Monday, September 22, 2008

The "A" List

So I used to have an "A" list of places I wanted to travel to. Coincidentally, all the destinations actually started with "A": Alaska, Africa, Australia (in no particular order). But they were the "A" list not for that, but because they were my top three fantasy destinations.

So one day, toward the end of my first year of vet school, it dawned on me I wasn't going to have summers off for much longer. I poked around and found a cheap charter ticket to Alaska, and booked myself a week's vacation.
Naturally in such situations you have no true expectations; how would you really know what it will be like? So there I was on my charter jet, minding my own biz, and I felt the plane begin its initial descent. You, know, that thing where you lose a bit of altitude before you start making the airport approach. Now, usually there's some urban and/or suburban sprawl for, I don't know, maybe 30 or more minutes before the airport approach. So when I feel the initial descent, I look out the window. There's one road. There's one car on that road. There are no houses.

Hm. THAT'S a bit different.

The plane banks around, lifting the wing on the port side (where I am sitting). The pilot eases out of the turn, dropping our wing back down to level. I look back down to the ground. And then I look up.

I was looking up a long wide valley, bordered on either side with mountains. I felt my heart turn over in my chest and I thought: Oh. I've just come home.

So then of course I immediately thought: Don't be an idiot, you haven't even set foot on the ground here, and yet you think you own the place. But my heart was leaping and my knees felt weak and there were butterflies in my stomach. And that sense of homecoming never left me, the entire time I was there.

It was strange, that. I was 28 years old at the time. I'd never felt that sense of home anywhere but Colorado, where I grew up. And I discovered that Alaska is a speaking land. I felt like, if I was just quiet enough, I could hear what She was saying. So I spent the entire week, no matter what I was doing, feeling like I was listening for something, something just below the threshold of hearing. There was this sense of... presence, maybe. I wanted to look over my shoulder; I almost felt like, if I turned around really fast, I might see something there, behind me, where I knew there was nothing. Nothing visible, anyway.

Interestingly, I had a friend (a classmate from vet school) who had worked for many years as a tour bus driver in Denali. He'd been called to take an extra bus out to the Kantishna Roadhouse, deep in the park. So I'd gone in with him - a drive of several hours, in the evening as the rest of the buses were leaving the park for the evening. After the Toklat River, we saw no one. It was a gorgeous evening, soft with a recent rain storm, and we drove through vast valleys, following caribou, watching grizzlies gorging on berries, stopping to watch a solitary moose browsing in a pond or stare in silent appreciation of a double rainbow arching across the sky. We passed Wonder Lake and kept on into the fading light, arriving at Kantishna late in the evening. My friend, B, was well-known out there, and we were warmly welcomed, fed and plied with drinks and stories (several of which featured the antics of someone named Wild Bill, alternatively known as Flamma-Bill or Combusta-Bill. Something to do with kerosene and an incinerator. I forget the details.)

The following morning we took a full load of tourists out, along with a naturalist who was acting as guide. She was a cheerful, bubbly sort, upbeat and lively. She was chatting with me, asking me questions in a friendly way: Where was I from, how did I know Bill, was this my first trip to Alaska? I said it was.

"And did you feel like you'd just come home?" she asked me, to my complete startlement. I thought: How does she know?

Even after I went home, I could not stop thinking about Alaska. I could hear her siren song at odd moments... when I was hiking, or late at night when I was tired and worn from the long days at school. When I was standing in my pasture, brushing down my mustang mare, or on clinics at school when I'd pause in my work for a moment to regroup. I went back, twice, and never lost my sense of enchantment. Of homecoming.

So, after vet school I interned in Sacramento for a year. During that time a friend I had made in Alaska - one who did a lot of travelling for his job for the state - offered to cash in some airline miles to fly me up for my birthday. Since my birthday is in January, this seemed like a good idea - a chance to see if the winters were really as harsh as I'd been told. As it turned out, just before I arrived he was chatting with a former neighbor of his, who was, at that time, the manager of the clinic where I now work. When my friend mentioned that I was coming up, she said, "Bring her by the clinic. We're looking for a new vet." So, at the end of my visit, I went by the clinic, meeting one of the two owners, toured the clinic, and asked when they were looking for a new doctor to start. April, I was told.

"Oh," I said, disappointed. "I won't be done with my internship until August."

"For the right person, we'd wait," he said.

"Should I send you a resume`?" I asked, and he said I should. So I went back to Sacramento and I sent a resume`. They sent me a job offer. [As a handy fringe benefit - or further bizarre coincidence - the director of my internship was personally acquainted with the owners of the Alaskan clinic and were able to give me a personal reference, having worked closely with me for the prior several months.]

But there's a twist.

As it happens, my friend and classmate B - he of Kantishna fame - was less than happy that I'd applied for that particular job. HE wanted that job, it transpired - but there was a catch: He was temporarily unlicenceable in Alaska. Well, even so; it wasn't worth losing a 4-year friendship, I figured. There were other jobs, after all. So I decided I'd call up and decline the offer. So I phoned the clinic. They got the owner on the phone. I identified myself and opened my mouth to tell him, "I'm sorry, but I'll have to decline that offer." The words were there, clear in my head. And I hear my mouth saying, "I'd like to accept that offer."

I break into a sudden cold sweat. My heart takes a sickening lurch in my chest. I feel slightly ill. I can tell I'm still holding a conversation, but I haven't got the faintest clue what I'm saying or hearing. I hang up the phone and think: What the HELL just happened here?

So now of course I'm all freaked out, wondering what I'm going to say to my friend B, wondering who hijacked my lips and how, exactly, that could have happened. I had the word "decline" in my head. I could HEAR it in my mind's ear. And it Just. Did. Not. Come. Out. That. Way.

It took a while, but I finally realized: My friend B couldn't take that job, whether I did or not, because of the licence limitations. And too... I had faith in him. I believed that he would find that the friendship was strong enough to withstand his angst over that, and that he would himself come to see that I was not taking HIS job, not taking any job he was eligible to accept. And I was right. He is, as I believed, too good a guy, and too honest within himself, to believe that I'd taken a job he could have had for himself. We're still good friends..... and he works much nearer his family, which seems to have worked out well for him.

So that's how I came to be in Alaska. Since then I've been to Africa (twice), but I've yet to make it to Australia. I still want to go there, though I've had other travel priorities sneak ahead of it (my birthday in Paris, for instance, or family reunion trips, and I want to go to Scotland, now, as well. And of course, now that I have sheep, New Zealand is calling.) With luck. I'll see them all, one day. My "A" list, expanded. But I still wake up a lot of days, feeling lucky, feeling wonder... because, after all, I actually live in my "A" list. And it's home.


Tiffany said...

Those pictures are GORGEOUS. I too have Alaska on my list to visit one day. I love wildlife and would LOVE to go there one day.

Toffee said...

What a beautiful and entertaining post, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yeah. You and me, both all about mountains and sky and open and...

The kids still say they're all moving to AK. Except maybe Miss M, who can't regulate her temperature and so does not tolerate either cold or hot. No idea where she'll end up feeling at home. Maybe because everywhere will be rough, it will be possible for it to be anywhere.

But yeah, me, ep, G, B, R, (and possibly M) all big fans of AK. (M and R insist they WERE there, even if they weren't quite born'd yet. They talk about 'when they went to Alaska.')

MaskedMan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MaskedMan said...

Let's try this again, without the grammar errors, perhaps?

I'm envious - Delaware is nice, and I like that the entire state feels like a small town, but it's not Colorado, ya know? And it most certainly isn't Alaska!

If ever telecommuting gets properly ironed out... Or if a big document management position ever opens out that way...

My Alaska experience begins with green water over the flight deck, and ends at the pier in Adak. I really need to do something about that.

Anonymous said...

I worked for a travel company and went all over the United State and Canada. I live in NH. At the time I was trying to find the place I would like to move to. The closest I found was British Columbia.

Sadly, everytime I have tried to go to Alaska my trips always get waylaid by something!

Thank you for sharing how you got to AK, I always wonder how people get there - and stay.

AKDD said...

Thanks, guys! I'm glad you enjoyed the story; I didn't realize it would be interesting until someone asked me about how I got here. I'm quite flattered that you liked it.

Thx for the kind remarks about the pix; the first three were taken from the parking lot in front of my gym, actually. The last two were of my driveway. You just don't have to look far for beautiful up here. Definitely worth a visit, at least. IMHO, of course! :D

I love that M and R talk about when they were in AK! That is SO CUTE! And of course they WERE in AK, even if they "saw" it from inside your abdomen. And come on up any time!

MM, I think you ought to come up for I-rod some year....

Beth, I'm so sorry your AK trip never worked out! It's not too late, though... I had an "entertaining" trip through BC on my move up here. Maybe I'll detail that somewhere.... :D

Anonymous said...

We have plans in our heads for I-rod, but it means waiting until Miss M has enough body mass to withstand cold (granted, she'll be bundled, but she really struggles to maintain body temp, and it would be a huge stresser for her physically). And money would be good. We'd like to stay for the whole thing (at least first few in)... and there's that whole addition on the house before the kids move out, as well... Sigh. It's on the list, really!

AKDD said...

Well, it's not like the Iditarod is going anywhere. Well, except to Nome. ;) You have time to save up.