Chicken, Alaska, the biggest little town in eastern Alaska was where we had our sights set next. It was our first destination after heading out of Dawson City and would be our first stop in Alaska. We had heard that the home-baked pies crafted up by Susan were crazy good and I am not one to pass up top notch baked goods, especially if they involve berries.
Before we headed out we wanted to do a few touristy things that we hadn’t been able to get around to yet the past couple of days. I wanted to snap a few photos of the infamous Dawson City and we also wanted to do a tour of one of the old dredges used during the big Klondike Gold Rush. These things were used to dig for gold and could move and process amounts of earth in search of gold on an unimaginable level. The one we really wanted to go see was called Dredge No. 4
. What they were able to achieve in terms of infrastructure, engineering, and sheer determination that long ago is mind boggling to think about. The lengths they were willing to go to make it happen makes it so unique as well. If you stim-out on history scope the link above, it’s pretty impressive. In essence though these enormous gold-digging monstrosities floated on a small pond of water that they were constantly digging up earth in front of, sifting through and removing the gold from, and then re-depositing the sediment out the back as they inched further and further forward, zig-zagging there way through whatever area of land they wanted to dig-up.
On our way out I snapped a photo in front of the downtown hotel and snapped a few more around town. What it was like in the late 1890′s with 40,000 people in it at the height of the gold rush I can only imagine.
We milled about a bit, fueled up on gas, picked up food for the next couple days, and rode our bikes onto the small Dawson City ferry to take us across the Yukon River. We were now turning East to start heading towards the Alaskan border. The route from Dawson back to Alaska is via the Top Of The World Highway and the name is very fitting. The road cuts across a mountain ridge-line for several hours of dirt riding and eventually crossing the border out of the Yukon and into Alaska. You definitely feel like you are up on a highway in the clouds.
There was a feeling that this border would be more relaxed than most so I asked the border guard if he would snap a couple pictures for us. There are only two guards stationed here to watch over this border, just two. One for entering the US and one for entering Canada. They each live in two separate cabins right next to each other. The guy said he is stationed there for 72 days straight then he goes back home for a bit. I wonder how often they crack beers together and ignore the rules, because rules in a place that seems so far removed and remote such as this just seem silly. Who's gonna tattle on you, the single other human that's there with you?
We continued on East and the 'Murica side of the Top Of the World Highway was just as nice.
Eventually the road slowly dropped in elevation and we began to fall into a valley.
When we came across the town called Chicken there was no confusion as to whether we had found it or not, on top of that, there wasn't anything else anywhere near it so it's hard to miss in spite of it's size.
Here are some handy facts about Chicken, this was written up and posted on the saloon door:
This is it in all of it's glory.
We stepped inside the Chicken Saloon and ordered a drink from the bartender....
We then took that drink outside and walked one building over into the Chicken Cafe and ordered some BBQ chicken, served up by the none other than the same guy who was our bartender just a minute earlier, he had just walked out the bar and into the cafe so he could serve us food as well!
We followed the food up with some of the home-baked goods that others so raved about. Some BBQ chicken, couple beers, followed up with some pie and my Dad and I were feeling preeeeetty damn good about our decision to come here. The food did not fail to impress.
We camped for free in the gravel parking lot and spent the rest of the night shooting the shit with the handful of travelers and locals that gather around this glorious small little spot. The local group of folks (4-5 people) and us sat around telling stories, mostly them telling us about Chicken and its eccentricities, us gawking at the holes in the saloon door that were blown out with their home made “panti-cannon”.
With the reluctant donation of a willing ladies thong we even got a showing of the fabled panti-cannon and they got to tack another gunpowder-obliterated undergarment to the saloon’s ever growing ceiling collection. With a thong packed in on top of two and a half shot glasses of gunpowder, the blast and subsequent concussion was deafening.
They lit another one off around 3:30am after a fair bit more drinking that had even more gunpowder in it, along with another donated thong as well. Not a single person in town batted an eye, then again, everyone in town was just them.
- – - – - – - – -
As exciting as the characters of Chicken and the panti-cannon were, it was another traveler that captivated my interest the most. He was guy in his late 70's probably, traveling with his wife in an old pick-up with a camper on the back. He didn't seem like the RVing grandparents type though and at first I had him pegged as a local, or at least a local an Alaskan, he didn't seem like a tourist or a traveler in the same way that we were. He seemed at home here, or at least in this sort of traveling lifestyle. He had a fairly quiet demeanor and spent most of the initial evening time just sitting and enjoying other peoples conversation, sipping on his beers. He had a warm look on his face and a smirk-y grin, I got the impression that he seemed like a chill guy and one of those people that has stories under his belt, and that's why he's so quiet and content to just sit and enjoy listening to other people tell stories. Me being me I got to chatting with him and that was that. With some intrigued questioning and nudging of conversation he eventually over the course of a couple hours and several beers told me all
about the things he had done throughout his life, his life story was by far the most varied and extensive history I had heard from any stranger before and I found him absolutely captivating. Sort of like when you get a bit older and you realize just how fucking cool your grandpa is and how it's fascinating hearing all the things they have experienced in their long life. Everything from winning the famous Omak Suicide Horse race, sailing in St. Marks, flying bush planes in Alaska, to getting bored and deciding to train to do the famous Iditarod sled dog race at the ripe and spry age of 63. When he decided to try and race the Iditarod he moved to Alaska, built a home himself to train out of in the boonies, and 3 years later successfully completed the Iditarod race (he broke his neck the 2nd year so it took him a bit to rehab before he could successfully race it to completion).
Through talking with him I also learned that his name was Jeanne. I also learned that he was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer 2 years ago. He was very frank about his prognosis and outlook and he openly said that he would be surprised if he was still around in 2 years. He still had such a sense of calm about him when talking about this though, and his spirit was just as perky and happy as when he was talking about the other things that he had done in his life. I knew that I had to ask him more questions as it's rare that you meet someone like Jeanne. I asked him "For a guy that has done so much with your life already and always lived with a drive and passion for doing what you were interested in that moment and flying by the seat of your pants, is there anything that you know you really want
to do before your time is up?"
He thought about the question pensively, but only for a moment, and then laughed and smiled with the same smile he had so easily brought forward throughout our long conversation, and said that "If there was anything left that I desired to do I'm sure that I would get out there and be doing it already!" (he was still actively traveling the world and flying his plane regularly) I drew from this that the thought of "What do I do now that I know I'm going to die soon" never really crossed his mind because he always
did the things in life that he wanted to do, he never back burnered anything. Living his life up until this moment in that way allowed him to - now knowing that he doesn't have much time left - live out the last of his time in comfort about what he has and hasn't done because he always
lived his life to the fullest.
In the morning I walked over to where him and his wife were camping and talked with him again over camp breakfast. Before we parted ways he said that after we had all gone to sleep he had thought more about my question that I had asked. He said that although he hadn’t come up with anything that he has yet
to do or wished he'd done differently, he wanted to explain that he did understand why
I asked the question. He understood that I was asking the question from a place of interest being that I am young and (hopefully!) have a lot more living to do, and was seeking any wisdom from a man who had so obviously lived his life to its fullest.
He said that if he can impart any wisdom that he has learned through his his long list of life experiences, it is that:
” there is no point in spending your life doing things you don’t want to do and that don’t give you joy. You can make all the money in the world but you need to learn how to have fun. You MUST learn how to play. Since I was diagnosed with cancer 2-years ago I haven’t had a single bad day. I simply don’t have time for bad days, so I make every day a good day. Life is short and if you can get started with that mentality young, you’ll do just fine.”
With that he ended our conversation and left me to digest. With his joyful attitude, piercingly insightful eyes backed by many years of a life well lived, he looked at his wife with a smile - who had been sitting next to him quietly sipping her coffee mug held with both hands for warmth, and said simply that they should head out and get going, saying "We have things, to go do."
If I had any question about finishing up my work in Seattle and heading South in the fall, Jeanne and his wise words sure stomped them out.