To the Wild Willy’s; Wherever They May Roam

By:Karla Fetrow

Back in the old days, and I’m talking about so old the mammoths still grazed on the tundra, the guy who was the envy of all his neighbors didn’t own a Cadillac or a Mercedes Benz, he owned an International jeep.  For all you youngsters listening to my stories, an International didn’t mean it was a jeep taking world wide tours.  It meant it was a jeep with parts that could be interchanged with the parts from other vehicle manufacturers, making it the back yard mechanic’s dream.  Basically, this jeep was a civilian scaled model of the jeeps used during World War II, the coveted, acclaimed “Willy”.  If you owned a Willy, you owned the next best thing to a bulldozer.

Roads were practically non-existent in those days.  We had one main highway, and most of the houses of the early settlers were crowded as close to the highway as they could get.  An off-road usually meant a barely defined path only known as such by the double row of tire grooves straddling hopeful clumps of struggling grass.  The off-roads were delightfully filled with dips and turns, mud holes, ditches that filled with water during every rain, and the polished, rounded intrusions of boulders that nobody wanted to remove because there might be a cavern underneath.  These off-roads were generally made by and could be traveled only by jeep.  If somebody wanted to investigate a piece for property for sell on an off-road, the guy who owned a Willy was called upon.  Picnics were arranged by lake shores, using jeeps to transport the picnickers who had grown tired of walking.  On dry days, sometimes people did risk the off-rounds to go bouncing off for a sight-seeing excursion, but when they got stuck, it was always a jeep to the rescue.
Those were the very early days, and after awhile, there were some transformations.  The dirt track back roads became gravel roads, and some were eventually paved.  Parks and recreation fixed up the picnic areas so people could drive in with their automobiles instead of making it an all-day excursion.  But they passed on their love of the jeep to the next generation.

We were a rather bold next generation in connection with our jeep escapades.  We would drive them out to the glaciers for a rock climbing adventure.  We would take them out to the rivers and find a low-ebb spot for making a crossing.  There was one rule we quickly learned.  Once you started crossing, don’t stop until you get to the other side.  It was a little harrowing at times when we misjudged the depth of a river and it slushed up to our floor boards, but if there were tracks on the other side, we knew a jeep had made it and so could we.

Mud bogging was one our favorite sports long before it became a national pastime.  The miles and miles of bootlegger clay on the inlet was just too great a temptation.  Waiting for the low tide, we spun out, rushing to bounce over the trickling streams and doing wheelies on the expanses of wide, slate colored clay.  If we didn’t come home with mud splattered all the way to the top of the vehicle, we had not been having a good day.

Another great aspect about those jeeps was, they could climb!  The Independence Mine claims on the Hatcher Pass were crisscrossed with old cart trails the miners had used to haul gold down from shafts.  While other sight-seers labored up the hills to poke around a bit in the abandoned mines, we let our jeeps do our labor for us, barreling up trails the caribou had used last and parking on the highest hill to look down like we were king of the mountain.

That’s not to say the old-timers were very approving of our jeep abuse.  For them, the jeep had been a useful tool.  For us, it was the ride of our lives.  They lectured us, telling us that you should never go any further with a four-wheel drive than you would with two-wheels, and to put it in four-wheel drive only when you got stuck.  We took that to mean, once you started spinning in two-wheel drive, put it into four-wheel and keep going!  We were perhaps fortunate that none of the dire things happened while we tested the stamina of our jeeps, but I think it goes without saying, if you raise your kids in the wilderness, you’ve gotta expect them to be wild.

I left my mountain home for a few years to live in Mexico.  While I was visiting some friends in Merida, one of the men asked me what I thought of a jeep.  That cracked my mouth wide open as I related my many jeep related stories.  I couldn’t stop praising this trust-worthy work horse of my past.  “Well,” he said slowly, “I was given an offer to buy a jeep for six hundred dollars.”

“Buy it,” I answered quickly.  “You won’t regret it.”

He took my advice.  The next day, a Willy, recently painted shiny white, was sitting in his yard.  I nearly fell all over myself scrambling into the back seat for a ride.  It didn’t seem all that impressive rolling through the flat, tame streets of Merida, but I assured him once he started driving cross-country, he was going to love it.

Well, to make a long story short, his idea of cross-country driving was barreling that jeep down the roads of Southern Mexico without ever checking the water gauge.  What I neglected to tell him, which I truthfully didn’t know, was that jeeps don’t take to hot climates that well, once the water in the radiator starts running low.  He eventually blew up the engine in the middle of the desert and blamed me for talking him into buying a jeep.

My feelings were hurt and my faith in the super muscles of the jeep were shattered until I returned home.  I discovered that while I was gone, a whole new generation of young people were falling in love with a whole new generation of jeeps.  The trusty old Willy was seldom seen anymore, but there were Broncos and Blazers, Ram Chargers and trucks, all fitted out with four-wheel drive and snarling through a still untamed country-side.

My first excursion was a return trip to Independence mine.  The old playground was exactly as it had always been, with formidable tracks digging into the sides of the mountains, gravel tumbling away and pot holes thirty feet long.  We started out in two-wheel drive, clinging with one hand to the door frame or ceiling to keep our heads from bouncing through the roof.  About half-way up, the wheels started to spin.  Our trusty driver slammed into four-wheel, and with a mighty groan, the jeep shot straight up the mountain, growling and throwing rocks from out of its way.  When we reached the top, I looked down, remembering all the adventures I’d had, when life was wild and good times were free.  I sent a prayer to the Willy that had died in the desert.  May his life be a wanderer out there in jeep heaven because my love affair with the jeep had returned.

About karlsie

Some great perversity of nature decided to give me a tune completely out of keeping with the general symphony; possibly from the moment of conception. I learned to read and speak almost simultaneously. The blurred and muffled world I heard through my first five years of random nerve loss deafness suddenly came alive with the clarity of how those words sounded on paper. I had been liberated for communications. I decided there was nothing more wonderful than writing. It was easier to write than carefully modulate my speech for correct pronunciation, and it was easier to read than patiently follow the movements of people’s lips to learn what they were saying. It was during that dawning time period, while I slowly made the connection that there weren’t that many other people who heard the way I did, halfway between sound and music, half in deafness, that I began to understand that the tune I was following wasn’t quite the same as that of my classmates. I was just a little different. General education taught me not only was I just a little isolated from my classmates, my home was just a little isolated from the outside world. I was born in Alaska, making me part of one of the smallest, quietest minorities on earth. I decided I could live with this. What I couldn’t live with was discovering a few years later, in the opening up of the pipeline, which coincided with my first year of junior college, that there were entire communities of people; more than I could possibly imagine; living impossibly one on top of another in vast cities. It wasn’t even the magnitude of this vision that inspired me so much as the visitors who came from these populous regions and seemed to possess a knowledge so great and secretive I could never learn it in any book. I became at once, very conscious of how rural I was and how little I knew beyond the scope of my environment. I decided it was time to travel. The rest is history; or at least, the content of my stories. I traveled... often to college campuses, dropping in and out of school until one fine day by chance I’d fashioned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology. I’ve worked a couple of newspapers, had a few poems and stories tossed around in various small presses, never receiving a great deal of money, which I’m assured is the norm for a writer. I spent ten years in Mexico, watching the peso crash. There is some obscure reason why I did this, tightening up my belt and facing hunger, but I believe at the time I said it was for love. Here I am, back home, in my beloved Alaska. I’ve learned somewhat of a worldly viewpoint; at least I like to flatter myself that way. I’ve also learned my rural roots aren’t so bad after all. I work in a small, country store. Every day I greet the same group of local customers, but make no mistake. My store isn’t a scene out of Andy Griffith. The people who enter the establishment, which also includes showers, laundry and movie rentals, are miners, oil workers, truck drivers, construction engineers, dog sled racers and carpenters. Sometimes, on the liquor side, the conversations became adult only in vocabulary. It’s a good thing, on the opposite side of the store is a candy aisle filled with the most astonishing collection, it will keep a kid occupied with just wishing for hours. If you tell your kids they can have just one, you have an instant baby sitter; better than television; as they agonize over their choice while you catch up on the gossip with your neighbor. We also receive a lot of tourists, a lot of foreign visitors. They are usually amazed at this first sign of Alaskan rural life style beyond the insulating hub of the Anchorage bowl. Many of them like to hang around and chat. They gawk at our thieves wanted posters. They laugh at our jokes and camaraderie with our customers. I’ve learned another lesson while working there. You don’t have to go out and find the world. If you wait long enough, it comes to you.

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2 Comments on “To the Wild Willy’s; Wherever They May Roam”

  1. When in Colorado over the summer we visited the homestead of a family friend wherein over between some out buildings was parked an old WWII Willy painted the most ugly shade of orange with army green peeking through. It had still on it and still in good shape the original tires and the completely original engine. The only thing in bad repair was the upholstery. That thing could still drive and that is the beauty of these they are so simple to repair and built to really last. We stood around it in awe, checking all the nooks and crannies but it wasn’t until I got home that I realized we didn’t take one picture…Darn!

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