Coal River Lodge is at just about 60 degrees of latitude. At this latitude, a warm early summer evening turns into a frosty morning. At the crack of the sun never really set, we break camp. The sun is getting its shine on, though not pouring out infrared hard enough to keep my hands from going numb while striking the tent. It doesn’t feel like the middle of the night. It still feels like, I don't know, 6:30 AM, which is basically what time it is on the East Coast, where our circadian rhythms are still located. Or is 7:30 AM? Either way, it makes for ideal road trip conditions: there is no one on the road except for us.
The plan is to make sure that both Eric and I have an opportunity to drive in the Great White North (it really is a beauty way to go). Both of us are exhilarated. Yesterday had reminded us that the Canadian Rockies did exist and that we would in fact be traveling through them. It was great. We do not expect this day to be better, but nature mocks us by asserting its montane splendor from the jump.
To process the experience of awe in nature is to be able to commune with its scope. Walking and camping in one area gives your mind time to come to terms with whatever beauty or immensity is present. You become familiar with it. You become patient with it’s details as they unfold, gradually, beneath the initial hit of grandeur. Driving 70 mph? You have less time to reckon with what is in front of you before it is replaced, in the case of June 8th, constantly and relentlessly by more and more awesome things. It overwhelms and exhausts. Eric and I simply geek out. I attempt to capture every angle of it before it is gone forever, which is destined to be a beautiful failure.
Bove Island is less than 60 miles from Skagway. Before long the meat of this journey will have been consumed. I can still feel the heat and pain of my hands warming up on the wheel after collapsing a tent soaked with frozen water and yet we are about to pull into the last stretch, with the window down to improve the quality of the photographs. It has been a day spent in an ecclesiastical mode, worshipping at the sights, our eyes constantly overwhelmed by the view around the next bend, the next set of mountains. Even now, I struggle to express in words the utterly exhausted sense of delight Eric and I felt with arrival of each new mountain stupefying us quite unfairly as rounded the bends and reached the crests of the hills on this gorgeous road.
We arrive safely and irritatingly drama free in Skagway (what’s a good piece of art without conflict?!). There are three cruise ships in port. The town is crawling with people gawking and spending money, money, money and blocking the roads while gawking. It's hard to be mad at the gawkers; the port is simply stunning. We have time to drop by a local brew pub, relax a bit and unwind. It will be many hours before we have to drive again and nothing like what we have just come through, just navigating Juneau, the capital of Alaska, our destination, and the place the car needs to stay. We are elated and relieved. I am also nervous. I have to cease being the owner of this reliable little buggy that brought us out here so drama free, but the specifics of how that is going to happen continue to elude me. It’s ok. I have an entire ferry ride to figure it out.
The Alaska Marine Highway is the hostel version of water-borne travel in these parts, which is to say that if you are a relatively poor sojourner who does not care about creature comforts but still wants the experience dammit, the ferries of the Marine Highway are just what the doctor ordered.
I had expected to spend the night in a heated lounge which resembles the coach sections of Amtrak trains: reclinable seats, but lots of disparate people, a bit cramped and noisy. And I was sort of right, in the sense that this option was available and I was forced to adopt it at around 1 AM when the sun was at it’s lowest point and, battered and tired and cold, I crawl beneath an empty set of said seats unable to withstand the cold. The life-hack version of traveling on the Marine Highway is to whip out your sleeping bag (and if you are really feeling it, your tent) and sleep in the solarium. There are heaters above you along with a nice roof and folding deck chairs. It’s a perfect combination. It results in being woken by the sun in one of the most spectacular places I have ever been. The channel is dominated by craggy mountains and glaciers on all sides. I thought that the Klondike Highway, from Carcross down to Skagway was a never ending series of natural delights that could not be topped, but I was wrong. The Favorite Channel between Skagway and Juneau is all of that and a bag of chips and no one had to drive.
I should note that Eric had always planned to bring his sleeping bag. He enjoys a perfect night under the Alaskan sky.
Eric and I are both big believers in the ethos of the flaneur, which is to say that one should learn to read the landscape that you exist in by walking slowly across it, learning it’s rhythms and its history. I spent six weeks in Europe living by that principle. That’s a trip I did not commit to the great archive, so I occasionally surprise myself by remembering that, oh, yeah I was in Berlin for 2 weeks back in 2010 (thanks for reminding me of that, border guard — how many days ago was that?). I walked everywhere. Berlin is a cityscape that I have learned to read during my time as a Germanist (yes, that’s a real word). I spent 9 days there in 2000, a mere 11 years after re-unification. The city was in the process of rediscovering itself. It was 9 days of walking tours through various parts of the city, escorted by docents instructing us in the meaning and the history of these places, like Friedrichshain and Marzahn and Kreuzberg and Potsdam. 9 nights of theater and cabaret and film (we went during the Berlinale, the film festival). It was glorious and it has deeply informed how I experience cities. Ten years later, I went back to see the choices the city had made, especially in Potsdamer Platz, an octagon of promise and potential in the middle of a cosmopolitan city that was an open scar for years when the Berlin Wall tore through it.
But on a trip of this scope, over 3,800 driven miles (give or take the odd spectacular ferry ride of 7.5 hours at 16 knots), what does the flaneur do? It seems impossible that driving 70 miles an hour for days on end should be comparable to eight hours of digging into neighborhoods and discovering the pulse of the city. I’ve already waxed rhapsodic on how to commune with natural immensity and it is in direct opposition to traveling 70 mph. Obviously, the best way to get to know each mountain would be to walk it, to spend the night with it. But if you draw back and think not of one mountain, one range, one region, but of the entire geologic vastness that we had traversed, you can get a sense of flanieren on a huge scale, from the East Coast of the United States, over the Appalachians, through the plains, and over the mountains, you go, the landscape ever changing, but not quite as fast you thought it would and 12 hours a day to think about what you are doing and what you did. That's exactly the kind of dedication to presence that a flaneur takes on the streets of Berlin: it's just that highways are the streets of a continent and 70 mph is actually a bit of a dawdle.