TRAVERSE CITY — Veteran truck driver and Ennis Trucking owner Earl Ennis III can think of plenty that could go wrong on a long haul out to Alaska. Blinding snow, subzero temperatures, icy roads and avalanches are the first that come to mind.
But none of that phased Richard Robertson, 57, who has been driving for Ennis Trucking for 17 years. Traverse City's Midwest Air Products, Co., asked Ennis if he had someone who could haul a truck load of make-up air units to Valdez, Alaska, and Ennis posed the question to Robertson.
"To me, it just sounded like fantasy," Robertson said. "Alaska?"
Robertson, a truck driver since 1987, brags that he has traveled to places most people have only seen in photographs. It's the fun part of life on the road. He has now been to all 50 states — save for Maine — and never thought he'd see America's "last frontier."
"I think the adventure was more enticing than the fear," his wife, Katherine Robertson, said. "Just to get to go to Alaska, he was so proud to be able to do it."
Robertson left Traverse City on Feb. 3 and didn't return for a full month. It was the longest he'd ever been on the road; most trips take 10 days at most. The drive from Michigan to Seattle — his first destination — was about what he was used to, but conditions grew more unfamiliar as he headed north through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory.
"Being out there and seeing it, it's real pretty, but it's deadly at the same time," he said. "You're a long ways from nowhere."
Everything around him was winter white — the trees, the mountains, the clouds. The roads were covered in hard packed snow, and it was often difficult to tell whether the road would be slick or slushy.
"To see some of the roads you're on, they don't believe in guard rails up there. When you drive, you drive like this," Robertson said, holding his hands out firmly at 10 and 2.
He passed signs that cautioned motorists about caribou and moose crossings and drove through 12 avalanche zones. One day in the Yukon Territory he had to pull off the road for several hours while helicopters triggered small avalanches to prevent larger ones from swallowing up the highway.
Robertson drove from sunup to sundown — driving at night would be too risky — and often was the lone truck pulled off at rest stops.
"Other than being awed by the sights all around me, it was just the loneliness," he said. "I have never felt so isolated."
Robertson rarely saw another vehicle on the road, except for snow plows heading the other direction. It was so desolate there wasn't even road kill to keep him company.
"I was thinking of John Glenn, circling the earth in a space capsule," he said. "What did he do? He was just sitting there, staring out the window. That's all you're doing."
The seasoned driver is used to long trips alone and planned accordingly for his month-long adventure. He filled his iPod with nearly 3,000 songs, started in the As and worked his way through to the Ss by the time he pulled into Traverse City. The music helped keep him in the right state of mind for the solo journey.
"I play my iPod and it just goes through memories," he said. "You gotta be used to it. You gotta have a mindset and be used to going around by yourself."
Robertson said he's always relieved when he reaches a destination, but finally reading "Welcome to Valdez" on a snow-covered sign was a sense of accomplishment like none other.
He stayed the night in the Alaskan town and set out in the morning to retrace his path back to Seattle. From Seattle he hauled a load to New Orleans, then a load from New Orleans to Texas and a final load from Texas back to Traverse City. He arrived home March 3 with 12,418 miles logged.
Robertson wouldn't take the trip again in the winter, but said he'd "take my chance with the tourists" in the summer. The vast Alaskan landscape left an impression.
"It was the highlight of my career," he said. "Where else can you go, the moon?"