“Thanks so much for comin’ out today… It’s gonna be a real good time” The late twenties hippy chick said to a small group of passengers. Made up of an elderly lesbian couple named Barb and Nancy from Nebraska, and their fabulous friend James, from New York, Miloch, a young twenties traveler from Bulgaria, and me. “That guy hangin’ out in the corner over there will take it from here.” Summer concluded.
A weathered old man leaned with his entire weight supported by the counter to his right, turned his head our way and said “Well, if I’m following Summer, then I must be Autumn, right guys? No, just kidding, I’m Bob, with one O”.
Quickly, they weighed us, and then we left.
Still struggling to wrap my head around what was about to happen, I tailed the group, as we exited the single room cabin and took exactly twelve steps. At a shin high wooden gate, propped open with his good leg, Bob welcomed us to the runway. “Okay, let’s go ahead and load, we’ll have plenty of time for pictures when we get back”.
I took twenty-seven more steps toward the Toyota tundra sized twin prop, the third in a row of four, and then three more into its narrow seven seat cabin.
“Now, you’ll wanna fasten those seatbelts realllll tight” Bob said as he crawled through the isle toward the cockpit.” “It’s kinda like being on a dirt road in a school bus up there sometimes”.
“How was yesterday’s flight?” Barb asked nervously, for one last bit of reassurance. “Yesterday? Hmmm… Yeah, I flew a few times yesterday, can’t remember ‘em though. It all runs together!” Bob replied, just before he cranked the ignition and threw ‘er in gear.
Like a semi-truck, we rolled around a turn, and then punched it. Outside my window, thick forest wisped past, as we approached the edge of the remote runway through a series of increasingly large leaps. With seemingly only yards to spare, we were airborne.
Immediately, it felt different. Almost as if we were driving on some elevated highway. Around mountains we turned left and right, as bright birch leaves rose into steep and jagged rocky peaks that filled our windows.
“Just to the left is Long's peak, and that’s Huntington on our right” Bob said over the headphones as we cruised not over, but through the “spine” of the Alaska range, and into a dark grey patch of air.
Another chunk of coal and white brushed past, and then the skies went dark. Pellets of icy snow blurred by, and a sudden updraft shook the cabin. “Coming up next we’ll see Mt. Savage, I think they named it after my ex-wife” Bob didn’t seem to care.
Before we’d even finished our collectively nervous laugh, the skies broke.
Through a skyline of pearl white, we buzzed into the village.
“I’ll go ahead and lower the left wing here, so you guys can get a better view of that glacier” Bob came back over the air to announce another unregulated maneuver, although he had already thrown me sideways into Miloch’s outstretched selfie arm.
Slightly dazed, I settled back in place and refocused my view out the window, where a series of pure white peaks rose in succession, culminating at the base of an enormous castle of ice.
Through the outskirts of the forest, the suburbs of the front range, the city of the Alaskans, and now at the front gates of the castle, our small motor vehicle slowly wound its way up toward “the big one”.
This here is Foraker peak, it’s a scary place to be. “A few years back a group of climbers got caught in a storm up near it’s 17,000 ft summit and no one got to them for 3 days”. "And this one here is mt hunter, the second tallest, at 18,000ft." Another mound of earth filled my view as we drove down the drive.
“That there is 8’000 ft basecamp, and up here you’ll see a group of climbers approaching the 12,000 ft mark." Through the front windshield, I watched as a multicolored snake wound its way up into the sky.
"This one on our right is 16,000, the last camp before the 20,000 ft summit." Another cluster of neon tents populated the surface.
"And this, folks, is the highest point in North America, Mt. Denali."
Above one last group of thin clouds, the summit stood, glowing in the fluorescent white light.
For at least twenty seconds, no-one spoke, as we slowly carved around the south face. Along the west ridgeline, over a starkly contrasting dark floor of tundra, we cruised in the mountains’ shadow until eventually veering left toward the Polychrome Mountains, a metallic bunch of copper, coal, and graphite. Over fiery red hills carved by black sandy river beds, and back, across the front range and into the valley, we went.
Again, we bounced down the runway before settling. Then, just as if pulling into the driveway, Bob parked and turned off the vehicle.
Out in front of the plane, Barb and Nancy took pictures with Bob. James did too. Miloch disappeared. And I stood there, laughing hysterically at how ridiculously amazing an experience I’d just had.