Edith Wharton said that one of the most unknown traits of 1920's New Yorkers is that they like to get away from amusement faster than they liked to get there. Same is true of Denali tourists. After hiking along the mountains and around the picturesque valleys of the Eielson Visitor Center, Kari and Howie and I were ready to go back. No such luck.
It was around 5pm. Apparently, fatigue struck at universal times, as every tour bus that passed through was already packed with exhausted adventurers from the previous stop. We waited for nearly two hours before Aramark sent an additional bus out to pick us up. I realized that it was far better to be at the first or at the very last stop; those in the middle were merely neglected. Interesting commentary; this was also the plight of the American middle class.
Sweaty and tired, I slumped down on the bench, waiting for the hostel's shuttle. It was a humid day, and the air was teeming with mosquitoes. To protect my fair complexion, I wore the headnet, which covered my face entirely. The fibrous material was so opaque that I could barely see through. I grew hot after a while and endeavored to take it off.
Uh oh. It was stuck. It was essentially a netted bag over the head, with a drawstring at the neck and the string was knotted fast. There I sat, struggling to get the net off and failing miserably. Worse yet, I could not see where I was going. Let's not even get into how ridiculous I felt. Thank God no one else was there.
Then Joan sat beside me, uncharacteristically silent. I never thought I would be glad to see her.
"How was your day?"
"Great and exhausting. I went all the way out to Kantishna." Kantishna was an old gold mining town, located at the very end of the route at mile 92 and surrounded by private property.
"Umm...can you help me with something? Could you help me take this off?"
I cringed in anticipation. I braced myself for the giggles, the snickers, at the very least a joke or two about the foolishness of finding myself stuck with a mosquito net over my head.
Joan did not react the way I expected. She simply looked at me, said sure, and promptly untied the mosquito net.
I was humbled. Here was a woman whose gauche disposition and inappropriately young mannerisms had caused me to avoid her. Yet despite her idiosyncracies, she was far more generous-hearted than me. She did not judge.
I came to see her differently. Sure, she was still annoying, but she possessed a childlike wonder, appreciating everything. A pureness of joy that most people would find disorienting because she was so insistent on sharing.
And I needed her.
I thanked her heartily.
When I returned to the hostel, everyone was having dinner together, sort of a spontaneous farewell ritual. Since it was the end of a weekend, everyone would set off to a different city tomorrow. I sat down with a group of Australians (those ubiquitous Australians!), conversing freely and without inhibition. It was only here in Alaska that people were willing to accept who I am at the moment, who I am evolving into, and who I would ultimately become. Back at home, I was stifled by expectations of who I was. Trapped into stagnancy.
I related what the mountains taught me, that my true identity was being the daughter of this great interconnected world, this divine spirit that binds us all.
They nodded in agreement. Then I noticed Rick looking at me shyly and moving slowly to sit next to me. We ended up talking all night, long after the others had left the common room.
He had joined the navy after finishing college, and found it difficult to obey the orders of superiors who were not educated. He was on active duty, but unhappily so. He elaborated on the cramped quarters of the ship, the few precious weeks of leave, and his fears about Afghanistan. He didn't want to go home to Virginia because his wife left him months before and being a good Catholic Filipino boy, his parents would not accept a divorce.
I listened. Then he told me he noticed me that first day, and singled me out each time our buses crossed paths, but I seemed so presumptuous that he didn't want to talk to me.
So why talk to me now?
"Now I think I know you better."
The sky finally darkened, and he gave me a massage, his fingers lingering along my shoulder as if was the most delicate porcelain. He was a gentleman and I was glad, as I did not want to cheapen a human connection by turning it into a one night stand. He asked if he could hold me, to bring the memory of a warm woman with him back to the ship. He held me until the sun rose.
I stumbled into my (shared) room at daybreak, but I didn't sleep the hour and a half before my scheduled departure. I kept turning the idea over and over in my head, but I couldn't definitely decide what to do. When it was time, I packed my bags and ran out to the shuttle.
On impulse, I ran back and banged the door of Rick's cabin. I woke him up as well as his baffled neighbors, and kissed him. It was a long, passionate kiss, with morning breath and all. Then I went on my way.
You see, we all need each other.