Sunday, May 23, 2010

"What brings you to Skagway?"

I'm talking to Bonnie from Boston.
She's seated in the conservatory at Jewell Gardens, Skagway, Alaska, with other tourists from a cruise ship. I am pouring her English Rose tea prepatory to a real treat of a lunch: smoked salmon quiche, salad, Nolan Jahn's soup of the day, and rhubarb-begonia bar. Always rhubarb at Jewell Gardens.
     What am I doing here?
     I attempt an answer.
     "I was replaced at work two years ago by a twenty-year-old," I tell Bonnie. It's still sticking in my craw, and, yes, I know, get over it already, but I have to say, I don't really see age discrimination as anything to get over. It's an injustice someone needs to object to. Even if it is only me. Anyway, I tell Bonnie I've not been able to find work since then. I tell her that my youngest son had come up to Skagway the summer before to drive tour buses, had taken one look at Jewell Gardens and e-mailed me, an avid gardener, to say: "If you still haven't found work by next year, Mum, apply to Jewell Gardens."
     "I couldn't, I did, and here I am," I tell Bonnie.
     It was actually a hard land and I still wasn't on my feet. I'd had a week and a half between saying yes to the job and being expected to report for duty on May 10. There were all the arrangements to be made for my house down in the Lower 48, goodbyes to be said to my grandchildren, and packing up my little Toyota Scion--Arizona Lunch Box--with five months' worth of basic food supplies. Living up here in a Gold Rush town ain't cheap. And housing was, and is, an issue. The Presbyeterian minister has graciously agreed to temporarily take me in. But come the end of May, what then?
     "God only knows," I tell Bonnie.
     "How did you get here?" she asked.
     "I drove."
     It was a four-day trip. Exactly 1,649 miles from my front door to the front door of Skagway's Presbyterian manse.
    Apprehension set in the morning of the third day as I drove north out of Hudson's Hope, leaving behind my cousin Carolyn and civilization. A moose ambled across the highway ahead, a silouette against dawn, as graceful as a giraffe. Two bear cubs frolicked in a ditch, mother out of sight. Soon telephone poles disappeared, the radio shut off, and it was just me and the road, me and Arizona Lunchbox riding the right shoulder of the Rocky Mountains north and northwest for 600 miles. The farther I went, the deeper my apprenshion, the higher my anxiety. By the time I reached Liard Hotsprings on the Yukon border I was nauseous from the distressing sensation I could not name.
     I drove into the fourth day with a churning stomach, disconnected from myself, not quite fearful but certainly feeling threatened. Zigzagging west, back and forth across the Yukon/B.C. border, cutting across four entire mountain ranges and rarely seeing another car, here was land as originally created, never ending, eternal, unmarked by any sign of human life save the single exception of the road ahead, unzipping as I traveled into more of the same and struggling to contain the exhaustion that had set in and my mounting anxiety that was beginning to feel like annihilation.
     At Whitehorse in the Yukon I turned south onto the Klondike Highway, the only road in and out of Skagway, and wound my way up the Gold Rush Trail in reverse through the White Pass.

     The snowy mountain peaks sprawling and stretching took me to the top of the world. I only had to get out of my car, snowshoe to the crest...I'd be able to see clear around the globe. I pulled to a stop at the summit, got out. Here was the international boundary line.  Behind me the Yukon and Canda. Forward, southward, downhill, Skagway, Alaska, my destination. What am I doing here? I asked myself. What in the world am I doing?
     It was while standing at the sign, looking south into the seam of yet another tumble of mountains, that I recognized the feeling simmering within and threatening to break into a boiling panic. I'd experienced this before. I was nine. My family had just immigrated from Canada to the States, to Meteor Ranch near Upper Lake, CA. As a child growing up under the filtered sunlight of cedar and hemlock and Douglas fir, I'd been undone by the endless land unfolding before me. I couldn't sleep, eat, think. One night I slipped out of the house and stood looking south over the sheep pasture to Clear Lake.
     My father came out, stood quietly beside me. "What's happening to you?" he finally asked.
     I struggled to find the words. What came out was this: "It feels like the land will go forever and we will all evaporate and die and be nothing." It was the best I could do, and I've spent a lifetime wondering what I was trying to define, to name, to understand. That dark and lonely despair. Now here I was, nearly fifty years later, experiencing the same thing and no closer to comprehension and just as confused.
     I got back into my car. Yes, land that spread forever, and it felt as though I might evaporate and die, disappear and be nothing. That night, settled in at the preacher's house where I was invited to live until the end of May and fighting panic, I e-mailed my friend Roy, a man always good at finding me in the labyrinth of my mind.
     I am, I've decided, experiencing an isolation that disconnects me even me from myself. I have yet to find a word that names how I feel--or perhaps how I don't. I think maybe a baby feels this frequently, unable to identify a troubled sensation and so just cries. Until it gets used to it, recognizes it for what it is, and integrates the sensation into bigger life and it all part of a whole. Right now I feel severed off from normal thinking patterns, immeasurable feelings awash in a cold caldron and dark with meaning but without light to discern.
     He wrote back:
It all makes sense and not. Country so vast that it is hard to imagine a solitary self. That is what the ocean does to me, vibrates so deep in me that I don't have any sense of me. So it makes sense and yet it doesn't because I can so easily live within my own ego. You don't and so your heart/mind/spirit/body really can expand vastly more than most, certainly more than mine/me.
   I've never really understood the ego, but in this context? At both Meteor Ranch and now here in Skagway, the stretching land had triggered and triggers something, broke and breaks something inside of me, and left and leaves me wounded and helpless, as threatened and lonely as a newborn baby. Cut any of us off from all that defines us and who are we?
     Roy's ability to name what's really happening brings clarity, and I discover that both then and now I was not and am not going to "evaporate and die and become nothing." In reality I was and am expanding outside the boundaries of ego. I am moving closer to me. And thus humanity. And therefore God.
    My cousin asked when I stopped in to visit her on my way north, "If you could wish for one thing this summer, what would it be?"
     I'd stared rather stupidly at her. Wish for something
     Carolyn, I now know. I wish to embrace this sense of annihilation, this lostness and disconnect from that which I've understood to be me, to let go of everything that once defined me (an aging women? easily replaced by twenty-year-olds? who can't possibly hold a thimble of my skill or know-how?), and to instead embrace this expansion of Roy's heart/mind/spirit/body. Not to fear it, to be crushed by it, but to live as someone I have not yet met in this crevice of rocky terrain that has called my name.
  This, I want to tell Bonnie from Boston, is what brings me to Skagway.


  1. you might be ready for bella coola now. Awesome! Thanks :)

  2. I love your blog. I can envision you writing a travel/life transition book.(Actually, Judy Couchman said this!)

  3. I'm SO glad you wrote. This is awesome. I've been wondering how you are.

  4. Glad to hear from you up there Brenda. I made that trip back in my early 20`s with my friend Darlene. Can`t say we were quite so deep and philosophical about it all. I was going up to hang nets in Cordova and she came along and ended up marrying a guy and staying there. Now her kids our the age we were when we went up there.

    By the way, Happy Birthday to you real soon I think!

    How`s the job going anyway?

    Love, Rachel

  5. You are a very strong, brave woman. I enjoy reading your posts and look forward to seeing AK through your eyes, experiences and words. Hope your dreams and expectations for this season are far exceeded!

  6. My dear one,
    This "ego" expansion is really what Jung would call our movement into the deeper Self, a place of self identity and divine consciousness that actually is what makes life meaningful. It is that kind of living where you truly live your life beyond your self. You, of course, say this in a way that is more eloquent and rhapsodic, but as much I want you to come home to be safe, I also long for you to squeeze every moment of meaning out of this adventure, Love, Roy

  7. Looking out over the prairie as a 5-year-old in Rock River, I experienced a sense of expansion -- I was a part of this vastness all the way to the horizon. And the mountains! they lift my spirit up to touch the sky and beyond. Knowing the land will continue somehow brings me a sense of security. What is it in our psyches that gives us such different perspectives. For me, the greatness of Nature is testimony to the power and majesty of a loving God who prepared this planet as a temporary home for humanity.