back-roads

All posts tagged back-roads

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As we worked our way south through Colorado toward our cabin in New Mexico, I was thinking about detouring over to Durango to ride the Durango & Silverton narrow gauge railroad. Rather than go that far out of our way, I decided to settle for the Cumbres & Toltec railroad from Antonito, CO to Chama, NM, which was on our route. When I mentioned the train ride, Pamala’s response was “And you want to do this why ?”. To which I replied “It’s an old-fashioned steam train ride through the mountains, hanging off of cliffs, why wouldn’t I?”. She once again saw the error of her ways and we booked the ride. We booked the cheap seats rather than the “period correct”, full service car, which turned out to be a good plan since I spent the vast majority of the time enjoying the views from the open gondola car. The weather turned out perfect for the day and the Aspen trees were changing so even Pamala ended up enjoying the ride.

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I stifled a moan when Jim suggested going to Rocky Mountain National Park. My immediate response was how many tree-covered mountains must we see? Were Denali, Glacier, and Yellowstone not representative enough? I love nature and enjoyed visiting the National Parks we patronized very much, but did not feel Rocky Mountain would be different enough from the others to warrant the time and expense of going there. Yet because Rocky Mountain was on Jim’s list for this trip, I acquiesced. So we traveled through the wind-blown prairie of Wyoming and encountered 19 degree temperatures and snow in order to reach the park. I must admit that I had awful flash-backs of the trip to the North Slope.

I was distracted from my flash-backs when we encountered multiple herds of antelope en route and immediately rewarded when entering the park by the presence of a large bull elk. A family of marmot and a herd of elk entertained us while we were at the visitor’s center. Upon reaching the park, I was pleased with the more temperate weather, since the park is located in the north-central region of Colorado. More on this later!

Perhaps because we were at the park on a Sunday, it was very crowded. We had to bypass many of the scenic turn-outs due to lack of available parking for RVs, but we were still able to experience, I think, the essence of the park. Driving the Trail Ridge Road through the park was quite an experience. It is the highest, continuous paved road in the U.S. reaching 12, 183 feet of elevation, and based on my declining level of physical fitness, I would never have reached the peak by foot. It is quite a steep climb up.

I discovered that Rocky Mountain is different from the other parks we visited in that it has three distinct zones: the montane, subalpine and alpine zones. The montane zone is the lowest (below 9000 feet) and warmest zone. Most of the animals are found here and this zone is indeed where we saw the bull elk. The subalpine zone is between 9000 and 12000 feet of elevation and is directly below the treeline of the park while the alpine zone is naturally above the treeline. When we reached the alpine zone, the weather was quite chilly (code phrase for unbearably cold) due to the elevation and lack of trees to block the wind. All the zones are beautiful, although I tend to favor the areas with trees over the rugged, treeless areas. We were in the park too late in the season to see the wildflowers that blanket the alpine zone in the spring and summer months. Fall was definitely in the air, as was evident by the brilliant foliage found on the trees in the montane zone.

I concluded that Rocky Mountain is unique in its own right. We experienced several climate and geographical zones within the park. Our senses were stimulated by the range of colors, the bodies of water and the wildlife. In addition, Jim is happy that he can now check Rocky Mountain National Park off his list, but I am still cold from the time spent in the alpine zone. I think I need another spa day to warm up! Is Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Spa and Resort near by?

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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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I’m not sure why but I very much dislike the term bucket list, so I will just say the Dalton Highway was on my to do list for a long time. I lived in Anchorage, AK for two years during high school in ’78 and ’79 and was vaguely aware there was a road to Prudhoe Bay as they had recently finished the Alaska Pipeline. The full length of the road to Deadhorse was not open to the public until 1994, long after I had departed from the area. I can’t say exactly when or how I became aware that it was open for civilian travel, but the concepts of it being one of only two roads north of the Arctic Circle on the North American continent as well as ending at the northernmost point in North America reachable by road captured my interest. I realize that an untold number of people using many different forms of transportation have made this trip over the last twenty years, but in some respects it still seems to me like a small group.

In my opinion, the most important thing to remember about the Dalton Highway is that it’s about the journey and not the destination. At least not the destination in the traditional sense. Sure, it is the northernmost point reachable by road and all but upon reaching the end of the road you are greeted by a giant industrial complex designed to house 3,000 to 6,000 oil field workers, not a typical tourist destination or scenic wonder. There is no town, there are no campgrounds, and there is not much of anything resembling a habitable place. Even if you pay BP to have a security person give you a bus tour to the Arctic ocean you end up standing on a bleak, man-made gravel beach built by the oil companies. Not exactly tourist nirvana. But if you’re going to go to all the trouble to get that close to the Arctic Ocean, I recommend you take the tour and dip your toes.

The trip up and back is a different story. The climate and topography are ever-changing, rewarding you with spectacular scenery, wide open spaces, and wildlife. Yeah the road is rough, very rough, but in the end I say well worth it. And yes, we took the trailer all the way up and back. Oddly enough we did not see any other camp trailers there. Go figure.

A collection of signs at the beginning of the Dalton Highway

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Impressive hunk of rock!

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The Alaska Pipeline is visible for most of the trip

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This reminds me of a freight train headed uphill

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The obligatory Arctic Circle pic

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Meet Sho. No matter how tough or adventurous you think you are, someone out there is more so. Sho told us he was covering 20 miles a day! He started his journey at mile zero on the Alaska Highway in British Columbia. When this picture was taken he was well past the Arctic Circle and about to climb Atigun pass. On our way back the next day he was several miles north of the pass and still walking. He calculated it would take him another week to week and a half to get to Deadhorse.  Bear in mind once you leave Coldfoot there are no services for 240 miles until you reach Deadhorse. Tougher than me!

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Our “campsite” in Deadhorse. Actually just a man-made levee between the road and the Sag River. 36 degrees and 27 degrees wind chill!

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I guess it helps to have a sense of humor to live here.

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Notice who has their feet in the water and who doesn’t. And after all that talk of “dipping my toes in every body of water I see”.

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Caribou in Deadhorse

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Musk Oxen just south of Deadhorse

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The long journey back made longer waiting for a pilot car.

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Success!

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Jim  Jim at the Dalton Highway Junction

For years Jim talked about driving the Dalton Highway and visiting Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. So of course when we planned our journey here, it was definitely on the itinerary. The morning that we set off to begin the two-day drive from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, I was very excited and anticipated a great adventure. The drive was challenging but I didn’t mind the poor road conditions, road construction and tractor-trailer rigs creating dust clouds so thick that they impaired visibility because the destination, I thought, was going to be worth all that and more.

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I was pleasantly surprised that the sun was shining and the temperature was balmy as we began our trip. We drove to the Yukon River and had a wild-caught salmon taco lunch at the Yukon River Camp that we enjoyed immensely.  At mile marker 98 of the Dalton Highway, we stopped for a half-mile hike across the alpine tundra (good thing we had both purchased rain boots) to reach the Finger Mountain tor.  From there, we drove to the Arctic Circle.  I was a happy camper when it was 73 degrees Fahrenheit there.  The trip was progressing great so far.

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We drove a total of eight hours before stopping for the night just past Coldfoot at Marion Creek Campground. The next day, we continued our trip down the Dalton and enjoyed the changing landscape. We saw majestic green mountains, rocky mountains, avalanche zones, a glacial lake, and struggling spruce trees due to the permafrost. We crossed the Continental Divide at Atigun Pass and saw vivid bluffs.

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I noticed a distinct temperature change after we went through Atigun Pass. The beautiful views began to erode and the undulating terrain gave way to flat, desolate land. Ugly, cold, barren, and not fit for human habitation. That was my first impression of Deadhorse when we arrived and it all deteriorated from there.

We camped on the Sagavanirktok (Sag) River the night of our arrival. The camper was beaten non-stop by the howling wind, which only added to the already 36 degree Fahrenheit temperature (wind chill 27 degrees) we were experiencing. Did I mention, there are no trees AT ALL for miles to assist in blocking the wind that comes off the river? Even though there are 22 hours of daylight this time of the year, there was absolutely no sunshine AT ALL, not even a glimmer while we were there.

In order to gain access to the Arctic Ocean, we had to pay for a guided tour because the oil company, BP, won’t allow unauthorized personnel on their property. So the next morning, we were escorted behind BP’s guarded gate, and the tour guide/security officer drove us around the yard and pointed to buildings and recited facts which could be obtained from Wikipedia. The tour culminated with a stop at the Arctic Ocean with the caveat that no swimming was allowed, as if I would swim in that freezing cold water!

artic oceanThe Arctic Ocean with driftwood from Canada on its shore and a pipeline to the left

We left immediately after the tour. I did not want to spend an additional minute there in spite of the fact that I knew I had to endure the same two-day drive back to Fairbanks. To drive the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse appears to be a right of passage for overlanders, but to say it was anti-climatic for me would be an understatement. I don’t understand the pull it has for many. Perhaps had I known the trip to Purdhoe Bay was about the journey more so than the destination, I could have altered my expectations. As it stands, I feel I should have checked into the Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks while Jim fulfilled his dream of driving the Dalton Highway and experiencing Deadhorse. When we were in preparation mode for the trip, if I had the foresight to have questioned the wives of some of the men we met in Fairbanks who had just returned from their voyage up and down the notorious Dalton, I would have a different story to tell, filled with minutiae about my body massages and relaxing soaks in the hot spring.

Oh how I loathe thee!

In past years we would drive 12-16 hour days (on interstates) to get to a destination. Then drive 12-16 hour days to get home by a deadline. Part of the allure of this trip was having no deadlines or schedules and consequently avoiding interstates as much as possible. So after spending 5 days vs. the usual 12 hours getting out of Florida we needed to get to central Mississippi on a schedule. So instead of the 4-6 hour driving days on back roads we spent 8 hours on the road today with more than a few of them on I10. Erratic and inattentive drivers were the rule of the day. Add that to the homogeneity of today’s America along the interstates and it became a less than enjoyable day.

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So please do us a favor, if you spot us on an Interstate during our travels please flag us down and direct us to the nearest back-road!