WC’s Epic Fails: That Time the Steering Jammed


Summit Lake marker, the highest point on the Alaska Highway and the lowest point in WC's Fall 1970 trip south

Summit Lake marker, the highest point on the Alaska Highway and the lowest point in WC’s Fall 1970 trip south

In the fall of 1970, WC purchased an elderly step van to drive back to his junior year of undergraduate school in Eugene, Oregon. It was a 1961 Chevrolet with about 150,000 miles on it. WC fitted it out with a bed and a cabinet, figuring to cherry it out in Eugene where prices were lower and the climate was milder. And started down the Alaska Highway.

In 1970, the pavement stopped at the Alaska border, and the washboard was exceptionally bad past Lake Kluane. But WC rattled along at 25-30 mph. On the morning of September 15, WC picked up a hitchhiker and his dog at Toad River, and then rattled on south and east towards Fort Nelson. As we were climbing up the hill to Summit Lake, where the highway make a long slow curve to the left eastbound, we met a tanker truck going west. It was one of those double trailer rigs: a tank on the truck chassis, and then two trailers, each with another tank.

As always, WC steered over to the right edge of the road to avoid the rocks those rigs throw at your windshield. Or, more correctly, tried to. But the steering wheel refused to turn. It was locked in place, absolutely immobile, in a slight turn to the left. As the trailers whipped by and WC frantically pumped the brakes, left front of the step van clipped the back bumper of the second trailer.

The step van was thrown on its right side, and then briefly on the roof before falling back over the right side and sliding slowly partway into the ditch on the northerly side of the road. The tractor trailer rig didn’t even stop.1

Inside the van, my passenger and his dog were fine. WC was a little beat up. Despite wearing a seat belt, WC was thrown out of his seat. It’s just as well; the driver’s side corner of the roof collapsed inwards, with sharp metal edges where WC’s head would have been, But in all the thrashing and tossing around inside the van, WC’s left leg got a nasty hole punched in the shin, and, as it turned out, a cracked patella. All WC knew as he clambered out was the his left leg hurt like fury and was bleeding pretty good.

WC was less than a mile from the service station at Summit Lake. A passerby was kind enough to stop at Summit Lake and have them send a truck. The owner’s nephew volunteered to drive WC to Fort Nelson, about 100 miles. WC grabbed some of his stuff from the van, left a check for prepayment for towing the van to Summit Lake, borrowed three towels from the owner’s wife to wrap around the injured leg and we rocketed to the medical clinic in Fort Nelson, getting there in less than 90 minutes. If you know the road, that’s scary fast driving.

WC had lost enough blood that most of the trip is blurry, But they got WC into the clinic just as a helicopter arrived with a man who had fallen from a transmission tower and was in very bad shape. There was just one doctor – there was just one treatment room – so WC had a long wait. And kept fainting, falling out of the chair. The receptionist was a little freaked out, but wouldn’t let WC lie down on the floor. So she’d wake WC, help him back into the chair, and in a few minutes WC would faint again. It was a long wait.

But the doctor, when he saw me, got me stitched up (thirty stitches in two layers), and a leg cast from hip to ankle with an open area around the wound for access. A shot of antibiotics, a tetanus shot and some creams, and pair of crutches and WC was sent on his way. The total charge for the treatment was exactly zero. Nothing.

WC rode in Fort Nelson’s only taxi to Fort Nelson’s only motel and discovered the only way to undress was to cut off his trousers. It was too much trouble; WC slept in his clothes on top of the bed.

The next morning, WC made a lot of telephone calls. Air Canada service was every other day. WC had to purchase two seats for the flight to Vancouver, B.C., a seat in the row ahead of him for his leg. A call to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the RCMP, Canada’s national cops, provoked massive indifference. “No one killed, eh?” A call to Summit Lake to arrange for disposition of the step van. A call to WC’s parents. A call to WC’s insurer.

The owner of Summit Lake Station reported there was a rock wedged in the steering train. “Jammed up pretty good.” WC sold him the step van for the cost of towing it off the road and to his yard. For years afterwards, he used it as a storage shed. It may be there still.

A full leg cast really, really reduces your mobility. Bathing, walking, getting in and out of vehicles, getting in and out of aircraft – especially small aircraft – all get complicated and slow.

WC eventually arrived in Eugene. A buddy picked him up at Mahlon Sweet Airport and let him crash at his apartment for the night. Another buddy drove WC to the apartment WC’s roommate, Russ Meekins, has rented. There WC was greeted by two things: a note from Meekins, announcing that he had bailed on college and would be running for the Alaska Legislature.2 And the discovery that the apartment Russ had selected was on the second floor. Not useful for a full leg cast. So a forfeited security deposit, too.

Financial resources badly depleted. Limited mobility. No housing. Inability to get a job when you show up for the interview in a full leg cast.

All of which is why WC became a Resident Advisor for Collier dorm in Hamilton Hall for the 1970-71 school year, but that’s another story.

The cast came off after five weeks. The leg and the knee cap healed up just fine.3 A week after that, WC was backpacking, with only occasional nightmares of fighting to turn a steering wheel that would not move..

 

 

 


  1. But nevertheless tracked WC down later. $575 (Canadian) damage to the end of the trailer. WC had a $500 deductible policy at the time. 
  2. If he lost, he’d be at Oregon for the winter quarter. If he won, he’d pick up his degree later. He won. It didn’s go well, but that’s another story, too. 
  3. There’s a noticeable ridge just off center on the kneecap. And a significant divot on the shin. Fine work by the much-maligned Canadian medical folks. 

2 thoughts on “WC’s Epic Fails: That Time the Steering Jammed

  1. Oh, great. Another AK Hwy Horror Story just as I’m again about to make the long trip down on it.
    That Summit Lake service station long since has gone the way of WC’s wretched van, sad to relate, as have so many other of the sight-for-sore-drivers’-eyes yet beleaguered services along those North Country roads. Overall, however, the driving condition of every last mile – or kilometer – of each of the main routes has credibly improved over the succeeding decades, though…as have the automobiles using it. The drivers? Not so much.

    • The moral of WC’s story is don’t try to drive an ancient, clunky delivery truck on a long, rough gravel road. Sorry to hear that Summit Lake service station is gone. They were good folks. WC hasn’t been on that stretch of the Ak Highway since 1993. The Cassiar is much more scenic and has much less truck traffic.

      /WC

Comments are closed.