England to Alaska
The journey would take about 24 hours, but because of the time difference it would be 1am when I arrived in Anchorage. I was due to be staying for a week with a musician I'd hooked up with through the 'couchsurfing' website, but just as the train was leaving I got a message saying he'd had to go out of town for a couple of nights. I eventually found a hostel in Anchorage that said I would be able to pitch my tent in their garden when I got there, which seemed better than sleeping in Anchorage airport for the night.
There was a medical emegency on the flight from Heathrow to Minneapolis, and as we touched down security guards and ambulance crew rushed on board to take the unfortunate person off to hospital. I suddenly felt like a country mouse in the hubub of the airport. The customs guards looked big and imposing, but when one of them saw my English passport he beamed at me and said 'God bless the Queen'!
It was dark as we left Minneapolis, but the further west we went the lighter it became. Gradually the pale blue of the horizon turned into a crimson band of light, which as we approached Anchorage revealed snow-laden mountains stretching miles into the distance, silvery lakes and rivers winding between them. When I saw the golden lights of Anchorage I thought I'd arrived in Shangri-La!
Having seen the snow on the mountains I was expecting it to be cold,but to my surprise people were wandering round the airport in T-shirts. I finally got to my hostel at about 2am Anchorage time, and it was a very surreal experience pitching my tent at that time of night and it still being light enough to see what I was doing. It didn't take long for me to get to sleep, and I woke up the following morning feeling surprisingly fresh.
Bela's house was only a short walk from the hostel, so after breakfast I packed up my tent and set off. On arrival I found a key in the door, with a note saying 'make yourself at home'. Maybe it was my English reserve, but I still felt that I was trespassing somehow, so I dumped my things in Bela's living room and decided to go and do some exploring. Downtown Anchorage seemed mainly set up for tourists, with lots of shops selling ‘authentic’ Alaskan wares. It was slightly strange seeing moose and reindeer burgers for sale on stalls along the main street.
After doing a bit more exploring I headed back to Bela's, and had a quiet night reading up on some of the places I was due to be visiting. I still didn't know exactly how I was going to be getting around Alaska. Busses were infrequent and sometimes non-existant in the more remote parts, and I simply didn't have the funds to buy or rent a vehicle. I'd done a lot of hitch-hiking in my younger days, and had generally found it to be safe and a good way to get talking to locals. I had a couple of gigs lined up in Anchorage, after which I was due to be playing several gigs in southern Alaska, and it seemd like hitching would be the best way to get there.
Bela turned up the next morning and we got on well straight away. We were lucky in that we both shared an obssessive love of the acoustic guitar, and we spent the first couple of hours playing and talking about music. I still needed some more gear for my tour, and Bela was great running me round the music shops which were spread out in the far corners of the city. When we got back to his place I realised that not all of it would fit in my suitcase and we had to customise my microphone stand by sawing it in half!
The next day was Sunday, and Bela invited some musician friends over to meet me. We had a nice time sitting outside jamming for the afternoon. I borrowed Bela's bike and went for a ride that evening, and was surprised to suddenly see a moose lying across the path in a public park. There was no way for me to get round, so I just stood there for a while watching it enjoying the evening sun. I loved seeing the byplanes parked up on a nearby lake, which many people keep in the same way we might have a spare car back in England, using them to go on fishing and hunting trips at the weekends.
Bela told me that we had to make room for two Australian couchsurfers who were due to be arriving later that week - the only trouble was his place already looked full up. We had an idea of building a small loft conversion, and spent a long day fixing plasterboards above Bela's bedroom. This became my new home for the next week, making way downstairs for Ruth and Wes, who arrived just as we were fixing the final boards. I was glad to feel that I had done something in return for Bela's kindness, and we celebrated our long day's work with a trip to my first real American diner (the first of many on my tour!), leaving Ruth and Wes to settle in.
I spent the next few days exploring the area with Ruth and Wes, who made the most of their long summer holidays as teachers by visiting somewhere different each year. I did some rehearsing ahead of my first gig, and played a few songs at a local open mic night to get warmed up. My gig at The Organic Oasis seemed to go down well, with my new found friends coming along to support me. I also played at an open-air market that had the most amazing views of the Alaska Range Mountains. I kept looking at them longingly, knowing that the real adventure would start once I left the city...
We packed a lot into my last couple of days in Anchorage, going to visit a cabin that Bela had built, and also playing an impromptu gig together at a venue just outside of Anchorage. While we were at the cabin, Bela's son turned up, who like many Alaskans likes shooting guns for the sport of it. As a confirmed pacifist I must say how much I enjoyed shooting the crap out of a gun target for the first time!
After saying goodbye to Ruth and Wes, it was time for me to depart as well. Bela drove me out to a good place for me to start hitching from, and again I felt the same nervous anticipation as when I had left home. Bela gave me his sister's phone number who lived in a small town called Hope that was on my route, and said that I should phone her and could stay there for a night or two. We said an emotional farewell, and then I stuck out my thumb and waited for my first lift...
Girdwood and Hope
I unloaded my bags outside The Silver-Tip Grill, where I was due to be playing later in the week, and the owner Judd immediately recognised me and shook my hand warmly. Storing my gear around the back of the pub, I went for a wander round town before phoning my next couch-surfing host, Eugene. Coincidentally, he was sitting outside a cafe right opposite from me, and we could more or less hear each other speaking across the road from one another.
Later that night Eugene introduced me to some of his friends. Girdwood's a really laid-back place, and one of the best areas in Alaska for skiing, and stays busy year round with summer visitors coming to explore the many trails up the mountains that are inaccesible during winter. I was hoping to do some trekking over the next few days, and was slightly anxious to hear that a female bear had been seen hanging around with cubs in tow. Eugene assured me that black bears are mostly harmless, but it's that "mostly" bit that worried me. What would happen if I saw the bear on one of its off-days?!
The next day started early. Before leaving for Alaska I did a radio interview for my local BBC station, Radio Norfolk. The presenter asked if I’d keep in touch while I was away, which I’d enthusiastically agreed to. That was before I realised about the time difference! So I set my alarm for 5am, and phoned through to the producer who said it was 2pm in England. Before I knew it, I was on air to an enthusiastic Stephen Bumfrey asking me how it was going.
"Yeah, not too bad," I barely mumbled in my state of half-sleep. The interview went from bad to worse, and I vowed to never do a radio interview unprepared again!
Having woken early I thought I'd make the most of the day and do some exploring. I followed a trail out of Girdwood to an old gold mine that lead to a hand-tram crossing a gorge. The idea is that you pull yourself across with the help of whoever is on the other side. Unfortunately the tourists at the other end didn’t seem to have grasped the idea and I was left dangling in the middle of the gorge feeling a bit like Indiana Jones! Luckily a couple from Anchorage turned up and came to my rescue.
I managed to take a wrong turning further along the trail, and instead of going back towards the town I found myself on a path that wound down to a wide river. I kept expecting to see Girdwood round the next corner, and what worried me was that the trail I was on was filled with bear footprints and scat. Eventually I turned round realising that I was lost. I'd been advised that singing was a good way to keep bears away as they are generally shy of humans, so I took the opportunity to get in some vocal practise and sang at the top of my voice for about an hour until I'd got back onto the right trail again.
The following day luck was definitely on my side. I'd arranged to visit Bela's sister Dru for the night, who lived in a small town called Hope about 30 miles away. I planned to hitch there, and before even putting my thumb out someone stopped and offered to take me the two miles to the main road. When we got there I went into the petrol station to buy something and as I was crossing the forecourt a man stopped me and asked me where I was going. It turned out he was on his way to Seward on a fishing trip, which meant he could drop me at the turning for Hope. I’d got a lift almost all the way there!
Burt was a lovely old man, who had come to Alaska to do his National Service in the army, and liked it so much he eventually returned to live. This was becoming a familiar story, and in fact there are more people in Alaska who have moved from elsewhere than were actually born in the state. After we’d driven for about 10 miles Burt said he wanted to show me something, and we pulled into a wildlife centre that had bears, moose, caribou and elk. Burt insisted on paying the $20 entrance fee, which was really kind of him. This was my first sighting of bears, and after my experience of the previous day I have to say I was glad they were behind an electric fence. The two young bears I saw had both been rescued from a tree after a hunter had shot their mother, and it was hard to imagine how these sweet, playful looking cubs could take your head off with one swipe once fully grown.
After one more stop for Burt to collect some snow to put in a storage container for the fish he planned to catch, he dropped me at the turning for Hope. I still had about 15 miles to go, and there wasn’t much traffic going my way. Eventually two RV’s went by, and the second one stopped. They were a really nice young family from Florida, and I got my guitar out, and played them a song as we drove through some spectacular mountain scenery that dropped down to the coast. As we said our goodbyes I gave their teenage son a copy of my CD, and they said they would do their best to come along and watch me play at an open mic. session I was due to be playing later that night.
Hope is a really special little village with a population of 200 residents. It was once a thriving gold-mining town, but when the gold dried up it dwindled to virtually nothing before re-inventing itself as an unspoilt tourist destination. I’d arranged with Dru to meet her at the gift-shop she runs on the main street, but there was a note on the door saying it was shut for the day. I phoned Dru and she said that she didn't feel like opening the shop and had decided to spend the morning baking instead - I liked the sound of her already!
I started walking up the hill to Dru's, but it was quite steep with all my music gear in tow, and I was glad when a pick-up truck came trundling along the track with a dog in the back and Dru waving at me from the window.
“Sorry about that,” said Dru. “I’ve been drinking screw-drivers all morning, and didn’t want to risk driving on the main road.”
Dru was a fantastic host, and she had been preparing a meal for me of salmon her husband Johnny had caught, and freshly baked sour-dough bread (Dru's speciality and hence the name of her shop 'Sourdough Dru's'). They live in an amazing cabin that Johnny built himself over a period of 20 years. They lived in a smaller cabin on the property whilst completing it, and although 20 years seems like a long time, one thing I learnt from my stay in Hope is that nothing there happens in a rush.
After a wonderful meal we went out on bikes with Hunter, Dru’s dog, enthusiastically running behind us. Dru took us through a path in the forest down to the beach that overlooks Turnagain Arm (named by Captain Cook after he sailed down it and had to turn round because it was too shallow). Hunter had a great time swimming and running for sticks, and by the time we got back to the cabin I was tired out. After a leisurely nap, it was time to go down to the open mic. night, where Eugene my couch-surfing host from Girdwood also worked.
I got up to do a few songs, and was really glad to see the family from Florida arrive in time to see me play. Chatting to them afterwards, they said that their son had been really inspired by meeting someone who was touring around playing music. He’d been having a hard time recently at school, and they said that meeting me had inspired him to want to learn the guitar. Finding a creative outlet can be such a positive thing for teenagers, and I felt really moved that my own journey had made a difference to someone else’s life.
By the time we left the pub Dru's husband Johnny was over the legal limit for driving, and as a tea-totaller it was down to me to get us home. Dru had also taken pity on a couple who were on holiday and hadn't been able to find anywhere to stay for the night. We all crammed into Dru's pick-up truck, and I drove on the 'wrong' side of the road for the first time, and probably looked like I'd been drinking as much as the rest of them! When we got back we all sat round chatting for a while, and ate a generous portion of Dru’s banana pie with cream. Before going to sleep I gazed out from my room at the still-light midnight forest, and felt blessed to be in such a magical place.
The next morning Dru had to go into Anchorage to do some errands and offered to drop me back at Girdwood, where I had a gig later that night. I spent the day relaxing at Eugene’s place, where he had said I could stay until I left for Homer. It was great to see one or two people show up from Anchorage at my gig who I’d met the previous week, and I enjoyed running through virtually my entire set for a 3 hour performance. I finally walked home past midnight, stopping every now and then to look at the mountains surrounding Girdwood. I had another gig booked at a different venue the following night, which was also really enjoyable with some other acts playing from Anchorage. My stay at Girdwood was over, next stop would be Homer on the southern tip of the Alaskan Interior.
Homer and Seldovia
“Plenty of room in this trunk for dead bodies,” joked Pat as he opened up the back of the car for me to put my gear in.
I was pretty sure it was a joke, but when Pat said he wanted to stop off somewhere to do a hike a small nagging voice at the back of my head started imagining being thrown off the edge of a precipice never to be seen again. We strode off on the trail to the top of a mountain overlooking Skilak Lake at quite a pace, and I managed to keep up in spite of my lack of trail fitness.
As we got chatting I soon realised that Pat was not in fact a mass murderer, but a really good guy! He had grown up on Kodiak Island, which is a long way south of Homer and is well known as a haven for brown bears and rare wildlife. It’s also on the Ring of Fire, so is prone to volcanic eruptions. Most things have to be imported into Kodiak, and simple items most of us take for granted are considered luxuries.
When we reached Homer Pat kindly invited me round for a meal the following night with his wife and daughter. Checking into the hostel I was due to stay at for the next few days, I stood for a while at the window gazing at the lovely panorama of mountains across the bay from Homer. It had been a long day, and after grabbing a bite to eat at Alice’s Champagne Palace where I was due to be playing two days later, I got an early night.
The next day I spent relaxing and wandering round the downtown area of Homer. It’s a place that attracts artists and bohemian types, and is full of art galleries, and in many ways reminds me of St Ives in Cornwall. Having missed my usual siesta the previous day due to being on the road I enjoyed a leisurely snooze in the afternoon, and played some guitar in the hostel before getting ready to go out for the evening.
Pat’s wife, Janet, had prepared a lovely meal for us, and it was good to actually eat some vegetables after what was becoming my standard road-fare of burger and chips. Pat had invited a couple of friends over and we spent the night chatting, and I played them some songs on my guitar. Pat and Janet also had a huge pair of Caribou antlers on their wall, which every new guest had to have a photo taken of.
Pat and Janet said they’d be along to watch me the following night at Alice’s, so we said our goodnights, and I sat up for a while back at the hostel talking to some of the travellers. The long hours of daylight during the summer in Alaska do strange things to your body-clock, and I would often find myself wide awake well past midnight, catching up on my blog or chatting to whoever was around.
I had an early start the next morning for a radio interview at Homer’s radio station, KBBI. The interview went well (yes, I had prepared for it this time!) and I played a couple of songs from my CD, and afterwards went round town putting up posters for that night’s gig at Alice’s. Pat gave me some good advice on getting extra tip money, saying I should announce the fact I was playing for tips every other song. I took his advice, and it worked - I doubled my takings from my previous gigs in Girdwood!
Afterwards Pat suggested we go and see a local song writing legend called Hobo Jim, who was playing at a bar round the corner. He was a real character and had some interesting stories to tell about life in the Alaskan bush. Like many Alaskans he built a cabin out in the wilderness, and sang a lovely song he’d written for his wife about them living there as young lovers with no money but plenty of dreams, and I felt a longing to go and build my own homestead somewhere and have a family (any offers - please get in touch!).
I had a great stay in Homer, and was looking forward to stopping by again on my way back from Seldovia, where I was due to be catching a ferry the next day.
By the time I arrived at the ferry terminal in Homer many of the other musicians due to be playing were already there. I’d met another singer-songwriter Jaime Michaels a couple of days before, and he introduced me to the other bands and artists, and they were a really interesting bunch from different parts of the US and Canada. We had to wait almost 2 hours for the ferry to leave due to an exceptionally low-tide, but I was happy just to be on board chatting to my fellow musiciains.
Once we did get going, the musical instruments came out for the traditional jam session that takes place on the way over to the festival. I sang my version of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” and afterwards an elderly man came up to me and thanked me for playing and asked what sort of music it was, saying that he only really knew mountain music. I thought it was really nice of him to come and talk to me, and take an interest in what I was doing.
When we arrived in Seldovia I was met at the ferry terminal by my host for the weekend, Val, who drove us back to the house she had bought with her husband a couple of years ago. I came up trumps with my accommodation, as I was given a cabin below their home which looked across a lovely tidal inlet. I stood out on the veranda breathing the clean mountain air, watching bald eagles diving for fish, and thought how lucky I was to be playing music in such a special place.
Val told me I could use her car whenever I wanted, and when I asked why she left the keys in the ignition she told me that there was practically no such thing as crime on the island. In fact, she said, the last policeman had been blind, and now they just didn't bother! After getting settled into my cabin I went to the local pub where there was a meet and greet for the performers, and I had a nice time eating pizza and getting to know some of the locals. There was an open mic. event afterwards for people who weren’t playing in the festival, so most of us went along to offer some support.
The next morning I had to get ready for my evening performance, with a sound check at the school hall where the music would be taking place. I also managed to attend a song-writing class run by one of my fellow performers, Robyn Hopper. It was a really interesting workshop, and we did an exercise in which the group came up with a list of 20 song titles. We then had to choose one that appealed to us, and write for 3 minutes about that subject - it didn’t have to rhyme, or even be coherent, what mattered was to keep writing.
We all read out loud what we'd written, and had to pick out from one another’s work any words or phrases that particularly grabbed us. We then wrote for another 3 minutes about the new word, and it was amazing to see how different everyone's writing became. I’d chosen the phrase “All the King’s men”, and wrote a prose piece about a soldier in the trenches in the First World War - something I never thought I’d be doing before the class started.
I was feeling relaxed and looking forward to performing that evening, everyone in the village had been so friendly I sensed they would be a receptive audience. Having forgotten to eat before going out I was glad that the green room had been stocked with plenty of goodies, and I found myself gorging on quiche and cake 5 minutes before going on stage! It was a packed house, and I came off stage on a real high. Returning to my cabin about midnight I sat and watched the river for a while, and then called it a night as I had to be up the next morning to run my own song-writing workshop.
I met with the other performers for breakfast the next morning, and it was great to hear some of their stories. One couple, who as well as being musicians, were piano tuners and spent their time travelling around Alaska and it's outlying islands. What a fantastic job! Jaime Michaels was also going to be taking the song-writing workshop with me, and we had an in-depth discussion about our approach to it, which went something along the lines of “We’ll just turn up and think of something to say!” To be fair, we had both already talked together about our approach to song-writing , and shared plenty of common ground. We had a good turn out for the session, and were able to offer some constructive criticism to pieces of music that the group showcased.
In the evening there were more musical performances, and I got to know some more of the locals. Although Seldovia isn’t an island (it’s at the end of a remote peninsula that has no roads leading to it, and has a population of just 284 people), in many ways it reminds me of some of the small Scottish Islands I‘ve been to. Everyone waves at you from their car, whether they know you or not. There is a real sense of community here that you only realise you are missing once you experience it.
Sunday came round far too quickly, and I was sad at the prospect of leaving later that day. I hadn’t had a chance to meet Val’s husband who was working away, but we had a nice walk along the beach with her 3 spaniels who were all rescue dogs.
In the afternoon I went along to “Dancing Eagle’s Porch” where there was the end of festival sing-along. I sat in on the session with my guitar for a while before returning to my cabin to pack my things in time to catch the evening ferry back to Homer. I was booked into the hostel there for a couple of nights, where I planned to relax before the next step of my journey to Seward - and a good thing, too, as this would turn out to be the most dramatic part of my journey so far!