The route north on the Richardson Highway took us from the sea level of Valdez to the 2,000 foot Thompson Pass in 26 miles. Usually when you climb a mountain the road twists and turns, but this route was straight up. At times we were getting 2.5miles/gallon. Ouch! This stretch was one of two that almost brought the Alaska Pipeline construction teams to a halt. Laying the pipe and welding it at such extreme angles was a huge challenge. It was nice to see that some of the highway construction delays we had on the way into Valdez were all finished after our lengthy stay there.
We turned west on the Glenn Highway toward Anchorage. The views were terrific the entire drive. Mountains everywhere, glaciers every so often. At the higher elevations the trees had that drunken forest look, spindly and growing at all angles and the road buckled and bumped over the permafrost. As we neared Palmer the vegetation looked much healthier. The pavement was smooth and the road had four lanes at times to better accommodate the heavier traffic. Remains of an ancient volcanic eruption here spread ash and made the area unusually fertile.
We are staying in Palmer in the Matanuska Valley, the vegetable basket of Alaska. In 1935 Palmer became the site of one of the most unusual experiments in American history. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration, one of the many New Deal relief agencies created during Franklin Roosevelt's first year in office, planned an agricultural colony in Alaska to utilize the fertile potential of this area and get some American farm families, devastated first by the Dust Bowl and then by the Great Depression, back to work. Social workers picked 203 families from the northern counties of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, because it was thought that farmers of Scandinavian descent would have a natural advantage over other ethnic groups. Their housing was in a tent city the first summer. Each family drew lots for individual 40-acre tracts and a farming adventure began.
Although the failure rate was high, many of the agricultural workers that live here today are descendants of this grand experiment. Since the growing season ranges from 100 - 120 days annually and the hours of sunlight are so long, this area produces some amazingly huge vegetables that are displayed at the end of the summer at the Alaska State Fair here. Record holders include: a 9.5 pound radish, 2.5 pound mushroom, 53 pound rutabaga and 105.6 pound cabbage. Flowers both wild and cultivated abound. Not the stereotype that one associates with Alaska.