Evan's Eyes

Web Log Entry #0018, Friday, November 29, 2002: Day 11

Anchorage Sunrise: 9:42am Sunset: 3:54pm High Temp: 37° Low Temp: 32°

So. What's there to do in Alaska on the Friday after Thanksgiving? It occurs to me that I should get out of Anchorage. With winter weather threatening, I know I'll be less inspired to cruise the highway of Alaska when it's icy. So now is the time. As I walk to the garage, my feet slip on ice. Great. In the car, I test the brakes and feel the slide. Maybe I'm too late. Maybe I'm about to launch myself down the highway toward a patch of black ice that has my name on it. The streets are better. Traffic has melted the ice, which seems to only remain in parking lots and less-traveled stretches. Still, I stall for time, stopping at the store to buy water, some sliced turkey and crackers (you know, never venture into the wilderness without provisions). Eventually I run out of distractions. It's time to hit the highway.

There are two ways out of Anchorage by road, north and south. I've been south before (almost ten years ago, before Portage Glacier melted). So I head inland, to the north, on (guess which highway?) Highway 1. The clouds are thickening, occasionally spitting bursts of rain. Spray from cars in front coats my windshield. There's so much muck in the spray that the wipers only make a big muddy smear. A liberal dose of washer fluid is needed. I had imagined that once I crossed the city limit, there would be only a few cars on the road. Traffic is surprisingly heavy. I've never used so much washer fluid per mile. I hope the tank is big.

What plan I have is to get to Eagle River, and if the roads seem safe, head for Palmer. Eagle River is less then ten miles out of Anchorage. Except for the state park and federal land, the area between Eagle River and Anchorage is developed, so it feels more like I'm driving from Portland to Hillsboro; visiting a suburb rather than venturing into the wild. The roads don't seem icy, but are definitely wet. I press on. The housing developments and commercial parks thin out.

Palmer is forty miles out from Anchorage. The clouds are darker, and the bursts of rain are lasting longer. The wet conditions and constant vigilance for killer ice are dominating my attention, not exactly the experience I hoped for. In my grim determination, the thought crosses my mind, "I'm going to have fun if it ki...What the HELL am I thinking?" My idea of fun on a wet and rainy day involves hot tea and cable television, not anxiously anticipating Black Ice of Death at 65 miles an hour. Still, there's lots of traffic, so the chance of finding ice on the highway is virtually nil. I do feel a slight sense of excitement at exploration, probably not unlike what the European-American explorers of the late 1800's felt as they drove this highway. Still, I count the miles as I approach Palmer, and watch a wall of clouds creeping down the mountains toward the valley.

I reach Palmer safely, and randomly drive the side streets. It's very much a small town on a highway; big-box chain stores by the main road, then residential areas and a one-street "downtown" area. Reminds me of Williams, Arizona. By chance I see a "Palmer Tourist Information" sign; I follow it to a small building across from the library. The visitor's center is essentially a gift shop, but Mary, the nice lady who sold me a disposable camera, spent fifteen minutes giving me brochures and photocopied maps, and reeling off a list of places to see in the area. Most tourist places are closed for the season. The two most appealing things are Motherload Lodge, at the Independence Mine near Hatcher Pass and the Reindeer Farm. The lodge is up into the mountains, and there will be snow. After forty miles worrying about non-existent ice, I decide to avoid the certain snow. Mary says she sometimes takes her lunch hour just watching the reindeer, and they have moose who love to be petted, so I head for the farm.

From the brochure about Palmer, Alaska: "The Matanuska Valley Colonization Project was the largest of the one-hundred New Deal Resettlement colonies established by FDR's administration. It involved moving 203 families from the Midwest to the Valley in 1935, in order to establish a farming community in Alaska. An event of national and even worldwide interest, it's [sic] story continues to fascinate the public even to this day..." I wonder if those 202 families from Michagan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (1family was from Oklahoma) were relocated voluntarily.

Mary's photocopied map is not to scale, so I've been wondering if I'm on the right road, missed the turn, gone too far, etc. when I see the landmark flashing yellow light at the intersection ahead. The farm is a short way down the road. I must have imagined the reindeer farm as a happy theme park with warm, cozy barns where contented animals lavish in human attention. It's not. It's a weather-worn house, an open barn surrounded with the detritus of rural ranching, rolls of hay, and stark wire pens. The theme is mud. I park. A middle-aged, Native-American woman smoking a joint in the passenger seat of a running pickup truck watches me (to be fair, she may just rolls her own cigarettes, and I didn't ask). Still, she is friendly and offers to let the owner know that I'd like to look around. She does point out that I might not want to wear my white shoes. (A packing oversight; I left my boots at home, so all I have are black dress shoes to wear to work and almost new white walking shoes.) She returns with a couple in their thirties. They're dressed for cold-weather ranching; worn coveralls and serious waterproof boots. In comparison, I must look like some unprepared, big-city goober. Still, the younger woman says even though they're closed, I can look around if I don't go in the pens. She declines my offer to pay admission.

I head for the pens. The first holds a dozen reindeer. Their fur looks dirty and matted. The pen has only a tiny cover and is wall-to-wall mud. The animals watch, but don't come closer. I move on, skirting the bigger pools of water and deepest mud patches. More reindeer, and a full-antlered elk, right by the parking mud pit. He seems wary, so I approach slowly then hold still, not looking directly at him. We stand together in the light rain. I watch the distant reindeer, who ignore me. The elk rubs his antlers on the wire, so I move a little closer. The whites of his eyes show when he looks at me, like a post-traumatic-stress victim. Maybe elk always look like this, but he seems skittish, neurotic. If he was human, I'd suggest valium. I hold out my hand to let him sniff it. He gets no closer than a foot away. I'm not going to push. He's taller than I am, two or three times heavier, with a rack of spikes on his head. I doubt the thin wire fence would really stop him if he suddenly decided I was evil and must be destroyed. I take some pictures, and leave him alone.

I continue the loop around, dodging equipment and puddles. Most pens are empty, so I take a shortcut through the barn to the final pen. The barn is huge and smells like a... bakery. In the center are rolling bins of bread; baguettes, sliced loafs, rolls, some in bags but most just piled bread. No one is around to explain. Expired bread from local stores for feed? Is bread good for reindeer? No answers here, only questions.

Near the entrance is the moose. I didn't see him on the way in because he's lying in the mud, head up and legs tucked under. His eyes open as I kneel down, but he doesn't move. It's all wrong. This huge, beautiful animal with mournful eyes isn't roaming wild, he's lying in the mud like he's just waiting to die. I could reach through the wire and touch him, but I can't. I tell him I'm sorry, and leave.

The drive south was grim. I'd been so fixated on the road on the trip up, I hadn't really noticed the terrain. Where the ground isn't covered with dead grass, it's gravel and dark mud. Skeletal trees in browns and grays give a rough silhouette against the leaden sky. Even the evergreens are only a dark, murky green. It's a land waiting for a winter that has not arrived. My encounter with the elk and moose have definitely colored my perspective. It all seems harsh and dead. The mountains are the most appealing, rugged and coated with snow, but the clouds now obscure all but the lowest level. I think of winter in Portland, where the gray and rain don't bother me. Portland stays green year round. My experience of the Matanuska Valley must be like how people from warmer climes experience the Northwest winter. It's farther along the scale toward desolate than I'm used to, so it seems depressing. When I get back to Anchorage, I go to a movie to push the images from my mind.

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© 2002 Evan M. Nichols