Getting Ready For the Drive: What to bring?
Some of this is almost too obvious to mention, so I’ll speed through it without getting too specific. There will be temperature extremes, from warm and muggy to freezing and worse, so I’ll have to be prepared for all of it–the basic layered approach to a multi-seasonal wardrobe. (A fancy way of saying blue jeans, T-shirts, a down jacket, and yadda yadda in between). Nicer campgrounds and most motels have laundry facilities, so I’ll plan on doing laundry every week or ten days, and I’ll pack accordingly–too much clothing is a waste of space, and space is going to be at a premium. I picked up a really good rain jacket at REI, a Marmot Minimalist, super lightweight breathable Goretex. The price wasn’t exactly minimal, but I anticipate quite a lot of weather on this journey, and I don’t want it to slow me down, or, um, dampen my spirits. My plan is to sleep in the Jeep or set up a tent most nights (more on that below), but at least twice a week I’ll spring for paid lodging, so that I don’t forget what it’s like to be comfortable. I’ll have a gas stove and some cookware for the occasional can of beans or bowl of oatmeal when I’m staying in a campground, but most of my meals will likely be in restaurants along the route. The point being to minimize what I have to carry and clean. Most of my gear will be organized into rain-proof tubs that I can easily unload and set out on the ground under a tarp to give me more room when I’m simply sleeping in the back. My Cherokee is a nimble and comfortable ride, but it’s hardly a substitute for an RV, so this whole approach is something of a compromise. It might sound a little nutty–but the thing is, I’ve done it before, and more than once.
Back in 1972, during my last year at Antioch College, I bought a three year old Dodge Powerwagon that was rigged as a snow plow, with an empty shell camper on the back. I had absolutely no need of a snow plow–not where I was planning to go–so I simply unbolted the 700 pound blade and its associated hardware and left it all at the Ohio farm where I bought the truck, driving away with never a backward glance. What I needed was the four wheel drive, and the legendary sturdiness of the thing. In 1972, pickup trucks hadn’t really caught on yet among the population at large. They were still considered working vehicles, not people haulers, and if you wanted something that you could use to go touring AND bashing around in rugged terrain, there really weren’t a lot of choices. There were Jeeps, of course, and the original boxy Land Rovers and Land Cruisers, but the granddaddy of them all, the original, go-anywhere four wheel drive macho machine? That was the Powerwagon, which started production in 1945, right after World War II. Everything else came later–SUV’s, sport trucks, crossovers, all-wheel drive station wagons–all of that was MUCH later. My personal Powerwagon was red and white the first time I saw it. I hated red vehicles–the color almost stopped me from buying the damned thing, so the very first thing I did was paint it glossy black. There was a row of emergency lights across the top of the cab, legacy of its days as a snow plow. The lights made it look much larger when I was driving at night, and to further enhance that illusion, I added an air horn worthy of an angry 18 wheeler. Thus was born “Big Black”, sometimes known, affectionately, as “El Monstruo Negro”, the Black Monster. The Powerwagon was most definitely a “he”, and he was impressive.
Taken in Ohio, in the Spring of 1972, shortly after I bought the truck and painted it black.
I loaded all my junk into the back of the truck, including a mattress and my dog Lobo, a shepherd/Husky mix with just a touch of wolf in him. Lobo was still a pup, and a complete goof, but he was huge, and likewise impressive. I drove the Powerwagon to New England, and from there back to Arizona, more or less living in the camper shell with my dog. The mattress and wooden crate system that you see in the photo wasn’t working for me, so I bought a bunch of lumber and some miscellaneous hardware and I built my own version of a traveling home. There were deep, box-like storage cabinets along either side of the truck bed, an aisle down the middle, two actual closets plus more storage at the front, and a hinged section that could be easily unfolded to create a stout level platform close to seven feet long and the width of the camper shell.
Lobo in the back of the Black Monster, while I was getting it ready to go. Lobo was a big boy, and a good friend.
I had some upholstered foam pads custom made to cushion the platform, and voilá, I had a double bed that slept two comfortably and three in a pinch, with a perfect space for the dog at the foot of the bed. I filled the cabinets with camping gear–a big Eureka tent, a kerosene stove, a rechargeable electric lantern, cookware, water filter, shovels, machetes, gas cans, you name it, then I threw in a complete set of automotive tools, even a torque wrench, and enough spare parts to start my own NAPA franchise.
Why so prepared? Because I just assumed it was necessary. Once I had the Powerwagon properly outfitted, I drove it to San Francisco on a sort of a shakedown cruise, and then to Houston, where I put it aboard a banana freighter called the Ciudad de Quito (City of Quito), bound for Cartagena, Colombia.
As you can see, the ship was a rust bucket. She was built in Canada in 1949, and, as I learned later, she was scrapped altogether in 1985. But for what I needed, back in 1972, the price was right, and that was what mattered: six hundred bucks for the ocean freight charges, port to port, all inclusive.
The Ciudad de Quito, just as I remember it. Photo courtesy of the Argentine society of maritime history and archeology (Histarmar).
Lobo and I flew down to Cartagena by way of Miami, met the ship when it arrived, and for the next two years, I drove that Powerwagon all over the northern Andes. You can’t even imagine how much fun I had. I get a little starry-eyed, just thinking back.
The Black Monster in Ecuador, circa 1973. The road in the background is the famous Pan American Highway, the snow covered mountain shrouded in clouds is a 19,000 foot stratovolcano known as Mount Cayambe, and the monument in the shape of a globe marks the spot where the Pan Am crosses the equator. Click the photo for an expanded view of all that.
What does any of this have to do with a drive to Alaska, more than forty years later? For one, it shows you a little bit of my somewhat unusual background. I was quite the adventurous kid before I settled down, and while that streak in me has been mostly tempered by family, career, and the responsibilities of adulthood, it never completely died, and it motivates me still. A drive to Alaska and back, with all those amazing stops along the way, probably sounds like the trip of a lifetime. I don’t disagree, but for me, personally? It will be more like easing back into my favorite swimming hole, after a lengthy time away. I’ve mentioned my bucket list? I really do have one of those, and I hope to be working my way through it for years to come. I have an intense curiosity about the world, and a powerful reverence for natural beauty. As I indulge the former, I’ll soak up as much of the latter as is humanly possible, and I’ll share it all with all of you on this website.
My expedition in the Powerwagon was undertaken back in the dark ages, before the internet and all powerful Google. In those days, if you wanted information on an obscure topic–such as, shipping a truck to South America–you had to ferret it out for yourself. I did that, all on my own, at the tender age of 22, and by some miracle I actually pulled it off. That bright, sunny day, when I drove out of the port of Cartagena, with Lobo in the back of the Black Monster–that was one of the very best days of my life, and that was just the beginning of a truly world class adventure that went on for two wonderful years. If I had it all to do over again, there are some things I would change–trial and error (especially error) is a great way to learn, and those lessons learned the hard way will come in pretty handy as I prepare for this and the many other journeys I have planned for this next phase of my life.
Some of the things I learned back then that still hold true:
Bring more than one camera:
I have my big Nikon, a D7000 that I’ve been using for quite awhile now. It’s a full-featured semi-pro model that serves me very well, and was used to take most of the photos that you see in my galleries. My primary lens for most purposes is an 18-300mm Nikkor zoom, a superbly designed piece of equipment that ranges from a respectable wide angle to a more than respectable telephoto, all in one (relatively) compact package. I rarely take that lens off the camera, but when I really need to get in closer, I have my 10-24 mm Nikkor zoom, another amazing bit of optical engineering, and for super close? A 40mm Micro Nikkor, a macro lens that I use for bugs and flower petals and the like. I also carry a spare camera body, an older, somewhat less versatile Nikon D60, along with a pair of kit lenses–medium range zooms, strictly for back-up purposes. All my Nikkor lenses fit both of the cameras equally well, so it’s a fairly versatile outfit. When conditions get seriously rough–situations when the best place for your camera is zipped tightly inside your camera bag–I have a seriously cool back-up camera–a Nikon AW100, which is basically a small, full-featured point and shoot with a respectable optical zoom and a 16 MP sensor, one of those so-called “rugged” models. The AW100 lives up to that title: it’s weather-proof, waterproof to a depth of 30 feet or more, shock proof (within obvious reasonable limits), and it has a built in GPS that will geo-tag every picture you take with it. That camera took perfect photos and videos for me in the middle of the most intense whitewater in the Grand Canyon, and while it might look small, I have great deal of respect for its capabilities.
My Nikons are my weapons of choice, my work horses, my friends–but with cameras, as with almost anything else, loyalties can shift. I recently acquired yet another backup camera: a whole different system, a Sony A6000 mirrorless digital range finder camera with a 24 MP sensor, an electronic viewfinder, and a pair of more than adequate zoom lenses. I’m still getting used to the Sony–it’s quite different than my DSLR’s in both form and function, but I already know it will be a great addition to my photographic arsenal. It’s compact and light weight, relatively unobtrusive when walking around in a crowd, yet the images it takes are tack sharp, possibly the most accurate auto-focus that’s made today, and perfectly exposed, producing colors and tones that are vibrant and saturated, yet totally natural. The portraits that I’ve taken with that camera are stunning, right out of the camera, no post-processing or digital enhancement of any kind required–and coming from me, that’s high praise. I’ve gone on photo shoots where I’ve used both the Nikon and the Sony on the same subjects, from the same vantage points, in the same light, and in most cases, the image captured by the Sony is sharper, brighter, and more appropriately exposed. Some of that difference is the extra megapixels, 24 on the Sony, as opposed to 16 on the Nikon, but mostly it has to do with the way the camera processes light–the “decisions” that it makes for you, behind the scenes. I guess you could say I’m teetering on the edge of becoming a convert–but I’ve been a Nikon guy for almost fifty years, starting with my treasured Nikon F that I bought brand new when I was just starting out in life, and that makes it really hard to let loose. It’ll be interesting to see which way I go when I make the jump to a Full Frame system–the inevitable next step for any serious photographer (at least, until the next big thing comes along).
Also: bring plenty of film:
These days, we’re talking memory cards. At this point, I have two 64 gig cards, four 32 gig cards, five 16 gig cards, and, if I ever get desperate, four 8’s, and a 4. If I fill them all to the brim with the highest resolution Raw images, that’s enough memory for at least 18,000 photos. To be on the safe side, I’m bringing along not one, but two small portable hard drives with enough free space to back up each of those cards eight times (total capacity, more than 160,000 high resolution images), as well as my faithful HP Laptop, which I’ll use for preliminary post processing, data transfer, and updates to this blog. (Woo hoo!)
To keep the laptop and camera batteries charged when I’m on the road–not to mention my cell phone and iPod–I purchased this very cool inverter:
This is a handy device that plugs into the cigarette lighter/outlet on my dashboard, and converts the 12 volts of DC current produced by my car’s electrical system to 110 volts of AC current suitable for my portable electronics. It’s small, designed to fit in one of the cup holders, but it puts out 180 watts, which is more than adequate for my purposes. It will also serve to power things like an electric light or a small fan when I’m camping in the Jeep.
Bring plenty of music!
Here’s a little ancient history for you: back in 1972, Compact Cassettes were on the verge of replacing 8 track cartridges as the medium of choice for portable music, especially in vehicles. Cassettes were a fraction of the size of the 8 tracks, so small you could carry fifty of them in a stout shoe box, and the blanks for do-it-yourself recording were not only more reliable, they were significantly cheaper. That meant it was finally possible to travel with an entire library of music, a notion that had significant appeal to a guy like me, both then, and now. In 1972, my own personal library of music consisted of a giant stack of vinyl LP’s, hundreds of them, and a big, honking stereo record player–the polar opposite of a portable setup. After some careful shopping around, I found the perfect solution: a Panasonic stereo cassette player/recorder that ran on six big D batteries, or: 110 volt wall current, or: 12 volts DC from a vehicle. This was revolutionary–something you could use literally anywhere. It was heavy and boxy, but it was pretty much the first of its kind, a prototype for the boom boxes that came out a few years later. It had built in stereo speakers, and fairly decent sound–a true portable stereo system, perfect for my needs. Only one problem: I didn’t own any cassettes. Not a single one, so over the course of the next six weeks or so, I spent every spare minute with my new toy hooked up to my record player, obsessively transferring selected songs from all my favorite vinyl onto compact cassettes. Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, all the greats from my college years, even a little Vivaldi and Beethoven, labelled and arranged alphabetically, 150 or so tapes packed tightly into three or four small boxes. Once I got to South America, I can honestly say I had the finest music collection around, which made me a very popular guy. Life was sweet, but like a lot of good things, that music collection didn’t last.
In early 1974, I was running a small business exporting handicrafts from Ecuador, and I’d settled into a very nice spot. I was leasing a small coffee farm in southern Colombia, and I’d been living there for half a year or so in a wonderful house with a rustic swimming pool and a hundred fruit trees.
The main house at Sumapaz (which means ultimate peace), the coffee farm in southern Colombia where I lived for awhile.
In the spring of that year, at the height of the rainy season in that part of the Andes, I flew north for a few weeks to tend to some business in the states. While I was away, there was a storm that lasted close to a full week, day after day of unusually heavy non-stop rains. The ongoing deluge loosened the mountainside above my farm, ultimately causing a derrumbe, a landslide. A wall of mud carrying boulders the size of Volkswagens hit the house, tearing out one of the exterior walls, and causing the creek that ran beside the property to over-top its banks. The house wasn’t destroyed, just badly damaged. Most of the mess had already been cleaned up by the time I got back there, but my treasured collection of cassettes, every stinking one of them, was lost, buried under three feet of mud when the floodwaters receded. That was truly a devastating loss–possibly the worst aspect of that whole tragedy. I made a frantic appeal to everyone I knew, and many of my friends in the states sent me more cassettes in the mail, but it was never quite the same.
These days music is more portable than it’s ever been. All of my music has been digitized, and I have about 9,000 of my favorite songs in my iTunes library, all of which fits rather neatly into a 64 GB iPhone. I plug the phone into my car stereo, and it sounds like a freaking concert hall. 9,000 songs on shuffle play? That’s like endless entertainment, perfect for a drive that’s going to last for weeks on end. And if I ever lose the phone? All the music is backed up in the cloud. If someone had told me in 1972 that any aspect of what I just said would ever be possible, I would have told them they were totally daft.
Don’t get carried away with spare parts for the car, but DO keep an eye on tires and fluid levels, and don’t postpone any scheduled maintenance:
I mentioned the extensive stock of spare parts that I carried for the Powerwagon? I brought the obvious general maintenance items like hoses and belts, plugs and points, oil and air and fuel filters and the like, but I also had a spare water pump, a fuel pump, a complete new carburetor, motor mounts–anything I could think of that might possibly wear out or need replacing. I also had more obscure parts like U-joints, wheel bearings, head gaskets, even a set of piston rings–as if I was ever likely to be rebuilding my engine beside the road in some jungle somewhere. What I’d failed to consider was the fact that Chrysler had a factory in Colombia where they actually manufactured Dodge pickups. Not Powerwagons, unfortunately, but the more basic models, so engine parts and basic maintenance items were actually easy to come by, especially in the bigger cities, and most such things were cheaper than at home. What they did NOT have were parts related to the exotic drive train, since Powerwagons, especially newer ones, were all but unheard of in those parts. I found that out the hard way. My rear differential ran dry of oil and locked up tight, laying rubber from the rear tires for twenty yards along a busy highway as I slid to a noisy stop, right in front of a military checkpoint. I had to have the truck towed to the nearest town–Cartagena, as it turned out, but the parts I needed to fix the rear end were impossible to locate, not anywhere in Colombia, or in Venezuela, or in Ecuador, or in any other country south of Miami Beach. Worse: they couldn’t be ordered and shipped to me, because of impossibly convoluted customs regulations prohibiting direct importation of auto parts. What I finally had to do was ask a friend in the States buy the parts, and he flew down to meet me with boxes of heavy gears and bearings in his luggage. I never could have anticipated the need for those items, and I couldn’t have afforded to carry spares of that nature purely “just in case”, so that was my lesson learned: the part you’re most likely to need is the very part you don’t have, so what’s the point of hauling all that stuff around? What I really should have focused on was proper maintenance. If I’d kept the vehicle properly lubricated, I wouldn’t have lost the differential in the first place. That was an even more important lesson learned. To that end, the Jeep will be gone over from top to bottom by my mechanic, and anything she needs, or might need in the next ten thousand miles or so, will all be taken care of before I leave town.
I will bring along a few things–belts and hoses, perhaps, and some basic tools. I’ll also be prepared for emergencies: a 12 volt air compressor that will fully inflate a tire in five minutes, a good hydraulic jack and a proper lug wrench, emergency flares, a tow strap, jumper cables, a shovel. One thing very much in my favor, there are an average of 100,000 vehicles using the Alaska Highway every summer, and there’s a fair bit of down home camaraderie among the folks who make that trek. What that means is, I’ll never be far from a helping hand, if I should ever really need one.
Sleeping in the back end of your vehicle is a whole lot easier than setting up a tent:
I bought a really good tent for my expedition to South America, expecting to get a lot of use out of it, at least, outside the cities. In two years, I don’t think I broke out that tent more than four times. It was just too easy to simply climb in the back of the truck and conk out, and since nights are quite cool when you’re at altitude in those mountains, it was always very comfortable in my down sleeping bag. The next morning, there was nothing to pack up or put away. I’d just climb back in the front, and drive off in search of breakfast. I did that whole elaborate expedition pretty much on a shoestring, so sleeping in the back of the truck became a way of life. Most decent hotels wouldn’t rent me a room once they got a look at Lobo, so I took to sleeping in the truck even when I was in cities. Sometimes I’d pull over on back roads in places where I probably shouldn’t have stopped, and I’d wake up in the night to the sound of whispers, and rattling noises as unseen hands tried to jimmy open my doors. I had an easy fix for those situations: I’d just open the back, and let the dog out. There would invariably be the sound of screams and running feet, and then Lobo would come trotting back out of the darkness, wondering why they hadn’t wanted to stay and play. My dog was not remotely vicious, but he terrified most Colombians. Large dogs aren’t all that common down there, and nobody had ever seen anything quite like him. Lobo in Spanish means wolf. They’d hear me call him that, and most people assumed he really was a wolf, so they kept a respectful distance. That was especially useful at roadblocks. The country was under martial law due to guerrilla activity, so it was very common to be stopped by squads of soldiers with automatic weapons. They’d take one look at Lobo, and instead of searching my camper, they’d wave me on through. As often as not, they’d actually salute me!
I suspect that the drive to Alaska will be similar, at least as far as the tent is concerned. Cherokees are a pretty good size, but there’s still not a huge amount of space in the back, even with the rear seats folded down flat. I had to test it to make sure that it’ll work. I did, and it does. Since it’s just me, and since I’m only 5’ 10”, it’s actually quite comfortable, even with all the doors shut tight. I got a great air mattress called a Megamat:
Deflated, it rolls up like a small sleeping bag. Open the valve and unroll it, the thing mostly self-inflates into a real mattress that’s a full four inches thick. I’ll stay in established campgrounds when I’m not in motels, but when I’m just passing through somewhere and there’s no reason to linger, simply sleeping in the back of the Jeep will save me a lot of time.
When I do plan to stay longer than overnight in a particular area, or if anyone joins me for any portion of the journey, I’ll break out my SUV tent when camping. It’s a large free standing tent that has a big elasticized boot on one side:
Which gives me the option of connecting the tent to the back end of the Jeep, such that the interior of the vehicle becomes part of the tent space:
I can still sleep in the cargo area, almost like an upper berth, up off the ground, but it will be much less confined with the back left open. Or I might just keep my gear in the Jeep, and sleep in the tent. I’ll have easy access to everything, with no need to unload. I’ll reserve my true opinion of this tent until I’ve used it a few times. It’s a snap to set it up if you have two people, an amazingly simple, efficient design. Setting it up alone is a different story. I can do it—I tried, and ultimately succeeded, but it was far from easy. Without a second set of hands to better distribute the strain, the fiberglass poles are forced into a sharp bend when you’re setting the corners. It’s almost like trying to haul in too big a fish with a light weight rod–if you’re not careful, you could easily snap the pole. I ordered a complete set of spare poles from the Napier Tent factory in Canada, just in case, but I’m not all that worried about it. The way I figure it, when I’m in a place where it’s really worth the trouble to set up the tent? I will NOT have the campground to myself. And it shouldn’t be too hard to find a friendly fellow camper willing to give me a hand for the minute or two that it takes to properly set the poles in place, without the contortions required to do it alone.
You can snug the boot pretty tight to keep the mosquitoes out, and I’ll bring a dozen small magnets to seal any gaps. The mosquito problem in the wilds of Alaska is legendary, so if you’re camping, you have to be prepared for it. The tent has large windows for ventilation, with sewn in, fine-mesh mosquito netting, and a rain fly that covers the whole business when there’s inclement weather. The interior space is huge, 9′ x 9′, and more than 7’ high at the center. Pretty nice! But I’ll only use it when it’s really worth the time and trouble to set it up, and I have no idea how often that will be.
I have a few more things to buy, a few more things to try, some personal affairs to arrange, since I’ll be gone at least two months, maybe three. The Jeep still needs a thorough inspection, and at minimum I’ll need the rear brakes relined. I’ll be gone most of the summer. For a guy in Phoenix, that by itself is a seriously wonderful prospect. I’m getting excited! Two, maybe three more weeks from today, I hope to be hitting the road!