I credit blame Jack Krakauer, Sean Penn, Eddie Vedder, and the Air National Guard for last week. The latter scheduled the plane on which I decided to catch a “hop” (space available flight). The former two told a story that haunted me for far longer than it should have, and Mr Vedder I blame for singing about it all the damned time on WZGC in Atlanta. As succinctly as I can, I will try to relive my brief foray into the wild.
The flight over was on a tanker out of Knoxville, TN. Believe it or not, I actually quite enjoy flying in this manner, as there are no children or obese people on the back of military cargo planes. There’s no narrow aisle that may or may not be blocked by a beverage cart, and there’s no stewardess telling me when I can or can’t stand, walk, piss, etc. Because it’s extremely loud, no one can sit next to me and tell me about their grandchildren for 6 hours, either. I put on hearing protection, spread out the food and drinks I’ve brought, and read. It’s great. Like beltin’ two homeruns in the same inning and rounding the bases real slowly.
I landed in Anchorage Thursday afternoon, got a rental car (Ford Fusion), and tried to eat at Moose’s Tooth but failed (2hr wait). Tried Glacier Brewhouse and failed (1.5hr wait). Went to Humpy’s and sat right away. Good beers; pretty good food; great crowd (locals, no tourists like the other two). I was happy. Three of us sat and drank for a few hours and then went to an aircrew member’s room to sleep (since he was on orders, his lodging was covered by our taxes. I put a mat and sleeping bag on the floor).
Friday morning about 4:30, Freaky Weasel (hereinafter “FW”) and I left for Seward, AK to catch an 8.5hr cruise. Saw Kenai Fjords National Park from the boat, including a humpback whale, a family of orcas, some porpoises, several diving puffins and murres, sea lions, a sea otter, numerous bald eagles, and some French people. We stopped on Fox Island for dinner and spent some time in front of Holgate glacier. Despite the weather’s being cold and rainy, it was a good day. After the cruise, we hiked up to the Exit glacier. We tried to go to the “toe,” but this necessitated walking through a river of glacial runoff of indeterminate depth, and since we were already wet up to our knees, we decided not to continue, but instead followed another trail that lead to a spot along the glacier’s edge. There were posted fines and threats for approaching the glacier, but I don’t give a damn. Drove back to Anchorage (about 2.5hrs) through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen and had pizza and beer at Moose’s Tooth about 10pm. Still daylight outside. Went to bed.
Saturday morning, we drove about 4hrs north to Denali National Park. Stopped at a few viewing spots along the Parks Highway to try and see Mt McKinley, but rain and clouds prevented it (as, we learned, occurs during 80% of visitors’ stays at the Park). We hiked Mount Healy, which was categorized as “strenuous,” and it was. We saw some rabbits and ptarmigans on the way. Nearly spent but feeling quite manly once we’d reached the top, we saw an “older” lady sitting there with her camera. Instant emasculation. We hiked along some of the peaks before getting very cold and concerned about continued rain, so we walked back down and set up camp along Riley Creek.
Both of us badly needed showers, so we went into the camp showerhouse. I was already inside when I saw the sign indicating I owed $4 for this privilege. I didn’t give a damn and dropped trou anyway. About 10 second later, someone with a European accent knocked on the door and asked me to get out. I told him I was already showering. He said he had the key to that shower stall. I replied that I didn’t care; I didn’t need the key, as clearly I was already in there and that I badly needed a shower and that he could come polish my balls. I wasn’t sure how long he was going to continue standing there staring at me, so I gathered my things and walked past the closed stalls and settled on the handicapped stall. I figured the likelihood of a handicapped person’s hiking and camping at Denali National Park was pretty low, so I took it. Mission complete. We slept in the tent, visited the visitor center the next morning (Sunday), and drove back to Anchorage for the flight home, set for Monday.
On the way, I drove us 15 miles off Parks Hwy to Talkeetna to try and see Mt McKinley again. No dice. I took a picture of the viewing spot anyway. Was able to eat and drink at the Glacier Brewhouse that night.
Monday, the plane broke for the first time, so we rode around with the aircrew folks and saw Eklutna Lake and hiked a waterfall trail nearby. Saw a black bear. Couldn’t remember if the black bear is the one I’m supposed to jump up and down and yell at or if I’m supposed to play dead. Or is that the brown bear? It glanced at us and walked on. Airhorns could be heard from the campground a few minutes later. Went back to Moose’s Tooth for more delicious pizza and beer. Tuesday, the plane’s fuel line developed a leak. We were told we’d go Friday at the earliest. I call my office and have an uncomfortable conversation with a couple colleagues from someone else’s cellphone (Verizon didn’t work for me the whole trip). The aircrew were put in a hotel, two to a room. I decide that instead of paying for an overpriced and undersized motel room, I wanted to 1) see Mt McKinley and 2) make it to Chris McCandless’s bus. The trip changed from vacation to quest. FW humored me and agreed to come along.
Somehow, I misread the map on page 2 of “Into The Wild” to indicate the bus was near Fairbanks, so we rented a piece of shit Dodge Neon from an independent car rental agency called Midnight Sun. It already had 60,000 miles on it, and it sounded like a Sherman tank. And it was purple. Out of clean clothes, I bought a 3-pack of t-shirts and socks at the Base Exchange and figured my jeans and sweater would be okay for the next several days. The Neon headed north for a nearly 400-mile trek. The weather was clear, however, so we were able to pull off at Denali State Park and snap pictures of the 20,000 foot peak. One goal accomplished. We appeared to be chasing the setting sun, for as we continued past 11pm, midnight, and even 1am, there was still daylight to the northwest. We camped somewhere near Fairbanks at nearly 2am.
Wednesday morning, we got up and drove to Eielson Air Force Base to act like we were exercising and use the showers. We asked the travel office for suggestions for activities in Fairbanks. Two large women from Michigan suggest panning for gold. We tell them we didn’t bring our kids, thank them, and walk away. FW checks his voicemail. Another plane is coming the next morning, meaning we have to be back in Anchorage by 11am. We’re over 6hrs away. We decide to go to North Pole, AK to buy postcards to send our children. The senior citizen at the visitor center tells us McCandless shouldn’t have been “romanticized” and that his trip was “a waste.” We visit University of Alaska’s Museum of the North. I then reach into my backpack to figure out where the Stampede Trail is, and I see the map on page 8 of the book. It’s right by Mount Healy, the mountain we’d climbed four days prior. I feel like a dumbass, and FW does not hesitate to tell me as much. We drive several hours south. See a moose; take pictures.
Finally, we get to Stampede Road. It’s rough. The Neon travels 8 miles down the road, passing Jeeps and horseback riders along the way as it scrapes along the potholes, mud, and rocks to Eightmile Lake. Then, the trail turns to a quagmire. We debate hiking the remaining 10 miles, despite only having a bag of trailmix and one camelbak’s worth of water. It was 5pm. We head back to try and get mountain bikes or a helicopter. At Henry’s Coffeehouse, FW asks the server about “getting to the bus where that dude died.” He tells us they’ve had 8 clear days without rain all summer, including the last 2 days. Thus, the Teklanika River is very high, and the mud and mosquitoes are awful. He suggests coming back in the winter with sled dogs, closing with, “There’s a reason the guy never made it back out.” I want to kick Yukon Barista Boy square in the gonads. I’m mainly just angry at myself for not realizing how close we’d been earlier in the week, when we had more time.
I did remember, however, that I’d seen a brochure at the “information, tickets, and travel” office at the Air Force Base indicating that Penn filmed the movie in Cantwell, AK, and that the bus used for the movie is still there. We get in the car and head south, fast, to beat sunset. I drove all over Cantwell, Alaska and found shit-tons of old buses, but none with “Fairbanks City 142” on the side or “Jack London is King” or “Alexander Supertramp, May 1992” inside. I’m pissed. FW is making fun of me for chasing a naive narcissist with Daddy issues. We stop at a gas station and ask the Inuit about the bus. It’s 9pm. He says when shooting wrapped up, it was given to the city, but that the President of the Chamber now has it on his private property. I ask where he lives. Gas Station Man tell us the guy’s asleep, as it’s after 9pm, and he owns a construction company. I ask Gas Station Man again where he lives. I haven’t bathed in a couple days or shaved in a week. I make my eyes turn red like Scott Howard’s in “Teen Wolf” when he orders the old man to “GIVE ME…A KEG…OF BEER.” Gas Station Man points to the northeast. We get in the car and drive around some more, never finding the damned bus. I’m angry and need a drink. We find Panorama Pizza. Beer flows like wine. I get back behind the wheel to go the short distance to the Riley Creek campground. It’s full. So is every other campground we check along Parks Highway. It’s nearly 2am, the beer has worn off, and I really need to stop driving, despite the fact that we’re still 4hrs north of Anchorage and have to turn in our gear and the car before meeting at the plane at 11am.
I start looking for a place to pull of the road to camp when FW yells, “LYYYYYYYYYYNX!” I slam on the brakes as a lynx (that we both well recognize from the museum earlier that day) stops in the road in front of my car. He looks angry. He hisses at me in the headlights and arches his back. We see his fangs, which are covered in the last weary motorist’s blood. I reach for the camera; he walks off.
Me: “Okay, I’ve got to stop. Let’s pitch the tent where those two RVs are parked at the “scenic overlook.”
FW: “Are you kidding? We just saw a lynx.”
Me: “So, it was half a mile back. I can’t drive any more.”
FW: “I’m not lying down beside you with a millimeter of nylon between that lynx and me. Did you see that thing? It would tear us to pieces.”
Me: “We’ve been camping this whole trip…you weren’t scared then.”
FW: “Right, but at campgrounds, there are other campers who cough and sneeze and rustle about, scaring away the animals. Out here, it’s just the two of us that the lynx.”
Then it started pouring rain, so we stayed in the car and slept 4 hours before driving back to Anchorage and just getting to the plane at 11am, only to have it break down once again. FW uses Quality Inn points to give us the first night of sleep in beds (notice the plural, you dirty reader) in a week. I wash enough clothes to get me through the weekend at Bristol, go to sleep early, and board the plane the next day to finally make it back to the lower 48.
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