That's how this all came to be, really.
In February my buddy Lucas sent me a link to a craigslist post, long since removed now, that had a subject along the lines of "drive my truck back from Alaska". It was in the "gigs -> labor" section of the site. My immediate reply to Lucas, in full, was:
I am seriously considering this.
I emailed the relay address and got in touch with the owner of the supposed truck. The story was that he was traveling from Denver to Anchorage partly just to make the scenic drive, but also for a backcountry trip with some college buddies up in Alaska. His problem was he didn't have enough time to make the return drive as well, which is where the craigslist ad - and me - swooped in to help.
Sure, why not. I offered to fly to Alaska one-way and drive his truck back. Then I googled the route.
Over 3,000 miles and 50 hours of driving on the most direct route.
I pitched the idea to my girlfriend, and long story short we both got one-way tickets to Anchorage for mid-August and took some time off work. We did meet the owner of the truck in Denver where we had a beer and he gave us keys, but we never saw the truck before boarding the flight.
We landed in Anchorage and made our way to a bed and breakfast for the night. On the advice of just about everyone, as soon as we dropped the bags off we swung by Moose's Tooth for a pie and some pints. After a long day traveling it was exactly what we needed.
The next morning was the big day for us, when we went searching for the truck. The owner texted that the truck was "2 miles from hub of Alaska", in a small town called Glenallen about 180 miles from Anchorage. Of course he had since taken a bush plane into the depths of the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and was totally out of communication. We were on our own.
During the breakfast part of our stay, the proprietor showed up with omelettes and sat with us for the meal. We told him our sort-of half baked plan to find a truck we've never seen that's almost two hundred miles away with no way to get there. He chuckled to himself a bit and pulled out what was to become our bible over the coming weeks: a copy of the Milepost.
Vic turned out to know some things. He gave advice on where we could hitch from on the edge of town, which routes to take, and of course why didn't we have a copy of the Milepost yet.
We headed out in the direction Vic recommended and stopped in the supermarket for food and supplies (and a Milepost, which proved invaluable). We weren't sure how much food to get because we still didn't know if we'd be able to drive on our own after that day or not. We settled on a bunch of clif bars and a loaf of bread and peanut butter. We were sure to grab an extra cardboard box and a sharpie as well.
We walked a couple miles out of town and set up to hitchhike our way on to Glenallen. We didn't have to wait long.
The first car to pick us up was a couple from Minnesota, living in Anchorage for a few years for work. They had a small sedan and we had a lot of stuff, but we worked it out with some bags in our laps. They were super friendly and took us about 20 miles up the highway, and were kind enough to go out of their way to get us past some road construction that would have made it tough to get another ride.
They dropped us on the side of the off-ramp, and we gathered our gear to get across the road to the on-ramp opposite. We were shuffling across when a car on the ramp skidded to a halt in the gravel shoulder. We hadn't even managed to set our stuff down, let alone get our thumbs up, so I wasn't quite sure if they were stopping for us. I approached the car cautiously and the driver assured me they were waiting for us, so we threw our stuff in trunk and piled in.
"Where are you headed?" the driver, a man in his late thirties asked.
"On up to Glenallen at highway 4" I replied.
"What's that, a couple hundred miles?"
"Yeah" I said, wondering how he knew where the tiny town was, but also curious about his upbeat tone. "It's about a hundred eighty".
"Okay." he said, plainly. "We can do that."
He adjusted his mirror to better see us huddled in the back seat, smiled and we were off.
We never did find out where they were actually headed at 10am that Sunday morning because they made it their mission to help us. We drove up the Glenn Highway at a tourist's pace, stopping first at the Matanuska Glacier, then at the only restaurant along the highway for a burger.
We told them about the truck, how we had never seen it before and were only sort-of convinced it even existed. They were a bit shocked at the trip we had made, more amused than anything else, but incredibly supportive and even offered their apartment to us in case we wound up stranded.
There was a bit of a miscommunication. The text we got from the owner said the truck would be two miles south of Glenallen at the National Park visitor center, so that's where we went. The truck was nowhere to be found.
The parking lot was completely void of any vehicles parked overnight according the the ranger behind the welcome desk, and no, they hadn't towed any trucks, well, ever as far as she knew.
We headed back to Glenallen with our hopes high but seriously considering our options. We drove around the tiny town, scanning every parking lot wondering if we'd been duped. At the main intersection in town we pulled in to the only gas station to regroup over ice cream when lo and behold, a white truck with a black topper! It wasn't where we expected it, but the key turned and the truck started right up.
We ate ice cream sandwiches and gave our most sincere thanks to our hitchhiking saviors, without whom it might have taken a lot longer to find the truck.
Then we hit the road.
Our route looked something like this:
I won't bore you with details from every stop, but instead overload you with some photos and tidbits from along the way.
Yes, there's a town called Chicken, named so because the founders could not spell ptarmigan. It's population varies from 15-45 or so based on the season. The sticky bun we got to go from this place didn't quite last long enough to take a photo...
A handful of folks we talked to (including Vic) recommended we take the Top of the World Highway ouf of Alaska into the Yukon. We timed it poorly as the road was almost completely fogged in, and when the clouds did break occasionally all we could see were massive drops off each side of the road.
The highway is one of the furthest north in the world.
Dawson has a free ferry that runs as conditions allow across the Yukon River for folks traveling the Klondike Highway.
Absolutely worth the drive out of the way, the town lights up after the cruise ships leave. The crab-stuffed halibut didn't hurt the situation, either.
We had the hot springs almost to ourselves that morning, caught between two big groups of people. It was glorious - water temperatures range from lukewarm up to 125°F or so.
One of my favorite interactions during the whole trip was with the CBP agent who asked if we had "stopped by BC for some of that good weed".
"Dude, we're going to Colorado."
"Oh... right. Welcome to the USA."
Our planned camp was engulfed in a forest fire. What can you do. We kept driving and stopped at a pay camp site outside Helena - not great camping, but a great night sky.
We drove through and saw just enough to get the gist of the place. After so much time isolated from crowds it was a bit overwhelming what with all the tourists gawking at Old Faithful. We stayed at the most remote camp site there, Lewis Lake.
We were pretty tired driving by the Tetons and just wanted to be home. They are close enough to Boulder that we could make another trip soon - maybe next summer?
The trip as measured was about 3,640 miles, which means a lot of time behind the wheel. We spaced it out so there were no long days, with most capped at four or five hours of driving or less.
A fact of life on the Alaska Highway. Lots of construction in the summer and the road gets destroyed again in the harsh winter.
There are gas stations every hundred miles at most, I'd say, but that's not to say we didn't run it almost empty sometimes due to forgetfulness or poor planning. We never did run out, though!
Some of the gas stations were interesting as well, like the one made out of a shipping container plopped off the side of the highway.
We camped most nights, usually not far off the side of the road, with hotel stays in Anchorage, Skagway, McBride, and Banff. Most stretches of highway up north you can pull the car off on any old side road and camp on a lake, river or meadow that's all to yourself. Some of the best car camping around, to be sure.
Traffic on the highways always petered out after dark. We slept next to the highway almost under a bridge one night and I only remember hearing one truck go by after sunset.
We took a quick jaunt on the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park. We lucked out and got one of the last backcountry permits at a site about eight miles up. It was glorious.
My morning ritual is a cup of coffee, full stop. This does not change with circumstance or camping or whether or not I'm on the road.
The weather on the whole trip was great for the most part. We did get a fair amount of rain, and woke up to raindrops almost every night or morning, but that didn't affect the trip much. Some of the storms we did not weather - this one we chose to pack up minutes before the hail started. We got the hotel in McBride, just outside of Jasper that night, and were happy for it.
We saw caribou, a couple Lynx, a black bear, and a whole lot of bison on the road in the Yukon.
TL;DR: We did make it back to Denver and successfully returned the truck to its owner, albeit with a few more miles on the odometer. I'm glad to have made the drive and would do it again in a heartbeat given the chance. Maybe next time in the winter?
All in all it was an amazing trip with lots of great camping and adventures. We met a ton of fantastic folks (shout out to Bobcat!) and are happy to have those miles under the belt.