Movin on with Nellie: An Al-Can trek, a few stops along the way

Long before the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, my father was transferred from California to Alaska. In the baby blue Ford with a six-sleeper overhang camper, the five of us traveled through Sacramento, and Truckee in Northern California then camped under Mount Rainier in Oregon on a rainy July evening.

The raindrops plinked against the tin roof as I read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and cried because my friends Pat, Debbie, Sherry, Tom, Dave and Wade were left behind.  But my family was headed to Anchorage and to my dad’s new position at Elmendorf Air Force Base. I would make new friends there, and that thought moved me through my loss.

Driving through Dawson Creek, I saw the first rugged inhabitant of Canada dressed in wool, plaid shirts, jeans and tall boots. Dawson Creek boasts mile zero of the 1387-mile trek named the Alaska-Canadian Highway, fondly called the ALCAN. All road signs pointed toward Fairbanks and Anchorage. Totem poles began to appear on the side of the graveled highways, at entry points and by houses. The landscape was rugged in town and out like Creed is in Mineral County. Tall lumberjacks had thick beards like in the 1960s movie: North to Alaska. I cradled a candy wrapper in my personal diary to remember the stop.

Headed up the Al-Can, our family was snug in the camper; my sisters and I rode in the camper and Mom and Dad road in the cab. It seemed as if mountains rose out of the basin-like genies out of lamps. Several times I gasped and clenched the edge of the top bunk, as the truck swayed and jerked. I was looking out over the hood at the gravel road as one wheel slipped over the edge and the three other wheels pulled the traveling Ford back onto track.  Still the mountains towered like tiers of an Imax screen. I imagined a walk up the greened tundra and up through rocks to the top of the mountain.

Sometimes Dad parked for the night in a Forest Service campsite, others off the road, alone. So, sometimes we had electricity and sometimes we didn’t. Mom would make us a quick sandwich or heat something warm over the camp stove.  The campgrounds were usually friendly, and we made friends along the way. I would play my guitar and others would join around the picnic table. Our parents in lawn chairs with other parents drank some and played cards.

One night we settled the night in a spot with trash bin and water. Our family of five and one German Shepherd mix named Tiny slept soundly until we felt our camper rocking and heard Tiny’s very loud growl.  My dad said, “It’s a bear.” None of us left the confines of the camper that night, not until morning and Dad pointed out the claw marks of the visitor and the topsy-turvy position of the trash bins.

Another time we visited a popular sour-dough baker for some sour-dough starter and a taste of the Yukon manna. The rustic home and store were like pages out of Log Home Living magazine. Luckily, we landed there as a flat tire flapped on the gravel and we weren’t stranded in the wild. While we enjoyed the warm sourdough, our Ford was serviced for the rest of the journey on the Al-Can.

In the Matanuska Valley, we spent time at the foot of the glacier and toured a farm where giant vegetables grew. It was summer but the temperature was sweater weather — much like it was here in the Valley the other day.

—Nelda Curtiss is a former substance-prevention media specialist, journalist, and retired college professor who enjoys writing and fine arts. Contact her at [email protected]