Courtney Barber
September 9, 2016
Photos By: Amie Williams

After getting to Valdez at 2:00 in the morning after our brake line fail the day before, we were a little slow to get started. But I did manage to run outside and give back our bad juju award. Rally organizer Tony Intrieri was reluctant to take it back at first—I had to put it on the ground and leave it but he accepted my crazy logic and eventually picked it up. I would take it back when we earned it. Little did I know we would earn the hell out of it later that day!

As we got on the road we finally got to see the gorgeous drive we missed the night before. Valdez is a port city and I felt at home with the smell of the ocean. Our first stop was at the hatchery where we got to witness the seals feasting on the spawning salmon. To see it up close and personal after watching every nature show possible on National Geographic was unbelievable. Well, until you got a whiff of the smell, then you believed it!

We then started our journey back up the road we came in on in the dark the night before. Waterfalls! That's the noise that kept freaking us out. The night before we couldn't see a thing but we could hear them and feel the cold air rush into the car. At the time we weren't sure what it was. I'm pretty sure we both imagined we were on a cliff about to plummet into raging rapids below. The Bridal Veil Falls were amazing to drive up to; before turning the corner you see this amazing waterfall cascading down the rocks and then bam, there's another bigger waterfall right next to it.

After that we continued to drive north and the next thing we knew there was a giant glacier right in front of us. It was almost like we had been blindfolded and taken into this gorgeous place so everything was a spectacular surprise. Worthington Glacier was well worth the drive. The sun was shining down and it was unreal to be able to drive so close to something that magnificent. After stopping for some of my favorite photos from our journey, we continued on.

This is where the debate began...You may remember me mentioning my failed rear air shock from day three that caused stress on the brake line, eventually causing it to snap. Scott Feicht from Glennallen Fuel fixed the line connection the night before but my 1980's style air shocks are not a high commodity in Alaska and no one had them. (You may be wondering why I choose to use air shocks. The reasoning behind it is the love of the stance. When I'm at home and don't have the car loaded down with luggage, I like my low stance. The only way to make that possible is to use air shocks when we're on the road so I can pump them up with 140 pounds of air to make it possible to drive. The things we'll do to look cool!) They did have some progressive springs back in Anchorage but we were just there and it was a Saturday so no deliveries were coming. The group was headed to Denali Park—most were taking the Denali Highway and a few were going up to Fairbanks to see Santa at the North Pole and avoid the 134 miles of dirt road fun. Of course the route through Anchorage was actually the shortest way to go but I hate going back the way I came. With so much to see it seemed like a dumb choice. We kept hearing about the views the Denali Highway had to offer and somehow that became our logical choice to travel. We ordered the shocks with Scott and planned to take it easy until Monday on our way back home and started towards the dirt.

We messaged our group about our plans to take the road. Tony had warned me months before that I would have to take another route. I knew they were all way ahead of us because they had seen the Valdez sights the day before. I read a post about shuttles going down the road all the time and figured if they could do it we could too if we took it slow. On the way into Alaska we had hit about 50 miles of dirt through Destruction Bay and we survived that, how much worse could this be? I laugh at that thought now. We didn't hear any objections from the group so we decided to go for it. Little did I know that the group was still on the road, the road without any service... and the comments I read about the shuttle? That was about the Denali Park tour the next day, not the highway we naively started across.

The first 20 miles weren't so bad. I think they tease you with a little pavement just so you won't turn around. Then it all turns to gravel. And not the little kind; giant rocks with potholes scattered all across the road like some drunk guy came out and set a booby trap for tourists. The looks on people's faces as they saw us driving by in a 1965 Mustang were priceless. Some looked horrified while others gave us a thumbs up and just laughed at us as we bumped by. The first 5 miles of dirt took us an hour to get through. You may be asking yourself "why the hell didn't she turn around?" a question I didn't start replaying in my head until hour eight on the highway. But the views were incredible and it was hunting season so we got to see real Alaska, people living off the land by hunting for their next meal. And maybe it would get better, right?

After four hours we made it to Maclaren River Lodge at mile 42 of the Denali Highway. We were happy to just get out and grab some sodas and soon found out we were the talk of the town. People had bets going that we would turn around. Well that's the wrong thing to tell me. Hell no we weren't turning around! We did for a second actually. We left the lodge not knowing they had gas available and one of the guys was nice enough to chase us down on an ATV. Although I'm guessing he could have just thrown a rock at us because we had not made it that far. I still had 3/4 of a tank and thanks to Tanks Inc.'s 22-gallon tank I installed for the trip that was a little over 14 gallons. I thought we could make it but didn't want to be kicking myself on the last 10 miles so we went back and filled up. We got a few more warnings about conditions on the road ahead and as we drove away you could almost feel the group at the bar watching us. We had come this far, there was no turning back!

At the lodge the guys told us that 10 miles up we would see the most spectacular view we had ever seen. The only problem? The sun was starting to set. As we reached mile 50 it was basically gone but we kept telling ourselves if we could see, it would be an amazing sight! Then it got worse. The potholes we had seen before were just a warm up of things to come. Up to this point we would occasionally hit 15 MPH but were averaging nine. That quickly got knocked down to three! That's about when I started to doubt my decision. You are probably saying to yourself, "what took you so long"? I honestly can't answer that. I love a challenge and to me this was my ultimate Alaska challenge but it was quickly turning into a challenge to not break the car in half. As the sun was setting I had started to worry about the group. I didn't want anyone to worry about us so we found some paper and started handing out SOS messages to anyone passing by that might be headed for a phone. “Please call Bart: Courtney says we are ok and taking it slow. See you in eight hours."

We started our journey on the Denali highway at 4:00 pm and around 10 we reached the halfway point at mile marker 68 at Alpine Creek Lodge. We couldn't make it up the hill in the car so I left Amie with the car and ran up the hill to see if I could call our friends. The bartender thought I was nuts as I explained the story and was nice enough to let us use the phone. I got ahold of Tony and his reaction was the same. "What the hell are you doing? I told you months ago to not take that road! From now on I'm going to tell you to do something instead of not to, maybe then you won't do it!" I grabbed as many sodas as I could carry knowing caffeine was our only hope and ran back down the hill to find Amie with the windows up. Wolves are friendly right? The howling was echoing through the mountains as we continued on in the darkness.

The unforgiving road had turned on us but at this point we were committed and there was no going back. It's like God knew we needed something to keep us going and right around midnight we got our first look at the Northern Lights. The green of the sky almost matched the color of my car and gave us a renewed hope and we kept on trucking. Right around 2:00 am is when it finally got bad. Yes up until this point we were still laughing at our decision—my decision. Amie later told me she was ready to turn back at Maclaren but knew my stubborn ass would never listen.

The road became mind-numbing. We could only see about ten feet in front of us and the view just never changed. For hours it had been the same and a few times we stopped to water the foliage and I had to double check if the car was in park. Are we still moving? We were stopped but I swear it looked like the road was still moving. One time it was so bad that I was actually scared to get out and we just kept going instead. By 3:00 am the mile markers had become the devil. You could see one in the distance and then it slowly approached and let you know that you still weren't anywhere near the end. The last 20 miles were torture and I had to keep stopping to do jumping jacks to wake up and warm up. I knew if I turned on the heat it would be harder to stay awake so we bundled up and did the only thing we could do, which was keep going. Right around 3:30 am we had an awesome wake up call: a mother and baby moose passed right in front of the car. The massive creatures even gave us a look of “really? You came out here in that?” The moose spotting was just what we needed as we made the final push to mile 130. And then we saw it, pavement! It really did exist! I'm pretty sure we were both near tears as we felt the car stop shaking for the first time in 12 hours. Somehow we had made it and the car was still in one piece. Thank you Speed Direct for building an amazing suspension for my 1965 Mustang and BFG for the tires that took the beating from the Denali Highway without any problems.

We managed to make it to the Salmon Bake Cabins by 4:00 am and crawled into our beds. The next day we were supposed to be on a bus tour of Denali Park at 9:30 am—a bus tour on a dirt road. Ugh. Around 11:00 we woke up and stepped outside to be greeted by the sun shining down on the mountains and started to replay the night and morning in our heads. That was when I officially declared it to be the Official Get Drunk In Alaska Day! Lucky for us the cabin was right up the hill from a great bar and restaurant and we were easily able to conquer our goal for the day!

As the others came back from the tour we all got to share our experiences with the highway the day before. Tony said even with a truck it was rough. "The biggest joke along the 123 mile dirt road was the 50 mph speed limit! That was the incentive that was completely unattainable, the dangling carrot that we would be forever denied from tasting. You would almost become comfortable for maybe a minute and get close to 50 mph when a 100-yard section of completely unavoidable potholes would appear to rattle any fillings in your dental work and every screw in the vehicle. Our Dodge Ram averaged 24 mph through there during the daylight hours."

After hearing the stories I stopped kicking myself for dragging us down a dirt road when there were multiple other options. We did it and not too many people can say that. And how many can say they did it in a 1965 Mustang?

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