Road trips have always been my favorite form of recreation, beginning when I was a kid, crossing the country on old Route 66, sprawled in the roomy back seat of my family’s ’57 Desoto. During my college years and beyond, I covered most of North America, Central America, and even South America, as well as Western Europe and a bit of North Africa, always traveling by road, and loving every minute of it.
When I got a little older and had a family of my own, I entered a new phase of my life; I still loved road trips, but my priorities changed, and certain restrictions came into play. The more exotic destinations were set aside in favor of excursions to Disneyland, the beach, and the occasional National Park, along with lots of shorter drives around my home state of Arizona. My job didn’t allow me to take more than two weeks’ vacation at a stretch, so there was an absolute limit on the range of our road trips. Even so, they were always a lot of fun. Those family vacations, back when my daughter was small, are some of my happiest, most durable memories.
Years slipped by, blurring into decades; the inexorable passage of time punctuated by the occasional momentous milestone: career shifts, relocations, the birth of my first grandchild. Then came a particularly joyous moment, when the notion of “retirement” ceased to be an abstract concept, and became, instead, a real thing, a horizon-altering life event that came and went with the speed of a runaway freight train, leaving me a bit wide-eyed, not entirely convinced it was real. One of the biggest changes, a tectonic shift in circumstances that had immediate and far-reaching consequences, was the lifting of that two-week limit on road trips. That was huge, and I wanted to celebrate in a way that would truly hammer the point home. I wanted to drive my Jeep to Alaska, and I wanted to see Denali, the biggest mountain in North America.
It wasn’t going to be easy. The drive from Phoenix to Denali National Park, by the shortest possible route, is a 7200 mile round trip. “Shortest possible” isn’t what I had in mind, so I started adding stops to the itinerary: Yosemite, San Francisco, the Redwoods, Crater Lake, the Columbia Gorge, Mount Rainier, Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula. In Alaska, I added Fairbanks, Anchorage, and the Kenai. For the drive back, I added Banff and Jasper and the rest of the Canadian Parks in the Rockies. Moving south from Canada, I added Glacier National Park in Montana, plus Yellowstone, the Tetons, and Utah’s Bryce Canyon. My base mileage grew to more than 9,000, and that was certain to be a low estimate. That’s a whale of a lot of driving, and a whole lot of places to explore. Moving at a steady pace, I was going to be on the road for at least eight weeks!
That was incredibly exciting, but there was a problem: for safety’s sake, I really needed a co-pilot to help with the driving and the navigating. I contacted family, friends, and acquaintances, certain that people would be lining up for a chance to join me on my big adventure. Unfortunately, eight weeks is a very long time, even when you’re retired; nobody I knew was able commit to such a long trip. If I really wanted to make this drive to Alaska, I’d have to do it on my own.
When I was younger, I wouldn’t have blinked, but age has a way of making us a little more cautious. What if my Jeep broke down? What if I got sick–or worse, what if my bad back went out? All those hours behind the wheel, it’s almost like I was asking for trouble. All it would take would be one wrong move while pitching a tent, or even just lifting a suitcase. It had happened before: a simple stretch, just a little too far, a muscle gets tweaked, and snowballs into crippling sciatica. I could wind up stranded in the middle of nowhere, unable to walk or sit up straight, much less drive myself home. The more I thought about it, the more potential complications came to mind; my “dream trip” was beginning to seem like a nightmare; quite possibly the worst idea in the world.
It’s not the first time I’ve been faced with such a decision: a choice between a safe, predictable course of action, and a blind leap of faith, fraught with uncertainty, maybe even danger, but carrying the potential for great rewards. My sensible self told me I should wait for a better time. My cynical self told me the better time would probably never come. The Alaska Highway is technically open all year, but if you want decent weather for the drive, the season is quite short, late May until early September. It was already April, so I couldn’t dither about the decision. Looking back, nearly every truly amazing thing that’s ever happened to me was the direct result of a blind leap of faith, straight off the cliff and into the void, no net. This trip, and what it symbolized for me, was incredibly important. Postponing it was never really an option; the choice was to do it, then and there, or give it up. I took a long look at myself in the mirror. Then I crossed my fingers, took a deep breath, and jumped.
By the time I came back to earth, I’d been on the road for 58 days. I drove a total of 13,000 miles, visited a total of 24 National Parks—and I saw Denali, the biggest mountain in North America. After I left Alaska, one of my old friends rendezvoused with me in Edmonton, Alberta, and joined me for a portion of the drive back south, but I did most of the trip solo, and without a bit of a problem. My road trip to Alaska and back was the most liberating experience I can even imagine. Retirement did NOT mean that my life was winding down; matter of fact, I was just getting started.
Next up: South of the Border