Author Archives: GAC

Adventures in Africa


Gentleman Adventurer’s


Wide Mouth

By T. Dietz


South African winter – 2009.   Africa, the continent of adventure, exploration, and of beginnings.  We shared a story a while back about influential books from our lives and one of those was “Wildlife in South Africa” 1947 by Col. J. Stevenson-Hamilton (Late Warden, Kruger National Park beginning in 1902).  I was finally here, on the continent, for an adventure that touched deeply my long desire for experiencing this storied and at times enigmatic land.

Our landing pad for this adventure was the private Sabi Sand Game Reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park.  An incredibly well-preserved wilderness that has been in the Bailes family since 1926 but only open outside the family since 1993.  Our mini lodge was unlike the moving tent safaris of British fame but offered an un-paralleled base camp experience. This trip had many moments of downright natural magic as anyone who’s been to Africa can attest.   Here, I highlight the rhinoceros (of Greek origin, rhino-nose and keras-horn) from the trip.

The White or square-lipped rhinoceros, Certotherium simum (Burchell 1817) is not white but gray, similar in color to the black or hooked-lipped rhinoceros, Diceros bicornis (Linnaeus 1758, Gray 1821). There is a much-repeated story that the origins of the White Rhino’s name emerged from an anglicized pronunciation of the Dutch word whyde or wijd (amongst other spellings) – the term used by African Dutch settlers to describe these square mouthed beasts.  However, there is no definitive account. According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Species Survival Programme, the African rhinoceros was first shot and described by Anders Sparrman in 1775 although these ungulates were observed and described during the time of the Dutch East India Company’s settlement of Cape Town beginning in 1652.  Burchell was also credited with discovering the white rhinoceros in 1817 and named it Rhinoceros siumus and not giving it a common name. John Barrow, a private secretary to the South African Governor George Macartney, spent from 1797-1803 in S. A. and published in 1801 his description of the white rhinoceros from observations taken in 1798. Several academic publications attempt to decipher the history of southern African rhinoceros classification, distribution and naming but historical and chronological gaps remain.  

The black rhinoceros name derivation is believed to have occurred as a way to distinguish it from the white rhinoceros and possibly from covering itself with mud from dark local soils. However, the most noticeable difference is the black rhinoceros’ prehensile lip providing it with the ability to feed on leaves and twigs from trees and bushes unlike the white rhinoceros whose mouth is adapted to feeding on grasses.  Black and white rhinoceros can interbreed and produce reproductively competent offspring.

The rhinoceros is the second largest land mammal behind the elephant.  Many folks might not realize that there are five species of rhinoceros and that not only Africa has or have had them but also North America, Europe and Asia. The total global count of the five species is now less than 30,000. Contrast this with counts over 500,000 at the beginning of the 20th century (IUCN YE2015 estimates).

White rhinoceros (Certotherium simum, Burchell 1817); Africa; two horns; approximately 20,000 of the Southern White sub species which I saw C. simum simum but only 3 of the Northern White sub species C. sumum cottoni (all three are in captivity 2 females and one male)

Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis, Linnaeus 1758, Gray 1821); Africa; two horns; approximately 5,000

Indian rhinoceros or Greater One-Horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis, Linnaeus 1758); Nepal and northeastern India; one horn; approximately 3,500

Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, Fischer 1814); Borneo and Sumatra; two horns; furry and the smallest species – their coat helps them in high altitudes; approximately 100

Javan rhinoceros or Lesser One-Horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus, Desmarest 1822); Java; one horn; rarest of all rhinoceros species and one of the rarest larger mammals on earth; approximately 60

Our Ranger explained that Krueger is a special place for rhinoceros. The National Park has played a pivotal role in the recovery efforts of the species.  White rhinoceros were extinct in the Nwatimhiri bush of Krueger by 1895 and the last one in the Lowveld (low field country) of Krueger by around 1896. The white rhino was relocated back to Kruger in 1961.  The last black rhino in Kruger was seen in 1936 but reintroduced in 1971 (Environmental Affairs Dept of the Republic of South Africa).

Encounter One

Krueger and the surrounding wilderness areas, including Sabi Sands, has very little rain in the winter allowing for better wildlife viewing through sparser vegetation.  The Land rover pulled up to a local watering hole so we could observe a pride of lions taking rest and refreshment. This was the first encounter with lions as well but I’ll save that for another time except to say it was mesmerizing to be so close to these fantastic animals.  The lions were lazing around the watering hole when you could see a young male become instantly alert.

There, coming through the bush, was a large female white rhino and her calf. I’ve seen lions and rhinoceros at zoos before but nothing can really prepare you for seeing them in their natural setting and you sitting feet from them out in the open.  Almost instantly, the male lion’s alertness passed along to the many females in the pride. And then just as quickly, the lions returned to a seemingly uncaring state. We had been expecting to the see the lions as the guide informed us that they had been at this spot for several days.  But the unexpected appearance of the rhino mother-calf pair added to the excitement. They were however, not in full view but rather half camouflaged by bushes. The pair appeared to ignore the presence of the pride about 50 feet off to their side as they approached the watering hole.

Rhinoceros have poor vision but impressive olfactory and auditory capabilities. One can easily observe their constantly changing ear direction in order to pick up potential threats.  African rhinoceros have no real natural predators other than man, however, they must protect their young from lions, hyenas, crocodiles, dogs and the like, and this is where their keen sense of smell is important as well as for understanding competitive rhino territory.  Also in the rhinoceros predator alert arsenal is their symbiotic relationship with the Red-billed oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus, Stanley 1814).  A bird that eats ticks off of the rhino and is hyper alert to danger.  Unfortunately, we saw no oxpeckers during the encounters we had with the white rhino.

The mother and calf were present at the watering hole for only a short time before disappearing back into the bush. It’s not surprising to see different wildlife sharing a watering hole.  The mother rhino clearly believed she could protect her calf in the presence of the lions. Rhinoceros hydration requirements are high and they must have access to water within their territory – which can range to around 5 square miles.  


Encounter Two

The next day we came upon a herd or “crash” of rhinoceros, several males, females and calves.  The bush and trees were a bit more crowed in the area we were observing from but, despite pushing ever slowly through the thicker bush with the Land rover for a better vantage point, we did not appear to disturb these magnificent creatures.  Now that we were in a clearer area, we could easily see the rhinos milling around several trees and with limited bush cover. The animals ranged from about 30 to 100 feet away.

Then, something other than our rover caught their attention and fast.  In a choreography of sorts, they began quickly backing rearward toward each other with the calves at the center.  Later at camp, our ranger discussed the rhino encounter and explained that the white rhino is known to circle up around their calves, facing outward to protect them.  The crash stood there in their hub and spoke formation snorting and kicking up a bit of dirt for at least 20 minutes. I only have an initial photo of the formation as I went to film mode for the remainder of the encounter.  We stayed and observed the tense behavior until they relaxed and tried to identify the root cause – to no avail.

Encounter Three

Back out on safari, we came across two different rhino settings.  The first of the day was another mother-calf pair that moved gracefully around a grass grazing area.  There was lots of nuzzling of the calf and lots of curiosity towards us from the calf. As we pulled within 50 feet of the pair, the calf became curious of our rover.  It took several back and forth trips before it chose to wander closer and closer and within 10 feet or so of the us. And then with its closest visit it returned quickly to its mother and chose not wander off again.  The mother rhino showed no sign of interest in us nor of her calf venturing near. Rhino young have better eyesight than their adult members but it appeared the calf was very much trying to scent us.

The white rhino is the largest of all the rhino species and they can move fast and with agility. When disturbed we saw not only the protection circle formed but burst of speed that kicked up quite a dust storm.  The white rhino can reach speeds of up to 40mph. In a more heavily bushed area we came upon about half a dozen rhino that became extremely agitated by the presence of a new comer (on left in the photo) to the group.  It elicited an interesting reaction of several of the group running hard and kicking up dirt in a broad circle and returning to face the new entrant to the area. And just as quickly as all the excitement ensued it ended with heads down and grazing resumed.  

Rhinos obviously use their horns for self-defense against not only predators but for dominance fighting during mating season.  We were not to see a male on male or female on female fight but watching the charging around one could easily see how things could turn deadly and quickly.  A rhino will charge hard at objects it feels are a threat. It’s been reported that among the black rhino population almost half of males and one third of females die from fighting each other.

In each encounter with not only the rhinoceros but with the other species observed I never once wanted to move on to see what’s next.  I’d have stayed all day observing, photographing, filming, drawing whatever animal we were near. I was grateful for each next encounter but leaving each one left a terrible feeling like I’d never see something so perfect again.  

I had not really given any thought as to why people on safari that ride in the trucks are not attacked by the predatory wildlife until we drove up very close to so much dangerous wildlife.  It is interesting that in all of our encounters we were effectively ignored by the vast majority of the animals – I’d say the elephants were the most attentive to our presence. It turns out that as a unit of people and vehicle the animal sees us as an entity so much larger than its usual prey or predatory threat it just ignores the object.  It also fits with making yourself look larger when confronted with say a mountain lion in the States. So, as they say, stay in the truck!

Finally, it’s wrong when speaking of the majestic rhinoceros to not at least mention their decimation at the hands of man – for their horns.  A substance made up primarily of keratin just like in your fingernails and hair, and to have been proven to have no medicinal value. I mention above the severe decline in the worldwide rhino population over the last 100 plus years.  

The demand worldwide remains incredibly high for the myth of magical and medicinal qualities from the horn. On the black-market rhino horns sell for more than gold by weight peaking several years ago at roughly $65,000/kilogram and believed now to have fallen to lower levels based upon the rhinoceros plight.  The demand is still great as amply demonstrated by a brazen killing of a rhinoceros for its horns by criminals at a Paris zoo in early 2017. It has been illegal to buy or sell rhino horn within South Africa since 2009.

Irish Heritage

Kissing the Blarney

By Brian K. Brecht


It’s was a beautiful Irish day as we cruised across the N72, leaving Annascaul and the Dingle Peninsula, on the western side of Ireland in county Kerry. Two hours ago, we left Inch beach in bone chilling cold and blowing ocean mist. Now, with a harrowing navigation through the Blarney town square and being the cause of a minor traffic jam, we pull into the parking lot of Blarney Castle in warm sunshine and 60 degree temps. The sun is out and I was more excited than you’d expect to be here.

The history of the Blarney Stone is well known; I’d argue by many other than those of us of Irish decent. According to legend, the stone has a rich history and rumored to be many things. Possibly the Stone of Ezel behind which David hid from King Saul, having been brought back to Ireland from the Crusades. It’s also said to be “Jacob’s Pillow, brought to Ireland by the prophet Jeremiah, the oracular throne of Irish Kings. Or that it was given in gratitude to Cormac MacCarthy, King of Munster as a gift from Robert the Bruce after MacCarthy’s support of him at the Battle of Bannockburn. Regardless of its multiple origins, the tale goes that a witch, having been saved from downing by one of the MacCarthy’s, professed “that if he would kiss a stone on the castle’s top, he would gain a speech that would win all to him”.

Having had Grandparents who instilled a proud Irish heritage within the family, it was always a story I heard and something that always remained in the back of my mind.

When my grandfather finally retired, my Grandparents Ray and Dorothy began a wonderful “Senior Citizen” travel plan, seeing things across the globe they never thought they’d experience. Grandpa, again a VERY proud Irishman, always wanted to see Ireland and in 1985 it finally happened. There were wonderful stories from their trip, but it was a photo of my Grandmother that stuck with me over the years.

There she was, at the time being 75 years old, stretched over backward kissing the fabled stone. If anyone knew my Grandmother, you could believe she was granted the gift of eloquence.

For Rick and I, this trip was about achieving things we’d wanted all our lives, and seeing the things which had inspired us during our time together as friends and brothers. I was proud of the fact that at 50 I was seeing things that my grandparents hadn’t been able to see until their retirement years.

So while planning this trip, I coaxed Rick into the idea that on the way back to Dublin we’d stop by Blarney Castle. I don’t think he really understood my deep desire to do this, but as ever, it didn’t matter. It was all about the adventure.

Blarney Castle sits inside what is now a beautifully manicured 60-acre park. With paved paths, close cut lawns, and perfectly trimmed trees, I’m sure the grounds don’t look anything at all like what they appeared in 1446 when Cormac MacCarthy build the third structure on this site, what is now Blarney Castle. Rick and I purchased our tickets and began the lovely stroll through the grounds, stopping to toss some stones into the peaceful stream along the path, all the while seeing the stone edifice of the castle in the near distance.

One of the things Rick and I appreciated the most was the state of the castle itself. Having spent the week seeing all the restored and polished history, we loved that this castle was a ruin. Walls had not been repaired, floors remained missing, the remains of what once was is evident and powerful. There is no polish here, so what you get is a real example of the fortress this castle used to be.

We get to the top of the rock outcropping the caste is built on, and begin following the signs to the Blarney Stone itself. The path winds you through the various passages and up the four to five floors that once nested inside the walls of the stronghold. Some areas still have sections of floor in place, others, you find yourself staring into the void where perhaps a grand hall or private bedchamber once existed. I began to quickly realize, the narrow walkways and steeply worn steps could very easily be treacherous. Obviously at that moment we were in no real danger, but I couldn’t help but think, “Wholly shit! My 75 year old Grandmother did this?!” Even after all these years I was still finding things that amazed me about my Grandmother.

Climb, climb and more climbing, after 127 steeply worn steps, we found ourselves atop the battlements of Blarney Castle. I was happy we didn’t find some teeming mass of cranky tourists. By the time we reached the top it was just an older couple and us. They went through the ritual and then finally it was my turn, I was really here.

The process to kiss the legendary stone is simple. You walk up, you lay down, you lean back, you kiss, you get up. But in its early days, there was a real danger to kissing the Stone. These days there are iron rails to grab on to and an iron grate right below to ensure no one actually falls through; after all you are 130+ feet in the air. But I have to say; I secretly wished those didn’t exist. What’s the point of the adventure without some danger? Nonetheless, I reverently went through the process.

You could tell the elder gentleman sitting assisting folks in the process, must have found this monotonous. He had a set speech he gave, mindlessly as though it was second nature. It was so fast and he had such a thick accent I couldn’t really catch what he was saying but it was the same each time and obviously something he said day in and day out. “Lay back, hands on the bar, lean back……. back further……, back further…..back fur… there you go, kiss the stone, up you go”. It seemed silly but again was all part of the charm.

So there I was. I laid down, I leaned back…. leaned further back, …. and back still, kissed the stone, gave it a good one cuz, you know, I’m the only one who’s ever done this, pulled up, and I was done. And there I was, having been granted the gift of eloquence. I was sure I felt different,…didn’t I?

Honestly, I did feel different. Perhaps not from an old Irish legend, but because I knew I had been in the exact same place my Grandmother had been some 31 years prior. And I was there with one of my best friends, who like me found meaning in following the footsteps of history and my Grandmother.

We took a little more time among the battlements, grabbed some photos of the grounds but then it was down and on the road. We needed to get to Dublin by evening as Trinity College and the Book of Kells waited for us tomorrow.

But today, I closed a chapter I had been mentally reading since childhood. And I did something that for me, perhaps fulfilled a little family history of my own. Perhaps something one of my girls might repeat some day.



“There is a stone there, that whoever kisses,

Oh! He never misses to grow eloquent:

‘Tis he may clamber to a lady’s chamber,

Or become a Member of Parliament.”


Lava Beds


Lava Beds

By T. Dietz


Having flown a good part of the skies over California, I had yet to explore the northeastern reaches of the State. With a clear outlook I took off in the T206 to investigate, at least by air, one of our Nation’s least visited National Parks, Lava Beds National Monument.

A smooth hour and half (approx.) flight brought me into the northeastern portion of the Cascade Range. We’d been having snow in the higher elevations on the front end of our predicted El Nino weather pattern and mountain tops stood out white in sharp contrast to the green forests.

There was no need to hunt in trying to find the lava flows. They were amazing in their size and the way they blanketed the landscape.

The photos show some of the cinder cones, lava flows and pit craters that exist here. But the park also has examples of spatter cones, lava tube caves, and fumaroles, amongst some of the best examples of textbook volcanic activity. The area has been the site of significant volcanic eruptions for the last half-million years.

In addition the park has examples of glass flows and one of America’s Prisoner of War camps where Japanese Americans were sequestered during WWII.

The lava beds were also the site of the only Indian war (the Modoc War of 1872-73) fought in California. The Modoc Indians held up in a natural lava fortress fighting ten times their numbers in US Army troops for five months. Native American petroglyphs are preserved in the monument.

The fly over was a visual delight and a quick landing in the town of Malin set the stage for another flight to take advantage of the opportunity to explore a few (25 are open for exploration) of the more than 500 lava tube caves.

Science and Cocktails

Doc’s Lab

By T. Dietz

Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist that collaborated with John Steinbeck on “The Log from the Sea of Cortez “ (1951) is forever etched in the minds of Steinbeck’s fans, as the basis (by Steinbeck) for ‘Doc’ in several of his classic novels. Brian and I have written before about our admiration for Steinbeck’s compelling stories and the museum in his honor.

In the 1930’s and ‘40s, Ricketts was a community centerpiece in Monterey, CA. Its been written about extensively how Ricketts and his lab regularly drew in, often for days on end, a diverse range of characters from scientists, philosophers, writers, artists and musicians to the local societal periphery. So of course it was a “must see” destination during our initial explorations of Steinbeck and Cannery Row. So it was a happy surprise to find a new reference to Ricketts, right in downtown San Francisco.

In 2014, a new San Francisco restaurant and basement performance venue opened in the remains of the famous comedy/musical performance venue, The Purple Onion. The restaurant honored Ed Ricketts and his inspiration for the arts, sciences, philosophy and community by taking the name “Doc Ricketts” and the cave-like basement performance venue took the name Doc’s Lab.

I had been looking forward to hearing the Electric Squeeze Box Orchestra, an impressive up beat jazz group and was dumbfounded to find out they played weekly at Doc’s Lab – a venue I hadn’t heard about. The subterranean space is perfect for performing and listening and has a great and well stocked bar. All it needed was Ed Ricketts and Steinbeck around to drink, story tell, and philosophize.



The River of Doubt

The River of Doubt

By Brian K. Brecht

In May of this year we posted about Michael Canfield’s book, “Theodore Roosevelt – In the Field”, where we highlighted our new found exposure to the non-political life of Theodore Roosevelt. Since that reading we’ve continued in our fascination of Teddy and his life outside of the Oval Office.

This time, we found ourselves lost in the 2005 book from Candice Millard titled “The River Doubt”. Where “In the Field” spent most of it’s time in Roosevelt’s pre-presidential life, “River of Doubt” focuses solely on the time after his presidency. In fact, it was the loss of the presidency that eventually turned Roosevelt’s eye toward South American and an “uneventful” speaking tour through the Amazon.

Roosevelt’s 1912 presidential defeat weighted heavily on the now ex-president, and Millard sets up the desire to journey to the Amazon well, emphasizing Roosevelt was “hunkered down” at Sagmore Hill, and “the telephone, which had rung like sleigh-bells all day and half the night, was now silent”. His family was so concerned about his mental state that they dispatched Dr. Alexander Lambert, his physician to pay him a visit.

Eventually an invitation from Argentina’s Museo Social organization, a group of forward-thinking business and political figures, would entice Roosevelt enough to head south for an extended speaking tour. Aside from the soothing of a bruised ego, the trip would also afford him the chance to see his twenty three year old son Kermit.

As the trip plans are made however, opportunities to explore begin to turn a quiet speaking tour (Roosevelt brings his wife and cousin on the trip) into a plan for one last grand adventure, an expedition to map the unexplored River of Doubt, one of the many unmapped tributaries of the great Amazon River.

As with many great adventure or exploration biographies, Millard exposes the plans and preparations for the expedition. Along with specific personalities that were hired for the trip, she unravels a number of variables and poor decisions that led to a number of the difficulties Roosevelt and his team experienced during the trip. In contrast to his African expedition that had impeccable planning, this trip was sorely lacking in expertise and had a plethora of false credentials.

Though not a story that is “stranded and beyond all hope”, its not far off. The team that Roosevelt leads, along with his Brazilian co-commander Colonel Candido Rondon, experience a level of difficulty and extraordinary effort, it’s a wonder how any of them survived. At one point, on what at the time seems like his own death bed, Roosevelt says to his son, and friend George Cherrie “boys, I realize that some of us are not going to finish the journey. …I will stop here.”

The book balances the flaws that existed in Roosevelt, while once again shining a light on the determination and tenacity that was Theodore Roosevelt. A perfect companion to “In the Field”, and an enthralling journey all unto its own.

The Tongariro Crossing


The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

By T. Dietz


Darkness – there are varying degrees. On this night, 27 June 2017, it was a darkest night and we were in the last one third of a three and a half hour drive from KatiKati near the Bay of Plenty, on New Zealand’s North Island to the Tongariro National Park (TNP) in central NZ. The we here is my wife Leslie, and sons Connor and Colin. I strained my eyes for what seemed like a never-ending drive using only low beams in a fog. Other than the not so occasional dead possums on the road that my headlights picked up, I could not make out any real distinguishing landmarks.

We arrived late at the Park motel, one of the few places to stay in TNP, and checked-in with a very quiet Kiwi behind the desk. Back out into a cold, 20F, moonless night we headed to extremely sparse but clean and comfortable rooms. Our goal for this adventure was the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, considered one of the world’s top one day treks.

As soon as we off-loaded our bags in the rooms, I put on a warm hat and started to leave. “Where’re you going?” my wife said, questioning my heading back out into the cold night. “Outside for some dark sky” I replied. It was cold, we were at about 2,600’ and the pitch black-moonless night of our drive remained. I knew I’d get to see the Milky Way clearly by walking to a spot that blocked the light from the sodium-vapor lamps around the motel. Not just that wispy, smoke-like white river in the sky I’ve seen before, but this view had dense purples and pinks like I’ve only ever seen in photographs. Not even during my time in Africa have I seen this intensity. 20 minutes later I headed back in to rally all the troops to follow me back out into the cold to behold the universe, and they did and they were wowed. Mission accomplished. Leslie even got a fantastic photo of the Crux or Southern Cross. The density of stars made it difficult to pick out Virgo, Jupiter and Saturn, all of which were on the menu this night.

Back in the room I sorted and checked through the required gear for our trek and loaded up my pack, Colin doing the same. We rose excited and easily at 0600 on a cold and dark morning, rechecked the gear, filled the hydration packs, and I put on my son Cooper’s watch. Colin and I headed outside in the 18F crisp air to await our pre-arranged transfer ride to the trek’s start. The very few cars in the lot had a thick frost on their windshields giving them that freeze-dried appearance.

Tongariro is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the fourth national park established in the world. The Park borders on Lake Taupo, a lake resulting from the eruption of the Taupo Volcano, a super volcano. According to the Geological Society of New Zealand and several other sources, Taupo Volcano eruptions are some of the largest the earth has seen in modern geological times. Lake Taupo resides in the super volcano’s caldera from an eruption (the Oruanui eruption) about 26,000 years ago.  At the heart of Tongariro are active volcanos having erupted as recently as 2012 – Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Ngauruhoe, and Mt. Tongariro.

We chose to have a guide (Josh) accompany us on the trek despite the good weather, principally to enjoy hearing about the history, myths, geology and biology of this magical place. This trek would offer more than just spectacular vistas and adventure.   It would allow for some important adventure time with my youngest son.

We were a bit over-geared up but smart for doing it. Weather can turn quickly on the trek. When we started, the temps were in the low 20’s(F) and it climbed slowly to the mid 30’s(F). Perfectly clear skies at the start were followed by a slow cumulous build up over the course of the day. The weather can be very unpredictable in the winter so we were well prepared despite the great outlook. Our guide indicated he has been on several rescues of folks that have inadequate clothing or fallen because they started on a nice day that quickly turned poor.

The trek launched at the Mangatepopo parking area where we were greeted by a dramatic pink and orange colored sunrise. With the rising sun, the morning highlight was snow-capped Mt. Ruapehu to our South. We would have a couple from Japan with us but not for long. With day packs secured and layers on for the cold start we headed out to a flat expanse with imposing volcanoes straight ahead. We had heard there would be a group of about 20 hikers behind us so we started out at a fast clip to create distance and isolation. Josh encouraged us to move at our own pace but wait at the base of Devil’s Staircase, Soda Springs. The roughly flat, platformed track had several thinly frosted-over streams crisscrossing underneath and glistening frost-coated scrub brush was all around.

Dominating our forward view was Mt. Ngauruhoe. For Lord of the Rings fans, Mt. Ngauruhoe was Mt. Doom in the movies. The imposing mountain remained in our view until our decent down from the Red Crater. Climbing Ngauruhoe would be for another time. It’s an ascent that takes about 2 hours and a descent that can be only 20-30 minutes. The track we continued on gradually started to climb as we approached Soda Springs and the last relief facility for a few hours.

Here at Soda Springs we parted ways with the Japanese couple. Colin and I took our time stripping off layers, hydrating and anxiously waiting to get climbing. When Josh and the Japanese couple showed up they were already in distress from the hike so far. We would need to leave them behind, to be united with another team coming up later, and a decision made for them to turn back or complete the journey. They ultimately decided to go forward and arrived about 4 hours behind us.

Colin, Josh and myself attacked the Devil’s Staircase with speed (at least at the start).

This steep, one hour plus climb has a combination of wooden stairs, rock stairs, rock cuts, chain grabs and pulls, and volcanic rock paths all to assist in the climb. About 30 minutes into the climb my legs were getting heavy and breathing heavier. Colin forged quickly ahead while Josh and I hung back for a few minutes. Another 40 minutes or so that included 3 more stops, had me at the top with Colin who was resting comfortably and informing me of his 20 minute lead. Watching Colin taking in the views with eyes and camera, I knew he was enjoying himself.

Over the course of the climb and as we approached the top of the Devil’s stairway, the large volcanic boulders gave way to a field strewn with much smaller volcanic rock.

We then followed the ridgeline up and to the north to our highest point of the day, Red Crater Summit at 1,886m (6,187ft). Standing at the summit and on the south end of Red Crater we could see the varied, volcanically active, landscapes all around us. It felt like it was a trek of discovery as so many are for the first time. Although thousands have trekked here before it was ours that day. In fact, the crossing can see thousands of people in a single day during the summer but we had few and in sections none to contend with. I peppered Josh with geologic and biologic questions to which he stood up quite well. This remarkable, other worldly landscape was captivating and it becomes clear why the Maori peoples sought myths and stories to describe this place.

Josh told us of a Maori legend of an epic battle of the mountains where Mt. Taranaki wanted the beautiful Mt. Pihanga all to himself. Mt. Tongariro won his love in an epic battle by erupting in anger. Mt. Phihanga, Tongariro’s love laid down in Lake Taupo after the battle and upon seeing her reflection refused to leave her spot. If you look closely in the photo below you can see her lying face up in the waters of the Lake in the background. Mt. Taranaki’s fate was worse. He cried in despair and uprooted himself leaving the other mountains and gouged a deep trench on his departure. The gouge’s depths were filled by waters from the remaining mountains and formed the Whanganui River.

While taking in the view of Red Crater and the surroundings, we had our first strong sulfur smell from the volcanically active area.

We could see others making their way up the Devil’s Staircase and anticipated they would stop for lunch at the Red Crater Summit. From there we took the short but steep descent down to the Emerald Lakes.

The Emerald Lakes – I felt like walking into a picture as I had viewed the lakes many times online in preparing for our trip. They are quite a sight in person with active fumaroles nearby highlighting the landscape with white steam. Colin took a few minutes to throw a fairly large sized rock into the first and largest lake, only to find it bounce as it hit clear, thick ice covering the green/blue mineral colored water. A second pointed rock dislodged by Josh and tossed by Colin found itself impaled in the ice to
everyone’s satisfaction.  I chose to use my trekking poles to ease the descent down to the Emerald Lakes and after a time, northward for the trek across the edge of the Central Crater plateau. The track then ascends to Blue Lake. The Central Crater highlights lava flows that emanated from Red Crater long ago. The scoria, a dark and highly textured volcanic igneous rock, was loose and unstable on the descent and resulted in more sliding then walking.

Blue Lake feels like an isolated place as the volcanic prominences keep it isolated from other views on three sides. The lake is an acidic body and sacred to the Mauri peoples. It’s disrespectful to touch the Lake’s water or eat/drink at its shores. We took a brief respite away and above the Lake to fuel up and enjoy the view. From Blue Lake we continued around the west side to an ascent to North Crater and its level lava surface. Here a whole new vista presents itself as you can view Mt. Pihanga, Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo.

As we zigzagged our way down to Ketetahi Hut we encountered new fumaroles created by one of the 2012 Mt. Tongariro eruptions. The Temaari craters on Mt. Tongariro’s northern slope erupted. The August eruption had flying rocks while a November eruption produced only an ash cloud. Expert advice for a trekker if there is an eruption while on the track – RUN don’t hide!


The August eruption produced volcanic rock that pummeled the surrounding area with one rock going straight through the roof and a bunkbed at Ketetahi Hut. Luckily no one was staying there that day. From the Ketetahi Hut we continue the descent adjacent to Ketetahi Springs and private land that Josh explained contains a scared hot spring that is off-limits except for Maori priests who use it to wash deceased priests. Its easily an hour and a half down from these springs to the car park so it must be quite an undertaking to bring a body up to and back from the sacred springs.

On the descent we crossed paths with two volcanologists, one with a very heavy looking equipment pack, on their way up from the car park. A brief conversation revealed they were on their way to take readings with their test equipment from one of the newer fumaroles. We continued the descent on the well-kept route down to the Mangatetipua Stream. Until we met native lowland forest again, the trek until that point had been devoid of observable wildlife. We were finally hearing bird sound and as Josh pointed out the New Zealand Bellbird [Anthornis melanura (Sparman 1786)] in particular. He mentioned that many more birds used to be around but that possum and rat predation has taken a toll on their numbers.

As we approached the last 45 minutes of the trek we came across a lahar hazardous area. I was unfamiliar with a lahar by name but not its devastating potential. A lahar is a volcanic mudflow or debris flow that can, with the strength and consistency of wet concrete, take out most obstacles in its path and can move quite quickly. Josh informed us that a lahar from this area caused a train to fall into the Whangaehu River on Christmas eve in 1953 taking 151 souls.



We finally arrived at the Ketetahi car park for pick up. A bit tired and toe sore mostly from the downhill but also a bit sad that this adventure had come to an end.   We had finished the 19.4km (12.06mi) trek in 6 hours 15 minutes and traversed almost 2,100m (6,890ft). Colin of course pointed out that he could have shaved at least an hour off of the time if he hadn’t had to wait for me on the climbs. On the van ride back to the Park Hotel I asked Colin what were the highlights of the day. “everything, except I didn’t get to use my ice axe”. He then said “Pop, would you climb Denali with me for my 18th birthday”. I smiled and said “I’ll try”.









Trap and Sporting Clays


Drake Landing

By Brian K. Brecht


As outdoorsmen, we’ve often enjoyed activities surrounding shooting and hunting. In recent years, we’ve found ourselves digging heavily into wing hunts and clay shooting. For some time, Tom has been a part of a Northern California shooting range, and since moving to North Carolina; I’ve found a great range we’ll talk about later in this post.

Shooting birds has it’s own challenges like any other hunting sport, and sharpening those skills takes time and plenty of hours at the local range.

For those new to clay pigeon shooting, there are a number of variations to the sport. The basic idea, coming from is:

“…a collection of sports that simulate many common bird hunting situations”.

You might here it described as “Skeet”, ”Trap”, or “5 Stand”, all of which present different challenges. For this trip however we focused on yet another variation to the sport known as Sporting Clays.

A couple quick descriptions and helpful graphics we found (again) on are as follows:

“Trap shooting is considered to be the easiest of the three disciplines because of the number of clays used (typically one, although in some forms two are used), and because the clays are released in only one direction (although the trajectory and speed can be variable).”

In Trap, each shooter will rotate through the five stations, giving each person the chance to shoot from a different location.

Next, Skeet shooting adds an additional level of complexity with an additional trap house and extra stations.

“…more complex than trap shooting in both the number of clays released, the trajectory of the clays, and the position of the shooters. A skeet shooting range (see diagram below) consists of two trap houses, each set off to one side of the range. The shooter positions form a semi-circle from one trap house to the other, with an eighth position in the center of the field.”

Again, the shooters rotate through each station after each round.


Five Stand, our third variant, the direction the clays fly from alters with each round, instead of moving the shooters. There are five stations or stands, and six to eighteen strategically placed clay target throwers (traps). Shooters fire in turn at various combinations of clay birds such as, 6 & 10, or 1 & 3, or 13 & 8. At each throw, the shooter is presented with different combination of targets, each coming from a different location, with differences in speed and elevation. Obviously there are technics and subtleties for each style.

For Tom and I, it was a beautiful fall morning when we journeyed to Drake Landing just outside of Raleigh North Carolina. For this specific practice session, we’d practice our technique on yet a fourth variant to the sport, that of Sporting Clays.

Sporting Clays, changes up the environment and presentation of targets, this time offering two different throws (like 5 stand) but each at a different shooting environment as you move through the course.

Sporting Clays “…most closely resembling true hunting in that shooters move through a course and can expect to see clays from any angle just as if they were flushing game out of the brush.”

That being the formal description, I found the Wikipedia definition to be quite enjoyable:

Sporting clays is a form of clay pigeon shooting, often described as “golf with a shotgun” because a typical course includes from 10 to 15 different shooting stations laid out over natural terrain. “

Tom and I looked at it as more, a predetermined hike, where we got to shoot things. But sure, “golf with a gun”, that works too.

According to the Wikipedia article, Bob Brister introduced Sporting Clays to American shooters in his feature article in the July 1980 Field & Stream magazine issue.  At our facility, we walked a mile and a half course that encompassed 13 stations. At each station the clays were launched from varying positions, each simulating possible scenarios of wild game.

Clays were launched from the left, from the right, launched high, and low, and even over water, or rolling along the ground.

Trap is very enjoyable but you’re limited to shooting in one of five standing positions, shooting in a very regimented order. In sporting clays, you’re still shooting one at a time, each shooter getting their chance at the flight, but you feel more in tune with what a real hunt might be like given the diversity of each station.

Drake’s Landing is a beautiful facility, with a focus on not only hunting and the outdoors, but also a love of the land and the importance of passing it on. A fifth generation working farm, that through the years has cultivated food, fiber, tobacco, forestry products, and fun for the owning Andrews family and their neighbors.

We checked in easily at the office, were able to rent not only the time and shells and had we needed them, the shotguns as well. We were instructed to take the leisurely path to “Course #1” and we’d find an attendant at the first station, all of which went exactly as described.

Our attendant at station “1” was a rough, grizzled, but approachable older gentleman who took the time to explain how each station would work and how to use the automated controller we were given.

Within a few short minutes we were up and running, taking our first shots at station one. Overall it took about an hour and a half to walk the entire 13-station course, taking a leisurely approach at each. The groups are paced at the start so though we did run into a few other groups, we didn’t fee rushed. And everyone we encountered was happy to just be out in the woods. We all laughed and joked, and allowed each other to shoot at our own pace.

The course at Drake Lading was surprisingly diverse, with simple wooded stations, followed by up-hill ranges, over water shots or downhill targets. Each station presented a specific challenge and we found them all to be very enjoyable. For Tom and I, it was a perfect precursor to our hunting trip we had planned at the George Hi plantation. That will be our next post, coming in a week or so.

Since that first trip we’ve returned to Drake Landing and shot the other courses on site. Both are well thought out, easily managed and a great way to spend a Saturday morning.

Drake Landing also offers hunting packages on the facilities, which we’ll be looking into and can report on that as the Upland season begins this October.









Corvallis flying and Col. James McPherson


Corvallis flying and Col. James McPherson

by T. Dietz



Colonel James (Jim) McPherson (USAF, Ret.)

1992 and with a year remaining of my National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I uprooted once again and headed to Oregon State University in Corvallis. I was to continue working with the eminent biochemical adaptation expert, Dr. George Somero who was taking an endowed Chair in the Department of Zoology.

Not wanting to miss any flying time, I discovered the OSU flying club headquartered out of the Corvallis Municipal airport (KCVO). Immediately, I hooked myself up with a check out in the club’s high (Cessna 172), and low wing (Mooney M20C) planes.

From that day I distinctly remember meeting Colonel McPherson who, at the time, I did not know was a Colonel (Ret.). Jim stands about 5’5” and is one of those men who instantly commands respect. He was genuinely friendly but with an incredible air of authority. My memories of that day however are co-mingled with the many flights we spent side by side, learning lessons of flying, hard work, respect, integrity, courage, and much more. I spent enough time with Jim that when I left Oregon for the Bay Area, I knew I had a friend and mentor for life. We stayed in close contact over the years, through letters, emails and the occasional visit in California or Oregon. He followed my career with great interest and a highlight was Jim writing an incredible recommendation for me to the astronaut selection program. It cannot be said enough, I respected the hell out this man.

It had been some time since I had seen Jim, so with all those great memories in mind, a trip was planned.

Sunday night: Flight planning for the trip to Corvallis in our Cessna T206. I had two routes mapped out, one at 388nm and another at 400nm depending on weather in the mountains. I planned for 10,500 feet, about 3 hours of flying, 50 gallons of fuel, and activated the engine pre heat system for the night.

Monday: After another weather briefing we (Leslie and I) were “wheels up” at 8:30amPDT and headed for Corvallis, the most Western U.S. City in the lower 48. With clear skies and visibility unlimited, we opted for the quicker route heading directly up to Fort Jones, Oregon, then over Medford and Eugene, arriving with almost a straight line into Corvallis. We climbed quickly to 10,500’ with air traffic control flight following for the journey.

Considering the weather had been in a warming trend, we were a little surprised to see snow on the lower elevation peaks in the Snow Mountain Wilderness area (7,000’), the Yolla Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness area (8,100’) and the Trinity National Forest (7,700’). Alternatively, we fully expected to see Mt. Shasta (14,170’) in full winter wear and were not disappointed. The entire Cascade range was in its full spectacular glory, a sight that you can not appreciate until you’re just a few miles away at eye level with the “White Mountain”.

As you fly in it’s vicinity, you remember, Shasta has the potential to be active, being about 200 years into a 6-800 year active cycle. It’s comprised of 4 overlapping volcanic cones and one of its seven named glaciers, Whitney, was the first glacier discovered and named in the U.S.

The weather and sun also highlighted the other prominent peaks in the Cascades. Above Mt. Shasta and starting in Oregon – Mt. McLoughlin (9,495’), followed by “The Three Sisters” (10,370’), Mt. Hood (11,249’), Mt. St. Helens (8,365’) and Mt. Adams (12,281’). We tried to convince ourselves we also saw Mt. Ranier (14,410’).

We touched down in very uncrowded space at KCVO, with only one Japanese student helicopter pilot gearing up for a training flight. Post landing we refueled, put the bird undercover for the duration and caught a taxi to the inexpensive, but centrally located, University Inn. By this time I too needed refueling, so we caught some lunch and tried to craft a plan to visit some of the local Wilamette Valley vineyards. Unfortunately all closed on account of it being Monday. Oh well. We next set out on foot to visit my old haunting grounds of Oregon State University. Although I’d been up to Corvallis in the interim, I hadn’t been on campus for over 20 years.


After our bucolic walk to campus, through the turn of the century Victorian homes, we were astonished by the growth. In fact, the student population has grown from around 13,000 when I was there to over 30,000. The campus infrastructure had grown to match, so my curiosity got the better of me and we mapped our way to the old Department of Zoology (now Integrative Biology) in Cordley Hall. Surprisingly, not much has changed in this old building. Pushing a door off the lobby we were confronted with magical cabinets filled with old bird taxidermy on display. Not great lighting but I had to take some photos.

As we approached the picture board of faculty, I was drawn to two faces, Dr. Barb Taylor and Dr. Art Boucot.

With little trepidation, we headed to Barb Taylor’s office and pleasantly surprised her. She recognized me right away, and that started a fantastic 3-hour visit where we got caught up on personal lives, science, politics and travel. The other faculty member I hankered to see was the eminent Dr. Art Boucot. I soon found out he passed away this past April. Art was/is a legend in the world of paleontology, a prolific scientist and author elucidating for the world the rules and patterns of evolution and extinction. Art’s office was across from mine at OSU and I was fascinated by him. Despite his general grumpiness, I was allowed to roam through his extensive fossil collections, giving us significant time discussing old school versus new school science and the history of life on the planet. I was also privy to several of his ongoing combative correspondence with the famous paleontologist, Stephen J. Gould. Art knew of my passion for flying and revealed that he’d been a navigator on B-24 liberators earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal and other commendations. The Boucot Plateau of the Geologist Range in Antarctica is named for him.

Walking from campus, we headed to the River for cocktails and dinner. Les indulged in an original Hemingway daiquiri while I worked my way through 3 single malts (Macallan 12, Bowmore 12, and a Highland Park 12). After a great meal of tapas we headed back to the University Inn.

Tuesday: Up and at ‘em, we met Bill Dougherty for breakfast. Jim had introduced me to Bill soon after joining the flying club. Bill was already a tenured faculty member and one of the youngest, not to mention a brilliant scientist with a hankering for adventure. Our introduction came about with Jim thinking it would be great for Bill to have me ride in the right seat, learning tips and sharing expenses. Of course Jim was right, Bill and I would become good friends, spending countless hours in the cockpit flying all over Oregon night and day. A free spirit, Bill gave up the “comfy” academic life and became a hugely successful car parts maven back in North Carolina. Bill had flown in for his annual Northwestern fishing trip and it was Bill who organized our joint visit with Jim.

As we approached Jim and his wife Patsy’s front door, I had mixed feelings about seeing him on the very far side of life. But the instant he opened the door and saw Bill and then looked past to me, with instant recognition and a broad smile, only good emotions flowed. Jim knew Bill was coming but we hadn’t told him I’d be along as weather could have gotten in the way of the flight, and we didn’t want to disappoint. He said he had a feeling I’d be along and he was thrilled Leslie came as well.


Col. James K. McPherson (USAF, Ret.) was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, 1955. He was the commander of the 559 Flying Training Squadron from June 1972 to June 1974. Taking over the Squadron with its conversion from a combat and training unit, to an instructor training squadron for both U.S. and friendly nation instructor crews, it has a proud history dating back to 1941. Prior to this assignment, Jim was a fighter pilot in numerous jet fighters, and after being shot down in combat, wrote a manual on how to bring a damaged jet to ground.

We spent a couple of hours catching up with Jim, who was a very active participant. Unfortunately, Patsy was not able to really converse with us. Jim offered Bill and I some books and one on the Rheinbeck aerodrome hit home as it was where I had my first exposure to small planes. Although I really wanted the book I felt that his son Jimmy should have the collection and said as much stepping away and worried I’d hurt his feelings.

We then spent another couple of hours at lunch where Jim recounted a few good flying stories and a few military administrative nightmares, all good stuff. I was clear we wouldn’t have a lot or even one more gathering all together. We then had the difficult task of saying goodbye but we still grabbed a picture for the album. Not even the Colonel could keep his emotions completely in check which made it even more difficult a parting. Jim looks great in this photo but it didn’t capture (happily) his frailty. Oh, and he did not like my beard – not one bit at all.

Back to Corvalis Muni for a preflight briefing, inspection and oil top off. We planned for 11,500’ and 3:45 minutes (a 14kt headwind was neither desirable nor helpful) on a straight line back to the Bay Area. I’d have a lot of time to think about the visit, Jim and Patsy, and how fleeting our time is here. We launched at around 3pm and as we got to Medford and the mountains, we encountered building cumulous and light/moderate turbulence. To save fuel and time I had my climb as fairly shallow at 300 ft/min. But by the time we got to 9,500’ I would have gone up to 13,500’ to clear the clouds. With that we opted to stay at 9,500’ and head toward Shasta/ Redding to get better weather and lots of “outs’ for the remainder of the flight. Although a little longer, we picked up a tail wind west of Redding and managed to wheels down in 3:20 despite an extra 20nm of flying. I also lost my digital turbine induction temperature probe about an hour or so into the flight (despite being new) but had a back up in the ship’s original gauge.

I’ve since had a touching email exchange with Jim re the visit and we both thanked each other for our time together.

I’ll say it again; I respect the hell out of that man.




The Alaska Papers – Part 4

North to Alaska

The Alcan Highway – Part 4

By Rick Cleveringa

(*You can revisit our previous posts to this journal here: Part-1,  Part-2, & Part-3)

***PART FOUR: The Alaskan Papers**

Day 8

Spice girls

The Jeep was in need of an oil change. I looked around online for a place, but up here oil changes were up to $80. No way! I find a Sears that changes oil for $40 so I drive over first thing in the morning. In the waiting room are four other people, all locals waiting on their cars. A younger woman runs in from outside, she is frantic and says, “They took all my money and left me here, those god damn bastards! I need to use your phone!” She is screaming this to the Sears employee dressed in his gray and red shirt at the counter. All of us are looking at the show. She picks up the phone, says a few expletives and cries; she slammed the phone down hard and says “I have no money!” She runs out, and the guy opposite of me is watching this close. I say “here is your chance to be a hero and help her”. He was a kind faced man with curly brown hair about 35. He said “She talked on the phone without dialing a number”. “Really?” I said. “Yea, I don’t know what it is about this corner but it is filled with scammers. You will see them all over here”, Jon said.

Jon is a nurse and tells me about the drug problem up there. The homeless issues in the city, and a drug named Spice. He was not even sure what it was yet. It can wreck a pretty face and a person in a few months of use. Jon was self proclaimed part Eskimo he told me, saying “I was proud of it as a kid, but I see a real problem with the people who get kicked out of their villages up North because of alcohol and end up here in the city on the street”. I agreed having seen a lot of them here. A sad state of being when walking in the two worlds. Jon and I both are of the two worlds but walk in one tread or the other. We spoke till my Jeep was ready. I have found over the years of road travel, if you want to meet the people who really live in a place, do common things.

I left the shop and on the first corner was a young native guy in his 20’s still fucked up from last night’s revelries. He is in bad shape, cardboard sign in his shaking hands. I roll down the window and ask if he was hungry? “Yea” He said and I handed him the last of my beef jerky. He said thanks and went off the street to the grass. He sat down and opened the bag and reached in. The light turned green and I drove off. none of that made me feel better. The number of natives that you see as just human wrecks is astonishing. Later that day I walked into a food line on the street, for a moment I did not understand why they were handing out food. Ah street food I thought, hey this is a cool city. I got in line. When I saw no money exchanged and the shape of the people in the line I kept walking hoping no one noticed me. I could see the woman passing out the food eye me up. Hey I really don’t look much different, hell I may not be that different.

Anchorage is a city of extremes, even the architecture. Next to a 10-story building there can be a tiny one-room log cabin. It’s a city with a love hate relationship, mostly I was still loving it.

For some reason I had to see Earthquake park, it must have been the name? It was a fine park on the coast I guessed, within 2 minutes of stopping the Jeep I decided I did not need or want to be there. I drove back to town and head down the Seward highway for a ride. I had no idea where I was going, now this was more like it. The drive along the coast was priceless; eagles are flying overhead along the cliffs. In the ocean I see some behemoth rise from the water, blow off and one more leviathan break the water behind the first. What the hell was that? If I had a guess I just saw a whale? A pair of whales in fact! Jesus how cool! I pull over to a lookout spot. Two women with field glasses are looking out into the ocean. I ask what they are looking for. “Oh we just saw a Beluga whale”. “Hey I saw that! Actually there were two!” My heart just sores. The animals I have seen in the wild this trip has just blown me away. This drive has been best zoological trip in my life, now I have the feeling of being full. The feeling of this coming to a close is seeping in on me. I start to ponder the drive back, the miles, the car food, the hours, and the bugs on the windshield, shit I have to do it all over. Its getting time to go, Lets do one last thing before I leave.

“My heart where’s that medicine?” HST

 The travel brochure from the motel said Flattop Mountain is a nice 3-hour hike. By the time I get back to Anchorage it is late in the afternoon. There will be daylight for hours so I may have time to do a quick hike. The drive to the mountain is tricky and you find yourself in a neighborhood, the grand houses here all built on the hillside. They are all new and shiny with spectacular views out to the Cook Inlet. After a few creative turns I find the parking lot, pay the fee to park and see the trailhead to Flattop. This trail is paved and on a slight incline, shit I flag quickly. My heart is pounding like a rabbit in a death grip. The trail comes out of the pines and I see a hill up the way. Is that it? That’s not that bad, but I am breathing like a marathon runner. OK I can make this grassy hill, forcing myself up and onward. It is apparent that this hill is not Flattop. Beyond this first crest I see the next challenge and behind that a real ass mountain. “That cannot possible be it? I say. There are kids, dogs and families returning. Hey I am a flat lander and that is a serious mountain. There is snow on the peak; I’ll never make that. Get it together, let just keep working our way up to the next hill.

The brochure said it was 1.7 miles and 1300 feet of elevation in a moderate to difficult skill level. I pressed on and got a second wind. All those days, months and years of sitting at my desk, all that inactivity is fucking me now. All that brain rot for a soulless company had taken a toll on my body. At work I daydreamed of such adventure, here I was and completely unprepared. Push on, just go to that fence up there and turn around, keep going, just make it to the big rock and turn around. Once at the fence I pushed to the big rock. From the rock I made the next landmark, taking much time and resting when my lungs ached. An hour later somehow I was up into the snowy part, the last few hundred feet was straight up. The path became unclear and hikers made their own trails through the rocks. The path is over large boulders and loose stones and patches of snow, it is the most difficult part by far. It was hands and knees climbing. I struggled, I rested, and I fucking made it. I really made it. This 1.7 mile was far harder then the Half dome hike, or I had deteriorated even father in that year? No matter, I was there, standing next to the American flag, the flag was popping as it waved in the strong wind.

The top of Flattop

At the summit I have some lanky students take my photo, proof was necessary, even if it was just for myself. The view was spectacular, you could look 360 degrees down to Cook Inlet, to the city, to the higher range and trail cut in the snow behind. Feeling pretty damn good about it, the idea of hiking on into the mountain range floats around in my mind. This is when you need your pals to egg each other on, or, talk some sense into each other. Though its sunny right now, it is cold and windy. I have a tiny bit of water left in my pack, no food and there is no help beyond this point. Ok settle down. I spend some time in the wind exploring the great flat area the mountain that it is named from. There are a few rock shelters dry stacked and an Inukshuk or two around. Just stand there with me for a moment, hear the wind, feel the sun on my face, feel your legs burning; the straps from the pack have dug sore strips into your shoulders. From the edge you can see for miles, it feels like you can take flight from this spot. Shape shifting into an eagle is a real possibility right now. The view warps your perception until you see the parking lot and can you make out the car. That is really far away now. I guess I better go. I exhaled and started back down the mountain.

Going up was difficult, I had burned up the better part of my energy. My leg muscles are strained and worn out. So getting off the mountain was even harder. My legs had very little to give me in the way of support or mobility. The way down took twice as long as it did to get up. From the top of the mountain a young dude who ran up the trail, was over at the steepest part of the edge, the snow filled this valley and ran for a 3/4 of a mile. He got down in a sitting position and glissaded down the mountain. This seemed completely nuts to me, dangerous as hell. He slid with great speed and made it down the mountain in seconds. It took me an hour to get to where he was and he was half way back to the lot. Jesus that crazy fuck! Stopping and resting is the next hour for me, my feet are sore, and my legs gave up on me hours ago. Slow and sure I make it to the paved path to the lot. Never had I been happier to see my little green Jeep. Unbelievable I made it. I did it. To me I felt as If I had made Everest. Time to celebrate.

The Best Hot Dog in the World

Back in Anchorage I went to a corner I had been eyeing up for days. The guy asked what do you want? “I don’t know what the special?” I say. The Bogogi dog is the popular, a young girl says “I loves those get that”. “Ok sure I’ll have the Bogogi dog. that is just what I want” I say. The hot dog stand owner is from Hawaii and works just a few months a year up here is Alaska. We talk as he grills my reindeer hot dog. He tells me about being a young man in Hawaii, taking wave runners from one island to the next. “It was not a good idea once we got out there in the middle. We were blinded by the sunlight off the water and all the salt spray”. “Yea sounds crazy” I say. He is friendly and thinks I am a local. I ask what is the Bogogi? “It’s a BBQ Hawaiian pork. Say do you want the best hot dog you ever had in your life”? “Yea” I say !” He said “I am going to put cream cheese on it. I usually charge an extra dollar for it but for you my friend it’s free. Once the cheese melts it mixes with the pork man its good. I have a guy who shows up every day at 3:00 for two of them”. The dog is handed to me like a trophy. Hey, I deserved this hot dog, it was10:30 at night. Still sunny and bright as 5 PM, my legs are rubber as I sat down on the bench eating the best hot dog in the world, a fantastic day.

Day 9

The next morning I pack up my bag and load it in the Jeep, drive down 6th street to the Highway, now heading back home. I found myself retracing my steps to Illinois, stopping at the same gas stations in Alaska, now I need to break this up. Intentionally I fill up in a strange town so I will be out of gas at a different point than the way up. I loved driving the Yukon up and down it is beautiful beyond description. In the late afternoon a driving rain came in and the road became wet and could be icy, soon it would be time to find a safe place to rest. Towards evening I crossed a long iron bridge, there was a gravel lot down the hill next to the river there. This is a place I can sleep a few hours in the sound of the rain. The first night in my room in Anchorage I was missing sleeping in the Jeep, now I feel unsettled lying down in the back. I feel exposed it takes some time to settle into sleep. The sound of the rain and the river take me to Nod.

The next day was more snowy mountains, bears and vistas and I started to think about Saskatchewan. Shit I cannot take that ride again. I stop for gas in a muddy lot with a single pump; my boots get caked as I went in for coffee. I parked out of the way of the truckers in the lot and I pull out the map and seek a different route home. In Grande Prairie I can take route 40 through Jasper Nation Park, I have loved the mountain driving so far, so why not? It adds hours and miles to my way home but that’s OK because I will never drive through Saskatchewan ever again. This was to be a brilliant decision.

The highway cuts right trough the park and to my surprise, there is a gate on the highway where you have to pay to enter the park or use the highway. It was all very beautiful but I noticed that the traffic here has some cash. I stopped at a very nice tourist restaurant; it has a large gift shop and big dinning area. This is no rundown café, the diners are all well dressed and I hear German accents. The guy who works in the gift shop strikes up a conversation with me and he tells me about Jasper and who is coming up here, how the parks will be free next year for the 150 year anniversary of Canada. I get a cup of coffee and head out. The drive is amazing. That night I pull over in a tiny spot next to a stream, the water is running so fast. As I lie down and try to sleep I think, “what if floods”? Before I realize what has happened, I’ll be sucked into the water and pulled into the tunnel that goes under the road. Sleep in the Jeep has changed. Some dark thoughts accompany me as I roll up in the wool blanket. Did I just get out of the habit or did something else change? When you have hours alone to drive you can think about this until it does no good.

This drive takes me through Dead Mans Flats and on to Calgary, this is the largest city I have seen in days. I cannot remember why I know its name? I see some silly colorful architecture with the Olympic rings on the side. Yea that is it; back in 1988 they hosted the games, now the city is stuck with these buildings that look like it they boast of having the worlds larger day care center or some such nonsense. I can roll down the window as I drive in the city the weather is warm and I look for one thing that might be an interesting stop. No luck, and I am on a flat road heading south. Nanton, and I take my last 10 Canadian dollars and spend it on a uninteresting burger and fries. The place is called the Zephyr Drive in and a young girl is outside struggling with a table umbrella in the wind. She is the only one here and I have to wait for her. After 13 minutes of fighting she gets pissed and chucks the umbrella next to the shack. After another 5 minutes she shows up at the little window, she slides it open and through the screen I order. The food and drink cost $9.95, and sitting at the table writing, eating the burger and greasy fries, I am ready to leave Canada.

Its a flat easy run to the line. Back at the US boarder I slow down for the boarder station. There is an native looking guy with police type hat on sitting in this tiny shed with a gate. He sees me and gives me the secrete head nod, I never even have to make a full stop, no questions, nothing. I rolled back into the US and into Montana, from Sweetgrass, Sunburst to Shelby and the famous Route 2. In Shelby I find a room for the night. That evening I want some diner but opt out and walk to a gas station and get a bad sandwich, chips and a pop. Sit in my room I make contact with home. It does feel good to be closer to home.


The Montana morning was bright and sunny and I throw my backpack into the Jeep. I pull on route 2 and think of those books I have read, books that are written about this highway. The road skirts the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and in a shitty looking gas station I notice I am one of ten guys with long dark ponytails. Somehow I do not feel like I am home, Rez life is a different world. One hidden from most, and the rest would not believe it. They want $4 for an egg salad sandwich here, I’ll move on. Through this trip I had no real focus on food or the search for really tasty cafes, hidden gems and house specialties in 4 calendar cafes. Perhaps this was not that kind of travel? It was great miles to made and food was an after thought. Perhaps it was I had no one to share meals with? No road pals for succulent steak sandwiches or Scrapple. No “E” to share plates of fresh seafood, the only other notable meal was on the way home. I stopped in Dawson Creek at dinnertime, asking in a coffee shop where I can find Poutine? Some nice ladies told me to go to Le’s family restaurant. With some local directions I found Le’s on route 2, it was an old motel with a café, white wood siding building that looked as neat as it did in the 1940’s when it was built. The Le’s have owned it since 1988. It was a comfortable little dinning room, movie perfect. I order poutine and a coke. Well I can tell you that was the best damn poutine I have ever had. All I could do is ask myself “Why do we not have this in the states”? Damn it was good. Other then a crepe, hot-dog, and some fries smothered in gravy and cheese my meals were only sustenance so I could drive. Eating in the car hides some of the road loneliness of an empty table in a rosy cafe. I was not on the hunt for that magic Po’ Boy, or a BBQ joint called Bubba’s, food that leaves you searching the rest of you life for a decent comparison. Once with “E” in some forgotten town along the Dixie highway in Florida, we had fish tacos that were so unforgettable, to this day I always order fish tacos in every Mexican joint I eat at. Even when they are good and most are not, none have come close to the ones on that lost coast road. Search on that is all I can do.

Meanwhile back on route 2 in Montana, a food trailer run by an Indian couple is parked in front of a dilapidated motel. To say this town was rundown would be a compliment. It was a shithole. What was not closed, like the Indian Museum, was run down. It’s shocking to see a people in this condition. I would have really enjoyed seeing the little museum too. I turn back to the gravel lot and park. This is the spot. How could it miss? It is the only thing here. The woman in the trailer is not very friendly to me. I order a burger, now I do not want another hamburger but it’s the best strategy in a questionable place. As I waited I walked around the motel to have a look. Shit! It’s half collapsed and rooms are boarded up, there is a late 80’s Cadillac parked out back. It came here on its own motion, which means someone is here. That means someone, who is not looking forward to company, is in one of these rooms. I duck back around to the front and sit by the Jeep. The burger deserves to be in this town and I only felt bad for eating it. I drive on and Route 2 runs back into 52 and North Dakota, soon I was back in Harvey, back in the Cobblestone motel.

Day 13

Red Haired Tornado

This was it; I could be home later today. The ride now had a little familiar feel as I run down 52. The only stop of mention would be in the hometown of Red Lewis, Sauk Center Minnesota is my last stop before home and sleep in my bed. The town is picturesque and was strangely perfect looking. I drove down to the birthplace house of Sinclair and unfortunately it was closed. I walked down the street, it was sunny and pretty, there are two people with power tools working on a picnic table. A couple in there late 50’s so I say Hello, can you tell me where to find Sinclair Lewis house? I have used this technique in the past. Find the place you wish to see, then find a local and ask them where it is. “Oh you are close it right down the street”. The woman says to me. They walk down the concrete drive to size me up, they are both friendly as can be. The next half an hour they tell me all about Sauk Center. Bill and Claire inform me that the Sinclair Lewis Center near the highway is closed, “I think it has been a coupla years now”. Bill said. There was a gentle breeze and Bill’s soft white hair blows like smoke back and forth. It was like he was under a smoldering grass fire. They sold their house in the Twin cities for $380.000.00 and bought this beautiful two story for $84K. The taxes are less than $800 a year. Everybody works here, everybody knows everyone Claire tells me. Her hair is quaff and perfect, it is a monument to hairspray and 30 minutes craft each morning. In the stiffest wind today it never moves. They seem to like me very much and I liked them. They tell me I can move next door, jobs pay between $14-18 dollars up here. “It so much better then the Twins” they say. “We love it here” they tell me. Lots of rich people here in the summer Bill says. “They don’t bother anyone, just come and go”. Had it been closer to lunchtime I am positive they would invite me in for Tuna salad sandwiches, shoestring potatoes, lemon aid and homemade oatmeal cookies and I would have gladly accepted. In all my life of meeting people, or strangers in travels, they were the sweetest of all.

When Sinclair Lewis left this town and wrote Main Street in 1920 he pissed off most the population of his hometown. Ten years later he was the first American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. The town forgot or forgave him and liked the tourist dollars; now the native son has been recognized by the world and should be honored. The city fathers put a sign in the front yard of his house and charge admission. To further the literary tour the town built the Sinclair Lewis Center near the highway. I took a drive over just to have a look, it was true, it was closed. I peered through the windows saw some garbage on the floor and display cases now abandoned. I wanted to sneak in, but it was shut tight and broad daylight. I guessed the town was mad at him once more. Or Mr. Lewis has been forgotten. Anyway you sliced that, it was sad. I drove on.

Now it was all interstates highways and a $2 gas station sandwich to home. The trip is all behind me, all the bears and birds, the long miles and the mountain views. Even when it was only through a windshield a mountain is a majestic body to see. To visit, to be on, to run down and to sleep on, dreaming about a place for 40 years is dangerous way to approach it. It can lead to disillusionment in a hard way. All the years of having the Alaskan highway come to my mind, telling yourself “Yea one day I’ll drive that, If I only had the time, It would be a great adventure, That would be the trip of a life time”. The actual trip was beyond my feeble thoughts, years of dreaming about it, days at shitty jobs when you think if I just could quit I drive to Alaska right now. I fucking would. Finally the courage the support and timing were right. The road was still there, gas was cheap this year and I let go….

… and I did it.






The Alaska papers – Part 3

North to Alaska

The Alcan Highway – Part 3

By Rick Cleveringa

(*You can revisit Part-1 here and  Part-2 here.)

***PART THREE: The Alaska Papers***

Mrs. Betty

The woman behind the counter at the Super 8 has been standing there 38 years though she does not show it. She said, “They say they built the motel around me”, her hair silver but neat as a pin. Her manors are southern and familiar. I ask about a room, “Yes of course” she says. We chat a bit and she tells me that she came up with her army husband in the 50’s, a tale I would hear often in Alaska.

Originally from Shreveport Louisiana and proud of her roots, I liked her very much and wanted to make friends. Up to the room for a shower and nap, I opened the door and said “Jesus!” It is a real shithole and it was not cheap, I may have had to pay extra to view the previous occupants murder scene. The room was dingy in every way, the furniture was battered and bruised and greasy looking. Every edge in the room was burnished shiny by use or struggle. The bathroom light switch cover had blood on it, that was surprising to me because I only notice that after I had turned the lights on. It was dank and funky. OK one night and I will find other quarters in the morning. There was no hot water for a shower, I was to wired and to disgusted to rest, so I went down town.

Parking the Jeep on 6th street I walked up and down the tourist parts enjoying it all. I loved Anchorage, it was old fashioned and slightly worn at the seams. It was enjoyable and small enough to get around easy. There was no real reason for me to pick this city as my destination because the Alcan heads North to Fairbanks. I wanted the coast I guess and here I was digging this place. Exhausted I went back to my dingy room and pulled the curtains tight. Using toilet paper I flipped the bathroom light switch on and took a cold shower. The wifi is criminally slow and I gave up and wanted to crawl into bed. Now I see I had left my pajamas in Saskatoon; that would make a great song title. Off to Wal-Mart to get a cheap pair cause I will not get in that bed with no clothes on.

Day 6

Up at 6:30 looking for a different motel on line. Camping is also an option; nearby Chaugo National park would be a nice place to set up. I went downstairs and see Mrs. Betty at the counter. Now I do not plan to stay or complain about the room, it’s OK I’ll just go. Mrs Betty calls me over to ask me how I rested. Well I don’t want to complain but… I tell her about the room. She is sorry and says “I’ll move you to a different room and only charge you $107 per night. Just go see this other room, I want you to be happy”. She insisted I stay and see the next room. OK she was a great representative for the Super 8. The next room was in a different motel I think. It had the same stuff in it, but was clean and the price was unbeatable. “Yea thanks Betty I will stay,” I said. “Oh good I want your first trip to Anchorage to be a good one” she replied. We chatted for 20 minutes and she told me her life’s tale, a lovely woman a real asset to her company. The next month Super 8 double charged me for the room for dates when I was sleeping at home in my own bed. I had to call Mrs. Betty and she took care of that. The new computer system was to blame. Thanks Betty it was a pleasure to meet you.

Back on the street and I go to Al’s Army surplus. Man they have the nicest outdoor gear, lots of canvas and leather. Real wool coats and high end out door clothes. Though for me its only a museum of the new, I can’t partake in buying all the cool stuff I love here. It was nice to see but I wander up and down the street and get a closer look than last night. I dig the souvenir shops and load up on Eskimo knifes and tee shirts for my pals, gifts for E’s family and friends, a hoodie for me and on to the next shop. The farmers market is happening down the street so I go check it out.

The market fills a large parking lot with white tents with strange foods and wild crafts. It’s chilly and a lite rain is falling. The market still draws a fair crowd and I walk the whole of it to see what is about. There are leather workers, jewelry, crafts and one guys have these beaver fur mittens that are so badass. You can picture yourself wearing them on a sled dog run to Nome. It was really nice. They had a band of 80-year-old women playing double neck guitars, sax and drums, a Townes VanZant knock off heads the mic. He plays standards and they tarry away at them.

Next to the stage are salmon and caribou tacos, yes Please! I take a seat at the picnic table and have a bite to see what they taste like. It was nice little taco that needed some hot sauce and they got it. I saw some Korean fish shaped waffles I wished I had tried. There was much I would like to go back for, I just had to keep in mind its a 65 hour drive. At one shop I bought Esther some pearls fashioned into a long necklace by the woman artist there. It was a nice stop I wished it had been sunny and I could eat like I was 20 again.

Wandering around I see the Anchorage Museum. Why not? It was full of modern art and had an incredible collection of Inuit art and weapons. There were lots of bows and arrows, quivers and harpoons, far better than one would expect. The windproof seal gut jackets were amazing, they look like Tyvek. I really learned so much about life current and past here. They have a large photo gallery of huge black and whites of abandoned work sites and homes in the far north. They were gripping and you walk into each photo and exist in that far off world if for only a moment. The effect left me dazed. It is a superb museum. The downstairs had a wonderful hands-on kid section, giant crazy machines and a land of bubbles. Pools with soapy water and large bubble wands, large enough you can stand inside the bubble. The kids were wild and happy here, the parents smiled. It was a happy wonderful place. When I left I walked back into the gray and rainy day.

I moseyed through the dripping city past the shops and tour buses, past the homeless and locals. Past the retirees that drove the RV up here from Michigan and past the wealthy in furs and nice shoes. The city was busy and I had work to do. I went to the Alaskan RR ticket office to book my trip. Over the tracks I walk into a venerable old train station, it was film Noir under my feet. Wow I loved it.

The ticket agent is a gray haired woman whose blues eyes are so kind and youthful. She has an accent of a Nordic background. Monika loves working here and is so glad to help me find a trip I can take Sunday. I have no clue where I should go so she suggested a day trip to Talkeetna. Why? I ask. “Oh its a lovely town. You can spend 6 hours shopping. They have a lot of restaurants for lunch or you can go to Denali.”

WHAT” Denali?” this peaks my interest. It never occurred to me to go to the tallest peak in the US. I ask her to tell me more. “From town you can walk to the airport and they fly you to the mountain. You land on a glacier and spend an hour there exploring. When you get to Talkeetna find K2 aviation they will take care of you.” Wow hell yes! The train ticket was set, $275 and I have my reservation in hand, this is exciting.

 Back down town I find the Captain Cook statue and look out into a long run of mud that leads to the open sea. After all, that’s what the good captain was doing. I bid Captain Cook and the sea farewell and walk back down town.

Who knew I was about to enter the best unintentional museum in the world? On 6th street, down past the tourist shit, was a gray unassuming building with a single glass and aluminum door, the sign read Antiques. Sure I have time to kill. This place was amazing, the brass telescopes, the whaling guns, the pre Colombian pottery and Roman glass; it’s a serious collection. They had a Rembrandt and Van Gogh, tons of dinosaur fossils, the largest trilobite I have ever seen, loads of stuff piled and packed on every spare inch of space. They had paintings I had seen in art books, racks of antique guns. It was amazing every piece was museum quality. One of the owners showed me around, he was a quiet fellow with a gray ponytail and small glasses. He was wearing a black turtleneck and slate colored slacks. There was a nonchalance about what he showed me and it seemed very strange that you could actually buy any of it.

If you were going to outfit a museum or one hell of a library this would be the place. I spent an hour just looking around. The owner was most kind to spend such time with me; he could see I did not have two nickels to rub together. He told me last week they sold a fully intact Mammoth skull for $250,000, he said it like he sold a pack of gum. I felt bad looking around but the staff was patience with my questions. This trip has shaped up far beyond my first thoughts.


I found The Coffee Cup shop and went in for a mug and a brownie. I wrote and looked at emails. I watched people for a while and rested my feet. Another remarkable day under my belt and I was beat. Back to the motel and sleep, the wifi was better, the room was clean, I watched some TV and lay back after a hot shower.

Day 7 Sunday the 20th

Up at 4:30 and get ready for the train. Washed some clothes and had a fast bowl of Frosted Flakes. Saw Mrs Betty this morning, she was taking the stairs down so I joined her. She asked how I rested seemingly genuinely concerned. It was nice to be asked.

I tell her I am off to the train, “Oh you are going to love it I promise” she said. I drove downtown to the train station. Now it was here that I notice that I am about 15 years too young to be doing this retired guy stuff. It dawns on me that many folk I have seen are all over 65. Ah yea, I’m still getting the idea that I too am retired for the moment. On the other hand am I just doing old guy stuff? Later along the coast an old fella would tell me “You have to be retired to do this”. I ponder my new situation as I drink a terrible $5 cup of coffee at the station. The station is full but unlike the Noir films I love so much, no one is in a suit. This I notice, as I have no inner pocket for my train ticket and meal voucher.

I hear the train! Announcements are made on a loudspeaker. A line forms and they yell “ALL ABOARD!”

The locomotive and cars are gold and royal blue, all sleek and beautiful as the diesel engines

purring away. Just like a movie, bells clang and air releases in a loud psshhssss.

In line I hear two guys with British accents. The British have a great love of trains. They are friendly and we chat throughout the trek. They are from Portsmith. “Oh cool I will be there in September” I say. “Great time to be in England” one says. “See Lord Nelsons ship”. “Yes I plan to see the Mary Rose” I reply.

They have been on the train South to Seward and now are heading North to Fairbanks.


On board I take a seat in the sight seeing car, glass domed and great views. The train is slowly moving out of Anchorage, I wonder, can you feel the excitement? Soon the call for the dinning car was made and I head down for breakfast. I see the chaps from the UK and sit with them. Rod and Steven say the food was really good on the train. I am hungry and ready for a good breakfast. We see a moose standing right next to the tracks. Wow, breakfast was tasty and hardy, all very good.

I really want to go out on the open-air deck of the train. Outside the cold air and the diesel fumes blow past you. It was a unique experience and I stay out till my head is frozen. I go back inside take a seat and drink hot coco. The backdrop was as scenic as the drive. I saw swans, bears, moose, lakes, great forests and rivers in the wild. All untouched all pristine.




The train station in Talkeetna was not downtown. Only a few people left the train and got into cars and drove off. This leaves me alone in the station and I don’t know which way to go, so I hoof it. I walk the way I think town might be and cutting through a campground I ask a camper. He was washing a pot and said, “Go down to the end of the pavement and go left”. He was from Anchorage and up for the weekend. I did find most people very friendly and willing to talk. A ten-minute walk and I was on Main Street and two blocks down and I found K2 Aviation.

It was a small house converted to an office; actually every house in town has been converted into some business. It would be like living in a Renaissance fair. I enquire about a Denali trip with glacier landing, but unfortunately, no dice today. Though it is a bright and sunny day here, the mountain makes its own weather. It’s too dangerous to fly up there today and landing is impossible. No luck, shit now what do I do? I have 6 hours to kill in this town of crafty shops in little houses.

Now I feel a little trapped. Dismayed I walk the two streets and look at the shops. I was told to go see the mayor of Talkeetna, maybe he can help me out? I have my little video camera and figure I can interview his lordship. It was nearing lunchtime and from what I heard, the mayor may be awake by now. I go Nagleys store to met him. Rumors of his death have been hounding the little town this year and the resident complaints about the press congesting the tiny streets with news vans are common. The mayor is alive but not well, he is resting at home today. That is what I am told by the woman at Nagleys. So I wont get to see Lord Mayor Stubbs today either. The reason why the press keeps a close eye on a small town mayor is, his death will be news for mayor Stubbs is a cat. He has unanimously been voted in as Mayor since 1997.

Crestfallen I walk up and down the streets looking at the cute little shops. This would be a wonderful stop on a road trip for an hour. Five and half hours to go and soon I despise the tourists and I am one of them. Though they were well behaved, the reality of depending on hoards of people stuffing themselves and buying trinkets made of beads and feathers, so you can work doggedly for a few weeks a year just to survive, bothers me deeply. The real pay off for the residents here would be the free days spent in this lovely place. When none of the tourist are blocking your driveway with their rented car. Then the winter sets in, the months of darkness and contact with only a handful of people you know all too well, it becomes a very strange place.

I have seen all the cute little shops one can stand. This is the time to come up with a new strategy, change your outlook. This exercise eludes me far too often on travel and in life but today I recognize what to do. Dig deep my man lets see what is here.

A small, often ignored wooden arrow, reads Museum. OK lets see what this is? It is pointing me to walk between two clapboard buildings. The buildings are about 2 feet apart, wooden planks on the ground were acting as a sidewalk in the mud. This takes me out onto the next block. Away from the main shopping streets to a more residential area. I open the door of the museum, pay the $3, and look at the books on the shelf. The man at the desk must have not seen a living soul in days and talks endlessly. It was like rescuing a man from a deserted island. The Talkeetna Historical Society museum is three buildings all with exactly what you expect. Old tools, rusty machinery, old saws, old clothes; things I have seen in every town museum everywhere. I buzzed through the three buildings in minutes and paused in the last room at the diorama of mount Denali. The little man ran in like the museum was on fire, out of breath he says, “Come back at 1:00 we have a talk about the mountain. One of the rangers comes down and gives a real nice speech”. “Ok thanks that sounds nice I say”. We both knew I would not be back.

The curator did suggest that I go to the Roadhouse for lunch. It is a family style restaurant with long tables where strangers share meals. Climbing gear, snowshoes and hammocks adorn the walls and nooks. I sat at a table after asking if the seat was free. A young German fellow with beard and lanky body says ”Yah”. This place is for mountaineers before and post accent. A few of these guys are around eating huge plates of food and laughing as one. Truly I admire their courage and strength, but there is an arrogance that sits with me wrong. The server ignores me for a long time, no menu, no glass of water. Clearly I do not belong here so I wandered out to an Inn down the way. Sat out side on the deck and waited. Was I invisible today or just another fat tourist? The town smells like hamburgers on a summertime grill. The waitress comes, I order the burger and slaw, it was all tasty. I actually felt good as I ate it the staff at the Denali brewing company was nice. I would meet the burger chef later.

After my burger I amble down to the river. The Susitna River boarders the town and breaks the land from the mountains. The river is high and the muddy water that looks like chocolate milk races by. There is gold out there somewhere. I toss a stone or two into the drink looking out to the cloudy horizon miles away. Mt Denali is somewhere buried in that mist and fog. A breath of air and I walk on. The ranger station was a block away.

It was an inviting new building and a most interesting stop. Ranger Mike at the counter was courteous and edifying. I watch the 17 minutes presentation on climbing Mt McKinley. Mike spent 20 minutes telling me about Denali and climbing. What I found out was all climbers of Denali have to check into this station. I asked about an application. He said you fill it out on line. There are over 1000 attempts in 2016 with 60% summit success. Many have perished; around 100 lives have been given to the mountain since the first attempt in 1903.

There were a few unsuccessful summits attempt until 1913 when a man named Walter Harper made the summit. A Native Alaskan, half Irish and half Koyukon, he was part of a four man team to be the first. In the end the mountains were not the danger he needed to be aware of, it was the sea. In 1918 he and his new wife died on their honeymoon in a shipwreck in route to Juneau. The SS Princess Sophia entered a heavy gale, she ran one mile off course, striking a reef the ship broke up. 40 hours later, unable to receive help, all hands perished in the icy sea. From the top of the world to the bottom of the ocean, he is a man who’s name we should know.

In 1906 a man named Cook was said to be the first. He also claimed in1908 to be the first man at the North Pole, both these claims were contested and soon found out not to be true. He was just confused by the altitude and the cold or a fucking liar?

My favorite group of mountaineers was the Sourdough Party; the name alone conjures up a good time. They spent three months on the mountain in 1910. They carried bags of doughnuts and thermoses of hot chocolate on their many unsuccessful attempts to summit. They at least had good eats.


It is a very serious climb. I will never see the summit so I liked the film very much. There was a sign on the door about Clean Mountain Cans or CMC’s. What’s that Ranger Mike? Climbers are responsible for taking their waste off the mountain; the CMC is brought to the ranger station for disposal. Under the water fountain I see 8 cans. They look like a black 3 gallon bucket. Never did I think about where one shits on the peak or the fact you’ve got to carry it around with you. The weather was posted on the board and daily update on climbing conditions. The climber’s registry books were on another counter and everyone who comes back off the mountain alive must stop here and be interviewed for the record. Elevation made, conditions and why they did or did not make the summit. I found all this very fascinating.

A group of climbers comes in from their attempt to check in. Army Team they were called, rugged young men and one older, seven in all. They made it to 16200 feet. Have you ever met anyone that has climbed that high? I am so impressed. They all have this terrible sunburn on their faces. Their forehead cheeks and chins all red as a beet except where their goggles protected their skin. It looks badass. It was called Raccoon eyes by the rangers. They had these crazy looking boots. I can’t imagine what they have gone through? I ask only a couple questions. It seemed they did not want to talk to a mere sea level walker like myself. They were going into to be interviewed by the rangers. Things were improving.

There is a shiny silver trailer on Main Street boasting of Spinach pie and Brazilian lemonade. In the side of the Airstream trailer there was an opening with wooden counter and canopy. Here you can place your order and receive a nice afternoon treat. Inside were a woman and two young girls bumping elbows, working in the tiny kitchen. A hot cup of coffee pressed into a big cup and a Blueberry, rhubarb cobbler comes my way topped with whip cream and looks like a tiny Denali. This will be my only summit here. I take a seat on a wooden bench in the sun. Watch the people go by and enjoy my afternoon pick me up. It was a great cup of Joe and the cobbler was sweet and tart. Three hours to go.


Still Waters run deep

Now I can’t face one more gift shop today. Though I have bought nothing, I am suffering from 30% buyers remorse and 60% retail burnout and 10% of me is ready for a nap. Across the road was a park where I could seek refuge, sitting at a picnic table writing all this, is when I met Marv. He is man of 60 plus, there is an ivory, Inuit fishhook pin on the left side of his red wool barrette. This tops off his oily gray nest of home done haircuts. He is wearing Carhartt insulated coveralls and I thought it was way to warm for that much protection. Marv is unkempt and smells as if he is late for a bath, very late. At least one week but more like a month. I saw him roll in to town earlier in a beat to shit black Ford Ranger, wood sideboards spray painted black to match the amateur painted truck. In the bed of the pick up he has some carvings for sale, three on bark, some on driftwood and four on stone. Mostly faces, poorly executed, without style or study, they are not even crude or folk art. Just thin and unwanted scratches on stone or in wood. He comes over and talks to me and I go look at his work. He takes out a face scratched on stone. He said “I did this 15 years ago”. It is not hard to see why no one has snatched up this sculpture in the last decade. I did not ask the price. Perhaps that is the rub. I politely ask about his choice of stone. He said “I dunno I found it by the river”. If anyone were to buy his work it would be out of pity. You would give him some money, look at it in the car and chuck it out the window in the ditch. About a mile down the road Marv tells me he has been up here 43 years, his place is 30 miles away.

He left Washington and a job at Lockheed Martin, claims he had been “STUCK”. Stuck at Lockheed. “They said I wasn’t Qualified” he stated. There is anger deep in his voice “I been stuck all those years” he said. For the first time on my trip I confessed my situation. “Marv I quit my job and drove up here with no plan”. I told him. Cathartic maybe? Perhaps I was looking at myself in Marv. Have I not been “stuck” as well? I sure was not “qualified”, whatever that meant to him? This was the second time on the trip I feared I was staring at my future self. The first was at the gray fat man at the Canadian boarder, it was not till now I was ready to admit that in writing.

Marv seemed unfazed by my life availing statement. I could have told him “Marv you are wearing a hat” or “Marv your pants are on fire”, his response would be the same. Disconnected and unmoved, Marvin did not appear he could be shook. He said “Lots to do up here in the summer, Things are slow till June when the kids get out”. Marv asked if I was camping up there? “No, train” I said. He looked around and said bluntly “I am going down to the river to nap”, got in his truck and drove off. This was an odd interview. Was I just a few bad moves from river naps and dirty coveralls? Shit what was I doing up here? Two and a half more hours to go.

I wrote till my ass tired of the bench and wandered down a less traveled street. Here I found a new wood plank building called The Gold shop. The place was empty of people and the display cases were filled with gold nuggets. Shit is that real? I looked for a shop keep and almost felt bad being in there alone with all that gold. The proprietor came wandering in from outside. Jessie was a thin-framed man with long hair tied in a ponytail. His beard was long and gray as a rainy day. He was prospector, a beat up looking old man more homeless looking then a guy who made 150K with just a little luck last year. Jessie said, “There are 500 million acres of gold out there. Just have to go and pick it out”. He was friendly and called the tourist “travelers”. He said tourist sounded too Mexican. There was something wise in his still clear blue eyes that were surrounded by leathery brown skin, cheekbones that owned the grand smile that was below them. I could see his best days were gone, behind in some long gone memories now. Hell I would like to hear all of them. You could tell he was a tough man in the day, still tougher than most right now. His real strength was internal, it was wisdom, and all those years of hard work was only a consequence of that sagacity.

He told me. “Winters are good up here in Talkeetna, miners and prospectors would come down here for the winter, we had coffee, whiskey and women”. Jessie laughed about the good old days. Then he pulled out a 4oz gold nugget in the case and let me hold it. My god it was amazing. It does something to you. I remembered Bogart in “The Treasure of the Serria Madre”, the fever was real. The gravity of this glob of material was so strong it vibrated; my hand was pulled to the earth by its weight. I had to give it back. He smiled, his eyes smiled, he recognized the sickness in me and laughed.

Jessie said he had a similarly large nugget that he sold for 21K cash to a Chinese fellow who walked in and bought it. My purchased would be soundly less. It was a $30 nugget that was shaped like Denali. With its taller South peak and lower North, this gold bit was the size of a large cupcake sprinkle. It was a small price to pay just to meet him. I liked this wise old man, somewhere in me is the blood that wants to stay and learn his secrets, study under this master. Learn the magic of gold, seek its hiding places, cast the spell to coax it from its sleep and warm my pockets with its color. Just till I have enough money to stop you understand. It was 4:05 PM and I had a train to catch. I shook his ruff hand and said thank you. He smiled like Buddha as I walked away.

Being on time for me means being there 20 minutes before I need to. Even though I have time to take a lazy pace to the station I need to walk like I was leaving an unpinned grenade, my backpack pounding away at my spine. In a few minutes I was cutting back through the campground and up a small hill to the parking lot of the train station. Ok you made it now what? Find a quite place and write in your journal. Outside the open station I sat on a long bench near the tracks. There is a crazy woman here talking on her phone, talking so loud and in a New York accent. She knows she is loud and she moves down 50 yards, but I can still hear her. “OhMYGwadd!” and “I Can’t believe he said that” She says over and over.

The train comes in from the north, all smooth, blue and gold. It is remarkable. The air brakes hiss the massive machine to a stop. No more than 5 minutes go by and ALL ABAORD is called. The return journey I opted for the cheaper ride and gave up my Gold Member status and rode passenger. No more outdoor balcony, free hot coco or a dinning car, just seats and a window. Car D is the ride home and it has exactly three people on it, one intense guy Mark, myself and the crazy lady. New York Betty is excited by everything about the train. She carries on and Mark is telling her that the D car is the best car; this is the only way to travel on the train. He slammed down into the seat and put his feet up. Betty was in the front seat and turning around to talk to Mark. He is from Talkeetna and has been living there for a few years. Mark seems to know a lot about Alaska, the laws, places and the train. He is in the entertainment business. The man is reluctant to say what part of the Biz he is in. Finally he tells me he is a DJ, Mark of the Wild he is called. That is his radio name. As a sideline he has a lighting gig in a strip club in Anchorage, a club he used to work at. “Just an over-nighter. I can not stand the city anymore” He said. Now in Talkeetna he is a prep cook and made my cheeseburger today.

New York Betty asks about our homes, but really that’s just her way to start talking. She loves the train, it was her first time and everything fascinates her. Mark seems like a decent guy. In a applying for a job he would interview well. He is neat looking, well spoken, and seems to be a very bright guy. Soon I start to see his personality unravel. “If I only had the money,” he said several times. He lives on two acres outside of Talkeetna. “If someone comes up to my property I’ll take care of them” Phrases that would have you believe that he is not comfortable around people.

Betty is clueless and talks and talks. Mark is kind of interesting to me and I want to ask him more questions. Betty moves back a seat to be better heard. She admits that she cannot afford to live in NY on the Hudson any longer. Her husband started a fire in the Alaska house to recover some of their losses. She has been up there working and painting, she is still loud and says Fucking all the time. The other words she repeats are Italian or Italian food. She said she had been cooking. “I made lasagna, meatballs and gravy”. By gravy she means sauce. I know this and when I say sauce she said, “Are you Italian?” No I am not. I ask Mark of the Wild about women in Talkeetna. He said, “There are no women up there. The ones that are there are involved with 5 guys”. Now I will quote him “The odds are good, and the Goods are odd” He is bitter deep down, he is a wounded guy. Hurt and hiding in this beautiful but lonely place. Does the natural beauty help or exacerbate the pain I wonder? Somehow he was a good example of a person to meet. I wished Betty were not there so I could talk with Mark.

Betty says I should go to the Alaskan Bush Company. It’s a strip joint and they have very beautiful women there. How do you know I ask? She says “I drop my husband and friends off there”. Mark said that is where his lighting job is. He worked there for years as a DJ. I sense he has a real disdain for the women who work there and perhaps most women. The ride back is pleasant and I ask Mark this and that. He said something about “climbers”. When he said climbers there was a tone of contempt in his voice. I asked what he meant by “Climbers”. He does not break bad on anyone. I press him, what did you mean? “Ok they are sometimes very arrogant” He said. I told him about the deutschbag I met at the restaurant. He went on about how poorly they treat the locals, how one rather famous climber was also famous for leaving his shit all over the mountain; he refused to use the CMC. It’s a real concern to keep the mountain clean. The locals here feel a connection to this place. They are caretakers of a national landmark. Hey I would too. Would you let people shit in your yard? Betty is oblivious and loquacious still. She and I went upstairs to the gondola to enjoy the view. We have some comments cards to fill out; I say the train is very romantic. She loves this word “Romantic” and peppers her conversation and the comment card with it. Happily she scrolls away in pencil at the card.

As I peer out the glass roof, the train gets close to the city and Betty said she is getting a taxi to the airport. What she really wants is for Mark or I take her. We don’t bite and the train arrives back at the station. We head out our separate ways, it is evening and I drove back to my Super room and call it a night.