It is the first time that we exit and go south from Denali National Park. We have arranged for a late arrival in Anchorage, but it is already far into the afternoon. We are both pensive, thinking of what might have been: a glimpse of the mountain, more photos of wildlife. At our backs, I feel the pull of The Great One, unseen. I look at the road returning with new eyes.
Alaska has a tradition of waysides. There are frequent pull-offs along the Parks Highway, mostly to savor the spectacular views. But even before the highway was built along the older routes, the Alaskan roadhouses welcomed weary travelers. As unique as their proprietors, the roadhouses have personalities. Funky, quirky, kitschy, sometimes ramshackle, never imposing, the roadhouse is combination watering hole, home-cooking station, and overnight accommodations. Comfortable and unimposing, roadhouses sit you with the locals, and the atmosphere is likely to be uninhibited, friendly and inclusive.
We need fuel. We’ve filled the gas tank and now we want to fuel ourselves. We come upon the Fireweed Roadhouse, which meets all the criteria. We enter the large main room, which is a combination dining room, lobby, reading/TV room, and bar. The kitchen is off to the side. There are picture windows off to the left, framing a rustic tableau: an old sourdough in bib overalls is tending a smoking contraption that looks to be half fish smoker and half portable pig spit. We think he’s probably got some large game he’s processing in there, or perhaps a salmon or two.
I ask for a local paper and idle through its pages while listening to the small talk. The other two young guests are from Ireland and they’ve taken off from real life to see the country. They are adventuring before they return to their home country. The sourdough comes in from outside and Robin, our host and owner, opens his beer. “What do you think?” she asks. “I need to work on her a little bit, but I think it’ll do the trick.” Pete asks the sourdough what he’s got going on the fire. “Hell, son, I’m burnin’ coal in there!” We’re startled. Robin tells us, “That thing is my ticket out from under my heating bills this winter.”
I try to remember the last time I saw coal firing anything, let alone a heating system. “You wouldn’t believe what I had to pay last year. We tried everything to cut bak and seal this drafty, old place up, but still . . . I had $1500 energy bills! Who can afford that?” Who, indeed? “It’s self-defense. The problem is more and more people are turning to coal since prices are staying so high. They could go higher. But what can I do? I gotta heat this place.” Pete goes out to check the coal heater and snap some photos looking west.
Robin has owned the Fireweed for longer than she wants to tell me. She embodies the tough stereotype of Alaskan women that I so admire. There is an obvious community she leads, and I imagine the locals congregating here in the winter. “Oh yeah, we all pull together.” I get the impression that Robin is far from lonely here in this quiet outpost. “I don’t know how much longer I can last with these costs,” she whispers. “As it is, I’m getting by.” I nod sympathetically. “There’s just something that keeps me. I have to be here.” “I know what you mean,” I say.
Before we leave, Robin snaps a photo. “I take a picture of all my guests and some of them go on the wall.” I think of our teenagers and their Facebook pages. Robin’s doing the same thing, her way. We are reluctant to go, but we must. The sun, thankfully, is still high in the sky and we head south again.