Wednesday, March 30, 2011


I’ve never been a fan of the road trip. I remember four-hour drives to Grandma’s house as sheer torture. Even as an adult it’s a rare day that I enjoy a long drive. Unfortunately, I married into a family that feels exactly the opposite.
While Gary and I lived outside of Portland, my in laws visited several times a year. Inevitably, shortly after arrival, the question would come.
“Hey, how about we drive to the Grand Canyon over the weekend?”
What? No! Is that even a question? Who drives from Portland to the Grand Canyon for the weekend? They do, a couple times as I recall, among many other far-away places they drove to.  
When Gary proposed the idea of moving to Anchorage, I have to admit that the lack of roads – and hence the potential for fewer road trips - landed on my list of pros. It fell right below the absence of snakes. I hate snakes.
Imagine my excitement when in-laws showed up a couple weeks after we moved into our new home and announced a road trip to Fairbanks! It was on that trip that I discovered Alaska has its own set of driving issues I’d have to learn to live with.  
For nine hours we bumped our way to Fairbanks. Frost heaves as large as speed bumps seemed as though they were spaced evenly along the road. Fast forward to the present, I’m sitting at my favorite table in Steamdot (the one next to electrical outlet!) having just survived a proper jostling while driving here. Not from frost heaves this time but from spring break up. This yearly thrill can last anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months and always makes driving interesting. The main roads are clear, but many of the side roads are covered in humps and bumps of melting ice. My poor minivan feels like it might fall apart while traversing such terrain.
But bumps are just one of several driving hazards you’ll find in Anchorage. Another is road ruts; the main roads become rutted due to studded tires and the freeze and thaw. Then everyone is likely to drive in the same ruts so they get deeper and deeper. Since most people here drive larger vehicles, smaller cars have to pick just one rut to drive lopsidedly in!
 “Won’t it be nice when you can afford to buy a car that can drive in both ruts,” I once heard someone say.  
Yes, it is nice to have a car that fits in both ruts, and slightly less scary too. There’s nothing quite like driving down the road at a 10 degree angle. It’s even worse if the ruts are icy. I remember the city had to close a short stretch of road because multiple cars had flipped within a couple hours due the icy ruts in the road!
The ice and snow are obvious hazards that stay with us about six months out of the year. In fact, we get so used to ice and snow that locals are a little too comfortable driving on it.
My mark of being a local came a few weeks ago. Not bad after eight years! We’d just gotten several inches of dry, grainy snow. I was driving our little four-wheel drive into town while chatting on the phone with my sister-in-law. Whilst deep in discussion about our children, I surfed around a right-hand turn, downshifting mid way with my one free hand, and fish tailing into my new direction without becoming the slightest bit nervous.
Comfort is not always a good thing.
Moose are a particularly interesting road hazard.  I don’t know if they lack intelligence or simply don’t care, but they regularly cross busy roadways at snail’s pace. You’d think they’d tell each other that if one of those fast, shiny things hits you – well let’s just say it’s not good! Dozens of moose and, sadly, several motorists die as a result of these collisions every year. So many moose die, in fact, that the department of transportation has a call list for moose kills. Whenever one is killed, the next person on the list gets a call to come out and harvest the meat. Yum! Moose road-kill!
Of all the challenges involved in driving in Alaska though, I believe the greatest is other drivers – just like the in rest of the country!  We may, however, have the monopoly on lesser-trained drivers. Most of our rural areas don’t have many roads, if any. Yet these same villages issue driver’s licenses which their residents bring to Anchorage and use to rent cars. Needless to say, many a traffic law is broken.
One day, while driving through Anchorage with my mother-in-law, I became so exasperated by bad drivers that I lost it. I should’ve known by this point that nothing good happens when I start to rant! But I was just so frustrated I couldn’t hold it in!
“Oh my word! Can you believe these people! I feel like I narrowly escape death whenever I drive around town! The other day I actually saw someone drive down the sidewalk, just so they could turn right without waiting!”
 Expecting affirmation, or at least the sound of silent understanding, I was shocked by the response I received.
“I’ve done that,” my mother-in-law said matter-of-factly.
I was mortified. After evaluating my situation though I determined I was past the point of no return so I jumped straight into the fray.
“Well that was stupid!”
The remainder of our drive went by in silence. I wonder if this has anything to do with why she always asks me to drive when we’re going somewhere together. Oh well.
The funny thing is that after living here for eight years, largely free of road trips because there really are very few places to drive, I’ve started to have bizarre and inexplicable ideas. For example, I found myself seriously considering driving to see my brother’s family in Southern California while visiting my parents in Portland last summer. Just for a couple days. It might be kind of nice to drive and see the country. This glimpse of insanity bothered me but I consoled myself with the thought that it was only because I so desperately wanted to visit them.
It wasn’t until today that I realized I have contracted the disease that I once deplored; road-trip fever. Over lunch, my mother-in-law said she and my father-in-law were headed to South Dakota for meetings. She explained that they’d had plane tickets all the way through, but then she’d looked at a map and decided to cancel the plane for the last leg of the trip. They would fly to Seattle, rent a car and drive to South Dakota and back. So serious is my illness now that it sounded like a great idea. In fact, I found myself thinking how nice it would be to tag along! Perhaps our next trip to Portland we’ll take a weekend road trip to the Grand Canyon! What do you say, would you like to come along!

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