The sense that we’re in someplace very different sets in less than a half-hour out of Anchorage, Alaska, as we begin the day’s ride on our adventure-tourers.
The city disappears fast in the rearview mirrors, and we find ourselves running along Turnagain Arm, a narrow fjord offering views of open water, sweeping glacial valleys and mist-covered mountains rising straight out of the water.
Before we’ve burned a single gallon of gas, we’re well into the Alaska experience. The first clue is the small traffic jam that develops as a group of mountain goats descends a rocky cliff a couple of feet off the pavement. That’s followed by a glimpse of a moose in a marshy meadow.
Fifty miles out, we’ve already made a half-dozen photo stops, and kicked ourselves for not making more. Then we hook around the southeast end of the fjord, cross the Placer River, and come upon a sign promising “Scenic View.”
The vista of mountains marching into the distance along chilly, forbidding water is pretty spectacular. But it’s clear that if Alaska’s Department of Transportation wants to point out even a small percentage of the state’s scenic highlights, it's going to need a lot more signs.
Alaska Route 1 is a mostly two-lane road skirting the edges of the Kenai Mountains. It feels like a remote highway in the Rockies, except that it’s also the only road connecting the state’s busiest city to the coast. That means there’s a fair amount of traffic, most of it moving at a pretty good clip. This is a big state, and people have places to go.
We turn onto state Route 9, which bends south to the town of Seward, on a narrow bay leading to the ocean. From the setting, we’re expecting a quaint fishing village filled with antique shops, souvenir stands, ice cream parlors, fudge and more.
There are a few shops and restaurants clustered in a small downtown area, but that’s adjacent to a mud flat that serves as a graveyard for broken, decaying fishing boats. And down a gravel road is the major tourism center, an RV park with Winnabagoes wedged inches from each other along a rocky beach.
Over a meal at what is best described as a pizza-and-salmon parlor, we get some insight into what, exactly, we’re up against.
The place mats on the tables show a map of Alaska superimposed over the heart of the United States. It’s big.
The northern coast lines up with the border between Minnesota and Canada. The arrow-straight eastern edge of the state is aligned with the western shore of Lake Michigan, running through Milwaukee and Chicago. From there, Alaska’s southeastern panhandle stretches all the way to the South Carolina coast near Charleston, while the Aleutian Islands curve west across the entire country, ending near San Francisco.
Apparently, this ride is going to take a little more time than we thought.
Back on Route 1, we unexpectedly cross an invisible international border. Here, the towns are named Soldotna, Kasilof and Kalifornsky, reminders that before Alaska was an American state, it was Russian territory. In fact, at this moment, we’re closer to Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula than we are to any point in the contiguous United States.
Approaching Homer in the early evening, we see the Homer Spit. Located just a few miles from a spectacular overlook of Homer and Kachemak Bay.
The spit is a narrow finger of land curving into the bay. At no point is it more than a couple hundred yards wide, and in places it seems that its name is particularly apt, since you could spit all the way from the sheltered water on the east side to the more open water on the west.
On one side is a junkyard, just past that is a terminal for a logging operation, right on top of an RV park. On the other side of the road is an open beach.
Then there’s the “business district,” a section of shops and restaurants, some on stilts and most looking like they were nailed together out of scrap lumber and corrugated metal.
Beyond that? Oh, there’s an oil terminal and what appears to be a pretty nice hotel.
It’s part Wild West town, part tourist trap, part post-apocalyptic movie set. And with the near-endless days you get in mid-summer at 60 degrees north latitude, we’ve got hours to soak it all in.
Ultimately, the Spit is like Alaska itself: big and beautiful, raw and unruly. The unspoken rule is clear: You can take it on its terms, or you can go somewhere else.
We look around at the mountains, the water, an eagle soaring over the waves, and the sun, still well above the horizon at 10:30 p.m.
And we decide that we’ll stay, thanks.