This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.
FAIRBANKS — You've got Tupac vs. Biggie, Apple vs. Microsoft, Coke vs. Pepsi, DC vs. Marvel.
Then there's the mother of all rivalries: Anchorage vs. Fairbanks.
I've heard enough smack talk hurled at those two cities to last a lifetime, yet I know I'll still hear more in the years to come. Some people have described Anchorage to me as a metropolis of snobs, far removed from the "real" Alaska. Others said Fairbanks was a backwoods wasteland not worth my time.
I live in Anchorage. I went to the Golden Heart City for the first time this week. And you know what?
I kind of love Fairbanks.
I drove up on a whim Sunday, determined to chase good weather at the start of my three-day weekend. Armed with a list of recommendations, I stopped for a beer at The Marlin before retiring for the night. This would be my introduction to the town.
There were three people at the bar when I walked in. The 1998 movie "Out of Sight," featuring post-Batman George Clooney and pre-singing-career Jennifer Lopez, played on a TV. Music humming through the speakers hopscotched over decades from song to song. The bartender greeted incoming patrons by name. One man bought round after round for the bar.
Every city should have a spot like The Marlin.
But eventually, I had to leave. I spent the night in North Pole, then drove to Mile 39.5 on Chena Hot Springs Road on Monday morning.
The most-suggested hike on my list was the Granite Tors Trail, a 15-mile loop with about 2,900 feet of elevation gain and unusual rock outcroppings along the high route. As I waited for one of the previous night's bar buddies to arrive at the trailhead, I read about how millions of years ago, magma bubbled up and cooled into a granite mass before it could reach the Earth's surface. The surrounding earth eroded with time, revealing the rocky tors we see today.
We had blue skies and sunshine as my bar-buddy-turned-hiking-partner and I did a balancing act on a boardwalk amid black spruce. The boardwalk gave way to dirt and rock, and then we jetted up a steep stretch of trail to get to the first cluster of tors.
I took in the 360-degree views at the top and started punctuating every sentence with expletives.
One of my friends had downplayed the quality of the hiking around Fairbanks. B.S., I say: This trail was perfect. Another said there wasn't much to see in the area. But where I was looking, with rolling hills covered in the yellows, reds and oranges of autumn, all I wanted was to see even more. Someone else said people in Fairbanks were weird.
We live in Alaska. All of us are weird.
If I had known something like the Granite Tors Trail existed, I would've come to Fairbanks long ago. For the next 9 miles, I wanted to shake my fist at every friend who made a face at the mention of Fairbanks, or said it wasn't worth visiting. And to the friends who have called Fairbanks home, I want to know: Why didn't you get me here sooner?
The trail meandered past more tors, an emergency shelter with a moose antler over the door, and a birch forest dappled with sunlight streaming through a golden canopy. Every mile or so, I couldn't help remarking on how beautiful everything was.
Afterward, a soak at Chena Hot Springs and an aurora sighting before the clouds rolled in capped off a perfect day.
The rest of my Fairbanks visit flew by: stuffing my face with Thai food, geeking out at the Museum of the North and a rendezvous with friends.
All of it was excellent, but the best part of my trip was the people. Pals, strangers, acquaintances, you made this Anchorage resident feel incredibly welcome in Fairbanks. That's a tall order in some circles.
Thanks for your hospitality. I'll be back soon — I told one friend I'd return this winter to ski in the Interior, and I owe a debt of gratitude to a certain St. Laurent family in North Pole.
Honestly, I can't wait to come back.
(Side note: If you've got Fairbanks-area recommendations for hiking, eating, skiing, beering, etc., I'd love to hear them; post a comment below or send an email my way. If you've got no love for Fairbanks, however, I don't need to know why.)