This is part of a series on life and careers that that started with this post, An Unconventional Journey – Life, Learning and Work.
It had been a rough semester at Harvard. Getting away from the city seemed like a really good idea. It was a short trip from Cambridge to Newton’s Silver Lake Dodge in the spring of 1970 to take delivery of a shiny Dodge PowerWagon.
I have described it as a beast and like other trucks of the day, it rode like a truck. It had a four speed manual transmission. Of course the shifter and the transfer case that allowed you to switch into four wheel low were both on the floor and far from silky smooth. For the day, the standard tires were pretty big. The big 3/4 ton truck had manual locking hubs, two gas tanks, and an eight thousand pound mechanical winch behind its extended front bumper. On a good day, it would get ten or eleven miles to the gallon. The plan that I hatched with one of my roommates was to drive to Alaska with it.
School at Harvard in that spring was cancelled because of all a few riots and lots of demonstrations. I headed home as soon as I got the truck. I had ordered a cover the same height as the cab for the back from a place just south of my home in Mount Airy, North Carolina. It would allow us to build a platform for our four inch foam mattresses and store our gear underneath it.
We outfitted it with my faithful Coleman Stove and lantern, my favorite camping cooler, and a large Igloo water cooler. In addition we had our sleeping bags, climbing ropes, my fishing gear, first aid gear, cooking equipment, a couple of big bumper jacks, medical supplies and a good selection of tools that might save the day.
There was also a five-shot Remington 30-06 semi-automatic and a 30-30 Winchester lever action plus a 44 magnum pistol. I had talked to a bush pilot in Anchorage. He told me that they would not fly us into the back country unless we were armed. The only gun I had to buy was the 44 magnum pistol. Neither rifle had ever been used for anything beyond target shooting. I had given up hunting four or five years earlier.
Around the third week of June, we packed up and headed off from Mt. Airy. The goal was to get to Alaska or at least the western US mountains as quickly as possible. Somewhere on a country road in the Midwest, we pulled down a short slope into the edge of a farmer’s field. We were going to catch a few hours sleep. It rained a little and we decided to move on but the top few inches of the field had turned to mud. We locked the hubs, engaged the four wheel drive, and nothing happened.
I ended up taking the locking hubs apart and adjusting them in order to get us out of the field. It would not be the last time I would be reminded that four wheel drive just lets you get stuck in worse places and that whenever something can break, it will break.
Somehow we managed to make our way out to Colorado where we started climbing. We had been doing some practice climbing in Maine and rappelling down anywhere we could find a place to tie off. I had even rappelled down from the fourth floor attic of our Mount Airy home.
The first few climbs went fine but one day about seventy-five feet up with my boot clinched to a ledge of rock barely an inch wide, I decided that I would rather fish than climb. I rappelled down and that was it for me and climbing. My roommate seemed fine with my decision, we figured that we could find someone for him to climb with when we got to the climbers’ camp in the Grand Tetons. I would fish by myself while he climbed.
After driving across some high passes where snow still partially covered the picnic tables in the highest campgrounds, we finally made it the Tetons. It didn’t take long before a climbing trip to the Grand Teton was arranged. I dropped my partner off and agreed to pick him up three days later.
Over the next few days, I tried a number of trout streams without any luck and enjoyed a few meals at Moran’s Chuck Wagon. When I went back to pick up my traveling partner, I was told that he was not there. He had slipped on an ice slope on the descent from the Grand Teton. He had been unable to stop his slide and ended up falling one hundred fifty feet to a ledge barely a foot or two wide.
After they got him off the ledge, he managed to walk out five miles with a broken collarbone. They had taken him to the Jackson hospital which is where I headed. After talking to the doctor, I called his parents and soon afterwards, I loaded him into the back of the truck and headed off to the larger hospital in Idaho Falls. They were fine with me handling his “care.”
I spent a week in the Idaho Falls KOA campground while my partner got well enough to travel. Of course he was in no shape to drive and would not be for a long time, but he was determined to make it to Alaska. After the hospital stay we headed up to Montana’s Hungry Horse Lake by way of Yellowstone Park. We finally got to a camping spot near the lake, I found a stream full of cutthroat trout. It was my first success fishing on the trip and I loved it. The fresh fish were great fried up on the Coleman stove.
The trip would get more exciting as we headed north through Alberta.