Sunday, June 12, 2005

Fairbanks Again

In my room at the “Super 8”. Dusky outside. I was watching TV with the window open, light rain falling and a refreshing cool breeze. Laundry drying around the room. Boots, water-logged from the river, stink “to high heaven" (the main reason for the windows being open.)That will teach me to drain the water out immediately, not 10 hours later.

Reached Fairbanks around 3:30 a.m. this morning, following a surreal ride. After leaving "The Hot Spot Cafe", spent hours riding in the twilight, with now two huge cumulonimbus masses ahead. Except for an occasional truck, I had the road to myself. I was now driving beyond the safety margin, considering the constantly changing road surface and diminished light, but I was being very cautious on any curves or grades, where the gravel tended to pile up. The burned-over forests were ruddy in the dim light, except for ghostly blackened birch trunks which contrasted starkly.

With the end of the Dalton Highway, the pavement began, and it felt as if I were floating. Finally came to an SUV going my way. After passing it, the vehicle sped up and started to tail me, so I of course accelerated, as did the SUV. So we were now sailing along at 80, instead of the 60 he was doing when I passed. "A moose, bear or deer, and I'm dead," I'm thinking. "Maybe that's what he'd like." A few curves, and he was left behind.

As the highway weaved through the mountains toward Fairbanks, the sunlight's presence along the northern horizon was very disorienting. My association of the sun with only east and west horizons had my brain turning in circles. I had no sense of direction, and had to trust I was going the right way (a fairly safe bet, as there were few options.)

Entering town, I came upon two bars, “The Arctic Bar” and “The Point After”, with crowds of people outside. This too was disorienting. “This is crazy. What's going on?” Tried checking into the “Super 8” again. The night manager said if I checked in then, the cost would be $109 for 8-1/2 hours. But if I wait until 6:45 a.m., “the computer would allow” her to give me a room until noon Sunday for the same rate. I couldn’t turn that down. So how to “kill” three hours, when I was pretty exhausted from a long ride? Well, there is always the car wash. Hosed off the dust and caked-on mud that my earlier washing didn’t reach. The sun was rising in what looked to be the north. Took out my compass and it placed sunrise in the northeast, though the declination is pretty large up here.

I had thought there were no campgrounds in Fairbanks, but found the Chana River Recreation area in my travels around town. $10! If only I had a tent…

Took refuge in the “A.W. Family Restaurant”, where as the "Super 8" night manager warned, the bar crowd had come to satisfy their “munchies.” Some raucous groups in the restaurant, almost evenly mixed black and white. It has been a long time since I’d been in a strange place, passing away the early morning hours, waiting for the day to begin. It reminded me of standing watch in the military. Ordered pancakes, but when I tried eating, I lacked an appetite (that burger was only a few hours earlier.) Wrote notes, trying to stay awake, but found myself staring blankly off into space. Half-listened to the staff, some complaining loudly of their fatigue. People who work nights exhibit a strange, neurotic energy. I’ve been there and recalled that bizarre feeling.

By 6:30, I could take it no longer and returned to the hotel. Two big burgundy Honda Gold Wings in the parking lot. . Both had spare gas cans strapped on. Thought one was Bill’s, but checking them out, saw they weren’t from Colorado.

The computer allowed me to check in and I wasted no time in unloading, hauling things to the room and climbing into bed. Set the alarm for 10:00, as there was much to do today.

So what if I awoke at 1:00? Washed laundry in the sink. My soaked boots were reeking. Took out the liners to air dry.

The main mission was to find a tent. The phone book listed several possible sources. Noted their locations, then headed out for the most likely-sounding: Mountain Sports. Quickly realized as I hit the streets, this is Saturday and I was competing with a city-full of shoppers. Very warm – 85° (in Alaska!) This added to my agitation.

Bounced around trying to find “29 College Road,” cursing that they don’t mark addresses more clearly (and questioning whether GPS would have been a wise investment. I was hearing testimonials in my head - how GPS users had saved the cost of the unit by avoiding the type of hunt in which I was presently engaged. Of course, I COULD have called ahead, using that outmoded communication form.) A friendly and concerned woman at the “UPS Store” didn’t know the location, but got on the phone and found out. I was just a block away.

Met John Beers, the proprietor of Mountain Sports. “Do you sell MSR tents?” He pointed to the one I must have nearly tripped over as I walked in. It was the exact model I lost and “the last one I have.” The price was $299.

“Geez…can you do any better?”

“Well, I could do $275.”


(And Alaska has no sales tax. I love it!)

A small, compact shop, John specializes in light-weight adventure gear, and dispenses a healthy minimalist philosophy as well. I liked his world view. He couldn’t replace the sandals I lost, but offered a couple of suggestions where I might try. John collects post cards and asked that I send him some along the way.

Across the street, is a small mall in which I found a “Pacific Sun” store. Surprised to find they sell “Rainbow” sandals (from San Clemente, CA), my second choice for this trip. Took note and said I may return for them, but really wanted to find the “Keen” sandals.

At the huge new “Fred Meyer” all and everything store, bought a tarp (in lieu of a tent groundcloth - “more versatile,” according to John), bungee cords (“never rely solely on nylon straps,” John said, and I was beginning to believe) and salted-in-the-shell peanuts (just had a craving.)

John suggested I try “Beaver Sports” for the sandals. Close to the University of Alaska, Beaver Sports is a remarkable adventure outfitters store. With most of the same gear, and much, much more, I wondered how John could maintain a business in the face of this competition. Sure enough, they had the sandals I was searching for. So, I was now made whole after that little lesson on inattention. The cost was several hours’ labor and $360. I kind of expected the solutions would be presented with the problem. We each are following a script.

Near Beaver Sports, I had passed a little smoothie stand. Walked back to it and ordered a fruit smoothie. A young lady playing a mandolin chatting with her friend inside the trailer asked if I were getting the “spirulina” with that.

“I’ve never tried it.”

“You could live off spirulina,” added her friend.

“Okay, I’ll try it…why is my smoothie green?”

“It’s the spirulina.”


The mandolin player asked if I were going to the Folk Festival at Pioneer Park. I had read about this in California, but had completely forgotten. They said it was today, until 9:00 p.m. First, I wanted to check e-mail and download blog entries, so I stopped again at College Coffeehouse. My wireless usage was metered this time (at $4/hour). Not sure how I avoided logging in last time. Someone said “have a good night,” and I looked at my watch. It was 9:00 p.m., but sitting in the bright sunlit window, it felt like late afternoon. Sat through (some might say “endured”) the “open mike” session. A variety of “musicians” tried out their performance skills. Some were painful, others, quite good. At 11:30, I signed off. The shop was still bustling.

Outside, Jennifer Van den Berg introduced herself. She’s a wilderness guide for “Arctic Wild” and wanted to make sure that Alaska was treating me well. She recommended I see Being Caribou at the University of Alaska tomorrow.

Showers had now overtaken the city, cooling the air and washing the streets. Back at the hotel, continued collecting notes from the past few days.

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