Alaska Planning, Round Two

In anticipation of the Alaska trip, I read Nancy Lord’s Green Alaska last month. July hit at about the same time I cracked upon John McPhee’s 438-page opus on the last frontier, titled Into the Country. It’s taken me the entire month to get through it (busy!) but it was worth the commitment. I’m packing 2 Scott Russell Sanders books and Home Ground by Barry Lopez (if it arrives in time).

Meantime, Compton writes from Anchorage: “I’ll be in Juneau while you’re here, but you can stay in my apartment and use my car.” A native Alaskan, Compton and I played rugby together at Whitman College. I remember her telling me stories about how it took 4 days just to get home for winter break. If she took the Alaska State Marine Highway, it took a week. Now she lives in an apartment in Anchorage. She sends details about the spare key, the landlord, and her mother nearby who lives in a century old log cabin formerly owned by a state senator.

When I ask for tips on the best way to get from the Anchorage airport to her place, Compton writes: “Chat it up on the airplane, there’s always someone over-eager to brag about all they know about this State and how long they’ve lived here and if you play Amazed and Awestruck, you could potentially score a ride. Look for the lonely, bearded ones.”

“I’m not going to Alaska to meet anybody,” I write her back. “But thanks for the tip and of course, a place to stay. We can go to Seward on the tail end of my trip when you’re done with work.”

Next up, I call Bill and Susan’s friend Mike in Anchorage. He’s the one who “won’t propose to me” and “works 100 hours a week then goes off into the bush for a while.” He answers the phone all business and brow: “This is Michael.” When I introduce myself his tone softens. “Yes, I know who you are.” Then he asks how Bill and Susan are.

“I live a lifestyle that doesn’t require a vehicle,” he says. “It just a choice I have made…But there are plenty of hikes we can do around Anchorage that are just off the #7 bus line, for instance.”

I’m thinking of the Alaska Pipeline. I’m thinking of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. I’m thinking that not driving a car because of its oil consumption in Alaska is almost like not drinking coffee in the Guatemalan highlands. I’m thinking about all of this when he asks what kind of hiking I had in mind.

“I’m just as happy to walk off the plane at noon on Monday and start hiking,” I say. I mean it. He laughs.

“Let’s meet for lunch and we’ll go from there,” he says. “I don’t own a cell phone.”

“Me neither,” I say. “Except I charged a Tracfone for the trip because nobody that I stay with anymore has land lines.”

“Exactly,” he says.

“What about night hiking?” I ask. “Or some day hikes up around Talkeetna?”

“I’d be up for that. The night hiking is best depending on what phase the moon is in.”

“Exactly,” I say.

Next, I call Keith in Talkeetna. It’s well past dark on Fork Mountain and the barred owls are hooting, but in central Alaska it’s just barely suppertime. Yes, Keith has gear I can borrow. Yes, there is a couch, a backyard, and a guest room. Yes, I can come alone or bring somebody with me. Yes, he has friends visiting at the same time I want to be north of the city and we can all hike together. Yes, he recommends Denali but only certain part. Yes, the day trip on the train is worthwhile. Yes, the mountains east of Talkeenta are less populated and much closer than Denali.

Next up, a Facebook break…where I see that my dear from Jon from AmeriCorps is currently stationed with the Forest Service in Ketchikan. “I work in the field all week but have long weekends off. Let me know and I’ll come to the city so we can meet up,” he writes. The coincidence is uncanny…Jon and I hiked together years ago all over the high peaks of the Adirondacks, living in old cabins in the middle of a 6 million acre park at the end of a six-mile long lake. I still tell the story of the day he got so many black fly bites that he was effectively poisoned for 48-hours.

I sign off line and the phone rings. It’s my uncle—mom’s youngest brother. “Look,” he says. “I want some Alaska big man t-shirt or something. Something with the artwork on it.” This, from my uncle who has traveled to the far corners of the globe for business, yet never gotten to go to Alaska. As we speak, he’s sitting in terminal C of the Cleveland airport and a restaurant employee there has just recognized him and given him a high five. This, from my uncle who has sent me gifts from multiple continents, written me letters in Spanish, and survived a hostage hold up in Mexico City. You can bet I’ll buy him a shirt from Alaska!

“And go meet some Alaskan men,” he says. “You know what I mean.”

“I’m not going to Alaska to meet anybody,” I say.

“You know we share this common bond. I think we’re the only ones in the entire [FAMILY NAME] who were single into our thirties. So…Go have some fun. Have fun more than once.”

“Ok, but I’m going there to hike and to write,” I say.

“And to have fun.”

“Yes, to have fun. And buy an Alaska big man t-shirt. Right?”


I’ve only sketched out a few days of my journey so far and already I’m worried that 17 days won’t be enough.

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