First 24

Greg Galanos

© Copyright 2003 by Greg Galanos

Photo of Turnagain Fjord near Anchorage, Alaska.

Alaska travels leave a vivid imprint on a person’s memory. This piece is an attempt to distill the things that have stayed with me since that first day I visited The Last Frontier.

A journey begins with the first step. I can’t decide which was the first step in the long awaited vacation to my eventual home of Alaska. Was it the cab driver that recounted his days in the Marine Corps and as a bad professional boxer to his captive drowsy audience at 5:30 AM on a rainy May morning? Or was it sitting on the tarmac of Newark International Airport for an hour before the take off of the first of three flights in one day?

Nevertheless it was forgotten as I awoke over the Chugach, one of several glacier-covered mountain ranges that decorate Alaska. As far as I could see out my tiny window were mountains buried under snow. It looked like a massive birthday cake covered with the sweetest heaviest homemade butter cream frosting. We would follow this world of permanent winter to the west, till it led us to Anchorage.

We landed and exited into airportland. No amount of local color can fool me into thinking that I am in a place while still in the airport. Airports attempt to distill the local essence in a way that is as thrilling as a travel brochure and just as unrepresentative. Anchorage’s version includes a variety of Alaska Native artifacts and ferocious stuffed bears all standing up and snarling. Each was a record for the lucky hunters.

We had planned this trip for months, which made the irritation at my stupidity even worse when I realized that we were arriving at 5 PM on a weekday. We would be stuck in traffic for hours before we could get to the hotel. But driven by exhaustion we pushed forward. Despite ignoring earnest warnings from friends to prepare for Polar bear and to bring winter boots for our summer vacation we had still brutally over-packed. For the record Grizzly bear are common throughout much of the state but few tourists ever come within a thousand miles of the Polar variety. Our giant blue duffel bags stressed the shocks on our rental car as we went onto the romantically named International Airport road.

Lands that have strong presence in our imagination are the most exciting to visit. But many of those travel dreams are fueled by myths and legends and part of the fun is to see the reality of a place. Like many Alaskan visitors who will often have seen Discovery Channel specials and read countless books we have a hefty store of knowledge. Others, however, driven by the need to check off every destination on the Giant List of Places That Everybody is Supposed to See will ask what kind of money is used and at what sea level is the Port Of Anchorage. People who never think of venturing to Alaska tend to think that everybody lives in igloos and that it is winter all year round.

Anchorage, the biggest city in Alaska, is comforting for visitors since it is filled with strip malls and chain stores like the rest of America. The experienced traveler, like an Indian in an old western, can read the natural signs and locate the region of the country he is in. That always-lit plastic sign on a tall post is as sure a landmark as any lake or forest.

If it says White Castle it is the northeast; Fatburger is the south western corner of the country; Bullets means burgers in the South; Piggly Wiggly means groceries in the south or north mid west; Gelsens is southern California; Carrs is Alaska; Wawa means the 24 hour a day convenience world of microwave burrito’s and condoms in the mid Atlantic coast; AM

PM is the west coast; Holiday Stationstores is the upper tier of the country; Exxon stations mean that you are not in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Just fifteen minutes after leaving the airport and we were across town and at the hotel. Real traffic jams don’t seem to exist here. You can tell an old time Alaskan, jaded by rural towns and a small city, by how they judge traffic. If they say that Anchorage has traffic jams then they haven’t lived or even visited much of the lower 48.

Collapsing onto a bed is a true joy when you are tired. My wife’s joy at collapsing was rudely but wisely interrupted by me when I insisted that we get out of the hotel and see something.

“I’m exhausted.” She protested.

“We are only here for three weeks!” I replied. She knew that I don’t vacation to rest. I want to do things and see stuff.

“I’m exhausted.” She replied.

“It’s a beautiful sunny day. What are we going to do? Watch TV?”

“But I’m exhausted.” She repeated.

So after showering we were back in the car. I choose to head south on the highway, which is no simple feat since the busiest highway in the state transforms from a major 6 lane interstate to a stop light riddled urban road and changes its name twice right in the middle of town. Whizzing southward, suburban America is on the right. On the left only a few miles away is the largest state park in the country. Chugach State park has wolves, grizzly bears and glaciers. You can turn left off the highway and, in 20 minutes be on a trailhead. An hour of aerobic exercise let’s you can look down on the entire sprawling Anchorage bowl and the two narrow arms of water that bracket the city. The water makes an upside V pointing towards distant, still active volcanoes and the Pacific Ocean. If you choose, you can keep going for days or weeks with out seeing the city yet come back, hop a city bus at the trailhead and be having a beer and gourmet pizza in 30 minutes.

There are several twisting unpaved roads that rise up to houses back in the mountains. Many of these houses were built by long time Alaskans who bought back in the sixties or seventies. At that time, they lived without electricity or running water. It could take hours to reach the city and they needed to be as independent as settlers of the West in the 1800’s. They could be snowed in for days, which still happens. Today their houses are the prized suburbs and worth in the hundreds of thousands. New cookie cutter monoliths are jimmied onto odd shaped plots while next door are self built compounds. These have been added onto every year since the hardy owners first built on their wilderness frontier. The long time residents of these houses, actually most old timers in Alaska, have a rustic snobbishness about having survived and built where few would live even now.

Soon the city ends and the road turns into a two lane winding speedway. Rising out of site to the left from the shoulder of the road are sheer cliffs that are the bases of several thousand foot high peaks.

Dall Sheep, like mountain goats, inhabit impossibly steep and rocky mountainsides. Fresh white coats and long curved horns on the males make them a joy to view. They can be easily seen perched on mountainsides from many of the scenic turnoffs. Occasionally one will climb down from its rocky home and stand on the shoulder of the road cautiously munching foliage. They do this to draw photo hungry tourists, usually the male of the species, out of their cars so they can be run over by other tourists or Alaskans speeding off to the prime fishing spots. Today we did not fall for this trap.

Briefly to the right is the Pacific Ocean stretching off into infinity. Soon more tall snow capped peaks create a fjord called Turnagain Arm, which stretches for 50 miles. This road girded by mountains and dancing along the ocean is one worth driving everyday for the rest of your life. Beluga whales can be seen literally yards away in the water at times. Eagles sore off the mountains above. We were soon buffeted by the frequent winds that shoot down the fjord. While Anchorage is sunny, storms will play over Turnagain Arm. Over the peaks to the right, only two miles away on the other side of the fjord, tall clouds roiled dark with rain. Yet a bright sun still shone on our side as we flew down the curving road. While driving I crouched forward tightly griping the steering wheel trying to peak around the next bend in the road to get the new view as soon as possible. Then around a point we saw, straddling the water, from the stormy cloud shrouded mountains across the fjord to the brilliant sun lit bank was the vivid yellow, blue and red of the brightest rainbow I had ever seen. Joyously stunned we pulled off the road. The rainbow stayed and framed the fjord and dazzling alpine peaks. The car was jostled by the wind while we held a tired, thrilled gaze at an ordinary day in Alaska.

There are few places in the world where there is such a rich combination of environments in a small area. From the road on Turnagain Arm you can hike from the beach up through forested mountains and past tree line to Alpine Tundra. I went to sleep satisfied and overtired listening to a long mournful train whistle call out. Most of Anchorage hears when trains are coming and going.

Anchorage is billed as a City on the edge of a frontier and it is. But that is not an easy or settled place. Most Americans would never imagine living in a city so distant and with a harsh climate in the winter. Yet in Alaska, Anchorage is looked down on as too much of a soft crowded city and not the true Alaska. It is too far and cold for most Americans yet to warm and close for “true” Alaskans. Anchorage is the starting place for travel and dreams of leaving all that is bad about city life and going off to the wilderness. Consequently it is often a stop but rarely the final destination. For those moving to Alaska, Anchorage is a place of transition, old unsuccessful lives to more promising ones; a place for people stubborn and independent enough to leave their old lives. That makes for a populace alternately inspiring and adventurous and argumentative and eccentric.

I slowly came to consciousness turning away from a painfully bright spear of light that split the dark heavy curtains. Before I developed the energy to get up Kathy, my wife, bounced into the room. Just outside our window is Ship Creek, a popular urban salmon fishing spot for locals. In season, hundreds of the fish crazed will be standing in the water casting and reeling only 200 hundred yards away from downtown Anchorage. She had started up a conversation from our hotel room window with some of her fellow fisherman. It was only 5 AM and we were facing the biggest transition to summer in Alaska. The endless daylight. In the summer daylight lasts for 19 hours in Anchorage while December brings the same portion of night. You have to go above the Artic circle, 350 miles north, to get 24 hours of light or dark. We never saw true night on that trip only a deep restful dusk after hour’s long polychromatic sunsets.

Soon enough we were eating breakfast reviewing our itinerary. It is hard to get lost on the road system in Alaska since there are few roads. We were heading on the only north bound highway out of Anchorage. Suburbs quickly drop away to standard jaw dropping scenery. The one turn we must make is at the intersection of two mountain ranges and two highways. We turn left and head north to Denali National Park.

Towns drizzle on until the terrain becomes taiga forest. Largely made up of huge homogenous stands of spruce and birch, taiga forest is rich in life for the brief summer months. This is a land romantic in its harshness and teasing beauty. Wildlife abounds. Not only plentiful wolves, horizon spanning herds of Caribou and enigmatic Wolverine but sky filling flocks of migrating Snow Geese, Warblers and Sandhill Cranes feeding on the billions of definitely unromantic mosquitoes and black flies.

It is late May, summer is just fully here. The weather turned cloudy and we ran into the best thing any adventurous traveler in Alaska could want. It started to snow. Yes snow at the end of May. A snow that would not stick and that we could easily clothe ourselves against. Snow that drove home the lesson, we are in a serious climate. Snow that would make a great story back home yet did not really affect us.

As the last of the fat, moist flakes were wiped away by our windshield wipers we broke out of the taiga forest into the tundra. Grey rain clouds now mixed with towering cumulus whose tops reflected a hidden sun. Dark wet grasses and low hardy bushes spread away from us in every direction and ran up otherwise bare mountainsides. No foothills, just mountains, each one a massive block with rain carved gully’s scaring their faces. Steep narrow valleys separated the mountains. They seemed only a stones throw away but distances are easily distorted on the Tundra. A siren called for me to hike each massif yet the slopes were far too steep to walk. The promise of a private beauty around each corner and over every hill has kept thousands moving forward when fatigue, and sometime good sense, said to stop. Capping the mountaintops were looming steel gray clouds. Between the mountains filing the twisting valleys were rivers of cloud flowing down from some unseen place. Here is harshness and luxurious growth; wide-open spaces and hidden places all mixed together.

I looked at my watch. We have been in Alaska for 24 hours. Born in New Jersey I migrated to Alaska seven years ago. I work with mentally ill children and write as a way of relaxing and growing.

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