Alaska 2003

Thursday, January 1st, 2004
We were the only car on the road, the guy was right. Nothing nor nobody showed up for hundreds of kilometers. Not even wildlife, just wilddeath, because all we saw were three Mooses. All of them dead, probably run over by trucks, otherwise the cars would still be there also. If the engine stops now, the only thing one can do then is to pray. There was not a single soul out there. But even a flat tire or a broken belt would be almost as bad as a broken engine. Even if I knew how to fix it, the temperature outside would make impossible even to hold a screvdriver. But the engine will not stop. It is a Mercedes-Benz and will keep going on and on and on... There is no doubt.
Almut brought a little bottle of Campagner. One sip for each of us and it was empty. That was the first time in my life, I drank while driving, and probably the last time as well. We had fireworks, but I couldn't reach them, as they were on the very bottom of the trunk. We also didn't see any fireworks, as we were driving through nowhere. But we saw Northern Lights for the first time on this trip. Green, vertical lines like painted with the brush. I wanted to take a picture, but I must have lost my tripod somewhere on the hill after Dawson Creek. To take a picture of this phenomenon I would need at least 8 seconds exposure time, but out there it is impossible to hold the camera quiet for even half a second.
We arrived at Fort Nelson between 2 and 4 o'clock. It was terribly cold. I asked for the temperature. They said arround -25°C (-13°F). OK, that's definitely to cold to sleep at a rest area and it was New Years Day, so we took a hotel. I parked the car and left the engine running the whole night again. And I was not the only one. Either people plug their cars in or the leave them running, which is definitely best for the engine. That was a short night, way to expensive for just six hours, but still better than to die frozen.

The next morning (morning is, when the sun rises, which means about ten thirty) we continued. The engine still didn't want to warm up, so the heating was not working properly. How must it have been in Russia, as the cars didn't even have a heater and the temperatures were way lower than here. I had no idea of how cold it really was. And always that god damned steel shanks!

At 12:42 h. The sun was already setting again.

We stopped at a Café next to the highway to have some tea. I still got some Coca-Tea left from Peru. We used to drink it in the Andes, as it helped a lot against hunger, thirst, cold and altitude. Down there the temperatures were much higer, but the altitude also was (up to 5.200 m or 17.000 ft). I put some more cardboard between the radiator and the fan in order not to let the heat escape. That took some minutes, but to take the cardboard out of the trunk alone was a torture. I could neither feel nor move my fingers afterwards and I almost got crazy trying to shut the trunk. I was so unbelievable cold, I never had felt such low temperatures before. I asked the pretty witress in the Café, if she knew, how cold it was. "I'm not sure..." I asked her, if she does sell termometers. She did and she told me to take one out of the shelf and put it outside, which I did. After half an hour I took it in again and noticed that the scala was not low enough to measure the temperature. In the same moment I saw a thermometer next to the door, only a few inches beside the thermometers for sale on the shelf. How can we be so stupid? Two idiots trying to figure out how cold it is. If I wasn't one of them, I would have said: "What do you need to know, how cold it is? Your brain froze years ago already."

But at least we knew, how cold it was: -32°C or -26°F

The cardboard helped a lot, now the engine temperature was as it should always be. Outside the thermometer dropped again. I remember, when I was in Playa del Carmen and I was complaining about the hot and humid climate down there. An american guy, I think it might have been Gary, said: "One day you will be in Alaska and then you will remember how nice the climate in Playa was." I disagreed. And I still do. I definitely prefer to be here than down there.
The big disadvantage is that up here, there's only a few hours of daylight, which makes it hard to appreciate the amazing landscape. Most of the time it is dark and we can't see more than the icy road. We are able to deal with the low temperatures. As long as the engine is running there is no reason for panic. Of course the heater can not keep the 23°C inside the car. Both rear windows are covered inside with a coat of ice, which kept growing constantly during the last days. Almut uses to pack herself into the sleeping bag and I am having a hard time to keep my feet warm. These bloody steel shanks. They may be good if somebody drops the hammer and hits your foot, but in this climate your feet can freeze. And they felt like they were about to do that. From time to time I have to stop, get out of the car and stamp arround. That sucks, particularly because it cools down the car. We passed one car the whole day. American plates and it was going really slow. Maybe he was afraid to slip but the road conditions were really good, although everything was covered with ice, but it was dry ice, not slippery at all.

At the evening we reached Watson Lake. It would be suicide to sleep on one of this rest areas. There is too much stuff on the rear seat, so we can't lean the seats back, and sleep outside without being able to dig a hole means that in the summer somebody will find two bodies next to a brown Mercedes - but I'm sure, the engine would still be running then.
I stopped at a petrol station to look after the cardboard on both sides of the radiator. It needed some mainenance, so I turned off the engine. Of course I didn't turn off the headlights and the radio. After everything was fixed, I tried to turn it on again. Nothing. God damned! Thank god it didn't happen out there on the road. I started searching the jumper cables, I knew they had to be somewhere in the trunk. That was not so easy. After some seconds of searching, I had to go back into the store to warm up myself again. After a few trials I got them. They felt like huge boiled and frozen spaghetti. I tried to straighten them up. As the first one simply cracked apart, I thought to myself: "That's copper, it can't brake, that's ridiculous..." But as the second cable went the same way I just said "Fuck!" and threw them into the dumpster, went back to the store and wanted to buy new ones. 31 bugs, that's a rip off. I grabbed them and went back to the car. Once again I tried to start and suddenly the diesel was running. I gave the cables to Almut and told her to put them back before the guy notices that I was about to buy them. I asked for a Hotel. "Right next door, it's the only one that has opened today." I hate that, if it's the only one there is no negotiation about the rates and this rates are very high. Last time I used a hotel I never paid more than ten dollars, because I always had the option to sleep somewhere on the road. This option doesn't exist here.
I asked, if the guy knew the temperature. He said: "Right now we have 35 degree below (-31°F), but tonight Celsius and Fahrenheit are going to meet eachother." That means minus fourty degrees. In the foyer I met the guy that I passed on the road. The reason why I was able to pass him although he had a 4WD was simple: His wife was driving. Chuck Yeager was right when he said: "It's the man, not the machine." They are also heading to Anchorage.
I parked the Benz right in front of the window of our room. What a sweet romantic melody playing all night long. A few hours before I was talking to Almut about the problem we would have if one of the tires get flatened. I still have no tool to change it. She was supposed to bring it, but all the stuff was still in Germany in Alexanders trunk. When I went out to smoke a cigarette I saw exactly the missing tool in the snow. Somebody must have dropped it. I grabbed it and wanted to bring it to the car, but could only hold it for a few steps. As I wanted to drop it I couldn't in the first moment, because my fingers were attached as if they were glued onto the iron. That hurts. I kicked it the rest of the way and placed it behind the front tire to substitute the parking brake, which quit working years ago.

Friday, January 2nd, 2004
In the morning both the window and the courtain in the room were frozen. I asked about the temperature. -43°C (-45°F). At noon we left the hotel and went back to the Alaska Highway. The gear was really loud, I guess the oil was frozen and had the consistance of honey. After ten or twenty miles it was running normally again. Almut gave me something brown and cold while she was organizing the mess on the rear seats. "What the hell is that?" "The coke you dropped yesterday..." The windshield began to freeze inside, even though the heater was running at full speed. The sun was setting already when we left. As soon as the sun raises it starts to set, it's always twillight time. And for a few hours one is able to admire the scenery. After that all you can see is the dark road as far as the high-beams reach.

On the Alaska Highway.

We wanted to reach Whitehorse today. Only about 500 km, it is not a big deal. I noticed that something was wrong with the battery, sometimes the radio switched of as I switched on the high-beams. That means: Do not turn the engine off, no matter what happens. As long as the engine runs we are save, once it stops for whatever reason, we are in big trouble. This journey and the one we did through the Serir al Gatusah in 1999 in Libya are the most interesting ones, the basic difference are just 86°C (154°F), as there we had 43°C (109°F), here we have -43°C (-45°F). As well here as there the most important thing we had to do to survive was to keep the car running under all circumstances. Here we are on the road, there we were off the beaten track, but in the heat of the desert, altough dangerous, with 120 l (arround 30 gal.) of water we had good chances to stay alive for weeks. Out here we have some hours, as water doesn't help. All we have are 100 l (25 gal.) of Diesel and 35 l (9 gal.) of pure Alcohol. In Mercedes-Benz we trust.
I heard some stories about driving in Northern Norway, where the climate is the same as here. But there you have full cellphone coverage, if something happens, you can at least make a call. We also hav a cellphone, but no service since days even in the bigger cities like Watson Lake, Whitehorse or Fort Nelson. And we saw only a few cars on the road. More than on New Years Eve, but it was not really much. Sometimes it is scary to travel in the darkness, nobody and nothing out there and temperatures that I could not resist for more than a few minutes. And each day brings us deeper and deeper into that hell made out of snow and ice. I used to say that there are a few persons, I would drive to hell and back. That's Almut and two of her brothers. Now we are exactly on that trip.
We had a stop at a gas station at Whitehorse, I had to improve the cold-barrage in front of the radiator, as it seemed to become even colder. When I was in the warm gas-station my right foot started hurting like hell. From the books I read about the campaign against Russia in WWII, where many german Soldiers lost hands and feets because of the harsh winter, I knew that this was one the first symptoms. God damned steel.

It was pretty early although it was dark already since many hours, so we decided to drive until the next little town called Haines. From there it would only be 330 km to the american border. Bordercrossing tomorrow. The next round of the fight Besold vs. INS wiould take place. I needed to be mentally prepared for that. Of course there was only one open motel, we had no choice. It was a very good motel, actually, but also very expensive. In other countries I could easily live one week with that money.
We tried to get a bottle of wine to make some Glühwein, but there was not one single store in the whole town. I wonder how people can live here. What if they get hungry? I do believe, that most people here already died without anybody taking notice of that fact. That's why everything is closed on the early evening already.
We didn't find even a open gas station, but we found some Aurora Bourealis. In exchange, we lost the way and it took several trials to get back onto the main road.

Northern Lights at a dirt road somewhere in the outskirts of Haine.


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by Markus Besold