Waking up was a bizarre sensation. Was this a new day? It hardly felt like it. With all the times I had woken up during the night to look for the Lights, it just felt like another turn. I pulled the sleeping bag under my chin and looked up through the frosty window. Darkness. Perfect little pinpoints of starlight, but no green wisps. I wanted to burrow back into the warm depths of my bag but I remembered I had just one day to drive north and turn around. There were hundreds of miles yet to go. Reluctantly, I turned down my bag and slid on my boots. I grabbed some clothes and cracked open the door to go find a facility.
Talkeetna in the night.
The early morning hours were just as silent as the night had been. Ever walked in the woods during a dark, slow, silent snowfall? The way everything is suspended in silence and unusual crisp and clear in the freezing temperatures? That’s how all of Talkeetna was that morning, frozen in a peaceful stillness. I felt like I was a disturbance as I quickly crossed a snowy road and pushed open a restroom door. The room was impossibly cold. I quickly ruled out any temptation of showering or washing my hair. Instead, I changed my clothes, washed my face, brushed my teeth, and barreled back through the door and into the clean air. Maybe that’s what made it so indescribably peaceful: There was no wind, no motion, just twinkling stars. I could imagine dozens of little eyes perched in tree nests, watching me, but I saw nada.
I was a little sad to leave Talkeetna. Albeit I had stayed for less than 12 hours, there was something welcoming about the place. It was like a little safe haven nestled in the woods. How bizarre it is, I thought, to take such a liking to a place when it’s the dead of winter. I wonder how magical this place is in the summer, with people and parties and more reasonable temperatures, with bears and birds and squirrels not afraid to come out of their snug little homes.
Back at the truck, I started the engine and put the heat on high. I pulled out my ice scraper and began scraping the windshield, to no avail. Puzzled, I got back inside. I couldn’t see out my windows at all. I touched the glass. Oh… the condensation was on the inside. I scraped away furiously, throwing shavings across the dashboard which quickly melted in the warming air. When it was clear enough to see, I backed out and turned down the road leading out of the town, waving my last goodbye to the sleeping village of Talkeetna. Bye, Stubbs. Maybe we’ll meet again someday. And maybe I won’t be alone then, I thought, imagining who would even be crazy enough to accompany me here one day. Maybe company isn’t so hard to come by in the warm summer months.
Before I knew it, I was at the main road. I stopped to get gas, knowing this might be a rare occurrence in the near future. I also bought some coffee inside and marveled at the thought that someone really did live out here and, of all things, ran a gas station. Personally, I would prefer to rent boats or run a tavern, something more exciting than an Alaska gas station. But, to each his own, and maybe the lady there feels privileged to provide a rare service to truckers this far from the cities. With my truck filled, I pulled out towards Fairbanks, nodding at the only other person out at that hour – a trucker probably taking a delivery from Fairbanks to Anchorage. I continued the drag past Talkeetna in the same darkness that I had left it off in.
There was absolutely no one out. There were no animals, no people, no one and nothing alive for miles. As I drove through the endless woods and curving road, I was relieved that at least the roads were perfectly cleared. A light snow rested on the grass, but nothing threatened my traction. After a couple hours, the terrain slowly transformed and a light glow began to spread in the sky. I passed one truck and thought to myself, Where do you think you’re going, crazy person? And wherever did you just come from? Then I wondered if he, too, thought the same of me.
I suddenly realized where I was. I was entering Denali National Park. I drove upwards around a bend where the trees rapidly opened up into a spectacular view: a long, wide valley bounded by enormous mountains, like sentinels at my flank. A pullover sprung up on my left and I threw on the brakes, swinging into the crisp, new snow on the parking lot. I got out, poised my camera for a few shots, and dropped my jaw. Ever so faintly, I could make out the rosy start
of a mountain peak. Undoubtedly, I was gawking at the famous mountain itself: Denali.
Denali is the Koyukon Athabaskan word for “The High One”, a local name for Mount McKinley. The mountain itself boasts the highest peak in all of the US and North America. Its summit rises 20,320 feet above sea level, the third highest in the world. Base-to-peak, it is the tallest onshore mountain on the planet. Just staring at the mountain from a distance, I felt intimidated. I could never imagine attempting a climb… or could I? I thought about that time when I was little and I got a postcard in the mail from my grandparents and great-aunt and –uncle. They had taken a helicopter to the top of Mt. McKinley. I had kicked back on my bed and stared at that card for hours on end, imagining this faraway place called Alaska and dreaming of how heroic I would seem if I climbed it at the age of 10. But now, here I stood, intimidated by the greatness observed for millennia by nomads and survivors of the northern territories. Although I was not in any immediate danger, I could still sense the possibility of disaster in my wake. It was then that I realized, what was there to fear? Death? Peril?
For a chance to do something so unique and incredible, I realized I was the kind of person insane enough to risk it. I was, after all, a 22-year-old hundreds of miles across a tundra from the nearest city with nothing but a credit card, two apples, a map, a half of a tank of gas, and a now service-less phone to prove for it. Yet I had no fears anymore. They had all dissolved. It felt dangerous, for certain, but the danger was only an excitement. It made me feel completely alive and alone, entirely free to do what I wanted. My parents were only left to wonder where I might be at this moment in time. I knew my friends were all sitting in classrooms in Cleveland, and here I was beholding the majestic Denali itself with my own two eyes, watching the dawn break its light across the southern summit. But there were still hours left to drive. I jumped back in the truck and continued north.
Stopping became a habit. Although the mountains seemed repetitive and the pictures I took redundant, I couldn’t stop. Every new angle was like a new world to me. All I could think about was how many years this place had remained untouched, and for how many years it would continue to be isolated. It truly was a “last frontier”, the last stretch of nature that would hopefully stay out of the hands of human destruction for centuries to come. I yet again imagined prehistoric animals crossing the tundra and the landscapes that came to mind were hardly any different than the ones I was witnessing. After a couple hours of passing through the valley, I had only seen two ravens – no other life. I stopped at a couple gulches and took photos, shaking as I realized how deep and steep the drops were. One little slip and I could fall, break my bones, and be left for an indefinite time on a frozen ledge below. I absolutely could have died if I had one misstep. But I viewed it as a mere “side effect” of the scenery. One gulch was named Hurricane Gulch. I felt a pang of… irony.
The wind had become almost unbearable ever since the trees had given away to the open expanse before Denali. Every time I got out, I quickly took photos then ran back to my truck, my face and hands becoming whipped raw by icy blasts and snowflakes. At one point, I passed an enormous igloo-like gas station. It was long abandoned. Part of me wanted to go closer, to look inside, and to maybe enter the building itself. Something about abandoned things draws me in every time. What’s inside? Why is it abandoned? How old is it? Who used to come here? What did people dress like? Part of me couldn’t imagine anyone would be inside, so it would be safe. But another part of me realized, if someone were out here, this is where they would hide… so I stayed away.
After some research, I’ve learned that this 4-story igloo is Igloo City, an abandoned hotel built in the 1970s. It’s located in Cantwell along George Parks Highway, where I was driving. The hotel had never opened due to building code violations, but it was used periodically as a gift shop and gas station. It is now falling apart and even some gas pumps have gone missing. I knew I could find out what it looks like on the inside after a few internet searches. Sure enough, people have found their ways in. The wood inside is quite spectacular. Maybe it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I had approached it.
Driving, driving, and driving some more, I began to consider where my final turn around point should be. It was hard to stop, knowing I had never been this far north with every mile I drove. I took pictures as Denali lingered in my rearview mirror, thrilled by how few times one could say they had Denali visible in their mirrors as they drove. Looking at the map, I decided making it to Fairbanks was unnecessarily far. It created too many risks for my return to Anchorage in the evening, especially if the weather was in question, and any distance extra I went was really twice that considering I’d have to double back. I settled on Healy, a town just past the point where I was planning to enter the National Park. I stopped for gas at every point I could, which was really just one Tesoro station in Cantwell. They only sell one kind of gas, so, as I passed an Audi on the road, I wondered how it was possible to drive an Audi out here. My Audi at home requires Premium. Did he know something I didn’t?
My service slowly returned to my phone, and Foursquare indicated what places I could try for breakfast once in Healy. I continued that way, then the weather suddenly turned as I passed the park entrance. The roads became snow swept. Any icy river turned menacingly against the bank beside the guardrail. I passed a couple tractor trailers whose passing speeds rattled my truck with intense gusts of wind. My tires skidded several times on the ice. Strangely, this did not concern me. Even if I spun out, I was in no danger of hitting anyone and the snow drifts would keep me from running up into the trees. My only fear was rolling and breaking over a ledge and into the river below.
This place must look nice in the summer. There were so many facilities and resorts, but everything was boarded up and abandoned in these cold winter months. I tried to imagine how much less menacing this scene must look in the summer. I decided Alaska must be pleasant, considering how many families with children come in the summer months. As I turned down a road to explore more of Healy, I realized there was next to nothing even in these towns. I tried turning around on a side road and became stuck. I pushed down the accelerator and my truck sunk further and further into a snow ditch. I began to panic. There was no one for miles. Frantically, I began hitting my steering wheel. “Oh, stop it!!!” I yelled at myself. “Just imagine if you had that car, you would have never even made it out of Talkeetna!” I took in a few deep breaths. Then it hit me – my 4-wheel drive wasn’t even in gear. Remembering all the years of towing as a teenager, I reached down, threw the lever near my feet into gear, and smiled smugly as my truck lurched back out of the trench. I continued back to where I had made my turn and pulled into the Totem Inn.
I was the first customer in the restaurant, but a second followed not long after. Again, I sat there imagining what kind of person it takes to run this place in the winter, or to live anywhere near it. I ordered a big meal and wrapped some toast for later. I was planning to hike through the park and needed some emergency energy. Then I gulped down a large portion of coffee and ice water and headed back out into the cold. I waved goodbye to the northernmost point of my journey and made the trip back to the park entrance. The roads were just as bad, but this time I stopped to take a few shots. One truck driver saw me and aggressively honked and waved as he past. I could just imagine what he was thinking: “Yeah, go take those pictures, you truck-driving lunatic woman!”
Yes, I’m crazy, I thought. I smiled and jumped back in the truck, racing behind him on the slick roads back to Denali National Park.