Dispatches from the Far North: Fairbanks Finale
Updated: Nov 11, 2021
As the trip wound down, Dad and I met our first Alaskan Native - in a Red Robin restaurant. Sabina* looked to be about my age, and had smiling, onyx eyes and hair the color of Alaskan midnight - which was about all we could see behind her mask. She was exceptionally friendly and attentive to detail, and after chatting with us for a while it came up that she was a Yupik native.
*I've changed people's names despite the blog's absurdly small readership - just a good habit to get into in case I ever make it big... ha!
As it turned out, she was nearly 50 years old and waitressing while pursuing a new career in law enforcement. I admired her bold decision to make such a career change and pursue her passion, even when most would consider it too late to do so. We exchanged warm wishes as we parted ways, Dad and I airport-bound for our flight to the northern outpost of Fairbanks.
When we had planned this trip, Fairbanks wasn't part of the equation at all, simply too far and not quite worthy of a day of our time. However, when I had found a $49 flight from Anchorage, and a Fairbanks-Chicago-Manchester return flight to NH for the same price as Anchorage-Chicago-Manchester, it was promptly booked. Why not, right?
The problem, however, came over the summer when we received an email from American Airlines with the ominous heading "your flight plans have changed". Turns out they pulled the rug from the Fairbanks-Chicago leg, and were now routing us through Dallas - and then Chicago - over 1,000 miles out of the way. It would bring our total return mileage to a staggering 4,700 (for reference, a hypothetical flight from NH to Moscow is only 4,500). On top of that, our layover in DFW, one of America's biggest, busiest airports, was less than an hour. Thanks a lot American.
In any case, prior to departing Alaska, we spent a great deal of time on hold with the airline to change our return flight. If we had to stop in Dallas regardless, I postulated that perhaps we could get a direct flight from there to Boston, and I had been right. Still not ideal, but it was worth the extra $59 for a more comfortable layover, and one less stop.
The one-hour flight to Fairbanks was uneventful. Hoping to catch glimpses of the northern lights, Dad and I both booked window seats on the 2/3 empty 737. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. As I peered out into the darkness though, the big dipper appeared right out my window, close enough to touch. It wasn't the glory of the aurora, but seeing the very symbol that's emblazoned on the Alaskan flag was consolation enough for me.
We landed early but the extra time was canceled out by a long wait for the hotel shuttle. We hadn't rented a car for our last day, as the high cost would have negated our excellent flight deal. The bearded shuttle driver had a laid-back vibe, and was very talkative. I had heard before coming this far north that folks up here were very open and chatty, perhaps due to the sheer isolation. In our day in Fairbanks I found this to be true - the last day of the trip became more about people than places.
Dave, perhaps 35 years of age, grew up in Boise, Idaho but had lived up here since the 90s. His recommendations for things to do were interspersed with tourism-related musings and other glimpses into local life. Despite it being two hours past my bedtime, I found his monologue fascinating. Wired from the flight, the conversation, and the never-ending enchantment of being someplace exotic, I didn't get to sleep until 1:30am - or, when translated into Eastern time, 20 minutes before I normally wake up for the day.
Our one morning in central Alaska dawned, cold and ashen-skied. We departed the hotel on foot, thinking there'd be enough to keep us busy sans car within the downtown area. The thermometer read 30 degrees Fahrenheit as we waddled around with our winter coats on, surely marking us as outsiders.
The cityscape itself was utilitarian and dour, reflecting the weather perfectly. I suppose when you have extreme weather conditions, structures are built for function and not architectural panache. The nearly deserted sidewalks, boarded up windows, graffiti, and - remarkably given the climate, homelessness - gave the city an eerie, almost dystopian vibe. We were now visiting Anchorage's rebellious little brother.
I'd be lying if I implied things were all bad, however. Pleasant golden foliage breathed some much-needed color and life into the area. Murals dotted the urban core. Several important-looking monuments were surrounded by flowers and well-kept lawns. The sun peeked through the overcast occasionally, giving that same dramatic lighting I'd so admired in other parts of this great state.
Breakfast places were few and far between, but we found one called The Crepery, which somehow managed to be spacious, cozy, and urbane, with some kind of tropical-sounding jazz playing over the speakers.
I enjoyed a particularly foamy cappuccino with my breakfast crepe, contentedly seated next to a globe. With childlike awe I gazed at our nearly-Arctic location, and tried to appreciate just how far north we were. How far from home.
The day passed uneventfully, and included a visit to the stereotypical but worthwhile Ice Museum, the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, and lunch at an astonishingly ornate Thai restaurant that had been recommended by Dave the night before.
Had we felt more ambitious, perhaps we could have Ubered somewhere more exotic, but truth be told we were exhausted from a week of magnificent scenery, companionship, and "did that really happen?" moments. Just walking around was satisfactory on the final day of such an ethereal journey.
On our return to the airport that evening, our shuttle driver was Melvin, a diminutive African-American man of 60 whose talkativeness rivaled that of Dave the night before. Originally from New York City, he moved to Alaska with his wife several decades ago. She then passed away unexpectedly and he raised the children by himself.
Melvin spoke slowly and deliberately, which gave tremendous gravitas to every sentence, no matter how mundane. Other topics ranged from extreme cold to which tires he uses for Alaskan winters. I think if the ride were 2 hours instead of 20 minutes, he wouldn't have even come close to running out of things to say. The conversation's every turn was captivating to me. Hearing the thoughts of another local complemented perfectly the scenic grandeur from the first part of the week. Authenticity.
Finally Melvin dropped us at the small but busy airport. He corralled our giant suitcases expertly despite his small stature, and we exchanged sincere best wishes and a generous tip. As I inhaled Alaskan air for the last time, I knew it would take a long time to process the kaleidoscopic range of experiences from the last week.
I knew Alaska was one of the most magnificent places I'd ever been - the scale of the landscapes is hardly comprehensible to us lowly human beings. I knew I'd remember the stories of the exceptional people we met. I knew the time spent with Dad had value beyond words. There was one thing, however, that I never would have guessed. Despite all this knowledge/experience, and despite having now been to the Last Frontier, it still didn't seem remotely real.