Despite the fact that Alaska seems to be a haven for social outcasts, people are extremely helpful and friendly. Jenny (From The Motel) had a hand in everything: from choosing the car on Craiglist to providing a cheap roof-mounted storage box for our Suzuki. Before we left Anchorage, she made sure we were 100% ready. The rest of the motel and a local trooper came over to say goodbye and off we went.
Talkeetna, a small-ish tourist town a few hours south of Fairbanks was our first stop. Each corner of the winding road into town offered a different view of the Alaska Range, Mt. Denali included. All that natural beauty came, unfortunately, with a steep price. Places to sleep are abundant in Anchorage, but once you leave the city beds are scarce and prices high, especially in wintertime. Bummer! However, a nice hostel popped up and two affordable bunk beds sounded better than a cold car.
The upside of staying in a remote village is its isolated location. After a few nights of disappointing aurora-hunting (every place near Anchorage seems either perpetually hazy or is bathing in an orange sodium lamp glow), the clear skies above Talkeetna lit up during an unexpected G2-class geomagnetic storm. Three hours in -15°C? Worth it! Did we leave our dark-sky-out-of-town-spot minutes before an enormous auroral corona? Yep
The next day started with bad news: my inquiry about a suitable place to spend the night in Fairbanks returned zero hits. The whole city (we still thought of Fairbanks as a reasonably sized, buzzing northern city) was full. Full of 1500 scientists who couldn’t wait to attend the Arctic Science Fair. With hundreds of kilometres to go and daylight fading we scanned every little town for a cheap B&B. Cheap near Alaska’s most popular tourist destination means 110 euro per night, be warned! Those 110 euro did provide us with clean clothes and waffles for breakfast. Yay!
Between Talkeetna and “The Golden Heart City” lies legendary Denali National Park. The Park Road was open (and much longer than we expected). Spectacular views of snowy mountains and the highest peak of northern America made us forget time. Although the bears are up and running (according to the locals), none where spotted. Helaas. One can only imagine the buzz on the park roads during summer time while admiring this icy winter landscape. Quietly.
Just outside Denali national park lies the little town of Healy. Not worth mentioning if it wasn’t for one must see attraction: the start of the Stampede Trail, made world famous through the stories of Christopher McCandless. Hiking to see the “Magic Bus” would take over two days and two river crossing on each leg. Not willing to end up like Mr. Supertramp, we decided to look up the movie replica located at the 49th State Brewing Company (now famous in Belgium thanks to Tom Waes). A dangerously high fence was conquered (everything is closed here in winter, remember?) and the obligatory photos were made.
After a surprisingly snow-free drive of 180km we arrived in Fairbanks, The Golden Heart City. Let me stop right here. It’s not a city, and I certainly did not find its golden heart. Fairbanks seems to be a mess of houses and utility buildings. The three bars and two restaurants were closed on Saturday evening (and now that I think of it, they were closed on Sunday as well). Ah well, cheap Indian pizza it is then. What Fairbanks did offer was a Walmart and Home Depot. Time to “engineer” our sleeping platform. A 5-minute napkin drawing (and one very annoyed Home Depot employee) later, a carefully cut MDF platform was hauled into Suzi. A perfect fit. Walmart provided a comfy spring-loaded mattress, two warm duvets and some bed sheets. Time for a test run! Result? -15°C is cold, but bearable. Besides a few strange looks from the locals and 20 minutes of scraping off a thick layer of ice formed on the inside of the windows the next morning, all went well. I have to find something against this condensation issue, though.
Next stop: Canada!