How elusive wisdom is to the young! So it must be in general, and it was unquestionably accurate in my case (not to mention my roommate, Richard’s) in the year 1990. We were both in our early 20s and had not yet discovered that we weren’t immortal. Having so far successfully avoided this truth, we resolved one very cold winter evening to go on a reckless, 360-mile excursion to Fairbanks, Alaska. It turned out to be a first-class adventure and also a lesson on providence. Through a succession of challenges and youthful missteps, Richard and I were shown quite convincingly that God indeed looks out for children and fools.
It started on a boring night in December. It was around -5º in Anchorage and a maddening seventy degrees in my trailer, where Richard and I had draped ourselves across the couch like monuments to sloth, watching television. We had no skis, no interest in board games and no energy to begin with. The refrigerator wasn’t calling, and there was probably nothing in it anyway but a moldy lemon and an empty mayonnaise jar. As we watched some television detective thrash roomfuls of people without sustaining any injuries, a wild idea for a road trip began to form in my mind.
I tried to pretend I was only half serious: “You want to take a road trip?”
Richard wasn’t biting. He hadn’t yet descended to the bottom of his boredom pit. And anyway, his may have had a lower bottom than mine, if his copious interest in Mike Hammer’s crime-solving efforts shed any light on the matter.
“So what do you say? Let’s get out of her for a while.”
Richard just looked at me. “Don’t you think it’s a little cold for that?”
I waited a few seconds before answering him. “No. I’ve been wanting to go to Fairbanks.”
Now I had his attention. “Fairbanks? You want to go to Fairbanks in December at eight o’clock in the evening when it’s five below outside?”
I shrugged. “Why not?”
“‘Why not?’” he mimicked. “Because it’s below zero outside, undoubtedly much colder up north, and you haven’t even owned this car for a month. For all you know it will break down halfway up there.”
“Oh, that’s not going to happen. A Subaru is reliable. God bless them, those Japanese people make cars that are amazingly strong. Let’s just go.”
Richard shook his head. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Ten minutes later, before the voice of reason could utter a word, the two of us piled into my car and made for the nearest gas station, topping off the tank and checking the oil. We were doing it. Neither of us thought of gathering mittens, hats or extra coats before leaving town. Fairbanks was beckoning with all its quaint appeal, and we fancied ourselves intrepid adventurers. Sir Richard Francis Burton hadn’t needed to bother with such mundane considerations, had he? There was no one on hand to tell us that, yes, he most certainly had.
Off we went, enjoying ourselves immensely. We headed north on the Glenn Highway, imagining we could feel the reverberations of the city fade into our wake. Then, by increments, some of the joy went out of the trip. First, we lost radio reception. Then, gradually, the initial excitement of the trip was replaced by the work of managing the drive on the snow and ice. Finally, about three hours into the trip, we began feeling very cold. It was then that I remembered the heater core was clogged from the use of a cheap radiator sealant. The ambient air temperature had dropped ten or fifteen degrees, diminishing the negligible flow of warmth from the heater. We suffered in silence.
A while later, nearly out of gas, we stopped at the Igloo, a charming store/gas station out in the middle of nowhere. We fueled up and warmed ourselves at the counter, making conversation with the attendant. After about fifteen minutes, having bought some candy bars and other assorted provisions, we lit out again.
Richard fancied a stop at his family’s lodge in Cantwell, and two more hours of solid driving put us nearly there. After we reached Cantwell, we turned onto an access road, drove for about 20 minutes and finally came up against a gate which was pasted across with a notice:
CLOSED UNTIL MAY 15TH
Richard had told me there was usually a caretaker here during the off-season, but it had been years since his last trip out here. There was no sign of life. We stood there for a minute, weighing our options. Finally, we simply trudged disconsolately back to the car and continued on. Somehow the notice and the absence of people put a serious damper on the trip for a bit, as though the sign had read, “IF YOU HAVE DRIVEN OUT HERE IN THE MIDDLE OF WINTER, YOU ARE MENTALLY UNBALANCED AND NEED TO GO HOME IMMEDIATELY.”
Once back on the highway, the temperature continued to drop. The defroster had been on for hours, but the frost line continued to move down the windshield, gradually obliterating visibility. Fairbanks was still 150 miles north, and we began to wonder whether the frost would eventually cover the windshield entirely before we were able to complete the trip. It was at this juncture that we realized we had better not get a flat tire. We had brought no spare.
The drive continued interminably through the desolate deep, and we settled into the dullness created by the lack of variation in speed and perspective. It was bitingly cold. By the time we had gotten to within fifty miles of Fairbanks, the frost had covered all but two small semi-circles of windshield on each side. For the last hour of the drive, I was forced to stoop down and peer just over the top of the steering wheel in order to see the road.
Then, finally, we were in Fairbanks. It was five in the morning. The town was dark and empty, with a pestilential wind stirring sheets of snow about the roads and sidewalks. Richard and I were far too cold to do anything but find lodging. We checked out only two hotels, opting quickly for the Captain Bartlett Inn. We parked and scuttered inside, trembling because of the cold. It was -35º.
We checked in and went up to our room. Richard quickly became irritated because the unusually cold weather was overpowering the hotel’s heating system. Our room was freezing cold. We went back down to the front desk to complain, but the clerk simply handed us a space heater. Richard was incensed and launched into a lengthy speech about professional business practices while I rolled my eyes in sympathy at the clerk. We returned to our room and immediately plugged in the space heater. Then we ordered dinner from the kitchen and watched television as we ate. At last, exhausted but grateful to be in a warm hotel room, we quickly fell asleep.
The next afternoon, Richard and I rose and stretched luxuriously, beginning to consider what we might do for the day. About one minute later, as we were discussing this, a waxen-faced Richard declared: “We forgot to plug the car in!”
We thought we had sealed our fate. Surely we would discover that the cold weather had cracked the engine block, leaving us without a way home. It almost seemed better to break down on the road than to be stranded in a strange town, forced to beg assistance from the authorities, who would undoubtedly recommend a homeless shelter. There we would spend the next couple of days trying to contact our families and persuade them to send us hundreds of dollars for car repairs because of our inconceivable stupidity. But fortune was with us.
It was already growing dark as we opened the hood of the Subaru under the dim glare of the hotel’s outdoor lights. We removed the radiator cap, and underneath it there was nothing but green slush. We were speechless. I don’t know about Richard, but I was thinking quite a bit about the moment, just hours ago, when we had made the decision to drive up here. I was wishing that I had it to do over again.
We considered a course of action in light of our blunder. We felt certain that we were in a very bad situation, and we had begun to have more respect for Jack Frost. If he was able to immobilize us in town, how much more on the open road?
We settled on plugging in the car heater and hanging around the hotel bar. There we waited for two hours while the block heater did its work. We talked at some length with a middle-aged sourdough named Judd who had made his living as a miner for the last 25 years. We disclosed our bunglings to him and received a host of advice—at no charge—on why it was necessary up here to use not only a a block heater but a transmission heater and a battery heater as well. Richard, who would later joke about axle heaters and chassis heaters, told our new acquaintance it got cold in Anchorage, too.
After the man stopped laughing, we excused ourselves and resumed work on the car. Miraculously, it fired right up, and there was none of the thick, white smoke we would be seeing if indeed we had sustained a cracked block. We were overjoyed! Despite our elation at the turn of events, however, we had the presence of mind to let the engine run for half an hour while we relaxed in the hotel bar, making conversation with some of the other hotel guests. We were in much better spirits. Best of all, it had warmed up in town. It was now a balmy -25º.
We were ready to return to the tropical paradise of Anchorage, and we wasted no time. Once we were a ways out of Fairbanks, it became noticeably colder, with clear skies and a blustery wind that carried stinging bits of snow. About two hours into the drive, Richard and I were both shivering uncontrollably. The first opportunity to stop and warm ourselves happened to be the Healy Historic Hotel. There we scurried inside, clutching ourselves and trembling violently. It was quite warm inside, but we continued to shiver.
We encountered a middle-aged married couple inside who were the winter caretakers, and a pleasant conversation ensued. The four of us were the only occupants at the time. Soon the gentleman noticed our incessant shivering, and we explained the problem with my car’s heater core. At that point, both of them urged us to stay put. We had started into hypothermia and would not stop shivering for another 20 minutes. Even after we had stopped shaking, the couple exhorted us to stay, so we sat and talked with them by the crackling fire for a good while longer, well after we had begun to feel warm again. But finally, feeling the evening press upon us, we reluctantly climbed back into the ice-encrusted car and resumed the long drive home.
We made it back to Anchorage sometime after midnight, unscathed and not overly cold. We drove through Spenard to find the Chilkoot Charlies patrons still going strong. As we negotiated the icy street in front of the historic landmark, it happened: irony of ironies, five minutes from home, after avoiding death on both legs of a 360-mile winter drive, we had a traffic accident when another car pulled directly in front of us! It was no more than a fender bender, but the accident highlighted the fact that the laws of probability had been waived for us when it really counted.
In the 21 years since that jaunt to Fairbanks, the trip has become even more memorable to me and will stand forever in my mind as an object lesson on the importance of taking life’s hazards seriously. It is frightening to me to recall the way we brashly challenged death and yet came out again, having broken all the rules. I have long believed that God spared our lives that weekend.
Not quite four years after that trip, I opened the newspaper and read about an entire family who froze to death near Cantwell after having followed most of those same rules. They died. We didn’t. I don’t know why. In retrospect, it’s hard to see how two otherwise intelligent human beings were able to agree on such a trip and afterwards make it home. But I suppose such stories aren’t all that uncommon, at least not when they end the way we expect them to. Such tales are what keep the Darwin Awards going. But ours ended much differently. The real story? Human life is fragile without seeming to be, and there is most definitely a watchful and compassionate Creator looking down on us.