The plan was to head south on one highway, camp Friday night at the lakes where my family used to go when I was younger, drive the unpaved highway through the mountains across to the other highway (yes, there are only two highways coming south out of Fairbanks) and camp at Denali National Park on Saturday, and make it to Mass in one of the small communities we would pass through on our way home Sunday.
That plan was shot to pieces Thursday when a)we learned that it was dipping below freezing in the mountains at night, and Little Bear still won't sleep under blankets; b)I discovered that we didn't actually have the food I'd planned to bring for our dinners; and c)Matt came home from work with a gastrointestinal bug.
Since he already had Friday off, and he was slowly feeling better as the evening went on, we decided to be crazy and adventurous and still go on some sort of trip: we booked a room at a hotel down at the park and put away the camping supplies, only packing clothes, car trip food, and gear for a short hike.
Friday morning, Matt felt fine... but as we loaded the jeep, I came down with his bug from the night before. We knew it was a fairly short one, though, and the room was non-refundable, so off we went anyway: Matt driving, Little Bear raging against the injustice of a world that would cause him to be buckled into his carseat on a Friday morning, and me trying to keep him moderately happy while trying not to get sick. We stopped for lunch at a campground an hour or so out, and Little Bear was thrilled to be allowed to sit on top of the picnic table while we ate our pilot bread, cheese, and nectarines.
When we picked up and began driving again, Matt put on a cd he'd compiled of Peter Hollens, Lindsey Sterling, and The Piano Guys. It put Little Bear to sleep almost immediately, so we both actually enjoyed the rest of the drive. Our hotel was set off by itself south of the park entrance; most of the hotels, restaurants and gift shops are clustered along a mile or two of highway just north of the park entrance known locally as "Glitter Gulch," so it was very nice to be somewhere peaceful and secluded instead of right in the middle of the craziness. Our room had a little deck with a view of the Nenana River, and nothing but mountains and trees beyond it.
We walked around some gift shops and got dinner at a pizzeria in Glitter Gulch Friday night -- I highly recommend Prospector's Pizzeria and Alehouse. Everything in Glitter Gulch is (over)priced for tourists, but the pizza was nevertheless excellent. We had the Kachemak Bay: a white pizza with onions, fresh tomatoes, and blackened halibut.
The next morning, after breakfast at the hotel, we loaded up and headed to the park visitors center. The new building went in a few years ago, and has a very well done two-story diorama of the area with taxidermied mounts of pretty much every type of animal you could see in the park. We planned to walk around inside and show Little Bear the animals before taking a short hike on one of the trails nearby, but when we overheard that a park naturalist was getting ready to take a troupe of tourists on that hike, we figured we should hit the trail ahead of the crowd. The weather was perfect: sunny but cool, probably in the upper 40s. We took our time on the mile and a half trek down to Horseshoe Lake, enjoying the beauty and the quiet (or as quiet as it gets with the child bouncing and singing in the backpack). Little Bear had a lot of fun when we reached the lake: we took him out of the backpack, and he crawled all over the rocky area making piles of dirt and small stones. He was filthy by the end, but so happy! We spent a good half hour watching the lake and letting him play.
Just as we got back to the jeep, the train went by! We were parked no more than 20 yards from the tracks, and Little Bear stared in amazement at the huge train rushing past. Because he was getting sleepy, we decided to skip the visitors center for this year and start the drive home. That decision wound up being very wise, because apparently a tanker truck caught fire on the highway shortly after we left, and traffic both directions was completely shut down for a while! Meanwhile we had stopped for lunch at 49th State Brewery in Healy, which served the largest burgers Matt had ever seen, and the best grilled cheese I've ever had: my sandwich had gruyere, marinated portobello, roasted red pepper, grilled onions, and avocado! Little Bear had his first French fries, but was more interested in eating the avocado out of my sandwich.
The rest of the trip home went smoothly, with him sleeping and us talking quietly or just watching the scenery. I'm so glad that it turned out the way it did; it wasn't the trip I was looking forward to, but it was still wonderful.