Cars Of A Lifetime: 1978 Toyota Corona Wagon – Alaska Or Bust(ed)

The summer of 1994 we were in college in Oklahoma, and to prove just how smart we were getting to be, a few of us thought piling in our cars and heading up to Alaska to work the summer in fish production would be a brilliant idea. My friend Jeremy had a bright yellow Corona wagon, so he and I and a beautiful young lady named Marisa shared it. A recently married couple and their sister who was aspiring to be a model drove a Chevy Lumina. Jeremy’s sister Charity and her new husband Bill drove their brand new Nissan pickup pulling a tent trailer. I’m probably not giving away too much by telling you now that not all the cars made it. But in fairness to them, it wasn’t the cars’ fault.

During an early leg of our journey I experienced one of the most frightening times I have ever had in the passenger seat. The beautiful Marisa had been sleeping in the back of the wagon almost non-stop since Kansas, and we were on her case to take a turn driving. Eventually we finally got her behind the wheel so we could get some rest.

I was in the passenger seat and Jeremy was in the back, who instantly fell asleep. But I could not get comfortable knowing she was behind the wheel. I tried talking to her but she did not want to talk. Pretty soon her head started bobbing and the car started swerving. Our conversation went like this: Hey wake up! What……. stop yelling at me. You were falling asleep. No I was not.

I tried to keep the conversation going, purely out of self-preservation, but Marisa was not participating. “Stop talking to me”, “fine”. Her head starts bobbing again, the car swerves, and I reach over and carefully guide the wheel. Hey wake up! I am. Stop it, let go, I can drive!

This went on for at least an hour before I woke up Jeremy and we voted her out of the driver’s seat. If she would have been a guy, we would have kicked him out right there. But she was good looking and female, so naturally we relented , and she took to the back again to keep up her beauty sleep for the rest of the trip.

We stopped over in Oregon on the way, and I was told that I should give the Toyota a tune up because I knew more about cars than anyone else. I didn’t know anything about cars, but I gave it a shot. In the end I ended up cross threading and stripping all the spark plugs. So I got some super glue and that held them in!

We finally set off on the road to Alaska with our freshly glued spark plugs. Marisa bailed on us and went back to Denver, but everyone else was still on board. At some point we made another brilliant decision, that taking the back way would be shorter. So we got off the Alcan Highway and took the Cassiar highway, at that time almost completely gravel with lots of one lane bridges and big fast semi trucks. In retrospect, getting off the main highway doesn’t seem like it was as good of a plan as it looked like it would be on paper.

It was warmish and very dusty on the Cassiar in summer. We were in the Corona, the last car in our little convoy, and Jeremy was driving. As we came around a long sweeping bend there was a bridge in front of us, my friend proceeded blindly into the dust cloud to find that the other cars had come to a near stop on the bridge. He applied the brakes but the metal mesh bridge deck was not conducive to sudden stops. We slammed into the back of the Lumina, which in turn slammed into the back of the tent trailer. The only three cars anywhere for an hundred miles managed to all crash into each other. Guess how we felt for pulling off that circus feat?

The Corona glanced off the trailer and hit the bridge side. Our 1950′s aluminum car top carrier went flying towards the river and then hit a bridge truss and landed in the road. Amazingly, my only glasses landed perfectly in the little glasses sized cubby hole in the dash! We found latter that our friends had slowed down because of pot holes, not to check our reaction times.

We assessed the damage and found that the Lumina had its back pushed in to the tire so that it would not turn. The tent trailer had a big piece of the corner missing. And our Corona was spewing antifreeze, one headlight was hanging on by the wires, and the fender pushed into the wheel, flattening the front tire.

We knew exactly what our real problem was: a sign just a short ways back said “No Service Next 375 Kilometers”. Our shortcut decision was now officially a Fail. I got the Corona off the road and took a look under the hood. The leaking antifreeze was only from a broken coolant reservoir. The fan was against the radiator, but neither was really damaged. The battery was broken and most of the acid had poured out.

Needless to say we had no tools or jack, but amazingly, there was an RV parked at a turn-off just at the end of the bridge. I was able to borrow a few basic tools from them. With the jack and its handle I was able to fix the fender and change the tire, plus push the front out enough to free the fan.

Meanwhile a pickup truck happened by (a very rare occurrence to see anyone at all, let alone an RV and a pickup in one day) and offered to help pull out the fender of the Lumina with his winch. He had to chain one end of his truck to the bridge and chain the Lumina to the other and use all the winch’s force. Still the tire scrapped, but not as bad. I duct taped the Carona’s battery and poured in river water, and duct taped the headlight. Like Red Green always says, “duct tape, the handyman’s secret weapon”.

I used an old bottle as a new reservoir and we were good to go. For the entire 300 miles up to the next outpost the tire on the Lumina smoked and the Corona ran perfectly.
We abandoned our first victim, the Lumina, at the outpost and called our poor insurance agent from their sat-phone. He was wondering how in the world he would get an adjuster up there from Oklahoma to look at the car.

While we were at the outpost, I met a beautiful red head working at the little roadhouse section. She told me the biggest city she had ever seen was Whitehorse, YU. She wanted me to take her to see LA on my way back from Alaska. I got her address and phone number and told her I would certainly do so, but sadly I never did (though we did write each other a bit).

That evening we set out for Whitehorse (another gazillion miles away) and drove through the night. I was piloting the Corona through the inky blackness watching the one taillight of the tent trailer/pickup in front of me while my friend slept in the passenger seat. The Corona was flawless hour after hour until… it wasn’t. It just stopped, all the lights went out and it gave up the ghost just like that. It was so dark I had to feel for the shoulder of the road, which was quite steep.

Once stopped I got on our hand held CB and called to the pickup far ahead. They had obviously turned their CB off. We sat there for at least a half hour before they came looking for us. When they did finally return, we all decided to spend the night there along the road. It was very cold and the wolves howled and chewed up something next to us in the blackness all night. Not one single car passed us as far as I know that whole long night.

In the morning I took a look a the Corona. But I really didn’t know anything about cars. So we decided we would all seven have to fit into the pickup somehow and strap what gear we could to the tent trailer (that’s how my friend lost all his underwear and socks). I had to leave behind my good old cowboy boots and some of my nice cast iron cookery. We left the stuff we were not taking in the Corona and wrote “Free Car” in the dirt on the back window. And that is how we left her. Dirty and yellow, used and abused, about 80 kilometers south of Watson Lake.