We all have our own brand of crazy.

Certainly, there are aspects of our neuroses that we must monitor, moderate, and, in some cases, mitigate. On the other hand, through the years I found that at times it can be healthy and down right rejuvenating to full on indulge one’s peculiar aspects. This is a story of using the latter to help the former.

Three weeks ago, I stood cold and wet at the finish-line tent at The Rut 50k in Big Sky, Montana. The day before I’d reported on The Rut 28k, the third race I’d covered in the course of three consecutive weekends. Three-straight weeks of all-in reporting left me frayed. I’d managed to sneak in a couple short runs in the preceding days. Each had been awful, mentally and physically. I questioned most of life’s big whys, often with nothing better than catastrophic conclusions… admittedly, one of my not-so-good flavors of crazy.

In this low, I made small talk with the acquaintances and strangers who crowded around heat stands on an unpleasant afternoon. In the crowd, I spotted my friend Matias Saari from Alaska. I perked up a bit as I’d seen him out on the course during the race and wanted to catch up with him about his run as well as a book he’d just launched. As we chatted away, I casually interjected that I hoped to someday visit Alaska. Something I’ve often said to folks from the 49th state. In response, he mentioned that the subject of his book, the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, was two weeks hence. I looked up the drive time on my phone—51 hours. He quickly wrote me off.

It's a long drive from Colorado to Alaska!

Nine days later, I stepped into my Prius at 4:40 on a Tuesday morning in the parking lot of the Super 8 in Leadville, Colorado. My goal was to be in Fairbanks by the end of the Equinox Marathon’s bib pickup at 8 p.m. on Friday evening. Three and a half days to drive 3,500 miles. Solo. No problemo.

As much as I looked forward to the month-long, adventure-at-will that would follow this drive, I was perversely interested in the drive itself. It was a long haul. Literally. As absurd as it sounds for a decades-long endurance runner to say this, I knew it would be a physical and mental challenge. Heck, that’s precisely what appealed to me. For four days, I would be, more or less, singularly focused on a goal. Reach Fairbanks.

To be sure, there were numerous amusements to be had along the way. The route would include the Alaska Highway, a.k.a. “The Alcan,” which stretches through remote regions of British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska. Not only do these regions hold gorgeous natural landscapes, they’re home to myriad species of wildlife. There was also the small, but real possibility of spotting the aurora borealis, the northern lights.

Day one was filled with four of our fifty American states. From the get go, I veered off course to Utah, where late in the afternoon I pick up a pair of fly fishing rods and reels from Brian Beckstead (El Pres) at Altra’s HQ. En route, I also purchased solar panels at Goal Zero, stocked up on non-perishables at Trader Joes, and got a regular servicing for my well-traveled Toyota Prius all along Utah’s Wasatch Front. The day was uneventful, if slow going until seemingly every light on my dashboard came on in Idaho. Given the timing (service shops were already closed), I pushed on north. In the early morning hours, I crossed into Canada and pushed toward Calgary with its copious supply of Toyota dealerships. Despite watching for rest areas for a long while before the city, I found none and ended up sleeping in the passenger seat of Hotel Prius outside a hospital on the edge of town.

Passing by my home range, Utah's La Sal Mountains

Day two started in neutral… or, rather, limbo. Seven hours spent at a Toyota dealership for them to figure out the issue that would require a $3,500 fix with a part they’d need to order from the States. When I said no thanks, they assumed I’d head home. Nope. Onward into the late afternoon and into the night. Into BC. Onto the 1,400-mile Alcan. With good progress behind me, 2:20 a.m. seemed like a reasonable enough time to make use of a pullout and grab a couple hours of shuteye. It would also allow me to take in the upcoming more scenic section during the day.

Day two saw plenty of Alberta farmlands.
The start of the Alcan.

Now, the day’s delay did have one advantage. It meant a fulfillment of what I’d titled Project Aurora. That evening I’d been checking the Aurorasaurus app on my phone, as moderate aurora activity was forecast. I kept my eye to the north and kept wondering whether any faint glow on the northern horizon were the northern lights. In retrospect, there was no need for uncertainty, as just after midnight, I saw whispy green lights start dancing around in front of my windshield. The shifted and melded. Vanished and sprung to life. Without the counsel of modern science, there’s no questioning why northern peoples attributed supernatural qualities to these heavenly displays. They are fantastic.

Aurora sighting confirmed

The morning of day three began with beautiful clouds, a rainbow, and the sense that I could at least make a stop or two to take in the sights. To this point, I’d not stopped once for a view, save pulling over for a photo at the start of the Alaska Highway. This was both absurd, as I’d already driven threw 1,000+ miles of audacious autumn… but reasonable enough, as I’d surely seen plenty of said autumn while on autopilot. Still, it felt indulgent to pull over for a photo at 8:30 that morning. Something I would do frequently as the wildlife proliferated and the views intensified. In quick succession, I saw my first ever stone sheep, caribou, and wood bison. I also stopped for a heavenly cinnamon bun that I ate alongside the Tetsa River.

A day-starting rainbow
Fantastic clouds

Prior to this trip, I checked in with some friends to see if they had any particular recommends and, once I was en route, I posted about my trip on Facebook. These deliberate acts led to my one pleasure break on the drive, a visit to Liard Hot Springs in the Yukon. In a mere hour, the springs physically and mentally reinvigorated me. The two public pools, the hotter Alpha pool and milder Beta pool, seeped steam toward the splendid autumnal foliage that ringed the pooled. A few folks milled about on the pebbled floored ponds with a few toeing ever closer to the scorching source spring. Submerging neck deep in the Alpha was enough to melt away any tension and function as a substitute bath (it had been some days), while sitting in one of the pair of artificial falls between the ponds added a makeshift massage as a final cherry on this hot springs cake.

The soothing waters of Liard Hot Springs.

I called upon the calming effect of my dip when the first rain of the trip hit in late afternoon followed by a fellow motorist passing me, pulling over, and waving me over. Unbeknownst to me, my rear passenger-side tire was flat and I was moments from riding on my rim. While tempted to press on all the way to Fairbanks on my spare donut tire, I made the more reasonable decision to nurse Pri the 400 kilometers west to Whitehorse for tire repair or replacement. The remaining drive was unexceptional, if a bit slow, and I bedded down in Hotel Prius in a gas station parking lot just to the east of Whitehorse in hopes of being at a tire shop when one opened the next morning.

Rolling along in the rain.

For that to have happened, I shouldn’t have turned my car back on to listen to the end of a radio story on paleo-semiotics, thereby reengaging my exterior lights… in a lit parking lot. You see where this is going? Yeah, exactly nowhere as my car battery was dead come morning. Fortunately, I was in civilization and AAA had me rolling again 45 minutes later even though I was in Canada. (Good thing I revived my membership just days before the trip!)

After less than an hour at my third and final car repair shop of the drive, I was rolling again. That morning, I was treated to the shock of the huge mountains that sprung up to the southwest. I knew Alaska had mountains, but I wasn’t expecting the 19,000-foot mountains of the St. Elias Range along the Alaska/Yukon border, and, then, there was expansive Kluane Lake to further highlight the towering mountains that surround it.

A few hours into the day, I stopped at the Canadian/Alaska border. A trip that hadn’t even been a thought less than two weeks earlier had made the dream of visiting Alaska a reality. The sign itself wasn’t much, but the remaining drive to Fairbanks was Alaska. A mix of conifer and fall-clad deciduous forest spread unbroken in all directions. Braided rivers of unimaginable breadth swept across expansive valleys. Hills and mountains and lakes abounded, too. The occasional rustic cabin with a set of moose antlers sat off to the side of the road with even rarer towns along the way.

Pri and I made it to Alaska!

As the clock hit 7 p.m., I pulled into the University of Alaska – Fairbanks, parked, and exhaled. A few minutes later, I’d picked up my bib for the following morning’s marathon and was chatting with Matias, who’d sparked the idea for the trip. He had a small table where he was selling his newly released book, The Equinox: Alaska’s Trailblazing Marathon. He proceeded to share my journey with a number of book seekers. All were shocked at the 3,500-mile, three-and-a-half-day drive that lay behind me. And, it takes a lot to shock an Alaskan.

In the coming weeks, I’ll share a series of dispatches from Alaska and my much more relaxed journey back south as Chasing Autumn.

Tips for Looooong Drives

  • Don’t crush the caffeine. I had a cup of coffee in the morning and, then, one early (for me) at night. A cup at 8 or 9 p.m. didn’t mask dangerous fatigue and meant I slept soundly once I made that choice to do so.
  • Switch off. If you’ve got a second driver, things are so much easier. Just switch off every couple hours and enjoy. If you’re driving solo, switch off driving positions. Seriously. A decade ago, I did a couple 2,000-mile drives steering almost entirely with my left arm. To this day, that shoulder gives me trouble. Now, I consciously change my dominant steering arm, shift around in my seat, and otherwise spread the physical burden of driving.
  • Bring snacks. Nuts, bite-sized cereals, grapes, or anything else that you can grab and eat one at a time without a mess are a great way to safely eat a bit at a time. Staying seated keeps you feeling better and more focused while helping to avoid spending cash on crappy roadside food.
  • Have rewards. Whether it’s a homemade sticky bun at a little roadside joint or a dip in a hot spring en route, finding little sparks can keep you rolling for hours to come.
  • Have a goal. Whatever the pursuit, having a goal helps you accomplish something. A hard deadline that’s reasonable makes sure you keep on task.

This is Part 1 of a 5 part series for FitWild by Bryon Powell, “Project Aurora”