Updated: May 25
**Full disclosure: I am writing this during the layover in LA to Maui. Our flight out of Anchorage left at 11:50 pm last night. I may be delirious. All posts will be reviewed later for accuracy and nonsense and pics**
In the a.m., I strolled over to the office to ask some questions about the park. At the desk was a lovely silver haired, retired couple. Their hometown is Knoxville, Tennessee and they had arrived in early May and will be there until September working. Another two couples were on their way to help with the hosting duties. The couple made it known that their backup couldn’t get there soon enough. They gave a lot of great advice about what to do at Denali National Park: if you don’t know what to do, take the tour, if you take the tour, sit on the driver’s side, and be sure to go to the visitor center to see the exhibits. In addition, they suggested that we stay another night to maximize the trip. Since the tours are long, it would be late by the time you finish and getting on the road would be the last thing you would want to do. In my mind, I had already planned on doing that, so it wasn’t a hard sell. Originally it was only a matter of if we would stay there or go someplace else up the road. After meeting them, it was no longer a question. These were nice folks. I forked over my card and got some change back from the cash envelope payment from the night before.
I walked back to the trailer and told Thomas. This morning we agreed that we would take advantage of having no check out that day and stay for while for computer time. Thomas has some work deadlines and I wanted to get some blogging done. Eventually we got ourselves together and headed up the road to the park. I wanted to stop at the entrance to take a picture of the park sign. Next to the sign was information about the National Park Service’s new campaign #Findyourpark. This is a brilliant effort to expose and get people involved using social media. In short, it is real people taking real pictures at real parks. Get out and visit your state and national parks!
Next, we did exactly what the couple suggested. First we went to the WAC to sign up for the tour. Much to our chagrin, our timing was a bit off. Our arrival time clashed with the last shuttle tour of the day. At this time, only Toklat, the first stop, was open along Denali Road. This first stop was 53 miles out and would be a 6.5-hour round trip time. The young lady behind the desk said that there were seats available, but if we had any plans on getting off the bus for an extended time and flag another one, we wouldn’t be able to. Perhaps being a bit ambitious, we decided we would wait until tomorrow morning to allow for the opportunity to get off and flag if need be.
Plan B was in now in full swing. It was time to check out the visitor center. Quite insightful. There were plenty of displays about the regional animals, topography, and geography and native Athabaskan culture. The other thing I found interesting at the visitor center was the display of works by the Artists in Residence that the National Park Service offers. What a brilliant idea. The program is much like any artist in residence, but with a National Park unit as your place of inspiration. I would love to do something like this. The work that was on view included a delicate and intricate hand cut paper landscape with a kaleidoscope of hues of soft purples, blues and pink.
As great as the visitor center is, both of our stomachs were close to being on our backs. Next to the visitors center is a restaurant. There were tables outside filled with people and a very sizeable inside eating area. I was excited to see the “We serve Starbucks” beacon of green light. I drink coffee almost every morning at work and haven’t had much coffee yet on the trip and for the record, I am not a person that seems to be stimulated by coffee. I have said many times “Oh, coffee does nothing to me. I can drink it right before I go to bed. I just like having something hot to drink.” However, I have noticed that I have had these headaches in the morning when I do not drink them. I told this to someone I know and love, who themselves is an avid caffeine affected soul and they suggested that my headaches may be from not having coffee. I think he may be right. I was very excited to be able to purchase a coffee with caramel.*Post note, I will have to tell you about the Espresso in Alaska.
Thomas and I get around to the food section. The menu was quite an offering for all. Before we walked into the door, I did my usual check-in with Thomas to make sure that he was ok with choosing this as our food stop, with the idea that there may not be any real vegetarian options. In his usual way, he reminded me that he could always find something. Naturally, in the universe’s way of proving me wrong with Thomas, in the lovely cursive font that headed the one side of the regular carnivorous side, was a heading that read “Vegetarian.” It was not simply one or two items; it was the same 2 to 3 panel board as the rest. Each item was very tempting. We both selected the veggie panini. All cooked to order. This was real food.
Since there was a wait for the meals to be prepared, we got our drinks and I settled the bill. Now when we first walked in the building, again, acknowledging my own ignorance, I was surprised when I spotted a young, African-American employee at the register. He had a big smile and on the inside I was happy to see him. His name badge read Don and immediately we struck up a conversation. See, the thing is, a person’s own ignorance can get in his or her own way. There is no justifiable reason why I should be surprised to see anyone of any race or creed anywhere. It is a free world; we live in a free country where people can roam as they wish. Yet and still, let me be honest. I am an African-American woman that is always observing and thinking about my place in the world. This kind of thinking that has lead me to this particular opportunity; to come to the realization that my grandparent’s story was compelling for many reasons, primarily due to their race within the context of a particular point in time in history.
Don works for the catering company at Denali National Park. He is from New Orleans and this particular company allows for a lot of travel from site to site and he has been to a lot of different states including Florida, Colorado, Virginia, you name it. He mentioned that he has worked in Denali for a while and will leave when the season is over and will work at Shenandoah (I assumed the park). It couldn’t have been more obvious that he loved his job. He travels a lot and gets to return home to New Orleans in between.
Our sandwiches were delivered and we killed them. It was the perfect balance of everything they put on that bread. Bravo. My stomach thanks you. While we were eating, we did our usual project/observational talk. It is really hard to not have the same stream of conversation while on these trips, but when you are a minority you tend to look for yourself and want to see yourself in places and if you don’t you want to know why. I failed to mention that when I spotted Don, there was also an older African-American couple that we ended up sitting next to. The shock was over, but the people of color were proportionally outnumbered. We observed what we had already been told at least 3 times since we set foot in Alaska. Germans, Dutch, Swiss, Japanese, and Chinese are the lion’s share of the tourists. The time in the visitor center and in the grill, I overheard at least 3 different languages other than English.
As I devoured my sandwich and talked with my mouth full, I looked at the groups of people one by one and wondered what is about traveling that has brought all these different people here to this one particular place. Each person planned to take a trip, paid a significant amount of money to leave their home and there may even be a language barrier, but there is something that they had to see or do on this day at Denali National Park. What is it about travel that will make a person do this? We are all converged stuffing our varied, multilingual, multigenerational faces, to see and do the same thing.
Coffee time. Headache-poof-gone! Climbing back into the RV we decided to head on down the road and see what we could see. This is how our trips from A to B end up from A to Z. Traveling is a metaphor for life; it is not the start or the end point that matters. All that stuff in between, the randomly beautiful encounters that weren’t even imaginable all happen when you aren’t looking for it. There we are on the side of the road exploring again since our plans for the day have been rescheduled. Thank goodness for all the pull thrus and what I will call bump outs. Whoever first started building these roads was smart enough to know that people are going to stop and stare and want to park and get out in certain places. This makes it much easier and safer to do just that. You could spend all day going from bump to bump.
In this particular stop, the thing that was different was that you very close to the water. Most stops so far had a bit of a barrier. There was a fast flowing river and some flatlands and than mountain. We walked along the side. Here we did our official scientific investigation of determining the depth – rock throwing and finding a stick to submerse. On the opposite side of the road was a carpet of green and tall thin pointy trees with a backdrop of mountains. Nestled in the grass with a smaller standing body of water. Alas, the one topic that I have not mentioned. The “M” word - Mosquitos. You will need bug spray. My dear mother and Alaska traveler the year prior, told me a few times about the mosquitos. These jokers creep up on you and the next thing you know you will look like Cro-Magnon man, like I do now with a mosquito bite right on the outer edge of my forehead, right over the end of the eyebrow.
Our next pull thru antics lead us somewhere else. This time the pelican case came out and the drone took flight. The plan was to have it scan the area behind us that included what they call kettle ponds and over trees. The other part of this plan included practicing flying together and tracking movement. I am still on a learning curve but it was fun and the thrill over this gizmo is nowhere close to dying.
Getting carried away again by this free access of time with extended daylight we were finished for the day. Our tour in Denali was going to make for a guaranteed long day and an early one that included checking out of the RV park. On the way, we stopped back at the strip of shopping and dining to get dinner and additional foodstuffs since you are responsible for bringing your own food and water for the tour. It was late again, but people were all about and the stores were still opened. We walked down the boardwalk that connected the storefronts and looked at a few things. While we were here we noticed people guiding their friend or family member driver of a mini Winnie in backing up. If you have driven anything bigger than a SUV you could probably relate. This was a cramped area for anything backing up over 25 feet. If you throw in being a newbie RV driver (it was a rental), it is a different story. We asked the guiders where they were from. New Jersey. I personally know some New Jersey drivers. I will only say that this New Jersey was way more timid than the folks I know. By the time we came back down, the driver was still struggling to get out of the lot. A gentleman we passed leaning against the rail of one of the stores was enjoying it all and remarked that this was his entertainment for the night. I ended up not getting anything. Thomas tried the Thai and Chinese Food to Go that was still cranking out food.
Late another night dinking around. We parked back into our spot and hunkered down. Thomas puts on the latest installment of Transformers and plugged into the auxiliary jack so we could hear it on the RV speaker system and I am mesmerized. Maybe I was melting down or the movie was that good? We didn’t get through all of it, but I do want to see the rest. It was fun watching in our little RV fort. Sleep caught up to me.