Newsletters  | Mobile

The Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks, AK

Then again, Alaska is like that, especially up here in "the interior" around Fairbanks, where men are men and women are women, not like down in effete Anchorage, 360 miles to the south, which many of this town's 30,000 residents refer to as "Los Anchorage." Fairbanks was founded by one E. T. Barnette, a prospecting entrepreneur whose steamship ran aground here in 1901; incongruously, he named the town after Charles W. Fairbanks, a Republican senator from Indiana he admired. Barnette became the rough-hewn settlement's first mayor as well as the president of the Washington-Alaska Bank. The fact that he was later discovered to have embezzlednearly $1 million in bank funds has not stopped the locals from honoring his memory with a large downtown statue and the annual E. T. Barnette Homebrew beer-tasting contest.

Fairbanks has never been for the casual tourist or the faint of heart. Over the years the town has experienced a number of precipitous ups and downs, commencing with the Alaskan gold rush, which reached a frenzy after pay dirt was hit in the Chena River Valley in 1902. Ten thousand headed north hoping to get rich. Some did; others wound up eating their shoes like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. The storied individualism of the Klondike days is wonderfully recaptured in the Fairbanks Community Museum in the Historic City Hall.

It would take the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, built in the mid seventies following the national trauma of the Arab oil embargo, to bring back Fairbanks's boomtown vibe. Eight hundred miles of 48-inch-wide pipe wending southward over three mountain ranges and hundreds of rivers, the pipeline remains one of the single largest privately funded construction projects ever, once employing 70,000 welders, pipe fitters, road graders, and more. With plenty of time to kill and money to burn, this thirsty, horny, stir-crazy throng often wound up in Fairbanks, the pipeline's top R&R stop.

In 1976, a three-block stroll along Second Avenue, then known as "2 Street," would turn up as many as 25 drinking and whoring establishments, including the Chena Bar, Tommy's Elbow Room, Mecca, Top of the Pole, the Flame, Stampede, the French Quarter, and Ken's Pipeline Bar. This was when Lacey Street was called Racy Lacey, home to cocaine pushers and pimps, migrants from the Lower 48 who arrived in fur-lined Superfly hats and tooled around in snow tire-equipped Eldorados. Violence was commonplace in the bars, especially when disputes broke out between backers of competing prostitutes.

Fairbanks is a quieter, almost normal, Midwestern-seeming place these days, locals allow, with a pride not untinged with nostalgic yearning. Stories abound involving 250-pound purblind pipe riggers stumbling down Cushman Street with sawed-off shotguns. If they were drunk and you were moving, errant target practice commenced. On Friday and Saturday nights, it wasn't enough for locals to lock up their daughters—no moose or elk was safe either. No one exactly misses those days, but anyone willing to move to a place like Fairbanks tends to have a kind of flexible attitude when it comes to public mayhem. Everywhere you go people talk of other eras, "before statehood," "before oil,"as if recalling a primal, Edenist, unstandardized time predating the invention of the shopping mall.

Fairbanks is known as a conservative town, but there does seem to be a dichotomy in its political perspective. For every pickup churning along the gravel road in front of you with an IF YOU CAN'T MINE IT OR KILL IT I DON'T NEED IT bumper sticker, there's at least one other plastered with a Green Party "Treehugger" tag. Agreement exists across the board on one major issue, however. All of the locals—from the lapsed hippie to the Second Amendment die-hard with a $30,000 gun collection in a $20,000 double-wide trailer—say they moved up here from Idaho/Montana/Washington State (or wherever—take your pick) because things just got "too crowded" down there. For many, Fairbanks, with its central heating and occasional stoplight, is the end of the line. As far as can be gone. Go beyond here and you risk becoming the subject of the next Jon Krakauer book. That's why, for these independent spirits, every time a Home Depot or another row of tract houses goes up, it's like a little knife in the heart.

Singular in space (it is the northernmost metropolis in the country), Fairbanks is equally unique in time. It couldn't fail to be, with only 6 hours and 14 minutes of daylight on the agenda for today (up from 3 hours and 42 minutes on December 21, headed for 21 hours, 47 minutes on June 21, when the Alaska Goldpanners, 2003 champions of the Alaska Baseball League, home team to Tom Seaver in 1964 and Bobby Bonds in 1983, play their traditional midnight game). The day-to-day weather's kind of screwy, too. Yesterday it was 26 below, a nice rebound from last week's 35 below, but nothing like today, when it's 42 above. This is driving everyone crazy. Winter warmness slicks up the roads, leading to spinouts and fender benders up and down the Johansen Expressway.

This temperature vertigo is playing havoc with the betting on the Nenana Ice Classic. To play you have to write down the exact date and time the ice will break up on Tanana River, as recorded by a clock affixed to a tripod, which is in turn embedded into the middle of the frozen waterway. When the ice splits, the tripod falls over and the clock stops, and that's the winning time. There is extensive statewide TV coverage to prevent cheating. Last year the ice cracked on April 24. Personally, I am holding two $2.50 chances for May 12, my birthday. The date hasn't been a winner since 1962, but I still fully expect to pocket the $300,000-plus prize.

While waiting for the ice to break, many Fairbankers go shopping. One can spend happy hours picking through the guitars and eight-track tapes at the massive 2 Dice Pawn Shop (where a human skeleton hanging from the ceiling bears the sign ASK ME ABOUT SHOPLIFTING) or looking for boots at Big Ray's emporium on Second Avenue. The deeply nuanced selection at Big Ray's goes far beyond the ordinary. Cold feet and the prevention thereof is an obsession here. Walking wide-eyed up and down the well-worn aisles of Big Ray's reveals hundreds of "good to 50 degrees below" offerings from specialized brands, to say nothing of the plethora of honeycombed rubber "bunny boots" favored by outdoor oil workers, or the full line of canvas mukluks, which traditionally come in politically correct muskrat, deerskin, raccoon, coyote, and timber wolf (Native Americans are given wide dispensation in regard to hunting rights).

Fairbanks is not known as a major winter sports capital but it does have its specialties. Today the town is abuzz with talk of the annual Yukon Quest, the area's premier dog-team race, which will step off this weekend for the 1,000-mile run toWhitehorse, Canada. Less well knownthan the big-ticket Iditarod from Anchorage to Nome, the Quest is believed by many to be the tougher race, owing to the rugged and isolated terrain. This evening, as part of a race promo, fans are invited to the giant Cold Spot Feeds store to "meet the mushers." About a hundred people have shown up to share free root beer and pizza amid the 50-pound sacks of dog food while getting the autographs of the sled drivers. The self-declared "Mushing Capital of the World," Fairbanks treasures its famous breeders and racers. Four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher and the great Herbie Nayokpuk, known as the Shishmaref Cannonball, could not be more revered if they were Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm combined.


Sign Up

Connect With Travel + Leisure
  • Travel+Leisure
  • Tablet
  • Available devices

Already a subscriber?
Get FREE ACCESS to the digital edition