Day 76: You Had Me At Coffee

I made some oatmeal for breakfast while talking with Flo and Julian. They checked the ferry they wanted to take in southern Alaska because I had told them they need to book in advance, as it’s the end of season with limited schedules. Sure enough, the ferry they wanted was full so they had to rearrange their itinerary.

Shelly, the hostel owner, picked me up to get coffee with a friend of hers. I had talked with Shelly when I stayed there the month prior and she’s a such a fun character. She’s 70, but looks 55. She’s tall, fit, has blonde hair, and takes really good care of herself.

We arrived at Mary’s log cabin while Mary was in the middle of packing for her move to Fairbanks. Mary is 61, petite, with blonde and gray hair. She had on a baggy sweatshirt and khaki pants with stains on the knees. She had big blue eyes with young-looking, smooth skin. She was a firecracker.

Mary was moving to Fairbanks in two days and her cabin was a disaster, as to be expected with an upcoming move. Shelly and I sat on the side of the kitchen in chairs with no table, drinking coffee while Mary continued to sort through items.

Shelley wanted me to meet Mary to hear her story. Mary told me her story with enthusiasm as she paced around the house. Her husband, Wally, died three years ago, which sent her into a depression for several months. A friend recommended that she volunteer at an animal refuge. After initially resisting, she agreed to try it. She begged God to just help her survive.

Within the first week, Mary was volunteering there 40 hours a week. It was so peaceful and quiet, it gave her a sense of hope. Mary had been sober for a long time but still attended AA (Alcoholic Anonymous) meetings every so often. She decided to attend one in Fairbanks, just over three hours away.

At the meeting, Mary ran into the “prince of Fairbanks,” Frank. I asked why he was called the prince of Fairbanks and Mary said, “He’s attractive, kindness oozes from his eyes, his heart is like the Grand Canyon full of love, and he listens to you as if you’re the only one around. He just sees you.”

Frank was so attractive that Mary would avoid him while she was married. Frank was 68 and had married his high school sweetheart and they had a daughter. When the daughter was nine years old, she was raped and murdered. This caused him to go into ten years of self sabotage, drinking and doing drugs.

After ten years, he got sober. He was divorced and had a friend who was about to have a baby, but couldn’t care for her. She wanted Frank to raise her so she put his name on the birth certificate. He raised her as his daughter and it helped him stay clean.

When Mary saw Frank at the AA meeting in June, they hugged and talked for a bit. When she got home, she found herself thinking about him. She went back to Fairbanks the next week and Frank hugged her again. This time, they went to breakfast afterwards. Mary told him all about her husband Wally and they got to know each other better. At the end of breakfast, Frank told her he’d go to a meeting in Tok the following week and would see her then.

She got home and found herself thinking of him in a romantic capacity, which surprised her. She was tending to her garden and a thought popped into her head that they’d be together. The insanely crushing pain that she had been feeling in her chest since her husband passed started to lessen. She told God, “If it just stays this way, I’ll be ok with that.” Just then, she received a phone call from an unknown number and someone asking her if they can tell her about God. She replied, “I think God just helped me. I’m going to be ok.” And she hung up the phone.

Mary was couldn’t wait to see Frank at the meeting in Tok, but he didn’t show up. As with all things love-related, it was complicated. Months went by and she didn’t see or hear from Frank. It was now December and Mary went to Fairbanks for a dinner with the AA group. On Christmas Eve, she saw Frank at the morning meeting and he asked if that was her phone number in the directory and would it be ok if he called her?

Frank and Mary went to breakfast and he told her he kept thinking about her. That evening, they skipped the dinner and hung out by themselves. But that night, she couldn’t sleep. She called Frank early in the morning and said she needed to tell him something. He quickly came over with coffee and she said, “You had me at coffee.”

Mary confessed to Frank that she had been thinking about him for the last six months and she needed to know if he felt the same way or not so she could move on. She told him she was very upset that he never showed up at the meeting in Tok like he said he would. Frank told Mary that in his head, they already dated, married, and divorced. He was scared it wouldn’t work out so he didn’t show up.

That Christmas morning, Frank and Mary started dating. After nine months of dating, Mary was moving to Fairbanks to be with Frank. She was selling the log cabin that her husband had built. She now felt at peace with his death and was able to love again. Mary was ecstatic about her new life. It was a great story to hear and I hope Mary has a wonderful life with Frank.

Shelley and I had been there for over an hour, so we left Mary to attend to her packing. Shelley and I got into the car and she said she wanted to see if there were any good garage sales going on, so she was going to drive around for a bit.

Shelley told me about her past relationships while we drove around. She had been married three times: once for 18 months, once for three years, and then for four years. Her second husband was a flasher and once she found out, she divorced him. Shelley said when she was younger, it was hard to date because men didn’t like strong women back then. She either clashed with strong men, or walked all over weak men. She found herself trying to earn their love and respect by doing whatever they wanted, but that didn’t work.

Shelley has a daughter with a guy she wasn’t married to and she still gets along with him. She grew up with a mom who was the “town drunk.” I could tell that Shelley had a rough life growing up, but she persevered and is now a successful business owner.

Shelley told me she recently had a lover that was 15 years younger than her. She said, “If that’s the last sex I have, I went out with a bang!” She now wants companionship and she’s tried online dating. She said the same thing Corine in Homer told me – it’s hard to find a man when you’re an older, successful woman.

We didn’t find any garage sales and even checked the bulletin board inside the local market. The sales were going to be the following day. Shelley took me back to the hostel so I could get my bags and head to Canada. We said our goodbyes and she offered me a place to stay in Arizona if I’m there. She spends months there to avoid the Alaskan winter.

I drove away from Tok with fond memories from both times I was there. Tok is a remote town in northern Alaska so when you meet people there, there is a sense of bonding. There aren’t many people there, which I think helps people feel connected. Getting a chance to meet people from different walks of life and learn their stories is so fulfilling to me, which is one of the best things about being a solo-traveler.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 75: Hiking on a Glacier

I woke up to the sound of rain against the roof of my tiny, rustic cabin. I cringed at the thought of getting out of my warm sleeping bag to the bitter cold air and rain, so I decided to play on my phone with the small amount of battery I had left. I reached for my glasses on the floor beside the box spring I was laying on and realized they were almost frozen. It was painful to put them on my face. I had tried to charge my phone with my solar charger, but it was too cold and the phone wouldn’t charge.

I played on my phone for about an hour and heard the rain stop. I threw my coat over my thermals and braved the cold so I could go to the bathroom. Looking across the small river, I noticed the clouds and mist had rolled in, creating an eerie feel.

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My quick venture outside left me feeling very cold, so I jumped back into my mummy sleeping bag and walked around the cabin with it wrapped around me as I dug through my backpack for breakfast options.

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I was elated when I discovered I had a powdered Starbucks vanilla latte packet. I used my Jetboil to make the latte and sat on the porch enjoying the view.

I ate a poptart for breakfast and packed up my gear. With my paid admission, I could stay there all day and hike Matanuska glacier. Once packed up, I drove about a mile to the parking lot. The natives own the rights to the glacier, but Bill (whom I had met the day before) owns the access rights. There is some sort of guidance on the first mile of the glacier.

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People are able to hike the glacier by themselves or they can book a tour where a guide will walk them to other areas, like the ice caves. They’ll also provide crampons for your shoes. I decided not to do a tour because it was expensive. I’ve also hiked on a glacier in Norway and didn’t feel it would be all that different. Plus, I could still hike it on my own to the main areas.

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The first section of the hike was sandy and muddy. Certain sections had metal grates or wooden pieces of boards to help stabilize the ground so people don’t sink. There was a “path” for people to follow, which was basically just scattered orange cones here and there.

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I started the hike and was trying not to sink. About ten minutes into the hike, I ran into Keenan, the guy who I had talked with the night before about camping. He was leading a handful of people on a tour. He stopped to talk to me and asked how my night was. I told him it was super cold, but the views made it all worth it. He replied, “Right on!”

I continued hiking, mesmerized by the still pools of water, gray sand, and ice slowly popping through. I started to head towards the ice caves, but a tour guide warned me not to go that direction without crampons. I found the trail again and continued.

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I came across an area with a crevasse that I needed to cross in order to continue. It was a pretty large gap and not having crampons made me nervous. I watched as a girl struggled to cross, squatting down because she was too scared to make the leap. Her friends on the other side were trying to convince her to jump. I walked further down and found an area that I thought was safer and crossed there.

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The ground was deceptive. It was gray from the dirt, but was actually ice. I got closer to the main body of the glacier and got worried that I would slip. After about 30 minutes of hiking, I made it to the top and the stopping point. To go further, you needed to be on the other side with crampons. It was incredible to see such a majestic glacier. The blue and white colors intertwined with streaks of brown dirt. It looked fake and it was hard to fully comprehend the size and scope of it.

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After taking in the views, I hiked back to my car. As I got closer, I ran into Keenan again. This time he was leading a new group to go out to the glacier. I asked him, “Don’t you get tired of doing these?” He replied, “No man, it’s something different every time! Are you sticking around for the day?” I told him I needed to keep driving north so I could catch a ferry back to Canada.

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When I got back to the parking lot, Bill had just pulled up with a bus full of people who were getting ready to take tours. I stopped outside of the driver’s side window to talk with him. He said, “It’s a good thing you had the cabin last night with all the rain. Kept you and your stuff dry.” I was indeed happy to have that cabin.

When I got to my car, I plugged my phone in so I could book a hostel in Tok. I had stayed there on my way to Alaska and I would go right through there again. I enjoyed my stay the first time so I booked a room to ensure it would be available.

The drive was beautiful as the fall colors were making their way into the forest. It was only September 6th, but yellow, red, and orange were starting to sweep the trees and bushes. I pulled over to take some pictures of the lakes that made perfect mirrors of the mountains.

I pulled into the hostel’s gravel parking lot around dinner time. I had booked one of the rooms that had two twin beds because it was cheaper than the private room with one twin bed and a bathroom (the one I stayed in previously). However, while I was booking it online, two guys were booking it in person. Because of the double booking, I got my old room again for the same price!

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I put my bags inside my room and two German guys who were staying in the room with two twin beds were about to make dinner. They told me they had salmon, vegetables, and rice, and I was welcome to join them. I hadn’t eaten dinner so I joined them in the kitchen while they cooked.

The guys were from a small town two and half hours from Munich. Flo was 29 years old and studied civil engineering (which is different than how the US describes it). He worked as a mechanic for a bit and wanted to stay with the company since they had good benefits, so he had recently accepted a role as a Safety Engineer/Manager and said, “Nobody likes you in this role.” Flo’s uncle moved to Prince George, Canada 40 years ago and raised his family there on a farm. Flo has visited them a couple of times, but this time he wanted to explore Alaska.

Julian was 30 years old and was a tax accountant. He worked at his dad’s company, which had about nine employees. He works with private citizens and small businesses and explained, “Taxes are complicated.”

The guys get six weeks of paid vacation a year. If people in the US received as much vacation as Europe or Australia, maybe we wouldn’t have to quit our jobs to travel.

Flo and Julian were taking two and half weeks to explore Alaska and started in Whitehorse, Canada. They looked into renting an RV, but it would cost them $4,500 euros, plus additional fees for going into the US and driving on gravel roads. That’s part of the reason I didn’t do an RV. It’s incredibly expensive to rent them, you still have to pay for hookups, can’t park it anywhere you’d like, and I didn’t want to attempt to drive it by myself.

Instead, the guys were staying in a tent they bought at Canadian Tire and said they didn’t realize it would be so cold already. Staying at the hostel was a treat for them. They were following a guide book and were heading to Valdez the next day.

The salmon that they pulled out of the cooler was caught by a guy at a campground they stayed at. They bought it off of him and did a great job cooking it. The three of us sat down to eat dinner like we were a family.

Shelley, the owner of the hostel stopped by to say hello and told me that her brother (who she had wanted me to go on a date with) couldn’t get his plane ready in time to take me on a ride. She said she’d stop by and pick me up in the morning because she wanted me to meet a friend of hers who lived in a log cabin that her husband had built. I agreed to go with her the following day.

Flo and Julian told me about life in Germany. They learn another language at ten years old. A lot of people choose to learn French and their president said learning French was a great way for them to mend their relationship with France after being at war with them for many years. Flo said, “In 100 years, I don’t think there will be any wars or issues between Germany and France. We know each other’s languages and we’re close now.”

Hearing Flo and Julian talk about their view of Alaska was hilarious! They rented a Malibu and thought it was too full of plastic. They joked, “Good thing it’s not hot here or else the plastic would all melt.” They were shocked at how many Alaskans drove trucks. They described Alaskan men as having “beards, stains on their shirts, hunting, fishing, shooting, and have a crack in their windshield.” They thought it took a special person to live in Alaska.

As we were eating dinner, two woman came in to stay in the private room with a double bed. They were about 50 and 70 years old and one was dragging in an oxygen tank. The women were worried about the noise, but we couldn’t hear it once they closed the door.

We finished dinner and I washed the dishes while they dried and put them away. They asked that I help them with some English words. “What is the word for a female cousin?” they asked. I laughed and told them, “female cousin.” One of them said “snorkeling” instead of “snoring” and we all laughed.

I took a much needed shower after spending the night in a cabin with no water. I was happy to have a bed again in a heated room. It was so great to meet Flo and Julian. They were generous with their food and were very hospitable. Each day brought new people into my life and it’s much richer because of it.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 51: Female Role Models

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.

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The drive was flat and the “scenic outlooks” weren’t very scenic. I missed British Columbia and the Yukon.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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The visitor center was at the sign post, 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.

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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.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider

 

Day 50: Alaska Arrival!

On my way out of Haines Junction, Yukon, I stopped at a gas station to fill up. I was advised to drive on the top half of my gas tank because the stretches between gas stations could sometimes be hours.

Two older women from Whitehorse struggled to operate the pump and one said, “Ugh, small towns.” Inside, I got a latte and a small pack of mini donuts for $8.35, which I thought was overpriced. As I walked back to my car, the poor gas station attendant had to run outside and help someone else operate the gas pump. To be fair, the pumps can be confusing. Sometimes you have to leave your card in, other times you need to take it out. You also have to preauthorize an amount before it will start to pump.

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I continued on the Alaska highway into the mountain range that had taken my breath away for the last several days.

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All of a sudden, I spotted a large, majestic moose on the side of the highway! He took off as soon I came to a stop. Shortly after seeing the moose, I saw a bear foraging on the side of the road! I stopped in the middle of the road and watched him for several minutes until a large truck honked his horn behind me. This is part of why the Yukon feels so untouched.

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After driving for just under four hours, I arrived in a tiny town called Beaver Creek. I didn’t have cell service most of the drive, so I pulled into the visitor center. I went inside and an older man with long gray hair welcomed me by shaking my hand. He told me the US border is only 20 miles away, but the first two small spots in the US that had accommodations are now closed down. The first available place to stay the night would be in Tok, about two hours and 40 minutes away.

The man told me that there are only four motels in Beaver Creek and he believed they were all sold out for the night. I sat in my car and checked Orbitz. Sure enough, it showed four motels and they were all sold out. I decided I would continue on to Tok, Alaska. I booked a private room in a hostel to make sure I had a room.

Before leaving town, I stopped to fill up on gas again. The bees were no joke and surrounded me and my car. When I ran inside to get a snack, I saw that the gas station was attached to a motel. I asked the girl behind the counter if they had any rooms and she confirmed that they too were sold out.

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I was almost to the US border and I started to get nervous because I was hassled when I came into Canada. I had apples and blueberries with me so I quickly googled and found that as long as fruit is from the US or Canada, it’s fine to take across the border.

Just before the border, there are signs showing the line between Alaska and Canada. I pulled over and looked into the forest. A line of trees was cut out to show where the border was. There were a few people in RVs taking pictures and it was exciting to be at this milestone! I took some pictures and couldn’t believe I was already to Alaska.

When I pulled up to the small border station, the agent asked me a few questions.

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Agent: “What are you doing in Alaska?”

Me: “I’m driving the Alaska highway.”

Agent: “How long will you be here?”

Me: “A few weeks.”

Agent: “Ok, that should work. Did you buy anything in Canada that you’re bringing into the US?”

Me: “No”

Agent: “Ok, welcome home!”

I felt so relieved! Getting into Canada felt like I had to prove I wasn’t a criminal.

Once I was in the US, things were different. There were more cars, the power lines were tilted and looked like they were falling over, and a few places were abandoned. I was also getting into more of a valley and the mountains were in the distance. I was used to being right in the mountains for days, so the views seemed a little underwhelming.

img_5800img_5808img_5811I arrived at the hostel at 7:00 pm. It was a small, wooden cabin with a shared living room and kitchen, four bunk beds in the living room behind a curtain, and three private rooms. My private room had a twin bed and a small bathroom attached. My name was on the list and the key to my room was in the door.

I needed dinner so I drove a ½ mile away to Fast Eddy’s. It was a rustic restaurant and it was packed! Tok is a small town (population of 1,300), so this was probably one the few restaurants that offered a sit-down dinner.

The hostess said it would be a few minutes until she had a table available. In front of me was another single female waiting for a table. She was in her 20s, had two long braids, and had an earthy look to her. I felt so plain next to her. She was the type of girl who looked like she went on adventures and lived life as a free spirit. I look like a regular, plain girl.

I get self-conscious of this at times because I’m not someone who looks “cool”. I don’t wear the most fashionable, hip, earthy, or free-spirit kind of clothes. My look is very regular and oftentimes boring. So many women have such a great sense of style.

But then I remember not to judge a book by its cover. While I may look pretty average, I’m not average. Instead of sitting there in self-pity, I gave myself a pep talk. I reminded myself that I’m the one that hiked the JMT solo. I’m the one who quit a successful job, sold a house, and am on an amazing adventure. I may not look like it, but I am a free-spirit and I am badass. Often times people look like a free-spirit, but once you get to know them, you realize they’re actually just pretending and living a pretty regular life. It’s easy to compare ourselves to others and I have to consciously remind myself that I am me – nobody is like me and I don’t need to dress how someone expects me to. If I look plain, so be it.

I was seated at a table, enjoyed the salad bar, and ordered the overpriced salmon. Once I finished my salad, the waitress told me, “Your salmon is behind that bus.” Confused, I asked “What?” She said, “We got a bus full of 50 people and your salmon order is behind them, so it’s going to be awhile.”

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The restaurant was expensive and I figured it was because it was so remote. Then I remembered I was no longer in Canada, so the price was actually the price in US dollars – no more Canadian discount.

When I got back to the hostel, there was a middle-aged woman named Sharon sitting outside on the porch. I joined her while her husband was inside resting in one of the private rooms. We enjoyed the fresh air and the fact that it was 9:00 pm and still light outside.

Sharon and her husband were from Winnipeg and flew to Whitehorse a few days prior. They were on their way to visit their kids who were working in Dawson City, but they wanted to explore a little bit first. Their kids are 23 and 24, and work as a dishwasher and a waiter. They were both working there for the summer because Dawson City has a hard time finding enough workers for their tourist season. In your first year working there, they give you 40% of your rent back and the second year, they give you 50% of your rent back and a week-long cruise.

Sharon was talkative and fun to talk to. She told me about their trip and the things they planned on doing. She also told me about their trip so far and things they had seen. They had stayed the previous night in Beaver Creek and went to a show at a bar with two older women playing music. One woman sang, “I might be twice the woman now…” referring to her weight gain as she aged.

Sharon and her husband have been married for 30 years and were high school sweethearts. She thought it was cool that I was on this adventure. As we talked, a middle-aged couple pulled up on their motorcycle. They were from Chili. Sharon had talked to them earlier and said they rode their motorcycle all the way from the tip of South America.

The four bunk beds weren’t occupied, but the three private rooms were taken. I love staying in places like this because it brings people together. I get a chance to hear other people’s stories and I get to enjoy some company for the evening. I went to bed and the cold wind howled against window, reminding me that I was indeed in Alaska.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider