Road trip to Anchorage gone bad!

So, we were driving along the AlCan between Tok and Glenallen at 8:20 PM, roughly 270 miles north of Anchorage when we hit one of the rather sharp frost heaves.  I knew right away something was wrong, because all the warning lights on the dash lit up at once.  I said to Holly,”This is not good.” and pointed to the lights on the dash. 

IMG_9029 As I struggled to cope with the reality of all the warning lights coming on at once, I looked at the gauges and compared them to the warning lights: the temperature, oil pressure, and rpm gauges all looked good, but the voltage gauge was not in the zone which indicates the alternator is working.

   A couple times when I was younger the alternator stopped working when our family was traveling in the L48.  What we did then was get behind a vehicle that was going our speed and turn off the headlights.  Looking around, there were obviously no cars anywhere nearby, but I there were stars visible off to the right.  I said to Holly, “I’m just going to turn off the headlights and see if the light of the moon is enough for us to see the road.”

She looked at me worriedly, “Okay.  If that’s what you think we need to do?”

I turned off the lights and, sure enough, we could see the outlines of the snow on each side of the road just fine, but couldn’t see much else.  I said, “If we can just make to Glenallen, we can stop there for the night and call Jack in the morning so he can bring an alternator.”

Holly said, “I suppose that’s a good idea.  What else can we do?”

“Well, the worst thing that can happen, I guess, is we drive off the road and all get killed. If someone comes along from the other direction, we’ll turn on the lights for a bit so that they know we’re here and don’t hit us.”  I was thankful that we were all in our coats and snow pants, dressed for the weather rather than the car.  I did lament that the coat I had was a SE Alaska coat, rather than a winter parka.  A warm parka would be very welcome in this -20 degree weather with the wind and all.


To be honest, it did not look good.  It was the middle of nowhere and we had no cell-phone, there was probably no service there anyway, plus the voltage gauge was dropping pretty steadily.  I started looking for some sort of a pull-out.

About five minutes later, the car started to sputter and miss.  At least we weren’t on the edge of some gorge. 

Then the car died.  We coasted to the edge of the raod with just the left-hand tires on the inside of the white line.  We both looked around for any signs of civilization.  There was a driveway up the road about 200 yards, but no lights were on anywhere.  Somewhere up in the distance there was a lonely bright red light which looked like it was on a tower.  Looking at the odometer, and doing some quick mental math, I figured we were 54 miles north of Glenallen.

I said, “This is going to be a night to remember.”

Holly said, “What are we going to do?”  I sat there and thought about what we might do.  Both boys were asleep in their car seats.

“Well, we’ve got to stay together.” I said

Holly said, “Definitely.  If you go somewhere I’m going too.”  I got out and looked around.  Not much to see.

I got one of my business cards out of my coat and wrote the following message: Please call Jack Davis 1 (907) 868-7859 home, 1(907) xxx-0414: “Matt, Holly, Mark, and Luke are stranded 54 miles north of Glenallen.  Bring an alternator–Matt”

Then I got out another card and started to write the same thing. “We’ll wave down the next few cars and give them this so they can call Jack.  He’ll come and get us in the Suburban.”

Holly said, “Do you think that’ll work?  What if nobody comes by?  What if he doesn’t come?  What if we get hit by a car?”

“If no one comes by, we’ll stay warm with the sleeping bags and, if someone does come by I’ll jump out with the reflective vest and a flash-light and flag them down. If I’m too slow to get out of the car, then one of us will at least wake up and turn on the emergency flashers.”

We settled in for the next car to come by…  After about 10 minutes, some headlights appeared heading north.  When they got near, I climbed out with a reflective vest on, and one of those 18v Ryobi work lights.  It was windy, and as soon as I opened the door the wind blasted me in the face and cooled off the car.  The folks in the car were eager to help but were loaded down with shopping supplies from Anchorage and had no phone.  I gave them the card with the message on the back and they promised to call as soon as they got to a phone–which they said would be a couple hours off.

Not good.

In the next five minutes, two more cars came by and we gave them cards too; both of them had cell phones, but they said there was no service where we were.  The last car was traveling south, like us, and offered to jump out car, so I got out our jumper cables and we tried to jump the car.  I thought perhaps we could get a jump from them then drive 20-50 miles, then get another jump, and in that way leap-frog on down to Glenallen.  Alas, it was not to be, as soon as we unhooked the jumper cables, the card died.  The driver of the car asked what else they could do and ended up tying the reflective vest to the spare tire on the back of the 4Runner and loaning us an additional sleeping bag.  They said they’d head straight for glenallen and call Jack as soon as they got an reception on their phone.

Back in the car, we decided to settle in for some rest and to conserve our heat.  Holly took Luke and I took Mark.  We once again agreed it would be best to turn on the flashers whenever a car came from behind so that we wouldn’t get hit. But the flashers were getting dimmer and dimmer.  About 45 minutes passed before the next car went by.  Then a never-ending series of cars came by that all stopped asking if they could help.  Having already decided to wait for Jack, I told each of them “Thanks, but help is on the way.”

Around 11:30 PM, a truck stopped by that insisted on charging the car and running the heater until we were warm again.  The two very helpful fellas in the truck said, if it’d just been me, they would have left me, but since I had the wife and the two kids in there, they simply couldn’t leave without helping.   They charged the car on the side of the road for 15 minutes while I ran the heater and fan until the car was warm.

Then they wanted to pull the car down the road to a pullout that was 100 feet away on the other side of the road.  That seemed like a good idea to me, as Jack would still spot us along the road whenever he showed up.  So we did that.

After charging the car from the safer location, they wanted me to drive to one of their mother’s house, up the road about 12 miles where there was a nice warm house.  We hooked up the jumpers and they found out why they weren’t working: the crimps which connect the 4-gauge wires to the clamps weren’t doing their job anymore.  One of the guys pushed the cable end up into the spring of the clamp and the cable started working again.  We charged the battery for about 15 more minutes then headed north.

At this point, I was not really happy with leaving the spot I’d told Jack we’d be, because if we went somewhere else, he might not find us–and he’d be coming as soon as he could.  Dan said, that wouldn’t be a problem, as Jack would keep driving until he found us.  I didn’t say as much, but my thought was, that if I tell him I’m 54 miles North of Glenallen, that’d be where he’d go-give or take 2-3 miles. 

We ended up going about 18 miles north to one of the guy’s brother’s house, where I called Jack’s house and confirmed with Jennifer that Jack was on the way and knew where we were.  My sister Betty (visiting from Sitka)was coming in the Suburban too.  But Jennifer was worried about the additional 18 miles we’d gone north.  Since the house wasn’t that big, and since I didn’t want to miss Jack down at the road, and since Holly and the boys were all asleep in the warm car, I decided we’d just wait in the car for Jack and Betty to Arrive.  At about 12:30 AM, I settled into the driver’s seat with Mark on top of me and both of us under the borrowed sleeping bag.  Holly still had Luke on top of her, so she was probably warm too (she’d finally trained him not to throw off the sleeping bag every time he woke up to see if he could get some fresh air–sure the air was fresh outside the bag, but it was cold too).

At about 2:30 AM, Holly and I both woke up.  It was cold and dark.  No cars were going past us any longer.  All the windows were coated with frost or ice. I whispered, so as not to wake up the boys, “I think Jack must have turned around when he got to 54 miles N of Glenallen.”

“Yeah.” She said.  “What should we do?  Should we go up to the house?” 

“Are you still warm?”

“I’m toasty warm.  Luke is a little oven.”

“Me too,” I said. “Mark is keeping me warm.  Except for my feet, they’re cold.”

“Yeah.  Mine too.”

I said, “I think we should just wait for him to turn around and come back to the new location.  Jennifer will call him on his cell when he gets in range again.”

So we hunkered down for the night.  At about 5 AM the owner of the house drove by us at the head of his driveway and poked his head in to make sure we were doing alright.  I told him we were doing fine, and prayed for Jack to show up soon.

At about 6:30 AM, I heard a knock on the door Jack calling out: “Dude, you in there?”  I started to wake up rather groggily and then I heard loud footsteps in the snow walking away and woke up real fast.  He hurried back and poked his head in the door, “Anybody want to get in a warm car?”

It was sure good to see Jack (and Betty) who rode with him all night since 10:30 AM.

Holly woke up right away, slipped on her boots and ran over to the suburban with Luke, I tromped over there and set Mark in the car.  Jack Borrowed Holly’s snow pants, to help him stay warm in the wind, and we jumped the 4Runner to get the car warmed up and the battery charged again.

IMG_1128When the car was fully charged, or as charged as it would get, we headed off south, me with the heater fan off, and the lights off, to conserve battery power, following Jack with his headlights on bright.  Jack had bought two batteries at Wal-Mart so we could charge one or two of them while the other one was being used in my car.  We ended up fully draining the first one by the time we made it the 280 miles back to Anchorage from where we were.

IMG_1120Once we got to Anchorage, we used the garage at Jack’s apartment (see photo to left) to replace the Alternator, the battery, the spark plugs, the air filter, one of the connecting lines to the air filter, one of the parking lights, the oil, and the oil filter.  We also worked on the tailgate window and the driver’s side door.

In closing off this humongous story, of a night gone bad, I have a few thoughts:

1)  I’m thankful to be in a family where I can call my brother and have he and my sister drive literally all night to come and get me

2)  I’m thankful for the people that helped us out and offered more help than I accepted:  The people that called Jack on their cell phones, the people that loaned us the sleeping bags, the couple that charged our batteries around 10 PM, and then the two friendly fellahs that helped us move to a safer location and fixed the jumper cables.

3)  I’m thankful that Holly wasn’t too upset with me for having a car in such a terrible state of maintenance that we’d get stranded like that in the middle of nowhere. 

4)  And I’m thankful that our prayers were answered, we came through he night safely, and that we did make it to Anchorage safe and sound.

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One Response

  1. Crazy Matt, I typed in my old Anchorage phone number in a google search box and this link to your blog popped up. Crazy.
    jack Davis

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