The 5 counties collected in 2011 are brown. (look carefully)
Only five counties this year. Sounds like a bad year: the previous low since I started keeping track (1987) was 25, two decades ago. But I'm completely satisfied with it, since it means ALASKA AND HAWAI`I ARE DONE!
Two trips, one that lasted about a week and one that demanded one day of a family vacation, allowed me to complete the two most distant states. These five were undoubtedly the most costly counties of all, both in terms of travel expenses and time spent getting to them, which is yet another reason to celebrate their capture. But most of all, I'm elated that the map of remaining counties shows all of them concentrated in five contiguous states, which could mean that 2012 will see the end of this journey, God willing.
Individual trips are detailed below.
September 1-8, 2011 (3010)
The four boroughs collected are brown.
It's done. As far as I'm concerned, there's no reason to go back. I mean, the state is beautiful and there's lots to see there that's unlike anything you'll find anywhere else in the country, but it's in the past now. Every borough has been conquered.
I need to start with that statement because there are some in the county-collecting community who will look at my list--18 boroughs plus one unorganized territory, done--and beg to differ. "What about Wade-Hampton, Bethel, Hoonah-Angoon..." they'll start out, mentally comparing my map to the one with more boundaries that they've been using. These people are entitled to their opinion, of course, but it's based on a fallacy. Alaska has only eighteen county-equivalents, not twenty-nine. Boroughs (and consolidated city-boroughs like Anchorage and Juneau) have a local government unit, have a borough seat, and are recognized as such by the Alaska state government. Outside of those exists an "unorganized borough" with no local government other than a few small cities and villages. Other names on the map, collectively known as "Census Areas", are simply the creations of government statisticians who saw the Unorganized Borough as too unweildy or diverse for demographic analysis and arbitrarily divided it up into about a dozen more manageable units. These "Census Areas" don't serve any government function, and have been redrawn occasionally by D.C. bean-counters to fit their own purposes. So although a visit out to some random island west of Aleutians East Borough may be interesting, to me it's not worth the effort. I traversed the Unorganized Borough multiple times when I've visited the state, and even though I didn't happen to reach every part of it, I did manage to visit Nome, Delta Junction, Copper River, and plenty of completely rural locations. So, in summary: DONE.
Besides the "it's not a county" reasoning, there's also the "Alaska costs lots of money" and "travelling to Alaska is unpredictable" arguments going against further travel. This trip certainly proved that. After I'd made my general itinerary and was working on reservations, I discovered that flights to Sand Point--seat of Aleutians East Borough--were notoriously iffy. The operator of a bed-and-breakfast referral service who had helped me before--Alaska Private Lodgings--expressed concern that I was planning on flying in on one day and getting on the AMHS Ferry the next. "There are a lot of cancellations," she said of the flights. "You should really think about staying a few days to make sure you don't miss your sailing." Now, she may have just been helping out her clients by trying to upsell travellers, but when I touched down at the airport I could see that she had a point. The runway is very short, and hemmed in by water and mountains on three sides. I'm sure they're not prepared for instrument landings, so lousy weather would pretty much guarantee a diverted flight. Fortunately my flight got in on time and I had the luxury of spending an extra day at Sand Point.
One of the problems with that is that there really isn't anything to do in Sand Point. It's a salmon fishing town. Their claim to fame is that they have a salmon cannery. The B & B owner was very happy to take me on a tour of the town, and although it is scenic, and smells like fish (if you happen to like that smell), I couldn't really see any reason to make it a destination. An event was happening while I was there--I think it had something to do with fish, or maybe fishing--so I wandered over to the docks to take it in. The main event for kids was playing on some buoys strung from the ceiling, and for the adults it was a $10 a plate dinner of fish (!), fries, and cole slaw. The crowd seemed to be mostly local. I went to bed early and caught up on sleep I'd missed during the two days of flights to get there.
The AMHS Ferry wasn't scheduled to leave until 9 pm the next day, so my hosts graciously offered me a late check out and even drove me over to the dock. I spent the afternoon watching Top Gear reruns and trying to get the WiFi to work. But I knew from my last trip that, once I was on board the vessel, I could relax and refresh myself on the way to Kodiak Island, about 36 hours away. The boats have WiFi, nice (if spartan) rooms, good food, and outstanding customer service. Since most of my county trips are almost the exact opposite of relaxing, I was really looking forward to this leg. The ferry was unnecessary; I could have simply booked flights back to Anchorage and over to Kodiak, and probably saved a day in the process. But I enjoyed the experience the last time so much that another sailing was imperative.
As I boarded (over an hour later than expected) the bursar explained that they were going a little slow due to a bad storm ahead. She didn't expect that it would delay us getting to Kodiak, but since we were scheduled to dock there at 3 am the day after next, I secretly wished it would, since it didn't seem anyplace there would be open in the middle of the night, and I didn't want to get a room for only a couple of hours before my 8:30 am flight back to Anchorage. First, though, we needed to get to Chignik, where I planned on walking off the ferry just long enough to reach the land at the end of the dock, since, for whatever Alaskan reason, the Lake & Peninsula Borough seat was actually located in King Salmon, a town physically not in Lake & Peninsula Borough. The ferry arrived on time, and I followed the dog-walkers to the road and turned back. The bursar got a weather update and posted the map. There was an intense storm between Chignik and Kodiak, and the low pressure at the center showed as 952 mb. I teach a weather and climate class, and tell the students that air pressure rarely, if ever, gets below around 980 mb, except in storms like hurricanes. Basically, that's what we were following up the coast. The water wasn't warm enough to make it a hurricane, but the winds were bad. Really, really bad. Within an hour of leaving Chignik we were in the open ocean, and swells were beginning. The boat was a-rockin'. It was inadvisable to go outside, and inside most of the people chose to spend their time speculating on our survivial and passing along rumors, allegedly expert opinion, and storm stories. I retreated to my bunk and stayed there for the next 24 hours, rolling left and right over and over, eating nothing so nothing would come back up.
There was no WiFi on this particular vessel, and I couldn't get 3G coverage either, so there was no way to keep informed about the storm's progress (or ours, for that matter). At one point overnight it was obvious that the ferry was stopped, but no one with any knowledge was available, so no one knew the cause: mechanical problems? even bigger waves? panicked crew? Finally, the ETA at Kodiak was revised, from 3 am to 11 am. I got my wish, but it worked too well, it seemed, since that was long after my scheduled departure. Of course, out where we were with no means of communication, I couldn't call my travel agent to see about cancelling and rebooking, so I just reconciled myself to figuring out how to make the rest of the trip happen if I was stuck in Kodiak for an extra day. IF I actually arrived in Kodiak, that is.
We did, of course, but still too late to make the plane. The travel agent managed to secure me a spot on a 4 pm flight, so I spent the day walking the streets of Kodiak, discovering that McDonalds is the same there as it is here except everything costs a dollar more, and hanging out at the airport to take advantage of their free WiFi and outlet to charge my iPad. The flight went smoothly, and I got to Anchorage the day I was supposed to, so I finally got the opportunity to relax, eat an outstanding pizza, and get the last sleep I'd get for a while before my marathon trip home began the next day.
Essentially, that's what the rest of the trip was: four flights home, with a stop in Bristol Bay Borough on the way. The next day a van got me to the airport early to make a 7:30 am flight to King Salmon, which departed and arrived on schedule. The previous night I'd arranged for a taxi to pick me up at the airport and take me to Naknek (the borough seat) and back, and so he found me and we made the round trip in about 45 minutes. Alaska was officially done, but, since I was planning with an eye towards potential pitfalls, I'd scheduled my flight back to Anchorage to leave at 7:30 pm. So I spent the rest of the day chatting with the very pleasant manager of the local NPS visitor center (Katmai National Park is typically accessed via the King Salmon airport), who sold me some books and let me watch a DVD about the treatment of the local Aleut population during WWII (highly recommended if you want to see old people crying, and/or think your government is/was racist, thoughtless, and/or indifferent towards people in need). After the center closed, I walked back next door to the airport to wait for my flight (an hour late, but, whatever) and ponder the whole Alaska experience.
That flight was uneventful, as were the next two, a 1 am to Phoenix and a final leg back to Columbus. I learned that I cannot sleep on planes, even 6 hour flights while under the influence of lots of sleeping pills, and that, while finishing any state is a bittersweet experience, this one definitely leans more towards the sweet.
December 12, 2011 (3011)
See the little brown spot on the island close to the center? Yep, it's that small.
One day, one county, one more state in the complete column.
We'd been planning a family trip to Hawai`i for over a year. When we heard that Disney was opening a resort there, it seemed like the perfect place to go, so we scheduled the trip for December to make sure it was finished and all the bugs had been worked out. I was on break, the kids weren't but could handle missing some school, and the big Christmas-week rush would not happen until near the end. It seemed like everyone would be getting everything they needed out of the trip, so I was granted a day to go out and get that last county, Kalawao, on a remote peninsula of Moloka`i. Monday, the day after we arrived, would be that day.
While everyone slept, I sneaked out at about 4:15 to catch my 5:30 flight. Normally I would want to get to the airport closer to two hours before my scheduled departure, but I figured, this is Hawai`i, right? The "No problem!" state. Nothing operates on a schedule here. Plus, it was just a short island-to-island flight, so, no TSA, just walk to the gate and wait for them to open the door to the tarmac.
First failure: underestimating the distance to the airport. Our resort was at the western end of O`ahu, and the airport was a little east of center, but it's freeway the whole way, and I figured traffic would be light. No, not on this island. There were plenty of cars around--I guess the locals who make us visitors extra comfortable have to put in a few hours before we wake up in order to keep us happy--and, it turns out, that's when it rains. So, I'm in a rental SUV I've driven exactly once before, trying to manipulate the wipers and check my GPS while maintaining something close to 70 mph. Not easy. I don't miss the airport exit, but once I get there, I see absolutely no signs pointing towards the inter-island terminal, which, I recall, is at the far south end of the airport, not anywhere near the main terminal. It is pitch black outside. I drive past all of the guide signs, and, seeing nothing indicating my turn, go back to the beginning and try again. It's 4:45. I follow the only direction for parking I see, and, after finding a memorable spot (and leaving my camera on the seat) I walk to the nearest person who appears to be familiar with the place and ask him if I'm near where I want to be. "No, this is the main terminal. Yours is over there." Great. So I start heading "over there" but, since I'm still so far away, I don't see any signs pointing to it. Eventually I leave the main terminal--it turns out I was at the north end of it-- and arrive at the next one. It's 4:55.
Second failure: not realizing there are more than two terminals. Once inside, I look around for any indication of "Island Air". There is none, only a line to the TSA maze that says "to all gates". A very LONG line. So, I get in line, looking around for any indication that I might be in the right place. Something tells me I'm not, so I jump out of line when I see an employee walk past and ask him. "No, this is the Hawai`ian Airlines terminal. Island Air is over at the commuter terminal." He points over to the left--I hadn't gone far enough south yet. So I take off, running this time, towards the other terminal. I can see it when I get outside, on the other side of the parking lot where I should have parked. It's 5:00 now.
As soon as I get inside, the place is pretty much deserted, except for several people in line at a ticket counter. I already had a boarding pass, and no luggage to check, but that seemed to be the only place with any humans nearby. The only one that wasn't a passenger was working behind the counter very slowly. There were two stations, and he was responsible for people at both: a woman with an infant and about 6 pieces of luggage at one, and a delivery guy with a 5-foot stack of newspapers at the other. I asked the guy in line ahead of me if I needed to stand in line here, or if there was another place to go for boarding, and he just shrugged. My flight was scheduled to leave in 20 minutes--the screen above confirmed that it was "on time"--and I still wasn't positive I was in the right place. Finally, another employee walked by and I asked him where I was supposed to be. "Oh, you're not checking anything? Just go straight to TSA." Another line! I thought. But he just motioned to a darkened entryway to the left. "Here?" I asked, seeing no one. "Yeah, they'll open it in a few minutes. No flights leaving for another 20 minutes or so." And finally I did see people moving around, and turning on the lights. In a few minutes, as promised, someone checked my ID and asked me to remove my shoes. In 10 seconds I was through security, evidently the first, and one of the few, to arrive for my flight.
And a few minutes later, after the plain was wheeled out of the hangar, about a half dozen of us walked out the door and across the tarmac to board. Twenty minutes after that, we touched down in Moloka`i. Considering that something could go wrong, and wanting to minimize the impact, I planned to get there plenty of time before my excursion to Kalawao County began. This is a particularly unusual county: it is the site of a former "leper colony" set up by the pre-American government of Hawai`i to segregate those suffering from what's now called Hansen's Disease from the general population, which was convinced that the disfiguring disease was highly communicable (it isn't). The county is inaccessible by road. There are two ways to get in: a flight directly to the small community, or a long trail down the cliff separating it from "topside" Moloka`i. Although you can hike the trail (with permission from the NPS, which now manages the site as a National Historical Park), many visitors opt to make the trip via mule, provided by >Kalaupapa Rare Adventure. Given that I was going alone, and that I was unlikely to have the opportunity to collect any other counties on the back of a large animal, I naturally chose the mule ride.
That proved to be a very good idea. The trail tends toward "difficult", with lots of rocks, ruts, mud, and mule poop. There are 27 switchbacks (they're posted). Basic improvements, such as concrete lattice steps, are mostly broken and generally doing little to ease mobility. I was very happy that my mule, which had a colorful Hawai`ian name that I forget, was doing the heavy lifting. Six riders and two minders set off a little after 8 am, and took almost two hours to descend. At the base of the cliff, we met with a tour guide who loaded us into an old school bus--which already had passengers who had flown in--and led us on a four hour tour. Highlights were the story of Fr. Damien, who chose to remain with parishoners in the Kalaupapa community rather than hand them off to another young priest (and contracted and died from Hansen's Disease as a consequence); visits to the church, the building where loved ones from Outside could meet with patients (without touching, of course), and the cemetery; and a picnic lunch in a grove of trees overlooking the Pacific. The mules were rested and ready to go, and moved much more quickly up the cliff than they did going down. My taxi was waiting when I returned, and I was back to the airport with plenty of time to catch my flight back to Honolulu. It was a memorable way to finish off Hawai`i, and certainly a great experience with which to end the year.