Day 13: Thursday
After our super-luxurious and relaxing Wednesday day on the ferry, and our late night at the Bear Tooth, we got up and out very late Thursday, at 11:30.
Our first stop was brunch at Salmon Express, a small truck off of Northern Lights Boulevard, where we ordered salmon quesadillas, which were fabulous: truly the best fishy Mexican food we’ve had in Alaska. We also got a blueberry milkshake--an impulse purchase--which was a wonderful, very blueberry-y, milkshake, apparently made with vanilla ice cream, real blueberries, and milk. We ate in the car while we were driving north on the Glenn highway.
We stopped at Eklutna, where we went into the Russian Orthodox/Athabascan cemetery and churches that had been closed the last time we were here. It had just rained, though it was nice now, but very buggy outside, so I condescended to use the bug spray the deacon in the gift shop/entryway offered. He answered all of our questions about the spirit houses, and mentioned that there’s still an active parish at the site of about 35 families (all Athabascan). It's really fascinating how the Russian Orthodox church (still a huge denomination in Alaska) just encorported wholesale the spirit house tradition from Native culture. At right, some spirit houses adorned with Orthodox crosses.
We kept driving north to the opening day of the Alaska State Fair: it was an easy drive, just forty-five minutes down the highway from Anchorage, and with lots of signs. We arrived around 1:30, less than two hours after they opened, and admired the site of the fair, in the Matunuska Valley surrounded by mountains. At one point, actually, we were gawking at a misty glacier-topped mountain in the background, and I took a picture, not really realizing a man walking toward me and staring. “Okay,” he said. “I have to turn around and see what you’re taking a picture of now.” I explained that we were photographing the mountains and the clouds, and he seemed to look at us as though we were crazy. “Oh, you’re cloud people,” he said.
The Alaska fair, as you might expect, is smaller than both the Minnesota State Fair (which we visited in 2002) and even the Big E, the New England State Fair (visited in 2004, with Sarah, Sarah’s friend Ambre, who’s now living in Anchorage and who we later met up with at this fair). Still, it was a good size, and we walked all over it, looking at every stall.
After we were at the fair just 20 minutes, the rubber grippy outer sole on my right hiking boot (bought at a Nike factory outlet in Canada while crossing the country on our honeymoon seven years ago, and worn on all our driving vacations since), which had been coming loose for the last week, completely fell off, so I had to go into a bathroom, wash it off, and stuff it in my jacket pocket to maybe glue later. There was still a sole to my boot, but just the sueded one which wasn’t meant to be the waterproof bottom, so my right foot spent the rest of the day being clammy and muddy. (I’m telling you, it’s all Ambre’s fault: last year at the Big E she had some sort of problem with her shoes, so she just took them off entirely and walked barefoot around the fair, eliciting comments from men on her nice feet. I don’t know if I can continue our annual tradition of going to a state fair with her now!)
At left, the terrifying petting zoo. Scary goats and alpacas. . . .
We really enjoyed the fair: we ate ice cream from Cornucopia, on Sarah’s recommendation, with very good barley and excellent Kahlua, in a chocolate-dipped waffle cone (the chocolate dipping was done on the spot and was free). We saw motorcyclists riding in a globe-like cage. We visited the animals: the petting zoo area, then the goats on show for prizes, then all the animals in their stalls, and finally the chicken and rabbit area. We sampled local cheese curds, then bought some, and we sampled local potatoes, fried up to highlight their taste (they were peanut potatoes, with the same starch content as Yukon golds, but butterier). We saw the honey and bee area and the prize vegetable area, including the giant ones (though the official giant cabbage weigh-in isn’t for a little while yet). Alaska is in fact known for producing giant cabbages, turnips, watermelons, and other vegetables due to the extra-long days of sunlight in the summer. We watched part of a scarecrow-making contest, and then during a little rain shower around 2:00 in the afternoon, we went into one of the exhibit halls and viewed a great, interactive science and DNA exhibit.
We also saw the crochet/knit/canning/baking displays, with all the prize-winning pies and breads and cakes, including some fancy decorated ones, and we sat down to watch a demonstration of how to make funnel cake and hot pretzels. We ate Kettle corn, excellent and briny Alaskan oysters on the half shell, a grilled ear of corn, and a mediocre over-sweet lemonade.
After the rain cleared up, it was beautifully sunny from 3:00 on--by 6:00 it was really, really warm, much warmer than at noon even. We wandered into the weird gadget tent, where we looked at vises and got information on canning your own salmon and making your own fruit leathers. Then, walking around the fair, we heard someone say, “Hey, how’d your trip go?” to us. Surprised, since the number of people we know in this entire large state is really quite small, we realized it was Ben, the iCafe guy, who was here staffing an iCafe Mac booth at the fair; we chatted a little about our trip and got caught up with our Alaskan friend before we kept walking through the fair.
At 6:00 we went to the loggers show, where we watched some impressive log-rolling and tree climbing, interspersed with too much bad comedy. We left early and headed over to the stock car races, which were technically half-finished, and were just in the monster car intermission before beginning their second and final heat. We paid our admissions and went inside at 6:55 anyway, which turned out to be a good thing. First of all, we were able to meet up with Ambre, who knew a little bit more about stock car races than we did (we were clueless. Next, the second heat lasted forever because this kind of racing seems to have an unlimited amount of do-overs. Ambre’s uncle, Brian, was in car #4, and we got to sit with her family (once we established where Ambre, with the crazy hair, actually was in the crowd--all of about six people away from us) and cheer for her uncle. Cars kept getting stuck in the mud on the edges of the track during the race, and whenever a car got stuck before a full lap was completed, all the cars had to go back to the beginning--even if the muddy car needed to be towed or pushed out of the sludge. Ambre’s uncle’s car was one of the sturdiest cars, with extra crossed pipes welded inside; he was apparently doing very well in terms of points (again, this being our first stock car race, we’re not quite sure what that means), so although he didn’t seem to win, he ultimately did.
At left, prize-winning pansies.
We were very happy that he beat his nemesis, the evil car #10, who tried to throw her trunk at him. It fell in the mud instead and prompted another do-over while it had to be towed away. The races were indeed interesting, and the monster truck intermission we arrived just in time to see was also neat. After the races ended there were little motorcycle/dirt bikes that did wheelies up and down the track, and then there was the demolition derby as the grand finale.
The demolition derby had only six cars, all small wheel base (1988 Grand Ams, 1985 Toyotas, Hondas, etc.). They basically just drove at each other, but not at super high speeds, until everyone’s radiators had burst and were steaming, and none of the cars were moving except for a little orange car that could still move, though it was inextricably connected to another car.
After the races and the derby, we met up with another of Sarah’s friends, Melinda, and her friend Tim, and we walked through the fair with them and Ambre. Ambre gambled successfully at one of the odder booths at the fair, the rat roulette for the Elks’ charity. I refused to participate on principle, and because the “rat” was clearly really a mouse (do they even have rats in Alaska? Tim thinks not, and we know of no reason to contradict him).
Ambre, Melinda, Robert, and I then went on the Tornado, a ride like the famous spinning Disney tea cups, except you’re suspended in the air and your cup flies out at an angle. With all of us spinning, we went pretty fast, though not record teacup fast, but we mastered the difficult change of direction mid-air maneuver, which really adds a lot to the dizzying factor. All in all, it was a great ride.
Next we went on the Zipper (right), now minus Ambre: Robert and I were together in a car and Melinda was in with an 11-year-old boy with a crazy mohawk (I hear he greeted her with, “You’re a shaker, right?” and when she finally discovered he meant, “you’re not a timid person, you really want to move our car around a lot, don’t you?” (as opposed to the other kind of Shaker) she agreed that yes, she was a shaker). Still, after the ride we reflected that it really wasn’t the best Zipper ride ever--maybe the operators were just figuring it out (it was the first day, after all), because it went more slowly than other rides and didn’t turn around as much, and the guy clearly hadn’t figured out how to unload people in the order they went on, so some people had much longer rides than others.
At left, Ambre and various nieces/cousins, some with face paint and crazy hair from the fair.
We said goodbye to Ambre and her cousins, nieces, and other family members then because they were all planning to be on the ferris wheel when the opening day, 10:00 fireworks were going on, and we were planning on heading over to the parking lot to watch the fireworks and get a start on leaving. Unfortunately, the fireworks were happening very close to the cars, so it was quite perilous making our way there. I was getting very scared with the booms and flashes directly overhead, until my fear of having lost our car (there were no nice “Goofy 7” signs or some such to remember its spot by) replaced my fears of the grand finale of fireworks. We found our car just after the fireworks ended and left the park efficiently.
Since all of our fair food and snacks had been in the early afternoon, after calling Humpy’s, a bar in downtown anchorage named after the pink, or hump-backed salmon, and ascertaining that they still had king crab and their kitchen was still open, we went straight there, parking around the corner on the street. (Note that Anchorage has street cleaning from October to April, on the exactly opposite schedule from Boston’s street cleaning, because they clearly just mean “snow removal,” and don’t bother actually cleaning the streets when there is no snow.)
Humpy’s had a pretty decent live band that played, among other things, a cover of “Red Red Wine,” but we sat on the quieter side of the bar/restaurant. Though the service was not amazingly good, the food was. We started with a draft root beer that I loved and Robert liked, more than last night’s but not as much as the Sunset Grill’s back in Boston. We had delicious king crab nuggets with a roasted garlic aioli on the side for dipping, and then we had a pound of king crab legs to savor with lemon juice and butter. We were in heaven, because up until now, Alaskan king crab had been scarce, positive invisible next to the crowds of salmon and halibut on the menus, but we couldn’t go home without eating some (more than just what was in our salmon/seafood chowder in Fairbanks, that is). We left Humpy’s full and happy at 12:15 and headed straight to bed.