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All posts for the month September, 2014

I believe a marriage can have multiple honeymoon phases, regardless of the length of the marriage. The actuality of this long, anticipated trip served to reignite those “just married” emotions for us. However, after three months on the road, I believe the honeymoon is over due to the following scenario:

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We were driving to Antonito, Colorado when we saw the Great Sand Dunes National Park sign. Our atlas stated that it is the youngest National Park in the U.S., decreed by Congress in 2004 and that the dunes in this park are the tallest in North America. It was only 25 miles off our intended path, so we detoured to it.

We found the dunes truly spectacular and other worldly. We could see tiny dots of people way up on the dunes. Although we were not prepared for a hike, I could not leave the park without at least attempting to summit the 1.25 mile hike to the High Dune on the First Ridge. So we grabbed our hats and water bottles and headed up.

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But then Jim literally left me…the altitude, elevation and uphill climb in deep sand were challenging and I couldn’t keep up with his long strides. When I called out for him to wait, he told me that he was also struggling and was in “survival mode”. Interpretation: every person for him or herself! What happened to “we are in this together”, chivalry and gentility? So having no choice, I continued to struggle up hill alone, sinking into the sand. I decided perhaps I didn’t sound pitiful enough and called out to him again, this time with a distressing tone. His response was “you’ll make it” as he continued ahead of me.

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I finally began walking in his footsteps, which reserved my energy because it was difficult pulling my feet out of the sand as I sank. At least the sand was already compressed if I followed the path he made. I laughed out loud and snapped the picture below when I caught Jim doubled over, gasping for air. You see, by this time, I was able to conserve my energy because he was using his energy to create my path!

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Jim was considerate enough to carry both water bottles in his shorts pockets since I had no pockets and he would allow me to catch up with him from time to time in order to get a drink of water. But, don’t be deceived. When he reached the penultimate peak, he stood there, looked down at me struggling up the most difficult climb (by this time, the wind was so strong, his footprints were covered with sand so I no longer had his path to follow) and held up my water bottle, he claims as a motivator for me. Perhaps I wouldn’t doubt his sincerity if it weren’t for such a wicked grin on his face.DSC_0157

Both of us succeeded in reaching the summit of High Dune, a total elevation gain of 699 feet, although Jim arrived well before I did. In spite of the high wind and exhaustion, I had to strike my victory pose. Descending was easier for me than Jim so I sought my revenge and left him in a sprint when we reached flat ground again. I guess the honeymoon is over for me too!

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Please bear with me a bit as I do some site reconstruction.

I know you subscribers are getting bombarded with new post notifications. I know it’s annoying but I couldn’t figure out a way to avoid that. It had to do with converting “pages” to “posts”, creating new menus and some other WordPress idiosyncrasies. Unfortunately a few of your comments may have been lost in the shuffle, again, I couldn’t figure out how to avoid that. Please don’t let that discourage you from commenting in the future as we enjoy hearing from our readers.

The new menus and drop downs should be easy to use and I hope you are able to find everything you are looking for. If you have any feedback on the new structure please post a comment here or shoot me an email at jim@backcountryvehicles.com

Thanks

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What else could explain noxious sulfur fumes escaping from the ground, boiling water above and below the surface you’re walking on, boiling water shooting into the air and boiling mud? Yes…Boiling Mud! Not bubbling, boiling. I kept telling Pamala “there’s something wrong with that”. I can still smell the sulfur just thinking about it.

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Yellowstone National Park has some of the most spectacular scenery you will ever find. Rugged mountains, fast and slow moving rivers, open plains, abundant wildlife, famous and not so famous geysers, majestic waterfalls, and areas of toxic wasteland. And don’t forget “The Mud Volcano”. The entire park is sitting on top of a super-volcano, which in conjunction with long departed glaciers, sculpted it’s landscape. Exploring Yellowstone was mostly a calming, awe-inspiring experience, but being in the  vicinity of the “thermal features” was a little unsettling. Pamala said “the Devil left his mark”.

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All in all, we spent an enjoyable four days there with sunny skies and 70+degree temperatures for three of those days and low 30’s and snow on the last day. It was equally beautiful either way and well worth the visit.

After the the repairs in Glennallen were complete, we were anxious to hit the road again, partly because signs of autumn were appearing and partly because our time in Alaska was coming to a close. Alaska had always been sort of the “primary goal” of the trip, and everything there and back would be “icing on the cake”. So it was time to move on to the next chapter of the trip.

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We very much enjoyed our trip through British Columbia and the Yukon on the way to Alaska, so we were both a little surprised that neither of us were looking forward to crossing Canada again. Perhaps because we now had first hand knowledge of the length of time required to reach the lower 48 through Canada, not to mention fuel and food costs being higher.  But we forged ahead, and vowing to make the best of it, we headed toward Chicken, Alaska.

“Beautiful Downtown Chicken” home of the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever eaten.

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After visiting Chicken, we crossed into Canada via the Top of the World Highway and made our way south towards Whitehorse where we joined, once again, The Alaska Highway. On our way North, we joined the Alaska Highway via the Cassiar Highway just west of Watson Lake and drove to the end in Delta Junction, so now we would complete the Alaska Highway to mile zero in Dawson Creek.

A view from The Top of the World Highway

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No, we didn’t drive it. I’ll be back!

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Everything was again very scenic and enjoyable until we reached Fort Nelson, then it took a turn for the worst. The oil, gas, and logging industries made the drive from Fort Nelson to Calgary a very heavily trafficked, large truck congested experience. On top of that, we noticed an increase in roadside litter and graffiti after entering Alberta. Rest areas, trash cans, roadside pit toilets and pullouts virtually disappeared. Jasper and Banff National Parks were the only redeeming qualities we could find in this part of Canada. In short, unless you feel like you have to drive the entire Alaska Highway as I did, I would suggest skipping this part.

Banff National Park

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It was the Russian architecture that prompted me to visit the Kenai Peninsula, but it was the scenery that captivated me. Of all the places I visited, this is, by far, my favorite location in Alaska.  The beautiful Kenai Fjords National Park is located on the peninsula.  The northwest coast of the peninsula is marshy and with less elevation but is the home to a clear and inviting beach.  Several large lakes extend through the interior of the peninsula, including Skilak Lake and Tustumena Lake. There are also several rivers but my favorite is the Kenai River, famous for its salmon population.

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   The beach was peppered with jelly fish

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Fishermen on the Kenai River

I witnessed salmon, my favorite fish, swimming upstream. Of course I knew that salmon swim upstream to lay their eggs and then die but I had no idea what a spectacle it would be to actually see it occur. As I sat on the bank watching the salmon in various stages of their journey upstream, I couldn’t help but to reflect on how their journey mirrors life, my life specifically.

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There were salmon swimming along with lots of energy as they fought the current. They were so determined to make it that they would often times leap forward out of the water to gain a few more feet. Others would progress a couple of yards, only to have their progress undermined by the current and lose what distance they gained and sometimes, be pushed further back by the current. Some of the salmon were so exhausted that they made no progress at all. These salmon used the last of their energy fighting the current to stay in place, making no progress upstream. Others were dying, floating on their sides as they tried in vain to right themselves. Many were dead already, leaving behind the miasma of decay along the river bank.

As I sat beside myself, there were reflections of the times in my life when I moved forward with life with Herculean-like speed, feeling unstoppable. All was good and then, as it is with the ebb and flow of life, I would experience a set-back, sometimes minor, sometimes major. There were other times when I would feel exhausted by life and made no progress at all. I would be stagnant and was merely existing. Yet, unlike the salmon I have had more than three to seven years to try to figure out what’s truly important in my life because I know that like the salmon, I too, will one day be unable to right myself and will die.

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This is me at the end of the rainbow NOT finding financial security!

It was bound to happen. We’ve had a few mechanical issues to deal with on this trip, but nothing that left us disabled on the side of the road. Luckily, when it did happen, it was only the trailer and not the truck. We were thirty-five miles east of Glennallen, Alaska, eastbound, when I looked in my driver’s side mirror and saw smoke billowing out from the trailer fenderwell and my left trailer wheel sticking out a few inches and cockeyed!

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Once I surveyed the damage, we dropped the trailer and high tailed it back to Glennallen to the NAPA store. The problem was that even though I was driving way too fast for the road, we figured we would have a five minute buffer before the store closed. While I was driving like a bat out of hell, Pamala was on the phone pleading with Gary at the NAPA store not to close before we got there. We arrived at NAPA just in the nick of time and Gary was very helpful but they didn’t have all the parts I needed. He called around  town (population ~ 500) and found out that Scott, owner of Glennallen Fuel and Auto Service next door had the other bearing I needed. Scott cleaned up the brake drum and changed the bearing races for me. All in all, I still only had enough parts to limp back to Glennallen but not enough for a permanent repair.  Scott said we could order the parts from Anchorage in the morning and have them by five o-clock the next day. So back to the side of the road we went to patch it together.

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We drove slowly and carefully back towards town and camped on the outskirts. The next morning, we drove back to Glennallen Fuel and Scott ordered all the parts I needed to completely rebuild both sides of the axle, just as a precaution. I offered to pay Scott to do the work but he said he was slammed that day and offered me a concrete pad to park on so I could do the repairs myself.  So I spent the morning and early afternoon prepping and waiting for parts.

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The parts arrived almost precisely at five o-clock and in a little more than a hour later, we were ready to roll. As it worked out, being “only” 35 miles from a parts store and helpful people was great since we were headed for the “Top of the World Highway” and some very remote country when it happened.

Again many thanks to Gary at NAPA and Scott at Glennallen Fuel; both made the situation a lot easier to deal with!

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Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska. It has the accoutrements of any urban area and of all the places we visited in Alaska so far, it has the least Alaskan aura. Nevertheless, it has many offerings worthy of mentioning. First of all, the bike paths throughout the city are phenomenal. They are converted to cross-country ski tracks during the winter months that allow pedestrians on foot, skies or bicycle to safely traverse the city through wooded areas, along the ocean as well as paralleling city streets.

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On a portion of bike path along the ocean near airport

The Botanical Garden is beautiful and show cases native, rare and different varieties of flowers and vegetable plants. Thanks to our daughter Claressa for suggesting that we visit it.

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We patronized the open-air market, the cultural center, and acres and acres of park grounds next to the ocean that has a large network of hiking trails.

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Could not resist the fruit at the market!

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Performer demonstrating his athletic prowess

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At the park enjoying all the green space and flowers

Since the native Alaskans have used dogs for transportation well before the first Russian appeared, we felt we would have been remiss if we had left Anchorage without experiencing a sled dog ride. It was probably the pinnacle of our time spent here, however short-lived it was.

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Traveling to Alaska, I expected to meet people from all over the United States and the world since Alaska is a destination for people worldwide. I camped next to a couple who journeyed here from Austria. I met a group of four who hailed from Australia at Tetlin National Forest. A couple traveling on motorcycle from Brussels; another couple on motorcycles from New Zealand. Closer to home, I ran into a cyclist from Salt Lake City, Utah en route to Denali National Park. It occurred to me that my world is smaller than I realized when checking in at the Chena Hot Springs Resort outside of Fairbanks, one of the employees told me that she is from Cape Coral, Florida which is our sister city. My world continued to shrink when Pamala met and went running with a fellow traveler in Cooper Landing, Alaska that is from our neighboring county in Florida. While in Canada, a couple saw our Florida license plate in Jasper National Park and introduced themselves. They lived 30 miles south of us in Naples, Florida before moving to northern Florida. Even the proprietor of “Beautiful Downtown Chicken” in Chicken Alaska (year round population between 17 and 37) had family ties to Fort Myers.

The most interesting small world encounter during this trip happened in Wasilla, AK. Bear with me as I give a little background: several years ago a guy named Rob came to work for me in Fort Myers, Florida while I was an Air Traffic Controller. He was prior military as was his dad. As we were talking, I mentioned that I was stationed on Adak in the Alaskan Aleutian islands while serving in the Navy twenty-five years prior. Rob told me he had also been there as a small child when his dad was stationed there. Rob couldn’t remember exact dates but it seemed as if he and his family and I had just missed each other. Over the next few years Rob and I became friends and we participated in several athletic events together where I got to know his parents Bob and Rhonda, as they were often there to support their son. Bob was also an Air Traffic Controller in the Navy and we talked briefly about our military service and our time on Adak but never in detail.

Fast forward a few years, Bob and Rhonda moved from Fort Myers to Wasilla, AK earlier this year. We stopped in for a visit during our Alaska travels and they graciously hosted us for the evening and fed us an awesome home cooked meal as well as sharing their laundry facilities and spare bedroom. The next morning Pamala was sleeping in and as Bob cooked breakfast, we got to talking more in detail about our Navy years. I mentioned how when I left Adak what disarray the facility was in, both militarily and Air Traffic-wise. Come to find out Bob knew exactly how bad it was as he was sent there as the new commanding officer for the very purpose of straightening it out! It seems he got there within two months of my leaving. It truly is a small world.

I know Bob and Rhonda are readers of this blog, so thanks again for the hospitality and I hope we can reciprocate next time you are in Fort Myers.

Our gracious hosts

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