Day 10: Monday
This morning we were up and out on the lateish side again. Robert was sad that he missed the free muffins and pastries at the hotel lobby, but he had their tea and orange juice just before we checked out at 11:00. We really do recommend the hotel (Golden North) if you’re ever in the Fairbanks area. It was comforting to hear the planes overhead--city noise makes me happy--and the rooms really were clean and comfortable, though small. The staff is a family, and they’re very helpful with extra pillows and all our other crazy requests.
Our first stop was the Alaska Bowl Company, which was right near our hotel, to watch them drill nested sets of bowls out of chunks of birch trees (extremely common in Alaska). They use the wood shavings to pack the bowls as gift baskets or to ship, and they use the drilled-out chunks of wood as planters, so no part of the wood goes to waste. We bought two very unusual bowls, oblong, rather than round, like the majority of their bowls in particular and all bowls in general. In effect, we made our own nested bowl set. Robert snacked on the samples of popcorn and candy (all served in their bowls, of course) the friendly staff provided, and we hung around a little watching the head bowl-maker through the glass, as the chunk of wood goes shooting off into a large basket frame when he’s done drilling the basket. At left, Robert and another tourist up close and personal with the oil pipeline south of Fairbanks.
We decided to have an early lunch, which would effectively be our brunch, at the Pump House over on the banks of the river. We ate in their heated porch overlooking the water--I had a salmon, crab, shrimp, and scallop chowder, and Robert had a reindeer sausage, peppers, and onions sandwich. We got to see many little speed boats and the large Riverboat Discovery (its tooting horns sneaking up on us and startling us) pass by. We waved at all the tourists on board. I think they thought we were Alaskan. Actually, several people in Fairbanks have, which somewhat disturbs Robert. “I better shave,” he said. “And I really need a haircut.” The jeans/hiker-cargo pants, and the sweatshirts, help too, of course. Lunch was good, and after wandering around more rusted old gold rush equipment (favorite outdoor planters and decorations in the Fairbanks area), we decided to gas up and head out of town, driving down the Richardson Highway toward Valdez. At right, the pipeline crossing a river on a suspension bridge parallel to the highway.
We stopped briefly in North Pole, a town just outside of Fairbanks that decided to remake itself by being a permanent Christmas destination. Basically, we just gawked at the candy-cane lampposts and fire hydrants and mailed a puzzle postcard to Aurora from their post office, though in retrospect we wish we'd gone to the North Pole McDonald's too.
The day was beautiful as we drove along--lovely taiga trees, many shades of green, pretty clouds, some blue sky peeking through, and braided riverbeds appearing by the side of the road often.
We stopped at several spots to view the Alaska Oil Pipeline, once where it crossed the Tanana River on its own suspension bridge (we also picked beautiful, multicolored rocks from the edge of the silty riverbed there), and other times where it stretched above ground for miles ahead. We started seeing mountains of the Alaska Range, startling, since for several days it’s been too smokey to see any mountains. (Thankfully, this road was quite smoke-free, which was good.) By the side of one of the rivers, we saw oil workers doing an oil spill drill, out in the river in full gear, with rubber bumpers stretching across, as they practiced containing an imaginary spill. Robert thought they should practice with an actual fluid for greater reality, perhaps something like hot fudge (he suggested) which the birds and fish would surely lap up if the drill had any weak spots.
The mountains were snow-capped and glaciated in the distance, but varicolored and interesting up close. We stopped at several scenic views, near a large dome and then Rainbow Ridge and Rainbow Mountain. At one point, there was an odd rainbow ring around the sun, which we’d never seen before. There were also historic Gold Rush Trail signs and markers along the way, and we stopped to read those. We got out at Delta Junction for an espresso and a walk through Big Delta Historical Park, a free state park that has several restored old buildings, a roadhouse, a barn, a sod hut, and a large chicken shed, yard, and coop (now used for chickens, ducks, geese, peacocks, and turkeys all together). We had a great view of one glacier in particular. It was all lovely, but there wasn’t really much along the way in terms of stops or services. At left, by a sod-roofed house in Big Delta, near Rika's Roadhouse.
So, when we arrived in Paxon around 6pm--a creepy place, a roadhouse out of Dusk til Dawn or something--we decided to stay rather than drive another 75 miles to the next small cluster of things. It’s the only place we’ve been in Alaska where I’ve genuinely felt frightened. We watched some DVDs on my laptop and went to bed early, ready for an early morning getaway to a better place. This place, right underneath the posting for the fire exit (thank goodness!) and the “no pets” sign on the inside of the room doors has a sign saying in second-grade printing, “No cleaning of game. Thanks!” Our room did not appear to have had any game cleaned in it (recently).
At left, Rainbow Ridge, with multicolored mud and rock from volanic activity. At right, the turnout facing the ridge, where we stopped to take a picture and stretch our legs, Robert tries to prove that the gravel turnout could easily just crumble away into the riverbed. He succeeds in kicking down a chunk of ground, and has to step back hastily.
We ventured down to the “dining room” around 9:00, after a Jet Li movie on our laptop got our spirits up, and then it was back up to our room after a meagre dinner. We never saw any other “guests,” but we did keep hearing voices--everything from babies to Russians to Harley folk--in the hall, sounding as though they were about to barge through our flimsy, warped room door.