Monday, April 20, 2009


When Anchorage appeared on the Spamalot itinerary many moons ago, I never imagined I would be traveling to the 49th state with the Spam-Fam.  It was, of course, one of the stops that I was most interested in, but it was more than a year past the date I originally planned on returning to civilian life in NYC.  Time is a funny thing, though, and on Monday, April 13th I found myself boarding a plane bound for Anchorage!

The flight was a marathon - I left from Newark  and arrived in Anchorage 13 hours later after a brief stop in Seattle.  The time on the airplane was not as terrible as I had feared it might be and as soon as I disembarked, it was clear that the long trip had been worth it.  The Anchorage airport greeted me with all kinds of stuffed and mounted wildlife (including the largest halibut ever reeled in by an angler).  Outside, the Chugach mountains soared over the horizon.  Anchorage sits in a bowl in the space between the foot of the Chugach Range and waters of the Cook Inlet - it is a beautiful setting.

Anchorage as seen from the mountains southwest of downtown.  Though it's a city of less than 300,000 people (some 40% of Alaska's total population), the city encompasses nearly 2,000 square miles.  (Buffalo, NY has a roughly equivalent population in only 53 square miles.) The mountain behind the city is known as the Sleeping Lady - her head is on the left.

Though my flight arrived at 3:30 PM local time, it had been a long day already.  I had only enough energy to collect my rental car, find the house I would be sharing with Paula, Matt and Gurr, and seek out some food.  Right from that first dinner, the food scene in Anchorage impressed me.  David and I went to dinner at the Moose's Tooth Pub and Pizzeria for our first Alaskan meal and were impressed not only by the house-brewed beers, but with the inventive and tasty pizzas.  It was a theme to be repeated throughout the visit - everywhere I ate was tasty and there were delicious microbrews to be found all over town.

Our house was in the foothills rising to the south and west about 9 miles from downtown Anchorage.  It was a beautiful structure with a lot of character and in a pretty setting.  Chris and I had rooms on the ground floor with a sliding glass door off our living room.  The second floor featured a huge living room, dining room, kitchen, laundry room and two decks.  Matt and Paula's bedroom on the third floor overlooked the main living room.  The crowning glory of the house, however, was the cupola on top: it was a small room with windows on all four sides looking out over the stunning vistas that surrounded us.  On clear days, we could see Mount Redoubt erupting in the east and Denali rising in the North.

Our Anchorage house

The view from our living room window - looking east into the Chugach Mountains

Spamalot's home was the Atwood Concert Hall in the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.  The building was weird on the outside; very plain and not obviously a performing arts center.  The Concert Hall's interior, however, was very interesting.  The proscenium arch was designed to look like the setting sun.  The house curtain was variegated stripes of varying shades of orange set off by a pattern of yellow triangles extending outward over the auditorium's light green seats.  The effect was quite striking.  The stage house was large with plenty of space for everyone and everything.  The dressing rooms, however, were more suited to a orchestral set-up than the needs of a broadway show.  There were, essentially, two large rooms for the bulk of the company to share.  The rooms had folding screens that visually separated the space, but couldn't disguise that they were just giant chorus rooms.  The Anchorage local crew was short-staffed making load-in and load-out an extra challenge.   

The Alaska Center for the Performing Arts

The interior of the Atwood Concert Hall

Tuesday morning, on my way to work, it finally happened: I saw a moose!  At the end of my street, as I turned the corner, there was a great big moose in my neighbor's yard eating the shrubbery.  I stopped in the middle of the street and gawked for a couple of minutes as the moose just continued to serenely chew the bushes.  It was super exciting for me to see one of the giant creatures at last.  After a year and half of hoping, I was so happy that I immediately called my wife and both of my parents to give them the good news.  In all, I saw 8 wild moose during my time in Alaska.  They're huge (as tall as 7' at the shoulder and ranging up t0 1,500 pounds) but remarkably awkward looking.  Their long legs make them well suited to wading in ponds for food, but make them gangly looking on solid ground.  Spring was just starting to spring in Alaska, so the moose were also at the their thinnest and perhaps extra awkward looking.

I didn't get a photo of moose #1 - I was too busy gaping - this is actually moose #5.  I walked up on this moose during a hike along the Wolverine Peak Trail.  I came over a small hill and discovered him 15 yards from me grazing on grass that the melting snow left exposed.  We regarded one another for a while and then he went back about his business while I continued around him on the trail, snapping pictures the whole time.  The encounter took my breath away.

I set out to make the most of my time in Alaska.  I said, right from the beginning, that I wanted to have an adventure every day - Anchorage would not be a city where I spent a day hibernating or watching TV.  I could sleep and watch Family Guy once I got back to the lower 48.  I'm happy to report that I succeeded!  I got up and out of the house each and every day and saw as much as I could before showtime.

I kicked off my Alaskan Adventures on Wednesday with a trip north to the Eagle River Nature Center.  I hiked nine miles along and around the Eagle River, exploring the valley it has carved through the mountains.  Part of the trail I hiked is the Historic Iditarod Trail.  In its earliest incarnation, the Iditarod Trail connected Seward to Nome and served as a commercial route for the hauling of freight and mail.  It is along this route, that the prospectors flooded into Alaska for the gold rush in the early part of the century and was also the route followed by relays of 20 teams of mushers to deliver desperately needed diphtheria serum to the residents of Nome in 1925.  Today, the Ititarod Race runs over a similar route, but the exact routing of the race is different from the historic trail.

The scenery in the valley was spectacular

This Dall's Sheep surprised me near the end of my hike.  He was perched on a sheer rock face hundreds of feet above the trail nibbling some unseen greenery.  Dall's Sheep are the only all white mountain goats in the world.  They live their lives on mountains and cliffs to avoid predators.  They normally travel in herds, seeing just a single sheep is unusual.

Thursday, the maestro and I ventured up to the Anchorage Overlook (where I took the photo of Anchorage and the Sleeping Lady I used above) and then drove south toward Whitier.  We stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.  The Conservation Center is home to all manner of native wildlife; some of the creatures are there to be rehabilitated and released into the wild after tragedies, others are part of captive breeding programs and another group were wounded and will live out there days at the center as they cannot be re-released.  We saw black bears, brown bears, two kinds of bison, owls, a porcupine, elk and caribou.  Even though the animals live in pens, the scale of the place is unlike any zoo I've ever been to.  The animals had huge enclosures in keeping with the giant spaces around them.

One of the bison herds framed across their pasture lot and against the mountains.

On our way back toward Anchorage, Ben and I spotted moose #2 & #3 (the moose at the Conservation Center didn't count toward my wild moose count).  They were picking their way along the opposite side of a riverbank from us.  We pulled over and clambered around the snowbanks lining the road trying to get a better view of them.  In the end, they disappeared into the woods before I could get a clearer picture than this:

Friday was the most adventuresome day of the trip to Alaska.  Five of us booked ourselves on a Glacier Snowmobiling Trip.  We met our guide and got outfitted 45 minutes south of Anchorage at the "Great Alaskan Tourist Trap" near Girdwood, Alaska.  Once we had donned appropriate snowmobiling gear, we drove another 10 minutes south where we mounted our snowmachines and rode out into the 5.4 million acre Chugach National Forest.  (The Chugach National Forest is the second largest national forest in the US.)  Our guide, Matt, took us through a long valley and across a frozen lake to the foot of the Spencer Glacier.  Along the way, we passed icebergs trapped in the frozen lake, heard avalanches rumbling down the mountains and forded a stream of meltwater.  

Some photos:

JV, Francesca, DVZ, Ryan, James, Matt (our guide) and Random Girl Who's Name I've Forgotten as we prepared for our adventure.

Riding across the frozen lake at the foot of Spencer Glacier - those are icebergs that calved off the glacier and got trapped in the lake as it froze for the winter.

Jason, DVZ & our snow machines at the foot of the Spencer Glacier.  The glacier is constantly advancing and plowing up the ice of the frozen lake, making the area where the glacier meets the lake ice very dangerous, we're still 20 yards from the glacier itself.

All five of us INSIDE the Spencer Glacier!  We crawled into an ice cave and scooted around with 100' feet of glacial ice above us.  It was amazingly bright inside the cave as the ice was mostly very clear or intensely blue and transmitted light from above and all sides.  It was also quite slippery inside the cave as the spring melt was underway.

Later, we rode up above the glacier.  The Spencer Glacier extends up this valley for some 15 miles!

The whole snowmobiling experience was totally cool.  We spent five hours racing around on our machines.  On the way back, we opened up the throttles and pushed the needles on our speedometers up around 70 MPH.  Matt lead us over some jumps and into some wide banked turns, we all felt like snowmobiling bad-asses.  We paused along the trail home to watch an avalanche come crashing down the near-side of one of the mountains.  As cool as I felt, watching the forces of nature work on such a grand scale was humbling. 

With two shows on Saturday and Sunday, my adventures had to be a little more contained...  Saturday I visited Earthquake Park and learned about the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake.  The earthquake lasted more than 5 minutes and is the largest earthquake in North American history - registering 8.4 on the richter scale.  Areas around Anchorage permanently dropped as much as 10 feet while other parts of the state were raised as much as 30 feet.  It is because of the earthquake that Anchorage became the major port in Alaska: the ports at Valdez and Seward were completely destroyed by the earthquake and subsequent tsunamis, while the Anchorage port was damaged, but operable.

On Sunday, several of us packed into my Explorer and road tripped to Wasilla.  Moose #4 appeared right next to the road and kindly posed for some photographs en route.  While the express purpose of the trip was a comedy photo involving the "Welcome to Wasilla" sign, a little bit of internet detective work lead us right to Governor Palin's house.  While we couldn't get very close to her two story ranch house on Lake Louise, we were able to spot it and take a few pictures with it in the background...

The Palin's house is just over David's right shoulder - I think he made his feelings about Mrs. Palin's political positions clear.

Monday, I was back on the hiking trails.  This time, I set out to conquer the Wolverine Peak Trail.  (It was at the beginning of this hike that I encountered moose #5 and snapped the photo near the beginning of this post.)  The weather was beautiful and as I climbed higher, Mt. Redoubt came into view with her plume of steam and the views of Anchorage were amazing.  It became clear that I wouldn't have time to make the 11 mile round-trip and nearly 3,000 foot climb to the top of the 5,000 foot peak, but I was enjoying my hike. Somewhere along the way, I lost the trail in the snow and found myself scrambling straight up the side of the smaller peak next door.  I kept following in the footsteps of whatever lost treker had gone before me until I was at the top of this lesser mountain.  I was still pretty impressed with myself, though I don't even know the name of the peak I eventually stood on...

I teamed up with our Wardrobe supervisor, Wayne, on Tuesday and we set out to see the tallest peak in North America: Denali.  We drove north into Denali State Park and clambered around in the snow at several unplowed viewpoints. Often we punched through the snow's crust and found ourselves up to our waists, laughing as we tried to see the mountain in the distance.  (Denali State park offers some of the best views of Denali - or Mt. McKinley as it is also known - because the Susitna River wends through the park and opens up the vista toward the mountain which is some 50 miles distant.)  Our efforts were rewarded with good views of Denali towering above the rest of the Alaskan Range.  At 20,320', Denali is noticeably taller than any of the other very tall mountains around it.  In fact, Denali is so tall that it creates its own weather; 70% of the time, Denali's peak is invisible due to the clouds it creates from the moisture coming off the Pacific Ocean.  We were quite lucky, though there were wispy clouds around her top, we were able to clearly see the mountain.  We also spotted several bald eagles on our trip!

Wayne with the Susitna River and Denali behind him


On our trip we also stopped in Talkeetna, Alaska for souvenirs and a different, equally wonderful, view of Denali.  Talkeetna is rumored to be the inspiration for Sicily, Alaska the fictional town in Northern Exposure.  I looked around hoping to glimpse Chris in the Morning, but it was not to be...

I hiked some more on Wednesday.  The warming temperatures made the Middle Fork Trail a bit muddy and slowed me down quite a bit, but it was interesting to see the difference in the landscape, and especially in the river that flowed near the trail, that even just a few days of warmer weather made.  At the lower elevations, nearly all the snow melted off during our 12 days in Anchorage, and the snows in the foothills around town were obviously vanishing as well.  During our stay, Anchorage was also gaining daylight at a rate of more than 5 minutes a day!  By the end of our run, it was still quite light outside after our show.  Francesca got some great pictures of the sun setting over the Cook Inlet and behind The Sleeping Lady after the show on Tuesday evening - at nearly 10PM.

Thursday was my last real free day in Alaska.  Wayne and Karl joined me for the trip down to the Alyeska Ski resort in Girdwood.  Though the slopes were still open, we went specifically for the tram ride to the top of Mt. Alyeska and the view.  On the car ride down, we caught sight of moose #6 & 7 in Potter's Marsh and a whole herd of Dall's Sheep on the mountain-side near Beluga Point.

The Alyeska tram carried us to the 2,300' level of Mt. Alyeska in about 7 minutes.

The view from the top of Mt. Alyeska with the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet and the Chugach Mountains behind me.

Alaska's name is actually derived from the Aleut (the native people of the Aleutian Islands in southwestern Alaska) word Alyeska meaning "great land".  The developers of the ski resort took the name in the early 1960's.

I saw my last moose (moose #8) on my way home from a night out on Thursday.  The moose was crossing the road very near to our rental house.  Just taking his time, out for a late night stroll.  The car coming the opposite way hardly even slowed as I watched the moose disappear into the woods.

On Friday morning I, reluctantly, packed up my suitcases before heading into town.  I enjoyed one last "crabby omelet" (yup, an omelet filled with cheese and Alaskan crab meat, topped with avocado) at the fabulous Snow City Cafe before I visited the Ulu Factory with Wayne and Ken.  An ulu is the curved knife the native people of Alaska used for practically everything (including cutting ice for igloos).  Today, it's the must-have souvenir from an Alaskan visit (I didn't feel the need, but our group shipped several ulus back to the lower 48).  Then I prowled around the docks and railyards taking photos of the Alaskan Railroad trains.  Next time I'm in Alaska, I definitely want to make sure I book myself on one of their trains through the interior.

After the show on Friday night, it was time to return my rental car and head to the airport.  As the last light faded from the sky, I headed in to wait with the world's largest halibut for the red-eye flight to Salt Lake City and a connection to JFK.  

I had a great time in Anchorage and feel truly lucky that my job afforded me the opportunity to visit and gave me the free time to explore.  It's a crazy thing that I've been doing for the last two years and two months.  One morning I wake up in Peoria and the next I'm on top of a mountain in Alaska. There are, of course, sacrifices and trade-offs, but the trip to Alaska was one of the highlights of the tour thus far.

Near the theatre in Anchorage there were these crazy statues that were half-man, half-animal - this one, of course, caught my eye. 


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Life on Tour

A couple of Spamalot cast members made it into an article in the Washington Post over the weekend!

I've linked the article, about life and lodgings on the road, here.

As for me, I'm home in NYC for a week on lay-off while the trucks are shipped to Alaska.  Of course, the week is full of dates with friends, and a few quiet nights at home, but I'm going to try and get the blog caught up with posts about the last four stops: Austin, Atlanta, Wilmington and Cleveland.  The farther behind I let this project fall, the harder it is to get caught up...


Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Go State, Beat the Huskies!