Hindsight is supposed to be 20/20 but having astigmatism, I can’t say I truly know what that looks like. I can say, however, that I get the gist; knowing what is now would help us to navigate what was then.
This past week at the Restaurant a group of 30-somethings came in from the backcountry (I had never known what this term meant prior to living in Alaska so if you’re scratching your head right now, fear not, you are not alone. To go into the backcountry essentially means to go into the wilderness. Silly me, I thought we already were there. Out here it often means hopping on a bush plane and hoping for solid weather to enable your pilot to land. If you’re getting picked up a few days, etc. later, you then hope for good weather as well so that you can make it home. Otherwise you walk or you wait. Hope aside, you always pack extra food, just in case the plane can’t make it in to retrieve you due to bad weather). They were tired and hungry and ready for a pint to wash down the backcountry.
Sounds good to me.
I had just clocked in for my 2-10pm shift.
Alaska is beyond strict with drinking laws and being out in the woods is no different. I carded the group and only 2 out of the 6 had their IDs on them.
“We are all in our 30s, it’s fine” they reassured me.
I know. I believe you. I still can’t serve you. I’m sorry.
Being in this position isn’t always fun but people typically shrug it off as “rules are rules” and deal with it.
Instead, the two who had their IDs ordered beers which I poured for them. They then promptly ignored the beer and waited for the rest of their group whom had headed to the foot bridge 0.7 miles away to retrieve their IDs. They sat at the bar and stared at me. I mentioned again that it wasn’t anything personal but that the laws were strict in Alaska.
“We know. We are locals.”
Well, how nice to meet fellow countrymen. And you’re Alaskans, not locals. Otherwise I would know you and your age and we’d all be merry and gay. But I don’t know you and I can’t take the risk. Even in the woods there have been sting operations and it’s just not worth it to me. I’d rather be stared down from across the bar then paying off a fine for the next ten years.
Once the others arrived and the beer started flowing to all they warmed up a bit and I did as well though I was still a bit cautious due to their earlier grump towards me. I’m just at work, trying to enjoy my time, trying to do a good job. The service industry can be tough, so patrons, don’t make it tougher, please.
A little while into their meal (after one had almost fallen while standing up to get a second beer – his legs had turned to Jello while he sat at the table after hiking and paddling for a week in the backcountry and he didn’t realize it until he stood. Recognizing “Backcountry Legs” I hurried the beer over to him so he didn’t have to move) one of the ladies of the group came up for a second beer. I asked her about the trip and she recalled some highlights for me when suddenly, something in her shifted. She stopped talking about their trip and asked me:
“Do you get out much?”
“No, actually. I haven’t been out once this whole season. We’ve been really busy here.”
And that’s true. The restaurant has been busy, I’ve been working for friends doing website work and overall, the entire Summer has mainly boiled down to working. I started realizing this about a month ago when tables at the restaurant would ask me about my favorite spots but they ended up knowing more about the different places to go than I did.
My priorities, since I got here last year have been to work and save for the Winter. It was the Alaskan M.O. I heard uttered most often and I adopted it blindly. This year I’ve had a handful of real days off, the others I’ve spent doing pick-up web work. My true days off are often spent recovering from a busy week, trying to tidy up the house and making meals to bring with me in the coming week at work. Adventure has been lacking.
None of this was on purpose. My plan was to change my lifelong workhorse habit and work only 4 days per week between the food truck and the restaurant and then work from home 1 day per week. Then, the rest would be for play. For summitting mountains and packrafting rivers and even taking backcountry trips. But that’s not how it worked out. And so, I’ve done a little exploring and packrafting but rarely have I felt that I’m living up to the potential of being here and seeing and doing what there is to see and do.
And so, that interaction with that woman at the bar was both a reality check for me and I think for her. I can only assume her pause was in her realizing that she was on vacation and I was working. She was on vacation in the place I call home and she probably saw more of it in a week than I have seen all Summer. Maybe as grumpy as they were at me for not giving them what they wanted when they wanted it, I was also just as grumpy at them for getting to be here so untethered by responsibility. Maybe I was jealous. My reality check was that it doesn’t have to be that way.
I remarked to a friend whom is also my boss at the restaurant later that day after the backcountry-ers had left, happy and satiated, that I was tired of living through tourist experiences. I wanted to only be happy for people (and I almost always feel happy for people’s experiences, unless they are unkind for no reason) because I too was being fulfilled. I wanted to get out. She was on board. She’s the type that says she’s going to do something and then, you know, actually does it.
And so, a few days later I awoke to the following text:
“Get up bizatch. We should bike to town today.”
Direct. I like it.
The plan quickly morphed as kids were added to the picture and we decided on a hike. It was 11am and I had to work at 2pm. Thankfully, she decided that the restaurant was slow enough that we didn’t need overlapping shifts and I could come in late.
We were going up a mountain.
As we drove to the mountain town the kids started getting excited. They were noticing the changing colors of the leaves and the way the ice had melted on the glacier.
“I want to hike to those trees!” said one about a grouping off fall colored beauties way up on the mountainside.
That would be awesome.
We set out just to keep moving. Hiking with kiddos, as you may know, can be tough, a constant redirection of attention and encouragement to keep going even when it starts to get tough.
And it pretty much was tough right off the bat.
Uphill was the only way and we started hoofing it. Pretty soon we were all huffing and puffing. My girlfriend had her youngest on her back and while I wanted to try it I was nervous it would be too hard. But after going straight up for a mile plus and taking a break I asked if I could carry him.
Oh man. Hiking uphill is hard. Hiking uphill with a baby? A bit harder. The good thing is the distraction and the cuddliness of it all. He would play with my hair and coo at butterflies or mushrooms we spotted. He’s pretty adorable. And, he’s obsessed with food, so, needless to say, we get along just fine.
At a second break spot we stopped for snacks when suddenly one of the kids looked up.
“Look! We are actually getting close to that patch of trees!”
He was right, they were no longer just blurry images. We were getting closer.
Maybe we can make it to them. Do you kids think you can keep going?
Emphatic “yes’s” rained upon us.
And so, after two hours of straight uphill, we decided to keep going. We were making it to those trees.
We kept hiking and took the turn off towards the old Angle Station where the ore would switch directions back in the copper mining days. All we had to do was cross the creek and we could hike up to the Station and the surrounding trees.
Did I mention its been raining for the past month? This was the first bluebird day in a month and I was so happy we were taking advantage of it and getting out. But, rain for a month will do funny things to a landscape. And so as we headed toward the creek we would have to cross to get up to the trees and we heard gushing water we figured it might be a little bigger than usual.
It was a lot bigger. In the Summer the Creek is often no more than a trickle (I’m told, remember, I didn’t get out much). We approached a raging body of water.
With a baby on my back, three kids by our sides, three adults and two old dogs (Cinda flew up that mountain faster than any of us. That old lady’s still got it but she looked at the crossing and promptly decided it was a bust (see above)) the math for crossing was not adding up.
My girlfriend decided to try to cross while the boys emphatically started trying to throw together a “quick bridge” out of sticks. Ingenuity at its best.
As she started to cross it became clear that this was a bad idea. By the end of the crossing the raging water was at the top of her thighs and ready to push her in. As she made the crossing back I was fully prepared to explain that I was not attempting that (even though she made it fine herself) with all of these factors.
I didn’t have to.
“That thing is crazy!”
Even if we didn’t have the kids and the dogs, I would have been wary. I would have done it but I would have been scared.
And so, what was there to do but to turn back?
A bit disappointed but still proud to see how far they had gotten, the kids made their retreat after deciding that in fact they probably couldn’t build us a bridge in time.
On the way down we remarked on how fast we had gotten up and how close we had come to the trees and, of course, how hungry we were.
We finished our descent, taking a different path over another bulging creek (this one already had a bridge in place) and through historic sites.
Then we made our way back to The Restaurant for some sustenance.
I was so hungry I couldn’t even explain what I wanted and so I ended up just grabbing the food I had brought from home. Once I had eaten, I felt human again, not just some ravenous beast and I understood (though still hope I wouldn’t do the same) why some people come in so distracted and panicked with hunger that they can’t quite behave. Now, it was time to clock in and serve others whom had adventured that day as well and provide them with food to recover with.
Finally, I was a part of the adventurers. I was both. I had gotten outside and enjoyed the sun and I had worked.
The hindsight this Summer has given me is a perspective shift. I tried to start the Summer working less. It didn’t work out and so I succumbed to working. I would walk to work in order to get exercise, sometimes waking up at 5:45am in order to walk the 3.5 miles to work on time. I have to exercise in some capacity daily to feel good. But what I didn’t realize was that, in living here, my standards have changed. I don’t just want to walk to work, I want to go on a hike. I want to go and see the things people travel from all corners of the Earth to see here. I live here but I haven’t seen all there is to see. It will probably take years and still, it is always changing so what you’ve seen once, will be different some time later.
This Summer has been chalk-full of lessons of what it means to really live here and how to navigate being a local in a tourist town. Some days I’ve dealt with it gracefully and others I’ve had two left feet. But the lesson I keep learning again and again is adaptation. Things change constantly around here and as a creature of habit, that’s been hard for me. The thing is, when working 4 days a week went to 6 or 7 I could have built adventure into my days but honestly, I didn’t realize how badly I needed it.
Good ‘ol hindsight and her 20/20.
And so, I’ve pledged to myself to make the most of the next month before we head to California to see this place in the capacity that I can. Maybe I won’t get into the backcountry, maybe I will but I can build adventure into the pockets of time that I have. The leaves are changing and the fireweed is going to seed. Everything around me reminds me to use my time wisely.
Maybe next year I will actually work that 5 day work week instead of 6 or 7 and I’ll have to learn how to maximize that, but if not, I’ll take what I’ve learned this year and do my best with what I have.
Cheers to good friends who make us do what we say we will, to second day soreness that reminds us of adventures and to nature who can lift me out of envy in a single afternoon.
Thank you Alaska.