Posts Tagged ‘Valdez

05
Nov
15

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.

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30
Oct
15

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.

24
Oct
15

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.

09
Oct
15

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.




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