Allons! the road is before us! It is safe-I have tried it-my own feet have tried it well-be not detain’d!
-Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road
I generally fly by Moe’s house on the first pass, just because I’m mostly on autopilot in that part of the Yukon. It’s easy on long roads with a bit of scenery. I meld into the gears of my car and we toss back the miles. Before I know it I’m flying past my exit, pumping brakes on iced-up roads.
But it’s easy to miss, because Moe doesn’t live in a town. The closest human establishment, barring the odd ranch or cabin, is Haines Junction. It’s about an hour away on snowy roads. I’d tell you how many miles, but I don’t rightly know, as the Canadians don’t believe in them. The property sits in a pancaked glacial valley along route 3 between Haines and Haines Junction, just north of the British Columbia border. Snow capped peaks rise above, mirrored in juxtapose on the surface of Lake Dezadeash, cold and deep. When traveling north from Haines Alaska, Moe’s is the only hostel on that very empty stretch of the Alaska-Canadian Highway, commonly known as the ALCAN. It’s a lonely road to drive in the winter, and I think that’s why I always stop. Moe’s is the only friendly face I can count on seeing in the 800 miles between Haines and Girdwood, and somehow that’s important.
The first time I stayed at Moes hostel was my very first drive north on the ALCAN in November of 2011. I was fleeing Prince of Wales, the summer season was over. The money had been earned, the resume inflated, and now it was time to go enjoy some snow and spend the winter skiing. I was headed north to a little town in Alaska called Girdwood where a friend of a friend was hopefully going to get me a job working at the ski resort. To get there I would have to ferry north to Haines, then drive further north into the Canadian Yukon, west from there back into Alaska, and finally south to Girdwood. A long road. My ferry had wheeled into Haines a few hours before, and I had set out driving with a simple plan to drop 100 bucks I didn’t really have on a motel room for the night in Haines Junction. Sadly, Canada has a tight ass about vagrants like myself, and will issue you a fine for camping in your car. Not like there are really all that many cops out in the Yukon, or Mounties I guess, but I generally I do my best to keep up the appearance of a normal law-abiding citizen.
So my plan was to bite the bullet on a pricey room. And I was tired. It had been a long trip already. Two boat rides and a few days of waiting and feeling grubby as the Blue Canoe chugged north to Haines. But the road was under me again and there was a shower and heat in my future, so onward I pressed while the dry snow blew all around and the temperatures hovered in single digits. I had been driving for a few hours, and had seen precious few vehicles since crossing the border. Only three in the last two hours, one had been a snowplow. The road went winding along the tundra valleys, sweeping me north. I had been dodging ptarmigan left and right, and the road surface was white with snow and ice. But I was getting close to Haines Junction and rest. That was when I saw the sign. It was a simple sandwich board on the side of the highway at the end of a long driveway in the very middle of nowhere. “HOSTEL” is what I read as my car mached by, and I tapped my breaks carefully, slowing to a stop in the center of the empty highway. I sat there in the middle of the road for a second as I weighed my options. Deciding that this warranted further investigation at the very least, I threw my Honda in reverse, heedless down the centerline of the empty highway.
Back at the sandwich board, I got out of my car and looked around. The landscape around me was barren, empty rolling plains with mountains distant. Lake Dezadeash loomed to the north like an inland sea, white with snow but dark and deep, already frozen in early November. I gazed down the drive. A hundred yards distant, a cluster of buildings sat dark under clouded skies. Somewhere a diesel generator hummed. The sunset was decaying behind my back and darkness was slipping in around me. Shadows sat heavy in the drive, growing deeper as the cold wind howled. It felt desolate and empty, the skies ominous. And I was tired, already sick of travel after piling hours of snow-covered Yukon road on top of two days at sea. Sometimes all I can feel is excitement as I plunge down a new road. Other times, all I feel is weary. I wanted a warm shower after my last two nights on the ferry, bright lights and hot whiskey to chase away the dark and cold. I stood there thinking all these things as the skies darkened. It was barely 4 pm. I looked again at the group of buildings and shook my head; This was stupid and I was stupid for considering it. But I could save some money here, my pragmatic self pointed out. I could disappear forever here to and no one would ever know what had become of me, my paranoid self countered. The wind was blowing lonely down from the mountains, and I just stared raccoon-eyed, tired and wondering how I had stumbled my way into the opening scene of a horror film.
Deep down I knew I was just being overdramatic, but still. I was alone and exhausted in a strange, cold, and remote place. I was driving hundreds of miles to a whole new town, a place I’d never been where I had no friends and no guarantee of either a job or even a place to live when I got there. I wasn’t sure what I was doing or why I was doing it, but here I was, alone in the Yukon with the sun going down. Such are the moments when a man totters on his edge. And barring all this, when it really came down to it, I was a little frightened of those lonely buildings. In the end I think that was what pushed me down the driveway. I try to hide from it, but on some level I’m just another suspicious, semi-suburban, overworried American. It’s something that I find myself at constant war with. And it’s a tough thing to break yourself of, the idea that the world is out to get you. I think it’s a mentality cultivated by affluent America, even though I’ve never been affluent and I doubt I’ve ever been a very good American. From an early age we’re taught to be distrustful of strangers, we’re taught, encouraged, to be afraid of what everyone has billed to us as a big scary world. News channels cram stories of muggers , nukes, terrorists, AR-15 rampages, and swine flu down our throats every night. And sure, the world is big and crazy and scary as shit. But it’s beautiful and great too; if you’re busy worrying and being scared, you’ll miss all that. I decided long ago that the luxury of fear is something that life is simply too short for. Better for us to be brave when we can and live with intent. Of course I don’t always practice what I preach, in fact like anyone else I tend to err on the side of hypocrisy. But as I stood there in the wind, thinking about a hot shower in Haines Junction that I didn’t really need, I realized that this was just another opportunity to retest my bullshit theories. Besides, I had a can of bear spray and a rock hammer under my seat. And I couldn’t really think of anything important that I had to lose anyway.
Galvanized, I jumped back into my Honda and nosed down the driveway. On cue a cavalcade of mutts came pounding up the rutted drive, four big loud dogs. They circled my car, barking furiously as I nosed along at 2 mph, doing my best not to hit them. What was I getting myself into? I drew near the buildings. Alerted by his hounds, Darren Moe came strolling around the side of the building from where I could hear a saw running. Medium height, brown hair, a slow drawl and a thoughtful way about him, he had the look of a man who had spent the better part of his life outside absorbing the many beneficial side effects of prolonged exposure to good things like cold wind and wood smoke. I learned later that Moe had been a big game hunting guide for many years in Alberta and British Columbia. He yelled to the dogs and they quickly backed down, wagging their tails and grinning at me. Moe and I shook hands and exchanged pleasantries before asking me if I was interested in staying in a cabin. Without hesitating I said yes, and he pointed to a little green shack with a stovepipe protruding from the roof.
An inexhaustible wood supply was stacked a few steps from the door. Perfect. I fished some US bills from my wallet, Moe was completely unconcerned about the conversion rate. So I parked my car and settled in. The cabin was cozy with gas lights and hard bunks. I got to work splitting wood, and soon had a ripping little fire. I was just patting myself on the back for being such a big brave boy, and had settled into reading a book when Moe returned and asked if I had eaten dinner. I had cooked a big pot of rice and beans before leaving Prince of Wales days ago. This I had divvied up into mason jars, and it was my traveling food to avoid spending money over the next few hundred miles. Better that Sal Paradise and his bag of salami/cheese sandwiches, I thought. I told Moe this, omitting my thoughts on Sal, and he nodded slowly, then asked if I wanted to join him and his ranch hand for bison backstrap steaks in an hour. This was a bit of hospitality I had been totally unprepared for, and I immediately accepted.
At dinner I learned that Moe had only recently acquired this property, and had set about to make it into an organic hay ranch and hostel called Moe’s Yukon Ranch Adventures. I was his third visitor. His ranch hand was actually a young man from Germany named Johan, who had come here to work through the WWOOFer program, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Anyway, I passed a really pleasant evening there and now I always stop on my way through. The business has grown since, and Moe now has teepees you can stay in, and a very nice, official-looking sign. And I now always bring a growler of microbrewed ale to insure an invite to dinner. And sometimes there are kittens.
You can check out Moe’s website if you plan on passing through anytime soon.
Lastly, I’ll tie all this up with a fitting Mountain Goats song.