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No room at the inn for family and Jeep

Homespun yarns

 


It was 59 below on the Alcan Highway, and they had no choice but to drive on.

Our three tots—Ricky, Linda, and Annette—were smothered in snowsuits in the backseat of our green 1957 Jeep station wagon. Checking on them, I was shocked to discover two cans of soda had frozen solid in the back seat.

It was New Year’s Day 1963, five travel days north of Los Angeles, where we’d visited my wife’s family. Now we were in the winter-locked Yukon Territory. Our usual eight day trip up the Alcan Highway to our home in Kenai, Alaska was plagued with problems this time.

Why travel the bleak Alcan on New Year’s Day? A brand-new school on North Kenai was waiting for me, its new head teacher, to open it up.

The bitter cold made steering difficult. My wife, Dottie, patted me on the shoulder reassuringly as I once again scraped away frost from the inside of the windshield. The weak defroster fan didn’t help much. Soon my visibility was reduced to the size of a saucer, but we didn’t dare stop. I coughed in deep heaves from the subzero air wheezing through my lungs. My nurse wife was convinced I had pneumonia.

We finally saw the lights of a mom-and-pop motel and thanked the Lord our family was safe.

“How cold is it?” I asked the clerk.

“Oh, right about 59 below,” he said. “How can I help you?”

“We want a room with lots of heat,” I told him.

“Sorry, but we’re all filled up for the night,” he told me. “There’s the Iron Creek Lodge about 28 miles to the north. I think they might have one room left there. Holiday, you know.”

“But, but—I can’t go on,” I protested. “What if the little engine freezes up? We’ll perish!”

The clerk scratched his bald head, thinking it over. “Tell you what,” he said. “You take off for Iron Creek. If you aren’t there in, say, one hour, I’ll tell them to come out looking for you.”

We each had a piece of pie—at 15 cents a slice—and reluctantly piled back into the frigid Jeep.

The four-cylinder purred faithfully but the steering and my explosive cough worsened. We drove on, but the steering was so rigid we had to go slowly to maintain control. Dottie and I both offered up silent prayers.

At last we arrived at the tiny log motel on Iron Creek and got a room. For $2 more, the owner put up our car in a “heated garage,” which turned out to be a shed left over from the Alcan construction. The heat came from the motel generator’s exhaust pipe. It must have been 20 below in there.

Miraculously, the engine did start up the next morning and we crossed over into Alaska and stopped for gas. Feeling revived, I tried to chitchat with the service man. “Boy, It sure has warmed up,” I said. “I can breath again!”

He jabbed a finger toward a thermometer and snarled, “Buddy, if 32 degrees below zero is your idea of warm, there’s something wrong with you!”

 

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