A thin layer of snow fell overnight and both the scenery and the Outback wore a fresh coat of white. Our room at the Yukon Motel overlooked Lake Teslin, just appearing for the first time in the slow blue dawn. The temperature lingered well below zero and the Subaru had to be coaxed back to life, groaning again while I turned the key insistently.
Teslin has a big native population and for the first time we began to see real Northwest traditional art, not the clunky fake totem poles carved by chainsaws sprinkled across the center of the continent. We were at the upper end of a regional style that reaches all the way down to Seattle, where even the football team logo has Tlingit inspired look. We tried to stop at the cultural center where we were greeted by a grouping of beautiful new totem poles, but a man sitting in a lone chair at the far end of a dark meeting hall told us they were closed.
The landscape was frosted white. Delicate white branches, infinitely detailed, proved irresistible to Magda’s camera and we slid to a stop every few yards to grab a new shot. The pavement, which had to this point been visible in patches through packed snow and ice, was gone. The few trucks coming the other direction created short, panic-filled moments by raising blinding clouds of powder in their wake. At these times I slowed way down and tried to picture the direction the road had been headed when we last were able to see.
We’d entered a profoundly beautiful but desolate part of the highway. All sign of habitation dropped away after Teslin and my mind invented myriad emergency situations that might take this opportunity to present themselves. Even the most minor mechanical problem could leave us stranded in the extreme cold for hours. Not helping my paranoia was the fact we’d both been smelling burning oil for the past day.
We’d probably rescued the Subaru from suburban monotony in its home state of New Jersey. It had been traded in for a newer model when an assortment of minor mechanical annoyances became too much for the old owner to repair. It was sold at auction to the guy we bought it from in Bed-Stuy. Since then we’d had a few minor but important repairs done: all four breaks in Queens, the front left CV boot and a sticky clutch in Oklahoma. It had been repeatedly declared to be in fine working condition. The mechanic in Oklahoma told me he’d “drive it like I stole it” to Alaska. But as the temperature dropped, funny things started happening. Rubber seals stiffened up and doors didn’t close quite right. The anti-freeze washer fluid froze. Snow built up in the wheel-wells and threatened to grind the tread off the tires. But most troubling was the burning oil smell that began somewhere in the Rockies.
When we pulled into Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon, we stopped at a Subaru dealership. A light snow was falling when I escorted the owner, an Indian man with a strong Canadian accent, towards the car. We looked under the hood together and he searched for the source of the oil.
“It looks like the head-gasket,” he told me. “Pricey to fix, and you will have to stay overnight.”
Having alerted him to the problem I then tried to talk him down, “It hasn’t really been a problem so far, is it necessary to fix?”
He said we’d definitely make it to Fairbanks – maybe even further with the leak, but to watch my cooling system since that’s where any trouble would start.
I asked him if it would get worse.
“Well it won’t get better.” He smiled, snow collecting in his black hair.
Twenty minutes later we’d left the dealership and I sat thinking about the gasket, weighing the risks of continuing while Magda went to shop for some groceries. What had been a light snow was now blotting out the pine covered hillsides surrounding the town and collecting on our cooling hood. I was staring at the reflection of our lights in the car opposite when I noticed something missing. Our left headlight was dead. I placed my forehead on the wheel for several minutes. Then I got out and went to find Magda.
An hour later we were humming along through inch deep powder, a billowing cloud churning behind us. We’d come back to the dealership and in return for the sound, free advice about our slow leak, asked them to change the headlight. Our layover may have been for just that reason: to have two working headlights. The snow continued to fall and visibility steadily decreased.
The blowing snow was so thick it was impossible to see any oncoming cars – or even the car in front of us. I began to have a sense that my vision was going, a cataract of white blotting out the center of the windshield. Then brake lights appeared in the center of what turned out to be a cloud of blowing snow erupting from behind a vehicle not ten feet away. Knowing that if I touched the breaks we’d slide, I downshifted until the engine pulled us far enough behind the cloud to see what was happening. The car had been stopping for a herd of elk that was ambling across the highway.
After some hours we reached Burwash Landing on Kluane Lake, just past the ominous sounding Destruction Bay. All was bleak in the wintery late afternoon. We cut fresh tracks in the snow as we pulled up to the Burwash Landing Resort. It was lit only by a street lamp, our headlights and one lit window inside. I marveled out loud how closed it looked. Magda said it had to be open, after all, someone had taken our reservation.
We entered a dimly lit reception area filled with moose, caribou and bear. A mountain sheep looked down from above the desk. Nobody else was there. We ‘haloo’d’. A short Philipino man entered the room looking confused.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, we made a reservation for Webster?”
He still looked confused, but flipped some pages in a calendar and found our name. He stared at it for some time.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“Um, no. Please wait here.” He said in a strong accent, and then left. Magda and I looked at one another. No more rooms? It seemed pretty empty. Again, so empty you might think it was closed.
A tall blonde woman appeared and asked if she could help us, we told her about our reservation. The man came back and they conferred. Thinking about our experience in Toad River, we started getting annoyed, and asked what was up.
“Well,” began the woman, “the resort is closed. My parents sold it a month ago.”
“But we have a reservation, I talked to someone two nights ago.”
“Yeah, we see your name written here so of course we’ll open a room for you, don’t worry. The thing is we don’t know who wrote it down.”
I glanced up at the sheep which was staring into the distance with glassy eyes.
True to their word, they opened a room. The man seemed to be a nightwatchman, the woman was the daughter of the former owners, in town to attend a funeral. We told her we were sorry to hear that.
“Thank you,” she said quietly. “It was a terrible tragedy. For the whole town.”
A chill ran down my spine and I glanced back up at the sheep. It still wouldn’t meet my eye.
Despite the creepy circumstances surrounding our reservation we spent a comfortable quiet night at the Burwash Landing Resort. In the morning no one was there. We left the keys in the door and brushed a thick layer of snow off the car. Ours were the only tracks in the snow save those of a large dog.
The drive from Burwash Landing to Fairbanks took seven hours. Light snow was still falling in a fine dry powder. The car undulated up and down over what are known as ‘frost heaves’, where the permafrost has given way beneath the asphalt, recreating the effects of a roller coaster. The scenery was more breathtaking than ever as the St. Elias Mountains towered over a frozen expanse of rugged tundra. Somewhere in distance rose Mt. Logan which normally dominated the sky but was hidden from us beneath the icy mists.
We entered Alaska before the sun’s downward march towards dusk, stopping to savor the crossing. A corridor of trees had been shorn with mechanical precision along the north-south border with Canada. The channel seemed like an immense art project, vast in scope and somewhat useless. If anyone had furtively dashed from one forest wall to the other, like a falling tree they would have made no sound; the border guards were set up a hundred yards away. We were welcomed back into the U.S. by a guard with a heavy Japanese accent. He told us he was an amateur photographer and warned us to watch for caribou. Clearly he was far too pleasant to be stationed at a more important crossing.
After watching the sun set over the Alaska Range, 100 miles south of the Tanana river, we entered the city of Fairbanks. We pulled into my Aunt and Uncle’s snow covered driveway, crunched through ice to the front porch and rang the bell. Inside we could see a hand-painted sign hanging that read:
North Via South
We’d finally arrived North, via the South.