Road Trippin’ 2015: Hunting High and Low

Our last full day in Alaska might be characterized best as a hunting expedition following a search “party,” followed by a wild goose chase. Or some other phrase that sounds mildly interesting and somewhat challenging but not entirely fruitful.

It hadn’t started out that way. In fact, we had a pretty quiet and relaxing day planned—which is surprising since we had planned to spend it with LaVon. But this time, the excitement didn’t involve the federal police, motorized vehicles, or high speeds. Instead, it involved federal land, unmanned aircraft, and high altitudes.

The Jarhead and I had gotten up later than usual and then had to catch up to our host, who had already been up and around for several hours by the time we wandered out of our room and into the kitchen. Having made plans to go bear watching later that day, we grabbed a couple cups of coffees and a few bites to eat, then raced through our showers, into our clothes, and out the door so as not to hold up the train.

LaVon had an appointment to visit her adopted Grandma that afternoon, so we had agreed to accompany her to Grandma’s apartment, say hello, and then do some souvenir shopping while she and two other friends visited with Grandma. After arriving at Grandma’s apartment and knocking on the door, however, we discovered that Grandma was not where Grandmas was supposed to be.

As Grandma is known for her love of routine and devotion to punctuality, LaVon was reasonably concerned. Realizing it was a bit early to be worried, however, she decided to wait a little while and knock again just in case Grandma was in fact home but indisposed. When sufficient time had passed as to render that possibility unlikely, she surmised that Grandma was running late getting back from a previous appointment and suggested we head to the lobby to make a few calls and await her return.

Several minutes later, with no sign of Grandma in the lobby and stull unable to get an answer at the door or on the phone, LaVon decided it was time to worry. Especially after having checked with the folks whom Grandma had seen earlier that day and consulting with two other people who had also tried and failed to reach her, she began to wonder what else could be done to find her. My mind, meanwhile, was going all kinds of places, and I had begun to wonder if it was time to involve law enforcement. I was just on the brink of suggesting we take the somewhat more conservative step of contacting the building manager to let us in to check the apartment Grandma finally answered her phone.

“Where is everybody?” she asked LaVon, since she and the two other friends who were waiting with us in the lobby were now all late for their visit to her apartment. “I came up the back way,” she explained upon hearing everyone was looking for her and how concerned they all were. “Typical Grandma,” LaVon declared. “What a little dickens.”

With all that confusion and the late hour, the Jarhead and I said decided to take our leave and head down town to knock out our souvenir shopping. It was no less difficult to find real Alaska-made souvenirs in Anchorage, by the way, than it had been to find them near Denali or anywhere else in the state. The items we found may have featured moose, bears, salmon, and other Alaskan themes, but nearly all of it seemed to have been made in China. Our efforts eventually paid off, however, and two hours, one Ulu knife, and several lowered standards later, we were headed back to Grandma’s building.

Our next stop—after picking up LaVon and grabbing a quick but delicious Thai food  lunch—was at the top of a hill that overlooked the city, from which bears could be seen some afternoons feeding on berries and trying to fatten themselves up for winter. Although the view of Anchorage from the hill was great, all we got to see there were a bunch of other people looking for bears feeding on berries.

Having struck out there, we headed over to Elmendorf Air Force Base. Apparently bears were known to congregate in the bushes at the edge of the golf course in the late afternoon, and on the hillsides up above the installation, which were covered with acres and acres of blueberries. Although the view of the countryside was awesome, all we found on that hill were acres and acres of people picking blueberries.

After hanging out for a while and talking to a few of the berry-pickers, we decided to take our search for bears to a local park. The sockeyes were spawning in the creek that flows through the area, and there was a good chance that bears might be wading through the water feeding on them.  The hike from the visitors’ center down to the handful of boardwalks that cross the creek at various points was long but lovely, with lots of native trees and other plants to please the eye, and lots of other hopeful bear watchers holding cameras and vying for a space along the railing.

As luck would have it, a bear had come to do some fishing at the second boardwalk we approached. To our chagrin, we had missed him by about ten minutes. This information came to us by way of another tourist, who had the pleasure of watching the bear approaching the creek from a neighboring marsh, only to see him frightened away by some jerk flying a drone. Apparently the dude was flying the damn thing—which he cleverly had fitted with a camera—up and down the water looking for bears and, in the process was rudely scaring them all away.

We hung around the park for a while, moving from boardwalk to boardwalk—and learning more than I’d ever aspired to know about the mating habits of sockeye salmon—until it began to get dark. With a mile or so of trail to cover before night fell, we headed back to the car. I felt bad that, once again, the Jarhead had spent a week on vacation and not seen a single bear.

“There’s always tomorrow,” LaVon offered as we climbed into the rental. “Your flight doesn’t leave until after dinner.”

She was right, of course. And no doubt we would keep our eyes open as we made our way to the airport the next day. But given our luck—and given how things ended on our trip to Yellowstone in 2011—the only bear we’d run across on our way home from Anchorage would be a Smokey from the Alaska state police.

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Road Trippin’ 2015: Braking–BAD!

The drive back from Valdez wasn’t too tricky at first. Maybe it just seemed easier because the weather was good and I basically had the road all to myself, but during the trip back to Glennallen and for about the first hour or so west of there I was feeling pretty confident about my ability to get us back to Anchorage before dark and in one piece.

Then it started to rain. And then it started to storm. And then came the single lane, switchback road. And then, out of nowhere, came the semi’s grill in my rearview mirror. And the steep downhill grade. I must have made some kind of panicked noise, because just then the Jarhead sat up and as calmly as he could, asked me not to brake. And by ‘asked’ I mean ‘begged.’ And although what he said was “please don’t brake” in his tone I also heard “or we’re going to die.”

I wanted to grant his request. I swear I did. But there was no way I was going to be able to drive that car down that hill at that speed in the rain and live to tell the tale. From the way my blood was pumping, even if we didn’t careen off the side of the mountain and die in a fiery crash on the banks of the Matanuska River, I was still going die—of heart failure, a stroke or aortic aneurysm.

So I tried to conjure a third option and, to my relief, spotted one almost right away. It was a sign that said there was a runaway truck ramp just a short distance up the road. And it was on a straightaway, so if I decelerated too quickly for the semi’s comfort, at least he could move over to the other lane long enough to get around me.

As I signaled my intent to exit the road—my hands, arms, and neck tingling from how tightly I was gripping the wheel and my legs trembling from trying to resist the urge to slam on the brakes—the Jarhead urgently asked what I was doing. Unsure whether he had missed the sign or had seen it but didn’t want me to take it, I ignored his question, applied the brakes, and all but slid sideways off the road and onto the gravel platform.

It was all I could do not to start bawling like a baby the second the car came to a halt. As it was I shook for several minutes as I tried not to cry. Having felt the semi whiz past us at a terrifying rate of speed, I knew I’d made the right call even if the Jarhead disapproved. Our chances of survival were better with a sleepy person in control of the vehicle, I told him as we unbuckled to swap seats, than with this chicken sh*t behind the wheel.

I almost rescinded that remark an hour or so later when we came literally face to face with a moose cow and her calf as we made our descent out of the mountains. The Jarhead was gawking at something to his left at the time, and just happened to glance to the right in time to see my panicked face bracing for impact. Thinking I was overreacting again—a fair assumption, I’ll admit—he casually returned his gaze to the front with just enough time to hit the brakes and come grinding to a halt a few feet in front of them.

“Why didn’t you say something?” he asked as we watched them meander off the road and into the woods.

“I’m sorry. I was so scared I couldn’t find my words.”

“How about ‘MOOSE!’”

Oh sure. As if that would have worked.

Even if he would have heard and understood me, based on my track record, he wouldn’t have believed me. And even if he had taken my word for it, Mr. Sedate would have assumed it was standing off in the distance somewhere and then eagerly asked “Where?”

Anyway, we didn’t hit the moose—or anything else, for that matter—and thanks to his grace under pressure, we made it back to Anchorage. It was later than we’d planned, but at least we had arrived alive.

Perhaps that’s setting the bar too low, but it works for us. And I’m okay with that.

Road Trippin’ 2015: Valdez or Not Valdez

After departing the restaurant in Glennallen, we got back on Richardson Highway and set off for Thompson Pass where we planned to stop and see Worthington Glacier. From there we had hoped to head south to Valdez but since getting back to Anchorage from Valdez involves either turning around and going back through Glennallen or taking a ferry across Prince William Sound and catching the highway back from Whittier, we decided to turn back at Thompson Pass so as to avoid wasting time—and, more importantly, daylight.

Since we had the option of using our phones—thanks to an unexpected yet welcome increase in connectivity—we decided to check in with LaVon, who assured us that all the sights to be seen between Thompson Pass and Valdez were not to be missed, even if it meant delaying our return to Anchorage until the next day. Having no reason to doubt her—other than our fruitless excursion to locate Arctic Circle, that is—we decided to take her advice and set a course for Valdez.

The views on this leg of the journey were the most spectacular we’d see so far. I know I’ve said it before—and will no doubt again—but everywhere we went—every mile we drove—there were amazing things to be seen, and every last one of them seemed even more beautiful than the last.

TO WG 1 TO WG 2

TO WG 3 TO WG 4

TO WG 5 TO WG 6

TO WG 9 TO WG 8

Worthington Glacier was definitely worth the trip. Like so many of its peers, the glacier is retreating—although, fortunately, not as swiftly as some—at least according to the experts.

Unlike many of its peers, this glacier is approachable on foot. In fact, you can drive almost to the base of it by car, park in the lot of a relatively plain but well-maintained visitor center, and then hike up the front and even poke around in the hollowed out area behind the wall of ice.

Note the words “you can” near the beginning of that last sentence. I draw your attention to this phrase not to highlight the fact that these options exist. Although they—and several others—do exist, the aim here is to emphasize not the auxiliary verb (can) but the subject pronoun (you.) And to be clear, I do not mean YOU specifically—as in you, the individual who happens to be reading this right now; but YOU collectively—as in everyone. In short, anyone but ME.

For a change, I’m not steering clear of an activity due to fear, phobia, or paranoia. Rather, I’m simply adhering to the concept of knowing one’s limitations, which I’ve had to adopt ever since being fitted with my new knees a year or so ago.

AT WG 2 AT WG 3

Although I probably could have made it up the glacier without much difficulty, the going down bit may have given me some trouble since the trail was unimproved and there were no railings to hold onto, nor any trees, bushes, or small, sturdy children to break my fall. Had I thought to bring along a set of hiking poles or even a walking stick, you would be reading the words of an accomplished glacier spelunker as opposed to the envious and grateful SPOUSE of an accomplished glacier spelunker who was kind enough to offer his photos for use in this post.

AT WG 13 ICE 1

ICE 2 ICE 4

Our next stop was at a scenic overlook near Blueberry Lake. Blueberry Lake is what’s called an Alpine Lake, as it sits up high in a large switchback between Worthington Glacier and Hogback Glacier. The views here, like everywhere else, are awesome, and the wild blueberries are both abundant and delicious!

BLUEBERRY 1 BLUEBERRY 2

BLUEBERRY 4 BLUEBERRY 3

BLUEBERRY 7 BLUEBERRY 8

BLUEBERRY 10 BLUEBERRY 9

From the Blueberry Lake area we continued down the highway–which eventually meets up with and follows the Lowe River–past Snowslide Gulch, and down through Keystone Canyon. Along the way, we saw several of Nature’s most gorgeous displays, including Bridal Veil Falls and Horsetail Falls.BVF 3BVF 2BVF 1BVF 4 TO VALDEZ 2 TO VALDEZ 6

Although the views were amazing, my enjoyment of the scenery was dampened somewhat by the hairpin curves and steep grade of the road, and the realization that we had put our trust in a rented vehicle whose brakes and maintenance history we knew nothing about. Happily, the Jarhead has been around the block with me a time or two, knows how to keep me from going completely bonkers, and has learned to ignore the sharp intakes of breath that punctuate my comments on Nature’s wonder and his driving.

Upon reaching Valdez, the first thing I noticed—after regaining the ability to breathe normally, that is—was the number of rabbits dotting the ground. We have rabbits in Wisconsin, but you generally see one or two here and there, and they’re typically tawny in color in order to blend in with the scenery.

The rabbits in Valdez, on the other hand, are literally all over the place and they’re downright ostentatious when it comes to color and diversity. White rabbits, black rabbits, and gray rabbits nibble at the local greenery alongside speckled rabbits, spotted rabbits, and mottled rabbits of more colors and combinations than one could count.

Apparently it’s a problem for the locals, many of who view the bunnies as feral pests to be managed if not eradicated. Nevertheless, it reminded me of a riff by the late standup comedian, Mitch Hedberg, in which he claimed his apartment was infested with koalas.

“It’s the cutest infestation ever. Much better than cockroaches. I turn the lights on and a bunch of koala bears scatter. I’m like “hey, hold on fellas! Lemme hold one of you, and feed you a leaf”…they’re so cute…they should ship a few over, and I will apprehend one… And hold him… And pet him on the back of his head.”

I guess it loses something in the retelling. But google it if you get the chance, because it’s awesome.

Anyway, after admiring the multitude of resplendent rabbits, we had a look around town to see what there was to do. Our options included fishing, whale watching, shopping, and more—all of which would have kept us busy for several hours and possibly into the next day. Having neither the time nor the energy to devote to such occupations, we opted instead to head over to Mike’s Palace, where we enjoyed a seafood lunch and Caprese salad made with real imported Italian buffalo mozzarella. Yum!

From there it was back to the highway for another hair-raising ride up the canyon, to be followed by a trip through the mountains to Anchorage. Since we had already been through the first part before, and since the Jarhead was about to fall into a carb-induced coma, it was my turn to drive. I had misgivings about this, but since it was either that or let the zombie take the wheel, I climbed into the driver’s seat and and headed for home, as it were.

Road Trippin’ 2015: Up Around the Bend

Having survived the night at our less than luxurious lodgings, the Jarhead and I staggered out of bed Tuesday morning and prepared to face the day.

The first item on our agenda—after showering up, packing up, and settling up—was to procure a hot breakfast. With this in mind, we loaded the car and wandered back to the restaurant that had closed early the previous evening. This time we found the place both unlocked AND open for business, but completely empty except for the woman standing behind the counter and a young man—presumably the cook—whom we could see through the window to the kitchen behind her.

Hoping the lack of customers had to do with the limited number of people living or passing through the area—as opposed to, say, a recent outbreak of salmonella or listeria—we chose a table and sat down. Sometime later, we were approached by the woman who looked about our age and seemed several degrees less than thrilled to see us. I don’t know if it was the dead eyes or the mumbled greeting that gave it away, but this gal clearly was not pleased by our arrival, nor was she willing to make an effort to conceal that fact.

Perhaps she wasn’t as unhappy to have us there as much as she was unhappy to be there herself. Maybe she wasn’t feeling well, I allowed, and there had been no one available to cover her shift. Or maybe she was just a miserable person who enjoyed making other people uncomfortable. Either way, it was obvious she wouldn’t be going out of her way to make our visit a pleasant one.

To be fair, I hadn’t expected anyone to throw confetti or fire a cannon when we arrived. Nor would I expect her—or anyone, for that matter—to be overjoyed at having to wait tables at 7am on a dreary day in the sticks of Alaska. But I also didn’t think it was asking too much for her to smile and say hello when she grudgingly handed over the menus.

I wasn’t about to point this out to her—although, believe me, I was tempted—in part because I didn’t want to make a scene that ended with our walking out and going hungry, but mostly because I didn’t want my food to arrive with a complimentary side of saliva. Instead, I graciously accepted both the menu and her half-hearted offer of coffee, and hoped the quality of the eggs, hash browns, and deer sausage they served would make up for the inhospitable atmosphere.

As we sipped our coffee and waited for the food to arrive, the Jarhead and I flipped through the various booklets, brochures, and other materials we had picked up over the last few days to check out what there was to see and do between Glennallen and Valdez. Our options included a hike up Worthington Glacier, a visit to Blueberry Lake, hiking, biking, whale watching, fishing, ferry rides, boat rides, train rides, and helicopter rides.

Holy cow, I thought as I reached the last page of our largest booklet. There was so much to do I was exhausted just thinking about the possibilities. Expressing roughly the same sentiment, the Jarhead swapped his booklet for mine, and we continued to read.

While we were reading, three more parties arrived at the restaurant. These included two older but not old ladies in tourist clothes, two thirty-something men in work clothes, and an elderly gent who I’m sure was wearing clothes but for whatever reason, I can’t seem to remember what kind.

My lack of recall on that topic may or may not have had something to do with the arrival of our food, which to my delight and relief, was both delicious and aesthetically pleasing to the eye. It looked and tasted so good, in fact, that I momentarily forgot about the server and her attitude. Of course, by then we were so desperate for a hot meal, she could have brought us each a plate of toasted construction paper wrapped in foil and drizzled with Elmer’s glue and we probably would have gobbled it up like cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning.

With my hands, eyes, and mouth now too busy eating to read travel guides, my mind was free again to contemplate what was going on around me. The two young men had been the first two arrive, and were being treated about as warmly as we had been. Although I’m ashamed to admit it, this made me feel better about how we’d been received since I no longer had reason to suspect it was personal.

The older fellow had arrived next, and unlike the other two men, had been greeted both warmly and by name. He was also treated to friendly conversation about the news and weather. This irked me somewhat, since you shouldn’t have to KNOW someone in order to be pleasant toward them, but I tried not to let my indignation get the better of me.

The two ladies, meanwhile, had arrived last and were now getting the full court press, which about set my hair on fire. Because I knew from their clothing and southern accents that they were not locals, but tourists just like us.

So what gives? I wondered as the server stood beside their table several feet from ours gesturing with the coffee pot like she was at home with her two best friends.

And then it hit me: She, too, had a southern accent. And while it was clear from their conversation that they had never met before—because, YES, by then I had abandoned my good manners and started to eavesdrop—they were carrying on about this and that as if they’d known each other for decades.

It wasn’t fair. I may be a tourist and a damn Yankee but I have lived in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, and I can do a southern accent with my eyes closed and both arms tied behind my back. And I definitely would have used one if I had known that was all it would have taken to avoid feeling unwanted and unwelcome. If I’d known which state she was from, I probably could have approximated her specific dialect and the two of us could have carried on like it was old home week, too.

I realized then that I’d gone around the bend. And at that point, I wondered if the Jarhead could sense it too. For although ALL of the aforementioned thoughts had—somehow—gone unspoken, I had gone WAY too long unspeaking. Which, in the Jarhead’s experience, is not always a good sign.

“Whatcha thinking about?” he asked, having finished his own food and scavenging what remained of mine.

“Just pondering what we should do with our day,” I lied without hesitation.

Sometimes it’s best not to tell anyone what you’re really thinking.

At least, not until the moment has passed.

Road Trippin’ 2015: Circuitous Logic

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.

Road Trippin’ 2015: Interior Designs

We set off on our journey through Alaska’s interior on Sunday morning. Armed with a cooler of provisions and a hand-drawn map—courtesy of LaVon—showing all the gas, food, lodging, and natural wonders to be found along the route, we left Anchorage with the goal of arriving alive and well in Fairbanks by supper time. I don’t like to give away an ending, but the fact that you are reading this is a strong indication that we succeeded.

The weather wasn’t great and Denali tends to play coy with tourists even on a sunny day, so we had no expectation of seeing the fickle feature formerly known as Mount McKinley. Nevertheless, we opted to delay the decision as to whether to get up close and personal with the peak until such time as we had to choose between hanging a left toward the national park, or continuing north on Hwy 3.

When that moment arrived and the sight was still not to be seen, we opted to further delay the decision on which direction to go by stopping to use the bathroom and checking out the string of shops lining the road near the intersection. Since this wasn’t our first rodeo, we knew better than to expect a bargain. We just wanted to pass some time, and maybe find something we hadn’t seen before.

Among the coolest things to be found at this particular oasis of overpriced objects was a shop selling hand carved wooden tables, lamps, clocks, and other home furnishings. Although each and every item in the place was absolutely beautiful and unique, we couldn’t picture them fitting in anywhere other than a millionaire’s mansion—which seems appropriate since I doubt anyone but a millionaire could afford them.

Everything else we saw was run-of-the-mill type stuff—hats, tee-shirts, and sweatshirts bearing images of bears, wolves, and moose—all of which would have made great souvenirs had they not also borne labels featuring the phrase “Made in China.” Nothing against China, but if I’m going to bring someone a souvenir from my trip to Alaska, it’s should at least have been MADE in Alaska.

With the sky no clearer and Denali still not showing its face by the time we finished perusing all the impressive and/or imported merchandise, the Jarhead and I got back in the car. The fact that the sky cleared and the entire mountain came into view only AFTER we were too far north to turn back to the park and still make it to Fairbanks by sundown would have been supremely ironic if I hadn’t fully expected that outcome. But as I had predicted that the peak would appear in my rearview mirror not long after I took over driving and the Jarhead had fallen asleep, Murphy got none of the credit. He only scores when things go wrong and I DON’T see it coming!

Even as I refused to give him props for preventing us from seeing Denali, I knew better than to mock Murphy and tempt fate. We were still two tourists in a rental car, after all, and there was a LOT of wilderness in which to get lost, have an accident, or meet up with foul play. Sure, we had three cell phones between us, but signal strength outside of Fairbanks and Anchorage was sketchy at best and mobile data service even more so. This was problematic given that we had planned to use the Internet and GPS apps to navigate and hadn’t bothered to pack a map, so I wasn’t about to complain or say anything else that would render me a target for bad karma.

Instead, I chose to sit back, take in the scenery and psych myself up for what was still to come. Like Fairbanks, and our friends who lived there but with whom we’d lost touch but hoped to bump into by accident. And the Arctic Circle, which we hoped to photograph ourselves standing north of after breakfast in the morning. And North Pole, where evidently you can arrange for the staff at Santa’s Workshop to send letters to children you know containing details about all the mischief they’re getting into and warning them to shape up if they want Santa to come down their chimneys at Christmas.

That last part sounded particularly enticing to the Jarhead who thought it would be fun to mess with his nieces and nephews—until I reminded him that most, if not all, of our siblings are in their forties, and few, if any, of their children are young enough to believe in Santa anymore.

So much for my good karma.

Road Trippin’ 2015: Three Marketeers

Of all the ways a body can spend a Saturday, shopping would rank among my least favorite. Of all the ways a body can spend ANY day of the week, in fact, shopping would rank among my least favorite. To belabor the point, if I were to create a list of the ways I would deliberately and knowingly pass a few free hours, shopping would come in second from the bottom followed only by having handfuls of my hair ripped forcibly from my head. That assumes, of course, that one has already excluded NASCAR events, golfing, and reality TV from the list, and that neither Donald Trump nor Sarah Palin is speaking into a microphone somewhere.

And yet, there we were—David, LaVon, and I—on the morning of August 15th, strolling  from booth to booth, and later store to store, through the fog and drizzle in downtown Anchorage. We could have been on a boat watching dolphins and whales. Or on a ferry to Kodiak Island to watch grizzlies feasting on salmon. Or on a train bound for Whitter followed by a 26 glacier cruise. But no.

Clad in jeans and rain gear, and sporting hair that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, I was taking one for the team. Primarily because the Jarhead loves markets and the market is only open on Saturdays, but also because it’s hard to see glaciers—much less whales and wildlife—through the fog and rain. And because, in that weather, my hair would have been a nightmare anyway.

So, despite the cold wet weather—which the Jarhead hates, though evidently not as much as he hates NOT shopping—we went shopping. Or, more accurately, we went window shopping. Because, although the Jarhead enjoys shopping, he enjoys the IDEA of shopping more, since it’s generally less expensive, and you never regret THINKING about spending your hard earned cash on home grown produce, Inuit folk art, or a new leather jacket.

Well, almost never. One notable exception occurred during our first trip to Anchorage and the Saturday market in 2005. It was June and one of the first booths we approached was offering fresh morels. The Jarhead is very fond of the elusive fungi, so he was tickled at the prospect of taking some home.

Not wanting to carry them around all day, however—especially if they could be purchased for a lower price at another booth—he decided to skip buying them on our first go around and to pick up a pound or two on our way back to the car.  Apparently he misjudged just how popular they would be among his fellow marketgoers, however, because by the time we finished our meander through the market there were no more morels to be found.

No such sorrow would befall us this time around, however. Ever the type to learn from his mistakes, the Jarhead vowed not to miss his next opportunity to take home the tasty treat. Fortunately there was no one selling morels in mid-August, or who knows how many duffle bags we would have had to borrow from LaVon in order to carry the precious cargo back to Wisconsin!

As it was, we had to borrow at least one bag to carry all the souvenirs we had purchased while we were there. Among these was a cribbage board that we bought as a gift for El Noble and unwittingly swiped right out from under the nose of a fellow Wisconsinite. Fashioned from an elk antler, the board measured over twenty-four inches long, and was perfect in terms of shape, color, and condition. We knew it would make a great conversation piece as well as a wonderful addition to El Noble’s man cave—provided we could get it home without crushing it or snapping off one of the spikes.

Little did we know—until we had already paid for it that is—that another customer had seen the item earlier, and had decided to come back to purchase it. And so we were a bit uncomfortable when, as the clerk was bagging it, a man approached the counter and asked about the item, which had been on display on the far table, only to learn it had just been purchased by the guy standing next to him. Visibly irked, he man turned to the Jarhead and offered to buy it from him. When the Jarhead declined, the man then looked him up and down and asked him where he was from.

Had it been me, I would have said “Birmingham” and made a few other remarks in a very convincing British accent in the hope of avoiding death or dismemberment. The Jarhead, however, opted to go the riskier route of responding truthfully and shaking the dude’s hand. That was the sporting thing to do, I suppose, since he admitted to being a fellow cheese head, but I wasn’t so sure—especially when, a few minutes later, after accepting the Jarhead’s apology, the guy nodded and said, “That’s okay. I know where you live.”

And people wonder why I’m so skittish.

Anyway, the rest of the day went about as smoothly as it could have given the weather. The Jarhead was glad he hadn’t hesitated on the cribbage board the way he’d hesitated on the morels ten years ago, and I was glad he hadn’t mentioned our last name or our street address to anyone who might want to find us.

A couple hours later, after trudging up and down the streets of Anchorage looking at various fur and leather items whose beauty and prices took my breath away, we enjoyed a meal at a popular local watering hole and then headed back to the house to freshen up. That evening we dined with a couple of LaVon’s friends, and then hit the sack to rest and recover in preparation for our very first adventure into Alaska’s interior!

Road Trippin’ 2015: A Glacial Pace

Now and again, I come face to face with the fact that I don’t have all the facts. The most recent example of this occurred yesterday, when I learned that the glacier to which we tried to hike the day after arriving in Anchorage was NOT Portage Glacier. Apparently one can attempt to ascend Portage Glacier, but not from where we were.

It was a reasonable mistake given other facts at my disposal. For example, just prior to our hike we had spent some considerable time at Begich-Boggs Visitor Center, where various sources discussed and described the retreat of Portage Glacier and all the changes resulting therefrom. Adding to my confusion was the fact that Begich-Boggs Visitor Center overlooks Portage Lake, which was created from the meltwater running off Portage Glacier.

So, it wasn’t a big leap for me to assume that the glacier we were hiking up to was in fact Portage Glacier. Okay, I suppose I could have asked someone where we were going. And I guess I could have read the lovely sign the park service had placed at the entrance to the trail. But we were so busy chatting—about the weather, the size of the icebergs dotting the lake, et cetera—that I didn’t have the opportunity to inquire as to where we were going, much less to stop and read the sign as we passed it.

And when we weren’t chatting, I was focused on other matters, such as: How would I fare on my first real hike with my new knees? Would my new boots provide the grip I would need to avoid slipping and falling down the rocky hillside? If the boots or my knees should fail me, would the Jarhead have the wherewithal to help me back to the car? Or would he need assistance from LaVon and/or her husband, Tom? If I were I unable to put weight on either leg, would the three of them be willing to carry me back to the car, or would they drag me to an isolated area just off the trail and leave me die of exposure?

I’m kidding of course. It was warmer in Anchorage then than it was in Wisconsin that day, so I was less likely to freeze to death than be mauled and eaten by a bear. Plus, these folks have all known me long enough to know how loud I can scream and for how long. Which means they know that leaving me behind would require at least a gag and a blow to the head—if not a knife, a gun, or a crossbow—which would greatly reduce if not entirely remove any chance they had of convincing the authorities that my death was just an unfortunate accident.

And so, light of heart—if not fleet of foot—I picked my way up the trail behind my three companions. Every now and then the Jarhead would turn to check that I was still upbeat and upright, or to allow me to catch up to him. And every now and then he would offer me a hand so I could scramble over rocks, or up and over a particularly steep section of ground.

Along the way we passed several other hikers of varying ages, sizes, and ethnicities. The sight of these people made me so happy—not only because their presence improved my chances of survival, but also because they all seemed so cheerful. Well, all except for one family, who evidently had been forced to go up a second time to retrieve a pair of children’s shoes only to find them not where the child thought she’d left them. For her sake, I hoped someone had found them and brought them back down the trail and set them down for the owners to find, or the ride to their next stop was going to be a lo-n-g one.

Apart from them, everyone we passed was the picture of happiness. Oh, I suppose what looked like happiness may have been relief—either at having finished the climb or because they would soon be able to sit, eat, or use the restroom. But seeing them all coming back from the trek with what looked to be smiles on their faces bolstered my confidence that I, too, would return fit and happy from the journey. And so I smiled at everyone we passed, and nearly wore out my vocal chords verbally greeting those who returned my smile.

Eventually we made it as far as we dared up the path toward what I now know was Byron Glacier. Like Portage Glacier, Byron Glacier is retreating, and in order to get to it, one must ascend a sizeable pile of boulders that sit amid the rivulets of meltwater that combine to form Byron Creek.  Without hiking poles, an all-terrain vehicle, and/or a skilled Sherpa, I knew I wasn’t up to the challenge. But the Jarhead was game to touch the ice, so LaVon, Tom, and I decided to watch him go and wait for him to come back.

Not to sound like a Pollyanna, but it was a gorgeous wait. The warm sun and the cool breeze made for the perfect weather to be outside, and all around us were the sight and sounds of nature—water tumbling over rocks, sun glistening off the ice, grasses and trees rustling in the wind. And along with the sights and sounds of nature were the sights and sounds of people enjoying it. No one was whining, crying, or fighting. Everyone was smiling, holding hands with or hugging someone, gazing up at the sky or the mountains, or looking down at the water and rocks. It made me wonder if people behave more lovingly when they experience nature, or if people who pursue nature are more loving.

Either way, it was an amazingly lovely day. And it was made even better when the Jarhead returned from his quest unscathed. Although he did not succeed in touching the glacier—he decided to turn back rather than brave the terrain without the proper gear—he was glad for having tried, and for not having fallen into the creek in the process.

I must admit to being somewhat surprised that he came back when he did. Not because I expected or wanted him to get wet or cold, but because our plans for the evening included going to a high school football game, and about the only thing the Jarhead dislikes as much as getting wet or cold is football. But he chose to be a good *ahem* sport, and join us back on the main trail rather than hide out among the boulders until he was sure we’d missed most of the game.

And so, after a quick dinner of bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers, we headed for the field to watch LaVon’s son’s football game—or, more accurately, to watch several other people watch LaVon’s son’s football game.

Road Trippin’ 2015: Flight or Fright

There are people who crave adventure and excitement. They are the daredevils. The thrill seekers. The adrenaline junkies.

Somewhere on the adventurer spectrum is another group of people. These folks don’t exactly laugh in the face of danger, but neither do they run from it. They know their limitations and will take calculated risks for the right reward.

And then there are people like me, who avoid danger—real or imaginary—at all cost and in all forms, be it animal, vegetable, or vehicle. We feel absolutely no need to ride a moped, much less a motorcycle, and haven’t even a passing interest in giant waterslides or amusement park rides, never mind hang gliding, sky diving, or zip lining.

We are perfectly happy to stand by and let others have all the fun, thank you very much. Send me a postcard, a few pictures or a video. Hell, I’ll even sit through your slide show as long as I get to stay right here on terra firma and can move about at my own speed wearing a seatbelt, comfortable shoes, and a helmet. Although I may need to see the video once first without the sound on to reduce my risk of triggering an anxiety attack, as long as I can have a supply of St. John’s Wort and maybe a bottle of vodka handy, we’ll be good to go.

My friend LaVon, on the other hand, is a speed freak. Since I’ve known her she has loved to go fast, see new places, and try new things. With the exception of boat rides, reading my books, and learning to drive the speed limit, she’s always up for just about anything, and has more than once been frustrated by my more timid nature. We always have a good time but I suspect she thinks we’d have a lot more fun if I wasn’t such a stick in the mud. That’s okay with me, since I think she’d have fewer concussions if she could develop a tolerance for standing still.

Our differences boil down to this: I have an exceptionally vivid imagination, and can ‘experience’ things in my head without actually doing them with my body. Which means I don’t have to drive a motorbike up a vertical incline or break any land speed records in order to get an adrenaline rush. Plus, I can feel my skull being fractured and limbs being crushed and/or severed just thinking about flipping over, falling down, or flying over the edge of a mountain road, so why not save the gas and avoid the bruises and bloodshed?

So, what, pray tell, does any of this have to do with our road trip? Not much, other than this: We were going to Alaska. To stay for a week. With LaVon.

It had been a couple years since we’d seen each other so I was excited. I was also ready to take on the challenge of saying no to a motorcycle ride—again and again and again if necessary. And we could walk, talk, hike, and see the sights without exceeding 60 mph, so I had little to fear.

And then came the day of our departure. Having checked into our hotel room—the night before our tour of previous homes—I went to the window to take in our view and stopped dead in my tracks. For there, on the wall above the desk was the largest spider I had ever seen in person. With the Jarhead having gone to bring up a couple items we’d left in the car, I had no one to whom to babble incoherently while pointing at the wall and trying not to wet my pants. And in that situation, I had no choice but to stand there frozen with fear and a scream coiling up in my throat.

“Don’t scream,” I told myself. “There are people in the adjacent rooms trying to sleep.”

“Awesome,” I countered. “I’ll awaken them with my cries of terror, and someone will come running in with a firearm.”

Fortunately the Jarhead arrived before I could test that theory. And fortunately he had remembered to take a room key, or else he would have been standing in the hall all night while I died of fright. And fortunately he swiftly dispatched the offending arachnid to the next realm. He did this not because he fears spiders like I do, mind you, or because he loves me. No. The truth is, he killed the spider because he knew if he didn’t, I wasn’t going to sleep a wink—and neither was he.

Despite this initial brush with death, I was still pretty jazzed about our trip. In fact, it wasn’t until we were on board the plan to Anchorage and buckled in our seats that I was hit with another wave of mortal fear. The flight attendants had just finished telling us about the emergency exits and what to do in the event of a water landing. At that moment, I grasped the Jarhead’s hand and looked into his eyes. He could clearly see the concern in mine.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“What if the plane takes off,” I said, swallowing hard, “and I need to use to the bathroom before the captain turns off the fasten seatbelts sign?”

It was a fair question, I thought. Apparently reasonable people can have differing opinions, however, because at that point he smiled patiently and went back to reading whatever was up on his tablet.

Three restroom visits, two movies, and one bottle of wine later (it was a five-hour flight, after all) we were on the ground in Anchorage. My fear of flying without emptying my bladder had subsided and instead of 9pm Central Daylight Savings Time it was 6pm Alaska time.  So now the only thing I had to worry about was how long it would be before the Jarhead fell asleep in his plate of enchiladas, and who was going to help me put him to bed.

Until the next morning, that is, when we set off for a hike up Portage Glacier…

Road Trippin’ 2015

For the second time in two years, I set aside my fears and phobias this month, and agreed to accompany the Jarhead on week-long adventure to parts heretofore unknown to us. Although this trip did not involve Canada or the Rockies—unless you count flyovers—like our 2013 journey, it did carry an element of risk to mind, body, and soul.

But nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say. So rather than sitting at home waiting for death to find me in the pool, in the tub, or at my desk, I crossed my fingers, tossed my hiking boots into a suitcase—along with enough clothes to impress both Ginger AND Mrs. Howell—and headed north to Alaska by way of Minnesota.

To be fair, much of the trip was not unknown to us, as it began with a six hour car ride from Oshkosh to Minneapolis. If you think 6 hours is an excessive amount of time drive a distance that would ordinarily take only 4 ½, you would be correct and can therefore cancel any plans to have your head examined. If instead of your own mental wellbeing you were concerned with our driving and/or navigational skills, it should ease your mind to learn that we took the scenic route.

Yep, for reasons known only to him, the Jarhead decided he wanted to take his time and travel to the Twin Cities by way of Tomah, La Crosse, and Rochester. Although he will deny it, I suspect he chose I-90 over I-94 for the simple fact that he has travelled the I-94 route—back and forth—twice since Memorial Day and simply wanted a change of pace.

As long as we were taking the circuitous route, we decided to drop in on a good friend of mine whose house stands but a mile or two off of the highway between Rochester and Minneapolis. As I expected, we caught her a bit off guard, but as it had been months since we had seen each other, I felt it would be worth surprising her even if she was already in her pajamas. And, oh, how I would love to provide a photo of that moment she warily opened her front door! But since I don’t want that visit to be the LAST time she speaks to me, you’ll just have to imagine how shocked she was to find us on her porch. (Sorry, T. Lo!)

From there we continued on our trip to Minneapolis where, the next morning, we took an unforgettable trip down memory lane on our way to the airport. This seemed a fitting way to begin our journey since the Jarhead and I recently celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary, and because apart from Oshkosh, the longest we have lived in any one location over the course of our three decades together was the three and a half years we spent in the Twin Cities.

We started this segment of our trip with a drive by Lake Nokomis. Lake Nokomis figures prominently in our lives since it is where my friend LaVon and I used to spend hours walking and, later, pushing babies in strollers. Although it is also where my mother’s relatives used to hold their family reunions when I was a kid, it is probably better known to my immediate family as the place where El Noble learned to ride a two wheeler in April of 1991, and where he subsequently found himself up to his chest in ice-cold water about a half an hour later.

From Lake Nokomis, we continued north toward Lake Street. Along the way, we spent twenty minutes looking for the duplex where we lived for about a year—since neither of us could recall the address—and another ten discussing what was different about it and why it had taken us so long to find it. We also paid a visit to the four-unit brownstone we lived in before moving to the duplex, and the building next door where LaVon lived when we first moved there. These two were much easier to find owing to the fact that we remembered they were situated on 11th Avenue somewhere between Powderhorn Park and 38th street.

After another discussion about the changes we observed to the two structures and the neighborhood, we continued north to Lake Street and followed it east toward St. Paul in search of the big old Victorian whose second floor we occupied when the Princess was conceived. As was the case with our first two former dwellings, we had to circle the neighborhood a few times because we couldn’t recall the street address.

Although it still took us longer to find it than we expected, the task was made easier by the fact that we knew it was located at the corner of its block on Marshall Avenue, a few blocks west of Snelling. Even with that much intel, we still missed it the first two times we passed it and, due to the volume of traffic in the area, did not have the chance to get a good look. Thus, we could neither assess nor admire it as we discussed all of the memories we had of the place. Even without the benefit of the visual aid, however, we had a pretty good laugh recalling the time El Noble came to us crying after discovering that, unlike his friends who lived downstairs, he was not African American.

Having visited our fourth Twin Cities residence only six or so years ago—and lacking the time to travel there and back before we needed to be at the airport—we decided to forego a drive to Windom Gables and headed for the highway. From there, it would be a short drive to the terminal, an even shorter walk to security, followed by a LONG walk to the gate, and an even longer flight—to Anchorage…