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Was it a Dream?Posted Thursday, September 13, 2012, at 1:07 PM
Fairbanks, Alaska, 1970. (I can tell what year it is, because we had only 5 inches of snow that year.) That's my friend Karen's house in the background. We taught together at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks.
Do you ever look back on your past and feel that it wasn't you who lived it? Do you ever feel as if you're not the person who did those things--that it had to be someone else? Someone stronger, bolder, more foolish?
The other day, I was remembering the trip that my late husband Dale and I made out of Alaska in December of 1973. I am amazed when I think back on it. How foolish we were.
We had a motor home and were determined to drive it down over the Alaska Highway to Missouri and Alabama for Christmas.
This idea would have been extraordinary, even if I had not been seven months pregnant with our first child. Before the trip was over, there is no doubt in my mind that Dale regretted the decision.
The temperature was forty below zero the day we left. As we pulled out of Fairbanks, with our little beagle riding in the cab between us, the windshield cracked from one side to the other, like a jagged streak of lightning. We both looked at each other and said, "Should we keep going, or should we turn back?"
I didn't want to appear wimp-like, after all the work he had put in to get ready for the trip, so I said, "Naw! It'll be okay--let's do it!"
Down over the paved part of the trip we went, all the way to the Alaska border, riding the roller coaster of pavement, up and down, as the permafrost caused it to buckle.
Once we reached the Canadian border, we knew the highway would be gravel, and that would actually be better and less slick than the pavement--or so we thought. We had been over the highway only four years before, so we were relatively familiar with it.
I understand that the 1300-mile Alaska Highway (once referred to as the Alcan) is paved these days, but in '73, it was rough. Places of habitation were few and far between--No McDonald's or Burger Kings, very few gas stations, and precious few motels.
The town of White Horse was the only civilized place in the Yukon, and we never seemed to reach it at the right time to stay there. On the way up the highway in '69, we had stayed at a sweet place in Haines Junction, where there was a Mountie station and (more importantly) a laundromat! However, we weren't ready to stop when we reached Haines Junction in '73.
Though I could go back and lie down in the motor home any time I needed to, we chose not to stay in that cold vehicle at night, unless absolutely necessary; even with a heater, it was bitter!
Each night when we stopped, the weather caught up with us, and there would be fresh snow on the ground the next morning.
However, the farther south and east we went, the warmer it got--so by the time we crossed the border at Great Falls, Montana, the weather was mostly wind that threatened to overturn the big rigs (and us!). When we reached Missouri, it was nothing but rain. Ah, success!
The trip back up the highway was less successful. Dale had picked up some sort of mysterious flu bug. His fever raged as we made our way back over the highway, but he insisted on doing all the driving. We hid our produce from the Canadian border guards, figuring that we needed the oranges more than they did. All Dale would eat at night was chicken noodle soup and hot dogs, which I heated on the stove in the motor home. He consumed oranges, one after the other, as he drove. It was a long trip.
During the day, we would drive the isolated strip of ice for hundreds of miles, without ever seeing another car. On one particularly harrowing stretch, glacial water came down a hillside onto the road. When we drove through it, it splashed up on the windshield and immediately froze. Dale had to get out and chip it off, so we could see to go on.
The farther north we drove, the darker the days became, since December and January are gloomy months with only a few dim hours of twilight around noon.
It took longer--over a week--to make the return trip to Alaska, since Dale often drove at a snail's pace, struggling through his fever to see the road. It was a dismal time.
When we finally reached Fairbanks, sometime in January, the first thing Dale did was go up to bed and stay there for two weeks, while I carried up food and drink that he barely touched. The doctors had no idea what was wrong with him, but we had a theory. During that era, we first heard the term "Legionnaire's Disease." Whatever it was, it was something baffling and must have been made worse by the stress of the drive back over that awful road.
I think back on that dim, dreamy time and wonder if my memories are accurate, with no one to tell me that it really happened.
On February 26, 1974, I gave birth to a 6 pound, 12 ounce baby boy with a head full of black hair and the face of a little old Indian. He grew into a beautiful boy who soon became the light of our lives. He was none the worse for the harrowing trip he took across the Alaska Highway before he was born! Now, he lives in the northern reaches of Minnesota, as if his birthplace gave him a natural invincibility to cold.
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Madeline (Giles) DeJournett is the Advance writer for the North Stoddard Countian. A retired high school English/history teacher, she spent 32 years teaching in 5 schools in Missouri and Alaska. These days, she lives quietly with a menagerie of wild and domestic animals on 52 secluded acres in the remote Tillman hills south of Advance. She graduated from Dexter High School in 1960 and Southeast Missouri State in 1964. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 573-722-5322.