I am interrupting my Spain series to give way to this wonderful guest post about Alaska. I don’t know many people who have been there. Let me see… there’s Luchi, my former boss, who braved the cold with just a cameraman in tow to produce a WHOLE televison special about an Alaskan cruise. There’s my sister, Genevieve, who spent a weekend there when it wasn’t even cold. And then, there’s Neil, a former colleague who now works as a Producer/Director for a certain TV station. Neil wrote this piece just after college. It was published in Cruising Magazine some years ago. After reading this, I suggested that he start writing for himself again. “Walang naniniwala na pwede akong magsulat,” he said, and added “#PogiProblems”. You have to see him in person to find out if this is true.:)
by Neil Cruz (@neilcruzDELUXE on Twitter)
“To look for the simplest question, the most obvious facts, the doors that no one may close, is what I meant by anthropology. I was a strong soul. ‘Look I will change everything, all the meanings!’ I thought. I packed my rucksack with socks, canteen, pencils, three empty notebooks. I took no maps, I cannot read maps – why press a seal on running water? After all, the only rule of travel is, ‘Don’t come back the way you went. Come a new way.”
From “Plainwater” by Anne Carson
No, I’ve never read the whole thing. I just ran into it a few years back and I thought they were so penetrating that I decided to tear it out and stash it in one of my CDs (Everything But The Girl’s 1991 outing, Worldwide.) Those were my “Kerouac Years.” During that time, I jumped into every object that would take me far away from Manila.
Somehow, I got what I wanted. When a chance for me came to go to Vancouver, Canada, travel opportunities snowballed and it took me to a place called Terrace that is still in British Columbia, and all the way to Hyder, Alaska.
Terrace is 550 air miles northwest of Vancouver and is about an hour’s flight. They say it’ll probably take you 10 hours if you travel by land. However, even though I’m a big fan of long drives, my view from the plane scared me to bits. We crossed rough, snowy mountains and driving around it seemed an adventure for the prepared.
While Terrace is a “nice,” quiet, retirement type frontier where eerie, howling lights called the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) invade the night. The nightlife ends there though.
The bright dancing lights of the aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. Soon, I’ll find out those won’t be the last of collisions I’ll encounter.
Hyder, Alaska was the farthest I’ve ever been from almost all the people I know my whole life. I reached Alaska, man! It’s like being on the edge – literally. What thrilled me even more is the 197 miles or so road trip we had to take from Terrace. It took us around five hours.
On the way, we passed Skeena River, initially known as the “K’shian” river meaning “water from the clouds.” It is an important salmon – fishing stream in the area. Apparently, salmons come back to the river where they were born to spawn. They die soon after. Interesting as it is, I started to get bored silly.
I had this wildly romantic notion of travelling, much like what Jack Kerouac did and described in his novel, On The Road, the so-called Bible of the Beatniks – Speeding off on interstate highways, bop music blasting the speakers, “hip flask-slinging madmen, steaming café flirts…”
Of course, living in an oppressive city, I didn’t need to be influenced by some roustabout literary icon to want to get away. I brought just a pair of jeans, a few boxers, and the Jackson Browne album, Running On Empty – perfect for North American tours.
I was totally absorbed by this fantasy that I couldn’t remember half of what I’ve seen there.
My mother, whom I was with, naturally didn’t approve of the one backpack idea. No matter how I tried to look the part, I always ended up carrying loads and loads of baggage. She shopped like it was the end of the world. That’s my mom. At least, Kerouac had his “Memere” waiting at home and he would write her “first-thought best-thought” letters about his adventures. He would even ask for money.
I have this weird idea of Alaska. I thought that snow falls all year round and it stops at the borders. I thought it’s gonna be all white, piercing cold, igloos, and Eskimos offering you their wives.
We had lunch at Fish Creek beside other tourists’ vehicles. They wouldn’t let you eat anything outside your vehicle. Bears will just go for you. And that’s what we hoped for – to catch a glimpse of Grizzly Bears. I mean, my companions hoped to catch a glimpse of Grizzly Bears. I hoped to see some naked women. And I’m not trying to be funny.
After lunch, my mom went straight to the souvenir shops (fancy that!) and I went to this bar full of bills from all over the world and signed by the people who left them there. Then, I went to the post office to send myself a postcard.
There, the nice lady who handed out stamps at the counter apologized first and asked where the Philippines is, “Is that, like, territory?” she added.
In this particular trip, especially when I first saw the sign that says, “Welcome to Hyder, Alaska” I ran short of breath as I felt all my favorite verses come to life:
“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.
– Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
“I should set down on paper a résumé of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of all questions: the nature of human restlessness.”
-Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines
“…And I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”
-Jack Kerouac, On The Road
And it collided with something that grew infinitely melancholic. I’ve been on journeys longer than that Terrace to Hyder one yet it’s ironic as I thought then, here I am, longing to escape from everyone else. Now I’m farther than I or anyone has ever imagined. Suddenly, I started missing all the things that are normal to me – the people, the smog, the traffic, the dirty cops and politicians, poverty, intolerance, and the trite Spanish-era standards (not to mention a host of double standards). That’s home. I am at the end of the world yet I feel closest to home and myself as I’ve ever been.
Perhaps, I felt guilty being there, enjoying the “imperial” terrains of “Amerika!”
You know what painters always say when they work, one needs to step back every now and then to gain perspective? That’s it, I guess.
But then again, one can take all the back steps and it wouldn’t work. “The zen you find on the mountain top is the zen you bring,” as one of those mountain climbing mantras go. Then, as quick as a goldfish’s memory lasts, I felt fine. I thought, “Hell! I’m too poor to waste my time on such bourgeois concerns like angst. I’m in Alaska. This is fun! Yey!”