Alaska Days 59-61

DAY 59, July 19, Friday

Morning temperature was cool, about 44 degrees when we woke up. We were up and away early—a highly variable term, and we are at the “late” end of that spectrum—in order to get a parking space at Logan Pass, the centerpiece of the park. We are only eight miles from the West entrance, but then there’s another 31 or so of the scenic but winding Going-to-the-Sun Road. At its upper reaches it gets even windier with mountain wall on your left as you ascend, and a two foot stone wall separating you from the abyss on your right. Lanes are skinny and blind curves abound. The Tahoe seems to need every inch of its lane, and though that’s not true, it is tricky driving. I found going down even trickier since those granite walls seem only inches away, especially if an oncoming driver is hugging the inside of his lane. We pulled our mirrors in, as do many others.

In any event, being at the entrance at 8:30 or so and making Logan Pass by 9:08 is not nearly early enough. Every one of the 120 to 150 spaces was taken and, as we have experienced before, a dozen or so cars and trucks were prowling the lot, ever hopeful. Val says she can remember coming as late as noon and getting a place, but of course at that time of day prowling can work, because people are actually leaving. But at 9 in the morning, most of the parked cars have only recently arrived. We’ve never been to the Pass (the Continental Divide running right through it) as late as 5, but that might be a good strategy. But the surest alternative is to park at the Visitors Center and take a shuttle, though lines and waits can be long. Bicyclists are still allowed on the road before 11 and after 4, to the considerable annoyance of at least one of the shuttle drivers. My friends the O’Neals and the Hoods have done that ride back in the day, and my hat is off to them. Even starting from McDonald Lodge, it’s a 20 or so mile climb, with some very attentive braking going down. As about any Tour de France rider would probably tell you, Alps and Pyrenees climbing is about body weight- to-power ratio and pain tolerance, but descending is scary-are-you-crazy daring, handling skill, and artistry. The five of us riding in the hill country of Italy last September might get to almost a white-knuckle 40 mph on a long descent; the Tour riders might hit 60, sometimes riding in a crouch on the top tube that sane people wouldn’t consider at 20 mph.

So a bit nervously we drove back down and piddled away most of the rest of the day, driving around here and there, and having an evening fire.

DAY 60, July 20, Saturday

Another mid-forties cool morning, but warming steadily to a high of low 70s. Snyder Lake, a hike I did a few years ago and recounted on my blog, was closed now for “bear management,” so that was out. I finally decided to go easy and chose almost surely the most popular hike in the park, a 4.6 miler round trip to Avalanche Lake, with only 740 feet of elevation gain. Val dropped me off at the Visitors Center and after about an hour I caught a shuttle to the trailhead and joined three battalions of hikers along that well-worn path. As usual I was passed, this time by folks on pogo sticks, gymnasts walking on their hands, people hopping on one leg, and toddlers and their centenarian great, great grandparents. But many folks stop as soon as they see the beach of the dramatic, emerald green lake at the top, thus not quite reaching the end of the trail at the far end of the lake. For a while at least I had a nice little beach to myself, sitting on a log eating my sandwich and Cliff bar, with a scurrying, chipmunk-like pika my only company. The lake is ringed by mountains, and in the early spring there may be as many as seven waterfalls feeding it. Today there were three. As I have in the past, I took another embarrassing wrong turn at the bottom—the telltale hint being the absence of all those other hikers—but eventually found the shuttle stop and took one back to the Visitors Center, where Val came to get me.

Meanwhile Val had the car, had a little lunch at—you know by now—Montana Coffee Traders, and worked on our itinerary and reservations for Yellowstone. I am so lucky she takes that on; I am so laissez-faire about it, or more accurately, fairly lazy. We ate dinner at the Mexican restaurant in Columbia Falls again, came home, made a fire, and talked a long time with a retired Minneapolis attorney with an absorbing and unusual interest in Mississippi. He said that he saw our Mississippi plates and hoped to chat with us. He has been to many of its historical and literary sites and seems quite enthralled by Eudora Welty. His interest in the state itself did not seem disdainful at all, but a genuine curiosity. He seemed happy to speak to two long-time residents, gleaning whatever tidbits of social or cultural insight we could offer.

Another campfire ended the day. There must be a latent pyromania tucked away in my marrow; I enjoy looking into a campfire, savoring it, looking for pieces to move around so as to burn just a little more efficiently.

DAY 61, July 21, Sunday

After returning from the “wilderness” of Yukon and Alaska, Coram and environs seem to be a return to civilization, or at least so says Val. So we are eating out a good bit, and today had breakfast at a B+ place in Hungry Horse that had excellent huckleberry pancakes with huckleberry syrup. Back at camp we took showers and Val readied herself for a solo trip over to Whitefish, while I decided to hang around camp. I washed and dried dishes, washed clothes, wrote a couple of post cards and this journal (I’m often a day or two behind), hung with the hounds, split a little wood, and got a wee bit worried when Val called to tell me that the park assist light had come on.

She returned, but the light had not come back on, so we decided to let it go. I’ll call the Hattiesburg Chevrolet dealer tomorrow to tell them about it so that if the problem returns, possibly they would fix it on warranty since we will be a couple thousand miles beyond warranty when we actually roll into Hattiesburg.

Around 5:30 we drove over to the park and enjoyed watching all those cars exiting the park. We parked at a pull-out and did a good piece of the one hike we have done together every trip I have made to Glacier, the Upper McDonald Creek hike. The trail flows along the creek (really a small and briskly running river), is basically flat, and is quite scenic. It would have been a shame to be here over a week and not do that gentle hike. The creek has rapids and one very impressive waterfall, where you don’t want to trip, and where a conservative 16 quadrillion photos have been taken over the years.

We got back around 8:30, had grilled cheese sandwiches and chili for dinner, sat by a campfire, and held the pooches.


Alaska Days 56-58

DAY 56, July 16, Tuesday

I got up a little after 6 and snuck out so as not to disturb Val so that I could meet my Kalispell hiking buddy Brett for breakfast. Kalispell is about 25 miles from our campsite in Coram, and we had a big Sykes breakfast and a too brief visit before he had to go to work. He has hiked every trail in the park, over 2,000 miles, and is an excellent wildlife photographer. My favorite shot of his is an owl flying head on right into the camera. Last year we went to the east side of Glacier and hiked to Firebrand Pass, a 10 or so miler at the top of which the steady wind was so strong that you could drop a rock the size of your big toe from head level and it would land three feet away from the point at which it would have landed had it fallen vertically. We almost had to yell to each other due to the wind noise. Our toughest hike was probably Mt. Brown Lookout, a little over 10 miles up and back down with 4,200 feet of elevation gain, about 16% average. Last year I asked him if he were going a little slower than normal to accommodate my old man pace. He gently said, with a tinge of embarrassment, “maybe just a little.” Why is it that all these revelations of encroaching decrepitude continue to surprise me?

I got back to our camper around 930 and then Val and I went to her favorite breakfast place, Montana Coffee Traders in Columbia Falls. We returned to camp and finally managed to fix the broken rivet on the roof of the camper. The ladder, though only four feet, is a necessity, and I had considered not even bringing it. We have also learned of things that are not necessities, or at least so far have not been: the four foot table, the tent-like Clam, the solar panel, and even the generator. We’ve used the Clam once, the generator about twice, the table and solar panel not at all. Admittedly the latter two are up in the Thule roof carrier and are thus a pain to get down. However, we are bound to have increasingly warm days as we return through the lower 48, and that generator could come in handy for air conditioning whenever we are dry camping, at least for a couple of hours. Many places restrict generator usage to certain hours—a good rule. The solar panel at least keeps the camper battery charged, and is fine for our LED lights, but 110 outlets would still be useless without the generator.

We also went into Whitefish for a while, a very upscale tourist magnet and I bought a Going-to-the-Sun biking jersey, feeling a little guilty about it since I have not actually done that ride. But I’ve driven it at least a dozen times, so maybe that counts for something. We also went to the Visitors Center in the park to look at hiking opportunities. We needed to stay where we still had phone connection since there was the unlikely possibility of the Chevy place calling to tell us to bring the car in for diagnosis of our problem. That did not happen, however, and so I built an evening fire while Val made a delicious frying pan pizza.

DAY 57, July 17, Wednesday

I left about 7:15 for the Chevy dealership in Kalispell. The diagnosis was a failed shock absorber, causing the air compressor to constantly try to adjust for the weight or lack of it in the rear. They could overnight a shock from Reno, and possibly the car could be good to go by Thursday afternoon. I drove to Hungry Horse for breakfast.

In the afternoon she drove me over to the park where, after some struggle, we found where the Apgar Lookout trailhead was. It is a 7.2 mile out and back hike with just under 2000 feet of elevation gain, or 10% average grade. I crossed paths with a 73 year-old retired Air Force guy who had started up but soon came back, concerned about bears since he was walking alone. It was an understandable concern, and if I had thought I was the only person on the trail I would have done the same, especially since the foliage was not six inches off the trail and varied from knee high to shoulder high. I suggested we hike together, to which he gladly assented, and we talked the whole way up and back down. The temperature cooled as we ascended, and it was quite windy at the top, from which the view was pretty spectacular: forested mountains all around, including some below us, small lakes here and there, and a tiny little thread that was the trail far below. My ignorance of flowers is vast and deep, but there was Indian Paintbrush and several other colorful species along the trail from perhaps midway on up. We also saw a dusky grouse, though at the time we thought it was a ptarmigan. For the last mile or so coming down it rained, but we both had rain gear.

Val came back and was waiting to pick me up after about three and a half hours. It continued raining lightly at camp so I didn’t make a fire. Instead we went to Columbia Falls for a fine Mexican dinner.

It was a fine day.

DAY 58, July 18, Thursday

About 1 am I suddenly had a vicious inner thigh cramp, pretty much the same ones I occasionally have from cycling if I don’t drink enough or take electrolyte pills when the distance is long and the weather warm. Apparently I hadn’t drunk enough during and after the hike. I’ve talked to some of my biking friends, and we have agreed that these are not just “darn, that hurts” pains, but screaming pains like you’re on the rack in some chamber of the Spanish Inquisition. It’s also frightening because you don’t know how long they will last. Val gave me a Gatorade, which I downed quickly to get it into my system. I did not bring electrolyte pills from home, but sure wish I had. Happily these sharp, wrenching pains didn’t return. Val said that any neighbors awakened by all my noise must either think we were having—or at least I was having—incredible sex or that she was killing me.

Again we had breakfast at Montana Coffee Traders. I actually had more than I could eat, which would come as a surprise to many, not least a now deceased Southern Gentleman friend from the 70s who once said at a dinner party that I ate like a field hand. I took it as a compliment.

We had the dogs, and we ran a few errands in Kalispell before taking the car in for its new shock in the early afternoon. It’s not as if you can tell a difference driving, but there may be some test when we hitch up again and see whether there is much or any sag between car and camper. But a problem was officially diagnosed and repaired and so we feel pretty good about it. The dogs waited patiently with us in the waiting area of the dealership.

The four of us did a short stroll in Lone Pine State Park, essentially a single mountain on the edge of Kalispell where I have hiked before. There are some panoramic views of Kalispell from the top. Unlike national parks, dogs on leash are allowed on the trails that crisscross the mountain.

By now it was 5 pm and the dogs had been with us throughout the day. We ordered a to go pizza from Moose’s, a favorite Kalispell haunt with peanut shells all over the floor. We drove back to camp, 25 or so miles, fed the hounds, and ate pizza at our picnic table. Then we drove over to the park, sans dogs, did a little shopping at Apgar village, had huckleberry ice cream, saw a rufous hummingbird, came home, and called it a good day.

Alaska Days 53-55

DAY 53, July 13, Saturday

After a fairly spare breakfast at McDonalds in the Wal-Mart, we got the ladder out and taped over the broken rivet as a stopgap against rain and departed Fort St. John. The day stretched out until about 6 pm, after yet another day of 360 miles. However we are well poised to cross the border into Montana and reach our Coram campground a few miles from Glacier’s West entrance tomorrow. It should be an easy day of about 130 miles. Val also was able to add one more night, making our stay there five nights.

The day was uneventful, though the heavy traffic of both Edmonton and Calgary was unpleasantly surprising, especially for a Saturday. Obviously a lot of Albertans are on the move. We continued across the prairie, and just like yesterday, the yellow glory of those canola fields in the bright summer sun simply dazzled.

We are camped in Oldman River Provincial Park near Fort McCleod in a shady spot. As usual with these parks, there is no hook-up, so it was a little warm but not hot in the camper for a little while.

I should mention that Leo and Lucy are taking all of this rather well. Home would probably be better, they have assured me, but seeing new places is pretty cool, the camper isn’t as free-ranging as the house but isn’t bad, and we sleep pretty much most of the time wherever we are.

It is 930 pm right now. The sun is low in the west, there are gorgeous pink and grey cumulus clouds floating low along the horizon, a still-blue sky is slipping into dusk, and a gibbous moon is rising in the southeast about 20 degrees above the horizon.

DAY 54, July 14, Sunday

We got a fairly early start leaving the Fort McCleod area of Alberta for what turned out to be about 180 miles to Coram, Montana, where we have reservations for six nights. Val managed to get video on her ipad of two commentators calling the Wimbledon Championship match between my guy Federer and Djokovich. Unfortunately, there was no live video of the actual match itself that we could get, and even what we did get did not give a continuous signal since we were on the move. In fact, I missed the whole last hour of the match, including Roger having two match points in the fifth set, but ultimately losing. The agony of defeat.

I drove the second half, but Val got us over the border, since she seems more innocent. The prairie of Alberta slowly melded into more mountainous terrain, and Val had the trickier mountain roads. We passed a whole herd of bison—a couple hundred. I drove down the east side of Glacier, apparently at an appropriately glacial pace since everyone wanted to pass me, and I would pull over where I could to let them do so. Almost before I knew it we went by the very familiar West entrance. We passed through Coram to go to a car wash in Columbia Falls, and after five or six cycles, and elbow grease, both camper and Tahoe were mostly clean.

Since it was only around three o’clock at that point, our plan was to get to our campsite, un-hitch, and go over to the park, if only to get huckleberry ice cream and some information. But for several days now we have noticed from both the exterior and from the inside of the camper that the rear of the Tahoe and the front of the camper seem lower than they should be. That seemed confirmed when the front edge of the flip jack would touch the ground at an angle, not allowing it to fully extend and lock in the vertical position. We consulted Val’s always-helpful brother Kevin and we considered our options. After considerable discussion, he suggested that we raise the rear of the car by driving up on two boards, lifting the hitch high enough to allow us to lower the flip jack properly. But complicating things is the fact that we must move from our present site to another site tomorrow, as we had to do in Homer. The new site is currently occupied, so we may be stymied until tomorrow when that person moves out. Also we need to dump before taking up our new residence. Let me re-state that since it is such an excretory image and may offend poets and other sensitive types: We need the dump station to empty our black and grey tanks before taking up our new residence. For that matter, now that I have waded into this discussion—metaphorically—let’s reconsider the RV lingo: What about discharge, or offload, or even simply empty?

Anyway, we decided not to un-hitch, discharge tomorrow morning, move to the new site around 11 (check out time for the current occupant), unhitch then, then drive to the Chevrolet dealer in Kalispell where we will change oil and air filter, rotate tires, and, I profoundly hope, fix our problem. In other words, pretty much the whole day, and that’s assuming they can see us tomorrow at all.

Val made quesadillas for supper and I washed dishes outside. She washed three loads of clothes with more to come. Weather is great, the female mosquitoes are at some out-of-state professional conference, the campground is quiet and quite satisfactory, and we have high hopes for tomorrow. It’s 10:20 now and actually dark!

DAY 55, July 15, Monday

The morning played out as I described yesterday, and we decided that we actually might prefer the new site, though both are fine. We unhitched, of course, and thus for the first time in several nights we were able to get the camper level from front to back. It had been a challenge climbing up the hill from the camper’s bathroom to my bed at the back.

We arrived at the Chevy place with dogs in tow at our scheduled time of 1 pm. We changed oil but did not need to rotate tires or replace the air filter after all, both of which we had done outside of Banff on the way up. I’ll spare my legions of readers the grim details, but we have a rear suspension problem. They will do diagnostics Wednesday morning (too busy til then), order parts which might make it by Thursday, and hopefully fix it either Thursday pm or Friday. That’s the optimistic scenario, so we have paid for an additional three nights here, which happily were available. The good news is that we are 1200 miles from being out of warranty, so whatever work is necessary will be paid by GM rather than me.

We left the dealer somewhere around 4 and had lunch at Willows Huckleberry in Hungry Horse. They had bison, elk, and mosquito burgers, and so, ever open to culinary novelties, I went with the mosquito burger. It was rather expensive since it takes five mosquitoes to make one burger, and they fly them in fresh from the Yukon to insure adequate size and flavor. It was pretty good, but a little chewy, which I attributed to all the ligaments and tendons and stuff. It tastes like chicken.

We went back to camp, hung with the dogs a bit, put them in the camper, and went over to the park around 630, since our camp is only 7 miles from the entrance. We sat on a bench at Apgar overlooking Lake McDonald and got back to camp around 730.

Alaska Days 50-52

DAY 50, July 10, Wednesday

We left the more or less abandoned RV park around 10, after I chatted with a retired couple who were travelling all over the continent for a year on their two Triumph motorcycles, hers a 900cc and his a 1900cc. Back in the day I had a 500cc Triumph on which—being the idiot an 18 year old can be—I hit 118 mph on what at that speed was an undulating road to the beach. It’s a true wonder I’m here writing to myself today. Anyway, the couple were on quite the adventure heading toward Alaska. There is certainly a spectrum of adventuring.

The day was bright and sunny, with blue skies and lovely cumulus clouds. Forested mountains were everywhere for much of the 361 miles, meaning curvy roads often with no lines, sometimes running beside rivers and streams. We passed some cyclists, many of whom were probably doing the whole Alcan (1422 miles) based on the heavy gear they were carrying. We stopped for lunch one place and I talked to a guy, possibly German, who was soloing from Fairbanks to San Francisco. And did I mention it was hilly, sometimes with 7% grades? Like I said, there is certainly a spectrum of adventuring.

It was a long drive, but even so I was still impressed by how much wildlife we saw: four separate black bears, one of which started galumphing across the road (disguising his potential speed) after our discourteous dogs started barking at him with the windows down. We also saw several goats, a number of bison, and a small group of caribou.

Also along this band of highway through the wilderness, there are many gravel and dirt sections, and the dust is unrelenting. On two occasions now an oncoming truck created so much dust that I had to hit the brakes because of a dust whiteout so bad that I couldn’t see 20 feet in front of me. A truck has already given us one windshield peck, an almost inevitable occurrence, especially given that the truckers wear extremely heavy boots. At Watson Lake (a very small town) we both concluded that we had had enough dust and, beautiful as the scenery is, we just would not want to live here if only because of all the dirt and dust. In that vein, we have noted more than a couple of for sale establishments and even a few more abandoned buildings and failed, overgrown RV parks.

We arrived around 7 at our destination, the Toad River RV park, and it was one of the two or three best private parks we’ve had—a good café, excellent bathrooms, decent separation between sites, and amenities. Especially important to us after seven weeks on the road, it even had on-site dumping, allowing us to not only empty our grey and black tanks after three days of dry camping, but also to actually clean the toilet, after which we took long showers. Val prefers the known cleanliness of the camper shower, but here with clean, free, and close-by showers she had her first campground shower. Obviously we use disposable latex gloves for all the plumbing work, if just for the psychological benefit.

But the dust. We discovered that the rear window had jarred loose and slid open, a complaint about Casitas Val had seen that others had made. Today was perhaps the dustiest day we’ve experienced, and so the window came open along the way, and dirt and dust were all over my bed and on other surfaces. Val did the best she could to clean. She was so unhappy; the Casita is her baby. But it may require Stanley Steamer when we get home.

When I was a little boy and my Mom and I were visiting with my grandparents and other relatives in rural North Carolina on all those Sunday afternoons, I would ride my horse along the dirt road by their house and all around the dirt yard. This noble steed was a broom handle or more likely a tobacco stick (for hanging tobacco to be cured in a heated tobacco barn) with a stuffed sock tied to the front end, with little eyes drawn on. Probably even some kind of tail at the other end. I’m pretty sure I wore a cowboy hat and a six-shooter. A big part of making it real was creating as much dust as you could by having the tail end of the stick trailing through the dirt as you ran around, just like all the dust the TV cowboys made as their horses galloped across the plains. It’s a happy little memory. But now I’m having second thoughts about the dust. So there you go—the old man detests it, the little boy revels in it. Ain’t life grand?

DAY 51, July 11, Thursday

I think I could have spent another night at this pleasant campground, especially since we really need to wash clothes and dust-soaked sheets and cover. But Val was ready to move on, and I didn’t object so we got on the highway at about our standard departure time of 10-1030. I had breakfast at the café—very good—but Val passed, knowing the cinnamon bun place we stopped at on the way up was just 50 or so miles down the road. So we stopped again.

It was another pretty, smokeless day, not too cold, not too hot. I’m not sure what laws of motion are at work here, but somehow we drove almost exactly the same distance we’ve done for the previous three days—right at 350 miles. It’s not that we are setting out each morning to drive 350 or so miles. But we stop where there is a convenient or at least acceptable place to stay, coupled with the fact that we don’t want to stop too early if we are dry camping. It’s been a little warm to build campfires, and sometimes it’s been a little buggy. Still, we are probably spending too much time in the camper. Also, all this ridiculous writing is beginning to wear me out.

Essentially the highway, running through wilderness and the Northern Rockies, is an enormous technology desert, with no service of any kind, since the car’s signal is AT&T, as is Val’s phone. But other providers wouldn’t be any better, and certainly not mine, little C-Spire, which is fine for Hattiesburg but less so elsewhere, and really bad internationally, including Canada. I will probably switch when we get back. Anyway, RV private parks and towns are little oases in this desert, and then we can use the park’s or the car’s wi-fi. Today in Fort Nelson we tried to get reservations for Jasper NP, but despite over 1200 sites at three or four campgrounds, they were booked solid. I really thought that beginning Sunday night they would have an opening, but no, at least as of now. So we may miss Jasper this time, though we had a great little site in their Pocahontas campground on the way up. Our bigger concern is Glacier, which does offer several sites on a first come, first served basis. On shorter trips, say a month or less, it makes sense to plot out an itinerary with reservations for the major places made six or more months ahead, and just do what it takes to make sure you get there that day. But on a trip this long, projecting where you will be many weeks in advance is very hard, and possibly even undesirable. Plans can change.

We are outside Fort St. John, British Columbia, a city of 27,000, in Charlie Lake Provincial Park. The nicely wooded park itself is just fine, like most of the provincial parks, presuming you don’t need hook-up of any kind. But we had emptied our tanks and watered-up the day before, so we should be good for up to four days of dry camping. I had an enjoyable talk with a fellow camper about my age who was from Vancouver, who had been travelling in the Yukon. I do thoroughly enjoy hearing what others are doing and have done. He is travelling alone by car, sleeping in the car and occasional lodges or motels.

DAY 52, July 12, Friday

Being close to town, we had a cell signal and so the tech wizard of the family—that would not be me—checked Jasper one more time for vacancies. Finding none, we plotted a beeline for Glacier, bypassing the mountainous, gorgeous Banff-to-Jasper route we took going up. Based on the campgrounds in and around Glacier that Val found, we ultimately decided to try to get to Glacier Sunday afternoon and chose a guaranteed four nights at a private RV park in Coram, about seven miles from the West entrance. It just seemed easier than hoping to get a first come, first served, no hook-up site at Apgar, inside the park. I hope we can spend another day or two there, since we also love Kalispell, Whitefish, and surrounding area.

We drove 315 miles today, and are in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Whitecourt, Alberta, along with half a dozen or so other rigs. We got here about 730, having crossed a time zone and lost an hour. You can’t just count on a place being at exactly the number of miles you want to go, so we went a little farther today, hoping to get to the Glacier area at a reasonable time on Sunday afternoon.

We crossed from British Columbia into Alberta, and gradually the whole ecosystem changed, from more mountainous, river-laced terrain to the open prairie, and the town of Grand Prairie is well named. The countryside is appealing and relatively flat, and the jewels in the crown this time of year are undoubtedly the stunning canola fields that I came to love so much in and around Kalispell. It is beyond question the brightest, most beautiful expanse of yellow you will ever see, acre upon acre.

The highway—our first four lane highway in weeks—varied from very good to below average. A consequence of the latter was a popped rivet above the microwave. We brought drill and rivet-gun for this near-inevitability, and maybe we can get the ladder out soon and repair it.

Alaska Days 48-49

DAY 48, July 8, Monday

Though I smelled a little smoke before going to bed last night, it wasn’t bad, and today started even better, almost clear and smoke-free. But it wasn’t to last. We pulled out from our improvised and pleasant camp site about 930 after a cold breakfast plus Val’s coffee. We continued north about 60 miles to Delta Junction, the tour bus stop that got me to thinking what a tourist was, and also the end point (heading north) of the Alcan Highway, which is presumably why it is a tour stop. We had technology—the term I will use going forward by which I mean cell signal and wi-fi for the hour or so we were there. So it was north to Delta Junction and then back on the Alcan heading southeast toward Canada.

For most of the day the roads were wicked and the smoke became increasingly evil: the roads because of bumpiness, frost heaves, and a few gravel and dirt washboard sections, the smoke because it became thicker, a wee bit unpleasant to nose and eyes, and far more visible. It was greyish blue and suffused the entire landscape, settling over the trees, obscuring mountains only a few miles away, hazing over the sun. At one point we saw a couple of small fires only a few feet off the road. Psychologically, it affected us by urging us onward, not out of urgency but a simple desire to leave this behind, as it completely eclipsed the normal appeal of the scenery. We sympathized with oncoming RVs for whom this smoke might last their entire vacation in Alaska. But even without the smoke, it would be disingenuous to imply that Alaska is all beautiful scenery, extraordinary wildlife (in fact we did see a moose and her calf cross the road in front of us today), home of the most majestic of North American mountains, an outdoorsman’s paradise, and in general Eden before the Fall. The forty-ninth state is also often dusty and gritty, with tiny, not-so-quaint places you’re ready to move out of even before you’re 18, or at least so says an outsider. Like all other states, there is some obvious poverty; and aesthetically-challenged buildings, villages, and towns are common. The grit factor, in both the positive and negative connotations of the word, is high.

We went through Customs and entered Canada. Smoke doesn’t know national borders and there are also major fires in the Yukon. We may have this for several more days down the Alcan, but our thinking is that we might as well have some big travel days if the alternative is unpleasant camping caused by smoke. We covered about 320 miles over nine hours, rarely even getting to 60 mph. We found Lake Creek Government park for dry camping where sites are well spaced, vault toilets are clean, and the forest is all around. The $12 per night park is generally what I think camper-type camping (as opposed to, say, backpacking) should be. Apparently the mosquitoes think so too, and they have invited all their friends and most of their relatives to a park where housing prices are low, two-legged wild game is abundant, and it’s a nice place to raise a family.

DAY 49, July 9, Tuesday

Got up to a nice morning and the smoke seems to have somewhat abated. But enough about smoke.

I cooked pancakes outside on the Coleman stove though I could have done so on the inside stove. But it’s less cramped outside and I always make a mess that is easier to clean up outside. The pancakes were quite tasty, and the few dozen mosquitoes that fell in as I slapped them added just the right meaty flavor.

Our goal was a little campground we had seen on the way up about 100 miles past Whitehorse, Yukon, and 350 miles from our start this morning. Val and I both are ready to get on to our bigger goals, beginning with Jasper NP and then on to Glacier and Kalispell—hence the second day of long driving. The road was noticeably better, and the comparatively fewer bad places were usually marked with either flags or signs. Traffic was quite light; you could go a couple of miles without seeing other vehicles, and I went 65 miles before I was passed. This might not be so surprising except for the fact that the surest sign of aging is starting to think that speed limits are actually fairly reasonable, and if anything I am beginning to think that some of them up here, at least in Alaska, were too fast.

So we set our sights for Dawson Peaks Campground. Val called, got a message saying they had vacancies, and we hoped for a return call and ultimately a nice campground with a dump station, hook-up, and a good meal in the advertised restaurant. Hope springs eternal in the human breast, but alas, we arrived at a campground with other campers but no restaurant, laundry, showers, decent bathrooms, dump station, or wi-fi—in fact, no employees. It was like a government, or provincial, park, except that it did have sites with electric and water hook-up, while the provincial parks have (so far) clean vault toilets and free firewood but no hook-up or other amenities at all. But both the government parks and this park are nicely nestled among trees and the camp sites are sufficiently separated. Since there are no employees, this is the first private campground depending on the honor system for payment in slotted locked boxes as the government parks do. We figured we could go another day without replenishing our water tank since it’s currently a third full, and the temperature is pleasantly cool so we opted for a third night of $10 dry camping. We cooked soup inside and took the quickest of “navy” (?) showers to conserve water. For only the second night of the trip, the mosquitoes were vicious; one woman nearby was found unconscious and pallid white, clutching an empty can of Off. Her husband had to rush her to the hospital in Whitehorse for a blood transfusion. He thinks she will survive.

Alaska Days 43-47

DAY 43, July 3, Wednesday

Pure tourist day. We took a walk on the beach with the tide way out, collecting a few rocks; then to the Visitors’ Center; then lunch at a Thai restaurant; then ice cream on the Spit; then the Pratt Museum (both art and history); then sticky bun and raspberry scone at the Two Sisters Bakery; then another walk on the beach with the dogs and the tide near the full. At full moon the tides can vary by 28 feet.

We have noticed numerous Thai restaurants; even in small towns like this there are two. Talkeetna also had two, counting one on the Spur; and Soldotna, though bigger, also has two. I asked the owner of today’s restaurant if he had an explanation for this profusion, but he did not. We have not seen any Vietnamese or many Chinese or Indian—the Thais seem to have a near monopoly on Asian food. Mexican food is also rather rare; we thought it a real Southern treat to find the Mexican restaurant a few days ago in Soldotna.

There were three earthquakes around Alaska today, including a 4.7 whose epicenter was about 30 miles from here, but we never felt it. Val’s fact-finding ability discovered that 11% of the world’s earthquakes are in Alaska, including three of the six largest in recorded history, if one source on the internet can be believed. Since 1900, Alaska has had at least one 7.0 or higher every year, and 10,000 total quakes annually. I remember the great 1964 Alaska earthquake because I had been in Alaska the year before, and I think I remember a cover of Life magazine picturing the damage. That was the second most powerful one on record at 9.2 on the moment magnitude scale, which is considered a better measure of seismic power and has replaced the Richter scale. This earthquake killed over 100 people, mostly from tsunamis, one of which had a height of 219 feet near Valdez (how that was measured I have no idea), and the water sloshing effect was felt as far away as Louisiana and sank several boats there. Some Alaska villages dropped ten feet. Wow.

DAY 44, July 4, Thursday

Today is so far proving to be a rest and relaxation day. We could only schedule two nights at this RV park with hook-up, but they had a vacancy for dry camping fifty yards across the lot, and we hitched up and moved before checkout at 11. We set up the dog pen and put out the awning at least a little way since Val doesn’t like it out very far, if at all. But she is the widely acknowledged expert in regard to the official and rigorously enforced Casita Rules and Regulations Manual promulgated by the Casita Union of Lifelong Travellers (CULT for short). I’m still in fourth grade Casita-wise, so I defer.

I had my third shower and shave in three days—three days in a row! I sometimes shower in the camper, as Val always does, and sometimes in a park’s shower. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. Along the way, I have become a connoisseur of showers, at least at RV parks. I have developed the Rachal Shower Rating Scale (the RSRS), whose stringent standards would dismay almost all of the RV park owners so far encountered. The criteria are: Is the overall bathroom clean? (In the parlance of the shower industry, this is referred to as the cootie factor). Even if reasonably clean, does it seem cheerful and well constructed (as opposed to old and rundown)? What is the shower cost and time limit? (If there is a cost, there is always a time limit). Is it hot enough? Are there hooks to hang clothes on? Are there shelves to put things on? Is there at least one soap dish or corner mini-shelf inside the shower to put necessities on? Is there a handicapped bar? Is the water pressure satisfactory? Are there enough showers for the size of the campground? Is there a low shelf or stool/chair (for sitting and/or putting a foot up for drying, shaving legs, or other such duties)? Is the shower area sufficient and uncramped? I have not yet pilot-tested the instrument, but I am confident that with a few tweaks the RSRS will prove both reliable and valid and will become the standard shower-measuring instrument used in the best dissertations at the best universities, as well as within the laboratories of the shower industry.

I got some pretty good photos of an eagle at the very top of a tree today at perhaps fifty yards. It’s almost amazing what kind of magnification and resolution you can get even with a little $230 digital camera these days. Thirty years ago you had to spend almost that much—and a good bit more considering inflation—for just a single, heavy, 200 mm lens, equaling just 4x of magnification.

Homer had its July 4 parade which we watched with pleasure. It wasn’t exactly Mardi Gras, but it was just right for a small-town parade.

DAY 45, July 5, Friday

We spent a leisurely morning with ocean and mountains in clear view, with the tide moving out. I typically take Lucy and Leo for their morning constitutionals, along with their other business, as Val attends to morning camper chores—making the beds (she often makes mine), making coffee, a little straightening. In the course of my doggie duties, I chatted with a young woman who told me that so many people up here have dogs partly because of what she called village specials, meaning that dogs in the smaller villages run free and do what dogs do, and thus there are lots of dogs to be had. In these dog conversations I always brag that Val started our spay-neuter clinic as a component of our shelter in Hattiesburg and that between that and our transport program, our shelter is now a no-kill shelter, unlike the bad old days when up to 75% of our animals were euthanized. The woman mentioned that Alaska, somewhat to my surprise given its “last frontier,” pioneer reputation, is no-kill statewide, and any excess animals are transported to other places.

At 11 I departed for a beach hike, knowing that if I did not do so exercise fiend Theresa, known as The Warden, would have me whipped and thrown into solitary for laziness. This way I could leave the car for Val if she wanted to go anywhere—say, a bakery—and I told her I’d be back by 2. So I took the little access trail down to the beach, perhaps 40 feet below the bluff on which we were camped, and began walking into a breeze, one more noticeable than at our camp site, and was glad to have my windbreaker since the temperature was in the 60s. The terrain was varied: hard-packed wet sand for easy walking; dry, deep, pepper-colored sand that was harder; deep, gravelly pebbles that were also harder, and larger softball- and football-sized rocks that were trickier a well. I doubt I walked more than four miles in the three hours. As I walked away from camp, the ocean to my left was well out, and the bluff to my right got higher until it gradually became about a 100 foot cliff. High tide would come right up to it later in the afternoon. I turned around and soon watched an eagle surfing on the wind, seeming to patrol the cliff heights that were his domain.

I got back at 2 and Val and I went to a bakery for lunch and then drove back onto the Spit hoping for the eagle we saw yesterday perched on top of a house. Not there. We frittered away the afternoon until I left a little before 7 to go to a tiny little theater on the Spit where a production of Much Ado About Nothing was performed. Val chose to pass. There may have been 40 people in the audience, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was home a little before 11 and had a bite to eat and soon to bed.

DAY 46, July 6, Saturday

After four nights, we left Homer heading back up the one road that comes down the peninsula and ends there. A look at a road map of Alaska immediately shows how few major roads there are, virtually all two-lane except for some three-lane sections for passing and four-lanes around Fairbanks and Anchorage. But remarkably, the western half of Alaska is indeed frontier; there are no roads. They do not exist except for one or two little gravel 10 mile roads from one village to another, or the three roads leading out of Nome on the Seward Peninsula that go only to three other little towns. It took me a little while to realize that. The western 60% of the state is virtually road-less, and only those three from Nome that extend even fifty miles. In fact, except for Highway 11 going up to the top of the state, the roads are pretty much concentrated in the southeast corner of the state.

We drove back up through Ninilchik, Clam Gulch, Kasilof (the Russian names still persist from when the only non-native inhabitants were Russian; buying “Seward’s Icebox” from the Russians for $7 million in 1867 was surely the best deal we ever made with the Russians) Moose Pass, and a few other such places on our way to Seward, which involved going up the peninsula, then eastward, and then back down. But heading back down it got increasingly smoky and grey, and then we saw plumes of smoke on the mountainsides. It was certainly bearable, but it was unpleasant, and 23 miles from Seward we pulled off the road to assess. Seward had been a definite destination all along, but we decided we didn’t want to camp in a smoky haze, and so we turned around. After an hour or so, now heading to Anchorage, suddenly, almost magically, the sun emerged from the haze, the sky was blue, and the mountains, which earlier had been peeking through the blue-greyness, emerged clear and sharp.

Val connected with our new Virginia friends, the ones we first met in South Dakota, and arranged for us to join them in Anchorage at the Golden Nugget RV Park. I expected a welcoming committee of 20 Vegas dancing girls, but no. We had leftovers for supper, had our fifth shower in five days—we positively sparkle with cleanliness—and joined our friends in their behemoth camper (the main awning alone costs $20,000) for a pleasant evening of conversation and wine.

DAY 47, July 7, Sunday

Still no Vegas dancing girls at the Golden Nugget, but plenty of smoke as we got up this morning. I smelled it as soon as I stepped out, and it was even slightly visible at ground level in the park as a bluish, light fog. Our immediate inclination was to pack up and leave; our next-door neighbors, a fifty-ish couple from Holland whom I talked with upon our arrival, had already left. We did not un-hitch overnight, so all we had to do was unhook the power cord, stow all loose things in the camper, take the dogs for their stroll, and go.

We made another somewhat difficult decision as we left Anchorage, initially heading for Valdez. Supposedly there are 118 fires in Alaska right now (which, for all I know, may be normal for this time of year), and Val said it first: I think I’ve seen about enough of Alaska. This seems almost heretical; our friends from the night before, living considerably more comfortably, won’t even make it up to Denali for four more weeks. He seems to like to land somewhere and stay put a good bit more than I, and I think Val, like to do. Valdez was on our itinerary, but we decided to forgo it after all and avoid any smoke it might be having and make our way on back to Canada. We are in no rush, but I know that we are both looking forward to several days either in or around Glacier and Kalispell, then Yellowstone, then Tetons.

So we headed east on Highway 1 and then north on Highway 4, where we got gas and ate a modest lunch in Glennallen, a tiny burg at the intersection of Highways 1 and 4. There are only eleven highways in the whole state, conveniently numbered 1 through 11. We soon faced a fork in the road: go north on 4 to Delta Junction and then southeast to Tok, or take the Tok cutoff and head straight to Tok continuing on 1. The latter saves over 100 miles, but we had earlier heard almost unanimous advice to avoid the cutoff as a very bad road. So we chose alternative one, and soon enough wondered if it could really be worse than the Tok cutoff. I drove the first leg on scenic but mountainous, skinny roads with a good bit of oncoming traffic, half of which were RVs of some description. Val took over for a while and her stretch was straighter and flatter, but mostly disturbed by extreme roughness and frost heaves, which make whatever you are towing bounce like a rodeo bull. Still, it was pretty, and I particularly enjoyed all the wildflowers along the shoulders, especially the unfairly and harshly named fireweed, a one to three foot tall violet flower. I finished out the day at under 50 mph due to the frost heaves. Val figured if we get off this road with all the camper rivets holding we will have done well.

We passed Paxson, a village of 15 people, which apparently made it on the map either because the state cartographer was from Paxson and had certain prejudices in its favor invisible to passers-by, or because of the winter skiing and snowmobile race there that has acquired some notoriety. We were looking for a pull-out along the highway, and found one alongside a fast-moving, glacier-melt, grey river about 50 feet wide, with little mountains behind it, and their more serious cousins immediately across the road. It is our first boondocking along a highway. A few minutes ago another camper pulled in and parked about fifty yards up. We are completely off the grid—no wifi or phone signal—and, as Val said, in the middle of nowhere. But though I smell a hint of smoke, it’s actually a scenic site and an agreeable sometime alternative to gravel RV parks with another rig a dozen feet from you at $45 a night for electric hook-up and the use of their bathrooms.

Alaska Days 40-42

DAY 40, June 30, Sunday

Our third full day in Talkeetna—such a Jack London-ish name—and I drove to a nearby trailhead and took the little three mile stroll in the woods that goes around Lakes X and Y. Apparently they had run out of names and resorted to letters. The walk offered occasional glimpses and one or two full views of one of the two pristine lakes, somewhat reminiscent of Walden Pond. But mostly it was a pleasant hike through dense woods, over slightly undulating terrain on a trail a few feet wide with only a few rocks and roots. The temperature was just right, with an occasional pleasant breeze. The near silence was like stepping into a country church an hour or two after services when all the congregation have left for Sunday lunch. I heard only my own footfalls, a few chirping birds, and the pitch of flapping mosquito wings. It is interesting that only the females are bloodthirsty, in contrast to most of their four- and two-legged cousins. The cunning little gals play with your mind so much that after a while you’re not content with slapping at real mosquitoes but begin slapping at imaginary ones. The undergrowth on both sides of the trail was chest-high, and there was an occasional whiff of some conifer—not sure which—that has always been my favorite scent from cool summer mornings during vacations in Kalispell, Montana. In the last mile I came across a couple, and not too long afterward two young women and a big chocolate lab passed me. But otherwise, I had the place to myself.

The afternoon was leisurely. We had lunch in the village, walked dogs, got our propane tank filled, and drove the 14 miles to the main highway where we picked up a few groceries and Val got a frappe at a drive-up window place. There was another aviation company along the spur, and I tried to persuade Val to take one of the seaplanes that land and take off from the lake along the spur. And I think she wanted to, but she’s not a little plane kind of girl.

One other distinction of Talkeetna: It is the take-off point for flights to Denali base camp for climbing expeditions. Since at least the 50s, no one bushwhacks in to the mountain anymore; almost all climbers fly in to a base camp glacier at about 7,200 feet. The climbing season is already almost over, since as the summer progresses the snow and ice at lower points on the climb get warmer and less stable. But at the highest elevations, it can still get to 20 below or lower, with wind chill at 40 below or lower. They speak of a warm day as 10 or 15 above at 17,000 feet or higher. The coldest I ever camped was 4 degrees above, and I didn’t want to get out of my sleeping bag. That was in the North Carolina mountains when I was in grad school.

It was much cooler today with a high around 80.

DAY 41, July 1, Monday

We hitched up and rolled around to the campground’s dump station where we performed that necessary task. If anyone ever tells you that it is enjoyable and pleasant, they are Tom Sawyering you.

Leaving Talkeetna for somewhere on the Kenai Peninsula, we almost independently came to the same conclusion to alter our plans. Val’s original intent, made way back in Hattiesburg, was to join up for an RVing to Alaska confab in Chugach State Park on the peninsula for three or four nights beginning tomorrow, but it would be dry camping and the other travellers would mostly be larger rigs with little in common with us other than journeying to Alaska. With all their capacities and internal generators, dry camping is less of a challenge than it is for us. Also the smoke—more on that in a moment. We both would have been more interested if they had mostly been small, fiber-glass trailers like ours. I also like moving. From the road there did seem to be some good hikes in Chugach, but I’ll forgo that.

It bears repeating that Val is the logistics person. While we make joint decisions, she is the one who navigates and finds things, either through her Facebook connections with other Alaska travellers or through all the studying she does of books, the internet, and maps. She is great at it, and I am positively Paleolithic with all the technology. For example, our destination tonight is a parking lot in Soldotna that numerous other travellers have recommended for dry camping for up to three nights. On my own, I would never have known about it. For us it’s perfect for one night as we move on to an RV park in Homer.

The highway down toward Anchorage was excellent and the scenery delightful—snow-streaked mountains, spruce and birch forests. We went into Anchorage and got onto Highway 1, heading south for the peninsula. The road followed the Cook Inlet, with water and mud flats on one side and steep, forested, small mountains on the other. I thought of it as a little similar to the coastal highway of California, spoiled only by a little smoke from the Swan Lake fire. We went through Wasilla, a bigger town than I thought, where we had planned on dropping in on Sarah Palin. But her housekeeper said that she had left to climb Denali this afternoon and planned to go water buffalo hunting when she returned this evening, it being so light out and all. I had really hoped to see Russia from her back porch, but life is strewn with disappointments, so we loaded back up and kept heading south.

We had already been warned of smoke in Anchorage and southward; one fellow I chatted with in Talkeetna lives in Anchorage and came up to Talkeetna for a while to get away from it. By Anchorage, it was already obscuring the mountains and even making the road hazy, with signs saying Heavy Smoke and Drive With Headlights On. The nearby Swan Lake has burned 70,000 acre so far, and we saw evidence of trees burned on one side of the highway and some firefighters. Neither of us wanted to spend several days in smoke. After 265 miles from our start in Talkeetna, we reached our day’s destination, a huge Fred Meyer parking lot in Soldotna with perhaps twenty other RVs lining its perimeter, including truck campers and the usual $100k to $300k motor homes. We know our days are heaven sent, as Chris Stapleton and the Steel Drivers say: The sky was blue again, the smoke was gone at least for now, temperatures were in the 70s, and a gentle breeze meant that we could dry camp in comfort.

DAY 42, July 2, Tuesday

After going in to the Wal-Mart-like Fred Meyer store about half a dozen times this morning buying this and that, along with chatting with a firefighter and a local who worked at the Fred Meyer store, we left the parking lot and Soldotna. But not before buying cinnamon rolls, one with raisins and one not, at a highly recommended bakery. We headed for Homer, 75 miles away. Homer is our outermost point of this little adventure, though at around 6,300 miles not necessarily the half-way point.

The road down the peninsula was free of smoke, though a slight haze persists. We went through the villages of Clam Gulch, Ninilkitna, and Anchors Point (I like the mix of Sourdough and native American names), and I saw my first two eagles of the trip, though Val missed them. Homer is at the end of the peninsula and pretty much the end of the road. It’s a cool little town, definitely more than a village, resting on the banks of the Kachemuk Bay and Cook Inlet, with snow-covered mountains and volcanoes across the Bay. We got to the Ocean Shores RV Park around 4 pm and got a water and electric site close to the water but still about 50 feet above the water level, with the mountains in the distance and a glimpse of the Homer Spit. The Homer Spit is a finger of land maybe 200 yards wide at its widest that projects four and a half miles into the Bay. It’s a hopping place with shops, places to rent, places to take boat tours and fishing ventures, and what seemed like a thousand rigs of various kinds dry camping, with a few places for hook-up. It’s a good source of city income. Homer in general is definitely appealing—ocean and mountains together. The town itself rises (and rises) several hundred feet above the sea where there were some nice homes with very nice bird’s eye views of the Bay, the Spit, and the mountains/volcanoes across the Bay. A couple of the volcanoes had non-catastrophic eruptions as recently as 2006. Also Val read that just this morning there was a 4.6 earthquake 32 miles from Homer. Grizzlies, poisonous plants, volcanoes, wildfires, and earthquakes—Gee, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!

It’s 845 here now, still bright sunshine over the water, and a pleasant 63 degrees, going down to 53. Sunset is 1125 and sunrise is 453. So much darkness!

Alaska Days 36-39

DAY 36, June 26, Wednesday

We needed another day near Denali NP; three nights were not enough, especially given that each of us essentially dog-sat and did minor errands and some shopping for one of our days. But DNP had no late vacancies, and the Rainbow RV park only had the three nights we stayed. Our originally planned four, or even five, would have been perfect.

Our first technical problem of the last couple of weeks (not counting technology problems, which have been an ongoing pestilence for me, despite all of Val’s help without which I would be an innocent babe in the wood), occurred when the flip jack that we added to the manufacturer’s jack refused to roll up once the hitch receptacle was properly on the ball of the car hitch. We weren’t going anywhere if that didn’t get fixed since the jack is the third leg, along with the two wheels, of the camper. Our fiddling with it seemed unavailing until finally I took the one tool that we joked decades ago came in a Harley-Davidson tool kit: a hammer. It just required a gentle love tap and up it went. We’ll see if this problem repeats itself; our hope is that the ground was possibly not level enough and the flip jack was not quite vertical or some other anomaly.

Val took the wheel and the ride down from just outside the DNP entrance to our destination at Denali State Park, a new park just opened two years ago, was grand. Good highway, spruce trees everywhere, small rivers and large creeks, and huge mountains, though not tall enough to have snow. It was just as pretty to me as the ride into the park, at least almost. The day was very warm, though officially only in the low 70s, but the sun must add 15 degrees to that. We stopped at one of the viewing turnouts for Denali, and Val got her first view since her shuttle ride day before yesterday was too cloudy. We got a better view about 31 miles farther south, a mere half mile from the entrance to DSP. Here the mountain was 42 miles away, yet astonishingly massive, dwarfing its neighbors. Oddly, its outlines are not perfectly distinct, at least at this distance and in these weather conditions, since the whiteness of its snow and the whiteness of the clouds blend a little, and it is certainly possible that the winds on its upper reaches are blowing snow. And of course at that distance there is some haze. We’ve been told that the best time of year for viewing is February. We have now made three additional trips to this nearby viewing site, hoping for no clouds at all. The last trip over there, about 8 pm, the mountain itself seemed light blue, matching the light blue of the sky. We should get other views, and hopefully better photos, in Talkeetna tomorrow night.

Denali State Park is quite pleasant. We have a pull-through site with nice trees all around. It only has electric hook-up, but given how warm it is today, the a/c feels good, and the $30 is worth it. There were, however, several pull-outs in today’s 110 mile drive, a few of which would have been great for a night of dry camping (i.e., no hook-up of any kind and usually no vault toilets) since some of these pull-outs were right alongside the forest and a few had creeks or small rivers close by. But we were in the park, and I went on a little ranger-led walk at 3, and Val and I both went to a 45 minute talk about local animals at 7.

I wonder if I should add “explorer” to my little triumvirate of tourist, traveller, and wanderer. Or is it a separate category? I bought and have started reading a book about some of the ascents or attempted ascents of Denali and am reminded of the now derided and much clichéd reply Everest mountaineer Mallory gave for why he attempted (but failed) to climb the world’s tallest mountain: “Because it is there.” But I have always liked the answer the great 19th century explorer Richard Burton—master of 40 languages and dialects and first European to enter the holy place in Mecca (in life-saving disguise)—gave as to why he did these things that I would never think of doing: “The devil drives.”

DAY 37, June 27, Thursday

Talkeetna is a dusty, touristy, but nevertheless quaint, tiny town, sort of an Alaskan version of a quaint but non-dusty New England town. Several gift shops, cafes, a museum, a roadhouse, a small park with music venue, a little league baseball park. The end of the town, which is about four blocks long, has a few cabins on one of the three rivers that flow together here. It is quite a tourist attraction, though I’m not entirely sure why, with Princess tours both busing in and coming in by railroad, the station being 200 feet from our back door. The village, as one local called it, is at the end of a 14 mile spur from the main highway heading down to Anchorage. The spur is the only road in. We had a good pizza and salad at Mountain High Pizza Pie.

Very hot here, near 90. Shade is a much-prized commodity, and our campsite has none of it except the little we create ourselves. With a little breeze, sitting in the shade is actually quite pleasant because the humidity is so low, around 30%. For the first time on the trip we put out our “clam,” an octagonal tent-like affair with all screen siding, but even the screen is a tiny insulator, and it is hotter in it than out of it.

DAY 38, June 28, Friday

Hiking options are a little meager around here, the main one being a three miler around a couple of lakes, a hike I may do before we leave. But there is a paved eight foot wide path beside the spur road, and I rented a mountain bike. Val disapproved of my riding a road bike, urging me to take the mountain bike, apparently presuming that since we are in the vicinity of Denali, with one good view of it along the path, a mountain bike was just the thing. There were splatterings of shade along the way, but generally it felt as warm as any Mississippi day. As is my way, I underestimated the effort required by a mountain bike, underestimated the heat, underestimated the hilliness of the terrain, and overestimated my fitness, and so I was glad to get home.

We drove into the village to check out the farmers’ market, which Val quickly assessed as disappointing. There was a string band in the park, and it was quite good. We somehow managed two seats at a picnic table near the stage. Some romantic song came on and the older fellow in front of us—about my age—made some endearing gesture to the woman beside him. After all these years of connubial bliss, the romance was still there: how sweet. He would touch her face, pick up and rub her hand, and stare with unquenched intensity into her eyes. But he seemed less and less quenched, and he did it all again and again, with several ongoing smooches along the way, and I was becoming alarmed that the local constabulary might have to intervene if the situation escalated. The band started missing notes and children started asking inconvenient questions, and a dog was sufficiently concerned that it bit me on the shin. The woman, whose face I never saw, never complained, but seemed less reciprocal in her attentions, to her considerable credit.

We then went to K2 Aviation, to book a flight for me the next day to view the mountains at closer range. Val wanted to go, but she is no fan of little planes, and considers anything under a 747 to be little. So I put down $315 for an hour and fifteen minute flight, to begin at 830 tomorrow morning.

Did I mention that it was hot?

DAY 39, June 29, Saturday

We got up about 7 for the short ride over to the little airport by 8. For my flight there were only the three of us. We taxied out on to the runway, but the pilot said he didn’t like the sound of the engine, so we taxied back in. We fixed the problem pretty easily by getting another pilot, an experienced World War II veteran. His canes and oxygen canister caused him a little difficulty getting into the six seat Piper, but once he was settled we were soon in the air headed straight to Denali and its neighborhood. What impressed me as much as anything was how close the mountains were, since at a mere 11,000 feet we were flying through them rather than over them, and at one point I was pretty sure I saw a couple of spiders cavorting on one of the cliffs. But he said we were typically a half mile to a mile from eternity, though at one point we flew through a pass he called 747, alleged to be just wide enough for a 747, at which point he said we were still no closer than 1,000 feet on either side. But scale was so tricky. The best sense of scale and distance were the few other planes we saw, tiny specks, with a couple landed on the glacier. Our visibility was about 40 miles instead of the customary 100 miles, almost all due to smoke from fires near Anchorage. Virtually all the climbing parties fly in from Talkeetna rather than bushwhack for a month to get to the base of the mountain, and in so doing they start their climbs a little over 7,000 feet.

We had lunch at a little place outside of town on the Talkeetna spur where Val had breakfast, and I caught up on some writing. Also did laundry.

Alaska Days 32-35

DAY 32, June 22, Saturday

Because we didn’t want to lose our parking place by having someone park in front of our camper, thus preventing us from hooking up, we stayed in Pioneer Park’s parking lot as the hordes of runners, walkers, pushers of baby strollers, and other assorted humanity stormed the massive parking lot and prowled for a space since the race would end in the park. One small RV moved out, and we immediately hooked up and moved to his spot since it was well shaded in the afternoon, which is to say until almost midnight. We visited with neighbors and generally wiled away the day reading, writing, tending to one or two camp chores—including permanently repairing the leak that dripped on me in the middle of the night a few weeks ago.

About 8 pm, armed with backpack and rain jacket, I kissed my wife farewell and headed off to battle by walking the half-mile to the shuttle stop and riding over to a point a quarter mile from the start line at the university. Race numbers went into the 4000s, and well-wishers added to the masses. One might think that a mere 10 port-o-potties could be a wee bit minimalist for over 4,000 people, and one would be right. Possibly having overly hydrated, and definitely having a bladder whose outermost boundaries can fit in a gnat’s navel, I stood in a 75 yard long line waiting my turn and just emerged as the gun went off. I worked my way into the crowd and we shuffled and waddled forward and I crossed the start line about four minutes after the gun. It was a bit like a parade: along the route there were surely two thousand spectators cheering, barking, partying, eating, even dancing. I found two ladies of a certain age walking and talking in what seemed a casual, unhurried pace, but I was hanging on for dear life to keep up about five or ten yards back. They would have dropped me altogether had I not resorted to a 15 yard jog every now and then. Everyone, including the dinosaur, the three blind mice ladies, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow, the giraffe, and certainly all the partying spectators seemed to have a grand old time. I finished with tired thighs about a quarter to midnight, a full hour or so slower than the last time I did a 10K, with Val waiting for me at the finish line. I need to walk more.

DAY 33, June 23, Sunday

We both slept in and eventually got on the road for Denali National Park, on Highway 3 heading south. Suddenly there was a moose and her two calves at the edge of the forest but, as with the grizzly the other day, we were too close when we spotted her and missed any chance of a photo, short of slamming on the brakes and backing up with a camper. I am typically the slowest driver on the road, often well under the speed limit. But a courtesy has evolved here: you hit a clear stretch for passing and you turn on your right blinker, slow down, and sometimes even partially move over to the shoulder to encourage people to pass you, which they do often with an appreciative wave.

Since we surrendered our month-away Denali National Park reservations, Val booked three nights at the Rainbow RV Park a mile or two outside the entrance to DNP and arrived there around 4 pm. It’s the usual RV park: gravel and dirt surface, water and electric hookup, separate dump station, maybe if you’re really lucky a few trees in your campsite, anywhere from 8 to 20 feet or so separation from other rigs, sub-Motel 6 bathrooms (or what I imagine Motel 6 bathrooms to be), possible nice scenery in the distance (as here), but the immediate environs considerably less so. Picnic table, pay showers, very sketchy wi-fi. Paul B. Johnson State Park outside of Hattiesburg it ain’t, and by a long shot.

We meandered over to the park and stood in a line for bus tickets deeper into the park at the bus depot. To keep traffic down and preserve the wilderness of the park, you cannot drive more than 15 miles in to a campground at that point (where we had our original reservations beginning July 24). But you can take a bus up to 92 miles in, 184 round trip, for a 12 hour day. You can get off anytime and wait for another bus either going or coming. We decided to each go in as far as the Eielson Visitors Center, 66 miles in, and hope for wildlife along the way. All along we had planned to go in on separate days since even this 132 mile round trip is eight hours, and we didn’t want to leave the hounds alone that long. So Val goes in tomorrow, departing at 9 am, and I depart Tuesday at 8 am with a possible hike leaving from the Eielson Visitors Center, then returning on a later bus, provided room is available.

There have been some rumors that the U. S. Senate is considering a bill to move the whole park to Kentucky to make it more accessible. Alaskans I talked to are in quite a twit about this, accusing Kentucky lawmakers of a land grab, whereas those same lawmakers are saying it’s all for the public good. But the actual costs of moving Denali itself, not to mention lesser mountains and all the animals, are likely to prove prohibitive, and most commentators view the project as unlikely to be realized.

DAY 34, June 24, Monday

Today was a pretty uneventful day for me, and a full one for Val. As planned, she took the132 mile, eight hour round trip shuttle excursion into the park, while I hung around camp, took a long walk with Leo (Lucy has been feeling a little below par the last couple of days), and went to the Visitors Center and the post office. The day was cloudy, so Val did not get a view of Denali itself. When she got back to the shuttle stop, she called and amazingly my phone actually rang, so the dogs and I picked her up since it is only a couple of miles from our RV site. There are several little stores right by the RV park, and Val and I had dinner at Prospector’s Pizza.

DAY 35, June 25, Tuesday

Today was my turn to go into the park, and the weather was gorgeous, at least at the start. The grandeur and wildness of the park are quite stunning, though as with all extraordinary things, saturation can set in after enough time and make their extraordinariness seem rather passé. Still, the place is amazing, and the shuttle ride is a must for visitors, though Val and I agreed that we were happy to have chosen the 8 hour ride and not the 12 hour one—all on gravel and often quite curvy, with places where I swear we weren’t three feet from a precipitous and calamitous end. We saw Denali from about 75 miles—majestic even at that distance, but by the time we reached our turn-around point at Eielson, the whole sky was cloudy and the mountain obscured. Temperatures on the mountain have been recorded as low as 93 below zero—much colder than the coldest on Everest—and winds at 150 mph. Climbers have been blown off the mountain. I still well remember as a 14 year old staring at and being in awe of the Harvard climbers who had just returned from their six-week ascent in 1963, bearded, rugged, and somehow gigantic in my impressionable imagination. They were first to climb via the Wickersham Wall, and their VW bus said “Wickersham Wall Expedition,” and the fact that I remember that is testimony to the impression they made. You can google Wickersham Wall Expedition and see several pictures of them on or near the mountain, along with a reunion picture of most of them here a few years ago. Their ascent came exactly 50 years after the first ascent in 1913, one that required a full month just to reach the base of the mountain.

We had pretty good luck on the ride with wildlife, or at least with grizzly sows and two year old cubs. We saw one caribou at a distance, and another close, but lying down. Val saw a moose yesterday, and the driver said they saw eight yesterday, but moose in Denali have Tuesdays off, so my group missed them. The grizzly cubs were large, not substantially smaller than mama. One of them was taking a bath in a little pool of water, totally naked in front of God and everybody. In fact most of the wildlife go around naked in the park and don’t seem to think a thing about it. Custom is king.

We head out tomorrow, either for Denali State Park (not National Park) if they have a vacancy, or some spot along the road. Then on to Talkeetna, where Val wants to stay four nights.

Alaska Days 30-31

DAY 30 June 20, Thursday

Tonight (I use the term advisedly) sundown is at 1246 am, and sunrise is at 256 am, allowing two hours and ten minutes of alleged darkness. If you peek out the window about 145, you’ll still see blue sky. So here we are in our night simulators we bought at Wal-Mart.

Yesterday we concluded that reservations for Denali (the only dates available when Val reserved them months ago) were so far away—July 24, over a month—that we needed to see if we could move them up. Yes we could, surprisingly, by a little over a week; so we made a new booking for three nights beginning around July 16. Today we decided even that was too far away, a month, which would have necessitated us in effect killing time driving around Alaska to places we are pretty sure we can cover, including non-travel days, in under two weeks. So we changed our itinerary altogether, and instead of heading down toward Valdez first, we decided to continue our way north to Fairbanks, then to Denali—an easy day’s drive—on the 23d, where we have booked a private campground for three nights. Unfortunately, it is supposed to rain the three days we are there. Then from Denali down toward Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula, and then probably an out-and-back to Valdez, then back down the Alcan. As Val said, she’d certainly rather not have to kill time in one quadrant of Alaska (the one with decent roads) and then have to shortchange ourselves in the lower 48 when we know we want to spend time in Kalispell, Yellowstone, and probably elsewhere. So basically we are doing the Alaska loop backward from our original intent, losing our in-park reservations at Denali, but not spending about five full weeks here, when it took us a full month to get here in the first place.

So here we are in Fairbanks at a city park. Actually we are in the parking lot of the city park, along with a handful of other larger RVs and the first other Casita we have seen on the trip. We covered 217 miles on a pretty day and are a 5,404 for the trip.

I am still mulling over the differences among tourist, traveller, and wanderer. If you are thumbing around parts of Europe at 20 with no itinerary and your trusty Europe on $5 a Day, what is that? But today I got a pretty good idea of what a full-fledged tourist is when three different tour buses pulled into the Visitors’ Center at Delta Junction, about halfway between Tok and Fairbanks. First, they tend to travel in clumps; they make no specific decisions about their itinerary and are herded about; they seem to wear name badges; and they are not youthful. Their tendency is to see what is conventionally seen. I suspect the three terms—tourist, traveller, and wanderer—overlap considerably, but a defining characteristic of the tourist is that other than making the initial decision to make the trip, they have little or no control over the specific places they are visiting, except perhaps free time within a pre-determined city. I do not wish to disparage this however. Older people (and I am now officially one) have more time and often more affluence; and they sometimes hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near. So good for them for getting out at all. Muir, I think, may have been the best-known of the wanderers, but also Johnny Appleseed (whose real name I have forgotten) with their absence of agenda except to see, explore without guides, and lay their heads wherever they happen to end up that day—those who almost find “home” aversive because too tame, too familiar. Among fictional wanderers, I nominate Odysseus. I mean, really, twenty years to cross the Aegean?

DAY 31, June 21, Friday

There is a 10K race here tomorrow night, and some 3,500 crazies are entering. It starts at 10 pm and ends up here at the park around midnight, which of course will still be virtually broad daylight. What is this absurd fascination with entering contests? Is it to salve battered egos? To assert one’s physical prowess? Are these poor, pathetic individuals so devoid of self-confidence that they must conquer mere physical challenges to prove themselves to others, but mostly to themselves? Why so much work for a $35 T-shirt? Or for the older ones, how much is it staving off disability or worse? How much of it is the fact that the race is in Fairbanks, maybe America’s most northerly actual city, and contestants—especially non-Alaskans—want to participate in the esprit and glory of that? This ludicrous striving, this need for self-congratulation—well, it’s really rather sad.

So anyway I sign up for the race, and am the proud, smiling owner of a charming little T-shirt. I’m hoping to walk it in two hours since I haven’t run two miles, much less six, in twenty years. Apparently there will be quite a crowd of walkers.

We spent most of a hot day visiting civilization, including Lowes, Petco (in our ongoing pursuit of dog toys), an REI, and a delicious little soup and sandwich shop. At six we went to a small gathering of other folks from the lower 48 traipsing around Alaska up through the Yukon.

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