Anglers admire a salmon hooked in the Sustina River near Talkeetna.
We take our time heading south on the George Parks Highway (State 3), stopping to hike and pulling out at Denali State Park viewpoints to try to glimpse Mt. McKinley. Still no luck.
Farther south, the bush town of Talkeetna is the staging area for most of the climbers who attempt to summit McKinley each year. Fat-tired planes buzz the nearby airport, taking climbers, guides, and gear to mountain base camps.
Until he retired from working as a guide two years ago, Talkeetna resident Brian Okonek spent most of his summers on Mt. McKinley. Friends say he's summited more than 25 times, but Okonek talks about McKinley with soft-spoken respect. "The mountain is always in control," he says. "You go to it, and it decides what you do and how you fare. It has immense power. The power of life and death, really."
That night, while we sit on the deck of the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, the clouds finally lift long enough for us to see the mountain that the Athabascan people still call Denali. Rising majestically above the rest of the range, it embodies what Okonek was talking about.
The drive up the soon-to-be-paved road over Hatcher Pass is one of the great secrets of Alaska. Don't rush it; it's narrow in places and the drops are sheer.
Beyond the pass, we visit Independence Mine State Historical Park and take a hike ― our last taste of the wild before reaching Palmer. As we head back to Anchorage, it doesn't take long to reenter the contemporary world. Gas stations appear at regular intervals, traffic thickens, a huge sign advertising car sales pops up.
Our drive into the heart of Alaska has revealed a diversity of people and complexity of geography that, like views of Mt. McKinley, can be elusive but are there to be discovered. This untamed country can get into your blood. We met one grizzled old-timer who still runs a winter trapline near Cantwell and asked him what holds him here. "You don't claim this land," he replied, "this land claims you." He was right. We'll be back, and next time we'll head beyond the end of the road.
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