Be prepared for a lengthy account of my somewhat recent trip to Alaska with my mother. I took over seven hundred photos, although I barely wrote a word, and it remains pretty vivid in my mind. After all, what responsibility does one have on vacation besides making lasting memories? I’m pretty sure this is the longest purely recreational trip I’ve ever taken. Touring is a sort of perpetual working vacation where you are seldom strictly working or strictly traveling. My mother and I both had the same couple of weeks free, so she suggested that I buy us plane tickets with my stash of frequent flyer miles and she would pay for the rest of vacation. Not a bad deal at all. Growing up, we never really did the “family vacation” thing, at least not to the degree that most of my friends did. In the years since my father passed away, my mother and I try to make time for whimsical but educational trips together. We agreed on Alaska but promised to avoid the vapid teat of cruise ship travel. Indeed, once we started our trip and occasionally found ourselves amongst the “tagged lemmings” as they piled off the big boats and ambled to their buses, we knew we had chosen wisely. The folks in the tourist industry say that there are two kinds of people who take cruises – “the newly wed and the nearly dead.” Clearly, that is no place for an active senior citizen and her freshly single daughter.
The flight from Chicago to Anchorage was gorgeous, especially the closer we got to Alaska. I thought back to my first flight to the Northwest, when I was visiting my best friend before our junior year of college, and how I had cried quietly at my first ever glimpse of real mountains. This time, I looked down on mysterious new geography, which I later learned were glaciers and bright blue condensed ice. It was absolutely gorgeous, the skies clear as could be in the early afternoon, barely any clouds obscuring our view of the snow-covered mountains.
My mother and I have traveled together enough that trips with her are a piece of cake. We booked a couple of nights in Anchorage before we started really exploring Alaska, giving ourselves time to acclimate at a cozy bed and breakfast on the edge of town. Our first day in Alaska consisted mostly of a nice long walk, coffee at my ideal kind of cafe, the easiest local dinner possible, and an early night spent watching the Olympics. We are huge nerds for gymnastics and anything involving a swimming pool.
It was hard to get an immediate general feel for Alaska; the first person we saw on the street was a guy in full army fatigues walking a sissy little dog down the alley. The whole state continued to unfold as a charming contradiction, the likes of which confounded any previous assumptions (or counter-assumptions) we had about Alaska. In the end, we came away with not only a huge respect for the wilderness but the people of Alaska as well. We were also stunned by how vibrantly green it was there. The long summer days mean that flowers are about thirty percent larger – the average cabbage is the size of a bowling ball. Our wander through town was clouded by our jet lag (not just the four-hour time difference but the seemingly endless daylight), but we figured out the lay of the land pretty quickly. Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska, containing nearly half of the population, but it is still relatively small. Needless to say, despite being the only booming metropolis (ahem) in the whole state, everyone is incredibly friendly.
The next day, we enjoyed the included breakfast and then decided to take advantage of the free bicycles, no matter the chilly rain. We made a run to the impressive natural market, took a bike path along the creek, then eventually wound up in the commercial part of the city and found a decent strip mall Vietnamese pho spot for lunch. We headed back to the b&b for warm clothes, then set about investigating a place to stay on our return visit to Anchorage. We stopped in at the Bent Prop Inn and were sold on it instantly. The older gentlemen running the hostel were charming, the place was clean, and the renovations around us looked promising. Besides, it was full of character, unlike the corporate hotel next door where the rooms cost easily four times as much per night and the lemmings overrun the lackluster lobby. I met a guy who was fresh off work on a fishing boat – a choice occupation for hearty college students and industrious traveler kids – who then sat down on his camping pack and played the piano in the common room. He told me it wasn’t his primary instrument, but that he is actually majoring in classical clarinet performance at college. Of course. My broken heart mended a little more as I remembered that the world is full of handsome transient musicians.
We continued strolling around the city being tourists, spending quite a while inside an awesome vintage store with an adjoining champagne bar. Alaska? The guy working there took one look at us and insisted we had to visit Panorama Pizza while we were in Denali and even wrote down the restaurant’s phone number and mile marker for me. He also alerted me to the fact that the G String Orchestra, a group I had busked with in Minneapolis and stayed a night with in New Orleans, was presently touring Alaska. Alas, we were visiting several of the same towns, even the same bars, but never on the same day. My mother and I also stopped into the nearby theatre to ask after tickets for the musical whose posters we had seen all over town, a debut production based on the book Good Time Girls, which tells the story of the bordello ladies of the Alaskan gold rush. I have a massive preoccupation with both new musicals and frontier era vice, so we were definitely seeing this show. My mother is currently helping write a new musical herself, so she could even take the tickets as a tax deduction. Being a musician does occasionally have its real world perks. The owner of the theatre happened to be there, and it turned out that she and my mother both worked with all the same theatre people in Chicago back in the 1970s. We made a new friend. After more meandering, we stopped into a coffee shop and splurged on desserts, since we were planning on heating up our lunch leftovers for dinner, which we ate while watching more Olympics back at the b&b. There was one other family sharing our common area, but fortunately they were just as glued to the spectacle as we were. I devotedly watch television once every two years, so go ahead and judge me if you must.
The next day we were up early for breakfast and more fun conversations with folks from many different countries and backgrounds. The communal nature of the b&b over a hotel definitely suited us and made booking that hostel for the end of our trip seem like an ideal choice. We checked out of our room and took a city bus over to the hotel where we would be staying that night. My mother had booked a very personalized package deal through a travel agency for the main part of our trip. Considering I’m usually the one who is good at arranging travel, I appreciated not having to do the arrangements this time, although I did laugh that my vacation from touring was basically to go touring without playing shows, being in a different city every day or two. The agency did a splendid job, although the hotels were a bit fancier than our humbler tendencies would have chosen. Even so, the super fancy suite that night in Anchorage was pretty impressive, although the sub-par included breakfast the next morning gave us yet another reason to miss the b&b. Since we had to wait several hours before we could check in to our room, we headed for another wander and some soup at a hip cafe downtown. Oh, how fortunate we are to have these first world problems, having to go to brunch because our hotel room wasn’t ready yet. After years of hand-to-mouth travel, I was grateful for this very real vacation.
Eventually, after a rest at the hotel, which was far less of a walk to downtown than the b&b had been, we went out for the night. We grabbed a light dinner at the champagne bar, which of course serves oysters and is dominated by a bar made to look like a wrecked ship. It was quite an anomaly in Alaska, not just because of its Frenchness (or Mexican owner), but the sheer number of women who congregate in one room. The large doorway which led directly into the vintage shop, where you could browse with your champagne glass, certainly wasn’t chasing away the women either. I know this all sounds quite bourgeouis so far, but strangely enough all restaurants in Alaska seemed to be similarly expensive, so our posh meals were a bargain while our modest ones seemed overpriced. With that in mind, of course we opted for the kitschy oyster bar over a brew pub. Dinner was small and quick, but their was red wine and chocolate at the theatre. This was a brand new musical, so my drink served me well for the hour and a half long first act. Overall, the show was quite good and portrayed the subject matter wonderfully. They had cast an older woman as the male barkeeper and I wondered if this was a deliberate choice, considering many women who found themselves alone during the gold rush would opt to “pass” rather than take the few options open to a single female.
The next morning, we were up bright and early to catch a train. The shuttle took us down the hill to the depot, below the parking lot where rows of houses had stood until the big earthquake pushed them toward the river decades ago. The Alaska Railroad is not owned by Amtrak, although it does use some of the same equipment. The trains were far more beautiful than any I had seen in the lower forty-eight. The snack car had very high ceilings which reached as high as the comfortable observation car. Talking with one of the conductors, I learned that there is only one railway union in Alaska, whereas in the rest of the continent the passenger and freight trains are in a constant battle for the tracks. The benefits of this sort of collaboration are abundantly apparent in Alaska.
We arrived in town and were driven in a shuttle up to a very luxurious inn, which had a two-story stone fireplace in the middle of the lobby. The shuttle driver was very fun and gave us a lot of insight into the folks who choose to live in this part of Alaska. He pointed out that many people are so far to the left or so far to the right that they practically agree. We grabbed lunch at the hotel, sitting in a window with a view that stretched out over the woods all the way to the mountains. Outside, there was a patio where one could see Denali (Mt. McKinley) on a clear day. In case you’ve never heard of Talkeetna, the town was the inspiration for the 90′s TV show Northern Exposure, although the town where it was shot is actually in Washington. Our travel arrangements had included a flight in a tiny plane, but the weather made it impossible to get close enough to the big mountain. We gladly took a refund instead of a glacier flight, realizing we’d rather save the money and see the town.
Our first stop was the small local cemetery, which included memorials for those who perished during their attempts to reach the top of Denali. I spotted a free store and insisted we check it out before continuing into town. It was a tiny blue shack in the back of a gravel parking lot, but my mother is a good sport and nearly as curious as I am. Three ladies were browsing when we walked in. I glanced to my left and saw a small punk girl, then took a closer look and we both started screaming and ran to hug each other. It was the washboard player from the (now defunct) band The Homeless People, with whom I used to play on occasion. After several minutes of joyfully freaking out, I found out that their violin player had just left town, so I had arrived at the perfect time to cheer my friend up.
She joined us on a wander through town, past the general store and adjoining combination liquor store, pub, and visitor’s center. I walked her back over to the tent where someone was letting her stay on the edge of town, made sure we had each other’s phone numbers, and then carried on being a tourist with my mother. I rejoined her just in time, as she had found a place with ice cream. The lady who worked there was super sweet and even sold us a plastic bag full of a couple of loads of powdered laundry detergent. We had each packed only a week’s worth of clothing, but had forgotten detergent. My mother and I then managed to cram a whole lot of free tourism into one day. We walked around the entire town (which isn’t really too difficult), checked out the community arts building, visited the historical society, and explored a kitschy basement museum at a gift store (complete with mannequin Princess Natasha and Bigfoot – both potentially fictional). This was my first real glimpse into historic Alaska and I was already impressed with how thoroughly women were represented in the museums, both in terms of information and admiration. Bordello madames and Iditarod female pioneers are treated with the same reverence for their roles in Alaskan history. Inevitably, we also poked our heads into jewelry boutiques, gift shops, and native craft shops. Since we had arrived in town on a Friday, we were privy to some weekend festivities as well. There was a modest wooden stage in the middle of town where a rock cover band played for several hours while we finished our sightseeing within earshot. Finally, feet sore from our whirlwind tour, we sat down at a local brewery for some dinner. I was quickly becoming mightily impressed with the quality and variety of microbrews in Alaska.
It wasn’t long after we arrived back at the hotel that I was back on my feet and heading down the hill into town to rejoin my friend just before sunset. I must say that after spending a long night in the most happening local bar in town, I certainly could see how the place had inspired Northern Exposure. Assuming you were as fond of this show as I was as a teenager, you’ll understand what I’m about to say – I spent most of the evening chatting with the radio DJ and wound up spending the rest of the night with the Ed character of the town, who had listened attentively to my absurd bar-top presentation about the mating habits of angler fish. The radio DJ had given me constructive advice as I tore apart my previous relationship, but I lost him with my fish metaphor. The couple of forty year old women who I had joined at the bar thought it was hilarious, though, and the other guy earnestly watched me act out the pitiful courtship of the fishes with a cast of napkins. I took my spiteful puppet theatre very seriously, laboriously enacting the worst nature documentary ever. The hipster who had fed me Fernet all night and invited me to be his date at a wedding the next day was also puzzled by my fish show, meanwhile this other guy still listened patiently without getting discouraged. Men were like flies on garbage in that bar – I barely got to chat with the friend from out East/Oakland who I had come to see, as there were always several friendly dudes wedging between us – but this quiet fella was the only one I took seriously. My wounded heart was skeptical of everything but also open to healing.
We drove far out into the forest down five miles of gravel road, navigating the remnants of a scrap wood stage and festival site, lighting a fire in the center of his massive teepee just as the sun was beginning to rise. Alas, there was too little time for tea and freshly caught salmon. It was cold and raining, but I had finally stayed awake through the short Alaskan night. Back at the bar, I had touched base with my mother via text, so she knew I would be out in the woods and back when she woke up. She decided long ago not to worry about me and this has done nothing but strengthen our friendship and trust in each other. I got back in time to get out of my wet clothes, grab a shower, and pack. Surely none of the other adult kids traveling with their parents had gone on such an adventure; at least, I was the only one showing up at 8am in a dilapidated car and soaking wet. My mother and I had ambitiously planned to catch brunch in town, but opted for the less rainy option of eating at the hotel again. I began to observe that most menu items in Alaska seem to include fish, reindeer, and/or bacon.
I felt excellent that morning considering how little sleep I had actually gotten. We had another beautiful long train ride ahead of us, just 24 hours after the last one. We decided to have a little lunch on the train and were really impressed with how much better their food was than the meals on Amtrak. The dining car was also far more cozy and decorated, although they weren’t like this on every Alaska train. We made friends with a family who had been traveling with us since Anchorage, realizing that we had booked through the same woman and would be companions for the next week. They were a charming Southern family with two very handsome sons who were far closer to my age than most of the other vacationers we met, so we all spent a decent amount of time hanging out. Surely we were on opposing ends of the political/religious spectrum, but we bonded despite our unspoken differences. I spent some train rides looking at the older son’s photos from excursions we didn’t go on, meanwhile snapping countless photos of the train and the scenery.
We arrived at the hotel late in the evening and were informed that the only nearby place to get food that late was their restaurant. I was suspicious but we decided to give it a try anyway. The food there turned out to be incredible. I was expecting intensely superior seafood in Alaska, but nothing had prepared me for the endless supply of incredible chefs. I probably had more bizarre and delicious sauces/dressings/marinades in Alaska than any other state or country I’ve visited. Then again, how often do I eat at nice restaurants on a daily basis? We walked the short distance back to our own little riverfront cabin and got to sleep relatively early.
Alaska had so far greeted us with mostly clouds and rain, not that we were complaining after suffering the extreme summer heat in Chicago. Our first day in Anchorage, though, we awoke to beautiful weather. That city has a massive range of temperatures between summer and fall, due to its altitude and distance from the coast. For the most part, our vacation stayed at comfortable hoodie weather the whole time. We were up bright and early for a very cool paddle boat tour and another full day of trying to explore a whole town. I had insisted that we visit Fairbanks, since we were already going to be in that part of Alaska anyway and it would be novel to head that far inland. The folks who’ve settled there, especially in the gold mining era, had to be tough to endure the weather and relative isolation. Needless to say, I wanted to see it and meet their modern descendants.
The riverboat tour alone made the tour worthwhile. It was an awesome vessel, there was a float plane demonstration, a huge history lesson, free coffee and salmon spread, and in the middle of the voyage we had a field trip. On our woodland shore visit were given presentations on native customs, fur trapping, and salmon fishing. There was also a sled dog racing demonstration and a look at their training grounds. We got to see live reindeer (plus a whole lot of dead animals) and I even got to pet an actual Iditarod sled dog; check that off the list. Any doubts I had about the humaneness of hitching dogs to sleds were washed away when I saw how happy and enthusiastic the dogs were when it was their turn to pull. I was astonished. My mother and I were both glad we got such a thorough glimpse at so many parts of Alaskan culture. According to the locals, if we were only going to do one thing in Fairbanks, the riverboat tour was it.
Fortunately, we had a whole day ahead of us. That hippy who we met in Anchorage had insisted that Fairbanks had the finest Thai food in Alaska, so we decided to follow up on that. We even found the place he was talking about, and it was indeed pretty spectacular. Our quest had brought us to downtown Fairbanks, which was the particular combination of shady and nondescript which I was expecting. At least we had escaped the lemmings. We found a small free museum and checked out its humble exhibits before heading to the spectacular Alaska University museum on the edge of town. Everyone had insisted we go and it certainly impressed us. The main room on the ground floor was divided into regions of the state, with sections devoted to native tribes, wildlife, vegetation, and history. Each part also highlighted one or two notable women who made history in the area. The upper level was entirely devoted to Alaskan artists, but we barely had time to see any of it after exploring the historical section. We also took a walk around the grounds, where we discovered an outdoor Shakespeare theatre.
Our day had already been quite enriching, but we were only halfway done. We caught the shuttle back to the hotel, put on some warmer clothes, and grabbed another shuttle to Pioneer Park, a fantastic tourist trap located a little while down the road. My mother and I are wonderful roadtrip partners, as we have a huge appreciation for overblown quasi-historical roadside attractions. We were not disappointed there. Our first stop was a massive land-locked paddle boat which was entirely filled with miniatures representing the towns along the river. I’ve never seen anything like them, they were incredibly realistic and beautiful.
Another cool transplant was a presidential train car, which was lavish and old. We also checked out the performing arts space there, but the doors were locked. The site contains a number of historic buildings which have been rescued and relocated there to form a fictional town, some containing independent shops, and there is also an airplane museum. Park admission was free, so we eventually threw down a few dollars to take the rickety little train around the perimeter. I particularly enjoyed the flock of antiquated machines which could be found spread throughout the park.
Our big destination at the park was the Salmon Bake, one among a slew of unrelated all-you-can-eat restaurants with the same name. The place was mostly outdoors, although you walked through a kitschy coal mine tunnel on the way in, complete with historical tidbits. The food was incredible and made me glad I was coming to Alaska after I fell off the vegetarian wagon. I still try to moderate my meat intake, so Alaska was quite a food adventure. In addition to a big salad bar, the place had unlimited grilled salmon, prime rib, and two kinds of fried white fish… plus coffee and dessert. We walked slowly over to the theatre afterwards, stopping at another local history and relics museum on the way, where I poured over the numerous books about strong Alaskan women. Our final destination of the night was a musical about the history of Fairbanks. It was as cute as it sounds and actually pretty decent. We caught another shuttle back to the hotel and slept very well indeed.
The next day, we headed back to the train station. There was a model train room which paled in comparison to the previous day’s miniatures, but was a charming effort nonetheless. My mother and I had a delicious breakfast on the train, enjoying the gorgeous view of the river and mountains. We had fun chatting with the staff and other diners too. Out the windows, we could see rafters in the waters below and automobile bridges far in the distance, all routes we would later be taking. On the train, I had met some nice ladies who I had seen at the bar the night before, one of whom was on her way to Denali as well. When I told her what band I’m in, she laughed and said that a couple of kids working up there were really into the group. It turns out that her best friend was the one who I had already been put in touch with by a mutual friend. Small world, even in the middle of nowhere.
When we arrived in Denali, I saw the coolest looking dirty old school bus, a red and white number which had clearly been vaguely retrofitted for tourism. I soon realized with a smile that this was where we were scheduled to spend the entire next day. We arrived at the hotel, where we had a log cabin sort of room with a huge ceiling and a gorgeous view of the park. Our room overlooked a world devoid of civilization, the building placed on the edge of a hill. We settled in quickly and headed into town – a stretch of shops on one side and hotels on the other – for lunch at a Thai food cart. We met a couple of Germans who were driving around the world in an incredibly outfitted all-terrain vehicle as well as some Australian and English motorcyclists who also traveled all over the world with their vehicles.
Our big adventure of the day was a white water rafting tour. I think I was more nervous than my mother. She was a roller-coaster nut as a kid, always more of an adrenaline junkie than me when it came to anything except possibly bicycles – where I have done far stupider things. We went through the long orientation process and then got into our water-proof wet-suits. It was important that we stay dry, as the river was glacial water. We piled into a raft with many other folks, all of us opting for the less challenging but more enjoyable option of not paddling. It was a ton of fun and very splashy. Several of us took the chance to hang on the outside of the boat and float in the ice-cold water. It felt awesome, despite my suit leaking slightly. We arrived back in one piece and headed straight to the hotel to change into dry clothes.
We met up with the Southern family at the big pizza and brew pub in town, where the oldest son and I picked out drinks at the bar for our mothers before going to our separate tables to eat, catching the Olympics on the TVs over at the bar. I continued to be impressed with the local selection of beers. He and I eventually joined his brother to wander the town. I knew we all had an early park tour in the morning and that they would be good influences towards getting me back at a reasonable hour. I eventually stayed up late doing laundry, but at least I made it back to the hotel sober. While I was waiting for it to dry, though, I certainly did wander back down the hill and chat with the door guy at the closest bar for a bit. This resulted in a random ride with a friendly Serbian shuttle driver over to the staff bar which is located in an old railway car, where we picked up the end of the night drunks and subjected them to loud Balkan brass band music. The laundry wasn’t even done drying by the time I got back.
The bus trip began incredibly early in the morning, but it was definitely worth it to take the fifteen hour trip, or however long it was. We all piled in with bags of snacks and our cameras. I was simply using my smart phone on the trip, but it seemed to do an alright job. We joined the caravan of tour buses, pretty much the only non-staff folks allowed in the national park. The company is, in fact, owned by a Native-owned corporation. We had stormy but interesting weather, far more appealing than a postcard-perfect day. We saw bears, caribou, moose, and a variety of smaller animals. We saw sheep, but really they just looked like tiny white dots on the mountains. We pulled over anytime someone spotted an animal, then everyone congregated on that side of the bus with their binoculars and cameras. We also stopped to do a bit of hiking, visit the nature center, and check out the lone gift/book shop. The guy working there was dating the friend I had made on the train of course. The clouds obscured some of the larger mountains, but the scenery was still gorgeous.
We stopped for lunch at the other end of the park, at a visitor’s center which houses some cabins for guests. The food wasn’t too impressive, but there was a bar with hot drinks and a charming old man making them. There were two option during our stop, a lecture on the Iditarod or a chance to try gold mining out in the rain. The only folks who tried the latter were me, the two brothers, their father, and another ambitious couple. Wading in a river in the rain isn’t for sissies. The girl who worked there dumped a bag of dirt and rocks into our pans and it was our job to try to find any gold which it might contain. I was the only one who succeeded, finding two flakes of gold, and giving the smaller one to the brothers. We also got to see a pack of sled dogs pull a small ATV cart with a driver, which makes sense when there is no snow.
The return bus ride was interesting as well, although along the same route, and everyone surely took a nap at some point. We arrived back in town in time to search out some sort of dinner. We decided to call up Panorama Pizza and get a ride there. It was everything I had pictured and worth the trip. While we were eating, the owner was practicing tricks with his dog, including an especially impressive one where he put pepperoni on the dog’s nose and eyebrows, walked away to the bar, had a beer, and came back and told the dog he could relax and eat them. Whenever the dog came too close to a table, he would chide “Stop begging, we’re not poor.” I asked how he’d trained his dog so well, and he explained that there’s a lot of free time up there when the tourists leave. We got chatting and he hung out at our table for a while. I was supposed to meet some folks somewhere and she had a lot of internet to catch up on back at the hotel, so we parted ways there and I stayed to drink with the owner, then his brother, then my new friends when they showed up. The aforementioned friend of a friend arrived with her boyfriend and some other friends and we lingered for a while, finally heading into town in their hippy van to check out the bar at the Salmon Bake. I’d had ambitions towards returning to the Spike and checking out the mechanical bear at a local miner’s bar, but this worked just as well.
Since my first night “out on the town” had been uncharacteristically low-key (although this in itself was an adventure in terms of new experiences), I was determined to make my mark on Denali the second time around. While I didn’t get up to very much scandal on the whole, it was a pretty fun and absurd evening. At one point, somebody got me started on the new Batman movie, which soon turned into a rant about the hybrid backstories of certain characters, which spun into a history lesson about Bat Girl, which then surely became a long lecture on DC’s Elseworlds line and Marvel’s tiny 1602 series (if you are unfamiliar and fancy yourself any kind of geek, look these up). I was hopefully too tired to launch into preaching about Watchmen. As I recall, I kept the attention of a large drunken audience for at least a half hour in this manner. While I had been relatively well-behaved the night before, the sheer variety and volume of alcohol I consumed on my second night in town was staggering. I was never entirely wasted and I never got sick, but the hangover which haunted me the next day was clearly the bastard child of beer/ vodka/ bourbon/ tequila/ rumpleminz/ mysterious blue daiquiri and far too much pickle brine. Dear liver, I owe you an apology. Thankfully, we were spending most of the next day on a bus to Seward, with a very hazy couple of stops. My mother didn’t need to tell me I shouldn’t drink that much, and my hangover was all the reminder I needed.
Our first stop was at the hotel where we had stayed in Talkeetna. This day, though, we could actually see Denali Mountain (aka Mount McKinley) from the patio. It was indeed impressive, especially after several days of being told it was somewhere out there behind the clouds. At one of the viewing points, there was a cute little mouse and a guy photographing it while ignoring the mountain. I suppose it was novel, something so small and unpopular in contrast to all the majesty around us. Our second stop was the big museum in Anchorage, which was quite impressive in size and scope. We made it to the Smithsonian section at about the time we needed to head back towards the bus, so I talked the guy at the desk into giving us passes to come back on another day. I felt clever. The bus continued South towards Seward, suddenly entering some of the most beautiful terrain I’d ever seen.
After we’d arrived, there was little chance of a wild night in Seward, as we were staying on the edge of town. The way I’d felt all day, this was perfectly fine with me. I’d hopefully learned my lesson for a little while. We drove down the same narrow highway for a long while, occasionally spotting the train tracks on which we would soon enough be traveling back to Anchorage. The hotel looked wonderful but was nothing compared to the gorgeous view, a partial riverbed stretching out before glacial mountains. We decided to treat ourselves to a gourmet dinner at the hotel restaurant, so that we could continue to stare awestruck at the surrounding terrain. I was glad to call it an early night.
The next day’s fjords boat tour was another highlight of our vacation. My mother and I are really into ships and trains, as well as food and meeting interesting strangers, so this really was a perfect choice. Just being at the port made me miss tall ship sailing enough, but being out on the boat really brought on the nostalgic yearning. I set foot on-board and instantly made eyes at one of the guys working there. I am so predictable, but far be it from me to pretend not to notice a pretty face with whom I will be spending the next eight hours on a boat. It wasn’t long before we got chatting and, once my mother found out he was an actor, he became our new friend. I had a feeling I’d found someone to paint the town with that night, and thankfully he agreed. Before I get started talking about fireworks, though, let’s start with the icebergs. I had been joking that I was planning to freeze whatever was left of my broken heart in an Alaskan glacier, but they were so beautiful that it was hard to remember any pain and my wounded heart continued to forget loss.
To some extent, I always knew there was a possibility I might live out my life without seeing a glacier, so this was an amazing experience. The whole trip was pretty incredible, skirting the shores and looking at seals, porpoises, sea otters, and countless birds. We also saw several humpback whales flip their tails out of the water and even got to see one breach. It was everything one might expect from a wildlife cruise. The water was unbelievably green with life and the terrain looked how I had always pictured the Southern coasts of South America, far greener than I’d imagined Alaska.
The geographic highlight of the tour was certainly the glaciers themselves. We pulled up near a particularly large one and listened for the cracking of the ice, watching several large pieces fall into the water. It was fascinating. Some of the crew pulled in bits of ice, which we all held in our hands, astonished at how dense it was, with very few air bubbles like glass. We all stood on the deck awestruck, astonished as well at how pleasant the air felt despite the giant wall of ice before us. At one point, we had to pass some containers of hot water to another one of the company’s other tour boats using nets. Several sea otters also came swimming alongside the boat to check us out, as the porpoises had done earlier.
Our tour guide had a definite penchant for birds, so much of the cruise was spent observing their nests and learning about their breeding habits. I had never seen a puffin before, and apparently they are rather nondescript birds for much of the year. I even spotted an eagle. We continued to observe whales, closer and more frequently than usual in fact, and watching them feed was a rare treat. We were out on the water for quite a while and had been fed a simple lunch, but at the end the boat stopped on an island for yet another all-you-can-eat salmon bake like we had back in Fairbanks. We had opted for the king crab leg option and the food was far fancier at this place. Besides, the fresh air on a boat makes food taste better on the whole. I chatted with some of the staff, who are all quite interesting and generally stranded on that island, and they hooked me up with the secret cheesecake stash. We then had a short ride on the boat back to the harbor. Strangely enough, despite championing the importance of balance in nature, the guide impartially avoided words like “evolution” and “global warming.”
The cruise arrived back in town and we meandered around the gift shops a bit. I had gotten a view of one side of town on the boat, and our shuttle ride back to the hotel gave me a feel for the rest of it. Soon after we got back, I headed into town, first taking a little hike around the hotel. My mother opted for a night in, knowing I would be safe with that actor from the boat. I met him at a bar, where I had a tremendous apple ale (not a cider, mind you) with him and some of his co-workers. They worked on the island, which is dry for employees, so they were on the path towards drunkenness on their night off. The actor gave me a late night tour of town, including a man-made waterfall and a bar or two.
When we walked up to the second bar, I saw a guy I had chatted with at the last one, while I was ordering and he was getting some shots of fireball for his friends. We struck up another conversation and I told him my fireball story, which I had been holding in since the last bar. It involved me and heartbreak, a classy dress and some heels, and a public park in Cascadia. Apparently it was a good story, because he bought me a shot of fireball once we were inside the bar. My friend and I stuck around drinking and talking for nearly an hour, at which point we ran into the guy again. “Didn’t you say you have to be on the fishing boat in like five hours?” I asked, to which he responded with a hilarious excuse about how the salmon was going into cans anyway, so it would be fine. Fishing town bars are fun, although I was glad to already have a date with me.
Outside of another bar, I played with a woman’s hula hoop for a little while, which I was complimented on the next day by one of the hotel desk guys, who had been drinking in the bar and seen the whole spectacle. The actor and I went for a little hike in the woods, bringing along a dog to protect us from wild animals; not bad foresight for two city kids. The night was cold and I made it back to the hotel before sunrise, sadly aware that his boat would surely have left for the day by the time I woke and wouldn’t return until my train had left town. We made plans to rendezvous in New York in October, when we both had already planned to return anyway. Who knows if it will actually happen.
Well, I made it home just as the sky was beginning to lighten. Our plans for the day were simply to visit the marine life center and explore town. We headed out in search of incredible brunch, seeing pretty much the entire town on our journey. We tried many places, all of which had already stopped serving breakfast before 11am. Weird. We managed to cleverly dodge the tour lemmings and had a delicious brunch at a very 1970s bar which had food. The place was already filling up with locals at noon while families began to pile into the vinyl captains chairs, the bar covered in vintage bourbon bottles and televisions broadcasting the Olympics. We eventually headed to the aquarium/museum, which was kind of a let-down after our excursion the day before. Afterwards, though, we hit up the port again and saw every corner of it as we waited for our evening train. We gawked at the big cruise ship in the harbour and visited the local bike shop, bought some snacks for the train, and finally had classy cocktails in a bar overlooking the port. Smoked salmon vodka is incredible in a bloody mary.
Our train ride from Seward to Anchorage was gorgeous, hours of stunning nature followed by watching the sun set over the water and mud flats. It made me seriously miss the Pacific Northwest, the only place I’ve ever spent time where the terrain was at all similar. We ate in the dining car again, enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery on a train line which is the only way to really see some parts of that region. The snack car was also charming and had balcony seating, something I’ve never seen on a train. I took so many stunning photos out the windows, it was difficult to choose just one to post. The sunlight was so perfect that day, plus we had many chances to lean out of the doors between train cars and snap photos. Strangely enough, I’ve never gone train hopping, so I get what thrills I can on passenger trains.
Whew. The home stretch on my long account of the awesomeness of Alaska. It’s been quite a project putting all of this down in writing, but hopefully I have done Alaska and my experience there some sort of justice. By the time we arrived back in Anchorage, we were exhausted and went to sleep as soon as we were settled in at the hostel. No wild Friday night in Anchorage for me. The next day, we first went to check out a renewable energy fair that was happening down the street. I knew the Beehive Collective was going to be there and a couple of the ladies even remembered me from previous encounters in various places. My mother and I headed to the other side of downtown to check out the weekend market, which turned out to be quite large and interesting. I suppose the weather in Alaska and relative distance from other places encourages a lot of craft-making and independent purveyors of food, so the state is very proud of its locally made products. She stayed there to explore the market while I ran back to the fair to attend some workshops. The first was on bicycle commuting in Anchorage and I finally realized what a wealth of knowledge I have about urban bike infrastructure and policies, having been a cyclist in so many cities in North America. I tried to hold my tongue for the most part, as my own personal presentation welled up in my mind, but contributed some valid outsider points. I was happy to know that the urban bicycle scene is gaining momentum in Alaska. The other presentation was on veggie oil alternatives and was also quite interesting.
On our previous visit to Anchorage, we had checked out a restaurant called The Bridge which overlooks a river full of folks eagerly fishing for salmon (some with cases of beer in tow) and decided to eat there when we came back. Entrees included all-you-can-eat crab legs, shrimp, beet salad, etc, so it wasn’t a bad deal if you showed up hungry – which we certainly did. Case in point about Alaska being different, despite the upscale nature of the restaurant, the staff got to pick the music mix, which included Devotchka and Florence and the Machine. I’m sure this novelty was lost on everyone dining there except for me. In fact, later that night at the local bar, a girl who worked there recognized me, saying that it is very seldom that they see anyone under forty dining there. Classic scenario when I travel with my mother, drinking with the waiters after hours.
Speaking of which, my mother had planned to hang out with her new theatre friend that night and talk about the old days over champagne. They had invited me along, but soon I was hanging out with the stage manager from the show, who happened to be coming out of the show as well. I was curious to see what Saturday was like in the biggest city in the state, so he guided me. It turned out to be a sad kind of terrible, almost funny. Women don’t really dress up there generally, but I saw some absurdly skimpy outfits that day. The men all seemed to up their testosterone levels as well. We found another union stage hand friend of his at another bar and with my bodyguards in tow, we watched the zoo unfold. Finally, we wound up at a calm bar. I always feel comfortable hanging out with techies.
The next day, we hit the museum again, devouring the newer Native cultures wing, which is vast and well-presented. We eventually headed to Sacks Cafe again, just in time for Sunday brunch, which had migas – something I’ve only ever seen in Texas. We eventually returned to the weekend market to continue looking for souvenirs, presents, and early Christmas gifts. I made friends with the handsome coffee guys. My mother and I then took a long walk to the other end of town for a very cool event put on at the cemetary by the local storytellers guild. Nearly a dozen actors in period costume gave monologues about the lives of people buried in that cemetery. The last two were a transvestite social worker and a prostitute, something much more radical than I expected to find in Alaska, but then my preconceptions had been getting shattered since I’d arrived. The show was so good that we decided to stay until the end and skip the ghost tour we had considered trying to catch on the other end of town.
I had also made friends with the English guy who was working at the hostel when we arrived. On my last night in Anchorage, I wanted to check out the places along Spenard, an area outside of downtown, and he agreed to accompany me. We walked the miles there, passing through a park for the first half, then poking our heads into every weird bar along the way, including an impressive little movie theatre which had a microbrewery and incredible menu.
I had made a hilarious new friend at the champagne bar the night before. She was quite drunk, dressed immaculately in tight vintage, and somehow rocking a mountain bike in her heels. She also could care less what anyone thought of her and was incredibly friendly. We bonded immediately. She told me that her boyfriend was playing at the blues night to which I was already heading, so of course we saw her there. The four of us closed the bar, in fact. They even gave us a ride back downtown. Even better, we stopped at their friend’s barbecue, where there was buffalo/moose meatloaf and a variety of incredible desserts. I don’t know if it’s the ingredients, the people, or the fresh air, but food in Alaska is just somehow better than most other places.
The traveler and I had gotten along quite well. As I began to realize the ways I had grown after the cold demise of my last relationship, I became a sort of beacon, a light in the storm of heartbreak which drew in similar castaways. This was Alaska, so keep in mind that they were all cinema-grade castaways, young and brawny and bold. The inner flame which had been nurtured back to health through reiki the night before I left NYC began to glow brighter in the midnight sun. Now to try and keep it this way. I had dismissed other suitors during my few last days in Anchorage, but could not resist another hopeless romantic nomad with a hungry heart. I certainly wasn’t surprised to find such a person staying in a hostel. I’ve come to realize that the power of our independence/loneliness as travelers can be key nourishment for each other. Positive attention in the land of few ladies is one thing, but knowing and healing one another does wonders for the heart and soul. It was a good farewell to Alaska for me.
I managed to wake up at a reasonable hour the next day despite being out quite late. My mother and I headed to Snow City Diner, the number one suggestion of everyone who had been to Anchorage. The long wait for a table was evidence enough that we had hit a hot spot. We decided to opt for counter service and it was indeed incredible breakfast. For the record, if I never eat Reindeer again, I won’t be too sad about it. I had gotten an email that morning from the guy I had spent time with in Talkeetna, who happened to be in Anchorage that day. Somehow, I managed to reconnect with someone who has no phone and lives in the woods. He stopped by the diner to see me and then walked us down to the waterfront before heading back to the woods. It was certainly a surprise, but a good one.
We wandered the waterfront a bit, then hit the gift shops for one last search. I think I nearly finished my Christmas shopping for my family… well, except for my mother, who clearly doesn’t need anything from Alaska. During our last trinket excursion, we ran into the family with whom we had been traveling for the first couple of days; very appropriate. We then decided we might as well take the trolley tour, for a final view of Anchorage. The highlight of the long drive around the city was definitely the boat plane docks. We had been told numerous times that about sixty percent of Alaskans have their pilots licenses, and it seems appropriate considering the ratio of wilderness to people. After the trolley, we headed for the Hotel Captain Cook, where we planned to close out our trip with a cocktail and an appetizer. It was possibly the fanciest place in town (yet not exceedingly expensive), with a view of the entire city. Already dressed for flying in my heaviest and most casual clothes, I would have been embarrassed to go to such a classy place anywhere else but Alaska. I practically begged the door girl to admonish us for being under-dressed, but nobody up there appears to care if you look classy no matter where you are. Buildings are not terribly high in Alaska, so it was a bit of a shock to be even twenty something stories high. We smiled at a trip well-traveled and toasted to our time together.
We checked out of the hostel and they gave us a ride to the airport. Traveling exclusively via train, boat, and motor coach, I had forgotten how uncomfortable airplanes could be. I was sure that small vehicles, especially the touring van, were going to come as a rude surprise. I tried to reflect on our time there. I suppose what really impressed me about Alaska was how much respect its residents have for the environment. There is a clear awareness of the delicate balance that keeps fish in the water and animals in the wild, especially among those who kill them for a living and the businesses who are kept afloat by ecotourism. I could write pages more about our visit to Alaska, but suffice it to say that it exceeded my expectations and I could certainly see myself traveling back there in the summer months some day, possibly even for work.