Sunday, May 17, 1998

Alaska in an RV

A travel piece. The whole family went on the road, and it made for a funny trip.


ON THE ROAD IN ALASKA - Wind lashed my face, cold rain cutting icy rivulets on cheeks chapped raw, as my weary team lunged onward and our sled - plied with foodstuffs, camp gear, precious serums - forged toward the white-blurred, unknown beyond . . .

Well, no, that's not actually how I traversed Alaska.

Picture, instead, a cushioned vinyl seat, a steering wheel, a bed with sheets and pillowcases, a cupboard full of Lays Baked Potato Chips, an Aqua-Marine IV toilet - all of it moving at nine miles to the gallon.

Ellen, my wife, is in the passenger seat, checking our progress against The Milepost, a 754-page guide to just about every roadside attraction in the Great White North. My stepdaughter,
Rachel, is on the couch, writing in her journal. My stepson, Mike, is curled up in the rear bed with a book on the wilderness and Soundgarden on his headphones. Rachel's boyfriend, Tal, and my son, Ben, are playing cribbage at the dining table.

We're doing Alaska family-style, in a rented recreational vehicle - a 1993 Ford Jamboree Rallye - carrying most of the comforts (and a lot of the chores) of home with us as we go from mountaintop to salmon stream to shoreline. In the biggest state in the union - Texas times two, plus change - the six of us are spending two weeks in a 27-foot-long, 18-foot-high, 7 3/4-foot-wide RV.

We have hearkened to the call of the mild.

In certain circles, the recreational vehicle is the very essence of declasse, but RVs are as common to Alaska as yellow cabs to Manhattan. They're ideal if you want to see the state's interior - difficult to do on a cruise - and if you don't want to live out of a tent night after night or pay tour-company rates for fancy lodges. Alaska is vast and unfinished and lightly populated: It has 100,000 fewer people than Montgomery County. Which means, sorry, that you are not guaranteed a motel room at your destination.

An RV, on the other hand, lets you ramble the Last Frontier and never suffer the dread of "No Vacancy." In Alaska, unlike many other states, RVs are not restricted to RV parks. You can call it a night just about anywhere: on the beach, in the woods, by the side of the road. When you do check in to an RV park, the choices range from the basic to the downright luxurious. Our camp in Talkeetna was just a bulldozed bite of forest, and we spent one night in a tourist trap outside Seward that seemed inspired by The Grapes of Wrath. But we also parked at the Kenai Princess Lodge, which offered electric and gas hookups, a coin-operated laundry, shower facilities, and free access to hot tubs, exercise rooms and nightly movies. All for $20 a night.

In Alaska, RVs are considered full-fledged citizens; there's no discrimination against the vehicle here. Plenty of gas stations offer "dump and fill" - a universally understood reference to your septic and water tanks, the camel's hump and bladder of RV travel. Nearly every parking lot sets aside oversize spaces. Even in midtown Anchorage, we had no trouble finding a place. Our combination motel/RV park was down the street from Barnes & Noble.

The RV thing was new to us when we went to Alaska in August. And Alaska itself was more or less an accidental destination. We only thought of traveling there when four of us volunteered to be bumped off a Florida flight during the previous Christmas holidays - and then did it a second time, the same day. Our compensation was eight free tickets on Delta, anywhere in the United States as far as Anchorage or Fairbanks. We felt we had won the airline lottery.

That afternoon, our summer plans were set. We would go to Alaska. As a family. Six of us: the two grown-ups; Rachel and Tal, both 20 and students at the University of Florida; Michael, 18, a Rutgers University freshman-to-be; and Ben, 7.

Having saved about $4,800 with our free airline tickets, we looked into car rentals and motel rates and found that bargain days were over. A large sedan would cost at least $100 a day, two motel rooms twice that. Room reservations were cumbersome and chancy. In February, motels were filling up for August - understandably, as the Alaska tourist industry, for the most part, is compressed into the three warm months of summer.

By default, we thought of an RV. On the Internet, we found at least a dozen RV rental agencies in Anchorage. We called a few of the operators, whom we graded on a scale of friendly to brusque.
They sent brochures.

We settled on the firm with the best price-to-friendliness ratio. Our 27-footer, with housekeeping gear, would cost $161 a day plus 15 cents a mile (about $20 a day), plus gas (about $25 a day). Transportation and lodging for six: A steal at $206 a day.

And so we flew to Alaska's largest city - 17 hours by way of Atlanta and Salt Lake City to Anchorage. We landed after midnight. A cab took us to the rental place, where we found our land yacht, a boxy, metallic thing in white siding and blue trim. For the next two weeks, our home.

The rental staff had kindly made the beds and left a key. We climbed in, unpacked and fell asleep, not under the aurora borealis, but beneath the bright, unblinking electric sign of Clippership Motor Home Rentals Inc.


Next morning, we lifted anchor, and it didn't take long to find out that things really are different 3,374 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Didn't take longer than the sign in front of a wood-front Anchorage store that advertises, "Guns, Ammo, Cappuccino."

We hoped there wasn't a waiting period for caffeine.

A total of three highways lead out of Alaska's largest city. These are half the fully paved highways in the entire state. We went north, spending a week in and around Denali National Park, where North America's tallest mountain pulled its regular joke on tourists and hid behind clouds 90 percent of the time. We tracked back through Anchorage and spent the second week on the Kenai Peninsula, home of Homer, an end-of-the-highway place that is equal parts arts colony, hippie refuge and halibut hub; and Seward, a deepwater port spectacularly ringed by snowcapped mountains and lit by twinkling cruise ships.

We saw dancing rivers to make a fisherman weep; glaciers, fjords and fuschia fields of fireweed.
We went 50, 70, 100 miles between towns. We saw the blue and yellow Big Dipper and North Star state flag displayed more often than the Red, White and Blue. We kicked up gravel on endless dirt roads and figured out why we were seeing so many signs saying, "Windshield Chips Fixed Here."

The RV was easy to drive. I said so on the first morning of our trip, just before making a right turn out of a parking lot in downtown Anchorage.

"Hey, you better swing out wider," yelled Tal, leaning out a right side window.


"I said you better . . . "


We pulled over and looked. We had met up with the left rear corner of a parked red pickup truck. I checked quickly: no gun rack. Didn't see any scratches that might not have been old ones. So - mea culpa - we left. I couldn't believe that the largest state in the United States wasn't large enough to avoid bumping into someone else.

The mishap left a dented wheelguard on the RV. Which was nothing compared to the night in an unlit campground when I drove us over a wood post, bashing a storage compartment in the underbelly.

The Clippership folks acted as if they had heard it all before and only charged us about $200.

The RV was roughly four times the size of the Dodge Neon I normally drive. The rear-view mirror was useless as a driving aid but afforded a terrific view of the wall of the bathroom situated three-quarters of the way back. On the other hand, I cannot bake a pizza at 60 m.p.h. in my Neon.

The RV had a rear bedroom, a bathroom, a shower, a gas refrigerator, a gas stove and a kitchen sink. It had a 35-gallon water tank and 67 gallons of tank space for sewage and waste water. It had a table and facing banquettes that converted to a bed, and a couch that converted to another bed. A windshield curtain afforded privacy at night, and the two front seats spun rearward for sociability.

The RV was as clever as a Chinese cube puzzle and, after about 10 days, about as comfortable.

We were either taking a shower in someone else's bedroom, eating Cheerios in somebody else's dressing area or sleeping on somebody else's dining table. At night, the parked vehicle rocked whenever anyone walked to the bathroom or so much as rolled over in bed. The water pump made the ooga-ooga sound of a sick goose whenever someone washed, flushed or took a drink. The lack of privacy made it tough on marital relations. The theme: No Nooky in the North.

It takes an extraordinarily considerate group of people to live through two weeks on these terms without cracking, and we almost qualified. "I've got about three more nights in me," Ellen said.
"Waking up to so many chores. Putting together everybody's bed at night. Bumping into someone every time I open a drawer."

The simplest functions required imaginative feats of logistics. Breakfast could not begin without waking Benny and moving him to our bed in the back of the vehicle, so that we could take apart his bed and convert it into the eating table.

The great drawback of the RV was that wherever we went, our house was there, too.

The beauty of the RV was that wherever we went, our house was there, too.

We didn't have to rouse a sleeping teenager - pursuing his hobby of not waking till noon - to get on the road. We could log a hundred miles before he opened his eyes. We never had to sweat reservations come nightfall (then again, nightfall wasn't until 11 p.m.). The whole trip, we only had to unpack once.

The RV took us to places we'll never forget. To subarctic tundra at the 3,886-foot summit of Hatcher Pass near Palmer, our reward for chugging up a dirt road of steep switchbacks. To a 100-year-old Russian Orthodox wood church in a coastal village on the Kenai Peninsula. To an old gold-mining camp in Girdwood, south of Anchorage.

We saw moose chomping brush at a roadside. Sea otters floating on their backs in Resurrection Bay.

We parked by the ocean in Homer and Seward, cobalt waters just outside our windshield and scores of RVs on either side. Their names bespoke adventure: Northland, Bounder, Rustler, Itasca, Wanderlodge, Prowler, Discovery, SeaBreeze. Their owners took pride in domestic touches: lawn chairs, barbecues, pets. (Sure bet: The bigger the vehicle, the smaller the dog.)

We parked in woods, no one else around.

"I don't think there's a thing I would have done differently," Ellen said when it was all over.

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