This week I drove from Paxson to the Kenai to pick up a commercial fishing skiff. I don’t travel through Anchorage often. I has been a few years since I made it all of the way to the Kenai Peninsula. There have been some changes. My perspective may seem odd. My viewpoint is from bygone days and that of a guy who spends almost all of his waking hours outside of a house.
Paxson, the place is deserted. Once a thriving community of between 50 and 90 souls, it is mostly deserted these days. Paxson Lodge is now a derelict structure that will never reopen. Sad. Paxson Lodge was an iconic representation of the days of travel prior to the coming of the motorhome.
Between Paxson and Glennallen, little has changed. There are a couple of newer recreational cabins, barely used. There are no young owners of these cabins. Few travel the old Richardson these days. Caribou season and moose hunting bring the usual rush. On this May day, the road is mine.
Glennallen hasn’t changed much; the population has always fluctuated. The Glenn Highway between the intersection and Eureka is also quiet. Eureka has turned from a hunting destination into a recreational area. Private land was subdivided. There are lots with small houses on them that weekenders use. Is this good or bad? The outdoor world of Alaska is changing from “needs” to recreation. This focus has changed the landscape.
The Glenn from Sheep Mountain to Palmer is more tourist-oriented than in the past. I use the word “yuppie” to describe the focus of the businesses. This is not derogatory, but meaning a young, urban professional. These are the folks who make our out-of-town economy run. They are also the folks who will see to it that our outdoors are kept as pristine as possible.
George Ballenger, who owned a gold claim behind Gunsite Mountain in the 30s, would shake his head in disbelief. My dad knew George and told me that Ballenger would walk from Palmer (no road then), to his mine with a 50-pound sack of flour. That could be true, or just a story. There is a pass in the Talkeetnas named for him.
Palmer is really something. This is Big City to me. I tuck my truck and trailer in behind a gravel truck so he can break trail for me. It is hard to believe that people do the drive between Palmer/Wasilla on a daily basis, willingly. I remember as a teenager, giving our cars and old pickups an “Eagle River tune-up.” We would run them from Anchorage to Eagle River and back as fast as they could go. (I hung with woodsy guys who rarely owned anything that could go more than 30-35 mph.)
Eagle River was not even a place then, just a collection of buildings that the highway passed through. There were homesteads up the Eagle River Valley. I remember Dick Zinsmann’s place, up the river about halfway to the glacier. It was a struggle to get there with a good Willy’s jeep. My first sheep hunt took place up that valley when I was 9. My dad and I carried old military feather sleeping bags and a chunk of Visqueen to keep the rain off. Pilot Bread and peanut butter kept us going.
I did my best to bypass Anchorage. I lost the gravel truck, but picked up one of those motor homes that are as big as a Greyhound bus. The New Seward Highway now goes through where I used to hunt moose. There was an old drag strip there also. I could cut through our moose swamp to my house along the Old Seward Highway on the way home from Abbott Loop Elementary school. The (only) Seward Highway was gravel back then. The Dimond Center was a patch of spruce trees where I hunted squirrels.
I read a story a couple of years ago about how the Dimond Center was located on an old Indian graveyard and is haunted because of it. Who comes up with this bunk? I wonder how the businesses at the corner of Old Seward and O’Malley will feel when the potatoes that were in the old root cellar their businesses are built on top of, come out of the ground to haunt them. (The root cellar is truly still there, just covered with gravel.)
There are many more changes on the way to the Kenai. They all bring back memories of a day when things were not necessarily better, just different. People have changed. The past is not as relevant, because we have iPhones, Google Maps and the information super highway at our fingertips. Kids can’t work on their cars anymore unless they have a computer. How many of us know how to lap a valve by hand? I’d bet the 10-year-olds in the big city who can skin a squirrel could be counted on my fingers. On the other hand, I can’t figure out my computer and most 10-year-olds can.
Memories. They are not just nostalgia, they serve as an educational tool. Sort through your memories; what part of your past outdoor experiences were better than those we are able to experience today? We belittle millennials and tourists who visit Alaska. They want the Alaska that is the picture in their heads. It is mostly gone, but that is what we sell in this state. The memory of a frontier; the guy who “bashed” the road to Stuckagain Heights because the military permit was taking to long (hence Basher Road). My dad, who walked from his homestead, 3 miles down the railroad tracks to the closest road — every day. He then drove his old truck to Fort Richardson to work in the sheet metal shop. I’m glad I don’t have to do that. But, let’s not forget that we could. Our duty as parents is to teach our kids that they could do it too.