Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Alaska, Part 2: Hostels, Hostiles, and Hikes

On the road to Deadhorse, one has to sleep somewhere. For us, these requisite somewheres came in the form of random hostels (in Fairbanks, Alaska's second biggest city), backwoods cabins (in Wiseman, a 13-person village whose showers have two settings: hypothermia and apocalypse), and trailers (in Deadhorse, also Menlo Middle School). Given the communal living spaces, part of the hostel/cabin/trailer experience is playing nicely with others, a task at which Bryant and Jarrod excel. No matter what country a person is from, Bryant speaks their language, attended the same university for at least one semester, and engineered their national railroad. Jarrod possesses extensive knowledge about their government and its trade relations with China—or if they're from the United States, their senators, electoral votes, and all applicable geopolitical data, no matter how obscure the state (i.e. Utah).

Left to my own devices, I generally ignore people unless (a) I already know them or (b) they're Angela Lansbury. It's not because I don't like people (though this happens to be the case), but rather my mind (like the coherence of this narrative) tends to drift which makes interpersonal relations difficult. Consider this example:

In Fairbanks, at the Go North! Hostel (the same company as our rental car agency, though this one had teepees instead of warning lights), there's a communal kitchen where hostellers dine together either for company or to provide mosquitoes with alternate targets. At breakfast, a friendly-friendly Swiss man sat across from the three of us (Bryant, of course, speaks Switzerlandish) and started making conversation about Arctic Village, a book about people who aren't from California and are therefore unimportant. Bryant and Jarrod listened intently. However, the phrase "arctic village" made me think of a song in the magic compass sequence cut from Mary Poppins; another part of this sequence, which occurred under the sea, was transplanted into Bedknobs and Broomsticks as "The Beautiful Briny Sea"; Bedknobs and Broomsticks starred Angela Lansbury. Now, once I start thinking about Angela Lansbury, I am out for the duration. So as the conversation shifted to Swiss things (cheese, army knives, Family Robinson), I remained buried in Lansburyland (whose language alone Bryant doesn't speak). At some point, I slipped back into reality and realized I wasn't participating in the conversation, so I attempted to compensate for my tardiness with enthusiasm. According to Jarrod, the effect was as follows:

Johann von Switzerland: So have you heard of Arctic Village?
Bryant: No, tell us about it.
(Bryant, Jarrod, and Johann talk. Greg stares into space. Five subjects later…)
Johann: …and that's how I met my wife.

Needless to say, I left most of the socializing to my compatriots and focused my energies on the activities to which I was better suited, such as not spotting wildlife.

Now, Alaska is replete with ways to kill you. Every form of wildlife—bear, of course, but also moose, wolverine, and I wouldn't put it past the arctic squirrel—has evolved (read: been intelligently designed) to be adorable enough that you'll try to photograph it whereupon it will eat you or outsource the eating to another, more vicious animal (often polar bear). But not all manners of death are induced by nature alone. The manmade Atigun Pass of the Dalton Highway contains a sheer drop on one side, and, though there's a guardrail, its many truck-shaped holes suggest historical inefficacy. Beyond Atigun Pass, the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline flanks the highway, so if you hit a pothole and swerve off the road, you can derive comfort from the 200,000 gallons of oil that pour upon your fiery wreckage. (The Coldfoot CafĂ© photographs these traffic fatalities and adds speech bubbles like "Whoopsy daisy!" or "At least the bears didn't get me!") Other travelers are more proactive in seeking doom. Evelyn from Go North! (car agency, not hostel) told us about a woman who, in researching her book about women travelling alone through Alaska, inadvertently drove her vehicle into a river (and advertently threw her keys in after it). Evelyn offered this explanation: "She's Italian."

We, however, weren't Italian (though my driving might be deemed such), and, since Bryant and Jarrod seemed to have not-killing-us under control (unlike our penultimate taxi driver who managed to crash into the one other car in the entirety of Anchorage), we focused on defending ourselves from four-legged creatures. (My pleas for kraken-spray went unheeded.) To supplement Jarrod's shotgun and stately ammunition, we purchased two cans of bear mace. Each looks like a giant yellow can of hairspray. If you're attacked by a bear, you remove the safety switch (it's glow-in-the-dark in case you can see the bear 35 feet away but not the can in front of you), push down the button, and, assuming the wind conditions are correct, you blind the bear. If the wind conditions are incorrect (i.e. there's wind), you both blind and season yourself. (Bears like the taste of bear mace, just not the feel of it their eyes. This is in contrast to my mother's zucchini pie, which pleases neither eye nor palette.)

On our first day of hiking, I lost my safety switch in a bramble patch. (We had a habit of spotting something attractive in the distance and wading through sharp objects to get there, only to realize that there was an actual path 50 feet down the road.) Bryant, putting his engineering skills to non-railroad use, crafted a new safety for me out of rocks and duct tape. This could have only two possible results:
  1. While we're driving, the safety breaks, the mace explodes and blinds/seasons us all. This causes us to crash into the Pipeline, or, if an Italian's at the wheel, a body of water.
  2. While we're hiking, a bear attacks. I importune him to refrain from nibbling my jugular so that I may unravel the duct tape, remove the rock, and summarily blind him. This, alas, relies on my interursinal skills which are, I assure you, only slightly better than my interpersonal ones.
However, we would not let the mere certainty of death inhibit our hiking. (I use the non-royal "we" here, by which I mean "Bryant.") Some background:

I consider my endurance to be fairly high, a fact which I attribute to childhood adversity (cf. zucchini pie). I enjoy uber-hikes (trekking Kauai's Na Pali cliffs or circumambulating Manhattan with my father, walking the length of Chowpatti Bay/Sewer in Mumbai). In fact, after completing Boston's Freedom Trail with Natalie at the breathtaking (in that climbing the stairs required much breath) Bunker Hill Memorial, she summarized our excursion as a "death march." (This was in deference to my Native American ancestors.) However, my stamina is but a drop in the bucket that is Bryant's. (I figure "bucket" is a fitting word since I had a phonetically similar phrase going through my head for the majority of our hikes.)

Now, I travel by checklist. When I'm abroad, I do what Lonely Planet tells me to do and then pretend that I've seen all the location has to offer. (Travel is less expensive when one doesn't feel the need to return.) Bryant and Jarrod, however, are actually spontaneous. While driving, they notice something at the side of the road (lakes, forests, grizzly bears—of these we spotted lamentably few; I hypothesize that Governor Palin has used them all to upholster her home), and an investigation/hike ensues. One such investigation/hike/doom involved a mountain several miles north of Wiseman behind a Department of Transportation building (you know, "transportation" as in cars which were invented so you don't have to walk up mountains). Once our vehicle stopped, Bryant tore across the terrain with the agility of a Dall llama (the difference being I could see Bryant) and led us up a never-ending series of precipices, describing each as a "gently rolling slope." I considered applying a gently rolling blow to the back of his head—though my bear mace no longer worked as mace, it could still bludgeon—but this would require hand-eye coordination and good aim. (The last two times I tried to throw things were (i) December 2004, where I nearly blinded Rachel with The Manchurian Candidate DVD (Angela Lansbury! Retinal damage!) and (ii) May 2005, where, onboard a ferry to Long Island, I tossed a water bottle at Mike and hit a stranger in the head.)

Two hours later, when the gently rolling slopes continued to spring forth like satanic Matryoshka Dolls, Jarrod and I went on strike, and begrudgingly Bryant agreed to turn back. For Bryant may possess boundless energy, but Jarrod and I had something far greater: the car keys.

Continued >>

I've got the whole world in my hands.

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