What a Ford Bronco and a lion hunter taught me about the perfect road trip

Nathan Petroelje

It was early. Not up-before-the-sun-early. Early because it was the morning after an 18-hour travel day and three hours of sleep, and all the clocks were five hours behind the ones at home. You wake up like that, you start to think time might not be a flat circle. Still, Meg and I had a long day ahead, double-digit hours to watch a dream come to life, so I was wide awake.

A job in car media can occasionally send you to far-flung corners of the globe. You end up in some exotic machine in some location that’s as much a part of the story as the vehicle you’re wheeling. Sometimes, however, you get a simpler brief:

“Go out there and bring the car back,” your boss says.

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip front three quarter forest
Nathan Petroelje

For the past three months, Tom Cotter—Hagerty’s Barn Find Hunterhad been trekking the country in a Ford Bronco and an Airstream Basecamp 16X camper trailer, gathering material for a book. Fairbanks, Alaska, was the end of that road for him, but the Bronco and Basecamp were on loan from their makers. They had to get to Seattle, to be returned to Ford and Airstream.

Thus, an invitation: from Alaska to the lower 48, by way of the famous Alcan Highway, in a reborn American icon, towing an enduring one.

I raised my hand in seconds.

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip Basecamp X badge
Nathan Petroelje

My haste had reason. Several years ago, at another job, I had a chance to run that same route in reverse, Seattle to Fairbanks, in a Jeep. Meg and I are married now, but we had just begun dating. We talked whenever I could find a cell signal, which wasn’t often. In the miles between, I dwelled on the privilege of a trip like this, imagining the same experience with her, vowing to make it happen one day.

As we fueled up the Bronco that first morning, my hands shook. “Prepare to have your brain melted,” I told Meg.

Just fifteen hours later, all the build-up—months of anticipation and hours of talking Meg’s ear off, telling her what we would see—seemed for nothing. I felt like I had failed.

 

***

 

Western Canada is not small. Google Maps says that it takes at least 39 hours of wheel time to cover the 2100-plus miles from Fairbanks to Seattle. Because Meg and I have jobs and need to ration vacation time, we decided to knock the whole thing off in just four days. As we rumbled out of town, we passed Fairbanks’s Eielson Air Force Base just in time to see a squadron of F-22 Raptors thunder up for the morning’s training session. I let out a nerdy giggle: Just a few years after first seeing this gorgeous land, back again with someone I love? I couldn’t believe the luck.

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip trailer rear three quarter with mountains
Nathan Petroelje

Watching Alaska’s beauty wash over Meg was better than I’d imagined. Phones were out at first, because capturing the scenery can seem like a good idea for the first few minutes. After a while, though, her phone was nowhere to be seen. Instead, she just stood there, by the side of the road, silent, staring at things like Mount Denali—the tallest mountain in North America—as if the scale of the place had shorted out her brain. Blessed with clear skies and bright sun, each roadside pause gave its own dose of magic. The trip’s time constraints momentarily fell from my mind. We stopped nine times before lunch.

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip front three quarter Alaska sign
Nathan Petroelje

Still, chasing that magic came at a cost. A quick map check at noon revealed we were nearly two hours behind schedule. In Alaska, time matters more than you’d think. Safe and smart resting points are few and far between, and falling short of a planned stop can leave you at the mercy of raw nature, cold and hungry at best or bear food at worst.

A strange feeling hit the pit of my stomach. A flicker of anxiety? I swallowed it.

The feeling snowballed that afternoon. Summer rains had washed out large stretches of the road, and while the freshly repaired highway was still passable, the going was slow. The Airstream went airborne on more than one occasion, over surfaces that would have made a suspension engineer blush. One such instance ripped off the trailer’s septic drain pipe, a problem I wouldn’t discover until two days later.

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip trailer parked at pull-off
Nathan Petroelje

Have you ever known that you’re headed to a bad place mentally, and wanted to fight it, but you get there anyway? Leaving Alaska and entering the Canadian Yukon, we got held up in border traffic for almost an hour. In the miles that followed, I did my best to make up time, but the unforgiving roads bent our pace back to a crawl. At one point, an overly enthusiastic semi heading the other direction flung a rock into the Bronco’s windshield, spidering the glass at eye level.

My eyes flitted back and forth from the windshield’s fractured view to the map. The damage wasn’t serious, but it would still have to be documented, explained to Ford, and paid for. As the day ticked on, the occasional pang of nerves gave way to a landslide of illogical panic.

I knew that our borrowed Ford was still fundamentally fine, that no one had gotten hurt. The world wasn’t going to end if we got to Seattle a little late. But frustration mounted. First at our ever-climbing ETA, then at myself, for having the gall to believe I could simply plow on in a land like this, over this much distance. Suburban-born journalist thinks a cheery demeanor and some timely oohs and aahs will turn thousands of miles across the Canadian wilderness into a blast down I-75? Who were you kidding?

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip front end detail smashed bugs
Nathan Petroelje

Meanwhile, in the passenger seat, Meg had opened a map and was idly reciting strange town names. She cued up a new album on the stereo and rolled down the window, occasionally calling out pretty views, content. I went silent, no longer enthralled by endless woods and rivers.

As the Yukon passed by, the road improved, and we finally picked up the pace. I’d hoped for dinner alongside a meandering river, or at a pull-off under some snow-capped mountain. Instead, with the light fading fast and hours still to go, we made do with hurried burgers in a gas station. It was well after midnight before we finally rolled into the RV park in Whitehorse, where we had planned to camp for the night.

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip Airstream logo
Nathan Petroelje

A day that had begun with jubilation closed with flared temper. Bedded down in the Airstream, I tried to claw back a few hours of sleep, but guilt came in waves. Rather than looking forward to what was still to come, I found myself dreading it: I had convinced someone to come with me to one of the most beautiful places on earth, then ruined the trip.

The second day had always been planned to hold fewer miles. As we got on the road, the weather seemed to change every half hour—rain here to rinse the road grime, sun there to re-spackle truck and trailer with a fresh coat of pulverized bugs. I became reluctant to stop for anything noncritical, determined to not make the same mistake twice.

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip Side profile wooded mountains
Nathan Petroelje

Despite my best efforts, Meg seemed keenly aware of my disappointment. The hubris from the end of our first day showed up again. Dead-set on progress, I began vetoing detours to watch moose, or to stare at a rushing river. We made maybe five stops all day, her insistence winning me over each time.

The funny thing was, each of those pauses brought the joy that escaped me in the Bronco. But also more guilt, as I mentally tallied all the potential stops we’d blown past since the last one.

That night’s resting place was Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park, a few hours south of the border between the Yukon and British Columbia. We reached it with daylight to spare, settling into a campsite next to the park’s namesake water. Gray clouds swallowed the surrounding peaks as we got a fire going and made food.

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip Parked at Kinaskan Lake campsite
Nathan Petroelje

Years back, when I had first recounted to Meg my first trip through these lands, I had hung the whole story on a loose set of images seared into my brain. I endlessly retold that story to any friend or family member who would hold still long enough, but time had whittled the memories down to fragments of a moment: 30 seconds of this song as I rounded a bend, the way the light hit a peak, the beer I drank sitting on the hood after climbing those foothills.

At that Kinaskan campsite, for the first time on the whole trip, the moment matched the memory. Exhausted, I waved a hand at the water, then the fire, then Meg. “This is what I’ve been hoping for the whole time,” I admitted.

She shrugged, knowing my ego was bruised. “Maybe specifics aren’t the point here?” Later, as I drifted off to sleep, her words blew around my head like sawdust.

 

***

 

I did my best, the next day, to reframe how I looked at things. We made decent pace and passed the trip’s halfway point. That night, south of Prince George, Vancouver, at the gates of the Stone Creek RV Park, we were met by a shirtless bald man in Chicago Bears pajama pants. His handlebar mustache wiggled as he spoke.

“You guys are late,” he said, gruffly.

Some amalgamation of excuses flopped out of my mouth.

“No, you’re a week late,” he said.

The moment lasted seconds but felt like an hour. My stomach fell through my shoes. I’d promised this glimmering adventure, the cracks were showing, and some guy in Bears jammies had finally delivered the kill shot.

I braced for an argument, sure that I’d made the correct reservation over the phone. Instead, the man just shrugged. A bear paw of a hand extended.

“Eh, just details. Those aren’t important. Welcome! I’m Rick. Let’s get you set up.”

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip window reflection of mountains
Nathan Petroelje

Our hours at Stone Creek were some of the best of the trip. We parked the camper a few feet from an ancient willow tree on the banks of a wide and gentle river, in front of a staggering view of the sunset. Rick had left a dinky old golf bag nearby. He challenged me to clear the river with a driver: “Ten bucks for every shot that makes it. You get three shots.”

Before I could mutter something about being a terminally afflicted golf nut, he thrust an old and dented club into my hands. I made back our $30 reservation fee in less than five minutes. As the fire burned low, we chopped it up with our new pal and a few of his regulars, grateful that first impressions are only that.

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip rear three quarter down road in mountains cloudy
Nathan Petroelje

The next morning, Rick’s two Great Pyrenees rescue dogs greeted us as we stepped out of the trailer. Breakfast was a couple of peanut butter sandwiches, two of the dozens we ate that week. I felt better. We fired up the Bronco and headed out.

Heading south from Prince George on route 97 will land you on Canada Highway 1 in a few hours. From there, you can zip southwest toward the border and be in the U.S. by dusk. Or you can hang a right a few miles before the 97-1 interchange, onto Highway 99, chasing peaks and valleys west towards Whistler and Squamish.

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip Route 99 pull-off rear three quarter
Nathan Petroelje

Rick had warned me that 99 was “just a goat path” in places. When a man who hunts mountain lions for sport says a route is no joke, you listen. He was right: Sixteen-percent grades and tight switchbacks were draped over cliffs, and we were towing a trailer. Our GPS suggested the detour would cost two hours; it ended up being more like four, but what we saw was worth 20. Greens and blues and whites and yellows were shotgunned onto the land with varied intensity everywhere you looked. As we climbed, dazzling sunlight danced across the rippling waters of rivers, then streams, then ponds. Wildflowers hugged the edges of lakes, bordering them in neon glow.

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip wildflowers along lake
Nathan Petroelje

“Great time for a removable roof!” Meg joked.

I laughed, actually relaxed. “Just wait till we hit the Sea-to-Sky highway.”

In a shocking turn of events, I misjudged the amount of time we would need for dinner. We ate but got back on the road later than planned, just in time for the Bronco to hit the meat of one of western B.C.’s most beautiful roads in the dark. The sun had gone low enough to turn the mountains into dark, featureless blobs.

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip Bronco rear end detail
Nathan Petroelje

I started to lament even more of my awful timing, but at the last second, something told my overactive brain to shut up. North of Vancouver, as we crawled through traffic along the shore, Meg went quiet, gazing into the deep orange sky. Boat lights twinkled across the water, the optical illusion seeming to bend the horizon, as if the Ford sat on the edge of the world.

“You’ll have to trust me,” I sighed, shaking my head. “This place is truly something in the light.”

“It’s quite something right now,” Meg said, softly.

Her words seemed to hang in the cabin. The acoustic guitar of some singer-songwriter tinkled softly through the speakers. The American border was just a few miles away. The trip was almost over.

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip Basecamp X badge and Bronco detail on Route 99
Nathan Petroelje

As those last few Canadian road signs dashed past, I thought about the last few days. Even as I tried to rebuild the memories, to turn the trip into something good, the disappointment lingered. There were no colossal mistakes, just a series of missteps stacked on each other, like waves heading to shore.

Those delays, I realized, had bothered me far more than they had bothered Meg. I suddenly felt very stupid and petty.

“This was all supposed to be . . . better,” I said. “I wanted to show you more of it without a car window in the way. I’m sorry.”

I kept my eyes on the road but somehow knew she had turned to look at me.

“You might be the only person,” she said, “who would feel the need to apologize for what we just did.” The words came out half shock, half kind disbelief.

It’s never what you see or how much time you make. There were moments on that trip where I was probably the only person on the entire Alcan Highway to be annoyed by everything he saw. In a truly humbling part of the world, I was dumb and mad at everything for no good reason, and she knew.

Of course she did. Not that it mattered where we were. Walmart on a Wednesday with my wife is better than the Alps on Christmas with anyone else. It’s why I felt so lucky to make this trip with her in the first place, and why I spent days chasing an unreal perfect moment at the expense of imperfect real ones.

You travel with the people you care about because the place is never the point. And because they forgive you.

“Oh look,” she said, pointing at the nav screen. A smile. “Our ETA went up again.”

Bronco Airstream Alaska Road Trip side profile cloudy in mountains
Nathan Petroelje
Leave comment
Read next Up next: Sixth-gen small-block on horizon as GM invests $918M in U.S. factories

Comments

    Hi Rami, thanks so much for checking this story out! So glad you enjoyed it. Be sure to check out the other stories in our Great Reads category as well, they’re all phenomenal!

    -Nate

    Well done. And Meg sounds like a great partner.
    There have been times where pace was king for me, and enjoyable of course for its own sake; yet the fondest memories were lazier, immersive road trips with someone special.

    I’ve planned three road trips that crossed large sections of the U.S. The first was a 17-day outing that I called, “The Great American Road Trip.” In my planning, I decided that there would be a certain amount of driving done each day, and the route was planned for stops along the way to break up the distance that needed to be covered. Some days had less driving because there were more important things to be seen that required more time. Some days had more driving because there wasn’t much worth stopping for.

    I think the author’s critical mistake was to turn a journey into a matter of arriving at a destination. I would always recommend planning a trip based on the time you have rather than trying to squeeze a trip into less time than it requires. In this case, either allocate more vacation time or plan to do it another time when you can. Given the “free” Bronco and Airstream, I would have opted for the former.

    Two weeks earlier, that same Bronco and Airstream traversed those same roads, but in the opposite direction, and at a somewhat slower pace. Nice job, Nate. Your photos are beautiful. Give my regards to Meg and I’d love to pass along another roadtrip vehicle to you sometime!

    Thank you for all the kind comments on the article. It brings me great joy to see that it made you smile! I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to tell stories like this and go on the adventures that create them. Be sure to check out the other stories in our Great Reads category; our team is full of incredible writers with equally great stories to share!

    Minor mistake on the Prince George reference, it is Prince George, British Columbia, not Prince George, Vancouver (another city). Otherwise enjoyed it!

    Very nice story, Nate. I understand the constraints you were under, and I sincerely hope you have the opportunity to do it again when the journey is the priority, rather than having to meet a deadline. My wife and I have done that trip and beyond a few times, and I can attest that it’s truly spectacular country.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *