by Michael McGinnis
There are always some things in life which are a little hard to take. We imagine them in advance, wonder how we would deal with such situations, and hope they never happen to us. Its remarkable how the things that you fear might happen to you, often actually do. That's how it was for me.
After I learned to drive, one of my secret fears was that my car would break down on some deserted highway. What terrible fate might befall me? One of the great things about life is that it lets you replace speculation with experience.
After I came to the Yukon, it was time to learn about true winter driving — something my earlier life on Vancouver Island had not prepared me for. A month after arriving in Mayo, I borrowed a government car to attend a Department of Education meeting in Whitehorse. I made it down ok, but on the way back south of Pelly, I went into a skid and ended up off the road. This was back in the days when ore trucks drove regularly from Elsa to the south, so in a few minutes one of them stopped and we attached a tow chain to the frame and pulled the car out. Fortunately, not a scratch. I got back in the car, and headed towards Mayo at 80 km/h, feeling pretty good about how casually and quickly my problem had been solved. Suddenly, the car's hood sprang to attention, straight up in the air. I had probably the best view of a hood I have ever had, but absolutely nothing else. The hood had been released in the towing operation, and not relocked. This particular lesson was learned at the cost of my pride only: I was able to keep the car on the road and stop it, so at least I didn't need the next ore truck for another tow on the same night.
The first time my own car died on me, I was in the middle of the Rocky Mountains on the Alaska Highway. I had just passed Summit Lake Lodge. At just that moment, my transmission gave up the ghost and I discovered that the car would no longer drive forward. But I still had reverse gear, so I backed up about 100 m to the Lodge. As breakdowns go, this one was well situated — there are a lot of empty kilometres of road on either side of Summit Lodge! Rather than camping in the bush with no food with my car broken down, I had a good restaurant meal, and then stayed in the lodge where I was able to catch up on my reading. I was inconvenienced, but not endangered; this was an easy start to learning about highway breakdowns.
After I had been in Yukon for a couple of years, the lessons were resumed. I discovered that a very important part of any road is the type of vegetation alongside it. In the days before chipseal, road conditions could change drastically in 100 m on dirt road, so one moment I was driving home on dry road, and the next my car was fishtailing like a salmon flopping on the dock. After some swift aerobatics, the details of which I could never recall, but which involved a seemingly prolonged period of rapid and random spins, I found myself being flung off the road. Fortunately that day I discovered that small willow trees are very good shock absorbers, and that rather than continuing down the hillside below the road for several hundred feet, my car had come to rest with minor dents only a short tow back to civilization.
A particularly memorable breakdown happened on the way to Whitehorse to fly out that evening for Vancouver. South of Pelly the car's electrical system died; it was 40 below. I was traveling in convoy with another Mayo teacher — he was concerned that his truck might break down and wanted the insurance of my vehicle behind him on the road to help him if needed. But he ended up helping me. We wanted to get to Whitehorse, and get my car there as well. Fortunately, the other teacher (Reno Ciolfi) had about 20 feet of thick rope. I steered my car, and he towed me into Whitehorse. I would not recommend this if there are other options — it was illegal, and very nerve-racking, as well as COLD! But this problem had an elegant, if not very easy, solution — and by the time I returned to the Yukon after Christmas, my car had been repaired in order to be ready for its next breakdown.
I have found what I would never have expected when I was young. The problems that I have encountered on the road have never been overwhelming — there was always a way to deal with the problem somehow. I don't go out of my way to make problems for myself, e.g. as a winter driver I keep my car in good mechanical shape, but I have been fortunate that my accidents and incidents have given me much valuable experience. Having had several "off road" adventures and breakdowns, the actual experiences have replaced my anxiety with confidence that I can handle what may come my way. I have also been careful to recognize the parts of the experience that are "good luck", and feel thankful for any help that I get, Divine or human, that keeps my experiences in the form of adventure and not disaster. This is the kernel of any potentially negative experience — to learn from it whatever can be valuable, to make you a more seasoned and expert player in the game of life, and more able to rise to meet the next challenge coming your way. And you pick up good stories to pass on, too.