Anchorage, recap

OK, I’m back. I’d planned on doing updates every day, and that just didn’t happen. The first half of the trip was too busy; the second half, I ran out of things to do and had no motivation to write in here.

I did upload my pictures. They are on Flickr here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmhtk2H2

Here’s a high-level bullet list of stuff I did do, mostly so I’ll remember it in ten years:

  • I went to Arctic Comic Con, mostly on a lark. I’m not a comic book fan, and I didn’t really know any of the people appearing, aside from comedian Brian Poeshn. It was their first year, and not very big, but people were happy they did get some people to show up. The convention was about the size of a large high school gym, with a dozen or two booths, mostly selling comics, but also some weird ones, like the Army was there, and someone selling hot tubs. There was also a place doing tattoos and piercings, and it was weird to hear a constant BZZZZZ as people on panels were talking. The crowd was mostly younger, and parents. Every teen with blue hair and an anime fetish within a hundred miles of Anchorage was there. Didn’t stay that long, didn’t buy or eat anything, but it was an interesting time.
  • Climbed Flattop mountain just south of town. If you need to listen to any one song while driving into snow-topped mountains, make it the song “Antarcticans Thawed” from the new Sleep album. It was maybe 30 out, everything covered in snow, and very windy, like 25mph. The trail was buried, so lots of ice, and I fell in up to my thighs a few times. Forgot gloves, broke my water bottle in the car so no drink. Absolutely beautiful on top, could see the water, the city in the distance, and all the other peaks in the area.
  • Moose Tooth pizza was a good experience. Also, very cheap.
  • Went to The Mall at Sears, which no longer has a Sears. Was shooting the outside of the mall and a security SUV rolled up on me, lights flashing. The dude came up and said “hey are you the guy from the sign company?” then started babbling on about all the old Sears signage on site. Then started to talk about the break-ins, then about how everyone’s stealing Tahoe trucks because they don’t have a chip in it. I’m in a hooded sweatshirt and freezing to death and he goes on for fifteen minutes before saying “who were you with again?” I told him I was a photographer from California and he said “sure, OK. Did you hear they’re putting a Safeway in here?”  That mall was sheer desolation. Maybe a dozen stores, the only national chains being a GNC and a Payless, both of who are on the death list. A local cell phone store. A shuttered grocery store anchor on one side, the dead Sears on the other.
  • Went to a surviving Blockbuster. This was in a John Oliver skit, which I don’t watch, but I guess he sent some Russell Crowe stuff to them, and it was not on display yet. It looked like a 2002-vintage store, trapped in amber. I bought a t-shirt, and took a few pictures.
  • The Anchorage Museum got redone and expanded since I last went, and it looks like a full reset, because I don’t remember anything. I like the new building a lot – it has a very Euro look to it, like a museum you’d see in Berlin. Not a fan of the collection, because I’m not that into Alaskan art. I know that’s horrible, I’ll leave it at that.
  • Rice Bowl is a good old-school Chinese place. When I worked in Factoria in 1995 and would find an old strip mall Chinese place and think “this shit is straight out of the Eighties,” that was Rice Bowl today. Nothing wrong with it – I loved the food, the look, and the folks were nice.
  • Had a lunch at Snow City, which never disappoints. I have this weird conspiracy theory that Snooze in Denver and Snow City in Anchorage are somehow related, and I like them both, and being in one reminds me of the other. Anyway, pancakes.
  • There’s a Japanese place (the sign actually says “oriental food”…) called Da Mi, which is on the back half of an Econo Inn, which sounds horrific, but it was great food and cheap, and had the fountain and the neon sign above the sushi bar and gave you a fried oreo with your check and the whole nine. Ate there twice.
  • I know I ate a lot, but La Cabana, great Mexican place – I didn’t think you could get good Mexican this far north, but this was on par with a few of my LA favorites, which says a lot. (Side note: I hate Bay Area Mexican food. Enough with the cilantro.)
  • Red Chair Cafe, too – good brunch. Went there three or four times.
  • Drove to Girdwood, which is about 45 minutes south. It’s a nice drive on the Seward highway, with the water from the Turnagain on your right side, the mountains in the distance, and the single line of the Alaska railway snaking past. I stopped a few times for pictures, then went to the Aleyaska resort for a hike around woods at the base of the mountains. I really wanted to ride the chair lift to the top like I did last time, but it was closed for maintenance. The hike through the woods was pretty nice, the streams running wild with the meltoff from the glaciers. There was a fair amount of packed snow/ice on the wooden bridges of the path, so it took some work to not fall down, but there was a nice elevation change, and at this point, nobody was out. I also walked through the big ski resort, which was mostly empty and sort of Shining-like in the offseason.
  • Chair 5 was a good lunch stop in Girdwood. Kobe beef sliders and onion rings really hit the spot after the hike.
  • I drove out to Talkeetna, which is about two and a half hours north, on the way to Denali State Park. It’s the town that Northern Exposure was allegedly modeled after, although it was actually shot in central Washington. The drive out actually reminded me of driving around Southwest Washington – no real views of the mountains after I hit Wasilla, just lots of tree farming. The town itself is cute, a little general store, a brewpub where I grabbed a reuben for lunch, and a lot of closed galleries and stores. (Offseason!) I walked around a lot, and looked at their small bush pilot airstrip. Found out the general store sells Mello Yello, which I haven’t seen in forever.
  • Kept seeing F-22s take off from Elmendorf AFB, which was on the horizon across from my hotel. I tried taking some pictures with a 300mm zoom, but didn’t get much. They had two accidents involving the F-22 last month, so I couldn’t believe they were out flying that much.
  • Went to the Alaska Aviation Museum. Their WW2 hanger was closed for renovation, and it was a dreary day to visit the planes outside. The two things different since last time were that they have an F-15A now (not in great shape, though) and they have an Alaska 737-200QC, which is a weird plane. It’s a 737 that has a passenger door on one side, and a cargo door on the other – basically, the whole side of the plane in front of the wing swings up. The seats are all removable, so they can reconfigure it for various ratios of cargo in the front, people in the back. They had it set up so you could go inside and look around, with half the plane configured with seats with the backs against the wall, and the front half ready to be filled up with Amazon prime boxes, fresh vegetables, and livestock. They retired this example in 2007, and their last Combi (a -400) earlier this year. (https://blog.alaskaair.com/alaska-airlines/fleet/combi-plane-retires/)
  • Stopped in Obsession Records, worth a visit if you’re into vinyl. My hotel was right next to Mammoth Music, which was a great guitar shop, although my luggage and my marriage could not withstand another guitar purchase. Tidal Wave Books was still hanging in, although they’re all used books now, and it seemed a little less lively than 2006. There’s an REI at the same strip mall, which was packed with gear I wanted and did not need. That REI used to be a two-story Montgomery Ward forever ago, and I could still see a few remnants of that design.
  • I expected to see a ton of dispensaries, now that weed is legal, but I didn’t see many. I don’t partake, so I don’t care that much, but I expected it to be fully lit up like Denver, and it wasn’t. The back side of the REI in the strip mall did have a place called “Dankorage” so that’s neat. There’s a street named Fireweed, and I expect that to be the name of a dispensary or a stoner metal band.
  • Flight back was uneventful. A middle seat again for ANC-SEA, but I upgraded to a window seat for SEA-OAK and the person next to me was a no-show, so I got to actually use my laptop for once.

So, that’s it. My general takeaway was that if you want to go do tourist stuff, go after Memorial Day, but then you’re going to pay more. If you want to ski or do snow stuff, you’ll need to go much earlier now. I was surprised skiing and snowmobiling were closed at the end of April, when they were open at the beginning of June in 2006. The strange desolation of the off-season was interesting to me, so I enjoyed it. I don’t think I could hack Alaska 52 weeks a year, but I don’t think I can hack my home location 52 weeks a year either. Anyway, check out the photos, and apologies in advance that I took too many.

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Anchorage

Hello from Anchorage, Alaska. I just got here last night, and my first impression is that is is really weird up here. Like Omega Man weird.

So, the trip up was fairly unremarkable. Quick flight up to Seattle, and that was unusual in that I haven’t been back to Jet City since I left in 1999. SeaTac isn’t really Seattle, and I did not recognize the inside of the airport at all. It looks like it has 100% changed, probably because Amazon is hurtling so many people through there  per day. I also never flew Alaska before, so maybe it’s a different area than I remember. I also didn’t get to leave the airport. There was just a hint of nostalgia that made me want to see more of Seattle, but I was in a rush to get from plane to plane, and I didn’t have a window seat, so I didn’t get to study the landscape on approach. Maybe I need to get up there on another trip.

The three-hour flight to Anchorage was a beast. I was in a middle seat, and the guys on either side of me were Wilford Brimley looking dudes who honestly should have been required to buy two seats. I was squished between them, and practically had to sit sideways. No computer, no iPad — I read for a bit (The Crying of Lot 49, not sure why I always re-read this on vacations. It’s a small book, I guess. Easy to carry) and played solitaire on my phone. For three hours.

When we landed, it took forever to get off the plane — lots of wheelchairs. But within the Ted Stevens International Airport, it was empty. It felt like an airport built to handle 100,000 passengers a day, and there were only twelve. And it was a long, long walk to baggage. I got my bags quick, then went down another long corridor — by myself, nobody there — and got to a Hertz counter, also with no line whatsoever. Got my keys, and there was no gate, no exit inspection, nothing. It was like the exterior of a small municipal airport, traffic-wise. Drive around the South Bend airport on a Tuesday afternoon, and that was Saturday night at ANC.

The drive in is surreal. Mountains in the distance, a slight chill from the 40-degree weather, and way too much open space. It’s a bizarre Twin Peaks trip. And then when you get into the outskirts of town, it feels a lot like Reno, the strange desperation of old motels turned into apartments, tattoo parlors closed for the winter (in April), and liquor stores. Then, downtown. And my stay at the Sheraton.

I dumped the car and luggage, then set out on foot to find something to eat. Anchorage has a downtown — there are normally about 300,000 people here. Most of downtown is small one and two story sprawl — you have to keep in mind the entire city was pretty much leveled in 1964. There are a dozen or so buildings taller than ten stories, almost all hotels, with I think a bank or an oil company of mirrored glass, the kind of early 80s office space you see appear when the crude starts flowing. But downtown is a lot of buildings that sort of appeared because of tourism or seasonal work at fisheries and oil fields. And it has the same density and feel as a city like South Bend, but maybe three times bigger.

I walked around, trying to find some place to eat, and it was absolutely vacant. Like, post-apocalyptic. I saw nobody on the street. Nothing was open. The tourism business doesn’t really start for another month, so a lot of small galleries and shops are still closed for the winter. And there isn’t really that much density, like not a lot of little restaurants and things.

Also, the light. It is currently daylight until about ten at night. But it’s a really bizarre daylight. I don’t know if it was the clouds or the longitude, but the daylight has a strange glow or cast to it, like you’re shooting photos with the white balance set on the wrong setting. It reminds me of what the sky looked like during the wildfires last year. It only reinforced the strangeness of the situation.

I ended up going to the Fifth Street Mall, because of course I’m going to fly thousands of miles to a mall. It’s a strange setup, a Simon mall with a JC Penney’s and a Nordstrom, but not that long of a concourse, and multiple levels (I think four). There was nobody there, except super aggressive panhandlers, and lots of security trying to get rid of them. The top floor is a large food court with windows around the perimeter, looking out to the mountains in the distance. But all the food is weird local chains, wok shops filled with MSG, and off-brand taco places that guarantee botulism. I walked back to the hotel, got room service, and went to bed at like ten, when it was still mostly daylight outside.

The plan for today is to go to the Arctic Comic Con. I’m not really a fan of comic books, and I really can’t deal with people jerking off all over themselves about the latest Marvel movie that I refuse to see. But I figure if it’s here, I should go. Cultural experience. Why not. I think the weather is supposed to be okay tomorrow, like 37 and clouds. (It’s a touch colder today.) So maybe I’ll drag the camera to the top of Flattop and get some pictures.

I should figure out where this convention is, and what I can bring. I don’t want to drag a bunch of camera gear and then find out you can’t bring it in. Also need to find out if they have corn dogs.

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49th, take two

After that last post on the Concord Mall, there was an influx of attention on it — at least three video tours, lots of threads on dead mall groups, articles in the paper about the bankruptcy, etc etc. The net result is that I spent way too much time wallowing in this nostalgia, and I’m now completely burned out on it. The obsession with trying to find old photos or watch shaky videos of dead malls is too much. I thought about going back to Indiana this summer, getting a last look at the mall before it completely died, but I remember how depressing it was to see it in 2015, and I can’t spend a week in that mindset. So, I need to let that shit go for now.

I have been scheming when to take some time off, because thanks to Agile, I’m always in the middle or the end of a release cycle, and can’t plan anything more than a week out. Thanks to a weird scheduling hiccup, I found out I’d have almost six weeks between releases, so I put in for a week off, in May. Then I had to figure out where to go.

Vegas was out — last time was too depressing for me. It’s not a great place for a solo tourist. I thought about Seattle, Denver, LA, but I’ve lived in all those places, and too many ghosts. Berlin or maybe Oslo popped in my head — Norwegian has started very cheap direct flights to Europe. But either you red-eye out or waste most of two days in multiple flights, and then you’re nine hours out-of-cycle, and by the time you get used to it, you have to turn around and leave, spend a day or two in the air, and end up lagged by half a day for your return to work. Maybe next time.

Then I started fixating on Alaska. I was there in 2006 (there’s a trip report and some pictures somewhere on here) and I liked it back then, but due to some political events a few years after that, I sort of lost interest in any future travel there. But, I’m curious again. I looked into the trips up, maybe flying into somewhere else like Juneau, but did end up finding a deal on a fare to Anchorage, along with room and car. Solo trip, no plans yet, which I need to get busy on. All I know is I’ll be hauling the camera gear up there, seeing what I can capture, and hopefully doing as much hiking as possible.

The early May weather is a bit of a curveball. I might catch a day or two of snow/rain, maybe high temps of about 50, lows below freezing. So it could potentially be the miserable high 40s and rain that I’ve been fighting over the last few months here. But it will be daylight most of the day. Daylight from 5am to 10pm; twilight the rest of the time, and no full darkness. I hope the place has blackout drapes like last time.

Life has otherwise been a blur of work, which I don’t want to talk about. Writing on a new project, which I also can’t talk about. Maybe I’ll get some good time on it over the break. New Apple Watch recently, went from the 1 to a 3, but no big change to talk about there, just a battery that lasts all day now.

OK, I’m now reading like nine different photography books at once, trying to get back into the swing of it before I leave. Fun.

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