The ALCAN Rubber Tramps

Kurt Buss
12 min readFeb 21, 2021
The ALCAN ran roughly 1,600 miles from Dawson Creek, BC, to Delta Junction, AK, in the year this trek was taken. Road straightening has shortened it a few hundred miles since then, as well as widened the roadbed and easements.

The following are journal and calendar entries from Karen and my trip down the ALCAN Highway, leaving Ester, Alaska, and eventually reaching Caroline, Wisconsin, in October 1986. The journal entries begin prior to leaving. Karen and I took turns with the entries. Attribution is given for each entry. Information in [parenthesis like this] is included for clarity purposes. Everything else is somebody else's fault.

The vehicular players in this saga are a 1976 Chevrolet Scottsdale ½ ton pickup truck with a gutless 305 cubic-inch V-8 powerplant, an insulated topper, and high miles. It is dressed in black and white and known as Sweetness, in honor of Walter Payton, who carried those colors as well (if not better) when he was a punishing running back for the World Champion Chicago Bears. Sweetness delivered the hit rather than go out of bounds, just like Walter Payton.

In the flotsam and jetsam of Sweetness’s lead was a 1959 16’ camper trailer purchased for $900 in Fairbanks, with a severely cracked A-frame towing hitch and ruptures at the interface with the camper shell that allowed the coach to buck and hurl unbeknownst to the rookie driver. Camper’s nickname: unknown. Well, ungiven.

This is a factual accounting of their journey. Welcome aboard!

September 28, 1986. (Sunday) Journal entry: (Kurt)

“The Rams got beat by Philly 34–20. [At times in my life I was a Los Angeles Rams fan. I’m a Cheesehead, but it was tough backing the Pack in the 70s and 80s. I’m back now, though. GO PACK GO!] The folks called to see what was going on, so we told them. We continued to pack and Kurt worried if we’d ever dump the FORD. Hauled the last little bit of wood down to the neighbors, so we can start loading the truck [Sweetness]. Kurt worries if it will make it down the ALCAN.”

September 29, 1986. (Monday) Journal entry: (Kurt)

“E.J.’s [my brother Eric’s] B-DAY. Sold the FORD finally after much, much anxiety. Sold it for $500 (CASH) to a guy named ERIC. Now everything seems fine; it truly feels like we can leave. It won’t be easy saying good-bye to this place, but winter’s coming, we’re still young, our gear is packed…

“Now that I no longer have to worry about the yellow truck, I can begin to worry about the black one. Will it make it (it went over 100,000 miles a day or so ago), can it carry everything, etc?”

Our cabin in the woods outside the tiny mining community of Ester, Alaska, near Fairbanks

September 30, 1986. (Tuesday) Journal entry: (Karen)

“Today we got up very early and commenced to cleaning up and packing away the last few items left in our cabin. We took a break in the afternoon and drank some whiskey and beers and played Ole! [drinking dice game also known as Liar’s Dice or Mexican]. Karen got a little silly off a da booze but managed to get more work done before friends started showing up to say good-bye. Ronan arrived first with some wine coolers and we swapped addresses and recounted our friendship. Kurt and Ronan started a bonfire. Peg, Rog and Mel then arrived with some beers. Amy and Barney also showed up. Brian and Diana didn’t so we still did not get our $200. All in all, we had a great evening.”

October 1, 1986. (Wednesday) Calendar entry: (Kurt)

“WE’RE LEAVING” [Crossed out]

Journal entry: (Kurt)

“We leave ESTER!!! We go all the way to FAIRBANKS!!! Much last-minute pissing around by quick Kurt surprised no one, but Tim and Gloria dropped off our security deposit, wished us luck and left us to our finalities. Packed and loaded the truck weighed a ton (major understatement). We had to go to UA-F to get the final $120 from Brian (no great good-bye) and then had to turn the trailer around to haul it out our road. I got it stuck trying to back it down a hill and then it ran out of gas. We finally made it to Peg and Rogers, ate at the Blue Marlin [best pizza in Fairbanks] and watched movies.” [Distance traveled: 8 miles.)

October 2, 1986. (Thursday) Calendar entry: (Kurt)

“WE’RE LEAVING” [Crossed out]

Journal entry: (Kurt)

“We spend the day running around FBX taking care of finances, making last-second purchases and Kurt works on the truck (getting the wiring hooked up, putting the spare tire on our new luggage rack, insulating the windows, etc.). We see Peter Villano and Christie. They’re heading south too, so we make tentative plans for Liard Hot Springs. Everyone’s heading south, it seems, and Canadian $$ is hard to find. We buy everything 1st Nat’l has (about $178 Canadian). Karen’s getting anxious(er), Kurt’s getting nervous(er), the weather’s getting worse, so we play one last Trivial Pursuit game w/the in-laws. The boys get drunk and no one wins.” [Distance traveled: 0 miles.]

October 3, 1986. (Friday) Calendar entry: (Kurt)

“WE’RE LEAVING (SURE). FBX to Tok @ Tanana River.”

Journal entry: (Karen)

“Karen got up at 8:00 am hoping to leave Fbks early. By the time Kurt awoke, had his coffee and morning constitutional it was after 10:00. It then took him nearly three hours to prepare the truck for the journey. Kurt is not known for his speed. We said good-bye to Peg and Roger. They were the first folks we saw upon arrival in Fbks and the last we said good-bye to upon departure. Picked up some last-minute groceries at Safeway, filled the tires with air and off we went. The wind was very strong outside North Pole and made driving difficult. We camped along the Tanana just outside Tok.” [Distance traveled: 207 miles.]

Spruce forests and snow-capped mountain peaks flanked a much-appreciated piece of flat asphalt

October 4, 1986. (Saturday) Calendar entry: (Kurt)

“TANANA TO HAINES JCT. YUKON TERRITORY. SNOW STORMS AND BAD ROADS.”

Calendar entry: (Karen)

“KAREN TAKES 1ST DUMP IN DA WOODS.”

Journal entry: (Kurt)

“YIPPIE! The camper works great. We wake next to the mighty Tanana and bid it good-bye. The driving started out fine; I began to get a feel for the trailer and the scenery began to beautify — then we hit construction. No bigee. We crossed the border. We’re in a different country. Then we hit a snowstorm. Ouch. I will never make this trip this way again. Who would? We find a nice place to camp. Kluane Lake and Marshall Creek. Truck took a rest.” [Distance traveled: 286 miles.]

Much of the road was still gravel in 1986, turning to sloppy driving conditions with a little help from snow.

October 5, 1986. (Sunday) Calendar entry: (Kurt)

“HAINES (MARSHALL CREEK) TO WATSON LAKE. BEST DAY OF DRIVING SO FAR.”

Journal entry: (Kurt)

“It froze last night, but the truck started. I fixed the broken wire in the tail-light harness and we were off after coffee and cereal. Karen takes care of the domestic chores, and I take care of getting us to our new home — just like on TV in the old days. But we’re both happy and it works out fine. Today we had good driving and beautiful weather until night hit and it started raining. The roads were narrow and a bugger to follow, but we made it damn close to Watson Lake, which is what we were shooting for. We dipped into BC [British Columbia] for a bit and it felt good.” [Distance traveled: 340 miles!]

October 6, 1986. (Monday) Calendar entry: (Kurt)

“SHORT DAY. FLAT TIRE. LIARD HOT SPRINGS (ABSOLUTELY MARVELOUS). SNOW AND SUNSHINE.”

Journal entry: (Kurt)

“Woke this morning cold and wet feeling. It rained all night and we weren’t sure if we’d be able to get out of the spot we parked in, but we did and realized we were right on the border of Watson Lake. We didn’t stop to photograph the Sign Forest because it was still raining. Yes indeed. Short day today. Only going to the Hot Springs, a mere 130 miles away. Nothing worth staying around the camp for, so we’re off by 10:30, our earliest start yet, but the higher we get (in the mountains) the more the rain becomes sleet and we hit a bad (nasty) stretch of gravel and Poof! goes the left front tire. I throw on the spare, a few people stop, and I learn the next service station is 40+ miles (not km’s). Actually, it turns out to be 60 miles and they can’t fix it, but Omar LaVesque from the Fireside Petro Can let me pull a beater tire from his beater truck and we’re off to Liard Hot Springs. BEAUTIFUL!” [Distance traveled: 131 miles.]

A fuzzy photo of the frazzled Rubber Tramps at a well-earned soak in Liard Hot Springs, British Columbia

October 7, 1986. (Tuesday) Calendar entry: (Kurt)

“THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS AND SNOW TO PROPHET RIVER. BEAUTIFUL SCENERY DRESSED IN WHITE. HAIRY ROADS, BUT IT’S DOWNHILL NOW. IT’S ALMOST OVER.”

Journal entry: (Kurt)

“It snowed last night. It was also damn cold, so we woke late and didn’t go to the hot springs for a morning dip. Too long of a walk. We’re anxious to get the tire fixed, but the fellows at Muncho Lake said it can’t be. The cords are shot. So we truck on to Fort Nelson and turn in the one from Omar LeVesque and buy a used tire for $25 (Canadian). We also buy some groceries and Canadian beer (first time for each purchase on this trip). We still have Hamms, but the prices are getting better and the exchange rate is 37% (it was between 20–30% farther north) so we splurged. The driving today was peak. Some of the most beautiful scenery mixed with some of the most treacherous driving. We spent the day on snow (actually, the road was clear to slushy) so the entire outlook was different than coming up. Muncho Lake area was just gorgeous, decked in snow and dressed to kill. We’re at Prophet River. We’ve been here before.” [Distance traveled: 250 miles.]

October 8, 1986. (Wednesday) Calendar entry: (Karen)

“CLIMBED OUR LAST MOUNTAIN AND TRAVELLED THE LAST MILE ON THE ALCAN. HAD A STUPID FIGHT BUT KEPT ON TRUCKIN’ SOUTH. CAMPED AT SMOKEY RIVER AND WOKE TO SUNSHINE.”

Journal entry: (Kurt)

“Woke to cold again, but we got a pretty early start after putting the new used tire on in preparation for one last bout with gravel. Trutch Mountain took some time to cross (about 2 hrs.) but once we got to the other side it was a clear shot to Dawson Creek and OFF THE ALCAN! We saw moose (1) and deer (about 6) and dead porcupines (3) and hit Dawson Creek about 3:30, so we celebrated in the camper for a bit and walked around the streets, sending postcards and digging the warm autumn breeze. We drove on another 100 miles into Alberta and stopped around 9:00. The weather here is totally different from what we left behind. It can only get better. The tough stuff is passed.” [Distance traveled: 311 miles.]

October 9, 1986. (Thursday) Calendar entry: (Karen)

“Truck wouldn’t start for a bit. We got lost in Edmonton and an RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] officer stopped us for our dirty tail lights. But we took showers at a free campground. Yippie!!!”

Journal entry: (Kurt)

“Spent last night at Stoney River after driving late and getting a little lost in Grand Prairie. Had a stupid fight about who knows what now but cooled off during the day in order to get really hung up in Edmonton. What a bullshit city to drive through — pretty, though. A cop pulled us over for having dirty tail lights. We’d done 1 ½ hours of city driving with no visible brake or turn lights. People were calling us in, but luck carried the day. No ticket. Nice cop. On to Innisfail where we found a free campground w/showers. Karen was happy. Kit [a rambunctious Husky we acquired in Alaska] took off. [We got her back.] The driving was easy but the wind is wicked. No more nice scenery.” [Distance traveled: 392 miles.]

October 10, 1986. (Friday) Calendar entry: (Karen)

“ENTERED THE GOOD OL’ USA TODAY — STAYED IN HAVRE, MONTANA. DRANK CHEAP BEER AND SHOTS AT A TAVERN AND DID LAUNDRY.”

Journal entry: (Kurt)

“Today we enter America. The roads are good, so we cruise. Calgary is no problem and we have divided highway for much of the way. Wheat towns, wheat towns, wheat towns. Each town a co-op grain elevator or three, railroad track and main street. Friendly folk. We stop for a picnic lunch and hit the road again. No problem at customs and BLAM! Montana. Good ol’ USA. We cruise on for another 1 ½ hours or so and camp at a private campground where we get electricity and a spot for $6. We go into town (HAVRE) and hit a bar for sandwiches, shots and beer. It’s cheap and we fight. Nerves are going.” [Distance traveled: 401 miles.]

October 11, 1986. (Saturday) Calendar entry: (Kurt)

“WOKE TO ANOTHER FLAT. DIDN’T GET ON THE ROAD UNTIL 1:00. GOOD DRIVING, BUT WHEN WE HIT I-94 IN GLENDIVE @ 7:30 WE GOT THE BUG TO GET HOME. SO WE DROVE UNTIL 2:00 AM. STOPPED @ A TRUCK STOP.”

Journal entry: (Kurt)

“Woke this morning to a flat.”

Journal entry: (Karen)

“There is frost on the truck and ground, and it is 20 degrees. While Kurt’s packing the bearings and changing the tire, Karen does laundry and fixes lunch. She meets a neat little third-grader who fills her in on Montana. They talked about rattlesnakes, volcanoes and scary books. We hit the road but have to stop in Havre to fix the flat [spare]. It’s 1 pm before we’re out of that town. We reach the N. Dakota border a little after 8 pm and stop for dinner. We parked at a truck stop overnight. Drove many, many miles.” [Distance traveled: 542 miles]

Overloaded and dirty, but our home away from home is safe in Caroline, Wisconsin. Be it ever so humble.

October 12, 1986. (Sunday) Calendar entry: (Kurt)

“WOKE EARLY, COLD AND READY TO GO. LAST DAY, BUT IT’LL BE THE LONGEST. ICE GLAZING ON I-94 BUT WE BUST OUT OF N. DAKOTA, BOOK ACROSS MINNESOTA, ALMOST LOSE IT IN ST. PAUL AND FIGHT TRAFFIC ON 29, BUT WE HIT CAROLINE BEFORE MIDNIGHT. THE HOUSE IS LOCKED. MOM’S IN THE HOSPITAL BUT WE’RE SAFE AND WARM IN CAROLINE. COLUMBUS WOULD HAVE BEEN PROUD. CANADA GAVE THANKS [I was writing this around the calendar notation that said it was Columbus Day. Also, Thanksgiving (Canada) and Yom Kippur] AND WE DID TOO!”

Journal entry: (Kurt)

“Woke early, cold and ready to hit the road. Night frost left a morning glaze on I-94 making our last day of driving (temporarily) begin on a treacherous note. But we bolt out of the blocks and skip across Dakota — which seems dead. We cruise o’er Minnesota which shows snow in the north and hit the Twin Cities just before dark. Traffic is dense and the route around is long. We almost enter into a couple of driving mishaps. Pulling this damn trailer all day long is racking my nerves.

“We sniff out the St. Croix River and bolt over the blue bridge to Wisconsin. ZOWIE! YIPPIE! GEE-HA! We’re back home in Wisconsin and it feels good. We stop at a Hardees immediately, wolf down some roast beasts, read the paper to find out the local death and destruction, then zip back onto the highway and head for home. Traffic on 29 is unbelievably busy and we drive warily because of it. Not an easy finish will this be. But things settle down when we hit Wausau, so we stop one last time for gas, buy a 40 oz. beer for $1.29, marvel at its price. Then zip off for the last little leg of a long, long journey.

“We cop a little buzz on the beer and dig the signs and other such indicators of a place we know well. Familiar familial surroundings. Good good good. Bump off 29 and down County G, watching for animals, not wanting anything to zap us now and ZAP! we’re in CAROLINE. It’s a tad after midnight making it early Monday morning — not even 10 days out of FBX. Quite possibly a world record. A Caroline record, anyway. But the house is locked and no one answers. Rocks finally wake the ol’ man who greets us happily, but alone. Mom’s in the hospital for tests on her ticker. She’s going to be okay, though. We have a few beers and go to sleep on a nice bed in a warm room watching color TV by remote control. HOME AGAIN, HOME AGAIN, DIGGITY DEE!” [Distance traveled: 620 miles.]

For a similar camper-life adventure not quite so compressed, please visit the Rocky Mountain Rubber Tramp chronicles on my website. I hope you enjoyed the ride. Thanks!

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Kurt Buss

I’ve been writing for publication since it was done on typewriters, oh so long ago. I try to bridge the gap between the then and now of being a Baby Boomer.