Saturday, November 04, 2006


OCTOBER 23 - If I said Las Vegas was a woman whose beauty comes from make-up and theatrics, I would say Anchorage is a low-maintenance kind of girl, a natural beauty. We passed over snow-capped mountains flying into Anchorage, which was the first time I’d ever seen snow in my life. The closest I’d ever gotten to snow was to scrape the frost that had formed in the freezer when I was a kid, back when freezers needed to be de-frosted now and again. It was a completely exhilarating experience seeing blankets of white beneath wisps of clouds. From a distance, the snow looked like confectioner’s sugar sprinkled atop chocolate cake. It was splendid.

We were told to expect a late winter, and that there would be no snow in Anchorage. But there certainly was snow, if only from a distance, and it was stunning. The sunlight cascaded onto the mountain tops like a gentle golden blanket that turned the stark white of the snow into luminous champagne. Stepping out of the airport into the cold Anchorage air felt like falling in love. Everything was new and fresh, the air smelled clean and crisp, and my heart was beating with an unusual excitement. Even though Anchorage is worlds apart from where I come from, a country that straddles the equator like a dog straddling a leg, it felt like home. That one of the people from Arctic Adventures hostel who came to fetch us from the airport was Filipina didn’t hurt, either. The air was rather chilly, and the rest of the TJs were completely wrapped in layers of clothing. On the other hand, I opted to brave Alaska’s cold in a shirt and a beanie. I had been waking up daily at 5am in Nevada and exposing myself to the frigid air in order to condition my body for Alaskan weather. I certainly wasn’t immune to the cold, but I felt completely at home in the freezing atmosphere.

The municipality of Anchorage stretches nearly 50 miles from Eklutna to Portage Glacier, covering roughly 2,000 square miles. It’s
roughly the size of Delaware, reputedly being the largest city in the United States. Despite this, however, there are no skyscrapers or extravagant faux monuments that tower over the city. With a view consisting of magnificent mountain ranges, who can blame them? Putting up skyscrapers would be like putting mud on the face of a beautiful girl. Anchorage is very serene, a very laid-back town which doesn’t have the frenetic pace of Las Vegas. It was the polar opposite of a big city with bright lights. It was, in a word, chillax. Chillax means chill and relax. Anchorage was both those things and more.

We are booked at this hostel called Arctic Adventures and the owner, Joseph, gave us a rather good deal for our accommodations. The spaces are somewhat cramped, but for the price we were paying, it was comfortable enough. In fact, despite the limited space afforded us, the whole hostel pretty much outdid our previous one. There was a spacious kitchen with a long and wide counter/bar, a cozy common area with a couch and a couple of rocking chairs, the rooms had mini-refrigerators and televisions, and there was free (if intermittent) Internet throughout the entire building.

The following morning, we had planned on going to this place called Resurrection Bay, where we would be taking a boat ride in the hopes of seeing whales and seals. Joseph, however, mentioned that he was driving up to this place called Hatcher Pass, which was the nearest place where one would see snow, and asked if any of us wanted to join him. I really wanted to experience snow for the first time, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go. Lena and I decided to with Joseph while the rest of the team took the bus to Resurrection Bay.

The ride to the place was gorgeous. The roads were wide and we could see terrific mountain ranges on both sides as we drove to Palmer, a nearby town where we made a short stopover for lunch. We ate at this small diner which was packed with the Sunday crowd, although we managed to get seats fairly easily. Just to take part of the Alaskan experience, I ordered a chili cheeseburger made from Elk meat. Elk is a kind of large deer, more popularly known as a moose, whose meat is low in cholesterol and fat. I might have defeated the purpose of ordering Elk meat as I had my burger slathered in chili, though. I also had bottled water indigenous to Alaska which was bottled in Mt.Mckinley, also known as Denali. It took quite a big chunk of my $50 a day, setting me back about $13 (it was an additional $2.50 for an Elk meat burger patty), but it was worth the money considering this was true Alaskan food. And just like true Alaskan food, it was expensive! A lot of things in Alaska are somewhat more expensive than normal, considering they have to be flown in a good distance from the rest of America.

On the way up to Hatcher Pass, we also swung by a Musk Ox farm. Musk Oxen are arctic mammals noted for their thick coats and, according to Wikipedia (, the males’ strong odor. Joseph mentioned that the Discovery channel also rated the Musk Ox as one of the ten world’s smelliest animals. Sandy, our guide at the farm, however, said the name was a misnomer since they neither had musk glands nor were Oxen, being more closely related to goats. In our encounter with the Musk Ox – we met a young female named Luna (because she was born during the fool moon) and Fat Boy (because he was, well, fat), I certainly didn’t smell anything funny, although Sandy did say the males exuded a strong odor when in heat. It would’ve been an interesting encounter, though, because Musk Oxen in heat compete with other males for harem rights, charging at each other with their large, thick horns. The sound that these animals make when they collide can supposedly be heard from a mile away. Musk Oxen are bred for their inner coat of wool called Qiviut, which is an Inuit word. Qiviut is stronger and eight times warmer than sheep’s wool, and is softer than cashmere or vicuña. Sandy said it was the most expensive wool in the world, and she brought out knit beanies and scarves for us to feel. Although I could tell that the material was soft and warm, my fingers were popsicles at that point since I didn’t wear gloves and couldn’t fully appreciate Qiviut. The inuit native word for the Musk Ox is Oomingmak, or “the bearded one” and it was such an appropriate term as the Musk Ox have long, thick beards that extended past their knees. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Tauren from World of Warcraft, an MMORPG that I play, and was wildly amused. You can find out more about Musk Ox and Qiviut at They have several programs that allow you to contribute to the Oomingmak cooperative. It’s certainly worth looking into as this Alaskan native animal has been around since the wooly mammoths, making it one of the oldest species of mammals on earth.

When we finally made it to Hatcher Pass, I can’t describe to you how wonderfully insane it felt to see and touch snow for the first time. I was told that snow was overrated, but considering I’d never seen snow in my life, I have to say the experience was just crazy. I had promised myself I wouldn’t make any snow angels since it would mean getting wet and subsequently getting cold – catching hypothermia on International television was the last thing on my mind. When I hit the soft, newly-formed snow, however, I lost all inhibitions and frolicked like a kid. I sank, I lay down, I rolled around, and yes, even made snow angels… it was the most fun I’d had in a long time, and I ran short of breath quickly like I’d just sprinted. It was exhilarating. I was surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the sun was peeking ever so slightly from the thick, gray clouds, illuminating everything in a glorious light it was breathtaking. And by breathtaking I mean having to whip out my inhaler.

It wasn’t quite snowboarding season but there were a few people hitting the snow on their boards. Determined to learn how to snowboard, I approached a local named Alvin to teach me. He agreed and we walked up a tiny hill – by tiny I mean ‘small enough for a three-year old to toboggan on’ – where he
strapped me up and let me ride down the slope. I was the equivalent of a grown man being taught how to bike on trainer wheels. But when I finally rode down that small hill it was, for lack of a better word, AWESOME. I fell a couple of times, but thankfully not on my face as I’d predicted. It was actually easier than I thought, and I’m quite confident that if I’d had more time on the slopes, I’d know how to snowboard quite proficiently. It felt natural. It was just such a rush to be sliding down on that board, surrounded by all that snow. I wish I could spend more than a week in Alaska. I’d be hitting Hatcher Pass every day just to snowboard.

Snow tastes terrific. I remember this one scene in Pixar’s Monsters Inc, where the Abominable snowman offers Sully and Mike yellow snow cones and Mike reacts with disgust; the Abominable snowman goes, “it’s lemon!” I don’t think the joke is quite as funny if you haven’t actually seen snow. But one of the first things Tim warned us about snow is to never eat yellow snow… and you probably know why. Well, there was no yellow snow in sight and I stuffed my face with the soft snow, which was granular and fine, melting in my mouth so subtly that all my memories of shaved ice were put to shame. Right now, for me, snow is not overrated. In fact, I might have underestimated it. My excitement at seeing snow was no match for the real thrill of actually touching, even tasting it. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alive. While Lena was freezing, I actually felt quite warm, perhaps from all the adrenaline. It was just something else.

Barely one day into Anchorage, and I have to say I’m in love with the place. The city is like a small town where everyone knows everyone else. The people are so laid back and chillax, I felt right at home. The whole place is quiet and has a calm that you can smell in the air. This was chillaxville, where the people and the weather are cool. It’s my kind of town. With the rest of the week still waiting to unfold, I can tell it’s going to be a blast.


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