My plane touched down in Juneau, surrounded by endless water to the west and soaring snow-capped peaks to the north, south and east. I have to say, it felt like I should have embarked on a climbing expedition rather than a cruise. And, something about the mountains called to me, saying, “wouldn’t everything look so much cooler from up here? Forget about that dark, flat water. This is what Alaska is all about!”
A captain friend would later say that Alaska is like “God flooded the Rockies,” and I’ve yet to come up with a better description. It was the first week in September and the weather was high forties and overcast. Cold and overcast seems to be the norm in Alaska except for the height of the summer season, which lasts from the second Thursday in July until about 2 o’clock the next day.
The ship wasn’t in port yet. She wouldn’t arrive until first thing the next morning when passengers on the current cruise disembarked. Then, the crew would take on supplies, food stores and fuel, along with a new crop of passengers, my first, in the afternoon.
The company put me up in a hotel for the night, where, despite the four-hour time difference, my nerves kept me on high alert. Even though I was surrounded by the grandiose, I fixated on the small and insignificant – the Timex alarm clock with a smashed-in FM button in my room, the glow in the window and rustling of spruce branches. Everything caught my eye. Everything was interesting and in need of further investigation. This is the curse of the traveler, a beautiful and dynamicaly heightened sense of all that surrounds you when sometimes all you want is to shut the world off.
To calm my nerves, I ventured into a downtown bar. Cue the “Northern Exposure” intro music. The younger people wore knit hats inside, which, for me as a Philly guy, just didn’t make any sense. There were antlers on the wall and the older folks looked like they were the ones who’d taken said antlers off their furry owners. I wouldn’t call them “woodsy” people, but I’m sure they’d know what to do if given a pup tent, a knife and told to stay outside for the night. A jam band was playing “Friend of the Devil” on a small, one-step-elevated stage to the side. Hearing such a familiar tune in such an unfamiliar place made me feel more at ease. “I set out runnin’, but I’m takin’ my time…”
This was the start of a regular process. I’d be flown to some far-flung place, go stir-crazy in a hotel, and head to the nearest bar by myself to order up the local brew. A talk with the bartender, a poll of the bar riffraff about where to eat and when the weather would change, and I’d head back to my hotel slightly buzzed and with more to think about then when I arrived. Some relaxation plan. No matter how many locals I talked to, how in depth our discussions were on politics, family, travel or anything (caribou jerky in Alaska), it always felt like there was a pane of one-way glass in front of me. I’d sit in bars like this one or hotel lobbies or airports and although I could see everything, I felt that no one could see me. I was always an outsider looking in on an unfamiliar world.