My husband and I toss and turn in an overhead bunk, while our daughters sleep serenely in foldout beds below. It is the wee hours of the morning, when the sky is at its inkiest and you feel as though you're, if not the last person alive, certainly the last one awake. Cars and trucks whiz past on a nearby road, and planes still take off and land. So what are we doing in this tin can, parked at Anchorage International Airport?
We'd always wanted to see Alaska, especially in the summer when its whiter-than-white features thaw into a tangle of color. Amyas and I and our girls—Saskia, eight, and Tamzen, six—had already had grand adventures out West in Yellowstone and Yosemite. Then, one summer in Montana's Glacier National Park, as we squinted through binoculars at a speck of a black bear receding up a mountain, a man next to us said, "Go to Denali: Tundra. Taiga. Grizzlies galore."
But how do you plan a trip to a state that spans 600,000 square miles?Fortunately, early in my flounderings I discovered that, thanks to mountains, glaciers, and infinite wilderness, most of Alaska lacks roads—which immediately narrowed our options. Our two-week, late-August loop drive would encompass just a fraction of this vastness. We'd begin and end in Anchorage, the hub of south-central Alaska, and take in Denali National Park—home to 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America—as well as the country's largest national park, raw, rugged Wrangell-St. Elias.
I assumed we'd rent a car and pack a tent and sleeping bags. Wrong. When making a reservation at Teklanika, a campground deep in Denali, I was asked if we had a "hard-sided vehicle."
"An RV, a recreational vehicle," the agent said. "Teklanika is closed to tent camping because of wildlife activity." In other words, bears and wolves are on the prowl. If we wanted to return home without teeth marks, we'd need an RV.
And so it was that we ended up flying across the continent, touching down after midnight in Anchorage, and taking a taxi to the RV rental agency, where our 21-foot Dutchmen Express motor home was ready for us and our five duffels.
By 8 a.m., after I've filled every drawer, shelf, and closet, everything fits! We head to our RV orientation and meet Sandi, who breezes through the contract and all sorts of technical mumbo jumbo. Ominous words like propane, waste tank, and generator hang in the air. "Pay attention," I snap at Amyas, who is snatching up pre-owned salt, pepper, and pancake mix left by RV'ers who've come and gone.
We all return to the mother ship, which looks quite compact next to the 30-foot rigs parked alongside it, yet alarmingly large compared to our Volvo back home. Sandi runs through which hose connects to which tank and how to check the water level. But I'm already suffering from information overload.
"Any questions?" she asks.
I have dozens of questions. But at the moment I can't string them into sentences. I decide to mention that the agency forgot to leave us toilet paper the previous night.
"Oops. Sorry. Have a great trip!"
Amyas hoists himself into the driver's seat; I slide in next to him while Saskia buckles up at the table and Tamzen claims a bench. He may be an art dealer back home, but Amyas handles the wheel like a trucker on the Anchorage-to-Boise route. I feel vaguely embarrassed to be seen in this giant appliance. Not the girls. "Our RV rocks!" erupts from the back. After a stop at an Alaska-scaled supermarket—aisles the length of a city block, Honda Civic-sized shopping carts—we hit the road.
Our route today will take us north to the town of Talkeetna, at the confluence of the Talkeetna and Susitna rivers, about halfway to Denali. Instead of heading straight there on the George Parks Highway, we decide to heed the advice in our guidebook and detour over scenic Hatcher Pass. Once we start barreling down Glenn Highway toward the turnoff, we get our first lesson in RV basics: Always batten down the hatches. Driving more than 20 miles per hour in an RV is akin to encountering air turbulence in a plane. Contents will not only shift, but fly off counters and out of cabinets, especially on unpaved roads.