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
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?"
A SECOND-HAND SHOP IN SKAGWAY
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.