Taking a Trip

In Columns, Features, Pieces to Peter's Puzzling World by Peter Webster

So, we took a trip up the “Inside Passage” to Skagway, Alaska, and back. We spent the better part of a week on the ferry, four days in the little town of Ketchikan; we spent a week (before and after) with friends up in Anacortes, WA. We took a bus from Bend to Portland, AMTRAK from Portland to Bellingham, WA, and an Alaska State Ferry from there.

The car was left home—an experience in itself. The Prez would be proud.

We took with us, in addition to more stuff than we really needed (which is the usual way we travel), some of my son’s ashes and some of a close friend who passed on a couple of months back.

I wanted to find good places for them. Our friend was a Tlingit Indian, a tribe that at one time pretty thoroughly ran the upper parts of the Inside Passage.

We don’t hear much about them, but they were an impressive, proud, and complicated tribe. Our friend was a transsexual, undergoing whatever the procedures are called a few years ago, just before she was diagnosed with lung cancer.

At one point, years ago when she was he, the two of us were both involved with the same woman. After I decided the scene was too crazy-making for me and stepped back for six months, I became friends with my one-time rival.

There’s a Grateful Dead song with these lyrics:

“Sometimes the light’s all shining on me, other times I can barely see; lately it occurs to me what a long strange trip it’s been.”

Amen to that.

So, tasks to do while on the trip. The biggest tasks, as always, involved dealing with Beth, my partner, and the world around me. That part was easy, once I quit thinking about it and just went ahead and did it. Because:

It was a trip so immediate and intense that everything else—home, politics, even our cats—didn’t matter all that much.

The Alaska ferries are like small ocean liners. They’re nick-named “Blue Canoes” from the color of the hull and the dummy smokestack on top (they’re run by diesels, not steam). On-board life is a small community, small enough to be manageable.

The Columbia, the northbound ferry, carries 900 passengers. It has cabins, a coin laundry, showers, observation lounges, two decks for cars and trucks, a cafeteria, bar, theatre, and a dining salon. It is a serious ferry boat.

The top deck has a solarium with side-walls and roof of glass panels. Big infrared heaters are mounted on the inside of the roof and the area is filled with fold-down lounge chairs.

Just behind the solarium is an area where people pitch tents for the trip (they use lots and lots of duct tape to hold down the tents). The young and dedicated sleep up there, wrapped in sleeping bags. One downstairs lounge—the theatre—has recliner chairs and at night the less-hardy sleep in there.

Beth was my voice of reason: we had a cabin.

It was rather easy to get around on the ferry; an elevator connects all the decks except the solarium. The halls are wide enough for wheel-chairs and there are handicap accessible cabins.

Getting on and off involves ramps: no steps. I can do stairs if I have to, but stairs are not some of my favorite things.

Still, there was the usual haunting worry that I had to be extra-careful: it would have been a difficult scene if I broke any bones. Not insurmountable, but difficult—would have ruined the trip, too. I know that whatever happens is a learning experience when you get down to it, but there are learning experiences I’d rather not undergo. I was extra cautious.

There’s an hour or so of open water, north of Vancouver Island: Queen Charlotte Sound. Big ocean swells majestically rocked us from side-to-side. One moment you looked to the left and saw nothing but ocean.

Then the ship would roll and out the same windows you saw nothing but sky; then it was nothing but water to be seen on the right, followed by sky.

It was dramatic, but not very dangerous. Maybe forty-five degrees to either side? Probably not, but a good time to sit quietly.

Coming back from our stay in Ketchikan, we rode a second ferry, the Malespina (actually the name of an Alaskan glacier, but it sounds like some medieval Italian bad guy). It’s smaller and older—the oldest one in the fleet, and it shows, too.

Still, like the Columbia, it has plenty of room for movement, along with lots of electrical outlets to plug in laptops or DVD players. Laptops and players were popular forms of entertainment.

The food was better on the Malespina than it was on the Columbia, although we had learned from the earlier part of the trip and brought instant oatmeal and bowls of ramen-style noodles. We used hot water from the coffee urns and cooked in a microwave oven provided for passengers.

Travelers on tight budgets even brought ice-chests of food with them. There was a lot of improvisation.

The scenery was irreproachable: whales, orcas, and porpoises, steep mountains carpeted with trees that ran right down to the shore, eagles, bears, glaciers. The ferry goes through some tight passages that can only be navigated at high tide.

Coming into Wrangell, we were so close to the shore that I could see someone’s TV through a window in their house. If I’d thrown a rock from either side of the ship it would have hit land.

Trees…the purser told us to watch the trees along the shore and to look closer when we saw what looked like ping-pong balls in the trees.

We did: the ping-pong balls were the heads of bald eagles.

Everything I’d dreamed the Inside Passage might be like, it was. It was also some things I hadn’t dreamed of…but—

This month’s column is long enough. Next month I’ll talk about the places we went and the people we met and what we learned.

Peter Webster’s journey continues next month. You can view more of his political thoughts at his personal weblog http://disturbingthecomfortable.blogspot.com/

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