On the Road Again

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Our bus pulled into the little town of Denali late in the afternoon, and we were delighted with the Princess lodge and our accommodations. The rest of the crew went out for pizza, but I settled for snacks and an invigorating walk around the property and across the street. Naturally I took plenty of photographs, especially of the river flowing behind the lodge.

Before shopping at the souvenir shops the next morning, eight of us gathered for breakfast at a restaurant on the property that served delicious food in an atmosphere of warm ambience. And what a view! Overlooking the Chena River, the restaurant’s wall of windows afforded panoramic views of mountains with aspen and spruce trees. The snow on distant mountains looked like vanilla glaze on a Bundt cake. We loved seeing the leaves shimmering in the breeze and the chandelier lights from inside reflected in them.

After breakfast just about everyone on the trip found their way across the street to the souvenir shops. Fortunately for us, some of the merchandise had been reduced to half price. We were the last tour of the season, and the businesses were eager to move their wares. I settled on some bookmarks and a navy sweatshirt jacket with a ALASKA written on the front. No bears or moose—just a word to remind me of a cool damp morning in a small Alaskan village.

Around noon, we were on the road again, reluctant to leave Denali but looking forward to the next destination. On the way, we passed mile after mile of breathtaking scenery: huge rocks, tall evergreens, mountains, and well, wilderness. I learned that 75 to 80 percent (depending on which tour guide was talking) of Alaska’s inhabitants live in Anchorage, and I can understand why. The wilds of AK are not for sissies or the faint of heart. Alaska is beautiful, but there’s no scooting out to Wal-Mart for contact lens solution or half a gallon of milk.

Like the drivers before him, the bus driver regaled us with stories of early inhabitants and information about the terrain and temperatures. Along the way to McKinley National Park, he told us about an independent woman called Mary the Homesteader who got so tired of going to far away Anchorage to get her supplies by river that she bought a plane and built an airstrip. He also pointed out a road called Honolulu Road and said he thought it got its name from the men who cleared the land. As the weather became increasingly cold and dreary, they named the road after a place that conjured up sun and surf and tropical flowers.

When we arrived at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, we could see right away that it was an isolated place—but beautiful indeed. We checked out the Welcome Center, and then Otis, Thomas, and I went for a walk to explore the property. We soon chose a trail appropriately called “Hill Trail,” and trekking up, around, and down it gave us a workout. The views of foliage, sky, and mountains were spectacular.

After our walk, the six of us reconvened at the 20, 320 Alaskan Grill for a delicious dinner. We sat around a round table and had a great time talking and sharing stores. By the way, the restaurant was called the 20,320 Alaskan Grill because of the height of Denali. Recently, however, climbers with more advanced measuring devices have discovered the mountain is actually ten feet shorter than that. Sooner or later, all signs will change to 20,310.

After a yummy breakfast at the grill the following morning, I walked another trail, a popular one with many people out to great some fresh air and savor the sights and sounds in one of America’s most beautiful state parks. How many ways can a person say gorgeous? Throughout my walk, I could hear birdsong, leaves rustling in the breeze, and the rushing of a nearby river.

Around midmorning, we left for Talkeetna for the next adventure.

Welcome to Nenana

“Let’s go, let’s go.” Those were the words I heard the morning of the 6th, the same words I’d heard every morning of our Alaskan adventure. Here’s something you need to know should you decide to go on a Princess cruise, part land/part sea: while on land, there’ll be places to go and things to do and see every day. And while that’s a good thing, some people can find it a bit tiring. Fortunately, bus and train rides offer opportunity to doze.

Back to the morning of the 6th. It was the day we were heading to Denali, and the very word conjured up cultural connotations. I was used to towns like Kershaw, Camden, and Sumter, and although they too have histories, I was so accustomed to their sounds and origins of these Southern places that I didn’t find them odd or novel.

Before day’s end, we get a peek of Mt. Denali, spend a sliver of time in a tiny town called Nenana, watch a film at a wilderness access center, listen to a park ranger talk about life in the wild as we stood outside the Savage Cabin, and meet Carol Reid on Primrose Ridge. Late in the day, we’d pull into the small town of Denali for an overnighter.

On the evening of the 5th, Thomas said he wanted to visit an Alaskan village, someplace where people really lived, someplace where there was no McDonald’s—just people living off the grid in “real life.” As he talked, I thought, “Me too.”

I wanted to see women strolling down a narrow street, a child or two in two, with a beautiful backdrop of taiga forest on an incline behind them. I wanted to see old cars and NO tour buses. I wanted to see a collection of buildings that would stay seared in my memory forever, a place where people lived and dreamed and loved and ached with desire and wonder.

There were no towns along the road to Denali, at least none that I could see, just miles and miles of breathtakingly beautiful scenery—a landscape “as old as the hills” (literally) and most of it untouched and unseen by human eyes. This was territory for the moose, the caribou, and the grizzly. At moments, I’d find myself becoming inured to the loveliness, and in then in an instant, I’d catch sight of a certain stand of trees or rock formation that would force a “Look at that!” from me.

On the morning of the 6th, Thomas got his wish. At some point, the driver pulled off the highway and drove down a narrow road lined with small homes. I gawked and then gulped. So this is what it’s like to live in a small Alaskan village away from Wal-Mart and The Fresh Market. Was there a school here? Where was it?

We were in Nenana, the first Iditarod checkpoint in 2003 and 2015.

We lumbered down off the bus and split up in different directions to take pictures, visit the gift shop, purchase snacks, and stretch our legs. I was captivated by the bridges, the railroad tracks that led out of town (a sure sign that there was life down the tracks), the gorgeous orange and yellow trees, a cemetery high on a hill, and the overall feel of the place. While Nenana was but a stopping point on the way to Denali, it was a welcome one, and I savored our half hour there.

Little did I know that the day would get better and better as it progressed.

Have you ever been to Nenana? Has there ever been a spot that cast a spell on you?