This diary is just a ramble; I’m thinking it out as I write it. I just spent the last few days taking my wife to Anchorage to start her new federal job on Monday, August 2. Yeah, that federal goverment, the one Comrade Obama runs. Nota bene: I am not in Anchorage with her.
For those of you not familiar with Alaska, to get from the capital, Juneau, to Anchorage, the real capital, you have to take a boat or a plane; there is no road access. Alaska operates one of the larger ship lines under the American flag, the Alaska Marine Highway System composed of vehicle/passenger ferries that link Alaska’s coastal towns with the US and Canadian highways. The system operates for the convenience of its unionized employees and assures the maximum inconvenience to the travelling public. Consequently, the departure time for the M/V Matanuska’s (See here: http://www.alaskaferry.com/Ferries.shtml#matanuska) voyage from Juneau to Haines, AK was 1:15 AM, too late for dinner, and the 6:00 AM arrival in Haines was too early for breakfast – and the bar was closed too! Haines was one of those towns established as an entrepot for the Klondike Gold Rush and also became important in WWII and the Cold War as a military point of entry to the Far North and Alaska. Its importance has diminished with the opening of a road from Skagway to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, but it remains the point of entry to the highway system if you’re going north. The ferries haven’t changed in my almost forty years here; the hippies are in their sleeping bags in the solarium and you can get high on pot just walking through. The short distance travelers are in the forward observation lounge or in the recliner lounge. The tourists and other travellers from the Lower 48 have staterooms and you don’t see them in the middle of the night. We put the car on and hit the recliner lounge. We’re out of practice at this, so we weren’t all that well equipped for uncomfortable and inconvenient travel, but we did have a couple of stolen airline blankets and I found a way to get coffee. The trip was uneventful and would have been scenic if I hadn’t seen it all before; it still doesn’t get totally dark at night this time of year. I slept about as well as you can in a chair. We got off in Haines and tried unsuccessfully to find a place open for breakfast. You’d think that a place dependent on travellers would know the ferry schedule, but apparently serving breakfast at 6:00 AM is too much like work in Haines, so we hit the road, the only road, from Haines, AK to Haines Junction, YT, a hundred and change miles away. The road is pretty good by Alaska standards; not too curvy and pretty well graded, but those of you only used to interstates wouldn’t like it, did see a couple of nice bears though. Canadian Customs is very casual and really only seem to care whether you have any evil firearms and have enough money to get you out of their country. We finally got some breakfast in Haines Junction. Everything in Canada is the same as in the US except that it is all a little different. I don’t know if that just happens or if they do it on purpose. All the road food in the Yukon and Alaska is heavy and greasy, so manage your appetite and plan your rest stop breaks well; the rest stop toilets are truly disgusting.
At Haines Junction you turn left on the Alaska Highway, also known as the AlCan Highway, the World War II highway cut through the wilderness to give surface access to Alaska, at the time under Japanese attack. When I first came to Alaska in ’74, I stopped in Haines Junction to camp for the night. I saw eyes reflecting the lights of my Toyota LandCruiser as I got out to pitch the tent and decided that sharing the campground with a Grizzly wasn’t a good idea, but I really needed some sleep so I could drive safely, so we just crashed in the truck. I was awakened at about 4 AM by the dog going crazy and the truck rocking from the Griz on the right side running board; I got the Hell out of Dodge. It was Fall and raining and snowing; it rains and snows in the Fall in this part of the World, and the AlCan was still dirt and still mostly on its WWII right of way. I kept the LandCruiser in 4WD pretty much all the way from Watson Lake, YT to the Alaska border. And it wasn’t because I was scared, it was because the road was soup about six inches deep in the good places. It cost me twenty bucks at the quarter car wash in Tok, AK to sorta’ get the vehicle clean; five years later when I sold it there was still AlCan dirt in it.
In ’74 there was little difference between Alaska and the Yukon; the road was paved from the Alaska border but not very well and nobody would accuse the AlCan from the Border to Fairbanks of being a good road. It was maybe a little more developed in Alaska than in the Western Yukon, but not much and it was all still a world of no electricity, no phones, no television, little radio; back then Radio Moscow was the most powerful station on the dial if you had a shortwave, and most did.
We drove from Haines Junction to Beaver Creek, YT and stayed in the Westmark Hotel there. Westmark started life as an Alaska hotel chain owned by former Governor Bill Sheffield (D-Alaska), but I think it now is owned by Holland America Cruise Lines. No phones or TV but a really good dinner show; not Broadway, but a Helluva bunch better than you’d expect in Beaver Creek, YT. The road from Haines Junction to Beaver Creek is paved now but it gives bad road all new meaning. They even have burgers in Yukon lodges named SHAKWAK, the acronym for the joint US-Canada deal to pave the Highway; of course the US pays for most of it. Memo to file: a lowered, tricked up Chrysler 300M is NOT a car for the AlCan, even in its modern, paved incarnation! I didn’t break anything but the front mudflaps – yeah, you put mudflaps on cars in this part of the World, but it was anything but a relaxing drive avoiding the potholes, pavement breaks, and frost heave whoop de doos. There are only two seasons in this part of the World: Winter and Construction, and we were travelling in the height of construction season, so stops were frequent. Oh, and did I mention mosquitos? If you’ve never been to the Yukon or Alaska, you’ve never seen mosquitos. The car has heated mirrors so there’s always a little airflow from the heat/ac to the mirrors. Whenever you stopped, within seconds the mosquitos would sense the heat and carbon dioxide from the inside air coming out the mirrors and there’d just be a cloud of them around each outside mirror. And with that, we come to the point of this.
In ’74, there wasn’t really much difference between Alaska and the Yukon. In ’10, there is almost no comparison. Those of you who live in urban areas would be really uncomfortable in Alaska today, but at its worst most of Alaska on the road system isn’t much different from the rural areas of the Lower 48 and the cell phone service comes on pretty soon after you cross the US-Canada Border; you can surf the ‘net betwen the Border and Northway, AK, and that’s about as far from anywhere as you can get in the US. The dinner show chorus in Beaver Creek has a song about being 301 miles from nowhere, the distance from Whitehorse, YT to Beaver Creek, YT; if you live here, you understand it.
The further you get into Alaska, the more modern and developed it becomes. By Tok Junction, two hundred and change miles east of Fairbanks on the AlCan, you have most of what you’d expect in a small city in the Lower 48. Along the right of way of the Richardson and Glenn Highways they’re putting in a fiber optic cable that will connect even these remote places with high speed internet. About three hundred miles down the Richardson and Glenn Highways you come to Palmer and Wasilla, Sarah Palin’s stomping grounds. Now you have the Big Box stores and all the amenities of modern American life. Sarah likes to claim that she was one of those “small government” conservatives that didn’t tax the Wasilla residents to provide this, that, or the other. She didn’t have to; the State of Alaska taxed the oil companies and thus you to pay for the things that made Wasilla possible.
In ’74, there wasn’t a red light between Fairbanks and Anchorage or between the Border and Anchorage. The intersection between the Glenn and Parks Highways near Palmer that led to Fairbanks or Anchorage was a flat intersection with a stop sign. Palmer was the important town and Wasilla was a spot in the road. Now there is a fancy Interstate-style cloverleaf interchange, complete with some pretty fancy 1% art, and you have to get off the main route to go to Palmer. Billions of State and federal dollars made Wasilla possible.
Whether you go right and north to Wasilla or left and south to go to Anchorage, you see what oil taxation and State and federal spending can do. In ’74, it was all two lanes with flat intersections and stop signs, today it is all to interstate standards. Other than an overabundance of redneck kids in fancy pickups running up in your mirrors at a hundred miles an hour, those of you who commute in the Lower 48 would feel right at home. There is a new, modern, and very fancy police headquarters in Wasilla. I don’t know who paid for it, but I’m reasonably certain the good citizens of Wasilla didn’t.
So, the point of this is, you can do really good things with government spending. Some of you are thinking that this is all about that corrupt porker Ted Stevens, but the US owns more of Alaska than Alaska does, so those roads and other accoutrement are in its interest too. And, the State paid for much of this stuff too. The citizens of Alaska paid for almost none of it except as a share of the commonweal.
I drove up that long, demanding dirt road in ’74 because life in the Lower 48 had just become too confining and I was sick of having to carry a gun to safely get to work in Atlanta. Alaska was a primitive and scruffy place back then. The only places you could get a salad that had green lettuce was the Hotel Captain Cook, which flew it in, and Alaska Airlines, which flew it in for them. My daughter grew up thinking lettuce was brown and milk was powdered; she was in her teens before she saw a live TV show. In ’74, the nightly news came on in the morning and only if the plane bringing the tape from Seattle made it in.
The trip that defined my life after ’74 required a well equipped 4WD vehicle and substantial wilderness/camping skills. Last week I made it in a near-luxury car and slept in decent hotels and ate decent meals, and all that was done with government spending. There are two sides to the equation.