The morning after our last night in mainland Alaska (but not in Alaska altogether) began with sourdough pancakes. This must have been the fanciest campground we stayed in on this trip, because it had a breakfast room as part of the facilities, which specialized in sourdough pancakes.
Sourdough, as the term is used in Alaska, has two meanings. One of them is the stuff used in place of packaged yeast to make baked goods of all kinds rise. The most common baked goods made with sourdough in Alaska and the Yukon Territory are pancakes, or flapjacks, or hotcakes, or whatever you call them in your part of the world. They were a staple food for miners in the area’s many gold rushes, from Juneau to the Klondike to Nome to Fairbanks.
The other meaning of the term is someone who has lived in the North through at least one winter. As opposed to the term cheechako, which is an Indian term, and used to mean roughly “a newcomer.” Getting called a sourdough is a term of approbation in the North.
And now’s probably a good time to talk about moosequitos, too. We saw a lot of moosequitos while we were in Alaska. Mostly in gift shops. Apparently my google-image-fu is failing me, but no, a moosequito is not just a misspelled mosquito. A moosequito is a piece of moose dung, dried and varnished, then gussied up with pipe cleaners and googly eyes to look like a mosquito. They’re not just a gag gift, though. They’re a nod to the fact that Alaska and the Yukon have enormous mosquitoes. Ubiquitous, too, yes, but the biggest ones I’d ever seen. And they apparently thought of bug repellent as some sort of interesting sauce. If there’s one thing I really, honestly did not like about our trip to Alaska, it was the mosquitoes.
After our breakfast, which I for one was pretty impressed with, we drove on into Tok and turned east on the Alaska Hi-way again, for the first time since Fairbanks way back on Day 12. We crossed the border back into Yukon Territory, and the skies opened up on us and turned the gravel road into a sea of mud, and coated our trailer clear up to the windows.
We stopped that afternoon at the Kluane Historical Society Museum, which either no longer exists or doesn’t have a website. I wasn’t very impressed with it, which is the first time I said anything like that about a museum on this trip.
Then we stopped for the night at Kluane Lake Campground, the same campground we’d stayed in on Day 10, where I met a boy fishing along the shore. “We had a couple of arguments.” I wonder what about?
The day started with more grocery shopping. Since my aunt took my mother to do it, I suspect they went to the base commissary, which makes sense as it would have been more economical. Prices are high in Alaska, or at least they were back then.
After they got back we left and headed east on the Tok Cutoff (Glenn Highway) from Anchorage, then turned south on the Richardson Highway towards Valdez. It was apparently a long day’s drive compounded by the delay caused by the grocery shopping, because we didn’t get to where we stopped for the night until after six pm, which was late for us.
We stopped at a campground called Little Tonsina 65 miles north of Valdez. Nowadays (and I’m sure back then) it was a state recreation site. What my diary says of it is that it had a pump instead of a spigot for water, and that there was a bunch of old equipment lying around, including a wagon, that was very nice to climb on.
This is one of the campgrounds I have a vivid mental image of, because it was right by a very gravelly, glacier-fed river, and because we ate the last of the frozen salmon that night.
The day started, however, with another trip up Skyline Drive, this time, I wrote in my diary, all the way to the end. I don’t know what kept us from doing that the first time, but something must have. We did a lot of that on this trip — in Fairbanks, we drove partway down to Mt. McKinley and back before going the whole way a couple of days later, and we drove partway out to Circle City and back, too. And there’s more of that later on in the trip, too. But we went back up Skyline Drive. Maybe the weather was better or something.
After lunch we came back and fished for hours. From the beach, from the dock, from the beach again. I was a little ways down the beach from my parents by late in the afternoon, when my mother yelled, “Mary, Daddy caught a fish!” (I went by my first name back then — my mother is the only person on the planet who still calls me Mary), which was very exciting, but soon after that, “something hit my line like an express train” to quote my diary. “I yanked it out of the water, screaming, and this little boy came over and took out the hook.” Actually, he hit it over the head with a rock first to kill it. My mother still talks about how he said “this won’t hurt it” and then went smash with the rock.
Anyway, the two fish, Daddy’s and mine, were both pink salmon (since most salmon are pink, I don’t know if they were really officially the variety called pink salmon or if they were just salmon which happened to be pink). Daddy’s weighed four and a quarter pounds and was male, and mine weighed two and three quarters pounds and was female. Both were 21 inches long.
I remember ‘helping’ my father clean and fillet them. And I do remember eating them. I still have a fondness for salmon at least partly because of that day.
And we arrive in Alaska! Finally! Although when you think about it, from south of Los Angeles to mainland (as opposed to panhandle) Alaska in ten and a half days isn’t so bad. Slightly more than 3200 miles, so a little over 300 miles a day.
Kluane Lake is a pretty good-sized lake, and it took us a while to get to the end of it. We ate lunch that day at a place called Snag Junction, which holds the record for the coldest temperature in North America, -81dF (-63dC), back in 1947. It was not anywhere near that cold the day we were there, thank goodness, although it was chilly and rainy.
Apparently the rain had something to do with the overturned semi we passed a few miles past Snag Junction. My diary says that no one was hurt, but I don’t know how we knew that. I suspect my father stopped to find out. It would have been typical of him. Back in the days before cell phones, or cell phone towers for that matter (I wonder how much coverage there is even now along the highway), I wonder if the Yukon highway patrol was there, or if any help was on the way, and if so, how it had been summoned to such a remote place. My diary is not very forthcoming on the subject.
Snag Junction is only a few miles from the Alaska border, and we went through customs for the second time on the trip. It was sprinkling rain at the time, and apparently the windshield wipers were not working so well. We also stopped to take photos of the “Welcome to Alaska” sign.
My diary is odd in the sense that it mentions things I don’t remember, and doesn’t mention things I do remember. One thing I do remember vividly that should have shown up in my diary by now is the almost endless grove of aspens we drove through at one point in the Yukon. Miles and miles of shivery pale green leaves and papery white trunks. Another was the rock that bounced up and hit the undercarriage of the car not long before we reached Alaska. Almost immediately after that, the fuel indicator started going south in a big way, and I remember my dad getting out in the rain and crawling on his back under the car to check to make sure the tank hadn’t been punctured, even though there was no trail of gas behind us. As it turned out, the tank was fine, and the indicator was, as my current car’s gas gauge also does, showing less gas while going uphill.
One thing I was very conscious of and noted in my diary every day was the cost of things. The cost of each night’s campground, for instance, is meticulously noted, and ranged from nothing at all to the princely sum of $6.00, although most campsites that cost anything ran around $3.00 with full hookups. Nowadays when I camp, I count myself lucky to get away paying less than $10 for just a space to pitch a tent, although the occasional free campground still exists. And I did note other costs occasionally. I mention this because apparently we’d been planning on grocery shopping in Tok, and the prices were so steep that all we bought was a dozen eggs.
I don’t talk about the scenery very much at all in my diary. I expect that’s because my father and I both took reams of photos, and I assumed I’d always have those. I wish I had them now.
And, finally, on to the Alaska Highway (or, as I spelled it, Hiway — I think that was a deliberate misspelling, probably from seeing it on signs along the way).
The first interesting thing we saw, however, happened not long after we left Whisker’s Point early in the morning, and that was a bobcat dashing across the road, which was very exciting.
We stopped for lunch in Dawson Creek, and to take pictures of the “the Alaska Hiway begins here” sign. As I recall, there was also one of those many-pointed signposts with each arrow labeled something like “New York City, 2783 miles” or “Beijing, China, 9705 miles.” By the way, I just used Google maps to get that last number, and the directions include the words “Jet Ski across the Pacific Ocean.” Also, “Kayak across the Pacific Ocean.” The first to Hawaii and the second on to North America. I guess Google wants people to use a variety of modes of transportation.
But I digress. Even in 1973, the first few miles of the Alaska Highway were paved. We stopped in the town of Fort St. John for groceries. We stopped for groceries (which I apparently recorded faithfully) frequently, I suspect because the refrigerator in the trailer was pretty tiny. At least we didn’t do what we did on another trip a couple of years later and forget to latch the fridge shut. This destroyed a jar of pickles and a jar of strawberry jam when the door swung open around a curve and they fell out. That combination is one of the nastiest to clean up on record. Just the smell was bad, and the stickiness was even worse.
We camped just north of Fort St. John at a campground called Hillcrest, and discovered another unusual aspect of traveling the Alaska Highway back then. We met up for the first time with several other groups of campers who we would see night after night at the same campgrounds as we all traveled about the same distance every day. A couple of the families had kids of varying ages, which I happily noted in my diary. It gave me people to hang out with in the evenings.
And home again, home again, AKA bombing home on the Interstate.
It takes about a day and a half for me to get home from Yellowstone. A very long day and a half, but still. I left my cabin at Old Faithful early in the morning, feeling wistful as I always do, and comforting myself with the thought that I will be back. At the rate things are going, I’m not sure when my next visit will be, but return visits will remain inevitable until I become too decrepit to travel. A long time in the future, I hope.
I did not make any more stops in the park, as I hoped to get as far as Spokane that day, which is less than ten miles shy of 500 miles. I did make two stops in West Yellowstone, one for just enough gas to get me to the Interstate, where it’s about thirty cents a gallon cheaper than in West, and the other at the hostel to pick up the wristwatch I had inadvertently left there two days before. Fortunately, the cleaning staff had found it and set it aside for me. And, I discovered later, sent me an email to let me know they had it.
After that, well, Kestrel and I could probably drive this route in our sleep. North out of West to Hwy. 287, which runs along Hebgen Lake to Earthquake Lake, the site of the landslide caused by the earthquake I’ve been nattering on about for the last two weeks. Up and over the natural dam, and downstream along the Madison River, past the Gallatin Mountains and through the little town of Ennis, which makes a great deal of its living from the fly fishermen who flock to the Madison every year.
And on north. It takes about three hours to get from Old Faithful to I-90, headed westbound. From Old Faithful to Livingston is only about two hours, give or take an animal jam in the park, but that puts you an hour and half east from where 287 eventually debouches, so it’s not a time-saver that way.
Once past Ennis, the land opens up and the mountains draw back, but after I landed back on I-90 it wasn’t all that far to my last crossing of the Continental Divide on this trip, at Homestake Pass, then Butte, where my great long lasso of a trip reached its knot and I was back on highway I’d already traveled this trip. I stopped in Butte for lunch and gas, then let Kestrel really start eating up the miles.
It was about the middle of the afternoon, somewhere along about Missoula, I think, that I started thinking, why don’t I just keep going? Theoretically, if I drove straight through (something I have never done in all my Yellowstone trips), I could make it home before midnight.
I debated the idea for miles. All the way through the last 100 miles of Montana and the 60 or so miles across Idaho as far as Coeur d’Alene, where, in spite of the fact that I still had over a quarter of a tank of gas, I stopped to get more because I knew the price would jump forty cents a gallon as soon as I crossed the state line into Washington. However, the moment I climbed out of the car, I knew I wasn’t going to do it. One of the odd things about spending the entire day making miles is that I tend to not realize how tired I am until I actually stop. So I resigned myself to that one last night on the road.
I crashed and burned in a little mom and pop motel out by Spokane International Airport, and got up and out at the crack of dawn the next morning. I was pretty much sick of breakfast bars by that point, so I decided I would see what the little town of Ritzville, which is the next wide spot in the road after Spokane, had in the way of a diner. My mouth was set for pancakes. I did find some, or, rather one enormous one after the waitress told me two would be overload, bless her, but only after giving myself the grand tour of the entire town. It was worth it, though.
Back on the highway, I stopped at a rest area to clean up, then took a glance to the west and did a doubletake. Was that Mt. Rainier? Surely not, I was still too far east. I fetched my binoculars and stared again. Lo and behold. Home.
You see, I have this theory. My theory is that there are place-oriented people and there are people-oriented people (kind of like the way there are introverts and extroverts). I am a very strongly place-oriented person, which is a good thing because a) I’m really bad at marriage, having tried twice and failed both times, and b) my blood relations are scattered all to hell and gone in places I wouldn’t live in on a bet. I was born in New Orleans and grew up in LA, Denver, and San Franscisco (my father was an engineer, which is the next thing to being military for getting transferred regularly), so it’s not like I have a hometown, either.
But home is the Pacific Northwest, and in particular, my corner of western Washington, where I’ve lived for the last almost twenty years. I moved to Oregon in my mid-twenties and loved it, but then I made the mistake of falling in love with a Midwesterner who hoodwinked me into moving to Ohio. He claimed that we’d only be there long enough for him to finish grad school before we moved back to Oregon. Then he got within two hours’ drive of his seven brothers and sisters and I never did pry him loose.
I finally managed to finish grad school myself, leave him, and find a job in Tacoma, Washington. I remember driving over Snoqualmie Pass in tears because, dammit, I was home. Never mind that I’d never lived here before. It was just like the John Denver song, only a different part of the country.
Anyway, I still had about two hundred miles to go, but I was home. Much as I love traveling, and as you can see I really truly do, I love coming home almost as much. Especially since this is where I get to come home to.
I hope you enjoyed my travelogue, and that you will stick around for more adventures. For one thing, I am in the process of adopting a pair of kittens, which ought to be good entertainment value. And there are always new places to discover, even in the old familiar stomping grounds. And beyond.
If you like my travel writing, you might enjoy my fiction set in Yellowstone:
So. Five days before today the temperature was 99F degrees. Today I woke up to snow. Not horrendous amounts, but enough that I had to scrape it off of my car before I could set out for the morning. I won’t tell the story about snow on July 4th in the park when I was small, or mention that I have now been snowed on in the park at some point in every month from May to October, except August. Which is sort of ironic, because Repeating History‘s hero Charley got snowed on in the park in August. Very late August, but still. Anyway, I just won’t mention any of that now.
By the time I left West Yellowstone and headed into the park it was more sleet than snow, and it was blowing sideways, but the roads remained clear and just a bit wet. In spite of the weather I decided to get out and walk the boardwalk at the Fountain Paint Pots, where I saw yellow monkeyflowers blooming along the edge of the boardwalk, as well as perpetually spouting Clepsydra Geyser and lots of paint pots and pools. My jeans were soaked on one side and dry on the other by the time I got back to the car due to the wind, but it could have been worse.
I skipped Midway Geyser Basin, because when you combine two hot springs the size of Excelsior Geyser Crater and Grand Prismatic Spring and weather in the forties, you basically end up with steam thick enough to cut with a knife. For the entire length of the boardwalk. Besides, my jeans were still damp.
The weather seemed to be improving slightly by the time I got to Biscuit Basin, however, so I did get out and walk there, in the company of a group of tourists who sounded eastern European of some kind to my ears — Russian, maybe? One of the young women was wearing a t-shirt, leggings, and sandals, along with a Jayne hat. I shivered just looking at her. The snow was beginning to collect on the boardwalks, and I’m not sure there are many surfaces as slippery as jugwalk (planks made out of wood pulp and recycled pop bottles) with snow on it. But I it was nice to see Sapphire Pool again, especially since every mention of the park during the 1959 earthquake that I’d seen in my research was replete with its magnificent eruptions in the aftermath. I’d have loved to see that.
So I finally wended my way to the Upper Geyser Basin, aka the home of Old Faithful (the link goes to the live, streaming webcam). I had been planning to spend this day out in the geyser basin, but I was cold and damp and needed at the very least to warm up and dry out before I went walking outdoors again. The snow had warmed up just enough to become a cold, penetrating drizzle, but it was still pretty miserable. So I bought a cookie in the lodge and ate it while gazing wistfully out the big windows, then headed over to the bright shiny new visitor center that opened in August of 2010.
It’s about time that the Upper Geyser Basin acquired a decent visitor center. And it has a virtual version, too, if you’re interested in checking that out (the introductory video is a hoot). The old visitor center dated from Mission 66, I think. At any rate, its amenities included a ranger desk, an auditorium, and a small bookstore. Not a single exhibit. The new visitor center has a whole enormous room full of exhibits, many of them interactive, telling all about how thermal features work and why they are where they are and, well, let’s just say that both my museum curator persona and my inner Yellowstone junkie were vastly impressed.
So that gave me time to dry out. Lot of good it did me. I went out walking around Geyser Hill, and about half an hour into my stroll, slipped and fell flat on my tuckus, and covered myself in the sleet/dirt/etc., that was on the jugwalk. At least I didn’t fall off the jugwalk.
I decided enough was enough, and took my cold, wet, dirty self off to the showers at the lodge, then to the laundromat at the Snow Lodge (two different places), and got me and my stuff cleaned up. That was the first time I had to wash that coat. I’m glad the manufacturer meant that “machine washable” tag.
After that, I checked into my lodge cabin and holed up, hoping for better weather the next day. It was my last day in the park, after all.
If you like my travel writing, you might enjoy my fiction set in Yellowstone:
The oldest town in the state of Montana isn’t that old.
If you’re an Easterner. Or a European. But by intermountain West standards, ~160 years old is pretty ancient.
Fort Benton, Montana, was the head of steamship travel on the Big Muddy, and hence one of the most inland ports in the world, from the 1850s, when special steamships were devised that could handle the shallow waters, snags, and other impediments of the Upper Missouri, and the late 1880s, when the railroad came to Montana (I’ve occasionally wondered if Charley, the hero of Repeating History, which is set in the late 1870s, might have traveled by steamship from Fort Benton at one point — maybe someday I’ll find out). Nowadays, it’s the seat of Chouteau County, and bigger than I had thought it would be, with an elegantly remodeled Carnegie Library (about which more anon), and a stately stone courthouse. It is, after all, Town for a great many farmers and ranchers, who are the main reason for its continued existence.
But it also knows its large place in Montana history, and does some lovely things with it. The riverfront, for instance, where once upon a time hundreds of puffing, smoking steamships disgorged thousands of tons of freight destined for the gold mines of Virginia City and Last Chance Gulch, is now a grassy promenade studded with signs telling the town’s fascinating history. Did you know that an acting governor of Montana drowned in the river here? Or that a dog named Shep once gained national fame for waiting here for years for a master who never came back? (the man couldn’t help it — he’d left town in a coffin) The Grand Union Hotel still welcomes guests (albeit at a price that was completely out of my range) behind its stocky but elegant red-brick façade.
And, of course, there’s the Hornaday buffalo. Have you ever seen a buffalo nickel? This was the fellow they modeled it on. Ever gotten a good look at the bison on the National Park Service logo? Yeah, him, too. The whole diorama, which consists of sixteen, if I remember correctly, bison of all ages and sexes, lived in the Smithsonian Institution for decades before making its roundabout way back to Fort Benton, where it is on permanent display now. I have to admit to a strong preference for live and wild over taxidermied when it comes to any animal, but still.
It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I discovered every motel in town was full — not tourists, but some nearby road construction project. I went to the library to see about some wifi so that I might find an alternative (camping is all well and good, but not several nights in a row). As it turned out, while it was nice to check my email, the librarian was of much more help. Seems there was a set of cabins, mostly used by hunters, in the next little town down the road. I was dubious, but I called, and yes, since it wasn’t hunting season, they had a vacancy. I snagged it, thanked the librarian, and tooled twenty miles north to the wide spot in the road called Loma (population 85).
Not only was that no hunting cabin (unless you counted the elk motif decorating the entire place), it held the most comfortable bed I slept on during the entire trip. The restaurant next door was called Ma’s Loma Café. As I was to find out, Thursday nights were Mexican night. Cooked by Ma, who was first generation Mexican-American. I had the best fajitas and guacamole I’ve had in years. Not hot spicy, but delicious spicy. Combined with classic Montana beef (in my humble opinion some of the best on the planet). I’m drooling just thinking about it. I did not eat alone, either. As soon as I sat down, the couple at the next table invited me to join them, and I, for one, had a wonderful time. They were locals, and as interested in me as I was in them.
And after that? I wandered back to my cabin, sank into the bed from heaven, and that was the end of me for the night.