Alaska Day 4 (Saturday)… our original plan had been to drive the Denali Highway, an unmaintained 135 mile dirt road that goes east from Denali National Park to a tiny little town (which we learned barely qualifies as a town) called Paxson. However, a morning rain storm and a bit of concern from the owner of the cabins we woke up at convinced that driving an unmaintained wet gravel road through the mountains in a Ford Fiesta was not the best idea. So instead, we headed north to Fairbanks and planned to take the Richardson Highway back south to Paxson — a fairly substantial detour.
Our first stop was in the tiny railroad town of Nenana, home of the Nenana Ice Classic, where you can buy a ticket guessing the day, hour, and minute that the ice will break on the river and earn a six-figure prize if you’re correct. Nenana is also home to Joanne Hawkins, who might be my favorite person that we came across on the trip. Joanne was the clerk at a little gift shop in town and she had plenty of stories to tell us — including the fact that her book was just published and she had autographed copies for sale. Only later did Laura and I figure out that this independent self-made woman owns half of Nenana. I really regret not buying her book, although it appears to be available from an independent seller on Amazon.
After Nenana, we drove to Fairbanks and stopped to visit the hometown of our old college friend Jay Schamel (who is now in Georgia, alas). Then we stopped at the North Pole. Okay, not the North Pole, but North Pole, Alaska, where we did find Santa and his reindeer. Deciding we’d had enough of the road, we took a break to go canoeing in the Chena Lakes before heading out to the Knotty Shop for some ice cream and souvenirs.
Shortly after we left the Knotty Shop (amazingly delicious butter pecan ice cream, by the way), we started seeing moose all over the place — we counted a total of seven.
After stops in Delta Junction to check out Rika’s Roadhouse (now a historical park) and get some dinner, we realized that it was 9 PM, but we were still too far from Anchorage to stop with any hope of getting Laura to her conference on Sunday. We also noted that we were 151 miles from the nearest town that had lodging according to the Lonely Planet travel guide. And so we did the only sensible thing — we made a pact to keep driving and hope that there would be something and agreed to sleep in the car if there was nothing. After all, we didn’t have to worry about it getting dark! We saw the midnight sun from the car, and after a few false hopes, we found the Meiers Lake Roadhouse, which doesn’t appear in any guides or maps that we can find. But it was a bed and a shower — both very welcome things at 1 am.