Back in the 70s, not long after I’d arrived in Alaska, a social worker from Indian Health Service invited me to go on a road trip with her to Denali National Park. I hadn’t seem much of Alaska on my way to Barrow so I was more than amenable to discovering some of the beauty of my newly adopted state.
The drive to Denali – or McKinley as it was then known – was truly a drive into the wilderness in the 70s. If you didn’t pay attention, you were in Fairbanks long before you realized you’d passed the one place you could stay near the park entrance.
There was a lodge with rooms at Denali and there were sleeper train cars on either side of the lodge. The sleeper trains had little shelves that were stacked three high just like in the movie “Some Like It Hot” with one exception. In the movie, a group of the ladies joined by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis crowd into one of these shelves for a little gab fest party.
I can tell you in no uncertain terms that unless they were all under 3 foot tall and weighed less than 50 pounds each, there was no way that many people were ever going to fit in one of those compartments. They were not for the faint hearted or the claustrophobic.
The next morning we got up at some awful hour like 4:30 AM in order to catch the bus into the park for the wildlife tour. Despite my youth, which allowed me to survive with a lot less sleep than I currently need, I was more than a little disgruntled as I climbed on to the bus with a load of equally grumpy tourists.
As the trip into Denali progressed, the tourists came alive with wonder and excitement. Look, they would exclaim joyfully, a ptarmigan. And their cameras would flash furiously. I, meanwhile, sat there getting more and more surly as it dawned on me I’d gotten up at 4 AM to see wildlife that was visible out my back door in Barrow.
I didn’t go back to Denali for a long time after that. If I wanted to see bears, I’d just look out my window in Barrow and watch the polar bears pawing through the trash. If I wanted to see caribou, I could go to my cold storage porch and caress the caribou haunch that was waiting to be made into dinner.
The years went by and I moved to Anchorage and my sister came up for a visit on the theory that I had now moved to a place accessible to outlet shops so it was safe. We decided to do a road trip to Chena Hot Springs and stop for an overnight at Denali along the way.
I went online to look up accommodations figuring they’d greatly improved since my trip 30 years ago. And sure enough, there were multiple choices from the rustic to the royal. We made our reservations and headed north.
Imagine my horror when we got near Denali and found that it had been taken over by all the people who used to put up tacky, ugly tourist shops on the Atlantic City Boardwalk before gambling priced them out of their digs. I call it the Uglification of Denali.
I understand that Denali is a big tourist draw so I understand that merchants who think they can sell moose poop in the shape of Foraker are going to inevitably set up shop nearby. I have no problem with commerce and I was thrilled to have choices of places to stay and eat. But has no one up there ever heard of minimum standards?
The drive to Denali is now lined with ugly, rickety boardwalks that lead to hastily thrown together wooden shacks. To get to the beauty of Denali you have to drive along instant urban blight on either side of the highway. And it is literally built right up to the highway. It doesn’t even have the saving grace of being far enough off the road that a tree or two softens the sight.
It’s bad enough that I have to spend my whole drive to Denali telling my visitors that Denali really is there under the clouds and that the sight would overwhelm them if the clouds ever actually lifted. But now I also have to deal with the looks of horror on their faces when we hit the tackiest section of highway known to man.
Denali is magnificent and it deserves a much better presentation that we currently offer. After all, if God took the time to make it that beautiful for us, shouldn’t we take a little more care in how we surround it?