Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Skagway, Alaska

I was rummaging through stuff I had written and saved away in folders upon nested folders when I came upon a past digital journal dating all the way back to 1992. It had survived transfers from various computers starting with my first computer, a Mac Plus, all the way down to my current Lenovo PC netbook. It awakened memories of a long ago visit to Skagway, not the first, or last, but one of many visits that I made there in the course of my life as a working cruise ship musician. It is nothing, just a quick impression of a single day at the end of a cruising season. Reading the words I'd written a long time ago brought back the wind, the chill, and the beauty of that long ago late-summer day in Skagway, Alaska. It was a simpler place then. At least that's what it seemed to me. Still, it is a beautiful place, the gateway to the Yukon and all that. And, in winter, it would probably be still a hard place to live in.


 September 2, 1992
 Skagway, Alaska

A strong, cold wind blew through Skagway today with a relentless, unyielding fury. The high  mountains on either side of the narrow effluvial valley created by the glacier-fed  Skagway river forms a natural tunnel    through which  the wind roars either from the sea or from the mountain passes in the Yukon. The cold is biting  and fierce. With    climatic conditions like this  in summer, one can only guess at the ferocity of winters here. No wonder the whole shopping district, if not all of Skagway boards up in the winter months.
The coho are still thrashing about in the narrow creek that rushes   through town, but you know their time is up  by the number of  dead fish floating in the water. The last straggling salmon bear indications of their  terrific   struggle  to make it back to this their stream of birth, the scene of their last instinctive act of creation followed by  their inevitable demise. White patches show   where the skin had been torn from their gray bodies by dint of their upward struggle against the fierce currents  and the rocks. Nature has an inexorable force, a call that cannot be   denied.                           
        I picked up a piece of driftwood--actually  part of the bleached root of some pine or cotton tree. It  was sticking out from the garbage bin on the boardwalk leading to   where the ship was docked. Its gnarled , tortured form showed   promise of visual drama when set against  a black background. It ended up taped onto the wall of the cabin. I am attracted to things like these derelict pieces that have been coughed up by the sea and polished to a silvery shine by the    sun.  Driftwood tell a tale of  a journey--from its being a part of a living organism to its severance from the sustaining soil to  its  subsequent   subjection to the  vagaries of wind and water.  I think that most people are like driftwood,  allowing themselves to be manipulated by the motion of their hearts or whims, unable to stick to a single place or a   specific pursuit. They  must constantly  live a life that is filled with illusions and dreams . This is the reason for their existence, that , though harassed by the vicissitudes of life , they can somehow reach a  point in their restless existence, where they can say:  "There, didn't I shine? Didn't I make my point? Wasn't I free?"

      I visited a secondhand shop in this wee town, probably the only one that it really needed. It is manned by a  cheerful blonde named Kim. Her free coffee is quite popular. In this shop of curiosities, one can find quaint treasures. It provides a window into the kind  of material possessions that  vaguely defines the tastes   of  the  people of this town. I should hasten to add, though, that  the contents of this shop could as well  indicate which  objects they would more readily part with than most.
       There are the usual  items , of course, the  plastic and plaster  junk  that have been manufactured in some  anonymous factory in Asia. A sampling of the kitsch on display here  include a plastic Mickey Mouse  with a coin slot on its back, knock-offs of Dresden china, glass candleholders, flower vases, an antique Royal portable typewriter, certain  souvenirs of the tourist trade (like the ersatz porcelain bald eagle and a copper medallion embossed with the likeness of the main drag of Skagway) that assume a certain air of importance in this drab assemblage of hand-me-aways.
       There are bamboo baskets  and posters, cutlery and kitchen aids (a large food processor with its plastic cover askew sat  like a forlorn lady  wearing her hat  tipped to hide a face that has seen better days), and an entire black and white   photo kit, complete with an enlarger. It had  been languishing in this shop since last summer, undesired and unwanted.
     I succumbed to the charm of four   tiny creamy-white tea-cups (made in China, of course) and bought them for a dollar a piece, including the  saucers.I know I will consign them in some spring cleaning future either to  the  garbage can or the Salvation Army, but they  do  look  charming and considerably more elegant than the rest of their brethren. Besides, they hardly cost anything at all.      

      Now, about those rhodonite slabs cut from  the Yukon......

     "So I guess you guys are winding down, huh," Kim  says, more in observation than in inquiry.

      "Yes," I replied, "three more weeks and we're back in Mexico."

       I sensed a tone of reget in Kim's voice. Was that  a shadow of sadness that momentarily passed over her face? She will probably miss her visitors  from the ships (as will  the other merchants of Skagway, I suppose). I have found her place comforting in its disarray, its free coffee welcoming in its warmth, Kim's cheerfulness somehow remaining intact despite the unconsummated purchases. Last year, the White Pass train mowed part of her house down (her house is right beside the railroad tracks). This year, I saw again her house. It had been repaired  and refurbished, red trims painted on  its four corners.                        
     I won't ever live in Skagway ( many dreams die in the blast of  its infernal arctic wind) but when I think of a lady like Kim, whose smile seems to defy the forbidding weather here,  I marvel at the resilience of the human spirit and the adaptability of man or woman to any kind of climate or terrain. I think the world of Kim and the rest of the 715 year-round citizens of Skagway for whom this piece of America is, if not paradise, HOME SWEET HOME.

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