I am a first-time documentary filmmaker making a personal film, Everyone But Two, about my grandparents’ travels by trailer to all 48 contiguous states starting in 1965. Thankfully, my grandfather kept a fastidious travel log detailing their journey of more than 35 years. For the film, I decided to use the log to retrace their travels and visit at least one place they had been to in each state, while my friend and talented cinematographer Thomas documents it all on film. For the icing on the cake, I visited the two states they did not, Alaska and Hawaii, to share my surrogate travels with them, ultimately finishing their journey to all 50 states.
While you can’t drive an RV to Hawaii, you can take one to Alaska. In fact, my grandparents tried, but were turned back due to a rare June snowstorm at the Canadian border. Not only did they want to cross this state off their list, but there was a special connection to the road they wanted to travel, the Alaska Highway.
The Alaska Highway, also known as the Alaska-Canadian Highway or ALCAN, officially starts in British Columbia, Canada, and ends a few hundred miles from Fairbanks, Alaska, for a total length of more than 1,300 miles. After being drafted, my grandfather served in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II, where he befriended fellow African American soldiers that helped build the highway as part of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Built in 1942, at a time when the military was segregated, there were clear delineations between the tasks of the African American soldiers and their white counterparts. But the building of the Alaska Highway with both units was considered experimental. Unfortunately for me, due to limited time, driving the entire highway was not an option, but I vowed to do it in the spirit of my grandparents: no overthinking, and I would rent an RV for both transportation and accommodation.
Day 1: Weary travelers
It was early summer when Thomas and I arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, in one piece but out of sorts after a long day of flights. With the significant time difference and jet lag from the East Coast, it was going to be a long day. Still, once we touched down, there was no time to rest; we went straight to pick up our RV rental from Cruise America. The compact, 20-foot Class C RV would be our home and wheels for the week.
I decided to drive and was honked and yelled at within the first 5 minutes of driving when I hesitated to make a turn. It shook my confidence, but Thomas didn’t seem to be worried when he took over. We shopped for groceries and necessities before we found a place to stay for the evening, Creekwood Inn. The attendant at the desk noticed my license and told me that he had lived in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., before moving to Alaska 10 years ago for a quieter existence.
Remembering our tutorial on how to hook up, things were settled quickly. But going to bed proved to be a daunting task, even though we were extremely tired. A feature of Alaska summers is the midnight sun, a natural phenomenon where the sun rises around 4 a.m. and sets around midnight, and it never truly gets dark. Try making yourself go to sleep at 11 p.m. when it looks like 11 a.m. I recommend blackout curtains.
Day 2: Anytown, America
In the morning, we reassessed our RV needs and went to a second Walmart within 24 hours, for some household items we hadn’t considered (including hand soap). As we drove, downtown Anchorage felt as if it could be Anytown, America. We stopped into a camera shop, welcomed by a young man who was as helpful with the camera gear as he was with suggestions on what to do and see. He mentioned a drive on Seward Highway, but today the goal was to get to Denali National Park and Preserve, 200 miles away.
The drive was smooth out of the city and soon we were on the open road, which quickly morphed into a majestic landscape. Within the next few miles, we were staring at the Alaska Range, floating directly above the horizon as if guarding the end of the highway.
This road, however, was not paved in gold. In fact, in Alaska, a lot of roads are not paved at all—or are under construction due to harsh weather. A little past Trapper Creek, on Alaska Highway 3, we came upon a road crew. Atop a flagger’s head was a pink hard hat adorned with stickers on each side that read “Alaska Girls Kick Ass.”
We kept driving until we reached Denali Viewpoint South where we found ourselves face to face with a panoramic view of mountains, and a wide riverbed with a huge white beast of a mountain defending it all. As the tallest mountain peak in North America, Denali commands a lot of attention even from more than 20 miles away.
Closing in on the end of the day, thankfully we were close to our campsite, Denali RV Park & Motel. A white board said that late night arrivals could do a self-check-in, so at 11:59 p.m., we had found our home for the night, plugged in, and shut down.
Day 3 and 4: Twice as nice
We had a park tour scheduled at 10 a.m., giving us time for the round-trip shuttle to Toklat. The road was narrow and winding yet forgiving enough to allow for a gentle flow of traffic. After mile 15, private cars are not allowed on Denali Road, leaving it only accessible by park shuttles, tours, hiking, or biking.
Outside of the bus windows I saw more snow-capped mountains and fields of green grass. Far below rippled a river, and we spotted moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and bears. As we arrived at the Toklat River, buses were stacked, with people roving about, and the river only a few steps away. The gray rocks and breadth of water broke up the space between us and the mountains. We were given about 15 minutes to soak it all in if we wanted to return on the same bus.
Snaking roads became hypnotic and put us all in a daze. We ate our packed lunches, and everything slowed down. I didn’t want to close my eyes but even with them open, I wasn’t seeing things clearly. When we got back to the parking lot, we needed a minute to regroup before we got back on the road to our next destination, Fairbanks.
Fairbanks is smaller than Anchorage, but bigger than most of the towns we passed. Thomas and I were both tired and hungry, and luckily, the River’s Edge RV Park & Campground had a vacancy and a restaurant located on the Chena River with a large wrap-around balcony. It was still so sunny after 8 p.m. that the waitstaff were wearing sunglasses.
At the end of another night in Alaska, my body and mind still hadn’t synced up—and bedtime came sooner than I thought.
Day 5: North Pole
By the time we hit the road on day five, it was close to lunchtime. We were close to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which meant a lot of food options and people riding bikes, walking, or gathering with friends. Along the way, we drove past a town called North Pole. Santa Claus House, a Christmas-themed gift shop opened in 1952, and its 42-foot-tall Santa statue are both visible from the highway.
Today’s filming destination was Delta Junction, my motivation for this entire trip and documentary. A monument marks the official end of the Alaska Highway. My grandparents would have stood in this exact spot had they not turned around. Standing there, I reflected on how much I had wanted to make this trip for them, and feelings of joy rushed over me.
From this point on we would continue south on the Alaska Highway until the town of Tok. As the sun slowly moved across the sky, we approached a white truss bridge that was striking on its own, but what made it especially significant was a sign that read “Black Veterans Memorial Bridge.” Built in 1944, it was renamed in 1993 as a tribute to the African American soldiers of the Army and the Corps of Engineers for their contribution in constructing the highway.
We decided to ditch the RV a day early and rent a car to head south to Seward. The sky was a little darker at 2:50 a.m. when we stopped at Slide Mountain Cabins and RV Park. I think it took less than 10 minutes for me to go to sleep. It could have been a personal record.
Day 6 and 7: Loose moose
We said goodbye to our campsite and started off on the last leg of our journey. The Glenn Highway back to Anchorage was filled with yet a few more stops. We stopped in Palmer for dinner al fresco in a parking lot. In less than an hour we were back in Anchorage at the Creekwood Inn. When I was in line to register, people checking in were looking for somewhere to eat. The clerk started to say, “There is this place that has the best pizza…” and before he could finish, I said, “the Moose’s Tooth?” The pizzeria’s reputation had reached me before my feet had ever touched ground in Alaska. The clerk echoed the recommendation.
Parked and settled, we set up our computers at the table to work. The side door of the RV was open for air when I heard a rustling noise. As the noise got louder, I saw a large patch of brown and yelled, “It’s a moose!” I had been waiting to see one this close since we arrived. How graceful she was on these long brown stilts for legs. She must frequent the campsite often because she didn’t seem alarmed by us. We kept our distance while she kept eating; it was still light at 11 p.m. She finished stripping her leaf meal off trees hanging over the fence, and turned the corner. A perfect last night in the RV.
Day 8: Evacuation Seward
It was time to leave Seward and head back to Anchorage; our flight wasn’t until nearly midnight, but there was still a lot to do. With no stops, Seward is only 2.5 hours from Anchorage. On the way down, we managed to make it in just over 4 hours.
Heading out of Seward, we meandered about one more time taking a road we had yet to travel, one that took us further along the waterfront. As we glanced to our right, we noticed that there were several waterfront campsites with lines of RVs of all shapes and sizes hugging the harbor, capped by tents. Further down the road is Kenai Fjords National Park—I think about how one could stay in Alaska for a month and see something different every day.
We arrived back in Anchorage, and I called home to set up a FaceTime call with my grandparents. During the entire planning of this trip to Alaska and Hawaii, one goal was to share the travels with them in real time. It was raining, so we headed to the Alaska Rail Train Station around the corner. Inside the station was quiet. After a few rings, my grandparents picked up and as soon as I saw their faces, all my worries washed away. My grandparents were simply tickled by the fact that we could communicate from thousands of miles away, face to face.
After we said our goodbyes, Thomas and I gathered everything, and agreed that we needed to find the Moose’s Tooth and judge it for ourselves. There was a huge crowd swarming the place, and for good reason—we left with t-shirts, a sweatshirt, and two large hot pizza boxes. It was more than worth the wait.
After 8 days, we had to catch flights to Maui, but felt like we had only barely scratched the surface of what Alaska has to offer. But luckily, I see traveling as a metaphor for life: It is not the start or the end point that matters, but rather all the stuff in between.