Surreal Alaska

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
October 5th, 2022
alaskan cruise

The world is on the move again. With COVID under better control and most people just tired of being confined, airports are crowded, flights are delayed and cruise ships are taking to the open seas.

And so it was that my wife and I set out on our pandemic postponed cruise to Alaska, a rite of passage for senior citizens in America and, for us, an opportunity to spend time with old friends who had invited us to join them on a long-awaited adventure.

We were to be a party of six, but when one of our friends’ daughters tested positive for COVID two days before we were scheduled to embark, it was just the two of us, seasoned travelers but newbies to cruising.

Within a span of 10 days, we would enjoy the sights of Seattle, become accustomed to the luxury of a cruise ship more populous than some of the places we visited, and delight in the natural beauty of our country’s last frontier.

We would arrive home at 6 a.m. after a five-hour delay at the airport with wonderful memories, hundreds of photos, souvenirs for our family, one very bad cold and an eerie sense that none of this was real.

This was not what Google described as post vacation syndrome with an acute sense of loss borne of missing the benefits of being in a new place, free from the responsibilities of work and, for passengers on a cruise ship, having free entertainment and a wide variety of delicious meals served by attentive wait staff every day without having to shop, cook, or wash up afterwards.

The feeling had nothing of the anxiety that besets some travelers when they prepare to immerse themselves once again in their workplace routine with all of its attendant stress. No, there was none of that. Things just didn’t seem real.

Our Uber driver brought us to a nice house where we knew we had lived for more than 40 years, but was this really our home? Back in Massachusetts in the middle of another one of this summer’s heat waves, were we really bundled up in winter coats staring at the face of calving glacier just a few days ago? Hard to believe. None of this should have bewildered us. We were, after all, veteran travelers who had watched the changing landscape from our train window on two cross-country trips. We had seen the hilly terrain of the Northeast give way to the flatness of the Great Plains and abruptly soar into the snowcapped majesty of the Rockies.

High deserts, mesas, and canyons passed by our window, and towns sprung up along rivers that emptied into an ocean now strangely on our right as we traveled south along America’s left coast.

Even when we traveled by air, there was always a sense of being conveyed, not always comfortably, in a machine whose sole purpose was to bring us from here to there. Once there, we could forget the flying machine that brought us until it was time to fly home.

We could forget the plane and the train because they had served their purpose of bringing us to our destination and bringing us there in a process of transition from one place to another.

The experience on a cruise ship is quite different. The cruise ship is a destination in itself. As we boarded the vessel in Seattle that would bring us to Alaska, we knew we would be two among 4,000 passengers, looked after by a crew of 1,700. The ship had 16 decks and our cabin was on the 11th. Banks of elevators, fore, aft and midships, brought us where we wanted to go. There were dining rooms, fancy restaurants, snack bars, retail stores, theaters, swimming pools, a sports complex, information desks, and an atrium that made it all look like a five-star hotel in mall city, USA. As advertised, there was something for everyone.

The opulence bombarded the senses and took some getting used to, but in time, we discovered what we liked to do and settled into a satisfying routine. While we were busy acclimating to our new environment, the ship was motoring north at a speed that would carry us 800 miles in less than two days.

For the most part, our movement over the water was undetectable except for an occasional sense of forward motion. The sun rose and set, snowcapped mountains, forests, and island chains glided by outside the window, but if you weren’t watching, the world changed without your knowing it, and suddenly, one cold rainy morning, you were in Alaska.

You walked down the gangway, showed your photo ID to a crew member and scanned the plastic card that proved you weren’t a stowaway, and there you were in a completely different environment from the one you left and the one that brought you there. With no sense of transition, it was as if you had been teleported.

And so we arrived in Sitka, waking up in a harbor beside a forested promontory, the whole scene shrouded in a drizzly mist that blurred the boundary between sea and sky. A shuttle bus brought us to the center of a small town laid out along the sound where the curtain of mist was slowly rising to reveal several islands and a range of coastal peaks aptly called the pyramids.

Taking the advice of a park guide, we followed the harbor path along the shoreline to a park where totem poles commemorating the native Tlingit people nestled close among the tall pines of the southeast Alaskan rainforest. The tide was low and in the distance eagles could be seen fishing for salmon. Two more eagles perched on trees directly overhead, apparently unbothered by the steady stream of tourists passing below.

We were part of that stream, tourists with the soul of travelers, but tourists just the same. Later that afternoon, we walked back into town, browsed the souvenir and craft shops, and had a delightful conversation with the owner of an art gallery. It would be the same in each of our ports of call – the stark contrast between untamed nature and the artificial safety, ease, and opulence of our mode of travel.

Nothing screams tourist like the procession of humanity down the pier from an anchored cruise ship to waiting shuttle buses. You can have the soul of a traveler, even the soul of an explorer, but you are still a tourist. The shopkeepers know it, and I suspect the eagles do too. They indulge us as we sample the delights of exotic places without doing the exhausting work of getting there or surviving the harsh realities of their unlovely seasons.

Giving ourselves ample time before our ship weighs anchor, we climb aboard our bus and return to our seaborne resort to get ready for dinner. The evening spreads out before us with food and entertainment that in themselves provide the makings of a memorable vacation regardless of where we are headed. Wherever that may be, we travel without transition until the realities of a delayed flight, cramped seats, and an Uber driver wearing too much cologne nudge us back to reality, but not all the way back. As we stand in the pre-dawn light looking at the house we left 10 days ago, it just doesn’t seem real.

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