As soon as you get off the plane in Anchorage, you can tell something is different than in other cities. Even just doing the normal things like stopping at the coffee shop or going to Best Buy, majestic mountains stand in the distance, a subtle reminder that you are in the state nicknamed The Last Frontier.
I didn’t get off to a great start. I got “tsk’ed” in the airport. I couldn’t find my luggage. Whitney, like almost all of the people in Alaska I met, was very friendly. She helped me search. “Are you sure it’s not the blue one?” “Absolutely,” I replied. “It looks exactly like that one, same type, but it’s purple.” After searching for a while longer, she asked again, “Are you absolutely sure it’s not the blue one?” I checked. It was. Then, I tried explaining to Whitney that I did have a purple one but must have left that one in my car in Seattle. She did not believe me.
Whitney, this is for you, from Seattle.
Anchorage is a grid like Philadelphia, with number streets and letter streets, but it is massive. I like to think of it as a ranch style house instead of a two or three story house, both share the same square footage but the rancher has a bigger footprint.
There are no raised roadways in Anchorage or in Alaska. There can’t be. I later found out that Alaska essentially replaces all of the roads every three years, so if you arrive in warmer months, there will be road construction. It has something to do with permafrost. It raises up parts of the roads so they can feel like a roller coaster driving down them. The hills can get bad. I was told that if you hit the right one at the right speed, you’ll snap an axel.
I had no idea what I was doing, so I made reservations at a small hotel about an hour north of Anchorage in Wasilla, straight up Alaskan Route 1. What the city lacks in the superstructures I have come to enjoy, it more than makes up for those majestic mountains. Driving through those long, long streets in Anchorage, where even going around the block seems to take 30 minutes, had me on old route 1 going north in a light rain.
I was just trying to ease myself into the trip, find coffee, and get the feel of the loaner car…
…and I’m at a loss with these columns. The quick hits on Facebook and Instagram were easy to write. But I didn’t have time to write columns. Even going back through the glimpses, I’m still overwhelmed by the experience. Alaska is overwhelming. Is it home? What’s back east for me besides the end of this journey? But Alaska. In the moment.
It’s far too tiny on my map. At the end of each day, I trace my route in red, always planning on going back to the bigger maps one day and get all of the roads, even the ones the larger map doesn’t show. The map of Alaska on the page shows all of the roads because there are simply not too many of them. It’s just a tiny little inset map along with Hawai’i with the lower 48. Tracing those red lines doesn’t do the 40 hours (?) and hundreds of miles of driving I did.
So, I’ll just go back to the flight in, the drive up, and then the bookstore for now. The following day, I met a Facebook/blogger friend who lives in the next town over, Palmer. She showed me how her town is just like any other town in America. Her favorite bookstore, her favorite coffee shop, her suburban type housing development.
But always with those mountains in the background saying, “you’re not in Kansas anymore.” It was settling and unsettling at the same time. A normal feel, with brief nods to Covid from a state that can really cut everybody off from traveling in or out.
People were upset at the airport because they had to pay $250 for a covid test. Someone tried bitching about it to me as we went and got our rentals. I explained that I didn’t have to spend anything on my test in Seattle and that the Alaskan Travel Portal clearly explains you need to have one in three days from arriving.
But which way do I go? Late September means winter is coming, and the weather starts getting trickier. No snow yet, but rain. Alaskans, I was told, ignore the weather. I don’t. Another woman I met at the motel suggested I go south. The weather reports for Anchorage, Fairbanks and Homer agreed with her, so I made the drive down to Anchorage, stopping again at Cabella’s for the warmer gear I needed (I’d end up stopping yet again for the rain gear I needed), and then I grabbed another great cup of coffee from these drive up stands that I was told popped up all over the place in the 90’s, and headed south—but not getting too far.
Byron Glacier waited me, one of the last remnants of the last ice age. I got to the trail head and it was pouring rain, cold. I got about a minute into the trail before I realized jeans would not work and another trip to Cabella’s was in order. So, instead, I went up and to the end of the road. One of many “end of the roads” I encountered in the Last Frontier.
Whittier sits on Prince William Sound. There is a one way tunnel to get to the old Cold War Army Base. It’s unlike any tunnel I’ve driven through. It shares it with train tracks and goes up about 3 1/2 miles. There’s no finesse to it, just a hole in solid rock.
It’s a small town with a few inns, places to just get away. Great little place with a good wharf. I had dinner and a beer while waiting for my turn. The tunnel is “down” every hour on the hour–until 11–and “up” on the half hour.
Now, I just need to start adding random pictures. I went picture happy and I really need a photo editor. What I wrote in one of my posts is that Alaska is the most prolific landscape artist of all time. Sun and rain, clouds and sky, snow and mists, the rising and falling of the tides, the changing of the seasons and even the rising and falling of the sun, on a canvas that can only be called majestic, makes each day different. Each drive along a road. Even you just sit and wait, the canvas morphes into something else that is beautiful.