For those of you not familiar with Edwin Way Teale, he was a peripatetic naturalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who lived in the first half of the twentieth century, primarily known for his book series, The American Seasons. Edwin and his wife Nellie documented the changing seasons, flora, and fauna during their more than 75,000 miles of North American automotive travels.
Ruth’s and my lifestyle has sought to emulate the Teales’ adventures during our six years on the road, and as we read each of Edwin’s seasonal books to each other in diverse locations, we developed an awakened consciousness of life’s diversity with each new location.
We collaborate on and plan our ensuing destinations for each annual travel season, but the continual Covid plague and Canadian border closure forced us to push our Alaska destination out to spring and summer of 2022. Book one of the quadrilogy of the Teales’ books, North with the Spring, has become the theme of our sojourn from our winter stay just north of Tijuana, Mexico, having just read Teale’s Wandering Through Winter.
A journey north, as the crow flies, of about 3,600 miles requires careful planning. Leaving too early, and we travel back in seasonal time into the frozen arms of winter. Too late, and the transition from rain to snow again encroaches. The seasonal sweet spot in Alaska is a carefully planned target. Spring and fall pass like the blink of an eye. Winter’s cold chasm is deep and wide.
We are not strangers to Alaska: the Land of the Midnight sun, the Last Frontier, the 49th State. Twenty-one years have passed since our last visit, and the memories linger bright. During our current drive north we reprised the highlights, the compilation and confirmation of our fauna life wish list, and many anecdotes that read stranger than fiction. The persistent and pesky mosquito battles; flight-seeing and landing on the Mount Denali glacier (the tallest mountain in the US); the four-day ferry excursion up the Inside Passage, our Toyota Tacoma pickup tucked deep in the ship’s hold; wilderness llama hiking and repelling curious but protective grizzly bears guarding their kill; hiking the trails of Denali National Park’s mountains; finding and being driven from a gold miner’s protective stakes; hot spring soaks; waterfalls beyond counting; and a town with so many international border crossings that a smile and a wave was the only necessary documentation.
The name Alaska is derived from the Aleut word “Aleyska,” meaning “Great Land,” and great it is indeed! Our 49th state is seven times smaller than the continental U.S., though if you include the Aleutian Islands, the state would extend nearly coast to coast. You can shoehorn nineteen of the lower forty eight states into the 663,300 square miles of the state. We’re not counting Texas in this count, as most boasting Texans consider their state the biggest and best. (Don’t tell them that, if you cut Alaska in two, Texas would be only the third largest state.) Traveling to Alaska is like stepping into a time machine and traveling back over a hundred years, fauna-wise.
What can you buy for seven million dollars? Around our home base in Marin County, California, it is common to see houses selling upwards of a $1M and more. On October 18, 1867, the U.S. senate agreed to purchase the territory of Alaska for $7M, about 2 cents per acre, from Russia, and immediately this transaction became known as Seward’s Folly, after the then-Secretary of State, William Seward, who pushed the idea through. The Louisiana Purchase, a big chunk of the center of the United States then controlled by France, amounted to 828,000 square miles, and was purchased for $15M in 1803, so Alaska turned out to be one heck of a bargain. Just a mere forty-some years later, the discovery of oil in the territory transformed Seward’s Folly into a petroleum frenzy, and Russian historians would henceforth smack their foreheads and kick each other’s behinds in regret.
Good to be home, great to leave…
We stop in our “home base” to visit friends and transact business, and very soon the siren song of the gods of wanderlust calls and quickens us as it always does. We’re no fans of traveling via interstate highways, but for the sake of expediency and meeting our weather/time window, we travel north on I-5. The last time we passed this way, the atmosphere around us mirrored a Martian vista, sky red with the smoke of thousands of acres of raging fires. We had chosen to travel nearer the coast and were forced to turn back and reroute our journey north, east, and back south down I-5, adding three hundred or more miles to our return destination. It was a post-apocalyptic, nerve-wracking experience to watch our midday world transform from eerie red haze to midnight black, amidst ash falling like snow in our headlights.
That memory flashed before my eyes as we passed a small sign marker on our northward migration, informing travelers that they were crossing the 45th parallel, half way from the Equator to the North Pole. I had just finished reading The Ends of the World by Peter Brannen, in which he writes in detail about the evolution of earth’s epochs and cataclysmic events throughout its history. He strongly recommends in the near future to consider purchasing land above this magical latitudinal boundary, as the warming earth becomes less hospitable. This was not a unique event in earth’s history, by the way. Fossilization of tropical flora and fauna has been discovered at the top and bottom of our world. Earth’s knowledge of humanity is but a speck in its timeline, though it is human activity that has accelerated the warming beyond our ability to repair it. Land and temperature shifts have occurred more often than days pass into nights, and global warming has arisen and flourished for periods of a million years or more…yes, that’s right. We very much hope that our flagrant disregard for our environment does not boldly push us where we have never gone so far, so fast.
Living and moving on the road puts us in touch with the elements rather than sound bites on broadcast news, and then there is the hunger for learning. Southwest Native American studies have informed us that late thirteenth and fourteenth century, pre-European Ancestral Puebloans, Hohokam, and Mogollon tribes migrated from flat lands to cliff dwellings to escape regional drought and enemy incursion. Most of the major native civilization centers such as Maya and Chaco were abandoned. The big mystery: where did they go? Regional centers devolved into remote communities and division was profound, stripping away much of the developed cultural memory as tribes assimilated into and out of each other, climate change driving societal devolution. Sound like a reprise of Mad Max? Despite this historical blip, the entire history of humanity falls within the sweet spot of a post-glacial, balanced comfort zone.
To be continued…