I turned to Wes somewhere in southern British Columbia, as our truck bounced and pushed us along yet another stretch of highway along too many miles to count, valiantly hauling all 5,000 lbs of Mobile Art Studio in its wake.
“This trip has had an overarching feeling of unease.”
He considered it, and said that he wouldn’t have come up with that description on his own. But it was true.
Over several years we have worked, scrapped, been supported in numerous ways, and decided our way toward this moment: escape velocity from Alaska, at least for a time, and toward geographic and economic mobility. In plain English, we wanted to create a phase in our lives where we could explore and have the cash on hand to do so. One way to do that – which we did – is to both build up and pare down our lives to the point where we don’t actually need all that much, and therefore can work (what is typically considered “work”, anyway) less, or differently.
And on May 2nd, at 4:30pm on a sunny early spring Alaska afternoon, we finally hitched up and hauled our earthly belongings (save those in a storage unit) away. Where, exactly? Ultimately, St. George, Utah. But even that’s temporary, just a seasonal gig for Wes’s first hitch as a backpacking guide.
It was late afternoon, after a long day of packing, dealing with banking and health insurance logistics, making one last trip to the dump and grocery store, and cleaning up our rental. Maybe it would have made the most sense to stay put one more night, but we were keen on hitting the road. We grabbed coffees to go on our way out.
Wes was pensive. I was excited. Already, that’s a marital recipe for a thunderstorm, and that happened over the course of the first couple days as we got into little spats about both normal trailer logistics, and our own dynamics.
Add to that, those first few nights the trailer was both incredibly comfortable and also not. It would be too cold to add water to it for some miles, which meant that we had a glorified sani-bucket for our daily constitutionals. If you’ve never shit in a bag, you haven’t lived. (Or something). We were also boondocking plenty right off the side of the road. In case we needed to move fast we would frequently not bother to unhitch – that meant no generator, which means no electricity, which means no heat. It was essentially very upscale, sheltered early spring (lows in the 20s) tent camping. We slept under a down sleeping bag and blanket and were quite cozy, until we had to get up.
This was all small potatoes though. We encountered our first real obstacle early on in the journey, about 100 km / 60 miles into our decided route, the Cassiar Highway. There are essentially two highways out of Alaska, and we chose the more remote, slightly slower but shorter in mileage, and more beautiful way – but were thwarted with a washout that had cut the highway off completely until TBD.
So, we backtracked and rerouted onto the more popular, and also more commercial, Alaska-Canada (Alcan) highway. No biggie, really, except that now we basically just had the one route out, and fingers crossed that nothing disrupted it.
We noticed the smoke faintly from the Cassiar Highway, but it got thicker as we pushed our way toward Canada’s interior on the Alcan. A roadside lodge owner at the foot of the Canadian Rockies bluntly told us “there are fires everywhere”. At first we chalked up his description as limited to his small, and incredibly cigarette-smoky lodge filled perspective, but as we pressed on the smoke only seemed to be getting denser. There wasn’t much to look at as we skirted usually breathtakingly scenic Muncho Lake. It was just that unnerving, wan, choked light, with faint outlines of mountains in the backdrop. Sometimes.
The smoke got even thicker and as we approached Fort Nelson, British Columbia fluffy white ash filled the air and wafted like apocalyptic snow across the barely-visible landscape.
I stared at the trees flitting by and thought about the word “unmoored”. No real home, save for the trailer. There’s no one place to go “back” to. We’re at the whim of climate change events. For a second, I tried to console myself with the thought that we’d still likely put some money down on land and a cozy cabin in Alaska. But the thought that chased it was the adult reminder that even that is only a semblance of safety in a world that is constantly changing, and legitimately off kilter in ways that are unnerving for homeowners (also kind of a made up concept, in a human invented and adhered to legal framework) and official vagabonds alike. There are pros and cons to the decisions we make. Ours was to be more footloose.
Dimly, I knew that in southern British Columbia there was fire’s opposite happening: flooding was wreaking havoc in communities deluged by both water and snowmelt (which had caused the washout on the Cassiar). But the first obstacle presented to us was fire, and we had to figure out a way to safely navigate that first. Alarmingly, a western route toward Alberta had been shut down completely due to the fires, which left – literally – one way south for us.
At this point, Wes’s and my dynamic had settled – we were both on the same proverbial wavelength, and balancing each other out well. Read: as I was freaking out and catastrophizing that Alaska would never, in fact, allow us to leave its icy grip by working with its co-conspirator Canada to natural disaster-ify our entire journey to the point that we had no choice but to turn back, he was suggesting it might be nice to stop for the night, turn off our phones, take a shower, make dinner, and read. We could regroup in the morning.
I let my heart rate settle enough to agree.
Ultimately, we did make it through wildfire-choked northern British Columbia, and pilot-carred our way through flooded southern BC. We celebrated the clean air. We also drove longer than we wanted through those rainy, mountainous stretches to make it through what felt like sketchy terrain, especially as the sky continued to dump on us. Our truck’s faulty gas gauge spiced up the trip even further by falsely claiming “empty” at the tippity top of Jackass Mountain (you can’t make this up), which is when I finally started to cry. But just as quickly, Brian the F350 remembered he was fine, the gas gauge rose accordingly, and we pressed on, adding diesel to the tank at the earliest opportunity (just like always).
In early May, I started to think about the trip in terms of “freefall” because we’re in this strange, interstitial period in terms of both of our incomes where our last salaried paychecks have hit, we are spending whatever we need to spend as we (literally) fall our way down south, and at some point we’ll hit a landing spot where we regroup, pay off our credit cards, and “start” our new lives and budget. This is the phase that’s transitional, and in a lot – a lot! – of motion.
“Free fall” and “unmoored” have negative connotation, and there is truth to that/we experienced that side of the coin.
But there’s another side.
Our trip turned its first corner when we hit Osoyoos, British Columbia, which we selected exclusively for its weather forecast and proximity to U.S. Highway 97, which winds down through Central Washington. Little did we know that once there we’d find a glorious campsite on a sandy spit jutting into the middle of a provincial lake, discover a road cyclist’s mecca, find a lovely mechanic to do a once-over on the F350 and give that poor truck an oil change, and – AND! – discover we were smack in the middle of Canadian wine country. We cycled and sipped our way around a 25 mile radius one sunny, breezy day through high desert sage as the truck was worked on. That’s when the triumph started to set in.
We reconnected with some of my old friends, for the first time in nearly a decade (I’m old enough to have friends like that?!) in Wenatchee, and catching up felt both like a lot of time and experience had passed, but also like rediscovering them. The experience was meaningful in both getting to spend quality time and catch up, and remembering that even as we are far from our community in Alaska, we will recreate community, of a kind, woven with friends near(er) and far.
We went on an impromptu two-night “shake out” backpack, remembering our hiking legs and pack-hoofing skills, and dealing with the unexpected with grace and humor. The trip made me feel strong, warm, and happy.
So, yes, I and we are unmoored. We’re presently about two thirds of the way on the official journey to St. George. I’m wearing a crop top at every opportunity as the temps climb into the upper 80s and low 90s. I journal furiously, walk, run, make and eat delicious food, and think vaguely about landing somewhere, settling in, and finally getting to pull out the easel and start my new notion of work.
I think it will look something like a blend of what I’m experiencing now and a new routine of creating, whatever that is. I’m excited, but also content to simply, right now, feel content. I’m learning and enjoying what it is to be myself within so much change.