Surprisingly, it’s Kevin who’s compelling us towards an inevitably near-aquatic ride in and out of Valdez, AK. Meanwhile, Glenn edging into decaying orbit fueled by the loving gravitational pull of his wife Lee, and angling for a blind burn vector for home. I’m the monkey-in-the-middle in a dubious communication pattern purgatory of not wanting to contravene anyone else, and that’s left us debating our next move for the past 20-minutes.
Finally, Glenn, patience strained, snaps, “We’re going to Valdez.”
Near unheard, then he mutters the mantra, “Everything for a reason.” Happily, traveling the Richardson Highway is enough to fulfill that prophecy.
Where much of Alaska’s scenery is distant and broad, the road to Valdez pushes you through the looking glass, magnifying and bringing the grandeur up close. On the Thompson Pass, 48 km outside of Valdez, the Worthington Glacier reaches for the roadside as the world and weather starts to close in.
Through Thompson Pass, an 855 meter-high (2,805 ft) high gap in the Chugachs, the skies grow heavy, but that our earlier eyeball forecast is realized would be no shock if we’d done our research. This area is wet, as in record setting wet, with Valdez being the northernmost point of the coastal Pacific temperate rain forest.
Indeed, this pass is the snowiest place in Alaska. The statistics bury one; an average 1,401 cm (551.5 in) of the white stuff annually, the most snowfall ever in Alaska accumulated 2,475 cm (974.5 in) the winter of 1952–1953, the biggest a single day dump in the state, 160 cm (62 in), on December 29, 1955. Snow removal in these parts makes Sisyphus look like he has a minor hobby and provides a good indicator of the area’s rainfall, which begins its assault as we enter the Keystone Canyon fueling spectacular effect.
Rock walls closing in on us, waterfalls pour and jet, clouding the abrupt dark rock with white veils as the road winds and twists below. These are not the largest or proudest of the waterfalls and, as if to acknowledge this, they have common names like Bridal Veil Falls and Horsetail Falls, but they and the canyon offer something new in Alaskan scenery – respite. This is grandeur on a comprehensible scale.
When writing about Alaska it’s easy to fall into a trap and come off like the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.”
The same can be said of Alaskan scenery, so it’s nice to arrive somewhere and not have to reference synonyms for grandiose, vast and spectacle. Or it would be, because riding into Valdez you realize you’re facing the same literary problem.
From the hotel parking lot you can easily spy a multitude of glaciers over-spilling a bowl of mountains surrounding this improbable town like craggy sentinels freshly hewn by Vulcan’s hand. These are the Chugach Mountains, the most glaciated range in the North West.
What does the town look like? I could hardly tell you. I barely care, because the glacier frosted peaks hover with celestial insouciance kept drawing my eye even as ghosts in the night. What I do remember is that Valdez is low, flat, industrial and slapped together with an inorganic ill fit to the surroundings, probably because this isn’t the original Valdez.
During the 1964 “Good Friday Earthquake” Valdez was shaken, but the glacial silt forming the town’s foundation was seriously stirred in a liquefaction that broke off a portion of the Valdez shoreline. The massive underwater landslide sunk, taking the town’s main freight dock, and 32 townspeople watching the unloading of a supply ship, with it. Within three years the town, sensibly, relocated to firmer ground 6kms down the road under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers.
The quake is still the most powerful recorded in North American history, a staggering 9.2 on the moment magnitude scale centered approximately 45 miles west of Valdez. The better-known Richter scale only being suitable for quantifying medium-sized earthquakes, proof Alaska does big. It also does improbable.
In the hotel lot we’re experiencing our own improbability. There’s a clutch of five BMW and KTM adventure bikes already sitting here – familiar ones. The Italians.
We ran into Giovanni back in Whitehorse, while changing tires at Yukon Honda. Later we met his group on the street. Then on the way to Inuvik we all met briefly on the road, then again in Inuvik, staying at the same place, the Nova Inn. Now, here in Valdez, the group is waiting for the ferry to Anchorage before shipping their bikes home to Italy.
Where our little group of three has been quiet and rather staid the entire trips, the Italians are anything but. Over dinner there is a bacchanalian flow of wine, language irrelevant conversation, laughter, table pounding, and singing. Boisterous and bawdy Italian drinking songs are chorused, suggesting to our put upon waitresses that they might want to show us some naughty bits, even without the translation it’s loud enough to have “management” come into our little corner of the back room and suggest, “There are other people trying to dine here.” We learn the finer points of swearing in Italian. The pasta is derided, the salmon lauded, the mussels deeply questioned.
We are folded into the group and asked if we’d like to come on the next adventure, New Zealand. We are invited to Italy by Ivan, a translation made though Palo.
Wine is ordered, then sent back via a flabbergasted waitress when the vintner at the table dubs it corked, “What, wine can go bad?” There is a flurried side conversation of Italian leading to a one-word response, “Yes.” You know much more was said on the subject and all defeated by a waitress’s blank look.
We close down the Totem Restaurant and Bar, then linger out front with the conversation still flowing another invite is extended, “Come to Anchorage with us, the ferry leaves at 5:00.”
Honestly, I’d love to. Traveling with the Italians would transform this trip. These riders bring such energy and joy to our every chance meeting I can’t help but see their ride as a prolonged mobile party. Then I realize something; I might not have the stamina. Not just for the food and the drink, but the communications. We, frustratingly, are North American men; our interpersonal relations are rooted in a semi-benign neglect, small talk, and technical discussion. Untrained, I’m unsure I could shoulder the load of being so open and fun. Out of it comes to a resolution to start each remaining day of the trip fresh, excited and engaged – everything for a reason then.
– Photos Glenn Simmons and Kevin Miklossy