Winter Roads and War Stories – Jan 07

It was not an auspicious beginning.
The day we were to leave our beautiful BC home and set out on a 2,000 mile winter odyssey across the frozen north we could barely open our front door.
Three feet of snow had fallen overnight onto an already well-laden garden. Even reaching the snowplough was a manly hike. Then I couldn’t get the door open. Then the plough got stuck on the first run.
It was three hours before we managed to make it the 100 yards to the end of our drive and onto the road, the winter goat track pretentiously named BC Highway 31.
Just as we began to relax the first of the dogs puked all over the back of the car.
So began our great ice-bound cross-country adventure.
A month or so before I had been offered a place teaching journalism for a semester at the University of Alaska.
The new posting gave me several opportunities.
First of all I could reengage my atrophying brain during the long barren winter months. Then it was a chance to fill up our badly-depleted coffers.
Even more persuasively it would allow me to bore a captive audience with some of the dog-eared old war stories I had been hawking around the bars of eastern and central Europe since I can remember.
Even the trip itself – 2,500 miles through the most mountainous terrain in north America at the coldest time of year – was tinged with the rose-colouring of a romantic adventure.
Until the dog regurgitated his breakfast.
Actually, the first part of the journey was the easy bit. To take up my new post I needed a US work visa. That meant an interview at the US consulate in Vancouver.
The city was, as ever, a delight. Cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic, great food. We watched Borat, howling like hillbillies as the more sophisticated cityfolk around us grew increasingly uncomfortable.
When the appointed hour came I donned a jacket and arrived at the consulate for my interview with a few minutes to spare.
Call me naïve but I imagined the whole thing would happen something like this: I would bang on a large, worn but solidly-built wooden door. A young but well-educated diplomat, probably Ivy League, would meet me.
“Ah, Mr Strauss,” he would say. “Of course, we’ve been expecting you. We’re delighted you’re coming to our country. You’re going to be the new professor at the University of Alaska. Super. Esteemed retired correspondent of wars and conflicts. Excellent. Now-now, Sir, don’t be modest. We know you, of course, by reputation. We’ll have your paperwork sorted out in a jiffy (do the Americans say jiffy?).”
The reality was disappointing and a little brutal. “If you don’t get back in line now we’ll have you at the end of the queue,” a bad-tempered security guard balled at me as I stood with dozens of other haggard-looking desperados.
“You’re not on the list!” another said when I finally reached the door, eyeing me up and down as if I was about to push a secret button and turn us both into meat shavings. I showed the man my appointment letter. Grudgingly, he let me in.
In the corridors there were large posters denouncing the evil of the 9/11 attacks in categorical language. Then a mountain of paperwork, a long wait and finally a mumbled interview through a glass screen.
The next afternoon, after another bout of queueing – “No bags, I said, or you’re at the back of the queue!” the unfriendly security man barked at me this time – I finally had my visa.
That evening we set off north in the throes of a nasty winter storm driving through endless blacked-out suburbs. By midnight we still hadn’t made it to our planned stopover and I was so tired the snow seemed to be falling upwards.
In retrospect it wasn’t such a bad trip.
We took the stunningly beautiful Stewart Cassiar highway, a deserted and partly gravel road that runs 400 miles up the inside of the Coastal Mountains, and saw about four cars all day.
Then there was the Nisling Mountain Range and countless other ranges, some almost lunar in appearance. They were opaque, light-filled, rugged and desperately beautiful.
With the sun rising around 10am once we had crossed the 60th parallel, there was only six hours or so of daylight. The rest of the time we drove in a brittle, glittering dark.
Sometimes the snow was so thick and the road so treacherous we struggled to top 30 miles an hour.
Then there were days when the temperature held steadfastly below minus 30 degrees. At one petrol station the pump was frozen solid and we took it in turns with the attendant trying to beat it into action.
At other times the dogs squealed like babies when we let them out of the car as the ice bit into their soft southern paws.
We were temporarily unseated one especially chilly morning in the Yukon. With the temperature colder than ever, our (almost) new Dodge Ram truck, the pride of the Detroit automakers, spluttered and died.
One of the valves froze, the oil seals blew and we dribbled a gallon of the black stuff all over the Alaska highway.
Even in our misfortune we were lucky, however. A local dressed in the garb of the north took a look under the bonnet.
“It’s your PVT,” he muttered. Reaching over he snapped a small plastic tube leading into the engine. “With a bit of oil you should get to Whitehorse now. Then you can replace that bit I just broke.”
We made it. Just. We got a new plastic pipe and the local Chrysler service wired some cardboard to the front of the radiator to stop it happening again.
“That should do it,” one of the mechanics said. “Don’t forget to take it off in May when the temperature reaches zero.”
Two days later – eight days after we had left the ranch – we rolled into Anchorage.
That was two weeks ago. Since then life has treated me grandly.
I am no longer Julius the redneck rancher but Professor Strauss, esteemed instructor on the matter of the world’s media and the vagaries of reporting in dodgy places.
I have a nice big office with nice big windows, a 15 minute walk to work (often through moose turds) and a total of 15 or 20 students.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that all but two or three are keen young ladies.
They even pretend to like my boring old stories from small, forgotten conflicts that would see most people nodding off before you could say Velika Kladusa.
Of course, I do hold the sword of grades over their young heads.
Occasionally, like a skilled tennis player placing a ball, I throw a long stare into the middle distance as if caught in a reverie of heroic deeds left unrecounted.
Unfortunately they’re a pretty smart bunch – some of them use words in their essays I’ve never heard of – and I’m sure they’ll see through me soon.
All the stories I keep telling take me back to those days, weeks and months sequestered in third-rate accommodation in shady corners of the world fighting for my postage stamp of space on the next day’s foreign pages.
Now, at least, I can see that they were not entirely wasted.
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