For the country I was born and raised in, I think the appropriate post for this country is Alaska, because this is when I’d been to all 50 states. September 30, 2015, at the age of 33, I made it happen.
Reasons why I was so keen to get to Alaska: finish all 50 states, see Denali park, see Denali mountain, see the northern lights again, and hike the Stampede Trail out to the bus from Into The Wild.
I flew some crazy routing and arrived in Fairbanks after 1am. I was surprised by how many people were awake and at the airport at that time! I’d rented a car, as it was necessary for several of my plans. I’d asked for a jeep or something with 4WD, because of the snow and planning to go hiking. All they had available with 4WD was a GINORMOUS Ram extended pickup truck. I’m the last person you’d expect to be driving this truck, but OK.
I got my stuff, jumped in after scraping ice off the windshield, and headed to the amazing Billie’s Backpackers Hostel. This sweet grandma had converted her big house into an apartment for herself and hostel for other people. She made you feel like you were staying at Grandma’s, not paying to stay with a stranger.
I arrived late, obviously, but there was a note for me indicating which bed was mine and to just find her in the morning. JUST like Grandma would do!
The next day, I explored around town, hung out with people from the hostel, and picked up some supplies for my hiking trip. I rented snow shoes, a tent, a bear-proof food container, and bought some bear/animal repellant spray. I also picked up some maps and impressed the university guy printing them with my map-reading knowledge picked up during Land Nav training in the army.
Surprisingly, Fairbanks has a LOT of Thai restaurants! This is obviously a gem for finding vegan food, and some were within walking distance of the hostel, so groups of us went there pretty often.
The next morning, I packed up, checked out of the hostel, and got a very serious, “Please, be careful” from Billie at the hostel. I was going off onto my own in Alaskan backcountry with snow on the ground. She was worried, and it was endearing.
I filled up the truck with gas and drove down to Healy, at the edge of Denali National Park, before turning onto the Stampede Trail and driving to the last possible point where you can take a car. This is where things stopped working.
I figured that the snow was soft and that there was trail underneath, so I walked in just my boots for the first bit, figuring I’d put on the snowshoes when it became necessary. Pretty soon, the hardened part of the trail ended, and I was sinking in the snow. Snow shoes on, but this became a problem very fast.
I didn’t know it, but hiking the Stampede Trail out to the bus has become a big thing. Some people even try to drive it, if they have 4WD. This has DESTROYED the trail and created a ton of puddles underneath. With the snow on top, I couldn’t see them. With snow shoes on, I was smashing that snow really fast, sinking to mid-shin quite often.
My feet were soaking wet, and I kept changing socks every 30-40 minutes to stay safe. Obviously, I ran out of socks very fast.
There are 2 river crossings (1 quite small, then 1 quite big) involved in this hike. When I got to the first, and with my super-slow progress from changing socks/trudging the unseen pools of water), I had to make a safety call. I wouldn’t be able to properly dry my socks overnight (they’d just become icy, not really dry), and I’d be in danger of hypothermia the next day. The sun was setting, and I decided that the right thing to do was to turn back. It sucked, but it was the right thing to do.
When I got back to the truck, the only space to turn around was in a clearing a bit ahead of where I’d parked. I didn’t think about the fact I was going a bit downhill to do this, and I couldn’t get out (because of the knee-high snow). Even with 4WD and shoveling snow out from under the tires, the ground was wet, and I was just spinning the tires. I wasn’t getting out, not after dark with no one around.
I had to sleep in the truck.
The next morning, the ground situation hadn’t improved, so I walked back to the town, hoping to find someone to help me out. Multiple houses were locked up with no sign of life until I finally found your stereotypical Alaskan redneck who said he’d help me out after lunch (it was around 10am) when the day warmed up and things were thawing out.
We sat around at his ‘bedazzled with animal heads on the wall’ log cabin while watching Fox News, of course, and him calling Obama the N-word multiple times. Ironically, he had a ‘Vote Ben Carson’ sign on the window. I wonder if he’d ever seen a picture of the guy…
We got his tractor, drove it super slowly back to where my truck was parked, hooked up some chains, and he pulled me out. Oh, but I had to pay him $300. Yikes. I seriously had 0 other options, though.
Back in Fairbanks and returning to the hostel earlier, Grandma Billie was really happy to see me, and there was hot coffee (as always) waiting. I met some really cool Chinese and Taiwanese people at the hostel, and my friend from India (we’d bonded over our love of maps) was still there, so we all hung out in various configurations. More Thai food, of course.
The next day, I drove out to North Pole, Alaska, which is hilarious. Go there when in Fairbanks. You can even send a Christmas letter from Santa to someone (I sent one to my mom) with a stamp from the North Pole post office. Ha!
In the evening, we wanted to see the northern lights and heard that Chena Hot Springs was a good spot for relaxing and watching. After lunch at Lunch Cafe (awesome vegan cupcakes and vegan chili available!), we started driving. We saw some trails near a river along the way, and decided to stop.
It had never occurred to me that other people hadn’t heard of skipping rocks. When I started skipping some on the river, it blew their minds, and I had to teach 3 people how to do it.
Back on the road and headed to Chena Hot Springs, we were a bit surprised how much the admission cost, but not nearly as much as the ‘nothing around, so we charge what we want’ dinner. I had lentil soup as the only vegan option at the hotel restaurant, and I paid 4x what it was worth for that and a Coke.
Back in the springs after our dinner break, the sun was setting, and we just laid against the edge, looking up. The sky danced for us and gave a real treat.
This was much better than my first sighting in Tromso, Norway. The Taiwanese guy at my hostel took this. It was a great night.
The colors danced and danced until we had to force ourselves to leave, because I had a late plane that night.
From the parking lot, the drive back to town, and even other guests standing outside the hostel watching, the sky was impressive that night, and everyone was looking.
At the airport, people were standing in the parking lot and at the windows to watch.
Fairbanks, Alaska, you made my 50th state a phenomenal experience that I won’t forget.This entry was posted in alaska, north america, USA