Days 57-58: Denali National Park

It was time for me to check out of my Airbnb and head towards Denali National Park. Living as a nomad has its challenges. I needed some refills on medications and though my doctor overnighted them to my Airbnb, they still hadn’t arrived. The owner said that overnight to Fairbanks takes about three days and she offered to ship them to me in Anchorage once they arrived.

My next motel was in Healy, Alaska. It’s only an hour and a half drive south of Fairbanks and it’s the closest city to Denali National Park. The drive was fairly flat and I missed  driving through British Columbia and the Yukon. But as I got closer to Healy, mountains appeared in the distance.

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I pulled into the deserted gravel parking lot of the Denali Park Hotel (which was actually a motel) around 4:00 pm. The lobby was in an old train car. I asked the girl at the desk what there was to do there and she gave me a map that included some hikes. She told me the motel used to be inside the park until a law was passed prohibiting accommodations inside the park. They relocated, but were able to keep the original name.

I pulled my car in front of my room and unloaded my bags in the cold wind. The motel seemed to be on a raised foundation and it sounded hollow below my feet.

It was an ok motel, but the view from my window was fantastic! A massive, beautifully majestic mountain loomed just outside.

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Despite the view, I was angry that I paid $375 for two nights there. This was the most expensive place I had stayed so far and it felt unfair that they could charge so much just because it was close to Denali. There are a few hotels right outside the entrance to Denali National Park, but they were $300-$700 per night!

There were just a few businesses (grocery store, gas station, restaurant) along the two-lane highway that ran through the tiny town. I went to the small, expensive grocery store and picked up some food. After returning to the motel to eat dinner, I turned on the TV. I watched a classic, Groundhog Day, and relaxed.

The next morning, I prepared for a hike in Denali National Park. Denali mountain is the tallest peak in North America and only 33% of visitors actually see the top of the peak because clouds often roll in. Visitors can only drive 15 miles into the park. To see more, you have to take a guided tour bus. I considered taking one, but they ranged from six-ten hours and I didn’t want to spend my time inside of a bus. I preferred being closer to nature and hiking.

One of the bartenders in Fairbanks told me about an 8-mile hike (roundtrip) that starts at mile 13 of the drive inside. I found the trail entrance pretty easily and there was plenty of parking. The hike started out flat and easy, but within half of a mile, it started to climb.

I was nervous about wildlife, bears in particular, so I kept my eyes peeled. Once I started to climb, the trees became less dense and I had outstanding views! I was really happy that I chose to hike instead of take a bus.

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After about a mile in, I passed two rangers who were taking a break from repairing a section of the trail. After two miles, the elevation gain was noticeable and the cold wind kicked in harder. Without tree cover, my shorts and a t-shirt weren’t going to cut it. I saw a few other people who were wearing pants and coats and probably thought I was crazy.

I took my pants and jacket out of my backpack and put them on. I’d start with my wind/rain jacket first and see how warm it kept me. I also put my gloves on because my hands were starting to hurt from the cold.

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I arrived at the top and the wind was dramatically worse, making it hard to keep from being blown over. The gorgeous rocky mountains full of green trees reminded me of Norway.

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I continued on the trail that went down the other side of the mountain to the parking lot at mile 15 of the road. The hike wasn’t as pretty as the other side and I needed to hike back the way I came to make it to my car, so after a mile I turned around. The total would be six miles with 1,800 ft elevation gain and I was pleased.

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When I came to the peak again, the wind seemed to be even stronger. A woman and her mother asked me if I’d take a picture of them together. I took theirs and they took mine. As they started to hike away, she yelled something to me. She was about 10 feet away from me and I couldn’t hear her. After having her repeat what she said a few times, I realized she was just telling me to have a good hike. The wind was that loud!

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I thought about putting my coat on, but my jacket was better at resisting the wind. It felt like it must be about 35° F. I can only imagine how cold it is when it’s not summertime.

I was happy to get back to my warm motel and to rest. Attempting to be productive, I downloaded pictures from my phone to my PC and got some writing done.

The next morning, I needed to drive to Homer, Alaska. It was 500 miles away (about eight and a half hours of drive time). I knew it was an ambitious day, but I wanted to check out Homer after the bartender told me about it.

The first two hours of the drive was beautiful as it winded alongside Denali National Park. It was raining and the clouds were hovering above. I was told the best place to see the elusive mountain peak is south of the park. I kept my eye out, but I’m not sure if it saw it. It didn’t bother me. The hike inside the park was beautiful enough for me.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 54-55: Locals in Fairbanks

The next day I tried to sleep in but the people above me were incredibly loud, stomping all over the floor. Frustrated, I headed out for a riverboat cruise. When I arrived, there were many buses and lots of people lining up to board the huge boat. One bus had a sign that read Princess Cruises. I asked the woman holding the sign, “Princess Cruises, as in the cruise? How are you in Fairbanks?” The woman explained that they offer a “land and sea” cruise. The passengers take a six-hour bus ride to Fairbanks so they can explore inland.

It was cold and very windy outside, but I sat on the top open-air deck anyway. I love top decks because I get to see so much more and I enjoy the fresh air. I grabbed my free coffee and donut and attempted to eat and drink without spilling all over myself.

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The riverboat cruise had a narrator that shared many interesting facts about Fairbanks. The boat stopped while we watched some dog mushers training their huskies.

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Then the boat came to a village that local natives set up to replicate what their villages looked like many generations ago.

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We disembarked and sat through a few demonstrations and presentations about life in the village and preserving their culture. It was really neat and they did a great job of storytelling.

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Once the riverboat tour finished, I drove to the Alaska Pipeline. There is an area where the pipe is above ground and visitors can see it and read a little about the history. It’s actually pretty fascinating. Spanning 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez with a diameter of 48”, it crosses three mountain ranges and more than 500 rivers and streams. According to the sign, it cost $8 billion to build in 1977, which was the largest privately funded construction project at that time.

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Near the pipeline was a place called Gold Daughters. I arrived just before they closed, but they still let me pan for gold. The business was started by two sisters who appeared to be in their 20s-30s. They were both very pretty women, wearing shirts that read Professional Gold-digger. They are from Alaska and their father was a miner. They teach you how to pan for gold, and then you buy a bag pay dirt (ranging from $20-$100) and whatever gold you find, you can keep.

One of the sisters taught me how to pan properly using some regular dirt. The water was cold and hurt my fingers. While she helped guide me, she asked me if I was there for work. I told her no and explained I was traveling. She lives in Fairbanks from March through September and the rest of the year she lives in Portland with her husband who is a lawyer.

My pay dirt had several little nuggets, which they told me was pretty good because most people just get shavings. We took my gold inside and the other sister showed me keychains and necklaces with little lockets, and explained they could put the gold in one of those. I selected the keychain and my little gold nuggets sat inside the small round locket.

I liked that keychain. A couple months later, I was getting into my car and the locket hit something, the clasp broke open, and my gold nuggets went flying all over my car. They scattered under my seats and spread all over the inside of my console, never to be seen again.

The sisters were really friendly and stayed late to let me finish up. It was time for dinner so I drove to the nearby Silver Gulch Brewery. It was busy so I sat at the bar. The bartender was friendly and recommended the fish and chips, which is what I ordered. To this day, it’s the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten!

The restaurant filled up and I overheard someone say the wait for a table was 90 minutes. To my right was a couple who have been married for 25 years. We started to talk and I asked what it’s like living in Fairbanks. They said the winters aren’t too bad – it gets to -40 or -50 ℉. Not that bad?!

I talked politics with the couple because I really enjoy hearing perspectives from other parts of the world. They told me Alaska had a big vote coming up in the November election because there was an initiative called Save the Salmon. They told me the campaign was started by a group in Oregon, people who don’t actually live in Alaska. The couple was very upset about the initiative because they described it as limiting for any new development. The couple told me how much locals use the salmon to fish for food and it reminded me of the riverboat cruise and how the natives also fish for salmon all summer, dehydrate them, and feed them to their dogs all winter. Salmon fishing was very  important to their way of life.

The couple went on to tell me how Alaska was very divided because “Anchorage is full of young liberals who want to increase taxes and legalize weed.” They said their utility and tax bill each year is about $20,000 because of how much energy they have to use in the winter months. The younger generations say they’re ok paying income tax, but this couple described what they’re paying already in taxes and utilities and why they need the tax breaks to keep living there. They also said that “three in every five cars on the road now has someone high driving.”

As the couple talked, I realized I was having an allergic reaction to the cider I was drinking. I have severe allergies and had been having random reactions the past few months, something my doctor has been trying to figure out. My chest was in a lot of pain and I didn’t have any Benadryl on me so I asked the bartender for some water and drank a couple of glasses, hoping to flush it out. Thankfully this helped!

The couple left the bar and the restaurant was starting to empty out a bit, so I started talking with the bartender. He is from Pennsylvania and came to Fairbanks for the summer in 2001. He ran out of money so he stayed for the winter, working. That kept happening over and over and he kept getting pulled into staying. He talked about how his wife moved to Idaho while they were dating, but came back because she missed it there. We talked about how hard it is crossing the Canadian border. One time he lost his voice and Canadians gave him a hard time getting through.

I asked him why he likes Fairbanks so much and he said, “In the winter, it becomes less about living, and more about surviving. If someone’s car breaks down on the side of the road, someone will pull over and help. We have to. It’s a community and we’re all in it together – to survive the winter.” I thought that was a nice way to put it and a nice sense of community.

Another bartender came over and gave me tips of things to do in Fairbanks, Denali, and told me I must go to Homer, Alaska. He said, “Homer is what all the postcards of Alaska look like. Go there and go to the Salty Dog Saloon.” I appreciated all of their tips and decided I’d make a trip to Homer before leaving Alaska.

I booked six nights in Fairbanks because I needed to get some things done, like a much-needed oil change, so I spent the next day on errands. Almost two months of traveling meant that I had driven more than 5,000 miles. My passenger side window was giving me problems as well. Ever since Oregon, the window would randomly get stuck, or bounce back down once it hit the top of the door frame. I had spent the last month avoiding opening the window.

Ken at the Subaru dealership smugly said, “Let me show you a trick.” He held down the electronic window buttons at the same time and held them there for about 30 seconds to “reset” them. He ignored me as I told him a reset wouldn’t work because there was something wrong with the mechanism. As I suspected, it didn’t work and frustrated Ken. He said, “Now you’re going to make me look bad because it’s not working.”

I sat in the waiting room while Ken had a mechanic look at my car. It struck me how relaxed I was. Normally, I’d be waiting at the dealership with anxiety, thinking about my to-do list. Or I’d impatiently take an Uber home so I could get some stuff done. Now that my time is much more flexible, I felt at peace just hanging out at the dealership. There is so much freedom living a life that is not “busy.”

Ken walked over and gave me the bad news: a window mechanism was broken and they didn’t have the part in stock. Fairbanks is remote, so the delivery would take seven days to arrive. Since he couldn’t repair my window, Ken offered to give me the $75 oil change for free.

My neck had been hurting for days (probably because of so much driving), so I went to a local chiropractor in a strip mall. When I walked inside, a few men were at a counter across the room and stared at me. I noticed guns hanging everywhere and I slowly backed my way out of the store. Looking up at the sign in confusion, I realized I accidently walked into a gun store, not the chiropractor’s office. I was definitely in Alaska.

When I walked into the correct office, I noticed that the woman behind the counter had a baby strapped to her chest. It took me by surprise because I wasn’t used to seeing people working with their babies in tow. The chiropractor was talkative and helped relieve some of the pain.

On the way out, he followed me to the sidewalk and asked, “Hey, can you give me your honest opinion? What do you think about the receptionist wearing a baby?” I told him that at first I was surprised and figured it’s a smaller, more remote area so maybe that’s how things are done here. I also told him that I have a lot of friends with babies and it’s hard for them to go back to work, hard to find childcare, and it’s difficult to balance both. If an employer is willing to help them out and let them bring their baby into work, I don’t think it’s a problem as long as they’re doing their job. He thanked me for my input and said they’re trying it out to see how it goes.

The chiropractor recommended a restaurant called The Turtle Club so I went there for dinner. It was a nice restaurant, so I sat in the bar area that was more casual. I had a table to myself and it quickly got crowded. I wasn’t feeling well, so once I ate I went back to my Airbnb to take some Emergen-C and rest up.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider