Maybe it is possible to get anywhere in the world with five plane rides. Anchorage took two. From there you can take a plane out into the mosquito farm at the center of the state, but I took a cab to the motel.
The driver was from Pakistan, and had been trying to leave the state for the last 10 winters. He left for a couple of weeks once for a wedding, but the summers and the mountains bring him back. The city wasn’t too large and there wasn’t much traffic - he could drive across it in an hour. It is a manageable size town of 250,000, and it felt nice to be driven by a cabbie who wasn’t trying to do a business deal on a cell phone.
He dropped me of at the motel, and after checking into the room I went back to the front desk. A large pale woman was behind the corner. Ignoring the brochures on the wall I asked, “What is around here that I could see this afternoon?”
She replied, “The Mall.”
Perhaps I did need more than two plane flights. For her the nearby glaciers had nothing on the local center with its footlocker shoe shop and Walden Books that did not carry anything written by Jack London. It was much easier to find an ice planet visited by the large selection of Star Trek books than to find the impression of John Muir when he first came here.
Her other suggestion was to head downtown. It has been 17 years since I have been to Anchorage. The shops on Fourth and Fifth Avenue are still huddled together for the Alaskan style combo of warmth and convenience. There is brewpub next to a science museum -which probably measures the affects of alcohol on the size of fish. Sharing an office a few blocks away is the police and chaplain in case of a heated midwinter argument. On the other side of the street it is possible to pick up not only arctic furs but also the ulu that cuts them.
Still much has changed. The concept of blue light can now refer to not only to the Aurora Borealis, but also the Big K-mart on the outskirts of town. That complex is super sized like most of the food that is served between the pawn shops and cash advance stores. The crazy horse saloon has a tourist brochure in the rack between the flying fishing trip and glacier tours. It advertised that the nude woman arrive after four any day of the week and a great gift shop. I fear for the family whose travel agent misunderstood the details behind the full arctic experience.
The day I arrived the front page of the local paper covered both a police officer and a fifteen-year-old girl, and an 82-pound fish. I figure the chaplain and brew pub must have been pretty busy that day as well.
It is a place that has always been in motion. In the winter it is the starting point for the thousand-mile Iditarod dog sledding race. The summer brings both the migrations of whales to feast on the plankton bloom and the white motor homes to follow them.
I was there for my purple herd - the noble band of warriors who decided only a few months ago that they would go this distance to raise money for Leukemia research. My knee has been out of commission for a while and I was unable to run with my friend who I convinced a few months ago to try and do it.
You might not get to know someone by walking a mile in their shoes, but you will understand their heart if you watch them go 26.2. The race was during the summer solstice, which affects your circadian rhythms like a trip to Sugarville for the a.d.d. crowd. I never knew that being on top of the world meant being so close to the sun.
It was a scorer of a day. The smiles I saw at mile 4 had disintegrated into a steady concentration at mile 17, and dazed enthusiasm at the end. I ran with a few people at the middle mark to help with their transition from tank tracks to office parks, and cheered everyone I saw. A good portion of the people helped my cause by having their names written on their jerseys. It's the same convention that causes the bodies of water north of Anchorage to be called "Big Lake" and the perhaps more popular "Fish Lake"
The end was a blur of medals, tears, hugs, and bottled water. The endorphin high was so great that my group got kicked out of a bar on Fourth Avenue during our post-post-post victory party. A hundred years ago on the same land there would have been gun fired. The only causality was a headache and a slightly later start the next morning.
I headed down to Seward with Barry, my friend whom I convinced to run the marathon. The road south of Anchorage winds along the coast. There isn’t much space for the asphalt; the white splotchy mountains almost dip their toes into the sea. The earth is carved either by humans whom tunneled to Whiter, a small village home to sea kayaks and fishing boats; or by 10,000-year-old glaciers that grind gentler u-shaped valleys than rivers do in the south.
These glaciers are retreating. Gravity still pulls them down hill, but they are melting a little more each year than new snow being added to them. It comes across as exhibit A for global warming, and the viewing stations built with the oil war chest in the early 80’s can no longer see their edge. Instead the stations have a plastic model and a half hour slide show - almost better than real nature. The gift shop remains open.
Seward is another town that harvests halibut. While most of the bounty heads back to the lower 48, some is available in a burrito package with three different choices of salsa and a Corona to wash it down. It’s cuisine by NAFTA, and when we were done we caught a ride on one of the boats that toured the harbor.
Most of our fellow passengers still wore their medals from the marathon and stumbled around the deck in a Mr. Roboto homage. Mike was our captain and he would shout instructions at his sole member of the crew. He certainly could have run the boat by himself; he once sailed solo from Hawaii to Seward on a 25 foot sloop, but he prefer someone else make sandwiches and point out the head, while he barked into the radio to nearby ships.
“Lovely Captain Heather, see anything out there?”
“Just puffins. No goats. You?”
“Saw a bald eagle in the same cove as yesterday.”
You could try to ask him questions about the birds in the water, but he would explain that he was a captain and not a naturalist. The tougher question, however, was how did he lose both of his arms? Rather than answer the same story twice a day during tourist season he kept a black binder with the tale.
In the early 70’s he was working as a fireman and fell into the flames. He lost one arm right away and after several skin grafts on the other he had that amputated as well. With the insurance money he went to college and got a boat. He spent several years battling with authorities to get his pilot’s license. The binder is full letters from government agency trying to find the right language to explain that they were sorry for his condition but were worried about how self reliant he would be in an emergency.
It was hard to look at the letters and not wonder if government agents knew the difference between a Genoa and a jib, much less how make the journey from Hawaii to here on their own.
He took the boat away from the shore and headed towards a group of islands. A few porpoises danced in the wake of our bow. They have the same coloration as killer whales and puffins, as if to suggest that hunting for fish requires formal attire. Mike mentioned that porpoises once saved him on that solo trip. He added that it gets pretty lonely to be on the sea that long.
Now he gets to chat to the Lovely Captain Heather a few times a day. She was bringing a troop of boy scouts out while we were headed back to the harbor. Mike told her about the porpoises, and she tried to downplay the job of shuffling 20 packages of hormones clothed in green attire and merit badges. We said thanks to Mike as we left the boat and headed back to Anchorage so that we would be ready for the following day’s route. We did see a few eagles, some gulls and a couple of moose, but I have no image for the Lovely Captain Heather.
Denali is to the north of Anchorage. The way is more through the woods and one of the better marijuana growing areas with an occasional oasis for gas and espresso. I am not sure what the chemical inspiration was for the Purple Moose Shack, but they do make a mean cup of mocha.