Thursday, August 27, 2009

Juneau the Capital of Alaska?

The sun rose in Skagway around 4 a.m. and shortly thereafter Ashley and I were on our way on the Alaska Marine Highway to Juneau, the only U.S. capital inaccessible by road. We slept for most of the six-hour ferry ride, and I took the liberty of using the hot and clean showers on board so as to not feel like so much of a vagabond (though in doing so maybe I perpetuated my vagabond status?).

There was rain in Juneau when we arrived, and there was rain in Juneau when we left. I can't picture the city in sunlight. From the ferry terminal, we shared a cab with a Texan and a mother and daughter from Germany to the city center and then went straightaway to our second Couch Surfing abode.

Jason Mancuso, at work when we arrived, left his apartment wide-open for us, and we were thrilled to find a Couch Surfing room with maps and postcards and Broncos, beer and Brazil paraphernalia around the apartment. But that was only the start of our positive experience with Jason.

Jason came home with a six-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and after we got to know each other a bit over the first couple of beers, we went out on the town on Jason, something he says he does for all Couch Surfing guests. While strolling through Juneau, Jason pointed out pockets where he has had run-ins with bears, and he also pointed out the governor's house, where one Couch Surfer climbed the fence to jump on the trampoline that Palin had there for her kids - while she was inhabiting the place and in town!

So we met up with Jason's friend Canadian Mike for beers at a dive called the Buoy Deck (it's mostly frequented by members of the Coast Guard) and then had dinner, which for me was salmon fettucini, and listened to a soulful songstress at a waterfront restaurant called The Hangar.

On our second day in Juneau Ashley and I visited the Mendenhall Glacier, which has been flowing for almost 250 years over its 13-mile trek and which is part of the 3,000+ year-old Juneau icefield that covers 1,500 square miles of land. We hiked a few miles up and around the glacier in a moss-covered rainforest; saw a juvenile black bear hiding up in a tree after snacking at a salmon-filled stream; and tasted some of the glacial ice that had washed up on the shore. After hitching a ride with a couple from Taos and busing it back into Juneau, we got ready to go camping with Jason, Canadian Mike and Rocky, Canadian Mike's black lab.

We set out on Douglas Island, just a short bridge away from Juneau, on a 3-mile hike to a federally owned, barebones cabin called the Dan Moller cabin. The hike, an uphill battle with a system of plank steps, was enough to make us feel like we were miles and miles from town, and the scenery was gorgeous. Wild cotton and ripened berries lined the path, and the mountains were lush and eery, with an abundance of fog and mist. Jason sped off ahead with Rocky, and Mike kept Ashley and me company. He offered us some salmon berries and a melon berry, which I ate, and I kept thinking of how trusting it was to follow two near-strangers into the woods and to accept "candy" from them. I placed a lot of faith in my and Ashley's instincts and intuition and thought, "What the hell?".

The cabin was rustic but comfortable. "Twat lickr" was carved above the doorway (and numbers of girl scout and boy scout troops were carved throughout), and a propane heater kept the cabin pretty warm. The guys brought a smorgasbord of snacks and some wine and Bulleit bourbon - my favorite, in fact, because Jason was a great host and eager to please. We got to better know the guys, who acted like an old married couple, and I came to see that Jason was extremely jovial and easy-going and that Mike was high-strung and A.D.D. - a perfect balance. Jason told us about his plans to travel and to move back to Portland to be with his girlfriend, and Mike told us about his job at a salmon hatchery and his beloved Rocky (who was farting up a storm since Mike fed him homemade fish jerky). Both were personable and intelligent and made us feel completely at ease, but mostly I was blown away by how generous they could be to two strangers.

We tuckered in at the cabin, and I spooned for most of the night with Rocky, who had finally stopped farting. The next day we hiked back through the pouring rain, and Ashley and I treated our gracious hosts to pizza at The Island Pub. Mike took us back to the ferry terminal for our return trip to Skagway, and though we were sad to leave him and Jason, we knew there were more adventures further North.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Skagway, "1000 Miles North of Worry"

On August 13th it was finally time to head to Alaska - The Great Land, The Last Frontier, Land of the Midnight Sun! Ashley and I stopped to take cliche photos at the sign that welcomed us to the state, and despite the cold and heavy fog, we were giddy with anticipation and disbelief.

In Skagway, at the top of the Southeast peninsula, we stayed with a friend of a friend, Kelly Daigle, and her seven roommates in a house that resembles a double-wide, with a hula skirt as a curtain over the front door and chinsy wood paneling on the interior walls.

Our hosts told us about their adventures as rafting guides, tour bus guides, etc., and they regarded the tourists who are fresh off the cruise ships as, "Newlywed, over-fed or almost dead." I pondered a job in Skagway next summer and did a little networking in this quirky town of 800-something people, where keys are left in car ignitions; where house numbers are non-existent; and where "the odds are good but the goods are odd".

In the evening we played Russian poker with a couple of our new friends, one of whom lives in a hollowed-out, yellow school bus (Christopher McCandless-style but not quite as rustic) with his bi-sexual, German wife. We then went to the Skagway Brewing Co. - "Brew Co" for short - where most of the guides hold second jobs and where a three-piece string band, accompanied by a washboard player who looked native, played lively renditions of songs by Outkast, The White Stripes, etc.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


In the Yukon Ashley and I stayed at Robert Service Campground in a town called Whitehorse, which is home to about 36,000 people or roughly two-thirds of all of the Yukon's inhabitants. Whitehorse is a town reminiscent of the Gold Rush with "gingerbread-fretwork" buildings that look like they're part of a Hollywood Western set.

The campground, "The World's Meeting Place," lies on the Yukon River and is a sort of campground/hostel hybrid with a tarped communal area referred to as the living room, which has a bookshelves and couches and where people from around the world (and "residents" of the campground) share travel tales and food and drink.

A poem by Robert Service, the famous Gold Rush era poet and the campground's namesake, sits on the desk of the office and coffee shop; it reads:

"A Rolling Stone"
To pitch my tent
with no prosy plan.
To range and change at will.
To mock at the mastership
of man,
To seek adventures thrill!
Carefree to be, as a bird
that sings,
to go my own sweet way,
to reck not at all what
may befall,
but to live and love each day.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Driving in The Bush

On the road again, Ashley and I left Vancouver to make our way through the rest of British Columbia. We coasted through majestic mountains past jade-green rivers and lakes in the rain and the fog, and it felt like just us and the open road, which was fragrant with the smell of wet pavement. Service stations and other amenities in The Bush are scarce, and it's possible to go two hours without seeing a gas pump or even a speed limit sign (though we did see several signs cautioning to look out for horses and livestock for the next however many kilometers). Law enforcement is seemingly nonexistent, and the only sort of "regulation" we encountered was at a construction site where traffic was stopped; a man behind us dismounted his Harley and came to Ashley's window to tell us to slow down if we didn't want to get ourselves killed. He turned around to rejoin his biker friends and proceeded to smoke a doobie with them in the middle of the highway.

At one point the GPS led us on a sort of wild goose chase, and we ended up going in a roundabout loop. Once back on the main highway I noticed we were behind a truck that we had passed a while back. I said to an oblivious Ashley, "Dude, we're behind this guy again," and she replied, in all seriousness with, "Do you know him?"

After many hours of driving, Ashley and I opted to sleep in the car at a Safeway parking lot in a town called Smithers, and in the morning we forged on to Highway 16 and then 37, both of which had signs such as: "Hitchhiking: Is it worth risk?" and "Girls, DO NOT hitchhike! Killer on the loose!" I think it's safe to say we were both glad to have wheels at that point.

39 miles from the Alaskan Highway, Hwy 1, we were stopped abruptly in the middle of The Bush. A highway worker approached the car window to tell us that the road would be closed for 6-10 hours. I thought, "Haha, good joke," and then the woman proceeded to tell us that an old man had driven his truck into a ditch and gotten himself killed; it would be at least six hours before the nearest coroner would even arrive to the scene. So we did what seemed like our best of very few options and waited it out on the side of the road, intending to sleep in the car again for several hours (the road-worker cautioned against sleeping outside if we were "on our monthly").

Waiting on the Cassiar Highway for the coroner from Terrace to come, we had the good pleasure of befriending a fellow named Marty Olson, a jolly, unassuming Sourdough who worked at a jade camp down the way (and who told us to "bear-ware in The Bush"). The three of us played cards and shared stories, and just as we were about to set up our grill in the middle of the highway to make dinner, traffic started to move. What was a five-hour wait only seemed like an hour. We hugged our new friend goodbye (and thanked him for the Smirnoff coolers he bestowed upon us) and carried on to the next campground.

Un-phased by the delay of the previous day, we entered into the Yukon and cruised along the Alaskan Highway, which, even more so than the highways in BC, gives you the feeling of being in utter wilderness. Wispy fuschia flowers line the road, and the few cars that you pass going the other way often have red gasoline jugs strapped to their roofs. We were thrilled when some black bear cubs scampered across the road and could sense that Alaska was just around the bend.

And now for a little vocabulary...
sourdough: someone who has spent at least one winter in Alaska or the Yukon; a person who's sour on the land but without enough dough to get out

Canadia, Eh?

On Day 3 we crossed over into Canadia, and the customs process wasn't exactly painless. Ashley and I withstood some serious questioning and had to wait about 45 minutes for the stone-cold customs officials to search our car. We thought that maybe it was the Couch Surfing bit that made them a little skeptical of us.

In Vancouver we drove straight to our first Couch Surfing host's house, where he left a key for us under the mat, and then walked to Commercial drive, where we drank local beer, ate Moroccan chicken bites and listened to live jazz at the Libra Room.

Upon our return to our first Couch Surfing abode, we met our host Rob, who has accomodated almost 200 Couch Surfers from around the globe. Rob was nice enough, and he said "Right?" instead of "Eh?" at the end of every one of his sentences. He told us that he's only kissed one Surfer and that he sometimes sleeps head-to-toe with Surfers when space is tight. We found him a little strange after these and other remarks and came to the conclusion that he probably hosts so many near-perfect strangers, most of whom are women, in hopes of finding a nice Jewish wife, right?

Sea-Town Nirvana

On the way to Seattle, along the 5 in Northern Oregon, we passed a billboard with huge illustrations of Uncle Sam on either side. Side 1 asks, "Where's the birth certificate?" and side 2 says, "I'll take God, guns and gold. You keep the change." Ashley and I had a good laugh at that.

Once in Seattle we were greeted by that evening's lovely hostess, a certain Andrea Sherrow, who's a former co-worker's friend's younger sister. How's that for a little randomness? Andi played hostess with the help of Oscar the pug and Bailey the Weineriemer, and made sure we had enough wine and cheese. She took us at twilight to Gasworks, a place to watch the city sparkle from afar and kites sail above a large sun dial, and from there we checked out the famous Seattle Troll and Fremont, a neighborhood which had, in addition to a fun mix of bars, some interactive street art - well, not exactly: the three of us thought we might be able to "sit" in a 2-dimensional graffiti chair, but we weren't too successful. And to top the evening off, Andi made us pesto from scratch at 3:00 in the morning.

The next morning was sunny and a little hungover, and we hit Sea-Town up for all of its specialties: coffee from the original Starbucks, hot donuts from the Daily Donut, fish-tossing at Pike's Place market, and cheeseburgers from the original Dick's. Seattle had us feeling divine, but the North, where we were hoping the answers would fall like leaves, was calling.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Off to a Damn Good Start

On August 5th Continental Airlines served me Mr. Z's beef jerky and full cans of pop on my way to California. This and the feeling of being on the move again was enough to leave me grinning shamelessly, and after being reunited and spending quality time with my SF family, I was on Cloud 9.

Ashley and I left The City bright and early on the morning of the 7th and took our own sweet time - fourteen hours in fact - getting up to Portland. This leisurely stroll was marked by the drive-thru Redwood (just a $5 thrill), and the hippie who yelled, "I thought you guys were Bigfoot!" when we were pulled to the side of the 101 on Avenue of the Giants.

In North Portland we were greeted by my cousin Jeff, a first-cousin who I had never before met. (Perhaps this tidbit seems less surprising when I say that I have thirty-eight first cousins, of whom Jeff was the only one I hadn't met). Jeff opened up his home to us; served us mojitos and a meal of jerk chicken, potatoes and broccoli from the grill upon our arrival at almost ten o'clock at night; and took us to breakfast and one of Bridgetown's local artists markets the next morning before seeing us off.

And I have to say that the best part of the start of the trip, trumping the scenic coastal drive, savory food and free and comfortable bed, was shooting the breeze with Jeff as if we had known each other all along.

Nowhere to Go But Up

Three months of living at my parents' house in the exurbs of Cincinnati and working as a Casker Monkey and it finally came time for my and Ashley's road trip to Alaska. The workings for the trip began with fantastical G-Chats and Facebook wall posts and turned into concrete plans once I bought a plane ticket to San Francisco and Ashley gave her two-weeks notice to our former employer.

Over the course of the summer I became obsessed with the trip and put images of Alaska on my desk at Casker to pull through each day of work. I resorted to desperate measures to save money: cleaning the bathrooms at Casker for $20 cash every Friday and putting myself on a stringent budget; I even stooped so low as to clean the house of three male friends, one of whom was my 8th-grade science teacher, for another $80 just before the trip commenced.

What can I say? This Great Alaskan Adventure became my raison d’ĂȘtre, and I was going to do whatever it took to make it happen. I figured I would rather scrub toilets than pass up the opportunity to drive from SF to Alaska, camping and Couch Surfing the whole way.

And so, at the beginning of August, just when I was about to reach my boiling point, I took off for the Left Coast, and the way I saw it was: there's nowhere to go but up.