and catching up. I don’t want your journey to end!!

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