Friday, September 19, 2008

For the Halibut

If I were to say that I had just come back from Alaska, you might ask something well-meaning like this: What was your favorite part? (As did both my parents and possibly one or more of my younger siblings.)

Alas, it's a question that stumps me. But I'm trying not to run from challenge, so, as a stop-gap measure, I will nominate three.

Three Possible Favorite Parts of My Trip to Alaska
  • the (almost) sheer beauty of the place
  • Whittier, AK
  • Christy Y., a long-lost friend I met up with, who was spending her summer driving tour buses around Alaska.
The Beauty
It was rainy and gray about half the time I was in Alaska. The clouds were serious, sometimes masking entire mountain ranges (if I had a dollar for every time someone said, "If the clouds weren't out, right there would be Mt. McKinley!", I'd be well on my way to being able to afford some Sarah Palin glasses), but still, still--the hills were green and the rivers were white and I saw the northern lights. Just one night, in Fairbanks. We had to walk out of the light of our hotel parking lot and stand in the shadows of behind a hulking building. But there they were in the sky. A faint green swath through the low sky, undulating on the south end like a slow, frayed ribbon. And the sun came out for my final few days there. Half the trees were yellow, and valleys opened up on both sides of us as we deadheaded (drove) the coach bus home from Fairbanks. I wanted to build a house on the side of the highway and never never leave.

If I half-closed my eyes and ignored the industrial lots, the functional and unpretty buildings, and all the machinery, it was a seriously beautiful place.

Alaska's state motto is "North to the Future."

During the forties, the Japanese claimed two small islands off the coast of Alaska, and, according to my reliable tour bus driver friend Christy, the American government freaked out. From Alaska, Seattle is only a hop away. (It is three hours from Seattle to Anchorage on a commercial plane today.) So the U.S. government looked to strengthen their Alaskan presence. One place they chose was Whittier because, apparently, Whittier is almost always covered by clouds, making it virtually impossible to see by air. The only way into Whittier (besides navigating through the waterways) was by railroad, twelve miles through a mountain. In Whittier, the government built one giant building, in which everyone did everything. This one building housed all the housing, the doctor's, the grocery store, a church, a movie theatre, everything, apparently. Everyone spent almost every day inside of it, because, it being Alaska, the weather was usually bad.

Today, the one main building still stands, but it is hollowed out, moldy, defunct, and vandalized. Now people live in two buildings: a row of apartments one street away from the water and one high-rise backed up against the base of a mountain. Cars can drive through the railroad tunnel into Whittier, but the tunnel's only wide enough for one car at a time. So the tunnel alternates. In to Whittier, from 4:30 pm to 4:45 pm. Out from Whittier, from 5:00 pm to 5:15 pm. In to Whittier, from 5:30 to 5:45. You see.

Christy and I decided to drive to Whittier on our last day. We hung out at a glacier visitors center until it was 4:22, then we drove to the tunnel. We paid our $12, waited for the green light, and in to Whittier we went. 25 mph, 12 miles, through a small, dark tunnel. And when we emerged, we were in Whittier, which, no one told us, was absolutely beautiful. The small town of Whittier is ringed by high green mountains, with waterfall cascades and blue and brown glaciers. It was covered by clouds today (as usual), but with no rain. A white cap of clouds, a blue water inlet, and a ring of green mountains and glaciers and waterfalls. We got lost trying to get to the old and the new main buildings (who knew there would/could be a dead end in Whittier?), but saw the whole thing (including the excessively creepy old building) in time to make it out during the next out-from-Whittier tunnel window.

(I didn't take this picture of Whittier. Like most publicly available pictures of Alaska, this one is unrepresentatively sunny. But you can see the beauty of it--and the buildings. The old creepy moldy one is the big white one on the left. The new apartment/multipurpose building is the high-rise on the right. Yes, it does have a waterfall right behind it. So awesome.)

If anyone had spent any money making the buildings in Whittier be charming and not just present, it would be a hideaway destination of our dreams. Oh, the forties. If only they hadn't been distracted by fighting that war.

Christy Lu
I met Christy in the year 2000, during my first (and only) summer home from college. She had been roommates with two of my first-cousins in Cedar City during 1999-2000. When a neighbor in New York wanted a summer nanny, we thought of my cousin Becky, who didn't want the job. But she thought of her roommate Christy, who did want the job. So Christy came to Long Island and nannied, and I came home to Long Island and worked as the drivers' ed department secretary, and when we both weren't at work, we were together. It was a great summer. But we lost touch after one or two post-summer emails, until August, when I emailed her and asked her if I could come stay with her for a week in Alaska. You know how I am.

I found Christy again because I'd run into my cousin at a family reunion. I told her how I was thinking about Alaska (state #46!), and she told me how she'd just seen Christy and how Christy was in Alaska this summer, driving a bus. I was on that bandwagon fast.

So Christy's company let me come along with her for her final tour of the year. I got to watch her charm her passengers, joke with them, delight them. "You had the halibut?" she asked one passenger, after we'd had dinner on a train. "Oh, yes," said the middle-aged, white female passenger. Christy smiled, all dimples and cheeks and little white teeth. "Now you can say you came to Alaska for the halibut."

I got to watch her maneuver the 45-foot coach, checking her mirrors, turning the steering wheel slowly, backing up straight into a 10-foot wide space with her eight-foot wide bus.

And I got to hear her thoughts, watch her movies, share her food, and remember how good it is to be with good women, who are confident in God and positive about life and willing to watch four hours of Jane Eyre before bedtime. What a good time. What a blessing. What a mercy.

Now, South to the Future

Christy is trying to decide what next to do with her life and with her talents and schooling. She knows she will tour Europe this fall and then visit many of her nine siblings. She might even come and stay with me for a month or so. But what then? She's not sure. Talking with her about what is next for her made me think about what is next for me. I'm done with college. I'm done with grad school, with law school, and with any sort of student living, probably. I'm done for now, for the time being, with California. And though my heart remains loyal, I've already moved out of Melville. I am, as I write, on a coach bus to DC, where a key waits for me under a flower pot, where my car waits for me in a driveway, and where I will wait for my new roommates to come home.

I loved Alaska, and I am glad that I went. And I am now especially glad to come home to a future I've been waiting for.


Melissa said...

Sarah O - you are a phenomenal writer. I stumbled on your blog, probably through Karren, and it was a very fortunate stumble - I love the way you put things! I'm going to miss seeing you around randomly when our paths happened to cross. Best of luck with the new adventures!

William said...

I was three quarters of the way through reading this essay when I realized it was not written by my sister, Sarah. How embarrassing!

I was thinking, "My sister did not tell me she was going to Alaska. When did my sister go to Alaska?"

I was also thinking, "My sister writes well but she has never written this well. Good on her"


I believe I first realized this mistake when you started talking about "a neighbor in New York." I am certain my sister never lived in New York.

Sarah (O), if your objective was to increase my desire to visit Alaska from 2 to 8 (on a scale of 10), then, my friend, you have succeeded. A hearty congratulations to you.