Dispatches from the Far North: Part II
So why visit Alaska, you might be wondering? There were several reasons for our choice. The criteria for our 2021 adventure were as follows:
Had to be in the US (due to COVID)
Had to be far away from the norm
Had to be a new state for me
Had to be (relatively) affordable
Pre-trip, I had proposed three options to my dad - a Minnesota to Montana "northern tier" road trip, a Southwestern "four corners" trek, or a Washington State to Glacier National Park expedition. While I would have been thrilled with any of these, one day I was researching flight prices and noticed that flying all the way to Alaska would cost only slightly more than the aforementioned. I also knew in the back of my head that Alaska was one of dad's few bucket list destinations.
Back in April I visited him in Laconia and said "I have another option", and dramatically dropped an Alaska brochure in front of him on the table. After a month of planning, budgeting, etc., we were booked. He later said he'd remember that brochure drop moment for the rest of his life.
Day 1 of our adventure arrived with more of a whimper than a yell. The great celestial smudge lightened unhurriedly, more shades of grey than a certain book/movie franchise. Here we were, in Alaska's largest city.
Our itinerary was a busy one, but less so than previous trips I'd planned. We were going to explore Anchorage this morning before heading north. Our first destination outside the big city was the pipsqueak settlement of Talkeetna, in the shadow of Denali. But first, we had some time to inspect Alaska's metropolis. We checked out of the Captain Cook, and after realizing that breakfast wasn't provided, found a café next door playing Led Zeppelin and other classics.
After an expensive (we'd soon realize that food was not cheap up here!) but tasty breakfast, we set out on foot for the Captain Cook monument and Elderberry Park, about as far northwest as you could go downtown. The downtown cityscape itself brought to mind a child's Lego creation - a somewhat uninspiring blocky skyline with buildings spread just enough apart to remove the cohesive feel. This, of course, was forgivable, given the city's propensity for bone-crushing earthquakes and need to build for them. The most famous, of course, was the 9.2 temblor of 1964, in which much of the city was annihilated.
The weather was quintessential Alaska - high 40s and cloudy with occasional drizzle. It's pretty much my least favorite weather, but then again I was prepared both physically and mentally for it. Just when Anchorage was seeming a rather ho-hum place, the clouds parted to reveal the massive, jagged peaks of the Chugach Range. Folks walked about, dressed in North Face and Columbia outdoor gear - just another day in the big city.
My still-uneasy mental state was helped by a phone call to Alyse, during which we communicated candidly about the trip and lots more, 3,300 miles and 4 time zones apart. I began to warm up a bit. After a brief stop at the postcard-style 'Greetings from Alaska' mural, we spent some time in the Anchorage Museum, a locale whose banal name belied the astoundingly interesting content within.
The museum's treasures included an extensive exhibit on Alaska's native peoples with videos highlighting individuals' stories, as well as a fascinating collection of artifacts.
There was art, displays showcasing Alaska's unique geography, and even the rare flag flown over the US Capitol during the few months in 1959 during which our country had 49 states. Come to think of it, the museum was like an 'Alaska 101' course, and I was thoroughly mesmerized.
I could have spent another hour there, but it was nearly lunchtime and we had some miles to cover to reach our next destination of Talkeetna. On the way, we thought it a good idea to stop for some provisions, as food stores (and indeed any sign of human activity) would become scarce by the time we reached our cabin that evening.
An hour or so later, we found ourselves in suburbia. Wasilla, to be specific, of Sarah Palin fame. I entered the Wasilla Target and Alaska suddenly became Hooksett, NH, Owensboro, KY, or El Cajon, CA. Discouragingly, big box "culture" has truly reached the far corners of our great land. As I picked up copious granola bars and - the best purchase of the whole trip, a $1.29 gallon of bottled water - I overheard soccer moms discussing Halloween plans and other mundanities.
After Wasilla's cringe-inducing sprawl (we had gotten lunch at a grocery store food counter, a captivating glimpse into local life), we continued up the Parks Highway to pleasant if unspectacular scenery. After the wow-inducing Chugach Mountains nearer the city, we were now driving through lowlands, the road framed by golden-leafed aspen. Sometimes the adjacent land was empty but for the vertical punctuation marks of upright spruce clusters. Traffic, as you might expect, was minimal.
Then, Talkeetna. How would I describe such a place? Let's go with quirky. After not seeing another real settlement for over an hour, arriving here felt like stepping into the wild west, except a notch more refined. Our van bumped over the main road, which was muddy gravel with a sprinkling of potholes. We drove slowly and quietly past a smattering of weathered wooden structures before reaching a dead end at a wide river. Welp, guess that was it.
We turned back and parked by a central green space to get out and stretch our legs. As I was photographing Nagley's Store, a structure that looked like it hadn't changed in 100 years, a man walked right out of a movie set and into the shot, a Willie Nelson wannabe with high boots, cowboy hat, and a grey ponytail.
While several of Talkeetna's few buildings were souvenir shops, this felt more authentic than your usual tourist mecca. For one, it was not crowded. That was probably due to the fact we were here in Alaska's short shoulder season, an intentional (and less expensive) choice. The town was quiet but for some somewhat eerie 50s music pumping from a nearby store or restaurant over the town green. The air had a chill to it, but with layers we remained comfortable.
We didn't do much in Talkeetna because there wasn't much to do but sit and absorb the scene. It was well worth it. The couple shop owners we talked to loved living here - one even said she made enough from tourists in 5 months to close down her shop for the other 7. Okay, scratch what I said about not being touristy! Amazingly, this town of under 1,000 year-round residents had both an airport and a train station. Great for connectivity, but also a conduit for millions of camera-wielding visitors.
The day had gone by quickly and it was already dinnertime. Options in this area, as you might expect, were quite limited. I whipped back into the 21st century by checking my phone, amazed to have service. There was a nearby eatery called H&H that received decent reviews, so we figured we'd try it.
When we arrived there were several cars in the dirt lot, but no sign of human activity but for a 40ish man smoking on the porch. We tentatively stepped inside a dark, wood-paneled room that contained a pool table and nothing else indicating it was a restaurant. "You guys hungry?" came a monotonous voice from the dimness. It was the smoking man from minutes earlier. I was somehow at a loss for words, and after a few seconds said "yup".
He slowly, silently walked us back to the "dining room". All the lights were off. I noticed two dogs scrabbling about, one skinny and off-white, the other a comically short brown, floppy-eared belly dragger. We were the only people in the room but for a white-bearded man asleep on a chair, mouth open and pointing skyward. This was the moment I briefly feared this would be my last dinner.
We chose a table near a wide window, a lovely birch-framed view of a small lake the backdrop. My nerves calmed a bit.
A scraggly, Clint Eastwood-like man of 70 limped over with menus, grumbling something inaudibly as he gazed down at us with piercing blue eyes. While at first this intimidating character added to the absurd scene, he later turned out to be quite friendly, if a bit taciturn. He had lived in this area for 34 years and Alaska for 45 despite growing up in Oregon. Dad and I ordered ridiculously brawny and expensive cheeseburgers. We were the only diners the entire hour. There were several men at the nearby bar but, contrary to rowdy expectations, they spoke in near-whispers. No complaints here!
Day 1 concluded with glimpses of Denali's lower 2/3 on the way to our lodging, a log cabin on the property of the Byers Creek Lodge. We arrived around 8, as the sun imperceptibly slid from the sky (sunsets up north are gradual affairs).
We met our barrel-chested, thick-bearded host Steve, who regaled us with bear and wildlife stories. Originally from north-central Pennsylvania, he and his wife Kelli (whom we'd meet the following morning) never intended to live in Alaska but had the opportunity to purchase this isolated lodge five years ago and couldn't resist.
"They won't bother ya" he said of the local bears - "they prefer to stay down by the crick". Despite this, he shared stories of bear sightings right here in the parking lot. We listened with great interest. Our cabin, cozy as it was, did not have a restroom. For that, we'd have to cautiously cross the pitch blackness with tiny flashlights.
With bears rumbling through our minds - and possibly mere feet from where we now lay - our heads hit the pillows in great anticipation. Tomorrow we'd reach Denali National Park, the highlight of many an Alaskan adventure...