The train pulls away from the station and follows the river up the terraced valley into a gorge in the Alaska Range. After it passes out of sight, I look at the wide gravel flats below the depot where the Nenana broadens into braided channels. The wind is picking up. Clouds move down the slopes, throwing shadows across the gravel bars. As the river comes from under a shadow into hard daylight, I can just make out the silty turbulence in each channel, the gray pulsing of arteries flowing north into the Tanana, the Yukon, emptying into an Asian sea.
The baggageman had set my pack at the end of the platform. Shouldering it, I walk from the depot, pass the Healy Hotel and head down the road out of town. A dog begins to bark, the only sound except for the wind. My thoughts are on another time.
We were new to the country then, and to each other. With five acres staked out on Panguingue Creek, she and I cut trees that first summer. We peeled their bark and began to fashion a house from the forest. But the cabin took too many summers to complete. When it was done and the door was hung, we had forgotten why we had ever started. Closing the door on the cabin and that life, we quit the country. That was three years ago. It's strange to be back on this road, alone, wondering what remains of that cabin or if it, like our vision, collapsed from the weight of deep snows.
On the highway from Healy, a small coal-mining town some 100 miles southwest of Fairbanks, a young couple stop and place me among their baggage in an already overloaded van. We head north, cresting frost heaves in the pavement as we go.
"In a decade all this will be developed," the driver says with a sweep of his hand along the horizon. "Car washes and trailer parks."
"That's what's happened to Boulder," his wife adds, handing me a beef jerky. "That's why we've come here."
Through the window I can see that nothing has changed: mountains and river and the small breaks in the trees where someone made a start and gave up.
We stop at the turnoff to the Stampede Trail, a mining road running parallel to the outer mountains of the Alaska Range. "Good luck with the fishing," the driver calls as they pull away.
I start walking. The weather has been dry, and the surface of the road is hard, white dust. Among the dwarf willow and blueberry bushes at the side of the road, I spot survey markers. They foretell change. If the state improves the road, anyone will be able to drive a station wag- on and trailer as far as Eight Mile Lake or perhaps even the Savage River. I prefer the road as it is: deeply rutted and entirely washed out in the low sections.
The road dips, and I head off it, following a trail along a ridge crest. The crest affords a glimpse of Panguingue Creek, a thin ribbon glinting sunlight through the canopy of yellow scrub willows that line its banks. The trail descends a razorback ridge, a hand-over-hand, tree-grabbing slide to the valley floor.