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[In the tune of Gilligan’s Island] A Six-Hour Tour… A Six-Hour Tour…

Updated: May 25, 2022

Today, I was going to be a baller. A shower taker caller. Denali RV Park and Motel has great-individual bathrooms. There may have been at least 10 or so. Instead of the dorm style bathrooms, each bathroom had a shower, sink and toilet. The shower required a $3.00 token for use. Each token earned you 5 minutes of hot shower. By this point of the trip, neither of us used the shower in the RV. If we needed to we could have, but why do that when you can have more space. The other thing is when you are camping on the road you have a bit of personal hygiene allowance. You may not take a shower every day. You may not brush your teeth as much and you may wear to bed what you had on for the day or wear it a few days in a row.

At first when I read this coin for water bit, I was put off. But when you read the reasoning behind it, it all makes perfectly good sense. If I remember correctly, they are not on the town water system. This token is an effort to conserve water because of their process to get water. On this day, I was ready to take a shower and we went to the office to get some tokens. While we were in there it was just the gentleman host. He gave us great tips again, but this time pertaining to the shower. The big important tip: make sure your clothes are off and you are ready to go once you throw that coin in the slot. Come to find out, if you follow that one specific instruction, 5 minutes is more time than you need. I thought I had all the time in the world. I even washed up again for kicks and giggles and to make up for the lack of a shower the day before.

Our tour was ticketed for 10:00 a.m. to give us time for the 6.5 hour round trip shuttle to Toklat and possibly any other excursions we may have decided to take. It’s moments like this that I wish there was more time. When we checked back in before we left due to some payment snafu, we had a charming conversation with the couple. They asked again about the project and shared their stories of travel. They painted this vibrant picture of their travels up the Alaskan Highway during the fall (Alaskan Fall) from Knoxville that rivaled anything we could expect to see in New England. They would have been perfect to film and they reminded me of my grandparents and my parents. I could see all their kindred souls all manning the desk with a perfect ying and yang of masculine and feminine energy.

I didn’t want to cut them off. They demanded the same quiet respect that I would have given my parents or grandparents. If a person opens up to you, you should feel privileged and allow them to do so uninterrupted. My hesitation in stopping them ended up eating into our travel time to get to Denali for our tour. It was close. I assumed that we would have to take the next shuttle and we were getting ready to make the arrangements for that. Since our entire plan included eating breakfast at the park before we left, we still had to resolve that issue. As we were talking to ticket employee she listened to the intercom announcement and asked us again what time did we have on our tickets. We lucked up and the bus was late so we could still make it, and we did so with empty stomachs. Luckily Thomas put a few Belvitas in the bag. Breakfast biscuits to the rescue.

Seats were available at the back of the bus. I made sure we sat on the driver’s side as suggested. Glen, our bus driver, introduced himself and went over the rules and what to expect. He was responsible for the road in front of the bus and we were responsible for having eyes everywhere else so we could ask him to stop if we wanted to take pictures of anything lurking. The stops were quick and purposeful. The road was winding but forgiving enough to allow for a gentle ebb and flow of traffic. After mile 15, private cars are not allowed on Denali Road. The remainder of the road is only accessible by taking the park shuttles and tours. You can hike the road, bike the road but you must leave your cars.

Outside of the bus windows were mountains with snow or green grass. Far below rippled a river here and there. The passengers on the bus had eyes like eagles and there were many things spotted. We saw moose, caribou, dall sheep and a bear and it’s cub. Except for the dall sheep, the other animals were pretty far for the naked eye, but still very exciting to see nonetheless. I imagine most people would prefer to see a momma bear and it’s cub from far enough away that the need a super zoom lens or binoculars. With most animals, a mother will be very protective of its young, so you can never be too safe or too far.

Our fellow bus riders were quite the bunch. Behind us were two guys, I believe were brothers and I am assuming from the east coast. They were characters. Probably in their 30s they were excited about our destination but they were feeling a bit impatient with the length of time spent stopping to take pictures of animals that appeared as dots. If they had it their way, they would have created an express bus that made an extremely limited number of stops or none at all. In front were pre teens, a girl and boy. Sitting in the bench to their right was the girl’s grandmother. I think they were an entire family but not all sitting together. There was a lot of cross conversations especially as we were all sharing this experience together. The young girl was a camera enthusiast and she had questions for Thomas.

Your brain can’t conceive how different and amazing each mountain range can be, but it doesn’t get dull at all. As we arrive to our destination of Toklat River, buses were stacked and parked with people milling about. There were lots of bathrooms so the crowd was split when getting off the bus; either Mother Nature was calling you to see the river or to use the restroom. I was called in both directions. 53 miles is a bit of a way, especially knowing that you had a return trip just as long. The river was only a few steps away. The grey rocks and water broke up the space between the mountains and us. The almost flat slope of rocks lead you to the water and a lot of people followed. We were given about 15 minutes to soak it all in if we wanted to return on the same bus. Some people hiked off and away or were clearly going to take more time to gaze at the riverside. Next time I would like to be one of ones to hike up high in the greens of the hillside.

As usual, time was not on our side and we would return to the bus since there was another 3 hours before we would reach our original place of departure. Our trip back meant new bus mates. New people boarded and some got picked up along the way. Among the new bus mates were two couples in the rows behind us. The couple directly behind us had overnight backpacked. Guest to the park can do this if you register with the backcountry office. The other couple asked them questions about their experience. Apparently the six million acres of the park are divided into what they call units. Each registered overnight camper is assigned a unit in which they can hike and camp. Since there are no trails or camping sites, you are given the general geography of your unit and they make sure that you are properly prepared for the trip. After that you are on your own. This assignment of units provides some control of the distribution of backpackers in certain areas so that that one place is not continuously overrun. There are also several camps inside the park proper if you aren’t feeling as adventurous.

As I was listening to the exchange amongst the couples and the exchange of the backpack couple exclusively, I thought about the complexity of relationships as they recount their version of the overnight backing experience. Things such as the comfort of the sleeping, the ability to see animals, and what they were going to do when they returned was all about negotiation of ideas and perception. Relationships are this constant give and take of an individual’s desire. Ultimately, it seemed like the guy was going to do whatever she wanted after trying to get his side heard. I imagine their entire experience of overnight backpacking was one big negotiation, especially since they were creating their own path to an unknown destination; much like life. We all have to know when to surrender for the sake of progress.

The snaking roads back became hypnotic and put us all in this daze that left you either fast asleep or fighting the idea of it. We ate our packed lunches and everything slowed even more. All of the things that were amazing sights on the way out became soft blurs to the eyes on the way back. I didn’t want to close my eyes but even with them open, I wasn’t really seeing things clearly. When we got back to the parking lot, we took a minute to regroup and got back on the road - next destination will be Fairbanks.

The radio was turned on and we were quickly tuned into NPR on 101.7. It was like being at home. It was nice to hear the news. First it was local. There was a recent 6.7 magnitude earthquake in Alaska and there was also a news report about juvenile detention centers and trying to find a better way to help juvenile offenders from become long-term statistics. Than it was time for the national news. Good old Audie Cornish. I was wondering if she ever had a bad day and said “Ugh.” Her job seems like such a dream. But perhaps everyone has a moment when they need a break.

Our drive was quiet and peaceful. The further we drove from Denali, the more the landscape could have been another place. It didn’t seem like it took too long to get to Fairbanks. This city is definitely smaller than Anchorage, but bigger than most of the towns we may have passed in between. Originally the plan was to stay at Chena River State Recreation Site. We pulled in and there was an honor system for registration with a fancy credit card reader and you would pay do after you found your site. By now, we both like the idea of full hookup and searched for one. Apparently we were not the only ones. It was a Friday evening and everyone else us beat us to it. Although the RVs were not physically in the sites, they all had a white piece of paper on their posts indicating that they were already reserved. I was bummed out. We circled twice. Nothing. It was such a nice place; hidden in the trees and secluded from the rest of the world. It felt like camping at home in Maryland. So far, our previous RVs campgrounds have been open and with trees only surrounding the entire campground.

Plan B. I looked in the trusty guidebooks that already did all the hard work of finding and identifying all the campgrounds in each city. There was another place not too far. It was called River's Edge RV Park. This particular RV park was unique because it was part of River’s Edge Resort that also ran River's Edge Resort & Cottages and a restaurant called Chena's Alaskan Grill. There were a lot of people already there and checking in. Much like what we saw on the road, there were a lot of rental RVs and very large motorhomes. Luckily they had a vacancy and that restaurant. I think Thomas and I were both tired and hungry after the long shuttle ride in Denali. We park and hook up and commence to find the grub. The restaurant was in walking distance. On the way, you had to walk pass the cottages. They were this cookie cutter type structure with scalloped shingles and each one had a beautiful hanging flower plant. The attention to small details makes every difference in the world. I tried to look inside because it seemed like they all could have been little houses instead of hotel type rooms.

The restaurant was right on the Chena River. Your seating options for dinner included indoors or outdoors on a large wrap around balcony. Seats at the top were covered and the ones at the bottom were not. It was so sunny that the waitresses were wearing sunglasses when they went outside (AND IT WAS AFTER 8 PM!) Our waitress was kind.

Thomas and I both noticed her eyes right away. They were these deep pools of amber brown that absorbed all the light and glimmered in the sunlight. My monkey see monkey do-ness made me look at the vegetarian options. There was a portabella mushroom burger that looked pretty good on paper. We both ended up getting it. I have to say, I am not a vegetarian, nor do I eat a lot of red meat, but these vegetarian meals have by far been the tastiest.

After we devoured yet another meal, we began to talk about the project and our ideas.

The time went by and it was late and time to go. Another night in Alaska and my body and mind still haven’t synced up to how late it really was and bedtime was sooner than I thought.

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