Thursday, June 9, 2011

#5: Another Birthday In Skagway

My first thought upon awakening was, "Well, I'm still not sixty. Yet." And then I lay in bed the morning of May 29 pondering how my perspective of birthdays has changed over the yea--sorry, decades. Remember when it was so important to be six and a half, six and three-quarters? "I'm not six! I'm six and a quarter!" I don't know about you, but I don't do that anymore. I measure in yea--sorry, decades now. Not so sure I like this.

So I opened my eyes to the Alaskan sunlight that had begun pouring through the crack in the curtain at 4:30 a.m., one year shy of another decade, and thought about all the many birthdays of my past. My sister Linda and I have birthdays two weeks apart, which my efficient but not always sensitive mother found rather convenient. One birthday party instead of two. So I never really enjoyed my own birthday party until I was seventeen, when living in Arizona on my own. Short lived, however.

Just three days after turning nineteen (with no gift from the man I was about to marry), I slid into a ten-year marriage without receiving a single birthday present from a man I'll call Dick, or even an acknowledgment that this was supposed to be a special day for me. I did try the year I turned 29 to ask for a book. What I got was, "You're so selfish. That will cost me $10." I left the brute ten months later.

My divorce not yet final when I turned 30, I had the best birthday of my life, ever. A secret birthday, the details of which I might one day reveal. But not yet. A cherished birthday that an old lady might tell to a great-granddaughter, and hold her to secrecy. What I will say about that birthday is that it brought me hope and possibility. Gifts I treasure to this day.

And ever since then I've had really happy birthdays, truly. One that stands out was my 50th, when my three children treated me to a holiday at Lake Harrison in B.C.

My first grandson was just five months old. I only have to recall the day and be right there, to the very moment I awoke. The smell of the lake, the trees, birdsong, the early morning stillness. I glanced over and saw Rome in his crib, playing with his hands in the sunlight. A contented infant, fascinated with the play of light and dark and fingers he was learning were his. Quietly I dressed, changed his diaper, fixed him a bottle, and then he and I walked along the beach as the sun climbed the sky. One of those rare moments of bliss a person is lucky to experience maybe a handful of times in her life.

So there I lay this year, not yet sixty, wondering what I would do in Skagway to celebrate my very special day. The year before friends from the Garden had taken me to the Pizza Station and treated me to my first shot. I'd then made my way to my son's company party at the "White House," where the HAPA bus drivers had made me a cake and sang Happy Birthday. A good day.


This year I'm working for the company my son works for; we all had the day off. Pretty soon Shari texted from two doors down the hallway. "Happy Birthday. Coffee's on."

"What do you want to do?" she asked when I arrived, cream from the community frig in my hand.

"Dyea!" Dyea is the ghost town about 8 miles NNW of Skagway. 

2nd Cache
"Wanna learn how to go Geocaching first? Ther're geocaches in Skagway."

Two passions Shari pursues. Crosswords and geocaching. And who would believe there is such adventure in each?

Four of us ended up spending the day together--a totally unexpected, unplanned, but beautiful day of learning, fun, relaxation, and growing friendship. Me. Stanley. Shari. Teri. A day of soul enrichment in everything that's good, all of it experienced within Alaska's indescribable sense of space and spectacular.

First, it was out to the lot behind our hotel to receive instruction, me side-tracked with a birthday call from my son, not yet here in Skagway.
Standing below my window, talking to Blake
Instruction from Shari

All you have to do, said Shari, is access the geocaching web site, put in your zip code, and up pops locations of hidey-holes where someone's hidden a small pouch where you can sign in and exchange trinkets. You then point your GPS and follow the needle. Ours led us northeast through the parking lot and up alongside Captain William Moore's cabin. We stopped to take our pictures. Teri told us that if we put one foot forward and turned sideways we'd all look skinnier. Really? It certainly explained why all the young girls on Facebook strike this pose.
Me, Stanley, Shari
We then veered over to the train track, where we found, to my great delight, an abandoned engine and box cars. Stanley poked her nose is one of the box cars. "Hey!" she said. "This is great place to come make out!" I looked and said, "Hey! This is a great place to live!"
A great place to live
Our needle was getting a little crazy. Shari told us that when we're within 25 feet of the cache, it'll do this. You have to just start snooping around. So snooping around we did. Teri found it. Who'd o' thunk it was there?
What is this piece of rusted relic?
For Teri, Stanley, and me, it was a thrill, and we gave to Teri the honors of pulling out the cache. What excitement to see what was inside! Took me right back to all the fun my sisters and I used to have, trying to drum up adventure and getting by on a lot of imagination.
Stanley, Teri, Shari
Our cache!
Me signing the log
Our next little adventure took us to a "virtual" geocache, none other than the AB Building on Broadway, the most photographed building in Alaska--though don't ask me how anyone knows this. We had to find the date on the building, a plaque on the wall, and something else inside. Can't remember the something. But that's not unusual.
AB Building -- Arctic Brotherhood
Back outside, I wanted to find the exact same spot an 1897 gold miner once stood for his picture. He looked quite weary. So here's Stanley where the young miner once lingered, not weary at all and with a whole lot more sass. And ass.

Now Dyea. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. In the old days you rowed over from Skagway or steamed into the long shallow bay of Dyea on a steamer out of San Francisco or Seattle. Today you just drive up and around AB Mountain, around Long Bay, up the mouth of the Tyea River, over the bridge, and back down to Dyea.

Along the way we braked hard. An eagle was serenely perched on the branch of a Sitka Spruce, facing Long Bay with not a care in the world.

Suddenly, a second eagle swooped in, the two lifted together and circled south, landing in a tree behind us. I'm never not amazed how tiny a bird call these majestic birds have. Kind of like Paul Bunyon singing like Tinker Bell.
Back in the truck, and just around the bend of Long Bay, our needle jumped. Again it was she who found the cache, but she let me go after it. Happy Birthday to me! This cache was hanging off a tree, quite soggy, and it took some time for Shari to peel back the wet paper so we could all sign the log.
Finally Dyea. How I love the place. Teri had never been.

No, wait. First a stop at Slide Cemetery where so many men lost their lives on April 3, 1898, an avalanche catching them under 30-foot cloud snow. A somber place, a quiet place, sunlight dappling through the spruce and onto devil's club.
Stanley, Teri
It is, of course, hard for Stanley to remain reverent for long. Or was it me who suggested that one of us really needed to crawl into a sunken hole and have an eulogy said? Whatever, it was Stanley who jumped in.
Here Lies Stanly, A Pirate Who Died Not at Sea But Under the Snow
A Story of Woe Too Sad To Be Told
So tell me, now that I've gotten you to Dyea, is there a more satisfying place in the world?
Creek running down into Lynn Canal
The Old Wharf, 1897, 1898, 1899
I find Dyea to be a place where there is no boundary between me and the space around me. I am the space, limitless time, a part of the very breath of God.

And dare I get so mundane as to say, where else can you find a glacier fed creek bed full of gold? Winking up shiny and yellow, drawing me down into the frigid water?
It was of course fool's gold and I hobbled out with feet so cold I couldn't move my toes.

Driving back to town in company of  new friends, it seemed to me t it was one of the most satisfying, unexpected, and loveliest of days. The day, however, was not over.

Back at the hotel Jazz had baked me not only one birthday cake, but two! Two? And Davey, an adorable man who once held me in his arms while I cried, had his own birthday gift for me. Just to catch you up, last year, two days before my birthday, a man in town--who should never have said such a thing--told me I was too old to fit in. It was Davey I'd found in my tears, it was Davey who'd decried the man who'd dared say it. So what better way to end my birthday, older than the year before, with Davey singing me Happy Birthday?
It's been nearly two weeks. And I have eleven months and two weeks to get used to the idea turning the calendar into yet another decade. Though they do say sixty is the new forty. Who says that? But what I can count on are friends and family, when that day comes, to put happy in my birthday.