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"The only things that matter are the Road, and the people of the Road, a breed as distinctive as were the Klondike gold seekers of '98. Someday there will be stories about them, legends of the men who drive the great Lynden Transfer rigs, and the rotating Army families, and the lonely cooks and waitresses of the roadhouses.... They are all pioneers, people of the Adventure Road, whose genuine regard for one another conquers the empty stretch of a continent. It is beautiful to see, as though the clock had been turned back to an America of a hundred years ago."
Stall and You May Freeze
Perhaps it's just as well I didn't first see the Road in winter from the air. Pan American's milk run southward out of Fairbanks follows the Alaska Highway for 600 miles along the east slope of the Wrangells and the Saint Elias range to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. As the first slanting sidelight of the short, dim winter day unveils the frozen wilderness below, the heart is chilled by the feebleness of this mark of man—this faint track defying a land of unimaginable immensity.
How could it have been conceived—and more, who dares to travel it? One good snowstorm or a wind pushing up drifts could wipe out every trace of this Lilliputian line meandering through an empty landscape shattered by the spines of great mountains. Yet in December of 1961, 329 incoming vehicles carried 652 passengers through the Alaska port of entry at Tok Junction. I'm willing to bet that hardly one person of those 652 was driving the Road for the first time. A good proportion of them, of course, were Alaska Highway truckers, a class as separate and apart from ordinary truck drivers as Peter Snell is from the suburbanite sprinting for his morning bus. But the remainder, I am sure, were on the Road because they can't keep off it. Alaskans come out over it on any flimsy pretext, and promptly turn around and drive up it again. And so do outsiders who have been initiated into the cult of the Road.
This is the strange thing about the Alaska Highway. You can't travel it just once, as for instance in the heart of the "good" season from June to September, and let it go at that. You must travel it in the clinging mud of spring, and over the black ice of fall and most especially in the deep below-zero temperatures of winter. The people you meet on the Road—and you strike up immediate close friendships with them because you share a great experience—all tell you the same thing.
"It's my fifth [or 10th or 17th or 26th] trip over the Road. I like it best from December to early March. It's...." They bog down in explanation. The roadbed is fine and smooth, its gravel buried under the packed, sand-dry, frozen snow of midwinter. There is no dust, no worry over accommodations. Tourists and mosquitoes are mere memory.
The very way drivers shoulder through the low double doors of far northern roadhouses tells you that they love the winter Road because it satisfies some deep longing in them. They are at peace on the Road. Like me, they came along too late to sail the Atlantic into the unknown in a frail wooden vessel, too late to cross the plains in a covered wagon, too late to hack a home and sustenance out of the wilderness. But not too late to accept the challenge of this endless slender track, snaking and roller-coasting through the roughest and most enchanting terrain of North America, winding through gorges and cold-stunted forests, over burned mountains and the midnight blue of frozen rivers, extending on and on with a sense of the unknown forever around the next corner.
There is the secret knowledge, rarely expressed, that blinding snows and 60�-below temperatures can kill a stranded—and ill-equipped—tourist in half an hour. This challenge fades in the traffic of summer. (In July of 1961, some 120 northbound vehicles per day checked in at Tok.) In winter this delicious defiance of the violence of nature keeps death just one skid removed from the heated interior of the car. The winter traveler is lifted to a sense of awareness so heightened that the end of the trip is barren of emotion, a separation rather than a homecoming. The Road is home, and while you are on it you are part of it. Nothing seems as important as the fantastic number of snowshoe rabbits in cyclic superabundance around Dawson Creek, the 48� below at Mile 1093, the telescoped trailer rig lying stricken on its side in deep drifts near Mile 533, the bonspiel scheduled at Whitehorse, the slick, pounded surface on Trutch Mountain, the Army truck convoys converging on Tanacross for Operation Great Bear, the fabulous oil well fireman, Red Adair, and his asbestos suit, due momentarily from Algiers to put out the wild oil well fire blazing in the bushland near Blueberry.
The only things that matter are the Road, and the people of the Road, a breed as distinctive as were the Klondike gold seekers of '98. Someday there will be stories about them, legends of the men who drive the great Lynden Transfer rigs, and the rotating Army families, and the lonely cooks and waitresses of the roadhouses. Right now it is all too raw and new for any but the private yarns that run the 1,523-mile length of the Road from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks by mysterious word of mouth known as the Mukluk Telegraph. The Alaska Highway's closest approach to a Robert W. Service is the truck driver who wrote,
and winding out—