The Twilight Zone- Day ? of #MikeandTobyTravels
I didn't know the ferry would end up being something of a twilight zone on our travels.
Ketchikan looks like a cute town, but its nine p.m. when we get off the ferry and as usual, the shipping area isn’t the greatest way to see a town—kind of like when the cruise ships dock in Kahului and we see the pale, overdressed tourists getting sunburned slogging along our least-pretty Maui streets, down in the rusty, filthy shipping zone. I always feel bad for them. I hope that’s not what they think Maui is like, nothing but gas storage tanks, whizzing cars, blowing dust and a mediocre mall.)
We head across the street from the dock to a Best Western and buy a glass of wine (me) and a dark local stout (him) so we can use the Internet in the bar. I put up yesterday’s blog post and Mike puts up a slew of eagle and bear shots.
“Look at them fighting over the fish scraps, just like seagulls,” Mike says, showing me a photo with four bald eagles squabbling over a tossed handful of fish offal. We’re beginning to see why the locals treat them as pesky trash birds, but still, to me they’re awesome with their glaring yellow eyes, snowy heads and thick, powerful wings. I didn’t know they croaked, but they do, a harsh sound halfway between a crow and a bark—not at all pretty.
We are in bliss to finally have some speedy internet for the hour until we get back on the ferry, and once we do, filing across a clanging metal gangplank, I climb into my bunk and drop into a womblike sleep. Something about the deep throb of the engine, the very slight rocking of the ferry, the sense of motion takes me back. I sleep through a stop in Wrangell, which I really meant to at least look at from the window since my friend Holly wrote a story I beta-read about visiting her daughter there. I slept through a sunrise that Mike videoed, “the longest sunrise I’ve ever seen,” he said, showing me a blaze of orange and red, minutes long even in time-lapse, on his phone. “It went on for hours and hours.”
When I finally do wake up it’s outside a collection of buildings along the heavily-wooded bank called Petersburg. We’d been following a fishing trawler that didn’t seem to know we were there and wouldn’t get out of the way—as I came up on the main deck, it was dawdling along just ahead of us, and the ferry’s crew were gathered in the bow speculating as we drew ominously closer and closer. Finally the captain blew the air horn, a blast that about levitated us off our feet. The boat, which would have barely caused a ripple being mowed beneath the mighty Manuska, bobbled and wove and finally pulled to the side.
Drama safely over, we got in line for another indifferent meal, enlivened by bickering between the grumpy short-order cooks behind the counter. The short Asian cook in the hair net took issue with the order taker and plate assembler, a rounded black guy (round brown eyes, round brown bald head, round belly under white apron.)
“You said two eggs!” hissed the Asian guy, smacking down his heavy spatula on some pancakes to vent his spleen.
“No, clear as day I told you ONE egg,” the black guy growled. He looked up at us, fire in his eyes. “Next?”
“I notice a definite difference in service now that we’re in the United States,” Mike said, tucking into his biscuits and gravy when we were safe in the eating area, looking out at more pine trees bracketed by snow-covered mountains.
“Let’s see if it’s just the ferry,” I temporized, stirring yogurt into my fruit (yay, found something I could eat even with my allergies!) “These guys have a pretty tough job and it must get old.” But we both have a feeling we’ve gotten spoiled by Canadian niceness.
The sunshine of the first day has given way to a low ceiling of clouds and chilly spates of rain as if God is randomly flicking us, and the ferry plows on through a tunnel of smooth, opaque green water and dark trees, heading for purplish mountains robed in snow.
As the hours go by the trip assumes a sameness, a Twilight Zone where the sun seems to hardly move. I keep checking the time but it’s relatively meaningless because there’s no sense of the day, and even though we’re moving, little sense of progression. Every time I look out the window it’s the same beautiful view: ocean, trees, snow-capped mountains. Sometimes it’s closer, sometimes further away. I think of that weird scene in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies where the ship is stranded in that huge desert, that half-light purgatory, and finally the stones turn to crabs that carry the ship to the edge of reality.
I wonder how it is here in Alaska, when it’s not closest to the longest day of the year but it’s the longest night, and everything is frozen. Just the thought makes me cold, and I get out my crisp new Viking parka. I’m able to stand right in the bow with the wind unable to get me (except through my yoga pants) doing my Kate Winslet Titanic imitation, but eventually there’s just nothing to do but to get back into bed and sleep some more.
I get up and look out the porthole. Hours have passed, but I have no sense of them. The ocean/strait/waterway we are on has broadened, but it’s still the same—acres and miles and trackless forever stretches of trees and snow-capped mountains, and for the first time it’s really sinking in how far we’ve come and how far we’re going.
Mike tried to show me, multiple times, on the map, but I couldn’t connect that little symbolic colored drawing with this vastness, this inhospitable wildness we have the temerity to try to travel through. I feel a terrible, free-floating anxiety, as if I’m a helium balloon, unmoored and floating, lost in this cold wilderness, cut off from everyone by no phone service or internet or proximity. Mike sleeps on, snoring away in the little bunk, as I leave to get something from the cafeteria, to ground myself with other humans.
It helps a bit, to get back into the cafeteria line between the apple-shaped woman in tight polyester with teased-up orange hair, and the harried young mother with the twin three-year-old girls, one tugging on her leg, the other on her hand. I bypass the grumpy cooks by choosing a premade sandwich and suffer agonizingly slow checkout with a new girl (who usually makes beds, she tells me.) She has to open a laminated book of prices and slowly punch in my dollar-fifty cup of tea (Chai) and turkey-with-provolone-on-wheat sandwich, wrapped so hard in plastic it looks like a triangular throw pillow. Putting on the condiments, sitting alone at a table and looking out at yet more water and trees, I go through the motions of preparing my sandwich, of eating, of plonking my tea bag up and down in the cup as if it is an anchor.
I’ve had these moments before, and endured them. It’s a kind of agoraphobia, a fear of an openness so vast I feel swallowed by it. It’s existential almost, this acute awareness. I feel like a molecule in the universe, overwhelmed with the truth of it, and the futility of it all annihilates me.
The first time I had a really bad attack like this I was 90 feet down doing an open ocean scuba dive. The hugeness of the ocean simply overwhelmed me in a weird kind of reverse claustrophobia. I burned through my oxygen way too fast, but managed not to do anything stupid until the weirdness passed. Another time I had an episode, I was on our last road trip in Colorado on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and I had to simply lie down flat in order to look over, totally overwhelmed by the depth and complexity. My latest attack happened on top of Haleakala under the Milky Way. Looking into that spinning bowl of stars, I felt totally sure I was going to fall out into space and be lost and floating among them. I actually gripped onto the rocks and eventually had to turn over and look at the ground.
And now, Alaska. It’s just too big. The reality of the magnitude of our route and its isolation is setting in in a way I finally understand—and it totally freaks me out.
I’m not in danger here, I tell myself, plonking my tea bag up and down. I’m having fun, an adventure. I wanted to do this. I do my breathing, stay grounded in the moment, just like I’d tell a client. Nothing bad is happening. Everything is nice, and comfortable. But I can’t wait to get back to our closet-like, enclosed cabin. Mike is waking up as I come back in with half the sandwich. I hold it out like an offering.
“So. We’re getting back on the ferry and going up to Haines after Juneau? And then, we’re driving back to Seattle…. Through all of this? So many miles of trees and mountains?” I can feel how huge my eyes are, and I try to be funny and maybe I’m a little successful because Mike laughs, and shakes his head. He hugs me and I cling like a koala.
“I’m not letting you out of my sight,” I say into his chest. “This is too much for me. Too many trees. Too many mountains.”
“I knew this was going to happen,” he says. “It’s sinking in, how big our road trip is. I tried to tell you. Multiple times, I asked you to get involved with planning, to tell me if it was too much. I even got mad at you that time because you refused to even look at the map.”
I remember that time he got mad, trying to get me to pay attention to the plan and how I wouldn’t. I knew I didn’t have a context to understand what we were undertaking, but on some level I did know how it would affect me, and I didn’t want to admit it.
“It wouldn’t have mattered,” I said. “I am in this and now I see how big it is. I was busy. I had deadlines and my writing all the way until the day we left. I miss my writing!” I can feel tears welling up. “I miss being in my stories. I miss being connected with people!”
He hugs me some more. “You can take a plane from Juneau,” he says. “You can go back to Seattle if you want.”
It seems like the worst kind of cowardice, and I hate being a coward. “I just have to get through this, one hour at a time until it passes,” I say. “Let’s go on the observation deck.” But the thought of Seattle, of holing up in a hotel for a couple of weeks and writing Bone Hook while Mike drives all the way back through three thousand miles of British Columbian wilderness alone, is actually tempting. We could then go to the cottage on the San Juans together. He would be semi-safe and happy, adventuring. And I would be safe and happy, alone, writing my book.
On the observation deck, we sit in swiveling chairs. We see a humpback on one side, and our first orcas, and everyone gets up pointing and exclaiming. In the company of other people, including the young hipster guy with the lime-green vest and fedora, the Mennonite man with the huge white beard and his two female companions in kerchiefs and skirts, the apple-shaped woman wielding her binoculars, I feel more grounded.
But it is awfully big, and I’m not at all sure I can handle it.
We have a little dithering getting off the ferry in Juneau. The city is clean and a lovely mix of green trees and steep, rugged mountains combined with modern, tasteful buildings and a shopping area near the cruise ship docks. We decide to camp by Mendenhall Glacier, and I feel much better with my feet on the ground. Driving on, and more will be revealed.