I’m less than seven weeks away from my second trip to Alaska, only 24 years after the first one, and I’m obsessively planning for what should be an epic trip. I’m going to some world-famous fisheries and I’ll be there with people who know the waters better than anyone else.
But I won’t be doing it out of a 1994 Chrysler Concorde. That was the mode of transportation that my friends Cory, Matt and I used for our month in the last frontier. We slept in a tent most but not all nights. A few times locals took pity on us and allowed us to sleep on the floor of their homes, and we rented a trailer one time, but years before Palaniuk introduced us to the “Tundra Suites,” the “Concorde Condo” housed us at least twice.
With the trunk full of our luggage, and half of the backseat taken up by coolers, it’s no easy feat for three full-grown recently-graduated lawyers to get a decent night’s sleep in a vehicle. Two sat up front in the reclining buckets, while one sandwiched himself next to the coolers. I’m not sure which of those three positions was considered drawing the short straw.
One of the nights that we slept in the car was in the town of Chicken, Alaska (“population 13, plus one grumpy old man”). We’d driven from Fairbanks through the town of North Pole and on to Tok, shortly after which we turned onto a series of rutted dirt roads. It was pouring rain and dark, which was probably a good thing because it meant that we couldn’t see the steep drops on the side of the road. The next day, as we headed towards Dawson City, Yukon, we saw several vehicles that had been less lucky than us and sat 50 or 100 yards below the road, abandoned.
By the time we pulled into Chicken, it was raining even harder, so there was no way to set up our tent without getting soaked. Instead we wandered into the one building, half bar, half mercantile store, and ordered three beers underneath a canopy of brassieres.
As we finished our first beer and ordered a second, we noticed that lots of people had carved their names into the wooden bar top, so we took out our knives and started doing the same. We’d thought that the blonde bartender was otherwise occupied, but she quickly turned around, saw us debasing her property, and yelled at us.
“HOLD ON! HOLD ON! HOLD ON!”
It seemed likely that we were about to get killed and left out for bear snacks.
“Wait a second,” she continued, digging under the bar. She pulled out a lighter fluid and gunpowder. “Go ahead and burn your names into the bar. This’ll make it easier.”
That was our kind of place.
Next, a rough looking dude who’d clearly gone longer than us without a shower (we were probably at the two to three day mark), sidled up to us. We figured we were about to get in a brawl.
“Do you all like rock music?” he asked, with a scratchy drawn out voice.
Yes, yes we did like rock music.
“Do you like…” [Pregnant pause] “ Do you like AE-RO-SMITH?”
Bonding over our collective love of “Walk this Way,” we met our new best friend Kurt the Miner, in “town” for his monthly visit. We bought him a beer and the dude couldn’t have been more engaging and funny for the rest of the evening. He was all too willing to try several of the bras on his head, eventually settling on a 44DD from the 1978 Sears catalog. Again, our kind of dude.
I don’t know what time it was when we stumbled out, but it was still too nasty to set up the tent, so the three of us folded ourselves into the Chrysler and then set off for the Yukon the following day, where he’d warned us to be careful after dark because “Someone’s liable to knife ya while you’re standing in line for a smokie,” which turned out to be a smoked sausage. No one knifed us, but no one was as friendly there as they’d been just about everywhere in Alaska, either.
Twenty four years later I have more resources at my disposal and my flight to Anchorage alone will likely cost as much as my entire trip did in 1995. There’s a piece of me that’s thankful that I’ll never be 25 again, that I’ll never have to sleep in a Chrysler again, and that there’s about a zero percent chance I’ll ever be stabbed for loose change while waiting in line for a Canadian meat byproduct. At the same time, it was pretty damn good while it lasted.
RIP Kurt the Miner (I have no empirical evidence that he’s dead, since I never saw him after we stumbled out of the bar, but I’d say there’s at least a 75% chance he’s no longer with us).