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I’ve spent the last two days exploring around Fairbanks. It has grown and modernized enormously since the 1980s. Most of the streets outside the small downtown have been completely transformed by national chain stores and new construction. The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) campus is many times bigger than it was. It takes me a while to find one recognizable portion, the original quad where my boss’s office used to be. The wooded area on campus where I used to camp in the summer to save my $80 per day tax free per diem has been totally developed. Fairbanks now has expressways in lieu of some of the old streets. It’s amazing how much has changed. After all, I’ve only been away half a lifetime. Almost nothing matches my memories.
Billie’s Backpacker Hostel has been great. It’s really well managed yet she’s avoided the irksome rules that many hostels use to moderate the behavior of their often immature guests. The walls and shelves are filled with art and museum quality antiques. Both Billie and her son, Art, are very congenial, as is the rotating cast of hostel residents. Dee, a fairly young man from Syracuse NY, has been a guest for some months as he reorients his life with big, carefully progressing plans to establish himself in the state.
There’s the usual hostel information interchange, with more experienced travelers offering advice and cautions to the cheechakos (Alaska newcomers). I have to balance my urge to impart my Alaska experience with the knowledge that, dating back almost two generations, much of it is worthless.
Today, I put up a sign that I’d be making buckwheat sourdough pancakes for all comers in the morning. Billie walks into the kitchen and when she leaves, my sign is gone. A few minutes later she comes back, apologizing, and replaces the notice on the wall. “I’m so annoyed by people taping up scolding signs like ‘Do the dishes’ or ‘Stop leaving food on the counter’ that I automatically take them down. I just noticed that yours is an invitation, so I put it back.”
Susan’s flight doesn’t come in until 12:30 AM. She’s agreed to stay in the hostel tonight, which is a major concession. Her accommodation tastes run to king size beds and en suite private bathrooms, although we’ve spent many traveling nights under more spartan conditions, including sleeping in the front seat of the car in front of a remote Bolivian, sulfurous fumarole at 16,000 feet above sea level. Now, I appreciate her willingness to be introduced to the hostel experience. I love it for the social interaction, the cooking facilities, the intergenerational contact and, too, the reduced expense. To ease the culture shock, I’ve booked one of Billie’s few private rooms, with an adjacent bathroom shared with only one other person. I don’t want to drive Susan over the edge by asking her to sleep in a coed dorm room.
As the afternoon moves into darkless evening and darkless night, I drive over to the airport, discovering that the old 2-lane Airport Road has been bypassed with an expressway. The Fairbanks airport has a new terminal designed, apparently, by the same architect who’s done every modern airport in the country — although at least it’s still small enough not to need the standard two level car access separating arrivals and departures.
I really miss the pre-9/11 informality of flying and terminal behavior. It’s this transformation that makes me willing to drive cross country rather than be treated like a potential terrorist at airports and on planes. I reserve flying mostly for places to which I can’t drive.
I wait in the cell phone lot and when I see the Alaska Airlines jet pull up to the gate, I park the car and go into the terminal. The baggage claim area has a planeload of passengers but, not seeing Susan, I focus on the arrivals exit hallway. As expected, Susan enters sedately as one of the final passengers off the flight.
On the drive back, the sky is typically dramatic with clouds and sun at 1 AM. Susan quickly begins to appreciate what attracts me to Alaska, even though prosaic Fairbanks itself is physically not the stuff of romantic landscapes.
On arrival at the Billie’s, a group of travelers is standing outside, actively discussing UFOs at almost 2 AM. This is Susan’s intro to hosteling and after my tour of the house and introductions to the late night prowling guests, we retreat to our room for a solid night’s sleep. Susan has had 15 hours in transit on 3 airplanes.