Monday, May 30, 2011

Fourth of July: By Night

So I left the boat with a phone number and a rendezvous the following week in Anchorage. At the Moby Dick hostel, I ran into Matthias, whose big toe had turned green from frostbite (no one leaves McKinley completely unscathed). Latecomer to the party was the Scottish guy from the Denali, who brought me an endearing letter from Rick.

By now, even I was wondering what all the fuss was about. Mind you, I looked like a skinny, androgynous boy from afar. No make-up, loose clothing, and striped fedora hat that covered half my face and all of my hair. My philosophy was to be as inconspicuous as possible when traveling. If you're too pretty, you're a target. If you look rich, you get mugged. The idea was to fly under the radar.

My wise cousin Paul likened life to the theory of inertia. "Everything will keep happening the way it always has until you do something or something happens to dramatically change course."

Up until now, my story has been fairly consistent: a profound sense of inadequacy prevented me from becoming the best version of myself. While I always had good jobs, dated good-looking guys with money, and stayed trim myself, something was always missing. I always felt inhibited. I attracted folks who were controlling, egocentric, and materialistic. I was hurt by their behaviors. I was always a victim.

Alaska was a fundamental break with my lifestyle and up to that point, my mode of thinking. It was risky, spontaneous, and absolutely impractical, spurred by some vague yearning of the heart. Here I met a completely different type of man, free-spirited and outdoorsy and unconstrained by expectations. They all affirmed me. Granted, the ratio of men to women was 2 to 1 in this state, so it was by no means completely a function of my feminine charms. For you single gals out there, Alaska is a fantastic place to meet someone.

Back to the Fourth of July. Matthias and I took a walk through the streets of Seward, narrow and dusty and very small-town despite seasonal activities. There was a street fair; children were climbing into small-scale, carnival-like contraptions that spun them around or revolving globes that made them feel weightless. Between bites of hot dogs and funnel cakes, I was impressed by how brilliant Matthias was. Logical and scientific, his approach to life was purely deductive. Then he confided in me about his family, how his parents pinned all their hopes on him because his sister had special mental needs.

Half German, half Swiss, Matthias lived in Zurich, where he was studying for his PHD in economics. I was most curious about Switzerland, as my well-traveled friend Jenny described it as the most beautiful country in Europe. He mentioned that I ever visited, to give him a call.

I'd love to hang out, I replied.

No, he corrected, to stay. We have a couch for visitors.


Apparently, this is a common phenomenon with backpackers, a sort of bohemian hospitality among transient soul-searchers. Not one to refuse free lodging, I nodded.

Lola was waiting for him when we returned to the hostel. Evidently, she had invited Mattias among several others to party that night, and he reluctantly followed her (Swiss Germans are iron-bound by their word). I wasn't invited.

Not to worry, I soon procured an invitation by a girl I peripherally knew from Denali, a biologist who presented her thesis (or was it dissertation?) in Fairbanks. Now, Seward was not exactly hopping with bars; there were precisely two joints occupying the same space, separate by a half wall that allowed glimpses into the opposite side.

So I wound up on one side of the bar and spotted Matthias on the other. Lola was dancing extremely close to him, her arms all over him, and he seemed markedly uncomfortable. Hoping to relieve him from his misery, I sauntered over only to find that he had disappeared.

News coverage of Michael Jackson's memorial service flickered; no sound was audible as clips of the famous videos Beat It, Thriller, and Billie Jean flashed across TV screens. I stifled a cry and willed back tear; it was the end of an era, the break dancing, the moonwalk, and that omnipresent glittering glove.

I bumped into Matthias teary-eyed and all; he had come looking for me. I glanced back at Lola, now seducing another guy.

We talked, we danced, we drank mediocre Alaskan beer, and I found Swiss men absolutely divine.

Despite the fact that Matthias and I didn't have a thing in common.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fourth of July: By Day

Remember the old Brothers Grimm fairytales where the remote hero traveled to the edge of the world to accomplish some extraordinary and impossible task to win the hand of the fair princess? Back in the days when the earth was believed to be flat?

I imagined that the edge of the world would have looked like Seward, the meeting place between mountains and seas, where everything was silver at twilight, the ridges, the ripples, and even the stones on the shore. Darkness came a bit earlier, since Seward was farther south than Denali, but there was always a lingering reflection of light somewhere.

Mount Marathon was the highest peak in the city, and renowned for the races held on Independence Day. Only 900 people were allowed to run (first-come, first-serve basis), and all of Alaska turned out to cheer their brethren. It was a distance of approxiamtely 3.1 miles and it seemed that both Matthias and Lola had signed up to run.

Since Mt Marathon was the most happening place to be during the Fourth of July, where did I go? Naturally, I had booked a day cruise to view the Kenai Fjords and wildlife, virtue of my lovely habit of procrastination and there was little availability on the other days. This suited me fine, since I was never the life-of-the-party, center-of-everything kind of gal.

The boat was divided in little tables and I wound up sitting among a lady with a bleeding lip, a father-and-son pair from Montana or Wyoming on a bonding excursion. The lady looked a bit disheveled, and she related how walkable Mt. Kilimanjaro was. "It's a very long distance, but you just walk it. Porters carry your stuff for you."

On to wildlife viewing. I confess that I saw seals and eagles and a whale or two, but quite honestly the recollection was blurry. What I did remember distinctly were the ice formations floating on the sea's surface and breathtaking glaciers that glowed blue and white. Chunks of ice continually dribbled from the glacier onto the sea, creating a lacelike swirl. Chris, son from my table, offered to take my picture.

I don't think I've ever met anyone so balanced. Chris was a geologist on temporary assignment in Anchorage, and his father was visiting for a few days. Even his appearance was earthy, hair the color of cinnamon.

I was nodding; the boat was tumbling and waves of sea sickness hit me all at once. Wondering how I could appear attractive while pulling the Bonine tablets (that Matthias had given me yesterday) out of my overstuffed backpack, I confessed that I was feeling a bit queasy and ran to get some hot water.

Miraculous solution: hot water and lemon and honey. Cures all kinds of indigestion. I came upon the remedy accidentally, by vomiting in Capri after I had stayed up all night to watch the sun rise over Sicily. Needless to say, I am one of those creatures whose sleep is vital to functioning.

So I must have been gone for about twenty-five minutes searching for my remedy. I wondered if Chris was still there. In my part of the world, that fast New York bar hopping scene, you disappear for five minutes and the promising prospect you were talking to has already found another proposition.

I peeked before going above the cabin, to the deck.

Yep, he was still there.

And he still wanted to take me out.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Onward to Seward

Seward was the place to be for the Fourth of July. Famous for its fishing, glaciers, and wildlife off the coast of the Kenai Peninsula, the city is the namesake of the politician who negotiated the territory's purchase from Russia. Remember Seward's Icebox?

I got there on the afternoon of July 3rd. The bus stop was approximately one mile from the Moby Dick hostel and my duffel bag seemed to have grown inexorably heavy. Hence began my own stint at hitchhiking. Being the skeptical New Yorker that I am, I wasn't about to hitch a ride with just any old car. I was extremely selective.

Here was my strategy: Aim for the minivans and the moms. Reason #1: With women, there was significantly lower probability of being sexually assaulted or raped, although the risk still existed in the case of lesbians. Reason #2: No mother would attempt to murder me in front of the cherished offspring she had labored so long and hard to bring into this world. Reason # 3: A minivan almost guaranteed that it was a mother and a child who was more or less completely dependent on maternal care, so the kid would be a welcome distraction should I need to escape. Nonetheless, I made sure that I saw a car-seat and some adorable, cherubic little darling bouncing from the back before I got in.

I picked 'em better than expected. A shapely young mother drove me to the hostel, pushing blond bangs out of her watery blue eyes as she told me about her husband, a pilot who flew tourists over the scenic glaciers. It was $200 a trip, but would be $50 per person if I could find 3 other passengers to go with me and split the cost. So I spent the next hour searching for flight companions. I was not particularly successful, since the typical hardy hostel-frequenting adventurer preferred to climb Exit Glacier for free. Yep, Princess still had a lot to learn.

Moby Dick hostel was owned by a German couple, a male psychiatric nurse and his corporate wife, who decided to retreat from stresses of the rat race here in Alaska. They run the hostel during summer months and then hibernate in their cabins in the winter season, home-schooling the kids.

Culturally, Alaska is a different country compared to the Lower 48. They don't understand materialism, this concept of having stuff, or the competitive nature of acquiring things (although recent transplants are changing that in Anchorage). Their values are much simpler and down to earth. They are only interested in climbing or fishing or hiking or hunting, and everything else is a distraction. Jobs are meant to pass the time until they can get outdoors and the warmth startles nature back to life.

The owners then showed me the patio, where a group of travelers were enjoying the hours before dusk with beers and books. There was a loud, boisterous blond girl named Lola who would not stop talking about herself. Next to her was a charming Swiss economist who was making his rounds around the state after summiting McKinley.

His name was Matthias.