About Me

"Setting the world to rights"...one blog at a time! Plus anything else that comes to mind

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Thursday 15th May 2003, Seward to Glenallen

I was up early again this morning but not from choice. Both nights a party of school kids was deposited at the hotel just before 10 o'clock with attendant yells, bangs and running around. Both mornings I was wakened around 5:30 as they got up and banged, crashed, chatted, shrieked and generally made as much noise as school kids can. Fine for them but I had a very long drive to Glenallen that day.

The internet was free again so having taken advantage of the email I looked up the ferry times.  I had hoped to get the ferry from Whittier to Valdez, then drive to Glenallen through the Chugach Mountains but found out that the next ferry wouldn't get in until 9:30pm leaving me with a 2-3 hour drive to follow.  I decided to go back towards Anchorage, turning off on the Glenn Highway just south of the city and I have no regrets at the choice.  Lunch was enjoyed while chatting with a lady from Surrey who moved to Alaska 8 years ago, and an Indian lady with her daughter.  She recommended the Indian Hospital in Anchorage if I wanted to buy authentic souvenirs.  The patients make them.  She was there in November having her stomach stapled and has lost 190lbs since.  The waitress (Surrey lady) advised me to just order extras for breakfast, not the set meals excluding this, that or the other.  Works out cheaper usually.  I love these times, chatting with new, friendly people - I'm changing!

I enjoyed viewing the Seward Highway from the opposite direction and I think I got some photos this time.  The Glenn Highway has varied scenery, breathtaking in fact.  I drove through many canyons, saw a glacier, caribou at the side of the road and - often - ‘slide area ends' signs.  Somehow I never saw the 'begins' signs.  (Slides = rock falls).  In these places you'd see great scars in the canyons or hillsides where vast areas have just dropped away.  I saw rocks on the road and rocks actually falling nearby but nothing ever fell near the road or me while I was on it.  Phew!
Road works were fun.  At one point I waited 20 mins to play 'follow-my-leader'.  This involves waiting for a queue of traffic to form then a Pilot Vehicle guides the traffic through the works.  It will be nice when I have the RV with my own facilities, it can be a long time between stops!  It snowed again before I got to Glenallen, much to my delight, and the chagrin of the inhabitants of the cafe I was in at the time; it had snowed there every day for the past week and they were sick to the back teeth of it.  However, they were highly amused when I briefly abandoned my meal to run out into the snow in excitement so I could say it had actually snowed on me in Alaska!  In fact today I started in warm sun and ran the gamut of rain, snow, sleet and hail before the day finished.
The New Caribou Inn in Glenallen was a very comfy, cosy place with decent food and I slept well.

Wednesday 14th May 2003, Seward

The next morning I walked a couple of miles along the waterfront to the harbour.  At one point a couple of ladies stopped and pointed out some seals to me.  Tried for a photo but couldn't get the camera out quick enough, I suspect they will just be black smudges in the sea as they had followed the current further down the coast by the time I got my act together.
The walk was lovely, a crisp sea smell and pungent seaweed; I love the smell of seaweed.  It got fishier as I neared the harbour.  I treated myself to a banana split and sat on a bench for a while watching the birds and boats.  A couple of ladies with prams wandered past chatting and gave me a friendly but curious nod.  They didn’t seem inclined to stop and chat so I wandered back to the hotel again.  Unfortunately I hadn't given my knee enough of a rest and hobbled the last stretch.
Just across the road from the hotel is a sea-aquarium place and I spent some time wandering around, really very enjoyable and informative.  There were a lot of children in school parties.
I had a nap before a dinner of tasteless shrimp, bottled horseradish and tomato sauce mixed together to start followed by a main course that wasn’t up to much either – very disappointing.

Tuesday 13th May 2003, Anchorage to Seward

I found my way across Anchorage reasonable well, only getting confused twice.  The Seward Highway is easily the most consistently beautiful that I've seen so far.  The Alaska Highway is marvellous but is so long it couldn't possibly carry the beauty the whole way.  The Seward however, manages it.  I stopped many times but didn't take many photos as my camera didn't like the light.  I will just have to carry the images in my memory.  It snowed a bit at one stage and I let out a loud whoop, even though it only lasted all of two minutes.  Never mind - it snowed in Alaska while I was here!
I stopped for a bowl of chilli for lunch and though he swore there was no flour in it one of the other ingredients must have included a bit because things were getting a bit anxious towards the end of the road there!
It's a lovely hotel built around an inner atrium.  There's complimentary Internet access for residents, so I'm making sure I keep up to date as Whitehorse is likely to be the next time I get a chance to email.  Sadly, I don't have a bay view but I suppose the parking lot has its own charm!  That's par for the course for singles; we get a raw deal.  I made up for it at Ray's Waterfront Restaurant, sat next to one of the panoramic windows, right on the harbour front looking out at the boats coming and going and watching the birds diving for fish.  My fish came in a more civilised manner - on a plate. I wrapped myself round oysters followed by crab with lemon and cilantro butter, rice and broccoli.  Absolutely excellent.
Seward has been my food Mecca since I left England and I'd been looking forward to this.  No thinking of the cost for forty eight hours, even if I have to starve for a week.  (OK - so there's no real chance of that happening!)
Just time for a short walk before bed.
Nighty nighty

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Monday 12th May 2003, Anchorage

I put a film in for developing and went looking for breakfast while I waited.  Two hours and one Snickers bar later I finally found something I could eat, so I made it brunch.  A rather nice, if salty, salmon chowder.  After collecting the photos I headed for the Museum, which is supposed to be very good, but it was closed.  No idea why.  However I twisted my bad knee very painfully so the rest of the day was spent alternating walking until I hobbled too badly, and getting my emails up together.  This hotel offers free Internet access to guests so I made the most of it – it was a good call not sending them from Talkeetna.  Hence the mass of emails you all received over a short period.
The hotel is lovely and the service is spot on but I've been spoilt by the friendliness of people in the smaller places; I find the service here excellent but impersonal.  People generally are not so friendly and tend to avoid looking you in the eye as you walk around, but that's the same for any major town or city worldwide.
Not much else to say for Anchorage, George - you were right; nice to see for a day but that's about it, thanks for ignoring me and not booking me in longer.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Sunday 11th May 2003, Talkeetna to Anchorage


I got up promptly as I wanted another breakfast at the Roadhouse, and this time I went for the half-plate, still pretty substantial.  Talkeetna may be small but it is a popular base for climbers from all over the world.  Mt McKinley is the main attraction but there are plenty of other climbs around.  Apart from climbing, a lot of people come here for flight-seeing (doesn't appeal to me, going up in small planes), fishing (only if I don't have to put worms on the hook) and rafting (not in these freezing waters-thank you! - maybe when I get to the Rockies).

The land was very flat for a while after leaving Talkeetna but then I hit mountains again, figuratively speaking.  I stopped at a posh looking place in Willow for a while, only for the waitress to put the frighteners on me about the traffic in Anchorage.  Everyone else I’ve spoken to has told me the same – it’s terrible!  I was going to use the loo but when I got inside there were 2 loos side by side, out in the open, and when I looked back at the door - no lock - perhaps not!!  I came to regret this later , I was VERY glad to get to the hotel.

The hotel - wow - is called the Clarion Suites, and that is what I have, a suite.  A living room with a sofa (opened into a double bed), TV, writing desk, fridge, microwave, filter coffee maker and sink; en-suite with vanity area; and 6' wide bed in the bedroom with 2 armchairs and yet another TV in case getting out of bed is too strenuous.

I could only find one restaurant open, Sullivan’s; it was a bit expensive but I thoroughly enjoyed escargots followed by scallops.  Again there was nothing for my diet but this time they were happy to improvise.  The scallops were served without a sauce but they didn't need one they were so plump and delicious.  There was nothing else to do so I had a very domestic evening washing, some mending (thank you Wendy and Mike for the mini-sewing kit) and bed.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Sat 10th May 2003, Talkeetna

Last night at 8 o’clock and 10 o’clock I heard noises from the railroad that runs just nearby.  There would be a long sound on the horn followed by a leisurely clackety clack that went on and on and on and on, then  the horn sounded again in the distance while still the clackety clack still went on.  It wasn’t disturbing, in fact the rhythm was rather soothing and if any more went past during the night I was too sound asleep to notice.  I took a coffee out onto the front porch first thing to write some cards.  Each cabin is set off the ground and has a covered porch, which is fortunate since it has been raining since I got here, with a table and chairs.  There's a wonderfully sweet smell to the air that I first noticed at one of the coffee stops yesterday and it’s even more pronounced this morning.  No one seems to know what it is, I guess they are used to it.  Perhaps it’s linked to the trees coming out.  Occasionally it is mixed with wood smoke.  It's a cross between cedar wood and honeysuckle.

I sat quietly for a while, writing, smelling the air and listening to the rain pattering all around and dripping through the trees.  There was almost no breeze and it was lovely and peaceful, I felt very calm and contented.  A lady with a little girl came out of the cabin across the way and greeted me as they passed.  The lady who owns the place was cleaning the cabin next door.  We both leaned on the porch fencing for a good natter and swapping of histories.  She grew up in Kansas and moved to California, which she says was a very lonely place for a single  - very superficial, concerned only with looks and appearance.  She met her husband on a return trip to Kansas and they moved up here.

I’m not cooking in the cabin; I’ve not come all the way to Alaska to spend time entirely by myself indoors, so eventually I went looking for a late breakfast and spied out the Talkeetna Roadhouse and bakery.  A traditional place, like our inns used to be, going back to the days of the mushers.  Good basic food and accommodation at affordable prices.  My glasses were covered in rain as I looked around for a free table; not finding one I sat on a stool at the window bar.  Cooking is done at the back, fronted by a counter with goods from the bakery, then a long table with 8-10 chairs then 4 stools lined up at a deep ledge under the window.  Sauces and condiments were dotted here and there on the surfaces.  There was further seating through a door on the far side.  Now I’m in I can see a sign ‘family seating’, this apparently means you plop yourself down wherever there’s a spare place. 

There were a number of people in climbing gear, stoking up for a day in the mountains; or perhaps fishing in the rivers.  One man was on a computer while two backwoodsmen chat ted next to him.  Very much a mixed group.  Three gents of varying ages were having an animated conversation next to me.  Seems none of them had met before but just as they left one of them asked me to take their photo, promising to send a copy to the others.  It was that sort of place.  

I made the mistake of ordering the full plate standard breakfast to act as brunch.  Masses of scrambled egg and pan fries, four thick, long streaky bacon rashers, fruit juice and coffee refills, plus a large slab of toasted homemade bread that I regretfully declined, all for $9-50.

I waddled out later and had another poke around the town (two main streets of a couple hundred yards or so and a few minor residential minor roads = downtown Talkeetna).  Found the local historians museum that I'd been recommended to by Karin in Healy, set in the old school house.  It was filled with a photographic history of the place and people, plus loads of artefacts and personal belongings from the past.  All overseen by a hippy-like character who would only take the admission fee, the postcard was on him!  He and his wife originally moved up from the lower 48th to settle a bit south of here.  The real estate lady was rather stuck-up and told them they would find people 'more like their kind i.e. aging hippies’, in Talkeetna.  They came and never left, living ‘in the bush’ about 20 miles out of town.  I spent a very enjoyable and interesting time nosing around.  Mad Dog (Michael when on official museum business on the phone) invited me to come back for company and to keep dry if I got bored later.

Back to the cabin to sit on the porch and just relax, writing and chatting until I got itchy feet again.  This time I called in at the general store.   Nagley's Store, originally built closer to the river in the 1920's, was later moved, whole and on rollers to its present site.  It took a month and remained open for business the whole time.  As you step up to the wooden walk way out front, and through the door, you step through a time warp.  The counter extends down the right wall, backed by wooden shelves from floor to ceiling.  Wooden floor to ceiling shelves all along the opposite wall as well, all filled with a myriad of items, some as they are, others in hand labelled jars.  In between are narrow aisles between further wooden shelving.  The Waltons comes to mind although Talkeetna is believed to be the place Northern Exposure was based on (actually shot in Oregon).  Apparently most of the characters are readily identifiable in Talkeetna, with the exception of the ex-astronaut.  

Walking further along the street my eye was caught by an article pinned outside a building about walks around Talkeetna.  I brushed the door as I bent down and it rattled ever so slightly.  Next moment the door opened and an enthusiastic gent was informing me the paper had only just moved into its downtown offices, the papers are free, the current one has the walks in it, and here, take a back copy as well.  So off I trundled with 2 copies of the local paper stuffed inside my coat to keep them dry.  Since my camera was also snuggling down there I must have looked a very peculiar shape as I walked down the street!

The rest of the day was spent quietly on the porch after a re-visit to Cafe Michelle for another go at the wonderful halibut, and then bed.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Fri 9th May 2003, Healy to Talkeetna

I set off early as it was to be a fairly long haul down to Talkeetna and I wanted to drive into Denali National Park on the way.  Which I did and it was lovely.  It started raining as I left Denali and it was to stay that way.  I pretty much drove all the way through with only a few coffee/rest stops.  The rain and high winds continued most of the way down and made it very tiring.  Nevertheless I enjoyed the drive and the scenery, of course, was great.  Not vast vistas or big mountain scenery because of the weather but great all the same.  The mountains shouldered their way out of the snow to where the cloudline shrouded their peaks.  Low cloud that made the mountains look as though they had been beheaded with a clean, sharp strike.

A strange thing happened on the way down; the trees had a faint haze about them as the buds were on the verge of breaking out.  But the trees were shy, keeping their little sticky-bud fingers tightly folded over the leaves until the weather should warm just that bit more ... then I blinked! ... and there were green leaves everywhere.  Just like that!

Talkeetna is 15 miles off the main highway, situated on a flood plain and very flat.  But there are plenty of trees and character - just ignore the souvenir shops, although there aren't all that many of them and they are not very obtrusive.

Again I have a cabin, this time with 2 double beds, dining table, en-suite shower and toilet and fully equipped kitchen area complete with fridge, microwave, 2-ring burner and filter coffee maker.  There’s also a satellite TV with video.  Need the video, as the satellite is unreliable out here.  I went for a short walk after settling in and settled on Cafe Michelle's for dinner.  I had a truly delightful organic meal of curried lentils and fragrant Thai rice soup, followed by (and here you are Mum, Dad) fresh Alaskan Halibut.  Mmmmm.  Fine food and fine prices, but really worth it.  The people at the next table seemed to think so too judging by their comments.

It had been a very long day so I watched a Harry Potter video borrowed from the cabin owners and then went to bed.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Thurs 8th May 2003, Chena Hot Springs to Healy

I left at 11 o'clock and didn't stop until I was safely past the Fairbanks traffic.  Nerve-racking, I felt like I did when I first passed my driving test - ridiculous!

Once past Fairbanks I stopped off for coffee, at a pool-house I think it was.  I had to really concentrate to understand what the man was saying, he had such a strong accent of some sort, but the woman was ok.  They were pleasant, if a little strange – the dog was nice! Apart from roadworks before Healy it was a pleasant, if unmemorable, drive down.  

I missed the turnoff for Earthsong Lodge so turned round in Healy (Healy = no more than a dozen buildings that I could see, perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough).  The Lodge is about a 4 mile climb off the main road at the end of the 'blacktop’, above the tree line and looking over open tundra towards Denali National Park.  I risked a drive 4 miles further on down rough track for a view of Mount McKinley but it was too misty.  I did stop and get out though.  Just stood enjoying the wind, the solitude and the wilderness scenery.

Jon and Karin, the owners, were there with their daughter Sera (Seraphin), who had come up for a few days; a 27 year-old with ambitions to be a forensic pathologist.  I passed on Mary Shields' regards.  She’d asked me to when she knew I was going to be staying there, and also to ask if they had any puppies at the moment.  

I went for two dried up pork chops in Healy then back to Earthsong where I spent a very enjoyable evening in the main Lodge with the family.  Apart from a few arts and crafts in one area the whole of the front of the lodge is their living room with comfy sofas, a wide view, and it is open to the visitors from 8:00am to 10:00 pm.  Karin, Sara and I sat around the dining table drinking tea and swapping stories.  They told me how they came to be there.  Karin was alone with the three children when she met Jon and moved up from the lower 48 to be with him.  They had a small cabin two miles further back in the wilderness from where they are now.  The children had a long walk to the road for the school bus and Karin used to watch through binoculars to make sure they didn't come to any grief from bears and the like.  Sera is the middle child and all three have stayed in Alaska.  Theirs is a lovely story and one Karin has written up and put in a book.  In my turn I told them about my travels and promised to send them photos of the Orient Express and the Egyptian pyramids when I get back.

Jon was sitting on one of the sofas with his leg up, he’d just had an operation on his foot and was feeling rather sore.  He should have had it done before but wanted it to be at their quietist time of year.  I wondered about the wisdom of the tall, sloping roof and big windows when it can get so cold.  Jon said they need the tall roof especially because the place can seem too small in the winter months otherwise.  The windows are triple glazed and although there is only a small heater the ceiling fan circulates the warm air efficiently.  They also have a woodburner in case the power goes off.  

I bought Jon’s book but forgot to ask him to sign it, then off to my cabin for bed.

Close to the main lodge are a series of wood cabins, each decorated out front with a different theme, mine with sled dog booties.  Yes, they get booties in certain circumstances that escape me just now.  The cabin is raised off the ground to protect the permafrost and has very small but extremely efficient heaters.  With the tremendous insulation they are enough to keep the cabins cosy even when it's -40 degrees, which is not right now I hasten to add.  At first it felt like a sauna but I eventually got it turned down to a rosy warmth.  The cabin is beautifully appointed with homemade crafts, patchwork quilt, pictures etc.  There is just room for the double bed, small sofa and coffee table.  The en-suite was locked off as it is too early in the year to turn the plumbing back on (in case of it freezing over).  Only a few steps outside to the cosy winter shower and toilet facilities though, which I have to myself, as I am the only person staying.

I stretched out on the sofa for a while writing my journal listening to the wind howling in off the tundra.  Later I snuggled up in bed, lulled by the wind and the sound of the wind chimes from the main Lodge, gently drifting off to sleep.

Next morning Jon and Karin had gone to a meeting and Sera introduced me to their sled dogs.  Last night Jon had told me a lot of people are breeding sled dogs smaller now.  He and Mary Shields are two of the few who prefer the bigger dogs, who are better for their purpose – full of stamina rather than speed.  He is always looking to breed them with Mary’s.  They have puppies at the moment and they are gorgeous.  The bitch let me cuddle one and she was quite happy so long as she could see it.  Litters have name themes; e.g. Geordi, Worf etc, or Pooh and Tigger.  They also have a black Labrador who was shy but friendly.  Sera made me laugh trying to get the dogs to howl along with her, I’d heard them last night but they were more interested in enjoying the unexpected entertainment of her howling than joining in this morning.

I wished I wasn’t leaving today, it was wonderful here.  The only drawback being no public transport if you haven’t got your own car and no decent place to eat close by.  They’ve built a place next door, called Henry’s, that will open up this summer for the first time but nothing as yet.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Wed 7th May, 2003, Chena Hot Springs

Next morning there was nothing on the menu I could eat so had the remains of my gluten-free crackers in my room, fetched a coffee from the front desk and went to do my laundry - the one thing I could do in this place.

I had trouble with one machine so housekeeping came to help and made the mistake of asking if I was enjoying myself – so I told her!  She was so sweet, trying to find suitable footwear for me to go in the pool.  Nothing appropriate for the pool but she did get me a hand radio so I could go for a walk so I checked myself out at the Activity Centre and off I went.  (Now why couldn't the guy in the Activity Centre yesterday have done that?  He just said what I couldn't do and made no effort to suggest anything.)

I decided on the 3.5 mile walk in view of my feet - and being very unfit.  I had a great walk round, identifying prints from moose and lynx, tramping in the odd patches of snow and talking loudly to myself to warn bears I was coming.  Felt a bit foolish talking to myself but apparently if they hear people coming they’ll quietly slope off; it’s only if you surprise them they’ll attack – well…that’s the theory!  When I got to the supposed end I found myself at a drilling site and small landing strip.  I assumed I had taken a wrong turn - as is my wont - so I turned round and went back again.  Seems I had come out the right place so I walked 7 miles instead of 3.5 quite unnecessarily!!  Never mind, I loved the walk and saw all the scenery from two perspectives.

Went straight to the bar to recover - just coffee and loads of water!  Got talking to a couple of guys there and the waiter.  They spun me some very tall stories about their lives, but even if only half of it was true they were real characters, and great fun to listen to.  Putting their hands to whatever comes their way to pay for hunting and sledding trips.  One guy reckoned he’d been out on his motorised snow bike and somehow he and the bike ended hanging upside down from a tree, where his friend eventually found him.  Everyone is very independent out here.  Men and women alike, building their own log cabins from scratch and learning to deal with any emergency that comes up with great ingenuity.

Later on I got my massage, she turned up ok and felt I great after.

The waiter in the evening was much more helpful, he apologised for the cheesy toast under the prawn starter and took it away, and gave me extra vegetables to make up for not being able to eat the au-gratin ones.  Afterwards I sat at the bar chatting to two more gents, one of whom turned out to be the owner.  He has great plans for the place.  The drilling I'd come across was a search for a thermal spring to drive a proposed thermal electricity plant (caused great hilarity when they found out it also caused me double the walk).  He also plans to build a massive covered hydroponics place so they can have fresh food all year round and be self-sufficient.  All good ideas and best of luck to him.
He said his father had told him Britain would help in the war as we are so grateful to the US for helping us out in World War 2 … hmm … I said nothing, he meant well – just hope he doesn’t come out with the same thing around our older generation!
Feeling whole lot happier with the place.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Tues 6th May 2003, Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs

I was up early but not by choice, the walls and ceiling are so thin you can hear everything going on, so when others were up, I was up!

I’d packed last night so all that was left was to eat and get on the road.  Went back to the Co-Op Diner for breakfast again where I was remembered and welcomed – that’s so nice!  Then went for another walk round before checking out.  I managed to get safely out of Fairbanks, only taking two wrong turns.  In the UK, main roads have signs showing the road name or number periodically, and signs to leave it are shown to the side with names of the places and appropriate direction signs.  Not here, once you are on a road it's name disappears leaving you to wonder if you've made the right turn.  When you see a name blazoned across the highway it doesn't mean that's the road you're on, it's the one intersecting it ... I think!  Hence my confusion.  Being driver and navigator both can be rather hair-raising.

It was a lovely drive up to Chena Hot Springs.  All along the road are low-growing green, fern-like ground-cover with red/yellow/orange stalks rising from it; further back are bare deciduous trees providing a grey smokey backdrop from which the tall black plumes of evergreens seems to be billowing out the top.  All these brackish colours are reflected wherever ice has turned to water giving way to numerous streams & ponds.

I arrived unexpectedly early in Chena having badly mistimed the journey, so sat outside with a coffee, happily writing cards until booking-in time.  A moose and last year's calf wandered through the resort while I sat there so got some good pictures (I hope).  

Everything went downhill after that.  Lunch was billed as fried clams with smoked cheese & salad; I ordered it without cheese but the clams were done in batter.  It said fried clams, it didn't say clams in breadcrumbs, or battered clams!  $9-50 is a lot to pay for some green leaves and a dressing - no adjustment being made for the lack of cheese!

All notices say don't go in the outdoor pool if you have open sores-water is untreated and although tested for bacteria they can't be sure it's not contaminated...as I have rubbed up some friction sores from my backpack and sores on my feet on my travels this meant me.  The other pools are chlorinated, just being near them made me sneeze...so they were out too.  Also told not to go walking alone as too risky, always go with at least one other person and even then to check out and back in again afterwards...but they don't do guided walks.  Too early/late in season for horse-riding/dogs.  I booked myself in for a massage the following day...having been warned that she didn't always turn up!

For dinner the elaborate (exciting for most people) menu was built around wheat and cheese and they are totally unable to improvise, vary or otherwise stray from what is stated on the menu.  Had steak and very small amount of courgettes as the least elaborate, no potatoes as au gratin and pre-prepared so nothing else.  Afterwards I asked for a Nutty Alaskan (coffee with kahlua & frangelico), it sounded delicious, but said I didn't want it until I'd finished my glass of wine.  He brought it anyway saying if he didn't the cream would dissolve into the coffee - then why make it yet?!?  Grrrr!!

Both waiters made it plain I was a problem and I was horribly embarrassed.  I was stuck there for another 36 hours and couldn’t think of a way out of it.  Felt really miserable, depressed and lonely - went to bed and cried a lot.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Mon 5th May 2003, Fairbanks

I moved the car to the parking garage first thing and checked, I can leave it overnight.  Will cost about us$10 but worth it – better safe than sorry.  Found a wonderful place for breakfast, straight out of the 1950's (not that I remember the fifties since I only arrived at the tail end but I can use my imagination), the Co-Op Plaza Diner.  As I'd walked away from the hotel I'd wandered though a wonderful haze of frying bacon – mmmmm -  so I just followed my nose to the Early Bird entrance (for those who want breakfast before the plaza opens proper).  Think 'Happy Days' and you have it, minus the Fonz.  I sat on a stool at the bar and had eggs (over easy this time), bacon and hash browns, small orange juice (huge) and coffee with free refills all for a nominal sum.  Lilac vinyl seating and Wurlitzer in the corner (not working but looks good), and period music.  The place was unashamedly nostalgic and I enjoyed every bit of it.

People start speaking to me as soon as my accent gives me away as a foreigner – ‘I just love your accent’ is a frequent comment.  Although for some reason a few people have thought I'm Australian.  Not the first time a member of my family has been taken for Australian but I can’t see why.  Not that I mind, the Aussies are good people and I’m quite happy to be taken for one of them.  Got the chance at today’s local paper and it mentioned Saturday’s winds and dust…’dust and sand almost resembled a desert sandstorm with gusts up to 30mph.  Due to high pressure in the northwest of the state causing rotating winds’.  So it was bad enough to report on!

As everywhere is closed until 10 o'clock I took my time over breakfast before going for a little walk then back to my room and waiting impatiently until 11 o’clock when I could phone Mary Shields.  Free local calls by the way, which helped.  She was engaged for half an hour then the ansaphone was on but she returned my call quickly.  Having spoken to Mary I planned my route over to her, right through the middle of Fairbanks (joy) and out to the wilderness the other side.  I was to get there about half three (or thereabouts depending on whether I got lost).  I’d already pulled a map from the internet so with other directions from her I pieced together a route.  Terrifying thought considering my view of the traffic here.

I thought to look at some museums before heading off but everything was closed including the equivalent of the Tourist Information Office, which was only open Tuesdays and Saturdays.  No good to me!  So I wound up back in my room taking advantage of the time to bring my diary up to date.  Once that was done and I’d had another coffee at the Diner it was time to leave.

I managed ok, took all the right turnings until I found myself going up a dirt road for a couple of miles, at which point I decided I must be lost and turned back.  I nearly stopped a car going at a fair lick in the opposite direction but wasn’t quick-thinking enough.  I stopped and asked a woodcutter for directions and it turned out I was only about 1000 yards short – I hadn’t quite gone far enough.  The hotel had told me it would be signposted so I was looking got a bigish business-type sign.  As it turned out it was a normal house sign ‘Tails of the Trail’.  This was where she lived.  Turn off, down a short dirt track and park in front of the garage.  Amazingly I was on time.

Below to the left is the large dog-yard and to the right is her log cabin.  She greeted me warmly and after a few minutes we discovered hers was the car I’d passed and just missed asking directions from – she’d wondered who’d been driving so slowly!

Together we fetched some knucklebones for the dogs and took them down to the yard.  She asked if I would be ok to go into the yard, I could get mucked up and was I nervous of dogs ?  I wasn’t in the least bit nervous and I came prepared in old clothes.  They are beautiful, big, waggly, bouncy dogs; full of joy and intelligence, each with its own distinct and delightful personality.  She introduced me to each of them where they were chained individually on a long leash to a kennel.  They are kept this way as boisterous play can sometimes turn deadly.   Then she let them off their chains and they bounded around the large enclosure enjoying some mad catch-me-if-you-can game.  As well as letting them stretch their legs it allows them to establish a pecking order amongst themselves.  There is a dominant dog, which I couldn’t spot and had to have pointed out to me.  This is not necessarily the lead dog.  Mary, however, is the top dog in their eyes; she needs them to see her this way so she can control them on the trail.

Each came up to say hello, jumping onto the roof of the nearest kennel to have its ears rubbed or whatever.  They are all related to each other in some way and are not purebreds but are large, friendly, wonderful animals.  Once Mary had chained them up again, not necessarily in the same places as she said each had to learn to socialise with the others, we fed them, gave each its knucklebone and she topped up their water.  

The dogs obviously adore her and she them.

After rinsing bone residue off our hands in a trough she took me into her home, a beautifully appointed log cabin.  The stove and bathroom are the central hub with the kitchen, bed, living and dining areas around the outside.  Large windows give plenty of light and open onto a porch at the back overlooking a forested valley.  We washed up properly and Mary made tea from an astonishing variety in her cupboards that we took out onto the porch.  We sat outside admiring the view, drinking tea and munching trail mix while she told me about the dogs, sledding, the Iditerod and sundry other chitchat.

Mary has a knack of making you feel right at home.  As I sit and listen to this lovely lady talking about the pleasures and problems of running dogs in these peaceful surroundings I relax completely.  She is so natural and welcoming and I know from others who have seen her, whether in small or large groups, she is always as friendly as she is with me.  Occasionally we digress and talk about other things but we always come back to her dogs.  She loves them and she loves the life, and it’s easy to see why.

On the slope we are level with the treetops that are close to the cabin and see the birds clearly; also the red squirrels who chatter angrily at us as though to say ‘go away, this is our place, and leave the nuts behind you’.  At one point her voice trails off and her gaze fixes behind me, ‘there’s a snow hare’ she says quietly.  It takes me a while but then I spot the white legs and once I place the white ear tips I can see it, so still, merging with the background.  Eventually it moves and I can appreciate how large it is.  Later I spot a fox with its russet / brown coat and extremely large, white-tipped tail running across the far end of the clearing.

Alaskans have told me it's a shame I've come here between seasons, missing the beauty of the winter snows and the green glory of summer.  Looking out from Mary's cabin at the misty hills and hazy green just clouding the trees as the buds begin to show; enjoying the birdsong and watching the animals we spot among the trees I have to disagree.  This is a wonderful time to be in this wonderful country.

No visit to Fairbanks would be complete without a visit to Mary.  I was very lucky she agreed to take me as it is really out of season for her and she doesn't normally see people at this time.  I came away with a signed book she gave me that she wrote about her sledding experiences and the Iditerod.  It is now compulsive bedtime reading.

I got back to the hotel and felt very flat and low.  I’d been excited all afternoon and now was anticlimax.  I went for yet another Mexican meal and went to bed.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Sun 4th May 2003, Fairbanks

I had trouble with the under sheets during the night.  Every time I turned over they pinged off the top corners.  Re-made the bed a couple of times but gave up eventually - the sheets were just too small to cover properly.  I just hoped they didn't strangle me as I slept.  I was also woken at 3 o’clock by shouting and again later by the cold.
It was still cold when I woke up – took a lot of effort to get out of bed, first time so far.  Usually I’m up-‘n-at-‘em early these days, rather different from back home!  I’ve tried several times to reach Mary Shields and ended leaving a message on her voicemail.  She was the first lady to complete the Iditerod dog-sled race and I’m hoping to be able to meet her.  She doesn’t really start tours until a little later in the year but when I emailed from the UK before leaving she said to contact her when I got to Fairbanks to see if she’s free.  Fingers crossed.  By the time I left my room a very friendly lady had appeared on the desk and everything popped back into proportion.  
Being a Sunday the only place open for breakfast was a Mexican bar so had brunch there before going to a supermarket for a few bits and pieces.  
Then off to the Internet place, Atomic Video!, for the next batch of emails.  I felt a bit out of place there amongst all the pimply youths, with their inane chatter and bravado playing computer games.  The computers are in a circle so I can see them sneaking looks at me.  They looked at me a bit funny to begin with but seem to have accepted me now I’ve been a couple of times as a bit of an oddity but harmless really.
The lad in the foyer turned out to be friendly and helpful too; I seem to be spending a lot of time here revising initial impressions.  He directed me to the building next door to do my laundry, I've got a feeling it was purely residential and I shouldn't have been there, but done now.  Went to the same Mexican restaurant for dinner and was recognised by the waitress, which was nice.  She came up from South America on a scholarship and got married here.  Didn't work out and divorced about 5 years ago but had made a life for herself here by that time.  She teaches in the schools and is studying for her doctorate, plus waitressing over the weekends.  She says she has a good life and loves it here.
When I got back to the hotel I found Mary Shields had left a message at the front desk to ring her tomorrow after 11 o’clock.  Looking hopeful.
My car's parked on the street now (been in the next door bank's spaces over the weekend but had to move it ready for the workers tomorrow).  It’s got to be moved again by 9 o’clock tomorrow morning so I’ll be taking it to a parking garage down the road.    Time for bed and try not to think about the newspaper article I read today saying a man had been arrested in the early hours of yesterday morning in the foyer of this hotel and charged with 4th degree assault.  Sweet dreams!