he next two episodes occurred on one night. On Sunday August 24th, 1986, Cowboy Jazz began the long drive back from our second Alaskan tour. We'd flown up and back the first time, but the second tourall nine weeks of itwas 100% driving.
We left Juneau heading north via the Alaska Marine Highway ferry.
Our first stop was historic Skagway, the end of the line and one of only three ways out of Alaska's southeast panhandle, for those adventurous enough to drive.
After spending a final day in Skagway, we headed over White Pass and into the Yukon Territory. The road we took is blandly named SR2 (State Road 2; there aren't that many roads in Alaska) and leads to SR1, more famously known as the Alaska Highway.
The Alaska Highway (the "Alcan"), which we would be taking for approximately the next thirty six hours, was reputed to be "mostly paved." The 1520-mile road, constructed in 1942 (for reasons of national security), stretches from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada (milepost 0) through the Yukon Territory to Fairbanks, Alaska (milepost 1520).
The Alcan meanders along the Yukon-British Columbia border before veering south-southeast across British Columbia. The first leg of our trip would end in Calgary, Alberta, 1500 miles from Skagway. Our ultimate destination was Fort Collins Colorado, where we had a couple more gigs before the tour finally ended, appropriately enough on Labor Day.
The distance for the entire trip from Juneau to Fort Collins was a stupifying 2600 miles. All driven straight, with the exception of a single night's layover in Calgary.
Despite the merciless pace, driving the Alaska Highway was unique and worthwhile. In addition to ubiquitous eye-popping mountains, rivers, lakes and wildlife, a very real part of the deal was a palpable feeling of vastness and isolation. Traveling such distances across the wilderness, even with amenities such as a "mostly" paved road, a few far-flung outposts and even occasional traffic, fostered a sense of enormity and solitude beyond anything I'd ever experienced. To feel the wilderness is one of the main reasons why people drive the Alaska Highway.
Aside from the region's intense beauty, the first afternoon and evening were uneventful. As the night fell we noticed blue-green flashes in the sky, and realized it was something we'd heard a great deal about and desperately hoped to see: the northern lights.
The aurora had been recommended to us in tones of solemn reverence by numerous Sourdoughs. (A Sourdough is an experienced Alaskan resident, one who earns the title by survivng a uniquely Alaskan experience such as a face-to-face encounter with a bear.) One of the world's authorities regarding this famous phenomenon is Dr. S.-I. Akasofu, who introduces the Alaska Geographic text, Aurora Borealis; The Amazing Northern Lights, thusly:
"The Aurora Borealisthe northern lights is one of the most spectacular natural phenomena on earth. Its beauty and splendor are often beyond description.
We acted appropriately: we stopped the van and enjoyed about 45 minutes of the sensational aerial firestorm, laying on our backs in the middle of the remote, rarely traveled highway.
Laying down in the middle of one the world's most famous highways was in and of itself interesting. But the road was straight and flat, the silence so penetrating, if any vehicle should dare approach within miles we easily would have heard it. None did.
The aurora put on quite a show, dancing animatedly over large sections of the starry sky. We lay there exclaiming each showy display, but eventually fell into awestruck silence. We could have lingered longer, but sadly, we were on a schedule. Getting back in the van was difficult for everyone.
Band members were soon asleep; the luck of the late shift had fallen to me. In fact I had volunteered for the job, intending to take advantage of an opportunity I knew would slip through my fingers if I chose to sleep.