This is the second dispatch from Tom Sexton as he and his wife, Sharyn, make their way across North America to the rocky shores of Maine.—PM
“Leaving Fort Nelson, British Columbia” by Tom Sexton
The first time we were in Fort Nelson, British Columbia, it was a sleepy place on the highway. No longer. Sometime in the ’70s, they found natural gas and built a major processing plant just out of town. There are now several large hotels with more on the way. After begging two German tourists to perform an exorcism on our Passat, and with the words of the Volkswagen specialist in Grand Prairie 600 miles away to “stop if the lights come on again,” we left Nelson.
Even five years ago, the drive from Fort Nelson to Dawson Creek, where the Alaska Highway begins, was a pleasure. Now, with all the oil and gas exploration going on in Northern British Columbia, it is anything but. For almost 400 miles we passed truck after truck hauling pipe, massive modular “camps for the workers,” valves for new pumping stations. You name it. It is now a rather dangerous drive if you take your eye off the road for a second. I just can’t stop wondering if all progress is good. Did I mention Chinese companies exploring for minerals?
We stay outside of Dawson Creek at a place called Sunset Ranch, a B&B operated by Barb and Rudy who came to Canada from Germany about 15 years ago to live closer to nature. Rudy now works in the oil patch. The dirt road to their place is now a truck route, and you can see gas flaring in fields that were once pasture. It is for all the impact of development still an enchanted place, the high prairies or plains. I can never remember which one. But I do remember the sunsets.
On our first trip up the Alaska Highway, we reached Dawson Creek a week after we were married. We were headed for Fairbanks, where I was going to go to graduate school. It took us a week to drive from Salem to Dawson. We camped and got up at dawn to drive more than 600 miles or more each day.
Today, 400 is just about impossible. When we reached Dawson, all those years ago, we went into a little store that sold ice cream cones and asked for a coffee cone. The young woman threw us out, yelling something like, “What do you think I am, a hick? Coffee ice cream!” Now you can dine on lobster and finish with gelato if you want. I don’t.
Tomorrow we will just about cross Alberta.