Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Back in the lower 48

The words that come to mind when I think of Alaska now all seem to begin with 'w'. Weird. Wet. Western. Wilderness. It seems like there's another obvious one I'm missing, too...

Our trip broke down like this: a day in Anchorage, a day on the road between Anchorage and Fairbanks, two days in the Fairbanks area, and three days back in the Anchorage area. (We killed the last few hours of Monday evening before the late flights seeing Step Brothers at the Fireweed Theater. Good lord it was dumb. But that doesn't mean I wasn't laughing. Nice music, too.)

Every day we were in the city of Anchorage itself, it was either raining or about to rain. This probably colored my perspective of Anchorage at least somewhat, which is kind of unfair, but I can't help it. That's why I hate it when friends visit on crappy weather days. Maybe Anchorage was also sad not to make its best impression.

The trip was great, and so much fun, but the cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks weren't major highlights for me. They have their nice points, definitely. And our B&B overlooking Fairbanks was fantastic. But if I were recommending an Alaska trip itinerary, my advice would be to get out of the cities. (And not to look for ice cream in Anchorage.) Anchorage and Fairbanks are nice as bases, but my favorite aspects of the trip were easily the city escapes.

We visited tiny towns between Fairbanks and Anchorage like Talkeetna, where a cafe piano player treated patrons to a spirited song about mustache rides. And Nenana, where every winter they bet on when the ice will break on the Tanana River. Nenana is also where "Mama" served us wayward travelers a midnight meal at her tiny bar. Not because the grill was still open, really, but because we were hungry and she had some food. We really wanted to visit the town of Chicken, too, but it was too far away. Maybe next time.

There was Denali (state and national parks), where the clouds didn't stop us from seeing "Mount McKinley" twenty or thirty times in various places. Chena Hot Springs, which felt a little like camp for grownups. The hot water was surprisingly exhausting (but the cool fountain in the middle of the outdoor spring was a nice touch). Portage Glacier, where we got to witness (or at least hear) a calving, touch glacier ice, and see an ice worm up close. Thank goodness they didn't have any sawyer beetles. The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where we cultivated an impressive disdain for people driving around instead of walking, and got really close to moose, bears, muskoxen, and a climbing porcupine named Snickers.

Of course, if you take your trip to Alaska with a bunch of adventurous friends, you're already ahead of the game. And if you have the chance to squeeze in a couple of concerts while you're in Alaska - say, at the Moose's Tooth and the Blue Loon - well, then, by all means, do so. You'll have a great time, even if it rains all day. And all night.

(And really, I guess it's the lower 49 states. Hawaii isn't exactly north of Alaska, right? Why do we say that?)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sunny Feeling

Nenana, 11:30 p.m.

I could definitely get used to this whole "twenty hours of daylight" thing. It's a little disorienting at first, though. It's weird to see drunk people stumbling around downtown Fairbanks in broad daylight, 11:00 p.m. or no. Also, daylight sort of makes one feel obligated to be awake, which can do weird things to your daily schedule. I don't even want to imagine what it would be like to live here during the winter. Alaskans come from hardier stock than I.

We're back in Anchorage this morning after our foray to Fairbanks. Driving through the mountains was just amazing, and it's continually surprising to me how remote everything seems here. Even the larger cities feel a little bit like temporary oases. I get a sense that they've just pushed the wilderness aside and might be overtaken again at any time.

So far we've hiked in Denali, seen a concert, slept in a train car in the best B&B ever, learned the correct pronunciation of Tanana, relaxed in the Chena Hot Springs, visited the Museum of the North, and seen a variety of wildlife including four moose, many hares, grouse, a porcupine, a marmot, and what may have been the first documented sighting of a Alaskan Mini Hippo. Momentous!

Three more days to go. Who knows what we might see next?

Sunday, July 20, 2008


That stretch of more than three weeks I had without a trip? It's nearly over. Come Tuesday morning, I'll be bound for the land of not-quite-midnight sun, grizzly attacks, and thirty-five species of mosquito. Yes, folks, it's Alaska time.

I fly from here to Minneapolis, and then to Anchorage. Perhaps I was lulled by the time difference, but I didn't realize until the other day that the second flight is almost six hours long. Yeesh. Good thing I still have a magazine backlog dating to approximately February.

I considered putting a stock photo here, but I think I'll wait until I have some of my own. Shouldn't be long!

(My iPhone? Still on backorder, of course.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


On Saturday afternoon, I bought an iPhone.

I knew there was no chance iPhones would actually be in stock at my local AT&T store, but I figured I could at least order one. So that's what I did. It took surprisingly little time - I was in and out of the store in ten minutes. I left clutching the business card of my sales associate, and a receipt for one new 8GB iPhone, black. They vaguely claim it should arrive in about a week, but I'm not holding my breath. (Okay, maybe I am. Just a little!) Checking my order status today, I saw that the phone is in process ... but the um, "freight" is on backorder. Hmm.

At any rate, among the other things I need to do this weekend (there will be trip shopping), I also want to look for an iPhone case. I feel a bit like I'm shopping for baby clothes in preparation for the big arrival.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Enchanter of Borders

Friday night, Gina and I went to Borders to see Salman Rushdie give a reading from his new novel. I've been a fan of his writing for a long time, but I'd never seen him in person. Over the course of an hour or so, he gave a little talk, read a chapter from The Enchantress of Florence, and then answered some questions from the crowd. It should come as no surprise that Rushdie is a skilled public speaker: eloquent, witty, and extremely intelligent. I really enjoyed that many of the crowd's questions weren't about anything specific to him or his writing - instead, there were questions about the history of Turkic dialects, or why the Ottoman empire used foreign mercenaries, unlike the Roman centurions. Inevitably, he was able to give an informed and thoughtful answer to each question.

The crowd itself was something to behold. We arrived an hour and a half before the talk was scheduled to begin, and there were no chairs left in the rows and rows in front of the podium. There was a sea of standing room behind them, but we were still slightly dejected. We decided it was worth asking one of the crowd-wrangling employees whether any more folding chairs might be brought out, though we weren't hopeful. And, indeed, according to the woman we asked, no more chairs were to be had. "You could go sit on that couch," she said. We gazed over in the direction she was pointing. The couch in question was one we'd noticed earlier, and assumed it was part of "backstage" - it was situated slightly behind and about five feet to the right of Salman Rushdie's podium. "Really?" I asked. "Sure," she replied. "Someone will sit there." So, we (and another woman) did. It was a great perspective.

We chose not to wait in the signing line for personalized autographs after the talk, but I did pick up a signed copy of Enchantress. I'm looking forward to delving in, and still thinking over one of my favorite comments from Rushdie during the Q&A session. He said that, often, good fiction ideas come from imagining the thing that didn't happen, and exploring what might have happened if it had. I like that.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Fiord video

While in Australia and New Zealand a few months ago, I took some short videos. The subject matter is pretty random, but I recently uploaded a couple from Fiordland onto flickr. These two videos are from our overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound.

In the first one, we were headed out of the fiord and toward the open sea. A few of us were just standing out at the bow with nothing to hold onto. For awhile it felt like an amusement park ride, but the waves kept getting choppier. The video was shot just as things were starting to pick up. (I love that you can hear someone's muted, slightly nervous "Wheee..." at the end of the clip.) A few minutes after I filmed this, amidst some more nervous laughter, we scuttled back to the stern (this was a slightly risky maneuver in itself) and headed below deck. The boat turned back toward more sheltered areas shortly thereafter.

The second video is a bit longer. It was filmed the next morning, very early, while the boat was still anchored. Unlike the previous clip, everything was very calm. As you can see, no other boats were around.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Happy birthday, Mom and The Spot

Tomorrow is my mom's birthday. Not to publicize her age too widely, but it's also the birthday of The Spot.

My mom and The Spot are exactly the same age. What's more, The Spot is half a block from the house where she grew up. My grandpa used to enjoy telling the tale of the day his daughter was born, when he came home from the hospital and grabbed a celebratory hamburger at the new joint down the street. Every year, The Spot puts a big ad in the newspaper in honor of the 4th of July and the restaurant's birthday. And every year, they sell hamburgers for [Mom's age] cents. As you might imagine, every year, she appreciates this tradition a little less.

Happy birthday, Mom. Have a root beer whirl and some cheese squares.