The first time I got lost in Alaska was during the summer of 2005. It involved an aborted night at the Salmon Bake--a restaurant/bar/concert venue in Glitter Gulch, the touristy strip of overpriced shops selling shot glasses and tiny stuffed moose dolls near the park entrance--a map that we realized years later had one crucial piece of wrong information on it, and several hours of driving around in the alpenglow looking for an unmarked cabin I'd never seen before. (We actually had to buy gas because we drove for so long.) At the time it was hell, and it was a relative miracle that we eventually found the correct cabin and didn't barge in on some random Alaskan in the middle of the night, but now it's mostly just a funny story that I roll my eyes at when I remember that first ill-prepared and poorly planned trip.
Every time I come back here I feel like I know at least slightly more about what I'm doing. That first time, I came with a denim jacket, a car full of goldfish crackers and peanut butter, no rain or hiking gear, and no concept of the environment, weather, or layout of the area. I remember the incredulous look on E's face when these things were revealed one by one, and I vowed to not repeat my mistakes in the future. When I returned last year I managed to bring hiking boots, a gigantic borrowed rainjacket, and clothes that at least were capable of keeping me from freezing to death; I learned flower names beyond the ever-present fireweed, I hiked significant amounts, and I didn't get lost. This year on my elderhostel hike with E almost everybody I talked to thought I worked here, apparently based on my ability to name berries E had pointed out moments before. I have my own rain jacket, and it fits. I brought layers.
I came later in the season this year, with a vague hope of seeing the northern lights if such a thing came up and with the definite intention of coming to the Denali Education Center's auction, a social event and fundraiser that I've been hearing about for years. Denali is the kind of place where, due to the relatively small pool of people being drawn from, an event like this invariably ends with everybody you've ever met or heard of gathering in the same room and, if circumstances are adverse, staring at each other awkwardly. As an avid people-watcher, how could I resist? And indeed, it was fascinating. At one point I walked out of the building where the live auction was being led--you haven't seen anything until you've seen an energetic auctioneer trying to whip up enthusiasm for a life-sized handmade ceramic chicken that he describes as "rather angry looking"-- and saw at least five people who I knew to be variously interconnected with my friend all arrayed in front of me in a semi-circle. It was like being in a Victor Hugo novel, where at some point every character invariably shows up in the same place and discovers that the evil stepmother has hired the future paramour of the dead prostitute's daughter to hoodwink her adopted father, or whatever, except with hiking boots.
After the auction was over E and I headed to the Salmon Bake for more revelry, or something. The Bake and its apparent rival, Panorama Pizza, run shuttles down the highway every hour to cut down on drunk driving; we made it out at about 12:30, and after several more beers and an ill-advised (aren't they always?) shot of whisky, I wobbled over and told E that I was heading home with or without her. I made it onto the shuttle, and this is where things began to circle around to where I'd been four years before. The driver hadn't heard of the well-known restaurant by E's house, and instead dropped me off at a highway milemarker maybe a half-mile away; it was dark, I was rather intoxicated, and I was unsure which direction was which. I knew I wasn't far away, so I blindly picked a direction and set out with my headlamp trained at the ground, figuring if I hadn't found her driveway by the next milemarker I'd turn around and head back. There's only one road; I'd find it eventually.
The thing about being lost here is that, much more so than in a city or town, there are few reference points for outsiders. Despite the fact that there are few streets to choose from and a limited number of doors to try, the landmarks that people from non-rural areas use to find their way--say, street signs and house numbers and a gas station with a light on where you can ask for directions--are not always there, are not the givens they are in my everyday life. This became abundantly clear to me as I stumbled down the dark highway, waiting to see anything that would remind me of where I was, or at least tell me whether I was heading in the right direction or not. But there was nothing. It was three in the morning, it was dark and there was nobody awake anywhere near me, and even if I called E there was no way I could tell her where I was. I was on my own, it seemed.
I eventually got picked up, less than half a mile away from E's house, by the Panorama Shuttle. The driver's girlfriend was the girl I'd done a shot with earlier, naturally. He dropped me off at the right driveway ("Of course I know E! Three driveways down from the restaurant, right?"), and I, because it was that kind of night, lost my headlamp as I exited the van, slurring my thanks yet again. E lives at the bottom of a steep hill with no lights whatsoever, and even drunk I knew I couldn't make it down alone without a light. And so I sat on her landlord's steps underneath a motion sensor light, waiting for her return, coughing hard and crying just a little bit from aftershock as the rain started to come down in earnest. It was like a story a twelve-year-old girl with knowledge of alcohol and rural Alaska would write.
Eventually E came home and we made it down the hill and drank tea and talked about boys until four in the morning and I peeled off my dress and announced that I had to go to bed. The next day she went off to deal with very nice but unfortunately timed tourists for way too many hours, and I took a three-hour nap and wrote in my journal until I regained my composure. We had dinner that night, and by then it was already a funny story. I always have a day here where I feel so out of place, so foreign and unknowledgeable and helpless, that it lowers my spirits and makes me feel flat and useless. The evolution is in the recovery time; as soon as I can laugh at myself, I know it will be okay and that I'm getting better all the time. Maybe next trip I'll manage to avoid getting lost at all, or at least I'll be laughing even as I stumble away from wherever I'm supposed to be going.