Much is written, studied and discussed about this, the 49th of 50 states. And yet, to most of us, Alaska remains as foreign, as exotic, as unreachable as it was in 1867, when the United States purchased it from Russia for $7 million in the best land deal since the Indians sold us Manhattan for a few beads.
Alaska perhaps is simply too big for anyone to have a real sense of the place, even after spending a lifetime here. It is so vast that even a year spent exploring the state is but an introduction.
So what can the casual tourist, the person who spends a week or two, expect to find? What can a short-termer discover about Alaska? Where should he go, and what should he pass up in his search for some of the essence of this land?
He should see the country -- the mountains so high they always wear a bunting of cloud, the salmon streams where the fish lie like a red carpet upon the water-smoothed pebbles, the valleys that hold golden grizzly bears and moose that carry 1,000 pounds of weight on ridiculous matchstick legs, the glaciers that shimmer blue and white in the early morning sun, the aspens waving sensuously in the late afternoon breeze.
He should see the new Alaska -- the raucous message parlors of Anchorage, the bars of Fairbanks that mix the frontier spirit with that curious sense of violence that ofter erupts into vicious fights, the new office buildings with their hard lines softened by a perpetual curtain of mist, the pipeline that turned this state into a modern-day Klondike with black gold replacing nuggets.
It is possible to see both of these Alaskas in a week or two, possible to scratch the surface and find a little of what this place is all about. You won't come home with a true picture of the state, perhaps, but you will have experienced something of the splendor and sleaziness of a schizophrenic state.
Unless you have unlimited time, it is best to skip the southern part of the state, which is more like Oregon than Alaska anyway.
Your should start at Anchorage, go to Fairbanks and complete your journey with a visit to Mount McKinley National Park: only three stops among thousands you could make in Alaska, but these three will give you a feeling, a sense of the state.
Anchorage is still a boom town. It is swimming in oil. It is home to about 200,000 of the 400,000 Alaskans. It is a giant metropolis in a land of villages, a battleship in an ocean of rowboats. But is it really Alaska?
The most frequent joke you hear in Alaska is "the nicest thing about Anchorage is that Alaska is only 30 minutes away." The classic Alaska, yes. But Anchorage is Alaska, too, the new Alaska, and the Alaska that the majority of Alaskans choose as their home.
Not bad for a twon that wasn't even here in 1914 and had only 3,000 people at the start of World War II.
But the building of the Alcan Highway, the oil boom, and the fact that Anchorage has a temperate climate like Juneau, without all the rain of the state capital, and none of Fairbanks' vicious cold, have combined to propel Anchorage's growth.
For the visitor Anchorage is a natural starting point. You don't experience culture shock the first day in the state if you start out in Anchorage. Outwardly it is much like Minneapolis: modern and clean and bustling with importance. The hotels are first-rate, the restaurants can provide sophisticated food and wine and the entertainments are varied.
Spend a night in Anchorage, get used to the bite of the Alaskan night air, and the long summer days that push sunlight through your window about 4 a.m. As a tourist attraction it isn't much. Earthquake Park, a monument to the devastating earthquake of 1964 that nearly destroyed this town, is about it. If you must buy something, you can go to the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers Cooperative at Sixth and H streets and get one of the superbly soft garments made from the wool of the animal.
Anchorage really is just, a place to rest for a day or two, to get used to Alaska, to prepare yourself for a visit to the more rugged Fairbanks and finally the splendor that Alaska offers in Mount McKinley National Park.
Just joutside Fairbanks, off the Old Steese Highway, Goldstream Road turns left. If you follow the dirt path about 200 yards, you will see a rusting gold dredge, its days of production long over. Abour 50 yards from the dredge, cutting across the rock-strewn valley is the Alaskan pipeline. Here, with the wind whipping across your face, you can see the reality of yesterday and today in Alaska, the gold and the oil.
Fairbanks was founded on gold. On July 22, 1902, Felice Pedroni discovered gold just north of the city, and the rush was on. Between his discovery and the day the gold petered out in 1920, Fairbanks boomed, relatively speaking. Its populateion swelled to 3,541 during the good times, and more than $200 million in gold was taken from the area. But the gold didn't hold out, and the last mine closed and Fairbanks went into a hibernation that was to last 50 years.
As late as 1972, before the pipeline boom started, Fairbanks had a population of about 16,000. Four years later 47,000 people lived in Fairbanks, all intent on reaping the benefits of the pipeline construction, benefits that could make a common laborer a rich man overnight.
"I remember seeing one of my former students, a kid that had nothing, return to the school for a visit," said Jim Ramey, a school teacher and sometimes tour guide in Fairbanks. "He stopped in to say hello, and to say he was going to Honolulu for the winter. Seems he made $52,000 working on the pipeline last year. Not bad for a kid who dropped out in the 11th grade." t
Most of the money, though was made by the imports who came to get in on the oil boom and got a little of the $9 billion spent on the pipeline's construction. With 75 percent of the workers coming from the "lower 48," many of them oil-field workers from Texas and Oklahoma, it's not surprising that the favorite bumper sticker in Fairbanks read: "Happiness is 10,000 Texans headed south with an Okie under each arm."
The pipeline is finished now, and Fairbanks has settled back to reality and a 32,000 population. But the effects of the pipeline linger on. There are three new shopping centers in town, and an expanded school. Most of the "business women" who prowled the bars and streets are gone, but the bars are still open and thriving. And Fairbanks now has fine hotels, places like the Fairbanks Inn, where you can get a good room for $51 a night.
Tourism has become the newest boom industry in Fairbanks. Nearly 40,000 visit here each summer, many from Texas and Oklahoma returning for another look.
They come to see, and touch, the pipeling (and too often to write their initials on it); to drive out to the Cripple Creek resort in nearby Ester to hear Don Pearson recite from the work of Robert Service in his Malemute Saloon; to take a river cruise on the sternwheeler "Discovery" on the Chena and Tanana rives, great brown expanses of water, their banks lined with winter-stunted trees and a few settler's cabins; to play golf on the country's northernmost golf course, where the greens are made of sand; to visit the University of Alaska's fine museum; to look at Alaskaland, a 44-acre site created for the statewide centennial celebration and featuring original houses of early Alaska.
All this takes only a few days, three at the most, and then the tourists leave Fairbanks long before the minus-67-degree winter days and the long, bitter winter nights.
Everyone who comes to Mount McKinley National Park probably has a wildlife story to tell. For me it was the moose.
I'll never forget the moose. Creeping through blueberry bushes, hiding behind fir trees, crawling on my belly through a draw, I moved slowly toward the brown speck in the distance. Scratching my camera on rocks and ripping the knees from my jeans, I worked my way the 300 yards to a small hillock about 20 yards from the resting moose. Then he got up.
I don't know if you have ever seen a moose up close. I hadn't. With a curious grace for such a huge beast, the moose stood, towering far above me, his horns looking like the wings of a 747, his eyes the size of dinner plates.
The moose got up and looked at me and snorted, a noise that echoed throughout the valley like an avalanche. Then he walked toward me on those matchstick legs, walked deliberately and slowly, facing me down, forcing me to turn tail and run for the safety of the bus far back on the main highway. Then he laid down again, satisfied that this stranger was put properly in his place.
In those few minutes of wonder and terror I found what to me is the essence of Alaska, and of this marvelous park. I found the excitement of the outdoors, the splendor of the wildlife and the nearly mystical feeling one gets being in the midst of a land, a world, a setting so natural that it is unnatural to most of us.
Mount McKinley National Park is as close as most of us will get to knowing something of this state. And more of us are coming each year, nearly 350,000 last year alone, 10 times the number that visited the park in 1972.
Many drive in on the new Fairbanks-to-Anchorage Highway, a monotonous stretch of concrete that could be anywhere, except for the moose-crossing signs every few miles; some ride the Alaska State Railroad, which leaves Fairbanks every morning at 8 for Anchorage and stops in the park at 1:10. The ride, through wild and rugged country, is one of the great adventures left in this country.
You should stay in the park at least one night, more if possible. Accommodations at the McKinley Park State Hotel begin at $51 in the high season (June 13-Sept. 30); it's $4 more at the newer McKinley Chalet. Either place offers comfortable, if rustic, accommodations. If you like, you can camp at one of the park's seven campgrounds, which are available on a first-come-first-served basis.
The highlight, and the reason for staying in the park, is the game tours, a kind of a refrigerated safari. Since private cars are banned in the park, except those used by campers, buses are used to take visitors along the park's lone road, an 85-mile-long thread that bisects only a tiny fraction of the 1.9 million acres of the park. The bus trips begin at 6 a.m. and continue until 6 p.m., with early morning and late evening the best times for game-viewing.
On a typical drive you will probably see grizzley bears, moose, caribou, dall sheep and eagles. You may see wolves, although they aren't common, and you will see dozens of varieties of birds as you move through the "tiaga," the forest of small trees, where a 200-year-old spruce tree is waist-high.
And of course, you will see Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, and one of the most spectacular mountains in the world. Perhaps I should say you might see Mount McKinley, since the 20,320-foot peak usually hides behind a mantle of clouds. About five days a month it is clearly visible.
Even if you don't see McKinley, named after a politician who was never above 1,000 feet, you'll see plenty of her sister peaks, great, jagged monsters that reach 10,000, 12,000 and 14,000 feet into the deep blue of the Alaskan sky.
And you will learn about the wilderness and the Alaskan outdoors. You will learn by seeing the National Park Service's sled-dog demonstration and campfire programs and by talking with the knowledgeable guides. But mostly you will learn to appreciate Alaska and its splendor by hiking in the wilderness, or simply by walking along a park road at dusk, with the chill of summer driven into your very bones, a chill enhanced by the excitement of discovery, of confrontation with nature and by, if you're lucky, the moose.
There is more to Alaska, of course: the inside-passage cruises that take you into spectacular Glacier Bay with an escort of whales; the Arctic villages where some native Eskimos reel in drunken stupors much of the day and talk with pride of being three-snowmobile families; the awesome Brooks Range wilderness that makes McKinely seem tame by comparison; the capital city of Juneau, its steep hillsides climbed by rickety staircases; Ketchikan with its restored Creek Street red-light district dampened by the town's 160 inches of rain each year, and Valdez, terminal point for the pipeline.
All of these are Alaska, too. But if you have a limited amount of time, as most visitors do, see Anchorage and Fairbanks and Mount McKinley Park, and save the rest for a second visit.