by Frances Livesay and Guy Rich, Class of 1961
Recently Guy & I looked at the calendar and realized that if we were ever going to see Alaska, it was time to go. Off we went to AAA Travel Agency for maps and tour books and a "pep talk" from a AAA rep. He was excited about the trip and did a good sell job.
I packed "all the clothes I own" (winter & summer) - Guy packed a few to fill in the vacant spaces, and we left Richmond on July 30 th. The first few days were visiting friends in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Then our adventure began - NORTH, NORTH, NORTH to ALASKA!
In the United States and Canada we saw really beautiful and huge farms. In some areas the fields are so large that you can see from horizon to horizon ... fields of golden grain. Hard to believe a few years ago all this land was cultivated with teams of horses or mules. The middle states - Iowa, Illinois, Indiana & Ohio were suffering from the lack of rain - no "Corn as high as an Elephant's eye". Further north (Minnesota and Canada) the fields were beautiful - acres and acres of corn, grain, sugar beets and what ever (probably canola). Everything was just beautiful and green. There is no doubt what their favorite farm machinery company is "GREEN" - there were John Deere products in every field. Many fields had "three" John Deere harvesters ... raising clouds of dust.
A bit further on we found ourselves in the Canadian Rockies. These are really beautiful mountains but with not as many trees as we see on our eastern Appalachian Mountains. Many of the mountains still had snow on their peaks - further north in the Yukon Territory, not only did the peaks and valleys have snow ... we saw glaciers. With all the ice-and-snow in the distance, it was still nice and warm (sometimes "hot") on the road-to-Alaska. (I am trying to give you a feeling for the unique differences in the temperatures.)
The roads in Canada were paved until we reached the Yukon Territory. Then, every few miles would be a stretch (10 yards to a quarter mile) of "gravel". Imagine the surprise of hitting a gravel patch at 60 mph ... gravel and dust everywhere. There were even permanent signs that warned for "Blinding Dust". Big truck with the extra trailers in tow would hit these gravel patches without slowing at all. DUST, DUST, BLINDING DUST! It was necessary to have the car washed once we got to Alaska. You would think a road built in 1942 would be paved by now ... well, not quite! Once we went thru U S Customs into Alaska, the road was a beautiful macadam (except for two small patches) ... refreshing, you might say. Of course, all roads connecting to the "Alaskan Road" were gravel. Obviously, it is easier to maintain a gravel road. In the winter it doesn't matter ... snow is snow.
Once we arrived in Alaska, we did the "loop" (staying on paved roads) - going north to Fairbanks first, then Anchorage, and back to the little town of Tok, which is a little village on the Alaskan Highway. Fairbanks is not a large city. There are some multi-story buildings, but it somewhat reminds me of a country town that is "growing up". The most fascinating thing about Fairbanks was at 10 PM we had to close the drapes on our hotel room, because it was still light outside. In fact, it never got totally dark ... always "twilight". Guy says it has to do with the "tilt of the spin axis of the Earth with respect to the plane of the orbit around the Sun". OK, OK, whatever, and it is true what they say about the "Land of the Midnight Sun". Had we gone farther North, I could have seen "the midnight sun" and would tell you about it, but farther North is not fully populated with motels, gas stations and such. You know me ... "roughing it" is reading about how the pioneer ladies walked behind wagons. No need for me to "experience" everything...
On to Denali National Park after spending a night in Fairbanks. Denali National Park is a well advertised part of visiting Alaska, and I was looking forward to seeing the place. But ... no more motel rooms, and we couldn't stay there. They did find accommodations in an adjacent area (some 60 miles away) at a mere $170 dollars plus fees each night. I DON'T THINK SO! Nothing is cheap in Alaska, but beauty is everywhere, especially the mountains. I keep coming back to "mountains", but you have to get used to them being everywhere ... and BIG ... with ice-and-snow on the peaks. You just don't see this on the east coast.
From Denali Park we kept driving west to Anchorage. Let me tell you about the flowers in Alaska. The days are long. Flowers love abundant sunlight ... and thrive. The houses, businesses and hotels (in Fairbanks, Anchorage and little towns along the way) have flower beds or large hanging basket of flowers. Their growing season is short, but they take advantage of the time they have ... to grow flowers.
Anchorage is a large city. We stayed the night on the 7 th floor of a downtown hotel. There were other hi-rise buildings in the town. It was more into commercial things than Fairbanks (my guess). Guy walked down to the Eagle River that runs thru the city. There was a nice park with paved walk-ways for people enjoying being outside. People were skate-boarding, riding bikes, and walking ... just like any city in the lower 48. Couples were holding hands or sitting on benches or just walking. As the twilight goes on for hours and hours, you can lose track of time.
Time for us to get back to the lower 48. It is a day's drive from Anchorage to Tok, a small town where we turned south to Canada and HOME. We had previously spent two nights at a Westmark Hotel (Whitehorse & Beaver Creek) - Tok was our third one. Each one was different - the one in Whitehorse was multi-story and a bit more sophisticated than this one in Tok - here it was a wooden group of rooms stretched out and a building with dining and bar areas. (Beaver Creek was nothing to write about.) We found out that the Westmark Hotels are owned by Holland American Cruise Lines ... as attested by the tour buses lined-up at the huge porch around the buildings. We learned that Holland American brought tourist to Alaska on cruise ships, put them on buses to tour the Alaskan interior. Actually, the motel in Tok owes it's existence to Holland American Cruise Lines. When tour buses arrived in the afternoon the dining area is opened and there is a large buffet. After spending the night, there is a large breakfast buffet the following morning. Not being with the cruise ship folks, Guy and I had to pay, so we decided that we would have the breakfast buffet but pass on the evening buffet. (Yes, we are cheap.) We had a great salad and side-dish at the bar. The constant driving each day was getting to us, so we stayed in Tok for two days. This allowed Guy to get-out a letter to his high school class ... which is having it's 55 th reunion in October.
Back thru the "dust bowl" we came. This time we took the shortest route we could to the USA. This route took us thru more lovely Alaskan mountains with snowy peaks and glaciers. Sometimes you could see three layers of mountains. You just have to see it to appreciate the beauty. You can see that I am "mountain struck".
The temperatures were very mild the whole trip. I only wore a jacket a couple of times. Those warm temperatures are playing havoc on the glaciers - they are melting at a rapid rate. The warm weather is nice for tourist but not for the animals with their fur coats, who have to live there.
You need to stay alert, because the wild animals wander out of the woods to graze along the highways. Horses and buffalo were along the road-side. The only moose we saw was running ... dangerous. Mostly the grazing animals don't seem fazed by the traffic, but you never know. Seeing the moose, BIG buffalo, black bears (only saw one at a distance) ... is some experience. You have to be alert all the time. Animals own the road, and you only have hit one ... or they could run into you. No difference. When in rut (Fall Season!), a bull moose has been known to take-on a train engine. Let's not even think about what a moose could do to a little white Prius ... with me inside ... crunchy, crusty on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside.
We came back south thru Calgary and into the US in Montana. Thank goodness we are back in the good ole USA. We can buy gas by the gallon, distance is measured in miles, and can use our DISCOVER card again (they would not accept it in Canada). As in Canada, Montana has big ranches and farms - hard to tell where Canada ends and the US begins ... except for customs at the border.
We didn't have much trouble with immigrations going into Canada or returning to the US. Going up the gentleman who was working the US immigration at the entrance to Alaska threatened to keep me (Frances) at the Immigration office and let Guy go on - We didn't understand – until he told us that I (Frances) had not signed my passport. That was the "fourth" time I had used my passport, and no one had caught the oversight before. I quickly signed on the line and he was "happy." Off we went.
It was a really great trip, and I recommend it highly to anyone ... who likes to see beautiful country (and mountains, of course). We are so lucky to live in such a beautiful area of the world - one where you can go from one country to another "with-out" someone shooting at you. The folks in western Canada sound just like us when they talk, look like us and act like us. I just felt right at home. As you can tell, I'd like to go back again - not thru the ‘dust bowl' but maybe next time we'll go up on the ferry that runs out of Washington state. If we do, I'll tell you about it.
Frances Livesay '61