What happens when travel comes full circle?
That’s not what I was thinking as I chatted with a shaggy-haired 20-something as he pulled a stack of postcards out of the sun-visor of his Prius. “You look like you’re loaded down”, he called over the gas pump before the Sweetgrass boarder crossing. His words were muffled in the wind. Something about the way he said it caught my attention. “You’re headed to Alaska”.
He had said it as more of a statement than a question. I too soon would learn to recognize the difference between a Canada tourist and those making the long-haul North.
We’d pulled over at the last place for cheap gas on the American side of the Sweetgrass border crossing. Fuel prices skyrocketed after you entered Canada. I wasn’t hot in my army green hiking shorts and Chacos, but I had just started a nervous sweat. He came closer.
“This here is Salmon Glacier”, he said as he put the postcard in my hand. “You’ve got to make it to Salmon Glacier. The Bear Man lives up there and sells these postcards”. “You’ve got to make it to Salmon Glacier,” he repeated. He rambled on about how he’d been all over Alaska, that the glacier was the most beautiful thing that he’d seen . . . well that it was, okay wasn’t technically in Alaska, straddled the line with British Columbia . . . his words trailed off. Someone had given him the post card, and he was paying it forward. Then he was gone.
Well, Salmon Glacier wasn’t on my itinerary, I thought. Too far west, and I wasn’t headed that way. I didn’t really take him seriously. There’s a million glaciers in Alaska. A glacier is a glacier, I thought. See one, seen em’ all. What was he up to anyway? Answering the call that so many young thrill-seekers and solitude lovers frequently had to return to: he spent last summer in AK and was headed back anyway he could, addicted, this time to be a summer park ranger in Denali. That was cool. We pulled away and didn’t think much of it, too nervous about filling out shotgun paperwork at the border station. The postcard was mindlessly slipped into my sun visor and forgotten for several months.
The shotgun paperwork was a breeze. Typical, normal, fill out this form.
“No handguns in the vehicle?”
“No, mailed them ahead of time”. A 10 millimeter sidearm was essential for wildlife. At the beginning of the summer I hypothetically would’ve had no issue defending myself against a grizzly. I didn’t know it at the time– but by the end of the summer, I would change my mind. If it came down to it, I’m unsure that I could ever shoot a bear. Too much respect and admiration for them. That opinion still stands. The Mountie waved me ahead.
The Mounties didn’t even look at the paperwork that it took me weeks to prepare for my Great Pyrenees and two cats that rode in the back.
I went on to have the best summer of my life. I got closer to Brown Bears than I ever thought I could in the back country (meaning they approached me). I hung out in Homer, lived alone in Hope, scoured the Kenai Peninsula, found and traced the life of a newfound historical heroine, Alaska Nellie. I visited every state and national park along the way, and watched caribou trot over the spines of mountains in Denali. The only girl in town, I got catcalls and comments from desperate dudes drilling for oil on the North Slope [Part 1, Part 2] . I walked the streets of Fairbanks and listened to folklore about bear break-ins at the Yukon Crossing. I took in the fox hunting lemmings and muskox circling their young the same day I saw the Atigan Pass, North America’s most beautiful mountains, The Brooks Range.
And I forgot all about the postcard hidden above my car visor.
Until I accidentally wound up in Hyder.
You see, I wasn’t planning on going to Hyder. If you look at a map, Hyder sits at the bottom corner of the state. It’s the southernmost town that can be reached by car. It’s one road in and one road out, and out of the way. Headed home feeling sad, like I wanted to run back, wondering if I was making a mistake leaving, I sat in silence for the twenty hours of driving south out of The Yukon. I’d been back in Canada for a couple of days, when it occurred to me, that I could change my route home and be back in Alaska, if only for a little bit. My spirits lifted instantly at the thought. A black bear cub, newly independent, guarded the road then was out of sight with a jump.Two fox kits tumbled in the road, crossing swords in play. In Dease Lake, Canada, I stopped for a perfect photo of a moose in a valley pond, surrounded by mountains, with a hot pink cotton candy sunset sky. At dusk a juvenile lynx crossed the road, we slowed down and rolled down the window. She sat outside the car door and looked up at us. She had long tuffs of silk and returned our shocked stare.
All of these animals cast careless glances my way, as if to say: What are YOU doing here you human? I’m wild too, I whisper.
Rolling into Stewart, BC, I hung out the car window looking at fifty thin ribbon waterfalls meeting on the valley floor and woke before dawn to look for the white spirit bears. Bored after a few days, I scrolled through Google to see what there was to do in Stewart or just across the border in Hyder. And I got a little bit of a heart-tingly sensation when Salmon Glacier showed up in the search results. I pulled the postcard from my visor and realized that I’d found Salmon Glacier.
I crossed the unmanned boarder crossing, or “Checkpoint Charlie” as the local residents called it into Hyder– back into Alaska! The 80 residents work in Canada, but sling attitude about being annexed. There’s an obvious militia attitude about the town. There are no government services. Vehicles go without being registered. Everyone carried a firearm. I couldn’t explain to you why I loved tiny Hyder so much. Part of it was the isolation. But mostly, it was the independent and rebellious nature of the people there. “The bus”, the best restaurant in town, literally a blue and white old bus, was (and is) the local watering hole of gossip. The husband caught the fish, and the wife fried em’ up. The cook’s son was getting married in the coming days, and I instantly felt like part of the family. I was one of the only other people around that wasn’t related. The Bus is where they try to size you up, then recruit you to stay forever and indoctrinate you against giving over their tiny slice of AK to Canada. They might also try to sell you “Aunt Sally’s” abandoned family cabin, that you can “see it just over there” across the street on the hill. Town is a small place. The patriarch of the family wrote his number down and told us to call him if we ever wanted to move. I was amused, but hey, I was just there for the fried fish. They were a wild lot, but my kind of people.
Driving up to the top of the glacier overlook, we found the Bear Man. He was car camping, but taking a nap in a woven lawn chair. The Bear Man was the only other soul around. I looked into the distance and saw exactly what my shaggy-haired Prius guy/fellow Sweetgrass road renegade was talking about. I looked down at the postcard then out in the distance. I saw mountain behind mountain… behind the mountain, crevasse and blue ice. (I did debate whether or not it was more impressive than Perito Moreno, Agentina). There really hadn’t been another glacier like it that I’d seen on the planet. After gawking at the sight and squinting until I saw spots, I went over to talk to the Bear Man. He spent every summer here, in the parking lot, alone, with only the company of tourists. He spent the winters in the Northeast lower 48. He pulled out a collection of personal DVDs and tried to sell me several about the white spirit bears. “I know all about the spirit bears”, I told him. “I watch a lot of nature documentaries”. I felt an unspoken instant connection with the wild part of his being. He was unconventional. He didn’t fit in with the norms of society, and I thought that as a compliment. I settled for a stack of his Salmon Glacier postcards and a put them above my visor. My Alaska trip was done.
As it turns out, travel, as life, always turns out the way it’s supposed to. The way that my Alaska trip came full circle was exactly the closure I needed. It was God’s way of telling me that the universe and its energy is going to be okay. And I’m going to be okay swimming out here in it. Getting over Alaska has been like a bad breakup. There’s nostalgia there. Little things make me sad and miss Alaska. One year later, I had a really hard time finishing off the bottle of shampoo that I had used all summer, Nature’s Gate peppermint, because it smelt like freedom. They went out of business this year and I couldn’t find another bottle. I couldn’t finish the last chapters of the books I read while in Alaska, because it made me feel like the adventure could somehow still continue. I sleep in a “Hyder Alaska” sweatshirt every night, as if it somehow brands me. And I still keep the postcard in my visor. Because when I’ve moved on and forgotten about my summer in Alaska, it falls down and reminds me when I flip it down to check my makeup. And although I know I will be back, because it calls to me, I had a really difficult time publishing this post. It sat in my document files for months before it ever saw the light of day. Then it occurred to me that I would never really be ready for my Alaska summer to end. So it lives on in my wild spirit.
And sometimes the world shows you a little magic.