Northwest to Alaska
Chapter One

by Peter S. Oleson

It doesn't seem that long ago that Bruce, John, Diane and I set off in my 1946 Dodge pickup for Alaska. It was Labor Day weekend in 1972, one week and one day after a Bonzo trip across northern Wisconsin looking for a place to live. We got pretty crazy that night and I admit to steering our conversation, I'd always wanted to go to Alaska. I liked the names there.

Places like Moosejaw were up there, Sumdum, Sukkwan, Egegik; places with names that seemed to tell their own stories in just one word. Places you could get lost in, and we all wanted to get lost. We were misfits; long haired weirdos had a hard time in Wisconsin in those days, and invariably drew the eye of the law. We had drawn that eye too many times and though we weren't on the run, we all knew where we would end up if we stayed too long.

We all quit our jobs that week. I spent it building a makeshift camper on the truck and figuring out how to hook up a 12 volt negative ground 8-track in a 6 volt positive ground vehicle. We tied all the spare tires we could find onto the roof of the camper and strapped 4 five gallon jugs of gas on the running boards. We'd heard it was a long way between fill-ups and there was a lot of gravel road between here and there.

John left behind his wife and little boy, Bruce was unattached. Diane and I weren't married yet. It was a pretty strange goodbye, I don't think any of our families thought we'd get out of the state, let alone across Canada. We made the rounds, though, telling everyone how committed we were, pretty much building up our own confidence. It's tough though, to say goodbye to people you love, everybody wondering if you'd ever see each other again. Moms swallowing down tears, fathers secretly rejoicing at having one less troublemaking mouth to feed. Bittersweet stuff, that.

It was a pretty cramped way to travel, nobody could carry much along. My luggage consisted of a bag of clothes, a box of tools, my 30-06 and all my tapes and records. We drove in shifts, sometimes Bruce and John driving, sometimes riding in the back. The old truck wasn't geared for the Interstate, top end was 45 and the old flathead six engine would be just screaming. We made it past Minneapolis the first day. Towards evening we all kind of shuddered as we passed Stillwater Penitentury. All that brick and razor wire just kind of sucked the joy out of the air and we headed away like curs that had just been kicked.

John had a record going, he'd had at least one beer a day for going on two years, so we made sure we had enough with us for a day or two. We had to find camping areas before dark, the six volt headlights made night driving a little too chancey, and those old trucks only had one tail light. For air conditioning, you just cranked the bottom of the windshield out a little.

We were in a regular campground that night and we drank all the beer up. The people around us were not real friendly, so when we were woken by the sounds of running feet and juvenile laughter in the middle of the night, we just chuckled as the neighborhood boys made off with the neighbors coolers. Seemed like they had done that before, I hope they got a beer or two for their labors.

We rose at dawn and hit the road early. It wasn't too long before we all noticed the whine coming from under the truck. It kept getting worse as we headed north and west into North Dakota. Around noon we stopped in a small town to get something for sandwiches and to pick up some beer. Not real easy to find a health food store in a small North Dakota town, but we did. The beer though was a different story. Seems there was a law in that state against selling beer on a Sunday. There was nothing for it but to head for Montana and hope for the best. John did most of the driving that day, he was worried about his record.

It was dusk when we crossed into Montana, the whine was louder, and there were no towns of any size on the map. Glendive had a bar though and it being the first we had seen, that's where we ended up. We got a table in the back of the barroom where we hoped the light was dim enough to keep from drawing attention. Fat chance in a place full of cowboys. John and Diane were both underaged. Turned out that the bartender was a college student working there for the summer, shortly to be headed back to school and damn tired of three months of cowboy bluster. I think we paid for the first pitcher of beer, but Owen the barkeep took a shine to us and we overindulged on our first ever taste of Olympia beer. The couple of joints we slipped him kept those pitchers of beer coming until closing time.

Owen told us he knew of a good place for us to camp and told us to follow him in the truck, which we were glad to do. It was dark, and we were in no shape to be cruising around looking for a place to call home for the night. It was a wild chase he led us on, though. I think he was sampling the joints up there and he had had more than one beer with us in the bar. We ended up on some old gravel road that hadn't seen a grader since any of us had seen a razor. It sloped something awful to the left and there were a lot of washouts where we really had to hug the hillside to get by. Owen drove like a man possessed, but we did finally get to a spot where he told us we wouldn't be disturbed, gave us his address and told us to stop by for some breakfast the next morning.

I awoke from the cold, it was barely light and I was just shaking. I looked around and there were cows. Cows were everywhere and I was lying out there with them. Cows and mist were my morning. John was also awake and we talked and that prompted the others from their dreams. We laid there waiting for the heat of the sun, but ran out of patience and emerged into air like a cold shower. We put more clothes on and tried to find our way back to our route.

We followed the only trail out of there, a cow trail, and discovered that we were on top of some kind of mesa, a thing we had heard of, but never seen; the world being quite flat in Wisconsin. The road down sloped because it was built into the side of a cliff, and those washouts were chutes into destruction.

We did find Owen and were well recieved by him and his people. We also spent some time while we were there trying to find the whine in the truck. But we were anxious to leave, we had a long way to go and the season was getting late.

Our next stop was in Billings where we really got serious about the stupid whine. We took the transmission to a place that fixed them and they gave it back and said it was OK. Didn't even charge us anything. We decided to head North for the Highway to Alaska and found a junk yard just about a hundred miles before we got to Canada. By the process of elimination, we knew that the differential was bad and spent a day replacing it with the rear end from a Hudson, of all things, which fit perfectly and only cost us $25.

We got a rude awakening at a small border crossing I remember as Sweetgrass, although I don't see that on the map I'm looking at. We were all taken into seperate rooms there and afterwards we all agreed that the interogation was similar to and as intense as any we had gone through in Wisconsin. The bottom line was that they didn't want us in Canada and that was all there was to it.
We regrouped and decided to head for Seattle, where we knew that a ferry service went to Alaska. We spent that night in Idaho with some crazy folks that seemed to be in tune with us at a pulloff in the mountains.

Soon we were headed across Washington, bypassing Spokane, and sticking to the back roads. We came across an early Octoberfest harvest festival in a small town and that was the only place on the whole trip we felt we weren't wanted. There were hundreds of people in the building we were in but the waitresses were like DEA agents and I guess it was the way we looked, because it couldn't have been our attitude, we had sprung from people such as these.

We left under duress, I guess I can't blame those folks for wanting their celebration to be among themselves, although I thought celebrations were meant by their very nature to be universal. Maybe we should all remember that.

We hoped to be in Seattle in two days but all our dreams went awry that afternoon, as propelled by the spirits that drove me, I may have tried to drive the old beast too fast. I don't know, maybe the poor old thing was just tired, but we picked up a major knock just outside of Wenatchee. I didn't know what it was, I thought it sounded like a rod. I know now that I was just fooling myself by pretending it was a valve noise or something. Anyway, we rattled our way through Wenatchee and up to a campground up in the hills above the town.

It was a nice campground, it had those kind of showers where you had to put quarters in to keep the hot water flowing. We spent the evening in those showers, the road being unforgiving in it's attempts to keep you filthy.

I tore apart the engine the next day and of course I found that we had blown a rod. We needed a crankshaft and a new rod, or we needed the old rod to be repaired.I was the mechanic of the crew, having been "rehabilitated" by the state of Wisconsin, I guess that's what they do with square pegs in a world of round holes. A whole 'nother story there.

Anyway, Bruce and I headed into Wenatchee, all downhill, good walking, with the rod that we needed to be fixed, also intending to find a new crankshaft. The most amazing things happened that day, I'm sure now that they were predestined for us, the local auto parts store had a crank setting there (come on, a flathead 6 from the 40's). The person who ordered it had failed to pick it up and I managed to buy it and all the bearings for $40. What a score that was. Bruce and I walked over to the machine shop that the auto parts store recommended (there seems to be some honesty among the car fraternity). We were feeling pretty good after leaving the machine shop, hair didn't seem to be a problem with machinists.

Bruce and I were walking along the street heading in the direction of our campground, when we heard somebody yell from a house we were passing: "Hey Hippie". Now in Wisconsin, when you heard those words, you chose between fight and flight. So we walked a little farther, ignoring the salutation. "Hey, Hippie, you got any dope?"

That made it a whole new ballgame. We didn't have any dope to sell, but it lessened the threat, and we turned and saw two guys sitting on a porch with drinks in their hands. One was short and obviously the admonisher, the other was tall, thin and red haired and bearded to the waist. They introduced themselves as Clutch the Great (the former) and Freewheelin' Frank (where had I heard that name before). Now no matter what you're up to, you gotta give a couple guys like this a moment to see what they want, don't you?

Clutch invited us to have a drink with him, he said he had an ulcer and could only drink a combination of chocolate milk and Vin Cafe. Frank didn't say much of anything. We accepted their offer and had a drink or two and smoked a few joints there on the porch. They seemed to be genuinely interested in our probl
em and volunteered to help us get the Dodge back into town, where it would be easier to work on.
They drove an old Dodge Dart, slant 6, 3 on the tree. Their weirdness became more apparent when they got mobile. Clutch told us that his old lady lived on the road we had to take back to where we were camped. He stopped there on the way back and ran up to the door. He knocked, but didn't wait for an answer, opened the door, ran in and started yelling. It was like something out of a cartoon, people yelling back and forth, dishes breaking, lots of cursing back and forth, Bruce and I kind of just sunk into the back seat, Frank said "They do this all the time". Clutch came out of the house with a handfull of money, all I heard as he pulled away were threats, I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into here.

We got to the truck and loaded everything up, pushed the truck out of the camping spot and headed it downhill. Clutch said that he would push us to get us going. I let him do that, I wanted to get closer to the parts store. I didn't know what lay in store.

We had no power, I figured we could find a place to stop on the outskirts of Wenatchee. Clutch thought otherwise, everytime we started to slow down, he rammed into the back of the truck with his car. Right through town, every time we slowed down, he rammed into the back of the truck, sending me through intersections and stoplights with no regard. I was scared as hell,and when he finally pushed us into the back of a service station lot next door to the parts store, I just kind of sat there and gave thanks.

The nightmare was by no means over because Clutch had copped himself a buzz and magnanimously offered us a tour of the nightlife offered by Wenatchee. We all headed for Clutch's house. I had only been on the porch earlier that day, I was treated now to the opportunity to tour the house. In the living room, a pitchfork was stuck through the middle of a poster of a beautiful woman and someone had drawn in blood running from the pseudo-wound. Frank explained that Clutch was upset that his latest girlfriend had left without telling him and he had taken it out on the wall. I was scared, this guy was seriously tweaked.

There was no easy way to get out of the tour of local barrooms, as that was all of the touring that Clutch wanted or needed. It was a very odd evening, we would enter a drinking establishment, Clutch would call everyone in the bar vulgar names, the bartender would offer to give us all a free drink if we would leave when we were done and we said OK, had a drink and moved on to the next bar. It was very strange. The mere presence of this guy struck fear into people everywhere we went.

I wasn't into fear, my own or anyone else's so Diane and I made our escape at the earliest opportunity and walked back to the truck for the night. Poor Bruce and John had to spend the night at Clutch's house. I didn't envy them at all.

The next day I put the new crankshaft in the truck and by late afternoon, we were on the road again. But something was still wrong with the motor. We got as much room between us and Clutch as we could before stopping at a campground I remember as a KIA(?) affiliated campground. Anyway, I knew they didn't want you tearing your motor apart in your campsite, but that's what I did. I had gotten the timing gears out of whack by one tooth, but that was enough to slow down our already sluggish truck to a crawl as we tried to climb the range over to the Seattle side.

Next morning we headed over the pass but were stopped and told that we needed chains. There wasn't even any snow on the ground so I pointed out to the dudes that I had snow tires on and I was from Wisconsin, where, by God, we had us some winters. We were allowed to proceed and yes, there were a couple inches of snow up there, but nothing to get excited about. We camped in a strange secluded campground where we were the only people for miles and there was no wood to be found. We spent the evening throwing rocks tied to ropes over dead branches to pull them down as it was chilly up there.

We were getting pretty excited, having been on the road for over a week by this time, and within a day of Seattle. We spent the evening clustered over the fire, dreaming out loud. Fires are good for that. I don't live in the city, in my whole life, I never have, but if I had to, I would start a fire in the yard once in a while. On the ground where fires are meant to be and I would make everyone in the family just sit there and huddle over the fire. A few hours over the fire in the dark brings out something primal about man, if you look at each other over a fire in the middle of the night, you look different, you look alive and strong. If you wait till then to cook raw meat, it can get downright primeval.

We smoked a lot of dope that night, we drank a lot of beer. We were already referring to the trip as the time we drank our weight in beer. We ran out of dope that night and we ran out of beer, too. So the next day we had to score both. Bruce was very good at that kind of thing. We stood around a beer rack in a market outside of Seattle until a guy with long hair came in for some beer and asked him if he knew where we could get some dope. He was more than happy to take us to some guy he knew who was himself happy to sell us as much as we could afford for very good prices.

We hit Seattle itself that afternoon, feeling pretty good. We ran into a snag though when we got to the Ferry dock. We didn't have enough money left to book passage for the truck and for ourselves, and the ferry was leaving in two hours. I didn't want to loose the momentum we had going, and I didn't want to let loose of my truck, but we were in a bind so I called some used car places and found some salesman that expressed an interest in the Dodge for his personal use.

I ended up taking $200 for the truck and cab fare back to the ferry. In return for cab fare I left all my music except my Grateful Dead 8-Tracks and we left the car lot and got to the Ferry dock minutes before the ferry Malaspina left for Haines, Alaska.

We only had what we could carry and our dreams, but we were aboard and headed North to our future. We felt so good as the boat slid from the dock, we waved good-bye to America and set out for whatever fate had in store for us. We had a very nice group hug and set off on the next stage of our adventure.

Coming soon to a web page near you: the intrepid wanderers meet and overcome adversity in the far north.

Peter S. Oleson

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