So, Mike and I spent the last week with our friend (also named Mike) on a cruise to Alaska, stomping groups of Sarah Palin and her folksy, homespun wisdom. (Except for the time when we were in Juneau, where one of our traveling friends saw a sign still in a window that said, “Hey Sarah, your job’s here.” Apparently, as governor she didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the state capital.)
I wasn’t on this trip to meet the locals, really. I wanted to walk on a glacier, see the route the Klondike gold rushers took, and ride a zipline through the coniferous rainforest canopy. (That part was really cool, by the way.) I wanted to see a bit of wilderness because I have my doubts about how much longer things like glaciers will be around.
Of course, we were residents in a floating city at sea of about 3,500 residents, only 1,200 of whom actually have to do any work. (Thanks, guys. You were awesome, and I’m betting you don’t get paid enough.) Every so often our city docked and we all streamed ashore for periods of time always lasting less than a day, running out to have our experiences and buy our souvenirs, then returning to our floating city so it could undock and take us further along. At the same time I was having one of the best vacations of my life, I was well aware that I wasn’t seeing anything approaching the “real” Alaska.
I got a peek into what that real life might be like during our cruise of the inside passage when I talked to one of the representatives from the Alaska Geographic Society, who talked about building their house and installing the toilets and the running water and electricity, and getting everything running to the point where now she has a lot of free time; who gets groceries either flown in from Juneau (at a cost of 48 cents a pound, your gallon of milk ends up costing about 12 bucks) or by taking their boat on the three-hour cruise down to the city. At least, it’s three hours when you time it with the weather. Get some bad luck, and you may end up holed up for a day or so living off of potato chips because they’re the only things you bought that don’t need to be cooked. She and her husband read a lot, but they don’t own a TV because what they see outside their windows is more compelling than any scripted reality show.
One of my favorite things in Glacier Bay was when the ship paused for an hour next to two massive glaciers, one covered with dirt and streaked black, the other white and blue and jutting into the water. The deck was crowded with onlookers holding cameras and binoculars. We listened to the glacier pop and crack, and twice we got to see it relinquish two fragments of itself into the water. The park literature said calving glaciers can swamp kayaks and small boats, but we had no such concerns. The calving glaciers seemed like a metaphor for life as we know it: not so much a series of barely averted catastrophes, but stages in a slow, protracted process of falling down.
When you’re on a boat, you don’t see the world as it really is. You’re kind of apart from everything, only ducking in and skimming the surface. My relation to the news during this trip had a similar rhythm. I didn’t have access to a daily paper and didn’t really seek it out. Nor did I have Internet access (when you’re on vacation and the ship charges by the minute, you realize you can live without Facebook, Twitter, and cnn.com) or cell phone service until I got on shore. 3G access in The Last Frontier? Kind of nonexistent.
You catch snippets of things, but you miss a lot, like the story about the Muslim guy getting stabbed by the drunk white guy in his cab, or about the lampshade made of human skin, or some whackjob in Florida who’s going to burn Korans on 9/11. You shake your head and laugh a little because on the boat, it all doesn’t seem quite real.
Later, you come home and it’s the primaries on Tuesday and you look at the people who won, and you wonder, what the hell is wrong with Americans?
I’ve been wondering that for a while now. Although I just realized it this past week, for a long time it’s felt like I’ve been afloat on a boat watching all these people on shore doing crazy things and wondering, what are they thinking?
I came back from vacation with a hideous head cold. Reality has a way of settling back in like that.