7/17/19 Bridgewater Hotel, Fairbanks, Alaska
Yes, the truck started, despite our fears. In fact, the battery showed no signs of malfunction, and the red light went off when it was supposed to. We headed out for our drive north to Fairbanks and everything went just fine for at least two hours. Then, suddenly, the meter jolted back down in the 6-volt range and the little battery icon went red again. We were still about an hour out of Fairbanks and I braced for the possibility that everything would go quiet and we would coast off to the shoulder.
That didn’t happen, though, and, once within cell-phone range of Fairbanks, Joan located an Autozone and we headed directly there. We rolled into the parking lot and, hesitant to turn the engine off fearing it wouldn’t go back on, I backed the truck into a spot so we could jumpstart it if necessary, left the engine running, and went into the store. It was Sunday, of course – vehicles on road trips always break down on Sundays – so Autozone was probably my best bet for help. I asked if they could check the battery and, of course, eager to sell me a new battery, they said ‘of course’. But as we got talking, the sales clerk, myself, and the other customer who was in the store on a Sunday morning, all agreed that it was more likely the alternator that was bad. We tested the battery and it came back bad, but no-one seemed to trust that test – I guess the alternator was a more profitable sale.
I phoned Stan, back in Anchorage, and the owner of the Rent-a-wreck where I got the truck. I explained what the options were and that it might be the alternator, not the battery, and what the costs were likely to be. In his Long Island lilt, he kept repeating ‘I got you covered!’. All he asked was that I drive a good bargain and get a good deal – ‘like it was your car’. He also called back about ten minutes later, said that his mechanic agreed that it was likely the alternator, so go ahead and replace it.
Autozone, of course, would be more than happy to sell me an alternator. But there was a minor little problem of getting it installed. The other customer in the store, in typical Alaskan fashion, said I could do anything I wanted to do. I replied, that was exactly the point – I didn’t WANT to spend my valuable vacation time working on a vehicle that didn’t even belong to me. He quickly retreated when I asked him what HE would charge me to fix it. The guy managing the store sort of hemmed and hawed, but decided that he would be the nice guy and do it for me. Turns out that not only had he worked in a junk yard for years, but he also had owned a truck just like this one for a while. Oh, and he had lived in Farmington, New Mexico for a while too. So, during the hour it took him to install a new alternator, we had lots to talk about.
Replacing an alternator was not a particularly difficult task, but it did take an hour out of our day and a bit of skin off the poor guys knuckles. I offered him $60 for his efforts and he was happy to take it. He got a little bonus on a Sunday morning – I got the car fixed. And Stan, the guy at the rental agency, got a car back on the road for a reasonable price, for very little effort on his part. Everyone was happy. I certainly have to give a shout out to the Autozone and the guy running it – they went way beyond the call of duty and saved our vacation plans. It has been several days now since we replaced the alternator and the truck has been running just fine since – problem solved.
Dealing with mechanical problems is part of the challenge of a road trip – but what’s a road trip without at least one breakdown?
After the guy fixed our truck I asked him where a good place to eat might be in Fairbanks and he steered me to a place right on the river banks and near the University. For some reason, after all the tension with the truck, we were both hungry and thirsty, so we ordered the ‘Hammer’ lunch for two with stiff Long Island Ice Teas to wash it down. The Hammer is big enough for two people to share and is called that because it literally comes with a hammer to be used to crack open all the crab legs. And it comes with a mountain of crab – King, Duungeness, and Snow crabs legs with reindeer sausage, potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, and a few shrimp and mussels on the side. It is a massive meal and, actually, a lot of fun to eat – adults get to ‘play with their food’! Must say, the Long Island Ice Teas were pretty potent as well.
After lunch we found our way to our hotel – The Bridgewater – in downtown Fairbanks, across a street from the Chena River and a bridge that crosses it. Rooms are tiny and they somehow cram a king-size bed in there along with standard furniture. The result is that there is little room to move around in. But as long as all you want to do is sleep, then the room is just fine. We were good with that, moved in, and crashed from a long day.
Fairbanks with only 32,000 people is Alaska’s second largest city and the largest city in the Alaskan interior. It was founded in 1901 as a trading post at the confluence of the Chena and Tanana Rivers. Later, the rich banks of the Tanana River became Alaska’s prime agricultural district and Fairbanks benefited as the major town in the valley. Like most of Alaska, there was a lot of military construction prior to and during World War II and an Air Force Base was established here. (Airport Way connects the public airport on the west side of town with the base on the eastern side.). Interestingly, Fairbanks is not connected to the rest of the country’s power grid, but generates its own power from four coal-fired power plants. It also, reportedly, has a 1300 pound rechargeable battery, one of the nation’s largest, used to power parts of the city during power outages. (I didn’t get to see that, but would have found it interesting.)
Due to the peculiar geography of the Alaskan interior, the state’s temperature extremes are found here with Alaska’s coldest and hottest temperatures both reported in or around Fairbanks. (I will talk about the ecology of the area in another post). We are finding the current Alaskan heat wave expressing itself here and the air-conditioning is necessary in both the truck and the hotel.
Yesterday we ate a late lunch at Big Daddy’s, a southern BBQ place right next door to the hotel. It was terrific and the servings worth the Alaskan prices. After lunch, we drove for an hour northeast into the mountains to one of Joan’s rebellion items – the Aurora Ice Museum. Mostly this is a sort of a tourist trap, but it is world-famous. Everything is carved out of ice and some of the sculptures are really outstanding. There is a bar with stools made of ice, but covered with caribou skin, where you can sit down and drink an ‘appletini’, served in a cocktail glass carved out of ice. There are also ‘hotel rooms’ made of ice and available, for $600, to spend the night, if you are so inclined to try and sleep in a 25-degree freezer. (Apparently people do try at least once a month, however, no-one has made it past about 2:00 AM!). The resort here is also famous for aurora viewing, although there is none of that in the summer months.
We’re moving on today, ending our three night stay in Fairbanks. Our big outing from Fairbanks was our out-and-back flight to Anaktuvuk Pass, which is so special that I am reserving a separate post for it. Otherwise, I’m sure there is more to see in Fairbanks than what we have done here, but it is time to get back to the parks!