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The End

After 165 days and 16,000 miles on the road, Jess and I finally made it back to Raleigh. We got in late Sunday and today began the dreaded process of unpacking our junk and readjusting to life without the threat of a bear attack. I’m happy to report the drive from Alaska to North Carolina played out like we hoped — safe, on budget, on schedule and full of big times. We’ve come a heck of a long way since our last post, so here’s a lightning round on our lower 48 travels.

MONTANA

Happy to be back in the land of cheap gas, we burned a couple carefree gallons to Columbia Falls, Montana, home of Jessica’s uncle Jim and aunt Bobbi. Having never met, we were unsure of what to expect… But what hosts they turned out to be! Jim and Bobbi were very gracious, providing gourmet food, a comfy room, handmade gifts, and an invitation to stay forever — an offer we considered but ultimately declined due to Jess’s allergy to dogs.

Magoo and Magee


In Glacier NP


Their newly-constructed backyard cottage

IDAHO

Fat and happy after two days with Jim and Bobbi, we continued our trip six hours south — past the cherry orchards, grasslands and one-horse towns of southern Montana — to Leadore, Idaho. Chasing the dot on the screen, we turned off the highway and began nervously twisting our way up eight miles of gravel roads in the dark to find my uncle Ted and aunt Jan, and Helena-based cousins Marc and Julie, waiting for us outside the trailer at elk camp.

“What are you, on Japanese time?” my uncle half-joked. Sorry again guys for the late arrival.

That night Jess and I watched the funniest episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in the back of the subie. In the morning Ted, Marc, Jess and I donned camo gear and face paint, and set forth on an elk hunt. Uncle Ted was the shooter. Marc was the bugle and cowcall man.  Jess and I were in the way. Together, we crept around the woods and attempted to lure elk by emulating the sounds of bulls looking to fight and cows looking to party. The action was slow for the first few hours. Late afternoon we drew a bull to within 60 yards, but despite our statuesque appearance, the wind was not in our favor, causing the beast to stop short and let out a chuckle as he turned tail and trotted back into the forest.

Near dark, we closed in on what sounded like the herd bull. Hearts beating like true love. Marc’s bugles were met with a thunderous response — a clear invitation to the octagon. But alas, darkness fell before Ted could get a shot and we begrudgingly retreated toward the smell of aunt Jan’s chicken enchiladas.

Neither Jess or I had ever been on an elk hunt, and it was an experience I’ll never forget. The fresh air, the family time, the thrill of the chase. Our hunting adventure with the Western Wotrings is one of my favorite memories of the trip. Thanks again for the wild times, fam.

WYOMING

Blowing kisses to Idaho, the 2nd wildest state in the U.S., we crossed over into Wyoming via Yellowstone and took a spin around the north loop of the park before exiting just three hours later. I hate that our Yellowstone visit was so brief. As with many places this summer, we saw it whizbang through a car window, despite our strong desire to get out and explore. Though frustrating at times, this travel style allowed us to see a lot of America — places we now know whether to explore more thoroughly in the future (Vancouver) or never go back again (Oklahoma City).


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Later that night, we stopped in Cody for a night with Jess’s aunt Anne. Over bison burgers and dark chocolate, we talked about Alaska and her close calls as an airplane pilot. Anne is a warm and interesting person and it was our pleasure to spend an evening in her company.

Anne’s gift is home decorating. As a former antique store owner, she has quite the collection, and it amazed us to see what she had done with the place!


SOUTH DAKOTA

In the morning we embarked on another nine-hour drive, this time to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Our plan was to camp in the park, but after discovering the nearest campground was 26 miles from the park entrance, we backtracked to Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. Like public forests, National Grasslands allow primitive camping — so in the dead of night, we turned off the pavement and followed old tire marks through chest-high grass to the unofficial boundary of no mans land. There, we laid outside the car listening to coyotes and counting shooting stars before spending another night in the back of the subie.

We awoke to quite a sight. Unbeknownst to us, we had driven up onto a peninsula and were surrounded by 50′ cliffs! Had we driven much further, it would have been curtains for girdwoodsummer.


IOWA

Back in the car — our newfound appreciation for life counterbalanced by our boredom with South Dakota — we cruised neutrally another nine hours to Grimes, Iowa — home of Jess’s old college roommate Libby. Libby and her husband Clint hosted us for two days of childlike fun. While Jess and Libby played catch-up, I played catch with Graham and Carson, and taught ’em a thing or two about the fine art of Mario Kart. Newborn Hayden supervised from the high chair.

In the morning Libby dragged us to the spin class she leads at the Y. After losing a few hundred calories, we promptly found them in the form of loose meat sandwiches at Midwestern staple, Maid-Rite. Mmmmm, loose meat.


ILLINOIS

From Iowa we cannonballed a state over to Jess’s hometown of Galesburg, Illinois. Here we stayed two nights with her grandparents and her cantankerous aunt Pattie. Although mostly sweet, Pattie has been known to spit venom. In what amounts to my closest brush with death this summer, one evening Pattie picked me out of a crowd of relatives and locked eyes with me for a good five seconds before saying with grave seriousness: If you smile at me one more time, I’m gonna dump this Pepsi on your head.

I kept my smiles to myself.

During our stay, we poked around Galesburg a bit, but mostly hung out at the house with family and friends. It was fascinating to watch her grandma bounce around the house in hipster cut-offs as she cooked, cleaned, tamed aunt Pattie, told great stories and generally made our stay there comfortable. I say she drinks Red Bull on the sly.  Either way, kudos to you, Carol. Thanks again for everything.

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Drive, drive, drive… podcast, podcast, podcast…

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OHIO

On day 19 of our drive home, we checked into the downtown Cincinnati Hilton for our last hoorah! of the summer — the wedding of lifetime buddy Laura Brown and Rinnesance Man Brent Rinne. Since forever, Laura has been one of my hometown buds, part of a group of friends from Bedford, Michigan that has remained remarkably tight over the years and snowballed to include some of the funniest, most down-to-earth people I know. After going the summer without seeing them, it was great to be around familiar faces and celebrate the marriage of two people we all love and admire.

The wedding was held outside at the Cincinnati Observatory, with a spillover reception in town. Brent and Laura absolutely crushed it,  dreaming up creative little touches and giving the weekend a natural flow, all without the slightest boasting of their efforts. The wedding was a sum of their talents, and their hard work was widely appreciated.


Everything was going fine… that is, until the werewolves showed up.

***

Sunday morning, with hangovers the size of Alaska, we loaded into the car for one final nine-hour push to home. Around West Virginia the farmlands of the Midwest gave way to the recognizable hills of Appalachia, and soon after, through dirty water marks and bug guts, Jess’s townhouse appeared in the windshield, marking the end of the road for us. With emotions swelling, I killed the engine, and together we stepped out of the car and onto familiar ground, for the first time in a long time. What a journey.

Banff and Jasper

From the end of the Alaska Highway, we continued our journey east through another stretch of wild country. Seas of  yellow farmland whizzed by as we motored down a deserted highway toward Jasper National Park. The park entrance is a place where travelers like us normally hand over their inheritance in exchange for entry — but thanks to friends Mark and Sue Bryer, who purchased a park pass on a similar journey from Alaska last month, we were able to flash a borrowed piece of colored plastic and roll freely into this outstanding part of the world.

Jasper and Banff are abutting National Parks in Alberta, Canada — covering a combined 6,700 square miles of rugged mountain terrain.  After b-lining down the Alaska Highway, we decided to slow our roll and spend a few days enjoying an area that comes highly recommended by pretty much everyone.

That night in Jasper we hit a few restaurants and bars, notable only for their high prices. With every hotel and B&B in town booked, we wound up at Whistlers campground for another night in the tent.

Signs everywhere warned us that mating elk can be dangerous. This guy let us escape with our lives.

The following morning, we merged onto the Icefields Parkway — a road advertised in brochures as the most beautiful drive on earth.  Even with sky-high expectations, the scenery blew us away. I won’t beat you over the head with my Thesaurus. Just go see it for yourself some day.

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Lake Louise yielded some pretty nice shots as well.



Later in Banff we treated ourselves to a room at Hidden Ridge Resort. Seven straight nights of camping was enough! And ahhh, the forgotten pleasures of home. Tempted as we were to lounge around and get our moneys worth, Banff was waiting. We rented bikes from the front desk and coasted down the hill into town.

I’d describe Banff as an upscale international mountain town, perhaps a Jackson Hole during the olympics, crawling with tourists and surrounded by pristine wilderness. Under a clear autumn sky we pedaled to as many TripAdvisor hotspots as we could — Bow Falls, the Fairmont, Cascade Gardens, Tunnel Mountain — before surrendering to the siren song of gift shops and $8.50 pints on Banff Avenue.

***

All said, Canada did us right, providing the freedom of travel with the scenic pow to make our experience memorable. Parts of the country felt like Alaska, which helped us to hold onto a state of mind we’d grown to love this summer. But dammit Canada, you cost us a fortune and deprived us of contact from the outside world. Entering Montana on Tuesday brought a welcome sense of comfort, a feeling punctuated by the words of the customs agent, welcome home.

Driving the Alaska Highway

Greetings from Columbia Falls, Montana.  Last night we reentered the United States after eight days in Canada and arrived at the lavishly-decorated and Scottie dog-inhabited home of Jess’s uncle Jim and aunt Bobbi.  I’m writing this post from their back porch as I make note of the lack of road signs and adjust to life outside the car.

The majority of our past week was spent traveling the Alaska Highway — the 1,422 mile road that connects Dawson Creek, British Columbia with Delta Junction, Alaska.  In the spring we traveled this road to reach Alaska.  This time, armed with knowledge from the trip north, we changed our travel style to save money, opting for cooler meals and roadside camping, rather than patronizing the ghastly expensive businesses along the way.  The Alaska Highway is profoundly beautiful, but those views don’t come without a price.  One gas station wanted $1.66/litre, which after factoring in conversion rates and credit card fees, came out to around $7 per gallon!

Alas, even on a budget, some things are worth paying for.  Much like the drive up, the drive down featured life-list scenery, nonstop sunshine and Serengeti-caliber wildlife.  In one 30-minute stretch we saw eight bears!  Also rampant: caribou, buffalo, raptors and stone sheep.  Jess and I took turns driving, averaging about seven hours per day in the car.  At night we camped aside lakes and rivers and cooked dinner over the fire in total privacy… at least from humans.

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Today is day 9 of the 20-day trip back to Raleigh.  We spent the past three days in Banff and Jasper National Parks, two unbelievable places I’ll share here soon.

Leaving Alaska

Tomorrow marks the last day of our summer in Alaska.  In the morning we’ll double-check the roof cargo, throw the last of our things in the car and begin the 21-day drive back to Raleigh.  For the trip home we have many fun things to look forward to — visits with family and friends, a wedding in Cincinnati, stopovers in U.S. and Canadian National Parks, and all the excitement that comes with discovering new places.  But leaving Alaska is going to hurt.  We came here with plans of leaving at the end of summer, but without knowledge of what living here would be like or how difficult it might be to leave.

And leaving will be difficult.  I realize the hyperbole on this blog may have tested our readers’ patience.  But to me, living in Alaska makes every day feel like a Saturday.  It would have been impossible to document the summer without letting that enthusiasm seep in.  We came to Girdwood without knowing a soul, without a place to live, and without work — and in those regards, we totally lucked out.

We found a gorgeous place on craigslist for dirt cheap.  A newly renovated A-frame cottage on the bike path surrounded by raspberry bushes and mountain views.  The loft was perfect for visiting family and the moose meat in the freezer was an unexpected bonus.

I found a job — a good job — one that allowed me to play outside, get some exercise and meet lots of interesting people.  At only 25 hours a week, the money wasn’t great, but my schedule allowed us plenty of time for traveling.  Plus, working for an adventure outfitter meant we had access to a variety of outdoor gear, a benefit that made many of our adventures here possible — a perk we certainly would have missed had I taken a job as a bartender or something.

But the biggest win this summer was finding Girdwood.  We originally targeted Juneau, but arbitrarily changed our minds after reading an email from a friend of a friend touting Girdwood, a town neither of us had heard of.   In hindsight our decision was not unlike throwing a dart at a map, but ultimately turned out to be huge.  Let’s be honest, Jess and I would have been happy pretty much anywhere in Alaska.  But Girdwood was perfect.  It was small and gorgeous and it felt like home. Of all our Alaskan travels, Girdwood was my favorite place.  And that’s saying a lot given the appeal of places like Homer, Seward and Denali.

But despite all that good fortune, Alaska and I were destined to get along.  The state is immensely wild and beautiful.  Even more than I had imagined.  Every place to live presents some sort of challenge.  The challenges people face here align with my leanings toward independence, endurance and love for the outdoors.  But leaving Alaska is not a departure from those values.  In fact, this experience has brought into focus what truly matters and the kind of man I want to become. When circled on a calendar, this trip represented a big idea.  Despite my apprehension to leave, I view returning to Raleigh as fulfillment of that goal and momentum toward whatever unconventional idea comes next.  There will be an encore.

As for work, I’m returning to Raleigh without a job.  A harsh reality that looms larger by day.  My job here was transformative in that I found work I actually enjoyed, and now that I’ve gotten a taste for that, I’ll be reluctant to take a job that doesn’t enliven me.  My goal is to find something outdoorsy that challenges my sales and marketing chops and allows me to dabble in writing, photography and design.  I believe the dream job is out there — now my job is to find it.

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Tomorrow I’ll be sad to see Girdwood in the rearview.  But Jess and I have a mountain of stories to share and a stronger relationship to build on.  We left many dear friends back in Raleigh that we can’t wait to see.  I’m starting to fantasize about the pork nachos at Raleigh Times Bar.  Live music, cell service and reasonably-priced fruit await us.

We’ll continue to post updates from the road.  But for now, so long Alaska.  We love you.

Eklutna Lake

Alaska State Parks offers 60 public use cabins and 8 ice hunts for rent by the public.  These cabins are located throughout the state and cost an average of $60 per night.  Some cabins are reachable by car, but most are located off the road system and require at least a hike, if not a boat or plane to access them.

Nice cabins go fast — some are booked solid for months in advance.  Earlier this summer Jess and I were sniffing around online and found an opening for the Eklutna Lake cabin in Chugiak, Alaska.  We made the reservation then pretty much forgot about it until a reminder popped up last week.

Eklutna Lake is located 90 minutes north of Girdwood, circa Anchorage.  The cabin stands three miles down a dirt road from the parking area, a commute that prompted us to try bikepacking — in other words, carrying our camping gear on mountain bikes.  Bikepacking is no more strenuous than walking, only it allows for faster travel speeds if the trail is bikeable (most trails in Alaska would be difficult if not impassible on bike).  Turns out bikepacking is a delight!

As for the cabin, we very much enjoyed having this beautiful lake to ourselves.

Six Mile Whitewater Festival

Six Mile Whitewater Festival is an annual rafting event that takes place on the Boston Bar of Six Mile Creek near Hope, Alaska.  This year the festival was held Saturday, August 13 and included a kayak and packraft race, whitewater rodeo and bonfire party with beer, food, live music and camping on the beach.

The event is largely invite only, to which I owe my attendance to my employer Alaska Backcountry Access, and to which Jess owes hers to be dating said handsome employee.  Happenstance stated, there we were in the backseat of Andy’s veggie van, riding away from Girdwood and toward the ominous class 5 whitewater of Six Mile Creek…

An hour down the highway we turned onto a quiet two-lane road, then an unmarked dirt road to reach a small wooded parking lot filled with tents, trucks and hula-hoopers.  Wild northern alpine encircled us.  Massive mountains crowded the sky.  Half-drunk twenty and thirty somethings wandered up and down the steep path to the water and toward the sound of bluegrass.  The setting was like the feel-good moment in a horror movie just before the killer arrives.  Sun-warmed, carefree youth.

I’d put the attendance at 300 or so — each person visibly lifted by the energy of the event and the free everything, thanks to festival organizer Tim Johnson.  Microbrews, BBQ, concert, raffle, bonfire — all on the sponsors’ dime.  What a treat!

Yada, yada, yada, phenomonal times had by all.

The next morning our attention shifted from whiskey to whitewater.  After a meaty breakfast we headed to the put-in to inflate our rafts and gear up.  Class 5 whitewater, darling, just about to happen.  Andy took Jess and me, along with his two other employees Opie and Ashley.  In the other raft was Andy’s old guiding buddy Pablo and his crew.  After donning our dry suits and trading a few nervous looks, we shoved off.

I’d never rafted class 5 whitewater.  Mostly class 3-4 growing up with the bros.  Andy is a talented guide and made it look easy.  The two-hour trip featured three narrow canyons, each progressively difficult, connected by stretches of lazy water that allowed plenty of time for high fives and holy shits.  It was outrageously exciting — by far the most fun I’ve had in, on or around water.

Big thanks to Andy for organizing everything and providing the transportation, gear, food, booze, etc.  Pretty sure I’ll never have a boss that cool again.  The rafting + festival will surely stand out as one of my favorite memories of the summer.

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Did I mention we’re leaving Alaska in 10 days to return to Raleigh?  Not sure how I feel about that.

Climbing Tram Rock

Start at the bronze moose behind the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood and walk 200 paces east, across the wildflowers and disc golf course, until you reach the forest.  Follow the treeline 30 paces up the mountain and turn left down an unmarked footpath.  Follow the path 100 paces through a blueberry patch and the trail ends at tram rock.

No shit.  That’s how you get there.

Sounds easy enough, but good luck finding those directions online.  Throughout the summer I’ve heard murmurs of tram rock.  So-and-so just climbed such-and-such a crack, but when asked about its exact location, the story gets a little rocky.  It’s just over there by the resort.

The elusive tram rock has been on my radar for quite some time.  As a repelling guide this summer, my objects of study have been ropes and knots, and with a garage of climbing gear just up the hill, I’ve been eager to find somewhere in town to climb.  Most of the rocks that make up the Chugach Mountains are greywacke, a rock that breaks easily and makes climbing precarious.  Tram rock is solid and offers a feast of tasty routes to choose from.

As he so often does, Andy eventually showed us the way.  Since our initial visit I’ve returned and embraced the role as head knot tier.  Aside from the obvious appeal of rock climbing — a relaxing outdoor sport that challenges one’s focus, flexibility and determination — I find the responsibility of leading a climb, and the grave exactness it requires, to be positively electric.

The climbing style we do at tram rock is called top-roping — meaning we hike to the top of the rock and set an anchor, which holds the middle of the rope, allowing both ends to reach the ground in a reserve “U” shape.  One end of the rope is tied to the climber using a double figure eight knot, the other end is managed by the belayer, who pulls slack through a friction device in order to keep the rope taut as the other person climbs.

To me, climbing is meditation.  Even though I’m attached to a rope, there’s always an element of danger, a feeling that floats around my conscious and demands full concentration on the task at hand.  The only thing that matters is the next hold — everything else just fades away.

We recently climbed with our buddy Shoman and Jess took these pics.

Family Visit

Last week my mom, dad, sister and bro-in-law flew in from Michigan and Ohio to spend a week with us in Alaska.  As dad would be quick to point out, the action rarely slowed over the seven days.  Excited to play host to familiar faces, Jess and I drew up an itinerary we hoped would combine relaxation and adventure, a balance we underlined given the diversity of the group.  With my family now safely home and all the sheets washed, I’ve had some time to reflect on the week, and despite a full-day traffic jam and fleeting moments of out-of-my-element outrage, I believe we succeeded in the most important objective of big family vacations: creating a bunch of great memories we can all share.

I could write about everything we did, but photos are just a tad more interesting, aren’t they?

***

These photos offer only a snapshot of the week.  If you are abnormally interested you can see all the photos here.  Thank you family for making the effort to come to Alaska.  Jess and I are profoundly happy to have shared our lives with you.  Big love.

Homer

I started writing this post before we even arrived.  Everything I’d heard about Homer was an endorsement — a cool little town on the Pacific, known for its bald eagles, halibut fishing and parties on the spit.  With our summer clock ticking like a timebomb, we decided this weekend to drive the four hours south and see for ourselves.

On the way down we stopped at the Kenai River/Russian River confluence to have a look at this popular fishing spot.  Each summer wild Pacific salmon swim in from the ocean and travel up rivers and creeks statewide to give birth and die.  After wading through a rulebook the size of a trophy sockeye, and obtaining the appropriate licenses and permits, native Alaskans, residents and outsiders alike can don waders and try their luck at landing a cooler-full of this toothsome meat.

A little further up the road we decided to stop for the night.  As is our tactic for finding a campsite, we began pulling down unmarked roads in hopes of finding a quiet place with a view (these places are abundant in Alaska if you have the patience to look).  After a few failed attempts, we turned down Kalifornsky Beach Road then Kasilof Beach Stub to reach a place that made us reel in amazement.  At the end of the road was a “community beach” — a sort of unmarked oceanfront settlement of tents and campers, which dotted the shoreline and looked like home to more than a few.  Not the privacy we’ve come to enjoy, but the soft, cool sand was a reminder of home, and as if propelled by an ocean breeze, we drifted toward the crowd and set up camp for the night.

Low tide grubby beach glamour shot


Saturday we awoke to a thunderous dirt bike symphony and hit the road promptly.

Iffy on sleep, we arrived in Homer that afternoon and our moods were instantly buoyed by the looks of things.  The highway approach on Homer comes from above, rewarding drivers with a bird’s eye view of the valley and the impressive water and mountains that surround it.  The town itself has an Asheville vibe, quietly functioning as a cultural anchor in a part of the state where a microbrewery, art gallery or meadery might otherwise feel out of place.

Farmers market

Harbor junkyard

Obligatory stop at the Salty Dog Saloon

Obligatory post-Salty Dog tetherball match


Wild raspberry creme brulee at Land’s End

Camping on the spit

Alaskan Wildflowers


Summers are short and sweet in Girdwood, but there is no shortage of colorful flowers! I’m forever admiring the lush green landscape punctuated perfectly with plentiful wildflowers. Alaska’s long summer days and varied climate create the ideal environment for a stunning variety of flowers. There are over 1,500 species of wildflowers in Alaska and here are few of my favorites:

Fireweed

Alaska’s most well known wildflower is the Fireweed. This vibrant flower blooms in late summer and autumn. Roadsides throughout the state are painted in magnificent hues of pink and magenta. The plant blooms first at the bottom, and as legend has it, once the blossom reaches the top, the six-week countdown to winter begins.

Forget Me Not

This little perennial is the Alaskan state flower.  They are fragrant in the evening only.  These flowers are small and sweet, which is ironic for such a giant and rugged state, don’t you think?

Lupine

Lupine is a plant with bluish-purple flowers.  I first noticed this flower when biking one afternoon.  I was so taken by the vibrant blue I had to stop and get a closer look.  Lupine live in open habitats and bears love to eat the roots.  In my opinion they are one of the most beautiful plants, but also poisonous.


Clustered Bellflower

Early July I noticed these spike-like flowers in front of our house.  I’ve enjoyed filling my vase with these sturdy beauties ever since. Tidbit: put a penny in the vase to help keep your flowers upright.


Wild Geranium

Native Wild Geranium are light blue, purple, or pink, and blossom from spring to mid-summer. I noticed these pretties last month, but they seem to be on their way out.

Blanket Flower

These red and yellow “pinwheel” flowers remind me of the red poppies in the Wizard of Oz.  I love the punch of red.


Showy Daisy

This daisy is one heck of a cheerful solitary flower!  These blooms are frequently spotted around town weaved into hair or tucked behind an ear.