"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hard Rock Dreams and Dreamers

I'm a dreamer. I'm a dreamer in every sense of the word, but especially a night-time dreamer.

My dreams are vivid in color, texture and content. Sometimes they scare me, fraught with every negative emotion known to humans that they are. Sometimes they amuse me, sometimes they comfort me, and sometimes they lead to endless confusion and uncertainty--like the story I'm going to tell you now.

For years I've had a memory of being a frightened passenger in a vehicle struggling through snow along a steep, narrow, winding road, climbing higher and higher in the mountains, and wishing I was the driver. The next two memories in this particular circumstance are of climbing a narrow wooden staircase to the second floor of a very old building, and of opening the door to a room holding a narrow cot. The next blurry slide is of a small room where food was offered for sale. Then, snow, a rope tow, and skis.

That's all. I never remembered who the driver was or whether or not I actually skied there, yet a insubstantial thought of poor snow conditions struggles to rise from the inkiness of forgotten memories.

Then a few years ago I was reading through some letters I'd written in 1965, and came across a brief mention of a friend named Bill inviting me to go skiing at Independence Mine on a particular weekend.

Since then I've been trying to remember if I did. Was that long ago trip the nucleus of my memories? Did I go? Or was the outing canceled and I just dreamed I'd gone? Could that feeling of fear I remembered as the driver tried to keep the car from plunging over the steep mountainside be real, or a dream memory?

And what about that bunkhouse, the stairs, the room with a narrow cot? What about the other fleeting images? Is my brain making them up to fill in the spaces between the stronger ones?

When I woke up in the bed of my pickup after cruising around the Alaska State Fair a couple weeks ago, a soft rain--more like mist--was falling. I packed up and headed north from the fairgrounds. I pulled into a gas station and topped off the tank, and drove north again.

Some miles later I made a left turn onto Hatcher Pass road. I was heading for Independence Mine, a place I know I haven't been since 1965--if I ever did go there to begin with. Soon I reached the Little Su river (Little Susitna).

And some signs about Hatcher Pass.

The road narrowed and began to climb into the mountains. I passed several bikers, in-line skaters, and their escort car. I think these were high school athletes in training.

Higher and higher I climbed, looking down on the switch-backed road and the Little Su far below.

Then, nearing the four thousand foot level, I reached the parking lot of the mine, which is now part of the Alaska State Park system.

Well, I thought, there it is--the bunkhouse I remembered. Or did I? Had I simply seen photos of the mine and incorporated them into my dreams?

I climbed the steps of the bunkhouse, the building with the red railings. All the doors were locked, but I was able to see through one window what appeared to be a small meeting room. That's when another memory surfaced--one of ordering food in this very small room.

I walked around the grounds, waiting for the Main House to open at 1 o'clock. I had some questions I wanted to ask. Finally I saw lights on and went inside.

That's gold in that ore.

The young woman at the counter couldn't answer my questions. "It's only been part of the state park system since 1989," she said. "I don't know anything about what was here in 1965."

Eventually I back-tracked out of the parking area and towards this road.

But first, I stopped at Hatcher Pass Lodge. I thought maybe someone here would know.

I placed an order for a turkey sandwich to go and wandered around the cafe. I asked a young woman if there had been a rope tow at the mine in the 1960s. She didn't know, and mentioned that Hap, the owner, had just left.

"Hap," I said. "Hap Wurlitzer?" She answered yes. I laughed. Hap is someone I know only in that I know who he is. I doubt he'd recognize my name, but his has long been associated with the skiing world in Alaska.

And then the lady who was preparing my order came out of the kitchen and led me down a long hallway. She pointed at the following picture.

And there it was--the rope tow in my dreams.

Out in the dining room was another picture, one showing the current metamorphosis of the area--cross-country skiing.

When my sandwich was ready, I went out to my truck and headed for the Hatcher Pass road just down the road.

I opened the lunch box. Well, REAL turkey. That's something I haven't seen from a restaurant since I sold my own place in 1996.

The turn off. This is substantially steeper than it looks in this picture. I wish I'd stopped and taken a picture of the road conditions after the turnoff, but I thought keeping the truck moving with both hands on the steering wheel was the better idea. Suffice it to say, I did a lot of boulder-dodging, and I do mean BOULDER.

No, there are no guard rails on this road.

Driving conditions.

On and on I drove, usually at ten to fifteen miles an hour. The scenery was spectacular. The mist and rain set the perfect ambiance for my dream/memories. I knew I'd never been over this section of the road, and I still wasn't sure about the mine part.

An operating mine.

A beaver lodge in a small pond on the tundra.

A closer view of the lodge and dam.

I drove on and one through misty mountains and tundra.
Then suddenly, in the space of one switch-back, I was back down below the timberline.

The rest of the drive was boring. There were lots of moose hunters parked and camped at various places along the road. Eventually I reached the Parks highway intersection in Willow, turned left and headed south--back through Wasilla (Sarah Palin's home town) and on towards Anchorage.

I thought about the journey I'd just made. My memories, or dream memories, of skiing at Independence Mine matched the weather--shrouded in mist. I still don't know if I ever went there, or simply lived that adventure in a dream.

(I leave today --Monday--on the first leg of my trip to China and Tibet, and don't have time to do justice to a story of the mine, so I'll post the following photos of informational signs. If you're interested in knowing more, click on the pix to enlarge them so you can read them. Or, Google Independence Mine.)

This sign is placed where you can identify, by comparing the photo with the terrain, the very spot on the mountain where the first gold discovery was made.

Invoice for movie rentals from Columbia pictures.


  1. We checked out the mine in 1985, when it was still a work in progress and only a couple of buildings were renovated. Our main objective that day was Rick doing some gold panning with a friend in a very small creek that runs down the north(?) side of the pass. He found a few minute pieces, placed them in a 1" bottle and carried it in his pocket for years. I still have it.

  2. We just took that back road from the mine to Willow this summer. My sister and her husband just went yesterday! It is a really neat trip. And long! A lot longer that I thought it was when we first took off.
    Wow, China and Tibet... take lots of pictures and have fun!

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