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.


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.





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.


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


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!





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: 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’

I recently broke with tradition and accompanied the Jarhead on a seven-day journey into the wild. The trip took us to the Rockies by way of the Trans Canada Highway, so we weren’t exactly in No Man’s Land; but since we spent most of the week alone driving at high speeds near deep lakes, raging rivers, open fields and dense forests—not to mention steep drops and sharp curves—it did carry an element of risk of death and/or bodily injury. Thus, the fact that you are reading this entry is either evidence of my value as a travel companion, proof of the Jarhead’s patience and restraint, a testament to the power of negotiation, or a sign of my intense will to live.

Unless, of course, he’s actually posting this himself in an effort to make things seems as normal as possible for as long as possible. As any fan of Law & Order or CSI can tell you, such a ruse would enable him to keep my family, friends, and followers from realizing I’m missing until such time as my remains can be disturbed by wildlife or sufficiently degraded, thereby preventing investigators from finding evidence of his crime and improving his odds of escaping punishment.

Then again, if the Jarhead were going to do me in and conceal it by impersonating me, it would be silly of him to even mention the trip—much less to make a point about evidence—so you can assume these are my words you’re reading. Sure, he could have posted all of the foregoing in order to throw people off the scent—much in the way the talented Thomas Ripley impersonated Dickie Greenleaf and sent messages to his loves ones to give the impression he’d left town of his own volition and not been beaten to death with an oar—but truth be told, even on paper, the Jarhead isn’t that good of a mimic.

The goal of our trip was to complete the Jarhead’s whirlwind tour of all 50 US states, which he started at some point in the late seventies when he flew to Colorado and wisely gave up in favor of earning a high school diploma. In the spring of 1984 he managed to squeeze in a brief visit to Florida, but this was the extent of his travels until that June when he answered Uncle Sam’s call and got to spend 12 fun-filled weeks on board Marine Corps Recruiting Depot San Diego. Between 1984 and 2011, he managed to visit nearly every state in the country—plus a handful of Canadian provinces, and parts Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East—but somehow managed to miss Idaho and North Dakota.

Idaho, I get. It’s surrounded by mountains and seemingly endless prairies, and offers potential visitors little in the way of incentives other than the promise of great potatoes, which quite frankly you can buy almost anywhere already. Oh, sure it also offers you the chance to see some gorgeous scenery, but apart from Demi Moore and Bruce Willis—if he happens to be visiting—there’s nothing of beauty in Idaho that you can’t also find in Montana, Washington, or Wyoming, so I can understand why he might have chosen to put that one off.

But I’m having a little harder time with North Dakota. Because I can’t fathom how a man who grew up in Minnesota managed to visit 47 other states including Alaska and Hawaii—both of which require a plane ride and a fair amount of dedication to reach—but could not muster a trip to North Dakota, which involves no oceans, mountains, or other major geographic obstacles; costs almost nothing to get to; and is literally right next door.

Not that I’m a globetrotter myself. In fact, even after this recent trip I still have 7 states and 15 countries to see before I can claim to be as well traveled as he is. But I still managed to visit Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Manitoba before I turned 17 because—and I can’t stress this enough—they’re close by and it isn’t hard.

In any case, although I had already seen North Dakota, I agreed to accompany the Jarhead on his quest to cross the last two states off of his USA Bucket List. It wasn’t a sacrifice, to be sure. The Jarhead is a gem among stones on a bad day, and the best of the best on any other. When it comes to drivers, navigators, and spouses you honestly can’t do any better.

And I had no objections to going back to North Dakota. After all, the last time I was there was about 1973, and I figured it would have changed enough since then to make it worth seeing again. Plus, I had fond feelings leftover from my last visit owing to the bloody nose I got when my step brother knocked me down on the ice rink, and because, despite my injury, I was able to both demonstrate my considerable skill and highlight his lack of liberty by gliding back and forth in front of him while he sat grounded on the sidelines. Ah, memories.

It was with all of this, and so much more, in mind that I and the Jarhead boarded the USS RAM 1500 and embarked upon our journey west. Destination: Grand Forks