Clutchless - but not clueless - on the Alcan

When I was 17, my dad taught me a good lesson. I was headed to California from Anchorage, Alaska, by car. I was to work for my step-dad that summer in the almond orchards. My younger brother had flown up for the adventure of riding along on the 3,300-mile trip.

Any drive that long will present challenges to kids that age, but at that time the Alcan highway was largely unpaved for about 1,500 miles. As we loaded the last of our gear into the car, my dad said firmly that I was not to call him if I had any problems; I was only to call him if I needed help with a solution to a problem. Kind of a cool twist of phrase that has proved to be a valuable perspective for me to this day.

The Alcan (Alaska-Canada) highway was hastily built in one season during World War II as the first overland supply route to Alaska. There were battles being fought in the Aleutian Islands, and the historical supply lines of air and water were too limited to assure the security needed for the war. The highway followed the route easiest to construct and had gradually evolved since World War II into a pretty decent two-lane gravel road.

There were some bright-eyed tourists using the road by the time I drove it in my Volkswagen Rabbit, but it was still primarily a supply line for the small towns scattered along the mountains, rivers, and tundra of the Yukon Territory and British Columbia.

When we crossed the border I was barely able to fulfill the Canadian requirement of having enough cash to assure them that we would not become involuntary teenage settlers.

Gas stations could be pretty far apart, so we had to plan carefully. We camped out, fixed flat tires, replaced broken headlights, and swatted bugs. Big trucks barreling toward us kicked up gravel and impenetrable dust clouds that required us to pull over and come to a stop when the weather was dry - which wasn't often. We had plenty of minor breakdowns, but nothing I couldn't sort out as I went.

About five days into the trip, I had spent too much of my limited cash on tires and was feeling the pressure. Driving the Alcan had sounded like great fun to me at the start, but I was getting pretty worn out by the horrible mud and the nearly hourly breakdowns. I had an awesome stereo in the car that was rarely used. The car would break, I'd fix it, be scared for an hour, relax, crank the tunes, and the car would break again. We never really got much of that road-trip rhythm going.

Near sunset that day, the clutch pedal went to the floor and became useless. I got the car into neutral and coasted to a stop and felt an overwhelming sense of dread. Driving an import car in the wilderness has some advantages, but ease of locating parts is not one of them. We were a zillion miles from a repair facility, and even farther from any place where we could purchase a VW part. I didn't have money for a repair or a part anyway, much less for the special shipping that would be required to get it there inside a week.

Calling Dad and bumming the money needed was not a good plan, I can assure you. Never has been, but I won't go into that now.

Instead I learned to drive a stick without a clutch. Starting up wasn't pretty, but if you get the engine speed just right, you can slide from one gear to another with a minimum of crashing parts once you're rolling. But I knew we needed a longer-term fix if I was to make it all the way out.

The opportunity for a solution came disguised as a burned-down house. We were limping along on one of the dry days, shifting rarely and carefully, and I spotted the gold-mine of potential parts. After some sooty sorting I came across a section of copper tubing in what had been a bathroom. Look under your bathroom sink and you'll see two lines that supply the faucet. The clutch in my car was operated by a cable that relies on a rigid housing to give it pull. The cable had sawed through the housing, rendering it simply a wire in free air, not able to pull the clutch.

A few knuckle-busting hours of coaxing a copper water line into position solved my floppy clutch cable problem and we were off and running. No phone call to Daddy necessary.

That trip was about 23 years ago. I've driven that route lots of times since then and found many, many other sources of grief as well. I've chosen a life that guarantees me plenty of stuff breaking down in weird places. But that trip also set a pattern for me. Specialization of labor is a grand idea; hire it out if it's a drag, or you're no good at it, or you don't have time. But I'm really glad for this feeling I have that there's always a solution at hand if calling Dad isn't an option. I can look at trouble as an opportunity.

Memory is kind of a cool thing. I remember every miserable detail of that trip up until the clutch-cable deal. Being utterly stranded and sorting it out on my own was cathartic or something. Really, really being on my own. After that I have a warm, vague recollection of beautiful country, swimming in a glacier-fed stream, getting along with my brother, bad food, cows, loud music, and really expensive gas measured in liters. Every kid should thank their dad for making things rough for them.

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