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About midnight, I get back in the driver’s seat (remembering to close the side door first), work my way out of the woods to the pavement, and continue to head northwest through through more of Wisconsin and into Minnesota.
A partial solar eclipse will occur just at sunrise and I’d like to see it. I set an alarm for 15 minutes prior and when it goes off I’m just past Minneapolis. I start looking for a vantage point with a mostly clear view of the northeast horizon, where the sun will shortly be appearing. I exit the highway and park near a busy overpass. It’s just a few minutes to sunrise so I run over to what seems like the best position and ready the camera. The sun comes up moments later and through the viewfinder I can see the bite the obscuring moon is taking out of the sun’s disk. I’m standing just on the other side of the guardrail from a continuous stream of early morning cars and trucks and I have to time my shooting to the traffic gaps. I can’t look at the sun directly but I do get few good photos.
After that bit of excitement, I race onward across depressingly flat country, mostly on interstate highways, until I get well into North Dakota where I diverge onto 2-lane routes, working northwest toward Portal and hoping my Covid test results will show up about the same time I get to the border. As the remaining distance starts to drop to reasonable numbers and it’s getting a little bit late for for my plan, I decide to hurry and that turns out to be a significant miscalculation.
Based on the fact that North Dakota has virtually no visible state police and the roads are flat with little traffic and miles long sight distances, I start speeding up quite a bit, figuring I can avoid problems. That works well for a long time across this empty state. Finally, as I’m about an hour from the border, my overconfidence betrays me. My normal maximum driving speed, when conditions permit, is 9 mph over the posted limit and I’ve passed hundreds of radar traps at that velocity with never a problem. Today, though I’m moving considerably faster. Ahead of me are two cars on a long straightaway. I move out to pass and as I come abreast of the first vehicle, I see the second is a Highway Patrol car. In an obviously futile attempt to save myself, I abort my pass and pull in behind him. There’s nothing I can do and, of course, he moves over to the shoulder to let me get ahead and then flicks on his lights.
He’s very friendly and courteous but there’s no way I’m getting off with just a warning at that speed. I do learn something interesting. I’ve suspected for years that moving radar can measure velocity both ahead of and behind the car but had never confirmed it. Today, the patrolman informs me of the exact speed at which I was coming up behind him, and that was with another car between us. Suspicion confirmed! I accept my ticket graciously and am pleasantly surprised that the fine is pretty nominal. In New York, speeding that far above the limit would have been a serious amount of money. In ND, I now know, they ticket excessive speed but it’s not considered a very big deal. Lesson learned, I check my email while still parked on the shoulder and see that test results haven’t yet arrived.
Suddenly (and ironically), I have some time to kill and I happen to be at the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, a series of flowages along the same-named river heavily populated with migratory and resident birds. Small gravel roads parallel the lakefront, so I dawdle along enjoying the scenery.
After about 30 miles of shoreline, I reach a very nice, wooded, lakeside picnic area and decide to stop here until my test results email appears. Sitting there idle, I realize I’m very hungry. I’ve hardly eaten anything but bread and cheese out of my cooler in over two days.
I backtrack about 15 miles to Kenmare ND, the only town in or near the refuge. It’s quickly apparent that, commercially, Kenmare is not just sleepy but comatose. Most of the storefronts around the attractive town square are defunct. The only operating business at 8:30 PM is a bar. Searching for restaurants online, I drive by every possibility. All are out of business except a shabby looking Chinese hole in the wall. I get out of the car to check it out and see that it closed 30 minutes ago. As I’m staring at the window planning my next move, a heavily accented voice says, “You can come in.”
I enter to see a woman cleaning up for the day. She says, “You can have takeout only.” I choose something off the menu and she calls it out to her husband out of sight in the kitchen. While I’m waiting, I ask to use the bathroom — a big mistake to my peace of mind. She directs me through a back room which is almost completely dark and full of large, unrecognizable items.
After groping my way through the apparitions, I find a very scuzzy bathroom. I try to wash my hands after but both hot and cold faucets have no water. I step out and call over to the couple asking if I can wash up. After a moment of consternation she calls me to the kitchen sink and hands me a bar of soap. For rinsing, rather than turn on the faucet (perhaps it’s dry, too) she pours a pot of water over my hands. Even in South America, I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly gotten food from a restaurant without running water, but I’m committed now.
My food’s soon ready. I pay, take the container out to the car and return to my little picnic haven. On the way, a weather report is warning (“Run, run, take shelter! The sky is falling! We’re all going to die!”) of destructive thunderstorms and golf ball size hail about 50 miles to my west. At the same time, I’m seeing very severe weather in the near north in the direction of the border.
When I regain my picnic area there a few raindrops coming down but no bad weather yet. I look around, planning where I’ll put the van if it starts hailing and where else if severe winds kick up. If both happen simultaneously, I’m just screwed. Just as I start eating my possibly dangerous Chinese food, my phone beeps and there’s my result email from Google. The day is saved, even if my immediate prospects are quite hazardous. I scarf my generous portion of chicken in minutes (it actually tastes quite good), put on better clothes (long sleeve shirt and long pants), comb my hair, and start heading the last 40 miles to the border. The first 12 miles are over gravel roads which I’m sure will turn to slippery mud as soon as the imminent downpour begins. I make most of that distance before it really let’s loose. By the time I reach the paved highway, I can barely see a quarter mile, but fortunately there’s no hail.
I desperately follow a semi up the road, whose tail lights I can barely see ahead of me. With that assistance, I finally arrive in North Portal, ND. The rain has stopped and I decide to top off my fuel while I’m still on the cheaper US side. I pull into the only gas station, which despite being brightly lit turns out to be closed. It’s just a trick, apparently. I drive another quarter mile to the Border Station and pull up to the CBSA booth at about 11 PM. The first officer asks me screening questions and takes my passport and driver license. After a few minutes fiddling in his booth he directs me to park and go into the office. This is it. I’ve researched and prepared for this but the outcome is far from certain, even arbitrary.
I won’t go into the details of my bureaucratic strategy, but suffice it to say there’s some carefully constructed artifice and a smidgen of insincerity involved. Inside, mask on, I present my set of relevant documents and wait anxiously to see the reaction. I’m questioned fairly closely about them for a few minutes. In addition to the primary items and my negative test result, I’ve included the deeds to my three Alaska properties as evidence of my ties to the state and that yields the encouraging comment, “This will help.” The officer takes everything back to his desk away from the counter while I cool my heels in a plastic chair. He comes back a few times with questions like, “Have you ever been arrested since you were 18?” “Do you have any DUIs on your record?” and “What are all the states you’ve ever lived in?” Gradually, I’m feeling like I’m going to be let in. A while later he returns and says, “We’ll get you on your way soon.” I dare to try a little humor by responding “North or south?” and he smiles a little as he answers “North.” SUCCESS — I’m going to Alaska!
Before I can leave, there are more formalities. I’m given two Covid test kits and instructions for submitting them, a list of restrictions while in Canada, and a document with my required departure date along with the warning, “If you don’t turn this in at Beaver Creek [the CBSA office at the Alaska border] within 4 days, an automatic arrest warrant will be issued, and you don’t want that.” I’m given a paper that must sit on my dashboard so any passerby can see that I’m in transit to Alaska and what my “leave by” date is. I look it over and note my expiration date is today instead of 4 days from now. The officer is obviously a little embarrassed by this blunder and goes back to his desk to generate a corrected set of documents.
In my nervousness, I had left the car window open as I went into the office during a break in the rain. Now, an hour later, it’s been pouring. When I return to the car, the entire driver’s area is a swimming pool. Regardless, I hop in and drive northwest for half an hour and pull off on a wide shoulder in the rain to nap and appreciate my good fortune at being granted my wish to cover 2200 miles in 96 hours.