Thursday, February 20, 2014

Adventures in Alaskan Car Ownership

I am back in Alaska, after having been gone for most of the winter.   Alaska, the hussy that she is, welcomed me back with a nasty head cold, negative windchill, and a broken-down car.   Missed you, too.   Maybe I should have stayed away longer.
Looking north across the frozen Kenai Lake

I caught a ride down to my cousins on the local bus from Anchorage.   These rides tend to be very interesting from a people-watching perspective, and this trip was no exception.   I ended up sitting a row in front of a guy who was going to Seward to (a) work at the local fish processing plant, and (b) recruit fellow workers at the plant to leave their jobs there in April and go work for his fishing crew once the salmon season starts.   Apparently, the seafood processing plant is OK with him doing this.    But, the guy was also calling the plant every time the bus went through patches of cell phone signal, as though the arrangement perhaps wasn't entirely settled.  He also kept inviting everyone else on the bus (actually, it was mostly the women) to come sit next to him, and was telling me a bunch of stories about his years working on the Time Bandit, one of the boats featured on the TV show Deadliest Catch.   I’d never seen any of the episodes he was referring to, but that only made him more eager to fill me in on what I’d missed.   He never really got the picture that I wasn't looking for a glamorous job in the fishing industry.    

            Even though I’d heard about the weird winter, I was still surprised at how little snow was on the ground.   There was a tiny dusting, but I could still see through the snow to the layer of leaves below it.   Everything was very solidly frozen and a little crunchy to walk on.   Even the unplowed parts of my cousins' Myriad Network of Victor Creek Driveways were passable - even when driving my station wagon, the Penguin, which has less ground clearance than many species of reptile.   In a lot of ways Alaska looked like it was still November, and I had never left.

      The next day, I was able to jump-start the Penguin, after being initially defeated by a frozen hood latch on the car I was jumping from.   

The following day, I took the car into town to see my doctor, after getting sick with a really bad cold that I suspected was the flu (it wasn't, thankfully, but the high fever and body aches were sort of pointing that direction).  I went to the doctor's office and then to the grocery store to get some throat drops.   By this point the snow had shown up in a big way, and on the way back up the road to my cousins’, the visibility started to get really bad. I pulled over by the Bear Creek Fire Station to try and clear off my windshield and wait it out.   The Penguin idled for about a minute, then a bunch of warning lights lit up dashboard, and the car died.   When I tried to restart it, the battery just made those no-hope clicking sounds.   

 Fortunately, I’d gotten a AAA policy for the Penguin before I came back north, so I called their 800 number.   The rep I spoke with said that she’d arrange a tow with the closest available operator, but she couldn’t tell me where the tow truck would be coming from.   Knowing the distances between towns in Alaska, this sort of raised a red flag, since if the tow truck were coming from anywhere other than Seward, it would be at least three hours away.    The rep assured me, in answer to my questions, that the tow truck would definitely be there within two hours, and the driver would call me when he was getting close.  That sounded OK.   So I cowered in the doorway of the fire station, and called a local taxi.   When the driver came by, he already had a customer in his car (as well as a girlfriend and a small dog), and had swung by to get me out of the kindness of his heart when he heard that my car was dead.   Unfortunately, he was heading out to the end of Nash Road, (which is about as far away as it is possible to drive in Seward) and told me it would be at least 45 minutes to an hour before he could drop me off at the school, where I was hoping to meet Kate and get a ride back to her house.  At this point I was still under the impression that the two truck would be arriving within the next 90 minutes.   If the tow truck did arrive on time, and I wasn’t able to get back to my car to meet the driver, I was kind of screwed.   So I asked the taxi to just drop me off before he turned down Nash Road, and I’d walk from there.   

Not the best call I’ve ever made.   Remember how I said I’d come to town originally because I thought I had the flu?   Walking a half mile in blowing snow and negative windchill was probably not what my doctor had in mind when he told me to rest and drink fluids.    I made it about twenty yards before my already-stressed throat just started closing up.   

“You want to breathe this air?” said my throat.   “If I have to breathe this air, then maybe I’m just not going to breathe at all…”   

So I huddled with my back to the wind to try and keep from further pissing off my throat, and I called Kate. She bravely came out in a whiteout and rescued me from the side of the road.   She is my hero. 

When people think of the stereotypical Alaskan person, a lot of people tend to think of someone who’s a little bit like MacGuyver in Carhardts.   The state likes to think that we’re all a big bunch of rugged, highly capable individualists bravely soldiering our way singlehandedly through the last great wilderness, effortlessly hiking through mountain ranges, returning in the evening to hand-built cabins and feasting on meat from the moose we killed with our bare hands back in October.   And yes, there are some people who are actually like this.   However, the Alaska I more typically see is more a  population of somewhat rugged, and mostly capable people who are ferociously interdependent on each other for a lot of what we need to live here.  I’ve asked neighbors for (and been asked for in return) everything from child care, to borrowing food, fishing equipment, snowshoes and tire chains.   Alaskans are each others' backup plans, and generally the whole system works pretty well.   Though Alaska has never had a problem with taking folks down a notch if she suspects you might be getting ideas about your general competence.   Like causing your car to die in a whiteout on a day you're runing a 101 degree fever.   (At least the Penguin waited until after I’d seen the doctor before it went belly-up.)

Kate had some work to finish up at the school, so I hung out in her classroom and waited for the Triple A driver to call me.   He didn’t.  At 5:15 I called Triple A back, and was again told that the driver would be at the car by 5:30 at the latest.    I was further informed that if I wasn’t at the car by the time the driver arrived, the tow could be cancelled.   The rep said she’d contact dispatch about where the driver actually was, and would call back.   Five minutes later, Triple A calls back... except it’s someone wanting me to rate the quality of my service call.   I ask him was he aware that I was still waiting for the driver.   He said no, and said he’d contact dispatch about where the driver was, and would call me back.    Slightly alarmed that I was going to miss the driver and have the tow cancelled, Kate and I left the school as soon as we could, and went back to the car.   No one there.   No one called me back.  My cell phone was getting low on juice, and my golden-hearted cousin Kate wanted to get home before it got dark, (it was still snowing) and the visibility went from bad to worse.   At 6pm, we put a note on the car and left.   I called Triple A again when we got back to Kate’s house.   This time, I was told that the new arrival time for the driver was 8:05pm; she apologized that no one had called me to tell me this.   She again said the driver would call when he was 20 minutes away.   8pm came and went.   I called Triple A a fourth time, and was told that the driver would arrive within the hour.   (At least this time they weren’t trying to make up an exact arrival.)   Finally at 8:20 we got a call from the driver, and drove back down to Seward to meet him at the car.   The Penguin was sent on its way to the auto shop, and we went back to the school so that Kate could pick up a few more things to work on over the weekend.   

Turns out the dispatcher gave the tow to a company coming from… Anchorage.   Which is totally three hours away, even in good weather.   Kate told me that her family has had similar issues in the past with Lower 48 dispatchers having no idea about the distances between Alaska towns.   I found out during one of the last phone calls with Triple A that I could have had the local Seward tow truck  get the car, and that I would have had to pay the driver, and then the company would reimburse me.   Which I would have been totally OK with, had I known I had that option.   They said the original dispatcher should have made it clear I had that choice, and actually suggested I follow up with a complaint.   But at least the car made it down to the shop OK.   Happily, the electrical problem was traced to a loose belt, which the mechanic fixed for free.   The shop did find a rusting tie end that needs to be replaced, (the part is on order from Anchorage) but it was all in all a much cheaper repair bill that I had feared.
Snow-covered train tracks

            In other car-related news, my cousins’ new mailbox was taken out by the snowplow a few days ago.   This is slightly ironic since they moved the box to its new location specifically to try and keep it from being hit by cars. The next morning, we effected repairs to her box (and her neighbors’ which had also gotten demolished) by tying them to the sides of the railing they had been mounted to.   Unfortunately, the post office specifies how close the boxes need to be to the road, so moving the post back isn’t really an option.   We’ll just hope that in the future the snowplow driver isn’t quite so diligent about trying to clear the entire shoulder.

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