Half past eight on a cool, damp September morning, and the Black Bear Coffee House is already a-bustle, its mix of regulars and out-of-towners rubbing elbows at the counter. ‘Americano for Keith… latte for Shawn…’ a girl’s voice calls out from behind the till. A pirate flag hangs on the wall behind the espresso machine and, in the background, Steely Dan’s Reelin’ in the Years is playing softly on the stereo. The place feels like the sort of independent café you might find in the student quarter of a fashionable university town somewhere back east.
Instead it’s located near milepost 239 on Alaska’s remote George Parks Highway – a lonely ribbon of bitumen that stretches between Anchorage and Fairbanks, and not far from the turn-off to Denali National Park. Among the early-morning crowd calling in here for their double shots of espresso are game wardens, white-water rafting guides, wildlife biologists, wilderness hikers and road-trippers.
‘This is my seventh summer in Alaska,’ says barista Wendi Schupbach, a philosophy graduate from a college in America’s heartland who, for the past seven summers, has driven up from the Midwest. ‘There is something special about Alaska that gets into your blood and brings you back again and again.’ Indeed. Big and bold, more than twice the size of Texas and infinitely wilder and more remote, Alaska has been a draw for generations of footloose romantics, dreamers and adventurers. It makes for the ultimate American road trip. Like Route 66, the very name resonates with the idea of going somewhere. Unlike Route 66, which faded into memory and legend some 30 years ago, the Alaska of the imagination is still alive, and flourishing. Its open highways remain a captivating blend of vast distances punctuated here and there by the same sort of delightfully tacky bits of roadside Americana that made Route 66 what it was. It’s all still here, Alaska-style: everything from the mechanical bucking-bronco grizzly bear in the bar in Healy to the cavalcade of roadside trading posts with their taxidermied bears, totem poles, sculptures made of moose antlers, and five-and-dime souvenirs.
‘For my part I travel not to go anywhere, but to go… the great affair is to move,’ Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in 1879. He was writing about a journey by donkey through the Cevennes in France, but could just as easily have been invoking the spirit of the American road trip, where it’s the joy of motion that’s all the fun. Like so many others before me, I’d been lured north by the same wanderlust that drew the likes of Jack London and Wyatt Earp up here during the gold rush days more than a century ago. ‘It draws some of us like a magnet,’ Donald ‘Smitty’ Smith, a Pennsylvania policeman turned fur trapper, tells me a few days later when I call in at his log cabin along the highway. A great bear of a man with a long white beard, he and his wife came up to Alaska 13 years ago and have been here ever since. They live in a snug, neat cabin Smitty built that first summer and subsist on whatever they grow in their garden and on the game he traps or shoots with his muzzleloader rifle – a replica of the models the frontiersmen used in the 18th century. ‘Up here we can live our lives free and clear, without having to answer to anybody,’ says Smitty. ‘There aren’t many places left in the world where you can enjoy this sort of freedom.’