SEWARD HIGHWAY – Not much can beat a road trip across the nation’s wildest state to lift the spirits. Where Alaska rates on the overall scenery-scale is debatable, but it’s certainly right up there.
What truly sets it apart is the nothingness. Even among the Western states, which have no end of spectacular scenery, Alaska is unique for vistas that stretch on and on and on to nothing.
No fences. No cattle or sheep. No farm or ranch homes on the horizon. No power lines filling the sky. No roads climbing off into the hills. No ski slopes carving up the mountainsides.
Here and there along this national scenic byway, you can – if you know what you’re looking at – still detect in places the overgrown vestiges of old mining roads, but few people notice this. And not even an archeologist driving this highway on the climb from the Hope Junction to Summit Lake would know how heavily mined the Canyon Creek drainage to the east in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Where man has been in Alaska, he generally hasn’t left much behind that the brush and forest couldn’t quickly bury.
Americans have a love affair with the road. Maybe it’s genetic. Everyone in North America came from somewhere else not all that long ago.
Our species – homo sapiens – dates back 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, but the ancestors of the First Alaskans only arrived hear about 14,000 years ago, we think. There is a growing debate in archeological circles about whether there was an earlier group of humans later overrun by a second wave of people.
“The date of the first arrival is still an unsettled issue among researchers” is how this is handled by the Alaska section of the National Park Service, which oversees the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.
“An early date of 33,000 years Before Present has been proposed for a cultural complex found at Monte Verde, Chile by (Tom) Dillahay, but it has not yet been generally accepted. Another, more substantial component at this site, dating from 14,000 to 12,000, has been widely accepted . Another site, Meadowcroft Rockshelter in westcentral Pennsylvania, has a component that has been dated at about 16,000 years BP.”
The general belief is that humans wandered across the Bering Strait from Asia during the Pleistocene when much of North America was covered by glaciers. With so much water locked up in ice, the oceans were then much lower and terra firma – the Bering Land Bridge – connected Asia and the Americas.
The alternative view, which has been gaining some steam in recent years, is that people might have come earlier moving in small boats along the coast.
Whether they were walking or paddling, life in the north then would have been incredibly hard. It is now incredibly easy.
Alaskans love to wring their hands over how much state oil tax and royalty money has been wasted on boondoggles since the 1968 confirmation that geologists exploring the state’s north slope had bagged an elephant.
Prudhoe Bay turned out to be the biggest oil field in North America. Prudhoe oil would be flowing south through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System by 1977, and Alaska would never be the same.
The George Parks Highway connecting Anchorage, the state’s largest city at the head of Cook Inlet, and Fairbanks, the state’s second largest city north of the Alaska Range in the Interior, was completed in 1971, but for most of the ’70s, the drive between the two cities wasn’t a road trip; it was an adventure.
The nearly all gravel Denali Highway is today in better shape than much of the Parks was in the 1970s. And the state’s other roads weren’t much better. The Seward Highway from Anchorage south was a badly potholed affair that in places clung dangerously to the bluffs along Turnagain Arm before snaking its way through the Kenai Mountains.
To truly appreciate what a pleasure it is to drive the Seward and Sterling highways to the Kenai River today you need to have been here then. The same can be said for the Parks Highway journey north from Anchorage to Denali National Park and Preserve, a trip once taken on roads that could beat you or your vehicle near to death.
Oil paid for better road beds and better pavement – itself a product of oil – to ensure much of the drive today is a pleasure.
On the road
In 1957, Jack Keroauc eulogized the sense of freedom of being on the road in the directly named book, “On the Road.” Before him, it was Mark Twain, among others. After him it was singer-songwriter Willie Nelson and National Lampoon’s Animal House, a movie cult classic.
The obvious answer? “Road trip!”
This is what Americans do in good times and especially in bad times. Driving for pleasure remains a primary American leisure activity, according to the National Scenic Byway Foundation.
Climate change be damned. To hell with the carbon dioxide. Let the dying permafrost die. It is good to be on the road in Alaska enjoying summer far from the headlines cataloging the 49th state’s steadily sinking economy, the nation’s endless political bickering, and the troubling news that a madman in North Korea has managed to build himself a missile that could reach Alaska, possibly topped with a nuclear warhead.
Who wants to think about that?
“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world,” the spy novelist John LeCarre once wrote. He was right. The world is much better viewed from a seat behind a steering wheel or a set of handlebars.