Home » An LGBTQ Alaska Road Trip

An LGBTQ Alaska Road Trip

The Queer Frontier

by Jason Heidemann
Alaska Road Trip (Photo by Monkey Business Images)

As our road journey continues, in North Pole, Alaska we become a duo of ho ho homosexuals in search of St. Nick.

Alaska Road Trip (Photo by Monkey Business Images)

I’ve never booked a window seat on a flight, but as our plane approaches Alaska my face is practically smooshed against the glass for a bird’s eye views of the landscape below.

As we make our initial descent into Anchorage, I spy the Chugach Mountains in all their braggadocios summer glory. Each peak reveals super steep gradients painted in lush green with brown speckles and topped with dollops of snow-capped white—in July no less! It’s 9 P.M. and the sun is shining with the intensity of a theater floodlight. So much so that the elderly lady in the middle seat castigates me for having the shade pulled open. “It’s too bright!”

Alaska marks the 50th and final state for both me and my traveling companion and photographer friend Ryan. On a 2019 road trip we checked North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho off our list and saved for our grand finale a 4th of July road trip around the Final Frontier—or as I’m calling it—the Queer Frontier. This statewide loop will culminate in an outrageous and unforgettable “only in Alaska” Independence Day blowout that will leave my jaw on the floor.

The first thing I do upon arrival is pull on a sweatshirt that reads: Miles Away. The weather outside is balmy, but cool. Because Anchorage is a coastal city, it rarely gets above 70 degrees, even in summer. A few young airport personnel are milling about near the rental car pickup. One fella who has his hair tied back in a ponytail, is sporting purple shades atop his head, and is swinging around a hot pink water bottle. The first queer sighting of the trip.

Dinali Mountains by the Ocean

Dinali Mountains by the Ocean

“At Last” by Etta James is humming through loudspeakers when we arrive for dinner in downtown Anchorage and it’s a fitting tune considering Alaska has loomed large in both our imaginations for many years.

Club Paris, a legendary steakhouse that opened in the 1950s, boasts wood paneling, cramped booths separated by windowpane dividers, a crescent-shaped marble bar, and an impressive liquor shelf. (Shrouded in total darkness half the year, this is surely a drinking town.) The artwork on the wall offers token nods to the City of Light.

We take a seat at the bar next to an older gentleman who looks like character actor Philip Baker Hall and has a moose band-aid strapped across his nose. I order a Pinot Noir from the Russian River (a gesture to queer California) while our barfly friend, an Alaska native, regales us with stories of wildlife sightings. Moose are so ubiquitous, he proclaims, they’re even spotted downtown, while grizzly bears sometimes walk the nearby coastal trail.

The food is standard steakhouse fare but hits the spot. We spy a guy seated two stools down from us who we think is gay. His white beard is neatly trimmed and his blue flannel shirt tucked in. On the other side of him sits a slender guy with an impressive set of muscles who we label as straight and thus promptly ignore. Apparently, it’s dude night at Club Paris. Afterward, we join the queue at Wild Scoops, a creamery celebrated for its handcrafted sweet treats including inventive flavors like baked Alaska, mulled apple cider sorbet, and coconut black currant.

“Two duck farts,” we tell Scotty the bartender at The Raven, one of two queer bars in town. A duck fart is an Alaskan-born shot crafted of Kahlua coffee liqueur, Bailey’s Irish Cream, and Crown Royal Canadian Whisky and is exactly as unpleasant as it sounds. Our actual cocktails, meanwhile, arrive bearing large straws, thick like McDonald’s. “I would bottom for this straw,” says Ryan. We clink our glasses together. “The journey begins now,” he adds.

The Raven boasts a large, outdoor patio adorned with flowerpots and rainbow pinwheels. Here we stumble upon William and his boyfriend  Tommy, a drunken couple hovering around a highboy. A native Alaskan, William attempts to teach us words like cock, anus, and butt in Inupiaq, his native tongue, but both these guys are untoward bores.

Alaska Train

Alaska Train

We also see David, the muscled man sitting at the end of the bar at Club Paris who we assumed was straight. He’s in the air force and  stuck in Anchorage while flying a plane across the world to a remote island base in Japan. “The funny thing about Club Paris is it used to be a mortuary,” he says. The drunkards coax out of David that he’s a bottom and I perk up at this news. I pivot away from him and the bickering couple and toward James and Connor, two thirds of a throuple visiting from eastern Washington. Of all the places they could go on vacation, they have ended up here.

Around the corner from The Raven sits gay nightclub Mad Myrna’s, and with our new friend David in tow we enter the club’s showroom to a loud “Give it up for your Saturday night divas,” from drag king host Hank. This room is legit, and any performer would be lucky to play here. The crowd is hovering around bistro tables. They are young and energetic and give me hope for the future of Alaska. As the show ends and clusters of queers scatter toward the dance floor we stay behind and discuss everything from Tokyo blow job bars to David’s mission impossible. We exchange hugs and Insta handles and stumble into the night—yes night. It’s 12:42 A.M. and at last there is darkness. It will be the only time this trip we’ll stay up late enough to experience it.

DAY 2
Pride flags hang outside Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, a small artisanal bakery that is part of a complex that also includes a plant shop and a café called That Feeling Co. We order focaccia bread baked with fried egg, potatoes, and sausage baked into it. It’s heavenly, as is the fruit Danish pastry. I ask our cashier about the bakery’s name hoping she’ll spin some tale about how the owner is the great nephew of queer Fire Island fixtures like poet Frank O’Hara or novelist Patricia Highsmith, but she just shrugs her shoulders. At the register I see a QR code for something called Generation Q, a safe meeting place for LGBTQ people in Anchorage. Fire Island Bakeshop will turn out to be the best meal we have during the
entire trip.

Ryan & Jason (Photo by Ryan Bakerink)

Ryan & Jason (Photo by Ryan Bakerink)

The summer sun hasn’t melted Alaska’s impressive snowcap, but it’s working its magic on our melancholy. Due to the pandemic, this is our first time traveling together in a while (Ryan has provided photos for many a Passport magazine story) and both of us are happy to hit the road as we recover from loss. In May 2022, Ryan’s parents both died within 12 days of each other. One week later, my only brother passed away suddenly. The open road is our antidote to sadness.

We Californians love to make hay out of our spring wildflower season, but it pales in comparison to Alaska. Almost as soon as we leave the capital behind us, we see flowers everywhere and soon realize they will guide us across the state like birdseed left behind by Hansel and Gretel. One thing we discover on this trip is that there really are no ugly places. The least spectacular nature Alaska puts forward rivals what other states tout as their finest.

In the charming enclave of Talkeetna, we discover long lines for gooey, hot spinach bread and refreshing Brazilian limeade at food truck Talkeetna Spinach Bread, a local fixture. A popular jumping off point for salmon fishing, dog sled tours, and Denali National Park explorations, Talkeetna boasts a walkable downtown with turn-of-the-century Western facades admirably transformed into charming boutiques and restaurants. At a local gift shop, I pick up a Men of Alaska calendar featuring assorted hunks fly fishing and hunting for bears. “If it’s too risqué for your workplace, you can put clothing on them,” says the shopkeeper nudging me toward the calendar’s back cover which is lined with paper doll cut outs of perforated boxer briefs.

Roadside oddity Igloo City

Roadside oddity Igloo City

Our next stop is the irresistible roadside oddity Igloo City, a four story concrete hotel located roughly halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. It is domed like an igloo and curiously constructed in the middle of nowhere. It was built in the ‘70s and never finished. Amazingly it is unlocked so we wander freely through its skeletal interior and marvel at its untapped potential.

Denali, the largest mountain in the United States, is now within view. From many miles away we see snow pouring down the top of it like spilled milk. At the visitor center at Denali National Park a helpful guide in ranger gear recommends a 4-mile out-and-back hike. I shake my head to indicate a disproving no at which point she proffers a 2.5-mile trail. This time I point my forefinger downward to indicate something less strenuous. (Ryan and I are not hiker gays.) When she at last suggests a .4-mile mountain vista loop I give her a thumb’s up. Though we only skim the park’s surface and see no wildlife, Denali is beautiful.

Denail National Park (Photo by Bcampbell65)

Denail National Park (Photo by Bcampbell65)

This statewide loop though The Last Frontier culminates in an outrageous and unforgettable “only in Alaska” Independence Day blowout that will leave you speechless.


Like Igloo City, most things in Alaska are smack in the middle of nowhere and that includes Skinny Dick’s Halfway Inn, a combination adult gift shop and dive bar 30-minutes from Fairbanks, the northernmost “large city” (pop: 31,000) in the United States. I buy a hat with the shop’s logo on it featuring two polar bears humping. It’s only $10 and I purchase it convinced it will be a good conversation piece, though to this day almost nobody notices the bears are copulating. Elsewhere around the store there are dollar bills plastered to the wall, x-rated coloring books, and placards bearing phrases like, “WARNING: Fart Zone.”

Skinny Dick’s Halfway Inn

Skinny Dick’s Halfway Inn

Temperatures have climbed since leaving Anchorage. We’re now closing in on Fairbanks, an inland city located in the Tenana Valley, and at 80 degrees is downright cooking. We arrive during “civil twilight,” a time of year in which the city experiences 72 straight days of light in summer meaning the sun barely dips below the horizon and instead of darkness there is only a soft amber glow. After checking in at the Rivers Edge Resort, a collection of cottages strung along the serpentine Chena River, we follow the advice of the barfly we met at the Club Paris in Anchorage and have dinner at Pike’s Landing, an appealing waterfront restaurant. I order a salad with ranch which tastes exactly like the ranch you might have anywhere, but is elevated by the fact that the creamy dressing is an Alaska invention. Ryan orders the restaurant’s “world famous” Biggest Berry Blast, a vodka concoction the size of a witch’s cauldron and filled with smashed berries. I guess, size really does matter. We search in vain to find a gay bar and instead retire to our rooms where we pull the shades tight to block out the forever sun.

DAY 3
Since we expect temperatures to again surpass 80, we rise and shine early to hit up Chena Hot Springs Resort, a wellness retreat founded by two brothers at the turn of the century and accessible via a single paved road. The drive is anything but boring and we name the two-lane highway Moose Alley thanks to not one, but six moose sightings along the way. Our first sighting includes a mother and her calf slurping calmly at the river’s edge. Moments later, we bring our rental car to a near halt while a mother and two babies idle in the road. Later we spot an adult galloping across an abandoned parking lot. None of the moose have antlers so it must be ladies’ night. We also separately spot two red foxes. Alaska delivers in wildlife.

Submerged in steaming water at Chena Hot Springs Resort, Ryan attempts to explain to me the terminology for large gatherings of queers. In the same way you might see a herd of elephants lumbering across the Serengeti or a circus of puffins clinging to the side of an iceberg, Ryan argues that in queer meccas one should be on the lookout for a flannel of lesbians, an acceptance of bottoms, and an ambush of tops. These are the kind of convos that come up as we relax in the outdoor pool which has a year-round temperature of 106 degrees. Of course, the real draw is to visit in winter and soak under permanent darkness while silky layers of snow blanket the landscape and the Northern Lights spray green streaks across the sky.

Year-round Christmas gift shop, Santa Claus House

Year-round Christmas gift shop, Santa Claus House

As our road journey continues, in North Pole, Alaska we become a duo of ho ho homosexuals in search of St. Nick. Ryan likes daddies, so if there’s a Santa sighting he’ll be sitting on his lap in no time and whispering into his ear how naughty he’s been. Turns out, Santa Clause House is (surprise, surprise) a giant, year-round Christmas gift shop featuring a Letters to Santa station, a meet-and-greet area with the bearded legend complete with fireplace, and a soda fountain where we meet a trio of Santa’s helpers. There is no hangout with the big man scheduled for today, and with sulking faces we hit up the barn around back and hang out with some with shaggy reindeer.

Back on the road we discover that the Richardson Highway is lush, desolate, and filled with bloodthirsty mosquitoes. Several times along the way we spot the Alaskan Pipeline, which runs for 800 miles and, thanks to permafrost, pushes above ground in several places. We have a gay giggle as we pass Dick Lake and Ryan observes how similar the landscape is to Ireland. Wildflowers are again ubiquitous, which makes me think the countryside is more Oz like than the Emerald Isle, but either way it’s unbelievable. We stop to take a wizz and fuel up on snacks at Meier’s Lake Roadhouse, a combination restaurant, convenience store, gas station, and motel in the middle of nowhere.

It’s Independence Day eve and we’re just one day away from our 4th of July blowout event. Anticipation is high among both of us as we arrive at Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge, a grand hotel with a spectacular living room featuring floor-to-ceiling windows that face Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. We are truly in the middle of nowhere and resign ourselves to dinner at the hotel restaurant where we meet our server, a Bulgarian student who describes his tenure at the hotel as prison-like. The bartender is the rare local who lives in the area and is thrilled to hear our 4th of July plans. Her advice is to arrive as early as possible, expect a crowd of 10,000 people, a festive atmosphere featuring food trucks and tailgating, and a main event happening around 2 P.M. that is going to blow our minds.

Alaskan 4th of July Car Launch (Photos by Ryan Bakerink)

Alaskan 4th of July Car Launch (Photos by Ryan Bakerink)

DAY 4
“It’s a good day to launch cars!” The man shouting this into a microphone from atop a wooden stage looks like Boss Hog from the Dukes of Hazard, with a brazen attitude to match. Ryan and I are amused. We got up bright and early (I would say at the crack of dawn, but there barely is a dawn this time of year) and drove west to Glacier View for the Alaskan 4th of July Car Launch, a Independence Day tradition like no other. It’s around 9 A.M. and we are sitting in a ravine with thousands of Alaskans and visitors from across the lower 48 waiting with bated breath to watch two dozen vehicles get hurled (sometimes in unison) from the cliff above us.

This is ‘merica ground zero and basically a MAGA rally. Everyone here is dressed head to toe in spectacular red, white, and blue, and the dress code is America everything, including knee-high socks, bandanas, hoop earrings, tank tops, cowboy boots, and trucker hats. Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” plays so frequently it might as well be on a continuous loop. We feel like two lone liberals in a sea of trucker hats embossed with slogans like, “Let’s Go Brandon” and the hashtag #FJB. “Happy 4th of Joo-lie,” the announcer shouts as a fighter jet swoops by. The crowd lifts their arms in the air to offer applause, and when they do I see their loaded weapons strapped across their chests and around their waists. Alaska is an open carry state.

Food Truck at the Alaskan 4th of July Car Launch (Photo by Ryan Bakerink)

Food Truck at the Alaskan 4th of July Car Launch (Photo by Ryan Bakerink)

I swing by one of the food trucks in search of snacks and see two tip jars near the register, one featuring the face of an enfeebled President Biden and the other boasting Donald Trump in aviator glasses looking like he’d joined the cast of Top Gun Maverick. Meanwhile, I hear Boss Hog saluting all the female veterans in attendance. “Remember, there are only two genders,” he says emphatically. “There are men and women and it’s as simple as that. There ain’t nothing in between.” He’ll reiterate this anti-trans line of attack several times throughout the day, though to barely any recognition from the crowd.

Governor Mike Dunleavy, dressed in a t-shirt bearing the word Alaska in the shape of a handgun, takes the stage to offer a few remarks which must mean it’s almost go time. At this point I wonder how my stars and stripes bikini swimsuit would go over in this crowd and do notice there are some gays and people of color in attendance— most of them indigenous Alaskans. Are they Trump supporters, I wonder, or just so inured to such naked displays of nationalism and rusticism they are unable to register we are in a scene out of Hee-Haw.

About half the vintage vehicles that will meet their destruction later in the day are scattered throughout the crowd and are there to be vandalized. People scrawl their initials on the cars and expressions like, “My pronouns are USA” and “If you ain’t first you’re last.” Ryan scrawls Biden 2024 in bold lettering and we keep an eye on the car all afternoon, an old Dodge I think, just waiting to see if his message will get defiled. A man in a t-shirt catches our eye. The words scrawled boldly across his shirt say, “Stomp my flag I’ll eat your ass.” He might just be a gay. He happens to be wearing dangerously high-cut jeans shorts and has the juiciest booty we’ve seen all week. His friends are jubilantly deep throating corn dogs.

At around 2 P.M. there is a hushed silence as the first car is launched off its track and into the ravine below. It happens in a matter of seconds and is completely enthralling. The beginning feels like a slow-motion lurch as the car is flung into the air, hangs in midair for a nanosecond, and then comes tumbling down the hillside fenders, bumpers, tires, steering wheels, and other assorted parts splintering into every direction.

It’s unbelievable and the crowd loves it. This happens almost two dozen more times and each one is as mesmerizing as the previous. Occasionally a car lands on all fours with the grace of Simone Biles, but the crowd wants the same thing each time—to watch a vehicle completely smash to bits. Scavengers race to pick up parts after the event’s end and we’re told the entire thing is environmentally friendly.

Alaskan Nature Vista

Alaskan Nature Vista

We have a great time but are simultaneously excited to get the heck out of there and back to Anchorage. Dinner that night is at Bear Tooth Theatre Pub, a combination restaurant and theatrical venue and the place is jammed. I’m pretty sure our server is gay, but our host is actually wearing a pair or Pride progress earrings which I compliment and am convinced gets us a table ASAP. Her son we learn is trans and a student in Vermont. We also learn she is merely moonlighting as a restaurant hostess and is actually a marine biologist who served in the Peace Corps 30 years ago and once judged a transgender beauty contest in Fiji. She speaks eloquently about the coordinated attacks on LGBTQ people across the state. “It’s two steps forward, one step back.”

We give the gay bars one last spin, convinced they will be slammin’ tonight, but no such luck. At the Raven, we meet a couple from Miami who just hopped off one of the cruise ships and have twins back home. I buy everyone at the bar a round of pull tabs, part of Alaska’s lottery system, and everyone around the bar takes turns buying tickets until someone at last wins a buck.

We order one final round of drinks, a toast to the weekend that was. It’s a shame we have to leave behind the Last Frontier and return to the lower 48, but every vacation high must fade eventually. Someone at the car launch said it best as a vintage RV smashed into thousands of pieces, the toilet eventually ending up in a nearby pond, “Gravity always wins.”

Alaska Resources

Club Paris – Legendary steakhouse offering vintage vibes. 417 W 5th Ave, Anchorage. Tel: 907-277-6332. ClubParisRestaurant.com
Wild Scoops – Artisanal ice creamery featuring inventive flavors. 429 E St, Anchorage. Tel: 907-444-0714. WildScoops.com
The Raven – LGBTQ dive bar with large back patio. 708 E 4th Ave, Anchorage. Tel: 907-276-9672.
Mad Myrna’s – LGBTQ nightclub featuring a cabaret room for drag shows. 530 E 5th Ave, Anchorage. Tel: 907-276-9762. MadMyrnas.com
Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop – Chic bakery famous for its house made breads, pastries, and more. 718 K St, Anchorage. Tel: 907-569-0001. FireIslandStore.square.site

Stomp My Flag, Ill eat your ass

Stomp My Flag, Ill eat your ass

Talkeetna Spinach Bread – Beloved food truck serving spinach bread and lime-aid. 13487 E Main St, Talkeetna. Tel: 907-671-3287.
Igloo City – Abandoned hotel project turned roadside attraction. Parks Hwy mile 214.5, Denali National Park.
Skinny Dick’s Halfway Inn – Eclectic adult gift shop and dive bar. 8910 Parks Hwy, Fairbanks. Tel: 907-388-5770. SkinnyDicks.net
River’s Edge Resort Cottage-style rooms right on the Chena River. 4200 Boat St, Fairbanks. Tel: 907-474-0286. RiversEdge.net
Pike’s Landing Riverside dining with an eclectic menu. 4438 Airport Way, Fairbanks. Tel: 907-479-6500. PikesLodge.com
Chena Hot Spring’s Resort – Remote hotel featuring outdoor hot springs accessible via a day pass. 17600 Chena Hot Springs Rd, Fairbanks. Tel: 907-451-8104. ChenaHotSprings.com
Santa Claus House – Expansive gift emporium featuring a candy store, live appearances from Santa, and reindeer encounters. 101 St. Nicholas Dr, North Pole. Tel: 907-488-2200. SantaClausHouse.com
Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge – Three-star woodland resort featuring views of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. 1 BrenwickCraig Rd, Copper Center. Tel: 907-822-4000. PrincessLodges.com
Bear Tooth Theatre Pub – LGBTQ-friendly restaurant and performance space. 1230 W 27th Ave. Anchorage. Tel: 907-276-4200. BearToothTheatre.net


You may also enjoy

Adventure Travel | Exploring Alaska

Adventure Travel | Exploring Alaska

 

Related Articles

Conditions

New York
mist
80%
13.6mp/h
100%
74°F
80°
70°
73°
Mon
66°
Tue
74°
Wed
70°
Thu
69°
Fri
Passport Magazine Logo

Passport Magazine has always been a resource to guide, inspire and encourage LGBTQ travelers and their friends to discover deeper, richer and more fulfilling experiences at home and around the world through compelling story-telling online, in print, with video and through live events.

© 2024 Passport Magazine — All Rights Reserved — NYC USA

Adblock Detected

Please support Passport Magazine by disabling your AdBlocker extension from your browsers for our website.