ON A SUNNY DAY in southcentral Alaska, an official indicator of just how nice a day it is is, “The mountain’s out.” Which mountain? Well, obviously, you don’t live here. “The mountain” is of course, Denali, all 20,320 feet of it. A hundred miles from Anchorage, it looms up substantially on the northern horizon nonetheless. Known to people from Ohio as Mt. McKinley, it was named in 1917 for US President William McKinley, also from Ohio, by a miner who wanted McKinley to put the United States on the gold standard so he could make a killing on his gold claims. Mind you, President McKinley never had a thing to do with—or ever set foot in—Alaska, but the mountain got named for him just the same.
Locals prefer Denali, Dena’ina for “great one” or “mountain of the sun,” depending on which Native language-English dictionary you pick up. I’ve never been in the park itself. I’ve been by it on the train on the way to school at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. I’ve been over it in a 727 on my way to and from work in Prudhoe Bay. I decided it was time. I emailed the folks at Denali Lodge, ninety miles into the Park and twenty-eight miles from the mountain, and said, Can I come? They said yes, and before they think better of it I throw binoculars and bug dope into a bag, leap into my car and gallop 237 miles up the Parks Highway to the entrance of Denali National Park.
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