I know that title sounds ominous. But don’t worry, Mom, I’m still planning on coming home.
I’ve found that I really like “Alaska arrival stories,” hearing how a normal person from the lower 48 ends up becoming a citizen of the last frontier. Sometimes they just come for a visit, but never end up leaving. With the way I have been treated over the last few days, I can understand why.
June 21 (continued)
After my experience at Chatanika, I returned to Fairbanks (and cell service). I saw I had a message from Rick. We decided to meet at the visitor’s center downtown. I got there a bit before he did and was able to learn some more about Fairbanks and the people who have influenced its history.
Once Rick arrived, he took me on a walking tour through downtown. It was fascinating hearing about a place from someone with so much knowledge about and passion for his town. It felt like a small town, since Rick seemed to know about half of the people in it. He has a real way with people.
Our next activity was a canoe ride down the Chena river. It was a fun time seeing the city from a different perspective, all the while engaging in great conversation.
Rick and Cherie made a great supper, featuring Caribou! One that Rick had shot himself. It was well marinated and tasted amazing. It had already been a full day, but one activity still remained.
It was a strange coincidence that I was coming to the northern terminus of my journey on the summer solstice. On this night the minor league baseball team in town, the Alaska Goldpanners, plays their annual “Midnight Sun Game.” The game starts at 10pm and uses no artificial lighting throughout.
Rick’s dad, Dick, was able to join us. He lives in Tucson now, so we had a good time talking about Wildcat sports and other things. He had some great anecdotes about his time living in Fairbanks. It turns out that the tickets were actually left in the canoe, but Rick had no problem talking us into our rightful seats in the front row on the third base side.
The following picture was taken right at midnight, just after the bottom of the 8th. A group of ladies sang a nice rendition of the Alaska state song.
The Panners lost 4-2, but it was still an amazing experience. I didn’t know if I would see Rick in the morning, so I asked him that night if he would accept the honor of crossing off Chatanika from my sign. This picture is from a little after 1am.
It was a long day but a great day. I could hardly believe how well I was being cared for. The generosity that Rick and Cherie showed to a complete stranger was almost unfathomable. I really wanted to do something for them or give something to them, but could not think of anything of a grand enough magnitude to express my thanks. I guess sometimes all you can do is say “thank you” and really mean it.
It took me a little while to get all packed up. I’m still refining this process. After doing some writing, I did not end up leaving until around noon. After a text from Rick, I learned I had one more stop to make in Fairbanks. For a moment I felt like a true Alaskan, as I packed my Caribou meat and mushed Annie out of the driveway.
He wanted to introduce me to his friend Craig who owns a boat/snowmachine shop. Craig is also a creative individual. He composed the lyrics to an Alaska-themed version of “I’ve Been Everywhere”. His is called “I’ve Fished Everywhere”, listing 66 Alaskan places in three verses. I asked him if there were actually 66 places in Alaska, or if he had to make some up. 🙂
Here’s his version:
Our visit was brief, but enjoyable.
I hit the road with Anchorage as the destination for the day. It started raining shortly after my departure. It was hard, but thankfully brief.
After this, the weather began to clear. If there was ever a day for clear skies, this was it. I was going to pass by the tallest mountain in North America, Denali (AKA Mt. McKinley). It is so tall that it is usually covered by clouds. Only about 30% of the time is its peak visible.
When I made it to Denali National Park, I was hopeful. There were a few clouds, but most of the range was visible. I drove into the park as far as you can go (you have to pay a shuttle to get you any further). There were some pretty drives, but no clear views of the mountain. I had heard that there are some spectacular views from the highway, so I decided to try to get a view from that perspective.
Alas, my clear skies did not last. Shortly after leaving the park; dense, low clouds rolled in. I kept waiting and watching for a place to take that iconic Denali picture, but my phone remained mounted. 😦
I was not in good spirits for some reason. Though it was not a high mileage day, the ride was taking a toll on me. Luckily, I had a warm welcome waiting for me.
My cousin Matthew and his wife Megan live in Anchorage. We figured out that it had been seven years since we had last seen each other. The Gustafson family gets together a lot, so this was quite a large gap. I have 16 cousins on this side of the family and this is the longest I have gone without seeing one of them.
I also had the honor of being the first Gustafson cousin to get to meet Megan. We joked that I was an elected ambassador sent by the rest of the cousins to investigate this new addition to our family.
They welcomed me graciously, with a good meal waiting. It was a lot of fun to catch up with Matthew and to get to know Megan. At some point, Megan probably thought she was being interrogated with the number of questions I asked. I was really interested to hear about the path that led her up to Alaska.
They are both people with big hearts, that have found practical and useful ways to love others through their vocations. Matthew has his masters in counseling and currently works at a place that houses homeless individuals. Megan works at a hospital as an Occupational Therapist. They live in a nice house in the Mountain View neighborhood, which is statistically the most diverse zip code in the entire US (and also neighborhood of the year in 1989 🙂 ).
As if I could not feel more welcome, they even had their wifi password written on a slip of paper next to my bed. What service!
I spent most of the morning with writer’s block, struggling to put my thoughts into words. It felt a bit wasteful to keep staring at a computer screen while so many beautiful things surrounded me, but I’m really committed to keeping this account up to date (ish).
Matthew and Megan invited me to come along to a cookout that their community group from church was having. I’m glad I did, as I got to meet some wonderful people and eat some (more) good food.
We were hosted by Pete and Jen and another couple, Adam and Andrea, were there as well. Both couples had kids, but the rapidity of their movement made their exact numbers difficult to ascertain. I can safely estimate that there were between 2 and 37 children in attendance. 🙂
One of the first topics that came up was that Pete had received a “moose call” at 2am the previous night. Their conversation continued briefly while my mind tried to imagine what this meant. I eventually settled on a pay phone in the middle of the forest where moose get back at humans by prank calling them in the middle of the night. The confusion must have been evident on my face, as they soon offered me an explanation.
In Alaska you can volunteer to be put on a list. When a moose gets hit on the road, someone from this list is called. They have the responsibility of cleaning up the road kill, but get the benefit of keeping all of the meat. It is a really practical arrangement and maybe the most Alaskan thing I have ever heard.
One of the things I enjoyed most about our conversations was hearing the circumstances that led each of these people to Alaska. None of them were born there and all had different reasons for coming north. I also learned that Andrea has family connections to Wakefield, NE, a place less than an hour from where I grew up.
It was a very enjoyable evening.
Most Alaskans are thousands of miles from family. Though I know this is hard for many of them, I think it has a positive effect on the way they treat their friends and acquaintances. Every place I’ve been in this state so far, I’ve felt welcomed and valued.
This really is a special place.