Alaska Part I

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Just when I start to believe the turbulence is over, the plane drops down as if a giant bats us out of the sky. The pilot’s voice echoes through the small 20 seat  plane and says,

“We have some weather up ahead going through the Lake Clark Pass. Enjoy the ride!”

The plane jerks to the side and I glance around at my fellow passengers. I notice the majority of the passengers are either native Alaskans or very rich-looking white males. The natives continue their conversations while the plane dives and bobs around above the magnificent glacier below us. The white men are pale and try to pretend to be asleep but are secretly holding on for dear life and praying for an Alaskan miracle.

I look to the natives for direction and think in my mind,

“Should I be worried yet? I hope there will be a bigger sign to indicate when it is an appropriate time to freak out that our plane will be crashing”.

The native Alaskan girls next to me are talking about boys and giggling, unaware of the eminent danger they may be facing (in my mind). These girls are no doubt tougher than I am.

The turbulence shifts spontaneously and I realize I have no control. Instead of sitting ridged in my chair, I decide to sit back and take the plane ride like I’m training for the bucking bronco rodeo. I tell myself if we die here today, then it was meant to be. I let go and release control.

I’m not sure if the winds changed or if it was only the rising of something stronger in my mind, but the next thing I knew my eyes were calmly glued on the mountains we were teetering through. It was as if the plane was a mosquito flying precariously through crocodile teeth. I could see the reflection of the plane on the glacier below, which resembled a frozen highway.

We fly around the corner of a vast mountain that looks like it reaches a mile above us to a spot where the valley opens up. A bright aqua river flows through the valley with hundreds of channels weaving back and forth like an elaborate woman’s braid. There has not been a single sign of human existence since our first stop. My eyes have never experienced something so pure and unadulterated by the world’s foot print.

It was most likely a combination of the fact that I had been awake for almost 40 hours in travel, coupled with this unexpected view and mixed with my own heart’s circumstance that lead to a welling up of a feeling I had been pushing away for a while. Unstoppable tears started streaming down my tired face as I stared out the small window and listened to the consistent buzzing of the loud plane engine.

I was alone, without a distraction to change my mind from the avoided emotions. Alaska was staring back at me boldly and would not provide a reason to hide; no matter what front I put on for this raw space in Alaska, it would reflect back an unavoidable truth- that I needed to allow my walls to come down so that I could be healed.

I think about the last year. It had been ten months since I lost a very close family member who left behind children to raise. Right after that, I headed back to college to finish up my senior year by myself, as all of my best friends graduated the previous year. I was alone, angry, confused and limping a long at college. I had used my pain as energy to fuel my desire to complete my psychology degree. I dove into an internship at a juvenile detention center in the drug and alcohol rehab program. I also got a job at child protective services doing supervised visits with parents and driving children to and from their foster care homes. I realize I have been avoiding time alone and I have not allowed myself to stop moving in almost a year.

Needless to say, after graduation I barely drug myself to the plane that was arranged by a high school friend, whose parents own the lodge I will be working for. They are expecting a high energy and stable client server. At this point, I am not sure who I even am or what I can provide, but I am hopeful it will shake me up and push me in the direction I need to go.

A tear rolls down my face as I look out into the vast creation in front of me and hear God whisper to my soul that its time….

In the midst of my thoughts, the plane takes another dip in the wind current and I look over at the teenage girl passengers next to me. They are looking at me, noticing the tears in my eyes. They quickly look away and I realize they think I am crying because of the scary flight. I laugh to myself as I think ‘well they will have a funny story to bring back to their village about the white girl who was so afraid of flying that she was crying’.

The pilot announces another stop at another village that I had no idea even existed. I start to panic because I realize that I was so concerned on getting to the airport, finding serving clothes and guiltily saying goodbye to my family again for the summer that I forgot to even look up the name of the Lodge I was flying to! I also could not remember the name of the small village that was my final destination for the day!

We land in Girdwood and half of the passengers exited the plane. The name ‘Girdwood’ did not ring a bell in my confused mind so I take a gamble and stay on the plane to continue on to the next stop. I search my bag for my tickets but find it fruitless.

The plane stops two more times and I continue to stay on board. It’s the last stop and I sit patiently watching as my fellow native Alaskans gather their luggage and exit the plane. I was the only one left……so I decide to follow along. The pilot exited after me and I knew this was the last possible stop on the route out to the middle of nowhere…..

With squinty eyes and shaky knees, I grab my back packing pack and my mini suit case full of shoes and make my way to the airport parking lot; which looks like someone’s house. I make eye contact with every person that I see waiting in the pick-up area. I do not see the familiar face of my friend, Jess, who said she would be picking me up….

I wait for a half hour. A gentleman notices that I have been waiting and asks me if I know who is coming to get me and from which lodge. I pridefully say,

“Yes, they are running late”; and then I pretend that I have to go to the bathroom.

Crap, what if I got off at the wrong village? What if she is waiting for me at the other places? It’s almost 7 pm and I know that our flight was the last one in for the night. I have no idea what to do! I need a better version of myself to rise up and be brave. I sit there paralyzed for about an hour and a half, staring at the road, when all of a sudden a tan suburban with a fishing logo on the side comes roaring into the driveway. My heart leaps as I stand up to see if this is my ride.

It’s Jess! She says it’s been an insane day at the lodge and they are in the middle of serving dessert so we have to hurry back. She throws my bag in the truck and we drive around a huge body of water, called Lake Iliamna, to a picturesque peninsula where the lodge is located snugly between two sides of the lake.

When I arrive, Jess’s mom meets me at the door. I try to act normal and as put together as possible. She tells me I look so tired. She has no idea. I go to bed as soon as I get settled and thank God for safe travels and that I actually even made it here at all after all of the confusion.

We get up the next morning at 5 am and get as dressed up as one feels like getting dressed up that early. It’s my first day on the job and I’m looking forward to doing something mindless. We serve breakfast and interact sparsely with the clients. After breakfast dishes were done, we have some down time while the clients are flown out on float planes to go fly fishing for the day or chartered out to King Camp, where they can do some King salmon fishing.

I am curious what one does with free time in the middle of no-where, with no TV or radio or family….? I follow Jess around like a puppy and mimic her every move. We go out back and throw sticks and rocks for the dogs and get to know each other better. I keep my sorrows to myself and ask a hundred questions about the village and the lodge.

Unfortunately I realize that I am already drawn to the fact that the village has one of the highest suicide rates in the winter and that there are several domestic violence cases here. The village is actually a “Dry town” by law, meaning alcohol is not allowed here. I already start scheming about finding a way to get in touch with the local health clinic to see if they need any assistance with counseling or running a group for troubled teens there. Thankfully, we become so busy with cleaning the cabins and prepping for dinner, that I was not able to self-sabotage my own need for mindless work.

Serving dinner was stressful as I am trying to remember how to serve from the correct side and where to set the plate- it turns out that a college degree is not helpful in these areas. The male clients are generally kind but also possess a few “lookers” who watch our every move like we are fresh meat and they are on a hunt. They say thank you while expecting eye contact and even though it makes me feel dirty, I really want them to tip well and for my bosses to appreciate my service. I am a mama bear though when it comes to Jess’ gorgeous teenage sister who is serving- if any of the lookers gaze at her with lustful eyes I throw them a snarl and with my glare alone, I threaten to cut their eyes out.

The fishing guides make me nervous as well because I am new and have only been in Alaska for one full day; I don’t like being the new girl that doesn’t know what she is doing. I find myself wanting to list off all of the things I just completed at school, that I played college volleyball, worked on trout streams in the summers and all of my credentials so that everyone knows I am not only an awkward waitress and house cleaner (why do I care so much what they think of me?).

After dinner there was a break in chores and I started to think about how messed up I am as I change out of my serving clothes. I decide to pull myself out of the crowd to go sit at the very edge of the peninsula; to put my own self in timeout. I feel anxiety by not having something to fix or some sort of job that instantly rewarded me with positive reinforcements. I don’t know if its from years of sports or just the fact that this is how my brain has learned to survive this last year, but I crave a reminder that I was a good person, that I was “ok”. I’m like a crack addict in detox- fidgety and seeking ways to fulfill this strange need for validation.

I peer out at the water; it’s smooth and still; it goes for miles. Even though it is 9 pm, the sun is not even close to setting. Staring out at the mountains across the lake causes me to hold my breath, as I feel ‘something’ pushing back at me. I realize “It” is “nothing”- no expectations, people that needed me, no constant draw to perform or impress- it was only the mountains, the air and the sweet smell of Alaskan sage. I feel as though God is sitting right in front of me, staring into my eyes and filling me where the empty places have developed. The tears start to fall again as I slowly allow my sadness to seep out and simultaneously feel the joy from facing the most magnificent creation pouring in.

Just then, a tribe of mosquitoes find me and I slap my face several times and run towards the lodge. Jess met me at the door and says,

“Grab some warm clothes and find some waders that fit you. We are going fishing!”

What? Its late right? I don’t ask questions out loud but do as I am told and jump in the dusty suburban. My new redneck friend, Jer, has hooked up the boat and we set off down the road. I get to see the small village and we pass a likely 4 year old native driving a four wheeler; he flips us off and we wave.

To be continued…….

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