Friday: Arriving in Anchorage
Flying to Anchorage required a stop in Minneapolis. Whenever I fly through Minneapolis, it seems my connecting flight is at the farthest possible point from where I landed. The airport intercom voice is also British. Why? We experienced a brief delay in Minneapolis because of a seat that would not return to its upright position. In my opinion, unless the seat dislodges from the floor, or we suddenly lose the properties of inertia, a reclining seat shouldnít qualify for a delay. When the pilot offered to take the maintenance crew to Alaska, they quickly deplaned.
The flight takes nearly six hours. At one point, I used the bathroom, only to find my path to my seat blocked by the beverage cart when I exited. I stood for 20 awkward minutes. Despite the low clouds, the descent into Anchorage is astonishing. Steep mountains surround much of the coastline and mud flats create interesting patterns when viewed from above. The airport sits on the coast. We flew in a wide circle before landing. I had trouble finding my car in the rental garage, walking up and down the aisles with my heavy bag causing my arms to burn. Eventually, I started dragging the bag, without regard for what that might do to the fabric. I found the car, a Chrysler Sebring, parked just to the left of the door from which I entered the garage. Curse my feeble, fading brain! The hostel is very close to the airport and I turn in around 11:00 with brightness still abound outside.
Saturday: Kenai Peninsula
The long days and lack of a night in the Alaska summer has an effect. I woke up early enough to make oatmeal and hit the road by 7:30. It would feel like noon if the sun would appear. However, today is cold and gray. The temperature is in the upper 40s or low 50s as I drive to the Kenai Peninsula. Getting there required a pass through Turnagain Arm. Turnagain - I love it. My car started rocking from side to side at this point. I pulled over, stepped outside, and discovered the problem. My little Sebring wasnít really a match for the strong wind. The pressure gradient really tightens in this isthmus that separates Cook Inlet from Prince William Sound. I also noticed dall sheep perched high in the mountains, balancing effortlessly. Iím glad I had my binoculars, because I also spotted a bald eagle before returning to the car.
My first planned stop is a glacier near Whittier. Unfortunately, the glacier receded into the mountains long ago. But, it left a deep crystalloid blue iceberg gently floating in the cold, cold water. Further down the highway, laid between mountain ranges, I encountered my first batch of mosquitoes; a warning of things to come. I drove to Exit Glacier for a hike. I passed by numerous signs indicating the location of the glacierís edge in various years. It has receded quite a bit. Unfortunately, because of falling ice, I couldnít touch the glacier itself. I had to stand back for photographs. I drove into Seward, at the end of the peninsula, for lunch. I didnít find a single national franchise. Way to go, Seward! I ate lunch in a local bar -- halibut sandwich and Alaskan Amber beer. The waitress joked about leaving the windows open at night. Itís 50 degrees! Itís still misting and somewhat foggy, so I couldnít see very far into the water. Whale watching boat operators sat glumly in port. I returned to Anchorage by dinnertime. So what did I do in Anchorage on a Saturday night? I went bowling (high score: 175). In my hostel room, someone snored so loudly, I thought they would die in their sleep. Seriously, it sounded a snarling dog with momentary lapses in breathing.
Itís raining again; instead of a mist like yesterday, we have genuine thick raindrops. On the way out of Anchorage, I encountered a forest fire sign indicating a red flag, or very high fire danger alert. Itís raining heavily when I take a picture of the sign. I passed through Wasilla, the fastest growing town in the state. It looks like any other town one would find in the lower 48 states. Because of the rain, I could not see Denali (Mt. McKinley).
I drove to Talkeetna for lunch. The little hamlet is abuzz with activity. Tourists are everywhere. I parked the Sebring in a muddy alley next to the Mountain High Pizza Pie Parlor. Some of the salads cost $20 or more! Some pizzas are $30 or more! I found a stuffed bread concoction for less than $10. During lunch, I discovered one reason for the tourist activity. Talkeetna is a popular jump point, well, the only jump point for mountain climbers in that area. Itís also the last town for about 120 miles. Along the way, I noticed the abundance of recreational vehicles, and in some cases, RVs towing cars, motorbikes and off-road vehicles. I donít want to think about the gasoline budget for those monsters. The river valley around Talkeetna gives way to a wide glacial plain between the mountain ranges. It is truly breathtaking and can not be properly captured in photographs. Spruce trees lined up evenly in the distance. The sun started to peek through, casting the plain in light while keeping the mountains in the shadows.
Beyond Cantwell, which really isnít much of a town, I missed the turn for the hostel. So, I had to double back and look more carefully. By now, the sun is more pronounced. I sat on the edge of Carlo Creek, next to the hostel and campground, basking in the glow and peacefully listening to the gurgling water.
The sun is peeking through again as I drive into the park for a grand tour. Past a certain point, one needs to take a tourist bus down the parkís only maintained road. Iím sure the bears and other animals figured out long ago the dirt clouds generated by the buses indicate human presence. I had a ticket for a dark green school bus and a driver with a wandering mind and thick northern accent. He described Denali (again, obscured by clouds) as a fan dancer, giving occasional peeks before covering herself. The cloud formations and unusual sun angle allowed for some amazing pictures, even from the bus window. Another wide glacial valley looked so warm and inviting, I wanted to climb down the steep cliff and run gleefully and recklessly to the other side. The rivers are high in silt from the combination of eroded dirt and glacial melt. Water also follows the path of least resistance through the rocky riverbeds, creating beautiful braided patterns. Heavy iron deposits created a red tint to some of the mountains above the tree line.
I hopped off the bus in time to eat my sack lunch along one of those rocky riverbeds. The water is chilly. The wind also blew strong enough to spin up a few dust devils on the other side of the stream. Two of those dust devils rotated directly toward me, leaving me with a mouthful of sand. After some walking around, I joined a different bus for the ride back to the visitorís center. This time we had a female bus driver who liked to whisper into the microphone. When someone asked about the distance to the bottom of the cliffs we drove atop, the driver answered ďabout eight bus rolls.Ē
I left the park around 5:00 for the drive to Fairbanks. Whereas gasoline inside Anchorage was $2.86/gal., the same gasoline outside the major cities was $3.49/gal. on average. Tesoro also seems to have a stranglehold on any gas station outside Anchorage or Fairbanks. Even when I reached Fairbanks, the first two gas stations I saw were Tesoro stations. Thunderstorms actually formed over the city. I saw lightning and a rainbow. I tried to turn in around 11:00, but again, the brightness made it difficult.
Tuesday: Fairbanks & vicinity
The hostel in a northern Fairbanks neighborhood is truly a melting pot. I ate my breakfast (banana, orange, oatmeal) with travelers from Taiwan, Ireland, Spain and South Africa. The first order of business is to propel the Sebring east and northeast of the city. I stopped at several points in the Chena State Park. The park alternates terrains seamlessly from swamp to rocky cliffs. The park also hosts one of the largest mosquito populations I have ever witnessed. The mosquitoes donít like Deet, and they will always find unprotected areas of your body if you donít poison the little buggers. On my first hike, I encountered a quarry defaced with red spray paint. Someone painted the outline of a penis. I drove, literally, to the end of the road and back cataloguing the places I would like to hike the next day.
In the afternoon I wandered around some of the small towns outside Fairbanks. I saw two tourist traps allowing patrons to pan for gold, for the low price of $40. South of Fairbanks is the city of North Pole. Cleverly, the town painted the light poles like candy canes. The biggest attraction is the giant Santa Claus statue, which sits outside a mobile home park visible from the highway. Santa is one scary dude. I also visited the Trans-Alaskan pipeline. At most sections of the statewide pipeline, any person can walk right up to it. There is no security whatsoever. The pipeline itself sits at least ten feet off the ground, maybe more. If I had a stepladder, I would climb to the top and ride the pipeline like Slim Whitman riding the nuclear bomb to the surface of Russia. So what do I do in Fairbanks on a Tuesday night when the sun is out? I go bowling (high score: 156). I returned in time to take other hostel dwellers out for midnight sun photographs.
In the morning, I decide to stay in town and allow thunderstorms to pass through the area. I visited the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, whose campus might have one of the best views of any college in the country. The modern-looking museum of Alaskan culture is a scam, considering the cost of entry. Driving down one of the main drags, looking for lunch, I spot Dennyís. The sign declares this is the northernmost Dennyís in the world. I canít pass that up. With my stomach nearing its limit, I return to the Chena State Park for a long afternoon hike.
The sun is out and the temperature is in the upper 70s. After stopping for several moose pictures, I choose the Angel Rocks trail, which will take me to the top of a steep rock formation. Unfortunately, my lack of proper hiking equipment became painfully clear on this hike. I choose to travel the trail to the right, which winds up the mountain in switchback formation. Because of my sedentary lifestyle, I must stop more than the average human to rest and drink water. I even had to urinate in the woods. Ultimately, after several false positives, I reach the top of the rocks around 5:00 in the afternoon. I lie on my back, breathless, but happy I could climb a meager 1,800 feet up a steep rock formation. Going up was the easy part. Returning to the average terrain is more difficult than I imagined. In my tennis shoes, I slide easily down the steep dirt grades. My walking sticks, selected from the available wood, snap easily. I feel as if I am downhill skiing in the dust. This part of the trail is considerably steeper than the opposite side of the loop. The mosquitoes sense my sweat and swarm on the non-poisoned section of my upper left arm, as well as my face. My heart feels like it could burst from my chest. At the bottom, the trail splits, and it is not marked on the map. I choose incorrectly for a few hundred meters before turning back. I recognize no landmarks as I wonder which animal might devour my lifeless body. Eventually I encounter the sign marking the beginning of the loop trail, where I chose to go right. The sign says the horse trail is to the right, and the human trail is to the left. That is the reverse from what I remember. Did I really take the horse trail up when I shouldíve descended on it? Did I climb the rocks in backward fashion? I curse my geriatric brain and vomit in the parking lot when I finally reach my car. I finished both a large bottle of water and a bottle of Gatorade, which probably means I am diabetic and I donít know it. The mosquitoes left 15 bites on a small section of my upper left arm.
Thursday: Driving to Valdez
Today is a driving day. I leave the hostel before eight oíclock in the morning for the nearly 400-mile trip to Valdez. Much like part of the last two days in Fairbanks, todayís weather appears to be another winner. I stopped for gasoline at, you guessed it, a Tesoro station near Delta Junction. The clerk doesnít know the elevations of the mountains in the distance. I join the Richardson Highway, situated between the Alaska Range and the Wrangell Mountains. For much of the trip, I am king of the road, because I rarely see any other travelers. Part of the landscape reminds me of a desert. In another section, I found a spectacular reflection in an otherwise ordinary lake.
Hunger takes over and I find a roadhouse north of the intersection of the Glenn Highway. I complement my trip to Valdez with a Valdez burger, which contains guacamole, not exactly an Alaskan staple. I am one of three customers in the building. A fuzzy picture from Fox News Channel appears on the television, perched atop a rolling cart. I chuckle since it is around 12:30 in Alaska, and 4:30 in the Eastern Time Zone.
Closer to Valdez, the road climbs those coastal mountains. I reach spectacular views and bask in crystal waterfalls. Closer to Valdez, I notice a sign indicating the town rebuilt four miles away from the original site because of the 1964 earthquake. After a full day of driving, I reach a motel at 3:30, in time to lie down and watch the NBA draft. I eat dinner at a Mexican cantina next door and begin burning calories by walking the length of the town. The harbor bustles with human, bird and feline activity (all connected to the vital fishing trade in some way). I even found an ice cream stand with a tasty chocolate-dipped cone special.
Youíll never guess where I filled up the gasoline tank. Yes, itís Tesoro again, the only gas station in town. Gasoline is $3.43/gallon. I reach Glenallen, at the junction of the Richardson and Glenn Highways, in time for lunch at what appears to be the only restaurant. This restaurant resides inside a doublewide mobile home. Unfortunately, road construction, including a demonstration of the power of dynamite on rock, mars the return to Anchorage. I reached Anchorage in time to order pizza to my motel room and see the film ďSickoĒ later.