Mountains accompany nearly every view along the Denali Highway.
I had been warned about Denali: "You may not even see the mountain." The warning was not so much a harbinger of foreboding as it was a governor for my expectations. Alaskan weather, often overcast and rainy, doesn't always cooperate with one's itinerary. When I arrived at Denali Park, it seemed that the forewarning would be correct. It was raining. A sigh welled up in my gut. The plan was to camp for two nights, but the idea of camping in the rain filled me with dread. "This is why I am here," I told myself. "It's all part of the adventure, right?"
My apprehension lifted when I checked in for a campsite. "We're full tonight," the ranger said. "But there are sites available tomorrow." I looked out the window at the rain assaulting the windows and sighed with relief: "No problem. I'll take tomorrow."
I found a room for the night not far from the park entrance that turned out to be just what I needed. I hadn't showered in a couple of days, and my hiking boots were still soaked from biking through foot-deep puddles up in Coldfoot. Also, sleeping in the back of the Jeep, though convenient, was something my back didn't want to do too often. The hotel gave me a chance to clean up, dry out, and catch up on sleep.
After my morning hike, I made my way to the campsite. With my tent pitched and logs on the fire, I settled in. I read the only book I'd brought with me, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes by Belden Lane. “Wild places have always tantalized the human imagination, captivating even as they unnerve…”
My plan was to leave Denali in the morning, but a part of me felt that I needed more time there. The beauty was so generous that I didn't want to leave. I'd driven alongside the Nenana River the previous day, and this had given me the urge to get on the water, so I found a rafting tour - an 11 mile trip down the river with class 3 and 4 rapids - and booked it for the next day.
When I arrived for my rafting excursion, they zipped me into a dry suit, explaining that the glacier water that fed the river was a very chilly 36 degrees. Without the suit you would become hypothermic within minutes if you ended up in the water, but with the suit, you could survive for hours.
I grabbed dinner at the Prospectors Pizzeria and then hit the road again. It was well into the evening hours, but because of the abundant daylight, there was no pressure to make good time or reach a certain destination by nightfall. I headed south from the Denali Park entrance and then turned east onto the Denali Highway.
Like the Dalton Highway in northern Alaska, the word "highway" is used loosely. The Denali Highway is an unpaved route that cuts 135 miles across central Alaska, and let me tell you, it is spectacular. There are many beautiful and scenic routes across the US, but none compare to the experience of driving the Denali Highway. The click-clack-click of gravel hitting the vehicle's undercarriage, the bumps and potholes, and the unevenness of the path necessitate a slowdown. Then, there is the view. "This is Alaska!" I thought to myself. Shrubbery and boreal trees marked the rolling green land that stretched for miles north to the snow-capped Alaska Range. Beneath the peaks, rivers and streams branch like veins of life. Anticipation and its more confident cousin, expectation, filled me. It felt as if at any moment, I might round a bend and see something extraordinary. Humankind, though present, felt dwarfed and insignificant. Here, you are a piece of the Greater, and there is no mistaking that.
Coming from Southern California, where the popular camping and hiking locations require permits and reservations sometimes far in advance, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the accessibility of the land. Along the highway are numerous places to pull off the road. You can camp, fish, and hunt pretty much anywhere (with some restrictions on hunting). The only caveat is that you're on your own. There are few services to assist you. You must act in cooperation with the land if you are to avoid disaster.
A view to the north along the Denali Highway.
I stopped for the night at the Clearwater Mountain Lodge at mile 80, close to the highway's midway mark. It's a family-run bed and breakfast and one of the few spots along the road with services. I stepped into the Sluice Box Bar, a trailer-sized shack and the most middle-of-nowhere bar I've ever been to, and took a seat. My company that evening was two friends in their 20s from Anchorage who met in the army, the bartender who was a recent college grad from Indiana, and the lodge owner's son. I don't recall what we talked about, but it filled a good couple of hours. At one point, a burly man with a thick beard came in and ordered a Heineken. He told me he was one of the stars of an upcoming NBC/USA Network wilderness survival show. They were about to start production on the Alaska episode. I wished him good luck.
The walls of the Sluice Box Bar were covered with dollar bills. I asked the bartender what that was about. "It's an old tradition that dates back to the early prospectors," he told me. When a new prospector would arrive in town with eyes filled with dreams of gold, he would leave a dollar with the bartender. That way, if (or when) the man blew his life savings searching for treasure, he still had a dollar left to his name. He could stumble back to the bar and commiserate his misfortunes over one last drink. I pulled a dollar bill from my wallet, signed it, and stapled it to the wall. Now, I know if all else fails and I go for broke, there is a place in the middle of Alaska that still has a dollar with my name on it, and they are saving it for me.
The gas station at the Clearwater Mountain Lodge on the Denali Highway.
I slept in the back of the Jeep that night at their designated campground and set out early the next morning. It was another gorgeous blue-sky day. As the Jeep rumbled down the road, I was once again gripped by the land. "Behold," I thought to myself. "Behold? What a funny word." It's a word I would never use in daily life, except maybe around the holidays if I were reciting the Christmas story, but here, it felt right; its utterance is necessary to respond to the moment.
Behold. How often do we hold a moment - sit with it or stand with it - ignoring all distraction, and simply allow ourselves to succumb to its grip? I realize there was a reason why the word behold is not part of my vocabulary. It's because most days, I don't stop long enough to let a moment grip me. I reach for the distraction; I seek it. There are occasions of "that's cool," then it's on to the next thing.
On the Denali Highway, I rediscovered the meaning of the word "behold." It is a sense of falling into deepness. "Deep calls unto deep," the Psalmist says (42:8). So much of life is spent splashing in the shallows of trivialness when, all the while, the deep beckons us. There is more meaning and aliveness to be felt and experienced, but we must wade away from the familiar shallow edges to get there. We must learn what it means to behold.
A morning drive along the Denali Highway provided stunning views.
It was sometime around noon when the wheels of my Jeep found pavement again. With just a few days left in my Alaskan journey, I continued south toward Valdez, a small town with a rich history situated precariously between the Chugach mountains and Prince Williams Sound.
A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES