Driving the Al-Can Highway in early 1960’s- Unforgettable Memory #6 by Nancy Radke

While my husband, Walt, and I were attending the University of Washington, we spent our summers in Anchorage with his parents, where I worked one job. Walt worked two 8-hour construction jobs since we had almost 24 hours of daylight up there. We drove up the Al-Can (Alaska-Canada) Highway each spring, and then back to Seattle each fall. We could make enough to pay our tuition for that year.

There were some unique features about the highway that I won’t forget. There were miles and miles of nothing but mountains and forests. Not all that many cars. If you came across a motorist with a stalled car, you stopped and gave him a lift to the next town. The towns were marked on the map, all named, but usually consisted of just one house and some outbuildings; sometimes with a gas station, but always with someone who had a tow truck and extra tires. Unlike Seattle, the gas stations on the Al-Can all had hot water in the restrooms, hot enough you would almost burn your hands, and I remember just how good that water felt.

We carried extra tires, but once blew three in a row, so Walt took one tire and I took another and we rolled them down the road until a truck came by and took us to a farm where the man fixed our tires and drove us back to our car.

The roads were smooth in the fall, but in the spring, after the winter had frozen and thawed the roadway, there were parts of it like a washboard, with a series of humps about a foot high. They appeared unexpectedly and had to be driven slowly or you would ruin your car. After going through the humps, you would drive slowly for a while, and then speed up until you hit the next series. The roadway had no centerline, and no warning signs before you hit the washboards.

Besides the beautiful scenery, the highway offered plenty of wildlife, since what animal would tramp through the tundra when it could walk down the roadway? The moose especially liked it. Once we had to wait for a herd of several hundred caribou to cross near Tok Junction. The roadway was often elevated four to six feet to get it above the permafrost, and one other time, also near Tok Junction, we had a huge bison suddenly jump up on the road in front of us. He stood there, head lowered, while Walt slammed to a stop and backed up as fast as he could. That bison waited a bit, then sauntered across the road and down the other side.

One spot on the highway hadn’t been elevated, and when we drove through the mud, our car’s bumper wasn’t high enough to clear, so we skimmed off the top of the mud as we drove along. It crept up over the hood, then our windshield and finally over the rest of the car. The wipers weren’t strong enough to clear the mud, so I would open my passenger window and wipe it off enough that Walt could see the road. This stretch seemed endless, but was probably only about 20 miles.

Anchorage just had another large earthquake, but I figure the folks there will get out their trucks and tractors and do a quick fix on the roads and throw up some army type bridges to get them through until summer construction time. No problem.

So far I’ve only “visited” Alaska once in my novels. In Stolen Secrets, my hero and heroine fly to Anchorage to try to find out who is stealing company secrets. Stolen Secrets is my story in the Sweet & Sassy Suspense collection.