AISES, Alaska, alone, Anchorage, beer, Carrs, Case Western, cat, Denali, driving, Fairbanks, merchandise, Mt. McKinley, musher, Native American, Northern Lights, pub, solo travel, Starbucks, Stubbs, student, Talkeetna, West Rib and Pub
I took off rolling, waving bye to Anchorage and promising to be back the next night. I had a GPS on my phone and an Alaska map on my lap. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going, I just knew I wanted to look for the Northern Lights and see Denali in the morning. The roads were now a little familiar leading into Wasilla, but I knew the road would soon split and I would head a direction I had never gone before. Every foot I’d go would be new territory. I didn’t know what was ahead. I didn’t know what to expect. I was scared thinking about it, but there was no way I could stop. It was like an adrenaline rush – then I realized I could use some caffeine to go.
I stopped off at a grocery store (Carr’s) to grab a coffee drink at Starbucks and call my friend Michael. He had been watching my back at school for that week and we had an assignment due the next day. “I’ll send you everything I can,” I said. “If you do, great, but, honestly, don’t worry about,” he said. “You’re in Alaska, for God’s sake! Enjoy it!” Michael is such a great friend. I did send my share of things his way, but I can’t thank him enough for all the help he gave me by printing out and turning in on time the lab reports I had e-mailed him. I told him what my goal was for the night: Make it to Talkeetna.
I had really wanted to see Talkeetna, but it had seemed too far out of the way. Reevaluating, I decided it was the best possible place for me to stop, even if it was on an isolated road 30 minutes away from the main drag north. I heard Talkeetna had a lot of good tourist things and that it was a quaint town. Once I got into the long stretch leading into Fairbanks, I wasn’t sure if I’d have a safe place to sleep. Most things were closed in the winter or obnoxiously expensive. I didn’t think I could safely drive the whole 6 hours to Fairbanks in one night. I think I made the best decision.
As night fell, the road became thrillingly dangerous. I could hardly see beyond the berms, even with my highs on. I could just imagine a large bear or moose stepping in front of me as a barreled through at 70 miles per hour. There was no one for miles, apart from an occasional passerby. When I did eventually creep up on someone, I knew I had to pass them to get anywhere. I waited for the dashed lines and sang loudly as I blew around them. Then my radio started to lose signal. I was beginning to feel very isolated. Less and less people, next to no houses. The stars became brighter and brighter. Lights and reflections were playing with my eyes. I thought for one instance I saw the Lights, but it was just my eyes straining to make something out of nothing. In the distance, a small log cabin was emitting a glow and a long snake of smoke that crossed the road. I didn’t notice the cabin at first. As I passed through the smoke, I shook and jumped suddenly. It was as if I had passed through a ghost, the way it had hung so silently, suspended in the cold air in front of me!
The miles were slowly ticking down. I saw an eerie lantern glow to my left. It was bobbing along the side of the road and I was swiftly gaining. Just as I caught up to it, my wild imagination, which had quickly dreamt up explanataions involving bizarre Alaskan monsters in the night, was relieved to discover the real source: a musher and his team of dogs. As I passed them, their motions were so crisp and strangely lit that I felt like I was watching Polar Express transposed to real life. I reconsidered the remoteness into which the musher was delving, sans the protection of a warm truck, and gathered a whole new sense of respect for these athletes who regularly and boldly face the brutal winter of the wild Alaskan terrain.
Finally, I saw a sign approaching: Talkeetna, to my right. I passed a gas station at the turn and continued the last leg into Talkeetna. It didn’t seem as far as I had imagined, partly because the drive was so easy. I made a loop around some cabins at the end of the road, trying to decide where to park. I settled with a space beside a tavern. I quickly looked up the prices for a bed but I didn’t feel like paying if I didn’t need to. I decided to look for a map. Where was I? I had no concept, other than this was Talkeetna. The night was brutally dark and pubs were tightly shut to keep in the warmth and quiet murmur of people. I settled on a shop at the end of the street, hoping they had a Talkeetna map. They didn’t, but the girl behind the counter was kind enough to draw me one and tell me the intimate details of each store.
It was a small town, but I immediately got the gist: Rivers and boats there, pubs, pubs, and pubs here. I looked to the back of the shop: a pub. West Rib and Pub. “I can eat here?” “Yup!” she answered, eating her own plate of fries. “Is there a good place to leave my truck?” I added. “To sleep in?” she asked, and I nodded, relieved that my crazy plan didn’t seem so crazy to the people here, just to those at home. “Yeah, over here by the railroad tracks. No one will bother you. But, really, anywhere would be fine.” I thanked her and I walked into the back and took a seat, then texted my mom that I was staying in Talkeetna for the night. I pulled out the menu and listened as the bartender gruffly spoke to some men at the counter. She seemed unfriendly and I felt uneasy. I put in my orders and she couldn’t quite fill a glass of the beer I wanted, so she gave me a small one of another to make up for it.
When my food came out, I put away my homework and continued to observe her. She turned on Bridezilla and started ripping apart the women verbally and shouting angrily, “These have to be actresses! This is ridiculous!” I completely agreed. I’d never watched something like this before, but it was the dumbest show I’d ever seen. Women throwing fits over stupid details to overly planned weddings… I didn’t get it. I went out on a limb and made a comment about how dumb the show was. The woman turned and looked at me, then smiled, “Exactly!”. Then began our evening of friendship.
I was soon served more local brews and introduced to Stubbs, the Manx cat that lives in the pub. I loved Stubbs. He was so nice, and I held him for some time. I also bought a T-shirt with Stubbs on it.
When it was time for closing, I said goodbye to Stubbs, the bartender, and the lady in the shop who came to the back to join us. I shuffled off to my truck and parked it next to the railroad tracks. There was a light on at some kind of maintenance building nearby, but I parked so that my back seats sheltered my eyes from it. I unrolled my 0-degree sleeping back across the back seat and tucked my duffle bag and suitcase beside me in case I fell off. Then I locked my truck and slid in so I could stare out the window at the sky as I lay there. I didn’t even bother changing – I was way too cold. Jeans were perfect pajamas tonight.
My alarm was set for pretty much every hour of the evening. I would drift off, then wake up again and look for the Lights. At one point, I thought I saw them through the frosty window. I slowly opened the door, expecting a wild animal or crazy mountain man to attack, or maybe a train to come barreling through at the moment, but nothing was there. It was dead silent, as always, and so was the sky. Curse these scientifically “Quiet” nights! It was a horrible night for viewing, despite me driving north and despite it being the best time of year. I couldn’t believe I went to all that effort and never saw them, yet one of my friends looked out her hotel room early in the week and had an instant long enough to photograph them!
I curled up and slept out the rest of the hours in my sleeping bag, planning to leave before the dawn so I could drive and watch for them again. Dawn doesn’t happen until after 9am, so that wasn’t a problem. My sleeping bag was ridiculously comfortable. I could hardly believe how warm I was. And to think I had been laughed at for saying I’d sleep in my truck in Alaska! I had nothing but perfect, comfortable nights at the hostel and in the back of my truck. And now I had my last day ahead of me… Time to make the best of it!