As a lover of nature and an outdoorsperson, I still enjoy going to a remote wilderness where I can relax, "recharge my batteries" and possibly be eaten. So in late April, I hopped on an airplane, then another airplane, then eight or nine more airplanes, until finally I reached Alaska (Official State Motto: "Speak Up! Our Earwax Is Frozen!").
Following is Part One of a two-part report on my trip. (Part Two will appear next week. Both parts are tax-deductible.)
DAY ONE: I arrived in Anchorage and, as is the ancient custom in "The Land of the Midnight Sun," I had the airplane seat cushion surgically detached from my butt. It was evening, but there was still plenty of daylight left, and I knew that within just a few miles of downtown there were many spectacular unspoiled areas, virtually untouched by human civilization. So I went to a bar.
There I had a few beers with my friend Craig Medred, who splits his time between writing a column for The Anchorage Daily News and trying to get himself killed. Craig is a serious, by which I mean clinically insane, sportsperson. He's the kind of guy who's always heading out to the wilderness for days at a time, crawling around in the snow, chewing pine cones for nutrition, engaging in some extremely rugged sporting challenge such as hunting wolverines with a letter opener. One time, while riding a mountain bike, he fell off a 75-foot cliff; another time, while moose hunting, he encountered some bear cubs, and their mother who, as fate would have it, was also a bear, but much larger attacked and hospitalized him. ("Maul first, ask questions later" that is the mother-bear childcare philosophy.)
For the record: In all my years as a newspaper columnist, I have never so much as received an angry letter from a bear.
My evening at the bar with Craig was surreal. Maybe it was jet lag; maybe it was the general cosmic weirdness that permeates Alaska. It was definitely something. People were talking about the urban moose problem. It had been a very snow-intensive winter, even for Alaska, and there were moose wandering all over Anchorage. This can create problems, because moose, in addition to being humongous, are the disgruntled postal workers of the animal kingdom. Anchorage residents routinely call their employers and say they can't come to work right away on account of there is a moose on the porch. (Do not try this in, for example, San Diego.)
Anyway, we were sitting at the bar, complaining about the moose situation, when somebody said, very calmly, "We're having an earthquake."
"WHAT?" I said, adding: "NOW?"
"Look at the lights," somebody said. Sure enough, the chandeliers were swinging back and forth. Nobody seemed remotely alarmed by this. People were more interested in discussing Craig's court case. It turned out that Craig had been arrested and tried on charges of I am not making this up towing a canoe on a railroad track. I'm still hazy on the details; it had something to do with hunting ducks.
As it happened, Craig's lawyer was also in the bar (this kind of coincidence occurs often in Alaska, which has only about 150 residents total). He came over to discuss the case, which ultimately came out in Craig's favor. The lawyer said this was because Craig groveled before the judge, although Craig views the ruling as an affirmation of the fundamental right of every American not stated explicitly in the Constitution, but clearly implied to tow canoes on railroad tracks.
At 10 p.m. it was still light outside, but I was exhausted, so I trudged the two blocks back to my hotel, keeping a wary eye out for moose and other dangerous urban criminal elements. Yes, Alaska does have crime. I know this because alert Alaskan reader Jenny Leguineche has sent me selected excerpts from Dispatch Alaska, a section of The Anchorage Daily News that reprints news items from other newspapers around the state. Here are some actual items:
From The Seward Phoenix: "Male reported that his dog was stolen from his residence and he had a ransom note."
From The Sitka Daily Sentinel: "A man was reported to be beating on a boy, but the two turned out to be having a dandelion fight."
From The Skagway News: "A business owner reported that someone broke the hand off her mannequin. A possible suspect may be a man with a blue-and-yellow shirt, sandy-colored hair and a long, skinny neck who walks humped over."
And finally, we have these two alarming items from The Petersburg Pilot: "A caller reported that he had received a report regarding someone speeding in a forklift at Chatham Strait Seafoods."
Another caller reported that he had returned to his residence where he was staying and a ball was missing from the front porch. The caller stated that neighbors had seen an individual "take the ball and use knives on it."
Despite this crime wave, I made it safely back to the hotel, where I was able call it instinct to locate my room. I immediately went to bed so as to rest my body for further Alaskan adventures, which could, I knew, require me to actually leave the hotel vicinity. But that is the price you pay when you possess the kind of pioneering spirit exemplified by men such as Lewis and Clark, both of whom and don't try to tell me this is coincidence are dead.
TUNE IN NEXT WEEK for Part Two of this series, featuring glaciers and a terrifying encounter with Binky the Tourist-Eating Bear.