Seattle to Fairbanks and Back, in 9 Days

I had always wanted to see the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, and this was my chance. My fraternity brother, Mac del Fierro, had nearly completed his 49-state-tour and Alaska was the last one. Living in the Seattle area, I was invited to go along for the ride and empty his bucket list.

The plan: To fly from Seattle to Fairbanks and drive back. But we found out there were no rental cars in Fairbanks or in Anchorage that would let us drive back to Seattle. So, either scrap the idea or drive round trip, which is like driving from San Francisco to New York and back. Too long and too rough and tough a drive, I thought. From the initial list of six participants in this great adventure, the list came down to Mac and myself. Undeterred, Mac coaxed me, “Basta tayong dalawa tuloy, ha?” (But you and I are going through this, right?) With some trepidation, I meekly said, “Sige brod...” (Okay, brod).

Mac Del Fierro and the Prius Hybrid - White Horse, Yukon Territories (Photo by Noni Mendoza)

Mac Del Fierro and the Prius Hybrid - White Horse, Yukon Territories (Photo by Noni Mendoza)

I told him it was a crazy long drive, crazy worrisome, and I no longer drove. Ergo, he wouldn't’ have a back-up driver. Mac was unfazed. “Ako ang bahalang mag-drive. Basta kwentohan mo na lang ako.” (Leave the driving to me, but just keep me entertained with stories). We finalized the plan. I thought of six driving days from Seattle to Fairbanks and three nights to see if Aurora shows up and then six days driving back to Seattle via Anchorage. That‘s 15 days total.

At Seatac’s Budget-Rent-a Car we were assigned a Prius Hybrid. We left early afternoon on April 14, 2016. Belted to our seats, we looked forward to our adventure. I stacked Mac’s CD music collections on the side--songs and music of our Diliman days plus classics and new artists acquired thereafter.

Pretty soon, our Prius Hybrid burns rubber under Mac’s command… whizzing up to 100 mph when overtaking. Mac was driven to get to where we were going, driving Nascar-like. Me, taking photos, monitoring with the electronic GPS and paper maps as well as recounting short, tall, twice or thrice-told tales of our youth, keeping him alert and us safe. We sang at the top of our lungs often, producing discordant decibels reminiscent of the inebriated endless nights of our Diliman ‘60s. We also had quiet moments as we listened to many songs that brought forth memories of different lives.

At our motel in Healy, Alaska, we set our alarms to 1 a.m., 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. for Aurora to show up, but no such luck.

We snacked in between with healthy nuts and grains, washed down with bottled water, intermittently stopping, scanning the majestic landscape and emptying our bladders unto the lonely highways’ virginal shoulders.

Other than narrating, singing and fretting, I needed to exercise. Exercising in a moving car consisted of squeezing a rust-colored two-inch ball at least 2,000 times a day. At day’s end, my fingers were sore -- 50 lefts, 50 rights, right-left, left-right.

Occasionally, Mac would do some ball squeezing exercises as well. I also managed a half lotus yoga posture, alternating the left leg onto the right, right leg onto left.

The Alaska Highway

Along the Alaska Highway - Yukon Northwest Territories (Photo by Noni Mendoza)

Along the Alaska Highway - Yukon Northwest Territories (Photo by Noni Mendoza)

Picture this: The Alaskan highway visually converges to a point, east and west. Not a soul in sight for 16 minutes.

At one point, Magellan our GPS, warned we were 15 miles from Fort Nelson in British Columbia. This came after almost four hours of not seeing a gas station. And then it happened. We ran out of gas. Panic grabbed us. No gas and no phone service for miles. Anxiety built up.

We waited and waited and waited, me frantically flailing arms to signal any passing motorists. One vehicle stopped, but no deal. Tried the next one. Luckily the next one stopped, recognized our plight and would eventually agree to help us. But wait. He chided us for whizzing past him at more than 101 mph. And warned us that if we had been caught speeding, our car could’ve been impounded and our license confiscated. To be sure, I asked Mac… “Did you hear that, brod?”

Properly humbled and chastised, we were happy that Rey, accompanied by his dog, agreed to give us a ride to town. No charges either. I told Mac he could stay and watch the car while I got gas and took a cab back. He thought and thought, but eventually decided to join us. Nearing town, Rey arranged for a taxi to take us back to our stranded car with 20 liters of gas in tow. (Whew!!! Our good karma brought us a good Samaritan.)

The Alaska Highway traverses British Columbia, the Yukon Territories and Alaska. Like unfurled ribbons of asphalt, it hugs the earth’s dips and crescents, straight, winding, curving, and swerving. Paralleling it are lakes, rivers, streams, rivulets, widening, narrowing, resting, flowing, and gurgling along bridges; tall pines, birch trees, deciduous and evergreen vegetation, protected us from possible wayward rocks.

Up the Yukon for more than 30 miles near the US border, we navigated rough roads, gravel, dirt, potholes, dust, unmarked lanes, centrifugal and centripetal forces. More Mac than myself, we fought off the hypnotic, catatonic state that came from being welded to the steering wheel for hours on end. Soon rain, snow flurries and fog followed us through the wintry highway corridor. We had a sporadic sighting of deer, goats and a moose. A herd of bison was feeding alongside the highway. We were in their territory.

HALLELUJAH! We bellowed as we closed in on the US Alaskan border. On our drive back, we would repeat this cry plus a high five as we crossed Abbottsford, BC towards the US Washington border.

Alaska Highway - Alaska (Photo by Noni Mendoza)

Alaska Highway - Alaska (Photo by Noni Mendoza)

In Alaska

En route to Anchorage, Alaska (Photo by Noni Mendoza)

En route to Anchorage, Alaska (Photo by Noni Mendoza)

Denali National Park and Preserve is larger than the state of Massachusetts. A glimpse was all we had. At the visitors’ center, a Park Ranger informed us Aurora could oftentimes be seen from the Park and countless locations depending on the forecasts. At our motel in Healy, Alaska, we set our alarms to 1 a.m., 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. for Aurora to show up, but no such luck.

The colossal mountains are an intrinsic part of the Alaskan landscape. Overpowering, imposing and awe-inspiring, you can see them from great distances creating an undeniable sense of place, defining a state and a region. Up in Anchorage, some mountains are still completely enveloped in blinding snow. Various sizes of snowcaps, sculpted by the sun angles and slope orientations, seem like overflowing milk from the earth’s glands, nourishing all in its terrain.

Tired and hungry after being on the road for close to nine hours, we were happy to see a lodge. The ski season was over. Checking in, we expected a Motel 6 rate for the night. No such luck. Sensing our shallow pockets, the desk suggested cheap rooms at a trailer park about another hour’s drive. Our sense of security and practicality prevailed. It was an hour more before the restaurant opened, and I asked the desk if they had fish on the menu and she said, Let’s ask the chef.” At the kitchen’s foyer, Chef Helga said “Vee vil see vat vee can do for you.” Hmm… was that a yes fish or a no fish?

At 6 p.m. a girl emerged from a lodge next door to ours. “Your dinner is ready.” What? We hadn’t even seen the menu. A solitary table was set as we sauntered into a large, spartan dining room. I whispered to Mac…”There are no other guests? No menu?” Karina, the German girl we met on the footpath announced, “I’ll be your waiter tonight.”

Minutes later, Mike, a British fellow who turned out to be the lodge’s owner, visited our table with a portable CD player, asking us what type of music we preferred. Mac asked for some classics. Ahaa…a rhetorical question since we soon heard Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young singing “Teach Your Children.” Soon he was back with a wine list. Again, ahaa…our music man was also our sommelier. He rattled off a list of bottled wines, and as I scanned the prices, I instantly asked for wine by the glass. Or even Styrofoam cups?

Three minutes into our meal, two young men came to our table to ask, “And how’s everything?” So far, I counted five staff persons waiting on us. Hmm…Anybody else coming to ask how’s everything? Still, at meal’s end, the local cabernet, salad, wild salmon with asparagus, and dessert plus all the lodge’s staff conspired to make our evening memorable.

We went to bed at 9 p.m. but Mac woke up at 3 a.m. to check up on Aurora. She wasn’t there.

The Ubiquitous Filipino

Days earlier at Watson Lake’s Gas stop, we were delighted to meet a Pinoy at the cashier. Chatted a bit. Then at Boston Pizza in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, a Pinay, Charlotte, served us. Soon Cecil, Joel and a couple more Pinoys greeted us. And there at Talbot Arm Hotel in Destruction Bay, YT, the 45 residents and workers included five Pinoys--Donna, Leo and wife, Edylyn, daughter, Eljay and Claren and his wife. I told them we were happy to see Pinoys on our trip and very proud of their courage and resolve to start new lives in faraway lands.

Donna and Edylyn, Destruction Bay, Yukon Northwest Territories (Photo by Noni Mendoza)

Donna and Edylyn, Destruction Bay, Yukon Northwest Territories (Photo by Noni Mendoza)

Back in Seattle weary but happy. We returned our car early afternoon on April 23, 2016. Mac drove for nine days, an average of nine hours a day covering 4,872 miles. He achieved his goal. For me, I have mountains of memories. Good enough.

We chased Aurora all the way up in Canada and Alaska, but to no avail. In the end, it seemed she also tried to catch up with us.

On May 8, 2016 The National Service of Seattle stated. “The Northern Lights were visible overnight Saturday. Probably the best aurora display we’ve seen in a decade here in Seattle.” (Underscoring, mine.)

Noni Mendoza

Noni Mendoza

Noni Mendoza continues to explore his artworks, consults in land planning and landscape architecture, and pursues his passion for Tai Chi Chuan. Visit his sites at and

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