I change my oil in Vaughn’s driveway. The auto parts stores in Alaska don’t recycle motor oil, so I spend a little while driving around trying to get rid of a gallon of used oil. Eventually I drop it off at the transfer station, where as may have been expected, people were tossing things from the backs of pickup trucks and a man wearing shorts and uniform hat is rummaging through the castoffs in the recycle pile. I stop off at Value Village for a can opener and a kitchen knife. Lulu’s is closed for a belated solstice holiday, or I would have picked up another bag of bagels. My hosts head off for the day to retrieve some of Erin’s monitoring equipment that has been watching a glacier in the Delta Range. Erin is breaking up with Vaughn. Vaughn and I talk late into the evening. He seems like a brother, a member of the family we meet and choose along the way. I mention to him that at times I have felt like I traded my last relationship for a van and a trip to Alaska. He replies that perhaps he traded his partner of the past six years and possibly indefinitely many more for a climb of the Cassin. Was it worth it is not a valid question in either case. It’s life.
In the morning, there are other errands that I could run in Fairbanks, but I am ready to get out of the city. I turn the van south and seconds, minutes, degrees roll away. The forest is burning out by the hot springs. Someone was being careless during some live fire ordinance practice on the Army base, and now the sun is a pale orange disk. Anyone who claims that fire and pollution at least make for good sunsets is welcome to continue not having been to the desert Southwest. Or the high Cascades. Or the Brooks Range. Or the Alaska Range. Or wherever it was in the middle of the Atlantic that prompted Levi-Strauss to write that half chapter Brightman threatened to make us analyze in Anthropology 101. As I head south, the air clears a bit, and then the rain begins. I stop at the 49th State brewery and pick up a stainless steel growler, fill it with their IPA. I had stopped just for some takeout, but I end up having a pint and a pretzel for lunch, chatting with the guy next to me at the bar about vehicles. This place is more National Park than Alaska, with its high ceilings and many taps. I suppose that Alaskans can enjoy good beer and urban style too if they like. Still, I preferred the Golden Eagle in Esther, just outside Fairbanks. Vaughn and Ron took Fred and me out there. Grill your own burgers, reminds me of build your own Bloody Mary at the Steep. They had a nice porch, and I met a woman in the math department at UAF, yet another person who knows David Maxwell. David was one of the smart guys in the PhD program in Seattle. He finished in four years and went right into a tenure track job in his home state. Erin knows him too. Another example of the tightness of this web. Vaughn knows Zach Via’s dad.
Perhaps the reason I stick around for a pint is to chat with the bartender. She does her job well, and I’m grateful for the kindness. The IPA is much better than whatever it was I was going to get at first, and the pretzel is good. As I’m leaving, a state trooper having lunch at a table by the door asks me where’s his beer. “I left it inside, but I think I drank half of it.”
Not far south of the brewery, I pick up a hitchhiker, a middle aged native guy with long hair, getting soggy in the rain. I have some stuff sitting in the passenger footwell, so he gets in back and promptly falls asleep. I let him off in Cantwell, and turn down the Denali Highway. The rain is off and on, the clouds are low. After finding a couple of less than ideal spots to park, I find a nice spot, far enough off the road to be mostly out of sight, on enough of a hill to keep a good view. Across the broad river valley to the north the Alaska Range makes an arc, its spine curving to run east-west before it fades into foothills. I pick up a stick from the small stack of wood near the fire ring and carve out a pipe. I’m reading my dad’s stories about Alaska in the early 1970s, about Santa Fe in the early 1990s. I set the jar of his ashes next to me, the remnant of his physical presence reminding me of the finality of death, and of the immortality of a good story. I’m further south and the solstice is a few weeks past; the darker grey of twilight could almost be called night. My father said Kaddish for his father because his grandmother made him promise, and you can’t lie to the dead, just like you can’t lie to the living. I read the words that Fran taught me when I let go of his ashes on a peak far south of here. I stand barefoot in the stream and say a prayer of my own as I drop a bit of his remnant into the water.
I sleep, wake, and enjoy the cool of a grey Alaska day. Try to make some cornbread, using my skillet like a Dutch oven on the Coleman stove. It burns on the bottom. Should have built a fire, used the coals. Still, the top is good. Pancakes are what one can cook in a pan, remember that next time. Someone was blasting dynamite nearby and it was a little odd to hear and feel the explosions. One, then an hour or so later, two more.
Eventually, I get back on the road.
The way to drive to McCarthy is to first go to Chitna, 30 miles off the road down to Valdez. After Chitna, the road passes through a crack blasted out of the rock, turns to dirt, crosses the Copper River. Many people have fish traps set up, and are collecting salmon. From there it is sixty miles to the end of the road. The forest is thick on both sides of the road, and there are no good places to pull out and camp. A bridge crosses the river at a deep and narrow gorge, and then a few miles further on there is a spot under an old trestle where I decide to park for the night. It isn’t the best parking spot, but there’s a creek flowing by and I like the sound.
In the morning, I continue on, and make my way towards the end of the road. When I cross a creek broad enough to have enough airflow to discourage mosquitoes, I stop and splash off the grime of the past few days. The road ends at a footbridge. The guy who owns the parking lot wants $5 per day to park, $15 per day to camp. It isn’t unreasonable, I suppose, but I’m not used to being asked to pay to be somewhere. He tools around his lot on an ATV. I don’t ask if staying in my van counts as parking or camping and give him $5. I wander across the bridge and in to town. There’s a little gear store, and I chat with the woman behind the counter about where to go. She has some suggestions, mostly parallel to what I heard from Erin. What I’m up to seems clear to her, which is refreshing.
I wander through the museum, immersed in the durable ephemra of life as it was. Read the story of Dora Keen. Bike up the road to Kennicott, park at a rack, walk out to an overlook above the moraine. Kennicott has some impressive old buildings. Largest wooden structure in the world, the locals are telling me. “Except that one in China, and it fell down…”
Took some pictures of an old Studebaker truck and a green Willys. We had a Willys for a while when I was a kid. One of the many cars my dad had and was always fixing. At a certain point, he gave up with fixing and just drove them until they died. Maybe it was when the little Porsche caught fire on I-25. That’s the era in his life that I’ve been reading about. I was there too of course, but I am closer in age now to him writing the story than myself when I lived the story, so I have an easier time seeing things from his point of view.
Cruise down to McCarthy. Over at the pub I order a beer. It seems a little odd that the bartender checks my ID. Perhaps this place has been busted. “Gunnison,” she says, “I spent some time there.” A former Western student. And her fiance used to live in Crested Butte. People are easy going, making acquaintances isn’t hard. Someone invites me to come down the street for another beer on the porch, but I’m hungry, and decide to head back to the van for dinner. Potato pancakes with quinoa. The potatoes are from my garden in Gunnison. The maple syrup is from my relatives in New York. After dinner, a little wandering around town, standing down by the river. I’m asked to take pictures of the Kennicott guides. They are all dressed up, at first I think its a wedding. I take a few straight, and then ask them to do something ridiculous. A third of them moon the camera.
Back at the pub, I have a few more beers with the crowd. How did I end up here? The only plan that I had when I came to Alaska was to climb Denali. Part of my preparation for this trip was to ask people with time in Alaska where they thought I should go, what else was worth the glimpse that I could catch in my brief wander through this state. When I passed through Bellingham, Nate told me I should come here, and his house-mate Kyle, and Kira, who seems an interesting person to have met. All of them lived here at some point. It’s a nice place, McCarthy. A little town, full of people who found it and stayed, and people passing through for some time. As with every place in Alaska, I am encountering people from whom I am not far removed – the bartender and her fiance, the massage therapist Stephanie with the bright smile who lived at Irwin. The tapestry of human interaction is woven tightly in this place, in this life. What is it about this world, about my way of being in it, that draws me to these people, to illustrate these connections in the mesh?
July 11th, 2013
Got up this morning, made breakfast, moved the van to a spot that one of the people I met at the bar suggested, packed my stuff to go for a hike, got lazy and decided to just sit around today. That’s ok. I need to write anyway.
So, I’m on the bank of the Kennicott River, snacking on cherries that Vaughn gave me, just made a cup of coffee. Perhaps I am mildly hungover from last night, but I think that today’s laziness has more to it than that. It isn’t particularly early.
I read for a bit, finish Left Hand of Darkness, which somehow I missed reading when I was younger, contemplate a packraft adventure for the afternoon, decide to revel in laziness. I have some ice cream in town, chat with folks on the sunny deck. A young woman visiting from Anchorage with her parents who are from perhaps Ohio encourages me to go mountain biking on the trails south of Anchorage. I’ll have to save that for another trip. A writer who works for the park tells me about his novel, about an anthropologist who discovers where Perseus hid the head of Medusa, and falls in love with the Gorgon. He has a cabin up near Fairbanks where he hopes to retreat to finish writing it. A guy from Phoenix shows me pictures of his yellow Camero. We talk about cars for a bit. There is a band passing through, and we chat on the porch of the bar for a good part of the afternoon. Some of them play later, at the open mic. A Celtic trio from New York is passing through as well, and they play a few reels. They are charmingly abashed about playing in hiking boots. It seems so appropriate I doubt anything else will ever look quite right. Someone sings Leonard Cohen’s Allelujah and even though the sound system destroys her voice, it is beautiful. Someone plays a washtub. Someone notices my Messman’s hoodie and we chat about .83.
After a successful lazy day, I retire to my house on the river.
In the morning, I set out for the glacier. My bag is packed from yesterday, so all I have to do is get up and sit around drinking coffee for a while to get ready. I accomplish this, throw on my nice light pack, and pedal back over the bridge to McCarthy, up the road to Kennicott, and along the trail to where it drops down to the Root Glacier. The last bit of trail is singletrack, and it is in a national park, but not wilderness, so the bike is okay. Still, it amuses me when I pass a park ranger on the trail. She is chatting with a guy on an ATV, and makes a weird laugh-snort as I pass. Perhaps I am somewhat ridiculous. Anyway. Before long the trail leaves the forest and moves on to the moraine. I stash my bike in the trees out of sight, and hike down to the glacier. Strapping my aluminum crampons on over my hiking shoes is certainly ridiculous. When I bought these crampons, Second Ascent had one of them mounted on some sort of slip on casual shoe sitting on the counter, so I’m sure that I’m not the only one to be amused by putting crampons on shoes that are far from mountaineering boots. I am amused, regardless. It seems to work well enough. I cross the glacier. As I approach the other side, there is a waterfall on the left, pouring off the saddle of the peninsula for which I’m headed. Soon enough I’m off the ice onto the gravel. There’s a trail that goes to a campsite. I find a trail leading in the direction I’m headed that continues for a little bit, and then it isn’t there anymore.
Oh, good, I think. A real Alaska bushwhack to tick off on the list. Maybe I’m only half joking. A trail shows back up when I get to the first of two lakes. It’s easy going to follow the trail for the most part. At a junction of trails between the two lakes, I decide to follow the trail that goes up. It gets steep, heading straight up a drainage gully onto a scree slope that is desperately seeking the angle of repose. I figure I’ll get up to a camp with a view. I scrape some water from a patch of ice, hop over onto the rock on climber’s left of the gully, and mountain goat my way up to the place where the vegetation ends. There’s a nice little snow patch here, better than the one I dug from earlier, by a flat enough spot to make camp. Perfect. I’m tired. It’s late. There is a phenomenal sunset. Sleep comes easy.
In the morning, I’m again in no hurry. I sit around, writing and taking in the view, looking at the great white bulk of Blackburn accross the valley of the Kennicott Glacier, the drainage across revealing the remnant of Hidden Lake. I write a letter to my dad.
It’s hard to describe what I’m doing, writing this letter, taking this journey. Its hard to keep a train of thought because of the bugs. The two mountain goats—a nanny and a kid—are still watching me. As I make coffee and enjoy the views, they make their way down towards me. I recognize that I am in the path, and I try to make myself unobtrusive. They slowly make their way down, get within twenty feet or so of me, and then turn around, move back up the hill, and traverse a cliff that I would have probably died falling from had I tried to follow them.
It occurs to me that they didn’t go over and graze because of where my camp is set, but that I would have gotten out of the way if they were two bears. I feel like a jerk. Might makes right, what? Out here I feel a kinship with everything. I would not exist without the happenstance that brought together my parents, and their parents, and so on, and so my kin are close to me in part because almost all of the same seemingly random choices that led to me led to them. But I am struck by the unlikely miracle that a world has any sort of beasts at all. How unlikely is a world with animals, birds, insects? So I am kin with the bear and the moose and the raven and the gull and the eagle and the mosquito. Or any sort of life? So I am kin with the pine and the cedar and the spruce and the kinickinick and the bolete and the lichen and the grasses. Or liquid water, or this particular mixture that is our air? Or the physics that leads to these stones, these gullies? These things, out of all the possible universes that could be, these things are in the same one as I am, and so we are kin. Perhaps I have been spending too much time alone in places with really good views.
Adrift in this contemplation, I am happened upon by two hikers, one from Anchorage, one from Valdez. They are surprised to see me. We chat for a bit, and they move on.
Without dust, dust devils are invisible. Mostly, I can still follow sound. Distortion of air at different densities.
Ok, going to pack up. Motivate.
So, I head further up. Just before the ridge, the two hikers are coming down. Steep and loose. The angle of repose seems steeper in Alaska. Everything is younger. The ice keeps it frozen for much of the year. There are tufts of goat hair caught on the rocks. This is a Goat trail. In the Brooks Range I followed Bear and Wolf and Moose trails. There are blue flecks in the rock. It is almost steep enough to be scary that the rock is so crumbly. I look down and think about what I would do to arrest a slide if I did fall. I like this whippet. Better than fingernails. Better than a triangle of flat rock. Eventually I’m on the ridge, the saddle between the main peak of Donaho and the next highest local maximum. Look around, have a snack. Scramble the rest of the way up Donaho. This is the perfect peak for a lazy afternoon of staring into space. Space meets back with some amazing views.
There is Blackburn, with the glaciers flowing off in a torrent. “The glacier and the torrent, both get where they are going,” says LeGuin in Left Hand of Darkness. This glacier is a torrent. There is Hidden Lake, and the valley that leads up from the glacier. There is the broad valley of the Kennicott River, down to the town I just got to know, just a little. And across the broader valley of the Copper, to the Chugach.
Eventually it is time to descend. Plunge stepping my way down the snowfield is fun. I realize that I’m one drainage over from where I had meant to be, and I’m going to have some steepness to deal with. Being cliffed out is quite possible, so scouting is needful, but being on the wrong side of an event horizon would be bad, so one must be careful. Sketchy on-sight down climbing is going to be the next big adventure sport. This is ridiculous, what the hell am I doing? I’ll get a sponsorship or something. One 5-easy traverse and some class 4 (phew) gullies. Walking down the steep scree slope at the end, I ski the slides. Reminds me of running back to the ferry terminal on Thira when I was 15. My dad didn’t like me doing that. I think his fear of heights manifested in me as a love of the aerie. When the vegetation arrives, the slope stays steep, and the angle is mind bending. And wearying. Once it flattens out, I choose a campsite among the hills of gravelly moraine at the edge of the glacier. The edge of the glacier is at least a quarter mile wide.
I wake, and make my way down to a lake at a boundary between moraine and vegetation. Donaho looms above. Going to meander back to town today. Afternoon walk down the Kennicott highway.
Crampons on these shoes eventually bother my third toe, where the outer bar of the toe bail sits. I take them off for a while, but then put them back on when the glacier gets a bit steeper. There are waterfalls, lakes, runnells and moulins. Sightseeing planes buzz around like mosquitoes.
Then I’m back at my bike, back in Kennicott, back at my van, back at the pub in McCarthy. Somebody who I remember seeing but hadn’t met says, “you were here before, weren’t you?”
And then in the morning it is time to move on, go meet Coop in Haines.