The Land of Cliches

My advice to anyone planning a trip to Alaska is to go in September. Firstly, the locals aren’t expecting you. This weekend in Seward for instance, which is where we are at the moment, there’s a big arts and music festival on. In Homer, where we’re going tomorrow, there’s a film festival. Tourist season is over and Alaskans are celebrating before they have to hibernate next to their log burners. In addition, and rather more specific to this particular September, the weather has been surprisingly good. Even the locals can’t believe it. I actually got sunburn, although not necessarily that amazing as I have the pigmentation of a mini milk. Our first journey in Gina was to Flat Top Mountain – the most climbed mountain in Alaska. As I was navigating we went the wrong way and hiked to Rabbit Lake instead.  It turned out to be a hugely successful mistake however, as the lake in question was beautiful, flanked by huge Mordor-esque mountains.  G decided to impress the two German girls we’ve picked up (Zabrina and Petra – crazy but great fun) and went swimming in it.  He was incredulous that a lake could be so cold.  Silly, silly man.  As he slowly regained his pulse we bumped into another girl called Lesley, who’s job was to fly around Alaska and tend to people who have been mauled by either farming machinary or bears.  I asked her about the bears.  Apparently, the trick is to act dead if a grizzly bear attacks you although you are allowed to fight back a bit if it actually starts eating you.  Think the gate is getting locked after the horse has bolted but we nodded at her sage advice.  She also asked if we were carrying guns or bear-spray on any of our hikes. We realised the wilderness out here is actually rather wild.

None more so than in Hope, a tiny gold rush hamlet on the Kennai Peninsula and the scene of not one but two brushes with death that we had.  Firstly, a moose charged at us.  It was eating apples off a tree and we stopped to take photos of it.  Next thing I knew it was lurching pretty ungainly in our direction and I was running and screaming.  To avoid death by moose you’re supposed to run in zig zags.  I challenge anyone to remember this when a huge brown death monster is  rampaging after them.  You just try and outrun your mates and not cry.  Secondly, there was a bloody earthquake!  6.2 on the old richter scale.  Having survived one in Nepal, G an I obviously took this in our stride and didn’t panic at all.  The locals were pretty cool about it too – they survived the 9.2 one in 1964 and that sunk Hope by 8 feet so this one was just a light ruffle of the feathers.

We actually missed Hope it was so small.  G reckoned it was a joke on the map but on second glimpse we found a tiny turn-off and located the collection of sheds that constituted the DownTown Precinct.  By this time it was bloody freezing and there was no danger we were camping.  Luckily we sourced a wooden cabin in the forest with four beds, owned by a lady with a broken leg called Barbara.  She let the four of us stay in it for a couple of nights so we could climb Hope Point and go to the local Music Jam.  The hike up Hope Point was strenuous but stupidly beautiful.  Like the opening credits of The Raccoons mixed with New Zealand.  At the top we could see Anchorage and the whole Seward Highway snaking through the mountains in between.  G also saw a black bear, which was another box ticked.  At least he claimed he saw a black bear – the photo he took of it would indicate that he saw he a dark bush about 500 metres away.

Other boxes were ticked today as well!  We saw Orcas in the wild!  Sea otters!  Sea lions!  And most impressively, a vast tidewater glacier, calving huge lumps of itself into the sea.  The whole mountain seemed to be groaning under the strain, thundering it’s disapproval. G likened it to a giant 2p machine at the amusements, sliding icy coppers in to the torrent below.  He’s a poet I tell you!

So tonight it’s off to the Seward music festival.  We were there last night and it was pretty wild.  I fought a four-year old kid in Spartan armour who kept referring to himself as Leonidis, drank too much local cider and danced to a reggae band from Gambia.  Next stop is Homer, then back north and onwards…to Canada!  A least that’s the plan…don’t let us down Gina!

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Alaska Baked

So Anchorage is odd. G and I weren’t really sure what to expect but we both conceded it would be cold and probably overcast – cue beautiful sunshine upon arrival yet a taxi driver who informed us that our hostel we’d booked into was a “little slice of hell.” He recommended another hostel but admitted it’d probably be shut as the owner had just been convicted of sex-crimes in Thailand. Odd. Everyone we’ve met has been odd. There was the raving Mexican bloke on the corner who kept yelling about guns at us. There was a huge black guy with gold teeth called John (naturally) with whom we’d got in touch about possibly buying his wife’s car. The car looked as if it had been partially recycled. John asked where we were from. Upon hearing “Scotland,” he enquired if this was overseas. Over the next 30 minutes we told him about the concept of foreign currency, passports and the existence of Europe. In fairness he also educated us on the reason why all these oddballs, collected on to the streets of Anchorage like drifting snow, hang around up here in the first place – the annual Dividend Cheque. This is like a prize from the US government to all residents of Alaska who have lived there for over 12 months – to the tune of $2000 per person. By using this incentive, they’ve been gradually pushing deadbeats and drifters out of the Lower 48 and on to the barren blocks of Anchorage – creating a living and breathing tribute to Breaking Bad. To begin with it’s pretty unsettling but over time you just learn to cross the road and ignore the ranting. It’s not all bad though! Far from it actually. Because odd can also be good – very, very good. Thanks to a couple of loveable oddballs who run Civic Auto on 5th Street we are now proud owners of Gina The 1995 Jeep Cherokee! Every blog, thread and website said non-Alaskans could not buy a car. We had tried for a whole day to work out insurance loopholes and reg plate hurdles but every car dealership and insurance broker told us it was a no-go and we best catch a bus. Consigning ourselves to the greyhound we were trudging our way to the depot when I spotted the shimmering flags of a showroom we had somehow missed. The cars on the forecourt looked like they’d been used in the new Mad Max film but the prices were refreshingly low. Suddenly a chap in a leather jacket emerged and asked what we were looking for. We told him we wanted a car to explore the wilderness but as foreginers it sadly wasn’t to be. Ben, as he later introduced himself as, narrowed his gaze and muttered – “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” We nodded in unsion. “Yes Ben….yes there is.” Ben introduced us to his boss Stavros. An older bloke with a pony tail and a dozen rings. As they got to work lining a car up for us and getting round the various piles of federal red tape, Stavros educated us on the intricacies of the Battle of Agincourt, the virtues of drug legalisation and the arrival of Druids in America. Ben was then sent out with us to sort out insurance. During this we found out Ben was an Inuit from a village on the very western coast of Alaska (named in Klingon by the sound of things) and used to be the chief of police there. Out in that neck of woods, alcohol is completely illegal meaning that everyone and his sled dog does a good line in distilling and producing illicit moonshine, including Ben himself. As interesting as these stories were though, G and I were truly amazed by these two guys’ unswaying enthusiasm in helping us acquire a car. And now, with Gina parked outside our hostel, laden with camping gear and food and raring to head south tomorrow on the Seward Highway, I must make a point that if you ever want to get yourself an automobile in Alaska, head to Civic Auto and talk to Ben and Stavros. They are literally the only guys in the 49th State who will get you that car. Two days into our adventure and have we already met the coveted “Most Helpful Local Person Award-Winners?” Very possibly.

In other news, if you want to play pool in America and you’re out of quarters, just use 10 pence pieces, they fit in the slots just the same! After all, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Places we ate that were ace: Moose’s Tooth! (Micro-brewery with ridiculous pizzas). Snow City! (Eggs Benedict and motown!)

Places that weren’t ace: Polar Bar! (Beer that tastes like bin bags and locals who take pool really, really seriously).

OK – just like Alexander Supertramp, we are now heading into the wilderness. Let’s hope Gina is up to the task. Talk soon.

Base Camp Morning Report.

Happy Dependence Day everyone! We are family! I awoke his morning, bleary-eyed from my work leaving do to hear the news that Scots had opted for the ‘Better the devil you know’ side of thinking, which was the correct side in my eyes. I spent the rest of the day continuing my mission to compact the previous three years of stuff into a rucksack, via trips to the dump and to some spare cupboards in my parents’ house. I’ve always owned pretty terrible clothes so it was almost more difficult deciding what NOT to donate to charity. Now, I’m sitting in the living room waiting for Cammy to pick me up for the trip to the airport. A flight to Gatwick, a wedding in Worthing and a dash back to Gatwick later I’ll be winging my way to Anchorage, with erstwhile potato baron Graham Flemming for company! I talked to G this morning and it sounds like he’s taking the ‘travel light’ philosophy rather seriously, bringing a back pack that would be too small for a child’s first day at school. I think he’ll be borrowing a few of my terrible jumpers at this rate. If anything else interesting happens over the next 7 months you can trust that it will find it’s way on to here, so keep your eyes aggressively peeled! Until next time – bon voyage!

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So a rather momentous week ahead.  Scotland can’t agree on it’s future and seems to be increasingly like a rat on one of those awful sticky traps.  Some would have us tear free, splaying our flesh and vital organs everywhere, while others reckon we should literally stick, whereupon our bits will all stay where they’re meant to but we won’t be going anywhere fast.  Great choice that.  I’m voting no simply because the arguments for independence stand up to scrutiny like a sandcastle in the tide.  The sandcastle looking lovely while the tide being EVERY ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL FACTOR IN THE WORLD. I digress.  My main bone of contention is that in amongst all this exciting uncertainty the pound is beginning to tumble in value.  This means my savings for the trip (which starts in a week) are dwindling and I haven’t even left yet!  Pretty sure a Yes vote will at best, devalue my travel-fund further and at worst, make it totally redundant as the new Scottish currency “The Pebble” comes into play.  So from a totally unselfish, nationalist point of view, I urge you all to vote ‘No’ so I can afford to make this trip and come home again…whatever home that will be.  Thanks.