The “real” honeymoon.

Cathy and I had decided that right after the wedding, we would take a small break somewhere close by, but plan a bigger event for some time later. With everyone that made it to Colorado from all around the country, we wanted to take every opportunity we had to visit with people while they were there, and in retrospect we both are absurdly happy to have done it that way.

When the time finally came to sort out what, exactly, we did want to do for that “real” honeymoon, the exchange happened something like this:

Kevin: “So, whatcha wanna do for a ‘real’ honeymoon, then?”
Cathy: “Go to Alaska and see the Northern Lights for New Years, of course!”
Kevin: “I love you.”
Cathy: “Huh?”
Kevin: “Exactly. Sure, let’s go.”

So, a few days after the Christmas holiday, we packed up some warm clothes, made the connection through Seattle, and landed in Anchorage at something like midnight-thirty. Apparently, during the wintertime, there are far fewer flights-per-day to and from Alaska than during summer, go figure. It was pretty weird to see so many families with small children milling about the airport at midnight, but that’s when flights both arrive and depart. After a small fiasco with the rental car in which we decided not to actually rent it, we cabbed ourselves to the B&B and crashed for the night.

(Incidentally, the B&B is a whole separate story worth telling on its own. At some point we’ll drop in on Allen & Larry again, now that we’re here permanently, and I’ll do the backfill there. But suffice it to say that if you’re in Anchorage and have need of accommodation downtown, look no further than A Wildflower Inn. Highly recommended!)

We spent most of the first two days walking around downtown Anchorage, based out of the B&B and entirely on foot. This gave us a chance to be outside in winter, experiencing the dark and the cold up front, and of course gave us a pretty good flavor of the vibe of the town.

For personalities like ours, this place pretty much sells itself, and the winter experience just confirmed it the more. We found the cold to be absolutely no problem if we were properly attired, and it ranged from about -5 up to 20 while we were there. I experimented on the trip by bringing only my one pair of tennis shoes and the Wiggy overboots for walking outside. This was a fantastically workable arrangement. (Methinks Alaska will only reinforce my love of Wiggy stuff–and what do you know, there is a Wiggy’s Alaska store in midtown Anchorage. Shucks!) As for the dark, what we found was that it really wasn’t nearly as dark as we were thinking it would be. It’s certainly true that there is far less “sun-up to sun-down” time at the winter solstice than in Denver, but add in the usable twilight and it’s only an hour or two shorter than what we already know. That was a pleasant surprise.

And then there is the quality of that light…it is simply breathtaking; I have never seen anything like it. The best comparison I can make is to those few fleeting moments at dawn and dusk, at elevations over 10,000′ in the central Rocky Mountains, when the alpenglow just seems to dance. But this is better, and lasts much longer.

Within three minutes of our first sortie from the B&B that first morning, we were treated to a cow and calf moose crossing the road; keep in mind this is in downtown Anchorage. The saying goes, “the beauty of Anchorage is that it is only ten minutes away from Alaska”, but it’s still all relative, innit? 🙂

Passing on the rental car proved to be a wise move. Cousin Keith and his wife Meaghan graciously lent us one of their vehicles for the remainder of our visit (they live about half an hour north of Anchorage, in Eagle River), and we were quite happy to have a 4Runner instead of what would have been, at best, a front-wheel-drive rental car. For New Year’s Day, they took us along with a couple of friends from a Land Cruiser group, on an offroad trip up to the foot of the Knik glacier, a route that is far more practical (if not impossible) in winter than in summer. Now there’s something I’d have never thought of–and I will remember that attitude for the future! The three Land Cruisers were of completely different periods and were modified to varying degrees, but in short it was a marvelous 25-mile offroad drive, with three clearly talented drivers, and the most unique New Year’s experience I’ve ever had. It was Cathy’s first time to see a glacier up close, and she marveled at just how blue it really looks in person. We saw a small plane make a landing and takeoff on its skis (this was on the moraine in the same general area we were) and what stunned me was that, on takeoff, that plane traveled not fifty feet before it was off the ground–wow!

We visited several places, as far north as Talkeetna, as far east as the Matanuska glacier upvalley from Palmer, and as far south as Portage. We were not specifically looking for a place to live, but we were looking around in the same spirit that we did when we took our Thanksgiving trip to Kamas, Utah a year before: “would this be a good place to settle and raise a family?” What we found was that there is a distinct “Alaska vibe”, present everywhere that we looked, that we like and that could indeed be happy with.

Then there was Palmer, which stole the show. This place has not only the Alaska vibe but also a cow-town vibe, and the two together just plain work for us. As we considered everything, it was the clear front-runner. The location, for starters, is perfect: it’s about an hour’s drive north and east of Anchorage–far enough away to be distinctly out of the city but still accessible to it. It is a small town of about 5000 that doesn’t quite feel that big; Palmer is to its sister city Wasilla rather like Saint Paul is to Minneapolis on a smaller scale: more agricultural, more laid-back and home-cookin’ in style; more importantly, it seems that people like it that way and are not (yet) in a hurry to change it.

The geography is compelling. It lies along the Matanuska river as it turns south to join the Knik and drain into Cook Inlet. Just to the north are the Talkeetna mountains and Hatcher Pass; to the east is the Matanuska valley and the Matanuska sub-range of the Chugach mountains; to the southeast is the Knik valley; to the south is the towering hulk of Pioneer Peak and the main bulk of the Chugach range; and to the southwest is Chugach State Park and ultimately Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. There is a ridiculously majestic vista from 0 to 270 degrees on the compass, and the remaining arc is usually available for pretty spectacular skies early and late in the day. Yeah, that’ll work for me.

The time came, as always sooner than we wanted it, to go home, but we learned that this was definitely a candidate for the “raise a family” project.