After years of saying we wanted to go to Alaska we finally made it happen. Lonely planets cover has a quote saying ‘Bears larger than bison, national parks the size of nations and glaciers bigger than other US states’. We’re bound to have one hell of a trip.
We arrived at Anchorage international airport from warm Hawaii and had quite the shock when we stepped outside at 6am and it was close to zero degrees. I couldn’t believe that we could see snowy mountains already, from the airport!! We hopped on the aptly named ‘people mover’ aka a bus, to midtown where our hostel was. The driver told us to “Grab a pole and hold on” which made us both giggle. We hung out in a warm McDonalds till our hostel opened up and we attracted a lot of attention from staff and customers asking where we were from and what our plans were. A short walk led us to the hostel and we saw a few patches of moose scat, crazy to think they live in a busy city.
Our plan for Alaska is to buy a van, make it a home on wheels and spend two months exploring the beautiful wilderness. We’ll then drive through Canada for four – six weeks seeing the Rocky Mountains in summer which will be a big change from our last snowy visit in Autumn 2010. From there we hope to continue south-east till we finish our trip in Florida and fingers crossed successfully sell the van after 6 months on the road. It will be our fifth van/car we have road tripped and lived in around the world and we are so excited to be living the van life again. Before we can do any of that though, we need a van.
For 4 days we relentlessly searched Craigslist for a van to buy. We felt like we were in a prison looking out our window and seeing the mountains so close yet so far away. We figured Anchorage was our best bet for buying a van but there was hardly anything on the market. The vans were either old banged up ones or way over our budget. The city is Alaska’s biggest yet it has the same population as the town we come from in England. The Capitol, Juneau doesn’t even have roads leading to it, you have to go by sea or air, or combine the two in true Alaskan style and take a float plane. It’s one wild state!
The first van we viewed was named ‘Big Red’ and luckily had a very friendly owner who was totally honest with us and when we asked if he thought she’d make it to Florida he affectionately slapped her and said this girl stays in Alaska. She was the same age as Craig, 33, and sure showed signs of her age with a smokey exhaust and slow get-go. He was actually given her in payment for a job which is pretty cool, but said she’s basically a ‘beater with a heater’.
So that was a no go. The next van was a lovely, blue Chevrolet G20, she didn’t have a name which slightly put me off, who doesn’t name their vehicle?! She was already set up with a homemade bed inside and nice interior. There were a few obvious issues that needed fixing like her ‘Alaskan Windshield’ as they call it – apparently they don’t use salt or grit on the snowy roads but just small rocks. So when spring comes along the rocks get thrown across the road from tyres and TONS of cars have a huge crack across the window. We took the van, I’ll call her Big Blue, for a spin and she drove great, we really liked her actually and thought she could be the one. But on the way back her ‘service engine soon’ light popped up on the dash and got us worried considering the seller said its never stayed up for that long before. Argh!! He wasn’t really willing to do anything about the issue but said he’d knock the price down from $3500 to $3000. We decided to have a think, call Craigs dad, and call Chevrolet for some advice. It didn’t help much and could be a million different issues so for the time being we decided not to rush and continued looking around. It was the weekend anyway so we couldn’t get the van checked in a garage till Monday if we wanted to. One big issue with Alaskan vehicles is that the state is so chilled and laid back that you don’t need a safety check, so any car is allowed on the roads if it can get moving. Cars that have been in bad crashes have their bonnets tied on with a piece of string, and the parking spaces are coated in leaks from the cars.
We met a lovely Spanish couple at the hostel who were doing exactly the same as us, driving for 6 months but heading to California. They had bought their van a few days before us and had struggled to find anything beforehand. They didn’t get the best of luck and were sort of scammed by the seller who’d promised them a huge list of problems to fix as it wasn’t in a great way but after a week of waiting he’d only fixed the steering issue. They’d now spent two weeks in Anchorage and were so fed up they gave up on the other issues such as the electrics as ‘Liberty’, as she’s now called was safe to drive. They actually helped us get in contact with a guy selling another van they were interested in but it was in quite a bad way with a crack from one end to the other of the windshield, in need of a exhaust replacement and also had a plastic rear window which would need changing. The problems added up and there was too much work to do.
There were no new vans coming online and we were starting to get worried after hearing the Spaniards issues. We spotted a very old motorhome for sale for a measly $800 and thought well if she doesn’t last it’s cheaper than staying in a hostel for a month and maybe that’s the only option we have so we agreed to check it out. We waited for a bus to take us south of midtown and were approached by a bizarre man – there’s a lot of them in Anchorage, along with many homeless and a love for a crazy new drug called spice which is quite scary to witness. Anyway, this guy seemed fairly sane and wanted some help with his phone so we did that and he asked where we were from, then he said “if you guys want to see bears I can show you some!” What the heck, is this dude telepathic or something? He quickly followed it up with “my dad lives right by the woods and we leave food out and bears, wolverines, all sorts of animals come up real close to the house” we didn’t really know what to say to that so smiled and nodded saying we were travelling all around Alaska so would probably see some around…He was pretty persistent though “I’ll take you there now, you wanna go? I just put some human guts out, aaaaah just joking, haaahaaaaa! I’ll put some fish guts out and they’ll be bears everywhere”. At that very moment the bus pulled up and we hastily said “ah sounds great but we gotta dash” and we ran onto the bus.
So, that was just our warm up for what was about to be unveiled. The motorhome was parked up in a fenced off yard used for storing snow ploughs. The owner of the van had lived in it for 2 years and on the phone two hours before he’d said he’d tidy her up and then we could literally take the keys and drive off as he was moving into a flat. Craig warned me to expect it to be pretty grimy but nothing could prepare us for what we saw. The man was very friendly, if a tad smelly. His hands were filthy and I’m glad none of us were formal enough for a handshake. The motorhome was pretty normal from the outside, but once that door opened we were hit with the most putrid smell, then the man who I’ll call Bob opened a filthy pink curtain covering the doorway. Then the smell seeped out the van in such a way that you could almost imagine it having a colour to it like in a cartoon. Bob said “excuse the mess but this is bachelor life” and let out a giggle. Poor Craig had to follow him into the squaller room and I winced at him having to touch the disgusting curtain. I could only see half the room from where i stood outside but the floor was covered in rubbish, dirt, brown towels, it was bloody awful. Amongst all of that was half eaten food; noodle tubs, pizza slices and dozens, seriously, dozens of bottles of urine. Oh my god. If you have two hours to tidy your property would the yellow piss bottles not take priority? It was like we were on a TV show where your taken into a hoarders house and the conditions were unliveable. I wouldn’t even take this motorhome if it was free, it was that bad, but I had a horrible feeling Craig might be staying positive and at the end would try and sell all the good points to me. The icing on the cake was when Bob showed Craig the chemical loo stashed on the floor beside the cooker and his bed, he was in a right pickle about what to do with it and we could see what he was trying to say and couldn’t quite believe it….”well I mean I would really like to keep it, unless you guys really wanted it?” HELL FUCKING NO!!!
Then a bloody truck pulled up behind and I felt like we were being set up by hillbillies who were planning on killing us so I scanned the perimeter and found a gate that I’d be able to crawl under and escape. The man stepped out the truck with something big under his arm…could it be a gun?? Nope it was a bag of groceries, Hah! Oh I shouldn’t be so judgemental. Anyway, I was just about to make up a story for Bob and say, “Craig, I really don’t think it’s big enough, I wanted something at least double this size” but thankfully Craig spoke up first and said it just wasn’t for us and he thanked the chap before we scurried out of the yard, went round a corner and slathered ourselves in hand sanitiser. We both roared with laughter at what an awful experience it was. Craig said he’s never, ever smelt anything so bad and will forever have nightmares about that van. So now we know $800 is far too low to pay.
Day number five and we agreed to put Big Blue in a garage to try and find out if the engine light was a big issue. Just in the nick of time though a new ad popped up; it was a 1999 Dodge Ram Van for $3500. We tried calling the owner all morning and found out that Americans don’t answer private numbers which is what our Skype came up as. Once we tried with the hostel owners phone Scott answered straight away, hooray! The bad news was someone was currently viewing the van.
An hour later and he said the man wanted time to think about it so said we could take her for a test drive. She was perfect, at least 10 years younger than the other vans we’d viewed and it showed in her almost mint exterior. She didn’t have an Alaskan windshield nor peeling paintwork. Her interior was very nice with beige carpets, rather stained but fine, and a row of seats that flatten into a bed. We took her for a spin and she did great. The main issue we had was that she didn’t have plates. We were told to stay away from any car without plates as it could take over 2 months to get new ones. Plus it was from Texas where the couple had driven it from and not even registered in Alaska. There was also a slight leak under the bonnet but it was a clear liquid and Craig thought it wouldn’t be a major problem. So we said we’d go and check about getting new plates at the DMV and Scott offered us the van for $3000.
Much to our surprise we were told we could get Alaskan plates that very day so we called Scott and said we wanted the van. The problem was so did the original viewer now. Ah man!! In the end he said he wanted to sell it to us so the deal was made and we arranged to meet at the DMV in an hour and we quickly called Big Blues owner to say we’d changed our mind. In the meantime we called up the local state trooper who kindly did a check across the states for any records of it being stolen and we had the all clear.
After a bit of an issue at the DMV due to Scott not actually registering the van in Alaska and having to first do that, they were then able to sign it over to us and we were handed a lovely Alaskan plate complete with Grizzly bear and a set of keys. Scott had called the van Vann Richards after a much loved governor of Texas. That was her former name now, from now on she’ll be known as Daphne. Daphne the Dodge Ram.