This morning we got up after a very cold night in the trailer. We reassessed our RV needs for a warmer night’s sleep. Another trip to Wal-Mart was going to be necessary to get more blankets, as well some household items we hadn’t considered (hand soap). As we drove to our second Wal-Mart within a 24-hour period, I began to notice a few things: 1.) Downtown Anchorage, or the outskirts anyways, could be Anytown, America, 2.) There were way more black people in Anchorage than I even expected, and 3.) Every city, as great and glorious, is burdened by the same ills of America with the only exception being the colors or type of people.
While driving to and from Wal-Mart, there was a panhandler, people who looked down on their luck, busy professionals trying to get to one place or the other and a young man in an older model, repurposed police car balling out. I am not saying this to cast a shadow on Anchorage. I am saying this because what I saw was symptomatic of our American society and that concerns me and in its universal truth, I know that this is what unites us all. No matter what state, what color, or what one may perceive your town or city to be, there will always be the same underlying factors, which often boils down to the haves and the have nots.
Time to get on the road now that we were finished with our purchases and fully gassed up. We had another stop to a camera shop in Downtown Anchorage. Somehow (don’t remember) we ended up in sandwiched between the back of an office building and bike trails, staring at some ridiculous view of the water, snow covered mountains and a boat. Since we hadn’t really seen a view like this yet, it was quite remarkable no matter the distance. What made it more remarkable was that somewhere in the middle of this view was an even larger part of the mountain range that was completely camouflaged by the white clouds because it was entirely covered in snow. An Alaska Train engine was on a track whizzing by parallel to the bike trail and continuous traffic of low flying water planes flew overhead. It was quickly changing from Anytown, America to the Alaska I had pictured in my mind.
We drive to the other side of the great view, back to the main drag for all the visitors and shopping and eating. Not only could you get some yummy smelling meat link of your choice on a roll, smothered in sautéed onions and butter cooked right off a street cart, but it is a great place to outfit your entire family with a fur coat as well; one for you, your partner, your children, your mother, maybe even your pet. Once in the camera shop, we were greeted by a very nice young man who was very helpful with the camera gear as well as where to go and what to do. He mentioned a drive on Seward Highway going south of Anchorage that sounded worth investigating. We will put it on our back burner.
Today’s goal was to get to Denali. This would be the first major leg of the trip. Our conversation with “Steve” had me thinking that we should go to Denali National Park during the week; I had the impression that the tourism season was about to be in full swing and we are going to be taking this trip along with thousands of other people. The drive was smooth out of the bustling city and soon we were on the open highway. The once anywhere-vile cityscape morphed into this majestic landscape where I could understand why someone would be inspired to write that silly song we all had to sing at a school concert in elementary school – “This land is your land, this land is my land…”
Our destination was about 200 miles away. There were many places that we pulled over to take pictures. Within the next few miles we were staring at Mt. McKinley floating directly above the horizon as if it were guarding the end of the highway. Seeing something this massive from such a distance and it still looks so massive is mind blowing. You wonder how something can appear that large even when you know that you are so far away. The fact is it almost becomes invisible at times because the snow blends in with the clouds and tricks your eye. Tricky or not, it was so stunning you had to take a picture with it.
The road to all this beauty was not paved in gold. In fact, a lot of it was not paved or was being repaved. There was a lot of road construction and tons of it. You read about the constant roadwork when you research a trip to Alaska but it is another to physically be amongst it. It really does become a part of the drive. At one particular part of the drive, a little past Trapper Creek, on Alaska Highway 1 North, we were coming upon yet another road crew. The sign was quickly turned from slow to stop. This particular flagger at this stop stood out from the others we have passed. This flagger was a woman, tan arms in high contrast outside of her super fluorescent work vest, long wheat gold pigtail braids down to her shoulder. Atop her head was a pink hard hat adorned with stickers on each side – “Alaska Girls (turn head) Kick Ass.” Since we were stopped, I rolled my window down to talk. Her name was Patty and she rocked. She began to tell us that our stop was going to be a while. Apparently there was a call for emergency services, so now not only did she have to control the traffic for the repaving of the stretch of road, but she was now responsible for keeping the road clear for the expected emergency vehicles.
As a former EMS worker, she knew from the call that it was either a water rescue or entrapment. Either way, it was not good. I decided to practice my interviewing skills with my captured audience, but hell, she wasn’t kidding, Alaska girls do rock. You wanted to know more about her. How did she end up as a flagger? Are there that many female flaggers that having those stickers on her helmet had significance? What is her story? I turned on the voice memo recording hoping that I could candidly capture her story. Patty stated that she was on this crew since the start of May and will be there until October, 7 days a week, 18-20 hours. I will keep her financials personal, but I will let you know this, what she said she made in a week was what I made in 3 months. THREE MONTHS!!!! Immediately I asked if she needed help. Really Patty, do you need help? It is a big sacrifice however. She stays in a camper nearby as most of them do. This way they can be closer to the job. Dang Patty, you are making serious $$$. She mentioned how the young guys on the crew partied a lot at the campers and how she kept her distance from the riff raff. She has three children, two that have graduated and one that is 17 and on the way. I imagine she has had her fill of youthful antics.
Our lovely conversation came to and end after 2 emergency vehicles and some time. Her boss, Sharon, drove up in a pickup truck and gave Patty the word. It was time. Sharon turned the pick up truck around and revealed a sign. “Pilot car. Follow Me.” Patty instructed us to do just after an exchange of well wishes. We followed Sharon for at least a mile down the road with at least 6 other cars trailing our lead. We were finally on our own on the road and kept driving until we reached Denali View South. Patty highly recommended stopping there for what she claims was the best view of Mt. McKinley. My list of adjectives gets smaller when I see so many amazing things, BUT unbelievable. After you park your car in the lot and walk towards the path you are face to face with this panoramic view of the mountains and a wide river bed with this huge white beast of a mountain safeguarding it all. Click here for conversation with Patty audio (play).
There was a little bit of a trail that took you past the first overlook. It meandered up and through a small hedging of bushes but it wasn’t bad. At the end of the trail was a perch with some signage describing what you were seeing: the names of the ranges and their elevation. It was difficult to imagine the size of something in thousands of feet. You could gawk and awe for hours. The more difficult thing to imagine is besides the size is how far away we still were from Mt. McKinley. As the tallest mountain in North America, it commands a lot of attention even from over 20 miles away. As we left the trail and headed back to the parking lot, Thomas was taking a picture. In his view was young, black man, leaving his parked Audi. He mentioned to Thomas that he realized that he may have been in his shot and apologized. We find out that he was born and raised in Alaska and never gets tired of its beauty.
Side trek over and we are back in the RV. We are on the road perhaps another 15 minutes or so from Denali View South and we start to pass cars in the opposite lane flashing their headlights and waving their hands. Not sure exactly what they were trying to tell us, we soon see for ourselves. At the bottom of a dip in the highway, was a single police car with his hand out waving us past him. Directly in front of him and lying diagonally across the road were an SUV and a pull RV, both belly up. The SUV was in the ditch of the side of the road with all airbags deployed. What a sobering moment. I hope that everyone made it out of the car ok. Patty was right, it was either a water rescue or entrapment.
It is getting much later in the day, but there is no way to assume this. The notion of daylight until midnight is really hard to explain. Your brain is telling you that you have all the time in the world while your body is telling you it is time to get ready to go to bed. According to my watch, it was getting closer to 9:00 pm when we stopped at a bridge off the side of the road. It was white and crossed over a river. Conveniently there was a parking area next to it. It was here that Thomas decided to dispatch the drone. I think the bridge in the dwindling sun was tempting. We were not the only ones parked in the lot, but there were no people. Not sure where they could be. A few snaps and connections and the drone was airborne. The idea was that he would get some amazing footage and we can practice, him controlling the flight and me controlling the camera. There would be car tracking and under the bridge movements. On cue, when the drone was coming out of the case, one of the missing car owners appear on a bicycle. It is after 9:00 pm. You can still ride your bicycle like it is 9:00 am.
Immediately the cyclist smiled and approached us. He knew exactly the type of drone it was. He asked if we mind him watching us. I was impressed he knew. There are not enough words to explain how sick this footage is from the drone. I have a lot to learn about the directional movement of that thing, but it is so great, it all looks good. A female cyclist soon joins from the same path and is with our 1 man audience. They were together. They watched us and we talked. I told them about the documentary and why we were there. We all looked to sky in amazement. The flight ended and we went our separate ways.
Hours had crept fast beyond us and we needed to get a little further. There was still plenty of driving left. You see so many curious things at night when it is light at night and you are in Alaska. Only you and a handful of truckers share the road and it feels like you have the place to yourself. Of the many curiosities was an igloo structure that I remember Patty mentioning. I believe she said it had been a hotel. At 10:14 pm, the sun is in a state of what looks to be sunset, so instead off the burning bright light, there is the soft pink glow. This peculiar boarded up dome white forgotten shell reflected the soft glow and held it like it was warming the inside.
Another curiously wonderful thing was this set of little white cabins tucked away in the tree line. They reminded me of little birdhouses, except big enough for people. If you blinked you would have missed them.
The roads, again, are a work in progress. I would like to know how much money the Alaska Highway Administration has budgeted for roadwork.
Closing in on the official end of the day, we are close to the place that I selected for our overnight stay. When we were close to the entrance of Denali National Park and Reserve, it turned into a little city - nothing but people walking around aimlessly as far as the eye could see on both sides of the road. All kinds of people were literally roaming the streets. The stores and eating and drinking establishments were open and benefiting from the midnight sun zombies. Let them keep shopping and eating if they don’t care what time it is. The money doesn’t know.
Our RV park destination was past this busy part and past the park entrance. Originally we passed its entrance because I was too busy staring at all the people hanging outside and walking around near the restaurant on its property. It looked like party central. Thomas spotted the RV park sign so we turned back around. That sign was big as day and I looked right at the Brew House Restaurant sign not even a few yards away. The registration office was inside the gas station, which was unusual. For the purposes of not being discouraging, I will not give the name of the RV park. The young man behind the cashier’s counter unfortunately was a very bad tv/movie Russian stereotypical character. I hate to say this because people should not be judged by their appearance and I know I not showing my best side. However, he was such an unexpected character it was too interesting not to mention. He fit every trait, heavy accent, mix-matched tracksuit, no real identifiable part in his hair and a posse of kinfolk. I asked about the availability and there were no vacancies. Deep on the inside, I was ok with that. Not so much because of him, but there was a lot of action going on at the Brew House. Back down the road and we stop at the lovely Denali RV Park & Motel. The white board read that late night arrivers can do a self check-in, put your money in the envelope and you’re golden. This low-key place was the antithesis of our last stop. At 11:59 pm, we found our home for the night and plugged in and shut down.