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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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