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February 1971

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Report From Alaska - Part 1



Juneau is one of the most beautiful, exciting, curious places on earth. It lays at the base of a ring of the most perpendicular mountains I have ever seen. They rise straight up a couple of hundred yards from the main street, and just keep going on up and up, and 'way up there in the low clouds that hang over Juneau are mountain goats, roaring waterfalls, and very large, broad shouldered bears. The 13,000 or so Juneauians are unevenly divided between those who spend most of the night going in and out of the Red Dog Saloon and those few who denounce them. After the Red Dog, and Ty Tyson, the bartender, begin to taper off around 1 :30 AM, the Dreamland opens for business and roars until the last bear staggers home bleary-eyed. From the minute my Alaskan Airlines 737 flipped over into a nearly perpendicular bank and whipped through the scudding clouds, whistling along the sheer face of a cliff for, of necessity, one of the hairiest air approaches anywhere, I knew that Juneau, and Alaska, were totally, completely and thoroughly real. I've read a lot of stuff about Alaska. I've seen films, and endless color slides, but all of it and none of it came anywhere near catching what it's really like. After a few hours in Juneau I knew damn well that it would take dispatches from a lot more than one city to give you any idea of this fantastic state. For one thing, Juneau is very different from the other parts of Alaska that I visited. The Japanese Current lays just offshore, giving Juneau a climate that in some ways resembles Seattle or Portland. But that is only statistically. There is rarely a day when it doesn't rain in Juneau, and perp~tually low, twisting clouds drift over and around the mountains, reaching down the gullies like some eerie grey smoke. This makes Juneau feel sort of enclosed, intimate and turned in on itself. The old clich "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes; it'll change" is absolutely true in Juneau. It is not a clich but an accurate description of Juneauian weather. The inlet that splits Juneau lies deep in a valley and, almost continually, float planes drone just under the cloud level a few hundred feet over the icy water. The float plane is to Alaska what the family car is to anywhere else. A large percentage of the population is licensed to fly, and everywhere there are red and white, hairy-looking Stinsons and Cessnas scarred and tested by years of bush flying. People in Alaska don't own cars; they own vehicles. They are very unsentimental or romantic about automobiles. They are used purely as machinery. The only criterion being, apparently, "Does it work?" If it doesn't, forget it. The cars are almost all battered, and have that hell-withit-all look that everything else in Alaska, including the people, seems to have. Not many foreign cars seem to make it in Juneau, and I would guess, mostly due to the parts problem as well as the insane grades and the gravel roads which are really tough on transmissions and differentials. You see a lot of International Harvester Scouts, some Rovers, a few Jeepsters, and a lot of plain, ordinary battered Fords and Chevys . .TheVolkswagen, of course, is on hand, and I'm beginning to suspect that when the world turns cold and Man departs, the only thing left will be VWs and cockroaches. Maybe they are the meek. Who knows. A few Volvos can be seen as well as a very occasional Saab, but for the most part any foreign cars around are usually driven by tourists who have come up the Alaskan Highway from the West Coast. By the way, no Alaskan ever calls it the Alcan Highway. That went out with the Andrew Sisters and "Johnny Got A Zero." It is the Alaskan Highway and don't you forget it. No matter what you call it, though, it is a rough stretch of roadway and can be as treacherous in many ways as any stretch of highway in the world. It is also wildly exciting and beautiful. If you want to take a couple of weeks off and do something that you will never forget, that trip up the Alaskan Highway will do until they run excursion capsules to the Moon. There is one thing about Juneau that completely floored me, something that in my wildest imagination I would never have guessed, and dammit, it pains me to report this, but here it is. Would you believe that one of the really big pains in the neck in Juneau is parking! And I mean it's really a hassle. If you think you've got it bad wherever the hell you are, you have seen nothing until you try to get a slot in Juneau. Good God Almighty! They have been known to fight it out on the street with .44 Magnums over a parking place. It's hard to figure out why this is, until you look closely at the town and realize that in spite of all the wilderness that surrounds Juneau, the actual town itself is jammed into a little space among the towering cliffs and there. Is damn little room on those. Narrow, twisting streets for hulking Toronados and billowing Electras. Most of the streets are only two cars wide, so spaces are actually rented by the month and they don't come cheap. The prices in Juneau for practically everything are staggering by Lower 48 standards. By the way, Alaskans generally refer to us as living in the "Lower 48" or the "South," or occasionally "The Lesser States." A guy stuffing junk mail into envelopes can earn $600 a month in Juneau, so naturally prices are incredible by conventional standards. Almost everything has to be flown in or trucked up the Alaskan highway, so a $3.00 hamburger is common. A breakfast of a couple of eggs, french fries, coffee and toast will go anywhere from $2.50 to three-and-a-half, with everything else on the same scale. A fairly modest steak will go maybe $9.00, so when you head North be sure to bring plenty of cabbage unless you intend to live off what you can catch or shoot. Gas is about $. 70 a gallon. Oddly enough, you get used to the prices very quickly and after a while you don't think anything of $.40 Coke machines and $.20 candy bars. I checked in to the Baranof Hotel, named after a Russian who ran the show in the Juneau area back in the days before Seward had committed his Folly and bought the whole state; mountains, glaciers, polar bears and all for $.02 an acre. I stepped out on the street 10 minutes later, turned left and headed for the Red Dog, which features an enigmatic Indian, sporting a haircut in the Napoleonic style, singing show tunes, accompanied by an even more Buddhalike Indian lady on the piano. The Red Dog is the kind of place "colorful" bars in the Lower 48 try to imitate, but never quite pull off. Five minutes later I was aware that I was in the presence of Big League drinkers. As one Alaskan put it to me: "What the hell else can you do? There are only two things to do in Alaska, and drinking is one of them." They stagger in and out of the swinging doors with purpose and dedication. These are not casual grab-a-Martini-on-the-way-home-from-work types; they are drinkers and everywhere I went in Alaska it was the same. It is a state where women are women and men are after them, and if you have any doubts about your sexual status they will be quickly resolved in the land where men moil for gold and the Northern Lights play o'er the skies like the chariots of Hell. I wanted to go fishing, and I ran into Steve Hildebrand, a 16-year-old Alaskan and the son of the Acting City Manager of Juneau. His sardonic wit drives his Old Man right up the wall, and is typical of Alaskans. A gentle cool rain, of course, was falling when I wheeled my rented, shuddering Ford Galaxie up the narrow gravel road to Steve's house, which sits on a high bluff overlooking the whole city with a view of unparalleled magnificence. He came trotting out with a couple of beat-up spinning rods and a canvas fish bag, which he tossed into the back seat. He then threw on the front seat between us as evil-looking a US Army standard issue .45 caliber automatic as I had ever seen. Also two full clips of copper-nosed slugs. "Jesus Keerist" I thought, "what kind of a cuckoo am I stuck with?" I tried to play it cool. "Ah . . . What's the roscoe for?" "The what?" Steve mumbled as he pulled his bright yellow elf hat down over his ears. "The .45. The cannon, you dope. What the hell's it for?" He wiped the sweat off the inside of the windshield with a dripping rag. "Bears," he said, as matter-of- factly as you would say 'cheeseburger' or 'Johnny Carson.' "It won't stop 'em, but it might scare 'em." Naturally, being a totally hip City Type I thought I was being put on. It wasn't until later that night that I found I wasn't, and that Steve did not kid. We drove out to Fish Creek, a magnificent tumbling stream, . Crystal clear and ice-cold that wound between towering hills and through great forests. Using a red and white spoon, within 10 minutes I had savage strikes which broke the line twice, losing lures and all, and finally hooked a salmon that fought for a good 15 minutes before I beached him. He went about 8 pounds, not large by local standards but great eating later that night when the hotel baked him for me. I landed another at least twice that size and released him, By that time the mosquitoes were really getting mean and the rain was coming down harder. Even the majestic bald eagle which had been circling above us, watching us suspiciously, his talons at the ready, decided to pack it in for the night So we decided to take the hint and drove back to town. On the way back, Steve and I talked cars. He is a fanatic Grand Prix nut, but like most other aficionados in Alaska, is starved for information. Car magazines are almost impossible to get. The demand far exceeds the supply. The only information they get is from Jeff Scott's network radio shows, and that's about it. "Hey Steve, I hereby officially propose the creation of the Grand Prix de Juneau." I barked in my best Robert Service manner as we scudded past a float plane base in the drifting rain. "Yeah, I can just see it now, Jackie Stewart roaring up the Perseverance Trail, a 2000 foot sheer drop 6 inches from his spinning wheels. To his left, the sharp-rising precipice of Mount Juneau, and in the undergrowth 10-foot bears waiting to play ping-pong with his Formula One mount. Three seconds behind him, his nemesis Graham Hill, making up lost time after a nasty mauling by a female bear and her three cubs at the Mendenhall River S-Turn, his teeth clenched with determination." "Stop! I can't stand it." Steve rocked with laughter as the torrents of rain roared down our windshield, the wipers hardly making a dent in the downpour. "That would sure be some race," he said, "the Grand Prix de Juneau. Oh boy! It would be the greatest race in the world . . . " he trailed off with a note ofhopelessness in his voice. Both of us said nothing as we drove back to his house, with the .45 between us and the dead salmon on the back seat. It would be the greatest race in the world, the most spectacular, the most grueling and without a doubt the most beautiful. Yep, I hereby officially propose that the Grand Prix de Juneau stand alongside Monaco and Le Mans. A supreme test of car, driver, and bear. Later that night Steve's mother bawled him out for taking the .45 along on a fishing trip. "If I hear of you taking that .45 out to Fish Creek again you're really going to be in trouble. Don't ever let me hear of you going out again with less than a 30-06. That .45 is nothing. You hear me?" Steve sulked. I gulped. "You know what happened to Jimmy." "Yeah," was all Steve answered. I, decided I didn't want to know what had happened to Jimmy. Alaska is that kind of country.


Copyright: 1971 Car and Driver

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