How I Spent My Summer Vacation
by Dave Connors
Miss Scoville -9th Grade Honors English
Remember those? Summer vacations? Days on end of doing nothing. Building forts in the field. Hours spent refining jumps for your BMX bike in an abandoned gravel pit. Water balloon wars. BB gun wars. Toilet papering and sneaking out late. Riding your skateboard to all three 7-11s in South Davis County for Slurpees in one day. Or was that just me? How nice it would be to get three months off every summer to just play. I didn’t quite just play. Nor did I get three months but I did my best to enjoy my summer vacation to the fullest.
Let’s start with my job. More than likely if you’re reading this you have a basic understanding of my job. If you don’t I’ll wrap it up quickly. I work from home. And hotels. And airports. I travel a portion of about 24 weeks a year. When I’m not traveling I work from home. I rarely shower or shave and wear shorts and flip-flops pretty much every day. It’s not bad. It’s better than not bad, I really love my job. I’m enabled to just get my job done and aside from conference calls I get to do it on my terms. If I have to build a presentation or melt my brains and eyeballs with massive spreadsheets I can do it when I choose. (Usually midnight on the latter when all the din and distraction of the day are gone.) All my job really requires is a phone, an internet connection and an immense amount of intelligence and skill. Okay scrap those last two. Each summer my travel schedule has a huge lull. I’m actually home for about 6 weeks straight. (I also get that in Dec/Jan.) Because my needs are basic and my skill level is adequate I can do my job from anywhere I have a reliable connection. My trip to Hawaii earlier this year to check off my 50th state was technically me working from home. I’ve had the occasional work day from a desert campsite or friend’s couch out of state. Between my AT&T cell phone and a borrowed (thanks Matt Russell) Verizon MiFi I knew I could take my home office to Alaska for a month. Yes there were one or two 5am conference calls and many a long day sitting in the same parking lot for 8-10 hours getting work done. However, in the land of the midnight sun, and an early start, by 2pm local time I was free to explore the wonders of Alaska and visit some old haunts until the wee hours of the fully lit morning. Was it the perfect trip to Alaska? No but it was a hell of a lot better than not going.
Next up, distance. I was gone 25 days from Utah. I drove 9193.1 miles in that 3.5 weeks. Yes a lot. But not really. Because of all the other things I want to do with my vacation time (Although a major one recently fell through) my goal was to do Alaska without using a vacation day. Some more background. This would be my 7th trip driving between Utah and Alaska. Some trips taking as many as 3 weeks just to get to AK. I’ve also traveled quite a few times in BC and Alberta. This trip was about Alaska not about the amazing landscape between here and there. I had Friday July 3rd off for the holiday, with approximately 2500 miles between me and Skagway. My goal was to get there by start of business Monday morning. Even with the slower speeds it wasn’t difficult. I made it by Sunday evening. That included half a day of hiking around White Pass, BC. Having lived all over the state over the course of a 6 year stretch the rough plan was to visit all those areas. Stay in each for a few days or a week and use the weekends to move between locations. On most maps Alaska is skewed small. It’s huge. To drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks is slightly shorter than SLC to Vegas but also a bit slower. But let’s call it similar. And that is one of the shorter/easier drives to make. Originally I had no plans to go to Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay. I’d done the trip in 2002 and thought my time would be better spent exploring other areas. However, after a friend who works on the North Slope expressed interest in making the drive home with me I decided it was worth making the haul up the Dalton. So while 9k miles seems like a lot, if you consider I did about 5500 of those in 7 days I had plenty of down time while in Alaska. Why don’t I break it out in chunks?
SLC-Haines via Juneau. July 2- 9
Got out of town before rush hour traffic. Helped some stranded people on the side of the road just north of Idaho Falls. They’d hit a moose but not killed it. They were waiting for the sheriff to come finish it off. I took the mom back to their house to get their other car so they could get their kids home. Her brother in law was currently serving and LDS mission in Alaska. Small world. Slept in the back of my car near the Canadian border.
Woke early, crossed the border and drove. All day. Through Calgary, Banff, Jasper, Prince George, Burns Lake (where I once slept on the ground, in a parking lot, at -18) and to the start of the Cassiar Highway. Long day on amazing roads through some of the most scenic landscape on the planet. Well that I’ve seen with my own two eyes. Slept in the back of Amie.
Woke early, hit the Cassiar. Kept waiting for the washboard and potholes. Never came. Got gas at a truck stop. The cashier was from a tiny little town in Chilean Patagonia. She about passed out when I told her in Spanish I’d spent a night in her home town. Drove some more. Gravel never came but the frost heaves did. Still made great time. Took twilight photos of the Carcross Dunes. Camped on the Canadian side of White Pass. Slept in my car.
Woke late, took pics. Went hiking. Took pics. Got really scratched up bushwacking through the alder. Took pics. Knocked down about 500 worthless cairns stacked by idiots. Took pics. Crossed into the US and down to Skagway. Between BC, YT and AK there were almost 200 wildfires burning in July. The air quality was horrible but I didn’t care. I was back in Alaska. Couldn’t find LTE service anywhere so checked into an expensively cheap motel to get WiFI. Got dinner and a ferry reservation to Juneau. Explored town and went to bed.
Woke very early, and worked. Took lunch, 10am, got some breakfast and ice cream, back to the hotel to work some more. Check out. Had a con call on the banks of a river and worked. Back up to White Pass. More hiking and pic taking. Back into town. Spotted an FJ45 and chatted with some Pan-American travels. Some from Sweden, Some from Germany. Got on the ferry about midnight. Took some pics on the ride down to Juneau. Found a place to park and slept in the back of the car.
Woke early. Worked. Went to the Mendenhall Lake
You know what. Enough of that travel log how about some observations.
Tourist trap tshirts are shockingly cheap. I now own 4.
I hardly recognized downtown Juneau. It’s changed too much. I don’t like it.
I saw a man on a tread climber on the back of a cruise ship. Parked next to one of the most famous hiking trails in the world.
Witnessing a ruined vacation while an elderly couple argued over whether or not a café in Skagway ‘proudly serving Starbucks’ was the same as a real Starbucks was both sad and extremely hilarious. Okay more of the latter.
Far more bugs in Montana and Idaho than anywhere in Alaska.
Cops told me to avoid “skater’s cabin at 6am as someone was ‘sleeping in there.’ The cheap beer and gas can makes me think ‘sleeping’ is a euphemism.
Loading a ferry is part art, part science. I was very happy the guy loading the M/V Malaspina had both sides of his brain otherwise I may have been stuck in Juneau for a week.
I LOVE Amie. Such an awesome machine to drive. It’s fast, durable, comfortable. Amazing roads and a 2013 Land Cruiser are a match made in heaven.
Ruckus Scooters were all over Skagway
LED lights in your tent are worthless in the Alaskan Summer.
70 degrees in Juneau at 1am? Hmmm.
A LOT of black bears. No brown.
July 9 – 15 Haines to Wasilla
Worked the day in Haines parked near the main harbor. Left inland Thursday night. Camp in an abandoned gravel pit outside Tok that night. The drive through the Yukon was spectacular. The gluten free banana bread I had in Haines Junction not so much. Tok was blanketed in a thick haze of smoke making the lackluster intersection of the Glenn and Alaska Highways even less enjoyable. I spent all day Friday on calls parked in the shade of a scrubby pine forest in an abandoned parking lot. Not great but better than a cubicle any day.
Hit the road to Valdez that afternoon, excited to make a drive down one of the few highways I’ve not driven in Alaska. I’ve driven a lot of epic roads. I’ve seen some amazing landscapes. I was blown away on the road down to Valdez. So much so I forgot who I was and ordered halibut tacos for dinner. Yep seafood. They were spicy and they were better than decent. I ventured back up into the mountains and found a place to camp. The only downside to what was otherwise a perfect evening was the 24 hour bike race going on. There were support vehicles EVERYWHERE. It took a bit of skill and exploration to find a nice quiet spot. Weather was perfect so I broke out the tent, built a small fire and soaked it all in. There is always a slight bit of nervousness when camping in bear territory. It takes a while to relax and trust the noises outside the tent. Eventually I fell asleep. When I woke late the next day I was very rested and not alone. No not a bear. Just 3 or 4 bike racing teams. See what I did there? You were thinking bear. I think I would have preferred one to the neighbors I had. I packed the truck and took off for the Kenai Peninsula. No real plans just play it by ear.
I saw a few more black bears. No grizzlies.
The drive to Anchorage was exquisite. Perfect weather, very little construction and once I left the bike race behind very little traffic. After a quick stop in south Anchorage for food and gas I hit the road south to Kenai. There is something that draws me to Seward. I’ve never been able to place it but I find it very comfortable and a far better destination than Homer or Kenai. I wandered around town for an hour or so. Found an awesome map of Alaska to frame and hang on my wall. Found some excellent Salmonberry ice cream the set off to find a place to camp. After a few false starts I finally stumbled into one of the most scenic campsites I’ve ever had. I was shocked it was so easily accessible yet solitary. I took pics for a few hours in the lingering daylight, built a small fire, listened to some music and nervously scanned the river’s banks for bear before going to sleep. That night, that campsite, that scenery, that moment alone was worth the effort to drive to Alaska. Again I woke late and hit the road north to Anchorage.
I made a few stops along the way. Kenai Lake, Portage Glacier, the ‘road’ to Whittier through the mountain and found my way to a Hilton Garden Inn near the airport. Laundry and workload necessitated a few nights in a hotel. Luckily I have a lot of Hilton Points.
Next few days in Anchorage were rather uneventful but significant. I hadn’t been back since 1998 and I was awash in memories and nostalgia. I drove around and saw all my old apartments. I stopped by all the churches I attended and drove many of the streets I spent days and nights tracting. Weather was Alaskan. Sunny and rainy and warm and cold and windy and calm and perfect and horrible. I did some hiking and some tourism and bought a pair of Sanuks. I have issues. Get over it.
Headed north to the Matsu Valley and after striking out on cell coverage where I wanted to camp near the Knik Glacier I finally settled into my sleeping bag in the back of Amie tucked into a quiet corner of a Wasilla Walmart parking lot about 2am.
July 15 – 20 Wasilla to Deadhorse
Wasilla motels are not cheap but with 45mph winds they are necessary.
Hatcher Pass is still beautiful but no longer charming. Paved roads, parking lots and tourists traps have a way of doing that.
I may or may not have poached wifi from the parking lot of the LDS church in Wasilla where I served as a missionary 20 years ago. Okay I didn’t. I tried but it was too slow for voip calls so I switched back to my phone as a hotspot. Great place to park for the day however.
I found the golf course while wandering around. Had totally forgot I played there back in 94 until I saw it again.
The Matanuska glacier is huge and gorgeous and worth the price of admission.
I’ve known Mark Whatley since the old Land Cruiser Mailing List back in the 90s. It was nice to finally meet him in person. Exactly what I expected and could have spent days talking to him about Cruisers.
If Mr. Whatley gives you advice on where to camp listen to him.
It’s okay to get a little bit nervous if you’re driving your new to you 2013 Land Cruiser up a river, in the back country of Alaska, far from any town and the water starts splashing over the hood.
Driving your new to you 2013 Land Cruiser up a river, in the back country of Alaska, far from any town with water splashing over the hood is awesome and I highly recommend it.
It rains a lot in Alaska. Sometimes it rains so much you bail on Denali NP because the ceiling is so low you can’t even see the small mountains.
The Hampton Inn is Fairbanks is new and super clean.
Bought a new jacket at REI. I have issues. Get over it.
A lot of the Dalton Highway has been paved in the last 13 years.
I CHIPPED A TRUCK DRIVER’S WINDSHIELD WITH GRAVEL!!!!! Call it truck drivers 138, Dave 1. Felt good.
Last time I stopped at the Arctic Circle the bugs destroyed me. This time I had time to make a sandwich.
It rains a lot in Alaska which can also clean the air of smoke. The light and air quality in the Brooks Range was sublime. Heavenly.
Met another dude from the internet for the first time in person. Jeremy Averett welcomed me into the Era Helicopter barracks in Deadhorse with open arms. After about 20mins of talking to him I knew we’d have an awesome time on the way back to Utah. Always a bit unsure in a situation like that but in this case there was no reason to be.
July 20 – 25 Deadhorse to SLC
This stretch was a blur. Let me see if I can summarize it in a fashion that illustrates it perfectly. True 24 hours of daylight, multimillion dollar helicopters surrounded by multibillion dollar refineries requiring background checks, confiscated cameras, stealthy reaches into the oddly warm Arctic ocean, gave way to dozens of rainbows and a perfect drive south. Running in circles to escape bugs before diving into tents and laughing at them as they fight to get through the mesh protecting me. Great pancakes, Greg and Kurt launching their insignificant jetboat into the quite significant Yukon River. Fairbanks, Denali, drones, sat-phone calls, Fairbanks. Parking lots, crepes. Excellent crepes. Greg and Kurt back from the significant Yukon River. Fairbanks. Burgers. Perfect night. More rain. More clean air. Tok. Stupid ugly abandoned parking lot in Tok. Phone calls. More overlanders. Alaska highway end. The road. Miles and mile and miles. Rain, rivers and camp. Epic miles. More rainbows. Mile and miles. Alaska highway start. More miles. Camp in the forest. CANADIAN ROCKIES. Jeremy overwhelmed, can’t take enough pics. I’m overwhelmed. Still amazed and in love with the place despite being there 4 times in the last 18 months. More miles. Lots of blackbears. No grizzlies. Border crossing. Epic sunset. More than epic storm. Mile and Miles. Goodbyes. Sunrise. Amie kicks ass. 3k miles in 4 days.
There are a lot of people who have a similar work situation to mine. Sadly, from my perspective, few take the effort to maximize their situation. I’ve done 60+ nights in hotels this year. Many of which are forgettable. The 24 nights I spent in Alaska on my summer vacation were anything but.