To The Desert We Go

The rule of 2’s guides many a long term traveler on the road. The idea is that the best parts of living on the road is when you drive the least, allowing you to spend more time in each area. So to avoid a routine of long driving stints and feeling more like a trucker, you never drive more than 2 hours, nor for more than 200 miles, nor 2 days in a row. It is an appealing heuristic, forcing one to settle into a place rather than be completely transient. Appealing or not, we threw that rule out the window at the start of our trip with an effort to make it as far south as fast as possible.

Originally, we were hoping to leave sometime mid-October, in an effort to beat the snow and any winter conditions along the route. However, ‘Din’s late birth and a c-section slowed recovery and moved our start date later to the 2nd of November. We left Fairbanks late afternoon, driving south into strong headwinds and through a light blizzard near the mountains.  Most of the driving was during the night, somewhat the opposite of what we wanted to do.  Nonetheless, we continued on and reached the Canadian border just before midnight.  The Canadian customs officer seemed sure we had guns with us , but after answering no to his plethora of questions he let us pass through. We tucked into a rest area within sight of the crossing, set up the trailer and tucked in for the night.

Each night was a process before we were actually able to go to bed. Our car is a 2001 Subaru Forester, spacious, but by no means ample storage for the gear and equipment for 3 people for 5 months of travel*. We were able to store some of our things, like clothes, in the scamp while travelling, but other things that couldn’t freeze we had to take back and forth between the Scamp and the car, depending on where we were.  You see, the problem was that we had a lot of things that couldn’t freeze. Mainly because we let our house freeze and thus couldn’t leave anything behind that was perishable. Like the ~200 lbs of potatoes that we grew last summer.  Yes, we brought 200 lbs of potatoes with us. I do have Irish heritage after all.   At each stop we settled into for the night, I would remove the bike from the camper, start up the buddy heater, transfer the potatoes/cooler/water/electronics and then finally settle into bed for the evening.  A tedious process, but one we hoped would improve once we left winter conditions and started living and travelling in warmer climes.

Each day was more or less the same as far as travel went.  We would hit the road by 9, stopping roughly every 2 hrs from then on so ‘Din could eat and we could change her diaper. I had planned for us to do some hiking along the way in places like Kluane, but deeper snow and colder temperatures than expected kept us on the road and fleeing south.  As mentioned previously, we had planned to go south down the Cassiar Highway, but at the turn off decided to continue on the Alcan instead for gas purposes and to visit the hot springs. The third night we did indeed stop at Liard Hot Springs, enjoying the massive pool to ourselves under the nearly full moon and a sky full of stars.  The campground area is separate from the hot springs and is completely enclosed in electric fencing. I first thought it was to keep the bison out, but on our way to the hot springs we saw the multitude of signs detailing how there were problem bears in the area and to be careful.  I remarked to Alana that if we weren’t Alaskans I would be scared . She replied, “I am still scared.” It had a Jurassic Park feel, we left the wire and into the untamed, unforgiving wilds beyond.

The road became more interesting during this section, rewarding us with grand views of the mountains and an abundance of animals that littered the roadway. Unlike Alaska, Canada has very strict hunting regulations with some animals, particularly woodland caribou and woodland bison. This leads them to becoming very comfortable with the idea of humans, which leads them to hanging around on the road for easy travel and feed.  In the Muncho Lake area, we would see dozens of caribou and bison, seemingly encountering another group every 30 minutes or so directly in the roadway. 

As we entered Alberta, we left the mountains and began the tail end of our trip on the Alcan.  Here the road is more undulating than previous sections and we constantly went up, down and around the hills. Unlike previous sections in BC, this area is highly developed and is actively drilled for oil and gas.  Driving at night we would see the flaring at the plants from miles away and the dozens and dozens of pickup trucks and semis travelling back and forth along the same route. To me, the route is emblematic of the north, a balance between resource extraction and conserving the wildness found within the land’s expanse.

After travelling through the clouds for many days, the road beyond the Alcan greeted us with a strong sun and bright blue skies.  We continued to make good time and were expecting to make it south to Jasper slightly earlier than planned, allowing us more flexibility with our route later on.  Alana was driving and I sat in the backseat with ‘Din as we neared Grand Prairie, Alberta.  I was reading an article on my phone when Alana said my name. We were in the far right lane of the 4 lane highway and I looked up to see us heading diagonally left towards the other side of the road. The trailer had lost control on a patch of glare ice and sent the car off course with it.  The car continued left, down and through the snow on the grass median, then across 2 lanes of oncoming traffic. We continued down into the ditch towards the fence of the nearby farm field.  The trailer followed the car over the edge of the road and slid down, coming off the hitch and rolling over onto its side as we came to a stop. The car remained upright. after establishing that we were all OK, I went out to see the damage. I looked back to see the shell of the Scamp completely detached from the axle with some of our things strewn out in the snow beyond. My heart sank. I was overjoyed that nobody was harmed but saddened at what appeared to be the end of our trip.

There was no time for moping and nothing that couldn’t be replaced. ‘Din paid no attention and was asleep during the whole thing, only awaking to cry after we left the car and were milling around. We set about to get things organized and figure out our next steps. About the same time, the first car finally pulled over on the side of the road above to see if we were OK. I ran up and talked with the guy, asking if he could call a tow truck for us as we didn’t have any cell service. He called a company and as we continued talking, offered a spot for Alana and ‘Din to stay warm in his car. Then moments later, offered us a spot at his house to reorganize our gear and warm up. He helped us gather up some of the loose items and load them up into his truck. After a few more minutes, he offered us his place to stay until we were able to get things sorted out. I remarked that in addition to a 6-week-old baby, we also had a small dog. He said no problem, he had 2 Alaskan malemutes of his own. How lucky we were. The tow truck showed up, but I was able to drive out of the ditch on my own and follow Darren to his home about a mile away. 

Darren would continue to help us over the coming days. He first shuttled me back to the trailer, helping me load up the rest of our things into his truck. We would end up spending 3 nights at his place, figuring out our next steps and getting reorganized.  The car appeared to escape nearly unscathed, with only 2 flat tires to show as damage.  Darren took me to a local shop in town the next morning and they were all patched up by the next day. Alana and I decided that we would continue on and follow the original plan, staying in our tent rather than a trailer. Neither of us had any desire of returning home and we dreaded the thought. Instead, we would make more of an emphasis on getting south faster, eliminating previous planned stops throughout Montana and western Wyoming.

Darren continued to prove a godsend. He took time off of his business during our stint with him, hanging out with us, shuttling me around town to get parts, helping me fix up my car and cooking dinners for us each night**.  By day 2 he offered us the use of his garage over the winter for storing the stuff we couldn’t fit and even offered to watch our dog, Taiga, until we returned. How lucky we were to meet him and remain in a debt of gratitude.

Alana and I have had the great fortune to meet multiple people like this this year. Darren reminded us a lot of our friend, Rich in San Diego. Both are characterized by extreme generosity, a positive attitude and a sense of agency.  We feel very rich for knowing them and think the world would be an amazing place if more people followed their example.  They are people that operate from a position of abundance, rather than scarcity, using that abundance to build community and help others when necessary or desired. Alana and I are nowhere near exemplifying this way of living yet, but we aim to.

‘Din, Alana, Taiga and I bid Darren adieu until the spring and began southward once more. The roads south of Grand Prairie were hilly, icy, slushy and full of logging and oil trucks. They were the worst conditions of the trip and I was soon very pleased not to be hauling the trailer behind us. We made good time, passing dozens of bighorn sheep along the road as we pulled into Jasper near sunset.  Continuing on through Jasper and Banff Provincial Parks, we pulled into Banff and found a hotel for the night. Out early the next morning, we crossed the border and back into the US, with a sense of relief that the bulk of our driving was behind us. Only a day’s drive from Utah now and a beginning of a stark change in our style of travel. To the desert we go.

*Or we just have way too much stuff.

**Not just any meals either. The last night we had fresh lobster, scallops and shrimp caught by his family on the Newfoundland coast.

Animals seen

  • Woodland Bison
  • Woodland Caribou
  • Bighorn Sheep
  • Coyote
  • Mule Deer
  • Whitetail deer
  • Moose (dead)
  • Pronghorn Antelope

Birds seen

  • Raven
  • Magpie
  • Red tailed hawk
  • Snow buntings

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1 Comment

  1. What a story. Amazing that no one was hurt and the generosity of Darren is even more amazing. May the adventure continue! ❤️🙏🏻❤️🙏🏻❤️

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