Subject: Alaska & Mercury
I have finally seen something bigger than Texas.
Tickets, agreements, contracts, and strange connection between the Alaska wilderness and Texas.
The Alaska trip got started when I got some email from a person living in Alaska and wondering what it would take to get me up there. To carry the conversation further, this particular person was, indeed, a former Austin resident with deep ties into our Texas cultural heritage. Her grand daddy was the famous cowboy boot maker, Charlie Dunn. And if that reference doesn’t mean anything, try listening to Jerry Jeff Walker sometime; he has a ballad about Charlie.
By the time I got to the Anchorage airport, I saw a lot more cargo planes than people planes. Seemed like cargo outnumbered people two to one. The flight from Anchorage (which is 15 minutes South of Alaska, according to the denizens) offered beautiful and really breathtaking scenery. The clear day had an awesome view of Mt. McKinley with the plane was jet passing the 20,000 foot mark, according to the pilot, and we were about even with the summit.
I might add, however, the mountain is flanked by at least two glaciers. (Bubba, a glacier is a river that never thaws–solid ice, remember that college earth science lab?) As a kid, I dreamed about climbing those mountains, these days, I’m real happy just to be flying over them.
My first evening in Fairbanks, I encountered some strange sights. It was like a scene from some sort of surreal theater, perhaps something dreamed up by a post modern playwright, possibly from the Russian schools, a snowplow with a dirt bike: there was a pickup truck with a snowplow on the front and a dirt bike in the bed.
Impressions of Fairbanks? That’s easy. It reminded me, on that first arrival of New Mexico. Not the present NM, but the way it was 25 years ago. And that frontier/pioneer “us against the odds” spirit is very prevalent, even in so-called “modern Alaska”.
I was at a radio station the first morning, two in fact, for radio spots and interviews. The station is right in the middle of town, in as much as there is any kind of center to town. One of the jocks was wearing a T-shirt and shorts. Seems it was spring time to him. Glen was rejoicing in the warm weather. Dirty snow drifts were outside, the roofs were still covered with snow, and some trucks still had snow plows attached to the front bumpers — maybe it’s me, I just didn’t feel like shorts were in order yet. Of course, that just might just be my take on the situation. Glen was the first person wearing shorts that day. He wasn’t the last. And if your ever in Fairbanks, listen to Glen in the morning. I know sport a WOLF radio bumper sticker on my PowerBook. But to really fit in, I guess I need a “protected by Smith and Wesson” sticker, too.
One evening, I got a rare treat: the Northern Lights. I got an email from my Dad a few days prior, alerting me to the fact that there had been a solar flare which would translate into spectacular Northern Lights. Pa Wetzel was right again! On the way back from the club that night, late at night, we stopped the truck because the lights were so fantastic.
One of my hosts related a short tale about a near car wreck the first time she had been exposed to the sight. “Almost ran off the road,” she was relating, as she pulled the truck over to the side of the narrow road. There was dirty old snow piled high on the edge roadway, a gentle but frigid breeze stirring the tops of the trees, and giant arc of light stretching from one side to the other.
“Wow, a full arc, that’s rare,” my host pointed out.
I’ve heard the Northern Lights crackle once, but that was a long time ago. And having never been this far north, I’ve never been exposed to the Lights this close. They took up almost half the sky at one point. Like a full rainbow, only, this one metamorphosed into curtain-like shapes and long streamers which stretched halfway around the sky.
If I were into reading folk omens and home-spun portents, instead of astrology, there would be something highly significant about the Northern Lights that I saw because over in the west, about even with the Gemini Moon, there was that smudge of a stellar fingerprint in the sky, the Hale-Bopp Comet. The moon, the Northern Lights, and the comet appearing within the western edge of the giant arc of light, must be portentous of something, something good is coming.
We took a day off from a busy schedule to go up the “haul road” towards the Arctic Circle.
“Next services 118 miles” is what the sign said. Birch, fir, aspen, and winters’s russet colors made up the foliage along the highway.
It’s certainly the furthest north I’ve ever been. The Arctic Circle is a band at the top of our planet. Everything North of it is cold.
I began to worry at some of the signs we came to: “Pavement Ends” (always reassuring).
“Just how far are going?” was my question. I’ve got to quite taking these trips on blind faith.
“Yukon River 112 Miles” read one sign. “Welcome to Joy Alaska” seemed like the next one. I’ve been in some small towns before, but “Joy” with its single building might qualify as the smallest town I’ve ever been through.
At this point, I had been riding in the truck for a while, looking at the map for a while, and this dirt track we were on is marked as a state highway. In case I was wondering about it, the next sign confirmed my fears: “speed limit 50 next 416 miles”
We stopped for some lunch at Yukon Crossing which is 125 miles NORTH of Fairbanks. And we still weren’t all the way to our destination. One of the more bizarre signs we encountered was “road closes for aircraft” which meant there was small landing strip incorporated into this section of the highway. There’s a gate, just like a railroad crossing gate, and that’s how drivers know when to yield to aircraft….
Perhaps one of the strangest occurrences was what the cook at Yukon Crossing was reading, Tacticus. The discussion with the cook centered on what translators were best for Greek history. In the middle of the Arctic country which, for all its beauty, is still plenty bleak. Check out those classic scholars.
Back down in Fairbanks, just up on the hillside, sort of north of town, there’s (locally) famous truck stop diner kind of place called, aptly enough, “Hilltop”. One of the finer members of the local counter culture establishment offered to escort me there.
You know you’re going into a good place when the sign outside reads: Caution – falling snow and ice.
“What kind of ice cream you got?”
“Vanilla?” I asked.
While I was working in the hotel in Fairbanks, doing my readings, really reminded me of a motel in San Angelo. No, it wasn’t so much the physical description of the place, but rather a feeling I had. There was series of motels in the early 1950’s which were all constructed with a an atrium of sorts, and these hotels dot the West Texas landscape. There’s one in Lubbock, one in Midland, and one in San Angelo. The one in San Angelo has been a Howard Johnson, an independent, and some other brand name that I can’t remember. The one in Midland is a Holiday Inn, surely one of the flagships of the hotel trade in West Texas. They all have this little area which offers miniature golf.
It’s the one in San Angelo that I kept getting an image of, along the banks of the Concho River. I haven’t been there in over a year now, so I can’t say for sure what it’s like now, but I kept getting a visual, emotional echo of the place whenever I wandered around the halls the hotel in Fairbanks. Something oddly familiar there. I kept expecting Robert Service to pop out any minute.
During dinner one night with Robert and friends, I found out that the population of Alaska is roughly a half million.
In other words, the state has half the number of people that Austin has, give or take a few hundred.
“Does that number include bears?” I asked.
My final scene from me in Alaska was in the parking lot of the bar, just across the highway from the airport. When I went into the place, the sign across the street said, “Time, 9:50 PM, Temperature, 22 degrees.” After dinner, we were all standing around, giving our respective good byes, and I looked at Robert, wearing only khaki pants and a t-shirt, telling me casually what a warm night it was. I was freezing. I had on long underwear, a t-shirt, sweater, flannel shirt, vest, heavy coat, wool socks and boots. The parking lot was frozen mud. Snow was still heaped four feet high around the edge of the parking area. I was shivering. The sign said, “Time, 10:58 PM, temperature, 18 degrees.”
Through my chattering teeth, I was begging them to get in the truck and turn on the heater. Robert was merely holding forth about how “spring-like” the weather was. Sure. Sure thing. Just get that heater cranked up NOW.
Astrology Home Buoy->
Totus mundus agit histrionem