Step right up, up and away!

Some things in life should not go unrecognized.  Whether it be the little things or the big ones, paying attention is a good thing.  For instance, my folks will be celebrating 60 years of marriage this summer.  Just think, sixty years together… and not even all of it with me! 

Rather than doing a traditional party where they'd assemble a ton of friends and relatives in a couple hours and then write detailed thank you notes for five days afterward for all the stuff they got (and didn't need, because they already have 80+ years worth accumulated), they decided they would prefer to do some traveling. Both of them are still in good shape, so it wasn't a big deal to take them somewhere. We did a little of that earlier in the year with a trip to Florida. That one went over quite well, but what they both really wanted to do was take another trip to Alaska. 

Here's why:

One of Dad's younger sisters lived in Alaska for 40 years or so. My folks visited her and her husband back in 1989 and got to see a bunch of the state with experienced tour guides. My mom used to arrange group tours for a local bank where she was a director. It was a program primarily for their senior bank customers.  They're the ones who typically have all the money and the free time to travel. Mom took two different groups to Alaska in the 1990's. Dad went along because he was the experienced one, and not just from their 1989 trip. You see, Uncle Sam sent him a special invitation back in the 1950's to see the world and all it had to offer. His invitation was for an extended tour package. It was not only non-refundable, it was a felony to say no, thank you. He was drafted into the Army and ended up getting sent to Alaska after basic training. He was one of about four out of a hundred or more who got sent there. Incidentally, one of the guys he met during his induction process in Des Moines was a young guy from central Iowa. His name was Earl and he was heading to the same vacation package that The Chairman Emeritus was. Earl's family had come to Des Moines to see him off. One of those family members was his sister. That would be my mother, Elsie. That's how my folks met. Sixty-some years later, they both still love each other and Alaska, too.

The original plan was to have as many of us kids and spouses hit the road and go along as we could. Reality soon set in and we narrowed the list down to those who were able to get time off to make the trip. Past Alaska trips had always been in the middle of June. That enables you to be there during the summer solstice when there is no shortage of daylight. Unfortunately, that was not a date that worked for a lot of us. We ended up with my parents; one sister, Jean; her 12-year-old daughter, Sara; and me. Sherill couldn't get ten to fourteen days off in the middle of summer, but she insisted that I go without her. Keep in mind, we did all the planning for this back in March. At that point, it sure looked like it would be no problem to get all the crops planted and get first-crop hay made by the middle of June. Thanks to the brilliance of Dr. Daryl Strohbehn and others at Iowa State University who developed the Estrus Synchronization Planner, I could do a few clicks on my computer and play with different dates and protocols for A.I. and decide which method would work the best for my combination of dates and desires. I quickly figured out a system that would allow me to be gone for ten or twelve days and not miss a step in the critical process to get my heifers bred once I returned. That would spare my staff the pain of having to do anything with the herd at any specific time. 

Next came logistics.

Once you get from Iowa to Alaska, there's the small matter of getting around up there. Past bank trips had been taken using 15-passenger vans as the vehicle of choice. That enabled the group to toss all of their luggage into the two vans and still fit enough passengers inside so as not to be sitting on Samsonite seats. It sounded good, but then we discovered the reality of vehicle rental in Alaska. A van or even an SUV was going to cost a ton of money for ten days. Add in hotel rooms at anywhere from $150 to $250 per room per night and it gets spendy in a hurry.  That's when we made another discovery.  www.greatalaskanholidays.com We'd rent an RV and hit the road with our hotel on wheels. An RV was actually a lot cheaper to rent than an SUV. 

We kept it real, though. A Ford gas engine would power the RV. To me, that screamed two things: "Big dog of an engine, and HUGE PIG on gas!" 

I pretty much went two-for-two on that prediction. The mileage was not impressive, but it wouldn't have been great in an SUV either. The sleeping possibilities were a whole lot better in an RV, too. But The Chairman had his limits. An RV, he felt, was "too much togetherness." He doesn't mind group vacations. He does not care for group accommodations. He'd take a hotel room each night, thank you very much, and he'd gladly pay whatever the tab would be. (There's not as much German in his background as mine.) 

Turns out the whole RV / hotel combo would work out quite nicely. We'd usually pull into the hotel and drop off our senior citizen members and then park the beast nearby. That would allow the rest of the party to enjoy indoor plumbing and the convenience of a spacious room, as well as decent Wi-Fi connections out in the parking lot. 

I'll be honest. I've never understood the upside to any kind of camping.  Ever.  It doesn't look like the least bit of fun to me. A good share of my time at work is spent hauling loads of stuff around on some kind of trailer or wagon. Having that as my living accommodations is not vacation to me. When it's time for vacation, I want to pull the pin and walk away. I'd like to do it in something that's easy to park, too. 

Mishaps of Dennis

That was especially true when we were on our way to Denali National Park. We decided to take a detour and see what was happening in Talkeetna. It was a few miles off the main road, but The Chairman spoke highly of it. Talkeetna was where a former employee of ours used to work. Dennis grew up around Cresco and helped us bale hay before I was born. We were big-time cheeseheads back then, so we'd make ten to fifteen thousand little square bales of hay to feed the dairy cows. Dennis and Guy No. 1 would usually be in the hay mow stacking bales. Even though I never met him, the Dennis story I always remembered was when he misjudged distance and ended up falling out of the hay mow onto the barn floor below. You'd always stack your bales in such a way that you'd build a small opening in the center of the stack. There was a hole in the floor where bales could then be tossed down and carried to the cows nearby. The key was to build your stack in such a way that it was square as you kept adding layers of bales as you filled the barn. Nothing is worse than having to carry bales all the way across the hay mow and then all the way across the barn again to feed them. Get yourself one of those Wile E. Coyote Acme Build-A-Holes in the center and you'd be all set. 

Key point here: Don't forget where the hole is as you're carrying bales up there in the mow. If you do, next thing you know, you're pulling a couple G's on your way to the chaff pile below. Dennis knew all about physics and acceleration after that. Surprisingly, he wasn't hurt at all. I would liked to have been there just to see if there was that moment where he was frozen in space and looked down before he began his descent with sound effects, just like Wile E. Coyote. Since I never saw him and had no proof he actually survived, I always wondered if Dennis actually died and they were just telling me he moved away to soften the story for me. All I know is that I left a lot of space between me and The Bale Chute of Death when I was in the mow. 

Dennis supposedly moved to Alaska and became a bush pilot. He'd fly all kinds of people and cargo into remote areas of Alaska. My folks went with him one time and got to see a bunch of country from the air. You can never know too many people. 

Seeing as how I buy most of my clothes from Omar's For The Obese & Gangly Gentleman, we decided to rent a 31-ft. motorhome for our trip. That one came with a queen-sized bed, thereby allowing me to comfortably fit my outsized carcass into bed each night. The 31-footer was a bit of a whale to move around, be it on the road or in parking lots. That became exceedingly obvious in a tiny little town like Talkeetna. We had chosen to visit when they were having some kind of festival. Talkeetna reminded me a lot of nearby Decorah, Iowa. It was a town with a left-of-center feel and a professional opposition class who spends the majority of their time aggressively against something. Nothing in particular, but if you could be against anything, you'd easily find people to join your cause in no time flat. I believe the Talkeetna contingent was opposing a proposed development.     

I dropped my party off for lunch at a bistro downtown while I took Shamu a significant distance away to park. By the time I got back, they were all ready to eat. Our server showed up and took my order after that. The special was a grilled Halibut fish sandwich with Cajun mayo and a side of clam chowder. I was kind of looking forward to it, but it was taking forever. My chowder finally arrived and was outstanding. Then the wait began for the sandwich. Our young server had disappeared. When she finally stopped by again, I quickly discovered that she completely forgot the sandwich portion of my special. My free time had been spent watching the speed at which food wasn't really moving out of the kitchen, so I had a pretty good idea of how soon my meal would be meeting up with me. That's when I decided to skip the rest of the meal and call this a done deal. Since everyone else was done and ready to go, I'd have to hit the road for the hike back to Shamu and then figure out a way to get it back to the other end of town and get it turned around to pick up my party and blow this town. My niece, Sara, decided she'd go with me. She probably wanted to see how I'd get it done without her learning some new words she shouldn't repeat in front of her mother.

Give it a shot

On our way to the other end of the Talkeetna zip code, we walked by a booth that was pretty small. It was for a business I'd seen in a brochure Jean handed me during my eternal sandwich wait -- www.talkeetnaair.com. They take passengers on airplane tours of the Mount McKinley glacier area. Jean thought it was something I might be interested in at some point, but we weren't sure how far in advance a person had to book reservations. A guy of about 60 was sitting at a chair in a T-shirt and shorts in front of the booth. To take the edge off my restaurant mishap, and to keep me leveled out on attitude when around The Munchkin (Sara), I decided to stop and quiz the guy. We'd maybe have part of a day late the next week when I'd be able to swing in and maybe do one of these tours, so it never hurts to ask in advance about the possibility. Everything in Alaska requires pre-booking during the summer tourist season, we'd been told, so I figured he'd be booked two to three weeks out.

The brochure I'd seen had four different tour options on it.  One was a basic one-hour trip around the mountains. The next one was a bit more involved, went further and lasted about two hours. The third one went further yet and included the option of landing on the glacier. You'd then get to spend some time walking around on the glacier. The fourth tour included all of that and a little bit more time. Prices started at about a hundred bucks a head and went up in about $100 increments from there. Six or seven days from now, that might look pretty good, so I decided to find out if I could get anything booked. 

"Will it be both you and your daughter going?" the sales rep asked me. 

Nope, just me. She's my niece, so she's not going. (She's a kid and she's not my kid. You'll notice I don't have any. There's a reason. Enough said.)

That's when the rep's eyes lit up.  He looked at his watch, then back at the schedule sheet and said, "Sir, which one were you thinking?  The basic one or the glacier landing?" 

Glacier landing, I said, without getting too specific, because I could sense a combination of opportunity and desperation in his voice. 

Ready in five?

"Tell ya what," the sales guy said, "I can get you in on the next flight. It will be the Level 3 glacier landing. I'll give you a helluva deal, too, and we can get you on there in five minutes!" 

Gulp. Okay, I'm skeptical, but let's talk. 

Numbers were tossed out. They were small numbers. Planes fly whether they're full or only partially full. A paying customer is still paying. Once the fixed cost is covered, the balance is gravy. Take a look at me. One of the first things that comes to your mind is probably gravy, right, Gordy? 

The brochure talked about proper clothing and the potential for cold weather when you're on the glacier. I mentioned that I probably needed to go back to the RV for a coat. That's when Biff The Sales Guy gave me instructions.  "Sir, take one step back and stand in the sun. Now tell me how you feel."

I feel fine, Biff. 

"Well, that's how it's going to feel up there today.  You won't need a coat.  We can have our shuttle take you to your RV and get it if you want to, but I was up there in this and I felt fine," Biff told me. 

In that case, let me go find the rest of my party and tell them, Biff! 

That's always fun when you show up without the vehicle and tell your fellow travelers awaiting their ride, "Well, look, you're on your own.  I need to go, BECAUSE I WILL BE FLYING TO MT. MCKINLEY AND LANDING ON A GLACIER IN FIVE MINUTES!!!"  

Surprisingly, the idea went over quite well with everyone.  They would head down to the RV and they'd all take a nap for a couple hours while I went out and did column-worthy stuff. Standard procedure. They know how my life works. 

Next thing you know, a shuttle bus pulled up and whisked me away to the airport. Six of us would be getting into the plane with our pilot. I believe his name was Brad. The six of us were a husband and wife, three other guys and I. Brad did the seat assignment work after we covered some of the basics of the plane. He picked one guy and decided to put him in the tiny back seat by himself.  Then he decided to put the husband and wife in the seat ahead of him.  Brad kept sizing us up. He picked another guy and put him in the next row. Now it was down to me and one other guy over who got the second row and who got to be up front with Brad in the co-pilot seat. We weren't exactly wearing sashes and holding our breath in nervous anticipation of being crowned Mr. Co-Pilot Alaska, but it was close. 

Brad kept looking us over. Then, he made his decision. 

Where will Guy No. 2 sit?

Well, Uek, it looks like I MUST BE IN THE FRONT ROW!!! 

Brad wasn't a huge guy, so maybe he was doing some weight distribution math for seat assignments. I give most of the credit to all of the gravy and pie in my diet. 

We climbed into the Buddy Holly Express and got another review of safety and equipment. There was a yoke right in front of me, but I wasn't given any special instruction on how to fly the plane or land on the glacier in case of emergency before we left. Perhaps Brad had already read my boat stories and knew I'm a land-based mammal, so why bother giving me any tips on flight stuff? I decided my role was to more of a Carlton The Doorman than Navigator Howard Borden. Just be in the background and throw something in occasionally if the situation warranted. Afterward, people may remember you, but they won't remember anything specific. 

The trip was outstanding! If you get the chance to do it, I would highly recommend a "flightseeing tour" when you're in Alaska. I love small planes, but Sherill absolutely despises them, so it's not often I get the chance to get in one without her around. Getting up at that level to see the mountain up close is beyond spectacular. Photos don't do it justice. Then, getting to land on the glacier and walk around at several thousand feet in elevation is another tremendous opportunity. My goal is to not have it be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. 

Meanwhile, there's one other thing to keep in mind. A few hundred yards away from our landing point on the glacier was another small hilltop with a cabin on it.  We're talking several thousand feet above ground level here. The cabin was built by an early explorer. His descendants now rent it out to tourists. You can get yourself a room in it, not far from the peak of Mt. McKinley, for only about $125 a night. That's dirt cheap by Alaska standards. 

Of course, the taxi fare in and out gets a little salty. 

As always, it never hurts to know a guy, because retail is for suckers!   

Guy No. 2

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