Valdez, AK: Road-trip/ Hike
Here’s a piece of advice for hikers that shouldn’t be taken lightly: Do not under any circumstances hike long distances on a gravel road. DO NOT. The highway is not the trail. And no, it’s not easier than the trail.
Yes, it’s flat; yes, the ascents are relatively less steep. Yes, it’s nice not to have to look down every couple of yards for a stump, boulder, sheet of ice, or god forbid, bear. And yes, you can travel faster and you do cover more ground— for a while anyway.
Perhaps I can convince you better by explaining my attempt, failed attempt that is. My boyfriend and I, both experienced hikers, him far more so than I, decided a sixty mile hike down a highway just outside of Valdez would be a venture well within our capacities. Keep in mind that we had been hiking and doing manual labor for over six months so we felt like we were in pretty good shape. We had hiked twenty miles a day on trails (the Smokies, Chilkoot, Caines Head, Granite Creek) and had a pretty easy time of it. That summer we had even managed to hike 15 miles mostly uphill with little water, no food, and a monster hangover.
But once again, I’ll reiterate highway hikes are not trail hikes, and a highway can hurt your body in a way a trail never could. We didn’t know this, and thinking back, I don’t know if knowing it would have ever stopped us. After all, the highway outside of Valdez is not just any highway. It’s one that winds through a maze of rock, water and glacier. There are pitch-black caves just off the shoulders; there are waterfalls you can literally take a shower in. There are times when it looks like someone went through with a paintbrush, splashing an array of color on every hill and plateau as far as you can see. No joke, it is amazing.
But I was reminded on this particular excursion that the body sometimes lacks the aestheticism of the mind. Or perhaps it just ranks searing aches and pains a bit higher than it does a pretty view. Maybe, maybe not. Nevertheless, here’s how it went down.
We were staying at a cabin sixty miles outside of Valdez, and we had made the drive into town several times so we knew just how amazing this highway was. So over a bottle of wine one of the last nights we were there my boyfriend and I made a pact that we would hike instead of hitchhike the road before we ferried out in mid-September. It would be like a last hurrah, a way to say goodbye to Valdez and pump us up before our next adventure.
Perfect, we both thought. However we disagreed a bit on how long it would take.
or at least he could anyway. After all, he was used to this sort of thing. I, on the other hand, was skeptical. No way, I thought, fifteen maybe. That way we would allow ourselves four days to hike to Valdez and then ferry out the next day. We went round and round about it but eventually decided four days was enough time for the hike.
We set out on a Monday around noon; it was a bit later than we intended but we felt we were prepared. We had plenty of water, food, and we had actually abstained from drinking the night before so we were unusually hydrated. But, being a little behind and overconfident, we started booking it. My estimation, judging by the green mile markers on the side of the road, was that we were hiking at least 5 miles an hour. We definitely hiked 10 in less than 3 hours. And the first 10 miles, although a bit speedy, weren’t all that bad. We saw some cool views, smoked a few cigarettes, and even felt a little bit of a rush— I mean we were making pretty good time after all. But after mile 10, the feet started to burn. The back started to ache. (I vividly remember my pack etching deep crevices in my shoulders.)
At mile 13, the act of walking became painfully awkward.
It was like the muscles in my legs took on an immobile horizontal position. The most acute concentration was required in order for my body to bend in any shape or form. I felt like I was a soldier from the Third Reich.
At mile 15, we were literally creeping down the side of the road, and I think I actually thought of crawling a time or two. I was frustrated to the point of tears, and every step was an act of sheer stupid will. I knew and he knew we had to give up— at least for the night. The other um well 45 or so miles would have to wait till morning to even be contemplated. At that particular moment, the morning seemed light years away. We found an abandoned parking lot and camped. We could barely set up tent. We could barely feed ourselves. Needless to say, we passed out before the sun went down.
The next morning we woke up to a tent covered in sheets of ice.
Uh-oh, although it was only September winter in Alaska was definitely riding our heels. Unfortunately, that morning we found we couldn’t move them very fast. No, that’s making us look too good— we couldn’t move them period. That morning we walked two miles at the speed of sloths. Then we caught a ride with an organic gardener and hitched out, yes, in defeat.
Our pride was gone— He had pulled a muscle, and I had a swelling purple bubble protruding from my back. So like the couple of suckers that we were, once we got to Valdez, we headed straight to the bar. Upon entering, the bartender looked at us oddly. “What happened to you,” he said. We ordered two beers and told him the story. Afterwards, he gave us a funny smile.
“Yeah, I’ve tried that. One day I got so angry at my boss I walked straight out of the place and straight onto the highway. I had decided I was going to walk right out of the city.” He sighed. “Didn’t make it very far. Thirteen miles and I was hurting, I mean hurting. I caught a ride back right then and there and begged for my job back. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.”
Needless to say, we felt better.
BY DUFFIE TAYLOR