Alaska’s “Piano Keys” Mountains

When my children were three and five, they stood with their friend Roan and gazed across the Tanana Valley towards the Alaska Range Mountains in the distance. It was a clear October day and the air was crisp. The tundra had turned shades of rust and ochre. Clearly visible, just below the serrated, snow-covered peaks of the mountains were the “piano keys.”

The alternating black and white streaks were left by the effects of geological striation. They looked like a perfect keyboard. “A giant plays the piano on them,” Roan explained earnestly. Yanni and Helen, unblinking, nodded solemnly. Her words carried weight. She was, after all, their senior by all of three months. 

In the blink of an eye all three grew up and traveled south beyond those mountains to the lower 48 States. They parted from their juvenile games and went in different directions to start college, kindled by what life could teach them. They could not have known what a strange and unfamiliar world they would encounter soon after. Just as they had settled themselves into an academic routine, made new friends and found a foothold in their life away from home, a pandemic swept through the world. It rapidly took over, infecting and sickening and killing. It swiftly replaced their bucolic college existence with a bizarre world of strict rules and regulations. 

At first, the measures sounded reasonable. By adhering to them, the pandemic could be suppressed more quickly. Thus, they abided by a “de-densified” campus, with a portion of the student population asked to remain away until Spring so that single rooms could be granted to those in residence. They would get used to campus pathways that were eerily still. They could grow accustomed to hybrid classes, which often consisted of solitary learning on a computer, interactions limited to a band of faces peering at them in zoom classes. They would familiarize themselves with libraries and lounges and gathering spots that were stripped of furniture to discourage mingling. One-way hallways and plexiglass partitions and virus testing stations could be accommodated. They would even sign “contracts” to minimize contact with others and promise not to gather secretively in their dorm rooms.

In time, it became clear that the situation remained upended. Infections were swelling. Deaths were escalating. Marches and riots were organized because of politics and police protests and pointed fingers. People were edgy and nerves high-strung. Even on campus, the “covid police” patrolled the crisscrossed paths, taking photos to report noncompliance and non-mask wearing students.

What was happening to the world?

It is the stuff that strange fairy tales are made of. The stories of our youth took place in distant, fantastic, make-believe lands. Only now we find ourselves in the midst of one. We used to listen, from a safe distance, to far-fetched tales that were tinged with danger and peril: stories about escaping witches in dark forests and harmful potions and fire-breathing dragons. Now we have become the protagonists of the tale.

Maybe it is time to use the fairy tales to our advantage. We can embrace again the appeal of those childhood stories. They always included a moral lesson. Obstacles were overcome by hard work. Generosity and kindness were rewarded. Good triumphed over evil. Like the heroes of our tales, we are capable of reflecting and adapting and being present for others. Together we can conquer our plight, steer towards a “happily ever after” and trust that the world will be well again.

Just like a trio of kids who, many years ago, believed in giants playing sonatas from the mountaintops in a great symphony for the world to hear.

Ice Road Truck Stop

Not many miles north of Fairbanks, the edge of the Alaskan frontier town gives way to an open expanse of wilderness.  At its furthest reach, just beyond its fringes, one still comes across Fox, originally the site of a mining camp, a small settlement on the banks of Fox Creek.  It consists of a collection of homes, a general store/gas station, and a spring that provides potable water, claimed by locals to be the best water source in the interior.  It can be driven through in the blink of an eye.  Somewhat unexpectantly, it houses several well acclaimed eateries – the Howling Dog Saloon, the Silver Gulch Brewery, the Turtle Club – popular with Fairbanksans and locals alike.  Beyond these, however, the road twists off into a vast, mostly uninhabitated hinterland.

It is that emptiness of space that draws Nick and me to drive on.  The temperature has, for the first time this year, dropped below zero. It is a Sunday afternoon excursion, spurred on by a little time on our hands and a desire for deep vistas. The last snowfall has left the north facing hills frosted in white.  Spruces and birch trees line the road in different shades of grey.  The road has crusted over with ice and crunches beneath our snow tires.

We come to the Hilltop Truck Stop, famous, we heard, for its homemade pies.  We stop and park next to three trailer-tractors, enormous trucks, idling for now, until their drivers commence the fifteen-hour drive up the North Slope Haul Road, as they call it.  Inside, the truck stop resembles most in Alaska:  a counter selling chocolate covered raisins and beef jerky, Alaskan souvenirs, a flyer advertising laundry and shower facilities at Haystack Mountain. Wooden tables and chairs with red plastic seats accommodate a handful of customers, sandwiches and coffee mugs before them.  Behind a vitrine, the pies: Strawberry-Rhubarb, Coconut, Apple, Banana, Fatman.  Nick asks for a piece of each, to take home.


The door opens, letting in a truck driver and a gust of frosty air.  He approaches the diner counter, smiles at the woman behind it.  Acquainted, they fall into conversation.  He looks tired, long journey behind him, after delivering supplies to oil field workers in Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic coast.

I pause to think of it for a moment.  We had not planned a lengthy drive today, but still  considered packing into the trunk of our car extra jackets, boots, flashlights, mittens. What precautions would he have had to take, to embark on a drive that would take him the length of one of the most remote and isolated highways in the world.  A journey that would take him some four hundred miles north, with no gas stations, restaurants, rest stops, hotels or cell phone reception.  Only a gravel road winding north, potholed, heaved by extreme freezing and thawing, through unpopulated treeless alpine tundra, across the Arctic Circle, up and over Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range.  He had probably encountered snowdrifts, or a blizzard, as he drove on, white-knuckled, gripping the steering wheel of his rig.  He would squint beyond the windshield wipers, paralleling the trans-Alaska oil pipeline alongside, his only companion for hours.  He would think about reaching Coldfoot, a tiny settlement midpoint, and be reminded of the fact that it got its name, when travelers, approaching the oncoming winter, got “cold feet” and turned back around.  Should he be encouraged by the notion that his destination was named Deadhorse?

Yet he covers the distance, over and over, for reasons of his own.  For a paycheck, most likely.  Or, perhaps, to drive, unencumbered, into a world without edges. To cross the wide Yukon River and to think of its bearing as a major trail river of the north.  To see tors of granite, jutting rock formations caused by weather erosion over years, on an alpine tundra.  To encounter a herd of caribou as they slowly make their way across the road. To find oneself on a line that traces the Arctic circle, where the sun stays above the horizon for a day on the summer solstice, bathing its surroundings in light. Or to return to a truck stop, just shy of home, where the smile of a woman behind the counter tells him it was worth the journey.