categories: Cocktail Hour
Alaska got its statehood when I was six, in 1959. The great event was the subject of My Weekly Reader stories, and filled the newspapers. Sled dogs. Jack London. Walruses. Salmon. Seward’s folly. It’s one of those icons in a New England kid’s imagination of adventure, huge and scary and wonderful, far away, possibly a dream.
A mere fifty years later I’m flying in to Anchorage, nothing but clouds from airplane windows, then suddenly some clearing, and there it is—the steely Alaskan ocean running up against a hundred sharp peaks all buried in snow. The Anchorage airport is unaccountablyvast—apparently a hub for international trade, planes like you’ve never seen before, these gargantuan ultra-Boeing freighters looming, Chinese characters up and down the fuselages. Also military aircraft in primer-gray, a cold-war sense of imminent destruction, but all packaged down to further iconic imagery—nothing real about it.
Of course I know it’s just a place like anyplace, that people live here and work here and have their worries, but.
My luggage, pathetic, is an old faulty giant duffel on wheels, a backwoods cabin of an enormous foolish duffel packed to the rafters with my camping gear (tent, bag, thermorest, mess kit), also old fishing stuff I’d pulled the mouse nests out of the night before (waders, boots, bamboo rod I restored in 1990 and never used, what with the move from Montana to Maine, and more important the move from fishing to birding). Books, too, and piles of manuscripts, all for the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, also hiking stuff for later, heavy shoes, wool socks, also stuff for getting out on the water (rain jacket, rain pants) also photography stuff for my filmmaking and “nice” clothes to lecture and perform in, black pants, black socks, formerly fancy shoes, also a contingent of clothes to camp in, all packed willy-nilly, nuts. Seventy-six pounds at the Continental Airlines counter back in Maine.
“Cut off is seventy,” said the instantly chilly ticket agent.
Absolutely no room in my knapsack, which is where my binoculars live, and cameras, and change of clothes and you know, all that stuff. So it was back to my car in the parking garage like seven miles away and there I’m flinging stuff out, like it’s someone else who’s done this shitty job packing. Sibley’s North American Birds alone buys me five pounds or more, but hard to jettison. Time clicking past. So in a frenzy and neck bent in its brace I’m rejecting my Carhartt vest, too, and a couple of more thick books, also the mess kit, pair of blue jeans, and then re-zip for ten minutes huffing and puffing and drag it all back to the ticket counter sweating and trundling on the cool morning. Sixty-six pounds! All right! Overweight charge fifty bucks—no problem. It’s great to see that piece of shit disappear into the screening machine.
But there it is again in Anchorage. I collect it and I’m like a fisherman pulling nets getting it to the Alaska Air counter, a major expedition of its own. And there the very pretty clerk says, “Oh, it’s a little over.” And just lets it go riding off on the conveyor belt, no further comment, nice kid.
I don’t realize there’s no security screening on internal Alaska flights, so I’m sure I’m going to get tackled and frisked when I get all the way to the plane, no inspection. Have I missed a security gate or something? The flight to Homer is on a turbo-prop plane, duck your head, no seating assignments, knapsack on your lap, one-seat rows on each side of the aisle. Very attractive young woman in front of me. Back up and into the clouds and the iconic landscape visible in clear patches below and to all sides: volcanoes, ocean bays, glaciers, great rivers serpentine below, no sign of people. It’s very exciting. I lose track of my exhaustion, even my embarrassment over the neck brace, which seems to have worked—anyway, I’m no worse off than when I started, some 20 hours before.
Nancy Lord, one of the conference organizers and the quietly brilliant writer-laureate of Alaska, is there to greet me with the dazzling travel writer Stephanie Eliazando-Greist, and not just me but the woman who’d been in front of me on the plane, who turns out to be Jennifer Pooley, a Morrow editor also on the faculty of the conference, pure intelligence. I love these moments of seeing people you’ve been emailing for weeks—there they are, and there go all the ways you’ve imagined them, the false pictures. The women pick up my bags and muscle everything to Nancy’s car for me, vast relief. And pretty soon we’re driving up the storied Homer Spit, four miles of sand and gravel licking out into Kachemak Bay like a tongue. Already we’re telling stories, all of us very talkative, figuring out who we know in common, gauging the social temperature, which is not too hot, and not too cold, but just exactly right. It’s too light out to be eight o’clock.
My room Land’s End, the hotel at the very end of the spit, looks out on Kachemak Bay. I stare a long time. I get a shower. I stare some more. I take a disoriented stagger of a walk to find food. I find instead the Salty Dawg, a bar in a beautiful old log cabin with a kind of lighthouse attached, just down past the Coast Guard station. They have alcohol there, and thousands of one-dollar bills tacked to the beams. It’s nice. It’s very nice. The inestimable Dave Gessner has been here, as have a number of other friends. There is nothing very special about my experience, I know. I search for Dave’s dollar, I search for theirs. I slug my first Alaskan drink. I’m special.
I smile at a pair of visitors in small skirts and tattoos.
“You Alaska men,” one of them says cheerfully.
Later I’m in my room looking out over the bay and it’s midnight and perfectly light, just a regulation sunset that keeps going and going till it turns into dawn. I read in bed for several long seconds, then it’s morning, bright sunshine: 3:00. I sleep in one-hour shifts, make my way to 7:00.