Chain smoking: Or how I learned to stop white knuckling and love mountain driving

by | Feb 12, 2024 | Opinion

It’s nine p.m., and we’re 24 minutes outside of Whitehorse. On the road, all we see is snow falling in the pitch black. I’m not driving; it hasn’t been my turn for hours. I check my phone, and I have service—a luxury on this trip. As I lift my head to tell Josh the good news, I see the flash of oncoming headlights. With a puff of snow, the only other car on the road starts to spin. 

The car is too close, the road is too icy, and if that car enters our lane one thing is abundantly clear: we do not have time to stop.

Two days earlier, my roommate made a plea as Josh and I left for our trip. “Please don’t die.” I wasn’t sure if he was joking, but I gave him a wink and a hug as I told him, “No promises.” 

Chicken, Alaska was our destination, a place we picked simply because “we’d never been.” The road was clear, the weather was clear, and my car, a 2023 Mazda3, drove perfectly. Everything pointed towards a smooth trip. 

About an hour north of Whitecourt, not even two hours into a three-day journey, a fog settled over the road. It was thick. I had enough visibility to see several feet around the car, but not much else. My ability to take long-haul drives has always been a source of pride for me. In my early twenties, trips to my hometown in Saskatchewan were easy. Eight-hour drives with no sleep in a car were second nature. Moving back to Edmonton, I drove 29 of the 36 hours straight from Ottawa, stopping only to sleep in my car. This time was different. I know Saskatchewan roads and I got to know the Ontario highways. I don’t know B.C. I don’t know the mountains. And I do not know how far this car will last on this road. I clutched the wheel tight. I needed something to take the edge off, and the music and Red Bull were not helping. I reached for my vape sitting in the center console, taking near constant drags and hoping that something in the  nicotine would calm my nerves. 

It didn’t. 

The road only gets windier, the fog only gets thicker and the day only gets shorter. I knew I had to make it at least another four hours to Dawson Creek, where Josh and I agreed to switch off driving. My fingers are starting to hurt, but I don’t regret taking the trip yet. 

Was it dangerous? Yes, but I don’t have anything that I can’t leave behind. I’d rather spend my life celebrating the things that I did, rather than lament about the things I could’ve done. You should too.

The fog does not clear until a few hours south of Fort Nelson, B.C. I take a break from smoking and Josh takes over driving. On this road even the passenger seat is stressful, but at least we can see the road. Or we could, for a few short moments. Our respite was short-lived, and after what felt like just moments of clear driving, we drove straight into a blizzard. No visibility, no traction, and no ability to see wildlife. Josh, like me, shared my nicotine remedy for stress relief. Josh, like me, also found it ineffective.

Finally, we see the lights of Fort Nelson. A relief settles in knowing that the day’s driving is done. We got a hotel, grabbed a pint at a bar, and called it a day. The car needed a break, our lungs needed a break, and sleep could be useful. 

The next morning, we got on the road and decided Whitehorse was the day’s stopping point. The Alaskan Highway showed us an inch of mercy, and the fog had dissipated. In its place, however, were blind corners, blind hills, constant black ice, rolling snow flurries, and the near-constant threat of hitting wildlife. Coffee, Red Bulls, and smoking got us through the day. The night was a different story. 

I’ve never been much for divine intervention, nor am I a firm believer in luck. But 24 minutes outside of Whitehorse, something kept that lone car from crossing over into our lane. The out-of-control car spun twice, hitting snow banks on their side of the road with each spin. After braking and seeing our lives flash before us, we slide by completely unscathed. We pulled over to see if  the other driver was okay, but the car sputtered away before we even opened our doors. 

“Not like this,” Josh joked. There was an air of frustration to it though. We didn’t drive 30 hours through a snowy and icey hell, just for a careless driver to take us out 20 minutes before our destination. We got back to driving through the snowy dark, spending the next 10 minutes in silence, passing my vape between us.

We made it to Whitehorse well after our expected arrival time. As much as it hurt, we decided we wouldn’t go any further. Too much had happened, and in retrospect, I don’t know if our lungs could have handled the nicotine. I guess we’ll still be able to say “we’ve never been” to Chicken, Alaska. Josh and I spent the next day away from the smoke-scented interior of the Mazda3, actually enjoying the space we were in. It was hard to feel relaxed, knowing the drive home started tomorrow. But Whitecourt is a lovely city, and I highly recommend you go. Maybe go in the summer, and fly if you do.

Early the next morning we left for our two-day trek home, picking Fort Nelson as a good halfway point. Fortunately for our lungs, the drive back was the polar opposite of the drive there. The roads were clear, the skies were blue, and my vape spent most of the day in the center console, untouched. 

I should have known things were going too well for too long. 

We settled in for the evening at the hotel in Fort Nelson. We were exhausted but optimistic. Finally feeling some peace, we started to get ready for bed. I went to the bathroom to take a shower. 

“What does a bed bug look like?” 

Josh was standing over the bed he was supposed to sleep in, staring a dead bug. 

After a day of listening to our favourite songs and the sounds of the road, the silence was stifling. We sat around for 20 minutes, contemplating our next move. That’s it, we’re going home. Not to another hotel, not to another town, we are driving back to Edmonton. Tonight.  

Josh said he can drive, and adrenaline and frustration fueled us for three hours until we switched off. As soon as I took the wheel, my vape found its way to my hand again. Chain smoking was the only thing keeping me awake and sane.

We reached Grande Prairie at dawn during a complete white-out blizzard; the worst I’ve ever driven in. Josh and I had driven from sun up, to sun down, to sun up again. As a 20-year-old, I could do drives like this without issue. Now, as a 27-year-old, I am forced to accept that I have limits. No amount of caffeine, nicotine, or adrenaline can keep me on the road.

We parked in a Walmart parking lot and I reclined my seat. For the first time in three days, I closde my eyes and immediately fall asleep. I woke up three hours later to clear skies. I reset my seat, refilled my vape, put the car in drive, and went home.

When we got back to Josh’s house, I gave him a big hug and said goodbye. We made it. All of our friends told us that we wouldn’t make it and that we were foolish for even attempting this, but we did it anyway. Were they right about the foolishness? Yeah, who in their right mind drives to the Yukon in the winter unless they have to?  

Was it dangerous? Yes, but I don’t have anything that I can’t leave behind. I’d rather spend my life celebrating the things that I did, rather than lament about the things I could’ve done. You should too. 

So next time you get some free time, grab a friend, pick a random destination and just drive. Road trips mean nothing unless you have someone to share them with. Driving down the highway with your windows down and having a smoke while your friend establishes the playlist for the day soothes the soul. The time you have with good company will always be fleeting, so enjoy the ride while you’re on it. Smoking may be a bad habit, and I know I should probably quit soon. But as Luke Doucet told us numerous times through the speakers during our drive, “I may stop for a smoke. Yes, I know these things will kill me, but my dear, so might the road.” 

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