Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Driving 4,300 Miles in Five Days

Only five days remaining on our Alaskan vacation. Yet, here we are still in Alaska, 4,300 miles away from home. Uh oh...better start driving!

Fortunately, I had it all planned out.

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When I was planning our "mad dash" home, I basically used the following criteria: 1) leave a little extra time after the first day in case we feel like doing anything in Whitehorse; 2) assume 16 hours or less of drive time (approximately) each day. With that, I developed a plan to get home from Fairbanks in five days. Sure, that looks good on paper, but we've never even done two 16-hour days in a row, let alone four at the end of a two week vacation. Could we handle it?

I actually had my doubts, and part of me thought we should have just taken an additional day and cut those four 16-hour days down to five 13-hour days, giving us more time to enjoy the drive. (Yes, for us, a 13-hour driving day is "taking it easy".) But I had already made all of the hotel reservations, so...let's give it a shot anyway! I was actually looking forward to the challenge. It would be an adventure, an accomplishment I would be proud of.

Well, we did it! We had to wake up super early (4:30 AM local time, usually) every day, in part because you lose four hours going from Alaska Time to Eastern Time. (That's actually something I failed to consider when I planned the trip. Whoops!) But actually, it was fairly easy. We usually made it to the hotel between 9 and 10 PM local time each night, got 6-7 hours of sleep, made up for lost sleep while our spouse drove, and switched driving duties pretty much every two hours. We have to stop every two hours due to Amber's blood clot history, but I think that's a good road trip rule regardless. Stopping every two hours - even if just for a couple of minutes - certainly cuts down on driving fatigue, and it makes the drive go by much more quickly.

To be perfectly honest, we didn't get tired of driving until we got to Virginia, three hours from home. That really shocked me. Since this will be our last long road trip for a while - potentially a long while - the idea was to wear us out to the point where we wouldn't want to do this sort of thing again for a long time. Well, from that standpoint, it didn't work! We've barely been back two weeks, and I'm already starting to feel the road trip bug again.

Anyway, there are two main keys to doing this kind of marathon road trip. You need at least two drivers, and you need drivers that really like to drive. I would never have attempted this much driving alone. I've done a 16-hour one-day drive by myself before, but over multiple days in a row, I think 10 hours each day would be all I could handle alone. For two young and enthusiastic (read: crazy) drivers such as Amber and me, 14 to 16 hours per day is reasonable.

What's the most challenging thing about driving to Alaska? It's not the drive itself. The hardest part is just finding someone to come with you. There aren't many people out there who would want to drive to Alaska just for fun. Maybe 1 out of every 50 people we told about our trip sounded the least bit interested in doing it themselves. But we are out there. And if that person just so happens to be of the opposite gender (or, if you're homosexual, the same gender) and has a lot in common with you besides just a penchant for driving, bonus! I think I really hit the jackpot there.

(Side note: Vacation compatibility is very important towards building a successful marriage. I've never been to, but I would hope that "What is your idea of a perfect vacation?" is one of the questions. No matter how much else two people have in common, if one person prefers backpacking in the mountains and the other person prefers drinking margaritas on the beach, it'll never work.)

If we had a third crazy driver, we might have actually done the Fairbanks to Durham trip non-stop. Which begs the long would that take? Well, I timed the entire drive back! Not just from beginning to end, but split into segments. You can see the details by clicking here. That spreadsheet includes lots of details, including our average speed in each segment and what the speed limits are along most of these roads (that's something I was curious about beforehand). Or, if you're just interested in the final numbers: 4,307 miles, 68 hr 38 min, 63 mph average. That doesn't include stops, so if we did the drive non-stop, you could theoretically drive from Durham, North Carolina to Fairbanks, Alaska in three days. Instead, we spent a few hours each night in a hotel did it in five.

So, there you go. If you like driving (a lot), have a reliable car, and come prepared, driving to Alaska and back is easy! Coming prepared mostly means acquiring a full size spare tire (which we didn't need in the end) and a copy of The Milepost. It also helps to plan ahead - way ahead - with regards to gas, food, and lodging stops. Not just on the Alaska Highway, but basically all of Canada.

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