“Look! Up ahead there on the left.” Our navigation up our hometown’s narrow circuitous road, looking out over the redwoods into the adjoining town of Fairfax, had brought us to the green rectangular sign: San Anselmo. The year was 2001, and we were planning our first travels to Alaska to include just a tiny bit of civic disobedience. “How so?” you might ask. Simply the removal of our town’s sign to post in the famous Watson Lake (Yukon) Signpost Forest.
The accomplishment of this surreptitious act was easier said than done on a narrow street lined with uncomfortably close parked cars and houses sited shoulder-to-shoulder looking out into the valley below. This particular sign did give us one big advantage: although it was seven feet high, the pole mount stood just one foot away from a craggy rock face that allowed for a careful climb—and an even more careful reach—to loosen its fasteners. Eyeballing the said bolt-and-nut pairs, and armed with ratchet and wrench, I scrambled up within reach of the project, trying to look inconspicuous, though Ruth always says, “Just look like you belong!” Easier said than done! It seems every time I set tools in place, a car would round the corner and force me to pull back and assume the posture of a wilderness explorer gazing out into the verdant green and blue. My furtive glimpse of the driver would reveal a sideways glance, which I took to mean, “What the heck is that guy up to?” The kind of look that told me that I needed to get this job done quickly or soon a government or police car would come to investigate. A misdemeanor fine is tolerable, but a potential year in jail would put a kibosh on imminent travel, at the very least.
Luckily, the bolt holding the sign was not bent over after passing through the nut (as is often done by street maintenance workers to prevent theft). Please don’t ask how I know this. I was soon successful in removing the easier top set. Reason would dictate that I should have started with the bottom, because the sign immediately rotated over, still attached to its bottom fastener—just in time for another car to pass by. I now visualized myself as the town contractor restoring this sign to service, and nervous excitement slowed my effort to release the final fasteners. Eventually they came free, I grabbed the sign, and speedily ran to our vehicle for a quick escape.
Alaska Highway Project, 1942. US soldier Carl Lindley spent time in Watson Lake recovering from an injury. He was ordered to repair and erect directional signposts—New York, Chicago, Edmonton, Whitehorse. As any worth-his-salt mischievous soldier would do, he added a sign for his hometown, Danville, Illinois, with associated distance. The trend caught on and by 1990, ten years or so before our arrival, the 10,000th sign was posted. Currently today there are well over 77,000 signs rolling up and down, helter-skelter, over a significant tract of hilly two-plus acres of land. It was here that we would make our domicile mark.
At this point I think it’s appropriate to say that there is a peculiar relationship between humans’ desire to leave their mark, their “I was here” totem from our earliest existence, and remain into perpetuity into the future. How many lovers’ hearts carved in trees, and statements spray-painted on walls remain frozen in time after all is gone and forgotten? Ruth and I have spent a significant amount of time and wonder researching petroglyphs and pictographs of ancient American tribes and civilizations who shared these beliefs.
July, 2022. Excitement and trepidation coursed through us as we grabbed our cameras in the early morning hours to attempt to find “our” sign.
This wasn’t going to be an easy task. How would you plan your approach to finding a sign posted on a 4X4 pole with dozens of disparate colored, sized, and named objects? There was no recorded map of each sign, license plate, placard, comment, advert. The task would be overwhelmingly daunting. Sign posts were placed in curves and straight lines; ran perpendicular to each other; ran circularly; climbed steep hills; and generally put us in a literal and figurative maze of confusion.
We both decided to separate and follow paths of our own design, using a meager pair of photographic images we took so many years ago with nothing but several adjoining sign posts as reference. After half an hour, I was feeling discouraged, but also a growing realization that despite this seemingly futile effort, I would not give up. At one point, upon passing each other, we affirmed that we would not leave until we had found our prize! Ruth was very methodical, starting at the outside and working her way in—that is, until the paths crisscrossed and ran into unexpected zigzags. I had serious difficulty complying with this approach, as what seemed a logical method would constantly be contradicted by disharmonious twists and turns of pathways—think carnival funhouse maze.
Forty-five minutes into our quest found us both close by each other craning our necks up and down like bobbing ducks looking at our previous photographs and brain-numbing sign blur for the elusive connection. Suddenly I recognized a sign that in our earlier picture was about equidistant and height from our quest, and San Anselmo popped back into existence looking as fresh as the day it was “donated” by the town.
I thought to myself, If I lived here, and had not a heckuva lot to do in that small region, I might take it upon myself to carefully log each and every sign, to be available to the public. There would of course be several small impediments: hoards of unrelenting mosquitoes in spring and summer, storms and snowdrifts in winter, and the fairly constant new signs being nailed in place by passing tourists. Then I remembered the maze of streets of London and the nightmare training cab drivers endure to successfully navigate them. This is called “The Knowledge,” and is one of the most difficult tests in the world, taking years to pass. Pondering this, the idea very quickly passed from possibility to “nope.”
Incidentally, after returning from our original journey and sign posting, we submitted—anonymously, of course—the proud image of the San Anselmo sign to our town’s City Hall, and wonder if it has a revered spot on the mayor’s wall?
Time traveling the epochs
After leaving Watson Lake, it quickly became evident that big change in the land was afoot. Driving along the Alaska Highway for hours requires constant vigilance. Most of the road verge is cut back 30–50 feet to prevent the sudden encroachment of meandering moose, ambling Ursidae (bears), and who-knows-what other mysterious creatures emerging to interrupt a pleasant reverie.
We’ve passed the above-mentioned moose and bear, but also porcupine, wolverine, stone sheep, and a quickly glimpsed but elusive figure that we’re still debating.
And then there are the dreaded frost heaves that catch drivers unaware by launching their vehicle nearly airborne at speed, or potholes that have morphed into swimming pool pits to capture those flying vehicles.
Or, lest I complain too much about the road itself, there are also drivers, particularly of semi- or triple-axled fuel trucks, that grow impatient with your respect of the speed limit, and disregard double yellow lines to barely pass before oncoming vehicles.
More importantly, this section of roadway was arousing awareness of some deep history to keep the inquisitive mind stimulated! Road cuts began revealing patches of black soil/crushed stone looking very much like coal. Absent this, striations in the rock face were in a limestone shale formation.
This is a flashing neon sign signifying a former underwater environment, and an association with the Carboniferous period, approximately 350–250 million years ago.
Simultaneous epochs? No. During the hundred million years of the Carboniferous, the earth was rich in swampy forests, with an oxygen level of around 35% in contrast to today’s 21%. The decomposition of this rich vegetation led to peat bogs, and eventual coal, gas, and petroleum deposits that “sustain” our own Holocene era.
So: what of the water world that once covered this mountainous middle British Columbian region?
During the contiguous Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods, 250–66 million years ago, amidst massive continental shifts, the beginnings of North America emerged with the huge Western Seaway separating this continental landmass into near-islands.
This was of particular interest to me as soon we crossed the Sikanni Chief River in the Canadian Northern Rocky Mountains, the former site of a major paleo-archeological dig, revealing the fossils of the huge Ichthyosaur.
This creature was a force to be reckoned with in the ocean, evolving from fish that migrated to land, and for reasons perhaps of stronger predators, re-migrated back to sea. It was second only in size to the largest creature to have lived on earth, the blue whale. We first learned of this amazing behemoth during our travels in the heart of remote Nevada following a strangely notated sign for “Berlin–Ichthyosaur State Park, 50 miles.” Here, in the middle of nowhere, a massive museum houses the 60-foot fossils of several, shall I say, similar vertebrates?
That place, like the dig at Sikanni Chief, proved out the recognition of an interior sea dividing the North American continent.
Driving along, my thoughts abounded with the wonder of such a dynamic life-rich world amidst the vastness of known space. More and more along our route evidence of our husbandry of the resources of our ancient timeline became evident. Huge flares illuminated the daytime sky from all around us on the landscape. We were used to seeing such sights in places like Odessa and Midland, Texas, where the Permian Basin oilfields still contain nearly 105 billion barrels of oil. We had traveled hundreds of miles along this corridor and witnessed the massive industry rimming the road supplying the drilling operations. Here in B.C., for the first time, we witnessed gas burn-offs and pipelines feeding collection points along mountain ridge tops.
Here, coal competes with petroleum and gas for human demand. It seems that the British Columbia and Alberta region is third in the world of available but not always easily extracted petroleum reserves.
This scene was a shock to our senses, so attuned to the vastness of Alaska and Yukon. We had driven and explored several thousand miles of mostly empty land, deserted human presence, boreal forests, and vast tundra, to find ourselves passing through the Mordor and miasma of energy-demanding resource extraction.
As for the Scene along the road, the pathways of our travels are analogous to the neural pathways in our brains and bodies, awakening, teaching, enriching, creating, and inspiring further, further, and further more.