Arctic motoring – 19/01/08

The temperature hovered around minus twenty, and the roads were layered in ice. But even at two in the morning the car rental agent in the bowels of Ted Stevens international airport at Anchorage managed a pearly smile.
Perhaps it had something to do with the financial knife he was holding at my neck.
“Oh, yes Sir, the car you booked is $17.90 a day. Just like it says online. Of course there will be some additional fees. Perhaps a little extra for the insurance. The total for the week: just over $360, Sir.”
Well, call me a financial illiterate, but even at two in the morning that one woke me up. I opened my mouth to protest—and then slowly shut it again. I was too tired to argue.
Back home in British Columbia our trusty blue Dodge pick-up, Bob, had gone to the knacker’s yard after coming a cropper on the road. He was big, comfortable and warm.
My rental at Ted Stevens was small, pokey and frigid. It had been washed and left in the car park so that the doors and the boot were frozen. Only when I hit the highway the next morning did I realise what a thrill this little beast would be to drive. Here, in the Arctic in mid-January, it was wearing summer tyres.
Each time I pushed the gas, the only change was a light on the dashboard display saying: “Poor traction, ice possible.” Really!, I thought.
When we did get moving, it was the brakes that made no difference. Given the mixture of slick snow and ice, the brain on the brakes’ anti-blocking system decided that the appropriate course of action was to do nothing.
I slid across three-lane highways, sailed through stop-signs, and sat uselessly at green lights, wheels spinning under me, as impatient locals pushed up behind.
In another city I might have hoped to share my icy misery with other drivers as we sat at traffic lights and stop-signs. Here in Anchorage all I could see were the exhaust pipes, mudflaps and oversized tyres of oversized trucks, almost all of the tyres with shiny metal studs.
I craned my neck to see the faces of my fellow motorists. When they did look down, there was pity in their eyes, if not disdain. I was going through winter in the driving equivalent of leather-soled brogues, while the rest of the town was wearing crampons.
Back at the ranch, we were running our surviving second car on a bio-diesel blend, recycling all our waste, using compact fluorescent light bulbs and not using chemical fertiliser.
Alaska, its wealth drawn from oil, seemed to live in blissful ignorance of the environment. In my small apartment in Anchorage there was more wattage in the bathroom lighting than in our entire house in BC. Each day, as I heard the same ad on the local radio—”If you gonna buy a car, it oughta be a four b’four”—it seemed to make more and more sense.
And so, finally, the $60-a-day in rental fees still eating away at my pocket, and painfully aware that Bob would have to be replaced, I logged onto the local classified ads.
I found a car to dream of. A perfect vehicle for our summer alpine tours. A perfect car for watching bears in the spring and the autumn. A Toyota Sequoia. A jewel from the crown of the Japanese carmaker.
“Can I see it?” I asked the lady owner excitedly when I got through to her. We made a date for that very afternoon. With her two children nagging in the back seat, I kicked the tyres and drove the car around the parking lot.
Sorry I hadn’t been able to see it yesterday, she said smiling, she had been at Church. It was a shame to sell it, she said, but she wanted to pay for her eldest to go to a Christian school.
I rejoiced inwardly. Surely Christians don’t smoke and spill beer in their cars. Christians don’t cut crashed cars in two and glue them back together.
We came to a provisional deal and that evening she wrote me an e-mail confirming terms. And then she backed out. A better offer. I thought unGodly thoughts about her for the rest of the day.
In the end I bought a Land Cruiser. If the seller was a Christian, he didn’t mention it. A government biologist, he was smart, funny, urbane and political. He was selling the car because he could no longer justify the emissions, he told me unprompted. His family had bought a Highlander Hybrid.
I instantly agreed to buy. Didn’t I want to drive it? he asked. Er, oh yes, maybe. Didn’t I have any questions? I struggled to think before asking lamely: Have you crashed it?
And so, if all goes according to plan, if my biologist comes through, and if Canadian customs grants an import licence, our guests at the ranch this year will be in for a treat—a Land Cruiser with big wide seats and a serious 4×4 system, getting us to the top of our wonderful trails in comfort.
And, after that, in the evenings, a glass or two of wine, Kristin’s incredible dinners, and a sundeck by the river. Assuming, of course, I survive my remaining journeys in the rental.