We know that Albert Bierstadt, who died in New York, never saw Alaska because his head would have exploded there. The Nineteenth Century luminist didn't so much execute as perform paintings of fantastical mountain scenes inspired by travels through the American West. Even his small works evoke the space that fills his best-known paintings, Imax-scaled melodramas of ice and light and stone. In Bierstadt's world, rank upon rank of improbable, glaciated mountains, wrapped in clouds, lit by a Hudson River sun, tower over peaceful lowland idylls. Angle of repose has no place in Bierstadt's physics. His peaks are jagged, steep, unsmoothed by erosion and defiant of gravity. His mountains look as if they have been thrust into the sky this morning and might tumble down tonight. Bierstadt made these landscapes up not so much out of whole cloth as from conglomerates of real and imagined places amplified by memory and ecstacy. They immortalize a romance with the New World. American Sublime, thy name was Bierstadt. Bierstadt's world looked a lot like this:
Click the picture to enlarge it.
(Don't make me tell you again.)
It's early March; late in the day. The sun is not quite down but is very nearly so in the woods cradling the junction of the Susitna, Chulitna, and Talkeetna Rivers and this empty road. For a bucolic Bierstadt foreground, an untraveled two-lane byway will do. The tallest mountain in North America and its shattered foothills easily fill the starring role. The Sun is most emphatically not down on the Alaska Range and the sheer south face of Denali. The foothills of the range shine like broken glass, the mountain like a second Moon struck by the light of the Hudson River school, four miles up and sixty miles away. You can go on for pages describing, inferring, and locating the sources of a Bierstadt creation. What goes into this photograph is simpler: 1/250 of a second, F5.6, from the back seat of a Sierra 4x4 pickup truck going down the Talkeetna spur road at 60 miles per hour.
Two truths vie for primacy when thinking about Alaska's landscape: there is that one supreme peak, but Alaska is full of mountains. Denali is the literal, geographic, and aesthetic climax of the state's mountain nature, but it is one among thousands of peaks that, anywhere else, would nucleate national parks and inspire roadside zoos. There are mountains here to do most states proud whose names are simply too crowded to fit on any useful map. Peaks within easy view of Alaska State Highway 3, the George Parks Highway, have names so obscure that they would take you all day to discover. Who knows what's hidden? Almost every rocky point has an official name, but that doesn't mean one person in a thousand bothers to find out what it is. Why? Because, "That's not a mountain, that's just a hill" should be the state motto. It's "The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain" in reverse, everywhere in Alaska.
You think your state has mountains? Wyoming has three peaks and some framing devices by comparison, and even those peaks would be lost in the mountain pocket change of Alaska. And yet, "the mountain" refers to exactly one. I live two thirds as far from Mount Mitchell ("the highest peak east of the Black Hills") as Talkeetna is from Denali. On a clear day in my part of North Carolina, you might look for Mount Mitchell along some green horizon and tease its tri-peaked profile apart from a few pretenders. At forty miles, it requires a little effort, and success feels like a job well done. At sixty, Denali looms. It looks as if it might fall on Talkeetna. If you lived there for a couple of decades, you might stop startling when it sneaks into the corner of your eye. Then again, you might not.
Of all the parks and peaks in Alaska, exactly one has inspired a summertime "glitter gulch" of restaurants, souvenier shops, traffic lights, streetlights, and for all I know roadside zoos (all mercifully closed or deactivated in early March). One of these pages I'm just going to load up with mountain photos, nameless to me mountains, mountains, mountains, more mountains. But not this one.
We went to Talkeetna. Nobody goes to Talkeetna except to admire, climb, or flight-see the mountain. All right, some do come to call on the mayor, a ginger cat called Stubbs, whose tail explains his name. As of 2016, Stubbs has lived in Talkeetna for one year short of "a couple of decades." Nobody knows whether the sight of Denali impresses the mayor. Probably not.
Google street view does not work here. Because Alaskans.
The spur road was perfectly dry and clear. Except for endless mounds of black snow lining both shoulders --some of it from last October-- it might have run through Alabama. Venture even a little off the spur road, into town or into adjacent businesses' parking lots, and the world was smoothed over to a depth of inches. The sweet glaze on a cake is not called "icing" without reason. Talkeetna was a rink, and yet people got on.
We opted for a housekeeping cabin at Chinook Winds (the cabin's name was carved on its porch, "Foraker," after the most conspicuous challenger to Denali). The private cabin we had intended to borrow for the night turned out to resemble the mountains that surround it: it was still under construction, rising by fits and starts but not as far along in its orogeny as originally thought.
We drove through town, minded the signs to avoid the "active runway" (B Street on the map) and parked at the edge of a birch and spruce woods. From there, we walked to the river. We walked onto the river. Not far from the woods was open water; between the riffles and the trees were ice covered water and ice covered land. It was a judgement call. We tried to stay over land, but doubtless strayed when we stood on broad shelves flat and linear enough to seem out of place among woods and rocks. I was scouting for skyscapes into which the northern lights might venture, noting places from which the mountains (and the mountain) might best be seen in case the weather cleared, as predicted, by morning. At sunset, the top ranks of the range were lost in overcast; even the foothills ended in clouds (listen to me, "even the foothills" -- the "foothills" rise one and a half to two miles into the sky, towering over the Kahiltna, Ruth and Tokositna glaciers, surrounding the Don Sheldon and Ruth amphitheatres, glacial arenas surrounded by ramparts of granite; all that is just on the other side of the front range between Talkeetna and Denali; similar geologic tantrums surround Denali on every side; these "foothills" attract technical climbers from halfway around the world who stage in Talkeetna with the same intensity as those with ambitions on Denali).
At the Latitude 62 Cafe, typical Talkeetna driving surface.
We got back to the cabin in twilight, cleaned up from the road and drove to the Latitude 62 Cafe. It is a place of meat and the best vegetarian chili ever. After one luxurious spoonful, I wanted to confirm that it was indeed vegetarian and if so, then to discover what meat counterfeit it contained. (I have not been able to eat mammalian meat since being bitten by a tick a few years ago. Alpha gal allergy. Hives, a credible threat of anaphylaxis. Google it.) Our waitress went to ask, returned contrite. She had, she said, been serving the delicious bowl in front of me as "vegetarian chili" for years, but it turns out it wasn't. Maybe it contained moose. An epipen was not required. I lingered over the memory of that one great spoonful while enjoying a substitute appetizer (mushroom soup, also excellent, but a mere foothill by comparison). Sitting in an amphitheatre of beef, I ate chef salad with chicken. "You know," one of my companions mused while methodically disassembling a ribeye steak, "in Alaska if chili doesn't have actual claws or teeth in it, it's probably considered vegetarian."
We emerged under a clearing sky, the stars out and forming the Alaska state flag. Polaris was way up there.
Back at the cabin in full dark, I checked the sky every half hour until midnight but saw no signs of the northern lights. Earlier in the day, I'd humped a lot of photographic gear alongside the Iditarod race course, and I knew I would do so again the next day. During the night, I looked outside whenever I awakened. Failing to detect color in the sky, I went back to bed thinking what close neighbors dissapointment and relief sometimes are. I slept well enough until an hour before sunrise.
Don and I took our time (probably too much of it) making coffee, getting dressed, picking out a subset of cameras, lenses, tripods, and stepping out onto the rink while the sky turned blue. Jess and Logan didn't stir. I layered up and clutched a cup of coffee; Don, half my age and more accustomed to Alaska, didn't bother with as many strata. We gathered our balance on three inches of ice and made our way out to the road. As we left the parking lot, Alaska dropped the mountain on us. It did not "sneak into the corner of my eye" so much as seize my head and spin me around to gaze full upon it. The mountain was not only "out," it was brilliantly lit by the cutting, colorful light of the just-risen Sun. It was a presence in tangerine and pink. Half an hour earlier, God knows how it must have glowed. Half an hour later, the light would surely be more mundane. It was three quarters of a mile back to the places we'd staked out the night before, every step of the way paved with glare ice.
We hustled past Nagleys Store, double-timed down to the riverside. (Nagleys is where Mayor Stubbs holds office hours in a basket on the counter. We opted for an audience with the mountain instead.) Trying to hurry, I wanted both hands free to swing for balance and for protection in case of a slip. I gulped my coffee, flung the last of it into a steaming, caffeinated comet, and pocketed the mug. That helped.
You've got a mouse. Put it over that picture and click it.
(two frame panorama, 9000 pixels worth... someday this needs to be printed yuge)
We went our own ways up and down the river bank, in and out of the woods. At one point, I put the camera on a tripod and made selfies the old fashioned way. I couldn't remember how to adjust the self-timer and enjoyed no success at all while experimenting with cold-numbed, glove-free fingers. I made do with a two-second delay. Press the button, hurl self onto a suspiciously flat platform above icy death, stop, pivot, look natural.
Practice did not make perfect, but it did make better. Don did the honors for this one:
Thank you. Returning the favor:
We stood, we crouched, we gawked. I made the same picture over and over. I tried horizontal panoramas, vertical pans, remade the same pans as the light changed, because it was there... Direct sunlight came into the woods, over the snowy floodplain, finally onto us. Over the course of an hour, the mountain lost its color. If that sounds disappointing, think of it like this: Denali took on the pure white clarity of a high-grade diamond.
Satisfied, we started back toward town. I asked Don what he thought the temperature was; it felt like the middle 20's to me. More like 10, maybe lower, said my local expert. Jess and Logan drove up. We returned to the river with the happy couple for more photos.
Talkeetna thoroughfare behind the Roadhouse.
Some people visit the Talkeetna Roadhouse for its ambiance and for its history. About 9:30, we walked in for breakfast. A tour bus arrived at the same time. Its passengers headed to a pre-arranged dining room annex; we waited for seats at the fully-settled, family-style table. The waiting area was comfortably supplied with a mix of chairs and small tables with the look of leftbehinds from people who had abandoned Talkeetna for secure jobs or secure footing. On one wall, a bookcase ran nearly floor to ceiling filled with well-thumbed National Geographics and games. A printed plea asked patrons and parents to take care that game pieces were not misplaced. The Roadhouse is a traditional and eminently practical place for climbers to collect, but climbing season begins in May, ends in July. In early March, which is late winter, not early spring, neither the Park nor the Roadhouse was busy with climbers. Sight-seers, locals, innocents who stumbled down the spur road in search of services made up the deficit at the Roadhouse.
"They come from Talkeetna and from down the valley. Weekends, they come from Anchorage.They wait quietly in the sitting room before the unlighted face of a television... [T]hey file to the table... Eighteen is the capacity. Eighteen are there --around an oil-cloth covered table. They will make friends quickly..."
Coming into the Country
John McPhee on the Talkeetna Roadhouse.
When we finally took four seats around an oil-cloth covered table (eighteen is plausible) our breakfast companions included a reporter for Alaska Public Radio. Beside her was a gentleman of unmistakably Japanese lineage. When he said he had been born in Tokyo his every syllable declared "London." He was traveling around North America interviewing spaceship makers. It was an interesting enough remark that nobody asked the obvious question ("Is there a lot of that going on in Alaska?"), or if anyone did I don't remember the answer. In New Mexico, he talked with amateur rocketeers whose efforts involved boosters made of cardboard and rubberized fuel. In California, he crossed paths with NASA-affiliated rocket scientists. They used cardboard and a different rubberized fuel.
It was past 11 before we were served, noon before we finished, and we needed to be in Willow in time for the Iditarod restart at 2:00.
Now and again on the George Parks Highway, a sign resembling a mile marker but decorated with a camera icon announces that a scenic opportunity is near. This may be Alaskan humor. The entire Parks Highway is a scenic opportunity; the signs are warnings that you may be about to lose your mind.
We stopped again at the scenic turnout on the George Parks Highway for more "official" photos of Denali from the Alaska DOT designated viewpoint. Hey, the weather was good; it's kind of obligatory.
I've already gone on at length about the restart of the Iditarod from Willow Lake. So skip that. After watching the 34th sled (Kim Franklin's) launch, we returned to Anchorage by way of Palmer where Jess and Logan are building their first house on a ridiculously scenic byway. Logan works from home, but Jess works in Palmer. Her commute from Anchorage is 48 miles each way; from the new place, her drive could be attempted with a one-iron.
Not far away, where the Glenn Highway runs tangent to the braided Matanuska River, is an unexpected scenic climax. It's unexpected because Palmer lulls: it seems to be at some risk of becoming suburbia but frequently reminds visitors that it is not New Rouchelle. While walking on pavement, the last thing one expects to confront is the American sublime. Someone desperately needs to plant a camera on a stick out there. Roadside insanity has never been closer.
Above the turnout, a sidewalk climbs a bluff above the Matanuska floodplain. The sidewalk is a civilizing touch. It seems perfectly in place in Palmer, but discordant if considered from the side of the river. The view is a sudden reveal near the top of the bluff. The gaze fords the Matanuska, crosses several thousand acres of forest, and then ascends the Knik River. In every direction, more mountains rise (of course they do) and the terminus of a glacier twenty miles distant glows with more light than seems to fall on it. The Chugach Mountains would be right at home in yet another Bierstadt. In this one the glacier at the source of the Knik is an irresistable if fantastic embellishment.
Click the pic, please.
The earth beneath the overlook is eroding with alarming disregard for geologic time. In places, the overlook resembles a brown dirt cornice melting into the gravel bar an impressive distance directly below. A large fraction of the sand and sharp grit detaching from the cliff face never reaches the floodplain. It becomes abrasive virga. Katabatic winds funnel down from the mountains, accelerate through the converging river valleys, and sound like rapids as they rush up and over the viewpoint, carrying dirt as casually as spindrift. Fifty mph is common; ninety is not so rare. The afternoon we stood there, leaning on the atmosphere, the wind was somewhere between uncommon and noteworthy.
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