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Day 8
July 25, 1999
31,986
Destruction Bay to Tok

I have a story about Destruction Bay I must tell before we ride on. This is a tough place. It's remote in a way that most of us can barely fathom. The locals can we extremely helpful, but they want it done their way.

It's January, 1976. I'd just completed college, and accepted a job with a national CPA firm's Anchorage office. I'm excited about returning to Alaska, but my new employer provides enough relocation cash to ship our household goods but not our car. My wife at the time, and I, have two young children and little money. Determining that it's not safe to drive to Anchorage in the dead of winter with two children under five, I head north alone. Bitter cold and darkness are my constant companions. Temperatures plummet as I head up the Alaska Highway and by Destruction Bay are down to 60 degrees. It's so cold in the car I move everything from the trunk to the back seat so the heater has less space to deal with. My vision is limited to a clear spot on the driver's side no larger than a small pizza box. I'm dog-tired and a little scared.

It is common in high northern latitudes for cars to be equipped with circulating heaters to keep the engine warm enough to start, and for motel proprietors to locate electrical outlets close to parking spaces. It is also common for travelers to pay a nominal fee, like $2 or $3 a night for the use of the electricity. At Destruction Bay the fee was $5, a bit outrageous, but in all honesty, very well marked. Without an extra $5 for a circulating heater, I took the car battery out and into my Destruction Bay hotel room where it would stay warm enough to turn the engine over next morning. That worked; a fairly well-known trick up here. However, the guest in the next room thought he was a little more sly. He plugged in, but neglected to pay the $5, clearly noted to be paid in advance. As I re-installed my battery in the morning, I was shocked to realize that someone had put an axe blade right through his extension cord. I always wondered if he got out of Destruction Bay before spring. Hey, the sign said to pay in advance! These folks don't put up with much out here.

It worked so well on Day 6; we're at it again. We're all up and gone by 8:30 am, and decide to ride 70 miles before we stop for breakfast at Pine Valley Motel. We're scheduled to do 262 miles today and it's nice to get an early start. Well, it was a great idea. We're stopped twice for construction, and finally arrive at 10:15 am, and really, really hungry.

We are not disappointed. The first course is a home-baked cinnamon role as big as a small dinner plate. I split it several ways, and it is as good as it's big. Next comes eggs over medium, real sliced ham (none of that pressed, canned stuff up here, please,) home fries and toast made of the finest baked bread you will taste, with marmalade, peanut butter and honey available as condiments. Make fun as we will about our Canadian cousins, but they sure know how to do breakfast.

The BMW is running well; with only it's morning shot of shaft lubricant as a way to keep me frustrated. The clutch cable replacement in Fort Nelson solved the problem of the hard-to-shift transmission. How could I have missed that? The transmission was difficult to shift because the clutch wasn't fully disengaging, because the cable had first stretched and then broken. It is all painfully obvious now, but thankfully I have never tried to pass myself off as a mechanic. At any rate, the BMW shifts easily now, and Jan is happy. When Jan is happy, I'm generally happy, and so happy together we all continue north on the Alaska Highway. (Note: I have another confession about the BMW "running out of gas" near Muncho Lake, but I just can't bear to show my ignorance twice in one day. So, more on that another time.)

The entire Alaska Highway is pretty remote, but the few hundred miles from Destruction Bay to Tok seem especially so. As if to state the obvious, the surface worsens and the road gets narrower. We leave the higher mountains of the Coastal Range, and the closest points now are just a couple of thousand feet, mere hills up here. They are a few miles off across the fast-flowing Kluane River, which the road follows for miles, but they seem a world away. They are rounded and stand silent, the clouds moving slowly above their low peaks. They aren't welcoming, the way the Rockies are at Muncho Lake. The Northern Rockies seem to say: "play in me, explore me, revel in my beauty." In contrast, these hills mournfully say: "keep your distance, those before you have moved on, unable to cling to life in these inhospitable surroundings."

The Alaska/Yukon border provides a photo opportunity, of course, and US Customs an opportunity to ask about our supply of drugs, guns, tobacco and alcohol. I've made a mistake in calculating the miles for our itinerary, and we are happy to find that Tok is 50 miles closer than I noted.

Julia and Jan have made reservations for us at a great B&B called Cleft of the Rock. John and Jill turn out to be fine proprietors. Randy goes to Sunday evening service at a local church. Eric and Julia rent a movie. Jan reads. I join Randy later at the Alaskan Salmon Bake after spending a few hours writing my journal.

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