As I emptied my private room in the hostel in Tok, Alaska, one of the owners was in the kitchen cleaning up. Shelley was a tall, fit blonde with meticulous hair and manicured nails. She was 70 years old but looked 20 years younger. Shelley and her brother own the hostel and a Boy Scout camp nearby. In the winter, she lives in Arizona.
Shelley and I talked about my adventures and tall clothing. Both of us being tall, we bonded over our woes of not being able to find jeans long enough or cute shoes big enough to fit us.
Shelley asked me how old I was and I told her I was 38. She said, “I have a brother who’s looking for a woman. He owns his own plane, land, he’s tall, outdoorsy, and adventurous…but…he’s 65. That might be too old for you. You have to come back through Tok on your way south and when you do, let me know. We’ll go get coffee or dinner with my brother and maybe he’ll take you on a plane ride.” It was such a sweet gesture, but my dad is 65 years old and I had never been out with someone older than 32.
I enjoyed talking with Shelley – she was a fun character. I continued north towards Fairbanks.
The drive was flat and the “scenic outlooks” weren’t very scenic. I missed British Columbia and the Yukon.
I arrived in Delta Junction, the official end of the Alaska Highway, after about two hours and wanted to stop. I found a small roadhouse museum that said it was free, so I went inside.
The museum was housed in an old roadhouse that was used in the early 1900s for people traveling north in search of gold. When I walked in, I met a volunteer named Don. Don was in his 60s and enthusiastically showed me around the small cabin and explained what life was like back then.
People coming in the winter months traveled by a large, open-air sled pulled by horses. It had to be open-air or people would get sick from the smoke of the charcoal heaters at their feet. Entrepreneurs set up roadhouses so travelers had a place to sleep and eat on their journey.
The roadhouse on display was from a husband and wife team: John “Jack” and Florence Sullivan. They were both from Wisconsin, but met in Nome in 1900. They mined in the area for four years and in 1905, moved to the Valdez-Fairbanks trail and opened a roadhouse. Jack built the roadhouse himself with logs, which was a pretty amazing feat.
Don immediately started to tell me about how hard life was for women back then. He said, “You hear about the men at the time, but let me tell you about the women. Florence was up every morning at 4:30 am to get the fire going and bread baking. After breakfast was served, she’d have to change and wash all the sheets, more meals, tending to guests, and it kept going all day.”
Don explained that in those harsh conditions of the snow and cold, communities had to rely on each other. Florence was impressive. The sign explained that in 1899, she “hired two men to haul her outfit from Dawson to Nome and that she walked the entire distance, breaking trail ahead of the dog teams, preparing camp, and cooking for the party. She was considered by many to be as good a dog musher as any man in the area.”
I appreciated that Don told me about Florence and the role women played back then. Jack and Florence were both early Alaskan pioneers and I respected their adventurous spirit. It made me think about how so many people do extreme things today, like climb Mount Everest. I think we’re built with a desire to explore and experience harsh conditions, but our lives are so easy now. It often leaves people feeling unsatisfied. Don and I talked about how harsh conditions make you a better person overall. You’re stronger and have an appreciation for things in life. I’ll take Jack and Florence as role models any day over a Kardashian.
Don and I continued to talk and our conversation ventured into the world of politics: oil, taxes, California, Trump, and immigration. I had a great time hearing his perspective and experience in life. Two other people came into the museum, so I left Don to attend to them.
I drove over to the sign post that represented the official end to the Alaska highway. As I was taking pictures, a man in his 50s walked over and said, “I saw your license plate from Long Beach, CA.” He said he was from San Pedro, California but now lives in Arizona. He had been traveling in his RV for five months and recommended I go a little farther north than Fairbanks, but warned me that it’s a loose gravel road and you have to drive about 20 miles an hour or you’ll break your windshield.
The visitor center was at the signpost, so I went inside and the two girls there gave me a map of Fairbanks and many recommendations of things to do while I was there.
I continued my drive and arrived at Fairbanks about an hour and a half later. I was a little disappointed as I drove through the city to get to my Airbnb. There were random gravel driveways and a lot more cars on the road. Overall, it looked like any other American city.
My Airbnb was in the basement level of a large house. I had my own entrance and access to the stairs leading to the next level so I could do laundry. The level above me had four doors that appeared to be apartments. Above them was the main level house, where I guessed the owners lived.
My space had a small, makeshift kitchen with a microwave, mini-fridge, and a coffee maker. I had a TV with Netflix, which was nice because I hadn’t watched TV in weeks. Being a basement level in 55℉, the little studio was freezing! I turned on the heat, which felt strange since it was August.
After unloading my bags, I went to town to eat dinner and then stopped at the grocery store to pick up some food. The previous week I had spent on the road, only staying one night in each place. I booked six nights at this Airbnb so I could rest and take my time exploring Fairbanks. Just as I laid down to relax, I heard the crushing, creaking sounds from the people above my bed against the low ceiling. It was so loud and low to my head that I worried the ceiling would cave in. After such a tiring 10 days, I wanted to cry.
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I had never heard of the Alaska highway until I read these posts. I really like the imagery and your interactions. I wonder what you are learning about yourself in the process of exploring. Keep up the good work.