Thursday, July 16, 2009

Alaska

SKAGWAY, Alaska -- The bartender at the Red Onion Saloon in Skagway was tired and fighting a cold, but willing to chat nonetheless.

“I’ll bet you’re ready for the cruise season to be over,” I said.

He smiled and looked around the bar packed with folks from our cruise ship parked in the harbor on the last week of Alaska cruise season.

“It gets a little tiring, telling your story over and over again all summer,” he admits. So naturally, we asked him to tell us his story.

He was from New Hampshire, spending the summer in Alaska for the adventure. In two more days, the last cruise ship of the year would leave Skagway. He, and most of Skagway’s summer population, would follow soon after.

“Some of the locals go down to the dock and moon the last ship as it leaves,” he said.

Two nice ladies at a T-shirt store in Ketchikan confirmed the story two days later.

“Yeah, the people in Skagway are a little wild,” one of them said.

Even with all the money the cruise crowd brings in, it’s easy to understand why cruisers wear out their welcome by late September. Most people live in Alaska, one would assume, for the scenery, the potential for adventure, and the sense of solitude.

For interlopers from the Lower 48, the bottom line is simple: Alaska is beautiful and provides a convenient spot to keep an eye on those pesky Russians across the Bering Strait. It makes for pretty pictures. But no seven-day cruise with five ports of call makes anyone an expert on Alaska – it provides a brief glimpse, a whiff, a tantalizing image of an idea of a grander thing.

For most of us, that’s enough. Alaskan winters are cold, dark and long; the summers, warm, full of light and all too short. Only the hardiest are willing to make it their permanent home. Most of the rest of us, like our bartender, are happy to see it in its summer glory but leave it to others when the winds come up and the light goes down.

So we wander the streets of Skagway, snap photos of the piano player at the bar, mingle with the tourists and locals in Juneau, gawk at the whales breaching in the Linn Canal, and spend an indescribable day cruising slowly through the Tracy Arm, a fiord off the Inside Passage less popular than others but no less breathtaking. We watch spawning salmon gasping their last, see the claw marks of bears in the trees, follow the fishing trawlers coming to harbor for the evening and watch the sun rise and set behind magnificent Alaskan peaks. As the last cruisers of the seasons, we snap up bargain t-shirts and baseballs caps and knives made in China depicting Alaskan scenes. We swap stories with fellow cruise ship passengers, eat too much, drink too much and sleep too little.

These are not bad things – better than having stayed home listening to the drivel of talk shows and doing what’s needed to earn a living. Upon our return, we are modestly comforted knowing that Alaska is there, that we’ve seen it, that we can return if we wish, and that we don’t have to live there if we wish not to. These are the small alterations in life that make travel worth the inconvenience.

Later in the trip we join a couple at the breakfast table seemed pleasant enough – typical middle-aged cruiser types enjoying a late breakfast as we spent a day on the sea.

They were Brits, it became immediately obvious, and this being a mere few weeks before a landmark American presidential election, she wanted to talk politics. (He wanted to focus intently on his soft-boiled eggs.)

She had lovely British accent, of course – the sort of thing that allows one to look another in the eye with a smile and say, “I wish to separate your heart from its protective cavity,” and receive an offer for another spot of tea in return.

“How can you keep electing George Bush,” she asked, smiling ever so nicely and blinking her eyes. “He’s something of an idiot, isn’t he?” Her husband continued to sip his coffee and nibble his toast, avoiding eye contact. “He never talks,” she said.

We navigated the potential land mines of the conversation and finished breakfast before politely but expeditiously making our escape. Had we stayed, we inevitably would have been apologizing for Americans who are too fat, too boisterous, carry too large a carbon footprint, make bad TV and movies, have butchered the King’s English, and who would undoubtedly have lost the War for Independence were it not for those cheats the French.

Things sort of went downhill from there. Kathleen came down with a violent stomach virus that hit a good share of the passengers (the dreaded "Norwalk"), so we stayed on the ship instead pubbing in Victoria, B.C. We ordered a year's supply of Cointreau from the ship's liquor store but found they had given us Bailey's instead, and too late to exchange it.

So here's the deal -- no matter how lovely a destination might be, sometimes a trip becomes more about what doesn't go quite right than having one precious experience after another. For us, that was Alaska. I blame Sara Palin.

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