6.2011 | Escape completely®
The bus into Denali is the only way you can snuggle up to the mountain on short notice.
That means traveling with others. For me, on this day, that would be:
A trio of young women planning to hike, one of them moving through the world as if all eyes were on her, arching her back, checking the shape of her ass in her pants.
A dad with the two-foot long lens, the kind with the handle, which he hangs around his neck like an extra set of genitals.
But mostly retired folks, hair grayed, skin geologic. Round. Wearing white.
The bus driver liked to hear himself talk, and he had found the profession that indulged his compulsion completely. He would exploit us for the duration, rambling on until even the lady who had to talk to fill the silence grew weary. I listened until he finished instructions, which took awhile, interspersed as they were with anecdotes. Then I put on headphones.
I had forgotten that armchair travelers want theme-park experiences, and the bus driver, clued into that need and expecting tips (I learned later), catered to it. They wanted wildlife, a lot of it and up close. At every pale or brown speck on yonder slope, we stopped. People crowded the windows, pointing their long and miniscule lenses at a cliff or meadow a good portion of a mile away. The driver waited until people helped each other find the specks and until each got their turn trying to take a picture. The first time, fine, the second, okay. But on the return trip, when we were still shutting down the bus to look at dots on a hillside, I was going fucking nuts. Saw myself leaping out the window and running headlong down the slope, tumbling over into the willow soft and sharp. Finally back at the car, I opened the windows and sped. Escape complete.
At one of the campgrounds, we picked up passengers. An older man with a bit of a drawl sat next to me. I could tell that he hadn't arrived by cruise ship. He wasn't wearing white, for one. He wore a worn brown leather jacket and black leather boots. He carried a knapsack.
As he settled, he pulled an old Nikon SLR out of his bag that was so well used the black paint had worn off the edges and some oft-held surfaces to reveal the brass beneath. I asked him about the camera. He told me he bought it in 1983 and that he had taken pictures with it exclusively since. Said he loved film. He nodded at the digital camera sitting atop my bag and added, "You can take 700 pictures with that, but I can only take 24 or 36." He said it like I was too young to know about film cameras. He said he used to shoot more, when he was overseas, but that he hadn't taken many pictures in recent years.
"What kind of film do you like to shoot?"
"All kinds," he said. Kodak, Fuji. He said he'd found a roll of black-and-white film and that's what was in the camera now.
The man talked to me occasionally through my headphones. Said he was from Missouri, was up here for his son's wedding. Said he wanted to see a grizzly, just once. I shared that I had driven up along the highway and that I'd seen more black bear than I could count just snacking beside the road. That perked him up so I kept talking. He said he'd always wanted to drive the Alaska highway but he wanted to do it by motorcycle. I told him he could, that I'd seen more motorcycles than bear. Ecstatic from the drive, I said it again: "You can do it. You would love it." He asked me where I lived and what I did. When I told him I worked as an editor, he asked which newspaper and I had to explain how things are now.
On the way back, he found a seat next to his son and I had the row to myself until we picked up two hikers. Then my road companion became a sinewy man of clean line, red with exposure. When the man from Missouri got off the bus with his family at the campground where he got on, he stopped at my seat, said it was a pleasure to talk to me.