The road between the Denali turnoff and Fairbanks is remarkable in that it is entirely unremarkable from a topographical perspective. With its winding rivers, grassy marshlands, random forests, and scrubby brush land, the area looks pretty much like northern Minnesota or Wisconsin. In fact, were it not for all the fireweed and the unfamiliar town names and road numbers gracing the signs along the way, the route we took to Fairbanks could have passed for any number of highways connecting the northern part of any Midwestern state to its nether regions. Still, it was uncharted territory for the two of us, and we were thrilled to have the chance to see it up close—even if it looked a lot like home.
Although the topography was relatively familiar to our eyes, other aspects of the geography were not. In fact, now and then it would feel as though we’d entered a land that time forgot—like when we would run across a house featuring four different types of siding or a tri-color roof that looked more like a shed or a kid’s fort than a dwelling. In any other setting, such a sight might suggest poverty or malfeasance. But out here, where resources are scarce, a house of many hues is not so much a reflection of one’s income or iniquity as evidence of one’s ability to improvise, overcome and adapt. Many in the so-called civilized world like to talk about the environment and conservation, but the folks who live in the sticks of Alaska take the concept of reduce, reuse, and recycle to a whole new level. Whether they do so by choice or by necessity, one has to admire their ingenuity.
Contrary to what some might believe, I did not spend the bulk of the drive waxing poetic about the virtues and vitality of the inhabitants of Alaska’s interior. If I had, no doubt the Jarhead would have set aside his distaste for talking to strangers and stopped off somewhere to borrow a strip or two of duct tape. But since he was napping (ostensibly) most of the way and thus would not have heard me anyway (or would have pretended not to) I kept such thoughts to myself.
There were times, of course—especially when we would go miles and miles without seeing another car—that I wondered if we were making a huge mistake in venturing out on our own without an atlas or a firearm. But whenever such a thought would occur to me I would remind myself that the people who live in the interior do so for a reason, and therefore are less interested in us than my ego would have you believe. Not to mention the fact that the folks who are up to no good are likely to be packing more firepower than whatever we could have brought along for protection.
And so instead of contemplating who might be looking to murder me (and when, where, and how) I considered what I had learned about Alaska so far on this trip that was unlikely to be found in your average textbook or on even the most thorough of travel websites. One thing that came to mind was the subtle rivalry that apparently exists between Alaska and Texas, as evidenced by all the items bearing the phrase “Let’s cut Alaska in half and make Texas the THIRD largest state” or some variation thereof. With both states being famous for their size and their oil, I suppose it’s only natural that they would compete with one another, but I found it odd that two places that are so different—and so far apart—would even bother.
Being more accustomed to regional rivalries, such as exist between Minnesota and Wisconsin, I would have expected to see merchandise with trash talk directed at Canada, perhaps, or at least the Yukon. Consequently, a rivalry between Alaska and Texas made about as much sense to me as would a rivalry between beef jerky and Laffy Taffy.
A more fitting rivalry for Alaska, in my view anyway, would be Minnesota. Both states are known for their harsh winters and hardy residents, after all, and until Alaska came along and stole its thunder, Minnesota was home to both the northernmost point in the United States and—according to my friends at Wikipedia—more square acres of wetlands than any state in the nation. In addition, both are populated by hunting, fishing, hockey, and snow machining enthusiasts, and both attract their share of tourists. And still, despite all these ingredients of a rousing rhetorical grudge match, I have yet to see even a one tee shirt or coffee mug in either state speaking mockingly of the other.
Then again, having been to the Lone Star State three times without seeing any evidence of an adversarial relationship between it and the Land of the Midnight Sun, I’m inclined to think Alaska’s war with Texas might be a one-sided argument. Either that, or Texas handles its enemies the way I do mine: by pretending they don’t exist.
Near the end of the day’s drive, I learned something else about Alaska: The suburbs there look pretty much the same as the suburbs in every other state. In fact, if I hadn’t been awake for the entire drive—if instead I’d been chloroformed, thrown in the trunk, driven around for several hours and somehow managed to escape the vehicle while my captors stopped for coffee or to use the restroom—you could have told me we were in Burnsville, Green Bay, Fredericksburg, or even Philadelphia and I totally would have bought it. At least until I noticed the road signs. And maybe a license plate or two. But up to that point, surrounded by buildings bearing the names of nearly every single restaurant, clothing store, and home improvement center to be found orbiting every city in the lower forty-eight, you would have had a hard time convincing me we were in Alaska.
As they saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” With that in mind, we pulled into the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn, tossed our bags into a room that looked exactly like every other room in every other Hilton Garden Inn in every other city and, after a brief stop at Walgreens, set out to find a place to eat whose sign did not end in bee’s, back, or bucks. This was a bigger challenge than one might guess since, those that weren’t part of a chain often looked a bit like the houses I mentioned a few paragraphs ago.
Eventually, though, we found a place called Brewster’s where we enjoyed “Great Food, Great Alaskan Spirits” just as their slogan promised. Specifically, we enjoyed their simply-named, signature appetizer, Steak Bits, which are tiny chunks of steak simmered in a sort of savory broth and served with garlic toast. And when I say enjoyed, I mean it. It was the most delicious and different treat we’d sampled in a long time. And the rest of the meal was no slouch either. To top it all off, our server apparently recognized the Jarhead’s military bearing and, without prompting, offered us a military discount. It was all almost too good to be true. And yet, it was.
The next morning we set off for the Arctic Circle, which, according to LaVon’s map, was just a few miles off the highway between Fairbanks and North Pole. Although we didn’t expect to be greeted with the kind of fanfare one might receive upon completing a marathon or winning a Grammy, we were at least hoping to take a photo and earn some bragging rights.
Two hours and countless miles later, however, the road terminated at a resort at Chena Hot Springs. Having seen nothing in the way of a sign or symbol referencing the Arctic Circle along the way, we were more than a little bit confused. Had we misread the map or simply missed a turn? Had LaVon’s memory failed her when she was drawing the map that morning? Or could the phrase “a few miles” means something different to one former Minnesotan than it did to others?
Sadly, there had been no one to ask about the location of the Arctic Circle as we made our way to Chena Hot Springs, and once we got to the point where the road terminated it seemed a moot point. So, after giving Oscar-worthy portrayals of a couple of paying customers while strolling around the resort in search of a restroom, we turned the rental around and headed back to toward the highway.
We never did find the Arctic Circle, but we did make it back to Fairbanks and on to Glennallen via North Pole and Delta Junction. Along the way, we stopped off at several state parks and scenic overlooks to admire all the rivers and other natural wonders to be found along the way—including two moose, one moose calf, scores of bison and one semi-suicidal elk. At one stop we found and photographed no less than a dozen types of mushrooms—more than I had ever seen in one place other than a field guide. Despite our futile attempt to find the Arctic Circle, it was a great day.
By the time we landed in our room—having stopped at the first place we found with a vacancy—we were more than ready for bed. Which is good because we had few other options. Having arrived at 8:51 to a restaurant whose staff had decided to close at 8:45 instead of 9, we were unable to procure a hot meal, and thus had been forced to choose between something from the cooler and whatever could be found at the convenience store we’d passed two miles back on our way into town.
In addition, as none of the outlets in our room were tight enough to maintain a circuit or hold a plug, we were unable to use any electronic device other than the television that was mounted in the corner of the room near the ceiling and whose cords had been carefully run through the wall with the goal, one assumes, of thwarting a theft. Consequently, the Jarhead was forced to position the nightstand in such a way that would hold the plug in the outlet so I could run my CPAP and not die from lack of oxygen. Likewise, he was able to arrange a chair, the refrigerator, and microwave—MacGyver style—so we could charge our phones and run the box fan that provided the white noise I needed in order to sleep in a remote area with funky electrical systems and employees who resented their patrons.
On the upside, there was a Jacuzzi tub in the room from which one could see the television and imagine it falling from its perch and landing somewhere in the vicinity of one’s knees. Even after the Jarhead pointed out that for the TV to fall into the tub it would also have to break loose from its power source I was completely disinclined to give it a try. Given my lack of faith in the facility’s wiring and my general aversion to death by electrocution, it just made more sense to avoid using water altogether.
Instead, we hit the rack and watched reruns of Forensic Files and Unsolved Mysteries until the Jarhead had nodded off and I was left to imagine all the possible crimes to which I could fall victim before daybreak. Naturally, I would have preferred to imagine myself awakening to a bright sunshine and travelling joyfully to Valdez, but we all know that isn’t how this mind works. Nevertheless, at some point I decided I’d rather be killed in my sleep than face whomever might come through the window or door, and switched off the tube and waited like Will Smith in “I am Legend” for morning.