Wanderings in Alaska: From Kenny Lake to Fairbanks

I spent the fall before I started at Prescott living with my cousins in Kenny Lake, Alaska, 40 miles south of Glenallen and 220 miles northeast of Anchorage. I spent my time at their place chopping wood to keep warm at 30 below, doing odd jobs for neighbors, snowshoeing through the woods, reading, writing, and watching Lord of the Rings with my three younger cousins. They were three of the best months of my life. When I had worked enough odd jobs that I had money to travel, I did that. One day I decided to drive to Fairbanks.

Driving from Glenallen, I wasn’t sure where I was going to stop for the night. Most campsites were closed for the winter, so I thought I would just pull off the road and sleep in the car somewhere. There was a sign for a campground by a lake, though, that looked like it might be open, at least it was not gated off, as most of the campsites were. I pulled in, drove the loop. There was not a soul in the 50 plus site campground. The lake, Paxson Lake, was run by the BLM, a governmental organization, so technically it was probably closed. This was the time of the government shutdown. But the shutdown seemed so totally irrelevant here, so far removed from this campsite by the lake, surrounded as it was by mountains and trees, that I never expected a ranger might come to kick me out. A ranger did come to kick me out, but not until the next morning, so I still was able to enjoy the stillness of the deserted campsite for the night. I set up my tent and then walked around gathering dead spruce wood for a fire. I laid the wood in a pile, took off my boots and socks, digging my bare feet into the rocky sand, and leaned back against the hard wood.

better fire alaska

Good. Wood gathered, tent set up, fire burning. What else? Food? Why not. I cut up my quarter pound of sausage, put the pieces on a stick, and stuck the stick in the fire. Cut open a bagel and stuck it in the fire. Got my steel cup, filled it up with water, and stuck it in the fire. Waited. Leaned back against the wood, looked at the sky, darkening now. Took the sausage and bagel out. Put the roasted sausage on the toasted bagel, added some cheese which instantly melted from the heat of the bagel. Took the cup out and added a teabag. Dinner. Good. Anything else? A book? But that would require standing up, and the fire was so warm. Something of an issue, but one that could be overcome. Simply required an exertion of will. I could do that, I could stand up. I stood up, and ambled gingerly in my bare feet to the car, found a book, went back and leaned my back against the wood again. Edward Abbey would be my companion for the night. And a good companion he would be, better than many, than most, his voice truthful, passionate, alternately loud enough and silent enough to be heard. Often though the fire would distract me from his righteous and pure polemics, and I would put the book down and stare at the flames, thinking nothing, not at all oppressed by the beauty of the night, not at all lonely, but feeling liberated in the aloneness, which was not mine as loneliness would have been. Not my aloneness, but the aloneness. It had been here before I came, and it would be here after I left; I joined it, the aloneness, become a part of it, more a part of it than I would have been if I were not alone.

trees alaska

 Unhappiness here did not make sense. The trees were happy where they were, the rocks on the shore were content that the water in the lake flow gently over them, the animals pleased to roam and find food. It made sense only to conform to the contentment of these natural living beings and life-giving forms, and it was the only type of conformity that made any sense. Part of me dreamed that life could always be this simple, this easy, and maybe it could. But perhaps, another part of me thought, it is the difficulty and monotony of everyday life that make the rare times of easy happy simplicity when there is no conflict between the inner and outer life, when there is no distinction made between the two, when you are a part of the outer and the outer is part of you, so meaningful. A pool of water in the desert wouldn’t be an oasis if the desert were filled with water.

lake alaska

 It snowed during the night, 2 or 3 inches. I had fallen asleep by the fire and moved to my tent after the fire burned down and the cold woke me up. In the tent I slept soundly and warmly and didn’t realize it had snowed until the morning. I was in no rush to leave so I stayed in the tent and read in my sleeping bag. After an hour or so of this, I heard strange motorized sounds coming down towards the lake. I heard the strange motorized sounds stop by my tent, heard someone get out of the car and shut the door, heard someone ask if anyone was in the tent. I feigned sleep. She asked again, I answered. She was pretty nice about it.

“This campsite is closed, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. The governmental shutdown and all. You can get dressed and everything first.”

Although this ruined my plans, which consisted of staying in my sleeping bag doing nothing, it was alright. I would press forward. The Denali Highway was a few miles ahead, and perhaps not yet closed for the winter. My Uncle Peter and Aunt Patty had recommended driving on this road, which led to Denali National Park, but it was mostly unpaved and always unplowed. If it had snowed heavily during the night the road would be impassable.

hwy sign alaska

 At the entrance to the road, there was a sign which read “Travel Beyond This Point Not Recommended,” and a second sign which warned that wind, snow, and other perilous weather conditions were almost always present. In other words, only a fool will keep driving. More to the point, you, driving the 2003 Subaru Forester, are a fool. Do not continue, turn around, you have never driven in the snow, have you? No, of course you haven’t, which is why you consider continuing. Stop considering it. There are winds on this road which have flipped cars twice the weight of your little utility vehicle, conditions which have put the fear in drivers infinitely more experienced in the snow than you are. I listened for a minute or so to the signs, physical and otherwise, and then went beyond. There was a campsite about 20 miles away, Tangle Lakes, surely closed, that I would drive to. I’d turn around there, if I had to. On the way, I saw a caribou in the middle of the road. It paused for a few seconds and looked at the car, then turned and ran, stumbling a little. Perhaps it was hurt, hungry. I cursed myself and the noise of the car for frightening it and making it use energy to scamper up a hill, energy it might have needed to find food. I could have watched it from afar and waited until it was out of sight before continuing. As it was, I made it act other than it would have had I not been there. I changed the natural flow of things, and not for the better. When does human interference ever change things for the better?

It started snowing when I was about halfway to Tangle Lake. Not too hard, but definitely snow, not rain. Cold enough outside for it to stick. For Alaska, a minor storm. Fairly windy, snow accumulation if the pace kept up of maybe half a foot by the morning. Nothing to get worried about. In Washington, everything would be shut down. Then again, in Washington everything was already shut down, snow or shine. The governmental shutdown and all. At Tangle Lakes, I stayed in my car for about half an hour, thinking through the options, which were two. Press on or go back. West or east. Right or left. The first had the ring of adventure to it. Press on, in a general westerly direction, through snow and wind, through some of the wildest country that man has yet profaned with a road, seeking adventure. Go back? Retreat? That definitely was not adventurous. Not an attractive option. No romance to it at all. So I turned right, towards adventure, the west, towards a fair chance of fatality. The snow, as if in answer to my foolishness, immediately started to come down harder, the wind picked up. The weather report that Patty and I had looked at the day before had said that winds would be gusting at over 70 miles an hour. Travelers were forewarned. After 3 or so miles of driving under 10 miles an hour, I turned around. A couple more miles more and I might have had trouble doing even that. Later, when I returned to Kenny Lake, Peter told me that the Denali Highway had been closed for the winter that very day. I was probably the last one on the road.

subaru and snow alaska

Back on the main road to Fairbanks, I stopped in and got a cup of coffee at a cafe. Just to see the reaction, I asked the old man there if he thought the Denali Highway was passable. He looked at me for a second, looked outside at the snow coming down hard, and looked back at me.

“No. Not a chance. Stay on the main highway there, my friend.”

I did so, heading up to Fairbanks, 3 or so hours away, which for some reason I wanted to see. To see the difference, maybe. See how I would fare in a city for the first time in a month. I thought, mistakenly, that after a few weeks of living with my cousins away from the land hungry evil twin brothers of progress and industry, living in the shadow of some of the most majestic mountains in the world (Wrangell-St Elias Range), I might better be able to handle the brutal meaningless sounds of the town and city. And if I could not, then there was the library. I could always retreat there. There was a university with stacks and stacks of books. And there was always the car. And the road. The car on the road, departing. I could leave if I couldn’t stay. I arrived at night on Tuesday, after picking up a couple of not so reputable or respectable but nice enough hitch-hikers (one of them started singing when I put on James Brown, “Man, I haven’t listened to this since I was a kid. Do you got It’s A Man’s World?” so we sang it together.) I dropped them off so they could look for drugs and then parked my car and slept surprisingly well in the parking lot of the 24 hour Wal-Mart. Before I fell asleep I wrote a poem, just one of probably thousands of Wal-Mart parking lot poets all over the USA, down on our luck.

I stayed in Fairbanks the whole of Wednesday, mostly in the university library reading the poet Robinson Jeffers, leaving the library once to go buy some books at a used book store. Libraries and used book stores, the shining beacons of civilized life, which have saved many a wanderer, salvation for those who don’t know why they are there at all, why they aren’t climbing a mountain, riding waves in some sea, wandering in some desert. Jeffers, from the poem “De Rerum Virtue”:

 “One light is left us: the beauty of things, not men;

The immense beauty of the world, not the human world.

Look—and without imagination, desire nor dream—directly

At the mountains and sea. Are they not beautiful?”

Or as the Grateful Dead put it:

“Let it be known there is a fountain

That was not made by the hands of man.”

I left early Thursday morning, left the land of men, returned to the mountains; left the dangerously hopeless dream (or nightmare), returned to the starkly beautiful reality. In the words of one young unpublished poet, I left the land of rules and returned to the land of reigning silences, left the land of fools (myself included, no less than the rest), back to the land where there are no disguises. Driving from Fairbanks, I started to feel excited, more alive. I had felt dull and lifeless in the library, though the most refined thoughts of the greatest writers this world has known sat in books all around me. Driving now, Zevon on the stereo, I switched on the cruise control and watched the sun rise in the rearview mirror over some hills (mountains in any eastern state, hills in Alaska). The sky was almost completely clear, a rarity in perhaps any part of Alaska at this time of year, though I can’t say that for certain, having not traveled over the one-thousandth part of the state. Alaska is so massive, and with such wildness, such beauty. I wanted to climb every mountain I passed. But the Alaska Range, close to Denali National Park, was about 100 miles ahead of me. I decided to park my car somewhere ahead, in the range, and, while the sun was still shining, climb until I had cleansed myself of civilization by a process of detoxification. I parked the car shortly after a sign reading Wind Area. The sign had it right; the wind was powerful, though not quite as strong as it had been on the Denali Highway. Besides, the mountains were irresistible to me. Wind or no wind, I would climb.

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