Traveling with Matthew

One of my concerns in making this voyage was how Matthew would do. He is pretty good natured and willing to go along with the plan, generally with minimal protest. But how would he do on a trip of this magnitude?

Note: after posting this it occurred to me that not everyone knows Matthew. I know, hard to believe. Matthew is well known to many. He is an adult who looks much younger than his age. He is non-verbal and has many traits on the autism spectrum, including a desire for strict routine (the mere idea of travel upsets the apple cart). But he also is engaging and compassionate and if only he would talk, might be a chatty Patty. One of Matthew’s most familiar characteristics is his way of connecting with others. He pulls a person into conversation through showing of another item. Often it is the TV Guide, sometimes it’s just what is in his pocket (and there’s always something in his pocket). He points to the item and you respond. Before you know it, you are having a conversation with Matthew…and he has never uttered a word.tw

While we haven’t made it all the way I think I can safely say Matthew has done well. He is sleeping in the tent far better than I imagined. Our decision to cook most of our meals has made this part of the routine easier. The good…and bad…part is that he gets up as soon as I move. It has made getting on the road early easier but there are times I’d like to have just a few minutes of quiet.

"Oh here, let me show you what I have in my wallet..."

“Oh here, let me show you what I have in my wallet…”

One thing that has been good is the Canadian awareness of gluten free food.  Even in the tiniest of grocery stores we have found clearly labeled GF products. In fact, yesterday we enjoyed fresh poppy seed muffins picked up at a little store just out in the middle of nowhere.

Matthew has completely worn out all of his TV Guides so this morning when he found one at McDonald’s he was very happy. The good thing for me is this TV guide has new and different shows so he has been spending the morning just pouring over it. Luckily, he found they offer exciting programming that includes Gilligan’s Island and Stargate.

A town called Vulcan? Who knew??? (Matthew did.)

A town called Vulcan? Who knew??? (Matthew did.)

But though Matthew protests the idea of camping he has figured out his job in setting up the tent and he has done better than I expected sleeping in it. I also was very concerned that he would not use the ‘no flush’ toilets but that too has not been a problem.

Ah yes, this is the Matthew we've all come to know and love...

Ah yes, this is the Matthew we’ve all come to know and love…

Many of you who have met Matthew know of his love for maps. He loves them so much that one year my sister asked what he’d like for Christmas and I told her an atlas. Sure enough, he spent the next year pouring over it, marking the places he’d like to go, scratching off the ones he doesn’t. Don’t ask me about his rhyme or reason because I don’t know. So, on this trip at every opportunity Matthew picks up a map…or several. But they’re not meant for sharing and he only gives one up under protest.

The truth is Matthew is mostly happy but sometimes adds his two cents worth by pinching Dad or Sister when we start talking about doing something with which he disagrees. Today, for example, he spent the afternoon holding his head with a fake ‘Oh, Boo Hoo’ cry because we were talking about some glaciers we would soon see at Banff. Matthew has decided he has seen enough glaciers. Yesterday, as we were deciding whether to camp or to stay in a motel Bob made a U-turn in the road. This also was enough to set the poor boy off. It seems it is hard to head home if we keep turning around…

Drying dishes.

Drying dishes.

Traveling with someone who has any special need requires some advance planning and a realization that there will be some compromise…sometimes a lot of compromise.  But it’s doable.

Back to Whitehorse and Watson Lake

So we set the Mario Andretti speed record for packing up this morning. Breakfast could wait until we found an area less inhabited with mosquitoes and once again we were off. –Rebecca tells me not everyone will recognize the name Andretti. I’m betting you will.

Kluane Lake, the second time around, is still very beautiful. I think it’s about 70 miles long. You could fish to your heart’s content there.

We made our way back to the busy Walmart in Whitehorse, again noting all the RV’s using the parking lot for their camp. I suppose it is a mutually beneficial relationship. Too bad they won’t let us tent there. Or let us roll out our sleeping bags in the display tent inside.

Anyway, today we are going to win the battle of the mosquitoes. We bought the Thermacell. Everyone we have talked to swears by this pricey little gizmo. I’ll let you know if it works.

Matthew in front of a fossilized bison. It's much easier to imagine the back hump after seeing those vertebrae.

Matthew in front of a fossilized bison. It’s much easier to imagine the back hump after seeing those vertebrae.

After our restocking at the store we visited the Beringia Museum. This museum specializes in the time when there was a land bridge between continents and the world was much cooler. The growing glaciers took away enough water mass so that from Japan to Southeast Alaska the ocean levels were low enough that these areas were grassy plains. This was the time of the wooly mammoth, the Yukon horse and the sabre tooth tiger. We got to see fossilized bones from all these animals and of course Matthew was happy to see them but sad to remember that they are all dead (he’s a compassionate one.)

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Friends of my folks and part time Quartzsite residents Larry and Moira at their home in Whitehorse. Friendly and generous they opened their home to us. Next time we’ll take them up on it.

My folks have friends who live in Whitehorse and winter in Quartzsite so we took a few minutes to visit them. Imagine a home on a forested hill with a front deck view of the mighty Yukon. Yep, that’s their house. We had a good visit with Larry and Moira and discovered a key fact, one that explains everything else. That is this province has only 33,000 residents. (No, I didn’t leave off a zero.) 23,000 of them live in the Whitehorse area. Now we understand why there are no McDonald’s in the Yukon Territory outside of Whitehorse.

We also learned that while there are many citizens receiving government assistance, businesses within the Province, like Walmart, actually recruit workers from other countries as they cannot find residents willing to work on the lower scale. It gives me pause to wonder how similar this is in our own country as our food stamp participant and Medicaid numbers continue to break records.

But no politics today.

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Lunch on the bank of the Yukon River. Looked like a good fishing spot.

Remember this time we are going back on the actual AlCan highway and that we joined the AlCan from the Stewart-Cassiar Highway just outside Watson Lake. We headed back on the road finally reaching Watson Lake and the famous sign posts.  This is a very popular stop on the road. The signs history began when a homesick GI, working on the AlCan, nailed up a couple of arrowed signs with distances to home and loved ones. The tradition grew and people began to post their car license plates and it grew from there. Today there are over 70,000 signs posted by people from all across the world. It’s a fun stop on the route but I was a bit disappointed that most of the old signs are gone. What we saw was mostly dated from the 90’s and 2000’s. north to alaska 112

There are no tent areas close so we stayed in one of the lodges here. A cute place with pink flowered bedspreads and vintage blue bathroom fixtures. You would like it.

The Return Begins

Already? Awww…

Yes, it is time to begin our return trip. We’re not traveling the same route—maybe 500 miles of this journey we’ll be on the same road. This leg will take us out of Valdez, up to the junction in Tok and back to Whitehorse. Then we’ll take the actual AlCan highway down to its origination point at Dawson Creek, British Columbia. Following that we will take a side road to Jasper and Banff National Parks in Alberta, then to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks back in the US. If we arrive on time we’ll drop Bob off in Salt Lake City, because somebody has to work to pay for this trip.

So, here we are in Valdez. At some point in my early childhood and it was after the ’64 earthquake but before the pipeline, our family visited Valdez. I remember the waterfalls and I remember that the town had been wiped out by tidal waves following the earthquake. Even as a young child I was impressed to see that all that remained of the town were street posts with signs and empty cement pads where homes once stood.

On our way out of town this morning we saw a sign marking the original town and visited it. Though much has grown over there were still a few cement pads left with markers explaining what once stood there. Yet another impressive reminder of the strength of the forces of nature and how insignificant man really is in the scope of things.

I was hoping that the waterfalls would be as impressive as I remembered and we weren’t disappointed. Tons of water poured down the side of the mountain, forming its own path and unceasingly pounding on the rocks underneath it.

Bridal Veil Falls just north of Valdez.

Bridal Veil Falls just north of Valdez.

Afterwards we headed up the pass to the summit and came to Worthington Glacier. One of Rebecca’s requests was that she walk on a glacier and this was her chance. Matthew and I wimped out climbing the narrow, rocky goat trail about half way up but Bob and Rebecca made it to the face of the glacier and got see and touch it as close as one can get. I worried they would fall into the river, through a crevasse, or slide underneath the ice…you know… Mom Worries…but they made it safely and have pictures to prove their braveness.north to alaska 024

We continued heading north and for a time paralleled the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. You know, it’s not as big as I imagined. We split off from the pipeline and took the ‘short-cut’ to Tok. I’m not so sure how much shorter it was but it certainly was another remote road. According to the markers this was another gold rich area with the first non-native settlers being prospectors.

Oh say, here’s a crazy observation. Remember I told you about the frost heaves? We found some and Rebecca videotaped a clip for you but we kept noticing that they weren’t as bad as we remembered (the bug splatters are exactly as they occurred in real life). It turns out that these loop-de-loop heaves in the road are a spring occurrence and since the weather had warmed up by our return most of the road had settled back down. So, we were lucky to experience them.

After we crossed back into Canada (without incident this time) we started looking for a place to spend the night. There are very few camping spots which was okay, we could pull off the road and stop, until this:

Well, Hello Mr. Grizzly. No, I don't think I will sleep in a tent right here...

Well, Hello Mr. Grizzly. No, I don’t think I will sleep in a tent right here…

Yes, after a not so friendly greeting by this grizzly we decided the tent was way too thin for us to camp outside a campground so we pushed on until we finally found one at the end of Kluane Lake. The spot seemed perfect, a grassy RV park with bathrooms close, BUT… As we began to unload the truck the mosquitoes formed a dark swarm all around us. In your nose. In your eyes. In your ears. On your arms.

You get the picture. Armchair travelers, be very glad tonight you are sleeping in your bed.

We raced to get the tent up and jumped in to escape. It didn’t matter that our clothes were still in the truck. We had our sleeping bags and nobody wanted to venture out to brush their teeth. That was it for the night.

Tomorrow: Return to Whitehorse and visit some friends.

kluane lake

A Ferry and a Glacier

This morning we packed up quickly from our mosquito haven taking just enough time to enjoy a breakfast of homegrown eggs. What a difference in flavor and color. I wonder if I can raise my own chickens?

I am feeling more than a bit sad that the past few days of our trip went so quickly. Today it seems like this month long trip is really just a Three Hour Cruise…without enough time to stop and visit everyone as much as we’d like.

We headed over to Portage Glacier but weren’t expecting much. The Milepost magazine indicated that the glacier has retreated significantly in the past twenty years so that it was impossible to reach in person and the icebergs that Portage Lake was known for were also reduced. And we found this to be so. There were a couple of small icebergs along the shoreline, but nothing all that exciting. Still, an iceberg is an iceberg and we hear it’s 120 in Phoenix so it was still worthwhile to visit.

A receding Portage Glacier

A retreating Portage Glacier

Next on our agenda was a drive through the mountain tunnel to Whittier.  The railroad tunnel was widened just enough to fit vehicles through one direction at a time, giving the town sudden access to the outside world. We were there to take the ferry from Whittier across the sound to Valdez.

Rebecca had a friend who recommended a Kenai fjord cruise which, while fun, just couldn’t fit into our agenda.When we read about the ferry opportunity we realized this could be a great option. The ferry doesn’t run to each port every day so we did have to readjust our schedule by a day. We also made reservations once we decided to do this. A good thing too, because the car hold in the ferry was completely filled on our trip.

I had expected we might get on the ferry, finding seats inside the enclosed viewing area but the weather was so beautiful we were able to sit outside the whole time. Rebecca was very concerned that she would get seasick but the water was flat as glass. By sitting out on the deck we were able to see much more wildlife, including a humpback whale that decided to breach the water just as we were watching! Of course, we still got to see the fjords and great waterfalls, and with every snow covered mountain that showed up around the next bend, Bob would tell me to take a picture because ‘this’ mountain would look really good above the fireplace. (If I had 20 fireplaces we’d still be in good shape.)

It just keeps getting more beautiful!

It just keeps getting more beautiful!

There was a little girl who had been watching as intently as I for porpoises and more whales so I was very excited to share with her when I spotted the unexpected iceberg. After snapping a gazillion pictures of the lone iceberg I looked ahead only to discover a whole giant field of icebergs! They were every shape and size. Big ones, small ones, blue ice, snow covered, some you could look under the water and see the heavy bottom and some still covered with gravel, just as they broke off from the glacier.

Hundred of icebergs in front of the giant Columbia Glacier.

Hundred of icebergs in front of the giant Columbia Glacier.

Oh, and the glacier? We hadn’t looked closely enough at the route or probably would have noticed that the ferry passed right by the Columbia Glacier: a HUGE glacier that feeds into the ocean. Oh my goodness! It was truly amazing! I ran back and forth across the deck like a crazy person trying to take pictures of the best icebergs. As we neared the glacier there was a definite change in the temperature as the wind swept down off the mountain picking up that cold air and cooling us immediately. But what fun!

After we crossed the glacier bay we saw no more icebergs but we did see more porpoises playing in the water and lots of fish jumping before we entered the town of Valdez.

Sunburned and tired from all that fresh air we decided not to drive any further but to spend the night in this town at the end of the Alaska pipeline. Our budget hotel was reflective of the town. It was completely modular. The woman at the desk called it a ‘man camp’ filled with summer workers for the pipeline. However, we did notice they took more than the occasional tourist as a busload of Mennonites gathered for breakfast before boarding their tour bus heading north.

Next: The Return Trip Begins.

valdez

The Kenai Peninsula and Life Off the Grid

Dear readers,
It may be that some do not realize this is being posted in a time delay fashion. No I am not really on the Kenai Peninsula today. Actually (and this is just for you burglar wanna-be’s) I am more likely home today, cross stitching my new ‘Right to BEAR Arms’ with patriotic red, white and blue colors, wall hanging.
Oh, and Happy Birthday America! We are free because of the brave.

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Here we are with Dean and Saki. Doesn’t Dean just fit the picture of an Alaskan?

This morning we were able to more clearly see the view from Dean and Saki’s house. The one with the million dollar view. What I didn’t mention yesterday is that two years ago a tremendous storm washed away 60 feet of their property…Right up to the front door. Today their homes literally stands at the edge of a 500 foot cliff. The picture below shows their front porch. They have the materials and a plan to reinforce the rest of the shoreline to hopefully keep their home out of the ocean. But…it’s a relentless ocean.

The view down from Dean's window. An easy 500 feet...straight down.

The view down from Dean’s window. An easy 500 feet…straight down.

We left Kenai and followed the coast south. The land was treed with both deciduous and evergreen trees and there were a few small farms sprinkled along the road. As we were passing through one small town we spotted a moose and her two babies. Munching on grass. Right next to the library. So cute.north to alaska 073We had one more sister to visit. Nora and Paul have chosen to live off the grid. We drove to the end of the road…and then turned left to reach their house. They are building their home from the ground up and each year add something major. This summer it will be a septic system. They also raise chickens and geese and Nora is going to start making goat cheese from her goats. Modern day pioneers.

Nora and Paul's home. Got it closed up last year, but still working on it. Notice the satellite receivers. Being off the grid does not mean not modern.

Nora and Paul’s home. Got it closed up last year, but still working on it. Notice the satellite receivers. Being off the grid does not mean not modern.

After our visit, we drove the extra few miles into Homer so we could all see the famous Homer Spit. I’m told it’s the second largest spit in the world. (If you don’t know what a spit is, I’ll let you look it up.) But I’ll share a picture as a clue.

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Homer Spit. See it?

Then reversing our trip we followed the blue Kenai River back up the mountain and ended our day at the base of Portage Glacier. I thought I was being clever picking a spot just under the glacier but discovered the mosquitoes also thought this was a great camp site and were waiting to welcome us. Yes, we are still camping. No, we are not any faster putting up the tent.

We’re all looking forward to seeing the glacier tomorrow and taking a ferry ride.

kenai

Friends and Family and Alaskan Beer

My dad was an early settler in the Chugiak area. He still lives in the house he built in the 60’s. When we were out to breakfast everyone who walked in called out a greeting…kind of like on “Cheers.” It was nice to have a chance to catch up with him and his wife Debbie. Too much time goes between visits.

Here's the gang.

Here’s the gang.

This is us to the right along with three of my brothers and two of my sisters and some of their kids and some of their kids.

This is us to the right along with three of my brothers and two of my sisters and some of their kids and some of their kids.

We have a lot of family in the Anchorage area, so my sister Cindy offered to organize a family get together. Brother Kelly and his wife offered to serve as hosts. The warm summer sun kept the mosquitoes at bay and we were able to meet and greet and visit everyone out on their lush green lawn in the back yard. It was great fun to meet all the extended family.

Brother Tom's one of a kind Moose Truck. Now THIS is Alaska.

Brother Tom’s one of a kind Moose Truck. Now THIS is Alaska.

Of course, we are ones who do eat and run… Oh, if we only had more hours in a day. After saying our good byes we headed south to Kenai where we spent the night with our longtime friend Dean and his amazing wife Saki.

Their home is right on the edge of a cliff overlooking the bay; they truly have a million-dollar view. We got to see Saki’s mini farm where she raises all kinds of poultry, including ones for dinner. The kids were especially impressed that we got to see a baby chicken hatch out of its shell! What an experience.

Look closely. This is the eyeball of a baby chick working to peck his way out of the shell.

Look closely. This is the eyeball of a baby chick working to peck his way out of the shell.

The drive to Kenai is absolutely beautiful. It begins heading south of Anchorage following Turnagain Arm where we could see the mudflats as the tide was out. Even as a young child it was drilled into me how dangerous the mudflats were; the mud acts as quicksand, making it difficult to move quickly, and the long shallow flats mean that the tide can race in, catching an unaware person.

Turnagain Arm in Cook Inlet

Turnagain Arm in Cook Inlet

Further south we drove over the pass and then followed the Russian and Kenai Rivers. I hope my pictures can adequately show the aquamarine color of these rivers. Amazing.

I've forgotten, this is either the Kenai or Russian River. Look at the beautiful color. They catch big salmon in this river.

I’ve forgotten, this is either the Kenai or Russian River. Look at the beautiful color. They catch big salmon in this river.

Here’s an observation: Every house we have visited in Alaska has a twelve pack of cold Alaska beer in the fridge. It makes me wonder if I shouldn’t be stocking some kind of Arizona beer?

Next: All the way to Homer and then to a glacier.

Playing Tourist

Chugach Mountains form a beautiful backdrop for this area.

Chugach Mountains form a beautiful backdrop for this area.

My early childhood was spent in the town of Chugiak, Alaska in the community of Birchwood. As I’ve mentioned before, it was a small rural area separated from the city of Anchorage by two military bases. Birchwood was aptly named for, yes, its birch lined roads. On a clear day you can actually see Mount McKinley if you’re on the right spot on the loop road. It’s a very picturesque place.

It still is, but today most of those 2.5 acre parcels on the loop have homes and the entire Chugiak area is but a short suburbian drive to the city. Many of my extended family continue to make this their home, including some, like my father, who live in their original houses.

For the next couple days we are staying with brother Tom and his son Cody. Not only is it nice to have a bed, shower and laundry all at the ready but we are also enjoying some of the 100 lb halibut Cody caught last week. Talk about delicious!

Remnants from the Independence Mine at Hatcher Pass. We saw people panning for gold at every creek along the drive.

Remnants from the Independence Mine at Hatcher Pass. We saw people panning for gold at every creek along the drive.

We took Tom up on his offer to serve as tour guide today visiting some of the local popular spots.  I realized that even though the area has grown and developed greatly, many of the early settlers were still around or at least remembered through street names. We hiked the trail to Thunderbird Falls, enjoyed the beauty of glacier fed Eklutna Lake and then drove to Hatcher Pass where we could view an old mine operation. Along the way we watched a moose munching in the marsh and saw to Wild Bill, a local legend apparently, who appears to be very anti-government everything. Thunderbird Falls is reached through a shaded path in the woods that invites mosquitoes this time of year. Today was another blue bird sunny days and the path was filled with families out getting their exercise. We saw similar groups at both Eklutna and the Independence Mine, everyone taking advantage of the weather. We’ll take credit for the weather… we heard that last June had rain every single day of the month.

A little cemetary at the Russian Orthodox church. The little burial houses incorporate their Native American heritage with Christianity.

A little cemetary at the Russian Orthodox church. The little burial houses incorporate their Native American heritage with Christianity.

A short post today as I catch up on laundry. Oh, and attention burglars: it sounds like everyone in this state takes advantage of their second amendment rights. If you’re coming by to rob us you might want know that I’m seriously thinking about picking up a new 45, maybe one with a scrimshaw ivory grip.

The View from the Passenger Side

Patch of black spruce. They say a 2 inch diameter tree might be 60 years old.

Patch of black spruce. They grow slow in the permafrost and  a 2 inch diameter tree might be 60 years old.

We have three drivers on this trip and while Rebecca isn’t too keen on driving the narrow two lane roads especially when it comes to passing semis, we are able to enjoy the scenery in greater detail when passengers.

So what have we been seeing? As desert dwellers we first notice the green, in all kinds of different shades and intensities. From the deep forest of the tall pines to the silvery shimmer of the quaking aspen the landscape has been filled with verdant tones. Then we see that the two most popular flower colors are the lavender of lupines and sunny lemon colored dandelions. My favorite flower since we entered Alaska has been the pink wild rose. So delicate and dainty, yet managing to grow where few other plants can take hold. The ever popular fireweed is just about to bloom, yet another reminder that summer is not quite here.

Along the road, the tall pine trees of the Pacific Northwest were gradually interspersed with more fir and spruce evergreens, and, along with them, aspen and birch. The birch and aspen grow tall and straight. We think they would make good log cabins.

Driving north into the Yukon we noticed the trees became smaller and more scraggly. It’s hard to say what point the permafrost impacted the tree growth but suddenly we found ourselves in forests of thin, scruffy black spruce which we were told grow very slowly due to the long cold winters and permafrost. Those same skinny black spruce have shown up all across the state wherever we see swampy areas. It also sounds like they are ripe for burning as we saw a massive forest fire near Tok. The forest service was letting it burn naturally because it was so rural. Also, for those wondering, the moss appears to not know which direction is north and we see it growing on all sides of the trees.

So, we see a surprising number of trees in most areas but there are also many more swampy areas than we expected. We are here for the longest day of the year, which truly seems to mark the beginning of summer. Many trees and shrubs are just now leafing out and wildflowers just starting to bloom. But up in the Yukon I don’t think they are even at this point. Definitely a short summer season this far north.

fireweed

fireweed

Consistently sprinkled across the landscape are ponds, lakes and swamps. Oh, and large, sometimes meandering, sometimes raging, often muddy brown rivers. Spring breakup for the frozen rivers happened the end of May and we wonder if these rivers are always muddy or whether this a result of the continued snow melt in the mountains. Other rivers are an aquamarine green which comes from light reflecting off the glacial silt. And yet still other streams are so clear you can see fish swimming. The bottoms look muddy though and I wonder how far I’d sink if I accidentally stepped in.

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Yes, it’s crooked, but at least the car window isn’t in this pic.

Also we noticed a decrease in farm animals once we left the southern part of British Columbia. Occasionally we have seen horses out in the fields but farming appears on to be much smaller scale as we have traveled north. Interesting to note after we crossed the Alaska Range heading towards south central Alaska we did see more farming and even more cattle. We have friends and family out on the Kenai Peninsula who raise goats along with poultry.

One thing I am surprised to see out 100 miles from nowhere are bicyclists. Their bicycles are loaded with gear and we guess they camp whenever they run out of steam for the day. On the days when it’s rainy they are wearing ponchos and have covered heads. Honestly, I like the idea of riding but these roads are pretty skinny with little shoulder and between the iffy weather and ever present mosquitoes I’m not sure this will make my bucket list.

We were surprised not to see road kill until one friend explained that some people are on the ‘road kill’ list and they come rescue the meat of freshly killed animals. Ha, this is something I thought only occurred in West Virginia…

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Oh, and I did tell you about the mountains right? These windy roads aren’t just traversing a plain. Everywhere we look there are mountains. The hills are all tree covered but we can see tree lines on all the mountains. Interestingly, most of the passes we have driven over are around 3,000 feet, not as high as I had imagined.  And most surprising to us is that all the mountains, and many of the hills still have snow. We did imagine it would be cold but forgot that the hillsides often were permanently snowcapped.

Definitely a passenger side shot--the trans Alaska pipeline.

Definitely a passenger side shot–the trans Alaska pipeline.

Much of what we are driving through reminds me of the wooded areas of Wisconsin or Minnesota. Just without the mountains…and without any towns for hundreds of miles.

Next:  A Tourist in my home town.