I stand with my hands on my hips staring at my bed, upon which is strewn a mighty array of freshly cleaned clothes. There is a pile each of pants, shirts, socks and underwear. I have approximately 30 minutes to stuff what I can into a backpack, locate my wallet and passport, gather a few toiletries and get myself out the door. Alaska awaits.
My down to the buzzer quandary is only partially connected to the fact that I felt the need to try on all the clothes I may want to take with me and evaluate how I look in front of the mirror. Neither can I blame the ridiculous amount of time I spent in the bathroom smearing over the counter hair removal goo on and off various parts of my body. Sure, those things took longer than I had anticipated, but in the moments before I reach the actual point of no return where not even I can get myself out of what is starting to feel like a really bad idea, I’ve come to a realization.
There is a tiny part of me that doesn’t want to go. Which is ironic because I’ve spent a good portion of the last two months being relatively convinced my traveling companion would bail and I would end up driving around Alaska by myself. It is a scenario I considered before committing to the trip and one that seems possible given our recent communications haven’t seemed to leave either of us with the warm fuzzies. On some level the idea of traveling Alaska alone seems more inviting than spending a week with someone who wishes they were somewhere else. Still…. he’s there now and I said I would go.
I reach for a pile and start stuffing fresh smelling clothes into the backpack by the fist full.
I affectionately call this friend of mine Diesel, and we met years ago planting trees north of Prince George. We’ve kept in touch on and off over the years, mostly swapping emotionally charged emails back and forth for a week or two at a time. We’ve met up the few times he’s managed to make it out west and during those times I’ve been unable to deny feeling an attraction to him. I remember him having an energy that was impossible to resist, a type of magnetism that would make me feel restless and bored with my surroundings. Despite the fact that his departures would end up feeling like some form of heartbreak, for the vast majority of the 13 or so years we’ve been friends, we have not been in contact.
At the bus depot I am reminded of what it is like to be a traveler in transit. On a good day it can be a time of poignant reflection, other times fear, frustration and self doubt can rule. You wonder how long things will take, and if it will be how you are imagining it to be. If you should be going somewhere else. With someone else? My preferred mode of transportation is a vehicle that I am driving. For me vacations are time of freeing yourself from the confines of routine and being at the mercy of an arbitrary timetable makes me feel like a hostage.
Several summers ago on a whim, I decided to go to the Yukon to experience the solstice under the midnight sun. I was answering the call of an ethereal destination and the memory of a ghost that I could never shake. That year I loaded my trusted Toyota 4Runner with food, clothes and camping gear and drove up with my intrepid four-legged best friend in the passenger seat and nothing but that gut feeling to guide me. I spent the solstice in the Arctic circle with some like minded strangers, three days in a gravel pit waiting for a new radiator and two nights on Keno Hill watching the sun sink but never set into a valley all my own. It was the perfect getaway for someone who likes to chase things that cannot be caught and run from things that aren’t really holding you back. Once the spell of the Yukon has hold of you, it never lets you go.
This time is very different. I could not have explained why I wanted to go to the Yukon six years ago, but the reasons for going to Alaska can be expressed in one simple sentence. There is someone I’d like to spend time with and a place I would love to spend time in. It hadn’t felt simple at first, both of us at the tail end of emotional adventures and seemingly keen to embark on another. We joked about exploding rainbows and unicorn stampedes. In the two months since, it’s fair to say that our conversations have cooled. For Diesel, our week long excursion is coming at the tail end of an epic three week expedition to Denali, North America’s highest peak. He spent 8 months planning, training, and mentally preparing for an adventure that very few have the tenacity to even attempt. I can only imagine how mundane being a tourist on the Kenai Peninsula must seem to him now.
On the bus at last, I reach for my Lonely Planet Alaska book and flip through the already worn pages. The idea of a unicorn stampede may have given me the courage to book a ticket, but the lure of phrases like “Whittier is weird” and “mind-blowing paddles” have motivated me to stay the course. There are two other travelers with backpacks on our relatively empty greyhound and we’re all sitting near the back. One is an Englishman on his way home from a lengthy roaming adventure in South America while the other is a university student from Melbourne making the most of his summer holiday.
The Australian student and I find ourselves making our way to the airport together, meandering through Seattle by train while Mount Rainier hovers on our right. We chat our way to the Alaskan Airlines kiosk, where we part ways. Ironically, Alaskan is taking him to New York City while I’m left to search for a budget airline called Jet Blue to get me to the northern state. I’ve been lucky – so far there hasn’t been any delays, if my luck continues there’s a good chance I’ll actually make my flight. I’m surprised at how natural it feels to be carrying a backpack and not knowing exactly where I’m going. It feels really, really good.
On the plane, I’m sandwiched between a young girl heading home to Soldotna and a gentleman going to visit his sister in Anchorage. The girl tells me about her summer near Seattle visiting family while the gentleman closes his eyes and tries to sleep. She says Seattle was fun, but she’s excited to be going home to see her boyfriend. She shows me some pictures. Young love must be a nice thing to return to. I tell her I’m heading to Alaska to hang out with a guy that I’ve known for a really long time but that I’m not sure he still wants to hang out or even if he’s going to meet me at the airport or be in Alaska altogether.
Her eyes widen and she offers me a mint. Why? Why wouldn’t he be there?
I thank her for the mint and peel off the wrapper. Because. He likes to say that he’s a mess and that he’s trouble and that I should stay away. As long as I’ve known him he’s needed something to confine him so that he can break free from that. It’s part of the reason why I’ve enjoyed spending time with him. Now for the first time I’m the thing that’s confining him.
What are you going to do?
I shrug. It’s out of my control. He’s either there or he’s not and he either wants to hang out or he doesn’t.
Do you want him to be there?
Well…. I roll the mint over in my mouth and consider this. Yeah. I mean, I know I’ll have a great time in Alaska regardless, but out of all the people I know I think he’d be the best to explore it with. Best case scenario is still that he’s here and the two of us have a blast.
The girl from Soldotna nods and returns her focus to her smart phone.
It’s nearly 11pm and still light out when we start to descend upon Anchorage. I’m loosing my mind as I lean over and look out the window. Oh my god, that is Alaska! Someone sitting behind us is explaining that the body of water below is likely the Turnagain arm and that there is another narrow bay on the other side of Anchorage that they can’t remember the name of. I’m admiring the long stretches of green, dotted with puddles of blue; a gigantic wetland. I’m surprised at how much land has been parceled with defined square outlines resembling farmland.
My travel itinerary was given to me in Vancouver time, which is an hour ahead of Alaska time. Which means I’m at the airport an hour earlier than expected. I collect my luggage and sprawl out on a nearby bench to catch a little shuteye while I wait for Diesel to arrive. I drift off wondering if the taxi’s will run all night, and what the name of the hostel I’m booked at is. Eventually, I get a text.
I’m at the airport. Cinnamon bun 2nd floor. Hold on. I’m coming down. I’ll be close to the doors by the arrivals.
I sit up and collect my things. Backpack, tent, sleeping bag, day pack. I make my way slowly over to where the escalators are to take me to the second floor.
Next up: Goodnight, Anchorage