Sunday, May 23, 2010

What Brings You To Skagway?

Jewell Gardens Tea Room
Charlotte Jewell's Tea Room
I'm talking to Bonnie from Boston. She's seated in the conservatory at Jewell Gardens, Skagway, Alaska, with other tourists. I am pouring her English Rose tea while she waits for her 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 brings you to Jewell Gardens of Alaska?" she asks.

"I was replaced at work two years ago by a twenty-year-old," I tell her, "and it's been hard to find work. Yes, it's still sticking in my craw, and, yes, I know I should get over it." 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 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 been given ten days to report for duty--Washington to Alaska. Arrangements to be made for my house down in the Lower 48, goodbyes  said to my grandchildren, and packing up my Toyota Scion--Arizona Lunch Box--with five months' worth of basic food supplies. Blake warned that living  in a Gold Rush town isn't cheap. And housing is an issue--always an issue. Lucky for me, the Presbyterian 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."

Road Map Bellingham WA to Skagway AK
My Four-Day Road Trip
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 my third day on the road as I drove north out of Hudson's Hope, leaving behind my cousin Carolyn and civilization. A moose ambled across the highway ahead, a giant silhouette against dawn and as graceful as a giraffe. Two bear cubs frolicked in a ditch. Soon telephone poles disappeared, the radio shut off, and it was just me and the road, me and Arizona Lunchbox riding the left shoulder of the Rocky Mountains north for 600 miles. The farther I went, the deeper my apprehension, the higher my anxiety. By the time I reached Liard Hot Springs on the Yukon border I was nauseous from the distressing sensation I couldn't name.

Yukon / BC border
Yukon/BC Border
I drove into the fourth day with a churning stomach and feeling adrift. 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 God made it: never ending, eternal, unmarked by any sign of human the single exception of the road unzipping before me 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 a little threatening.

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.

White Pass, BC, Canada
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 and got out. Here was the international boundary line. Behind me the Yukon and Canada. 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 "Welcome to Alaska" sign, looking south into the seam of yet another tumble of mountains, that I recognized my agitation. I'd experienced it 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 threatened 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.

Meteor Ranch 1962
Sheep field, Meteor Ranch 1961
My father came out, stood quietly beside me. "What's happening to you?"

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'd been trying to define, to name, to understand. A kind of dark and lonely despair. Now here I was, nearly fifty years later, experiencing the same sort of thing and no closer to comprehension.

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 for words, I wrote:
I am experiencing a kind of isolation that disconnects me even me from myself. I have yet to find a word that names this. A disconnect of some sort. A severing of normal thinking patterns. Who am I, sitting on the edge of eternity? Why does it feel so annihilating?
At both Meteor Ranch and now here in Skagway, the stretching land triggered and triggers something, broke and breaks something, internal, and left and leaves me adrift from myself. It takes me some time, but I'm beginning to think I am not teetering on the brink of losing myself but finding instead the insignificance of Self when compared to endless worlds that have no boundaries that ensnare and bind me to the person I've become.

My cousin asked when I stopped in 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 separation, this lostness and disconnect from what I've understood myself to be me, to let go of everything that once told me who and what I was. An aging women? easily replaced by a twenty-year-old? and to instead embrace this expansion of possibility, unscripted and mine to explore.

Carolyn, I wish to live as someone I have not yet met.

"And this," I want to tell Bonnie from Boston, "is what brings me to Jewell Gardens of Skagway."

Jewell Gardens Kitchen
Jewell Gardens Kitchen and Tea Room