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END-OF-THE-ROAD ALASKA

for Conde Nast Traveler Magazine

by Stephan Wilkinson

YOU KNOW YOU aren't in Kansas anymore when a front-page story in the biggest city for well over a thousand miles around features two teenagers jailed for killing a pair of majestic Dall rams. Worse, they got two months "for wanton waste of the animals' meat." The city is Anchorage, and the state, Toto, is Alaska. It is a territory that often seems American in name only; more than once, I found myself thinking, "Gee, they take dollars and even drive American cars."

One of them is mine--a ptarmigan-white Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited with equally appropriate Yukon-gold trim. Short of a Cessna 185 on amphibious floats, a Grand Cherokee may be the ultimate Alaskan traveling machine. It has four-wheel drive for gravel bogs and the chance of snow; an optional V8 with enough torque to clear the stumps from a homesteader's woodlot; and high, many-windowed orchestra seats perfect for taking in what may be the world's most concentrated play of scenic grandeur. The car's instrumentation even provides a constant readout of compass heading and outside temperature--two items that are always amusing in Alaska.

Day One, Anchorage to Homer via the Portage Glacier (245 miles)

Beat the snow and you'll see Alaska in one of its two prime, tourist-free seasons: between Labor Day and late September, when the mountains and alpine meadows are gloriously, briefly autumnal and the roads are free of the curse of AARPers' ferries--wallowing Winnebagos rowed along by golden-agers.

Most of the state's seasonal tourist facilities close on October 1st, to reopen in April or May, which makes spring another good choice. "The animals are hungry after a cold winter, and they're more liable to be out where you can see them," one hunter confided, "and the foliage isn't yet thick enough to obscure them. Besides, you can get in to Denali [Mt. McKinley, to cheechakos from "Outside"]. During the summer, tourists come thousands of miles and are horrified to find they have to wait days to get a reservation on the Park Service buses," which are the only passsenger vehicles allowed on the 91-mile road into the park.

Denali is still astern, hidden in cloud, for my navigator and I are first heading south on the Seward Highway toward Homer, near the tip of the spectacular Kenai Peninsula. Ahead is the fjord-like gut of Turnagain Arm, barely behind is Anchorage, a briefly urban world immediately forgotten. Fog tattered by the

September sun still wreaths the peaks, halos some of the lower strata and lies smoky on the slopes as though they're coldly afire. The pewtery water of the inlet glints and hints of winter to come, and streams of water pour down mountainsides, more like vertical creeks than waterfalls. The continuous, where-do-I-look-next display makes this leg of the Seward the single most spectacular way to dive straight into Alaska.

Barely 50 miles southeast of Anchorage is the Portage Glacier, Alaska's most accessible icepack and in fact the most visited spot in the state, since it's an easy-on/easy-off tourist attraction ideal for those who want their wilderness at arm's length. Like through a heated, glassed-in walkway, in the Visitor Center, that allows shirtsleeved viewing of icebergs, their interiors the luminous, artificial blue of toilet-bowl cleaner.

Homer, a Northern Exposure Monterey, is literally at the end of the line, past a series of reminders of Russia's role in the opening of Alaska--Nikisky and Ninilchik, Kasilof and Kalifornsky, villages established back in the harsh days when bored Russian adventurers would idly line up Aleuts back to belly to see how many bodies a musket-ball would penetrate. (Nine out of 12 seems to have been the record.)

Contemplating the best of Homer can be done from a highway turnout on a promontory high above the fishing village/seaport/arts-and-crafts colony, with a postcard view across Cook Inlet at mountains that anchor the Aleutian chain. Down on four-mile-long Homer Spit, which pokes like an appendix into Kachemak Bay, life is grittier. "Last winter was my first up here, and I haven't recovered yet," the room clerk at our motel says. "You talk about hey let's develop an attitude, 20 hours a day of darkness will do it. Funny thing is, some people are more bothered by the 20 hours of summertime daylight. My boss, he's got all his windows taped up, covered with aluminum foil, and if one little sliver of light gets in, it's like oh God I couldn't sleep a wink."

The Salty Dog is Homer Spit's local--a fisherman's bar with all the charm of a gopher hole. I push--gently--my way to the bar to get a beer, and while my back is turned, a merchant seaman ashore from the bulkship hove to in the harbor has hit on my wife, buying her a can of Foster's the size of a small garbage pail. She doesn't drink, but Ron, a large, red-eyed, light-skinned black man, will figure out something to do with it.

He'd like to figure out something to do with me, as well, and he displays all the raving fantasies of the typical career mariner. His parents are a surgeon and a lawyer, he says. His sister is a famous psychiatrist. His hobby is restoring classic cars. His four-year-old daughter has already been approached by MIT. "Uh, what does she want to be?" I stupidly ask. "What do you mean, what does she want to be? She's only four, for Chris-sake," Ron answers in a strange moment of lucidity.

"Yeah, I should have been a yuppie, driving a...what do yuppies drive these days?" Ron asks.

"Jeep Grand Cherokees?" I hint helpfully.

"Yeah, that's it, a yuppie driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Shit."

Good night, Ron. We take the long way around the parking lot rather than driving past the open door of the Salty Dog.

Day Two, Homer to Valdez (180 road miles, plus 12 by rail and 90 by sea)

Bumper sticker: "In Alaska, You Don't Lose Your Woman, You Lose Your Turn." There are 10 men--11, including Ron--for every woman in Alaska.

Valdez can be reached by road, but to avoid a lot of back-tracking, a ferry across Prince William Sound from Whittier is an attractive option. People pay to take cruise ships and tour boats out into the sound simply to see the Columbia Glacier, we get it as part of our trip.

There is no road to Whittier, however, so at Portage, we drive the Grand Cherokee onto a creaky railroad flatcar, set the brakes and settle in for the world's weirdest train ride--a 12-mile rumble through two hand-dug, single-track mountain tunnels into which not a single photon of light has penetrated. You'd have to be a spelunker to experience such utter darkness, for not even the neural flashes and sparkles that attend tightly closed eyes intrude. Up and down the length of the train, headlamps and dome lights occasionally flutter as nervous passengers check to make sure the world still exists.

The Columbia Glacier is a nasty piece of work, and the ferry Bartlett's helmsman works us in so close, dead-slow through the icefield, that small growlers groan and clunk along the hull as he maneuvers the 193-foot motorship toward its low, trashy face. That face in the mid-1970s towered 300 feet, but now it is nearly awash, for the glacier has been retreating rapidly, sinking from atop its terminal moraine--an enormous ridge of gravel--into the deeper water closer to shore.

A report displayed on a bulkhead in the Bartlett's main lounge reads, "Commercial shippers are...keeping a close watch on the glacier. A drastic retreat of the Columbia could vastly increase iceberg hazards to shipping, especially to large, unwieldy vessels." The report was published in 1984. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez rearranged Bligh Reef while maneuvering to avoid Columbia bergs.

Near the end of the seven-hour voyage, as the Bartlett cautiously approaches the Valdez Narrows, Susan and I visit the bridge. Introductions done, the chat settles down to mountain biking and grizzly bears, the sticker price of Grand Cherokees and the attractions of Valdez. "Anything interesting to do there tonight?" Susan asks. "Well, you can go sit on the same barstool that Joe Hazelwood sat on," Captain Klabo muses.

Day Three, Valdez to McCarthy (180 miles)

The most dangerous place to be in Alaska is not Captain Hazelwood's barstool but the spot immediately behind any road-sign. They've all been well-ventilated by high-caliber rifles, and it's a wonder nobody has yet holed the Alyeska oil pipeline, which parallels the Richardson Highway north from Valdez.

The Richardson matches the Seward Highway's splendor, particularly in the 50-odd miles north from Valdez. The prelude is its passage along the floor of the wide, glacier-flattened valley, then suddenly it darts into Keystone Canyon, along a river between towering, near-vertical cliff faces with wispy waterfalls skeining down from the heights, so close to the road they splash it.

The road winds up and up to treeless Thompson Pass, site of Alaska's record snowfalls: five feet two inches in one 24-hour period, and 974 feet--that's nearly a fifth of a mile deep--in one year. The roadside markers to guide snowplows are a good 15 feet high. Descending again, the Richardson slides through enormous, sweeping hills of low, stunted greenery, behind them new peaks only geologically recently polished to sharp edges by glaciers. The pipeline pops up here and there as a distant, silvery trace, an oddly metallic accent amid the vivid autumn reds and purples, greens and yellows.

The population of Chitina is 49, which we increase by eight percent by stopping for lunch supplies. The state provides the satellite dish for the town's TV, but the residents share the expense of electricity, heating and maintenance to run it. There's a conspicuous list of who hasn't yet anted up posted in the town's sole store. "Doesn't seem to bother them, though," the lady behind the counter grumbles.

Our destinations, the old copper-mining towns of McCarthy and Kennicott, are at the end of a long, wooded, one-lane gravel road, and it's literally a shakedown cruise for the Grand Cherokee. Chosen straight off an Anchorage dealer's lot with a dozen miles on its odo, we're putting it over a punishing potholes-and-washboard road at speeds of up to 70, and we'll do in an hour and 40 minutes a trip that guidebooks warn will take three or four hours. The big Jeep handles superbly, with none of the longitudinal pitching and stutter-step rear-end looseness that other sport-utility vehicles sometimes display. It feels like not a quasi-truck but a very stable, large, relatively tautly sprung sedan.

The day's final conveyance, however, feels like a small steel cage suspended high above a raging river on a springy, well-worn rope, for that's exactly what it is. The only way to reach McCarthy, on the far bank of the Kennicott River, is to park the car and pull yourself hand over hand across the glacier-fed rapids in "the tram." Has anybody ever made it this far and then balked? "My mother," says Betty Hickling, who with her young husband Gary runs the marvelously basic McCarthy Lodge. "She refused to get on the tram, but she wanted so badly to get here that I drove her four miles back down the road and rented her an airplane. She flew in."

(It should be admitted that the Hicklings speak approvingly of the rather fancier nearby Kennicott Glacier Lodge, and have sent it guests they could see wouldn't be happy with the elemental congeniality that their saloon, dining room and sparse bedrooms could provide. "They're Polo shirts and Courvoisier, we're tee shirts and beer," Gary admits.)

The Hicklings and a handful of others live year-round in McCarthy, largely cut off amid the 40-below cold from the rest of the world. Gary tells stories of boyish adventures that would bring out the National Guard in the Lower 48. "A few years ago, at Christmastime, it took us 39 hours to make the 60 miles to Chitina in two pickup trucks," he recalls. "Two grandmas, three kids, mom, dad, an uncle, Betty and me...it took us three hours to get the trucks started, by heating the oilpans with propane weedburners, and then a whole lot of getting stuck and pulling each other out from there on. That Christmas was so nice, but the only thing we talk about today is that damn 39-hour trip," Gary laughs.

Day Four, McCarthy to Summit Lake (203 miles)

The huge, barn-red buildings of the played-out copper mine at Kennicott, a four-mile walk from McCarthy, are on the table as a potential National Monument, which will make a nice piece of change for the investors who currently are trying to sell them to the Park Service. The owners are patching up the crumbling buildings in an attempt to forestall further deterioration, but everyone wonders what such official cachet might mean.

Today, the occasional visitors trip across rotting trestles; peer into dark, weary buildings and gaping mineshafts; and wander under all manner of perilous-looking mechanisms held in place by rotting ropes and rusted cables last tended in 1958. But if Kennicott--already smack in the middle of the enormous new Wrangell-St. Elias National Park--is enfranchised, you can say farewell to the towns' remoteness and the hand-powered tram across the river. At the least, a pedestrian bridge will rise, and platoons of lawyers, OSHA experts, handicapped-access architects and EPA regulators (in fact, the asbestos insulation is currently being stripped from the old buildings) will sanitize the place.

Is there anything wrong with this? You'd have to be pretty selfish to say so, but I'm glad I saw the mines in raffish, lonely, unapproved splendor.

Day Five, Summit Lake to Circle Hot Springs (302 miles)

The ruler-straight Richardson Highway invites the Grand Cherokee to stretch its legs, and we get an indicated 120-plus mph--hard to tell, since the speedometer is only graduated to 100--before the electronic fuel cutoff kills the power. (Manufacturers use such devices to avoid the need for expensive tires, since a car must be originally fitted with tires rated for whatever top speed the car can attain.) A comfortable cruising speed seems to be 80, at which pace the built-in computer tells me we're getting 16 miles per gallon. As an experiment, I slow to 55, and mpg goes up to 18. Life is too short to save two mpg by creeping along an empty highway at what feels like the pace of a fast bicycle.

Again we're headed for the end of a gravel road, this time barely 80 miles below the Arctic Circle. The sparse spruce are beginning to look more like fuzzy pipecleaners than pine trees, and steep alpine meadows are so vivid with autumn-colored scrub against deep-purple groundcover that they seem to be hanging, two-dimensional tapestries.

At Circle Hot Springs, a restored 1920s miner's hotel built atop a geothermal outlet that keeps its outdoor pool steaming at about 104 degrees even during 40-below winters, we see our first moose. Unfortunately, he's gone all to pieces, hacked up in the back of a pickup. My copilot, a confirmed vegetarian, regards the enormous, empty-eyed moosehead and the muddy meat--and the drooling, friendly dog sharing the truckbed--with entirely feigned interest.

"That meat'll last us for a couple of years," says Gary Musick, a young bushplane mechanic. "I'll hang it up for a week or so and rub it with vinegar before I cut it up and freeze it. You've got to get all the hair off, though--that's what gives it the gamy taste."

"I told Gary don't bring the rifle, this is just supposed to be a nice family trip," his wife, Caroline, gripes. "But he did, and wouldn't you know it, he spotted just the horns way off the highway--darned if I could see a thing. Took us eight hours for him to track it, shoot it, dress it and get the pickup deep enough into the woods that we could load it." Meanwhile, Caroline and their two young children waited patiently in the truck. She and Gary are Alaskans.

You'll share Circle Hot Springs with Alaskans rather than tourists, for it is 136 dead-end miles northeast of Fairbanks, and the more resort-y Chena Hot Springs is less than half that distance from the city. Fond memories of agricultural-college houseparties might be your best preparation for the hardy crowd and the simple accommodations, in a state that hasn't yet had time to develop a tradition of any craftsmanship but welding. The hotel's frontier-Victorian rooms are delightful, but don't expect Little Nell's or Telluride North; Alaskans dump their detritus--old cars, junked mobile homes, pipeline parts, crashed airplanes, vintage mining equipment--right outside the front door, so they won't have to walk far in the snow when they need spare parts.

Day Six, Circle Hot Springs back to Fairbanks (136 miles)

At breakfast, Bob Cacy, a local prospector living at the hotel, slides over from another table and teaches me the Second Rule of courtesy when visiting a goldmine: never look into a working sluicebox, where the gold is separated from gravel by waterflow. (The First Rule is to never, never visit a stake unless invited, which pretty much goes for all private property in Alaska. "Remember, the reason people have chosen to live up here is that they want to be alone," one young woman will tell me.)

Why not peek into sluiceboxes, I ask? "I don't ask you how much money you have in your wallet, do I?" Casey responds. When we drive to his stake, just outside Circle Hot Springs, it is being worked by a pair of coveralled, hard-looking young miners to whom he's leased it. They are coolly courteous. "Yeah, help yourself," one says. "The sluice is clean."

Casey fetches me a riffled plastic miner's pan and a fistful of unusually rich, black sand that has already been through a mechanical sluicebox once. In 10 minutes of awkward squatting on the streambank, I gentle forth perhaps $5 worth of dully gleaming, unmistakable gold dust and learn that being a sourdough was hard on the haunches.

You never know who you'll run into in Alaska, but despite the space, it is life on an intimate scale. (One woman who travels on business frequently has told me, "Alaska's population is still so small that every time I get on an airplane to come home from Outside, there are 10 people aboard who I know.") At the Chatanika Gold Camp restaurant, just north of Fairbanks, the waitress, a distracted woman in huge-lensed, arabesque plastic fashion glasses, says, "Oh, my husband's from New York too. His family used to run that 21 Club? The Kreindlers? Oh, he turned his back on quite a fortune, yes he did," she says with a trace of regret.

Day Seven, Fairbanks to Talkeetna, 273 miles

Winter comes quickly to Alaska, and as wet snow begins to splat the windshield, I remember a seaman on the Bartlett laughing, "Yeah, fall was on a Saturday last year, too." The outside-air-temperature gauge has plummeted rapidly from 40 to 34, then 33, as the Cherokee hums comfortably down the George Parks Highway, the sole road between Fairbanks and Alaska. Tomorrow we'll hear that the highway was closed hours after we passed, and that the sea-level road across Homer Spit--our memorable route to Ron--was also impassable due to storm waves.

Whatever scenic splendor there is along the Parks is hidden in low, thick cloud, and in some ways, our trip to Alaska has been a disappointment. The only moose we've seen was dismembered. I've found bear turds but no bear. The eagles are hiding. The aurora borealis was more spectacular than it had been in anyone's memory the night before we got to Circle Hot Springs. And Denali is invisible, looming 18,000 feet from base to summit, 20,320 feet total, the largest sheer height gain of any mountain in the world, a few miles to the west.

We'll fix much of it tomorrow morning at Talkeetna, the grubby little town that exists entirely to service either mountain climbers or aerial sightseers bound for Denali. There are two airports, four feuding air-taxi services and--last season--nearly 1,100 visiting climbers in this town of 441 residents. For $140, we'll buy an hour's worth of seats in K2 Aviation's turbocharged Cessna 206 and do a Denali flyby on what will turn out, in the wake of yesterday's cold front, to be the clearest flightseeing day in a month. We'll climb over mustardy muskeg and shallow lakes through dissipating low clouds to emerge in the lee of an alp so massive that scale and perspective are incomprehensible: at our 12,500-foot altitude, we seem to be buzzing the peak, yet it is still a mile and a half above us.

And on the way back to Talkeetna, pilot John Pafford will take the airplane down to animal-buzzing altitude and find us not only a moose but a nesting bald eagle. "It just goes to prove," Susan says, "when things aren't working out, the solution is to throw money at the project."

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