Story Time: Cantwell, Alaska
I went to fill up the gas in the rental car. In Cantwell, you have two choices. You can pick the Tesoro south of the Denali Highway junction, or you can choose the Chevron north of the junction. I had previously gone and picked up some food at the Chevron, so I decided to go south. I filled up the tank and the machine didn’t give a receipt, which I need for work, so I went into the store.
I walk in and no one was there. Shelves are half empty, things are rather dusty. There were three big display coolers which had a couple gallons of milk, a few soda choices, and energy drinks. This blocks the other half of this large room to where I could hear a basketball game playing on TV.
Out comes this old Ahtna (Athabascan) man. He literally stumbles toward the counter. I thought he was drunk. But then he starts up a conversation and I realize that was just an 80+ year old man trying to get his footing. Every time I’m ready to leave, he comes up with a new story. He told me three that stuck with me:
1) In 1928, his father-in-law built a cabin in the woods to the southeast of the Denali Highway junction. One day they visited, did their thing and left. The next time they came back, someone had tagged on the side of the cabin, “Who’s been in my cabin. This is my cabin!” Clearly it was not this person’s cabin and they were squatting. He came up when they were there and threatened them at gunpoint. So, being a Native family, they go back to Cantwell, they round up all their family from Cantwell to Copper Center to Anchorage, one of these included a cousin who is nearly 400 pounds, and they all made the trip back to the cabin.
The story ends where the squatter got the ever-loving-shit beat out of him. The gas station attendant said that he doesn’t think he died, but he’s never seen that guy again.
2) This gas station sits right at the southwest junction of the Parks Highway and the Denali Highway. One day while working, this guy saw a small car come off the Denali HIghway and get creamed by a giant semi that was probably going a little too fast through town. Apparently something flew out and away from the car. He was sure it was the driver. He ran over there to find that it was the car’s engine that got ejected. The gas line was leaking so he pinched that off and found the driver still in the vehicle. He said he thought he was dead because he was all purple, but that he was still alive and continued to be so until he was taken away to the hospital. He is unsure whether the person made it or not. This is probably why the speed limit through town is 45 mph.
3) History lesson! Prior to 1971, if one were to want to go to the Denali National Park (prior to 1980, it was Mount McKinley National Park), one would have to drive out of Anchorage along the Glenn Highway, go north from Glennallen to Paxson, then head east along the Denali Highway to get to Cantwell. From there it’s just a half hour drive north. This was about an 8.5 hour drive, and probably even longer considering the advancement of road conditions over the years.
In 1970, George Parks Highway construction began. This ultimately cut the travel time in half from Anchorage to Cantwell or Denali National Park. The car attended said that one day he woke up to see surveyors come through his yard. They were marking the new road. He said he talked to their boss who said they would look into it. He never heard back from them again. He also looked into getting a lawyer, but that proved fruitless. So the road was built and it cut right through his land, where on the east side of what became the highway, he owned up to a half mile down the Denali Highway.
I’m sure he gets a lot of traffic due to the new road, but it doesn’t seem like he got much or any compensation for the road being built over his property. He just kind of laughs about it now, but man, Alaska was really the last frontier back then. You could almost get away with anything.