I went to Alaska in August 2018 and, for the most part, had a very enjoyable experience. Being able to explore a place virtually untouched by humanity was an incredible travel experience. Before I went on this journey (with my friend/travel buddy/all-around great human being Nicki), I did my research because Alaska is fucking huge and if you don’t have some kind of an agenda you’ll be driving aimlessly for hours.
I started by asking some of my so-called friends where I should go. The list of places varied, but one thing was nearly unanimous, “you have to go to Fairbanks! It has an ice museum!” “You gotta stop by Fairbanks!” “FAIRBANKS IS INCREDIBLE!” After looking at the map and initially going “there is no fucking way I’m driving that far”, I relented because it’s Alaska and there are only so many things to do.
After spending the first half of our journey in the south part of Alaska, we began the arduous trek to Fairbanks. Our adventure vehicle was a red Ford Ranger truck with a covered bed, a hairline crack on the left side of the windshield that slowly grew throughout the trip, and no A/C. Despite its shortcomings, it was a solid vehicle, but it only had FM radio. No AUX cord, no CD player, just the stock, bare bones radio with 5 giant preset buttons.
I don’t mind FM radio on a road trip, the songs are repetitive and the reception is unreliable but it turns into a game to pass the time. I like trying to find a half-decent station that lasts for more than 30 minutes. The randomness of the music is a good jumping off point for conversations and/or arguments. Also, it’s fun to judge the surrounding areas and local culture by what they listen to on the radio. For instance, Hawaii is all island reggae music, Virginia is mostly country songs about jean shorts, kegs, and dirt roads etc. Alaska?
Alaska really loves “The Middle” by ZEDD. They apparently love it so much that it’s the only song they play on the radio. It made the latter half of the road trip feel like purgatory. Every time I changed the station that fucking song was on, asking me over and over again if I wanted to meet in the middle (I didn’t). It’s not a bad song, but it’s also not the only song that exists. I didn’t think Alaskans were weird people up until this point but if their radio stations are any indication they’re all probably serial killers.
After ZEDD pushed me to the edge of sanity, we stopped at a roadside diner. I desperately needed a break and something, anything to do that didn’t involve driving or meeting in the middle.
As we got closer to Fairbanks the beautiful landscapes and trees that had come to define the trip slowly started to flatten. Ridgelines turned into fields, trees into weeds, and everything around us seemed to be dying. The landscape seemed to be screaming “TURN AROUND”. I might have been delirious from driving but the initial Fairbanks vibe is not a good one.
We get to our cabin which is easily the best part of the trip. It’s a cozy cabin located in the backyard of a much larger property that has a scenic view of the lake behind it and an outhouse, heater, and outdoor shower. It wasn’t too cold at the time, but our AirBnB host let us know that it gets down to -60 degrees in the winter with 30 MPH winds. I resisted the urge to ask him why in God’s name he chose to live in a place like this.
Cue the next morning, we’re well rested and have a full day to explore everything Fairbanks has to offer. It’s a rainy day but whatever, there must be plenty of options in Alaska’s second largest city. As we’re leaving, I notice that every single house in this neighborhood looks like a redneck’s wet dream. There are snowmobiles, 4-wheelers, and dilapidated trucks in various states of disrepair, above ground pools with bright green water, and half-completed home renovations covered with blue tarps. Fairbanksians don’t give a fuck about rules or appearances and I really respect that.
We drive two miles and arrive at beautiful downtown Fairbanks. And by beautiful I mean desolate. And by downtown, I mean “2 empty streets with a handful of buildings”. If you blink you would miss it. They could have filmed an episode of The Walking Dead here without any set design. STILL, Nature is always the main attraction in this state, I’m not here for the bustling nightlife. We weighed our options of things to do downtown (ice museum, walking, praying for death) and decide our best option is driving 90 minutes to Chena to visit the Hot Springs.
While adding another 3 hours of drive time was the last thing I wanted to do, I’m glad we visited. The springs are situated in the middle of this big resort and judging by the number of cars we weren’t the only people who wanted to get away from Fairbanks. The springs are nice enough but it’s basically a swimming pool sized hot tub surrounded by rocks that you can’t drink alcohol in. You’ve experienced everything it has to offer in about 30 minutes.
But vacations are judged by the quality of Instagram photos you take, not the experience itself. And in that regard, the hot springs were a huge success.
S/O Nicki for this incredible photo
After drying off we decided to give Fairbanks one more chance. Before that, we needed food. Like most millennials with debilitating FOMO, we exhaustively researched Yelped for 30 minutes before finally choosing a spot that ended up being closed. Our second spot ended up being closed too, so we headed to Soapy Smith’s Pioneer Restaurant (yes that’s the actual name) the Fairbanks version of Applebees. Everything and I mean everything was made of wood and probably leftover from the 1920s, there were snowshoes and 90-year-old photographs of Soapy Smith’s family all over the wall (he was there too). The whole place had a musty, worn in feel. Despite only having 3.5 stars on Yelp, I loved the place, until we were greeted by our waiter.
Now, I’ve never done meth, at least not knowingly, I don’t hang around people that do meth, it’s about as foreign as can be to me. Yet, I could immediately tell that our waiter was on meth, A LOT of meth. It was also clear that he had done said meth maybe 60 seconds prior to greeting us. He was acting like the real-life version of Craig from Parks and Recreation. He came over and, without prompting, immediately started yelling at us about the injustices he faces at work and how he doesn’t like his other table (who clearly heard what he said). We’re both visibly uncomfortable as we try to laugh away the awkwardness of the situation we’re now trapped in.
He asks for ID and when he sees my Hawaii ID he loses his fucking mind. “HAWAII? YOU LIVE IN FUCKING HAWAII? OHHHHH JESUS CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? I’M STUCK IN THIS HELLHOLE WORKING FOR PENNIES AND HE’S LIVING IN HAWAII?!” I’m paraphrasing but that’s almost verbatim what he said, and he was literally screaming. He then proceeds to take my ID and show it to his other tables, none of whom wanted to see it, and asks them incredulously if they can believe that I live in Hawaii. They all stare at him and laugh awkwardly just like me, just hoping to God he will leave them alone. I had to ask him 3 times to give my ID back.
He eventually leveled out and went from “I might stab you” high to “I’m in the zone” high for the rest of our meal but at this point, we were ready to get the fuck out of dodge. We agreed to drive away screaming after we saw the crowning jewel of the city, the Fairbanks Ice Museum.
Our museum experience started out with a Chinese man/Ice sculptor/museum curator/museum owner ushering us to a movie theater that was probably built in 1947 and had never been cleaned. I assumed this was the intro to the museum and we would be led to the giant sculpture room afterward. But there are only 2 people working here. Where is the staff for the museum? Where is….the museum? We watch a documentary on ice sculpting that was at least 75 minutes long with 45 of those minutes dedicated to slow-motion shots of the sculptures set to stock music. The plot needed a lot of work and there was a real lack of character development, it was a shit movie.
Watch for the cameo by Dudley Do-Right
After what seemed like an eternity, the credits roll and the museum owner tells us to grab a coat and follow him to the museum. I quickly realized that what I thought were ice sculpture “decorations” around the theater were the exhibits. This was the entire museum. It was smaller than a 2 bedroom apartment. We enter into this cramped room/depressing graveyard of failed concepts and just shake our heads. There is an ice bar but the beers are empty bottles meant for photos. There’s insulation hanging out of the walls, the sculptures are worn down and melted, it is not worth the $10 entrance fee. It was the cherry on top of the shit Sundae that was our Fairbanks experience.
The slide is really fun, though. Shout out ice slide.
I gave Fairbanks every chance in the world and it did nothing but let me down. Apart from the Chena Hot Springs, it’s a massive waste of time, especially when you factor in the travel time. The only theory I have on the discrepancy between my experience and everybody else is that people go temporarily retarded when they get here or snow makes it a magical, wonderful place. Though I fail to see how -60-degree temperatures would make this barely habitable wasteland any better.
Or maybe people rationalize their terrible decisions because of how much time and money it costs to get to Fairbanks. Nobody wants to admit they made a huge mistake and wasted a significant chunk of their vacation.
Whatever the reason, I learned for the 1,000th time not to let people get your hopes up. My expectations for this arctic outpost were way too high. You go to Fairbanks to say you’ve been there, not to enjoy yourself. I was expecting this middle of nowhere city on the brink of the arctic tundra to be endlessly entertaining and that’s stupid on my part.
Is Fairbanks the worst place on Earth? Absolutely not (that honor goes to Cleveland, Ohio). But it’s definitely the worst place I visited in Alaska. There are plenty of other spots you can visit that are much more enjoyable and easier to get to. Denali, Seward, Hope, all the other towns I drove through or stopped at were beautiful and the people were super friendly and accommodating. My advice? Stop going north when you hit Denali. And if you do go to Fairbanks, take a deep breath and lower your expectations significantly. Then lower them again. Then make them way lower than that.