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Feeling Cutoff






-----We got to bed fairly early last night as my dad regaled us with one of his signature stories—this time, concerning one Ethel Shmütz—a human with an avocado for a head—and her penchant for vacuuming people's mushrooms. When we awoke, my parents wandered off to find some kind of breakfast at one of the establishments in the vast building, only to find tour bus people withreservations who still had wait times. They ended up going to a fantastically overpriced Starbucks and brought back some muffins.


-----After packing up most of our belongings, we decided to take advantage of three free tram tickets that we'd gotten upon check-in. The ritzy Alyeska area is highly prized for its skiing and was even once considered a selling point for a potential Anchorage Olympic bid, and as such there are two air trams that go up over 2,000 feet in the span of roughly five minutes. It was like something out of a Roger Moore Bond film. (Moonraker and Live and Let Die are some of my dad's guilty pleasures.) Being avalanche season, the hiking trails and skiing opportunities were both closed off, leaving only a few overlooks and a gift shop open at the top.


-----I was expecting more swinging and swaying on the ride, but the trams were large enough and stabilized by enough thick metal cables at the top to make it a significant—and much appreciated—step down the potential-vertigo ladder from the disorienting Kenai Fjords boat. As we saw the hotel get smaller and smaller, and the people outside become undetectable to the naked eye, we were pretty much there.


-----The views from the ride were epic, but the top was outright spectacular. From the snowcapped terminus, we could spot hanging glaciers behind us and the entire quasi-town of Girdwood laid out in front. Ahead of the natural bowl in which Girdwood is located was the thin strip of the Seward Highway and the soon-to-be-rapidly-filling Turnagain Arm behind. Being well within the mountains was peaceful, but looking back down along the tramline really emphasized how far up we really were.


-----The air trams run every fifteen minutes, and we'd planned to be up there for that period of time, but we were so taken by the scenery that we entirely skipped that one and spend a full half-hour at the top. I quite wish we'd had more time at the place, at both ends of the tramline, in order to properly explore; though somewhat uppity in attitude amongst the more affluent clientele, it's hard not to be bowled over by the beauty enough to look past it. Yet not enough snow has melted for the trails that somehow offer even greater views to be hiked, so I suppose any return trip will have to see us arrive smack-dab in the middle of tourist season. (My dad, for his part, is already talking about the next Alaska trip. So much of his concern lay in his previous horrid memories of the Alaska Highway, and now he's looking forward to driving the whole thing again.)


-----The ride back was a bit scarier as we stared down at the now-tiny hotel towards which we would be descending, but we were—magically—the only ones on the tram, and so we asked the tram operator a few questions to pass the time and not make it an awkward ride. The massive wheels and gears clunked and whirled their way into action at the top, and before long, we were at the bottom. We didn't have long to check out after this, so we rushed back to the room, grabbed our bags, and whirled out the front door past fancy cars with open food containers left outside, reinforcing that being born with a silver spoon does not equate to any level common sense around bear country. We absconded before the larger wildlife caught its scent.


-----There is—or at least, there seems to be—more road construction per mile on the tiny Alyeska Highway leading into Girdwood than on many other of the state's highways combined. The amount of tourist money pumped into what is a truly minuscule (by Alaskan standards) road really shows that the government puts their money where the money is. Between it and the Kenai Peninsula and there's much, much more road work—and better roads where there isn't road work—than much of the rest of the state. (About which, more later.)


-----It took about as much time to get out of the few miles of the Girdwood area as it took to get from there to Anchorage proper. We marveled at the rushing inflow of Turnagain Arm at around noontime, stopping once in an eventually fruitless attempt to get a better glimpse at about ten Dall sheep perched nearly on top of the nearly straight-up peaks to the opposite side. It wasn't too long before our second attempt—this time, more well-informed—at getting to Flattop Mountain, where we'd previously encountered signs for death-defying (or death-inviting) grades. This time, we took the next road up, and though the roads were still fairly steep, it was nothing like the winding mountainousness with which we'd had to previously contend.


-----There was a short trail to the overlook near Flattop Mountain, and the views were stunning. All of Anchorage was visible, with the Knik and Turnagain arms snaking around it. Despite its feeling as a metropolis, by area it's still mostly greenery. But what we really came for were the mountains, and on a clear day they did not disappoint. Far to the left, standing by itself, was Mount Iliamna, the peak well over 100 miles away that dominated the sky during our journey to Homer. The Talkeetna range loomed large, as did Mount Susitna (the one they call the Sleeping Lady). But as we scanned north, one mountain stood above its foothills and above the meek clouds: Denali. We'd not gotten a good look at it from within the park, but now it was showing its full splendor.


-----We understandably took a while at the peak, attempting to get a good picture and eventually getting to talking to a couple from Rhode Island. But the road called, and we had a long way to go in order to reach Tok before the moose came out to play in full force.


-----Our route meandered around the road work through Anchorage and eventually got us back to Palmer, where—on the southern outskirts—we ate at a place called the Noisy Goose Cafe. Though highly ranked within the annals of Palmer restaurants, its claim to fame probably should begin and end with its humorous signs tacked helter-skelter upon the walls. My mom and I played it safe with what turned out to be a mediocre club sandwich, while my dad's halibut was apparently so inedible that he picked at it for several minutes before wolfing down a quarter of each of the club sandwiches. It's one of those classic serve-everything diners, which makes for a place where any one thing is only going to be serviceable. That said, the fact that its overall mediocrity made it one of the worst meals is a testament to how well we've eaten overall in a land where I was promised car sleeping and beanie-weenies.


-----The road out from Palmer took us through an epic and winding mountain road called the Glenn Highway, featuring such hits as: hairpin turns with 7% grades up and down, the extraordinarily large Matanuska Glacier, passing lanes where not needed and then none for twenty miles when they are, and many more. This led us all the way to the tiny town of Glennallen. I don't know who Glenn is, and I don't know who Allen is either, but it was a place to get gas, so I thank them both for whatever it is they might have done in that middle-of-nowhere accidental crossroads. After gas, we stopped in at an IGA store to get some caffeinated drinks, but a little while afterwards we found that my dad's Mountain Dew simply would not budge open, and it felt like my thumb was about to pop straight off in the exertion. Examining the problem showed that the screwtop was entirely stuck on, and it took a Swiss Army knife to eventually pry it open once we got to Tok—but by that point, it was too late to be of any use until tomorrow.


-----We went north on the Richardson Highway from Glennallen until we reached the very poorly signed turn to the Tok Cutoff. It should have been a portent of things to come that, in the annals of the epic names bequeathed these few but mighty roads, one and only one was given such a poor, blunt, and entirely unsatisfactory name as "Tok Cutoff." By the first several miles in, we were asking ourselves what in the world we'd plunged into, as there were more gravel breaks than traditionally paved surface, frost heaves so heavy and so ill-patched that they created full-on road fault lines which had to be stopped at in order to proceed over safely (but never comfortably). and signs every few hundred yards that said either "road damage" or "loose gravel" with little in the way of rhyme or reason with regard to the actual conditions. The only consolations were that a) the moose weren't going to emerge until much later, b) we had no real time crunch, and c) the gravel breaks were much more well packed-down than the truly loose gravel of the Alaska Highway. There's such a vast difference that we were actually able to go pretty much the same speed on these gravel breaks without any significant difference in how they felt under the car—which is saying as much for the gravel as the chipseal used to pave the roads in these parts. A certain amount of bumpiness is to be expected, and if our tour to the Arctic Circle was any indication, the unpaved is superior to the paved and unmaintained.


-----Roughly the first half of the 120-mile Tok Cutoff was in this bouncy and patchy shape, but we managed through it without any hassle as there was hardly another vehicle in sight. No one passed us going at physics-breaking speeds and only a handful of others were coming from Tok. The moose were not yet loose, and though we anticipated returning to Tok at 9:30, we rolled into Fast Eddy's Restaurant at 8:30, unpacked our bags, and split a pizza at the restaurant, intentionally ordering a medium to split in order to have leftovers available for breakfast tomorrow. Though Eddy's serves a mean breakfast, 6:00 is a little too late an opening for our epic morrow. (The medium at Fast Eddy's is a large almost anywhere else. I daren't think what their idea of a large really is.)


-----At a little after 11:00, a rainbow from a southeastern raincloud was illuminated by the light of the sunset, giving the lower half of the majestic bow a nearly uniform red tint, though upon closer examination the colors could still be visible. We even repacked the vehicle, as it's the last time we'll have a chance to do so prior to our return to the contiguous 48.


-----Tomorrow: the only time on this entire trip that we'll intentionally traverse unpaved roads as we go across the northernmost land border crossing in the world on the famous Top of the World Highway bound for Dawson City.



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