Chris McCandless, the American hiker whose travels inspired the Jon Krakauer novel Into the Wild, is credited with having once penned the phrase“happiness is only real, when shared”. I imagine his philosophising came from some pretty profound life experiences, but I also happen to think it makes for the perfect road trip motto. Especially when that road trip journeys through the guts of America’s most epic frontier - Alaska.
Myself and my crew leave Fairbanks at dawn, well, as close to dawn as you can get in a country that sees 21 hours of daylight a day. Packed into the depths of a dusty red Jeep Wrangler, Dan lead-foots it down an empty stretch of Route 3 while Larry and Jules cradle their cameras and snore in the back. I turn up the volume on an Eddie Vedder track and settle in for the long haul, wondering when I’ll get to see my first bear. Or bear cub. Or even better, Emile Hirsch.
As we drive through winding tunnels of pine, chasing a better view to the snow-peaked mountain ranges, the cab quickly fills with Hershey wrappers and empty beef jerky packets. We play spot the moose and spot the alehouse and spot the wild-eyed, defeated climber fresh from throwing themselves at the mercy of the mighty Mount McKinley.
We eat 100-year-old recipe hotcakes in Talkeetna, skateboard across Denali National Park and stand confused in middle of the ammunition aisle at a local supermarket. Would you like bullets with your broccoli today, ma’am? One day we pitch a tent by a shockingly cold river, the next we sit on a jetty and watch bush pilots land seaplanes on lakes made of glass. This is Alaska in the summertime and it’s beautiful, but I get the feeling things could turn just as quickly as the weather.
After plenty of water, a few half decent movies and a little bit of sleep, Dan and Kate are forced to adjust to their new time zone immediately. There’s no choice when you’re about to hop into a combi to hit North America’s most popular mountain biking trails.
Within an hour they have organised a couple of bikes and arrive at Vancouver’s Lynn Valley. After loads of tough manoeuvres, a couple of tight squeezes and one big stack it’s back into the van.
One night, after two hours of trekking, one rogue beaver encounter, three shots of fireball whiskey and my second coating of mosquito repellent, the four of us sit atop a ridgeline. We’re looking out across Denali, in all of its midnight sun glory. There’s not another human in sight.
The next morning, as we pull into a rainy Anchorage having clocked over 350 miles on the road, I flick through the photos on my camera and realise that McCandless was onto something. This happiness gig, it really is better when shared. But boy, am I glad to get out of that Jeep.