Courtney Barber
February 21, 2017
Photos By: Amie Williams

Last summer Amie Williams and I started an epic journey to Alaska, 13,377 miles in 30 days in a 1965 Mustang. I have to admit, we didn't know much about what we were getting ourselves into... Many told us it was unsafe or not drive-able in my 50-year old car, but Google maps said it was possible and gave me a route to follow, which was all we needed.

We left Folly Beach, South Carolina on August 11th and headed west. We were headed to Anchorage to meet up with a group from Rally North America to do Drive Alaska 2016, a 1,300-mile loop of the gorgeous state. As the only team driving to the start line we managed to make the 5,000-mile journey with just one hiccup—my gas pedal screw shook loose after 50 miles of dirt road that had been graded for new pavement in Destruction Bay on the Alaska Highway in Canada's Yukon. Luckily, I was able to tighten it down for our next encounter with a dirt road, the Denali Highway.

I know you may be thinking, “Wow, she just skipped over about 7,000 miles and a big part of the story,” and I did. You can read about the epic adventure here: http://www.mustangandfords.com/featured-vehicles/1608-15000-miles-to-alaska-and-back-in-a-1965-ford-mustang/.

Since I've been home I've done a lot of writing on our adventure, including our incredible trip through Banff National Park in Canada and you can check it all out at Teammustanggirls.com. But I have yet to cover our date with 112 miles of gravel that took over 12 hours on the famous Denali Highway... mainly because I didn't know what to say. It was one of those moments in my life that seemed to change meaning every time I looked back on it. Was I really a stubborn lunatic? Was it worth almost destroying my car? Should I have turned around after the first 5 miles took over an hour? Did a moose really pass us at 4:30 am? Well, now I know the answers are yes, yes, I am so glad I didn't, and hell yeah it did!

After signing up for Drive Alaska 2016, Rally North America organizer, Tony Intrieri specifically messaged me and told me we would have to find another route on Day four of the rally because of the Denali Highway. There were two options available through Fairbanks and Anchorage that would still get us to Denali State Park so I didn't think much of it as I stared at my computer screen in South Carolina. That all seemed to change after day three, the day we hit our first real speed bump of the trip.

We left Homer that morning headed for Valdez and about half way there we found ourselves waiting on a tow truck. The rear brake line connection sheared off after taking some hard hits and losing a rear air shock on the unforgiving roads of Alaska. I had a spare brake line with us but no flaring tool, and using a vice grip to hold the line seemed sketchy considering the mountain roads that lay ahead of us. Project Road Warrior, my '65 Mustang, is my daily driver. I built it, and I am the only one that drives it so I can usually tell when something isn't right, which is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes when I hear a noise I wish I could just go back to turning up the radio and ignoring it. Ignorance can be bliss! Luckily, the line started with a slow leak and I could tell something was up before a tree became our brakes. As we waited on the tow truck, time kept going and by the time we were ready to roll again after getting the line fixed at Glennallen Fuel it was nearly midnight and we still had 100 miles of road to Valdez. The shop was literally next to a hotel and we would have to come back the same route the next morning as there was only one way in and out of Valdez so a logical person may have decided to just call it a night. Remember the answer to my above question about being a stubborn lunatic? Well, to me you don't complete a rally unless you make it to every stop each night so logic did not prevail and after three hours of driving in pitch black darkness we stumbled into our beds around 3:30 in the morning.

Day four began with a slow start. We spoke to the group before they headed out. We planned on stopping back at Glennallen Fuel to see how my shock was holding up before we decided to go through Anchorage or Fairbanks to get to Denali Park. On the way there we finally got to see what we drove through the night before in the darkness and it was incredible. Bridal Veil Falls and Worthington Glacier made the trip well worth it and that's when it happened. The question popped into my head and once that happens it never goes away. What would we be missing if we skipped the Denali Highway? Had we been logical the night before we would have missed some of the most amazing sights I've ever seen in my life. We made it to the shop and the shock looked like it was holding up. I shared our indecision on which way to go and Scott Feicht of Glennallen Fuel confirmed that the views would be amazing, but that the road was rough. At the same time I saw a post in our Alaska group saying that shuttles went down the road all the time. “Well hell, if shuttles could do it, we could too if we take our time!”

Little did I know that the post was about the next day’s adventures and not the Denali Highway. We left Glennallen and headed North making our own post in the group about our plans to try the road. We were hours behind the group at this point because everyone else had stopped to see the sights en route to Valdez the day before. I figured we had 50 miles before we had to make the decision to detour up through Fairbanks or take the Denali Highway. That was plenty of time for the group to get through and let us know if it was a bad idea...unless they were still on the highway...with no reception. With no objections we made the left hand turn at 4:00 in the afternoon and began our 135-mile adventure down the Denali Highway.

According to Denalihwy.com, "Of the 135 miles of the road, the first 21 miles on the eastern end, and first two miles on the western end, are paved. The rest of the road is gravel, not dirt, hence there effectively are no stretches of mud, but there can be sharp rocks. Because of potential sharp rocks, you SHOULD LIMIT YOUR SPEED TO 35MPH! In places, a lower speed is prudent. Do not take ‘highway’ literally in this case. At times you may think the road surface is great, but conditions can change in an instant."

I can safely say we never hit 35 mph. Honestly, I would be surprised if we actually hit 20! The first stretch was “paved-ish,” as they said and we finished the first 20 miles in a little over an hour. And then the "pavement" disappeared and the fun began. Our speed quickly dropped from 15 to 10, 10 to 5, and at times 3 mph. The pot holes were scattered along the road as if a drunk pirate had been digging for treasure. Luckily for us, not so much for the Caribou, it was hunting season and every 30 minutes or so we would have a truck pass by so it made the road seem a little less scary—at least it did in the light. The faces on the hunters as they saw us creeping by were priceless. Some would cheer and give a thumbs-up, while others looked like they had just seen Santa roll by with his reindeer.

After 22 miles of bumps in about two hours we made it to Maclaren River Lodge at mile marker 42 and quickly learned we were the talk of the town. Everyone was asking what a classic Mustang with a bunch of stickers was doing on the Denali Highway, a road that normally only sees ATVs and 4-wheel drive vehicles. At this point, Amie was asking herself this question, especially when we were told that not only did the road not get better, it got considerably worse. The part that had taken us 2 hours to go 17 miles was actually the "easy part." But there's a reason Amie is my ride or die—she knows I'm a stubborn jerk and that there's not much you can do to change my mind once it's set on something. And once I learned that the hunters actually had bets on how far we'd go before turning around to go back, we both knew I would break my car before losing a challenge. After topping off the gas tank we pulled out of the lodge and turned left much to the dismay of many a hunter. Always bet on Team Mustang Girls!

At the lodge we were also told that after the next 10 miles we would see some of the most beautiful views in the world. After just passing through Valdez earlier in the day and Maclaren Summit just miles before, it was hard to believe it could get better. That is something we can still not confirm because right around mile 50 the sun left us in the dark as we continued on our journey. At this point, even I started to get a little worried. We weren't even halfway there and it had already taken us four hours. However, in my head I figured out that if we turned around we still had to go back 50 miles before even starting the loop up to Fairbanks. By that time we could be another 50 miles in and then we would only have 30 miles left, and what's another 30? This is the crazy logic Amie had to listen to me spout off as I tried to justify my decision not to turn back.

As the darkness took over we managed to reach the halfway point at mile maker 68, Alpine Creek Lodge around 10:00 pm, six hours after we started our journey. During the last 10 miles we had been stopping trucks and passing along S.O.S. notes with our friend’s phone number saying, “Courtney says we are safe and taking it slow, see you tomorrow.” I didn't want anyone to worry or come looking for us. When we reached the lodge it was very clear we had zero chances of making it up the long dirt driveway so I left Amie with the car and started running. I made it to the top out of breath and looking like a crazy person asking to use a phone. Word of our car had made it to the lodge so they were nice enough to let me use the phone and call Tony. I quickly realized I was worried for nothing as Tony explained "We decided we had to stop worrying about you a long time ago! From now on I'm going to tell you to do things in hopes that maybe you won't!" After filling up my purse and pockets with as many caffeinated beverages as I could I started running back down the mountain to find Amie in the car with all the windows rolled up. We now had a new thing to worry about…coyotes! That's right about the time my knife and flare gun found a new home on the dashboard. I may not have been able to bring a gun over the border, but if you watch YouTube videos, getting shot by a flare gun certainly doesn't look like a fun experience!

We continued onward through the bumps and in the dark it was actually easier to see the rough roads. While the sun was going down the glare would blind some of the holes and you ended up finding them the hard way. But with the dark came a limited view, a view that never seemed to change. It was the same 20 feet with an occasional mile marker that would burst any hope you had of progress made. It became mind-numbing to the point that I had to get out and do jumping jacks to stay alert. One time when I stopped the car I actually had to ask Amie if we were really stopped. It felt like we were still moving, similar to when you get off a boat. She felt it too and I took it as a sign that was a bad place for us to stop; not wanting to go out as a bear’s late night snack. Slowly we started to see lights in the distance and instinctively thought we must be getting close to the city. But then I remembered we weren't going to a city. We weren't looking at light pollution, we were lucky enough to be witnessing the Northern Lights.

The light show gave us the motivation to keep going, not that we really had a choice; the temperature was dropping, we had no cell service, and all the hunters were gone for the day. It wasn't until mile marker 100 that we really just started to hate life. It was around 2:30 in the morning and I can still remember the mood shift. Looking back, I have no idea how we made it that long. After 10 hours of bumping along at 5 mph and up until that point, we were laughing and joking around and I still thought it was a great decision. Then it wasn't anymore. It became more about survival than proving a point or winning a challenge. We were exhausted from the day and the night before and the road just didn't change—it was the same thing mile after mile. I even stopped for a minute thinking if I could just rest my eyes for a minute I could get a recharge. I don't think it lasted 30 seconds before I knew we had to keep going because stopping was not a safe option. It seemed like everything was turning on us as we made a pit stop. As I was watering the foliage I thought I heard something in the bushes and dove back into the car with a full moon just to have Amie explain that she was the one that made the noise. But it was exactly what I needed to get my heart pumping—I was awake now!

The last 20 miles were the most painful and time seemed to just stop. I was pushing the car harder than I should have been because I just wanted it to be over. At one point I remember actually thinking, “at least if something breaks we have an excuse to stop.” That's when I stopped the car and got out to regroup. I did another set of jumping jacks and talked myself off the ledge. This was not where our adventure was going to end, literally and figuratively. We still had 6,000 miles back to South Carolina, and this car is my life and my job so I was not going to let any road take that away from me. We started driving again and moments later we spotted something in the road ahead. It was mother moose and her baby crossing the same road we were traveling. We were in Alaska and damn lucky to be there!

Mile marker 132 crept by and then we saw it! Pavement! It really did exist! Every bone in my body (my boobs too) was grateful for the smooth road. If you are a woman and ever plan on taking the Denali Highway, be sure to pack a sports bra! We got to the hotel at 4:30 in the morning and managed to wave down a cleaning crew to get us a key to our cabin. We were staying at the Denali Salmon Bake Cabins and we just had one more hill to drive up to get to ours...one more muddy, rocky, slippery hill that we managed to get up just to find that all the spots were taken as the car started sliding backwards down the hill. Don't worry; we didn't make it all that way for our story to end in a ditch! Amie was able to guide me and my '65 Mustang without reverse lights down the hill where we parked. Now getting up the hill with our bags was a whole different story!

The next day, or I guess technically later that day we woke up around 10:30. We missed our tour of Denali National Park at 10 am. Remember the shuttles I mentioned earlier? It was the tour for the park they were talking about, which ended up being hours on a dirt road so we were grateful to have missed it! I stepped out of the cabin and could not shake this feeling of being a complete moron. Why had I tortured us for 12 hours the day before?! There were two other easy options I could have taken and avoided it all. I was so scared that Amie was going to kill me for putting her through it all until we started talking. And then we didn't stop. Every moment that had seemed like torture the day before now felt like an accomplishment. We had a story for the rest of our lives that we would never forget. And with that we left the car keys in the room and declared it to be the official day to drink beer in Alaska!

All told, 13,377 miles in 30 days and one of the greatest adventures of my life!

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