Columns 2000

City driving scary for bush driver

I was in my car the other day listening to the radio. There was an ad on for the make of car I’d just bought.  Each model was breathlessly described with one exclamatory word.  One was exciting, another was dynamic, another was powerful.  They got to my particular model and the word they used was “dependable”. It would have been one of the most deflating moments of my adult life had it not been for the fact that at the time I was on the Seward Highway doing 60 and watching the traffic in front of my recede into the distance while the traffic behind me was speeding up my posterior.  I was much too frightened to be deflated.  It was then that I realized that numbers posted on signs along Anchorage highways were minimums, not maximums as in most other states in this union.

Driving in the right hand lane in an attempt to avoid having other drivers any more angry at me than they already were when they zoomed around me, I noticed another peculiar phenomenon. Every time I reached an access ramp, the prevailing philosophy of the drivers attempting to merge was to speed up to approximately 500 mph and never look back.  In this case, I had to assume that “merge” is defined in Anchorage with the same words used in defining “intimidate” and “bully”.  Having a car whose most glowing attribute is that it’s dependable is of slight comfort when you see death hurtling your way in the form of a really big vehicle travelling 95 mph as it “merges” on to the highway from an on ramp.

In the bush, we consider ourselves getting absolutely giddy with power if we zoom up to 45 mph.  Of course, that’s assuming you can find a long enough stretch of road to actually achieve that speed.  Many bush vehicles go into shock if made to go much above 35 mph. This is partly because they’ve never really had to go faster before and partly because they are often “used” cars in the most sublime sense of that word.  I had one friend who spent five years driving a care she started with a screw driver.  I know another friend who had the driver’s side door literally fall off as she drove down the road. Luckily, she was doing a respectable 20 mph and so the door didn’t get very damaged. A very nice man in the car behind her picked it up and set it back on it’s hinges for her.

One of my great all time memories of driving in the bush occurred when the first four way stop was put in a busy intersection in Barrow.  No one – absolutely no one – could remember the rule for that kind of stop. So traffic would reach the intersection and everyone would stare at everyone else to see who was going to go first.  Inevitably, all four vehicles would then start into the intersection at the same time.  Everyone would then halt and wave the other vehicle on.  Since everyone was waving everyone else on, once again no one actually moved.  Eventually it would all be sorted out with a lot of smiles, laughing and shaking of heads.  One thing about the bush, people are never in that much of a hurry that they can’t stop to laugh at life’s little absurdities.

I don’t think Anchorage drivers have that mind set.  I can’t imagine them laughing as they sit at a four way stop sign waving other’s on.  I honestly can’t imagine them actually coming to a complete stop at a four way stop sign. But then, I could be wrong. They must at least drive more carefully in the winter when it’s icy and snowy. Right?