Roller Coast Denali.
Barely able to sleep with the anticipation of our day to come, I forced myself to roll out of the sleeping bag and into the same old clothes. Denali National Park was the day’s plan, a vacation, a stress free tour within one of the worlds most beautiful Mountain scapes. Dirk and I quickly made our way to the front office, making a pit stop in the communal kitchen. There I pulled out any edible pieces of food from my pack and devoured it as my breakfast, not wasting time to cook the oats. The night before, we marked our names on the ride list, sealing our early morning fate. Rounding the corner, we caught the shuttle driver and stored the bags in the storage shed before jumping on. Already, the excitement began it’s upward slope.
Watching the lines of countless cypress trees pass, a blur once my eyes drift down to the trunks. Denali soon engulfed the bus as we entered it’s vast terrain. We yield at the end of the pavement slowing for the lack of road ahead. Dirk and I arrived at the park visitor center running straight to the bus ticket counter. Grabbing the earliest bus as far into the park as we can go, we hit the end of the public access road. Sheryl Paxton was our bus driver, more enthusiastic than the rest of the bus, she was happy to meet Dirk and I. From the time we all noticed we will be the only 3 on the bus, a sense of camaraderie arose. As I sat there on the bench looking out of the window, all I could think was how we basically scored a private tour in Denali National Park. So blown away from the turn of events, I just grabbed my camera and hoped seats as I snapped shots. The road narrowed into a single lane, wrapping the high cliffs as the dew sparkled in the sun.
We laughed and talked as the hours piled up, bouncing in the seats as the bus continued through the vast openness. From the moment we met, Dirk, Sheryl and I were joking and talking non stop. Watching for oncoming buses, they would lead us to animal sightings like english pointers. Though the deeper we continued the less we relied on passing buses and focused hard into the brush. Spotting caribou and bears in the distance, I was set on being the first to spot a “berry bear, ” face smashed against the window. It was berry season and all the bears feasted upon the millions of blue berry patches scattered throughout the region. My belly growling, I couldn’t help but eat my only banana, jealous of the bears outside. The land was beautiful as I looked around, snapping as many photos as I could. The mountains in the distance, snow capped and covered with an eerie layer of clouds, gave the scene some depth as they rose into the sky. My eyes followed the rivers as they drain from the valleys and glaciers, snaking and scaring the land. Such an incredible scene, the pastel colors, the painting forever trapped in my mind.
During this 11 hour bus ride, 85 miles deep into the park, we began to turn zombie. The lack of preparation left us without food for the entire ride. The only banana now gone, I turned to what was left of my sunflower seeds, destroying them like a rabid squirrel on a bird-feeder. I sat there holding on to my concentration in the bus, over heating my camera with shots. Not only was our stomachs pissed at us, but the weather also seemed to frown. Approaching a bend in the road, the rain started to fall as the clouds hung from the peaks overhead. Like we had entered an entirely different world, the rain seemed to just fall over mile 66, Eielson Visitor Center. Here we took a half hour lunch break, seeking shelter in the building. I laughed as we killed time waiting for the designated eating time to end, reading and learning about Denali with nothing more that water to consume. Never have I ever wanted lunch to be over more than that moment, finishing the last of my sunflower seeds. Hiding my camera under my raincoat, we made a dash through the rain to the bus. Sheryl smiled and we set off for Wonder Lake, mile 84.
Like the bus just pulled out of a car wash, we were free from the curtains of rain. The colors of the mountain and valley, green and a soft pastel red where the water washes the land. I sat there appreciating the sight for a moment, forgetting what a camera was intended to do. As we took a sharp narrow turn down a steep hill, Wonder Lake glistened behind the trees. We made it, 84 miles into the Denali wild, blue berry patches abundant. I don’t think I even took one picture once the bus came to a stop. Dirk and I, red and blue jackets alike, jumped into the waist high undergrowth of a cypress landscape. The most odd colored bear, onlookers must have thought while we tore through the shrubs, heads down.
During the day long ride, we had gotten to know Sheryl pretty well. As she turned to point out a creek bed known for bear sightings, she over heard out concerns and offered us help. Our predicament was a little more complicated as the time grew long. Needing to be back at the hostel to grab our packs, we already knew we would miss the shuttle and need to hitchhike or walk back. Being that it was going to be late when we would arrive at the visitor center, walking was likely going to be our means of transportation. As we rolled back into the Eielson Visitor Center, Sheryl got a static full of orders to remain at that location until further notice. All three of us sat there, joined by about a handful of company by now, we awaited word. Hearing one driver was stranded back at mile post 76, Sheryl became the rescue mission. Needing a full bus for the 25 stranded passengers, orders were given to transfer all the passengers of our bus to one that was passing. As Sheryl was our ticket to a less stressful exit of the park and our new Denali friend, we couldn’t let her go alone. The doors closed behind the leaving passengers and the two way radio blasted. We would make a u-turn, leaving the rain behind for the second time. As we took the familiar route back, the sun now appeared through the broken clouds. The perfect light I have been longing for the entire day. Now with a little bit more energy from the blue berries and the excitement of our mission, I sprang up and started to fill my memory cards. Not long into the 10 mile track did we think about how we will back up and turn around. The road is narrow in the back country, leaving pull off spots as the only means of passing. Sheryl smirks and said she spotted a clearing she can whip around in a mile and a half back. Over the hill, we see the bus and how much traffic and passengers where held up in the mess. The 25 stranded passengers joined up with the passengers of the another bus heading west, all on the gravel road. The bus was then shifted into park, emergency air breaks hissing. The three amigos then made their was through the crowd, Sheryl confident in her mechanics. Approaching the driver of the other bus, one that seemed to lack training on the particular model, he seemed to have lost a few screws too. Sheryl then took control of the situation leaving the driver to stand there dumbfounded. Not more than 5 minutes and the three of us where heading back to the mother ship, free to travel back without taking the necessary stops. Dirk and I were excited, this meant being back just on time to grab our bags with a ride from Sheryl. We were pumped, yet physically dead. I don’t even think I smiled once I stepped off that bus, 12 hours later.
Dirk and I would then pace around the Visitor Center into the night. The cold crept in as the sun set to a twilight. All I remember was my legs hurting but kept walking to keep them warm. Sheryl will be here any moment, a thought that circulated in our minds as we silently passed each other while pacing. Minutes would take ages to pass as I watched my clock tease me. I pulled my sleeve down and continued my network of paths. A pair of headlights rounded the corner and straight up to us. Our lifeless bodies became alive when we entered her vehicle. Snatching some cafeteria food for us, I devoured my apple like a character from castaway. We hit the road, the car floating down the road, 2x the speed we have been traveling all day. The hostel then appeared suddenly, making us do a u-turn on the dark highway. Closed and no one around, Dirk and I then made our way across the street. As we grabbed our gear, we said our goodbyes to Sheryl, our new friend and savior of the day.
We began to scan the crowd for Chris Infante and any possible person we could recognize from the hostel. After first attacking the pizza, we luckily bumped in to the girl whom shuttled us to the park this morning. She happily walked us over and into the shed to grab our packs, returning to the bar after we were done. There we continued the search for our friend of a friend, Chris Infante, a ranger at the Savage Patrol Cabin in the park. Him and Dirk had a good game of phone tag going on until he finally answered. With the conversation broken from the static, we stood there without a clue.
As a dude passed me looking like he was scanning the place down, I had a slight focus on him as he passed. Not knowing what Chris looks like, I just continued to screen the place of someone looking like a Chris. Dirk then turns around at the bar seeing who the bartender just yelled at. It was the Chris Infante we needed to run into. Our night from there on looked bright. After a couple local pub stops, we then arrived to the little wood cabin, masked in the dark. The top floor had the beds we could crash on and the downstairs is where we talked for some time. Light off, new days come.