Living Up To The Name: Driving My Toyota Land Cruiser From Texas To Alaska, Part 2
Photography by John Montesi
This is a continuation of last week’s inaugural story on my Texas to Alaska road trip. To see the start of my journey with my dog Hank, check out part 1 here.
From high in the Rockies, the road to Utah becomes less winding and less steep as it points westward, a gradual shift that occurs over hundreds of miles feels somehow abrupt on the scale of a transcontinental trip. The mountains tiptoe out of focus and give way to the signature red rock and sand that draw visitors from all over the world to southern Utah. The heat outside was relentless, yet the Cruiser kept its cool throughout. An old favorite corner of the United States felt brand new with the suddenly limitless possibilities offered up by a capable and willing truck. There were eerie semi-ghost towns and burned-out bridges, relics of eras when humanity couldn’t defeat nature with engineering. There were trails that seemed to point to nowhere with minimal signage and increasingly impassible obstacles. I laughed as the Cruiser clawed its way across rock gardens and places where any semblance of trail disappeared save for the errant trace of rubber left on slick rock where traction had once been an issue for some previous traveler.
In a few whirlwind days, we hit as many hike, bike, and truck trails as time and temperature permitted. I saw more of the Moab region than I had in all my previous visits combined—the Land Cruiser’s personality rubs off on you and renders every dusty trail an opportunity, slow and steady progress becomes a way of living, not just traveling. We clung to the crazed grades that slice through the Colorado River’s preamble to the Grand Canyon, and we climbed the infamous Shaffer Trail to the rim of Canyonlands National Park. Here, the truck’s lone mechanical failure gave the day a flavor of bona fide adventure, and ultimately proved to be a not-so-subtle reminder that this trip really is about the journey and the people we meet along the way. With an abundance of kindness from new friends, we were rolling westward a few days later, to drink beer and marvel at the Mormon temples in Salt Lake City, to experience the crunchy, bright splendor of the Bonneville Salt Flats, and to see friends old and new (including a stop at the Petrolicious HQ!) up and down California.
Here, we found another familiar place in my life that was brought into new focus through the lens of traveling. There were can’t-miss stops along the way for wheeling and mountain biking, different spots along the same trodden trails I’d taken many times before, and old friends who I forced to drop everything they were doing so we could catch up. When you’re doing something ridiculous (“You’re driving where?! In that?”) and are constantly on the move, it’s easier to grab the attention of those who are buried in routines and bygone years. And this is where travel is filled with life, where every underpowered and leaf-sprung mile gains its extra layer of meaning. Friends from old chapters, new friends with common interests, and perfect strangers who can’t help but wonder what you’re up to all join in the journey in their own way, and fill the days with something more memorable than the greatest vista or most harrowing 4×4 trail.
I think of meeting an old and dear friend in San Francisco for dinner, humming along the crowded streets in my truck and sliding into a parking spot like the protagonist of a pre-The Voice Blake Shelton song. We drank wine and ate in courses until closing, and as we were leaving, she unlocked her bike to ride home. That may be the norm, but I insisted on giving her a lift, and we put the bike up on the rack and headed down the road towards her place. When we arrived, her freckled nose crinkled in the same way it always has as she laughed.
“Your buckles have the little button in the middle!”
It’s amazing what people notice about the old hunks of steel we know so well as to not pay attention to anymore. The human element of traveling, of cars, of life, is what makes the days worth living and the miles worth enduring. On a rough day, it is easy to daydream about appliance-level automobiles that reliably execute their intended missions, and it can become tempting to contemplate where your life might be if instead of sinking money into buying and maintaining old cars and then spending time using them you were ignoring that siren song for the safe and conventional instead.
Then again, that thinking could be followed all the way to the ascetic pursuit of a checklist-driven dream, wherein one might possess all the trappings of modernity and yet not have felt a single thing along the way. And so, the replacement cost of a transmission, the slightly-burnt fingertips and busted knuckles of a quick bushing swap, and even the heart-rending feeling of dining with friends nearly-forgotten who, in some other life, may have played a far bigger role in your story, all conspire to give meaning and feeling to the days which go by. Every admiring old man in Grand Junction who “always wanted one of those,” every woman in Seattle who remembers driving a hand-me-down Land Cruiser through college, every excuse to sit and speak to a limitless cross-section of humanity makes the mind- and ass-numbing miles pass just a bit faster. And if that’s not an obvious metaphor for the human experience, I don’t know what is.
From California’s Lost Coast we pressed even further northward, through Grass Valley to pick up a rear bumper I’d purchased months prior, before heading on to Redding and into Oregon. At Crater Lake, we picked up a hitchhiker and made our way around to the other side of the rim before getting stuck in a flagger/pilot car construction zone. I missed the green light by about ten seconds and ended up waiting nearly forty minutes to go again. The flag guy was great company and even better at telling stories though, so I didn’t mind. He loved Hank and made wry jokes from beneath his mustache, alternating reverence for canines and scorn for people. He spoke of putting his last dog down with a handgun and a handful of hot dogs, and of being spurned in love at least once in his seventy-plus very tough years. He asked how far I was headed, and started offering suggestions immediately once he heard “Alaska.”
Then my new passenger chimed in too, “Are you going to hike to the bus in Denali?”
“I’m not planning on it,” I replied. I was rather disappointed in how basic of a turn the conversation took after the flag man’s nuanced monologue.
“What the hell, what bus?” the man snarled. All was not lost.
The hitchhiker, who’d introduced himself as “Gringo” and spoke in an accent I had trouble placing, was visibly uncomfortable from the man’s candor, which I thought passed the time wonderfully. We headed around the way once the pilot car arrived and he said, “Man, that guy really has some women issues huh?”
“Where are you from, Gringo?”
“I am from Washington, D.C. I just use my road name and my international English when I am out traveling.”
“And you’re hitchhiking around?”
“Well, no, but I was only coming into the park for the day so the entrance fee didn’t seem worth it. I just hitchhiked in and now I am trying to explore before I leave.”
I dropped him off at the trailhead he requested then headed onward towards Portland.
There the truck was given a few days’ respite while I rode my bicycle and let my host play chauffeur. In Bend, we hurtled down gravel roads towards fishing spots and netted a few trout species I rarely get a chance to see. I rode mountain bikes with a Petrolicious reader, then had dinner and beers at Deschutes Brewery and discussed everything but cars, as is somehow so often the case with the wondrous people you meet through them.
Continuing our take on the Pacific Northwest, we followed forgotten trails to Spokane, where a lovely few days were spent with a host who owns an FZJ80 along with an impressive stable of bikes. As per usual, the commonalities were understood, and instead I learned much about the rugged beauty of Eastern Washington and was immediately welcomed into a vibrant and friendly community there. And in Seattle, we caught up with old friends and wrenched on the truck with absurdly generous forum members who quite literally pulled parts from their own trucks to help me head towards the unknown with comfort and confidence.
It is impossible to adequately cover the happenings and scenery between Austin and the Canadian border. The days were filled with transit and conversation, cold beers and hot bike rides, and games of fetch wherever there was water. And crossing that border marked the turning of a page between chapters. I headed from Bellingham, Washington and so many cities with familiar names and at least a friendly face or two, towards Vancouver Island to meet a longtime reader who had discovered my writing during the mad dash around the Lower 48 in the 911. I spent a weekend learning the things that can only be taught with the combination of understood commonalities and plenty of differences and the time to let conversation unravel amidst two-hour sunsets on the 49th Parallel. And once we ferried back to the mainland, Hank and I faced an astounding two thousand miles of trees to reach Alaska’s southernly city, to say nothing of all that lies beyond it. The mapped unknown is a treasured thing. Unlike the plummeting darkness that greets us when we spend silent moments with life’s biggest questions, maps promise that there is a passage, should we choose to pursue and follow. While the dots indicating towns shrink and spread further from each other, there remain lines drawn between them promising roads and symbols for gas stations just within the Toyota’s minimal range. I grew a bit uneasy as we sped away from Vancouver as quickly as possible. The lack of tall buildings lowered my blood pressure, but the utter uncertainty of everything else would challenge my resolve and resourcefulness in a way that no obstacle thus far ever had. Then again, everything ahead of us has a tangible solution—a book of maps, clear thinking, a toolbox and helping hands (and a can of bear spray) will get us everywhere we want to go. If only everything worked that way.
You can follow John’s travels at his website, johntesi.com and on Instagram @john_tesi