My Winter 2008 Trip Gone South

As many of you know, I've been heading south for the winter in recent years (since December of 2002). I would spend the fall semester tutoring math and physics for university and advanced high school students, then frantically attempt to escape from the frozen north as quickly as possible. Sometimes I drove my own vehicle over the Alaska Highway through Canada, sometimes I rode with a friend or stranger, and once I even traveled in an airplane (by way of Thailand, oddly enough).

The road trips are long (around 50 hours of driving, for about 2500 miles to Seattle or Great Falls), but the scenery is great (even in winter). And there is always wildlife to view, including bison, moose, caribou, deer, sheep, wolves, coyote, foxes, various birds, and even bear in the spring. In mid December of 2007, just north of Glennallen, I even saw a mountain lion! That's right, not a lynx, but a mountain lion (also known as cougar, panther, or puma). It ran in front of our vehicle for a while, then leaped off the road into the snowy boreal forest, its distinctive long tail waving like a rope for balance.

The end of 2008 was no exception to my migration pattern, except that unusual cold and snow wreaked havoc in the Pacific Northwest, turning travel plans into logistical nightmares. I remember considering my options: ride all the way to California with a friend, find a suitable ride share on the internet, drive my 1982 Volkswagen Scirocco (already with 225,000 miles), take the slower and more expensive monthly state ferry between Seward and Bellingham, or take the faster and more personally terrorizing (not to mention seasonally overbooked and luggage weight restricted) "friendly sky" jet.

As the semester ended and I prepared to move my belongings into storage, I checked my options and found that flights were booked until Christmas, the ferry schedule was inappropriate, and the friend decided not to drive out because early weather reports showed possible snowstorms. Now I had hoped to be moved out of my apartment and doing the final cleaning checklist by Monday the 15th (of December), but many late finals week tutoring appointments delayed my packing efforts, and next thing I knew it was already Tuesday, then Wednesday, and soon Thursday.

Driving my own car out was not really a sensible option, considering its age and mileage, not to mention that I already had another car waiting for me in Portland. So really the only remaining option was to find a ride share. But speculation had driven gas prices up high, so fewer people were driving their own vehicles south, and more people were trying to ride with the yet fewer still planning to drive. I tried to find a ride heading out early in the week, but the best I could find was a ride leaving on Thursday (the 18th). Since I ended up being days behind in my move, it turned out that the timing of that ride was perfect, although they were heading to Utah via Montana while my other car was parked in Oregon.

Sharing the ride through Canada

I met Martin and Mike at about 10pm on Thursday, after listening to warnings from several friends that two guys heading to Ogden (Utah) were almost certainly Mormon missionaries. (Actually, they weren't; but I did joke with friends whom I was planning to visit, saying I changed my life plans, signed up for mission work, and was headed for training in Utah.) Anyway, their car was a Ford Taurus; it was rear wheel drive and did not have studded tires. Normally, it got around 20 miles to the gallon, but that was not expected for this trip, since there was an 18-foot 1950s-style wooden canoe strapped to the roof!

When we stopped for gas before leaving Anchorage, I noticed that they didn't shut off the engine while filling the tank. They said they had recently purchased the car, and had just noticed that the car would need a jump if the engine was shut off when air temperatures were below freezing. Were they kidding!? Since temperatures are often 20 to 40 degrees below zero along the Alaska Highway in winter, that meant they would have to keep the engine running for the entire trip, including all fueling stops!

As we were driving along a little while later, a warning message appeared in the dash, and the engine simultaneously quit running! They said that the message had indicated some fluid being low (windshield washer fluid, radiator coolant or engine oil), so they made sure all fluids were topped off. They said that when any warning message appears, it somehow short circuits and kills the engine! How convenient! With temperatures below freezing, this means we will need a jump start each time it happens! And we still had several thousand miles of remote road travel ahead, under the long dark northern winter, and with few other vehicles along the way from which to seek assistance! I began to seriously wonder if I had made the right choice of options for my annual migration south.

Temperatures did remain below freezing for the entire trip. Not just outside the car, but inside as well! It was about 20 below outside, so the heater had a difficult time keeping the car warm. And with three people all exhaling moist air, ice would quickly form on the inside glass surfaces. In order for the driver to keep a small area of the windshield free of ice, some windows had to be opened a little, bringing the cold air directly inside. I sat on the back seat, wearing my coat and hat, and wrapped in three sleeping bags to stay warm. To one side was a gallon jug of water, which was soon frozen solid!

During our travel together across Alaska, the Yukon Territory, and British Columbia, we needed a total of four jumps to get the car restarted. In all four cases, as luck would have it, a car was either already there or appeared literally within a minute. In one case, as we approached Whitehorse, we were low in gas and the distance to the next filling station was unknown. Several times the lights in the distance ahead gave us false encouragement that we were reaching the edge of town. Finally, the engine sputtered and died. We coasted for a little while, coming to a stop just about 100 yards short of a filling station. Martin ran up, purchased some gas and a plastic fuel can (which we later lost), arranged a jump for us, and we were quickly "on the road again".

Taking a bus in British Columbia

Before leaving Anchorage, I had worked out the logistics for getting the rest of the way to my car in Portland. I could either take a Greyhound bus for $150 from Helena, or a Greyhound Canada bus for $175 (Canadian) from Dawson Creek (at the eastern border in the middle of British Columbia). The latter option meant saving a day of travel, not to mention the savings in distance and fuel. As it turned out, the former option would not have worked anyway. Martin and Mike had no problems getting to Utah, but I would have been stuck in Montana, as snowstorms shut down I-90 and the buses could not run. Anyway, when we reached Dawson Creek they dropped me off at the Greyhound Canada bus station, early Saturday morning (the 20th), along with my luggage: two very large cardboard boxes, a large backpack and two hand carry bags.

Now I've taken the Greyhound before - several pleasant short trips in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as well as half a dozen longer (mostly full day) trips across the US just a few years ago. Those last trips were so absolutely miserable in every way imaginable that I swore I would never, ever take a ride with Greyhound again! (I did keep a log of all the ways that things went wrong, in case anyone ever wants to learn the details.) But this was Greyhound Canada - it must be better. I've had many pleasant bus trips across Europe, Australia, China and Thailand, so why not in Canada as well?

But the price of $175, quoted on the Greyhound Canada internet site for the fare from Dawson Creek to Portland, had become $220. (They claimed they weren't able to update the price listed on the web, and they certainly weren't willing to honor it.) Plus it was now early Saturday, banks were closed, and Greyhound doesn't do exchange rates, so this became $220 American (which was also worth about 10% more, over $240 Canadian). There was no baggage service, so I had to take all my bags from the waiting area to the bus, which (if you remember my luggage list) took me three trips.

Unlike my bus rides across America, where none of the other passengers spoke a word of English, these Canadians were quite language adept. Also, they weren't all talking on cell phones to their lawyers and parole officers, as they were on my prior trip across USA. (I'm not joking! According to the Las Vegas Sun, the normal method used by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to transfer "low-risk" inmates between institutions is to purchase bus tickets and release them for travel, unescorted and not identified as prisoners, with simply an arrival deadline! The article, published in May of 2009, said that for the prior three years, only 180 of some 90,000 inmates with such transfers had absconded (that's 0.2%).)

But then I noticed that, as we rode along, the cold bus didn't get any warmer. The heater and fans were going full force, but only acted like an air conditioner set on maximum cold. My three sleeping bags were in the luggage, and with only my coat and hat to wear, I was colder on the bus than I had been in the car! When I asked about the (lack of) heat, they pointed out that the buses were made in Mexico. I suppose there's no need for good heaters or insulated air ducts there.

Welcoming stay in Vancouver

By the next morning we would reach Vancouver, where I was supposed to transfer to the bus going on to Seattle and Portland. A few stations away, the bus driver prepared me for the possibility of switching buses at an earlier station, thus not having to travel the extra distance in to Vancouver and back. But the connecting bus never arrived, so I remained on the same bus, arriving in the big city fairly early in the morning (about 8am). Upon arrival I found the city almost at a standstill, blanketed in over a foot of fresh snow. At the station we were greeted with signs saying that, due to weather conditions, buses were canceled all day, and we must return tomorrow morning for news about bus travel during the next few days.

I called the only person I knew who lives in Vancouver, but he was not home. He was attempting to return from Colorado, and was dealing with snow closures on the interstate highways. So I got out a book and tried to relax, preparing for a long day trying to escape from boredom and a long night attempting to sleep on partitioned benches. Hopefully, I would be at the beginning of the line the next morning, and back on my way to Portland. But around midnight, after some 16 hours of hanging around killing time, I was told that the station was closing and I had to leave immediately! I explained that the stayover was not planned but was due to the cancellations, as I wondered to myself why they had waited all day to inform us that we would all be kicked out onto the streets.

Since I have traveled the world a little, I have often spent the night in a chair at some miscellaneous bus station, train depot, or air terminal. I was informed by an airport security officer many years ago (in the US) that there was an international law stating that for any "international" terminal (whether traveling by bus, train, or plane), passengers are granted permission to remain on grounds until the connection is available. I mentioned this to the security officer, and he responded that it did not apply because this was not an international station. Right! Just because this station is in Canada, and there are buses and trains leaving for the United States, not to mention the presence of the foreign currency exchange and the US/Canada customs office, doesn't mean that the station is international, does it?

Now I don't know how they do it, or why they would try, but Greyhound always manages to place their bus stations in the highest crime areas of town. As I moved my belongings into the wet snow outside the building and began putting up my tent, someone noticed that a few blocks away was a McDonalds open 24 hours. So I shuttled my three loads of luggage through the foot deep snow and joined the crowd of "preferred travelers" at the McDonalds indoor campground. There were 22 of us who ended up spending the night, thanks to a considerate security guard willing to make an exception to their maximum 20 minute loitering rule. (And of course we showed our appreciation and satisfied our hunger by purchasing various food items from the menu.)

Exploring alternate transportation

In the morning (now Monday the 22nd), I shuttled my three loads of luggage through the snow again, back to the station to check for an update on the buses. Greyhound claimed that their southern route buses were all being held up in Portland due to highway closures, so trips to Seattle and beyond were canceled for at least a couple more days! But I learned that another bus company was still running multiple times per day, so I cashed out the remainder of my Greyhound ticket and bought a ride from the competition, leaving immediately. This other company had not canceled any trips, and were still running to Seattle even without chains! The bus was warm, and the only inconvenience was at the US customs, since I had to shuttle my three loads of luggage through the cattle chutes to the giant scanning machine, and then back to the bus again.

We arrived at the Seattle train station early in the afternoon, and I quickly shuttled my three loads of luggage into the crowded waiting room. At the ticket counter, I asked if the trains were running to Portland today, knowing that trains had been canceled the day before. Yes, he said, the late morning train was running, though all the others were canceled. But it was already the afternoon! Ah, but that train was delayed, so it hadn't left yet. Great! Could I get a ticket for it then? No, sorry, it was all sold out! And so were all the trains for the next few days, until after Christmas. Big disappointment. And I had gotten so far!

As I stepped aside, the woman in line behind me went up to the counter and asked similar questions. Just then another woman came out of the crowded room and offered up her seat in exchange for a seat on a train leaving a few days later. The woman at the counter was ecstatic - here was the ticket she wanted! They hugged each other as I watched in amazement. If only I had arrived just a minute later! As she joined the crowd, I asked the man if maybe there was a chance someone else may want to give up their seat for one on a later train. He doubted it, since she was the first one to do so after the snowfall. But I didn't give up, and after considerable effort, I managed to acquire permission to go on "standby".

When the train finally arrived, I found my seat to be on the car furthest from the station. So I raced to shuttle my three loads of luggage onto the train before it started moving. (This meant just throwing it into a closer car and transferring it to the correct car after the train was moving.) It seemed like at least half of the people in the station got on this train. I assume that at least some of those remaining were on the canceled Portland trains and would have to wait another day or so until space was available. But once on the train, I found it to be half empty! The train was bound for Los Angeles, so I assume the unoccupied seats were booked for another part of the journey, after Portland. But all of the people remaining in the station could have been seated on this train for at least as far as Portland!

The train rolled rather slowly, sometimes stopping for quite some time while workers melted through ice and snow to free frozen switches, which were the reason for the train delays and cancellations. I had called and left a message for a friend to pick me up at the Portland station, and when he called Amtrak to get an updated arrival time, they told him there were no trains arriving that day. Fortunately, he drove up anyway, picking his route carefully along slick roads covered with snow and ice. Shortly afterwards, we arrived at his house, where my car was resting under a blanket of snow.

Speeding along toward Arizona

The next morning (23rd), I dug my VW Fox wagon out from under two feet of snow, crawled into the drivers seat, and turned the key. Now it had been parked for eight months (since late April), and had not been started during that time - but it started right up! (What can I say, it's a Volkswagen.) That afternoon I filled it up with gas and pulled onto I-205, heading toward I-5 south. It was solid ice with two grooves per lane. Traffic slowed, went stop and go, and finally came to a standstill. To travel the distance of only eight miles took a full eight hours! People were running out of gas. Someone not familiar with the consequences of snow had decided to completely shut down I-5 to facilitate snow plowing, so all the feeder routes backed up. I eventually reached I-5 at around midnight, and decided to just continue driving.

In the mountains of southern Oregon, there were signs stating that carrying chains was required. But the roads were nothing compared to what I was accustomed in Alaska, and my car had front wheel drive, so I didn't bother to put my chains on. When I reached northern California, there was one pass where they stopped everyone and didn't allow anyone to continue unless there were chains on all driving wheels. So I stopped at an exit to put on my chains ... but I couldn't find them! Looking at a map, I decided I could drive an extra two miles and avoid the pass by taking country roads. I asked one of the chain guys about the route, and he said it would work, except that there was an inch or two of snow on the roads! Whatever. These people worry too much. I drove it without incident, returning to I-5 after the pass.

Approaching the Bay Area, I headed west for Marin County, where a friend lives up on some hill. He has a cell phone now, so I wasn't able to reach him, but I decided to drive up the crazy hills and narrow windy roads to visit anyway. He wasn't home, so I returned to the flatlands and stopped at a pay phone to call a friend who lived in San Francisco. He has a cell phone now too, so he was also unreachable. When I tried to back out of the parking space, I could not get the shifter to access reverse gear! I pushed myself out of the spot, but found that I also could no longer reach first or second! Stopping for gas, I decided not to drive to the hilly city without reverse and the lower gears. Instead, I spent the night (Christmas Eve) at a roadside rest area. In the morning, I drove to Oakland to visit some friends for Christmas.

For the following two days (the 26th and 27th), I drove on southward to Tucson, which was my destination. I had to be careful where I parked, having no reverse, and I tried to stay on the interstate highways to avoid traffic lights and stop signs. But I made it the whole way without any problems, and didn't even burn out the clutch. If fact, considering the road closures and all the canceled airplanes, buses and trains, I probably made it through the only way that was possible!