On the Road Again?

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7/14/19 Carlo Creek Cabins, South Denali, Alaska

(I’m delinquent on posting again – we’ve been busy.  This will be another catch-up post and I’ll try and expand on some things over the next couple of days.)

I’m in a delightfully rustic old log cabin (modernized of course), writing this and drinking a first cup of coffee.  Joan is catching up on email and  other social communications.  We will be walking across the highway (its just a two lane thing) to the Creekside Cafe.  They have cinnamon rolls that come in two sizes – Texas size is a pretty healthy confection of sugar, nuts, and dough.  But the Alaska size is at least three times bigger!  Us New Mexicans enjoy a little humor poked at Texas for a change, since they are usually ‘belittling’ everyone else.

After breakfast we will come back here to the cabin and pack everything up and hopefully head towards Fairbanks today.  We spent the last four days here at Denali National Park, one of the expected highlights of the trip – and it did not let us down.  I have a lot to say about this park – it has definitely become one of my favorites and there is much to talk about here.  Denali, home of the tallest mountain on the continent, is an exceptional park  with lots to see and do.  (Which is good, since ‘The Mountain’ as they call it, pretty much generates its own weather and the common wisdom is that you will only actually see the mountain, through the clouds, on one day out of five!). There is no way to predict when or if it will burst through the cloud cover, so visitors have no option but to allocate as many days as possible to this park and hope.  We originally gave it four days and then cut that back a day to enable an adventure out of Fairbanks in a day or two.  I don’t know if another day would have made a difference, but I can’t say we got lucky – we’ve done a good job seeing the park, but we have missed ‘The Mountain’.

The only glimpse I got of it was on the drive up last Wednesday.  The Parks Highway (also called Alaska Route 3), runs pretty much north from Wasilla, which is about 50 miles north of Anchorage on Route 1, north, following river beds, up through a pass in the Alaska Range and on to Fairbanks.  The pass is actually where we are right now and is home to a number of lodges and food places that cater to the Denali visitors.  The park entrance, visitor center, road, and, really, all the ‘park’ things to do, are located about twenty miles north of here, just at the bottom of the northern slopes to the Alaska range.  The road skirts the border of the park, entering it briefly on the way to the official entrance.  

On the drive north from Talkeetna and through Denali State Park, there are opportunities to see Denali from the highway.  There was one time in particular, as we were driving past an opening in the trees, that I saw the big mountain emerge through the clouds.  The glimpse was brief and by the time I found a place to get off the road and look at it, the clouds had returned – despite its immense size, it is a modest mountain, only allowing infrequent exposures.  Alas, I will have to remember that brief glimpse and rely on pictures for my memories of Denali.

But, what’s this, you say – we were driving?  Yes, and that is the big difference about this trip, our fourth trip on our Alaskan Odyssey.  This is the Road Trip portion of our trip through Alaska.  We didn’t bring the trailer or the Land Cruiser because so many of Alaska’s parks were simply unreachable by car.  But there are two parks, in particular, that are very doable by car and so we decided to see those two on a road trip through the interior section of Alaska.  We expanded the itinerary a few days to allow us to circle around most of the highways of Alaska and see several more towns and cities as well as an entirely new ecological zone, the Taiga, which occupies much of the interior part of the state in between the Alaska Range of mountains on the south and the Brooks range on the north.  This ecology is brand new to me and I find it strikingly beautiful.  I’m sure there will be a post or two about that as well.

But yes, we decided to rent a car in Anchorage for a couple of weeks and tour the Alaskan road system.  However, there is one big problem with this strategy – well a couple, actually.  One of the parks we want to see involves a road that is notoriously famous for being a 112 mile washboard!  They say that it is impossible to drive that road more than 35 mph, so it is three hours out and three hours back on a dusty gravel road that is likely to be stressful not just to the occupants but to the vehicle as well.  So, it turns out, that none of the car rental agencies will allow their vehicles on that road.  In fact, if something happens to you or the car on that road, they will refuse any responsibility and your own insurance company may not look too kindly on it either.

But the rent-a-wreck companies don’t really care too much.  And we found one of them that would rent us an old pickup truck (a 2005 Silverado), filled it with an air compressor and tire repair kit, bear spray, and jumper cables.  The truck is ours for this part of the trip.  Now, I hate pickup trucks – just not my style, but I have to say that driving this thing makes me feel like a real Alaskan.  (You should hear how it goes over the dips and bumps generated from the permafrost – a real hoot!)

There is a downside to a rent-a-wreck!  And that comes from the fact that this is an old vehicle with lots of miles (the odometer is stuck on ‘trip mode’ so I don’t know what the true mileage is!) and that is that it is falling apart.  We had pretty good luck with the thing, driving up here from Anchorage, right up until yesterday morning.  When we started the engine, the starter complained for a minute, and then the red battery light came on.  The voltmeter was registering around six volts, which is not good at all.  Strangely, the engine started.  Periodically, while driving yesterday, the battery light came on and the meter oscillated up and down.  However, every time we tried to start it, it started up fine.

After we were done hiking yesterday, it started up and I drove down to an auto mechanic in Healy.  According to Google he was open on Saturdays.  When I got there, unfortunately, he politely explained that he was no longer in business and steered me to another guy a mile away.  When I went there, he literally hid from me while I tried to find him in his garage and, in the end, I figured out that he was already drunk and I didn’t think I needed him to look at my battery.  So we drove back to the lodge.

That means that we are siting on pins and needles this morning.  We have to leave today for Fairbanks, but we don’t know if we will be able to start the truck!  We are going to walk across the highway and get breakfast, come back and pack everything up, load up the truck, and cross our fingers.  If it starts, then we drive non-stop to Fairbanks and see if we can find a mechanic there tomorrow.  If it doesn’t then we will try the jump start thing and hope we can find someone willing to help us.  

But no-one likes this kind of uncertainty, especially on a vacation.  On the other hand, a little drama mixed in with all the normal stuff just adds to the storytelling.

So, we’re done with breakfast, and are starting to pack up to head north.  So stay tuned for the next episode:  Will the truck start or not?  Will Joan and Michael make it to their next destination or will the trip be forever ruined?  Is Denali in a good or bad mood this morning?