I’ve gotten to learn a lot about traveling while managing a hostel in a tiny but touristy town in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.

 

In Talkeetna I watch cruise ship passengers as they are escorted along the optional “overland” portion of their Alaska Dream Cruise. These are perfectly nice folks from all over the US doing a dream vacation. Most are retired. Most have saved for this Princess Cruise (or really any cruise company with the exception of Un-Cruise) for a long time, and are finally doing this huge trip they’ve spent years plotting. They’ve seen the brochures with breaching humpbacks, salmon-snatching grizzlies, and calving glaciers. They come armed with several thousand dollars worth of camera equipment, brand new GoreTex rain jackets, and sensible water-resistant white New Balance. Their cousin saw a family of moose from the bus during their Alaska vacation and since hearing that story, the “Princesses” have envisioned the roads of Alaska lined with Disney-esque moose, bear, and caribou.


(Photo from Princess Cruises)
 
Every cruise brochure, and everything that they’ve heard about Alaska has painted an expectation that they will never experience entirely. Their experience of this amazing place occurs through a contrived scavenger-hunt. Photo of Denali: check. Buying a knockoff ulu knife: check. Eat local salmon: check. Brunch in the Crown Grill on the 15th deck: check. Photo of a pod of orcas silhouetted by dramatic peaks and glaciers: crap.  “Did not see a single whale on our daytrip to Kenai Fjords National Park. It was okay, I mean, fjords and puffins and otters and icebergs are great and all, but we just really wanted to see a whale that day, you know? We’ve saved up for this trip/watched so many documentaries/talked to so many friends who’ve seen a whale, and we just really were hoping to get a picture of one.”

(I got lucky on my second trip to Kenai Fjords NP and we got to watch a few humpbacks breaching continuously.)
 
(Cold, wet, tired and happy.)
 
(Friends Tim & Julie getting married in a lovely Alaskan ceremony in Denali last weekend.)

 

 
Princesses’ expectations are high and their agenda is businesslike. They wander around town like cattle, told to look in certain directions, to see certain things, and to be at the stop in time for the 6:20 shuttle back to the safety of the five-star lodge. The Princesses are all nice people- a retired nurse from rural Illinois who’s excitedly texting photos to her grandkids of her big trip on her new iPhone that they’ve taught her how to use. When I chat with them they’re full of genuine “good for you adventuring like this- do it now while you’re young!” And I want to yell at them and at the whole world to just introduce some more adventure into your life and stop building up this one giant trip to be such a momentous, stressful production!

 

(Pulling into our home beach under a brewing thunderstorm.)
 

(Scott cleaning our just-caught salmon by headlamp on the first night I’ve seen stars since May.)

(Very fresh salmon at a potluck dinner at the hostel.)

I understand that sense of disappointment, and I’m bummed for travelers when their trip doesn’t coincide with a single day that’s clear enough to ever see Denali. I think it’s great that visitors want to take home a bit of Alaska with them in the form of a souvenir, and to commemorate their trip with photos. I’m starting to see a difference between two types of visitors though. That kind I described above- the tourists, or what we call Princesses, are skimming across Alaska with a camera lens insulating them from reality. In contrast, there’s the set of visitors that I generally get at my little hostel; the Travelers. (I’m plagiarising the definition between the two of them.)  The Travelers come solo, in a group of friends, as a couple. Like the Princesses, they’ve saved for this trip and are excited to be here. They’re still taking photos and going on the touristy day trips. The difference though is a kind of open-minded, friendly curiosity and humility that Travelers have.

(Post-work fishing trip.)
 
(Katherine found some retired Iditarod pups to dog-sit.)
 
(Katie Mays in Denali NP!)

 

 

($4 margaritas made with GLACIER ICE!)
Travelers take the time to sit on the porch over coffee with me and hear about the Denali climbing season and the salmon runs. They try to travel with an agenda loose enough to say “yes” to spontaneous invitations to the beach bonfire under the northern lights, or the last-minute spot on a sunny rafting trip. They chat with park rangers and bus boys, browse bookstores and sit on the beach to watch sunset over the Alaska Range. Travelers stay up too late drinking local IPAs and singing karaoke at The Fairview, and eat peanut butter and jellies for lunch. They aren’t always the people who can afford a few hundred for a flightseeing glacier trip, but they make up for it by going through the world forging new friendships, gaining an insight from a conversation with a local bus driver, and an awe for the wildness of this place. They’ve realized that they don’t have to buy into the lie that the tourism industry sells us about travel having to be an expensive, luxurious experience.

(Girls’ trip up to Denali!)
(View of Denali from my Talkeetna backyard.)

 

(Domestic bliss living with my sister.)

 

Being rooted here has given me the opportunity to think critically about what type of visitor I am in the world. Do I hide behind my iPhone camera lens, digesting experiences as how they’ll appear as social media bits?  Do I travel to foreign countries, and through life in general, with a manufactured set of expectations?  Do I allow myself to wander humbly with an open heart and a willingness to reframe my goals and say yes to the universe?
 
(Scott was a beard model in a former life.)
(Salmon’s view)
(Roadside pullout on the Turnagain Arm between Anchorage and Seward)

 

In other news, I have no idea what I’m doing with my life, or where in the world I’ll be living starting Sept 18th. Alaska is awesome. My sister Katherine liked it so much that she quit her job at home after a vacation here, and now lives in the Guide Shack in my backyard and works for the local rafting company. Come visit me! I’ll probably come back to this hostel managing job in Talkeetna next season and we can philosophize together on the porch, go dancing at The Fairview and wonder at the wilderness.

 
This is my new cozy bedroom in the Talkeetna Hostel, which I manage. This is big; selling my trusty old bed before heading out on this adventure was emotionally challenging. Owning a cozy and rather expensive mattress and box spring represented stability. Selling them on Craigslist was my way of accepting the unknown future that may not include a nice bed.
Turns out it has.
 



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