After navigating the tight corkscrews of Anchorage's airport parking garage, we ease into traffic drifting toward downtown. The first thing we notice are the ancient Subarus turned into all-weather taxis. This is Alaska, and you need a road warrior's car to make it through the winter.
But we're here at the tail end of summer. Good-bye, cruise ship tourists, RV-driving retirees and Asian package tour groups. Hello, shaking yellow aspen trees, arctic winds and riled-up moose in rutting season. Anchorage is draped in a cloud blanket of fog and mist, bracing and salty as any other fishing town up or down the West Coast.
Reminders of winter are scattered about. A sign on the stairway leading down to the train tracks warns pedestrians not to wear high heels because, "You could be injured or, God forbid, die." Alaskans tell it like it us, without mercy. Nobody is sitting on the brewpub deck overlooking Cook Inlet. A rainbow arcs over the tidal flats at sunset, while skater teens trade money for drugs in Resolution Park below the monument to Captain Cook, who anchored here in the late 18th century.
First Nations were already on the scene for centuries before Europe stumbled across Alaska's chilly coastline. Inside the Anchorage Museum, Native Alaskans and the Smithsonian (the USA's benevolently imperialist cultural curator) put birdskin parkas, spirit masks and weapons on display. TV screens roll endless loops of oral history and sneak peeks of the landscapes in Alaska's wildest places, where most outsiders can't, won't or don't go.
In Alaska's biggest shopping mall, there's a post office so folks can mail back essential supplies to the bush. The cheerful postal clerk says he can't wait for his upcoming trip to Maui. Like most Alaskans, he makes an escape to Alaska's doppelganger, Hawaii, every winter. America's 49th and 50th states are bound together as tightly as siblings, though one proudly calls itself the Last Frontier -- a motto meant to drive folks away, especially "city sissies," as my uncle-in-law calls 'em -- while the other's nickname is the Aloha State, meaning they'll welcome just about anyone.
Anchorage (or, "Los Anchorage," as that same uncle disparagingly calls it, probably for its urban grit reminiscent of LA, my husband theorizes) is a frontier city. Don't believe that? Drive around Lake Hood seaplane base, the world's largest floatplane lake, and watch the planes with pontoons (or in winter, skis) come in for a landing or take off to soar back to the wild places their pilots call home. We stare wide-eyed at the crazy, but brave feats chronicled in the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, then scarf down a reindeer hot dog as we watch the short take-offs and landings on the lake. All the while day-dreaming of Denali, our next stop on the road north.
What are your fave spots in Alaska? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
Photos: Anchorage (Michael Connolly, Jr.)