Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Adventure in the “Last Frontier”

These last two days have certainly been an adventure. I had hoped to be able to brag today that in less than one year’s time, we had looked upon the highest and lowest points in the US. But, alas it isn’t so.

Yesterday started off as a fine day: clear, crisp, and promising warmth. It did get to that point by the time that we arrived in North Pole (a suburb of Fairbanks). Living up to its name, North Pole decorated Christmassy all year long. This September day it sported candy cane stripes on all of its vertical, round poles. I am not sure if it was supposed to practical or whimsical in a reference to frolicking reindeer or elf trails, but after exiting off the Alaskan Highway, we had to proceed through 3 roundabouts within a single half mile stretch of road on Santa Claus Ln: one on each side of the highway and one at the next intersection. The Christmas didn’t stop there, though. Even the McDonald’s we entered had a Christmas tree inside.

We spent a couple hours there at McDonald’s, availing ourselves to the free wifi. (Why don’t other restaurants offer that? I would much rather eat somewhere else, but we keep frequenting McDonald’s for their free wifi.) After updating our blogs, checking emails, and taking care of business, it was early afternoon. This meant that by the time we got out of the Fairbanks vicinity. Unfortunately, that meant by the time we got to the really scenic areas, it was cloudy and rainy. To top it off, it got very windy, gusty even, so much so that sometimes it was difficult to stay between the lines. Finally, we arrived shortly before closing at Denali National Park. Not having been able to do any research on the park before we arrived, we were sorely disappointed at its offerings.

Apparently Denali National Park really is just a swatch of road that follows along the base of the McKinley Range. The park only costs $10pp, but the vehicle accessible campsites cost anywhere from $22-$40. Then, to see any of the park besides the trails at the entrance, you have to take a bus into the park. To get anywhere remotely close to the “Big One” (as Denali—aka Mt. McKinley—translates to from the Native American language), you have to pay $24pp, and take a 6 hour (one-way) bus trip. This was not what I was expecting at all. Since it was late (about 6pm) and I was ready to eat and camp, this was not good news. Deciding that it wasn’t worth it to sleep in such a busy and expensive camp site and definitely not worth it to spend so much time and money just to get a glimpse of the mountain, we drove on.

By the way, did I mention that Alaska and the Yukon still have lots of bugs? We can’t keep our windshield clean, much less any of the rest of the front of the van. When we were parked in Denali trying to figure out what we were going to do, a set of pretty birds (I have never seen them before and don’t even know what kind they are) came and were paying particularly close attention to the van. They were shy creatures and kept moving out of our sight. But as we sat there we started hearing a pecking noise and deduced the birds were picking the dead bugs off the van for us! It was quite entertaining and reinforced how dirty our van was.

Driving further down the highway towards Anchorage, we finally found an official campground that offered free sites and we snagged the opportunity. It wasn’t ideal: close to the road and neighbors not too far away. But it was late and we were desperate. The area was relatively quiet and still pretty scenic, and our site was bit separated from the others. It wasn’t too bad for an official campground.

Early this morning as I went out to do my business, I had hopes of it clearing off today. As such, I pointed Jonathan in the direction of the few spots that you could see Mt. McKinley from the road and down an old miner’s town road. Well, as the maps foretold, the road was unpaved, filled with potholes. Crawling along at 25 mph or less, we tried to avoid the potholes, but many were unavoidable. After about 5 or 6 miles on the unpaved road, we heard a chinking indicative of something loose or hanging down in the right front wheel well. We pulled over in the next turn out and discovered that the right front sway bar link had sheared off. Jonathan endeavored to prevent the dangling by using a zip-tie, but that broke in the test run, so he just removed it completely. That examined, we decided to continue on our way, hoping to find a high ground with a possibly excellent view of the mountain when I hoped the clouds would clear. Unfortunately, the clouds did not dissipate and instead drenched the earth most of the day. As we proceeded further on the wet, bumpy road, wondering if our mission was moot, our tire met a particularly wet and slippery spot on the edge and threw the right tires into a watery trench. I knew as we were entering it that we would not be getting out on our own.

Broken sway bar link

What it should look like

Stuck in a rut (given a fresh meaning today)

 After surveying the situation, Jonathan tried to maneuver the vehicle out, but to no success. Knowing that there had been people camped along the road as we came up, we trekked down the road to see if we could either get someone to pull us out or find someone with cell reception to call AAA for us. The closest vehicle had no one home, so we decided to split up. I sent Jonathan back to the van as he would be able to drive the vehicle out if help came along and I started hustling further down the road. Amazingly, an older couple with her mom was driving down the road in a car and a truck hauling a trailer. They had seen our obviously-stuck vehicle and stopped to see if they could help us, but found the vehicle abandoned. As they had looked for us, an Alaskan road maintenance truck had driven up behind them, fortuitously.  They gave up on the van and continued down the road where they found Jonathan. The lady found me further down the road and drove me back up to the van. As I rode with her, I learned that she enjoyed picking edible things from the wild. She had found some delicious edible mushrooms and wild high cranberries further up the road. It made me a bit jealous that I didn’t know what was safe to eat, so I think that I might have to add that to the items on my to-do list. I arrived at the site just in time to see Jonathan get our “small van” pulled out with their rather large work truck. Yay! Thanks to those awesome people! God really provided there, as we didn’t see anyone else that entire road.

We decided that after all that we should probably just turn around and head back down the road. Concerned about what might have been jammed into the braking and suspension parts, Jonathan was driving with his window rolled mostly down. When we pulled off at the next turnoff to relieve ourselves and get lunch, the window had fallen down, come off the regulator, and wouldn’t come back up! When it rains, it pours, huh? Well, Jonathan set to work fixing it and I set to work making some warm lunch so that when he would finish he could warm himself up. Mind you, it had been raining on and off all day, not exactly the most inviting weather. Lunch was ready at the same time Jonathan finished. Fortunately, the rest of the drive went uneventfully.

Have I mentioned that my husband is AWESOME? He has single-handedly fixed every single problem that has come along. He also gets out and does annoying things so that I don’t have to, e.g. removing and installing the trailer when we have to back up. In the frigid mornings he goes about the van and fixes issues we had the day before, like whistling brakes. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to take this type of vehicle traveling if he hadn’t been here to handle the issues. With his handy skills, he is making our money last longer. Also, he is a very good cook. He doesn’t stress when he cooks (like I do) and it is very tasty. What more can a woman want in a man? Well one that reads minds, but that doesn’t come along that often, so I think I got a pretty good catch. I will be content.

One last story of Jonathan’s great feats for the day. Anchorage took longer than expected to get through, and then the bay and the state park didn’t have any places to camp. But we finally entered a part of a national forest (thank God for those!) that wasn’t next to the bay. We passed a campground and turned around to enter it, but apparently it had been closed. Disappointed, we started down the road again, hoping the next one wouldn’t be too much longer, as we were really getting hungry. As we passed the pull-off that we had used to turn around, I glimpsed a road at the far end of it that looked like it led to a campground-like area. Excitedly, I had Jonathan get turned back around to check it out. (Anybody watching us must have thought us crazy.) He pulled us along the pull-out and went to scope out the road, in the pouring rain I might add. After getting back into the vehicle, he proceeded down the road. It eventually got pretty narrow and the camping spot he had scoped for us was located up a steep incline that was perpendicular to the road we were on. His first attempt at getting us turned and all the way up the incline failed. So, he removed the trailer, backed up, and got more of an aggressive start at it. The van slid around the turn and grumbled up the remaining incline in a saucy little move. He then also went back and pulled up the trailer by himself. Again, Jonathan’s skills have made what would otherwise been a miserable day rather enjoyable.

As for gazing upon Mt. McKinley, you can supposedly still see the mountain from certain points in Anchorage. If the weather clears, perhaps I will be able to brag.

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