Sunday, March 20, 2011

Denali: Day One

Midnight. Alaska. My plane landed at approximately 4am EST; I was groggy and sleep-deprived, thanks to perpetually screaming babies on two arduous three-hour flights, punctuated by a four hour layover in Seattle. Now I had not seen Aunt Mary since the mid-1990s, and I prayed she would recognize me. Not to worry, I had just pulled my duffel bag off the conveyor belt and stepped outside when a young, energetic woman embraced me.

We were up until 5am (Alaska time) sharing gossip, discovering our mutual independence, and confiding the familial pressures to conform. All the while, she was stuffing my backpack with forgotten necessities (insect repellant, extra-warm set of fleece, electric blanket in case it gets cold at night, etc).

Mary was somewhat of a renegade: bold, beautiful, and unabashedly single. She was married once, divorced, and doesn't bother to go steady. When I asked why, she shrugged and replied flippantly, "You get upset if they don't call. You get upset if they do call a few days later. You get upset if they do call and don't do what you expect. Why bother being upset?"

Good point. Sometimes the truth needs to be crystallized in simple terms.

"Besides," she added, grinning, "there are more men than women here."

Then we prepared to catch my train at 7 am. Why so early, you ask? Rule #1: In Alaska, public transportation is extremely and incomparably limited. How limited? Most buses have only two departures a day: one in the morning and one in the evening. Shuttles are even worse; there is only one departure per day. Which explains why the preferred method of traveling in the state is hitchhiking. In fact, you could get fined several hundred dollars for refusing to pick up a hitchhiker during the winter. Here is the rationale: it gets so bitterly and devastatingly cold during those dark months that the hitchhiker could freeze to death before the next car comes along.

Since it took nearly 8 hours to travel from Anchorage to Denali, it was wise to take the early train. The sky was cloudless and austerely bright. The rail route wove through a gorgeous inlet called Turnagain Arm, offering dramatic views of mountains and scenery, with prolific eagles and whales. Not having an eye for watching wildlife, I saw stunning peaks that struck me mute with awe and silver waters that reflected each peak like a spiral that reached towards both heaven and earth. This stretch of land is legendary for its beauty, placed in the same league as Italy's Amalfi coast.

Then I sought a nap (I was up 36 hours at this point), but was plagued by the same curse: crying infants on the train.

In the afternoon, I finally stumbled into the Visitor Center at Denali National Park, operated on monopoly by the ubiquitous Aramark. I tried to buy a latte and was promptly charged $33.06. No, there was no alcohol, there was nothing special about the latte and I did read the board before buying (it was supposed to be $3.36). Just an incompetent clerk. Given the economic problems of this country, why are people like that still employed?

Plopping myself on a bench and feeling very heavy with fatigue, I waited for the shuttle from the Denali Mountain Morning Hostel to pick me up. The inevitable question: why on earth did "Princess" book a hostel?

Rule # 2: Denali National Park is a paradox and offers two extremities. There is luxurious lodging for $300 plus a night, or hostel lodging for $30 a night (or you can camp inside the park for free, although there are bears and the Park authorities will not be held legally accountable). There is no in-between. For the truly rustic, affluent adventurer, you can opt for an extraordinary log cabin with sumptuous room service, a spacious hot tub, and included personal laundry services. Or you can share a room with four other poor students.

Being jobless without any substantial possession to my name, I prudently chose the hostel. However, I had no idea what to expect, since I always frequented the Marriott or Hilton whenever I traveled for work.

To my pleasant surprise, the hostel was a well-organized lodge with clean amenities, a lovely kitchen, and surrounded by a host of smaller cabins. There was also plenty of young travelers from all over the world to converse with.

On that first night, however, I was a zombie. Once I saw that my bed and sheets were clean (I had six roommates), I collapsed in exhaustion.

At 2 am, someone opened the window and rays of resplendent sunshine fell onto my face. Apparently, the sun had not yet set. During the summer, Alaska boasts nearly 22hours of daylight.

A never-ending day.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Beginnings of an Alaskan Adventure

For most of my young adulthood, friends have stuck me with the affectionate and annoying nickname of "Princess." Part of it was being Asian and delicate and hopelessly uncoordinated, compounded by my love of food, fashion, and gems. However, the connotation was also one of dependency, of limitation, of always needing help from others. So I set out to change that perception. I made plans to visit the mecca of the hardy outdoors: Alaska.

Now my aunt, an accountant, lived in Anchorage and I had a standing offer to tour the rugged landscape of the Great White North with her. Two weeks before my arrival she called. "Sweetie, my quarterly financial deadlines coincide with your visit. Unfortunately, I have to work, but you are welcome to stay with me. I also suggest that you see the state on your own."

So I was forced to brave the wild on my own. Mind you, I had never gone camping before, not even with a group, let alone by myself. I began to question the prudence of my hasty decision to prove everyone wrong. Every time I mentioned the idea to a friend or former colleague, the reactions ranged from prolonged silence to disbelieving laughter to "Are you sure that is a good idea?" Nonetheless, I swallowed my doubts and started mapping my route (Anchorage, Denali National Park, Seward, Homer, etc), booking hostels and convincing myself that I was indeed the strapping adventurous sort.

Of course, I procrastinated on buying supplies until three days before the journey. I went to Campmor, a huge camping goods outlet in Paramus, NJ, where I honestly could not name half the equipment stacked high to the ceiling. In a frenzy, I called my cousin Paul, who had been to Alaska the previous year. I panicked when he didn't answer at first.

"So what do I need? I've been roaming the aisles for forty minutes hoping you'd call."

Chuckle. "Okay, waterproof hiking boots, lightweight rain gear, don't forget the mosquito nets for your face and socks for your feet, bug spray, a bell to fend off bears, a compass. Don't know how to use it? It's simple."

And he proceeded to enumerate directions that I didn't remember as well as a host of other survival items that I apparently forgot. So I went and hunted down the ideal pair of waterproof hiking boots, except that the closest size to my 7.5 was an eight. Not realizing the importance of footwear that fit securely on my feet as I climbed mountains, I bought the size eight boots because the colors were most amenable to my new rain attire. (And it was most reasonably priced.)

Armed with my backpack and necessary items suggested by a bonafide hiking expert, I grew more and more excited about the trip. I also started reading a fascinating account of Chris McCandless, a promising and philosophical university graduate who sold his car and gave away all his money to go into the Alaskan wilderness. It was a riveting book; I began to idolize the nobility of a young man to dispense with materialism and to live off the earth.

Into the Wild. What a wonderful way to find oneself.

It wasn't until my plane rose from the tarmac that I realized he died in Denali National Park.