Alaska

I had seen pictures. I’d been obsessed with looking at pictures for months, actually. I’d looked online and in books. I’d looked at maps. I even stole a magazine from my husband’s optometrist. North to Alaska, a magazine all about the towns in Alaska that are accessible by road or boat.

There aren’t very many. Mostly you need to fly to get where you want to go. Even if you don’t have to fly, you probably would. It’s a very long drive from anywhere in the lower 48 or Canada into Anchorage or Fairbanks. It’s a long boat ride to Juneau. You can’t drive to most of the towns in the panhandle. It’s all flying in or boating in. In the middle of the state, planes are really the only way to get around.

I found this out a couple of years ago, when my obsession with Alaska began. I had always wanted to go there, but it wasn’t like this. It got to the point where I thought about it all the time. I read about it, looking at various websites devoted to the state or the towns or the wildlife. I read all about the Marine Highway. I googled “Juneau” or “Ketchikan” or “Skagway” and spent hours – literally hours – looking at pictures of the towns online. I memorized their average temperatures and compared them to where I live. I dreamed about living in each town, thought about the good and the bad of not only moving thousands of miles away from my home, but of moving to those specific places.

I found television shows about Alaska. A show about the Iditarod, a show about flying in Alaska, driving in Alaska, and others that I don’t even remember now. I lost interest in things that weren’t about Alaska. I didn’t want to read books if they weren’t guidebooks to Alaska, or mentioned Alaska, or were somehow related to my fantasy of going to Alaska.

Before we went, I even set one of my new stories in Alaska. That one story that has been occupying my brain for the last year and four months. I started it partly because I wanted to set something in the location of my obsession. Because I couldn’t stop thinking about Alaska. I figured I might as well use that to my advantage.

My husband and I went to Alaska in June. We saw those three towns I obsessed over: Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway. Even though I had seen countless pictures, seeing it in person was very different. It was amazing, seeing the Gastineau Channel and Douglas Island, the bridge over the water, the colorful downtown buildings, the steep, steep hills up into neighborhoods, the floatplanes landing right on the water while other planes bound for the airport flew overhead.

We found a comfortable coffee shop in Juneau that I loved. We ordered coffee and pizza and ate while looking out the window, still in awe that we were actually on the ground in Alaska. It didn’t seem real at first. After food, we walked up those steep hills to the top of the neighborhoods over downtown. Those hills are steeper than anything around where I live, with the exception of the roads that lead to houses that are built in our foothills. But I suppose those roads in Juneau do lead to the foothills. The town just happens to be built up the side of those hills.

We wore ourselves out walking on those hills. They were so steep, it was honestly like going hiking. After that we crossed the bridge and walked around on Douglas Island, fantasizing about living in those houses right on the water. On our way back into town, we stood on the bridge and watched airplanes for nearly half an hour. My husband is getting his pilot’s license, so we’re a little bit obsessed with airplanes.

Skagway was less amazing. It was a bit disappointing in a way. We went in the middle of tourist season, so the town was absolutely swamped with tourists who were intent on buying diamonds, watches, mass-produced carvings and moccasins, and anything imprinted with the name of the town or the state. It was so full of people who didn’t seem to care that they were in such an amazing place that my husband and I hid in a fish restaurant most of the time we were there.

This fish place was on the water, and had the most amazing halibut fish and chips I’ve ever had. I have to mention that it’s the only time I’ve had halibut. It was my first experience with fish and chips. But it was some of the best food I’ve had in my life. When we get a chance to revisit the panhandle, we are going to go to Skagway for no other reason than to have that food again.

That restaurant was one of our favorite things about Skagway. The other was that we could walk right alongside the fence separating the airport from the town. We were walking alongside the runway, and would be right there when a plane landed. Unfortunately, none did land or take off while we were there.

It was raining in Ketchikan. We liked it. It made the other tourists run for cover, but we stayed out in the streets and went exploring. First we got coffee, because we’re obsessed with coffee. The woman who owned the coffee shop is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. When she found out we’re violinists, she let us come behind the counter so she could show us Youtube videos of violinists that she likes. She talked to us about how the people who come into town on the cruise ships love buying diamonds. Like it’s a thing to go to Alaska to buy diamonds that come from the Caribbean. Who knew?

After our coffee, we walked more, and found ourselves leaving downtown, heading into the neighborhoods again. By a patio overlooking a waterfall, I saw a little shop that looked like it had wood carvings. I’m obsessed with wood carvings, totems, and the like, so I made my husband go inside.

There we met a man that I can, without any doubt, call the nicest person I’ve met in my life. He was interesting. He owns the shop and the attached apartment building. He used to work for the Marine Highway, and had retired. He only owns the shop because he likes to meet people, not because he needs the money. When we told him we had come in on a cruise ship, and that we disliked it and wished we had come in on the Marine Highway, he told us all about the highway. He also told us his thoughts on the tourists, and mentioned the diamond thing just like the woman in the coffee shop.

When he found out that we had a very limited time in Ketchikan, and that we had no way to get around but on foot, he loaned us his truck to drive to the totem park a ways along the island. That’s right, I said he loaned us his truck. Two total strangers that he knew nothing about. He handed over his keys and gave us directions, simply because he knew how much I wanted to see the totems.

I’ve met a lot of nice people, but I had never experienced anything like that. I had been grouchy about being on the cruise ship, because it wasn’t our type of thing at all, and because we’d been regretting going to Alaska that way since about day 2 on the boat. But that man’s kindness made all of my annoyance vanish like it didn’t matter at all. That he trusted us that much, and was that nice made everything else seem trivial.

It may not sound like much. Some guy loaned us his crappy truck, with one windshield wiper, no seatbelts, no rearview mirror, and a foot-long shift stick, to drive along a narrow road through pouring rain to a totem park that was so crowded we couldn’t even find parking, so we just drove by and looked from the car…. But it changed the tone of the trip for me. It reminded me that I was in Alaska, and that it was beautiful. It made me feel bad about being grouchy with everyone all the time. I wanted to be like that man.

When we took the truck back, we spent $20 in his shop on a raven totem and two coffee mugs that say “Ketchikan Indian Community” on them. $20 for one of the best experiences of my life. Well worth it. After we left his shop, we hauled ass back to the coffee shop to buy salmon wraps for lunch, since Ketchikan is considered the salmon capital of the world. I had been dreaming about getting salmon there for months.

That was the end of our experience in Alaska. We had very little time, but we saw and did as much as we could in that time. I want to go back. We had planned to go back this summer, but it isn’t going to work out financially. My next big dream is to go to northern Alaska in March. First to Nome, to see the end of the Iditarod, then to Bethel, to see the annual Cama-i dance festival. Eventually I need to go to Anchorage, too, to see the Cultural Center. But that will have to be a different trip.

The raven totem I got in Ketchikan has become my mascot. I’ve always liked ravens, but that vacation to Alaska made them dearer to me. The coffee shop in Juneau that I loved was called The Rookery, and was covered in pictures of ravens. Ravens the size of my pug were perched on buildings in all three towns, cawing at us and hopping around like fat black bobble-head dolls. On board the ship, we heard the naturalist tell a story about the raven and eagle clans of the Tlingit people. Finding that raven totem in Ketchikan was like a sign that my love of ravens wasn’t as weird as I had always thought. Being obsessed with black scavengers who are often associated with darkness and the coming of winter seems just fine now that I saw so many signs of them in Alaska.

I will go back. I have to. I need to do more research for my story. I need to explore the towns more. I need to go to new places, fly over the landscape in a plane, drive on those roads, go to the museums, hike the trails, see the glaciers, see more of those massive ravens. I’m still obsessed with Alaska. Even though I know I have to live where I am for my husband’s work, I still have fantasies about moving to Juneau, or spending Christmas up north where it’s dark most of the day, or spending all summer traveling around the state by plane. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do those things. Maybe I’ll never have the chance to go back, or to spend more time. But I am still obsessed, and I think I always will be.

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