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On Top of the World


Sumiki

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-----Due to the lateness of the hour in getting back from dinner at Fast Eddy's and repacking the vehicle, we abandoned the idea of getting up early enough to be at the border crossing when they opened. Instead, we invested in a good night's sleep and showered in the morning to prepare for a difficult day on some of the most treacherous sections of road this side of the Arctic Circle. We knew what lay ahead and we came prepared, and so we left Tok bound for Tetlin Junction, once again rejoining the Alaska Highway, but going east instead of west.

 

-----Tetlin Junction is the crossroads with the Taylor Highway, which had a road surface that looked like a quilt from a distance. Different layers of gravel breaks and chipseal dotted the path, but the frost heaves didn't cause full-on breaks in the pavement and the gravel breaks weren't close to the Alaska Highway nonsense. The Taylor Highway connects the town of Eagle—the home of our Arctic Circle tour guide—to the Alaska Highway. We did not go through Eagle—as it was a good sixty miles north on the Taylor past our split-off—but we did go through the town of Chicken.

 

-----The Taylor was paved in its unusually patchwork manner for sixty miles of wild forested wilderness, but the pavement ended six miles south of Chicken, which is the only place in the world named Chicken. The road work they were doing got so bad that the pilot car flew through while I attempted to follow without going into a pit or a car-sized rut or scrape the undercarriage or hit any of the completely oblivious eighteen-wheelers who motioned as if I had room on the soft shoulder when I really didn't. We peeled off in Chicken to find it—quite unsurprisingly—nearly deserted.

 

-----Chicken has seven people and a gigantic metal statue of a chicken made out of spare metal bits and bobs. It's not even given the vaunted status of unincorporated community; it's a census-designated place, right alongside crossroads with derelict roadhouses. Yet looking at the sprawling Chicken—after all, there's lots of room to grow in the middle of absolute nowhere—one would think that it has several dozen. There's old mining equipment, including a massive gold dredge. Each little patch of the town claims to attract viewers with an Authentic Chicken Experience, and these patches include Chicken, Downtown Chicken, Chicken Historic District, and—presumably—Fried Chicken if you squint hard enough. (Where's Colonel Sanders when you need him?)

 

-----The dust blew up off of the Taylor Highway and the all-but-deserted parking lots of Chicken as we admired the sign, grimaced at the latrines—for there is no running water on the Taylor—and got pictures with the Enormous Chicken. While this is truly an chicken of magnificent proportions, it—incredibly—wasn't the only gigantic chicken on display. No, we were in Chicken—or was it the Chicken Historic District?—and when we went probably no less than a hundred yards to Downtown Chicken, we were met with a large wooden specimen under which my mom posed as if in imminent danger of being crushed.

 

-----Downtown Chicken has three storefronts (gift shop, saloon, and cafe) and operates a gas station, and they're all run by the same old kooky lady who used to live there all year but now only comes and bakes her "world famous" pies during the summer months. The disparate parts of Chicken are held together by the sinew of being a tourist trap of a gold rush town that never quite died off, and I'll readily agree to the fact that it has some level of unique charm to its slanted storefronts and windswept latrines, all watched over by one great flightless metal beast of a bird who cares not for who rightfully may claim the disputed title of "Original Chicken."

 

-----The money we'd usually set aside for lunch ended up getting spent at the highly interesting gift shop. We're still ahead of Chicken's tourist season—thank goodness we've beaten the tour buses some place—and I can see how they make their living. It was one of the more interesting gift shops I've been in, as long as you could keep your footing even on the tilted plywood. You name it, they had it: a Bigfoot pennant (which we didn't get), fake road signs (some of them quite crude), hats (your choice of roughly 75 dozen varieties), and all manner of chicken-related socks, of all things.

 

-----We checked out and then decided to top off the tank with gas, as Chicken makes for the last stop before Dawson City, 108 miles east. Our seventy-odd miles from Tok didn't take us much fuel at all, and when my dad went in to pay for it, the cashier guy's calculator broke and he was unable to make change for a twenty without my dad having to spell it out for him. As such, we elected to ignore his advice about the road ahead, especially since he freely admitted to never driving the Chicken-Dawson route. (Sad.)

 

-----We got back on the Taylor Highway, and it proved to be the worst and most miserable twenty-two miles to the Jack Wade junction, where the Taylor splits off towards Eagle and the famous Top of the World Highway begins. All manner of narrow twisting gravelly washboard-prone unpaved curviness made this route a treacherous one, and it was all eyes on the road for every mile. At around 25 MPH—the fastest safe speed—we were still passed by several locals. It took us about an hour to safely complete, though a respite was welcome when the highway paralleled Jack Wade creek for a spell.

 

-----The entire region is still actively mined for gold, and we saw everything from "No Trespassing" signs to heavy machinery to roads cut up steep hillsides to some older fellows panning for gold in the creek. On the flat sections, the gravel and dirt compacts, leaving a dusty but quite smooth surface. It got worse again as we approached Jack Wade hill and the junction of the same name, but once we left the Taylor Highway and were on the Top of the World, it lived up to its name in every way—about which, more later.

 

-----The Top of the World Highway is only officially named as such in the Yukon Territory, the United States section is officially the Boundary Spur Road. Nevertheless, we were now officially on the ridge line, and we would continue to be so for about eighty miles, through absolute wilderness. The Boundary Spur was not just paved, it was well-paved, proving to be one of the best and smoothest in the entire state, strangely enough. After about a dozen miles, we saw a complex of green-roofed houses on the next hill: the customs station.

 

-----The route through from Tok to Dawson is open conditionally, and one of these conditions is that the border station has to be open for business. They are, for twelve hours, between 8AM-8PM Alaska time and 9-9 Pacific. It constitutes the northernmost border crossing of its kind in the world, and the only one between the US and Canada where the two groups of officers share the same building. It's so incredibly remote that quarters are provided on-site.

 

-----We talked for a bit to the Canadian border patrol guy, who clearly needed some folks to talk to as much as we needed intel regarding the route ahead. As it turns out, while US agents serve on month-long shifts—as the I-drove-a-motorcycle-to-Prudhoe-Bay guy told us when we initially crossed into Alaska—the Canadian officers are there for the duration of the open months: May to September. There's not a lot of traffic on the road, but he told us that he never tired of the view—and how could you? He also gave us the numbers of the RCMP detachment in Dawson City as well as two wrecker companies should the worst befall us.

 

-----Re-entering the Yukon was bittersweet, but we know that we've not seen the last of Alaska on this journey, and so we pressed on across the Top of the World—and how we seemed to soar above the mountaintops! It was initially built to supply Dawson City during World War II, and it's one of those roads that would never otherwise even be remotely considered for construction. To accelerate construction, the crews went where the trees weren't so plentiful and cut it across the ridge instead of the valley. For every minute of this remarkable drive, we were struck with vistas in every direction, from the verdant trees that went on and over the grand hills for as far as the eye could see, to the snowcapped peaks of a mountain range that stuck to our north the entire time. Occasionally, more mining claims could be seen, but these were so few that their activities—however ambitious—couldn't tarnish the beauty.

 

-----Part of the wonder of the road is that it seemed almost natural, like a ridge in and of itself along the mountains. While seeing a distant part of the road we are to travel is a common enough occurrence to be almost old hat around these parts, the Top of the World's route truly snakes, meandering seamlessly yet aimlessly hither and thither to the point that many more miles of it could be seen than, say, the Alaska Highway at its most vast and wandering moments. Its name speaks for itself; its needs no appellation after some otherwise long-forgotten figure of Northern history.

 

-----The road was chipsealed around twenty years ago, but the Yukon government never invested in it since—citing a lack of travelers, most likely—and so the pavement, aside from a scant few spots, has reverted back to its natural state of gravel. Yet in the pantheon of awful things that can happen on unpaved surfaces, none did on the Top of the World, and the road—though difficult in nature—was about the best that you could expect under the circumstances. Its remoteness and its difficult western terminus meant that this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime drives, and we rightfully savored everything we could.

 

-----The final kilometers of the Top of the World took us off of the ridge as we could catch glimpses of Dawson City—or the Town of the City of Dawson, officially—as we kept going. The pavement began again moments before we had to stop as the road ended at the Yukon River. Across the river was Dawson, and the vehicles were lines up to take folks across on the George Black Ferry, which rumbled and roared across the mighty Yukon and used its flow to reorient itself to pick up and drop off passengers.

 

-----It wasn't a great deal of time before the ferry came back our way and we were waved on. Though it is a rather large vessel, capable of accommodating heavy loads, it does not appear to be of great strength against the roaring Yukon when you're actually on the thing; on the contrary, though it's metal, it seems almost rickety. It's a surreal experience, getting dragged across the water like that, towards a hillside-nestled town that seemingly hasn't changed since the gold rush.

 

-----Dawson City is not a large place, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in absolute adorability. There's not a modern building in sight; everything's wooden slats or log cabins, and the older the building, the more slanted it seems to be. We even went past an abandoned church that still seemed absolutely fine save for the fact that it looked like it'd been twisted several different directions at once. There is only one paved street in Dawson, but we were experts at this unpaved business and presently arrived at our hotel.

 

-----The back of our vehicle is an absolute mess, as the dust and grime thrown up by the Top of the World stuck in some places and made to run—only to cake on—by the fluid of the rear wiper. The end result was that it looked like a giant had had a few too many drinks and the result was the rear end, but we still fared better than many of the other folks driving around—and we certainly outpaced the completely caked Arctic Circle van.

 

-----Our hotel is run by several European immigrants who run things in an extremely clean way. One removes one's shoes in the foyer and carries them to a storage closet. The main level is dominated by a communal kitchen and several seating areas, with the bulk of the rooms in the winding upstairs. The rooms themselves are pristine, but everything is small; my mom sat down in the rocking chair and declared it the seat of Papa Elf. The beds don't even approach the level of my knee, and the night stands, chairs, and bathroom levels are all to that scale. The ceiling is quite high, but I'm not sure if that's an optical illusion with the dollhouse furniture or if it really is high up.

 

-----The adjoining restaurant is highly thought of, and we all got some meat: My mom some pork and my dad and I some steaks. Their collection of steak sauces was quite broad and all of them were in-house concoctions, and I got the red wine gravy while my dad went for something mushroom-based, as he got mashed potatoes. We split a Toblerone caramel cheesecake for dessert, and it was heavenly. A lot of places serve a fluffy cheesecake, but this had a truly creamy texture.

 

-----We re-donned our shoes and struck out on the town. Dawson is so small that it's only eight or so streets deep until you get to the base of the cliffs, and from our hotel it took almost no time to go past the colorful houses towards the Robert Service cabin. It's closed save for viewing and demonstrations, which only happen around the early afternoon, but it was still unlocked and we were free to walk up to the rickety log building. Not too far down the road lay the equally closed Jack London cabin, and London's poorer background and failure as a prospector was evident in his digs when compared to Service's.

 

-----Our remaining excursion was dedicated to wandering quasi-aimlessly around the city, towards the Yukon River and into some of the few shops still open. At 9:00, most establishments—save those who served alcohol—were closed, a fact which dawned on us as we wandered back through the town and eventually back to our shoeless hotel. Our room, in the intervening time, had turned into a bona fide oven on account of there not being air conditioning, and so much thought has been put into proper fan placement and alignment.

 

-----Tomorrow: southbound again, as we return to Whitehorse on the Klondike Highway.

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