By the second week of March, I had pretty much forgotten about the dry cabin I’d booked for the next weekend. I’d made reservations from my phone months earlier, after aimlessly scrolling through the “unique housing” section of my Airbnb app.
I remember thinking at the time that driving from the Clarion newsroom to the cabin — on the Montana River outside of Talkeenta — seemed like a drive I could do comfortably after clocking out on Friday. In retrospect, it was a bit of a haul.
My Weather Channel app forecast low temperatures of about minus 22 that weekend, which prompted a frantic run to Sweeney’s Clothing and a hasty purchase of some black Carhartt overalls — definitely the warmest item of clothing I now own.
The evening drive, which was about four and a half hours, meant I was treated to alpenglow mountain peaks and periwinkle skies on the way to Anchorage, a blinding vermilion sunset along Turnagain Arm and a dazzling aurora show outside of Willow. I texted blurry photos to my co-workers from the side of the road.
Sleep came easy that night despite subzero temperatures and unfamiliar surroundings. I’d booked a tour of Dallas Seavey’s sled dog kennels for the next morning and was supposed to meet a guide at Latitude 62 in Talkeetna. It was a beautiful day and I took photos of Denali from the parking lot when the guide came up to introduce himself.
“Is it just you?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said.
I’ve often found that being a chronic “single rider” has its perks. In this case, it meant my mushing partner was also an employee — Kai Leddy, who is a musher and recently qualified to race in the 2022 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. I’ll be rooting for her!
She explained to our group how to control the dog sleds — feather the flat black brake with your foot on hills, put all your weight on the silver brake bar to bring the dogs to a complete stop and use the anchor to make sure the dogs don’t run off when you step off of the sled.
To say I was nervous was a bit of an understatement. Of the six dogs pulling our sled, several had raced in multiple Iditarods and one — Ripple — had raced in four and won two. The trail we mushed wound through the boreal forest surrounding the kennels for about 4 miles. We stopped halfway through to switch places.
“This is definitely the coolest thing I’ve done since moving to Alaska,” I told Kai.
When I got back to my cabin, I still had several hours of daylight to kill. One of my editors had lent me our newsroom’s copy of “The Milepost” for the trip, which I used to trace the route to Denali National Park and Preserve.
“Plenty of time,” I said, looking at my watch.
The drive to the park was disorienting to say the least. The initial section of road through Denali State Park was a picturesque meandering through towering mountains hazy in the afternoon sun. Those quickly gave way to a barren landscape, though, between there and Cantwell.
Driving on that single strip of highway, with no gas stations, other cars or any other indication of humanity, gave me one of the loneliest feelings I’ve ever experienced. In those moments I was the only person on the planet, pushing forward on an aging highway through a barren landscape while haunting instrumental music further set the scene.
Before I even got to the park the only thought running through my head was how much I wanted to be home, in my apartment, with my cat. Surrounded by things that could ground me to my temporal place in the world and pull me back from the spiritual limbo I was currently in.
The drive back to Sterling on Sunday passed more quickly than the drive up had. I’d been gone for less than three days, though it felt a lot longer. The juxtaposition between the landscape of the Parks Highway and my studio apartment is blatant. Looking back, I’m still kind of surprised at how much I was able to pack into a single weekend.