Delta Junction is the official end of the Alaska Highway, and we rolled into this small Alaskan town on the afternoon of Wednesday 25th August, having clocked-up 1437 miles (2335km) from Dawson Creek, where the highway starts. At the Visitor Centre we were told that Chris Freeman and his brother had passed through the previous weekend. We were also surprised to discover that we had some kind of celebrity status. Both staff and visitors took pictures of us and the car.
All this hoo hah was because we knew someone in Delta Junction: Barbara, who worked at the town hall and was one of our internet contacts. Barbara lived in a big log cabin about fifteen minutes drive from the Visitor Centre. She invited some friends over and held an afternoon barbecue for us. We had our first taste of bear and moose steaks. It was a nice welcome to Alaska. Stan, one of Barbara ‘s friends, said that he had a pepper spray we could have, for warding off any stroppy bears we might encounter. But surely, if you spray pepper into the face of a marauding bear wouldn’t that make it even angrier? Apparently, not. Jose started becoming angry with me when Barbara invited us to stay over at her place, and I replied that we had to reach Fairbanks before nightfall. Barbara was driving to Fairbanks later that day to catch a flight down to Seattle, where she was visiting some friends. We could stay at Barbara’s place while she was away. Jose liked the idea. The log cabin was very plush, and even had its own family of bears living at the bottom of the garden. Well, by this time I’d had enough of bloody bears. However, my main reason for wanting to push on to Fairbanks was because I figured Chris and bruv would rest there for a number of days before heading up the Dalton Highway: there was just a chance that we might be able to catch up with them, at last.
Jose mouthed the word ‘anoraks’ as she took her place beside me in the No.1 car. We followed Stan and Barbara the short distance to Stan’s log cabin, where he gave us the pepper spray. We also got our first taste of the Alaskan obsession with firearms. Stan’s gun collection, which he proudly showed us, was more of a small arsenal than a collection. I asked him what on earth he needed five handguns, nine rifles and a machine gun for? He offered me the largest handgun, a 45, as if by holding it I would instantly understand why he needed five handguns, nine rifles and a machine gun. A machine gun?! Stan said that it was fun to go into the bush with the machine gun and just let rip with it. He gave us some bullets to take away as souvenirs.
The No.1 car moved in the shadow of Barbara’s huge 4WD as we drove the 98 miles along the Richardson Highway to Fairbanks, which we reached at dusk. After our thanks and farewells, Barbara drove on to the airport and Jose and I took a room at the Comfort Inn next to Alaskaland, on the banks of the Chena River. Alaskaland is a very touristy adventure park themed mostly around the pioneering days. I was somewhat relieved when Jose went into one of her moods, thus relieving us of the task of visiting Alaskaland.
In some respects, Fairbanks is similar to Whitehorse, in that it’s located splat bang in the middle of nowhere. The difference between the two is that Whitehorse is really just a town, whereas Fairbanks is quite a large city with a population of more than 70,000. Most cities have other population centres near them. Not Fairbanks. As soon as you leave the city limits you are in the wilderness. The only other city in Alaska, Anchorage, is nearly 400 miles away on the south coast. There are settlements within 100 miles of Fairbanks, but they contain a sprinkling of people and are more or less just frontier outposts. It makes you wonder why Fairbanks, in the frozen north, in the middle of nowhere, has grown into a large metropolis. Well, that can be largely blamed on war: the Second World War, when several huge military bases were built to thwart possible Japanese attacks, and the Cold War. Geographically, Alaska is a stones throw from Siberia, which is just 22 miles away across the Bering Strait. In the bad old days, when the Soviets and Americans were waving thermo-nuclear weapons at each other, Alaska became a place of strategic importance. The state still has a large military presence, particularly in Fairbanks, and is the site of early warning radar posts. In the bad old days the Alaskans would have given their countrymen in the lower forty eight states the three minute warning. Whether or not those decrepit Soviet missiles would have actually managed their trans-continental flight was never put to the test, thankfully.
History is littered with ironies: Alaska used to be Russian territory. Russian fur traders first arrived there back in the 1700s and established a settlement on Kodiak Island, on the south coast. The Spanish and the English also made an appearance and tried to claim Alaska as theirs, but they didn’t like the cold weather and so the Ruskies maintained ownership. However, by the mid 1800s the fur trade was in decline and the Russians wanted to get Alaska off their hands. They managed to bamboozle the Americans into buying it in 1867, just a few years after the American Civil War. The price was $7.2 million, or about 2 cents an acre. Sounds like a bargain? Well, what did the Americans get for that 2 cents an acre, mostly arctic wilderness where it was impossible to grow anything in the hard permafrost. The place may be scenic in parts but it is also largely barren. This is the main reason why for many years Alaska remained just a territory of the USA and didn’t became the 49th state of the Union until 1959, when the Soviets were lurking just across the Bering Strait.
Kurt Benz had supplied me with a list of contacts in Fairbanks, people he’d met on his numerous visits to the city. I figured I should look up at least some of them and dragged Jose along for the ride. We managed to get lost and ended up in a downtown car park. I saw a woman putting shopping into the back of her car and went over to ask directions. The woman jumped as I approached her. My, folks were certainly nervy in these parts. However, the woman calmed down and became friendly when she heard my English accent and saw the No.1 car with its British plates. She introduced herself as Sue and I was somewhat surprised to find myself talking to a fellow Londoner. At that moment her husband appeared on the scene. His name was Gerald, also English, and very curious about the No.1 car and the 2CV Alaska Challenge. We agreed to meet Gerald and Sue later that afternoon for a drink in the Dog Sled Salon, a popular hangout in Fairbanks.
When we got back to our hotel, Jose said she had something to tell me. She’d been making mysterious phone calls all day and I kinda knew what was coming… Jose wanted to go home. Homesick and hamstrung she had booked herself on the Friday night flight down to Seattle, and thence on to London. I was left somewhat surprised by Jose’s decision to bow out, because ever since leaving Winnipeg in the No.1 car we’d got along together just fine. Now, in Fairbanks, we were just two days drive away from the Arctic Ocean, providing the No.1 car made it up the Dalton Highway. As far as the 2CV Alaska Challenge went, we were almost at journey’s end.
But Jose wanted to be somewhere else, Europe, London, home, wherever that was; no doubt somewhere that didn’t have Rob Godfrey as part of the scenery. Jose and I had our ups and downs. There were times when we could have quite easily strangled each other, but in the end we always stayed together. I suppose we were a bit like an old, married couple, the marriage being a road journey across North America. Now it was not so much a divorce, but more an amicable separation. I felt hurt by Jose’s decision to leave the 2CV Alaska Challenge. I also felt sorry for her, because she wouldn’t get to see a part of the world that few people have the chance to visit: the Arctic.
The Dog Sled Salon is on the ground floor of the Captain Barlett Inn, on Airport Way. It’s what’s known as a ‘Yukon bar’: sawdust on the floor, overflowing ash trays, heavy drinking and lots of colourful characters. The sign outside the salon said: “All firearms must be left with the cloakroom attendant before entering”. In Alaska you can legally carry a firearm without needing a permit, as long as your firearm is clearly visible (to carry a concealed weapon you do need a permit). However, firearms are not permitted in bars, where only slow death is allowed.
It was a sunny afternoon so the four of us sat out on the terrace. Gerald and Sue were ex-pats who had been living in Fairbanks for eight years. Sue used to work in a jewellery store in downtown Fairbanks. It got held up by an armed man. Six months later the jewellery store got held up again, by the same armed man. Sue resigned from her job and was now on tranqs for her nerves. Previously, she’d always been afraid of guns, now she kept a forty five magnum in the house, a shot gun in her car and a 22 in her handbag (when I approached Sue in that downtown car park I was lucky I didn’t get shot). Gerald sold real estate. He was well known in Fairbanks and was one of the people involved in the redevelopment of the downtown area. Gerald and Sue were nice people. We chatted for an hour, then they went on to a wedding reception.
That evening, Jose and I had dinner at the Captain Bartlett Inn. Afterwards we went into the Dog Sled Salon for a drink. It was then that I hit upon the idea of taking a sex doll with me up into the Arctic. It seemed a good way to end the Alaska Challenge, which had been a wacky venture right from the start. More than anything though, I find all those adventure journeys that one sees rather tedious. It’s all the same sort of macho rollocks; ‘endurance’, ‘hard going’, ‘gee aren’t we tough guys’. I was both the producer and the director of the 2CV Alaska Challenge, and now that the leading actress was no longer sticking to the script it was time for a bit of improvisation.
The following morning we checked out of the Comfort Inn and I took a room at the Captain Bartlett. This was Jose’s last day in Alaska. The plane for Seattle left at midnight. But first, we had to buy a sex doll. This didn’t prove easy, because despite the large military presence there’s no red light district in Fairbanks. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any sex shops at all. We pulled into a gas station. A young chap lounged behind the counter. Jose asked him where we could buy a sex doll. The young chap’s mouth dropped. It was an interesting meeting between American prudishness and Dutch liberalism. The young chap recovered his composure and became bashful. It turned out that in the whole of northern Alaska, a place the size of western Europe, there is just one sex shop. Luckily, though, it was situated only twenty miles from Fairbanks, out in the wilderness. We headed off down the highway.
We’d never have found the sex shop if it wasn’t for the fact that the chap told us it lurked near a small lumber yard. The sex shop was set back from the highway, down a small dirt track that led into thick forest. We pulled up outside a long, wood cabin without any windows. It looked abandoned. There were two cars parked outside. Ah ha…. we cautiously pushed open the battered metal door and found ourselves inside a large emporium of the flesh, no different from any you’d find in Europe. A bored, fat guy sat at the counter. He was watching a ball game on a small portable tv. His eyes met ours for a fraction of a second. The only other customers in the sex shop were a GI and his girlfriend. They were holding up and admiring various sized dildos. Their eyes met ours for a fraction of a second.
We wandered around the shop. There were videos titled ‘Sex the Greek way’, ‘Cowboy Brothel’ and ‘Masturbation Danish style’. There was the ‘Orgasmo electric vagina’, the ‘Clitofing’, ‘Chinese Erekto Cream’, and the ‘Giant Strap-on Cocky’. There was also a large selection of sex dolls. Linda Lovelips, ‘fully equipped with three holes for pleasure’. Doll Mate, ‘you can vary the grip of her soft, inviting vagina during intercourse’. The Sexy Doreen Doll, ‘with lifelike pubic hair’. Naw, I didn’t like the look of any of them. I plumped for Jamie the Love Doll, because at forty bucks she was the cheapest. I handed over my cash at the counter. The fat guy’s eyes met mine for a fraction of a second.
Now that I’d acquired my new co-star I just had to get some good shots of her, to put up on the web site. So, the three of us drove to the airport. Fairbanks International Airport is not a huge place, yet because of its location it used to be a major stop over for trans-Pacific and trans-Arctic flights. Those glory days are gone now, although the airport still handles a lot of traffic from Canada and the lower forty eight states. The alternative to flying is a five day drive along the Alaska Highway, as we knew all too well. A little way down from the modern terminal building there were some old Dakotas parked by the perimeter fence. We parked the 2CV just in front of them. An old car with some old planes in the background. I took shots of Jose waving her hand and walking away from the No.1 car towards the Dakotas. Then Jose took shots from the same angle of me and Jamie the Love Doll standing by the car. Our photo shoot attracted a small crowd. The pictures went up on the web site two hours later, along with a bulletin announcing that Jose was going home. As I e-mailed the bulletin and pics I noticed that Tony still hadn’t put the charity donation form up on the web site.
Looking back on it, I should have considered how the sex doll thang would have appeared to the large audience that was following the Alaska Challenge, and particularly the two charities we were supposed to be raising money for. By that time I’d been travelling non-stop for two months, and all I can say is, well, when you’re intrepid adventuring for such a long time it’s very easy to lose touch with reality!
Back at the Captain Bartlett Inn, we thoroughly cleaned the No.1 car and got it shipshape for the trip up to the Arctic. It reminded me of that film, The African Queen, where Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn get their little boat ready for the attack against a German warship. In our film, though, Hepburn would not be joining Bogart for the big finale.
All that remained was for Jose and I to have a last meal and drink in the Dog Sled Salon. Then, at just after 11pm, I took her back to the airport. It became another one of those strange farewells, late at night at an airport on the other side of the world. Jose and I had done some hard travelling together: Savannah to Fairbanks in 31 days and 7000 miles in an old, beat-up Citroen 2CV. It had been a slice. Neither of us liked lingering farewells, so I didn’t wait with her in the departure lounge. I told Jose that if she changed her mind at the last minute – something that women have been known to do – I would be leaving for the Arctic at 8.00am the following morning, Saturday 28th August. Jose and I embraced, and then me and the No.1 car drove off into the Alaskan night.
I drove back to the Dog Sled Salon, where I got rather drunk in the company of some dentists from Seattle. I wasn’t overly upset that Jose had gone, just disappointed. More than anything, I think my return to Calgary after all those years had finally caught up with me, on an emotional level. The wounds were still deep. Jose’s departure had rubbed salt into those wounds. To me, it seemed like I was always being abandoned by women when I was in far flung places; but at least I knew that Jamie the Love Doll would not let me down; unless she had a puncture.
From When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn, Rob Godfrey’s memoir of 20 years of travels, available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon or Smashwords – note: Smashwords offers a wide range of ebook formats, including Kindle and PDF.