Highway Dreams

Leave work a little early to drive to Fairbanks.  Relaxation and time away from work and Denali is vital.  On the agenda – a workout in a real gym, dinner at my favorite Alaskan Thai restaurant, soak in the in-room hot tub at a recently renovated Best Western.  Then pick up my friend Camilla at the airport.  

Camilla arrives at 11pm from the Netherlands (via a detour in Vancouver).  We agree to meet at 8am and happily crash in our rooms.

On the road at 9am.  Later than planned.  Camilla slept in.  That’s OK – sleep is vital.  I’m jealous I didn’t do the same.  Fill the gas tank.  Gas stations are unlikely for the next 200 miles.  Also, we find out, pretty much anything but the empty road and nature.

Driving out of town I apologize for Fairbanks’ ugliness.  Fairbanks is a great example of urban sprawl gone horribly wrong.  Thankfully we exit town within a few minutes.

Steese Highway for 10 miles.  Foothills north of town.  Fog creates mysterious light.  Turning onto the Elliott Highway, more fog.  And green, lots of green.  I’m worried.  I encouraged Camilla to come at the end of August, promising incredible fall colors, but they are arriving late this year.  Green everywhere, only patches of color.  Beautiful, but not fall colors beautiful.

Sign ahead for a turnoff – “Livengood 2 miles.”   Detour to see what we see.  Rutted dirt road, often barely wide enough for my car.  Guidebook says Livengood is a small village.  Small indeed.  All we see are a few abandoned structures that we happily explore.

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Onward and back to the main road.  More fog and soft light.  Some brave flowers have survived from early summer, a few petals hanging on.  Seventy miles in, we cross the junction of the Steese and Dalton Highways.  Pavement ends, dirt and gravel now.  Hardly any cars.  Even for Alaska this road is empty.  By the end of the day we will see only about 30 cars.

Random photo stop.  It’s good to be with another photographer who is happy to stop anywhere.  Happy to take photos individually, then share in photo stories as we drive further.  And good to eat blueberries while shooting photos.  The berry season is quickly ending, but they are still delicious.  I find a few well-stocked bushes and gorge while shooting photos.

Looking uphill, the ground is relatively barren, different from the surrounding landscape.  Walk up to explore.  A large area of what looks like volcanic rock.  Happiness.  It’s covered with patches of wildly and magnificently colored lichens and plants in full fall foliage.  I could spend a day exploring this small area.  We shoot for an hour in the soft light, reveling in our discovery.

(click on an image to view full size)

Returning home two days later, I am doubly pleased with our discovery – the images I shot are some of my favorites of my time in Alaska.

Onward.  Still an empty road.   Where are all the cars?  Breaking down here would be a very bad idea.  No cars, no cell service, no services of any kind.  An ocean of trees.  Every time we hit a high point over the surrounding landscape we see an ocean of trees.  This feels even emptier than Denali.

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Fork in the road.  Which way?  Both seem good.  Left to the native village of Minto, where supposedly there is gas, or straight, to the town of Manley Hot Springs?  Options options.

Left on the spur road it is.  For no better reason than just ‘because.’  Well, that and the possibility of gas.  I have plenty in my car for the return trip, but a little insurance is never a bad idea on a road like this.  Another reason – we are curious about the small native village.

Plus I really enjoy paying $5.50 per gallon of gas.  Must do my part to stimulate the local economy.

See?  Lots of reasons for the visit.

Road curves steeply down to Minto and Minto Lakes.  Beautiful drive.  Village is like stepping into another world.  Simple homes, not many people.  Both of us want to shoot photos, but feel awkward, and in the end we don’t take a single photo of the village.

Sometimes it’s better to just absorb.  Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I have no photos to help preserve the memory.

Back on the main road.  Brooks Range mountains in the distance.  Perfect photo opportunity.  Twenty minutes of exploration pass, but the light never hits the way I hope.  Even so, a good place to stop.

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Faster driving now.  Not as many stops.  Fairbanks again.  Rain again.

The next morning.  My turn to be late.  More exploration.  More dreams.   Richardson highway south out of Fairbanks to the Denali Highway.   Long day.  But beauty surrounds.

Moose in a pond.  Camilla’s first Alaskan moose.

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Onward and southward.  Rain.  Rain all morning.  We scrap plans to hike to a glacier.  Drive south.  Minimal sleep is catching up with me.  Where is the turnoff?  I don’t remember it being that far south.  Stop for gas, look at a map.  Crap.  I passed the Denali Highway 50 miles ago!  Idiot.

Lunch in Paxson.  Fine Alaskan cuisine – deep fried cod.  Surprisingly good.  Or maybe we’re just hungry.

Denali Highway.  Rain.  Frustrating, this rain, but also rewarding.  The soft light and wetness saturates the colors so they look almost unreal.  This road never disappoints.  

Onward.  Westward.  Go west young man.  Or, go west middle-aged man.

More photo stops.  Fall colors are in full swing on this road.  More rain.  More blueberries.  

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More rain.  Mud.  My car will not be easy to clean.

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Back in Denali.  Back at work.  When I tell people we traveled the Elliott Highway, every person responds “the what?”  Success.

Feel free to check out Camilla’s blog here.