We begin our final full day in Alaska with an excellent breakfast at the Mat-Su Family Restaurant in Wasilla, a pleasant but otherwise unremarkable place, save for the fact that we realise it’s the first real diner we’ve encountered in a little over three weeks on the road. By ‘real’ I mean the style automatically associated with the notion of an American diner: a choice of tables, booths or swivel stools up at the counter; uniformed waitresses busying themselves with refills of coffee; and a coronary-inducing plate full of bacon, eggs, hash browns and blueberry pancakes drizzled in maple syrup. Skip the hash browns and that sounds perfect to me.
The risk of starvation allayed for the next 4 or 5 hours, we head east to Palmer and, 20 minutes later, pull up outside the grounds of the Alaska State Fair.
We have happened upon a number of fairs over the years – two of the most memorable being the Northeast Montana Fair & PRCA Rodeo in Glasgow, MT and the Otero County Fair & Rodeo in Alamogordo, NM – and will happily spend as much time as there is available wandering from hall to hall admiring everything from the livestock and vegetables to traditional crafts such as pie-making and quilting, with blue, red, and white rosettes indicating the results of the judging.
This will be our first fully fledged State Fair and has been one of the most eagerly anticipated days of our trip, and, as we’re booked into a Palmer hotel tonight, there’s absolutely no pressure on time (something of a rarity on road trips).
Having reserved our tickets months ahead, we skip the long lines waiting to pay and enter a gloriously bright, brash and colourful world of fairground attractions, food stalls, and farm displays.
The challenge for the first timer is visualising the overall site layout and working out which alley to walk down first but we overcome this hurdle by choosing one at random and immersing ourselves in the whole experience.
To the left there’s a lumberjack competition in progress, partisan crowds cheering on their friends and neighbours; further on there’s a tent housing dozens of aquariums and vivariums containing lizards, snakes and other reptiles. There’s a large hall dedicated to displays and demonstrations of arts and crafts and another for baked goods and other culinary disciplines. Towards the centre of the showground is the main hall where, when we arrive, smartly dressed children are attempting to guide reluctant pigs around a ring of chaos in front of impassive judges.
This is also the location of Alaska State Fair’s famous giant vegetable competition, a tradition take goes back to 1941 when a prize of $25 was offered for the largest cabbage. The winning entry that year, grown by one Max Sherrod, weighed in at 23 pounds. In 2012, Palmer grower Scott Robb set a new world record with his 138.25-pound entry (an honour previously held by Wasilla’s Steve Hubacek, whose 2009 record breaker weighed in at 127 pounds). Today the prize is $1000.
The cabbage and pumpkins (current state record: 2,051 pounds) are the headline-grabbers of the crop competitions but are just two in literally hundreds of categories. There are 20 plus separate ‘Divisions’ ranging from Outdoor Grown Vegetables to Poisonous and Edible Mushrooms, and each Division breaks down into a host of separate and very specific Classes: Fleshy annual mushrooms with tubes or pores; Chokecherry, no debris, 10 clusters; Sheaf grains – mature, named variety, 2½” – 3½” diameter at neck, trimmed.
Outside, hundreds of stalls, tents and marquees line the alleys offering anything and everything you can imagine: clothes, carvings, stained glass, leather goods, surf boards, automobilia, toys, hot tubs, earth movers, antiques, RVs, military careers, boots, candles, pony rides, hats, pet items, equestrian goods, and more.
But one category dominates, food. Becky’s Original Kettle Korn, Friar Tuck’s Roasted Zucchini, Rocky’s Killer Shrimp, Rae’s Gourmet Tamales, Alaskan Soda Jerk, Alaska Crab Cakes, Fresh Alaskan Oysters, Rollin’ Donut, Aunt Linda’s Original Pennsylvania Dutch Fennel Cakes, Granny’s Curly Fries, Burger Palace. On and on they go. Given this unbridled choice I’m still not sure how we end up choosing a singularly dull salmon flatbread concoction.
Our afternoon follows much the same pattern as the morning. We wander up and down the alleys, pausing here and there to rid ourselves of cash. I buy a 1977 Alaska licence plate and a hat made out of buffalo hair, Carole buys some presents for home. And as the time to leave approaches, we accept that you can’t do the Alaska Stare Fair justice in just one day.
Our lodging tonight, the Colony Inn, is a little odd in that you check in and get your room keys at a different hotel entirely: there are no staff at the hotel itself. But it’s comfortable enough, directly opposite the Palmer City Alehouse (44 beers on tap, reasonable pub food), and comes with an interesting backstory.
As part of FDR’s New Deal program, 200 families were ‘shipped in’ from the drought-stricken Midwest to form a farming community in Palmer. Known as the Matanuska Colony project, this endeavour also required the establishment of the infrastructure necessary to support such a community and our hotel began life as the teachers’ dormitory.
And that’s it really, the end of another American Adventure. Except it isn’t of course. Today’s Wednesday, we fly home tomorrow via Reykjavik and won’t actually be back in the UK until Friday. But we’ve reached that point when maps, gifts, tripods and everything else that has littered our Jeep’s rear foot well for the last three weeks has to be packed away or disposed of, luggage weighed, and flight details retrieved.
We arrived in Alaska without too many preconceptions, and were initially surprised how little it – or at least Anchorage – differs from the rest of the US in terms of stores, traffic volume and suchlike. But we left appreciating that it really is a very different place. The scale and majesty of its landscape is unsurpassed of course, and nowhere else can you virtually guarantee to see grizzlies in their natural habitat if you know where to look. But it’s the feeling of genuinely being in frontier country that sets it apart, the rough and ready roadhouses rather than diners; the request stop train; the highways only accessible to 4WD vehicles; the number of people choosing to live off-grid. And this was all without setting foot in the State’s more remote regions.
We’ve come to the end of another adventure, one of our most exciting to date and one that neither of us were really sure we’d get around to doing. I’m so glad we did. Our memories of and affection for America’s 49th state will live with us forever.