Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The solace of empty voices

"What did you think of Alaska?"

What people don't seem to realize is that Alaska cannot be described adequately.  Mother kept calling it "big," but seeing the places we saw, the word choice is unsatisfying.  When you see the finest of movies, don't you feel a little disappointed when you call it "really good"?

Alaska is a state of mind.  It blows you away the second you see it, and constantly surprises you by just how much of it there is.  It took me four days to see a McDonald's.  I never knew such a world existed.  Believe me, it's a better one.

Alaska prides its remoteness.  The cities look carcinogenic.  Anchorage feels like an overgrown wart about to disappear.  Seward clings to the mountainside like a pimple fearing the college years.  The perfect symbol of Alaska is the Homer Spit, a narrow strip of land with tourist traps galore seemingly sinking into the waters.  Just ask anyone there what they think of the place.  My favorite response:  "Well, we only need one more earthquake."

Mom asked me what my favorite memory of the trip will be.  She might as well have asked me who my favorite niece is.  The question is unanswerable.  I told a friend today:  "The sum is better than its parts."  Alaska is an experience.  Sure, there are distinct places, activities, and people.  Together, though, it's an epic.  Each chapter serves a greater purpose.

The trip had themes.  It was nearly always overcast, with light rain falling seemingly every other minute.  Blue sky was an event.  Sadly, this persistent gray blanket made most of my photos embarrassingly unrepresentative of what is there.  (A conclusion drawn during the vacation was the need to purchase a better camera.  It's time to feed this recent obsession.)  However, it also provided some character to the scenery.  I remember very fondly the low clouds clinging to the mountains of Hatcher Pass -- a stunningly beautiful backdrop to the decrepit Independence Mine.  I remember the boat guide in Kenai Fjords calling it the "Seward drizzle" as a wave of low clouds passed over Fox Island.  Seeing the clouds form and move off Denali -- well, there's just nothing like it.

Another theme was the predictability of wildlife.  On the bus ride to Denali, caribou and bears were everywhere.  On the ride back, the same caribou and bears were seen.  A humpback whale breached the Gulf every thirty seconds for over ten minutes.  A mountain goat followed me down Crow Pass for nearly a half hour.  Two bald eagles shared a fish on a beach in Homer, splitting their time equally.  Puffins tiptoed on the water like bunheads at a recital.

The people were just as wild.  Consider the clerk at a store in Seward noting not the sadness of a Mount Marathoner gone missing from the annual race, but the courage he had to try it in the first place.  Or the unforgettable Whittier resident June, who owns the top two floors of the Begich Towers.  She reserves them for guests to the town, and fondly describes her experiences waiting for the train to Anchorage during a blizzard to each of them.  Or the waitress in Talkeetna who innocently describes the mid-60s as a heat wave.  Or the hotel driver in Anchorage who describes what he does in his off time:  "cleaning the fish or the boats".

As I reached snow-covered Crystal Lake on my first full day in Alaska, the aforementioned mountain goat crept up behind me.  He was interested in me, but soon looked more interested in the snow.  The animal was about twenty feet away from me.  It seemed that I was in awe of the living, and he was in awe of the setting.  He soon exhaled, and moved on.  I did, about twenty minutes later.

That is what I thought of Alaska.