In Bear Woman Rising, Jesse describes Whitey’s Road House as a “home to wayfaring strangers”. It is a safe haven for locals to gather and for strangers to feel welcome. As such it provides a backdrop for the proprietor’s wife, Ruth, to discuss her concerns for Kara’s mental stability with Jesse, whom she has just met. And later, we hear Kara tell Jesse, whom she has just met, that left alone in a cabin with blizzard force winds beating at the door, she hears an animal scratching to escape the wood burning stove, grabs a shotgun, and shoots. And finally, in the safety of Whitey’s cabin 16, Jesse relives her most humiliating night, the one that drove her from the Arctic research camp she loved.
However brief Jesse’s stay on her journey south, Whitey’s becomes, for her, a life-changing refuge.
So, how did I, the writer, bring to life a place like Whitey’s Roadhouse? Whitey’s was not entirely a figment of my imagination. Instead, Whitey’s grew from recollections of actual roadhouses we visited as a family in the 1970’s. I will share my recolletions of two in particular: one on the Alcan Highway in Yukon Territory, Canada; and the other on the Glenn Highway near the town of Glennallen, Alaska.
While camping along the Alcan Highway, our kids had awakened with the northern sunrise, sick of cold cereal, and begging for pancakes. We stopped, barely awake but very hungry, at the first roadhouse we came to. As we approached the old log building, we heard someone shuffle toward the door, fiddle with a key, and pull the door open. “Good morning, folks,” an older man ushered us in with a sleepy smile. “Ethel, get out here, we got company.”
“Are we your wake up call,” my husband said.
“Not to worry. Don’t keep regular hours up here. Hungry?”
Just as we settled ourselves at the counter, Ethel came through a curtained doorway, tightening the ties to her bathrobe. She pulled her hair back into a rubber band and yawned as she filled a Pyrex pot with water. “Coffee be ready in a minute. I’m guessing the sun got you up early, huh?”
We nodded and soon found ourselves wolfing down stacks of pancakes, thick strips of bacon, and eggs fried to order. Ethel and her husband sat behind the counter sipping coffee and asked us where we’d been and where we were going. “Like to know about the folks who stop in off the highway,” she said. “Gives me a feel for just how big this country is.”
As we headed for the door, Ethel called out, “Before you go on up the road, you folks may want to adjust your watches to Yukon Time.”
I glanced at my watch, 6:55. “Oh dear, forgot about the changes. What time is it?”
Ethel smiled, “Well, honey, it’s just now 4:55. Can’t go by the sun up here.”
The second roadhouse visit resulted in a three-day stay after our car broke down near Glennallen, and we had to wait for a car part to be delivered by bus from Anchorage. During the busy supper hour that first night, someone bought our one-year-old daughter her first bar room drink. Three fishermen were celebrating their catch of the day when one spotted Laurie sitting in a highchair and yelled, “I want to buy the prettiest girl in the house a drink.” With that the waitress swung over and set a glass of milk down on Laurie’s tray, announcing, “Compliments of the gentleman at the bar.” I watched amazed as my baby daughter picked up the glass with both hands and began chugging down that milk to the cheers of the locals.
We stayed in a cabin much like the one my character, Jesse, stayed in—antlers on the door, Hudson Bay blankets on the bed, braided rugs strewn across cracked linoleum. And in three short days, we learned all the town’s gossip. One juicy bit I remember involved the guy who ran the filling station having an affair with the red haired waitress at the roadhouse. Wouldn’t you know, he was married to a plump little woman who ran a local novelty store called Christmas House? Each evening as I listened to more local news, and to fly-in fishing adventures, rescue missions, and hardship tales, I realized how willing local folks were to talk to any new face fresh off the highway. I was that fresh face.
So when I write about Whitey’s Roadhouse, I’m piecing together memories of real roadhouses I encountered on my travels up and down northern highways. Roadhouses were iconic features of Alaskan and Canadian roads travelled in the 70’s, a welcome respite from Alcan Highway dust. But the people who ran them and the locals who frequented them gave travelers like me a glimpse into the toll that remote living in an extreme climate took on its inhabitants. I remember the folks I met, cherish their stories and respect their perseverance still.
Whitey’s Roadhouse, although a fictional place, is my salute to the cooks, waitresses and bartenders who while wetting my whistle and filling my stomach, opened their hearts and shared their amazing lives with one grateful traveler.
Stay tuned for my next blog where I explain how the people I’ve met become the characters you meet in Bear Woman Rising.”