Monthly Archives: August 2010

Fairbanks

Fairbanks, home to 35,000 people, is the second-largest city in Alaska; the surrounding boroughs swell the metro area to nearly 100,000.  Founded in 1901 on the banks of the Chena River, Fairbanks grew quickly when gold was discovered nearby in 1902.  But the city fell on hard times when the reserves of easily accessible gold were depleted a decade later.  Additional influxes of permanent residents occurred during periods of construction: the Alaska Railroad in the 1920s and the Trans-Alaska pipeline in the 1970s.

As the oil flowing through the Trans-Alaska pipeline slows due to dwindling reserves in the Arctic, the economy has come to rely on tourism, and the city itself retains a boom/bust feeling.  The downtown area is tired and worn, while the airport terminal is new and creates a modern space for visitors traveling by air.  And the Museum of the North on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks is visually stunning.  In addition to the extremes in architecture, the climate  is extreme.  Temperatures can plunge to more than -50 degrees in the winter when the sun shines for less than four hours per day.  In contrast, the sun is visible for more than 21 hours a day during the summer solstice.

In the welcome sign department, Fairbanks competes with Anchorage: the city boasts three welcome signs (although they are more dispersed those in Anchorage) and each one is unique.  And there is a fourth bonus sign for the downtown area.

The first sign is located at the airport exit and although not particularly eye-catching, it is a good effort.  It includes the motto that was bestowed upon the city by the Fairbanks Commercial Club in 1911 – the Golden Heart City.

This second sign is drab and dull.

The third sign reflects the city’s motto in a more subtle fashion: although it might be hard to see, the golden flowers on the left are in the shape of a heart.

And, last but not least, is this sign in downtown Fairbanks.  Unfortunately it is located in the parking lot of a bank and not in a spot that would normally be considered welcoming.

(Welcome to the) Arctic Circle

So, this sign breaks one of my self-imposed rules.

When I first started this project, I was adamant that I would only take photos of signs that included the word “welcome”.  If it didn’t say welcome, I wasn’t interested.  Except in extreme circumstances, I have adhered to this rule.  My trip this week to the Arctic Circle can certainly be categorized as an extreme circumstance.  The journey to reach it was slow and arduous, traversing the monotonous yet extreme environment that characterizes Interior Alaska.

The Arctic Circle is the parallel of latitude 66° 33′ 44″ north of the equator, and it passes through only eight countries.  The only road to cross the Arctic Circle in the U.S. is the Dalton Highway.  Originally built in the mid-1970s to service the construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, the Dalton Highway is a mostly unpaved road that has been featured on the reality television series Ice Road Truckers

At mile 115, the Dawson Highway crosses the Arctic Circle in a low-key fashion.  There is a pull-off where travelers can take photos next to a sign marking the invisible boundary.  In addition to the sign, there are some explanatory placards that describe the summer and winter solstices and an outhouse.  That’s it.

Although a relatively boring drive, the Dalton Highway does provide the opportunity to experience one of the most remote locations on earth in relative (I use this term loosely) safety and comfort.  The landscape is transformed before your eyes from one of aspens and black spruces to a treeless tundra that protects the delicate permafrost beneath.  The Trans-Alaska pipeline snakes above ground for major portions alongside the Dalton Highway, providing a glimpse at this man-made marvel.  And crossing the mighty Yukon River – the third-longest river in North America – was the highlight for me.

Bittersweet Border Crossing

The driving force behind my visit to Alaska this week was to photograph the Welcome to Alaska sign.  Over the past four years I have crisscrossed the USA with the goal of photographing the welcome signs for all 50 states.  And Alaska was, appropriately, my Last Frontier.  (Stay tuned for more info about my book State Lines that will be published later this year.)

As I stood alone at the end of the Alaska Highway facing the sign, my emotions were mixed; I felt a certain sadness that this journey has come to an end, but at the same time I felt a strong sense of accomplishment.  I set a goal, focused my energy and resources, and succeeded.  (I also felt the biting of mosquitos on my skin, a minor annoyance that only temporarily distracted me from the moment.)

The sign is simple and sturdy, displaying details that define Alaska: the shape of the state (the largest in the country), wildlife and wildflowers.

As I turned my back on Alaska – and closed the book (literally) on my state welcome sign project – I faced not only a new country, but a new journey.  Why not photograph the welcome signs for the Canadian provinces and territories?  Nothing is stopping me, so I started.

Tok

As Anchorage disappeared from my rearview mirror, so did most conveniences associated with modern civilization.  The Alaskan wilderness is both isolated and isolating.  The only other time I have experienced similar feelings of remoteness was when traveling through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

En route to the rural outpost of Tok, I was treated to the majestic scenery of the Chugach Range; towering peaks, gently flowing rivers and signs of autumn visible in the changing colors of the leaves.  The welcome sign that greets travelers to Tok – a “census-designated place” of 1,400  – did not disappoint.  The wood frame is solid and rustic; the welcome message is heartfelt and meaningful.  And the small flowers that decorate the edges reflect a softness that is not often apparent in an unforgiving environment.

Anchorage

I am vacationing in Alaska this week, and my only rule is to stop for any and all welcome signs.

The first city on my itinerary is Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city and home to nearly half of the state’s population.  Many visitors might miss the three – yes, three – welcome signs that are all within in a one-mile stretch on International Airport Road when entering the city from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.  Luckily I was able to tear my eyes away from the imposing peaks on the horizon long enough to notice the signs.

(Truth be told, I noticed the signs before the mountains.  I’m just wired that way.)

Here they are, in order of appearance.

 

I must admit that the natural scenery is more interesting than these signs.  They don’t exhibit a lot of character.  But then again, neither does Anchorage.

Although I’ve only been in Anchorage a short time, my impression is one of a nondescript city, a bit rough around the edges.  Much like the signs.  But the simple fact that there are three signs is impressive.  Anchorage has more welcome signs than I any other city I have visited (yet).

The Beginning

Welcome!

Road trips through southern Colorado are breathtaking.  Majestic mountains, shimmering aspen groves and spectacular cloudscapes – beautiful views at every turn in the road – create a sense of place like no other.

But my eyes always seemed to be focused on signs.  Road signs.  And welcome signs fascinated me most of all.

Nearly five years ago I took this passion to the next level and began photographing welcome signs and chronicling my journeys.  I’m pleased to begin sharing my photographs with family and friends – and anyone else who may be interested – through this Web site.

This sign was one of the first that I photographed and remains one of my favorites.  In 1858, Fort Garland was established to protect settlers in the San Luis Valley, part of the New Mexico Territory at that time.  At its peak, 200 men lived at Fort Garland, including Kit Carson, the Fort’s commander.  The Fort was abandoned in 1883, but was restored in the 1950s by the Colorado Historical Society and the Fort Garland Museum continues to preserve the heritage of this region today.

The population of Fort Garland is less than 500, and the town doesn’t have a stoplight.  But it does have a brightly colored, sturdy, hand-painted welcome sign.

A special feature of this sign is the back that bids farewell to visitors.  (The San Luis Valley boasts the largest native Hispanic population in Colorado, hence the Adios.)