The Forest of Signs
One morning, at a truck stop on the Alaska Highway, a bearded man poked his head through our open window and asked if we needed any smokes.
Sarah and I were in our early twenties then. Earlier that summer, we had left the only home either one of us had known—Upstate New York—and were driving to Alaska because we were young and in love. We had left home, I think, because I thought I maybe had to and because she was certain of it.
I squinted at the man. Middle-thirties, fleshy, hirsute, with unruly reddish hair that matched his beard in both hue and length. I had already been leaning toward the knife in the door’s pocket and came up with a pack of Players cigarettes. “We’re good,” I said, shaking them in front of him. “We have plenty.”
He smiled a cautious smile with mustard-colored teeth. He took a step back from the car, looked around, and leaned back in. “No, I mean smoke. Grass. You guys want some grass?”
Sarah and I shared a look. I’m not sure what mine communicated; probably fatigue. We had spent a sleepless night in the car the night before. Her look said: yeah, come on, idiot.
“Give us a second?” I asked. The man nodded. He stepped back from the window and squinted into the sun as if checking the time.
“We’re not taking it over the border,” I said.
“But we have two days before worrying about that.”
“It’s not like we’re gonna get pulled over.”
“And we’re in B.C.”
She looked out into the gray parking lot and up into the boughs of spruce above. “I think we’re in the Yukon,” she said. “Just get a bit. I have to pee.”
“Sure,” I said to the bearded man.
Sarah went to the truck stop, and I locked the car and followed the man. He pointed at an RV sitting on the edge of the lot twenty yards from us, where another RV and two dust-covered pickups sat empty—one with Alberta tags and the other from Texas. I looked back to the truck stop and noticed its sign for the first time: Contact Creek Lodge. Sixty-three years before, a U.S. Army regiment working south met their counterparts working north and linked the bush trails that would become the only highway to Alaska. They named the place.
The man’s RV looked to be from the late eighties, faded beige with graying stripes, the kind with the pickup cab built-in like a cube truck. His plates said Beautiful British Columbia. His clothes—baggy corduroy trousers, a thermal shirt, an aged winter vest—said laid back. He walked a body length ahead with a slight limp and with his face mostly to the ground, coming up occasionally to look at me and speak, the creases of his mouth beginning to spread, but nothing coming out.
We entered the RV through a small door on the side. The innards were the same faded beige as the paint job. It smelled musty and stale but appeared neatly tended. A bunk hung from the wall covered in a strangle of wool blankets. A dozen broken-spined paperbacks lined a shelf behind a guardrail, like on a sailboat. Naturalist titles: plants, flowers, trails. An odd smattering of novels: Louis L’Amour, Margaret Atwood, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
“How much you thinking?” he asked.
“Like ten, Canadian?”
He nodded, expressionless, maybe disappointed. He unlatched and opened a cabinet. Shielded by the open door, he reached into what I imagined was an enormous bag of B.C. grass.
Could I live like this, alone on the road, wandering? Maybe. A part of me could. But he seemed lonely, not lonesome, and not the lonely where you’re dying to talk to someone and gab breathlessly to get it out, but the lonely where you don’t know how to talk to strangers, where you’ve lost that, forgotten. Our silence hung like fog, punctuated only by his hand shuffling inside the cabinet.
“Where you headed?” I asked.
“South,” he said.
“Is that home?”
He laughed. “I guess.”
I didn’t get it then. The RV wafted suddenly in a smell like ripe skunk. He held a large pinch of a cannabis bud out, dropped it in my open hand, and asked if that was good. God, it stunk, like the deepest of deep pine forests, obnoxious in its vigor. I took the cellophane from my cigarettes, wrapped the bud up, and put it into my jeans pocket. I handed over a tenner.
“Where you guys headed?” he asked, suddenly more comfortable.
“North,” I said and pointed.
While I bought grass, Sarah used the bathroom and bought two burnt coffees in 16-ounce Styrofoam tumblers. A man on a motorcycle pulled up and killed the engine as she walked out of the truck stop. He was in his sixties, clad in blue biker gear—leather jacket, chaps, helmet. He dismounted from a blue Harley Davidson towing a matching blue trailer with New York plates.
“You from New York?” Sarah asked, pointing to the tags.
“Queens,” the man said in a downstate accent.
They talked, these New Yorkers. The man—his name was Roger—had ridden his Harley from Queens with a friend headed to Alaska. “The wife says I oughta do it before she won’t let me, so here I am,” he said. “She wants me home by September, meaning I’m gonna have to turn around the second I cross the border. You believe that?” He looked off, northbound up the road, as if the border where he would turn lay just beyond the bend. “You married?” he asked.
“No,” Sarah said.
“Well, really, it’s great. I’m married thirty years, but you gotta get away from each other sometimes. Some space, you know? Not a bad thing.”
Roger had been on the road a month, avoiding caribou collisions, sitting out deluges beneath overpasses, and swilling beers with eccentrics at roadhouse bars. Had she seen the bison? Bears? How beautiful this place was? For him, like us, Canada had been where the continent grew wild.
“I guess this is my mid-life crisis,” Roger said.
“I really hope it’s not ours,” Sarah said.
When I arrived in front of the truck stop, fingering the cellophane bag in my pocket, Sarah was telling Roger how we’d ended up just shy of the Yukon border. She raised and lowered the Styrofoam cups in a pantomime of talking with her hands: fleeing New York, a layover in Colorado, a fiasco at the border, the open-ended destination. Her story was built on a series of places, and these places sounded as if they had happened to us, not us to them.
“Roger,” Roger said and extended a gloved hand to me. “You been in the car together all this time?”
“I don’t think we’ve spent more than an hour apart in two months,” I said. He laughed, and I wondered if he could smell the bud wrapped up in my pocket. It was all I could smell.
“God. My wife and I woulda been at each other’s throats. Now, if I get sick of my buddy here”—he pointed to a motorcyclist rumbling into the dusty parking lot, thirty yards away—“I just throttle it up and lose him.”
“He’s from New York,” Sarah said to me.
“Queens,” Roger said. “You?”
“Upstate,” I said, “Syracuse.”
“I don’t know how anyone lives up there.” Typical downstate response. He opened his arms to embrace the parking lot. “Or here. Weather like this lasts about two weeks.”
I liked Roger. He resembled Peter Boyle in both appearance and peculiarity and reminded me of about twenty people I’d known, metro New Yorkers who had never seen much reason to leave the city and perhaps never had, who regarded driving two hours Upstate as space travel.
I imagined we would see Roger dismount at truck stops over the next two days, and the three of us would sit down and compare notes. We’d keep the same pace. The farther we got from New York, the more we’d find we had in common. In Whitehorse, we’d meet him in the lobby of a hotel and, over beers, figure out that we knew some of the same people.
“I’m a cliché,” Roger said, apropos of nothing. “But you two got something going.”
Sarah and I considered this for a moment, looking at our feet atop the gray crushed stone of the parking lot. Then she looked up at me as if to check if I agreed.
“Anyway,” Roger said, “if you see a blue Harley on the side of the road with no rider, stop and look for my body.”
South of Watson Lake, and north of a sign that said WELCOME TO YUKON: LARGER THAN LIFE, we pulled off from the highway along a short track that ran to an isolated pond. This may have been at or near a place called Lucky Lake, Alaska Highway Mile 612. One could barely see the highway from the shore, masked as it was through a copse of shadowy Tim Burton-esque spruce. We dethroned and stretched, and I unrolled the tobacco from a cigarette and meticulously twisted up a bit of the bud.
“Good shit,” Sarah said, drawing the smoke in and stifling a cough. I bent over, hacking, feeling a rock form in the pit of my stomach.
“Maybe we’ll save the rest of this,” I said, hoarse, catching my breath.
“Lightweight,” she said.
The pond we parked at stretched deep blue and lily-choked for ten spruce-lined acres.
“You think we’ll see Roger again?”
“It’s one road,” I said. “Of course we’ll see Roger.”
One RCMP patrol car—the first we’d seen in a week—passed during our speed limit-observing northward crawl to Watson Lake, YT, pop. 1,800. Watson Lake is home to a thrilling Northern Lights simulator, like a planetarium, so one may be awed by the Aurora during months when it operates unseen due to daylight. We missed that. Still stoned, we missed a lot but found, in Watson Lake, an afternoon to wander outside of the car. We strolled around town under bright skies and popped into a hardware store/tackle shop for a canister of stove fuel, a voyage that, under normal circumstances, would take five minutes but which took us twenty. We chatted up the grizzled shopkeeper until Sarah’s giggles took over. When we returned to the car, the sky had gone steel, and the rain drizzled so lightly that the water felt as if it hovered mid-air.
The most notable attraction in Watson Lake is The Watson Lake Signpost Forest, which lies at the confluence of the Alaska and Campbell Highways, one of the few true intersections on the road. We did not miss the Signpost Forest, which began when a nostalgic U.S. Army private put up a sign for his hometown of Danville, Illinois, during the building of the highway. The forest has since grown, folks adding sign upon sign, hauling them up from far-off hometowns and attaching them, one atop another, to poles and boards sticking up from the ground. The latest counts put the number of signs north of 70,000.
I think it’s safe to say that the Signpost Forest was curated: clean lines of telephone poles arranged in rows like the tidy forests one finds at research stations and logging rehabs. The signs represented every species of worldwide town, village, border, city, and neighborhood: Koln and Kerns, Zetel and Solingen, Winfield and Whittier, Santa Clarita and Harrisonville, MD, Entering Hardin and Buckhead City Limit and Brookfield, Wisconsin 2269 miles. Many were cast in the weathered Pine green common to American street signs or in Royal blue or daffodil yellow or white with blue or black letters. Some were messages, hand-painted and home-crafted, commemorating biker reunions and extended family voyages (The O’Hara Clan! 1995!) and cross-continental pilgrimages for the remaining members of a sorority or Vietnam War platoon.
Photos of servicemen next to makeshift signs indicating how far they were from Lowell, Gainesville, or Eufaula are common in the highway build’s historical record. And signs like these are especially prevalent in the far north, where municipally funded announcements seem compulsively listed on monuments and posts from Dawson Creek to Barrow. There’s one in Fairbanks and downtown Anchorage, and there’s one in Alert, in Nunavut, the northernmost populated place in the world. But they are common to other isolated, far-flung places too, like on the long wooden pier in Busselton in Western Australia or in Key West, where a wooden post in the old seaport features a few dozen salt-chewed, hand-painted signs asserting distances to the likes of Wrentham, Massachusetts. Whence does this desire to point and indicate toward one’s homeplace come? Who are the pilgrims with the foresight to steal a street sign from Wrentham and haul it to Watson Lake? And how, precisely, did homesickness drive Carl Lindley of the 341st Engineers to signal the name and approximate distance to his obscure Midwestern homeland?
I wasn’t sure then, but it felt—as it does now—right. The gesture of hauling and putting up the signs made emotional sense. Perhaps Lindley’s point was simply to say: Yes, I am a long way from home. And that desire to point back, to indicate where we’ve come from, hits on some universal stirring of the soul. Perhaps the signs reach back across the great distances to those places, those homes populated with people who, in our wanderings, we’ve lost and say: You’re still a part of me. Or simply: I miss you.
I ambled through the forest in the feeble drizzle, hoping to find a sign that read SYRACUSE 3,272 MILES. Sarah ambled in her own direction, looking for her own signs. One could get lost in The Signpost Forest, making it feel somewhat like a forest, and after a while, we both did. The signs on their posts rose, wall-like, all around. For the afternoon, we wandered by ourselves, lost and searching. Later, when she recognized a name—“Buffalo!”—I jogged through the lanes, following her voice, past the signs for cities and towns I’d never visited and families and fraternities I’d never been a part of. I found her with her arms crossed, waiting for me, smiling at her find, and I jogged up to meet her and say yes, indeed, there it is. I know this place.
Then renewed and sober, we dropped into the car again and drove on.
About the Author
K.C. Wolfe’ essays, articles and short stories have appeared in Gulf Coast, The Sun, Harvard Review, phoebe, Joyland, The Bark, Redivider, Under the Sun, Swink, and other journals. Wolfe has worked as the associate nonfiction editor at The Journal, as a freelancer and as a managing editor. In 2007, he co-founded the literary journal Sweet and now serves as books editor and vice-president of the board of directors. He teaches in Eckerd College’s creative writing program and lives, on average, in St. Petersburg.