Wednesday, May 30, 2007

On the road to nowhere...

Actually, this road does lead somewhere--to McCarthy, Alaska, population roughly 40. It's the gateway to the Wrangell-St. Elias Park and one of the most beautiful places on earth, at least that I've seen, anyway. The Loved One took me on a tour of Alaska in August 2005, and in one adventurous day, we drove both the Denali Highway (more on this one later) and the McCarthy Road.

The McCarthy Road is rather ambitiously named. It would be a good place for a road to go through, if someone, say maybe, the state of Alaska, ever decided to actually BUILD a road. Built on the deserted railbed that used to carry copper from the rich fields of Kennicott, the road consists of one and a half lanes of dirt and gravel. To say the McCarthy Road is unpaved is being generous. It's 60 miles or so of bumping and thumping and scraping and railroad spikes and leftover half-rotten ties, tree limbs and rocks bigger than your head and OMG, look-at-that-pile-of-bear-scat-do-we-really-wanna-drive-through-that?!

The western end of the McCarthy Road lies in Chitina, on the Copper River. The town's name comes from two Athabascan words Tsedi and Na , meaning "river that flows like copper." Chitina has a population of about 120, a tiny A-frame post office that is only open about four hours a day, a diner with a waitress who makes the best grilled cheese sandwich in the world (excepting my mom's), and a public pay phone under a picnic pavilion overlooking a lake where the fish jump high in the late August Alaskan afternoon (or 7 p.m. to those of us on the outside).

One of the truly nice things about small Alaskan towns is that you meet all kinds of people that you just wouldn't, absolutely couldn't meet anywhere else in the world. As we sat in the aforementioned diner waiting for refills on coffee, a tall, thin, quiet man of some years came in and ordered a Coke. No thanks, he didn't need to see a menu. Nope, didn't care for a sandwich, or pie, or even chips. Just a Coke, thanks. In a glass. With ice, please.

He drank his soda. We ate our sandwiches. I retied my bootlaces and wiped my eyes. I was weary from traveling and stressed out from a number of things. Right before leaving for the Last Frontier, my mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer. The day before we hit Chitina, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, leaving my oldest sister stranded in Memphis with no word on her property, friends, job, and pets. All we'd seen in newspapers at that point was that the storm had smashed the gulf coast up pretty badly, but that was bad enough news. And to top it off, the proprietor of the diner did look more than a little like my mom and her sisters. I was an emotional thunderbolt looking for a place to strike.

Coke-man turned to the Loved One and asked where we were from. The Loved One explained his background as an exploration geologist in Alaska and how we met in Memphis. Coke-man nodded and told us his tale. He came to Alaska from California just after his tour of duty in the Korean War. He climbed mountains in the Wrangell-St. Elias Forest. He rode snowmachines across crevasses and through the peaks of southeastern Alaska, sometimes with his bride riding pillion, sometimes alone.

For about a half hour, he sipped his Coke and spun his stories. Turns out he lived about 30 miles up the road. He'd been working outside his house and got thirsty for something cold, and so he got in his car and came to Chitina. He left two dollars on the table and walked out the door to head for home.

The Loved One and I walked out to the gravel parking lot and climbed back into the dusty Ford Focus we'd rented in Anchorage, swearing in voice and signature not to drive on either the Denali Highway or the McCarthy Road. Okay, so we lied. It was a Ford Focus, after all. On the eastern end of town, the road squeezes through an opening in the side of a mountain--I kid you not. We drove through a space barely wider than the car and came out on a narrow lane hugging the side of a mountain. Around the first curve, we were hit with a view of the mighty Copper River, splashing its way downstream to a confluence with the Chitina River, loaded with fall salmon. Local natives (native Alaskans, as opposed to Alaskan natives) had set up fish wheels in the gravelly shallows to pluck the fish from the passing flow.

Driving carefully over the river and through the woods (literally), we saw beaver lodges, a pair of trumpeter swans gliding over a kettle lake, ptarmigan shooting up out of the roadside brush, and every few yards, three or four cairns, about knee-high, built of stones by passersby.

We spent the night in Kennicott and hiked out through the ghost town, past the abandoned copper mill and Silk Stocking Row, part of the way to the glacier. We met a friendly dog, mostly black Lab, whom we christened "Glacier Dog." She gamboled along with us for most of the hike, chasing sticks and splashing in the mud. After crossing the Kennicott River on foot across a wire bridge, luggage pulled along behind us, we climbed back into the dusty Focus and headed back up the McCarthy Road.

Sixty miles on a normal road would be a drive of less than an hour, but sixty miles between McCarthy and Chitina is at least four hours, if the weather holds. We ate sandwiches from a brown bag lunch the lodge had packed for us and settled in for the drive. I dozed off in the morning sun, only to be awakened by the crackling of the car radio. Radio reception in the wilds of Alaska is pretty much hit-or-miss. You never know if you're going to be able to actually pick up anything. The Loved One is tenacious though, and he found a station that came in with only a minimum of static. It took a few minutes before I realized what it was we were listening to. Back home in Memphis, these guys are a familiar sound, and even people we have known for years. On the McCarthy Road, hours away from even just a good cheese sandwich, they were the long arm of home reaching out to cradle me in comfort.

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