The Alaska Papers - Part 3

Updated: Jul 27, 2019

North to Alaska

The Alcan Highway – Part 3

By Rick Cleveringa

(*You can revisit Part-1 here and  Part-2 here.)

Mrs. Betty

The woman behind the counter at the Super 8 has been standing there 38 years though she does not show it. She said, “They say they built the motel around me”, her hair silver but neat as a pin. Her manors are southern and familiar. I ask about a room, “Yes of course” she says. We chat a bit and she tells me that she came up with her army husband in the 50’s, a tale I would hear often in Alaska.

Originally from Shreveport Louisiana and proud of her roots, I liked her very much and wanted to make friends. Up to the room for a shower and nap, I opened the door and said “Jesus!” It is a real shithole and it was not cheap, I may have had to pay extra to view the previous occupants murder scene. The room was dingy in every way, the furniture was battered and bruised and greasy looking. Every edge in the room was burnished shiny by use or struggle. The bathroom light switch cover had blood on it, that was surprising to me because I only notice that after I had turned the lights on. It was dank and funky. OK one night and I will find other quarters in the morning. There was no hot water for a shower, I was to wired and to disgusted to rest, so I went down town.

Parking the Jeep on 6th street I walked up and down the tourist parts enjoying it all. I loved Anchorage, it was old fashioned and slightly worn at the seams. It was enjoyable and small enough to get around easy. There was no real reason for me to pick this city as my destination because the Alcan heads North to Fairbanks. I wanted the coast I guess and here I was digging this place. Exhausted I went back to my dingy room and pulled the curtains tight. Using toilet paper I flipped the bathroom light switch on and took a cold shower. The wifi is criminally slow and I gave up and wanted to crawl into bed. Now I see I had left my pajamas in Saskatoon; that would make a great song title. Off to Wal-Mart to get a cheap pair cause I will not get in that bed with no clothes on.

Day 6

Up at 6:30 looking for a different motel on line. Camping is also an option; nearby Chaugo National park would be a nice place to set up. I went downstairs and see Mrs. Betty at the counter. Now I do not plan to stay or complain about the room, it’s OK I’ll just go. Mrs Betty calls me over to ask me how I rested. Well I don’t want to complain but… I tell her about the room. She is sorry and says “I’ll move you to a different room and only charge you $107 per night. Just go see this other room, I want you to be happy”. She insisted I stay and see the next room. OK she was a great representative for the Super 8. The next room was in a different motel I think. It had the same stuff in it, but was clean and the price was unbeatable. “Yea thanks Betty I will stay,” I said. “Oh good I want your first trip to Anchorage to be a good one” she replied. We chatted for 20 minutes and she told me her life’s tale, a lovely woman a real asset to her company. The next month Super 8 double charged me for the room for dates when I was sleeping at home in my own bed. I had to call Mrs. Betty and she took care of that. The new computer system was to blame. Thanks Betty it was a pleasure to meet you.

Back on the street and I go to Al’s Army surplus. Man they have the nicest outdoor gear, lots of canvas and leather. Real wool coats and high end out door clothes. Though for me its only a museum of the new, I can’t partake in buying all the cool stuff I love here. It was nice to see but I wander up and down the street and get a closer look than last night. I dig the souvenir shops and load up on Eskimo knifes and tee shirts for my pals, gifts for E’s family and friends, a hoodie for me and on to the next shop. The farmers market is happening down the street so I go check it out.

The market fills a large parking lot with white tents with strange foods and wild crafts. It’s chilly and a lite rain is falling. The market still draws a fair crowd and I walk the whole of it to see what is about. There are leather workers, jewelry, crafts and one guys have these beaver fur mittens that are so badass. You can picture yourself wearing them on a sled dog run to Nome. It was really nice. They had a band of 80-year-old women playing double neck guitars, sax and drums, a Townes VanZant knock off heads the mic. He plays standards and they tarry away at them.

Next to the stage are salmon and caribou tacos, yes Please! I take a seat at the picnic table and have a bite to see what they taste like. It was nice little taco that needed some hot sauce and they got it. I saw some Korean fish shaped waffles I wished I had tried. There was much I would like to go back for, I just had to keep in mind its a 65 hour drive. At one shop I bought Esther some pearls fashioned into a long necklace by the woman artist there. It was a nice stop I wished it had been sunny and I could eat like I was 20 again.

Wandering around I see the Anchorage Museum. Why not? It was full of modern art and had an incredible collection of Inuit art and weapons. There were lots of bows and arrows, quivers and harpoons, far better than one would expect. The windproof seal gut jackets were amazing, they look like Tyvek. I really learned so much about life current and past here. They have a large photo gallery of huge black and whites of abandoned work sites and homes in the far north. They were gripping and you walk into each photo and exist in that far off world if for only a moment. The effect left me dazed. It is a superb museum. The downstairs had a wonderful hands-on kid section, giant crazy machines and a land of bubbles. Pools with soapy water and large bubble wands, large enough you can stand inside the bubble. The kids were wild and happy here, the parents smiled. It was a happy wonderful place. When I left I walked back into the gray and rainy day.

I moseyed through the dripping city past the shops and tour buses, past the homeless and locals. Past the retirees that drove the RV up here from Michigan and past the wealthy in furs and nice shoes. The city was busy and I had work to do. I went to the Alaskan RR ticket office to book my trip. Over the tracks I walk into a venerable old train station, it was film Noir under my feet. Wow I loved it.

The ticket agent is a gray haired woman whose blues eyes are so kind and youthful. She has an accent of a Nordic background. Monika loves working here and is so glad to help me find a trip I can take Sunday. I have no clue where I should go so she suggested a day trip to Talkeetna. Why? I ask. “Oh its a lovely town. You can spend 6 hours shopping. They have a lot of restaurants for lunch or you can go to Denali.”

"WHAT” Denali?” this peaks my interest. It never occurred to me to go to the tallest peak in the US. I ask her to tell me more. “From town you can walk to the airport and they fly you to the mountain. You land on a glacier and spend an hour there exploring. When you get to Talkeetna find K2 aviation they will take care of you.” Wow hell yes! The train ticket was set, $275 and I have my reservation in hand, this is exciting.

Back down town I find the Captain Cook statue and look out into a long run of mud that leads to the open sea. After all, that’s what the good captain was doing. I bid Captain Cook and the sea farewell and walk back down town.

Who knew I was about to enter the best unintentional museum in the world? On 6th street, down past the tourist shit, was a gray unassuming building with a single glass and aluminum door, the sign read Antiques. Sure I have time to kill. This place was amazing, the brass telescopes, the whaling guns, the pre Colombian pottery and Roman glass; it’s a serious collection. They had a Rembrandt and