Chris & Allyson vs. Alaska (2016)
Chapter Seven: Anchorage.
On the eleventh day of our vacation, we were face-to-face with Alaska's greatest metropolis. A whole city was waiting to be explored!
But we smelled, so we decided to do laundry. This was actually the plan from the very beginning. If you're traveling to an all-weather vacation destination for a few weeks, you need a lot of clothes. If you aren't willing to pay $2,500 in checked bag fees or the extra money for a rental car large enough to handle your trunks, and you want to seem like a functioning non-smelly member of society, then you need to do some laundry. Fortunately my wife books only the finest hotels. She is a "Starwood" member, so whenever we vacation we look for those kinds of hotels. Whenever she uses her credit card, she somehow gets "Starwood points," which can be used to override my personal hotel preferences in any city. This is a good thing, because as you may recall, I would book us in places frequented by meth addicts. I'm frugal.
Of course, in Anchorage, luxury is a relative term. No one wears suits, and if you have a fur coat, it's probably from an animal you personally killed. The Sheraton is a very nice hotel, but it is a little bit creaky. The elevators took (literally) minutes to arrive. They tried to make us feel like high-rollers by giving us access to the VIP lounge, where we watched the sunset the night before. But EVERYONE had access to the VIP lounge, including many people who did not seem nearly as important as us.
And then there was the laundry room. The Sheraton's website indicates that it has a guest laundry. In practice, that means one coin-op washer and dryer in a poorly finished utility closet. That is to serve something like 13 floors of guests.
But when you’re out of clothes, you do what you gotta do. MY BRIDE NEEDS CLEAN UNDERWEAR! I TOOK A VOW! I spent the morning staking out the laundry machine, then hovering over it while reading a 600-page book on Lyndon Johnson. It didn't make for the most memorable vacation time, which means it will be my most overriding memory of Anchorage in 25 years. Sigh.
With that unpleasant business behind us, it was time for the greatest part of our vacation. For many years, I traveled alone. And when you travel alone, baseball is a great activity. You can hang with the locals, enjoy a sporting contest, see a stadium, drink alcohol and buy a souvenir t-shirt, and no one will judge you for being the weirdo all by himself. This became a treasured part of my travel routine. So whenever a trip allows, I see if there's baseball.
But does Alaska have baseball?
Yes. Yes it does. Every summer, Alaskan families host a bunch of college students who want to get the attention of professional scouts. They get enough kids to put together four or five teams, and those teams play in municipal stadiums within a few hours of Anchorage. Something similar happens in Cape Cod, and they made a movie about it called “Summer Catch” that featured Jessica Biel in a bikini.
Bikinis are a risky proposition in Alaska, even in the summer, so you've probably never heard of the Alaska Baseball League. But it's real, and it's legit. Lots of big-time pros spent a summer in Alaska, including Mark McGwire, Randy Johnson, and other people who I am forgetting. Very early in our vacation planning, I asked Allyson for permission to do a baseball day. She took a vow, so she said it would be cool. The internet told me that a stadium was in walking distance of the Sheraton. And then I found out that the Alaska Baseball League All-Star Game was scheduled for our first full day in Anchorage.
It was destiny.
The National Pastime in the Last Frontier.
Watching the warm-ups for the homerun derby.
Competitors, shown with the $12 trophy they covet.
Before the All-Star Game, a walk along Chester Creek.
Rec leagues in one of the world's prettiest baseball settings.
A packed house (cough) for the All-Star Game.
In downtown Anchorage, enjoying the plethora of stuffed bears.
Soaking up the atmosphere at Humpy's, in downtown Anchorage.
Destiny did have a few red flags, though. First, you couldn't buy tickets online. Second, the "all-star game" was advertised as being at 1 p.m. AND 4 p.m. Third, it was a baseball game in Alaska, where the weather is appalling eight months out of the year and no one in their right mind would waste three hours of summer sitting still.
Fortunately, my wife saw none of these red flags, so I convinced her that we needed to be there early. "It's the All-Star game!" I said. "The demand will be huge! We'll be lucky if we get seats at all!" Allyson wasn't all that concerned, but she was well rested and her clothes were clean. Plus, I'm assuming she knew that seeing a baseball game would give her moral leverage in a future situation. So she agreed to walk the three-quarters of a mile to Mulcahy Stadium, somewhere near the center of Anchorage. It was a nice walk that gave us some sense of what was happening in Anchorage: not much. We were mostly going through neighborhoods, but even in downtown Anchorage there isn't that much going on. The buildings are mostly one or two stories, the streets aren't huge, and the foot traffic is minimal. The middle of Anchorage is quieter than the suburbs of DC.
So we made it to the sports complex in record time! At this point, my concern was growing. First, there was not much foot traffic. And by "not much" I mean "not any." Second, there was no automobile traffic, or indications that people were lining up to park their cars. Third, the stadium wasn't quite as grand as I was expecting. In fact, there are Little League parks in Connecticut suburbs that are probably a good deal nicer. The wooden grandstands of Mulcahy Stadium are weather-beaten and splintery. Fourth, there was no line at the box office, the attendant seemed surprised that we were there, and she peeled our tickets off from a huge stack of unsold tickets.
Fifth – and most importantly -- there was no game at 1 p.m. The website for the Alaska Baseball League conveniently omitted that 1 p.m. was the start time for the home run derby.
Allyson was an excellent sport about all of this, in part because we were on vacation, but also because it gave her something to hold over my head for the rest of my life. She's much shorter than I am, so holding anything over my head, physically or metaphorically, is a big deal.
I had a few beers and ate a hot dog as we watched college goons mash baseballs in the hope of one day becoming a 29th-round draft pick. This is actually fun to watch, although the atmosphere might have been improved by a 1000 percent increase in attendance -- the competitors outnumbered the audience. However, this did translate to very short beer lines, and unfettered access for photography. Realistically, we probably weren’t going to get within 50 feet of a wild bear at any point on our vacation. But I was within 15 feet of wild college baseball players from the Midwest. None of those players caught a leaping salmon with their teeth, but it was still fun.
I enjoy baseball and splintering wood seats as much as the next guy, but six or seven straight hours at the stadium would have been excessive. And we still had Anchorage to explore! After the first round of the derby, we decided take a walk, then make our way back to watch the actual game at 4. Also, by that point the crowd would surely be at least 10,000.
Mulcahy Stadium is part of a very nice municipal park built along Chester Creek. It's not an impressive creek, but they don't need much in Alaska to justify another park. We picked our way through some rec-league baseball fields -- all being used -- and strolled on the multi-purpose trail. In Anchorage, you can walk, jog, bike or rollerblade on the trails. When the northern weather starts to go south, you can also cross-country ski, although that is probably an even douchier way to commute than rollerblading.
The creek runs into Westchester Lagoon, a waterfowl sanctuary that hosts some very aggressive ducks. The lagoon also attracts a lot of white people with strollers and remote-control model sailboats. The lagoon empties into Cook Inlet. We took a quick peek at the Tony Knowles Trail, a 12-mile strip of asphalt that hugs the inlet and is described by most guidebooks as the crown jewel of Anchorage attractions. I didn't have time to run a half-marathon AND see an all-star game, so we hoofed it back to the stadium.
It was a fine day for baseball. There were blue skies and white fluffy clouds. The food was not good, but no one was poisoned, and the beer was cold. Also, the crowd of 10,000 didn't materialize, so no one was blocking our view of the college stars. It's a good feeling to watch a semi-professional sporting event where you are twice the age of the players. I couldn't tell you the final score, because we left after the 9th inning ended in a tie. But Allyson didn't seem upset about the day’s activities, so the real winner was me.
We celebrated our full day of being super-American by walking to downtown Anchorage for dinner. The main drags in Anchorage are the creatively named 4th and 5th avenues. This is where the finest restaurants are clustered; this is where the cutest boutiques are located; and this is where you’ll find the densest concentration of huge stuffed bears outside of souvenir shops. We had a great meal at Ginger, which specializes in "Pacific Rim" cuisine. That nourishment gave Allyson the strength she needed to pose with those stuffed bears after dinner.
The last stop for the evening was Humpy's, an establishment recommended by Allyson's brother. It has an enormous bar with a huge selection of beers and a nice bustling atmosphere. On the night we were there, Humpy's also had an open mic music night. There were plenty of decent performers, but the one that stuck in our minds was a middle-aged woman who looked like a central-casting school librarian. She and her band crushed an ACDC cover and a few more classic rock hits. Respect.
At 11 we called it a night and walked back to the hotel. It wasn't easy to call it a night, because we walked back in broad daylight. This is a perk, and a quirk, of an Alaskan summer vacation. For science reasons, the days are extremely long during an Alaskan summer. When the sun does set, it barely dips below the horizon. "Night" is more like the early stages of twilight, so you can pop out of a bar at 11 p.m. and feel like you just wrapped up a solid bit of day drinking. If you live in Alaska, you probably get used to this. If you're just visiting, it's going to have a narcotic effect. The days will be jammed with activities, but they'll never feel full, because the sun never goes down. Every meal is going to feel like lunch. Every time you go to sleep, you're going to feel a little bit lame for quitting early.
Alaskans help you cope with this phenomenon, by providing blackout curtains and high ABV beers. But the only way to really get your body right is to exhaust it so thoroughly that it's ready to shut down at a proper bedtime. We had some ideas on how to achieve that the following day.
Alaska was conquered by people on the go. Rugged men and women climbed mountains, trekked ice fields, mushed dog teams, wrestled polar bears and vigorously murdered claim jumpers. If you're visiting, you should try to be at least a little active, in the spirit of the place. We'd been ocean kayaking and walked around a bit. But our only "hike," in Juneau, was entirely downhill. For Raven's sake, we needed to climb something. Ideally, something that wouldn't require any advance training, specialty gear or a well-thought-out will and testament.
Flattop Mountain is billed as "Alaska’s most visited peak," probably because it's within 20 miles of a third of Alaska's population and has a parking lot about halfway to the top. It's in the Chugach Mountains, slightly east from the substantial part of Anchorage. Websites tout the trail as being 1.5 miles to the top, with spectacular views as your reward.
It sounds great for weekend warriors, and perfect for wives with metal rods in their spine. Saying that Allyson has a bad back is like saying Abraham Lincoln died of a headache. But she has an indomitable spirit and (inexplicably) a desire to make her husband happy. Her husband likes hiking, so she was willing to give Flattop Mountain a shot.
We pulled into the parking area in the late morning. It was big, and it was already filling up. The trail to the summit starts right in the parking lot. It's wide, not too rocky, and very well maintained. It cuts through scrubby pines, where Arctic ground squirrels play and fireweed brightens the way. When we reached the first clearing, we were breathing hard, but ready to press on.
Starting the short (but steep!) ascent of Flattop Mountain.
A wayside on Anchorage's most popular trail.
On a clear day you can see forever. Flattop Mountain.
We made it! After a rock scramble, the summit of Flattop Mountain.
On our way down the mountain, checking out some paragliders in action.
Searching for the salmon ladder on Ship Creek in Anchorage.
Urban fishermen unwind in Ship Creek.
Showing just how much I like Ike.
Another very late sunset, from the top of the Sheraton.
And then the steps started. As the trail winds around the mountain, the steeper sections are girded by railroad ties that have been pounded into the earth to provide greater traction. There aren't railings, and at spots the earth beneath a step was badly eroded. But there were many people on the trail with us! A lot of those people had dogs, and a few of them were carrying babies in specialty Swedish backpacks. Who were we to worry, even though there were a LOT of steps, and the dogs mostly weren't on leashes and kept running past your legs, even at the spots on the steps where falling off the side would result in a 200-foot slide down a bed of rocks?
At the second clearing we became actively worried. This was "base camp" for the final stretch of the trail. And while the top of the mountain might be flat, the parts just below it are rocky, and steep, and not designed by god for a Jewish woman in her late 30s who has a metal rod in her spine. We could see the entire rest of the hike before us. The trail seemed to disappear into the rocks, but there was a flagpole at the top marking the final destination.
It didn't look entirely fun, or safe. There were still people climbing the mountain with babes strapped to their backs, and a large group of schoolchildren was on the way to the top. But at this point we realized that Alaskans are crazy. The Internet was correct that the trail is only 1.5 miles. But it would have been useful to know that the last 0.2 is straight up. Just sayin'.
Allyson was offered an out. We could turn around, or I could attempt to summit while she waited below. We've seen enough Discovery Channel shows to know that hubris has no place on the side of a mountain. (My wife loves a good story about nature killing people.) But she wanted to finish the trail, stand on the cusp of the heavens, and PUNCH GOD IN THE FACE.
There were scrambles, stumbles and breathers. We had to haul ourselves up the rocks, and past jerks with unleashed dogs. But we made it, and it was worth it. The top of the mountain is actually flat, as though aliens swooped down and lopped it off to create a landing site. (The reality probably has something to do with glaciers, but why split hairs?) Some very nice fellow hikers took our photo in front of the flagpole, and we enjoyed the impressive views of both Anchorage and the surrounding mountains. A few more crazy Alaskans graciously created some photo ops when they used the top of the mountain to launch their paragliders, which they had apparently carried to the summit because they didn't have babies or dogs. It was stunning.
Then there was just the small matter of getting back down. After you defeat a mountain, in your mind it's Miller Time. In reality, going down is much less pleasant than going up, especially for a rock scramble. There were lots of patches of loose, stony ground, and when you're heading downhill that means your footing is going to give way. The majestic conquerors therefore spent the next 20 minutes on their butts, humping their way down the rocks and not caring all that much about appearances.
After a hard day of punching Mother Nature in the ovaries, you deserve a little pizza. Instead of cleaning up, we drove straight from Flattop Mountain to the Moose's Tooth Pub, a pizzeria and microbrewery that was mentioned in our Alaska guidebook. It might be Alaska's most visited pizzeria, because it's within 20 miles of a third of Alaska's population and has a big parking lot. We rolled up at 3 p.m. on a Monday and had to wait for a table. It was a fine celebratory meal, during which we discussed the many ways Alaskans were crazy -- such as their lust for mid-afternoon pizza. At this point, we knew that a regular dinner time was out of the question, so we did the sensible thing: We returned to the hotel and waited to be hungry again.
At around 8 p.m., we still weren't hungry. But as it was our last night in Anchorage, we ventured out. The guidebook spoke of a salmon ladder, and we set out on foot to find it. Ship Creek starts in the Chugach Mountains and dumps into Cook Inlet. It's the reason that they put the port where they did. Today, during salmon runs it's a primo urban fishing hole. To get there we crossed the train tracks of the Alaska Railroad to enter Anchorage’s industrial north side. We saw all kinds of people getting off work, strapping on the waders and heading into the water. Native Alaskans in particular seemed to be out in force.
The anglers might have outnumbered the fish that day. No one seemed to be catching anything, and upstream at the salmon ladder there wasn't much in the way of hot jumping action. Still, it was another glimpse of Alaskan life. We closed the evening with a late dinner at downtown's Glacier Brewhouse. I had the halibut, Allyson had the tofu, and we both had a good time. We closed the day by hustling back to the hotel to watch the sunset. At 11 p.m. Alaskans are crazy.