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On the road to nowhere in particular.

thLast week DF and I took a four-day driving trip around rural Alaska, aka “1,200 miles’ worth of postcard views.”

Now that summer is pretty much gone, we decided to treat ourselves to the sights of our too-brief autumn. While we don’t have the scarlets and oranges of New England, the changing colors were still pretty heart-stopping.

Brilliant yellow birch and rich gold willows glimpsed against backdrops of spruce so dark they looked black. Here and there some in-between leaves that gleamed chartreuse in the nearly nonstop sun.

Splashes of red fireweed and redder berry bushes alongside the highway and also carpeting the hillsides. Mountains festooned with blindingly white new snow as well as the more somber ivory of alpine glaciers.

September is a well-kept secret in southcentral Alaska. Most of the tourists have gone home, although we did see some at Denali National Park. Buttoned up to their necks, they were, and seeming disappointed that they didn’t get to see all of Mt. McKinley (which we call “Denali” or just “The Mountain”) due to partly cloudy skies.

At least they got to see the first 10,000 feet of it. Denali is like a stripper who generally doesn’t show you all the good stuff at the same time.

While on the trip we kept stopping to donate copies of “Woofies: Werefolk in Alaska,” which author J. Sherrod has directed be placed in as many schools and libraries as possible. Other than that, we mostly just drove and gawked: no zipline tours, river rafting or horseback rides. Alaska is full of cool stuff, but we had a specific plan in mind.

Cheap coffee, blueberry leaves

This being Alaska, we also came across some, uh, unusual stuff. What follows are some of the highlights, in no particular geographical order.

The real(ity) Alaska: While having breakfast in Cantwell (population: 219), we were seated near a guy who looked a bit out of place. It wasn’t just the cowboy hat, but also his air of “I’m somebody.” Soon we heard him talking about his gig on the reality show “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” discussing the number of river crossings from season one and season two.

At an adjoining table were a couple of crusty old sourdoughs: long-haired, long-bearded older guys with thousand-yard stares. They looked as if they’d been there for quite a while, and they were still there when we left. Possibly it was for the cheap coffee – I can’t remember when I last saw java for 60 cents a cup.

You were supposed to get your own mug off a wall rack, which was just as well: The place was packed and there was only one waitress, who was probably in her mid-60s and walked with a pronounced limp. Customers were busing their own tables, so we did, too; heck, I wanted to sit her down and hand her a menu and an Advil.

Bring the pain: At the café we also saw a young German guy who was planning to ride his bike up the Denali Highway. A few minutes into our drive up that highway I wanted to double back and warn him. Only 15 of the 135 miles are actually paved; the rest is marked by washboard ruts, deceptively deep holes filled with water, narrow bridges, slippery mud and very steep grades (highest point: 4,086 feet). It didn’t stop the caribou hunters; we saw scores of pickups, RVs and tents.

Gorgeous scenery, though, and some beautiful places to work off all the Diet Coke and water I drank – the outdoors is one big toilet. But the ground was spongy and uneven and when I tried to stand up again I wobbled, staggered and pitched backward. Although I didn’t quite fall down, rain-wet brush painted my backside with chilly droplets. Later on I found blueberry leaves in my underwear.

Two versions of the same bus

Funny business combos, part 1: Gift shop and Division of Motor Vehicles office. Small towns have to multitask.

Close to the wild: The Stampede Road in Healy is where you want to turn if you’re looking for the bus that Chris McCandless died in. Apparently it’s become something of a shrine to those deeply affected by Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.” Sometimes those pilgrimages don’t end well

A lot easier way to get the same vibe – along with some freshly made beer – is to stop off at 49th State Brewing, also in Healy, where the replica of the McCandless Death Bus now resides. Apparently the brewery owner bought the vehicle once the film version of “Into the Wild” was completed. DF planned to pose by the bus with a bag of Fritos, but the battery in his camera died.

(Lest you be appalled by our flippancy, let me say that some Alaskans don’t see McCandless as a hero and a pure soul. We think he was pretty foolish.)

Small student bodies: We met the entire elementary-school student body in Anderson (population: 246) – all nine of them. Back in 2007 the town offered 26 plots of free land to those who promised to build at least 1,000-square-foot homes on them. The plan didn’t work well; only a few dwellings were ever constructed and the town foreclosed on the rest. The town’s mayor conceded that people “didn’t realize the logistics of building out in the country.”

Alaska gouge: In Delta Junction we shopped for dinner makings at the IGA supermarket. Some of the prices were a little startling, e.g., $1.69 a pound for bananas or $10.99 for a 10-piece chicken basket. (Hint: Only two of those pieces were chicken breasts.) Searching for the bathroom, we discovered a series of painted bear tracks leading from the back of the store to where a more-than-life-sized cartoon of a grizzly held a sign that said “rest rooms.” In Delta, apparently the bears don’t shit in the woods but rather in the back room of the IGA.

More on restrooms: A sign on the ladies’ room door of the Tok Visitors Center  instructs, among other things, “no loitering, bathing, shaving, filling of water containers.” The need to remind us females not to shave reminded me of an old saying: “Alaska, where men are men – and so are the women.” As for would-be bathers, they’d likely be scared off by another sign next to the sink: “No hot water.” (And bracingly icy cold water, too.)

‘Something like moose nose’

Funny business combo, part 2: A single building housed a chiropractor, fitness center and organic garden supply place. Multitasking, I tell you!

Field dressing: Along the Tok Cutoff, we saw a couple of guys pouring buckets of water into the body cavity of a moose. DF wished aloud that he’d stopped to ask if the hunters planned to eat the kidneys and the nose. Then again, he conceded, even a single moose kidney would have overwhelmed our small cooler: “Everything on a moose is kind of large.”

About that schnoz: Apparently moose-nose soup is a favorite dish of many Alaska Native elders. Once DF was having dinner with a Native friend who was grossed out by the calamari appetizer. When DF told him it tasted “something like moose nose,” the friend agreed to try it and deemed it quite tasty.

Your own airport, part 1: Two Piper Cubs parked in front of a house. They must have to take off on the roadway, we figured. DF theorized that the pilot would send a car out in either direction to block such traffic as might show up. At this time of the year, we saw hardly any vehicles at all.

Your own airport, part 2: We drove past the now-closed Duffy’s Tavern, whose online ad says any number of possibilities exist for the property – including but not limited to, “gold mining claims and gold mining adventures along with your own airport, flying service, air taxi, hangers [sic] with aircraft service, fuel service, sightseeing business, office buildings, apartments, several houses, an RV park, rental cabins, tavern, café, liquor store, convenience store and gas station, 4×4 tours on trails in remote, beautiful Alaska, jeep tours and much more.”

Whew! But DF remembers it mostly as “home of Teddy the parrot,” a bird alleged to have come to Alaska when Theodore Roosevelt was president and was still squawkin’ when DF and his family met him in the 1960s. The roadhouse was “kind of a must-stop in the old days,” when it took four hours to travel the 139 miles between Glennallen and Tok. (Hint: Gravel road.)

A dot on the map: The school in Dot Lake (population: 13) has three elementary-age students. Five high-schoolers are taught by one teacher, who is also the principal. The good news: Now there are enough bodies for a basketball team!

Ptarmigan are suicidal: The official state bird of Alaska kept walking out in front of traffic. (Insert your own punch line.) “They don’t seem to understand motor vehicles at all,” DF observed.

That isn’t chocolate: In the Copper Valley Visitors Center, a large bowl of free moose nuggets is set out next to a sign that says, “Do not eat.”

Funny business combo, part 3: Office supply center and liquor store. I’m sure there’s a connection there, especially around tax time.

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18 Comments

  1. I love it!

  2. You *almost* make me want to come visit! Sounds like a fun trip 🙂

  3. Great post and makes me want to visit.

    Favorite line was “Denali is like a stripper who generally doesn’t show you all the good stuff at the same time.” Made me snort my lunch!

  4. I personally enjoyed the “moose nuggets” and the sign which reads, “Do not eat!” LOL, I have no words just laughter!

  5. Now, that was interesting and hilarious. Blueberry leaves in your underwear sounds like a close call. I fully expected you sat in mud. You have a good travel commentary voice.

  6. on one of my trips to Fairbanks they celebrated the grand opening of Walmart (I believe the kids got out of school early – it was that big of a deal)….and of course on my other trip to Fairbanks we made the obligatory trip to Skinny Dick’s Halfway Inn ..where I bought beaucoup souvenirs which still make me laugh to this day….
    I loved it when my job would send me to Alaska.

  7. Hilarious, lovely, and touching, all at the same time. Wow! (BTW, I agree about McCandless. Poor schmuck.)

  8. ROTFLMAO! For someone who dislikes winter, I am completely fascinated by Alaska. Thanks for your posts.

  9. Caroline Kipps

    Love this. Next career, travel writer.

  10. Love, love, love it! Thanks for another awesome Alaska post from a fellow Alaskan.

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks. One of these days I really need to have an Alaska meet-up. Wouldn’t help any readers who live in Juneau or Kodiak or Barrow, but sometimes I wonder how many Alaskans are reading. I get the feeling most readers live Outside.

      • Here’s another Alaskan 🙂 I have used those bathrooms at the DJ IGA many, many times, though I’m in Fairbanks now.

  11. lostAnnfound

    -tasted ‘something like moose nose’ – made me laugh out loud! Sounds like someone here saying it “tastes like chicken” to try to get someone to eat something new & different. Great post!

    • Donna Freedman

      Wouldn’t it be funny if it turns out that chicken actually tastes a lot like moose nose?
      Thanks for being such a consistent reader and commenter.

  12. Cathy in NJ

    I read this charming post to my husband and we started talking about taking his 50th birthday trip (present) to Alaska. As cruises just seem very pricey and cramped for 2 adults and a 15 year old, we shifted to flying into Anchorage and doing a do it yourself driving tour. Any suggestions you can offer, and web sites that have good information would be most appreciated. Please feel free to email me directly if that would be easiest. Thanks for the great story.

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