ALASKA AND OTHER FRONTIERS: 2016 Curiosity Encounters

The piercing cry of a wild animal woke me. In the frigid darkness, I couldn’t remember where I was. I blinked my sleep-sticky eyes until I could focus on the gray vehicle ceiling only six inches from my nose. “Oh, yeah. Now I remember,” I murmured as my brain fog cleared.

We were parked at the edge of a roadside turnout along a roughly slashed track snaking its way through the woods of Northern British Columbia. The early a.m. cold burrowed under the multiple quilts and blankets of our makeshift bed; a foam mattress spread atop what was left of our household goods. All were stuffed into the back of an ancient Volkswagen bus spray painted a respectable two-toned black and white to disguise generous patches of rusty and ragged holes.

I shut my eyes and snuggled against the curve of my husband’s warm back like a heat seeking missile. Another wail punctuated the dark. The noise came from something inside the van. I groaned, as more fog lifted from my sleep-starved mind. I had brought a baby into this frozen wilderness. The tiny body wedged between me and my snoring husband, squirmed and cried out more loudly.

Ralph mumbled in his sleep, “Make him stop.”

“Good luck with that,” I grumbled. How do you“make” an infant do anything? First: change the soggy diaper. Six-month-old Jason kept up his fretful noise as I switched out his diaper and dressed him in fresh pajamas. Second: if I’m lucky, he’s just hungry, try nursing him. Again, he kept up his crying; snorting and thrashing away from the proffered food source. Final option: take him for a walk down the hall and around the living room. “Too bad, there is no living room. I’ll just have to pace the edge of the road.”

I slid head-first into the passenger seat where I pulled on my more-pretty-than-practical windbreaker. I swaddled Jason tightly in a flannel blanket, then stepped out of the bus into the freezing cold of early October along the Alaska Highway. Undeterred by all my attempts to calm him, Jason greeted the dawn with a howl akin to wolves under a harvest moon. This far north, winter was only a few short days away.

In a fit of youthful bravery (or delusion) which overwhelmed stale conformity (or good sense), we quit school and set out to follow our hearts. We were among many dreamers endeavoring to conquer the Alaska Highway or go broke trying. We sold most of our possessions, bought the Volkswagen bus, and headed off to take advantage of tempting opportunities beckoning from Alaska.

Opportunities created by the building of the Alaska pipeline. At the time, the Alaska Highway was a serpentine ribbon of mostly dirt and gravel fraught with myriad dangers for untried vehicles and unseasoned motorists. We suffered multiple flat tires, two broken fan belts, and blew one engine along the way.

We started our trip at Palos Verdes, California, my hometown, bidding a reluctant farewell to my unconvinced parents. From there, we drove north on Highway 101 hitting one fabled beach town after another. At Crescent City, California, we cut inland and took Interstate 5 through Oregon and Washington then crossed the Canadian border at Peace Park near Vancouver, B.C.

A stop in Prince George, British Columbia, to visit friends was lengthened by two weeks when our engine blew up in the autumn stained mountains outside Chetwynd. Our friends kindly rescued us and towed us back to Prince George (many thanks to the Towers family, our thanks back then were not adequate). My mechanic father, unable to come to our aid, loaned us the money to repair the van. Two weeks later, after Ralph spent many backbreaking hours rebuilding the engine, we set off for Dawson Creek, B.C; the starting point of the Alaska Highway. Northward, every town and landmark became more remote, the road narrower, increasingly hemmed in by forest. We rolled into Fort Nelson, B.C. just in time for a tire to go flat right in front of a gas station. The lug nuts were so tight we couldn’t have loosened them without the mechanics power wrench. Miles north of Fort Nelson, long past dark, we pulled into an isolated turnout alongside the road to sleep.

Now, with Jason still howling and the sky beginning to lighten we abandoned our efforts to get more rest and decided to get back on the road. But now, it was the bus that was being cranky.

“Rrrrrrrrr.” The cabin of the bus was like a refrigerator. The starter wound round and round but the engine wouldn’t fire up.

“Rrrrrrrr.” The starter still sounded vigorous, but the battery was getting weary. Time for prayers to fly heavenward.

Ralph milked the battery once more. This time, the engine coughed and sparked to life. Had the baby not awakened us, the cold may have thickened the oil or deadened the battery past reviving. Engine trouble at that stage would have left us in a sore pickle, on a lonely road, miles from any assistance.

Miles more north, exhausted, and utterly sick of the road, we came upon Lliard Hot Springs Provincial Park along the Lliard River. A paradise of steaming jade-green pools veiled in mist surrounded by giant spruce, paper birch, dripping ferns, and wildflowers. This will forever be our family’s favorite spot on the Alaska Highway. Over the years, this magical place has refreshed our road-weary bodies and spirits in its gentle currents of hot and cool springs of water. We have visited it in the full bloom of lush green summer and when the pools were deeply pillowed by thick banks of snow. The advantage of a winter visit is there are no clouds of mosquitoes. Winter accentuates the other-worldliness of the pools in their vapor wrapped loneliness, secluded in a wilderness of white.

Since that first Alaska Highway journey, we have explored its serpentine length seven times. Each trip starts with the excitement of knowing, without question, we will experience adventure. We know that by the time we reach Lliard Hot Springs, however, the shine of that adventure will be substantially dimmed by the fatigue and the grime of the road. A hot soak at Lliard Hot Springs is the watershed divide between road-sick and renewal of our enthusiasm for the wilderness highway.

It occurs to me right here and now, as I do my daily writing routine, that I need such paradise-like renewals in my life’s journeys of creativity, of trying to live rightly, of making it from one milepost to the next. I have tackled many Alaska Highway adventures, both literally and figuratively. Many of my highway pilgrimages have been thrust upon me; illness, death, less desirable events of all kinds. However, the best strategy is to pack up and move forward, making the most of them. Other such journeys have been voluntary, well planned, and happily anticipated. Yet still, there is need for a restorative pause at some refreshing wayside lest I drain my overtaxed battery. In either case, the image of the calm and peace of Lliard Hot springs is a refreshing vision for such a pause. Especially useful in winter when relief from the itch of summer distractions allows stillness.

As usual, January suggests that we look over the landscape ahead and refresh our perspective. This year, I am taking my cue from my son who cried out in the darkness decades ago and, now grown, creates great journeys of his own. He has made it his business to be an expert on helping his clients make the most of their personal aspirations by teaching them to harness and capitalize on their dreams. He points out that, “Curiosity is a compass that ensures you enjoy the journey whether or not you reach the intended destination.”

My theme for renewal in 2016 is curiosity: childlike, free flowing, and encouraging. I have assembled a wide-ranging list of subjects and experiences that I am curious about. Subjects I plan to mine for insight a month at a time. That is my simple strategy. My 2016 impetus to creativity.

Curiosity is, in the final analysis, the only frontier. Other frontiers flow from that original, innate, bright borderline between knowledge/experience and ignorance. Curiosity sweetens existence, burns boredom to fertile ash, transforms work into play, and makes every moment rich with possibilities.

 

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