Puppy Love (Valdez – Denali NP – Fairbanks, 9/15-16)

Hi everyone – I feel like we have gone for months, but it’s only been a week or so. It’s been a deeply rewarding experience, and I find myself being thankful again and again for all of the folks who have contributed to making this Journey a possibility, as well as to all of the folks who are supporting this Journey with your encouragement (online and personal), and of course donations (in deed or planned for the Journey end).

Just as we can’t take back the experience of making this Journey (and despite all reassurances to the contrary, Moshi Moshi will probably also never quite be the same…), we hope that all of you will always remember and not take back the things we have shared and will look for that special, unique moment when you can help nudge progress forward. Few of us alone can move mountains, but enough of us together can carry the mountain in pieces.

== == == == ==

Having managed to depart on the Journey on time, I’m not sure we’ve managed to really do that effectively since. The process of negotiating when we eat breakfast and hit the road has become rather rife with parody, accentuating various crew differences and shifting loyalties to scheduling vs. sleep vs. the pursuit of proper comestibles.

I blame myself. (For those missing this, this is an overt Ghostbusters reference.)

And so it is that we departed Valdez hours after plan, but all for the better. As we occupied the corner of one of the last restaurants in town not closed for the season (the Fat Mermaid), Tank regaled us with geology factoids (Who knew that the seemingly elevated stretch of road along the Denali Highway we would pass later that day was an esker, which is a stacked formation or rocks and sediment resulting from an ancient glacier stacking rocks along the path of a ‘river’ of meltwater flowing beneath the glacier?) and dropped knowledge on us about how Alaskans settled, mined, made do and stay warm. It’s almost enough to make George Constanza wish he were a geologist.

Two nights of everyone bunking in Tank’s RV under the steady patter of rain, to say nothing of a case of Oktoberfest Erik and Robin picked up in Anchorage, had brought us all together in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I’d like to think that we are all much richer for the experience together (and for sure I’m hoping that a fair share of the inevitable resulting inside jokes remain either somewhat sacred or simply untranslatable).

We cut up north in a caravan, leaving behind rainy Valdez and made our way across the Denali highway, in search of…you guessed it…Denali. The road was pretty rough in sections, despite the benefit of good weather conditions and mostly-repaired roads. The onboard GPS was actually pretty pissed that we took this route and repeatedly demanded that we turn around until near the very end of the 130-something miles of mostly gravel road. Probably half of Alaska was hunting along the highway in the areas marked for subsistence hunting, and the ingenuity reflected in various rigs and sprawling tents and such was at times pretty impressive. The clincher here was that along much of the route, almost 180 degrees of snow-capped mountains graced the view to the north. The ingeniously named Alaska Range stretches through here and it is beautiful (yet far too vast to sensibly capture in a single photograph).

Many hour later (probably eight), when we finally got to Denali (very strange to see so many darn people milling around in their tour buses), Tank had turned south to return home to Anchorage. Russ arrived, rejoining the crew, and made a bee-line for the bearspray we’d been carrying for him since Seattle — you can’t carry the larger bottles on planes. The sales rep at the rental car agency was willing to be recorded warning Russ that both bears and moose have been known to rush at rental cars. (Whether this is related to him having been given an aromatic-looking, Oscar Meyer hotdog truck for his rental car is probably consigned to eternal mystery.) As soon as he was re-united with the spray, he started dropping into a Charlie’s Angels silhouette crouch with the canister every time we heard a noise in the bushes.

We were running out of time to get Erik’s head shaved (Thank you everyone for the donations — he looks much, much better now!), so we did this in the room, having to essentially completely ‘redecorate’ the room to make space and attempt to create proper lighting. I’m sort of still waiting for the hotel to call up, informing us that our security deposit has been forfeited… We were then fortunate to have a sunny morning on the following day, so everyone got to see Denali (which is not readily visible from the highway and frequently shrouded in clouds) before we parted ways, with Robin and Erik heading south to Anchorage to fly back home. Before continuing north to Fairbanks, Richard, Russ, and I turned in to properly explore Denali National Park (or at least the .005% of the 6 million acres of parkland which is explorable after Labor Day). At the ranger station, we learned about how savage the Savage River is and the best places to meet rutting meese. Appreciating our otherwise generally inappropriate sense of humor, the park ranger suggested that after savagely hiking we could join her last sled dog presentation of the season. The pros of this being that after folks left, they would bring out the puppies to ‘socialize’ them with mere mortal taxpayers. After hiking (and Russ decided to take a ‘shortcut’ involving fording a stream up to his knees…back in the day, we liked to call this sort of thing a ‘Russ-Cut’), we headed to the kennels.

The presentation was super cool (highly recommended!) – who knew they carried equipment and supplies and such all over the park during the winter to set up maintenance and construction crews for the following year after the snow melts – and the opportunity to pet the dogs (all of which are huskies, and most of which really liked human attention and proper scratching/petting) was terrific. Once about 90% of the folks departed, they had the rest of sit in a circle, knee-to-knee, and they brought out all the adorable little puppies. After all of this running around and being exposed to a much more rugged and stark take on the land and life than (at least I am) normally exposed to, hanging out with a bunch of cuddly and sometimes irascible puppies was really sort of what the doctor ordered. It’s a thing I dearly wish I could have shared with my girls.






We got to Fairbanks at least, and prepared to give faithful Moshi Moshi a break. We would be taking a rental car up into the Arctic, to Coldfoot, as I just can’t bear what the infamous Dalton Highway would likely do to my car (which I still have to get back to California, some day…). Fairbanks is a cool little town, astride the Chena River, with yet more of the very friendly Alaskans we have become accustomed to meeting everywhere. We tried to relax a bit as we geared up for a difficult drive, breaking into our stash of pinot noir, graciously donated to the Journey by Handley Cellars shortly before we departed from CA. It might be a little unusual to have an official vintage of the Journey, but the 2012 pinot noir is exactly that! Many, many thanks to the folks at Handley Cellars for their generosity and being inspired to support our ‘spirits’ while on the Journey.