“I’m going to run into the library and return a book. You can keep telling the story, I just won’t be able to respond.”
I was in the middle of telling my sister about our adventure this past Saturday. It was an unexpected mixture of that-was-cool and ugh-not-so-much, in that order. She was my captive audience, on a walk with her kiddo, as I began the story with the highs of the day.
Drew, Lukas, and I had piled into the SUV, ready for an adventure. We were going to explore outside of Fairbanks: head down George Parks Highway towards Denali National Park, where we were hoping to get a glimpse of the elusive Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley). The highway did not disappoint. As we slowly wound our way up, following the snowy tracks of truckers, lugging their heavy loads six hours south to Anchorage, we spotted mountain ranges in the distance. Drew swung the car into an overlook and we gazed at the beauty stretching out in front of us. It was like nothing we had yet seen. It reminded me of an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, but instead of mountains in varying shades of blue, nestled cosily together, I was gazing at a large valley bordered by a chain of white mountains. It felt very vast and open.
The Parks Highway was the very best sort of surprise. Every inch of it is scenic. It’s the sort of road that compels you to keep going; it’s that beautiful. Drew and I joked that if he hadn’t been on call the next morning, we would’ve been tempted to just drive the six hours to Anchorage. We had extra diapers for Lukas and the clothes on our back. What else did we need?
I hadn’t read up on Denali before we left or seen any pictures. So I mistakenly thought that it would suddenly present itself in a BAM! moment. It would rise up majestically, leaving us shocked, eyes wide in amazement. Five years ago on a drive from Bend to Seattle, Drew and I spent a good hour or so with Mt. Hood in our line of vision. Wikipedia describes Mt. Hood as, “…one of the loftiest mountains in the nation based on its prominence.” That’s what I expected: one prominent mountain, rising grandly above the rest. Denali is North America’s highest mountain peak, after all, at a whopping 20, 156 feet tall. I had prepared myself to be impressed.
So sixty miles later, when we rolled over the bridge into the town of Nenana and neither of us saw a giant mountain looming in the distance, Drew and I agreed that, of course, we should push on a little farther. We were bound to see Denali soon. Leaving the tiny town behind, we passed acres upon acres of evergreens, the ever-present snow capped mountain range teasing us with a game of hide’n seek. Every time we got a little bit closer, the road would curve and the mountains would disappear.
Soon we were at the base of the mountains, getting ready to drive through them. At this point, we were almost at Denali National Park. Both of us were convinced that the coveted peak had to be just around the corner. The mountains were much bigger now, dark and rugged. The sun had started its slow descent, casting elongated shadows over the snow packed ground. In a few minutes, we were driving through the tiny town of Nenana Canyon. Bursting with tourists in the summer—there to enjoy white water rafting, hiking, and other outdoor adventures—in the winter, the streetlights were covered, the buildings boarded up, and the electricity turned off. It was a ghost town, waiting forlornly for the snow to melt and the tourists to start arriving.
Drew turned into the national park. It was our last ditch effort—we were giving Denali its final chance. I wish I could tell you that the wow moment finally happened; that our mouths hung down so far we had to use our hands to close them back up.
Later, Drew told his co-workers about our road trip and it turns out that we may have never even seen Denali. Or we may have. Who’s to say? Denali is the sort of girl who often has her head in the clouds—li terally. Apparently, she’s only visible about 20% of the time. Alaskans like to tell tourists that Denali creates her own weather.
Lesson learned. Our optimism was on point, but the actuality of seeing Denali was never high. So even if it takes multiple trips, we'll keep trying to get a glimpse of the elusive peak. After all, that means rolling down the Parks Highway a few more times. You're not going to hear me complaining.