Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Alaska Journal

Swaying gently on the train to Fairbanks right now, so I'm stealing some writing time while Dan and the little guy are back in the dome car. Once again, we are in the "C" class and cannot go past the cafe car to the "Gold Star" oversized double-decker car. Not a problem, even despite a couple of queries from the little guy asking when we'd be in the "A" class. Not this trip.

Not many sights out the windows between Denali and Fairbanks - not like between Anchorage and Denali. On our way into Denali the other day, we passed a bright blue homestead close to the tracks, located in the tiny community of Sherman. The house had been whimsically painted that color with a big yellow "CITY HALL" on the outside - and, as it turned out, the owner of that house, Mary Lovel, was signing her second memoir at the bookstore in Denali. Also, we got on the train today to find that we have the same host that we had on the train on Sunday. We keep coming back into contact with the same people again and again and again...but of course, there are the ones we could live without.

Dan's biggest sources of frustration, aside from the little guy's behavior on occasion, have been other tourists, for the most part. Like some Chinese folks on the train to Denali who loudly and kind of rudely demanded and got an upgrade to Gold Star. Some guys on the same train who thought kids would stay quiet if they were taught to read; who wanted to prospect for gold, thinking it was easy money; and who thought there were no bugs in Alaska.

(Dan at dinner last night: "I haven't seen many mosquitoes at all here."
Me: "I've seen a couple, but not like I thought I'd see."
Dan: "Wait, there's one on your forehead.")

A few people on the bus back from the Eielson Center with strong Nu Yawk accents were also in that annoying number - they couldn't conceive of a trip without any shopping involved and they acted like they were entitled to see wildlife up close and personal while they were in the park (No guarantees there...really. We were lucky yesterday.). But the worst as far as we were both concerned was the cigar-smoking hiker at Exit Glacier. One whiff of that on the trail had us incredulous, curious, and, once we saw who was doing it, it had us running the other way from it. Ugh.

The thing that appalled me the most was hearing about an ATV tour that retraced the route the ill-fated Chris McCandless took to live in the abandoned bus in which he was found dead in the wilderness outside Healy, Alaska - a story told in Jon Krakauer's Into The Wild. My gut reaction was recoiling at the insensitivity of such a tour, and I wondered if his parents knew, what they thought of it.* The gist of the tour is, apparently, to discuss what McCandless did wrong...which seems to be a cottage industry here, judging from the loads of books available about surviving in the remote areas of the state. The books reinforce many truths and many myths about Alaska as a whole, I think...but then again, I'm judging most of those books by their covers having never cracked many of them open. From what I've seen of Alaska, though, one doesn't necessarily need extreme survival knowledge to live everywhere in the state.

We're coming up on Fairbanks. More to tell later.


*Truth is, I haven't read Into The Wild in a long time, and I haven't seen the movie - but some current reading of mine gives a clue as to what McCandless' family might feel:
There is now a bronze memorial plaque in the abandoned junker bus where he died...on that washed-out road thirty miles from anywhere. It memorializes him as a beloved son. When his parents hiked in, or maybe four-wheeled or snow-mobiled in, to see for themselves where their boy died of starvation, they brought the plaque with them and installed it there in his memory. His mother left something else behind, too: a small suitcase of survival gear so this would not happen to another woman's son who for whatever reason may call that bus home or stumble on it during a wilderness trek. She put a first-aid kit, map, blankets, and a can of tuna fish in the suitcase. To the first person who needs it, that suitcase will be like a gift from God; the divine in her will meet the divine in a stranger.**
It's important to keep such lessons in mind. I hope the teachings from the ATVs are done with as much sensitivity.

**Heather Lende, Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs

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