I’ve driven the Alcan (Alaska Canada highway) in the neighborhood of 16 times, 13 of those have been solo trips. I’ve driven the road in beautiful sun, blasting music, and I’ve driven it in snowstorms. I’ve pulled a sled, a cargo trailer with my life packed inside, and taken the dog a few times. I’ve slept in the car most of the trips unless it was too cold. I’ve woken up to -30F temps. I woke to a flat trailer tire in a tiny town with no tire iron to fit the lugs and I’ve blown a trailer tire in the middle of a snow storm, at night, with no room to pull off the road. I’ve hit a few birds including one about the size of a hawk that smashed the passenger side of the windshield.
In the past, driving the Alcan was always a utilitarian journey. As a matter of fact I can’t even call it a journey because that would lead you to believe that there was some sort of adventure to it. Other than the inherent risks, most of which became a reality somewhere along the years of driving the road, I really just saw it as a way to get my car between Tahoe and Alaska and I usually tried to get it done as fast as possible. Admittedly I am quite a loner so there is some appeal to a week of introspection but that usually wears off around day 3.
The idea to take the Alcan trip, and let it be the journey it begs to be, spawned from a few things. Maybe it’s my version of a mid-life crisis. More likely it’s that I don’t have a rush to be somewhere anymore. More likely it’s that I met someone who’s eyes are wide to what the world holds but hides from those not willing to search for it. Yeah, it’s definitely the girl. I wanted to explore but I also wanted to share. I needed to share. There are certain times in life when I question my self worth. Sharing, teaching, and showing others what I’ve learned help out with that. So I planned a trip where we would drive down the Alcan, hitting all the parks we could find along the Canadian leg of the trip. From there we would go through Seattle, Portland, Tahoe, Vegas, LA, up the California coast, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and back to Anchorage. We had three weeks off of work, skateboards, go-pros, iPhones, an air mattress, a tent, a cooler, sunglasses, and the plan that if it looks fun; stop and do it.
A few years back, the only skatepark I knew of along the Alcan was in Whitehorse, YT. The last few solo trips I made, I decided to do some searching and each trip has uncovered a few more parks. It appears as though Canada really likes skateparks, having one in almost every small town along the way. It also appears that Canada really believes in investing in their youth because almost everyone of the parks is made of concrete rather than the plastic and metal fabrications we consider ourselves lucky to have in Anchorage. A concrete park says that the town believes in the youth and won’t be yanking away the privileges if they don’t like what they see.
The Yukon part of the drive is where most of the wildlife is. Brown bears, black bears, buffalo soldiers, maybe a dreadlock rasta, and moose all made an appearance in the Yukon. We also had a red fox run right across the skatepark in Whitehorse.
As we cruised down in to the lower 48 we managed to hit burnside and work out a meeting with one of my fellow pro shreds from back in the day. Bobby Meeks, who is now the…. well he’s just a big wig at the Nike snow program, met up with us and let us skate the NikeSB skate park! We were all alone, which is bad for seeing the insanity that could go down on those features but good so I didn’t embarrass myself. Aaaaand Mr. Meeks is no slouch on the board, throwing some tre flips up the euro gap (if you didn’t understand that sentence then just go to your local skate shop and ask). It was great seeing Bobby again after a number of years. He is a great guy and super cool to take some time off the greens to let us skate the park.
After that we were headed to Tahoe. Back to the stomping grounds that I called my home away from home for the past 18 or so winters. My old roomie, Jon, put us up in his Reno mansion, which was a nice break from the air mattress. The next morning brought breakfast with all the old crew. There are times when you realize how grateful you need to be and this breakfast was one of those times. The people I shared breakfast with; Jon, Bryce, Mike, and MJ are good people. They are the type of guys that would go to bat for you and drive to the store at 3 am to buy the bat too if thats what needed to be done. As people drift in and out of each others lives it can be easy to overlook how special that is. Having four of those guys, all at one table, laughing and talking shit again, gave me the reminder I needed of just how lucky I am.
We went up to the lake to see my old house, check out the “woodward” at Boreal (which looks like a dreamland), and jump in the water. Lake Tahoe is more than a mile deep so even when it’s melting hot out you can expect to freeze when you get in. It’s shocking how cold it is. After a burger at the char-pit and a stop at Donner Summit we hit the road to Vegas. I played poker for a living for about 5-6 years after my pro snowboarding days ended so I love getting back to the tables in Vegas. The idea, again, was to show Kelly some of my favorite spots and hopefully discover a few new ones while getting to play a WSOP event. For those of you that have some time, Vegas has a lot of concrete parks and they range from decent to amazing. If you go for a skate trip though, make sure you go when the weather is nice, usually late October through April. May through October is just stupid hot and dry. Oh and don’t forget there is a ski hill about 45 minutes from the strip that is open from about late November to the end of March. Its a small hill but they usually make a pretty fun park.
So Vegas was a mix of great food, shopping, a little poker (which didn’t yield a payday), and a last minute ditch skate session before hitting the road to So Cal. The not so funny part about California is how crowded it is. After driving for a week and just being able to camp anywhere or pull over and sleep in the car, we thought it would be no problem to drive up to one of the state park camping spots on the beach. WRONG! WRONG! As I drove from spot to spot I soon found out that these spots can be filled up to a year in advance. The only real lottery ticket you can hope for is if you show up late and there is a last minute cancellation. So no beach camping for us….yet.
Our next adventure waited for us in the mountains, the Magic Mountain to be specific. I grew up going to Magic Mountain and love it. They also have Hurricane Harbor, a water park, so we hit both in the same day. I didn’t mention it but So-Cal was going through a heat wave during our visit. I’m not talking about an Alaskan heat wave where 85 is record setting. I’m talking 107 in the parking lot. But Jason, you’re at a water park, what’s the big deal? That’s what I thought as I put my shoes in the locker and headed out to find comfort in the watery oasis. What I found instead was the smell of burning flesh as I tried to run from wet puddle to wet puddle on concrete that wouldn’t have just cooked an egg, it would have evaporated it.
The heat plays an important role in our harrowing tail and it’s role shall be revealed momentarily. Meanwhile, the fair maiden Kelly, bravely overcame her fears of nearly vertical water slides, water induced wedgies, long lines on hot concrete, and what looked like a field trip from a nike shoe factory in the lazy river (hundreds of kids). What Kelly could not overcome was gravity with a little help from heat. As we stood in line to get tubes for another water slide, Kelly leaned over and put her hands on her knees. There was no shade for the line and she was feeling the heat. She had her head down and her knees locked straight. The knees locked can cut off blood flow and standing up after having your head down can make you light headed. Have you guessed where this is going? When she stood up she wasn’t responsive to me talking to her (nothing new here since I have the same effect on most women) and her eyes glazed over. I put my arm around her just as she fainted! WOW, I’ve never seen someone faint in person. Her face lost all color and her body went limp. She slumped towards the ground and the body that I usually pick up and twirl around with no problem suddenly felt like 200 pounds. I lifted her back up and she came back to life. She asked what happened and I told her Hugh Jackman (her celeb crush) was just here hanging out but she was taking a nap.
On to the real fun; roller coasters. Not much to tell other than we splurged and got the flash pass that lets you basically skip the lines. Pricey. Super Pricey but worth it. Thrills were had and nobody fainted.
We cruised back to our hotel in LA and then to catch the tail end of the night at the Comedy Store on Sunset. If you haven’t been to a comedy club then let me help you adjust your expectations. The general thought is that seeing a comedian is like seeing a Comedy Central or HBO special where the comedian is on top of their game and killing it. When you go to a comedy club in LA or New York, this is where the best comedians live and hang out night after night. These clubs are not where they showcase their best honed act, it’s where they practice. Think of it like a skatepark. Skaters go to skateparks to practice, to learn new tricks, to see what works and what doesn’t so that when the contest or film mission happens then they can shine. An LA or NY comedy club is like a comedians skatepark. They aren’t worried about polish, they are trying out new stuff and seeing what works and what doesn’t. If you love comedy then its great to see and you will hear some great material but don’t go thinking you’ll see a polished showcase. That said, we stayed till the bitter end and I mean BITTER end. There were 4 of us left watching the last guy and he was a shock comedian that liked to talk about the rudest stuff you can imagine. I’m a fan of any comedy but that kind of stuff goes over much better when you have an audience of people to ohhhh and ahhhh about what he said. What ever, it was fun.
Venice Beach was our first stop the next day. We cruised around the freak show and played in the waves just long enough to build up an appetite for fried pizza. If you’re gonna go big then go all the way. Might as well deep fry that slice just in case there isn’t enough grease from the pepperoni. Other than my heart actually jumping out and slapping me, it was pretty good.
Someone wise once said that man can not live by fried pizza alone, so we took off to the Dodger game and crushed some dodger dogs and peanuts. Growing up in So-Cal, the Dodgers have been my team since day one. My grandma would take me to games all the time and was even cool enough to let me wait by the player parking area for autographs. Dodger games bring back everything amazing about my childhood and everything I love about So-Cal. It was a really meaningful part of the trip since my grandma has passed. It allowed me to feel a little closer to her through something we loved sharing.
Venice is such a cool place that we decided we had to go back. Actually Kelly decided we had to take a surfing lesson so back to the beach we went. We found Wagner Lima at Jay’s Rentals and he took us out for a bit. An interesting note is that there is a small jeti out in the water and evidently it’s a little easier to learn on the lookers left side. Another interesting note is that the lifeguards shut the lookers left side to surfing at noon. If you have a surfboard then you have to head to the lookers right side of the jeti. Those notes might not have been that interesting but this one is, trust me. Wagner does not like to have his students told where they can or can’t surf. The life guards love to tell people where they can and can’t surf. So a little war of wills started and Kelly and I were the pawns. The Lifeys kept yelling at us to leave the water and Wagner would tell us to not look at them, just paddle back out. He told us that if we went all the way to the beach we would have to get out but if we didn’t they couldn’t make us. It was pretty sick to see a little bit of the “middle finger to the man” mentality still left in our watered down Mt. Dew backed board sports. It really started to get heated. Some “good samaritan” kept coming up to me and telling me the lifeguard wanted to see me, that I needed to go in. After a few times of him coming up to me, I finally just said “Don’t worry about it. What do you care?” He looked a little stunned and walked away. Finally it reached a point where there were just a couple of us on boards in the water and everyone else on shore watching to see what action the frantically yelling Lifeys were going to do. We finally headed in and Wagner gave them some choice words, much along the lines of the locals telling off the haole (how-li)surfers in “North Shore”. Good times.
After catching few good waves, not just mushy reforms, we packed up and started the trek back north. We still had a week left before going back to work but the bitter sweet sting of knowing we were on the downhill of the trip was starting to bite at me. It’s easy to get fixated on how the trip is almost over and most of the specific “things” on the itinerary are in the rear view mirror but thats also an easy way to lose the rest of the trip. Ever so often I have to take myself aside and remind myself of that point, on this trip and in life. They say its not over till its over, that is unless you decide to let it be over before that.
We combed state park after state park until we found an open camp site, just as the sun was setting, at Rufugio Beach (just north of Santa Barbara). We set up the tent and I knocked back a cold one (root beer) by the fire. It was a nice little reminder that it wasn’t over yet.
All my years in California and I have never driven the PCH all the way up the coast. Damned if we weren’t going to keep the adventure going right up along the waters edge. We stopped at a vineyard for Kelly to do a tasting (strictly research for work) and then managed to find a Sea Lion rookery. I thought we might see one or two or maybe it wouldn’t be the right season and the beach would be empty. I was stoked to be wrong. The beach had been stormed by what looked like a casting call for a beach version of the Biggest Loser, tons and tons (literally) of enormous sea lions waddling around, belching out communication, kicking up sand as they jiggled in and out of the water. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
We made it to San Francisco just about 1am and found out just how true it is when people say that in SF you’re only one street away from the ghetto. We circled around looking for our last minute internet booked hotel and luckily they wouldn’t honor our reservation. We found another place that was great but the street we drove down twice to find it was pretty much a scene out of the nastiest open drug market scenes on “The Wire.” It was a street filled with Zombies waiting to erupt but turn the corner and it looked like a clean, empty, beautiful, downtown night in the city.
When the sun rose we hit the streets and walked all over town. We walked to China town, down to Fishermans Wharf, and up to Lombard Street. We crushed some fish and chips then hit the road before that city bankrupted us. We caught the tail end of some giant redwoods before the sunset, another first for me. That about wrapped it up for us as far as new places. From that point on it was back on course, with a vengeance, to make it back to AK in time for work. We still managed a stop at all the skateparks and never once threatened to kill each other, at least not seriously.
There were a lot of firsts on this trip. First road trip with Kelly, Kelly meeting my Uncle, cousin, and lower 48 friends, first time doing the trip for fun, first time all the way up the PCH, and on and on. But perhaps the biggest first was that this was Kelly’s first time in California. She had a somewhat negative opinion of the state based on, well I’m not sure what. When we left California that had changed. She loved the beauty of Nor-Cal, the beaches of So-Cal, and everything the state offered in things to do. She might have liked the weather a little bit too. I’m not telling you this because I work for the California tourist board. I’m telling you this because traveling can be one of the greatest parts of being alive; if you let it. In my younger years of traveling I would often have a preconceived negative idea about a place I was going, just like Kelly did with Cali. The difference is that she was open enough to let the experiences speak for themselves. She let the each day present her a new adventure and accepted the challenge. She opened herself to the experience and found that the joy of the journey could shed light upon the shadows of worrying about the destination.
It was the best trip I’ve ever been on. Thanks to everyone that helped make it so rad.