Thoughts on the Road Trip

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7/27/19  My Place Hotel, Anchorage, Alaska

It was chilly and wet the entire trip, but we made it back to Copper Center.  The McCarthy Road was full of two hours worth of potholes and washboards, but the new tires on the truck held up great, and the old tires managed to keep from falling apart.  The clouds hung low most of the way back to Copper Center, so the views were limited to a few nice perspectives on the braided rivers and the surrounding riverbank landscape.  We ate a late lunch/early supper at a spot near Copper Center, but their food wasn’t anything worth commenting on.  And we spent the night at that eclectic, rustic, Old Town Copper Center Inn, where we had stayed before.  The rooms are comfortable and clean, and the food, at Nummy’s, is really terrific.  

Boreal Forest off of Route 1

I suppose we could have driven all the way back to Anchorage that afternoon, but it would have been a very long day, and especially after driving the McCarthy road, we were tired and frazzled. So we spent the night and, after a good breakfast, headed out for the last stretch of the road-trip, back up to GlennAllen, and then following Route 1 back down through the mountains and into Anchorage.  The first part of the trip took us through the western edges of the Copper River Plateau with rolling hills and boreal forests.  It was cloudy and raining again, but the trees lining the road prevented most long views anyway.  Around noonish, though, the clouds lifted and sun came out just as we were beginning to descend into the Matanuska Valley.  Rout 1 runs down through the middle of this valley down to Palmer where it turns south and goes back to Anchorage.  The Matanuska Valley was another surprise for us, full of volcanic mountains with vibrant colors.  And the river begins with a glacier, of the same name, which you can see from the road for a good twenty miles.  Especially with the sun shining brightly for that portion of the drive, the views were wonderful and we took many pictures.  We stopped at the Palmer AleHouse for a good lunch, and while eating, the clouds returned.  The drive down to Anchorage was entirely rain-soaked.

Volcanic Mountains at the top of Matanuska Valley

We unloaded the truck, and while Joan got things unpacked a bit, I filled the truck up with gas and returned it to A1 Rentals.  Without any argument whatsoever, Stan took out his calculator, summed up my receipts, included $40 for an expense I didn’t have a receipt for and issued a credit card refund.  (At least so far, he has stood by his promise ‘to cover it’ – however, I haven’t seen the refund appear on the credit card transaction list yet.)

The Chugach Mountains

In retrospect, the rent-a-wreck strategy cost us a little bit of time and effort because we had to fix the truck twice.  Possibly, with a newer car, we wouldn’t have incurred those problems – however, there is nothing that says a new car won’t get a flat tire, especially on one of these Alaskan gravel roads.  But the pickup was cheaper than a regular rental car and I certainly didn’t have to worry much about damaging the thing.  Nor did I feel any guilty pains about driving it on a prohibited road, because the owner already knew I was doing it and had given prior consent.  So, I think it was a pretty good deal and I’d probably do it again.

Fireweed Everywhere

And I would certainly recommend a ‘road trip’ of some kind through the highways of Alaska.  All told, we drove close to 2000 miles and traveled most of the paved highways in the state and a couple of gravel roads.  Alaska’s roads are different than most highways – they are mostly just two lane highways with 65 the maximum speed (55 in some places).  They are lined on both sides with colorful displays of wild flowers that change some with altitude and latitude.  One plant you see everywhere is fireweed which presents a beautiful pink flower early in the summer but then, as we saw on the way home yesterday, as it gets closer to the end of the summer, the leaves and stalks of the plant turn a bright vibrant red.  The natives say that when the fireweed is finally all red, you have just six weeks before the first frost.  If that’s true, then winter is coming in late September up here!

Another characteristic of the Alaskan highways is that they are like roller coasters.  Yes, they have some potholes, like most roads around the country.  But additionally, Alaskan roads suffer from what I am guessing are changes in the permafrost layers in the ground beneath the roads.  The result is that the roads can suddenly become wavy with deep troughs and rolling hills.  If you are traveling at 65 and hit a stretch of these things, don’t be surprised if you bottom out and then go airborne for a few feet.  They were less evident around Anchorage, but north of there, these things were a constant test of your vehicles suspension.

Lakes and Ponds dot the landscape

The two parks we saw by road (Denali, and Wrangell-St. Elias) are best seen, at least in part, from the ground.  You could fly, or take the train, into Denali and then take various buses to see the park.  And you can fly into McCarthy as well, but you’re going to miss seeing Wrangell from the McCarthy Road which is certainly a key part of that park.  But, especially with Wrangell, there is a distinct advantage in being able to see the park from the roads looking up, instead of from the air looking down.

And being on the road allows an experience of the Alaskan interior, which is certainly different than the coastal regions.  I’ve already commented on the Taiga which is definitely a unique kind of ecology.  You get a broad overview from the air, but you get to see the trees from the ground.

The dayflight to Anaktuvuk Pass in Gates of the Arctic was not originally planned.  But thanks to a tip from a friend, we had a unique experience north of the Arctic circle in an Inupiat native village that most people don’t even fly over.  Plus, because it was a regularly scheduled flight, wasn’t even expensive at all.  Since there are no roads to Anaktuvuk, we can’t consider that part of the road trip, but it is an easy flight from Fairbanks.

Driving certainly gives you more freedom in your schedule than sticking to train or plane schedules.  And you can break when you want to rather than when you are told to.  So everything is a bit more relaxed on the road trip.  On the other hand, you do have to worry about the vehicle some (although a lot less when it is a rent-a-wreck).  So I suppose there are trade offs, but we also thought the road trip was much more similar to our normal mode of travel (travel trailer).  Joan decided she was tired of the super-rustic lodging (i.e. those with outhouses instead of bathrooms), but we enjoyed a lot of the motel-style lodging.

Road trip is over and we crossed two major parks (Denali and Wrangell-St. Elias) off the list.  We also took a one day trip into Gates of the Arctic.  We are getting closer to the end of The Alaskan Odyssey, but there is still one more trip to go.  We leave tomorrow for Kotzebue.