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Essay

Driving Straight Through

For a Half-Century, the Highway to Alaska Has Been the Road of a Father's Life

June 15, 2003|Drex Heikes | Drex Heikes is executive editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Dad made a break for it. He rigged the Chrysler Caravan with oxygen cylinders, pocketed his heart and diabetes medicines and set out in mid-March, alone, age 77, on a 3,251-mile journey from his home in Anchorage to visit his mother in Minnesota, which is why my brother and I watched the NCAA basketball championship at a bar on the Yukon River.

My mother had urged him to fly to Minnesota, not drive. The highway to the continental United States is grueling. He had traveled it 50 times or more, first as a strapping 22-year-old former all-Minnesota football player and World War II medic, then as the father of four who built our family's marina with his bare hands while also working a full-time job.

Lately, his health slipping, he conceded that he could no longer risk the journey. Yet as spring ice melted from the blacktop, he couldn't resist one more go. The stubborn son of a German sharecropper pushed off, Thor Heyerdahl in a metallic green van.

He didn't need a map, not for a highway he had driven since 1948. He was just out of the Navy then after serving his last year in China. He had seen "too much" there, wanted away from civilization for a while, wanted a fresh start. Joined by two friends, he climbed into a green 1946 Dodge coupe and left Minnesota for Alaska--a 4,000-mile adventure the heart of which was a 1,600-mile run through Canada and Alaska known as the Alcan Highway.

Built in a frantic eight months in 1942, the Alaska-Canada highway was to help the U.S. military defend against possible invasion of the north by Japan. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers trailblazers on foot and horses and lashed-log rafts stayed just ahead of tiny bulldozers chewing through forest and bog to lay a roadbed no wider than two city buses, with a gravel surface as rough as a bareback ride on a knock-kneed moose. It was the last great route in the opening of the West and is still the only road to Alaska.

Dad's 1948 trip from Minnesota took a week, and flattened more tires than he could remember. Lungs, eyes, windshields--all faltered as he jounced along in a dust cloud at 25 mph to 40 mph. He drove for hours without seeing another car. He rolled past moose, wolves and caribou, stopping on mountain ridges to take in clear-to-Pluto views as the gray-brown dust settled quietly on the road behind.

To say the highway went "through" the Canadian Rockies would be a lie. It tickled them, churning up and down mountains or box-the-compass around them. You felt the land as much as saw it, every stone and pit carried up from the tires through the springs to the seat to your rump. In winter, snow made the road smoother and the peril greater. With little traffic and few snowplows, you could slide down an embankment and die of exposure. People did.

Approaching the old gold rush town of Whitehorse, Dad crossed the Yukon River for the first time. The fast, wicked water fascinated him. In the north, he was learning, nature did not need protection from man so much as man needed protection from nature. It was a lesson he tested many times during the next 55 years--and did so again in March.

He told Mom he would drive straight through to Minnesota, pulling over to sleep in his seat whenever he grew drowsy. The Great Depression farm boy never could bring himself to pay for a place to lay his head for six hours. He made Teslin, Yukon Territory, in 25 hours. Another 24 put him at Dawson Creek, British Columbia. Half way.

My mother never fully shared my father's passion for the road. She first traveled to Alaska by ship from Seattle in 1948. Her parents had taken jobs near Anchorage with the Corps of Engineers, where my father had found work. Her parents introduced them and they married June 15, 1949. Rather than honeymoon over the Alcan, they left for Minnesota aboard a twin-propeller DC-3 scheduled for 17 stops, seated on chrome and vinyl kitchen chairs bolted to the cabin floor, alongside a dogsled team.

After that, flying was never Dad's first choice. He drove, everywhere, and always the highway. For Christmas 1951, eager to show their first child to relatives, Mom and Dad filled the back seat of a 1949 Dodge sedan with survival gear and set out. "Looking back, that wasn't very smart," he said as we played a home movie of the trip at their 50th wedding anniversary. "I had no business taking them out in those temperatures."

The grainy 8mm film shows their dark gray Dodge on a white roadway near Kluane Lake in the Yukon. Clouds rise from the exhaust. Inside, my mother cradles my 9-month-old brother. The windshield is masked by frost, except for a scraped-off section about the size of an accident report.

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