How much planning?
I’m driving to Alaska! It’s one of those bucket list things that I’ve always wanted to do, and since I recently retired, I finally have the time for it. I’m anticipating a fair bit of traveling over the next few years, but for whatever reason, this journey to Alaska rose to the top as my first choice. It’s a much tamer excursion than it was back in 1948, when they first opened the Alaska Highway to the public, but it’s still one of the greatest driving adventures in North America, so it definitely requires a bit of planning. As I make my preparations for that looong drive–on the order of 9,000 meandering miles, up and back from Arizona–I can’t help reflecting on the first seriously adventurous trip I ever took, and the dramatic differences between then and now. Differences in me, differences in the world, differences in technology, in transportation, and in the almost universal availability of information. Fair warning: contrasting ‘then’ with ‘now’ will be a recurring theme on this blog. I’m an old fart, and that’s just what we do!
Reflection: It was the end of the summer of 1970, just before my third year at Antioch College in Ohio, where I was working on a degree in anthropology. I was in San Francisco visiting friends, and I had five whole weeks free before my classes began again in the Fall. I had a little money in my pocket, saved from the job I’d been working for the last several months, and I had a daring, terribly exciting plan: I’d been wanting to try hitch-hiking cross-country ever since reading Kerouac’s On the Road , back when I was still in high school, and I’d been itching to try backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail, the one that runs from the Mexican border all the way to Canada. With five whole weeks? I figured I could do both. Not the entire Pacific Crest Trail, obviously, but one of the nicer sections, the 400 mile stretch that runs through the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. I’d start by hitching north to Oregon’s southern border, then I’d pick up the trail where it crossed the highway between Medford and Klamath Falls. I’d backpack to the Washington State border–20 miles a day for three weeks–piece of cake–then I’d thumb my way to Seattle, where I had another friend to visit. I figured I’d take a weekend to rest up, and then I’d hitch-hike across the northern U.S. to New York (where I had still more friends to visit), and then back west to Ohio, just in time for school.
It seemed workable, but there were several things that I’d failed to consider. For one, I’d never been back-packing in my life, and 20 miles a day is a hopelessly unrealistic pace for a beginner, especially in the mountains. And then there was the question of gear: I was wearing a brand new pair of hiking boots that I hadn’t even broken in yet. I had a brand new back pack that I’d never used as anything but luggage on an airplane. I had some brand new, untested camping junk from a surplus store in Berkeley, a World War II vintage sleeping bag that weighed fifteen pounds and wasn’t even warm, a floppy hat, a Pacific Crest trail map, and a copy of Bradford Angier’s How to Stay Alive in the Woods,which I had not so much as skimmed for highlights. Quite frankly, I wasn’t adequately prepared to spend a single night in Golden Gate Park, much less three weeks in the wilderness, but the worst, and potentially the most serious oversight was my timing: it was almost September. In Phoenix, where I’d been raised, September was still summer. But in some of the places I was proposing to travel on foot? September is already cold.
Looking back on that now, I realize that I’m lucky I didn’t die out there, on the road, or in the woods, my naive, youthful confidence notwithstanding. And yet–not only did I survive, I thrived! I had the time of my young life, and half the fun was the unfettered serendipity of the experience. Because I had NOT realistically planned, I didn’t even know where I was half the time, and I didn’t have a clue what was going to happen to me next. But I wasn’t worried! I simply hadn’t thought far enough ahead to anticipate the many things I should have been worried about. I assume I survived on pure instinct, and more than a little dumb luck–because it certainly wasn’t training, and it definitely wasn’t preparation!
I’ll freely admit that I did not hike the entire 400 miles through the Cascades, though I did cover some of the most beautiful sections of the trail (the photo above was taken on that hike), and I most definitely had the real-deal wilderness experience, going for days at a stretch without seeing another person. I made it to Seattle to visit my friend, and yes, I did hitch-hike across country. I even upped the ante by going through Canada for much of the distance–another serendipitous wrinkle in the plan. Ultimately, I connected with my pals in New York, and I made it back to school, with two whole days to spare, feeling like the king of the world. Below is my best recollection of the route that I followed, 45 years ago!? 4300 miles from San Francisco to New York, by way of the Pacific Crest Trail, with a slight detour to Edmonton, Alberta. That’s where I had my first ever glimpse of the northern lights, and that’s when I caught the itch that’s just about to get scratched.
Not the route that I originally planned–rather, the route that I followed.
Somewhere in the Canadian Rockies, taken out the back window of a Volkswagen van that picked me up outside Vancouver and took me all the way to Beloit, Wisconsin by way of Edmonton, Alberta. One of the best free rides, ever. Totally unplanned, totally serendipitous.
It would be stating the obvious to say that hitch-hiking in 1970 was an entirely different proposition than hitch-hiking in later decades. Not because there’s a greater danger in trusting strangers in our more modern world. Human nature hasn’t changed that much, and serial killers are no more common on the Interstates than they are in your average shopping mall. What has changed are people’s attitudes, which is really quite a shame. Here’s a pretty good article on the death of hitch-hiking in this country, from on-line publication TPM:
Click the photo (above) to link to the article
I wouldn’t take the “unplanned, unprepared” approach to a drive up the Alaska Highway, nor will I be doing any hitch-hiking. Instead, I’ll be driving my Jeep Cherokee, and I’ll be prepared like the proverbial Boy Scout:
“La Reina Sucia” (Lah Rrray-nah Soo-see-ah): The Dirty Queen. If you like Jeeps (and who doesn’t?) click the photo above for more info about La Reina, like, how the devil did she get that name?
The Queen will be thoroughly checked over in advance to insure that she’s running in top form. I’ll have some cool camping gear–I’ll go over my choices in detail in a subsequent post–and enough camera and computer equipment to start my own news bureau. I have all sorts of books (real ones–I’m not back packing, so no worries about the weight). I have maps, I have a GPS and smart phone with a data plan that will work in Canada. I have routes and alternate routes and the latest edition of The Milepost, a (literally) mile-by-mile guide to the Alaska Highway that’s been updated annually for 66 years. What I do NOT have is a firm timetable. To that extent, I’m hoping there will still be an element of serendipity–unexpected side trips, detours, and diversions.
I’ll be traveling alone, something that most people find a bit daunting, but the role of lonesome traveler fits me like my favorite pair of old shoes. The hitch-hiking/backpacking excursion I just described was merely my first major trip taken solo. A few months later, in January of 1971, I took a wildly adventurous, spur-of-the-moment solo road trip that lasted three full months and covered three times the distance, through 12 foreign countries, with, if anything, even LESS preparation than my witless jaunt through the woods. But that was then, and this is now. In my next post, Alaska: Step 2, I’ll lay out the route that I’m planning to take.