If you’re just starting off, you might consider these first:
Day Seven (Cont’d):
Ye Olde Bunque Haus is owned and operated by Pat McGee, an octogenarian who has run the hostel for ages. The main house serves as the classier hostel. The “bunque haus” in the back is, well, a bunk house. There were no functional windows and no fresh air. A sink, a bunch of bunks, a bunch of sweaty Alaskan dudes, and a bunch of mosquitos. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Russell and I got into town, cleaned up, and tried to get ahold of Ricky the mechanic. Ricky, who runs a shop out of his garage, came recommended to us by some folks when we first arrived in town. He had been busy before we took off for the Gorge, but asked us to try him when we got back.
Ricky never answered, so we went out. First, we stopped at the Denali Brewing Company and drank a pitcher of IPA and ate some sweet potato fries.
That all went down real easy.
From DBC we went to The West Rib. The West Rib is part of Nagley General Store. It’s where Stubbs the Cat presides as mayor of Talkeetna. As I said in Alaska: Part 2, there are a hand full of must-dos in Talkeetna. The West Rib is on the top of the list. The burgers at The West Rib are internationally renowned, thanks to Man vs. Food. Russell and I each ordered hamburgers larger than our heads, french fries, and beers.
We left there painfully full, painfully sunburned, and pleasantly buzzed. Across the street from the West Rib is the Fairview Inn (to be fair, everything is across the street from everything in Talkeetna).
A hula hoop hung from the street sign on the corner. Russell grabbed the hoop and began to hoop. Russell could hoop. He spun it up to his neck and back down. He walked and hooped. He hooped until a flock of hens inside whooped and hollered at his hooping prowess.
Mind you, it was getting on 8:00 P.M. at this point. And it was still light out. The whole time I was in Alaska this fact had constantly tickled me. Midnight, Noon it made no difference. Light. All the time.
Inside we were blasted by the worst karaoke I have ever heard. Personally, I’m not much for Karaoke. Russell isn’t either. We sidled up next to the hens and chatted. One of them was a yoga instructor. Apparently, there is a yoga community in Talkeetna. She was there teaching at some retreat. We ordered beers, we ordered drinks, we got blind drunk.
By the time we stumbled back to our stinky, sweaty, mosquito-ridden, free bunque haus, it was well past 1:00 A.M. I climbed into the bottom bunk, Russell into the top. Not wanting to mess up the sheets (it was an extra $5 if you used the bunque haus bedding and I had no idea what my alias was at this point), I wrapped myself up in my sleeping bag liner. Hoping it would be thick enough to bar mosquitos from attacking me, I buried my head inside of it.
Mosquitos are individual creatures but they act in harmonious acuity and unison. I am convinced that their sole purpose in life is to suck my blood. They hummed their rapacious soliloquy into my ears and around my eyes as they jabbed their pointy little probosces into my forehead. I, in turn, slapped myself in the face, repeatedly. After several rounds of this dance, I became so enraged within my discomfort I went outside and sat on the steps of the main house. It was 20 degrees cooler out there. The mosquitos were fewer. There weren’t apneic loggers cloffing and snoffing seven feet from me.
Around 07:00 I got up for the last time and kicked Russell awake. In a daze, we stumbled over to the Roadhouse for breakfast.
Eventually, after breakfast, we got ahold of Ricky. Ricky was 5’9”, clean cut, and wiry. His buddy was taller, bearded. Within five minutes of their arriving, Russell describing the issues to them, and Ricky yarding on the tires a few times, they were gone.
As they drove off, it occurred to both of us that we had no clue where they were going or how long they would be gone. Moreover all of our gear, thousands upon thousands of dollars of mountaineering and climbing gear, was in the back of the car.
Taking advantage of our digs we sat around on the couch inside of the main building and waited, nursing hangovers. Eventually, Ricky showed up.
The brakes worked!
Russell paid up and we were off to the strip of souvenir shops and tourist cafes known fondly as Glitter Gulch outside of Denali National Park to visit Russell’s friends.
On the way to Denali, it began to rain. In Alaska: Part 1 I detailed the many shortcomings of the Black Beauty. The brakes now having been fixed, the next major issue was the lack of wiper blades. Turning the wipers on resulted in the hellacious metal on glass screeching yowl of vampires doused in holy water.
We stopped at the first gas station we came across to buy wiper blades.
The station was in the middle-of-nowhere with a middle-of-nowhere inventory. It was under construction. Russell bought some Rain-X; he referred to it as “redneck windshield wipers.”
At highway speeds it was surprisingly effective.
Our first stop at DNP was at Russell’s friend Mandy’s house. She wasn’t there. We dove into Glitter Gulch head-on and ordered coffees at the Black Bear Coffee Shop.
Re-caffeinated, we cruised out to Otto Lake in Healy. On the way there, the highway crosses the Nenana River, a great silty river with rapids of all classes. This is the river that Russell guided on for many summers. We stopped at the Denali Outdoor Center put-in to see if there was anybody that Russell knew hanging about. There wasn’t but we were set on the trail of some of his river-rat buddies.
Once we got out to Otto Lake, we pitched our tent, hung out most of our gear to dry, and drove back to Glitter Gulch to rustle up some friends.
Eventually we connected with Mandy. We hung out at her place for a bit before heading off to meet some of her friends at the Panorama Pizza Pub.
The Panorama makes an incredible pie, especially for being in the middle-of-nowhere Alaska. And as for character, well, their motto is, “Can’t keep our sauce off your face.”
On the drive out to the Panorama, it began to storm. It had not stormed in Denali in over a month. And, as Murphy’s Law would dictate, we drove 10 miles in a biblical deluge replete with thunder and lightning in the Black Beauty with her redneck windshield wipers.
Following the Panorama we dropped Mandy off in Glitter Gulch and headed back out to Otto Lake. The storm had passed, though our wishes of it flushing out the mosquitos was short lived.
In the morning we drove into Healy to eat breakfast at Rose’s Cafe. Rose’s is a delightful greasy spoon. It’s the kind of place where the waitress refers to you as hon or sweetie. The plates were heaped with food and the check was unbelievably cheap. Viva la Rose’s.
Driving from Healy back to Glitter Gulch, Russell pulled over on the south side of Windy Bridge on the Nenana River. We hopped out of the car and walked down to the footings of the bridge on our side of the canyon. Windy Bridge spans the river at height of 174 feet.
“This is the bridge I told you I rappelled off of to get those photos!” Russell proudly stated, the abyss below us.
“Yeah. We should go out on it.”
I hopped up onto the I-beams that supported the bridge. From where I was standing to where the catwalk began it was about a twenty yard walk on eight-inch wide beams. Initially the beam was at head height, but with each step the ground fell away exponentially.
“I…don’t like this much,” I hesitated, turned back, and hopped off.
“Yeah,” Russell agreed, “this looks a lot higher than I remember.
“Dude! We have climbing gear. Why don’t we just protect this whole traverse?”
So we grabbed our gear and traversed out onto the catwalk. Violations of the law notwithstanding this adventure turned from a risky, idiotic, teenage escapade into a safe and exhilarating adventure.
The catwalk was about 18 inches wide and ran the entire length of the bridge. The concrete pylons were immense. Somebody had glued or drilled climbing holds halfway down one of them; presumably people were rappelling in and climbing up. We walked about two-thirds of the way across, snapped some photos, and turned around.
From here we cruised out to one of the Denali flightseeing companies that Russell knew to see if we could get me on a free flight. See, all of the folks who work up at Denali do an adventure exchange of sorts. Raft guides get free flightseeing tours and visa versa. Russell, being the smooth operator that he is, knew exactly what to say and whose names to drop to get me onto a flight.
The two girls working at the flightseeing company were both totally cute. One in particular ate up our stories about the Ruth Gorge. Well, to be fair, she at up Russell’s stories. I didn’t say much I was so worried about getting found out. We waited about twenty minutes to see if anybody showed up to take my seat last minute; that’s the deal, because we’re not paying, if a paying customer shows up, you get bumped. A seat on one of these flights goes for several hundred dollars.
My time came and I hopped on a plane full of septuagenarians, including the pilot. The second the airplane door was latched closed I relaxed and focused on taking photos. Initially the mountain was obscured by clouds but as we approached Denali emerged in full majesty. The most mind-blowing part of the flight was the Wickersham Wall. The Wickersham Wall was not successfully climbed until 1963. This wall is among the most massive faces in the entire world. It is three miles wide and it rises more that 14,000 feet in four miles. While the pilot was explaining all of this to us he was flying head on at the wall. He must have flown at this wall for over two minutes before banking away from it and carrying on. This thing is huge.
We encountered a thunderstorm on the way back which was mesmerizing and terrifying. Lightning struck near enough to plane that I could see all of the splines and branches of electricity bursting through the air. Each time the plane jostled the woman in front of me would squeeze her knuckles white inside of her husband’s hand. She would drop her head and look at him knowingly over her glasses like, “I told you this plane was going to crash.” He was unflappable. I imagined him having fought in World War II, possibly even having jumped out of a plane. This was peanuts for him. I took a cue from him and calmed down, thinking, “If this plane does crash it’d be a hell of a way to go, and this week alone would make it all worthwhile.”
Upon landing on the dirt runway and exiting the plane I tipped the pilot in a showy fashion so the other passengers would know to do the same; this is customary and for getting a free flight I was happy to drop forty bucks in the guys hand.
When we got into the car Russell was beaming.
“You dog! You got that girl’s number didn’t you?”
He dove into his pocket and unfolded the sacred document. “Hell yeah! We made plans to meet at the Bake tomorrow night!”
The rest of the day and the next we dawdled and WADded about. A WAD is a Denali tourist. Upon first hearing this word, my cynicism led me to believe that a WAD was an overweight American that waddles up and down Glitter Gulch, hence WAD. Well, what I learned is that while a WAD is typically an overweight American, WAD actually stands for Wild About Denali. The folks who works up there refer to the obnoxious tourists disdainfully as WADs. One river guide even made t-shirts and mugs as a prank; he sold out of them instantly.
So we WADded about and bugged Russell’s friends and drank coffee and drank beer and went to bed early.
The next day Russell went out on a river trip and I headed into Denali to run the trails near the entrance and to boulder a little bit.
When that afternoon it got near enough to meeting Russell’s young lady at the Bake, we headed over there. The Salmon Bake is basically the only place in Glitter Gulch that is open past 8:00 P.M. Most nights there is live music or DJs. We arrived at the bake at 6:00 and got some appetizers and 24 ounce cans of PBR. We were, after all, on vacation. After some time we began to doubt that this girl was going to show up. At some point we got up and walked around then came back and sat at the other end of the bar.
Russell got up to go to the bathroom. When he came back, the girl and her wing-woman were sitting at the bar. They intercepted him. I sipped my drink pretending not to notice that they had shown up. Suddenly, there was a yell.
“Oh my god! Eric! You are so busted!”
Casually, I stood up and walked over there. “What are you talking about?”
“Russell told us that he is taking you to the airport tomorrow! You don’t work for D.O.C.!”
“Ah, Russell, what the fuck?” I exclaimed.
Russell was practically purple. All he could do was shrug his shoulders. The jig was up.
I spent the next hour wing-manning with wing-woman of Russell’s girl. The conversation was pleasant enough. The wing-woman was the office manager. She was genuinely angry with our ploy, which was understandable. After realizing that we were just a couple of part-time dirt-baggers with good hearts and great senses of humor she lightened up.
Russell did not get off the hook quite so easily. This young woman made Russell pay for the ploy dearly. For the rest of the night she fawned over him then walked away without a word and would hardly look at him. She kissed him. She hung on him. She walked away. She stared into his eyes. She whispered in his ear. She walked away.
Several hours later I got tired and went outside to catch the shuttle back to Otto Lake. Eventually Russell came outside slightly discouraged and thoroughly convinced that “that girl crazy.
The next day we woke up early and packed up camp. We headed to Anchorage quietly both wishing we could go back into the Ruth Gorge instead of back to work the next day. My flight didn’t leave until nearly midnight. We visited some of his friends in Anchorage and barbecued until it was time to head to the airport.
Being a rock climber I literally, and quite often, put my life in my friend’s hands. But there are few people that I would offer as much trust as I do to Russell. This trip further solidified that trust and our friendship.