Serrated shark's teeth tore at the sky, as our plane soared over the snow-tipped Coast Mountains and St. Elias Mountains. Mile after mile, the rugged, glaciered landscape declared how far removed Alaska is from the lower 48 states as we began our descent into adventure.
Landing at the humble Anchorage airport, we shuttled mid-day to the Hummer of Alaska dealership to take delivery of the first H2 to arrive in the state -- or on the west coast for that matter. Already responsible for a half-dozen sales while awaiting our arrival, the copper-colored 2003 H2 looked prime for action. A Pioneer XM Satellite system had just been installed to test its "works anywhere" claim, hopefully sparing us the musical monotony of recycling our stash of cheesy 1980s hits CDs. Unfortunately, extreme northerly lattitude and cloud-covered skies foiled our other satellite-enabled electronic toys, and we did not have consistent service for our XM radio or Iridium phone.
Having arrived first, camera-laden Senior Feature Editor/Photographer John "Kiwi" Kiewicz tackled basic logistics, assembling a variety of caffeinated beverages, artificially colored/flavored/digested snack foods, and other essential road trip sundries. While waiting for Online Editorial Director Jeff Bartlett to saunter in from the East Coast, Kiwi carefully applied a protective Armourfend film to the H2 to help shield it from rock flack on the more-than-800-miles of scheduled off-pavement excursion on the first leg.
Once Jeff arrived with a cache of electronics, the preliminary digital photo and video archiving commenced. After an intestine-twisting burrito fest at Taco Bell, the duo headed north on Highway 1 and soon transferred to Highway 3 toward Denali National Park. Despite a late start, the sun was still high, looking more like 3 pm than 9 pm.
The tortuous highway snaked through fir tree spiked hills, soon turning to an asphalt/dirt amalgamation that had us recalculating drive times. Fortunately, this segment was only a few miles long, returning us to relatively smooth pavement before we could tap OnStar for route suggestions. It wasn't long before we saw our first moose, grazing just a few feet off the road, as well as our first Batmobile. A testament to the magic of plywood and black paint, a rural George Barris concocted the attention-grabbing machine to park at the center of a triumvirate of fireworks shops, surrounded by plastic pink flamingoes.
Frequent photo stops saw the clock ticking faster than the odometer, until after midnight when the light started to fade out to a hazy dusk. With each opening of the doors, we were faced by an immediate aerial assault from mosquitoes large enough to require filing a flight plan with the FAA before take-off. A bleary-eyed stop at a mosquito-laden gas station shadowed by a giant, multiwindowed igloo left us so weak from blood loss that we required a couple hours of Diet Mountain Dew therapy via direct I.V. drip to rehydrate.
Growing increasingly tired, we embarked on a desperate search for a hotel, stopping at numerous small camper parks and cottage renters, seeking an opening or at least someone awake to guide us. At 3:40 am, we reached the isolated Healy hamlet, where the Totem Inn Motel and Lounge had not-so-deluxe rooms to let for the lofty sum of $112. No AAA discount, no late-check-in breaks, just a cash-for-keys offer that our bleary selves could not pass up. On the upside, however, the bar was open till 5 am. Room 112, non smoking. Perfect.