August 23 – Friday - Fairbanks to Denali (Healy)– Rain Rain go away!
We wake up at 6:30 to shower and then have pancakes at 7:30. One other couple joins us. He’s a teacher and she’s a preacher. They’re from Anchorage and have planned a weekend getaway to Fairbanks. Today they plan to visit the North Pole – wonder what is wrong with them.
We pack up and leave at 8:30. We have 123 miles to Denali. There is very little traffic. The scenery is vast, but the rain is hard. We are sad the heavy rains shroud the view of the vast mountain ranges.
Off to Denali
We stop in at the Visitor’s Center in the little town of Nenana, half way between Fairbanks and Denali. The very friendly greeter lady (Glenzi) came to Alaska in her early 20’s from the great state of Wyoming. She and her husband are retired, but once taught school in Nenana. She was an elementary school teacher. He was the science and math teacher (with some woodworking thrown in) down at the high school. Glenzi greets us with the biggest smile and some hot coffee and a homemade berry coffee cake waiting. She knew everything about the area, including the mile post markers. It was great to get out of the rain and feel loved by the Visitor Center lady. The way she talked reminded Bill and I of my mother.
We pay our $2 and sign up for Nenana Ice Classic. It’s a lottery based on guessing when the ice in the Nenana River will break up. We choose an afternoon slot on May 5th – Zion’s birthday. We could win $300,000. It’s been a tradition since 1917.
Nenana Ice Classic
I like this town very much – only wish it weren’t raining cats and dogs. The name “Nenana” means a good place to camp between rives. Over the years, it’s been a fishing and hunting camp for different groups of Athabasca Indians. About 1905, the Army Signal Corps built a telegraph station here. Then came the Episcopal Church who founded St. Mark’s Mission. (Later, we visit St. Mark’s church in town disguised as a log cabin.)
The town population skyrocketed with the building of the Alaska Railroad. The first surveyors came in 1916 and built a dock down by the river. On July 15, 1923, President Warren J. Harding came in with his entourage traveling in their fancy train cars, to party and drive in the golden spike at the north end of the Nenana rail bridge. It was just yesterday, in Pioneer Park in Fairbanks, where we saw Harding’s railroad car and learned all about his escapades.
We visit all the town’s major attractions – the Saint Mark’s Episcopal “Log Cabin” Church, the Railroad Museum, the Alfred Starr Cultural Center and the General Store. It is raining heavily – which prevents me from documenting this cool town with my camera – only got a few shots. Guess I’ll have to go back!
The last tour bus was leaving the Alfred Starr Cultural Center as we were arriving. It’s a well-known “potty stop” on the tour bus lines. I walked through the not so great exhibits trying to find some “take away concepts.” The place wasn’t very well marked or organized – but there is a lot of Native stuff on display. The owner, I assume he was Alfred Starr, was a middle age guy who, more than likely, made some “bad choices” in life and wound up here. Sounds like his kid is making bad choices as well. He was lonely, as the bus took off and wanted to talk. He gave us a great tip for seeing Alaska. Buy an old, beat up car, go on any old back road, camp anywhere (nobody will care) and then sell the car on the way home. Now that’s adventure – worrying about driving an old clunker in these most remote places. We like our traveling style the way it is. Nothing jumped out at me at the Gift Shop so we drove down to our next stop.
The Alaska Railroad Museum, built in 1922, is one of the few remaining original railroad depots. I really like this old museum frozen in time. There were no official looking exhibit cases. It simply looked as if the railroad depot closed one day and the employees left everything just as it was. You could turn the pages of the dusty old ledger books and flip through train schedules from the 1930’s and browse stacks and stacks of old newspapers and magazines. It is obvious that museum never had a curator. No museum curator would think of such a “help yourself to the goods” – a true hands-on experience. (And I suppose, most visitors wouldn’t see all the dusty old piles of stuff as real-deal treasures.) Several other non-related RR depot “historical relics” were tossed in for good measure. There was an old style wringer washer left in a corner and other things I’m sure the old timers here “donated” to the museum. What an eclectic collection and one where you are free to touch and investigate. I could have spent a lot of time in there. We check out the Gift Shop on the way out. Bill buys Mona an Eskimo doll. The cashier was another cute Alaska gal – never seen so many good-lookers in one state in my life. They’re all cute and VERY SWEET.
We dodge the rain and find our way to the General Store – not much there. We did buy a very soft white rabbit skin for Zion. Hope she’s not freaked out by it. (Follow up note – Zion loves the rabbit skin and makes Molly a fur coat out of it – that poor Molly!)
We eat lunch at the Rough Woods Café – a place where everybody knows everybody. It’s warm and happy -- a terrific spot to get out of the rain. I like the folks, especially our spirited waitress. I was bad and went for the grilled cheese and fries – hot and good and of course, greasy. Bill orders the special – the open faced roast beef sandwich.
Rough Woods Café
After lunch we head for the Denali area and find the little town of Healy, where we’re staying. We have trouble finding the Denali Primrose B&B. The roads are all dirt and there’s not a sign to be seen (not even on the B&B itself). We drive up a couple steep mountain roads and then arrive at what we think is our B&B. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon and nobody’s home. We’re not sure what to do. Just as we’re hatching a Plan B, Terry (the owner) roars up the road and pulls into the driveway to welcome us. We unpack and then have a nice chat with her.
Denali Primrose B&B
Denali Primrose B&B
Terry is in her 40’s, single mom of 3 and the hardest worker I’ve ever seen. She’s manages another hotel in town and keeps the Denali Primrose B&B spic and span and the acres of gardens surrounding the house immaculate. We tell her about Silke and Mona (who will be coming in later) and the reason for our visit (Rich’s memorial). She has a tender heart and wants to make sure we all feel comfortable. She also calls her son, who is driving in from Fairbanks, to stop and get some flowers for me to take to the memorial service. (There are no florists in the Denali area.)
Bill and I drive into “Glitter Gulch,” the commercial area outside of Denali National Park. It’s packed with all things touristy – hotels, bars, restaurants, fast food places, souvenir shops and so on. It’s not very quaint – but it is confined to a relativity small area and far away from the heart of the magnificent park.
We find the Salmon Bake in Denali for our Happy Hour and it does make us happy with “Shock Top” beer on tap in an old funky setting.
Next, we drive into the park and go to Visitor’s center to meet Ranger John Fish at 3:30. John, decked out in his bullet proof vest, just finished his day patrolling all the park area’s unlawful behavior. He is the one assigned to Rich’s case one year ago. He is a very good guy. He helped Silke and other family members through a tough year by being there on the phone to answer questions and try to comfort them. It was on one of these phone calls that he offered to take Silke and Mona and friends back to the sight where Rich was killed on the anniversary of Rich’s death. This is the reason why we are gathered here today in the shadow of Denali. Bill and I ask a few questions about what to expect on our trek to the site, scheduled for tomorrow. Mark and Talitha and their baby Armin arrive. Armin is adorable and very good. He is intrigued by his dinosaur book and doesn’t pay much attention to the serious adult conversation. We learn from John that Silke called to report that she had a blowout on the Denali Highway and won’t be in until later that night. I am sad and worried about her and Mona – Why does everything have to be so tough on them? We finish our briefing and arrange to meet John (and Pat Owens, the park bear expert) in the morning for our journey to Rich’s place.
Denali Visitors' Center
On our way back to the Denali Primrose B&B, we stop at Rose’s Café for dinner. Rose is from Vietnam and very friendly. She married a poor army guy (her words) and moved to U.S. in 1970. She started the café about 15 years ago and it’s now the hub of Healy. Everyone was loud and laughing and enjoying their night at Rose’s. I order the special – open face roast beef sandwich. The plate comes with beef chucks piled high on white bread with a mountain of mashed potatoes all covered in thick dark gravy and let me tell you, it was awful. I did manage to find a few hidden green beans tucked under the potatoes and went for them. In spite of the cuisine, we adore Rose and would endure anything just to be around her beautiful loving energy. We tell her about our pilgrimage tomorrow and order sandwiches for everyone on the trek. She takes our order and is sad to hear about Silke and Mona. She knows all the details of last year’s tragedy – but now has a personal connection with it.
I push my potatoes and gravy and meat around my plate to look like I’d eaten more – didn’t want to hurt Rose’s feelings. We pay the check and drive a few blocks back to the Denali Primrose B&B to worry about Silke and Mona – and their 14-hour drive in the car, due to the flat tire.
It gets later and later. Finally Terry gets a phone call from someone in Rose’s Café. They tell Terry that Silke and Mona are having dinner at Rose’s and will be there soon. That’s the real Alaska – the community spirit where everyone comes together to support each other.
Later, Silke tells us what happened at Roses. It’s about 9:30 – sun is still up. Silke sees Rose’s Cafe in Healy and decides she and Mona should stop and get something to eat. Silke hasn’t eaten much in a couple of weeks and knows she’ll need some energy for the trek tomorrow. Rose proudly announces today’s special -- the open face roast beef sandwich. Thinking it’s the local cuisine. Silke goes for it. It was a tough thing to take on a stomach not used to food. Soon Silke and Mona, find themselves caught up in the lives of the locals. She gets to know the road construction crew, the folks who live down the road and so on. Rose is the belle of the party. When it comes time to pay the bill, Silke sees she is only charged $1.25 for the coffee. She tells Rose the correct amount. Rose said someone else picked up the tab for her dinner. Rose does not reveal the source only saying, “That’s Alaska – we take care of each other here.” Silke arrives at Terry’s B&B about 10:30 genuinely happy. She is touched by her experience at Rose’s and community goodwill. She seems strong and really to face whatever happens the next day.
NOTE: Other people feel Rose’s love – Here is a review from Trip Advisor about Rose’s Café:
“love love love Roses! I go here all of the time. Breakfast is the best, burgers are great. But the real gem is Rose herself, such a loving person. and you HAVE to try her homemade salsa!!! its delicious on almost anything.”
August 24 – Saturday – Denali (Healy) – Rich’s day
Up early to have some breakfast at our B&B buffet style to start the big day. Around 6:15, we stop at Rose’s to pick up the sandwiches – everything is ready to go. The skies are clearing, a most welcome sight. At 7 am, we arrive at Ranger John’s office in the park. Marc, Talitha and Armin join us. We meet Pat Owen, the park’s bear expert.
Ranger John inspecting the scene
We pack up the van with such things as backpacks, baby seats, lunch, bear spray, and flowers, and drive an hour and a half down the road reserved only for park officials and park buses.
We are all in the moment as we struggle with learning more facts about the incident while struggling to keep our emotions in check. I ask Pat about her work with bears. She’s been at the park for 24 years and knows all about bears. She’s the one who performed the autopsy on the bear who took Rich’s life. The bear was much larger than the bears they normally see in the park. He was a 600 lb. male adolescent, 5 or 6 years old, with no disease or hunger – but with a highly aggressive nature. Pat is very knowledge and very kind – just the person to accompany us on this journey.
I watch the vast wilderness and its awesome beauty fly by the window while I sit with my solemn thoughts and careful conversation. John makes a little detour to give us a glorious view of Mt. Denali (better known to us as Mt. McKinley).
We arrive at our destination and John parks the van by the road. We unload the cargo and load Mona on Silke’s back and Armand on Mark’s back. Pat gives us a demonstration on how to use the bear spray. Except for the children, we each have a canister. Mine gets wrapped up between my legs and for a moment, I think I have a penis. Pat and I have a good silly laugh about that.
We start the 2.25-mile hike along the Toklat River. The first quarter mile or so is tall bramble bushes – a struggle to get through and a good place for bears to hide. Pat cautions us that we all stay together while she sings and talks loudly. We are ever cognizant of the dangers that could lie beyond the next turn.
The heavy shrub gives way to a wide open riverbed with branches of streams flowing by. One of the streams is hip high and rather raging. Pat slips and goes down. Pat, a jolly person quick to laugh, breaks out in laughter which relaxes us all. The kids and cameras are passed carefully across the stream. John guides us safely across repeating the mantra “Keep on walking … Keep on walking” and walk we did across the powerful currents with our feet struggled to hang on while our bodies were pushed downstream. We emerged relieved and very wet.
Then we arrived at the site where Rich was killed. John points out where it all happened – where Rich stood to watch the bear, where he took the pictures, where he put his backpack down and so on. John also told us how Rich was discovered and the recovery mission John orchestrated. It was tough for John to relive what he dealt with exactly one year ago – the two helicopter missions, the rainy night, the still-aggressive bear guarding his cache, the sharp shooter that had to take the bear out – and solving what actually happened that afternoon.
John answered our questions and then let us alone on the spot to be with our thoughts. The quiet time dissolved into activity as the kids ran joyfully among the rocks. Silke gave them markers and they went joyfully from rock to rock as happy graffiti artists. I took the pink rose petals and tried to arrange them into a heart shape as Mona tossed them up into the air with such glee. I put down an emergency blanket so we didn’t have to sit on the cold, wet ground. Silke got out a bottle of craft beer for us to share with Rich – he adored craft beers. We each had a drink – with some left for Rich, then we woofed down the ham and cheese sandwiches Rose made for us. I could taste the love Rose added – and all the extra goodies she included in our lunch bags – sweet rolls, candy bars, and chips. Silke’s appetite magically returned, after being AWOL.
A beer for Rich
We sat quietly for an hour or more with our own thoughts of Rich, enjoying the afternoon, watching the kids play, making their marks on the scattered rocks. Rich would have loved watching the kids.
After a time, it started to get cold and blustery which didn’t help our wet feet. It was time to pack up. Silke gathered us around her for one last hug. She laid the white rose Rosalind (Rich’s mom) asked her to leave at the site. Mona was intrigued with the rose and didn’t really want to leave it – but somehow understood. She also seemed to understand the seriousness of the moment when Bill released Rich’s ashes and we all shed our tears.
One week after Richard died in August 2012, I wrote a letter to Mona to honor him.
A Letter to Mona – Your Papa, Richard White
By Nancy Bamberger, August 30, 2012
You were only given 21 months to have Richard White as your father – but what a beautiful father he was. When you were around him, his whole being radiated with love. You’ll never know how much love and joy you brought to him.
Even at that very young age, he knew who you were and understood your wonderful soul. He was always patient and interested in you. He guided you with soft spoken words and a heart full of love.
He wanted you to explore and embrace the world. Sometimes he’d let you wander ahead of him at a street fair on your own. From a distance, he’d watch you interact and explore your world. Even at a young age, he encouraged you to be independent and curious.
Your father was a gentle man with a brilliant mind and a humble heart. He smiled often, especially if you or your mommy were around. He respected women. He adored you and your mom … and you, Darling Mona, completed his world.
He held deep values – values he lived by. His religion, if he had one, was not in his words, but in his actions. We came to know your Dad by his compassion and his actions. He had a modest life style and never measured his success in houses or cars or possessions. He wanted to give what he had to others in need and he gave generously. After he and your Mom spotted a poster for our organization, the Cambodian Village Fund, he sent a large donation to help us. He believed in us and what we were doing even before we believed in ourselves. He was thrilled to know that he could help some very poor little girls in Cambodia continue their education and change their lives. His generous contributions continued as we got to know you and your family.
He embraced the world and embraced people and was never afraid. In the short time he knew you, he took you on many trips so that you would become part of the bigger world community. You were only a little over a year old when you could say and point out any “Buddha” figure around. How proud he was of you. He wanted you to know the world and didn’t want you to be confined by boundaries.
A few days after he died, we came to visit you and your mommy. We were all so sad and shocked that such a good man could be taken from this world. You must have felt the loss and pain because you cried and cried – not at all like you. To comfort you, I began singing “You Are My Sunshine,” a song I used to sing to my granddaughter when she was sad. I didn’t realize the power behind the simple little verse.
You Are My Sunshine
My only sunshine.
You make me happy
When skies are grey.
You'll never know, dear,
How much I love you.
Please don't take my sunshine away.
Mona, please know that your father was a very, very good man who left the world too soon. He gladly sacrificed to help others find a better life. He loved you with all his heart. He would want you to continue his work, bringing sunshine to this old world of ours.
Scattering his ashes was a gut wrenching experience and also a victorious one. We had made the long journey to say good-bye to Rich – a good man, a wonderful husband, a great father, and the best friend anyone could have. How poetic that this bigger than life person is now released into the grandest wilderness on earth.
Silke completed her mission to seek answers and find some healing. She lifted Mona, all 27 pounds onto her back and marched out of the wilderness. She only took a few steps when Mona fell fast asleep. I watched her little body dropping over the sides of the backpack moving from side to side with each step Silke took.
We retraced our steps through the riverbed (and the raging stream) and back to the bramble bushes when Pat began her loud singing to warn any bear that they better watch out.
John drives us back to his office along the same road we came in on this morning. The road is especially steep with sharp turns, high drop-offs and coated with slippery gravel. John is a cautious driver and we all feel completely safe with him. We stop to observe a moose along the road doing what Pat and John call “stupid moose behaviors.” What a fun job they have! John makes several stops along the road so we can take in the spectacular views – the vast mountain ranges and the wide valleys below.
We arrive at John’s office about 5:30 and say our good byes.
Upon John’s recommendation, we have dinner at King Salmon, a nice restaurant behind the Princess Hotel in Denali. The kids were so good, after all we put them through. Silke treated us all to dinner. It is a day none of us will forget.
Mark, Talitha and Armin drive to their cabin in Healy and we drive back to Terry’s Denali Primrose B&B. Mona, fully rested, and I play. Mona and I watch videos while Bill and Silke talk. We also have our cheerios and milk break.
The day – Rich’s Day -- was just right with a lot of healing for everyone.
About 2 o’clock in the morning, Terry sees the northern lights, but doesn’t wake us. I always wanted to see the Northern Lights, but thought they were visible only in the winter. Of course, I think Rich gave us a little magic show from the heavens – but why didn’t he wake us? Maybe he can arrange another show for tomorrow night.
August 25 – Sunday - Denali (Healy)
We sleep in and have a leisurely breakfast. It is the first day on the trip that we don’t have to be up and about. It is nice to talk to Silke and play with Mona.
We arrive at the Denali Visitor’s Center about 10:00 and take a hike. Mona is joyful out on the trail. She is in her element – running and laughing with that impish look in her eye. Like her parents, she delights in exploring what nature has to offer. She eats the wild blueberries and even eats the soap berries, although they taste like soap. She picks leaves and tears them apart and smells them. I ask her what one of the leaves smells like and she promptly replies, “Like a green leave.” God I love that kid!
After our hike with Mona, we return to the Visitor Center area and find a place to have lunch. Bill gets the chili. I go for the chicken nugget kids’ plate – also offered to “seniors,” that’s me.
After lunch, we take a bus to see the Dog Mushing demo in the park. We see the dogs, all big and gentle. Everyone is allowed to pet them, now that’s how gentle they are. We hang out with the dogs until “Showtime with the Dogs.” I am very disappointed in the show. The ranger goes on and on about the dogs promising us that it won’t be long now to see them. We end up with lots of talk and little action. She tells us to get our cameras ready because the dogs are on their way. I’m trying to frame a shot and focus in when the sled comes roaring by and then stops in front of the stands. I miss the whole thing.
We are exhausted from our leisurely day and head back to the Denali Primrose B&B. Mona naps in the car while I get to chat with Silke.
We find Terry working in her garden. Her veggies took a pretty big hit from the frost on in the last couple of days. She is busy deadheading the flowers and mowing the lawn. She knows winter is not far away.
We leave Silke and Mona playing in Terry’s beautiful yard and go to 49th State Brewery to meet Matt, my cousin’s son. He’s a River Rafting Guide in Denali. He is a big handsome mountain man with a full bushy beard and a tattoo of my Aunt Pat (his grandmother) on his tummy. He is quiet and very sweet. He tells us about the clients that he takes on the rafts. You can tell how much he cares about them. In October, Matt heads to New Zealand for his next river rafting gig.
We are so happy to get to know him better and happy such a sweetie is in our family. We have a nice dinner and a few beers. On the grounds of the 49th State Brewery, is the bus from the movie “Into the Wild.” Matt tells us about it and then we pose for a few photos to remember the evening.
We get back to the B&B about 8 and find Silke and Mona still playing in Terry’s big yard. Silke gets out her camp stove and makes a freeze dried dinner for Mona and her. Mona loves the great outdoors and can’t seem to get enough.
Dinner at the Denali Primrose
Dinner at the Denali Primrose
About 10, when it finally starts to get dark, we all go inside, time for Mona and my Cheerio raid. This place is perfect for us.
Around bedtime, we get excited thinking about the northern lights Terry got to see last night. We tell Terry to wake us up at any sign of the lights. Silke sets her alarm for 2. It’s like waiting for Santa Claus. We finally settle down for bed around midnight, but I am so excited that I can’t go to sleep. However, no lightshow tonight.
August 26 – Monday - Denali (Healy) to Anchorage (Alaskan Frontier Gardens)
We wake up early and quietly gather our stuff trying not to disturb Mona or Silke – They were both up late last night waiting for those darn lights! We go downstairs to have our breakfast. I hear Mona’s sudden cry and know they are up. Mona comes down the stairs with the biggest smile when she sees her little tribe. I will miss that darling little sweetheart. We are out of milk as a result of Mona and I sharing too many late night Cheerios snack. (Instead of drinking buddies, Mona and I became Cheerios Buddies.)
It is a glorious, bright, sunny morning. However, there is ice on the windshield. We’re in the land of “Run your engine and heat up your car” – so very strange to us southern Californians.
We talk with Silke. It is hard to break away after our great trip together. We finally say good-bye and take off down the road with Mona and Silke waving from the front room window. After the first turn, we are just the two of us again. I go into my co-pilot mode, fussing with maps and the GPS. We travel south down HWY 3. The scenery is beautiful. We talk about the overwhelming experience we shared with Silke and unfortunately miss the McKinley Station and the hike to 3 Lakes that Matt recommended.
We stop in Cantwell, the biggest hole in the universe. We disturb the old guy at the cashier register when we try to buy some bread for our peanut butter sandwiches and ice for our beer. He is annoyed with us and seems to have forgotten how to run credit card transactions.
We go crazy (or at least I go crazy) when we catch our first view of Mt. McKinley – a massive pile of white snow and ice against a blue sky backdrop. It’s a perfect, cloudless day. What a treat!
Mt. Mc Kinley
Mt. Mc Kinley
We drive into Denali State Park hoping to catch a hike around Byers Lake along with more incredible views of Mt. McKinley. The outhouse has the best view of Mt. McKinley. No one is in the visitor’s center to give us advice or guidance on the trails – budget cuts at their finest. We go down by Byers Lake, the prettiest little lake anywhere. We see signs posted “Recent Bear Activity in the Area.” That nips our hiking plans because we gave our bear spray to Silke. We have our peanut butter picnic and then head on down the road looking for a way to commune with nature and marvel at the Great Mt. McKinley.
We hit pay dirt at Denali Viewpoint South. A few end of season visitors, like ourselves, have a field day taking pictures and trading cameras to take pictures of each other with Mt. McKinley standing proudly in the background. I am disappointment with the way they frame the shot of Bill and me – but act excited anyway. (I think I have “the eye” for photos – even tho’ cataracts are quickly taking over “the eye.”) I will never forget seeing that mountain – and have it well documented. (However, I am sad to say, the lighting wasn’t the best to show off the mountain – guess I’ll have to come back!)
I insist we stop at the lodge in Trapper Creek for more views of McKinley because the brochure claims it’s the best spot to see the mountain – HA, double HA. The brochure was just a clever advertising play -- that junky old lodge had no views – except for views of the busy road. It did, however, have ice cream and very good ice cream at that. This old shack in Trapper Creek is the hangout for locals and their dogs – lots of them. They were big dogs – husky dogs that pull sleds – not princess, spoiled dogs like our little Molly. We walk by a couple of trucks in the parking lot with dogs in the back of the truck bed. The dogs look like they could easily rip you apart, but they were passive and gentle – not hyper and yappy, like our silly Molly.
We continue down the road and decide not to double back and go to Talkeetna to see the graves of folks who didn’t make it to the top of McKinley.
By then the scene gets pretty ho-hum and by the time we get to Wasilla, Sarah’s home town, it’s pretty much wall-to-wall crap. At one time, it might have been livable. Now it is butt ugly with tacky shopping centers and places like Lowe’s and Subway Sandwich lining the road as far as the eye can see. This is the only photo I could manage to take while in bumper to bumper traffic. Maybe Sarah went there.
Anchorage offers more crappy sights for sore eyes. How could this happen?
Civilization is something! However, the roads get nicer as we get closer to our B&B – Alaskan Frontier Garden. It is a lovely, peaceful place perched on a hill surrounded by beautiful green gardens. Two dogs, one looking like a vicious pit-bull, come up to greet us and slobber on the car. They join us again when we share a beer on the deck outside. The one who looks like a tough guy with pit bull features is named Capone. The big friendly one is Cisco. They are desperately seeking love and any Fritos that I may drop off the table.
We are very happy with our place and are fascinated by the collection of Native Art in the hallways and dining room. The place looks like a museum. We watch the news – looks like war with Syria. However, with this one, there’s no fanfare and talk of weapons of mass destruction and shock and awe. Strange to think that Bush and his cronies may have turned Americans into peace-loving creatures. Seems that wars we get involved in never seem to work out.
We drive to Moose Tooth and eat pizza for dinner. The place is packed and for good reason – excellent pizza at very good prices. We are very fat and happy when we return to our little Shangri-La on the hill. I do miss Mona, my little buddy and our late night Cheerio raids. The room is quiet. I work on the journal while Bill watches something on NetFlix. Trip almost over – it’s been a good one.
August 27 – Tuesday - Anchorage (Alaskan Frontier Gardens)
Rita, owner of the B&B, prepares us a lovely breakfast – French toast and fresh fruit. We talk to a couple from the Netherlands – always meet nice interesting folks at a B&B.
We drive to the trailhead for Flattop Mountain – a hefty 4-mile hike – 2 straight up, and of course, 2 straight down. It is a gorgeous day and several other hikers and their dogs are on the trail. We also see some women picking fresh blueberries that grow on the side of the mountain.
I am distracted by taking photos – so many beautiful things to capture – wildflowers, mountain ranges, sky, rivers, Anchorage and the vast sea beyond. (And, if you’re Sarah Palin, you can even see Russia.) When the trail becomes steep, I must put my camera away and focus on each step. There are 380 (or maybe 383) railroad tie steps anchored in the side of the mountain – and that’s only a small part of the trail. We contend with dirt, mud, rocks and the worst – gravel. I’m thinking my once steadfast boots have lost their grip – or maybe it’s me who’s lost her grip – or get up and go. I never did go down – but had a couple of close calls. For the last quarter of a mile we scrambled over larger boulders. We left our poles behind to go into scramble mode. Large painted color-coded dots guide our way. The once bounce in my left knee is no more – so I must compensate with the pitiful strength in my arms. In spite of my decaying body, the extreme rock crawling is my favorite part of the trail. I pull myself over the last boulder and see the summit – a wide, flat area big enough for helicopter landings. I can see where the mountain gets its name “Flat Top.” We pose for a few photos to prove we’d “bagged” Flat Top and then crawl back down the huge pile of boulders – me, mostly butt first – not a pretty sight.
We descend sliding on a few gravel patches – is it the boots? Finally, the grade of the trail levels out and we enjoy the beautiful day and the beautiful place.
We get in the car and then wait for the Flag person on the construction crew to wave us through. I swear half of Alaska’s roads are under construction. We eat our peanut butter sandwiches, the whole sandwich, in the car while we wait for the grader to finish his job and the flag girl to give us the “Go” signal.
We drive to the hospital – Alaska’s First People hospital – to check out the gift shop. Rita said it was great for buying native crafts. We find Amy and Brian a bark container with moss still attached. I am fascinated by all the First People at the hospital. Some were selling their wares right outside the main door.
Our next stop is downtown to visit the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center.
The first exhibit room we visit is part of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. It is dark to preserve the rare artifacts – masks, boots, parkas (some made of fish skins or animal guts), knives, whaling stuff, ceremonial boxes and on and on. It is difficult for my aging eyes to view the detailed items in the dark. However, each case has interactive screens that are mounted on pedestals, waist high, with information about each artifact. It was easy to view and easy to use. I spend a lot of time on the case containing the masks. The masks are simple and catch just the essence of one’s spirit.
Also in the exhibit room are 8 or 10 larger video screens with stories and images of First People from each region. The short videos are excellent and leave the message that these First People are beautiful people with a gentle, loving culture. The overriding rules that guide them are simple:
Russian and Europeans came here under the pretext of civilizing the First People. Of course, everyone knows the real reason they came was to take the rich resources. Bottom line, 90% of the First People were wiped out with disease. Those left were “educated” and had their beliefs, their customs and their language taken away. The theme from the videos presented is that the culture is coming back and Frist People are rediscovering their culture and embracing it with great pride.
Live your life with respect for all living things.
Everything has a spirit.
First of all, observe nature.
Teach and pass on traditions to the children.
The entire exhibit room was fascinating. However, for me, the most fascinating part was a fellow visitor who happened to look just like my Dad. (Dad passed away a couple of years ago.) I stalked the poor fellow for a while to observe him -- the way he looks, the way he moves, the way his glasses slide down on his nose, the way he shuffles his feet – all of it brought my Dad back to me. So, thank you God of the First People for giving me the gift of remembering my Dad again in first person.
We see the art show, “Re/Marks,” in the next room. I see the culture and the original designs re-interrupted by the current day artists – and what a joy to see. Still the same simple designs, but now even bolder with strong lines with lots of personality woven in.
We head to the history section with a wonderful overview of all the things we’ve learned in Alaska during the last couple of weeks. There are cases from the dinosaur days to the native people, to Russia’s takeover of the land, to Seward’s purchase of all of Alaska for only 7 million bucks. U.S. citizens mocked his decision and called Alaska “U.S. Frozen Land.” In anyone’s estimation, it proved to be quite a bargain. We conquered and got fat off the resources – coal, copper, gold, oil, furs, just to name a few – and we’re still getting fat.
I did not have enough time or enough brain cells to assimilate all the information and was relieved when we hit the last of the display cases -- aviation and pipeline. My brain was on overload. We fill our eyeballs with more visual delights in the large atrium when we see a phenomenal photographic exhibit.
Of course, I find many more masks – designed by today’s First People. I am a real sucker for these masks.
As Fate would have it, we bump into Mark, Talitha and Armin on our way to the gift shop. What are the chances of that? They are just arriving and needed to kill a little time before their plane takes off at midnight.
Armin, Talitha and Mark
We stop at the gift shop – lovely, but we’re not in the mood for things.
We go back to our B&B for a shower and a beer. The two dogs, Cisco and Capone, are exceptionally friendly. Capone thinks he’s a lap dog and climbs up on my lap for me to pet him. I can’t say no to that, but I can say NO to his sloppy kisses. I’m use to Molly’s little kisses with her little tongue. Capone can cover your entire face with one lick. (Kinda like the ex-mayor of San Diego who has left his residue on many a woman during his political career.)
About 6, we head to Bradly House for dinner as recommended by Rita. The Halibut is excellent. We’re very pleased.
We go back to our B&B to pack up. The gods are against us. The computer makes alarm bell noises that can’t be stopped – Oh no, not my journal. (Bill finally figures out it is a stuck key – and the computer and my journal are fine.) Then Bill gets an email from Delta saying our flight is delayed – Oh no, how are we going to make our two connections? After a few choice words, Bill calls Alaska Air (we're actually flying Alaska as a code-share with Delta) to learn that Delta is wrong – our flight schedule is just fine. We go to bed about 9 with the alarm set for 4:45 am. Traveling to all these amazing places comes with a cost – sometimes irritating, but a cost that is well worth it the trouble.
August 28 – Wednesday - Back to San Diego
At 4:30, Bill is up and in full on organizational mode. I crawl out of bed and go into auto-pilot, brushing teeth, applying a dab of makeup, and gathering up last minute items.
We find our way to the lot where we are to return the car and catch the shuttle to the airport. We check in and eat our breakfast from Rita (cereal and yogurt) at the airport.
Our first plane is on time and with an empty seat between us. I pound out the journal on the laptop. Things are looking up. We get to Portland about noon and eat our peanut butter sandwich (for old times sake) and catch our flight from Portland to Salt Lake City. We arrive home about 6. Amy and Molly pick us up. Amy has a nice dinner waiting for us – chicken sandwiches and fruit salad. We tell the family about our adventures in Alaska and then come home to put all the stuff away. I am exhausted and sleep like a baby.
Home, Sweet Home … no Northern Lights … but beautiful San Diego.