Alaska Days 3-5

DAY 3, May 24, Friday

After two nights, we departed Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, around 9:30. Typical routine for a departure from a campsite with full hookup: Walk dogs. Eat breakfast, usually oatmeal or cereal, but sometimes pancakes. If waste tanks are anywhere close to full, or if in the far more likely situation Val decrees that she wants empty tanks, put on rubber gloves and empty the black tank (15 gallons), then the grey tank (32 gallons). Using the “dirty” hose, clean the dump hose and stow both in bin for that purpose. If the site does not have an individual dump site, go to the dump station when leaving the camp. Put sanitizer in toilet. Unhook the “clean” hose and stow in Tahoe. Unhook the power cord and stow in its location in side of camper. Switch refrigerator to propane. Make sure all outside items are stowed in Tahoe or camper. Hitch camper to Tahoe and avoid swearing as much as possible. How people did/do this without a partner or rearview camera is one of those eternal mysteries. Check brake and turn-signal lights after plugging in hitch power cord (a different one) to back of Tahoe. Get in Tahoe. Set Odometer A to zero to record day’s mileage. Review route and consider any alternatives. Drive.

Today’s route had us crossing the Ouachita mountains for over 50 miles—some steep hills and very curvy. It’s wise to pay attention to the road directional signs and the recommended speed. We took two hours for the first 70 miles, no doubt annoying the speedier drivers behind us. This was a day where we did not know a specific destination, thus hoping for a vacant campsite somewhere around Tulsa, 300-ish miles away. But flooding and Memorial Day weekend had lots of folks camping for fun or escaping the floods, and the state park we were hoping for was full, as were several private campgrounds on the west side of Tulsa (technology and apps are wonderful except when they’re not). Some Wal-marts and other businesses allow overnight camping, but there is no hook-up, and so you are dependent on your generator for A/C, and the generator may make it six hours before needing re-fueling. Today was hot and we were happy to find at the last moment a private RV park on the east side of Tulsa—well worth $35 just for the A/C. We hope to be in the Mt. Rushmore area in about three days, but Custer State Park, where we have reservations, had between one and two feet of snow and their power was out as of yesterday. But hope springs eternal.

DAY 4, May 25, Saturday

Leaving east side of Tulsa, OK at 9:30. Long day in the Tahoe—430 miles—but pleasant, easy driving on sometimes rough four-lane and interstate across the prairie, but little traffic and very flat. Most of it was straight up through Oklahoma. Val is having trouble with inflammation in her eyes, and she called Donna to go to the house and get the name of the prescription medicine she used last time. Jim called it in for her and we will pick it up tomorrow in Kearney, NE. So nice to have good friends! We arrived at a really pretty campsite in Henderson, NE around 6:30. Lots of mature trees, including what I think were silver maple, nice little lake, and considerable bird activity, including robins, red shouldered blackbirds, and killdeer. This camp had the nicest bathroom and showers I’ve seen in a campground. Val is particularly good at doing the technological navigation and logistics of finding campgrounds, especially with the help of the Allstays app. But my competence is improving, though she has to tell me a lot. Doing this solo—driver and navigator in one—seems as if it would be quite challenging. Lots of the campgrounds are full due to Memorial Day weekend and some local flooding, especially in OK. Thanks to cell phones—still an amazing concept to me—we can do all our calling from the car, though some of the campgrounds don’t answer, and they are reluctant to hold a site for you unless late in the day. We had our first campfire tonight as it was pleasantly cool, in high contrast to the 91 degrees of the previous day. The dogs enjoyed bounding through the grass and large trees, a level of activity somewhat unusual for Lucy. Cooked veggie hot dogs on our butane grill, supplemented with baked beans and salad.

DAY 5, May 26, Sunday

Another long day in the saddle. We left this cute little private campground around 9 and lit out for the territories, 427 miles worth. Some of it was on interstate, but the vast majority of it was rolling on two-lane roads across the prairie, sometimes flat or rolling hills, but sometimes through lumpy hills that looked for all the world like sand dunes with grass. Sure enough, they were called sand hills. Traffic was almost non-existent, and Val confessed to being a little creeped out after hours of such driving. You could go a score or more miles without seeing a house. The highways tended to be straight, and often you could see where the arrow-like highway, often seriously rough, crested over the hilly horizon at least two miles distant. No state parks being available, we stayed at a pricey KOA, had pizza at their little snack shack, and noticed cooling weather. The oatmeal cap came off in our pantry drawer that we had made, and Val had a time cleaning it all as I was out walking the dogs.

Alaska Days 6-8

DAY 6, May 27, Monday

We left the KOA just outside Badlands National Park, South Dakota, after dumping at the dump station and discovering that one of the bolts supporting the grey tank pipe had apparently sheered off, diminishing by half the support for the plastic pipe. We managed to get the nut off with a little difficulty, press the bolt up through the Casita frame bar’s hole and re-attach the nut. We are concerned that all the bumpiness and occasional bouncing, or porpoising, is challenging for bolts and rivets alike. But the fix was adequate, though it bears watching. A three-eighths bolt instead of a one-quarter inch bolt would be better. We then drove through Badlands National Park on the way to our destination of Custer State Park, roughly 127 miles away. The Badlands seem forbidding and yet majestic with these other-worldly rock formations, mostly rounded, but others spire-like, with deep valleys separating them. The day was cold (around 50), windy, and rainy, so the park did not show at its best, which on a sunny day is often near sunset when the colors—mostly yellow and red on the stone but surrounded by brilliant green grass—pop out. I felt a little guilty giving the park such short shrift, but it wasn’t even on our original itinerary, so I got over it. At one point we needed something out of the Thule roof carrier, and I was beginning to worry that we were not going to be able to close it and would have to go the rest of the trip with it tied down or something. When closed, a rod goes through a hole in a bar at the front and back as well as attaching in the middle. Anyway, we managed to close it. This trip will be a real test of my stoicism and patience, and I really am working on that. But frustration comes easily to me, I am ashamed to say. At least I am aware of it, trying to be a little cooler under duress.

We then went to super touristy Wall, S. D., famous for its “drug” store, which is really a large complex with a restaurant and gift shops with all sorts of knick-knacks as well as some useful items. We had lunch there and had some cake doughnuts. I also enjoyed the western art on the walls—the kind where there is some dramatic or perilous situation, sometimes reflecting a passage from a western novel. One good example was that of a wounded or possibly even dying man in the arms of his wife in the mountainous wilderness, with her staring not at him but into the distance. The title was something like “Yes, I Love You,” presumably her words to him, but possibly being said with less than total conviction as she contemplates her own fate. Does she leave for possible help many days away? Does she die in this lonely wilderness? Does she have a gun? Or does she stay and either nurse his wound or wait for him to die?

From there we left for Custer State Park, mostly on an interstate with an 80 mph limit. But for part of it there was dense fog, dense enough that you had to be almost at a road sign before you could read it. I was only doing 62, and certainly hoping no idiot doing 80 would plow into me, or, by contrast, I would not plow into someone stopped or going too slow. But we did fine and arrived at Custer in rain. Val made a nice tomato-pasta meal for supper. We set up the table, but it is a bit of a nuisance to do so and to stow afterwards. The luxury of a permanently set up table in a larger camper would be a treat.

DAY 7, May 28, Tuesday

The rain of yesterday continued, and we did little other than go to the Visitors Center and ask about possible evacuation of the park, since the creeks were raging and overflowing, and crews were putting sandbags in front of park cabins that were close to the water. One or two roads were indeed closed, but there was no evacuation. Decked out in our rain coats, we had a dessert at the Game Lodge in the park and bought a few postcards. Finally in late afternoon the rain stopped, and the camp host knocked on our door and assured Val, who had expressed her anxiety about an emergency evacuation to him, that all was well. Very decent of him.

For the second night in a row, the propane detector alarm went off the night before, or actually in the wee hours of Wednesday. It has cried wolf several times during our ownership of the Casita, and we have to get up, hit the re-set switch, fan it vigorously, turn on the overhead fan or the A/C, and hope it doesn’t come back on. Since we are plugged in to electricity, the propane tank is not even on, and the problem is common among Casita owners. Various odors, apparently including human or canine flatulence, can set it off, as can a hair dryer. Then after that little episode, and sleep had returned to all, I was awakened by a trickle of water right in my face from the ongoing rain, and Val quickly ascertained that it was coming from an exterior capped plug for the television wire. Some carpet was wet, and we sopped some of it with towels and spent the next day with the blower from the air conditioner aimed at it. During the morning of Wednesday, with it still raining, I covered the outside plug with duct tape that matches the Casita. This too is a not an uncommon problem, and Val can go to her fellow Casita cultists and find many others who have usually experienced the problem and can offer possible solutions.

DAY 8, May 29, Wednesday

Sunshine at last. The wild creeks have abated their torrid pace but not yet returned to their tranquil selves. But the sun is out and things are starting to dry out. We did two things today: We took the Wildlife Loop with the dogs and saw bison, pronghorn, mountain bluebirds (beautiful), barn swallow, western meadowlark, the ubiquitous robins, brown-headed cowbird, turkey vultures, Brewer’s blackbird, and tree swallows. The O’Neals have done this loop and the curvy, hilly ride up to Mt. Rushmore on bikes, and I am feeling like quite a wuss.

Then in the afternoon we drove to Rushmore. It was admittedly pretty cool to see “in person” what you have seen pictures of all your life. I was reminded of Cary Grant’s line in North By Northwest as he looked upon those famous four that he didn’t like the way Teddy was looking at him. Val cooked a fine pizza in the electric frying pan for dinner. We covered 91 miles today, all without the camper of course.

Alaska Days 9-12

DAY 9, May 30, Thursday

Another fine day based in Custer State Park. The bathrooms are nice and we have showered there instead of our own shower, though Val and her brother Kevin have gotten me so concerned about cooties in a public shower that I fear that if I let my bare feet touch the floor I will contract some devouring skin disease, so I wear rubber slip-ons, as I loathe flip flops. On the recommendation of a fellow camper—one far more experienced than we are in adventure camping—we decided to go see the Crazy Horse head after all. I need to look into the alleged controversy over it, namely a case of the family of the original sculptor making a fine living off of their compassion and respect for Indian culture. Val told me about it on the way over and I had to admit that it sort of soured me on it. The project was started the year I was born, 70 years ago, and yet all they have is the face, a petty pace if I’ve ever heard of one. The movie—a movie the family had total control over—was highly respectful of Indians, but it also managed to portray the three generation family of the original sculptor as borderline saints. It was almost a white-folks-doing-good-works-for-red-folks scenario—and making a good living at it.

We took the dogs back to the camper, had a very quick lunch, and high-tailed it down to Wind Cave National Park. We did the one-hour tour of part of the cave. When they turn off the lights, it’s darker than the inside of a cow’s belly in there. So far there are at least 150 miles of cave in three dimensions (not all at one level as we tend to think of a cave), all of which are under a single square mile of surface area. There is speculation that only 10% of the cave has actually been discovered.

We covered 107 miles today. The dogs were alone in the camper with A/C on for about four hours.

DAY 10, May 31, Friday

After four nights in the very pleasant Custer State Park, we began a long, three day stretch to the east side of Glacier National Park, knowing, however, that one of the two main east side campgrounds was closed and we would not be able to camp inside the park. In fact, all we could find nearby was a KOA, which, in our self-promoting vision of our pioneering selves, we tend to disdain as appropriate only for wussy alleged campers. But of course the reality is that we too are wussy campers, though our abode does not rival the palatial forty foot RVs with every amenity humankind can conceive.

We exited South Dakota into the northwest corner of Wyoming, and with some reluctance bypassed Devil’s Tower, a huge, naturally fluted monolith of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” fame. A question arises: How many of the roses do we stop and smell? It would have added another 45 miles on a long travel day, and the distance covered in a day is sometimes dictated largely by where Val can find us a place to stay that night. But the Little Bighorn Battlefield in southeast Montana was close by the highway and for me, at least, not to be missed. Also, our enthusiasm for specific sights is variable; Val, pacifist to the core and not overwhelmingly enamored of history, especially military history, came along on that one to accommodate me, which she invariably and generously does.

We had approached the site from the southeast on a long two-lane highway, US 212, through the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. The site itself is in the southeast corner of the Crow Indian Reservation. The scale of the place is considerable, far more vast than “Last Stand Hill,” where Custer and many of his men met their end. That particular area is fenced off, with gravestones placed seemingly randomly where individual soldiers, including Custer, fell. There were other officers and their men on the larger battlefield, but Custer and Last Stand Hill are the center of attention. Not far off is a circular monument to the several tribes involved, including Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, though total Indian losses were estimated below a hundred, compared to 263 of army forces. But the larger issue for me is that the Indians were defending their way of life. The Black Hills had been theirs all along; then we “gave” the land to them as a reservation. But gold was discovered there, and soon enough whites were there in droves. The army tried to expel them. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other leaders still wanted their nomadic way of life—who wants to surrender their total way of life to an invading army and, more importantly, an invading, hostile, and alien culture? They attacked white settlers and gold seekers and soon enough the army was attacking them. While we may, and should, weep for those 20 year old boys of both civilizations who lost their lives on June 25 and 26 of 1876, the more melancholy aspect of this place is the clash of cultures, and the inevitable ultimate submission of the one that descended from the first humans on this continent to the one whose technology was greater and whose roots were on a far distant continent. We left this place, both a bit subdued.

Val found us a nice Cracker Barrel in Billings—nice because most Cracker Barrels and some Wal-Marts and a few other businesses allow RVs and campers to stay overnight, no charge, provided that you don’t actually set up camp. It was our first night to boondock, i.e., living totally self-contained, with no hook-up. We had a fine Cracker Barrel dinner, walked the dogs a couple of times, and retired around 10:30, covering 330 miles for the day.

DAY 11, June 1, Saturday

We got up and had a great Cracker Barrel breakfast, then went to a nearby Wal-Mart for “provisions”—a nice pioneer way of saying a few groceries and, in my case, a new $229 Canon camera, since I think my ten year old Nikon may have gone to its greater reward. It wouldn’t charge or even turn on. Upon reflection, however, it might just be that the re-chargeable battery, which was the original battery, may have finally expired. So at some point I’ll buy another battery and hope to resurrect the camera. Again, finding campgrounds at around the 300 mile mark was tricky, and we ended up going well past Helena and Great Falls to a little city campground in tiny Valier, Montana, after a 410 mile day. We are only about two hours away from the KOA on the east side of Glacier. Tonight’s campground is right beside a large lake, perfect for jet skis and some fishing. The snow-patched Rockies loom in the far distance across from the lake. There are some annoying flying bugs called midges that look a little like large mosquitoes, but happily they are not interested in human blood. The camp host, a genial, grandfatherly but active man, said that in mid-March, a mere ten weeks ago, the temperature there was 26 below zero. It was perfect for us though, mid-seventies, and cool in the night.

DAY 12, June 2, Sunday

We slept in until about eight and had a fairly leisurely departure since our KOA destination was only about 75 miles away. But much of the road was curvy through the eastern edge of the Rockies and several miles were unpaved. At one point going downhill the Tahoe braked by dropping into a much lower gear and was revving at over 3000 rpms, whereas on flat ground it hovers around 1500. We arrived around one at a very scenic KOA on the east side of Glacier National Park since there were no “dry” camping spots in the park itself, or at least there weren’t when we made reservations a few days earlier. Dry camping, Val informs me, is self-contained, no hook-up camping in a campground, whereas boondocking is dry camping without the benefit of being in a campground, which still may have a central place for water, possibly bathrooms or at least vault toilets (OK, latrines), and a dump station. We had lunch in the camper, went to the registration/store and had huckleberry ice cream, which Val had been craving for days. In all our previous travels to Kalispell and Glacier, she had long ago acquired a taste for it. But my suspicion is that, as these things often happen, one’s liking of a thing is what it is associated with—in this case, the glory of vacationing in Kalispell and nearby Glacier over many summers.

We decided not to go into the park today and just relax, or at least catch up on laundry and writing. I am usually a day or two behind in the latter category, and while I do wish to record these days, knowing that otherwise they will simply blend together down the road, I don’t want to become overly compulsive about it especially if it gets in the way of actually doing things. I am also having trouble with my occasional Facebook posts from my phone, having thought I posted two which never actually appeared. My vast technological ignorance is a curse.

Alaska Days 13-15

DAY 13, June 3, Monday

I managed to embarrass myself yet again today. I had planned a five-ish mile hike in the park but close enough to our campground that Val could go back to our site and come pick me up. As we entered the park, I asked the ranger about bears and he said that there had been some bear activity on the trails leading in from the St. Mary entrance. Sure enough, we had not gone five miles in before we saw right on the shoulder of the road what for about one second looked like a very large, very furry dog, but in fact was clearly a young bear, which we eventually decided was a light-colored, almost blonde black bear, perhaps two years old, and presumably no longer under Mama’s protection. There were few cars on the road, and I was beginning to re-think my solo hike, the “solo” part of which the park service does not recommend. We arrived at Sun Rift Gorge, and I was not the only hiker, so Val—who considered the whole undertaking “bad judgment”—and I decided that I would go out for one hour and turn around. Within a mile or two it was clear that there were others on the trail, and it is amazing what a boost of confidence that does for a bear-phobic, bear spray-carrying soloist such as myself. The trail meandered along St. Mary’s lake, often well above it, and eventually reached three waterfalls. My hour was up about a half mile from the third, 50 foot falls, so I turned around. On the way I spotted a marmot and a rufous hummingbird, my first. The embarrassing part is that I missed a turn, or actually took a turn that led me up to the wrong parking lot. I soon realized my error since I was way too early. Then with a couple who asked me to take their picture for the grandkids, we studied a map to determine which way I should go on the road. I must have hiked a mile on the road before reaching the conclusion that I had chosen the wrong direction—an astonishingly stupid error—and knowing that Val was waiting for me and possibly worried. Happily, two rangers pulled over, and I described our car and gave Val’s name waiting for me at Sun Rift Gorge. They then drove back there to tell her where I was. I also left in the car my cycling Garmin, which would have told me actual distance, elevation, speed, and grade.

On our way back we saw another small bear—Val did—and chatted with another fellow who had also stopped and who was a great wildlife photographer, the three of us hoping that the bear would re-emerge. Val had seen him in the rearview mirror, pulled over, and got a couple of shots of him at a distance, and the three of us concluded that this was indeed a grizzly, though not a big one. Our companion showed us some of his shots—a grizz, a baby moose suckling its mother, and some beauties of a fox, the moose and fox shots being real wall-hangers. In my haste to get a shot of our bear, I unknowingly dropped my Maui Jim sunglasses, and we both heard a strange crunching sound as we drove off. Then the aha. Ever fastidious, Val insisted that to leave them there was littering, but she was not fully aware of how exceedingly fine sunglasses can be mortared and pestled under the wheel of a large vehicle, so there wasn’t much to retrieve.

Later in the afternoon we drove from the campground back into the park at St. Mary’s hoping for wildlife. Before we had even gotten out of the campground we saw a fox, and while both of us got a picture, no wall-hangers. We went several miles into and back out of the park, but no more wildlife, except for a few birds of the duck persuasion.

The day has been mostly cloudy, upper 60s, and exceptionally windy. We had sandwiches for lunch in the camper, and for a couple of hours it was really rocking and rolling with very gusty winds, at one point sounding a little like a hurricane.

DAY 14, June 4, Tuesday

Today was an easy day. I cooked eggs and pancakes in the electric skillet. Val had a couple of pancakes and a piece of toast, which, cooked that way, resembles toast from a grilled cheese sandwich. We drove up to Babb, eight miles away, and then entered the park at Many Glacier. Again, all the wildlife were shy, and other than some birds, we saw nothing. At the end of the road I did part of the hike to Red Rock Lake where the photographer of yesterday had gotten those spectacular shots of the female moose and her calf. But here is a conundrum: I don’t want Val to sit in a parking lot for two or more hours, so, like yesterday, I walked in for a an agreed-upon time and turned around, giving me a very predictable arrival time. So I went in for half an hour, probably about a mile, and turned around, for a one hour, two mile walk in the woods, with the usual scenic views. I was probably only about half a mile from the lake, and that is the frustrating part. But someone who was returning had walked the whole thing and saw no wildlife at all since so many of the birds and other animals in this particular area are extremely fearful of cameras and binoculars. An alternative is for me to take the car, leaving Val at the camper, where at least she might have phone usage, if not reliable internet access. The Tahoe, which uses AT&T, can’t get a signal at our campsite, and of course the campground service is not secure; but we did manage to get a signal through the Tahoe at Babb and managed to transfer money from our individual accounts to our joint account.

On the return from Many Glacier, we had a delightful restaurant meal at the Two Sisters Café right outside of St. Mary’s, before returning to camp and repairing a small crack in the windshield.

The daytime hours are long. Sunrise here is at 530, and first light before that; with sunset at 9:30, and it is still dusk at 10. Alaska days will be so much longer that Val made blackouts for the windows since it will likely still be dusk at midnight.

In 1963 my Boy Scout troop travelled from Raleigh, NC to DC, to NY, crossed into Canada at Niagara Falls, travelled all the way across Canada, up the 1500 miles of unpaved road on the Alcan Highway to Fairbanks, to Denali, back down the Alcan, down through California, touching into Tijuana, Mexico for a day, hiking the Grand Canyon (a redemptive 20-plus mile hike for me after failing at it two years earlier at age 12 on an earlier cross-country Boy Scout trip led by the same Scoutmaster, the incomparable John Murphy), and then a final dash from Arizona to our termination point in Cumberland Gap National Park, Kentucky. I mentally compare that trip to this trip every few days:
Then: Every night for 11 weeks on the ground in a sleeping bag, almost always in a tent, occasionally under the stars.
Now: Every night on a memory-foam single bed, in a (very small) camper with heat or a/c if needed, bathroom, and shower.
Then: Every hot meal, with maybe two or three exceptions over 11 weeks and 17,000 miles, cooked over an actual campfire; always one per day, and more often than not two. All hot water heated over a fire.
Now: No campfire meals. All hot meals cooked in an instant pot pressure cooker, a microwave, or an electric skillet. Or in a restaurant. Camper has a water heater.
Then: Travel in a used school bus whose only air conditioning is a collection of open windows, and routes are determined by paper maps.
Now: What vehicle today isn’t climate controlled? Paper maps are still in, but at least as much routing is with GPS and various apps to help with where to get gas, find Cracker Barrels or Wal-Marts, the night’s campground, etc.
Then: Youth, fairly high tolerance for discomforts, blissfully dependent on adult leadership to solve all problems.
Now: Encroaching age, arthritis, and the two of you are on your own. But also, you set your own course, stay where and how long you want, and have, perhaps, a little greater appreciation of what you’re seeing and doing.

So: Lewis and Clark we’re not, but we’re doing OK, and it’s adventure enough.

DAY 15, June 5, Wednesday

We left the KOA on the east side of Glacier around 9:20—somehow it takes us two hours or so to decamp when we have to fully un-hook electric and water, hitch up, fill the fresh water tank, and dump grey and black tanks. We were only about 23 miles from the Canadian border, and we were fully prepared to have to pull over, get out, and have the customs agents rummage for an hour or so through the camper and car. But Val’s sweet look of preternatural innocence reduced the agent to mush, asking us only the standard questions (where you’re going, do you have firearms or other weapons, do you have firewood or produce), and wishing us a good trip. We drove to Calgary where we traded for some provisions at the general store. That’s Lewis and Clark talk for buying some groceries and other odd items at a Wal-Mart. Val also went into an IKEA, a new experience for her. Calgary is big and I was pretty happy to have it in the rear view mirror.

We covered 231 miles today and are in a small provincial park for one night, then on to Banff tomorrow.

Internet and other tech services are spotty up here, and we discovered that I won’t be making or receiving calls or text because I foolishly assumed that I’d have coverage. I had added international coverage when we were in Italy, but neglected to do so for Canada. My coverage will resume when we hit Alaska, and then I hope to be able to add the coverage retroactively for our return through Canada. Obviously, for anything even remotely complicated, Val figures it out for me. It’s pathetic. The good news on the tech front is that my new camera, which does not have a cord to my computer, can load my pictures onto the computer by some internet magic but also by removing the scan disk card and putting it into the computer slot. Perhaps I will have more success with Facebook.

We meet interesting people. More on that eventually.

Alaska Days 16-18

DAY 16, June 6, Thursday

We lingered in a provincial park only a hop away from Banff this morning since check-in at Banff was not until 2pm. I cooked eggs and pancakes and Val microwaved grits for both of us and she had part of a donut and coffee. Our individual roles are solidifying: she does almost all of the cooking and dishwashing (I make too much of a mess in our tiny kitchen but I don’t mind doing it outside; at home, I do most of the dishwashing). She also does virtually all the logistics and technology. I do almost all the driving and dog-walking (at least three times per day) as well as most of the grumbling. We fairly equally share the various tasks of setting up and breaking camp, and we review routes and discuss daily agendas. I hope to improve on the tech, which would allow her to drive a little more and marginally advance my pitiable skills.

I got a fairly nice shot of part of a rainbow over rain-shrouded mountains this morning, and maybe it will make it to Facebook. But I am aware that most of us generally like people in our pictures, and scenery shots grow pretty old pretty quickly.

It’s been chilly most of the day, only about 56 at 2pm., with grey and gloomy skies all day. At 8pm it was 52, and it is supposed to go down to 34 by early morning, with rain tonight, an hour or so of snow early tomorrow morning, and then more rain all day. Val said that she was glad not to be in a tent, like the folks forty feet across the lane from us. Ditto here.

Our campground seems rather crowded to me, with sites close together in regimented rows. Even its name, Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court, in Banff National Park, is hardly endearing. But the mountain scenery is spectacular. The town of Banff is within the park, and it is young and hip and touristy. More like Whitefish, less like our beloved Kalispell. We had an enjoyable pizza dinner, did a tiny bit of shopping (I bought some hiking socks), shivered our way back to the car, and returned to our sleeping mutts in the camper.

DAY 17, June 7, Friday

Woke up this morning about 6 and it was already snowing, temperature in the mid-30s. The snow is heavy and wet, with flakes about the size of your thumbprint. It doesn’t seem to be sticking on the road, happily, as we have a few errands to run. As of 11am, it was still snowing hard.

We drove to Canmore, about 15 miles away, to get the oil and air filter changed. Unexpectedly, we found Canmore a good bit more appealing than the tourist mecca Banff (the town)—though still a little touristy, it was far less so than Banff, and had the weather been nicer, it would have been quite pretty.

We watched a DVD movie on the camper TV, a first. Knocked off about 10:30.

DAY 18, June 8, Saturday

The temperature got down to around 33 last night, and I set off from the camper for a walking trail around 9:30, with a temperature of 37. All the remnants of yesterday’s two to three inch snow were gone. The trail sometimes went by the fast-flowing Bow River and ended up somewhere close to downtown, with a final 50 foot precipitous and rocky descent down to the water. I thought better of going all the way to the water, especially since I had forgotten my walking stick. That was the turnaround point and I headed back. The trail generally had gentle undulations, though occasionally there were some double digit grades, and at one point there was a hundred yard stretch that maxed out at 21%. My bicycle Garmin claimed that it couldn’t find satellites, but somehow it could usually determine grade, so it wrongly reduced my eight-mile walk to less than two. On flat ground I was averaging about 2.5 mph, and I think my overall was about 2.0.

I saw a few birds—ducks, ravens, a downy woodpecker, and a fair number of the sparrow persuasion, though determining denominational affiliation was difficult. They may have been Jesuits, or possibly Zoroastrians.

I was damned tired after this little excursion, and it provided my legs with a good reminder that they would have to return to work when we got home. But I summoned the energy to join Val for a trip down the hill to town, where we went to a bakery, a small grocery store, a small hardware store, and then I cooled my warm heels sitting in the car while Val wandered for a little while more, using the GPS walking feature on her phone.

Alaska Days 19-22

DAY 19, June 9, Sunday

Nothing fantastic to report for today. We drove up to Lake Louise, managed to get the last parking place in the lot, and took the dogs for a stroll partially around the lake. If you are seeking solitude, this is not the place. The hordes of people make it seem a little like Bourbon St. during Mardi Gras—well, not quite that bad but bad enough. The blue-green lake is nestled among—what else—almost grandiose mountains and is backed by the immense and famous Lake Louise hotel.

In the afternoon we drove over to the town of Canmore and had lunch. The temperatures are still only mid-fifties for the highs, and so leaving the dogs in the car is so far not a problem. After a Safeway visit, we returned to our campsite, took showers, and joined some folks for cocktails. We had met them in Custer State Park and they arrived in Banff today. They too are heading to Alaska and we expect to see them at least once more along the way. The wife is about five years younger than I am and went to Meredith College, barely half a mile as the crow flies from the house where I grew up in Raleigh. Weird. But cool.

I meant to say in yesterday’s entry that we saw several elk at close range near our campsite during what I call early dusk, around 8 or 8:30. The fact that we are at the end of the row and are more likely to see wildlife is the one advantage of being in a “shared” campsite—that is, a single pull-through with hook-ups for two small campers or tents. That would be fine if you were paying a lower rate; but in fact, you are paying the same rate as those with big RVs who have the whole site. This means that: Since we were second to arrive at the site, we had to back in rather than easily pull through; therefore the dump site is on the wrong side of your camper; and third you are butt to butt with your neighbor, who may be as close as four or five feet from you. The picnic tables were three feet apart. Val tells me that this problem encourages people with small campers to lie about their size, greatly inflating it so that they will get a full campsite. I told the folks at the gate that to pay the same price is not right—apparently they don’t get it since both halves of the site have hook-up. NOT the point. The point is that they are cramming two small rigs (tent or camper) into one space and charging the same price as those with a full-sized pull-through site.

DAY 20, June 10, Monday

With no particular regret we left Banff, heading north toward Jasper, about 160 miles. The car has AT&T wi-fi, but AT&T is not always available, and in fact unless you are close to a decent-sized town, chances are you are off the grid. The ride up 93 is scenic and hilly, given the surrounding mountains. One time Val turned on my bicycle Garmin and we were at 6600 feet, 200 and some feet short of the highest point east of the Mississippi River, Mt. Mitchell. The grade maxed at about 7%, and going down the car’s grade brake assist came on and put the car in such a low gear that it hit about 4000 rpms, and was loud.

Our goal today was Pocahontas Campground in Jasper National Park, a bit over 200 miles, and maybe 20 miles beyond the town of Jasper. It was a good day to drive: light grey clouds, dark grey clouds, grey road, dark and lighter grey mountains. It was a full palette of grey, oh, maybe 50 shades or so. The campground was perfect, with lots of conifers and birch trees—a real feel of being in the woods. Hot dogs and salad for supper.

We came across a couple of places with signs cautioning us of upcoming wildlife crossing areas. I just don’t understand why they put these crossings in heavily congested areas. Why can’t they put them where traffic is low? But Nooooo, they have to put them where the wildlife want to cross.

Saw numerous cyclists along the road, which had smooth, broad shoulders almost as wide as a regular lane. I chatted with one at a place we had pulled off, and he had taken three months off to do a trans-Canada ride, from Vancouver to Halifax. His bike had hydraulic-assisted brakes (but not disc brakes) and a cleated rubber “chain,” sort of like a fan belt. Now there is an adventure.

We went a few miles north of Jasper and got a site in Pocahontas campground in Jasper National Park. This is far more like northwest camping to me. We are truly in a forest, with birch and especially evergreens all around. The sites are reasonably separated, but not arranged in the long, repetitive rows of the Tunnel Mountain campground at Banff (though other campgrounds in that park may have been more pleasantly designed). Everywhere we are appropriately reminded to be “bare aware,” meaning keep your campsite free (bare) of anything that may attract bears. Here, we were reminded at the gate of this, and sure enough the woods are dense enough that bumping into a bruin here does not seem so wild a thought.

DAY 21, June 21, Tuesday

We built a morning fire and I cooked eggs and pancakes on the electric skillet, using the generator for power. The skillet draws strongly on the generator, as you could hear it ramp up when the skillet was turned on. I was also able to wash dishes outside the bathroom 75 or so yards from our campsite since there was a large stainless steel sink with hot and cold water for that purpose. It was another pleasant aspect of this campground.

On coming in yesterday, we decided that this was a good place to spend two nights, so I looked into hike possibilities, and the girl at the gate recommended the Sulphur Skyline hike about 10 miles up the road that began at the parking lot of the popular hot springs there. I had imagined sitting in natural pools with large rocks around, but actually it was quite commercialized and looked a lot like a system of swimming pools of different temperatures. I began the hike—a well travelled one—about 12:15 and almost immediately started mouth-breathing. The hike was eight kilometers or 4.93 miles, which I’m calling five miles. The elevation gain was 700 meters, about 2200 feet, and I pretty well knew from the get-go that the grade was in the teens. I did the math, 700 meters of elevation gain in four kilometers, and the average grade for the whole hike was 16.5% up, and 16.5% down. The last couple of hundred yards, clear of the tree line, were very steep, over 25% for sure, and going down for that section was memorable–you really didn’t want to slip. While I was passed only a few times going up, I was turtle-like going down, being passed probably a dozen times. I suspect I looked practically senile as others seemed to be on a sidewalk stroll while I practiced my new mantra, rocky rooty watch your footy. Rocks and roots were everywhere and I was impressed as others seemed to blithely ignore them, almost mountain goat-like. Speaking of which, there were five mountain goats down by the parking lot, and a small black bear hanging out in the picnic area.

Dinner was veggie hotdogs with trimmings. We sat around a campground until bedtime.

DAY 22, June 12, Wednesday

We departed Pocahontas around 10:30 and drove northwesterly for about 215 miles to Grand Prairie, a fairly large town with a Wal-Mart. Today was very warm with a high of 81. We had filled up with gas at Grand Cache, but we are both fretful about gas and water, so we filled up at Grand Prairie again even though we were still three-fourths full. Val is especially concerned about dropping below a half tank. We actually thought about bunking down in the Wal-Mart parking lot (we would not have been alone), but it seemed a little grim, not to mention hot in the camper without A/C, and so we put our hopes on Saskatoon Island Provincial Park having a vacancy, which they did. We had another campfire as most provincial parks provide wood, which you scavenge from enormous piles.

Alaska Days 24-26

(Not sure what happened to DAY 23. Can’t find it. But clearly based on DAY 24, this was the day we got on the Alcan Highway, also called the Alaska Highway, at Dawson Creek, and I remember taking pictures there.)

DAY 24, June 14, Friday

The temperatures are warming and quite pleasant. Yesterday’s drive of about 350 miles, perhaps half of which was on the Alaska Highway, was mostly in the 70s and hit 81 on the car thermometer. But when we arrived at a private RV park just outside of Fort Nelson, the rain gods were having trouble coming to a majority vote, and it would rain a bit, then sort of stop, then rain some more, then stop again. Val had done the second half of the driving, and she parked with a little help from me in the rain since I was having trouble locating my rain jacket. Generally we know where we have put things, but it is amazing how easily you forget where something went if you are in a rush or, more likely, forget to mentally register where you put it. The other day I thought I was going to have to buy another rain jacket just to force the first one to make a triumphant re-appearance (they do that you know), when I finally discovered it in my backpack. It is especially a joyful experience to look for things in the Thule roof carrier, which as a general rule tends to work best when it is empty.

Today was a work day as we had decided to spend two nights here since it supposedly had full amenities. I don’t mean to be peevish, but wi-fi and internet are so sketchy up here that claims of having those services should be regarded with a jaundiced eye. In any event, the rain gods were still doing that on again, off again raining, but, ever persistent, we paid a Canadian dollar per minute (about 75 cents American right now) to wash the Casita. I was severely tempted to suggest that doing so was a waste as it would be dirty and dusty again within 200 miles, and the words “But dear” were just forming themselves when Falstaff’s advice that discretion is the better part of valor saved me. She Who Must Be Obeyed declared that her baby required a bath, and I would be a graceless cad if I did not admit afterward that by gosh it did look rather handsome.

Our next task was four loads of laundry, including one for the dogs. By the time we had completed paying for this job I could have made a significant down payment on a new washer and dryer, but clothes were clean and closet shelves could be re-stocked.

Next was taping half-inch foam strips to the front of the camper to prevent road pebbles from causing damage. She Who Must Be Obeyed had foreseen this likelihood from the experience of others, and we used almost a whole roll of matching blue gaffer’s tape in hopes that the blue shield would endure the tortures of the “chip seal” pavement, with its small rocks and frequent dust. But other parts of the road are quite pleasant and mostly free of stones except on the shoulders. Traffic is light, but where the road is dusty and pebbly, an oncoming truck can send a pinky-sized stone right at your windshield, which did indeed happen to a fellow I chatted with today.

DAY 25, June 15, Saturday

The morning was grand and we left Ft. Nelson renewed and eager. Especially eager for the “Cinnamon Bun Center of the Galactic Cluster” about fifty miles down the road. They were quite good (though missing raisins), but mainly they were huge. Not far down the road was the area of Muncho Lake which had a little diner where we had some delicious, from-scratch mushroom soup and homemade bread. Then back on the road to the Liard Hot Springs, where we donned bathing attire and waded into the warm water of the spring, all natural except that gravel had been added to the bottom. We had parked in the shade and after a short dog walk, put them in the camper with windows open. The provincial park surrounding the springs was, as expected, full, and the overflow parking across the highway was the same price with no services, and itself was fairly full. So we drove on, with the goal of entering the Yukon and arriving at the town of Watson Lake. We made it to this little gravel “campground” about 8, a dusty, dirt-gravel surface, but it does have hookup and nice bathrooms. It’s 11:25 right now and the horizon is still red, and it’s way too light for the first evening star.

Val and I seem to have entered into a contest of who can first spot the most bears along the way, generally by the forest edge. Of course it’s not quite a fair match since I’m blind in one eye and can only see half as many bears. So naturally Val had me three to zip as of day before yesterday, but I made progress today with two, and she also added to her three with two more. But one of those was a grizzly ambling along not sixty feet from the road. Traffic being light, I would have stopped for him or her, but I didn’t really see the brownish beast until we were quite close, and I wasn’t going to back up on a highway with a trailer even though there were no cars in sight either way. Val pretends that the feat of spotting five bears in two travel days is nothing at all, shrugging it off with a disdainful flip of the hand, hardly worth a mention—as common as slapping a Mississippi Delta mosquito.

DAY 26, June 16, Sunday

We departed Watson Lake around noon, after crossing the road to check out the Visitors’ Center and especially the sign forest, with some 88,000 license plates and small signs, some homemade, telling where home is. They were almost all tacked to 4×4 posts rising 12 or so feet, and finding a vacant spot even with a short ladder was a neat trick. Val, always prepared, had brought her last AHIMSA license plate and four nails to befuddle almost all comers, and we found a spot for it, spreading the word of certain religious traditions of non-violence to other sentient beings.

We are well into the Yukon now, a name that has iconic meaning for me, but whether from the 1963 trip or too many Jack London stories I don’t know. I asked the ladies at the Watson Lake Visitor Center whether it was “the” Yukon or just Yukon, and opinion seems divided. Both the ladies and I are all partial to “the” Yukon, reflecting its past as a territory and somehow adding an air of remoteness and even exoticism, sort of like “the Empty Quarter” in the Sahara, or the Yukon’s sister province the Northwest Territories. But official signs (“Keep Yukon Clean”), and thus apparently the official view, turn a cold shoulder to that potent little article “the,” I regret to say.

My image of the Yukon is that of wildness, a place where civilization’s encroachments have been kept at bay, and probably what John Muir growled about when he complained of the logging companies that “anything dollarable was at risk” (perhaps an inexact quote except for that grand word “dollarable”). But I confess that paeans to wildness coming from me at least are a mite hypocritical, given that you don’t see me wandering the uncharted forests on horseback, wearing buckskins, roasting a rabbit over a small fire, and toting a .58 caliber single shot Henry rifle, a la Jeremiah Johnson. Instead I drive through the well-charted landscape at 60 mph, in thermostat-controlled comfort, pulling my house behind me, and chatting with my best friend, my wife.

The wildlife up here in the Yukon can be dangerous. What with all the bears, cougars, bison, sasquatches, mosquitoes and whatnot, an ounce of care is worth a pound of prevention. They tell you not to look the mosquitoes in the eye, as it makes them feel threatened and thus more aggressive. Why just the other day I saw four thuggish-looking mosquitoes start a fight with a grizzly, and while the bruin ultimately prevailed in the contest, his looks were not improved by the encounter.

We had planned to go about halfway to Whitehorse, but there were no convenient campgrounds in that vicinity, so we continued on and arrived at Pioneer RV park just outside of Whitehorse late in the day, choosing one of the “dry” (no hookups) sites nestled among trees. On our way we had seen several bison and a mama black bear crossing the road with two cubs. Darned cute—from the safety of a car. Val saw both cubs, but I only saw the second cub before they were lost in the bushes, so the Bear Score is now 8-4, not counting the one I saw at the end of the mountain hike in Jasper.

Alaska Days 27-29

DAY 27, June 17, Monday

We chose to stay two nights in the Pioneer campground and RV park just outside of Whitehorse. We were dry camping, which here meant that we had a nice little wooded site that we had to slither into by making about a 300 degree tight circle, then backing more or less straight into it, but with trees close by.

The day was chilly and wet, though not exactly raining, or at least not raining constantly. We left the dogs in the camper and headed into Whitehorse. First stop was the somewhat restored S. S. Klondike, a paddle wheeler that plied its way up and down the Yukon River carrying provisions and gold from Whitehorse to Dawson City and back again. It would have made Mark Twain warm inside to see that steamboat, as he too had been a cub river boat pilot and for a short while a pilot, had written Life on the Mississippi about his sometimes hilarious experiences as a cub, and if memory serves he once later in life said that it was the most satisfying work he ever did. Learning to “read the river” was the ultimate and arcane measure of mastery, and of course his pseudonym was itself an actual measure of the depth of the water relayed to the pilot. I enjoyed seeing some of the mysterious components of the two steam engines, and I do marvel at the genius required to design them and make them work. I also marvel at the physical strength required to load and unload all the freight and the firewood for the engines—logs four or more feet long and a foot in diameter, ten or more to a wheelbarrow-type dolly.

We then had lunch at the Burnt Toast café, right beside the far more famous Ribs and Salmon restaurant. I ventured to have a salmon sandwich, but it was a little too fishy for me. Then over to the Visitors’ Center, then back to camp to give the dogs a break. Then back into Whitehorse to a pastry shop where I also posted the last blog entry since I could use their Wi-fi, then to a grocery store, knowing that Whitehorse would be the last city we would see for a while.

DAY 28, June 18, Tuesday

It was cold in the camper this morning, 53 degrees. The camper has three sources of heat: an electric heat strip along with the A/C, a little electric heater Val bought that is quite sufficient for a small space, and a propane heater when electricity is not being used. So far we have only used the generator for electric usage once.

I cooked pancakes on our little gas grill outside, washed the dishes in a nearby sink for the purpose, and we departed at 11, bound for a private campground by Kluane Lake sort of near the dot on the map that said Destruction Bay. You might think a dot on a map might indicate an actual town, but typically that would be exceedingly optimistic. Few rise to the level of even a crossroads, since there is only the one road, the Alaska Highway. Some have a single building that might have an ancient gas pump. Some are real peek and plum towns—by the time you peek out the window, they’re plum gone.

Except for the forest of Christmas trees, and the distant Canadian Rockies, snowy and cloud-kissed, the day was another grey day. The light drizzle that is so common up here, at least so far, didn’t begin until we were at the campground and fairly settled in after a lonely drive of 150 or so miles on the very lightly travelled highway. You keep bumping into the same people along the highway because there are so relatively few places to get gas, eat, or whatever. We visited with our neighbors last night, saw them again today when we stopped for lunch (two days in a row having lunch at a café!), and then again at a little Visitors’ Center for the Kluane National Park near our campground. We are right on this enormous lake, with surrounding mountains, and the view would be great on a clear day. Grey on grey on grey, and light rain. But I’ll never forget the comment of one of Dick Allison’s seminary professors when Dick one day commented on what a rainy, yucky day it was. Oh, but it’s a perfect day for the kind of day it is, the professor cheerily replied.

Total mileage as of today, the end of our fourth week, is about 4880, and tomorrow we will break 5,000 miles as we cross the border into Alaska, bound for Tok.

DAY 29, June 19, Wednesday

It was cold, low 40s, and rainy this morning, and thus a good day to sleep in. We got up around 8:30, Val did interior chores, and I unhooked and wrestled with the stiff potable water hose in a cold drizzle. Val helped me with the latter, and we finally decided to just roll it within some semblance of roundness and put it in the car. I had oatmeal, Val had grits.

Within ten miles of our departure, 100 feet off the road, a huge grizzly had his (her) head up and almost seemed to be posing. If the black bears we have been seeing are between 150 and 300 lbs., this bruin was at least 400 and almost certainly more. He was very brown (though color is not definitive of species, since black bears can be brown or even blondish, though all the ones we have seen have been dark black) with an enormous head and body. The missed photo of this animal will almost certainly be my biggest photographic regret of the trip. I did not see him until I was about parallel with him, and had I stopped I would have had to back up a couple hundred feet with the camper. Still, I wish I had tried to do so since traffic was so light. It was so quick that Val didn’t see him at all, regrettably for both of us. It was memorable. On The Voyage of Discovery, Lewis had neglected to reload after shooting at a deer and suddenly had to retreat into a river when a grizzly charged him; or, as Lewis wryly observed, the bear was “advancing briskly.”

We drove about 240 miles today, with the morning wet and gloomy with low-lying clouds and the afternoon mostly sunny and gorgeous. We finally encountered frost heaves, sort of like dry heaves but not as enjoyable. Frost heaves are the result of winter on the road, creating sudden rises and dips, and these undulations taken at speed can be very bouncy, and particularly so for anything you are pulling. Every spring work crews add more pavement to try to level them out. In Canada many of the as yet unrepaired ones were marked with flags, but most in Alaska were not. Val, who drove the second half of the day, averaged in the low 40s, but most folks were going a little faster. She said that it was very unpleasant driving, and it is.

After waiting in almost an hour-long line at customs, we entered Alaska around 4, or 3 o’clock Alaska time, after just over 5,000 miles and 29 days. We got into a decent little campground near Tok. We would have stayed two nights but it was full the second night. In the evening we spent a full 20 minutes deciding whether to take the notoriously bad southwesterly Tok cutoff, which a woman at an earlier stop today strongly urged against, or the 130 mile longer route up to Delta Junction and then down to Glennallen. Val, in her usually capable way (at least on those not-all-that-frequent occasions when she has a cell signal), looked up what others were saying about the cutoff and the general consensus was in agreement with the lady’s advice—take the longer, though not necessarily that much slower route. It’s not often we have to choose routes on the basis of the physical quality of the road.

I’m not sure how dark it actually gets around, say, 2:30 or so in the morning, but probably not very. Sunset here in Tok is 11:48 pm, and so it’s still late dusk-ish well after midnight, and sunrise is 3:16 am. I got up around 4 am to use the bathroom the other night and it was already pretty much full daylight.

Alaska Days 30-31

DAY 30 June 20, Thursday

Tonight (I use the term advisedly) sundown is at 12:46 am, and sunrise is at 2:56 am, allowing two hours and ten minutes of alleged darkness. If you peek out the window about 1:45, 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 our in effect killing time driving around Alaska to places we are pretty sure we can cover, including non-travel days, in under two weeks. Nor is it like there are all that many places to go, given the fact that there are only eleven highways of any length in the whole state. 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 between the latter two—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 up to Tok and then, finally, back down the Alcan. As Val said, she’d certainly rather not have to kill time in one quadrant of Alaska (the one with 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 at 5,404 for the trip.

I am still mulling over the differences among tourist, traveller, and wanderer. When I was thumbing around parts of Europe at 20 with no itinerary and my trusty Europe on $5 a Day, which was that? But today I did get 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 probably 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 4,000 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 the cunning encroachments of age? 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 of course 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.

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 sadly 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 of 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 tizzy 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 mountain 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 the 132 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.

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