Just up the road from Anchorage to Wasilla, located on the northern point of Cook Inlet in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, southcentral part of the state, saw us become furiously fast friends with Ian Goodwin and his wonderful wife Kristina. Kind and curious as much as brisk and efficient, Kristina radiated a lightness and joy more than anything else. Her conversations, devilishly dirty laugh and zest for life hoisted me up and carried me somewhere else. Jase meanwhile struck an instant bond with Ian, I was smitten.
Ian was like earth. Stable, secure, warm and tender to those around him. His long beard bore a strong wave and his eyes like Tom Hanks’ always seemed close to laughter. He’d grin rapturously where his Mel Gibson voice always cut through. He had big square hands and I couldn’t deny his lumberjack chic appeal. Both of these folks touched me with a beneficient gold. Desi, their sandy blonde labrador stood to meet and greet us, supported by a wheeled structure ingeniously tacked on the back to carry her expired hind legs—and looked up at me with her own gentle brand of unconditional acceptance.
Overjoyed by the fanfare hello, drinks were thrust into our hands. Coupled with a Smörgåsbord comprising a wild Alaskan caught killer fish fry—with halibut pieces the size of a mouse no less—made it fit for Julius Caesar. Alongside brie so magnificent that it tasted like sunlight had been stirred into butter. It did much and more to kindle the emotional spirit of goodwill and hospitality.
With extra-strength craft beer glowing sleepily in my stomach, my blood became a warm golden flow through my arteries. Every night, sleep fell over me like a shadow where neither of us failed to breathe the measured breath of deep REM slumber.
Summer nights in the Matanuska Valley are starless and on occasion can invite a lot of rain but fortuituously during our stint, it was home to fluffy clouds below cornflower blue skies. So calm, warm, each night redolent and composed. Birds such as the Arctic Terns, hardly a few ounces of feathers and bones, returned from their mezmorizing migratory journeys. Powered by bugs and worms and desire. The quicksilver winds of spring transmuted into the heavier, greener breezes of summer. It’s one endless garden, one wild garden from end to end.
Come one fine evening I found myself shooting branches with Kristina’s .22, which heightened the senses and pretty much took everything I had to keep my eyeballs in their sockets. In the next second, scared myself senseless with Ian’s .45 caliber: a thrill riding all the way into the nails of my fingers. Enjoying the precision of the .17 long-range rifle near Swan Lake was the feather in my faux-hunter’s hat, having zipped around all evening in a duck boat affording quite possibly the best vantage of the low marshes at Jim Creek.
Resplendent swans gathered themselves as they peered into a dramatic, brooding sky. Bald eagles glided full of evanescence, while irridescent green-headed mallards marvelled me as trumpeting mysteries. With Desi in tow, my eyes filled slowly, as if some internal flood was gradually overwhelming me. As the trees clattered and murmured in a language that travels through earth, air and sky, sadness stealed into my gut, knowing her failing health meant her sweet precious days were numbered.
Later razz-tazzing on the Goodwins’ four- and six-wheelers gave us yet another Wasilla night to remember, banked beautifully in the memory tank. For me, the constant belly-laughing, which erupted nigh on continuously—the laugh being funnier than the joke except when playing ‘Cards against humanity’—gave me a set of firsts, fodder I would cherish fondly and principally friends for life.
Coupled with a week of luxuriously warm, lazy days in burgeoning Alaskan light with Kristina, patting reindeer and whitening my knuckles as a panicked moose ran straight out at us in the Mini Cooper on the highway, to the high octane nights with Ian and their stunning social circle The Fishhook Fatties on top—these sensations whirled in my head as if on a carousel.
Feeling beyond blessed for being in the market of meeting people that nourish your soul, your body and whole being—heck, I’ve met people I didn’t dream I would in six lifetimes. Bizarrely, one of my favourite sources of happiness is to seek out the beauty in their homes. Kristina in particular holds a strong adoration for British culture, which made me feel at home as much as my old cottage in Nottinghamshire. Oh my, where to begin riding the spiral of nostalgia with this lady’s inspiration.
Aside from Kristina’s British ancestory as a starter for ten, an artist’s painting of Baron, their shaggy-haired Westie (often found jogging laps around the sofa or ricocheting off Kristina’s thigh Scrappy-Doo style, looped up in excitement), depicted the little guy wearing high society regalia. Another one of him in an aviator cap and goggles took pride and place next to a picture in the same vein as Chester, their aloof ginger pussy cat who on rare occasion would treat me with a You may stroke me now purr—lording it up as a true queen, adorned the walls. Desi drawn in full hunting garb was especially appropriate for her love of ducks.
Hunter wellies featured heavily in any watery endeavour with the Goodwins and of course the driveway showcased a Mini Cooper whose registration referred to her as ‘Poppns’. I loved the fridge magnet ‘If I had a British accent, I’d never shut up!” and perhaps most intriguing of all, Kristina’s understanding of Briticisms reached an insightful level. I felt serenely comfortable in their sanctuary oozing woodland chic as much as that warm and fuzzy feeling you felt as a kid.
Scooting off for a few days to explore Valdez and McCarthy in the Valdez-Cordova Census Area, wanting to give our newfound friends some space, we squeezed in a trip to the Kennecott Mines. “In 1900 two prospectors were traveling through Alaska. Their horses were hungry and so when they spied a distant green hillside they thought their luck was in. They were not wrong. They had stumbled upon a massive deposit of copper ore, exposed at the surface. Industry on a massive scale quickly followed.
The two prospectors, Smith and Warner lost no time in taking full advantage of their find. They formed a mining company with nine associates. They were quickly bought out by Stephen Birch a recently graduated mining engineer for the sum of $275,000. Birch was young and inexperienced but had rich friends whose interest was piqued by his discovery in the area of ore that contained 70% copper. This was not to mention the silver and gold he also discovered in the deposits.
The new owners began development at once. To begin with, pack horses were used to transport the ore to the nearby town of Valdez. There were rows about the environmental damage that mining would cause which even reached the office of President Roosevelt. The environmentalists lost. The go ahead was given for full scale mining. One can only wonder what regrets Smith and Warner may have had in later years. However unwittingly they had revealed the richest known concentration of copper in the world and set the wheels in motion for it to come to the attention of some of the wealthiest people on the planet. More wants more, as the old saying goes.
The concentration mill you can see in a lot of these photographs was a staggering 14 storeys high. That and the peripheral buildings (including a hospital which homed the first X-Ray machine in Alaska) are about five miles from the mines and are the best preserved. By 1939 the copper was exhausted, the place abandoned. Yet the Kennecott Mines will stand, perhaps as a testament to a time when profit was put before the environment. History will be the judge of whether that time also includes our own.” (Kuriositas.)
During our sortie outside Wasilla, luck would have it that Ian and Kristina were on a Sunday rideout not far from our whereabouts in Chitina on the Edgerton Highway. Grouping up with the gregarious pair was well, a no brainer. After reuniting in clouds of mosquitoes, we batted the air fruitlessly watching the unstoppable flies scatter and re-form each time. Jason swept his right hand through his hair and released a blizzard of the relentless blighters. We are mice, I think, and the sky swirls with hawks.
A nosy around Copper Center and a cheeky beer at the nearby hotel later, away we departed to go our separate ways again. The grass waved and the trees were transected by sunlight but we’d meet again. I was sure of it. Jase clocked Ian veering his bike off the Rich highway, curious to see where he’d ventured in true ‘Dakar style’: fishtailing up a hill akin to the contents of a heaped bean bag. My eyes stopped blinking in gauging how that guy handled himself in the loose stuff. While Ian crested the curve of gravel, down a small unassuming bank Jason went to line himself up and follow suit.
But failed spectacularly to spot a hidden steel corrugated culvert. The culprit stopping him dead in his tracks. Pandemonium struck. The bike dropped hard, the front wheel stood still and hurled Jason over the handlebars, flipping the bike over 180.
Quite the sight and one I caught the tail end of. Blood galloped through my veins as my eyes rapidly apprehended the hapless mishap. One unlucky manoeuvre, matey trousers. I sensed Jason’s thoughts fluttering like trapped birds and could almost hear the machinery of his mind churning inside his skull. And regret: slipping in like eels. Staring at his bike, tangled in thoughts. Unscathed physically, it was just the pride that got royally dented. “Are you sure you’re alright, Jase?” became the question that dragged its teeth through my mind. The bike’s war wounds taking full precedence in Jason’s.
And so of course did the F800GS: ripping a sizable tear in both the inner tube and tyre, dimpling the rim (a Woody’s Wheels one no less), bending a front brake disc, snapping one of the mirrors clean off, cracking some of the side panel, as well as his prized fairing in numerous places. The forks somehow managed to stay unharmed. Still, all was fixable and foremost Jason walked away to tell the tale.
Divine intervention in the form of Dean popped up, over the front desk of the aforementioned hotel actually. Replacing the inner tube, Jase limped his bike on a tyre whose wall had been terrifically gouged less than a mile to Dean’s workplace, where upon I explained our pickle in front of the attentive young chap. Namely asked if we could leave the bike on the premises overnight was all.
“Well suck my pants and call me Noreen!” in the words of Stephen Fry. Dean only offered up a front road tyre in the perfect size. Twenty minutes later and a few bucks lighter, we were raring to go and on our way again. Dean saved our bacon and with deep-seated desire, I sure hope we get to buy that splendid lad—Public Relations personified—a beer someday. A strong contender for ‘Employee of the month’ in going the extra mile to boot: literally and figuratively.
En route to Wasilla, the light barely leached from our surroundings while a fresh wind blew: immediate, biting, piercing. A metallic light settled over the luminous glaciers, birds streaked over the mountains. I sensed a shiver beneath the air—in the pauses between my mind being clear of all feeling save triumph—like the spider cracks of ice when too much weight is set upon it.
Stopping to don the heated clothing, a Homer Simpson donut moment ensued when I heard a smile enter Jason’s voice. “Let the magic begin,” he quivered with warmth flooding his chilled body, pouring forth like easing into a hot bath. Bouncing from highway to country road to dirt lane, I guess the wheels keep rolling (when you’re not tearing them up), the sun will always set (unless you’re in peak summertime Alaska) and the beer keeps flowing; when you’re with the Goodwins, it really does.