Today was my fourth time in the Ted Stevens International airport in the past month. How quickly the foreign becomes familiar.
The month began with a week at the backcountry lodge: kayaking one fair evening, a tiny hike up Cottonwood Trail, although split-shift hours didn’t permit me to make it all the way to the tundra. A night of merriment and costumes in a staff tent-cabin crawl. Hastily-made arrangements to be present for the funeral of my last grandparent back in South Dakota, and an invigorating return to Alaskan air.
Round two of this foray into the country's largest state: I spent a night in the company’s Anchorage house, used for folks in transit, rode down to Cooper Landing (with one of the employees who’d most made me feel at home that first night I arrived) and to Seward with the Operations Manager and RPCV (returned Peace Corps volunteer) who had conducted my phone interview in July. After a laid-back evening in the port town of Seward, I boarded a boat for the four-hour, relaxed journey to the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, another of the parent company's remote locations for Alaskan getaways. A cold sea breeze accompanied us as we saw sea otters, harbor seals, orcas, humpback whales, puffins, eagles, and more wildlife in Resurrection Bay. A glacier calved as we bobbed alongside it, keeping enough distance to maintain safety without compromising the view.
We reached the lodge, and I got aquick tour and whirlwind introduction to the 20+ members of staff. The next ten days were filled with much of the same work as I’d been doing at KBL—washing dishes, folding sheets, preparing cabins for guest occupancy—but in a different location, with different views, a different vibe, a different staff community. The “new girl” feeling never quite wore off, but I was welcomed all the same. Kayaking and canoeing in the lagoon, stargazing on the beach, hiking up to the base of Pedersen Glacier and to the ridge that offered spectacular 360 degree views, and reading a John Grisham novel by candlelight filled my off-time hours.
As we wrapped up the season, there were nights of singing along with talented renditions of Avett Brothers music by talented manipulators of piano, guitar, banjo, tambourine, and cow-hide drum. ("Pack the car and write the note. Grab your bag and grab your coat. Tell the ones that need to know. We are headed north.") Games of Apples to Apples, Celebrity, and Big 2. Stitching to help one guide finish her homemade bridesmaids’ gifts as she prepares to wed another staff member next month. More costumes and drinking and dancing. And laughter—so much laughter.
Reverse the trail: boat to Seward, shuttle to Cooper Landing, then to Anchorage; taxi to the airport.
And somewhere in there…I did what I came to do. Had the conversation I flew over 3,300 miles to have. Watched the Kenai rush by and the sun dip below the trees and the last embers of the fire die out. Felt the steady rhythm of the rocking chair—how I love rocking chairs. (If only I had succeeded in convincing YasiProsper, my carpenter, to learn how to craft one in Masamba. I may never have left.)
Felt the warmth of friendship. A closeness I still don’t know how to explain. The certainty that the story is still being written. Though goodbye was painful, I know it’s not forever.
I came to Alaska to see not just an old penpal, but to experience for myself the place and community that he’s admired so much in his writing, lauding such praises as, “Alaska gives me more than any place I’ve ever been.” In venturing north to glimpse this feast, I found myself nourished by it as well.
Because through the few weeks of this Alaskan adventure, there were conversations upon conversations about the future. There’s something empowering about a community full of dynamic, seasonal workers, who are well-acquainted with instability, who believe in the power of the flow, who trust that everything will work out for the best, and it’ll probably be a darn good ride along the way. It’s amazing to stand in a kitchen overa skillet of eggs and say, “My plan? Well, that pretty much ended last night. Today I’m deciding where to buy a plane ticket,” and be affirmed by a response of, “Cool! Me too!”
I often feel a bit like the little bird in the children’s book who asks the other animals, “Are you my mother?” in a search to figure out where he belongs; like Ellen DeGeneres in that old commercial with Beyoncé: “Are you my people?” I don’t know if I totally fit in at this Alaskan company. These folks are far more outdoorsy than me; I always enjoy camping, but the idea is sometimes less appealing when I have a bed in front of me, and perhaps my call-to-adventure side is a bit muted by my laziness side. I don’t have a lot of technical skills in outdoor activities; by contrast, this staff includes folks who are among the best young kayakers and skiiers in the country, and many of them have done extended through hikes on such endurance-testers as the Appalachian Trail. The conversations about travel and hiking and national parks were so different—both in what was said and what wasn’t—from those I had with my colleagues and friends in Cambridge.
But still. There were many things about this environment, these people, that reminded me of my Peace Corps experience and fellow volunteers. There were laughter, encouragement, hugs, long talks about the lack of a plan so many of us have. There were moments of introspection and clarity. I’ve decided not to stay in Alaska, at least for now, and my first flight of the day touches down in Seattle shortly.
Yesterday, a few of us explored Anchorage a bit, particularly enjoying the art and history and children’s imaginarium we found at the museum. We walked home along a Cook Inlet trail. As we walked along, I looked at the mountains and thought, I could have stayed here in Anchorage this winter, and been happy.”
But of course. Happiness can be found everywhere. My Peace Corps replacement, a young woman from Oklahoma, arrived in our village last week. My home has become hers. My family and community: hers now. I’m off to keep creating new ones. Headed north, south, east, or west...I know I'll always find a Brooklyn that will take me in.